As We Build More, Use More, The Earth Is Pushing Back Hard

The 1989 revolution that ended Communist rule and freed the Czech people is a vivid example of human persistence and valor. Photo/Keith Schneider
The 1989 revolution that ended Communist rule and freed the Czech people is a vivid example of human persistence and valor. Photo/Keith Schneider

PRAGUE — City Square erupted at the start of the 2014 New Year with a deafening and blazing midnight fusilade of rockets and cannon blasts. The air filled with spent gunpowder and smoke so dense the brilliance of the firebursts was obscured. The Czech crowds, so slim and young and dressed in chic leather and spiked heels, cheered with the joy and lusty charm that comes with political security and social success.

This 1,000-year-old river city of 1.3 million, the capital of a first generation democracy founded in 1989, is a swirl of light and modern efficiency. Trams speed through narrow streets paved with square stones the size of Rubik cubes. Malls stir with shoppers hunting post-Christmas bargains. Cafes offer all manner of cheese, beer, bread, booze, and sweets. The sidewalks are filled with children in bright coats and knit caps running to keep pace with their parents.

The mood in the Czech Republic is so plainly defined by the satisfaction of building from the economic mustiness of Soviet repression a nation that is prosperous, clean, and among the world’s safest and best educated. Less than two generations ago bullet holes were still visible on the walls of Prague’s historic buildings. Adults huddled in attics, speaking in hushed voices with only their most trusted friends, if the subject was politics.

Prague, and the rest of this beautiful country of 10.5 million residents, provides welcome evidence of the capacity of people to agree on shared but difficult goals, and work together to achieve them. Prague represents needed hope for humanity’s ability to manage its affairs in a way that produces order from disorder, recognizes opportunity in changing circumstances, and responds responsibly to all manner of economic and ecological transition.

In neighboring Germany, there is more evidence such progress is possible. Germany is in the midst of a third industrial revolution fueled by its lower-polluting, water-conserving renewable energy sector. Almost 20 percent of the 600 terra-watt hours of electricity that Germany generates annually is supplied by power from wind, solar, water, biomass, and municipal waste. Germany’s photovoltaic solar sector alone accounts for 24,000 megawatts of generating capacity, and almost 20 terra-watt hours of electricity production. Power produced from coal-fired stations has dropped to 40 percent of Germany’s electricity supply.

And while solar yields three to five percent of Germany’s electricity production (depending on the season), that 24,000 megawatts of generating capacity is more power produced from the sun than in all of the rest of the world combined. And it’s happened very quickly. Because utilities are required to buy solar power from producers, including individual homeowners, banks of photovoltaic panels are bolted to the roofs of barns, big box stores, schools, and homes across the country.

Germany's solar sector has more generating capacity than the rest of the world's combined. Photo/Keith Schneider
Germany’s solar sector has more generating capacity than the rest of the world’s combined. Photo/Keith Schneider

As a journalist who’s now spending months each year overseas reporting on the fierce global contest for energy, grain, and water in the era of a fast-changing climate, the examples of human progress on display in the Czech Republic and in Germany are encouraging. So too, is what Ontario, Canada completed this year — a decade of policy change that has ended coal-fired power generation.

But these examples aren’t the norm.

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Government Shutdown, Default Reveal Fanaticism’s Depth

The hard right’s strategy to shut the Government and threaten a default shows contempt for the law, for precedence, and for the majority of Americans. It reveals a streak of fanaticism in suburban and rural Republican voters that won’t go away very fast even as the rest of the country moves on. This poster in New York’s Times Square illustrates a minority view that is in tatters. Photo/Keith Schneider

NEW YORK — This is the city and the new American experience that too many white suburban and rural voters loathe. Good leadership and smart taxpayer investments modernized the subways, scrubbed clean the shoreline, rebuilt Harlem, and turned Brooklyn into a multi-racial millennial hot spot for good jobs and housing. Crime is down, way down. City revenues are up. Voters here support an African American president, public education, gun control, gay marriage, the science of climate change, clean energy, immigration reform, and medical marijuana. Intelligent design describes a new energy-efficient office building, not an explanation for the origins of the 6,000-year-old Earth.

New York, in sum, is the capital of the newly dynamic America that is moving on from the era of dysfunction and disinvestment, the period of national reckoning and stagnation that followed 9/11 and the Great Recession. It turns out that many cities and regions across the country are thriving again. American democracy still works in places that reward insightful and strong leaders, and have replaced ideology and revenge with shared values and some measure of common decency.

