‘Cities have been invaded by cars. Now they are being liberated’

Private vehicles are being designed out of urban areas with encouraging results for communities and businesses

One of the things I remember about growing up in the West Midlands is the burgundy overalls. You don’t see them anymore, but thousands of car workers – my father included – used to put them on before starting their shift at the old Rover factory in Birmingham, which closed in 2005.

Back then, Brum made motors – that was its thing – so there’s something symbolic about the city now having one of the most ambitious proposals in Europe to drive them out.

Announced in January, the draft Birmingham Transport Plan paints a picture of a cleaner, greener second city with car-free streets, better public transport, more cycle lanes and a ban on through traffic.

Supporters say the plan will address the twin perils of toxic air and obesity – both a major concern in Birmingham – and help the city meet its target of becoming carbon neutral by 2030. Critics fear it could put people off visiting.

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By putting cars in its crosshairs, Birmingham – along with Brighton and York – is part of a growing national and global movement to design private vehicles out of urban areas; a U-turn that planners are performing to beautify public realms, reduce CO2 and tackle air pollution, which has fallen since the coronavirus pandemic forced us all into lockdown, but is typically linked to around 30,000 premature deaths annually in the UK.

The task is huge. Almost every city on Earth (Venice is a notable exception) has been built or adapted for cars. “That was seen as the modern way to develop in the ’60s and ’70s,” explains Dr Robin Hickman, senior lecturer at The Bartlett School of Planning, University College London. “Now we see that as a huge mistake.”

According to Jan Gehl, professor of Urban Design at the School of Architecture in Copenhagen and author of Cities for People, that realisation came around the turn of the 21st century. “Motor-orientated city planning had gone on long enough for people to be sick and tired of the outcome,” he says. “Then came the climate challenge.”

Birmingham used to make cars, now it’s pushing them away. Image: Adam Jones

Gehl claims his native Copenhagen was ahead of the curve and it’s hard to argue otherwise – the city has been laying cycle lanes since the 1960s. Almost half of all journeys there are made by bike, which might explain why it is regularly ranked Europe’s most liveable city.

“The conditions for people [in Copenhagen] are much better than in most other cities,” coos Gehl, citing the Netherlands as another place that puts people before cars.

Cities elsewhere are now playing catchup, many with great zeal. The Norwegian capital, Oslo, has taken the extraordinary step of scrapping most of its parking spaces. Barcelona has a plan to turn 60 per cent of the city’s streets into “citizen spaces”.

The blueprint for Brum’s scheme came from the Belgian city of Ghent, which took the bold step of banning through traffic in 2017. To reach the other side of the city, motorists now have to get on the ring road and drive around. The number of car journeys being made has reportedly halved since the initiative came in, with an apparent corresponding rise in public transport use and cycling.

Motor-orientated city planning had gone on long enough for people to be sick and tired of the outcome

Ghent’s strategy, like Birmingham’s, wasn’t initially popular. The former mayor who mooted it, Frank Beke, was sent a bullet in the post by one angry shopkeeper, who feared his business would be adversely impacted by pedestrianisation.

The authorities claim the scheme has actually stimulated enterprise, evidenced, it says, by a 17 per cent rise in restaurant and bar startups, as well as a fall in shop closures. Anyone familiar with the concept of footfall will not be surprised.

Ghent’s figures are broadly in line with research from other cities, including Copenhagen, where it is reckoned that every kilometre covered by bike brings a net gain for society of 1.22 DKK (£0.14), compared to a net loss of 0.69 DKK (£0.08) for every kilometre covered by car. These numbers include savings in healthcare and additional economic activity in the private sector.

Even in London, which is dominated by the car, improvements to pedestrian and cycle infrastructure have been found to boost retail takings, increase rental values and reduce the rate of shop closures. At least that’s according to research published by Transport for London, which found that people who walked, cycled or travelled by public transport spent 40 per cent more in their local shops than motorists.

The conditions for people in Copenhagen are much better than in most other cities

Banning cars from cities also creates opportunities for new businesses, as highlighted by the rise in cargo bike courier services, such as Zedify, which operates in eight UK cities, including Edinburgh, Brighton and London. In light of recent news, Birmingham is now a target.

“Businesses in Birmingham will be up in arms, saying ‘Well, how the hell are we going to get our deliveries in?’ but actually there are businesses like ours, and others, that have solutions,” says Rob King, Zedify’s CEO.

Zedify has a fleet of cargo bikes and trikes, whose riders are guided by technology that calculates the fastest route. According to King, business is booming. “It’s being driven a lot by the whole environmental movement, but also the fact that local authorities are making it harder for cars and vans to move around the city,” he concludes.

Aside from benefiting the economy and public health, evidence suggests that banishing cars from cities also makes people feel safer.

Cyclists spend more money than motorists, according to research by TFL. Image: Simple

In Bogotá, the Colombian capital, cars have been outlawed from the city every Sunday since the ’70s as part of an initiative called Ciclovía. It’s the one day a week when cyclists and pedestrians have the streets to themselves.

According to a survey published by the American Journal of Public Health, 42.4 per cent of people taking part in the initiative felt safer from crime compared to regular weekday users of the city’s cycle lanes.

“The city just changes,” says Bogotá-born Marcela Guerrero Casas. “From the way it sounds to the way people behave. I feel like on Sundays, people let their guard down.”

Guerrero Casas decided to take the Ciclovía concept to Cape Town to help create more cohesion in a city still divided following Apartheid. The initiative, Open Streets, happens infrequently and data regarding its effectiveness is scant, but a 2019 survey found that 32 per cent of people taking part thought it created a sense of community. “It’s magical,” says Guerrero Casas.

Despite the apparent benefits of going car-free, the road to urban utopia remains gridlocked in most metropolises. Still, according to Gehl, the direction of travel is clear. “Cities have been invaded by cars,” he says. “Now they are being liberated.”

Performing a U-turn

After almost a century of designing urban areas around private cars, planners are now trying to drive them out. Here’s how some cities are doing it

Copenhagen, DenmarkA bellwether for the burgeoning car-free movement, Copenhagen leads the way in designing motor vehicles out of cities. The process began in the 1960s with the construction of the first bike lanes; now the Danish capital has around 220 miles of segregated cycle highways and counting.

Bikes have become the most popular form of transport in the city with around half of journeys to and from work being made by bike. According to the Cycling Embassy of Denmark, making cycling more accessible has resulted in 1.1m fewer sick days taken in the city, saving the economy €215m (£185m) per year.

What’s next?

Proving it isn’t about to rest on its laurels, Copenhagen is trying to get even more people in the saddle by improving its existing cycle infrastructure. The authorities want to boost the number of bike journeys made there from 200,000 per year to 250,000.

Image: Carlo Villarica

Oslo, Norway 

Few cities have been as tough on private vehicles as Oslo, where roads are being closed to cars and most of the city’s parking spaces have been replaced with urban gardens, cycle lanes and benches. Emergency services and motorists with disabilities are still permitted to drive in the city.

