Volume 48 Number 29

Moscow weather report

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THEATER Moscow’s temperatures had been climbing up to 70 degrees just a week before my arrival, but by the first of April, it had slipped back into the 30s and 40s, collecting snow on the ground and clouds overhead in a gloomy replay of winter. In a novel this would have looked like a cheap literary device: nature manifesting a political climate that had also grown decidedly chillier. But with Russia’s recent reabsorption of Crimea, and talk everywhere of a new Cold War, it was pretty apt nonetheless.

At the same time, theatrical fires were burning brightly in the weeklong Russia Case, an annual mini-festival spotlighting (for an international audience of presenters, journalists, and others) exceptional theatrical work from the much larger national Golden Mask Festival, with some additional offerings thrown in for good measure.

Curated by Kristina Matvienko, theater critic and member of the Golden Mask board of experts, this year’s Russia Case included 20 productions, in addition to other public events, such as an absorbing tour of Moscow’s famed Taganka Theatre, the country’s center of theatrical innovation and radicalism in the 1960s–70s under founding director and actor Yuri Lyubimov. It’s now celebrating its 50th year with a special jubilee program of exhibitions, projects, and new work headed by a group of young theater artists, managers, and critics commissioned by the city’s Culture Committee and Cultural Minister Sergei Kapkov.

Things began auspiciously with a sparkling new piece by famed director Kama Ginkas at Moscow TYuZ (pronounced “tooz” and standing for Young Generation Theater), the theater led by his wife, Henrietta Yanovskaya, also an acclaimed director with a production in the festival. Lady Macbeth of Our District, based on a short story by 19th-century Russian writer Nikolai Leskov that was also adapted into an opera by Shostakovich, concerns the ebullient young wife of a village merchant whose lust for life entangles her with a brash laborer with tragic results. Staged with muscular precision and effortless invention — including a shrewd use of winter coats as malleable second-skins and visceral bursts of song and energetic movement — this excellent ensemble piece, led by the vibrant Elizaveta Boyarskaya in the title role, cut right through the serious jetlag of the hour.

Among other highlights was a new work by internationally renowned director Dmitry Krymov (whose In Paris premiered locally at the Berkeley Rep in 2012). The captivating Honoré de Balzac: Notes About Berdichev derives its title from a line in Three Sisters, and this inspired riff on Chekhov’s characters sneaks in a fitting depth of thought and emotion beneath its macabre comical surface. With the consummate attention to design and ensemble playing that Krymov and his collaborators have rightly become known for, the production unfolds as a kind of Grand Guignol spectacle, holding up a funhouse mirror to the iconic figures of Chekhov’s oeuvre in order to see them afresh as the pitiful, horrifying, hilarious, and beautiful creations they are. The production then shifts into a prolonged denouement in which the actors remove their elaborate makeup and converse and play with one another in a wistful and teasing middle ground between art and life that speaks quietly of that communion that is the essence of theater.

Equally effective was a timely adaptation of a Rainer Werner Fassbinder film at the vibrant Gogol-Centre, a new and leading venue with four resident companies and a popular youthful following. Fear, adapted by young playwright Lyubov Strizhak from Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, is one in a trilogy of works by Latvian director Vladislav Nastavshev that adapt famous films (the others being Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers and Lars Von Trier’s The Idiots, each in some way dealing with the negotiation of borders and the plight of outsiders). The story concerns the socially unsanctioned love affair between a young Tajik migrant worker and an elderly Moscow widow. Unfolding with a bold, forceful grace on a spare arena-style stage that made dynamic use of a set of white plastic tables, this well acted and moving piece was also among the most overtly political, dealing head-on with the rising xenophobia that has plagued Russia in general and Moscow in particular in recent years. (The one other piece in the program with comparable political punch came from the tiny but intrepid Theater.doc, an independent documentary theater, run by Elena Gremina. Documentary theater is the mode of choice for much political work on Moscow stages, and perhaps not surprisingly Fear‘s playwright Strizhak is well associated with the form.)

In all, I took in half of the total program of the Russia Case, in a packed week of theater and discussion, as part of a group of Americans traveling under the auspices of the Center for International Theatre Development. Needless to say, politics were in the air throughout, and not only because of recent events in Ukraine. The theater in Russia is far more culturally important and influential than theater tends to be here. And while not overtly political in what it stages (except in some notable instances like those just mentioned), it remains a site of many progressive and antiauthoritarian voices as well as big personalities and vested interests. Even the Taganka jubilee was marked by internal turmoil and public scandal, stemming in part from Lyubimov’s contentious public departure from the theater in 2011 but sparked by a historical exhibition on the walls of the theater that provoked defacement from outraged members of the company.

More broadly and urgently, however, the Russians and their international guests mulled over the future of theater in a country drifting rapidly toward ultranationalist extremes. All seemed to agree that whatever happens, this year’s Russia Case will likely not look like next year’s, and that artists and audiences are in for a wild ride.

 

Saving Yosemite

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Long before Teddy Roosevelt and Ansel Adams swooned at the beauty of the place, ex-49er and early photographer Carleton Watkins (1829-1916) captured monumental Yosemite Valley for the public’s eyes. His stunning 1860s wet-plate negative photos — on view at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Gallery April 23-Aug. 17 (328 Lomita Way, Stanford, museum.stanford.edu) — convinced Abraham Lincoln to support the Yosemite Valley Grant Act, the land-preservation precedent for the National Park System. Watkins set up a shop on Montgomery Street in San Francisco, but it and most of his work were destroyed in the Great Quake of 1906.

Shot of Coachella

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esilvers@sfbg.com

In case you were on some kind of self-imposed social media hiatus last weekend (early, tech-centered Lent ritual?), you’re probably aware of a little music festival called Coachella that comes around this time of year like a bass-thumping, hashtag-happy harbinger of Spring.

The festival’s first weekend (Fri/11 through Sun/13) wasn’t short on memorable moments: Solange bringing big sister Beyonce onstage for a choreographed dance routine on Saturday; Arcade Fire’s Win Butler putting the festival grounds’ VIP section and increasingly moneyed atmosphere on blast — before being joined by Debbie Harry, Pharrell and his hat seemingly welcoming the years 1998 through 2002 onstage on Sunday, by way of guests Gwen Stefani, Nelly, and Snoop Dogg. Then again, we hear OutKast’s reunion was met with an underwhelming response from the audience — we’ll have to wait for BottleRock Napa in May to find out for ourselves if that’s on them, or had more to do with an overheated, EDM-leaning crowd.

As is often the case with big festivals like this one, a lot of the best sets came from smaller acts whose names you’re not likely to see in the tabloids anytime soon. We sent photographer Eric Lynch to capture some impressions of everyone’s favorite hot, dusty, celebrity-filled, dance-until-you-can’t-feel-your-feet-oh-wait-maybe-that’s-the-drugs party, and boy did he deliver. Check ’em out, and feel free to send us your own snaps and stories if you’ve got something cool to share: esilvers@sfbg.com.

Volume 48 Number 29 Flip-through Edition

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A little help

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culture@sfbg.com

THE WEEKNIGHTER We were all there for Kelly Malone. It was the opening for an art show she’d done, as well as a fundraiser to help her kick cancer’s ass. At least I think that’s what it was. I don’t fully recall, to tell you the truth. Most of 2011 was a blurry, self-congratulatory, victory lap for me. I had done what I set out to do, create and host a TV show based on the Broke-Ass Stuart brand I’d been hustling for a million years.

I was having a moment and it seemed a lot of other makers, doers, and shakers, who’d been creating in San Francisco for a long time, were having one, too. At least on a professional level. On a personal level, a lot of us were not so successful; Kelly was still sick, I was in a half decade long relationship that was dissolving, and other people around us were falling prey to drug addiction and suicide. Every coin has two sides.

Mini Bar (837 Divisadero, SF. 415-525-3565) was packed that night and everyone was there. This was before the mass exodus of artists had begun in earnest, before the evictions and the shakedowns, before the sad headlines and the sadder stories. Mini Bar lives up to its name, and the lot of us who were crammed into that tiny and narrow space were sweatily and unintentionally bumping and grinding in order to get a drink. “This is really good,” I told Kelly, not meaning her cancer of course, but meaning the turnout and the support from the community that had grown around her. She understood what I meant. “I know! This is amazing!” she told me before swerving away to talk to somebody who was eyeing a piece of her work.

Divisadero has changed a lot in recent years and at the time, Mini Bar was a fairly recent but very welcome addition to the neighborhood. Part of the joint’s charm is that nearly every time I go there a different artist is being featured. On weeknights it isn’t too crowded so you can walk in, peruse the wall hangings, and then actually find a seat at either the bar or one of the small tables. And usually on these nights you can also find some of the neighborhood regulars who pop in to wet their whistles on whatever the featured cocktail is that week.

minibar

But this wasn’t a regular night. This was something special. It was a gathering of the tribes in order to support one of our own. Since it opened, Mini Bar has been a hub for people who do cool shit. Maybe it’s because the owners purposefully set that vibe, or maybe it’s because Mini Bar arrived at just the right moment in that space between what Divis was and what it was becoming.

Or then again maybe it’s just because I’m only there when I’m drunk.

Kelly sold a lot of art that night, and the money raised otherwise throughout the evening also went towards her mounting medical bills. Most of us realized then and there that what we were doing was the definition of being part of a community. We’d all always figure out ways to help out when the going got fucked. Or at least for as long as we were all able to stick around.

