At the Front Lines of the Global Transition

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India’s National Green Tribunal Challenges Government and Industry To Follow The Law

The Hon. Swatanter Kumar, chairman of the National Green Tribunal. Under his watch the four-year-old court has emerged as one of the world's important centers for the idea that enforcing the law to secure clean air and water and to protect resources is the soundest path to India's economic development. Photo/Keith Schneider

The Hon. Swatanter Kumar, chairman of the National Green Tribunal. Under his watch the four-year-old court has emerged as one of the world’s important centers for the idea that enforcing the law to secure clean air and water and to protect resources is the soundest path to India’s economic development. Photo/Keith Schneider

SHILLONG, India — India’s National Green Tribunal, a judicial body with legal authority that ranks just below India’s Supreme Court, is quickly emerging as one of the world’s most important forums for the idea that economic advancement is tightly wired to public safety, and the security of water, air, and land.

Established by India’s Supreme Court and legislated into existence and a source of funding by Parliament in 2010, the new court gained a formidable home office eleven months ago. The NGT’s building, constructed over a century ago as the residence of a regional prince, and formerly the national office of India’s Human Rights Commission, sits prominently near the center of the capital district that also houses the President’s Estate and the Supreme Court.

Prior to the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in May, India’s leadership took pains to recruit great jurists and technical specialists to serve on the bench. The government invested in decorating the Tribunal’s main Courtroom Number 1 with green carpet, green curtains, green upholstered chairs, gold filagree on decorative cornices, and a gold seal above the judicial bench. The ornamentation, poorly lit in an Indian government sort of way, is authentically earnest and more than enough to convey institutional significance, and sound and independent legal judgment.

Yet even with all the green and gold serving as glitter on the symbolic robe of impartial justice, the colors aren’t sufficient to hide the doggedness that really drives the spirit of India’s newest court. Just a few days of attending NGT hearings this month reveals a 17-member bench, comprised of seven judges and ten of India’s top science, engineering, and technical experts, driven by righteous zeal.

There is, in fact, an undercurrent of spiritual fervor in the poorly ventilated courtroom, illumiinated by harsh fluorescence, and jammed with lawyers in spotless white shirts and pitch black suits. They huddle like penguins, straining to hear the unamplified back and forth between the grey-bearded judges and the much younger lawyers. The scene feels a lot like the heated, crowded, airless, determined Rosh Hashanah stir of a Brooklyn synagogue. Read More

Water Supply And Reason Are Priorities in New U.S. – China Climate Agreement

One goal of the agreement is to make Chinese cities much cleaner and greener, like Chicago. Photo/Keith Schneider

One goal of the agreement is to make Chinese cities much cleaner and greener, like Chicago. Photo/Keith Schneider

NEW DELHI, India — There are nearly 1.3 billion people in this swarming democracy, where over 66 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the general election last May. A few of them took me aside this week to express surprise at the puzzle that is the American electorate and its national leadership.

It’s easy to see why.

On November 4, despite the most money ever spent in a national election ($US 3.7 billion), just over a third of eligible American voters — the lowest percentage since 1942 — felt it necessary to cast a ballot to influence the country’s management.

But just eight days later, on November 12, the president of the United States reached a momentous accord with the president of China to cap greenhouse gas emissions and do a whole lot more for Mother Earth and its human inhabitants.

THE PACT
Though viewed here in India, and by most observers globally as a an environmental accord, the pact’s six major provisions boil down to a very new international economic development strategy. The agreement sets out two politically arduous but technically achievable goals:

1. Turn major industries, particularly the institutions that supply electricity, into technologically advanced, water-conserving, low-carbon, pollution-avoiding guardians of environmental safety and human well-being.

2. Redesign cities to be much cleaner, much greener, much healthier, and much more efficient users of water, energy, land, and other natural resources.

In effect, the agreement sets out to either convert or overrun skeptics in the carbon-based industries, and their allies in government and finance. It does so by encouraging collaboration between the two largest economies, and the crowd of inventors and practitioners in both countries, to much more quickly put into place new tools, new practices, and especially new markets to contend with radically different ecological and economic conditions.

Temporarily putting aside political realities in both nations, and the skepticism fostered by decades of reporting in the U.S., and more recently in China, the two nations appear to be trying to do something truly significant.