The “war on cars” hasn’t gone down well with some residents, but government figures suggest a significant drop in the number of journeys being made by car – from a reported 35 per cent of trips in 2009 to 27 per cent in 2018. Meanwhile, pedestrian traffic has risen by a reported 10 per cent.

What’s next?

The ultimate aim is for Oslo city centre to be free from private vehicles at some point this year. To help it achieve this goal, the authorities are closing roads, constructing new bike lanes and offering grants to help people invest in cargo bikes.

Image: Hyunwon Jang

Barcelona, SpainThe Catalan capital is taking drastic action to curtail cars with its “superblocks” scheme. The idea is to turn 60 per cent of the city’s streets into “citizen spaces”, where locals can hang out without fear of being run over. It is being trialled in a handful of neighbourhoods, nicknamed superblocks; the aim is ultimately to roll it out across the rest of the city.

What’s next?

Superblocks will supposedly be linked via green corridors as part of a simultaneous plan to plant 400 acres of new green space by 2030. The city’s authorities claim the joint ventures will save hundreds of lives annually due to improvements in air quality.

Image: Kaspars Upmanis

Madrid, Spain 

Private cars were all but banned from downtown Madrid in November 2018, a move that appears to have been an early Christmas present for local businesses: the festive period that year saw retail sales jump by a reported 9.5 per cent along Gran Vía, the city’s main shopping street. The only vehicles allowed in the centre are cars belonging to residents, zero-emissions delivery vehicles, taxis and buses.

What’s next?

The main aim for car-free campaigners is to stand firm – Madrid’s new administration has threatened to do away with the vehicle ban, though after protests it appears to be back-pedalling.

Image: Alex Vasey

What about electric cars?

They don’t belch out fumes and will soon be able to drive themselves, but critics claim electric vehicles are flawed in urban areas.

“Cars are not well suited to cities – and vice versa,” argues Shoshanna Saxe, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Department of Civil and Mineral Engineering. “They take up a huge amount of space to move a small number of people and require a lot of infrastructure.”

Jan Gehl of the Copenhagen School of Architecture agrees. “Cars are useful in certain circumstances; the problem with them is very much the numbers.”

As urban areas become more densely populated, Saxe claims we should look to history, not Silicon Valley, for the future of urban transport. “Everyone talks a lot about the autonomous car,” she says, “but for me the most exciting technology for transport in the 21st century is the bike.” SOURCE

‘Recovery packages must make clean-energy a cornerstone of the new global economy

As Covid-19 restrictions ease, Europe is working on its recovery script, with renewables in the starring role, writes Rémi Gruet

As Covid-19 restrictions begin to ease in many countries, Europe is actively working on its recovery script, with renewables cast in the starring role. The recently announced European recovery fund is expected to invest massively in the green transition: this could include loans for commercial investments, as well as potential grants for new renewable technologies.

This emphasis on renewables sends two clear messages: one, in 2020, ‘green’ means economic development; and, two, we need new, flexible renewables technologies – including those classed as ‘ocean energy’ – alongside large volumes of wind and PV, to help match electricity supply with demand.

Many voices have joined the call for a climate-centred approach to economic recovery packages. Analysis from the Smith School of Enterprise and Environment at the University of Oxford published last week showed conclusively that clean-energy investments deliver higher returns, in both the short and long term, than conventional fiscal stimulus.

Today, there are more European jobs in electricity production from wind energy than from gas. This is partly because building devices such as turbines is more labour intensive than simply burning large quantities of fuel. It is also because the renewable industry is investing at home, rather than lining the pockets of Russian oligarchs.

As for newer renewable energy technologies, ocean energy can provide another 400,000 jobs across Europe by 2050 – not only for skilled maritime workers, but for companies throughout the supply chain.

So, the question that a few are asking – do we have enough money to invest in climate action in times of economic crisis? – is simply passé. Climate action equals economic recovery.

All recent major models of the future energy system, from the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) to analysts BNEF, show Europe running on between 80-100% renewable energy in 2050. Even the International Energy Agency, which has long used modelling that underestimated renewable markets, has come around – albeit still with conservative estimates. In other parts of the world, the future share of renewables is still anticipated to be well above 50-60%, as deployments are set to dramatically increase.

A two-track approach is needed to realise these scenarios, as proposed by the European Commission. Mature renewables like wind power and PV will generate the bulk of low-cost, emissions-free energy for consumers. And alongside those, now is the moment to widely deploy a second-generation of renewables, such as wave, tidal and OTEC (ocean thermal energy conversion) or SWAC (sea water air conditioning).

Ocean energy technologies embody the dual goals of a ‘green recovery’: their climate credentials are clear, with the added value of producing at different times from wind and solar, thereby smoothing out production patterns.

By 2050, ocean energy can provide 100GW of Europe’s power, equal to 10% of the current electricity demand.

Ocean energy is already building that future. Tidal energy developers are ramping up power output and scaling up pilot farms, with the flagship MeyGen project recently reaching 28 GWh of production – and spurring expansion of a 80MW array that would supply power to a commercial-scale data centre.

A new generation of full-scale wave devices is proving its worth, surviving stormy seas whilst generating power. Engie’s SWAC project, Thassalia, heats and cools an entire district in the city of Marseille, France.

Among the many projects being developed in Europe, the international Tiger project is set to deliver 8MW of tidal stream energy in the English Channel. Further afield, European export projects are planned in Japan and China, and 20MW of tidal farms using European technology are being developed in Canada.

Ocean energy is taking off. Recovery packages around the world must make renewables, including ocean energy, a cornerstone of the new economy. By supporting modest amounts of ocean energy right now, national governments can pave the way for industrialisation.

In Europe, providing the stimulus for 100MW of ocean energy by 2025 and 3-5GW by 2030 will give a clear signal to both the sector and investors, leveraging more private investment and enabling projects to hit the water. This will propel this new industry into the mainstream, where it can replicate the successes of its offshore wind predecessors. SOURCE

Rémi Gruet is CEO of renewables advocacy body Ocean Energy Europe.


European lawmakers to consider tougher climate law: draft

Bartering is back: When life gives you lemons, trade them for a neighbor’s hand sanitizer

Facebook groups and other avenues are springing up as thousands of people look to swap goods.

(Louisa Bertman for The Washington Post)

SAN FRANCISCO — Tammy Calhoun traded a loaf of freshly baked bread and a few homegrown avocados for a neighbor’s help planting a vegetable garden in her front yard last month — a great deal she never would have come across before the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Seeing the mad rush for toilet paper and flour at the grocery stores, she started a bartering Facebook group in March for her Southern California city of Ventura so neighbors could trade for fresh fruit, paper towels or anything else they needed. Her bartering currency of choice is bread, and she once traded avocados for yeast to make it.

Calhoun’s group, which has gained more than 4,600 members in seven weeks, is one of a growing handful of similar groups sprinkled across the country including in western Montana and southern Nevada. They represent a broader rise in bartering as grocery stores run out of goods and people share what they have. Those partaking say it keeps them out of crowded shops and saves a bit of money. But just as important, it’s a way to feel helpful during the pandemic.

