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This chart proves #Occupy Wall Street is right

This wont last - the end of growth will bring a lot more down the pyramid – ha!

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Laying down the odds on scenarios for our future

While out jogging this cold, gloomy morning, I began thinking about our collective future.  While predicting the future is impossible, it is possible to estimate percentages of certain events happening in the future.

So, with that in mind, I did a quick back-of-the-envelope (without an actual envelope) set of calculations about the possibilities of our future over the short term – say three years or so.

So here we go:

65% – the odds that peak oil will ensure that the US is entering a time of prolonged, if not permanent, economic decline.

Peak oil is an economic issue as much as it is a geologic issue.  Now that we have passed maximum supply, we are entering a new period of adjusting to high prices.  Yet our economy was built on the premise of cheap prices. High prices constrain growth.   Growth has been the measurement of our civilization for over 100 years.  Without growth, the best we could hope for is stability – a steady state economy.  Yet there are no policies in place to ensure that happens.

The other possibility is decline.  Over the past four years we have printed trillions in fake money to try and stave off decline.   Yet growth has not really been restarted in any meaningful way.  Oil prices are still a barrier to true broad based growth.  And if prices are this high in murky economic times, then what would happen if things were rosier?  The reality is that we’ve come to the end of growth as we’ve known it in a conventional sense.

Yes, I know, this will get me lambasted by nearly everyone, as we all have a stake in seeing growth return.  But nothing I’ve read or heard suggests that there is any lasting way to keep growing as we have on a finite planet.  Technology, innovation and human ingenuity can do wonders.  They just can’t change the fundamental laws of the universe.  Americans are so poorly educated in science that few of us can truly understand that there are indeed limits on what can be done.

25% – the odds that our economic system will collapse suddenly.

By this I mean that one or both of two things could happen.  One is that the financial system which relies now exclusively on credit would simply see the availability of credit disappear.  To begin with, more money has been loaned into existence than ever has a chance of being repaid. This alone will limit future credit availability.  Further, trust is a huge part of credit, and we see that trust has nearly evaporated.  These will combine to basically force a return to a cash and carry world.  But the supply chains that keep food on the shelves and consumer goods in stores don’t currently operate that way.  A lack of credit would stop global supply chains cold.  If that happens, how will food and other stuff get to Lexington?

The other thing that could happen is a sudden and prolonged oil crisis. If global oil flows drop more than say 5%, then global commerce will grind to a halt.  Once again, our economy is extremely vulnerable to lack of oil, or to very expensive oil – which is essentially the same thing.  Without food and goods being trucked into Lexington daily, what happens?

In either scenario, the consumer economy will be severely damaged.  More than 70% of our economy would be teetering.  It is horribly fragile already; collapse would be easy to imagine.

10% – the odds that World War III will be begin and oil will be the leverage point.

For example, we only care about Iran because Iran has a lot of oil.  If we, our allies, or our surrogates attack Iran to destroy its nuclear capacity, the world will face serious repercussions.  China and India have no fear of Iran.  They only want its oil. If we start a conventional conflagration in order to prevent a nuclear one, it will have massive repercussions for oil flows.

China especially will be unlikely to tolerate any significant disruption of supply from Iran. “Iran is China’s third-largest crude supplier, shipping around 540,000 barrels per day (bpd) in the first six months of this year, or more than 10 percent of Beijing’s 5.1 million bpd of imports. The flow grew 50 percent from the first half of 2010.”

Maybe they will help head off a crisis in advance, maybe they find a way to supply arms to Iran, or maybe they intervene directly to defend Iran.  This last is unlikely – yet- as the Chinese do not have the navy and air power to match the US.  However, the longer it takes to deal with Iran, the more time the Chinese have to continue their massive military expansion.  10 years from now, the Chinese military will be much more able to deal with foreign conflicts.  And securing oil supplies will be that much more important.

0% – the odds that we’ll take any meaningful action on mitigating global warming.   Republicans – who are self styled as conservative – meaning conserving of things, supposedly for the future – are nothing but live for today risk junkies.  They are betting that everything science tells us about the rapidly changing climate is either wrong or a hoax.   This is the antithesis of true conservatism.  What it is really about is a complete inability to imagine anything but greed and pollution and waste fueling the world.

Democrats on the other hand,  have no backbone in helping to prepare this country for the onslaughts of a changed climate.  Obama has completely whiffed.  It will be years before another mainstream presidential candidate will say the things he did.

Leadership in the business community knows that global warming is real and that, unaddressed, it will be very bad for business.  But they live in three month increments and will never be rewarded for long term thinking.

In a shrinking economy, organizations that ordinarily provide leadership will find it increasingly difficult to raise the funds to compete with lobbyists in order to sway legislation.

That leaves us as individuals.   Most of us have no interest in the subject.  Of those that do, few are truly committed to the fundamentally altered way of living required to vastly lower our footprints.

We will simply hope for the best.  To paraphrase what one forlorn environmentalist recently said, the battle for climate change is over and we lost.   All we can do now is duck and cover.


So these are my guesses today on where we’re headed.  Even if these are taken as the rantings of crackpot, isn’t this kind of thinking that the top tier of leadership in Lexington ought to be doing?  Shouldn’t we at least put together some idea of what could happen in the future in order that we may be ready for it in the off chance it could happen?  The reason I suspect that we wont see that here is that our leaders can imagine no other world except the one in which they grew up.  Thus scenario planning is viewed a waste of time:  things will always be that way.  Another reason could be that glimpsing into a dimly light future is very scary, and really, who wants to be doom and gloom?  Looks bad on a person in our cult of optimism.

That said, what would be your breakdowns?

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It’s Time To Start Freaking Out About Oil Prices

This is the elephant in the sandwich, or something.  Watch for gas prices to rise right after Christmas, making January very painful for many, many people.   The article below spells it out very plainly:  high oil prices are a function of limited supply and surging demand.  And it never gets better from here on out.   Peak oil is an economic problem that cannot be solved.  We can only adapt. Is the Lex ready?  Oh but wait:  we have arts and entertainment districts and centerpointy things.  So we’ll be good. No need to worry.


Provided by the Business Insider:

There have been so many other temporary emergencies in the world over the past few years that it’s easy to overlook a permanent one:

Oil prices.

Right now, much of the global economy is weak… and oil is still over $100 a barrel!

A few years ago, when oil prices first hit this level, the news came as an absolute shock. And soon, when gas hit $4 a gallon, the entire national conversation changed.

(It didn’t change so much internationally, because, thanks to gas taxes, other countries already charge way more than $4 a gallon for gas, so oil price moves don’t have so huge and visible an impact on driving costs).

Specifically, $100+ oil caused many Americans to buy different cars and drive less. And it put a choke chain on the economy, throttling growth. And, shortly thereafter, the economy tanked.

And then, of course, oil prices followed the economy down, allowing everyone to focus on other more pressing emergencies.

But then, with even a crappy economic recovery from the depths of the financial crisis, oil prices soared again. And now they’re back to near-emergency levels, even with the global economy sputtering.

And this time, no one’s blaming “speculators.” Which is good, because the “speculator” excuse was always ridiculous. Oil prices are about supply (finite) and (ever-increasing) demand.

Yes, if the global economy goes back into recession, oil prices will drop again. But the drop will be temporary.

And if the economy ever threatens to start growing at its full potential, meanwhile, oil prices will likely keep right on going up.

Until they choke off growth again.

And so on.

It has gotten to the point, in fact, that oil prices may start to act as a natural Central Bank on the world economy–raising costs when the economy starts to heat up and cutting them when it cools. And that would be fine…if we could maintain reasonable oil prices when the economy was running at a healthy rate.

But the economy is not running at a healthy rate right now, at least not in Europe and the United States.

And oil prices are already over $100 a barrel.

So we hate to think what will happen if and when we finally do see a vigorous economic recovery.

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Forbes Mag on Climate Change: don’t worry – it’s just a ‘speculative theory’

Yep – the capitalist polluters at Forbes are at it again.  They have allowed a stooge from the Heartland Institute to write a commentary denying that global warming is nothing but good.  (The Heartland Institute is a shill for polluters and the greedy:  “our mission is to discover, develop, and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems.”) See, according to this commentary, “skeptical” (read real) scientists have studied the whole global warming thing and found that “thousands of years of real-world data and real-world climate observations” debunks the so-called science that “alarmists” use.

Despite the fact that over 95% of these “alarmists” understand that global warming is happening, that we are causing it, and that the results will be dire for mankind, Forbes and the Heartland Institute can just lie it away by making it sound like THEY have the facts.  Forbes and the Heartland Institute, following in the true tradition of science,”base their skepticism on real-world data and observations.”  There you have it.  Those “alarmists” are phony scientists, ones who prattle about with “speculative computer models programmed and run within the confines of cubicles and drywall.”

Yes, the ones who work for pollution and greed are the true scientists. See, they don’t have to rely on detailed, measured statistics like the “alarmists.”  Instead these guys have looked around, found that the world was hotter in the past too, and voila, warming is good for us!  Friends, THAT is how science is done.

The only possible silver lining in this piece of hate is that now these deniers have stopped denying that the world is in fact warming.  But, thanks to free market solutions and real science, nothing bad is going to happen.

Don’t you feel better?


Capital Flows
Chilling Thoughts For Global-Warming Alarmists
James Taylor

The central issues in the global warming debate have little to do with whether or not temperatures have warmed during the past century. Nearly all scientists agree that temperatures have indeed warmed during the past 100 years, just as they have warmed (and cooled) many times in previous centuries. The more important issues are whether current temperatures are abnormally warm in a longer-term perspective and whether present warming trends threaten disaster in the foreseeable future.

The first principle to keep in mind is context. While it is true that global temperatures have risen somewhat during the past 100-plus years since the Little Ice Age ended, there was little room for temperatures to go at the time but up. The Little Ice Age, lasting from approximately A.D. 1300 to 1900, brought the planet’s coldest extended temperatures during the last 10,000 years. Saying that temperatures have risen by one degree or so since the end of the Little Ice Age tells us little about the long-term temperature context because the arbitrary baseline of the Little Ice Age was an exceptionally cold climate anomaly.

Keeping this long-term temperature context in mind, we often hear that a given month, year or decade was “the hottest in recorded history,” but that statement only holds true when “recorded history” is defined as the past 130 years or so since the depths of the Little Ice Age. Proponents of a global warming crisis justify this convenient definition of “recorded history” based on the establishment of a relatively global system of weather and temperature stations approximately 130 years ago. Fair enough, but proxy climate data from a variety of sources, including ice cores drilled in the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, show that global temperatures were warmer for most of the past 10,000 years than they are today. Human civilization first developed, and then thrived, during climate conditions warmer than today. Today’s temperatures, in a more appropriate long-term context, are unusually cold, not hot.

The second principle to remember is that the Earth’s long-term temperature history gives us proof that warmer temperatures have in the real world always been better for human civilization than colder ones. The Little Ice Age was typified by crop failures, famines, plagues, extreme weather events and human population contractions. By contrast, our recently warming temperatures have been a welcome reprieve from the harsh and unusually cold conditions of the Little Ice Age. During the past century as global temperatures have risen, forests have expanded, deserts have retreated, soil moisture has improved, crops have flourished and extreme weather events such as hurricanes and tornadoes have become less frequent.

While our ability to document the frequency of famines, plagues, droughts, hurricanes, etc. is more limited for the millennia before the Little Ice Age, we do know that during these warmer millennia human civilization thrived and the planet’s climate was not thrown into a chaotic downward spiral. Indeed, the Earth’s climate remains quite benign despite these thousands of years of recent warmer temperatures.

This gets to the heart of the global warming debate. If we have real-world evidence that temperatures were warmer during most of the past 10,000 years (and also during several interglacial warm periods over the past few million years) than they are today and if we also have real-world evidence that human civilization thrived during these warmer periods and the warmer temperatures did not trigger so-called “tipping points,” sending the planet into a climate catastrophe, then we have little reason to believe our present and moderately warming temperatures are poised to cause a climate catastrophe.

For many scientists this distinction between theory and real-world conditions is what typifies the differences between so-called “alarmists” and “skeptics.” As Colorado State University emeritus professor and hurricane expert William Gray frequently explains, alarmists base their climate alarmism on speculative computer models programmed and run within the confines of cubicles and drywall. Skeptics, on the other hand, base their skepticism on real-world data and observations.

Proponents of an imminent global warming crisis may present interesting theories about catastrophes that may occur if the Earth returns to the warmer temperatures that predominated during most of the past 10,000 years, but such theories are strongly contradicted by thousands of years of real-world data and real-world climate observations. The scientific method dictates that realworld observations trump speculative theory, not the other way around.


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Who said it?

“We don’t like being told what to eat; we don’t like being told how much to exercise; we don’t like being told what we’ve got to drive….”

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A Republican Repents. Almost

This is a long article, but well worth a read.   It offers deep insight into how the Republicans got themselves – and the rest of us – to the low point where we are today.


