Sunday, March 29, 2009

Getting Around Tomorrow

A recent poll in Rochester on high-speed rail (3/20/09 Rochester Business Journal ) showed Rochesterians favoring this flashy mode of travel. Proponents say it will create jobs, reduced air pollution, and get us around more quickly. There are other ideas floating around town as federal dollars float in, including funds to develop hydrogen fuel.

Realistically, most if not all that fed money will be used for fixing and updating our highway infrastructure. Road construction and bridge repair are shovel-ready; already in regional budgets, and they are going to create immediate jobs. For the time being, traveling around Rochester will not leap suddenly into the breath-taking fictional world of the Jetsons.

What will the future bring? Change will certainly occur in Rochester’s transportation. Indigenous peoples walked on well-work paths, then came horse and carriages, then ole Clinton’s Folly (which some are talking of resurrecting through the city), then train, bicycling, the automobile, and the airplane. Some modes make it, some don’t. A helicopter in every garage did not and probably will not ever happen.

Forces other than speed and cost are driving our future transportation. Back in the day, when the miracle of the horseless carriage fulfilled all our dreams of privacy and accessibility (not to mention one’s own music sound chamber) no one thought that the stuff coming out the tailpipe would question their viability. Anthropogenic climate change (get used to it, it’s real) and the horrendous cost of building and maintaining the seemingly endless growth of highways is going to force us to reconsider the private automobile as the dominate form of Rochester travel. Today’s transportation is not sustainable.

As a species seemingly at times capable of thinking and adapting, we can not only speculate on what getting around will look like in Rochester’s future, we can be the driving force of that change. Things don’t just occur; there is always a cause. If you want high speed rail in Rochester, you have to provide the people who maintain your highways and bridges the reason for billions of your dollars to go elsewhere. If you continue to buy large polluting vehicles to commute an hour to work and play, your government will have to put the majority of public transportation funds in that pot—until, of course, the gas-guzzling automobile fails economically and environmentally. By the way, that is happening now.

FDR supposedly said to A. Philip Randolph: “I agree with everything that you've said, including my capacity to be able to right many of these wrongs and to use my power and the bully pulpit. ... But I would ask one thing of you, Mr. Randolph, and that is go out and make me do it." We must demonstrate to our representatives that we want a sustainable future.

If we want our streets made easier for walking and bicycling, less money spent on highways, and more money spent on public transportation (maybe high-speed rail), then we must prove it our representatives. We must walk more, bike more, and use public transportation. We must demand that vehicles slow down on our streets, respect one’s right to bicycle on our streets, and always give way to pedestrians. Increase these free community-empowering modes of transportation and our representative will hear you. The biggest and most profound change we can make in Rochester’s transportation future is to change our attitude: Be a community that accommodates people instead of the car.

Monday, March 23, 2009

EPA: Global Warming Threatens Public Health, Welfare - washingtonpost.com

EPA: Global Warming Threatens Public Health, Welfare - washingtonpost.com: "The Environmental Protection Agency sent a proposal to the White House on Friday finding that global warming is endangering the public's health and welfare, according to several sources, a move that could have far-reaching implications for the nation's economy and environment."

Green Lawns and Gardens - NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation

Green Lawns and Gardens - NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation: Have a beautiful yard without chemicals "We all want a beautiful looking yard, but also one that is safe for our families, friends and pets to enjoy. Use the tips and resources on this page to learn how to have both and protect the environment at the same time."

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Keep the Faith - In Your Public Water System


Here is an amazing news item, almost as sizzling as “Man Bites Dog!”

“For $1.88 a year in London [City of London, Ontario Canada], you can drink the eight the glasses of water a day nutritionists say you need, right from the tap. Instead, more and more Londoners are chugging bottled water from vending machines that costs them about $2,190 a year -- less, if they buy in bulk at a big-box store.” “The cost of bottled water” Fri, March 20, 20009 The London Free Press.

Countless people have lost faith in our public water supplies so the bottling water industries are raking in our money for our water. That’s a bit odd, when you think it through. Sure, questions have arisen about water quality and pollution: check out these recent items I posted in this week’s Newslinks: House Approves Funding for Clean Water, Sanitation Upgrades and this report WATER QUALITY OF THE FINGER LAKES, NEW YORK: 2005 – 2008.

But, there’s lots of water around and we have the money to clean it up if there’s a water quality problem, so why would we pay for water? What would cause people to lose faith in a resource so fundamental and plentiful in our area as water? For, essentially, our water is free. Yes, we pay a bit for public water; we pay municipal taxes on the energy, purification, and infrastructure to deliver us our water, but we don’t pay for the actual water itself, like we would pay for a hamburger.

