10 05 2009

A number of bits of local news and commentary have come to my attention lately:  Mayor Dean’s “State of the City” address, the report of the Green Ribbon Committee for a Sustainable Nashville, news that the “reform” of Tennessee’s waste management policies is not only a shambles but a sham, and the renewed push for construction of Maytown Center, along with the howls of misguided (or intentionally misleading) protest that accompanied my characterization of its neo-feudal potential last month.

Hizzoner the Mayor used his moment in the spotlight to push for a new Nashville Convention Center, a sort of “build it and they will come,” Hail Mary pass proposal that has been so thoroughly excoriated by the Nashville Scene that I hardly need to go into detail here, except to answer their “what are they smoking?” question with, “must be crack, ’cause any self-respecting pot smoker would see through this welfare-for-developers proposal in a minute.”  I would also add that anybody who thinks any kind of tourism is going to make a comeback is inhaling the wrong kind of smoke.  The only big influx that I see in Nashville’s, or America’s, future, is Chinese and various Middle Easterners coming to repossess whatever they can in consideration of America’s unrepayable debt to them.  The “T” in “T-bills” is gonna stand for “toilet paper,” boys and girls.  Can you say “Confederate money”?

And, speaking of smoking crack, I have to repeat and re-emphasize that anyone who thinks Maytown Center is going to be good for Nashville is still living in the delusionary world of the Bush era.  Growth is over.  If it is built, Maytown will either rapidly turn into a ghost town or suck the air out of the rest of the city and become a gated version of downtown, so the upper crust doesn’t have to cross paths with the homeless.

We would be much better off using the energy that the city’s movers and shakers are putting into these mirages to fast-track and expand some of the proposals in the Green Ribbon Committee’s report, which is at least well-intentioned, if woefully under-ambitious.  I feel bad about having to say that.  I know some of the people on the Committee, and I trust their good will. I went to one of their public meetings, and I think the document they have produced is radical and edgy–for 1975.  At this point, it is too little, too late.    Can we create a sustainable local economy that will support our current population?  Can we produce enough hoes and digging forks for everybody to turn up the ground it will take to keep ourselves in potatoes, let alone manufacture  our own shoes and clothing? Ain’t none of that happening here in Nashvegas any more, — how many weavers and cobblers are there in this town?  We sold our industrial capacity to the Chinese for a mess of profit, and we are about to find out that money is nothing but funny-looking paper once everybody agrees it’s worthless.

The landfill proposals that so outrage my friends at BURNT (Bring Urban Recycling to Nashville Today) are another head-shaker, another high-stakes poker game, played with a marked deck, in the tilting first-class lounge of the Titanic.  Of course, as James Howard Kunstler points out in World Made By Hand, all the recyclables we stick in landfills now are a kind of savings account that we will be able to mine in coming decades, when we will be out of natural resources and the ability to acquire them through commerce, and will have nothing better to do than dig up old city dumps, straighten bent nails, melt down and recast plastic and metal, and treasure the one or two chemists in our city who figure out how to make matches from local materials–because all those disposable lighters we take for granted are gonna be a thing of the past in the future, folks.  Do I have to remind you that you are going to have to cook with a wood fire, unless you’re lucky enough to have a solar cooker and a sunny day? And where will you be gathering your firewood?

Oh, and speaking of rigged poker games on the Titanic, our newly-Republican legislature is attempting to make sure that we don’t switch to optical-scan voting machines in time for the next election, presumably so they can rig it more easily, since they are doing such a patently bad job of running the state that they know they won’t be able to win an honest election…not that the Dims would be much better, it’s just a question of who controls what’s left of the state’s treasury.   Well, OK…the Dims would be doing nothing instead of forbidding local living wage laws, allowing people to carry guns everywhere and restricting abortion rights. “Respect for human life”? HELLO?

As all the various antics listed above indicate, either both parties are clueless about the scope of what we’re in for in this country, or they are figuring the best way to survive is to cut as many people out of the loop as possible.  If national politics are any guide, I would say the Repuglyicans are trying to cut as many of us out of the loop as they can (leaving more goodies for themselves), and the Dim-ocrats are simply clueless.  In this state, most seem to think the best strategy is to try and be as conservative as the Repugs, but since they lack the intense commitment to self-aggrandizement that characterizes so many Repugs, they end up coming across as clueless namby-pambys, which is one reason (besides ignorance and its bastard child, racism) they have been fluffing so many elections lately–like, it wasn’t just that Harold Ford is black, it’s that he’s barely to the left of Bob Corker. Not only is Harold no Jesse Jackson, he’s not even a Barack Obama.

Let me make something clear here–I  am as threatened as anyone by the future I foresee.  Western civilization as we know it needs to end for the planetary ecosystem (including humans) to continue, and I, an aging man with health problems, may not survive the change.  With that in mind, I want to make that transition as smooth as I can, so I am living as simply as I can, and supporting organizations that I believe will help cushion our descent, like our local bioregional council and the Tennessee Green Party.  As long as we have a functioning statewide political system (and I am not going to hazard a guess on how long that may be), we need to take advantage of it and use the framework of the Green Party to raise real issues:  local sustainability, resource conservation, universal access to health care, economic justice, and grass-roots democracy, to name the first few broad headings that come to mind.  There is SO much to do, and we’re  running the Green Party of Tennessee with a skeleton crew–so come on aboard, there’s plenty of room.

music:  Eliza Gilkyson, “Unsustainable


5 08 2008

“The bad news is, there’s good news”…am I twisted, or what?  How could good news be bad news? And what the bleep am I talking about, anyway?

