Friday, July 24, 2009

Losing it all to sprawl

One of the strongest impressions on my arrival to Florida almost a decade ago was to see acre upon acre of landscape, sometimes as far as the eye could see, razed down, leveled, resembling something from "Apocalypse Now" or the fire bombing of Dresden described by Kurt Vonnegut, with piles of tree trunks here and there in lieu of shells of destroyed buildings.
To make way for "development" - oh, how I hate that word. And I'm not the only one. Author Bill Belleville describes how his "cracker cottage", a modest house built many decades ago, back when you had to reach a compromise with the environment instead of destroying it, gets surrounded, and ultimately swallowed, by a new shopping mall, with its "parking lagoons" (in the expression of JH Kunstler), its accessory plazas full of pet grooming and nail shops, the big box retailers, and the cookie cutter housing, each unit with its manicured lawn and exotic landscaping, always thirsty, always hungry, demanding huge quantities of water, fertilizers and pesticides. And the road "improvements" and tax breaks necessary for this growth - this cancer.
That Mr Belleville can describe all this with sadness, but not lose his sense of humor, is part of what makes this book great. A dark sense of humor, granted. "... Disston planned to buy most of the soggy interior of Florida for 25 cents an acre and drain it dry in the late XIX century. Disston didn't have the technology we have today, and while he turned miles of pastoral, meandering rivers and streams into arrow-straight canals, he botched his larger mission. Taking his failure to drain Florida personally, he ended up back up north somewhere, blowing out his brains in a bathtub, a method that seems at least considerate of others who had to clean up the mess behind him. Less can be said for his drainage vision - a muddle we have not yet reconciled."
A muddle indeed, a strategy of growth at all costs, and consequences be damned, cheered on by chambers of commerce, politicians and newspapers. The author's is one of the voices that we need to hear if we're going to be smarter about how we do things in Florida. We have done enough damage already. It's clear we have to accomodate a number of pressures, and reach compromises. But nature and quality of life can't always get the short straw against commerce, low wage jobs, and car-centric development.
This book is not just about preserving the environment, but it's more like a picture of what it means to live here at this point in time, that combines many elements and impressions. There's passionate and learned descriptions of nature, scientific explanations of underground water tables and how they get affected by growth and create sinkholes, historic sketches of the Old Florida ("before Disney came and created his World"), interactions with slum lords, retired people, developers, the homeless and many other persons and groups, all with their own points of view. It's a portrait of a place and a time, taking into account where it comes from, what's happening now and where it may be headed if we don't stop, take a deep breath and a long hard look, and think hard of how we inhabit the land and treat nature. I'll just leave you with a couple of paragraphs of Chapter Ten, that show how many different elements are combined in Mr Belleville's writing, and give you a good idea of the style and content of the book:
"Yesterday I saw a man fly through the air. Today, during a bad strom, a live tree toppled over, blocking Sewell Road. The gopher tortoise that once dug a burrow at the edge of my backyard has returned after an absence of more than a year. Termites have continued to make their own tiny burrows into the wood of my house, causing the floor to sag just as my yard now sags with the collapsed veins of the karst below. And someone has sprayed the tree trunks in the woods to the south of me with an aerosol can, leaving each with a stripe of bright fuchsia-colored paint on its bark. At first I thought the spraying was an act of vandalism. Then I realized it was a way to inventory trees in preparation for development of the land.
The flying man, of course, was the most inescapable vision. I was driving the dangerous and congested I-4 back from Longwood yesterday when, less than a quarter mile ahead, I saw a van abruptly careen across three lanes. It then tumbled off the road and down a slight embankment to the parking lot of a rest stop. As it rolled, great gusts of white smoke billowed from its undercarriage, and a middle-aged man wearing dark pants and a t-shirt flew out of a passenger door, cartwheeled high into the air, and then came down hard on the concrete. Blood and bone splattered about him when he landed for human bodies are very fragile creations. He shuddered like a deer might shudder when it is fatally shot, and then did not move. He was dead, and there was nothing anyone could do about it."

