At the Front Lines of the Global Transition

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Slowly, With Earth Pushing Hard, A Confederacy Of Concern Develops

Oakland is California's eighth largest city and now one of its most enterprising thanks to 25 years of dealing with pollution, energy efficiency, and water conservation. Photo: Keith

Oakland is California’s eighth largest city and now one of its most enterprising thanks to 25 years of dealing with pollution, energy efficiency, and water conservation. Photo: Keith Schneider

BENZONIA, MI — The role of a journalist isn’t hard to understand. We’re translators. We sort through the myriad details of  complex subjects and choose the most salient to build a narrative that’s simpler for readers to understand. There couldn’t be a more important era to deploy that skill than now — the dismaying, dangerous, fabulous, primal decades of the 21st century.

We’re now 15 years into the 21st century. Underlying so much of the economic and ecological turmoil unfolding before us is a slow collision between the operating practices of the resource-wasting, vertically-managed 20th century and the much more crowded, polluted, and dangerous ecological and economic conditions of the 21st century.

The old order, in short, is coming apart. Think of it as a big building resting on a slippery, unstable foundation of mud.

2oth vs. 21st Century
The 20th century economic construct was about consuming wasteful amounts of water, energy, soil, and land to build big centralized projects — big power plants, big oilfields and mines, big transmission systems, big highway networks, big farms, big suburbs, big houses, big malls. Managing enterprises of such scale called for spending enormous sums of money on supplies — energy, water, food — and on equipment — trucks, cars, factories, water pipes, power lines, air conditioners. Keeping order required hierarchical, vertically integrated, massive institutions –governments, banks, industrial corporations, universities.

The enterprise worked for a short time in the developed West — about the last half of the 20th century — because it fit  market conditions. Energy and water were plentiful and cheap. Land was available and comparatively inexpensive for farms and for suburbs. Populations were smaller and more stable. Government treasuries were growing and so were working class salaries.

In the United States, ample government, business, and personal wealth built the roads, water systems, transmission networks, and supply lines that kept the enterprise running. In Michigan, where I live, factory workers owned boats, cottages along the shores of cold northern lakes, sent their children to college, and retired on generous pensions.

How quickly all of that melted away to produce the disruptive, confusing, and dangerous years of frustration here in the United States and across much of the world. Energy got expensive. World population soared. Land became dear. Industrial competitiveness shifted from North America and Europe to Asia. Pollution levels soared. Droughts and floods and earthquakes caused billions of dollars in damage. The energy-consuming, water-wasting, and inordinately expensive “get big or get out” 20th century formula for economic success is dying on the hot sands of ecological and economic distress.

The Changuinola River in Panama is the center of a significant fight to oppose a new hydropower dam. Residents oppose drowning a fast-moving and beautiful stretch of the river. Photo: Keith Schneider

The Changuinola River in Panama is the center of a significant fight to oppose a new hydropower dam. Residents oppose drowning a fast-moving and beautiful stretch of the river. Photo: Keith Schneider

Examples of the consequences are everywhere. There’s no mistaking, for instance, the planet’s new capacity to drown cities with hurricanes — think New Orleans and New York — or wreck the Japanese nuclear sector with a tsunami. Fierce civic campaigns have erupted on six continents to stop new 20th century style mega-energy projects and shut down existing installations. Campesinos in Peru shut down big new gold mines in the northern Andes. Rural villagers in northwest India shut down construction of a 2,000-megawatt hydropower dam on the Subansiri River. Read More

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute’s Lessons in Race — Changed and Not

The hooded robe of a Klan member displayed at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. A symbol of virulent hate. Photo: Keith Schneider

The hooded robe of a Klan member displayed at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. A symbol of virulent hate. Photo: Keith Schneider

BIRMINGHAM, Al. — The weekend before the pastor was assassinated and eight other African American adults were murdered in a church basement in Charleston, South Carolina, I spent the afternoon studying the exhibits at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The 23-year-old museum is a journey in photographs, videos, and artifacts of the dangerous struggle in the mid-20th century for justice, voting rights, and equality in Alabama’s largest city, and across the American South.