OK, let me tell you what I’m referring to.  Some of it is pretty immediate and you’re probably aware of it–the price of a barrel of oil has dropped by about a seventh, from nearly a hundred and forty dollars a barrel to about a hundred and twenty.  We will soon be seeing gas prices as low as three-fifty a gallon.  Whoop-te-do!

The second bad/good news is longer term and lower on the radar–but there are signs that, globally, we may be in for overall cooler weather for at least the next decade.  In part, this is because the sun has cooled off slightly, and in part it is because ocean circulation seems to be slowing down, and not bringing warm water to northern areas at quite such a clip.  Of course, this is happening in part because of reduced salinity due to increased ice melt in the Arctic, but I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let’s go back to the oil supply for a while.  Why is cheaper oil bad news?

Two reasons.  Number one–oil use in this country has finally started declining, but if it’s cheaper, use will start to rise again, and, number two, there will be less incentive to find alternatives.  If people use more oil, we will go on carbonating our atmosphere.  Then, when the sun heats up again, we will really get body slammed by climate change, and, as the oil runs out, we will have fewer resources with which to work on alternatives, and they will be much more costly.

—C-mon, there’s all that oil off the coast that McCain and Obama want to drill for, and there’s all that oil shale in Wyoming and Colorado–billions and billions of barrels, a hundred and ten years worth, they say.

What they don’t say is how expensive that oil is to pump, or that even the best case for oil shale pegs it at supplying no more than a sixth to a quarter of our current demand.  And they don’t talk about how many years it’s going to be before that oil is actually available to the public, either, or that other companies have had sure-fire extraction methods that didn’t pan out.

That leads to another part of the good news/bad news, which is that Shell Oil has apparently developed a process for separating oil from shale underground, using much less water and energy than earlier methods that would have strip mined vast areas of the desert west and sucked up more water than there is available for all uses, although the people and infrastructure needed for this underground separation method will still strain the limits of the available water  Bad news: now it’s practical to put more carbon in the atmosphere by extracting this oil.  Good news:  they think the process may be applicable to the tar sands of Alberta, which would end, or at least slow down, the eco-rape of the northern boreal forest.  Ah, it’s an imperfect world.  Perfectly imperfect.  But, I digress…..

My best guess is that oil prices will start to rise again right after the election.

Meanwhile, up in the sky, the sun has lost its spots.  There is, for reasons we don’t fully understand, an eleven-year cycle in the frequency of sunspots.  The last cycle ran down about two years ago, and….has yet to kick back in.  The last time this is known to have happened (because the Chinese were studying sunspots while Europe was sunk in superstition) was between 1650 and 1700, a time referred to as “the little Ice Age.”  What we don’t know is whether there was a connection between the lack of sunspot activity and the cold weather, but we may be about to find out.

Meanwhile, as I said, researchers are now predicting a ten-year cool spell, due to changes in ocean currents, although this has not yet affected either of the poles, both of which are reporting unprecedentedly warm weather–highs in the 80’s Farenheit on Baffin Island, where the temperature has traditionally rarely gone over 60, and rain in Antarctica, where penguin populations are being decimated by weather the birds just didn’t evolve for, and ice sheets are melting at rate that is described by scientists with the highly technical term, “scary.”

Ten years of slightly cooler weather will be wonderful feed for the climate change deniers, who seem to be collectively suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder and an inability to comprehend reality.  In one recent episode, Barack Obama has come under attack for Sean Hannity’s version of what he said, when all Obama did was quote suggestions from Bush’s own Department of Energy about doing regular oil changes and keeping tires inflated to the right pressure, and saying such measures can save more oil than offshore drilling will yield.

I’m no great fan of Barack’s, but the right wingnuts who mock Obama are spoiled, arrogant oil junkies who deserve to be bitch slapped, not pandered to, as Obama, for the sake of politics, has had to do.  Phil Gramm, bless his cold, lizard heart, was right–this IS a nation of whiners, just not how he meant it.   Drilling off our coasts will not drive gas prices down now, but it will undermine what’s left of aquatic life.  Hey, guys, if you really just gotta build a bunch of offshore towers, let’s put wind turbines on them, OK?  They’re much cleaner and easier to install, and they’ll go on providing carbon-free electricity long after the oil would have been exhausted.

Offshore drilling or no offshore drilling, oil shale or no oil shale, we will never see ten or even fifty-dollar a barrel oil again.  We have all but spent our petroleum inheritance, and we need to be figuring out how to get along without it much more than we need to be arguing about how much is really left.

music:  Grateful Dead, Samson and Delilah


11 05 2008

If you are looking for a book that unblinkingly, unemotionally, lays out exactly how, and how badly, we are screwing up this planet, you are looking for Lester Brown’s Plan B 3.0.

If you are looking for a book that gives some idea of what could be done to at least soften the impact of the crash that is happening, you are looking for Lester Brown’s Plan B 3.0

But if you are looking for a book that talks about why Lester Brown’s proposals aren’t being adopted, you will have to look elsewhere.  You might start with Al Gore’s recent Assault on Reason, but the Inconvenient Truth guy, for all his smarts, is still part of the problem. I mean, really, Al,…”Occidental Petroleum”?…”Green Walmart”?

