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Best mayor ever – meeting Jón Gnarr

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In 2010, Jon Gnarr—an actor, comedian, and punk-inspired artist of sorts—was elected mayor of Iceland’s largest city on The Best Party ticket.

Jón’s political platform included promises of “free towels in all swimming pools, a polar bear for the Reykjavík zoo, all kinds of things for weaklings, Disneyland in the capital’s suburbia, a sustainable ‘drug-free’ Althing by 2020, transparent corruption, etc…” His gonzo approach to campaigning and governing made him world famous. He’s here to take your questions.
Gnarr, who took over Reykjavik shortly after the total collapse of Iceland’s banks, is a prominent supporter of gay rights, peace activist, and fan of The Wire. His new book Gnarr! tells the story of his unlikely rise to political office. Noam Chomsky declared Gnarr “my favorite mayor.” He has also won plaudits from Lady Gaga and Bjork. Here is a small portion of Gnarr’s 2014 New Year’s address:

Some people believe Jesus really existed. Others do not believe that. I think that maybe 70% of his story is exaggeration, misinterpretation or even pure fabrication.

Maybe Jesus was a Chinese Taoist that arrived to Galilee via the Silk Route? Maybe he was a slave. I do not believe that he performed any miracles. I think it’s likelier that he was gay. It maybe doesn’t make a big difference. His story is still important. It is about a nobody who starts speaking up in a society that’s controlled by bullies. And even though the bullies have, through the course of history, changed the story and falsified facts to make themselves look better, it still retains a core of truth. The story of Jesus is the story of the battle between good and evil. It is the same story as the one in Star Wars, Matrix or Lord of the Rings. Jesus is as much of a Luke Skywalker as he is a Neo or Frodo…
Just like the Terminator, Jesus promised, in the end, that he would be back. But unlike the Terminator, he hasn’t made good on his word. Not yet. Or has he? Maybe he’s back. Maybe he’s in isolation in a US prison, a repressed woman in Saudi Arabia or under house arrest in China. Or maybe he’s a persecuted homosexual in Russia.

Yesterday was Jon Gnarr’s last day as mayor of Reykjavik. Thursday night, he will appear at The Strand bookstore in Manhattan for a conversation and Q&A with yours truly (Hamilton). But today, in his first day as a non-mayor, he is here to answer questions from you, the Gawker readers of America, Iceland, and the rest of the world. Quite thoughtful of him.
Jon will begin answering questions at 2 p.m. Eastern time. Put your questions for him in the discussion section below!

No longer mayor of Reykjavik

mayor2n

Reykjavik mayor Jón Gnarr decked out as Obi-Wan Kenobi at a political event in Reykjavik, Iceland. Credit: Sigtryggur Johannsson/Reuters

“Welcome to the revolution!” he declared. Like much of what he says, it was tongue-in-cheek. Maybe.
Four years later, Gnarr has retired, having served a single term. He’s written a book and is trying to figure out what to do next.
Gnarr used to be a punk rocker — an anarchist too, and one of Iceland’s best-known comedians. His campaign for mayor was an extended piece of performance art that morphed into a real-life show, “right after I got elected,” he says.
He became mayor at a time of desperation for many of Reykjavik’s residents. The 2008 global meltdown had hit Iceland harder than just about anywhere else. Three major banks had collapsed, the government was bankrupt and overnight, people found themselves knee-deep in debt, their savings wiped out.

So they voted for a man who made ridiculous campaign promises that no-one expected him to keep: promises about additions to the city’s zoo and swimming pools, and most poignantly, a pledge to eliminate all debt.   
Gnarr’s political party — a new one — was made up mainly of artists and musicians: Besti flokkurinn means “Best Party.” Part of the name’s appeal was the pun in English (“I was at the best party last night”). The wordplay doesn’t work in Icelandic, but Gnarr says most people got the joke anyway.
Once elected, Gnarr immediately ran into problems. There were insults from real politicians, who told him he was “incapable of doing my job, I’m not qualified, and I’m a clown.”