Stuart Schuffman aka Broke-Ass Stuart is a travel writer, poet, and TV host. You can find his online shenanigans at www.brokeassstuart.com

 

Lucifer is such a drag

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steve@sfbg.com

LIT In this workaday world we live in, it’s good to inject a little weirdness. Mix in moments of the metaphysical and dabs of the divine into our banal, everyday existence. And you can start by grabbing a copy of The Weirdness (Melville House, 288 pp., $16.95) and letting novelist Jeremy P. Bushnell do it for you.

The Faustian premise is a familiar one, with Lucifer showing up in hapless aspiring writer Billy Ridgeway’s living room with that timeless offer of earthly greatness in exchange eternal servitude. Or something like that, because Billy is skeptical and won’t sit through the Devil’s PowerPoint presentation (yes, this is Faust in the Information Age) even though it comes with really great coffee.

From there, the journey begins, a slow buildup of character development to what becomes a wild ride navigating the battlefield between the Adversarial Manifestation and the human forces secretly arrayed against him, à la Harry Potter. But the real appeal of The Weirdness isn’t the plot, as fun and fantastical as it may be.

No, the moments when I found myself enjoying this novel the most, the times when I laughed or smiled to myself with appreciation at the strength of the writing by this debut novelist, was when we peeked inside Billy’s mind as the weirdness was unfolding around him.

Self-absorbed and filled with doubt, preoccupied with petty gripes and grievances, obsessing about that last tiff with his girlfriend, and wondering whether he’s doing it right, the world inside Billy’s mind is a comically hilarious counterpoint to the epic clash of good and evil that is unfolding around him. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to slap the kid and give him a big hug, but either way it was the stuff that really elevated this novel.

In many ways, this is an illuminating parable for these times, particularly among the young technology and finance workers here in San Francisco, who obsess about the latest deal or app or foodie delight, oblivious to the epic struggles around them except for when those strange societies of passionate warriors confront them, when Billy and those who want nothing more than their own personal success and happiness are made aware that there are larger struggles going on in the world.

And then, Billy is mostly just irritated by the inconvenience of it all. When members of the Right-Hand Path try to help Billy break free from the clutches of the devil, he just won’t be told what to do or trouble himself with taking a stand, even though the secret cabal is based on the set of his favorite sci-fi television show, Argentium Astrum.

After all, these nerdy do-gooders took his cell phone and won’t give it back, so Billy thinks that maybe he’s better off working with Lucifer, who is at least offering to get his novel published, even though his own father turns out to be a top tier warrior against Satan, which causes poor Billy to feel more betrayed than loved or saved.

Don’t worry, Billy is a piece of work, but he grows on you, even if you want to smack his whiny ass at times and maybe find yourself hoping the ever-charming Lucifer wins and subjects this kid to eternal hellfire. But by time Krishna shows up to save the day, you’ll just wish you had more of this delightful novel still left to read. *

 

East Bay Beats

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esilvers@sfbg.com

LEFT OF THE DIAL Dayvid Michael, a West Oakland native and member of the CaliMade hip-hop crew, clearly has some mixed feelings about his debut record, Frienemy.

“I mean, I wrote those songs when I was 18,” says the rapper, drinking boba milk tea during an interview in downtown Oakland. “I’m still proud of them, but I’ve learned so much since then.”

That album dropped the last week of December 2012 — which means Michael’s reminiscing at the ripe old age of 21. But, to be fair, the past couple years have been big ones for someone who calls himself a “reluctant rapper” (until about age 17, he mostly wanted to sing and play guitar).

With CaliMade, a loose collective of Oakland-born guys who’ve been friends from elementary school, as well as other young DJs and producers, he performed at Hiero Day, steps away from Bay Area hip-hop legends. He’s guested on a few songs by Iamsu, a rapper whom, Michael rightly notes, you will hear if you put on 106.1 KMEL for more than 15 minutes right now; CaliMade is now working closely with the (slightly) elder rapper’s own crew, the HBK Gang. And 2014’s shaping up to be a big one: He just got done recording a new project with Azure, an Oakland rapper poised for big things in his own right as well as being Iamsu’s DJ, and Clyde Shankle, another member of CaliMade. Michael’s also working on his sophomore solo album, which will be out by the end of the year.

In other words, he’s an Oakland kid to keep your eye on — which makes him a perfect selection for Oakland Drops Beats, a new free, all-ages, quarterly music festival that features some 30-plus East Bay artists, spread out over 10 different stages and venues in downtown Oakland; the kickoff festival is April 19.

Its lineup is, in and of itself, a testament to the range of music coming out of Oakland right now: From the jazz-hip-hop blend of the Kev Choice Ensemble to the underrated indie rock of Oakland mainstays B. Hamilton to the funk-soul dance party music of Sal’s Greenhouse — not to mention a distinctly family-friendly vibe courtesy of Bay Area Girls Rock Camp and the presence of Youth Radio — the music “crawl,” as organizers are billing it, aims to serve as both a celebration of the city’s established artists and a new platform through which up-and-coming musicians can get some stage time.

Inspired by the Venice Music Crawl in LA, musician-organizer-founder Angelica Tavella first began reaching out to Oakland event producers over the summer, with the idea in mind that there are lots of community organizers and promoters “already doing cool stuff in other parts of Oakland, but really doing their own thing,” she says.

“This was, here’s a space where we could all do that together, for a couple hours, on this one day. And I really had in mind that it should be downtown Oakland — specifically not in Uptown, which already has the Art Murmur…there are a lot of great small shop owners, a lot of great energy, and cool new things going on downtown. But there aren’t a lot of venues for something like a public music performance to happen.”

Tavella was quickly overwhelmed by the level of interest and enthusiasm from business owners and event producers — especially considering that the festival is all volunteer-run for now (including pro bono performances by musicians). The goal for the next one, which will take place in the last week of July or the first week of August, is to fundraise enough to pay musicians for their performances, while keeping admission free to the public.

Eventually, Tavella hopes to have the free daytime performances segue into a nighttime music crawl that would bring business to the venues in downtown Oakland. And with more and more musicians and artists getting priced out of San Francisco and heading East, organizers shouldn’t have too hard a time finding fresh talent to fill a bill every three months.

Dayvid Michael will be performing in the afternoon with the CaliMade crew at Le Qui Vive, a gallery at 15th and Webster. He feels at home there — it’s one of the first venues where CaliMade began performing a few years ago, and he says the folks behind it are part of the community that makes him feel so lucky to be calling Oakland home.

“When people from outside the Bay Area think about the Bay Area, they think of two things — we’re hyphy, we know how to have fun; and also the diversity of the city,” says Michael, who also does graphics work for Youth Radio (he basically “hung around” until they let him). “I feel like as representatives, the HBK Gang and Cali Made can fulfill both of those perceptions. And my personal goal is to show the world that we’re more than just party music. We can do that too — but we want to offer more than that.”

“This place is so rich in culture, intelligence, legacy. I love it here,” he says, and thinks for a minute. “If Oakland had waterfalls, I would never go anywhere else.” Fair enough.

Oakland Drops Beats
Sat/19, 2pm (all day), free
10 venues between Broadway and Harrison/14th and 19th St, Oak.
www.oaklanddropsbeats.com  

ONLY YOU CAN SAVE COLLEGE RADIO

 Talk about “left of the dial.” If you’ve only been in the city a couple years, you might not be aware that there was a time when KUSF — that’s the student-run radio station of the University of San Francisco — wasn’t in exile. It’s been over three years since the university sold the station (which had been broadcasting since 1963 at 90.3 FM) without public input or comment, for $3.75 million, to the Classical Public Radio Network, aka CPRN, via a complex three-way deal between the University of Southern California, that station, and the corporate broadcasting giant Entercom.

Since that time, KUSF DJs and friends of the station have been operating the station online, 24 hours a day, from the Lightrail Studios, growing a registered nonprofit arm with a new name: San Francisco Community Radio. All the while, those who love the station have been embroiled in — to use the technical legal terminology — a bureaucratic shitshow, as they try to prove that the sale was illegal. They’ve had some small successes in proving certain aspects of the transaction were unlawful, and currently have an appeal before the FCC.

Then, at the end of 2013, the FCC began issuing low-power FM licenses for the first time in about a decade. KUSF-In-Exile has an application in for 102.5 — but they’re up against at least seven other groups, including, as KUSF members understand it, a mega-church. The central goal, say organizers, is simply to get back on the (non-internet based) airwaves, one way or another. But “It’s a lot of hurry up and wait,” says SFCR board member and treasurer Damin Esper of the situation. “Which, obviously, isn’t very satisfying to us or to our supporters.”

In the meantime, the station has been throwing fundraiser shows to help pay for ongoing legal fees, and the one this April 20, naturally, is the third incarnation of their annual stoner-rama affair. Oakland punks Violence Creeps, who’ll be opening for the current incarnation of Black Flag at Brick & Mortar in May, will be headlining, alongside psych-rockers Mondo Drag and plenty of other wild, weird, woolly favorites; visuals, should you happen to have ingested anything that would make you want to look at cool visuals, will be provided by veteran stock-footage auteurs Oddball Films. All of the funds raised will go to SFCR’s legal fight; there will also be members on hand to talk volunteer opportunities — college radio-loving grantwriters, are you out there?

When it comes to the original sale, Esper says, “It’s clear that laws were broken. It could be found to be illegal in court…but one of the reasons the big guys always win in situations like this is it’s hard to keep people engaged, reminded of the situation. This is bigger than just KUSF. This is happening all over the country. College radio is under attack.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a0MiS923Jfo

SFCR’s Blown-Out, Blowout Benefit III
Sun/20, 8pm, $7
Thee Parkside 1600 17th St, SF
www.theeparkside.com

Oh, one last thing: There’s also a little event called Record Store Day coming up, so get out that piggy bank — this is what people mean when they talk about having an “emergency fund,” right? Anyway: So much going on, so little space. Check the Bay Guardian’s Noise blog this week for special in-store events and one-day-only releases.