A few of the exhibits were particularly striking. A satin white hooded robe worn by a Klan member. Spider Martin’s iconic black and white photographs of the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery. The arresting and infuriating historic videotaped interviews from the 1960s of prominent white Birmingham business and professional leaders discussing what they viewed as the deficiencies of intelligence and behavior of black residents.

Behind me an African American woman whispered to her husband, “Things really haven’t changed much, have they?”

Still, of all the messages conveyed by the Institute’s curators, one held particular resonance with me. It was the clear and strident war cries, conveyed on signs and billboards, articles and editorials, urging Alabama’s white leaders and residents to resist integration principally by declaring white supremacy, states rights, and open, armed, and steadfast defiance of the federal government.

Things haven’t changed much, have they? Before the Charleston massacre on June 17, conservative insurgents were angrily declaring their disrespect for the country’s first black president with false assertions about his birth as a foreigner, and defying his policies on health, climate change, water quality, and clean energy with lawsuits that failed to persuade a conservative Supreme Court, and a forced government shutdown that hopefully dismays the majority of Americans who vote. Read More

Gabrielle Gray’s Last ROMP

Phoebe Hunt (hat and fiddle) performs center stage at the 2015 ROMP fest with (l to r) Nathaniel Smith (cello), Dominick Leslie (mandolin), Rachel Baiman (fiddle), Christian Sedelmyer (fiddle), and Luke Bulla (fiddle). Photo: Keith Schneider

Phoebe Hunt (hat and fiddle) performs center stage at the 2015 ROMP fest with (l to r) Nathaniel Smith (cello), Dominick Leslie (mandolin), Rachel Baiman (fiddle), Christian Sedelmyer (fiddle), and Luke Bulla (fiddle). Photo: Keith Schneider

OWENSBORO, KY. — Around noon on the last Saturday of Gabrielle Gray’s long run as the founder and director of ROMP, this Ohio River City’s signature bluegrass music festival, a moment of pure love and remembrance unfolded unexpectedly.

Standing alone on the festival stage with her fiddle, Phoebe Hunt, one of the singularly great young artists that ROMP has featured in the last several years, prepared to open her set as a solo. A striking dark-haired woman, Phoebe paused. Her shoulders seemed to fall. She bowed her head, struggling to compose herself. But the weight of her tears became overwhelming. Glancing at Gabrielle, who stood offstage nearby, Phoebe mouthed “I love you,” and almost stumbled.

A few more moments passed before Phoebe gathered herself and started to play, the sound of her voice and fiddle like a halting lament. When she finished, Gabrielle strode to center stage and wrapped Phoebe in a big hug, a warm embrace of kinship and confidence, which is how Gabrielle always treats Phoebe and the other uncommonly talented millennial generation musicians who play ROMP.

All of them – The Rigs, 10 String Symphony, Luke Bulla, Vickie Vaughn, Sam Grisman, Sarah Jarosz, Billy Strings, Alex Hargreaves, and many others — are shaping the fresh, ascendant sound of bluegrass music. Settled at last, Phoebe was joined by the two other virtuoso members of her trio, mandolin player Dominick Leslie and cellist Nathaniel Smith, and performed the rest of her flawless and stylish set.

Tears of An Artist
There aren’t many music festivals, or festival directors for that matter, that are capable of inspiring a performer’s tears. ROMP is one of those festivals and so is Gabrielle, its founder and director for the past 12 years. The 2015 ROMP fest was Gabrielle’s last. With new leadership deciding next year’s lineup of performers there’s no assurance that ROMP’s internationally distinctive musical center — the cadre of prominent young bluegrass artists that Gabrielle has recruited and cultivated — will still be featured in Owensboro.

