San Francisco BART’s Unpleasant Design

Introducing: The inverted guillotine

Having lived for the better part of my life in the San Francisco Bay Area, I have put in my time on the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system. From it’s loud, overcrowded, clunky, and infrequent trains, to the spate of BART police shootings of young men of color, this privatized (militarized?) operation has a monopoly on public transport, and unashamedly has its will with the region with little grace.

The latest offense is the instillation of “skull crusher” “inverted guillotine” pop-up spring-loaded barriers, that could hurt or maim (it’s just a lawsuit waiting to happen).

Instead of pouring money into education, or helping the homeless, the Bay Area has now apparently prioritized metal spikes shooting up from their BART turnstiles. Way to go, gentrification!

The fact that “fare jumping” is solved by violence is telling. Instead of maybe just making the BART – a public service – into a public company, free for all riders, payed by a corporate property tax (or some other public funding in the insanely overpriced Bay), as many other localities such as Tallinn in Estonia have done, doubling down on menacing design elements further marginalizes the marginalized. BART really doesn’t lose much money at all on fare jumpers. Their financial mismanagement is sui generis. Yet, like all administrative classes, the propensity to pay themselves more to harm the poor is too tempting; it exculpates their responsibility for mismanagement (and points to the need for the region to re-buy the service to run it correctly), and instead finger-wags at “scofflaws” for being bad people, when all they really are doing is what is necessary to get around their own town when they haven’t benefited from the Silicon Valley boom.

The book Unpleasant Design discusses the epidemic of public infrastructure that makes being in public an injurious experience for those worst off. From bus benches in shelters that slope so you can’t sleep on them (you’d fall off), to “anti-homeless spikes,” sonic warfare (projecting odious or repetitive noises, like that corporately-engineered “hit” “Baby Shark“), ordinances against “sitting” or lying in public spaces for too long — rich countries, especially English-speaking ones, have declared war on public space.

London, UK. 10th June 2014. Anti-Homeless Spikes Protest outside Stock Photo: 70030582 - Alamy
Anti-homeless spikes

Unpleasant design takes what little of the commons are left – the nooks and the crannies – and puts money into destroying them to keep out “undesirables.” This racist and classiest action is often the result of gentrification; justified to keep the zoos of the rich free of those who can’t pay their entry fee.

These artists are tackling London's anti-homeless spikes head on
Activists in London combat the painful anti-homeless spikes

The psychological warfare of guillotine turnstiles makes the entire experience of public transportation less comfortable for everyone. Instead of dealing with the 80-20 principle that 80% or 90% of riders will pay no problem, and that there will always be a remainder of the population that for what ever (often very legitimate) reason cannot or will not pay, BART has chosen to harm the public, pushing more people into their polluting cars.

I’m sure before long, people will be defacing these violent turnstiles. And it is likely that the accumulated rage against BART will reduce paying ridership (despite their monopoly), actually bringing them less money than they had before–the exact opposite result than they profess to so-desperately and so-forcefully want.

The public outrage on Twitter is already loud and clear against BART’s weaponization of its service. Such aggrandizement activities miss the point of their charge: they are in the business in providing a public service, and some people can pay more, some less, and not at all. Perhaps peg BART tickets to income. Then the rich might pay $100 per ride, the poor the normal $3.40 trip, and the very poor nothing. That would be a fair approach. Our society is far from that enlightened thinking, sadly, even in that hotbed of *potential* San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, and environs.

But let’s not deceive ourselves. There’s a reason why you can’t take the BART to Marin County: racism. Back in the 1950’s there was a plan in place to extend the San Francisco BART to Marin (North Bay), but because of vocal refusal by residents, it failed. And now, no easy public transportation (besides the ferries) go to Marin. The Bay Area is disconnected by design, an open gated community in a natural and cultural paradise predicated on class, race, and exclusion.

Have we not evolved as a city in 70 years? Are we still just as violent towards those less fortunate than us. San Francisco is a mess because of its wealth. But at least on this case of BART structural violence, the people are having their day of reckoning.

Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense

In doing some background research for my book, I remembered that I had read about a year ago of a US Congressman who was working to get rid of the imperative for US health insurers to take patients with preexisting conditions, who shortly thereafter was diagnosed with prostate cancer. The poetic justice was obvious, and I was ready to incorporate the story into mine, to demonstrate the hypocrisy of the political landscape around medical issues, and the demonizing of illness, making it into some Biblical or New Age Law of Attraction bullshit.

And then I noticed that as I went to retrieve this information, that the first hit that came up was from a notoriously provocative website, “The Daily KOS.” I read the article, but it seemed more lukewarm than I remembered in terms of evidence, so I went back and watched the original CNN interview with the supposed damning evidence of hypocrisy of the US Representative from Alabama, Republican Mo Brooks scorning those with preexisting conditions.

