ABU DHABI — Just across an expanse of sand and highway, close to this capital city’s airport, lies a collection of modern buildings promoted here as the example incarnate of what’s possible when a nation fueled by oil decides that the supply of its primary natural and economic resource is finite.
It’s a beginning. But just that. A beginning. Masdar City, as it’s called, is a state-sponsored planned development that isn’t yet close to being a city. Masdar City also stretches a few other bounds of credibility in its marketing message.
The collection of structures is promoted as a global showcase of sustainable innovation, a prime international laboratory of energy-efficient construction, water-saving applications, and clean energy development. But other than the big solar array at the development’s entrance it’s hard to tell whether any of those assets actually are in place.
There was no sight of the transit system that is said to exist here to move people in, out, and around the development. Reported to already have attracted “thousands” of workers and residents, the day I visited the dark lobbies and empty retail spaces of the development’s buildings, as well as its shaded walkways, were largely empty. There were more people hovering about Masdar City’s marketing installation at the Abu Dhabi exhibition hall here than were visible in the actual Masdar City.
What is apparent is what Gulf nations do very well – design and construct extravagant and beautiful buildings. In Masdar City’s interesting architecture, pedestrian-friendly land use patterns, and its updated Arabic-design cooling system is the interest this nation and its Arabian Gulf neighbors are displaying in diversifying their economies. All of the Gulf nations are talking about and making investments in clean energy development and water conservation practices to 1) improve their standing in the world, and 2) make a sustained run at keeping their energy-stoked civilizations healthy.
The latter is the real challenge — a race against time, demographic trends, petroleum-derived wealth, and climate change.
This bone-dry region is getting dryer. The population is rising, both within the native resident communities and from the tens of millions of contracted migrant laborers from Nepal and China, India, the Philippines, Bengladesh, Eastern Europe, and America who are needed to make the country operate. The growing Gulf economies are sucking up more of their own domestic oil and natural gas reserves to construct and operate the domestic infrastructure, to fuel fleets of cars and planes, and to power the electric plants that keep interiors cool during the summer inferno, and to desalinate the Gulf’s salty water. It takes an ocean of fuel to keep it all running.
Saudi Arabia, which desalinates more water than any other country, produces 6 million cubic meters of fresh water daily from two seas. Saudis burn oil to produce the heat and energy to convert seawater to fresh water. Saudi demand for fresh water is so large and rising so fast that desalination is one of the factors in a worrying calculation made public last year by Gulf nation researchers. Unless some factor changes in Saudi demand trends for energy, water, transportation fuels, and cooling, the world’s largest oil exporter will use so much of its own oil and production capacity to serve its own economy that by the early 2030s it ceases oil exports. American bank economists have reached the same conclusion. Read More
BERLIN — There are few more impressive places to arrive by intercity train anywhere in the world than this city’s central rail station, the Berlin Hauptbahnhof.
A colossal steel and glass building opened in 2006, the Hauptbahnhof (pronounced hote-bonn-off) soars up four levels, from east-west high-speed platforms to high-speed trains running north-south. Stainless steel and glass elevators, and stainless steel escalators tie together the platforms and the various levels of the station, which is stocked with the inviting 21st-century necessities of travel — brightly lit stores selling smart phones and designer clothing, bakery items and office supplies, coffee and cold drinks, and lots of ATMs flanking the nation’s banking outlets.
Some 350,000 passengers use the Hauptbahnhof terminal daily to board and depart 1,800 intercity and metropolitan commuter trains, according to city statistics. Yet just as spellbinding to an American journalist raised in train-friendly New York, but living in transit-averse Michigan, is how easy and inexpensive it is to reach virtually every sector of this city of 3.5 million, and its neighboring suburbs, on a train. The city’s commuter trains, subway system, and streetcar network collectively operate on 50 separate lines, 648 kilometers (403 miles) of track, reach 734 station stops, and transport 1 billion passengers annually.
If that’s not sufficient, Berliners can ride the bus, which has 147 lines, follows 1,627 kilometers of routes, reaches 2,627 stops, and carries 407 million passengers a year.
Yo buddy. That’s a powerful and effective transit system, actively used by city residents and duplicated in every other big city in this country of 80 million people. The benefits to family budgets and the country’s economy are evident. Traffic, for one, is surprisingly light in a metropolitan region that is comparable in size to Detroit and its suburbs, which have no rapid transit network, a poor bus system, high joblessness, a declining population, and where suburban highway traffic is a chronic mess.
Berlin’s families, meanwhile, save considerable sums by being able to operate one vehicle, instead of fleets. Land use patterns are influenced by rapid transit station stops, keeping fuel- and time-consuming sprawl in check and enhancing property values. And excellent transit service, energy-efficient and non-polluting, keeps Germany’s young and talented people involved in their home urban economies.
