Dara Colwell

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A Solar Gold Rush Is Spreading From California to New Jersey

Solar power is exploding in America, particularly in California. San Luis Obispo's Palm Theatre and Berkeley's Shotgun Players are now the first solar-powered theaters in the country; FedEx's distribution center in Fontana has a solar system covering 20,834 square feet; and Google's Mountain View campus boasts America's largest corporate solar installation. True to its pioneering spirit, California is leading the way -- but that's not to say other states aren't tagging quickly behind.

"California has a comprehensive approach to solar. We have an aggressive, proactive environment that allows legislators to go ahead and do things -- the mentality is definitely here," says Andrew McAllister, director of programs at the California Center for Sustainable Energy (CCSE), a nonprofit dedicated to facilitating clean energy technologies and practices. McAllister muses that the state's energy crisis several years ago, when deregulation led to unpredictable electricity prices, goaded California into collective action. "Worldwide, solar is still driven by policy more than any other factor, and what makes California attractive is its political commitment to taking the lead."

In America, most of the policies that affect the solar industry are created at the state level. California, which is now poised to become the world's second-fastest-growing solar market behind Germany, has a long pioneering history, which has fueled the solar industry as much as the state's abundant sunshine.

As proof, in 2005, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) approved $300 million for statewide solar rebates, tripling the original sum in order to bolster the market; since its Million Solar Roofs program kicked off in 2006, California has installed more solar panels than in the previous 10 years combined; and in 2007, the state approved the California Solar Initiative, the country's largest solar energy policy to date, offering homeowners a rebate on top of the federal tax credit and plans to provide $2.8 billion toward solar incentives over the next decade.

Says Adam Browning, co-founder of Vote Solar Initiative, the San Francisco-based nonprofit established to bring solar energy to the mainstream, "It's a dynamic race, of course. California is working hard to expand support, and our utility companies have been much more accommodating and aggressive."

But other states are giving California a run for its money in an increasingly competitive solar market. Take Oregon, which has been proactive in welcoming renewable energy business thanks to the state's Business Energy Tax Credit (nicknamed "Betsy"), which covers 50 percent of all project costs -- the country's largest solar incentive. In August, Oregon's Department of Transportation announced plans to build a solar panel installation along a stretch of interstate, the first such project in the nation; in October, Germany's SolarWorld opened the largest solar factory in the Americas in Hillsboro; and in the same month, Sanyo began building its $80 million, 70-megawatt solar manufacturing facility in Salem.

Oregon isn't alone. There's New Mexico, with an abundance of arid land and sunlight, offering the perfect platform for large-scale solar thermal installation projects. New Mexico recently welcomed a project from Germany's Schott Solar, one of the world's leading solar companies, which has invested $100 million to build a solar equipment manufacturing plant outside Albuquerque. And Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and New Jersey (which, according to solar energy research company Solarbuzz, is emerging as America's next solar-friendly state) are all heavily recruiting solar manufacturers, not to mention creating attractive incentives.

As proof of the industry's vitality, in October San Diego hosted the industry's largest event, Solar Power International, boasting its greatest turnout ever -- from a few hundred attendees in 2001 to 23,000 this year. "The buzz created in San Diego is highly indicative," says Vote Solar's Browning. "This is a dynamic time for the industry as a whole right now."

Much of the excitement was triggered by the renewal of the federal Incentive Tax Credit (ITC) bill on Oct. 3, which beefed up and extended an expiring tax credit for renewable energy projects. The ITC, tacked on to the larger $700 billion Wall Street bailout plan, allowed for an eight-year extension and 30 percent tax credit, "which is a big deal," says Browning. "That's going to impact the dynamic going forward because we finally have a stable policy in place that will allow businesses to make long-term decisions."

ITC's passage couldn't have come at a better time, injecting new life into the industry when America's stock market credit turmoil has created widespread economic uncertainty. While no industry is immune and solar may face a degree of consolidation, the mood is upbeat -- because the bill could provide billions in future funding and accelerate the market's expansion.

"In San Diego we had back-to-back meetings with investors and buyers, with definite confirmation that prices are coming down," says Arno Harris, CEO of Recurrent Energy, based in San Francisco. Recurrent, a solar power developer focused on promoting large-scale projects, was recently chosen by the City of San Francisco to develop a 5-megawatt photovoltaic project providing electricity for city-owned facilities, such as schools. "Lower prices will grow the market substantially, and all this is happening within the context of an intense financial crisis. Long term, the fundamentals are fantastic."

"We're looking at an industry growing 60 percent a year worldwide -- it's no longer a niche market. If I were a betting man, I'd put more capital in this industry than General Motors," says Jim Harding, western regional director at Solar Electric Power Association, which comprises 375 solar industry and utility members, making reference to the Bush administration's recent $25 billion loan to the struggling auto industry. "It's difficult to see a negative impact when the market opportunity is so great."
Why is that? First are the combined threats of peak oil and global warming. And as China and India, both saddled with enormous populations, continue to increase their demands for fossil fuels, future competition will be fierce. Also, the need to curb greenhouse gases is moving beyond a vigorous debate about whether climate change is actually happening to vigorous legislation aimed at reducing carbon emissions.

"The stock market is one thing, but the carbon issue is largely independent of prices or the business environment. It's not going away, no matter what the economic cycle does," says CCSE's McAllister.

Second, solar is ready -- because it's hardly new. In the 1950s, the U.S. Navy used solar cells to power satellites, though the technology wasn't brought down to Earth until the 1970s, when Exxon Corporation funded further research to develop solar-powered navigation warning lights for its offshore rigs. While solar enjoyed great popularity in the late 1970s and into the 1980s due to the energy crisis, interest tanked in the following decades, marked by artificially low oil prices -- and, surprising given today's perspective, energy just wasn't considered as significant as crime or inflation.

But today, solar is ready to compete. The technology has naturally evolved, becoming increasingly cost-effective, and it promises tremendous capacity because the resource is unlimited. It's no accident that last year, green-crazed venture firms invested $1 billion into solar start-ups, according to the research firm Cleantech.

As the renewable energy sector continues to grow, so does its need for workers. New technology creates new industries, which then create new markets requiring a new workforce. With solar, as well as other renewables, the potential for job creation -- or green jobs, an area gaining increasing visibility -- is huge. And green leaders are already picking up on it.

Recently, the Environmental Defense Fund published a "Green Jobs Guidebook" for job seekers, and Van Jones, founder of the Oakland-based organization Green for All, published The Green Collar Economy, advocating a green pathway out of poverty, which has become a New York Times best-seller.

In terms of the scope of jobs, in California, according to a recent solar industry survey, solar companies employ roughly 17,500 people and aim to hire 5,000 more next year. And according to McAllister, "There's already a bottleneck for qualified solar installers."

"Everyone's seeing the need to transition the economy in a new direction, so the job opportunities are there," says Orion Walker, events coordinator at Solar Living Institute, based in Hopland, Calif., which has offered solar training such as "Advanced Photovoltaics" and "Intro to Off Grid Systems" to the public for 10 years. Walker is currently organizing a green career conference, to be hosted by UC Berkeley. "As the solar industry and other green industries expand, the numbers being tossed around are half a million jobs -- even more now, due to the passage of tax credits. Just about every company (in the renewable sector) I've talked to says they're hiring."

"Solar is a huge economic multiplier," says Recurrent's Harris, to underline the point. "Any work we do touches a number of industries, and every $10 million project we undertake initiates job creation." With green jobs, says Browning, "we have the great potential to get the economy going again and change course. It's a wonderful opportunity to solve two problems with one solution -- which should be tremendously appealing to any policy maker."

As the solar industry continues to swell, is there actually a foreseeable downside? Those in the industry say rooftop photovoltaic panels won't be enough to combat climate change; the need is for larger solar thermal systems like Nevada Solar One, the world's third-largest solar power plant, located just south of Boulder City, Nev., which went online in 2007.

But big plants, usually built in the desert where the sun shines the brightest, require high-voltage transmission power lines to reach customers in the cities, and where those power lines are supposed to go is a divisive environmental issue. For example, in San Diego, the local utility company has faced opposition to building a power line through Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California's largest state park and a vulnerable wilderness that environmentalists have vowed to protect. Similar battles might break out in the future as the need for renewable energy projects conflicts with where, exactly, to put them.

