Friday, December 28, 2007

Forest Succession in Manhattan: The High Line


On the West Side of Manhattan, an old elevated railway that's been abandoned for twenty-five years shows us how urban plants and trees can re-colonize and thrive in the middle of the nation's biggest city.

Succession typically works this way: after a large disturbance, like a fire or windstorm, fast-growing weeds and shrubs move in to stablize and reinvigorate the soil. These give way to fast-growing trees, which in turn get crowded out by slow-growing, shade-tolerant climax species.

The High Line ceased its railroad operations in 1980, and even though it started with no topsoil to speak of, the abandoned viaduct has come a long way towards growing a forest.

Even while the railroad was operating, meager scraps of dust and soot gathered amidst the railbed and began supporting mosses and a few hardy grasses. Over the years, more dust, leaves, and soot blew in. Each fall, the topsoil gained another layer of dead grass and leaves from pioneer weeds like goldenrod, Queen Anne's lace, and Ailanthus Altissima.

Given a few more years, the High Line might have begun to support larger trees, including birches and oaks. But the High Line's succession is taking place amidst the parallel succession of the Meatpacking District, where pioneer nightclub and art studio species are losing their habitat to multi-million dollar condos and Frank Gehry's masturbatory late-empire architecture. A few years ago, artists looked down on the green ribbon of the High Line and proposed a public park. Developers saw dollar signs, and so this is how the High Line looks today:


When construction is finished, the new High Line park will have benches, new concrete paths, easy access from the street level, and drought-tolerant landscaping that mimics the wild weeds that inspired the park.

It might seem like an interruption and commodification of the wild successional process, but New York is nothing if not habitat for homo sapiens, and the new High Line fits in perfectly with New York's typical neighborhood succession: places once run-down and diverse inexorably become unaffordable and boring. At least until the next large disturbance, anyhow.

Visit NYCviaRachel's Flickr page for more High Line construction photos.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Plum Creek and Paranoia

This past Saturday, Maine's Land Use Regulation Commission held a public hearing in downtown Portland to vet public concerns over the massive development project that Plum Creek proposing for Maine's Moosehead Lake region. Several hundred Mainers turned out, and the majority came to declare their opposition to the project.



Frankly, Plum Creek's plan doesn't get me all that riled up. Environmental groups here in Maine have made much of the company's plan to subdivide 975 houselots in the remote Moosehead region - which sounds like an awful lot, but really, it's roughly the equivalent of adding another Limington (1141 households) or Readfield (867 households) into the north woods (source: US Census). I grew up next to Limington, and to tell the truth, those 1141 households across the Saco River were pretty benign.

So until Saturday, I'd been inclined to look at the Plum Creek "debate" as yet another instance of well-to-do, self-styled environmentalists getting worked up about the quasi-mystical Nature on the frontier in order to avoid thinking about the nature we use and abuse every day. After all, while the hearings were going on and street thespians were prancing around in moose costumes, international diplomats in Bali were struggling to drag the United States to sign a watered-down agreement that may end up being little more than an eleventh-hour doomsday pact. How's that for perspective?

But then I met the Plum Creek supporters - or rather, two particular supporters - who reminded me that as foolish as the environmental movement can sometimes be, at least it's not as blatantly desperate, greedy, and stupid as the fools who swallow and serve the gospel of a corporate panderer.

Upstairs from the big hearing room, Plum Creek had set up a hospitality room "for supporters only," and naievely thinking that I might have an intelligent conversation there, I moseyed inside. Within five steps of the door, a grumpy old man with a rental-cop authority complex stopped me and told me I had to leave, because the room was only for supporters.

Now, the guy's little bulldog demeanor was funny enough, so I laughed him off and asked him how he was so sure I wasn't a supporter. He essentially told me that I fit the profile, which I can only assume to be someone under thirty years old (I don't think my clothing - a hooded high-school football team sweatshirt, Dickies, and an olive green jacket - screamed "environmental terrorist"). I explained my position, gave him the name of my employer, which has adopted a neutral position to try to negotiate a consensus compromise, and generally assured him well enough to leave me alone for a while.

I took a picture of the room and helped myself to some coffee. But the geriatric bouncer really didn't like the photography, because he stormed back over and told me to use a styrofoam cup. This confused me - was my choice of a reusable ceramic cup how he was profiling me as an antagonistic Earth Firster? But no: he just wanted me to leave, immediately.

This was at the head of the buffet line, and within earshot of everyone in the room. I wondered loudly how Plum Creek could have its reputation as a steward of public access when this was how it treated sympathetic members of the public in its "hospitality room."

A second fellow came over and tried to lead me away from the small knot of supporters in the buffet line - the "good cop." His name was Ron. We had a slightly more productive conversation, but at one point he complained that "you people" want to cut off public access to the northern forest. I told him that I wanted no such thing, but that Plum Creek's sale of one thousand McMansions would fairly certainly restrict public access to large portions of the forest immediately, and introduce thousands of future complaints about hunting and industrial forestry from newly suburban neighborhoods in the forest. After about five minutes, he ended the conversation fairly amicably, and also asked me to leave.

Thinking back on it, I came to see these guys and their paranoid lack of perspective as representatives of all the things that are terribly wrong with Plum Creek. The corporation and its supporters have been working hard to establish an "us against them" mentality in northern Maine, and they were particularly resentful that they were subjected to a hearing in Portland. But these divisions are bullshit, and counterproductive.

The two men I spoke with, like many Plum Creek advocates, act as though they are defending a terribly abusive relationship. Plum Creek has worked hard to promote the idea of Greenville as a struggling town in need of a savior. As a result, Greenville and its more gullible citizens have resigned themselves to low self esteem and a slavish devotion to the company's plans. Sure, Plum Creek knocks us around sometimes, but we deserve it. We need it. And damn anyone who thinks otherwise.

The Plum Creek bouncers have a lot in common with the working stiffs who want George Bush to keep burning coal until we've got the Inferno on Earth. You could say "screw 'em," but they're already screwed beyond all hope.

Listen, Greenville, you've got a lot going for yourself - Moosehead Lake, mountains, and millions of acres of wild Maine forest. Stick up for yourself and don't take any more crap from Plum Creek's political machinations.

The Photo They Don't Want You to See

PS - This is the forbidden photograph of the inside of Plum Creek's "hospitality room" (read the previous post for the hilarious story behind it).


It looks innocent enough, but as I left I could have sworn I heard them start chanting in tongues. On my way down the hall I passed some shaved sheep that were being led back to the room I'd left. They were completely shaved and tattooed in unintelligible symbols that nevertheless filled me with a vague sense of dread. The weirdest thing was a few minutes later, downstairs in the big hearing room, when a big bloody mass of entrails just fell through the ceiling onto the LURC commissioners' desk. Probably just a freak accident.



Just kidding! Totally joking! Haha. You Plum Creek guys have a great sense of humor, you know?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Farmadelphia, the Havana Cornucopia, and the Fire Escape Garden


Check out these Pennsylvanian urban-rural photo mashups, from an landscape architecture project called Farmadelphia:
(these images are courtesy of Front Studio, as seen on BLDGBLOG):





(The one above actually reminds me of some out-of-the-way neighborhoods of Houston.)



Granted, community gardens have been springing up in the empty lots of rundown neighborhoods since back-to-the-hood urban homesteading movements (now known as "gentrification") began in the 1970s.

