Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus speaks on micro-lending — and world hope

Muhammad Yunus, Managing Director, Grameen Ban...
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Recently, someone remarked to Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi banker/ economist/ crusader against poverty, that he must be a very rich man.

“I said, why would I be a rich man?” he tells an attentive audience. “Well, you have all those companies; you must be rich to have all those companies.”  Yunus scratches his chin and smiles the beguiling smile that makes you want to be a believer. “Oh. I start these companies, but I would never own them.” You are now a believer.

Yunus was in San Francisco Monday, at a social entrepreneurship program sponsored by the Commonwealth Club. He is winding up a U.S. tour promoting his new book, Building Social Business: The New Kind of Capitalism That Serves Humanity’s Most Pressing Needs. In the process, he is promoting a theory that social business — business operated for the benefit of society (such as the poor who are commonly the beneficiaries and owners of Yunus’ companies) — can and should be a viable segment of the global economy.

Grameen Bank, which was begun in 1976 with $27 out of Yunus’ pocket and now provides loans to more than 8,100,000 borrowers — no collateral, just good faith and trust — would seem to prove his point. Defaults on Grameen micro loans are so few as to make Fannie Mae weep.

From micro loans, Yunus expanded into business ventures on the same basic principle: to achieve one or more social objectives through the operation of the company. The investors/owners can gradually recoup the money invested, but cannot take any dividend beyond that point.

There are now Grameen (the word refers to a rural village) companies in banking, agriculture, healthcare, telecommunications and other areas.  Yunus gave one as an example of why he believes the principle works:

Grameen and Group Danone went into a joint venture to create a yogurt fortified with micro-nutrients to decrease malnutrition for the children of Bangladesh. The yogurt is produced with solar and bio gas energy and is served in environmentally friendly packaging. The first plant started production in Late 2006. The 10-year plan is to establish 50+ plants, create several hundred distribution jobs and self-degradable packaging.

The environment is protected, children get healthy, grow up to create businesses. Yunus spoke of one skeptic saying, “where will I get a job?” and said he explained, “You don’t look for a job, you create a job.”

Grameen Bank has more than 2500 branches — now including three in New York (where Yunus would like to see payday loan and check-cashing operations go out of business), one in Omaha, and in the near future: one in San Francisco. If Yunus is enjoying the proving out of his theories and the lifting of vast numbers of people out of poverty, he may be enjoying most of all the reminiscences about those who scoffed at his notions in the 1970s.

“They said the poor were not credit worthy,” he smiles. “I was told, about non-collateralized loans, ‘You can’t do that!’ After 2008, I wanted to ask, ‘Who is credit-worthy?'”

Drill, baby, drill?

It’s going to be a long time fixing.

The Deepwater Horizon site is pouring some 200,000 gallons (5,000 barrels) of oil daily from a broken pipe into the Gulf of Mexico. Millions of dollars are being added to the leak’s cost, and despite BP‘s assurance that they will pay for the fix, long-term costs are beyond estimating at this point.

PBS NewsHour‘s Judy Woodruff got differing views Monday night from Greenpeace Research Director Kert Davies and Sara Banaszak, senior economist for the American Petroleum Institute. Asked how the current catastrophe will affect his organization’s long-standing opposition to off-shore drilling, Davies said

Well, it reinforces what we have seen worldwide. As we drill for oil, it’s a dirty, dangerous business. And the farther afield we go, deep into the Amazon, into the Arctic, and into deeper water, the greater those risks are, and the worse the impacts when things go terribly wrong.

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Things have gone terribly wrong. But not wrong enough to change much, considering our continuing dependence on fossil fuels. Banaszak seemed unshaken:

(A)t this point”, she said, “we don’t know what happened in that incident offshore. And that’s what’s going to be critical to find out.

What the industry has focused on doing over the years is using advanced technologies and multiple safety systems in order to prevent accidents. So, it’s a constant process of using the latest information and the latest technology, to incorporate that into developing technologies that can deliver the oil that we’re consuming in our economy today. And that’s the way the industry has approached the problem.

It was not an encouraging interview (but worth reading the entire transcript.) Banaszak mentioned that 63% of our energy comes from oil and gas, and repeatedly said that dependence will continue for at least the next 20 or 30 years. Davies mentioned, at one point, that if a similar catastrophe were to happen off the Virginia coast, where this writer grew up sailing on a pristine Chesapeake Bay and where offshore drilling could soon begin, damage would hit beaches as far north as New Jersey and beyond.

So far, one glimmer of good news for the west coast: Governor Schwarzenegger is thinking that perhaps opening up the California coast to drilling might not be such a grand idea after all.

