Monday, September 24, 2018

Why Take Pictures When Everyone is a Photographer?

Mexican Bird-of-Paradise
In 2005, for my final project in a Dreamweaver class, I used some of my own photographs in a redesigned website for The Cafe Irreal. Most of my classmates, who were tech savvy enough to learn to use complex software and to understand the basics of html and Javascript, were nonetheless unsure about how to put a photograph online. I told them that I took photos with my Yashica point-and-shoot film camera, had them developed, scanned them, then uploaded the jpegs produced by the scanner. Just thirteen years later, with sites like Flickr and Instagram allowing people to upload photos by the billions, it’s almost impossible to believe I was ever the photographer in the room.

And so in 2018, despite my experience in my long-ago Dreamweaver class, it has been difficult for me to convince myself to continue to take photos. It’s been over a year since I’ve posted any pictures on this blog, though at one time I enjoyed doing photo essays. And I can't help but have noticed the glut of selfies and the endless iterations of tourist photos of the same locations. A quick survey of the statistics regarding photos on the internet does little to encourage me to add my own images. Here’s just a sample of the truly awe-inspiring numbers involved:

Bernard Marr at Forbes, in an article called "How Much Data Do We Create Every Day? The Mind-Blowing Stats Everyone Should Read," says 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created each day, and “our current love affair with social media” is responsible for a significant amount of that. He then goes on to note that each day Snapchat users share 527,760 photos, Instagram users post 46,740 photos, and more than 300 million photos are uploaded to Facebook.

And those are not the only places you’ll find lots of photos. For example, there are the photos uploaded by the 75 million “registered photographers” on Flickr. In addition, there are more than 100 billion + pins per month on Pinterest, which usually contain images. What could I possibly photograph that would add anything to this huge influx of images from around the world? How can I motivate myself to take pictures when everyone is a photographer? There was a time when I posted my photos of Prague, but how can I feel that I’m adding valuable content when there are 843 pictures of Charles Bridge on Yelp alone?

At first I thought maybe I should buy a new camera – I’m still using the same Kodak digital camera I bought ten years ago – but then I ran across an article reminding me that it’s not the equipment that makes great photos happen, it’s the photographer. See “Why Your Camera Gear Doesn’t Matter” by Stacey Hill at Digital Photography School.

So I took the old Kodak out and took some pictures of Mexican Bird-of-Paradise in bloom in a beautiful array with wasps and bees and butterflies flitting around. And I came up with the photo at the top of this post, which has a nice bokeh background, and I remembered why I like to take pictures. So maybe I’m back…

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Mahoning River in 2017

At the end of my previous post on the Mahoning River, I quoted from Dr. Lauren Schroeder’s eloquent 1974 testimony to the EPA about the then-urgent need to clean up the river. Dr. Schroeder is a long-time advocate for the Mahoning and is now Professor Emeritus of the Biology Department at Youngstown State University. Though I arrived in Youngstown too late to hear any of his recent talks on “The Saga of the Mahoning,” on May 27 I actually got to speak with him by phone.
The Mahoning River near Girard, Ohio; photo taken in May of 2017
Dr. Schroeder told me that the river is generally much improved since the days when riverside communities dumped their sewage into it – which continued until the 1960s – and local industry used the river as a dump for waste products. (According to a brochure produced by Friends of the Mahoning River, during a single day of operations the nine Mahoning Valley steel mills discharged 400,000 pounds of floating debris; 90,000 pounds of ammonia nitrogen; 500 pounds of cyanide; 600 pounds of phenolic waste; 800 pounds of zinc; and 200 barrels of oil into the water.) But though the river has made a remarkable comeback, Dr. Schroeder acknowledged there are still problems.

Three areas, he said, are of most concern: 1) Legacy sediments that contain pollutants from industry – which he said constitute 30% of the problem; 2) Continuous runoff from storm sewers and other nonpoint sources – also 30% of the problem; 3) And habitat degradation resulting from low-head dams – another 30% of the problem. Dr. Schroeder said that the removal of the low-head dams would allow the river to flow freely and cleanse itself, and as a result pollutants could be reduced by 30%. At that point the Mahoning could come close to meeting the Ohio EPA’s “warm water fisheries habitat” standards. And in fact the removal of the low-head dams is already being planned.
Crossing the Mahoning Avenue bridge on the way to RiverFest 2017
“Because mills and railroad tracks lined the river from Warren to the Pennsylvania line, the banks of the Mahoning were never developed,” Dr. Schroeder told me. As a result, he added, you can canoe or kayak along the river and see the riparian environment much as it looked before the Mahoning Valley was industrialized. On June 3 I was able to see people doing exactly that at the 2017 RiverFest, which is organized by Friends of the Mahoning River.

This event takes place near the old B & O Station on the banks of the Mahoning, and the main parking lot was already full when my friends and I got there at noon. Because I had recently spent time reading about the river’s tortured history, it was a nice contrast to hear music on the riverbank, see children playing nearby, and watch people launching canoes and kayaks and paddling them serenely up and down the river. We weren’t interested in taking a boat ride, but we walked beside the water on a shady trail, which was lined with a number of large trees and flowering plants. The riverside smelled of vegetation and moist earth, and there was no trace of the noxious fumes that used to waft from its waters.
Boats in the water at RiverFest 2017 in Youngstown, Ohio; photo taken in June of 2017
A number of local groups tabled at RiverFest, including Frack Free Ohio and the Sierra Club. At the Ohio EPA table, in addition to informational brochures, there were small trays of river water that held crayfish and the larvae of drangonflies and/or damselflies. These, I was told, had been taken from the river that morning. During the mid-twentieth century, by contrast, the only living things found in the Mahoning were sludgeworms, which can survive in polluted waters few other creatures can endure.  I asked about fish and was told they have been regularly tested by the EPA and are now considered safe to eat once a month -- and even more often than that for some species.

At the Friends of the Mahoning River table, I picked up a brochure that said the Mahoning is now one of only a few inland river systems in Ohio in which you will find muskellunge fish (known as muskies). Other fish that have made a comeback include walleye, small and large-mouth bass, channel catfish, sucker species, and carp. Because of this surprising diversity, among other reasons, Friends of the Mahoning consider their river to be a “diamond in the rough,” and the fact that 2017 marked the sixth RiverFest, with a seventh being planned for 2018, shows their ongoing commitment to restoring and caring for the Mahoning.

Like the Friends of the Mahoning, Dr. Schroeder seems very positive about the future of the river; however, he said that the story of the Mahoning, though an important one, is small compared to an environmental issue with global implications such as climate change. When the mills were operating at their peak, he added, you couldn’t see across the river because of pollutants in the air, but the clean up that has taken place since then has been due to the efforts of the EPA. This agency is now facing major budget cuts, and the question of how we will resolve climate change without the EPA’s continual oversight reminds us that our future is uncertain.

When I asked Dr. Schroeder if one of the threats to the Mahoning in the future might be fracking, which is currently experiencing a resurgence in the Mahoning Valley, he said that incidental illegal discharges could affect the river for a while but wouldn’t have long-term consequences unless they are widespread and continuous. He noted that in 2013 when 200,000 gallons of crude oil and brine were illegally dumped into a storm drain which in turn emptied into the Mahoning, the responsible party ended up serving jail time.

