Monday, December 19, 2011

Book Review: Detroit: 138 Square Miles

There are many haunting images in this gargantuan photography book by Julia Reyes Taubman, but the one that devastates my dad is a picture of two disintegrating steam Bob-Lo boats docked next to a US Steel plant in west Detroit. For nearly 100 years, the boats carried generations of Detroiters to Bob-Lo Island amusement park on the Detroit River. I vaguely remember riding in one myself as a kid - if there was anything exotic and exciting about living there, that was it.

To my dad, the abandonment of these boats is nothing less than the desecration of our elders. The rusting stacks, the ghostly white sheets hanging off the sides: these images are hard to look at for someone with affectionate memories. That the boats are now docked next to a steel manufacturing plant is weirdly insulting.

Photos of abandoned Detroit, aka "ruin porn" are pretty cliche at this point. Everyone's seen a photo of the empty Michigan Central Railroad Station or crumbling ceiling in some old factory. On the other hand, it's hard not to take a photo of abandoned buildings in the city - they're everywhere. Taubman's book contains many pictures of these ruins, but they don't feel like a rehash. The color tones, the sometimes ethereal perspectives seem to come from a place more of empathy and history than exploitation.

The East Side's empty lots (Photo: Taubman)
As an environmentalist, I was drawn to Taubman's photos of heavy industry. From the Marathon Oil tank farm and piles of coal on Zug Island to the Detroit salt mine and Ford River Rouge Plant, there are some epic images of the guts of our country's manufacturing legacy. Even my dad, who's been to some of these sites at ground level was surprised at the extent of the operations in Taubman's areal views.

"US Steel's manufacturing operations entirely occupy Zug Island" (Photo: Taubman)
The book provides visual confirmation of why zip code 48217 was recently identified as the most polluted region in the state. Michigan Radio's Environment Report has been following the expansion of the Marathon Oil refinery (the only oil refinery in Michigan) in the last month, particularly the buy-out offer Marathon's given to people living in surrounding neighborhoods. The expansion would "upgrade" the plant to allow it to process -- surprise, surprise -- tar sands oil from Canada. In Taubman's photos, the refinery's impossible tangle of pipes and smokestacks is fascinating and creepy.

There are people in Taubman's book too, but they are usually overshadowed by their surroundings. For instance, there are a few grainy, snap-shot quality photos of smiling people hanging out in dim bar rooms. After being inundated with images of architectural emptiness, these informal shots feel more weighted than they might be otherwise because we want to know what it takes to live here.

In the introduction, Jerry Herron describes Detroit as "the most fully-realized American place", a place created by leaving and forgetting, by immigrating "moment by moment to someplace we hadn't dreamed of yet", a place where we sacrificed the past for material plenty. By documenting the results of this driving character, Taubman forces us to question our cultural values.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Quote of the Day: Emily White

"E.O. Wilson... has described ours as the “Age of Loneliness." He's not speaking metaphorically. He means that, as we continue to let species perish, we're inevitably going to feel more isolated and bereft in the world they've left behind. With loneliness conceptualized in this reasonable way--as a state that reflects, at least in part, our ties to the world around us--it's impossible to think that the extinction rate can climb upward while the loneliness rate remains unchanged. Environmental losses will translate into personally felt absences. What's different about environmental loss is its quiet nature. There's no one storming out, no one slamming a door or leaving a hastily written note. Rather, extinction is a gradual, perpetual, and silent good-bye." - Emily White, Lonely: Learning to Live With Solitude

Friday, December 9, 2011

You've Been Negotiating All My Life

As many expected, the high-level posturing at COP 17 in Durban has been a disappointment - sane people recognize that the 2020 date proposed for a legally binding deal for carbon reduction simply doesn't match the urgency that the scientific findings are demanding of us. Those who point this out, notably the youth contingent most effected by these negotiations, are being led away in handcuffs. Here are two videos from today, the first of Anjali Appadurai was just posted on the Facebook page and is worth the viral treatment:

And here's video of the protest this morning:

Talks were expected to conclude today, but have run over until a negotiation can be reached. The Guardian has been keeping a succinct play-by-play of developments at COP 17.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Movie Review: Even the Rain

Spain's official submission to this year's Academy Awards, También la lluvia, is a film that draws parallels between the historical European colonization of Central and South America and the more ambiguous economic colonization by multinational corporations today. The common denominator in both is access to natural resources.

The plot follows a fictional film crew as they shoot a movie in Cochabamba, Bolivia on Christopher Columbus' arrival in today's Cuba. Much to the crew's befuddlement and anxiety, the shoot coincides with a resistance movement that flares up when foreign companies attempt to privatize the city's water supply. The film muddies the distinction between the events so that history is shown to exist in the present.

While the events themselves made the movie exciting (this was the first time I'd heard of the real-life Cochabamba Water Wars), it was the characters' responses to them that I was drawn to. Despite the obvious connections the film makes between colonization in the past and present, the characters resist acknowledging them. Director Sebastián (played by Gael García Bernal) is visibly moved by the story of Dominican friar Bartolomé de Las Casas who defended the indigenous people against the Spaniards, but he lacks heroism when it comes to speaking out for the indigenous actors in his film. We are not made to despise his cowardice though - his avoidance shows why fictional heroism is so difficult to translate to the real world.

The jaded, alcoholic Antón who plays Columbus (Cristóbal Colón, if you want to be accurate - played by Karra Elejalde) is ironically the only non-indigenous character that understands his relationship to history and the persistence of greed. At one point, the crew is invited to the local government official's office and Antón sarcastically taunts the official with cries of "Let them eat cake!" as riots erupt outside.

También la lluvia illuminates in a simple and entertaining way why neoliberalism has led to revolution and reform in much of Latin America and perhaps gives us a glimpse of water wars to come. It also encourages the viewer to ask uncomfortable questions about their own moral responsibilities in a living history.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Reflections on Climate Change in Siberia

In this short doc, Candice Sly interviews people in Siberia about climate change, dacha culture and life around Lake Baikal, the oldest and deepest lake in the world.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The McMansion Isn't Dead

So, last year I wrote a piece bemoaning the destruction of a forest across the street from my then-apartment building. I had a front row seat to the entire ugly, and somewhat fascinating process of residential development. In that case, 4 1/2 acres of mostly tulip poplar trees were toppled to build an apartment complex.

