At the Front Lines of the Global Transition


The 2016 Election Endgame: Decisive or Dangerous?

The next president of the United States? Hillary Clinton is poised, adept, and on the verge of winning.

The next president of the United States? Hillary Clinton is on the verge of winning.

SOMERSET, KY — There aren’t too many redder places in this reddest of red southern states than Pulaski County. Mitt Romney beat President Obama in 2012 with 80 percent of the vote in this south central Kentucky county, and a nearly 16,000-vote margin — 20,714 to 4,976. Still, on my afternoon runs through the pleasant leafy neighborhoods of Somerset, the county seat, I haven’t seen one yard sign for Donald Trump. It’s as though in depriving Trump of public support people here are also displaying their private anguish.

Loathing Hillary Clinton is one thing. Trump’s desire to blow up American democracy is something else entirely. With their children dispatched to good public schools, and their late model vehicles parked in the tidy yards of right-sized homes, there is absolutely no sentiment expressed here that Somerset’s residents are prepared to scrap it all and start over.

It doesn’t look now as though they are going to have to. Clinton has a comfortable lead in most public polls by performing well during three presidential debates, and essentially saying little else over the last three weeks. That’s cleared the way for Trump to bluff and bully and shriek his way down a steep decline in support. Last night, signaling that’s he’s prepared to resume a career in reality television, Trump declared his resistance to accepting the results of the election. He is resolved to keep the country waiting for the next big provocation, the very same tactic that provided the $US billions in free media attention that made his improbable run to the Republican nomination possible.

There isn’t anything in the lives of any of us to compare to this ugly and unnerving election.

Hillary Clinton is reviled by critics on all sides for character traits, that if they were true, would have prevented her from accomplishing all that she has in her life. Few candidates for president have been as thoughtful, meticulous, intelligent, experienced and well prepared as she is.

The worst offenses her critics offer are:

1. The craven assessment that she is responsible for the death of a diplomat and several more Americans in an attack on US government facilities in Libya. She wasn’t. Republicans mounted a sham Congressional investigation anyway to elevate the attack into a political issue to harm Clinton this year. It’s important to note that Republicans had never before cared to lay the blame for any of the previous lethal terrorist attacks on US installations that occurred under Republican presidents.

2. The use of a private server that Clinton established to send and receive email while she was Secretary of State. The implication is she played fast and loose with state secrets, a charge that is not true.

3. Her decision to keep her family together after Bill Clinton’s sex romp with Monica Lewinsky in the late 1990s; assertions that she enabled Bill to build her own political prominence; and she was too tough in attacking the credibility of other women Bill may or may not have bedded.

Fortunately for the U.S. Hillary Clinton is durable, measured, and a grownup. She’s been pushed by Bernie Sanders to embrace progressive ideas she hadn’t grasped earlier — like free college tuition and stronger measures to cool the warming planet. She’s shown herself to be graceful and persistent under pressure. And she’s been tactically smart.

Knowing of Trump’s childish capacity to mindlessly strike back when criticized she baited a trap in the first debate on September 26. Hillary unearthed the cruel criticisms that Trump unleashed at a Miss Universe winner in the 1990s after she’d gained weight. Trump swallowed the chum whole, spent the pre-dawn hours afterwards tweeting more offensive comments, and kept up the assault for much of the following week. Read More

Refuse To Give In To The Darkness

Donald Trump

Donald Trump

BENZONIA — Will Americans give in to the darkness and elect Donald Trump? The disturbing answer at this point, just as it was in the late spring, is that enough of his supporters say yes, and too many of his opponents are not sure.

There has never been a presidential election like this one in my lifetime, though ample numbers of similarly dangerous men elevated themselves to head of state in other countries. Mussolini’s rise to power as a dictator in Italy in the early 20th century comes to mind. Mussolini marketed a narrative of decay and dissolution, framed his own comic book cult hero persona, and lied and exaggerated, and evaded responsibility for mistakes and flaws for two decades.

