Complete Streets Act queued for California Senate

The Complete Streets Act, sponsored by Assemblymember Mark Leno, is queued up for debate in the California Senate. The bill requires local governments to take into account users other than cars when updating general plans. Pedestrians, bicyclists, children, people with disabilities, seniors, all need to be considered. In a “complete streets” world, cars have a vote, not a veto on how streets are used.
More background on the bill from the TransBay Blog. The bill is queued for the Senate floor, but is being held while the Gov. plays chicken with the budget. If you live in CA, call your state Senator in support of the bill.

Peripheral canal and farmers market salmon

The man who sells fish at the Menlo Park farmers market with his family is a good guy and a community leader. There is no local salmon for him to sell this year, because the Delta where the salmon grow up — an estuary at the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers — is dying.
Today, water is drawn from Northern California through the Delta. Too much water is being taken out, and too much fresh water is being drawn through what used to be a tidal flux.
My weekend housecleaning radio listening was a KQED forum program about a proposal to build a Peripheral Canal, which would route less fresh water through the Delta, and would take more water around the Delta. After listening to the program, I’m still not sure what to think about the canal proposal. I think that key questions are how much water is moved, and how we live with less. One of the guests on the program was Peter Gleick, a water expert and Macarthur grantee who’s written a report on California water policy.
These water debates are the stuff of Cadillac Desert and Jared Diamond’s Collapse, the tactical decisions that affect the rise and fall of civilizations over time.

Economist alt energy issue

I read the Economist’s alternative energy special. It made the case that a post fossil fuel future is sooner than one might think, and had good stats on overall market size, growth rate, and competitive costs.
The big weakness was in the way it handled energy efficiency. The article pooh-poohed notions of energy conservation, identifying it with dour do-goodism. The economist doesn’t have trouble with other sorts of efficiency driven by technology price/performance, or reducing labor. But somehow, if you can get comparable results with less energy, that’s not worth considering.

Organic, Inc

Organic, Inc is a good companion to The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Where Michael Pollan deplores and bemoans the corporatization of organic food, Samuel Fromartz investigates it, tracking the rise of Whole Foods, Earthbound (the salad mix people), White Wave (the commercialization of soy milk). Fromartz is a business journalist by trade, and he does a good job of tracking the “Rolling Stone” narrative where the counterculture becomes mainstream. He also astutely perceives the increasing segmentation of the market between supermarket organic, and local CSA/farmers market which can exist alongside.
The book takes on a bittersweet, world-weary attitude about commercial success, in telling the story of the mega-lettuce growers who put their small counterparts out of business, and the visionary soy entrepeneur who stole an idea from a former business partner, and was himself ousted by his corporate acquirers. Sure they are selling out, but compromise is part of the price of going mainstream. This attitude, ironically, buys into the mythos of the organic counterculture, where a set of values are tightly woven together: local, small, humane, unprocessed, authentic, and deviations from the norm are seen as selling out.
I am skeptical of romantic purism, and much more concerned with sustainability. What kind of food system is needed to feed the population without environmental disaster, especially after the cheap oil is gone. So I would rather see the strands teased apart and tested — which aspects are inherently required for sustainable agriculture, and which aspects can scale up sustainably.

  • Fromartz observes that big organic dairies start looking like CAFOs because they can only grow so big before it’s impractical to walk the cows out to pasture. If so, why not just divvy up and have more than one barn, spread out according to walking distance for cows?
  • The book is ambivalent about the rise of organic processed foods — more of a market is created for organic ingredients, but we’re back with a diet of TV dinners and twinkies. But traditional food customs also include some extreme processing — cheese, sausage, pickles, kimchee, and other complicated preserved foods. The badness of pop-tarts and chicken mcnuggets isn’t just that they are processed, but how they are processed.
  • The “heritage” food movement in the US includes many foods that were introduced to the continent by Europeans — they would be considered “invasive species” if they were brought in last year and not 200 years ago.