So, why buy your water that comes in a plastic container made from a polluting energy source, costs you more than a bag of potato chips, that cannot be deposited and if it doesn’t land in a landfill gets blown about your neighborhood and, at the end of the day, probably came from another community’s tap water anyway? Doesn’t it strike you that something is wrong here? You get that sort of dirty feeling you get when you find out your hard-earned pay in the form of a bailout has just paid for a hotshot’s ludicrous bonus.

I’m going to avoid all usual arguments as to why you should stop drinking bottled water because you have probably heard them and I’ll just bore you. If you haven’t heard about the privatization argument, about the ungodly amount of plastic bottles going into our landfills argument, you can go here: Bottled Water - Corporate Water Privatization - Sierra Club

My point is this: The Great Recession is going to force us to make radical changes because our money—our ‘congealed energy’—is now more dear to us. By necessity, we are going to stop doing wasteful things—that’s what recessions do. One simple, yet profound change we can make is to cease the silly devotion to bottled water and embrace our public water systems. It will save you a lot of precious cash in a time when that is critical. It will also force your community to stay focused on the absolute right all of us have to free and clean water.
Think about how things work in this world: If you have lost faith in your public water system, contact your elected official and get your water cleaned. If you keep allowing the bottled water industry to grow with your cash, you will lose that right.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Peddling a New Bike-Sharing Business - Green Inc. Blog - NYTimes.com

Peddling a New Bike-Sharing Business - Green Inc. Blog - NYTimes.com: "Several European and American cities have played host to bike sharing programs — each with varying degrees of success.
Among the latest to enter the fold is B-cycle, an American company that touts itself as the “zero-hassle, zero-emissions way to get around town.”"

Science News / Bottled Water May Contain ‘hormones’: Glass

Science News / Bottled Water May Contain ‘hormones’: Glass: "Researchers in Frankfurt, Germany, have just reported evidence suggesting that estrogen-mimicking chemicals can leach out of certain plastic bottles. Disturbing as that is, their data indicate that the mineral water dispensed in some glass bottles may also contain such hormonelike pollution — and not because it leached out of the glass."

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Banning Toxic Assets

During the last gasps of laissez-faire capitalism, note Conservative’s rage over Obama’s socialist-like attempts to stem the bleeding in our economy from deregulation and toxic assets, banning has become popular. We’re banning or thinking of banning lead in our fuel, phosphorus in dish soaps, bisphenol A in our water containers, ‘downer’ cows in our meat supply, carbon-dioxide emissions from energy production, and even a freshwater turtle harvest ban. Things we should have long ago banned because there was cause for concern—though not absolute certainty as our present economic system requires—are getting the official boot.

Maybe, with fiscal restraint in vogue, all kinds of bans will be possible. Since our economy is purging itself of toxic wastes (formerly assets), maybe environmentally toxic wastes will be unpopular too. Great big cars are looking dumb now, considering their blatant disregard for the world market, but maybe they’ll be outright banned because they’re embarrassing wasteful and economically toxic.

All this banning, prohibiting something somebody once thought was good but is now bad, is shocking. Bans are not conducive to traditional Capitalism. When you ban something like cholorfluorocarbons (ozone-depleting substances) or anything really, you are depriving someone from making a living. Though, I wouldn’t worry too much about an epidemic on banning new products because in this country the burden of proof is on the victim. If it makes it out of the lab, it’s a go. New and exciting products are sure to come.

However, that may have to wait awhile. Among the other casualties of the Great Recession, we’re going to have a job of it just using up the stuff that’s been accumulating in all those warehouses. Tons of goods that people cannot or will not buy are piling up. Even cheap, people are hesitant to buy more stuff because their jobs might go or their credit card company might give up on them. The bubble has burst; that dog won’t hunt; whatever, stuff is piling up and maybe it’s time to rethink about how we create new stuff.

While we are banning stuff we should have banned long ago but were afraid to because consumers wanted them, maybe this is a time to consider not making potentially lousy products that screw up the environment—just because we can. Maybe it’s time to stand back and think about our way of life, especially our economy and our environment. Instead of exploding old buildings (which are great entertainment) when we’re done with them, we could disassemble them carefully and find a market for every bit of construction material. Our mantra could be: Nothing goes in the landfill. A market for everything. Sounds like sound science and business practices. We wouldn’t need bans.

For, the problem with bans is that by the time sufficient data has been acquired making bans necessary, it’s usually too late. New stuff that doesn’t kill everyone in the laboratory might if left to radiate out into the environment. If we thought about how new projects affected our environment more and what would ‘amaze and delight’ the consumer less, we might not have so many of these toxic assets bubbles and these Jonny-come-lately bans.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Don’t Waste This Crisis

Amidst the present economic crisis and the looming Global Climate Change there are hopeful messages. This is not to trivialize that our jobs are disappearing, our savings gurgling down a drain, or that there will be real suffering from not acting sooner on anthropomorphic climate change. They are happening and there will be consequences.