"(Desert development) is highly controversial, but the alternative -- wide-scale climate change -- will do far greater damage," says Browning, who believes further research and policy need to be put in place in the future. "We need to do this in a way that is socially acceptable."

According to Recurrent's Harris, current transaction barriers are also a hindrance. Harris explains that in tenant-leased buildings where the tenant pays the utility bills, the owner has little financial incentive to lower energy costs. Because renters tend to move, they don't invest in solar in places they don't own. Recurrent's solution is to lease rooftop space from the owner, then sell it to the renter. "We're trying to move the ball forward in policy and focus on financial innovations to tap demand," he says.

Clearly, much lies ahead as each state seeks to increase clean renewable energy production and modernize its energy infrastructure. Says Solar Living Institute's Walker, "One thing to keep in mind is there's no real silver bullet in regards to solving our larger energy challenges. Solar plays a significant part in that solution, but if you look at total global demand for energy, it's quite staggering. There are many pieces to the larger puzzle." But with continued technological development, solar still appears bright.

Why Working Less is Better for the Globe

Americans are working harder than ever before. The dogged pursuit of the paycheck coupled with a 24/7 economy has thrust many of us onto a never-ending treadmill. But of workaholism's growing wounded, its greatest casualty has been practically ignored -- the planet.

"We now seem more determined than ever to work harder and produce more stuff, which creates a bizarre paradox: We are proudly breaking our backs to decrease the carrying capacity of the planet," says Conrad Schmidt, an internationally known social activist and founder of the Work Less Party, a Vancouver-based initiative aimed at moving to a 32-hour work week -- a radical departure from the in early, out late cycle we've grown accustomed to. "Choosing to work less is the biggest environmental issue no one's talking about."

A backlash against overwork fatigue, the Work Less Party is one of a growing number of initiatives aimed at cutting work hours while tackling unemployment, environmentally unfriendly behavior and boosting leisure time. According to Schmidt, author of "Workers of the World RELAX," which examines the economics of reduced industrial work, working less would allow us to produce less, consume less, pollute less and -- no complaints here -- live more.

"As a society, we're working exponentially hard to decrease sustainability and it's making us miserable -- just look at how antidepressants are on the rise," he says. "In order to reduce our ecological footprint, we have to take working less very seriously."

Americans work more hours than anyone else in the industrialized world. According to the United Nations' International Labor Organization, we work 250 hours, or five weeks, more than the Brits, and a whopping 500 hours, or 12 and a half weeks, more than the Germans. So how does ecological damage figure in to the 40-plus workweek?

Do the math: Longer hours plus labor-saving technology equals ever-increasing productivity. Without high annual growth to match productivity, there's unemployment. Maintaining growth means using more energy and resources, both in manpower and raw materials, which results in increased waste and pollution.

Unsurprisingly, the United States is the world's largest polluter. Housing a mere 5 percent of the world's population, it accounts for 22 percent of its fossil fuel consumption, 50 percent of its solid waste, and, on average, each citizen consumes 53 times more goods than a person in China, according to the environmental nonprofit, Sierra Club.

When people work longer hours, they rely increasingly on convenience items such as fast food, disposable diapers, or bottled water. Built-in obsolescence has become standard business practice -- just throw it away and make more -- leaving mountainous landfills in its wake. "Earning more often means spending money in ways that are environmentally detrimental. We're finding that to compensate for lack of time, you actually need more money to work those extra hours," says Monique Tilford, acting executive director of the Centre for a New American Dream, a Maryland group promoting environmentally and socially responsible consumption. "When people are time-starved they don't have enough time to be conscious consumers. The overarching theme of our organization is to remind Americans that every single dollar they spend has a carbon impact, to make the connection."

If the world started clocking American hours, then it would be detrimental to its environmental health. According to a paper issued by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) in Washington, D.C., if Europe moved towards a U.S.-based economic model, it would consume 15-30 percent more energy by 2050. This would impact fuel prices worldwide and boost carbon emissions, resulting in additional global warming of 1-2 degrees Celsius. Any reductions in greenhouse gas emissions made through conservation, cleaner fuels or green technology would be overwhelmed by increased industrial output.

"Productivity normally increases every year, but we haven't seen massive productivity gains reflected in our working hours," says Mark Weisbrot, CEPR's co-director, who also authored the study "Are Shorter Work Hours Good for the Environment?" "Because there's no limit to what we can consume, a change of values has to take place if the planet stands a chance of survival."

The problem is, France has already begun following America's lead by increasing the workload. In 2005, France effectively abolished its 35-hour workweek to counter high unemployment -- the highest in the European Union, hovering at roughly 10 percent -- though a subsequent International Monetary Fund paper examining the impact concluded there was no significant increase. And this May, the new French president-elect Nicolas Sarkozy, whose campaign to "work more, earn more" helped win him the presidential seat, promised to make overtime largely tax-exempt. His goal: strengthen consumer purchasing power and galvanize the economy.

Only if Weisbrot's research is correct, France's increased productivity would create even larger problems, especially considering France's current productivity is greater than America's, with a GDP (Gross Domestic Product) per hour of $37.01 versus $33.77. Today's push towards a heavier workload is in many ways a historical precedent. In both the United States and Europe, work hours declined steadily from the beginning of the industrial revolution until World War II, when labor unions were key in fighting for shorter hours. After the war, the 40-hour workweek was legally in place, and governments promoted economic growth in order to match it.

But since the 1970s, with the advent of technological advances and increased automation, most European governments have continued shortening work hours whereas the United States has opted instead to let wages fall. In the late 1960s futurists predicted an Age of Leisure, hypothesizing that the largest issue facing the country at the end of the century would be too much leisure. "It was the kind of problem I thought I could deal with -- in fact, I was looking forward to it," says John de Graaf, producer of the groundbreaking 1997 PBS documentary "Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic" and a frequent speaker on issues of overwork and overconsumption. "Of course, I didn't reason we'd put all our productivity gains into more stuff."

Quoting data from his current campaign, "What's the Economy for Anyway?" which examines America's economic policies in light of quality of life issues, de Graaf says the evidence proves we're not better off. "It's staggering. The USA has declined relative to all other industrial countries in virtually every quality of life measured -- health, equality, savings, sustainability -- though that's not so with the GDP and certainly not with the number of billionaires," he says. "Yet we're still constantly being told we're better off."

Yet suggest alternatives to the status quo of GDP worship, like shortening the work week, and resistance is great. "Here, the business community fiercely opposes any mandates relating to time," says de Graaf, noting that by controlling or regulating time, they maintain the upper hand. "What's happened in Europe is people have discovered it's nice to have some time in their lives, and in getting some, they've wanted more. Whereas here, business has kept that door completely shut."

But even many overburdened Americans fear change will signal further sacrifice -- mostly to their paychecks. "But the fact is, we're already sacrificing our time and our lives right now," says de Graaf. De Graaf is also the national coordinator of "Take Back Your Time Day," an annual event scheduled for Oct. 24, the date on which the 40-hour workweek was first inaugurated in the United States. A national organization with 10,000 members, Take Back Your Time has launched a campaign calling for national legislation guaranteeing a minimum of three weeks of paid vacation, an issue it hopes to make part of the 2008 presidential campaign.

As it stands, America is the only industrial nation that offers no legal protection for vacations. The average vacation in the United States is now only a long weekend, and 25 percent of American workers have no paid vacation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Compare that to Sweden, which mandates 32 vacation days per year. President Bush, however, does know the value of vacation time. In 2005, he took five weeks off to visit his Texas ranch, taking the longest presidential retreat in at least 36 years.

"We see overwork as a social, legal problem that needs political legislation," says de Graaf. "We are utterly unique in our dismissal of the need for time and the environmental costs; not to mention, the costs to our health and our families have been enormous."

But by shelving time, we continue to suffer from overload, debt, and anxiety, and are stuck in a fatalistic rat race generated by heightened consumerism. So what fuels this need to accumulate in the face of time deprivation? Devoting his career to what drives materialism, Tim Kasser, associate professor of psychology at Knox College and author of "The High Price of Materialism," has sought scientific explanations, examining the relationship between materialism and psychological well-being.