I had found several references to this illegal discharge into the Mahoning when I was researching the river’s history, and I knew that members of Frack-Free Mahoning Valley had been part of an apology made to the river in 2013. In mid-May I had attended a meeting of that group, and I was impressed with their seriousness and their concern with all the possible impacts of fracking, such as increased numbers of earthquakes and possible contamination of the water supply. Right now the group is focusing their efforts on getting a community bill of rights on the ballot so that citizens have a greater say about issues like the quality of their drinking water and fracking. Though they have tried several times in the past to get this issue on the ballot, they're making a concerted effort again this year. (The text of the Community Bill of Rights can be found at the Protect Youngstown site.)

During the course of the meeting, one of the group's members noted that if the Citizens United ruling could give corporations legal personhood, the same rights could and should be given to human communities and the natural world. A few days earlier I had read the Whanganui River — New Zealand’s third longest and revered by the indigenous Maori people — was granted rights which means that polluting the river is now legally equivalent to harming a human. I left the Frack-Free Mahoning Valley meeting wondering how the Mahoning River ecosystem would have fared in the twentieth century if that much-abused river had been given legal standing.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

A Short History of the Mahoning, Once Called “America’s Dirtiest and Hottest River”

When I was growing up in the Mahoning Valley during the 1950s and 1960s, people didn’t talk much about the river. We thought of it as a toxic brew of steel mill effluent and other industrial wastes, and we knew better than to go anywhere near it. The Mahoning River was so unapproachable, unclean, and untouchable that it was a joke at best and often a source of community shame. That’s why when a 12-year-old girl jumped into the Mahoning last week, I really took notice.

The Mahoning River near the Riverwalk in Warren, Ohio; photo taken in May of 2017
She was on an outing in Warren, Ohio, sponsored by Children Services, and no one seemed to know why she jumped in. But she floated along in the icy water for fifteen minutes, then passed over a low-head dam before she was rescued and taken to the hospital. Doctors found her to be chilled but otherwise in good health. As I read about her experience and her narrow escape from harm (the Warren Fire Chief said it was a miracle she survived because others who had gone over the dam had not been so lucky), I wondered what would have happened to me if I had jumped into that river back in the twentieth century.

A quick search online turned up a few references to the river’s past that sounded familiar. The blogger at Bob on Books, who sometimes writes about growing up in “Working Class Youngstown,” said, “My wife recounts going over the Mahoning on her bus to elementary school and watching greenish wastes pour directly into the river and watching the river bubbling. We used to joke that you wouldn’t dare wade in the river because you would dissolve.” A writer for the Youngstown paper, The Vindicator, raved about a 2016 fishing trip on the Mahoning but began his article by saying, “As a child of the 1950s and ’60s, I learned to associate the Mahoning River with nothing remotely connected to fishing./ It was water, yes. But it was polluted water. The Mahoning was the lifeblood of industry in Warren, Niles, Girard, Youngstown, Struthers, Campbell and Lowellville, but it was poison.”

These gruesome descriptions piqued my interest, and because I’m visiting friends in Youngstown right now, I decided to do more research. Though The Youngstown Vindicator is available online as part of the Google archive, it is difficult to search because many issues are missing and some of the text is nearly illegible. Luckily, diligent librarians at the Youngstown public library saved several folders full of newspaper articles about the river. These span nearly the whole twentieth century, from the 1920s through the 1990s, and the clippings gave me a sense of the things that seemed to characterize the Mahoning during much of that time: It was hot; it was contaminated by sewage; and it was contaminated by the toxic effluent of the steel industry. Though sewage and toxics still affect the Mahoning watershed, they were much more noticeable problems back then.

As early as the 1920s, the Vindicator occasionally published nostalgic articles about the river in its former, less polluted state. In 1926 the paper showed readers a photograph of a skater, taken fewer than fifty years earlier, with the accompanying description: “Here is a relic of the days when the Mahoning flowed water; water that would freeze. Instead of a current of fluid that carries Gulf Stream warmth and forever emerges victor after encounters with zero weather, the river then consisted principally of water.” [1] The river was so hot because its waters were used to cool red-hot steel, but at that time it was also more of a channel for human waste than for water.

A 1924 Vindicator editorial commended “an effort to clean up the Mahoning river between Girard and Warren and transform what is now regarded as an open sewer into a stream of beauty.” [2] But the problem of sewage contamination of the Mahoning proved difficult to resolve because it was expensive for local communities to build sewage treatment facilities. And there wasn’t as much of an incentive to do so when cities along the Mahoning could just dump their waste into the river. They might have continued to do so if it hadn’t been for the needs of the steel industry. In 1933, a Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. engineer called for a release of water from nearby Meander Lake because “with the river water low and the flow very slow, sewage emptying into the river from all valley towns, including Warren and Niles, is not diluted sufficiently, causing bad odors and miasmatic conditions affecting the men in the mills.” [3]

In 1936 the National Resources Board decided to study the Mahoning River basin with an aim of improving sanitation, which in turn would "primarily benefit the Youngstown steel industry and industries related to it." The Vindicator article about this study went on to say that 25 local steel plants needed a lot of water for cooling and that temperatures in the Mahoning River near Youngstown were often 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The sewage from the nine communities in the Mahoning watershed, with their combined population of 276,000, caused "objectionable odors," and "use of the water so polluted also means clogged pumps, increased pumpage and extra other costs to plants.” [4] I'll leave it up to you to imagine what was clogging those pumps, but the hot, sewage-contaminated Mahoning would certainly have sickened anyone who spent time in its waters. When I was a child we were frequently warned against wading or swimming in any of the ponds and creeks in the Mahoning watershed because they were “contaminated” -- and as recently as April of 1962 divers who needed to enter Lake Newport in Mill Creek Park in Youngstown had to be inoculated against typhoid.

A 1931 Image from the Warner Theater Inaugural Program Cover -- Barney Carnes, Artist; from The Mahoning Valley Historical Society; photographed on an exterior wall of the Five Star Graphics and Printing Co. in Girard, Ohio, near the banks of the Mahoning River.


Later on, the creation of sewage treatment facilities and a system of reservoirs to control the flow of the river helped to solve some of these problems for the local population and for the steel industry. But though industry needed the Mahoning for its own purposes, that didn’t mean they intended to treat the river kindly. During a brief slowdown of steel production after the Depression began, the condition of the water improved, and in a 1932 article called “They’re Fishing in the Mahoning Now That the Mills Are Down” I found the first instance of the widely quoted local dictum that jobs should be more important to the people of the Mahoning Valley than fish. [5] And in fact, as soon as the War effort began in earnest, things got worse for the Mahoning again.

By 1946 the Christian Science Monitor was inclined to call the Mahoning “America’s hottest and dirtiest river,” and went on to give this harsh description: “Lined with giant steel mills, railroads, fabricating plants, and power-generating plants, waters of the stream in hot summer months are used over and over again, 10 to 20 times… The water is used for steam boilers; generating electricity; cooling ceramic linings, doors, and jackets of blast furnaces and steel furnaces; and for washing or cooling red-hot steel being processed.” [6]

By 1950 the U.S. Geological Survey was calling the Mahoning “the most polluted stream in the United States,” [7] and though there was pressure to clean up the river, in 1951 the Vindicator reported “Anti-Pollution Action Here Largely on Paper.” A list of waste products included acid-iron, phenol, flue gas wash waters, and scale-bearing wastes, [8] but though the government had begun to pressure the steel industry to clean up its act, remediation was reported to be stuck in the planning stage. The sewage wasn’t quite as bad, but the water was still very hot and dirty.

