As if the swelling number of kids in the world isn’t enough to keep him busy, Santa Claus is being forced to shift his home eight inches every year to keep up with climate change.
Assuming I’m getting this fable right, the jolly old dude who rose from the dead and ascended to the North Pole to construct a toy-building redoubt and a reindeer-based delivery system could consider himself one of the many refugees of the changing climate.
That’s according, more or less, to the findings of a new study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, which used satellite gravity measurements from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment to monitor the recent meanderings of the precise location of the North Pole.
The North and South Poles are always shifting, influenced in part by the ceaseless redistribution of mass all around the Earth. And all that melting ice and all those rising seas had enough of an effect to swing the poleward shift in a new direction in 2005. The pole is now moving in the direction of Greenland by seven milliarcseconds per year — an angular measurement that lead author Jianli Chen says equates to movement of a little more than eight inches every year.
Space geodetic observations of polar motion show that around 2005, the average annual pole position began drifting towards the east, an abrupt departure from the drift direction seen over the past century. …
This study shows that accelerated ice melting, combined with resulted speed-up of sea level rise in recent years, is the dominant driving force of the observed east-bound drift of the mean pole position.
“Polar motion is driven by mass redistribution in the Earth system,” Chen, a scientist at the University of Texas’s Center for Space Research, told Grist. “The speed up of ice melting and sea level rise since around 2005 has played a major role driving the observed abrupt departure of the mean pole from its original long-term drifting direction.”
This is perhaps one of the most fascinating and least terrifying implications of global warming ever.
“You don’t need to worry about anything,” Chen said.
Except maybe all the melting ice and sea-level rise that’s triggering the change.
The conflict between electric utilities and distributed energy — mainly rooftop solar panels — is heating up. It’s heating up so much that people are writing about electric utility regulation, the most tedious, inscrutable subject this side of corporate tax law. The popular scrutiny is long overdue. So buckle up. We’re getting into it.
I wrote about the fight a while back — “solar panels could destroy U.S. utilities, according to U.S. utilities ” — but it’s worth taking a closer look at what’s under dispute. Some bits are unavoidably wonky and technical, but it’s important to understand exactly what’s happening. This is a pivotal issue, a trial run for many such struggles to come.
There’s a short-term problem and a long-term problem. The former is about how electricity rates are structured, specifically how utilities compensate (or don’t) customers who generate power with rooftop solar PV panels. The latter is about developing an entirely new business model for utilities, one that aligns their financial interests with the spread of distributed energy. The danger is that fighting over the former could delay solving the latter.
Today, let’s dig into the fight at hand. It’s about utility rates, specifically “net metering,” yet another nerdy green term no one understands. I will endeavor to make clear what it is and why the fight over it is so damn interesting and exciting. Exciting, I tell you! Wake up!
The utility perspective
First, note that I’m focusing here mostly on investor-owned utilities (IOUs), which serve about 70 percent of America’s customers. These are the old-school, for-profit, regulated-monopoly utilities, with a captive customer base and profits guaranteed by law. IOUs are the main (though not exclusive) force pushing back against distributed solar.
Here’s how IOUs make money: 1) they estimate how much power their customers will need; 2) they estimate the investments they’ll need to make in power plants, fuel, transmission lines, etc. in order to meet that demand; 3) they estimate what rate they need to charge customers to cover those investments and offer a reasonable “rate of return” to their investors; 4) they go to the state public utility commission (PUC) to make a “rate case” justifying the rate; 5) if the PUC signs off, the IOU charges that rate until time to make their next rate case.
The free market in action! [cough]
Anyway, that’s the rate residential customers pay: the PUC-approved “retail rate.” Typically, the retail rate bundles all the utility’s costs into a single package, not just the “variable costs” of fuel and electricity but also the “fixed costs” of investment in transmission lines, transformers, power plants, and the like.
That’s all background. Now. Into this milieu comes “net metering,” a policy in place in just over 40 states (though the details differ substantially from state to state). Under net metering, a residential customer with solar on her roof is credited the retail rate for the electricity she produces. If she produces as much electricity as she consumes, her bill nets out to zero. That means she’s not paying for electricity, but it also means she’s not paying anything toward the utility’s fixed costs. As more customers zero out their bill through net metering, fixed costs will be transferred to a smaller group of ratepayers, thus raising their rates (and their unholy ire).
According to utilities, this is not fair, since solar customers are still making use of the grid and the services that utilities provide. In fact, they say, the complexity of managing thousands of distributed solar panels makes grid management more difficult and costly. Through net metering, the customers who can’t afford solar end up subsidizing grid services for those who can.
The immediate solutions favored by utilities are well-captured in the first two recommendations from that now-infamous Edison Electric Institute paper (the one where the utility trade group predicted a solar-induced death spiral). The first is that utilities institute a “monthly customer service charge to all tariffs in all states in order to recover fixed costs.” This “fixed charge” is something all homeowners would have to pay, whether or not they’d created a net surplus of electricity.
The second is to “develop a tariff structure to reflect the cost of service and value provided to [distributed energy] customers,” said service and value consisting in “off-peak service, back-up interruptible service, and the pathway to sell [distributed] resources to the utility or other energy supply providers.” To my ears, this sounds like a recommendation to pay rooftop solar producers wholesale rather than retail rates.
David Rubin of Pacific Gas & Electric sums up:
We need to set the stage for continued growth in solar in what we believe will be a sustainable way which is to not have solar customers that are being subsidised by the rest of our customers and producing unsustainable rates for those customers.
The solar perspective
Solar installers, customers, and advocates are not impressed by these arguments. In fact they are up in arms. Some of the country’s biggest solar installers have formed a group call the Alliance for Solar Choice to defend net metering. (This is happening in Australia too, where a campaign called Solar Citizens was just started for the same reason.)
They say: Gimme a break. Utilities don’t care when rates rise. That’s how utilities make their money.
Imagine if Walmart had a monopoly on retail sales. It could charge whatever it wanted for its goods, as long as the charges were approved by a PRC (public retail commission). In fact, the more Walmart bought, the more warehouses and stores it built, the bigger its truck fleet, the more it could justify charging customers. It was guaranteed a healthy rate of return on its investments, whether or not those investments were wise, whether or not customers end up needing them.
Would monopoly Walmart have any reason to object to rising retail prices? Of course not. Would it have any incentive to reduce costs? Of course not. As long as it’s got a captive customer base, it has no incentive to innovate or take chances.
That’s why utility customers are getting shafted all over the country. Utilities overestimate demand, underestimate efficiency, and contract for gigantic central-generation power plants that customers pay for whether or not they need the power. Why just elsewhere in California, Southern California Edison customers have been paying on the order of $68 million a month for a “refurbished” San Onofre nuclear plant that crapped out over a year ago and hasn’t produced a watt since. In Mississippi, rates are rising to pay for the new Kemper County coal-fired power plant. We Energies in Wisconsin is trying its damnedest to raise rates on its customers to pay for the ill-fated Oak Creek coal plant. And so on.
So no, utilities are not upset that solar is (allegedly) increasing some customers’ rates; they’re upset that solar is reducing their revenue. Rooftop solar panels are investments upon which utility shareholders receive no return. It’s competition they don’t like, the potential loss of their captive customers.
That, say solar advocates, is the core utility incentive, so anything from utilities about what they “need” to cope with solar should be taken with a large teaspoon of salt.