"Materialism is driven by an underlying sense of insecurity," says Kasser, who conducted a study where subjects were randomly assigned writing about death or writing about listening to music. The former experience an increased desire for consumption and were "greedier," according to Kasser. "Death is the ultimate end of time; it's interpreted as that feeling of not having enough time. In the last decade politicians have played off that insecurity. It keeps getting people elected, but it also drives us to think we need to work harder and harder," he says, noting the signs of insecurity around us are numerous: We don't know our neighbors and suffer from high divorce rates; our social safety nets have been dismantled; we have no mandatory overtime laws and minimal vacation. "All these work to create an underlying sense of insecurity, and we need to break out of that cycle," he says.

Interestingly, Kasser conducted an empirical study comparing 200 adherents of Voluntary Simplicity to a control group of 200 mainstream Americans and found the Voluntary Simplicity group was "simultaneously happier while using fewer resources," and that their happiness was derived from "less materialistic, intrinsic goals, such as personal growth, family and community." While the Voluntary Simplicity group was "still awfully far from having a sustainable ecological footprint," Kasser feels it's a positive start. "The correlation between the VS group being happy was due to those no-consumeristic, intrinsic values, and the reason they're living in a more ecologically sustainable fashion is also due to those values."

It's just those kind of values Schmidt has tried to encourage in his Work Less Party. Schmidt, a former computer programmer, started by getting rid of his car and cycling to work, then took advantage of the savings by reducing his workweek, which allowed him enough time to write his book, make two documentaries, and organize a community theater group -- all in the last three years.

"People spend so many hours working they have no idea of how much creative potential they have, but you get a taste of mental freedom you want more of it. It's an explosion of creativity." says Schmidt, quickly adding, "I'm a workaholic, but it's the type of work that's the problem. Our society is focused on work that makes stuff that goes directly into landfills. Essential work such as art, music, creativity, community, the kind necessary to create a healthy society and planet, is being negated in favor of that."

If there's any solution to increasing our well-being, as well as the planet's, Schmidt's advice flies counter to our driven consumerism. "If you want to protect the environment, you have to consume less, which means you have to produce less, and you have to work less. We have to keep the message positive -- our standard of living will improve hugely. I think people are starting to make the connection."

Why Are Americans Afraid of Being Naked?

When Catholic protesters recently shut down a New York exhibit displaying a naked, life-sized Jesus sculpted from chocolate, the outcry wasn't totally unexpected. Labeled offensive by critics, the artwork touched an angry nerve by pushing religion and nudity -- two substances that historically don't mix -- into the limelight. While the media was quick to exploit the story, it also expressed surprising modesty when it came to the naked Christ, avoiding the full frontal and opting for photos of the Lord's backside.

But in Europe, and particularly the Netherlands, where bakeries display anatomically correct marzipan nudes in their front windows right next to chocolate bunnies and chicks, such furor over confectionary draws a complete blank. On this side of the Atlantic, when it comes to nudity, Europeans happily assert they've got absolutely nothing to hide.

"The Netherlands is a liberal country where public nakedness is allowed, and that's the way it should be -- that's why there's a law for it," says Ragna Verwer of the Dutch Naturist Federation (NFN), a 70,000-member-strong organization established to expand naturist activities.

According to Verwer, 1.9 million Dutch regularly get nude, going to nude beaches or stripping down in their own gardens, though she estimates the numbers are much higher as NFN doesn't include sauna-goers in its research. "Naked recreation is well accepted here. But we have to take care that things stay this way, which is why we often discuss these matters with local city councils and recreation areas to create more places."

Legally, in Netherlands people are allowed to be naked anywhere except public roads or when they annoy others, a law in play since 1986. It is not uncommon to find nude swimming sessions at public swimming pools, nude or topless beaches. Recently, Fitworld, a gym in Heteren in the eastern Netherlands, introduced Naked Sunday, offering locals the opportunity for bare workouts. This quickly proved a popular idea -- at least with journalists, photographers and television crews, who easily outnumbered participants on the opening day.

"I've done interviews with people from Russia, Ireland, Canada, Australia, America and Turkey," says Fitworld's owner, Patrick de Man, who says Naked Sunday was in part a competitive response to other gyms offering pole dancing courses, but also a response to a request from two of his naturist clients. De Man says the amount of attention he received both from home and abroad was surprising because "being naked is absolutely normal here," though admittedly, bare bench presses were totally new to Holland. But the owner has also received complaints from locals, mostly about sanitation, and at least one member wrote on the club's website that he was switching gyms.

"A lot people from the church have sent me letters about God and stuff like that. But I tell them God was the first man of naturism. He and Adam and Eve were all naked on Earth," says de Man, taking the criticism rather pragmatically. True -- at least until the couple donned their first fig leaves, provoking centuries of subsequent debate.

"Nudity is definitely not shocking or even arousing," says Mandy Servais, a customer at Amsterdam's Sauna Deco, in a robe wrapped loosely around her body, which for all intents and purposes, was naked, as Dutch saunas are visited in the buff. Says Servais, who has frequented saunas since she was a teen, "I think as a society we're very simple and take a practical approach to sex and nudity. We think that everything that exists is normal so there's no need to make a fuss. We're not really occupied with what others think."

Verwer mirrors Servais' response. "I think the Dutch believe let everyone have their dignity and do what they enjoy most. This isn't just how we think about naked recreation, the same goes for gays --everyone's accepted," she says.

While the Dutch seem to accept that underneath their clothing everyone's naked, the same laissez-faire attitude doesn't apply in the States, where the public has been schooled in the cultural ideology that "nude is naughty," and nudity is regarded as sexual.

Perhaps much of this attitude can be chalked down to America's cultural forefathers, the Puritans, whose deeply religious moral zeal made them fear nudity so much they refused to bathe, ensuring a future of national prudishness.

This might appear a huge contradiction given the American media's rampant appetite for sex, but how else to explain the fury over Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" and the network's rush to cleanup before facing clampdowns and stiff fines? Or PBS's need to position the disclaimer "For mature audiences only" when broadcasting footage of Michelangelo's David.

A further inconsistency when it comes to nudity is what Americans regard as risqué: barely clad Victoria Secret models strutting their way across television or nude grandmothers? As Dove soap found out this March, it's the latter. The Federal Communications Commission, which regulates America's broadcast media, banned a series of prime-time ads depicting six middle-aged women posing nude for Dove Proage products, claiming it was inappropriate, though the ads ran successfully in Europe and Canada.

Ironically, Dove's parent company is the Anglo-Dutch giant Unilever. While a number of pro-family and women's groups complained the ad contributed to the further commercial sexualization of women -- an ongoing and valid debate -- clearly, older nudity is threatening because our culture rarely separates nakedness from sex, which is something the elder crowd, at least until Viagra, wasn't supposed to be having.

On a similar note, in 2004 Wal-Mart, never one to balk at profits, refused to sell Jon Stewart's book "America," which featured doctored nude photos of Supreme Court judges. Old, saggy bodies were simply too offensive compared to, say, the number of slasher films Wal-Mart also carries.

Of the Dove Proage ads, says Claire Taylor, who works in international advertising, including projects with Ogilvy & Mather, the company responsible for the Dove ad campaign, "If the ad featured 20-year olds, there'd be no problem. It's so hypocritical."

Taylor, an American who has lived in Amsterdam for the last 25 years, thinks the negative reaction stateside is due to "puritanical prudishness," which doesn't balk at violence or soft porn on television, yet is offended by older nudity. "Now seeing older bodies -- that's reality TV if you want reality," Taylor quips.

Another, perhaps sobering, reality: America has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the industrialized world, according to the American Association of Pediatrics, and a rate that exceeds the Dutch by nine-fold. A healthy attitude to nudity as well as sex, something the Dutch are regaled for, might have a positive impact as more exposure typically leads to greater information.

Still, in America, being naked remains complex. Because our associations are often limited to porn, hippy naturalists, or the $400 million a year nude recreation industry, nudity is either seen as sexual or a gimmick. Take journalistic "undercover" exposes -- a choice phrase, given the situation -- on nudists at play ("Just look at those guys playing tennis!").

Or the media's buzz over photographer Spencer Tunick and his nude landscapes. Tunick, who specializes in photographing hundreds of naked bodies sprawled together in abstract forms against an urban backdrop, has definitely pushed social boundaries at home. But in Amsterdam, where Tunick is due this summer, it's a different story -- or no story. "Is it a big deal that's everyone's naked when everyone's naked?" asks Servais.