You might think that Farmadelphia's most innovative idea is that it treats these community plots not as hobby gardens, but as serious, profit-oriented agriculture to feed the city. But even this is nothing new: Havana, Cuba has been doing it for nearly 20 years now.


An urban farm in Havana (source)

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba lost its imports of oil, fertilizer, and grains - the things that sustained and justified the country's sugar-plantation agricultural system. The entire nation had to very quickly switch from a sugarcane monoculture to a distributed food-producing permaculture among small urban plots in order to avoid famine - and by and large they've succeeded.

So if our own Soviet sugar-daddies abandon us - if Wal-Mart shuts down, say, or China embargoes us - Farmadelphia might stand a chance.

Last but not least, here's the fire escape garden that Jess and I tended this past summer, as it was in the halcyon days of August.


Who needs an empty lot? Or Fidel, or fancy architects, for that matter?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Hike CanCo Mountain

It's been a while since I've posted an inner-city wilderness tour here. So here, for your enjoyment, is a trail description for CanCo Mountain, also known as Rocky Hill, in the Deering neighborhood of Portland.

Begin your hike from the dead end on Quarry Road off of Read Street, near Morrill's Corner. Continuing around the fence and up the dirt road, you'll get your first view of the dramatic southern face of CanCo Mountain. Avoid the cliffs by climbing the rubble on the eastern end of the hill, then climbing the gentle ridge to the summit.


CanCo Mountain offers spectacular views of the City of Portland, Casco Bay, and, on clear days, the White Mountains. Below: the view over CMP's maintenance lot towards Back Cove.



The thin soils that cover over the granite in patches support a limited community of plants that thrive in dry, sandy soils: mostly red pine and blueberry, with some white pine. This type of forest is actually typical along much of Maine's rocky coast - so even though CanCo Mountain is two miles inland, the water views and the flora give it a nautical flair.

Also visible in the middle distance are some vestiges of Portland's twentieth-century industry. Chief among these is the big factory west of the summit, which was once the home of the American Can Company, or CanCo. This was once the place where Maine's agricultural bounty arrived by rail to be packed into American Cans, then shipped forth on a nonperishable journey to the nation's grocery stores.

But not anymore. Fewer people eat Maine produce, and those who do certainly don't want it to come from a can. By the looks of it, the old factory is now some sort of warehouse.

CanCo Mountain also has two huge gouges cut into it - presumably the quarry for which the road was named. If any readers have any more information about the can factory or the quarry, please comment.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Real green construction is affordable construction.

The Press Herald's environment reporter John Richardson published a feature today about a 4-unit LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) -certified subdivision being built by Habitat for Humanity in Portland's North Deering neighborhood.

John writes that the LEED "stamp of approval... often equates to expensive," but I'd strongly disagree. Green building is inherently frugal, because it makes more sensible and practical use of our natural resources. It's true that a huge LEED-certified McMansion in South Freeport, Maine is going to be expensive - just like every other huge McMansion in South Freeport. But applying LEED standards to more sensible homes isn't that expensive - in fact, taking long-term savings in transportation and energy savings into account, a LEED-certified building is going to be considerably less expensive than it would be without green building features.

For example, Portland's new LEED homes will focus on using recycled materials, many of which are donated from older homes through Habitat's ReStore. And energy-saving features may have more expensive up-front costs, but most typically pay for themselves within five to ten years - and that period will only get shorter with rising energy costs. "We're providing affordable houses to those who can least afford electricity and oil, so it's a natural for us to go there," said Stephen Bolton, the executive director of the local Habitat for Humanity chapter.

The fact that lower-income people spend such a big proportion of their income on heating and electricity, especially here in northern New England, makes green building features a natural fit for affordable housing. And since residents of these homes are more likely, by necessity, to live frugally without indulgences like 'great rooms' or four-wheel-drive minivans, affordable housing should be a natural fit with the LEED framework.

But while more and more affordable housing construction projects will incorporate green building features, it's still going to be some time before LEED certification becomes standard for them: certifying still requires a lot of extra work from architects and contractors, and that added expense means that your million-dollar shrines to jackass environmentalism are more likely to get certified than a truly sustainable, middle- or low-income apartment building. In other words, the "stamp of approval" might cost a bit extra, but everything that justifies that stamp will lead to big savings for the homeowner.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Exporting pollution to Dixie

As someone who lived (happily) in Houston, Texas for a year, it kind of gets on my nerves when northerners pick on the South - Houston or LA or the sprawl around Pheonix and Atlanta - as being the cause of the nation's environmental ills. It's true that these cities have big environmental problems - especially air pollution. But these problems are largely caused by industries that Northerners don't want in their own backyards, although we don't mind buying their products.

Let's start with Houston's ship channel (photo at right), home to the largest concentration of oil refineries in the United States. These refineries produce tons of air pollution and greenhouse gases daily and are largely responsible for Houston's notoriously poor air quality. Because of the refineries, Texas's per-capita greenhouse gas production is nearly double that of most northern states.

But we in the northern states are still buying and using those refineries' products. In fact, in the last year that data was available, the average Maine motorist drove 11,348 miles: over 1,000 miles MORE than the average six-shootin', hollerin' Texan (source). Back-to-the-land Vermonters drive even more on a per-capita basis. So not only are we actually responsible for more pollution, we're also doing the dishonorable deed of producing that pollution in a poorer part of the country where more minorities and immigrants live. How could anyone possibly be self-righteous about that?

Similarly, Los Angeles is well known as the smog capital of the nation, but that's largely because of its port, where millions of containers from China get transferred from diesel-burning ships to diesel-burning trucks to supply stores and warehouses all over the country. Without the Port of Los Angeles and its pollution, it would be a lot harder to come by your organic pears from New Zealand, or any of the thousands of other things you buy from across the Pacific.

The Port of Long Beach is starting to assert itself, though. As detailed in this article from the Times, California is placing new regulations on the shippers and truckers who converge on LA to move Asian products to American store shelves.

Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster said, “We’re not going to have kids in Long Beach contract asthma so someone in Kansas can get a cheaper television set.”

Actually, Mayor, that's been our arrangement for decades now. But best of luck to you, from a well-wisher in the vigorous North.

Monday, December 03, 2007

US Chamber depicts a frigid future for SoCal

The United States Chamber of Commerce has produced a truly terrifying short film to advocate for swift enactment climate change legislation. In it, Southern California's climate has apparently crashed to frigid conditions, and the survivors, living in a world depleted of oil and without viable alternative technologies, are left to run along abandoned freeways for mobility and for warmth. It's like "The Day After Tomorrow," but there are no Army helicopters flying in to the rescue at the end: this is a world out of gas.



I guess the voiceover actor and title copywriter wanted to tone down the horror-flick footage, though, since their message contradicts everything you see in the video. Nevertheless, the US Chamber provides a handy link for us to write to our Senators. Again, their version is full of errors, so I've drafted up a handy actual version for you to send:

THEIR version (don't use - you'll look like a bozo!)

I am writing this letter to urge you to oppose S. 2191, the “America’s Climate Security Act of 2007.” S. 2191 is a flawed bill that, if passed, would have a negative impact on every American’s daily life. This bill will cause millions of Americans to lose their jobs, businesses to move overseas, double electricity bills and cost Americans trillions of dollars in compliance costs. S. 2191 does not recognize climate change as a global issue, fails to promote the technology needed to reduce greenhouse gas pollution, and does not address the potential problems it would cause for American businesses.

