Pangea’s Biodegradable Package; Just Plant and Grow

Here’s a name worth paying attention to in the space where sustainable business practices and the non-profit sector cross. He is Joshua Scott Onysko, a 30-year-old native of Rhode Island who turned a bonding experience with his mother making organic soap into Pangea Organics, a very successful Boulder-based manufacturer of organic body and skin care products. I first learned of Onysko and Pangea Organics from a friend in Saugatuck who was as enthusastic about the company’s all natural French Rosemary with Sweet Orange facial toner as she was about the box it came in. The package contained Genovese Italian sweet basil seeds embedded in the 100 percent post-consumer moulded fibre. The compostable box is designed to be moistened and planted. Two to three months later sweet basil will sprout from the seed bed.

Not only is the idea and execution of a plantable package just totally cool, it also indicates a facile business executive who is dialed into his customers’ values, as well as global market trends. I made a couple of calls, knocked around the Internet, and discovered that Onysko, who says he never gained a formal education, even as a grade schooler, is quite the instinctive entrepreneur who knows his way around a growing business. He also views himself as an agent of social change and is using the revenue and profits of his growing $2 million, five-year-old company to build the Pangea Institute, a non-profit devoted to teaching business executives how to be more environmentally sensitive and economically sustainable. 

[googlevideo]-3146774489432915749&q=joshua+Onysko[/googlevideo]

His own company, he says, operates a 10,000 square-foot manufacturing plant that is completely wind-powered. None of his employees earn less than $12.50 an hour, and receive generous health, dental, and eyecare benefits. Pangea employees manage a 3,000 square- foot organic garden that produces food that an onsite cook turns into a daily lunchtime feast. His line of soaps and other skin and body care products, Onysko says, supports 40,000 acres of organically grown oils and other crops around the world, much of it produced by women. 

The neat compostable package with embedded basil seeds was developed by UFP Technologies, a 44-year-old maker of custom packaging based in Georgetown, Massachusetts. UFP Technologies described its cutting edge package this way: “Molded Fiber, a division of UFP Technologies, manufactures the customised shells, which are made from 100% recycled paper fibres and offer a cost-effective, environmentally friendly alternative to petroleum-based packaging materials. Pangea Organics recently redesigned packaging for its entire product line, and UFP Technologies provided recycled moulded fibre for a visually appealing packaging solution.”

It’s just this kind of union between a bright young entrepreneur intent on making things better, and a mainline technically savvy manufacturer willing to be inventive that is the essence of the Mode Shift we’re seeing in business, communities, and in peopleorienting their lives to respond to the powerful market forces that are reshaping the world.

At $5 A Gallon, Gas Prices Will Be The Issue In 2008 Campaign

Remember in the 2004 presidential campaign when George W. Bush and John Kerry briefly sparred over the price of gas? Democrats predictably blamed “Big Oil” and promised Congressional investigations. Republicans blamed Democrats and environmentalists for blocking efforts to build more refineries and drill for more oil, especially in Alaska. The tussle failed to attract more than the attention of a couple of political reporters. Why? Gas prices nationally were $1.80 a gallon, and only in California did they rise above $2 a gallon.

Well get ready for $5 a gallon fuel next summer when the price of gasoline becomes the issue of the presidential campaign. At that price, gasoline will top Iraq as the top concern of most voting Americans. And get ready for the Republican message machine to do what it does best: focus on a single issue, identify villains, command the message agenda, propose actions that working people find plausible, dial into its constituency, and pull the G.O.P. into position to win an election it has no business even being competitive in.

[youtube]tbzzeuYJteY[/youtube]

Here are the suppositions and observations upon which this scenario is built. First, gasoline prices have climbed nearly 60 percent over the last five months — in January the national average was $2.33 a gallon — and this month reached $3.65 a gallon in northern Michigan, just 35 cents less a gallon than the $4 level I predicted in April. The knife edge that separates demand and supply is so sharp now that any number of supply disruptions in the United States or overseas — storms, plant outages, strikes, pipeline failures, shipwrecks — can cause prices to rise 25 cents in a day, as we saw here in late April. It’s easy to forecast $5 a gallon next summer. The underlying market forces are pushing prices inexorably higher.

