Urban Botany

"Because you can't hug a tree if you can't find one."


Buy Nothing Day Dance Party

Because it did not seem like enough to just not shop today, instead I went to Union Square for the "Dance Your Debt Away" Dance Party with Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir. Rev. Billy exercised the shopping demons at Starbucks and Barnes & Noble, we danced in a conga line around the Square. The band played and the choir sang.

And a couple hundred people didn't buy a single thing.

Buy Nothing Day 2008

Last year we went out with a video camera and gave away Unshopping Bags on Buy Nothing Day. Rather than just not shop, which wasn't such a stretch for us, we thought this would be a good way to let others in the community know about BND and the problems with consumerism.

Today my camera crew isn't available, so I'm just going over to Union Square for the Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping BND Dance Party. Maybe I'll post some photos later.


PETA's Plastic Give-Away

Wow. I used to really respect PETA, until they started hawking plastic wish-bones for the holidays. Seriously, they are giving away 5 little plastic packages each containing 10 plastic wishbones. So we vegetarians and vegans can take part in that holiday tradition of deep cultural significance: competing to see who gets to make a wish after a big Thanksgiving dinner.

OK, I'm not even going to go into the whole friendly Native Americans welcoming their future oppressors, and Puritans sitting at table with "savages" myth. For now.

Rather, here is the first thought that struck me: Hasn't PETA ever heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? They claim these wishbones and their packages are recyclable, but let's face it: 99.99% of them are going to end up in a landfill, or in the ocean, where they will probably be swallowed by sea turtles who will choke and die. Because most curbside recycling programs don't accept all plastic, or even most plastic. And most plastic that is recycled, gets made into other products that are themselves not recyclable. So more resources are used to make more of the original plastic products. Factories are producing more plastic with each passing decade, and spewing toxic by-products into the environment, destroying the habitats of: animals.

Animals, PETA, animals! Do you hear me?

Maybe I'm missing something. I'm a first generation American and can't remember ever seeing a wishbone on Thanksgiving; never competed for a chance to make a wish after a big dinner of rice and beans and Haitian pate. It's just not part of my tradition. So someone tell me, maybe one of the 125+ vegans and vegetarians who entered PETA's plastic wish bone give-away contest: Why is breaking a piece of plastic more important than protecting the environment that we share with all living things?

Update: The fake plastic wishbone fun continues! See my follow-up to this post over at Fake Plastic Fish. Be sure to check out the comments. Can you tell which ones are from PETA people?


The Case for Third Party Candidates

My friend from the Green Party called me out the other day for letting the Democrats off the hook too easily. Here is what he had to say in the comments to my last post:

Rejin, I'm glad you brought up this Sarah Palin lunacy. The problem is that Joe Biden is hardly any better.

I'm sick of the way the pundits, including most bloggers, are discussing the Vice President candidates' debate. It is so energy-sucking to read even intelligent comments about the debate, because they're mostly about form: Who won? Who will the American people think won? Who was able to parry the other's tricks?

We've turned politics into Family Feud, where you have to guess what you think others are guessing about what others have guessed.

So Joe Biden is never really taken to task on his actual legislative record. He has "experience," but experience doing what? He can "walk across the aisle" to work with Republicans .... But no one asked him, on what?

No one challenges him on his crucial defense of the credit card companies, and how this feeds into the current debt crisis.

No one challenges him on his support for The War On Drugs -- and all that means for the huge incarceration rate in the U.S. (What is it, now, 2.5 million actually in prison at any given time, and twice that figure in the courts, on probation or parole?)

No one challenges him on his and Obama's statements concerning the "Surge" in Iraq -- a euphemism for a large expansion of the war; or on his quotes supporting Bush around WMDs in Iraq; or of his proud support for bombing the hell out of Yugoslavia under the pretext of "defending Kosovo."

No one challenges him (or Palin) on their statements in favor of "Clean Coal" -- as if such a thing is possible without serious environmental calamity; carbon-trading and offsets, and why their support for such schemes is just a free-market way of destroying the earth and letting them get away with it; genetic engineering of agriculture; liquid coal, stored under the ground and polluting drinking water; agro-fuels, exported from countries whose people are starving but who have turned their lands into cash-crops for SUVs elsewhere; mass use of pesticides; nuclear power plants, which they both support -- oh, my god, that's their solution? That's what's in store for us? As the saying goes: "Better active today than radioactive tomorrow."

and, No one challenges either of them on their support for the $700 billion bailout of billionaires on Wall Street, except to ask, "What programs will you have to cut as a result?" Why not provide immediate relief to those facing foreclosure or eviction, instead of to the banks foreclosing them, evicting them? And, what about forcing open the corporate books for all to review, if they're going to be bailed out by our tax dollars?

