Tuesday, December 14, 2010

From Henry Ford to Rob Ford: auto-destruction, and possibilities of a car-free future

From car assembly-line pioneer Henry Ford, to Toronto's new pro-car mayor Rob Ford, we are living in an auto-dependent and auto-destructive society that is harming our health and our environment. But a healthy and green, car-free world is still possible.

     During every hospital shift I see people who have been directly injured by cars—from whiplash and bruising, to broken bones, to fatalities. Car crashes are so common as to be simply part of the daily hospital routine. Listening to the radio traffic report outside the hospital is no better: collisions are presented as daily nuisances to be avoided, their human toll hidden.

    But the patients and traffic reports add up. According to the World Health Organization cars kill more than 1 million people a year, injure 50 million, and are predicted to become the third largest contributor to the global burden of disease by 2020. This costs countries up to 4% of their GNP, with a global total of more than half a trillion dollars a year. Even without collisions, car production contributes to the cancer epidemic (as the Canadian Auto Workers’ Prevent Cancer Campaign puts it, “the auto industry is producing laryngeal, stomach and colorectal cancers along with its cars”) while car use contributes to air pollution that leads to respiratory and cardiac conditions (which by some estimates kill more people than crashes do). Car dependency is also harming the planet—with roads that pave over arable land and undermine animal migration, emission gases that lead to global warming, a requirement for oil that leads to inevitable oil spills like in the Gulf of Mexico, and animal deaths dismissed as "road kill".
     Why are we so dependent on a mode of transporation that is so harmful to people and the planet?

     The name of Henry Ford is synonymous with industrial capitalism, market efficiency, ingenuity and economic progress. How did he do it? Pioneering the assembly line in car production, Ford purged the intellectual involvement of workers in the product of their labour (brilliantly spoofed by Charlie Chaplin). As Ford famously complained,  “why is it that whenever I ask for a pair of hands, a brain comes attached?”, and he went to great lengths to make his company the last major automaker to unionize—from shooting unemployed workers on the Ford Hunger March in 1932, to beating up union organizers in the Battle of the Overpass in 1937.
     During WWII, Roosevelt created a War Production Board that turned the whole economy towards war, banning civilian car production and mandating tanks, planes and munitions instead. To maximize profit Ford also built tanks for the Nazis, with whom he identified ideologically (for a satirical history lesson, listen to folk singer Dave Rovics). As the automakers were building their fortunes through warfare abroad they were also undermining public transit at home. As Greenpeace co-founder Rex Weyler explains in his blog:
“In 1922, some 1,200 thriving urban railways operated in North America, accounting for ninety percent of urban travel. No one complained or demanded more cars and roads. However, General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan saw a “great opportunity” to replace public transportation with private cars. To achieve this, he established a “task force” to “motorize” North America…Then, in 1936, General Motors, Firestone Tires, and Standard Oil (Exxon-Mobil), formed a holding company, National City Lines, which bought urban transport systems and systematically destroyed them. They bought the Pacific Electric system that carried 110 million passengers in 56 communities. They increased fairs, cancelled routes, reduced schedules, cut salaries, allowed trains to decay, ripped up over 1800 kilometers of track, and closed the entire network. By 1956, over 100 rail systems in 45 cities had been purchased and closed.”
Transit City proposed routes (red), and old(yellow/green)
     Fair hikes, transit decay, attacks on salaries and working conditions have continued to undermine public transit. Last summer the Toronto media launched a campaign against transit workers, focusing on a fare collector with health problems who fell asleep on the job, who recently died of a stroke. Toronto’s new mayor Rob Ford wants to provide the coup-de-grace to public transit. He promised to rip up street cars (finishing the job of National City Lines), and on his first day in office he declared that “the war on the car is over” and that the previous Transit City plan to massively expand public transit was dead. He also follows Henry Ford's obsession with undermining workers rights, blaming poor subway conditions not on underfunding but on the 13 days of strike over the past 20 years—and promising to revoke transit workers right to strike.

