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Deep thought - Apr 6


Alex Steffen's Optimistic Environmentalism: The Bright Green City

Arnie Cooper, The Sun
... Seven years and thousands of posts later, [Alex Steffen's] “combination blog-magazine-think-tank” [WorldChanging] offers a vision of ecological problem solving that doesn’t shy away from prosperity. Steffen has replaced what he calls the “alarmist model” of environmentalism with one that promises a better future. He’s not unaware of the potential for failure — Steffen says we have at most twenty-five years to transform our civilization if we want to avert ecological catastrophe — but he prefers to focus on possible solutions that can be pursued by ordinary people.

His latest concept is the “bright green city.” A cofounder of Seattle’s Livable Communities Coalition, Steffen coined the term “bright green” to describe the combined aim of reduced environmental impact and improved design. He says “livable” cities will have lower carbon emissions and increased economic competitiveness, along with healthier populations and a greater sense of community. Efficiency, according to Steffen, will be achieved not by driving hybrids on our daily commutes or using Energy Star appliances on our two-acre suburban lots but by building compact neighborhoods in which people can walk or bike to school or work and share services and resources, saving both money and the environment. His forthcoming book, Bright Green: A Worldchanging Guide to a Future That Works, describes how we might transform our cities and suburbs over the next twenty years.

... Cooper: You told a cnn reporter that we’ve got twenty-five years to save the world. How did you come up with that number?

Steffen: ...Although climate change gets all the press, we’ll face a number of other serious concerns in the near future. The capacity of many ecosystems around the world to provide the resources we need is collapsing. The rate of species loss is accelerating. We’re headed toward not just peak oil, but peak everything. When you look at all of these trends together, you start to realize that by the year 2050 — and that’s a conservative estimate — we’ll need to have eliminated global greenhouse-gas emissions and also greatly reduced the impact our way of life has on other natural systems. We can’t do that globally if we don’t have an effective model in place here in the developed world by 2030. ...

Cooper: So how do we start to build a sustainable society?

Steffen: I think we’re still figuring that out. Big chunks of our infrastructure, our existing cities, our manufacturing base, and so on are radically unsustainable, but we have enormous amounts of money, energy, and materials invested in them. I think the most graceful solutions are ones that take what already exists and remodel it in a way that’s new, sustainable, and even charming. Retrofitting historic buildings to make them green, for example, not only conserves the resources that went into the building in the first place, but preserves the cultural identity of the building.

Cooper: But I’ve also heard you say we need to invent a sustainable life “from scratch.”

Steffen: Although we should use what we have whenever possible, this really is a new endeavor for humanity. It’s not a matter of going back. There’s a temptation to believe that we just need to return to an earlier way of life, but I see little evidence that people are willing to give up modern comforts and safety. If we are going to reform our wasteful ways — which for middle-class Americans at this point might mean using one-tenth the resources we currently use — we’re going to have to invent new methods of delivering prosperity. Restraining prosperity simply will not work.

Cooper: Author Derrick Jensen, in a talk he gave in Toronto, said that the only sustainable way of life humans have had was during the Stone Age.

Steffen: I have problems with the ethics of that statement, because it ignores the catastrophic human suffering that would be involved in a return to a Stone Age way of life. We know that way of life can’t support a population in the billions, so trying to go back to it would require the death of most of the world’s people.
(April 2010)
More at the original. Full interview appears in the print edition of The Sun. -BA



Looting Main Street

Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone
If you want to know what life in the Third World is like, just ask Lisa Pack, an administrative assistant who works in the roads and transportation department in Jefferson County, Alabama. Pack got rudely introduced to life in post-crisis America last August, when word came down that she and 1,000 of her fellow public employees would have to take a little unpaid vacation for a while. The county, it turned out, was more than $5 billion in debt — meaning that courthouses, jails and sheriff's precincts had to be closed so that Wall Street banks could be paid.

As public services in and around Birmingham were stripped to the bone, Pack struggled to support her family on a weekly unemployment check of $260. Nearly a fourth of that went to pay for her health insurance, which the county no longer covered. She also fielded calls from laid-off co-workers who had it even tougher. "I'd be on the phone sometimes until two in the morning," she says. "I had to talk more than one person out of suicide. For some of the men supporting families, it was so hard — foreclosure, bankruptcy. I'd go to bed at night, and I'd be in tears."

Homes stood empty, businesses were boarded up, and parts of already-blighted Birmingham began to take on the feel of a ghost town. There were also a few bills that were unique to the area — like the $64 sewer bill that Pack and her family paid each month. "Yeah, it went up about 400 percent just over the past few years," she says.

