Sepia-toned future

For the six of you out there who don’t already read him, I link to today’s column from the shrill one – who now seems of the more sane among us. Go figure.

I would like to pick up on a few things he points out.

To be sure, the Obama administration is taking action to help the economy, but it’s trying to mitigate the slump, not end it. The stimulus bill, on the administration’s own estimates, will limit the rise in unemployment but fall far short of restoring full employment. The housing plan announced this week looks good in the sense that it will help many homeowners, but it won’t spur a new housing boom.

My first reaction to this is, we don’t need a new housing boom – that was one of the problems in the first place. But even this, as green as I always make it out to be, is itself a little too facile. What we don’t need is the same kind of crazy suburban housing boom, centered on and driven by the automobile in every way, and that is a non-trivial distinction if there ever was one. We do have to keep moving forward, a consequence of which is a growing population, one that needs housing. All the many things we talk about as far as energy efficiency, conservation, and lowered carbon footprint need to be incorporated in a kind of new housing boom. One that takes place nearer central cities, one that s accompanied by a boom in SUPERTRAINS and SUPERTRAIN TRACKS and SUPERTRAIN STATIONS, connecting this kind of housing boom to these smarter, much smarter goals for development being hatched on sites and across lecturns the nation over.

So… when Krugman also lays out some of the seeds of our recovery being planted…

Consider housing starts, which have fallen to their lowest level in 50 years. That’s bad news for the near term. It means that spending on construction will fall even more. But it also means that the supply of houses is lagging behind population growth, which will eventually prompt a housing revival.

Or consider the plunge in auto sales. Again, that’s bad news for the near term. But at current sales rates, as the finance blog Calculated Risk points out, it would take about 27 years to replace the existing stock of vehicles. Most cars will be junked long before that, either because they’ve worn out or because they’ve become obsolete, so we’re building up a pent-up demand for cars.

…These should only re-enforce the critical importance of putting these opportunities to work in the service of less waste, less energy, more walking, biking and mass transit. It could be a golden era – when our sepia-toned nostalgia for street car days of yore combine with the wizbang advantages of our high-tech faggery to give us copious amounts of actual time to piss away on stuff that matters. But it will require a major re-casting of all the tools we use to build houses and cars, including the nuts and bolts and screwguns and the materials they fasten but most importantly their designs and the regulations that guide them. Different requirements yield different outcomes, and that, my smiling-because-it’s-Friday friends, is what we’re after.

Living in the City

Ah… the immortal words of Lee Ving, via a lot of good research presented in this article by Ed Glaeser.

The five metropolitan areas with the lowest levels of carbon emissions are all in California: San Francisco, San Jose, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Sacramento. These areas have remarkably low levels of both home heating and electricity use. There are cold places, like Rochester, that don’t air-condition much and thus use comparably little electricity. There are warm places, like Houston, that don’t heat much and thus have comparably low heating emissions. But coastal California has little of both sorts of emissions, because of its extremely temperate climate and because California’s environmentalists have battled for rules that require energy-efficient appliances, like air conditioners and water heaters, and for green sources of electricity, such as natural gas and hydropower. (Some analysts argue that this greenness is partly illusory—see “California’s Potemkin Environmentalism,” Spring 2008—but certainly, by our measures, California homes use less energy.) Also, despite the stereotypes about California highways and urban sprawl, some of these five cities, like San Francisco, have only moderate levels of transportation emissions, since their residents actually live at relatively high densities, which cuts down on driving.

In one of the charts, they measured overall carbon emissions for cities, then differentiated emissions of central city residences from the suburbs. Surprises abound.

Boston and Philadelphia are the third and fifth cities on the list. Though hotter summers and more coal make Philadelphia browner than Boston, the city-suburb differences in both areas reflect the high density and abundant public transportation in their central cities. Nashville and Atlanta, on the other hand, rank second and fourth not because their central cities are particularly green but because extensive driving makes their far-flung suburbs particularly brown.

However, even these are not without their caveats, exceptions and reasons why. So you should read the whole thing. Land use patterns and incentives that shift us toward high energy-use locales instead of green ones – those are the issues.

Plus, it beats getting fat and dying your hair.

Eco Hustle

New Flagpole column is up (on a snazzy new Flagpole website, btw) wherein I recommit myself and my proclivities for overreach to reading the entrails of early 21st century eco-enlightment before they dry. Our po-po-mo motto (what is the heart, anyway, if not two facing question marks?): “How can it be dead yet if we didn’t kill it?”

The Green Zone

Not that one.

