1039 Miles Per Tank; 86 Miles Per Gallon

Ford CMax-Energi plug-in hybrid clocked in at 1039 miles per tank between fill-ups. Photo: Keith Schneider
Ford C-MAX Energi plug-in hybrid clocked in at 1039 miles per tank between fill-ups. Photo: Keith Schneider

BENZONIA, MI — The morning that two jetliners destroyed the World Trade Center 14 years ago today I was in Manistee, Michigan shopping for a new car. If you recognize, as I do, that among the primary Al Qaeda justifications for the attack was America’s late 20th century appetite for Mideast oil, and the meddlesome regional interest we displayed for securing our petroleum supply, then you might also consider that my search for an affordable vehicle was a portion of the problem.

At the time the United States was consuming over 20 million barrels of oil daily, nearly 60 percent of it imported. Vehicles capable of 30 miles per gallon, especially those roomy enough to transport children, were not widely available.

There’s good reason to consider the 9/11 attack as the murderous opening act in a new century of political risk prompted by the rise of inflexible orthodoxies. That’s certainly the case in the U.S., where an unarmed insurgency of legislative ideologues, backed by millions of anti-government religious fundamentalists, shut down the federal government in 2013, and are preparing to try to do so again this year.

In my mind, though, that terrible September day was the close of a century of planetary waste and abuse, an assault on our ecological endowment, and the start of a new era of reckoning and correction. If the 20th century was a river of unevenly distributed wealth and treachery that left too much of the planet in ruins, then the 21st century could well promise safe steerage through very difficult channels. Though much of our attention is still directed to the blood spilled by terrorists, or the inanities of national election candidates, fifteen years into the 21st century there are embryonic signs of useful evolution.

The 89 mpg American made Ford C-MAX Energi plug-in hybrid. Photo: Keith Schneider
The 89 mpg American made Ford C-MAX Energi plug-in hybrid. Photo: Keith Schneider

Some are bigger than others. The Pearl River, which empties into the Pacific Ocean in southeast China, supports over 50 million people in the largest urban megalopolis on Earth. Chinese national and municipal authorities are preparing for even more intensive population growth in a region no larger than Delaware with simultaneous and expensive projects to build rapid rail transit networks, energy efficient high-rises, water and air pollution control infrastructure, and clean energy electrical generation. Continue reading “1039 Miles Per Tank; 86 Miles Per Gallon”

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute’s Lessons in Race — Changed and Not

The hooded robe of a Klan member displayed at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. A symbol of virulent hate. Photo: Keith Schneider
The hooded robe of a Klan member displayed at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. A symbol of virulent hate. Photo: Keith Schneider

BIRMINGHAM, Al. — The weekend before the pastor was assassinated and eight other African American adults were murdered in a church basement in Charleston, South Carolina, I spent the afternoon studying the exhibits at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The 23-year-old museum is a journey in photographs, videos, and artifacts of the dangerous struggle in the mid-20th century for justice, voting rights, and equality in Alabama’s largest city, and across the American South.

A few of the exhibits were particularly striking. A satin white hooded robe worn by a Klan member. Spider Martin’s iconic black and white photographs of the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery. The arresting and infuriating historic videotaped interviews from the 1960s of prominent white Birmingham business and professional leaders discussing what they viewed as the deficiencies of intelligence and behavior of black residents.

Behind me an African American woman whispered to her husband, “Things really haven’t changed much, have they?”

Still, of all the messages conveyed by the Institute’s curators, one held particular resonance with me. It was the clear and strident war cries, conveyed on signs and billboards, articles and editorials, urging Alabama’s white leaders and residents to resist integration principally by declaring white supremacy, states rights, and open, armed, and steadfast defiance of the federal government.

