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February 22 - 26, 1999

Tuesday, February 23, 1999

Moving mountains

If you drive across the Golden Bridge and head north along the coast, you find that you are not merely traveling somewhere out in the country. You have reached a different country. In this part of California, by necessity, natural surroundings influence everyday activities to a degree that many San Franciscans find extreme.

Wild creatures far outnumber human beings, as Alfred Hitchcock --- ever the consummate urbanite --- made menacingly clear in The Birds. During a recent, less threatening visit, I looked out of a window in Inverness and watched a solitary great white heron stalk through the thick mud on slender stick-legs. A dozen plump black coots clustered just offshore, flipping water over their shoulders in an impromptu communal bath. Similarly, David Mitchell, editor and publisher of the Point Reyes Light, acknowledges putting out seeds to feed the birds while he cooks breakfast in his cabin on the other side of Tomales Bay. "By now, I've got them on my feeding schedule, which is fine except on weekends when I get up late."

Although Hitchcock's fears may have been exaggerated in order to arouse our own, not all the elements in this rural setting are as benign as my heron and coots. Mitchell's whimsical comment about his hungry visitors contrasts with his somber description of a recent storm that flooded fields, stranded residents, and sent fallen tree trunks rushing down the overflowing creeks. This is usually an area where police reports make good comic reading: "A woman staying along Highway 1 said her brother had tried to hit her, but he was now on the porch." But when the heavens open up and threaten to wash the earth away, the sheriff often provides the only source of comfort for isolated, lonely people. Mitchell notes that in the course of the storm, the Sheriff's Office received two improbable complaints, which became comprehensible once the deputies realized the callers "just wanted someone to talk to."

The point is that, in a place like Point Reyes, the "there" that gives the region its character is always there. Turn your back on the hills and you face the ocean. Close the door and you hear the sighing of the wind. And always, at every bend in the road, Tomales Bay appears, stretching softly --- even in the most treacherous gales --- past marshlands and cow-dotted pastures.

It's like Mount Fuji. You've seen the prints by Hokusai and Hiroshige where workmen stack wood in an Edo lumberyard while Fuji rises in the distance, framed by tall columns of boards; where crowds fill a bustling Edo shopping district while the mountain juts up through the clouds behind it, hovering like a floating anchor at the end of the street. Everywhere you look, the mountain is there. But unlike the northern California coast, the city that these prints depict was already a world-class metropolis larger than San Francisco.

And Fuji-san was an intentional part of its skyline, just as traditional Japanese gardens incorporated features outside their borders as "borrowed landscapes." In contrast to old European cities, where the surrounding walls and open central plazas draw residents' attention inward, many Asian cities look outward, emphasizing the inevitable links that exist between urban and rural areas. Japanese scholars have reconstructed old maps of Edo to show that streets through the busiest districts were laid out so that the people there had a clear view of Fuji. And this ancient volcano, located many miles to the west, remained an integral part of modern Tokyo's mental and physical landscape. Its disappearance from view was probably as crucial as any health hazard in the city's decision to clean up its heavily polluted air in the 1970s.

Japan doesn't have a particularly stellar environmental record. In general, it --- like most places --- tends to wait until an urgent need disrupts the smooth functioning of daily life before it rouses itself to action. Nevertheless, Mount Fuji's distinctive shape seems to mark the pages of the Worldwatch Institute's latest edition of State of the World. Published on the eve of a new millennium, the book takes a long-range look at the world we inhabit, looking for detailed, specific, and heavily annotated data to describe the paths we've taken and the ones we are now following.

State of the World echoes the other doomsday prophecies that have been adding titillation to the end of the 20th century: "With the final closing of the remaining frontiers and the creation of a fully interconnected global economy, the human race as a whole has reached the kind of turning point that the Easter Islanders reached in the sixteenth century." It shoots down the arguments of pollyannas who would rely on the spread of improved technological capacities to raise standards of living. If, for example, the western model of consumption and production goes global, recent research suggests, by the year 2050 the present 501 million cars on the road will grow to 5 billion. Imagine the fuel consumption. Imagine the exhaust fumes. Imagine the fights for parking spaces. Other research shows that in order to provide the world's projected population of 10 billion people in 2050 with a standard fat-rich, meat-based American-style diet, we will have to engage in a little cloning, creating four Planet Earths to grow the necessary 9 billion tons of grain.

For a book laden with gloomy information, this one ends on an astonishingly optimistic note. In fact, technology --- combined with public policy and education and good common sense --- may save us after all. The key is to recognize the interrelationships that move each individual act out into the rest of the world in ever-widening spheres of action and reaction. In other words, to see Fuji --- or Tomales Bay --- at the edge of every city. The watchword is "sustainability." The guide is Local Agenda 21, the concept of cooperative community strategies that emerged from the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The choice is ours. (To be continued tomorrow)

The Worldwatch Institute maintains a Web site at

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1999

Wednesday, February 24, 1999

Not easy being green

How on earth did the guardians of open spaces acquire a monopoly on environmental improvement?

