Sunday, June 19, 2011

Sustainability news from national and local commercial sources for the week ending June 18, 2011

In part one, I wrote:
Part three will consist of sustainability news from national commercial and miscellaneous sources. I also have a part four from local commericial sources in the works, but that's turning into two themed blog posts, one on redistricting and another on a local sustainability issue that looks like just a zoning and development issue, but has turned into something else entirely, plus a leftover linkspam.
As you can see, I've had a change of plans. I decided to combine the local stories that didn't fit into the two theme posts with the national stories for a combined part three. That's because what I advertised as a strength in part two ended up being a weakness.
I'll make up for the weak selection of general sustainability articles in the first two parts of this linkspam with part three. There will be lots of solid general sustainability articles there.
The national stories were so strong in general sustainability that they were lacking in the subfields. On the other hand, the local stories had some strength in those areas. Why have both a main course with no side dishes and leftovers later when I can turn them into a complete meal? Don't answer, just enjoy the linkspam.

General Sustainability

WNET via PBS: Action on climate change: Why now?
Robert Fri
June 14, 2011
“Climate change is occurring, is very likely caused by human activities, and poses significant risks for a broad range of human and natural systems.”

That’s what the National Academy of Sciences concludes in a report recently released by its study arm, the National Research Council. Not surprisingly, the ever careful academy notes that science can’t yet nail down exactly how or when the impacts of climate change on humans and the environment will play out. But despite these uncertainties, the academy concludes that “the environmental, economic, and humanitarian risks of climate change indicate a pressing need for substantial action to limit the magnitude of climate change and to prepare to adapt to its impacts.”

To have the academy find a “pressing need” for action in the midst of scientific uncertainty is big news, especially for those who want to defer action on climate change. Typically, the proponents of delay argue that prudent policy should wait for science to be absolutely sure before acting. Yet the academy’s position is clear: even though we still have more to learn, in the case of climate change we know enough to begin acting now.
In part two, wrote, "I at least have some respect for policy makers that account for all the facts. Those who completely discount facts are another matter altogether." The people delaying on climate change are those who are completely discount the facts. The people who do understand the facts are getting impatient with them.

Reuters: Analysis: Ethanol grown up, will withstand subsidy loss
By Carey Gillam
KANSAS CITY, Missouri | Fri Jun 17, 2011 7:08pm EDT
The U.S. ethanol industry is growing up. Moves in Washington to start weaning producers off government support are not expected to stunt a sector that had often been perceived as too fragile to withstand the travails of market forces.

This week's largely symbolic Senate vote to eliminate $6 billion in federal subsidies refocused attention on an industry that consumes nearly 40 percent of America's corn crop. Yet, experts and analysts had but one gesture: to shrug.

Sure, the eventual loss of an import tariff and a 45 cent-a-gallon blenders' tax credit could put more pressure on profits. Ethanol prices could drop about 7 percent and margins could see a 20 percent or greater squeeze, according to a report published in March by the University of Missouri's Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute.

But, industry profitability is far more dependent on a volatile mix of market factors, from corn prices to gasoline to the livestock feed additive made as an ethanol byproduct.
I should blog more about this, but I'll save it for a future post on the price of oil. In the meantime, check out the Daily Kos story on this topic.

Mother Jones: US Gas Is Artificially Cheap: What We Don't Pay for at the Pump
— By Sarah Terry-Cobo
| Tue Jun. 14, 2011 1:32 PM PDT
California has some of the dirtiest air in the nation. Consequently, it has some of the strictest rules for gasoline, meaning it burns cleaner than it does in many other states. But cleaner fuels are more expensive.

Clean air requirements, combined with supply and refining constraints, make the price of California gas consistently among the highest in the nation. Turmoil in the Middle East is another factor that pushes up the global price of crude oil. Even though the average price for a gallon of regular unleaded gas in California fluctuates around $4, some experts argue that $4 a gallon is much less than the real cost.