Relatedly, the notion that onsite solar generation and consumption is a “cost” to utilities is somewhat Kafka-esque. A home creating its own power basically unplugs itself from the grid. If you unplugged an old freezer or TV, would that be a “cost” to the utility? After all, the electricity that’s generated onsite on a solar home is used by that home or its immediate neighbors. It barely touches the utility’s transmission and distribution system. It is effectively delivered energy, which is why it gets the retail rate: It saves the utility on transmission and distribution costs. It also reduces line losses and the cost of meeting state renewable energy targets.
Nonetheless, last year, California Assemblyman Steven Bradford (D) — chair of the Committee on Utilities and Commerce and, ahem, a former Southern California Edison executive — managed to pass AB2514, which mandated that California PUCs consider onsite solar a cost. That’s how California utilities are trying to justify new fixed charges.
Tom Beach of energy research firm Crossborder Energy took those benefits into account when he analyzed the costs and benefits of net metering in California and (in a separate study) Arizona. He found that net metering will create a small net benefit for all customers: $92 million a year for customers in California and $34 million a year in Arizona, both by 2015. (Both these numbers are small beans relative to total utility revenue, by the way.)
This is from a Vote Solar infographic [PDF] on the California study:Vote SolarClick to embiggen.
And finally, solar advocates argue that utilities are ignoring the load-reducing benefits of distributed energy (and energy efficiency) in their resource and infrastructure planning. Distributed energy and efficiency reduce the utilities’ fixed costs by reducing the need for new power plants and transmission lines, but utilities don’t take that into account. They end up planning for — and justifying rates for — a level of infrastructure they won’t actually need. So those rising rates they’re squawking about are in part due to their own poor planning. Nick Chaset, energy advisor to California Gov. Jerry Brown (D), put it this way earlier this year:
… there is a bit of a disconnect in utility planning. … Typically, the investor-owned utilities do not fully account for the expected deployments of distributed resources in their distribution infrastructure planning. … [As a result,] we do some degree of double-paying. We are paying for the rooftop solar and a distribution system that is accounting for expected load growth that might be offset by that rooftop solar.
If utilities would plan around distributed resources better, solar advocates say, maybe they wouldn’t need to raise rates so much.
It’s not simple
My sense, looking on this battle from the outside, is that solar advocates have the stronger case, but that they’ve been a little too quick to go to Defcon 1 and tar all utilities as evil. Some utilities, at least, seem to be grappling with this issue in good faith.
Here’s a kind of parable. CPS Energy in San Antonio, a municipal (not investor-owned) utility generally considered a friend of solar, last month announced that it would scrap its net metering program and replace it with a “solar credit” worth about half as much. Solar advocates went ballistic. Among other things, they compared CPS unfavorably to Austin Energy, which offered a solar credit that was roughly twice as large.
Well, since then, CPS Energy has agreed to delay its move for a year, giving it time to work with solar advocates and installers to find a solution acceptable to everyone. Meanwhile, Austin Energy reduced its rebate for new solar installations.
This is not to say either utility is in the right, just that even the “good guy” utilities are struggling with the question of how to appropriately compensate for distributed solar. The fact is, as long as utilities operate under their current business model, rooftop solar really does hurt them.
What’s ultimately needed is not this kludgy, rate-jiggling solution, which will have utilities and solar advocates forever squabbling over pennies on the margins, but a deeper rethinking of the utility model, particular the investor-owned utility model.
It is to that deep thinking we will turn in my next post.
Here is what South Dakota looks like in the winter:USFWS
And here is what it looks like in the summer:
And over the weekend, the state basically switched from one to the other overnight. One day, the temperature was 22 degrees F. The next day, it was 92.
Ex-Grister Philip Bump writes at the Atlantic Wire:
While the increase in Aberdeen is unusual, it’s not the biggest 24-hour swing in history. That occurred in Montana in 1972, after the temperature went up 103 degrees overnight. The record for the largest increase in two minutes brings us back to South Dakota. On January 22, 1943, the temperature at 7:30 a.m. was -4. At 7:32, it was 45.
Moral of the story: Always wear a bathing suit under your North Face. Just in case.
When shopping in any store that carries national brands, it’s virtually impossible to remember which ones you’re not supposed to buy for which reasons. This one uses palm oil … or was it this one? This brand is “all-natural” but it sprays evil chemicals all over the world. This company kills panda babies. And so forth. You can either hold out for Sunday’s farmers market and not eat in the meantime, or just go ahead and buy the cornmeal from the brand that’s probably in bed with Monsanto.
But now a programmer named Ivan Pardo is putting an end to this misery. Scan a product with his app, Buycott, and it analyzes the insane web of corporate ownership in order to tell you exactly what terrible policies you’d be supporting if you bought that cereal.
Once you’ve scanned an item, Buycott will show you its corporate family tree on your phone screen. Scan a box of Splenda sweetener, for instance, and you’ll see its parent, McNeil Nutritionals, is a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson.
Even more impressively, you can join user-created campaigns to boycott business practices that violate your principles rather than single companies. One of these campaigns, Demand GMO Labeling, will scan your box of cereal and tell you if it was made by one of the 36 corporations that donated more than $150,000 to oppose the mandatory labeling of genetically modified food.
There are also positive campaigns — you can support brands that support issues like gay marriage. Given that most corporations are terrible on some issue or another, this may not solve the “I can’t shop at a mainstream store without compromising my principles” problem. But at least you won’t have to guess.
Artist Matt Hope calls the concept bicycle he’s inventing “a weird provocative object” with a “Chinese fighter pilot breathing thingy.” We call it a bike that, as the rider pedals, powers a purifier that feeds the rider more breathable air.
Hope lives in Beijing, a city where the air is far from clean, and he saw a lot of people wearing masks and biking, which struck him as kind of a bummer, because when you wear a mask you can’t breathe very well. So he set about making this rather crazy-looking but also useful bike. It is made out of a lot of tubes and a fan and a home air filter. In this video, Hope, who has a sort of soothing British accent, describes how he put it together.
One design problem: the thing uses 5000 volts of electricity. “If you ride it in the rain, you could potentially kill yourself,” he says. He adds that “in theory” it works. Hm. I might try it. In the desert. In August.
Sabrina Warner keeps having the same nightmare: a huge wave rearing up out of the water and crashing over her home, forcing her to swim for her life with her toddler son.
“I dream about the water coming in,” she said. The landscape in winter on the Bering Sea coast seems peaceful, the tidal wave of Warner’s nightmare trapped by snow and several feet of ice. But the calm is deceptive. Spring break-up will soon restore the Ninglick River to its full violent force.
In the dream, Warner climbs on to the roof of her small house. As the waters rise, she swims for higher ground: the village school which sits on 20-foot pilings.
Even that isn’t high enough. By the time Warner wakes, she is clinging to the roof of the school, desperate to be saved.
Warner’s vision is not far removed from a reality written by climate change. The people of Newtok, on the west coast of Alaska and about 400 miles south of the Bering Strait that separates the state from Russia, are living a slow-motion disaster that will end, very possibly within the next five years, with the entire village being washed away.
The Ninglick River coils around Newtok on three sides before emptying into the Bering Sea. It has steadily been eating away at the land, carrying off 100 feet or more some years, in a process moving at unusual speed because of climate change. Eventually all of the villagers will have to leave, becoming America’s first climate change refugees.