The potential economic consequences of S. 2191 are striking. Earlier this month, Dr. Anne Smith at CRA International testified before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and predicted that by 2050, S. 2191 could cause the following:

1. Up to 3.4 million American jobs lost;
2. $1 trillion decrease in GDP;
3. Increase in wholesale electricity prices by over 120 percent;
4. Up to $6 trillion cost to American consumers to comply with carbon constraints; and
5. Reduction in household spending of over $2,600 per household.

S. 2191 also contains serious flaws. First, it does not fully address the fact that climate change will have to be an international effort. The domestic emissions constraints this bill imposes, without long-term cutbacks in greenhouse gas emissions from other nations – particularly developing nations – will not only fail to make the required impact on levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but could also irreparably harm our country’s ability to compete in the global market. Any long-term climate change action plan absolutely must include developing nations such as China and India.

Second, S. 2191 does not promote greenhouse gas reduction technology at a fast enough pace to compensate for the bill’s aggressive emissions constraints. There is little funding for technology research and development in the bill, and because of this, carbon capture and sequestration technology will not be cheaply or readily available by the time the caps are in place and begin to decrease annually.

Finally, S. 2191 does not adequately preserve American jobs and the domestic economy. The bill requires American companies to undertake dramatic emissions reductions regardless of whether its economic competitors do the same, at least prior to the year 2019. By then, much of the United States’ energy-intensive industry could be gone, having either shut down or moved overseas. The chemical industry has already largely moved overseas because it cannot compete in the world market while complying with domestic energy constraints and emissions controls; how many other American businesses will be forced to follow suit?

For these reasons, I ask you to oppose S. 2191. Unless the bill can be modified to address the issues outlined above, it will not only be harmful to the American economy, but also ineffective in addressing current climate issues.
CORRECTED version (cut and paste this one!)

I am writing this letter to urge you to support S. 2191, the “America’s Climate Security Act of 2007.” S. 2191 is a much-needed bill that, if passed, would address the enormous economic risks posed by greenhouse gas pollution. This bill could cause millions of Americans to gain new jobs, grow new businesses, and save tens of trillions of dollars in energy and natural disaster costs. S. 2191 recognizes climate change as a global issue for which America bears substantial responsibility. Its market-based cap-and-trade mechanism will promote the technology needed to reduce greenhouse gas pollution while creating tremendous opportunities for American businesses.

The potential economic consequences of climate change are striking. By 2050, climate change could cause the following:

1. Millions of lives lost;
2. Increased GDP variability and frequency of global recession;
3. Increase in resource warfare and price instability on global commodities;
4. Trillion-dollar expenses to American businesses coping with greenhouse gas externalities; and
5. Wholesale devastation of tens of thousands of households in droughts, flooding, and wildfires.

S. 2191 is a promising way to avert these consequences, and it also contains serious benefits to the American economy. First, it recognizes the fact that climate change will have to be an international effort with American leadership. The domestic emissions constraints this bill imposes will demonstrate the viability and necessity of long-term cutbacks in greenhouse gas emissions from other nations. The investments that this bill will incentivise could also establish our country’s prominence as a leader in the rapidly-growing global market for "green" technology. Ultimately, any long-term climate change action plan absolutely must include developing nations such as China and India, and this bill is a necessary first step toward a viable international agreement.

Second, S. 2191 will promote greenhouse gas reduction technology at rapid pace: the bill’s aggressive emissions constraints will drive the power of the free market instead of weak, expensive subsidies to promote this important new industry domestically. There is little government funding for technology research and development in the bill. Investors, not politicians, will decide whether projects like carbon capture and sequestration technology are worth pursuing.

Clearly, S. 2191 will preserve American jobs and bolster new industries in the domestic economy. The bill ensures stability to American companies while its economic competitors abroad are left to fend for themselves in the face of increasing climate risk, at least until those nations also adopt meaningful climate change legislation. By then, much of the United States’ new, lean, and innovative industrial power will have already reestablished itself here. It's true that some old, lumbering industries that can't adapt to the changing conditions of the 21st century may try their luck by moving overseas, but good riddance. This bill gives us the framework we need to grow a more innovative and more powerful economy here.

For these reasons, I ask you to support S. 2191. Unless the bill is weakened to pander to the dinosaurs of our industrial past, this bill will not only be beneficial to the American economy, but also effective in addressing the current climate crisis.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Hot stocks

Investments in green technology are increasing. Seems like good news - a sign that our markets are responding to $3/gallon gasoline and the warnings of the Nobel-prizewinning IPCC. But what are we to make of the fact that investments in security and weapons industries are also increasing, and at a much faster rate? Naomi Klein has an idea in an essay in today's Guardian:
"There are two distinct business models that can respond to our climate and energy crisis. We can develop policies and technologies to get us off this disastrous course. Or we can develop policies and technologies to protect us from those we have enraged through resource wars and displaced through climate change, while simultaneously shielding ourselves from the worst of both war and weather."
And so, professional money-movers like Douglas Lloyd of Venture Business Research "see this [defense and weapons industries] as a more attractive sector, as many do, than clean energy."

For all of our reverence for the free market and its "invisible hand", people often forget that these markets are man-made, and they function according to rules we make. Just as the market needed new rules and frameworks to respond to huge monopolies at the turn of the last century, the market needs new frameworks (like a global commodity price on carbon emissions) to respond to the global climate crisis now.

If we can't accomplish that, we might as well follow the venture capitalists' example and trade our rooftop solar panels for rooftop artillery batteries.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Ruined views

George H.W. Bush's compound at Walker's Point recently sprouted a 33-foot wind turbine to take advantage of coastal winds. And, possibly, to try to postpone the coastal flooding that will ruin the property sometime within the next century.

Here's a photo from the Portland Press Herald (click the link for their news story):


It's a bit hard to see - look closely on the left side of the photo. In spite of its coastal location and super-rich neighbors, the only view that's really been ruined is the one that pegs the family Bush as petro-pyromaniacs who don't believe in global warming. So we can expect the kid to follow Dad's example in his professional capacity any day now, right?
Meanwhile, down in Nantucket, another patrician political dynasty continues its long slide into jackass environmentalist irrelevance. This Daily Show clip is a few months old, but even if you've already seen it, enjoy another scenic viewing:



Related: The Tragedy of the Commons

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Welcome to Squaresville, Pops



"Hey Dad, I want you to drop me off a block from the theater."

Here's some commentary to this funny ad from Brad Aaron, a writer on New York City's Streetsblog:
"At first you think that, considering dad's expanding waistline, she's looking to get some exercise. But it turns out she's embarrassed to be seen in an SUV, since 'people in that [presumably urban] part of town are riding bikes and have hybrids and stuff.'"
Which makes sense. If her friends saw this guy driving up in an SUV, they'd draw the perfectly obvious conclusion that this is just another chubby, mid-life-critical condition who needs a big car to help him feel better about his emasculating suburban existence. Seeing a dude reduced to this is terribly embarrassing for everyone involved. I mean, check out this guy I saw in a Burger King drive-thru a few years ago:


He thinks he's the Burger King himself. I know this photo isn't easy to look at, but these people are out there, and it's tragic.

But wait! Objects Pop. This overpriced vehicle for fantasies of superiority IS a hybrid. "Like a hybrid hybrid?" asks daughter. "I don't know what a 'hybrid hybrid' is, but yes," answers Pops smugly.

They drive off. Pop's fantasy of responsible masculinity deflates slightly as he spies his receding hairline in the rear-view mirror, and a voiceover proclaims their car to be the most fuel-efficient SUV in the world. Brad Aaron speculates on the inaudible continuation of the father-daughter conversation:
"The daughter, now inaudible, explains that an anemic 34 miles-per-gallon hardly qualifies the Escape as a "hybrid hybrid" -- any more than the Chevy Tahoe is the 'Green Car of the Year' -- and asks dad why the family can't move closer to the theater so he and mom might stave off heart disease and she wouldn't have to be ferried around in 'the greenwashing machine.'"
OK, that's about enough jackass environmentalism from the auto industry, and lunch break is over. I could go on for ages, but it's like shooting fish in a barrel. Apologies for the editorial laziness.

Salvation, American-Made

Some outfit called the "Green Car Journal" named the hybrid Chevy Tahoe the "Green Car of the Year" at the Los Angeles Auto Show last week. Here's what the "Green Car of the Year" looks like:



Maybe this is some cynical sarcasm from the "Green Car Journal," a biting commentary on the failure of American car companies to address the climate crisis. Whether it's sincere or not, anyone who believes that this obesity wagon is actually a "green car" is suffering from advanced symptoms of Jackass Environmentalism.

Monday, November 19, 2007

To Save the World, or Burn It

Climate change loomed large in the international news over the weekend. On Saturday, in Valencia, Spain, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its fourth and final synthesis report, with "language that is both more specific and forceful than its previous assessments" (NY Times). "IPCC chief Rajendra Pachauri... described the consequences of not reversing the fossil fuel juggernaut as 'disastrous'" (BBC). Delegates from 130 nations signed off on the report, although our own United States delegation proudly stood with our long-time allies in truth and democracy - China and Saudi Arabia - in efforts to water down the report's alarming language. Hell, as long as our government's looking to censor and obfuscate inconvenient facts, we might as well work with the experts.

While delegates in Valencia worked, a typhoon flooded Bangladesh and killed hundreds, a vivid example of the "alarming predictions set out in the recent IPCC report" (BBC).

It all amounted to yet another headache for the tyrants at the OPEC conference in Riyadh, where skyrocketing prices and a weakening dollar are shaking the foundations of oil-wealth kleptocracies. These are hard times for these guys, so they asked the world kindly to solve the climate problem without adding to theirs: "It behooves us to find a technological process that will make the continued use of fossil fuels possible," said Ali al-Naimi, the Saudi oil minister (NYT).

All this leads to Bali, Indonesia, where the globe's climate diplomats will gather to hammer out a two-year agenda to the international treaty that will follow the Kyoto Protocol beginning on December 3rd. Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the UN framework convention on climate change, scolds that "governments were well behind business in preparing for the challenges ahead," and that if they fail to make an agreement now, after the strongly-worded consensus of the IPCC and 130 nations, we're all in "deep trouble" (The Guardian). Indeed.

It comes down to international diplomacy, now, to save the world, or burn it.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The platinum flop

Last year, Maine's Wright-Ryan builders finished the first LEED-certified platinum green home in the northeast: a "luxury" 3200 square foot spread in the bobo Elysia of South Freeport. A year after its completion, though, the house is still empty while its brokers struggle to find a buyer.

So, why doesn't anyone want to shell out $1.1 million for this place? It's got custom cabinets made from sunflower seed shells, and triple-pane south-facing windows, and exceptional indoor air quality. It comes with 2.6 acres of land on a former woodlot, PLUS a two-car garage, which will come in handy because the nearest jobs, stores, and services are all miles away.

Sunflower-seed cabinets aside, it's a bit hard to understand how a such a large suburban dwelling built in a formerly rural area could be considered "green." Solar panels are cool and everything, but if your grocery shopping trip burns as many BTUs in an hour as they'll produce in a whole week, then what the heck is the point?

This is an oft-cited shortcoming of the LEED rating system: because the US Green Building Council's awards are points-based, a builder can make up for points lost on a lousy, unsustainable site by going the extra mile on things like insulation and renewable power systems.

The Freeport house may have gamed the LEED system, but homebuyers in the market aren't so easily fooled. The people looking for green homes just aren't that interested in paying $1 million to live in a huge house in the boondocks. Hopefully, the builders' experience with this place provides them with some valuable lessons without scaring them off from future LEED projects.

Related: Maine Sunday Telegram: "Unaffordably Green?" By Tux Turkel. November 4, 2007

Friday, November 09, 2007

No Country for Old Men



Between Alpine and Marfa, Texas. Photo by davidteter.

So two of my favorite directors have made a movie based on a novel by one of my favorite authors that's set in one of my favorite places: the Coen brothers, Cormac McCarthy, West Texas. Awesome.

I read "No Country for Old Men," the novel, shortly after it was published last winter. I'm rarely frightened by books while I'm reading them, but this one kept me on an emotional edge the entire time I read it, and several scenes stood out as the most suspenseful I've ever read. I am frequently frightened by movies that intend to be scary, so, given the material it's based on, I expect this one to be exceptionally terrifying.

Jess and I spent a week in west Texas in early December of 2005, a trip to Big Bend right before we moved back north. In an area the size of the entire state of New Hampshire, bewilderingly vast plains surround just five small towns like living history museums of the old west: Marathon, Alpine, Marfa, Fort Davis, Sanderson. Between them, the jagged teeth of ancient mountain ranges stab the long horizons.

Cormac McCarthy is probably the best nature writer living today: his descriptions of these landscapes are almost as beautiful as the real thing. McCarthy also gets compared to Melville a lot, and like Melville, he doesn't romanticize wild nature: more often than not, the protagonists in McCarthy's novels find themselves nakedly visible and vulnerable in the open plains while the evil men hunt them down. This is a wilderness too vast to credit any significance to any individual life or death. I love it.


Marfa Prada. Photo by eggyplants.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Bringing the solution home

A 57 megawatt wind power project has been approved for Maine's Washington County, and the 38 turbines could start spinning within a year. This is great news, of course, but, like many of Maine's proposed wind power projects, this one is going to be in the middle of nowhere, hundreds of miles away from where most people will use the electricity they generate.

This a bit unfortunate - the wind energy generated will lose a significant chunk of its power during its delivery over hundreds of miles of transmission lines - but this is how the politics of wind power work in the post-industrial state of Maine, where our primary industry now consists of simultaneously coddling the egos and satisfying the appetites of retiring baby boomers.

Putting wind turbines in a working forest near a major ski resort and hundreds of second homes (as the beat-up Black Nubble wind project proposes) is an unacceptable violation of "pristine wilderness," but putting wind turbines in a real wilderness, far away and out of sight from rich retirees' vacation homes and resorts, garners the endorsement of every "environmental" organization in the state, even though the big transmission costs will substantially dent the project's benefits.

How closely we rely on our natural resources in Maine is something that most people, honestly or not, say that they admire about our state. Who doesn't get a hackle-raising thrill when some jerk from Massachusetts whines about the smell of fish from the quaint lobster pound next door to his new multi-million dollar cottage? "This is Maine," we shout. "This is our tradition of living off the land and sea! This is where food comes from! Suck it up and deal!"

The same protest should apply to people who whine about the sight of electricity being made - the board members and major donors of Maine Audubon and the Appalachian Mountain Club who are dead set against seeing wind turbines through the picture windows of their ski condos. While we wait for them to resolve their blinkered environmental ethics (this could take a while), we'll need to come up with other solutions without them.


In Portland, residents are beginning to talk about setting up test anemometers on the crest of the Eastern Prom, where the peninsula separates Back Cove from the rest of the harbor. It looks like a fantastic wind power site, with open water to the east and west and a hillside that runs perpendicular to prevailing winds (the "wind rose" above shows the typical frequency and strength of winds in the area). Turbines here would not have to lose energy by traveling for miles on the transmission grid: here's a chance for the "Portland Buy Local" movement to make a meaningful move into the energy sector.

Plus, it's a highly visible site - as well as the home of Portland's first certified green building (the East End School). I suspect that most Portlanders would consider turbines here more a source of civic pride than an "eyesore".



Portland wouldn't be the first city to give a wind turbine or two a prominent spot: Toronto has one, as does the town of Hull on the eastern end of Boston Harbor, and the IBEW union in Dorchester installed a turbine right next to I-93.

So, is Portland really a "sustainable" city? Let's put our money where our mouth is by building windmills where the views are.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Truth in advertising: Pay Powerball

The lottery is a tax on people who are bad at math, and for a couple of months now, the subversives at Nicely's Market in West Gorham have been broadcasting this anti-tax message to motorists on Route 25.

Tomorrow, Maine voters will decide whether to allow an Indian tribe to build a new casino in the economically-depressed Washington County, the most rural and most northerly county on America's eastern seaboard. This is Maine's big chance to redistribute wealth from poor people to other poor people, with a big slice of the small pie going to an assuring crowd of Las Vegas mobsters. If it sounds like a gamble, then let luck be a lady...

Friday, November 02, 2007

The Sewage Lagoon Wilderness


Via the local Portland Press Herald: those of us who missed the owl-watching in downtown Portland last weekend can make a trek instead to the sewage lagoons of nearby Sanford, Maine, where expanses of open water and mud flats attract migrating shorebirds every fall.

An Audubon Society excursion last year identified pied-billed grebe, double-crested cormorants, Canada geese, green-winged and blue-winged teal, many ducks, American pipits, pectoral sandpipers, Savannah sparrows, yellow-rumped warblers, and Wilson's snipe. Sewage plant workers also have a photograph of a bald eagle that once came to visit.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Monument Square Wilderness


Owl in Tree
Originally uploaded by Paul, The Eighth Deadly Sin.
So my buddy Paul flickred it, and Sally of Port City Studios blogged it, and dozens of other Portlanders gaped at and photographed it, but your self-proclaimed field guide to the inner-city wilderness was in the wrong inner city* when a barred owl occupied a tree in Monument Square this past weekend. I am sorry for letting you down.

*The wildlife watch from a weekend spent in Boston's South End: a few boor-ing Canadian geese plotting their non-migratory winter invasion.

The way ahead for freeways isn't free

Traffic jams are the Soviet breadlines of our day: too many drivers paying too low a price to use our roads and highways in the twilight days of Socialized Motoring.

The alternative - congestion pricing - has the support of transportation advocates on the left (as a way to reduce air pollution and finance transit) and on the right (as a way to introduce market prices for a scarce public resource). The idea's even making its way into the smoggy Kremlin of the freeway empire, Los Angeles, where the Bush administration is encouraging the transit agency to get more revenue from rush-hour drivers:

"To reduce traffic congestion, the Los Angeles area needs to experiment with charging motorists to drive in special freeway lanes during peak periods, a Bush administration official told the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board Thursday."

-From the LA Times. Full story here.

Monday, October 29, 2007

ExxonMobil Arena / Disaster Shelter

The odds are good and getting better that your local sports arena will someday have to house thousands of evacuees. First it was the Superdome in NOLA, then Houston's Astrodome, then, this week, Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. In spite of "ballpork" derision, sports arenas nationwide are earning their keep as shelters for disaster victims in the age of global warming.

So why not do some advance planning in the design of new stadia, by incorporating humanitarian aid facilities, crisis communications centers, and National Guard barracks among the locker rooms and bleachers? It might cost a bit more, but let's just auction off the naming rights to corporations in need of a quick burnish to their public image.

Here's my idea for an ExxonMobil Arena / Disaster Shelter:

Image manipulation based on HKS Architects' rendering of the new Lucas Oil Field in Indianapolis.


  1. Off-grid power and communications facilities: Wind turbines and retractable-rooftop solar arrays provide electricity for vital communications, medical, and cooling equipment during inevitable power outages.

  2. Rooftop rain collection and cisterns supply on-site ice plant and plumbing systems.

  3. Skyboxes convert to "command center" offices for FEMA, city government, local law enforcement, military, and other public safety officers.

  4. Upper concourses house deployable cubicles to create modular bunkrooms and living units for long-term evacuee families

  5. Street-level concourses include first-responder facilities, dispatcher services, social workers, ice distribution, and other support services for "walk-in" disaster victims and arriving evacuees.

  6. Interior foodservice facilities include industrial kitchens capable of processing basic meals for thousands

  7. Groundskeeping and staging areas include space for inflatable rainwater collection bladders, fuel cells and propane tanks, and ice chilling plants. Locker rooms and sports team clubhouses convert into barracks for public safety personnel.

  8. The playing field acts as a "public green" for evacuees: in addition to cots, the central field also includes programming appropriate for a community center, including the massages and yoga lessons recently popularized in California, plus school classes, sports, library services, etc.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Santa Ana Winds

Those hot dry winds that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen.

-Raymond Chandler, "Red Wind"

Those hot, dry Santa Ana winds are back this week, up to no good as usual.

The Santa Anas are similar to the föhn winds of the Alps: high pressure inland sends air speeding over the mountains, where the winds cool down and lose their capacity to hold moisture. Then, forced downhill again towards the coast, the winds gain heat adiabatically in increasing atmospheric pressure. At the same time, the winds gain speed as they funnel through narrow mountain passes. The hot, dry, moving air creates perfect conditions for wildland fires, which is why southern California is burning.

In some areas, the winds are blowing at hurricane speeds, sending smoke and dust hundreds of miles out over the Pacific Ocean...


Image: NASA's Looking at Earth site (thanks for the tip, widgery!)

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Regeneration


Photo: Running Springs, California, by the Associated Press.

Today, our rich and famous friends in Malibu are receiving a harsh cram-session lesson in the fire dependency of California's chaparral canyon ecosystems.

Another good argument for studying urban ecology: knowing how nature works in the city where you live makes it that much less likely that nature will leave you homeless.

Monday, October 22, 2007

From Ghost Towns to Ghost Marinas

While global warming opens up fabulous opportunities in the Arctic for submarine polar explorers and others in the swashbuckling klepto-petro sector, the business opportunities that a screwed climate presents to temperate-zone economies are starting to dry up.

In the Midwest, the Great Lakes are shrinking, and shipping companies are being forced to lighten their loads in order not to run aground.

In the Pacific Northwest, diminishing mountain snowpack is jeopardizing the region's legacy of cheap hydroelectric power during the dry summer months.

Even humid Dixie is running dry: the reservoirs that supply Atlanta are draining quickly, with pontoon boats and swimming docks marooned high and dry above the retreating shoreline. Georgia's governor declared a state of emergency this weekend.

The New York Times made these droughts the feature of this weekend's magazine, with gorgeous photographs of the disappearing desert lakes and quotes like this one from Bradley Udall (a hydrological engineer and son of Mo): “All water-management actions based on ‘normal’ as defined by the 20th century will increasingly turn out to be bad bets.”

The 20th century American west had ghost towns; the 21st century American west will have ghost marinas, ghost casinos, ghost ski resorts, ghost golf courses...

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Miscellaney

Apologies for the dead air this week... work has been busy as we prepare for the big GrowSmart Summit. If you'll be near Maine tomorrow, consider taking the day to check it out: we'll have over 30 workshops on the connections between Maine's economy, our environment, and our governance - including a number of workshops that discuss the rising prospects of new sustainable industries in Maine. Learn more or register here.

Also somewhat related, here are two blogs by "fourth sector" venture capitalists that I found this morning. I haven't had the time to read them in detail and they seem wicked wonkish at first blush, but I plan to go back and read more soon:

  • The Green Skeptic: A microfinance professional writes about environmental "social entrepreneurship" and green tech innovations.

  • Clean Tech Blog: Where a bunch of venture capitalists and industry insiders blog about emerging energy alternatives.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Out of proportion

Even with new cap-and-trade greenhouse gas regulations on the books, a Nobel Prize for Al Gore and the IPCC, and several high-profile, utility-scale wind power developments in the works, our power developers are still investing their money and efforts overwhelmingly in fossil fuels. This graph, which was featured in a recent E2Tech presentation on wind power development, breaks down the types of additional electrical generation capacity currently being proposed in our state.



The big green bar on the left represents proposed gas or fuel oil combustion plants - 57% of proposed new capacity in Maine. Then there's 20% for natural-gas-burning integrated combined cycle plants, and the 12% bar represents the "clean coal" gasification plant proposed for Wiscasset.

In the middle, clocking in at a mere 6% of capacity, are the several wind power projects being proposed around the state (total "nameplate" capacity is actually 5 times this, but it's not always windy when we use the most electricity). Other generation projects of variable renewability round out the short tail.

I find this graph pretty humbling: even in this age of relative enlightenment, we clearly still have a lot of work to do. And this context makes certain environmental organizations' opposition to mountain wind power projects even more infuriating. Why does our "conservation" community continue to burden one of the smallest, most environmentally beneficial portions of the power sector with such a disproportionate share of criticism?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The landscape of paranoia

More evidence that suburban living is a symptom of environmental psychosis, from Rebecca Johnson's op-ed essay in Monday's New York Times:
"Sometimes the xenophobia of the suburbs is subtle, sometimes it’s not. But you can’t live here very long without becoming aware that so much of what draws us to the suburbs — the ability to find a parking spot in town, the quiet of the night, the sense of safety — is based on the principles of exclusion."
Those of you readers who also happen to be criminals should start living up to those suburbanites' expectations by lurking around in their woods some more.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Garbageland

I'd finished reading this book about a month ago, and have been meaning to recommend it here ever since. Garbageland, by Elizabeth Royte, traces the migrations and habitats of one of the planet's most poorly understood natural resources: America's household waste.

If you read that last sentence and object that our garbage is neither natural nor a resource, you really need to read this book. After all, everything that we throw away ultimately came from nature, and Royte's excellent investigations of the recycling industry and the zero-waste movement reveal not only that our waste could be a resource to be mined and re-used, but in many ways that range from disturbing to uplifting, it already is.

Our garbage is a serious force of nature: it travels the world, sullies watersheds, releases airborne toxics upon incineration, provides the raw materials for a mysterious shadow economy, and consumes our environmental consciences with guilt. And yet, because of its nature, no one cares to think about it, much less understand it. Garbage is taboo - maybe especially taboo for people who think of themselves as environmentalists.

But if you did force yourself to find out, as Royte does, where your garbage goes after you set it on the curb or dropped it off at the transfer station, or if you cared to investigate how much of your plastic recycling actually ends up in Chinese dumps, or if you were aware for how many millennia a banana peel can remain perfectly mummified inside a landfill, you would probably produce less garbage. This was my experience, anyhow: reading Garbageland prompted me to stop wrapping my vegetable tailings in trash bags and to start toting compost to the community garden a few blocks away instead.

So buy a used (recycled) copy, and think of it as an investment: the money you spend on it now you'll almost certainly save later on by foregoing the cheap plastic crap that tempts you at whatever big box or quaint boutique you're fond of funding.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

More Mannahatta

Amazing...


From the New Yorker's online slideshow, a supplement to Nick Paumgarten's highly recommended article on the Mannahatta Project.

Related:

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The Mannahatta Project

There's a great article in the most recent New Yorker about the Wildlife Conservation Society's Mannahatta Project, a forensic ecology experiment that attempts to envision what Manhattan Island might have looked like before European settlers arrived.



The project is just getting underway, but its investigative naturalism sets my heart a-flutter. Researchers are poring over historical maps, surveys, and archaeological evidence to re-create a long-lost landscape.

Of course, there are two ways to interpret this project: there's the "paradise lost" perspective, which compares the Manhattan of today to the Mannahatta of 1609 and bemoans the loss of wild nature. Certainly that attitude is tempting when we consider how Manhattan Island was once surrounded by two incredibly rich tidal estuaries, which once helped to sustain some of the richest oyster beds on the planet in addition to a spectacular diversity of migrating birds and terrestrial fauna.

But dismissing Manhattan as "paradise lost" discounts the ecological diversity that still exists in the city, and loses sight of the fact that people are a part of nature, too.

The island's ecological richness is precisely what attracted people here in the first place: first the Lenape Indians, then the Dutch, then the entire world. So a more productive way of interpreting the Mannahatta project might be to look at the island not as "paradise lost," but as paradise changed, with fewer oysters but a lot more people. Through these recreations of pre-European habitats, the WCS hopes, "we will discover a new aspect of New York culture, the environmental foundation of the city... Today’s New Yorkers use the landscape in a much different way, but have the same fundamental needs, [and] finding ways to meet our needs while sustaining the natural processes on which we depend is the most important question of the 21st century."

If this project helps people imagine the wild nature that once existed here, I would hope that it will also help New Yorkers better appreciate and understand the wild nature that still survives - from the big, wild parks like Inwood and Pelham Bay to the scraggly Ailanthus trees growing out of the pavement in Red Hook.

Learn more here: The Mannahatta Project

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Bling bling ka-ching

You may have noticed that I've enrolled The Vigorous North in Google's Adsense program. If you're anything like me, your first reaction will be to assume that I've sold out. But Google's service generally does a good job of matching up relevant, sometimes even interesting ads to your site, so with any luck we won't be bombarded by dancing alien ads or easy credit scams.

I did notice a link to a global-warming-is-a-conspiracy-theory site this morning, though. If you ever see that kind of advertisement on this site, click them as many times as possible to transfer a few pennies from the Exxon Mobil Blacklung Enterprise Foundation into my own personal wallet.

In all seriousness, I am hoping that some ad revenue will help justify the time I spend on this blog, and with luck, it will give me a financial incentive to post more frequently. But if you find the ads distracting or annoying, please let me know - keeping and building my readership is a higher priority for me.

Speaking of which, I've also signed up for the feedburner service, which can deliver this blog's new posts to your inbox or reader software automatically every time it's updated (the feed also strips out the ads, for what it's worth). If you don't have a subscription reader, here's a good description of what it is and how it works. If you do, here's the link to subscribe to this blog.

In other news, the blog's titles will now show up in the Georgia font for you sad sacks who don't have the swoon-worthy Helvetica Neue Condensed font installed on your machines.

Thanks, readers.

Friday, September 28, 2007

The wilderness is a place we go to tell ourselves lies.

One thing I couldn't fail to notice at last week's hearings for the Black Nubble wind power project was the fact that I was the the only person under 40 to testify, and that the people who were opposed to the project were almost universally over 60 years old.

