Saturday, December 31, 2011

Last Overlooked Environmental Issue of the Year--Occupy Earth

To close this end of year series on the most overlooked environmental issues of the year, I have selected a topic that has great depth of meaning--global population growth.
Today it is estimated that there are approximately 7 billion people on the planet.  The video above (click for youtube credit) shows the growth over time and space.  There is no doubt that our current era, with improved medicine and food production, allows our population to expand as it never has before.  But there are environmental costs to this growth that have far-reaching impacts on our planet.  We all consume goods for our basic needs, but we are also becoming a global consumer society.  Almost everyone would like and ipad, a car, and fine clothing.  But the reality is that if everyone consumed at the same rate, the planet would be severely damaged.  

So what is the fate of our population?  Will we slow growth?  Will we figure out a way to consume less while having a high quality of life?  Will we destroy ourselves and the planet at the same time?

I am an optimist.  I believe, as do many population experts, that the population of the planet will stabilize soon and level out.  I also believe that we will find ways to manage this growth by using sound, thoughtful practices in many areas.  But, there is no doubt that some areas will feel pressure and see severe environmental and social problems.  We cannot whistle in the graveyard and pretend that these issues are not happening.  We also cannot look the other way and let future generations figure out the problems that we are causing in our high-population growth and consumerist societies around the world.  

We have to continue the conversations about sustainability in all cultures, at all levels of governments, and within all organizations in order to better confront the emerging realities associated with limited resources within a globalizing consumer world that is seeing tremendous population growth.


To my readers, thank you for visiting my blog in 2011.  Best wishes for a happy, healthy, prosperous, and green 2012.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Another Overlooked Environmental Issue--The End of the Nuclear Option

Nuclear Power Plant outside of New York City.
Click for photo credit.
Given that it is the close of the year, I am reserving this week's posts for issues that were largely overlooked by the media and environmental community.

I wrote about today's topic in a blog post some time ago, but it is worth mentioning again.  The nuclear energy option is dead in the U.S., largely as a result of the Fukushima disaster that occurred as a result of this year's earthquake and tsunami.

This is an important development for a number of reasons.  Some environmentalists were praising nuclear energy due to its limited impact on the atmosphere.  Indeed, Brookings Institute in this year's report of the green economy listed nuclear energy jobs as "green" in their compendium.

Yet, I have always been leery of nuclear energy because of the waste issues, the potential for terrorism, and the dangers associated with accidents.  These problems are not just one-time problems.  They last for generations.  Thus the impacts of our decisions today have grave consequences for generations to come.  As a relatively purist in the sustainability field, I find nuclear not particularly sustainable due to the multi-generational impacts of waste and accidents.  How can we ethically trade cheap energy today for a future of unusable landscapes, nuclear waste, and a proliferation of dirty bombs. Is it worth the risk?

At the end of the day, given what one knows about Fukushima and Chernobyl, would you want to live near a nuclear power plant? For most the answer is no.  While there is some hope for new technologies, the current state of nuclear power is problematic.

Thus, I believe that the nuclear energy option is off the table for the time being in the United States.  I doubt that any new plants will be built any time soon.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Overlooked Environmental Issue of the Year: The End of Sprawl

Chicago seems to sprawl forever in the photo.  Click
for photo caption.
At the close of this year, I am listing several overlooked environmental issues of the year--both good and bad--that didn't make it into the mainstream news and that were somewhat overlooked in the environmental community.  Today, I focus on an interesting development that has far-reaching consequences for the future:  the end of sprawl.

Urban sprawl is a trend that arguably started, or at least accelerated with the development of suburbia in the 1950's and 60's.  It continued relatively unfettered until the most recent economic downturn.  One of the main areas that was hit was by the downturn was the housing market, largely due to overproduction of houses and the associated pricing bubble.  But part of the housing downturn can be partly attributed to changing consumer preferences and the lack of support for widespread suburban sprawl within county or regional governments.  Here's why.

Many people are choosing to live in downtown or near downtown areas instead of suburbs.  There are many reasons for this trend including the cost of gasoline, improvements to downtowns that many cities have made, the expansion of housing options in redeveloped downtown areas, and the gravity that comes with creative spaces.

In addition, existing suburbs are redeveloping and creating greater density around transit-oriented redevelopments that bring housing, retail, and transit together within nodes in existing suburbs.

