Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the tag “oil spill”

Saving Nature, Our Natural Defense

A few days ago, I posted A Rude Intrusion, about BP and other multinational oil companies sponsoring an exhibition on the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, highlighting responsible cultivation of our oceans and wetlands. I spoke about the irony of the company who brought the latest oil spill to our coasts, and ironically the Gulf Coast, taking on this role.

The issue of the disappearing wetlands is an important lesson. During this past trip to help rebuild New Orleans, I learned that the disappearing bayou had served as a natural defense to surge water, what essentially destroyed much of New Orleans. This is chronicled in Hurricane on the Bayou. The bottom line is: had we taken care of this beautiful natural ecosystem, it would have protected the people of NOLA from a Category 5 hurricane.

It is scary that, despite possessing this knowledge, despite the harsh lesson that we were taught from Hurricane Katrina, we are still destroying the wetlands, at the incredible rate of an area the size of a football field is vanishing every 38 minutes.

There are a number of organizations trying to raise awareness and instigate policy that would reverse the trend. Unfortunately, they are not gaining much attention. One such organization was set up in our own San Francisco, by Louisiana natives who have raised funds for a new initiative. 

For the Bayou was founded in San Francisco in 2008 by Louisiana natives to increase public awareness of the disappearing Louisiana coastal wetlands, to foster restoration and protection of this culturally significant coastal environment and to aid and assist the people of Louisiana in the event of a disaster.” 

Here is their project:

It costs just $25 to buy and plant a burlap with the grass that can hold the wetlands. For details of how to donate, please click here. Perhaps it is not too late stop the sun setting on the bayou, and by saving this vital ecosystem, save our own beautiful Gulf Coast community and culture.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

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Interview with The Honorable Henry Wilkins QC

The following interview is with The Honorable Henry Wilkins QC, the fictional judge of The Accidental Activist. On Sunday, I gave a brief explanation of my desire to revisit the characters of this story, a tale that continues to be as relevant today as the real McLibel trial in the 1990’s on which the story is loosely based.

Where it all transpired - in the novel and real life

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Interview: The Honorable Henry Wilkins QC – sitting judge of the Oilspill Libel trial.

Henry Wilkins QC: Let me make it clear before we even begin this interview. I will not answer any question specific to the ruling of the Oilspill Libel case, as it is now known. I am a judge, a Queen’s Councilor, and proud to serve at Her Majesty’s Royal Courts of Justice. I am somewhat suspicious of blogs, of what one can or cannot write, and I am anxious to read this book by Alon Shalev – The Accidental Activist – and see how he positions the role of the law and, I have to admit, my role as the sitting judge.

Interviewer: Let us begin with this aspect of the court case. Did you ever imagine when the two sides stood before you on that first day in court that the case would last for so many years and become the longest trial in British history? Or that it would attract such a high profile?

HW: Certainly not. The mere notion that two amateurs could take on a legal heavyweight like Jeffery Sithers and fathom their way through the complex framework of British libel laws is baffling. Of course, no one imagined that the website, Oilspill.com, would have such a profound effect or such worldwide appeal.

Int.: Did you ever feel that you wanted to help or advise the defendants because of this blatant inequality?

HW: Hmm, a tough question. With regard to the actual issues, I never felt a desire to support either side. I am most comfortable with the gown and wig that I wear and understand my role of objectivity, of ensuring that the law is respected.

But then I sat there for two years seeing two exhausted and frustrated young people, clearly committed to what they perceive as a better business and world model, but always outflanked, out-resourced and, certainly out-briefed – not that such a word exists.

Then at the other table sat Jeffery Sithers, the most famous libel lawyer in Britain, with seven legal aides, all dressed up in their pin-striped suits, and always prepared for what was unfolding. Did you know that the company actually provided Jeffery with a young caddie, whose sole responsibility was wheeling all their documents in and out of the courtroom every day? It made me appreciate the lad at my golf club.

Int.: What was groundbreaking about this case?