Oh how quaint my sorrow when compared to the monstrousness I recently stumbled upon two miles from my new neighborhood in Reston. I ended up there by accident - a family had emailed me about tutoring their son and I unsuspectingly followed the directions to their home. When I turned off the main road to their neighborhood, this is what I was met with:

I didn't know McMansions were being built in Fairfax County (we have plenty of mansions, however, particularly in Great Falls and Vienna). I liked to brag to my family in Michigan that people in the DC Metro region were comfortable with their townhomes, that there was no great cultural need (or land available) for large emerald lawns and tasteless starter castles. Loudoun County is another matter - they're throwing up cul-de-sacs like crazy out there - but Fairfax seemed to have reached capacity.

Apparently not. This development in Vienna - "Hunting Crest" - is new. You can smell the lumber when you step out of the car and have to swerve around construction debris left in the road. The houses, some of which are still being built, aren't even visible from Google Maps yet:

Compare the scale to adjacent neighborhoods
You'll notice the "neighborhood" was plopped down in a luscious bed of green space. Most of that green space happens to be Lake Fairfax Park. The developer, NV Homes, says on their website that "the community backs to scenic Lake Fairfax Park". Legally, that may be true (the development doesn't extend to park property as far as I can tell) but from the perspective of the land, the forest has been gouged out. It also begs the question - if NV Homes finds the park "scenic", why did they raze the trees on their own property? If you zoom out a bit more, the development is still the most visible landmark for miles around.

Some context on Lake Fairfax Park. I've been volunteering at the National Wildlife Federation which also "backs to" the park and have had the chance to explore some of the hiking trails there. I wrote this in my journal back in mid-October:
I walked back in the quiet woods listening to the acorns fwapping on the ground and the paper leaves leaping at every blush of wind. The treetops were golden in the sunshine and I could see deep in, thinking of Fowler's book and the mystery of the wood. Several trees had crashed dramatically in the last storm(?) and were splintered over the path. The ones standing seemed impossibly lanky, and they swayed. 
I found a pebbly creek bank covered in shimmering little rocks that broke if you pressed them hard enough. I laid back on my coat and watched the trees move above me and the intermittent leaves falling. One landed in my open hand as I reached out for it. The leaves floating on the creek reminded me of the Poohsticks game played in A. A. Milne's book. There was even a little waterfall, moss and ferns. I stayed there, so peaceful, the smell of decomposing leaves. I figured if I stayed long enough, I would decompose too.
Back in 2007, even before the housing bubble burst, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer claimed that McMansions were on their way out. Old habits die hard.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

North Carolina by Train

I took a trip to Durham, North Carolina for Thanksgiving to visit some friends. The city seems filled with mystical pine forests. I managed to snag a window seat on the crowded Amtrak train down to check out all the interesting rusted detritus of industrial America: piles of glimmering junk yard metal, small towns that had seen better days, abandoned and abandoned-looking factories, rail cars full of coal, clear-cut fields. Taking a train ride is like peering behind the curtain of our manufacturing infrastructure.

My seatmate happened to be reading a new book on environmental economics (The End of Growth by Richard Heinberg). This guy must be cool, I thought, and after striking up a conversation with him, discovered I was sitting next to NPR newscaster Paul Brown. I love travel serendipity! 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Photos from a Fukushima Ghost Town

My two favorite photos from a recent Washington Post gallery of images taken inside the Fukushima no-entry zone. Both were taken of the town of Namie, on the coast of Fukushima Prefecture, by Kenji Chiga:

Cars deposited in a field by the tsunami. They almost appear to be grazing.

78,000 people used to live in Namie. Now it's a ghost town. Chilling. This video goes behind the scenes of the series.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Can the US Pass a Carbon Tax?

See also my March 2012 post for Climate Progress: "Growing Grassroots Political Support for a Price on Carbon"

It's rather embarrassing to admit this, but up until a week ago, I knew precious little about climate/emissions legislation, either in the US or abroad. I could mumble something about the US's failure to pass a climate bill last year but couldn't tell you the name of it or what it was about or who co-sponsored it. "Cap and Trade"? Yeah, I'd heard of it, but ask me to explain what it does? (admittedly, Cap and Trade schemes are rather confusing). I knew Europe had passed something, but that's because they're Europe, right? And what's with Australia? What did their "carbon price" decision mean?

You can't live in the DC Metro area for long before some wonkiness starts to rub off, however. I still have a lot to learn, but this week has been my crash course in climate law. I want to learn this stuff because I'm convinced that passing federal legislation will give us the best ROI, as they say - forcing all carbon polluters to fall in line. I'm happy to get arrested in front of the White House again protesting a pipeline, but fighting individual projects can only take you so far.

There's one group that's devoted itself to getting climate legislation (specifically "Fee and Dividend" - a carbon tax scheme) back on the table: Citizens Climate Lobby. Last night I met with Nils Petermann who's in the midst of setting up a DC chapter of the organization. What is Fee and Dividend?

RFF infographic on carbon tax and deficit
Simply, the plan would raise taxes on carbon polluters based on the emissions they produce ("fee") and send that revenue to taxpayers as a check/rebate ("dividend"). There are other legislative frameworks out there, from a Fee and Deficit Reduction plan (see left) to Cap and Trade and Cap and Dividend, but F&D's the plan that Citizens Climate Lobby is putting its weight behind, largely because the public is the primary beneficiary of the revenue and emitters are rewarded for reducing, rather than offsetting, CO2.

In theory, Republicans should be supportive of a carbon tax - and in fact, some notable conservative economists do support it, albeit one that replaces the dividend portion of the plan with lower income taxes (a "Tax Shift" plan, if you will): Kevin Hassett at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and Gregory Mankiw, economic advisor to Mitt Romney. Hell, even American Petroleum Institute members have voiced support for a carbon tax. Unfortunately, according to Petermann, such sensible conservative think tank-iness doesn't translate well to a world of conservative politics still beholden to "drill baby, drill" sentiment.

It's necessary to talk about Republican perspectives on taxing carbon because legislation simply won't get passed without some support from their side. At least not in today's political climate. "It's important for Republicans to take ownership of this issue," said Petermann.