Plus, individuals are preferring to rent homes over buying given the huge losses many took in the housing bubble.

Local governments are also hesitant to approve new housing developments due to the many unoccupied structures that reduce housing values in their suburban communities.  While cities were hurt hard by the foreclosure crisis, there are many suburban ghost towns.  In addition, the aggressive nature of development prior to the housing boom left many communities with buyer's remorse.  In some places whole swaths of beautiful forest and farmland are now declining monochromatic suburban developments with little sense of place or community that are far from the gravitational pull of the cities.  Policies to prevent poorly planned developments are being put into place.

Now that the economy is improving, it will be interesting to see if the end of sprawl is a small trend or a megatrend that will continue into the future.  There is no doubt that cities will continue to expand.  But how?  Will suburbs redefine themselves by creating more interesting denser places that attract people to them, or will they spread out in 90's style to the ends of the earth.  In Florida, the 1990's style suburbanization nearly connected most of the cities in the entire peninsula.  I think the pause in sprawl is real and we have come to our senses.

Another Overlooked Environmental Story of the Year: Normalization of Sustainability in Everyday Lives

As noted in an earlier post, I am utilizing the end of the year posts to highlight some of the overlooked environmental issues of the year--both good and bad.  Today, I am highlighting a good news development:  the normalization of sustainability in our everyday lives.

It was only in 2007 that the Toyota Prius went on sale.  At about the same time, Wal-Mart transformed the retail business by infusing sustainability within their products and business practices (notice the minimal packaging for most products you buy in most stores these days?---Thank Wal-Mark for making that happen).  

We also see buildings certified by the U.S. Green Building Council as the new standard for high quality buildings.  Even the Empire State Building underwent a green renovation recently (see video).  Wind farms have cropped up all over the United States and the EPA has an Office of Environmental Justice.  We are seeing more farmers markets, small sustainable farms, and more organic farming. Major grocery chains have connections with local farmers for meat, fruit, and vegetables.

We often don't notice the change that is happening around us because it happens at a slow pace.  But there is no doubt that we have made progress on sustainability related issues in our country over the last several years.  Do we have a way to go?  You bet.  But, we should pause, reflect, and celebrate the accomplishments.  Sustainability is becoming normalized in our everyday lives.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Overlooked Environmental Issue of 2011--Lack of Clear US Energy Policy

This residential and commercial development in
Germany is partially powered by solar energy.
Click for photo credit.

As noted in yesterday’s post, I am closing the year with some of the most overlooked environmental issues—both good and bad.  Yesterday, I highlighted issues with one species that is indicative of ecosystem health.  Today, I am focusing in on US energy policy.

The United States still relies heavily on traditional fuels:  coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear energy.  While there are individual programs that try to promote alternative forms of clean energy, the US does not have a coherent plan to integrate the new generation of energy sources.  Compare this with Germany that developed policies in the early 1990’s that led to them becoming a leader in the implementation of alternative energy in the present day.  In addition, Germany has made a commitment to close all of their nuclear power plants by 2022.

The problem in the US is not a lack of will or technology, but a lack of leadership.  Some have claimed that we should not use tax dollars to support the emerging green technologies.  But, the oil, gas, and nuclear energy sectors are highly subsidized by the government, so it is ridiculous to think that the emerging green energy sector should play by different rules from traditional energy sectors.

In the media one often sees the costs to consumers of green energy compared with traditional energy.  However, the comparisons with traditional energy sources are not fair as discussed in this article.

There is no doubt that the US has the ability to move into renewable energy in a big way, and we have seen progress, particularly in energy efficiency.  However, we do not have clear goals or timetables for the integration of green energy as a significant power source in the US.  In the mean time, we continue to destroy mountains for coal, produce greenhouse gases, generate oil spills, and whistle through the graveyard.

Monday, December 26, 2011

White Nose Syndrome: One of the Most Overlooked Environmental Issues of the Year

In the last few posts of the year, I am going to highlight some of the most overlooked environmental issues of the year--both good and bad.  Today, I am starting with what I think is one of the most significant environmental issues to emerge in the last few years: white nose syndrome.

Map from the US Fish and Wildlife Service showing the
distribution of White Nose Syndrome.
This is a fungal disease of bats.  It can be described here.  It is clear that white nose syndrome, known by the acronym WNS, is spreading rapidly in areas where bats hibernate.  It has impacted many hibernacula (places where bats hibernate).  The impacted areas, as can be seen in the map, are largely in the northeastern United States, although the illness has been found in the Great Plains as well.  It is believed that over 1 million bats have died from the disease.

And, it does not appear to be slowing.

This is a serious problem for many reasons.  Many plants depend on bats as part of their life cycle.  In addition, many insects are controlled, in part, by bats.  Entire local ecosystems evolved with bats and their loss will transform these places in unexpected ways.

It is not entirely clear how the disease spreads, but many caves in the United States have been closed to visitors because of the fear that human's may carry the fungus on them.

Just as we have seen the collapse of some of the bee species in North America, the collapse of some bat species is a serious indication of problems ahead.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Gray Wolves Make a Comeback in Wisconsin

2011 Wolf Territories in Wisconsin.  Click
for source of map.
It is great to get some good news on the environmental front.  Gray wolves, often called timber wolves, are making a comeback in Wisconsin.  The animals used to be absent from the state, but they came back on their own, migrating in from Minnesota.  They will be delisted from the Endangered Species List and the state will soon be able to trap or kill those animals that are problematic for farmers as per the state's wolf management plan.  The plan is controversial, but the controversy is a sign that things have improved overall for the wolf population in the state.

The map to the right shows the distribution of the wolf population in the state.  Most are located in the far north.  This area is heavily forested with many state and national forests.  There are some farms, particularly dairy farms, in the area.  The red and orange blobs on the map show places where there were farm animal deaths as a result of wolves.

Prior to delisting, farmers were not allowed to kill wolves to protect their herds.  With delisting, they can.  It will still be illegal to hunt the wolves.

Human/animal conflicts are nothing new in environmental policy discourse.  Often the conflicts occur because humans are moving into animal territories.  This is common in newly developed suburban areas.  The case in Wisconsin is different.  The wolves are moving back into territory they lost during an earlier development phase of the state.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Growth in Farmers Markets in the U.S.

I ran across this interesting graph on the USDA's website here.  It shows the growth of farmers markets in the United States since 1994.  Back then there were only 1,755 markets.  Today there are 7,175.  That is a staggering growth rate and shows that our country's attitudes toward food is changing.  We are more interested in locally produced healthy alternatives to the industrialized food system that replaced the family farm in the late 20th century.

If you are interested in finding a local farmers market you can search on Local Harvest's website here.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Winner in T-Shirt Contest

Congrats to Mobile_lad for getting the correct answer in the T-Shirt contest!  The rank order of countries that visit this blog are:

1. US
2. Russia
3. India
4. Latvia
5. Canada
6. Sweden
7. Germany
8. Ireland
9. Trinidad and Tobago
10. France

Look for a new contest next month.

Explaining the High Line

In yesterday's post, I referenced the New York High Line.  Upon reflection, I realized I didn't explain what the High Line is to my readers.  The High Line is a rails to trails park.  The video I am posting here explains the history of the park.  You can also read about it here on the park's website.  But in a nutshell, the park was created from rail lines that extended from the industrial meat packing district in a former industrial area of lower Manhattan north to the rail lines near Midtown that connect Manhattan with the outer world.

Originally, the rail line was at street level.  However, due to the high density of people and traffic, the rail line was elevated for safety reasons.  The elevated line was in use for many years, but closed in the 1980's due to the decline of industry in lower Manhattan and due to the growing significance of truck transit.

The line was scheduled for demolition, but two community activists worked hard to preserve the space as a rails to trails park.  Their efforts eventually came to fruition and today the High Line is a model of urban park design.

What makes the High Line unique and special is the design.  The architects maintained a feel of the linear aspects of the rails within the landscape design and largely utilized native vegetation throughout.  There are several large seating areas for relaxation and some of them have dramatic views of the surrounding urban landscape.  I don't want to give away all that is great about the High Line.  You have to visit it to experience all there is to offer.

Suffice it to say that it is indeed a model of urban design and a great addition to Manhattan.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A High Line in Queens?

Wisconsin has lots of great rails to trails bike and
hiking paths like this one in Western Wisconsin.
Click for photo credit.
Thanks to my friend Lyndsey Scofield for posting on Facebook this request for signatures on a petition to build a High Line like greenway on the abandoned Long Island Railroad Rockaway Beach Branch right of way.