Recent studies show that organic farming can feed the world. If so, what social and economic structures are needed to make that happen? That’s the evolving story I’d like to see covered. It’s possible that the answer is homesteads where we bake our own bread, brew our own beer, and beat our laundry on rocks again, but I doubt it. Civilizations tend to move by evolving, not by simply turning back the clock.
In his blog, Fromartz shows less of need for “on the one hand/on the other hand” neutrality, and is more of an investigative activist. The lack of false balance is better journalism.

The Country in the City

Sometime in the mid-90s I was driven up 280 for the first time with a colleague, and I marvelled at the unbuilt hills. “Why isn’t this covered in houses,”, I asked. I had grown up in suburban Philadelphia, and sprawl was an unchecked force of nature. Why weren’t those hills all built up? My colleague didn’t know. The Country in the City answers the question.

Land conservation has been part of San Francisco Bay Area culture since John Muir’s Sierra Club in the 1890s, and the Sempervirens club founded to save remaining strands of Redwood trees in 1900. The best-told narrative of US environmental history is a national story, tracing from Muir’s romanticism and Teddy Roosevelt’s outdoorsiness through the founding of the national parks and the Clean Air and Clean Water acts. The story Richard Walker tells is a distinctively regional story, with Bay Area groups of citizens organizing to protect land from residential and industrial development, using a set of beliefs, organizing methods, and institutions, with some dramatic successes over periods of many decades.

The preservationist history has a number of themes: protecting watersheds, creating networks of parks inland and on the coast, protecting landmarks like Mount Tam and Mount Diablo, and the dramatic and ongoing movement to Save The Bay. Part of the story is financing — in the wake of Proposition 13, which reduced state funding for conservation, the Bay Area made increased use of private land trusts to continue to preserve land.
Part of the story is grass roots community support. There is a nonprofit organization devoted to taking care of San Francisquito creek which runs through my neighborhood, a group that is part of a network of groups that care for local creeks.

Part of the story is entrepreneurialism and fragmentation. Where there is a ecosystem to preserve or a development to fight, Bay Area residents spontaneously create organizations that work in coalitions to achieve the common goal. This reflects several cultural traits: skills and enterprise at creating organizations; and preferences for independence and alliance-buliding. Part of the fragmentation is regional. The Bay Area is big and not easy to get around. On any given topic, there are likely a variety of local groups connected with loose social and organizational ties. This may be a strength in some ways (local experimentation). In some areas, like transportation, the fragmentation and competition results in a flawed and suboptimal system.

The story is ongoing, and the cultural themes are current. Menlo Park is one of a number of towns currently organizing to combat global warming, and forming loose regional connections. This is following in a long tradition of loosely affiliated local groups working on environmental issues. Two of the biggest controversies in the last Menlo Park election cycle were about building a golfcourse at Bayfront Park, and a controversial infill which is reclaimed landfill open space. The development referendum was defeated. Another controversy was about a 135-unit mixed use development, which is part of a trend toward suburban infill.

The idea that environmentalism is about preserving open space is a cultural trope. When I told a woman at a community event that I was interested in environmental topics, she referred me to the groups that work to preserve open space in the hills and by the bay, though my personal interests are more about energy and global warming.

Another cultural theme, I suspect, is poor memory for local history. Walker tells the stories of local heroes:
* Bill Kortum who was a leader in protecting the coastline
* Edgar Wayburn and Amy Meyer, the patrician physician and local teacher who were leaders in the expansion of Golden Gate Park in the 70s,
* Claire Dedrick, the research scientist who was active in preserving the peninsula foothills and saving the bay, and went on to a career in state environmental agencies
* Newton Drury, the advertising executive who was a stalward of the Save the Redwoods league
* Dorothy Erskine and Jack Kent, cofounders of what became the Greenbelt Alliance.

The obscurity of local heroes reminds me of a recent conversation with Eugene Kim who was lamenting the poor cultural memory of people who contributed to ideas about technology that we now take for granted. The Bay Area is great at hype but perhaps not so great at history.

The way Walker tells the story, preservation is the result of an ongoing, never-finished series of battles between the forces of development and the forces of conservation. That is surely part of the story, but the conflict narrative underestimates the roles of built-up institutions at protecting the environment. When I got to California and started looking around to figure out how this place got to pass AB32 (the global warming bill) and the less glamorous but hugely important SB1368 which bans out-of-state coal power, and what created the beautiful path around the bay, I found established and professionalized institutions, with sources of funding, executive directors, staff research departments and scientists.

