NAFTA on Steroids: Free trade fever crosses the Atlantic

cooperating-governements_usa_regulating_flagsThree top news items emerged from the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland last week …

  • No one is going to do anything serious about Syria anytime soon
  • Vladimir Putin does not play well with others
  • The US and EU will soon begin working on what could be the largest free trade pact in history.

It’s this last item that should most grab your attention.

I know; international trade talks are mind-numbingly dull – I defy you to read this text of the EU draft mandate approved for the upcoming negotiations without doing a Ferris Bueller (“Anyone? … Anyone? …”). But it’s a safe bet that if such a far-reaching deal is achieved between Europe and the US, we’ll be living with the impacts long after Putin and Barack Obama have each gotten over their agonizingly awkward G-8 press conference.

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The Death of Cars: The private automobile is running out of gas

Junk cars in a scrapyard in Norderstedt near Hamburg, Germany. (Fabian Bimmer/Associated Press)

Junk cars in a scrapyard in Norderstedt near Hamburg, Germany. (Fabian Bimmer/Associated Press)

Cars suck.

Over the past century, automobiles established themselves as the default mode of transportation across the industrialized world and became the gotta-have item that proves developing countries have arrived. Cars have bent to their needs everything from patterns of land use to foreign policy, triggering vast cultural changes across societies as they created a voracious demand for natural resources and widely polluted the air, water and land. And while some of the effects have been positive, it’s not a stretch to call automobiles the most widely-destructive technology unleashed by the industrial era.

So it’s encouraging to see emerging signs that the Age of Cars may finally be grinding to an end …

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Amsterdam on the Willamette: I got yer bike infrastructure right here …

A traffic light on a bike path in Brussels is an example of European investment in bicycles as transportation

A traffic light on a bike path in Brussels is an example of European investment in bicycles as transportation

I recently spent a couple of days in Portland, Oregon, a city I’ve known peripherally for years as a Seattle resident. I’ve always sort of seen Portland as Seattle’s younger, slightly hipper brother to the south, with better beer but sadly lacking in salt water. But having spent a gloriously sunny summer-like morning tooling around the City of Roses on a borrowed single-speed, I’m here to tell you that, when it comes to bike transportation, Portland unequivocally kicks Seattle’s ass.

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To Bee or not to Bee: Europe does the right thing on pesticides

bee in flightBees are in big trouble. For nearly a decade, bees in the US, Europe and elsewhere have been dying off at an alarming rate.

If you like eating, this is a big deal. That’s because bees and other insects are responsible for pollinating most of our food, from nuts to tree fruit to beans to squash and a whole lot more. In fact, 84% of the crop species grown in Europe rely on insect pollinators, with a similar percentage in the US. Globally, 87 of the 124 crops used directly for human consumption are dependent on bees and their other winged buddies.

This week, the European Commission voted to enact a two-year moratorium on the world’s most widely-used class of pesticides after a growing body of scientific evidence pointed toward their complicity in widespread bee die-offs. And while this will buy bees some much-needed breathing room in Europe, American bees are unlikely to get similar help any time soon.

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Michele and Me

For a brief, shining moment this week, the deeply-batty Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann and I had something in common: we’re both dual US/European citizens.

Or we were, because in less time than it takes to don a tricorn hat, the Honorable Member was savaged by the right-wing blogosphere and quickly told the Swiss they could take their citizenship back again.

But even though the Tea Party favorite got whiplash from her abrupt 180 (and may well have set some sort of record for “Shortest Time to Hold a National Citizenship”), I still like to think that she and I both learned valuable lessons from the experience …

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Drone Wars: Europe’s Uncomfortable Silence

It’s been five days since news broke that a 29-year-old German-born jihadi was among those killed last month by a drone strike in Pakistan’s South Waziristan province.

On Monday, the German news magazine Der Spiegel suggested that the death of a German national at the hands of the controversial American military program “has the potential to reignite the debate over the legitimacy of air strikes by unmanned drones and may increase diplomatic tensions with the US.”