Just last week, Australia passed its own carbon tax legislation despite some fierce and dramatic political opposition. The bill isn't perfect from an environmental standpoint and some conservative leaders are threatening to repeal the plan, but it's a big step in the right direction for one of the world's highest per capita carbon emitters.

Australia's political landscape is different than the US, of course (their Green Party has representatives at the federal and state levels), but I think Australia's passage of a carbon price holds some lessons for the US. I'm especially interested in the strategies that grassroots organizations like GetUp and Say Yes used to garner support for the legislation. How did these groups push through heavy opposition not unlike what we face in the US?

In terms of a legislative model for the US, Petermann is more apt to look to British Columbia than Australia. The "California of Canada" started enforcing its own "revenue-neutral" carbon tax in 2008 and appears to be changing industry behavior and gaining public support three years later. In the meantime, our own California is taking the Cap and Trade route through the AB32 law, passed back in 2006.

As the euphoria of Obama's announcement on delaying the Keystone XL started wearing off, Bill McKibben's sent out a survey asking their engaged followers to suggest new movements to get behind. About 75 suggestions were made (as of this writing) and right behind #1 (fracking) was removing oil subsidies and passing Fee and Dividend.

If you'd like to join the movement to pass a carbon tax, check out the Citizens Climate Lobby website. They hold regular conference calls to let people know what they're about, and an annual conference that reaches a large portion of Congress. They also have chapters around the country. Join CCL and you'll likely be joining a movement that has the best chance of making an impact on the US's outsized carbon monster.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Global State of Renewable Energy

By 2012, renewable energy production in the US (10.9% of total) is expected to eclipse nuclear production (11.3%) for the first time. Worldwide, half of all new electric installations in 2010 were renewables. Solar PV capacity saw a whopping 72% increase globally from 2009 to 2010.

Stats like these presented today at the release of REN21's new Renewables 2011 Global Status Report seemed encouraging - despite the politics around climate change and manufactured controversies about solar subsidies in the US, renewable production is seeing impressive growth worldwide. A snapshot (click to expand):

Representatives from REN21 (Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century), the WorldWatch Institute and members of Congress were on hand at today's event to comment on the data.

Representative Rush Holt of New Jersey (the lone physicist in Congress) saw the report - which shows the US lagging behind countries like China and Germany (and Spain, Japan and Italy) in wind and PV capacity respectively - presenting an imperative to US policy makers. "A clear conclusion of this [report], for me, is that we shouldn't just sit back and watch," he said. "Because what we are watching is the rest of the world eating our lunch and our failure to prepare for what we need to prepare for."

Debunking the idea that natural gas production helps the growth of renewable energy by replacing dirty sources like coal, James Bradbury, Senior Associate in WRI's Climate and Energy Program explained that natural gas appears to hinder renewable energy:

Representative (and longtime environmental champion) Ed Markey's speech was the highlight of the afternoon. Markey, of course, is co-author of two of the most important environmental bills in Congress in recent years: 2007's Energy Independence and Security Act which raised fuel economy standards, and the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 whose failure was a gut-punch to the environmental community. Here's Markey's funny, pointed and empowering speech (here's the preamble). He dashed away at the end because he had to vote on the House floor:

Several panelists stressed that much of the growth in a transition to renewables can be seen in developing countries and at the local/regional/state levels (REN21's got a report on that too). Dale Medearis of the Northern Virginia Regional Commission claimed that his organization is running "the best local energy mitigation plan in the US", largely because of their willingness to learn lessons from other regions around the world. From small-grid systems in Bangladesh to carbon neutrality targets in Austin, Texas, municipalities are doing much of the legwork on this transition.

And of course, you can't mention the growth of renewables without mentioning China. In 2010 they invested $50 billion in renewable energy, ahead of Germany ($41 billion - nothing to sneeze at for a country of that size) and the US ($30 billion). Most of China's investment last year went to wind power. Egypt and Kenya are leading the pack in Africa and Mexico saw a 348% increase (!) in investment after the government announced new renewables targets in 2009. Policy matters.

The goal of REN21 is to foster and support a rapid transition to renewable energy. Rapid being the key word here since, as panelist Bradbury said, referring to the International Energy Agency (IEA) report released last week, "We're running out of time. Rapidly" (his other fave report: Hidden Costs of Energy by the National Research Council). Are all these encouraging stats on renewable growth, in other words, enough to address the bleak prospects ahead of us? The jury's still out.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Photographing Spain's "Gypsum City"

Click here for additional photos from the collection "La ciudad de yeso" by Martin Barzilai, Pau Coll, Edu Ponces and Andrea Vanzulli. The exhibit documents life in Huelva, Spain which has one of the highest rates of cancer in the country due to highly radioactive phosphogypsum pollution. 16 energy and chemical companies operate in the area.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A Timeline of the Labor Union – Environmental Relationship

A perfect storm of economic malaise, the sudden publicity around the Keystone XL pipeline and the Occupy Wall Street protests have dredged up pockets of lingering acrimony between the labor and environmental movements in the US. But while the media and corporate interests are quick to slap a pre-printed “jobs vs. environment” sticker on the issue, the relationship between the two movements has a complex and often collaborative history. This is the first entry in a series examining the relationship between environmentalists and labor unions. Subsequent posts will examine the current status of Blue-Green relations and global perspectives on the issue.


"I think the environmental crisis has reached such catastrophic proportions that ... the labor movement is now obligated to raise this question at the bargaining table in any industry that is in a measurable way contributing to man's deteriorating living environment." – UAW President Walter Reuther in 1970

Before the mid-1970s, the relationship between labor and environmentalists was a largely friendly and reciprocal one. Leaders of most major unions regularly spoke about environmental issues with a fervor matched only by environmentalists themselves. But after the energy crisis and recession of the early to mid-1970s and economic policies stemming from Reaganomics during the 1980s, the relationship hit some rough patches from which it never fully recovered. Perhaps the most promising development in the last few years has been the formation of the BlueGreen Alliance which has steadily brought both large unions and environmental organizations together with one strong voice. What follows is a partial timeline of “Blue-Green” collaboration/animosity since post-WWII.