In Frisco, Tex., Greg Bair traded freshly baked sourdough bread for the use of a neighbor’s wheat grinder. In southern Maryland, Lyn Cianflocco traded rolls of toilet paper for much-needed dish soap. In Fresno, Calif., Ashley Hughes picked up lemons from a neighbor and returned three days later with marmalade.

“It was a very unique way to connect with someone during a time when a lot of us are feeling alone,” Hughes said.

As the coronavirus pandemic took hold across the United States in March, grocery stores became chaotic as people tried to stock up on the basics. People were sent home from work as restaurants closed and social distancing laws were enacted. Shopping and ordering online became a hit-or-miss game.

Stores in many areas of the country have calmed a bit and are restocking staples, but unemployment numbers continue to rise as businesses cut back or shut down in the face of economic uncertainty. More than 30 million Americans have filed unemployment claims since the pandemic took hold in the United States, an unprecedented number in such a short amount of time.

Bartering is a natural side effect and one that frequently stems from an economic crisis, said Jim Stodder, an economist and visiting professor at Boston University. It happened during the Great Depression to such an extent many “community currencies,” or forms of local money, were created.

“Any time we have a serious downturn in which people are short of money, these things tend to pop up,” he said.

Some of those community currencies stuck around — BerkShares, used in the Berkshires region of western Massachusetts, is probably the best known surviving example. People can use regular money to buy BerkShares — one BerkShare costs 95 cents — which can be used to pay at hundreds of businesses in the region. Proponents say it fosters community spirit and keeps money flowing locally.

Professional bartering exchanges, which offer credit or bartering exchange funds for goods, are also reporting increased activity as businesses conserve cash and search for other ways to pay for business. Ron Whitney of the International Reciprocal Trade Association said there’s been a spike in interest in small businesses wanting to join exchanges since the pandemic began and cash became tight.

“Business owners are looking to fill the void that they lost,” he said.

But for most people, bartering (so far) is happening between neighbors and across online forums such as Facebook, Nextdoor and Twitter.

Veronica Coon started a trading Facebook group in Henderson, Nev., after she saw long lines around Target and Costco as she drove with her husband to pick up their son from college.

She snagged a case of 12 packages of highly coveted baby wipes on Amazon and started giving them away to anyone who needed some, leaving them in a red crate on her front porch to observe social distancing. She also doled out two-pound Ziploc bags of rice, separated from her 50-pound bag online find.

Coon’s group is one of the most active in the country with more than 5,700 members — ballooning faster than she expected in less than two months. In the group, people post what they have to offer and what they would ideally accept as a trade. Others then comment if they’re interested in bartering. They contact each other privately to set up a time to meet, and most people exchange items from a distance, Coon said, or leave trades on front porches.

Calhoun’s group and many across the country work similarly and started up in March and early April, adding to scores of buy-and-sell groups already on Facebook. But nearly all the new bartering groups prohibit selling goods. Some have thousands of members and dozens of posts each day.

Facebook said it doesn’t track the number of bartering groups. However, spokesperson Leonard Lam said there are 4,000 covid-19 support groups in the U.S., which could include some of the bartering groups.

At first the groups were filled with people looking mainly for hand sanitizer, baby wipes and paper towels, members of the groups say. Now many are trading for face masks, although another frequent request has been the elusive Lysol spray.

Coon, a hairdresser, is out of work, and her husband’s hours have been reduced.

“There are so many people in the valley who have been helped,” she said. MORE

Climate change: Study pours cold water on oil company net zero claims

Oil and Gas UK (OGUK) wants action from the UK government to allow businesses in its sector to access finance to help them through the Covid-19 crisis  GETTY IMAGES

Claims by oil and gas companies that they are curbing their carbon emissions in line with net zero targets are overstated, according to a new review.

The independent analysis of six large European corporations acknowledges they have taken big steps on CO2 recently.

In April, Shell became the latest to announce ambitious plans to be at net zero for operational emissions by 2050.

But the authors say none of the companies are yet aligned with the 1.5C temperature goal.

Scientists argue that the global temperature must not rise by more than 1.5C by the end of the century if the world is to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

The research has been carried out by the Transition Pathway Initiative (TPI), an investor-led group which investigates how companies are preparing for the move to a low-carbon economy.

Going net zero means removing as many emissions as are produced.

TPI found that the relationship between the oil and gas industry and climate change has evolved rapidly over the last three years.

In Europe, in 2017, no European company had set targets to reduce the carbon intensity of the energy it supplied.

Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES


Today, all six companies assessed by the analysis have targets and plans.

Over the last six months, say the authors of the report, climate ambitions among these companies have risen markedly.

In February, the new head of BP, Bernard Looney, committed to cutting net carbon emissions to zero by 2050 or sooner.

Going further than his predecessor, Mr Looney said BP would cut the emissions intensity of its sold products by 50% by the middle of this century.

But according to this new analysis, BP and Austrian company OMV are the only two oil and gas companies of the six assessed who have failed to align with the pledges made under the Paris climate agreement.

“Is it sufficient? No, it’s not,” said Adam Matthews, co-chair of TPI.

“There are ones that have more comprehensive commitments that put them on a path much closer to two degrees than some of the others.”

Shell is classed as the most ambitious of the companies assessed and are the closest to a 2C warming scenario.

However, despite Shell’s stated commitment to having a net-zero energy business by 2050, TPI says that “the claim that it will be aligned with a 1.5C climate scenario is not consistent with our analysis.”

The authors say that they have not been able to assess Shell’s plan to sell only its energy products to companies that are committed to net zero.

Image captionClimate protestors have mounted actions against the major oil companies  Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES

“We can’t yet quantify that,” said Adam Matthews.

“But that potentially is very significant. And does get them to a sort of one and a half degree of warming kind of commitment, which is equivalent to net zero.”

According to the authors, a genuine net zero strategy for the average European oil and gas company would require 100% emissions cuts between now and 2050.

TPI point out that all of the plans they have assessed are, to some degree, dependent on carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology and nature-based solutions such as planting trees.

“There are very significant assumptions that need further probing,” said Adam Matthews.

“And we obviously need greater understanding of the role that that these will play in delivering these strategies.”

Four of the companies assessed, Shell, Eni, Total and Repsol, are now aligned with the pledges made under the Paris climate agreement.

Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES


However, the authors draw a sharp contrast between the actions of these European companies and oil and gas producers in the US.

None of the dozens of American fossil fuel corporations have public disclosures on climate change comparable to Europe, which TPI says is a concern.

“We simply don’t know what their intentions are on this issue, that poses a greater financial risk to us,” said Adam Matthews.

“We’re continuing to engage, but engagements are finite, there comes a point at which you have to draw very clear conclusions.” SOURCE

Canadian Civil Liberties Association looking to challenge Bill 38 amendment

Will begin with advocacy before litigation

Cara Zwibel is the director of fundamental freedoms with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. (Supplied by Canadian Civil Liberties Association)

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association is planning to challenge the government of Newfoundland and Labrador’s amendment to Bill 38 — the Public Health Protection and Promotion Act — citing it as unconstitutional.

The controversial amendment was passed in the House of Assembly last Tuesday, giving power to police to detain individuals found in non-compliance with current public health orders, with the possibility of removing people who are not primary residents from the province entirely, among many more sweeping powers.

