Wednesday, September 7, 2011

You Disappoint Me, Mr. President

This morning I received an email from Obama for America, the organizing group for President Obama's 2012 campaign, with the headline "This Email Will Offend You."

Here's how the email began:
Adam --

Here's something you and I weren't supposed to find out:

At a private function at a Colorado resort, oil billionaire Charles Koch stood in front of hundreds of conservative millionaires and said the 2012 election will be, in the words of Saddam Hussein -- yes, he decided to quote Saddam Hussein -- "the mother of all wars."

He then read through a list of 32 contributors who gave more than a million dollars each to bankroll the network of corporate special-interest groups that aim to tear down President Obama.

If that offends you, it absolutely should. But it should also motivate you, because you are the only thing that can stop them.
Sure, it offends me that one of the biggest oil barons of our time, responsible for more environmental destruction and climate change than maybe any other American (I admit I'm not sure if this is true, but just think of all of that oil...) would quote a vile dictator in reference to the 2012 presidential race. But this email seemed out of touch with something I've been thinking for a little while now -- that Obama himself is alienating his base by disregarding the values that got him elected. Obama the president could not be more different than Obama the candidate. Plus I could think of something that offends me more -- his recent cave on improved ozone standards. As Adrianna Quintero writes on NRDC's Switchboard:
Passing a stronger standard would save (yes, SAVE!) as much as $37 billion per year in health benefits at a cost of roughly $20 billion by:
She continues, sharing my frustration with Obama's compromise or inaction on these important issues:
It seems that none of these very obvious questions matter to them [politicians] anymore. Knee-jerk reactions to overblown claims by political rivals are what rule the day and motivate action in Congress and in the Administration. Reason and facts are looked down upon. Thoughtfulness is viewed as pretentious. And protecting our country, our children, MY children, equals political poison.
With this sentiment and that of being arrested at the White House taking nonviolent direct action for climate fresh in my mind, I responded to the initial email with this message:

"You know what really offends me? That the man I voted into office in 2008 (my first ever presidential election vote, by the way) on the platform of hope and change has done little on the subject of climate change. His cave on ozone regulation makes me sick, literally and figuratively. I was arrested in front of the White House two weeks ago when I engaged in civil disobedience against the Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring tar sands, the dirtiest fuel on the planet, from Canada to US refineries along the Gulf Coast. If President Obama approves this pipeline, and continues his track record of caving on and not actively pursuing stricter climate policy, I will not vote for him in 2012. I know many of my friends, family members, and fellow concerned Americans feel the same way, and I hope you can somehow relay this message to him."

A group of Keystone XL pipeline opponents recently gathered at an Obama campaign office in Seattle to share this same message with the staff there. They bring up the point that not only are their votes at stake, but also their willingness to donate and volunteer for the campaign and defend Obama to their friends and colleagues.

Obama clearly has some explaining to do or I fear he'll have a tough time of it next November. I never thought Obama would ever be the lesser-of-two-evils candidate, but if he doesn't start proving his commitment to climate and the other core values that so endeared him to us in 2008 he will face that fate and risk being a one-term president.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

We Shall Overcome

"Sir, step forward please."

A buff mustachioed officer of the DC Park Police motioned me to come closer. I'll never forget his next four words, "You are under arrest." He then told me to turn around and snapped thick plastic bands around my wrists.

I was the third-to-last of 59 participants in civil disobedience earlier today to be arrested at the White House. We were taking nonviolent direct action in opposition to the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline, which would bring tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to the US Gulf Coast. Aside from the danger this pipeline would pose to sources of drinking water, rural and indigenous peoples, and wildlife, if this carbon were to enter the atmosphere it would be game over for climate. Estimates place the tar sands contribution to CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere at 600 parts per million (ppm), so this pipeline is kind of a big deal. For reference, 350 ppm is the concentration at which human life on Earth developed. We're currently somewhere between 385 and 395 ppm CO2, and steadily climbing.

After each of us was pulled from the rest of group lined up along the sidewalk, we were led into a small tent and then loaded into a paddy wagon to be transported to the Anacostia branch of the Park Police for further processing. I was loaded into the last truck along with Jerome from New Jersey and Bishop from Virginia. To say we were cramped would be an understatement. Imagine bouncing around in the back of a mobile toaster. Then imagine having your hands behind your back, and you'll get a sense of our experience. I was first on the transport so I had a view out of the front of the vehicle through the metal mesh between myself and the driver. As we wove through the streets of DC behind our motorcycle escort past the White House, through the Mall beside the Washington Monument, and across the Anacostia River, I wondered what the tourists were thinking. What's all this ruckus? Who are these criminals being transported across town? I could see them turning their heads along the sidewalks as they heard the whine of the sirens coming down the street. I chuckled to myself. If only they knew that behind the windowless walls of the truck sat a recent college graduate, an environmental engineer, and a lawyer who'd all been demonstrating at the White House only moments before. We're doing this for you, I thought, and we're doing this for each other.

Processing once we arrived at the jailhouse was relatively painless. One by one they snapped off our plastic cuffs and led us to a long table staffed with officers who had us fill out paperwork for our release. Because of the low severity of our crime - we were charged with failure to obey a lawful order (aka get off the sidewalk) - and the benevolence of the Park Police, we were granted a "post and forfeit" release. Under these terms we could pay a $100 fine instead of staying overnight in jail and arranging a date in court. Thankfully we were instructed to have cash on us beforehand, and we were all out of police custody by 2:00 or so. Not so bad considering arrests had started around 11:30. I also want to make a point of saying that the DC Park Police were courteous and professional throughout the process, and I hope they spend my $100 wisely.

