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Revolution will be televised: On TV dramas and our end-of-the-world fetish

Photo by NBC.

These days it seems Americans like nothing better than grabbing a big bowl of popcorn and settling in for a little end-of-the-world fantasy. The action-packed but relentlessly bleak zombie series The Walking Dead is a big TV hit, and it has plenty of company on the big screen, too: The Road, The Hunger Games, I Am Legend, Contagion, The Book of Eli -- you know the ones.

Now NBC is making its contribution to the genre, Revolution, which follows a band of gorgeous and impeccably rumpled survivors living 15 years after all electricity-powered devices mysteriously went dead. Last week’s premiere episode, helmed by J.J. Abrams and Jon Favreau, drew 11.6 million viewers, the most of any TV drama of the last three years. (The second episode is on tonight.)

It seems that we’re hungry for collapse -- but why?

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living

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A low-cost way to improve public transit: Add joy

Happy No-Pants Day! (Photo by James Calder.)

When it comes to transit, even the best of us have a bad attitude. In my own case, I ride the commuter train because it’s the lesser of evils: Driving to work sucks, and the train sucks a bit less. Among those with stronger environmental devotions, transit can be an obligation: We ride the bus or train because it’s the right thing to do, not because we enjoy it.

It doesn’t have to be that way, argues urban planner Darrin Nordahl. His potent new e-book, Making Transit Fun!, has all the enthusiasm for buses, trains, and bike lanes that its title’s exclamation point implies. Can transit incorporate art? Yes! How about playground equipment? You bet. Even … sex? Oh yeah, baby.

The automobile industry has employed the best designers and marketers (and even Posh Spice) to make driving cars cool, sexy, exhilarating -- and piss on transit options like biking. “Here is where we transit advocates need to take a lesson from Corporate America,” Nordahl writes. “You cannot get sufficient numbers of people to buy a product or service if it doesn’t excite them.”

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Wendell Berry: This old farmer is still full of piss and vinegar

Cross-posted from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

In a time when we’ve seen global economic crisis, societal unrest, and ecological deterioration, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) could not have picked a more potent speaker than Wendell Berry for this year's Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. In his remarks in Washington, D.C., on Monday, the essayist, novelist, and poet -- a Kentuckian long known for his advocacy for family farming, community relationships, and sustainability -- delivered a characteristically eloquent yet scathing critique of the industrial economy and its toll on humanity.

"The two great aims of industrialism -- replacement of people by technology and concentration of wealth into the hands of a small plutocracy -- seem close to fulfillment," Berry told the crowd at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. "At the same time, the failures of industrialism have become too great and too dangerous to deny. Corporate industrialism itself has exposed the falsehood that it ever was inevitable or that it ever has given precedence to the common good."

The Jefferson Lecture "is the most prestigious honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities," according to the NEH, which sponsors it every year.

Before the speech, Berry wryly commended the NEH's courage in inviting him without first reading his remarks. At the end of the event, NEH Chair Jim Leach humorously added: "The views of the speaker do not necessarily reflect the views of the United States government."

Berry's reputation and strident prose must have promised fireworks: An official with the NEH said that Berry's lecture was sold out three days after it was announced (although some seats were unclaimed on a cold, rainy night in Washington). Samuel Alito, the conservative Supreme Court justice, was rumored to be there.

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Get your subterranean doomsday condo — while supplies last!

Photo by Larry West.

Developer Larry Hall has a grand plan for four nuclear-missile silos in Kansas. He’s transforming them into impenetrable, bunker-like “condo” complexes for wealthy survivalists -- a haven behind nine-foot-thick concrete walls when the country is reeling from a rampant virus, a terrorist attack, an electrical-grid failure, or maybe just an off-the-charts balmy April. You can get a piece of this paradise for anywhere from $1 million to $2 million, according to news reports about his project. Hall already has four buyers, and prospective clients in NFL players, movie producers, and politicians. And he’s reserving a unit for himself -- his personal getaway, some 400 miles from his home in Denver.

It’s subterranean living at its finest, in the ultimate gated community.

Read more: Cities, Climate Change

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The a$#&^% biker problem: Why it’s hard to share the road

From "Motherfucking Bike," by Sons of Science

It was a Tuesday morning when I watched the cyclist -- decked out in a green jacket and a bright yellow helmet, and laden with bags -- ride into the crosswalk in front of a group of stopped cars, going against the flow of traffic. He was breaking a few laws -- but for convenience and self-preservation, I sometimes break them, too. My hometown, Baltimore, is a terrible biking town.

So I felt some sympathy for the guy -- that is, until he turned to a woman waiting in her car at the red light, and started yelling: “Hey! Hey! You’re not supposed to be in the crosswalk!”

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Sick of the suburbs: How badly designed communities trash our health

Richard Jackson, from the PBS miniseries, Designing Healthy Communities.

This story is excerpted from a longer piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Researchers can have revelatory moments in remarkable places -- the African savannah, an ancient library, or the ruins of a lost civilization. But Richard J. Jackson’s epiphany occurred in 1999 in a banal American landscape: a dismal stretch of the car-choked Buford Highway, near the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta.

Jackson, who was then the head of the National Center for Environmental Health at the CDC, was rushing to get to a meeting where leading epidemiologists would discuss the major health threats of the 21st century. On the side of the road he saw an elderly woman walking, bent with a load of shopping bags. It was a blisteringly hot day, and there was little hope that she would find public transportation. 

At that moment, Jackson says, “I realized that the major threat was how we had built America.”

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Defense insiders: Sustainable communities are key to the future

David Orr.Photo: Lisa DeJongThis story is the second of two pieces excerpted from a feature story in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Read the first piece here, and the full Chronicle story here. Environmental studies professor David Orr has set out to turn the aging rust belt town of Oberlin, Ohio, into a laboratory for sustainability. In the process, he has drawn interest from unlikely places: Experts from the military and in national security see the Oberlin Project as a compelling plan to focus on vulnerabilities in the nation's food, energy, and socioeconomic systems. They and others, including leaders of …

Read more: Cities

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An aging rust belt town becomes a laboratory for sustainability

Environmental Studies professor David OrrPhoto: Lisa DeJongThis story is the first of two pieces excerpted from a feature story in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Read part 2 here and the full Chronicle story here. Oberlin, Ohio -- This northern Ohio college town is barely a blip on a map, far away from national centers of power. And yet people here are working on a plan that could make it a model for fundamentally reshaping the American economy and its society. The architect of the plan is David W. Orr, a professor of environmental studies and politics at Oberlin College. …

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Why small cities are poised for success in an oil-starved future

Cross-posted from Urbanite. A couple of years ago, while I was reporting on a redevelopment plan in Buffalo, N.Y., I met up with Robert Shibley, an architecture professor who had long been interested in a renaissance for his once-great Rust Belt town. Buffalo, along with cities like Utica, Syracuse, and Rochester, had the sort of wonderful, old architecture and infrastructure you can find across upstate New York. We agreed that it was a shame to watch these places crumble in abandonment. But Shibley foresaw a glorious future. With ample freshwater (including the nearby Great Lakes), rich agricultural land, and a …

Read more: Cities