They tried to show him up, Gnarr says, by using the densest possible bureaucratese.
“I mastered the Icelandic language very well; I’m very good at Icelandic,” he says. “But in Iceland, like in many other countries, the political culture has evolved into some sort of subculture with a different language. They have terms and words that ordinary people just don’t understand.”
Gnarr and his Best Party colleagues countered this way of talking by satirizing it — to the point of absurdity.
They came up with fake initiatives — outrageously condescending ones that were supposed to show how much they cared about certain groups, like the disabled and women.

“I openly said that we were willing to listen to women, and that we would even have meetings with women,” says Gnarr, fighting laughter. “We would record everything that they would have to say, so that future generations could listen to it.”
Gnarr knew he was treading a fine line, but most people seemed to get what he was up to.
“Sometimes I would sound ridiculous, but I’m harmless,” he says.
There are some of Reykjavik’s residents who wanted him to be a little less harmless, a little more Rage Against the Machine.
But that was never Gnarr’s revolution. Yes, he was tapping into the outrage at the political and business cabal that had ruled Iceland.  His response was to poke fun at it — to show it up as irresponsible — and leave Icelandic voters in a better position to make more informed choices next time.

And, funnily enough, this anarchist high-school dropout is now regarded as having brought much-needed stability to the mayor’s office.
He generally didn’t interfere with the day-to-day running of Reykjavik — he left that to city managers. Instead, he pushed hard on issues like gay rights and improving public spaces, while also overseeing painful budget cuts.
Most refreshing for many was his refusal to run for a second term.
Leaving politics has allowed Gnarr to write a book and visit the United States. His first time in the US was in 1989. People would ask where he was from. His reply didn’t help. “They didn’t have a clue — they didn’t know what Iceland was,” he says. “But nowadays when I’m somewhere and being asked where I’m from and I say Iceland, and people say ‘Ah! Björk.’”
Björk, perhaps inevitably, is a close friend of Gnarr’s. And as well-known as she is around the world, Gnarr is also also becoming a sort of global cultural ambassador for Iceland.

He jokes that the country should rename itself Björkland, in recognition of its artistic riches.
“Once I was in a radio debate with the former mayor, and she said that we were just a bunch of artists,” he says. “She spoke of artists like some sub-humans, like people who can’t pay their bills or organize their daily life or something. That made me very angry. And I said what is this country of ours famous for if not for art and artists? From the very beginnings with the Sagas, and now especially with music, Iceland is world-known for its music and its musicians.”
It’s not clear even to Gnarr what’s next for him. He says he’s still trying to make sense of his four years in power.
He’s none too happy with the results of Reykjavik’s recent elections. Young voters stayed away from the polls, his political allies didn’t do well, while a party that opposes the construction of what would be Reykjavik’s first mosque did do well.   
Gnarr’s only plans for now are, as you might expect, out of left field.
“I will definitely go to Texas,” he says. “But I’m not sure what I’m going to do there. I have noticed that many of my followers on Facebook are from Texas. So I’ll definitely have to go there and talk to the Texans.”
Sitting mayors in the Lone Star State facing re-election: you have been warned.

