GRANDMA’S OVEN AND THE ENERGY GRID GOLD RUSH

THE VANCOUVER COURIER, DEC. 16

My late grandmother was born before the turn of the twentieth century in a northern European rural community without electricity.  She retained a lifelong aversion to electrical devices. Even in her nineties, she would often ask my uncle to turn on the oven for her.

“Misoneism” is a term coined in 1886, not long before my grandmother’s birth, which means “a hatred, fear, or intolerance of innovation or change.”  I suppose this dusty 19th century noun could be trotted out to describe my grandmother’s phobic attitude to ovens, or even the growing concern today about the long-term health effects of wireless networks, electromagnetic fields, and smart devices.

But even if you disregard the health debate on Smart Meters – which is still without a scientific consensus –  you’re still left with some troubling questions about this new technology.

Gary Murphy, BC Hydro’s Chief Project Officer on Smart Meters, is quoted on bclocalnews.com that “the installation of the new meters will create approximately 350 jobs and generate $30 to $40 million in direct wages.” Hydro claims the installation will save British Columbians $520 million over the next two decades. If you subtract these figures from the billion dollar cost for the program, you’ll still left in the negative zone – especially if you factor in the interest this billion dollars of taxpayer money could make over twenty years. 

With Canada exporting between a billion and 2 billion dollars worth of electricity each year, there seems little domestic need for this massive infrastructure project. Yet behind this program looms something called ‘energy convergence,’ in which Canadian electricity, oil and gas are integrated within the ‘North America security perimeter.’

Critics are concerned that BC Hydro, and possibly other interested parties, will know what appliances or electronic devices consumers are using and when, along with the times when homes are occupied. Not so, says Hydro of the encrypted data. At no time will the company have access to any customers’ real-time consumption information. “Only customers who choose to take advantage of in-home feedback devices will have access to real-time consumption data in the privacy of their own homes.” says Murphy.

That statement may provide a clue to the corporate rollout of these devices across the world, which ties in with the energy convergence model. Critics insist that after governments install smart meters by decree, consumers can be sold on a wide range of new smart appliances that are in constant communication with one another. The energy sector will have access to huge amounts of personal data that can then be sold to marketers.

“The key reason for smart meters is huge profits for the ICT (information and communications technologies) sector – IBM, Cisco, General Electric, Oracle, Itron, etc.  In other words, the reason for smart meters is to sell smart meters, and then smart appliances,’ writes Toronto-based investigative reporter Joyce Nelson in an online article.

A billion dollars of our money and we have no say in the alteration to our home properties? A slated fifty percent rise in our Hydro rates over the next five years? Given the Bizarro World numbers, it’s hard not to get the sinking feeling that the Smart Meter program is the same old tune about the privatization of profit and the socialization of loss.

In one of his last acts of public largesse, Gordon Campbell removed Smart Meters from the oversight of the BC Utilities Commission, the body that has long been tasked to ensure that energy policies follow the best interests of ratepayers. A series of stories in the Tyee has outlined the incestuous relationships between BC Liberal insiders, the BC Hydro board, US-based investment firms and energy companies. There is little doubt the one-percenters are going to make out like bandits in this game.

MIT media critic Noam Chomsky has warned for years about ‘bringing the Third World home.’ For decades, international lending agencies have financed massive (and massively unnecessary) infrastructure projects in the developing world, turning sovereign states into easily busted piggy banks through onerous debt. Is the energy grid gold rush part of a more sophisticated, high-tech version of public wealth extraction? Or have I have inherited a touch of my grandmother’s ‘misoneism’?

LAB RATS AND SMART METERS

The Vancouver Courier December 8, 2011

This week, The City of North Vancouver called on the provincial government to halt plans to install Smart Meters or allow the program’s inspection by the B.C. Utilities Commission. In California, 43 cities, towns or counties have publicly opposed the devices, with 11 jurisdictions banning them outright. Are civic leaders bowing to pressure from paranoid Luddites, or are they wising up to a multibillion-dollar boondoggle that’s outfitting homes with fry-and-spy devices? Or is the answer huddling somewhere in between the contending claims?

The public debate about electromagnetic emissions has never moved me that much, for one simple reason: the inverse square law.  Move a few feet away from a power source and the emission strength drops off greatly. It comes down to cumulative exposure over time. There might be problem in the making if you hold a cell phone a few inches from your brain for hours, daily – or there might not be. It all depends on which expert you ask. Both cell phones and Smart Meters employ radio frequency electromagnetic radiation, and there is no scientific consensus on the health effects of RF fields.