Dr Oz worries about cell phones too

More on cell phones and brain tumors: a reader yesterday sent along a link to an earlier commentary by Mehmet Oz, the cardiac surgeon/author/media guru who has also weighed in with advice that links between cell phone use and cancer are indicated.

We rely on them to connect us to the people we love, to help us stay organized, and, in an emergency, to keep us safe. But more and more experts are saying that cell phones may pose a very serious health risk – increasing your chance of developing a brain tumor.

That means that over 270 million Americans may be playing Russian roulette with their cell phones every day. Each year, more than 21,000 adults and 1,500 children are diagnosed with brain tumors, and researchers believe some of them may have been caused by talking on a mobile phone.

A new study examined a decade’s worth of research and concluded that people who use cell phones for more than 10 years are up to 30% more likely to develop brain tumors than people who rarely use them.

Nothing has shown proof — yet — that if you use a cell phone often enough, long enough, you’re going to get brain cancer. Dr. Oz lists ways to improve your chances — keep your phone in your pocket, use it on speaker (and Lord help us all when everyone’s not just on cell but on speaker…), use wired rather than wireless when possible. And however much some of us vow we’ll resist texting to the bitter end, atrophied thumbs might still be preferable to brain cancer.

Still, the cell phone industry is not going to issue credible warnings. The FCC should do so.

Is your cell phone frying your brain?

OK, if you think it’s all just a lot of hysterical hooey about cell phones & radiation, you can click on to another page. But this op ed piece by public health expert Joel Moskowitz (with Diana McDonnell and Gene Kazinets) in the San Francisco Chronicle got my attention. Moskowitz is the Director of U.C. Berkeley’s Center for Family and Community Health.

A huge, 30-year study called COSMOS has been launched in Europe to determine whether cell phones cause cancer and other health problems. Meanwhile, policymakers in Sacramento are considering legislation to ensure people know how much radiation their cell phones emit. The wireless industry vigorously opposes such legislation. It argues that its phones comply with regulations, and there is no consensus about risks so people don’t need to know this. Our research review published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found alarming results to the contrary.

We reviewed 23 case-control studies that examined tumor risk due to cell phone use. Although as a whole the data varied, among the 10 higher quality studies, we found a harmful association between phone use and tumor risk. The lower quality studies, which failed to meet scientific best practices, were primarily industry funded.

The 13 studies that investigated cell phone use for 10 or more years found a significant harmful association with tumor risk, especially for brain tumors, giving us ample reason for concern about long-term use.

Do federal regulations adequately protect the public? The 1996 Federal Communications Commission regulations are based upon the Specific Absorption Rate (SAR), a measure of heat generated by six minutes of cell phone exposure in an artificial model that represents a 200-pound man’s brain. Although every cell phone model has a SAR, the industry doesn’t make it easy to find it. Moreover, children, and adults who weigh less than 200 pounds, are exposed to more radiation than our government deems “safe.”

So just for fun, I got out the 107-page User Guide that came with my cell phone. Full disclosure: my cell phone is turned off unless I’m out walking or traveling; it takes pictures but it doesn’t do apps. Still, those 107 pages say it can do all the fancy Stuff.

On page 81 I found the SAR data. Even if I wanted to decipher the very small print, there is no way any of it would be meaningful to a lay reader. It does say that “Your wireless phone is a radio transmitter and receiver. It is designed and manufactured not to exceed limits for exposure to radio frequency (RF) energy set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) of the U.S. Government.”

I do try to trust the U.S. Government. But since they once sent my then-Marine husband double-timing out of a foxhole toward an A-bomb blast with a radiation tag hung around his neck in the ’50s, it would appear we have long been open to experimentation about radiation damage. (He survived. The animals positioned closer to the blast site did not. No one will ever be certain how much damage was sustained by those Marines wearing radiation tags… but then, who knew we’d keep right on storing bombs and fighting senseless wars anyway?)

Another what-can-you-believe? comes from CNN’s medical guru Sanjay Gupta in this line from a two-year-old commentary on potential cell phone radiation damage still up on his blog:

Over the last year, I have reviewed nearly a hundred studies on this topic, including the 19 large epidemiological studies. I urge you to do the same and read carefully to see what you think. Here is an example from a Swedish paper showing no increased risk of a brain tumor, known as acoustic neuroma. (see study) As you read the paper, you will find they defined a “regular” cell phone user as someone who uses a cell phone once per week during six months or more.

Once a week? Hello? Even in Sweden, even a decade ago, did anyone with a cell phone not use it at least once an hour? This very old study did have a timeless conclusion: “Our findings do not indicate an increased risk of acoustic neuroma related to short-term mobile phone use after a short latency period. However, our data suggest an increased risk of acoustic neuroma associated with mobile phone use of at least 10 years’ duration.”