A lot of recent writers, from Al Franken to Michael Moore to Greg Palast, and the list goes on, seem to grasp pieces of the puzzle.  Some  blame capitalism, but history shows that the Communist Russians and Chinese were voracious destroyers of the environment as well.  For me, the little-known Buddhist writer David Loy has laid it out best in two of his recent books: A Buddhist History of the West: Studies in Lack, and Money, Sex, War, and Karma, Loy describes “the religion of the market” and how it has distorted the human psyche and the planetary ecosystem.  But, while I strongly recommend these books to you, they’re not the ones I’m here to talk about.  I want to focus on Lester Brown and Plan B 3.0.

I mean, it shows you how schizophrenic we are as a society when this book has a blurb by Bill Clinton, but Hillary’s platform calls for massive production of biofuels, which Brown excoriates, and targets an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050–which, according to Brown, is about thirty years too late.  Barak Obama, too, thinks we can wait until 2050, and John McCain?  Get serious!

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  The first half of Plan B lays out the problem, or problems.  Deteriorating oil and food security, rising temperatures and rising seas, emerging water shortages, natural systems under stress–all I’m doing here is reading you the chapter headings.  In a chapter titled “Early Signs of Decline,” he tells us that malnutrition is so pervasive in India that “60 percent of all newborns in India would be in intensive care had they been born in California.” and then goes from nutrition to the iminent exhaustion of the world’s mineral resources, finding that there are only a few decades worth of extractable lead, tin, copper, iron, and bauxite (aluminum) left in the ground, and covering the growing number of failing states–including Pakistan, which has nuclear weapons and is just a natural disaster away from chaos.  As recent events in Burma show us, the world is much more fragile than we would like it to be.

All of this adds up to a convincing argument that the consumer civilization that we try so hard to enjoy was a really bad idea.  So….is it too late to change it, or are we headed for Mad Maxville?

This, unfortunately, is where Brown falls down.  He has a great many good ideas, possibly enough that, if we could try all of them, enough of them would work to pull us back from over the brink, but there are also assertions that even an uneducated layman like me can clearly see amount to grasping at straws, even without the question of their political feasibility.  More on that in a moment.  But first, the straws.

Brown is big on universal primary education.  There are compelling arguments for this, such as that the more education a girl gets, the fewer children she is likely to have, and certainly universal literacy is a kind of evolutionary advance, but universal education is a sword that can cut two ways.

There are traditional ways of life that are ecologically balanced, and depend on children functioning as part of the family team.  Skills such as farming, animal care, construction, and many crafts are best taught to the young.  When children are taken from their parents and forced to sit in a classroom where their heads are filled with abstract facts, the transmission of these traditions is broken.  Families cease to function, and school graduates, given a carefully selected taste of life beyond their villages, leave for the burgeoning cities, where mostly they become part of the problem. If we are going to impart universal literacy, and I agree we should, we need to value traditional village survival skills and allow time for children to learn them.

Brown also banks heavily on “forest farming” and no-till agriculture to stabilize watersheds, recharge aquifers, and sequester carbon.  Again, we need models different from the ones usually practiced for these ideas to work in the real world.  Forest farming all too often results in monoculture one species of tree planted on thousands of acres, with herbicides used to prevent anything else from growing, just as no-till farming is heavily dependent on herbicides and patented seeds.  Herbicides, like all other petrochemical products, are just going to get more expensive and harder to find, while patented seeds are owned by multinational corporations who thus prevent farmers from engaging in the ancient practice of saving their own seeds, turning seed into another major expense for the grower and decreasing food security.

Brown suggests that the US build a vast network of electric-powered public transport, with the electricity generated by solar, wind, and geothermal plants.  The US is the only first-world country that does not have a good public transportation network.  What we have, instead, is a sprawling, automobile-oriented infrastructure that does not lend itself to centralized public transportation, and we have destroyed our country’s financial integrity by spending trillions fighting to control Iraq’s oil and building McMansions, so that the credit we would need for such an infrastructure investment is no longer available to us.  Heckuva job, Georgie.

Brown advocates a “World War II-type mobilization” to retool US industry to create the products needed to transition into a post-oil economy. Unfortunately, the US is not the manufacturing country it was in the 1940s, and a retooling of Chinese industry to create what is need instead of the distractions that now make up so much of the market would only worsen the US’s financial hemorrhage.

But in a way, these are quibbles.  The glaring point at which Brown misses the boat is in the very goal he sets:  stabilizing CO2 emissions below 400ppm, with the thought that that is the “tipping point” beyond which catastrophic, irreversible climate change will set in.  Well, even a book written as recently as last October, like this one, can be dated.  Since Plan B was published, Dr. James Hansen, the US’s premier climate scientist, has announced that, in his estimation, the tipping point was at 350 ppm, and we have already passed it.  Oops.

This does not invalidate Brown’s many excellent suggestions for technical fixes to the environment, but it underlines the failure of conventional politics to take him seriously.

Brown points out that everything that needs to be done could be done for a fraction of the US’s, and the world’s military budget, and would greatly lessen the need for military-style security.  Unfortunately, our country’s Presidential candidates seem to be competing with each other about how much they will increase military spending–which will only make things worse, and cause calls for more military spending, until our overseas bankers cut off our credit.

