Thursday, August 17, 2006

Green and Mean

I live in New York City and have traveled to Europe and noticed that almost everywhere in Europe, buildings, transportation, almost everything is designed to save energy, water and lessen environmental impacts. In comparison, during the recent heat wave in New York, many retailers were leaving their doors open, spilling air-conditioned air onto the sidewalks. Most often this is mandated by the corporate policy of the retailers' parent companies.
I travel about the city by bicycle about half the time and mass transit the other half. Bicycle transportation is more noticeable in New York than anywhere else in North America, yet is dwarfed by the ubiquity of it in most European cities. In New York City, about 115,000 people a day commute to work by bicycle. I may be biased, but I firmly believe that if more people in the city and suburbs used bicycles to get around at least some of the time it would put a big dent in the nation's oil appetite - and a dent in many bulging stomachs as well.
There was an article in 'The New Yorker' two years ago (it's no longer available online) called 'Green New York'. The article confirmed something I've always suspected: dense urban areas (like NYC) are much more energy efficient than less dense suburban areas. Some of this is due to apartment buildings being more energy efficient, but the primary reason is the small percentage of residents who commute to work by car and/or alone in their car. Only 46% of New Yorkers even own a car (in Manhattan it's only 25%) and 2 out of every 3 people who commute to work by rail in the United States are in the New York area.
We all know that the automobile has changed the landscape of North America for the last 80 years. Suburban sprawl is now the norm and new homes being built are 2 to 3 times larger than the typical home built 20 years ago. This is without any major improvements in energy efficiency, since insulation use became commonplace 30 to 40 years ago.
The simple fact of the matter is that the way most non-urban communities are designed, it necessitates driving almost every day of the week: to work, to shop, to visit friends, to see a movie, to eat out, etc. While public transportation is available in many suburbs, a very small percentage of people have used it even once and even less use it regularly.
This goes beyond city vs. Suburbs though. In the 'pre-suburb' days of 50 to 100 years ago most rural towns had a relatively densely populated town center where most people in the town lived. It was entirely feasible to walk to the local stores to shop, to walk to work, school, church, parks, playgrounds, etc. Now, these same towns that are slapped with the name 'suburb' or 'bedroom community' are filled with what are called 'developments' (at least that's we called them growing up) which are carved out of farmland or forests and are usually miles from any kind of commercial area. These houses were located and designed around the idea of cheap and plentiful gasoline that in the next 50 years will become more expensive and scarcer.
Nationally, 90% of Americans drive to work. Let's assume 10% carpool. Total (on the books) employment is about 145 million, so 116 million Americans drive to work alone about 200 days out of the year. If the average person lives 5 miles from work and is getting 20 MPG, this means 11.6 billion gallons of gas are burned every year to simply commute to work. This equals about 258 million barrels and produces 278.4 billion pounds of CO2 gas.
Per capita, the United States uses the most energy of any nation on Earth and consequently, produces the most greenhouse gases. A good portion of this energy is simply wasted. As a nation, we can't rely on the government or corporations to turn this trend around of their own accord. The ultimate solution has to be demanded by citizens and consumers.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Fear or Courage

When the British terrorist plot was uncovered last week and said to be "close to execution", despite the fact that none of the plotters had actually bought airline tickets and only half of them even held passports, there were sighs of relief on both sides of the pond.
Of course, many politicians, primarily George Bush, used the occasion to goose up the fear level a little bit as we close in on the mid-term elections in November:

"The recent arrests that our fellow citizens are now learning about are a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom, to hurt our nation."...
"But obviously, we're still not completely safe, because there are people that still plot and people who want to harm us for what we believe in. It is a mistake to believe there is no threat to the United States of America. And that is why we have given our officials the tools they need to protect our people."

No doubt we'll be seeing more of this kind of fear mongering as the elections draw closer. This page in the Republican playbook has become well worn and dog-eared in recent years though by no means was invented after 9/11 (anybody remember Bush Sr's Willy Horton campaign ads?). Yes, the Republicans like to remind the citizenry over and over that there's a boogy-man around every corner.
Of course, this steady drone not allows them to win elections, it's the perfect backdrop with which to steadily shred the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Best Defense is... a Good Defense

The British Home Defense authorities are reporting Thursday the foiling of a sophisticated coordinated attempt to bomb multiple commercial airliners in flight using liquid explosives. It appears that the harmless separate ingredients of the explosives would have been carried on the flight in hand luggage, combined to create the explosive mixture and then detonated, possibly by use of a simple electrical device.

