Monday, June 17, 2019

The World’s Disappearing Plants


Plant Extinction Map: Heidi Ledford writes for Nature: “The researchers found that about 1,234 species had been reported extinct since the publication of Carl Linnaeus’s compendium of plant species, Species Plantarum, in 1753. But more than half of those species were either rediscovered or reclassified as another living species, meaning 571 are still presumed extinct.”
Source: Nature & Humphreys et al.

In an article (“World’s largest plant survey reveals alarming extinction rate;” June 10, 2019), for the scientific journal, Nature, Heidi Ledford writes:
The world’s seed-bearing plants have been disappearing at a rate of nearly 3 species a year since 1900 ― which is up to 500 times higher than would be expected as a result of natural forces alone, according to the largest survey yet of plant extinctions.
The project looked at more than 330,000 species and found that plants on islands and in the tropics were the most likely to be declared extinct. Trees, shrubs and other woody perennials had the highest probability of disappearing regardless of where they were located. The results were published on 10 June in Nature Ecology & Evolution1. 
The study provides valuable hard evidence that will help with conservation efforts, says Stuart Pimm, a conservation scientist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. The survey included more plant species by an order of magnitude than any other study, he says. “Its results are enormously significant.”
If you care about nature and the beauty of biodiversity, this news is not good; it is in fact worrisome and shows that human activity is largely the reason why we are seeing the disappearance—to the point of extinction—of so many plant species. This is part of a larger United Nations study that shows up to one million plants and animals face extinction, chiefly as a result of human activity. Such knowledge, based on facts, ought to encourage governments to take measures, to enact laws that make conservation as important, or, better yet, more important than building and development.

If you would consider a personal observation, we do not require more high-rise condos or office towers in Toronto; these towers are as unsightly as unnecessary and prove the problem of overdevelopment (in addition, how boring it is to see another 50-storey tower.). Moreover, they remove, for one, badly needed wetlands, which are natural ecosystems and a barrier to flooding. Acknowledging this as fact will help change the mindset from development is progress to conservation is progress. It is not easy to change, but questions need to be asked.

Is it really a zero-sum game? Who benefits? Should democracy work like economic game theory?  I for one do not think so. Real progress today is to stop this crazy unhealthy and unsustainable level of development, which benefits only the few economically (i.e., some get wealthy), while a vast majority of inhabitants suffer. Continuing with blind and blithe ignorance as we are now doing comes at a great cost—locally to our human health and wellness and globally to our planet.

Now is the time to consider the latter more important. Now is the time for real progress, the kind that benefits the many, the majority. I want to enjoy a city with less concrete, asphalt and steel, and one with more wild plants and flowers and with a greater abundance of natural beauty. Now is the time to conserve what we have before us, that is, before it is too late. The extinction of plants, as a result of human activity, remind us of what is at stake when they disappear.

For the complete article, go to [Nature].

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Happy Father’s Day (2019)

Days to Remember Dads

Backyard Yellow Irises (Iris pseudacorus) 1
Photo Credit: ©2019. Perry J. Greenbaum

Backyard Irises (Iris pseudacorus) 2
Photo Credit: ©2019. Perry J. Greenbaum

Mike + the Mechanics: The Living Years (1988)

Father's Day

Mike + the Mechanics: The Living Years (1988), sung by Mike Rutherford, and written by him and bandmate, B.A. Robertson for this British band. It is the second track on the album. Living Years.

The song is about the regrets of father-son relationships, about not saying words of thanks, appreciation and love to a father when the opportunity is present—when he is alive to hear them and take them in. I felt this pang of regret when I heard this song in my car in early 1989, driving home at night from somewhere far on a dark and lonely highway.

My father had died of cancer nine years earlier, and this song reminded me of the positive effect and role that he had in my life, shaping and influencing my political and social worldview to what it is today. I think that he would be proud of what I believe; and, yes, it is important for me to consider that, to know that.

You see, when you think about it, everyone is essentially his father’s son, and this realization becomes more real when you yourself become a father. It is a tough job, more often than not unrecognized, undervalued and underappreciated, but it has its rewards, especially when your children, sons and daughters, often only after they have children of their own, thank you for all your efforts.