What Brown does not seem to understand is that the US is run by an elite who see nothing wrong with the fact that they are getting richer while we are getting poorer.  Most members of this elite are concerned about the environment, but they are not concerned enough to do something about the fact that it is they and their pathological acquisitiveness that is a big piece of the problem.  Since that seems to be the case, I must sadly conclude that we are in for a full-tilt crash and Mr. Brown’s caring and thoughtful book will be seen by historians of the future, if there are any, as a brilliant exercise in what might have been.

OK, Lester…what’s “Plan C”?

music: James McMurtry, “Dancing in the Ruins”


3 02 2008

Michael Klare lays out how the bursting financial bubble and the escalating price of oil are combining to destroy the “non-negotiable” American Way of Life.  Sorry, Mr. Cheney, market forces at work! (btw, Michael Klare was a councilor at the summer camp I went to as a kid in 1963…he was one of the cool guys.)

Something Had to Give: How Oil Burst the American Bubble

by Michael T. Klare

The economic bubble that lifted the stock market to dizzying heights was sustained as much by cheap oil as by cheap (often fraudulent) mortgages. Likewise, the collapse of the bubble was caused as much by costly (often imported) oil as by record defaults on those improvident mortgages. Oil, in fact, has played a critical, if little commented upon, role in America’s current economic enfeeblement — and it will continue to drain the economy of wealth and vigor for years to come.

The great economic mega-bubble arose in the late 1990s, when oil was cheap, times were good, and millions of middle-class families aspired to realize the “American dream” by buying a three (or more) bedroom house on a decent piece of property in a nice, safe suburb with good schools and various other amenities. The hitch: Few such affordable homes were available for sale — or being built — within easy commuting range of major metropolitan areas or near public transportation. In the Los Angeles metropolitan area, for example, the median sale price of existing homes rose from $290,000 in 2002 to $446,400 in 2004; similar increases were posted in other major cities and in their older, more desirable suburbs.

This left home buyers with two unappealing choices: Take out larger mortgages than they could readily afford, often borrowing from unscrupulous lenders who overlooked their overstretched finances (that is, their “subprime” qualifications); or buy cheaper homes far from their places of work, which ensured long commutes, while hoping that the price of gasoline remained relatively low. Many first-time home buyers wound up doing both — signing up for crushing mortgages on homes far from their places of work.

and the San Francisco Chronicle tells us that:

From 2003 to 2006, the last year for which complete data are available, the world’s oil production grew 6.25 percent, to reach 84.6 million barrels per day, according to the federal Energy Information Administration. But demand for oil grew faster, pushed by the growing economies of China and India. Worldwide demand rose 6.43 percent to 84.73 million barrels per day.

Can you say, “Peak oil,” boys and girls?

And in other news from the left coast, the LA Times writes:

Tens of thousands of homeowners with home equity lines of credit are getting a rude surprise: They’ve been told by their lender that they can no longer take money out on their credit lines because sinking home prices have left them with little or no equity.

Among the lenders taking such action is Countrywide Financial Corp., which sent 122,000 letters to customers last week telling them they could no longer borrow against their credit lines. In some cases, according to the company, the borrowers are now “upside down” — the total debt on the home exceeds the market value of the property.

That was very good, the way you said “Peak oil.”  Now, can you say “Peak credit?”

and now for the punch line:


By Bill Bonner

The feds can try to play out more lines of credit to strapped families, but what they are really doing is giving them more rope with which to hang themselves. The real problem is that American wages have not kept pace with inflation…which means, the average American is not as rich as he used to be. He can only pretend to be rich…by exchanging more of his leisure time for dollars…and by borrowing. Both of those “coping mechanisms,” as Robert Reich called them, are now exhausted. Now, he’s going to swing.

Over the last 30 years, Americans believed they were on top of the world. Everybody said so. And, logically, they should have been. It was post Reagan Revolution, with the most modern, most capitalistic economy in the world…with the latest technology, with the world’s best brains, with the top schools, and with Wall Street to “allocate capital” in the best possible way. If workers couldn’t get ahead in this economy, they couldn’t get ahead anywhere. At least, that was what people believed.

But capitalism is a jungle, we keep saying, not a zoo. It lets animals get fat, but only so they can be eaten by hungrier beasts.

Which is why I am no fan of capitalism…Karl Marx said, “religion is the opium of the people,” and our economic religion has certainly lulled a lot of people into a false sense of security.  Time to wake up!


Richard Heinberg on the ongoing train wreck

26 01 2008

Heinberg writes:

It’s becoming increasingly clear that 2008 will be a catastrophic year for the US economy, and therefore probably for that of the world as a whole. The reasons boil down to two: continuing and snowballing fallout from the subprime mortgage fiasco (exacerbated by an orgy of debt-leveraging), and record-high, continuously advancing oil prices.

as i comment in the post below, some developers in Maine obviously don’t get it, and 14,000 acres of Maine woods may have to pay the price


10 02 2006

Governor Bredesen gave his “State of the State” address recently. Compared to W’s recent remarks, Phil’s presentation was the very model of honesty and vision, but there was much he merely put a good face on, and much that he ignored.

Tenncare is, of course, the bull elephant in Tennessee’s parlor, and it was good to hear the Guv tie lifestyle counseling in as part of his health care reform package, but the fact remains that, as a health care millionaire, Bredesen is as responsible for skyrocketing health care costs as anyone. Is Dracula really going to curb the vampire problem?

