Skip to content Skip to site navigation

More Articles


GOP could reach out to cities, if not for the elephant in the room


The most famous cliché of editorial advice -- “write what you know” -- has always served me in good stead. I've often regretted ill-advised ventures outside my areas of expertise. (In 2006 I wrote a screed complaining that critics over-rate Ghostface Killah, based on my deep knowledge of hip-hop circa 1997. And don’t ask me about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ever. Please.) Ed Glaeser, Harvard economist and author of Triumph of the City, has just made such a mistake. While Glaeser knows free-market economics, he clearly knows nothing about the people who live in cities.

In the current issue of City Journal -- house organ of Rudy Giuliani-style neoconservatism -- Glaeser contends that it is time for cities and Republicans to put aside their history of animosity and come together. He makes three arguments, each less true than the next: that Republicans would benefit politically from appealing to urbanites, that urbanites will be receptive to their entreaties, and that Republican policy ideas would substantively benefit cities. Glaeser writes:

The GOP has an urban problem. And it’s partly a self-created one. The party, nationally and even locally, has focused on winning suburban and rural votes and has stopped reaching out to city dwellers.

The cities-as-foreign-territory approach is bad politics for the Republicans: after all, successful cities like New York and Houston surge with ambitious strivers and entrepreneurs, who should instinctively sympathize with the GOP’s faith in private industry. The Republican move away from the cities is also bad for the cities themselves, which have hugely benefited -- and could benefit a lot more -- from right-of-center ideas.

Let’s take these assertions one at a time.

Read more: Cities


Super Bowl ad brawl: SodaStream does what Sierra Club can’t

Every year, I am drawn inexorably to the ads that play during the Super Bowl. Every year, when I am exposed to the stew of crude misogyny, cornpone nostalgia, martial sentiment, and the overweening assumption that all of life's meaningful moments are tied to commercial products, I despair for humanity. But there's always one or two that are interesting.

This year the most interesting ad, however, didn't run during the Super Bowl because CBS canned it. Here it is:

As you can probably guess, CBS reportedly scrapped it because it directly criticizes Coke and Pepsi, which were also among the game's many sponsors. (SodaStream ended up airing a milder, less confrontational ad during the SuperBowl.)

What's interesting to me is that SodaStream is pushing for expansion in the U.S. (most of its sales are in Europe) with an explicitly environmental message. It's not about taste, or variety, or quality; it's about reducing the use of plastic. In a statement, SodaStream International was downright belligerent about it:


Ask Umbra: Are bathroom wipes safe?

Send your question to Umbra!

Q. Dear Umbra,

Are there any truly safe personal pre-moistened bathroom wipes? I was shocked to see some of the chemicals being used in a product that has "Natural Wipes" used in the name. There are some very unnatural ingredients, such as: sodium benzoate, methylisothiazolinone, propylene glycol, and fragrance. I'm possibly overreacting, butt what's a person supposed to do? This really has me bummed.

Detroit, Mich.


A. Dearest Help!,

Wow, you sure made a hole lot of puns there.

First of all, never trust the word “natural” on a label. It is basically meaningless. We should always probe claims, read ingredient lists, and do our best to understand what really lies behind that fancy package.

In some cases we are lucky, and someone else has done our homework for us. Someone like the Environmental Working Group, for instance. Turning to EWG’s Skin Deep database, an invaluable resource for researching products, we find the following about the ingredients you cite:

Sodium benzoate ranks a 1 on their scale of 0 to 10 (with 0 being no concern and 10 being major freak-out time). Propylene glycol scores a 3, presenting low-to-moderate concern primarily as a skin irritant and allergen, and methylisothiazolinone scores a 5, posing moderate concern as an allergen and potential neurotoxin. (I should note that a study based on patients at the Mayo Clinic found that methylisothiazolinone did indeed cause rashes and itching in wipe users, and word about wipes causing irritation seems to be spreading.)

And then there’s fragrance, an item that deserves its own little paragraph. It sounds like the most harmless of the bunch, doesn’t it? Yet it rates an 8 from the EWG.

Read more: Living


Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy and bicycling: How do we build a coalition for bike justice?

Marion S. Trikosko

In July 2008, I was in Atlanta trying to learn how to be an anthropologist of bicycling. Looking for clues, I went to the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, and I found myself overwhelmed by the power of Dr. King’s words. He summarized our American situation, argued for hope, and it all sang with truth. I stumbled around the exhibit, blinded by tears, knowing the horrible conclusion awaiting me at the end.

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.