When Did the GOP Lose Touch With Reality?

Some of my Republican friends ask if I’ve gone crazy. I say: Look in the mirror.

By David Frum, New York Magazine

“What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior can you begin to piece together [his actions]?”

Newt Gringrich

It’s a very strange experience to have your friends think you’ve gone crazy. Some will tell you so. Others will indulgently humor you. Still others will avoid you. More than a few will demand that the authorities do something to get you off the streets. During one unpleasant moment after I was fired from the think tank where I’d worked for the previous seven years, I tried to reassure my wife with an old cliché: “The great thing about an experience like this is that you learn who your friends really are.” She answered, “I was happier when I didn’t know.”

It’s possible that my friends are right. I don’t think so—but then, crazy people never do. So let me put the case to you.

I’ve been a Republican all my adult life. I have worked on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, at Forbes magazine, at the Manhattan and American Enterprise Institutes, as a speechwriter in the George W. Bush administration. I believe in free markets, low taxes, reasonable regulation, and limited government. I voted for John ­McCain in 2008, and I have strongly criticized the major policy decisions of the Obama administration. But as I contemplate my party and my movement in 2011, I see things I simply cannot support.

America desperately needs a responsible and compassionate alternative to the Obama administration’s path of bigger government at higher cost. And yet: This past summer, the GOP nearly forced America to the verge of default just to score a point in a budget debate. In the throes of the worst economic crisis since the Depression, Republican politicians demand massive budget cuts and shrug off the concerns of the unemployed. In the face of evidence of dwindling upward mobility and long-stagnating middle-class wages, my party’s economic ideas sometimes seem to have shrunk to just one: more tax cuts for the very highest earners. When I entered Republican politics, during an earlier period of malaise, in the late seventies and early eighties, the movement got most of the big questions—crime, inflation, the Cold War—right. This time, the party is getting the big questions disastrously wrong.

It was not so long ago that Texas governor Bush denounced attempts to cut the earned-income tax credit as “balancing the budget on the backs of the poor.” By 2011, Republican commentators were noisily complaining that the poorer half of society are “lucky duckies” because the EITC offsets their federal tax obligations—or because the recession had left them with such meager incomes that they had no tax to pay in the first place. In 2000, candidate Bush routinely invoked “churches, synagogues, and mosques.” By 2010, prominent Republicans were denouncing the construction of a mosque in lower Manhattan as an outrageous insult. In 2003, President Bush and a Republican majority in Congress enacted a new ­prescription-drug program in Medicare. By 2011, all but four Republicans in the House and five in the Senate were voting to withdraw the Medicare guarantee from everybody under age 55. Today, the Fed’s pushing down interest rates in hopes of igniting economic growth is close to treason, according to Governor Rick Perry, coyly seconded by TheWall Street Journal. In 2000, the same policy qualified Alan Greenspan as the “greatest central banker in the history of the world,” according to Perry’s mentor, Senator Phil Gramm. Today, health reform that combines regulation of private insurance, individual mandates, and subsidies for those who need them is considered unconstitutional and an open invitation to “death panels.” A dozen years ago, a very similar reform was the Senate Republican alternative to Hillarycare. Today, stimulative fiscal policy that includes tax cuts for almost every American is “socialism.” In 2001, stimulative fiscal policy that included tax cuts for rather fewer Americans was an economic­-recovery program.

I can’t shrug off this flight from reality and responsibility as somebody else’s problem. I belonged to this movement; I helped to make the mess. People may very well say: Hey, wait a minute, didn’t you work in the George W. Bush administration that disappointed so many people in so many ways? What qualifies you to dispense advice to anybody else?

Fair question. I am haunted by the Bush experience, although it seems almost presumptuous for someone who played such a minor role to feel so much unease. The people who made the big decisions certainly seem to sleep well enough. Yet there is also the chance for something positive to come out of it all. True, some of my colleagues emerged from those years eager to revenge themselves and escalate political conflict: “They send one of ours to the hospital, we send two of theirs to the morgue.” I came out thinking, I want no more part of this cycle of revenge. For the past half-dozen years, I have been arguing that we conservatives need to follow a different course. And it is this argument that has led so many of my friends to demand, sometimes bemusedly, sometimes angrily, “What the hell happened to you?” I could fire the same question back: “Never mind me—what happened to you?”

“If we took away the minimum wage—if conceivably it was gone—we could potentially virtually wipe out unemployment completely.”

Michelle Bachman

So what did happen? The first decade of the 21st century was a crazy bookend to the twentieth, opening with a second Pearl Harbor and ending with a second Great Crash, with a second Vietnam wedged in between. Now we seem caught in the coils of a second Great Depression. These shocks radicalized the political system, damaging hawkish Democrats like Hillary Clinton in the Bush years and then driving Republicans to dust off the economics of Ayn Rand.

Some liberals suspect that the conservative changes of mind since 2008 are opportunistic and cynical. It’s true that cynicism is never entirely absent from politics: I won’t soon forget the lupine smile that played about the lips of the leader of Continue reading

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City Planning in an Age of Limits

Fort Collins is leading the way.  Why aren’t we doing the same here?  Development pressure has almost vanished.  Shouldn’t now be the time to do some creative work on addressing the real future that awaits us?  Why has the Planning Commission basically disappeared?

Where are the big ideas for Lexington’s future?  Perhaps we could learn from Fort Collins.


A Town Envisions the Future on Its Own Terms

By , New York Times

FORT COLLINS, COLORADO — As this mid-sized city in the American West prepared to revise its long-term city plan last year — the blueprint for its future — the biggest challenge was the here and now.

Tax revenues had plunged thanks to the recession. Retailing had eroded, in a place that had long seen itself as the downtown of far-flung rural northern Colorado, taking the health of the downtown with it. Even the mechanics of the planning process, using experts in transportation and economics paid by the city, posed a daunting hurdle, not to mention how to pay for the roads and redevelopment that planning usually promises.

“We could do an urban design plan, but we didn’t have the money to pay for any of it,” said the mayor, Karen Weitkunat. “It put a reality check on what we were here to do.”

Recession — or something that feels a lot like it, retrenchment — and a steady drum beat of decline can put a damper on all kinds of innovation. But for cities, in particular, the stakes are enormous: How, in the midst of malaise stretching from the embattled eurozone countries to the mountains and plains of the American West, are they supposed to plan for a future that is supposed to be more sustainable, connected, and livable, while they are, in a word, broke?

An equally important factor, rippling through many American cities, was that one of the major traditional motivations for planning — to restrain growth that might otherwise spiral out of control — had decamped like a retreating army. Pressures on real estate and energy use from building new housing, strip malls, stores and manufacturing space were simply no longer what the new plan, or any plan, needed to address.

“What everyone agreed on was that everything had changed,” said Joe Frank, the city’s advance planning director.

But limitations produced opportunities. What emerged from the new reality — options reduced at one end, but opened up at the other in thinking past the old go-go model of real estate as the engine of prosperity — was a fundamentally different way forward.

Scholars who track land use and economics say the new chemistry in Fort Collins was in some ways like the shuffled political alliances after the Cold War, where once-competing interests now cooperated.

“Four years ago I thought I understood development; now I think it’s anybody’s guess,” said Lisa Schweitzer, an associate professor in the school of policy planning and development at the University of Southern California.

With development pressure off the table, environmental-minded groups and residents no longer needed to focus obsessively on fighting things like sprawl and could turn their attention to other topics, like energy. And businesses that had prospered under the old model — build it and they will come — had to look for new ways of thinking, too.

So Fort Collins reached out as it never had before, seeking volunteers and input, and, just as crucially, ideas about how to finance a new future in an age of limits.

And those reaching back, including some people and organizations who had never participated in city planning, from arts groups and beer brewers to technology entrepreneurs and professors at Colorado State University, created the city’s new vision of itself — an ambitious and comprehensive plan, even by the standards of bigger cities in more prosperous times.

Democratized by necessity, the process led to goals that went beyond the predictable safe streets and commerce that planners might have otherwise emerged. In a departure from the old command-down process — planners proposing, residents disposing in public planning meetings — ideas bubbled up in new ferment.

The city’s history, culture and geography all played a role in how that happened. Established as an outpost of the U.S. Army, Fort Collins grew in relative isolation from the bigger urban centers of the American West, like Denver, Colorado’s biggest city, to the south, or St. Louis, Missouri, to the east. Meanwhile, a big public university, founded initially with a focus on agriculture, evolved into a center of energy and technology research, and a relatively mild climate attracted retirees and entrepreneurs.

The blueprint that emerged from that mix in borrowing from other cities and from local ideas in the works, centered on connection — new ways of thinking on how to link residents in physical space, but also in culture and economics. Rethinking the nature of downtown when retailing sputtered created new bridges between recreation, tourism and arts, which led in turn to the idea of an overarching theme, or brand — local green energy — that bound everything together.

In one example, a grass-roots proposal for a hyper-green downtown electricity grid, which was preparing for its pilot-project phase even as officials began meeting, got a lift by incorporation into the plan.

In another, an arts and music community, which had been gaining ground on its own, including an arts project that used vacant storefront windows as art projects, was anchored into a new downtown vision.

In a third, an emerging mixed-use neighborhood of beer brewing, bikes and tourism got a new shoulder behind the wheel.

Planners looked for the strengths and tools they already had, and ran with them. “They took what was gaining in momentum and grabbed on,” said Cheryl Zimlich, a board member at the Bohemian Foundation, a private nonprofit group that funds downtown music and community-development projects.

This part of Colorado, and indeed Colorado as a whole, were not among the worst-hit places in the U.S. recession, a fact that also helped planners here as they looked for new directions.

That sense of relative stability started at the university, more than 30,000 students and staff members, a huge economic force in a city of 144,000.

The community involvement that came into play in the planning process also helped local leaders buck the anti-tax fervor that has rippled through U.S. politics — residents voted in elections last year, even as the economic downturn lingered, to support tax increases to pay for local improvements to roads and parks.

But even if the world wasn’t exactly crumbling, city officials still realized that a changing economic foundation, like ice melting from underneath, had changed many fundamental assumptions.

Big retail chains had colonized the outer reaches and smaller surrounding towns during the boom years — an archipelago of rural Wal-Marts and Home Depots that made a trip into town for jeans or groceries no longer necessary. In the 1990s, as much as 40 percent of the local sales tax had been paid for by non-residents. Even before the recession, that proportion had fallen to 25 percent.

The embrace of arts and culture in the plan — the idea that Fort Collins could create a kind downtown regional arts and entertainment experience that would draw in regional residents, even if they no longer came to shop as much — was part of the response. What groups like the Bohemian Foundation had already been doing received new attention.

But perhaps the core example of the new planning chemistry came in rethinking the nature of local electricity, in a collaboration of businesses, community groups and academia — again, already far advanced when the planners sat down — that ultimately became a kind of vehicle for the city’s evolving self-identity.

The project, conceived in 2007, already had a name, FortZED (short-hand for Fort Collins Zero Energy District) and it aimed, with huge ambition, to create one of the largest urban net-zero energy districts in the world — about two square miles, or five square kilometers, including the university’s main campus, and 50 megawatts of electricity.

Net zero essentially means that energy in, through electricity produced locally in the district through sustainable methods like solar, would equal energy consumed by the district’s residents and businesses, meaning that no added electricity would be needed from the coal-burning power plant that currently supplies most of the city. Getting there over a 10- to 15-year timeline means intensively and creatively managing both supply and demand, and connecting both together through computer management programs.

Crucial to FortZED’s appeal was also that it had money. A $6.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, and $5.1 million more in local investment, had given the project enough legs to begin what it called a “jump start,” a pilot project this year aiming to demonstrate that the district could cut its demand at peak times, while testing the integration of new internally produced energy.

“That early work brought $11 million of investment into the community at time when economy was slow and investment was slow,” said Steve Catanach, the Light and Power Manager at Fort Collins Utilities, a city-owned power company that got solidly behind the FortZED idea.

But things didn’t always go so smoothly.

Early in the planning process, for example, talk emerged of a new culture and business district based around beer-brewing, called the Lincoln Triangle, home to three microbreweries that had become popular tourist destinations. Some traditional transportation planners contended that the district would need more traffic lanes to handle all the ardently hoped for added visitors.

But then some of the economic development collaborators, thinking in different ways about downtown, spoke up. Not more cars, they said. Instead, they wanted more pedestrians, more bikes, more life connected to the new ideas bubbling up around FortZed.

“After that it just crystalized as a catalyst project area, a beer district within the energy zone,” said Benjamin A. Herman, a vice president at Clarion Associates, a land-use consulting firm that worked with the city.

That one of the breweries, New Belgium Brewing, was also an anchoring force in FortZED — running part of the brewery already on a combination of solar and bio-gas energy from the fermenting process — connected the dots: electricity, beer, and an emerging brand for the city folded into one. The Triangle became yet another improvisation in a moment of life that had arrived without a script.

