Sonntag, 30. September 2007

Union Station - an Unamerican space?

I love Union Station in Washington. I am just not sure there isn't a mistake that this place is in the US. Such a grand building for a technolgy - the railway - that has mostly been done away with. Such a contrast to sit under this splendid ceiling in a bit of public space - and to then board a train that feels more like a historical experience than a travel choice of the 21st century (ok, my fault for being stingy and taking the regional train, I guess). Even the shops are hardly American - Belgian chocolates, speciality beers, and the posher end of clothing chain stores - it's much more like a railway station in Europe.

Donnerstag, 27. September 2007

Bush: wrong way

It was a dreadfully early start this morning to get to the US State Department. And then it was quite a long wait - some three hours - until some 50 Greenpeace activists were arrested. By being willing to get arrested they showed how determined they are to let the world know that Bush is not speaking for the majority of Americans when he continues to reject binding emission cuts. "This meeting is a farce. This President is not my President", Greenpeace USA Executive Director John Passacantando said before being hauled off...

"I thought it would work"

"I am Daniel Mittler and I lost the election for you in 2004 in Ohio". That's how I introduced myself to John Kerry at a reception tonight. For in 2004, I took time off to campaign with American friends for a Kerry victory. The placard I held on November 1st 2004 is still up in my flat: "1 more day to a fresh start". It was not to be. But when I last saw him at that last day of the campaign rally in Cleveland, I remember that Kerry was good. He had finally learned to give a decent speech. He had finally learned to show passion. And he was clearly moved, when the Boss, aber giving a moving speech, gave his guitar pick to Kerry saying: "Take it to the White House". I told Kerry about my 1st November 2004 tonight. He seemed lost in thought for a moment, thinking back to Cleveland. "I thought it would work", he said ...
It didn't. It was a sad day, that November 2nd 2004. But I also will never forget the uplifting days that preceded it. The determination by so many from so many different walks of life, to rid the US of George W.. Just 16 months to go, folks. Keep up the spirit.

Dienstag, 25. September 2007

The big climate show

It was a big Hollywood moment at the UN yesterday. The Terminator wanted "action, action, action"; Oscar-winning Gore wanted a moratorium on conventional coal plants (they are selling "Re-elect Gore 2008"buttons on the streets of New York; what do you think?); and Lo Sze-Ping gave the best speech of the day (and I don't just say that because I wrote good chunks of it ;-)). Yesterday's UN summit was the biggest gathering on the environment in years - and though it clearly confused the UN security guards - it was a good thing.
Condi Rice called for a "technological revolution". This superficailly sounds a lot like the "energy revolution" we call for - and confused Reuters. But, the visions behind the technological revolution and the energy revolution could not be more different. The energy revolution is about acting now and using the technology we already have -such as wind and solar power. The technological revolution Bush waffles on about is about hoping that technological advances will somehow, miraculously save us - and wasting time until then. To quote from Sze-Ping's speech: "
The world has all the technology we need to start the job of preventing dangerous climate change – now. We cannot afford talk of more research replacing real action. We cannot afford to be distracted by technology initiatives." But that, and more talk shops, is exactly what the US administration wants. That's what they will be talking about at the Major Emitters meeting starting on Thursday - and for which I leave beautiful New York today ...

Sonntag, 23. September 2007

You want to buy this place, Sir?

I don't think of myself as a gentrifier. But I clearly look like one. At least in East Harlem. -
Escaping work depression for a couple of hours yesterday afternoon, I indugled in my favourite activity: aimlessly wondering around cities. - It certainly was a different place to 1995, when I had first graced Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. I remember my friend Martin and I being the only white people on the street back then. I remember being fascinated by all the Black Power literature stalls. They are still there. As were people selling solidartity T-shirts for the Jenna 6. - In fact, the place hadn't changed as much as media reports and the Clintons' moving in had made me expect. I thought East Harlem would be similar to Prenzlauer Berg - a part of Berlin which, to my mind, has been gentrified to death. Or it is like Prenzlauer Berg - but some 10 years back, when it still had a vibe! A vibe that even partly resulted from the property-market driven 'winds of change'. (East) Harlem now is a neighbourhood of contrasts - run down building as well as new condos; a wonderful local fish restaurant as well as a Starbucks. People selling whatever they could get their hands on on the street, as well as independent boutiques. That the neighbourhood is changing you can see from the many "for sale" signs, especially on not yet done up properties. I took pictures of a few. And that is when a wonderful old man with a missing front tooth came up to me to enquire: "Do you want to buy this place, Sir?". I assured him that not. I am not sure he believed me. "All these whites coming here prospecting" he muttered to himself and wondered off .... "Sorry, sir.", I said.