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Why we will never have universal health care coverage

Last July 9th, I took my bike, put my youngest kid in the back and rode to the old courthouse in downtown Ft. Myers, where some people were going to demonstrate and make their voice heard in support of universal health care. I was of a mind of doing some demonstrating too, supporting something so basic as government provided basic health care for all.
Alas, that wasn't to be. When I got there, I saw, in a nutshell, why universal health care is not going to happen in this country, ever. Which is a damn shame, really. I'm sure the O administration is going to be able to pass some weak-ass, watered down version of health care reform, as long as it doesn't interfere with the obscene profits of the insurance and pharmaceutical companies. But whatever it is, it's not going to be universal health care, like they have in advanced, first world societies like... Argentina.
That's right, Argentina, South America. The Old Country, in my case. Where, when we went for vacation a while ago, the same little one riding the back of my bike had the bad luck of falling ill. As in, seriously ill, with a respiratory infection that wouldn't let her breathe. You can imagine my grief as I took her to the nearest children's hospital (5 blocks from my mom's place, in fact, near Constitucion train station - Hospital Pedro de Elizalde). Well, she was immediately admitted, no questions asked, no requirement to show an insurance card or a credit card or an ID or anything at all. She was given the best care around the clock. Doctors would check on her on the hour, every hour. Very capable nurses would administer medicines and check on IV drips constantly. The room was clean, modern and well-appointed with all the necessary gear. The only difference I could see from Health Park here in Ft. Myers was that there were 2 people per room instead of 1, and no TV. That's it. The rest was the same.
So anyway, she stayed there a few days, got well, they let her go after making sure she'd be OK. When we were leaving, I mentioned that we were visitors, and inquired as to how to pay for her stay. They just looked at me in a funny way. It just doesn't work that way. Nobody's going to make a profit from someone falling ill, period. It's society's responsibility to care of all. You can choose a private insurance plan, with a private clinic, if for whatever reason you prefer to. Maybe 2 people per room is too much for you, and you want to be alone. Or you want cable TV. Whatever. You have that option. There's no big, socialistic government banning private enterprise in medicine. There's many private insurance companies. With many clients (patients?). But society as a whole will guarantee that everyone has their basic health care needs met. There's no ads on TV about new drugs. A doctor will prescribe what he thinks you need, without you "asking him about...".
Maybe I'm making it sound perfect here, and it isn't. The nurse was telling me of planeloads of foreigners coming from Lima and Miami to get sex-change surgery, plastic surgery, that kind of thing, for free. There's many problems and abuses, sure. But the simple fact is, if you have a health problem, a) you're gonna get treatment to matter what, and b), you're not gonna be in debt forever because of it. Actually, you're not going to have to pay anything for treatment, period. You're supposed to get well and get back to work and start paying your taxes again, so that when somebody else has a problem, he's taken care of as well, just like your daughter was.
Oh, taxes. A sore spot, that. Right off the bat, I noticed that there were about a dozen or so people demonstrating FOR health care, and two dozen AGAINST it. Paying higher taxes was a big rationale as to why the government shouldn't guarantee health care for all, according to the demonstrators against. Well, God forbid you'd have to pay a percentage point more on your ATV, or your Jet Ski, or your cigarettes, or your booze, in order to have doctors treat little girls without coverage, or laid off workers who don't have insurance through work anymore and aren't poor enough to qualify for Medicaid, or old, broke, retired persons. No sir, that's not gonna happen, they kept yelling, right before proclaiming how Christian and holier-than-thou they are. You know the type, the Tea Party people, the ones with the "Don't tread on me" and Confederate flags, that foam in the mouth at the mere mention on Obama or the Democrats.