One connection to what’s happening to the planet is the shape our self-interest takes in the form of our kids and what they will be dealing with. In the early years of life when we are learning about the world, unafraid to question adults or puzzle over the answers of more than a few of them, there’s an opportunity to bond with the natural environment in a fundamental way that is a heavy indicator of our later predispositions. Here’s a thoughtful Monitor piece about a mom’s concern for her young sons over global warming.

On the other corner (no offense intended unless appropriate) is this wonderful little bit, via TPM, about the coordination of global warming denial by a former Limbaugh producer. The fun never stops, apparently.

It’s profound in its way, the manner in which that ever-so-brief early epoch of life effects so much of what comes later. Relatedly, in a way that I wish I could say was some kind of extreme example of this but which is way more average than we should be comfortable with, a run down of the top 15 searches on Technorati, via the wit and wisdom of Dr. Cole.

And then, just to round things out, the world’s angriest dog.

Sunday fractal convolution and wooden money

It’s hard not see this article about the American Dream in reverse as a blown-up close up of the coastline of our general, if hearty, methods of D/B/A, physically, morally, socially, practically in every respect. Just look at the pictures, or read the article, or chance it and do both. In the blighted-at-birth and now abandoned settlements somehow referred to perhaps without irony (is that still possible?) as ‘once-middle-class-exurbs’, it’s hard not to have your head pinned back by the force of the pan-out to the wider angle on our culture of ambitious slackening. It’s the art of being left bag-holding on which legends have been forged. Is there any doubt this is what these myths (dreams, American and otherwise) stand for?

Lehigh Acres, like much of Florida and many suburbs nationwide, was born with speculation in its DNA.

The area got its start in the 1950s when a Chicago pest control baron, Lee Ratner, and several partners bought thousands of acres of farmland and plotted about 100,000 lots. With Fort Myers, 15 miles to the west, developers left little room for schools, parks or even businesses.

What they sold was sun and quiet living.

The engine we are running on is powered by the engine we’re running on. It produces what it was designed to produce.

Key players in the Obama economic team beyond Geithner are also tied to Rubin or Citigroup or both, from Larry Summers, the administration’s top economic adviser, to Gary Gensler, the newly named nominee to run the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and a Treasury undersecretary in the Clinton administration. Back then, Summers and Gensler joined hands with Phil Gramm to ward off regulation of the derivative markets that have since brought the banking system to ruin. We must take it on faith that they have subsequently had judgment transplants.

Mr. Rich is being a serious joker here, yanking on our chains, such as they have not yet been repo’d. The faith in judgment transplants is as near perfect as the belief that such a local market as cited above can/will bounce back in some resemblance to its former self. It’s part of the defense mechanism to believe in the right to self-exploitation that informs the notion that such manifestations are or were a part of some dream that itself was in a some way righteous or desirable. I’ll demure to this digression on Gresham’s Law from Miller’s essay Money and How It Gets That Way from Stand Still Like a Hummingbird. Gresham’s Law roughly states that “bad money drives out good.” Miller’s context was our country’s departure from the gold standard.

For the sake of creating work, on the other hand, no such hard and fast rules were stipulated by the early nineteenth-century economists. Work and trade were kept apart in watertight compartments, although it was obvious even then, to those who made the subject a profound study, that twist it how you will, the inevitable liaison is always there, namely debt. That is one of the reasons why, under the sway of Marxian diuretic, debt is no longer regarded as a permanent element in the economic disorder, but rather as a solvent, so to speak, in the conversion of capital to labor. Countries like Germany and Italy, in as much as they refuse to adopt the Marxian diuretic, tend to increase the circuit velocity of money, in order that, as an eminent Dutch economist points out, “their currencies may drag themselves by the hair out of the quicksands of worthlessness.” However salutary these tactics may be with regard to the evaporation of the national debt in the countries just mentioned, the fact is nevertheless incontestable that the gold mentality of the world remains unaffected. With money becoming ever cheaper the price of bullion naturally rises to implement the costive condition of the call market. This the real explanation of the fact that, in Pomerania, shortly after Hilter’s advent to power, the turnip and swede crop fell off so markedly. For though it is undeniable that dry years have always had a definite adverse influence upon the price level, yet during the year in question the average rainfall was higher than that of the five years preceding Hitler’s advent. Had this not been so we should be at a loss to account or the fact that during those five preceding years brewery shares were a feature of remarkable strength and integrity.

Green Expo(sition)

Not competition, so no wagering. As mentioned early, I interviewed some of the participants at the Green Life Expo last week. Here is part one of the video extravaganza version


Is not cooling after all.

