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Up the coast without an auto: My life with the Post-Car Travel Agency

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Post-Car Travel Agency

A few years ago, I walked into an office, bike in tow, looking for a friend. The place was empty, except for a woman I had never seen before. She looked sort of like Nancy Drew, if Nancy Drew spent regular time behind an enormous computer monitor, rendering architectural plans.

“Hello,” she said. “I’m Kristin.”

“Hello.” I said.

“Nice bike,” she said. “Do you tour?”

A lot of people were asking me this lately. I had just bought a new bike, for the first time in my life. My quest had been for a workhorse that I could load up with enough groceries to feed an entire dinner party, ride over gaping potholes without fear, carry up and down stairs easily, and fix by myself. I had found the perfect bike -- on sale.

What I hadn’t realized was that most of the people who bought my particular model were the kind of hardcore cyclists who rode their bikes across America. I was the bicycling equivalent of someone who buys a high-clearance off-road vehicle and then just drives it to the mall and back. And even after I finished scraping all of the decals off with a hair dryer and a credit card, people still recognized the frame and started trying to talk shop and compare components. It was as if I had accidentally joined a secret fraternity -- literally, because they were all dudes (until Kristin, anyway).

“No,” I said. “I’ve never actually ridden this bike out of the city.”

That usually ended the conversation. Instead, something interesting happened.

“You should start,” she said. “Come on a trip with us.”

And so it began. My bike had become my destiny.

Read more: Cities, Living

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#AskChevron: The hashtag that roared (and paid)

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In the days when I was a local news reporter, I used to get a lot of press releases about protests. As sure as rain could be relied on to fall in a downward direction, there would always be a protest going on somewhere in the city. And that was because, as long as you had a group of you -- whether you were teenagers trying to get the city to pony up for youth bus passes, or nurses in sensible clogs objecting to a hospital closure -- and a fixed time that you were all gathered together in public, the odds were pretty good that at least someone would show up, take a photo of you waving your sign around, and jot down a few quotes about your grievances.

The runaway Twitter hashtag is, in many ways, the new protest -- this week's #yesallwomen tidal wave stands as a representative case. By spreading a single hashtag, the actions of just a few people (or even one person) have pulled together huge crowds of allies and gotten the sort of media attention that, arguably, no in-person protest has seen since the days of the Occupy movement. All that, and no getting pepper-sprayed in the face.

Which brings us to #AskChevron, a recent addition to the genre. In the last few months, people who are not especially fond of JPMorgan Chase or the NYPD have turned hashtags promoted by those organizations -- #AskJPM and #myNYPD -- into discourses on their failings. This technique is part of a set of practices -- like, say, opening a fake Twitter account in the guise of a corporation you don't approve of -- that have come to be known as brandjacking.

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The senator and the moose: Whitehouse makes the climate case in New Hampshire

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Nikki Burch | Transportation for America

You may know Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) from such climate change-related events as the all-night talkathon in the Senate this past March, or the League of Superfriends-style Climate Action Task Force that he formed with fellow Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). But being that senator who really cares about climate change is a gig that can take a person to some interesting places besides Washington, which is how, the Friday before Memorial Day, Whitehouse came to be seated at a folding table in the back of Zimmerman’s Ski & Snowboard in Nashua, N.H., surrounded by last season's snowboarding gear.

“I’m very sad our maple sugar farmer couldn’t be here at the last minute,” said Rep. Annie Kuster (D-N.H.) to Whitehouse, with genuine regret. Over the last several months, Whitehouse has been touring different states, gathering information about the risks that climate change poses to each state’s economy.

It’s a practice that has led some to speculate that Whitehouse is laying the groundwork for a presidential run in 2016. But he maintains that he’s just out to make sure that climate is a key issue in 2016 and, ideally, get Hillary Clinton elected in the process. So if this is groundwork, it's pretty small-scale: There are 10 people here, not counting all of the various aides and a few local reporters. It's like a town hall meeting that just happens to involve a U.S. senator.

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The desolation of smog

When China became the world’s workshop, it inherited the world’s air pollution, too

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Hung Chung Chih

“Good news!” said my friend. “It’s safe to run this morning!” I was sitting in the courtyard of the house where we were staying, drinking coffee and not even thinking of running. I had arrived in Beijing with only one clear goal hovering in my mind: to eat my own body weight in dumplings.

