Thursday, September 29, 2016

Peace in Columbia At Last - A Good Omen for the New Year

Ever since reading Even Silence Has An End, My Six Years of Captivity in the Columbian Jungle by Ingrid Betancourt, I have followed news of the talks between the Columbian government and the FARC, the leftwing guerilla group that has been terrorizing the people of Columbia for 52 years. I am not well versed enough in this conflict to have an opinion about whether or not the FARC’s demands had any justification. Whether they did or not, they held many Columbians terrorized and were responsible for the deaths of many. Their tactics were ruthless.

In her book, Ingrid Betancourt chronicles her experiences being kidnapped and held captive by the FARC in the jungles of Columbia from 2002 to 2008. It is amazing how far the depths are of people's cruelty to one another. In Ingrid Betancourt’s experience with the FARC, the depths of inhumanity seemed to have no bottom.  I felt as though I was plodding through the jungle with her as I read her book. Several times Ms. Betancourt spent months planning an escape in intricate detail. Each time that she tried to carry out her plans she was recaptured and brought back to the camp where she was being held hostage. She maintained her sanity by praying, reading, exercising, and forging friendships with the other hostages whom the FARC was holding in captivity.

Ingrid Betancourt had a relatively high position in the Columbian government and she was fortunate in another respect. She had dual French/Columbian citizenship and the French government advocated for her release. The Columbian government did as well and finally rescued her and several other hostages in a raid on the FARC.

Now that the Columbian government and the FARC have signed a peace treaty after all these 52 years, I wonder what Ms. Betancourt will say about it. For me, it is a sign of hope. If after 52 years at war they can finally sign a peace treaty, there must be hope for the rest of the world. As Jews including myself prepare to usher in a New Year on our calendar, I take this event as an omen. I hope that in the year ahead the Israelis and Palestinians will return to the negotiating table and that other such conflicts will also find an end.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Saving the Planet Scandinavian Style

From the moment we were hurtled into downtown from the Stockholm airport on their high speed train, it was clear to us that Scandinavia would be a place that was innovating ways to save the planet.

At the Stockholm airport, we took an elevator one floor down to get on a high-speed train that took us into downtown at 135 miles per hour. The thirty-mile ride took nineteen minutes and brought us to the Central Train Station a ten -minute walk from our hotel.

In the high-speed train station
The HTL Hotel was another example of high tech design. It’s no wonder that IKEA started in Sweden. I was so impressed with the design that I took a picture of our hotel room - something I’ve never done before. The room was small and had no closets or dressers. Two ample draws were built in under the bed. Several hooks were placed on each wall for hanging clothes. Although it looked small, there was enough needed space especially for a few day stay.

In the HTL Hotel
On the Under the Canals boat-tour, we rode past a “passive” apartment building. The narrator explained that it was termed “passive” because its net energy use was zero. Each apartment in the building has a pipe for depositing waste that is funneled into a nearby recycling station that transforms the waste into biofuel. Another pipe into the apartments brings the apartments biofuel that is then used for heat and electricity. In a recent survey, 77% of Swedes said that they’d be willing to pay higher rents to live in a passive apartment.

A "Passive" Apartment Building
Throughout Scandinavia we saw buses running on solar energy and other renewable fuels.

Especially in Copenhagen – but throughout Scandinavia – we were amazed by the amount of people riding bikes instead of cars. In Copenhagen, bicyclists definitely have the right of way and wide, safe bike lanes. Without a doubt bicyclists have the critical mass and have changed the way in which people move from place to place. Instead of huge parking lots for cars, one sees huge bicycle parking lots. For those who don’t bike, of course, they had plenty of public transportation. As a result, there are many fewer cars on the road than one would see in an American city.

Copenhagen Parking Lot
The Scandinavians are definitely leading the way in terms of ecology. Hopefully, the rest of the world will follow them in this regard. On a positive note, enough countries have signed the Paris Accord on global warming to make it a binding treaty by the end of 2016. People in all countries will have to look for ways to save energy. They can look to the Scandinavians for some innovative ways to do it.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

What Are Those Norwegians So Happy About?

Before traveling to Scandinavia, I wondered how the Danes and Norwegians always appeared in worldwide polls as the happiest people in the world with the greatest overall sense of well -being. They live in a place with long, cold, dark winters even worse than Chicago’s. On our trip, I found out.