Trump has shown himself to be masterful at none of the skills needed to manage a complex nation. He is intemperate, undisciplined, careless, not thoughtful, not truthful, not inquisitive, and desperately self-involved. Just the sort of guy you want with the nuclear codes, or in a trade dispute with China. How American crop producers support Trump is beyond me. China is our largest buyer of soybeans.

Trump has displayed, though, a near flawless expertise in sales. It’s the Procter & Gamble consumer market culture applied to politics. Procter & Gamble convinced Americans of the inherent decay and bacterial danger of their bodies, their clothes, and their homes. Then the company sold consumer antiseptics — soaps, detergents, cleaners.

Trump now presents a global narrative of ideological danger, decay, chaos and despair. He cites the episodic evidence of criminal outbreaks — police deaths in Dallas and Baton Rouge, ISIS-related massacres in California and Florida. He offers Hillary Clinton as the source of the vortex of violence. And he presents himself as the remedy.

Without a national campaign staff, a real campaign plan, or any modesty in temperament or behavior, he nevertheless keeps attention riveted on himself through one unexpected, often outlandish statement, after another. Yesterday, for instance, after assuring the nation of the “love” and “unity” gained at a Cleveland Republican convention that achieved neither, Trump criticized Ted Cruz, who refused to endorse him, calling the Texas Senator “dishonorable,” and suggesting as he did in the spring that Cruz’s father was an intimate of Lee Harvey Oswald. His source: The National Enquirer, which Trump called “a magazine that, in many respects, is respected.”

The madness that is Donald Trump, whose outsize ego and ruthless business strategy was well-known to New Yorkers for two generations, almost perfectly reflects what happens following 30 years of dogma that have unhinged the values and principles of an ideologically fixated Republican Party. Republican orthodoxy has come to represent lingering racism, dangerous suspicion of science, obstructionism, heed to the rich over the middle class, allegiance to dirty fuel, mindless “no new taxes” austerity, and rejection of public investments for public purposes.

Trump’s convention promoted much of that and especially of hate – of immigrants, of ISIS, of Hillary Clinton, of the idea that stable government is an asset. Trump’s execution of the convention showed sloppiness, poor planning, lack of energy, weak discipline. He portrayed himself as bellicose and flawless. He stoked fear among his supporters and his opponents.

His case, no matter from which side it’s viewed, is disturbing. Could he really win?

— Keith Schneider

Cities Are Stronghold of Performance in Maelstrom of American Disarray

Ohio's capital city adopted a reconstruction plan for encouraging development 14 years ago that emphasized three unexpected ingredients: more grass, less water and targeted taxpayer spending. Photo/Keith Schneider

Ohio’s capital city adopted a reconstruction plan for encouraging development 14 years ago that emphasized three unexpected ingredients: more grass, less water and targeted taxpayer spending. Photo/Keith Schneider

COLUMBUS, OH — In the year of Trump it’s plain that the United States is entering a new and reckless age. Our federal lawmakers neglect their constitutional duties to legislate in the public interest. Ideology and inflexibility, the gravest threats to a democracy, are elevated as virtues on the political right and political left. Random massacres occur with weekly frequency. Fear and distrust and racism and hate have been unleashed as mainstream attitudes.

Where are the places that inspire order? Where are the places that effectively manage their affairs with a goal of adding to civility and the common good?

Perhaps it is surprising, but a good number of American cities answer those questions. As readers of ModeShift know, some of my time each year is taken up with reporting real estate articles for The New York Times. Generally the narrative that emerges from details about construction costs and square feet amounts to a profile of the cities that I visit.

What I find, from New York to Boston to San Francisco, Grand Rapids to Louisville, Buffalo to Cleveland to Toledo to Cincinnati, is that many of America’s big cities, and a good number of its mid-size cities, are thriving. Largely without the help of the federal government and state Legislatures, elected leaders are collaborating with business executives and civic organizations to invest in ways that respond intelligently to the market conditions of this century.