Bredesen, like Bill Frist, has grown fat by profiting from others’ misfortune. Speaking of ethics reform, how ’bout giving up your ill-gotten gains, Phil? They’d help a lot of poor people stay alive. Phil says he will be proposing major health-care reforms soon, and has proposed a way to cover all the uninsured children in the state, but he’s not getting to the deep issue here—we are caught in the clutches of a for-profit medical system that is geared towards wealth accumulation, not promoting human health.

For example, over the last seven years, four diabetes lifestyle clinics along the line of what Gov. Bredesen seems to be proposing have opened in New York City, but three of them have closed because they lost literally millions of dollars, even though they were doing wonders for the patients who used their services. Healthier diabetics do not need to spend so much money on pills and procedures, and that, in our current economic regime, is not a good thing—it lowers the GNP! Ah, the religion of economics….put wealth before health, kiddies… Insurance companies balk at taking on diabetics, because they are obvious losers from the for-profit company’s point of view. For-profit hospitals must make the best-paying use of their time, and people pay more for kidney dialysis, amputations, and stomach-shrinking operations than they do for diet and exercise counseling.

And people who receive and apply that counseling, not only are lowering the GNP by not consuming so many expensive pills and procedures, they’re weakening the country by not buying the foods that contribute so much to the American economy—pizza, ice cream, cheeseburgers, french fries—excuse me, freedom fries—red meat, wonderbread—all the big contributors to the GOP—I mean GNP –are gonna get hurt if too many people change their diet. And if people are out exercising instead of watching TV, how will we control what they think and how they vote?

The exercise thing must have been a sop, like Bush’s “alcohol from switch grass” line—the very next day, Shrub cut the alternative fuels r&d budget. Don’t hold your breath waiting for Phil’s lifestyle counseling centers. And will health insurance for all of Tennessee’s uninsured kids be insurance that lots of them get put on Ritalin? Stay tuned.

An issue that Gov. Bredesen didn’t touch was the continuing deterioration of small-town life in Tennessee as Walmart continues to suck money out of the state. Sure, they’ve got the lowest prices around, partly because they have such a big, efficient distribution system, and partially because they underpay their employees. And sure, those low prices are a boon to low-income people, but if Walmart wasn’t driving wages down and driving out owner-run retail business, there would be a lot fewer low-income people who need to take advantage of Walmart’s low prices to stretch their shrinking food stamps.

But…what could the State of Tennessee do about Walmart, especially now that it’s ubiquitous?

The most obvious step relates back to the health care question—Gov. Bredesen could ask for legislation requiring all companies over a certain size to provide affordable, comprehensive health care plans to their employees. Yeah, I know that doesn’t establish not-for profit health care, but you gotta start somewhere. For another thing, he could ask for legislation that would, through zoning and tax incentives, work to preserve open land and discourage sprawl, so that the Walmart/strip mall plague doesn’t get any worse.

I think another big/little step would be to use the power, organization, and communication ability of the state government to foster community economic organizing—rather than bringing in outside corporations to provide services and employment in Tennessee’s dying country towns, we need to bring people together in those towns and help them realize their own strengths and their ability to provide for themselves. The Mondragon movement in Spain provides a template for this kind of worker-owned co-operative business. Neighborhood food, clothing, and shelter providers need to become the order of the day, because, as our Junkie-in-Chief put it in his speech, “America is addicted to oil,” and we need to break that addiction before it gets broken for us by crashing oil supplies and skyrocketing prices. When that day comes, Tennessee will, if current trends continue, find itself with an excellent network of four-lane footpaths, at least until the rivers change course and wash out the bridges. Then there will be some job opportunities for ferrypersons.

Phil spoke not a word about peak oil or global warming, nor did he offer anything that even remotely seemed like a way to meet these crises, crises that will turn low high school graduation rates and the so-called “meth epidemic” into the worst problems we wish we had. P.S. to Phil, if you want people to quit screwing around with amphetamines, you could try legalizing marihuana—or even legalizing amphetamine, which was an over-the-counter, cheap, nonprescription drug from its invention in the thirties until the mid-fifties, without producing any noticeable crime wave–not that I’d use it even if it was legal.  But, I digress.

Governor Bredesen could have showed some vision by asking the state legislature to endorse the Kyoto Protocols, or some courage by denouncing the war in Iraq (which, after all, has as much legal basis as the Nazi invasion of Poland!) and announcing that he will no longer allow Tennessee National Guard Troops to be sent over there to get their asses shot off to keep our fear factor government happening. He could have just shown common sense by proposing an initiative to cut Tennessee’s electrical consumption, or to encourage more solar design in all the development that’s eating what’s left of the countryside in this state, but he didn’t do any of those. He gave a nice, business-as-usual, nothing extraordinary about to happen around here speech—but business is not as usual and extraordinary things are coming to pass, and he will go down in history as a man who did nothing to prepare us for it. Sorry, Phil, you flunked.

music:  James McMurtry, “Candyland”


9 01 2006

A couple of nights after Christmas, I got to witness something that truly astounded me. The setup was simple, pedestrian, not the kind of situation in which you’d expect something bizarre, and so it took me by surprise. My friends who were there with me said it shouldn’t have taken me by surprise, and I had to admit they were right. Here’s what happened.