Police are searching premises after 21 people were arrested. Home Secretary John Reid said they believed the "main players" were accounted for. High security is causing delays at all UK airports. The threat level to the UK has been raised by MI5 to critical after the arrests in London, High Wycombe and Birmingham. Critical threat level - the highest - means "an attack is expected imminently and indicates an extremely high level of threat to the UK"..."We are confident that we have disrupted a plan by terrorists to cause untold death and destruction and to commit, quite frankly, mass murder," Metropolitan Police Deputy Commissioner Paul Stephenson said. (BBC News, 8/10/06)

The investigation brilliantly seems to have prevented a terror attack that could've have resulted in many thousands of deaths. Furthermore, the plot has all the earmarks of an al-Qaeda operation: targeting airliners, a multiple coordinated attack and a sophistication to the plan.

What this plot also points out is the utter ridiculousness of the Bush administration's anti-terror strategy. Bush and others like to continually repeat over and over their belief that we have to 'fight the terrorists abroad, so that we don't have to at home'. While this may be valid if he's referring to beefing up our 'on the ground' intelligence gathering and infiltration operations overseas, preemptively launching military operations, such as the Iraq debacle, to 'fight terrorism' has been proven completely ineffective. Indeed, this approach is more likely counterproductive by creating a fertile environment for the recruitment of more terrorists and giving them a foreign 'coalition of the willing' to practice on.

The Moscow Metro bombing of February, 2004, the Madrid train bombings in March of 2004, the Russian airliner bombings of August, 2004 and the London Underground and bus bombings of July, 2005 are but a few examples of attacks that have happened since we 'took the fight to the terrorists' in Afghanistan and Iraq. Furthermore, there are many other large and small terror plots that have been stopped, including today's announcement.

Clearly, advances in security technology, better human intelligence and infiltration operations and wider coordination of law enforcement organizations nationally and internationally are much more effective than the current failed military strategy. In this struggle, the best defense is not a good offense, at least as Bush defines it.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Proof Needed

One thing that has hardly been spoken of, seen or demanded in the current Israeli war against Hizbollah, and by default Lebanon, is visual proof. Israel has repeatedly stated that they don't deliberately target civilians, though at this time, about 1,000 Lebanese civilians who weren't targeted are dead anyway. Israel and almost everyone else like to claim that Hizbollah is using women and children as 'human shields', but is there any visual proof of this. At one point, the IDF did offer one example of photos or video that supposedly showed a Hizbollah rocket attack. I've seen it and it's very grainy.

It seems that with high resolution camera technology that's available and unmanned drone aircraft not to mention all the NSA and satellite intel that the Israelis are getting from the neo-cons in Washington on the sly, there should some fairly indisputable visual proof for at least one of the bombings. The IDF has been hitting large residential buildings and laying entire blocks of south Beirut to waste. Where is the visual evidence to justify this? Are they using so called human intelligence? Very doubtful. Hizbollah is notoriously secretive of their operations, even from the Shiite population where they operate.

Obviously, the IDF started this operation with what was probably a fairly limited target list and after pounding those targets into oblivion, moved on to any target that could conceivably be hiding a single 6 foot long Katyusha rocket, whether it be an apartment building, a well drilling truck that looked like a rocket launcher or a passenger car that could conceivably be hiding one in it's trunk. As guesswork in the targeting rationale goes up, the fog of war becomes ever foggier.

Israel could've done itself a huge favor in the area of world opinion by foreseeing this as persuasive tool and planning accordingly. Without proof, as the body count grows, the 'trust us, we're being careful' argument just doesn't fly.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Guerrillas in The Midst

Israel's goals when they launched their massive bombardment campaign and later their limited ground campaign in southern Lebanon was to force Hizbollah away from the border to reduce the immediate threat of their Katyusha rocket attacks and also more generally to try to destroy their military capability and ability to re-arm via Syria. On all these counts the campaign is a qualified failure. The rockets continue to rain down with seemingly increased abundance and in direct ground fighting with Hizbollah, Israel has had some success but has lost many soldiers.

"What we face is an infantry division with state-of-the-art weaponry -- night-vision gear, advanced rifles, well-equipped -- deployed along our border," said Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser, who until last month was director of analysis for Israeli military intelligence. "They have some of the most advanced antitank missiles in the world." (Washington Post, 8/8/06)
This doesn't exactly sound like a terrorist group, it sounds like a well armed and formidable guerrilla army. But why is anyone surprised? Israel felt the increasingly lethal sting of Hizbollah the last time they were in Lebanon as an occupying force for 18 years up until 6 years ago. Why did they think it would go any better this time?

Over the last week, there has been a slow subtle turn in the diplomatic stances of Israel and the United States regarding the Lebanese conflict. Olmert seems to be murmuring a little louder about reaching a cease fire agreement and pushing for a UN occupying force on the Lebanese border and the border with Syria to prevent the flow of arms. It's obvious that Israel realizes that the war has gone from bad to worse and that public opinion in Israel is quickly ebbing as the rockets continue coming despite the ferocious military campaign to stop them. They're calculating the end game.