Moskowitz argues that it’s time to revamp FCC regulations, pointing out that it is not just heat transfer but also variations in frequencies emitted that could cause damage.

Most of us know something about potential damage lurking in our Stuff. But we tend to be slow learners, and our regulatory agencies tend to be even slower. Having just lost a greatly loved sister, a long-time smoker, to pulmonary failure, Moskowitz’ concluding paragraphs hit home:

We should address this issue proactively even if we do not fully understand its magnitude. Our government has faced similar public health threats in the past. In 1965, although there was no scientific consensus about the harmful effects of cigarettes, Congress required a precautionary warning label on cigarette packages: “Cigarette Smoking May Be Hazardous to Your Health.” More specific warnings were not required until 1984: “Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema, And May Complicate Pregnancy.”

Should we have waited 19 years until absolutely certain before we informed the public about these risks?

Although more research on cell phone radiation is needed, we cannot afford to wait. There are 285 million cell phones in use in this country, and two-thirds of children over the age of seven use them. Manufacturers bury the SAR within their owner’s manuals, along with safety instructions to keep your phone up to an inch away from your body.

Nine nations have issued precautionary warnings. It is time for our government to require health warnings and publicize simple steps to reduce the health risks of cell phone use.

Why not?

Government must inform us of cell phone risk.

Barbara Ehrenreich speaks out on social, economic inequality — and how to make things better

Author/activist Barbara Ehrenreich addressed an enthusiastic audience in San Francisco Monday night, supporters of the Washington D.C.-based progressive think tank Institute for Policy Studies, on whose board Ehrenreich serves. Also on hand for brief remarks and conversation were IPS Director John Cavanagh, IPS fellow and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Saul Landau and 2010 IPS fellow Tope Folarin.

The event was billed as an overview of such critical current issues as ending the Afghan war, creating a fair tax system, fixing the country’s tattered social safety net, shutting down Wall Street speculation and seeking local and global climate justice. And if that seems a tall order, the mood was decidedly more upbeat than overwhelmed.

Ehrenreich, whose 2001 best-seller Nickel and Dimed exposed the social and economic injustices assailing the working poor, says her current, ongoing focus is on the failure of our social safety net. “It’s not working,” she says, “but it can be fixed.”

To that end, the speakers distributed copies of a recently released IPS study (in cooperation with the Center for Community Change, Legal Momentum and Jobs with Justice.) Titled Battered by the Storm: How the Safety Net is Failing Americans and How to Fix it, the study lists five key findings:

  • Levels of long-term unemployment, underemployment and discouraged workers are reaching historic levels;
  • The percentage of poor children receiving temporary assistance under TANF (the main federal “welfare” program) has fallen from 62% in 1995 to 22% in 2008;
  • TANF benefits are far from sufficient to support the families that depend on them: 2008 assistance payments averaged only 29% of the money needed to bring families up to the official poverty line;
  • Even while labor force participation of mothers has increased, the supply of affordable child care has lagged behind, creating a significant barrier to employment for many, especially single mothers; and
  • Roughly 57% of unemployed people are receiving unemployment compensation; for those receiving benefits, amounts are less than half of wages, and many are losing work-related health benefits.

Saying the safety net has eroded over the last three decades, the report offers an “Emergency Relief Package” totaling just over $400 billion and including jobs program, state and local fiscal relief, insurance and food stamps measures designed to aid middle and low income Americans. These groups, IPS leaders contend, have seen their income decline as the rich get richer. The study also suggests a number of ‘no new money’ measures such as foreclosure relief. Financing could be accomplished, the study says, through tax changes affecting higher income levels, a tax on financial transactions over $100 billion and an end to overseas tax havens.

Her concern with the squeezing of middle and lower income Americans, Ehrenreich says, has grown as their plight has worsened in recent years. “This recession has not narrowed the gap of inequality,” she says, “it has widened the gap.”

Are mines as risky as potato salad?

Coal mines and potato salad? Not exactly equivalent danger. In my house, where the husband involved is first generation of his family not to have been in the mines (Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and before that, Cornwall) we keep an eye on these things. The latest disaster brought to light (thanks, New York Times) an interesting reference that offers insight into the viewpoints of mine owners and managers who profess having safety a #1 priority.

The article references an Indiana Gazette‘s overview of the 35-year-old Mine Safety and Health Administration, which includes these paragraphs:

In 2007, the year after a series of fatal accidents that were attributed in part to the failures of seals designed to keep explosive methane gas from seeping between work areas in the mines, federal officials considered imposing a rule requiring mine owners to replace or retrofit all seals, to better protect the estimated 30,000 miners nationwide.

