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


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


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


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


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


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.