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Georgia Odyssey, 2: Jobs and Environment

March 19, 2013 1 comment

georgiaodyssey

Two days ago, I wrote about Georgia Odyssey, James Cobb’s brief history of Georgia. After quoting from Cobb’s treatment of Georgia’s lynching history, I wrote, “It was a different world. At least I’d like to think so. But when I read Cobb’s account on the introduction of poll taxes and literacy tests to disenfranchise blacks—as well as the Georgia Democratic Party’s move in 1900 to a primary system for selecting candidates, with the added feature of outright exclusion of blacks from participation—I couldn’t help but recognize that today’s Republican Party is in the same business.”

Later in the book, Cobb discusses Georgia’s efforts to attract industry and jobs:

In their efforts to entice industry to Georgia, state and local officials had offered cheap labor and also free and essentially untrammeled access to the state’s natural resources. Not surprisingly, this approach led to some serious examples of exploitation and abuse. When the Union Camp Corporation came to Depression-weary Savannah in 1935, local leaders not only promised nominal rents and protection from competition but pledged as well “to secure the necessary action and, if possible, legislation on the part of the governmental bodies concerned, to protect and save you harmless from any claims, demands, or suits for the pollution of air or water caused by the operation of the plant.” Furthermore, Savannah’s officials agreed that “in case litigation arises or suits are brought against you on account of odors and/or flow age from the proposed plant that the Industrial Committee of Savannah will pay all expenses of defending such suits up to a total amount of $5,000.” …

In 1967, after a fairly strong air-pollution-control measure died in committee, a replacement bill, actually proposed by a Union Camp representative, sailed through the legislature with only a few changes. The new law authorized only such pollution control as was “consistent with providing for maximum employment and the full industrial development of the state” … .

Once again, this sounds familiar, as states continue to deregulate and offer tax advantages in an effort to attract business, other costs (forgone revenue, declining support for schools, eventual need to clean up environmental disasters) be darned.

For instance? Well (and a hat tip to Charles Pierce for bringing this to my attention), let’s have a look at developments in Wisconsin. In Milwaukee’s Business Journal two weeks ago, Jeff Engel wrote:

A bill to streamline Wisconsin’s mining permitting process appears destined for passage after the state Senate approved a bill and sent it to the Republican-controlled Assembly this week, despite Democratic criticisms that it rolls back environmental protections and is a giveaway to mining businesses.

[snip]

The legislative efforts this session follow a failed attempt to pass a similar bill last year, which would have lured Florida-based Gogebic Taconite to begin a $1.5 billion mining project in northern Wisconsin.

[Governor Scott] Walker emphasized that the bill doesn’t approve the proposed mine, it only is meant to streamline the permitting process. …

Walker said that for any other industry, if a company said they would create thousands of jobs, Wisconsin leaders would be “doing cartwheels.”

“Heck, we do cartwheels for a fraction of that, for hundreds of employees, let alone thousands of employees,” Walker told me. “So it just kind of seems out of perspective.”

Walker’s reassurances notwithstanding, here’s additional background from Jessica Vanegeren in The Capital Times, emphasis mine:

With numerous groups already vowing to challenge the bill in court, Sen. Tom Tiffany also acknowledged that changes were made to the legislation to put the state on stronger legal ground to withstand such a challenge.

“The bill reflects the reality of mining. There are going to be some impacts to the environment above the iron ore body,” said Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst. “If the law is challenged and ends up in court, the judge needs to know it was the Legislature’s intent to allow adverse (environmental) impacts. That way, a judge can’t find fault if the environment is impacted.

Tiffany made the admission after being asked Thursday in an interview with the Cap Times how Republicans could continue to claim the mining bill doesn’t risk environmental harm when:

  • It specifically changes the wording of existing state permitting law from “significant adverse affects (to wetlands) are presumed to be unnecessary” to “significant adverse affects are presumed to be necessary.”
  • Bill Williams, present of Gogebic Taconite, which is proposing a massive iron ore mine in Ashland and Iron counties, said in a recent Wisconsin State Journal article that as much as 30 to 40 percent of the 3,300 acres it is leasing could be covered by waste piles if it builds a $1.2 billion open-pit iron ore mine.
  • The land above the rich vein of iron ore contains hundreds of acres of wetlands, numerous pristine trout streams and several small tributaries that feed into the Bad River. The Bad River wends its way to Lake Superior through the Bad River Indian Reservation, which includes culturally and economically significant rice beds.

“We are simply being honest,” Tiffany says. “There will be some impacts but they will be limited. Changing the word ‘unnecessary’ to ‘necessary’ lets the judge know it was the Legislature’s intent that there will be some adverse impacts.

In a legal context, the wording change proves lawmakers knowingly passed a bill that they accepted would cause some harm to the environment, Tiffany adds, making it more difficult for a lawsuit to be successful on the grounds that a mining permit caused harm to the environment.