First published in PRI, Iceland

Post scriptum:
Do-it-yourself democracy: a manifesto by Jon Gnarr

1. Send in the clowns
“Without a robust sense of humour, I’d probably be in an asylum right now.  If you don’t have a sense of humour, you’ve got problems. It is as vital as emotional intelligence but it’s often derided. So, to be one step ahead, you’ll need humour.”
2. Participate
“You don’t need to be a politician to have the right to participate in political life. You don’t need special training or any special skills. We’ve neglected democracy, we haven’t been paying attention and we’ve let ourselves get taken for a ride.”
3. Have fun
“As soon as something is no longer fun, it’s worthless, pointless and sick. That’s what’s happened with politics. We’re so focused on success that we’ve forgotten how to enjoy things.  It’s high time we got involved because we want to have fun.”
4. Become an anarchist
“Anarchy and peace, that’s what  I long for. Anarchy is the only way to a classless society, a mutually supportive society that respects the freedom of the individual. But this must be peaceful: violence is the dark side of human coexistence.”
5. Think slowly
“To save democracy, politics must attract a wider range of people. We need scientists, punks, artists, ordinary people who think slowly rather than quickly; shy people, stutterers,  the overweight and the disabled. Above all, young people.”
6. Take responsibility
“It’s pretty simple – you need a little imagination and some courage, and the rest follows. What bugs you? What’s wrong? Found your own political party or join one you respect and lend a hand. But be prepared to invest a bit of time and make sacrifices.”
7. Keep it simple
“During the Reykjavik elections, the main parties took out glossy adverts in the main newspapers.  The slogans were devised by advertising agencies, the usual blah-blah-blah about home, garden, and family. Our advert appeared in the classified section of a greasy rag: ‘The Best Party is looking for men and women who want to change things.’ We were almost overwhelmed by the number of replies.”
8. Watch ‘The Wire’
“What else are you going to talk about with your coalition partners – socialism?”
9. Give peace a chance
“I’ve set myself the goal of making Reykjavik the ‘City of Peace’. It depends on every individual. You can’t be working for a peace camp in the Middle East during the day and then in the evening have an argument with your family over the phone.”
10. Make your city hip and cool!
“What is hip and cool? Roughly the opposite of stupid and narrow-minded.”

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Healthy planet needs ‘ocean action’ from Asian and Pacific countries

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As the Second Global Ocean Conference opens today in Lisbon, governments in Asia and the Pacific must seize the opportunity to enhance cooperation and solidarity to address a host of challenges that endanger what is a lifeline for millions of people in the region.

If done right ocean action will also be climate action but this will require working in concert on a few fronts.

First, we must invest in and support science and technology to produce key solutions. Strengthening science-policy interfaces to bridge practitioners and policymakers contributes to a sound understanding of ocean-climate synergies, thereby enabling better policy design, an important priority of the Indonesian Presidency of the G20 process. Additionally policy support tools can assist governments in identifying and prioritizing actions through policy and SDG tracking and scenarios development.

We must also make the invisible visible through ocean data: just three of ten targets for the goal on life below water are measurable in Asia and the Pacific. Better data is the foundation of better policies and collective action. The Global Ocean Accounts Partnership (GOAP) is an innovative multi-stakeholder collective established to enable countries and other stakeholders to go beyond GDP and to measure and manage progress towards ocean sustainable development.

Solutions for low-carbon maritime transport are also a key part of the transition to decarbonization by the middle of the century. Countries in Asia and the Pacific recognized this when adopting a new Regional Action Programme last December, putting more emphasis on such concrete steps as innovative shipping technologies, cooperation on green shipping corridors and more efficient use of existing port infrastructure and facilities to make this ambition a reality.

Finally, aligning finance with our ocean, climate and broader SDG aspirations provides a crucial foundation for all of our action. Blue bonds are an attractive instrument both for governments interested in raising funds for ocean conservation and for investors interested in contributing to sustainable development in addition to obtaining a return for their investment.

These actions and others are steps towards ensuring the viability of several of the region’s key ocean-based economic sectors, such as seaborne trade, tourism and fisheries. An estimated 50 to 80 per cent of all life on Earth is found under the ocean surface. Seven of every 10 fish caught around the globe comes from Pacific waters. And we know that the oceans and coasts are also vital allies in the fight against climate change, with coastal systems such as mangroves, salt marshes and seagrass meadows at the frontline of climate change, absorbing carbon at rates of up to 50 times those of the same area of tropical forest.

But the health of the oceans in Asia and the Pacific is in serious decline: rampant pollution, destructive and illegal fishing practices, inadequate marine governance and continued urbanization along coastlines have destroyed 40 per cent of the coral reefs and approximately 60 per cent of the coastal mangroves, while fish stocks continue to decline and consumption patterns remain unsustainable.

These and other pressures exacerbate climate-induced ocean acidification and warming and weaken the capacity of oceans to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Global climate change is also contributing to sea-level rise, which affects coastal and island communities severely, resulting in greater disaster risk , internal displacement and international migration.

To promote concerted action, ESCAP, in collaboration with partner UN agencies, provides a regional platform in support of SDG14, aligned within the framework of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030). Through four editions so far of the Asia-Pacific Day for the Ocean, we also support countries in identifying and putting in place solutions and accelerated actions through regional dialogue and cooperation.