Yes, they have beautiful places where they can enjoy the outdoors. The fiords and mountains were spectacular to see. We heard from our guide that most Norwegians live for their opportunities to be outdoors skiing and otherwise enjoying their beautiful mountains.

There has to be more to their secret of national happiness than the beautiful scenery and there is. Norway has an extremely admirable social safety network. National healthcare is virtually free to all Norwegians. The government pays for daycare and most Norwegian women work outside the home. They get a 47- week paid parental leave. What can you say to that besides “Wow!”?

All laws are gender-neutral and in many families, the father is the one to stay home. After the leave, the parent has the option of working part-time.  Those women who don’t work are looked down upon by most of Norwegian society. The unions set the wage scales and the least anyone makes is $20 per hour. Of course, school through University is free.

Any Norwegian who has worked 40 years gets a pension worth about two thirds of his (her) salary starting at age 62. Anyone who has worked less than that can work until age 67 and get part of that amount. If someone needs to go to assisted living when he (she) is elderly, he (she) pays 80% of his (her) pension check and their government pays the rest.

Norwegians are taxed heavily to pay for this generous social safety net. As a result, no one there is extremely wealthy. People there pride themselves on having a more equal society. If you want to become uber-rich, don’t go there. In Oslo, I was impressed when we were told to visit their most prominent, wealthy hotel. It was very nice, but I was impressed by how unimpressive it was. The Palmer House in Chicago is much ritzier. If you want to live in a society where everyone has at least the basics and nobody is homeless, Norway is the place to go. Most Norwegians will accept you as long as you work, learn to speak Norwegian, and try to fit into the norms of their society.

Of course, a social safety doesn’t prevent all problems. People can still become physically or mentally ill or develop addictions. They can still have family problems, disabilities, or other emotional difficulties. Nevertheless, I think how much easier it would have been for my former clients’ issues to be resolved had their lives been stabilized by such a safety net. We can certainly learn from the Scandinavians in this respect. In a way, it’s what my book Breaking the Fall is all about. 

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Stockholm, Sweden - A City Lacking Some Major Earmarks of Urban Life

Stockholm is beautiful, built on an archipelago of 14 islands. The best way to gain a perspective of it is to take a boat tour around it. We did on our last day there. Not having enough time for that the first day, we took a walk around Normann, the area that included the main business district and downtown of Stockholm. I was immediately impressed by how different it looked from anywhere else I’d been. Its architecture, a mixture of Swedish functionalism and buildings built a thousand years ago, somehow all fit together in a beautiful stately whole.

panoramic view of Sweden

The first thing I noticed missing were the panhandlers. All right, during our four days there, we saw a few –maybe five. In most American downtowns, one would see a lot more. Later on our trip we learned that in Scandinavia, people use credit cards for everything and carry no cash. All of their credit cards have chips and are impossible to use by someone who has stolen one. Since potential panhandlers know this, they don’t bother to panhandle. Thus, the government is left to help people in need instead of relying on the generosity of individuals.

The next absence we noticed was the homeless. We learned at the Nordica Museum and on the Under the Bridges boat tour that in the 1920’s and again in 1960, the Swedish government undertook a massive program of building affordable and low-cost housing for its citizens. In 1920, it was done to stem the emigration to America caused by poverty. In the 1960’s, a million housing units for upper income, middle income, and low- income people were built. For a country with a population of about 10 million, this is really remarkable. Most of the housing built were apartments. We didn’t see any large single- family homes but we didn’t see homelessness either. On the boat ride, we saw some government housing. It didn’t look beautiful but it was better than seeing people walking around downtown pushing shopping carts with all their earthly possessions in them because they have nowhere to live.

public housing in Stockholm
One of our first stops was to the Stockholm City Hall where we took a tour. The tours are given in English every half hour. We were taken through the banquet hall where the banquet for the Nobel Prize winners takes place. The building itself and the artwork in were definitely worth a visit. Upstairs, we saw the rooms where the Stockholm City Council has its meetings. One fact I found very intriguing is that the City Council members are part-time workers with other jobs who are paid only for the meetings that they actually attend. I am still working on a proposal to adapt this concept to the Illinois Legislature. It sounds like a great idea to me.

Stockholm City Hall

In the Banquet Hall

In the Stockholm City Hall
We saw a lot more in Stockholm in the following days. I felt that I had seen the future both in how to design a government that works for all its citizens as well as in some very innovative technology that goes a long way toward preserving the environment and slashing the carbon footprint. All in all, Stockholm is a unique, forward looking city.