All posts by PB Floyd

Government’s new postal rates help destroy indy media

Most people didn’t notice on May 14 when postage for a first class stamp went up 2 cents that the US postal service also eliminated international surface rate mail and made other dramatic changes to mail rules and rates that negatively effect the small press. These changes are a huge problem for Slingshot’s free newspaper distribution and many other small publishers, non-profits and community service groups.

Small Press Rates Increase Disproportionately

The main change on May 14 was a very strange, uneven rate increase on mailing publications. When the US Postal Rate Commission was initially considering raising postage on May 14, the US postal service had suggested a 12 percent across the board increase of postal rates. At the last minute, the Postal Rate Commission instead approved a very complex and confusing plan proposed by Time Warner — one of the largest publishers in the world — which provided discounts for huge mailers, while raising rates for the small press by 20 and in some cases 30 percent. Instead of postage rates being based mostly on the number of pieces in a mailing and their weight, postage is now based on the level of automation a mailer is able to provide for its mail. Huge mailers can fully comply, while small presses lack the resources to fully automate.

The rules were so technical and confusing that no one noticed what was happening until it was too late — the “public” only had 8 days to comment — and how many members of the “public” other than corporate lobbyists representing big publishers notice what the Postal Rate Commission is doing, anyway?

Since May, there has been an on-line petition and other efforts to try to convince the postal service to go back to a more level playing field. (Check out freepress.net to sign.) The rate increase is just another corporate welfare measure to favor wealthy publishers and push out small publications.

As part of the rate increase, the postal service changed the rules that define whether a particular mail piece is a letter, a flat or a package to make them extremely confusing and to categorize lots of stuff as expensive packages that used to be cheap letters. The post office gave us a Kafka-esque flyer to help us figure out which category each particular mail piece is now in — you have to see this thing to believe it. You have to look at shape, thickness, and flexibility by following sort of a flow chart and putting your mail through little slots and against grids.

The main justification for the complex rules is that mail that fits the guidelines can be handled by robots — it is “automation compatible” and “machineable” — and it is thus cheaper for the postal service, so the postage should be cheaper. This sounds good until you realize that it means that you are now serving a computer and a robot, rather than the robot serving you. I can imagine Hal talking to my package of Slingshots:

Slingshot: Hello, HAL do you read me, HAL?

HAL: Affirmative, Dave, I read you.

Slingshot: Open the postbox doors, HAL.

HAL: I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.

Slingshot is just coming to terms with how these changes will complicate our mailing operations. If you’re a big commercial mail house, all the new rules and the need to access fancy machines and computers may not be such a problem, but as an all-volunteer rag tag operation, the changes may make it impossible for us to mail out this current issue that you hold in your hand for anything resembling a reasonable price. As we go to press, we honestly don’t know if we’ve figured out the rules right or whether our mailing will be rejected when we bring it in to the post office. The written rules are more complex than tax law (although we have been trying to read and figure them out . . .).

We’ve been mailing Slingshot ourselves — folding it and addressing it by hand as a big group sitting around on a Sunday afternoon — for almost 20 years. It is depressing to realize that we may no longer be able to use the US postal service — Benjamin Franklin’s dream of a public post — to distribute our publication because computers, and not people, are now in charge.

Surface Rate Eliminated

Prior to May 14, we sent 1 pound packages of the newspaper for free to a dozen or so countries via surface rate postage, i.e. ships. It was slow but affordable. The vast bulk of the free papers went to Canada (probably by truck or train, not ship). Under the new postal service rules, all international mail now must go via air. A single pound of newspapers to England, for example, now costs $10.40 — for 8 copies! It used to be $4 or so via surface mail.

We’re looking at other options but the most likely result is that we will stop sending multiple copies overseas. We mail single copies to about 25 countries and the price for mailing a single copy is still okay. The biggest problem is for Canada, where we ship many packages of papers for free distro — without surface rate, we’re in danger of losing our entire Canadian readership. If anyone has suggestions, let us know.

In response to the elimination of surface rate, groups including the National Peace Corps Association launched a petition that has been signed by over 4,000 people asking the postal service to restore surface rate postage. Surface rate was frequently used by non-profits and development groups trying to send books overseas. If you want to sign the on-line petition, check out www.petitiononline.com/zikomo/petition.html

Reject Liquified Natural Gas – the world needs long term solutions not more fossil fuels

People are mobilizing to prevent the construction of numerous liquified natural gas (LNG) ocean terminals around the US which will increase dependence on fossil fuels, contribute to global climate change and delay the development of alternative energy sources such as solar and wind power. Major fossil fuel corporations and their puppet, the National Petroleum Council, are currently pushing to develop a global trade in LNG similar to the current global trade in oil. Such a global trade is precisely the wrong direction to be heading given the environmental realities associated with the emission of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels. Concerned inhabitants of the earth need to do whatever we can to stop the construction of any new LNG infrastructure and channel the money that would be spent on this short-term, unsustainable technology into sustainable energy sources.

Direct action is already happening. Over a hundred people used fishing boats, sailboats and kayaks August 13 to cross the Colombia River from Wahkiakum County, Washington so they could occupy a beach at Bradwood, Oregon where NorthernStar Natural Gas is seeking to build a huge liquified natural gas import terminal. The action came at the conclusion of the West Coast Climate Convergence. If built, the terminal’s peak daily capacity would be twice the average daily use of Oregon natural gas consumers. There have been other protests against LNG terminal proposals in Vallejo, Calif; Tijuana; Harpswell, Maine; and Eureka, Calif.

LNG – A primer

Liquified natural gas is a technology for moving natural gas from areas where it is plentiful to areas where natural gas is scarce. Natural gas (mostly methane) is the type of gas people burn in gas stoves, water heaters, and dryers. It is also one of the major fossil fuels used to produce electricity. About one-third of the natural gas burned in the US is used to generate electricity according to the US Energy Information Administration. Oil companies drill wells to tap deposits of natural gas and then pipe the gas to the end user. Since natural gas is distributed fairly evenly around the world, most natural gas used in the US and around the world is from local sources. However, heavy US use of North American natural gas deposits for decades — plus ever increasing demand — are threatening to bring natural gas shortages to the US.

That’s where LNG comes in. Energy companies make LNG by super cooling natural gas to minus 259 degrees Fahrenheit until it becomes a liquid. Once it is liquid, it can be loaded on ships and moved around the world. A number of countries that have huge natural gas reserves — Algeria, Australia, Brunei, Indonesia, Libya, Malaysia, Nigeria, Oman, Qatar, Trinidad and Tobago — want to liquify their gas so they can export it to the USA. They can’t move it unless it is cooled — natural gas is usually moved via pipeline and it would be too expensive to build a pipe between, say, Indonesia and Los Angeles. When the gas is liquified, it only takes up 1/600th the space it takes in a gaseous form.

