Saturday, February 27, 2016

Most Interesting Thing You Will See Online February 27, 2016. Part 2 of 8 of the Flint Water Crisis Course

Time for an International Dialogue on Water Governance

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The Washington Post published an interesting article by Sarah Kaplan on bad water management in Crystal City, Texas. After nearly every town official was arrested for charges unrelated to water, the public water supply turned black and was undrinkable. This follows upon water crises in Flint, major water quality problems with Lake Erie, water shortages and entitlement in California, and significant fish kills in Long Island Sound. All of these problems are policy and governance problems caused by bad decision making and a lack of sound rule making.

These human-induced water problems are not just a problem for the United States. In Venezuela, water stops flowing from taps regularly. My family in Caracas regularly has to get water delivered by truck--if they can get it. Plus, many question the quality of the water that is delivered. In Yemen, the main aquifer that supplies water to the capital of Sana'a is running dry and will be depleted in the next few years.

No matter where you look, water quality and quantity problems are accelerating and many of the problems are caused by bad governance, bad policy, and bad decision making. It is time to more effectively assert water management within public policy and create an bolder international dialogue on water governance.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Most Interesting Retro Thing You Will See February 26, 2015

In follow up to today's earlier post. Fast forward to around 8:38 to see the New York Pavilion back in the day...

1964 World's Fair Pavilion--A Challenge to On the Brink Readers

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If you love mid century architecture and design as much as I do, you'll be glad to know that there is a group working hard to find a new purpose for the New York Pavilion, one of the last remaining structures left from the 1964 World's Fair that was held in Queens. I learned about this from a 2014 episode of my latest favorite podcast, The Bowery Boys New York History Podcast.

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The rebirth is in part the brainchild of local New York teacher and architecture aficionado Matthew Silva who is making a film about the pavilion. Matthew is also the co-founder of People for the Pavilion, a group that is advocating for its preservation and repurposing. Many are looking to the successful Manhattan High Line for inspiration as to how to rethink the use of the pavilion.

If you are not familiar with the pavilion, you probably have seen it if you've flown out of LaGuardia Airport. It is a weird looking structure with nearby towers and is part of Flushing Meadows Corona Park near Citi Field (home of the Mets). When I first moved to New York, I thought they were old abandoned water towers that needed repair. No, they were just abandoned mid century architecture. You might have seen the pavilion in films as well such as The Wiz or Men in Black. When the World's Fair was in operation, the pavilion was a highlight. One could take glass elevators to the top of the towers and the pavilion featured a number of performances and even had a giant terrazzo map of the state. After the fair closed, it housed some concerts and a roller rink, but has been largely abandoned.
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I have a challenge for On the Brink readers. In March, the National Trust for Historic Preservation is starting an ideas contest for reimagining the site. You can read about it here and sign up for updates as to when the challenge goes live. What ideas do you have for reusing the structures? If you are a teacher, take this project to your classes and ask your students to come up with ideas on how the space could be reused. If you do a quick Internet search you can find lots of maps and images of the park and the pavilion that you can use for references for students.

It is an exciting time for Queens and this park and anyone in the world can make suggestions on its future. Congratulations to everyone involved in this effort for getting it such wide attention. The world premier of Silva's film, Modern Ruin, will take place in March at the Queens World Film Festival.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Most Interesting Thing You Will See Online, February 25. Part 1 of 8, Flint Water Course from UM-Flint Public Health

Balancing the Budget on the Backs of the Poor

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Yesterday, Hofstra University celebrated its annual Civil Rights Day with a number of activities including a very fascinating panel on the situation in Flint, Michigan with panelists Marseille Allen, Founder, Water for Flint, Kent Key, Michigan Institute for Clinical & Health Research (MICHR), and Nuzhat Quaderi of Erase Racism. The panel was organized by Hofstra's Jess Holzer. They highlighted many of the issues I discussed in a recent post titled When Populations Implode. As I noted and as the panelists yesterday highlighted, the real crime in Flint occurred when the government tried to balance the budget of Flint on the backs of the poor. 

There was no way that the City of Flint could maintain its infrastructure with the budget it had. 
Anyone who understands civic financing could see that there was no way that the budget could be balanced in Flint without causing significant problems in education, infrastructure, public health, or environmental protection. Instead of finding ways to invest in the city to rebuild, improve infrastructure, or promote economic development in partnership with the local government, the governor put into place undemocratic decision making processes that took the power of self rule away from citizens who were most vulnerable to harm by the external decision makers in order to balance a budget that couldn't cover basic services. The placement of a fiscal manager doomed the city to the full impact of external decisions which of course led to the water crisis. Even when the problems were identified by citizens early in the process, managers and state officials did not take the local population seriously--remember they had no access to elected officials who were responsible for decisions.