Two hundred miles south of here, in political Washington, D.C., the nation watches in fascination and no small measure of horror the desperate acts of a minority — white suburban and rural voters — who either feel boxed in or have been ruthlessly misled. It’s probably a mix of both.

Fear, though, has led these voters to countenance an extortion attempt — demanding the rollback of the healthcare law in exchange for opening the government and approving a debt ceiling increase. Having lost an election that considered the healthcare law as a primary issue, the extortion bid displays contempt for law, democracy, and precedence. These same voters would find such tactics intolerable from foreign leaders seeking influence in the United States. And they certainly would recoil from these tactics if they were deployed by a Democrat or Al Qaeda.

Still, most House Republican voters support what their representatives are doing. Despite what Democrats here in New York hope, and mainstream editorialists predict — that the GOP will pay for this recklessness at the polls — I’m not convinced that is true. GOP voters are calling for their House representatives to be more strident, not less. Giving up is a sign of weakness. The disdain that GOP voters have for government will not recede because of this manufactured fiscal and political crisis.

What it’s producing is not just divided government. It’s splitting the nation. City from suburb. North and West from South and Plains states. White from every other American. Baby Boom from millennials. It is draining the country’s ingenuity and imagination. Anger and frustration, stridency and recklessness are hardening the lines between a blue America and a red America. Having failed to convince a majority of Americans that “government is the problem,” the next apparent goal of the right wing minority is promote the politics of division. That goal, it seems to me, is precisely what GOP voters and their elected representative are after.

U.S. Government Shutdown Is A Tripwire — But For What?


Barack and Michelle Obama celebrate the president’s second inauguration on Pennsylvania Avenue on January 21, 2013. Photo/Keith Schneider

For a time earlier in my career I founded and directed the Michigan Land Use Institute, an advocacy organization that is quite adept at winning important public interest campaigns. The Institute’s policy achievements were due in no small way to how consistently we adhered to our rules of engagement. Respect those who disagree with you. Don’t call people names. Don’t draw lines in the sand. Don’t back people into corners.

Today is shutdown Sunday. It’s the sixth day of a momentous political confrontation over law, ideology, race, class, and region that the President and Democratic Senate leaders were winning. President Obama and his allies took a big risk by drawing a line in the sand, vowing not to negotiate unless the House dropped health care from a bill to fund the government. Their reasoning was airtight. Policy making by threat and coercion, they argued, was no way to manage a democracy. Market executives and corporate front offices, even those who backed the GOP, were on board with the White House position. House Speaker John Boehner late last week was privately telling his aides, who passed the message to DC reporters, that he would find a way out of the standoff.

Over the weekend, though, the confrontation turned dangerous. The reason: the White House and Senate Democratic leaders made it personal and simultaneously backed Boehner into a corner. How? They questioned Speaker John Boehner’s courage, disparaged his manhood. On Friday Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid actually called him a coward.

Regardless of what people think about Speaker Boehner, calling him soft is having the effect of steeling his nerve and amplifying his party’s beligerence. Today, in an interview with ABC News, Boehner stated that, unless the White House agrees to amend the health care law and visit several more issues, he’s prepared to let the nation slip into default. “That’s the path we’re on,” said the speaker.

Democrats are foolish if they believe Boehner is kidding. He’s not. GOP lawmakers have been awaiting this moment for years. They are supported by voters who operate in an alternate American universe that is armed to the teeth, believes Barack Obama is not a native-born American, that the Earth is 6,000 years old, that climate change is a scientific fiction, and that Social Security and Medicare are somehow different from other taxpayer-supported programs. That constituency, deeply religious and indoctrinated by Fox News and the hard right media, appears to be inviting, even cheering an economic wreck that weakens the government they hate, and that draws closer by the day. Just as perilous, at this point the GOP constituency seems prepared to penalize only those House lawmakers, Speaker Boehner among them, who back down.

Like other Americans I’m confused about the aims of this confrontation or where it leads. Make no mistake, though. An insurgency is unfolding in the U.S. Government.

— Keith Schneider

Just As It’s Always Been, Earth Day Marks Big Problems, Big Choices

The most beautiful country in the world, the United States, presents spectacular scenes of nature in every state, like the Cape Cod shoreline on Earth Day in Chatham, Mass. Photo/Keith Schneider

CHATHAM, Mass. — The tides here lay down a walkway of shells — horseshoe crabs, scallops, palm-size crabs — where the water meets dry sand. On Earth Day 2013 a nearly full moon is perched, like a round plate on a pedestal, amid an expanse of cloudless blue sky. Gulls soar and dive in a stout breeze, and in the nearby mudflats men and women with long-handled metal rakes in hand and collars turned up to the wind probe for sweet clams.

Had it not been for the principles of conservation and the values of pollution prevention that defined the first Earth Day in 1970, it’s almost certain that this stretch of Cape Cod beach would be sickened by now by any number of symptoms of environmental disease — sewage, chemical pollution, unsightly development, plastic litter, algae, and smog. The fact that shells mark the beach here, not garbage, and that the air is as clear as fresh-wiped crystal is testament to a streak in the American character that most citizens do not take for granted.

We cherish our beautiful places, and we are a nation rich in them. We’ve actively approved statutes to safeguard that beauty. And despite decades of effort by one faction or another to weaken those protections, our citizens and their allies in government and the courts time and again have insisted that they be enforced.

Gulls at work on a scallop. Photo/Keith Schneider

To do otherwise is to capitulate to the same tide of neglect and dysfunction that has consumed cities, the land, and the water in so many other countries. In Beijing the air is so thick with coal dust and toxic chemicals it’s dangerous to breathe. The Yamuna River is so choked with the raw sewage and chemical effluent of Delhi that it stinks like an open sewer and produces giant bubbles of methane. Old wells in Azerbaijan provide a pathway for streams of crude oil to rise to the surface and pour into earthen impoundments, forming sizable and unguarded ponds of fuel so aromatic they sting the nose, and so flammable they could explode into fire at any time. Continue reading “Just As It’s Always Been, Earth Day Marks Big Problems, Big Choices”

Boston Lockdown City


On Friday before noon the Harvard Square area was empty in lockdown Cambridge. Photo/Keith Schneider

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Hours after the teenage white hat bomber was taken into custody, the rain started. It was a warm rain, a renewing rain. This morning dogwoods were in white bloom. Puddles on the sidewalks were like mirrors, reflecting the grey sky and the long strides of runners along the Charles. It felt like the world had changed.

This metropolitan region, close to where the Pilgrims landed, where Revere rode to alert the Concord and Lexington settlers, where Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook, knows a thing or two about making history and influencing a nation. The four days of shock and outrage that started on Monday with the Boston marathon bombings on Boylston Street, and climaxed on Friday in Watertown with a flurry of bullets, was history-making in a much different dimension.

On Friday morning I arrived to a nearly empty Boston Logan Airport and joined one million residents in this region in an utterly unique experience in America. It was 9:15 a.m., normally a period of high passenger traffic. But airline personnel, detailed to counters two-by-two, outnumbered passengers at most of Delta’s gate areas. I already knew that Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick had ordered a region-wide “lockdown.” I knew public transit was shut and that taxis were barred from the airport. I followed Twitter feeds since Monday — #Boston, #marathon, #bombing — that had expanded since Thursday when the FBI released the photographs of black hat and white hat – #suspects — and then added #Watertown after midnight, when the suspects were cornered by the police.

My destination was Cambridge where I’d been invited to attend the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy’s forum for journalists who report on land and the built environment. I learned from a passenger coming into the airport that there was no restriction on private vehicles arriving at the airport. I learned from another passenger that car rental agencies were providing vehicles, so I knew that was an option for driving out of Logan. Outside the terminal’s departure area I noticed that taxis were dropping passengers. The obvious response to the transport choice was to flag one of them down and ask for a ride.

It was a fast trip to Harvard Square – 20 minutes max. In lockdown city, America’s newest version of urban crisis management, there’s no traffic. Storrow Drive, which runs along the south bank of the Charles River, was empty. Every lane was open, absolutely no vehicles like rural northern Michigan route 115 at a February dawn. As we made our way through the streets of Cambridge, there were no cars, no pedestrians. Stores were shuttered in Harvard Square. Residents voluntarily complied with lockdown city. They had to. A colleague who lives in Cambridge told me he watched police officers stop and question people, especially male students walking in front of his home.

The Lincoln Institute cancelled Friday’s program because some speakers were unable to reach Boston. Others were unable to reach the conference center. Some of the journalists attending were dispatched to cover the manhunt in Watertown, which is two miles away.

I retreated to the Sheraton Commander to follow the news and tweet. And that leads me to the three primary findings I made from Friday’s events, and a principal question:

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