In Europe, then, clearly neither moral outrage nor public disorder greets nudity. Men don't go wild, women remain safe and the zero fashion statement remains just that, something with zero impact.

Taylor, who has fully adapted to Dutch ways, has taken her American sisters to the sauna when they visit and watched their transition from shock to comfort. "They're both overweight, so at first they were horrified. But one of my sisters quickly got used to being naked and it felt natural. When you see that other people are flabby and kind of falling apart, it's OK," she says, laughing. "Listen, you got to check out each other's parts, but seeing the Cesearean scars, fat rolls, cellulite, eczema and aging bodies of the over 50s crowd puts it all in perspective -- you realize how absolutely unique a gorgeous naked body is. Americans might associate nudity with eroticism but here, it's only associated with nakedness," she says.

But there is a glimmer of hope. Sometimes nudity can be a useful, positive statement, even in the States. Like the World Naked Bike Ride, a sort of "Critical Ass" of cyclists organized to protest car culture, promote sustainability practices and celebrate creative expression. Organized by Conrad Schmidt, a South African living in Vancouver, British Columbia, the international event is clothing optional.

"It's a way of challenging the stifling conformity we get here in Vancouver and North America, and certainly nudity laws challenge a system that needs shaking up," says Schmidt, who has been surprised how trouble-free the rides have been on a whole, though in America, Chicago tried to shut the event down and Los Angeles, never a hotbed of community activism, boasted a larger police-to-participant ratio.

"In Portland, people are always riding naked these days, but what's strange is they're apparently harassed more by the police when they're clothed," he says. "Nudity is tough for law enforcement because it involves the concept of indecent exposure. There's no good definition of what's indecent about the human body."

Dutch Conservatives Crack Down on Coffee Shops

For international travelers, Amsterdam has long served as a kind of nirvana. Considered a forward-thinking capital light years ahead of the rest of the world, much of the city's exceptional status is due to its coffee shops -- essentially marijuana bars -- where smoking pot is perfectly legal. Coupled with other liberal sex and drug laws that have ensured a level of tolerance no European city can rival, Amsterdam has acted for many as a role model of what an enlightened 21st-century city should be.

But things aren't always what they seem. In recent years the Netherlands, like many countries around the world, has witnessed a rise in conservative power and, with that, a corresponding tightening of its once-famous looseness. The legendary Dutch credo "anything goes" is increasingly becoming a thing of the past, and nowhere is this more apparent than in its coffee shops.

The signs began to appear back in 2004, when the Dutch government consented to ban smoking in public -- a measure fiercely resisted by coffee shops fearing they'd take the biggest hit. The government quickly U-turned, bowing to pressure from the hotel and catering industry, and lifted the ban "indefinitely," giving the industry time to exhale. Marijuana retailers, always considered a separate sector, were quickly made exempt, and within days it was back to lighting up as usual.

While the uproar settled and coffee shops seemingly avoided extinction, their existence continues to be silently and systematically stubbed out. Those who flock to the Netherlands seeking its unique tourist niche may not know it, but new coffee shop licenses are rarely issued, and strict regulations have further curbed existing numbers. Closed shops go unreplaced, and the overall number continues to dwindle, dropping from 1,500 nationwide to roughly 737 today. Amsterdam, once the Wild West of the European drug trade, has 250 shops where it once had 800.

"You have to think three times about everything you do. It's getting worse every year," says Ferry Hansen, owner of Get A Life coffee shop in Amsterdam. Hansen, who has been in the business for 14 years, has seen government policies tighten as once vague laws, set in place for years, have become rigorously enforced. "The government is trying to control more and more. If you follow the law, they can't say anything, but in the long run, they'll probably get what they want."

Much of the push towards more stringent control can be attributed to the Christian Democrats (CDA), the most powerful party in the Dutch coalition government, which went on the offensive as soon as it won elections in 2002. Headed by Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, a devout Christian who blamed growing juvenile drug use on the cannabis industry -- even though the minimum legal age to enter a coffee shop is 18 -- the CDA immediately promoted a "zero option" on tolerance. "This is not a battle we're going to win overnight," Marcel Maer, a CDA spokesman told Britain's Sunday Times just days after the election. "But we will chip away at the coffee shops, greatly reducing their number over the next two years until hopefully we can get rid of them altogether."

Many of the regulations the government now enforces were actually established in 1996 in an effort to standardize the industry, which had developed from being reasonably discreet in the late 1970s to unrestrained in the late 1980s. It was then, at the height of ecstasy consumption, that a number of coffee shops peddled both hard and soft drugs, bucking the division of markets they purported to support. Bowing to international pressure, the Netherlands began restricting coffee shop numbers, working in tandem with the Bond van Cannabis Detaillisten, a union of organized coffee shop owners who agreed -- much to their commercial advantage -- that their numbers should be halved and remaining licenses be made nontransferable.

But it wasn't until the CDA tried to reign in coffee shops that these laws were heavily enforced. They include making it illegal to label lighters, rolling papers or display cannabis leaves -- all considered active advertising, limiting businesses to 500 grams of inventory, capping customer purchases to 5 grams per day, and banning businesses within 500 meters of a school. So if a new school pops up, the coffee shop can be closed without warning.

Additionally, in 2003 the BIBOB (an Act for the Promotion of Integrity Evaluations by Public Government) laws were introduced, targeting the entire service industry (including prostitutes) to prevent organized crime from getting involved. A special task force was created to enforce the laws by making random raids on coffee shops, "usually busting in like a bunch of cowboys," notes Hansen, to search staff and customers, and verify all of the required paperwork -- license, fire inspection records, chamber of commerce registration, rental contract, photocopied staff identification, and more. "If one side of this ID isn't photocopied, that's a fine and you're closed for a week," says Hansen, fingering an ID while flipping through a white folder as thick a telephone directory. "Make a second mistake, you're closed for two weeks. Make a third mistake, and you're closed permanently."

But while some owners balk at the government muscling in, others like Henry Dekker, owner of Republiek, Siberie and de Supermarkt coffee shops in Amsterdam, thinks regulations have formalized the market positively. "The government wants to clean it up so only the best businesses stay. This is a competitive market -- so if you're not good, no business," he says, rolling a hash joint as he speaks.

Dekker has been in the business for 20 years and believes owners influence policy more than politicians: By earning a record of professional behavior, they actually increase their bargaining rights. In Dekker's case, this has panned out. He's opening a new coffee shop in neighboring Mijdrecht, a conservative community that advertised for one to help settle their problems with drug trafficking on the street. "We're normalizing the trade, selling herbs just like we did in the Golden Age," says Dekker. "We're a normal business with a quality product, and we've been acknowledged for doing our job and doing it well."

But job appreciation is not something doled out equally. "I'm more negative," says another coffee shop owner, who wishes to remain anonymous and whose business has been in the family since the early 1980s. "It's a lot more aggressive. For a few weeks after a raid, we're left shocked and intimidated. We're just doing our job, but everything is sealed off, we're treated like criminals and told to put our arms up. We follow the rules, there's no reason to come in this way," the owner says. "At times I feel like quitting, so I won't have to be a part of this ridiculousness. Whether you're a smoker or not, this is a relaxing place and 60 percent of what we sell isn't weed -- it's bread or sandwiches. We shouldn't be treated this way."

No matter how responsible they are, coffee shop owners are marginalized because their industry has never gained full legal status. While liberal Dutch drug policy makes a distinction between marijuana and hard drugs (like heroin and cocaine), all drugs are considered illegal -- even though, paradoxically, using them is not. As a result, inconsistent law forbids owners from bringing marijuana through the back door -- they could be arrested buying their inventory, even though they are allowed to sell it through the front door.

"If you get into trouble, the bottom line is, it's a prohibited, unregulated product associated with the drug industry," says Kristie Szalanski, a staff member at Amsterdam's Cannabis College, a nonprofit foundation devoted to educating the public on weed. She notes that pubs where alcohol is sold are never raided. "This means that technically, coffee shop owners are criminals." An oversight the government makes, of course, when collecting taxes.

