Archive for 2010 April

I believe in the future: Charles Bowden

Orion magazine recently named Some of the Dead are Still Breathing, by Charles Bowden, its enviro book of the year

The commendation's mention of the risks Bowden ventured motivated me to pick it up. Haven't gotten far, but I'm impressed by its almost recklessly free style. Here's a memorable passage from early on: 

My beliefs are dull and dismissed out of hand.

I believe that resources are limited and that no existing or imagined energy system can sidestep this fact. 

I believe that the increase in human numbers inhales ever more resources.

I believe no energy system will deliver the punch of our declining fossil fuels at the same price. 

I believe that no energy system will solve our problems since the problems come from within us and not from our turbines. 

I believe in red wine. And the scent of women. And the nuzzle of all dogs of all ages. 

I believe political systems create no resources but devour them at varying rates. 

I believe the politics or right and left matter no at all to the bird on the wing or the trees dying on the hillsides. 

I believe in the future because the future is here and I am a part of it. 

I believe. Not wonder. Not doubt. Not know. I believe. 

I believe in the dead city. I believe in the nest. 

I also believe in the late quartets of Beethoven and Gershwin's "Summertime."

Oh, my God, do I believe. 

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Exciting trend in newspaper travel writing

The continuing devastation of newspapers (the Ventura County Star, for whom I write, is undergoing another reorganization) has had countless bad effects, but a few good ones. 

Travel writing, which so often used to be focused on expensive resorts, hotels, and must-see tourist attractions, has found a new style — based on literature and characters. 

I linked to an example from the exemplary New York Times, a couple of years, ago, in which a writer followed in the footsteps of Mary Oliver, out to a favorite pond of hers on Cape Cod. 

Now in the Los Angeles Times, book review editor David Ulin follows in the footsteps of Holden Caulfield in New York, giving us a picture both of the young searcher, excited to be in the city, but on edge too. It's this psychological desperation, Ulin reveals, that brings the city alive: 

New York can be the most exciting place on the planet, and it can also be the most forlorn. To walk it, to experience it at street level, is to see it in all its complex contradictions, from the Lunts and Rockefeller Center to the Grand Central Station waiting room. This is especially true if you are from here, this tension between exhilaration and loneliness. 

In a single piece, Ulin makes a reader want to re-experience the book, and the city too. That's good travel writing. 

Which character, which author will be next? It's been a long time since newspaper travel writing felt so fresh. 

Here's a picture from the story, a crucial scene for Caulfield, at a diorama at the Museum of Natural History. Wish I could say that the presentation on the web looked as good as it did in the paper. 


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The heroism of the unemployed (well, almost)

According to the Federal Reserve, it's not true that benefits for the unemployed leads to more unemployment. In the words of the government economists:

Our analyses suggest that extended UI benefits account for about 0.4
percentage point of the nearly 6 percentage point increase in the
national unemployment rate over the past few years. It is not
surprising that the disincentive effects of UI [unemployment insurance] would loom small in the
midst of the most severe labor market downturn since the Great

No surprise there. The surprise (at least for the underemployed yours truly) is that the Murdoch-ized Wall Street Journal digs out the details of the unemployment numbers. Not only does the business-oriented paper focus on the pain, it explicitly says the unemployment is not the fault of the jobless. 

The paper notes the economic crisis of the last few years has generated
an “unprecedented” level of unemployment duration. Those unemployed for
more than six months hit 4.3% in March, “well above” the previous high
of 2.6% in 1983. The economists note that the current situation is all
the more striking because the unemployment rate peak was quite a bit
higher in that downturn, relative to what’s been seen in this episode.

In other words, back in l983, the jobless rate was higher, but the jobs came back faster. But maybe the paper is kind to the jobless, because the underemployed are propping up the economy. Though I must admit, it takes a Ted Rall to see the heroism in my plight:


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Climate bill in trouble — should enviros care?

According to TPM, the lone Republican Senator actively supporting a climate change/energy bill, Lindsey Graham, pulled his support for the bill because the Democrats have decided to go ahead with immigration reform first. 

Graham, who has unquestionably put his status as a conservative at risk, sounds genuinely angry in a letter obtained by the website : 

Moving forward on immigration — in this hurried, panicked manner — is
nothing more than a cynical political ploy. I know from my own personal
experience the tremendous amounts of time, energy, and effort that must
be devoted to this issue to make even limited progress.


Some of the major provisions we embraced in 2007 — such as creation
of a Virtual Fence using cameras, motion detectors and other
technological devices to protect our borders — have been scrapped for
the time. Other issues we found agreement on at the time, such as a
temporary guest worker program, have unraveled over the past three


Expecting these major issues to be addressed in three weeks — which
appears to be their current plan based upon media reports — is
ridiculous. It also demonstrates the raw political calculations at work

But should enviros support a bill that, as Bill McKibben said in a column earlier this week, will trade away the duty and obligation of the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate CO2 emissions? 

In the Washington Post on Earth Day, McKibben wrote: 

The bill's emission reductions are weakened by offsets and loopholes —
and to win support for even those concessions, it offers the fossil-fuel
industries a glittering collection of door prizes. President Obama
himself has already offered the first of these bent-knee offerings: a return to the full-on offshore drilling that was one of
the targets of the first Earth Day. Now a new generation will have a
chance to experience its own Santa Barbara oil spill, with its iconic
oil-soaked birds.

Worse, the bill might specifically remove the strongest tool the
environmentalists won in the wake of Earth Day 1: the Environmental Protection Agency's right
to use the Clean Air Act to bring the fossil fuel industries to heel.
Enforcement may be preempted under the new law. Even the right of states
to pioneer new legislation, such as California's landmark global
warming bill, apparently could disappear with the new legislation.

So when the media and the president hail it as a "landmark," understand
the shifting ground it actually defines: The environmental idea is too
weak right now to win passage of a tough bill to deal with our greatest

Or, as Toles put it in his uniquely succinct way: 

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Earth Day, 2010

In honor of the cold beauty of Earth Day 2010 in California, and in honor of the yosemite pool on Flickr…


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Okay, this blogging thing is getting out of hand

Wondering where that cold air over California is coming from? 

Do your own jetstream tracking at home, via NOAA, and find out! 

No, I'm not kidding. That's what Bad Mom, Good Mom did, and then wrote up the scientific recipe for home consumption, in a post called Do you know where that's been? 

Here's a picture of the cold air mass she tracked, perhaps at home from her kitchen table. 


Where's it coming from? Well, she ran a backwards trajectory from the NOAA data, and traced it…to Siberia! 


People amaze me. Maybe that marks me as naive, but I'm just going to say it anyhow. 

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Theme song for the drought-averse in SoCal

It's raining, slightly, and yes, I'm happy…we're now at about 110% of normal, which is pretty much right on the button of what Terry Schaeffer, forecaster extraordinaire, predicted for Ventura County in January. 

Only Happy When It Rains – Gar…

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Try, try again for a climate bill in Washington

For all the flaws of the climate bill that passed the House but ground to a halt in the Senate this past winter, the need for action to reduce the risks of costs of climate change remains as acute as ever.

The practical attitude towards this central question, as expressed recently by Ron Brownstein, an astute political observer for years with the Los Angeles Times and many other publications, is that the U.S. must act, and so — in time — it will. 

President Obama and the trio of senators expected to soon release a compromise bill are making extraordinary efforts to address the concerns of energy interests and legislative moderates on both sides who have resisted action on climate. If those incentives can't break the logjam, the result could be a sustained stalemate that prevents the United States from advancing in any direction on energy.

Reading between the lines, Brownstein sounds almost a little optimistic. So too does veteran business journalist Steven Pearlstein for the Washington Post:

 Six weeks ago, it looked as if there was no chance that Congress would
approve climate change legislation this year.