Richard Walker is a proud lefty, in a way that is refreshing to read coming from Texas, where folk left-of-center have self-esteem issues from years of right-wing mockery and marginalization. The leftiness also leads him to be chronically surprised that rich people and businesses can sometimes do good and useful things. This is particularly true in the global warming fight, where capitalism is a critical to the infrastructure transformation needed to reduce the use of carbon-based energy.

At the end of the book, there is a short and unsatisfying chapter on the environmental justice movement, which calls attention to the fact that poor folk are disproportionately the victims of environmental degradation. Poor people are more likely to live near toxic industrial sites and neighborhoods at risk of flooding, and have had less clout in fighting these problems. The way Walker tells the story, the environmental justice movement is small, fragmented, disempowered, and rather isolationist, which doesn’t help with the disempoweredness. I don’t know how much of Walker’s picture is accurate, but surely the story isn’t over.

The book is about the successes of environmentalism at preservation and restoration. Walker’s preservation is more domesticated that Muir’s vision of primal wilderness — the parks, watersheds, and truck farms integrally connected to the urban and surburban landscape. But the vision is still one of protecting nature from development. The current environmental crises — and new understandings of old ones — eliminate the barrier between “nature” and “development”.

The book’s introduction was written by William Cronon, an environmental historian who specializes in the interconnection between “nature and “civilization” Walker goes part of the way — but not all of the way — toward fleshing out that vision. I had the honor of taking Cronon’s course in college. One of Cronon’s themes is that the idea of nature is a profoundly cultural idea.

Cronon himself is an environmentalist – he serves on the board of national and local land conservation organizations. He also critiques the idea of “wilderness” untouched by human hand. In North America, the idea of primal wilderness is created by forgetting the role of native Americans in shaping the landscape they lived in (Cronon’s great book, Changes in the Land). The idea of western wilderness is created by forgetting the role of the state in establishing and protecting franchises for the extraction of water, mineral, and forest resources (Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West). The idea of “wilderness” can seem to absolve environmentalist Americans from their responsibility for the consequences of our resource-extracting civilization.

The 21st century issues — global warming, peak oil, water supply, fisheries, sustainable agriculture cannot be addressed through a lens of protecting islands of nature from people. These issues result from the ordinary patterns of food, housing, and transportation — the basic elements of material culture. There is no “preservationist” tactic that will help with global warming or peak oil. We need to fix how we live or go down as a civilization.

Follow-up questions:
* Proposition 13. Has anyone wrote a good history of prop13 and its affect on California other than the trashing of the school system?
* Global warming and environmental justice in the Bay Area. When I cycle by Belle Haven and East Palo Alto, it doesn’t take a scientific study to see that poorer folk who live in the low-lying neighborhoods are more likely to be flooded when sea level rises. Who is doing neighborhood organizing on the issue?
* When China wakes up in 50 years (assuming industrial society gets through peak oil), will the institutional knowledge about habitat restoration be available to them.

TXU buyout painted green

Bloomberg reported yesterday that KKR, the LBO firm bidding to buy out Texas utility TXU, would abandon plans to build 8 of 11 coal plants, the New York Times gives more background on KKR’s courting of environmental groups. This is excellent. TXU had been pulling strings and bending rules to get the plants — with the most polluting design possible — rushed through the regulatory approval process before anti-greenhouse policies closed the door on maximally polluting plants that would double TXU’s carbon pollution, not to mention smog and various other poisons. TXU had been garnering opposition from the mayors of Houston and Dallas, and members of the Texas business oligopoly, in addition to local residents and environmental groups.
Tom Evslin takes a contrarian approach, arguing that Texas needs the energy, and this is a sign of a buyout firm getting green cred for their selfish interest in treating the buyout property as a cash cow. Still, there isn’t any good reason to build power plants with the dirtiest possible technology. Texas faces an energy shortage, but the 11 polluting coal plants were the worst of all possible ways to address the shortage.