But part of the rainbow of human existence is having friends who care about staying healthy even when they're on vacation. When this one arrived in China, she had downloaded a weather app on her phone that used data from the air quality monitoring station located on top of the American Embassy to tell you how vigorously you might want to be breathing that day.

The day before, the sky had been gray, and the entire city had felt like smoking a cigarette that we could never put down. But this morning, the app reported the air quality index was about 40, down from yesterday’s 200. And so my friend had pulled on her spandex and taken off exploring. No one else in the neighborhood was running, but when they saw her, a few people waved encouragingly, and faux-jogged in place, like vaudevillian performers.

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Meet me in New York in September, says Bill McKibben — time for a big march

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Shutterstock

It's not every day that Rolling Stone publishes a call for its readers to engage in a massive act of protest, but that's exactly what happened Wednesday. "This is an invitation," the call read. "An invitation to come to New York City. An invitation to anyone who'd like to prove to themselves, and to their children, that they give a damn about the biggest crisis our civilization has ever faced."

The call's author, Bill McKibben (who is --  full disclosure -- on the board of this publication) and 350.org, the organization he co-founded, are planning a protest in New York this Sept. 21 and 22, which is, not coincidentally, at the exact same time and place as the next U.N. Climate Summit. "You’ll tell your grandchildren, assuming we win," writes McKibben -- though some might argue that this discounts the very real possibility that, even in the event of a loss, enough marchers might survive through the floods, plagues, famines, and civil unrest of unchecked climate change to pass on the story, in post-apocalyptic Cormac McCarthy style.

Rolling Stone might seem like an atypical venue for this kind of thing. The call (or, as McKibben put it "invitation to demand action") appears next to articles about hologram Michael Jackson, breaking news regarding the official title of the new Batman vs. Superman movie (Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice -- which is, in this reporter's opinion, a terrible title), and how the magazine has finally "penetrated the secret world" of Jack White.

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From pretentious punk to policy wonk: Help us celebrate growing up

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The 15-year-old me was a fan of screaming punk bands, depressing poetry, and devastating my innocent, Star Trek-loving parents with my precocious cynicism.

I wore black on the outside, because black was how I felt on the inside.

These days, instead of wishing I was never born, I write for Grist -- which is turning 15 this year. I cover all the idealists I used to judge: the activists, politicians, lawyers, students, and business types who are fighting for things like clean water and air and an atmospheric system that does not become so full of carbon that it brings down environmental calamity on all of us.

15-year-old me would almost certainly judge today-me. But I have a much better time, so there.

Now Grist is turning 15 and we're writing a (fortunately less angsty) poetry of our own, weaving all the important green stories of the day into a movement for change.

There are just five days left of our fundraising drive, and your participation counts. Will you celebrate Grist's 15 years of work with a gift of $15?

Read more: Uncategorized

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Horseback to the future

The Cowboys and Indians pipeline protest was a throwback — in more ways than one

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Karen Kasmauski

As a city reporter turned environmental reporter, I've covered a lot of protests. I've seen it all: the signs made with magic marker. The shouting in unison. The puppets. The person dressed like the Statue of Liberty (alternatively: Uncle Sam). The people who appear to have arrived at this protest with signs from a completely different protest. The ukuleles. The kids with black bandannas over their faces looking for a Starbucks to tag. The four police officers to every one protester.

And so, when I saw the photos of the Cowboy and Indian Alliance in Washington, D.C., last week, the first thought that floated into my mind, unbidden, was this: "Damn. That's a good-looking protest." The signs looked like they'd been made by someone with some serious experience in sign making. The people in the photographs looked comfortable, but they had clearly dressed for the occasion.

Back in the civil rights era, protests were carefully designed affairs. They were in a more stylish time, sure, but the church and civil rights groups that organized them also made sure that the people who went to them wore clothes that they might not necessarily wear in their day-to-day life: suits, ties, button-down shirts, dresses, hats. Sunday best, but for a serious Sunday. Participants used the signs that the organizers gave them -- they weren't allowed to make their own.

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One frack mind: How a determined New Yorker won the green Nobel

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Goldman Environmental Prize

Helen Slottje was living the good life in Ithaca, N.Y, when, in 2009, she made a surprising discovery: Her rural community of small towns and dairy farms was practically on top of the Marcellus Shale, the largest known deposit of underground shale gas in the United States. Companies were already descending on Ithaca in search of oil and gas leases. To Slottje, this did not seem like a great idea. The region is also home to the headwaters of the Finger Lakes, the source of most of northeastern New York's drinking water.