The sewer bill, in fact, is what cost Pack and her co-workers their jobs. In 1996, the average monthly sewer bill for a family of four in Birmingham was only $14.71 — but that was before the county decided to build an elaborate new sewer system with the help of out-of-state financial wizards with names like Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase. The result was a monstrous pile of borrowed money that the county used to build, in essence, the world's grandest toilet — "the Taj Mahal of sewer-treatment plants" is how one county worker put it. What happened here in Jefferson County would turn out to be the perfect metaphor for the peculiar alchemy of modern oligarchical capitalism: A mob of corrupt local officials and morally absent financiers got together to build a giant device that converted human shit into billions of dollars of profit for Wall Street — and misery for people like Lisa Pack.

And once the giant shit machine was built and the note on all that fancy construction started to come due, Wall Street came back to the local politicians and doubled down on the scam. They showed up in droves to help the poor, broke citizens of Jefferson County cut their toilet finance charges using a blizzard of incomprehensible swaps and refinance schemes — schemes that only served to postpone the repayment date a year or two while sinking the county deeper into debt. In the end, every time Jefferson County so much as breathed near one of the banks, it got charged millions in fees. There was so much money to be made bilking these dizzy Southerners that banks like JP Morgan spent millions paying middlemen who bribed — yes, that's right, bribed, criminally bribed — the county commissioners and their buddies just to keep their business. Hell, the money was so good, JP Morgan at one point even paid Goldman Sachs $3 million just to back the fuck off, so they could have the rubes of Jefferson County to fleece all for themselves.

Birmingham became the poster child for a new kind of giant-scale financial fraud, one that would threaten the financial stability not only of cities and counties all across America, but even those of entire countries like Greece. While for many Americans the financial crisis remains an abstraction, a confusing mess of complex transactions that took place on a cloud high above Manhattan sometime in the mid-2000s, in Jefferson County you can actually see the rank criminality of the crisis economy with your own eyes; the monster sticks his head all the way out of the water. Here you can see a trail that leads directly from a billion-dollar predatory swap deal cooked up at the highest levels of America's biggest banks, across a vast fruited plain of bribes and felonies — "the price of doing business," as one JP Morgan banker says on tape — all the way down to Lisa Pack's sewer bill and the mass layoffs in Birmingham.

...JP Morgan was far from alone in the scam: Virtually everyone doing business in Jefferson County was on the take. Four of the nation's top investment banks, the very cream of American finance, were involved in one way or another with payoffs to Blount in their scramble to do business with the county. In addition to JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs, Bear Stearns paid Langford's bagman $2.4 million, while Lehman Brothers got off cheap with a $35,000 "arranger's fee." At least a dozen of the county's contractors were also cashing in, along with many of the county commissioners. "If you go into the county courthouse," says Michael Morrison, a planner who works for the county, "there's a gallery of past commissioners on the wall. On the top row, every single one of 'em but two has been investigated, indicted or convicted. It's a joke."

The crazy thing is that such arrangements — where some local scoundrel gets a massive fee for doing nothing but greasing the wheels with elected officials — have been taking place all over the country. In Illinois, during the Upper Volta-esque era of Rod Blagojevich, a Republican political consultant named Robert Kjellander got 10 percent of the entire fee Bear Stearns earned doing a bond sale for the state pension fund. At the start of Obama's term, Bill Richardson's Cabinet appointment was derailed for a similar scheme when he was governor of New Mexico. Indeed, one reason that officials in Jefferson County didn't know that the swaps they were signing off on were shitty was because their adviser on the deals was a firm called CDR Financial Products, which is now accused of conspiring to overcharge dozens of cities in swap transactions. According to a federal antitrust lawsuit, CDR is basically a big-league version of Bill Blount — banks tossed money at the firm, which in turn advised local politicians that they were getting a good deal. "It was basically, you pay CDR, and CDR helps push the deal through," says Taylor.

In the end, though, all this bribery and graft was just the table-setter for the real disaster. In taking all those bribes and signing on to all those swaps, the commissioners in Jefferson County had basically started the clock on a financial time bomb that, sooner or later, had to explode. By continually refinancing to keep the county in its giant McMansion, the commission had managed to push into the future that inevitable day when the real bill would arrive in the mail. But that's where the mortgage analogy ends — because in one key area, a swap deal differs from a home mortgage. Imagine a mortgage that you have to keep on paying even after you sell your house. That's basically how a swap deal works. And Jefferson County had done 23 of them. At one point, they had more outstanding swaps than New York City.

Judgment Day was coming — just like it was for the Delaware River Port Authority, the Pennsylvania school system, the cities of Detroit, Chicago, Oakland and Los Angeles, the states of Connecticut and Mississippi, the city of Milan and nearly 500 other municipalities in Italy, the country of Greece, and God knows who else. All of these places are now reeling under the weight of similarly elaborate and ill-advised swaps — and if what happened in Jefferson County is any guide, hoo boy. Because when the shit hit the fan in Birmingham, it really hit the fan.

