Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The aesthetics of clean energy

My old employer, Maine Audubon, is a fairly conservative and patrician organization. It's not a strong leader on climate issues: its conservation programs are a lot more preoccupied with piping plovers (cute birds that just happen to live on the same beaches as the organization's plutocrat "major donors") than with ending Maine's self-destructive addiction to fossil fuels.

So I was encouraged and a little surprised to see, on a recent visit a few months ago, a large new array of solar panels planted in the meadows of Maine Audubon's headquarters.

Knowing what I know of Maine Audubon's constituency and its neighbors in the blue-blooded suburb of Falmouth,  I presume that this new addition to the meadows of Gilsland Farm didn't come without some controversy. Lots of Maine Audubon's members (and a number of its staff) frankly express opinions that wind farms and solar installations are ugly. They wouldn't disagree that climate change exists, or that we need to do something about it – they'd just prefer that clean energy be built someplace else, where they don't have to look at it.

Maine's community of environmentalists is strongly aligned with the back-to-the-land movement. And in the back-to-the-land narrative, rural Maine was a new frontier where a new, sustainable and allegedly self-sufficient society could be built far away from the problems of the cities.

There's a fatal flaw in this narrative, though. Rural back-to-the-landers were, and still are, cripplingly addicted to oil and private automobiles. As a rule, they don't like to be reminded of this contradiction.

I think that this is the key to what so many rural "environmentalists" find distasteful about wind farms and large-scale solar installations. What upsets them is the reminder, amidst pastoral landscapes, that we are living through a climate catastrophe.

But for those of us who will live with the consequences of that catastrophe, the reminder is overdue – and these small token efforts to avert it are welcome. 

Related: Exporting pollution to Dixie

Monday, July 21, 2014

Silicon Valley's gentrification export

Airbnb, the DIY hotel service that was born in the crucible of the Bay Area's dystopan income divides and astronomical rents, is now spreading its way across the nation. Middle-class households now have the privilege to literally rent out their own beds in order to clear escalating rents in the nation's more fashionable/expensive vacation destinations.

Nick Schroeder, who recently took over the editorship of the Portland Phoenix, has a great feature story about the mixed blessings of the Airbnb phenomenon in this week's issue. He describes how Airbnb can help struggling artists make the rent. But he also points out that unaffordable rents are mainly the product of Portland's (or New York's, or San Francisco's) housing shortages — a problem that Airbnb is only making worse, as landlords convert erstwhile apartments where families used to live into informal, unlicensed hotels for well-heeled vacationers.

Meanwhile, in Next City, a possible solution is brewing in the other Portland, where they're considering an ordinance that would require the licensure and taxation of Airbnb rentals, with tax revenues going towards affordable housing funds.

Such a policy could, in theory, let struggling renters continue to rent out bedrooms when they need to — while also giving the city the means to ensure that there will be fewer struggling renters in the big picture.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Art laundry

Postcard, c. 1900, from the Detroit Publishing Company collection. Courtesy of collection Marc Walter / published in An American Odyssey (TASCHEN, 2014). 

Central Park Gates, by Jean Claude and Christo, 2005. Photo courtesy of The City Project.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

We don't sit in trees any more

In Italo Calvino's The Baron in the Trees, the hero, an adolescent 18th-century nobleman, renounces the earthbound life one evening when his sister serves him a dinner of snails. He spends the rest of his life living in the treetops, from where he falls in love, embraces radical politics, and participates in the political and cultural revolutions of the Age of Enlightenment.

Calvino's novel was written in 1957 — a novel about rebellion in a not-particularly-rebellious era. But a generation later, in April 1970, college students and politicians organized a "nationwide environmental teach-in" held mostly on college campuses. It would later become known as the first "Earth Day."

Historian Jared Farmer recounts one of the first Earth Day protests in his book Trees in Paradise, which I learned about recently on the Huntington Library's blog. A synopsis there recounts how "At Moorpark College, in Ventura County, 50 students laid their bodies down in front of bulldozers to protest the widening of a tree-lined road... By the time 10 students were arraigned in juvenile court on April 22, the first Earth Day, the trees were gone."
“What had been lost? Ancient redwoods? Historic oaks? No. They aren’t even native plants. Most of the trees in question are Australian eucalypts planted in the 19th century as ornamentals.”
With the benefit of 44 years' worth of hindsight, most Golden State environmentalists of 2014 would probably not risk arrest over some Australian eucalyptus trees. Today, they're generally considered an invasive species that sucks away scarce groundwater and fuels dangerous wildfires with their oily foliage and shedding bark.

But trees — especially giant Californian trees — remained a powerful synecdoche for environmentalism. Tree protests reached a peak in the late 1990s when the charismatic Julia Butterfly Hill, with support from Humboldt County Earth First! activists, spent two years sitting in a 600 year-old redwood that she named Luna.

The immediate consequence of Hill's endurance tree-sit was the permanent protection of her tree and a 200 foot buffer zone from a logging operations.