Some planning experts said that a Fort Collins method — anchoring many elements around a centrally connected ultra-green downtown — could become a model for other cities. In any case, at least a dozen countries, and many other cities in the United States, have sent representatives here to look. And that curiosity itself, expressed through hotel and restaurant traffic if nothing else, locals said, has been helpful to local cash flow in a slow time.

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A self portrait…..

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Another Climate Bombshell: it’s bascially too late

This is the news from the  Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.nn The basic message is simple:  Forget mitigation.  Governments must now prepare for extreme weather.

That’s pretty sad news.  By our actions over the last 20+ years, we’ve chosen death and destruction.

Well, at least here in lil ole Lex we’ve got an arts and entertainment district and Centerpointe to keep our brightest minds occupied.


Science panel: Get ready for extreme weather


  • FILE - Maarten van Aalst, leading climate specialist for the Red Cross and Red Crescent, speaks about how climate change will affect people and assets during the presentation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report at a press conference at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, in this April 11, 2007 file photo. Top international climate scientists and disaster experts meeting in Africa had a sharp message Friday Nov. 18, 2011 for the world's political leaders: Get ready for more dangerous and "unprecedented extreme weather" caused by global warming. (AP Photo/Keystone, Salvatore Di Nolfi, File)FILE – Maarten van Aalst, leading climate specialist for the Red Cross and Red Crescent, …
WASHINGTON (AP) — Top international climate scientists and disaster experts meeting in Africa had a sharp message Friday for the world’s political leaders: Get ready for more dangerous and “unprecedented extreme weather” caused by global warming.

Making preparations, they say, will save lives and money.

These experts fear that without preparedness, crazy weather extremes may overwhelm some locations, making some places unlivable.

The Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a new special report on global warming and extreme weather after meeting in Kampala, Uganda. This is the first time the group of scientists has focused on the dangers of extreme weather events such as heat waves, floods, droughts and storms. Those are more dangerous than gradual increases in the world’s average temperature.

“We need to be worried,” said one of the study’s lead authors, Maarten van Aalst, director of the International Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre in the Netherlands. “And our response needs to anticipate disasters and reduce risk before they happen rather than wait until after they happen and clean up afterward. … Risk has already increased dramatically.”

The report said “a changing climate leads to changes in the frequency, intensity, spatial extent, duration, and timing of extreme weather and climate events, and can result in unprecedented extreme weather and climate events.” And it said that some — but not all — of these extreme events are caused by the increase of man-made greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

“We face many challenges in the future,” another study lead author, Chris Field of Stanford University, said in a news conference. Those include floods, drought, storms, and heat waves. Field said scientists aren’t quite sure which will be the biggest threat to the world because disasters are weather extremes interacting with economics and where people live. Society’s vulnerability to natural disasters, aside from climate, has also increased, he said.

Field told The Associated Press in an interview that “it’s clear that losses from disasters are increasing. And in terms of deaths, “more than 95 percent of fatalities from the 1970s to the present have been in developing countries,” he said.

Losses are already high, running at as much as $200 billion a year, said Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton University, a study author.

“Global warming is increasing the risk of disaster and already makes dealing with several types of disaster, like heat waves, more difficult. The risk will become greater as the future gets hotter,” he said.

Science has progressed so much in the last several years that scientists can now attribute the increase in many of these types of extreme weather events to global warming with increased confidence, said study author Thomas Stocker at the University of Bern.

Scientists were able to weigh their confidence of predictions of future climate disasters and heat waves were the most obvious. The report said it is “virtually certain” that heat waves are getting worse, longer and hotter, while cold spells are easing.

What that means is the nasty heat wave that used to happen once every 20 years by mid-century will be once every five years and by the end of the century will be an every other year scorcher, Field and Stocker said.

The report said there is at least a two-in-three chance that heavy downpours will increase, both in the tropics and northern regions, and from tropical cyclones.

The 29-page summary of the full special report — which will be completed in the coming months — says that extremes in some unnamed regions at some point in the future can get so bad that they may need to be abandoned.

Unless the world changes the way it deals with vulnerability disasters and climate change, “there’s going to be an increasing number of places where dealing with these disasters is going to be more and more difficult,” van Aalst said in a telephone interview. And in those cases, sometimes the most sensible option, he said, “may be to leave those places.”

Such locations are likely to be in poorer countries, he said, but the middle class may be affected in those regions, which aren’t specifically identified in the report. And even in some developed northern regions of the world, such as Canada, Russia and Greenland, cities might need to move because of weather extremes and sea level rise from man-made warming, van Aalst said. In places like van Aalst’s native Netherlands, citizens will have to learn how to handle new weather problems, in this case heat waves.

Scientists emphasized that governments have to be more prepared.

“Governments are not doing a good job now protecting us from disaster in the current climate,” Oppenheimer said.

And it’s not just the big headline grabbing disasters like a Hurricane Katrina or the massive 2010 Russian heat wave that studies show were unlikely to happen without global warming. At the Red Cross/Red Crescent they are seeing “a particular pattern of rising risks” from smaller events, van Aalst said.

Of all the weather extremes that kill and cause massive damage, he said, the worst is flooding.

There’s an ongoing debate in the climate science community about whether it is possible and fair to attribute individual climate disasters to manmade global warming. Usually meteorologists say it’s impossible to link climate change to a specific storm or drought, but that such extremes are more likely in a future dominated by global warming.

The panel was formed by the United Nations and World Meteorological Organization. In the past, it has discussed extreme events in snippets in its report. But this time, the scientists are putting them all together.

The next major IPCC report isn’t expected until the group meets in Stockholm in 2013.



Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change:

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on weather extremes:

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Climate Bombshell: Change now, for in 5 years it will be too late

This is from the conservative IEA – the ones who until very recently espoused the belief that all was well on both the energy and climate fronts.  Within one year, they have said that we have passed peak oil in 2006 and now this…..What a change.  It must be really bad.

What about us here in little ole Lex?  How will we respond to this dire warning?  With more Arts and Entertainment District world class architects!  More CenterPoint!  More working with Louisville on “advanced manufacturing” so we can become like Dallas-Fort Worth! More Friends of Coal!

Surely it can’t be just me that sees that disconnect between reality and fantasy.  Every day we get sidetracked with floof, is another day lost that we could have been preparing.

Oh well, climate change wont get us here, we’re safe.

IEA’s Bombshell Warning: We’re Headed Toward 11°F Global Warming and “Delaying Action Is a False Economy”

By Climate Progress

International Energy Agency:  “On planned policies, rising fossil energy use will lead to irreversible and potentially catastrophic climate change.”

“… we are on an even more dangerous track to an increase of 6°C [11°F]….  Delaying action is a false economy: for every $1 of investment in cleaner technology that is avoided in the power sector before 2020, an additional $4.30 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions.”

The International Energy Agency has issued yet another clarion call for urgent action on climate.  Their 2011 World Energy Outlook [WEO] release should end once and for all any notion that delay is the rational course for the nation and the world.

The UK Guardian‘s headline captures the urgency:

World headed for irreversible climate change in five years, IEA warns

If fossil fuel infrastructure is not rapidly changed, the world will ‘lose for ever’ the chance to avoid dangerous climate change

We must start aggressively deploying clean energy now through myriad policies, including a price on carbon.  That has been the conclusion of most authoritative studies, of course,  including the recent one by California’s independent state science and technology advisory panel (see “Study Confirms Optimal Climate Strategy: Deploy, Deploy, Deploy, Research and Develop, Deploy, Deploy, Deploy“).

The IEA report deserves the label “bombshell,” though, because for most of the past two decades, the IEA was the source of bland, conservative, business-as-usual analysis.  When I was Acting Assistant Secretary of Energy for energy efficiency and renewable energy in 1997, no one at DOE paid much attention to IEA reports.  And that perspective continued through most of the 2000s.

But in just the last few years they have woken up to the risks posed to peak oil — see IEA top economist warns (8/09): “We have to leave oil before oil leaves us” — and especially climate change. In releasing its 2009 WEO, the IEA warned,The world will have to spend an extra $500 billion to cut carbon emissions for each year it delays implementing a major assault on global warming.”

Now the IEA has done the calculation a different way, concluding, “Delaying action is a false economy: for every $1 of investment in cleaner technology that is avoided in the power sector before 2020, an additional $4.30 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions.”  Those who counsel waiting for breakthrough technologies are urging us on a path that is unsustainable, irreversible, potentially catastrophic, and economically indefensible, according to the IEA.

The IEA is one of the few organizations in the world with a sophisticated enough global energy model to do credible (i.e non-hand-waving) projections of the cost of different emissions pathways and the costs of delaying efforts to achieve them.  Their 2008 analysis of the 2°C warming pathway demonstrated that the total shift in investment needed to stabilize at 450 ppm is only about 1.1% of GDP per year — and that is not a “cost” or hit to GDP, because much of that investment goes towards saving expensive fuel (see “IEA report: Climate Progress has the 450-ppm solution about right“).

The new analysis shows that because of soaring emissions, we are running out of time for the “450 Scenario.” We are at risk of irreversibly “locking in” dangerous warming — a point I agree with mostly, but not entirely:


Read Less

“[W]e cannot continue to rely on insecure and environmentally unsustainable uses of energy,” said IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven. “Governments need to introduce stronger measures to drive investment in efficient and low-carbon technologies….

“As each year passes without clear signals to drive investment in clean energy, the “lock-in” of high-carbon infrastructure is making it harder and more expensive to meet our energy security and climate goals,” said Fatih Birol, IEA Chief Economist. The WEO presents a 450 Scenario, which traces an energy path consistent with meeting the globally agreed goal of limiting the temperature rise to 2°C. Four-fifths of the total energy-related CO2 emissions permitted to 2035 in the 450 Scenario are already locked-in by existing capital stock, including power stations, buildings and factories. Without further action by 2017, the energy-related infrastructure then in place would generate all the CO2 emissions allowed in the 450 Scenario up to 2035. Delaying action is a false economy: for every $1 of investment in cleaner technology that is avoided in the power sector before 2020, an additional $4.30 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions.

The IEA has created an intermediate scenario between 2C and 6C warming — “the WEO’s central New Policies Scenario, which assumes that recent government commitments are implemented in a cautious manner“:

In the New Policies Scenario, world primary demand for energy increases by one-third between 2010 and 2035 and energy-related CO2 emissions increase by 20%, following a trajectory consistent with a long-term rise in the average global temperature in excess of 3.5°C. A lower rate of global economic growth in the short term would make only a marginal difference to longer-term energy and climate trends.

Sorry, cautious governments, but warming greater than 3.5C doesn’t avert multiple catastrophes, it invites them (see “An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts: How We Know Inaction Is the Gravest Threat Humanity Faces“).

So where do I differ from the IEA?  They write:

If internationally co-ordinated action is not taken by 2017, we project that all permissible emissions in the 450 Scenario would come from the infrastructure then existing, so that all new infrastructure from then until 2035 would need to be zero-carbon, unless emitting infrastructure is retired before the end of its economic lifetime to make headroom for new investment. This would theoretically be possible at very high cost, but is probably not practicable politically.

It is certainly true that shutting down existing fossil fuel infrastructure before the end of its economic lifetime is far, far more costly than not building it in the first place.  And it’s  also true that such shut downs would be politically very difficult.

But everything about the 450 scenario is politically difficult as I have been saying for years — see The full global warming solution: How the world can stabilize at 350 to 450 ppm.

The key point is that in the 2020s, the world is going to be considerably more desperate than we are now.  The evidence of human-caused climate change will be difficult for all but the most extreme deniers to ignore.  The Arctic will very likely be virtually ice-free in September by then.   The amplifying carbon-cycle feedbacks will probably have started to kick in (see “NSIDC bombshell: Thawing permafrost feedback will turn Arctic from carbon sink to source in the 2020s, releasing 100 billion tons of carbon by 2100“).

We will be subjected to increasingly devastating extreme weather, where the record-smashing superstorms of the last 18 months will increasingly just be the normal weather — and we’ll start to see what really extreme weather is like.  Dust-Bowlification will be setting in and it will be pretty darn obvious that feeding 8 billion people (and then 9 and maybe 10) will be the great task of humanity for the rest of the century (see “Nature Publishes My Piece on Dust-Bowlification and the Grave Threat It Poses to Food Security“).

In short, most policymakers will realize that we are on path to the self-destruction of modern civilization.  So things that are viewed as politically impracticable now will I think be taken very seriously in the 2020s.  That doesn’t mean the world will still get its act together in time.  Indeed, because of the higher emissions and feedbacks, the effort required to avert catastrophe will be considerably greater then.  That’s the whole point of the IEA statement, “Delaying action is a false economy: for every $1 of investment in cleaner technology that is avoided in the power sector before 2020, an additional $4.30 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions.”