At Olson manor, our old analogue meter is positioned on the wall outside my wife’s office, just inches away from her desk. It is also only a few feet away from our sleeping heads in the main bedroom downstairs. BC Hydro insists on replacing it with a Smart Meter, and the inverse square law has come back to haunt me: emission strength scales up exponentially as you move closer to a radiation source.

BC Hydro claims that exposure to radio frequency during a 20-year lifespan of a Smart Meter is equivalent to the exposure from a single 30-minute cell phone call. Not so, according to social scientist Daniel Hirsch, a senior lecturer on nuclear policy at the University of Santa Cruz. At a ten foot distance, the whole body exposure to radio frequency from a Smart Meter may be up to eighty times higher than the whole body radio frequency exposure from a cell phone.

In an interview on indybay.org, Hirsch was asked what health risks these devices present to the public. “We don’t know,” he replied. “At the moment it’s uncertain what the health effect is from RF radiation. It could turn out to be significant. It could turn out to be insignificant. It’s a large experiment on a very large population and a big chunk of that experiment is involuntary.”

The lecturer draws a parallel between the current Smart Meter debate and the past debate on nuclear energy safety, with respect to the sluggishness of health officials to understand and acknowledge the risks of latent illnesses from cumulative doses of atomic radiation.

Dr. David Carpenter is a Harvard Medical School-trained physician who headed up the New York State Dept. of Public Health for 18 years, before becoming Dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Albany. In an interview with Maine’s Smart Meter Safety Coalition, Carpenter calls the safety assurances from the energy industry “absolutely false.”

“While no one has actually done human health studies in relation to people living in homes with Smart Meters, we have evidence from a whole variety of other sources that demonstrates convincingly and consistently that exposure to radio frequency radiation at elevated levels for long periods of time increases the risk of cancer, increases damage to the nervous system, causes electrosensitivity, has adverse reproductive effects, and a variety of other effects on different organ systems,” says Carpenter.

Dr. Carpenter insists it should be up to each individual if he or she “wants to be continually exposed, 24-7, to elevated levels of RF radiation. So an informed person should demand that they be allowed to keep their analogue meter.”

In February, Olle Johansson, a professor in the Department of Neuroscience at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, issued a press release stating that “the combined effect of cell phones, cordless phones, cell towers, WI-FI and wireless Internet place billions of people around the world at risk for cancer, neurological disease and reproductive and developmental impairments.”

Claims like this about the safety of RF fields should concern us, if it means a massive, long-term, uncontrolled experiment on public health. No wonder some of the lab rats in BC are calling for a referendum on Smart Meters.

Cartoon, Vancouver Courier, Nov. 7

BREAKDOWN & ASSEMBLY: THE OCCUPY LEGACY

by Geoff Olson, Common Ground magazine, December

At the time of this writing, Occupy Vancouver’s tent camp is no more. Across North America, the remaining occupations are under siege from law enforcement and negative press, to say nothing of harsh weather. Is the global flareup from October 15 just a historical flash in the pan, and its tagline, “We Are the 99 Percent” destined to become a forgettable political cliché? Or is there something necessary and new animating the “Occupy Everywhere” movement that will take on new forms in the future?

On a chilly early November day, one of the Occupy Vancouver organizers described how he joined the movement. “I used to be one of the one percent and made a lot of money,” said Suresh Fernando. “I was stockbroker at Scotia Macleod, lived at Wall Center, drove a beamer, all that kind of fancy stuff. I was never happy.” He says he went through a “spiritual transformation” over the past few years, a change that took him to the grounds of the Vancouver Art Gallery on October 15,the day of global solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. Fernando has been on and off the site ever since.

“You know, the financial industry is predicated on the stupidity of the general public, so I’m here as someone who deeply understands the other side of the fence,” he says with animation. A common theme among occupiers is that financial institutions and other big organizations have grown outside the reach of representative democracy. The voting citizen has become an isolated atom of consumption, squeezed for profit and bled by debt.

The corporate state is comparable to a cruise ship with a disintegrating hull. The crew is trying half-heartedly to plug the leaks, while the officers are pulling boards from steerage to redecorate the ballroom. Off in the distance, we can see the lights of small vessels picking up people thrown from the ship. I will argue below that the occupations have performed, in part, like rescue vessels – jury-rigged rafts bound together with determination and awareness.

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Leopold Kohr wouldn’t have been surprised by the outcry against the big, lawless institutions of today. Born in Salzburg Austria in 1909, Kohr was something of the Rodney Dangerfield of economists – a guy who “couldn’t get no respect.” He died in 1994, but his central thesis lives on, summed up in his 1957 book The Breakdown of Nations, in which he wrote, “Wherever something is wrong, something is too big.”