Watch an animated video, produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting, that explores the "external costs" of gas consumption–including the price of pollution and health problems caused by it:
The video at the link (it's not embedding here) is one that I could show to my students. It doesn't even tell the whole story, as it doesn't include the secondary social and economic costs not associated with pollution.

N.Y. Times: The True Cost of Tomatoes
Mass-produced tomatoes have become redder, more tender and slightly more flavorful than the crunchy orange “cello-wrapped” specimens of a couple of decades ago, but the lives of the workers who grow and pick them haven’t improved much since Edward R. Murrow’s revealing and deservedly famous Harvest of Shame report of 1960, which contained the infamous quote, “We used to own our slaves; now we just rent them.”

But bit by bit things have improved some, a story that’s told in detail and with insight and compassion by Barry Estabrook in his new book, “Tomatoland.” We can actually help them improve further.

A third of our tomatoes are grown in Florida, and much of that production is concentrated around Immokalee (rhymes with “broccoli”), a town that sits near the edge of the great “river of grass,” or the Everglades, the draining of which began in the late 19th century, thus setting the stage for industrial agriculture. Immokalee is a poor (average annual per-capita income: $8,576), immigrant (70 percent of the population is Latino, mostly Mexican) working town, to the outsider at least a depressing community with few signs of hope.

The tomato fields of Immokalee are vast and surreal. An unplanted field looks like a lousy beach: the “soil,” which is white sand, contains little in the way of nutrients and won’t hold any water. To grow tomatoes there requires mind-boggling amounts of fertilizers, fungicides and pesticides (on roughly the same acreage of tomatoes, Florida uses about eight times as many chemicals as California). The tomatoes are, in effect, grown hydroponically, and the sand seems useful mostly as a medium for holding stakes in place.
The rest of this review contains a good and relatively brief summary of the externalities of growing tomatoes in Florida and the efforts to remedy the social and economic costs of the current system; the environmental costs are another matter.

Mother Jones: Some Arsenic With That Supermarket Chicken?
— By Tom Philpott
| Sat Jun. 11, 2011 6:00 AM PDT
Earlier this week, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced it would "voluntarily" stop selling a widely used arsenic-laced poultry feed additive, after FDA tests found traces of the poison in chicken meat.

So the system works, right? A federal regulatory agency conducts rigorous tests, detects a problem, and industry reacts by doing the right thing. Except, not so much. A closer look at the arsenic-laced feed saga reveals a tattered, industry-dominated regulatory regime that abuses public health and the environment alike.
This is a good example of what is both right and wrong with our regulatory system and how it hurts sustainability.

Royal Oak Patch: Farmers Market Find: Praying Mantis Egg Cases
You know about the fresh produce and flowers, but there’s so much more. Every week we will share what’s new, interesting and in season.
By Judy Davids
David Spaulding has an unusual hobby: He sells praying mantis egg cases.

At first glance, the egg cases don’t look like much. Spaulding will sell you an egg case, about the size of a large gumball, inside a plastic container for $8 at the Royal Oak Farmers Market. Inside each egg case awaits approximately 200 praying mantises ready to overpower and devour those pesky mosquitoes, flies and wasps in your backyard or garden.

The carnivorous insects are born without wings. “About four weeks after they hatch they develop their wings," the Toledo resident said. "They can fly, but they don’t like to."
Yes, a feel good story. I can't be all doom all the time. It's also the first time I've quoted the Royal Oak Patch. Look for more from this source in the themed local stories. Patch is an up and comer in the local news scene.

Environment, including science and technology

Mother Jones: How the West Was Lost
The American West in flames.
— By Chip Ward
Thu Jun. 16, 2011 4:50 PM PDT
Arizona is burning. Texas, too. New Mexico is next. If you need a grim reminder that an already arid West is burning up and blowing away, here it is. As I write this, more than 700 square miles of Arizona and more than 4,300 square miles of Texas have been swept by monster wildfires. Consider those massive columns of acrid smoke drifting eastward as a kind of smoke signal warning us that a globally warming world is not a matter of some future worst-case scenario. It's happening right here, right now.