This is contemporary Wisconsin, mind you, not Depression-era Georgia. And a Republican Party determined to turn back the clock. There may be stalemate in DC, but at the state level, radical change is underway.

Good book, by the way—Georgia Odyssey. I finished it this morning.

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Sweet & Salt

February 17, 2013 Leave a comment

sweetandsalt

The lead story in today’s NYT arts section is a piece by NYT architecture critic Michael Kimmelman on contemporary flood control planning in the Netherlands. In the background, drone-like, is the question of how post-Sandy New York City should protect itself against flooding in a future of severe storms, sea surges, and rising sea levels.

It has been to the Netherlands, not surprisingly, that some American officials, planners, engineers, architects and others have been looking lately. New York is not Rotterdam (or Venice or New Orleans, for that matter); it’s not mostly below or barely above sea level. But it’s not adapted to what seems likely to be increasingly frequent extreme storm surges, either, and the Netherlands has successfully held back the sea for centuries and thrived. After the North Sea flooded in 1953, devastating the southwest of this country and killing 1,835 people in a single night, Dutch officials devised an ingenious network of dams, sluices and barriers called the Deltaworks.

Water management here depends on hard science and meticulous study. Americans throw around phrases like once-in-a-century storm. The Dutch, with a knowledge of water, tides and floods honed by painful experience, can calculate to the centimeter — and the Dutch government legislates accordingly — exactly how high or low to position hundreds of dikes along rivers and other waterways to anticipate storms they estimate will occur once every 25 years, or every 1,000 years, or every 10,000.

And now the evidence is leading them to undertake what may seem, at first blush, a counterintuitive approach, a kind of about-face: The Dutch are starting to let the water in. They are contriving to live with nature, rather than fight (what will inevitably be, they have come to realize) a losing battle.

Why? The reality of rising seas and rivers leaves no choice. Sea barriers sufficed half a century ago; but they’re disruptive to the ecology and are built only so high, while the waters keep rising. American officials who now tout sea gates as the one-stop-shopping solution to protect Lower Manhattan should take notice. In lieu of flood control the new philosophy in the Netherlands is controlled flooding.

In passing, Kimmelman writes,

I enlisted Tracy Metz to help me find useful lessons for New York in the Dutch example. An architecture critic based in Amsterdam, she is the co-author, with Maartje van den Heuvel, an art historian, of “Sweet & Salt: Water and the Dutch,” which should be required reading these days. Ms. Metz called in some Dutch officials and architects, and she took me to see the Maeslantkering, the giant sea gate guarding Rotterdam, the last of the Deltaworks, as big and spectacular as a pair of Eiffel towers, on their sides, which slide closed.

Ever dutiful, I immediately looked up my new required reading assignment, learning from the book description that

water management runs in the blood of the Dutch: draining the Netherlands and keeping it dry is a process they started centuries ago and continue to this day. In Sweet & Salt: Water and the Dutch, author Tracy Metz and art historian Maartje van den Heuvel demonstrate, in text and images, how the Netherlands negotiates its evolving relationship with water–and what the rest of the world can learn from them as our sea levels rise, our rivers swell and storms and droughts multiply. From New Orleans and Hamburg to Vietnam and China, the world is facing landscapes in drastic metamorphosis. And from the dikes and dams of the past to the new solutions of Dutch design practice for the future, the Netherlands’ history with water offers a much-needed perspective on life in our new waterworld.

Additional searching revealed that the book was the accompaniment to an exhibition at Rotterdam’s Kunsthal last year:

With a hundred and twenty artworks, the Kunsthal Rotterdam illustrates the affinity that the people of the Netherlands have with water. Top historical pieces by Old Masters such as Willem Maris and Salomon van Ruysdael are exhibited alongside remarkable works by modern artists including Theo van Doesburg and Edgar Fernhout, and contemporary artists such as Marijke van Warmerdam and Daniëlle Kwaaitaal. This varied selection of artworks provides an insight into the essential role that art plays in our perception of water. Visitors to Sweet & Salt can ‘experience’ the Dutch waterland in all its diversity, be they young or old, novice or expert.

[snip]

The exhibition, together with a book of the same name, clearly illustrates how safety and flood management are increasingly making way for water maintenance and the theme of living in harmony with water. Sweet & Salt invites the general public, planners and policymakers to take a fresh look at the way in which water and landscapes are portrayed in art, to gain inspiration with regard to the management, maintenance and continually changing structure of the Dutch waterland.

And from a book review by James Russell:

You can open Sweet & Salt to a photo of torrential water ripping through the streets of a medieval town or a golden-hued painting of a peaceful ice-covered pond just after the chilly sun has set. Is this a history, a guidebook, a cautionary tale of climate change, a dike-designer’s handbook, or an art book? In the hands of Tracy Metz, a long-time contributor to Architectural Record, and art historian Maartje van den Heuvel, it is all of the above.