Old rail lines make great parks and/or trails.  I grew up in Waterford, a small village in western Racine County, Wisconsin.  An old light rail line used to extend from Milwaukee to a number of small towns to the southwest.  The service disappeared long before I was born, but the remaining rail line was a great playground for me and my siblings.  Today, it is part of Racine County's bikepath system and is known as the Seven Waters Trail.

The success of New York City's High Line and rural Wisconsin's Seven Waters Trail suggests that a trail built on the Rockaway Beach Branch will see success.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Congress Dim on Lightbulb Policy

Most don't realize it, but there was standardization of
lighting after the development of the incandescent
lightbulb.  Click for photo credit.
This story from USA Today surprised me this morning.  Congress snuck in removal of lightbulb efficiency standards in the recent spending bill.  They tried removing standards earlier this year (see my blog post about this from July here), but it didn't go anywhere for good reason.  Now, it seems they have succeeded in removing one of the key energy efficiency bills that came out of the Bush administration.  No wonder congressional ratings are at an all time low.

Lightbulb efficiency is one of the great green technology success stories.  LED and other lighting save millions of dollars every year and reduces pressure on the electric grid in our country.  Incandescent lightbulb technology is highly inefficient and over 100 years old.

It is my understanding that those in congress who pushed for removal of lightbulb standards did so on Libertarian grounds.  I get this, but we have standards for many many things in our country.  We have standards for food, transport, power plants, and measurement.  Maintaining the right to burn lightbulbs that are an outmoded technology that few currently buy or use seems hardly wise or the biggest Libertarian battle to take on at the moment.

But, this does demonstrate again that the US is not serious about a coherent energy strategy that includes the development of energy efficient products.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Florida is Dangerous by Design

Bicycling and walking in Florida landscapes like this can
be a challenge.  Click for photo credit.

This article from the St. Petersburg Times provides an opportunity to make the case that Florida is dangerous by design.  Transportation for America came up with a list of the most dangerous metros for pedestrians and four Florida metros are listed as most dangerous in the United States.  In order they are:  Orlando-Kissimmee, Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, Jacksonville, and Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach.

Florida is a wonderful place to live, but its urban areas were designed around the automobile and the urban landscape has many pitfalls for pedestrians and bicyclists.  Now that people are moving away from cars as their primary mode of transit, in many cases due to costs, there are more car/pedestrian, bike conflicts. 

The answer to the problem is to refocus rich transportation budgets to retool design to better address the needs of bicyclists and pedestrians.  It is important to get involved in public meetings when transportation projects are discussed.  I remember going to one public meeting in Florida when I was the only person who showed up.  So, if you don’t like the design of your community, get involved, got to meetings, and have your voice heard.  

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Skype in the Classroom

Students love technology in the classroom.
Click for photo credit.

It’s the end of the semester and I thought I would take the opportunity to discuss my favorite new teaching tool:  Skype.  I am in a unique position in that I have been around the block enough (i.e. I’m getting up in years) to know quite a few people in my profession.  So, this semester, I thought, “Why not get these experts into my classroom for a few minutes to discuss their research?” 

Most people have Skype on their desktop or laptop and can spare 10 minutes to drop in on a class to briefly discuss their work.  The students loved it and got them engaged with the course materials in new ways.  Plus, they could meet the people they read about or discuss the topic in some detail with the Skype visitor.

I really liked introducing graduate students via Skype to undergraduate students.  It gave them an opportunity to meet a graduate student and provided an opportunity for them to see what graduate students do and the nature of their experiences.  Skype was particularly effective in one instance when I paired it with a YouTube video of a graduate student discussing his work.  I showed the video prior to the Skype call and discussed potential questions before to making the call.

So, if you are at all interested in livening up the classroom, give it a shot.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

I still do not have a t-shirt winner from the contest I listed on November 24th.  The contest asked readers to list the countries that most often visit this blog.  From the alphabetical list of 10, we have ended up with the below as the correct answers to date.  However, we are incomplete.  Canada, France, and Germany. need to be placed in the correct order.  Place your guess in the comments.

1. US
2. Russia
3. India
4. Latvia
6. Sweden
8. Ireland
9. Trinidad and Tobago

Cute Silly Video on a Sustainable Christmas

This is a cute silly video a friend sent in response to yesterday's post.  Hope you enjoy.  I love the chicken.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

My Letter to Santa for a Greener Suburbia

It’s that time of year!  I’m making my list and checking it twice.  This year, I thought I would put together a list of 5 things that I would like Santa to bring to suburbia to make it greener. 

 Santa and I go way back.
1.     Community sponsored agriculture farms built into the infrastructure of suburban landscapes.  I am currently doing research on the location of community sponsored agriculture farms, and what we are finding is that while they are increasing in number, they are not distributed very evenly across the country.  Herbert Hoover campaigned on the slogan, “A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.”  Now it should be “A farm in every neighborhood and mass transit in every downtown.”
2.     No fertilizers or pesticides on lawns.  The pollution of rivers, bays, lakes, and estuaries is largely caused by runoff of pesticides and fertilizers.  Algae blooms, dead zones, and eutrophication are words we hear all too often.
3.     Redevelopment of older suburban landscapes into denser, mixed-use, transit oriented developments while keeping an eye toward historic preservation.  Many older suburban landscapes have declined in the last few decades.  What can one do with them?  They need redevelopment, but how?  The answer lies in revisioning suburbia with an eye toward mixed-use, denser, transit oriented development.  There are many examples of these redevelopment efforts that have seen great success.  I foresee a future suburbia that is carless and built around farms, jobs, and train stations.
4.     Regional cooperation for benchmarking sustainability.  Suburbs are often politically fractured in that they exist in small villages and unincorporated areas and they often have quasi-governmental organizations such as neighborhood associations that dictate particular rules.  In order to infuse sustainability within the culture of suburbia I am wishing for greater regional cooperation among suburban governments in order to set sustainability targets and measure outcomes and benchmark success.
5.     Landscape and urban design in tune with nature.  There are many innovative approaches to suburban landscape and urban design that can be more broadly incorporated into suburban developments as they are built or redeveloped that would significantly improve regional habitat and ecosystem preservation.  These include native landscaping, development of wildlife corridors, and reduction of paved surfaces.

I didn't get everything I wanted when I wrote to Santa when I was a boy.  But, some things did arrive under the tree from my list.  Hopefully I've been a good boy this year and we'll have a greener 2012. 

What's on your list for a green suburbia?

Monday, December 12, 2011

Long Island Wins Big in Economic Development Competition

This iconic building from the early 20th
century of Long Island represents its rich and diverse
agricultural heritage.  Long Island is one of the top
duck producers in the nation and and the top chicken
producer in the state.  It is also home to one of the most
important sustainable agricultural movements in the US.
 Photo by Bob Brinkmann.
Long Island was one of the winners in the New York economic development competition.  You can read about it here.  It was one of the only plans that fully integrated sustainability, particularly sustainable agriculture and fisheries.  It also focused on transit oriented development and a rethink of the suburban model of development on the island.  You can read the entire plan here.

The plan was a departure from the economic development models of other regions of the United States that focus on building big regional improvements to draw the creative class.  Some regions have built stadiums, art museums, and riverwalks to attract young urbanites to their region.  The Long Island plan is much more pragmatic in that it focuses on the current needs of the region and looks to a future that is quite different from the past.  The plan is worth a read.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Review of US Climate Change Regulation by Me and Sandra Jo Garren

Many nations have adopted strong strong energy policies
that reduce reliance on greenhouse gas producing fuels.
Click for photo credit.
My paper, with colleague Sandra Jo Garren, on the status of US greenhouse gas management came out just in time for 2011 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durbin.  You can get the paper here.  Just scroll down for our paper.  It is published in Portal: Journal of Multidisciplinary International Studies.  The bottom line is that the US does not have a strong coherent energy or greenhouse gas management policy.  Most of the key innovations in policy have emerged not from legislative or executive decisions, but from court interpretations of laws existing prior to our concerns about greenhouse gases.

This approach is different from other developed nations that have taken a much more aggressive approach in their national rule making.  What is unique in the United States is that the failure of the federal government to act led to many innovative approaches to greenhouse gas management by local governments, businesses, non-profits, and other organizations.  Yet these initiatives, while interesting and hopeful, are not nationally coordinated and it is difficult to determine if these disparate initiatives have a significant impact on national greenhouse gas output due to a lack of coordination about greenhouse gas management nationally.