Second, fuel prices affect every American, regardless of whether they live in cities and barely use their vehicles, or live in the suburbs and rural regions and drive 20,000 miles a year or more. The rising cost of fuel is one of the most closely watched indicators of economic and social well-being because until the nation figures out that cars, highways, strip malls and parking lots are no longer the best measure of what makes a place great, the United States will continue to experience a collective stomach ache in most households, and in some real hardship. This month my family’s fuel bill rose from the $325 a month that we normally spend on gasoline to over $500 a month. I earn a decent living and we are fortunate to be able to fold the extra cost into our budget. But for hundreds of families in this rural region who drive as much or more than we do, an extra $175 a month for fuel is the difference between survival and foreclosure.

The Traverse City Record-Eagle reported on Sunday that home foreclosures have quadrupled in northwest Michigan since 2000, and with gas prices climbing the numbers will accelerate. School administrators in our rural district anticipate enrollment will drop in September by 81 kids, a six percent decline from enrollment this year. In other words, 35 families with children are expected to leave Benzie Countyover the summer.

Third, the suburban and rural voters affected most by $5 a gallon gas live in predominantly Republican red counties. Though they may be disillusioned with George Bush and his administration of inept managers (I’m being delibarately kind out of respect for my GOP readers) they are still inclined to vote Republican if the party convenes around a candidate and a message that makes sense. For the G.O.P message masters, $5 a gallon gas is an easy one. They know high gas prices aren’t just an irritant for their working family constituency in the suburbs and rural areas. It’s an emergency. They can lay the blame at the feet of liberals who blocked the oil industry from developing new reserves and used regulatory barriers to impede construction of new refineries. They can convince their  voters that the solution lies in electing Republicans who will open offshore fields and the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge to exploration, limit the reach of onerous regulations that further limit supplies, and offer even more subsidies and incentives to the oil industry to build new refineries.

Whether the Republican solutions have any merit — and none of them do — is not the point in a presidential campaign. As we’ve learned in this century, facts and truth are not necessarily the most important building blocks to credibility. More important for the anticipated Republican message is that the Democrats, once again, have no message on gasoline prices. Check out House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s grand standing on the issue in Washington earlier this month (see video). The Center For American Progress, a prominent Democratic activist think tank in Washington, is a good example of the Democrats’ absolute failure to anticipate and respond to the issue. The Center’s recipe for dealing with high gasoline prices involves (1) blaming the oil companies, (2) comiserating with consumers, and (3) noting that lower prices would be a benefit to millions of Americans. It’s pathetic.

If Democrats fail to develop a clearer and more relevant response to $5 a gallon gas — some mix of unexpected short-term relief like a gas tax moratorium with a realistic menu of emergency and longer term fuel economy rules, vastly increased investments in alternatives to driving, and incentives for designing more compact communities — they are likely to lose the White House again.

On Her 100th Birthday: Big Green’s Silent Spring For Rachel Carson

Across the country this weekend, and especially today, thousands of Americans honored Rachel Carson, the author of “Silent Spring,” who was born 100 years ago on a 65-acre farm in Springdale, Pennsylvania, northeast of Pittsburgh. Carson’s legacy was extolled by grassroots activists, lauded by newspaper writers, and commemorated by institutions. She also was villified as a cause of global genocide by conservative free market critics, and a Congressional resolution honoring the centennial of her birth was blocked by a Republican Senator from Oklahoma. 

All the attention to her birthday is a fitting measure of Carson’s lasting influence as the mother of modern environmentalism, except in one more arena you’d expect her life to be celebrated: The national environmental groups — Environmental Defense, the Sierra Club, Audubon, World Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council. But if you take a look, there’s not one word on any big green home page about Carson. Big green’s silent spring for Rachel Carson is more than a shame. It’s a hazard for all of us. Here’s why.

rachel-carson.jpg In “Silent Spring,” her 1962 tour de force of investigative journalism, Carson collected disparate scientific findings on the effects of chlorine-based agricultural chemicals on wildlife and built a powerful new narrative about the consequences of industrial technology on the environment. Almost every achievement of modern environmentalism — from the development of federal and state laws requiring sharp reductions in exposure to toxic air, water, and land pollutants, to government agencies to enforce and advance the statutes, to the vast expansion of scientific inquiry into new threats, to the development of a national community of big and small organizations dedicated to environmental protection, to a much safer and cleaner environment, to the recovery of bald eagles, to the embrace of environmental goals as arguably the largest and most influential grassroots movement on the planet today —  can be traced back to Carson’s probing research and lucid prose.