The bill that had passed the House was so long, so complicated, so
punitive to the coal-dependent Midwest economy, involved so many
political compromises and so much money to be redistributed by the
federal government, that it became the whipping boy of choice for
conservative politicians and commentators.

Passage of health-care legislation, however, may have changed all that.

Democrats and their liberal supporters saw how much good could be
accomplished by not allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good.
And Republicans and the business lobby were reminded of the concessions
they could have won but didn't by their decision to abandon bipartisan
compromise and instead try to kill the legislation altogether. 

At a climate change symposium I reported on for the Ventura County Star this Friday, the final speaker, Terrapass founder Peter Freed, reminded the dwindling crowd that "everyone is waiting" for the US to act. 

That's true both at home (utility companies, as Brownstein mentions in his piece, are waiting for a signal on fuel pricing) and abroad (China has as much to lose as we do from a changing climate, and may well be willing to make a deal — if we are really willing to act).

Could this simple fact be the best argument for action to reduce the risks and costs of global warming? 

That the world is watching, and that we cannot let the planet down? 

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Happy Fortieth, Earth Day

Well, my story about the fortieth birthday of Earth Day for the Ventura County Reporter is a few days early, but what the heck — the occasion does deserve celebrating, and a few questions for local enviros. 


Let me recommend it to you. 

My favorite quote, from Paul Jenkin, of the Ventura County chapter of Surfrider

“A recent river clean up by the Main Street Bridge near the Ventura River estuary netted over five and a half tons of debris. A similar clean-up last fall netted even more. This is the result of large populations of people living in the river bottom. I think this is a real sign of how our society and its neglectful inability to address social problems has environmental ramifications.”

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Reasons to love Barack (vol. 9003)

Despite the Obama's inability to nudge this country, far less the world, towards climate sanity, there remain plenty of reasons to love the guy. Here are a couple of examples I've been meaning to post:

In the popular inside account of the 2008 campaign, Game Change, we learn what happened at the crucial meeting on the economy in the fall of 2008, when John McCain canceled a debate appearance to demand a meeting on the economy, and then — at the meeting — failed to act. 

Barack took over.

Joel Achenbach recounts the scene:

Skimming the book, one passage jumped out: The account of White
House meeting of President Bush, Barack Obama, McCain, Nancy Pelosi and
other top officials during the financial crisis of September 2008.
Obama, the authors write, all but ran the meeting, even though McCain
had sought it. McCain said nothing for 45 minutes and then had little
that was helpful to contribute. It's impossible to know who is
channeling the story to the authors, since it's all anonymous, but it
seems to me that Bush was one of the sources (or Rove, Bush's brain?)
and that he gave McCain some payback for all the guff McCain gave him
over the years.

One Republican in the room mused silent, If you closed your eyes and changed everyones' voices, you would have thought Obama was the president of the United States. [p. 388]

… Bush was dumbfounded by McCain's behavior. He'd forced
Bush to hold a meeting that the president saw as pointless — and then
sat there like a bump on a log. Unconstructive, thought Bush. Unclear. Ineffectual. [p. 389]

And in New York, a boy pollster finds the same general reaction to the president in the public at large, despite a tremendous slump in the popularity of Congress and politics in general:

Little boy to dad: Do you like Obama?
Dad: Yes, son, I like Obama.
Boy: You like Obama, mom?
Mom: Yes, I like Obama.
Boy: You like Obama?
Sister: I like Obama.
Boy: Hey, people, you like Obama?
Random people: Yes, we do.

According to a story yesterday on All Things Considered, today the President will deliver a major address about NASA. The administration proposed a new position on rocket development at the agency a few weeks ago, which — all agree, even within the administration — has been poorly explained. 

It's a policy that can be defended, and appears to possibly be a far-sighted approach that could actually be supported by many critics of NASA, but somehow its good points have been lost in translation. 

The solution? The usual one. 

Send the president out to make a speech. Few can resist him, at least in person, it seems… 

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