Global-warming skeptics have pointed to the presumed cooling of the continent as evidence that researchers’ computer projections of climate change are in error, but the new findings reported Thursday appear to refute their criticisms.

“We now see warming as taking place on all seven of the Earth’s continents in accord with what models predict as a response to greenhouse gases,” coauthor Eric J. Steig of the University of Washington said at a news conference about the report published in the journal Nature.

In related stories, scientists have also published new research showing that there is, in fact, no place like home, that many hands do make light work and that you should not put off until tomorrow what you can do today.

Update: That may be one of the last times I link to the L.A. Times. Good grief.

The joneses, keeping up with

This is exactly what I was talking about in this week’s column. Admittedly it does involve foreign concepts like nonprofit utility boards and conscientious people, but this

The utility thinks behavior modification could be as effective in promoting conservation as trying to get customers to install new appliances is, Mr. Starnes said, and maybe more so.

is universal. Set aside ethical sympathies about the environment. Shame people into keeping up with their neighbors and they’ll take care of the imaginative/innovative part; you just put the comparative graphs on their bill. Okay, and the frowny faces, too.

In a 2004 experiment, he and a colleague left different messages on doorknobs in a middle-class neighborhood north of San Diego. One type urged the residents to conserve energy to save the earth for future generations; another emphasized financial savings. But the only kind of message to have any significant effect, Dr. Cialdini said, was one that said neighbors had already taken steps to curb their energy use.

“It is fundamental and primitive,” said Dr. Cialdini, who owns a stake in Positive Energy. “The mere perception of the normal behavior of those around us is very powerful.”

Green Expo

I dropped by the Green Life Expo today, to check out what is and is not green. The signs, the products, the people, the giant inflatable planet in the middle of the room… they were all green. It seems we’re just past the marketing extravaganza phase but not quite into the details of what any of it means, as yet. Several people agreed to talk to me on camera about what they or their company were doing, and I’ll post some short videos soon.

Talking to a rep from a large recycling company, one of the things that came up was, after extolling the benefits of recycling, getting small cities and towns on board, doing all manner of public awareness campaigns, when those basics are behind you and you’re left to contemplate the evaporated foreign market for your material what you are left with is creating new profit-streams for companies that collect and “recycle” recyclables. The very nice guy did the equivalent of taking his hat off, wiping his brow and squinting into the sun to say, “Heck, I don’t know, hoss.”

Yeah, no kidding. There are many things like this that people aren’t thinking about, and they might sound complicated – like creating vertical integration with manufacturing companies, or getting companies to be happy with a lower domestic price for recycled materials rather than shipping then stuff overseas for a little higher return. These things are inherent to coupling ethical responsibility with economic viability – and it’s important to acknowledge in someway that this what we’re talkign about. But most of the earnest participants didn’t have anything to add to this besides agreeing that it was a good question.

Green Journalism

An inadvertent follow-up to the previous post but, there’s a well-laid out compendium about the media’s culpability in the run up to the current financial crisis, here. Using as its analogue the media’s roll in the breathless rush to war in Iraq, there are some startlingly appropriate comparisons to draw with other situations. In the midst of fiscal, geo-political, environmental meltdowns, we’re accustomed to the print and TV press just playing along, presenting false dichotomies and premises, compromised by corporate conflicts-of-interest, muddying a situation until it’s too late.

And even when the reporting was solid, which was rare enough, news organizations didn’t follow up in appropriate ways. If we can foresee a catastrophe, it’s not enough to mention it once or twice and then move on.

That common practice suggests an opportunity. When we can predict an inevitable calamity if we continue along the current path, we owe it to the public to do everything we can to encourage a change in that destructive behavior.

In practice, this means activism. It means relentless campaigning to point out what’s going wrong, and demanding corrective action from those who can do something about it.

Crushing and important issues with long-term implications become trivialized as a part of the infotainment experience the big media conglomerates, like the Big automakers and their rationales for the huge, gas-guzzling SUVs, say the public desires. It’s the guise of fairness in the trappings of drama and fragmentation that allow enormous and clear stories to become opaque and difficult to piece together. Global warming is one such story; how long will we read and hear stories from the perspective of both sides, about how it might be a problem, until we pass the last tipping point?

TPM’s Gillmor brings up yellow journalism and draws an interesting comparison to the few newspaper editors who decided to embrace racial integration and really forced the issue by keeping it front and center, drawing lines in the sand, digging footings and constructing the edifice that would become our present society. Because they knew it was being constructed anyway, and that if they didn’t, if they supported the status quo with their silence, they would be working in the service of segregation.