HW: Hmmm, I think there are two significant aspects. Clearly, it exposed the need to update the British libel laws, which, I believe, have been left untouched for 500-600 years. Secondly, the whole aspect of the growing role of the Internet: that such a global informational conduit could be leveraged in such a fashion, well let me tell you, it was fascinating. And, between you and me, I have continued to learn and stay abreast of these technological advances.

It was the website that enabled Steel and Morris to compete in the real court case

Int.: How did you feel when you saw Professor McGoughen enter the fray?

HW: Ha! That old cad! I think that the only time I allowed my emotions to show was the first time I saw the old fox sitting up in the galley grinning. I never thought he could be lured out of his Oxford University sanctuary. He might seem eccentric to some, but let me tell you, he was a legal titan in his day. He pursued the multinationals and big businesses with a vengeance. I clashed with him many times during our careers and I hold him in the highest esteem. Still, I can’t say I was too happy with him when he pulled that stunt on me at the end of the trial. But I won’t specify until I check if it is in Shalev’s book.

Int.: Without getting into the court case itself: what lessons can we all learn from what transpired in your courthouse?

HW: Hmm. Firstly, that the law makes everyone accountable, no matter how powerful or wealthy they might be. It must fulfill this role. Secondly, that the Internet has an important role of keeping things in the open, so that we all make informed choices and have the information at our fingertips.

And one effect I would like to share that this case had on me, personally. We only have one world and we are all responsible for what happens to it. It is a fragile world and getting frailer everyday.

Int.: Do I detect a value judgment of the court case?

HW: Good Heavens! No! Strike that from the record!

His Honor, Mr. Justice Rodger Bell, the real judge at the McLibel trial

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

Matt Fielding – His own words

The following post has been written by Matt Fielding, the fictional protagonist of The Accidental Activist. Yesterday, I gave a brief explanation of my desire to revisit the characters of this story, a tale that continues to be as relevant today as the real McLibel trial in the 1990’s upon which the story is loosely based.

I would like to be able to offer the following disclaimer as I do with all guest posts that what follows is the words of the writer himself and his alone. Given that he is a product of my imagination, I’ll skip it this time. Over to you, Matt.

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Thanks, Alon. I am truly humbled. I knew Alon Shalev was writing this novel, The Accidental Activist, and I knew he had aspirations to one day see it published, but I kind of had my doubts about the whole project.

Don’t get me wrong. The decision by Global Energy Development Corporation to sue my girlfriend, Suzie, and her colleague, Bill, was pretty stunning. That the British judicial system didn’t see fit to provide them with legal aid is still hard to believe; and, of course, the astonishing fact that this court case went on to become the longest trial in British history, is all worthy of being recorded.

What I find humbling is the fact that Shalev saw fit to make me his protagonist. Certainly my role as the web designer was significant. The fact that the Oilspill.com website was probably the first ever interactive advocacy website, that it became a conduit for the free flow of information on a global level, and that it enabled Suzie and Bill to act and respond at the necessary legal level without any formal training, is all amazing, especially to geeks such as myself.

The real website - McSpotlight.org

But Shalev goes a step further. He is not content with the mechanics of the Information Highway and the work our Dream Team undertook. He seems fascinated with me personally and the process I went through.

Let me be honest: Before meeting Suzie, I couldn’t have told you the names of our government’s cabinet members. I knew more about Arsenal Football Club’s reserve side than our shadow cabinet and, being in opposition meant Chelsea, Manchester United, Barcelona, and Liverpool, not the Conservatives, Liberals or the Green Party.

I’ll be perfectly clear (I have been asked this many times in interviews): I only got involved because I fancied Suzie (love came along, but much later) and wanted to date her. I can’t tell you at what point I became politically aware, or at what point it went beyond personal.

This reckless multinational corporation, like so many today, hurt many people I loved and respected. My friends became victims to a business model that cannot conceive of the pain and destruction left in its wake, the devastating effect these companies have on the individual who willingly or unwillingly gets in the way of their profit margin.

Today I remain involved: being with Suzie, how could I not? My consulting agency is selective about which clients we take on and we have an internship program where we not only mentor students, but also have them work, pro bono, on projects that advance social justice and sustainability.

