Category Archives: Socially Responsible Living

Blog posts about socially responsible living by Richie Unterberger, co-author of “The Rough Guide to Shopping with a Conscience.”

Shareholders Unite: The Financial Choice Act’s Theat to Shareholder Activism

To file a shareholder resolution pressuring corporations to be more socially responsible, you need to own just $2,000 of stock in the company. Imagine, however, if you suddenly needed to own $2 billion — or even more. Shareholder activism would nearly grind to a halt. It might even get wiped out altogether.

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That’s the scenario we face if the Financial Choice Act of 2017 passes Congress. Section 844(b) would get rid of the $2,000 threshold. Instead, investors would have to hold at least 1% of the issuer’s voting securities over a three-year period.

What does that mean in layperson’s terms? To file a resolution with Apple, for instance, you’d need $7.4 billion worth of stock. Filing with Wells Fargo ($2.7 billion) and AT&T ($2.5 billion) wouldn’t be chump change, either.

The cost of filing resolutions will skyrocket if the Financial Choice Act passes, especially with the megacompanies who need to be pressured the most.

The cost of filing resolutions will skyrocket if the Financial Choice Act passes, especially with the megacompanies who need to be pressured the most.

“It’s saying that only billionaires have good ideas,” feels Andy Behar, CEO of As You Sow, which promotes environmental and social corporate responsibility through shareholder advocacy. “All of the work [by] these small shareholders that has actually improved companies over the last seventy years — it’s saying that hasn’t been working, when it actually is incredibly well-working. The win-win scenarios that shareholders have brought to companies…there’s too many to even list. To have that suddenly become excluded would be a disservice.

“It’s really taking away our democratic rights and our rights to the property that we own,” he adds. “There are inherent rights to the property of owning a stock. And we don’t even know that it’s constitutional to take that away.”

Why are organizations like Business Roundtable, a lobbying group of nearly two hundred CEOs, so determined to strip these rights away? “I think they’re frightened,” observes Behar. “In the last few years, proxy access is now allowing shareholders to run board candidates. Last week Occidental Petroleum got a 67% vote on [a resolution calling for] two-degree climate scenario planning”—a landslide in a movement where getting 10-20% of the vote is often considered a major success (more details at https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-05-12/blackrock-to-back-climate-shareholder-proposal-at-occidental). “More and more shareholders are paying attention and voting.

“The people on the board feel threatened. And what they’re threatened by is actually doing their jobs, which is to serve the shareholders in the company, who want the company to go in a different direction. They want the company to become sustainable. Companies are looking at this and going, ‘Oh, the people who we’re supposed to be working for actually care. So let’s throttle back their rights.’”

Shareholder activism is still on the rise in the US. Its position as a global leader in the movement could be crippled if the Financial Choice Act becomes law.

Shareholder activism is still on the rise in the US. Its position as a global leader in the movement could be crippled if the Financial Choice Act becomes law.

The section of the Financial Choice Act affecting shareholder rights is just a small part of the legislation. It would also roll back provisions of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that Senator Elizabeth Warren established would be removed, to cite just one of its alarm bells.

Nonetheless, it was passed by the House Committee on Financial Services in early May by a 34-26 vote along strict party lines. The House isn’t expected to vote on it until after Memorial Day, after which it moves on to the Senate, where activists such as Andy Behar think it’s likely to get debated.

According to Holly Testa, director of shareowner engagement at First Affirmative Financial Network, “Consensus is that this bill has no chance in the Senate, but that it will be broken into pieces to get some of it passed into law.” But even if the changes to shareholder resolution thresholds are removed from the legislation, that doesn’t mean those thresholds are protected. As Testa points out, “If Section 844 is not legislated, proponents at the Securities and Exchange Commission are likely to try to achieve its intentions through the rulemaking process.”

If the bill does reach the Senate, one next step for those opposed to the measure is approaching members of the Senate Banking Committee. First Affirmative is urging affiliated financial advisors, clients, and other contacts who have connections with those senators (listed in the box below) to get in touch to assist with outreach:

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As it happens, a few of the minority members (Sherrod Brown, Elizabeth Warren, and Mark Warner) have been among the names tossed around as possible Democratic candidates in the next presidential election. They’ll have a lot of on their plate if they run, but it won’t hurt to make them aware of the issue’s importance now.

What can citizens do to make their voice heard, whether or not they have such connections? Aside from stressing your concerns to representatives in Congress (and especially the Senate), the links below offer some other resources. True, many Effective Assets clients are Bay Area-based and represented by officials likely to already be in opposition to the Financial Choice Act. So it’s important to note that if you do business in one or more Republican states or districts, your voice is likely to be heard on the issue even if you don’t live there.

As You Sow’s Choice Act: Step-By-Step Action Guide (http://www.asyousow.org/about-us/choice-act-step-by-step-action-guide) has specific info, and links to other sites, for using social media, making calls, attending town hall meetings, and joining the Indivisible group to make your feelings known about the implications of the Financial Choice Act.

A good easy first step is signing As You Sow’s petition “Protect Shareholders. Strike the Financial Choice Act 2.0,” at https://www.change.org/p/don-t-eliminate-my-rights-as-a-shareholder-strike-the-financial-choice-act-2-0.