That’s what drew tears from Phoebe Hunt, the awareness that it wasn’t just one era that was surely ending — Gabrielle’s sensational run as a festival director. So might another — the place ROMP holds for the emerging stars of bluegrass to perform during the last weekend of June and gather as friends to catch up and jam together. ROMP is what this generation calls its “hang,” and has been as important to elevating young careers as the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado was in the 1980s for Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Tim O’Brien, Mark O’Connor, Stuart Duncan and other artists who are now some of the biggest acts in bluegrass, and all of American music.

Eric Robertson, lead singer of The Rigs, performs Wednesday night at the 2015 ROMP with (l to r) Duncan Wickel (fiddle), Nathaniel Smith (cello), Nicholas Falk (drums).

Eric Robertson, lead singer of The Rigs, performs Wednesday night at the 2015 ROMP with (l to r) Duncan Wickel (fiddle), Nathaniel Smith (cello), Nicholas Falk (drums).

“ROMP was the first place that I could come to spend time with great musicians and hear their music,” Eric Robertson, the lead singer and mandolin player for The Rigs, told me. In 2013, Robertson was joined by fiddle player Duncan Wickel, drummer Nicholas Falk, and bassist Josh Hari at their first ROMP, performing a festival-best set that mixed bluegrass, soul, and New Orleans funk at an after party attended by a throng of dancers. Read More

Challenged By Drought, Fire, Earthquake, and Flood, California Departs On New Path

The depleted condition of Lake Oroville is an apt example of California's challenge in the 21st century. The state is drying. The lake in northern California is 42 percent of capacity and receding  daily. Photo/ Keith Schneider

The depleted condition of Lake Oroville is an apt example of California’s challenge in the 21st century. The state is drying. The lake in northern California is 42 percent of capacity and receding daily. Photo/ Keith Schneider

OROVILLE, CA — Until visitors peer over the crest of 770-foot Oroville Dam, which stores the cold Sierra waters of the Feather River and is the tallest dam in the United States, it’s hard to tell a drought grips Butte County, or any of the other neighboring Central Valley counties in this part of northern California.

The dirt-lined transport canals are filled to the top with water that slakes the thirst of thousands of hectares of rice, sunflowers, peaches, corn, soybeans, and all manner of California’s agricultural cornucopia. Unlike the southern reaches of the Central Valley, there’s no sign of the empty spaces of brown dirt where tomato fields lie fallow, or laser-leveled orchards under moisture duress that have been ripped out.

Quite the contrary. The region’s bullet-straight two lane highways pass by new orchards under cultivation, the roots of each infant tree politely dressed in swirls of drip irrigation line, and saluted by the short red plastic stake of a single spray irrigator. More surprising are the throngs of sunburned bathers and jet ski operators enjoying the deep cooling depths of two blue and bountiful manmade lakes that flank Highway 162. The highway is the primary route to enter this city of 16,000 residents, and to climb the Sierra foothills to reach the dam and its visitors center.

The sight from the trail across the dam’s spillway describes a much different story. The Lake Oroville reservoir, California’s second largest, is 42 percent of capacity, according to the state Department of Water Resources. It looks it. Two million of its 3.5 million acre-feet of water are gone. A bathtub ring of rock and soil, 200 feet wide, circles the lake like a light brown rebuke to the will of its essential purpose.

A Drain on Storage
Week by week the ring grows a little wider as the reservoir drains to irrigate fields and supply thirsty towns across the state that receive Lake Oroville’s liquid offering. The steadily receding water level is intently followed along the Sierra front like the won-loss record of high school football teams. “What’s happening is kind of out of our hands,” said Karen Wilson, a mother of two young children, who works part-time at an Oroville convenience store. “We do what we can. Don’t wash the car. Short showers. Live with brown grass. Dishwater on the gardens. You kind of hope the people in charge of the big stuff know what they’re doing.”