But at a hearing that year, Bill K. Caylor, then president of the Kentucky Coal Association, accused the government of reacting hysterically to the accidents.

“Did you know that 750 people die each year in the U.S. from eating bad or ruined potato salad?” he told federal regulators. “Do you think we could get some new laws put on the books to control these deaths?”

He urged regulators to ignore pleas from the widows of victims who were pressing them to mandate that new seals be installed in mines nationwide.

“The cost of installing the new approved seals will put a lot of smaller operators out of business,” he told regulators, urging them to require that the new seals only needed to be used when old ones were replaced.

When the final rule came out in 2008, the regulators sided with Caylor.

Not to paint all miners and the UMW as saints, or all mine owners and operators as hopeless bad guys, but that old Follow The Money adage seems to fit here. It often fits in climate change discussions whenever mountains and mining intersect, and it surely pops up a lot in safety stories. Yesterday’s Times article ends with these paragraphs:

Last Monday morning, a federal inspector visited the Upper Big Branch mine. He looked over its books, “discussed black lung and handed out stickers,” according to handwritten notes.

He made an “imminent danger” run in the mine, checked for dust collection and inspected the toilet, the notes say. He checked the conveyer belt and the roof, and took air readings in two locations that showed no methane.

The inspector then issued two citations, for an improperly insulated spliced electrical cable and for the lack of an updated map of escape routes in one section of the mine. Then he left.

That afternoon, the mine blew up.

Will fatherhood change Rev. Billy?

It’s true. The 50-something Reverend is a new father. Rev. Billy and his gorgeous wife  Savitri, today welcomed Lena Nightstar Talen into the world. If you Facebook friend him you can see her photos.

You may not have encountered Rev. Billy. He is, however, worth encountering. Minister of the Church of Stop Shopping, occasionally the Church of Stop the Bombing or most recently the Church of Life After Shopping, Reverend Billy got out of jail in time for his daughter’s arrival. He was incarcerated (something that happens with some regularity) for creating a mountain of toxic waste from Appalachia and dumping it in the NY lobby of JP Morgan Chase in protest against their financing of mountaintop mining.

Rev. Billy, a performance artist AKA Bill Talen, puts his energies where his beliefs are in ways most of us couldn’t imagine — and certainly couldn’t pull off. He ran unsuccessfully but with gusto for Mayor of New York in the last election. Long before the gun folks targeted Starbucks the Rev was targeting them for driving out the mom and pop stores. (That particular campaign, which included preaching a one-minute anti-Starbucks sermon in every Starbucks in Manhattan, got Starbucks’ attention, prompted a memo to their outlets and resulted in a book titled after that memo, What Should I Do If Reverend Billy Is In My Store.)

The Rev supports equality, gay rights and everyday folks; he laments consumerism, corporate culture, destruction of the environment and other popular evils. His laments, though, are considerably more activist than most. This is partly because he’s gifted and funny, and mostly because he truly believes that one should stand up for principles that matter. Check him out. You may not agree with his passions or his methods, but you won’t be bored.

About those passions, what Rev. Billy wants most is a better world for newcomers like Lena Nightstar. He’s entertaining, but he’s dead serious.

So no, I doubt that fatherhood will slow him down. Congratulations, Savitri & Bill.

Goldsworthy sculpture sends spirits soaring

Just when you think there is no good news, anywhere, any more, comes wordSpire sculpture this morning that Andy Goldworthy is considering a new sculpture in the Presidio National Park. His last work, Spire (left), created a monument to nature out of the trunks of 37 cypress trees. Like most of Goldsworthy’s works, Spire evokes a sense of reverence and peace. And, also like many others, it will eventually disappear as surrounding trees grow up to and past their silent neighbor.

The serenely beautiful film Rivers and Tides introduced many Americans to the creative Scottish sculptor a few years ago. My 40-something children loved it. Their teenage children loved it. Preschoolers love it. What’s not to love about Rivers and Tides? Goldsworthy art has a way of inching into your soul and making thinks okay. The new piece in the Presidio — that gorgeous chunk of land you and I now own — would be a band of eucalyptus branches snaking along 350 feet of Lover’s Lane, in the southeast corner of the 1,491-acre park. It may not leave the ground, but it still promises to soar.

Goldsworthy’s best known works in the San Francisco Bay area include his Stone River at Stanford, and Faultline at the de Young Museum

You’ve not met Andy Goldsworthy? Treat yourself. It’ll make your day.

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