5Calls has a script for callers who want their representatives to “Defend Dodd-Frank Banking Regulations” at https://5calls.org/issue/recIY5BMUytUixNbV.

The Indivisible Explainer on the Financial Choice Act (https://www.indivisibleguide.com/resource/financial-choice-act-hr-10) also has more details on the legislation, as well as sample town hall questions about the act to ask your representatives. Indivisible also has a call script (https://www.indivisibleguide.com/resource/financial-choice-act-hr-10) if you contact their offices by phone.

This letter (http://bit.ly/Financial-CHOICE-Act-Letter) from  Newground Social Investment provides more detail on the threat to shareholder ownership and governance rights in the proposed legislation.

Do shareholder resolutions make a difference? Check page 3 of the Newground Social Investment letter for several examples. Shareholder resolutions were instrumental in Starbucks introducing Fair Trade coffee, for example, and DuPont making the largest land conservation gift in history. They’re crucial to making a difference, and it’s crucial to make sure they can be made by many stockholders, not just an elite few.

This post originally appeared on the website of Effective Assets

Some Favorite Non-Rock Books on Rock Music Culture of the 1960s and 1970s

Throughout its history, rock music has always been deeply affected by sociocultural changes in the larger world of which it’s part. In my books, classes, and even my blogposts, I’ve concentrated on the music of rock, whether the performers, the records, or rock books and movies. I’m not often asked by rock fans to recommend books that aren’t strictly about rock music. Nonetheless, I’ve asked myself: what are some non-fiction books about the 1960s and 1970s that are not exactly about rock, but have much that relates to rock, or reflected how rock music changed the world?

There are many that could qualify on at least some grounds, even discounting fiction books that had a substantial influence on rock culture, like the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Ken Kesey’s work. Here, however, is a rundown of some of my favorites. Music figures strongly to slightly, but I’d recommend all to readers who want a sense of how rock’s effects—or energy similar to that driving changes in rock—rippled throughout our entire culture.

Many of my list-review combo posts rank them in order of quality, or at least my favorites. I find that hard to do with books that are in many ways so different from each other, so I’ve just put them in the order that flows best to me, with no numbers attached.

Season of the Witch, by David Talbot (Free Press, 2012). It’s refreshing when a book is both very popular and very good, like most of the best rock music used to be at its peak. That’s the case with the most recent entry on this list, Season of the Witch, which covers the changes undergone by the city of San Francisco in roughly a decade and a half, between the late 1960s and early 1980s. The Summer of Love and Haight-Ashbury are discussed, of course, but that’s just a part of the text, which moves on to how the ideals of the counterculture (and Establishment efforts to repress it) spread into community activism of all sorts in struggles over development, social justice, and the empowerment of ethnic minorities. The dark side of fringe radical movements is not ignored, with sections on Jim Jones, the assassination of Harvey Milk, and the SLA. It seems a bit strange to hone in on the 49ers’ 1982 Super Bowl victory as a triumphant/redemptive point for the city’s turnaround, but this is an engrossing read that weaves together many strands of San Francisco’s evolution during these crucial years, including its rock music.

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The Haight-Ashbury: A History, by Charles Perry (Wenner Books, 1984). This is the best account of the neighborhood more identified with the psychedelic movement and the Summer of Love than any other. Music’s a big part, of course, but this focuses more on the Haight, the drugs, the radical groups who took root there like the Diggers, and the changes (or decline, really) the area went through as the Summer of Love passed. Perry was there as a participant and as a journalist (which included work at Rolling Stone), and this is unlikely to be surpassed as a social history of the Haight in the 1960s.

Haight

Rolling Stone Magazine, by Robert Draper (HarperPerennial, 1990). Although this covers the first twenty years or so of the history of the most famous rock music magazine, much of it’s devoted to the publication’s beginnings in San Francisco in the late 1960s and early 1970s. That puts it on the border of a book that’s as much about music as it is about publishing or other things. But it’s much more about Rolling Stone itself, how it reported on music and the counterculture, and how it changed drastically after it moved to New York in the mid-1970s than it is about rock. A very entertaining read heavy on anecdotes about major musicians and rock journalists, especially Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner. Like many such books, it also, sadly, reflects how ideals that fire a worthy enterprise at its genesis often get diluted and commercialized as time passes, particularly after success arrives.

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The Rice Room: Growing Up Chinese-American from Number Two Son to Rock’n’Roll, by Ben Fong-Torres (University of California Press, 2011). The autobiography of longtime music critic and San Francisco media personality Ben Fong-Torres isn’t solely about rock’n’roll. But it has a lot of material about reaching adulthood in the midst of the Summer of Love, and becoming one of Rolling Stone’s first editors shortly after the magazine was founded in San Francisco. There’s also a lot about his family, and how rock and the radio were instrumental in making him take career paths and personal lifestyles that his parents did not expect or, at least initially, always endorse. Originally published in 1995, this recent reprint is slightly updated and expanded.

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Days in the Life: Voices from the English Underground 1961-1971, by Jonathon Green (Pimlico, 1998). Moving from San Francisco to London, this 450-page oral history is by no means exclusively devoted to ’60s British rock music. But it has a lot of coverage of it nonetheless, and is great for the context of the counterculture in which UK psychedelic rock was born and thrived. About 100 figures are heard from in this absorbing volume, from musicians and producers to figures involved in the era’s British film, design, underground press, visual arts, clubs, literature, promotion, management, political activism, radio, TV, and more.

