At the Front Lines of the Global Transition

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Pope Francis Visit, VW Behavior, China Cap and Trade, and John Boehner — How They Coincide

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Progress never unfolds in a straight line. The colors and patterns of life, like tracking clouds from space, are too complex, too irregular, too imperfect to make sense much of the time. Once in awhile, though, a flawless aberration occurs, like the events last week in the United States and China.

Pope Francis arrived in Washington and New York to issue a call to action on climate change and an appeal to take much better care of the planet. Earth’s perilous condition soared to the top of the pyramid of public concerns.

Volkswagen, one of the largest industrial corporations on Earth, admitted to a potential corporate-collapsing fraud in the ecological performance of its diesel engines. The discovery, and the admission, that VW developed software that enabled its engines to detect emissions testing equipment and evade lawful limits for air pollutants illustrated just how seriously auto buyers and regulators take their responsibility to care for the planet.

As the week closed, China promised to develop a cap and trade program for reducing climate changing emissions; in effect a market-based strategy for starting to solve what Pope Francis called “a problem which can no longer be left to future generations.”

A Trend
Though seemingly unconnected these events are linked in new ways. They are both irresistible and emblemmatic of the unyielding transition in economy and ecology occurring across the world with quickening and visible speed. What draws them together, what gives them coherence, are the converging and unrelenting global trends in natural resource supply and demand, and the effects of industrial damage, that more people and more of the world’s leaders finally recognize and are reacting to with the urgency that’s merited. Read More

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. Read More

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. Read More

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. Read More

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. Read More