Happy Father’s Day to all fathers out there.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

My View of Democratic Socialism


At the core of democratic socialism are old-fashioned ideas that were at one time part of liberalism, before it morphed into neoliberalism (on the right) and progressivism (on the left). It has a certain way of viewing the world, like all political ideologies. At its core is democracy; at its core is fairness, human dignity and justice. Such are fundamentals for a fair society, fundamentals that are sorely lacking today. As an example, there remains some unfinished economic business dating to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration [1933–1945].

Economic inequality affects almost everyone, except for the top 10% of society: I and my family are far away from that social class, and my sympathies primarily lie with the working class and the lower middle-class, which we are squarely a part of and will remain so indefinitely. For me the biggest issue, one that the majority of persons can agree on, is economic justice. Many would agree, perhaps only privately, that we have had enough of right-wing neoliberalism and its many permutations that favor the few, including market capitalism, corporate capitalism, and the oligarchism. It is about ideas; for example, the ideas of Milton Friedman [1912–2006; born in Brooklyn, NY] greatly influenced American economic policy in the 1980s and onward, and still live on long after his death.

Perversely, in America, socialism in the form of corporate handouts for corporations is acceptable; for individuals not. The former is good business; the latter a personal failure. Why this is so explains and shows clearly the problem, the unfairness and the corruption of such ideologically driven ideas. Let’s be honest: the ruling class has no intention of allowing any change, particularly if it affects in any way their wealth. This needs serious airing, serious discussion and debate. It is time to see reality and time to openly discuss it. It is time for change.

In the end, we need new ideas for the 21st century to replace these outdated ones. In short, one has to enter a way of thinking that looks at actual social conditions, what are its root causes and what can be done to better society. This is why I wrote about the need for a modern, 21st century, New Deal for America, similar to the scope of FDR’s New Deal (see “Time For Another New Deal;” March 5, 2012), but taking into consideration the needs of the majority of persons living in America today, in the 21st century. Identity politics, at the moment, might not be as important as economic issues, the so-called bread-and-butter issues. These issues affect far more people than any other issue.

I view such economic issues (i.e., jobs, housing, education, healthcare, etc.) as needing to be front-and-centre and a necessary way to show unity in a battle against powerful and influential forces that have no desire to relinquish control or make any changes economically. They, the ruling class, will not let go willingly, which is what history tells us. It will take a struggle, it will take a show of unity; it will take millions (if not tens of millions) of people doing what is ever legally and ethically  and morally necessary to make the changes that will bring about economic and social change.

Now is the time for old-school liberals to stand up and be counted; now is the time for old-school liberals to make their voices heard, notably among the working class and the lower middle-class, which used to be represented by the Old Left, but no longer, and not for decades. Now is the time to effect economic justice, by completing the unfinished business of FDR and the New Deal. This is the way I see it.

Bernie Sanders, FDR & Old-School Liberalism (2019)

Democratic Socialism

I thought that Bernie Sander’s speech a few days ago at George Washington University, in Washington, DC, was insightful, factual and on the mark, a defense of democratic socialism, everyone wrote. While this is factual and true, it is also true that Sanders’ platform for change is to a large degree a modern form of old-school liberalism, drawing on Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his liberal New Deal politics.

Modern liberalism, it must be remembered, moved in one form to the right in the late 1970s (i.e., neoliberalism.), influenced by conservative economic ideas (i.e., a market-based economy) that primarily favored the wealthy. They have done nicely since then; everyone else, well, the numbers show, not so well.

Yet, the mainstream corporate media has not been so kind to Sanders, for obvious reasons (fearing socialism in the label, democratic socialism), and thus wish to undermine his message of hope and change for all Americans. They fear his message, since it runs contrary to unfettered capitalism, which they favor, and which favors only the few. There are reasons why. Many, if not most influential journalists and writers, are of the higher classes, part of the professional or upper middle class. It is not likely that any are residing with the working or lower middle classes.