Save the world, work less

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steve@sfbg.com

Save the world, work less. That dual proposition should have universal appeal in any sane society. And those two ideas are inextricably linked by the realities of global climate change because there is a direct connection between economic activity and greenhouse gas emissions.

Simply put, every hour of work we do cooks the planet and its sensitive ecosystems a little bit more, and going home to relax and enjoy some leisure time is like taking this boiling pot of water off the burner.

Most of us burn energy getting to and from work, stocking and powering our offices, and performing the myriad tasks that translate into digits on our paychecks. The challenge of working less is a societal one, not an individual mandate: How can we allow people to work less and still meet their basic needs?

This goal of slowing down and spending less time at work — as radical as it may sound — was at the center of mainstream American political discourse for much of our history, considered by thinkers of all ideological stripes to be the natural endpoint of technological development. It was mostly forgotten here in the 1940s, strangely so, even as worker productivity increased dramatically.

But it’s worth remembering now that we understand the environmental consequences of our growth-based economic system. Our current approach isn’t good for the health of the planet and its creatures, and it’s not good for the happiness and productivity of overworked Americans, so perhaps it’s time to revisit this once-popular idea.

Last year, there was a brief burst of national media coverage around this “save the world, work less” idea, triggered by a report by the Washington DC-based Center for Economic and Policy Research, entitled “Reduced Work Hours as a Means of Slowing Climate Change.”

“As productivity grows in high-income, as well as developing countries, social choices will be made as to how much of the productivity gains will be taken in the form of higher consumption levels versus fewer work hours,” author David Rosnick wrote in the introduction.

He notes that per capita work hours were reduced by 50 percent in recent decades in Europe compared to US workers who spend as much time as ever on the job, despite being a world leader in developing technologies that make us more productive. Working more means consuming more, on and off the job.

“This choice between fewer work hours versus increased consumption has significant implications for the rate of climate change,” the report said before going on to study various climate change and economic growth models.

It isn’t just global warming that working less will help address, but a whole range of related environmental problems: loss of biodiversity and natural habitat; rapid depletion of important natural resources, from fossil fuel to fresh water; and the pollution of our environment with harmful chemicals and obsolete gadgets.

Every day that the global workforce is on the job, those problems all get worse, mitigated only slightly by the handful of occupations devoted to cleaning up those messes. The Rosnick report contemplates only a slight reduction in working hours, gradually shaving a few hours off the week and offering a little more vacation time.

“The paper estimates the impact on climate change of reducing work hours over the rest of the century by an annual average of 0.5 percent. It finds that such a change in work hours would eliminate about one-quarter to one-half of the global warming that is not already locked in (i.e. warming that would be caused by 1990 levels of greenhouse gas concentrations already in the atmosphere),” the report concludes.

What I’m talking about is something more radical, a change that meets the daunting and unaddressed challenge that climate change is presenting. Let’s start the discussion in the range of a full day off to cutting our work hours in half — and eliminating half of the wasteful, exploitive, demeaning, make-work jobs that this economy-on-steroids is creating for us, and forcing us to take if we want to meet our basic needs.

Taking even a day back for ourselves and our environment will seem like crazy-talk to many readers, even though our bosses would still command more days each week than we would. But the idea that our machines and other innovations would lead us to work far less than we do now — and that this would be a natural and widely accepted and expected part of economic evolution — has a long and esteemed philosophical history.

Perhaps this forgotten goal is one worth remembering at this critical moment in our economic and environmental development.

 

HISTORY LESSON

Author and historian Chris Carlsson has been beating the “work less” drum in San Francisco since Jimmy Carter was president, when he and his fellow anti-capitalist activists decried the dawning of an age of aggressive business deregulation that continues to this day.

They responded with creative political theater and protests on the streets of the Financial District, and with the founding of a magazine called Processed World, highlighting how new information technologies were making corporations more powerful than ever without improving the lives of workers.

“What do we actually do all day and why? That’s the most basic question that you’d think we’d be talking about all the time,” Carlsson told us. “We live in an incredibly powerful and overarching propaganda society that tells you to get your joy from work.”

But Carlsson isn’t buying it, noting that huge swaths of the economy are based on exploiting people or the planet, or just creating unproductive economic churn that wastes energy for its own sake. After all, the Gross Domestic Product measures everything, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

“The logic of growth that underlies this society is fundamentally flawed,” Carlsson said. “It’s the logic of the cancer cell — it makes no sense.”

What makes more sense is to be smart about how we’re using our energy, to create an economy that economizes instead of just consuming everything in its path. He said that we should ask, “What work do we need to do and to what end?”

We used to ask such questions in this country. There was a time when working less was the goal of our technological development.

“Throughout the 19th century, and well into the 20th, the reduction of worktime was one of the nation’s most pressing issues,” professor Juliet B. Schor wrote in her seminal 1991 book The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure. “Through the Depression, hours remained a major social preoccupation. Today these debates and conflicts are long forgotten.”

Work hours were steadily reduced as these debates raged, and it was widely assumed that even greater reductions in work hours was all but inevitable. “By today, it was estimated that we could have either a 22-hour week, a six-month workyear, or a standard retirement age of 38,” Schor wrote, citing a 1958 study and testimony to Congress in 1967.

But that didn’t happen. Instead, declining work hours leveled off in the late 1940s even as worker productivity grew rapidly, increasing an average of 3 percent per year 1948-1968. Then, in the 1970s, workers in the US began to work steadily more hours each week while their European counterparts moved in the opposite direction.

“People tend to think the way things are is the way it’s always been,” Carlsson said. “Once upon a time, they thought technology would produce more leisure time, but that didn’t happen.”

Writer David Spencer took on the topic in a widely shared essay published in The Guardian UK in February entitled “Why work more? We should be working less for a better quality of life: Our society tolerates long working hours for some and zero hours for others. This doesn’t make sense.”

He cites practical benefits of working less, from reducing unemployment to increasing the productivity and happiness of workers, and cites a long and varied philosophical history supporting this forgotten goal, including opposing economists John Maynard Keynes and Karl Marx.

Keynes called less work the “ultimate solution” to unemployment and he “also saw merit in using productivity gains to reduce work time and famously looked forward to a time (around 2030) when people would be required to work 15 hours a week. Working less was part of Keynes’s vision of a ‘good society,'” Spencer wrote.

“Marx importantly thought that under communism work in the ‘realm of necessity’ could be fulfilling as it would elicit and harness the creativity of workers. Whatever irksome work remained in realm of necessity could be lessened by the harnessing of technology,” Spencer wrote.

He also cited Bertrand Russell’s acclaimed 1932 essay, “In Praise of Idleness,” in which the famed mathematician reasoned that working a four-hour day would cure many societal ills. “I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached,” Russell wrote.

Spencer concluded his article by writing, “Ultimately, the reduction in working time is about creating more opportunities for people to realize their potential in all manner of activities including within the work sphere. Working less, in short, is about allowing us to live more.”

 

JOBS VS. WORK

Schor’s research has shown how long working hours — and the uneven distribution of those hours among workers — has hampered our economy, hurt our environment, and undermined human happiness.

“We have an increasingly poorly functioning economy and a catastrophic environmental situation,” Schor told us in a phone interview from her office at Boston College, explaining how the increasingly dire climate change scenarios add urgency to talking about how we’re working.

Schor has studied the problem with other researchers, with some of her work forming the basis for Rosnick’s work, including the 2012 paper Schor authored with University of Alabama Professor Kyle Knight entitled “Could working less reduce pressures on the environment?” The short answer is yes.

“As humanity’s overshoot of environmental limits become increasingly manifest and its consequences become clearer, more attention is being paid to the idea of supplanting the pervasive growth paradigm of contemporary societies,” the report says.

The United States seems to be a case study for what’s wrong.

“There’s quite a bit of evidence that countries with high annual work hours have much higher carbon emissions and carbon footprints,” Schor told us, noting that the latter category also takes into account the impacts of the products and services we use. And it isn’t just the energy we expend at work, but how we live our stressed-out personal lives.

“If households have less time due to hours of work, they do things in a more carbon-intensive way,” Schor said, with her research finding those who work long hours often tend to drive cars by themselves more often (after all, carpooling or public transportation take time and planning) and eat more processed foods.

Other countries have found ways of breaking this vicious cycle. A generation ago, Schor said, the Netherlands began a policy of converting many government jobs to 80 percent hours, giving employees an extra day off each week, and encouraging many private sector employers to do the same. The result was happier employees and a stronger economy.

“The Netherlands had tremendous success with their program and they’ve ended up with the highest labor productivity in Europe, and one of the happiest populations,” Schor told us. “Working hours is a triple dividend policy change.”

By that she means that reducing per capita work hours simultaneously lowers the unemployment rate by making more jobs available, helps address global warming and other environmental challenges, and allows people to lead happier lives, with more time for family, leisure, and activities of their choosing.

Ironically, a big reason why it’s been so difficult for the climate change movement to gain traction is that we’re all spending too much time and energy on making a living to have the bandwidth needed to sustain a serious and sustained political uprising.

When I presented this article’s thesis to Bill McKibben, the author and activist whose 350.org movement is desperately trying to prevent carbon concentrations in the atmosphere from passing critical levels, he said, “If people figure out ways to work less at their jobs, I hope they’ll spend some of their time on our too-often neglected work as citizens. In particular, we need a hell of a lot of people willing to devote some time to breaking the power of the fossil fuel industry.”

world

That’s the vicious circle we now find ourselves in. There is so much work to do in addressing huge challenges such as global warming and transitioning to more sustainable economic and energy systems, but we’re working harder than ever just to meet our basic needs — usually in ways that exacerbate these challenges.

