Tom and His Green World

Tom Friedman, the New York Times’ great foreign affairs columnist and a former colleague of mine wrote this in a must read Sunday Magazine article yesterday: “After World War II, President Eisenhower responded to the threat of Communism and the “red menace” with massive spending on an interstate highway system to tie America together, in large part so that we could better move weapons in the event of a war with the Soviets. That highway system, though, helped to enshrine America’s car culture (atrophying our railroads) and to lock in suburban sprawl and low-density housing, which all combined to get America addicted to cheap fossil fuels, particularly oil. Many in the world followed our model.

Today, we are paying the accumulated economic, geopolitical and climate prices for that kind of America. I am not proposing that we radically alter our lifestyles. We are who we are — including a car culture. But if we want to continue to be who we are, enjoy the benefits and be able to pass them on to our children, we do need to fuel our future in a cleaner, greener way. Eisenhower rallied us with the red menace. The next president will have to rally us with a green patriotism. Hence my motto: “Green is the new red, white and blue.””

Nobody is capable of putting a smarter geopolitical frame on issues than Tom. It’s been satisfying to see how he discovered, dug in, and joined the global green movement over the last several years. When I worked in Washington with him in the 1980s and early 1990s, where I served as a national correspondent and one of the  Times’ environmental policy specialists, he sniffed at things green. The environment was interesting but not the province of writers seriously interested in advancing the world’s interests. That assessment came in spite of the persistently grim reporting in the Times and elsewhere about the consequence of global climate change, population growth, deforestation, fresh water scarcity, diminishing fisheries, desertification, and other man-made calamities enveloping planet earth. Those of us reporting on the findings of the scientists, non-profit research organizations, advocates, and communities affected knew that eventually the environment would be the story of our age. And we knew that would occur when deteriorating global conditions produced economic malfunctions that affected international relationships and trade. That’s where Tom picked up the green story a few years ago. 

In a way Tom has attained some of the same stature as Walter Cronkite during the Vietnam War. When Walter broadcast his doubts about America’s ability to win in Vietnam the nation knew it was over. When Tom Friedman calls for a “New Green Deal” in the United States, that is the can do American centrist left talking, the very same segment of the ideological spectrum that is almost certain to win the White House in 2008. And when he calls for a “green president,” that’s the cell phone vibrating in Al Gore’s pocket.    

Gas Prices, Peak Oil, and the New American Backwater

It’s the nutty season here in the first weeks of spring. The purebred chicken scratch hill billy hound dog puppy that I picked up off the highway in southern Virginia almost 18 years ago decided she’d had enough and wandered off two days ago and vanished. It’s been snowing here in Michigan’s great white north for more than a week. Over the weekend I shoveled nine inches of snow off the deck and driveway and it’s colder than it was in January when my daughter and I, both of us wearing shorts and long tees, ran in the forests near the Betsie River. 

And now gas prices are $2.86 a gallon and rising. In northern Michigan, like almost every other rural area, we feel that price right away. Wages are stagnant here. The cost of living is rising. Thousands of people drive long distances to work, sacrificing their time in exchange for living in a home they can afford. Our public transit agency is doing a better job, and soon we’ll have an express bus from my home in Benzonia to Traverse City. But most people drive to their jobs, often 50 to 80 miles round trip. When you’re making $80 a day after taxes — a pretty typical wage here — and fuel costs $10 a day, the price of gas is an issue.

When gas gets this high it gets a lot easier to make the case that we need to think more clearly about community design and the much different energy era we’ve entered. Kurt Vonnegut, the writer and humorist who died yesterday at age 84, once summed the problem us this way.  “We are all addicts of fossil fuels in a state of denial, about to face cold turkey.”


Those of you in other states who’d like a short primer in the cruel consequences of failing to face up to the future need only look at Michigan. Its budget is $1 billion in the red and getting worse. Only Mississippi had a higher unemployment rate in February. Mortage foreclosures top the nation. The Republican legislature last year eliminated a $2 billion business tax and are now intent on draining more money from public education and the state’s universities. The Democratic governor, despite one of the largest election margins ever for a Democrat in a statewide race, seems helpless in pushing for a new direction. The auto-dependent economy, land gobbling patterns of development, and way of life here in the Motor State are  obsolete. Yet one of the clearest messages out of Lansing is offered by the road lobby, which argues that the best way out of the mess is more of the same: Raising gas taxes to build new roads. This in a state that has a public transportation system so poor that it takes 10 hours to get from Ann Arbor to Traverse City — a 250-mile, four-hour car ride. Michigan ranks 49th out of 50 in its ability to retain educated young people, and is among the slowest growing states.  