One of the most remarkable things for me about this action was the ability of a group of complete strangers to come together and rally around a common vision. It was even more astonishing to me that part of that goal was arrest. Action organizers affectionately used the phrase "risking arrest" when describing the action we were to take but after three previous days of arrested participants we had a good idea of what we were in for. The vast majority of us, like myself, were first-time participants in a demonstration of this kind and had never been arrested before. This could have made for a nervous bunch, but after spending several hours at a civil disobedience training session last night we were comfortable enough to put our trust in one another and take this leap of faith together. Leading up to the action I was anxious about entering into a scenario where I wasn't in control of my personal well-being (wait, you mean we're actually going to be arrested, like arrested arrested?), but as soon as I showed up at the White House this morning I knew that I would be in good hands - those of the wonderful, courageous, and passionate people who had come from all over the country to stand beside me. I realized too that sometimes you must relinquish that control in order to take control of something you care about.

One of the most memorable moments from today was when my buddy (we each had action buddies who were our go-to's for support throughout the day) Lawrence MacDonald and others led us in a variation of We Shall Overcome, an anthem of the Civil Rights movement. The lyrics drew nicely on the essence of what we were trying to accomplish.

We shall overcome, we shall overcome,
We shall overcome someday;
Deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall overcome someday.

We'll walk hand in hand, we'll walk hand in hand,
We'll walk hand in hand someday;
Deep in my heart, I do believe,
We'll walk hand in hand someday.

We shall live in peace, we shall live in peace,
We shall live in peace someday;
Deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall live in peace someday.

We shall heal the earth, we shall heal the earth,
We shall heal the earth someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall heal the earth someday.

If today showed me anything, it's that this day is coming and we can get there even quicker if we work together to oppose injustice and bring positive change to the world.

Final note: Infinite thanks to the Tar Sands Action organizing team. Your help in preparing us for what we could expect throughout the day and your presence before, during, and after the action were invaluable to this experience. It honestly wouldn't have been possible, and won't continue to be possible this next week and a half, without your tireless work. I'm exhausted after participating in a single day, I can't imagine the resolve it must take to be out there day after day training a new group and seeing them safely through the arrest process. I think I speak for all of those who participated with me today when I say you are the real heroes of this action. Thank you!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Stop the Tar Sands: Stand Tall Generation Y

This post originally appeared last week in a Daily Kos blogathon featuring responses to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. If this were to be approved, the pipeline would bring tar sands oil from Canada to the US Gulf Coast and serve as the fuse to one of the largest carbon bombs on the planet. If we are to have any hope of mitigating the catastrophic consequences of climate change, this carbon must stay in the ground. Here's why I'm participating in civil disobedience against the Keystone XL this week.

I've always balked a little at the notion that we should take action on climate change for the sake of our children, and for our children's children. This idea rubs me the wrong way because it creates a temporal disconnect with the immediacy of these issues, reinforcing the misconception that climate change is something that isn't happening while giving those suspicious of doing good for the environment another reason not to care. That, and of course it's not true. We need to take action on climate to save ourselves too.

Whenever I hear someone reference future generations in relation to climate change I can't help but think, "They're talking about me. These adults are talking about me." See, I was born in the late nineteen eighties which means that if US life expectancy is anywhere near accurate I will still be alive well after 2050. To put it simply, if I don't take action on climate then I'm not only jeopardizing my branch of the family tree but my own existence entirely. I don't have the luxury of playing wait and see. None of us do. Of course I'm an adult too now and as we charge further into the 21st Century an idea that may be a vestige of environmental messages of old becomes less and less relevant as more climate-passionate young people join the cause and conversation.

Climate must be a priority now. Our current greenhouse gas trajectory exceeds even the worst-case fossil fuel intensive projections made in 2007 for emissions over the next 100 years. The following video depicts a message Bill McKibben articulated beautifully in a Washington Post op-ed in May: Connect the dots. The destructive consequences of a changing climate are happening all around us.

When I first heard about the two weeks of civil disobedience in Washington I thought this is an incredible and unique opportunity. Through our participation we can show the one man responsible for approving or rejecting the pipeline, President Barack Obama, that we mean business. The groundswell of support for this action and the satellite protests that have cropped up across the country for those who cannot make it to DC prove that we've grown tired of our leaders' inability to make significant progress on climate change. Oftentimes when I think about direct actions I can take to have a positive impact on the environment my mind wanders to behavior changes in my personal life. But participating in civil disobedience is a whole different animal, and for me a no-brainer. Let's get this country's attention and convince the Commander in Chief to stop one of the most destructive projects in discussion today.

I recently came across a passage of a speech Obama gave back in 2006. He said:
"The issue of climate change is one that we ignore at our own peril. There may still be disputes about exactly how much we're contributing to the warming of the earth's atmosphere and how much is naturally occurring, but what we can be scientifically certain of is that our continued use of fossil fuels is pushing us to a point of no return. And unless we free ourselves from a dependence on these fossil fuels and chart a new course on energy in this country, we are condemning future generations to global catastrophe."
Without a doubt President Obama has diverged from this message. Sure, he may not think he has enough remaining political capital to craft meaningful climate legislation, especially when current members of Congress advocate abolishing the EPA and recently rejected a measure that would have admitted the climate is changing and human activities are the cause. In the midst of such an obstructionist political setting it's up to us to show him he's not alone. Further action simply cannot wait. He needs to understand that approving the Keystone XL pipeline would be a direct affront to those who elected him.

Therefore this post is a call to all members of Generation Y to come out in strength and stand tall outside the White House starting this weekend. The votes of the 18- to 25-year-old demographic were essential to Obama's victory in 2008 and we need to hold him accountable. We’ve inherited quite the complex global problem and it’s up to us to solve it, or perish. We ARE the future generation we’ve heard so much about. The clock is ticking.