“I don’t have time for a job, I have too much work to do,” is the dilemma facing Carlsson and others who seek to devote themselves to making the world a better place for all living things.

To get our heads around the problem, we need to overcome the mistaken belief that all jobs and economic activity are good, a core tenet of Mayor Ed Lee’s economic development policies and his relentless “jobs agenda” boosterism and business tax cuts. Not only has the approach triggered the gentrification and displacement that have roiled the city’s political landscape in the last year, but it relies on a faulty and overly simplistic assumption: All jobs are good for society, regardless of their pay or impact on people and the planet.

Lee’s mantra is just the latest riff on the fabled Protestant work ethic, which US conservatives and neoliberals since the Reagan Era have used to dismantle the US welfare system, pushing the idea that it’s better for a single mother to flip our hamburgers or scrub our floors than to get the assistance she needs to stay home and take care of her own home and children.

“There is a belief that work is the best form of welfare and that those who are able to work ought to work. This particular focus on work has come at the expense of another, far more radical policy goal, that of creating ‘less work,'” Spencer wrote in his Guardian essay. “Yet…the pursuit of less work could provide a better standard of life, including a better quality of work life.”

And it may also help save us from environmental catastrophe.

 

GLOBAL TIPPING POINT

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the top research body on the issue recognized by the United Nations, recently released its fifth report summarizing and analyzing the science and policies around climate change, striking a more urgent tone than in previous reports.

On April 13 at a climate conference in Berlin, the panel released a new report noting that greenhouse gas emissions are rising faster than ever and urgent action is needed in the next decade to avert a serious crisis.

“We cannot afford to lose another decade,” Ottmar Edenhofer, a German economist and co-chairman of the committee that wrote the report, told The New York Times. “If we lose another decade, it becomes extremely costly to achieve climate stabilization.”

After the panel released an earlier section of the report on March 31, it wrote in a public statement: “The report concludes that responding to climate change involves making choices about risks in a changing world. The nature of the risks of climate change is increasingly clear, though climate change will also continue to produce surprises.”

The known impacts will be displaced populations in poor countries inundated by rising seas, significant changes to life-supporting ecosystems (such as less precipitation in California and other regions, creating possible fresh water shortages), food shortages from loss of agricultural land, and more extreme weather events.

What we don’t yet know, these “surprises,” could be even scarier because this is such uncharted territory. Never before have human activities had such an impact on the natural world and its delicate balances, such as in how energy circulates through the world’s oceans and what it means to disrupt half of the planet’s surface area.

Researchers have warned that we could be approaching a “global tipping point,” in which the impact of climate change affects other systems in the natural world and threatens to spiral out of control toward another mass extinction. And a new report funded partially by the National Science Foundation and NASA’s Goodard Space Center combines the environmental data with growing inequities in the distribution of wealth to warn that modern society as we know it could collapse.

“The fall of the Roman Empire, and the equally (if not more) advanced Han, Mauryan, and Gupta Empires, as well as so many advanced Mesopotamian Empires, are all testimony to the fact that advanced, sophisticated, complex, and creative civilizations can be both fragile and impermanent,” the report warned.

It cites two critical features that have triggered most major societal collapses in past, both of which are increasingly pervasive problems today: “the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity”; and “the economic stratification of society into Elites [rich] and Masses (or ‘Commoners’),” which makes it more difficult to deal with problems that arise.

Both of these problems would be addressed by doing less overall work, and distributing the work and the rewards for that work more evenly.

 

SYSTEMIC PROBLEM

Carol Zabin — research director for the Center for Labor Research and Education at UC Berkeley, who has studied the relation between jobs and climate change — has some doubts about the strategy of addressing global warming by reducing economic output and working less.

“Economic activity which uses energy is not immediately correlated with work hours,” she told us, noting that some labor-saving industrial processes use more energy than human-powered alternatives. And she also said that, “some leisure activities could be consumptive activities that are just as bad or worse than work.”

She does concede that there is a direct connection between energy use and climate change, and that most economic activity uses energy. Zabin also said there was a clear and measurable reduction in greenhouse gas emissions during the Great Recession that began with the 2008 economic crash, when economic growth stalled and unemployment was high.

“When we’re in recessions and output and consumption slow, we see a reduction in impact on the climate,” Zabin said, although she added, “They’re correlated, but they’re not causal.”

Other studies have made direct connections between work and energy use, at least when averaged out across the population, studies that Rosnick cited in his study. “Recent work estimated that a 1 percent increase in annual hours per employee is associated with a 1.5 percent increase in carbon footprint,” it said, citing the 2012 Knight study.

Zabin’s main stumbling block was a political one, rooted in the assumption that American-style capitalism, based on conspicuous consumption, would continue more or less as is. “Politically, reducing economic growth is really, really unviable,” she told us, noting how that would hurt the working class.

But again, doesn’t that just assume that the pain of an economic slowdown couldn’t be more broadly shared, with the rich absorbing more of the impact than they have so far? Can’t we move to an economic system that is more sustainable and more equitable?

“It seems a little utopian when we have a problem we need to address by reducing energy use,” Zabin said before finally taking that next logical step: “If we had socialism and central planning, we could shut the whole thing down a notch.”

Instead, we have capitalism, and she said, “we have a climate problem that is probably not going to be solved anyway.”

So we have capitalism and unchecked global warming, or we can have a more sustainable system and socialism. Hmm, which one should we pick? European leaders have already started opting for the latter option, slowing down their economic output, reducing work hours, and substantially lowering the continent’s carbon footprint.

That brings us back to the basic question set forth in the Rosnick study: As productivity increases, should those gains go to increase the wages of workers or to reduce their hours? From the perspective of global warming, the answer is clearly the latter. But that question is complicated in US these days by the bosses, investors, and corporations keeping the productivity gains for themselves.

“It is worth noting that the pursuit of reduced work hours as a policy alternative would be much more difficult in an economy where inequality is high and/or growing. In the United States, for example, just under two-thirds of all income gains from 1973-2007 went to the top 1 percent of households. In that type of economy, the majority of workers would have to take an absolute reduction in their living standards in order to work less. The analysis of this paper assumes that the gains from productivity growth will be more broadly shared in the future, as they have been in the past,” the study concludes.

So it appears we have some work to do, and that starts with making a connection between Earth Day and May Day.

 

EARTH DAY TO MAY DAY

The Global Climate Convergence (www.globalclimateconvergence.org) grew out of a Jan. 18 conference in Chicago that brought together a variety of progressive, environmental, and social justice groups to work together on combating climate change. They’re planning “10 days to change course,” a burst of political organizing and activism between Earth Day and May Day, highlighting the connection between empowering workers and saving the planet.

“It provides coordinated action and collaboration across fronts of struggle and national borders to harness the transformative power we already possess as a thousand separate movements. These grassroots justice movements are sweeping the globe, rising up against the global assault on our shared economy, ecology, peace and democracy. The accelerating climate disaster, which threatens to unravel civilization as soon as 2050, intensifies all of these struggles and creates new urgency for collaboration and unified action. Earth Day to May Day 2014 (April 22 — May 1) will be the first in a series of expanding annual actions,” the group announced.

San Mateo resident Ragina Johnson, who is coordinating events in the Bay Area, told us May Day, the international workers’ rights holiday, grew out of the struggle for the eight-hour workday in the United States, so it’s appropriate to use the occasion to call for society to slow down and balance the demands of capital with the needs of the people and the planet.

“What we’re seeing now is an enormous opportunity to link up these movements,” she told us. “It has really put us on the forefront of building a new progressive left in this country that takes on these issues.”

In San Francisco, she said the tech industry is a ripe target for activism.

“Technology has many employees working 60 hours a week, and what is the technology going to? It’s going to bottom line profits instead of reducing people’s work hours,” she said.

That’s something the researchers have found as well.

“Right now, the problem is workers aren’t getting any of those productivity gains, it’s all going to capital,” Schor told us. “People don’t see the connection between the maldistribution of hours and high unemployment.”

She said the solution should involve “policies that make it easier to work shorter hours and still meet people’s basic needs, and health insurance reform is one of those.”

Yet even the suggestion that reducing work hours might be a worthy societal goal makes the head of conservatives explode. When the San Francisco Chronicle published an article about how “working a bit less” could help many people qualify for healthcare subsidies under the Affordable Care Act (“Lower 2014 income can net huge health care subsidy,” 10/12/13), the right-wing blogosphere went nuts decrying what one site called the “toxic essence of the welfare state.”

Chronicle columnist Debra Saunders parroted the criticism in her Feb. 7 column. “The CBO had determined that ‘workers will choose to supply less labor — given the new taxes and other incentives they will face and the financial benefits some will receive.’ To many Democrats, apparently, that’s all good,” she wrote of Congressional Budget Office predictions that Obamacare could help reduce hours worked.

Not too many Democratic politicians have embraced the idea of working less, but maybe they should if we’re really going to attack climate change and other environmental challenges. Capitalism has given us great abundance, more than we need and more than we can safely sustain, so let’s talk about slowing things down.

“There’s a huge amount of work going on in society that nobody wants to do and nobody should do,” Carlsson said, imagining a world where economic desperation didn’t dictate the work we do. “Most of us would be free to do what we want to do, and most of us would do useful things.”

And what about those who would choose idleness and sloth? So what? At this point, Mother Earth would happily trade her legions of crazed workaholics for a healthy population of slackers, those content to work and consume less.