Due to this paradox, over the last few years the CDA itself has taken a confusing position on weed legislation. In 2003, the government legalized medical marijuana sold at pharmacies, yet backtracked two years later when the system fell into financial chaos -- mostly because patients preferred buying their stash at coffee shops. Then in 2004, Justice Minister Piet Hein Donner urged the government to ban local marijuana, claiming THC levels were too potent. Donner further suggested banning coffee shops from serving foreigners -- a move tantamount to saying only Brits can enter British pubs -- which quickly provoked international outrage. The politician continued taking a hard line on soft drugs, attempting to bring Dutch drug policy in line with the European Union, until he resigned a few weeks ago due to a damning report that pointed to his responsibility in the deaths of 11 refugees in a fire while being detained at Schiphol Airport.

While Donner may no longer be on the scene, the Dutch government's desire to subdue coffee shops has much to do with appeasing folks like Jacques Chirac, whose country, according to a survey by the French Observatory of Drugs and Drug Use, boasts the largest number of teenage cannabis consumers in Europe. Sweden, too, has taken the hard line, and of course there's America, which seeks to impose prohibition on the rest of the world through its war on drugs. But maybe it should start at home. According to the 2001 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, 36.9 percent of Americans have tried cannabis versus 17 percent in the Netherlands.

For the foreseeable future, coffee shops will continue to exist, but are likely to keep diminishing in number. "The way Dutch policy works, it would take at least 60 years or more before they disappeared," jokes Dekker. Most owners would agree it's a slow-moving boat that would face an arduous fight with popular sentiment. "In Holland, the population knows the system's working," he says. Still, for now, the CDA, which chose not to respond to this reporter's questions, keeps pushing for lower numbers. "With every election it's an issue. You don't know how politicians are going to react," cautions Hansen. With upcoming Dutch elections in November, the next majority party, however conservative, might choose to take a softer line. Or things could change overnight -- much as they did in the United States when the Patriot Act was passed curtailing free speech, a right that had been fought for and claimed for over two centuries.

"I don't know how long [my shop] will exist," says Hansen. "I could be in business for five years or 25 years. But I really don't know for sure."

Tasting the Vine of Souls

It was that cavernous, growling sob of insanity that nearly tipped me over the edge. The howler, wrapped in layers of white linen, bawled with such regularity he could easily have carried the Summer Stage. When I met Bill an hour earlier, he told me taking ayahuasca was a horrifying experience.

"It catapults you into misery," he said, gritting his teeth. "I screamed all night."

I instantly decided that whatever happened I wasn't going to sit next to Bill. But soon, it wouldn't matter where I sat – his feral cries filled the room. It wasn't until my neighbor, a square-jawed, hearty-looking Southwesterner later started to giggle that I began to relax.

There were 23 of us – strangers, mostly – in the darkened room, all tenuously linked by what Baudelaire centuries earlier would have dubbed a "thirst for the infinite." While the French poet had quenched his visions with a heady cocktail of opium, hashish and absinthe, ayahuasca was an earthier brew.

Coined by Amazonian shamans as the "vine of souls," yage, as it was also known, lead you straight down the path to Higher Truth. Of course, Hell sometimes proved a convenient detour. When Beatnik-cum-heroin junkie William Burroughs took the drug he became violently nauseous, transfixed by the "larval beings (that) passed before my eyes, each one giving an obscene, mocking squawk." His compatriot Allen Ginsberg, juiced up in giddy reverie, fared no better. "The whole fucking Cosmos broke loose around me," he wrote to Burroughs from Peru. "I felt like a snake vomiting out the universe."

So there I sat, in a rented dance studio in Manhattan's Chinatown, keyed up and yet oddly sober, anticipating all hell breaking loose. I found some reassurance we were all dressed in white – giving the room the innocuous feel of a Heavenly Baggage Claim – when to my left, a young woman suddenly began writhing gracefully on a yoga mat. For her, the drug was working like an express train to Nirvana. I felt nothing and sat impatiently. I was eager to tune in, turn on, and drop down, preferably onto my back.

My first ayahuasca ritual introduced me to an unexpected, thriving urban subculture. Used traditionally for visionary experiences, the drug – relatively new to the city but not city-goers – has resurfaced in recent years, becoming the chosen cocktail of contemporary seekers. Some take it to trip out, others to find God. But whether they are hoping for revelation or simply chasing the next high, more urban folk are opting for vine tasting parties, where soul-searching has replaced small talk.

In South America, ayahuasca is known as "the great medicine," and it is used for healing much as peyote is used by North American tribes. Its use dates back eons. More than 42 indigenous names exist for the vine and roughly 72 different Amazonian tribes have detailed knowledge of its preparation. In 1851, British schoolteacher Richard Spruce first observed the plant and its effects, but it wasn't until 1923 that word arrived in the States – when the American Pharmaceutical Association viewed a film about yage ceremonies at its annual meeting. When Burroughs experimented with the potion in Lima, Peru, awareness of the drug's potency was propelled further, albeit underground.

In Brazil, ayahusaca is considered a legal sacrament in the Santo Daime (literally, "St. Gimme") Church, but in the U.S., the drug's legal status remains fuzzy. The actual plant is legal, although its active chemical, N-dimethyltryptamine, is a Schedule 1 substance according to DEA guidelines. Of course, the age-old draw of illicit substances could be part of its current popularity. According to Daniel Pinchbeck, author of "Breaking Open the Head," which trails the New York native's global psychedelic exploits, there's "definitely a growing current of interest in ayahuasca" on both coasts.

"I think people's antennae are picking up because the substance is still semi-legal and illegitimate," says Pinchbeck, whose book covers a cultural history of shamanism and psychedelic use. "It has been percolating away for a number of years because it has a very subtle and somewhat secret history. If it was legal," he adds, "I'd want to take it every week."

Such prohibited allure has pushed jungle journeying straight to the metropolis, where demand is being met by an influx of traveling shamans. Our host for the evening was just that – a Cajun shaman who demanded utmost secrecy and a $150 cash payment for the ride.

He ladled a dose, roughly one-third a cup, into a small glass which rested on an altar and instructed us to drink sequentially around the studio's periphery. The juice was a concentrated blend prepared from the woody stem of banisteriopsis kaapis and the leaves of psychotria viridis, which is mixed with water to produce a potent, gritty tea. To me, the brew tasted like fermented, organic prune juice – or, depending on who I asked, spirulina-laced molasses or chocolate licorice. The aftertaste was foul. I struggled to finish even half a dose although a few participants knocked it back like a thick whiskey chaser.

Days before the ritual, we were told to follow a strict dietary regimen of no salt, sugar, oil, fat, sex or alcohol, which could heavily color the experience by triggering intense nausea, headaches, or worse, hellish visions. Retching, though, seemed to be intertwined with the experience. My neighbor repeatedly threw up and burped, emptying his stomach into the white plastic trashcan sandwiched between his feet.

"Vomit was generally a good thing," Conrad, the dotcom researcher next to me, told me later. "There was that purging feeling that went beyond physical and mental. It felt spiritually cleansing somehow."

I was lucky and avoided vomiting, but did experience a first wave of nausea that lingered with the tea's aftertaste. The effects crept up silently. I felt that IT (for it felt more like an entity than a substance) sensed what I had been thinking, trying to incorporate itself into my mindset. I expected the elation associated with hallucinogens, but instead felt an intense calm stir under my skin as awareness began registering in my gray matter. Nothing really kicked in until I drank the second glass.

For hours I hovered between absolute contentment and discomfort. There was no conversation, just the steady stream of tribal, shamanic music vibrating across the wooden floors. The room was alive with noise. Just as Bill began to quiet down to a whimper, a woman to his left began wailing like a wounded animal with its foot trapped in an iron grate. A woman closer to me moaned lowly as if building toward a tremendous orgasm; another shrieked in delight. It was like a human zoo, a cacophony of sounds, gargles, yaps and groans, where one cry would solicit the next.

I grew highly irritated with the theatrics, although it was clear most people weren't mentally in the room. One participant told me after the ceremony that he had witnessed God, a triangular-shaped, vibrating form at the center of the universe. I had no such luck; my head was firmly stuck in the studio.

While I didn't have visions, the buzz felt like a jolt of espresso laced with ecstasy. This made the room look extraordinary to me, as if even the air had been scrubbed clean and each breath was pristine. Conrad would tell me that it felt as if a monkey had been set loose inside his brain, tearing through it like an apartment and taking things off the shelves, then jumping onto the next thing. But he later experienced sublime hallucinations, observing a cast of characters as they paraded through ornately decorated Renaissance ballrooms.