It is not a label or a future embraced by people living in Newtok. Yup’ik Eskimo have been fishing and hunting by the shores of the Bering Sea for centuries and the villagers reject the notion they will now be forced to run in chaos from ancestral lands.
But exile is undeniable. A report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers [PDF] predicted that the highest point in the village — the school of Warner’s nightmare — could be underwater by 2017. There was no possible way to protect the village in place, the report concluded.
If Newtok cannot move its people to the new site in time, the village will disappear. A community of 350 people, nearly all related to some degree and all intimately connected to the land, will cease to exist, its inhabitants scattered to the villages and towns of western Alaska, Anchorage, and beyond.
It’s a choice confronting more than 180 native communities in Alaska, which are flooding and losing land because of the ice melt that is part of the changing climate.
The Arctic Council, the group of countries that governs the polar regions, is gathering in Sweden Wednesday. But climate change refugees are not high on their agenda, and Obama administration officials told reporters on Friday there would be no additional money to help communities in the firing line.
On the other side of the continent, the cities and towns of the East Coast are waking up to their own version of Warner’s nightmare: the storm surges demonstrated by Hurricane Sandy. About half of America’s population lives within 50 miles of a coastline. Those numbers are projected to grow even more in the coming decades.
What chance do any of those communities, in Alaska or on the Atlantic coast, have of a fair and secure future under climate change, if a tiny community like Newtok — just 63 houses in all — cannot be assured of survival?
But as the villagers of Newtok are discovering, recognizing the gravity of the threat posed by climate change and responding in time are two very different matters.
Newtok lies 480 miles due west of Anchorage. The closest town of any size, the closest doctor, gas station, or paved road, is almost 100 miles away.
The only year-round link to the outside world is via a small propeller plane from the regional hub of Bethel.
The seven-seater plane flies over a landscape that seems pancake flat under the snow: bright white for land, slightly translucent swirls for frozen rivers. There are no trees.
The village as seen from the air is a cluster of almost identical small houses, plopped down at random on the snow. The airport is a patch of ground newly swept of snow, marked off for the pilot by a circle of orange traffic cones. The airport manager runs the luggage into the center of the village on a yellow sledge attached to his snowmobile.
Like many if not most native Alaskan villages, Newtok owes its location to a distant bureaucrat. The Yup’iks, who had lived in these parts of Alaska for hundreds of years, had traditionally used the area around present-day Newtok as a seasonal stopping-off place, convenient for late summer berry picking.
Even then, their preferred encampment, when they passed through the area, was a cluster of sod houses called Kayalavik, some miles further up river. But over the years, the authorities began pushing native Alaskans to settle in fixed locations and to send their children to school.
It was difficult for supply barges to maneuver as far up river as Kayalavik. After 1959, when Alaska became a state, the new authorities ordered villagers to move to a more convenient docking point.
That became Newtok. Current state officials admit the location — on low-lying mud flats between the river and the Bering Sea — was far from perfect. It certainly wasn’t chosen with a view to future threats such as climate change.
“The places are often where they are because it was easy to unload the building materials and build the school and the post office there,” said Larry Hartig, who heads the state’s Commission on Environmental Conservation. “But they weren’t the ideal place to be in terms of long-term stability and it’s now creating a lot of problems that are exacerbated by melting permafrost and less of the seasonal sea ice that would form barriers between the winter storms and uplands.”Climate Adaptation Knowledge Exchange (2011)
It became clear by the 1990s that Newtok — like dozens of other remote communities in Alaska — was losing land at a dangerous rate. Almost all native Alaskan villages are located along rivers and sea coasts, and almost all are facing similar peril.
A federal government report found more than 180 other native Alaskan villages — or 86 percent of all native communities — were at risk because of climate change. In the case of Newtok, those effects were potentially life threatening.
A study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers [PDF] on the effects of climate change on native Alaskan villages, the one that predicted the school would be underwater by 2017, found no remedies for the loss of land in Newtok.
The land was too fragile and low-lying to support sea walls or other structures that could keep the water out, the report said, adding that if the village did not move, the land would eventually be overrun with water. People could die.
It was a staggering verdict for Newtok. Some of the village elders remember the upheaval of that earlier move. The villagers were adamant that they take charge of the move this time and remain an intact community — not scatter to other towns.
And so after years of poring over reports, the entire community voted to relocate to higher ground across the river. The decision was endorsed by the state authorities. In December 2007, the village held the first public meeting to plan the move.
The proposed new site for Newtok, voted on by the villagers and approved by government planners, lies only nine miles away, atop a high ridge of dark volcanic rock across the river on Nelson Island. On a good day in winter, it’s a half-hour bone-shaking journey across the frozen Ninglick river by snowmobile.
But the cost of the move could run as high as $130 million, according to government estimates. For the villagers of Newtok, finding the cash, and finding their way through the government bureaucracy, is proving the challenge of their lives.
Five years on from that first public meeting, Newtok remains stuck where it was, the peeling tiles and the broken-down office furniture in the council office grown even shabbier, the dilapidated water treatment plant now shut down as a health hazard, an entire village tethered to a dangerous location by bureaucratic obstacles and lack of funds.
Village leaders hope that this coming summer, when conditions become warm enough for construction crews to get to work, could provide the big push Newtok needs by completing the first phase of basic infrastructure. And the effort needs a push. When the autumn storms blow in, the water rises fast.
Climate change remains a politically touchy subject in Alaska. The state owes its prosperity to the development of the vast Prudhoe Bay oil fields on the Arctic Coast.
Even in Newtok, there are some who believe climate change is caused by negative emotions, such as anger, hate, and envy. But while some dispute the overwhelming scientific view that climate change is caused primarily by human activities, there is little argument in Alaska about its effects.In Newtok, almost half of the year the temperature is below freezing. Click to embiggen.
The state has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the country over the past 60 years. Freeze-up occurs later, snow is wetter and heavier. Wildfires erupt on the tundra in the summer. Rivers rush out to the sea. Moose migrate north into caribou country. Grizzlies mate with polar bears as their ranges overlap.
Even people in their 20s, like Warner and her partner Nathan Tom, can track the changes in their own lifetimes. Tom said the seasons have changed. “The snow comes in a different timing now. The snow disappears way late. That is making the geese come at the wrong time. Now they are starting to lay their eggs when there is still snow and ice and we can’t go and pick them,” Tom said. “It’s changing a lot. It’s real, global warming, it’s real.”
On days when the clouds move in, and the only sound is the crunch of boots on snow and the distant buzzing of snowmobiles, it’s difficult to imagine a world beyond the village, let alone a threat.
But Warner has seen the river rip into land and carry off clumps of earth. “It’s scary thinking about summer coming,” she said. “I don’t know how much more is going to erode — hopefully not as much as last year.”
Warner was raised in Anchorage and Wasilla, mainly by her non-Yup’ik father. But she was introduced to Yup’ik food and Yupi’ik ways by her mother, and she has taken to village life since moving to Newtok in December 2011 to be with Tom.
Even in those short months, she said she can see the changes carved out on the land behind the family home. “When I first got here the land used to be way out there,” she said, pointing toward the west. “Now that doesn’t exist any more. There is no land there any more.”
The river claims more of the village every year. Warmer temperatures are thawing the permafrost on which Newtok is built, and the land surface is no longer stable. The sea ice that protected the village from winter storms is thinning and receding, exposing Newtok to winter storms with 100-mph winds and the waves of Warner’s nightmare.