Fortunately, all states aren’t as inept. The good Mormons of Utah, for instance, embraced sound land use planning and efficient community design long before they landed on the shores of the Great Salt Lake in the mid-19th century. The 21st century metropolis at the foot of the Wasatch Front that they are now developing is being stitched together by energy-efficient, cost-effective, gas-saving light rail and heavy commuter rail lines. Last November voters approved a measure to raise their sales taxes to accelerate construction of four new lines, a total of 26 miles, to add to the existing 19-mile light rail system. Next spring, the Utah Transit Authority opens a nine-station, 44-mile heavy commuter line running north from Salt Lake City. And 44 more miles running south could open as soon as 2014.

 The land around the existing 23 transit stations, and the coming nine new ones, are becoming magnets for new housing, business and retail developments that are reachable by train, car, bike, and on foot. The new residents of the planned development at the Farmington station, for instance, won’t be nearly as worried about the price of gas regardless of how high it rises. They can use the train to get to work in Salt Lake City 13 miles away, and operate a single vehicle instead of a fleet, the way we need to do in northern Michigan. 

Many families here, including mine, spend more on vehicles, fuel, insurance, and maintenance than they do on any other monthly expense, exceeding the cost of housing. 

It’s not going to get easier. The sharp rise in gas prices over the last two weeks comes amid news that oil production in the  Cantarell field in Mexico, the world’s second largest by output, is falling dramatically. According to Supply Chain Digest, one of the Internet sites I pay attention to on this issue, the Cantarell field has seen its daily production rates drop by 20 percent over the last year, what Supply Chain says is “an incredibly rapid decline. It is now producing about 1.6 million barrels per day, down from two million a year ago.”

“Pemex, Mexico’s national oil company, is applying some new technology to the field, and hopes to stem the slide in barrels per day as a result. Even so, production from Cantarell will decline to 600,000 barrels per day by 2013,” said Supply Chain.

The Wall Street Journal also reported last week that: “Two decades ago, about a dozen fields produced more than a million barrels a day. Now there are only four, one of which is Cantarell. The future of two others, discovered more than 50 years ago, remains in question.”

Michigan is desperately far behind in the work to prepare for the era of $4 a gallon and $5 a gallon gas, which is imminent. Look at California, where Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, and Sacramento all boast good rapid transit systems that were built over the last generation. The state’s cities are growing more dense and more compact, even Los Angeles, which by various measures is the most densely developed city in the country. The state, by the way, achieved new patterns of development and a healthy economy.

A last thought. Residents and state officials in car-happy California recognize that there is waning civic energy for more damaging highways. Neither California nor any other state can afford to build its way out of congestion. There aren’t a whole lot of people left who think more highways, more parking lots, more cars, more sprawl is a good thing to do. There is much more popular support for repairing existing roads and building more compact, environmentally-sensitive, walkable places to live. And people want to build rail transportation that is fast, convenient, affordable, and much cheaper than driving. 

Last November California voters overwhelmingly approved more than $30 billion in new state spending to achieve that vision. The Rebuild California plan calls for $12.25 billion to repair and modernize highways, not build new ones, and $4 billion for light rail, commuter rail, and bus improvements. Talk about investing in the future.

In Michigan, we’re cutting school spending, freezing state grants, laying off state troopers, and thinking about more highway construction. We’re also sliding fast into backwater status.  

Pure Michigan

If you’ve followed what’s going on here in Michigan you know that we continue to lead the nation in too many categories that aren’t welcome — joblessness, rates of obesity and heart disease, income gap between wealthy and poor, racial segregation, home foreclosures. And we are at the bottom of the heap in categories that define well-being — income growth, business starts, educational achievement, the quality of our big cities, state fiscal health.