It is abundantly clear there can be no healthy planet without a healthy ocean. Our leaders meeting in Lisbon must step up efforts to protect the ocean and its precious resources and to build sustainable blue economies.

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The Human Price of Tea

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There is nothing quite like that first cup of tea (or coffee) in the morning.  The aroma swirls about in the nostrils and a sip of the hot brew, then another, quickly readies body and mind for the day that awaits. 

Whoever gives a thought to the long journey of the tea leaf from its birthplace to a kitchen in the West.  The tea bush is unusual in that it requires an abundance of water but not in its roots.  So it is grown on the windward side on foothills as in Darjeeling and Assam. 

The workers picking tea are mostly women because men prefer the harder work in the fields for it pays more.  The wages paid to the tea pickers can be illegally low, that is below the minimum wage requirements, and the workers dare not file any complaints because the wealthy landowners and tea merchants are too powerful. 

Since they are not earning a living wage, workers usually forage to supplement their diet relying on mushrooms and other edibles.  So it was (BBC report, May 20, 2022) that Anjali Kharia sat down with her daughter to a meal of mushrooms — a special treat thanks to her father-in-law Rajesh Kharia, who had found a good-sized lot in a nearby forest.  They were enough for his family plus friends and neighbors to share with, as is their custom.  

Unfortunately growing among their batch was a particularly tasty — and poisonous — variety indistinguishable from the rest.  And Anjali’s daughter Sushmita and others soon began to feel sick.  Many went to hospital including Anjali’s son and father-in-law.  Sushmita seemed to improve so everyone assumed she was over the worst. 

It was only a temporary respite for she soon started vomiting again, grew steadily worse and died.  They have been eating mushrooms for years; it is a treat and fairly regular part of their diet, and no one suspected the cause.  

Local officials say warnings are not heeded for they do not reach the illiterate workers.  In 2008, more than 20 people died from poisonous mushrooms, the highest numbers recorded.  Most were tea workers or their family members.  The government set up a panel to study the problem.  And there have been campaigns to teach people to distinguish the poisonous types. 

As long as Ms. Kharia is paid 130 rupees ($1.67) a day, far below the unenforced minimum wage, it is unlikely such problems will recede.  She has to feed a family of six.  There are public welfare schemes for the poor but Ms. Kharia says she has never received any free food grain rations.  Meanwhile, prices of vegetables and essential commodities continue to rise. 

It is not just tea.  From the 1906 Upton Sinclair book, “The Jungle,” an expose of the meatpacking industry to Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation” published just two decades ago, the problem may be revisited but U.S. meatpacking continues to remain a dangerous place to be.  A 2018 Guardian article’s headline “Two Amputations a Week” illustrates the point.

And tea pickers will have to forage as long as their government does not enforce minimum wage laws.  Fighting against entrenched economic interests is not just India’s problem. 

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The climate crisis is a health crisis

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With one in eight people worldwide threatened by a lethal heat wave in South Asia that’s already taken close to 100 lives, it’s time we recognize that the climate crisis is a health crisis.

This is not an isolated issue. In South Africa, recent floods took over 400 lives, across the Sahel violence and insecurity are on the rise as people struggle with hunger, malnutrition and other factors made exponentially worse by climate change, and in place like Colombia, health and food security are at risk as floods displace communities and trigger disease outbreaks. 

This is the most pressing health and humanitarian challenge of the 21st century. A quarter of a million people are expected to die every year from climate change between 2030 and 2050 if we do nothing about it, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Climate change affects the social and environmental determinants of health – clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food, and secure shelter. According to recent IPCC Climate Change Report, climate change has harmful impacts on human health ranging from mortality from extreme events, morbidity from increasing temperatures and heat waves, malnutrition and disease susceptibility.

And for the first time ever, the IPCC Report includes mental health as a key area impacted by the climate crisis, noting that climate change has adversely affected the physical and mental health of people globally.

