Slowly, With Earth Pushing Hard, A Confederacy Of Concern Develops

Oakland is California's eighth largest city and now one of its most enterprising thanks to 25 years of dealing with pollution, energy efficiency, and water conservation. Photo: Keith
Oakland is California’s eighth largest city and now one of its most enterprising thanks to 25 years of dealing with pollution, energy efficiency, and water conservation. Photo: Keith Schneider

BENZONIA, MI — The role of a journalist isn’t hard to understand. We’re translators. We sort through the myriad details of  complex subjects and choose the most salient to build a narrative that’s simpler for readers to understand. There couldn’t be a more important era to deploy that skill than now — the dismaying, dangerous, fabulous, primal decades of the 21st century.

We’re now 15 years into the 21st century. Underlying so much of the economic and ecological turmoil unfolding before us is a slow collision between the operating practices of the resource-wasting, vertically-managed 20th century and the much more crowded, polluted, and dangerous ecological and economic conditions of the 21st century.

The old order, in short, is coming apart. Think of it as a big building resting on a slippery, unstable foundation of mud.

2oth vs. 21st Century
The 20th century economic construct was about consuming wasteful amounts of water, energy, soil, and land to build big centralized projects — big power plants, big oilfields and mines, big transmission systems, big highway networks, big farms, big suburbs, big houses, big malls. Managing enterprises of such scale called for spending enormous sums of money on supplies — energy, water, food — and on equipment — trucks, cars, factories, water pipes, power lines, air conditioners. Keeping order required hierarchical, vertically integrated, massive institutions –governments, banks, industrial corporations, universities.

The enterprise worked for a short time in the developed West — about the last half of the 20th century — because it fit  market conditions. Energy and water were plentiful and cheap. Land was available and comparatively inexpensive for farms and for suburbs. Populations were smaller and more stable. Government treasuries were growing and so were working class salaries.

In the United States, ample government, business, and personal wealth built the roads, water systems, transmission networks, and supply lines that kept the enterprise running. In Michigan, where I live, factory workers owned boats, cottages along the shores of cold northern lakes, sent their children to college, and retired on generous pensions.

How quickly all of that melted away to produce the disruptive, confusing, and dangerous years of frustration here in the United States and across much of the world. Energy got expensive. World population soared. Land became dear. Industrial competitiveness shifted from North America and Europe to Asia. Pollution levels soared. Droughts and floods and earthquakes caused billions of dollars in damage. The energy-consuming, water-wasting, and inordinately expensive “get big or get out” 20th century formula for economic success is dying on the hot sands of ecological and economic distress.

The Changuinola River in Panama is the center of a significant fight to oppose a new hydropower dam. Residents oppose drowning a fast-moving and beautiful stretch of the river. Photo: Keith Schneider
The Changuinola River in Panama is the center of a significant fight to oppose a new hydropower dam. Residents oppose drowning a fast-moving and beautiful stretch of the river. Photo: Keith Schneider

Examples of the consequences are everywhere. There’s no mistaking, for instance, the planet’s new capacity to drown cities with hurricanes — think New Orleans and New York — or wreck the Japanese nuclear sector with a tsunami. Fierce civic campaigns have erupted on six continents to stop new 20th century style mega-energy projects and shut down existing installations. Campesinos in Peru shut down big new gold mines in the northern Andes. Rural villagers in northwest India shut down construction of a 2,000-megawatt hydropower dam on the Subansiri River. Continue reading “Slowly, With Earth Pushing Hard, A Confederacy Of Concern Develops”

Gabrielle Gray’s Last ROMP

Phoebe Hunt (hat and fiddle) performs center stage at the 2015 ROMP fest with (l to r) Nathaniel Smith (cello), Dominick Leslie (mandolin), Rachel Baiman (fiddle), Christian Sedelmyer (fiddle), and Luke Bulla (fiddle). Photo: Keith Schneider
Phoebe Hunt (hat and fiddle) performs center stage at the 2015 ROMP fest with (l to r) Nathaniel Smith (cello), Dominick Leslie (mandolin), Rachel Baiman (fiddle), Christian Sedelmyer (fiddle), and Luke Bulla (fiddle). Photo: Keith Schneider

OWENSBORO, KY. — Around noon on the last Saturday of Gabrielle Gray’s long run as the founder and director of ROMP, this Ohio River City’s signature bluegrass music festival, a moment of pure love and remembrance unfolded unexpectedly.

Standing alone on the festival stage with her fiddle, Phoebe Hunt, one of the singularly great young artists that ROMP has featured in the last several years, prepared to open her set as a solo. A striking dark-haired woman, Phoebe paused. Her shoulders seemed to fall. She bowed her head, struggling to compose herself. But the weight of her tears became overwhelming. Glancing at Gabrielle, who stood offstage nearby, Phoebe mouthed “I love you,” and almost stumbled.