A former corporate lawyer -- her last big case involved selling the air rights over the Massachusetts Turnpike -- Slottje rolled up her sleeves and began to think her way around the issue. What rights did Ithaca have to preserve its water? How would it argue them in court? Together with her husband, David (also a lawyer) she founded the Community Environmental Defense Council (CEDC), and began to build a legal case against an industrial facility being built by a fracking company in a nearby town.

She lost the case, but in the process, realized that local zoning and land use laws are surprisingly powerful. She came up with a new tactic -- using zoning laws to outright ban fracking within a city's borders. Slottje drafted a sample law based on the idea, and in 2011 it passed in nearby Dryden.

Since then, more than 170 towns and cities throughout New York have passed local laws prohibiting fracking, based on Slottje's legal framework. She's been behind the scenes on many of these decisions, attending community meetings and providing pro bono legal help.

It was hard work, but it's had an unexpected twist. Slottje was just declared North America's 2014 winner of the Goldman Prize, a.k.a. "the Nobel Prize of environmentalism" -- making her, at least by one system of ranking, the most awesome environmentalist on the continent. I talked with her on the phone to see how she was adjusting and hear her plans for protecting America's drinking water in the future.

Q. You wrote a law that was then adopted by all these other small cities. Had you ever written a law before?

A. No -- there’s very little in law school that covers that sort of thing. Law schools, in general, are just feeder mills for corporate practice. Most of the emphasis is on taxation and other things that corporate lawyers are trained to deal with.

I had no experience in New York environmental laws or municipal government. In real estate law, if you need local permits, you have special people who deal with it. But when I found out about this, I didn’t have millions of dollars to go start a foundation. And what law school does teach you is how to learn.

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Fighting city hall is easier than running it, Richmond’s green reformers find

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Jason Holmberg

You can read the first part of this story here.

Andrés Soto was no stranger to politics. He'd demonstrated with the United Fruit Workers. He'd worked for the county health department on youth violence prevention. He'd been on the school board, and pushed for multilingual education. But he'd never been that interested in city government until his run-in with the Richmond police in 2002.

Now he was. Along with an old friend, Juan Reardon, he formed the Richmond Progressive Alliance (which quickly became known as the RPA). Together, they figured, they had enough connections to form a coalition that could counter the power structure of Richmond's city hall. And they were right. Over the next few years, their organization picked off its opponents and engineered a progressive revival in Richmond. Then they learned what many others have learned before them: It's easier to take over a government than to run it.

The new RPA started by suing the police department and becoming regulars at police commission meetings. Police Chief Joe Samuels had been appointed to the job by the Richmond city manager after a stint running the police department in nearby Oakland, where he'd promised a more accountable community policing program. He never delivered on that promise in Oakland, and he wasn't delivering on it in Richmond, either.

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Birth of indignation

How a cop’s blows turned Richmond’s Andres Soto into a climate activist

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It’s a long story, how Andrés Soto became an unlikely environmentalist -- and the kind of guy who knows his way around the particulars of gas storage-tank manufacture. That’s OK, because there's a short version. The short version is: Some cops beat him up.

I’ll get to the long version later. It is a lovely day, and Soto and I are sitting in a park in Richmond, Calif., which is both the city where Soto has lived for most of his life and one that has a reputation for crime and refinery fires. The park is the kind of stark concrete plaza that's designed by architects who secretly hate parks, but Soto is somehow making it work. When they see him, people pull over, get out of their cars, and come over to talk -- usually about music.

Soto plays clarinet in a symphonic group, as well as lead alto sax in the Junius Courtney Big Band. He's the musical arranger for a Latin soul band called Sol, and plays occasionally with local soul, R&B, and rock groups. He went to school back when band was something that schools took seriously, he says -- but also when boundaries between ethnicities were breaking down and musical genres were fusing, with results like Santana and Sly & the Family Stone.

But we're digressing. Basically, Soto explains, there are two kinds of floating roof tanks used in the petrochemical industry: closed and open. The closed tank makes it easier to capture emissions before they disappear into the atmosphere, and so that’s the one you want to pressure your local refinery into installing, even if -- especially if -- they send a lawyer down to the city planning commission to argue that it’s too expensive. Soto is really excited about this.