At the Front Lines of the Global Transition

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Owensboro Convention Center Opens With Big Party; Senators Paul and McConnell Not Among The Guests

Owensboro threw a big  party on January 31, 2014 to celebrate the opening of its $50 million Events Center. Some 2,100 city and Daviess County residents attended. Two who didn't were Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul. Photo/Keith Schneider

Owensboro threw a big party on January 31, 2014 to celebrate the opening of its $50 million Convention Center. Some 2,100 city and Daviess County residents attended. Two invited guests who didn’t show up were U.S. Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul. Photo/Keith Schneider

OWENSBORO, KY – In February 2009, in the very depths of the Great Recession, seven of the nine commissioners elected to lead this capable city and surrounding Daviess County took a long breath, understood the political consequences, and approved a modest increase in a local tax to generate $80 million to build a new downtown.

Though just two of the seven officials remain in office, what they accomplished in a single courageous vote achieved three distinct and nationally significant objectives.

First, they created a local economic stimulus plan that, to date, has generated $250 million in downtown construction and infrastructure upgrades — $140 million in taxpayer-supported investment and $110 million in private spending. A pallid, mall-savaged 20th century downtown, short of breath and close to death, is being replaced by a beaming and inviting urban center fit for the 21st century. Owensboro today is a display of savvy design that encompasses a stunning river walk and riverfront park, a $50 million convention center, two new hotels, a $12 million office building, new housing and businesses, and streets reconstructed as handsome boulevards, with wide sidewalks to encourage outdoor cafe seating.

Second, those seven elected officials offered a pointed rebuke to the politics of austerity that grips Kentucky and the nation. The local increase in an existing tax on insurance premiums — from 4 percent to 8 percent, or around $150 a year for an average family — unleashed a torrent of new economic activity that produced hundreds of new jobs, more than any city in Kentucky, and dropped the city and county unemployment rates to around 6 percent, among the state’s lowest.

And third, Owensboro and Daviess County are building a nearly flawless case in support of the primary economic principle that built the United States — the joining of public spending with private investment to foster civic innovation, strengthen the quality of life, and generate jobs and new wealth.

Through the Convention Center's east window, a view of the LEED-certified Hampton Inn & Suites and a city in transformation. Photo/Keith Schneider

Through the Convention Center’s east window, a view of the LEED-certified Hampton Inn & Suites and a city in transformation. Photo/Keith Schneider

Spurred by two-term Republican Mayor Ron Payne, who led Owensboro’s downtown redevelopment, city leaders here are doing everything in their power to make sure that lesson hits home. Earlier this month Payne and his colleagues held a three-day, $134,000 party to stoke the new civic energy. It started on January 31 with an evening open bar, a tenderloin banquet, and a Sara Evans country music concert, all free of charge, for 2,100 evening gown and tuxedo-clad city and county residents.

The occasion, maybe the most ardent, festive, and longest public party ever held in Owensboro — nobody here remembers anything comparable — celebrated the on-schedule, on-budget opening of the city’s two newest facilities — a 169,000-square-foot Convention Center and the $20 million LEED-certified, seven-story, 151-room Hampton Inn & Suites next door. Read More

Shillong Times and its Courageous Editor, Patricia Mukhim, Gain National Hearing On Coal Mine Safety

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Patricia Mukhim, editor of the Shillong Times. Photo/Dhruv Malhotra

SHILLONG, India — To the best of anyone’s knowledge, and that includes a tribunal of senior jurists who heard testimony here on January 24, 15 men drowned in a coal mine in this state’s mineral-rich Garo Hills on July 6, 2012.

The disaster occurred in one of the thousands of Meghalaya’s dangerous and unregulated coal mines. It wasn’t formally reported for more than a week. The bodies weren’t retrieved. Meghalaya’s safety and health authorities conducted what appears for now to be a rudimentary investigation. For a time, state officials even asserted that because the bodies weren’t recovered the men might have escaped, just as 15 to 20 other men did who were working in the mine at the same time.

These details, and many others about the mortal danger of Meghalaya’s mines, and the egregious levels of mine-related pollution that poison the state’s land and rivers, were discovered by the reporters of the Shillong Times. They were disseminated persistently and broadly by its courageous 60-year-old editor, Patricia Mukhim.

Inside a rathole coal mine south of Shillong, India. Photo/Keith Schneider

Inside a rathole coal mine south of Shillong, India. Photo/Keith Schneider

From an uncluttered office lit with a single bulb, and so deep in the newspaper’s concrete basement that cell phone service is spotty, Mukhim manages an editorial staff of nearly 30 that consistently produces first-rate reporting on Meghalaya’s biggest issues, and that includes the state’s lawless coal mining sector. She’s worked for the paper since 1987, and been its editor since 2008. Her work on human rights, on the state’s dangerous insurgency, and on the sickened environment has generated death threats against Mukhim, and earned her numerous awards, including the Padma Shri Award, one of India’s highest civilian honors.

Mukhim was born and raised in Shillong by her mother, a single woman. Mukhim, divorced, is the mother of five children, two of whom died. Two years ago Northeast Monologues posted a good interview with Mukhim.

Her work has made Mukhim a prominent voice and personality in Northeast India. The region’s industrial development and the changes it has brought to the water, air, and forests stirs her interest. In 1996, for instance, she teamed with the Khasi Students’ Union to file an affidavit in the Supreme Court of India in support of a petition by TN Govindavarman to ban the cutting and export of timber. The Supreme Court upheld the petition and ordered a 10-year ban on timber cutting. The Court also ordered the national Ministry of Environment and Forests, one of India’s premier environmental regulatory agencies, to direct state governments to develop working plans for their forests.

