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After a term of hanging around the hoops, Obama could slam dunk for cities

White House / Maison Blanche (Pete Souza)
President Obama playing basketball in Camp David.

Last March, I found myself talking to David Rothkopf, an international energy consultant and writer who was a bigwig in the Clinton White House. I was describing President Obama’s strategy for reviving American cities: Hamstrung by Tea Partiers in the House of Representatives, the Obama administration had set up what amounted to a set of demonstration projects designed to prove that smart policies on inner-city schools, transportation, and urban development could get dramatic results -- and save taxpayer money at the same time.

There was the Promise Neighborhoods program, which created “children’s zones” to give kids in some of the nation’s hardest-hit urban communities a fighting chance. The Department of Transportation’s TIGER grants funded innovative “multimodal” transportation projects (read: bike and pedestrian paths, streetcars, rail, etc.). The Partnership for Sustainable Communities brought together officials from federal environment, housing, and transportation agencies to support local smart growth initiatives.

Wise moves, I figured: If the GOP doesn’t let you play the game, at least practice your shots and show the coach (in this case, the American public) that you’ve got what it takes, so you’re ready to jump in if and when the opportunity arises.

“There’s another word for that,” Rothkopf said: “Bullshit.”

Read more: Cities, Politics


Please get my kids nothing for Christmas

They're breeding!

Dear family and friends,

I hope this Black Friday finds you well. I also hope this reaches you before you head for the mall …

I'm writing to send a heartfelt thanks for all of the wonderful gifts you've given my girls over the past four and eight years of their lives, respectively -- and to ask you to stop. Really. It's not that we don't love each and every one of these hand-picked gems. We do. It's just that at this point they have one of everything. In some cases three or four.

Read more: Living


Americans are apparently not as infatuated with cars as we thought

I knew I should have taken the bus ...

We may gripe about taxes and subsidizing Amtrak, but when it comes to getting around, Americans are apparently looking for alternatives to sitting in traffic in our beloved automobiles. Don’t believe me? Look at the election results.

This year has seen more transit-related ballot initiatives than any year in at least a decade, according to the Center for Transportation Excellence in Washington, D.C. While two of the highest-profile measures failed -- including Los Angeles County's Measure J, which was defeated yesterday, and another that bombed in Atlanta last summer -- in more than two-thirds of the contests this year, voters opted for more buses and trains.

“Atlanta and Measure J were very closely watched around the country. Both were not successful, but that obscures the broader trend,” said Jason Jordan, the center's director. While he was still waiting for the results of two races, Jordan said transit came out on top in at least 62 percent of the races yesterday. For the year, the success rate will be above 70 percent.

Read more: Cities, Politics


Cities 2012: The races we’re watching


It’s here at last -- the day we’ve all been waiting for. The day when, with any luck, this overhyped, overadvertised, overanalyzed electoral circus will finally end and we can all go back to looking for work and trying to save the planet from the boneheads we elect to run the place.

So, you might ask, which races will Grist’s urban experts be watching most closely today? Here’s a quick list of races that we believe will have the biggest impact on U.S. cities – both individually and collectively. Know of others? By all means, comment below or tell us via Facebook or Twitter. We’ll be watching every tweet and biting our nails.

The highest office in the land

Cities have gotten about as much love from the presidential candidates this year as the climate (read: zilch), but the stakes are high nonetheless.

Read more: Cities


Oil-rig wasteland: How the election looks from 37,000 feet

Wyoming's Jonah Field.

In the latter days of the George W. Bush presidency, I found myself nursing a hangover on an early-morning flight from Missoula, Mont., to Denver. I’d missed my plane the day before and decided to spend the evening with an old friend, finding our way to the bottom of a bottle of whiskey.

Much to my horror, the woman who plopped down in the seat next to me that woozy morning-after turned out to be a high-level official in Bush’s Interior Department -- the branch of government that keeps an eye on the national parks and monuments and other public lands, from Ellis Island to Yosemite.

I was the editor of an environmental magazine at the time, and I’d skewered this woman and the administration’s drill-mine-log-everything policies in print. Now here I was, strapped into a chair right next to hers -- and battling a mean case of crapulence to boot.

Come to find out, this woman was feeling a little hungover herself -- not from too much drinking, but from the development binge she’d helped facilitate on the public domain. (A binge that, incidentally, included a few well-documented benders featuring Interior Department staffers and oil company employees.)


Craig Childs: The man who’s been to the end of the world

It’s something of a miracle that Craig Childs wasn’t in Atlantic City or New York when Sandy roared ashore earlier this week. It’s not that he lives there -- he and his wife and two young sons make their home at the base of a volcanic monolith in the Colorado boondocks. It’s not even that the author and adventurer spends a good part of his time actively courting cataclysm -- his latest book, Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Everending Earth took him to areas of upheaval (geologic and otherwise) around the globe. It’s just that he has a way of showing up, serendipitously, right when everything goes to hell.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Childs, who has written almost a dozen books about the desert Southwest, archaeology, and wild animals, was in lower Manhattan, on his way to meet literary agents. “I was walking crosstown so I didn’t see what was going on, but there were emergency vehicles streaming down Fifth Avenue, and I could see people coming out of the subway station and popping up to the surface and being riveted by something overhead,” he says. “I came around the corner right after the second plane had hit, and pretty much just stayed down there until the first tower fell.”

Apocalyptic Planet opens with a scene of Childs, passed out in a friend’s L.A. apartment after a trip in the wilderness, awakened by an earthquake that rattles the walls and hurls books from the shelves. “In those moments, my picture of the earth was remade,” he writes. “The floor felt as if foot pedals were pumping beneath me, a continental margin humped up on he back of a tectonic pate. Humans may have a big hand in carpeting the atmosphere with heat-trapping gases and dumping every toxin we can imagine into the waterways, but when the earth decides to roll, it is no longer our game.”

Nor is it our game when the earth decides to whip up a megastorm and hurl it at the Eastern Seaboard -- though we likely had a hand in creating that monster. Or when it decides to reclaim farmland and cities with desert and sand dunes, or obliterate entire landscapes with tsunamis or volcanic ash -- all scenarios that Childs explores in Apocalyptic Planet.

Sound scary? This week, I caught up with Childs, who I’ve known for a decade or so, to talk about Hurricane Sandy, our cultural obsession with the End Times, and why he thinks “things are not as dire as we think -- but they could be much more dire than we imagine.”

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


David Quammen says we better brace for the next Big One

Lynn Donaldson

David Quammen is probably best known for his writings about bizarre, beastly, or wildly eccentric animals, and the scientists who study them. His long-running column for Outside magazine, Natural Acts, read like a bestiary of the planet’s most intriguing creatures. And with books like his 1997 tome The Song of the Dodo and the 2004 Monster of God, he has sounded the alarm about the looming extinction crisis and the unraveling of the Earth’s ecosystems. Now he’s written another opus, this one about creatures so small that we can see them only with the aid of an electron microscope. It’s his most captivating -- and, by far, his scariest -- book yet.

Read more: Uncategorized


‘Want to save the planet? Save people,’ says conservation bigwig

Conservation International

Peter Seligmann has never much cared what other environmentalists think of him. Sure, he cut his teeth doing grizzly bear conservation near Yellowstone National Park, but he’s made his name as a friend of the large corporations that greenies often paint as the devil incarnate.

Seligmann is co-founder and CEO of Conservation International, an organization that, thanks in no small part part to its corporate buddies, wields a $150 million annual budget. For most of its 25-year history, it threw the lion’s share of its money into efforts to draw lines around wild places as a way of protecting the ultimate of environmental buzzwords -- biodiversity. (The group also spent a goodly amount of time trying to convince corporations that green practices were good for business -- an effort that sometimes got it into hot water.)

But about five years ago, Conservation International took a notable turn. It dumped its focus on wild animals and instead began focusing on “human well-being.” Of course, its central argument is that our well-being rests heavily on the health of the planet, but Seligmann insists that it’s not just a crafty public relations ploy.

“When I first started doing this, people said, ‘Well, this is just marketing,’” he told me last week at the posh Four Seasons hotel in downtown Seattle, where his board of directors was meeting. “Well, marketing doesn’t work. You need a DNA change.”

Seligmann and I talked about his conversion experience, the power of social media, and how Conservation International has been able to change the conversation when it comes to protecting the planet.

Q. Tell me about the transition Conservation International has gone through and the rationale behind it.

A. It was, I think, five years ago. Through our efforts with many partners and many sectors of society, we had been successful in protecting an area that was [equivalent to] a strip around the equator that was 30 miles wide. In a moment of reflection I started thinking, in that same 20-year time frame, a systemic threat called climate change had emerged in a big way. The population had reached 7 billion and was on its way to 9 billion in four decades. The demand for energy, food, and water was going to double in that next four-decade period. Extinction rates had accelerated. Fisheries were on a rapid decline. Sources of water and conflicts over resources were accelerating. And I thought, every single trend shows we’re headed toward failure. I thought, we’re gonna lose.

Read more: Uncategorized


DJ Spooky wants to remix the climate fight

Mike Figgis

Al Gore had An Inconvenient Truth. DJ Spooky is taking a different approach.

Spooky, whose real name is Paul Miller, is an artist, writer, and musician based in New York. A few years back, moved by the news that the Larsen and Wilkins ice shelves had collapsed, he packed up his camera and recording equipment and headed south. The result is what Miller calls an “acoustic portrait” of the melting ice at the bottom of the globe, and he’s been touring with it, and its graphical companion, The Book of Ice, off and on ever since.

The work, called Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica, has left some scientists scratching their heads (see Wynne Parry’s review of his performance at the New York Academy of Sciences), but it has landed Miller some remarkable gigs, including a show on the National Mall on Earth Day in front of a crowd of 200,000 people. It includes sounds of shifting ice he recorded during his visit, and a “sonification” of the molecular structure of ice -- and it’s all spliced and reconstructed remix-style, filtered through the mind, and turntable, of a DJ.

Read more: Climate & Energy


RIP, Barry Commoner: A scientist who wasn’t afraid to make some noise

Dr. Barry Commoner
Ron Kuntz / Bettmann / Corbis / AP
Barry Commoner acknowledges cheers of delegates after accepting the Citizens' Party's nomination for president, April 13, 1980.

OK, folks, here are the rules:

  1. Everything is connected to everything else.
  2. Everything must go somewhere.
  3. Nature knows best.
  4. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

Any questions?

If you’ve ever taken an ecology class, you may remember these as the “four laws of ecology,” coined by one of the field’s founders, Barry Commoner, who died yesterday at the ripe old age of 95.