It’s gratifying to see the nation honor her life.

Tom Henry, the fine environmental reporter for the Toledo Blade, joined the dozens of newspaper correspondents and editorialists who remarked this weekend on Carson’s invaluable legacy. “She changed the way life could have been for today’s 302 million Americans, as well as millions who preceded them,” he wrote.

The Kennedy Library convened a forum on Saturday that featured Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, and Stewart L. Udall, the Interior Secretary during the Kennedy administration who convinced the young president to convene a panel of the National Academy of Sciencies, which confirmed Carson’s findings, and who was a pallbearer at Carson’s funeral in 1964. 

Her hometown has an afternoon of festivities today at the family’s homestead that includes a farmer’s market, a sampling of great food by local chefs, a one-woman show about Carson’s life, and a bluegrass band.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, where Carson worked as a writer for 15 years, plans a number of commemorative events this spring and early summer including guided walks today at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia.

But accompanying the ardent support for Carson’s legacy has also come a well-coordinated rhetorical attack by freemarket writers and a prominent conservative Oklahoma Senator, Tom Coburn, who question the scientific accuracy of her critique of the hazards of pesticides.  The opposition’s thesis, an update of the chemical industry’s unsuccessful effort to smear Carson in the early 1960s, is that “Silent Spring” overstated the risk of human exposure to DDT and that in doing so caused a mass panic that prompted governments to ban its use to control malaria. Carson’s critics then elevate that argument to (1) accuse her of fostering a worldwild resurgence of malaria-related illnesses and deaths; and (2) accuse her of being among the first to deploy hyperbolic, sky-is-falling rhetoric that has damaged the environmental community’s credibility.

Just as the radical right has used its “sound science” message to peddle myths that have slowed progress on global climate change — here in northern Michigan Republican Grand Traverse County commissioners argue that global warming is a fraud perpetrated by Al Gore — the focus on Rachel Carson’s scholarship is designed to till the fertile fields of misinformation for ideological advantage. 

The problem is that the authorities on the staffs of the national environmental groups, by not firing back, have enabled their opponents to frame lies, make them national talking points, and gain an advantage in the marketplace of ideas.

Now I understand there is a lot going on in the world — energy, climate change, attacks on the regulatory framework, loss of habitat — and the big green groups are certainly invaluable in moving the world closer to solutions. But allowing opponents to environmentalism take unanswered shots at Rachel Carson is inexcusable. Carson is the movement’s towering historic figure. She’s as significant to American environmentalism as Martin Luther King Jr. is to the civil rights movement, or Billy Graham is to evangelicals. America’s African American leadership would never allow white supremacists to sully Dr. King. Nor would evangelicals stand by and allow Reverend Graham to be soiled.

Big green groups are savvy enough to know that personality and symbol are powerful drivers of public attention. Movements are born and sustained by elevating their leading figures to position of national stature and history. The radical right understands that, which is why they seek to diminish Rachel Carson’s legacy. Weaken the legitimacy of historic figures and you diminish the movement. Not even Environmental Defense nor the National Audubon Society rose to the occasion. Environmental Defense was founded in 1967 by four scientists who’d taken up where “Silent Spring” left off and gained the first court injunction in the country to stop the spraying of DDT on Long Island, N.Y. They turned to National Audubon’s Rachel Carson Memorial Fund for money to get Environmental Defense started. You have to wonder, what are these people thinking? On her 100th birthday, the most significant environmentalist in history took a bit of a needless beating.

Cities Punch Above Their Weight Economically

 bruce-katz.jpg

Here are two more reasons why Michigan and the American Midwest are slipping to backwater status in the United States, and why we can’t give up on the capacity of our governor and state lawmakers to help work Michigan out of its economic mess. 

Fact one, according to a new analysis by the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution: Six of the 80 old industrial cities lagging far behind in economic performance, population growth, job creation, and business development are in Michigan. All but 17 of the 80 underperforming cities in the United States, according to the Brookings findings, are in the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, or New England.