Anticipating E. F. Schumacher’s sixties manifesto, Small is Beautiful and anthropologist Joseph Tainter’s scholarly work on cultural collapse in the late eighties, Kohr held that endless growth is unsustainable in all complex systems, from organisms to organizations. As any institution grows, the distance increases between those at the base of the pyramid and those at the top. As democratic participation weakens, power gravitates to a shrinking minority who use it to enrich themselves at the expense of the many.

The “1 percent” is no more of a historical quirk than the Gilded Age of late nineteenth century America. To Kohr, elite-level corruption is a repeating motif that heralds the breakdown of great powers in their cancerous, terminal stages. The phenomenon predates the Ancient Romans, whose anti-Republican elite distracted restless citizens with gladiatorial spectacles, while pouring huge resources into defending an overextended empire that was being hollowed out from within.

Kohr wrote his historical survey of failed giant states in 1951, in the glow of post-war recovery. It found a publisher six years later, just prior to the starry optimism of the space age. His thesis on the crisis of size was seriously out of step with the times. Wasn’t it the sheer scale of US military might that saved Europe from Hitler? And weren’t supranational bodies like the UN ushering in an era of global harmony? Weren’t the Sputnik and Mercury programs only possible through the massive expenditures of the two remaining superpowers, the US and the USSR?

Surveying the historical record, Kohr refused to believe the post-war rebuilding boom could be extended indefinitely into the future. Endless growth is not the answer, he argued. It is the very essence of the problem.

It’s not ideology that is at the heart of history’s train wreck of failed states, Kohr insisted. Great civilizations with widely varying belief systems and political structure – from the Maya to the Spanish Empire to the USSR to Nazi Germany – have all engaged in mass exterminations of their own subjects before ending in ruins. The only characteristic these empires shared was their overwhelming size, which precluded any significant involvement of citizens in affairs of state. “While every kind of small state, whether republic or monarchy, is thus by nature democratic, every kind of large state is by nature undemocratic,” Kohr wrote.

Our politicians and pundits genuflect before economic “growth” as a good in and of itself. Yet many of the most pressing global problems – increasing wealth disparities, big bank Ponzi schemes, Third World debt, wars for profit, petrodollar-backed resource depletion, nuclear power disasters, monoculture GMO crops, ecological destruction, the fall of personal privacy and the rise of public surveillance – trace back to bloated institutions that are artificially propped up by the mesh of monopoly capitalism. These organizations are dominated by a small class of technocrats, plutocrats and political leaders who live in a bubble of privilege and career-adaptive blindness. In this global network of interlocked corporate directorships and multinational cross-ownership, democratic oversight is possible only in theory, but rarely in practice.

As journalist Bill Moyers observed in a recent speech, people “are occupying Wall Street because Wall Street has occupied the country.” Wall Street has also occupied the world. The investment banks spread their toxic, securitized assets from Newark to Norway, in a cynical plan to maximize profits by watering down the risk among unknowing players, initiating a global economic crisis in the process. In 2002, the globe-girdling investment bank Goldman Sachs colluded in a secret deal with Greek government that concealed the nation’s swollen budget deficit for years, leading to crisis in the Eurozone when the real numbers were revealed. Sachs’ manipulation of the commodity futures market has also led to spikes in the cost of staples across the world, resulting in mass hunger and food riots in the developing nations, from Peru to Zimbabwe.

The worldwide trade derivatives market is now estimated at 791 trillion dollars, 20 times greater than the GDP of the entire planet. The problem of overgrowth is not limited to the financial sector’s fictions, of course. The US maintains 860 military bases across the world to ensure the security of the petrodollar. Presiding over this is a swollen, unmanageable defense department, a sinkhole into which literally trillions of dollars have disappeared, unaccounted for by Congressional oversight.

Gargantuan corporations like Walmart and Google now dwarf entire nations in economic scale. Kohr warned that when a civilization “grows cracks in its later stages, it was not because of its social shortcomings but because of its infection with large-scale organisms such as monopolies or unsurveyably huge market areas which, far from being responsible for economic progress, seem to be its principal obstacle.”

Anticipating George H. Bush’s talk of a “New World Order,” the Austrian professor predicted a global network of international control, but was not optimistic of its outcome. “After a period of dazzling vitality, it will spend itself. There will be no war to bring about its end. It will not explode. Like the ageing colossi of the stellar universe, it will gradually collapse internally, leaving as its principal contribution to posterity its fragments, the little states, until the consolidation process of big-power development starts all over again,” he wrote in The Breakdown of Nations.”

