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.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Environmental News Roundup: The Philippines

Astronaut photograph of coal mine on Semirara Island, the Philippines
"Japan has allocated 9.24 billion yen in official development assistance (ODA) to the Philippine government’s forest management programs in Luzon and the Visayas, the Japanese Embassy announced." - Japan extends P5B aid to Philippines for forest management

"In 2002, 250 hectares were selected as the site for the development of Manila's first transit-oriented mixed-use central business district (QC-CBD). At the same time long-established informal settlements — some more than three decades old and home to more than 25,000 people — occupy much of the land earmarked for development." - An inside view of community organising in Quezon City's slums

"Philippine President Benigno Aquino III ordered security for mining companies beefed up Tuesday after raids by communist rebels shut down operations of the country's largest nickel producer and sent its stock plummeting... The rebels accuse mining operators of destroying the environment and exploiting workers." - Philippines beefs security after rebels raid mines

"Most people will have seen at some time, a depiction of one of the Philippines most famous sights, the 2,000 year old Rice Terraces in the Philippine Cordilleras. These too, have been severely damaged in major mudslides, when Typhoon Nesat blew across the Ifugao Province." - Flooding in S.E. Asia: Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam Philippines

"Chad Oppenheim unveiled the first certified “Green Project” in the Philippines, under the county’s own new green building rating system, BERDE (Building for Ecologically Responsive Design Excellence). As the first design under the BERDE rating system, the Net Lima, is one of three towers under construction at Net Metropolis." - Chad Oppenheim Selected to Design the Philippines' First Certified Green Project

"While rigid rules are imposed on environmental and social practices of large-scale mines, small-scale mines do not go through such stringent scrutiny. This has induced destructive environmental practices among some small mines, which impute a bad reputation on the entire industry, the chamber said." - DENR asked to regulate small mines

"Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam lose about $9bn a year, 2% of their combined GDP, due to problems caused by poor sanitation. According to the study, households in these countries see up to seven times their initial investment in basic sanitation improvements, such as building a pit latrine." - Facing up to the global water crisis

""If you put garbage in Salambao, Obando River, it will be like putting garbage in our plates, because this is where our food comes from," said Mercy Dolorito, former barangay chairman of Salambao where the 44 hectare landfill is proposed to be set-up." - Obando folk oppose landfill plan

"A lawmaker Saturday filed a bill seeking to promote agricultural and farming activities in highly urbanized areas, particularly Metro Manila. In House Bill 4750 to be known as the “Urban Agriculture Act of 2011,” ALE Party-list Rep. Catalina Bagasina said Metro Manila has a huge area where food production through agriculture can be pursued." - Urban farming in Metro Manila, Philippines sought

""We haven’t seen any progress as to the DENR’s effort to combat climate change, especially in reducing carbon emissions. Also, as long as we allow mining entities (which are dependent on HCFCs) to flourish in this country then this phase out plan will just go to waste," ICSC executive director Red Constantino said." - Philippines to cut imports of ozone-depleting substances by 2013

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Wistman's Wood

"It is the silence, the waitingness of the place, that is so haunting; a quality all woods will have on occasion, but which is overwhelming here — a drama, but of a time span humanity cannot conceive. A pastness, a presentness, a skill with tenses the writer in me knows he will never know; partly out of his own inadequacies, partly because there are tenses human language has yet to invent." - John Fowles describing Wistman's Wood in The Tree (photo by Snaps11)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Revisiting Cradle to Cradle a Decade Later

The trees outside my window are rapidly turning red and yellow and after their leaves drop, bacteria and fungi will have a feast, eventually turning valuable nutrients back to the tree. McDonough and Braungart use trees as a metaphor for how humans should be re-envisioning the design and manufacturing process to one that doesn’t include the notion of waste. When they came out with Cradle to Cradle nearly ten years ago, the concept had already been around since the 70s, but the book solidified its practical application in modern industry.

The problem, they say, is that we’ve meshed “technical” nutrients (metals, plastics, etc.) with “biological” nutrients (stuff that will decompose naturally) in a way that makes it nearly impossible to use those materials more than once. And then they sit around, festering and poisoning the biological systems around them. Their view is admirably holistic, going beyond more limited notions of recycling and efficiency to scrutinize the entire lifecycle and context of a material.

The concept is grand (and perhaps too reliant on design as a silver bullet for environmental problems), but has industry implemented these ideas in a meaningful way since the book’s publication? The authors’ firm, MBDC, has established a Cradle to Cradle certification system and consults for a lengthy list of clients including Ford, FedEx, Nike and PepsiCo. Most of the certified products seem to fall into the “Silver” category with none apparently meeting the stringent “Platinum” level. Herman Miller chairs are probably the most well-known example of a C2C-certified product.

The dilemma (and opportunity) is that products exist within a system influenced by more than the company selling the product. The notion of C2C requires multiple parties complying with standards – the transportation system that gets recyclable materials back to the factory, the chemical manufacturers that supply the raw materials, and the farms that grow the natural fibers woven into the textiles… it’s a big, complicated network that can’t be easily encapsulated by a single product’s certification. But it’s a start and it begins to pressure the system.