Even though I am educated, and have professional degrees, this is where and how I grew up and where I am now economically, and hence my views run accordingly. The same must be said for the influential and well-known journalists and writers. No doubt, their “social position” and standing influences their worldview, and I would say, it does to a very large degree. In the end, people’s sympathies tend to align with their social class and culture; it takes vision and courage and an appreciation for justice and fairness to think outside such powerful self-imposed boundaries.

So, who speaks for the majority of Americans on economic or bread-and-butter issues? Not many politicians outside Bernie Sanders, as far as I know. And not many writers and journalists; such views are likely not considered “healthy” in a market capitalist system, whose primary goal is to increase consumption of mass-produced products. Many can ill afford them, yet many buy them (on credit). It is a poor situation to be in, a poor way to live.

It also undermines and weakens liberal democracy, because it then fails at what is most important—allowing those without power to have a say. In a liberal democracy, you hope and expect voices to speak not only for the powerful and influential, —only a thin minority—but also for the great majority. It seems that in a great many western liberal democracies, this has been turned around, and there is really little genuine questioning of the status quo. There is thankfully some.

There are opinion writers in some newspapers who are given space to voice other views, but rarely to give space to those of the lower classes. It might make the upper classes uncomfortable. This general lack explains, I would argue, the rise of identity politics and ethno-nationalism in the last decade. Various groups and peoples have felt left out and have found common ground and common cause in small groups—small as a percentage of the population. But this is not a real victory, because it divides people and groups into smaller units, each fighting for a shrinking piece of the pie.

Real victory can come about only by uniting for a larger common cause, one that affects the most number of persons and families, one that has real-life consequential effects. There is such an issue that everyone can understand, one that has never been achieved by the majority of workers—economic freedom. Bhaskar Sunkara, who, in an opinion piece (“Bernie Sanders just made a brilliant defense of democratic socialism;”  June 13, 2019), for The Guardian, writes:
We’re used to politicians that vacillate, triangulate, “evolve”. Sanders has done none of these things – he has maintained astounding message discipline for half a century. Inequality is undermining the promise of America, he has always argued, and a coalition of working people organizing against millionaires and billionaires can change things for the better.
Sanders still has a portrait of Debs in his Washington DC office, and in the 1980s he curated an album of the legendary socialist orator’s speeches. But yesterday’s address was a reminder that even though he still embodies much of the old socialist spirit, he has found ways to soften its edges and make it more accessible to ordinary Americans.
At George Washington University, Sanders once again railed against the billionaire class and “the profit-taking gatekeepers of our healthcare, our technology, our finance system, our food supply and almost all of the other basic necessities of life”. But instead of citing his hero Debs, he drew on Franklin Delano Roosevelt – a president who saw himself as the liberal savior of the capitalist system. Yet in 1944, shortly before his death, Roosevelt put forth a sweeping manifesto he called the Second Bill of Rights. Existing political rights alone haven’t given us “equality in the pursuit of happiness”, Roosevelt argued; we need to complement those political rights by guaranteeing access to employment, housing, healthcare, education and more.
It was not socialism per se, but a blueprint for a social democratic safety net in the US – one that sadly never came to fruition.
By pointing to this history, Sanders is signaling that he’s running to win the Democratic primary and the presidency. He aims to be the candidate of a party of governing power – the party of Roosevelt, not the party of Debs.
You got to admire Sanders’ consistency over the decades; you got to admire his lack of guile; you got to admire his courage and his convictions. I do.

For more on this article, go to [The Guardian].

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Bernie Sanders on Democratic Socialism (2019)

Bernie Sanders on Democratic Socialism (2019) defines the two differing visions of America, where unfettered capitalism has had a long run of a many decades, benefiting the few and hurting the majority, chiefly made up of working class and lower middle-class (together making up two-thirds of U.S. families) struggling to get by. Worse off are the 40 million poor, another 14%, meaning that only 20% of Americans at most are living the American Dream. If America does not change, that percentage is sure to move lower.
Via: USA Today & Youtube

Bernie Sanders [born in 1941 in Brooklyn, NY]  begins his speech with the following sobering and truthful words:
If there was ever a moment where we had to effectively analyze the competing political and social forces which define this historical period, this is that time. If there was ever a moment when we needed to stand up and fight against the forces of oligarchy and authoritarianism, this is that time. And, if there was ever a moment when we needed a new vision to bring our people together in the fight for justice, decency and human dignity, this is that time. In the year 2019 the United States and the rest of the world face two very different political paths. On one hand, there is a growing movement towards oligarchy and authoritarianism in which a small number of incredibly wealthy and powerful billionaires own and control a significant part of the economy and exert enormous influence over the political life of our country. On the other hand, in opposition to oligarchy, there is a movement of working people and young people who, in ever increasing numbers, are fighting for justice.
Sanders delivered the speech at George Washington University in Washington yesterday, June 12, 2019. I wish Sanders well in persuading America and Americans, especially young people (and old ones like myself, too), to consider what he is saying; he cited FDR and the New Deal for a reason, a good one. Sanders will no doubt meet resistance, including from the right wing of the Democratic Party, backed and influenced by the monied brokers of Wall Street, an elite group with an inordinate amount of economic influence and political power. He will also get no support from the corporate media.

It will be a tough fight, but it is one that he is well prepared for. His whole life has brought him to this defining moment in America .Most important, he knows of what he speaks. The system is broken, limiting opportunity, advancement and freedom to everyone except the few; everyone knows this and the elites are afraid to admit it--for obvious reasons.

I have been writing about such issues since 2010; Sanders, however, has been consistently faithful to the cause of justice, decency and human dignity for more than four decades. The full 45-minute speech is worth watching in its entirety. it explains the reality of what is taking place, backed by facts. His speech gives hope to young people, something sorely lacking today, in America and elsewhere in the world.

The transcript of the speech can be found at [Vox].

A Visit to Mill Pond Park (2019)

Urban Nature

Here are some photos of a beautiful park in Richmond Hill, not far from where we live in Maple. It is populated by Canada geese and ducks, as well as many other smaller birds.

All Photos: ©2019. Perry J. Greenbaum

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Reading & Understanding ‘1984’ for Today’s Times

Fiction & Truth

One of the ways you can arrive at truth is to read good fiction, often called literary fiction or literary novels, many of which are listed on my site; Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in June 1949 by George Orwell [1903–1950] is one such novel. Although 70 years old, I recommend that you read it in its entirety and also read an excellent article (“Doublethink Is Stronger Than Orwell Imagined;” July 2019), by George Packer, in The Atlantic, who writes:
What does the novel mean for us? Not Room 101 in the Ministry of Love, where Winston is interrogated and tortured until he loses everything he holds dear. We don’t live under anything like a totalitarian system. “By definition, a country in which you are free to read Nineteen Eighty-Four is not the country described in Nineteen Eighty-Four,” Lynskey acknowledges. Instead, we pass our days under the nonstop surveillance of a telescreen that we bought at the Apple Store, carry with us everywhere, and tell everything to, without any coercion by the state. The Ministry of Truth is Facebook, Google, and cable news. We have met Big Brother and he is us.
I could not agree more. This is one of the overarching themes of my blog the many years I have been thinking such thoughts and writing them down for public view, all with the hope of engendering similar questioning thoughts. Sadly, I have not had many people who would agree with its sentiments, people of the left and the right taken in by totalitarian thinking, mostly unaware that they have been. It takes great intellectual effort and the reading of many classic books, as well as discussion and analysis, to see the world and its peoples the way it truly is and not as the lies of doublethink and newspeak say it is.

The answer will be found at your local public library, one of the greatest sources of knowledge and truth. That is where the books are, in the stacks of libraries. Go there and read. Keep on reading. Freedom and individual thought starts and ends in the mind, and it is both risky and foolish to give it up so easily, particularly to corporate entities who sell your thoughts (call it data)—notably your likes and personal tastes—for money to advertisers.

Greed and corruption have no limits, it seems. But some thoughts ought to be private; not everything should be shared. That being the case, it is true that it takes great effort to remain independent and have your own thoughts, and it is true that your efforts will not necessarily be rewarded in a monetary sense. Yet, it has at least one noted and important benefit—you will know yourself, you will know that you have been true to said self, and you will know the road to freedom.