I had of course heard Dr. King’s speeches before this, but I thought of him as a figure in history. I knew that Dr. King fought tirelessly to secure African American equality, but I didn’t understand that through this he sought to show us the connections between racial injustice and all injustice. A spiritual leader as well as a cosmopolitan intellectual, he drew on the ideas of Hegel and Gandhi and urged understanding between groups divided by hate and ignorance. His words hit me so hard on that day; they came alive and filled my heart.

Now, in order to answer the question, “Where do we go from here?” which is our theme, we must first honestly recognize where we are now.

In 2008, I was just beginning to see the fight that lay before me as a bicycle advocate and researcher. I had a growing awareness of the cultural barriers to sustainable transportation in Southern California, the anger bicycling bodies stirred with our audacity to use public streets. But it was a stranger’s death that opened my eyes to a deeper level of disempowerment in bicycling. Near my hometown, San Juan Capistrano, on a night in October 2007, a young woman who was driving drunk hopped the curb in her car and struck José Umberto Barranco, who was riding home on the sidewalk late one night from his job in the kitchen at a Denny’s. This stretch of road had very infrequent bus service, once an hour and none late at night, and perhaps Barranco could not afford a car, so he commuted by bike. The Los Angeles Times reported that, “Barranco had planned to spend Christmas with his wife, 13-year-old son, and 8-year-old daughter in the central Mexican state of Morelos, family members said. He hadn’t seen them in nearly two years, they said.”

Read more: Cities


Turn on, plug in, drop out: An electric car manifesto

Allow me to explain.
Allow me to explain.

I was driving my red Chevy Volt to work the other day when I noticed something. Just ahead of me, and one lane over, was -- another Volt! My heart raced. I sped up, and pulled alongside the other car. The stranger in the black Volt saw me and grinned. We waved to each other, and nodded knowingly. He rolled down his window, and motioned for me to do the same. Our brief conversation -- through the sounds of rolling tires and whooshing air, and no engine noise at all -- went something like this:



"Isn’t this great?"

"Yes! Totally!"

"Other people just don't get it, ya know?"

"I know! I know!"


"Oh! Right. See ya!"

With a hasty thumbs-up, we raised our windows and went our separate ways.

Such chummy exchanges are commonplace among the small but growing number of people who have ditched internal combustion in exchange for a vehicle that can be plugged in. Current options include the Volt, the practical Nissan Leaf, the jaw-dropping but expensive Tesla Model S, and a few others.

Enthusiasm and camaraderie among plug-in vehicle owners are high. Very high, in fact. Constantly frustrated by hearing others' silly misconceptions of our electric vehicles, and dismayed by the oily misinformation that saturates media coverage of our beloved cars, we turn to one another for sanity and support. To us, the rest of the world just doesn't get it. And we wish you did. On behalf of misunderstood electric-car fanatics everywhere, I'd like to explain a few things. Buckle up; here we go.


Harvard professor has it right: U.S. climate push requires intense grassroots support around ‘cap-and-dividend’ bill

In the past three weeks there’s been much debate in U.S. environmental circles over a provocative new paper [PDF] from Harvard University political scientist Theda Skocpol. In it, Skocpol gives the most compelling analysis yet of why the 2009 cap-and-trade bill to fight global warming went down in flames. In sum, Skocpol argues that intense and radical opposition from Tea Party Republicans proved much stronger than the environmentalists’ insider-game, partner-with-business, harness-polls-instead-of-the-grassroots approach.

My added value in commenting here is that I experienced the run-up to -- and aftermath of -- the failed Waxman-Markey bill from the field. I’ve been a grassroots climate organizer for 10 years, having founded the organization I still direct: the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. CCAN straddles much of the political landscape of America, organizing in the conservative “South” (Virginia) and the liberal “Northeast” (Maryland), while staying very involved in national climate initiatives in Washington, D.C., the geographic center of our region.

I saw from the church-basement view the rise of Tea Party opposition to Waxman-Markey and the insufficient grassroots organizing response from the major green groups. What efforts were made (Sierra Club stands out as well as the short-lived but respectable field effort of the group 1Sky) fell mostly on deaf ears since average people couldn’t comprehend the complexity of the cap-and-trade bill and could see no immediate and direct benefit in their lives.


Sometimes a driverless car is not just a driverless car: Thoughts on widgets and systems

Driverless cars are coming to a street near you, and soon. “I think that genuine self-driving cars will be available within a decade and that they'll be big game changers,” writes Kevin Drum, who’s been on a driverless-car kick lately. Or take it from Dan Gage, spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers: “That fully autonomous car of the future is not that far away.” Or just watch this:

Google has been testing driverless cars extensively. Nevada and California have passed legislation permitting them on the streets. Other states will soon follow suit. This is a near-future thing, not a sci-fi dream.