Maybe someday we’ll even look back and wonder why we ever considered greed and overwork to be virtues, rather than valuing a more healthy balance between our jobs and our personal lives, our bosses and our families, ourselves and the natural world that sustains us.

Revisionist future

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news@sfbg.com

Acidified oceans. Dirty air. Superstorms. Food shortages. Mass migration. War. The International Panel on Climate Change last week released the final installment of its latest authoritative report on the catastrophic effects of global climate change.

In no uncertain terms, the report states, it is urgent that steps be taken to mitigate the worst impacts. The world’s cities are the most at risk — yet hold the greatest potential for turning the tide, IPCC scientists noted. Making cities greener is one of the most effective ways to minimize climate change.

But as experts turn to cities in hopes of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, newly released documents suggest that officials in San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee’s office ordered the most effective strategies for achieving clean energy goals to be removed from the city’s plan for combating climate change.

 

CHANGE OF PLANS

The city’s Climate Action Strategy sets out the overarching goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, a yardstick consistent with state and regional goals. For 10 years, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission worked on a program that would have given city residents and businesses more access to renewable energy sources to help meet that emissions reduction target.

CleanPowerSF, a municipal power program that would replace Pacific Gas & Electric power for San Francisco customers, would provide electricity from 100 percent, California-certified renewable sources such as solar, wind, small hydro, and other green energy sources.

The Climate Action Strategy calls creation of a renewable energy portfolio a critical strategy for meeting the goal — and that’s precisely what CleanPowerSF set out to achieve. Over the course of a decade, millions of dollars were invested and untold staff hours devoted to creating the program.

Yet at the direction of Roger Kim, the mayor’s senior advisor on the environment, the city’s Department of the Environment removed the Climate Action Strategy’s reference to CleanPowerSF before the document was released to the public. The Department of the Environment was also directed to remove reference to PG&E’s 100 percent Green Power Option, a program floated as an alternative to CleanPowerSF.

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In a Sept. 30 memo to Kim, obtained via a public records request, former Department of Environment Director Melanie Nutter wrote, “At the request of the Mayor’s Office, mention of PG&E’s 100% Green Power Option and SFPUC’s CleanPowerSF program were removed from the Energy Chapter and replaced with the overarching goal of 100% renewable electricity (pgs 16,17).”

Nutter recently stepped down as the director of the agency.

The timing of Nutter’s memo is significant. Just weeks earlier, the SFPUC — whose five-member governing board is appointed by the mayor — refused to approve a not-to-exceed rate that would have allowed CleanPowerSF to move forward as planned. Instead of expressing opposition to the rate itself, commissioners expressed their overall opposition to CleanPowerSF before voting it down.

Lee had criticized the cost and mechanisms of CleanPowerSF, without proposing an alternative (see “Power struggle,” 9/17/13). His real motivations for deleting these two strategies from the city’s Climate Action Strategy report remain unclear, but Lee has long supported PG&E, which stands to lose customers if CleanPowerSF is successful.

 

NO REAL ANSWER

Both CleanPowerSF and PG&E’s green option were held up as pathways toward a greener future in the Climate Action Strategy until the Mayor’s Office intervened, leaving no city mechanisms for most San Franciscans to choose renewable energy sources.

“PG&E’s proposed green option and CleanPowerSF could operate in parallel,” Nutter wrote in a memo drafted a couple years ago. “CleanPowerSF is likely to have a much greater environmental benefit due to the size of the customer base that would be served, the program’s objective to create a market for local renewable power, and the amount of greenhouse gas reductions achieved.”

So why then were both of these efforts eliminated from the report at the last minute, after being incorporated by experts in the field? Lee Communications Director Christine Falvey did not provide an answer to this specific Guardian question about the removal decision despite being asked several times.

When the Guardian asked Mayor Lee in March why CleanPowerSF was removed from the report, Lee responded, “I don’t think I have a real answer for that.”

Also unanswered is the question of how the city will meet its greenhouse gas emission reductions target. A quarter of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions derive from residential and commercial electricity, according to the Climate Action Strategy. 

pgE 

Electricity provided by PG&E is only 50 percent emission-free, with nuclear energy as the company’s most significant carbon-free power source. SFPUC projections have shown that CleanPowerSF could reduce citywide greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2030.

Another quarter of our emissions come from natural gas usage, and 40 percent of total emissions are belched into the air by automobiles. Lee wants to encourage more electric vehicles, but that won’t help much if they’re powered by a dirty power portfolio.

Whereas CleanPowerSF represented a carefully crafted plan for hitting these long-term targets, Lee’s most recent comments on how these important goals will be reached seem vague at best.

“I think we take all our deliberations on climate action seriously,” Lee told the Guardian in March, “and I do think that our focus now has been on energy efficiencies. We are also trying now to beef up the GoSolar program to be sure to catch whatever the state is willing to do, because Governor [Jerry] Brown has been trying to tap where there can be more examples of that.”

“The Mayor is open to exploring all avenues that might be available to achieve our energy goals,” Falvey told us. “In fact, it will take a variety of strategies working in concert to achieve them, including increasing the energy efficiency of buildings to reduce the total power load, developing in-city renewables, and options for increasing the provision of renewable power at a utility-scale.”

Those last two goals are precisely what CleanPowerSF would have done. Critics have decried Lee’s move as harmful and politically motivated. “What Mayor Lee has succeeded in doing is to rip the guts out of the new Climate Action Strategy,” John Rizzo wrote in a recent Sierra Club newsletter, “rendering it as meaningless as the missed greenhouse-gas reduction targets from 2012.”

 

LOOKING AHEAD

At the Board of Supervisors’ mayor question time in March, Sup. John Avalos asked Lee to direct the Department of Environment to return CleanPowerSF to the Climate Action Strategy and commit to launching the program in 2014.

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Lee answered that he could not, saying the program was too problematic and the SFPUC has too many infrastructure repair needs. The SFPUC has pulled its staff from the project to redirect that work into energy infrastructure improvements.

Some are still holding out hope that CleanPowerSF could move forward. San Francisco’s Local Agency Formation Commission is set to begin researching what CleanPowerSF “would look like and to address other concerns that the Mayor and SFPUC Commissioners have raised,” LAFCo’s Senior Program Officer Jason Fried said.

Proponents are also investigating ways to launch the program independently of the mayor and the SFPUC, by partnering with Marin County’s version of the program.

“There is talk about joining the Marin Joint Powers Authority,” Fried said, “but we will exhaust every option to run our own program. We want the PUC and mayor on board.”

While the mayor and the commissioners charged with overseeing the SFPUC seem content to let CleanPowerSF fade into memory, Avalos is not willing to let it go without a fight.

“We’re facing the greatest crisis for this city, and our government pulls back on how to achieve this,” Avalos said at a March 31 Board of Supervisors committee hearing on the Climate Action Strategy. “If we want to be a great city, it’s up to us to generate the political will to implement these strategies.”

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez contributed to this report.

Earth reads

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WEST OF EDEN: COMMUNES AND UTOPIA IN NORTHERN CALIFORNIA (PM PRESS, 2012, $24.95)

Edited by Iain Boal, Janfrie Stone, Michael Watts, and Cal Winslow, this fresh history of radical communitarians and their cultural impact includes essays that encompass the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the Alcatraz occupation, and the Black Panthers, as well as famed (and doomed) communes like the Albion Nation along the Mendocino coast and Morning Star in Sonoma. There’s an emphasis on storytelling, roots activism, and personal relation to the earth here, as well as a bracing re-evaluation of what it meant to “get away from it all” and live free in the ’60s and ’70s.

 

THE SIXTH EXTINCTION: AN UNNATURAL HISTORY BY ELIZABETH KOLBERT (HENRY HOLT, 2014, $28)

Environmental staff writer at The New Yorker and author of the essential Field Notes from a Catastrophe, Kolbert turns an epochal eye toward our environmental fate. Proposing that, after the five major extinctions that have occurred in the history of life, the sixth one is us, her book guides us through the devastating effect we’re having on most of the planet’s species — and provides startling examples of animals almost gone, like the Panamanian golden frog and the great auk. After reading this, you will never snort ground-up black rhino horn as a party drug again.

 

THE BAY AREA FORAGER BY MIA ANDLER AND KEVIN FEINSTEIN (FORAGING SOCIETY PRESS, 2011, $24.95)

Miner’s Lettuce! Prickly Pear! Sour Clover! Blue Dicks! Where to find them, how to find them, when to use them, and how to eat them — all is revealed (along with some kick-ass recipes) in this wonderfully illustrated tome.

 

IN THE SIERRA: MOUNTAIN WRITINGS BY KENNETH REXROTH, EDITED BY KIM STANLEY ROBINSON (NEW DIRECTIONS, 2012 EDITION, $16.95)

Beloved San Francisco poet Rexroth (1905-1982) brought his cosmic playfulness and sly, erotic wit to his encounters with nature. Snow-freckled granite, wrinkled tableland, peaks like refrigerated teeth, “the ventriloquial belling of an owl” mingling with nighttime waterfalls: Rexroth maps out a familiarly strange mountainscape with an ethereal astrolabe. Selected prose writings, including those from his columns in the Bay Guardian and the Examiner, take on winter camping, the history of the Sierra Club, and proper furniture for horses.

 

CLIMATE CHANGE: WHAT IT MEANS FOR US, OUR CHILDREN, AND OUR GRANDCHILDREN (MIT PRESS, 2014, $22.95)

The folksy title of this MIT Press title may belie the eagerness of top scientists to reach everyday people before it’s too late. Edited by law professor and writer Joseph F.C. DiMento and energy specialist Pamela Doughman, the essays in Climate Change lays out up-to-the-minute information on the impending and present impact of our activities in practical terms of housing prices, taxes, and other relatable measurements in non-technical language.