Donnerstag, 20. September 2007

"The clock is ticking ..."

It's a nice view from the 38th floor of the United Nations building. It's a far cry from the gloomy basement of the UN that I know so well from many negotiations. It's also where Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary General, has his office. However, he is not spending his time enjoying the spectacular Long Island vista. Instead, he is busy drumming up support for drastic and bold action on climate change.

As a political animal, I like to be right about things. I like to predict things accurately. But, quite honestly, I never predicted that Ban Ki-moon would make climate change his priority when he became Secretary General in January. In fact, I googled "Ban Ki-moon and climate change" when he was confirmed as Secretary General last year. There were no hits. Try it now - that has changed dramatically! Moon has called attention to the link between climate and security, controversially pointing out how climate impacts are contributing to the atrocious violence plaguing the Darfur region in Sudan. He has visited California and made a show of supporting Arnie's green shoots. And he has made it very clear that he wants a strengthened Kyoto agreement for after 2012. Yesterday, he met an international Greenpeace delegation - and he was very genuine and likeable - a rare feature in a diplomat or politician, I find. The picture shows him with one of the gifts we brought him - a photograph of receding glaciers in the Himalaya's, which put the water supply of no less than one third of the global population at risk. He liked another of our presents even better, though. We gave him a Swiss watch stating "Time is running out". He smiled and told us that that that very morning he had told his staff that "The clock is ticking". So, we hit a nerve. Let's hope it emboldens him to give a powerful speech at Monday's High Level Meeting on climate change, for which some 80 Heads of States will join me in New York ... ;-)

Mittwoch, 19. September 2007

Chance encounters are best

I last saw Naomi Klein at the Edinburgh International Book Festival a few years back. That year, Starbucks had a monopoly on selling coffee at the Book Festival, which left coffee addict Naomi in a bit of a lurch. Her wonderful husband, Avi, however, traipsed through Edinburgh’s new town to find appropriately non logo-ed coffee (a task which would be even more difficult now, as Starbucks have turned Edinburgh into a masterful example of the kind of ‘clustering’ that No Logo describes).

Last night, I wondered into Barnes and Noble in New York. I was just passing time, seeing what’s new and what America is reading. I ended up in the CD section listening to Suzanne Vega’s new album (which isn’t bad). When I took the headphones off, I heard a voice I recognized. I turned around and realized that there was a crowd gathered in the corner of the store. Seconds later, I was enthralled in Naomi Klein explaining her new book: ‘Shock doctrine’. It was a powerful talk, made all the more sweet by it being such luck for me to have hit on the right corner of Manhatten at the right time. That’s the power of chance. Stralsund, for example, to this day is one of my favourite cities in Germany. Not just because it is indeed a beautiful place, but also because I chanced upon Stralsund when I had a monthly rail network pass. I picked a place at random on the map – and hit a gem. Just like tonight.

P.S. Apparently, the German press is attacking Naomi's book. I shall read the book. Once I am done, I am ready to critique the critiques ...

Rebus retires, Word Power thrives ...

Unlike me, my favourite Detective Inspector, John Rebus, does not feel like retiring. But that's what he has to, in Exit Music, the latest and, God help us, hopefully not last of Ian Rankin's tales of Edinburgh's over- and underworld. I freely admit to being dreadfully biased. But I liked this book a hell of a lot - again. In true Rankin style, it features a complex plot; lots of subplots intertwine and, like is indeed the case in Edinburgh, everybody somehow seems to be connected to everybody else ...

But this time there is an unusual twist at the end. Stories fall apart, even if Rebus does not just - yet. Does Big Ger Cafferty?

Personally, I laughed out loud after a few pages. One reason I like the Rebus' novels is that Rankin describes a world I know well (I used to live across the street from where Rebus allegedly lives). This time the joy of recognition was more concrete than usual: he mentions one of my favourite Edinburgh institutions: Word Power. Word Power is one of the few alternative, independent book stores that has survived the spread of bigger and bigger bookstore chains - as well as Amazon. You can truly get everything that is radical at Word Power. And yet, you can also sense as you walk into the - recently expanded - store that this is a business on the up. Word Power incidentally also has an excellent website where you can order all books you would ever like. So, forget Amazon. Buy at Word Power!