Not bad for a self-absorbed yuppie who was only out to get laid, huh? But it was when I read The Accidental Activist that I understood the personal transformation that I underwent. I guess for this I should thank Shalev for writing the novel and giving me the chance to become who I am today.

And if my story can in any way help someone else make the personal changes necessary to help this embattled world of ours become a better place, well, I am proud to have been the protagonist of The Accidental Activist.

Matt Fielding
Oilspill.com Webmaster.

The real heroes - Helen Steel and Dave Morris

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

Oil Conspiracies

A few days ago I suggested that we phase out production and imports of cars that do not reach a minimum mpg of, let’s say, 35 mpg, within a couple of years. It makes so much sense that you have to ask what is stopping us? I posed this question to a couple of friends, admittedly people who might well be, okay, who are conspiracy theorists.

Shirt reads: Global oil industry = Weapon of mass destruction

Now before you click away to see how Lindsay Lohan and Charlie Sheen are doing, I want to warn you that there are two kinds of conspiracy theorists in the world – the crazies and the astonishingly smart. It is easy to differentiate between them: the former rants on and loses you before you realize you are gulping down your wine in order to excuse yourself to get a refill, while with the latter you are determined to crush their logic and simply can’t, no matter how you try. The worse part of interacting with the astonishingly smart is that you walk away, maybe even lie in bed a few hours later, wondering whether they might just be right.

Here are a couple of neat articles:

The Truth Will Set You Free

BP Oil Spill Conspiracy Theories

Even Fox News are happy to participate in the conspiracy world, though I can’t help suspecting ulterior motives.

I could go on just drowning in theories regarding the oil industry. When I wrote The Accidental Activist, in which an oil company’s policies and their power with governments are exposed, I was surprised to see how easy it is for big business to quickly become indispensable in the economy of smaller and poorer nations.

The question is: if an inspired President, backed by his party, did embark on such a policy as I outlined the other day, who would try to prevent him succeeding, and what weapons do they possess in their arsenal?

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

The Non Kosher Passover Plate

I couldn’t resist this great article/initiative from Paul Greenberg in the New York Times today. He put an oyster on his Seder plate. Now Jewish social activists often add a symbol for their cause to the ceremonial plate. But oysters are considered trief (not kosher) and Jews who observe our dietary laws do not eat seafood.

This is what makes the notion so radical and outrageous, except the rage is directed at the oil spill in the Gulf Coast (exactly a year ago) and the astonishing news that BP are continuing to economically thrive, while leaving a community absolutely devastated.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

No Natural Disaster

If you enter the search words: Hurricane Katrina + a natural disaster, you will assume from the first few sites that New Orleans suffered from a terrible natural catastrophe in the last days of August and beginning of September 2005. A mighty hurricane, an act of God, man-made defenses could not stand up to the forces of nature… It is perhaps understandable that people thought that then.

Here’s a word of advice. Don’t say that near anyone from New Orleans. In fact, after hearing their stories, after seeing the levees and the surrounding area, I don’t believe it either.

The levees were designed to withstand a hurricane the strength of Katrina, but they were not built the way they were designed. The bottom line is that the negligence in the construction of the walls was the reason why the city was devastated.

It’s like referring to the oil spill as a natural disaster. Wait, they did. The one article that stands out in the first ten on my google search is John McQuaid, who actually focuses in this post on whether we allow those culpable to subtly hide their shortcomings by blaming nature or God.

“Today, though, there’s a big problem: we can’t tell any longer where nature leaves off. Start with global warming and work your way down. Mankind is now causing what used to be called “natural disasters.” The Gulf oil spill is not a natural disaster in the traditional sense: nature didn’t cause it. But it is a natural disaster in that it’s disastrous to nature.

Or take the oft-litigated (in the courts and the media) case of Hurricane Katrina and the New Orleans levee system. I’ll repeat this here, for clarity: most of the devastating flooding of New Orleans occurred because faultyflood walls collapsed because of errors in their designs approved by the Army Corps of Engineers – i.e., the U.S. government. Natural disaster? Not really, though obviously nature had a hand in it. John Goodman’s character Creighton Bernette articulates this eloquently in the first episode of Treme.”