But we may yet find our Churchill and that means we may yet adopt a World War II style and scale effort.  And as in WWII, we converted a great deal of manufacturing infrastructure to war time purposes before the end of its economic lifetime.  That can’t be considered a likely scenario for the 2020s, but it’s far from impossible and may be our only hope.

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Is this the future of Lexington’s suburbs?

Suburbia is nothing but a way of life built on consumption, underpinned by cheap energy.  Is it any wonder that suburbia as we know it began in this country, during the time when the US was the world’s oil super producer?

Now however, as energy gets ever more expensive and with the unfolding climate disaster, can we afford to live a life of thoughtless consumption?

Here’s a sketch of a typical Lexington suburban area.   Low density, big houses, lots of well manicured landscaping.  This is all about consumption. The luxury of consumption.  It has become an American birthright – “the American way of life is non-negotiable” as one elected fool once said. (Click for big view)

Nothing here is productive.   That was the whole point:  the suburban ideal was to be the respite from all things productive.  It was a great vision.

But what if?  What if the cheap energy that let us create a lifestyle of consumption is coming to an end? What will become of suburbia then?

Well it is happening, brought about by the end of cheap energy due to peak oil and the overwhelming need to do what we can to mitigate climate destruction by using far less fossil fuels.  How we adapt to these two facts will be the central points for the rest of our lives.   The great transition of our time is moving away from a consumption economy to one based on production.  Because of this, everything will change.

The growth economy has ended.  Cheap energy powered that.  With the end of economic growth, we’ll see the end of debt as well.   Without economic growth and debt, our governments will be compelled to scale back enormously.  As Crosby Still Nash and Young once sang:  “we’re finally on our own.”

But the burbs will still be there – what will become of them?  Can they make the transition from consumption to production?

Here’s a sketch – showing the same view as above -  of the possibility for Lexington by mid-century.  This is the OPTIMISTIC view. (Click for big view)

Instead of an English country landscape, we have an agricultural-industrial landscape.  Nearly every square inch is put to some productive use – producing energy, food, value added products.  All the ornamental trees are gone, replaced by Hybrid Poplars which can produce fire wood in a little as four years.  Gone are lawns, replaced by gardens, barn yards, fish ponds, orchards.   People take raw materials and make them into needed items.  Some properties become reclamation yards, recycling the waste of suburbia.   Houses have become super insulated, and heated by new fire places.  Many families are likely to share each house, and tenants are housed in new small dwellings.  The government’s ability to maintain such gold-plated infrastructure as wide, little used streets has disappeared.  Instead, the paved surfaces are dwindling, with the remainder being put to some productive use.  A small market stands on the corner where once grass reigned, where folks can meet, trade, sell, buy.  In much later years, as the cityscape evolves, this is likely to become a plaza.  Life here will become intensely more local – hyper local – over time.

Essentially, this version of the future means that we have come full circle back to the times when life was about production, not consumption.  This vision will be scarey to most people, myself included.  Very few of us actually produce anything and it sure seems like I’m too old to start learning.  But that doesn’t change the new reality.

The fact is, we only get this future if we have enough virtue and courage to admit that reality.  If we don’t, then a future much less optimistic awaits us.

Look around you with a new set of eyes:  what is productive in our city?  What is wasteful consumption?  What productive replacement could there be? How will you fit in?


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Vertical Farming at The Plant: How a Former Meat-Packing Facility Became a Successful Farm

What do you think about this?


from Climate Progress

by Cole Mellino

There’s a heated debate among proponents of urban agriculture about whether vertical farming is truly feasible. Most people agree that it would solve many of our current agricultural problems, such as land and water use, heavy reliance on chemical inputs, fertilizer runoff and soil erosion, and carbon emissions from transportation.

However, real estate is expensive in cities. And no one has yet figured out a way to get sunlight into a skyscraper so that the plants grow evenly.

But innovators like as John Edel, owner and developer of the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center, appear have found solution. Edel built a mini-vertical farm, called The Plant, in a former meat-packing facility complete with an aquaponics farm and a food business incubator that offers low rent, low energy costs, and a licensed shared kitchen.

Located in the economically distressed Back of the Yards neighborhood in Chicago, the Plant was relatively cheap to buy. That solved the property cost problem. As for the issue of evenly-dispersed sunlight, The Plant utilizes indoor grow lights that are operated as part of an off-grid net-zero energy system, run by an anaerobic digester and a combined heat and power system. The digester consumes food waste produced in the facility and by neighboring manufacturers, meeting the energy needs of the entire building. So not only does The Plant produce net-zero energy, but it also produces net-negative waste by turning those waste products into energy.

Here’s a diagram of The Plant’s remarkable industrial ecology:

The Aquaponics system is another innovative closed-loop system in which fish (Tilapia) produce ammonia-based waste that is filtered and broken down into nitrates. Those nitrates are used as nutrients for the hydroponic beds, thus cleaning the water and returning those nutrients to the fish. This aquaponics system solves the problems with aquaculture (too much waste) and hydroponics (needs nutrient inputs) by combining them and mimicking a natural ecosystem. The fish and vegetables are then sold to local food markets and restaurants.

Along with the aquaponics system, The Plant houses a beer brewery, a kombucha (fermented tea) brewery, a composting company, a company that creates vertical growing systems, and a mushroom farm. Waste from one business is used as food for another. For example, the spent distiller grains from the brewery will be fed to the tilapia and the solids from the tilapia waste are fed to the mushrooms.

The company is very committed to proving that its operation is not only sustainable, but profitable and replicable. The staff will soon put a business case study on their website and will also host seminars. The Plant is still very young. But it is proof that vertical farming can be a viable way to produce truly sustainable food.

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How Did Our Oil Get Under Their Sand?

War for oil, folks.  That’s our future, unless we admit it now that the way we live can’t last.  The irony is that we’ll go to war to keep our supply lines open, but the cost will continue to go up no matter.  We’re entering the low energy future.  How much death and destruction it will bring will be up to us.


by Dylan Ratigan

Posted: 10/24/11 10:59 AM ET


It’s somewhat rare to hear a Senator tell the truth about American foreign policy, but we did get a glimpse of reality last week when Senator Lindsey Graham lustily talked about the death of Gadaffi. He said, “There’s a lot of money to be made in the future in Libya. There’s a lot of oil to be produced. Let’s get on the ground and help the Libya people establish a democracy and a functioning economy based on free market principles.”

Though rare, this is not the first time a high profile American politician has accidentally told the truth about our foreign policy. In March, 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told a Senate appropriations committee that the war with Iraq would be paid for by Iraqi “frozen assets” and “oil revenues.” This was not completely crazy – the first Gulf War had largely been financed by foreign countries who saw value in the oil supply lines we were protecting.

At the same time last week, the American solar industry filed a trade complaint against Chinese solar makers, who produce 55% of the world’s solar panels. They allege that China is selling its solar panels below cost, which would be consistent with the Chinese industrial policy of preparing for a post-oil world. According to Stephen Leeb’s new book Red Alert, China spends over $350 billion a year on renewable energy infrastructure, locking up critical supplies of zinc, silver, gold, copper, and rare earth minerals. Meanwhile, America spends its money keeping sea lanes open for dwindling oil supplies.

The Chinese are improving their skill at making solar panels, whereas American policymakers are explicitly avoiding building a post-oil energy infrastructure. Chinese elites want to secure oil and coal, of course, but they are also rapidly preparing for the day when these resources cannot be profitably extracted and used. American elites are engaged in a more short-sighted strategy of destroying any possible bridge to a post-oil energy future to protect their status quo profits. Leeb believes that this is a choice that could mark the end, not just of American dominance, but of American civilization.

It isn’t that this possible doomsday scenario is hard to grasp; promises of alternative energy and threats of higher oil prices have been around for decades. So why is it still going on? My suspicion is a mixture of greed and inertia.

We have an industrial policy driven by oil, which has been the case for nearly a century. Initially, when oil was cheap and we produced most of it, this made sense Our advantage in oil helped us win World War II. Our national highway system, our network of airports and gas stations, suburban sprawl and the associated property tax base was all funded by fossil fuels. These huge oil fortunes played a major role in organizing our political system. When America could produce more oil than anyone else, or had the military alliances to do so, this worked in our favor.

Starting in the 1970s, oil became a strategic drawback, which is why President Carter tried a logical plan — an infrastructure bank — to get us off oil. Yet, our politics is so entwined with oil that Carter was crushed, and no one has since been able to break our oil obsession.

Oil still drives our industrial policy, and now petro-politics is so routinely dominant that it’s almost pointless to even think about politicians not funded by oil. Lindsay Graham, for instance, has received a little less than a million dollars from the energy sector over the course of his career, so his lust over Libya’s energy profits isn’t surprising. Republicans are the party of oil – both Bush and Cheney were knee deep in the oil industry before entering the White House. On the other side of the aisle, TransCanada, which is seeking to build an enormous oil pipeline to bring in shale oil from Canada that will pump as much carbon into the atmosphere as all the oil in Saudi Arabia, just bragged about 22 Democrats who signed a letter asking for approval of the pipeline. Both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama will likely boost the project. These are just the most recent examples of petro-politics; next month there will be different, equally odious examples.

Many Americans believe that oil is bad for us, and do want to invest in a non-oil infrastructure. Though our industrial policy remains consistent regardless of which party is in power. This doesn’t make sense to most voters, because it cuts against the way we think about ourselves as a relatively just democratic society. Our politicians should work for us, but they don’t. The traditional model for understanding power in American politics is polling and elections – will Democrats or Republicans win the ability to organize our cultural resources? But this has obvious problems, since we’ve seen through multiple administrations congruity in policy-making.

A better way to think about power is to follow the money, because money is how our society allocates resources. The money is in fossil fuels and finance, which opens the door to Congressional offices and sells political power to the highest bidders. The Koch Brothers recently held a retreat in Vail, where they thanked those who had given more than a million dollars to their political causes – the so-called “million dollar” club. Mother Jones magazine was able to get a list of those people. Eight finance tycoons and seven fossil fuel (coal, oil, natural gas) magnates were the majority of the twenty eight families listed (the others were in retail and housing). The Koch Brothers themselves make enormous sums from oil, chemical products, and finance.

While we have the illusion of choice in our politics, the only real consistency in policy-making is Washington’s commitment to war and oil, and increasingly often, war for oil. Libya was the oil dealer to Western Europe, but the market for oil is global. And oil is the prize, not democracy. This is why John McCain praised Gaddafi in 2009 for his peacemaking efforts, and applauded his death last week. It’s also why our military is increasingly extended across the world in oil-rich regions.

Our oil-drenched, defense-heavy industrial policy is increasingly creaky, but it is protected by the money that flows into the political system to wall off politicians from voters. We know that we must restructure our energy system, but it’s not as simple as plugging in a new green battery to replace coal plants and gas stations. Just as we must restructure a financial system to ensure investment and value-creation, we must also restructure our industrial policy to get off oil, and our politics to get off oil money. This will require a new way that citizens relate to each other, more local production of goods and services, stronger community ties, and a politics that isn’t dominated by big money, but instead by public spaces and deliberation. If you look at the Occupy Wall Street protesters in Zuccotti Square and the others across the world, they may not articulate this, but this is what they are asking for.

Without a reformation for new politics, and a different way of relating to one another, we will continue with the status quo. And we will have to keep finding countries and asking the question of how our oil got under their sand.

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Our illustrious Senator Rand(y) Paul has declared war on bikes UPDATED

Randy Paul didnt win this round in his war on bikes….


Senate votes to spare money for bike paths

By JOAN LOWY — Associated Press

Posted: 11:36am on Nov 1, 2011; Modified: 1:31pm on Nov 1, 2011


WASHINGTON — Republican senators failed Tuesday in their third effort in less than two months to eliminate federal money for bike paths, walking trails and other transportation enhancement projects.

An amendment by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., was defeated by a vote of 60 to 38. It would have forbidden the government from spending any money on enhancement projects and re-directed funds to bridge repairs.

Paul and other critics say the program is bankrolling extravagant projects, such as a giant roadside coffee-pot shaped building, movie theaters and turtle tunnels.

But in many cases, these projects have been exaggerated or misrepresented. The coffee pot, for example, didn’t receive transportation aid; the movie theater is really a driver’s education classroom; and the turtle tunnels are a wildlife eco-passage that allows animals to cross a busy Florida highway so motorists won’t swerve to avoid killing them.

Also, landscaping and scenic beautification is just one of 12 areas that receive money through the program. Paul’s amendment would have barred states from using federal transportation money for any one of the dozen categories, including bike and walking paths, bike lanes and pedestrian safety projects.

Paul continued the misrepresentation Tuesday, telling senators “this amendment simply takes funds from beautification and puts them into bridges.”

The money for transportation enhancements – $927 million for this budget year – is the largest source of federal funds for bicycling projects. While states can use the federal aid for any of the 12 categories, bike and walking projects tend to receive about half the funds, supporters of the program said.

A national network of bicycle groups urged their members over the past week to contact their senators and ask them to vote against Paul’s amendment.