People are losing their homes and loved ones as conflicts flare over scarce resources in places like the Lake Chad Basin, and they are redlining on stress as we deal with the prolonged impacts of COVID-19 and the spectre of other zoonotic pathogens that will rise as heat and environmental damage push animals out of their traditional zones, according to Harvard

And even as countries and communities emerge from the COVID-19 crisis, it is evident that the pandemic has reinforced pre-existing structural inequalities, accentuated systemic challenges and risks, and threatens to reverse hard-earned progress across the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Climate change is expected to further worsen the risks. We are already witnessing “irreversible” damage from climate change. According to the IPCC report, over 3 billion people – nearly half of the world’s population – live in “contexts that are highly vulnerable to climate change.” And the direct costs of climate change to the health system – not including health determining sectors such as agriculture, water and sanitation – is estimated between US$2 and $4 billion a year by the WHO.

Rethinking climate and health

Climate change adaptation will be one of the key highlights of this year’s Climate Talks in Egypt. World leaders have the chance to connect the dots between health, food security, livelihoods, sustainable economic development and climate actions as we come together to accelerate the ambition of Nationally Determined Contributions to the Paris Agreement and sprint to achieve the lofty goals outlined in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. 

Most Nationally Determined Contributions have identified health as a priority concern. At COP-26 over 50 countries committed to build climate resilient and low-carbon health systems. These include 47 countries, representing over a third of global health care emissions. Fourteen countries have also set a target date to reach net zero carbon emissions in their health system before 2050.

There are a number of entry points that can assist countries in reaching these goals. The main opportunities come from adaptation interventions that contribute to food and water security, climate-informed health planning that can be inserted into National Adaptation Plans, early warning systems for climate-sensitive infectious diseases, capacity building for health facilities to build the protocols and prepare for the changing health needs that are arising as a result of the climate crisis, public health education campaigns, and community-level investments in water and sanitation facilities and other infrastructure that prevents the spread of disease.

When you think about it as a whole, the climate-health crisis is amazingly complex. In places like Egypt, people need air-conditioning units just to survive the 120-plus degree days. But more AC means more greenhouse gases. So, we also need to rethink economic development, incentives for renewable energy, and reduction of hydro-chloro-fluorocarbons and other pollutants that are literally poisoning our planet.

We also need to rethink climate resilience in our cities, on the farm, and in the marketplace, redefining how we approach commerce and economic development as we adapt to the new challenges of the 21st century.  

Piloting climate-health actions

The good news is that we are making progress.

With funding from the Global Environment Facility Special Climate Change Fund, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and WHO supported local governments to pilot climate change adaptation efforts to protect human health in Barbados, Bhutan, China, Fiji, Jordan, Kenya and Uzbekistan.

In Barbados, community-based public health campaigns supported the safe use of wastewater. In Bhutan, the government has advanced its ability to predict climate-sensitive infectious diseases. And in China, three pilot cities have implemented a heat-health warning system.

With funding from the GEF, UNDP is partnering  with the WHO to build resilient health systems in Least Developed Countries in Asia, including Bangladesh, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Nepal, Timor-Leste, and Small Island Developing States such as Kiribati, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. Among the various outputs, the programmes will advance climate-informed health planning and early warning systems, build capacity at health facilities, implement public health campaigns, and support localized community actions directed at the climate-health crisis.

There’s a bigger picture here. In the end, projects designed to address food and water security, advance ecosystem-based adaptation, or enhance livelihoods, will help us in addressing these interconnected issues. In partnership with governments, donors, the private sector, civil society and other key stakeholders, UNDP’s current climate change adaptation portfolio is geared to benefit 126 million people through US$1.6 billion in investments from the vertical funds and bilateral donors, as well as an additional US$3.8 billion leveraged from partners.

This good start, but far shy of the US$20 to US$40 billion in yearly spending for climate change adaptation called for at the Glasgow Climate Talks.

It’s critical that we take a systems-wide approach, embrace new technologies and new ways of working, engage with the private sector, and activate locally led climate actions if we are going to address this crisis.

Millions of lives hang in the balance. It’s time we step up and make climate action – and climate-health action – a global priority. This is our investment in planet Earth, our investment in future generations, our investment in a better world. 

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