Posts Tagged ‘hamburg’

The Forbidden Colony

Al Jazeera (2017)

Film Review

This Al Jazeera documentary examines the undemocratic nature of the European Union and it’s role in allowing banks and multinational corporations to colonize Europe. It begins by focusing on the EU Parliament, which meets in secret and bans public observation of its proceedings. Elected members of the EU Parliament lack the authority to initiate legislation. They can only rubber stamp laws proposed by the non-elected European Commission.

Croatian philosopher Srecko Horbat examines the right and left wing movements that have arisen in reaction in response to the massive economic dislocation (job loss, low wages, high housing costs) people have experienced following the creation of the EU.

The far right tends to campaign against the massive influx of migrants, which they blame for their declining standard of living. The left, in contrast, is more focused on rebuilding European democracy from the ground up.

For me, the most interesting part of the film was its examination of various European experiments in direct democracy. Examples include

  • The grassroots movements in Hamburg and 170 other German cities and towns that have bought back electric power companies from private companies to hasten their transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
  • Ada Colau, the radical mayor of Barcelona,* who is working to transform squats into cooperatives and forcing banks to make vacant buildings available for social housing.
  • Greece’s parallel economy, which operatives massive “no middlemen” food markets in reaction to price gouging by corporate supermarket chains.

*The capitol of Catalonia, which is organizing a popular referendum to declare independence from Spain – see Showdown in Spain

The Toxins Return

Directed by Inge Altmeier and Reinhard Hornung (2009)

Film Review

The Toxins Return is a German documentary about the failure of western governments to regulate the toxic chemicals present in their imports from third world countries.

Most of the film focuses on textiles. Textile manufacturing has virtually collapsed in the developed world, with most multinational corporations moving  their factories to Asian countries that pay sweat shop wages. Unsurprisingly these third world countries also make no effort to regulate the toxic chemicals used to bleach, “soften” and dye these textiles – nor the toxic pesticides used to protect them from insect pests during their long journey to the industrialized world.

Organophosphates, organochlorine compounds and methyl bromide*, toxic chemicals long banned in the EU (but not in the US), are used routinely in China and India, where 90% of European textiles are produced. Most third world textile workers survive at most two years in the industry before they become too ill with work.

Meanwhile German workers who come in direct contact with the shipping containers and/or textiles are also at high risk of developing chronic occupational illnesses.

One-fifth of shipping containers that enter through the Hamburg port are found to contain toxic gasses. In Hamburg, customs workers have special instruments to detect toxic gasses before the containers are opened. Yet only a minority of textile containers are opened in Hamburg. Most on on-shipped by train to the Czech Republic for opening and redistribution of the goods they contain.

The Czech Republic has no protocol in place to protect their workers from toxic shipping containers. Although the EU has laws regulating toxic imports, there is virtually no mechanism in place for enforcing them.

The last third of the documentary examines the toxic chemicals Chinese companies use in children’s toys. Although phthalates (chemicals used to soften plastic toys) have been banned in the EU for more than a decade, all German children tested in a three year study continued to excrete phthalates in their urine (from  exposure to imported toys). Phthalates are known to cause reproductive cancers and low sperm counts.

Update: Although the film is eight years, there seems to be little progress in regulating the toxins we are exposed to in imported textiles. See Health Risks in International Container and Bulk Cargo Transport Due to Volatile Toxic Compounds

Progress seems to be somewhat better in terms of phthalates. Last year the US banned six phthalates in toys (including imports) children are likely to put in their month (though the enforcement mechanism is unclear) – see Phalates Information

The EU, meanwhile is proposing a total ban on all phthalates.


*The US ban on methyl bromide only extends to indoor use.

 

800px-POWER_LINES_PASS_FROM_NEARBY_HOOVER_DAM_TO_SOUTHERN_CALIFORNIA_-_NARA_-_549011

On average, Germany obtained 27.8%  of their electrical power from renewable sources in 2014, up from 6.2% in 2000. This contrasts with 13.2% renewably produced electricity in the US and 18% in the UK.

Writing in the October 22, 2014 Guardian , Kate Henderson, Chief Executive of the Town and Country Planning Association, attributes much of Germany’s success in greening their power supply to a growing grassroots movement to re-muncipalize power production. Since 2007, 170 German municipalities have bought back their grid from private power companies. This is in addition to 650 energy cooperatives owned by private individuals and cooperatives. Due to the innate inefficiency of power grids,* numerous communities have abandoned large regional grids for local distributed energy projects.

As Nick Rosen writes in Off the Grid, there’s no question that smaller, decentralized energy supply networks are cheaper and more efficient for consumers. Grids only developed because they’re more profitable for power companies.

I totally agree with Henderson’s premise: citizens need to quite relying on dishonest politicians and sociopathic corporations to help them reduce their dependence on fossil fuels. It makes much more sense to take back power generation into local community control.

What I find especially exciting is that it’s already happening.

Taking Back the Grid

In late 2013, the citizens of Hamburg (Germany’s second largest city) voted to buy back their electrical power grid. Two other major cities, Frankfurt and Munich, resisted privatization in the 1990s and retained their electrical supply in public hands. In 2013, Berlin voters also passed a referendum to re-muncipalize their power supply, but the voter turnout was too low for it to take effect.

Several US cities have hosted similar re-municipalization movements. In 2011 owing to Xcel Energy’s reluctance to pursue solar energy alternatives, Boulder Colorado passed two ballot initiatives  empowering the city council to buy back the power grid. The process has been stalled fighting Xcel lawsuits challenging the city’s right to buy the energy grid.

The Privatization of US Energy Utilities

Until about the 1980s, most US cities had public utilities. However, the lingering effects of the 1970s energy crisis and the privatization and deregulation frenzy of the Reagan and Clinton years led many cities to sell their power plants and distribution grids in the eighties and nineties. Since that time, large energy conglomerates, most of which are hooked on coal-fired power or fracked gas, have controlled most of America’s energy production.

Santa Fe and Minneapolis are also considering initiatives to buy back their electricity supply.

Sacramento, Austin and Seattle, which never gave theirs up, are far ahead of the rest of the country in their reliance on renewable power generation.

Sacramento derives 38% of its electricity from renewable resources, Austin 20% and Seattle 93.8%.


*According to the EPA. Our current electrical power system operates at approximately 33% efficiency.

photo credit: wikimedia commons