A similar effort by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., in September would have eliminated the requirement that states set aside a portion of their transportation funds for enhancements. It also was defeated. Another effort in October by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, was defeated as well.

Like Paul, the senators said states should be able to spend all their highway aid on roads and bridges if they want, especially because many states have a backlog of road projects and structurally deficient bridges that need to be repaired or replaced.

Why Are Bicyclists Being Targeted by Congress?

How in the world can biking and walking be controversial?

They’re good exercise, fun to do and — as an alternative to driving everywhere — help us save money and the environment.

Both biking and walking are increasingly popular for transportation and recreation today, thanks in large part to a recent flowering of federally-funded trails, bikeways and pathways that make getting around on two wheels and two feet safer and more convenient.

But in these antagonistic political times, bikers and walkers are now being targeted by some members of Congress. In September Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn proposed stripping all designated federal funding for bike and pedestrian projects from the pending Transportation Bill. After an outpouring of opposition from citizens coast-to-coast, Coburn withdrew his amendment.

Now bicyclists and pedestrians are under attack again, this time in an amendment from Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. He wants to redirect every last penny of money dedicated to bicycling and walking to bridge repair instead.

It is scheduled for a vote next Tuesday. (Here’s how to contact your U.S. Senators and Representatives to save federal bike and pedestrian programs.)

Now we all agree that safe bridges are important. Look at the tragic bridge collapse four years ago in Minneapolis that took 17 lives.

But safety for the millions of kids and adults that bike and walk every day is important, too. Since 2007, 2800 cyclists and 20,000 pedestrians have died on America’s roads–many due to the lack of sidewalks, bike lanes and other safety measures that federal funds provide.

We shouldn’t have to choose between safe bridges and safe streets. Here’s why.

*First of all, Senator Paul’s amendment will not even come close to fixing America’s bridges. Biking, walking and the other so-called “transportation enhancements” that Paul wants to kill account for less than two percent of the total Transportation Bill. It would take 80 years using money saved from scrapping these programs to finance the backlog of current bridge repairs–not to mention future needs.

*States are not spending the money already allocated for bridge repairs. Last year, they returned $530 million to the federal government. That represents a big chunk of total bike and pedestrian projects.

*Federal money to make biking and walking safer and more convenient is a great investment in America’s future that pays off in safer streets, reduced environmental damage, greater energy security, improved public health and more resilient, neighborly, pleasurable communities.

To get a picture of the importance of federal bike and pedestrian funding to local communities, take a look at Minneapolis, which last year was named the #1 Bike City in America by Bicycling magazine. Federal funds through a special federal pilot program to promote walking and biking for transportation is a major reason for this honor, which was met with shock by many around the country who could not believe that a place in the heartland, famous for its ferocious winters, could outperform cities on the coasts.

But that skepticism fades with a close look at the facts. Close to four percent of Minneapolis residents bike to work according to census data. That’s an increase of almost 33 percent since 2007 when the federal Non-Motorized Transportation Program
began, and 500 percent since 1980.

At least one-third of those commuters ride at least some days during the winter, according to federally funded research conducted by Bike Walk Twin Cities (the local organization coordinating the $25 million Non-Motorized Transportation grant). Even on the coldest days about one-fifth are out on their bikes.

Minneapolis also launched the first large-scale bikesharing sytem in U.S.–called Nice Ride–and boasts arguably the nation’s finest network of off-street bicycle trails. It’s largest source of start-up capital came from the federal grant.

“Biking has become a huge part of what we are,” Mayor RT Rybak declared to a delegation of transportation leaders from Pittsburgh and Columbus, Ohio, on a Minneapolis tour sponsored by the Bikes Belong Foundation this summer. “It’s an economical way to get around town, and many times it’s the fastest. I frequently take a bike from city hall across downtown to meetings.”

This year the city is adding 57 new miles of bikeways to the 127 miles already built, again with a substantial share of the funding coming from Non-Motorized Transportation programs. An additional 183 miles are planned over the next twenty years.

In a city where bicyclists of all ages and backgrounds already ride recreational trails the goal is to encourage people to hop on their bikes for commuting or short trips. This is not a far-fetched dream, since nationally half of all automobile trips are three miles or less–a distance easily covered on bike in twenty minutes.

Mayor Rybak, who gained national prominence with his leadership during the 2007 bridge collapse and rapid rebuilding project, stressed that in these lean economic times, cities across the country need to be creative about how they spend transportation dollars. Big-ticket road engineering projects to move ever more cars must give way to more efficient projects that move people by a variety of means–including foot, bike, transit. “We need to get more use from all the streets we already have,” Rybak said.

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Who said it?

“Mr. President, I am here to speak about what is currently an unpopular topic in this town. It has become no longer politically correct in certain circles in Washington to speak about climate change or carbon pollution or how carbon pollution is causing our climate to change.

This is a peculiar condition of Washington. If you go out into, say, our military and intelligence communities, they understand and are planning for the effects of carbon pollution on climate change. They see it as a national security risk. If you go out into our nonpolluting business and financial communities, they see this as a real and important problem. And, of course, it goes without saying our scientific community is all over this concern. But as I said, Washington is a peculiar place, and here it is getting very little traction.

Here in Washington we feel the dark hand of the polluters tapping so many shoulders. And where there is power and money behind that dark hand, therefore, a lot of attention is paid to that little tap on the shoulder. What we overlook is that nature — God’s Earth — is also tapping us all on the shoulder, with messages we ignore at our peril. We ignore the messages of nature of God’s Earthand we ignore the laws of nature of God’s Earth at our very grave peril.”

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A vertical forest….or trees on buildings

We’ll see more of this sort of nonsense in the near future.  Tall buildings designed with lots of green stuff in order to make us think they are kinder and gentler.  Remember, we are a land species.  So are trees.  The energy to make this system work will be unavailable in the very near future (despite the architect saying that these buildings will create energy….).

The solution to human habitation is right before our eyes:  villages – wherever around the world, though I’m partial to Italian ones -  that have lasted for 1000 years.  What do they do that works?  What must we learn from them?


World’s First Vertical Forest Being Built in Milan Plus “The Cult ‘Green Building’ of the Moment”

By Joe Romm Climate Progress

The 27-story Bosco Verticale in Milan, designed by Stefano Boeri as the world’s first ‘vertical forest’.  Click to enlarge.

If you can’t plant a forest horizontally in a dense urban setting, how about vertically?  The architect explains his design on his website here:

Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest) is a project for metropolitan reforestation that contributes to the regeneration of the environment and urban biodiversity without the implication of expanding the city upon the territory. Bosco Verticale is a model of vertical densification of nature within the city….

The first example of a Bosco Verticale composed of two residential towers of 110 and 76 meters height, will be realized in the centre of Milan, on the edge of the Isola neighbourhood, and will host 900 trees (each measuring 3, 6 or 9 m tall) apart from a wide range of shrubs and floral plants.

On flat land, each Bosco Verticale equals, in amount of trees, an area equal to 10,000 sqm of forest. In terms of urban densification the equivalent of an area of single family dwellings of nearly 50,000 sqm.

The Bosco Verticale is a system that optimizes, recuperates and produces energy. The Bosco Verticale aids in the creation of a microclimate and in filtering the dust particles contained in the urban environment. The diversity of the plants and their characteristics produce humidity, absorb CO2 and dust particles, producing oxygen and protect from radiation and acoustic pollution, improving the quality of living spaces and saving energy. Plant irrigation will be produced to great extent through the filtering and reuse of the grey waters produced by the building. Additionally Aeolian and photovoltaic energy systems will contribute, together with the aforementioned microclimate to increase the degree of energetic self sufficiency of the two towers….

Christopher Woodward, director of London’s Garden Museum, has the story on “Living Architecture” with lots of images in the Financial Times.  He reports that in this case, the green design “adds only 5% to construction costs.”

Woodward has a great figure on Harmonia 57, an office block in São Paolo, which he calls “the cult ‘green building’ of the moment”:

Read Less


Chart of Harmonia 57 hydration system

In Harmonia 57 mist is collected in an ingenious system of pipes, then used to water plants that grow in porous concrete walls.

Here is a longer story on Harmonia 57:

The office building “Harmonia 57” in São Paulo is a hybrid of building, sculpture and machine, which, with its informal outwardly appearance, blends in perfectly with the urban chaos of the city inhabited by 11 million people. For the innovative building concept, the French-Brazilian architecture firm Triptyque received the main prize in this year’s Zumtobel Group Award.

Back to Bosco Verticale, “the first element in [Boeri's] proposed BioMilano, in which a green belt is created around the city and 60 abandoned farms on the outskirts are restored to community use.”

Here is a cross-section:

A cross-section of Bosco Verticale

The architect has more images on his website that spell out  all of the environmental benefits of his design:

The biggest issue I can see is what happens to the trees and branches in a severe storm with high winds.

Still, a very original conception, and need a lot of such original ideas in the coming years and decades.


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U.S. military dumping fossil fuels

“Reliance on fossil fuels is simply too much of a vulnerability for a military organization to have,” U.S. Navy Secretary Raymond Mabus said in an interview.We’ve been certifying aircraft on biofuels. We’re doing solar and wind, geothermal, hydrothermal, wave, things like that on our bases.”

Hmmmm…..let’s see, maybe they know something?  Like the cost of fossil fuels will go through the roof soon?  But I thought the whole peak oil and climate change things were overrated…..I’m sure Randy Paul will denounce our military for being scared little socialist wimps over this.

Seriously, if reliance on fossil fuels leaves the military too vulnerable, what does that mean for the rest of us?  Shouldn’t we be getting off them too?  Where does this leave local governments like the one here in little ole Lex?  We must be vulnerable too.

read the whole report here

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Who said it?

Paul Gilding, the Australian environmentalist and author of the book “The Great Disruption,” argues that these demonstrations are a sign that the current growth-obsessed capitalist system is reaching its financial and ecological limits. “I look at the world as an integrated system, so I don’t see these protests, or the debt crisis, or inequality, or the economy, or the climate going weird, in isolation — I see our system in the painful process of breaking down,” which is what he means by the Great Disruption, said Gilding. “Our system of economic growth, of ineffective democracy, of overloading planet earth — our system — is eating itself alive. Occupy Wall Street is like the kid in the fairy story saying what everyone knows but is afraid to say: the emperor has no clothes. The system is broken. Think about the promise of global market capitalism. If we let the system work, if we let the rich get richer, if we let corporations focus on profit, if we let pollution go unpriced and unchecked, then we will all be better off. It may not be equally distributed, but the poor will get less poor, those who work hard will get jobs, those who study hard will get better jobs and we’ll have enough wealth to fix the environment.

“What we now have — most extremely in the U.S. but pretty much everywhere — is the mother of all broken promises,” Gilding adds. “Yes, the rich are getting richer and the corporations are making profits — with their executives richly rewarded. But, meanwhile, the people are getting worse off — drowning in housing debt and/or tuition debt — many who worked hard are unemployed; many who studied hard are unable to get good work; the environment is getting more and more damaged; and people are realizing their kids will be even worse off than they are. This particular round of protests may build or may not, but what will not go away is the broad coalition of those to whom the system lied and who have now woken up. It’s not just the environmentalists, or the poor, or the unemployed. It’s most people, including the highly educated middle class, who are feeling the results of a system that saw all the growth of the last three decades go to the top 1 percent.”

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I’m just about done with Obama

I voted for the man because I believed he spoke truth to power.  But just like Sarah Palin said, “how’s that hopey changey thing working out for ya…?”  She is obviously an idiot, but even idiots can see straight sometimes.    The commentary below sums it all up for me.  What about you?


Obama’s Failing Emails: Where Did the President’s Mojo Go?

By Bill McKibben

Cross-posted from

For connoisseurs, Barack Obama’s fundraising emails for the 2012 election campaign seem just a tad forlorn — slightly limp reminders of the last time ‘round.

Four years ago at this time, the early adopters among us were just starting to get used to the regular flow of email from the Obama campaign. The missives were actually exciting to get, because they seemed less like appeals for money than a chance to join a movement.

Sometimes they came with inspirational videos from Camp Obama, especially the volunteer training sessions staged by organizing guru Marshall Ganz. Here’s a favorite of mine, where a woman invokes Bobby Kennedy and Cesar Chavez and says that, as the weekend went on, she “felt her heart softening,” her cynicism “melting,” her determination building. I remember that feeling, and I remember clicking time and again to send another $50 off to fund that people-powered mission. (And I recall knocking on a lot of New Hampshire doors, too, with my 14-year-old daughter.)

It’s no wonder, then, that I’m still on the email list. But I haven’t been clicking through this time. Not even when Barack Obama himself asked me to “donate $75 or more today to be automatically entered for a chance to join me for dinner.” Not even when campaign manager Jim Messina pointed out that, though “the president has very little time to spend on anything related to the campaign… this is how he chooses to spend it — having real, substantive conversations with people like you” over the dinner you might just win. (And if you do win, you’ll be put on a plane to “Washington, or Chicago, or wherever he might be that day.”)