I remember in the very first announcement on Grist about the plans for the civil disobedience there was a portion which read: "We don’t want college-age kids to be the only cannon fodder in this fight.... Now it’s time for people who’ve spent their lives pouring carbon into the atmosphere (and whose careers won’t be as damaged by an arrest record) to step up too." Fellow Gen-Yers, will we get arrested? It's entirely possible. We're not supposed to stand still in the location where we'll be gathering outside the White House. But this space offers President Obama such a prime view of us we simply can't pass it up. Should we let the threat of tainting our personal records deter us from showing our support for this cause? Never. Would we want to work somewhere that couldn't understand and accept the type of thoughtful and principled action we'll be engaging in? I don't think so. I will be outside the White House a week from today, on Tuesday August 23rd, and I hope you will join me.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Test Driving the 100% Electric Nissan Leaf

On Saturday I had the opportunity to test drive the Leaf, the 100% electric car manufactured by Nissan. It's no secret I've had a mini-love affair with the Leaf marketing team ever since I first saw their commercials a while ago (see posts here, here and most recently here). When I noticed on Twitter a few weeks ago that they were launching a Drive Electric Tour and that they were stopping in nearby Hartford, I knew I had to take advantage of the chance to get in the driver's seat myself and see what all the hype was about.

The event itself was awesome. It was a brutally hot day and they had cornered off a large section of the parking lot at the West Farms Mall for the driving course. There were also tents with information about the Leaf and refreshments. I was a part of the 1:30 tour group -- There were about 20 of us in all. Most of them were families with kids and I was probably the youngest person who drove himself to the event. Go figure. It didn't matter that I'm not planning on actually buying a Leaf, or any car for that matter anytime soon (I'm hoping to live in a place where it's not necessary to drive everywhere). That said, if and when I come to a point in my life where I want to buy a car, this is definitely towards the top of my wish list.

I was just along for the ride and to get a glimpse of the technology of the future. And that's really what it felt like. It made me think of what it must have been like to visit a world's fair and see the technologies of the coming era. Okay, maybe that's a stretch -- it's only a new car. Then again, the Leaf has no mufflers. I digress...

One of the Nissan Tour staff members ushered us through the first tent and told us about the car. Because it has roughly a 100-mile charge, he was honest that the Leaf is not a road trip vehicle. He was quick to point out that over 90 percent of us never travel 100 miles in a day, so the Leaf is perfect for the commute to school or work, or for running errands around town. He also explained that since the Leaf can recharge its battery while braking or coasting, some drivers can achieve distances of up to 130 miles. The navigation system built into the Leaf can locate nearby charging stations as well as show the driver all possible destinations, one-way and round-trip, within the current battery life. He pointed out the many other features of the Leaf, including the solar panel on the roof that powers the radio, headlights, AC, etc. The model underneath the tent had been running all day, yet all the components under the hood were cool to the touch. The seats themselves are made out of recycled plastic water bottles. The headlights were designed to direct airflow around the sideview mirrors to reduce drag. The list went on and on. Needless to say I was very impressed by the care Nissan had taken to create the Leaf.

Before long it was time to head out on the course. I was accompanied by Nissan staff to a car waiting in the lot. I climbed into the drivers seat and pushed the power button. The only sound was that of the air conditioning turning on. Soon it was my turn to take off, and I slid out of the starting area. One of the coolest things about driving the Leaf was the way it calculated the remaining range in the vehicle on the dashboard. It even told you by how many miles you could increase the range by turning of the AC or radio, or by putting the car into eco-mode (effectively the equivalent of a lower gear in any normal car, i.e. slower pickup).

Unfortunately we weren't allowed to push more than 15-20 mph through the course, so it was a little difficult for me to tell how it would fare on the open road. It did handle really well weaving through the cones they had set up and from what I could tell it was very similar to driving other small to midsized cars. When I asked one of the tent staffers what his favorite thing was about the Leaf he said it was the torque. He agreed that the course was limiting and didn't do the car justice, but that it had to be that way for liability reasons. Next time I'd really like to get one of these out on the open road and just cruise around for a little while. Due to hit the open market this fall, I may get that chance soon.

Overall the event was so much fun and I feel like I now have a better understanding of the Leaf and a greater appreciation for Nissan in doing what it has to promote electric vehicles. If you are interested in test driving one yourself, check out the Drive Electric Tour and see if the Leaf will be coming to a city near you soon. The national tour just started, so chances are you'll have an opportunity to participate. I highly recommend it!

Monday, July 11, 2011

TGL, Two Years Later

It was two years ago last Friday that I sat down in my Washington D.C. apartment and wrote and published the very first post on this here blog. I had spent the day at the 2009 Campus Progress National Conference where I was inspired by speeches from such luminaries as former President Bill Clinton, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, oh, and of course, Daily Show correspondent John Oliver. Having deliberated for the better part of the preceding months over whether or not to start my voyage into the unknown depths of the internets, I finally could not resist the temptation to stake a claim on my own personal corner of the virtual frontier.

When I go back and read that post now I hear a self-conscious writer (can I even call my nascent blogger self a writer?) dipping his toes into the blogging pool. I didn't even really know at the time what I wanted to write about -- baseball? comic books? (HA.) -- I simply knew that I had ideas that I wanted to share. Soon The Green Lantern became my outlet for my observations on the world of sustainability, urbanism, or the two together. It helped me apply concepts and theories I'd learn in the classroom to the current web of events we now find ourselves caught up in.

Several times I remarked that blogging took a certain bravado to think that people would want to read what I had to say. As I honed my message and my method, I began to attract more and more visitors. Some were friends, family members, and colleagues, and some were people I had never met before who were interested in hearing what I had to say. I feel incredibly fortunate to have seen my readership grow to the point it is at now. I had just under 500 pageviews last month:

Inherent in this endeavor was finding my "voice," something I knew would be paramount to this process way back in that very first post. In some ways I think my writing style has remained remarkably constant, though the strength of argument has improved. I've also learned to loosen up in some of my posts, because who likes to read something that's stuffy and boring (the answer is no one...). Over the past two years I've written on time-lapse videos of NYC, about 100 different electric car commercials, my love of biking, and cities from the sky. My most popular posts to date are Lock It Up and a recent rallying cry against hydraulic fracturing, Exxon, For Shame (both worth a read if you missed them the first time around).