 

A CALIFORNIA BESTIARY (HEYDAY, 2010, $12.95)

The pairing of writer Rebecca Solnit and muralist Mona Caron would cause major excitement even if it involved a book on differential equations. Here, however, is a gem-like compendium of iconic Golden State natives like the Chinook salmon, California condor, desert tortoise, and Mission butterfly. All seen through two of most important artists’ eyes. (Marke B.)

All titles available at Green Arcade Books (1680 Market, SF. www.thegreenarcade.com).

 

Blood lush

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cheryl@sfbg.com

FILM It’s difficult to think of an American filmmaker who has so consistently conveyed a sense of cool more than Jim Jarmusch. Since his cinematic emergence — minimalistic, black-and-white early efforts Stranger than Paradise (1984) and Down By Law (1986) helped launch the era’s culture-changing indie film movement — he’s never been pretentious or tempted by a big paycheck to direct something that doesn’t adhere to his unique artistic vision. This vision tends to include characters who are highly intelligent loners; scenes of driving, especially at night; unexpected yet perfect soundtrack choices (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins!); and casting international actors (Roberto Benigni) in their first notable stateside roles, as well as musicians (Tom Waits, the RZA).

Jarmusch has subverted genre films before — you don’t have to dig deep to find fierce defenders of 1995 Western Dead Man or 1999 gangster tale Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai — but his latest, Only Lovers Left Alive, is poised to be his biggest commercial hit to date. That’s not merely because it’s a vampire film, though this concession to trendiness will certainly work in its favor, as will the casting of high-profile Avengers (2012) star Tom Hiddleston. But this is still a Jarmusch vampire movie, and though it may be more accessible than some of the director’s more existential entries, it’s still wonderfully weird, witty, and — natch — drenched in cool.

The opening credits deploy a gothic, blood red font across a night sky — a winking nod to the aesthetics of Hammer classics like Horror of Dracula (1958). Then, the camera begins to rotate, filming a record as it plays, and symbolizing the eternal life of the two figures who’ve entered the frame: gloomy Adam (Hiddleston, rocking a bedhead version of Loki’s dark ‘do), who lurks not in a crumbling Transylvanian castle, but a crumbling Detroit mansion, and exuberant Eve (Tilda Swinton, so pale she seems to glow), who dwells amid piles of books in Tangier.

These two — are they the first couple in history, or just named for them? — live apart, partially due to the hassle of traveling when one can’t be in the sun (red-eye flights are a must). Yet they remain entangled in spirit, a phenomenon referenced amid much talk of what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance.” Adam spends his nights stroking his rare-instrument collection and composing dirges he’s reluctantly been sharing, despite his distrust of the “rock ‘n’ roll kids” who like to ring his doorbell. In centuries past, he hung out with Byron and Shelley, but believes today’s humans are “zombies” who live in fear of their own imaginations. (Never before has anyone pronounced “YouTube” with such sneering disdain.) Basically, he’s over it — going so far as to enlist Ian (Anton Yelchin), the one Detroit scenester he trusts, to track down a very special type of bullet. Made of wood. You know where this is going.

Over the phone from Morocco (she uses an iPhone; he uses electronics wizardry to rig calls through his old-school TV), Eve senses something’s not right, so she mobilizes for a long-overdue visit. Their reunion is glorious, complete with cruises around Detroit’s decaying landscape, with an in-jokey pause outside the childhood home of Jack White, who appeared in Jarmusch’s 2003 Coffee and Cigarettes and no doubt inspired Adam’s character.

Since, lest we forget, these romantic, sunglass-clad hipsters are also ancient vampires, the acquisition of blood untainted by modern illnesses is shown to be a continuous concern. Murder is not ideal, especially when one is highly invested in keeping an extremely low profile, so Adam has a deal worked out with a nervous local doctor, hilariously played by Jeffrey Wright; Eve gets “the good stuff” from her Tangier hook-up, fellow undead-ite Christopher Marlowe (Jarmusch regular John Hurt). The drug-addiction metaphor, a frequent vampire-tale device, is made overtly obvious; sips of blood inspire ecstatic swoons, and a dwindling supply is seen as justification for reckless behavior.

Unlike those old Hammer films, there’s no stake-wielding Van Helsing type pursuing these creatures of the night. Unlike the Twilight films, there’s no rival supernatural faction, either. If there’s a villain, it’s actual and emotional vampire Ava (Mia Wasikowska), Eve’s bad-penny sibling, who swoops in during a full moon for a most unwelcome visit. She’s been bumming around LA (“Ugh, zombie central,” groans Adam), but misses her sister — and as exaggeratedly obnoxious as this character is, living forever while everyone else ages and dies around you would get lonely. Plus, it’s Jarmusch’s way of making sure things don’t get too serious. Sure, some vampires are soulful, existentially tortured musical geniuses — but some of ’em are shallow, impulsive brats who just wanna have fun. It takes all kinds.

Only Lovers Left Alive‘s biggest antagonist is simply the outside world, with its epidemics of dull minds and blood-borne diseases. “The vampire is a resonant metaphor,” Jarmusch writes in the film’s press notes. “Adam and Eve are metaphors for the present state of human life.” But the takeaway isn’t dour in the slightest, for this is also a gorgeously filmed (by frequent François Ozon collaborator Yorick Le Saux), sharply realized dark comedy. The delight Jarmusch takes in tweaking the vampire mythos — sunlight most certainly kills, but garlic is “a superstition” — is just as enjoyable as his interest in exploring the agony, ecstasy, and uneventful lulls of immortality. *

 

ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE opens Fri/18 in San Francisco.

Devil’s advocate

0

arts@sfbg.com

FILM It’s taken nearly three years for Aleksandr Sokurov’s Faust to get to the Bay Area. That seems apt for what was surely, in 2011, the least popular recipient of the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion in decades. Jury chief Darren Aronofsky (whose own epic about God and man’s purpose and such, Noah, is stone sober by contrast) called it the kind of movie that “changes you forever after you see it.” Others — especially those who expect some resemblance to the “tragedy by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe” the film claims to be based on, perhaps its first insidious joke — registered reactions in the general realm of “WTF?”

But mostly, this Faust simply hasn’t been seen very much, an odd fate for a fairly expensive art movie that purportedly Putin himself hoped would demonstrate the glory of modern Russian culture to the world. (Even if it is a German-language period piece shot in the Czech Republic.)

One can only imagine Vladimir’s subsequent dismay, and possible avowals to never again back auteurs without the surnames Bondarchuk or Mikhalkov — men who can be counted on to grunt out macho, patriotic cine-blintzes that in proud testament to national nepotism invariably get chosen as Russia’s official Oscar contenders. (Nikita Mikhalkov’s massive 2011 bust Burnt by the Sun 2: Citadel nudged out Faust for that honor, prompting international hilarity.)

What can Sokurov be counted on for? He is a weirdo. Even his popular triumphs — 1997’s rhapsodic Mother and Son; 2002’s extraordinary 300-years-of-history-in-one-traveling-shot Russian Ark — are very rarefied stuff, disinterested in conventional narrative or making their meanings too clear. In production scale, Faust is Sokurov’s biggest project, which hardly stops it also being possibly his most perverse. Whose idea was it to give this guy millions of euros in anticipation of something beautiful, accessible, or at least non-maddening? Surely a few heads rolled at the Russian Cinema Fund, Golden Lion or no.

But whatever bureaucrats’ loss is our gain … finally. Faust is compellingly, often hypnotically dreamlike and grotesque, a film not quite like any other. It rings bells redolent of certain classic 1970s Herzog features, and of course Sokurov’s own prior ones (as well as those by his late mentor Tarkovsky). But it has a stoned strangeness all its own. It’s not 140 minutes you should enter lightly, because you are going to exit it headily, drunk off the kind of questionable homebrew elixir that has a worm floating in it.

Bruno Delbonnel’s camera dives headlong from celestial clouds into a clammy mittle-Yurropeon town in which the thin margin between pissy bourgeoisie and dirty swine is none too subtly delineated when a funeral march collides with a cartful of porkers. Starving — for love, for lunch, for any sign that God isn’t just a nagging personal delusion — is Professor Faust (the marvelously plastic Johannes Zeiler), whom we meet dissecting a corpse in his filthy studio. Asked by bonkers assistant Wagner (Georg Friedrich) where the soul dwells, he shrugs “There’s only rubbish in here,” yanking out the most gratuitous onscreen innards since Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein (1973). Impoverished and hungry, the questionably good doctor is an easy mark for Mephistophelean moneylender Mauricius Muller (physical theater specialist Anton Adasinsky), an insinuating snake who claims the soul is “no heavier than a coin,” and will happily relieve Faust of his in return for some slippery satisfactions.

Their endless day together encompasses a rowdy inn, the vaguely unsavory pursuit of dewy Margarete (Isolda Dychauk), and finally a sort of death in a volcanic landscape that’s like the setting for a creation myth — one encompassing both the religion Faust resists and the science he practices merely as “something to do to fill the void,” comparing it to his inamorata’s knitting.

There’s also the revelation of a naked Muller at the baths as some sort of a-human, asexual fleshy lump, with useless penis-tail on his backside; the unrecognizable fleeting specter of Hanna Schygulla as Frau Muller; a monkey on the moon glimpsed through telescope; poor Wagner revealing the “homunculus” he’s bred from “oils of asparagus and dandelion mixed with hyena’s liver,” a pathetic tiny monster as doomed as the Eraserhead (1977) baby.