Liquifying natural gas is very expensive and uses massive amounts of energy. Although natural gas is frequently considered the “greenest” of the fossil fuels — because burning it gives off relatively less carbon dioxide (CO2) greenhouse gas than burning coal — burning natural gas still gives off billions of tons of carbon dioxide and contributes to climate change. Burning LNG is even worse because the process of liquifying the gas, moving it via ships, and then heating it to re-gassify it means that even more CO2 is emitted to get a particular job done. According to Powers Engineering, using LNG gives off 20 percent more CO2 than using regular natural gas.

But the world demand for energy is so huge that the transactional costs of making and moving LNG are overcome by the profits that can be made. Right now, the use of LNG is fairly limited. There are about 40 LNG receiving terminals located in Japan, South Korea, the US and some European Countries and about 136 ships which transport more than 120 million metric tons of LNG every year. About 70 percent of the world trade in LNG goes to Japan, Taiwan and South Korea which have limited domestic gas supplies. In the US, there are currently import terminals in Everett, Massachusetts; Cove Point, Maryland; Elba Island, Georgia; Lake Charles, Louisiana; and PeƱuelas, Puerto Rico.

There are currently proposals on the table to build dozens of more LNG import terminals around the US — in Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Oregon, Maine, Georgia, Maryland, Florida, New York and California — according to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the lead agency that approves the construction and operation of LNG terminals. If you are near a proposed terminal, you can join efforts to oppose that terminal.

In 2003, federal reserve chairperson Alan Greenspan said LNG was a “hot topic” and noted that LNG could play a big part in meeting the future energy needs of the US. The US Department of Energy predicts that US LNG imports will increase from 2 to 8 percent of U.S. natural gas consumption by 2010.

Building each new import terminal costs $500 million – $1 billion. The liquification plants built at the point of production are even more expensive — a typical one costs $1-3 billion. Dozens of each type are on the drawing board. That is a long term investment that could be made in solar or wind technology so that natural gas — in any form — wouldn’t have to be burned to generate electricity in the first place. Building a brand new, world-wide LNG infrastructure will lock the world into burning more and more natural gas for generations to come by making it possible for people in areas where natural gas supplies are being depleted to exploit overseas supplies.

The Green Alternative

If LNG terminals are not built in the US, the US will have to rely on its own, domestic natural gas supplies along with imports from Canada and Mexico. As these supplies get more scarce compared with the growing demand, the price of natural gas will gradually rise and alternatives to burning natural gas will become more attractive and will be constructed. US natural gas demand is predicted to increase as much as 30 percent over the next 10 years, most of it going to make electricity.

The most concrete alternative to natural gas — which is technologically available right now — is to generate electricity from solar, wind and other re-newable sources, rather than from natural gas. A quarter of the US land mass has sufficient wind to generate electricity cheaply and just seven southwestern states have enough solar power to generate ten times the total current US electricity consumption, according to the Worldwatch Institute.

Both solar and wind are economically viable, although a bit more expensive than gas fired electricity. Without LNG, natural gas prices will gradually rise and zero emissions electricity will eventually be cheaper than gas fired power. Currently, only economic crumbs are being invested in non-global warming alternatives — the big money is being spent on developing more fossil fuel infrastructure, like LNG. In 2006, about $4 billion was invested in wind in the US, vs. $340 billion on oil and gas globally in 2005.

Burning natural gas to generate electricity emits about 400 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour of electricity, or between 480 and 560 grams of CO2 per kwh if LNG is burned — there are more emissions because of the energy required for liquification, transportation and re-gassification. Natural gas fuels about 19 percent of US electricity. For comparison, burning coal (which generates half of the electricity in the US) emits 770 – 830 grams per kwh. Using solar, wind, wave energy, geothermal or hydro emit no CO2 other than the CO2 emitted to initially build the generating facilities.

Of course the US needs to stop burning coal to make electricity, too, but it is a false choice to say the only options for making electricity are either natural gas or coal. Both of these fuels are causing climate change. If all US electricity was made from gas, not coal, the climate would still change, just a bit more slowly. Zero emissions alternatives are the only true green technology.

If the money that is to be spent just on LNG infrastructure projects — import terminals and liquification plants — was spent on building windmills and solar farms, the US could switch its dependence on natural gas for generating electricity to climate neutral alternatives.

Contrast this to a future where untold billions are spent to develop LNG import terminals, liquification plants and ships to carry the LNG. All the gas moved around will be burned, making the problem of global climate change worse and worse. Eventually, the gas wells will run dry — natural gas is a finite resource — and the sustainable alternatives described above will have to be constructed anyway — assuming climate change hasn’t so damaged the earth’s life-support systems that human beings aren’t going extinct by then. Can’t we just build the alternatives now?

LNG expansion can still be stopped — people around the US are organizing to oppose specific terminals in their communities. Many of these efforts are effective because of strong “not in my backyard” politics based on fear of LNG accidents and pollution.

Understanding of the need to reduce burning of fossil fuels to avoid global climate change has increased dramatically over the last year or two. Now its time to move this consciousness beyond the armchair and into the streets. A few corporations seeking short-terms profits are making decisions that will change weather on the whole planet. Is one of these corporations based in your town? Will one of the LNG import terminals be built near you? What can you and your friends, neighbors and community do to stop LNG?

Leap to Justice! – Leap day action night – February 2008

Leap Day Action Night 2008 — Friday, February 29, 2008 — is only a few months away and affinity groups and individuals all over are laying plans to disrupt business as usual. Leap day is an extra day — a blank slate waiting to be transformed into a spontaneous, inspirational rebellion against dreary business as usual. Every other day, the wheels of global industrial capitalism spin around, running over our freedom and the earth in the process. Leap day offers an opportunity to go beyond protest — merely decrying what we’re against — and focus on living life in a positive, creative, loving, cooperative, sustainable fashion without domination of others or the earth.

This will be the third Leap Day Action Night. The first was organized somewhat as a joke in 2000 in response to too many boring, scripted, single-issue protests. It was raucous — a mob of finger puppet-armed radicals with a bicycle sound system re-enacted the Seattle WTO protest by shutting down local banks and chain stores, smashing TVs, and simulating sex acts on dumpstered mattresses in the street. The police were too confused to control the mayhem! In 2004, Leap Day went global with protests in the UK and several US cities.

The ideal Leap Day Action is not organized and does not take months of planning, lots of meetings or e-mail lists. What it takes is inspiration, creative proposals that have never been tried before run amok, and a dash of recklessness. It takes some word of mouth, fliers or some way to invite both your friends and folks you’ve never met. Oh the joy to finally be in the streets with no police around — because this isn’t a ritualized confrontation at a well-policed World Bank meeting or two-party convention.

Let’s stop just talking about freedom and start creating chaos in real time — getting back to the roots of rebellion instead of running our activist efforts like we’re trying to replicate the computerized, bureaucratic structures of “the man”!