I attended a meeting of the Metro Nashville Solid Waste Region Board, a branch of Nashville’s government that is supposed to oversee the way garbage is handled in Davidson County. They were considering whether to approve an old quarry as a site for a landfill for construction waste from all the new development that’s going to be happening out on McCrory Lane. Oh, you didn’t know about that? More on that later….On paper, the Board looked good—the head of the Board is John Sherman, former head of the Tennessee Environmental Council. One of our guys, right? He’s gonna do the right thing, right? Listen….

As I arrived, an engineer was winding up a presentation on the question of water flow between the Harpeth River and the landfill site. He was admitting that not all the data was in yet—in other words, they didn’t yet know if water from the quarry flowed into the river. It changes depending on the time of year, he said, and we haven’t studied it long enough to find out. This engineer, I later found out, is the man who designed the landfill, and will be running it if or when it opens. He is the only person researching the geology of the site , and he has a job riding on what the answers turn out to be. Not a good prescription for objectivity, y’know?

Then it was time for public comment. One of the first people who got up to talk was Metro Council member Charlie Tygard, who avowed the deepest concern for environmental factors, although he has encouraged the zoning changes that go hand in hand with the landfill. What zoning changes? Zoning changes on McCrory Lane…I’ll get to that. But Charlie assured the Board that the Harpeth River Watershed Association had been consulted in planning the landfill, and that they had been consulted on the plan. Charlie expressed concern that the quarry, with its cliffs, rocks, and deep water, would be an increasingly dangerous place as the McCrory Lane area became more developed. A young mother came forward and said she would like to see it turned into a sports field so her children would have a place to play sports. A man who identified himself as the owner of a horse farm adjoining the former quarry echoed concerns about the potential for fatal accidents, and endorsed the idea of turning it into a landfill. We’re talking eighty dump trucks a day for ten years to fill it in, according to the traffic study—that’s a dump truck every six minutes during business hours. Over ten years, that’s someplace in the neighborhood of two hundred thousand dump trucks, which seems to me to exude a lot more accident potential than an abandoned quarry. Do these people really understand what they’re signing up for? And what are the odds that at least one of those 200,000 trucks will contain something toxic that will end up in the river?

Then Pam Davee from the Harpeth River Watershed Association got up and pointed out that NO, her organization had NOT concurred in plans to put a landfill so close to the Harpeth River, because the Harpeth is a designated scenic river at that point in its course and it is illegal to put a landfill within TWO MILES of a designated scenic river. Okay, I thought, this sounds like an open and shut case. A contractor reminded the Board that although the application was for a class IV (construction debris only) landfill, there would be very little control over what actually went in it, and that some construction waste is QUITE toxic. Not the kind of thing you want to have leaching into a river, y’know?

Others pointed out that the quarry itself is quite scenic and worthy of inclusion in the state park that has been created from a nearby former quarry, while other citizens questioned whether sufficient waste would be generated in the neighborhood to actually fill the thing, or whether there was a secret plan to bring in waste from elsewhere. Bruce Wood of BURNT (Bring Urban Recycling to Nashville Today) was quite eloquent on this score, pointing out that the dump applicants’ duplicity in claiming support from the Harpeth River group cast doubt on everything else they said. In correspondence I had with Charlie Tygard after the meeting, he said that yes, the landfill would be bringing in waste from all over Nashville.

That was not at all clear to me during the hearing, where most people seemed to think the dump was intended only for local construction waste. Little mention was made, too, of how easy can be to change a landfill’s designation from class IV (construction waste) to class I, II, or III (varying degrees of anything goes). Just the thing for an upscale neighborhood. Oh—and nobody mentioned that Metro adopted an ordinance in 2000 (BL99-86) prohibiting construction landfills within two miles of any school or park, and as I said– There is a state park right down the road from this site, folks….

Another bit of sleight-of-hand that DID emerge from the meeting is that the Department of Public Works, which has never been comfortable with even the Solid Waste Board’s tepid endorsement of recycling, had slipped a bill through the legislature that made the Department’s annual report the official ten year plan, trumping the Waste Board’s pro-recycling ten year plan—but nobody had told the Solid Waste Board this before it performed its official duty of rubberstamping the Public Works Department’s annual report. Isn’t it just wonderful how people play politics with the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the ground we live on? Power plays for control of the Titanic, I tell you.
John vanderHarst , from RAM(Recycling Advocates of Middle Tennessee) closed with testimony about the importance of recycling cement block, brick, and even fill rock and dirt, since it’s gotta be quarried from somewhere, and nobody likes to live near a quarry. Moreover, he pointed out that the Board’s ten-year plan said that another landfill could be opened in Davidson County only if it was needed, and if the recycling guidelines were followed, this new landfill wouldn’t be needed. John, in case you haven’t met him, is kind of a cross between Mahatma Gandhi and Bucky Fuller.

Well, like I said, I thought Pam Davee had pretty much made the question moot when she pointed out that it’s illegal to have a landfill within two miles of a scenic river. All it would take is one flood worse than anyone has yet imagined and we’ve dumped toxic waste in a scenic river that just happens to also be the water supply for Ashland City! (Worse floods than we can imagine JUST WON”T HAPPEN—ask the residents of Florida, Louisiana, or Cancun…I’m digressing again. ) But when the vote came down, the Board voted 6-1 to APPROVE the permit! And John Sherman of the Tennessee Environmental Council was one of the yeas! I don’t get it! I just don’t get it! Do you give up your conscience when you put on a suit and a tie?