By the early morning hours, everyone was relatively sober and I caught a taxi with a couple back to Brooklyn. We couldn't really speak – small talk seemed banal at that point, and after all the vomiting, we weren't exactly strangers. For a moment, the city's grit felt out of step with the drug's organic nature and I longed to stare at the dawn seated on a banana leaf rather than fishing for loose bills to pay for cab fare. I was somewhat disappointed with my first venture, having wanted to reach a weighty Ginsbergian crescendo, but I realized that the event had evolved as first times often do. Next time, perhaps, would be the true initiation.

Expat Patriots

"You set up a table, and they come. You set up a web site, and they come. Everyone wants to register this year. They're coming out of the woodwork to find us," says Robert Checkoway.

But he's not talking about the massive voter registration efforts in Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and other swing states; Checkoway is chairman of Democrats Abroad Netherlands, and he bears witness to this exploding phenomenon outside the United States.

If passion is proving the crucial motivator registering Americans to vote at home, it has reached a fever pitch overseas, where U.S. citizens are signing up in record numbers. Ranging from 3 to 7 million globally, U.S. expatriates have rallied to cast their ballots, recognizing their role in an election both sides say could be the most decisive in decades.

In Holland, home to an estimated 30,000 Americans, U.S. expatriates have been particularly vigilant encouraging absentee voter registration. Claire Taylor, a copywriter living in Amsterdam, was one of the first to spur the upsurge by launching the web site TellAnAmericanToVote.com. Motivated by Dutch friends who voiced their desire to vote – but couldn't – Taylor decided to funnel their enthusiasm into encouraging expatriates to register. "Everyone here knows an American," says Taylor, a native Floridian. "We feel we're winning back the expat voice by realizing we do have the right to vote."

According to Taylor, TellAnAmericanToVote.com, a nonpartisan web site, has registered nearly 10,000 voters since its launch in May, with more than 200 people signing up daily – triple the initial number. The site offers step-by-step instructions, posted in 13 languages to further voter outreach, on what remains a cumbersome process.

Checkoway, who originally hails from Boston, says that Democrats Abroad, the official Democratic Party organization for six million overseas Americans, has seen unprecedented traffic on its web site. The organization has actively developed new chapters, with committees in 76 countries, and membership in the Dutch chapter has doubled to 700 in recent months.

Much of the overseas registration drive has been aided by the Internet. Outside the Netherlands, a slew of similar websites established to inform absentee voters have also experienced an upswing in interest, including Americans Overseas for Kerry-Edwards, headed by Diana Kerry, sister of Democratic hopeful Sen. John Kerry; OverseasVote.com, a pro-Democrat site based in Hong Kong; AVAWorld.com, run by American Voices Abroad, American Overseas Network, a non-profit non-partisan organization that provides an online political forum, and the self-explanatory ExpatsAgainstBush.org. Most sites either oppose President Bush or remain solidly nonpartisan; only Republicansabroad.org, with 50 overseas chapters, serves Republican interests.

While the Internet has proven a fundamental political tool for expatriates, its use has also caused significant glitches. In mid-September, the Pentagon blocked access to its Federal Voting Assistance Program web site, established by the Defense Department to aid expatriate voters, including servicemen, with absentee ballots. Internet service providers in 25 countries were denied access, causing an outcry from would-be voters racing against state registration deadlines. After Congressional interference, the block was lifted several days later. The Pentagon, which had initially indicated the block was meant to thwart hackers, backpedaled by saying it had inadvertently been left in place, giving no real reason for its existence.

"Americans abroad are like the 51st state," says Kelly Johnson, business manager of Expatica.com's Expat Survival Guide, based in Amsterdam. Johnson and other fellow Americans have held several "vote-o-ramas" in the Netherlands, featuring live entertainment to encourage registration. Johnson, who registered six months ago and is still awaiting her absentee ballot, feels voting in this election is critical. "Our voice should be equal to other Americans paying taxes," she says. "I'm going to take a flight home if I have to. Not voting is not an option."

As Johnson's experience shows, many states remain behind schedule sending out absentee ballots. "I still don't have mine," says Taylor, "and I certainly underestimated the amount of one-on-one attention expat voters need." To make sure such efforts will not be waylaid, DHL has offered a 38 percent discount to all U.S. voters sending their ballots.

Indeed for many expatriates, who are directly impacted by Bush's foreign policies – especially the intensifying conflict in Iraq – the drive to vote and change administration has fed the current groundswell. "We're on the frontlines of global public opinion everyday, and much better informed than those at home" says Checkoway. "International news sources and local media present a much more balanced view of world events. Certainly, the major issue for voters overseas is why we're in Iraq."

And Iraq is the reason many Dutch, who believe Bush blithely waved aside international opposition to war, have got involved in the election effort. "I strongly disagree with President Bush's world view," says Erick Vroons, a volunteer with TellAnAmericanToVote.com. Vroons interned at New York University's Media Ecology Department and has conducted research on Dutch elections. "I can't vote, so I wanted to compensate by supporting the democratic process and mobilizing voices that strongly disagree with current U.S. policy."

Derk Bonthuis, a Dutch graduate law student studying at the University of Groningen, was also prompted to participate. "Over the last four years, America has lost so much international support and trust, especially on moral grounds, that Europeans can't believe this is a close race. For us, the choice is quite simple," says Bonthuis, who came to the U.S. to volunteer for the Nevada State Democratic party campaign. "The war on terror is a huge, brutal contradiction. You can't fight it by building a wall high enough to protect yourself. The only safety is being surrounded by friends – but instead, America continues making enemies."

Perhaps the greatest incentive stirring expats to action is the realization that their votes could determine the outcome of this election. After the 2000 presidential race in Florida, where Bush gained the razor-thin advantage by 537 votes, it seems highly plausible absentee ballots could swing the presidency this year. Post-election analysis has shown that Gore would have won by 202 votes had overseas ballots – particularly late military ones – not been counted.

"We're a growing community and our input is valid. To think your vote doesn't count this year is ridiculous," says Taylor. "I've received emails from expatriates who are voting for the first time in their lives. They've suddenly realized this is their greatest form of empowerment."

Gay with God

The gay community is coming out of the closet again – spiritually. "The movement is in its infancy, but it's just starting to gel," says Steve Kammon, editor of Circuitnoize.com, a website devoted to circuit parties. Kammon attended the first ever gay spiritual summit, held in upstate New York in May – an event that serves as testament to the community's burgeoning shift from cruising to consecration. "New connections are being forged. We're trying to make way for a kind of communal energy that supports and uplifts," he says.

The summit, held at the Garrison Institute, a retreat center overlooking the Hudson River, drew 130 gay leaders from disparate spiritual and religious paths. What attracted them was what they see as a broader spiritual movement and the queer community's emerging part within it. "Gay people have a significant role to play," says Christian de la Huerta, author of Coming Out Spiritually, which addresses the gay community's spiritual heritage. "We're trying to reconnect to One-ness and all the superficial externals, like what's between your legs, are meaningless."

At a time when gay marriage has snagged the media spotlight, the community's focus on relationship – including relationship to Higher Purpose – signals a growing need for many to reconnect. But it's not about just getting laid. "Spirituality embodies having the full expression of personal choice," says Sam Lipton, a spiritual healer in New York City. "If you're going to connect with someone and venture into any union – whether it's marriage or business – you have to be whole."

Given past rejection and open persecution by established faith-based communities, which now face potential schism, many gay men have sought spiritual guidance outside the church, if at all. "All too often we've thrown the baby out with the baptismal water and closeted our spirituality," says de la Huerta. "We've isolated ourselves from spiritual support and yet we remain deeply spiritual."

Today, that is beginning to change. Gay spirituality organizations such as Q-Spirit (founded by de la Huerta), The Gateway, and Manifest Love are forming across the country, offering workshops that aim at grounding men in their deeper selves. There are even gay "Course in Miracles" or "Conversations with God" discussion groups available. While there are also workshops geared towards women, also, the movement seems to be spearheaded by gay men.

"The coming out process has as much to do with others knowing as an awareness of one's own nature," says Jerry Polansky, co-executive director of The Gateway, which is based in San Francisco. "We are coming to a greater understanding of ourselves and how each human being, regardless of how they identify, is seeking to find purpose and understanding."