I'm a firm believer in the idea that you can't know where you're going if you don't know where you've been. Luckily for me I've kept a careful record of where I've been, and I can say that I want to keep heading in the direction I've set out for myself. Like a planetary body set in motion I won't stop now. I can't, even if I foolishly wanted to or even tried. My life is in a period of transition -- I just graduated from college and am (finally) and "adult." Hopefully building upon these writings will help me to further determine the solutions to the crises of the 21st Century.

From those of you who have been there when the beginning began, to those of you for whom this is your first post, the only words I can say are thank you, thank you, thank you.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Watch this Video. Just Watch It.

Last year one of my professors warned my class not to associate extreme weather events with climate change, a point I explored in several posts that spring (See here, here, and here). In this video Stephen Thomson narrates Bill McKibben's Washington Post op-ed over images of these disasters and relevant political tidbits, creating an incredibly haunting and convincing portrait of recent events. At this point I'm not really sure what to think, but I'm now asking myself this question: If no one extreme weather event can be linked to climate change then at what point (if any) can a series of such catastrophes be attributed to a changing climate? And if this connection is made, can they even be called "natural" disasters anymore?

Friday, June 10, 2011

Nissan Asks, What if Everything Ran on Gas?

The marketing team at Nissan is at it again, and this time they've struck gold.

I saw this commercial for the first time last night, and I have seen it everywhere since (including the preview advertisement for another Youtube video of the ad itself. So meta, right?). The concept is incredible, so much so that I actually uttered the word "brilliant" when the commercial ended. After watching it several times through, I realize its message is different from the one I initially took away from it but that doesn't detract from the creativity of the clip nor the intended message itself.

When I first watched it, I thought what the heck could this be for? A bunch of appliances running on two-stroke engines and spewing (noticeable) exhaust into the surrounding air? I was captivated by it because it visually represented an important connection -- that each of these technological amenities uses energy. It would be more obvious if we lived in a world where everything ran on gas, but when the plants spewing the same pollutants into the atmosphere are located in someone else's backyard this connection is more difficult to draw. I like this commercial for the same reason I like the wall decal below, from Hu2 Design. Both are innovative ways to remind people of their environmental impacts.

The subtle aspects of the commercial really make it shine. It is meant to make you feel bored and uncomfortable. Watching someone go through their daily routine really gets you going, doesn't it? Waking up at 6:20? Yuck. And no one likes the dentist, especially if they try to put a sawzall in your mouth. After all, thinking about gasoline should unnerve you and to them I say job well done.

My "Aha" moment came when we finally arrive at our tragic hero filling his Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid electric car (which means it can run on gas or electricity, or both), at the pump. Clever, I thought, to use gas-powered electric appliances to make the case for electrifying a typically gas-powered vehicle. But, of course, the magicians at Nissan weren't done yet. They took the commercial as an opportunity to make a light jab at their chief competitor, clearly taking pride in the fact that their car doesn't rely on the Volt's gas-dependent safety net. The only problem I have with their message is that the electricity they purport to be vastly better than gasoline isn't emissions-free either. Roughly two-thirds of the electricity produced in this country is done so using dirty sources such as coal or natural gas. Nissan Leafs (Leaves?) nor Chevy Volts will be true zero-emissions vehicles until we grow the percentage of renewables in our national energy portfolio. To the Volt's defense, there clearly aren't charging stations yet on the average street like the one shown beside the Leaf in this commercial. Because of this the Chevy hybrid model could be a more than acceptable stepping stone to a complete EV future, as long as its electric refueling capacity isn't ignored in practice in favor of the more familiar gasoline routine.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Flickering Lights: Another NYC Timelapse

Earlier this year I posted this time-lapse video of New York City made by photographer Josh Owens. In that post, I commented on how cities are visually striking places and images like these have the power to illicit emotional responses in those viewing them. In case you found yourself wanting, don't worry -- Owens is at it again. Last week he released a second video of New York, once which incorporates many of the same elements of the first while focusing on different themes:

One of the aspects that stands out to me is the way Owens captures light. From the first few seconds of the video when the sun rises and bathes the rooftops in its glow, to the city streets flanked by tall buildings that only receive complete sun for moments each day, to the blurring red tail lights streaking through the streets, and then the office lights that blink on and off along the various facades, light is central to our impressions and understanding of cities.

And like his first video, you can't ignore the sheer beauty of the images he captures.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Exxon, For Shame

In the past week I've seen the following Exxon commercial probably a dozen times. You may have seen it too, or one like it. They usually include a charismatic narrator describing how some aspect of Exxon's operation is valuable to our country. You can almost hear them pleading, "We're doing the right thing, don't you see?" But this most recent commercial, part of their 2011 corporate ad program, really rubbed me the wrong way. Why? Because it's a blatant lie. Brilliant marketing, and a blatant lie.


Geologist Erik Oswald touts the benefits of natural gas exploration. "Technology has made it possible to safely unlock this cleaner burning natural gas," he boasts, "These deposits can provide us with fuel for 100 years, providing energy security and economic growth all across this country." All the while, the background video displays expanses of wilderness, sleepy households, and mom-and-pop shops on Main Street opening for business (complete with American flags, of course. Hurrah for exploiting patriotism).

If Mr. Oswald were telling the truth, this commercial would go a little something like this: "Extremely toxic and unregulated technology has made it possible for us to extract natural gas right in your backyard. Natural gas produces about 30 percent less carbon dioxide than petroleum, so sure it's more efficient but it's still a dirty fuel." Smiling sheepishly, he'd continue, "These deposits can provide us with fuel for 100 years which is really no time at all, perpetuating our addiction to fossil fuels. It would lead to economic growth for those that have rigged the system to reap the benefits. Heck, Exxon enjoyed record profits during Q1 in 2011! For others, those we exploit, natural gas exploration will lead to extreme human health risks and contaminated drinking water. But who cares about them?"