A government public health order issued a week ago prohibited entry to the province to anyone but those who are travelling for work, relocating for work, and primary residents. Some exemptions can be made for those travelling to Newfoundland and Labrador for the purposes of taking care of health needs of a family member. As of Monday nearly 2,000 exemption applications had been filed with the province.

“The basis is that this is a restriction of rights that are protected by the Charter, and it’s not reasonable or justified,” said Cara Zwibel, director of the CCLA’s Fundamental Freedoms Program.

“There’s no evidence that doing this is necessary. The province had in place less strict restrictions previously. The people who did enter the province had to self-isolate for a period. There’s no indication that that was inadequate.”

The CCLA is a nonprofit organization based out of Toronto devoted to the defence of civil liberties and constitutional rights.

Zwibel said the organization is not dismissive of the public health concerns related to travellers entering Newfoundland and Labrador, where as of Monday the province has 14 active cases of COVID-19.

“The question is whether it’s achieving the right balance between protecting the public and maintaining the rights that are constitutionally entrenched. They’re in our Charter for a reason. They’re there to make sure that Canadian citizens and permanent residents are supposed to be able to move around the country freely,” she said.

“If there is a restriction that is being put in place the government has to demonstrate why it’s necessary. So sort of fear and speculation is just not enough in our view. Better safe than sorry doesn’t hold up in a court.”

Standing by decision

Health Minister John Haggie is standing by the House of Assembly’s decision to amend Bill 38. During Monday’s daily COVID-19 briefing Haggie said police officers needed clarity on their role in enforcing public health orders.

Health Minister John Haggie said the amendment to Bill 38 was to give clarify the role of law enforcement officers in enforcing public health orders. (Peter Cowan/CBC)


Initial public health orders issued by government in March saw a fining system implemented where peace officers could fine individuals $500 up to $2,500, issue a prison sentence of up to six months, or a combination of the two. Similarly, non-essential businesses that are in operation could face fines of $5,000 to $50,000, and owners would be held personally liable and open to individual fines. Fines will also multiply after the first instance.

Since March new orders have been issued, such as the ban on all non-essential travel to the province.

“The Supreme Court itself have referred to the whole constitution act as a living tree that is pruned and grows over time with good case law. So the view from [the Department of Justice and Public Safety] and ourselves, on advice from the law enforcement, peace officers, is that they needed clarity around their role. That clarity was provided. It was debated in the House,” said Haggie.

“At the end of the day, the tensions built into that, the way the constitution and the Charter of Rights is framed, allows for rights to be abridged or reduced only to the extent that is necessary for the greater public good. Whether or not our actions meet that test would be a decision a court would take should someone choose to challenge it.”

Zwibel said CCLA is in discussion with local counsel, and will begin advocating for the amendment to be overturned. She said the hope is that will be enough for government to reverse its decision, but the CCLA will bring litigation if necessary.  SOURCE

Politics after the pandemic: can good follow bad?

French environmental activist Nicolas Hulot gives a speech in 2015. Image: Fondation Nicolas Hulot pour la Nature et l'Homme/ Flickr

Image: Fondation Nicolas Hulot pour la Nature et l’Homme/ Flickr

An important body of thought warns us what to expect as the coronavirus pandemic fades from view: After a crisis, a bad situation gets worse.

The captains of corporate globalization turn the screws on workers, shred remaining environmental protections and play the political system to their advantage.

In a body of work, Philip Mirowski has explained how neoliberalism turns changed circumstances into new opportunities for capital.

Shoshana Zuboff, in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, captures how neoliberalism is getting hyped up to cement class divides and exclude citizens from essential services.

In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein detailed how capitalists take advantage of crises like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nicolas Hulot — the prominent French environmental activist who was appointed minister of ecological and solidary transition by President Emmanuel Macron in 2017, only to resign 15 months later — adopts a different approach. He wants good to follow bad.

On a bilingual website, Hulot presents 100 principles the world should adopt now to reorganize itself politically, socially and economically to deal with the climate emergency and remedy the economic failures exposed by the coronavirus epidemic.

Hulot comes across as an over-the-top optimist. For instance, the first of his five immediate policy proposals — the creation of a “European recovery and ecological transformation fund of several thousand billions of euros” — looks impossible to be adopted since it requires approval from a backward European Council and unheard of sums of money.

But before rejecting Hulot as an out-of-touch dreamer, it is worth considering where he comes from and what he has in mind.

Speaking with C politique, a Sunday night French television program, Hulot pointed out that we have known for decades that corporations have been protecting humongous taxable revenues from national treasuries through financial trickery and the use of tax havens.

In other words, political parties of all stripes and governments have been complicit in a gigantic rip-off that continues today, and costs thousands of billions of dollars or euros that could be redirected to a recovery and ecological fund.

In the world Hulot — like Klein, Zuboff and Mirowski — describes, the biggest prevailing untruth is that capitalism serves the common good because it enriches society.

Yes, capitalism is better than what preceded it, feudalism.

More to the point, society subsidizes capitalism through underpaid and unpaid labour; socializing corporate losses and environmental destruction; educating and keeping healthy workers and consumers; providing public contracts; and direct subsidies.

For fossil fuels alone, the IMF projected worldwide public subsidies in 2017 to total $5.2 trillion!

Putting a stop to thievery on a mass scale by companies pirating private information, desecrating the environment, endangering survival of the species and corrupting public life will take a revolution, which is what Hulot is proposing.

Call it as he does an amicable revolution — or a peaceful revolution — Hulot argues a major transformation of society is an idea whose time has come.

No revolution is possible without ideals. The 100 principles Hulot puts forward are assembled to inspire a democratic makeover of political life and an integration of the economic into an ecological worldview.

More importantly, as Greta Thunberg has said, for several months now the world has been a living example of how seriously world carbon footprints can change in response to scientific reasoning.

Physical distancing, school and commercial closures, self-isolation, and attention to personal hygiene took over most of the world in order to avoid immediate danger from the spreading infection.

By governments’ responses to the pandemic, people have seen that living differently must be possible, since they have been doing it.

A move from very bad living for precarious workers and the poor to an ecologically sustainable existence for all needs new thinking about what paths lead to the common good.

To reject a total change in the way public affairs are run means either to see no future for emancipatory politics, or to deny the true state of the world today.

Hulot is undoubtedly an idealist. Like Klein, Zuboff and Mirowski, he sees how things have gone wrong. By announcing an amicable revolution, Hulot is appealing to the better side of human nature: The educated, reasoning capacity that co-exists with the nasty, dangerous side of human nature, dominated by passions without judgement.

Hulot speaks to both hearts and minds: calling out to us to seize the moment, marshal everything we know and have learned makes sense, and act together now, to make a better world.  SOURCE

Duncan Cameron is president emeritus of rabble.ca and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

COVID-19 Renews the Struggle for Anti-Capitalist Care Models

An elderly woman lies on a bed in the room of her long-term care home. Photo by Sima Dimitric/Flickr.

