Thursday, April 15, 2010

Viewed from Germany

The View from Germany
by Katha Pollitt

My German friends here are bewildered by the resistance to healthcare reform in America. They just don't get what the fuss is about. After all, thanks to Bismarck, that notorious red, Germans have had some version of national health insurance since 1884. The current system contains some of the very features that have driven Americans to throw themselves into the tea. It's mostly public -- about 90 percent of the population is in the government system, with about 10 percent, mostly the wealthy and the self-employed, covered by private insurance. There's an individual mandate: You have to be covered, just the way, as my friend Barbara put it, you have to have insurance for your car. Coverage is not cheap, about 15 percent of your salary, but your employer pays nearly half, and there are government subsidies for low-income workers. Sound familiar? Do companies pass their payments on to you in the form of lower wages (or higher prices)? Probably a little bit, said Vera, but it is well worth it. I'll say: Germany has one of the best healthcare systems in the world, and it costs a lot less than ours -- 10.7 percent of GNP in 2005, versus our 15.2 percent. My husband has visited doctors and dentists here, and found them both excellent and amazingly accessible. Why, my friends wonder, would Americans not want something like it?

Perhaps it is because a government powerful enough to give us healthcare insurance would be strong enough to... take away our guns? The American obsession with guns is another thing that just looks weird here. German gun laws are strict. Permits are barred to people with histories of violent behavior or addiction to drugs or alcohol: To get a hunting license requires taking a challenging course on weapons and wildlife and passing a stiff exam (many fail); don't even think about carrying that licensed gun in public unless it is unloaded and in a locked container. As for the political value of the Second Amendment in defending the Republic, the idea that homeowners could hold off a tyrannical government with their individual weapons is bound to look ridiculous to people who have actually experienced fascism. By the time the government is able to put you in a concentration camp, it has overwhelming force behind it -- and much, if not most, of the populace as well. Pro-gun people like to use the example of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, but the thing about that noble act of defiance is that's all it was: The Nazis smashed the resistance and shipped the survivors off to Treblinka in no time. Because of that history, it's clearer here that if you want to preserve democracy, you don't need a lot of do-it-yourselfers clomping about in the woods; you need a strong civil society, including respect for elections that don't happen to go your way.

Speaking of elections, if you believe opinion polls, roughly a third of all Americans regard Barack Obama as a flaming communist Muslim from Kenya, and 14 percent suspect he is the Antichrist himself. But here's a reality check: if Obama were a German politician, he would fit comfortably somewhere between Chancellor Angela Merkel and her free-market coalition partner Guido Westerwelle. That's because the whole electoral spectrum here is several degrees to the left of the US range; Westerwelle, a Free Democrat, is the only politician who campaigns on the neoliberal platform espoused by American politicians of both parties: competition, lower taxes, mistrust of government, the evils of welfare, the magic of the market and the virtues of making lots of money. In February he shocked the nation by comparing the welfare state to the "decadence" of the late Roman Empire. In the United States, such statements barely make the news. In fact, in the United States the only thing that would shock anyone about Westerwelle is that he's openly gay. As for Merkel, it's true that Germany is in some ways a more sexist society than the United States, with ordinary life still arranged around stay-home mothers: Sunday store closings; school days that end at lunchtime; working mothers derided by their neighbors as cold, cruel Rabenm├╝tter (raven mothers); and women trapped on the lower rungs of the professions (only 13 percent of German professors are female). But you have to acknowledge that Germany has us beat in female political representation. It's not just Merkel: 32.8 percent of MPs are women.

Like the rest of Europe, Germany has problems galore. Unemployment is high; immigration, while low by US standards, has inspired xenophobia and ultranationalism; there have been big cutbacks in social programs, including healthcare and education. But as an American, I can't tell you how refreshing it is to experience a politics in which "welfare" is not a dirty word and elections don't revolve around people who think the world is 10,000 years old and can't even spell the "N-word" they plaster on their placards and posters.

Katha Pollitt’s most recent book is The Mind Body Problem:Poems (Random House).

Copyright © 2010 The Nation – distributed by Agence Global

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Dish That Ate the World

Sushi is Wrecking the Planet

By David Steele

The Canada Earthsaver Summer 2010

Sushi is wrecking the planet. It may sound like hyperbole, but unfortunately it is not. While this popular repast is not alone in the endeavor, stated plainly, sushi is one of the most environmentally damaging foods one could possibly eat. About all one can say in its favor is that very little of it is made with beef.

Let's start with the basics. All sushi is made with rice; lots of it. That's not good. It may surprise you, but rice is in the same league as beef when it comes to global warming.

Most people know these days that beef cattle are among the biggest emitters of global warming gases on earth. One hundred million tonnes of methane are belched from these cows and bulls every year. What most people don't know is that rice is just as bad. One hundred million tonnes of methane seep from rice paddies, too, the latest studies tell us. Depending on whether you count methane's effects over 100 or 20 years, that's the equivalent of between 2.3 and 7.2 billion tonnes of CO2 flowing into the atmosphere from the cattle and another 2.3 to 7.2 billion tonnes of CO2 from the rice we produce each year. Together they are emitting the methane equivalent of one-fifth to two-thirds of all of the carbon dioxide from all of the
fossil fuels we burn across the world every year. Of course, as it is the staple food of the bulk of humanity, rice feeds an awful lot more people than beef does, and its production involves a lot less animal suffering. But it is still a very bad player in the climate crisis.

It would be bad enough if the damage associated with sushi were limited to this rice-based acceleration of global warming. But, of course, rice content is only a small part of the sushi problem. Being composed largely of fish, sushi's popularity is enormously more damaging than that.

The harvest of fish that fill the sushi we eat is playing an enormous role in the decimation of the world's oceans. As the World Wildlife Fund tells us, Atlantic populations of bluefin tuna - the most popular sushi fish - have dropped 80% since 1978. Last year, one million of these giant predators were plucked from the sea. Since the total population of these fish is estimated at 3.75 million and it takes 10 to 12 years for these tuna to reach sexual maturity, the prospects for these fish are extraordinarily bleak.

Other species are similarly affected. Worldwide, the scale of ocean fishing has increased enormously in the last 60 years. In 1950, a total of less than 30 million tonnes of fish were pulled from the sea, including illegal and unreported catches. By 1990, this had surged roughly 6-fold to 180 million tonnes, some 30% of which was
'illegal.' Not surprisingly, the populations of the fish in the sea are way, way down. This is especially true of the big ones - tuna, cod, halibut, swordfish, shark, flounder - which are down more than 90% from their 1950 levels. Fishing at this intensity cannot be maintained; despite an ever-growing fishing fleet, the annual catch is now down to about 140 million tonnes. By 2050 scientists predict
that the seas will be pretty much empty.

We and our sushi habit are driving this decimation. 80% of all the fish caught in 2006 were eaten in the developed world. In North America and Europe, we eat an average of well over 40 lbs of fish per person each year. This is the highest aggregate level of fish consumption in the world. With over 1 billion Europeans and North Americans, our total consumption dwarfs that of even Japan whose 127 million people consume 57 lbs each.

What can we do about? Since it seems that the world's governments are incapable of responding to this crisis - astonishingly, just last month Japan managed to block a proposed ban on the trade of even the most endangered bluefin tuna - it is up to us. If ocean life is to be saved, we're going to have to stop eating sushi and pretty much all other fish. If we don't do it now, we certainly will do it later - when there are no fish left to eat.