A few more moments passed before Phoebe gathered herself and started to play, the sound of her voice and fiddle like a halting lament. When she finished, Gabrielle strode to center stage and wrapped Phoebe in a big hug, a warm embrace of kinship and confidence, which is how Gabrielle always treats Phoebe and the other uncommonly talented millennial generation musicians who play ROMP.

All of them – The Rigs, 10 String Symphony, Luke Bulla, Vickie Vaughn, Sam Grisman, Sarah Jarosz, Billy Strings, Alex Hargreaves, and many others — are shaping the fresh, ascendant sound of bluegrass music. Settled at last, Phoebe was joined by the two other virtuoso members of her trio, mandolin player Dominick Leslie and cellist Nathaniel Smith, and performed the rest of her flawless and stylish set.

Tears of An Artist
There aren’t many music festivals, or festival directors for that matter, that are capable of inspiring a performer’s tears. ROMP is one of those festivals and so is Gabrielle, its founder and director for the past 12 years. The 2015 ROMP fest was Gabrielle’s last. With new leadership deciding next year’s lineup of performers there’s no assurance that ROMP’s internationally distinctive musical center — the cadre of prominent young bluegrass artists that Gabrielle has recruited and cultivated — will still be featured in Owensboro.

That’s what drew tears from Phoebe Hunt, the awareness that it wasn’t just one era that was surely ending — Gabrielle’s sensational run as a festival director. So might another — the place ROMP holds for the emerging stars of bluegrass to perform during the last weekend of June and gather as friends to catch up and jam together. ROMP is what this generation calls its “hang,” and has been as important to elevating young careers as the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado was in the 1980s for Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Tim O’Brien, Mark O’Connor, Stuart Duncan and other artists who are now some of the biggest acts in bluegrass, and all of American music.

Eric Robertson, lead singer of The Rigs, performs Wednesday night at the 2015 ROMP with (l to r) Duncan Wickel (fiddle), Nathaniel Smith (cello), Nicholas Falk (drums).
Eric Robertson, lead singer of The Rigs, performs Wednesday night at the 2015 ROMP with (l to r) Duncan Wickel (fiddle), Nathaniel Smith (cello), Nicholas Falk (drums).

“ROMP was the first place that I could come to spend time with great musicians and hear their music,” Eric Robertson, the lead singer and mandolin player for The Rigs, told me. In 2013, Robertson was joined by fiddle player Duncan Wickel, drummer Nicholas Falk, and bassist Josh Hari at their first ROMP, performing a festival-best set that mixed bluegrass, soul, and New Orleans funk at an after party attended by a throng of dancers. Continue reading “Gabrielle Gray’s Last ROMP”

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.
Continue reading “Earth Day 2015 Marks Convergence of Inspiring Trends”

Stanley Heckadon-Moreno is Panama’s Great Conservationist and Patriot

Stanley Heckadon-Moreno, one of Latin America’s most influential and successful conservationists, is a national leader in Panama's work to safeguard clean rivers and protect thousands of square miles of magnificent tropical forests. Photo/Keith Schneider
Stanley Heckadon-Moreno, one of Latin America’s most influential and successful conservationists, is a national leader in Panama’s work to safeguard clean rivers and protect thousands of square miles of magnificent tropical forests. Photo/Keith Schneider

COLON, Panama – Across the expanse of a half-century-long career as an ecologist, reformer, and skilled raconteur, Stanley Heckadon-Moreno saw his native Panama engulfed by one spasm of political transition after another.

A weak democracy and resentment of American ownership of the Panama Canal in the 1960s begat the corrupt military dictatorship of the 1980s. A damaging American invasion in 1989 gave rise to a decade of hardship and confusion in the 1990s.

Even the transfer of canal ownership to Panama on the last day of the 20th century, which initiated the most economically buoyant era in the country’s 112-year history, produced a bout of national vertigo. Uncertain at first, government and business leaders took time to prove to themselves and a doubting world that they harbor the skills to manage a 21st century democracy, and an essential maritime main street.

“For a long time, the bankers, the builders, the government administrators, they all reached one conclusion,” said Heckadon, who’s served since 2000 as a staff scientist and manager of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s Galeta Point Marine Laboratory, on the Caribbean entrance to the canal. “They said, ‘We don’t need no damn forests. It’s a waste. Trees? Forget the trees. We want development.’ Sea to sea along the Panama Canal. They wanted it to be like the Rhine River. One industry after the other.”

Yet through all of the political convulsions and government advocacy for new development, Heckadon persisted with a message of restraint and a knowing, personal approach that could be as tough as teak or as flexible as bamboo. Much of Panama’s public domain, and a good share of the nation’s land preservation and water conservation ethic can be traced to his work.
Panama’s Land and Water Steward

As one of Latin America’s most influential and successful conservationists Heckadon is directly responsible for safeguarding Panama’s largest rivers, and permanently protecting thousands of square miles of magnificent tropical forests. Indirectly, his considerable role in securing Panama’s natural wealth is steadily producing a durable — and largely non-polluting — new economy that is based on maritime transit, logistics, trade, banking, housing, and tourism.