Sweet & Salt is an intensely heavily visual consideration of the history, culture, and engineering of water that engages our senses and our emotions—not just our intellect—with its ravishing (and beautifully printed) photography, cartography, and art. We’re awed and enraptured by water—when we’re not fighting it off.

You will not find any hand-wringing in this volume. Sweet & Salt is a profoundly humanistic consideration of the culture of water, with, along the way, many ideas by designers about how to deal with water’s myriad challenges. Architects, planners, and landscape designers will never think of a riverbank, levee, or seashore the same way again.

The not-so-underlying theme is of the Dutch as canaries in the global-warming coal mine. Much of Holland’s most productive land is below sea level, so the Dutch are acutely aware of subtle changes in the rivers, seas, and weather that get lost in the climactic background noise in America. After all, the nation has built its culture, government, social arrangements, and urban planning around water for hundreds of years.

I’m convinced. I’ve ordered the book. Amazon says it should ship in 1 to 3 months, leaving me less than confident that it’s actually available. I hope so. And I wish I could have seen the Kunsthal show.

Changes in the Land

March 31, 2012 Leave a comment

Not quite a year ago, I wrote with great enthusiasm about William Cronon‘s 1992 book Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, calling it a “thrilling experience” and “the most astonishing blend of history, geography, economics, and ecology that I can imagine.” Since then, I’ve been intending to read his first book, from 1983, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. I mentioned a month ago that I had downloaded it. Monday night, after finishing Orlando Figes’ The Crimean War, I started it. It’s a short book, much shorter than the Chicago book, and last night I finished it.

Changes in the Land is another fabulous blend of history, geography, economics, and ecology, plus culture. Highlights include the treatment of the differing conceptions Indians and colonists had of land rights and ownership, the complex nature of the forest ecology circa 1600, and the deforestation that took place over the next two centuries. The blurb for the book at Amazon gets it right:

In this landmark work of environmental history, William Cronon offers an original and profound explanation of the effects European colonists’ sense of property and their pursuit of capitalism had upon the ecosystems of New England. Reissued here with an updated afterword by the author and a new preface by the distinguished colonialist John Demos, Changes in the Land, provides a brilliant inter-disciplinary interpretation of how land and people influence one another. With its chilling closing line, “The people of plenty were a people of waste,” Cronon’s enduring and thought-provoking book is ethno-ecological history at its best.

I do have one major complaint, not about the book itself but about the rotten thing that was done with its Kindle-ization. A year ago, when I finished Cronon’s Chicago book, I looked on Amazon for this one and saw that it was available only as a paperback, that being the 20th anniversary re-issue described in the blurb above, with preface and afterword. Had there been a Kindle version, I would have downloaded and begun reading it instantly. Instead, I simply put added it to my list of books to read.

A month ago, I went looking again and was surprised to discover that there was a Kindle version. I didn’t see it at first. In contrast to Amazon’s normal setup, in which when one goes to a book’s webpage, one sees listings of all available versions, including Kindle versions, the paperback page does not show a Kindle version. I stumbled on it in a separate search, not usually necessary, revealing an independent listing of a 2011 Kindle version at the unusually low price of $6.99. That’s what I downloaded a month ago.

Just today, in looking for the Amazon webpage to insert in this post, I saw the blurb quoted above and was reminded that there’s such a thing as the 20th anniversary edition. That’s great, but the Kindle version is the 1982 original. No preface. No afterword. And no warning. Geez. I feel cheated. I’ll have to find a copy of the new version in the library and read the missing pieces. I’m especially interested in Cronon’s afterword.

But don’t let me distract you from the main point. Cronon is brilliant. Read his books. If you read only one, make it Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. If you don’t read it all, read the three central chapters, each with a separate theme: grain, lumber, meat. As I wrote a year ago, “each is a gem. I can think of no better microeconomics primer, as we watch capitalism take root and transform the western regions of the country along with the way of life of its population and the land itself. Prairie makes way for farming, the white pine of the north woods makes way to fence the prairie and house its inhabitants, and plains buffalo make way for cattle range land. People’s lives improve, but at a cost, which Cronon always keeps in our field of view.”

Categories: Books, Environment, History

Neighborhood Nutria

March 20, 2012 Leave a comment

It’s not often that my very own Seattle neighborhood of Madison Park is featured on the home page of the NYT. This is one of those moments, as attested to by the screenshot above.