Leap Day Action Night is local — fitting the local needs each of us knows best. This avoids the need for airline tickets, hitchhiking and road trips. Every single town and neighborhood has corners that need beautification with a garden, a flaming barricade, a free market, a bicycle drive-in. Every business district has a slumlord, chain store, bank or corporate headquarters crying out for exposure and outrage.

It is amazing that with the war, global warming, corporate speedups, homogenization of culture — a million oppressions — there are so few outbursts of rioting, strikes, protests, sit-ins, direct actions. Maybe this is because people are convinced that resistance doesn’t work anymore — or because people feel too isolated to rebel. Maybe we’re all waiting for someone else to start it. Well, at this point, resistance is our only hope. The system won’t reform itself. Nothing is going to change because people sit around and complain in the privacy of their own armchair.

On Leap Day it is up to each of our individual initiative. This is primarily a joy — an opportunity for freedom, self-determination, courage, innovation, community and love. What will you do? What have you never thought of before — or what have you always imagined but never had the excuse to try? We can’t let the grind of daily life make us forget the spark of being alive, and we can’t let the systems of oppression crush our spirit. Leap for it!

Check www.leapdayaction.org for info.

Resist the Iraq War

As the war in Iraq drags into its fifth year, popular dissatisfaction has solidified even while the US political system has shown itself incapable of finding a way out. Recent direct action at the port of Tacoma, Washington aimed at physically blocking the war by blockading the loading of arms onto ships headed to Iraq provides a hopeful alternative to the republicrat paralysis while the bodies pile higher.

It is increasingly absurd to call US involvement in Iraq a “war.” What started as an unprovoked war of aggression — justified based on lies about non-existent weapons of mass destruction and ties to the 9-11 attacks, and really designed to steal Iraqi oil — has devolved into a clumsy occupation in the middle of a complex civil war. It’s a civil war with confusing, shifting fronts — and it is totally unclear what the US regime hopes to accomplish or which “side” US forces are trying to assist. The US fights for the Shiite controlled government, yet against the Shiite death squad controlled by it and the Shiite militias and political parties that make it up. Simultaneously, US forces try to prevent total ethnic cleansing of Sunnis, yet wage a brutal war against a popular Sunni insurgency. The US condemns Iran while aiding Iraqi forces allied with Iran. The contradictions go on and on.

In the end, the US has managed to unite Iraqis around one key conclusion — that the US has utterly destroyed their country through unforgivable incompetence and arrogance and that US forces should get the hell out. As Slingshot goes to press, a hundred thousand Iraqis were in the streets on the anniversary of the fall of Baghdad demanding “US Out!” Iraqi public opinion polls file support for the occupation in the low single digits. So much for being met with flowers. Bush’s reaction is to escalate and add troops.

Four years after the invasion and billions of dollars later, water, electricity, medical care and employment possibilities are grossly worse than they were under Saddam’s regime, even while he was under crippling economic sanctions. The most basic freedom in life — freedom to go outside without being killed — does not exist in Iraq. The US can no longer contend that its forces are “rebuilding” Iraq.

The best way to understand the war at this point is that Bush continues to fight with an eye towards his political “legacy” and not with any real hope that the war can somehow be “won.” Halliburton corporation — VP Cheney’s well connected previous employer — recently declared its job “finished” in Iraq and left the country. When Halliburton leaves, you know that Bush and his cronies have concluded that Iraq is lost.

Bush is now intent on running out the clock — keeping US troops in Iraq until the end of his presidency so that right-wing historians can later conclude that someone other than Bush lost the war. Twenty years from now, you’ll hear the Rush Limbaugh of the future blame the loss of Iraq on the media, on Democrats, on the peace movement — hell, on Jane Fonda! They’ll reason that Bush couldn’t have lost it, because he kept fighting, and troops only withdrew in disgrace after he left office. “It was someone later who pulled the plug . . . .”

The Bush regime cares more about its legacy than millions of Iraqis or tens of thousands of US solders who it has needlessly sacrificed — killed or permanently disabled with traumatic brain injuries, amputations, post traumatic stress disorder, or worse.

The mainstream US political system is broken. While the overwhelming majority of the public has reached the obvious conclusion — that the war is unwinnable and not worth fighting in the first place — this resounding public sentiment is not reflected in the formal institutions of government. The Democrats are too scared of being blamed for losing the war to take any real action to cut the funding. Instead, they debate, delay and set 2008 time-tables — playing right into Bush’s hands — permitting him to delay until he is out of office.

The only hope comes from those not in the halls of power — regular people like folks near Tacoma, Washington. In May, 2006, the Army’s attempt to load armored vehicles onto ships bound for Iraq in Olympia, Washington were met with a prolonged blockade and 40 arrests.

In March, the Army decided to avoid a repeat in Olympia and instead load 1,000 vehicles, including 300 armored Stryker vehicles from the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division based at Fort Lewis, at the port of Tacoma, a few miles north of Olympia. The army denied their decision had anything to do with the Olympia protests. (“The executive officer of the 833rd Transportation Battalion . . . declined to comment on why the equipment moved through Tacoma instead of Olympia, saying it was classified” according to the Olympian.) The effectiveness of last May’s tactics in Olympia are undeniable.

Tacoma mobilized overnight, organizing a round-the-clock protest at the port that resulted in three arrests. Demonstrators included members of the Tacoma Students for a Democratic Society, recently revived after a 35 year hiatus.

This is by no means the only direct action underway against the war. At least 140 people have been arrested in numerous actions around the country aimed at putting pressure on individual members of Congress. In San Francisco, activists have camped on the street outside House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s house demanding to talk to her about the war — she refused saying “my home is my home.” Huh? Around the country, there have been protests or office occupations against John McCain, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Rahm Emanuel, Marcy Kaptur, David Obey, Richard Durbin and Barbara Mikulski.

You can’t wait for politicians to end a war when they and their wealthy contributors are making money hand over fist off the killed and it is other people’s sons and daughters who are dying. Five years into the war, silence is complicity with the slaughter — only physically confronting the war machine and preventing it from operating can end this war. Bush is escalating the war — it is up to us to escalate the resistance.

Critical Mass Rocks the Bay: there’s a bike party every week

Critical mass bike rides around the San Francisco Bay Area have been expanding dramatically this spring — perhaps serving as a barometer of popular concern over climate change — or maybe just reflecting that people want to have fun at the best party on wheels in the galaxy! There are now critical mass rides almost every Friday of the month for folks in the Bay Area — the first Friday in Oakland (gather at 14th & Broadway), the second Friday in Berkeley (downtown BART), the third Friday in Walnut Creek (at WC BART) and the last Friday in San Francisco (Justin Herman Plaza at Embarcadero BART). All of the rides are gathering by 6 p.m. and leave around 6:15. In months with five Fridays, there used to be Emeryville critical Mass (Macarthur BART), but it just got moved to the last Saturday of the month at 5 pm. One participant suggested that soon, there could be a critical mass ride every day of the month! Hell yeah! See you there?

I’ve been riding on as many critical masses as I can because no matter how I’m feeling when the ride starts, I’m totally exuberant and inspired by the end. The rides are such a perfect response to so many of the scourges of modernity. We replace the noise, pollution and danger of car-filled streets with joyful, zero-emissions bikes. Critical mass rides are leader-less, spontaneous, un-organized, free and participatory in sharp contrast to the daily reality of hierarchy, managed lives, alienation and the commodification of everything.

The April Oakland mass was the biggest ride yet in Oakland. There were two sound systems, circus bikes, a few police cars, and a mixed age and race group of riders — everyone from cyclists with spandex and fancy bikes to crusty punks riding 35 year old Schwinns. Someone brought a bike trailer with their 6-year-old kid and two huge pink boxes of vegan doughnuts. At an intersection mid-way through the ride, doughnut guy got off his bike and handed out free doughnuts to everyone. I got a chocolate one — yummy — thanks! On the San Francisco ride, there is a “cookie guy” who hands out free cookies at several points during the ride and on the April Berkeley ride, Wynd had a bike basket full of vegan cookies.

What if more and more people started bringing food and drinks to the rides and handing it out for free? That would help deal with the attrition rate the ride seems to suffer as people get hungry at around 7:30. Visualize a full-scale gift economy on wheels that might develop: free clothes, books and zines, haircuts while riding a tandem, free skool classes and backrubs on trailers carrying massage tables! If you’ve been to the massive San Francisco mass and seen all the unusual bike vehicles and crazy costumes, you’ll know what I mean . . .

Speaking of the San Francisco ride, it is still — as far as I know — the largest and most amazing critical mass bike ride in the universe. I try to take visitors to the ride and they always leave transformed. If you haven’t been for a while, give it a spin — it will cheer you up.

On the March ride, a huge group rode to the Southern reaches of the city towards Daly City to a neighborhood I had never visited before. Then we rode fast along Allegheny to get back to downtown. The road was very smoothly paved and gently curvy like a roller coaster — 3 lanes wide and designed for fast car travel so there were no stop signs or lights. It was amazing to be in a group of hundreds of bikes flying along this road together! I clocked our top speed at 28 miles an hour — that is fast for a bike!

I left at 8:30 before an incident at 9 p.m. when there were only 30 cyclists left (out of maybe 1,000 at the start of the ride) in which an impatient mini-van driver drove at high speed through the crowd and hit and threw a cyclist, running over and crushing the bike, and then fled. Riders gave chase, surrounding the vehicle at a red light and then, unfortunately, a cyclist broke the back window of the mini-van. Unknown to the cyclists, there were 5 kids in the mini-van. This incident received incredible hype in the media which made it sound like rabid bicyclists were attacking innocent citizens and trying to hurt their children for no reason.

It sucks that the window got broken — someone over-reacted in anger and fear after they saw a fellow cyclists intentionally hit by an irate car driver. Video of the incident shows that the windows were tinted so there was no way to see the kids. The incident was used to smear critical mass when bicyclists know that in most road incidents between cars and bikes, it is the bicyclists who are at risk. The reason people love critical mass is that for a few hours, we can ride in relative safety because of our numbers. When we ride to work or to the store, we’re isolated and vulnerable. Some car drivers are very disrespectful of our choice to bike and of our lives — cutting us off, bumping us, pushing us off the side of the road, yelling insults or throwing stuff.

Critical mass has learned to react calmly to most incidents of car/bike conflict — emphasizing dialogue, de-escalation and mutual respect — and videotaping when incidents occur. The ride works best that way — our goal in riding on the mass is to ride our bikes, not get into shouting matches with drivers. It is usually best to avoid a fight, smile, wave and keep riding.

I also rode on the March Emeryville critical mass ride. It was small and needs more support! Emeryville is a fake city — an almost perfect representation of un-restrained capitalist development in which commerce and cars have swallowed human needs. Even with our small numbers, it was intoxicating to ride through the fake shopping mall “main street” lined with chain stores yelling “stop buying — you don’t need that stuff!” People in the stores looked at us like we were space aliens — not only were we not shopping, we weren’t even in cars! The city is a maze of freeway-like roads and massive parking lots with knots of irate, impatient drivers — totally unfriendly to bikes. How can Emeryville exist a mile from Berkeley and escape frequent protests and disruptions? I don’t know, but at the moment, Emeryville critical mass is our best chance to shake up Emeryville. The next three Emeryville rides are May 26, June 30 and July 28 — write these dates in your calendar and see you there if you live in the Bay Area!

Getting your power from the sun – sustainability calls for simplicity, not more technology – a personal account of do-it-yourself solar power and its discontents

By PB Floyd

I’ve been fascinated by solar energy as a futuristic technology since I was 7 years old. Solar energy is locally produced, makes people independent from huge centralized oil and power companies and avoids burning fossil fuels. When I started a group house in 1998, I looked into putting solar power on the house right away because I hated the idea of our house contributing to the pollution and corporate domination that we are trying to stop. Unfortunately, at the time, it wasn’t financially realistic. This spring, I finally had time and money to install a professional quality solar hot water system on the house. But putting in the long-desired solar system didn’t turn out how I expected it to.

Do It Yourself (DIY)

Over the past 10 or 12 years, I’ve become increasingly personally worried on a day-to-day, psychological level about climate change caused by burning fossil fuels. At this point, I talk about it in therapy. As a result, I’ve tried to reduce my personal consumption of fossil fuels in various ways — biking not driving, using a clothes line not the drier, bundling up in the winter instead of using a heater, and keeping lights off when no one is in a room, etc.

Five years ago, I decided that I could use a camping solar shower to heat my shower water during the summer. You’ve seen these things: they’re a plastic bag that is black on one side with a nozzle on one end. You fill them with water, set them in the sun, they get hot, and then you hang them from a tree and take a shower from the nozzle. I started using one at home — heating it on the front porch and hanging it in my bathroom’s shower stall.

I quickly fell in love with it. It got me in touch with the natural rhythm of the sun. When it was cloudy, I wouldn’t shower. I originally intended to use it just during the summer, but I ended up using it all year long for the last 5 or so years. I became fanatical about it, absolutely refusing to take a fossil fueled shower. If it was cloudy for more time than I could tolerate not bathing, I would take a cold shower. After a couple of years, I got tired of the flimsy, expensive camping solar showers so I designed and built a permanent one out of ABS plumbing pipe for about $25. (See the design in Slingshot issue #80.)