Not even when deputy campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon offered to let me “take ownership of this campaign” by donating to it and, as an “added bonus,” possibly find myself “across the table from the president.” Not even when Michelle lowered the entry price from $75 to $25 and offered this bit of reassurance: “Just relax. Barack wants this dinner to be fun, and he really loves getting to know supporters like you.” Not even when, hours before an end-of-September fundraising “deadline,” Barack himself dropped the asking price to three dollars. God, have a little self-respect man!  Three dollars?

Here’s the thing I’m starting to think Obama never understood: yes, for most of us the 2008 campaign was partly about him, but it was more about the campaign itself — about the sudden feeling of power that gripped a web-enabled populace, who felt themselves able to really, truly hope. Hope that maybe they’d found a candidate who would escape the tried-and-true money corruption of Washington.

None of us gave $50 hoping for a favor. Quite the opposite. You gave $50 hoping that, for the first time in a long while in American politics, no one would get a favor. And the candidate, it must be said, led us on. His rhetorical flights were dazzling — to environmentalists like me, he promised to “free this nation from the tyranny of oil once and for all,” and pledged that his administration would mark the moment when “the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”

Once in office, it was inevitable that he’d disappoint us to some degree.  In fact, we knew the disappointment would come and braced ourselves for it. After all, our movement was up against the staggering power of vested corporate and financial interests. It’s hard to beat big money. Still, we didn’t mind thinking: Yes, we can. We’ll work hard. We’ve got your back. Let’s go!

What we completely missed was that Obama didn’t want us at his back — that the minute the campaign was over he would cut us adrift, jettison the movement that had brought him to power. Instead of using all those millions of people to force through ambitious health-care proposals or serious climate legislation or [fill in the blank yourself here], he governed as the opposite of a movement candidate.

He clearly had not the slightest interest in keeping that network activated and engaged. Though we had brought him to the party, it was as if he didn’t really want to dance with us. Instead — however painful the image may be — he wanted to dance with Larry Summers. (Fundraising idea: I’d pay $75 to be assured I never had to have dinner with Summers.)

As the months of his administration rolled into years, he only seemed to grow less interested in movements of any sort. Before long, people like Tom Donahue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, were topping the list of the most frequent visitors to the White House.  And that was before this winter when — after they’d been the biggest contributors to GOP congressional candidates — Obama went on bended knee to Chamber headquarters, apologizing that he hadn’t brought a fruitcake along as a gift. (What is it with this guy and food?  At any rate, he soon gave them a far better present, hiring former Chamber insider Bill Daley as his chief of staff.)

Now, his popularity tanking, Obama and his advisors talk about “tacking left” for the election. A nice thought, but maybe just a little late.

Increasingly, it seems to me, those of us who were ready to move with him four years ago are deciding to leave normal channels and find new forms of action. Here’s an example: by year’s end the president has said he will make a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry crude oil from the tar sands of northern Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico. The nation’s top climate scientists sent the administration a letter indicating that such a development would be disastrous for the climate.  NASA’s James Hansen, the government’s top climate researcher, said heavily tapping tar-sands oil, a particularly “dirty” form of fossil fuel, would mean “game over for the climate.” Ten of the president’s fellow recent Nobel Peace Prize laureates pointed out in a letter that blocking the prospective pipeline would offer him a real leadership moment, a “tremendous opportunity to begin transition away from our dependence on oil, coal, and gas.”

But every indication from this administration suggests that it is prepared to grant the necessary permission for a project that has the enthusiastic backing of the Chamber of Commerce, and in which the Koch Brothers have a “direct and substantial interest.”  And not just backing.  To use the words of a recent New York Times story, they are willing to “flout the intent of federal law” to get it done.  Check this out as well: the State Department, at the recommendation of Keystone XL pipeline builder TransCanada, hired a second company to carry out the environmental review.  That company already considered itself a “major client” of TransCanada.  This is simply corrupt, potentially the biggest scandal of the Obama years.  And here’s the thing: it’s a crime still in progress.  Watching the president do nothing to stop it is endlessly depressing.

For many of us, it’s been an overdue wake-up call, a sharp reminder of just who the president was really listening to. In mid-summer, several leaders of the environmental movement, myself included, put out a call for nonviolent civil disobedience at the White House over the upcoming Keystone pipeline decision. And more people — 1,253 in total — showed up to be arrested than at anytime in the last 40 years. (One reason Obama’s emails stink this time around: the guy who used to write many of them, Elijah Zarlin, not only isn’t working for the campaign any more, but got hauled off in a paddy wagon.)

Bare months have past and already that arrest record is being threatened, thank heavens, by the forces of #OccupyWallStreet, a movement that includes plenty more of the kind of people who rallied so enthusiastically behind Obama back in 2008.

Obama had mojo when he knew it wasn’t about him, that it was about change. But when you promise change, you have to deliver. His last best opportunity may come with that Keystone Pipeline decision, which he can make entirely by himself, without our inane Congress being able to get in the way. So on November 6th, exactly one year before the election, we’re planning to circle the White House with people. And the signs we’ll be carrying will simply be quotes from his last campaign — all that stuff about the tyranny of big oil and the healing of the planet.

Our message will be simple: If you didn’t mean it, you shouldn’t have said it. If you did, here’s the chance to prove it.  Nix the pipeline.

We don’t want dinner. We want action.

Bill McKibben is an organizer at, a TomDispatch regular, and Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College. His most recent book is Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

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This chart proves we’ve whacked our climate

See the trend line for the number of weather events climbing?  Yeah, that’s climate change’s impact on our country.  But don’t worry, I’m sure the insurance industry will continue to keep rates low for all of us…..

2011 Half-Year Natural Catastrophes Review USA
by Munich Re
August 25, 2011

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Fixing suburbia

I call this sprawl lite.  It contains seemingly good ideas, but it is still predicated on consumption – energy, resources, capital.  I dont think we will have the luxury of consumption in the very near future.  My vision is that we will get a much less grandiose fixing of suburbia – tent markets in former parking lots – parks where strip malls once stood – bikes on freeways – that sort of thing.  We’ll just be about making do.

Anyway, this is an interesting take.  And the one that I think Lexington ought to adopt for its default “growth” strategy.  If we don’t hit limits soon, then this would make us better.  If we do hit limits soon, then it doesnt really matter.

Sprawl Repair: From Sprawl to Complete Communities

by Galina Tachieva
Editor’s Note: This article has been excerpted from the Sprawl Repair Manual, by Galina Tachieva, with permission of the publisher (Island Press) and author. This excerpt is the book’s first chapter and introduction.

Author’s Note: On IMAGE: The Sprawl Repair Manual makes a clear distinction between sprawl and suburb. Sprawl represents auto-dependent, single-use patterns that occur at every level of urban intensity, from the rural edge all the way into the heart of urban cores. On the other hand, not all suburbs are sprawl. There are three distinct generations of suburbs in America, and it is only the developments built after the war that are sprawl. The manual proposes a toolkit for the repair of sprawl. A key technique used throughout the book is to juxtapose images of existing conditions in sprawl and how they would look if they were improved. “Before and after” pairs of plans and three-dimensional illustrations demonstrate the possibilities for better place-making. Most of the watercolor perspectives in the book were done by the talented duo of Chris Ritter and Eusebio Azcue.

Sprawl is a pattern of growth characterized by an abundance of congested highways, strip shopping centers, big boxes, office parks, and gated cul-de-sac subdivisions—all separated from each other in isolated, single-use pods. This land-use pattern is typically found in suburban areas, but also affects our cities, and is central to our wasteful use of water, energy, land, and time spent in traffic. Sprawl has been linked to increased air and water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, loss of open space and natural habitat, and the exponential increase in new infrastructure costs. Social problems related to the lack of diversity have been attributed to sprawl, and health problems such as obesity to its auto-dependence.

In contrast, complete communities have a mix of uses and are walkable, with many of a person’s daily need—shops, offices, transit, civic and recreational places—within a short distance of home. They are compact, so they consume less open space and enable multiple modes of transportation, including bicycles, cars, and mass transit. A wide variety of building types provides options to residents and businesses, encouraging diversity in population. This mix of uses, public spaces, transportation, and population makes complete communities economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable.

The promise of suburbia has been eroding for decades, but reached a critical point with the mortgage meltdown of 2008. A record number of homes went into foreclosure and entire subdivisions and commercial developments began to fail. Yet the expanse of sprawl represents a vast investment, and cannot be simply abandoned or demolished. Pragmatism demands the reclamation of sprawl through redevelopment that introduces mixed uses and transportation options. It must be acknowledged, however, that portions of sprawl may remain in their current state, while others may devolve, reverting to agriculture or nature. The design and regulatory strategies and incentives shown in the Sprawl Repair Manual are intended for the places that are best suited to be urbanized because of location or existing investment.

Left: Sprawl — fragmented, car-dependent single uses. Right: Complete community — balanced, connected, compact.
Left: Sprawl — fragmented, car-dependent single uses.
Right: Complete community — balanced, connected, compact.

Photos courtesy Google, Map Data, and TeleAtlas.

The history and consequences of suburban development, specifically sprawl, are well documented. Numerous books articulate the trajectory of sprawl within its historical context—from the Federal Housing Administration’s mortgages for new construction, the subsidies of the interstate highway system, and the tax laws allowing accelerated depreciation of commercial development, to the evolution of Euclidean zoning’s separation of uses and the cultural mandate for separation by race. Recent publications put forward the need to redevelop sprawl and what specifically should be repaired; among these are Greyfields into Goldfields and Malls into Main Streets, reports by the Congress for the New Urbanism. Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs, by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson, explains why we need to retrofit sprawl and documents successful examples of retrofits through illuminating and comprehensive analysis.

The Sprawl Repair Manual seeks to expand the literature as a guide that illustrates how to repair the full range of suburban conditions, demonstrating a step-by-step design process for the creation of more sustainable communities. This is a framework for designing the interventions, incorporating them into the regulatory system, and implementing them with permitting strategies and financial incentives.

The proposed approach addresses a range of scales from the region down to the community, street, block, and building. The method identifies deficiencies in typical elements of sprawl, and determines the best remedial techniques for those deficiencies. Also included are recommendations for regulatory and economic incentives.

Lessons learned from history guide this methodology. Rather than the instant and total overhaul of communities, as promoted so destructively in American cities half a century ago, this is a guide for incremental and opportunistic improvement.

Left: Commercial sprawl. Right: Complete community.
Left: Commercial sprawl.
Right: Complete community.

Graphics courtesy Galina Tachieva.


There are two primary options for growth: conventional sprawl development and complete communities.

Sprawl abandoned the neighborhood structure in favor of car-dependent patterns. When driving is mandatory for almost all daily activities, carbon emissions are higher. With the price of gasoline rising, long commutes to or from exurban locations become economic disadvantages. Because sprawl developments are not compact, they consume excessive amounts of farmland and valuable natural areas.

Studies have shown that sprawl is damaging to both physical and social health, isolating people in car-dominated environments where they are deprived not only of the physiological benefits of walking, but also of the natural human interactions typical of complete communities.1 This is especially relevant to aging residents, who lose their independence when they can no longer drive, and need to leave their suburban houses for retirement communities. Children and younger adults are also vulnerable to the car-dependence of sprawl. In 1969, 90 percent of all children walked to school, as schools were part of complete neighborhoods, but in 2002 only 31 percent walked to school.2

Sprawl developments, particularly in exurban areas, suffered some of the highest foreclosure rates, and many have also seen dramatic increases in crime rates, some greater than 30 percent.3 Many homes, and even entire subdivisions, have been abandoned, creating the effect of sporadic and dispersed occupancy typical of the consequences of natural disasters. Christopher Leinberger, visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, predicts that the suburbs on the fringes, poorly served by public transport, will suffer a very visible decline as low-income populations move in and these areas become “magnets for poverty, crime, and social dysfunction.”4

Nonetheless, the development industry continues to produce sprawl, with the support of the financial industry, planning practices, and government policies. Sprawl remains cheaper to plan, easier to finance, faster to permit, and less complicated to build, primarily due to the regulations governing development. It is simpler to attach the freestanding, isolated, single-use components of sprawl to the already subsidized and prolific highway system than to assemble these elements into real neighborhoods and towns. Sprawl is extremely inflexible and will not mature into vibrant urbanism on its own. Without precise design and policy interventions, sprawl might change—a strip shopping center might be scrapped and replaced with a lifestyle center when the next owner comes along—but it is unlikely to produce walkable, sustainable urbanism.

Left: Mashpee Commons, Massachusetts, 1960s shopping center. Right: Transformation into a town center in the 2000s.
Left: Mashpee Commons, Massachusetts, 1960s shopping center.
Right: Transformation into a town center in the 2000s.

Photos courtesy Galina Tachieva.