I clearly remember that the river was in deplorable condition throughout the 1960s and 70s, and both government and industry did their best to make sure it stayed that way. In 1965 the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare called for a hearing on pollution of the Mahoning River, and in his testimony Congressman Michael Kirwin harshly condemned the HEW for their concern about the temperature of the water and the fact that fish couldn’t live in it. He asked whose life the river was meant to sustain: "People? Fish? If one means sustain the life of people, that is just what the Mahoning is doing now. It is now and always has been and, I trust, always will be, an industrial stream. Certainly, without it, there would be no economic life in the Mahoning Valley. There would be no roaring steel mills, nor humming associated and supporting industry. I submit that the Mahoning is doing a workhorse type of job in sustaining life right now.” He dismissed fish as largely a concern of “our sporting population,” and concluded by saying that while Native Americans might once have fished in a pristine Mahoning River, “[t]he Indians had no television to watch and no jet planes on which to ride. And I ask you now, who was better off, the Indians or you and I, here, today? If losing the fish in the industrialized stretch of the Mahoning was the penalty we had to pay, then I say, and I think you will agree, it was a penalty worth paying.” [9]

When the Cuyahoga River in nearby Cleveland caught fire in 1969 (not for the first time, but the incident was reported in an issue of Time Magazine that was widely read because it included coverage of another water-related scandal, the one at Chappaquiddick), national outrage about our foul waterways helped facilitate the passage of the Clean Water Act. In the early 70s the Ohio Water Pollution Control Board set “Fresh water fishery” standards on the Mahoning’s industrialized stretch [10], but in 1973 Ohio Governor Gilligan was asked to help reduce the need for pollution controls in the river. This request was the “first move in a campaign to get pollution standards relaxed on the valley’s economic blood stream.” [11] In 1974 the EPA agreed to compromise [12] and, as time went on, largely absolved the steel industry from their responsibility for pollution control.

The Cuyahoga River today; photo taken in May of 2017 at Cuyahoga Valley National Park

In 1976 an article with the apt title of “Jobs -- Not Fish -- Win in Ohio Steel Town” appeared in the New York Times and explained to the nation why the E.P.A. had decided to “allow the Mahoning to remain dirty.” “Each day,” the Times reported, “the eight steel mills that sprawl along the Mahoning’s banks dump 158 more tons of debris into the water. Nobody here seems to care very much.” The Times reported that pollution control measures would be expensive for the aging plants of the Mahoning Valley, and according to a study done by Ernst & Ernst, 28,890 jobs could be at risk. That was why the Western Reserve Economic Development Agency, a group sponsored by the Commerce Department, organized the meetings that “finally derailed the E.P.A.” Though hearings were held, the community united in its fear of economic ruin, and “[w]hile an endless line of local public officials and other witnesses paraded before the packed meeting room, all of them condemning the proposed requirements, 500 steelworkers marched outside carrying signs that read, ‘We want jobs, not fish’ and ‘Steel, not eel.’” [13]

And then in September of 1977 came a day known as Black Monday when the Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company announced that it would shut down the Campbell Works and lay off the workers there. Soon after, other Sheet & Tube plants, as well as those of U.S. Steel and Republic Steel, followed suit. More than 10,000 jobs were lost in the steel industry and thousands more supporting jobs were consequently phased out. The industry that said it would have to eliminate jobs if forced not to pollute the river, closed down anyway not long after it received exemptions. And though the E.P.A. was rebuked by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit for giving the steel industry a free pass [14], the steel industry escaped unscathed. And then, at least for a while, the Mahoning Valley had neither jobs nor fish.

Though the people of this area have never really quite recovered from these hard times, the end of industrial contamination did lead to improved river quality. By 1991 the Vindicator could report that the “Mahoning resurrects itself,” and Dr. Lauren Schroeder, Youngstown State University biologist and tireless champion of the river, said the Mahoning River was finally able to meet the Ohio EPA’s water quality standards. [15] As for the fish, in 1995 the Ohio EPA was still pulling fish from the river that had been blind since birth, that had tumors around their gills, or that had fins and scales eroded by bacteria. Again asked to comment, Dr. Schroeder said he remembered when 7,000 gallons of oil were dumped into the water daily, so it was likely that carcinogens were still present in the river. [16] It wasn’t, in fact, until 2015 that the EPA was willing to say that it was safe to eat fish caught in the Mahoning River once a month.

Though I wish I knew how the girl who jumped into the Mahoning is doing now, I realize that privacy laws prevent the media from inquiring further about her. Hopefully, the river is now a place where a child can take an ill-advised plunge and experience few side effects. One child’s well-being is reason enough to worry about the state of the river, but have you ever wondered why the consequences were so severe when the city of Flint, Michigan, changed the source of its drinking water to the Flint River? It wasn’t just coincidence that the river water leached the lead from the pipes of Flint households and created an unimaginable nightmare for Flint residents, particularly parents who worry about the long-term effects of lead on their children’s health. The Flint River, like the Mahoning, was a “workhorse” of the industrial era and contaminated by human and industrial waste so that it had to be chlorinated to eliminate disease-causing bacteria. This in turn made the water acidic and able to leach the lead from Flint households’ pipes. What happened in Flint is a reminder that Dr. Schroeder was right when he said, in his testimony before the 1974 EPA hearing on the Mahoning River: “If the ecologists have done nothing else in the last 50 years they have demonstrated that natural systems are immensely complex and interdependent and that man is not above or separate from these systems. If humans are to have a healthy existence both physiologically and psychologically, then the system of which we are a part must be healthy.” Then, as now, that would include healthy rivers.

Here are some cursory endnotes on the articles that I found in the clippings file but couldn't fine online:

[1] “They Skated on the Mahoning And Here’s Picture to Prove It,” Youngstown Vindicator, February 22, 1926

[2] “The Mahoning River,” a May 16, 1924 Youngstown Vindicator editorial

[3] “Boehme Says Release to River Was Step to Guard Health,” Youngstown Vindicator, August 18, 1933

[4] “National Board Will Study Mahoning River Sanitation,” by Paul May, Youngstown Vindicator, September 2, 1936

[5] “They’re Fishing in the Mahoning Now That the Mills Are Down,” Youngstown Vindicator, June 23, 1932

[6] “River in Ohio Cooled to Aid Steel Industry,” Christian Science Monitor, March 1, 1940

[7] “U.S. to Make Report on Mahoning Pollution,” Youngstown Vindicator, April 19, 1950

[8] “Anti-Pollution Action Here Largely on Paper,” Youngstown Vindicator, June 17, 1951

[9] “Local Folks Were a Little Indignant Over Federal Hearing on Mahoning River Pollution,” Farm and Dairy, February 24, 1965

[10] “Steel, OE Protest River Costs,” Youngstown Vindicator, September 30, 1971

[11] “Ask Gilligan Cut River Standards,” Youngstown Vindicator, December 19, 1973

[12] “Agree to Ease River Cleanup,” Youngstown Vindicator, January 15, 1974

[13] “Jobs -- Not Fish -- Win in Ohio Steel Town,” by Steven Rattner, New York Times, April 5, 1976

[14] "Can firms duck rulings by pleading poverty?" American Bar Association Journal, Vol. 63, No. 11 (November, 1977), p. 1529

[15] “Mahoning resurrects itself,” Youngstown Vindicator, April 5, 1991

[15] “Sick Fish Tell a Tale of Pollution,” Youngstown Vindicator, February 5, 1995

Monday, July 4, 2016

Our Prague Commute in 2016

In a blogpost I wrote five years ago for the Irreal Cafe, I attempted to describe Prague as I experienced it when Greg and I first lived here for an extended period of time in 1995. We were staying in Braník that year, and because I didn’t want to take a bus ride to the subway every time I wanted to go to the city center to an art galerie or café, I learned the rather circuitous route to the nearest tram stop. On the way home I would walk “past the brewery, over the tracks, up the hill, up the steep steps, up another hill, around the bend, past the barking dogs, and so on,” and of course the way to the tram stop when I was on my way out was the reverse of that. In 1995 the trams I relied on went only a little ways past the Braník stop, but in the intervening years, the tram lines have been extended out to Sídliště Modřany. It is this tram stop that we have used extensively during our Prague stay this year, and my way to the city center has had its own flavor and specific landmarks, just as it did in 1995. Of course my choice is more complex than it needs to be, and most people choose to use the subway because it's much faster. But I like to see as much of the world around me as I can when I travel, and trams (and walks) are the best way to do that.