In the last couple of months, we have been inundated with media accounts framing older people in long-term care (LTC) as uniquely vulnerable to COVID-19. They are a “risky population” that needs extra protections from the virus. Indeed, long-term care residents make up close to 80 percent of the COVID-19 death toll in Canada and in many other countries around the world.

What is mentioned less is that age and health status are only a small part of the traumatic events unfolding in LTC across Canada. Older people are extremely vulnerable, not coincidentally because they are in LTC.

It is no secret that LTC in Canada has been in crisis for decades now, as a result of ruthless austerity and an inexorable privatization agenda that have left the continuing care sector (care for people with chronic health challenges and permanent disabilities) in tatters.

While there is significant variation across institutions, particularly depending on whether or not they are private or non-profit facilities, in early 2019 the Health Care Coalition reported that Ontario LTC residents receive on average around two hours of total care a day and frequently work with significant staff shortages. Staff regularly experience burn-out and violence, and families and volunteers are relied on heavily to supplement care.

Residents do not choose to live in these conditions. LTC is often a last resort for disabled and older people who cannot afford adequate levels of care in their own homes or to live in comfortable retirement homes. Most do not have the social supports needed to supplement what meagre home care provision they might have access to through the government.

Healthcare unions and advocacy organizations have been sounding the alarm for more than a decade about the devastating impacts of LTC staff shortages and grossly underpaid and precarious frontline workers—ranging from care aides to cleaners. The vulnerability of LTC residents and workers is mutually reinforcing. Residents are forgotten and devalued in our society just as their care providers are denigrated and poorly paid. It is impossible to improve the conditions of care without improving the working conditions of those who care for them.

To understand what makes people vulnerable in a pandemic, then, it is crucial that we look beyond individual health characteristics and towards the deep contradictions that structure these crises.

Under capitalism, there is a terrifying and disturbing history of “caring” for people who are not productive in normative ways, or who have experienced first-hand criminalization, hyper-exploitation, eugenics and genocide. This history shows us that capitalism always values profit over people and is thus at odds with the forms of economic, social and political organization that are necessary to adequately address the current crisis of care.

The people who live and work in long-term care are canaries in a coalmine. The acute crisis they currently face is emblematic of the gaping and life-threatening social inequalities in many sectors and communities. Drug users and harm reduction workers, racialized and Indigenous peoples, people with chronic disabilities, trans people, criminalized and migrant workers are just a few groups that are deemed, effectively, disposable in a crisis. Each of these communities have experienced long histories of violent care practices under capitalism, where poor women, disabled, stigmatized and racialized people have been institutionalized in a variety of residential formations ranging from almshouses, workhouses, asylums and prisons.

At various points in time, struggles for more just forms of care have intersected and have constituted significant challenges to capitalism. Some of the more progressive care models in place today—such as harm reduction, reproductive rights, independent living, and even public healthcare—are a result of care organizing within these communities.

In the 1960s, the Black Panther Party Survival Programs established community clinics and breakfast programs for poor black communities. The anarchist history of needle exchanges in the 1970s and 1980s paved the way for many of today’s harm reduction models. Finally, disabled activists have criticized the violence of capitalist care institutions for decades, resulting in the present-day independent living model of user-directed home care services.

More recently, precarious care workers—predominantly racialized migrant women—have demanded pay equity, job security and sick leave leading to many important legislative protections for workers. These models, which Alan Sears calls “health-from-below”, value justice, collectivity, dignity, self-determination and solidarity with other oppressed groups.

We know that profit-driven, capitalist care with its various forms of medical rationing, dehumanizing institutional approaches and individualistic medical lenses threaten all of us when a crisis hits. Now, it is more important than ever to build on existing successful models for anti-capitalist care, knit them together, and demand a society where people, and their care, are central in our political, social and economic organization.  SOURCE

Mary Jean Hande is a postdoctoral fellow at the Nova Scotia Centre on Aging at Mount Saint Vincent University. Her research uses aging and disability studies, historical materialist and feminist methods to explore the political economies of care work in homes, institutions, transnational diasporas, and social movements.


NDP deserves kudos for pushing government to help seniors — and many others

Premier should have recognized Indigenous Peoples’ history on province’s 150th birthday, professor says

Naomi Klein: How big tech plans to profit from the pandemic

As the coronavirus continues to kill thousands each day, tech companies are seizing the opportunity to extend their reach and power.

Eric Schmidt, Google’s former executive chair, left, with the New York governor Andrew Cuomo. Photograph: Getty

For a few fleeting moments during the New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily coronavirus briefing on Wednesday 6 May, the sombre grimace that has filled our screens for weeks was briefly replaced by something resembling a smile.

“We are ready, we’re all-in,” the governor gushed. “We are New Yorkers, so we’re aggressive about it, we’re ambitious about it … We realise that change is not only imminent, but it can actually be a friend if done the right way.”

The inspiration for these uncharacteristically good vibes was a video visit from the former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who joined the governor’s briefing to announce that he will be heading up a panel to reimagine New York state’s post-Covid reality, with an emphasis on permanently integrating technology into every aspect of civic life.

“The first priorities of what we’re trying to do,” Schmidt said, “are focused on telehealth, remote learning, and broadband … We need to look for solutions that can be presented now, and accelerated, and use technology to make things better.” Lest there be any doubt that the former Google chair’s goals were purely benevolent, his video background featured a framed pair of golden angel wings.

Just one day earlier, Cuomo had announced a similar partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop “a smarter education system”. Calling Gates a “visionary”, Cuomo said the pandemic has created “a moment in history when we can actually incorporate and advance [Gates’s] ideas … all these buildings, all these physical classrooms – why, with all the technology you have?” he asked, apparently rhetorically.

It has taken some time to gel, but something resembling a coherent pandemic shock doctrine is beginning to emerge. Call it the Screen New Deal. Far more hi-tech than anything we have seen during previous disasters, the future that is being rushed into being as the bodies still pile up treats our past weeks of physical isolation not as a painful necessity to save lives, but as a living laboratory for a permanent – and highly profitable – no-touch future.

Anuja Sonalker, the CEO of Steer Tech, a Maryland-based company selling self-parking technology, recently summed up the new virus-personalised pitch. “There has been a distinct warming up to humanless, contactless technology,” she said. “Humans are biohazards, machines are not.”

It’s a future in which our homes are never again exclusively personal spaces, but are also, via high-speed digital connectivity, our schools, our doctor’s offices, our gyms, and, if determined by the state, our jails. Of course, for many of us, those same homes were already turning into our never-off workplaces and our primary entertainment venues before the pandemic, and surveillance incarceration “in the community” was already booming. But in the future that is hastily being constructed, all of these trends are poised for a warp-speed acceleration.

This is a future in which, for the privileged, almost everything is home delivered, either virtually via streaming and cloud technology, or physically via driverless vehicle or drone, then screen “shared” on a mediated platform. It’s a future that employs far fewer teachers, doctors and drivers. It accepts no cash or credit cards (under guise of virus control), and has skeletal mass transit and far less live art. It’s a future that claims to be run on “artificial intelligence”, but is actually held together by tens of millions of anonymous workers tucked away in warehouses, data centres, content-moderation mills, electronic sweatshops, lithium mines, industrial farms, meat-processing plants and prisons, where they are left unprotected from disease and hyper-exploitation. It’s a future in which our every move, our every word, our every relationship is trackable, traceable and data-mineable by unprecedented collaborations between government and tech giants.