Clearly, new models of governance need to be developed when cities have fiscal challenges due to declining populations or tax base. What happened in Flint occurred because citizens lost access to decision makers when the state put in place a fiscal manager responsible for key decisions. As the panelists noted, the citizens knew that they had water problems. People were getting sick. Rashes occurred. The color of the water changed overnight. Instead of dealing with the issues raised by citizens of Flint, the government told them to keep drinking the water and that it was safe. Of course we now know it wasn't. The citizens had no where to go to gain redress from local officials. They could only go to the governor's appointed fiscal manager. This is not how things are done in the U.S.-- unless you live in a poor community.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Agate Fossil Beds National Monument

Today I am continue my series on all 120 U.S. National Monuments. This is in follow up to my series that featured open access photos of all of the U.S. National Parks. In the coming years, I will feature open access photos all of the U.S. National Monuments in alphabetical order.

Today's featured National Monument is Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in Nebraska. Following the photos is a list of U.S. National Monuments previously featured on this blog.

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Previous On the Brink posts on the U.S. National Monuments are below.

Admiralty Island National Monument
African Burial Ground National Monument

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Most Interesting Thing You Will See Online February 23, 2016

In follow up to today's post on sea level rise...

Seas Rising Faster than Ever

My backyard will likely be flooded at high tide in 100 years.
The New York Times is reporting on recently published scientific articles demonstrating that sea level is rising faster now than any time in the last 28 centuries. Already coastal communities are feeling the impact. Miami Beach is flooding during extreme tides and many other coastal communities are expected to start to feel the impact soon if they haven't already. Seas are anticipated to rise another meter or so by the end of the century.

This new research is not a surprise to anyone who has been following the research on global climate change. Just a reminder, that in Florida and other coastal states, much work was underway on planning for climate change. However, some governors have entirely erased this work and associated information from state Websites when there was a change in leadership. In New York, and several other states, great strides have been made in assessing how best to manage climate change and is available. If you live in a coastal state, the news today should encourage you to find out what type of coastal management plans are in place for expected sea level rise.

Monday, February 22, 2016

My Review of Naked in the Woods: My Unexpected Years in a Hippie Commune

Naked in the Woods: My Unexpected Years in a Hippie Commune by Margaret Grundstein. Oregon State University Press, 224 p.

Born in 1961, I became a teenager just as the hippie and counter culture movement was peaking. It was barely hanging on when I entered college in 1979, but the scent of patchouli and marijuana was still strong in the record stores and dormitories of the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh where I majored in geology. Long hair for men was "in" and most of us listened to Neil Young, Yes, and Pink Floyd as we studied minerals, stratigraphy, and plate tectonics. Our very major put us in touch with the environmental movement that was linked via hemp rope to the remaining hippie movement that was fading out as the Reagan and Madonna era was heating up. My classmates and I lived simply. We shared houses, went camping, and studied the earth. We were not living in a commune, but we were certainly a close knit group. In these early years as an adult, I felt like I could keep on living like that forever. I loved school, the companionship of my friends, and the study of geology. I could go outside and learn about the earth any time. I had an excuse to hike and camp with friends. It was a wonderful time.

In 1982 (or was it 1981?) I was faced with an important decision in Banff, Canada. I was on a geologic field school for the summer and was topping off the tank of our van at a gas station as I gazed at the most beautiful mountains this Wisconsin flat lander had ever seen. I didn't want to stop looking. I realized that I had it in my power to walk away from my classmates and stay in Banff forever. Although I was a semester away from finishing, I didn't care. I could find work in the forests. I could get a job in a mine or in the tourist industry. Like Muir, I found the mountains calling.

I got back in the van and I finished field school. Which led to graduation, which led to graduate school, which led to a full professorship, which led to this blog.

When we are young, we all have these kinds of choices in our lives. Do we drop off the conveyor belt of success and walk away from what is expected or do we follow a path of expected normality, finding our way to jobs, mortgages, and families in the suburbs?  We also find ourselves looking for options when we are at odds with mainstream society. In our present era, some have said that they will move out of the U.S. if Donald Trump wins the presidency, which prompted Breton Island, Canada to release a statement welcoming Americans to try to bolster their population. During the Vietnam War, many moved to Canada and others found ways to disappear into the U.S. Some others during this era formed intentional utopian communities or communes.