Sorry Mr. Oswald, but in the words of Michael Scott, "Boom, roasted."

It is precisely what is not mentioned in this commercial that is so troubling. The unspoken phrase here is hydraulic fracturing, even though that is exactly the type of natural gas exploration and extraction that it describes. For those of you who aren't familiar with the technique, hydraulic fracturing (also known as fracking) involves injecting a toxic cocktail of chemicals thousands of feet beneath the earth's surface to break up porous rock and release the natural gas trapped within. But of course the term "fracking" isn't used, because it's a dirty word (pun intended).

One of the reasons I'm so worked up about this commercial is two weeks ago I saw Gasland. After receiving a $100,000 offer for a gas lease on his land in Pennsylvania, filmmaker Jeff Fox decided to investigate fracking sites across the country and made this award-winning documentary. What he found could not be more contradictory to the natural gas utopia depicted by Oswald and Exxon.

Watch the Gasland trailer to get a sense of what I'm talking about:

I'm unsure if any film has ever affected me the way Gasland did. I came out of the screening irate and upset. How could something so clearly dangerous and untested be allowed? I wanted to throw these images and these stories in the faces of those who continually deny a link between fracking and environmental and human health crises. I think that's why it moved me so much - because this just wasn't a story about environmental degradation on a national scale. It was also a narrative about the destruction the social fabric of the families and the communities that now can't fish in their waterways, let their kids play outside, or trust the air they breathe in their own homes.

I think watching this movie had the same effect on me that reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road did last year, even though the cause of the dying earth he vividly depicted was never explicitly stated to be environmentally rooted. The anger I feel towards this Exxon commercial reminds me of the fear I felt after reading that book. But what role do these emotions play in the climate movement? I think we shy away from the realities of climate change because what's happening to the planet is so immense in scale and complexity, and we need to remain hopeful and happy to pull us through. But these emotions are valuable in their own right, not to mention entirely justified. And this brings us to the central problem with this commercial - Exxon expects us to accept it hook, line, and sinker. I say, "How dare they?" They don't fool me and they shouldn't fool you either. The next time you see this commercial or one like it, understand it for what it is.

In the last 24 hours I've signed this petition asking Mr. Oswald to halt fracking activities and one from asking Congress to end subsidies to oil companies. I urge you to do the same.

Image credit: "What the Frack?" by Option-G.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Barcelona, 1908

Sometimes it's hard to imagine a time when automobiles didn't rule the road. The following video gives us a glimpse into the streets of Barcelona one hundred years ago when there were no cars, only streetcars:

It's almost impossible to envision a major modern city without cars (okay I'll come clean, there are a few of the first automobiles in this clip). One of the coolest things about this video though, is that without cars everyone uses the street. There are more pedestrians in the street than on the sidewalk. Bicycles weave back and forth across the streetcar-mounted camera. There are few carriages and even fewer automobiles. The video commentary from Pattern Cities echoes the importance of this idea:

This incredible film... demonstrates the degree to which modern society has engineered complexity out of our streets. It also provides a glimpse into how our city streets operated before the automobile went mainstream, a seminal 20th century moment that has damaged cities the world over.

But surely the streets of the 1900s were not entirely crash-free, or as romantic as this film and its whimsical music make them out to be. Yet, the inherent complexity– the organized chaos of streetcars, pedestrians, horse-drawn carriages, and yes, motorists all mixing together–is instructive and should make any urbanist long for a time when the tyranny of the automobile didn’t dominate the project of city building.

Unfortunately I don't think we will ever return to the ideal displayed here. We've traveled too far along our current path. Effectively merging cars and cities is not an easy task, but it is something that is an important problem in the 21st Century. Throughout the discussion around the impacts of automobile use on the planet I am amused by those who wish to do away with them entirely. Aside from being unfeasible - we've developed a modern transportation network predicated on automobility - it's also unfavorable. There's a reason cars are so popular. Car owners love the autonomy inherent in being able to go where you want to, when you want to. I'm not foolish enough to suppose that nothing will ever replace the automobile (where is my jetpack, anyhow?) but I am certain they are here to stay for the foreseeable future. And yes, maybe even through the 100 year timeline often cited as the window of opportunity to improve the odds on climate change. Since altering the infrastructure that mandates automobile use will take longer than we realistically have time for, the answer could depend on the speed at which we improve efficiency of hybrid vehicles and develop better electric vehicle technology. That said, we could sure do ourselves a favor and make fewer decisions like this one.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Power Shift 2011: Bill McKibben and Tim DeChristopher

Unfortunately I wasn't able to attend Power Shift this year, though the friends I've talked to about it have all said it was an incredible experience. Thankfully in the technology age I've been able to follow along with a lot of the action on Twitter (which has officially displaced Facebook as my social media outlet of choice; follow @agmaynard). During my internet explorations I came across two videos of speeches that I think are worth sharing. The first is Bill McKibben, author and the founder of The second is Tim DeChristopher, a climate activist who was in the news recently for crashing a federal auction and bidding nearly $1.8 million for oil and gas leases he had no intention of paying for.

Let's listen to McKibben first:

McKibben speaks about corrupt politics in Washington, and how we can't let dirty money (largely from the Chamber of Commerce and the industrious Koch bothers, pun intended) win out in the end. He says building a movement that is louder and more impassioned than the opposition will be the key to achieving the significant policy victories necessary to prevent catastrophic changes to the climate system. We've already caused 1 degree of warming (that's Celsius, by the way) and if we get to 5 or more we're cooked. It's up to us to make sure that doesn't happen in the next hundred years or so.