Equally important, you will have a standard of truth, always important in navigating a world of confusion and chaos, which did not start with the current U.S. president, who is only more bold and assertive about spreading fabrications, falsehoods and disinformation—often as a means of self-promotion and self-aggrandizement. Truth and truth claims are always necessary to investigate and measure with the weight of facts, always the basis of truth. This is always important; and this becomes more important later on in life.

You can read the complete article at [The Atlantic] .

Monday, June 10, 2019

Noise Pollution & Its Effect on Our Health


Toronto is a big city; it is also a noisy city. Urban dwellers tend to shrug off the noise of cars, trucks, motorcycless, airplanes, construction vehicles and construction equipment as part of city life. There is also the regular and routine noise all hours of the day of emergency vehicles—ambulances, fire trucks and police cars—rushing up and down Bathurst Street near where we live.

The last few years, I have found this noise not only an assault on my ears, but an assault on my health. And your health, as well, my fellow urban dwellers, whether you live in Toronto, in New York City, in London or in Paris. Particularly appalling and annoying are the piercing sirens of emergency vehicles, the whirring sounds of leaf blowers and the deafening roar of unmuffled motorcycles, all of which happen too frequently, marring the possibility of peace and quiet. I deem these as aural assaults and dangerous to my health and yours, as well.

The World Health Organisation says that the average level of traffic noise should not exceed 53dB in the day and 45dB in the evening, levels that are rarely ever met in major citie around the world, including the one in which I reside. Peace and quiet ought to be an enshrined human right, chiefly because it has a great effect on over-all health.

We are a long way from this happening, and yet, it is indeed my opinion that noise pollution is a public health crisis, and should be taken seriously by politicians at all levels of government. An excellent article (“Is Noise Pollution the Next Big Public Heath Crisis;” May 6, 2019), by David Owen, in The New Yorker supports this claim with reams of scientific facts and studies.  Here is what Owen wrote about one such European study conducted by Bruitparif in Paris, France:
In February, Bruitparif, a nonprofit organization that monitors environmental-noise levels in metropolitan Paris, published a report that combined medical projections from the World Health Organization with “noise maps” based partly on data from its own network of acoustic sensors. It concluded, among many other things, that an average resident of any of the loudest parts of the Île-de-France—which includes Paris and its surrounding suburbs—loses “more than three healthy life-years,” in the course of a lifetime, to some combination of ailments caused or exacerbated by the din of cars, trucks, airplanes, and trains. These health effects, according to guidelines published by the W.H.O.’s European regional office last year, include tinnitus, sleep disturbance, ischemic heart disease, obesity, diabetes, adverse birth outcomes, and cognitive impairment in children. In Western Europe, the guidelines say, traffic noise results in an annual loss of “at least one million healthy years of life.”
If such is the noise of progress, I can easily live without it. If I am sounding like a grumpy old man, blame the noise pollution; it has affected my health, my well-being, my sense of contentment and happiness, if you will. After all, such “progress,” a debatable term in this writer’s view, comes at a great cost to us all—both human and animal. Yes, there is a true social and economic cost. And yet the noise seems to be getting worse each year; and so does the health of urban dwellers. Noise pollution affects everyone; and it is an issue that ought to concern everyone.

It is without a doubt an aural assault on us all, and it should be taken seriously by the politicians, the lawmakers who are supposed to represent our interests. Noise abatement needs to be written into law, using science as its basis, and the noise levels of cities, including its streets, its highways, its construction sites, etc., routinely measured  and mapped and then, equally important, publicly reported to its citizens. We should know the noisiest parts of the city.

There is knowledge that can lead to change, preferably backed by the power of law. As a result, there ought to be an official government team dedicated to noise abatement. Some things ought to be banned outright. First on the list will be leaf-blowers; many will applaud such a decision. Second on the list is loud motorcycles with altered mufflers and cars with broken mufflers. Third on the list is changing the high-pitched sirens and rules of use for all emergency vehicles. They have to be brought in to the 21st century.