He did say that he thought that many of the comments that had been made had merit, but that they weren’t the criteria on which the Solid Waste Board was supposed to base its decisions. HELLO? Isn’t legality a significant criterion? He said he thought that was up to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and the State Legislature to decide. I’m naïve about TDEC, but my friends who work on these issues don’t seem to have a lot of faith in it, and we all know the legislature is for sale. Great. Goodbye, quarry, hello landfill. Goodbye, fishing or swimming in the Harpeth River.

OK, you don’t give up your conscience when you put on a suit and tie. Daniel Lane was wearing the American Business Uniform and he was the only “no” vote. When I talked with him later, he said that in his opinion there is no need for additional landfill capacity, the question of connectivity between the Harpeth and the quarry needs further study, and the law says you’re not supposed to put a dump within two miles of a scenic river. Daniel Lane lives in the Bourdeaux neighborhood of Nashville, near the current landfill. He knows what having a landfill for a neighbor means. Thank you, Mr. Lane. I asked John Sherman for an interview, but he didn’t return my phone call.

So….the backstory I’ve been promising you. McCrory Lane, in case you don’t know, is, in Charlie Tygard’s words, “the last undeveloped freeway interchange in Davidson County.” It’s a winding two-lane road that climbs steep hills and offers a stunning panorama of Mordor, excuse me, I mean Nashville, from several locations, before it drops back down to meet Highway 100 at the Loveless Cafe. (Oh, by the way, there’s going to be a Hollywood Video store opening up on the site of an unnamed restaurant on that corner. Just the thing we need. How nice.) Nashville’s ten year plan calls for McCrory Lane to be “widened,” for over two thousand housing units to be built in place of the woods that have been feeding oxygen into Nashville’s air supply for all these years, and for strip malls that will offer fast food and other so-called services to the new residents of this new neighborhood. In short, McCrory Lane is going to get an extreme makeover, and will soon look just like the rest of Nashville, only with a steeper hill. Chalk up another one for urban sprawl. The only good news I can get out of this is that there’s going to be more people moving into WRFN’s broadcast area. That’s cold comfort. Having a wonderful time, wish you weren’t here…

There’s something very important that hasn’t been factored in to this ten-year plan, because this ten year plan assumes that we are going to have a steady supply of automotive fuel, a steady supply of heating fuel, and a steady supply of jobs to pay for all of this—not to mention a steady supply of new construction that will create enough waste to fill this massive hole in the ground. If you’re paying any attention at all, you know that none of these are assured. Just this week, the Chinese, who have been financing the Bush Junta’s multi-trillion dollar debt spree by buying American bonds, announced that they are going to start “diversifying their foreign investments.” The plug is being pulled, folks.

Charlie Tygard and his developer buddies are going to trash one of the last pretty places in Davidson County for their own short-term gain, and everyone who buys or invests out here is going to be left high and dry at the end of a long and increasingly tenuous supply line.

Broad principles result in specific decisions. When Unterfuhrer Cheney proclaims, “Die Amerikan vay of life iss not negotiable,” it comes down to the development of McCrory Lane, which is now poised to go forward, whether or not this landfill is part of the deal. I’m a great believer in thinking globally and acting locally, and I have to say that locally, it looks like we’re blowing it. That doesn’t bode well for the globe.

music: Exene Cervenka, “Real Estate”


Brilliant and humorous! Thank you for posting your writings, Martin. This story is a great example of the ridiculously scary and irresponsible way our government works. I too havae used to analogy of the government acting in a sociopathic and/or psychopathic way. And many times as an irresponsible fit throwing child… Peace,Rose
Posted by Rose Davis on 02/13/2006 09:07:48 AM


14 08 2005

Renowned biologist Edmund O. Wilson estimates that the “combined biomass” (that means weight of the human population of the earth) is one hundred times greater than that of any other large species that has ever lived on Earth, though it’s possible that we are outweighed by the dung beetles. But, I digress…In order to sustain ourselves, Wilson says, we are sucking up about 40% of the planet’s production of biomass, outcompeting other species to the extent that one fifth of all bird species, a third to two fifths of all mammals, fish, and amphibians, and fully HALF of all plant species are threatened with extinction—crowded out by US—human beings. I just read that a record one third of the planet’s land surface is now under cultivation of some kind. Where can the wild things go?

I hope I don’t have to tell you that this is not a healthy situation. Species are already disappearing at a rate at least a thousand times more frequent than what seems to be normal background extinction. We seem to be in the early-midstages of a mass extinction, the kind of event that has only occurred perhaps five other times in the entire 2.1 billion year history of life on the planet.

The last great extinction, in the late Cretaceous period, which cleared out the dinosaurs and made way for the likes of us, or at least our monkey-faced ancestors, took place 65 million years ago. eliminated 85% of all species on the planet, and was evidently caused by a relatively small asteroid–only about six miles across.. there are a lot of those still out there, folks. But, I digress…The Permian extinction, which eliminated 95% of all species on the planet (amazing luck for our ancestors to get through that!) about 250 million years ago, is linked with widespread vulcanism, and the previous three extinctions all seem connected with glaciation. But this current mass extinction is being propelled by humanity’s success in appropriating the world’s resources for our own use. This extinction is being created by an animal that think of itself as intelligent, compassionate, and possessed of free will. It’s enough to make you wonder.