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Give the Anarchist a Cigarette, by Mick Farren (2002, Pimlico). This verges on being a rock memoir as Farren was a cult rock musician as a member of the underground band the Deviants. But he was also a funny and talented writer, and this account of his career on both fronts in the 1960s and 1970s is a triumph of both style and content. It continues the story well past the Deviants (who are discussed quite thoroughly) through his time as a star NME writer in the ‘70s, all the way up to the punk era. Besides his memories of performing music, there’s a lot about the British underground press (in which he was actively involved) and the overall underground UK counterculture of the late 1960s and 1970s.

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In the Sixties, by Barry Miles (Jonathan Cape, 2002). Another key figure in the British underground was Barry Miles, a personal friend of Paul McCartney and later author of McCartney’s own pseudo-memoir of the time, Many Years From Now. This is his own memoir of the period, during which he edited London’s leading underground paper, International Times, and ran Apple’s short-lived spoken word/experimental label, Zapple. (His time at Zapple is the focus of another book, the 2015 release The Zapple Diaries: The Rise and Fall of the Last Beatles Label.) As a book, this is less sharply honed, funny, and penetrating than Farren’s, but it’s still worthwhile.

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Your Face Here: British Cult Movies Since the Sixties, by Ali Catterall & Simon Wells (Fourth Estate, 2001). This isn’t so much a general survey of British cult movies since the ‘60s as it is a collection of essays about a dozen particularly notable British cult movies spanning the 1960s to the 1990s. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, and this has outstanding pieces, totaling 300 pages in all, on films that are worthy of in-depth study: A Hard Day’s Night, Blow-Up, If…, Performance, Get Carter, A Clockwork Orange, The Wicker Man, Quadrophenia, Withnail & I, Naked, Trainspotting, Get Carter, and (in the only questionable inclusion) Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels. Some of these, obviously, had quite direct connections to rock history (A Hard Day’s Night, Quadrophenia, Performance); some others caught the era’s rebellious or taboo-smashing ethos (If…, A Clockwork Orange), or at least used rock on their soundtracks. These aren’t conventional film critiques, but place most of the emphasis on telling the stories of how the films got made, spiced with plenty of behind-the-scenes stories and first-hand interviews with many of the actors, directors, writers, and other principals. What’s more, in many cases the authors identify specifically where famous location scenes in the movies were filmed in Britain, knowing that the kind of people likely to read these sort of books are precisely the kind of cultists that like to visit the actual places in the films if possible. The hard information is balanced by some insightful criticism, as well as some sharp general observations about what makes a cult film “cult,” and why these films struck particularly devoted chords that have enabled them to build staunch followings over the course of years.

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Take 10: Contemporary British Film Directors, by Jonathan Hacker and David Price (Oxford University Press, 1991). It’s more scholarly and less breezily accessible (though still highly readable) than Your Face Here, and not as geared toward films with a cult or cult rockish sensibility. But Take 10 is still worth attention for those interested in the cutting edge of British film in the latter part of the twentieth century. There are essays on and interviews with ten filmmakers, some of whose work is also discussed in Your Face Here, such as Nicolas Roeg and Lindsay Anderson. Other directors featured include one who was quite actively involved (in his 1977 film Jubilee) in documenting the UK punk scene, Derek Jarman, as well as other big names like Stephen Frears, Bill Forsyth, Kenneth Loach, and John Schlesinger.

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Creative Differences: Profiles of Hollywood Dissidents, by David Talbot & Barbara Zheutlin (South End Press, 1978). Though perhaps not as oriented toward the counterculture as Your Face Here, this has extremely interesting profiles (incorporating first-hand interviews) of directors, actors, and others in the film industry who struggled to make more personal, political, and ideologically meaningful movies than Hollywood wanted or accepted. It extends from the Cold War/McCarthy blacklist era through the 1970s, two of the more famous subjects being Medium Cool director Haskell Wexler and Jane Fonda. It was not until writing up this listing that I realized co-author David Talbot is the same guy who wrote, quite a few years later, Season of the Witch (see first entry).

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Woodstock: An Inside Look at the Movie That Shook Up the World and Defined a Generation, edited by Dale Bell (Michael Wiese Productions, 1999). Not as well known as it should be, this is a fascinating inside look at Woodstock, the movie—not Woodstock, the rock festival—from the perspectives of those who worked on and produced the film. Verging on an oral history, it has extensive memories from directors, producers, camera operators, and, yes, musicians who played the festival. Like the festival, the movie was a seat-of-the-pants operation that needed some miracles to get pulled off. Histories of Woodstock usually emphasize the music, but it was the film that did the most to pass it into legend, and here’s the story from the other side of the camera.

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Woodstock: The Oral History, by Joel Makower (Tilden Press, 1989). Despite its considerable heft (350 pages), this too does not focus especially on Woodstock’s music. Instead, the concentration is on Woodstock the event, as told from the perspective of the organizers, promoters, medical staff, food vendors, political activists, area residents, and yes, occasionally the musicians. In fact, there’s not much material here from the musicians, which might disappoint some readers. But Woodstock, for both good and bad, wasn’t just a big music festival—it was an epochal happening, recounted here only about two decades after it happened, when memories of what took place were at least somewhat sharper.