     Rob Ford’s solution to traffic congestion is to remove the few transportation methods that are not cars by removing bicycle lanes (while blaming cyclist deaths on the cyclists themselves), while corporations are proposing hybrid cars as solutions to climate change. But As Weyler explains:
“The harvesting and mining of resources – rubber, iron, rare-earth metals for hybrid batteries, copper, plastics and so forth – plus the energy-intensive manufacturing process – comprise a massive 'embodied' energy and resource demand. Some 20-40% of energy an automobile uses in its lifetime is 'embodied energy' consumed before it is purchased. None of this is solved by building hybrid cars.”
     Meanwhile, most public health solutions propose harm reduction strategies—seat belt, don’t drink and drive, reduce speed—that take the car society as a given, while financial disincentives like tolls or taxes simply punish those with less money who are forced by circumstance to depend on cars.

         Fortunately the climate movement is proposing real alternatives. As Jonathan Neale notes in his book Stop Global Warming, Change the World:
“City travel accounts for almost 90% CO2 from cars. The solution to car emissions is to ban cars in cities and provide first rate public transport—buses, trains, underground railways, trams, and bicycles. This would not mean sacrifice. Public transport without cars would not be less, it would be different. And that difference would be better…The buses and trains will have enough room on a quarter of the streets. On the other three quarters of streets there will be no vehicles at all. Children will be protected, and have far more space to play. With parked cars removed the streets will be twice as wide. Trees, bushes, grass and flowers could turn the old streets into countryside. Cycling would also be safer and easier. Some side streets could provide cycle lanes, where children and adults could ride freely and safely, to the benefit of their health. Disabled people and the frail elderly, who are now excluded by most public transport, could have access to those lanes in small electric vehicles”
     The massive expansion of green jobs required to build such a transit system would help get us out of both the economic and ecologic crises. The first step towards this in Toronto is defending the existing public transit system--including the brains and hands that make it work, whose right to strike Rob Ford threatens to take away--while implementing the Transit City expansion. And if federal governments can spend billions bailing out companies, why not turn them towards good green jobs for mass transit? As Michael Moore (who's uncle was part of the famous sit-down strikes at GM) said on the eve of the multi-billion dollar auto bailout:
“I would encourage Congress to do what Franklin Roosevelt did at the beginning of World War Two, where he just said to the Big Three, ‘you’re not building cars anymore because we’ve got a crisis, you’ve got to build tanks and planes’. This new President and this new Congress has got to say to the Big Three, ‘I’m sorry, but this car thing isn’t working out, we’re running out of oil. So you need to build hybrids, electrics, and we need mass transportation, so we you’ve gotta build trains and subways and lightrail."
     In Canada, 900 steelworkers have been locked out by US Steel, which is trying to scrap their pensions. With the billions required to extend the war in Afghaninstan, the Canadian government could nationalize US Steel to cover the hard-earned pensions, and turn steel production towards  windmills for energy, and electric trains for transportation. A healthy and green world is possible, but to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, either the car goes or we do.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Cigarettes, pharmaceuticals, wikileaks, and our right to know

From preventing an update of smoking labels, to ending an independent pharmaceutical review agency, to waging war on wikileaks, corporations and governments are cracking down on our democratic right to information.

     As I've written in other posts, cigarettes are but one of many carcinogens, and blaming smoking for the entire cancer epidemic distracts from toxic chemicals and workplaces over which people have little control, individualizes the causes of cancer, and can turn into moralizing against "bad behaviour" instead of addressing the stressful conditions of people's lives that encourage smoking. That being said, smoking is a preventable causes of death, and labels highlighting the health impacts have been shown to decrease smoking. While Canada was the first country to impose mandatory health warnings on cigarette packages, they have not changed in ten years. There was a 6-year, $4 million plan to update labels--with bigger graphics and a 1-800 national Quitline number--to be launched on May 31, World No Tobacco Day. But at the last minute the Tory government abandoned their plans, diverting focus to contraband cigarettes.
     The CBC has revealed that this decision took place after intense tobacco industry pressure:
"Health Canada's abrupt decision in September to back down from expanding warning labels on cigarette packages came after tobacco company lobbyists waged a co-ordinated, sometimes secretive lobbying campaign…The big three tobacco companies, Imperial Tobacco Canada, JTI-Macdonald Corp. and Rothmans, Benson & Hedges Inc., lobbied a combined total of 53 times in just over two years, according to the registry. When other industry associations and smaller tobacco companies are factored in, the number of 'communications' jumps to 82."
     The CBC has also revealed that many tobacco lobbyists have ties to the Tories--including Duncan Rayner (who went from director of operations for the Conservative Party to lobbyist for Imperial Tobacco), Ezra Levant (who went from Tory insider to lobbyist for Rothmans, Benson & Hedges, and now ideological defender of the carcinogenic Tar Sands), and Perrin Beatty (who went from Conservative health minister to president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, which lobbies on behalf of the tobacco industry).