In contrast to sprawl, complete communities are economically robust because they include a variety of businesses that support daily needs, and nearby residents work at and patronize those businesses. They are socially healthy because many generations with diverse incomes and backgrounds live and interact within them. Complete communities are livable because of their comfortable human scale. They are environmentally superior because they are compact, saving land and natural resources. Vehicle miles traveled are reduced by as much as 30 percent, resulting in less pollution and less energy used.5

Complete communities also support walking and physical activity, which have been proven important to public health and general well-being. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers from the University of Miami has determined that communities with a mix of uses and good connectivity, block structure, public spaces, and transit proximity have residents who are more likely to walk, less likely to be overweight, and have greater social and community interactions.6 The researchers worked with the Florida Department of Health to create evidence-based criteria for the State Surgeon General’s Seal of Walkability so the general public would know what to look for in a community.

The demand for complete communities is greater than the current supply. According to Todd Litman, founder of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, in 2009 North American households were evenly divided in their preferences for sprawl or smart growth in the form of walkable, diverse neighborhoods. He predicts that by 2030, more than two-thirds will prefer smart growth.7 The Sprawl Repair Manual shows one way to meet the growing needs for walkable environments by repairing sprawl into complete communities.
Sprawl Repair Defined
Sprawl repair transforms failing or potentially failing, single-use, and car-dominated developments into complete communities that have better economic, social, and environmental performance.

The objective of the sprawl repair strategy is to build communities based on the neighborhood unit, similar to the traditional fabric that was established in towns and cities prior to World War II. The primary tactic of sprawl repair is to insert needed elements—buildings, density, public space, additional connections—to complete and diversify the mono-cultural agglomerations of sprawl: residential subdivisions, strip shopping centers, office parks, suburban campuses, malls, and edge cities. By systematically modifying the reparable areas (turning subdivisions into walkable neighborhoods, shopping centers and malls into town centers) and leaving to devolution those that are irreparable (abandonment or conversion to park, agricultural, or natural land), sprawl can be reorganized into complete communities.

To identify the proper targets for repair, it is essential to understand the form and structure of sprawl in the American built environment. Sprawl can take place in intensely urban areas, but most is found in suburban areas. There are three generations of suburbia that vary in form as related to urbanity and walkability:

  • Pre-war suburbs
  • Post-war suburbs
  • Late 20th-century exurbs

While the pre-war suburbs are often complete communities, the latter two types abandoned the pedestrian-centered neighborhood structure in favor of auto-centric dispersion.

Left: First-generation suburbs: traditional growth patterns formed streetcar and railroad communities outside the city limits.  Right: Forest Hills, New York.
Left: First-generation suburbs: traditional growth patterns
formed streetcar and railroad communities outside the city limits.
Right: Forest Hills, New York.

Graphic and photo courtesy Galina Tachieva.

The pre-war suburbs include patterns of growth that can be defined as suburban, but are not sprawl per se. In the U.S., the first suburbs sprang up in the 19th century along the newly built railroad lines, as compact, middle-class communities assembled around stations (examples include Lake Forest and Riverside in Illinois and Forest Hills in Queens, New York). These were modeled after the suburbs built in England in the 18th century to serve the London bourgeoisie, and inspired development outside of cities in other parts of the world.8 With the invention of the electric streetcar, another group emerged closer to the city and accessible to a more diverse economic and social population than the railroad suburbs (examples include Cleveland Park in Washington, D.C., the Country Club District in Kansas City, Missouri, and Brookline, outside of Boston, Massachusetts).9 These developments depended on their proximity to rail stops, and maintained an urban structure for pedestrian walkability and a mixture of daily uses. In the beginning of the 20th century, yet another type of development joined the suburban echelons; communities such as Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, and Coral Gables, Florida, were designed to accommodate the automobile, but still consisted primarily of mixed-use, compact, and diverse neighborhoods.

In stark contrast to the pre-war suburbs, the second generation of suburbs was single-use, low-density development spurred by new incentives from the federal mortgage system and the increase in automotive infrastructure and use. The second-generation suburbs began to develop in the 1920s, but flourished after the end of World War II, when, under the auspices of national defense, the federal government created the interstate highway system, the largest infrastructure project the country had ever seen. Ironically, the main achievements of this monumental effort were to facilitate personal mobility and undermine the fundamental walkability of American urbanism.

Left: Second-generation suburbs: conventional suburban development created car-dependent sprawl along new highways.  Right: Levittown, New York.
Left: Second-generation suburbs: conventional suburban development
created car-dependent sprawl along new highways.
Right: Levittown, New York.

Graphic courtesy Galina Tachieva. Photo courtesy Google, Map Data, and TeleAtlas.

Levittown, built on Long Island, New York, in 1948, was the preeminent example of a community dependent on the nation’s new commitment to the car. Conceived as an innovative and affordable master-planned community based on the mass production of housing, Levittown was the prototype of the post-war American suburb, and ultimately became the symbol of the ascent and failure of sprawl. Levittown’s thousands of identical houses on identical lots transmogrified the American dream of the earlier suburbs by making everything within them subordinate to the automobile, including the residents.

Though Levittown had schools, shopping centers, and park areas, its master plan ignored the traditional neighborhood structure, and the community was created only for families who owned cars. The use of the automobile eliminated the need for convenient proximity of the elements of everyday life, and the walkable compactness of the pre-war suburb gave way to sprawl. In the wake of its 60th birthday in 2008, Levittown adopted an environmental program, aimed “to persuade residents to upgrade their homes, improving energy efficiency and cutting fuel bills.”10 As logical and noble as such efforts are, especially in this time of climate change and amidst the (first) great recession of the 21st century, Levittown and suburbs of its kind will need more than the “greening” of individual buildings. They will need a major repair of the overall urban structure, because even if buildings are made more efficient, driving is not reduced, and the environmental, societal, and economic burden of sprawl will remain.

The second generation of suburbs has been blighted by traffic, obsolete housing stock, and inadequate amenities, and has been leapfrogged by newer sprawl out in the exurbs. These places are the urgent contenders for repair, as their deficiencies prohibit them from responding to the changing demographics of a fast-aging and more diverse population. Mashpee Commons in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, one of the first redevelopments of a greyfield (obsolete, underutilized land) in the country, represents the potential to revitalize this generation of suburbs. It is a retrofit in which a dead shopping center built in the 1960s was transformed into a town center in the 1980s.

Left: Third-generation suburbs: the exurbs. Right: Tyson's Corner, Virginia.
Left: Third-generation suburbs: the exurbs.
Right: Tyson’s Corner, Virginia.

Graphic courtesy Galina Tachieva. Photo courtesy Google, Map Data, and TeleAtlas.

The last generation, or third-ring suburbs, flourished from the 1980s through the early 2000s on the exurban edge. Until recently, these suburbs have been highly competitive and in good physical shape, due in part to potent owners’ associations that enforced special standards and bylaws to maintain quality within the developments. The developments are often gated, single-use housing pods or commercial agglomerations such as strip shopping centers, malls, corporate campuses, or entire edge cities, and all are reachable only by automobile.

Repairing these suburbs will require a proactive, visionary approach that anticipates the potential economic decline and devaluation of developments. Urban planners, business owners, developers, and municipal governments must anticipate their failure and intercede. An example of a farsighted repair of a still-successful mall and its surroundings is Downtown Kendall in Miami-Dade, Florida, where the county, chamber of commerce, and landowners worked together to outline a long-term plan for the transformation of this edge city into a transit-oriented, regional center.

Repair of some places will be physically and economically more feasible (e.g., the perfectly located mall waiting to be connected to the surrounding suburban fabric), while others will be more likely to wither than evolve. These are the isolated, disconnected, exurban fringes where the application of the neighborhood structure will be least feasible. And if residents and businesses migrate en masse from these fringes, because of unemployment, foreclosures, or social instability, these places may well be transformed back to agriculture or nature. Nationally and internationally, the “shrinking cities” initiative (started by cities like Youngstown, Ohio) focuses on programs for managing the devolution (reduction of the physical infrastructure) of urban and suburban areas experiencing economic and population decline.11 In comparison to other countries (mainly in Europe), where a negative population change is the predominant reason for “shrinking cities,” the population in the U.S. is expected to continue growing, creating the potential for repair and intensification of some areas.12

Mashpee Commons, 1960s Mashpee Commons, 2000s

Left: Mashpee Commons, 1960: strip shopping center.
Right: Mashpee Commons, 2000s: transformed into a town center.

Photos courtesy Mashpee Commons LP.

The Sprawl Repair Manual concentrates mainly on strategies for densification of sprawl, but acknowledges that some re-greening and de-densification initiatives are valid alternatives to blight and depopulation in the suburbs. Examples are given for contracting cities and suburbs at the regional scale, as well as instructions for re-platting deserted properties to larger lots to be used for gardens or larger family compounds.

Areas where the crisis is most acute—where traffic congestion, falling real estate values, outdated infrastructure, and lack of public amenities become unbearable—as well as the places with regional importance and manageable ownership patterns, should be given priority for sprawl repair. Priorities for sprawl repair or devolution must be set at the regional level. However, the subject of devolution is sensitive and relatively new, and is best addressed at the community scale, where residents, associations, property owners,  and developers can make decisions locally.
Experience with retrofit projects shows there are numerous challenges to overcome in the process of sprawl repair. The first challenge is financial, as sprawl repair requires considerable initial investment. It becomes more financially feasible, however, when analyzed from a long-term perspective and when compared to conventional suburban development. The increased density and mixed uses, for example, reduce the cost of infrastructure per capita.

New street in Downtown Kendall.
New street in Downtown Kendall.
Photo courtesy Galina Tachieva.

Land-use segregation and imbalance in the form of single-use concentrations (shopping centers, residential enclaves, and office parks) fragment the built environment. In addition, economic and market differences cause further separation and the existing ownership patterns are often disjointed. These factors create the need for coordinated and expensive land acquisitions, placing pressures on affordability of housing and further complicating the prospects for repairing the existing fabric.

Transportation constraints include the lack of connectivity and permeability in existing suburban thoroughfare patterns. There is rarely a continuous network to allow for multiple choices of movement, only a sparse arrangement of highways, collectors, and cul-de-sacs confining the traffic stream to limited channels of high speed and congestion. Interweaving the thoroughfare network will be challenging, and in some cases impossible. Many properties will need to be acquired, and many rights-of-way will need to be modified before achieving any meaningful connectivity.

Open space management in sprawling areas usually does not amount to continuous and significant environmental preserves. Haphazard sprawl development has disconnected natural areas, with the result that neither the human nor natural habitat has retained its integrity. There is no hierarchy in the treatment of open space; swales, berms, and wild vegetation are permitted in urbanized areas, while massive impervious surfaces encroach on sensitive natural networks.

Excessive requirements for on-site parking reduce the potential for increasing density and varying building types. Most conventional zoning codes require on-site parking and do not allow shared parking ratios, thus limiting development to low structures with parking lots or high-rises with parking decks. There is no incentive for mid-size buildings with lower parking ratios that will more evenly distribute construction through the suburban fabric.

Existing land-development regulations promote the separation of uses. The regulatory emphasis is still on the quantitative criteria, rather than physical design. The result is sprawl that is neither urban nor rural in character, but rather an ambiguous mixture in which roadways and parking lots have priority over the buildings that form the public space. New codes are needed to allow the retrofit of these elements into more sustainable communities.

Top: Greyfield site next to a train station. Bottom: Overscaled parking and dispersed buildings underutilize the site.
Top: Greyfield site next to a train station.
Bottom: Overscaled parking and dispersed buildings
underutilize the site.

Graphics courtesy Galina Tachieva.

In addition to municipal ordinances, many gated communities, as found in the second- and third-ring suburbs, are protected by homeowners’ association covenants, which leave few legal means for retrofit. Together with the overhaul of the regulatory framework that supports sprawl, identifying the legal methods for sprawl repair will be essential to its successful implementation.

However, the most important reason for the inefficiency of suburban sprawl is the absence of neighborhood structure. The diverse and compact neighborhood unit, which is the building block of smart growth, has been abandoned and even outlawed, leading to the fractured and inefficient landscape of suburbia. Establishing neighborhood structure and connecting it to the larger region is the greatest design challenge encountered in sprawl repair.
Energy costs are rising, meaning long commutes are becoming unaffordable. A changing climate compels us to pollute less. We need to increase physical activity to overcome the epidemic of obesity and chronic diseases. Entire residential and commercial developments are failing. The economics of sprawl are not working. These are the obvious justifications for sprawl repair. But there are other reasons that, while less obvious, are equally compelling.

The emergence of a new class of buyers—economically farsighted, environmentally conscious, and socially active—is creating a major shift in the housing market. Baby Boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) and their Millennial progeny (born between 1976 and 2000) represent more than 135 million people, many of them with an orientation toward diverse, compact urbanism—Boomers because they’re retiring and want the convenience, sociability, and stimuli of a complete community, and Millennials because they are young and want the excitement and job opportunities of urban environments.13 Trends such as these, along with economic and environmental forces that make exurban development unsustainable, will lead builders, developers, and the private sector at large to pursue sprawl repair aggressively. Combined with public policy, such a shift would be very powerful. This manual addresses these opportunities by showing techniques for the transformation of sprawl into communities that are attractive to these buyers.

As Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson assert in Retrofitting Suburbia, the population of 21st century suburbia is very different from the stereotype of fifty years ago that depicted the suburbs as predominantly white, middle-class families with children. Together with the quantitative and generational shifts, the growing presence of ethnic minorities accustomed to less driving and living and working in less space will contribute to new opportunities for engaging different cultures. The sprawl repair techniques provide a variety of ways to expand the range of public spaces and more affordable building types to accommodate the housing and business needs of a diverse, multiethnic population.

The need to accommodate population growth is another obvious reason for sprawl repair. By 2025, the population of the U.S. is expected to increase by 70 million—equal to the combined current populations of California, New York, and Florida.14 According to Arthur C. Nelson of the Metropolitan Research Center at the University of Utah, the U.S. will reach 400 million people in 2037. Of the next 100 million people, only 12 percent will have children, as most of the population will fit into the categories of empty nesters or single-person households. He predicts a dramatic shift in the market toward more urban environments, as the demand for single-family housing will plummet.15 According to Nelson, inner cities and first-generation suburbs will not have sufficient housing supplies to satisfy the need of the market, and “two-thirds or more of the next 100 million people and associated jobs are likely to locate in existing second-tier (1950–2000) suburbs.” The manual demonstrates how growing housing needs can be satisfied by intensification of sprawling developments in the second and third tiers of suburbs, especially near places with potential for transit.

Top: Transit-oriented urban core with a new square framing the train station.  Bottom: Final stage of greyfield repair with parking lot developed and buildings replaced.
Top: Transit-oriented urban core with a new square
framing the train station.
Bottom: Final stage of greyfield repair with parking
lot developed and buildings replaced.

Graphics courtesy Galina Tachieva.

The required infrastructure for conventional development is excessive—in most cases overscaled—and can be utilized in the redevelopment process. As an example, sprawl’s wide thoroughfares can easily accommodate transit infrastructure and bicycle lanes as well as cars. Vast parcels of deteriorating commercial buildings and parking lots are ready to be urbanized and become centers for the adjacent suburban communities. Furthermore, aging residents will prefer to retire in their suburban homes, which are the largest personal investments for most of these residents. If amenities and services are provided through repair strategies, it may become possible for millions of seniors to retire in place and invest in their current communities instead of moving.

Hundreds of new communities that are compact, pedestrian-friendly, and mixed-use have been built in the last three decades and are ready to be used as models for sprawl repair. They differ from sprawl in fundamental ways, among the most significant of which is their capacity for intensification and incorporation of public transit. The experience of building these communities has provided practical tools that are applicable to sprawl repair and are explained in this manual.

Sprawl repair is an economic necessity, but also provides the opportunity for economic growth. As observed in a study by the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, the employment decentralization that started in the 1960s became a substantial phenomenon for most metropolitan regions through the 1990s and 2000s, with the result that most businesses were located outside of city limits.16 This manual emphasizes the use of existing employment and commercial hubs as anchors to be redeveloped into complete communities with balanced uses and transportation options. Many existing buildings can also be rehabilitated for new businesses. Existing jobs can be saved, and new green jobs can be created in the process of transforming sprawl.

Beginning in 2008, the retail industry experienced unprecedented upheaval, creating an opportunity to reform the conventions of large-scale commercial overdevelopment. General Growth Properties, the second-largest mall owner in the U.S., filed for bankruptcy in April 2009, but had recently started a program to retrofit many of its megaretail hubs into mixed-use centers. This practice, together with the redevelopment of existing employment hubs, should be supported and incentivized.

Proximity to agricultural land is one of the few advantages exurban developments have over urban centers. Some, therefore, have the potential to be retrofitted for local food production. They have abundant open space, and they are close to the edges where they can easily interface with agriculture. It may be also easier to adapt these areas for irrigation, whether natural or manmade, or introduce grey-water recycling. The next American rural village might not be designed from scratch; it may be a model of repaired suburban sprawl.

The regulatory environment that supports sprawl has already begun to change. Form-based codes have been approved in many municipalities around the U.S. More than 80 cities, such as Petaluma, California, Montgomery, Alabama, and Miami, Florida, have adopted or are currently adopting the SmartCode, a model, form-based comprehensive ordinance that replaces use- and density-based ordinances and enables the development of mixed-use, traditional neighborhoods. This shift in the regulatory framework makes smart growth development legal again and assists sprawl repair initiatives.

Infill as repair of a corporate office park: Legacy Town Center, Plano, Texas.
Infill as repair of a corporate office park: Legacy
Town Center, Plano, Texas.

Photo courtesy Galina Tachieva.

Regional planning allows for the choice of sustainable growth instead of sprawl, as it provides coordination between municipalities and jurisdictions. Counties across the nation are adopting regional smart growth policies. In Sacramento, California, an association of local governments completed a Blueprint of the Future for the six-county metropolitan region. The plan covers growth until 2050, and encourages compact developments near mass transit, thus saving $8 billion in construction costs for freeways, utilities, and other infrastructure.17 In Florida, the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council is a unique four-county collaboration on strategic regional planning that has been effective in providing comprehensive planning assistance, urban design, town planning, and redevelopment initiatives, as well as model regulatory documents.18

Statewide planning practices can provide discipline and coordination on a large scale. If an entire state embraces policies that do not foster sprawl, the repair of suburbia will be more feasible, as state resources will be channeled to incentivize sustainable growth. Projects such as Envision Utah and Louisiana Speaks endeavor to create coordinated solutions for their states’ growth and outline opportunities for infill and repair.

At the federal level, agencies have come together to address growth in a holistic, multi-disciplinary manner that should help with sprawl repair. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced an interagency partnership for sustainable communities. Their goal is to coordinate federal housing, transportation, and other infrastructure investments to protect the environment, promote equitable development, and help address the challenges of climate change. The growing awareness of climate change presents an opportunity to create complete and sustainable communities through redevelopment, as new smart growth policies become the norm.

This is an opportunity for sprawl repair initiatives to be combined with federal funding, and possibly legislation. However, without the clear goals of physical change through sprawl repair, funding and legislation will not be sufficient to achieve the repair of our unsustainable suburbs. Concrete, practical tools are needed, and the Sprawl Repair Manual provides a full range—from the region, where federal and state incentives will be needed, to the single structure, where private investments and individual commitments will be required.

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Gas stations become bike fix-it places

from GOOD

In Copenhagen, Gas Stations Morph Into Bike Repair Shops

Bike Care Station

It’s a rocky road out there for bicyclists riding car-dominated streets and freeways. With potholes, angry drivers, and the constant threat of a swift pancaking all posing hurdles, biking means always moving against the flow of traffic. But in Copenhagen, one of the most bike-friendly cities in the world, an oil company is making things just a bit easier for the two-wheeled commuters.

Norwegian energy company Statoil ASA has installed bicycle care stations at select gas stations in Copenhagen, reports Copenhagenize. The bike stations were installed using unused wall space at existing gas stations, and feature a pull-down shelf to lift and hold bicycles during repairs, an air hose, paper towels, and gloves. Inside the stations are free bicycle care kits that can be borrowed for more involved repairs. Just imagine, instead of filling up on non-environmentally-friendly fossil fuels at the local gas station, you ride your bike there and revel in your tiny carbon footprint while taking care of your sweet ride.

The note on the stations reads: “You can care for your bicycle here. You can pump and wash your bicycle and, inside the shop, you’re welcome to borrow a free bicycle care kit with oil, tire levers, allen keys, etc.”

While these repair stations are only a small step towards setting up a broader bike-friendly infrastructure—like more bike lanes—the project certainly represents a friendly gesture from an industry often hostile to bikers. Let’s hope other international oil companies follow Statoil’s lead.

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24 hour solar is a reality….at least in Spain

Yep – those darn old Europeans…..they are leaving us behind – we’ll be dark and cold in the coming years while they’ll have more – you’ll thank the tea bagging republicans for killing any hope of a renewable based economy.

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Coal is the enemy of the human race, mainstream economics edition

coal trainYesterday, Jess noted a new paper in the American Economic Review: “Environmental Accounting for Pollution in the United States Economy.” Brad Johnson has a longer summary here. I want to emphasize the paper’s conclusions and make a few related points. But mostly I want to beg everyone: spread this around. Coal’s net economic effects on the U.S. are poorly understood, to say the least, and this paper’s findings are stunning.

Once you strip away the econ jargon, the paper finds that electricity from coal imposes more damages on the U.S. economy than the electricity is worth. That’s right: Coal-fired power is a net value-subtracting industry. A parasite, you might say. A gigantic, blood-sucking parasite that’s enriching a few executives and shareholders at the public’s expense.

If you’re of a wonky bent, it’s worth digging in. The authors try to establish a framework for integrating air-pollution costs into national accounts — that is, a systematic way of accounting for those “externalities” you’re always hearing about — and come up with something called gross external damages (GED). They calculate GED for several common industries and find that not only coal power, but “solid waste combustion, sewage treatment, stone quarrying, [and] marinas” have air-pollution externalities that exceed their total value added.

But coal power is a parasite in a class by itself, with a GED equal to the combined totals of its three closest competitors. In fact, coal plants “are responsible for more than one-fourth of GED from the entire U.S. economy” — roughly $53 billion in damages a year.

A couple of  notes on this:

First, as Dan Farber says, this is not a fringe journal and these are not fringe economists:

The American Economic Review is probably the most prestigious academic journal in economics. … In the area of climate economics, [Robert] Mendelsohn and [William] Nordhaus are considered to be centrist if not a bit conservative; they aren’t beloved of environmentalists.

Second, the conclusions are almost certainly conservative. Damages from air pollution are included, “but other external effects such as those that take place through water, soils, noise, and other media are not.” More importantly, the extraordinary damages mentioned above do not include CO2 and its effect on climate change. Here’s Brad:

When the authors add in highly conservative estimates of the cost of carbon dioxide pollution, they find that “the damages caused by oil- and coal-fired power plants are between 30 and 40 percent higher.” With an estimated social cost of carbon — a damage estimate of global warming pollution — of $65 (far less than other estimates), the GED for coal-fired generators is 4.7 cents/kWh.

It’s remarkable, really, that we don’t have any established way of calculating these damages built into the accounting systems of OMB, CBO, and other agencies. The public just absorbs these costs, in health-care spending, missed work days, lower productivity, and simple suffering (the ill effects of which are not spread evenly among classes, races, or regions), yet we pretend like these costs just happen, like they have no origin or responsible parties.

And finally, I appreciate economic models, but we should also heed common sense. An activity that kills tens of thousands of people a year, poisons fetuses in mother’s wombs, gives poor kids asthma, pollutes groundwater, toxifies soil, destroys mountains, and threatens to render the planet uninhabitable is not, by definition, cheap. If the the way you do your accounts makes it look cheap, then something is wrong with the way you do your accounts. If your politics gives it a place of privilege, something is wrong with your politics.

The costs of coal, so long unheeded and undercounted, are extraordinarily high. And they are only rising. Meanwhile, the costs of alternatives to coal are falling. A wise culture would, as hockey star Wayne Gretsky used to say, skate to where the puck is going.

David Roberts is a staff writer for Grist. You can follow his Twitter feed at

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Food Trucks For All

From Next American City

“Big Blue” after makeover Credit: Real Food Farm

The words food truck may conjure up images of urban gourmands noshing on portable portions of comfort food, unless of course, you happen to sit on your local planning commission.  In that case, the words may call to mind parking headaches and angry restaurateurs.  But another type of food truck, operating in the happy medium where civic leaders and residents of all income levels co-exist, is sprouting up in more cities.  Take Baltimore, where this summer the Real Food Farm program launched its mobile farmers market.  Loaded with fresh produce planted by city youth, the “Big Blue” truck makes regular weekly stops in the city’s Belair-Edison and Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello neighborhoods.  Work schedule conflict with the mobile market’s hours?  Not a problem.  “Big Blue” makes house calls.  Real Food Farm accepts the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) EBT card (Independence card) and is currently participating in the “Double Your Dollars” plan, offering shoppers twice the amount of fruits and vegetables for their money.  Residents must buy ten dollars-worth of produce to get the truck to travel, so Real Food Farm encourages customers to shop with their neighbors.  Collective purchasing, along with the high visibility of the truck, may entice other residents to develop healthier eating habits.  This in turn, helps cultivate the sustainable and socially responsible communities our cities need.  In recent weeks, the USDA has been heavily touting its “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” program.  Tack on “know your neighbor” and you have Real Food Farm’s model for a bountiful harvest in Baltimore.

“Big Blue” before makeover Photo courtesy of Real Farm Food

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