Some highlights:
  • They [politicians] believe that because they can amend the tax laws they can amend the laws of nature too, but they can't. (on Congress voting to deny anthropogenic climate change).
  • The first thing we need to do is build a movement. We will never have as much money as the oil companies so we need a different currency to work in. We need bodies, we need creativity, we need spirit. has been like a beta test for that movement.
  • We need to fight with art and with music too, not just with the side of our brain that likes bar graphs and pie charts but all our heart and all our soul.
  • We need to speak with one loud voice.
Now let's listen to DeChristopher. Pay attention to how his tone is different than McKibben's:

DeChristopher's portrait of the future is far more dark than McKibben's. He speaks of the challenges we'll face and the sacrifices that must be made. Because the carbon we've already emitted into the atmosphere is there to stay, we are on track for the collapse of modern civilization. The greatest challenge moving forward will not be reducing emissions, but maintaining our humanity through the troubles to come. He also describes why events like Power Shift do little to prevent this from happening. "There's a lot of stuff about this movement that feels really good and that's really convenient but it's not preparing us for the challenge that we will face ahead of us," says DeChristopher. Of the problems we'll inherit he says, "We're not going to meet it in a convenient way. We're not going to meet it in a way that fits into our school schedules. We're not going to meet it in a way that we can avoid sacrifices." Without using these exact words he says this is war.

Through their speeches I think McKibben and DeChristopher describe different means to the same end. Both use the term civil disobedience, but I don't know if McKibben would support the types of interference his counterpart does (after all, DeChristopher is likely facing 5-10 years in prison for the gas lease auction bids). McKibben advocates for the "movement," for using the political capital built through organizations like 350 to influence policymakers in Washington. DeChristopher on the other hand advocates direct action, picketing at mountaintop removal sites for example. What's interesting about this suggestion is it would probably work and wouldn't end in a prison sentence (at least I'd hope not). But how many of you would actually travel to West Virginia and engage in this type of protest?

There is a palpable tension between what we need to do and what we are willing to do to solve the crisis of our generation. After listening to these perspectives one after another I find myself asking, "How far would I go to bring about the positive change we need?"

Monday, April 4, 2011

Ghost Cities

This really freaks me out (and it should freak you out too). Reporters from Australian TV show Dateline explore the empty streets of Dongguan to document the dark reality of China's real estate boom. Six years after its opening, the "New" South China Mall remains 99 percent vacant. Government development agencies raze single-story tenements to make way for high-rise apartments that few Chinese can afford. But construction continues.

Admittedly one of the reasons I find this tour of Dongguan so spooky is because of the visual parallels I draw to one of my favorite movies, Serenity. In the scene below, the crew of the Firefly discovers a secret the centralized Alliance government was determined to keep hidden. They stumble upon the planet Miranda and find it completely deserted, with no evidence of war, famine, or other catastrophe.

My favorite quote from this clip (besides "She is starting to damage my calm") is when Jayne says, "She's right. Everybody's dead. This whole world is dead for no reason." Now let me ask you something: Decomposing bodies and government population-calming experiments aside, is Dongguan any less "dead" than Miranda? Can a city exist without the people who inhabit it?

Not only are the views of an empty Dongguan (and the pop-culture references they suggest) unnerving in and of themselves, but the implications of all of that real estate sitting vacant for years is equally alarming. I'm not familiar enough with Chinese property development trends to say what this means for China's economy, but real estate analyst Gillem Tulloch asserts that it is experiencing a property bubble like we've never seen before, one "that will make the United States pale in comparison." We all know how that turned out, don't we?

Despite the warnings and the precedents, this type of development continues. In this piece about the video, Sarah Goodyear writes: "And yet around the globe, governments and business interests continue to build projects like these.... They should look more closely at the Chinese example -- beyond the GDP numbers to the bricks-and-mortar reality. Because when economic growth is pursued for its own sake, without regard to the needs and capabilities of the humans inside that economy, it is only a matter of time before the bubble will burst."

Monday, March 21, 2011

BMW: Activate the Future

Each Tuesday throughout the month of February, BMW released one segment of a four-part documentary entitled Wherever You Want to Go. The film covers topics including how the changing shape of our cities will determine how we move through them, what we can learn from airplanes and astronauts, and how keeping mobility fun is essential to transforming our transportation system. Commentators include Lawrence Burns, author of "Reinventing the Automobile," Robin Chase, Founder of Zipcar, and astronaut Buzz Aldrin. Watch the documentary below (all four parts together are about 25 minutes long).

Part 1: The New City

Part 2: The Future Just Isn't What it Used to Be

Part 3: Reinventing Mobility

Part 4: How We'll Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Future

For more information about the film, visit the BWM Documentaries website.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Cities from the Sky, Part Four

This is the fourth part in a series about aerial photography and the built environment. If you missed part one, click here, part two, click here, or part three, click here.

So I know I said last week's post would be the final one in this series, but the events over the weekend in Japan have mandated an emergency post of sorts. If you are reading this than you are probably someone predisposed to seeking out and consuming relevant news, so (I'm hoping) you've heard that last Friday a massive earthquake triggered a tsunami that decimated much of Japan's eastern coastline. If you don't know what I'm talking about, climb out from under that rock you've been living under and grab a copy of a major newspaper. Or just keep reading.

At 8.9 on the Richter scale, the quake was one of the largest in recorded history. It could be felt in Tokyo, hundreds of miles from the epicenter, where large buildings swayed like flowers in a gentle breeze.

The wave itself reached heights of up to 33 feet and wreaked havoc on the low-lying coastland, sending houses, cars, people, and whatever else lay in its path miles inland. If you've been following the coverage, chances are you've seen videos of the surging water already, but in case you haven't behold its terrifying power.

This destruction has also been well documented using satellite imagery, snapshots which give a comprehensive look at the massive scale of this disaster. Entire neighborhoods and towns disappear. Fields become lakes. Civilization is reminded of its fragility.

The New York Times has put together a remarkable interactive piece which lets you scan over the same aerial shot before and after the wave passed through. I strongly encourage you to take a look at it here.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Cities from the Sky, Part Three

This is the third part in a series about aerial photography and the built environment. If you missed part one, click here, or part two, click here.