My personal solar shower was simple, cheap and cut fossil fuel use, but it had a fatal flaw: I couldn’t convince anyone other than me to use it — or rather it wasn’t practical for other people. The main problem is that five gallons of water — about a 5 minute shower — weighs 45 pounds and is quite bulky. Once the water gets hot in the sun, you have to lift the heavy water over your head to hang it on hooks in the shower stall. My housemates said they weren’t strong enough to lift it and carry it up two flights of stairs. Also, the DIY shower is only hot when the sun shines so you have to time your day around the shower to some extent and you can never shower in the morning, only the afternoon or early evening. (In the winter it will be hot on a sunny day at 3 p.m. – in the summer it can be hot anytime between 1 – 6 p.m., and it can easily get too hot to use if you don’t watch it.) These restrictive hours are okay for me now since I work at home, but before this gig I worked 9-5 and I had to shower before going to work.

Despite the problems with my DIY solar shower, it did prove that solar power is a fantastic way to heat water for home use. On a psychological level, this started eating away at me. Someone would take a fossil fueled shower on a hot sunny day and I just knew that those CO2 emissions were unnecessary. I learned that in some areas (Israel for example) all domestic hot water was solar heated.

When we started the house, I got a bid for installing solar hot water: $12,000. That was too much money when you consider that our annual bill for natural gas (used for cooking and heating water) is only about $400 a year. So the key to installing solar now, in 2007, would be to do the labor myself to save money.

Basic solar hot water heating

Heating water with solar energy is fairly simple. You install panels on your roof, pass cold water through them, and then store the resulting hot water in an insulated tank so that when you need hot water when the sun isn’t shinning, you’ll have it. In the panels, water pipes are connected to metal fins that are painted black. The black metal absorbs the light and gets very hot and transfers the heat to the tubes of water. The panels have insulation on the bottom and glass on the top to keep the heat in.

The kind of system I just installed is called an open loop system. (If you aren’t interested in technical details, skip down 2 paragraphs.) That means that cold water from the city water supply flows into the storage tank and directly up into the solar panels on the roof. The system has a differential controller which means that when a thermometer in the solar panel detects a temperature that is 16 degrees F higher than the temperature detected by another thermometer in the storage tank, a circulating pump turns on to move water from the storage tank up through the panels. The differential controller and the pump work on grid power, but they only consume about 15 watts of electricity when the pump is running or about half a watt when the controller is on. So for all practical purposes, running the system doesn’t consume fossil fuels.

There is a fossil fueled hot water back up for periods when there is no sun. After water leaves the storage tank, it passes through a standard gas hot water heater that will heat the water unless it is already hot going in. To prevent the solar hot water (which can reach temperatures of 200 degrees) from burning people, there is a mixing valve to mix cold water in whenever the solar hot water exceeds 130 degrees.

While the basic design of the system is simple, actually manufacturing and installing such a system is not such an easy matter. First, even though I did all of the work to install the system myself (and thus for free) the components I had to buy for the system were damn expensive. The 120 gallon storage tank, three 4X8 foot solar panels, circulating pump, differential controller, valves, plus 150 feet of cooper pipe and fittings and insulation cost about $8,000. That $8,000 actually represents . . . burning fossil fuels. Ironically, in my attempt to avoid burning fossil fuels, I had just purchased huge amounts of copper, aluminum, glass, plastic foam insulation — even some high tech microchips to run the differential controller. These are all items I generally try to avoid. The environmental damage associated with mining and smelting copper and aluminum and glass and making foam insulation are striking — what was I doing?!?

And then there was installing it. It took me pretty much every waking moment for 2 weeks. Our roof is at a 45 degree angle so a nice guy who is working on our local tree-sit trained me on using ropes and harnesses so I wouldn’t fall and kill myself. The three 4X8 foot solar panels each weighed 125 pounds and they had to be lifted up 35 feet to the top of our 45 degree angled roof! I lost a number of nights of sleep thinking “how can it be done?” It took 4 of us and a lot of creativity, but we got those panels up there. Once the panels were on the roof, the work had only in a sense started. I had to install pipe from the storage tank up to the panels and back, install the pump, valves, etc. Because I’m not the greatest plumber, after I was all done there were some leaks. I would fill the system to test it, find a leak, have to drain the system, go up on the roof to fix the leak, and repeat. (It finally worked!)

The fallacy of Solar energy

At some point during this extremely difficult and sometimes dangerous process, I was sitting on the top of the roof and I realized that I had made a mistake:

I had spent $8,000, used a lot of environmentally damaging resources and a bunch of time and energy to accomplish what I had been doing simply, cheaply, locally and easily with my $25 DIY solar shower for the last 5 years.

I had fallen into a very classic human mental trap. In the US, we grow up with hot water flowing out of the tap — and we don’t have to think about how that happens. We don’t have to see the gas fields or all of the environmental destruction that makes that possible. So we think that hot tap water is in some way “normal” and “natural” and we get stubborn and feel entitled to that convenience. When our society runs up against the reality that the ways we’ve been living are not sustainable — that having all this convenience was never normal but instead was always the exception to how people have lived and evolved over the ages — and that this convenience has been bought by burning fossil fuels, oppressing people and destroying the environment — it is hard to give up the conveniences we’ve grown up with and change.

So to avoid change — to avoid having to admit that the way we’ve been living is out of balance with the earth — human beings think of all kinds of fancy ways to achieve the end result of having things operate “the way we’ve been living” by using a different technology. But this is like a cat chasing its tail. Just because you’re not directly burning fossil fuels everyday to heat your water doesn’t mean you’ve stepped outside of our society’s earth killing machine. High technology has extreme environmental costs. And most “alternative green” technologies currently being promoted are high technology. Hybrid cars, ethanol and biodiesel — these are very centralized, high tech solutions designed to permit continuation of an unsustainable, car based existence. Living local and riding a bike or walking is how you reduce your impact — switching one type of high tech for another just trades one problem for another.

In the end, we need to look beyond how a particular technology is powered and instead recognize that global warming is caused not just by the wrong fuel, but by the wrong type of thinking — lifestyles that are too convenient, too speedy, too dependent on technology.

Taking a bath

So now that I’ve put in the solar hot water system, I still think it is a good thing within the context of the very unsustainable society within which we live. There is a cool little read-out that shows how hot the water in the storage tank is, and I feel good when it is 160 degrees — that means the morning showers the next day are covered. But I’m going to keep using my $25 low tech solar shower even though it is a little more work and sometimes I don’t get a shower when it rains. I’m still looking for a better balance between DIY solar and high tech solar. After all, I’m a fanatic.

Fossil fuels cause ocean acidification – it’s not just global warming anymore . . .

Ocean acidification is another catastrophic form of environmental damage that is resulting from the continued burning of fossil fuels — one that is only now being understood by scientists. Since the industrial revolution, people have added two hundred and fifty billion tons of carbon to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels. This has changed the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air. The air now contains 380 parts per million CO2, which is 40 percent higher than prior to the industrial revolution. This change in the chemistry of the atmosphere causes the greenhouse effect.