Fact two. Michigan’s residents are starting to give a lot more thought to struggling cities as fuel prices climb past $3.50 a gallon, as they did this week. The old rules about where the most affordable housing lies — far from the city center — no longer applies if it costs $12 a day in after tax income to commute for a working person who earns $70 a day. For every dollar a family thinks it saves in monthly housing costs  by moving to the far outer suburbs, according to the Center For Housing Policy in Washington, D.C.,it spends nearly a dollar more in transportation costs.  

In other words the cost of commuting is about to exceed the savings from buying a home distant from job centers. Michigan needs it cities because people need cities to become choice places to live again. The old pattern of development — flinging people across the landscape, putting them in cars, and then tying them together with expensive roads — just doesn’t fit the new market signals of this century. Anyway you look at it, we can’t afford the lifestyle.  

It’s not just in Michigan. The combination of rising energy, land, and housing costs, and the decline in real wages, is prompting more people to reconsider where they buy a home. Some states — notably Utah, Texas, New York, Oregon, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina — anticipated the abrupt market transition and significantly improved their cities as places to live and do business. Central city populations are rising dramatically all across the country, as are housing prices. But Michigan and much of the Midwest, according to Bruce Katz (see pix), vice president of Brookings  and director of the Metropolitan Policy Program, are not keeping pace. The reason, he says, is that Midwestern states treat cities “as deficits not assets,” and allowed them to deteriorate. 

For the most part — with a few exceptions like Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison, and Columbus — Midwestern cities ceased decades ago to be competitive places to raise families. The result is that working people are becoming marooned in suburban and exurban homes they can ill afford, far from jobs they aren’t certain of keeping, and paying more every day to survive with wages that are static or declining. Michigan is at the head of the national pack in the number of young people and young families that are leaving to seek fortunes in more competitive places. And recruitment officers in every major Michigan city describe the hardships they experience in attracting young talent to settle here. 

Katz was in Michigan this week, exploring his group’s new Restoring Prosperity report, and telling audiences in Lansing and Flint that Michigan should look to its cities — not suburbs, not exurbs, not rural regions — as its most important economic assets. Nationally, he said, cities are emerging as the great incubators of new economic policy, housing, neighborhood development, and wealth because they are much more responsive to the new market and demographic trends reshaping the country. The country is growing older. Households with one or two people now far outnumber families with children. The number of immigrants is climbing. These demographic trends favor cities. Couple that with rising energy and land costs, and the desire by more people to move out of expensive, congested, and increasingly unsafe suburbs, and the future of cities in America is bright, he said. 

To some extent, Katz said, Michigan’s cities reflect those trends. Downtown Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, and Traverse City are attracting new investment and housing. But much more opportunity exists in urban development, he said, and the state has an essential role in deciding where it should spend money to encourage metropolitan prosperity — for rapid transit, parks, housing, job investment strategies, neighborhood development — and where it shouldn’t, such as providing thousands of acres of state land and subsidizing a giant theme park in rural Roscommon County.

With the state’s help, Michigan’s other major cities also can prosper again, said Katz. That’s because they have the streets and neighborhoods, the educational and social institutions (particularly universities and medical centers), and the cultural amenities that underlie strong metropolitan economies. The six underperforming Michigan cities — Detroit, Flint, Kalamazoo, Saginaw, East Lansing, and Muskegon — collectively have 330 historic landmark properties, 14 four-year colleges and universities, 30 hospitals and medical institutions that employ 42,000 people, 14 major museums, and 5 major sports teams. They also support a third of the jobs in their respective regions. Those are the sort of strategic assets on which to build a more prosperous state. In Katz’s view, “cities totally punch above their weight economically.”

Inc. Magazine Hot Cities: Not One in Upper Midwest

The annual tally of American “Boom Towns” in the May issue of Inc. Magazine includes not one — repeat, not a single large, midsize, or small city in the Great Lakes region that qualifies among the nation’s top generators of new jobs. If the entire Midwest is considered, the only two cities that sneak onto the list are Springfield, Missouri (ranked # 20 among midsize cities) and Dubuque, Iowa (#15 among small cities). 

The list does include some of our favorite Mode Shift metropolitan regions in the midst of implementing a new economic development strategy based on environmental sensitivity, energy efficiency, land conservation, rapid transit construction, and more compact patterns of housing and business development. Salt Lake City is ranked 10th among large metropolitan areas, followed by Washington, D.C. (#13), Sacramento (#15, see pix) , Houston (#17), Seattle (#18), and Portland (#20).