1948 – United Steelworkers conduct independent investigation of US Steel Corporation after “Killer Smog” sickens thousands in Donora, PA.
1955 – American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations merge to form the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the US.
1956 – United Auto Workers (UAW) fights for public hearings on federal government’s plan to build a nuclear reactor in Detroit.
1958 – AFL-CIO officials serve on first National Conference on Air Pollution. AFL-CIO legislative representative George D. Riley testifies at congressional hearing in support of federal clean water regulations. Riley also provides support to a bill that would create a National Wilderness Preservation System, stating “Wilderness has practical values, even though they cannot be measured in dollars, of obvious benefit to the Nation.” United Mine Workers and the International Association of Machinists also support the proposal.
1959 – Local chapter of the International Chemical Workers call special meeting to address air pollution caused by phosphate mining and chemical production.
1962 – AFL-CIO officials serve on second National Conference on Air Pollution.
1963 – Andrew J. Biemiller, director of the AFL-CIO's department of legislation, throws official support behind the proposed Clean Air Act, the first federal regulation on air pollution control.
1965 – UAW organizes conference on clean water.
UAW President and environmental
advocate Walter Reuther (Britannica)
1966 – AFL-CIO Legislative Representative James F. Doherty declares that "The postwar population surge, concentration of more and more people in supercities, the expanding uses of water, the proliferation of human and industrial wastes reducing water supply... for human uses and enjoyment – all have contributed to a situation which will produce enormous economic and social consequences if allowed to prevail.”
1967 – UAW creates Department of Conservation and Resource Development which “encouraged members to take part in solving the air and water pollution problems.” UAW’s Olga Madar also testifies before Congress in support of more strident fuel emissions standards, even at the risk of hurting members’ employment.
1969 – UAW supports the National Environmental Policy Act and a federal Council on Environmental Quality. Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers International Union and some officials of the United Steelworkers also support the legislation.
1969 – United Farm Workers chief counsel Jerome Cohen testifies before Congress on the lax federal and state oversight on pesticides’ health effects.
1970 – UAW sponsors the nation’s first environmental teach-in at the University of Michigan, months before the first Earth Day. They also call for the replacement of the internal combustion engine “within the next five years” [!].
1970 – UAW, United Steelworkers and International Association of Machinists (IAMAW) support and help pass Clean Air Act amendments.
1970 – Occupational Safety and Health Act enacted with support from environmental groups.
1972 – UAW, United Steelworkers and IAMAW support and help pass Clean Water Act amendments.
1975 – Environmentalists for Full Employment formed with the intent to bring the environmental and labor movements together.
1975 – UAW supports the establishment of fuel economy standards with the condition that separate standards be applied to foreign and domestic automobiles.
1977 – Clean Air Act amendments passed with support of the United Mine Workers (UMWA). Amendments include provision on installing scrubbers in coal-burning power plants.
1978 – Love Canal incident brings unions and environmentalists together, leading to the formation of the New York State Labor and Environment Network.
1981 – AFL-CIO’s Industrial Union Department and the Sierra Club work to build networks between environmental and labor groups. Dominick D’Ambrosio (Allied Industrial Workers) establishes Wisconsin OSHA-Environmental Network.
"Teamsters and Turtles" at WTO Meeting
(photo by labornotes)
1989 - New York State Labor and Environment Network sponsors workshop bringing two antagonistic leaders from each side of the Blue-Green divide together (Sandy Fonda of the Rainbow Alliance for a Clean Environment and Bill Towne of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees), leading to their eventual partnership on issues of mutual concern.
1990 – Unions split over Clean Air Act extension with United Steelworkers in favor of tough standards while UMWA oppose acid rain provision.
1993 – Labor and environmentalists mutually oppose the North American Free Trade Agreement.
1997 – Kyoto Protocol supported by labor unions from several countries and the United Steelworkers while being opposed by AFL-CIO and the US government, which fails to sign the agreement.
1999 – “Teamsters and Turtles” protest against neoliberal economic policies at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle.
2001 – UAW sides with automakers in opposing new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards.
2002 – Environmentalists and labor split on Bush proposal to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). International Brotherhood of Teamsters President James Hoffa later reverses the organization’s original position and comes out against drilling in ANWR.
2003 – Apollo Alliance formed to advocate for policy development around a clean energy economy.
2006 – The Sierra Club and United Steelworkers jointly establish the BlueGreen Alliance after years of more informal collaboration. Groups that would later join the progressive coalition include Communications Workers of America (CWA), Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Service Employees International Union (SEIU), National Wildlife Federation (NWF), Laborers' International Union of North America (LIUNA), Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), UAW and more.
2006 – AFL-CIO forms Energy Task Force, signaling intent to address climate change.
2007 – Nonprofit Green for All launched by Van Jones, advocating clean energy jobs to close the inequality gap.
2009 – AFL-CIO creates the Center for Green Jobs in affiliation with the National Labor College and the Working for America Institute.
2009 – The Sierra Club and other environmental groups get behind the Employee Free Choice Act but the legislation fails in Congress.
2009 – Roughly 40 union representatives from the US attend the UN Climate Change Conference (COP15) in Copenhagen, Denmark to “ensure that social and economic concerns are included in what had been an environmental discussion.”
2010 – Climate Bill to reduce GHG emissions supported by AFL-CIO but fails in Congress.
2011 – UAW helps draft and pass new CAFE standards.
Environmental activists and LIUNA members outside
Keystone XL hearing at State Department in Oct. 2011
2011 – Unions split over proposed Keystone XL pipeline with Transport Workers Union and the Amalgamated Transit Union in opposition to the pipeline and groups like America’s Building Trades Unions, LIUNA and the United Association of Steamfitters and Plumbers in support. Building Trades Unions use rhetoric of Occupy Wall Street to advertise supposed benefits of pipeline project while Occupy contingents in other cities rally against pipeline. AFL-CIO remains neutral.