Because it’s nearly three kilometers to the tram stop from our panelák in Libuš, I usually take a bus to Sídliště Libuš, then walk about 1.5 kilometers from there to the tram.
View of the bus from the bus stop at Sídliště Libuš;
photo by G.S. Evans
My almost daily walk has made it possible for me to see what's happening in the natural world. There are always wildflowers growing along the way (though mowers cut them down every few weeks, which makes way for the new crop), and though traffic goes by on the road at a pretty fast clip, I can still hear birdsong and see land snails on a rainy day.
Bumblebee on blueweed
Nearby there is also the Modřanská rokle nature preserve where we have gone for a few walks. It's interesting to note that, though the nature preserve here is well kept, the variety of birds and butterflies I see is less diverse than my sightings on Petrin Hill.
At Modřanská rokle nature preserve
There are also a few interesting sights along the way like the tower from an old weather observatory and the fire station where we sometimes see trucks heading out on emergency calls.
Weather observatory tower; photo by G.S. Evans
Once I get to the tram stop, I'm lucky that I always get a seat because I get on at the beginning of the line. Prague public transit is clean and efficient, but it's especially nice to have your pick of seats.
Lots of tram seats at the beginning of the line;
photo by G.S. Evans
From the tram windows we see the many panelaks and other features of Sídliště Modřany. Then we begin to see the Vltava and all the people who use the riverbank as a place to ride bicycles, to push baby carriages, to walk dogs, or just to stroll. At the Přístaviště stop you can get off and take a walk in the Branické Skály preserve with its rock outcrops and small playground.
Branické Skály rock outcrop behind the Církev 
Českobratrská Evangelická; photo by G.S. Evans

Well-used bouncing horse at the
Branické Skály play area
Another place to get off and see small pleasant sights is the Výtoň stop with its squat clock tower and river views.
Clock tower at the Výtoň stop
A river view near the Výtoň stop
I've posted frequently on this blog about areas in Prague that are heavily touristed. My time in Libuš this year has given me a chance to see parts of the city I haven't seen for a long time -- or have never had a chance to see. I also think our lifestyle here, with its small flat in a panelák and heavy reliance on public transit, has helped me get in touch with how so many people live in Prague.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Our Authentic Libuš Lifestyle in Prague

For the three months that Greg and I have been in Prague this year, we’ve been living in a panelák in Libuš. It's been a very different experience from our recent Malá Strana and Vinohrady stays, but we lived in Lužiny for nearly two years in the 1990s, so we're very familiar with the lifestyle. The term panelák refers to a building constructed from pre-fabricated concrete panels, and many such structures were built in Communist Czechoslovakia. According to the Wikipedia entry, "Between 1959 and 1995, paneláks containing 1.17 million flats were built in what is now the Czech Republic. They house about 3.5 million people, or about one-third of the country's population." According to the Czech newspaper MF Dnes, half a million people in Prague live in sídlištěs, which are housing estates composed of paneláks. Though many guidebooks make deprecating comments about “Communist block housing” and “grey tower blocks,” the panelák lifestyle is efficient and cozy. And our recently renovated two-room flat is pleasant and clean. (See Ryan Scott's "Cemented In: Prague's Panelak Estates" for more on the panelák's image problem.)

Apparently, there is something very authentic and true-to-period about the courtyard we can see from the windows of our flat and the buildings that enclose it, including the one in which we live. Recently, this enclosure was chosen as the location for the shooting of a TV series set in Communist Czechoslovia during the 1970s and 1980s. And all this week a crew from Česká televise has been in the courtyard, first constructing a few playground items to add to the children's play area, and then shooting the program. I have been hearing calls of “Kamera!” and “Stop!” from the director all day. Vintage Škodas roar through the scene from time to time, and the actors and actresses are wearing polyester clothes that call to mind those days of the Cold War and the time known here as Normalization.

Even before we learned that our neighborhood was going to be on TV, Greg started to take some fairly abstract photos from our 6th floor window, designed to give the flavor of the place without violating anyone’s privacy by showing a particular family dwelling or any person’s windows or balcony. Here are a few:

Colorful paneláks in Libuš; photo by G.S. Evans
Another view of paneláks in Libuš;
photo by G.S. Evans

Paneláks in Libuš during long solstice evening;
photo by G.S. Evans
Not-so-recently-painted paneláks in Libuš
photo by G.S. Evans


Children's play area in May of 2016;
photo by G.S. Evans


 Children's play area in July of 2016 with added
sandbox as cast members stand by;
photo by G.S. Evans

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Public Transportation is Important – and So are the Workers Who Make It All Possible

Limited Service During the Strike
Photo by Greg Evans
Because I often ride the bus, I felt dismayed when I heard that Teamsters Local 104, which represents Sun Tran drivers and mechanics, failed to reach an agreement with the city and voted to strike. At first I thought the strike might last a week or ten days – I was here in 2001 when the drivers were out for two weeks, and that was the longest transit strike this city had ever seen – but the Teamsters walkout that began on August 6 is now a month old, with no end in sight.

The hot weather and sharply curtailed bus service have created hardships for many of my fellow bus riders, and I sympathize with them greatly. I also support the union, and I want the Teamsters to get a fair deal from the city. But as I read about the strike in the Arizona Daily Star and the Tucson Weekly, I am struck by the fact that neither city leaders nor company officials want to acknowledge that they have both power and responsibility to settle the strike. Instead they continue to imply that all power is in the hands of Professional Transit Management (PTM, a company hired by the city to manage and operate Sun Tran), which is owned by French-based multinational Transdev. Sun Tran general manager Kate Riley’s opinion piece in the August 26 Daily Star titled “Well-paid Teamsters seek too much from city, Sun Tran,” was little more than an attempt to villainize the Teamsters. On August 30 the Teamsters took out a full-page ad in the Star calling for the Mayor and Council to act like leaders and to settle the strike. The ad made light of City officials’ insistence that they are prohibited by law from getting involved in negotiations with the Teamsters and called for them to “take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that PTM is instructed to bargain in good faith and reach a fair and equitable settlement of the SunTran strike.”

The morning of September 3 the Daily Star featured a front-page article called “Union blasts city/ Sun Tran over effort to bring intemps,” which reported that the City of Tucson had decided to hire out-of-state workers to drive Sun Tran buses while union members are on strike. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, according to a full-page ad taken out by the Teamsters, also in the September 3 paper and their second full-page ad in the past week, the replacement workers are “guaranteed to work 12 hours a day for ‘Strike Pay’ of $21.00/hour straight-time and $31.50/hour overtime, $22 per diem for meals, airfare, and lodging all paid by Sun Tran.” Remember that this is a strike called, at least in part, because Sun Tran refuses to offer the drivers more than $19.22/hour, while entry-level drivers are paid only $13.30/hour.