In fact, the Daily KOS had cherry-picked Brooks’ words out of context, completely mangling his meaning, which amounted to: those who have lived risk-prone lives should have to pay more than people who have done their best to take care of themselves, and many people are sick “through no fault of their own,” and “we must take care of them.” We can quibble with if we agree with that, but Brooks’ statement looked nothing like the fire and brimstone irony Daily KOS was insinuating.

Shoddy reporting helps no one, and making people whose political ideas you may not agree with into hyperbolic monsters reduces credibility, creates mutual antagonism, and is part of why America is divided. It’s time for journalistic ethics to make a comeback.

Thoughts and Prayers and Regulations

There is an epidemic of thoughts and prayers in America. It seems the more politicians think and pray, the more school shootings happen, the more places of worship get gunned and burned down, and the more people die.

Maybe to reverse this trend, politicians need to stop sending their thoughts and quit praying, and instead begin doing their jobs: defending the commonweal against those who would sacrifice it for profit.

The need for hermeneutics in science communication

There’s this popular pro-science YouTube video. I like it–it’s bold, brash, and has good knock-down arguments. It also espouses a defensive attitude against stances which I too find abhorrent.

There’s only one problem with it. It’s wrong.

Even though I like the pro-science sentiment, there are many ways to do science, or to solve a math problem. We could easily have a science that doesn’t require tearing things apart to know or understand them. In fact, that science is being born as we speak (see the work of Isabel Stengers, Barbara McClintock, Participatory Action Research, etc.). So, properly speaking, there is no such thing as monolithic science; there are always only sciences, plural. Still, these are different from fiction, ideology, or theology. But, to say that facts aren’t inflected by values is quite imperialistic.

 

 

A Systems Approach to Dysfunction

capitalism

One of the things that resonates the most about systems theory, is that it focuses on how different pieces of large puzzles interrelate and interlock. For, it is the inter aspect that gives phenomena movement, gusto, dynamism, spark. Speaking of things, essences, stuff, or problems, tends to slump description into the corner of inexorability, and worse, resignation.

When we look at climate change, war mongering, oil interests, urban design, transport diversity, and factory farming in concert, then suddenly, the intractable problems of each become much more tractable. The haze lifts, and the easy solutions abound. Instead of the Sisyphusian task of unravelling Gordian Knots (to mix my Greek metaphors), like Alexander the Great, we simply cut through it. With systems thinking, we cut through the lies, the bad habits, the greed, excuses, and story. We take care of what calls for attending, without the oppositionality, the rage, hate, or anger. We don’t even resent the system of destruction that has killed millions, and will likely kill billions more (not to mention the thousands of species extinct, priceless waterways despoiled, mountains detonated, etc.).

No, instead, a systems view asks: what is the most opportune point of intervention? Where can I (and we, because it is always a we, this I) most skillfully intervene now? What is the first step? And then: what is the next step after that?

Having a goal is important. We don’t want to make great time in the wrong direction, to paraphrase Yogi Berra. But, planning without action does little good to soothe our own anxieties, nor to shine as an examples. Nor does it form good habits, to think without acting, for we shall too soon grow content with such a pattern, forgetting the thrill of satisfaction when we follow through with a dedicated plan.

Paul Hawkins’ new book and ground-restoring Project Drawdown has made this plan, indicating the best points for intervention in our anthropo-patriarchal-colonialist-scene. This blueprint shows the problem, in its glorious complexity, and details what interventions will produce what results. México, the first developing country to take the lead in reducing emissions through a carbon trading plan, is working on an important component of drawing down CO2 from industrial producers. Of course, a carbon tax is much smarter policy than a cap-and-trade system, as most climate policy scientists agree. Nonetheless, such leadership as México’s will no doubt have a cascading effect on other developing and BRIC countries, as the rest of the world gains more power as climate leaders in the vacuum left by the Trump presidency. Brazil and China are already stepping up, in various ways, and the US may soon be an island, exceptional only because no other country wants to trade with it until it institutes strong sustainability policies.

Understanding the changing dynamics of international politics through US abdication of responsibility despite its role as the world’s largest economy, and 2nd largest polluter (likely first largest, when we include Chinese imports), helps contextualize the contemporary situation. While from a media-saturated point-of-view, Trump and co. are dead-set on bringing about the apocalypse, from an international perspective, the long-overdue transfer of power to Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America is simply being accomplished as these areas reduce trade with the US and stop looking to the US for guidance. What emerges from this transition will be exciting to watch. Perhaps an improved UN? Perhaps planetary citizenship, doing away with the need for climate refugees, instead implementing climate justice? Perhaps a new healthy form of regionalism? Perhaps reduced consumption? These exciting times promise nothing, but offer many exciting paths.