We still do not have strong political leadership on this issue in the United States and it is doubtful that anything significant will happen in the coming years without a shift in the public's demands for action.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

University of Missouri Gets Green T-Shirts

Check out this video from a class sustainability project from the University of Missouri.  Some of my relatives are part of the student team making the video!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

New Report on Immigrant Labor Force on Long Island

Western Long Island From space.  Click for photo credit.
One of the things one hears about on Long Island among those concerned with its future is whether or not there is a brain drain of talented individuals.  The region is very expensive and there is some evidence that some are leaving the region for greener pastures.  This report from the Fiscal Policy Institute on the immigrant labor force on the island provides hope for the future.  While some may be leaving, there are many coming and those that come have a range of talents.

Hat tip to Edgard Laborde of Power Up Communities for the link to the report.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Update on T-Shirt Contest

Still no winner on the t-shirt contest!  I added a hint in the comments of the original contest post.  Only 4 more to get right!  Click here for details and the original post.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Walt Whitman's Boyhood Home Now In Everyman's Suburban Landscape

Me at Walt Withman's boyhood home.  Photo by Bob Brinkmann
Today I visited Walt Whitman's boyhood home in suburban Long Island.  At the time, the building he was born in was a farm house.  Now, it is in suburban Huntington across from the Walt Whitman mall.

The home is nicely preserved, but it is a bit of a shock to see this remnant of 19th century America smack in the middle of a rather typical suburban setting.  There are a number of chain stores and restaurants within walking distance of his home (Panera, Chipotle, and Radio Shack).  Plus, the grounds are relatively small and the visitors center modest.  So, in many ways, it feels like one is visiting a suburban home instead of what was once a farm house in which Whitman was born in 1819.

As I was wandering through the visitors center, it was clear that one of the main intended messages was that Whitman was a poet for everyman.  While he was a transcendentalist who valued nature and glorified human interaction and courage, he was also a realist who elevated the simple and everyday.  He wrote about the life of the regular person of his time in plain verse that spoke to many about the changing nature of modernity in 19th century America and the meaning of personal identity in a rapidly urbanizing United States.

This brings me to the location of his home in the early 21st century.  In my core, I can't help but wish that his home was located in a place that would have spoken more to his 19th century life.  But, in my intellect, I appreciate the setting as entirely ordinary in today's world.  Indeed, it is in a place that Whitman would have celebrated in his own life.

Walt Whitman's boyhood home and birthplace.
Photo by Bob Brinkmann.
I would imagine he, like many intellectuals in today's world, would have been somewhat critical of the sameness of the corporatized suburban landscape in our culture, but at the same time, I think he would have found much to celebrate in the ordinary landscapes of suburbia.  Can one imagine how he would have written about today's malls?  About today's roadways?  About today's working mothers?  In the world in which I wander (academics), I hear many criticisms about suburbia and we hear and see similar criticism in our culture.  Just take a look at the negativity associated with the website People of WalMart to see what I mean.  On that site, our fellow human beings are called "creatures" and photographed without their permission in order to mock them.   I truly believe that Whitman would have found the soul of the suburbs in his writing and found a way to find beauty even in the most base and mundane landscapes we have today.  That is certainly what he did in his time and there is no doubt he was able to capture a huge variety of urban landscapes within his prose.

I think the person that comes closest to capturing Whitman's soul in suburbia is Allen Ginsberg.  Below is his poem, A Supermarket in California.

A Supermarket in California
by Allen Ginsberg (via poemhunter)

Walt Whitman Statue at the Walt Whitman Birthplace.
Note suburban commercial structures in background.
Photo by Bob Birnkmann.

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the
streets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.

In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit
supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles
full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes! --- and you,
Garcia Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?
I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the
meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price
bananas? Are you my Angel?
I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you, and
followed in my imagination by the store detective.
We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasting
artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier.
Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in an hour. Which way does
your beard point tonight?
(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel
Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The trees add shade to
shade, lights out in the houses, we'll both be lonely.
Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in
driveways, home to our silent cottage?
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you
have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and
stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?

Here's a poem about suburbia, Suburban, by noted poet, John Ciardi (taken from The Writer's Almanac).  He takes a different, perhaps more humorous take on suburban landscapes.

This is an ordinary meat market across the street from Walt
Whitman's Boyhood home entrance.  I wonder what Walt
would have written about this image? Photo by Bob

Yesterday Mrs. Friar phoned. "Mr. Ciardi,
how do you do?" she said. "I am sorry to say
this isn't exactly a social call. The fact is
your dog has just deposited—forgive me—
a large repulsive object in my petunias."

