Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.
11/23/2011 11:45:30 AM
The decay of present-day Detroit has been well chronicled, and the new documentary film Urban Roots in its first minutes treads familiar ground as it unspools a now-familiar montage of crumbling warehouses and gutted bungalows in the ailing Motor City. But before you can hurl charges of “ruin porn,” the film shifts to its real focus: The gardeners who are turning the vacant lots of Detroit into fields of abundance. Let others focus on what’s dead and dying; this movie is about what’s growing here.
“Resilient” only begins to describe the determined, resourceful Detroiters who have seen jobs and neighbors disappear as the city depopulates. Instead of fleeing, they’ve stayed and begun growing vegetables. Lots of them. You may have heard or read about Detroit’s urban farmers, but Urban Roots really brings the movement alive by getting right down in the furrows with them.
The film, whose production team includes the producer of the Leonardo DiCaprio-hosted green doc The 11th Hour, introduces us to the guys at Brother Nature Produce, who have carved out a small farm that supplies farmers’ markets and a community-supported agriculture (CSA) operation. It shows us the Field of Dreams Mobile Market, which delivers fresh, local produce to sick or elderly people. A rap artist turned pepper picker finds “something positive” in his community garden work, and proud kids mug for the camera not with bling but with vegetables.
Yeah, Urban Roots is a feel-good movie, but in the best kind of way: The positive vibe is, to use the appropriate metaphors, organic instead of artificial, homegrown instead of Hollywood.
The only discordant note for me—and it’s a small one—is a futuristic illustrated montage at the film’s end showing skyscraping “vertical farms” and some ridiculous high-tech floating monstrosity called a “boat farm.” I understand the filmmakers are trying to think big here, but the basic economics of vertical farming are highly questionable at best, and anyway, this sort of large-infrastructure techno-fix is the very antithesis of the do-it-yourself spirit exemplified by the citizen-farmers we’ve just met. They didn’t sit around hoping for some eco-designer to build them a 10-story steel-and-glass farm. They just went to the vacant lot next door and started digging. As one of the farmers says, “It’s an act of self-determination.”
Source: Urban Roots
Images courtesy of Urban Roots Film.
11/17/2011 4:52:27 PM
It’s time to confront our long-held, deeply ingrained belief that water should be forever free, Cynthia Barnett contends in her new book Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis, which recently came out on Beacon Press.
“The tradition of free water has been fundamental since ancient times—as absolute as free air, or the right to take in mountain vistas,” she writes. But this notion has finally run up against finite supplies and a hard reality: free water encourages waste, in part because, well, it’s free. Agriculture, businesses, governments, and individuals alike have little incentive to cut down on their use. Barnett suggests that “it’s time to at least listen to what the economists have to say,” but don’t expect politicians to lead the charge:
Politicians steer clear of economists … because their answer to water woes is usually “Raise prices,” which voters don’t want to hear. … There is another group of people who don’t like what economists have to say. The idea of putting a price on water is anathema to many environmentalists and human rights activists who feel strongly that water should be free.
Barnett suggests that international water advocates who bring water access to the poor are doing important work, but that U.S. water activists could stand to branch out in their targets in helping to create a new “water ethic”:
American water activists, for the past several years, have locked their sights on bottled water. They decry bottlemania for commercializing our freshwater resources at the rate of some 9 billion gallons a year in the United States. But federal and state governments have handed public water to private interests since the Swamp Land Act of 1850. Challenging America’s water giveaways in twelve-ounce servings is like confronting climate change on the basis of lightbulbs alone. … A water ethic would take stock of all use, including that of the beverage brokers and their unique water trade. Thermoelectric power pulls in 201 billion gallons of water a day. Agricultural irrigation diverts 128 billion gallons daily. U.S. industries tap 18 billion; mining, 4 billion. We also must look in the mirror, at water for public supply—44 billion gallons a day. Free and cheap water in America has cost our freshwater ecosystems—and us—too much.
Look for a review of Blue Revolution in the Jan.-Feb. 2012 Utne Reader.