The question that remains to be answered is, “are we fraying the web of life to such an extent that it will no longer support us? Will this mass extinction culminate in our extinction?”

For some of us, most notably those living in sub-Saharan Africa, the answer already appears to be “yes.” For those of us who live in the comfort of North America or Europe, we can at best say, “not so far.”

Think about it for a minute, though. Those who seem to be the most indifferent to this almost inconceivable crisis are the ones who don’t think twice about their Mexican lettuce, Argentine beef, Chinese clothing, Canadian building materials, Japanese cars, and Saudi Arabian energy sources. They seem to think that America’s overwhelming military and technological superiority will always be there to help them live in the style to which they have become accustomed. They have no problem with fighting a pre-emptive war for oil, because deep in their hearts they know that might makes right, and since they have the might, they must be right. In any case, they have the most to lose, so they are committed to winning at any cost. Why not pre-emptive strikes on China and India, to cut their population down so they won’t use so much of that oil we want so badly?

But nobody wins if the Natural World loses. The natural world is not just a passive repository of great scenery and resources for us to exploit. The natural world is what creates the air we breathe, the soil that feeds us, and the temperature conditions in which we can survive. The natural world purifies our wastes and provides the water we drink and use for agriculture. The natural world “just grows” the grasses and trees that provide fodder for our animals, food, fuel, lumber and paper for us, and –yes, I’m repeating myself–the air we breathe. Sure, we plant crops, but “we” don’t grow them—nature does. And we don’t know what threshold will have to be crossed before these basic natural systems will fail. We may not know until we’ve crossed them. And by then it may be too late.

This is why we, as Greens, are not exactly “leftwingers.” We are actually rock-ribbed conservatives. We would like to conserve water, soil, and air, conserve petroleum, because we recognize that the human race is currently using these things up faster—in the case of oil, far, far faster—than they can be replenished. Everybody acts like petroleum is as common and replenishable as water, but it’s not. For all practical purposes, there is only so much of it, and when it’s gone there won’t be any more, and the end of petroleum in our economy isn’t just about a looming scarcity of vehicle fuel and heating oil, it’s about all the millions of things we make out of plastic not being cheap any more, it’s about fertilizers and pesticides that mass agriculture depends on being prohibitively expensive, it really is about the end of the American lifestyle we have all come to be so dependent on—or is it addicted to?

Surely we all know by now what needs to be done to prevent the coming crash—or at least mollify its impact. There are things we can do personally: We in the developed world need to back off the path of conspicuous consumption, eat food that is in season and grown close to home, learn to share with each other and appreciate each other’s company and talents. There are things we need to do institutionally: find ways to transfer appropriate technology and wealth to those who are severely impoverished, so that they can enjoy a graceful and sustainable standard of living. A little electricity, pure water, and access to health care and family planning would go a long way to ease the lives of billions. There are things we need to do politically: end the paradigm that favors the continued accumulation of wealth by the already wealthy and that favors violence as a solution to disputes. Suppose we said that corporations should no longer have standing as persons, that nobody needs to earn more than, say, a hundred thousand dollars a year, and that the best way to get rid of the threat of weapons of mass destruction would be for America and China—followed by the rest of the world’s governments– to quit manufacturing them and decomission their armed forces?

If we can just take a few steps towards sanity, the rewards will be great enough to keep our feet on that path. One step at a time…..


19 07 2005

By now, every Tennessean who isn’t brain-dead—about 33% of the adult population, according to one recent survey—knows about Operation Tennessee Waltz, a sting operation in which the FBI set up a dummy corporation that paid bribes to Tennessee lawmakers so they would introduce legislation favorable to the corporation. The bill actually attracted several co-sponsors who weren’t bribed, but should have been indicted—except that it’s not illegal just to be stupid and venal.

The day after the arrests, Speaker of the Senate John Wilder prayed publicly for his busted colleagues, calling what had happened “entrapment.” The sad thing is, he was right—getting paid to introduce legislation is just business as usual for Tennessee legislators.. A dismaying amount of what is supposed to be public policy in this state is designed for the benefit of special interest groups—from the sales tax that benefits the wealthy to the welfare-for-contractors outfit known as the Department of Transportation to the facts that you can buy beer, but not wine or distilled spirits, in grocery stores, and that you can’t buy beer in a store that sells wine and distilled spirits.

Now, I am not a big fan of any form of alcoholic beverage, but I see no point whatsoever in this peculiar arrangement. Former governor and beer distributor Ned Ray McWherter wanted it that way, though, so that’s how it is.  Yep, folks, the plain fact is that the law in Tennessee is for sale to the highest bidder, even on days when the FBI isn’t trolling for suckers.

Our legislature is busy minding the short-term bottom line, spending money in ways that make them richer but that leave us unprepared for the kind of future we are likely to have—one without the plentiful fossil fuels it takes to make good use of all these roads and sprawled-out cities. When I look at what goes on in the Tennessee legislature, I have to roll my eyes and clutch my stomach at the way nearly everything they do is and say is irrelevant and out of touch.

You, dear listener, could most assuredly do a better job than your current state legislators. Please—get together with your friends, get up a nominating petition, and start talking. It’s not too early. You probably won’t win the next election, or even the one after that. But what else can we do but go for it? The hour is getting late.

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