As I write, the so called experts are not able to predict the bottom of this economic crisis. Nor do scientists know the full measure of what will happened to us when our present culture must suddenly exist in a dinosaur climate. Odds are, Alaska won’t simply be the new sun coast. For, not only do tourists gravitate towards warm sunny locations, so do vectors for malaria, West Nile Virus, dramatic weather changes, flooding, and methane gas from previously frozen ground. Methane as a heat-trapping gas makes carbon dioxide look like a wimp.

But, change has its hopeful side, even though it destroys. Laissez-faire capitalists (as Greenspan lauds in this book The Age of Turbulence} say that creative collapse allows for one business, say the horse buggy, to collapse while another thrives—the gas buggy. Lots of buggy makers tank, but automobile makers become zillionaires. However, it is one thing to observe that creative collapse occurs; it’s quite another to say creative collapse, or even evolution, should be the model for our behavior. Nature for all its beauty is truly ‘red in tooth and claw’ exterminating the vast majority of possible life variations in favor of a relatively few. Nature takes no prisoners and it’s been the great human moral achievement to mitigate the vagaries of evolution, not to embrace them. Social Darwinism was not only wrong, it was mean.

So, I am not advocating that we mindlessly look to benefit from our present catastrophe, by doing just anything as a result of it. Using the horror of 911 to march out the preconceived neoconservative agenda to change the political hegemony in the Middle East was such a bad decision that we will be decades trying to right it--as we now must.

But, one of our species’ best traits is to thrive despite disasters. “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” Rahm Emanuel, the President’s chief of staff.

Instead of gnashing our teeth and giving in to the worst idea out there, we can use this present turmoil to do the right thing. Instead of making more highways and repairing our entire infrastructure the way it was, maybe we should rethink how we get about. Develop mass transit instead of the horrendously costly (to both ourselves and our environment) personal automobile. Bikes instead of cars. Trails instead of highways. Deconstruction (and properly reusing the parts) instead of the same old projects that go nowhere.

Instead of just creating any jobs, we should decide what jobs need saving and what jobs don’t. Right now the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) the main agency here for monitoring and protecting our environment is seriously being hampered by job loss—which is not really their problem, but ours. No monitoring and policing our environment, no sustainable environment. Instead of buttressing the media industry as it collapses (note Rocky Mountain News) and moves to the Internet, environmentalists should use this opportunity to compete on an equal footing with those who misguided and misinformed us after 911. Bad things happen, but we don’t have to react badly.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Commandeering the Commons

Our small urban public parks that were created and are maintained for the enjoyment and refuge of its landlords (us) and to preserve the last vestige of Nature in our cities are under continual assault. Note the history of our own urban parks that have over the years resisted morphing into golf courses, zoos, dog runs, drug havens, soccer fields and (perhaps the worst) neglect by a myriad of tactics. These tactics have included everything from public appeals to secret deals.

A new tactic for coercing the public to allow new uses of our Eastern urban parks should concern us all. Some aggressive off-trail Mountain biking enthusiasts believe that our small urban parks not only belong to us all, but should be open to all activities. And they are unabashedly using the argument style of the bully to radically change the intended purpose of our urban parks: If you don’t allow us to take over your parks with our extreme bike sport, we ├╝ber-athletes will take our ability to crank big bucks into your public coffers and go elsewhere. If we give into this manipulation of our common charity, it would be a tragedy.

The tragedy of the commons “describes a dilemma in which multiple individuals acting independently in their own self-interest can ultimately destroy a shared limited resource even where it is clear that it is not in anyone's long term interest for this to happen.” The systematic depletion of the fish in the ocean is an example of this tragedy because it is always in the best interest of the fisherman to try and take more fish, as the fish get fewer each fish becomes more valuable. While overfishing insures the destruction of fish, it is nevertheless pursued because there is no cost of fish loss to an individual fisherman. The commons, the ocean (in this case), is a shared limited resource.

Taking over our small urban parks is not overstating the case as, using my fishing analogy; you cannot have your fish and have them fill the oceans too. You cannot enjoy your park if off-rail bikers are hurling themselves over jumps, tearing up shrubbery, engaging in an extreme sport and enjoy the serenity of and preservation of your park at the same time.

The irresponsible rich use the argument of bullying too, to keep their taxes down. Over tax us and we will move to another state, they warn. (Though, just what state they could go to in this Recession where their tax potential wouldn’t be eyed with envy is problematic.) So to, the aggressive bikers think their bullying argument, their strident aim to push their agenda, will compel us to submit to a new interpretation of our urban parks.

My counterargument is this: Is this the way we should act in these extraordinary times, using “Karl Rove" tactics or sub-prime mortgage shenanigans to take from the public their political rights, their money, and their resources for the bullies’ single-minded desires? Shall we continually be stripped of our parks, our water, our mountaintops, our clean air, and our land because those with power (any kind of power) want what they want when they want it? I think not.