When the wind blows from the east or south, the land falls away even faster. The patch of land where Warner picked last summer to practice shooting was gone, on the other side of a sharp drop-off to the river. “The summer came, 15 or 20 feet of land went just from melting, and then after we had those storms in September another 20 feet went,” she said. In an average year the river swallows 83 feet of land a year, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office. Some years of course it’s more.
The reddish-brown house where Tom and Warner live with their son Tyson and elderly relatives is the closest in the village to the Ninglick.
Warner fears her house will soon be swallowed up by that hungry river. “Two more years, that’s what I’m guessing. About two more years until it’s right up to our house,” she said.
The house is now barely 200 paces away from the drop-off point. It’s become a sort of tourist stop for visitors to the village, and an educational aid for teachers at the local school. Last year, one of the teachers set out stakes to mark how fast the river was rising. At least one has already been washed away.
But it won’t be long before nobody in the village is safe. Other homes, once considered well back from the river, now regularly flood.
Over the years the river, in its attack on the land, engulfed a few small ponds — some fresh water, some used as raw sewage dumps — spewing human waste across the village. Last summer it almost carried off a few dumpsters filled with old fridges and computers. It swept away the barge landing, and infested the landfill.
Sometimes, though, the river gives up treasure: Villagers walking newly exposed banks have discovered mammoth tusks and fossil remains.
During one storm last autumn, Warner stayed up until 4 a.m., waiting to see if the waves would engulf the house. “I was scared because it looked so close because our window is right there. I was just looking out, and you can see these huge waves come at you,” she said.
It’s not easy living with that fear every day, she concedes. Anxious residents want to know that their future will be safe. They are exhausted by the years of uncertainty and fed up with a village left to decay, with leaders’ energy and every scrap of funding focused on the relocation.
“Considering that our house is the closest, I would like it if they would at least let us know if we are going to have a house over there [at the new site],” said Warner. Tom’s grandmother, who needs oxygen, lives with the couple. It would be tough to move her in the event of a disaster, although she claims she is not at all afraid.
The young couple go through times when they can’t deal with the talk of relocation. Tom bought a big tent some time ago and the couple have talked about camping out at the site chosen for the new village, just to get away — from the stress, from the drama of village politics — until things are settled.
But the relocation keeps being put off.
“A few years ago, they said next year. And then last year they said next year. And next year, they are probably going to say next year again,” said Tom. But he soon perks up. The village has sent local men, including Tom, for training as construction workers.
“It’s picking up,” he said. “I’m not afraid any more. The erosion is really fast. I know the state is going to deal with it pretty fast. They are not going to leave us hanging there.”
Tomorrow: One family’s great escape.
Dangerous chemicals have been found in U.S. waterways ranging from ingredients found in anti-bacterial soap to cleaning products to cosmetics.
Mark Tercek leads the largest conservation group in the galaxy. As president and CEO of the Nature Conservancy, he oversees a staff of 4,000 people spread around the planet, an annual budget exceeding a half a billion dollars, and land holdings that would fetch billions more if they weren’t all locked up for the sake of protecting wild animals. Still, the former Goldman Sachs exec insists that he’s a small-time player in a world where large corporations rule and nature lovers get what they can.
In his recent book, Nature’s Fortune, co-authored by Jonathan Adams, Tercek argues that nature deserves a bigger slice of the pie. He’s not looking for hand-outs (though his organization, like Grist, depends on the generosity of good people like you). Instead, he argues that conservation is good for business — a message he says is catching on, particularly among corporations and cities.
Witness New York. In the 1990s, faced with the prospect of building a multi-billion-dollar water treatment system, the city instead invested in protecting its watershed in the Catskills, partnering with communities, landowners, and farmers to prevent pollution, rather than paying to clean it up after the fact. As a result, the Big Apple gets clean drinking water at a fraction of what it would cost to build water treatment plants, and the Catskills get an infusion of green — trees, yes, but also cash. (Tercek and Adams tell that story in the book, in a section that we’ve reprinted here.) The Nature Conservancy is now helping to spread that model to cities all over the world.
Tercek dropped by Grist HQ a few weeks ago for some vegan vittles and a chat with the whole staff. Here are a few of our questions, and snippets of his answers, about how his organization is changing with the times, the challenge of getting city people to care about conservation, and his dealings with the big businesses that make even the Nature Conservancy look small.
Q. Why should we be putting half a billion dollars a year into protecting nature as opposed to say, pushing solar and other renewable energy technology forward?
A. I think we should do both. That new technology should be pursued either by the government doing the right thing because the private sector’s not, or the private sector. Obviously there’s lots of ways to incentivize that private-sector investment — put a price on carbon. And there are enormous numbers of people who are rich, or powerful and influential, attracted to those initiatives. So they’re going pretty well.
In the meantime, we think the work we do is extraordinarily important. For example, in northwestern Montana, near Glacier National Park, there were 300,000 acres of land made available for purchase by us by Plum Creek. This land, just because of where it’s situated in between other protected areas, was extraordinarily attractive for development — second homes for well-to-do people. So we bought all that land in one swoop for half a billion dollars.
Now why is that important? Well, all the species that were there when Lewis and Clark were there are still there. So it’s extraordinary wilderness. And if climate change occurs like we expect it will, those grizzlies and lynx, they can migrate north up to B.C. — we’re doing comparable work right over the border. If we hadn’t done that, this land would have been developed, for sure, and this opportunity would be gone forever.
Q. Climate change has emerged to be the dominant issue in the green space. How has that changed the way the Nature Conservancy does its work?
A. Right before I joined, TNC decided to be in the policy arena in connection with climate change. That was a reasonably big decision. TNC happens to be one of the few conservation organizations that is determinedly nonpartisan, and actually does have friends on both sides of the aisle. That’s an asset, and that was something that my predecessors on the board were concerned about protecting. But we try to identify the biggest threats to our missions from a science lens, and identify the biggest tools to address those threats. And so our scientists reasonably said, climate change is not only a threat to what we want to do, it will undo everything we’ve already done. It trumps everything else. So then we said, OK, what’s the best way to address that? So we engaged in the policy battle.
And then it got really interesting. We were members of USCAP [the U.S. Climate Action Partnership]. I know USCAP was controversial, and anyway it didn’t succeed, although we got darn close. But it was a high-profile thing. So if you were a big donor who had misgivings about TNC being in the climate game, you would get a direct call from me to explain what we were doing. People would say, well, why are you doing the climate thing? And I would answer just like I did. And they would say, yes, that’s fair, you’re supposed to be science driven.
So mostly that has all died down. Now I think we are as much in that game as anyone, both in the international, domestic, and even state-by-state approaches. And it shows that these organizations have more resilience than you think. There was a lot of trepidation about that, but everyone’s been fine and we’re in the game.
Q. TNC has also made a recent shift to working in urban areas. What’s the thinking behind that?
A. If you came to a TNC event and looked around the audience, you would see well-to-do older white people. And if you say to them, how did you become a conservationist? They would often say, oh, when I was a kid, my grandparents had a ranch or a farm or took me hiking, that kind of thing.
So now you think about the future and you look at the data and you say, wow, young kids, they spend less than one-third of the time outdoors than people my age did. By 2030, something like 70 percent of the world’s people will live in cities. And obviously the world’s becoming more diverse. So what do we do about that?