Of course utopian communities are not a new thing. The Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock were utopians. For centuries, individuals have been seeking ways to gather together with like minded individuals in intentional communities. I wrote about this phenomenon recently here. Individuals who find comfort in sharing their lives with others separate from the mainstream world  are drawn to these experiences.

As Margaret Grundstein writes in her new book, Naked in the Woods:  My Unexpected Years in a Hippie Commune, living in these communities can be a wonderful, but difficult, experience. One forms strong bonds not just with a partner, but with everyone living in the community. Altruism requires one to think less of the self and more of the collective. One sets aside preferences in order to form a whole.

Grundstein's book is a memoir about her 5-year experience in a commune she helped form in the coastal mountains of Oregon in the late 1960's. Over 224 pages divided into 29 chapters and with many of her photos from the time, the book highlights how Grundstein left her promising graduate career in urban planning at Yale University for subsistence living (with the help of food stamps and government cheese) with many of her college friends and an array of other like minded individuals they met on their path.

The book focuses on the relationships in the community, which is not unexpected since Grundstein is now a marriage and family counselor. In the first half of the book, the tension is largely between Grundstein and her husband Hakim, a radical from a wealthy elite family in Indonesia. In the second half of the book, the tension is between the author and other members of the commune, particularly two members who owned the property. Alas, the realities of land ownership invaded the altruistic community and the commune folded. At the close of the book, Grundstein starts a new life on her own.

The commune had few rules. The members dropped out of mainstream society to escape rules and eschewed things like giving people specific duties. As we all know, in any society there are those who step in and get things done and those who don't. In Grundstein's commune, the women of the community found themselves fulfilling traditional gender roles--cooking and cleaning, while the men did heavier work and smoked dope. The lack of rules and the absence of clarity of ownership doomed the commune from the outset.

One also has to question whether drugs had anything to do with the failure of the commune. At the start of the book, we find Grundstein's future husband snorting heroine and smoking pot. At the commune, the men tended their marijuana patches and spent a considerable amount of time stoned. They had little money and the group had a hard time making significant contributions to their long-term success. With time, the charm of living without power, running water, electricity, decent housing, or regular food (they were dumpster diving near the end) faded.

The challenges were particularly apparent when children came. How does a new mother repair her body and take care of her newborn child in such primitive conditions? When one needs a new pair of glasses, or a tank of gas, or ingredients for bread, what does one do? How does one deal with individuals who don't pull their weight, or cause conflict, or make unwanted advances in a community without rules?

Because it is a memoir, the book focuses more on Grundstein's memories of key events and experiences and less on her contemporary assessment of the experience. This is unfortunate. I found myself over and over again wanting to know how she now interpreted important events. What does she think about communes now? Does she think drug use destroyed the group? What does she think about drug use today? Does she have advice for others who are seeking to join or develop a utopian society? Does she have any regrets?

Strangely, but perhaps because I know an archaeologists who specializes on the archaeology of hippie communes, I wanted more details about their material culture. Where did she get the ax that she carries in the photo of the book's cover? What happened to her jewelry? What did they use for plates, forks, and knives? Did they have music? What did she and the others leave behind when they left? What happened to the cabin that she built? I also wanted to know more about her typical day. The book highlights important moments or themes, but leaves out some of the more mundane day to day experiences. Did she have books? Once it got dark, what did they do? In the cold days of winter, how did she spend her time?

In the commune, Grundstein was heavily influenced by others, particularly her husband Hakim, in making some questionable decisions. She does take responsibility for her actions, but overall comes off as an altruistic worker bee earth mother who passively enters the commune as a good wife following her husband into the hippie experience. She is the one who plants a garden while her husband is planting marijuana. She daily cleans out the sleeping platform she shares with her husband. Momentous things seem to happen around her and to her but not because of her. I kept wondering how the story might be told from the perspective of one of the other members of the commune. Was she as neutral and bland as she made herself out to be? I kept wondering what was being edited about her own behavior. It is her book and her story to tell, but I kept wanting more. When she and her friend left the commune to find a Ms. magazine in a distant library, it felt like a prison escape. Yet she was one of the founders of the commune. While many of the other members were described in Peter Max colors, I never felt that I fully understood, or that she fully disclosed, her role in the community.

