Greener Times

Promoting a sustainable society…one day at a time.

May 18 – 24

Posted by Trey Smith on May 20, 2009

Greener Times for the Week of May 18 – 24
Volume 4   No. 5
an e-publication for Greens anywhere and everywhere

Greener Times Collective: Maryrose Asher, Duff Badgley, Tom Herring and Trey Smith (Editor)

In This Week’s Issue
* A Radical Proposal: Restore Atrophied US Rail System to 1920’s Levels
* 4 Ways to Reuse Old Car Dealership Properties
* Thoughts By the Way: The Clearwater Story
* Our Climate Crisis: EPA Must Impose Caps
* Un-Spinning the Spin: The 100th Monkey Phenomenon
* This Week in History
* Pencil Shavings: The “American” Dream
* News You May Have Missed

A Radical Proposal: Restore Atrophied US Rail System to 1920’s Levels
By Jesse Fox for TreeHugger

Who said North America’s trains are slow? Take the Montreal Limited: Departing from New York’s Grand Central Station in the late evening, it arrives in Montreal’s Windsor Station early in the morning. With plenty of time to get a good night’s sleep, the 9-hour trip is made pleasurable by “modern air-conditioning [which] scientifically controls temperature, humidity and purity of air at all seasons.”

Or, at least, that’s how it was back in the 1940’s. Today, points out Tom Vanderbilt in a recent article in Slate, the same trip would take 12 hours.

Back to the Past

The good news is that the country’s leadership now gets this. “I don’t want to see the fastest train in the world built halfway around the world in Shanghai, I want to see it built right here in the United States of America,” said President Obama recently, explaining his decision to allocate billions of dollars for high-speed rail projects.

However, says Vanderbilt:

“Obama’s bold vision obscures a simple fact: 220 mph would be phenomenal, but we would also do well to simply get trains back up to the speeds they traveled at during the Harding administration.”

According to Vanderbilt’s research, the train system has not only stagnated over the last century, but has actually atrophied, with the number of rail miles in existence today roughly equivalent to that of 1881. In an era in which the onslaught of technological progress is considered a given, he argues, the train is the only technology that has (in practice) regressed since the early 20th century.

The article blames the post-WWII shift to motor vehicles, and the construction of the Interstate Highway System, for rail’s decline, along with the priority currently given to freight trains over passenger lines on the rails.

However, he notes, lost technologies can be recovered whenever there is a strong enough public will to do so. The Roman Empire’s cement industry, for example, which reached new heights of technological innovation before disappearing, was eventually “reinvented” in the 13th century.

Luckily, today’s rail pioneers have at their disposal a wealth of technological innovations, such as algae-based fuel cells, “green trains” and experimental magnetic levitation trains. So, as high-speed rail lines begin to appear between cities, let’s hope the Obama years will also see the return of regular old passenger rail service as well, of the type that could rival what once existed in the US.

4 Ways to Reuse Old Car Dealership Properties
by Dan Shapley of The Daily Green

With GM set to close 1,100 or more dealerships today, a day after Chrysler announced plans to close 789 of its own car dealerships across the U.S., communities big and (mostly) small will be reeling from the loss of a local business. For many communities, this loss is just the latest in a string of losses, as the recession has taken its toll on the economy.

While there’s no telling what’s in store for each individual dealership — most of them locally owned and operated, some by the same family for more than a generation — The Daily Green got to thinking about how communities might deal with the loss proactively.

What’s green about that? Everything. Finding ways to productively reuse urban and suburban land that’s already been developed is one of the best ways to protect outlying open spaces, wildlife habitat and farmland. Finding ways to re-orient communities around urban centers and public transportation hubs likewise reins in suburban sprawl that for decades has tended to gobble up land for strip malls, highways and other car-dependent destinations.

Finding productive uses of these properties won’t necessarily be easy, according to June Williamson, one of the authors of Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs. These “underperforming asphalt” properties likely have three strikes against them:

1. Many are in the outer suburbs and distant exurbs, where there is little chance of integrating the property into a new mixed use development.

2. Many are likely to have soil contamination, from leaking underground gasoline storage tanks.

3. With the economy in recession, developers aren’t exactly knocking down doors to invest in new building projects.

That said, she suggested several ways to redevelop those dealerships that are in the “inner suburbs” — those neighborhoods closest to cities, generally built in the post-WWII period:

1. The Car Dealership as a New Town Center

A car dealership is perhaps the greatest symbol of the car-dominated strip mall culture that has defined (and one could say decimated) American neighborhoods for a half century, and which is only slowly losing favor as communities see the value of new urbanism — the clustering of development around new and existing town centers, where housing, shopping, schools and workplaces are integrated in walkable downtowns served by public transit options.