Many within the community see the rising shift towards spirituality as a natural outgrowth of the AIDS pandemic. "The roots for many different kinds of spirituality were there, working in the background of the plague," says Kammon, noting how the community pulled together in the sobering face of death. "Caring for the dying strips away what we previously thought it meant to be alive." AIDS, he says, quickly shifted the community's focus from raw physicality to activism, and grief eventually lead to transformation for some, addiction for others.

Patrick McNamara, the summit's project coordinator and co-convenor of the Spiritual Caucus at the United Nations, concurs. "AIDS laid the foundation. It made us go into great depth, both as individuals and within small communities, to explore what has real purpose," he says.

Others like Toby Johnson, author of Gay Spirituality, feel that the spiritual undercurrent has always been there. "Look at how many gay men are ex-seminarians or former priests," says Johnson, himself a former Catholic monk. "We've gained a spiritual perspective from growing up as outsiders, assuming a kind of critical perspective that pushes us to question our very existence." Johnson, who studied comparative religions under mythology guru Joseph Campbell, says historical evidence illustrates how gays and lesbians were often revered as spiritual leaders. For example, the Native American Indians honored the berdache, or Two-Spirit people, who were considered androgynous visionaries and eagerly sought as matchmakers.

Johnson feels mainstream depictions of gay men have largely been distorted because "youth and sex sell." "Listen, men are fascinated with sex, whether they're straight or gay. Most of us are in stable, long-term relationships, and we see relationships in unity and harmony. That's also the way we see God," he says.

In Coming out Spiritually, de la Huerta traces how gays have been spiritual teachers, shamans and healers, often playing the role of "consciousness scouts," or those who map out what lies ahead in order to report back and inform the tribe. "In that sense, we've always been in the vanguard," he says, "whether it's setting trends in fashion, music, or the arts. Even with AIDS, we were the guinea pigs, there to provide a service for the rest of humanity."

That particular role – being on the cutting edge of consciousness – is being revved up, according to many gay spiritual practitioners, due to a wider societal awakening. This spiritual renaissance may have been spurred, in part, by aging baby boomers, who dropped out of major religion yet have continually hungered for spiritual truth. 78 million boomers are now in the 50-year age bracket, a time when most people begin to question and reevaluate their lives. And their disproportionate representation of the general populace often dictates the general zeitgeist. According to a Business 2.0 report, the number of Americans who felt the need for spiritual growth swelled to 82 percent in 2000, up from 56 percent in 1984. The same article reported the sale of religious and spiritual books also shot up 59 percent between 1992 and 1994. The collective consciousness is geared towards spirituality, and many gay spirituality leaders are baby boomers.

Whatever the exact reasons, the spiritual movement within the gay community is gaining momentum. "The impulse happened at the right time and the right place and it keeps happening," says McNamara excitedly of the summit. "People are taking whatever they're passionate about, collaborating with others, and the work is continuing to unfold. Now it has a life of its own."

Growing Jobs

Since the Bush administration took office, 2.8 million manufacturing jobs have been lost. Now that a section of the President's Economic Report has expanded the definition of manufacturing jobs to include those in the fast-food industry, it seems the administration is scrambling hard for numbers, if not crumbs.

But some entrepreneurs like Denis Cicero have a ready solution for today's jobless recovery: hemp. The owner of the Galaxy Global Eatery in Manhattan, which has served hemp-based foods since 1995, Cicero believes the fibrous plant could provide the very cornerstone of Republican economics -- jobs and money.

"This is a burgeoning industry that's waiting to happen," says Cicero, whose 2002 book Hemp Cookbook captured the attention of health-minded celebrities. "There are 25,000 known applications for hemp, from paint varnishes, fabric, and cooking oil to thermal bricks and car parts. It's unbelievable the number of jobs that could be created if it was legalized."

But growing hemp remains illegal in the United States, where the DEA has taken a hard line on the crop as a result of the war against its psychoactive cousin, marijuana, even though hemp contains only trace amounts of THC. Once cultivated widely, particularly in Kentucky, hemp's tough fibers were used for products ranging from rope, paper, clothing and canvas -- whose name is derived from the Arabic word for hemp -- including the canvas that once covered pioneer wagons heading out west. But in 1937, in an effort to crack down on marijuana, the federal government outlawed the plant only to backpedal when the Japanese cut off America's supply from the Philippines. Roughly 14,000 acres were harvested for rope in 1942, and had the war not ended, the government's goal the following year was 300,000 acres.

Although farmers cannot cultivate hemp, as viable foodstuff, the plant is beginning to make legal inroads. In March, California's Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's interpretive rule banning edible hemp seed or oil. Labeled by 18 members of Congress as being "overly restrictive," the regulation, issued in October 2001 without public notice, stood to bar foods containing trace amounts of THC under the Controlled Substances Act. The court's order effectively allows the hemp foods industry to continue its commercial success.

For those in the business, the ruling suggests growing recognition of the plant's vast market potential, which has rocketed in recent years. The Hemp Industry Association, which launched the suit against the DEA, estimates retail sales of hemp products at $200 million annually. According to John Roulac, founder of Nutiva, a Sebastopol, CA-based company that sells organic hemp and flax food bars, hemp is an "economic Jack in the Beanstalk." "Sales are going so fast the farmers in Canada literally can't keep up with our production," says Roulac, whose business doubled this year to $1 million. "We're actually branching out into coconut oil because strategically, we can't rely on Canadian infrastructure," he says.

One reason for hemp's thriving sales is the content of its seeds, which are high in essential fatty acids -- "good fats" the body can't produce -- such as Omega-3, which helps maintain optimal brain function and cardiovascular health. Such substances have been largely depleted by the Western diet and while fish offers a rich source, most contain traces of mercury -- dangerous if consumed in large quantities. As an alternative source of Omega-3, hemp has been increasingly used in natural food products such as nutrition bars, nondairy milks, breads, cereals and even beer.

Hemp-free Farms

"It's insane the way we've treated this crop. We've basically eliminated it from the landscape of our country," says Andrew R. Graves, who comes from seven generations of Kentucky hemp farmers. Due to the DEA's stringent restrictions, Graves, who now works in Georgia as a masonry contractor and has leased his farmland to make ends meet, has never actually grown hemp. But he watched his father harvest it. In 1998, the farmer and his 100-member Kentucky Hemp Grower's Cooperative Association filed a federal lawsuit to cultivate industrial hemp. The suit was dismissed, crushing Graves' entrepreneurial spirit. "Kentucky is struggling. In rural areas, we're trying to develop some kind of new economic generator that will provide jobs and income and create a bigger tax base. Hellfire," he says, exasperated, "you can buy the finished material here but you can't grow the crop. It's nuts."

In Kentucky, which produced large quantities of government-subsidized hemp during World War II and where wild strands still grow, many farmers see hemp as a hedge against tobacco's uncertain future. A fast-growing, multifaceted crop that can be raised without pesticides, hemp produces incredibly high yields, sometimes four times as much pulp per acre as wood pulp. It can also be used as a rotational crop and grows on marginal land where food crop production isn't profitable. The DEA's rules, however, have discouraged demand, leaving markets largely abroad or north of the border.

For the moment, though, hemp is off-limits to American farmers. Asked to remark on whether the Ninth Circuit Court ruling might pave the way for industrial hemp, the DEA declined comment. However, Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp, an action group aimed at educating potential voters about industrial hemp and related issues, says the court's ruling has raised hope. "We definitely feel very positive," he says. And now that hemp's legal status as a foodstuff is clear, Steenstra feels market demand will naturally drive a move towards industrial hemp. "American farmers deserve the same right to participate as those in Canada and the European Union," he says.

Crop of the Future

"The government has been totally myopic," says David Bronner, President of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap, which includes hemp oil in its list of ingredients. Bronner, whose company pockets nearly $20 million in annual retail sales, feels the drug war hysteria has fueled excessive restrictions. Such limits, if applied to poppy seed bagels, for example -- which have triggered false positives in drug tests for heroin -- would make it illegal to sell them. "Hemp has never been psychoactive and pretty much every industrialized nation in the world cultivates and processes the crop. It's not an issue."