I happen to have a city background. So when I arrived I asked our chief scientist, hey, how come we can’t do work in cities? And he said, oh there’s no reason we can’t, we just choose not to. And so then I sort of put the green light on — let’s find urban stuff — and it’s getting great traction.
We got a grant from Toyota to take inner-city kids, sometimes from really bad circumstances, and put them in our projects in the summer. I now know a lot of these kids, and often they just wanted a safe place to be in the summer when school was out of session. So they’d go out into nature for the first time in their life and a couple months later they’d be, like, walking the walk, wearing fleeces, the whole thing.
Now we have more than 500 graduates of that program [called LEAF]. Ninety-six percent of those kids go to college. Eighty-five percent of them are nonwhite. And more than one-third of them are majoring in life sciences like environmental studies and biology, whereas on average, 6 percent of Americans major in life sciences — and those that do are 82 percent white. And so we think we have real evidence that you can use nature in so many ways.
Q. You come out of the world of business and investing. Do people in that world understand what you’re doing now?
A. To be honest, the business guys are pretty smart. It’s the environmentalists, including my colleagues, who have more to learn here. I was at this Fortune conference this week — honestly, it’s so interesting to me, most business people who pay a little bit of attention to this, or make an effort to understand it, kind of get it. The pushback and criticisms is all from environmentalists.
I don’t want to be too critical of environmentalists, because these organizations are really good at getting things done. But I think we have some bad habits. We are quick to portray things as good vs. evil. And the closer I get to all this, I just think that’s usually not true. More often it’s grayer and more complex than that.
There’s two bad consequences of that. First, it turns off parties that we would want to work with. It discourages them from working with us. It also, I think, confuses environmentalists, because then they say the reason these things aren’t happening is that people are bad. But I could argue, and I think with real evidence, that sometimes the reason things that we want to see happen aren’t happening is because we haven’t had a good dialogue and explained things well, and we haven’t actually acknowledged holes in our argument.
Q. Give us an example of how you’re working with the corporate crowd.
A. We’re very much in the business of understanding and demonstrating that ecosystems can provide the most resilient, and most cost-effective protection from the bad consequences of climate change. The Dow [Chemical Co.] thing, which I write about in the book, is really interesting in its subtleties. The company’s CEO, Andrew Liveris, he gets it, so he says, we have an opportunity here at Dow to test these theories of TNC’s, and if they work, it should be good for our business. Also, we’re a global citizen, and we have a big environmental footprint; it’s the right thing for us to do, to be experimenting with this stuff.
I put together a team of really good scientists, and I sent them to Freeport, Texas, which is where Dow’s big facility is. One of our theories was that coastal ecosystems would provide better protection from storms — because the plant down there is right on the coast. So our scientists said to the engineers, what about storms? And they said, we’re ready for that. Here are our seawall plans. And they know everything, A to Z, about seawalls. And our guys said hey, well, have you thought about coastal ecosystems? And they said, no, sounds interesting. Show us your data. And we don’t have data to that same degree. And so we’ve gotta make that case. That’s the spirit of the project.
But then other stuff happened. We learned, just because we were hanging around down there, that as the plant expands they have to put in new scrubbers in their chimneys, to deal with local pollution issues. But then our scientists said, hey, I think tree plantings will do that. So then we checked into it — and this isn’t a done deal, but the EPA’s been very encouraging — but it could be the case that Dow will be able to save money, instead of putting scrubbers in chimneys, which of course do nothing for anyone, other than address the local pollution issues — they’ll be able to plant trees up and down the Brazos River. There are enormous co-benefits, even to Dow there, protecting that watershed, but community benefits too.
And then because of the way the wind patterns flow, Dow might be able to plant trees in Houston and get credit for dealing with their pollution issues. So now you’re not building scrubbers, you’re planting trees in a local area and protecting your watershed, and you’re planting trees in Houston — a fine city, but one that could use more trees.
This is exciting stuff. But that only happens if you get these parties together, get everyone to just shut up basically, and roll up their sleeves and work.
Q. The Nature Conservancy is working with companies like Dow and Coca-Cola that are spreading nasty chemicals and high-fructose corn syrup around the planet. It’s one thing to get corporations like that to green their operations, but can you get them to think a little more holistically about the stuff they’re putting out in the world?
A. It’s complicated, right? And don’t assume — don’t ascribe more power or clout to us than we have. But when I came, I had this view, or a theory, that we could do the kinds of things we’re doing with Dow, which is show them that they can improve their business and get better environmental outcomes. And so that’s what we’re trying to do with a bunch of companies — Cargill, Coke, Pepsi, Dow, Rio Tinto – these are the guys. So it’s controversial.
But other than folks on the far left, most folks seem OK with the thought. We tell them that we’re going to disclose everything as fast as we can. That way, if you see an opportunity for us to do something better, or if we’re making a mistake, you’ll tell us. We’re not trying to make money or anything. We’re trying to achieve our mission. Most people seem to think that’s reasonable.
Then you say, yeah but gosh, Coke’s product is so bad. And sometimes people say to me, Mark, you seem to be a person who has like healthy food habits, what the hell are you doing? But I — this may be romantic or naïve, but I think when we get people, like these DOW engineers, they were a little bit hostile, in fact, on arrival. Now they kinda like our scientists, because they’re likable guys and gals, they’re smart. And then because they’re working with us they go out in these ecosystems, look at them, understand how they work, and they kind of become environmentalists.
So I think we are going to turn our corporate allies into environmentalists. But you’re asking something even harder. You’re asking, what’s Coke going to do about its product, or how can they be an even nobler citizen? I don’t know the answer. And it’s not exactly TNC’s job. If Coke’s product is a bad product, I think the government has to say so. That’s my personal answer. I don’t think you can ask a business to not be a business.
Q. But if all you do is green your operations, it’s window dressing. If these corporations were serious about making a difference, wouldn’t they be in Washington, lobbying for smarter policies on climate, for example?
A. It’s hard to get companies to do the right thing. Look at fracking. Whenever I talk to an energy industry executive in the big companies, I say you, not us, YOU should be the champions of smart regulations. You’re screwed. Otherwise these small upstarts are going to create some disaster, you’re all going to get blamed, things are going to get shut down. What are you waiting for?
I think it’s absolutely in the energy industry’s interest to have the toughest regulation possible. It’s just sort of a hard thing for them to get around. They’re good at fighting stuff they don’t like, but to be for regulatory policy is so unusual, they don’t know how to do it.
Q. What’s next in terms of policy for you guys?
A. What’s next in terms of importance, for sure, is a price on carbon. It trumps everything. Maybe a close second, from a U.S. perspective, is rebuilding bipartisan support for the environment. I’ve had private conversations with really important, younger Republicans that would surprise you. And they’ve said to me, look, I’m ambitious, and I know that we can’t be the anti-science, anti-environment party and succeed in the grand scheme of things. We’ve painted ourselves into a corner. How can we get out of this?
It’s not going to happen in the Obama administration. I don’t think anything’s going to happen. It’s so sad. And I say that without blame — I mean I would blame the Republicans personally, but the Obama administration’s probably responsible too. Everybody’s decided they’re going to vilify each other for the next few years and nothing’s going to happen.
But I do think there’s a pent-up demand for things to happen by everybody. So we might have an exciting period of action right after that. And anyway, you’ve got to hope that, ’cause we’re screwed otherwise. But there are Republicans who want to get out of this corner. And they also say to me, Mark, you’ve got to get these other environmentalists to back off attacking and vilifying us, because it makes it hard for us to get out of this corner.
Now, you could also say, but they deserve to be attacked! Yeah, but somebody’s going to have to be the adult in the room and end this cycle.
Eddie & Sam’s Pizza in downtown Tampa, Fla., boasts “Real New York Pizza.” The distinguishing characteristic of real New York Pizza? Not the crust, the cheese, the sauce, the toppings, or even the giant, floppy slices. It’s the water. Every few months, Eddie & Sam’s brings in 1,000 gallons of water from the same Catskill springs that feed New York City’s reservoirs. Another company, the Brooklyn Water Bagel Co., with about 20 locations across the country, has gone even further. Rather than import water from Brooklyn, the company seeks to recreate the precise chemistry of New York water through a patented 14-step filtration process, and only then can the water be used to make their bagels.
All that time, money, and technology to get just the right water for pizza and bagels may seem excessive, but New Yorkers take justifiable pride in their water. Most of New York’s supply never passes through a filter and receives comparatively small doses of chlorine and fluoride.
For their high-quality and lightly-treated water, today’s New Yorkers can thank quite a few forested hillsides and a handful of foresighted city planners. Though they did not put it in these terms, those planners invested in nature, and generations of New Yorkers have reaped the benefits ever since.
The city planners’ investment had particular urgency. Cholera outbreaks that spread through the city’s water in the early 19th century killed thousands of New Yorkers. These epidemics, along with water pollution and a quickly growing population, forced city officials to search the countryside for cleaner and more reliable sources than surface water and local wells. Even in 1837, New York officials, anticipating the city’s growth, invested in a system of aqueducts to bring water from the Croton River, east of the Hudson River and some 25 miles north of the city line.
By the end of the 19th century, population growth outstripped the capacity of the aqueducts from the Croton River. To supplement this supply, officials turned their attention to the Catskills, 2,000 square miles of hills and valleys west of the Hudson and three times as far from the city as the Croton. The region was still almost entirely rural. There were some farms, but forests were largely intact and streams clean-running. Construction of a system of reservoirs, tunnels, and conduits from this ideal water supply began in 1905.
The system grew beyond the Catskills to include the Delaware River watershed, and by 1964, the entire system, the largest waterworks in the country, was complete. An engineering marvel, New York’s waterworks rely on gravity and little else to deliver 1.2 billion gallons of water every day through nine reservoirs, three lakes, 300 miles of tunnels, and 6,000 miles of distribution mains.
The system has worked well for decades, teaching us an invaluable lesson: With care, and absent catastrophic changes in climate, this system can provide clean water forever. Clever engineers have not discovered how to build dams and pipes that will never decay. Instead, they knew to rely on services that nature provides. Soil and tree roots filter water, microorganisms break down contaminants, plants in streams absorb nitrogen from automobile emissions and fertilizer runoff, and cattails and other wetland plants suck up nutrients while trapping sediments and heavy metals. Protect those services — which improve with age — and everything else is merely maintenance.Nicholas A. TonelliThe Delaware River.
The Catskills watershed is a textbook example of what has become known as green infrastructure. In contrast to built or gray infrastructure, such as pipes and treatment plants, green infrastructure consists of woodlands and grasslands, wetlands and rivers. Networks of these natural lands, together with working landscapes such as farms, woodlots, and other open spaces, keep ecosystems functioning, provide wildlife habitats, and contribute to the well-being of human communities by filtering water, controlling floods, cooling and cleaning the air, and providing areas for recreation, among many other benefits.
In the choice between building new gray infrastructure and conserving the green kind, the latter option is often less expensive and more efficient. Consider the example of New York’s Croton River and Catskill watersheds. The largely suburban Croton lies within an easy drive of the city. The roads, parking lots, lawns, golf courses, and other elements of suburbia mean more pollution washing into reservoirs — fertilizers and other chemicals, trash, motor oil, tiny particles spewing from the exhausts of cars and trucks. This so-called nonpoint source pollution, the bane of freshwater ecosystems everywhere, is notoriously difficult to control.
By the late 1980s, New York officials gave up on fully controlling the pollution through such measures as improving septic systems and reducing erosion and accepted that they would eventually need a filtration plant for the 10 percent or so of the city’s water that flows through the Croton system. Construction took eight years and cost $3.4 billion; the plant began operations in 2012, and will cost millions more each year to operate.
Pollution remained far less of an issue in the Catskills throughout the 1980s and 1990s, but risks were growing as a result of changing economics of the region. Owners of small family farms and woodlots struggled to stay in business. Many turned to intensive agriculture in smaller areas, which increased runoff and soil erosion, or they built more roads to get more timber to sawmills. Others chose to sell their land to vacation-home developers, jump-starting even more road construction and the salting necessary to keep those roads open in winter. Pollution began to spike, with a risk of worse to come if development overwhelmed rural septic systems.
Many New Yorkers began to see a new filtration plant as inevitable. When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued strict new rules for surface water in 1989, the city faced the daunting prospect of building an even larger filtration plant than that on the Croton River, at a cost of perhaps $8 billion. The owners of more than 800,000 buildings in New York City would end up footing the bill through increased water and sewer fees. The economic cost to the city overall would be enormous.
City officials, led by Al Appleton, commissioner of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection and director of the city water and sewer system, had another idea. Maybe instead of building a filtration plant, protecting the watershed would cost less and achieve the same, or better, results. To put a complex political, economic, and scientific argument in its simplest terms: If you can prevent pollution in the first place, then you won’t have to spend huge sums of money to clean it up later. Appleton and other city officials recognized that investing in nature, specifically the Catskills watershed, would pay a huge dividend: decades of clean water for New York City.
No one had tried this before — not at this scale. But with a multibillion-dollar project on the horizon, New York’s leaders made the leap. Through much of the 1990s, New York City, 60 towns, 10 villages, seven counties, the state of New York, the EPA, and environmental groups negotiated the terms under which the EPA would waive its filtration requirement and allow the city to avoid building the new plant.
They finally reached an agreement in 1997. That agreement limited growth in the watershed and committed the city to spend $1.5 billion to buy land, build storm sewers and septic systems, and upgrade existing sewage plants.
The brilliance of New York’s solution was that Al Appleton and other officials did not try to take on just one problem. They thought big. Rather than attempting to plug one source of pollution at a time — an approach that has failed repeatedly — the city worked with farmers to help them manage their land in ways that would allow them to meet their own economic needs while providing clean water downstream.
While the city has the power under state law to manage development in the Catskills, most land there remains in private hands. Conservation would have to be a cooperative venture. Unless the residents of the Catskills were behind this, New York City knew that enforcement of pollution standards from 100 miles away would never work.
The city began to pay for pollution control investments on each farm as an incentive for farmers to join. Instead of selecting a top-down menu of best management practices, farmers worked with city and state agencies to custom-design pollution control measures — such as building fences and bridges to keep livestock away from waterways — to maximize their effectiveness and minimize their cost. The resulting solutions were not only better and less costly at controlling pollution than previous efforts, they also saved farmers both time and money.
This realization turned the usual pollution dynamic upside down. Businesses and communities tend to resist new regulations, seeing them, rightly or wrongly, as burdensome. Far better, then, to engage these businesses and communities as providers of a valuable service to a willing market. Farmers now had a new crop to sell: water.