 Eric Schmidt, via video call, joins the media briefing given by the New York governor Andrew Cuomo on 6 May 2020. Photograph: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/Rex/Shutterstock 

If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because, pre-Covid, this precise app-driven, gig-fuelled future was being sold to us in the name of friction-free convenience and personalisation. But many of us had concerns. About the security, quality and inequity of telehealth and online classrooms. About driverless cars mowing down pedestrians and drones smashing packages (and people). About location tracking and cash-free commerce obliterating our privacy and entrenching racial and gender discrimination. About unscrupulous social media platforms poisoning our information ecology and our kids’ mental health. About “smart cities” filled with sensors supplanting local government. About the good jobs these technologies wiped out. About the bad jobs they mass produced.

And most of all, we had concerns about the democracy-threatening wealth and power accumulated by a handful of tech companies that are masters of abdication – eschewing all responsibility for the wreckage left behind in the fields they now dominate, whether media, retail or transportation.

That was the ancient past, also known as February. Today, a great many of those well-founded concerns are being swept away by a tidal wave of panic, and this warmed-over dystopia is going through a rush-job rebranding. Now, against a harrowing backdrop of mass death, it is being sold to us on the dubious promise that these technologies are the only possible way to pandemic-proof our lives, the indispensable keys to keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe.

Thanks to Cuomo and his various billionaire partnerships (including one with Michael Bloomberg for testing and tracing), New York state is being positioned as the gleaming showroom for this grim future – but the ambitions reach far beyond the borders of any one state or country.

And at the dead centre of it all is Eric Schmidt.

Well before Americans understood the threat of Covid-19, Schmidt had been on an aggressive lobbying and public-relations campaign, pushing precisely the Black Mirror vision of society that Cuomo has just empowered him to build. At the heart of this vision is seamless integration of government with a handful of Silicon Valley giants – with public schools, hospitals, doctor’s offices, police and military all outsourcing (at a high cost) many of their core functions to private tech companies.

It’s a vision Schmidt has been advancing in his roles as chair of the Defense Innovation Board, which advises the US Department of Defense on increased use of artificial intelligence in the military, and as chair of the powerful National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, or NSCAI, which advises Congress on “advances in artificial intelligence, related machine learning developments and associated technologies”, with the goal of addressing “the national and economic security needs of the United States, including economic risk”. Both boards are crowded with powerful Silicon Valley CEOs and top executives from companies including Oracle, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and of course, Schmidt’s former colleagues at Google.

As chair, Schmidt – who still holds more than $5.3bn in shares of Alphabet (Google’s parent company), as well as large investments in other tech firms – has essentially been running a Washington-based shakedown on behalf of Silicon Valley. The main purpose of the two boards is to call for exponential increases in government spending on research into artificial intelligence and on tech-enabling infrastructure such as 5G – investments that would directly benefit the companies in which Schmidt and other members of these boards have extensive holdings.

First in closed-door presentations to lawmakers, and later in public-facing opinion articles and interviews, the thrust of Schmidt’s argument has been that since the Chinese government is willing to spend limitless public money building the infrastructure of high-tech surveillance, while allowing Chinese tech companies such as Alibaba, Baidu and Huawei to pocket the profits from commercial applications, the US’s dominant position in the global economy is on the precipice of collapsing.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (Epic) recently got access, through a freedom of information (FOI) request, to a presentation made by Schmidt’s NSCAI in May 2019. Its slides make a series of alarmist claims about how China’s relatively lax regulatory infrastructure and its bottomless appetite for surveillance are causing it to pull ahead of the US in a number of fields, including “AI for medical diagnosis”, autonomous vehicles, digital infrastructure, “smart cities”, ride-sharing and cashless commerce.

The reasons given for China’s competitive edge are myriad, ranging from the sheer volume of consumers who shop online; “the lack of legacy banking systems in China”, which has allowed it to leapfrog over cash and credit cards and unleash “a huge e-commerce and digital services market” using digital payments; and a severe doctor shortage, which has led the government to work closely with tech companies such as Tencent to use AI for “predictive” medicine. The slides note that in China, tech companies “have the authority to quickly clear regulatory barriers, while American initiatives are mired in HIPPA compliance and FDA approval”.

 A slide from the Chinese Tech Landscape Overview (NSCAI presentation) discussing surveillance. Photograph: NSCAI 

More than any other factor, however, the NSCAI points to China’s willingness to embrace public-private partnerships in mass surveillance and data collection as a reason for its competitive edge. The presentation touts China’s “Explicit government support and involvement eg facial recognition deployment”. It argues that “surveillance is one of the ‘first-and-best customers’ for Al” and further, that “mass surveillance is a killer application for deep learning”.

A slide titled “State Datasets: Surveillance = Smart Cities” notes that China, along with Google’s main Chinese competitor, Alibaba, are racing ahead.

 A slide from the Chinese Tech Landscape Overview (NSCAI presentation) discussing surveillance. Photograph: NSCAI 

This is notable because Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has been pushing this precise vision through its Sidewalk Labs division, choosing a large portion of Toronto’s waterfront as its “smart city” prototype. But the Toronto project was just shut down after two years of ceaseless controversy relating to the enormous amounts of personal data that Alphabet would collect, a lack of privacy protections, and questionable benefits for the city as a whole.

Five months after this presentation, in November, NSCAI issued an interim report to Congress further raising the alarm about the need for the US to match China’s adaptation of these controversial technologies. “We are in a strategic competition,” states the report, obtained via FOI by Epic. “AI will be at the centre. The future of our national security and economy are at stake.”

 Sidewalk Labs, an Alphabet affiliate, planned to build a neighbourhood ‘from the internet up’ on Toronto’s lakefront. But the project has been shut down after two years of controversy Photograph: AFP via Getty 

By late February, Schmidt was taking his campaign to the public, perhaps understanding that the budget increases his board was calling for could not be approved without a great deal more buy-in. In a New York Times article headlined “I used to Run Google. Silicon Valley Could Lose to China”, Schmidt called for “unprecedented partnerships between government and industry” and, once again sounding the yellow peril alarm, wrote:

“AI will open new frontiers in everything from biotechnology to banking, and it is also a defense department priority … If current trends continue, China’s overall investments in research and development are expected to surpass those of the United States within 10 years, around the same time its economy is projected to become larger than ours.

Unless these trends change, in the 2030s we will be competing with a country that has a bigger economy, more research and development investments, better research, wider deployment of new technologies and stronger computing infrastructure … Ultimately, the Chinese are competing to become the world’s leading innovators, and the United States is not playing to win.”

The only solution, for Schmidt, was a gush of public money. Praising the White House for requesting a doubling of research funding in AI and quantum information science, he wrote: “We should plan to double funding in those fields again as we build institutional capacity in labs and research centres … At the same time, Congress should meet the president’s request for the highest level of defence R & D funding in over 70 years, and the defense department should capitalise on that resource surge to build breakthrough capabilities in AI, quantum, hypersonics and other priority technology areas.”

