Urban village reality?

by on Jan.02, 2009, under Politics/Economics

The notion of an urban village has existed for several decades. In contrast to traditional city planning, an urban village attempts to minimize the daily need for personal cars, long-haul transit for foodstuffs and general dependence on a ‘foreign’ source for daily necessities. Foreign in this context may be interpreted as non-local corporate entity. A casual glance at modern cities in the West on the whole reveals the opposite ideology where most goods are shipped anywhere from hundreds of miles away to the opposite side of the globe. Although this strategy protects some daily needs from the toll of a local disaster, the cost in terms of energy is incalculable. That is, one can not calculate the true cost of natural resources and arguably labor. Traditional city design also incurs social side effects. The consumer is not responsible for, and thus has no direct power, over the production and distribution of daily needs. This has its most obvious impact on the poor who are beholden to the aloof and invisible master that produces and distributes their food and energy.   

Alternatively, an urban village design facilitates some local food production. Certainly, growers will still expect some form of compensation for their crop. However, when production is local, labor may be exchanged with an employer who has a direct interest in the well being of the community as opposed to quarterly profits. In addition, sound planning and policy may allow lower income individuals some direct control over their own necessities. The Greenwood neighborhood of Seattle Washington recently released the following proposition for the city of Seattle.

“…develop new standards or incentive programs that encourage incorporating food gardens into multi-family developments” and “Directing the Department of Neighborhoods to identify the most suitable City-owned properties for conversion to use for food production, asking for no less than two acres that could be developed in 2009-2010″

It remains to be seen if these propositions succeed and the scope at which they’re implemented. However, to see such ideas being seriously considered by a significant mass of the populous fills one with optimism. I will post updates as they unfold.

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A night to remember

by on Nov.05, 2008, under Politics/Economics

This year, Nov. 4th encompassed an atmosphere more reminiscent of a new year’s eve than an election day. Just as I was finishing the last sip of a tasty 0.5 liter Franziskaner at a neighborhood pub, the broadcast announced Obama as our president elect. The pub patrons howled and cheered as a dark chapter in American history begins to close.

The people finally realize they’ve been manipulated by an administration willing to rule by fear and they don’t want another leader with such ties. On the way, a man has demonstrated the American spirit in action and made skeptics, such as myself, consider a more optimistic attitude with respect to the political system and the people of this land.

As I walked home, there were cheers emitting from the windows of residences, packed bars full of merry making and at least one person running down the sidewalk clanking a ladle against a pot declaring the president elect. I was surprised and taken by the level of positive exuberance which I have never seen before in response to an election. Nov. 4th 2008 will indeed be a night remembered by many.

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Hypocritical drug policy

by on Aug.19, 2008, under Politics/Economics

Washington State loves booze and gambling and the taxable revenue that follows. In the latest effort to encourage the former business, the state government has recently legalized the legendary beverage absinthe and reduced a distillery license from $2000 per year to $100 annually. A similar move in policy many years ago launched the state’s successful micro-brewery and boutique winery businesses.

Now, I have little against such businesses. In fact, I’m a connoisseur of artisan wines and beer. What gets my goat, whatever that means, is policy makers seem content with further relaxation of regulations around a known dangerous drug while continuing a nonsensical “zero tolerance” policy regarding less harmful substances. In the case of absinthe, there are two dangerous substances, alcohol and thujone. The harmful effects of alcohol are well documented and include interesting side effects such as brain atrophy if abused heavily. It is one of the few drugs of abuse known to cause brain damage in humans. Thujone is a psychoactive chemical found in wormwood which is used as an additive in absinthe. Seattle based KOMO 5 evening news misreported the effects of this ingredient as being “largely mythical and non-hallucinogenic.” Not surprising given the utter lack of technical knowledge and research ineptitude of local journalists. However, research published in Neuropharmachology reports inhibitory action on GABA receptors and the serotonin system [1]. This may explain the subjective reports of stimulant like effects at low doses and hallucinogenic effects at high doses. Historically, absinthe is thought to cause a form of drug induced delirium after prolonged and habitual use. However, it is difficult to separate the effects of thujone and alcohol, which is known to cause persistent delirium after years of abuse.

Meanwhile, lawmakers and journalists continue to demonize other substances such as LSD and cannabis which have not been shown to be neurotoxic, or physically toxic for that matter even at quite high doses (note, as with everything, a lethal dose does exist). In fact, THC and other oils found in street marijuana, have been found to be neuroprotective [2]. Why do we continue to reduce restrictions on dangerous drugs and put people in jail for years for possession of less harmful drugs? Certainly, the effects pf a drug play a part. Alcohol makes one gregarious and potentially agitated or violent, qualities that ‘gel’ with the American culture. On the other hand, LSD is subjectively spiritual and therefore taboo. Only trained authorities, the priesthood, are to commune with extra-physical forces. Our fear of such substances hearkens from our puritan heritage and the control over society and individuals it desires. This will take some effort to change.

For now, I’d be content for reporters to just begin getting the facts strait on this topic.

[1]: Deiml T, Haseneder R, Zieglgaensberger W, Rammes G, Eisensamer B, Rupprecht R, Hapfelmeier G. “Alpha-thujone reduces 5-HT3 receptor activity by an effect on the agonist-reduced desensitization”. Neuropharmacology. 2004;46(2):192-201

[2]: Cannabidiol and (?)?9-tetrahydrocannabinol are neuroprotective antioxidants, A. J. Hampson, M. Grimaldi, J. Axelrod, and D. Wink, Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1998 July 7; 95(14): 8268–8273.

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Capitalism and Sustainability

by on Jul.11, 2008, under Philosophy, Politics/Economics

As a somewhat radical leftist I often argue with associates, typically in a friendly context, regarding the semantics of “freedom” within the domain of archetypal political/economic systems such as capitalism versus socialism. An argument often delivered by proponents of capitalism is that a person should have the freedom to own resources and modify them into consumables for a net profit if that is what satisfies them in life. I argue to the contrary on the grounds that this process is inherently exploitative and therefore eventually oppressive with respect to others. Ultimately, it is detrimental to the exploiters themselves. The point expressed here is not purely my own but a product of my own ideas and others via casual conversation.

To begin I’ll borrow a model put forth by a friend that simply states, “one key failure of the current incarnation of the market economy is the failure to integrate all the factors contributing to the ‘cost’ of a product intended for consumption.” For instance, a simple supply vs demand model does not include the cost of resources from private property such as timber. The cost of extraction my be included but perhaps not the cost of the water used to replant the trees. This in of itself is not a criticism of capitalism per say but rather appeals to one to acknowledge that we have not developed models sophisticated enough to properly price consumables. As a result, the system is entropic or “leaky.”

I propose that if a realistic value was applied to all variables within the consumption chain the system would prove to be unsustainable given the current rate of consumption. That is, the current incarnation of capitalism depends on unchecked exploitation of resources or the inequitable exchange of resources at some point in the chain. A system that included the cost for items not currently valued or undervalued would cease to yield a net profit for the capitalist and then capitalism crumbles.

On this train of thought there are two destinations. First, capitalism can continue along the current course and over the long term, if you buy my argument, the system will collapse either exhausting a key undervalued resource(s), or decay into something resembling an oligarchy where only an elite class have access to a comfortable lifestyle by today’s standards. The lack of scientific valuation of key resources has consequences visible in the speculative oil price run-up of late. Additionally, the largest corporations already represent something of an oligarchy in terms of their influence over the lives of large populations.

The alternative is striving for a more accurate valuation of resources and scaling back lifestyles accordingly. If a net profit is still possible in areas of this new model then capitalism may still survive. This view is held by many who favor further privatization, believing that approach will lend itself to more accurate valuation. However, at least by appealing to my own intuition and knowledge of closed systems, I fail to see how that could be possible. Using the first law of thermodynamics as a rough analogy, resources(energy) can change hands(form) indefinitely but there’s no net increase(profit) in the system. This, along with some humanist reasoning, is why I favor systems based on cooperation as opposed to exploitation.

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