A video from the UK’s Ellen MacArthur Foundation expressing C2C ideals (without mentioning C2C) was featured in the Guardian earlier this year and took off on YouTube:

The authors also tout Ford’s newish River Rouge Assembly Plant which I had a chance to visit a few years ago (and watch people on the line assemble F-150 pick-up trucks – very educational!). Daylighting for the factory floor, natural storm water management, a huge 10-acre sedum green roof all make the factory a more sustainable operation, but it’s also just one building in the enormous River Rouge complex (and they're building trucks there, of course). I don't want to diminish the foresight and investment on Ford's part, but we've clearly got a lot of paradigm-shifting ahead of us.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Two Demonstrations for the Price of One

This morning I sat in on the second hour or so of the final State Department public hearing on the Keystone XL in the lower level of the Reagan Building. The room was big, buzzing, and filled with cameras.

What seemed like 2/3rds of the room was occupied by pipeline opponents. The pipeline supporters - largely members of the Laborers' International Union of North America, (LiUNA) - sat on the left side of the room in their conspicuous orange t-shirts.

The whole union thing has been an unfortunate component of this debate since unions and environmentalists agree on many other things - social justice, corporate accountability, etc. But check out this little anecdote from Kate Sheppard who also attended today's event:
After a rally environmental groups held at noon outside of the Reagan building in downtown DC, I found James Foster, a 55-year-old electrician and LiUNA member, sitting on the steps nearby. When I asked him whether there was going to be a similar union event, he responded that he didn't plan on participating anyway. At least, not anymore. "I agree with the other side now," said Foster. "I didn't know this was an environmental issue." He'd heard it was a protest for jobs, but, after listening to the pipeline's critics testify Friday morning, he said he decided that "work that destroys the environment" isn't worth it.
Wow. In addition, Dean Hubbard of the Transport Union Workers of America gave a strident indictment of the project in his testimony. Other speakers (pretty much all in opposition to the pipeline) included indigenous leaders, a veteran of Afghanistan, an Olympian, heads of the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation, Friends of the Earth, Nebraskan ranchers, a doctor, students and more (you can see them all here). The testimony of Erich Pica of FOE was particularly damning as he laid out all the State Dept. corruption his organization recently uncovered and pointedly asked reps if the public hearing process itself was a "farce".

Brian Merchant of TreeHugger summed up the divide between the supporters and opponents nicely: "Hearing the passionless talking points recited next to truly heartfelt pleas to protect homes elevated and amplified the genuine sentiment."

Right before noon I went into the lobby to find someone who knew which side of the building the rally was taking place at, but the first person I could find was Bill McKibben himself! He pointed me in the right direction in the midst of eating a quick lunch.

After the rally, some folks went back inside to watch the rest of the testimonies. I milled about shooting the breeze with Lawrence, someone I'd been arrested with in August at the Tar Sands Action. As we sat there, what should wander by but an Occupy DC march! So we decided to join in along with some other NoKXL folks and the inflatable globe which migrated to the head of the march. Serendipitous or planned?

An interesting afternoon, for sure. We can only hope someone's listening.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Past and Future of Planning

I haven't found a site that provides more visual food for thought on the future of urban planning than the vintage photo collection at Shorpy. Just take a look at their large collection of cityscape photos from the early 20th century. How did we fall for the bait and switch that had us losing all these brilliant streetcar networks in the US? And now we're trying to put them back in.

Washington, DC. From 1924, "F Street N.W. from 14th Street."
Detroit, MI circa 1917. "Looking up Woodward Avenue."
Philadelphia, PA circa 1906. "Chestnut Street."
Rochester, NY. Circa 1904. "State Street".
Speaking of urban planning, there's been a recent flurry of articles on what to do with suburbia, "hintersprawl", outer rings, inner rings, etc., notably by Aron Chang (Beyond Foreclosure: The Future of Suburban Housing), Allison Arieff (Shifting the Suburban Paradigm) and Alex Steffen (How Not to Redesign a Suburb). Mortgage crisis + resource scarcity = "Whoops, why did we build these McMansions again?" Still, many developers aren't budging. From Arieff:
Five years ago, at the crest of the housing boom, I worked on a team consulting with a master planned-community developer who had asked us to help “revolutionize the way our homes are sold.” The developer had little interest in the work we proposed — namely, to revolutionize the way their homes were designed and built. That company, like most of its competitors, laid off nearly half its work force the following year, and ended or delayed most of its future development projects. Devoting energy to how best to market its inventory hadn’t been the most forward-thinking strategy for them then — nor would it be now. But that’s what most developers continue to do.
(See also: The Appeal of Modern Streetcars Continues to Mount, But There Are Obstacles to It Bringing Mobility Gains)

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Tentative Environmental Victories in Bolivia and Burma

In 2005, Evo Morales campaigned on a platform of justice for indigenous communities in Bolivia but after recent police crackdowns on indigenous groups who were protesting a 200-mile highway project through the northern Amazon, his image has soured. The crackdown has been bad PR for Morales and on Monday he apologized for police behavior and said the highway plan was to be suspended until a "national dialogue" could be held on the issue. It's a tentative victory for the protesters, but they aren't holding their breath.

In another surprising victory last week, Burma (of all places) decided to halt construction of the Chinese-funded Myitsone dam on the the country's largest river, the Irrawaddy (the Sydney Morning Herald quips "Burma gives a dam‎"). Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi cheered the decision after attending an art exhibit and book launch to save the river last month. China's leaders, naturally, are teed off. They signed a contract with Burma over the dam in 2009 and are asking them to recognize the "legal and legitimate rights of Chinese companies".

Why the apparent change of heart on the part of Burma's notoriously despotic leaders? Was it the instability of the region where construction was taking place? Burma's resentment of China's influence over the country? In any case, it's wild to hear President Thein Sein saying he acted "according to the desire of the people". Another video from Al Jazeera about why the dam was a bad idea: