Monday, May 18, 2015

train of thought

This morning, the unionized drivers of Germany's national railway announced they'd go on strike for what's the ninth time in the past six months.  The strikes are quickly becoming routine for everyone not reliant on the railway, but next weekend's action kicks things up a notch:  The strike will be open-ended.  It will also be – and here's some continuity – about nothing at all.  When the train drivers announced their most recent strike this morning, what they didn't announce was what they're striking for.

It is quite clearly not about money.  This would be easy to understand and easier to communicate.  I'm sure it would also be easy to negotiate, and strike would be nothing more than a distant memory at this point. But it's not as easy as that.  The strike isn't about anything obvious; the reasons are never mentioned when the strike is discussed.

In the depth of the dark web I read something about two competing unions that represent railway workers.  One unites the drivers, the other's open to all.  As far as I understand it, the train drivers union fights for the right to represent all railway workers, whether they want it or not – a dog fight on the back of passengers.  If that's true, I'd like to punch every union official in the face, and every striking train driver as well because that's not only abusive but also deluded on so many levels that it's hard to decide where to start.

Maybe like this: If it's about fair representation of all railway workers, would a merger of the two unions not be the most powerful step?  If this has been tried and failed, the strike would be about procedural incompetence, and it should more appropriately be directed against the train drivers union itself.  The head of the union should step down for ineptitude and negligence.

But maybe the merger has been tried and failed not because of ineptitude but because the other union didn't want it.  Their voice is not heard in any of the discussions, though it should be them who decide whether they want to be represented by another group.  Otherwise it'd just be like some distant relative waltzing into your life, claiming a right to represent you as if you were a juvenile delinquent in need of guidance – and disrupting everyone else's life in the process.

Here's a geopolitical metaphor for the same situation:  Imagine you're a hapless and harmless country, known mostly for tractors, oligarchs and corruption.  Your biggest neighbor and historic rival decides it's for your best if it henceforth represented you on the global political stage.  You have a differing opinion, but your neighbor has bigger tanks.  And anyway, no one's asking you.

Even I wouldn't ask, were it not for the disproportionate misery these strikes cause.  Where there's no message, there's all the more need, it seems, to bring it across forcefully.  I'm baffled this is legal at all.  If the janitorial staff at Frankfurt airport were to go on strike, not for a well-deserved pay increase but to bolster their claim to represent, from now on, all the newsagents and bakery outlet workers at the airport, people might shake their heads.  If they, to underscore their seriousness, sat down on the tarmac and blocked all flight traffic, they'd be taken away quickly.  Why is no one taking away the leadership of the train drivers union?

For reasons that are not altogether pleasant and certainly outside my control, I have to go to Dresden this weekend.  By some quirk of scheduling, both possible Swiss flights are already fully booked.  There aren't even any seats left in business class.  The overnight train is nearly fully booked, too.  No beds or cots remain.  This morning, hours before the announcement of the latest strike, I purchased one of the last sleeper-seats.  I am not exactly looking forward to the journey, but I'm even less looking forward to having my plans foiled by some idiotic power game between imbeciles.

Thursday, May 14, 2015


It was oddly fitting that the New Yorker I bought on my most recent transatlantic journey carried a story on the Californian drought.  I was on my way to San Francisco and looking for some context.  Work trips of a few days only don't usually offer much in that regard, but the New Yorker delivered.

California has been in a drought the last four years.  Growing cities battle with profligate agriculture for decreasing resources.  There's little snow in the Sierras and it doesn't rain.  Water tables sink, wetlands run dry, rivers silt up.  Coastal cities and farming communities alike fear for the future, but vested interests and hard lobbying on both sides make finding a solution difficult.

Introducing hot air into a situation where cold rain is needed, SFO has put huge posters into their restrooms alerting passengers that "California is in a drought.  SFO's faucets save 30% more water".  No point of reference is given.  Thirty per cent more than what?  Might the faucets just save 30% water, and marketing thought the message would be more convincing with excess verbosity?

In any case, the entire airport managed to save 14% of water over the past seven years, as another huge poster claimed without any embarrassment or contrition.  The marketing department was probably relieved to have found anything positive at all, but 14% isn't a whole lot if a near-total lack of rain is the situation.  Fourteen percent over seven years is less than a percent and a half each year.

Where is water wasted?  In California, that's a question that's easy to answer but whose answers are hard.  Average water consumption in the state has decreased by 50% recently, which shows that the problem is being taken seriously and that great efforts are being made.  On the other hand, average water consumption is still twice as high as in central Europe.

The easiest place for cuts is also the hardest.  The most lavish waster of water is agriculture.  Despite employing only 3% of Californian workers and contributing a mere 2% of the state's economic output, agriculture uses 80% of its water.  For historic reasons, water is not a commodity but a right, unmetered.  Driving along Highway 1 north from Halfmoon Bay, I saw fields being irrigated in the heat of the afternoon.  I'd be surprised if more than half of the sprayed water escaped evaporation and hit the ground to nourish the plants.  But where no one is counting and no one is charged, waste is a rampant.  Similarly, the San Joaquin valley is still happily growing grass for export to China.  Grass!  In a drought!

Grass has largely disappeared from the campus of Stanford University where I went for a run one morning before giving a talk at a workshop.  It still gave the impression of being green, but underneath the shrubbery, there was nothing but dust.  It hadn't rained in a while, and the sprinklers weren't asked to compensate.  A friend I visited in San Francisco claimed with the black humor of the powerless that the drought had been good for the weather.  Since she had moved there two years earlier, it's been sunny most of the time and even the fog wasn't as bad as everyone had warned.

This last comment reminded me of London and the rain, whose connection has become much looser in the last decade or two.  Some blame this on global climate change.  Maybe that's at fault in California as well.  One alternative explanation, a few years of extreme weather, is much easier to contemplate, but it could also be another, a reversion to the mean, the end of a century or so of exceptionally wet weather, as some studies suggest.  T.C. Boyle's novel A Friend of the Earth, which I didn't much like five years ago, might yet turn out to be prescient.