Nevertheless, Naked in the Woods is a wonderful read. For those of you of a certain age, it will bring back memories of a time that is scented in amber oil and lit with black lights. The writing is crisp and  the book reads quickly. Anyone interested in the workings of communes or intentional communities, or the history of the late 1960's and early 1970's will enjoy the book. For my part, I hope that Grundstein continues writing so that we can all learn more about her experiences in Oregon and her transition into a more mainstream life.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Most Interesting Thing You Will See Online February 18, 2016

In follow up to today's post on William Cullen Bryant, an interesting discussion of one of his poems...

William Cullen Bryant: Author of America -- A Review

William Cullen Bryant:  Author of America. 2008. Gilbert H. Muller. State University of New York Press.

In today's world of breezy and dramatic non-fiction historical and biographical offerings, it is hard to separate the authors from their subjects. The trend in non-fiction seems to veer toward finding ways to make the author and reader feel comfortable tension in the complexities of the past via violet pastilles that last through a formulaic 200 pages or so. Readers are urged to look with new critical eyes on the actions of long dead actors based on a myriad of factors such as class and geography. These approaches often reframe history in ways that would be completely alien to the individuals who participated in it. While such exercises are useful and can provide new insight, the heavy lifting of historical and biographical work is sometimes lacking in such endeavors.

Gilbert H. Muller, in his masterful biography, William Cullen Bryant:  Author of America, does some heavy lifting indeed and shows that that art of biography is not dead. His detailed and finely referenced work provides a largely chronological review in seventeen chapters of the life of the accomplished poet and editor. It is interspersed with Bryant's own writing and contemporary quotations of others. Throughout its 410 pages, the reader is brought to a deeper and more fulfilling understanding of Bryant and his times in subtle ways without thematic overtones alluded to in the previous paragraph. Images of Bryant and his contemporaries are included in several plates.

Bryant, of course, is considered one of the great literary and editorial figures in American history. He lived from 1794 through 1878 and thus traveled through the important formative and violent years of our country. He knew some of the founding fathers, Lincoln, Hawthorne, and even a 20th century president (Benjamin Harrison). Through his extensive travels, he was acquainted with many of the great international intellectuals of the era. 

Of relatively humble New England origins, Bryant first became widely known as a poet and essayist. His work is clearly framed within the early romantic tradition of American poetry and he deeply influenced later writers like Poe and Whitman. He was one of the intellectual forefathers of the nineteenth century transcendental movement that promoted idealization of nature and its impact on the human mind which reached a tumultuous conclusion with John Muir. His poetry often considered environmental themes with emotional overtones. His extensive experience hiking in beautiful regions of New England and the Hudson Vally influenced his writing. 

As a young adult, he settled in New York City. Here, Bryant was much more than a poet. In 1829, Bryant took on the editorship of the New-York Evening Post, a paper founded by Alexander Hamilton and now known as the shamefully sensationalist New York Post, when he was just in his mid 30's. Bryant built the modest paper to a highly profitable publishing powerhouse. Through his editorial pieces, he became highly influential in national and international politics and culture. He could elevate individuals, which he did when he introduced Abraham Lincoln to New York prior to his nomination as Republican Candidate for president, and he could destroy those he found problematic, as he did to Fanny Wright, the noted early feminist utopian writer and speaker.

Bryant was also a Long Islander. He found a refuge in Roslyn, New York, near my home. He owned a beautiful estate called Cedarmere on the shores of Hempstead Harbor. Here, he was close enough to New York City that he could dash in for emergencies if needed, but far enough away that he could stroll the beautiful maple-lined trails along the rolling hills of the glacial end moraine that defines the north shore of Long Island.

Muller, in his thoroughly researched book, highlights how Bryant was equally at home in New York and at his Long Island retreat. Bryant reflected the reality of many living in 19th century America who had rural roots with increasingly urban experiences. Because of his extensive connections and experiences, and due to his longevity, Bryant's life provides a suitable tableau from which one can gather lesson on 18th and 19th century American history. The biography appropriately excogitates on Bryant's rural and urban character while flavoring it with his international outlook.

I first ran into Bryant's work when I wrote a short piece on his later work, Picturesque America for the Wisconsin Academy Review back in the 1990's. As I got to know Bryant, I was struck by how much he influenced American intellectual thought of the nineteenth century. When I moved to Long Island and the greater New York City region five years ago, I started to understand how much Bryant meant to the region. He defined how to be a New Yorker and set the tone for intellectual and political discourse in the city. 

