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.”

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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.  

More Big Boys Weigh In On Climate Change

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 It was only a matter of time before global warming would become an organizing principle in the United States. Even for the conservative U.S. Supreme Court. It’s all come in a rush.

This week, in a 5-4 decision, the High Court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority and duty to regulate climate change gases produced by automobiles. The suit, brought in June 2003 by Massachusetts and 12 other states, asked the nine justices to tell the EPA that it has jurisdiction over emissions of carbon dioxide from vehicles. The court decision is a critical step in the states’ ultimate goal: compelling the agency to require reductions of vehicular emissions.  Michigan’s Democratic Governor, Jennifer M. Granholm, studiously avoided taking sides in the case, which should profoundly affect the state’s automakers, their employees and suppliers, and the communities where they are located. Roughly 27 percent of the United States’ carbon dioxide emissions come from vehicles, according to the fedefront-left-large.jpgral government’s Energy Information Center, and more than 60 percent of those vehicles are made by Michigan-based manufacturers.

The Supreme Court, though, was not alone among elite organizations expressing its concern for the earth’s warming climate. Governors are establishing special commissions to probe the consequences for their states. The United Nations announced today that the Security Council would convene a panel to study how global climate change would affect the poorest nations. Presidential candidates are talking about climate change, though several of the most prominent — Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain — also express support for “clean” coal technology.

Also comes word today from Capitol Hill that John Kerry and Newt Gingrich will debate climate change next week in New York. Says The Hill, the weekly Congressional newspaper, quoting Gingrich: “America should focus its energy policy in four areas,” Gingrich writes on his website. “Basic research for a new energy system, incentives for conservation, more renewable resources, and environmentally sound development of fossil fuels. The lengthy process of environmental planning must be made more efficient and cost effective.” Imagine, global climate change as the foundation of political theater. Remarkable.  

Climate change is the product of industrialization gone awry. It represents obsolescence in every facet of modern life, including that we designed our spread out cities to use more fossil fuels to reach our over heated and air conditioned outsize homes and office buildings. Solving climate change means updating all of the features of our existence. The technology and practices to reduce emissions of global warming gases will produce communities that rely on energy-efficient transit, promote more compact neighborhoods, build parks and conserve natural resources, construct eco-sensitive office building with heat absorbing green roofs, plant trees instead of rip them up, and make it possible to live with one car instead of a fleet. Though our friends at the Reason Foundation couldn’t fathom it, this will make our lives better.

And here in Michigan, forcing car makers to manufacture cleaner, much more energy efficient vehicles will do more to push the American auto industry into the modern era than anything done over the last two decades in the front offices of the Big 3.

Smart Growth and Gentrification

For as long as I’ve been involved in understanding the dimensions of urban disinvestment, as well as the solutions, one more civic concern has always lurked in the shadows. That’s gentrification, the process by which wealthier people interested in moving back into a city use buying power and sway to push the poor out of their homes.

As a journalist, public policy specialist, and citizen of America I’ve personally experienced almost every side of this issue. I was raised in a New York City suburb during New York’s worst post-war period, the decades of the 1970s and 1980s when disinvestment, decline, crime, and deterioration chased the middle class and their employers to the suburbs and to other states. In 1980, New York City was home to 7.1 million people, 810,000 less than in 1970. That, of course, left room for the less fortunate, including some of my artistic friends, to find affordable housing in Manhattan.

A generation later, after massive investment in New York’s police and infrastructure — roads, bridges, rail, parks, water, schools — Manhattan and New York’s other borough became hot places to live again. It helped that Wall Street also boomed in the 1990s. The wealthy and middle class moved back in, increasing competition for housing. New York responded by building more places to live, which made it possible for the rich and the less rich to live in the city. New York City’s population, 8.14 million in 2005, grew 14 percent in a generation.

For a time in the mid-1980s I lived in Manhattan. I’ve also lived in Boston, Washington, Philadelphia, Sacramento, and Charleston, S.C. Frankly, the fact that cities are becoming great places to live is a singular achievement made possible by effective business and governing strategies that improved basic civic equipment and services. States that have big exciting cities are prospering. States that don’t, like Michigan, end up sending their best young people to the states that do. In the contest between slums and decent housing, I’ll take the good housing and safe neighborhoods any time.

In the last 15 years the Smart Growth and New Urbanist movements have been at the head of the pack in developing even more refined steps to make American cities more environmentally sensitive, energy efficient, and architecturally beautiful. You’d expect their work to be hailed as evidence of the nation’s ability to find solutions to real problems. Yet even as cities improve, a persistent chorus of critics find in Smart Growth and New Urbanism seeds of inequity. They blame the two movements for promoting economic development that favors the wealthy over the poor, and displaces people from their urban homes.

A good exploration of this critique is Holly Pearson’s new piece on gentrification for WorldChanging.com, which was just voted by Planetizen.com as one of the 10 best Web sites for land use planning and design. “Even if new development patterns bring about positive physical changes to an urban landscape, like better access to public transportation and greater energy efficiency, if factors like ethnic diversity and affordability are sacrificed, then has sustainability really been achieved?” asks Pearson.

San Francisco, it turns out, is solving the issue with some adept public policy designed to leverage the economic gains provided by the wealthy to encourage more investment in affordable housing. Very schmart. It’s one approach to making sure that cities of the future are capable of welcoming all kinds of people. And if they do, it’s possible to slow the ever outward movement of America’s built environment, which is how this nation will conserve land, fuel, resources, and the sense of neighborhood security that will keep this nation a decent place to be.

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Flip: Online Race for the White House

The Center for American Progress, a centrist left policy think tank in Washington, prepared this very useful and nifty online compendium of how 2008 presidential campaigns are using the Web. The NetTrends  ’08 matrix is a one stop shop for Republicans and Democrats, and anybody else for that matter, to stay abreast of trends in online campaigning. NetTrends ’08 also is the best example I’ve found of how politics, communications technology, and the Internet have converged to make it much simpler for people to be aware of what’s happening in the various presidential campaigns. Smart Growth advocates need to be video, text, audio, and multi-media content providers and compel these campaigns to embrace their message.

The pace of evolution in American presidential campaign strategy is significantly accelerating as candidates vie with the mainstream and new media for influence. The candidates know the mainstream media’s ability to determine message and messenger is waning, though the mainstream media remain a very significant force multiplier for deciding who’s not going to make it to the final round. The traditional media, particularly television, have drained so much vitality out of their reporting staffs that they are largely confined at this point to talking about who’s up and who’s down.

The new media, and especially the important political blogs, are becoming the show. They are expert and nimble enough to go deeper, and have the journalistic freedom to simultaneously report and comment on breaking trends in real time,  and make those findings available on the Web to a global audience. The new media also have YouTube and other file-sharing sites that during this election cycle will be election-deciding forums for independent video that could elevate or decimate campaigns. 

In 2006, during the Virginia Senate race between the Republican incumbent, George Allen, and the Democratic newcomer Jim Webb, we witnessed just how powerful YouTube can be in a campaign. Mr. Allen promised a “campaign of positive constructive ideas.” But the senator’s campaign hit an online wall with the famous “macaca” video, shot by a student who worked for Webb. The video, broadcast on YouTube,  revealed a side of the Republican senator — a privileged southerner’s racial and class intolerance — that voters found so hypocritical that they threw him out of office and flipped control of both houses of Congress to the Democrats. 

The point is that grassroots advocates have the opportunity to influence candidates. The millions of voters involved in producing the energy efficient, transit-oriented, environmentally sensitive, land and resource conserving path to prosperity — the American Mode Shift –need to produce content and insert their message directly into the 2008 presidential campaign. The good folks at Thinkprogress.org are making it easy to see who among the candidates is listening.   

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Step It Up On Climate Change

Monica Evans, who co-founded and oversees the regional chapter of the Sierra Club in northwest Michigan, reminded us this week of the Step it Up rally to accelerate action on global climate change. She and her colleagues are hosting a regional event in downtown Traverse City on the afternoon of April 14, starting at 1:30 in the Chase Bank Courtyard across from Horizon Books downtown. There’s a parade and a potluck dinner afterward.

The Traverse City rally is part of a national day of action organized by environmental writer Bill McKibben, the author of the 1989 best seller on global warming, “The End of Nature,” and his students at Middlebury College in Vermont. The frame for the national action is to pressure Washington to begin aggressively cutting carbon emissions and protect America’s right to an optimistic future. The energy behind the campaign was drawn initially from Bill’s capacious mind and especially his expertise on global climate change.

But Step It Up also is a quintessential example of the power of social media. It’s grown into a national event due in large part because the communicating and organizing reach of the Internet is linking so many people together who care about the warming earth. Bill took a page out of MoveOn.org’s playbook and deployed what are now routine online information and advocacy tools — email, digital photography, video, audio, YouTube, blogs, action alerts, and archives. He stayed on message, persisently sending focused appeals to gather on American street corners. People responded. One of those corners is the place where Front Street and Park intersect in downtown Traverse City.

For those of us who live along the northern coast of Lake Michigan this is personal. Lake levels have been low for several years and are dropping again. We just ended the warmest of the 15 winters I’ve been around this place. Crystal Mountain, where my wife works as a ski instructor, closed today, 10 days ahead of schedule. During the week between Christmas and New Years Day, traditionally the busiest ski days of the year — and the most economically important — there was no snow at all. My daughter and I ran the snowless cross-country ski trails in our shorts and tee-shirts. The resort laid off over 50 employees. Jim  MacInnes, Crystal Mountain’s general manager, says the ski season starts a week later and ends a week earlier than it did in the 1980s.

When President Bush and his fellow warming skeptics argue — there are a bunch of those folks sitting on county and township boards around here — that reducing global warming gases affects the economy I’ve always wondered whose economy is he talking about? The struggling snow sports industry of the Upper Midwest? The Colorado Plateau ranchers and farmers challenged by a nearly decade-long drought? The small stores and family businesses in New Orleans drowned by Hurricane Katrina?

Bill McKibben and his colleagues are performing a public service. Step It Up is a model for the kind of home-grown, street level campaign that online tools and techniques are able to turn into a mass movement.  Frankly, it’s essential. In a world with climbing energy prices, rising land and housing costs, declining incomes, record population growth, battled hardened political intransigence, and several potential environmental calamities converging at once, expecting leaders to do more than talk is folly.

A quick tour through the presidential campaign Web sites of Barack Obama (see yesterday’s post), Hillary Clinton and John McCain makes that point clear. All talk about the global climate, and all have proposed fixes — like promoting ethanol production and “clean” coal — that have no promise other than making favored constituencies richer and global conditions worse. 

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