Sources: Working for the Environment: Organized Labor and the Origins of Environmentalism in the United States, 1948-1970. Scott Dewey, 1998; Labor and the Environmental Movement: The Quest for Common Ground. Brian Keith Obach, 2004; Auto union joins labor, green groups on climate bill push; Can Push for Climate Bill Forge a Lasting Labor-Enviro Alliance?; BlueGreen Alliance: About Us; Labor after Bali; Punctuated Equilibrium and the Dynamics of U.S. Environmental Policy. Robert Repetto, 2006.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Morning View: Autumn Macro

Sometimes I notice the world more when it's close up. These were all taken around my neighborhood on my way back from casting my ballot in today's election.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Observations from Yesterday's Tar Sands Action Event at the White House

When I arrived at Lafayette Park yesterday around 1:30, the place was already filled with people and sparkling with energy and sunshine. Small impromptu parades started up within the park – one from the Ohio contingent snaked toward the stage where the speakers started around 2. I found myself standing next to Margot Kidder who was holding her big “Montana Women” sign and on her phone trying to find her companions. The sign attracted some young smiling Montana folks who exchanged hometowns as people do when they meet those from the same state.

Two veteran Tar Sands Action organizers, Joshua Kahn Russell and @lightthematch came up to talk with Margot and confessed they didn’t know whether the whole “encircling the White House” idea would work when they first proposed it weeks ago. But after the 8000th sign up the day before and the obviously huge (and orange) crowd now jostling around them, they were animated with confidence.

Photo by Josh Lopez
The audience responded to those on the stage with a mixture of cheers, applause and the now-familiar “fluttering fingers” of Occupy Wall Street. When NRDC founder John Adams’ mic ran into some technical trouble, the speech moved seamlessly and boisterously to the human mic. Lakota Nation Vice President Tom Poor Bear spoke movingly about the simple need to care for “our mother” as intermittent autumn leaves drifted down on the rapt crowd. My favorite speech (that I caught, anyway) was from Naomi Klein who addressed my own irritation about the media’s incessant and lazy “jobs vs. the environment” mantra and talked about the bi-national nature of the movement.
“I’m so sick of this nonsense about how we are the jobs killers, and the whole old outdated paradigm pitting the environmental movement against the labor movement,” Klein said during the rally. “We need to join with our allies in the labor movement to re-invent the economy from the ground up because this economic system is failing everyone on multiple levels.”
(It's funny she mentioned this because it also occurred to me on the bus ride there that it might be time for the environmental movement to do more strident outreach to unions. One idea that came to mind would be to have leaders of the AFL-CIO, the BlueGreen Alliance, unions both in support of and against the pipeline--in this case--have a meeting to vent concerns, solutions, etc. Surely we could come up with something, some common ground, by hashing things out? Anyway...)

Bill McKibben organized everyone into three groups from the stage and we shuffled away to begin circling the White House (my group heading toward the Treasury Department). Students in front of me were dancing what I'll call "light-stick-rave-style" while the middle aged folks laughed. One young woman threw little packages of Oreos to whoever wanted them. Millennials seem to attend demonstrations like this with such good-spirited, bright-eyed matter-of-factness. I get little sense of a “counterculture” with this generation – within their cohort, it’s actually widely self-evident to care about this stuff.

Photo by Amy Dewan
Photo by Kzyin
We didn’t get far before receiving word that 12,000 of us made it all the way around. We formed two relatively straight lines and I linked arms on my left with a man from Texas who’d been imprisoned in California during the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector. A woman who used to lobby for various environmental causes told us she’d never seen a demonstration with such positive, strong energy before and she attributed it to the young people.

We slowly wandered back to the park for the final rally. I stood under a Gingko tree listening to the last few speakers and spotting many familiar faces walking among the clumps of people relaxing on the lawn. The ever-vigilant cornfingers were back at their posts, dancing above the crowd. Walking back to the Metro, all the pedestrians seemed to be wearing orange vests. This movement had clearly gained momentum since August.

Photo by Shadia Fayne Wood 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Quote of the Day: Ronnie Cummins

"Once consumers can reassert control in the marketplace, I really think we're going to see a situation like the European Union where genetically engineered foods and crops will become this rare item that is totally marginal in the marketplace that is doing very little in terms of genetically polluting the countryside.

"I guarantee you, once the California ballot initiative passes this is going to have major repercussions in Canada, in Mexico. It's going to ripple throughout the world. Because the biotech industry now uses the argument that well, the biggest country in the world in terms of genetically engineered crops is the United States and USA citizens aren't complaining and so it must be okay, right?" - A Special Interview with Ronnie Cummins

Friday, November 4, 2011

China's Really Fast Trains

Shanghai Hongqiao Train Station by Sjekster. China is currently running the fastest passenger trains in the world here.
We were farther away from Beijing than New York is from Chicago, and yet while the normal Amtrak run from the Hudson to Lake Michigan takes 19 hours (though once, returning from a Bob Dylan concert, it took me three days, two of them stuck in a snowbank in northern Indiana), here in China this even longer journey could be measured in more appropriate units: it would take just 288 minutes. Four hours and 48 minutes. A quarter of the time it takes today to get to Chicago, and less than half the time that it used to take to get to Beijing… When she has finished building in 2012 what she began only in 2004, China will have more high-speed rail lines than the rest of the world put together.  
Vanity Fair, "How Fast Can China Go?"

(Not to ignore the fact that such privileges, like other things in China are the province of the wealthy few).

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Short Pictorial History of the Human Chain

This Sunday, I'll be heading back to the White House for the next big demonstration with Tar Sands Action calling on Obama to deny the Keystone XL pipeline permit - you know, just in case he didn't get the message the first time around. They're planning to put a human chain around the White House this time (Update: check out photos from the event here and my reflections afterward here). Seems like a good opportunity to visit some notable human chains of recent memory:

One of the largest human chains ever recorded, the "Baltic Way" called for the end of Soviet rule in the Baltic states in August 1989. The chain was over three countries, 600 kilometers and two million people long and foreshadowed the region's eventual independence two years later. Recent echos of this have been felt in the country of Georgia where residents formed a chain of about a million people to protest Russia's attempt to split the country in two.

The Dongria Kondh tribe of Orissa, India were joined by thousands of supporters in 2009 to protest the destruction of their sacred mountain, Niyamgiri, by British mining company Vendata. A documentary on the tribe's continued activism against the bauxite mine has just been released. If you're a fan of human chains, India's definitely your place: school students and others routinely join hands about everything from air pollution and polythene bags to water conservation and industrial pollution in rivers. And that's just the environmental stuff.