President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping, and their aides, very clearly recognize the new malevolence displayed by Planet Earth in the 21st century. They seem to be looking at the searing storm of environmental and economic transition square in the eye, and presenting a concerted response that comes straight from the shoulder. The two leaders, in sum, seem resolute about aggregating achievable steps in technology and policy like a wall against danger. The changes the agreement calls for in water conservation, efficiency, clean energy, green equipment and the like, are the bricks. In short, the two leaders are trying to build a new foundation for industries and cities and people to survive and thrive in a perilous ecological age.
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Surrounded By Water, Ohio River Valley Experiences Economic Resurgence

One of the centerpieces of Owensboro, Kentucky's Ohio River development is the exquisite fountain in the city's new shoreline park. Photo/Keith Schneider

One of the centerpieces of Owensboro, Kentucky’s Ohio River development is the exquisite fountain in the city’s new shoreline park. Photo/Keith Schneider

OWENSBORO, KY. — Randy Simes, an urban planner in Cincinnati with a keen sense of observation, founded UrbanCincy.com in 2007 to report on the transitional neighborhoods, evolving culture, and reviving post-industrial economy of his native Queen City of nearly 300,000 residents.

But it wasn’t until he posted before-and-after-pictures from Google Street View last May, comparing changes in well-known Cincinnati street corners from 2007 to 2013, that Simes’ neighbors and colleagues embraced his boosterish view that the third largest city on the Ohio River really was on an economic roll.

The comparative photographs illustrated how diminished, deteriorated, troubled, and low-functioning sections of the city had, over six years, sprouted new offices, new housing, new parks, and fresh opportunity.

“It’s the most popular page on the site by far,” Simes said in an interview. “In some places the difference was really jaw-dropping. These kind of changes have been going on here for awhile now. It’s really interesting because a lot of locals didn’t realize it was happening.”

By no means is Cincinnati’s slow awakening to economic promise and cultural transition unusual in the recovering cities in the six-state Ohio River Valley. It’s a story residents see unfold daily and ought to know.  But to really accept its authenticity will take somebody else to tell them.

And for good reason. For 40 years the narrative in the cities and shoreline counties served by the river was such a terrible tale of job losses, urban decay, and population decline that almost all of the 981-mile river corridor served essentially as a national economic sacrifice zone. Real work, the day-to-day toil and time that people invested in making things, and that defined for decades how communities viewed their relevance, disappeared seemingly overnight in the 1980s.

A region that in the middle years of the 20th century set world-class standards of income growth, manufacturing technology, working conditions, and middle class prosperity had by the end of century been driven by globalization, obsolescence, deindustrialization, and wage decline to the bottom of the national heap. In the 1990s just about the only new industrial installation constructed on the Ohio River was a hazardous waste incinerator built next door to an elementary school in East Liverpool, Ohio.

With the free fall in the Ohio River Valley states came a general weakness in America’s overall economy and disillusion in the national spirit.

A new century, and a lot of courageous collaborations by municipal leaders, business executives, and university administrators, has turned the page on the region’s prospects.

 Twenty big locks and dams, including this one near Evansville, Indiana, keep barge traffic moving that carries 225 million tons of cargo annually on the Ohio River, the busiet inland waterway in the United States. Photo/Keith Schneider


Twenty big locks and dams, including this one near Evansville, Indiana, keep barge traffic moving that carries 225 million tons of cargo annually on the Ohio River, the busiet inland waterway in the United States. Photo/Keith Schneider

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Earth Pushes Back – Hard

China's coal consumption, from mines like this in Inner Mongolia, is closing in on 4 billion metric tons annually, influencing dangerous new weather patterns in Asia and globally. Photo/Toby Smith

China’s coal consumption, from mines like this in Inner Mongolia, is nearing 4 billion metric tons annually, influencing dangerous new weather patterns in Asia and globally. Photo/Toby Smith

There’s nothing demur about Mother Earth these days. She’s fuming and pushing back hard. Very hard.

The Ebola emergency that began in West Africa and has since spread to two more continents has produced 5,000 deaths and is accelerating. Deep droughts engulf Brazil’s largest city and America’s largest state. Hurricanes drowned two major American cities since 2005. The 2013 Philippines typhoon killed 6,250 people. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami killed 228,000 people. A tsunami in the Pacific Ocean in 2011 killed 16,000 people and shut down Japan’s seawater-cooled nuclear sector.