The Weekly, which has taken a more sympathetic attitude toward the Teamsters, posted a piece online in The Range on September 2 in which Andy Marshall, head of the Teamsters, is reported to have said that Sun Tran confirmed hiring a separate company to take care of placing ads online to hire temporary employees. The Weekly also reported that Sun Tran repeatedly denied these allegations, while city officials continued to insist that they cannot get involved in negotiations between the union and PTM. The Weekly article also noted that “This is an unfair labor practice strike, which means Sun Tran is prohibited from firing and replacing any of the 530 bus drivers, mechanics and others picketing.” Yet the Daily Star reported that replacement workers have been sought, which sounds like an attempt at strike-breaking and union-busting to me.
BRU Members Board the Bus
Photo by Greg Evans
Since August 6, the Bus Riders Union (BRU) has held three events related to the strike, the most recent of which took place on Thursday, September 3, and was billed as the beginning of a “Don’t Pay to Get on the Bus Campaign.” The BRU, of which I am a member, calls for an end to the strike because it hurts bus riders, but the group also supports the Teamsters, opposes union-busting and strike-breaking, and demands that the mayor and council get PTM back to the table to bargain in good faith. The leaflet for the September 3 event encouraged riders and supporters to: "Join us in sending a message to the Mayor and City Council! When you ride, don't put money in the fare box. Take money away from them, maybe this is the only thing the Mayor and the City Council understand? They need to provide LEADERSHIP during this CRISIS, not hide behind the lame excuse that they can't legally do anything. The strike will ONLY be settled with their money and with their strong creative ideas." And in fact there was a well-attended rally at Ronstadt Transit Center, followed by a direct action during which many BRU members boarded a Sun Tran bus without paying.  According to Channel 4 News, “A Sun Tran spokesperson says everyone is encouraged to pay their fare, but drivers have been instructed to let riders board if they refuse to pay during the strike.” BRU member Barbie Urias is shown saying, “Money solves this problem. They got the money. And we’re not going to pay money for these buses until they get those negotiators to agree on something. We need our bus service back.”

Today the Star featured the headline “Nearly half of striking drivers at top salary,” and this article reads like an attempt to rile up public opinion against the Teamsters. It points out that half of Tucsonans, living in a city whose median wage is $32,500, earn less than the $40,000 in pay and $15,000 in benefits earned by top tier drivers. By making an effort to shame the Teamsters into going back to work, the Star shows itself to be unable to process the fact that higher wages will lead to a more prosperous city, though columnists in the same paper have stated that allowing developers to gentrify Ronstadt will somehow lead to a more prosperous Tucson. On July 26, Road Runner columnist Patrick McNamara said that no one should stand in the way of redevelopment of the Ronstadt Center, and he quoted council members and real estate agents who agreed with him. He said, "Keep in mind poverty persists in the region, with Tucson consistently ranking as one of the poorest parts of the country." But this logic isn't applied equally by the Star to the economic needs of working people.

Tomorrow is Labor Day, and the annual Labor Day picnic will take place in Reid Park. Elected officials come to the picnic each year to meet and greet unionists and ask for their support on Election Day. At Reid Park on Labor Day, union members should ask their council members what they’re going to do to restart negotiations and get the buses back on the roads without sacrificing the interests of the Teamsters. And if they don’t have a reasonable answer, they shouldn’t get union members’ votes in November.

[Post Labor Day Note: I was at the Pima Area Labor Federation sponsored Labor Day picnic for an hour and a half on September 7, but I didn't stay long enough to see how unionists reacted to their elected officials. What I said in the above paragraph about the way unionists should cast their votes is my own opinion, and my opinion is not necessarily shared by the Bus Riders Union. Brian Flag posted "Don’t condemn city council for past votes defending poor people, for voting in favor of bus riders" at the Casa Maria blog on Sunday, and he has chosen to emphasize council members' positive contributions rather than the negative ones. I also support the actions of those council members who vote to defend poor people and transit riders, and I certainly don't advocate voting for Republican candidates! I do, however, wish that we had progressive, pro-union third party candidates that we could turn toward when the Democrats let us down.]

[Correction to the statement I made in the first paragraph that the current strike was the longest in Tucson history as of September 6: In an op/ed piece in the Daily Star on September 10, transit historian Gene Caywood said that a couple of transit strikes in Tucson in the 1950s and 1960s lasted more than 40 days.]

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Changes to Tucson’s Ronstadt Transit Center
Should Mostly Benefit Bus Riders



I have spent many hours in transit centers -- waiting for trains or buses, whiling away some time during a layover, or waiting for the arrival of a friend -- and whether I was in Union Station in Chicago or the main train station (hlavní nádraží) in Prague, I’ve watched people striding purposefully along, taken advantage of the shops and cafes on offer, and I've enjoyed the barely controlled chaos around me. Obviously, transit centers are necessary so that travelers can use the washroom, buy something to eat or drink, and find a bench to sit on because sometimes a layover or wait can last for hours, but it seems that the kind of transit center a city needs depends on the range of transit services offered and how long people are likely to have to wait there.

This brings me to the two proposals recently unveiled by developers showing how they would convert Tucson’s Ronstadt Transit Center into a “multimodal transit center,” including apartments, a café and retail outlets, and even a hotel. Why, I ask, would our city want to do that? Ronstadt is a place where the routes of Sun Tran buses converge, and you can go there to catch any bus that travels through the city’s downtown. But at Ronstadt an hours-long wait should never be necessary because, even though Sun Tran schedules are sometimes woefully inadequate, if you are unlucky enough to have just missed your bus on a hot Sunday afternoon, you should never have to wait there more than an hour.

So though it’s nice that the proposals keep Ronstadt situated in downtown Tucson, their notions of the need for multiple uses communicates the idea that the needs of bus riders are simply not important enough to merit a space for themselves. Why does Ronstadt have to be made “multimodal,” and in what way is it an “underutilized piece of land” as city planners have stated? As Greg Evans wrote in the Occupied Tucson Citizen in March of 2013, regarding Bus Riders Union misgivings about proposed changes at Ronstadt:

How it is that a place through which 27,000 people pass daily in our otherwise quiet downtown could be considered “underutilized” explains the union’s concerns: it is underutilized commercially. And this leads us to the issue of it becoming “multi-use.” One could argue that the Ronstadt Center is already multi-use, in that it was designed to be convertible into an open plaza for special public events such as Second Saturdays downtown—which it, of course, is currently being used for.
But, in this case, multi-use means mixing public use with private use, most likely in the form of allowing the Congress Street section of Ronstadt to be developed into retail space.

Evans' article was prescient because, in fact, two and a half years later, the two developers do propose mixing public use with private use.

I have taken a long look at both proposals, and I find something to like about each of them. The Alexander proposal does offer more to bus riders, and except for moving all stops indoors, it would be quite possible to accomplish these goals in the current Ronstadt Center: “Improve conditions for Bus Drivers …[and]… enhance the riders’ experience and provide amenities,” which would include “increased security and safety, indoor waiting area, free Wi-Fi; public restrooms; ticket sales/ customer service; small retail space/ vending machines; change machines; customer service representatives; lost and found storage; transit guides; benches; improved ADA access; and bike lockers.” In fact some of those services are already available, though most of the bus riders I know would appreciate upgraded restrooms and staffing of the Information Booth.

As for the Peach proposal for public spaces, I think the existing Ronstadt Center could easily accommodate Open Space Goals that include "Location for public art; Park-like feel with large trees and grass area; Varied public seating for social interaction; Smaller, flexible space for a variety of passive uses; and Interactive art." But in regard to the private development with retail uses, the residential spaces and the hotel, these developments would only get in the way of people enjoying public spaces and bus riders using public transit. As Greg Evans points out in his recent July 29 article in the Occupied Tucson Citizen, both proposals would push the transit functions of Ronstadt into a very small space that would make the center far less appealing for bus riders than it is at present. And I believe that any changes at Ronstadt should be for the benefit of transit riders first and foremost.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

For Some of Us, It’s a Dry Monsoon

Hail from June 30 storm
Though Tucson’s 2015 monsoon season supposedly started in late June, we haven’t really seen much rain yet (here are some totals). In fact our first storm featured golf-ball-sized hail banging on roofs and cars for such a long time that the ground was covered with chunks of ice and it seemed like it had snowed on the 30th of June. There have only been a few small rainfalls since then, and because our neighborhood continues to be dry, lots of birds have been coming to our yard for water and food.

This morning while Greg and I were sitting on the patio, we saw some kind of crested flycatcher in the big Mexican Crucillo and a Hooded Oriole on one of the hummingbird feeders. Two Broad-billed Hummingbirds were fighting over the other feeder. There were Cactus Wrens on the peanut feeder, a family of quail on the seed block, and a small flock of Lesser Goldfinches on the nyjer feeder. And just now as I sit at my desk writing this post, a Gila Woodpecker landed on my window screen with a piece of peanut in his beak; he kept trying to squawk his raucous call in spite of having his mouth full. Lots of birds come to our backyard because they need water, and thanks to some expert advice from the folks at the Wild Bird Store, we have more of a variety of feeders and consequently more varied birds. The goldfinches are a new and surprisingly persistent addition.

At the nyjer feeder, any time of the day – other than when a roadrunner has just been through the yard and the small birds have scattered – there are ten or more Lesser Goldfinches and a couple of Pine Siskins. The nyjer feeder forces the goldfinches to eat upside down, which doesn’t seem to be much of a problem for them. Here are a few pictures from that feeder:

Three goldfinches on the nyjer feeder
Goldfinches and a siskin
 But it's a dry heat and a dry monsoon, and I'm starting to worry that -- at least in our neighborhood -- we won't get the kind of rainfall we need to keep the desert healthy. Here are a few more backyard photos:

Looking for something?
Cholla flowers
White-winged Dove on the seed block


Sunday, July 12, 2015

In Praise of Saving the Planet

I recently read Pope Francis’ new encyclical on climate change, and I was moved by its lyricism, the depth of scientific understanding it displays, and its intensely serious concern for a problem that affects every person on earth. Though I disagree with the Catholic Church’s teachings about some things, I appreciated this strong statement of environmental awareness and its empathy for the poor and dispossessed.

Generally referred to as "Laudato si" (the full title is "LAUDATO SI', mi' Signore" or "Praise be to you, my Lord"), the encyclical is named for a canticle by St. Francis of Assisi. Pope Francis not only shares St. Francis’ name but also his joyful interest in and concern for the natural world. It is notable that this strongly worded admonition to Catholics – and in fact all of us – to do what we can to reverse climate change comes from the first pope to hail from the global South. I also learned on Democracy Now that one of the authors of the encyclical was Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, and understandably "Laudato si" frequently reminds us that climate change will cause the most suffering for the poor and those in the developing world.

The encyclical pays homage to St. Francis of Assisi, who is well known for his canticle that praises Brother Sun and Sister Moon. To some this language seems almost animistic, but the encyclical notes that, “If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously.” [Section 11]

“Laudato si” is sometimes focused on religious matters, but it attempts to appeal to a wide audience by acknowledging many points of view. For example, it praises participants in the environmental movement and those “who tirelessly seek to resolve the tragic effects of environmental degradation on the lives of the world’s poorest.” [Section 13] Those who are concerned about loss of biodiversity will be glad to read statements like this: “In our time, the Church does not simply state that other creatures are completely subordinated to the good of human beings, as if they have no worth in themselves and can be treated as we wish.” [Section 69] But human beings are given priority and the encyclical clarifies: “Certainly, we should be concerned lest other living beings be treated irresponsibly. But we should be particularly indignant at the enormous inequalities in our midst, whereby we continue to tolerate some considering themselves more worthy than others.” [Section 90]

Sometimes “Laudato si” enters the realm of social ecology as it criticizes "rapidification" or the "more intensified pace of life and work" that we experience in the 21st century [Section 18]. It calls into question our "throwaway culture" that "quickly reduces things to rubbish.” [Section 22] As a result, it says, “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” [Section 21] Global climate change is seen as a consequence of the intensified consumerist lifestyle enjoyed by those in the developed world, and we are told that this needs to change because "The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all…. Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it.” [Section 23]

“Laudato si” never loses sight of the twin problems that are its focus: “the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” [Section 49]. In fact, there are echoes of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything as when the encyclical describes our world as one in which “… economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment. Here we see how environmental deterioration and human and ethical degradation are closely linked.” [Section 56] And everyone is encouraged to be part of the solution: “A change in lifestyle could bring healthy pressure to bear on those who wield political, economic and social power. This is what consumer movements accomplish by boycotting certain products. …This shows us the great need for a sense of social responsibility on the part of consumers. … Today, in a word, ‘the issue of environmental degradation challenges us to examine our lifestyle.’” [Section 206]

Sometimes the language in “Laudato si” is so strong that it calls to mind an ecodisaster novel: “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth.” [Section 161]. Catholic or not, serious readers will find it hard to ignore a plea to avoid a future of “debris, desolation and filth,” though even the Pope’s authority is not enough to guarantee success. A change in lifestyle takes commitment and a willingness to "act locally."

For example, using public transportation helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and here in Tucson that means riding SunTran buses. But local transit faces a number of financial and logistical problems -- not to mention attitudinal problems, by which I mean that people resist using it. (Interestingly, “Laudato si” addresses both the benefits and problems of public transit as follows:
The quality of life in cities has much to do with systems of transport, which are often a source of much suffering for those who use them. Many cars, used by one or more people, circulate in cities, causing traffic congestion, raising the level of pollution, and consuming enormous quantities of non-renewable energy. This makes it necessary to build more roads and parking areas which spoil the urban landscape. Many specialists agree on the need to give priority to public transportation. Yet some measures needed will not prove easily acceptable to society unless substantial improvements are made in the systems themselves, which in many cities force people to put up with undignified conditions due to crowding, inconvenience, infrequent service and lack of safety. [Section 153]
On July 8, I attended the monthly membership meeting of the Tucson Bus Riders Union where we talked about how difficult it is to get the mayor and City Council to increase transit options in our city rather than cut them. Casa Maria, a lay Catholic Worker community that helps homeless and needy people, is a driving force behind the current Bus Riders Union, and I have seen, again and again, the Casa Maria folks stand up for low-income people, refuse to be intimidated, and consistently fight against throwing poor people “under the bus” as the city decides how to allocate ever-diminishing funds. At the meeting we agreed that appealing to elected officials is necessary, but it is even more important to get more people to come to our meetings, speak about their needs, and stand up to the “undignified conditions” SunTran riders must often endure.