Residents of Okinawa have held multiple protests against Futenma, a US Marine base on the Japanese island. Human chains comprised of tens of thousands have been held in 1995, 1998, 2003, 2005 and 2010. That later one brought 17,000 people out. One of many complaints residents have against the base is the pollution caused by air traffic. Protesters made another human chain around a US military base in Guam in 2010 when the Marines suggested turning a historically and biologically significant site - Pagat - into a firing range and training area.

About 5000 people showed up at Nairobi National Park in Kenya in June 2010 to advocate for the park's protection from human impacts like water pollution, trash, land grabbing and encroaching settlements. The organization, called Nairobi Greenline, is also planning to plant nearly a million native trees around the park.

After the Fukushima crisis in March 2011, 40,000 Germans turned out in force to protest nuclear energy, creating a chain nearly 50 kilometers long (seen here at a nuclear power plant in Neckarswestheim). The message must have struck a chord because the German government decided to phase out nuclear power months later (for an interesting contrast, check out this human chain in support of nuclear energy in Iran in 2006 - state approved, of course). Similar protests have been held in France, where nuclear power makes up the bulk of the country's energy supply.

Nearly 1000 people - including many adorable children - participated in a 2 kilometer-long human chain ("No hay dignidad sin Justicia" - There is no Dignity without Justice) in San Salvador this July to call attention to the poverty and poor housing conditions faced by many in the city. Here's a video.

Here's another list that focuses less on environmental issues.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Q&A with Landscape Architecture Graduate Lacey Doucet

So many of the people I met in my college years have gone onto do really interesting things in the environmental field. As a fellow "humanities" environmentalist (we were the ones painting and writing nature while the scientists that made up the bulk of our environmental institute were pulling critters from rivers and looking through microscopes), I was always intrigued by what Lacey was up to. Lacey has lived her long-standing passion for environmentalism and design by working with several advocacy and conservation organizations and earning an MLA in Landscape Architecture (LA) from the University of Minnesota. She took time to reflect on her career, Minnesota's special place in her heart and inspiration she's found from others in the field.

How have your interests evolved over your career?
No matter how my interests have shifted here and there throughout my career (and will no doubt continue to shift as I learn more about the world around me), I’ve always had equal passions for art and design, and for protecting and enhancing the environment. These dual interests have been my compass and center, guiding me from place to place. Right out of undergrad at Albion College I worked with Clean Water Action to raise awareness and connect people to their environments though education and political action. I continued this track with the Ecology Center, where I worked to empower local community members and groups to reduce waste and bring more sustainable living principles into their lives.

As I was doing this kind of work though, I started paying more attention not just to how people were living, but where they were living, and how the very layout and design of a community greatly effects how people are able to live, their choices, and their quality of life. This train of inquiry, and a desire to pursue further education, led me first to look into urban planning, then ultimately landscape architecture for graduate school. Landscape architecture as a field is a kind of perfect marriage between art and design, science, environmental and political issues, and community outreach, depending on your specific job, so it really couldn’t have been a better career path for me once I learned of it.

What fundamental lessons have you learned from working on environmental issues in the past decade?
I think one of the biggest take-away lessons I’ve learned from working as a canvasser, an environmental advocate and educator, as well as a as a design student and citizen, is that you have to meet people where they are in order to enact real chance. Really listening to people with different voices and experiences from yours, and being understanding and empathetic of their life experience and where they’re coming from is crucial when working to improve the environment and creating lasting solutions that everyone has a stake in. It is not good enough to take a page from the partisan playbook that seems to be prevalent in our country’s politics over the past few years, that whoever screams the loudest over and over again will be heard, understood, and get their way. In listening to all parties with honest and open ears, and working together with them on the same ground, you will not only glean insight into why they may behave the way they do towards the environment or environmental issues, you may also figure out more productive ways of fostering positive environmental behaviors in that particular community or place or person.

What inspired your interest in landscape architecture?
Initially, it was canvassing for Clean Water Action that started to get me thinking about the ways communities were laid out and designed. We would drive from our office to the northern suburbs and exurbs of metro Detroit with its row after row of identical subdivisions, no sidewalks, no native plants or natural areas, and no way to effectively walk or bike anywhere. The layout of these places would weigh on me, particularly thinking about how youth were able (or not able) to interact with and learn from their environment or gain any sense of independence through mobility. When there was nowhere to walk or bike to, no infrastructure to encourage walking or biking, and no proximity to places of interest, their school, or natural areas, how would they be able to participate independently in the world around them, separate from a car?

I grew up in an older suburb closer to Detroit, where there was at least some opportunity to walk and bike on my own to a walkable downtown area, where I could participate in the local economy and community, and explore where I lived. More and more I felt like the design of our communities, of our cities, was really at the heart of shaping our values, our way of life, and our quality of life. So this train of thought initially led me to urban planning as a potential discipline, but there didn’t seem to be enough actual artistic design involved for me. Landscape architecture transforms the needs and hopes of people with research, science, and artistic inspiration into reality, by bringing a vision all the way from idea stage to actual, physical completion of a space or community. That seems like a very powerful way to enact positive change and connect people with the world around them, and I wanted to be a part of that.

How do you see LA fitting into the wider environmental movement?
Click for ASLA Case Studies
Landscape architecture is really an amazing and empowering field, in that it has the power to transform an environment for the better. Whether that’s ecological restoration and reclamation, alternative transportation design, green roofs, creating urban parks and schoolyards with agricultural and learning components, or neighborhoods with comprehensive greenway and pedestrian components, you can work with a community or client to meet their needs, to design aesthetically inspiring spaces, and ultimately improve the quality of life for people, animals, and the environment itself. Because there are so many different sub-fields within landscape architecture, every one of our most pressing environmental and health issues, from climate change due to car dependence, natural disasters made worse from the poor placement and management of communities, waterways, and shorelines, pollution from factory farming, obesity and rampant health problems from lack of physical mobility, urban sprawl, and loss of habitat, all can be solved through good design.