“Stanley is the voice of environmental conscience for Panama,” said Matthew C. Larsen, director of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. “His deep understanding of the human activities that affect the abundant natural resources of the nation have made him a highly respected and articulate source of information and perspective on how we can sustainably manage our landscapes.”

The 131,000-hectare (324,000-acre) Chagres National Park was established in 1985 to secure the headwaters of the Chagres River, the freshwater source for the Panama Canal and for most of Panama’s people. Photo/Keith Schneider
The 131,000-hectare (324,000-acre) Chagres National Park was established in 1985 to secure the headwaters of the Chagres River, the freshwater source for the Panama Canal and for most of Panama’s people. Photo/Keith Schneider


Heckadon’s Work Is Seen Everywhere

The 90-kilometer (56-mile) drive from Heckadon’s home in Panama City to his sun-splashed office at the marine laboratory crosses the 289,200-hectare (665,000-acre) Panama Canal watershed. The unmarked hills and green forests are the crowning achievements of his career and a showcase of Panama’s allegiance to its fresh water and tropical geography.

If each of the protected tracts of land that Heckadon established were graphically illustrated, say with bright flags planted in the forests and on the summits of the Canal Zone highlands, the route would be aflutter with color. Continue reading “Stanley Heckadon-Moreno is Panama’s Great Conservationist and Patriot”

Along Ohio River, Big Data Lifts Cincinnati

Reconstructing Fountain Square in 2005 was essential to Cincinnati's development following the race riot in 2001. Photo/Keith Schneider
Reconstructing Fountain Square in 2005 was essential to Cincinnati’s development following the race riot in 2001. Photo/Keith Schneider

CINCINNATI – This 226-year-old Ohio River city came unglued in early April 2001, when three nights of riots and a plunge in the number of residents and businesses followed the death of an unarmed black man shot by the police.

Fourteen years later Cincinnati is climbing to the top of the heap of American midsize cities in real estate construction — a surge in investment and new buildings fostered not only by the hard work of social activists and human rights leaders, but also by scores of business starts, job growth, wage increases, public-private partnerships, and transit development that folowed. The city’s population, 297,517 in 2013 according to the US Census Bureau, grew over 600 residents, the first increase since 1950, when Cincinnati’s population peaked at 504,000 residents.

Cincinnati’s resurgence, based in large part on the development of a new big data industry and marketing analytics, is evidence of two powerful and promising trends reshaping the United States in the 21st century. The first is the pace of job growth in American cities, which now is faster than in the suburbs. (See my articles here in the New York Times.) The second is the recovery of the Rust Belt, and especially the strength of cities in the Ohio River Valley. In today’s New York Times I report on Cincinnati’s rise as a center of what city leaders call “consumer science.”

One measure of Cincinnati’s new relevance is the $85 million, 338,000-square-foot, 12-story office building that Atlanta-based Carter is building to house General Electric’s new Global Operations Center. Construction is due to be completed in 2016 in The Banks, an 18-acre Ohio riverfront development located between the city’s baseball and football stadiums. The building and the district will be served by a station stop on the 3.6 mile, $148 million Cincinnati streetcar line, scheduled to open the same year.

GE’s Operations Center, one of five the company is developing globally, contains first floor retail, parking on the second floor, 10 stories of conference and office space, and houses up to 2,000 GE professionals, 1,400 of them new to Cincinnati. The installation serves big development and manufacturing centers that GE operates in the U.S., including lighting and aviation manufacturing sites in two Ohio cities.

The center is being built with the help of $101 million in city, county, and state tax and investment incentives.  In exchange GE committed to employ at least 1,800 people in Cincinnati over the next 18 years, earning a total payroll of $142 million annually to start, or an average of $79,000 a year.

“Cincinnati was chosen due to GE’s long-standing presence in the state and southwest Ohio,” said Dominic McMullan, a GE spokesman, “as well as a pool of local talent and skills required for the roles in the Global Operations Center. In addition, the state, county and city provided a competitive incentive package to GE.”

The 18-acre The Banks in Cincinnati connects center city to the Ohio River. Photo/Keith Schneider
The 18-acre The Banks in Cincinnati connects center city to the Ohio River. Photo/Keith Schneider

Big Data Urban Economics
Another big project that is competing with GE for attention, and illustrates the Queen City’s powerful embrace of new market opportunities, is the dunnhumby Centre just a few blocks away. The $140 million, nine-story, 285,000-square-foot office building opens in the spring and will make the corner of Fifth and Race one of downtown’s most prominent addresses again.

Rising from a parcel that for more than a decade was a city-owned surface parking lot, the new building sits atop 29,000 square feet of ground floor retail space and a six-level, 527,000-square-foot parking deck. It is a joint project of dunnhumbyUSA and the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation, the city’s non-profit real estate development organization, known here as 3CDC. It houses the fast growing staff of a market analytics firm jointly owned by a small British-owned big data analysis company and The Kroger Company, the grocery store chain, which is based here.
Continue reading “Along Ohio River, Big Data Lifts Cincinnati”