Things haven’t changed much, have they? Before the Charleston massacre on June 17, conservative insurgents were angrily declaring their disrespect for the country’s first black president with false assertions about his birth as a foreigner, and defying his policies on health, climate change, water quality, and clean energy with lawsuits that failed to persuade a conservative Supreme Court, and a forced government shutdown that hopefully dismays the majority of Americans who vote. Continue reading “Birmingham Civil Rights Institute’s Lessons in Race — Changed and Not”

Owensboro Will Build International Bluegrass Music Center

Gabrielle Gray, who as director of the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, led the work to promote bluegrass as a signature feature of the city's cultural and economic development. Photo/Keith Schneider
Gabrielle Gray, who as director of the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, led the work to promote bluegrass as a signature feature of the city’s cultural and economic development. Photo/Keith Schneider

In the week that America expressed its disdain for Indiana’s spiteful political fanaticism, and its new “religious freedom” statute that would allow business owners to discriminate against gays and lesbians, comes a much more responsible story of what’s possible in public policy.

On April 1, Kentucky Democratic Governor Steve Beshear teamed up with Owensboro Republican Mayor Ron Payne to advance the economic and artistic interests of the mid-size Ohio River city. The two found a way to direct $5 million in public funds to complete the capital campaign and build the $15 million International Bluegrass Music Center.

It’s another of the astute steps Owensboro is taking to make the river city a showcase of public policy and economic innovation. I’ve followed the city’s development since 2011, when I wrote a new development strategy for Owensboro that included focusing on bluegrass music as a piece of the city’s 21st century economy. I’m also in a relationship with Gabrielle Gray, who as director of the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro led the work to promote bluegrass as a centerpiece of the city’s cultural and economic development.

Few small cities in the United States or globally are evolving with as much understanding of the new market conditions of this century. Even fewer are commanding the needed fiscal tools, or building the political alliances, with as much skill as Owensboro. The result is a city transformed.

Owensboro has the most inviting waterfront on the Ohio River now. For a few dollars increase in annual insurance tax premiums, premiums that rebuilt the core business district, nearly every homeowner within a two mile radius of the new construction is experiencing five to seven percent annual increases in the value of their residences. For a $190,000 home, that amounts to $9,000 a year or more.

It’s important to recall that Owensboro once approved $100 million in public tax benefits (worth $200 million in 2015 dollars) to attract a single manufacturer and 350 jobs. The roughly $8 million to $9 million in public investment for the Bluegrass Music Center could generate comparable numbers of jobs at much lower expense.

As a journalist deeply interested in public policy, it’s also vital to commend one more vital principle underlying all of what’s occurred in Owensboro — the idea that public investment for public purposes makes enduring sense. That’s how we built the country. That’s how Owensboro rebuilt itself.

It takes great leaders to break through the shackles of fiscal austerity, the dogma that government can’t perform well. Owensboro has a great leader in its capable mayor.

Bluegrass music has capable leaders in Gabrielle Gray and in Terry Woodward, an Owensboro business owner and bluegrass music lover who consistently added his voice, generous finances, and time to bluegrass and to the city for decades.

Having watched some of this take shape up close, and knowing how challenging it is to achieve goals of this magnitude in a frustrating, even depressing era of austerity and resistance, it needs only to be said that what has been achieved with the Bluegrass Music Center is a fine, fine accomplishment.

Congratulation to everyone involved. Plus one question — what’s next?

— Keith Schneider

Panama’s Water-Rich Eden Confronts Snake’s Temptation

North of Panama City, Lago Alajuela drains parts of Parque Nacional Chagres, a biopreserve that is home to over 50 species of birds and a rich harvest of tilapia. Photo/Keith Schneider
North of Panama City, Lago Alajuela drains parts of Parque Nacional Chagres, a biopreserve that is home to over 50 species of birds and a rich harvest of tilapia. Photo/Keith Schneider

PANAMA CITY, Panama – Quebrada Ancha, a community that settled in Panama’s thick forest 50 years ago, lies at the northern end of Lago Alajuela, a freshwater lake built by the United States at the end of the Great Depression to control floods in the Panama Canal Zone.

It takes 20 minutes in a fast 40-foot dugout boat to get there. In early morning’s luminous light and cooling breeze the trip is a passage across a water-rich green paradise. Fish eagles dive for tilapia. Hummingbirds swarm in the tangled branches of small trees. Grapefruits and oranges, papayas and mangos, coconuts and bananas ripen in a geography of wild bounty.