Scientists have recently understood that the increased concentration of CO2 in the air is also changing the pH of the oceans. About half of the total carbon dumped into the air by humans in the last 150 years has been absorbed by the oceans. If not for oceans acting as a “carbon sink” the concentration of CO2 in the air would be as high as 500 parts per million, not the current 380 ppm. Because 70 percent of the earth is covered with water, up to 90 percent of the CO2 humans pour into the atmosphere will eventually be absorbed by the oceans.

When CO2 dissolves into water, it forms carbonic acid (H2CO3). This process has already changed the pH of the water near the surface of the oceans by .1. Seawater is naturally alkaline, with a pH ranging from 7.8 to 8.5. (A pH of 7 is neutral, neither acid nor basic.)

Changing the pH of the oceans risks causing a collapse of life in the oceans, since a wide variety of ocean life is sensitive to the pH of ocean water. Many ocean creatures — from clams to coral reefs — build their shells out of calcium carbonate — CaCO3. The oceans contain massive amounts of calcium carbonate dissolved in the water. When the pH of the ocean goes down, it reduces the supply of CaCO3 dissolved in the water (the saturation rate), and makes it harder for animals to build shells. If the CaCO3 supply in the water gets too low, existing shelled creatures and reefs actually begin to dissolve. Scientists forecast that if carbon continues to be released by humans at the current rates, CO2 in the air could reach 650 parts per million by 2075, which would reduce the supply of CaCO3 in the ocean so much that all shelled creatures would dissolve. Since the ocean food chain is largely dependent on creatures built out of CaCO3, the disappearance of these animals could lead to a collapse of life in the oceans.

There is historical precedence for what humans are currently doing to the climate. About 50 million years ago, for reasons that are not currently understood, huge amounts or carbon was released into the atmosphere. This event is called the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). As a result of the extra carbon, temperatures rose dramatically and there were mass extinctions of animals. In the oceans, many shelled animals also went extinct because the pH of the oceans changed and dissolved shelled creatures. The ocean floor is normally covered with the shells of dead, shelled animals. At the time of PETM, however, no shells are found — core samples during this time are a band of clay between thick layers of CaCO3. Scientists believe the PETM took place over one thousand to ten thousand years — by contrast, carbon is now being released by humans as much as thirty times faster than during PETM.

The key to avoiding this future is a zero emissions future. Any carbon humans release into the air by burning fossil fuels goes somewhere. There is now wide understanding that CO2 in the air causes problems with the climate. But most of the carbon will eventually end up in the ocean — keep your mind on the coral reefs next time you turn on your space heater or put your clothes in the dryer. . .

No tree is illegal! – Midnight insurgent arborists seek to reclaim wasted urban land – direct action vs. carbon offsets

In Slingshot #93, I wrote about how my housemates and I harvested, processed and distributed hundreds of pounds of fossil fuel-free urban backyard fruit last summer. At the end of the article, I proposed that cities with nice growing conditions (like where I live in Berkeley) could grow a lot of our own fruit locally — eliminating the need to truck in fruit in fossil fueled trucks — if fruit trees could be planted on un-used urban spaces, such as the little strip between the street and the sidewalk known as the “parking strip.”

With this idea in mind, we agreed at a housemeeting this winter to plant 2 trees in the parking strip in front of our house — a plum tree and a persimmon tree. We don’t own this land — it is owned by the city. And we knew that there was a law against planting anything on this land — especially against planting a fruit tree. The city prohibits fruit trees because they are worried that people won’t pick the fruit and it will cause a mess.

When we moved into the house, this piece of the earth, about 45 feet long by about 5 feet wide, was covered by weeds, dead grass, and garbage. In other words, it was a mess — but apparently not as bad a mess as fruit trees would be. Since then, I’ve planted drought tolerant flowers on it each spring and it has been dead flower stalks the rest of the year. We try to clean up some of the garbage.

Planting the trees was the type of fantastic, hopeful act that planting a tree always is. When you plant a tree, you’re thinking far into the future, trusting and hoping that the future will hold a place for you, your friends and community, and the tree. You imagine the delicious fruit you may someday enjoy. It is a leap of faith.

I gently set the tree into the earth, watered it in, and began waiting the 2-5 years it would take to mature enough to produce a lot of food. It was an act of civil disobedience and a calculated risk that the city wouldn’t bust us for “nurturing an illegal fruit tree.” Since we’re anxious to pick the fruit, we weren’t worried that the tree would make a mess. In walking around town, I’ve noticed several dozen other “illegal” fruit trees on parking strips in the neighborhood — lemons, pears, oranges, apples, figs, olives, plums — so I thought that we would probably get away with it.

The Bust

Nope. Within just a couple of weeks, a truck from the city was out in front of our house and the city forester was knocking on the door. “These are fruiting trees. You have to remove them.” But she didn’t actually cut them down herself . . . we were supposed to do it.

Before the bust, every day on my way out of the house, I watched the bare trees looking for signs that it was spring — waiting for them to leaf out and begin to grow. And when the leaves came out, it was the kind of natural miracle that makes life amazing.

But after the bust, seeing the doomed trees growing everyday was sad.

Mass-produced agriculture and trucking food around is a major consumer of fossil fuels and a major contributor to global warming. As recently as 100 years ago in the USA– and still in many areas around the world — food is grown, picked and used all in the same place informally without money or markets by the people who are going to eat it.

While mainstream political leaders talk about “carbon offsets,” “alternative fuels” and other high-tech, corporate based “solutions” to reduce fossil fuel use, what is really needed is direct action — figuring out how to simply avoid fossil fuel use by living in ways that don’t require it.

So say you want to eat some fruit. The direct action way to do so is to plant a tree, take care of it, pick the fruit, share it with your friends and neighbors, and eat some of it yourself.

The mainstream/capitalist way to meet this need is for a corporation to own a vast tract of land somewhere out in the country and use fossil fueled machines and under-paid farm workers to plant and grow the fruit. In most cases, the fruit is grown with chemical fertilizers and pesticides, but even organically grown fruit generally uses various non-local inputs for fuel as well as hired labor. When the fruit is ready, the best ones are picked, boxed and put on trucks. All the fruit that has defects is usually thrown away. The boxes are driven on a truck to a warehouse where they are bought and sold by some more corporations. Even if you get your food from a farmer’s market, the food reaches you by truck. Finally, you work a job doing what someone else feels is important to get money to buy the fruit. And after work, you go to a market and buy the fruit.

The capitalist/mainstream way of dealing with the fossil fuels consumed in this process is first to have years of reports and meetings to discuss how it would be nice to not use so much fossil fuel. Slingshot first published articles about global warming in 1995 — there was enough evidence then to know it was real. At that point, Al Gore was vice-president with a real opportunity to do something about the problem, but I guess he was waiting for something . . . .

Since 1995, the amount of fossil fuels burned on earth each year has only increased, year after year.