In other words, the people who don't want wind turbines on Black Nubble are generally people who aren't going to have to live with the worst consequences of climate change: the disappearance of spruce-fir forests, the extirpation of alpine fauna here in Maine, and the famines and flooding worldwide. They will, however, have to deal with seeing wind turbines near their second ski resort homes in Carrabassett Valley. Is this really so bad, given the alternative? For some people, it is.

When I worked in the AMC huts, I frequently met the type of person who would spout environmentalist pablums in clear ignorance of environmental history and their own impacts on the natural world. I recall one middle-aged woman at Zealand Falls Hut (which is in a valley recovering from extensive logging and fires 100 years ago) righteously condemning the loggers who harvested the forest outside of her newly-built vacation home in the Sierran foothills of California.

Clearly, this woman's indignation at logging was serving as a blind for her to avoid thinking about the much worse impacts of that newly-built second house, or of the transcontinental flights that she and her husband take to get there.

People like this come to the wilderness in order to lie to themselves: to see a "pristine" wilderness, whether or not it's actually pristine, assures them that their extravagant lifestyles aren't really inflicting irreversible harm on the world. Show them a clearcut, though, and they might have to think about all the timber in their McMansions. Show them a wind turbine, and they might have to think about their generation's long, destructive incineration of ancient carboniferous geology. To illuminate how our natural resources actually get used in the global economy that serves them so well would transform their wilderness fantasyland into a landscape of condemnation.

The environmental impacts of the Black Nubble project are really quite modest - certainly they are no worse than those of the major ski areas in the area (one of which, located on the Appalachian Trail, recently received approval for expansion without any organized opposition. Ski resorts, apparently, are another good place to lie to yourself).

The psychological effects that these wind turbines will inflict on a generation suffering extreme environmental schizophrenia, on the other hand, are more severe. Still, I'm inclined to believe that global warming is a more pressing issue. Let the old, sold-out hippies wallow in their guilt: they've earned every bit of it.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Thoreau's Landfill

Below, a satellite view of Walden Woods, where Henry David Thoreau famously and eloquently expressed the American suburban impulse in Walden and other books.



Besides entreating us (too successfully) to escape civilization by retreating into the woods, Thoreau's writings also preached the less dubious and more easily forgotten virtues of self-reliance, frugality, and a thoughtful relationship with nature. These latter arguments have apparently not convinced Walden's current inhabitants, who live just to the east of the state park in cul-de-sacked McMansions with backyard tennis courts.

The legacy of Walden rounds itself out with a closed landfill just to the north of the pond, and beyond that, the four-lane expressway that carries modern Thoreauvians to their despised City every weekday.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

This Blogger Is Peeved

Last night, I caught a ride up to Sugarloaf mountain for the first of two evenings of public hearings on the Black Nubble wind farm proposal.

There, I got seriously PISSED OFF after hearing from dozens of blue-haired retirees waxing poetic about what a tragedy it would be if we built turbines on a few acres of ridgeline in western Maine just to prevent hundreds of pounds of mercury and thousands of tons of greenhouse gases from poisoning our atmosphere every year. Talk about your jackass environmentalism - these people were so loopy, so elitist, and so helmeted in their own rectums that I had to run outside twice in the middle of the hearings just to take brisk walks up the ski trails and cool my jets.

This little episode has riled me up enough to produce at least a month's worth of blog posts, so I'll resist the urge to get into it all right now. In the meantime, Portland-area readers are encouraged to attend this not entirely unrelated event. I haven't read the book yet, but it sounds pretty great: a natural history of our oilsheds, from the commodity's source in the springs of Nigeria and the North Sea, through the Great Canyons of Russian mobsters and Saudi extremists, and out through the massive delta of American tailpipes.

Please be our guest on Tuesday, September 25th at 7pm, at Longfellow Books, for a reading and discussion with Lisa Margonelli, author of the recent book Oil on the Brain: Adventures from the Pump to the Pipeline.

Weekend Edition Saturday, February 24, 2007: "Oil was once an alternative fuel, much easier to come by than whale blubber and less poisonous to the air than coal. This is among the nuggets you might learn from Lisa Margonelli. It takes her from local gas stations to an Iranian oil platform, a Texas drilling rig, Nigeria, Chad and Shanghai to trace the path of the commodity that seems to command so much of our economy and politics."

We hope you can join us for a stimulating conversation on this important topic.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The carbon cube

The Carbon Cube is a striking reminder of how much CO2 we produce for each mile we drive.

The Cube consists of one pound of solid graphite, which represents the amount of carbon dioxide the average car emits every mile.

Carbon dioxide is an invisible gas, impossible to handle or to see. I've always thought that this was a big reason we have such a hard time dealing with greenhouse gas pollution. People who would never think of dumping five pounds of untreated sewage into a river habitually send literal tons of greenhouse gases and other airborne toxics into the atmosphere for their daily commute.

But the Cube changes that with its tangible and surprising heft. Put one on your dashboard and think of sending one more of its clones into the clouds with every click of your odometer. I'll bet you'd become a more efficient driver.

Learn more or order your own cube here.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Tragedy of the Commons

Mars Hill wind turbines behind an International Appalachian Trail shelterMars Hill wind turbines behind an International Appalachian Trail shelter
It's an environmental problem so old that it's named for a relic of medieval agriculture, and now, the age-old "tragedy of the commons" is keeping us from building renewable energy projects.

When farmers of the Middle Ages left the village to tend their fields every day, they typically left their livestock on a publicly-owned patch of grass near the center of town.

But since these "commons" were owned by everyone, taking care of them was typically left to an inadequate collection of do-gooders who received little in return for their work. Meanwhile, everyone in town had an incentive to put as much of their livestock as possible on the common - it was free, and if their animals didn't eat all the grass, someone else's would. As a result, the Common pastures quickly became desolate patches of dirt, at least until City Beautiful movements closed them to livestock and resurrected them as public parks like the one in Boston.

Since the Middle Ages, the "tragedy of the Commons" has afflicted everything from fisheries to dorm-room kitchens. Right now, it's being felt most keenly on a global scale with the global warming crisis.

Here in Maine, we have a promising way to slow down climate change by developing our state's wind resources into a source of electricity. But an article by John Richardson in today's Portland Press Herald cites a brand-new tragedy of the commons, in the state's failure to approve new wind power developments:

"A study completed this year by the National Research Council, the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences, found conflicts like those in Maine are widespread because of a fundamental reality of wind power. The environmental costs -- visual impacts, noise, landscape and wildlife disturbances -- are primarily felt by those near the wind farm. The benefits, however -- reduced global warming emissions and other air pollution, less dependence on foreign oil and less mining and drilling -- are felt more on the global scale."
The people who live near and object to proposed wind turbines are a lot like the medieval villagers who sent their cows overgrazing. They hold their own self-interest high above the interests of everyone else (only now, they use the mantle of "environmentalism" to justify it).

Meanwhile, the rest of us who "own" the atmosphere would collectively benefit a lot more from having the windmills built, but it's hard for any single one of us to justify the travel and effort involved in supporting these projects.

As a result, a few people whose delicate aesthetic sensibilities cause them to "suffer" from wind farms have a stronger incentive (not to mention lower travel costs) to complain at local planning hearings than the 6 billion people who will share the benefits of healthier lungs and reduced greenhouse gases. The tragedy continues...

Thursday, September 13, 2007

LA's Hydrological Freeway

This detail from the 1902 map of Los Angeles looks south toward downtown from a point high above Burbank. The Hollywood sign perches near the top of Cahuenga Peak in the middle. Winding around the Hollywood Hills in the foreground is the Los Angeles River.