But more generally, Hill's activism attracted national attention to the regional battles between loggers and environmentalists over the fate of the Pacific coast's old-growth forests. Thanks to stronger enforcement of the Endangered Species Act, West Coast logging was already in steep decline by the late 1990s. The activism of treesitting brought the additional accountability of publicity to logging operations.

In the years since Hill climbed down from Luna, living in trees in order to save trees has become rarer and rarer — in part because it has become less necessary. In the interest of avoiding controversy, logging businesses have committed to more sustainable forms of forestry, and conservation organizations have been able to protect most of what remains of the west's old growth trees. More ambiguously, more timber harvesting has moved overseas, away from the critical eyes of Californian idealists.

Today, treesitting feels like a bit of a 1990s anachronism. We're taught, as ecologists, to think about the complexity of global ecosystems. The idea of devoting months' or years' worth of activism to save a small grove of trees can seem like a lark in the context of the world's more pressing, global crises.

But under the apocalyptic threats of losing everything, any form of activism will feel inadequate. Before we throw up our hands, it's worth noting that Julia Butterfly Hill and her tree-sitting colleagues actually accomplished most of their goals, and leveraged influence far beyond their ambitions. It's the Butterfly effect: given enough time, repeated small actions will eventually generate big changes.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Watch Charles and Ray Eames pitch Eero Saarinen's "Mobile Lounges"

Jess and I took a vacation to the Grand Canyon last week, which was fantastic — but as spectacular as it the thing that actually inspired me to post on this neglected blog was a bleak bit of airport architecture we encountered on our way home.

Our flight got diverted through Washington D.C.'s Dulles airport, and on the way through we were herded into one of these bizarre vehicles (which you might recognize if you've been there yourself) for a ride to the next terminal. They kind of resemble an open-plan double-wide trailer stacked atop a tank chassis:
(image from Wikimedia Commons)

Being in Washington, my initial guess was that these were the unwieldy product of some pork-barrel military industrial contract. But I was mistaken — these weird buggies are actually the vestigial remnants from an unfulfilled future of jet travel.

In 1958, the architect Eero Saarinen was commissioned to design Dulles, which would be one of the first major airports built from scratch to serve jet aircraft. Foreseeing the long walks and sprawling terminals of our modern era, Saarinen suggested that it would be better to employ a kind of satellite parking system for planes, with passengers shuttled from a compact, comfortable terminal onto the tarmac via these mobile boarding platforms, which he called "mobile lounges".

I could go into more detail about the details and rationale behind this idea, but luckily for us Saarinen commissioned this wonderful short film from his friends Charles and Ray Eames as part of his campaign to sell the authorities on his design, so I'll just let them explain it:

Untitled from CHRISTINA LAETZ on Vimeo.

The mobile lounges are like a horizontally-oriented elevator: a door opens, you walk in, you wait a while, another door opens and you exit somewhere else. Airport travel was more glamorous back then, though: on our short ride between the modern Dulles terminals, the mobile lounge was pretty dingy and crowded — certainly nothing like the luxury buses depicted in the Eames' cartoon.

Saarinen's concept enjoyed a brief popularity in the early 1960s — mobile lounges were also adopted at Montreal's Dorval airport and Charles de Gaulle in Paris — but like the Betamax video player, they were an innovation that never quite caught on.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Grand Canyon of Westbrook

The Grand Canyon of Westbrook is a large volume of negative space out behind the Travelodge (the landmark visible in the photo below, on the Canyon's north rim). I've been past it hundreds of times in my lifetime, but unless you walk out the railroad tracks to stand on the edge, it's easy to miss. The shopping centers and four-lane arterial roads that surround it do a remarkable job of obscuring the city's biggest hole in the ground.

Some online research reveals that the rock of the quarry is gneiss, rock that originally formed as marine clay and slate about 450 million years ago. It was the Ordovician Period, and the mud that would eventually become coastal Maine was accumulating in a shallow subtropical sea surrounding a chain of volcanic islands in the southern hemisphere.
450 million years is a long time. Enough time for seafloor mud to harden into slate, then for that slate to fold onto itself and plunge miles deep into the earth while brand-new Appalachian Mountains rise to the height of Himalayas near the equator, plus enough time for those Himalayan-sized mountains to wear away to White Mountain-sized nubs.
450 million years is nine million times longer than the amount of time it took Blue Rock Industries to make this hole. But now that we're thinking in terms of hundreds of millions of years, in terms of rocks that drifted halfway across the globe and sank four miles under long-gone mountains and resurfaced here, it doesn't seem like such a big hole any longer, in the grand scheme of things, does it?

Just a very temporary divot on a landscape even more temporarily known as "Westbrook," "Maine."

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


I took a walk this weekend out to Westbrook, the city adjoining Portland to our west. Westbrook's Main Street is less than five miles from downtown Portland, but these are small cities and along the borderlands between them there's a still mostly empty landscape of meadows and depopulated infrastructures.

