At the Front Lines of the Global Transition

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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 a 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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Lower Subansiri Dam, Unfinished and Silent, Could Be Tomb For India’s Giant Hydropower Projects

Construction of the Lower Subansiri dam stopped in 2011 and hasn't restarted. Photo/Keith Schneider

Construction of the Lower Subansiri dam stopped in 2011 and hasn’t restarted. Photo/Keith Schneider

ITANAGAR, India – With all the immediate distress and hopeful fervor that has greeted Narendra Modi’s new administration, one of the government’s unyielding themes is the prime minister’s allegiance to running water. Specifically, the swift currents that pour from the steep flanks of the Himalaya range as a cure for the country’s endemic electricity shortages.

In the three months after his election last May the 64-year-old leader personally dedicated three new hydropower plants and a 375-kilometer (233-mile) transmission line in Jammu and Kashmir, a Himalayan state in northwest India bordered by Pakistan, Afghanistan, and China.

Modi visited Bhutan, which shares a border with several northern Indian states, to lay foundation stones for the 60-megawatt Kurishu hydroelectric project and the 600-megawatt Kholongchu Hydel Power Project.

In August, Modi became first Indian prime minister to visit Nepal since 1997. While in Kathmandu he negotiated an agreement to finance the construction of two transmission lines and to set up a project office for the 5,600-megawatt Pancheshwar hydropower station on the Mahakali River. The immense electricity-generating installation, close to two decades in planning and development, is more than twice the size of India’s largest operating hydropower project, the Tehri hydropower station in Uttarakhand. “Nepal can free India of its darkness with its electricity,” Modi said.

Modi’s run-of-the-river diplomacy culminated in February when an advisory committee overruled a previous government decision and approved construction of the 3,000-megawatt Dibang power project in the wild and steep Himalayan highlands here in Arunachal Pradesh, a northeastern India state bordered by Bhutan, China and Myanmar. Not since 2003, when Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee directed India to generate 50,000 megawatts of power by constructing 162 big new hydropower stations — most of them planned for the Himalayas — has an Indian leader exhibited such fealty to the kinetic energy from damming fast-moving mountain streams.

Yet just as the hopeful current of Vajpayee’s ambitious program for diversifying India’s electrical power was slowed by rampaging floods and landslides, rising costs, and powerful civic opposition in the Himalayan states, Modi’s dam building campaign is not at all assured.
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Owensboro Will Build International Bluegrass Music Center

Gabrielle Gray, who as director of the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, led the work to promote bluegrass as a signature feature of the city's cultural and economic development. Photo/Keith Schneider

Gabrielle Gray, who as director of the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, led the work to promote bluegrass as a signature feature of the city’s cultural and economic development. Photo/Keith Schneider

In the week that America expressed its disdain for Indiana’s spiteful political fanaticism, and its new “religious freedom” statute that would allow business owners to discriminate against gays and lesbians, comes a much more responsible story of what’s possible in public policy.

On April 1, Kentucky Democratic Governor Steve Beshear teamed up with Owensboro Republican Mayor Ron Payne to advance the economic and artistic interests of the mid-size Ohio River city. The two found a way to direct $5 million in public funds to complete the capital campaign and build the $15 million International Bluegrass Music Center.

It’s another of the astute steps Owensboro is taking to make the river city a showcase of public policy and economic innovation. I’ve followed the city’s development since 2011, when I wrote a new development strategy for Owensboro that included focusing on bluegrass music as a piece of the city’s 21st century economy. I’m also in a relationship with Gabrielle Gray, who as director of the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro led the work to promote bluegrass as a centerpiece of the city’s cultural and economic development.

Few small cities in the United States or globally are evolving with as much understanding of the new market conditions of this century. Even fewer are commanding the needed fiscal tools, or building the political alliances, with as much skill as Owensboro. The result is a city transformed.