In a recent blog post at the Casa Maria site, Brian Flagg said he was proud to be Catholic as he watched Pope Francis live up to his stated concerns for the poor and the environment. From what I have seen, Casa Maria truly has a similar commitment to answering “the call to solidarity with the poor” that is at the heart of their mission. By nurturing the Bus Riders Union, Casa Maria does more than most of us to help address climate change and its consequences. And anyone in Tucson who cares about the poor and homeless is aware that climate change is here and poor people must bear its harsh realities most painfully. (See “Cruel and Unusual: Closing Downtown’s Parks to the Homeless in a Heatwave.”)

Another lifestyle choice, switching to a plant-based diet, is a solution that is particularly important in a world in which overpopulation is a problem few want to address. Because of the Church’s longstanding opposition to birth control and abortion, I expected that Pope Francis would insist that overpopulation is not the problem. (Here’s what Laudato si has to say about overpopulation: “To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption. Besides, we know that approximately a third of all food produced is discarded, and “whenever food is thrown out it is as if it were stolen from the table of the poor”. [Section 50]) But many people on the left and in the progressive movement also refuse to cite overpopulation as a major driver of climate change. (See Naomi Klein’s extremely harsh rejoinder to a question about population at a Town Hall Seattle talk she gave last October for This Changes Everything: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4b2B-ys3N1o, Minute 44.)

But as the film Cowspiracy shows, animal agriculture is another powerful driver of climate change, and it seems that the more meat-eating humans there are, the less room there is for all the other creatures praised by St. Francis and Pope Francis. In Cowspiracy Dr. Will Tuttle says, "Ten thousand years ago free-living animals made up 99% of the biomass, and human beings only made up 1% of the biomass. Today, only 10,000 years later, which is really just a fraction of time, we human beings, and the animals that we own as property, make up 98% of the biomass and wild, free-living animals make up only 2%. We basically completely stole the world/ the earth from free-living animals to use for ourselves and our cows and pigs and chickens and factory farmed fish, and the oceans have been even more devastated." No amount of praise for the remarkable beauty and diversity of the natural world will bring it back again if habitat is destroyed to make way for factory farms and fields of fodder.

Not only would a turn toward a plant-based diet make make our carbon footprints smaller, it would also end the factory farm system that subjects pigs to gestation crates, hens to merciless crowding and other cruelties which are experienced by billions of creatures every year. (Here’s what Laudato si has to say about animal abuse: “We have only one heart, and the same wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships with other people. Every act of cruelty towards any creature is “contrary to human dignity”. [Section 92]) When I was a child Catholics abstained from eating meat on Fridays. A re-institution of that practice would help both the planet and the animals, as well as bringing the health benefits of a plant-based diet to more people.

There does in fact seem to be an increased interest in the benefits of veganism, and there is something of a flurry of activity around the plant-based diet in Tucson this summer. The film PlantPure Nation is being shown in Tucson this week. Opening night featured a vegan food court and a chance to buy a cookbook by a local vegan restauranteur, the proprietor of Lovin’ Spoonfuls. We also now have two vegan restaurants downtown -- Urban Fresh and Veg in a Box. Greg and I have eaten at Urban Fresh several times recently, and the food is well-prepared, reasonably priced, and wholesome. In addition, the proprietor and his wife are knowledgeable advocates for plant-based eating, and the vegan meals they offer are fresh and delicious. I only wish that more writers and activists who tell us about the need for lifestyle change to save the planet would advocate veganism.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Merchants of Doubt: the Film and the Book That Inspired It

In the summer of 1990 I briefly worked as a temporary secretary at the Leo Burnett ad agency in the Chicago Loop. Tobacco giant Philip Morris was one of Burnett’s valued clients, and I remember being told that I should run instantly to find an appropriate account representative whenever there was a call from Philip Morris. (Burnett is well known for creating the Marlboro Man in the 1950s and the Virginia Slims “You’ve come a long way, baby” campaign in the late 1960s, both for Philip Morris products.) At the time it made me uncomfortable to be in such a tobacco-friendly environment -- I knew that the link between cigarettes and cancer had been established in the early 1950s -- and I quickly moved on to another workplace.

My Burnett experience came to mind again recently when I read Naomi Oreskes’ and Erik Conway’s Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. This meticulously researched yet engaging book, published in 2010, describes in great detail the Tobacco Strategy, a game plan used by a few scientists who collaborated with lawyers and PR experts to cast doubt on the evidence that smoking is harmful (and later used the same tactics elsewhere, as the book’s subtitle implies). The Marlboro Man may have been the perfect embodiment of a sexy, freedom-loving smoker, but the ad agencies and PR companies couldn’t have succeeded without the scientists who encouraged people to doubt the dangers of tobacco. But why would scientists help undermine the mounting evidence against smoking (and help spread doubt about other issues), and why did so many people believe them? Merchants of Doubt gives very complete and sobering answers to these questions, and this ground-breaking book has inspired Robert Kenner’s 2015 film of the same name.

The Sony website describes Merchants of Doubt, the film, as a “satirically comedic, yet chillingly illuminating ride into the heart of conjuring American spin.” That’s another way of saying that it takes us to the place where scientific research confronts political ideology and human psychology – a complex territory, difficult to explore. Even so, the film moves along at a lively pace and immediately engages viewers by introducing us to Jamy Ian Swiss, a performing magician who specializes in "close-up card work" and who studies the reasons why we believe in his illusions. As Swiss notes, “The thing that sets magicians apart from con men and other kinds of thieves and liars is that we're honest liars.” Then Kenner treats us to some creative card-trick-inspired opening credits before going on to focus on a group of pundits-for-hire and spin doctors who specialize in creating doubt and confusion about well-understood threats to human health and planet Earth.

This particular type of doubt-mongering had its origins in the 1950s when Big Tobacco was eager to spin the mounting evidence that cigarettes are harmful. Kenner interviews Stanton Glantz, an American Legacy Foundation Distinguished Professor of Tobacco Control, who cites the importance of the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library (which Glantz helped to make public and which inspires some of the film’s most creative graphics). This library contains more than 14 million documents, most notably the memos that indicate tobacco executives knew about the risks of smoking but denied that nicotine is addictive and smoking causes cancer until they were forced to acknowledge the truth. Nonetheless, during the 50 years that the tobacco companies successfully used this strategy, they continued to make money from a product that caused harm. The film includes some remarkable footage from the 1980s Morton Downey, Jr. Show, which shows Glantz taking on a tobacco industry rep and then being taunted by the chain-smoking host. Though Downey had a reputation for going way over the top, the tobacco rep’s comments sound equally absurd. It’s important to remember that the tobacco companies continued their doubt-mongering ways until 2006, which is when they were found guilty under the RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act of conspiracy and judged to have “devised and executed a scheme to defraud consumers and potential consumers” about the negative health consequences of smoking. Unfortunately, by that time the Tobacco Strategy had been taken up by other corporate players.