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On October 15, millions of people hit the streets, from Santiago to San Francisco, in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. The horizontally organized, leaderless occupations are informed by the kind of networked, open-source collaboration that is found on the Internet. Within weeks of the global protests, street people were wandering into the camps to take advantage of the ground security, free food and supplies. Organizers discovered they weren’t just protesting big banks; they were trying to figure out how to sustain themselves and others for an indefinite period. The homeless were free to join in the committees and general assemblies, giving everyone a chance to get to know, and possibly grow, with others in their midst.

Writing on Salon.com, Glenn Greenwald observes that the occupy movement “is not devoted to voicing grievances as much as it is finding a model to solve them.” Writer Marina Sitrin, who is researching global mass movements from Spain to Egypt, insists the Occupy movement’s assemblies offer a “radical, if not revolutionary, way of organizing. When we’re in our neighbourhoods and come together and relate in that way, it’s more like alternative governance,” she told Russian Television. In the last few weeks, the protests seemed to be as much about social transformation as protest against big banks. As one anonymous commentator on the Internet asked, “Why demand change [of Wall Street] when people can, collectively, make it obsolete?”

Here’s the big question. Is it possible the occupations were the rough drafts of a parallel civic society, decentralized but global? If, as Kohr insisted, the overgrowth of states and institutions invariably leads to a collapse, is the Occupy movement offering us a rough sketch of more humane, people-scaled way of life, in spite of all its unavoidable flaws and faux pas?

“We have accomplished so much,” enthused a woman at Occupy Vancouver, identifying herself as Kiki. “We need to prove to the world that we can take care of each other. That we don’t need the government breathing down our neck… so what we’ve basically done is build an alternative community here that provides all the same social services to people that they should be getting in Vancouver but they actually aren’t getting… we want to show people it works, and we’re actually accomplishing it.”

It’s a big claim that is easy to make in the first, flushed weeks of a newly minted movement. But this kind of enthusiasm is not without intellectual foundation. At Solari.com, Catherine Austin Fitts points out the multiplier effect of providing goods and services to the community by the community. Fitts, formerly assistant Secretary of Housing in the first Bush administration, insists that “lending circles” and other ground-up, microeconomic operations result in the circulation of wealth abundance, in the inverse of the Walmart wealth extraction model for communities.

Fitts believes the present debt-fuelled political economy is far too big to be defeated outright; it can only be “starved.” This can be accomplished by finding alternative, smaller-scale models for living, and reengineering money to serve public assets over private hoarding.

I don’t want to romanticize the occupy movement and its members – or its embers, smouldering after judicial writs and police crackdowns. There is nothing romantic about camping out in near-zero temperatures or figuring out the next move with authorities while dealing with group dynamics and contending egos. For the movement’s foot soldiers, juggling the day-to-day problems of ground security and sanitation has been part of their tour of duty, as they offer up a vision of a parallel civil society that looks more wonky than wonkish. Their unexpected fusion of pragmatism and idealism is still completely beyond news outlets, which cannot see the forest for the tents.

Speaking of tents, we’d do well to remember there have been tent cities in major cities across the US at least since the crash of 2008 that have nothing to do with the Occupy movement. They are inhabited, in part, by scared and scarred former members of the middle class, many who have lost their homes and livelihoods to a subprime mortgage or a hospital bill. We may get the kind of occupations we deserve, depending on our willingness to confront the reality of a transnational situation that stretches from New York’s Zuccotti Park to Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Big is looking unstable these days. Big multinationals fixate on maximizing quarterly profits, with the social and ecological costs of resource extraction ignored as “externalities.” Big finance continues to measure economic progress by false metrics like the GDP, which counts a heart attack or oil spill as an economic plus. Big media swoons over a volatile stock market while amusing news-consumers to death with celebrity piffle. Big government signs off on wars for profit and private security/surveillance programs, while carving up the public sector for business interests. Perhaps its time to stop genuflecting before big and remind ourselves of the virtues of the small. That can start by supporting local networks of interdependence, whichever form they take, from workers’ cooperatives to farmers markets to credit unions to inventive new forms of public assembly.

On a cold weekday night in November, I stood on a street corner surveying a landscape of tents and tarps at Occupy Vancouver. “How are you doing in this cold?” I asked a grizzled fellow in a chair on the perimeter of the Vancouver Art Gallery grounds. “Just fine, “ he replied with a smile. “ The warmth of the beautiful people here is all I need.”Image

Occupy London recently staged an occupation of an abandoned UBS bank in Hackney, turning a storefront reminder of the global economic crisis into a “Bank of Ideas,” which they intend to use for teach-ins and other social events. For his part, Suresh Fernando believes the occupy movement will continue to evolve. “ I look at this as setting up a community and mutual support and infrastructure… and transporting it somewhere else and setting up a parallel process.” The occupy movement doesn’t have to be a fixed point in time and space, he insists.

