The Greening of Wal-Mart

When you get off Highway 101 at Exit 484A, you immediately fall into headachy traffic on access roads not designed for this crush. It is the kind of dysfunction that Wal-Mart would never tolerate in its own internal operations but that big-box stores breed in the world they increasingly define. This Wal-Mart is in Rohnert Park, California, about 50 miles north of San Francisco.

I’d been hearing about Wal-Mart’s efforts to mend its ways, offering energy efficiency, zero waste, organic cotton, and even organic food. It all seemed so unlikely—a little like walking into Fox News’ offices and finding a wing devoted to The American Prospect—that I wanted to see for myself. (My son, who is 8, was more interested in the Wal-Mart exclusive Nerf gun.)


Is Sarah Palin Right about Taxing Polluters? A Thought Experiment

I think it’s time to cut Sarah Palin a little slack. After all, not many of us would forsake the bright lights for more winters in Wasilla. Besides, with her opposition to a cap-and-trade policy to slow climate change, the soon-to-be ex-governor of Alaska—her last day in office is Sunday—has a point. Europe has tried this approach, and it was a bust. And does anyone really think it wise to entrust the fate of Earth’s atmosphere to another Wall Street circus of kinky new “investment vehicles”? (That’s the “trade” part of cap-and-trade.)

True, these aren’t Palin’s reasons. She opposes cap-and-trade because she thinks it would work too well, not because it wouldn’t work at all. But that’s a minor detail. Let’s take her advice one step further: Put cap-and-trade aside—and consider another way to curb carbon emissions. The Alaska way.


Good Bye Night Sky

There was a time, a few days ago in human history, really, when people spent a lot of time looking at the sky at night.   To read Greek mythology, and Shakespeare’s plays, one might guess that people were as familiar with the constellations, as they are with corporate brands today. Or close at least.   Of course, it was possible back then to see the sky at night.  As David Owen pointed out in a recent New Yorker piece (August 20th), in Galileo’s day – about 400 years ago –people thought the Milky Way was a continuous ooze, so densely packed were the heavens to the naked eye.

Today we can see only a fraction of what was easily visible back then.  We are enclosed in a visual cocoon, and the cause is not just the smog and fumes that fill the sky.  Even more it is the light.  “Today a person standing on the observation deck of the Empire State Building on a cloudless night,” Owen writes, would see “less than one percent of what Galileo would have been able to see.” We emit so much illumination – if that’s the word – down here below, that we have lost the capacity to see above.


Dirty Harry Saves the Bay View

Three decades ago, the Dirty Harry movies gave shape and license to the revenge fantasies that fed the law-and-order politics of the era. Is it possible that dramatic acts of resistance to enclosure could help launch a new politics of the commons today?  That thought comes to mind with news reports from Manila, where Mayor Alfredo S. Lim has ordered the bulldozing of the bars and clubs that had encroached upon the famed Baywalk along Roxas Boulevard in that city.

Lim has a reputation as a straight shooter.  When he was police chief in Manila he put down a Right wing coup attempt against Corazon Aquina, who took office in the peaceful revolution against Ferdinand Marcos, the former dictator.  He actually was known as “Dirty Harry.”  He did have reasons to eliminate the bars that were not solely environmental.  They had been approved by the previous mayor, and were months behind in their concession fees. In the Philippines, such facts are suggestive in a way that is all too familiar there.


Hidden Vista: New Microsoft Operating System Means Toxic Trash for Third World

There’s an old dump in a municipality on the island of Negros in the Philippines.  It hasn’t been used for years, and it’s been picked pretty clean.  But when I was there a year ago I saw a small boy digging through the debris, in search of some remaining scrap that might fetch a few pesos.  Such is the desperation of poverty in the Third World – a desperation that will be convenient for the people at Microsoft, though I doubt they have given much thought to the connection.

When the company launched its new Vista operating system in January there was the usual gawking over features.  But Vista has a grim back end that Greenpeace and others have pointed out.  By its very existence the new operating system makes the majority of the world’s computers obsolete, and therefore on a faster journey to the dump.  Many of those dumps will be in Third World countries such as the Philippines.  The result will be what one group called a “tsunami” of toxic electronic waste.


Space Waste: As Below, So Above

We humans tend to think that things would be better if only we could be some place else.  The alcoholic would stop drinking if only he could move to California, the laggard would be more productive if only he could be in another job. Perhaps the ultimate projection screen for this particular tendency is what is called “outer space.”  If only we could be out there, things would be different – ethereal, romantic.  Even war would be dramatic and archetypal, not the hell that it is down here.

But usually we find that we take ourselves with us, wherever we go.  The desk in the new office becomes as messy as the desk in the old one.  Some of the same issues arise in the second marriage as in the first (though perhaps we deal with them a little better.) Once up there, we find to our surprise that we are the same people we were down here.  Thus the headline in our local paper this week, “Space Junk May Spell Doom For Pricey Satellites.”  We are turning the heavens into a dump just as we did the earth. Who would have thought?


DDT: Echoes of Iraq

We were on the farm in April, my wife’s parents’ rice farm in the Philippines, and our son got sick.  At first we thought it was the heat.  But as afternoon became evening he got worse and worse. Vomiting. Couldn’t eat or drink.  A fever that kept rising. My wife’s parents sent word to the local manogluy-a, a kind of herb doctor, who scrunched down on spindly haunches and rubbed ginger on him, to no effect.  He is three years old. There was not much sleep that night.

The next day we got a ride to a provincial hospital, and waited in a sweaty corridor with just occasional relief from an oscillating fan.  Finally it was our turn – a kind doctor with a gentle touch.  Josh was admitted right away.  As the nurses put an intravenous tube into his hand, I became woozy.  There followed three days and nights – nights especially — of torment. I kept thinking of mosquitoes, and dengue fever and other dread diseases. Was he still breathing?


This Land is Their Land

There is a grim symmetry to the gasoline act that recently passed the House of Representatives, in particular the provision to make old military bases available for oil refineries. Take land once used to defend the nation, and use it to feed the habit that makes much of that defense necessary.

That’s the dance that has defined much of the Bush Administration: oil, defense, and then more oil. In this the public lands – our lands – have played a central role. Much as junkies rob their mothers’s purses, the Administration and Congress have been pilfering the public lands to help the oil industry string the nation out a little longer.


Sissifying the West

Theodore Roosevelt must be a tempting icon for the White House message crew to invoke. A virile Republican, a man’s man who carried the banner of imperialism with pride and the white man’s burden that went with it. Who said children of privilege couldn’t be tough?

Look closer, though, and you can see why a comparison with the Republican Roosevelt is not one the White House is eager to invite. TR didn’t just play act about patriotism, for example. He laced up his boots and faced the bullets, at age 40 no less. He stood up to corporadoes; and he had the kind of stubborn rectitude that would have served as insect repellent to a Karl Rove. Most inconvenient of all, TR was a lover of nature. “Roosevelt had a profound, almost Indian veneration for trees,” his biographer Edmund Morris observes. “Walking on silent, moccasined feet down a luminous nave of pines, listening to invisible choirs of birds, he came close to religious rapture.”


What Greenspan Can’t See

The President’s response to his administration’s ineptitude regarding Katrina has been to distance himself from it.  He’s calling for an “investigation,” as though someone other than himself was in charge. His helpers meanwhile are mounting an attack on his critics and shifting the blame to local officials – red letter moves from the Karl Rove playbook.

I’m not sure it will fly.  The story has gone pretty far beyond the White House spin.  When the President appeared in staged photo-ops with his arms around children of color, it just reminded people of how little he has done. Then again, the Washington media is both obedient and gullible.  Plus, the President’s critics haven’t done a great job of framing the issue either.