If we are failing to make the distinction between natural and man-made disasters because we are becoming numb to the series of catastrophes that seem to hit us, then this will become an increasing problem. If those who are taking the unnecessary risks, cutting the safety protocol corners to save money, are able to yield the nature/God car without impunity, that is darn right dangerous.

And unforgivable. Strong words? Ask the residents of the Gulf Coast. They’ve been hit twice in five years and, as people with a strong connection with the land, and many being God-fearing folk, they are not fooled by such doublespeak. They are just astounded that the rest of us are.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

Books that Matter – McLibel: Burger Culture on Trial – John Vidal

McLibel is the story of the remarkable trial wherein McDonald’s sued two young activists for libel in London during the 1990’s and, unlike every newspaper, magazine and TV show, they refused to back down. Due to archaic laws, libel is the one area of law where there is no legal aid offered.

A friend of mine put up what became the first interactive advocacy website at a time when most of us were still using telephones and letter to communicate with each other. Both the David .v. Goliath aspect of what became the longest court case in British history and the role that the website took on, fascinated me.

John Vidal records an accurate account of what transpired in the Royal Courts of Justice in his book – McLibel: Burger Culture on Trial, and there is also a DVD by the same name produced by Geoffrey Giuliano.

KIRKUS REVIEW (McLibel: Burger Culture on Trial)
A lively account of the food fight that became the longest trial in British history. When a flyer entitled “What’s Wrong with McDonald’s” circulated around London, the burger giant took umbrage and sued Helen Steel and Dave Morris, members of London Greenpeace (an environmental group not affiliated with the international organization Greenpeace), for libel… see below for full review.

My latest novel, The Accidental Activist, is a fictional account of the trial. I keep very close to the true time line, but I have substituted an oil company in place of McDonald’s (so as not to get sued for libel myself!). I tell the story from the perspective of the guy who put up the website. I have a common theme throughout my novels to spotlight the transformational potential that we each possess to effect positive change.

A self-absorbed, successful computer yuppie goes out on a few dates with a woman who suddenly gets arrested and charged with libel. He utilizes his talents, initially to help her, but gradually gets more involved in the issues and the need to hold big businesses accountable.

While the court case closely resembles what really transpired, the characters and sex are all from my overactive imagination.

KIRKUS REVIEW – McLibel: Burger Culture on Trial.
A lively account of the food fight that became the longest trial in British history. When a flyer entitled “What’s Wrong with McDonald’s” circulated around London, the burger giant took umbrage and sued Helen Steel and Dave Morris, members of London Greenpeace (an environmental group not affiliated with the international organization Greenpeace), for libel.

Here Vidal, who covered the trial for the London Guardian, recounts some of the issues addressed and the difficulties faced by the two underdogs who, without benefit of a court-appointed lawyer or funds from legal aid, acted as their own attorneys in facing the corporation’s crack legal team in a bench trial (they were denied a jury). British libel law required that Steel and Morris prove the accuracy of virtually every statement made in the flyer.

The company may since have come to regret their suit: The pair, assisted by a network of volunteers, did a very credible job of tracking down information in support of the flyer’s claims. This effort leads Vidal to discussions of the nutritional value of McDonald’s food; whether or not that food contained any beef raised on former rainforest land; the corporation’s treatment of workers; and its reactions to employees’ efforts to unionize.

By the time Vidal is finished with such subjects, the Golden Arches look a little tarnished. But his account would have benefited from waiting for the verdict that was handed down this summer, and from concluding with more rumination on the case and less grandstanding on the evils of multinational corporations. Still, Vidal’s blend of human interest and sheer outrageousness make this a ripping legal yarn. If the case itself hasn’t already given Ronald McDonald indigestion, this book might. (8 pages b&w photos, not seen) — Copyright ©1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

July 1st – Assault on the Casual Carpool: Day 1

And so it began.

The first day where the casual carpool, three strangers thrown randomly together with a joint aim of commuting into San Francisco in the cheapest, most comfortable and quickest way, must deal with the toll booth dilemma.

As of July 1st, the casual carpool must pay $2.50 to go onto the Bay Bridge. Who pays? The online discussion board has been contentious. Some passengers are willing to contribute a dollar. Others won’t. Some will volunteer, others want to be asked. Some object to being asked as it creates a tense feeling in the car.

I have conducted my own informal survey over the last month, and my findings reflect the discussion board. One discussion got heated between my two passengers, a couple of people refused to comment.

So today was the test. Magically as we passed under the tollbooth and my Fast Track beeped, National Public Radio talked about the new rule. Perfect timing. The woman next to me offered her dollar, which I gratefully accepted. The man behind her buried himself deeper in his smart phone.

And so the assault on the last bastion of radical America has begun. Political singer, Billy Bragg, called the carpool lane, the only example of the far left (physically as well as politically). The British Empire (where the sun never set) was based upon the strategy of Divide and Conquer. I believe mainstream America has gone colonist ¬¬… right here in the Bay Area.

It is ultimately a question of values, a question of relationships, but above all, a question of how we fuse our values with money. Talk around the BBQ pit is cheap. Everyone knows what needs to be done to save the world. It is easy until you ask them to foot the bill.

I solicit people everyday for donations to the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, where I work. I tell the story, share the vision, the excitement, the inspiring results, and then when we get to the ask, I taint it by reminding them that their gift is tax-deductible. These generous donors know that. They are likely to be very savvy money managers and business people. This is what has put them in a position to donate in the first place. Do they really need the extra reminder of something altruistic?

As I sat in my car this morning, chatting with the pleasant woman who had offered her dollar, I glanced at the man in the back. He was doing a great job of being oblivious to our conversation, hunched intensely over his little screen.

I wonder what was going through his mind. Was it worth $1? For him? For me?

Have a good day,
Alon

Read Oilspill dotcom on Kindle, currently priced at $3.19

An Open Letter to British Petroleum (BP)

Dear BP,

That was not nice! Isn’t it enough that you’ve polluted the ocean, massacred wildlife, and destroyed people’s businesses?

Now you have to go after me? I’m also a Brit, in case you weren’t aware.

Am I really such a threat? I know, I know, the pen is mightier than the oil drill, but do you really feel so threatened by the onslaught of literature?

Oilspill dotcom isn’t even about you. It could be, and I wouldn’t be surprised if one day it will be, but I was having a go at McDonald’s. Honest. I happen to love the rain forests as well as the oceans.

I sell most of my books over the Internet. It’s the only way. I have a full time job running a non-profit that supports students. And they will, unfortunately, all be driving oil-fueled cars in the very near future, so you could see me as a stakeholder of sorts.

Did you really have to buy up ALL the ‘oil spill’ search words from Google? Now all those literature lovers are going to get distracted by apologies to the tarred brown pelicans and your explanations for why BP shares aren’t performing as well as one might expect.

Poor buggers. They just wanted to buy a novel to read on the beach (a tar ball-free one) this summer, enjoy reading some humor, sex, and politics. Solid summer reading that QUESTIONS THE UNCHECKED POWERS OF MULTINATIONALS!

Oilspill dotcom confronts the issue of freedom of speech and you buy up all search words to control what people see on the Internet – the final frontier of freedom – do you even see the irony?

BTW – there is also a small company down in West Chester, PA. They clean up oil spills and their business URL is http://www.oilspill.com/ I wish their business well. I hope they don’t rely too much on the Internet for business referrals. Hey, perhaps you could become a client!

Your Internet Competitor,
Alon
http://www.alonshalev.com/

Left Coast Voices

Alon Shalev is a left coast, social activist and fiction writer. His second socially conscious novel, Oilspill dotcom, addresses the power of multinational corporations and their power and abuses of individuals. This bi-weekly blog tracks the authors, organizations and events that are shaping the left coast culture, with an emphasis on the San Francisco Bay Area.


For more on Alon and his books, please visit http://www.alonshalev.com/
WARNING! This author believes that writing can help change the world.
To life and literature!

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