The Year Public Pressure Influenced Lending Practices

Development banks around the world face increasing public pressure as their lending practices support eco-damaging projects.
Development banks around the world face increasing public pressure as their lending practices support eco-damaging projects.

SOMERSET, KY — Rex Tillerson, the chairman of ExxonMobil, asked by president-elect Donald Trump to serve as secretary of state. Scott Pruitt, the climate-denying, energy-financed attorney general of Oklahoma, nominated for EPA administrator. Rick Perry, former governor of Texas and a board member of Energy Transfer Partners (developer of the Dakota Access Pipeline), nominated to oversee the Energy Department.

The intent in Trump’s brotherhood of black fuels is clear enough — stabilize erratic global markets, push energy prices up, recover assets that were on the way to being stranded, and cash flow again on producing expensive oil, coal, and natural gas.

Ample fossil energy supplies and favorable prices serve as the two central themes of Trump’s pledge to “Make America Great Again.” In service to that goal Trump invited Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, to sit as a sort of cabinet member ex-officio. The Koch brothers, along with the executives of most every other American fossil energy company, cheer from the bench.

Americans of clear mind and useful values are demonstrably nervous. The White House and the executive offices of the world’s fossil fuel companies are powerful forums to exert influence. Can Trump and his fossil fuel allies succeed? Of course they can. I do not, however, believe they will.

I’ve reported extensively since visiting the Indian Himalayas in 2013 on the more powerful global trends that not only are impeding conventional energy development, they have initiated a sweeping transition in production practices, technology, and use. Coal production and consumption is falling in China. The Philippines is closing damaging mines. Civic rebellion is blocking new coal-fired power plants in Bangladesh, and impeding development of oil and natural gas pipelines in the United States.

Solar and wind generating technology is now cheaper than new coal-fired power generation and comparable in cost to natural gas-fueled generation. India is abandoning its mega power program to build mammoth 4,000-megawatt coal-fired power plants. Instead it is pursuing new solar and wind generating installations. South Africa has developed one of the world’s successful clean energy development programs.

Floods, droughts, earthquakes, and fire are causing havoc in the world’s fossil energy regions. And the costs of developing all of the fossil fuels is rising as prices for alternatives drop.

It is these trends that are stranding billions of dollars of resource assets around the world and causing a growing panic in the halls of government, boardrooms, and executive suites. And none are likely to be slowed.

This year, during seven weeks of reporting in South Africa, I learned about another new and powerful trend that is reshaping markets around the world — the pressure that communities and a select group of investigative groups are putting on the world’s big banks to change their lending practices.

The headwinds of transition are whipping through the energy sector. The Trump administration’s effort to stabilize oil prices confronts the elements of the rugged weather — erratic markets, new transportation and efficiency technology, and rapidly rising production costs. He may try to suspend NEPA requirements on big projects. He also could try to withdraw non-profit status from important NGOs, a tactic developed in other nations. But the American president-elect and his allies face powerful civic opposition around the world and in the red rural counties that voted for him. Here in Kentucky, I wrote about a big fight over a natural gas pipeline. Continue reading “The Year Public Pressure Influenced Lending Practices”

In the U.S., An “Episode” Set to End, Another Ready to Start

A dispiriting campaign is nearly over. A discouraging sojourn is about to begin whomever is elected.
A dispiriting campaign is nearly over. A discouraging sojourn is about to begin whomever is elected.

SOMERSET, KY. — A story of leadership and poise emerged on Wednesday night after the Chicago Cubs won the World Series. It is a lesson with lasting value to our national life.

The Cleveland Indians scored three runs in the bottom of the 8th inning to tie the game. Momentum had veered to the home team. To a man, the Cubs were rattled. Some said they were finding it hard to breathe.

At the end of the ninth inning, with the score tied 6-6 in a knuckle-reddening thriller, groundskeepers unrolled a big white tarp to prevent the infield from becoming inundated by an approaching storm. Cubs believe the rain and the short game delay were a divine intervention.

While waiting for play to resume, Jason Heyward, the Cubs’ right fielder, felt the sharp blades of fate and tension swiping at his team’s confidence. He guided his teammates into a tiny weight room off the main clubhouse to say something simple and powerful enough to settle them. Heyward spoke from his heart.

“Where’s that fire we’ve had all year?” he said. “Fight for your brothers!”

“I just wanted them to remember how good they were, how good we are,” Heyward told reporters. “Know how proud of them I was and that I loved them. That I mean it from the bottom of my heart. I don’t need to take any credit for anything. I just love them so much that, win or lose, I would hate to see them not be themselves.”

Jason Heyward
Jason Heyward

Oh that someone would emerge to deliver a Jason Heyward-like message of calm and assurance to this rattled nation. Five days before a destabilizing national election full of hate and lies and aberrant behavior, the United States could use a big group hug, and a trusted voice of reason. Half the country, it appears, wants to blow up the existing order. The other half fears they could. The race has reached a state of intransigence, a brawl over opposing values and principles every bit as pitched as that 6-6 ninth inning score.

Unlike a national championship baseball game, where both sides commend each other and accept the outcome, this national election displays no element of sportsmanship. Whatever happens on November 8, the election results are almost certain to widen the divisions and stoke the flames of disrespect, indecency, and incivility. Continue reading “In the U.S., An “Episode” Set to End, Another Ready to Start”

The 2016 Election Endgame: Decisive or Dangerous?

The next president of the United States? Hillary Clinton is poised, adept, and on the verge of winning.
The next president of the United States? Hillary Clinton is on the verge of winning.

SOMERSET, KY — There aren’t too many redder places in this reddest of red southern states than Pulaski County. Mitt Romney beat President Obama in 2012 with 80 percent of the vote in this south central Kentucky county, and a nearly 16,000-vote margin — 20,714 to 4,976. Still, on my afternoon runs through the pleasant leafy neighborhoods of Somerset, the county seat, I haven’t seen one yard sign for Donald Trump. It’s as though in depriving Trump of public support people here are also displaying their private anguish.

Loathing Hillary Clinton is one thing. Trump’s desire to blow up American democracy is something else entirely. With their children dispatched to good public schools, and their late model vehicles parked in the tidy yards of right-sized homes, there is absolutely no sentiment expressed here that Somerset’s residents are prepared to scrap it all and start over.

It doesn’t look now as though they are going to have to. Clinton has a comfortable lead in most public polls by performing well during three presidential debates, and essentially saying little else over the last three weeks. That’s cleared the way for Trump to bluff and bully and shriek his way down a steep decline in support. Last night, signaling that’s he’s prepared to resume a career in reality television, Trump declared his resistance to accepting the results of the election. He is resolved to keep the country waiting for the next big provocation, the very same tactic that provided the $US billions in free media attention that made his improbable run to the Republican nomination possible.

There isn’t anything in the lives of any of us to compare to this ugly and unnerving election.

Hillary Clinton is reviled by critics on all sides for character traits, that if they were true, would have prevented her from accomplishing all that she has in her life. Few candidates for president have been as thoughtful, meticulous, intelligent, experienced and well prepared as she is.

The worst offenses her critics offer are:

1. The craven assessment that she is responsible for the death of a diplomat and several more Americans in an attack on US government facilities in Libya. She wasn’t. Republicans mounted a sham Congressional investigation anyway to elevate the attack into a political issue to harm Clinton this year. It’s important to note that Republicans had never before cared to lay the blame for any of the previous lethal terrorist attacks on US installations that occurred under Republican presidents.

2. The use of a private server that Clinton established to send and receive email while she was Secretary of State. The implication is she played fast and loose with state secrets, a charge that is not true.

3. Her decision to keep her family together after Bill Clinton’s sex romp with Monica Lewinsky in the late 1990s; assertions that she enabled Bill to build her own political prominence; and she was too tough in attacking the credibility of other women Bill may or may not have bedded.

Fortunately for the U.S. Hillary Clinton is durable, measured, and a grownup. She’s been pushed by Bernie Sanders to embrace progressive ideas she hadn’t grasped earlier — like free college tuition and stronger measures to cool the warming planet. She’s shown herself to be graceful and persistent under pressure. And she’s been tactically smart.

Knowing of Trump’s childish capacity to mindlessly strike back when criticized she baited a trap in the first debate on September 26. Hillary unearthed the cruel criticisms that Trump unleashed at a Miss Universe winner in the 1990s after she’d gained weight. Trump swallowed the chum whole, spent the pre-dawn hours afterwards tweeting more offensive comments, and kept up the assault for much of the following week. Continue reading “The 2016 Election Endgame: Decisive or Dangerous?”

Refuse To Give In To The Darkness

Donald Trump
Donald Trump

BENZONIA — Will Americans give in to the darkness and elect Donald Trump? The disturbing answer at this point, just as it was in the late spring, is that enough of his supporters say yes, and too many of his opponents are not sure.

There has never been a presidential election like this one in my lifetime, though ample numbers of similarly dangerous men elevated themselves to head of state in other countries. Mussolini’s rise to power as a dictator in Italy in the early 20th century comes to mind. Mussolini marketed a narrative of decay and dissolution, framed his own comic book cult hero persona, and lied and exaggerated, and evaded responsibility for mistakes and flaws for two decades.

Trump has shown himself to be masterful at none of the skills needed to manage a complex nation. He is intemperate, undisciplined, careless, not thoughtful, not truthful, not inquisitive, and desperately self-involved. Just the sort of guy you want with the nuclear codes, or in a trade dispute with China. How American crop producers support Trump is beyond me. China is our largest buyer of soybeans.