There are many reasons why Michigan has slid so far from its stature as an economic powerhouse capable of generating the good life for so many people for decades. The short answer is that our autocentric manufacturing economy, and hierarchical way of making decisions, is obsolete. Moreover, our comfort with Michigan’s divisions — political, racial, religious, class, and geographic — is preventing our ability to decide what to do in a century defined by collaboration.

But as I’ve discovered in so many other places, when you toss aside all the pretense and posturing, break down all the bluster and nonsense that keep us apart, you find that people do share values and principles. That common ground is, in fact, the very ground that lies beneath their feet, the ground that supports their neighborhoods, their schools, their businesses, their children, and themselves. The land, and the communities and culture that have grown up around our places, is what unites people. 

Last week I was in Knoxville, speaking at a large Quality Growth conference attended by 700 people. The people I met said they were very concerned that record levels of business, housing, and infrastructure investment produced by a new wave of population growth will ruin what is known as the East Tennessee experience. It’s a mix of mountain geography and culture, the hard woods and green pastures, the poverty and independence that fostered a way of life firmly based in family, freedom, hard work, and forbearance.

In February I was in Salt Lake City, which also is growing fast. There people have gathered around the idea that record rates of population growth threatens a high desert religious way of life that treated mountain vistas and great expanses of rangeland as precious gifts of God. The residents of the Wasatch Front, some of the most conservative and independent people in America — it’s Utah after all — nevertheless have reached agreement on an extraordinarily progressive course of action. They are taxing themselves to build light and heavy commuter rail lines, protect farmland and open space, promote energy efficiency, and build new communities around transit stations and stops. They also have convinced the very same Republican government they sent to Washington to quit toying with protections for the gorgeous and job-producing federal wilderness that lies at their doorstep.  

Here in Michigan, people also come together around our shared natural heritage. This state pioneered many of the environmental protection measures that became national policy. We were the first to outlaw DDT, the first state to establish protections for wetlands and natural rivers, fresh water dunes and inland lakes and streams. Michigan has the largest state-owned public domain east of the Mississippi, more than 4 million acres. And Michigan brokered a deal with the energy industry in 1980 that allowed for drilling on state lands in exchange for investing royalties in a state-managed account, the Natural Resources Trust Fund. The Trust Fund has paid for permanently preserving tens of thousands of acres of wild land and open space in Michigan, including more than 6,000 acres of coastal Lake Michigan dunes and forest in Benzie County, where I live.

Michigan’s geography has always been its economy. Only today it’s not about chopping down 17 million acres of old growth, as Michigan did 110 years ago. It’s about conservation and intelligent investment in resource-based industries. Michigan’s development strategy, still heavily dependent on jobs we can’t keep in a global economy, needs to be based much more firmly in its natural heritage. One state agency, Travel Michigan, seems to truly recognize that fact. Last year, Travel Michigan worked with McCann Erickson, the big Birmingham advertising agency, to produce a series of video spots, narrated by Tim Allen, that every Michigan resident ought to see. 

Melinda Remer, the agency’s marketing director who helped to conceive the project, told me today that the first three videos, which focus on Michigan’s natural and cultural assets, were released in May 2006 and cost $36,000 to produce, and were part of a $7.5 million multi-year marketing campaign. Over the summer they helped to attract more than 1 million visitors a month to Travel Michigan’s Web site. Two more videos, one of which will explore Michigan’s cities, are due to be released next month.   

Check all three out. They just make you want to tap every Lansing lawmaker on the shoulder. See. Quit your political gamesmanship. Stop spending money on what doesn’t work. The land, the water, our forests, Michigan’s great institutions, our towns, our schools, our neighbors. That’s what matters. That’s why we love Michigan.  




Reason? at Reason Foundation

It’s essential to stay abreast of what opponents to a reasoned development strategy have to say about Smart Growth. And there’s no more unreasonable voice on these issues than the social theorists at the libertarian Reason MagazineThis week Sam Staley and Ted Balaker published their newest assessment of the value of public transit, why Americans won’t ride new trains and buses, and how to relieve congestion. They come to this conclusion: “The planning gurus who are supposed to solve our transportation problems are in the grip of transitphilia and autophobia; their beliefs about how cities and transportation work are grounded more in nostalgia than in a realistic view of the world we live in now. The public policies they design and try to enforce make it harder for us to get to work, pick up our kids from school, or go shopping. They are deliberately fostering congestion.”