So far in this series I've written about Christoph Gielen, a photographer who uses aerial imagery of suburban development to make commentary on current urban design paradigms. I've also brought you into orbit and introduced you to astronaut Don Pettit who took you on a global tour of cities at night. But in this third (and likely final) post in this series, I'm going to take you closer to home. My home, that is.

Guilford, Connecticut is a small town 14 miles east of New Haven on the shore of Long Island Sound. Founded in 1639, the town is host to hundreds of historic homes, a variety of natural amenities including beaches and wetlands, rolling hills and bluffs, and is also characterized by a community ethic of preservation and conservation that protects these assets.

If you've taken an urban studies class with me, you should be familiar with Guilford. It is a usual topic of mine for projects, papers, and presentations. For example, I've written on the history of the Town Green, one of the largest in New England, I've profiled Guilford's Plan of Conservation and Development, a model document for land use planning, and I've written about Guilford's effort to block a proposed Costco development at exit 57 off of Interstate 95.

But how does Guilford fit into the theme of this series?
In the late 1990s, renowned urbanist, author, and Yale professor Dolores Hayden took to the air with photographer Alex MacLean to document what they refer to as Guilford's cultural landscape. They define this idea as a "broader way of analyzing architectural, economic, and environmental forces together, to look at how a society shapes its space over time." Where preservationists, planners, and conservationists examine at each of these elements individually, this approach produces a more comprehensive look at how they interact.

In a companion essay to their aerial portfolio (also a great history of development in Guilford),
they describe the role aerial photographs play in capturing cultural landscape in a detailed and accessible way:
Aerial images can capture the preserved parts of a town's cultural landscape, and can also help identify the threatened parts and the shape of land use conflicts, present and potential. Low-level, oblique-angle pictures of many parts of the town can establish a more complete visual inventory than ground-level shots. They can show inaccessible places, such as wetlands or steep terrain. They can reveal usually hidden sites, such as dumps or gated communities.... They convey the vast scale typical of twenty-first century development, and can bring up-to-the-minute data on the progress of sprawl. And, best of all, they are understood by people without technical training, in a way that zoning maps, zoning codes, satellite surveys, and traditional site plans are not.
Let's take a look at some of their photographs.

We'll start off with the most important landmark in Guilford, the Town Green. The green serves as the central gathering space for town events including high school graduation, an annual handcrafts fair and other cultural events, town parades, and dozens of other community functions. The retail, municipal, and religious institutions lining the green also make it the nexus of activity in Guilford.

Do you notice anything interesting or odd about the image above? Route 1, the road running horizontally through the center of the picture, is also the dividing line of one of Guilford's historic districts. Just look at the difference in the (somewhat) dense neighborhood of old homes and the asphalt of the shopping center across the street. Bonus question: Can you find the octagon-shaped house?

Finally, the completion of Interstate 95 through Guilford in 1958 brought about a population explosion that would change the town forever. More people meant an increased demand for housing, and developments like the one above sprung up throughout town, mostly in the wooded areas north of the highway.

To see the rest of the aerial portfolio, click here.

Hayden and MacLean conclude their commentary with the following: "In 1935, the architect Le Corbusier wrote, 'The airplane indicts.' He claimed that anyone flying over old French towns would see the need to tear down and rebuild to his modernist designs. We suggest the opposite. Aerial photography with a hand-held camera heightens awareness of unique cultural landscapes by documenting land use in an accessible way.... They can help architecture buffs and environmentalists, citizens and specialists, visualize common ground."

This vision of the common ground is what I find so striking about these images, and what I hoped to share with you.
Guilford is a place I very much admire - in many ways my experiences growing up there set me on my current path of study and it seems only fitting that I return to it now as an example community for questions regarding urban development.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Cities from the Sky, Part Two

This post is the second in a series on cities as seen from above. If you missed part one, click here.

Cities at night are as wondrous as they are mysterious. With the setting of the sun, cities transform into entirely different entities. Just think about the varied experiences of walking down a street while the sun is shining and then again after dark. But how does this experience change if these cities are seen from above? And I'm not talking about just aerial photography this time.

In the following video, astronaut Don Pettit takes us on an orbital tour around the world of cities at night. He explains the challenges of capturing such clear images from space, as the International Space Station travels around the globe at over 17,000 miles per hour. Try going that fast and capturing a high-resolution, blur-free image from your point and shoot. It's not going to happen. But Pettit and his colleagues on the ISS assembled a sophisticated mechanism that cancels out orbital motion and produces the clear, striking images you see here:

Pettit's admiration of human settlement patters comes through in his commentary. His most insightful observation is that "Cities at night are caught in a triangle between culture, geography, and technology." These elements influence everything from a city's color and brightness to its geometry. Just as cities shape our actions, experiences, and quality of life, so too do we influence the forms our cities take. In part one of this series, I made the point that cities from the sky are works of art, and Pettit shares this sentiment: "We do not construct our cities by how they might look from space. Cities at night may very well be one of the most beautiful, unintentional consequences of humanity."

This next video will bring us down to earth, quite literally. Shot from the nose of a commercial airplane, we are escorted to the tarmac during its final descent into LAX. As the sun sets and the plane travels closer and closer to its destination, we get a unique look at the City of Angels. Enjoy:

Monday, February 21, 2011

One Party, Two Very Different Views

Can someone please tell me how someone like Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) becomes Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee? In a recent conversation with Ronald Brownstein, Group Editorial Director at National Journal, Upton confirmed, after some beating around the bush and prodding by Brownstein, that while he accepts that Earth's climate is changing he doesn't believe that humans are the cause.