After a disturbing look at the reasons why toxic flame retardant chemicals are so ubiquitous (essentially because big tobacco didn’t want to have to create a slower burning cigarette so that a smoker would be less likely to set the house on fire if he/she fell asleep while smoking), the film shifts its focus to James Hansen’s 1988 testimony before Congress concerning the reality of human-caused climate change. This was the point at which big energy companies began to adopt their own version of the Tobacco Strategy in order to foster climate change denial. Kenner interviews Naomi Oreskes, who says that it was the constant media reports about the supposed lack of consensus among climate scientists on climate change that prompted her to analyze “928 abstracts, published in refereed scientific journals between 1993 and 2003 and published in the ISI (Institute for Scientific Information) database with the keywords ‘climate change’” (see Science, December 3, 2004). She found that none of the scientists whose work she surveyed expressed doubt about the reality of human-caused global warming, yet doubt-mongering pundits continued to insist that the science was uncertain. When she published her findings in the journal Science, she was attacked by these same doubt-mongers.

Kenner also gives atmospheric scientists Katherine Hayhoe and Ben Santer a chance to tell how they’ve been subjected to threats and attacks because of their work, and we meet some of the pundits-for-hire who engage in this questionable behavior. Marc Morano, executive director of the climate-change-denying site ClimateDepot.com, admits to posting climate scientists' email addresses so his supporters can send them threatening messages, and he brags about playing a scientist on TV “more than occasionally.” Kenner also interviews James Taylor from the Heartland Institute and physicist Fred Singer, the only credentialed scientist in this group of doubt-mongers. Singer was also part of the campaign to deny the health risks of secondhand smoke.

Toward the end of this entertaining yet well-made film, Kenner does begin to sound a bit glib. It’s nice to see a conservative like former Republican Congressman Bob Inglis and a libertarian like Skeptics Society Executive Director Michael Shermer say that they’ve changed their positions on climate change and to see them speaking out about the overwhelming scientific evidence that influenced them. But the film also seems to imply that the tide is turning and that the doubt-mongers are on the losing side. Yet based on the evidence Kenner presents in the film, it’s unlikely that the Tobacco Strategy will be retired any time soon. Spin doctors will likely find other ways to exploit it for their own interests and those of their clients because they do what they do for money – and their clients (whether they are big tobacco companies or big energy companies) have plenty of cash.

But what about the few well-respected scientists who have been willing to lend credibility to the Tobacco Strategy? Were they also motivated by money? Due to his medium’s time limits Kenner is forced to gloss over most of the details about these men, but the book Merchants of Doubt fills in much more of the story. Co-author Naomi Oreskes is currently a Professor of the History of Science at Harvard, and as you might expect, she and Erik Conway provide lots of historical background. Though it seems improbable because we’ve grown accustomed to tobacco warnings and no-smoking policies, in the immediate aftermath of World War II cigarette smoking had positive connotations, even before the doubt-mongering began. This was in part because Adolf Hitler was intensely opposed to smoking, and though in the 1930s German scientists had shown that cigarettes caused lung cancer, after the War these studies were considered suspect because of their Nazi associations. It took some time for them to be taken seriously, and in the meantime respected public figures like TV newsman Edward R. Murrow could usually be seen clutching a smoldering cigarette.

Then in 1953, three things happened that were important to this story: Sloan-Kettering Institute in New York City demonstrated that cigarette tar caused fatal cancers in mice; Reader’s Digest (the most widely read publication in the world at that time) ran an article called “Cancer By the Carton”; and the presidents and CEOs of the largest tobacco companies in the U.S. decided to cooperate on a PR campaign to defend cigarettes. Over the next fifty years the bad news about tobacco was spun in as many ways as possible, and people were led to believe there was “reasonable doubt” about the harm to human health caused by smoking. Because science is a process of discovery, Oreskes and Conway tell us, it is “vulnerable to misinterpretation,” and the tobacco industry found they could use “normal scientific uncertainty to undermine the status of actual scientific knowledge.” One of the things the tobacco industry did to increase the sense of uncertainty about tobacco was to fund research that emphasized the doubt factor. When respected scientists, such as Dr. Frederick Seitz, were willing to run doubt-enhancing research programs, this gave the research credibility and amplified doubt. As one tobacco industry executive wrote in a now-notorious memo: “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that exists in the minds of the general public."

But why would Seitz and other respected scientists help Big Tobacco in this way, and why would they later use the same strategies when scientific research proved to be a problem for other business interests? According to Oreskes and Conway, their behavior was motivated not by money but by political ideology. In particular the book looks at three scientists who were significantly involved in the development of weaponry and rocketry during the Cold War: Robert Jastrow, Astrophysicist and Head of Goddard Institute for Space Studies; Frederick Seitz, President of National Academy of Sciences, Rockefeller University, and Consultant to RJ Reynolds Tobacco; and William Nierenberg, Nuclear physicist and long-time Director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography. In the early 1980s these men were on a panel that advised the Reagan Administration on SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars"), and in 1984 they founded the George C. Marshall Institute to defend SDI against criticism from other scientists (i.e., the 6500 scientists and engineers who refused to work on SDI because it undermined the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction, which up to that point had kept both sides from launching a nuclear first strike).

By 1989, as the Cold War moved toward its conclusion, these Cold Warriors found a new enemy: Environmental "extremism,” which they defined as the exaggeration of environmental threats by people with a left wing agenda. Seitz was already involved with Big Tobacco, and the Marshall Institute began to use tactics very similar to the Tobacco Strategy – they worked to convince people that the science was unsettled on issues like secondhand smoke, acid rain, and climate change. The new enemy and the new threat, as they saw it, were the Watermelons -- environmental activists who were green on the outside and red on the inside. And according to Oreskes and Conway, opposition to government regulation -- seen as a slippery slope leading to socialism – is what motivated these respected scientists (who, by the way, were all addressing issues outside their specialties) to spread doubt about what the majority of scientists actually believed. The Marshall Institute – and later other conservative think tanks like the Heartland Institute and the Cato Institute -- worked hard to deny the severity of these problems and insisted that the science was too uncertain to justify government action. (As an example of how effective this strategy is, a 2009 paper reports that “Fifty-two percent of Americans think most climate scientists agree that the Earth has been warming in recent years, and 47% think climate scientists agree (i.e., that there is a scientific consensus) that human activities are a major cause of that warming,” whereas in fact 97.4% of climate scientists actually do agree that climate change is real and humans are causing it.)

Oreskes’ and Conway’s book not only inspired the film version of Merchants of Doubt, but it also provides important background information to the film. And unlike the film, the book doesn’t end on a glib or overly upbeat note. Instead, in their final chapter, Oreskes and Conway ask us to “[i]magine a gigantic banquet” at which millions of people have been eating and drinking abundantly and well for many years, and then to imagine that these people receive a bill that many of them refuse to pay or even to acknowledge. “This is where we stand today on the subject of global warming. For the past 150 years, industrial civilization has been dining on the energy stored in fossil fuels, and the bill has come due,” the authors say. The reason we doubt our responsibility is not just because of the work of spin doctors and doubt mongers. Many of us didn’t even know we were at a banquet, and we were certainly not aware that the bill would include paying the price for acid rain, DDT and other pesticides, the ozone hole, and more. Oreskes and Conway even cite a book about decision theory to explain that we are reluctant to change our behavior because “acting to prevent future harm generally means giving up benefits in the present: certain benefits, to be weighed against uncertain gains.”

Science rarely provides certainty, but it does provide evidence – that cigarette smoking harms us, that our world is warming, and so on. The main message of Merchants of Doubt is that we should listen to those many scientists who are giving us a reality check rather than those merchants who want to sell us doubt. The future of our planet and our species depends on it.

Why Take Pictures When Everyone is a Photographer?

Mexican Bird-of-Paradise In 2005, for my final project in a Dreamweaver class, I used some of my own photographs in a redesigned website...