The rank practices in Meghalaya’s coal mining industry also are a focus of Mukhim’s attention. In July 2013, in a frank article about the number of coal mining deaths in Meghalaya, the Shillong Times reported that, in the five months from January to May 2013, 15 more miners died in seven separate accidents. The newspaper reported that almost all of the sector’s tens of thousands of laborers are undocumented workers from Nepal, Bangladesh, and neighboring states in Northeast India. Because there is no record of their presence, no taxes on their wages, no formal knowledge of their names or where they came from, the migrant laborers operate without claim to basic rights of safety, fairness, or justice.

In this dangerous and spellbinding confrontation between 21st century production demands and 19th century working conditions, the miners are losing badly. Lawlessness, already pervasive, is prompting more violence above ground, with rapes and beatings and murders becoming commonplace, the Shillong Times reports. Five miners, for instance, were murdered in 2012 by factions apparently associated with the region’s political insurgents. The motive? Choose any one of a long list of mortal threats. Failure to pay insurgents’ self-imposed transport fees and bribes. Fight for control of the mines. Ripoffs and gambling and plain bad behavior.

It takes three hours of work for two rathole coal miners to produce a cart of coal worth 100 rupees, or less than $2. Photo/Keith Schneider

It takes three hours of work for two rathole coal miners to produce a cart of coal worth 100 rupees, or less than $2. Photo/Keith Schneider

Mukhim, a writer of considerable skill and knowledge, summed up the conditions this way: “The coal laborers, mostly migrants, are silent sufferers as they face the wrath of the militants, as well as the fury of nature,” she wrote last year.

That silence, though, may be approaching its end. Mukhim’s own work on the mine sector — determined and poetic – as well as her staff’s incisive reports, last year attracted the attention of the National Green Tribunal. The Tribunal is a panel of senior jurists formed by a remarkable national statute approved in 2010 to specifically investigate and adjudicate major risks to India’s public health and the environment.

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Algae Blooms, A New Visitor, Ruin Sleeping Bear Dunes Shoreline

Algae blooms are marring the shores of Northwest Michigan's gorgeous national park, seen from Alligator Hill in Leelanau County. Photo/Keith Schneider

Algae blooms are marring the shores of Northwest Michigan’s gorgeous national park, seen from Alligator Hill in Leelanau County. Photo/Keith Schneider

EMPIRE, Michigan — It’s winter in Northwest Michigan, the coldest and deepest season of ice and snow in years. It’s possible that the severe winter will produce the conditions necessary to curb the newest noxious and unsightly threat to the region’s waters: the algae blooms overtaking northern Lake Michigan and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

The blooms not only illustrate the presence of rising levels of nutrients in the water. They also are evidence of the weakening resolve of citizens, their state, and the nation to secure America’s clean fresh water. Write me – keith@circleofblue.org – if you’re interested in organizing to halt this frustrating risk to the national park in our own backyard, and to addressing this insult to our lakes and rivers.

No place in the United States, it seems to me, is a better place to start. In 1970 the United States Congress authorized land purchases to establish Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore — 35 miles of towering dunes, broad forests of maple and hemlock, and magnificent shallow blue bays along the northern Lake Michigan shoreline west of Traverse City.

In almost every way conceivable, Sleeping Bear’s founding reflected the best impulses of a nation determined to prove that economic development could coincide with new measures to conserve land, and scrub the air and water clean of multiple pollutants.

The 71,000-acre national park, founded at the very center of the five Great Lakes, met two primary national goals. Sleeping Bear restored the deteriorated bounty of soil, forest, and water that supported, into the early decades of the 20th century, a necklace of tiny maritime communities and several thousand fishing, farm, and forestry jobs.

And second, Sleeping Bear helped to prove that a new and much larger economic sector could be formed from policies that preserved a region’s ecology, limited pollution, and effectively enforced environmental law.

In the course of two generations, the air and water in and outside the park were largely cleared of pollution and improved to near pristine quality. Rivers in and outside the park grew colder and clearer, supporting active salmon and trout fisheries. Forests in and outside the park grew taller, more dense, and more supportive of wildlife, including regular sightings of bobcat, bear, goshawks, and once-endangered bald eagles.
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Abu Dhabi Slowly Pursues A Water-Conserving, Cleaner Energy Path

Architects are having a field day designing  the energy-efficient, showcase buildings of Masdar City in Abu Dhabi. Photo/Keith Schneider

Architects are having a field day designing the energy-efficient, showcase buildings of Masdar City in Abu Dhabi. Photo/Keith Schneider

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.

The Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, completed in 2007, is large enough to hold 40,000 worshippers. Photo/Keith Schneider

The Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, completed in 2007, is large enough to hold 40,000 worshippers. Photo/Keith Schneider

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

Where Cars Don’t Dominate, Rapid Transit and Strong Economies Do

With 350,000 passengers daily, Berlin's Hauptbahnhof central rail station is among Europe's busiest. Photo/Keith Schnj

With 350,000 passengers daily, Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof central rail station is among Europe’s busiest. Photo/Keith Schneider

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.

Prague's excellent streetcar system transports 325 million passengers annually. Photo/Keith Schneider

Prague’s excellent streetcar system transports 325 million passengers annually. Photo/Keith Schneider

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.

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