     Instead of enhancing labels, the Harper government is parotting the tobacco industry party line that focus should instead be on reducing contraband tobacco. According to professor Dave Hammond, who consulted Health Canada on the warning labels, "they use contraband as a blunt weapon to try and beat down anything else that might be effective." As lobbyist Beatty argues, "There is a significant share of the market that it is being fuelled by organized crime. Do we want to make it easier for organized criminals by eliminating the ability of other people to offer brands in competition?" So their efforts are not to reduce smoking, but to eliminate competition with tobacco company profits.
      Like the Harper government's decision to spend billions of dollars building prisons despite a falling crime rate, the hysteria about contraband tobacco goes against current trends. According statistics from Health Canada, sales in contraband cigarette consumption have declined since 2009, along with increases in brand name tobacco. Like the government's false dichotomy between "combat" and "non-combat troops" in Afghanistan, the dichotomy between contraband and brand-name tobacco diverts attention from the fact that cigarettes, like military occupations, are deadly regardless of what form they take. Cigarettes kill 45,000 Canadians a year, 100 times the number of people murdered. Instead of being tough on corporate crime, the government is coluding with it. As Cynthia Callard of Physicians for a Smoke Free Canada describes the tobacco lobby (shown previously in the great film, The Insider):
"There's no way of knowing conversations that take place over golf games or cocktail parties or people who float between one world and another...By and large they threaten, they bully, they cajole, they seduce and they purchase support and they've done that for decades. So it's no surprise that they've been successful this time and it's sadly no surprise why they're successful."
     Another recent sad victory for corporations is the killing of the Therapeutics Initiative, a publicly-funded group based at the University of British Columbia, that provides independent evidence-based reviews of pharmaceutical risks and benefits. Therapeutics Initiative helped expose the health risks of blockbuster drug Vioxx. Vioxx, an anti-arthritis medicine, was heavily marketed and made billions for Merck. But it increased the risk of heart attacks and killed killed more Americans than were killed in the Vietnam War. Thanks to the early warnings by Therapeutics Initative, it was kept it off the shelf in BC, saving 500 lives.
     Therapeutics Iniative has also called into question the costly and widespread use of levaquin to treat pneumonia, statins for primary prevention of heart attacks, gabapentin for chronic pain, and recently blew the whistle on a new blood-thinner. Dabigatran is set to replace coumadin as a blood thinner to prevent stroke, and has been approved by Health Canada based on a study funded by its maker, pharmaceutical giant Boehringer Ingelheim. Therapeutics Iniative recently alerted the fact that it appears to increase the risk of heart attacks and stomach bleeds, but the company refuses to release all its safety data. In additition to exposing health risks of Big Pharma, Therapeutics Iniative's input to which medications will be covered by the provincial drug plan has saved the government $50 million a year and given BC the lowest average per-capita drug spending.
     But despite this life-saving, cost-saving and efficiency, the BC government (under industry pressure) cut the small $1 million required to sustain Therapeutics Iniative,  refused to hire the scientists to its advisory board, and instead will base its decisions on profit-driven pharmaceutical companies. This is the latest scandal in the corrupt world of Big Pharma (for a more detailed look into the industry, see this video).

     If pressuring a government to cut funds to a review agency that saves lifes and resources isn't damning enough, how about trying to sabotage a government's lawsuit against a company for its role in the death of children with meningitis. That's what wikileaks has recently revealed about the world's largest pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer, which tried to pressure the Nigerian attorney general to drop charges against Pfizer for its antibiotic's role in the death of children during a meningitis epidemic in 1996.
     Wikileaks has come under sustained attack by governments and corporations--from kicking it off internet servers to calls to assassinating its editor in chief--for the "crime" of releassing information that the public should know: about corporate corruption, military war crimes, government lies. The leak about Pfizer is just the tip of the iceberg, as wikileaks has announced it will blow the whistle on corporations after finishing the current release of diplomatic cables.
     Please sign the petition by Avaaz to defend their freedom of expression and freedom of the press. And you can donate to wikileaks through their website. There is no freedom or democracy without information, and from cigarettes to pharmaceuticals to corporate/government behaviour we have a right to know.