 

ExxonMobile Responds to Hurricane Harvey

oil tank hurricane harvey.jpg

Cognitive dissonance is a phenomena common amongst human beings who want to have their cake and eat it too. It comes from a willing ignorance to repress and suppress the world’s inconvenient truths and hold onto the frame (or fairytale) one inhabits (or chooses) with tenacious vigor.

In their weekly missives, ExxonMobile’s “Energy Perspectives” newsletter this week features a typically tone-deaf and gumption-filled story on how destroying the world through oil and gas exploitation is actually saving the world. It’s a classic psy-ops strategy (formerly known as propaganda), only with a slicker sheen, more convoluted rhetoric, and patriotic pictures.  According to the Department of Defense, psy-ops are:

Planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to… audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of… governments, organizations, groups, and individuals. The purpose of psychological operations is to induce or reinforce foreign attitudes and behavior favorable to the originator’s objectives.

So Jerry Wascom, president of ExxonMobil Refining & Supply Company writes in the ExxonMobile Perspectives blog

I’ve been in this business for more than 30 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it.  The impact of this hurricane has been unprecedented.

There’s no reconciliatory tone. No regret. No mention of climate change. No, instead we are invited to see nature’s disrupted patterns and 500-year weather events (happening within years of each other) as mere temporary roadblocks to the further entrenchment of global capitalism. Wascom writes:

At ExxonMobil, we’ve had to temporarily shut down some operations, but we haven’t stopped working.  Just the opposite.   My team is working around the clock to bring everything back on line as quickly as we can and get fuel to drivers that need it.

But, in light of the horrors of anthropogenically destabilized climates, wouldn’t the only moral thing to do seem to be stopping working? Wouldn’t conceding at the card game before you go broke actually seem like a better strategy than doubling down with your last chips?

No, instead this is reframed as merely a logistics problem. Indeed, “the current challenge we face is mainly a logistical one,” Wascom writes.

Not all the fuel is where it needs to be.  We have to quickly reroute trucks and tankers to get supplies from more distant locations to places that previously relied on the Gulf Coast refineries.

Instead of acknowledging that in catastrophes we might have to use less, ExxonMobil is pulling a GW Bush: Buy, baby, buy. The paraphrase Ingolfür Bluhdorn, ExxonMobil is looking for creating sustainability and resiliency just in those same unsustainable practices that got us in this climate disruption in the first place. Don’t pause to reflect. Don’t use less fuel. Don’t travel less. Because such actions might cause a reevaluation of the insane oil subsidies, and our fossil-fueled toxic culture.

Of course, such psy-ops are bolstered by the other Breitbarts of news, such as Business Insider, Money, and other unidimensional news outlets who care only how any event will impact their stock prices. Thus the intentional ignorance of ExxonMobile is perpetuated throughout our culture system by the help of greed, instantiated in a news media and financially-myopic media willing to poison the world for a few more points on their stock.

ExxonMobile reassures us that they will go to the ends of the earth to ensure that our illusion of cheap fossil fuels isn’t broken.

And that’s exactly what we’re doing.  We’re going the extra mile to reconnect the dots and move fuel quickly and safely.

Amidst dire environmental justice murmurings of the toxic exposures due to hazardous waste seeping out of its quarantine in Houston, harming entire communities (especially poor and migrant communities), we are supposed to trust the self-serving interests of the world’s largest oil machine, and one of the largest funders of climate change denial.

The last stake in the heart of Corporate Social Irresponsibility is ExxonMobile’s responsibilizing consumers for the problem. They urge

drivers can help by not “panic-buying.”  Topping off your tank is one thing; stockpiling fuel is another, and puts unnecessary stress on the system.  We can all help each other if we don’t go overboard.

Who’s this “we” you’re talking about, paleface? ExxonMobile has proven time and again that they don’t care for anything but profit, yet they are doing the British gag of “let’s all play together” for their own benefit–not ours. This rallying cry to keep normalcy in the face of an insane, corrupt, oligopolistic system, is itself sick. In the words of Jiddu Krishnamurti, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” Screen Shot 2017-09-02 at 07.54.50

 

New paper published in Annals of Internal Medicine picked up by Reuters

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Today, with co-authors Pamela M. Ling and Jesse Elias, our paper “The Pharmaceuticalization of the Tobacco Industry” appears in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Our interview with Reuters is available here.

This work contributes to the study of industrial epidemics, and how corporations, instead of dying a quiet death as the world wakes up to the inutility of their products for life, metastasize into other structures to clean up the messes they continue to create–and to charge taxpayers for it (in this case, by getting government health care like the NHS in the UK, to pay for their so-called reduced-harm nicotine products).