So if the result of this foolish conflict on the part of Israel and Hizbollah is simply that Hizbollah is moved back and that there is a UN peacekeeping force, what was the whole point? These results could've been accomplished through diplomacy and the UN after the capture of Israel's soldiers or even before. A thousand dead Lebanese and dozens of dead Israelis, all civilians; never have so many been killed so needlessly for so little.

Losing "Joe-mentum"

A warning bell for many moderate Democrats is tolling tonight in Connecticut. The Washington Post is reporting that three term U.S. Senator, Joe Lieberman is trailing Democratic primary challenger Ned Lamont by about 7 percentage points with 38% of precincts reporting. As of the time of this post the lead is 4 points with 84% of precincts reporting.

This closely watched campaign, that has swung steadily in Lamonts favor in recent months, is being seen largely as a referendum on the war in Iraq. To be fair, Lieberman has been somewhat critical of the conduct of the war, but no more so than many Republicans such as John McCain. What has been missing, though, is outspoken criticism and strongly pushing alternatives or changes in direction such as those offered by Jack Murtha and John Kerry. Additionally, as pointed out by Glenn Greenwald in, much of the rhetoric that Lieberman used in stating his position and criticizing many other Democrats over the last 2 years, seems to very closely parallel the Karl Rove authored Republican talking points about the war:

It's time for Democrats who distrust President Bush to acknowledge he will be the commander in chief for three more critical years. And that in matters of war, we undermine presidential credibility at our nation's peril. (CNN, 12/6/05)

My point here is that the home front affects the battle front. Politics as usual at home can and will have unusually bad consequences in Iraq. It encourages our enemies to believe they are succeeding in their attempts to influence our policy. They clearly seek by their hostage taking, by their desecration of the bodies of our dead, and by their terrorism to break the will of the people of America. (Brookings Institute, April 2004)
As Greenwald states, "That is the sort of 'Democrats are allies of our enemies' rhetoric that one expects to find in Rush Limbaugh's daily demonizing rants or on Michelle Malkin's blog, not in a speech from a Democratic senator." Clearly, Lieberman is Zell Miller 'Lite'. We are a very long way from the moderate 'third way' philosophy of the DLC and Bill Clinton of the 1990's. Indeed, even the golden touch of a Bill Clinton appearance with Lieberman at a campaign stop recently didn't seem to have much of an effect.

If Lamont wins the primary, as all signs point to, it raises many questions for the general election. Lieberman has already stated that if he lost the primary, he would still run as an independent. Lieberman's chances in a three way race are probably fairly good, as he would draw many moderate Republican and independent voters. If the race is close, one would hope that Lieberman might consider dropping out and supporting Lamont if the alternative is losing the seat to a Republican. However Lieberman has shown in the past that he is willing to put his own interests ahead of his party's. In the 2000 election when Lieberman was Gore's running mate, he still ran for his Senate seat. If they had won the election (oh wait, they did), Lieberman would have had to vacate his Senate seat. John Rowland, the Republican governor at the time (he moved on to prison afterward for accepting illegal favors), would've appointed a new Senator, who surely would have been a Republican. Lieberman could've chosen to avoid this possibility by letting another Democrat run for the seat and campaigning for him, but he didn't.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Science or The Supernatural

This November, 3 conservative Republican incumbents on the 10 person Kansas state Board of Education come up for re-election. The conservative majority on Board of Education approved new standards for all students in the state that present so called 'intelligent design' as a valid scientific theory and paints evolution as unproven. The standard goes on to state that there's a "lack of adequate natural explanations for the genetic code."

Janet Waugh, a Democrat who opposed the new standards and lamented that Kansas has become an international laughingstock, drew a conservative Democratic challenger who supports the standards that allow for criticism of evolution.(Washington Post, 8/1/2006)
Many scientific and education group have weighed in against the new standard and the Seattle based Discovery Institute, a pro 'intelligent design' think tank has been running radio ads in favor of the standards. The Discovery Institute website states that opponents are "using their voices to try to undermine Kansas' science standards and stifle discussion of the scientific evidence they don't like." What the Institute fails to mention is that there is absolutely no peer reviewed or even debatable scientific evidence that supports 'intelligent design' or a "lack of adequate natural explanations for the genetic code."

We can only hope that in this battle in the 'War on Science', logical, reasoned thinking prevails over supernatural explanations for natural phenomena. Charles Darwin himself was a deeply religious man. At least he chose to use his God given intelligence to advance the knowledge of all mankind instead of trying to undermine the progress of science.