Air tankers have been dropping fire retardant on what is being called the Wallow fire in Arizona and firefighting crews have been mobilized from across the West, but the fire remained "zero contained" for most of last week and only 18% so early in the new week, too big to touch with mere human tools like hoses, shovels, saws, and bulldozers. Walls of flame 100 feet high rolled over the land like a tsunami from Hades. The heat from such a fire is so intense and immense that it can create small tornadoes of red embers that cannot be knocked down and smothered by water or chemicals. These are not your grandfather's forest fires.
These past few years, mega-fires in the West have become ever more routine. Though their estimates and measurements may vary, the experts who study these phenomena all agree that wildfires today are bigger, last longer, and are more frequent. A big fire used to burn perhaps 30 square miles. Today, wildfires regularly scorch 150-square-mile areas.

Global warming, global weirding, climate change—whatever you prefer to call it—is not just happening in some distant, melting Arctic land out of a storybook. It is not just burning up far-away Russia. It's here now.
Just wait another month or two, when California starts burning.

Mother Jones: Should You Charge Your Phone Every Day or Just When It's Empty?
— By Kiera Butler
| Mon Jun. 13, 2011 2:30 AM PDT
An Econundrums reader recently asked a good question about how best to charge laptop and smart phone batteries:

Is it better for the battery to charge laptops and phones fully and then run them down all the way, or to charge them a little bit every day? And which way uses less energy?

The answer is complicated, since it depends on the particular product in question, explains Suzanne Foster Porter of Ecos, a Colorado-based consulting company that works on energy efficiency of battery chargers, in everything from MP3 players to forklifts. While some older battery chargers continue to draw power from the grid even when the battery is fully charged, more modern chargers are smarter: They basically turn off once the device is done charging. "But it's difficult to tell which kind you have, since manufacturers aren't required to tell consumers," says Porter.
This isn't a feel-good story, but it is one that tells readers what they can do.

Detroit Metro Times: What the frack?
Controversy over fracking in Michigan prompts calls for ban, moratorium
By Curt Guyette
Published: June 15, 2011
We've all seen the ads touting the benefits of natural gas as a cleaner-burning alternative to other fossil fuels. And it's true that, compared to coal or oil, natural gas is much less harmful in terms of its effect on global warming when used to generate electricity or power vehicles.

"Natural gas produces 43 percent fewer carbon emissions than coal for each unit of energy delivered, and 30 percent fewer emissions than oil," according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Don't, however, be fooled into thinking that just because methane produces a lesser amount of greenhouse gases when it's burned means that it is necessarily a green-friendly fuel. Especially, as is increasingly the case, when that natural gas is extracted from the earth by means of a process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Which is why a nonprofit group called Food & Water Watch had some of its folks holding a press conference down by the Detroit River on a sparkling morning earlier this week. They were there with copies of a just released report called "The Case for a Ban on Gas Fracking."
This is the first time I've posted something from Detroit Metro Times. They may not be Model D, but they are a progressive publication interested in sustainability. They're also free. You can thank the entertainment business, both legal and "pink and black market" for that.

Society, including culture and politics

Royal Oak Patch: Sunset at the Zoo a Giganotosaurus Success
About 2,000 Metro Detroiters party at the Detroit Zoo to raise money to support the animals.
By Kristen Skladd
As the sun went down Friday night, the Detroit Zoo filled with humans – an estimated record 2,000 – who came to “party like it’s 65,000,000 B.C.” at the annual Sunset at the Zoo fundraising event.

This year’s gala, set to a prehistoric theme in a nod to zoo's huge Dinosauria exhibit, allowed guests to take a private, leisurely stroll of the zoo, with all ticket sales benefiting the Detroit Zoological Society.

“This is the biggest fundraiser of the year for the Zoological Society,” said Ron Kagan, longtime director of the Detroit Zoo. “Hopefully, we will raise about $100,000, all of which goes into caring for the animals.”

Those in attendance were given an after-hours, behind-the-scenes look at the zoo. They were invited walk through Dinosauria, the largest robotic dinosaur experience, view the gardens and even take a look at the zoo’s newest polar bear guest, Aquila.
I wish I could have been there, The event looks like it was a lot of fun.