Indeed, industrial hemp is legally grown in over 30 countries worldwide and is recognized as a highly valuable agricultural commodity, netting nearly $1 billion. Germany's DaimlerChrysler Corporation has equipped its Mercedes-Benz C-Class vehicles with natural fiber-reinforced materials -- a blend of polypropylene, hemp and kenaf -- and natural fibers are beginning to replace fiberglass as a cost-effective, high-performing material in the car industry. "In terms of market potential, let's put it this way," says Geofrey Kime, president of Hemp Tech, North America's sole hemp refining facility based in Ontario, Canada. "In any given year there are 15 million cars produced in North America. That would take about 300 million pounds of (natural) fiber. That's substantial."

Yet, the value to the American market, for the moment, remains at zero. "How can Europe and Canada be doing something that's not allowed in the land of the free and the home of the brave?" asks Joe Hickey, a hemp activist who has campaigned alongside Woody Harrelson and maintains the celebrity's website. "If it wasn't economically viable, people wouldn't be growing it."

Nutiva's Roulac also feels America is overlooking a huge global investment. Detailing his future vision to build a processing plant in California, Roulac says he could create 40-50 new jobs -- if hemp was legalized. "Do I need to keep writing million dollar checks to Canadian farmers, or can we do this is California and create jobs?" he asks. Cicero of Galaxy Global Eatery feels the same. "Hemp will produce jobs. No doubt," he says. "It's a staple grain, like barley or corn, and it has copious uses. Just about any manufacturing business could benefit."

Dara Colwell is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn.

Brand-Name Price Gouging

After a year's delay in funding, the Bush administration's five-year, $15 billion global AIDS initiative has finally been unveiled. Two weeks ago, the 99-page report of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief was submitted to Congress, and U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator Randall Tobias hit the forum circuit, discussing future strategy. As part of that strategy, 55 percent of the Plan's total funds will be earmarked for treatment, with 75 percent of that amount reserved solely for the provision of antiretroviral (ARV) drugs -- the cocktail therapy that helps keep AIDS patients alive.

Lacking in the discussion, however, is mention of how current U.S. trade policies may undermine the ability of developing countries -- those in urgent need of medicine -- to expand their access to ARVs. According to international humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders, the U.S. has exercised stringent intellectual property protections in bilateral and regional trade negotiations to curtail generic competition -- leaving the poverty-stricken developing countries that often have the highest number of AIDS cases in the lurch. "This is an immediate concern for us," says Rachel Cohen, US Director of Doctor's Without Borders Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines. "When it comes to trade, health is always at the bottom of the agenda."

The trade pacts include the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) draft, currently under negotiation, US-Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), finalized last December, and trade deals with the South African Customs Union, Thailand and Morocco. Under CAFTA, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua will be obliged to extend pharmaceutical patent terms beyond the 20 years required in World Trade Organization (WTO) rules. Proposed FTAA provisos include a five-year delay for small generic companies using test results completed by brand-name competitors, and restrictions on compulsory licensing -- which allows governments to authorize themselves or a third party to produce generic medicine without the patent holder's approval.

"The consequence will be very clear," says Cohen, who finds the restrictions worrisome. Both agreements, she says, undermine the Doha Declaration on the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), which explicitly prioritized public health over profit. "There will be thousands of needless deaths every year because the drugs are too expensive."

Over the past few years, generic competition has ensured sustained price reduction, dramatically driving down costs from $10,000 to roughly $300 per person per year. From 2000-2002, Oxfam International conducted research on the price of brand name drugs in Uganda and discovered that prices fell by as much as 97 percent over two years. The largest decreases were for Stavudine/ D4T, which fell from $173 in May 2000 to $6 in April 2002. In Latin America, which has 1.9 million HIV cases of 42 million total worldwide, countries have relied heavily on generic drugs to save lives. For example, Brazil's free AIDS drug program has treated more than 110,000 HIV-positive people with primarily generic medicines. Mortality rates have dropped by over 60 percent.

Lack of generic competition can lead to market monopolization, which inevitably hurts developing countries. One such example is that of Merck & Co, which patented Stocrin (efavirenz, EFV), an antiretroviral recommended by the World Health Organization for treatment. ERV comes in a 600mg combination formulation, which enables patients to take one tablet a day, or 200mg capsules, taken three times. As yet, Merck has not registered the fixed dose combination in low and middle-income countries, despite promises to do so in 2002. Because virtually no generic competition for ERV exists, countries such as South Africa must pay for each individual drug -- the only formulation available -- hiking costs 44 percent higher, according to Doctors Without Borders. On March 3, the organization renewed its calls for Merck to stop backsliding on its pledge.

In terms of the President's 5-year strategy for AIDS relief, Ambassador Tobias has remarked that the government's policy will be to buy safe, effective drugs at the lowest possible price. "Now, if those happen to be drugs that are manufactured by generic companies, fine; if those are drugs that are manufactured by brand name companies, fine," Tobias said during a briefing at the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Public Affairs. However, Tobias, former chairman and CEO of Eli Lilly, might be swayed by brand name lobbying when it comes to allocating spending.

Tobias has plans to meet with the Food and Drug Administration and other regulatory bodies in the upcoming month, to discuss drug safety and efficacy standards. "I think there's a real possibility that the issue of price affordability is going to become less of an issue," he said during a Q&A session at an American Enterprise Institute forum February 5, later adding, "If we can get effective, safe products that are going to work, we're going to buy them."

Tobias' words are not something Asia Russell, co-coordinator for international policy at Health GAP, is willing to bank on. Health GAP is a U.S.-based activist organization focused on increasing developing counties' access to AIDS treatment. "Bilateral plans are turning into a slush fund for Big Pharma," said Russell, who spoke from Zimbabwe, where she was attending a regional AIDS conference. Russell said attendees were "extraordinarily angry" at the U.S.'s efforts at political arm-twisting in trade talks. "It's hypocrisy. The Bush Administration is exploiting the issue of the AIDS pandemic to cast a worthy glow. But it's denying countries the right to obtain what makes sense -- drugs at lower cost and maximum coverage."

While Tobias has spoken broadly about intellectual property concerns, Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson has openly defended the U.S.'s tough pro-IP stance. "We're going to protect intellectual property rights," Tompson said during the American Enterprise Institute forum. Tompson stated the pharmaceutical industry had a corporate responsibility to offer low prices, yet he remained adamant that he wasn't willing to "stifle the innovation of pharmaceutical companies" to create new drugs.

The industry's interest in safeguarding its tremendous investment is unmistakable. The U.S. pharmaceutical industry, including the International Intellectual Property Alliance, a coalition of six U.S. trade groups, has asked for the "highest levels of protection" under the FTAA. Repeated phone calls to the IIPA went unreturned.

The outcome of regional negotiations has already shown how powerful the U.S. has been in forcing the hand of developing countries to accept restrictive measures that curtail WTO requirements. In 2003, Guatemala modified its national intellectual property bill to consent to a standard of five years exclusivity on pharmaceutical test data, effectively blocking the entry of low cost generics.

"There's no question the government has been very reluctant for developing countries to have access to generics," says Mark Harrington, executive director of Treatment Action Group, an organization that advocates for efficient research efforts for AIDS. Harrington believes this is further exacerbated by finance and trade ministers, with little knowledge of AIDS issues, who negotiate away certain rights under pressure. "Ministers of Health and certainly sick people are not part of that decision-making process," adds Sharonann Lynch of Health GAP. "The U.S. has quadrupled the number of trade negotiators signing on to talks. It's no secret they negotiate aggressively for what they want."

Harrington believes the issue is not only one of intellectual property protection, but "a matter of where U.S. dollars are being spent," and this raises a valid point. The generic cost for six-dose combination ARV therapy at two pills a day runs about $270 per patient per year, according to a price guide published by WHO and DWB. This cost could drop much lower for certain eligible countries -- to $132, a price reduction secured by the Clinton Foundation. Separate drugs sold from a brand name company, however, cost $562.

Examining market alternatives to ensure the lowest possible cost may prove the key to saving more lives -- a stated goal of the Bush Administration. And with the President's commitment of $15 billion of the American public's money to address the global AIDS pandemic, where tax dollars ultimately go remains a fundamental issue. "If you pay brand name prices you'll keep one person alive," says Cohen. "But if you use bio-equivalent, quality medicine produced by generic manufactures that meet international standards set by the WTO, you will keep three people alive at current prices."

Dara Colwell is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn.

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