PRAGUE — City Square erupted at the start of the 2014 New Year with a deafening and blazing midnight fusilade of rockets and cannon blasts. The air filled with spent gunpowder and smoke so dense the brilliance of the firebursts was obscured. The Czech crowds, so slim and young and dressed in chic leather and spiked heels, cheered with the joy and lusty charm that comes with political security and social success.
This 1,000-year-old river city of 1.3 million, the capital of a first generation democracy founded in 1989, is a swirl of light and modern efficiency. Trams speed through narrow streets paved with square stones the size of Rubik cubes. Malls stir with shoppers hunting post-Christmas bargains. Cafes offer all manner of cheese, beer, bread, booze, and sweets. The sidewalks are filled with children in bright coats and knit caps running to keep pace with their parents.
The mood in the Czech Republic is so plainly defined by the satisfaction of building from the economic mustiness of Soviet repression a nation that is prosperous, clean, and among the world’s safest and best educated. Less than two generations ago bullet holes were still visible on the walls of Prague’s historic buildings. Adults huddled in attics, speaking in hushed voices with only their most trusted friends, if the subject was politics.
Prague, and the rest of this beautiful country of 10.5 million residents, provides welcome evidence of the capacity of people to agree on shared but difficult goals, and work together to achieve them. Prague represents needed hope for humanity’s ability to manage its affairs in a way that produces order from disorder, recognizes opportunity in changing circumstances, and responds responsibly to all manner of economic and ecological transition.
In neighboring Germany, there is more evidence such progress is possible. Germany is in the midst of a third industrial revolution fueled by its lower-polluting, water-conserving renewable energy sector. Almost 20 percent of the 600 terra-watt hours of electricity that Germany generates annually is supplied by power from wind, solar, water, biomass, and municipal waste. Germany’s photovoltaic solar sector alone accounts for 24,000 megawatts of generating capacity, and almost 20 terra-watt hours of electricity production. Power produced from coal-fired stations has dropped to 40 percent of Germany’s electricity supply.
And while solar yields three to five percent of Germany’s electricity production (depending on the season), that 24,000 megawatts of generating capacity is more power produced from the sun than in all of the rest of the world combined. And it’s happened very quickly. Because utilities are required to buy solar power from producers, including individual homeowners, banks of photovoltaic panels are bolted to the roofs of barns, big box stores, schools, and homes across the country.
As a journalist who’s now spending months each year overseas reporting on the fierce global contest for energy, grain, and water in the era of a fast-changing climate, the examples of human progress on display in the Czech Republic and in Germany are encouraging. So too, is what Ontario, Canada completed this year — a decade of policy change that has ended coal-fired power generation.
But these examples aren’t the norm.
The mortality files of the city of New York, the city that he loved and where he of spent most of his life, will formally record that Martin Herbert Schneider was born on March 30, 1924 and died on December 13, 2013.
Those are the statistical facts. But what actually happened is that Martin died two days earlier.
He stood on the corner of 59th Street and Madison Avenue, ready to board the bus. A prosperous lawyer still engaged in a distinguished career, he could easily afford a driver. He certainly looked like he could afford a driver. As he grew older Marty became more handsome in his appearance and dress. His bright blue eyes. His full head of silver and white hair. His white moustache neatly trimmed. He stood straight, carried no cane, and could pass for a statesman. A senator. A judge. In Shanghai, young women wanted their picture taken with him.
But he liked the bus. He liked to know that he was still vital, still capable of being on the streets of Manhattan. He liked to see and be seen. He never talked about growing old. Being old. He always looked forward to the next concert. The next trip. The next family event.
And people noticed the elegant elderly man. His shoes were shined to high gloss. His tie, colorful and snug around the collar, was expertly dimpled below the knot. He was wearing a cotton shirt and gold cufflinks in the French cuffs. Gold cuff links and French cuffs.
He’d just left his law office, saying goodnight to the aides and secretaries, the lobby guards, each of whom he knew by name. The law, of course, was at the top of his affections. But he was heading home to 86th Street where the truly great love of his life waited.
Of all the ways that he excelled, of all the things that he had done in a life that spanned nearly 90 years, his lifelong romance with Jo-Anne Schneider was his single greatest achievement. And as he moved from one era to the next with her — from law student to boyfriend. From fiance to husband to son-in-law. From father to father-in-law to grandfather. From uncle to great uncle. From Cambridge to Queens, from Dobbs Ferry to White Plains to Sharon to Park Avenue. Those roles, those places, this man and this woman, like sugar cane in the field, grew stronger, heartier, and sweeter.
And then it ended. Clean. Painless. Ordered. Effective. A mortal stroke. My mother says her husband of nearly 63 years died with his boots on. No he didn’t. He died with his hair parted, his trousers creased, and gold links in his French cuffs. And not a single regret. At least none that he ever expressed to me.