At a flashy press conference held Monday against the sunlit backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge, Senator Barbara Boxer and Representative George Miller braved Bay Area winds to announce an innovative proposal to restore everything from urban parks to ocean fish and wildlife. Resources 2000 is a long-overdue plan, put together to secure both passage and funding in the energized environment of the post-impeachment Congress. City officials like Michael Yaki are salivating at the possibility of finally finding the money to make much-needed repairs on local parks.

But who is watching out for my environment --- the house I live in, the car I drive, the sidewalks under my feet? Not, apparently, the City of San Francisco. In a region that has produced a bumper crop of professional environmentalists as well as a host of knowledgeable citizens groups, the mere mention of the word "sustainability" still summons images of tree huggers and the oh-so-California land of fruits and nuts.

Take a look at some recent history.

In 1992, the United Nations sponsored an "earth summit" in Rio de Janeiro that proposed a pragmatic problem-solving approach to various practices damaging the health of the earth and its inhabitants. The group devised a working framework called Agenda 21, which suggested that change is easiest at the local level, where the players know one another and the nitty-gritty nuances of the issues they face. In this case, economies of scale meant beginning small and comparing notes with others in similar situations elsewhere.

The program set off a series of wake-up calls around the world. In the exhilaration that followed, local groups --- most notably in the United Kingdom --- organized to develop usable strategies. When the San Francisco Board of Supervisors established a Commission on the Environment in 1993, veteran environmentalists such as Planet Drum's Peter Berg welcomed this official platform for the new kind of green city they envisioned. Concord reigned: the commission called for a community-based steering committee to guide its plan, and about 400 people volunteered.

They must have felt that they were making history as they consulted experts and argued among themselves, seeking realistic short- and long-term goals that could markedly improve the lives of the city's citizens. And in July 1997, when the 150-page comprehensive Sustainability Plan for the City of San Francisco came before the Board of Supervisors, it created quite a stir.

Yes, it did. The Chronicle, which announced that the "serious, sober document...contains just enough eccentric ideas to feed a widely held notion that San Francisco sometimes gets lost in its own fog," got lost in a fog of irresponsibly chosen details to describe a silly futuristic city where "the friendly neighborhood liquor store stocks soy milk and tofu...and those pesky feral cats have long been eliminated --- humanely, of course." George Will, who flew in to look over the terrain, worried that reducing the public use of perfumes out of consideration for people with allergies was "symptomatic of contemporary liberalism's aspiration to use the reduction of life's risks as the rationale for minutely monitoring --- and improving --- the behavior and consciousness of individuals." Rush Limbaugh, in a more frugal turn of phrase, simply called the plan "eco-totalitarianism."

But the city was committed. The mayor heralded the plan with a near-dictionary definition of "sustainability": "All of us have the responsibility to improve our community's quality of life and ensure a beautiful, healthy and prosperous city for the generations that follow." A brand new Department of the Environment joined the bureaucratic roster, with former Sustainable City executive director Beryl Magilavy at its head.

A year and a half later, in August 1998, Magilavy resigned. She said, "I came to the conclusion that I could be more effective outside the administration than inside," noting that the department's funding of $300,000 a year was insufficient for its mandate from the city charter: "You can just look at the budget; it speaks for itself."  Magilavy added later, in a speech to California community planners, that the "key to implementation of any sustainability action plan is the support of the local power base."

Now, eight months later, the city is finally beginning to resume its position as an environmental warrior. According to Chris Chow, secretary of the Commission on the Environment, the appointment of a new director will be announced within a week. The revamped Board of Supervisors is donning a brighter shade of green as Tom Ammiano's office reconsiders Susan Leal's old program for resource-efficient building. Sustainable City, with Magilavy back in charge, is renewing its outside pressure on the walls of City Hall.

After such a promising start, what happened? Was it a start composed merely of promises? Or did San Francisco suddenly fret about its flaky image?

Surely, the rumors of "higher taxes, tolls and fees" weren't taken seriously. Critics who do their homework know that "sustainable" practices save money, not just endangered species. Success stories have sprung up everywhere. In Tokyo, where seasonal rains flooded the streets every year, the city constructed rainwater collection tanks on the top of 579 municipal buildings, not only creating a new source of water for its toilets and air-conditioners but also saving the hefty cost of rebuilding its sewer system. In Sweden, where carbon and sulfur emissions threatened the quality of the air, the government shifted part of the tax burden onto the polluters, cleaning up the atmosphere at the same time that it reduced personal income taxes.

My suspicion is that San Franciscans have been lulled into complacency by the spectacular scenery that surrounds the city and sets the tone for its more flattering public image. Like Boxer and Miller, they think the bay and the parks are our environment. On a clear day, maybe they are. But when you're stuck in traffic or reading your PG&E bill, you might wish someone was paying more attention to the environment closer to home.
Sustainable City maintains a Web site at

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1999

Friday, February 26, 1999

And the beat goes on

Wonderful World of Disney: Two weeks ago, as Disney's investors prepared to meet in Seattle on February 23 for the company's annual shareholders meeting, I reported on worker maltreatment in the company's Megatex factory in Haiti. The day before the meeting, a new report by the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee (HKCIC) uncovered widespread abuses at Disney's Chinese factories.

