“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Poor John Boehner. He thought he was going to be a hero. Now he just looks like a chump.
Boehner, you will recall, is the fearless leader -- the speaker, actually -- of the U.S. House of Representatives. Last month, he introduced a federal highway bill that, if passed, would have made him the king of the road, the darling of the suburbs, the object of every car-lover’s desire.
When he couldn’t find enough support to pass the bill (urban Republicans didn’t like his plan to cut funding for transit, budget hawks balked at the price tag), Boehner threatened the unimaginable: If the House didn’t sign on to his masterplan, he vowed, he would go with a compromise bill that passed in the Senate with (the horror!) broad support from both Republicans and Democrats.
But the threats didn’t work -- the House refused to go along with Boehner’s plan. Now, Boehner is locked in a high-stakes game of chicken with the Senate and House Democrats, who are trying to force him to settle for the compromise. If neither side gives, we’re headed for a shutdown of federal transportation programs when the current transportation bill expires this Saturday.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is about as green as they come. Since his election in 2005, Villaraigosa has instated a massive climate action plan, slashed air pollution at the Port of Los Angeles, pulled more than 2,000 diesel trucks off the roads, retrofitted more than 64,000 street lights with energy-efficient LEDs, enacted some of the nation’s strictest green building standards, championed the restoration of the L.A. river, created 51 new parks, slashed the city's water use, increased recycling, and started work on an ambitious mass transit expansion in a city that is famously enamored of the automobile.
Granted, Villaraigosa has a tendency to lay plans that will have no chance of coming to fruition before he is term-limited out in 2013: Build 1,600 miles of bikeways! Plant a million trees! And now he wants to wean L.A. from coal power by 2025. But at a time when most cities are struggling just to meet residents’ basic needs, he can be forgiven for being overly ambitious.
One of Villaraigosa’s policy centerpieces has been Measure R, a voter-approved tax that will raise $40 billion over 30 years to fund transportation infrastructure. Almost half of the money will go to mass transit. And to speed progress, Villaraigosa has convinced Democrats and Republicans in Congress to support a plan called America Fast Forward, which would allow L.A. to get the work done in 10 years, rather than 30 -- and similarly reward other cities that are taking on ambitious transit projects.
At press time, America Fast Forward is tied up in Congress, where the House and Senate are engaged in a high-stakes game of chicken over passing a new transportation bill. But political high jinks in Washington aren’t stopping Villaraigosa from dreaming big. He says he’ll move forward with or without help from Washington.
We caught up with Villaraigosa this week to see how he’s managed to stay green in a time when, as a famous frog once lamented, it’s anything but easy.
Here’s the $8.5 billion question: Can suburbanites be convinced to care about cities again?
Urban America is hoping so. For some cities, it’s a matter of life and death. And nowhere is the question more relevant than in Atlanta, where citizens will vote this summer on a massive regional transportation initiative that would stitch together a city and suburbs that have been divided for decades along racial, economic, and political lines.
The all-too-familiar storyline goes like this: Back in the 1960s and ’70s, Americans bolted from urban centers like concert goers from a burning theater, leaving cities smoldering, sometimes literally. And while urban industrial might built the suburbs, suburbanites were content to leave cities on the ash heap of history.
Witness the 1971 vote in Atlanta and its outlying counties over creating a tax to build a regional mass transit system. The vote broke down along racial lines, says Robert Bullard, a longtime Atlantan who is widely considered to be the father of environmental justice. The largely African American city and two counties voted to support the system, while two other counties, both predominantly white, opted out. The joke at the time was that MARTA -- the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority -- was short for “Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta.”
When David Rothkopf came to Grist’s hometown of Seattle in 1999, he was a member of President Clinton’s commerce team, here to spread the gospel of free trade at the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting. You may recall that the delegates didn’t get the warm welcome they might have imagined.
“I remember being at this black tie thing and was talking to Bill Gates … and the Sultan of Brunei walked in,” says Rothkopf, who was clearly impressed with the crowd. “And then a friend of mine walked in and said, ‘Somebody just punched me in the face.’”
Outside, the police had used tear gas to break up nonviolent protests against the WTO, and chaos and riots were spreading through downtown.
When Rothkopf made a return visit this week, we made sure he felt more welcome. (Pretzels! Tap water! The sultan would have felt right at home.) And this time, Rothkopf was singing a tune that might well have gotten him booted from the black tie affairs back in 1999, and put him in solidarity with the people in the streets.
We can say this for our Great Urban Freeway Experiment: It seemed like a good idea at the time.
The time was the 1950s and '60s, specifically, and U.S. cities were watching their residents flee to the suburbs in alarming numbers. Their solution: Build giant freeways connecting city centers to the ’burbs, thereby allowing citizens to live the good life on the outskirts and commute to work in the urban core. It was an attempt to hang on to urban industrial might even as the city’s population bled (or drove) out.
When all was said and done, these freeways did salvage some downtown commerce, but they only accelerated the flight from the inner city. At the same time, they carved up historic urban neighborhoods, turned whole sections of cities into slums, and cut off many downtowns from their waterfronts. Legendary urban activist Jane Jacobs was among the first to fight the scourge of the urban highway, and by the late 1970s and early 1980s, it had become all but impossible to gain approval for new highways through urban areas.
It’s one thing to stop building urban freeways, however, and another thing entirely to tear down existing ones. For many city centers, those highways still look a lot like lifelines.