The city needs periodic approvals from the EPA, the latest issued in 2007 and lasting for 10 years. As part of that agreement, New York also committed to spend another $241 million for land acquisition over 10 years. In early 2011, the state issued New York City a permit to acquire 105,000 more acres in the watershed.
New York City has spent billions of dollars in the Catskills, a huge transfer of wealth from the city to the countryside. Those investments boosted the upstate economy with more jobs and businesses, from contractors to install septic systems and upgrade wastewater treatment plants, to jobs with the city and state, to new tourism enterprises. Catskills farmers, who had previously thought of the environment as something that forced them to spend money to solve somebody else’s problems, now made money by becoming environmentalists. For some, that extra income was the difference between selling out and staying on the land. More than 90 percent of the farms in the watershed participate in the program, putting about 75,000 acres under improved management.
The combination of protected lands and improved management of working farms enables New York to pull off a neat trick — a win-win-win. People in New York City get cleaner, more secure water; residents of the Catskills get paid for a benefit they have long supplied for free; plants, animals, and people benefit from more conservation. That last one can be tangible, too. Gretchen Daily sums it up in a question, and only partly in jest: “Would you rather spend a romantic weekend at a filtration plant or in the Catskills?”
Excerpted with permission from Nature’s Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature, by Mark R. Tercek and Jonathan S. Adams. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2013.
In the past, the “sustainability” movement has struggled with language. “Global warming.” “Climate change.” “Rising sea levels.” And perhaps the most problematic, “sustainability” itself. Will "resilience" be the newest, best-understood term?
If you want to change the world, start first with yourself. Just as past performance does not indicate future financial returns, we cannot innovate our way to a sustainable future with old mindsets. This article will explore how increasing mindfulness yields positive triple bottom line results.
The post Why Managers Should Meditate: It’s Good for Business appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.
The current law guiding the manufacture of cosmetics dates back to the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act of 1938. This legislation granted oversight of cosmetics safety to the cosmetics industry itself, meaning that the FDA has almost no authority. Over 80,000 chemicals have been introduced into the consumer market, and the industry provides very little information on the safety of these ingredients for use in personal care products.
The post Policy Points: Make Cosmetics Safe and Support Industry Innovation appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.
SAP's Chief Sustainability Officer Peter Graf outlines the 5 steps behind an effective integrated report.
The post 5 Necessary Steps to Better Integrated Reporting AND a More Sustainable Company appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.
Chicago's O'Hare Airport is welcoming a herd of goats this summer to landscape the airport grounds. This unusual move has garnered a lot of attention, which has, in turn, highlighted their many other sustainability efforts.
The post O’Hare Goats are Just the Tip of the Sustainability Iceberg appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.
Is it OK to slaughter hundreds of thousands of birds every year in the name of clean energy? Is it OK for a luxury home developer to kill California condors in its quest for profits?
The Obama administration seems to think so. It is flexing little to none of the legal muscle needed to encourage wind energy companies to avoid killing eagles, hawks, and other birds that can be fatally drawn into their spinning turbines.
An Associated Press investigation revealed that the administration has never fined or prosecuted a wind farm for killing a bird. Many of the avian victims of the fast-growing wind sector are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and some are protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
An estimated 573,000 birds were killed last year in the U.S. by wind turbines, the AP reported, citing a study published in March in the journal Wildlife Society Bulletin. About 83,000 of those were estimated to have been raptors.
From the AP article:
Each death is federal crime, a charge that the Obama administration has used to prosecute oil companies when birds drown in their waste pits, and power companies when birds are electrocuted by their power lines. No wind energy company has been prosecuted, even those that repeatedly flout the law.
Wind power, a pollution-free energy intended to ease global warming, is a cornerstone of President Barack Obama’s energy plan. His administration has championed a $1 billion-a-year tax break to the industry that has nearly doubled the amount of wind power in his first term.
The large death toll at wind farms shows how the renewable energy rush comes with its own environmental consequences, trade-offs the Obama administration is willing to make in the name of cleaner energy.
“It is the rationale that we have to get off of carbon, we have to get off of fossil fuels, that allows them to justify this,” said Tom Dougherty, a long-time environmentalist who worked for nearly 20 years for the National Wildlife Federation in the West, until his retirement in 2008. “But at what cost? In this case, the cost is too high.”
And it’s not only the wind industry that’s getting a free pass. The Los Angeles Times reported Friday that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed not to prosecute deaths of endangered California condors caused by two projects in California — one a wind farm being built in the Tehachapi Mountains, the other a luxury home, hotel, and golf-course development in the middle of condor country 60 miles north of Los Angeles. From the L.A. Times article:
Fish and Wildlife Director Daniel Ashe said the decision reflects a difficult reality. The threat of prosecution jeopardized the construction of large-scale alternative energy facilities and real estate developments in the wild and windy places preferred by condors.
“This is the first time we’ve authorized incidental takes of California condors — and we’re approaching them very cautiously,” Ashe said in an interview.
“The good news is that we have an expanding population of condors, which are also expanding their range,” he said. “We have to make sure that as the condor population grows, we are learning to work with local private businesses to fit a conservation effort into the landscape.”
The agency invited other wind farms to apply for similar permission.
Wildlife advocates and conservationists said the decision threatens the survival of the 150 free-flying condors in California and will weaken the concept of federally designated critical habitat for endangered species.
If wind energy firms are given free passes to kill federally protected birds, they’ll have less motivation to invest in wildlife-friendly technological advances, or to site their turbines in areas where bird strikes would be minimized. (And wind energy at least helps fight climate change, whereas there’s no public benefit from luxury real estate development.) Clean energy and wildlife can coexist, but such coexistence is going to take hard work, planning, research and development — and diligence and occasional heavy-handedness from the federal government.
At Grist, we’ve been onto the trend of the youngs losing interest in driving for awhile now. And every time a new study or survey comes out to statistically corroborate the anecdotal evidence we see every day, we hear the same responses from skeptics — it’s just the economy, just a stage of life. Wait til those millennials get real jobs, get married, have families, and move to the suburbs. Then you bet they’ll start driving.
But the latest report on declining driving trends — released today by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund — argues that a rejection of car culture is here to stay. “The Driving Boom is over,” it declares. In fact, the report calculates that “If the Millennial-led decline in per-capita driving continues for another dozen years … total vehicle travel in the United States could remain well below its 2007 peak through at least 2040 — despite a 21 percent increase in population.”
The U.S. PIRG study reveals how, after six decades of steady growth, both total vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and VMT per capita have been falling since 2007. Total VMT is now at 2004 levels, while VMT per capita has fallen to 1996 levels. And once again, it’s those meddling millennials who are reimagining one of the pillars of American culture. Young people ages 16 to 34 drove an average of 23 percent fewer miles in 2009 than they did in 2001, according to the report. If you consider that more than half the people in that age group were old enough to drive in 2001, too, that suggests that even as those at the older end of this generation enter their 30s — presumably settling into more stable jobs and in some cases starting families — they’re still not switching over to a car-centric lifestyle at the same rate as generations before them.
Economic factors — high gas prices, the recession — obviously motivate people of all ages to drive less. But, as we’ve pointed out before, larger societal shifts lie behind millennials’ generation-wide “meh” attitude toward car ownership. Brian Merchant at Vice summarizes them in two words: Facebook and Brooklyn.