What was your masters project on and what did you do/discover?
My capstone project focused on whether existing urban and suburban schools can be retrofitted to foster connects between children, curriculum, natural systems, and the surrounding community. Based on research of childhood affordance theory, experiential learning, and “nature-deficient disorder” (coined by Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods), I sought to enhance student learning experiences outdoors by bringing elements into the landscape that would allow for complex, creative, nature-based learning. The site I was working with had multiple schools, a community education center, and many well-used athletic spaces, but it lacked un-programmed, natural, or more complex spaces for students to learn and play in.

One of the highlights of my design included an interpretative, edible forest trail. I wanted to use the idea of path as a unifying element that could provide adventure, discovery, and storytelling through movement. I was fortunate to discover, while observing how people moved throughout the site, that students would forge "cowpaths" through one of the more topographically interesting parts of the site, where there were no designated paved sidewalks. I used these cowpaths as a template for a unifying interpretive edible forest trail, which reintroduced native vegetation that has been historically used for edible, medicinal, and cultural uses in Minnesota and the Upper Midwest. Now students, whether by themselves or with a class, could learn about native plants, where certain types of foods come from, the historical and cultural importance of humans’ relationships to such plants, and to flesh out their personal relationship to the environment.

Whose work are you inspired by?
Stoss Landscape Urbanism's "SafeZone Playground"
Stoss Landscape Urbanism’s “SafeZone Playground” inspired and influenced a playscape within my capstone design. The work was a temporary garden installation that executed the idea of “third nature”, or a non-traditional combination of the man-made and the natural to create a new form of the traditional “pleasure ground” parks and play spaces of the past. They achieved this innovation by taking mundane rubber materials usually made for averting dangerous situations (athletic floor mats, goal post bumpers), and reformed them to create a flowing, organic, colorful rubber topography beneath beneath a stand of conifers.

I’m also incredibly inspired by Jones and Jones, an amazing LA firm in Seattle. They are one of the top zoological design firms in the world, and were forerunners of the modern zoo design principles that are used today. Their broader work consists of elegant solutions for environmental reclamation, non-motorized transportation trail designs, conservation-based development, environmentally and culturally-focused education centers, and habitat and wildlife conservation. I deeply admire their commitment to design that preserves ecological and cultural integrity, and that encourages others to learn from and connect with the world around them.

What's your favorite book on LA and why?
A book I’ve found to be really useful in terms of producing images for designs has been Digital Drawing for Landscape Architecture by Bradley Cantrell and Wes Michaels. It contains lots of helpful tips and methods for creating great layouts, combining analog and digital media to produce rich perspectives, sections, and master plan drawings, and how to create desired visual effects with different types of design software programs. Since so much of what we do is about communicating an effective and evocative message visually, it is important to learn new tips and tricks for creating better imagery.

While not strictly about landscape architecture, I also really enjoyed Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. It was not only an inspiration for my capstone, but serves as a reminder of how important it is for everyone to connect with the natural world on a daily basis, no matter how small that connection may be. This and his newer book, The Nature Principle, make a great case for connecting to nature through our designed environments, and serve as a call to action for looking at more creative ways of fostering such connections.

What's your favorite natural spot in Minneapolis?
Cedar Lake in the 1890s
That’s a hard thing to pick, but these days it would have to be Cedar Lake. Minneapolis has the great fortune to have had really forward-thinking planners, landscape architects, and advocates that preserved land as the city was developing and growing, based upon the ideal that people of all kinds and creeds deserve qualitative, restorative natural spaces within the very heart of a city. As a result, more than 100 years later, we still have a world-class urban park system centered around the “Grand Rounds”, a system of linear parks and trails that encompasses parts of the Mississippi River, a chain of five lakes, a waterfall, creeks, and numerous parks and natural spaces. Cedar Lake is one of the “Chain of Lakes”, and is a one of the more secluded, natural-looking lakes. From my house I can ride my bike a couple miles, completely on bike-only trails to get there to swim, lay on a beach, canoe, wander wooded trails, and watch for loons, all within sight of the city’s downtown skyline. Just north of lake is a bike and pedestrian-only trail that runs through a beautiful restored tall grass prairie, right into the heart of downtown, and connects up with the Mississippi River. Even after living here for three years, I am still astounded on a daily basis by how lucky I am to live in a city with such amazing access to natural areas.

What are you up to these days?
As a recent graduate in a still down economy, I am searching for that first full-time, career-path position, either in a private firm, a non-profit, or a municipality. I am keeping busy with a couple part-time jobs as I look: one working with the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board as a horticulture intern at a historic wildflower natural preserve, and one as a map-making assistant with Hedburg Maps, a small company in Minneapolis that designs maps of all kinds both for local and national clients. Recently I’ve become involved in a new, local “Women in Landscape Architecture” professional group, whose focus is on creating connections, mentoring, and supporting women in the field. I also spend a lot of time exploring the city, metro, and state by bicycle with my husband.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Majora Carter at the National Portrait Gallery

This photo of environmental justice advocate Majora Carter is featured in the new National Portrait Gallery exhibit The Black List: Photographs by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders (and the only environmentalist in the collection - that I could find, anyway). Carter was one of the first people to give a TED talk back in 2006. From that talk, Greening the Ghetto:

"Race and class are extremely reliable indicators as to where one might find the good stuff like parks and trees and where one might find the bad stuff like power plants and waste facilities. As a black person in America, I'm twice as likely as a white person to live in an area where air pollution poses the greatest risk to my health. I am five times more likely to live within walking distance of a power plant or chemical facility, which I do."

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Guarding South Africa's Penguins

There's something sad and beautiful about this simple video of a woman who watches over the largest colony of endangered African Penguins on the isolated Dassen Island in South Africa:

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Green Critiques of Pink Ribbon Frenzy

Fight cancer while eating fried chicken!
Because it's within walking distance, I occasionally bop into the local Safeway to pick up groceries. This Breast Cancer Awareness Month they're in "shop for a cure" mode with pink ribbons adorning products on every aisle as if a Pepto-Bismol bottle exploded. At the register I'm asked, with no sense of irony, if I want to "donate money to breast cancer".