On the other hand, if I hear Sarah Palin use the word "Maverick" one more time, I'm gonna call up James Garner and ask him what he, the original t.v. "Maverick", thinks about McCain stealing his alter-ego (Rockford files be damned).

Parry ... thrust; thrust ... parry. Instead of worrying so much about "what will play for the American people" -- who, I think, are far far far more intelligent than liberal New Yawkers give'm credit for (people don't know what to do, we feel impotent, helpless, blown about by forces beyond our control or influence and so lamely grab onto any straw that's offered) -- how about focusing on the substance, on the policies being argued, and forcing the candidates to go into depth on them? (I know, that's why Palin and the Republicans wanted each answer limited to 1.5 minutes; imagine if she had to keep repeating the word "Maverick" for 3 minutes at a clip!)

The way punditry works is to comment on how one thinks the comments would play on others. Hey, what are we, chopped tofu? What about what we want?

I'm sick of the Meta-Comments -- comments about how other comments might play, regardless of their content. It's all a big game -- What's the score!? -- Place yer bets, now!

Mitchel Cohen
Brooklyn Greens / Green Party

My reply was that I plan to vote for McKinney and the Green Party, but rather than fight with people who feel it is urgent to vote Obama to (once again) keep the Republicans out of the White House, I have just been raising questions about the democrats and letting people come to their own conclusions. Too many people are satisfied with having more choices when buying deodorant than when choosing a presidential candidate. Is that what living in a "free" country is about?

I like the way Duncable framed the case for voting for third party candidates in his comment to the Alternet post following the October 2 debate:
I'm done voting against someone, because that's not how the system should work. If there were no 3rd party candidates, I wouldn't vote at all, so I'm not throwing my vote away. I'm exercising the basic rights that I ought to be guaranteed in a "democratic" society, not bending to the will of the collective conscious of this terrified and spineless nation.


Everything is Political

Some green bloggers have shocked their readers lately by writing critically about the GOP’s scary vice presidential candidate. There are those who just want to read about changing their light bulbs, and find other tips for lowering their individual carbon footprint. These readers are appalled when a blogger “gets political.” Never mind that the positions and policies of elected officials can steer the country towards continued dependence on greenhouse gas emitting fossil fuels and further loss of biodiversity.

We miss the point of the Green movement if we fail to realize that everything is political. We (Americans) live in a society whose culture of consumption, excess and waste, has been shaped by the powerful advertising machinery of corporations. They had all the help they could buy from a government only too happy to hand out corporate tax breaks, deregulate, and promote the corporate worldview. In many cases corporate executives and politicians are interchangeable: today’s governor or V.P. will soon be serving on the board of directors of a multinational corporation that contracts with the military or develops agrofuels.

Rather than focusing resources on developing energy alternatives (or restructuring to reduce national energy consumption) the US government is fighting a war to secure a large share of the world’s remaining oil reserves. That oil is not primarily for the people, but for the corporations who will then profit by selling it to whoever can pay the most. The war is likely to continue no matter who is elected in November because as the system is designed, the corporations control the government. They contribute the big bucks to the candidates (on both sides), they own the media that does its best to steer public opinion. They leave nothing to chance. And while some of us carry our reusable bags and grow a few vegetables, the corporations package ever more unnecessary products in non-recyclable packages and build shopping malls to entice us to drive and spend.

If we want to be effective as environmentalists, we need to get beyond changing our light bulbs. We need to organize around all the issues that affect our world and its diverse populations. And that certainly includes speaking out against a politician who could, on a whim (or based on a personal belief) obliterate everything we are trying to achieve.


Carnival of Trash

Please check out the Carnival of Trash (#3) hosted by Beth at Fake Plastic Fish. (Because apparently I'm not the only one obsessed with garbage.) While you are there, be sure to check out some of Beth's other articles and links for good information about the problems with plastic.