From the edge of Portland I followed the old Cumberland and Oxford Canal, which for a few years in the mid-nineteenth century used to ferry lumber from 20 miles inland to the ocean. It's mostly silted up now, but its towpath is still in use along the edges of the Fore River marshes as a walking trail.

The canal's on the left; the Fore River's on the right. The high-voltage power lines on the right lead eastward towards a substation near the bus terminal, where the power gets stepped down to lower voltages and fed into local delivery lines along city streets. Westward, the same lines lead to higher-voltage lines on the New England bulk power transmission grid. Not far from the junction is the metropolitan area's largest power plant, which burns fracked natural gas delivered from Pennsylvania and Texas via the state's primary north-south gas pipeline.

Under the power lines are the railroad tracks of the old Portland and Ogdensburg line, which put the canal out of business as an overland connection between Portland and Montreal. Over 150 years later the railroad is still less abandoned than the canal is, but only this short section between Portland and Westbrook is at all active. Give it a few more decades and there might not be much difference any longer.

These days virtually all of the cargo between Portland and Quebec is crude oil that goes through in two underground pipelines. Those pipelines also run through these marshes at the head of the Fore River.

And speaking of abandoned infrastructures: on the other side of the marsh I bushwhacked northwards through the woods for a while and found the city's "technology park" (previously written about here). The city finally wrote a seven-figure check to cut down the woods and build a short cul-de-sac here this past summer. And now, just look at all the jobs:

From there I picked up the right-of-way of the oil pipeline back towards the railroad tracks near the Turnpike. Until the Turnpike, the infrastructural routes I'd encountered all trended east-west, from the coast into the mountains. The Turnpike is oriented north to south. Our 19th-century infrastructure treated Portland as a hub of trade to which rural hinterlands could be connected; our 20th-century infrastructure generally treats Portland as the hinterland that needs to be connected to Boston.

There are some decent and uncluttered tags under the Turnpike overpasses here.

A few yards further and I had crossed over into Westbrook, where the silos of a big quarry and asphalt plant loomed over the tracks. It was there that I found the most impressive of all the day's abandoned earthworks — the Grand Canyon of Westbrook. I'll save it for the next post later this week.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

There it is, take it.

Out in Los Angeles they've been celebrating the centenary of the opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the audacious engineering project that drained the Owens Valley and transformed the San Fernando Valley from a landscape of orchards into a landscape of tract homes and gas stations.

It just so happens that this week I've also been plowing through the final chapters of John McPhee's Annals of the Former World, his consolidated narrative of a lifetime's worth of writing on North American geology. So far, my favorite part of that book has been the section on Wyoming, in which McPhee tails USGS geologist John Love on field excursions across the state. The chapters weave the sixty-million-year history of the Rocky Mountains with the hundred-year timescale of Love's family, from his mother's arrival, via stagecoach, in a gunslinging Old West of the early twentieth century to Love's atomic age discovery of uranium in the Rocky Mountain foothills.
"Love said that a part of his job was to find anything from oil to agates, and then, in effect, say 'Fly at it, folks,' to the people of the United States."
The geologic history of Wyoming spans relatively little time in the grand scheme of Earth's history. In the last sixty million years or so, roughly one percent of Earth's lifetime, the Rocky Mountains rose up, then sank under accumulations of sand and volcanic debris tens of thousands of feet deep, then, relatively recently, rose up again and shook off the sand in freshets of new mountain streams.

And then a new geological force arrives. Ranchers arrive in Wyoming, and their sons help open up its landscapes to strip mines and oil wells. The state digs beneath the ranchers'  thin Holocene topsoil to get at the more lucrative geology of the Mesozoic era. Open-pit uranium mines, oil and gas wells, and mountain-eating coal draglines rearrange the Rocky Mountain landscape and usher in the new Anthropocene era.

Photo: Jim Bridger coal mine, from the Casper Star-Tribune.

"Fly at it, folks." Love was talking about the bounty of Wyoming's mineral resources, but it's exactly the same sentiment expressed by William Mulholland, chief of the Los Angeles Bureau of Water Works, when he opened the sluice gates of the new Aqueduct a hundred years ago and famously said, "there it is. Take it."

In the same momentous twentieth century of human history that rearranged Wyoming, Mulholland's power broker friends find cheap oil under Venice and the Baldwin Hills, and then they give the growing city a reason to burn it by moving the Owens River over mountains and irrigating the massive suburbs of the San Fernando Valley. Gravel erosion from the Santa Monica Mountains, which had washed out into the Pacific for millennia and built the vast coastal plain of the Los Angeles basin, suddenly gets trapped behind foothill dams and begins to bury the mountain canyons. The basin itself acquires new sedimentary layers of asphalt and concrete. The sooty remnants of Carboniferous swamps fly into the troposphere through millions of exhaust pipes.

Geologic time and human history converge here, in the spectacular landscapes of the American west. But remember: geologic history is full of cataclysms.