All of these events illustrate Earth’s new temper tantrum and reflect two reasons common to its cause. The first is the massive population growth that is pushing mankind deeper into dangerous places to secure increasingly scarce supplies of water, food, and energy. In West Africa more people ventured into equatorial forests for land to grow crops and wood to heat fires. They unleashed a plague.

The second is how transportation, energy, food, water supply, and other public systems have been so weakened by disinvestment, mismanagement, and corruption that nations are not capable of summoning an adequate response.

In the case of the Ebola outbreak what was missing in West Africa was a competent health care system. The virus is loose now, spreading and dangerous.

The Earth doesn’t care. The Ebola outbreak is evidence of how nations are being pummeled by ecological emergencies that don’t seem natural — longer droughts, harsher floods, deadlier diseases, more severe insect infestations, earthquakes, tsunamis, and more powerful storms than ever before.

The tough droughts in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, and in California are visible chapters in this new narrative. Disruptions in hydrological cycles have resulted in drier conditions across much of the planet.  Sao Paulo, a city of nearly 12 million residents that is twice as big as it was in 1980, was slow to recognize the severity of the shortage of moisture and did next to nothing to encourage water conservation.

The Earth is adding 80 million new people a year; 25 million from India alone. Here, workers making their way to jobs in New Delhi, capital of a nation of nearly 1.3 billion people that is twice as big as it was in 1978. Photo/Keith Schneider

The Earth is adding 80 million new people a year; 25 million from India alone. Here, workers making their way to jobs in New Delhi, capital of a nation of nearly 1.3 billion people that is twice as big as it was in 1978. Photo/Keith Schneider


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Do Republicans Hate Cities? Generally Yes

Grand Central Station on 42nd Street is a hive of energy every day using a transport technology that Republicans don't support. Photo/Keith Schneider

Grand Central Station on 42nd Street is a hive of energy every day using a transport technology that Republicans don’t support. Photo/Keith Schneider

NEW YORK — In the evenings the sidewalks along First Avenue, between 10th and Houston Streets, are a jammed bustle of young people crowded into bars, lined up for tables at good restaurants, or walking fast with heads bowed and faces lit by incoming smart phone texts.

First Avenue, like so many other neighborhoods in New York, is a tableau of urban revival, an example of what happens when smart investments and informed entrepreneurism foster economic and environmental transition. New York City, you may recall, was in such dire shape in the 1970s and 1980s that crime ruled the streets, fiscal collapse was ever-present, and people and companies left in droves. First Avenue in those days was dirty, dark, and dangerous.

New York is not that place anymore, and hasn’t been since the start of the century. New York is an engine of growth and job opportunities, a city with clean air, ample and safe parks, improving water quality, slim people, improving schools, and an attitude of confidence and hope. In all of these attributes New York also resembles Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Washington, Denver, Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Boise, Dallas, Charleston, Cincinnati and most other major American metropolitan regions.

In each of these cities job growth is climbing rapidly, crime is stable or declining, unemployment rates are lower than the state at large, and real estate values are heading up, in many instances swiftly. In other measures American cities are a study in improving social conditions and prosperity. Wages are rising. Young adults attend college and are getting married. And, just as First Avenue’s businesses and watering holes are busy with customers, so too are the mercantile streets of big cities across the country.

Oh! There’s one more distinction. American cities are overwhelmingly filled with adults who support Democrats for state and national offices. They are also filled with adults who not only generally believe that the rest of America is getting along better like they are, they have just the scantest idea of the depth of the dismay, the anger, the resentment that people in the far suburbs and rural regions have for cities and their residents.

The High Line, an elevated park in New York built with public and private funds on an old rail service train line. Photo/Keith Schneider

The High Line, an elevated park in New York built with public and private funds on an old rail service train line. Photo/Keith Schneider

Those divisions now express themselves in dangerous ideas harbored in the Republican party about limiting state and federal investments in transit, education, streets, law enforcement, housing, business loans, and environmental safeguards. But even as they support a risky agenda of tax-cutting and smaller government, many of those very same voters and their families have also chosen you’re-on-your-own results — limited job opportunities, low wages, and hardship.

Nonmetro and metro quarterly employment indices
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