The eight-month investigation, based on interviews with dozens of Chinese workers from four factories, found that factory managers routinely violate both Chinese labor laws and Disney's own Code of Conduct for Manufacturers with respect to overtime, pay and contracts.

Workers at one factory reported that they regularly work 16-hour days, seven days a week during peak production times, despite Chinese labor laws that establish a maximum 49-hour work week. In one factory, employees couldn't afford to go home for the Chinese New Year because they hadn't been paid in three months. Workers at all the investigated factories complained about mandatory overtime and minuscule wages; at one factory, workers are paid only 10 cents above their standard wage for five hours of overtime. And at all the factories, workers are forced to pay the management "deposits" and "entrance fees" just to be able to work. Employees at one factory lose their deposit if they do not stay on the job for at least two years, and at another, workers must pay a monthly "tool deposit."

Workers at the four plants earn between 13.5 and 36 cents an hour, depending on the production schedule. Independent research groups in Hong Kong say a wage earner must make 87 cents an hour to meet the basic survival needs of a small family in a major Chinese city.

Many of the worker protections in Disney's code --- including provisions covering overtime and distribution of the code to workers --- are rarely enforced. Human rights activists say the HKCIC report demonstrates that Disney's code is virtually meaningless. A shareholder resolution that mirrors many of the demands from human rights groups was to be introduced at the meeting by a group of religious and socially responsible investors who hold more than 1 million shares of Disney stock. The investors want Disney to agree to independent monitoring of its factories, establish a sustainable living wage policy, and report regularly to investors about the pace of workplace improvements.

With the newest runaway, Levi Strauss, about to utilize its loudmouthed nominal progressivism as it muscles in on the offshore sweatshop front, look for much consternation within Walt's worldwide theme park.


* * *

Et tu, Colombia: Also detailed here a fortnight ago were the January additions to the growing toll of attacked and murdered Colombian labor leaders (more than 90 killed in 1998 alone). Yesterday, as many as half a million workers, angry about high unemployment, high taxation and low wages, were expected to take to the streets in the nation's largest cities in protest against the economic policies of President Andres Pastrana.

"We are taking to the streets because the neoliberal government policies, privatizations, inflation and a lack of jobs are slowly killing us," said Luis Garzon, president of the Central Labor Union (CUT), an umbrella group representing dozens of labor groups. CUT has been organizing for a general strike against Pastrana, who took office August 7, since October.

Union leaders say the Pastrana administration failed to fulfill several agreements signed with labor in October, and that emergency economic measures taken over the past months have resulted in increased unemployment and have pushed several hospitals to the verge of bankruptcy.

Unemployment in 1999 could surpass the 15.6 percent reported last year in Colombia's seven largest cities, according to the National Association of Financial Institutions (ANIF). Union leaders counter that the unemployment rate is at 18 percent. Colombia's economy crept ahead by an anemic 0.2 percent in 1998, its worst performance in almost 70 years, according to government figures.

It's the sort of global update you might find useful, had the proprietors of the local daily blatts already not determined that Prez Bluebeard's foreign policy speech here today would be more beneficial.


* * *

There's no need to deprive ourselves of the bright side, however: Recently, the student movement against university/college complicity in sweatshop abuses has become more militant and appears to have won some significant victories.

Twenty-one Duke University students ended a 31-hour sit-in at the office of the university president on January 30 after agreeing with Duke's administration on a plan to help insure that apparel bearing Duke's name is not made in sweatshops. The students were protesting Duke's plans to sign a code of conduct with the Collegiate Licensing Company that would not have required full disclosure of the names and addresses of factories that make products carrying the Duke name.

Collegiate licensing is a multibillion dollar windfall of globalism. University and college administrations sell companies the right to put their school logo on clothing, banners, coffee mugs and other paraphernalia.

At the University of Wisconsin, UW Chancellor David Ward declared that the university would not sign onto a CLC code of conduct without full public disclosure and would agree to sign a modified version of the Duke statement regarding subcontractors' names, locations, and addresses. Students at Georgetown who had been occupying the president's office wrested a similar agreement from the administration, and students at four Ivy League schools demanded that university officials adopt a policy to ensure that licensed apparel is produced in factories that pay workers a living wage and give them the right to unionize, and that provisions against forced labor, child labor and unsafe working conditions be included.

This new militancy traces its roots to the summer of 1998, when students from a number of campuses formalized their work by founding United Students Against Sweatshops. Meanwhile, the companies which use the services of the CLC to broker licensing deals on more than 160 campuses prevailed upon the CLC to counteract the student anti-sweatshop movement. The CLC wrote its own code, along the lines of that brilliant sieve of an agreement produced by the White House task force on sweatshops, the Apparel Industry Partnership. Reportedly, the Clinton administration recently invited key college and university presidents to the White House to urge them to opt for the CLC code, and as some university administrations moved to adopt the CLC code, students responded in kind.

Clinton today plans to discuss the effects of the global economy on Americans, and I'm sure he'll explain it all to our satisfaction.

--- Copyright John Hutchison 1999

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