That was exactly two weeks before the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic, and there was no mention that a goal of this vast, hi-tech expansion was to protect American health. Only that it was necessary to avoid being outcompeted by China. But, of course, that would soon change.

In the two months since, Schmidt has put these pre-existing demands – for massive public expenditures on high-tech research and infrastructure, for a slew of “public-private partnerships” in AI, and for the loosening of myriad privacy and safety protections – through an aggressive rebranding exercise. Now all of these measures (and more) are being sold to the public as our only possible hope of protecting ourselves from a novel virus that will be with us for years to come.

And the tech companies to which Schmidt has deep ties, and which populate the influential advisory boards he chairs, have all repositioned themselves as benevolent protectors of public health and munificent champions of “everyday hero” essential workers (many of whom, like delivery drivers, would lose their jobs if these companies get their way). Less than two weeks into New York state’s lockdown, Schmidt wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal that both set the new tone and made clear that Silicon Valley had every intention of leveraging the crisis for a permanent transformation.

“Like other Americans, technologists are trying to do their part to support the front-line pandemic response …

But every American should be asking where we want the nation to be when the Covid-19 pandemic is over. How could the emerging technologies being deployed in the current crisis propel us into a better future? … Companies like Amazon know how to supply and distribute efficiently. They will need to provide services and advice to government officials who lack the computing systems and expertise.

We should also accelerate the trend toward remote learning, which is being tested today as never before. Online, there is no requirement of proximity, which allows students to get instruction from the best teachers, no matter what school district they reside in …

The need for fast, large-scale experimentation will also accelerate the biotech revolution … Finally, the country is long overdue for a real digital infrastructure … If we are to build a future economy and education system based on tele-everything, we need a fully connected population and ultrafast infrastructure. The government must make a massive investment – perhaps as part of a stimulus package – to convert the nation’s digital infrastructure to cloud-based platforms and link them with a 5G network.”

Indeed, Schmidt has been relentless in pursuing this vision. Two weeks after that article appeared, he described the ad-hoc home schooling programming that teachers and families across the country had been forced to cobble together during this public health emergency as “a massive experiment in remote learning”.

The goal of this experiment, he said, was “trying to find out: how do kids learn remotely? And with that data we should be able to build better remote and distance learning tools which, when combined with the teacher … will help kids learn better.” During this same video call, hosted by the Economic Club of New York, Schmidt also called for more telehealth, more 5G, more digital commerce and the rest of the preexisting wish list. All in the name of fighting the virus.

His most telling comment, however, was this: “The benefit of these corporations, which we love to malign, in terms of the ability to communicate, the ability to deal with health, the ability to get information, is profound. Think about what your life would be like in America without Amazon.” He added that people should “be a little bit grateful that these companies got the capital, did the investment, built the tools that we’re using now, and have really helped us out”.

Schmidt’s words are a reminder that until very recently, public pushback against these companies was surging. Presidential candidates were openly discussing breaking up big tech. Amazon was forced to pull its plans for a New York headquarters because of fierce local opposition. Google’s Sidewalk Labs project was in perennial crisis, and Google workers were refusing to build surveillance tech with military applications.

In short, democracy – inconvenient public engagement in the designing of critical institutions and public spaces – was turning out to be the single greatest obstacle to the vision Schmidt was advancing, first from his perch at the top of Google and Alphabet, and then as chair of two powerful boards advising US Congress and the Department of Defense. As the NSCAI documents reveal, this inconvenient exercise of power by members of the public and by tech workers inside these mega-firms has, from the perspective of men such as Schmidt and the Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, maddeningly slowed down the AI arms race, keeping fleets of potentially deadly driverless cars and trucks off the roads, protecting private health records from becoming a weapon used by employers against workers, preventing urban spaces from being blanketing with facial recognition software, and much more.

Now, in the midst of the carnage of this ongoing pandemic, and the fear and uncertainty about the future it has brought, these companies clearly see their moment to sweep out all that democratic engagement. To have the same kind of power as their Chinese competitors, who have the luxury of functioning without being hampered by intrusions of either labour or civil rights.

Schoolchildren walking below surveillance cameras in Akto in China’s Xinjiang region. Photograph: Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images
All of this is moving very fast. The Australian government has contracted with Amazon to store the data for its controversial coronavirus tracking app. The Canadian government has contracted with Amazon to deliver medical equipment, raising questions about why it bypassed the public postal service. And in just a few short days in early May, Alphabet has spun up a new Sidewalk Labs initiative to remake urban infrastructure with $400m in seed capital. Josh Marcuse, the executive director of the Defense Innovation Board chaired by Schmidt, announced that he was leaving that job to work full-time at Google as head of strategy and innovation for global public sector, meaning that he will be helping Google to cash in on some of the many opportunities he and Schmidt have been busily creating with their lobbying.

To be clear, technology is most certainly a key part of how we must protect public health in the coming months and years. The question is: will that technology be subject to the disciplines of democracy and public oversight, or will it be rolled out in state-of-exception frenzy, without asking critical questions that will shape our lives for decades to come? Questions such as these, for instance: if we are indeed seeing how critical digital connectivity is in times of crisis, should these networks, and our data, really be in the hands of private players such as Google, Amazon and Apple? If public funds are paying for so much of it, should the public also own and control it? If the internet is essential for so much in our lives, as it clearly is, should it be treated as a nonprofit public utility?

And while there is no doubt that the ability to teleconference has been a lifeline in this period of lockdown, there are serious debates to be had about whether our more lasting protections are distinctly more human. Take education. Schmidt is right that overcrowded classrooms present a health risk, at least until we have a vaccine. So how about hiring double the number of teachers and cutting class size in half? How about making sure that every school has a nurse?

That would create much-needed jobs in a depression-level unemployment crisis, and give everyone in the learning environment more elbow room. If buildings are too crowded, how about dividing the day into shifts, and having more outdoor education, drawing on the plentiful research that shows that time in nature enhances children’s capacity to learn?

Introducing those kinds of changes would be hard, to be sure. But they are not nearly as risky as giving up on the tried-and-true technology of trained humans teaching younger humans face-to-face, in groups where they learn to socialise with one another to boot.

Upon learning of New York state’s new partnership with the Gates Foundation, Andy Pallotta, the president of the New York State United Teachers union, was quick to react: “If we want to reimagine education, let’s start with addressing the need for social workers, mental health counsellors, school nurses, enriching arts courses, advanced courses and smaller class sizes in school districts across the state,” he said. A coalition of parents’ groups also pointed out that if they had indeed been living an “experiment in remote learning” (as Schmidt put it), then the results were deeply worrying: “Since the schools were shut down in mid-March, our understanding of the profound deficiencies of screen-based instruction has only grown.”

In addition to the obvious class and race biases against children who lack internet access and home computers (problems that tech companies are eager to be paid to solve with massive tech buys), there are big questions about whether remote teaching can serve many kids with disabilities, as required by law. And there is no technological solution to the problem of learning in a home environment that is overcrowded and/or abusive.