Owensboro has the most inviting waterfront on the Ohio River now. For a few dollars increase in annual insurance tax premiums, premiums that rebuilt the core business district, nearly every homeowner within a two mile radius of the new construction is experiencing five to seven percent annual increases in the value of their residences. For a $190,000 home, that amounts to $9,000 a year or more.

It’s important to recall that Owensboro once approved $100 million in public tax benefits (worth $200 million in 2015 dollars) to attract a single manufacturer and 350 jobs. The roughly $8 million to $9 million in public investment for the Bluegrass Music Center could generate comparable numbers of jobs at much lower expense.

As a journalist deeply interested in public policy, it’s also vital to commend one more vital principle underlying all of what’s occurred in Owensboro — the idea that public investment for public purposes makes enduring sense. That’s how we built the country. That’s how Owensboro rebuilt itself.

It takes great leaders to break through the shackles of fiscal austerity, the dogma that government can’t perform well. Owensboro has a great leader in its capable mayor.

Bluegrass music has capable leaders in Gabrielle Gray and in Terry Woodward, an Owensboro business owner and bluegrass music lover who consistently added his voice, generous finances, and time to bluegrass and to the city for decades.

Having watched some of this take shape up close, and knowing how challenging it is to achieve goals of this magnitude in a frustrating, even depressing era of austerity and resistance, it needs only to be said that what has been achieved with the Bluegrass Music Center is a fine, fine accomplishment.

Congratulation to everyone involved. Plus one question — what’s next?

– Keith Schneider

Savannah Port Anticipates Panama Canal Expansion in New York Times

The nation's fourth largest container port is in Savannah. Traffic is growing fast. Photo/Keith Schneider

The nation’s fourth largest container port is in Savannah. Traffic is growing fast. Photo/Keith Schneider

SAVANNAH, Georgia — The business, art, and transactional legitimacy of reporting is to recognize that everything is connected. That’s especially true when your beat is global, your opportunity is unlimited, and your bank account is a like a hungry fledgling fish hawk.

Case in point: this article on the Savannah port’s increasing traffic which was posted today in the New York Times. Much of the port’s success is wrapped around its anticipation of the opening next year of the new and much larger locks at the Panama Canal. I reported that story and a number of others about Panama’s economy, and energy and water resources, for Circle of Blue earlier this year. That grouping of articles also included a piece from here that described the mismatch in U.S.infrastructure investment between port spending and spending for water supply and treatment.

I learned about the Savannah port’s expansion and its relationship to the Panama Canal expansion from an engineer in New York. The link was confirmed during the month I spent in Panama in January. It was only logical to visit Savannah as soon as I could, which was in mid-February.

I found that the business of marine transport here at the nation’s fourth largest container port is a study in visible statistics. Thirty-one ocean-going container vessels berth at the nearly 10,000-foot-long Garden City terminal each week. More than 8,000 trucks arrive and depart from the terminal daily. Garden City handled 3.34 million, 20-foot containers last year, over 10 percent more container cargo than in 2013, and a record.

There are other numbers that are just as vital to Garden City’s growing business, but not nearly so visible. Hidden behind the green curtain of Georgia pine forest that surrounds the terminal are 45.3 million square feet of logistics, storage, and distribution centers, according to the Georgia Ports Authority, the terminal’s owner and operator.

“The link between the terminal and the distribution centers is essential to our operations,” said Curtis J. Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority. “Our competitiveness is based on efficiency and connectivity, making sure products don’t sit around. The real estate developments are a partnership that makes expanding trade here possible.”

Big Brands in Big Buildings
Owned, leased, or managed by some of the most recognizable brands in the country – Wal-Mart, Ikea, Home Depot, Target, and Pier 1 Imports – the immense buildings are essential links in the flow of farm, construction, and manufactured products streaming out or into the country through the Savannah River port, one of the country’s most modern maritime transport installations. Garden City’s traffic, which includes everything from containers of frozen Georgia chicken parts heading to Asia and stuffed doggie beds coming in from China, is about evenly divided between exports and imports.