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Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years, by Michael Palin (Thomas Dunne, 2006). Monty Python have been sometimes hailed, rightfully I think, as something of the Beatles of comedy, combining great individual talents into an entity more than the sum of its parts. Their irreverence, first on TV and then with their movies (and some various side/solo projects), was as groundbreaking and taboo-breaking in its way as what was often taking place in rock music. Some of their biggest fans were rock stars, some of whom helped fund Monty Python & the Holy Grail. As one of Monty Python, Michael Palin was right in the middle of it. Remarkably, considering how busy he and his group were, he found time to keep extensive diaries for their first decade. Some of the early ones, unfortunately, were lost, but in any case, they became much more extensive and reflective as the 1970s progressed. The ways in which Monty Python helped change the status quo, and were themselves changed into something bigger and unpredictably influential, in some ways mirrored the same process at work in rock bands like the Beatles. Palin documented it with the same kind of verve and wit he brought to his work in Monty Python, though this is naturally a good deal more serious and less silly than some of the group’s famous sketches.

Palin’s next two volumes of diaries, covering 1980-1988 and 1988-1998, just aren’t as scintillating, much as reading about the Beatles’ solo years isn’t the joy you get from reading about the years in which they worked together. Other worthwhile Python books that are more standard biographies or oral histories include The Pythons Autobiography By the Pythons, a coffee table first-hand oral history that’s kind of their counterpart to the Beatles’ similarly formatted Anthology; David Morgan’s Monty Python Speaks!, another oral history with entirely different contents; and Kim “Howard” Johnson’s more fan-oriented The First 20 Years of Monty Python, which still has much fun behind-the-scenes details of all of the episodes of their TV programs.

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The Prisoner, by Alain Carrazé & Héléne Oswald (Virgin, 1989). Just as Britain gave us the two best rock groups of the 1960s in the Beatles and Rolling Stones, so did it give us the two best TV programs of the time, Monty Python’s Flying Circus and the much different, far graver The Prisoner. The Prisoner brought up many of the issues rock music and the counterculture were also examining in the 1960s: the questioning of authority, rebellion against conformity, the abuse of power, and the nebulous nature of reality itself. There have been a few books about the series, and my favorite is this sumptuously illustrated coffee table one (translated from the original French) that details and examines each of the seventeen episodes. Also good, if more modest in production values and fannish in approach, is Matthew White and Jaffer Ali’s The Official Prisoner Companion.

Prisoner

Ball Four, by Jim Bouton, edited by Leonard Shecter (Turner, 1970). A sports book, in a post devoted to books that reflected how rock was changing and changed by larger society? True, there’s not much rock music in Ball Four (though there’s some; check out one of my previous posts for the lowdown). Yet Ball Four—still, almost 50 years later, the most famous sports memoir—brought something of the era’s rock rebellion into the wide world of sports, a much more conservative one than the music business, even if many ballplayers were (like most of the era’s rock musicians) in their twenties. Bouton was, like many rock musicians, nonconformist, willing to speak his mind with unpopular opinions, and irreverent toward conventions that wanted employees (i.e. athletes) to keep their mouths shut and not rock the boat. He was also very funny—something that distinguishes Ball Four from other tell-all memoirs as baseball loosened up in the next few decades. Some other memoirs have been hailed as worthy cousins to Ball Four, and I’ve tried some (such as Bill Lee’s), but none seem, to use baseball terminology, even in the same league. Maybe part of that well-written wit is down to sportswriter editor Leonard Shecter, whom Bouton has never shied away from crediting as a collaborator. I have to think, however, that much of it is down to Bouton just being a naturally funny and insightful storyteller who’s not afraid to shoot sacred cows. This has come out in various slightly expanded editions with afterwords going over some of his post-Ball Four life, the latest (and presumably last) one being 2014’s Ball Four: The Final Pitch.

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Loose Balls: The Short Life of the American Basketball Association As Told By the Players, Coaches, and Movers and Shakers Who Made It Happen, by Terry Pluto (Fireside, 1990). Along the same lines, we have this less famous oral history of the ABA, which in its way brought a rock’n’roll sensibility to pro basketball and all of major league sports. It jazzed up the game with three-point plays, dunks, flamboyant stars, and flag-colored balls, even as it perennially teetered on the edge of disaster with its fly-by-night organization and finances. Some of the players had excesses on par with rock stars too, especially Marvin Barnes. My favorite story, related by Bob Costas in the book, is when Costas asked him for an interview, which Barnes said he would grant if he’d drive him to visit some friends. When Barnes didn’t come out of his hotel room, Costas called, only for Marvin to tell him, “Listen, Bro, why don’t you go see those dudes without me?” To which Costas pointed out, “Marvin, I don’t want to go see those guys, whoever they are. I don’t even know those guys.” To which Marvin responded, “Oh…yeah.”

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Growing Up Underground, by Jane Alpert (Citadel Underground, 1990). Alpert spent four years in hiding for her role in New York bombings by radical groups. I’ve found most of the memoirs I’ve read by radical ‘60s/‘70s activists to be self-righteous justifications of their behavior, often for some mistakes they made that hurt others. Alpert’s autobiography is an exception, as a more balanced and thoughtful portrait of why she and others felt it so urgent to take drastic steps for social change, acknowledging in hindsight the missteps, dogma, and naive ignorance that often hindered their progress. There’s not much about music, but an interesting passage notes how she played Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline—not one of his biggest hits among critics even at the time of its 1969 release, though it was pretty popular with the public—over and over again. Perhaps she found in it a mirror of her own hoped-for-journey to the end of the rainbow after the revolution had eradicated global injustice. As she observed, “In the beginning of his career he [Dylan] had struggled so hard to be himself that his voice had always been strained, his lyrics contorted and difficult…. Now, at 28, he was a survivor, had fallen in love again, had discovered that life could be startlingly, lyrically easy.”

Another memoir that I’d give more a more qualified recommendation to is Cathy Wilkerson’s Flying Too Close to the Sun: My Life and Times As a Weatherman, which also is willing to examine the flaws of the movement along with its strengths, and integrate some interesting personal autobiographical detail with the more political material.

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And an honorable mention to:

There’s a Riot Going On: Revolutionaries, Rock Stars, and the Rise and Fall of the ’60s, by Peter Doggett (Canongate, 2007). This does cross the boundary of being more about music than society or another subject. But it’s a large (nearly 600-page), extensively researched, and acutely perceptive examination of the relation between rock and revolutionary politics in the late 1960s and early 1970s, equally emphasizing the music and the social activism. Doggett’s more recent Electric Shock: From the Gramophone to the iPhone: 125 Years of Pop Music is more about music than society, but also often draws on cultural context to examine the many stylistic and technological changes that popular music has undergone since it was first reproduced and sold.

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Ai Weiwei Exhibit on Alcatraz Island

Like most San Franciscans, I’ve hardly ever been to one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions, Alcatraz Island. Before last week, I’d visited twice—which is one or two more times than many local residents I know. There’s a good reason for anyone to go this spring, however, since it’s now hosting a one-of-a-kind exhibit of work by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.

The dragon kite that greets visitors in the first part of the Ai Weiwei exhibition.

The dragon kite that greets visitors in the first part of the Ai Weiwei exhibition.

Ai Weiwei is not only an acclaimed modern artist, but also a noted human rights activist. Currently he’s not allowed to travel outside of China, and could not visit Alcatraz during the planning of this exhibition, which opened on September 27 of last year (and runs until April 26). Alcatraz makes for an especially apt venue for his artwork and installations, as like the prisoners who famously inhabited the island for much of the twentieth century, he is unable to freely travel, and his interaction with the outside world is restricted.

The trip to the exhibit begins, as it does for all visitors to Alcatraz, at San Francisco’s heavily touristed Fisherman’s Wharf. As has long been noted, the beauty of the island’s setting in the San Francisco Bay is a sharp contrast to the notorious prison (for many years open to tours) it once housed:

The view of Russian Hill, with Coit Tower to the right, as the boat pulls out of Fisherman's Wharf on the way to Alcatraz.

The view of Russian Hill, with Coit Tower to the right, as the boat pulls out of Fisherman’s Wharf on the way to Alcatraz.

The view as the boat approaches Alcatraz Island.

The view as the boat approaches Alcatraz Island.

Even in their current semi-ruinous state, some of the buildings left from the days when the prison was in operation make for a jarring juxtaposition against a small island that, on its own, is a quite pretty oasis:

Derelict building on Alcatraz, with the San Francisco Bay Bridge in the background.

Derelict building on Alcatraz, with the San Francisco Bay Bridge in the background.

You can’t see it too well in a picture taken at twilight, but some structures on the island still boast hand-painted slogans from the brief period in which Native Americans occupied the island in the early 1970s. This water tower is emblazoned with the red-painted slogan “Peace and Freedom: Home of the Free Indian”:

WaterTower

Those features can be viewed on any trip to Alcatraz. What makes the ones you can do now unique, however, is the opportunity to view Ai Weiwei’s art in this environment. The first stop on that tour is the New Industries Building, which features colorful kites such as these:

Kite5

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Look closely at some of them, however, which are emblazoned with quotes such as these reflecting current affairs and human rights situations/violations:

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That aspect of Ai Weiwei’s work is far more pronounced in the room behind the kites, which uses LEGO bricks to build portraits of almost 200 people from around the world “who have been detained because of their beliefs or affiliations,” as the guide pamphlet states:

LEGO of Agnes Uwimana Nkusi of Rwanda, a newspaper editor "convicted of defamation and threatening national security."

LEGO of Agnes Uwimana Nkusi of Rwanda, a newspaper editor “convicted of defamation and threatening national security.”

LEGO of Oh Kyu-won Suk-ja, imprisoned in North Korean after her economist father requested asylum in Denmark.

LEGO of Oh Kyu-won Suk-ja, imprisoned in North Korean after her economist father requested asylum in Denmark.

In the cellhouse, a block of cells now contain sound installations playing the music, poetry, and speeches of figures from around the globe who (again quoting the guide pamphlet) “have been detained for the expression of their beliefs.” Some of the more famous voices represented are those of Afrobeat giant Fela, Chilean singer-songwriter Victor Jara, Russian punk band Pussy Riot, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Also represented are Czech rock band the Plastic People of the Universe, who were prosecuted for playing avant-garde free-form rock in the 1970s and 1980s:

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A tape of the Plastic People of the Universe plays as visitors sit in this tiny cell.