Like a Hollywood cliche, the River went under the knife during the 1940s and emerged completely changed. No longer a meandering desert stream, the LA River is now a straightened, paved trench. It's visible in the present-day aerial view below, following roughly the same course as before:



The paving project followed a large 1938 flood, which itself was partly the result of burgeoning development in the river's watershed. The straightened, paved channel was meant to deliver floodwaters as quickly as possible to the ocean. But most of the time, the river flows as a mere trickle through a wide concrete plain, which makes the renovated River an irresistible playground for movie car chases. The LA River has played a supporting role as a racetrack in Repo Man, Grease, Terminator 2, and many other movies.



Look familiar? Photo by OPHOTN
As a storm drain, the new LA River works pretty well... although it still floods from time to time. As a river, though, it's a mess. The water is severely polluted with runoff - garbage, oil, dog shit, etc. - that flows off of every parking lot and freeway in the San Fernando Valley. And wildlife isn't exactly thriving there, although waterfowl and fish, taking what they can get, do live there. After half a century of living with the paved river, then, Los Angeles is talking about restoration, and some of the concrete may come out to provide better water quality, habitat, and absorption of stormwater.

The manifest destiny of the LA River may end up looking less like a post-apocalyptic movie set and more like its frontier condition.

Links:

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Historic and Present-Day Maps of Los Angeles

In this 1902 map of western Los Angeles, the city (lower right) is just beginning to expand beyond downtown, Burbank (top) is a small ranching town of a couple hundred people, and Hollywood (center) is a mere crossroads at the foot of its eponymous Hills.


LA, 1902 and 2007


(Historic map from the Los Angeles Fire Department's historical archive)

This historic map covers a pretty huge area, and it reveals some fascinating changes that have taken place in the Los Angeles basin during the past century. I'll be devoting two more posts this week to two details in this map: the transformation of the Los Angeles River (which curves around the northeastern edge of the Hollywood Hills in these maps) and the disappearance of Las Cienegas, "the wetlands," which show up west of downtown in the 1902 map.

As with previous historical maps posted here, the KML overlay file for viewing in Google Earth is available here.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Crying Indian Ad

"Some people have a deep abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this nation... and some people don't."

This is an amazing 1970s-era Indiansploitation bit from Keep America Beautiful, a PR front for the nation's beverage industries and other manufacturers of pre-consumer litter. Paradise is lost! Shed a solitary tear!

It was a tremendously popular ad. It was produced in an era when a slew of states passed or were considering mandatory bottle deposit laws, which make packaged drinks more expensive up front but boost recycling rates considerably. Maine's status as a national leader in recycling rates comes in large measure due to its comprehensive deposit law, which mandates at least a five-cent return on virtually every bottled beverage except milk.

Since the 1970s, though, few new bottle deposit laws have been passed, thanks to the efforts of the lobbyists behind the Keep America Beautiful campaigns. Make no mistake: the industry spends orders of magnitude more on PR campaigns like this one than they do on actual litter prevention.

Even in states like Maine, the old deposit laws are quickly growing obsolete. Five cents doesn't have the same value it had in 1976, and recycling rates are declining. Society would probably be better off with a 25 cent deposit that would rise with inflation: we'd have less litter, more recycling, and we'd merely be reinstating the original intent of our bottle bills. It might make perfect sense, but we'll probably drown in the beverage industry's crocodile tears before it ever happens.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

'Clean' Coal, Conventional Coal, and Shinola: A Comparative Study




A few years ago, a millionaire from New York came into South Portland, Maine and proposed to build 41-story twin towers on top of a convention center/plastic surgery hospital. The complex also would have included an aerial tram over the harbor to downtown Portland, and an extended-stay luxury hotel in one of the towers where plastic surgery patients would recover. Like many of his colleagues, this developer was wealthy in cash and ego and bankrupt in taste.

Now another strange and unlikely plan is taking shape further north, in the quaint seaside town of Wiscasset. A cadre of Connecticut real-estate developers are proposing a new coal gasification power plant just north of the shuttered Maine Yankee nuclear reactors.

Coal gasification is a process that's been around for decades now: it bakes coal at high temperatures to break the stuff down into energy and component chemicals, some of which can be synthesized into diesel fuel or natural gas (wikipedia has the chemistry lesson). Compared to a conventional coal plant, there are, indeed, some significant advantages: sulfur and mercury in the coal gets baked out and separated instead of going up the smokestack. The gasification process is also more efficient, using less coal to produce more energy. And a byproduct is syngas, which can be converted either into natural gas or diesel fuel (the gasification process was used extensively in Germany during WWII due to oil and gas shortages).

The Connecticut real estate developers are proposing to manufacture synthetic diesel fuel, which will also have some marginal pollution benefits over typical diesel, from the new plant in Wiscasset.

Sounds good, right? The developers also claim that the plant will "support... the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI)... to reduce overall carbon emissions" and that it "bolsters Maine's self-reliance by reducing transportation fuel imports." These and other "top ten local and regional benefits" can be found on the Twin River Energy Center web site.

But the gee-whiz attitude is either misleading or misguided - probably some combination of both. There are some glaring instances of bad math and bad science in the developers' "fact" sheets. Here's a gem: "Diesel engines are 26% more fuel efficient than gasoline engines and therefore emit 26% less CO2." In fact, the cetane molecules in synthetic diesel contain a lot more carbon per gallon than gasoline's isooctane, and diesel emissions include heat-absorbing soot particles that are extremely powerful greenhouse pollutants.

If they were better at math, the developers would avoid the carbon question like the plague, because there's no denying that this proposed plant would convert millions of tons of coal (carbon) into global-warming CO2. This plant would only "support" RGGI insofar as it would have to buy up literal tons of carbon-pollution credits on the regional market.

Now, theoretically, the plant might at some point be able to "sequester" the greenhouse gases it produces them and, I don't know, shoot a rocket full of its CO2 to the moon, or something. The technology doesn't exist yet, but our friends in the coal lobby assure us that they're working on it.

As for other pollutants, gasification removes most mercury and sulfur from the smokestack emissions, but there's still enough left coming out of the tailpipe to make this proposed plant one of the biggest, if not the biggest single source of mercury and acid rain pollution in Maine. At least the prevailing winds will blow it down into the wealthy lungs in the midcoast region, and not into mine.

Finally, Maine is not a coal mining state, which undermines the idea of rugged "self-reliance". Coal would have to be imported, and most of it would probably come from mountaintop removal strip mines in impoverished regions of southern Appalachia (see photo above).

There are shadowy economic problems as well. Most of these gasification plants still require huge government subsidies, even with demand for their natural-gas and diesel byproducts at an all-time high. The industry argues that a few early subsidies will reduce technology costs to the point where all new coal plants can adopt the gasification process in the future. But this argument presumes that we'd want to build new coal plants, which seems like a foolhardy assumption in the face of imminent climate disaster. At the very least, carbon taxes and regulations like RGGI will make any kind of coal power more and more expensive... so why not save our subsidies for unambiguously clean technologies?

In short, all of the "advantages" of "clean" coal only look good when you compare the idea against the extremely bad example of a conventional coal plant. Otherwise, "clean coal" looks like... well, it's definitely not shinola.

An opposition group has already emerged in Wiscasset, but judging by the developers' amateurish pitch and the inherent lousiness of the idea, they shouldn't have to work very hard.