Perhaps because Californians exist in a perpetual state of peril aggravated by a fast-rising population, a consensus emerged a long time ago that to live and thrive here comes with a public responsibility to match supplies of energy, water, food, transportation, and housing with demand. Photo/Keith Schneider

Perhaps because Californians exist in a perpetual state of peril aggravated by a fast-rising population, a consensus emerged a long time ago that to live and thrive here comes with a public responsibility to match supplies of energy, water, food, transportation, and housing with demand. Photo/Keith Schneider

In much of the skeptical, government-suspicious United States that’s an odd appeal — looking to the authorities for guidance. In its matter of fact way, though, Wilson expresses the conviction held by most Californians that the authorities are actually capable of responding well to urgent conditions.
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Earth Day 2015 Marks Convergence of Inspiring Trends

The Caldera River rolls out of the Cordillera de Talamanca, the mountain spine that separates the Pacific Ocean from the Caribbean in Panama’s Chiriqui Province, and is evidence of the country's allegiance to sustaining its ample forests and fresh water. Photo/Keith Schneider

The Caldera River rolls out of the Cordillera de Talamanca, the mountain spine that separates the Pacific Ocean from the Caribbean in Panama’s Chiriqui Province, and is evidence of the country’s allegiance to sustaining its ample forests and fresh water. Photo/Keith Schneider

Earth Day, first celebrated 45 years ago in the United States, is now a grown-up international convergence that joins a reckoning with ecological deterioration to the panorama of human activity devoted to improving the planet’s condition. What’s inspiring about Earth Day is that the same principles of responsibility, collective action, pollution prevention, and natural resource conservation that informed the first Earth Day in 1970 have proven to be the durable foundation of 1) ecological repairs on every continent, and 2) social movements that are fostering public pressure and government action to solve the tough threats that remain.

My personal Earth Day history encompasses nearly all of the modern environmental movement and its myriad transitions. I was 14 years old on April 22, 1970, an eighth grader in Highlands Junior High School in White Plains, New York. Earth Day was such a big national event that the White Plains Public School administrators called a school holiday to allow students to participate in organized activities, most of them focused on some sort of clean-up. I organized a few of my friends to join me in painting the White Plains train station, and dragging old tires and appliances out of the Bronx River, which ran close to the station. Our work attracted notice from The New York Times, which reported on our work in the second to last paragraph of a front-page article on Earth Day in the April 23, 1970 edition of the newspaper.

The path I chose to embed my life in environmentalism was through journalism and story-telling. As a student at Haverford College in the late 1970s I studied chemistry and biology, literature and history, which provided the research skills required of environmental reporting and knowledge of the arcane language of two of the galvanizing threats of that era: managing toxic and nuclear wastes. Very soon after the start of my career the Love Canal toxic waste site was discovered in upstate New York, and half the radioactive core of a nuclear reactor melted during an accident in March 1979 at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant on the Susquehanna River, downriver from my first newspaper job in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

Over the decades the risks that attracted the country’s attention, and the focus of my own reporting, steadily evolved. Water and air pollution. Conserving wild lands, wild habitats, and wild species. Activism to curb pesticide use in food production. The advent of genetic engineering in agriculture. Disastrous oil spills. The push-back from property rights groups and conservative activists about government authority to regulate wetlands, private lands, and business. Ocean pollution and the decline of coral reefs and fisheries. Suburban sprawl as an environmental problem and smart growth urban redevelopment as its cure. Climate change. Fracking. The global confrontation between rising demand for energy and food in the era of declining freshwater resources.

Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, whose journalism and advocacy served to elevate global activism to solve climate change. Photo/ J. Carl Ganter

Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, whose journalism and advocacy served to elevate global activism to solve climate change. Photo/ J. Carl Ganter

There’s no end to the reasons for pessimism about our planet’s condition. In Asia, rising coal consumption in China and India warms the atmosphere and is causing eight-year-olds in China to develop lung cancer. In South America, gold mining and forest cutting are wrecking the Amazon. In North America, unconventional fuels production is torturing the forests and water of northern Alberta Canada, contaminating drinking water and causing earthquakes in the United States, and pouring explosive fuels into flimsy rail cars for transport to coastal refineries. The planet’s population continues to grow 80 million people annually.

Yet what keeps me and so many other people devoted to the principles of Earth Day is the progress that’s been made, and the convergence of powerful trends motivating big changes in how we operate.
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