Bryant's noted love of walking and his extensive experiences throughout New York and Long Island indulge anyone interested in the natural intersection of geography and history with ample opportunities to explore Bryant's world. Muller provides detailed geographic information on where Bryant spent his time in the city and Long Island. One can visit historical sites that he influenced and that had great influence on him. While he may be known for Bryant Park in midtown New York, he had little influence on that site. The naming of that park was perhaps a consolation prize for the lack of an eponymous opportunity in Central Park, a park for which he advocated strongly in editorials and speeches due to the lack of significant public park land in rapidly expanding New York City.

As Muller deftly demonstrates in his biography, Bryant was the "Author of America" as James Fenimore Cooper called him. He shaped so much of the American written landscape that it is difficult to ponder 19th century American history without him. This biography should be present on any bookshelf that considers American and New York history, American literature, or environmental thought. While it is not a breezy read, it is a thoughtful one that will nourish the minds of readers seeking something more substantial than the carb laden non-fictional biographical offerings in today's bookshops.

Recent On the Brink book reviews:

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Most Interesting Thing You Will See Online February 17, 2016

A follow up to today's earlier post...

A Post Wherein I Demonstrate the Ease and Low Cost of Carbon Offsets for Air Travel

Me at the climate march last year. I'm putting my money
where my mouth is by buying carbon credits. It's easier and
cheaper than you think!
One of the promises I made in my upcoming book is to be transparent about my carbon footprint and do what I can do reduce it.  If I didn't travel so much by air, my carbon footprint would be very low. I drive an electric car, I live in a relatively efficient duplex, and I do a myriad of other activities to try to reduce carbon. However, the big bugaboo in my footprint is air travel. It significantly drives up my carbon footprint so that it is much higher than most Americans. Clearly, while I think I am green, I really am not based on my air travel behavior.

Some airline booking companies now allow you to purchase carbon credits. However, I wanted to provide information on how you can calculate your carbon impact by air travel and how you can find reasonable ways to mitigate the impact. When I wrote about carbon footprints in my upcoming book, Introduction to Sustainability, I promised readers that I would provide updates on how I am reducing my impacts. I'm keeping myself honest on this issue and will provide some regular updates on my carbon footprint.

Here's an example from a recent trip to Tampa.

I was able to calculate the one way carbon impact on my flight from New York City to Tampa on this site here. According to the site's calculator, my one way carbon output was 0.12 metric tons. Since I made a return trip, my total output was 0.24 metric tons.

I then needed to convert metric tons to pounds. It is a simple calculation. One metric ton equals 2204.62 pounds. Thus, my 0.24 metric tons is equivalent to 529 pounds of carbon.

Next, I needed to find an organization that allows one to purchase carbon credits. Companies sell carbon credits to individuals or industries to offset their carbon impacts. The funds go to support green energy and other carbon reduction strategies like reforestation. You can read about carbon credits here.

I decided to purchase my credits from TerraPass. This is not an endorsement. I found them through a simple Web search and verified that they were a reputable company that was in business for some time. The smallest amount of carbon offsets that I could purchase was 1000 pounds which cost a total of $5.95. Thus, for less than $6.00, I was able to offset the carbon I used in my flight and I have 471 carbon credits for my next flight.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Most Interesting Thing You Will See Online February 16, 2016

In follow up to today's earlier post on European and American samplers, another example of traditional embroidery empowering women. This time, hair embroidery from China...

Bringing Science to Women in Early Nineteenth Century Samplers

Nineteenth century Quaker sampler showing precise map of the world
with latitude and longitude. Photo by Bob Brinkmann.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art just closed a very small but very interesting exhibit of examples of samplers from American and Europe from 1600-1900. You can read about it here.

If you are not familiar with samplers, they were embroidery and needlework pieces that were usually sewn by young women (and sometimes boys) to teach and demonstrate basic sewing skills. Usually samplers had a variety of stitches and included some Biblical saying or inspirational quote along with the alphabet and numbers.
Traditional sampler. Photo by Bob Brinkmann.

What was fascinating about the exhibit was that it demonstrated that there was a distinct change in how samplers were utilized by some communities to not only teach sewing skills, but also to teach science. In the nineteenth century in the U.S. some Quaker communities thought that the gender roles were outmoded and that women and boys should have similar educational experiences. Thus, they used the sampler as a method for teaching about geography and math.

Research conducted by the United Nations shows that countries that provide more opportunities for women do much better on most development indices. The Quakers were on to something important in the early 1800's that helped to create a much more equitable world for women and men. And it all started in the sewing room.

Friday, February 12, 2016

3 New National Monuments

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There was big news this week for those of us who follow the status of public lands in the United States.