In each city the formula for progress differs in the specifics. Buffalo reorganized itself around a university medical center and a transit line. Toledo turned to Chinese investors. Cleveland spent $800 million on entertainment and transit infrastructure – two stadiums, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a bus rapid transit route, and moving a commuter rail station — to invite $5 billion in mostly private downtown redevelopment. Sacramento tore down a moribund downtown shopping mall and built a new arena for the NBA Sacramento Kings.

Taken collectively, though, the various development strategies pursued by American cities have some common traits. Excellent elected leadership and pragmatic business collaboration are essential to developing and executing redevelopment ideas that take at least a decade, and often a generation, to complete. Redevelopment plans incorporate one or more of the following ingredients — competent municipal agencies, park construction, improved transit, strengthened schools, public safety, adequate amounts of reasonably priced housing, recruiting innovators and entrepreneurial businesses.

Over the next month or so I’ll be reporting on cities in the South and Midwest – Columbus, Cleveland, and Chattanooga –all of which are doing well. They are following effective redevelopment strategies that are much bolder, and more effective, than anything pursued by most states and certainly by America’s imprudent Congress. The latest report from a city making strong progress in adding value to the lives of its citizens is from Columbus, which I visited early in May. Read More

South Africa Bullied by Climate Change

There are numerous places in the world now to measure the effects of climate change. One of them is in Stellenbosch, South Africa. Photo/Keith Schneider

There are numerous places in the world now to measure the effects of climate change. One of them is in Stellenbosch, South Africa. Photo/Keith Schneider

Until a ferocious drought withered crops, turned rivers to trickles, and dried up municipal drinking water supplies, one of Limpopo province’s distinctions was the ample sun and good soil that made it South Africa’s premier producer of fruits and vegetables.

Another distinction was that farmers developed an informal accord to share scarce water with coal companies that were busy developing the Waterberg Coalfield that lies beneath dry central Limpopo.

This week Yale Environment 360, the fine online environmental news platform edited by Roger Cohn and Fen Montaigne, published my account of the consequences of climate change in South Africa. Since Yale e360 went online in 2008 Roger and Fen have published 10 of my articles about the singular environmental and social trends taking shape globally, the merger of economy and ecology, and its unforgiving collisions. One of those articles in 2010 on North America’s unconventional fuels boom was one of the first national reports on the “economically promising and ecologically risky race to open the next era of hydrocarbon development.”

The rocky and dry valley where Cape Town's water supply starts. Photo/Keith Schneider

The rocky and dry valley where Cape Town’s water supply starts. Photo/Keith Schneider

The current piece describes new findings about climate change and drought in South Africa from a seven-week reporting trip for Circle of Blue earlier this year. The South African drought, the deepest since the early 20th century, shattered the fragile equilibrium in Limpopo between the farm and coal sectors. Pitched battles between farmers, residents, and security officers who support coal development have broken out south of Musina, where Coal Africa proposes to build a $406 million mine, and where some of the country’s most productive vegetable farms operate. The mine would consume 1 million gallons of water a day, according to company disclosures. Both the mine and neighboring irrigated farms are dependent on the Nzhelele River, which has diminished to a shallow stream.

Limpopo, about the size of Louisiana, borders Zimbabwe in South Africa’s north. In Lephalale, about 210 miles east of Musina, farmers and other rural residents are locked in battles to protect water supplies from new power plants, and plans to expand mining in the Waterberg Coalfield.

Eskom, South Africa’s state-owned electric utility, is building one of the new plants, the 4,800-megawatt Medupi coal-fired power station, on a stretch of dry land west of Lephalale. When fully operational, perhaps by the early 2020s, the plant will consume 6.9 billion gallons of water annually. South Africa anticipated the need for a torrent of process water for the plant by spending $1 billion to build pumping stations, water supply and storage infrastructure, and 130 miles of pipeline to tap the distant Crocodile and Mokolo rivers. The drought, though, is producing fresh evidence that neither the Crocodile nor the Mokolo may have sufficient water in the 2020s and beyond to sustain agriculture, a fast-growing population, existing industries, and a gigantic power plant now estimated to cost $16 billion to complete.

