Saturday, January 16, 2010

Helping and Holding On in Haiti

This photo from the LA Times suggests that in the midst of enormous tragedy and extreme emotions and situations, the struggle for many in Haiti is to live through these days the best they can. While estimates of the dead now vary from 140,000 to 200,000, the leading edge of the massive aid began reaching Haitians on Friday. Dangerous and difficult rescue of survivors still in the rubble has been in some ways the simplest task, with still a dire shortage of doctors, medicine and facilities, and the stores of water and food had not reached many of the needy. Some of the logistical slowness is hard to understand to an outsider--why weren't more trained medical personnel on that aircraft carrier? Why aren't supplies and personnel parachuting in? But while there has been some violence, I heard one (black) U.S. general caution that people get a little too nervous about crowds of black people, and exaggerate the threat of widespread violence--as indeed turned out to be the case in New Orleans after Katrina, where there was much less crime than first reported. While many of the aid efforts now underway are nothing short of heroic, we all hope and pray things get a lot better Saturday.
(Here's another LA Times story--I like their reporting--that goes into the military's efforts, and why they didn't do air drops. Apparently a paratrooper on NPR suggested that troops could be dropped along with supplies to prevent rioting, but perhaps that was impractical, too.)
Late Saturday Update: Water, food and medical care reached more people on Saturday, and rescuers freed people who incredibly survived four days in the rubble, but the massive problems coupled with the massive influx of stuff still meant that distribution was still difficult and many needs were not yet being addressed. With some reports of looting and violence, but also with more soldiers and police to keep order, aid officials emphasized progress, with more progress expected Sunday and in succeeding days. Some were beginning to turn their attention to longer run needs, and as enormous as the immediate need is, there is a long haul ahead.

A Very Dangerous Game in Kennedy Country

The assassination of a young archduke of a European power and his wife by terrorist fanatics of the Black Hand, set off a chain reaction of war that became the Great War, the first world war that killed a generation of young men and led to millions of deaths from disease.

It doesn't always take something as titanic as a presidential election--or the stealing of the presidency--to end up wreaking incredible destruction. This Tuesday it could be a special election in Massachusetts for the U.S. Senate. According to polls and pols, the previously unthinkable could happen--the conservative Republican could win Senator Ted Kennedy's seat--a man who pledges to defeat the universal health care bill, what Kennedy described as the cause of his life. And thanks to the lack of any margin in the Senate, he would do just that.

A defeat of health care, after so much political capital has been spent on it, would be a devastating blow to Democrats and to the Presidency of Barack Obama. That of course is what has Republicans so excited. It's their Tea Party revolution, the functional overthrow of the elected government and the not really American, not white enough President! And it could very well begin a chain reaction that ends any hope for the future.

That may sound like alarmism, but all the dominoes are lined up. With the ability to filibuster and therefore defeat any major legislation, Republicans will kill not only health care but economic reform and stimulus, climate crisis legislation, nuclear weapons treaties, green energy, environmental protection and, in short, anything that Democrats or President Obama propose for the next three years or longer--not even because Republicans oppose it, but because their political enemies are for it. This is the definition of political party fanaticism. All for themselves, not a care for their country.

That's the state of this country right now--while the electorate that elected Obama sleeps, or indulges their frustrated fantasies of instant change, extremists have taken over the GOP with loud voices proclaiming outrageous lies, aided and comforted if not led by racists and cynical fanatics like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck--currently lambasting President Obama for trying to help Haiti's earthquake victims--and the smug ignorance and lies of stealth zealots like Sarah Palin, who don't care about facts or reality but only on imposing religious and political ideology, and making a personal fortune doing it.

You can describe them in various ways. Baby Bushcorps on steroids. Tools of corporations solely interested in feeding more millions to their billionaires. Possessed by ambition and their own unconscious wrath and destructiveness. Their blatant lies and obvious racism is chilling. Whatever you call them and however they are described, if unleashed they will lead the way to the new Dark Ages. And that isn't hyperbole. There is only so much time left to confront our growing problems before they overwhelm us.