A tape of the Plastic People of the Universe plays as visitors sit in this tiny cell.

I wrote a chapter on the Plastic People in my book Unknown Legends of Rock’n’Roll, which you can read here. When I wrote this back in the late 1990s, I never thought they’d be featuring in a major art exhibition on Alcatraz. But life sometimes has more imagination than we do.

In the cellhouse’s hospital, some tubs, sinks, and the like are now filled with porcelain bouquets:

TubSink

In the cellhouse’s dining hall, you can write postcards to prisoners of conscience around the world (including some from the United States). Binders on the tables have paragraph-long synopses of their situations. As an illustration, here is the profile of the one I selected to write a card to, Irom Sharmila Chanu in India:

“Charged with an attempt to commit suicide. Chanu is a political and civil rights activist. She began a hunger strike in 2000 to protest the killing of 10 civilians who were allegedly shot by Indian paramilitary forces. Since then she has been arrested, released, and re-arrested every year. Currently she is held in a hospital security ward, where she is force-fed. This is the 14th year of her fast.”

Laundry basket of postcards filled out by visitors to the exhibition.

Laundry basket of postcards filled out by visitors to the exhibition.

Ai Weiwei’s communication with the world, incidentally, is largely build around Twitter messages. Take a look at the dragon kite again, and notice that the eyes are twitter birds:

Kite

Tickets for the Ai Weiwei exhibit are available through Alcatraz Cruises, but you should book now if you’re interested. I don’t know how much space is left, but when I reserved tickets in early December, there weren’t any available until February. More information about the exhibit is at AiWeiWeiAlcatraz.org; the main forum for ongoing conversation about the exhibit is #AiWeiWeiAlcatraz.

The San Francisco skyline, as seen from Alcatraz Island.

The San Francisco skyline, as seen from Alcatraz Island.

Imported Produce: How Far Is Too Far?

Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I have access to a wider selection of produce, I would guess, than not only almost anyone from other parts in the US, but than almost anyone in the world. The long-established Berkeley Bowl, which now has two branches (one big enough to have a huge Bowl-ing alley-sized underground parking garage), might have more rows and rows of produce than any non-chain food store. The food comes not only from California, but from all over the globe:

Chile

On a typical visit, you can see grapefruit, melons, berries, and whatnot from as far-flung regions as Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, especially when they’re out of season in the US. I’ve seen mangoes from Mexico, Guatemala, and even Peru at the Bowl, along with other Central and South American regions. You want it, odds are they have it, though the quality and availability will vary according to the time of year.

Yes, it’s great to live in the early-twenty-first century, when you can eat almost whatever you want almost whenever you want. If you have the money, that is—an increasing problem if you’re paying Bay Area housing costs. But what of the other costs, especially to the environment?

Think about the transportation distances involved. If you buy a mango from Peru instead of some tangerines from Northern California, you’re adding more than 4000 “food miles,” as the term goes in sustainable agriculture studies. Edom tomatoes from Israel are flown from 7000 miles distant. That grapefruit from Western Australia came from more than 9000 miles away.

That’s a lot of fuel to get from “farm to fork,” to use another term bandied about in these discussions. According to the EPA, the 2,800 “food miles” a California tomato travels to be sold in Washington, DC adds 165,256 lbs. of carbon dioxide emissions. You can do the math, more or less, to figure out how much more CO2 is unleashed at greater distances.

I don’t mean to pick on Berkeley Bowl too hard here. I don’t live close enough to the stores to go to them regularly, but I shop there myself when I go to the East Bay. According to its website, “the majority of our fruits and vegetables are grown locally”; “we buy from local farmers, the two wholesale markets in San Francisco and one in Oakland, and individuals who travel the agricultural areas of California looking for ripe, delicious fruits and vegetables,”; they have a large organic section, if not as large as the one for conventionally grown produce; and they do clearly mark the areas in which the food originates, as plainly seen here:

Mexico

This did get me thinking of an issue I haven’t seen addressed in anything I’ve read, however. If you’re concerned about all those food miles adding up, should you not buy any of those Western Australian grapefruit at all? If it comes down to buying a mango from Mexico or Peru, should you go for the Mexican one, even if it’s not as juicy? Is it enough just to feel passing pangs of liberal guilt when you buy that tender-to-the-touch Guatemalan melon, instead of the hard-as-rock one that hasn’t logged as much mileage? Should you patronize stores that import produce from distant corners of the Earth, and should they institute some sort of policies or limits on how far they’ll go in search of that perfect persimmon?

I don’t know of any stores in the Bay Area or elsewhere that place such limits on transportation distances. A start, or at least a mitigation, is being sure to at least also offer a wide selection of locally grown goods, as Berkeley Bowl does. So does Rainbow Grocery, a large worker-owned San Francisco cooperative, which might have a far smaller produce department, but also puts far more emphasis on organic goods. Rainbow also labels the states and countries of origin, even listing the towns for produce grown in California.