So can a car dealership really turn into a community center? Emphatically yes — assuming the conditions are right. Witness Downtown Dadeland, a 7.5-acre former Cadillac dealership in Kendall, Fla., which is now a housing complex with 415 apartments and 125,000 square feet of retail space on 7 urban blocks, complete with arcades, walkways and other public spaces. And it’s connected to other communities by an elevated metro line along busy Route 1.

Some of what made this renaissance possible: 10 years of planning work by local officials, public subsidies, the building of that public transit line … and the site’s location near other development. The silver lining is that local planning boards have some time on their hands, now that the real estate market has taken the steam out of many development proposals, so local officials have time to plan for the next generation of development in their communities. “Instead of being reactive,” Williamson said, “they can be proactive.”

2. The Car Lot as a New Business or Community Center

While in the past, a defunct car dealership might be replaced by a viable car dealership, it’s hard to imagine any car-maker expanding its retail sales base at this point in time. That doesn’t mean these properties can’t serve some functions. While not an ideal candidate for development — given that most of the car dealerships are on strips that typify suburban sprawl, they at least have the benefit of being already paved. If you’re going to build anew, Williamson pointed out, it’s better to use land that’s already degraded rather than a pristine property.

The Daily Green came up with a few ideas, each with varying degrees of viability depending on local communities:

* A visitor center: What exurban communities lack in public transportation they often gain in scenic beauty. What attracts second home owners into the countryside is often a mix of scenery and proximity to historic sites, pick-your-own farms and other tourist destinations. Why not cater to visitors, boost the local economy and provide a place for out-of-towners to park their cars and get on a tour bus than a centrally located, easy to find parking lot with a small building … like an old car lot. Scenic Hudson, the environmental group directed by The Daily Green’s Backyard Matters blogger, Ned Sullivan, has performed a similar transformation with a still-active drive-in theater that will serve simultaneously as a visitor center, parking area and farmers market in Hyde Park, N.Y., home of the Franklin D. Roosevelt (and don’t forget Eleanor!) and Vanderbilt estates.

* A public art gallery: The International Fiber Collaborative (which provided the photo at right) produced the innovative public art project to highlight society’s dependence on oil. That’s a gas station under all that yarn … Why not a car dealership? “Dubbed the World Reclamation Art Project (W.R.A.P.), participants crocheted, knitted, stitched, patched, or collaged 3-foot square fiber panels, with each unique one expressing concern about the topic,” as The Daily Green’s Brian Clark Howard wrote in his 38 Extraordinary Knit Designs feature. “The panels were then sewed together, to completely cover an abandoned gas station in central New York. It an example of the people remaking an ugly industrial legacy into something softer, gentler and more beautiful.”

* A Make It America Craft Factory: The Daily Green recently had a great conversation with Adina Levin, who founded Make It America, which is in the first phase of a mission to re-imagine the U.S. economy. Now, it’s connecting businesses holding events to U.S.-made, sustainable producers. Next, it aims to open workshops in cities across the U.S., where local artisans will have access to the tools they need to scale up their creations for local or national markets. It’s a great vision. Why not make it happen in an old strip mall?

* A Solar Power Sub Station: Hey, we can dream, right? A few acres of sunny parking lot could be reborn as a nifty little solar power electric-generating station to serve the needs of some local businesses. Think it’s unlikely? Witness New Jersey, where the state’s largest utility plans to install 200,000 solar panels on utility poles.

3. The Car Dealership as Flea Market

If permanent reuse isn’t in the cards for a particular property, there are still options, according to Williamson.

Communities can stage flea markets, craft shows, farmers markets or other “opportunistic events,” making temporary use of all that asphalt for gatherings that knit a community together and benefit local businesses and artisans.

4. The Car Dealership as a Field of Wildflowers

A little-appreciated truth about the modern strip mall is this: It was often built exactly where housing could not be built, because the land was too wet, Williamson said. Today, most states have rules against draining or filling wetlands, which act as natural (and cost-effective) systems of flood control, pollution filtration and wildlife habitat. Restoring a more natural landscape to a paved area increases rainwater infiltration, produces wildlife habitat for birds, bees and other beneficial insects, and helps to restore the water quality and ecological function of local watersheds.