To expand on that slightly: Technology lets people socialize without being physically in the same place. And when they do leave the house to hang with friends IRL, kids these days would rather walk, bike, bus, train, longboard, or — if those options prove impossible — car-share to get there. That’s why millennials are flocking to communities that cater to a walkable, urban lifestyle, and why even historically unhip towns like Charlotte, N.C. — the setting for The New York Times’ coverage of the U.S. PIRG study — are now modeling themselves more in Brooklyn’s image, “filling in the urban core with new development and encouraging new construction along major transportation corridors, including an expanding rail line.” (Charlotte’s transit-happy mayor, Anthony Foxx, is Obama’s pick for transportation secretary.)
Merchant explains why Facebook and Brooklyn could solidify the decline in driving into a lasting trend:
As more folks from the affluent 18-34 demographic settle in cities, the need for cars will diminish. More parents simply won’t own them. Which means the physical barriers to socializing erected by the suburbs will thus never be put in place, and teens won’t need to overcome them to feel liberated. Meanwhile, social media will still be providing alternative channels for interaction.
The prospect of driving, after all, is only exciting if there are places you’re dying to go. Growing up in a place where all of your friends and activities are already within walking distance, and being able to bridge the rest of the gaps online—gaming, gossiping, etc—may hopelessly antiquate that four-cylinder headrush.
I knew a few folks in college who, having grown up in Manhattan or San Francisco, simply never learned to drive — there was no reason to. I found this exceedingly strange at the time, but Merchant’s point is that as millennials lead a larger cultural shift in our lifestyle values, and more cities adapt to their preferences, those license-less kids will become more the rule than the exception.
Which means, as the report points out, “The time has come for America to hit the ‘reset’ button on transportation policy” — repair existing roads and bridges instead of build new ones; focus resources on mass transit and bike infrastructure, as Charlotte is doing; and support the development of walkable neighborhoods.
The consequences of a transportation policy “stuck in the past,” as the report puts it, are not only costly, but tragic. Texting while driving has replaced drunk driving as the No. 1 cause of teenage death on the road, which no doubt has something to do with the smartphone replacing the car as the most important vehicle for teenage freedom. Just as improved transit options reduce the temptation to drive drunk, so too do they eliminate the temptation to text behind the wheel.
North Carolina’s numerous coal plants might be driving Tar Heel State residents to kill themselves.
Suicide is a leading killer in America, and links between air pollution and suicide rates have been known for years. Breathing in bad air might drive people to take their own lives by worsening their health problems, affecting their nervous systems, or generally lowering their life satisfaction.
So Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center researcher John Spangler set about trying to understand how polluting coal-fired power plants might affect county-by-county suicide rates in North Carolina, where the statewide rate is higher than the national average [PDF]. What he discovered was an alarming correlation.
Spangler looked at census data, mortality rates, and air contamination levels in North Carolina counties. He found that for every coal plant operating in a county, the number of yearly suicides rose by 1.96 people for every 100,000 people living there. The results were published in the Journal of Mood Disorders [PDF].
From a press release about the study, published by the medical center:
As there were 20 coal-fired electricity plants in North Carolina when this study was carried out, that means there were about 40 suicides a year per 100,000 population related to the plants. When applied to the state’s year 2,000 population of 8,049,313, this equals about 3,220 suicides a year associated with coal-fired electricity plants.
There are many factors that drive people to take their lives, of course, and there was no way that Spangler’s study could account for all of them. That said, he thinks his findings could be useful. Again from the press release:
“Still, it raises the interesting question of whether suicide in a given population is related to the presence or absence of coal-fired electricity plants and the air quality,” he said. “Further research is needed to understand what factors related to coal burning actually are at play and suggest that tighter regulation of coal-fired power plant emissions might cut down on county suicide rates in North Carolina.”
A guerrilla veggie-growing occupation of university-owned land in Albany, Calif., was busted by cops early Monday and thousands of zucchini, kale, squash, and other newly planted seedlings were plowed over. But the occupiers proved more resilient than a sprawling mint plant, returning Monday to replant the desecrated farm.
More than 100 activists had gathered at Gill Tract, near Berkeley, on Friday and over the weekend, with some staying on site until the Monday morning raid. They pulled weeds, tilled soil, and planted seedlings. Some pitched tents.
The 12-acre site was part of a large tract of land donated to the University of California in the 1920s and was long used for organic farming and research. But much of it is now abandoned land, slated for homebuilding and a new grocery store. Some of the land continues to be used for agricultural research, but much of that research relates to genetic engineering.
Long-simmering tensions between the university and neighborhood and student activists over how the land is used boiled over on Earth Day last year, when Occupy the Farm broke padlocks and began cultivating gardens. After several weeks, the police moved in, trashed the garden, and arrested nine people.
The U.C.-Berkeley police didn’t wait that long to raze the farm this time around. In addition to bulldozing the plantings early Monday morning, the cops arrested four activists and charged them with trespassing and interfering with police.
“The UC’s use of police intervention was completely unnecessary and unreasonable,” says Occupy the Farm member, Matthew McHale, “especially after we publicly declared we were leaving later today.”
“This is a pathetic waste of public resources, to arrest people who are engaged in a constructive project to demonstrate how public land can be used for the public good,” added Dan Siegel, the lawyer for the group.
Over the course of the weekend, hundreds of students, farmers, families, and interested community members participated in the revitalization of a neglected part of the historic farmland bordering San Pablo Avenue and Monroe Street. Rows of squash, kale, tomato, corn, lettuce, and even flowers replaced 5-foot high weeds, as farmers created a vibrant community space on the site of a proposed parking lot and chain grocery store.
Since Occupy the Farm first planted on the Gill tract in April 2012, the group has organized at least 10 public forums focused on the Gill Tract as an asset to community-driven participatory research. The UC Berkeley administration has consistently failed to attend, despite being invited. As one of the last large plots of fertile agricultural soil left in the East Bay, the Gill Tract holds great potential as an educational resource for community members and for UC urban agricultural research, and for providing local, sustainable, organic food.
Later Monday, about 50 people returned to replant the farm. The Oakland Tribune reported that they plan to return again this coming weekend to care for the young plants. From the article:
“We’re here to make a statement that an urban farm is a much better use of that prime soil than paving it over,” [Occupy spokesperson and U.C.-Berkeley student Lesley] Haddock said Monday.
The area in question, roughly 12 acres, is partially used by the university for agricultural research. Activists occupied part of this area for three weeks last year. Police made arrests and ended the overnight occupation of the land on May 14 last year.
But not everybody digs the illegal farming occupation. University officials and some city leaders have been quick to criticize it. And some neighbors say they are looking forward to shopping at the grocery store that’s planned for the site. It was originally going to be a Whole Foods, but the company backed out following last year’s occupation, and a Sprouts Farmers Market store is now planned. From the Oakland Tribune article:
[A] group of Albany residents opposed to the Occupy group brought a contingent of their own to the parcel along San Pablo Avenue.
“We want a grocery store here,” said Sylvia Paull, one of the anti-Occupy protesters. “We spent five years working with UC and Albany trying to get one here.”
The Occupy the Farm folks say the San Francisco East Bay’s last remnants of farming land should stay as farming land, and claim that the new grocery store would eat into the profits of existing stores in the community.