Staley and Balaker’s solution: Erase transit funding and focus on building more roads.

The weakness of this thesis falls into four categories:

Reason Magazine has long viewed building pavement as a more appropriate activity for Big Government than constructing mass transit. The distinction fits their view that Big Government means less personal liberty, but if you’ve got to choose, cars provide more freedom than trains.

That frame, however, is obsolete. It’s been replaced by the powerful civic consciousness about quality of life and security, and that a life spent in personal vehicles to do everything diminishes freedom in the most substantive way. The civic movement to build more rapid transit reflects an important Mode Shift in how people want to design their communities to enhance their choices, and provide them a right to the good life.

From Knoxville to Las Vegas, Los Angeles to Portland, Maine, there are few communities left in the United States that view more  roads, more outer suburban growth, more parking lots, and more cars as an improvement. And all over the United States, wherever rapid transit has been built, people flock to the new lines, seek to build their homes and businesses close to station stops, and view the new way to get around as a decided step forward in economic development, achieving prosperity, and responding to the new market signals of the 21st century. Building rapid transit is a choice people make to improve their lives.

New Quality of Life Measure: Retail Percentage

Last week the Traverse City Record-Eagle, which does a decent job reporting on northwest Michigan’s population growth and business development, published an article with these facts. In 1997, shoppers in Grand Traverse County spent 58 percent of their money for retail sales in the Traverse City. Last year, according to a new economic analysis, the city attracted just 12 percent of those sales.

As a measure of the quality of life, the percentage of retail sales held by a central city is hard to beat. As the percentage of retail sales falls in the central city so does the quality of life in the region. That’s because traffic, water, and air pollution, family costs and stress increase in the surrounding suburbs. Safety, security,  and the sense of place that drew people to northwest Michigan in the first place decline. The transition is steady, almost episodic, like standing in a river and trying to hold back the current. And after 10 years people pause just for a moment and wonder what the hell happened. The pace of life quickened. Costs went up. Their time got tighter. The good life they’d promised themselves gradually evaporates in the hothouse of the new congested and expensive suburb they’d allowed to be built.   

traffic.jpgOver the last 10 years, it’s not as though Traverse City’s Front Street, the main business district, developed an acute illness, though the new economic study indicates that with its high rents and boutique stores, the downtown business and retail district could be in trouble. The more significant trend occurred in the surrounding townships, particularly Garfield Township which used its master plan and zoning to design an auto-centric place, complete with requirements for parking, ample setbacks, sewer and water extensions, and expanded roadways. Orchards that once supported cherry trees were converted into shopping centers and hotels and big-box stores. Tens of thousands of new residents headed in their cars to a sparkling new array of national retail destinations. Garfield and its neighbor, Blair Township, attracted them all — Wal-Mart, Menard’s, Lowe’s, Home Debot, Best Buy, MC Sports, Kohl’s, Rite Aid, Borders, Staples, Office Max.  Garfield is the place you go to buy lightbulbs and see a movie. Traverse City is where you can find a candle lit meal  and gourmet chocolates. 

Traverse City has managed to keep most of its downtown businesses open because over the last decade the regional market expanded. But Michigan’s stagnant economy is catching up with the small downtown stores, many of them family-owned and not as capable as they once were of competing with the national chains. Money is tight. And the regional and national markets are tilted in the favor of the big boxes. We taxpayers build the road and sewers, set the zoning, and award the real estate investment tax loopholes and global trade agreements that make Wal-Mart and the rest tick. Meanwhile we tax the family-owned businesses, charge high rents, and discourage housing investments that make it possible for working adults and their families — shoppers in other words — to live anywhere close to downtown. Traverse City, for instance, is getting set to once again prohibit people from renting out granny flats above their garages, which would encourage students and young families to live downtown. 

Much has been written about the phenomenom of purposefully aiding the big-box companies that need it least. Stacy Mitchell’s new book, The Big-Box Swindle, tells much of the story. You wonder when this big-box phase of metropolitan development will begin its sunset, and a new and more intelligent form will take its place. People have a right to expect more. We deserve more.