Rainbow Grocery labels the state or country of origin of all of its produce, and the town if it's from California. These grapefruit are from Oasis, a small town in Southern California.

Rainbow Grocery labels the state or country of origin of all of its produce, and the town if it’s from California. These grapefruit are from Oasis, a small town in Southern California.

“I don’t know that other stores place strict limits on how far their products travel,” says a member of Rainbow’s produce department. “We don’t. Preference is always given to nearby growers, and we buy farm-direct as often as possible. There are a few farmers who are given very high priority over other suppliers. Often, they’re people who run small operations, whose produce we love, and who have been supplying us for many years or decades. We’re really lucky to be in a region where we’re able to have close relationships with farms that grow an amazing range of produce, while they’re also deeply committed to growing it organically.”

Locally grown produce, it should be stressed, does drastically cut down on the “food miles.” According to a study by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, “locally grown produce traveled an average of 56 miles from farm to point of sale, compared to an average of 1,494 miles for 30 types of produce from conventional sources.” The page on its site with a PDF of the whole breakdown’s available here, and also by clicking on the nifty graphic below:

That study was done in 2003, by the way, and it’s a sad comment on the state of left-wing think tanks that there doesn’t seem to have been a similar one done since, as surely things might changed in the last decade. Even Green America, the leading organization for advocating responsible consumerism in the US, still cites the 56-mile figure from the study on its website. Internet searches for more updated studies generated just-mildly-less-outdated scholarly papers of the kind that take a frighteningly long time to download, or even display as a web page. The Leopold Center or someone should pick up the ball on this, though one would guess it’s hardly the study first in line for government or university funding, which might be part of the problem.

It should be added that part of the reason Rainbow, Berkeley Bowl, and other stores outside of the chain mainstream carry produce from far away because of consumer demand. That’s even true in the Bay Area, where much of Rainbow’s clientele is certainly much more socially conscious and politically progressive than the average shopper. “We do carry produce that was grown far away,” notes Rainbow’s produce department member. “Tropical fruits have to travel long distances, so our mangoes and pineapples are usually from Central or South America. Occasionally, we’re able to buy California mangoes. They’re expensive, but we carry them whenever they’re available. Our papayas are flown in from Hawaii. We have Mexican tomatoes when California can’t provide the types we want to carry.

“There is a huge demand from customers to make certain items available,” adds the worker I queried. “We buy imported pears and apples when domestic supplies are exhausted. (By this time of the year, if you want an organic pear, the Southern Hemisphere is kind of the only game in town.) We also buy imported blueberries. It’s a fact of modern life that we defy the seasons to satisfy our culinary and commercial wants or needs. There is disagreement within our department as to whether or when it’s appropriate to sell certain things, but we do our best to make responsible decisions.”

A key difference between Rainbow and Berkeley Bowl (among many other stores that could be compared to Rainbow) is, as stated earlier, that organic produce is far more prominent at the San Francisco cooperative. “For the Produce Department at Rainbow, it’s most important that our products are organically grown. For this reason, everything we carry is certified organic, wildcrafted (foraged produce, like wild mushrooms or fiddlehead ferns), or (in extremely rare instances) ecologically grown (grown and harvested according to organic guidelines, but lacking official certification). We carry NOTHING that was grown conventionally.”

If the organic produce isn’t locally grown, does that outweigh the effects of transportation over longer (sometimes much longer) distances? Should socially responsible buyers favor produce, even of the organic kind, whose journeys from farm to fork are shorter? Should they even decline to buy produce from far-off regions altogether—and if so, how far is too far? Mexico, Guatemala, or some other cutoff point (if measured from California)? Should there even be a carbon tax of some sort on produce, depending on how many “food miles” it’s traveled?

These are all questions I can’t answer—and, more importantly, that don’t seem to have been answered or discussed too much, either in academia or the socially responsible community that supports sustainable food consumption. One step toward finding those answers is bringing up the questions, and just this blog query has ignited some discussions at Rainbow. Watch this space for a follow-up, if more discussion at the cooperative’s meetings, formal or informal, result in any more info on how we should keep an eye on the fuel our food is burning up—even the produce is purchased with a social conscience.

UPDATE: Since I put up this post, I’ve found out that at least one health food store in the Bay Area not only posts signs with the place of origin of their produce, but also actually lists the distance it travels to the store.  Good Earth Natural Foods in Fairfax, on one of Marin County’s main drags (Sir Francis Drake Boulevard), has signs such as the one below. Apologies for the blurriness, but you should be able to make out that this dill in its produce section was grown 201 miles from the store:

Foodmiles

 

 

Leaving Your Megabank: Breaking Up’s Not Hard to Do

Most people aren’t sentimental in the least about their banks. It should be much easier to break up with your megabank than your girlfriend or boyfriend, and much less painful. Yet many socially responsible customers remain with megabanks even when far more attractive alternatives open in their town, although, to corrupt the title of Neil Sedaka’s sappy early-1960s teen idol smash, “Breaking Up’s Not Hard to Do.”

Don't take the title of Neil Sedaka's hit to heart.

Don’t take the title of Neil Sedaka’s hit to heart.

I’m not omitting myself from this category. While most of my funds have been in SRI (socially responsible investment) accounts for years, I kept a megabank checking account open for minimal everyday expenses, out of convenience and, I guess, laziness. A couple weeks ago I did finally close that big-bank account.