The Democrats aren't blameless. The Dem candidate in MA, Martha Coakley, is by many accounts not a very good candidate, though she would be infinitely better as a Senator than her opponent. In general throughout the country, Democrats have not fielded very good candidates or made good appointments for the many vacancies resulting from Obama's election and cabinet appointments. Nor have they responded adequately to the economic pain and disquiet in the country, or to the shameless lies of the Rabid Right.

It's a perilous moment. Former Obama supporters, especially in the blogosphere, are engaged in various civil wars, including progressive contests that seem to be more about ego, marketing and glands than ideology, and more about ideological purity than a better if imperfect future. In Massachusetts as elsewhere, many Obama voters are withdrawn, nursing disappointment that the world hasn't changed in a year, and that Obama has chosen to try to make a real difference rather than go down gloriously in pure self-righteous flames.

But the sins of the Dems don't match the stakes. The stakes couldn't be higher. President Obama needs this election in Massachusetts, he needs the Haiti relief effort to succeed faster, and he needs to get health care done and out of the way. And then he needs to go on the offensive, and confront his opponents and their threats directly. What's going on in Washington now is often not very pretty and at times angers and disgusts us all, but the Republicans have no solutions.

The ugly genius of Republicans since Obama's elections, even more than in the Bush years, is to look into their souls and project their own tendencies onto their chosen enemies. They are fascists with all the respect for the truth that Orwell's Big Brother had, and so they call Obama and the Democrats fascists and Big Brother. They are racists who shout that they are the victims of racism, and they compare to the Holocaust a health care bill more modest than most civilized countries in the world, that gives some government control over a wasteful, unjust and inhumane private health care system that is wrecking small and large businesses as well as countless lives--as well as help for those who will otherwise suffer and die without minimum health care. That these people are even taken seriously demonstrates in chilling fashion our society's decadence and lack of maturity. That they are this close to effectively reversing the last election and taking power again, with a single election in a single state, is beyond frightening.

Few if any in America, and not many in Europe, knew anything about the Archduke Ferdinand. Europe was a well-armed tinderbox, but a world war wasn't inevitable. Most historians would probably now agree that World War II was mostly an extension of the Great War, and the Cold War was a result of World War II. It was a chain reaction that mauled the future of generations.

Now once again, what happens in a single state, in a special election nobody was paying much attention to until recently, on a single day, the day after a holiday, may lead to immense damage and suffering for generations, and possibly more than that.

The Democrats have woken up. President Clinton, very popular in the Commonwealth, is there. President Obama will go. Mrs. Edward Kennedy is more visible and audible there. I hope more of the Kennedy family joins her there as well. But the last word comes from the voters of Massachusetts. They can't afford to "send a message" or think it doesn't matter who wins.

That's the kind of non-thinking that got G.W. Bush so close to the White House that he could steal it. The divided progressives, the start-over/new face/ bright new product consumerist approach to elections, it's the same formula. And all we got then was at best a lost decade, the treasury raided by arms merchants and oil companies, a surplus to help prepare for the future turned into a deficit to cripple the future, one of the longest and most costly and unjustifiable wars in American history, official federal corruption including partisan political rule over the judiciary and the outing of our own intelligence agent working on terrorism, torture as a national policy, an attitude of let people die in New Orleans because they're black and Democrats, plans for more nuclear weapons and refusal to ratify nuclear proliferation and Climate Crisis treaties... and the list goes on.

Thanks to that little tremor in the national electorate in 2000, we'll be lucky to get out of this century alive. Another little tremor in Massachusetts on Tuesday will most probably set us on a course of foaming conflict that makes that getting-out-alive prospect considerably more remote.

But we can still come out of this, if Massachusetts steps up. Once the health care bill is a done deal, President Obama's State of the Union could be the time we turn the corner, and renew the focus and the hope that flowered last November, and--hard as it is to believe--only a year ago next week at the Inaugural in Washington.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Doomsday Postponed...Slightly

Today the Bulliten of Atomic Scientists moved back the minute hand on their famous doomsday clock, because of a "more hopeful state of world affairs," due to a "new era of cooperation is a change in the U.S. government’s orientation toward international affairs brought about in part by the election of Obama." The scientists have traditionally been concerned with nuclear weapons, and so--like the Nobel Prize Committee--they cited President Obama's efforts towards ridding the world of nuclear weapons.
But in recent years, the scientists--including 19 Nobel laureates-- also included the Climate Crisis in their calculations. So their statement said: "By shifting the hand back from midnight by only one additional minute, we emphasize how much needs to be accomplished, while at the same time recognizing signs of collaboration among the United States, Russia, the European Union, India, China, Brazil, and others on nuclear security and on climate stabilization."
Yet the change (only the 19th since the clock was established in 1947) was only one minute, and so the Doomsday Clock reads six minutes to midnight. Other news reminds us why: the world is not yet facing up to the likely rise in sea level of at least 7 feet over the next century, thanks in part to well-funded Climate Crisis deniers like U.S. Senator James Inhofe who complained that he was only #7 on Rolling Stone's list of the "planet's worst enemies." Inhofe insists he is #1. And apparently very proud of it.

"You Will Not Be Forsaken, You Will Not Be Forgotten"

With visible emotion, President Obama pledged this morning: "To the people of Haiti, we say clearly, and with conviction, you will not be forsaken; you will not be forgotten. In this, your hour of greatest need, America stands with you. The world stands with you."

Water, food, medicine, doctors and rescue personnel arrived all day to the only airport in Haiti, but travel is still extremely difficult because of devastated roads, and communication is still lacking. Rescue teams are working, and heavy equipment is arriving to clear or even create roadways. For the first time since the earthquake, there are runway lights at the airport so flights can land and take off at night. U.S. ships have begun arriving, and an aircraft carrier will arrive Friday with helicopters, supplies and U.S. Marines.

CNN reports that some 400 Americans have been flown out of Haiti, but many of the 40,000 or so Americans there are remaining to help with relief efforts. The Red Cross estimates some 50,000 deaths, including several UN personnel and at least one U.S. State Department worker. The Haitian governmental infrastructure remains practically nonexistent.

Friday update: This LA Times story tells the tale: airport and seaport damage, roads and other logistical problems mean aid is only slowly reaching those who need it. The weekend could be crucial.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Horror in Haiti

Haiti was devastated by a 7.0 earthquake, but relief efforts have begun--see the post below. Photo: by Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles Times, with this story.

Help Is On the Way

Those whose experience of disasters is mostly from disaster movies may be wondering why more wasn't being done Wednesday to respond to the utter catastrophe in Haiti, in the aftermath of a 7.0 earthquake plus numerous aftershocks in the 5. range. It certainly is horrible and tragic to see the dying and suffering continuing, and survivors mostly spending a second night sleeping on the streets.

But those of us here on the North Coast of CA, where we've been counselled that our Big One is inevitable (and where we got a scare on Saturday with a 6.5 offshore), know not to expect much help from the outside for the first 48 hours, even when we're within the U.S. That's the nature of catastrophic disasters. It takes time to get the resources organized and transported, and even to prepare to receive them.

In Haiti of course it is much, much worse. Vulnerable old buildings, poor public services, widespread poverty and overcrowding in the city of Port-au-Prince, all on an island. The earthquake destroyed what infrastructure there was, including all major government buildings. Many key people were killed or are missing. Roads are impassable. Electricity, water, telephones including cell phones, all down. Just communicating from one part of the city to another has been next to impossible.

But while relief workers already there (those who survived), including Doctors Without Borders, traveled on foot and worked with their bare hands to treat the wounded, and pull out survivors from the rubble, the U.S. federal government (as well as other countries, and states and even local governments, organizations and businesses with the U.S.) was working all night to mobilize resources and plan relief efforts. (Here are links to accounts of those first hours.)

The first task in Washington and especially in Haiti was assessing what resources were needed and how they could be marshaled and applied. When U. S. military teams arrived Wednesday afternoon, one of the first important efforts was to get the airport up and running, which required setting up air traffic control--the facilities there were destroyed.

On Thursday, the pictures from Haiti should start to look different, as help begins to stream in--and there is a lot of it on the way. It will pick up even more on Friday, when the ships start arriving--including an aircraft carrier loaded with helicopters, personnel, food and medicine.

President Obama is taking charge of "a swift, coordinated, and aggressive effort to save lives." Secretary of State Clinton and Secretary of Defense Gates are both returning from foreign trips to coordinate efforts. "... given the many different resources that are needed, we are taking steps to ensure that our government acts in a unified way," President Obama said Wednesday morning. "My national security team has led an interagency effort overnight. And to ensure that we coordinate our effort, going forward, I've designated the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Dr. Rajiv Shah, to be our government's unified disaster coordinator."

There will be more tragic news from Haiti over the next days, but there will also be help. In addition to massive and skilled aid from the U.S. and other governments, and the efforts of other organizations, individuals who wish to contribute to relief efforts can do so in many ways. Two sources of information on how are White and this page at the Rachel Maddow Show.

Monday, January 11, 2010

A Bengal tiger, like all tigers, rapidly disappearing from the wild. Today's UN declaration of an International Year of Biodiversity will try to focus attention and action, but is it too little too late? See post below.

Tigers R Us

In an Animal Planet poll, the world's favorite animal was the tiger. Hooray. Animals that humans have known since our species began, their range and numbers have dwindled since at least the 19th century. There were only about 100,000 left at the start of the 20th century. I remembered reading about them as endangered species in the early 70s. Today there may be as few as 2,000 in the wild, or as many as 3,500. Tiger, tiger burning out.

Tigers are the victims of land clearing and hunting for profit, giant pandas and monarch butterflies of urbanization, mountain gorillas of all of that plus human warfare in their remaining habitat, bluefin tuna of overfishing, and we know what's killing off the polar bear. And those are only six of the most endangered on the World Wildlife Fund watch list. There are hundreds, thousands more, including less glamorous lifeforms, like coral.

Today (Jan. 11) the United Nations launched the International Year of Biodiversity. The announcement was not exactly front page news in the U.S.--what could compete with Harry Reid's comment of more than a year ago, or Mark McGuire admitting he used sterioids in the 1990s? This is depressingly familiar when environment and the Climate Crisis are the topics: the Google News search will show you the BBC story, other European outlets, environmental sites and blogs, as well as Aljazeera, Xinhua and the Malaysian Insider. (The Wall Street Journal covered German Chancellor Merkel's remarks on the subject.)

Perhaps that's related, at both ends of causality, with the fact that experts, organizations and governments have decried species extinctions for decades and done very little about it. As Richard Black in the BBC story notes, "Eight years ago, governments pledged to reduce the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010, but the pledge will not be met."..

"The big opportunity during the International Year of Biodiversity is for governments to do for biodiversity what they failed to do for climate change in Copenhagen," said Simon Stuart, a senior science advisor to Conservation International and chair of IUCN's Species Survival Commission.

Black also notes something else that isn't new: With species extinctions running at about 1,000 times the "natural" or "background" rate, some biologists contend that we are in the middle of the Earth's sixth great extinction - the previous five stemming from natural events such as asteroid impacts.

The end of species signal the end of their habitat, principally forests that are torched and bulldozed away, lands and waters that are poisoned, but also climate-sensitive landscapes, waters and ice. Animals, insects, plants--that's biodiversity, too, the web of life that supports our existence.

So UN leaders spoke today of economic impacts, the numbers indicating the stupendous stupidity of this destruction. Black notes deforestation costs the global economy between $2 and $5 trillion a year. Earlier estimates of the world's ecosystems and "natural capital" placed their economic value conservatively at $33 trillion a year--when the total gross national product of the entire world is $18 trillion a year.

There is natural death for species and habitats. Sometimes sudden, more often over time. Even natural crashes can have devastating consequences for other species. This unnatural killing of biodiversity in general is suicide for humans as a life form. Before that happens, the economic costs will topple civilizations. Life would go on, without us.

There's more awareness of the problem, and more support for efforts to protect at least some species. But at this level of action it's not enough. Emotive photos and amazing motion pictures try to substitute for untold centuries of human interaction with animals and plants--the interactions that, in Paul Shepard's phrase, "made us human," but are now not even memories. But are these consciousness-raising efforts enough, strong enough, fast enough?

They're battling the conservatism of the comfortable, the interests of the monied and powerful, and science that only recently began to emerge from its unconscious assumptions, derived (so professor of psychology and ethnology Jordi Sabater Pi believed) from religions that preached that animals and nature were inferior and subservient to humans. Commenting on the near eradication of some of our closest genetic relatives, apes and chimpanzees (millions lived in Africa a century ago, 90% gone now), Dr. Pi said, "I believe that humanity is on the road to abolishing the mistreatment of animals, but when it finally makes it into legislation, there will not be any animals left in the wild to protect."

As for what this International Year can accomplish, Black writes that "the UN hopes some kind of legally-binding treaty to curb biodiversity loss can be agreed at the CBD summit, held in Japan in October." There's also an agreement on deforestation that looked as if it was a done deal at Copenhagen time, but mysteriously stalled. These could be significant, if they happen.

The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund and other organizations have for years been taking a direct approach: buying up vulnerable land--often in tropical forests where 40% of known species live--to preserve that biodiversity. What such relatively small measures will ultimately do is hard to figure. But Chancellor Merkel was right in linking biodiversity to the climate crisis. Their stories are related, and are going to be related, however they come out.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

An Obama Perspective on 2010

President Obama's five minute Saturday address is a good balance and a good tonic for all the skepticism (here and elsewhere) and pessimism about the coming year, as he talks about the economy and health care. A few takeaways: although unemployment is still growing, job losses in the last quarter of 2009 were one-tenth of those in the first quarter. And despite the phasing-in of elements of the health care bill, a lot will be provided in the first year, to make health insurance more available and affordable, less restrictive and more effective--including free preventive care.

And he ends with a hopeful New Year's message: "We enter a new decade, now, with new perils – but we’re going to meet them. It’s also a time of tremendous promise – and we’re going to seize it. We will rebuild the American Dream for our middle class and put the American economy on a stronger footing for the future. And this year, I am as hopeful and as confident as ever that we’re going to rise to this moment the same way that generations of Americans always have: as one nation, and one people." (If you'd rather scan the transcript, it's here.)

Update: The new CNN poll shows that by and large Americans are not buying the GOPers relentless fearmongering on terrorism. In fact, concern has gone down a tick from summer. While the President's approval rating on this is not as high as it should be--and would be in a less politically toxic environment--it is still at 65%.

These Are Our Leaders?

Now that we've had the official versions, several new 2008 campaign books are dishing the dirt. The provisos and cautions about one such book in this New York Times piece probably should be applied to others as well, but at least some of this high level gossip and revelations for a purpose (political or/and personal) has the ring of truth.

And it's about almost everyone: John (and Cindy) McCain, Sarah Palin, John and Elizabeth Edwards, Hillary and Bill Clinton. In addition to the above-cited piece, there's tidbits here , and here, and here, and here. To name a few.

The name conspicuous by its absence is Obama. Only friction between the presidential and VP campaigns has been reported.

But the stuff reported about the others--some of it tracking with stuff I read before, some just with my intuitions about these people--makes you wonder about the kind of people our current system insists on as political leaders. That as well as the latest self-serving craziness from Michael Steele and most of what we know about other GOPer leaders.

The only solace is that the sanest one of the bunch got elected President.