I happen to share Drum's enthusiasm for driverless cars, and want to use it to make a larger point about social change.

Widgets and systems

Let’s think about the distinction between widgets (pieces of technology) and systems (the cultural, economic, and infrastructural systems in which technologies are embedded).


Bacon wrecks the best-laid plans


I have now gone 30 days without eating meat. Well, that is not entirely true: The other day, I was making my boyfriend a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich and without even thinking about it, I ate a piece of bacon.

It was pretty small -- about the size of a postage stamp. But I ate it.

I told a friend, and he asked me if I felt guilty. I have to say I really didn’t. Maybe I am too easy on myself, but I am conducting a sort of experiment, and what I do or don’t do is just data, results, information. The information here was: I really wanted to not want to put the bacon in my mouth. And I clearly wasn’t there yet. So it was probably a good thing that this week I was focusing on the part of the book Eating Animals that describes how pigs are killed. (I’m saving cows for next week, because I am going to compare grass-fed and grain-fed, which is a big and complicated topic.)

Without further ceremony, then, let’s get straight into how Jonathan Safran Foer describes the pork industry in Eating Animals. Again -- I’m focusing on commercial pig farms. There is a large section of the book about places like Niman Ranch where yes, indeed, pigs have much better lives and deaths than they do on most pig farms. But this bacon wasn't Niman Ranch bacon; it was whatever brand from the supermarket. And, without thinking, I ate a piece of it. And I served it to someone.

Read more: Food


Upping the steaks: How grass-fed beef is reshaping ag and helping the planet


Bartlett Durand is the rare local-food entrepreneur who has no trouble turning a profit: Durand’s Black Earth Meats processes and sells grass-fed beef, and these days grass-fed beef sells like crazy.

Located near Madison, Wis., Black Earth is an abattoir, an old-fashioned butchery containing everything from a slaughterhouse to a retail store. Its sales have doubled in four out of the last five years. Durand expects them to jump again this year, from $6 million to $10 million. Orders have poured in so swiftly that, in addition to artisan butchers, Black Earth had to hire a “chef liaison” to translate orders into cow anatomy.

“Chefs have been trained in the box beef codes and don’t always know where the meat comes from on the animal,” Durand explains. “A chef will say, ‘I want a filet de round.’ My butcher will say, ‘What the hell is that?’”

Grass-fed beef, like “filet de round,” is a concept that eludes people outside the beef industry. So a little background is in order.

In the months after birth, a calf drinks the rich milk of its mother. Once weaned, it might be lucky enough to follow mom around the pasture for a little while, munching grass -- but sooner or later, it is customarily sent to a feedlot to be fattened on grain, a process somewhat like tossing an animal on a full-tilt assembly line. Cows left to fatten in the field are the ones that become “grass-fed beef.” They gain the same weight, but more slowly, taking up to 14 months more, and yield a leaner beef. Some farmers of grass-fed beef are purists and leave the cow in the pasture till the day it dies. Others “cheat” by giving the cow a month or two of grain at the end, but in the comfort of the barnyard, not a 10,000-head feedlot. Durand sells both kinds.

Durand is a trim 45-year-old who has deep roots in agriculture. His grandfather was a geographer who studied milksheds. “I was a vegetarian in college because of how meat was raised and handled,” Durand recalls. When he married into a farm family, he started helping out and ultimately quit his job as a lawyer to pursue food full time.

In the $79-billion beef industry, his company is miniscule. Four giant companies control 80 percent of the beef market. “A really big kill for us would be 50 cows in one day,” says Durand. “A small packinghouse processes 1,500 to 3,000 a day.”

Yet his business has the customers to grow. Black Earth buys cows from 78 farmers. To keep up with demand, Durand must convince them to raise more cows on grass alone. He must also lure new farmers to the field. And farmers, though intrigued, are justifiably wary. Is grass-fed beef a fad among chefs and yuppies destined to peter out, or a major new market?

Read more: Food


Attack of the leafy greens: Is your lunch plotting against you?


According to a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the single food most likely to make you sick isn't ground beef or ground turkey but rather ... leafy greens! In other words, the “good for you” stuff. Dang.

In the 10 years between 1998 and 2008, produce caused 42 percent of food-borne illnesses, according to the study, with leafy greens alone accounting for 23 percent. Most of the produce-related illness was norovirus, which for most people is a nasty, messy, but brief experience. Produce was also the cause of 41 percent of hospitalizations and 24 percent of the deaths from food-borne illness -- though as a group meat, dairy, and eggs were responsible for more of each.

But before you toss the contents of your produce drawer into the compost heap, let’s consider a few things.

Read more: Food