Here Today, Garbage Tomorrow

Lately, I’ve been exploring the world of garbage.

Actually, I have only been reading about garbage. Elizabeth Royte actually went to the transfer stations, landfills, recycling plants and compost facilities and wrote all about her discoveries in Garbageland. And in Gone Tomorrow, Heather Rogers traces the history of waste disposal, from the toss-it-out-the-window era to the contemporary “sanitary” landfill. Before reading these books, I was uneasy about the mountain of trash my household generates. Now, I am completely obsessed with reducing that mountain. (And my family thinks I’m weird for being so interested in trash.)

Despite what we have been led to believe, it is not normal to discard tons of packaging, used paper products, broken toys, and outdated electronics and just expect them to conveniently disappear. But we have been trained to think so (and do so) because it is great for business. As Elizabeth Royte observes:

“The changes in garbage handling helped constitute an infrastructure crucial for mass consumption and discarding. …emerging garbage collection and disposal methods met the manufacturers need to have mounting levels of commodities, including packaging, tidily hauled away.”

In the years after World War II, the industrial system was producing vast quantities of stuff, and they needed to make sure the public would keep shelling out for it. This is when planned obsolescence was invented, easy credit became available, and marketing tried to make everyone feel like they were the only ones on the block not out buying more crap.

“Had they been obliged to deal with their castoffs more directly, perhaps greater numbers of people would have diagnosed the emerging system of mass production and consumption as deeply flawed.”

In other words the mass production system, as it is designed, relies on the regular removal of stuff that never should have been made in the first place. For the inane reason of making space for yet more stuff. If our trash did not disappear so regularly and effortlessly, we’d have to be a lot more selective about the products we choose. If we all had to store our trash for a year (or a month or ten days, as some have challenged themselves to do) we might choose things that didn’t have excess packaging. We’d think about whether each item were made to last, could be repaired easily, repurposed if necessary, or ultimately composted at the end of its usable life. Most importantly, we would have to ask ourselves if we really needed that shiny new thing in the first place, or whether we would be better off without it.


Food or Fuel?

In the last few weeks, the insanity of turning food crops into fuel for developed-world cars has become apparent, as rising food prices all over the world affect populations that were already threatened by hunger in such far flung countries as Pakistan, Mexico, Egypt and Haiti. This is the logic of our consumer driven economy, where morality is turned on its head. While the world worries about getting enough to eat, the over-developed countries are more concerned with feeding their cars and trucks. Rather than accept that the days of cheap fuel are over, we choose to rely on techno-fixes that convert food resources needed in some areas of the world, to energy "needed" in other areas. Consumer conveniences trump the survival of millions of starving people.

Americans may not realize that our government's policies caused countries like Haiti to depend on the US for food in the first place. By flooding the Haitian market with cheap imported rice, the US caused the collapse of local agriculture. Farmers couldn't compete, lost their land, and moved to the city to look for work in the assembly plants. Haiti went from producing 95% of its rice in the 1980s, to importing 80% of it from the US today.

Haitian President Rene Preval has
promised to subsidize the cost of rice, but said the solution in the long term will be to grow more food locally. But can such a plan succeed if it contradicts the US's policy of maintaining dependent countries that are markets for our exports, and provide the cheap labor needed to produce our consumer goods? The same scenario is repeated in many countries: Mexico (traditionally a corn producer) now imports corn from the US, and former Mexican farmers cross the border "illegally" in search of work.

In the mean time the US, which is responsible for the situation, should be responsible for the food subsidy as well. Instead, our government helps further enrich agribusiness companies by subsidizing biofuels.

This is not a situation that can be fixed with temporary food aid. This is a result of the basic structure of the global economy. People in the West need to look at the way we live, the way we consume, and the government policies that support this way of life.



An American in Cuba, plus more, on Steal This Radio

Mitchel Cohen blasts away at the illusions many Americans have about Cuba, reading the first chapter of his essay "An American in Cuba." But first, he phones Cathryn Swan to talk about her great blog Washington Square Park and the destruction the NYC administration is wreaking on our public parks.
Steal This Radio, #38. Listen to the podcast here.

(Also read Mitchel's essay, "Listen, Gore: Some Inconvenient Truths About the Politics of Environmental Crisis." at Counter Punch.)