The President designated three new national monuments yesterday. They are all located in southern California in the Mojave Desert. This brings the list of U.S. national monuments to 120. They are Sand to Snow, Mojave Trails, and Caste Mountains National Monuments. Because they were just announced, the exact boundaries or definitions of the monuments have not been released.

You can read more about the designation in this article from the LA Times. These three new monuments will certainly be part of my series that features the U.S. National Monuments.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Best Thing You Will Hear February 11, 2016

The sound of two black holes colliding, thereby proving the existence of gravitational waves, thus proving Einstein's Theory of Relativity.

Most Interesting Thing You Will See February 11, 2016

In follow up to today's earlier post, a drone's-eye view of the extent of nuclear waste storage at Fukushima...

Grim News from Fukushima

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The Washington Post published an interesting article on the status of the Fukushima nuclear power plant that exploded back in 2011. It is worth a read. Long time readers of this blog know that I am not a big fan of nuclear energy largely because of long-term waste issues and the significant potential for big nuclear disasters and concomitant nuclear terrorism. Is it really worth risking all of the problems with nuclear energy when we have the technology to develop clean energy sources? As the article points out, it will take up to 40 years to clean up the Fukushima plant at tremendous costs. Plus, it is unclear how the tons of hazardous waste will be managed. During the years since the cleanup started tons of hazardous material have already been inadvertently released.

The article comes just a few days after the news of significant groundwater contamination at a nuclear power plant near New York City.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Strange Supreme Court Stay on President Obama's Climate Change Rules

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Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court put a stay on the implementation of President Obama's climate change rules. You can read about this here in an article in the Washington Post. The stay stalls any significant action on climate change until at least 2017.

The brief decision, which you can read here, provides few clues on why the court halted the plan. However, the aggressive EPA plan was criticized by coal and oil companies and utilities who felt that the EPA overstepped its authority. However, many supported the plan and some argued that it did not go far enough.

What is strange about this decision is that the Supreme Court decided in 2007 that the EPA was not doing enough (really anything) to prevent greenhouse gas pollution and climate change. They stated clearly that the executive branch had the responsibility to act appropriately to manage greenhouse gases. Failure to do so would be harmful to states and other property owners who were already seeing impacts from global climate change. It is difficult to understand the court's decision in light of the 2007 ruling.

Delaying the implementation of greenhouse gas rules seems to counter the original ruling of the courts. Either the EPA has authority or it does not. Given the well documented impacts of greenhouse gas pollution, the decision of the court is deeply irresponsible at this moment of time when it is crucial that we rapidly decrease greenhouse gas pollution in our country and throughout the world.

If you are interested in deeper background on U.S. greenhouse gas policy, you can read an article I wrote in 2011 my colleague Sandra Garren about greenhouse gas rule making in the U.S. here. It is a little out of date, but not that much as changed since 2011 with the exception of the aggressive push by the EPA which the courts just put on hold.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Teaching Outcomes on the Water Crisis in Flint, Michigan

Flint, Michigan. Click for photo credit.
I am using the Flint, Michigan water crisis to teach some basic concepts on environmental management. However, the case study allows broader exploration on topics important to the whole field of sustainability. Many of the issues raise questions of geography, history, industrialization, environmental justice, and environmental science.

Here is a list of suggested outcome questions for anyone focusing on the topic.

Many great teachers and thinkers read this blog. Do you have any other suggestions for outcomes questions that would be useful in teaching the issues raised in the Flint, Michigan case study?

1. The geographic setting.
a. What is the sunbelt/rustbelt demographic transition in the U.S. and what caused it?
b. How has the population of Flint changed in the last few decades?
c. What is/was the economic base of Flint? What is the age of the housing stock?
d. What is/was the ethnic and economic status of the population of Flint?

2. The political setting.
a. Why was an emergency manager put into place in Flint?
b. What is the recent history of public water management in Flint?

3. Water quality.
a. What group(s) sets/set water quality standards for public drinking water?
b. What group(s) is/are responsible for ensuring water quality?
c. How do local utilities treat water to ensure water quality?
d. What are typical water quality parameters?

4. Water quality problems in Flint.
a. What events caused concern over Flint's water quality?
b. What evidence emerged initially that caused concern about Flint's water?
c. What was the government's first response to the water quality concerns?
d. What events initiated a broader, more comprehensive response to the water quality concerns?

5. Lead poisoning.
a. What is lead and why is it used commonly in plumbing?
b. How can lead be released in drinking water?
c. What are the health impacts of lead poisoning?