Faust completes Sokurov’s tetralogy on power and corruption, which otherwise consisted of druggy fantasias about real historical leaders: 1999’s Moloch about Hitler, which showed once at the San Francisco International Film Festival; 2001’s Taurus (Stalin), which hardly played anywhere; and 2005’s stilted The Sun (Emperor Hirohito), which rather inexplicably played everywhere. Coming complete with the director’s trademark distortion effects (in both color tinting and image aspect), Faust has a soft, queasy, pickled feel, like a disquieting dream too fascinating to wake yourself from. Andrey Sigle’s orchestral score rolls beneath dislocating visuals, a constant wave assuring no one aboard gains their sea legs.

For all actual mention of the soul in a script devised with prior collaborators Yuri Arabov and Marina Koreneva, this is a less “spiritual” film than many Sokurov has managed before. God (or whomever) knows you are likelier to sense his very Russian mysticism as a redemptive force in Mother and Son, not to mention 2007’s Alexandra or such Soviet-era cries in the dark as Days of Eclipse (1988) or The Second Circle (1990). Faust is beautiful in its distinctive aesthetics, even if its view of human existence is philosophically, ornately ugly. It’s also antic in the semi-subterranean way you might expect from a once frequently-banned artist raised in Siberia. Nearly a decade ago he said this project would be “a very colorful, elegant picture with a lot of Strauss music and a smell of chocolate.” Always with the jokes, that Sokurov. *

FAUST opens Fri/18 at the Roxie Theater.

Like brothers do

2

SUPER EGO I’ve been a huge, squealing, panty-tossing fan of the Bronx-born Martinez Brothers since they were 14 and 17. Don’t call NAMBLA: If you’ve ever seen Chris and Steve work their supreme magic on the turntables, you know these two bopping, smiling dudes have wise old souls and an infectious spirit of musical joy.

When the brothers burst onto the scene, a new generation was rediscovering disco and house via the Internet: here, suddenly, like Athena springing from Zeus’s brow, appeared two vinyl wunderkinder versed fluently, it seemed, in Warehouse, Loft, and Paradise Garage — thanks, in part, to their club-hopping dad. Now they’re barely in their 20s, have gone through their globetrotting headliner and Ibiza-residency phases, tuned their style to a deeper post-minimal vibe (including some ace hip-hop), and started digging more extensively into their roots.

“You know, we just want to play good music, to treat music as an adventure again for everybody, not play to any tired expectations,” Chris told me over the phone as he headed from the brothers’ studio in Queens back to his house. “But we also want to bring our cultural background into it, keep repping where we and the music are from.”

To that end, the brothers have launched their own label Cuttin Headz, and paired with Detroit’s Seth Troxler for another label, Tuskegee, devoted to releasing dance music from black and Latino origin.

Cuttin’ Headz (the name’s cribbed from an ODB Wu-Tang demo) “is all about freedom for us,” Chris said. “We put so much care into each release, and now we’re taking that to a new level, learning some new skills to put it all in place.” As for Tuskegee, it’s bringing a necessary corrective to the pale, pale dance scene, as well as unearthing some surprising roots.

“Our point of view right now is coming from that moment in the ’90s right before house music became taboo to young kids into hip-hop. We want to bring the ‘urban environment’ feel back into house, real deep house and real techno that feels like the city.”

Meanwhile, they’re hitting Coachella before making it up here. “San Francisco has such a place in my heart,” Chris gushed. “We wish we were there back in the day when SF was so crazy, but luckily there’s still remnants of that spirit to be found. Hang in there, we love you!”

AS YOU LIKE IT WITH THE MARTINEZ BROTHERS Fri/18, 9pm-4am, $20–$25. Monarch, 101 Sixth St, SF. www.monarchsf.com

 

GUY GERBER

My favorite “emotive techno” Israeli wizard returns to up things to another level with his stylish musical chops. Prepare for liftoff. At the Base party.

Thu/17, 10pm, $10. Vessel, 85 Campton Pl., SF. www.vesselsf.com

MINILOGUE

Excellently deep electronic grooves with an intelligent, psychedelic glow from this Swedish duo. This party’s being put on by the Symbiosis folks, so there’ll be a little burner fairy dust in the air.

Thu/17, 10pm-4am, $20. Mighty, 119 Utah, SF. www.mighty119.com

 

INC.

Another brother act, Andrew and Daniel Aged from LA come on like “Black-winged angels of nu-R&B” and head up an evening of pretty darkness at the fantastic 120 Minutes monthly. With Brogan Bentley, S4NtA_MU3rTE, and Chauncey_CC. Fri/18, 10pm, $15 advance. Elbo Room, 647 Valencia, SF. www.elbo.com

 

FLIGHT FACILITIES

Looking back, 2009 was a year of epic (as in actually epic) house records. The dancefloor-devastating treatment these two remixing Australians visited upon the Lowbrows’ “Dream in the Desert” was a high point. They make their own lovely, hugely popular tunes as well.

Fri/18, 9pm, $20. Mezzanine, 444 Jessie, SF. www.mezzaninesf.com

 

NINA KRAVIZ

No matter where you fall in the polarizing debate about what she represents in terms of the current state of DJ stardom, Russia’s Nina Kraviz is defintely kinda weird and also definitely kinda magic. And she will make you dance.

Sat/19, 9pm-3am, $25 advance. Harlot, 46 Minna, SF. www.harlotsf.com

 

Think again

0

arts@sfbg.com

DANCE With three world premieres in its recent Spring Home Season performances, Hope Mohr Dance gave the audiences pieces that were both opaque and transparent. They were opaque because their physical imagery contained narrative traces that resonated beyond the stage, but was often equally focused on a gesture’s physicality in the moment. They were transparent because of the clarity and intensity that these fabulous dancers brought to their tasks. Their presence burnt itself into your retina and your soul. Any way you want to take this, Hope Mohr Dance is a head trip these days.

For Route 20, Connie Strayer put Jeremy Bannon-Neches, James Graham, and Tegan Schwab into off-white, hooded unitards. It made the dancers look like robotic extraterrestrials, except that the red streaks on their bodies suggested freshly spilled blood. Given enough time, designer David Szlasa’s dripping block of ice, which encased some dark mystery, might have revealed its secrets.

While the body suits encouraged seeing the dancers as gender-neutral — a hopeless task as far as I am concerned — the choreography treated the three performers as equals. The tension, such as it was, seemed to be based more on an inherent lack of stability within the triangle than on any specific movement patterns. It allowed for a constant flow of interactions without much emotional baggage. Abrupt turns, collapsing torsos, and dancers jumping on each other and being carried aloft felt neutral. The music’s brilliant pointillism seemed to encourage the lack of a clear trajectory in favor of an intense presence. And yet there were moments — the ice melting? — when Mohr’s neutral beings became more individualized. When Schwab streaked between the two men, was she breaking something up? When two dancers held on to each other at arms’ length, was one of them looking into a mirror? Repeatedly, a nuzzling gesture suggested skin-on-skin contact.

There are moments in ridetherhythm, a sextet for which theater director Mark Jackson signed on as dramaturge, when the work approached pure music in the way fractured language rose into a chorus to retreat again into individual voices. Fragments of text flew from dancer to dancer, and countdown patterns became threatening even as they tried to impose a sense of order. It’s rare that dancers become truly expert at delivering words and movement; Mohr’s troupe was first-rate in both.

The choreographer went for inspiration to Anne Carson’s Antigonick, the poet’s translation of Sophocles’ play, and to Todd Haynes’ 1995 Safe, in which Julianne Moore plays a housewife trapped in a poisonous environment. Katharine Hawthorne, in a beautifully subtle performance that ebbed and swelled, was the woman who went her own way despite the fact that she lived in a man’s world. When she fell, Schwab threw herself on top of her, in what was perhaps the work’s single most touching moment. The narrative emerged only in bits and pieces, but Mohr’s ability to suggest a pervading doom, despite Evan Johnson’s soothsaying along the lines of “everything is all right, we are safe,” and “he’s a jolly good fellow,” was impressive. In one spot, the group’s search for an oasis of safety was almost comical, and when the dancers kneeled you didn’t know whether they did so in despair or with hope.

I never could figure out the work’s connection between Hegel, Beckett, and Sophocles. But then Megan Brian, a character in high heels and sunglasses who tried to bring order into the chaotic proceedings by obsessively writing down whatever she saw — not unlike some dance critics — finally threw in the towel. ridetherhythm clearly warrants repeated viewing.

Exuberant and yet ever so controlled, Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction was a two-way street in terms of improvisation. Here the musicians — Michael Coleman on keyboard, Henry Hung on trumpet, Tommy Folen on bass, and Gerald Patrick Korte on percussion — responded as much to the dancers as the other way around. For this choreography the excellent Lindsey Renee Derry, Roche Janken, and David Schleiffers joined Bannon-Neches, Graham, and Schwab, who also individualized the dancers with color-saturated tank tops.

Schwab and Hung engaged each other in a playful duet, while Folen’s bass sent Bannon-Neches into spasmodic travels. Graham at one point strode upstage with every part of his torso alive to the music. I don’t know whether his greeting of dancers was a spur of the moment idea but it felt right on.

While some sections — unisons for instance — served as time markers and probably were planned, a duet between Schwab and Janken, for instance, could have been improvised. It was important that spontaneity blossomed within given parameters, sometimes determined by simple commands like “stop” and “go.” With Szlasa favoring slightly dimmed houselights, thus suggesting the breaking of the fourth wall, Notes came to look like a spacious and airy informal get-together. I kept thinking of watching outdoor ice skaters on a sunny afternoon. *

 

Wind it up

3

arts@sfbg.com

CULTURE They’re out there in the water at Ocean Beach and Crissy Field, whipping by the toll plaza, sailing giant kites like crescent moons. Those freaky, flying water monkeys — soaring around the bay via kites strong enough to tow cars — are kitesurfers, also called kiteboarders.