“Re-greening is certainly something that should be considered,” Williamson said, though she warned that even this apparently simple idea is not inexpensive. “You can’t just let it go. You have to break up asphalt.”

A wildflower, native plant or similar garden is probably the best garden use for an old car dealership (assuming it is going to seed) since contaminants in the soil would make vegetable gardening potentially unwise.

Thoughts By the Way: The Clearwater Story
Tom Herring is a Community Council member on Vashon Island. Catch more of Tom’s thoughts on his blog.

In 1947, General Electric began dumping polychlorinatedbiphenols (PCBs) into the upper Hudson River. By 1977, the toxicity had become evident and PCBs were banned under the Clean Water act of 1972. By then 1.3 million pounds of PCBs had gone into the river. In 1984, the EPA concluded a review with the decision that no action would be taken. But, in 1989, it decided to mount an environmental study. In 2002, this culminated in a Record of Decision that 40 miles of the river was a superfund site. Meanwhile, GE unleashed a publicity campaign that cost more than a tenth of the cleanup estimate. Four years went by before the EPA decided to act. Then another three. As this is written, dredging has finally begun.

Parallel to this chronology the people of the Hudson Valley had for years formed groups to fight the pollution of their invaluable river, for example, tankers coming upriver to flush out. One became prominent in the PCB problem, “The Hudson River Sloop Clearwater”, founded in 1969 by Pete Seeger. This 106 foot replica of the old freighters has been conducting floating studies and seminars on the Hudson and its tributaries. It became the major thorn in the side of GE and the EPA. It has lauded the EPA’s decision to act while, at the same time, issuing detailed corrections to the plan, These address the evolving knowledge of how the stuff is spreading. GE had said it would stay put on the bottom, but this proved untrue. GE wanted to reduce the depth of the dredge, saying most of the PCB was near the surface of the mud, and would therefore be able to cover more area. The Sloop disagreed.

Dredging is to be complete by 2015. Meanwhile, people have to eat no fish from the upper river and spaced out morsels in the lower river. The non-cancer impact of PCBs can be summed up as “diminishing the human potential of future generations” (Dr. Theo Colborn et al).

9/11 is like the PCBs in the Hudson, a sore that won’t heal. Even as Obama has not continued Bush’s explicit hammering, he is carrying out the expansionist policy that 9/11 justified. Even as the media have buried re-examination of the event, many share a subliminal worry that Bush went beyond an orgasm of joy to see those towers come down and actually had lent a helping hand. A drop of that in the old fluid and your sanity is endangered. I’m putting the case that no real progress is possible until 9/11 is examined by a real commission. You want proof? Ask yourself why Congress has let Obama hire “shock doctors” Summers and Geithner, keep two wars going, build a fence between Mexico and the US (a fence of pure distilled venom), or ask yourself why congress is letting Obama throw more coal on the fire of US consumption. It’s because we, you, us, they, in concert have lost it. We weren’t doing so well when Nader tried to turn on our bulbs in 2000, and since 2001 we have lost it entirely. Recovery? When hedge funds develop a conscience. One state for Palestine? When the dead sea freshens. Decent health care? When the insurance industry is nationalized. Immigration reform? When US employers quit using immigrants to keep labor broke. Retool Detroit for the new climate? When Kucinich is elected president.

Enough. That view of the state of the nation is not shared by many of our best progressives and street workers, particularly including some close to me. These menenwomen are getting good things done. Their banners and phone calls do “lay a glove on” the mis-elected in high places. And yet to them, the 9/11 truth movement is anathema. They readily admit that the White House was happy to have 9/11, even admit that bombing Afghanistan was not about getting bin Laden (it sure wasn’t!), but are convinced that to try to prove complicity is a mistake because one, it can’t be done, and two, it will discredit anyone who gives it voice. Lots of truth in both.

We know about that discrediting, oh, my yes we sure do. The 9/11 truth movement is defiled by some of the worst polemic ever poured. Semi-literate, amateur science fiction, and racist. Now think about why it is that trying to explain 9/11 should open those rubbish gates, and you have thought yourself into a paradox. It does not add up. I believe what I will say about it is widely shared and so here goes. Bush had a hand in it. Covering up that hand was a monumental undertaking, so for insurance there was an anonymous script that hired unsuspecting riff raff to infiltrate the 9/11 truth movement and write garbage. Worked like a charm. Icons like Chomsky and Zinn now say waste of time to re-open 9/11. The unimaginable is safe, protected by a thick layer of words.

The good guysngals will make some headway against the bad organic chemistry in the Potomac, but there’s no sloop Clearwater to help dredge. We are left with no accounting for the moral death of America.

Our Climate Crisis: EPA Must Impose Caps
Duff Badgley is the leader of the One Earth Climate Action Group and was a candidate for Governor as a Green in 2008. He can be reached at 206-283-0621.

Is Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) foisting a massive fraud on us?

Is the EPA giving political cover to carbon trading that will doom us to our worst climate scenario — mass death among all species including humans, destruction of global agriculture, and most of the Earth rendered uninhabitable?

Or, will the EPA act to aggressively cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by top-down regulation, with none of the escapes carbon trading gives our worst polluters?

The EPA road show comes to Seattle this week. On Thursday, one of only two national public hearings will be held about the new EPA ‘endangerment’ ruling. The fate of countless billions hangs on what action the EPA takes, or doesn’t take, to impose caps on GHG emissions.

Last month, Obama’s EPA ruled GHG emissions from vehicle tailpipes endanger present and future generations. This ruling — widely thought to encompass GHGs from all human activities — gives the EPA legal authority to directly impose whatever emissions caps it wants. The EPA did exactly this with the wonderfully successful Clean Air Act of 1970.

But Obama has said he prefers to have Congress enact laws regulating GHG emissions. And he knows that Congress is sputtering toward some version of carbon trading, most likely the Waxman/Markey bill that would guarantee global ruin. Carbon trading guts any caps on emissions by allowing our worst polluters to keep on polluting.

The EPA is now in the official 60-day Comment Period for the endangerment ruling required before the ruling takes legal effect. Hence the public hearings in Virginia on Monday and in Seattle this Thursday.

So, we’ll be there with big banner and big words, demanding No! to carbon trading and Yes! to direct EPA regulation of GHGs.

But is the hearing a charade? Has Obama already decided the endangerment ruling gives him what he wants — the appearance of doing something effective about our Climate Crisis? While he busies himself with his real agenda: Business-as-Usual that guarantees Climate Catastrophe and mass death among all species, including us.

Un-Spinning the Spin: The 100th Monkey Phenomenon
Maryrose Asher is a former Chair of the Green Party of Washington State and a tireless activist of many causes.

Looking for something positive to focus on this week, I stumbled upon a reference to the “One Hundredth Monkey Phenomenon.” Lyall Watson, a South African botanist, zoologist, biologist, anthropologist, and ethologist, is credited with first using the term “Hundredth Monkey” in Lifetide, a book he wrote in 1979.

Watson writes that for over 30 years scientists had studied the Japanese monkey (Macaca fuscata) on the Island of Koshima. In 1952, they began providing the monkeys with sweet potatoes. The monkeys liked the taste of the raw sweet potato but, since the potatoes were dropped in the sand, did not like the taste of the gritty sand on the potatoes.

Imo, an 18-month-old female, began washing the potatoes she ate in the ocean water and taught this to her mother. Her “playmates” likewise learned to do this and taught their mothers. Gradually, this cultural innovation spread to numerous monkeys in the troop. By 1958, all the young monkeys were washing the sandy sweet potatoes as well as the adults who imitated their children. All other adult monkeys kept eating the dirty sweet potatoes.

In the fall of 1958, a phenomenon occurred that was recorded by the scientists studying the monkeys. By this time, a certain number of Koshima monkeys were washing their sweet potatoes. The exact number is not known but was hypothetically given as 99. As the hundredth monkey learned to wash the sweet potatoes, a breakthrough occurred where now nearly every monkey in the troop was washing their potatoes.

But, more amazingly, colonies of monkeys on other islands and even the mainland troop at Takaskiyama began washing their potatoes!

This Hundredth Monkey Phenomenon seems to suggest that when a certain number of individuals adopt a new “way” or a new consciousness that it remains limited to the group. However, by the acceptance of just one more individual to this new way of thinking, something occurs that causes this consciousness to become part of society as a whole. It also suggests that this “consciousness” is communicated mind to mind, separate from personal contact.

Although the times we live in are troubling, with a sense that events are out of our control, the One Hundredth Monkey Phenomenon encourages us not to give up. Those wanting justice, peace, and social equality should continue to work toward that goal and, when that hypothetical 100th person joins the movement, critical mass will be achieved and society at large will adopt these values.

Was Watson writing scientific fact or myth-making? It does not really matter. What does matter is that we hold on to the hope that there is a chance for change.

This Week in History
This Week in History, published by Carl Bunin and edited by Al Frank, is a collection designed to help us appreciate the fact that we are part of a rich history advocating peace and social justice. While the entries often focus on large and dramatic events there are so many smaller things done everyday to promote peace and justice. Find more info at http://www.peacebuttons.info/E-News/thisweek.htm.

May 18, 1979: The Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee decision established that corporations are responsible for the people they irradiate. Karen Silkwood worked for the Kerr-McGee Nuclear Corporation at their Cimmaron, Texas, plant that manufactured plutonium. She became the first female member of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers bargaining committee, focusing on worker safety issues, and suffered radiation exposure in a series of unexplained incidents.

May 21, 1930: Thousands were arrested, including Mahatma Gandhi, and the jails we filled when over 2,500 Indians “raided” the Dharasana salt works, a salt production facility controlled by the British regime. Column after column of Indians advanced toward the gates and were severely beaten by the native police under British direction. Not one raised a hand to defend himself; many lost consciousness, and some died. They were protesting the complete monopoly on the production of salt, a necessity for the diet in the tropics, and the tax on it as well. British public opinion was deeply affected by the Dharasana nonviolent moment, which revealed the violence inherent in the British colonial system.

May 22, 1978: Four thousand protesters occupied the site of the Trident nuclear submarine base in Bangor, Washington. The base was built for the maintenance and resupply of Ohio-class submarines. Though built as part of the U.S. nuclear deterrent, they were perceived by some as giving the U.S. a nuclear first-strike capability with their ability to each deliver 24 missiles with multiple warheads from very close to the borders of other countries. The 14 vessels are at sea 2/3 of the time and can travel as deeply as 800 feet, staying at sea for as long as 70 days.

Pencil Shavings: The “American” Dream
Pencil Shavings appears in this space most weeks and solely represents the opinions of the publisher. If you’d like to read more of Trey’s ruminations, visit The Rambling Taoist.

I recently received an email from The Nation entitled, The Future of the American Dream. It futures a column by William Greider, among others. I’m sure it a well written article that makes a lot of points I would readily agree with. But here’s the thing — I don’t have an American Dream and I think a dream of this nature explains a great deal about the many problems our civilization faces.

Before some of you think I’m going to go off on an anti-American rant, hold on to your horses. I only highlight the American Dream because I happen to live in the US. I’m equally opposed to the Iranian, French, Japanese and South African dreams too. This incessant fixation on the idea that people in different lands have widely different needs and desires is what I rebel against.

To be certain, we each live under different political and religious systems. Our worldviews are different because of these systems. However, at the end of the day, all humans desire basically the same things: love, companionship, food, water, shelter, creativity and respect (among other things). We may state these needs in different ways and in different languages, but these insignificant differences don’t change the commonalities we share.

So, if we must have this imagery of a dream, let’s sweep away all these ethnocentric and nationalistic tendencies. Let’s quit erecting these artificial barriers. Instead of an American or Peruvian Dream, why not a World Dream?

News You May Have Missed

Is Whole Foods Just Another Evil Corporation?
But something sinister lurks beneath the surface of Whole Foods’ progressive image. Somehow, [John] Mackey has managed to achieve multimillionaire status while his employees’ hourly wages have remained in the $8 to $13 range for two decades. With an annual turnover rate of 25 percent, the vast majority of workers last no more than four years and thus rarely manage to achieve anything approaching seniority and the higher wages that would accompany it. If Whole Foods’ workers are younger than the competitions, that is the intention…

House Backs Obama’s Afghan Surge, Amid Calls for Exit Strategy
“Sometimes great presidents make mistakes,” declared Massachusetts Congressman Jim McGovern as he announced his intention to vote against $97 billion in “emergency” supplemental funding for the continued U.S. occupation of Iraq and President Obama’s dangerously misguided plan to surge 21,000 more U.S. troops and trainers into Afghanistan. McGovern is a Democrat who supported Barack Obama for president last year. But McGovern is not willing to write Obama a blank check for endless warmaking. And he is not alone…

Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?
It’s not news that Lester Brown is warning about our unsustainable approach to feeding the planet. But it is news that Scientific American has run a major article by him on how “The biggest threat to global stability is the potential for food crises in poor countries to cause government collapse.”…

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