6. Environmental justice.
a. What is environmental justice and environmental racism?
b. What evidence is there that the water crisis in Flint is an environmental justice issue?
c. How have different groups and individuals reacted to the Flint water crisis?

Sunday, February 7, 2016

"Not in Accordance with Our Standards"

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Check out this New York Times article about tritium contamination in groundwater near a nuclear power plant (Indian Point) just outside of New York City. According to Governor Cuomo, radiation in groundwater increased 65,000 percent. The company managing the facility stated that the levels are "not in accordance with our standards." 


I have never been a fan of nuclear energy because the waste associated with it is so problematic and deadly. It lasts for thousands of years and can cause widespread contamination due to bad handling or terrorism. We can hardly manage waste that is created day to day in our communities. How can we effectively plan sound waste management of highly dangerous and radioactive materials for thousands of years? Nuclear power plants are storing massive amounts of radioactive waste on site because there is no national repository for the stuff.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

African Burial Ground National Monument

Today I am continue my series on all 117 U.S. National Monuments. This is in follow up to my series that featured open access photos of all of the U.S. National Parks. In the coming years, I will feature open access photos all of the U.S. National Monuments in alphabetical order.

Today's featured National Monument is African Burial Ground National Monument in New York.

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Previous On the Brink posts on the U.S. National Monuments are below.

Admiralty Island National Monument

Friday, February 5, 2016

When Populations Implode

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Much has been written about the late 20th century population shift in North America from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt. I was part of that migration when I moved to Florida from Wisconsin in 1990. Throughout much of the 20th century, Florida doubled in population every 20 years. Many of the Rust Belt communities had a very tough time but made it through the demographic and economic transition that occurred. Cities like Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis found their footing in the face of Rust Belt transitions.

Then there is Flint, Michigan.

Of course Flint has been in the news a great deal due to the water crisis that occurred over the last two years. I'll have more to say about that in an upcoming post. But in some ways, the situation in Flint is in part caused by this Rust Belt transition and the State of Michigan's reaction to the demographic change.

At one time, Flint was home to General Motors. It housed 80,000 well paying jobs. Now there are about 8000 manufacturing jobs. In the 1960's the city had a prosperous population of about 200,000 people. Now, the population is less than 100,000. Many who were mobile left, leaving behind a significantly poorer and less educated population. The remaining population is more vulnerable than other similar sized communities due to its age, education levels, and economic status.

Any government that goes through depopulation will have significant budget challenges. The tax base does not support the costs of managing government. The infrastructure is too large for the existing community and it is expensive to maintain. Because the remaining population is poorer than other communities, the need for government services is high. Depopulation stresses the ability of local governments to meet the needs of its remaining citizens.

In such settings, there are many strategies that can be employed. In the case of Flint, however, governments made many errors that impacted the city's public health. Perhaps the biggest error made in Michigan was the notion that cities like Flint had poorly run dysfunctional governments that were unable to make sound fiscal decisions to manage their cities. To be clear, these cities could not manage their responsibilities with the tax base in place. If they cut essential services such as public schools or snow plowing, they would be out of compliance with local, state, and federal laws. Local governments in the face of rapidly declining populations cannot manage their needs with existing tax bases. They are not bad fiscal managers. They just cannot manage funds that are not there.

In Michigan, the law allows the governor to assign a fiscal manager to take over city operations when communities are in financial distress. This sounds like a great plan. However, it takes away democratic access by citizens to local government. Thus, when a fiscal manager makes bad decisions, as in the case of the water situation in Flint, local residents do not have access to local officials to demand change. Unfortunately, the fiscal manager is accountable to the governor and not to the local citizens.

When populations implode, it is not the fault of the citizens left behind. Yet they end paying the highest costs in terms of lack of services, tax increases, and in the case of Flint, polluted water. The Michigan model clearly did not work out well for local residents. A new model should be developed that puts greater local control over any outside fiscal manager who tries to assist areas undergoing depopulation.

Leaders in Flint are working hard to promote economic development and encourage growth. In many ways, local leaders are doing great things in the face of unprecedented demographic change. While many hoped that the state appointed fiscal manager would improve the situation in Flint, the net result was the opposite.

We have developed great planning in the United States for how to manage the growth of cities. We need a new paradigm in planning to figure out how best to manage population decline.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Hipster Students Defy Smoking Ban (in the 1800's)

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In the last few years, Hofstra University instituted a smoking ban on our campus. Of course, students (and some faculty) sneak cigarettes on loading docks, sidewalks, and hidden corners of campus. One even smells some rather herbaceous smoke as one walks across campus on late afternoons and evenings.