And now, the week's local sustainable economy news, in reverse chronological order.

Detroit Free Press: Michigan's jobless rate up slightly
Michigan's unemployment rate inched upward in May to 10.3%, a one-tenth-of-a-point fluctuation from April's 10.2% rate, the state reported Wednesday.

"The state's labor market situation improved significantly throughout 2010 into early 2011," said Rick Waclawek, director of the state's Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives. "However, since February 2011, Michigan's unemployment rate has been essentially flat."

Michigan's unemployment rate was a little over a percentage point above the U.S. May rate of 9.1%.

Despite the slight rise in May, economists note that the Michigan economy has been improving faster than the nation's as a whole. The state's jobless rate in May 2011 was two and a half percentage points below Michigan's May 2010 rate of 12.8%. The national jobless rate decreased by just half a percentage point over that same period.
Good news and bad news. Remember, if these times were amenable to Business as Usual, then I'd be more optimistic. These are not times for Business as Usual.

Detroit Free Press: Browser: Grand Rapids area best in nation to land a summer job; Detroit 5th worst
According to an article posted today on, the latest Manpower employment survey ranks the Grand Rapids-Wyoming metro area as the best place in the nation to land a job this summer.

Travel 150 miles east, and you'll be in the 5th-worst metropolitan area ranked for jobs this summer: the Detroit-Warren-Livonia area.
That's not the kind of Buzz one is likely to see on Model D.

Detroit Free Press: Home sales slip 4.3% across metro Detroit, but Macomb, Livingston improve
Home sales were down 4.3% in metro Detroit last month, but sprung into positive territory in Livingston and Macomb counties, according to data released today.

Sales rose 3% in Livingston County to 209 sales from 203 in May 2010 and they were up 3.8% to 921 from 887 in Macomb County, according to Realcomp, a Farmington Hills-based multiple listing service.
This is mixed news. I'm still looking for a real estate recovery in Detroit proper.

Detroit Free Press: Signs of recovery for Michigan's economy
Halfway through 2011, Michigan's economy is like a patient who has emerged from intensive care but has yet to leave rehab.

One of every 10 Michiganders is looking for work. A third of all residential real estate sales in the state during the first quarter were foreclosures. And home prices in metro Detroit have dropped to levels last seen in 1994.

Yet plenty of encouraging signs have emerged. Consumer bankruptcy filings, first-time claims for unemployment benefits and mass layoff notices have been dropping. Car and truck factories are humming again. And Detroit's automakers are hiring for the first time in years, helping boost sales and confidence at hundreds of retailers, restaurants and other companies around the state.

"Many businesses we are working with right now appear to have been successful at restructuring their balance sheet," said Gene Lovell, CEO and president of First State Bank of St. Clair Shores, which opened a new loan center in Sterling Heights in April and has been adding employees.
This article summarizes the good news, bad news nature of the rest of the economic news above, and it was the one published first.

As for what's next, I think I'll post the "a local sustainability issue that looks like just a zoning and development issue, but has turned into something else entirely" later tonight. It really makes for a microcosm of issues I mentioned a while ago regarding making suburbia sustainable in The New York Times explains how to completely avoid the real problems of suburbia.
If you're interested in sustainability on the local and personal levels, your biggest obstacles will be homeowners associations, zoning boards, and city councils. Those people will be wedded to business as usual long after it becomes apparent to early adopters that BAU just isn't working any more. Watch those local governing entities hang onto the past like adherents of a cargo cult. If I want to urge any political action (and I actually have a long list of political actions; I just haven't broadcast most of them on this blog), it's to convert a critical mass of people to the necessity for sustainable action and then organize to run for positions on these roadblocks to sustainability. I like the idea of a democratic takeover of local government.
If done well it's the kind of think that would work well for Kunstler's readers. Besides, the other shoe will drop on the redistricting story tomorrow, so that one won't be ready tonight.

Stay tuned!

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