The issue is not whether schools must change in the face of a highly contagious virus for which we have neither cure nor inoculation. Like every institution where humans gather in groups, they will change. The trouble, as always in these moments of collective shock, is the absence of public debate about what those changes should look like, and who they should benefit – private tech companies or students?

The same questions need to be asked about health. Avoiding doctor’s offices and hospitals during a pandemic makes good sense. But telehealth misses a huge amount. So we need to have an evidence-based debate about the pros and cons of spending scarce public resources on telehealth – rather than on more trained nurses, equipped with all the necessary protective equipment, who are able to make house calls to diagnose and treat patients in their homes. And, perhaps most urgently, we need to get the balance right between virus tracking apps, which, with the proper privacy protections, have a role to play, and the calls for a “community health corps” that would put millions of Americans to work, not only doing contact-tracing, but making sure that everyone has the material resources and support they need to quarantine safely.

A teacher in Maryland, US, handing out computers to students for remote learning. Photograph: Win McNamee/Getty Images 

In each case, we face real and hard choices between investing in humans and investing in technology. Because the brutal truth is that, as it stands, we are very unlikely to do both. The refusal to transfer anything like the needed resources to states and cities in successive federal bailouts means that the coronavirus health crisis is now slamming headlong into a manufactured austerity crisis. Public schools, universities, hospitals and transit are facing existential questions about their futures. If tech companies win their ferocious lobbying campaign for remote learning, telehealth, 5G and driverless vehicles – their Screen New Deal – there simply won’t be any money left over for urgent public priorities, never mind the Green New Deal that our planet urgently needs. On the contrary: the price tag for all the shiny gadgets will be mass teacher layoffs and hospital closures.

Tech provides us with powerful tools, but not every solution is technological. And the trouble with outsourcing key decisions about how to “reimagine” our states and cities to men such as Bill Gates and Schmidt is that they have spent their lives demonstrating the belief that there is no problem that technology cannot fix.

For them, and many others in Silicon Valley, the pandemic is a golden opportunity to receive not just the gratitude, but the deference and power that they feel has been unjustly denied. And Andrew Cuomo, by putting the former Google chair in charge of the body that will shape the state’s reopening, appears to have just given him something close to free rein.


Cuomo is letting billionaires plan New York’s future. It doesn’t have to be this way

The New York governor is replacing elected representatives with private, unaccountable monopolists, and lawmakers across the US are doing the same thing

‘Lawmakers are notably MIA in the middle of a pandemic – and by all accounts Cuomo likes it that way.’ Photograph: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/REX/Shutterstock

Last week, New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, announced that Bill Gates would be responsible for “reimagining” New York’s education system. Cuomo also asked former Google chief executive Eric Schmidt to lead a panel planning New York’s post-Covid tech infrastructure.

As Naomi Klein writes, the appointments of Schmidt and Gates represent a “Pandemic Shock Doctrine … that is being rushed into being as the bodies still pile up [and] treats our past weeks of physical isolation not as a painful necessity to save lives, but as a living laboratory for a permanent – and highly profitable – no-touch future”.

As she points out, the two billionaires have disastrous records in the precise areas of public policy they are charged with leading. The Gates Foundation was the driving force behind high-stakes testing regimes and the Common Core fiasco. And Schmidt’s vision of the future is Black Mirror with a bow on it: mass surveillance plus public investment in companies in which he has a stake.

Even if Schmidt and Gates had good policies, Cuomo’s knighting of them is offensive to American self-government. Nobody voted for them and they are accountable to no one. Cuomo, often accused of being too close to big campaign donors, is tripling down: he is simply allowing billionaires to plan our future directly, taking out the middlemen.

In case you had any doubt that this is a new form of government worming its way into our old democratic ways, Cuomo anointed these tsars at the exact same time that he took vast new powers away from the state legislature, which has not been holding regular legislative hearings since 1 April. Lawmakers are notably MIA in the middle of a pandemic – and by all accounts Cuomo likes it that way.

Turning away from locally-elected representatives, and towards billionaires with no accountability, represents a terrible erosion of democratic decision-making: Cuomo is quite literally replacing elected representatives with private, unaccountable monopolists. And too many other lawmakers across the US are doing the same thing.

From California to Florida, states are turning to big corporations, CEOs and trade associations to not only decide when and how these states should “reopen”, but also what the post-virus economy should look like. The various taskforces and panels states have convened to chart a way forward are populated by executives from Pepsi, Dell, Disney and other corporations.

The White House has trotted out a steady stream of Wall Street bankerspharma executives, and big-box store CEOs to make promises about pandemic recovery measures. (Which haven’t been kept – for instance, weeks later, the promised Target and Walmart parking lot testing sites hadn’t materialized.)

Meanwhile, the Cares Act, Congress’ coronavirus rescue package, is an authoritarian, top-down, big business restructuring of the already monopolized American economy. It gives extraordinary powers to the treasury secretary to reshape manufacturing, retail and banking in America, with almost no oversight, via easy access to trillions of dollars from the Federal Reserve.

Too many decision-makers are ceding their policy to corporate power and private sector privilege.

Even before this terrible pandemic, turning first to big businesses and their wealthy owners was a common condition of American policymaking. When federal lawmakers want to juice the economy, they pass tax cuts for big corporations and the wealthy. When state and city lawmakers want to promote economic development, they dole out giveaways to big companies, providing them a leg up over smaller, more local competitors, often without letting constituents know until the contracts have all been signed.

When those deals become well-publicized enough – like Amazon’s HQ2 deal with New York – local communities have shown they can fight back and stop them. These battles aren’t just about subsidies and inequality, they are about democracy: who governs us?

Deference to big business isn’t smart. The extremely concentrated, too-smart-to-fail medical industry failed; monopolization and bad trade policy, championed by the very men who now want to govern us, has led to mass death and suffering. The medical system couldn’t take the shock of the pandemic, thanks to outsourced supply chains and a rotting for-profit hospital system.

Coronavirus has created a constitutional crisis of sorts, one where the rules of representation, power and decision-making are up for grabs. As during the Great Depression, the fundamental facets of power – who has it, what constrains its use – are changing before our eyes. Monopolists are seizing power and market share for themselves, setting themselves up as the arbiters of our collective futures.

The pandemic has revealed just how far apart the incentives of big business and workers and community members are: big business wants to acquire power and profit. Owners get to stay at one of their many homes, sanitized, safe, while employees face terrible choices about the risks they create for their family members by going to work. The stock market is booming while low-wage, and disproportionately female and minority, employees get sick and die in the name of economic recovery.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We must build a post-pandemic economy that is not only more resilient to external shocks but also fairer for the workers who bear the brunt of downturns. That’s a lesson everyone – from the president to Andrew Cuomo to your local city council member – needs to learn, fast. SOURCE

Zephyr Teachout is an associate professor at Fordham Law School and the author of Break ’Em Up: Recovering Our Freedom from Big Ag, Big Tech, and Big Money

Pat Garofalo is director of state and local policy at the American Economic Liberties Project and the author of The Billionaire Boondoggle: How Our Politicians Let Corporations and Bigwigs Steal Our Money and Jobs


Naomi Klein: How big tech plans to profit from the pandemic