Well, maybe you don’t see Madison Park. But you see the video titled, “Hi! I’m a Nutria.” That’s the one. (I can’t embed the video. Click here to watch it.) It’s by Drew Christie, whose website I’ve just visited, thereby learning:

I am an animator and an illustrator who lives and works in Seattle, Washington. I create stories through hand-made images. My work has been featured on The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, Drawn, Cartoon Brew, Boooooooom! and Juxtapoz among other sites. I make short films, music videos, commercials, cartoons, books, zines and relief prints.

The video stars a nutria who lives down by Lake Washington’s Madison Park Beach. That’s our beach! The beach house is the meeting site for the Madison Park Community Council, over which Gail presides (and where I celebrated a major birthday a decade ago). I lived just north of the beach during my first 5 1/2 years in Seattle.

But the nutria isn’t there to tell you about my life in Madison Park. He has other issues on his mind, like why he’s considered an interloper. How many generations must his kind live here before they get to qualify as native?

Which oddly enough was one theme of a dinner conversation we had last night with other members of the Madison Park Community Council, one of whom decried the loss during his childhood of the orange groves in his native Claremont, California. I couldn’t refrain from asking just how long he thought those groves were around. They’re no more native to southern California than nutria are to the northwest, and probably haven’t been around much longer.

Here’s a partial answer, from the site of the California Citrus State Historic Park in Riverside:

In 1873, the U.S. Department of Agriculture forever changed the history of Southern California when it sent two small navel orange trees to Riverside resident Eliza Tibbets. Those trees, growing in near perfect soil and weather conditions, produced an especially sweet and flavorful fruit. Word of this far superior orange quickly spread, and a great agricultural industry was born. An effort to promote citrus ranching in the state brought would-be citrus ranch barons flocking to California. The second “gold rush” was on.

This sounds like an interesting park. Here’s more:

This park preserves some of the rapidly vanishing cultural landscape of the citrus industry and to tell the story of this industry’s role in the history and development of California. The park recaptures the time when “Citrus was King” in California, recognizing the importance of the citrus industry in southern California.

In the early 1900s, an effort to promote citrus ranching in the state brought hundreds of would-be citrus barons to California for the “second Gold Rush.” The lush groves of oranges, lemons and grapefruit gave California another legacy – its lingering image as the Golden State – the land of sunshine and opportunity.

The design of the park is reminiscent of a 1900s city park, complete with an activity center, interpretive structure, amphitheater, picnic area, and demonstration groves. The land contained within the park still continues to produce high-quality fruits.

And check out the photo below.

But I’ve strayed. First listen to the nutria and learn what he’s doing in our neighborhood.

Categories: Animals, Environment, History, Video

Mountaintop Removal Mining

April 13, 2011 Leave a comment

Dan Barry had a superb piece in today’s NYT about Lindytown, West Virginia, whose residents have been bought out by a coal-mining subsidiary of Massey Energy. With the mountaintop mining operation taking place above the town, buying the town out may have been cheaper and easier than dealing with resident complaints and claims.

The article explains that after a mountain is removed (literally removed) to mine its coal, the land must be restored. Typically, this is done by placing the remains into an adjacent valley, then planting over it all. Barry describes the typical result,

an out-of-context clot of land that rises hundreds of feet in the air — “a valley fill,” [environmental advocate Maria Gunnoe] says, that has been “hydroseeded” with fast-growing, non-native plants to replace the area’s lost natural growth: its ginseng root, its goldenseal, it hickory and oak, maple and poplar, black cherry and sassafras.

“And it will never be back,” she says.

Ms. Gunnoe has a point. James Burger, a professor emeritus of forestry and soil science at Virginia Tech University, said the valley fill process often sends the original topsoil to the bottom and crushed rock from deeper in the ground to the top. With the topography and soil properties altered, Dr. Burger says, native plants and trees do not grow as well.

“You have hundreds of species of flora and fauna that have acclimated to the native, undisturbed conditions over the millennia,” he says. “And now you’re inverting the geologic profile.”

Coincidentally, zunguzungu had a post yesterday on mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia (hat tip to Andrew Sullivan). He describes the annual floods he was accustomed to during his West Virginia childhood and notes that

[f]looding has been getting worse and worse in the last decade or so, and as more and more of the dense network of Southern Appalachia’s creeks and streams — that once absorbed excess rainflow — have been transformed into post- mountaintop removal hellscapes, people whose campaign coffers aren’t filled with coal and industry donations have started to question whether there’s a relationship between increasingly regular and destructive flooding and the kind of environmental devastation necessitated by MTR mining …

After they’ve flattened the land, they are required by law to “reclaim” the land, but at best, “reclamation” means a micro-layer of just enough top soil to support some sparse grass … . And this means that where there once was lush vegetation and crooked streambeds soaking up rainfall, you now have rocky basins that channel it down into the floodplain where people live.

zunguzungu’s post is worth a look, at the least, for its photos, one of which is at the top. And be sure to read Barry’s article.

Categories: Business, Environment