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.


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.