Thursday, December 09, 2010

Christmas Letter 2010

Every year at this time the days grow shorter. We celebrate the end of the year with light—the Menorah, the Christmas tree, even the strings of lights on our porches—because we know that light will grow in the new year, and in the end, darkness will not prevail.

This year it has been harder than ever to see light and hope. The financial crisis continues, and millions are suffering. Yet our leaders speak, not of generosity and healing, but of austerity and sacrifice.

The earth, too, suffers. We are slowly killing the only place we call home, yet the nations cannot agree on a plan of action that might save it.

The triumph of darkness over light can seem inevitable at times.

It need not be. We are human and imperfect; but the past is prologue, not precedent. The future can be different, and we already know how to make it so. We know because the wisest among us, and our many spiritual and moral traditions, have shown us the way.

We can put truth ahead of ideology. We can practice compassion instead of expediency. We can seek justice, not advantage. We can choose to heal rather than destroy.

None of this will guarantee a way ahead. We may always fall short of our ideals. But the fact that we have ideals at all makes a better future possible. That alone is reason for hope.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

An Ethic for the Future

At a recent PEN World Voices forum on climate change, the Norwegian novelist Jostein Gaarder proposed an expansion of the ethic of reciprocity (the Golden Rule) to include the effects of our actions on future generations. A video of his presentation will be found in Andrew Rivkin's Dot Earth blog (Warning: the video is 1 hour 35 minutes long).

Gaarder's presentation is timely. The Golden Rule is not a rule at all, but a method for making ethical and policy decisions. Nearly all religious traditions recognize it in some form. It is simple and powerful.

Climate change is not only a scientific issue, but a moral one. The power of Gaarder's idea lies in his suggestion that the "others" in the traditional formulations of the Golden Rule must now include people not yet born who will live in the future that we create now. They will inherit the world we build or destroy.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Oil Now and in the Future

Andrew Revkin's New York Times blog, Dot Earth,has an excellent article on the implications of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The article looks at the future of oil, the spill itself, and policy changes that will need to be made.

The article will be found here.

Well worth reading.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

The Wasteland at the End of the Street

The shopping district in our neighborhood has two main streets. Germantown Avenue, the older of the two, follows an old Indian trail (later a turnpike) starting from the oldest part of the city and meandering through Northwest Philadelphia and into suburbs that were once countryside. Its shops are struggling or abandoned in many places now, but it was once a major retail center in many of the neighborhoods that it touched.

Crossing Germantown Avenue, about three blocks from where I live, is Chelten Avenue. Chelten Avenue is straight, running roughly east to west. Going west from Germantown Avenue to Wayne Avenue (another major cross street), Chelten passes through our main shopping district. It ends about half a mile west of Wayne Avenue. At its west end is Alden Park Manor, an impressive apartment complex that was the first co-op apartment in Philadelphia.

For most of the distance between Germantown and Wayne Avenues, Chelten Avenue retains the air of an urban shopping street. The shops are close together and easily reached on foot. Many are owner-operated and actually provide the kind of personal service that big box stores claim to offer.

But, like many urban shopping streets, Chelten Avenue is in trouble. It has lost the mid-size department store that anchored it at one end in the glory days. The smaller department store at the midpoint of the district is long gone, replaced by a charter school with discount stores at street level. Competition from big box stores and the current recession have left many of the shops closed and shuttered. And at its west end, the district has been hurt by poor design and planning choices.

The western anchor of the district has for many years been a supermarket with its attendant parking lot. The supermarket is still there and doing good business. Its parking lot fronts on the street, but it has done this for many years. The problems at the end of the district lie on the other three corners of the intersection.

Directly across Wayne Avenue from the supermarket is a building that once housed a local branch of Sears, Roebuck. The Sears branch closed about 25 years ago when Sears decided to close smaller local branches and concentrate on the suburbs. This was bad for Chelten Avenue, as it was for many other urban shopping streets with small Sears branches.

Diagonally across from the supermarket is a school designed, or so it appears, chiefly for security. It resembles nothing so much as a prison built of the reinforced concrete that was fashionable during the 1970s. One can imagine it withstanding intensive shelling. It is now a successful charter school. The new proprietors have improved the color scheme, planted trees, and done extensive landscaping. They have done their best, but even their best efforts cannot overcome the building's design problems. Among those problems is a featureless wall that runs along Wayne Avenue for more than half of a city block.

Across Chelten Avenue from the supermarket is a Burger King with its attendant parking lot. After a record-breaking snowstorm in February of this year, Burger King carefully plowed its parking lot but did not clear its sidewalks—this, in a neighborhood that is still one of the most walkable in the city, and on a street where, despite its problems, there is still a great deal of foot traffic.

The west end of our shopping district has become a wasteland of parking lots and blank walls, with yet another fast food franchise under construction in the old Sears parking lot.

Germantown is in fact a strong, beautiful and walkable neighborhood, with history, trees, gardens, and a diverse population. It has many active neighborhood associations, several good schools, and major churches with good community programs. It is an interesting place to live.

But, like many neighborhoods, it survives in spite of our planning (or lack of planning, which is itself a kind of planning-by-default), not because of it. What happened to Chelten Avenue in the last thirty years is repeated in neighborhoods and suburban towns throughout the country: competition from malls and big box stores hurt the local shops. The need for parking damaged the streetscape and made walking less attractive.