“There are significant difficulties from this drought,” said Dhesigen Naidoo, the chief executive of the National Water Commission, a research and science agency in Pretoria. “The drought cannot be managed the way previous droughts have been managed. In previous droughts we hadn’t factored in climate change. We are convinced that this drought is not part of a normal drought cycle that previously we’ve had in the past. This one is quite different. The combination with the heat wave is unique. The heat wave builds itself into an extreme example of the weather pattern in this part of the world we’ve experienced for at least six years. It tells us we are in quite a different regime. So we regard this as a drought in the climate change scenario, and our planning is working around that.”

South Africa's magnificent Paarl valley north of Cape Town. Photo/Keith Schneider

South Africa’s magnificent Paarl valley north of Cape Town. Photo/Keith Schneider

There are numerous places in the world now to measure the effects of climate change. A June 2013 climate-related flood in the Himalayas wrecked ten hydropower dams and killed thousands of people in Uttrakhand, India. A 12-year drought that ended in Australia in 2010 closed the largest rice production sector in the southern Hemisphere. A four-year drought in California caused hundreds of thousands of acres of orchards and cropland to be idled, contributing to higher food prices in the United States. Greenland’s icecap is melting.

Arguably, though, there are few places where climate change has produced more visible and dire ecological, economic, and social consequences than in Limpopo and South Africa’s eight other provinces. Sixteen years into the 21st century, South Africa forms a kind of regional study center for understanding how climate change can bully governments, economies, and communities.

Read the piece at Yale e360 here.

— Keith Schneider

Millions of South Africans live in informal settlements with scant access to electricity, running water, and sanitation. This settlement is in Paarl. Photo/Keith Schneider

Millions of South Africans live in informal settlements with scant access to electricity, running water, and sanitation. This settlement is in Paarl. Photo/Keith Schneider

President Obama’s Flint Visit is Critique of “Culture of Neglect” That Damages Nation’s Water

Barack Obama, the first president to visit Flint in 42 years, was summoned by water contamination. Photo/Keith Schneider

Barack Obama, the first president to visit Flint in 42 years,
was summoned by water contamination. Photo/Keith Schneider

FLINT, MI —FLINT, MI – Before Barack Obama spent the afternoon in this tormented post-industrial Michigan city last week, the last president that visited Flint was Gerald Ford. That was 1974, just a few months after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency.

Flint in the 1970s provided the vital equipment, and perfectly reflected the auto-oriented, resource-abundant, mobile American way of life nearly half a century ago. General Motors employed 80,000 people in its Flint car and truck production plants, and the city was home to 190,000 residents. The city displayed what happens when manufacturing skill and labor strength delivered the highest industrial wages in the world, and handsome tree-lined neighborhoods.

On a characteristically chilly and rainy early spring Michigan day, President Obama dropped into an apprehensive city that is less than half the size it was in 1970, and a victim of state government mismanagement that contaminated its drinking water with lead.

The poisons in the city’s water supply are a manmade catastrophe, exposing children to unsafe levels of lead, frightening parents, and damaging Flint’s redevelopment. Flint’s local health crisis also is having national consequences. It is another in a growing number of water-related emergencies in the United States – along with deep droughts in Texas and California, poisoned algae in Lake Erie, depleted groundwater in the Great Plains, and killing floods in the Southeast – that are elevating to public attention grave weaknesses in the nation’s water management programs. More than any of the other water-related events, Flint’s poisoned water has crystalized the need for lawmakers to actively support the $1 trillion in infrastructure projects over the next generation to fix it.

President's listeners in Flint's Northwestern High School gymnasium. Photo/Keith Schneider

President’s listeners in Flint’s Northwestern High School gymnasium. Photo/Keith Schneider

Two Goals For Visit
The president had two missions during his Wednesday meetings here. The first was to listen to residents and assure them that he is personally leading the government project to replace lead water lines and make Flint’s drinking water safe again. Obama said he rode in the presidential limousine with Flint’s Democratic Mayor Karen Weaver, and Republican Governor Rick Snyder, to assure that he and they were collaborating on the project. Read More