I, indeed, have bought many of my Rebus novels there. I used to send emails to Elaine, who started the store, asking her to send the new Rebus to me as soon as it comes out. Elaine obliged for which I will forever be grateful ... But she, I got the distinct impression, did think I was a bit weird for getting so excited about, well, a mere mainstream crime novel.

So here I was, enjoying the latest of Rebus delights. And the very store that used to be so reluctant about selling me them was mentioned over and over again (no murder happens there, though!). I know I have a twisted sense of humour. But it did make me chuckle. I hope Elaine will forgive me my Rebus addiction now; now that Rankin's 'product placement' will hopefully lead even more in Edinburgh and on the web to the radical gems Word Power holds. Books to change the world!

Donnerstag, 13. September 2007

Das Wunder von Paris!

What a joy. Scotland beat France in Paris last night and now incredibly tops a EURO 08 qualifying group that includes France and World Champion Italy. Wish I had been there!

Dienstag, 11. September 2007

Remembering 9/11

I started the day offering an old friend, who happens to be American, coffee in my "I love New York" mug. For who could not but remember that day 6 years ago, that changed history. The images of 9/11 were in my mind all day, but I couldn't find words to express them.

Then I got a message from another old friend, Gabe Kramer, who also happens to be American. Gabe is a great union organizer and was one of the first people I contacted on 9/11. I found his words moving. So here they are as food for thought:

"After 9/11, SEIU put together a small book of photos and short biographies of the scores of our union members killed in those buildings. Workers from several different SEIU local organizations were included, especially from the New York building cleaners local and a public sector office workers local. What struck me about those people was how international they were. They came from Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East. Of course, that's how New York is.

It then made me think of the people who died in the 1998 al Qaeda bombings in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi. At the time, I did not really think very hard about it. When I looked through the images from the SEIU book and thought about the gruesome news 1998 photographs from Africa, I became totally enraged. These people were all just going to work, trying to make a decent life. That can be a hard thing to do in New York, and it's a very hard thing to do in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. None of them were crusaders, or agents of imperialism, or capitalism, or the conspiracy of International Jewry. These were people who went to work and then had the misfortune of being crushed or burned into dust for no good reason at all.

The idea in the jihadist way of thinking that these acts were somehow liberating or moral or just is vomitous.

The idea in the hard left way of thinking that these acts were somehow understandable in light of or comparable to the crimes of America and Israel at first made sense to me. But as the years have passed this more and more seems like an impoverished, misleading, and suspect view.

By all means, let's hold America and Israel and every other shitty democracy to account for its crimes. But this is besides the point of 9/11. Confusing this with the point of 9/11 is somehow morally degrading.

The point of 9/11 is... well, like the torture and killings in Chile, the main point of 9/11 is that humans are frail and weak, that good lives and mediocre lives should not be transformed into hell on earth, and that therefore we not be tortured and killed by other humans.

The minor point is those who want to build a perfect society on the bones of others are motherfuckers."
P.S. This post is dedicated to M.B. She knows why.

Montag, 10. September 2007

Don't they have enough paint?

In many ways, I still feel at home in Britain. I don't go as often as I used to - and I miss it. I miss reading the Sunday Herald and the Guardian. I miss Woman's Hour on Radio 4 (which I listened to while doing the dishes back in student days). I miss the self-depreciating humour and the casual, first-name social interaction with others (even if it is often a false informality). I miss the theatre scenes in Edinburgh and London. I only do not miss hobnobs and tea because I still import them ....
But there is also a lot I, hm, hate about Britain. Asked by an old university friend for a list over a beer on Saturday, here are some of the things that came to mind immediately:
- the privatized and completely dysfunctional railway system (and true to form, it took me 4 hours from Reading to Cambridge yesterday) as well as the sad state of public transport generally. When I lived in London, I found getting from one meeting to another often the most tiring bit of the day. In Berlin, you can actually relax while travelling, no matter whether you cycle or take public transport. I admit things are getting better (especially in London). But still ...
- the fact that you have to burn your hands first and then hold them under the cold tap to cool off, if you want to wash your hands properly
- the home-owning culture - and other 'me, me, me' effects of the Thatcher years (the same selfishness is spreading in Germany, unfortunately. Interestingly, everyone I know who has lived in the UK for a long time is fervently opposed to, for example, privatizing rail and more home ownership in Germany - I guess we know where it leads!)
- the infantile relationship to alcohol (where getting pissed is somehow seen as a real achievement that needs to be advertized to the world)
- the run down hospitals (and the inefficient PFI monsters that are starting to replace them)
- the inflated prices (especially for housing, drinks (especially decent wine) and meals out)
- the appalling insulation (to me double glazing was normal when I grew up thirty years ago; so I am quite amused when people proudly anounce to me now that they have just got it too!)
- Housing standards generally (apparently insulations standards in Scotland for new build homes are now what they used to be in Sweden in 1978)
And it is not just me who is appalled at the housing standards. Once I arrived in Cambridge yesterday, I met a wonderful Cuban family, who my partner had spent a lot of time with when she lived on Cuba. They were puzzled by the brick houses everywhere. They asked whether there were not enough "paint factories in Britain" to ensure that houses get "properly finished". I actually quite like brick houses. But it still made me laugh. And here was further proof for my long-held assertion that Britain truly is a developing country ;-) .

Samstag, 8. September 2007

The chocolate problem ...

I lobbied Hilary Benn earlier this year to stop spending taxpayers money on funding disasterous coal plants in Asia in the name of "development". He didn't budge, but he had his rhetoric justifying tying developing countries further into a carbon-dependent future down to a fine art.
Recently he got shifted to the environment portfolio. You can tell that he has not yet been there very long. At a speech to the local groups conference of Friends of the Earth last night, he was open and direct. But he was not as good in fielding difficult questions as he had become at DfID.
Particularly, he stumbled over the "chocolate problem". Asked whether the UK's government plans to set emission limits without including emissions from flying was like "going on a diet while continuing to eat chocolate", he suggested that that is indeed the government's plans. You can continue to eat chocolate, he claimed, as long as you make sure you do not eat other things so that you do not exceed your calories limit. Brilliant. Just do without all the fruit and potatoes and you can occasionally sneak into the sweets cupboard and gorge yourself. Sounds attractive. Only, this way to solve the "chocolate problem" would make you sick. Very sick. Nutrients and vitamins would be prominent only thourgh their basence in this special Hilary Benn diet ...
Now, I love chocolate and I plan to go on no diet in the forseeable future. But it is fairly obvious that Hilary Benn will have to think of a better excuse to not tackle run away emissions from flying. Let's hope it is better than his excuse for supporting dangerous, expensive and - as far as fighting climate change is concerned - outright useless nuclear power. For all he had to say on that is that "you have to look at all the arguments and then you need to look at the issue again". Sure. And then you need to realize that nuclear power is madness. - Come on, Hilary, you can do better than that!

Montag, 3. September 2007

Think of this next time you fill your tank ...

I took a day off on Saturday (ok, I guess most people take Saturday off anyway ... but hey). I went to the documenta, which I had last been to in 1997. I once again thought it was great. There were some fun and entertaining pieces. There was a nice buzz in a city that was over 90% destroyed after the second world war. There was a really good guide who with distance and irony, and yet,clearly felt commitment to art, explained even some of the less easily understood pieces really well. And there was a lot of unashamedly political art - which I have a soft spot for (if it isn't trite). One of the highlights for me were the pictures of George Osodi. He is documenting what oil consumption really means. He is showing the oil rich Niger Delta as you will not find it in a Shell PR brochure. He is showing the exploitation - of nature and people - that goes along with the production of oil.
I guess we all have moments and issues that grip us at some point and really move us. That change our life. That make us the kind of activists that we are. The death of Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1997 and the plight of the Ogoni that he died for was one such struggle and moment for me. It gripped me. It made me unable to not act, to turn away. To forget, what impacts our daily fossil-fueled lives have.
It makes me sad, that ten years on, the destruction in the Delta continues - and only gets noticed in the developed world, when western oil workers are abducted. All the better, though, that Osodi's pictures are on show at the documenta. They certainly inspired me. May they make the plight of the Delta better known once again; and may they shame those who still refuse to admit the real price of oil ...