 

Fernando hopes the larger public will learn to appreciate the Occupy movement as a social template rather than a slacktivist temper tantrum. The occupy meme has been beta-tested in millions of cities across the world, and although the movement is being hammered by violent police crackdowns in Oakland, Berkeley, New York, Denver and elsewhere, you can’t arrest an idea.

“The importance is about human beings using technology to reconnect in the real world to discuss building a better one,” says Fernando. “It’s in the physicality of this, being actually able to shake hands and being here, that’s what’s different. And that’s important from a human relationship standpoint.”

Somewhere, the spirit of forgotten Leopold Kohr is nodding in agreement. To reverse his dictum about size, whenever something is right, something is human-scale.

CALVIN KLEINS WITH A SIDE OF NEUTRINOS

The VANCOUVER COURIER, Dec. 2

Last month CNET reported the arrest of a “would-be saboteur” at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. Eloi Cole said he had traveled back in time to prevent the particle-smashing behemoth from wrecking the future. The young man was “wearing a bow tie and too much tweed for his age,” according to police.

“Countries do not exist where I am from. The discovery of the Higgs boson led to limitless power, the elimination of poverty and Kit-Kats for everyone. It is a communist chocolate hellhole and I’m here to stop it ever happening,” he reportedly said.

The guy’s routine sounded more like performance art than mental illness – or perhaps a viral marketing scheme originating with the candy bar lobby. Within days, CNET updated this overtweeted tale, informing readers that an accident at the LHC had shunted April Fools’ Day to 1 November 1. The time-warping mishap had leaked “a dangerous amount of comic radiation into the atmosphere.”

CNET’s newsprank almost topped true tales from the sober side of science. A few weeks ago, scientists in Sweden succeeded in creating light out of a complete vacuum. In other words, producing something out of nothing is no longer the exclusive domain of Simon Cowell.

If that’s not crazy enough, back in September a team of Italian physicists announced experimental evidence that subatomic particles called neutrinos travel faster than light. They fine-tuned the experiments, and last month announced they had repeated the initial findings. Within days a team of physicists from the same laboratory cast doubt on the findings. For science geeks, the controversy is either super exciting or seriously disturbing. Two months ago, BBC science presenter and physics professor Jim Al-Khalili expressed his refusal to take any subatomic insurgents lightly. He announced that if the initial results “prove to be correct and neutrinos have broken the speed of light, I will eat my boxer shorts on live TV.”

For over a century, the speed of light – Einstein’s uppermost limit for communication – has been a prime building block in our understanding of the cosmos. If anything can go faster than photons, all sorts of paradoxes become possibilities – like messages traveling backwards in time, or live broadcasts of  physics profs eating Calvin Kleins marinated in chagrin.

Neutrinos, generated by nuclear reactions in our sun and in distant stars, are bizarre entities unto themselves. At any moment, an unknown number of these ghostly particles are flowing from space right through your body, into the ground and back out into space from the opposite side of Earth. Their stand-offish relationship with matter inspired John Updike’s 1962 poem, Cosmic Gall: “Neutrinos, they are very small/They have no charge and have no mass/And do not interact at all/The earth is just a silly ball/To them, through which they simply pass/Like dustmaids down a drafty hall/Or photons through a sheet of glass.”

As far as I’m concerned, it’s no business of the microscopic world to compete with the macroscopic world for strangness. In fact, when it comes to current events, time travel is a totally redundant proposition. Wait long enough and the front page headlines will recycle, with a few minor changes. One example is the renewed effort to paint Iran’s President Ahmadinejad as Saddam 2.0, trotting out the same routine about weapons of mass destruction and sanctions that prefaced the war against Iraq. Even the subprime crisis of 2008 is back, at a higher turn of the screw in the Eurozone. The international banksters are exploiting unstable sovereign funds for profit, in a manner similar to how they gamed home mortgages during the US real estate bubble.

The worldwide derivatives market – essentially bets on bets – is estimated at an insane 870 trillion dollars, twenty times greater than global GDP. Just as mysterious ‘dark energy’ is fueling the expansion of the universe, the expansion of the global economy has been fueled by shadowy speculators using opaque financial instruments, with little transparency and no oversight.

We don’t need some guy in a bowtie and tweed warning us about a scary Swiss supercollider. We need Terminators tumbling out of a Stargate like gumballs, with a prime directive to Occupy The Past and kick some pinstriped asses. Here’s hoping there’s a future for someone or something helpful to arrive from.

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CARTOON, VANCOUVER COURIER NOV. 23