A Long, Magnificent Life
What a life. Marty was born in Brooklyn, the oldest of three children, the first of two sons raised by Samuel Nathan Schneider, a Jewish Polish immigrant designer and maker of women’s coats, and Freda Schneider, his Jewish Polish-born bride.
He was a good student, a loving son, a caring brother to Stanley and Suzanne. He learned to love Judaism and practiced its rituals, its values, its principles all of his life. He wasn’t a cut-up. Not once did I ever hear my father tell a story of the windows mashed, the guys carousing, the hearts he’d broken. He lived near his grandmother, who he visited every day on his way home from school.
That’s not to say he was dull. He wasn’t. He was dutiful, canny, and instinctive like his father, who thrived in the Depression by being agile and fearless. At one point during the Depression Marty lived in New Jersey, where his father moved the family and the coat company, to pursue new markets and avoid union organizing.
Marty was sweet, more emotionally vulnerable than he let on, and keenly intelligent like his mother. I once stayed with my Nana Freda in her house in Brooklyn. In the morning we watched Jeopardy. She could run the table on category after category.
Marty studied accounting at CCNY. He served in an Army command during the war in an administrative position, most of it spent in the South and in California. He didn’t see combat but he came back a full grown man. He finished at City College, gained entrance and attended Harvard Law School, graduating in 1949.
The war was a turning point. And from his telling, so was Harvard.
Law school was a gas. All of it just fit. The exacting precision of the law, the details that required diligence in understanding, rigor in interpretation. Law was organized, structured.
The law was like Marty. It was designed to bring order to disorder.
The law provided other benefits. The law conferred stature, especially at an institution that educated presidents. The law was a path to doing good and doing well. The law attracted girls.
By the late 1940s, with a war and a Harvard education under his belt, and a striking young Simmons College student on his arm, Marty Schneider was styling. He and his law school classmates, many of them also New York Jewish veterans, some of whom became dear lifelong friends, played hard and studied hard. They practiced the gentlemen sports. Tennis. Golf. Lake fronts. Girlfriends. Scotch. They dressed like film actors — dark glasses, shorts, cashmere sweaters draped on their backs, the arms tied around their necks.
They were suave and savvy. Trim and youthful. Ambitious and eager. They were the country.
When Marty and his classmates left Cambridge and returned to New York, they didn’t need to storm the city’s established New York legal bar. They nimbly ran around it and took command.
OKUND, UTTARAKHAND, INDIA - We made the crossing at night from Chamoli, reaching this Himalayan foothill town after dark. The innkeeper, anxious for guests in a travel economy that came to a standstill in mid-June, cooked dal and nan bread for dinner and then showed us to a room that was unlit and unheated.
It didn’t matter. Thick blankets kept us warm. And at dawn we awoke to strong black coffee and the sun lighting the 21,000-foot Sumaru summit, turning the rock and snow from pink to orange to white. The lower slopes, terraced by generations, dove to the fast-moving Mandakani River. The current poured over gravel and boulders, the sound of it rising out of the tight valley like a beast’s heavy breathing.
For five long days I traversed this region of the Himalayas in the company of Dhruv Malhotra, a young New Delhi-based photographer, and Vinod, a professional driver raised in the hills. I’d come to understand the consequences of a flood in June that trapped and killed 30,000, maybe 40,000 Hindu pilgrims during days of terror.
Steep mountains. Fast moving water. Active towns are the principle metaphors of the Himalayas. So is danger. This is an unforgiving landscape. On June 16 and June 17 the mountains unleashed such fury that four towns on two rivers — the Mandakini and the Alaknanda – were washed away. Entire sides of mountains slid into rivers, and with them came whole sections of mountain highways. Dozens of one-way-in, one-way-out towns and several larger cities were cut off for weeks, supplied with food and fuel by the Indian army.
I’m back in India for a month, just as I was at this time in 2012. I’m here on assignment for Circle of Blue, and our partner, the Washington-based Wilson Center. Over the last three years we’ve collaborated on our Global Choke Point project to understand how nations are responding to the resource confrontation that now defines so much of our economy and our global condition — the rising demand for energy and food in an era of diminishing freshwater reserves.
Last year in Choke Point: India I reported on India’s cycle of risk involving surplus grain production in western states and rising coal production in the east. This year we want to dig deeper into India’s coal production and consumption cycle, its solar and wind sectors, and its ambitious hydro-electric development program.
It’s the latter that prompted this trip to the Himalayas, where India says it wants to build the bulk of the 292 new hydroelectric power projects that are either under construction or proposed. India already has 176 operating hydro projects that account for a bit less than 20 percent of the country’s electrical generating capacity. There are – or were – 15 operating projects in Uttarakhand before the flood. One was buried under boulders and rubble on the upper Alaknanda. Another was damaged by silt from the flood tide that poured into its powerhouse and fouled generating turbines.