That still leaves the upper Midwest out of the picture, and for good reason. Consider Michigan, my adopted state. The auto industry here has been shrinking for 35 years. Cities are the most economically and racially segregated in the nation. The state’s joblessness is the highest in the nation, and its fiscal deficit ($700 million to $900 million, depending on who’s counting) is the largest. sacramento.jpg

Though blessed with an astonishingly beautiful landscape and abundant natural resources, especially fresh water, the state still views the 19th century strategy of exploitation as more capable of generating jobs than a modern stewardship approach that weighs industrial innovation with robust conservation. Michigan should be the global leader in all things water, just as California is the global leader in computer technology, and New York is the global finance and media capitol.  The state government ain’t listening much. Michigan ranks 47th out of the 48 contiguous states, according to a new analysis by the Land Policy Institute at Michigan State University, in per capita public spending on natural resource protection and conservation. Only Georgia spends less per capita. 

Now you might think that such dismally telling statistics might get a few people in our state capitol upset. Hardly. For months now Democratic Governor, Jennifer M. Granholm, and Legislative leaders of both parties, have been wrangling not about how to leverage public dollars to innovate, but over the old canard of raising taxes or cutting spending to close the deficit, which is now threatening to prompt big reductions in public school budgets and health care. 

The governor argues that a tax increase is needed. Republicans, who last year enacted a $1.9 billion tax cut for businesses (20 percent of the state’s general fund revenue) without developing a replacement, say more program cuts are needed, not more revenue. 

The GOP’s view here is consistent with the party’s thesis that tax cuts stimulate economic actvity. That theory, though, has been proven completely false in Michigan.  During the 1990s, Republican Governor John Engler, helped by a Republican-led Legislature, enacted a continuous series of measures that reduced the percentage of income that state residents pay in state taxes from 8 percent to roughly 6.7 percent, according to an analysis by the Citizens Research Council, a respected non-partisan public policy research group in Livonia. Michigan is in the middle of the national pack in the percent of income wage earners and companies pay for taxes.

The cuts, though, drained billions of dollars from state revenue and hurt the public institutions and programs that other states are fortifying to improve their competitiveness. In Michigan, tax cuts translated into a $275 million reduction in state aid to universities over the last four years, $172 million cut from human services over the last five years, $323 million cut from public schools, and $447 million in cuts in revenue sharing to operate cities and towns. State employees gave back $186 million in concessions to save money, and 7,400 jobs were cut from the state payroll. 

In other words if tax cuts truly made a difference, then Michigan would not be the national leader in joblessness, would not lead the nation in the number of educated young people who leave the state to seek opportunity elsewhere, and not be at the very back of the national pack in creating new businesses and jobs. The data show that tax cuts grievously injured the state’s well-being and competitiveness. 

Trouble is the Democrats have no counter proposal except tax increases. Neither Democrats nor Republicans are talking about the fact that Michigan state government will spend $40 billion this year to support a menu of programs, $10 billion on economic development alone, and is using that money to vigorously pursue an economic strategy that is firmly mired in the 20th century. Highway building instead of rapid transit. Taxpayer subsidies to lure new companies that aren’t coming. Agriculture programs designed to supply global markets with cheap grain and milk, and are producing dairy and hog factory farms that are among the state’s largest water polluters. Investment programs for infrastructure that penalize cities and spur new development in the countryside. If you want to see what happens in a place where new ideas are not seen as a virtue, and partisan division and turf protection trumps collaboration, come to Michigan.

A last thought: Seeking a Mode Shift economy that delivers good jobs, business opportunities, and a high quality of life is not a partisan issue. Utah, the most Republican state in the country, also put the Provo and Ogden metropolitan regions on the list of Inc. Magazine boom towns. The state achieved its robust economy by investing state funds in new industries like computers and outdoor recreation, and by building one of the most robust rapid transit systems in the nation. Tax cutting was not high on the operating agenda. Utah’s population (2.5 million) is 75 percent lower than Michigan’s 10 million residents. The state budget is $10.8 billion this year. Utah also has a $1.8 billion budget surplus.