Thanks to its ideal mix of geography and weather, the Bay Area is a phenomenal place for the increasingly popular sport. “It’s a world-class kiteboarding destination,” says Jeff Kafka, owner of Burlingame kiteboarding school Wind Over Water. “You might have to wear a wetsuit most of the time, but we have some of the best wind in the world.”

Kitesurfing is a combination of sailing, surfing, and power kiting, in which a large kite is used to pull a rider on any and all types of boards (surfboards, wakeboards) with and without foot straps. The kites range in size from as small as a kitchen table to as big as a bus; smaller kites are used in heavier winds, while bigger kites are used in lighter winds. The most common size is probably 12 meters (about as big as an average parking spot). Almost all kitesurfing kites have inflatable frames that keep them from sinking in the event of a crash.

Most kites have four lines that run to a control bar — letting the rider steer — which is hooked to a body harness that takes most of the pull. Quick release systems have evolved to help reduce the kite’s speed and even disconnect the rigging in the blink of an eye, drastically improving the safety of the sport. Contrast this to the sport’s early-1980s origins, when brothers Bruno and Dominique Legaignoux launched the first water kites off the Atlantic coast of France. In those days, a hunting knife strapped to one’s leg was considered a quick release system.

“A lot of people were getting hurt back then and we needed a safer way to continue the sport,” says Sandy Parker of the Kitopia School of Kiteboarding, in the Sacramento Delta. “That was part of the reason for forming the school.”

While the Bay Area is a hotbed for the sport, there are International Kiteboarding Organization-certified schools all over the world equipped with jet skis and radio helmets, ready to get newbies into the water as safely as possible. Traditionally, students are started with “trainer” kites — two-lined kites with little more power than a toy stunt kite.

“The trainer kite’s a good practice kite,” says Kafka. “You can send somebody off and they can mess around with very little instruction.”

But as safety systems and kites have advanced, some schools have begun putting large, powerful kites in people’s hands sooner.

“I don’t really recommend any trainer kite usage prior to coming out,” says John von Tesmar, with Treasure Island’s KiteTheBay. (His jet boat is named, appropriately, Windseeker.) “I hook the kite to the boat and, right then, you can get someone’s virgin hands on the bar.”

Either way, the next step is learning the safety systems, and how to independently steer a full-size kite. After that comes water maneuvers and then board start, when the student hopefully gets up and riding. This usually takes about four to six hours and is generally broken into two sessions. With lessons averaging around $100 per hour, a lot of people — especially experienced surfers and snowboarders — try to avoid taking lessons.

“Saying that you’re accomplished at boardsports but have zero kite experience is akin to saying you’re excellent at hitting a ball with a mallet but don’t know how to ride a horse, and now you want to play polo,” says Rebbecca Geffert of Boardsports School, which operates around the Bay Area. (Full disclosure: I am an IKO-certified kitesurfing instructor and teach at Boardsports.) “The kite is the horse. It’s all about kite control. Board skills are secondary.”

Adds Royce Vaughn of Emeryville’s KGB Kitesurfing, “At the end of the day, there are a lot of variables in kiteboarding. It’s not just as easy as learning how to fly a kite and jumpin’ on a board. There’s a lot of safety involved.”

Though lessons can be a bit steep, most shops give a discount on gear to students. Some will even throw in free lessons if you buy a complete set-up. And being involved with a school opens up a worldwide network of education, socializing, and employment. There’s more than one globe-trotting telecommuter out there who supplements his or her traveling expenses by teaching kitesurfing. Or perhaps you want to get into snowkiting or racing. The sport is full of possibilities.

“Once you get the basic mechanics, it’s just where you want to take it, what board you want to ride on, what types of tricks you want to do, or if you don’t want to do any tricks at all,” says Kafka. “Maybe you just want to have a nice afternoon ridin’ along in the bay.” *

 

International Kiteboarding Organization

www.ikointl.com

 

Boardsports School

www.boardsportsschool.com

KiteTheBay

www.kitethebay.com

KGB Kiteboarding

www.kgbswag.com

 

Kitopia

www.kitopia.biz

 

Live 2 Kite

www.live2kite.com  

Wind over Water

www.windoverwatergear.com

Stop the eviction of Benito Santiago

47

OPINION

I attended a rally in support of eviction fighter Benito Santiago as he battles to keep his home of more than 30 years from the clutches of real estate investment company Vanguard Properties. Vanguard and its co-owner Michael Harrison, who also goes by the alias “Pineapple Boy LLC,” notified Benito of their intention of evicting him and two other tenants by invoking the state’s Ellis Act. We know the scenario — building gets sold, tenants get evicted, and the speculator/investor pimps ride off into the sunset, latte in hand, behind the wheel of a sports car (or utility vehicle).

But what about Benito?

Benito is a teacher with the San Francisco Unified School District. He is a senior with a disability resulting from a car accident more than a decade ago. Benito is a musician — a percussionist — and he teaches music to developmentally disabled children. Despite the effects of the car accident on his mobility, he has dedicated his life to sharing music with children who have benefitted greatly from his love and patience. He is an excellent teacher with a love for life and music is contagious.

Benito lives in his rent-controlled Duboce Triangle unit, but to investors and speculators, there is no room for him. To them, rent control is a cancer, a disease, a rape of the holy mother. Yet it is the evictions that have spread across the city — a 178 percent increase in Ellis Act evictions alone in the last three years — that are the true cancer.

It is not without irony that Benito moved into his unit in 1977, the same year of the eviction of elders of the I-Hotel on Kearny Street. As a Filipino, Benito remembers that event vividly, an event that garnered worldwide attention and support from wide segments of the community in San Francisco for the elder tenants who refused to leave the I-Hotel, the last building standing that was part of a Filipino neighborhood called Manilatown.

There was no room for Manilatown, no room for those brown elders walking around on property that had so much value. Manilatown was systematically removed by speculation and real estate interests. The I-Hotel eventually fell in 1977 with the forcible eviction of its elderly tenants, with baton-wielding police ramming though a human barricade of more than 3,000 supporters who chanted “We Won’t Move!”

The year Benito moved into his unit, 1977, was the year that the fight to rebuild the I-hotel began. After a 30-year struggle, it was finally rebuilt — 102 units of affordable senior housing. Many tenant protections arose from the ashes of the I-Hotel struggle. Another irony is that Mayor Ed Lee began his career defending the tenants of the I-Hotel.

Now, 37 years later, we see the desecration of the I-Hotel struggle by the same greedy speculators who do not care for the city. They have been the stewards — not of community, or sharing, or culture — but of eviction, misery, and even death to elders. They disrespect the I-hotel struggle and the elders of the community and the legacy of the I-Hotel. They are a blight to San Francisco.

Benito is fighting his eviction. He is refusing the buyout. The sound of resistance is the sound of Benito’s drum, which calls for all of us to rise in defense of our homes. Benito is a part of the Manilatown/I-Hotel Family, and we support his fight, along with Eviction Free SF, his lawyers at the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, and others in the community. The Manilatown Heritage Foundation/I-Hotel calls for an end to out of control evictions and reparations for elders who have been displaced through eviction via the Ellis Act.

What speculators have done is criminal, nothing less than elder abuse. Their presence is the true blight. Tony Robles works for Senior and Disability Action and is president of Manilatown Heritage Foundation, which will hold an event honoring eviction struggles April 25 in the I-Hotel Manilatown Center, 868 Kearny St.

Time for a carbon tax

5

EDITORIAL

For this week’s Green Issue, our cover story (“Save the world, work less”) looks at how our economic system is accelerating climate change, proposing that we slow down and work less. It’s a fun little thought experiment that revives an important goal that has somehow been forgotten in modern political discourse.

But there’s another solution that attacks the global warming problem more directly and immediately, one that is compatible with our modern capitalist framework and which could and should be adopted now. It’s time to institute a carbon tax, which would place a price on greenhouse gas emissions and help to curb them.

California Senate President Darrell Steinberg made waves in February when he proposed replacing key parts of California’s cap-and-trade program with a carbon tax and using two-thirds of that money for tax rebates to Californians making $75,000 per year and less to offset the higher cost of gasoline, utility bills, and other areas affected by the tax, and one-third to improve public transit.

The logic behind the proposal is unassailable: If we want to control greenhouse gases, tax the burning of the molecule that creates them. A carbon tax is a far better and more direct means of addressing climate change than California’s new cap-and-trade system, an overly complex half-measure that can be gamed or used to excuse unacceptable forms of pollution.

Of course, a range of capital interests and other powerful players lined up to oppose Steinberg’s proposal, leading the pundits to declare it dead. So his Senate Bill 1156 was modified this week to allocate revenues from the cap-and-trade auction, which could total $5 billion annually, to specific needs: 30 percent to public transit, 40 percent to affordable housing and sustainable communities, 10 percent to complete streets programs (bike lanes), and 20 percent to the California High-Speed Rail Project.

Those are good priorities and we support them all, but we’re disappointed to see Steinberg shrink from a fight that was worth having. The country needs a carbon tax if we’re going to meet our obligation to help mitigate a problem that Americans have created more than anyone else in the world on a per-capita basis. This is our mess and we need to play a big role in cleaning it up, rather than passing that obligation onto poor countries and future generations.

Taxes are a time-honored tool to regulating behaviors and providing for the common good. A carbon tax would finally make users pay the full cost of their choices, such as driving a car or traveling by airplane, thus encouraging less carbon-intensive lifestyles. If this state can’t implement a carbon tax. the federal government should.