Here in San Francisco, we’re fortunate enough, unlike many cities, to have one bank specifically geared toward “bringing new resources to sustainable businesses and ultimately creating more sustainable communities.” This is New Resource Bank, founded in 2006. And yes, it does have only one branch, downtown near the Ferry Building/waterfront, which is not convenient to many San Franciscans living in residential neighborhoods miles away.

New Resource Bank

The most common reasons other acquaintances concerned about socially responsibility give for not closing their megabank accounts is that it’s convenient to have ATMs every few blocks, kind of like 7-11s of instant cash withdrawal. Additionally, if the socially responsible bank doesn’t have many ATMs, or certainly not one in your neighborhood, you might not want to pay fees every time you withdraw cash from a nearby ATM when you need money in a hurry.

But with New Resource, you get five free rebates on debit card fees per month (and unlimited debit fee rebates if you choose their “high-impact” checking account, which requires a significantly higher average daily balance to avoid service charges). As for their service charges, acknowledging that this is beyond the means of some, there aren’t any if you maintain an average daily balance of $5000 (or combined checking/saving balance of $10,000). There is a $20 monthly service fee if you don’t meet that balance. But if you have the means, the more socially and environmentally conscious directions in which your money goes seems worth the time and effort in doing a little more careful planning of your ATM withdrawals and account balance maintenance. Note too that New Resource is FDIC-insured, which covers amounts of $250,000 per depositor, if that is another concern over switching from megabank.

Maybe this shouldn’t be the most important factor in choosing your bank, but I also appreciate the no-nonsense, straightforward service when I have gone into New Resource’s one branch. Even though it took only 15 minutes or so to close my megabank account, the atmosphere in my ex-megabank – constant “how are you”s and “good morning”s, canned music, large infomercial screen – was so artificial I couldn’t wait to get out of there. (They nonetheless couldn’t wait to get me back, leaving a message aimed at getting me to reopen an account with them 24 hours later.) At New Resource, there are a few staff (I’ve never seen more than five) at desks; never any lines; and quick, polite execution of simple tasks without unnecessary false pleasantries. It’s all so much more adult, as if they know you’re smart enough to do what you came to do without any additional fuss.

Lest this seem like I’m being too much of a shill for New Resource, it can be pointed out there are other similar banks outside of San Francisco – though not, alas, to many. Across the bay in Oakland, One Pacificcoast Bank (sic) is “the first commercial bank in the US with a commitment to sustainable community development.” It must be said, however, that there aren’t nearly as many of these institutions in the US as one would hope, and if you’re nervous about putting your funds in an out-of-town bank, you might be out of luck. Green America’s Community Investing Guide (free online at http://www.greenamerica.org/PDF/GuideInvestCommunities.pdf) lists come options, and credit unions generally are a much better choice for accounts than the big guns if your region doesn’t have a New Resource-like bank.

Fossil Fuel Divestment

Socially responsible investing – SRI for short – has grown enormously in the 21st century, but still has a way to go before it’s a mainstream financial strategy. Yet as one indication of how far it’s come, there are now movements within the movement. It seems kind of gauche to call something like this a “trend,” but certainly the fastest-growing sector of SRI seems to be fossil fuel divestment. That’s divesting from companies that produce fossil fuels, but also, just as crucially, investing in companies that support sustainable, green technology and energy use.

Green America's Guide to Fossil Divestment.

Green America’s Guide to Fossil Divestment.

Such is the interest that Green America, the organization that does more than any other in the US to promote socially responsible consumerism, has recently produced a Guide to Fossil Fuel Divestment (and Clean-Energy Reinvesting). It’s downloadable as a free PDF from http://www.greenamerica.org/fossilfree. This page also lists a few of the mutual funds that are “fossil-free,” including Pax World Global Environmental Markets Fund — a division of the very first American SRI mutual fund, founded in 1971 in opposition to militarism and the Vietnam War.

The term Fossil Fuel Divestment, of course, is more than a little reminiscent of another idealistic movement that many thought had little chance of success when it launched decades ago. “The fossil fuel divestment movement is the apartheid of this generation,” proclaimed Natural Investments planner Michael Kramer in the January/February issue of Green America. “The more people who clamor for divestment, the more likely that elected officials will listen.”

In another similarity with the apartheid movement, some of the bolder colleges and universities are helping to lead the way by making fossil-free divestment commitments. Nine such institutions have done so, according to http://gofossilfree.org/commitments, and fellow San Franciscans will be proud to see San Francisco State University on the list. Numerous cities have made such commitments too (see same site for list), though it seems it’s catching on quickest on the West Coast, where Seattle, Portland (Oregon), Eugene, and Santa Monica are among the participants. The Bay Area’s heavily represented here too, with San Francisco, Berkeley, and Richmond (not far north of Berkeley) also doing their part.

Gofossilfree.org has plenty of other resources for those interesting in learning more, including information about starting local campaigns. Also check out this Go Fossil Free article in the March 16, 2014 San Jose Mercury News.

Prescott College, in Arizona, is one of the growing number of colleges and universities committing to fossil fuel divestment.

Prescott College, in Arizona, is one of the growing number of colleges and universities committing to fossil fuel divestment.