I thought to ask, "Have you checked the rectal grooving
    for a positive I.D.?" My dog, as it happened,
was in Vermont with my son, who had gone fishing—
    if that's what one does with a girl, two cases of beer,
and a borrowed camper. I guessed I'd get no trout.

But why lose out on organic gold for a wise crack?
    "Yes, Mrs. Friar," I said, "I understand."
"Most kind of you," she said. "Not at all," I said.
    I went with a spade. She pointed, looking away.
"I always have loved dogs," she said, "but really!"

I scooped it up and bowed. "The animal of it.
I hope this hasn't upset you, Mrs. Friar."
"Not really," she said, "but really!" I bore the turd
    across the line to my own petunias
and buried it till the glorious resurrection

when even these suburbs shall give up their dead.

I wonder how suburban culture will be celebrated in years to come.  What literature, music, and art will describe it?  

Friday, December 2, 2011

Climate Reality

Ice age landforms in Wisconsin.  Click for photo credit.

Growing up in glaciated Wisconsin, I was pretty aware of climate change from an early age.  The signs were all around us.  A mere 10,000 years ago vast sheets of thick ice covered much of the state leaving behind amazing landforms like eskers, kames, drumlins, and moraines.  From an early age I was aware that climate could shift and that our present climate was temporary and could become much cooler or warmer. 

As a college student and later as a graduate student, I became much more familiar with the scientific work on the great ice ages and the nature of climate and how geology and climate were intimately linked.  I also became aware of the greenhouse phenomena and how it kept our planet nice and warm compared with other planets.  We were lucky to have a particular atmospheric chemistry that evolved over millions of years.

Wisconsin is home to the Ice Age
Trail.  There is abundant evidence of ancient
global climate change.  Click for photo
I also learned of the impacts of environmental pollutants like lead, cadmium, zinc, and organic chemicals on the environment.  I learned how there were chemical cycles that were highly disrupted in our present industrial age and how there were implications for this disruption on how the planet worked.  The science behind all of this was clear and indisputable.

I also became aware of recent global climate change and how carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases were the main culprits behind the problem.  Again, the science was indisputable and the results of many years of study.

What I have never understood is the politicization of global climate change.  I heard people I know well laugh at scientists when they talked about the issue and I heard politicians talk about “theory” and “egghead scientists” in ways that surprised me.  In addition, as someone who is a bit plugged in on the major science issues of the day, I was surprised that there wasn’t more urgency from our leaders.  As someone who grew up in the 1960’s with all of the promises of science, I felt certain that the reality of the problem would find traction in our culture and that we would have logical political and cultural leadership.

A fundamental question for our culture is
whether or not we believe the truth.
Click for photo credit.
Unfortunately, we have not seen strong leadership emerge.  The United States still does not have a coherent energy or greenhouse gas policy.  Some leaders are still denying global climate change and/or its causes.  Most of the measures to address global climate change that our country has in place can be traced to court actions.  The real action on climate change policy in the United States, as I have written many times, is at the local or organizational level.

This approach is schizophrenic in fact because the U.S. government is funding a vast amount of research on global climate change.  In many ways, it is like getting tested for cancer over and over without getting treated.

Recently, Al Gore started a new initiative called the Climate Reality Project.  You can read about it here and see a video about it here.  The project seeks to make the world aware of global climate change and provide context as to policy development.  While Al Gore turns off some due to his political past, I urge all of my readers to give the video a look and share it with their friends.   Some of the background on how global climate change science was purposefully discredited is eye opening.

Looking back at my education, I think I was a bit na├»ve.  I expected that science would be trusted by our leaders and institutions.  But we are in an age of truthiness and we are finding ourselves in difficult times.  

Thursday, December 1, 2011

St. Petersburg Florida Has Bold Vision for New Pier

The St. Petersburg Pier.  Click for photo credit.
Take a look at these finalists for the new St. Petersburg Pier.  For those of you who know the area, do you think that they fit the area?  The original pier was a Mediterranean style building and the new pier is pictured here.  These new designs take the space into an entirely new direction.

I think it is worth mentioning that St. Petersburg has put a flag up as being home to surrealism in the United States with the new Dali Museum.  From a surrealistic perspective, the third design fits, particularly since it resembles a sea urchin form often seen in the work of Dali.  See the sea urchin at the bottom of this Dali masterwork.