What always gets me, besides the preoccupation with a magic bullet solution to cancer and co-optation of the issue by companies selling products (dubbed pinkwashing), is that many of the participating products likely have ingredients in them that contribute to breast cancer. This hypocrisy has been pointed out recently in books by authors Gayle Sulik (Pink Ribbon Blues) and Samantha King (Pink Ribbon, Inc.) who argue that this global pink ribbon frenzy allows us to avoid the social and environmental issues behind breast (and other forms of) cancer:
...issues relating to forms of oppression based on class, sexual identity or race have been marginalized in favor of a careful and nonthreatening focus on women (not feminists) as a constituency and breast cancer as a single issue that is presented as a mainly scientific, rather than economic, environmental, or social problem... AstraZeneca's interest in promoting mammography and thereby raising detection rates and increasing sales of tamoxifen is a story widely circulated in activist circles and progressive media but almost entirely ignored in mainstream discourse. AstraZeneca and its allies in National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, such as the American Cancer Society, continue to carefully avoid environmental issues, or indeed reference to prevention in general... - Pink Ribbon, Inc.
Barbara Ley's book, From Pink to Green, describes how an "environmental breast cancer movement" has developed around these critiques and has been growing in importance, even within organizations like the Komen Foundation (where lip service was given, at the very least, to multiple Breast Cancer and Environmental Research Acts in Congress). Click for large view:

Still, the dominance of mainstream cancer organizations and their reluctance to confront the corporations funding their work has maligned this perspective. Komen continues to deny that a link exists between BPA and organochlorine pesticides and cancer although scientific studies suggest otherwise. Ley writes that support for environmental issues within organizations like the American Cancer Society is coming not from top-level management and official statements but from smaller offices in its network (like when the CA office of ACS organized a regional conference in 2004 that discussed the link between cancer and pesticides).

With all the popular interest in things like BPA, it would make sense for people to pressure the big cancer organizations to increase funding of environmental research. Buying pink ribbons might satisfy most, but it conveniently distracts us from dealing with the root causes of cancer.

For a visual counterpoint to pink ribbons, check out the photography of David Jay.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Repairing Downtowns with Kennedy Lawson Smith

As we approach Halloween, I'm reminded that there are few things spookier than a dead mall. My family's got one in their town. I have memories of that place bustling with colors and activity when I was a kid - the shop with ridiculously large decorated cookies on display, PacSun with its racks of sunglasses so incongruous with cloudy Michigan winters, the JC Penny my mom shopped at religiously.

When they opened a new, glitzier mall about eight miles away, our own mall contracted a terminal disease. Retailers pulled out, more desperate, shabby looking ones moved in (for a time), and then owners started shutting the lights off. Walking from one remaining department store to the next gave you the heebie jeebies. Now, it's essentially empty. Huge empty buildings surrounded by huge empty parking lots:

The vacant behemoth formerly known as Summit Place
This kind of thing has happened all over the country, of course. At the last DC EcoWomen event, they hosted a downtown revitalization expert named Kennedy Lawson Smith who's trying to reverse the poor planning decisions of the last few decades that's seen US retail space balloon to a whopping and unnecessary 40 sq ft per person (the global average, by contrast, is 4 sq ft). "We are way way way overbuilt," she said. She came armed with some of the most entertaining PowerPoint slides I've seen. Here's her take on where things started going wrong:

And here's a discussion about where planning and environmental sustainability intersect. She mentions that the carpenters who built Christ Church in Oxford planted oak seedlings from the trees they'd cut down so that future generations would be able to harvest them when the building needed repairs centuries later. "Now that's long range planning":

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

My Keystone XL Twitterview

A journalism student in Montreal, Anouare Abdou, interviewed me recently on Twitter (a "Twitterview" - what a concept) about the Keystone XL project. The space limitations of Twitter were a surprisingly helpful way to clarify my thinking on the issue, although it took me a few Tweets to answer most of the questions. Here's the transcript (Anouare's classmates conducted other Twitterviews on topic too - read them here):

Anouare_AWhat is your opinion on the pipeline?
enviro_writer: Adamantly opposed to its construction. It's an affront to indigenous treaty rights, landowners and future generations.

Anouare_ACan you tell me more about how the construction of the pipeline violates indigenous treaty rights? 
enviro_writer: In AB, the Cree are suing the gov't for expanding #tarsands, violating 1870s treaty and ruining way of life; In the US, pipeline route to cross Oglala Sioux water supply held in trust by US for tribe; Affecting Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations in SD. Oglala Sioux are citing the Mni Wiconi Act.

Anouare_A: Speaking about potential environmental risks & considering keystone I, which one are you mostly worried about?
enviro_writer: Where to start? Spills are inevitable yet we're willing to run it over one of the world's largest freshwater aquifers? More generally though, KXL is a logical place for us as a society to put our foot down to demand attention to #climate change.

Anouare_A: Are you taking any measures towards creating awareness about the issue?   
enviro_writer: Blogging, soc media, letters/calls to @statedept and @barackobama. Took part in @TarSandsAction at the @WhiteHouse on 8/23. Attended @ KXL hearing and rally on 10/7 and plan to be back at the @ on 11/6.
Anouare_A: Did you get any response from @statedept and @barackobama? Do you think all the mobilization can stop the project?
enviro_writer: Million dollar question! Many are pessimistic. I honestly don't know what Obama will decide - his enviro track record is mixed. Even if Obama approves permit, I think fight will continue. @foe_us is suing @StateDept and movement has momentum now. Movements have shuttered nuclear in Germany, dam in Burma and coal plants in US, so it's not beyond realm of possibility.

Anouare_A: You mentioned the #climate change issue. What do you think would be a better and cleaner alternative to oil for energy?
enviro_writer: Most oil is used for transport, so better fuel efficiency and bigger electric vehicle fleet would help. But the problem is also in our sprawling burbs which require frequent and long travel times. Smart growth will help too. Best solution IMO is not to rely on alternative fuel, but to negate the need for fuel in the first place with better planning.

Anouare_A: Are there any other controversial projects that get less press than #KXL and that you feel deserve more coverage?
enviro_writer: Enviros are great systems thinkers – seemingly separate projects are often connected or are symptoms of bigger issues. At @TarSandsAction mtntop removal and fracking activists got arrested b/c causes for #tarsands also behind other projects. But to answer more directly, mtntop removal in Appalachia has still, despite devastation it’s caused, not had much attention. I’d keep an eye on Venezuela’s own #tarsands, oil in the Bakken Formation and oil shale in US West too.