The capitalist/mainstream meetings and reports on controlling climate change suggest solutions like carbon offsets or cap and trade systems which create a global stock market in carbon credits. These are very complex, market based, non-local strategies that often don’t actually prevent fossil fuels from being burned, but rather figure out ways to justify continuing to burn fossil fuels as usual. For instance, carbon offsets mean that the farmer (or liberal driving an SUV) purchases the right to burn fossil fuels from a company that would take the money and spend it — probably not to reduce the burning of fossil fuels — but on projects to reduce other human emissions of greenhouse gases. For instance, to cap garbage dumps with a cover so as to collect methane gas (another potent greenhouse gas) so that it doesn’t escape into the atmosphere. Granted, capping garbage dumps is a great idea — but shouldn’t the garbage dump company pay for that?

Carbon offsets are ideas invented by politicians and businessmen to sound like something is being done about global warming but they generally mean that fossil fuels continue to be burned — business as usual — by people who can afford it. They are a fake solution.

By contrast, growing our own food on the streets where we live is a real solution — every piece of fruit we eat that doesn’t have to travel by truck thus reduces demand for trucks and the burning of fossil fuels to run them. Such solutions empower individuals and local communities rather than corporations and governments. Such solutions emphasize simplicity and working with the earth, rather than hyper-complex, high-tech new structures designed to clean up the mess made by the current hyper-complex, high-tech structures.

Epilogue

As of this writing, our illegal fruit trees are still there. The city told us to take them out, but they didn’t follow up and we won’t do their dirty work. The city may come and take them at any time, but we’re hoping that they’ll forget about them — after all, the dozens of other “illegal” trees in our neighborhood are still there. Now whenever I walk around town, I spot more and more “illegal” trees quietly defying the Law. I also planted an illegal Fuji apple tree in front of a nearby abandoned house as an experiment to see if it would be possible to plant stealth parking strip trees in various forgotten urban spots. The apple tree has so far gone un-noticed. When you think of direct action, you often think of a logging road blockade, a treesit or a masked figure disabling construction equipment in the middle of the night. In corporate America, even growing food outside the market system requires a mask.

Pick yer Own: building community through DIY urban harvesting

This past summer, my housemates and I harvested and processed hundreds of pounds of apples, pears, olives and persimmons all from within a few blocks of our house. Urban harvesting has numerous overlapping positive aspects: it nurtures community and encourages talking to your neighbors, it promotes consumption of locally grown, non-fossil fuel tainted food, it is do-it-yourself (DIY) so you learn new skills, it gives you a valuable connection to the earth and its natural cycles which people in cities often lack, and it permits you to experiment with distribution outside of the market system.

Harvesting

It is hard to believe how much fruit one small tree can produce! The first step is identifying fruit trees near your house. In our neighborhood, there are many fruit trees that are not harvested because the people living in the house with the tree don’t do the work. You can walk around and make a map in your head or on paper when the fruit is ripe and note which trees seem to get harvested and which don’t.

Then comes the exciting, but perhaps uncomfortable part: you have to talk to your neighbors and ask if you can harvest their tree. We left a note with our phone number or visited if we already knew the neighbor. It seems that neighbors talk to each other less and less in the modern world, and that’s too bad. Perhaps it is the rise of internet and car culture — a culture of isolation and loneliness. When I was growing up, I knew people maybe within a block or two of my parent’s house. Since then, I’ve sometimes lived somewhere and not even known the person next door! Meeting neighbors moves the idea of “building community” from just a slogan to reality. Communities where people know each other can organize to resist hierarchical power structures and build voluntary, non-market based alternatives.

When our house asked to pick our neighbor’s trees, they always said yes — sometimes with great excitement. The neighbors were usually happy to have someone use the food and picking fruit trees avoids a rotting mess when the fruit falls to the ground.

Picking itself was exciting and a good house activity. We stood on garage roofs and used tall ladders and cloth bags over our shoulders. Once when I was picking alone, the ladder collapsed and I had to jump into the upper branches of a tree to avoid falling. Luckily, a friend biked by soon afterwards and re-set the ladder for me. Thus, I suggest picking with a friend in case something goes wrong.

The real fun begins once the fruit is picked. The first thing you learn is that fruit ripens all at once. So harvesting isn’t like going to a grocery store and only getting what you need at that time. When you harvest, you either have nothing, or way too much of a particular thing. Our ancestors knew what foods were in season at what times like the back of their hands, but in a world with fruit shipped around by airplane, we get fooled into eating like the seasons don’t exist.

Once you start to notice what is in season in your area, you may begin to adjust what you eat and seek out locally grown food in season. Eating like this drastically decreases the amount of fossil fuels required to keep you fed. Noticing these things adds richness and connection to your life experience just as living a mechanical life disconnected from the earth and its cycles can strip meaning away.

Preserving and distributing

When you harvest vastly more of a particular fruit than you can eat — which you will because trees make so much fruit — you can either preserve it or distribute the excess. At one point last summer, we had several hundred pounds of pears that all ripened within a week or two — it was a great test of our creativity.

Preserving foods opens lots of DIY opportunities. Last summer, we dried huge quantities of pears and apples. We used a store-bought fruit drier someone gave us — this summer I’m going to build a solar one.

My housemates also made some of the pears into juice which they are currently fermenting into hard cider. We hope that once they learn what they’re doing, our house can make lots of apple and pear cider and eventually (after the revolution) trade it for things we need like bike tires, etc.

My mother has always home-canned huge quantities of fruits and vegetables each summer so I hope to get her to teach me these skills so our house can add canning as an option for preserving fruit we harvest.

The other way to deal with a bountiful harvest is to give the food away. This raises another opportunity for building community and developing alternatives to the market-based distribution systems that exist under capitalism. Our house kept a basket of fruit near the front door so that all visitors took fruit home with them. And we brought fruit with us when we went calling elsewhere.

I also brought fruit with me to give away for free at critical mass bike rides. What if lots of folks brought stuff with them to critical mass, music shows, or other public events to give away? We could build informal, spontaneous “really free markets” every time we gathered for raw food, baked goods, home-manufactured items, and even services. Maybe someone would bring apples, another dumpstered bread, someone else bike tools to fix bikes, and someone else clippers to cut hair. One alternative to the mainstream economy is to build worker-run collectives, but another is to create a gift economy to allow us all to gradually drop out of the capitalist system.

We did all of the harvesting and moving of food either on foot or by bike so our food was not only organic, it was also as fossil fuel free as we could make it. Moving a 16 foot ladder on a bike cart is not only possible — it is fun and intense!

These days, you can get organic and fair trade food, but it is almost impossible to get fossil fuel free food! Figuring out how to grow, distribute and eat fossil fuel free food is the next frontier, because when it comes down to it, burning fossil fuels is killing us. Organic goes part of the way, of course, since a main ingredient in conventionally farmed food is chemical fertilizers, which cannot be made without fossil fuels. But eating organic avocados imported from Chile in January misses the point of “organic” — eating now shouldn’t destroy the environment’s ability to grow food for our grandchildren.