Trump has displayed, though, a near flawless expertise in sales. It’s the Procter & Gamble consumer market culture applied to politics. Procter & Gamble convinced Americans of the inherent decay and bacterial danger of their bodies, their clothes, and their homes. Then the company sold consumer antiseptics — soaps, detergents, cleaners.

Trump now presents a global narrative of ideological danger, decay, chaos and despair. He cites the episodic evidence of criminal outbreaks — police deaths in Dallas and Baton Rouge, ISIS-related massacres in California and Florida. He offers Hillary Clinton as the source of the vortex of violence. And he presents himself as the remedy.

Without a national campaign staff, a real campaign plan, or any modesty in temperament or behavior, he nevertheless keeps attention riveted on himself through one unexpected, often outlandish statement, after another. Yesterday, for instance, after assuring the nation of the “love” and “unity” gained at a Cleveland Republican convention that achieved neither, Trump criticized Ted Cruz, who refused to endorse him, calling the Texas Senator “dishonorable,” and suggesting as he did in the spring that Cruz’s father was an intimate of Lee Harvey Oswald. His source: The National Enquirer, which Trump called “a magazine that, in many respects, is respected.”

The madness that is Donald Trump, whose outsize ego and ruthless business strategy was well-known to New Yorkers for two generations, almost perfectly reflects what happens following 30 years of dogma that have unhinged the values and principles of an ideologically fixated Republican Party. Republican orthodoxy has come to represent lingering racism, dangerous suspicion of science, obstructionism, heed to the rich over the middle class, allegiance to dirty fuel, mindless “no new taxes” austerity, and rejection of public investments for public purposes.

Trump’s convention promoted much of that and especially of hate – of immigrants, of ISIS, of Hillary Clinton, of the idea that stable government is an asset. Trump’s execution of the convention showed sloppiness, poor planning, lack of energy, weak discipline. He portrayed himself as bellicose and flawless. He stoked fear among his supporters and his opponents.

His case, no matter from which side it’s viewed, is disturbing. Could he really win?

— Keith Schneider

Cities Are Stronghold of Performance in Maelstrom of American Disarray

Ohio's capital city adopted a reconstruction plan for encouraging development 14 years ago that emphasized three unexpected ingredients: more grass, less water and targeted taxpayer spending. Photo/Keith Schneider
Ohio’s capital city adopted a reconstruction plan for encouraging development 14 years ago that emphasized three unexpected ingredients: more grass, less water and targeted taxpayer spending. Photo/Keith Schneider

COLUMBUS, OH — In the year of Trump it’s plain that the United States is entering a new and reckless age. Our federal lawmakers neglect their constitutional duties to legislate in the public interest. Ideology and inflexibility, the gravest threats to a democracy, are elevated as virtues on the political right and political left. Random massacres occur with weekly frequency. Fear and distrust and racism and hate have been unleashed as mainstream attitudes.

Where are the places that inspire order? Where are the places that effectively manage their affairs with a goal of adding to civility and the common good?

Perhaps it is surprising, but a good number of American cities answer those questions. As readers of ModeShift know, some of my time each year is taken up with reporting real estate articles for The New York Times. Generally the narrative that emerges from details about construction costs and square feet amounts to a profile of the cities that I visit.

What I find, from New York to Boston to San Francisco, Grand Rapids to Louisville, Buffalo to Cleveland to Toledo to Cincinnati, is that many of America’s big cities, and a good number of its mid-size cities, are thriving. Largely without the help of the federal government and state Legislatures, elected leaders are collaborating with business executives and civic organizations to invest in ways that respond intelligently to the market conditions of this century.

In each city the formula for progress differs in the specifics. Buffalo reorganized itself around a university medical center and a transit line. Toledo turned to Chinese investors. Cleveland spent $800 million on entertainment and transit infrastructure – two stadiums, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a bus rapid transit route, and moving a commuter rail station — to invite $5 billion in mostly private downtown redevelopment. Sacramento tore down a moribund downtown shopping mall and built a new arena for the NBA Sacramento Kings.

Taken collectively, though, the various development strategies pursued by American cities have some common traits. Excellent elected leadership and pragmatic business collaboration are essential to developing and executing redevelopment ideas that take at least a decade, and often a generation, to complete. Redevelopment plans incorporate one or more of the following ingredients — competent municipal agencies, park construction, improved transit, strengthened schools, public safety, adequate amounts of reasonably priced housing, recruiting innovators and entrepreneurial businesses.

Over the next month or so I’ll be reporting on cities in the South and Midwest – Columbus, Cleveland, and Chattanooga –all of which are doing well. They are following effective redevelopment strategies that are much bolder, and more effective, than anything pursued by most states and certainly by America’s imprudent Congress. The latest report from a city making strong progress in adding value to the lives of its citizens is from Columbus, which I visited early in May. Continue reading “Cities Are Stronghold of Performance in Maelstrom of American Disarray”