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Will old-school green groups sleep through the Earth Summit?

As you may have heard, President Obama is being cagey about whether he'll attend the Earth Summit in Rio next month. You know, it's just the FUTURE OF THE PLANET that’s up for discussion. Nothing big. Maybe he’ll go. Maybe not.

As it happens, we were in the same situation 20 years ago, as the 1992 Earth Summit approached and George Bush Sr. was giving it the old, "Well, maaaaaybe ..."

Back then, a group of the major, mainstream environmental groups in the U.S. rallied for the cause. To convince Bush he should attend, they enlisted none other than Darth Vader. Well, his voice, at least -- the actor James Earl Jones. They made the spooky film clip below, replete with -- is that the Pony Express or the Horsemen of the Apocalypse? -- and then ran it in movie theaters around the country. Jones did the voiceover. Need I even tell you that Bush Sr. decided to attend?

In my research into the 2012 Earth Summit, I’ve noticed very little action from the major U.S. greens. A handful of them, including EarthJustice, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Nature Conservancy, and the Pew Environment Group, have been involved, along with groups focused on clean energy, sustainable agriculture, and other issues, but where’s the old guard that sponsored the Darth Vader ad two decades ago? I decided to do a little poking around.

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Get your ass on that bike!

Photo by Richard Masoner/ Cyclelicious.

Today, America kicks off National Bike Month, our annual homage to two-wheeled travel. Here in Seattle, Grist’s hometown, every month can seem like bike month: Hearty souls ride in weather when full scuba gear is requisite. But today brought sunshine, and cyclists swarmed the streets, swerving through traffic, towing kiddie trailers through downtown rush hour, and generally acting like they owned the place.

It was great to see so many people out riding. I was also afraid I was going to see someone die. So for the sake of a safe and successful Bike Month, Grist is offering up a challenge to would-be bike commuters everywhere -- and a few suggestions on how to get started.

Get your ass on that bike!

Read more: Biking

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Earth Summit 101: A Jedi’s primer to the meeting in Rio

Photo by Gandroid.

News flash: World leaders will gather in two short months at the 2012 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro to discuss the future of the planet. You may have caught the news stories last week about President Obama’s failure to RSVP. You’re forgiven if you missed them. You’re not the only one who just said, “Earth Summit, what?”

But this is for real. And there are a few things that you, good Jedi knights, ought to know about it.

1. It’s kind of a big deal.

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Obama may blow off the Earth Summit

Photo by porchlife.

When the leaders of more than 100 countries meet this June to discuss the small matter of the Future of Life on Earth, President Obama might be there. Then again, maybe he’s got a golf match scheduled that day. He’s not saying.

Yes, it’s true, the guy who just picked up an early endorsement from Big Green groups like the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters, the man who announced in his last State of the Union Address that “America remains the one indispensable nation in world affairs,” may be a no-show at the 2012 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

When asked about the president’s plans on Tuesday, U.S. Special Envoy on Climate Change Todd Stern told The Washington Post, “I don’t have any understanding that the president has any intention of going.” A White House spokesperson was noncommittal: “I don’t have any scheduling announcements at this time.”

Ouch. What ever happened to “Love Your Mother”?

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Earth Day revisited: An environmental patriarch on keeping the dream alive

Photo by Greg Hanscom.

Denis Hayes is about the last person on the planet you’d expect to find walking around a construction site in a hardhat, chatting up engineers and contractors. Hayes is best known as the guy who coordinated the first Earth Day, back in 1970, when he was 25. Since that time, he has earned a reputation as a fierce defender of the environment, raking in every imaginable green accolade. Today, he is honorary chair of the Earth Day Network by night and by day,  president and CEO of the Bullitt Foundation, a major force in conservation in the Northwest.

But Hayes is full of surprises. He directed the National Renewable Energy Laboratory under the Carter administration and has taught engineering at Stanford. He can talk BTUs-per-square-foot-per-year with the best of them. Which is handy, because at the moment, Hayes is orchestrating the construction of a new, uber green headquarters building for Bullitt. The building sets out to meet the Living Building Challenge, which means, among other things, that it will generate all of its own water and electricity. The latter is no small feat, when you consider that the building is in infamously gray Seattle – not exactly a Mecca for solar power.

With Earth Day 2012 looming (it's Sunday, people!), I caught up with Hayes to talk about the big day, green building, and his prognosis for the planet.

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The ‘war on suburbia’ is a hoax

Images by Phill.D and Walmart.

“California Declares War on Suburbia,” blared the headline from The Wall Street Journal this week. Quick, kids! To the bunker!