Part of harvesting food is dealing with “imperfect” fruit. In the grocery stores, they don’t sell fruit where part of it is rotting or where it has worm holes. Markets usually don’t even sell organic food with worms or rot — they throw out whatever isn’t “perfect”. However, when you harvest organic food, you quickly realize that some or maybe even most of the fruit has imperfections.

Our house would sort the fruit as soon as we harvested it. The more-perfect looking, large fruit was for eating plain or giving away. The smaller fruits or ones with rot or worms was for drying or juicing. It takes a little time to cut out the rotten or worm-eaten parts, but life isn’t a race. That time is for talking to friends or being present with yourself and the universe.

Epilogue

The reason we harvested other people’s trees was because we have a very small house lot — even after planting every square inch with gardens and trees, we wanted access to more home-grown food. The fact that you, personally, live in an apartment or in a rented house without fruit trees doesn’t mean you can’t be an urban harvester.

It would be easy for cities to plant many more urban fruit trees to supply local food needs, except, naturally, for the law. Most cities make it illegal to plant fruit trees on the parking strip — the little strip of useless grass between the sidewalk and the street on millions of miles of urban streets. The idea behind the law is that urban fruit trees would be messy — the assumption is that no one would pick the fruit and that it would thus fall to the ground and rot.

These laws are stupid. Why are modern people so afraid of messy things? Life is messy from birth to death and decay — get used to it! A few of the trees we harvested were “illegal” fruit trees on the parking strip. This spring, we’re going to plant a few “illegal” fruit trees on our parking strip. We’re likely to “get away with it” since we’re planning to harvest them and keep the area clean. What if millions of people planted urban trees on parking strips and other unused land?

Or better yet, what if the silly laws were eliminated and cities planted fruit trees on all available parking strips, perhaps with the formation of neighborhood harvest committees or by hiring local youth over the summer to tend, harvest and distribute the fruit?

Happy harvesting!

War is Over (If You Want It)

As Slingshot goes to press, president Bush has announced that he will order a “surge” of 21,500 additional US troops to Iraq on top of the 140,000 troops already there — despite the fact that everyone from his own generals and troops to any casual observer on the street can see that Iraq has descended into civil war as a result of Bush’s unprovoked invasion and bungled occupation. Bush’s surge won’t help the situation in Iraq — it will only prolong the nightmare and sacrifice more Iraqis and US troops for nothing. Meanwhile, the recently elected democratic Congress is unlikely to block the continuation of the war by cutting off funding — they’re talking about holding some hearings but are too afraid of being blamed for “losing” the war to take the one real action available to force a pullout of US troops. Earth to Democrats: the US lost the war a long time ago — people voted for you because they wanted US troops out now.

The world needs a surge, but not of more US troops to Iraq. Its time for a surge of protest and outrage against the hopeless US occupation of Iraq — from ordinary people everywhere, from the rest of the world, from anti-war activists, and from YOU. The war has dragged on for almost four years — longer than US involvement in World War II — with up to 650,000 Iraqis and over 3,000 Americans dead as a result of the war, and $400 billion spent and counting.

Many of us hit the streets in protest before the war and right after it started — but we’ve grown tired and discouraged as the occupation has dragged on . . . and on . . . and on. Depression, resignation, exhaustion and inaction won’t stop the war — Bush won’t stop the war — the Democratic party won’t stop the war — really the only alternative is for millions of folks in the USA to somehow throw off our slumber and stop the damn war. At this point, inaction is complicity.

Sadly, the institutional US anti-war movement has been ineffective in stopping the war. There are protests scheduled for the end of January and March 17-18 — hopefully a lot of people will go. But polite protests isolated to one day are no longer enough. Stopping the war is going to require much broader action on a day to day basis, ranging from banners lining the streets across the country; to a million discussions; to action aimed at raising the domestic cost of the war to the US ruling class.

Bush talks about accomplishing the mission in Iraq, but just because he broke it doesn’t mean he — or anyone with any plan — can fix it. When US troops pull out, the ferocity and bloodiness of the civil war is likely to increase — but that doesn’t mean US troops should stay indefinitely baby-sitting a civil war to try to keep it within “acceptable” levels of slaughter. The only positive thing the United States can do at this point is get the hell out of Iraq and let folks there resolve their own destiny.

US troops lost any possibility of bringing peace and reconciliation to Iraq through a million small and large Bush fuckups — the torture at Abu Ghraib; the failure to restore electricity, jobs and other services; the $20 billion “reconstruction” that only enriched corporate interests; the right-wing use of Iraq as a guinea pig plaything to test their theories about privatization while Baghdad went up in flames around them. That’s to say nothing of collapse of all of Bush’s reasons to fight the war in the first place. The war was started and has been fought, very literally, for nothing.

The failed Iraq war and occupation are a metaphor for the dying American empire — a huge bloated beast thrashing about spreading death and misery pointlessly, and in the process, destroying itself. It may take decades for America’s rulers to repair the economic, military and political disaster they have created in Iraq. Global scorn and distrust of the US are at an all time high, with good reason.

Even the US military has lost heart for the war. An Army Times poll conducted Nov. 13 through Dec. 22 found that only 35 percent of the military members polled said they approve of the way President Bush is handling the war, and only 50 percent said they thought success was likely in Iraq. These numbers may have dipped lower since Bush’s speech. It is astonishing to see how isolated Bush has become with more than 70 percent of the public now against the war.

The US media focuses on the pain of the families of 3,000 dead American solders — missing the point that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis lie dead, and the world’s oldest civilization has been reduced to ruins.

But despite all of this, the mainstream political system is incapable of pulling out US troops. It is much easier for Bush and the Democrats to stay the course than to have to admit the scale of their defeat in Iraq. The thousands more Iraqis and Americans likely to die are pawns to them. You can bet that none of Bush’s or Pelosi’s friends or family are living in Baghdad or serving in the US military.

As Mario Savio pointed out in a different context “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part, you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!”

If the rulers won’t pull out troops, regular folks need to do everything we can to make the United States ungovernable — shutting down whatever economic or social functions are within our grasp that permit the US to continue the occupation. Bush’s troop surge is just more of the same — stay the course only worse. If the regular people don’t stand up and prevent the occupation from continuing, we’re going to be right back at this point in a year, with the bodies piled higher.

March 17 – 18 Global Days of Action

Creepy sectarian ANSWER coalition has called for coordinated protests against the war in Washington, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, and other cities. (In the Bay Area, the Sunday protest naturally conflicts with the annual Anarchist conference.) As gross as ANSWER is, big marches can provide useful gathering points for break-away actions. But we don’t have to wait for groups like ANSWER to call protests — anyone and everyone can organize actions to oppose the war. Hopefully they’ll be lots of other anti-war actions as the spring goes on.