Earth Day 2015 Marks Convergence of Inspiring Trends

The Caldera River rolls out of the Cordillera de Talamanca, the mountain spine that separates the Pacific Ocean from the Caribbean in Panama’s Chiriqui Province, and is evidence of the country's allegiance to sustaining its ample forests and fresh water. Photo/Keith Schneider
The Caldera River rolls out of the Cordillera de Talamanca, the mountain spine that separates the Pacific Ocean from the Caribbean in Panama’s Chiriqui Province, and is evidence of the country’s allegiance to sustaining its ample forests and fresh water. Photo/Keith Schneider

Earth Day, first celebrated 45 years ago in the United States, is now a grown-up international convergence that joins a reckoning with ecological deterioration to the panorama of human activity devoted to improving the planet’s condition. What’s inspiring about Earth Day is that the same principles of responsibility, collective action, pollution prevention, and natural resource conservation that informed the first Earth Day in 1970 have proven to be the durable foundation of 1) ecological repairs on every continent, and 2) social movements that are fostering public pressure and government action to solve the tough threats that remain.

My personal Earth Day history encompasses nearly all of the modern environmental movement and its myriad transitions. I was 14 years old on April 22, 1970, an eighth grader in Highlands Junior High School in White Plains, New York. Earth Day was such a big national event that the White Plains Public School administrators called a school holiday to allow students to participate in organized activities, most of them focused on some sort of clean-up. I organized a few of my friends to join me in painting the White Plains train station, and dragging old tires and appliances out of the Bronx River, which flowed past the station. Our work attracted notice from The New York Times, which reported on our work in the second to last paragraph of a front-page article on Earth Day in the April 23, 1970 edition of the newspaper.

The path I chose to embed my life in environmentalism was through journalism and story-telling. As a student at Haverford College in the late 1970s I studied chemistry and biology, literature and history, which provided the research skills required of environmental reporting and knowledge of the arcane language of two of the galvanizing threats of that era: managing toxic and nuclear wastes. Very soon after the start of my career the Love Canal toxic waste site was discovered in upstate New York, and half the radioactive core of a nuclear reactor melted during an accident in March 1979 at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant on the Susquehanna River, downriver from my first newspaper job in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

Over the decades the risks that attracted the country’s attention, and the focus of my own reporting, steadily evolved. Water and air pollution. Conserving wild lands, wild habitats, and wild species. Activism to curb pesticide use in food production. The advent of genetic engineering in agriculture. Disastrous oil spills. The push-back from property rights groups and conservative activists about government authority to regulate wetlands, private lands, and business. Ocean pollution and the decline of coral reefs and fisheries. Suburban sprawl as an environmental problem and smart growth urban redevelopment as its cure. Climate change. Fracking. The global confrontation between rising demand for energy and food in the era of declining freshwater resources.

Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, whose journalism and advocacy served to elevate global activism to solve climate change. Photo/ J. Carl Ganter
Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, whose journalism and advocacy served to elevate global activism to solve climate change. Photo/ J. Carl Ganter

There’s no end to the reasons for pessimism about our planet’s condition. In Asia, rising coal consumption in China and India warms the atmosphere and is causing eight-year-olds in China to develop lung cancer. In South America, gold mining and forest cutting are wrecking the Amazon. In North America, unconventional fuels production is torturing the forests and water of northern Alberta Canada, contaminating drinking water and causing earthquakes in the United States, and pouring explosive fuels into flimsy rail cars for transport to coastal refineries. The planet’s population continues to grow 80 million people annually.

Yet what keeps me and so many other people devoted to the principles of Earth Day is the progress that’s been made, and the convergence of powerful trends motivating big changes in how we operate.
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Jim ‘Jet’ Neilson’s Panama Run

Jim "Jet" Neilson with one of the rocket cars he stores in Panama. He's struggling with Panama officials to stage an event to run another of his jet cars in Panama City.
Jim “Jet” Neilson with one of the rocket cars he stores in Panama. He’s struggling with Panama officials to stage an event to run another of his jet cars in Panama City. Photo/courtesy of Jim ‘Jet’ Neilson

PANAMA CITY, Panama — Jim ‘Jet’ Neilson is an American race car driver, born in California and raised in Hawaii, whose living and reputation is entirely based on a tool box of risky virtues. He designs, builds, and drives jet cars so powerful and fast that the main attraction of a Jim ‘Jet’ Neilson event — aiming a jet on wheels down a long straightaway — concludes in less time than it takes to sneeze.

Plainly, Jim Jet is comfortable moving more quickly than most men. “24-7 and fast,” he told me last week. “We go that way all day, every day.”

One of the delights in reporting from nations outside the U.S. is meeting genuine characters. The Maltese entrepreneur who opened a pizza restaurant in Urumqi, a far west desert city in China. The English plumber growing organic vegetables near Barcelona. The Canadian artist building solar plants in Qatar.

Which brings us to Jim ‘Jet’ Neilson and his often frustrating, but soon to be successful sojourn in Panama. About six years ago, when he was 56-years-old, Jim joined the growing crowd of American baby boomers who saw in Panama’s fabulously warm winter weather, and Panama City’s chic and affordable lifestyle, an opportunity to spend time in a developing Central American tropical paradise.

Jim "Jet" Neilson aboard the Mirna in Panama City. Photo/Keith Schneider
Jim ‘Jet’ Neilson aboard the Mirna in Panama City. Photo/Keith Schneider


A Fast Drive in Panama

Not nearly ready to put his jet cars or his career on blocks, he proposed what he thought was a can’t miss opportunity for attracting more attention to Panama. He told Panamanian authorities that for a fair sum he would pilot one of his cars on a city boulevard at speeds approaching 350 miles per hour, faster than any car had ever been driven in Central America. Since 1986, when he started driving jet cars, similar jet car runs on highways and drag strips had attracted huge crowds.

In one run on a Las Vegas highway to open a new hotel Neilson reached a top speed of 391 miles per hour, the world record for driving on pavement.

That’s not fast. It’s dare to be dead nuts. It’s also the sort of daredevil event that people love to watch. Robert Craig “Evel” Knievel, the motorcycle racer, became an American icon staging the same sort of events, featuring speed, guts, and a real question of whether the main actor would be alive when it ended.

The Panamanian authorities haven’t been nearly as enthusiastic about a jet car event as Jet Neilson hoped. Permits took years to be granted. Details haven’t been easy to work out. Expenses have become draining.

A Strong and Likely Start
Jim Neilson was born in Van Nuys, California in 1953 and as a child moved with his family to Hawaii with his father Lorenzo Neilson, a fishing captain in Kona, and Verla Neilson, who worked in Hawaiian real estate. He’s the oldest son, and second oldest child in a family of two girls and three boys.

His racing career was influenced by an early moment that produced a small safety measure for the sport. “I was five years old,” he remembers. “My Mom and Dad took me to a quarter midget racetrack at a large shopping mall in Southern California.

“A good friend’s son was racing there. So they asked my Mom if it was okay to put me in the car and just idle around in the pits. He would be standing on the rear axle. My Mom said okay.

“Quarter midgets start by pushing on the pedal. They are a live start and quick acceleration. Well! When they got me started he said, ‘Just give it a little gas.’

“I floored it and never lifted my foot off the pedal. I shot across the parking lot full throttle, in heavy traffic, on a Sunday. I hit the median curb and high-centered it still at full throttle until they ran over and shut me off.

“My Mom said she was horrified. She told me when I was older that she did not know how I weaved through traffic without getting hit. After that weekend they changed the rule nationally. No driving in the pits! It was kind of funny the way my Mom used to tell the story,” Jim says, laughing.

Crashes That Didn’t Kill

Then his face darkens. His mother died in 2012. “This will be the only record run that my mom will not be at,” he says. “She was always there to support me fully even though she hated me racing.”

Jim 'Jet' Neilson's jet car that could set the Central American speed record on pavement in Panama City in the spring.
Jim ‘Jet’ Neilson’s jet car that could set the Central American speed record on pavement in Panama City in the spring. Photo/courtesy of Jim ‘Jet’ Neilson

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Gabrielle Gray Shifts Over to Weave A New Story in American Bluegrass Music

Gabrielle Gray, an icon in American bluegrass music and founder of the ROMP festival in Owensboro, KY., today turned over command of the International Bluegrass Music Museum to Carly Smith (r), who serves as interim director pending appointment of a new executive director. Photo/Keith Schneider
Gabrielle Gray, an icon in American bluegrass music and founder of the ROMP festival in Owensboro, KY., today turned over command of the International Bluegrass Music Museum to Carly Smith (r), who serves as interim director pending appointment of a new executive director. Photo/Keith Schneider

OWENSBORO, KY — There was a big change today in American bluegrass music here in this Ohio River city, which over the last decade has established itself as a global center of the quintessential American music born in western Kentucky. The board of trustees of the International Bluegrass Music Museum announced that Gabrielle M. Gray,  the museum’s chief executive, ends her exceptional 12-year tenure as the museum’s capable and creative leader and steps down as executive director overseeing all museum campus operations.

Gabrielle retains her position as executive producer of ROMP, the signature bluegrass music festival she founded in 2004.  Gray also remains the museum’s grant writer. These two sources of income — ROMP proceeds and grant awards — produce most of the museum’s annual revenue, making it possible for the museum to preserve, exhibit, catalog and archive the artifacts and collections of bluegrass music internationally, as well as host many ambitious programs and events throughout the year.

Carly Smith, a staff member since May 2011 and the museum’s capable assistant director since 2014, steps into a new role as interim director. The museum’s board, chaired by Peter Salovey, the president of Yale University, is conducting a nationwide search for a new executive director. The new director is expected to be in place in the spring or summer of 2015.

Gabrielle Gray, great woman of Kentucky, will continue to lead ROMP, the bluegrass festival she founded in 2004 in Owensboro, KY. Photo/Keith Schneider
Gabrielle Gray, great woman of Kentucky, will continue to lead ROMP, the bluegrass festival she founded in 2004 in Owensboro, KY. Photo/Keith Schneider

The announcement was greeted as big news in this river city of 58,000 residents, in large part because Gabrielle, her staff, her board, and city and Daviess county officials collaborated over the last decade to establish bluegrass music as an economic and cultural priority. The city is working with the museum to build a $15.5 million Bluegrass Music Center on a choice downtown lot along the Ohio that was formerly the site of a state office building. The ROMP festival, held annually over the last weekend of June, now attracts the finest bands in bluegrass and over 20,000 attendees annually. In other words, bluegrass is as important to Owensboro as the blues are to Memphis and Chicago, country music is to Nashville, jazz is to New Orleans, and rock and roll is to Cleveland.

Ron Payne, Owensboro’s progressive Republican mayor, who’s led a $250 million downtown redevelopment campaign that includes the new Bluegrass Music Center, commended Gabrielle’s tenure. “I’m tickled to death that Gabrielle is going to stay on and help us with ROMP,” Payne told the Messenger-Inquirer, the city’s daily newspaper. “She’s done an outstanding job. Bluegrass is where it is today, partly because of the work she’s done.”
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White Plains High School 40th Reunion

Patsi Takahashi and Annie Wilson organized a Saturday afternoon lunch. Very cool. Photo/Keith Schneider
Patsi Takahashi and Annie Wilson organized a Saturday afternoon lunch. Very cool. Photo/Keith Schneider

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — “So who’d you see?” my mother asked. We’d just sipped from our drinks – hers a nice white wine, mine an imported German beer — at a fine restaurant on 84th and Madison.

“A lot of people you know,” I said. Recalling names by neighborhood I diligently listed all of the fun, accomplished, and at times trouble making friends that she knew back in the day. “Eddie Weil and Lisa Schwatertzenberg. They’re married. Michael Shames, Jeff Zucker, Mindy Litt, Nancy London, Patsi Takashi. Ann Wilson, Carol Hubbard, Mindy Kaufman, Andy Feinman, Jayne Stogel, John Herzfeld, Peppi Murphy, Gail Bruesewitz, Chris Renino, Al Renino, Bill Wolfram, Amy Stichman.

“And your favorites, Mom,” I said laughing. “Bobby Fargo, Bobby Monahan, Geoff Keenan.”

“Oh my,” she said. “All those people?”

Indeed, all those people she knew. A number from the time we were five and six years old. And so many more people who attended that she wouldn’t recognize. White Plains baby boomers gathered to connect again. And as I explained the allegiances, the desire to convene, the joy of the hugs, the love, the mirth and energy in the room at our 40th high school reunion, I found reasons for Saturday evening’s delight.

Here they are. Let me know what you think.

— Right at the very top of the list is Jayne Stogel Hynes. For decades now Jayne has organized the reunions and provided stylish staging for these events. What Jayne is doing is a gift to our class and to those who attend. In the process she’s part of each of our lives, providing dimensions of community and trust that are unique and extraordinarily valuable. Jayne has played a huge role in deepening lifelong friendships. It’s a selfless, transcendent act of consistency, loyalty, and love. Thank you Jayne.

— We came up during an America that no longer exists. Like virtually all of my friends, my life was a model of family and community stability. Parents didn’t split up. Parents almost never died. Parents expected a lot of their children, and children delivered. Families prospered and almost nobody moved away. In my Highlands neighborhood houses were full of children of roughly the same ages. During weekends and holidays we poured onto Ralph Field to play football in the fall, baseball in the spring, and sled in the winter.
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Corvette Museum’s Crushed Cars, Closing Sinkhole As American Metaphor

One of the eight Corvettes wrecked after a sinkhole opened in February beneath a wing of the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Photo/Keith Schneider
One of the eight Corvettes wrecked after a sinkhole opened in February beneath a wing of the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Photo/Keith Schneider

BOWLING GREEN, KY. — Seven months after a sinkhole opened in the wee hours in a wing of the National Corvette Museum, collapsing a concrete floor and swallowing eight sports cars, museum executives in September announced they would fill the hole, repair two cars, and move on.

In every way, the Earth’s swift unbuttoning of the ground, the muddy ruin it caused to valuable machines, the attention the injury-free event attracted, and the decision to fill the hole represents a useful metaphor of our time.

First is the sinkhole itself. Unanticipated, unheard, entirely direct and assured in its purpose and mastery of the situation, the 40-foot deep expanse of rock and mud is impressive and ruinous. Bowling Green rests in a region of the country astir with subterranean adventure. The “karst” geology underlying the city and its environs consists of water-soluble limestone set in an underground matrix awash in irrepressible hidden streams. In such regions the rock strata slowly dissolves, which is why Kentucky is so famous for its wondrous big caves.

Though knowledge of the risk is widespread in southwestern Kentucky, engineers apparently discounted the potential that the domed addition they were designing for the museum, founded in 1994, might become unstable. Assured that the danger was close to nonexistent, museum directors carefully laid out a display of rare, valuable, and buff-polished Corvettes from various manufacturing years to be admired by thousands. The message of the display was unmistakable — here in an ample theater lit by natural light rested the 20th century engineering and design transport jewels of a great and wealthy nation.
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