Ethanol skepticism reaches mainstream media

Since the State of the Union speech proposed an energy policy high on ethanol, the mainstream media has started to cover the flaws and risks of corn-based ethanol.
In the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Chicago SunTimes, and Albany Times Union, to take an anecdotal sample, news analysis and op-ed pieces notice that:
* even if the entire US corn harvest were dedicated to ethanol production, it would replace only 20% of current gasoline use
* ethanol production doesn’t save much, if any fossil fuel. Pessimistic estimates say that corn ethanol production is net negative; it takes more energy to produce then you get in return, while optimistic estimates are only about 1.3-1, compared to 10:1 for oil.
* corn for energy cuts into the amount available for corn flakes and pig feed.
Hopefully the conflict between food and fuel will cause the ethanol fad to flare out. Once the cost of food raw material and cattle feed cuts heavily enough into the earnings of food producers, there will be a powerful industrial lobby counterposed against the corn processors who are currently buying US policy.

Rental solar – consumer financing or con?

One of the biggest barriers to solar energy is financial. It’s cost effective but has a really long payback period. SunEdison is a Goldman Sachs based venture that solves this problem by building solar installations on the roofs of retailers like Staples and Whole Foods, and then sells them the power at a fixed cost. SunEd can raise the capital for the installations, and expects the retail energy will be higher than the cost of their capital. The customer doesn’t need to pay the upfront cost. Solar energy by closing the financing gap.
A company named CitizenRe is trying this model out in the consumer market.They’ll put solar panels on a homeowners roof, and sell them power in one, five, or twenty-five year increments.
They claim to have $650 millin in capital. But their web site doesn’t have any information about the source of that capital, unlike SunEdison which is clearly a Goldman Sachs backed company. Their execs don’t appear to have posted bios.
They claim that “Over 70% of our customers sign the 25-year contract because that locks in their rate for the entire term of the contract. ” They are planning to do their first installation in September, and claim 3694 customers for a pre-released product. Uh oh.
How have they found 2500 buyers to take a 25 year contract with a brand new company for a pre-released product. This smells fishy to me. The model is certainly attractive, but I wouldn’t sign a 25 year contract for a brand new product with a new company. I’m leery enough about a 2 year cellphone contract in a dynamic voice market. Thirty year mortgages are stable, because there is a huge legal and financial infrastructure behind them. Who are they selling to, and how are they selling? Do they have sales people visiting retirees in Florida and Arizona, or what?
Solar leasing seems like an excellent market opportunity. Moving from the business to the household market seems like a good and inevitable idea, especially with incentives such as the California Million Solar Roofs project. CitizenRe, though, sounds fishy.

Social Kyoto

Personal Kyoto is a service that lets New Yorkers analyze their ConEd electric usage information. This wants to be a game. Connect with people you know, or people on your block, or people with a similar sized house. And then compete for energy efficiency. Sign up with your name or a handle. Get a blog for your account, and write about your adventures with LED lightbulbs or zombie-busting electronics powersavers or solar panels. This would take advantage of social pressure, competitiveness, and social learning.
Hmm… PG&E is introducing a SmartMeter service across California. They could do this.

California global warming deal

The California legislature and governor agreed on a deal to cap greenhouse gases and set up a market that lets polluters trade greenhouse pollution credits. Yesterday, a SacBee columnist argued that this was window dressing, but it seems to me like a big deal. Limiting greenhouse pollution helps the world on global warming, and helps California develop a post-peak-oil economy.
The Reality Based Community has a great post comparing/contrasting to the Kyoto protocols. The Cali bill is somewhat weaker in terms of goals — a reduction to 1990 levels by 2020, instead of 5% below 1990 levels by 2020. Also, the bill is slower in timeline, with operation kicking in in 2012. California could join the European trading group by piggy-backing with an existing member.
Even though the terms are somewhat weaker than Kyoto , this is a huge step in the right direction. The anti-Kyoto-camp argue that if everyone isn’t doing it, nobody should do it, but that discounts the role of leadership, which gets others moving in the same direction. California’s policies often lead the US; the bill sets a strong precedent for national action, and additional regional action in advance of national action.