The largest distribution center is the 2.5 million-square-foot facility owned by Schneider Logistics, a unit of the national trucking company. Wal-Mart operates a 2 million-square-foot center in Statesboro, 55 miles west.  Both are expansive enough to completely enclose two typical suburban shopping malls, or all the businesses in Savannah’s historic downtown, which lies just downstream.

There are sufficient numbers of large forested parcels near Savannah to build 35 million more square feet of distribution space. OA Logistics/JLA Home, a subsidiary of the privately-held, California-based E&E Company, announced plans in January to build a 1.1-million square-foot e-commerce fulfillment center near the port.

The Garden City terminal, according to the Georgia Department of Economic Development, also is influencing distribution center construction up to 250 miles away. Bed Bath & Beyond in 2014 opened a $50 million, 810,000-square-foot distribution center in Jefferson, northeast of Atlanta and 230 miles away. Wal-Mart is constructing a $102 million, 1.2 million-square-foot distribution facility in Union City, south of Atlanta and 250 miles from the Savannah port.
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World Water Day Ingredients Need Big Dash of Urgency

Soaring coal production in this Inner Mongolia mine, and in others, is pushing China's water reserves to the limit. Photo/Keith Schneider

Soaring coal production in this Inner Mongolia mine, and in others, is pushing China’s water reserves to the limit. Photo/Keith Schneider

From east to west, ever since the world began, there was water. Plentiful. Clean. Always available.

None of those descriptions apply to water today.  Though the condition of the world’s water is perilous, and job-producing opportunities for conservation and efficiency are abundant, water’s ranking on the list of public priorities and attention typically is not near the top.

It’s not for a lack of effort from the water wonks. In 1993, a year after international leaders met at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the United Nations took a step to raise awareness of water’s place at the center of life by establishing World Water Day. The annual event, held March 22 and now in its 23rd year, comes on Sunday.

The United Nations, a big unwieldy institution, has fostered a bit more heed to the day’s activities. It breaks up the immense, unwieldy world of water into more approachable streams flanked by a shoreline of optimism.  World Water Day’s annual themes, as a result, are a catalogue of earnestness and hope.

In years past, World Water Day focused on women and water (1994), thirsty cities (1996), health (2001), disasters (2004), supply (2007), pollution and sanitation (2008), food security (2012), and energy (2014).

This year’s theme is sustainable development. “Water resources, and the range of services they provide, underpin poverty reduction, economic growth and environmental sustainability,” say U.N. organizers. “From food and energy security to human and environmental health, water contributes to improvements in social well-being and inclusive growth, affecting the livelihoods of billions.”

Coal mining in Meghalaya, a northeast India state, is so damaging to water that a high court shut down the industry nearly a year ago. Photo/Keith Schneider

Coal mining in Meghalaya, a northeast India state, is so damaging to water that a high court shut down the industry nearly a year ago. Photo/Keith Schneider

Does Earnest Work?
Good stuff. Necessary to talk about. But not fit for stirring widespread attention on Facebook, or going viral on YouTube. This is, after all, an era of short attention spans and fixation on inconsequential agitation or the absurd.

The world’s residents, capable as they are, don’t like serious. They like to be amused. Shrinking from challenges is a global phenomenon. That’s as true in China as it is in India or Peru or the United States.

With public attention diverted by the French president’s paramours, or Angelina Jolie’s marriage, the consequential work of engaging tough and abstract problems like water supply and water quality falls to whom? Global legislators imprisoned by partisanship and ideology? Agency engineers and regulators suffering with thin budgets?

It might be that water needs a great spokesperson. Until the last 150 years or so, water didn’t need its own spokesperson, like the way Michael Jordan sells Gatorade. Where is the Katy Perry of water? For that matter where is the Archbishop Tutu of water? Water certainly needs a more magnetic personality than Matt Damon, whose effort to highlight global sanitation and health is far less emphatic than his work as Jason Bourne.
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