Well, they should chill out, because Obama and the Democrats, once again, will do nothing. There will be a lot of talk, then some totally meaningless half-measures to save face, then everything will go back to normal. Normal being our current state of affairs, where being uninsured and having an accident pretty much guarantees you'll die destitute in the richest nation on Earth. Heck, even with insurance they'll bleed you dry, these companies employ thousands of people just to look for ways to deny you coverage you already paid for.
Another big point these bozos had was how people from other countries envy our system here, and come to get treatment, how you can't get a hospital bed in Canada and have to come stateside to get treatment, etc. I say, bullshit. That's Faux News and talk radio propaganda, pure and simple. It's just not true. Never mind my little Argentinian example before. I have friends from Canada, Denmark, the UK, Italy, Chile and a bunch of other places, and I know they are quite happy with their system, can get a bed when they need it, and wouldn't dream of coming here to get treatment, unless maybe to see a specific doctor who is the best in his field, in a desperate case, a top doctor that could be here just as well as in Japan or Germany - they would go there to see him too, if the situation was desperate enough. I wonder how many of the guys demonstrating against health care for all know anyone residing in a different country, that could confirm or deny the whole "foreigners envy our system" crap.
Anyway, the reason I say health care reform is never gonna happen, besides the fact of Democrats being just Republicans Light since a long time ago and completely afraid to confront lobbies and interests head-on, despite having a clear mandate to do so, is because anyone who wants to have a rational discussion about the matter is gonna get shouted down by an angry mob, brainwashed by whatever propaganda they listen to in their monster trucks and McMansions, and angry as hell at "liberals" and "minorities" and "entitlements" and "taxes" - when they should be mad as hell at "Goldman Sachs", really, and all the Goldman Sachs insiders in this and every other administration. They are OK with letting someone die for lack of medical treatment, Christians that they are, especially if her points of view differ from their Holy Writ - I mention this because in the camp of those supporting health care the other day, there was some lady with a hat bearing a legend supporting gay marriage. Well, you should see how those counter-demonstrators really went crazy about that. Every time this lady approached them to try and have a conversation and explain her points, they would just shout her down, they wouldn't listen or talk, just ratchet up the decibels. Don't get me wrong, I think gay marriage is a non-issue. I don't care for it. And I think the lady was mudding the waters, mixing one message with another at the demonstration, as if we don't have trouble enough trying to secure some sort of health care coverage for all Americans, without being distracted by other grievances and struggles. But there it is: they are united, they show up in numbers that double ours, and they just scream and yell very loudly, until anyone opposing them, progressives, liberals, whatever, have to back down and retreat. That's the way it is. If big O, fresh from winning a big election, with a clear mandate from the people, can't push effectively enough for the Change he promised, what can we little guys do? It's hopeless. In the end, I didn't even stay there. The kid kept saying, "these guys yell too loud", meaning the anti-demonstration, and "can we go", so we left. No heroic argument, no "let's convince these deluded guys of how wrong they are", no "let's make a stand here". Why expose my kid and myself to some crazy born-again fanatic yelling 4-letter words at us, with a side of spittle, some bozo that has no idea of what's really going on, and doesn't want to learn anything about anything? Besides, even with the 3 dozen people that showed up either for or against, you know, there's what, a million people in greater Lee and Collier counties? I mean, c'mon. No one cares. No one cares.
A piece of advice, if you're uninsured and have a health issue: go to Miami, take a plane to Buenos Aires, and get the treatment you need. Have about a grand or two available, at all times, cash, to cover the ticket and expenses. Try to learn a little Spanish. And forget about the Holy O liberating us from these health care insurance bloodsuckers, because it's not going to happen, not in our lifetimes, not ever. I hope I'm wrong, but I'm afraid I'm not.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Growing Power

A great, 4-page story in today's NYTimes magazine, about a mythical figure, street farmer Will Allen, a guy with so much good thinking, common sense and simplicity, it's a real pleasure every time I find something about him. I hope to meet him one day...
"In 1993, Allen, looking to grow indoors during the winter and to sell food closer to the city, bought the Growing Power property, a derelict plant nursery that was in foreclosure. He had no master plan. “I told the city I’d hire kids and teach them about food systems,” he said. Before long, community and school groups were asking for his help starting gardens. He rarely said no. But after years of laboring on his own and beginning to feel burned out, he agreed to partner with Heifer International, the sustainable-agriculture charity. “They were looking for youth to do urban ag. When they learned I had kids and that I had land, their eyes lit up.” Heifer taught Allen fish and worms, and together they expanded their training programs."

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A vanishing world

Many things make David Campbell's book, "A land of ghosts", brilliant: the deep knowledge of the author (an ecologist with decades of experience documenting life in the farthermost confines of the Amazon forest) about the cycles of birth and death in this unforgiving land, his captivating style of writing, his dry sense of humor. But what I found most touching is his grasp of the inevitability of the vast changes happening there, and how even the most motivated efforts by individuals and environmental collectives amount to little more than Don Quixote charging the windmills.
The human tide is rising, and no amount of signature-gatherings, fundraisers or fulminations of unsustainable lifestyles and business models will do more than put a temporary stop to the deforestation and massive extinctions going on there and elsewhere. Everybody needs to make a living, he sadly concludes when describing the slash-and-burn techniques used to open fields for cattle grazing and cultivation, fields that quickly become barren and lead to even more terrain being reclaimed by settlers in the same fashion. The issue is not that mankind is inherently evil, although there's quite a bit of that when we read about how the native peoples who were the original inhabitants of the land were hunted to extinction. The issue is that we are not, as a species, prepared to look beyond the very short term. Impoverished laborers have to put food on their families' tables. Corporations have to turn a profit if they are to remain viable. And countries have to be ruthless if they are ever to leave the Third World and join the big players.
The Associated Press reports that Brazilian president Lula da Silva has approved a controversial land tenure law that Greenpeace and others say will lead to even more deforestation and extinctions in the Amazon. And this is Lula, mind you, the darling of Latin America's progressives and moderate lefties, not some ruthless right-wing dictator of years past, a la Stroessner or Somoza. This is a man who grew up poor, who for years fought for the rights of workers as a union leader and community activist before entering politics and winning the presidency. This is a man who went to bed hungry many times, as he has told on several interviews. He's worked hard to get to a position of power, and by all accounts he's doing his best to take his country out of poverty. His are hard choices. Yes, the Amazon is the last big lung of the Earth, home to a mind-boggling diversity of animal and plant species, and it would be wise to leave it alone. On the other hand, its short-term riches are a tempting release valve to demographic pressures and a ticket for Brazil to reclaim its long coveted seat at the world powers' table. Talk about a Faustian bargain.
A bargain that every civilization had to make, when you think of it. Campbell glances over how the Mediterranean looked three millenia ago, rich with marine life, forests and deep topsoil, and how, after many cultures developed and declined around its shores, each making use of its resources with more and more advanced technologies, it now is only a shade of what it used to be, forests gone, topsoil eroded and its waters little more than a toxic cesspool.
Advanced societies in North America and Europe were brutal in their exploitation of natural resources on hand, as well. The U.S. had untold natural riches on its inception; only a small fraction remains today. It is only after two centuries of economic growth, with the resulting rise in standards of living and education, that we have come to understand that our world is a precious resource that needs to be preserved and protected, and have started to take measures towards that end (albeit too little, too late, in the opinion of some). How can we preach our newfound environmental gospel to the BRIC and Third World countries without sounding arrogant or hypocritical? Take China: critics will point to the scale of its environmental degradation, its polluted rivers and smog-choked cities; supporters will point out that this is the price that had to be paid for its masses to escape centuries of serfdom and starvation and rise to the global middle class.
In the end, these complex and apparently unsurmountable problems boil down to overpopulation and economic expectations, the drive of the many to have the comforts and luxuries of the few; what we call a "Western" standard of living. Lula commented, proudly, when offering justification for his approval of the opening of more land in the Amazon for development, on how campesinos and small entrepreneurs now have cars and trucks and air-conditioned homes, after working hard in clearing the forest and raising cattle there, building roads and establishing business ventures and outposts of progress (Joseph Conrad, anyone?). Campbell, who loves this wilderness, who has followed individual trees' growth from seedling to towering giant, who describes the myriad creatures that inhabit the forest with love, wonder and deep understanding, nevertheless cannot raise his voice against the poor caboclos clearing plots with little more than machetes and fire, and escapes the manichean temptation to present the loss of this last sea of green as a clear-cut good vs. evil confrontation. It's a tragedy, in very much the same way as losing those Mediterranean forests was. As a species, we couldn't grasp the consequences of what we were doing back then; we still can't today. In a few decades, we will be trying to restore a small part of what was lost, planting a few trees here, establishing a natural sanctuary there, for the few remaining species, to slow down their disappearance, in what is now the Amazon forest. We can't even begin to imagine what the effects on global climate will be. But we all have to eat. And if some eat meat every day of the week, then why not everybody? And if some have cars and AC units and can take vacations and buy bottled water and live in a rich country, how can they tell others that they can't? The Amazon, as well as the other remaining shreds and bits of our primeval, natural world, is in for big change, pretty soon. A lot will be lost in the long term, so that some is gained today and tomorrow. It's nobody's fault, and everybody's.