But so far, the reaction in Berlin – and in Europe in general – has been … {crickets} …

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Ya gotta love the Dutch!

I saw this on the Bike Portland blog and it put a huge smile on my face  …

No, it’s not a massive teacup. It’s a Dutchtub; a portable hot tub that you can trailer behind your bike and take pretty much anywhere you can get to water. According to Clever Cycles, a Portland bike shop that’s importing them …

These are portable wood-fired spas with seating for four. Why? Because they can be towed by bike! We think water, fire and bikes are already key parts of living well in Portland; we love how the Dutchtub ties together all three in a virtuous spiral, “sober and decadent at the same time.” As its creators say “it’s a way of engaging in your environment (wherever you are) and upgrading your possibilities within public or private space.” Sounds like a bike!

The Dutchtub site says this luxury on wheels weighs only 75kg/160 lbs. (empty, of course) and comes in an array of colors, including “Pigeon Blue” and “Ocean Green.”

You bike it to your remote location, fill it with water, start a fire in the heating coils and let ‘er rip! There’s even a wok that fits over the fire so you can whip up a seafood stir-fry while you’re waiting for the water to warm up.

It ain’t cheap. The four-person model pictured above retails for €4,950 (about $6,550), but … damn!

The water in the North Sea off the Netherlands is every bit as frigid as the North Pacific, so I’m not surprised this elegant device is a Dutch innovation. Talk about your connections between Europe and the Pacific Northwest!

In fact, this looks like it could well be somewhere along the Washington/Oregon/Northern California coast …

Aaaahhhh ……

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How to Piss Off the Canadians

America’s neighbors to the north are famously nice. Canada is well-known as a society of civil, polite and well-mannered folks who have universal health care and whose military is better known as peace-keepers than war-makers. It takes some doing to make Canadians mad.

Nonetheless, the European Commission managed to do it this week, when it decided to slap a scarlet letter on the petroleum derived from Alberta’s tar sands.

                (continue reading)

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Move Along, Nothing To See Here

French authorities are going to great lengths to play down any concerns about Sunday’s fatal accident at the Marcoule nuclear complex in southeast France.

It was an industrial accident, not a nuclear one,” was the line echoed by several officials, stressing that no release of radioactivity was detected off-site.

But given the notorious opacity of France’s nuclear/industrial establishment, skeptics are keeping a close eye whether the incident – in which one worker died and four others were seriously injured – is thoroughly investigated.

And while it may become something of an issue in the upcoming French presidential elections, as the Socialists try to move France’s energy policy more toward renewables, my guess is that this incident is unlikely to produce a sustained anti-nuke backlash in this country which gets nearly 80 percent of its power from splitting atoms … though it probably should.

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Inside East Berlin’s Secret Stasi Prison

A bloc of isolation cells in Hohenschoenhausen Prison in Berlin. The former interrogation and torture site for the East German secret police is now a museum. (photo by Erik Olsen,

Fifty years ago this week, residents of an already-divided Berlin woke up to find East German soldiers ripping up streets and stringing a barbed-wire barrier through their city. Within days, a 96-mile-long fence surrounded West Berlin, cutting it off it not only from the eastern part of the city, but from the rest of East Germany, as well. Over the coming months and years, it was hardened into the concrete structure known around the world as the Berlin Wall.

East German officials – in a phrase sure to earn an honored place in the George Orwell Hall of Fame – called the barrier the Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart; they said its purpose was to protect the people of East Germany from resurgent Nazi forces and rapacious capitalists in the west. But everyone knew the real purpose of the Wall: to cut off the flood of East Germans who had been defecting from their Worker’s Paradise.

I recently took a tour of the place in East Berlin where the secret security police – the Stasi – took people who failed to appreciate how wonderful life was in the German Democratic Republic. My tour guide? Vera Lengsfeld, a German politician, author … and a former guest of the facility.

As we observe half a century since the Wall went up, let’s take a look inside at how one government waged a war of psychological terror on its own citizens …

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