The sad part is that we cannot go on like this. Fuel costs even now are discouraging driving and making walkable neighborhoods more desirable. The future of the classic suburban shopping mall is in doubt. We are going to need our neighborhood shopping districts. The question is whether we will have them.

Friday, March 05, 2010

The City Fix Highlights Noteworthy Stories

The City Fix, an excellent blog on sustainable cities, has inaugurated a new Friday series "highlighting the newsy and noteworthy" stories about cities that appeared in the past week. The series will cover five general themes

  • Mobility;
  • Quality of life;
  • Environment;
  • Public space, and
  • Technology and innovation
The first two in the series are full of useful links:

February 26: Driving on the Rise, Transport Contributes to Climate Change, Sidewalks Improve Relationships

March 5: Olympics Transport Legacy, Obese Cities, BRT in NYC

Well worth following.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

An Unintended Irony

Throughout the Winter Olympics, energy companies have been busy selling themselves to viewers. From the sheer volume of the advertising, one might think the United States was about to abandon fossil fuels entirely and that oil, gas, and coal were fighting a rearguard action.

Some of the ads, like those praising "clean coal" and linking it to national security, are simply misleading. "Clean coal" sounds good, but there is really no such thing. There are proposals to sequester the carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants and keep them out of the atmosphere, but none of these has been tried on a large scale, and there are real questions whether they would work at all.

My personal favorite among the ads is the one that touts America's Oil and Natural Gas and its many benefits. These are said to include jobs, transportation, food supply, electricity, warm houses—everything that makes America great. The spokeswoman who presents the ad is attractive and well-spoken; the graphics are engaging; and the message appears to be that we really need to keep drilling for oil. I say "appears to be" because nowhere in the ad is this stated explicitly. Nor does the ad talk about where we might find the magic fuels. That might be embarrassing because the U.S. has very small oil reserves, though it does have large natural gas reserves. It is, after all, an ad, not a strategic assessment.

Watching this ad while reading The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan's excellent natural history of four meals, I realized that, with a few changes in wording, the ad could actually present a very good case against continued dependence on fossil fuels. Pollan's first meal is a fast food lunch bought at MacDonald's. He traces in fascinating detail how the beef and chicken for the lunch are produced—using fossil fuels to make fertilizer to grow the corn to feed the animals, truck the animals from pasture to feedlot, and truck the meat from slaughterhouse to processing plant and then from processing plant to the various fast food restaurants where it is sold. In the end, he concludes that when we eat a fast food hamburger, we are indirectly consuming large amounts of oil. Most of the food that most Americans eat depends on fossil fuels. Our food system as now constituted would be in serious trouble without them.

So, and more directly, with the other benefits of American Oil and Natural Gas. Our transportation sector uses fossil fuels. Commerce depends on fossil fuels. Electricity depends on fossil fuels, though that is slowly changing. And so on.

The problem is that the supply of oil and natural gas is finite, and our dependence on oil in particular pollutes and warms the globe and makes us vulnerable to changes in the politics of the oil-rich countries. The fact that our food system would be in trouble without fossil fuels says more about the food system than it does about the virtues of oil. A politically-motivated rise in oil prices—even the threat of such a rise—sends shock waves throughout the world economy. (It did, though this is barely remembered now, in the early 1970s.)

The writers of the ad clearly did not intend to bring us up short and make us realize how precarious our position really is. And few will understand the implications of the ad in this way. But by showing how important fossil fuels are in our lives, this ad almost performs a public service—because it also shows how dependent we are on an expensive and ultimately dangerous energy source.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Great Snowpocalypse

It has been snowing in Philadelphia—a lot. Since February 5, the city has had over 40 inches of snow from two blizzards in rapid succession. Just before Christmas, the city got nearly 24 inches. Altogether, the winter of 2009-2010 has set a new record for snowfall in the city, with just under six weeks until the official beginning of spring.

Philadelphia is not the only city with record snowfalls. Washington, DC, and other mid-Atlantic cities are also recovering from unprecedented blizzards. As I write this, the only state which has no snow anywhere within its borders is Hawaii. It has been a hard winter.

Climate skeptics, not surprisingly, are energized. They point to the blizzards of 2010 as further evidence that warnings about global warming are based, not on science, but on hysteria. One has only to look out the window to see that winter is still with us. Quod erat demonstrandum.

Not quite. Climate science does not provide a weather forecast for the next week. It is about long-term trends, not tomorrow's rainfall (or snowfall). And if science were simply about looking out one's window, all of us would still think the sun revolved around the earth.

What is more embarrassing for the skeptics—or should be—is that some climate scientists actually predict stronger winter storms for the northeastern United States. Writing in the New Republic, Bradford Plumer gives a good summary of the evidence.

Climate skeptics like Rep. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) will not be convinced by mere evidence. Inhofe believes climate science is a hoax and once cited a work of fiction (Michael Crichton's State of Fear) in support of his arguments to the House of Representatives.

Skeptics who are open to persuasion, however, can draw no comfort from the mounds of snow outside their windows. The consensus among climate scientists is that temperatures will rise—and they have; that glaciers will melt—and they have; and that weather patterns will change. Record snow in a city where blizzards are uncommon, like Philadelphia, may be evidence of a change in weather patterns. It may not. What it certainly does not show is that the scientific consensus is wrong.