The long path through the forest to the community’s center is like striding down a tropical produce section.  Sugarcane and ginger and breadfruit, pineapple and marañon Curaçao, which looks like an apple and tastes like a pear, grow abundantly in the forest. Honey is collected from wild bees that nest in the village’s hives. Fresh fish is abundant.

A number of Quebrada Ancha’s adults were children when they arrived in 1976 with their families from central Panama; refugees forced out of their homes by the backwaters of the 260-megawatt Bayano Dam. Quebrada Ancha’s phenomenal natural riches now support about 100 adults and children, and attract foreigners who visit with increasing frequency.

Children of the Ancha community in Panama greet visitors in native costumes. Photo/Keith Schneider
Children of Quebrada Ancha in Panama greet visitors in native costumes. Photo/Keith Schneider

Coffee, Not Forest Clearing
In a shift that is representative of Panama itself, the residents of Quebrada Ancha see in their largely unspoiled territory potentially useful new ways to thrive in the 21st century.

For instance, instead of burning forests for new farm lands, a practice that drains nutrients from the soil, the village cultivates shaded and permanent hillside plots. In some they raise coffee bushes that in 2014 produced 75,000 pounds of coffee beans for sale to roasters in Panama City, about an hour away. A portion of the harvest also is dried in the sun, roasted over open fires, and available in the village for $9 a pound. Quebrada Ancha’s location on a high bank above the lake, set amid a grove of shade trees, is a delightful perch for savoring the strong and delicious village brand.
Continue reading “Panama’s Water-Rich Eden Confronts Snake’s Temptation”

India’s National Green Tribunal Challenges Government and Industry To Follow The Law

The Hon. Swatanter Kumar, chairman of the National Green Tribunal. Under his watch the four-year-old court has emerged as one of the world's important centers for the idea that enforcing the law to secure clean air and water and to protect resources is the soundest path to India's economic development. Photo/Keith Schneider
The Hon. Swatanter Kumar, chairman of the National Green Tribunal. Under his watch the four-year-old court has emerged as one of the world’s important centers for the idea that enforcing the law to secure clean air and water and to protect resources is the soundest path to India’s economic development. Photo/Keith Schneider

SHILLONG, India — India’s National Green Tribunal, a judicial body with legal authority that ranks just below India’s Supreme Court, is quickly emerging as one of the world’s most important forums for the idea that economic advancement is tightly wired to public safety, and the security of water, air, and land.

Established by India’s Supreme Court and legislated into existence and a source of funding by Parliament in 2010, the new court gained a formidable home office eleven months ago. The NGT’s building, constructed over a century ago as the residence of a regional prince, and formerly the national office of India’s Human Rights Commission, sits prominently near the center of the capital district that also houses the President’s Estate and the Supreme Court.

Prior to the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in May, India’s leadership took pains to recruit great jurists and technical specialists to serve on the bench. The government invested in decorating the Tribunal’s main Courtroom Number 1 with green carpet, green curtains, green upholstered chairs, gold filagree on decorative cornices, and a gold seal above the judicial bench. The ornamentation, poorly lit in an Indian government sort of way, is authentically earnest and more than enough to convey institutional significance, and sound and independent legal judgment.

Yet even with all the green and gold serving as glitter on the symbolic robe of impartial justice, the colors aren’t sufficient to hide the doggedness that really drives the spirit of India’s newest court. Just a few days of attending NGT hearings this month reveals a 17-member bench, comprised of seven judges and ten of India’s top science, engineering, and technical experts, driven by righteous zeal.

There is, in fact, an undercurrent of spiritual fervor in the poorly ventilated courtroom, illumiinated by harsh fluorescence, and jammed with lawyers in spotless white shirts and pitch black suits. They huddle like penguins, straining to hear the unamplified back and forth between the grey-bearded judges and the much younger lawyers. The scene feels a lot like the heated, crowded, airless, determined Rosh Hashanah stir of a Brooklyn synagogue. Continue reading “India’s National Green Tribunal Challenges Government and Industry To Follow The Law”