In the end, there has to be consistent enforcement for it to work, for our cities to become quieter, and for our health to become better. All in all, lawbreakers should be warned and then fined or given a citation; repeat offenders jailed. This is of course a last resort, but a necessary one, if only to show the seriousness of the problem. If the penalties sound severe or punitive, they are and they need be, since this is a serious public health problem. Compliance is always preferable, and I am persuaded that most people will comply, once they understand that this problem affects their health, too.

You can read the complete article at [New Yorker].

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Rethinking Housing and Home Ownership


An article (“A Housing Economy for the Many;” June 5, 2019), by Elizabeth Capelle, in Dissent, says what must be said about the housing market economy and its dysfunctional ways the last 10 years or so. Conventional thinking holds that a simple supply and demand problem explains why home prices have escalated so dramatically, and that the solution lies in building more homes. Thus reducing the demand and thus reducing home prices.

It sounds true, but it’s not. This might be true for other consumer goods, but not for houses, which sit on lands that are limited in supply (there is only so much good land available to build). Moreover, with houses being viewed as anything other than shelter, in too many caes as long-term investments and as assets that appreciate in value, one can easily find an explanation for the housing mess in many cities, including in New York, in London and in Toronto, where I reside.

These cities, and many others in the world in the last decade, have simply become unaffordable, even for the middle class. At the heart of the matter, there is something called financialization, the growing influence of the financial markets in the economy of a nation. As a result a house, which until recently was deemed a home or shelter, has been turned to another financial instrument or a means of financial exchange; Capelle writes:
Financialization has tended to promote the exchange value of housing over its use value. Eased by the ready availability of credit and developments in finance technology, investment in housing has surged. Ordinary homeowners now see their homes as assets that will appreciate in value. In some cities well-to-do investors buy houses or apartments with no intention of living in them; they simply want a safe and profitable place to park their money. The securitization of mortgages has facilitated investment in housing by far-flung shareholders. Private equity and other types of firms have gotten in on the act, buying up rental housing across the globe, jacking up rents and fees, and doing their best to rid themselves of any rent-controlled tenants who may live in their properties. Speculation—the purchase of assets with the expectation that their value will increase—is now a central feature of the housing market, with dire consequences for affordability.
In other words, home ownership has morphed into big business for banks and other mortgage lenders. The one-time home buyer holds little interest for such large lending institutions, many of which are multinationals and transnationals. Their myopic dysfunctional thinking has created a housing mess of world proportions; cupidity cannot be dismissed as a reason; neither can stupidity. Again, no surprise that the deregulated banking system, Wall Street and its ways are chiefly responsible for this state of affairs, as they were for the 2007–2008 housing bubble. Capelle writes rather convincingly, citing Rethinking the Economics of Land and Housing (2017), the following: 
Mainstream economists have failed to accurately account for the housing crisis not only because of their inadequate conceptualization of land and housing, but also, in the words of Rethinking, because of their failure “to properly conceptualise the role of the banking system in the economy and the flows of credit and stocks of debts it creates.
Such is the status quo, which favours a market economy and private home and land ownership. This, however, leaves out most working people, whose wages have not kept up with housing inflation. In other words, this works only for the small wealthy minority, who make up so few in number that their views should be dismissed as unrealistic and unfair. Governments worldwide must be made to understand that the status quo is not sustainable any longer for most persons, for most families, for the long-quiet majority, who have collectively borne the brunt of this insane economic and financial policy.

Change can’t come too soon; one excellent idea that is growing in strength in both Canada and the U.S. is community land trusts, or CLTs. In the end, change has to start by thinking of housing as a shelter rather than as a financial asset, which is the only rational, moral and normal way of thinking about housing. Any other way leads to the ugly mess that we are witnessing today. Therefore comes the need for enforcement and regulation; and this has to be allied with urban policies & planning as well as municipal and other federal laws that ensure this reality. Affordable shelter ought to be viewed as a fundamental universal right within society and not only for the wealthy or the elites.

You can read the complete article at [Dissent].