...The city of Birmingham was founded in 1871, at the dawn of the Southern industrial boom, for the express purpose of attracting Northern capital — it was even named after a famous British steel town to burnish its entrepreneurial cred. There's a gruesome irony in it now lying sacked and looted by financial vandals from the North. The destruction of Jefferson County reveals the basic battle plan of these modern barbarians, the way that banks like JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs have systematically set out to pillage towns and cities from Pittsburgh to Athens. These guys aren't number-crunching whizzes making smart investments; what they do is find suckers in some municipal-finance department, corner them in complex lose-lose deals and flay them alive. In a complete subversion of free-market principles, they take no risk, score deals based on political influence rather than competition, keep consumers in the dark — and walk away with big money. "It's not high finance," says Taylor, the former bond regulator. "It's low finance." And even if the regulators manage to catch up with them billions of dollars later, the banks just pay a small fine and move on to the next scam. This isn't capitalism. It's nomadic thievery.
(31 Mar 2010)




Walled In

George Monbiot, monbiot.com
The MPs were kind to Professor Phil Jones. During its hearings, the Commons Science and Technology Committee didn’t even ask the man at the centre of the hacked climate emails crisis about the central charge he faces: that he urged other scientists to delete material subject to a freedom of information request(1). Last week the committee published its report, and blamed his university for the “culture of non-disclosure” over which Jones presided(2).

Perhaps the MPs were swayed by the disastrous performance of his boss at the hearings. Edward Acton, vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia, came across as flamboyant, slippery and insincere(3). Jones, on the other hand, seemed both deathly dull and painfully honest. How could this decent, nerdy man have messed up so badly?

None of it made sense: the intolerant dismissal of requests for information, the utter failure to engage when the hacked emails were made public, the refusal by other scientists to accept that anything was wrong. Then I read an article by the computer scientist Steve Easterbrook and for the first time the light began to dawn(4).

Easterbrook, seeking to defend Jones and his colleagues, describes a closed culture in which the rest of the world is a tedious and incomprehensible distraction. “Scientists normally only interact with other scientists. We live rather sheltered lives … to a scientist, anyone stupid enough to try to get scientific data through repeated FOI requests quite clearly deserves our utter contempt. Jones was merely expressing (in private) a sentiment that most scientists would share – and extreme frustration with people who clearly don’t get it.”

When I read that, I was struck by the gulf between our worlds. To those of us who clamoured for freedom of information laws in the UK, FoI requests are almost sacred. The passing of these laws was a rare democratic victory; they’re among the few means we possess of ensuring that politicians and public servants are answerable to the public. What scientists might regard as trivial and annoying, journalists and democracy campaigners see as central and irreducible. We speak in different tongues and inhabit different worlds.

I know how it happens. Like most people with a science degree, I left university with a store of recondite knowledge that I could share with almost no one. Ill-equipped to understand any subject but my own, I felt cut off from the rest of the planet. The temptation to retreat into a safe place was almost irresistible. Only the extreme specialisation demanded by a PhD, which would have walled me in like an anchorite, dissuaded me.

I hated this isolation. I had a passionate interest in literature, history, foreign languages and the arts, but at the age of 15 I’d been forced, like all students, to decide whether to study science or humanities. From that point we divided into two cultures, and the process made idiots of us all. Perhaps eventually we’ll split into two species. Reproducing only with each other, scientists will soon become so genetically isolated that they’ll no longer be able to breed with other humans.

...But science happens to be the closed world with one of the most effective forms of self-regulation: the peer-review process. It is also intensely competitive, and the competition consists of seeking to knock each other down. The greatest scientific triumph is to falsify a dominant theory. It happens very rarely, as only those theories which have withstood constant battery still stand. If anyone succeeded in overturning the canon of climate science, they would soon become as celebrated as Newton or Einstein. There are no rewards for agreeing with your colleagues, tremendous incentives to prove them wrong. These are the last circumstances in which a genuine conspiracy could be hatched.

But it is no longer sufficient for scientists to speak only to each other. Painful and disorienting as it is, they must engage with that irritating distraction called the rest of the world. Everyone owes something to the laity, and science would die were it not for the billions we spend on it. Scientists need make no intellectual concessions, but they have a duty to understand the context in which they operate. It is no longer acceptable for climate researchers to wall themselves off and leave the defence of their profession to other people.
(5 April 2010)

Editorial Notes: Photo credit: Worldchanging. Alex' book Worldchanging helped inspire us to get the hell out of Corporatemania a few years back. -KS

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