Source: Blue Revolution
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11/11/2011 4:28:48 PM
Boulder, Colorado, took a landmark step toward energy independence when its voters chose to allow the city to consider dumping Xcel Energy as its power provider and creating its own municipal power utility. Triple Pundit calls the news “the start of a transition in American power” because the driving force behind the measure was concern about climate change. Supporters of the measure want their power provider to include more renewable energy sources and fewer fossil fuels than Xcel was willing to consider.
Reports Triple Pundit:
Going beyond standard renewable portfolio standards of 20 or 30 percent is increasingly difficult for big centralized power providers who need to recoup costs for their investments in power plants and return profits to investors. As a result, as more renewable options enter the market, it makes sense for communities to seek smaller, more decentralized power options.
As Ann Butterfield explained in her article for the Huffington Post, this ballot measure reflects the community’s desire for renewable energy and the sentiment that big companies—or utilities—can no longer externalize risks they are taking to maximize profits.
Xcel-funded opponents spent money mightily in a campaign to defeat the measure, sensing a bad precedent for Big Power, but Boulder residents went for it by a slim majority. John Farrell of Energy Self-Reliant States wrote in a postrepublished by Grist:
The victory margin was small, but the clean energy and economic opportunity is enormous. According to a citizen-led and peer-reviewed study, the city could increase renewable energy production by 40 percent from multiple local sources without increasing rates.
If the city uses its new authority to become a utility, future generations may look back at Nov. 1, 2011, as the shot heard round the world—a shot fired for clean, local energy—and ask why more Americans didn’t “go Boulder” sooner.
(In related indie-media news, Triple Pundit has announced it has teamed up with another of Utne Reader’s favorite green-biz news sources, Sustainable Industries. We’re looking forward to seeing their talents and energies combined in a multimedia green mashup.)
Energy Self-Reliant States
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11/9/2011 9:56:38 AM
It’s been an uplifting several days for anyone who’s opposed to the massive Keystone XL oil pipeline, which had seemed to be rapidly steamrolling toward presidential approval.
First, on Sunday, an impressively large crowd of 10,000 to 12,000 protesters showed up to encircle the White House and pressure President Obama to give the pipeline a thumbs down. On the same day, the Los Angeles Times reported that the administration may now put off the Keystone XL decision until after the election. On Monday, Think Progress reported that the State Department’s office of the Inspector General would conduct a review the pipeline approval process, which has been dogged by accusations of inadequate environmental review and potential conflicts of interest.
All in all, it’s a remarkable turnaround of Keystone XL’s prospects, offering some hope—remember that word?—to environmentally conscious Americans who might have started to think that green activism is no more effective than video-game playing in changing the world.
There may be more than a little political calculus in Obama’s move to delay a pipeline decision until after the election. Last week, Reuters foreshadowed the delay when it reported that some of the president’s advisers were uneasy about the support that a Keystone XL approval could cost the campaign—especially among young, enthusiastic, door-knocking volunteers.
The situation may be a sign that times are changing. Conventional pundit wisdom holds that the environment is a minor player at presidential election time, writes Keith Kloor at the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media, taking a back seat to “kitchen table concerns like the economy, health care, and war.” But the current political environment, with Keystone raising a ruckus and virtually all the Republican candidates rejecting climate-change concerns, writes Kloor, has
Juliet Eilperin, a Washington Post reporter, thinking that global warming may yet be a big issue in the 2012 election. Just yesterday, in a talk at Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment, Eilperin said:
“I actually think this is a really interesting moment. It is a moment that is challenging a position I’ve held for a long time, which is that the environment doesn’t play a role in elections.”
She added that climate change “has the potential to become a wedge issue. What is so interesting is whether it will be a wedge issue for the left or a wedge issue for the right.”
Still, for pipeline backers, hope—unlike oil—springs eternal. Reuters now reports that the State Department is considering rerouting the pipeline to avoid ecologically sensitive areas of Nebraska and improve its chances of success. This is despite the fact that “TransCanada said last month that it was too late in the federal approval process to move the proposed path for the line.”
Sources: Inside Climate, Los Angeles Times, Think Progress, Reuters, Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media
Image by Emma Cassidy and
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11/4/2011 3:48:25 PM
Two California vintners want to cut down 2,000 acres of redwood trees and replace them with vineyards in the largest woodland-to-vineyard conversion in California’s history. Do I need to explain what conservationists think of this?
Under the proposal, reported by the Los Angeles Times and later tipped by High Country News, two Sonoma County pinot noir growers, Premier Pacific Vineyards and Artesa Vineyards, want to expand their growing operations by slicing into forestlands of Douglas firs and the state’s iconic redwoods. Premier also wants to develop 60 high-end estates—for members of the 1 percent, I assume—on adjacent lands that it already owns on the ironically named Preservation Ranch.
“In exchange,” reports the Times, “the developers promise to restore streams, add more than 200 acres to a county park, plant 1 million redwoods and Douglas firs and make other environmental improvements.”
But environmental advocates aren’t appeased by these offers:
“I don’t see a need for more deforestation to have a great wine economy, because there is a lot of cleared land already available,” said Adina Merelender, a UC Berkeley conservation biologist.
“The big issue for us,” added Jay Holcomb of the Sierra Club, “is that redwoods-to-vineyards conversions are worse than clear-cutting because they are permanent.”
A Sierra Club website that has detailed information about Preservation Ranch suggests that its moniker was a greenwash from the get-go:
The project was named “Preservation Ranch” by its proponents to disguise its essential nature as a speculative for-profit venture which targets the steep, undeveloped redwood and oak woodlands of coastal Sonoma County.
A county official acknowledges that the proposal is “controversial from beginning to end,” so approval is by no means certain. One thing is sure, though: If the deal goes down, the resulting pinot noir, regardless of its flavor profile, will most certainly have a bitter, acrid finish.
UPDATE 11/9/2012: Premier Pacific Vineyards has been terminated as the manager of the vineyard investment portfolio held by the California Public Employees Retirement System, or CalPERS, according to North Bay Business Journal and Wine Industry Insight. It’s unclear how this affects the company’s proposed vineyard expansion in Sonoma County.
Sources: Los Angeles Times, High Country News, Sierra Club Redwood Chapter
Tim Pearce, Los Gatos
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11/2/2011 2:49:23 PM
Mongolia has an outsized reputation for vast emptiness, but in fact there are plenty of creatures living there, including 2.7 million people and the 35 million horses, cattle, sheep, goats, and camels that they keep. All those pasturing animals leave a large ecological hoofprint, reports Ronnie Vernooy in Solutions Journal, and climate change is disrupting the weather patterns that sustain the country’s many nomadic herders.
A new program, though, is pointing the way toward a more sustainable future, using the concept of the commons as a way to share resources—in this case, those seemingly endless pasturelands. Writes Vernooy:
The government has begun to respond to the threat to herders and their way of life. In a number of regions across the country, herders, in collaboration with local governments and researchers, and supported by a number of new policy measures and laws, are practicing comanagement, a form of adaptive management that builds community resilience.
The concept has been popularized by the academic and activist H. Ykhanbai. … Ykhanbai was uniquely suited to the task: raised in a herder family in the far-away Altai Mountains, he attended the University of St. Petersburg, Russia, where he studied Garrett Hardin on the “tragedy of the commons” and Elinor Ostrom on collective action. Ykhanbai understood that pastures in Mongolia are a common pool resource shared by many users, while private ownership of livestock allows herders to become real managers of their own businesses. Sustainable management of herds therefore depends on the carrying capacity of pastures and on the interactions between neighboring herders who rely on the same resources.
The Mongolians herders’ tactics include reducing herd size to prevent pasture degradation and desertification caused by overgrazing; moving camps at different times to adapt to weather shifts; diversifying their income; and growing their own potatoes and vegetables. Comanagement pilot projects have been launched in several areas of the country with promising results, and boosters hope the practices may be adapted to neighboring Central Asian countries including Kyrgyzstanand Kazakhstan. And, Vernooy suggests, “China could learn a lesson or two.”
Source: Solutions Journal
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