Upton has also been in the news recently for introducing a bill in the House that would block the EPA from regulating carbon pollution, even though 62 percent of people from his own district want him to leave the EPA alone. With these efforts Upton joins former chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee Joe "Government Shakedown" Barton (R-TX) as environmental skeptic extraordinaire. You remember Rep. Barton, don't you? He was the outspoken BP sympathizer during the gulf oil spill last summer:

Thankfully one of Upton and Barton's colleagues on the committee thinks differently about the climate crisis. Rep. Bob Inglis (R-SC) just plain gets it. He understands what's at stake. Listen carefully to what he has to say:

Inglis touches on several important points in this address to a House subcommittee meeting on climate change. First and foremost, he makes a thinly veiled threat to climate deniers about saying their comments "on the record." The save-the-environment-for-our-children's-sake argument has long been used to inspire action on these issues, but never quite like this. Inglis says that future generations will not look kindly on those who sat idly by and failed to act on climate change. In doing so he reinforces the sense that his argument is the accurate one. Why else would he be so resolute? He also includes a startling, common-sense statistic to make his point. 98 percent of scientists say that the climate is changing and that we are the cause. Wouldn't you think that means we should heed their advice? And finally, Inglis makes an argument that his "free enterprise colleagues" can relate to more directly: economic opportunity.
"[The Chinese] plan on eating our lunch in this next century. They plan on innovating around these problems, and selling to us, and the rest of the world, the technology that'll lead the 21st century. So we may just press the pause button here for several years, but China is pressing the fast-forward button."
It is perhaps important to point out that at the time of this speech Inglis knew he wouldn't be serving another term in Congress. A Tea Party primary challenger made sure of that. Regardless of his impending exit from national politics, it took courage to say what he said and defy his party. This is something that other Republicans like Lindsay Graham (R-SC) have toyed with but rarely committed to on the topic of climate change. Oftentimes when I think of Washington these days I'm frustrated that our political system has collapsed into the stubbornness and pettiness that we observe today. It's refreshing though, when someone like Bob Inglis surprises you and says something that actually makes quite a bit of sense.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Bridges Under Bridges

Last October a brand-new expansion of New York City's Willis Avenue Bridge opened to traffic, replacing it's crumbling ancestor built in 1901. The coolest part of the story, however, is how the bridge got there. The 2,400 ton span was transported 136 miles down the Hudson river on a double-wide barge, certainly a modern infrastructural feat. Photographer Stephen Mallon and his team were aboard to document the entire journey from Coeymans, NY to 125th Street. In total they took over 30,000 stills and used them to assemble the video below:

To see more of Mallon's work, explore his website.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Cities from the Sky, Part One

We all know what cities look like from the ground. They are the spaces in which we live, work, and play. But there is another view of cities that we rarely experience, and one that can help form impressions of the places we inhabit: from the air. Photographer Christoph Gielen has taken it upon himself to critique the predominant American urban form, the surburb, from this very vantage point.

Take a look at some of his photographs (click on them for a closer look):

Let me ask you a question, are these neighborhoods or works of art? The last two images especially, with the integration of the water bodies and the curving features, suggest the latter. Sure, I've been harping on the aesthetics of cities quite a bit in my most recent posts, but I can't help it. I know you see or feel some aspect of what I do. Learning to "read" cities, from the ground and the air, is exciting. A deeper understanding of your surroundings deepens your connection (or aversion) to that place.

But let's move in another direction for a moment. The argument can be made that cities from above tell us very little about what it actually means and feels like to live in these locations on the ground. I would agree with this point. But the fact remains that when these aerial views are paired with knowledge of what life is like in these places, undeniable truths about patterns of urban settlement are revealed.

I think the following picture illustrates this point particularly well:

A few things should jump out at you immediately. The desert, for one. The mountains would also be a good guess. But if you look at it more closely you will see that there are only two points of access, and both of them feed into the collector road to the right. You'll also notice a pretty bizarre street layout. The network of loops and cul-de-sacs makes a better labyrinth than it does a connected, walkable neighborhood. Not that there's anywhere to walk to, of course. So yes, I have never been to this development, but its aerial signature nevertheless tells me something about it.

Gielen himself hopes that this method of reading of the urban landscape will help guide development decisions in the future. In this New York Times article, he says "As with all my work, I was interested in finding a formal perspective uncommon enough to startle viewers into a reconsideration of our built environment."

To see Gielen's full portfolio, check out his website.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Time-lapse Photography Captures City Life, Beauty

I have just a quick post for you today. Watch this time-lapse photography of New York City:

Like I mentioned in this post about LA last summer, these images are so powerful because they elicit an emotional response from the viewer. Cities are stunning places, a fact we may take for granted as we whiz about them.

I think my favorite moment in this video occurs at the 1:20 mark when the walk/don't walk signal flashes back and forth in rapid succession. It almost makes me want to buy a camera and just leave it somewhere for a while. Who knows what splendor it would capture?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

UNDERCITY Takes Us Beneath the Streets, To the Highest of Heights

In his new film UNDERCITY, director and cinematographer Andrew Wonder profiles urban historian (read adventurer) Steve Duncan as he explores the underbelly of the Big Apple. From abandoned subway stations to the city's oldest sewer system to the very top of the Williamsburg Bridge, Wonder catches it all in remarkable form and stunning clarity.

Note: Watch it full-screen and in HD.

For more coverage on the topic, check out these pieces at and The New York Times.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Nissan's "New Way," Leading the Way

Last September I posted a series of Nissan commercials which all riffed on the topic of innovation. A central theme, of course, was sustainability and the measures Nissan is taking, particularly with the 100 percent electric Leaf, to transform automobiles from gas guzzlers to zero-net carbon emitters (if the electricity used to power the car is produced with renewables, that is).

A few days ago I saw the following commercial on TV. I thought it was new at the time, but after I found it on the web I realized it was posted last June. Regardless of its production date, I think Nissan may be upping the ante as the Leaf rolls off of the assembly line in select markets. It will become available nationwide by the fall of 2011. The video below describes how the Leaf contributes to the paradigm shift of electric vehicles by assigning old meanings to new components.

See what I mean below: