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November 2 - 6, 1998

Tuesday, November 3, 1998

Where's Waldo?

Ray Anderson has seen the light. CEO of the largest commercial floor covering producer in the world, Anderson is leading an eco-industrial crusade, battling unremittingly against waste and charging his employees to develop manufacturing processes that require "no smokestacks and no sewer pipes." U.S. environmentalists intone his name with reverence. They especially love to recount the story of his Evergreen program, where customers subscribe to what is essentially a closed-loop service, in which Interface installs their carpet tiles, replaces them as they wear out, and recycles the old ones back into the creation of new ones. Happy customers. No synthetics to push up the mountain of landfill. Nice profits for Interface, Inc.

Anderson is only one warrior in a new worldwide campaign to establish successful sustainable businesses. Programs are popping up everywhere, offering case studies and advice that will enable corporations to improve their bottom line while preserving the environment. The key word is "sustainable" --- in recent years, consultants like Berkeley-based Gil Friend have started to insist on "doing it right the first time," not just cleaning up afterward.

Friend, the director of an environmental management group, has developed a system of EcoAudits to help his clients --- who include Monsanto, Odwalla and the Nature Company --- design their own strategies. His dream is a "regional metabolism analysis" program that would allow companies and governments to plan local development by interacting with a comprehensive database, where they could link --- for example --- changes in a specific manufacturing procedure with probable changes in environmental cleanup costs, or a reduction in workforce sizes with potential increases in homelessness.

Friend and many of his counterparts throughout the country advocate the principles contained in the Natural Step framework developed in Sweden about a decade ago, when an oncologist named Karl-Henrik Robèrt began to despair of the band-aid nature of most solutions to environmental problems. In 1989 every Swedish household found in its mailbox a document compiled by Dr. Robèrt and 50 other scientists offering a consensus description of how the earth works and how we humans affect its functioning. Their goal was to establish a "shared mental model" that could serve as a base for intelligent planning and development by --- according to the web-site self-description --- "business corporations, municipalities and other organizations." The movement surged into acceptance when the king himself recognized its value. Business and political leaders began to troop into Natural Step workshops, and workers educated in its methods found themselves in strategy sessions where they could contribute helpful hands-on understanding. The Natural Step arrived on American shores in 1995 in the form of a book, The Ecology of Commerce, by Paul Hawken and gradually made its way west, as many North American movements seem to, until it came to rest in San Francisco, at the Thoreau Center for Sustainability in the Presidio.

The Natural Step and Gil Friend have hooked up again --- along with organizations like the California Integrated Waste Management Board and Business for Social Responsibility --- as members of Future 500, a visionary "network of people and companies" that seeks to guide us from our old industrial economy that "multiplies human muscle" to a new knowledge-based economy that "expands the human mind." Future 500 is also in the workshop business, the latest being an event to be held in Palo Alto on November 5 where participants can examine the measurement system it has developed, in conjunction with Mitsubishi Electric and Nike, to ensure that sustainability will actually engender profits.

This is heady stuff, and you can almost hear Mother Earth breathing a little easier. But at the same time, Waldo Worker must be sighing in frustration, because these passionate crusaders are operating under the hoary assumption that "Whatever's good for General Motors is good." They seem to foresee an odd trickle-down effect, where cleaner water and less garbage will close the widening wage gap, provide universal health insurance, and generally improve the standard of living of most working Americans.

If all this energy simply results in the same tired old solutions, perhaps we're asking the wrong questions. Maybe it's time for a new approach. This is exactly what Dan Swinney proposes in Building the Bridge to the High Road, with the quiet assurance of someone who has worked out a position after years of sometimes disappointing experience. A turret lathe operator who had led a successful Steelworkers organizing drive at Taylor Forge in Cicero, Illinois, Swinney discovered that even the strongest union could not prevent the plant from closing. To save their jobs, the workers needed a strong countervailing business plan, but they lacked the knowledge to construct one. With the wisdom built from hindsight, Swinney and other Steelworkers joined forces with Chicago political activists and academics to found the Midwest Center for Labor Research in 1982 for the purpose of averting similar losses to the community in the future. And over time, they became very good at assessing the health of companies and finding ways to save them.

Swinney presents a revolutionary vision for America held together with pragmatic glue. The economy will flourish, he argues, only if cities can preserve a strong industrial base. And they can, if those most directly affected --- the workers and the community --- are willing to assume responsibility for the operation of local enterprises. They will succeed if they enter wholeheartedly into the venture, arming themselves with a thorough knowledge of how the business world works and insisting on their right to sit as equals at decision-making tables. In order to protect their own interests, they will have to rethink long-held class antagonisms, accepting alliances with corporate leaders who follow the "high road" of strong productivity but showing no mercy to corporations that exist simply for speculation. The result will be --- not now, but perhaps in 20 or 30 years --- a proud new breed of worker-entrepreneurs all across the country. The plan has already begun to work, perhaps most notably in the Brach and Brock Confection Company on the West Side of Chicago. How sweet it is.

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1998


Wednesday, November 4, 1998

The rites of autumn

Toward the end of October, the light grows thin and the nights come early. The ancient Celts believed that this was the time when chaos descended upon the villages of humans. Graves yawned wide, spewing out the restless spirits of the dead, the malign and the benign, to perform unearthly errands on the earth. The nurturing sun god fell into the clutches of Samhain, lord of the darkness and the dead, not to reappear until the end of December. And the icy wails of the crone Cailleach sliced through the gray air, hinting at confusion and impending mayhem.

On any night the streets of the Tenderloin are eerily dark, and last Saturday was no exception. The few shops and restaurants that broke the monotony of the gated apartment houses spilled little light onto the sidewalks, and the streetlights offered strangely cold illumination. Everywhere shadowy figures, made more mysterious by their lack of features, gathered in groups to talk or mellow out on a variety of substances. But on this particular night, they stepped aside and watched the passage of smaller, equally mysterious figures --- at least 500 of them, ninjas and pumpkins and princesses and ghouls, even a box of McDonald's fries --- whose happy voices lit up the night.

Halloween came to the Tenderloin in full official regalia this year, with orange and black helium-filled balloons bobbing invitingly outside decorated doorways. The project began tentatively last year as the idea of apartment manager Jim Thompson, a large, soft-spoken man with fond memories of his own trick-or-treat escapades. But this year the holiday seemed to take on a life of its own, beginning with a party at Boedekker Park sponsored by the Tenderloin Task Force (where --- until the rain let up --- it looked like most of the guests had come as SFPD cops). Then it drifted, along with the kids and their mothers, down the streets and into nearby stores and residences that had amassed an ample stock of candy. A black-clad witch welcomed visitors at the Senator, and a sorceress in blue and gold at 201 Turk. The broad lobby of the Alexander, with its mauve-covered chairs and flowered couches, turned into a palace draped with cobwebs and studded with pumpkins. Down on McAllister, the Church of Scientology proudly piled its own pumpkins high in front of the entrance. And lighted jack-o-lanterns appeared in countless apartment windows.

In Europe long ago, November marked the end of the harvest, when farmers gathered up the abundance of their fields and made ready for the barren winter. Housewives tidied their cottages with special care, filling the interiors with the comforting fragrance of newly baked bread and cakes. Some families placed a light on the windowsill as a beacon for departed loved ones. Some ventured outside, forging a chain of dancers around a bonfire to frighten off the otherworldly Sidhe folk and offering sacrifices to appease the vengeful dead.

In the Mission, 24th Street provides an avenue of perpetual light, bustling with markets and shops that stay open until all hours of the evening. But last Monday a pall fell over the lively street as about 15,000 marchers gathered for El Dia de los Muertos. All boundaries disappeared in the chilly night: bystanders wandered into the procession and back onto the sidelines; single musicians coalesced into groups; Spanish and English flowed interchangeably. People quite ordinary from behind suddenly turned and became the walking dead, as chalky white faces caught the moonlight and eyes disappeared into empty black sockets.

Around a huge pretzel-shaped path this creation of the Mission Cultural Center traveled, funneling tightly at last into mural-lined Balmy Alley. Frenzied dancers pressed closer to one another, and discrete drumbeats fused into one complex rhythm. Tired bearers staggered onto the muddy surface of Garfield Park, determinedly carrying their palanquins and giant crosses to their final destination. Altars in each corner of the park glowed with candles and flowers. And over them all a heavy cloud rose slowly --- weighted with the scent of marigolds and marijuana, tobacco and incense, and especially the cruel aroma of copal --- to commune with the dead. A wisp floated sorrowfully toward Central America.

When the last bushel of potatoes was stowed away and the last tart had finished baking, each Celtic family carefully smothered the flames blazing on its hearth, stirring the ashes until they cooled. Throughout the long night, the houses sat quietly, swathed in darkness. As the first pale light announced the new day, priests reached into the communal bonfire and pulled out bright orange embers, sanctified by the ceremonies surrounding them. There was one for each household, to be carried home and deposited on the empty hearthstones, to light a new fire for cooking and for warmth, and to ward off evil spirits. The old year had ended. The new year was beginning.

Yesterday morning the lobby of the Veterans Building was nearly deserted. City officials walked purposefully toward the elevators as six men and women hunched over white portable alcoves inscribed in English and Chinese, laboriously punching holes in a long and complicated ballot. On the steps outside, a TV camera filmed a gathering of the Coalition for Immigrant Rights as speakers argued in several languages --- over the incessant din of traffic and jackhammers --- that discriminatory citizenship procedures had prevented two million potential voters from participating in the day's ritual. Across the street, behind City Hall, one crew was digging trenches for new irrigation pipes while another energetically uprooted olive trees for transplanting elsewhere in the city. New turf, lots of it is the prescription for the west end of the park. Lots of open space, implementing a different kind of Sunshine Ordinance. And down Van Ness, on the steps of the Opera House, sat a slim Caribbean woman, newly homeless, with tears rolling down her face as she clutched her copies of the Street Sheet. Election Day, 1998.

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1998

Friday, November 6, 1998

Splitting while ahead

The moral of the story is never, I say never, tell anyone for whom you voted. A friend demanded disclosure of my selection the next day. Sadly, I acquiesced. When he found out that I, under protest, voted for Barbara Boxer, well, there was hell to pay.

He takes it all so personally: "My estimation of you, Bellingham, has gone down ten notches. A pity that great minds sometimes just don't think."

Personal attack: last refuge of a desperate reactionary.

Truth is, the Republicans deserved to lose --- and I even resent them for not providing a better candidate. Boxer was eminently beatable. The GOP could have run Pee Wee Herman against her and won. But no, they picked a vascillating chap who dropped his equivocation for a moment only to give $50,000 to that queer-baiting, Jew-hating Rev. Lou Sheldon (I used to cover Sheldon when I was a radio reporter as he'd bus in his followers from the wastelands of Orange County to confront the gays in hopes of starting riots in downtown San Francisco.)

This spat with my colleague reminds me of a Bellingham family scandal that goes back to the presidential election of 1936. My grandfather and grandmother got into a fight --- as they often did --- this time on on Election Day.

My grandmother stormed out of the house.

When she returned, she announced defiantly she had cast her vote for Norman Thomas, the Socialist candidate. My grandfather and grandmother didn't speak to each other for months.

(I think it was 1936. Thomas ran for president in every election from 1928 through 1948.)

The question remains: Does the lackluster performance by the Republicans signify a backlash against the Starr investigation or was it a simple matter of local issues prevailing? One way or the other, the White House is seizing the moment as evidence that voters are sick of the Monica Matter and really have little interest in the impeachment process. It's even being suggested that Mr. Clinton will refuse to undergo a censure or any other congressional penalty for his wanton deeds.

Some Republicans --- and even some Democrats --- are adamant. They want some kind of punitive action. Perhaps a demotion. Perhaps the President will no longer be called the "commander-in-chief" but busted down to "Captain Fellatio Hornblower."

Sorry about that. I'm such a putzhead.

I love voting. It's good, clean fun, though the registrar might consider capuccinos and croissants for the a.m. voter --- canapes and white wine for the p.m. constituency. Maybe some live music, too. Just a jazz trio. Nothing elaborate. The musicians could use the work and the electorate could use the respite from the stress of the process and the ghastly realization that the names on the ballot might actually soon hold office.

Not surprisingly, there was a paucity of analysis in the races --- both locally and nationally. It was more like a sports event. Any number of candidates: "Well, we're happy we won but now we have to go forward and carry through with our mandate."

Same sound bite as heard in the locker room: "Well, it was a tough battle but the fans are behind us and we have to concentrate now on Green Bay..."

The Body Politic: One of the more interesting outcomes was in Minnesota where a former professional wrestler, running on the Reform Party gubernatorial ticket, defeated both the son of the Happy Warrior, Hubert Humphrey, and the Republican challenger.

Minnesota had always maintained a reputation for progressive politics --- always at the vanguard of civil rights, etc.

KCBS morning announcer Al Hart --- who is a Minnesotan son --- sighed, "I'm glad my sister, the consummate politico, isn't around to see this."

In a victory speech, Jesse "The Body" Ventura evoked his heroes, Muhammad Ali and the U.S. hockey team that went to the Olympics. Conspicuously, he did not pay homage to Haystacks Calhoun nor Hombre Montana.

Though Ventura's half nelson days are apparently behind him, it is clear the voters were afraid not to vote for "The Body."

Thanks to Roy Rivenburg of the LA Times, we may avail ourselves of this timely headline from the Weekly World News: "Abe Lincoln Was the Father of Professional Wrestling! He Wore Outrageous Costumes and Trapped Opponents in the Lincoln Leglock!"

From splitting rails to splitting hairs, I always believed that tractor-pull competitions were invented so professional wrestling fans have someone to look down on.

--- Copyright Bruce Bellingham 1998

Bruce Bellingham is a San Francisco journalist and author. His new book, Bellingham by the Bay, is a collection of his recent observations on the city. (bellsf@sirius.com)


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