Is this behavior anything new?

Not according to archaeologists at Michigan State University. 

There, the university's well-regarded campus archaeology program has been systematically studying the archaeology of their campus. Recently, they excavated a privy (outhouse) associated with a men's dormitory that was used from the 1850's to 1876. 

During that era, the university had a ban on the use of tobacco and narcotics. 

Anyone who works at a university knows that bans only go so far. Students will find ways to utilize the illicit--even in the 1800's.

It is clear that there were some bad boy 19th century hipsters who smoked tobacco using fashionable pipes made in Europe called Dorni Pipes. One of the pipes was found in the privy of the dormatory. Someone was trying to hide campus contraband from the faculty by throwing it in the outhouse.

Susan Koolman, a Ph.D. student in Michigan State's Campus Archaeology Program wrote a very interesting and entertaining blog post about the find and its significance to current campus smoking bans here. It's worth a read and helps to connect our current era of rules and bans with 19th century campus culture.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Most Interesting Thing You Will See Online February 3, 2016

In follow up to today's earlier post on the Zika virus...

The Unknowns of the Zika Virus

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My sister Sharon works in the field of health science and she sends me regular updates on issues that she thinks I might find of interest. As of late, my mailbox has been full of information from her about the Zika virus.

If you have not followed the story, you should. The New York Times has a very good primer on the disease here.

Some key points:

  1. The Zika virus was not found in this hemisphere until recently. It was mainly in Africa and Asia. People in our region do not have a natural viral immunity to the disease.
  2. It was not widely associated with microcephaly in newborns until recently. It is unclear if this is due to the lack of viral resistance in the hemisphere or some new aspect of the disease.
  3. There is no cure or vaccine for the disease.
  4. Many countries, particularly Brazil, have taken extraordinary measures to try to combat the disease. Some nations have urged women of child bearing years to avoid pregnancy until the issue is better understood. Brazil is urging pregnant woman to avoid traveling to Brazil during the summer olympics.
Right now, there is a great deal of attention being given to mosquito eradication via application of pesticides and genetic engineering to try to eliminate the vector. These approaches have significant environmental implications. The actions that are taken over the next year will have important implications on environmental and public health for the next decade.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Groundhog Predicts Early Spring for 2016, Scientists Predict Early Spring for Century

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Groundhog Day ushers in my least favorite time of year. The sparkle of the holidays is boxed up and stored away until November (I start early) and the mud season of March is just around the corner. February is usually beset with snowstorms, freezing temperatures, grading, and grey skies. Few romantic poets had very much to say about February. I would have trouble writing a haiku about the month (although I attempt it below). I've never sat through the movie Groundhog Day because I find the whole idea of early February unfortunate, especially if I have to repeat it for the rest of my life. Give me a beach day in July to repeat over and over and I would be very happy.

Groundhog Day is hardly a holiday to inspire us this time of year. If the groundhog sees its shadow (if it is sunny) winter will last 6 weeks or more. If it is cloudy, spring will come early. The hardest part of the holiday is imagining 6 more weeks of winter. Winter is certainly an agreeable season at first, particularly through the first snowstorm when one is bundled inside with hot chocolate. But as the winter progresses and one finds rotten halloween pumpkins thawing from the bottom of giant piles of ice in March, winter loses its charm.

This year, while we are enjoying spring-like weather on Long Island, the groundhog passed the common core exam by predicting an early spring. This was a test that the groundhog could not fail this year due to the especially warm winter in the northeast. The poor creature didn't need a cheat sheet to get the answer to the question. 

Of course the groundhog has been rather unreliable some years. One year as the polar vortex came and planted itself over much of North America the groundhog was especially off. When a rodent has one job to do one would think it would perform it accurately. In New York our rats are rather good at ensuring that fallen pizza is not wasted (see this). You would think that a more advanced rodent with climatological skills would have a better record.

Overall, science has been much better than the groundhog in predicting subtle changes in planetary temperature (see the visual graphic on the lower right of the NASA site here). I suggest that we all go to NASA's Websites every February 2nd instead of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to get our long term climate forecast. Perhaps February 2nd should be renamed Climate Day to inspire greater awareness about our planetary atmospheric physics and chemistry.



A Haiku by Bob Brinkmann

Grey skies and Earl Grey.
Cold and snow. Slush and salt. Slide.
Ice. Frozen litter.