The bomb thrower of the hour was Wendell Cox, a vociferous libertarian opinionater who has made a career of defending America’s suburban status quo. His target: state legislation aimed at curbing greenhouse gases and stemming the tide of suburban sprawl.

“California has declared war on the most popular housing choice, the single family, detached home,” he shrieked, “all in the name of saving the planet.”

Saving the planet? What. Ever. Gimme my McMansion in the ’burbs and a nice little doomsday condo. The rest of y’all can go to hell.

Read more: Cities

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People power: Crowdfunding fires up local solar projects

Nikki Henderson, executive director of People's Grocery, with the community solar project that is expected to save her organization more than $30,000 over the 20-year lease.

Here’s a not-terribly-novel idea: Get a bunch of people together, pool your money, and invest it in a project or a business that will make enough money to pay you back -- hopefully with interest. Banks do it, right? And it seems like a decent way to fund promising green technology like solar power.

Or you’d think so, anyway.

Banks will fund huge commercial solar projects, but when it comes to community-level solar installation, they won’t touch it, says Billy Parish, president of Solar Mosaic, a Berkeley, Calif.-based company that seeds local solar projects. “When we were first getting started, we went looking for funding from banks,” he says. “Wells Fargo told us, ‘Come back to us when you have a book of $50 to $100 million worth of projects.’”

That just wasn’t gonna happen. And that’s why Solar Mosaic’s seemingly mundane business model is so interesting.

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Being Green: Presidential hopeful Jill Stein aims to rebuild a broken system

Lost amid the carnival of embarrassments that is the Republican presidential primary is the fact that there is another primary race underway: the Green Party’s. “What?” you say. “Those guys are still around?” Well yes, but they’re not guys.

The front-runner in the race is Jill Stein, a Boston physician and veteran activist and candidate with the Massachusetts Green-Rainbow Party. (Note to the good people of the Bay State: We get that you’re trying to be inclusive, but a name like that is NO WAY to win respect in the world.) She is currently trouncing the second-place runner, former sitcom star Roseanne Barr. (Note to the good people of the Green Party: Oh, never mind …)

Lest you think this is all rainbows and ponies, however, Stein is not messing around. She says she became involved in politics after witnessing firsthand the epidemics of obesity, diabetes, learning disorders, autism -- problems that she traces to toxic chemicals, an industrial food system, and a society built around the automobile.

Stein’s presidential platform includes universal health care, tuition-free higher education, and forgiveness of student debt. And at the center of it all is a Green New Deal that she says will put millions of people to work, tackle the climate crisis, and address our failing health as well.

The Green Party will choose its candidate for president at a national convention in Baltimore in July. If things continue as they have been, Stein will win the spot handily. (She has won 10 of 10 state primaries, plus the District of Columbia.) I talked with her earlier this week.

Read more: Election 2012, Politics

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Why The Hunger Games is no climate parable: A science fiction pro explains

Photo by JT Thomas.

Looking for ecological lessons in The Hunger Games? Give it up, says Paolo Bacigalupi.

“A very influential critic once said, ‘Don’t argue with the book,’” Bacigalupi says. “Hunger Games is not a book about how the world came to be this way. It’s a thought experiment about a theoretical world. Trying to turn it into a parable of eco-collapse is forcing it in a direction that it was not meant to go.”

Bacigalupi should know. He’s a guy who writes eco-parables for a living. His first novel, The Windup Girl, is set in a world shaped by climate change and bioengineering. His most recent book, a young adult novel called Ship Breaker, takes place in an energy-starved future where kids scavenge for precious metals amid the ruins of old oil tankers. The books have won every award known to science fiction. Ship Breaker was a finalist for a National Book Award.

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Joel Kotkin: The man urbanists love to hate

Meet Joel Kotkin, a guy who is reviled by smart growth advocates and new urbanists everywhere. Kotkin, an author and trend-watcher, is fond of dashing urban dreams with cold, hard numbers. Talk about the “triumph of the city,” and he’ll parade out a long line of Census figures that show that, sorry, the suburbs are still kicking demographic ass in this country.

In a particularly shrill essay in The American in 2010, Kotkin declared, “For the first time in memory, the suburbs are under a conscious and sustained attack from Washington.” (Gad!) In a recent column in Forbes, he wrote that cities are so predictably Democratic as to be “essentially irrelevant to the Republican Party.” (Not so irrelevant that the GOP doesn’t go out of its way to suppress the urban vote, but I digress.)

Why on earth would I bother with a guy like this? Call it a tic. This is the latest in my occasional series of interviews with old white guys. (Former subjects include Witold Rybczynski and David Rothkopf.) This demographic churns out some of the crappiest ideas around. But every once in a while, one of these fellows surprises you.

Read more: Cities