Saturday, September 30, 2006

You don't need a weatherman to know how much the wind blows

Pogo, the protagonist of the most brilliant comic strip ever published, once declared "We are confronted with insurmountable opportunities." That's the way many of us feel about the frustrating obstacles (real and perceived) that seem to continually hamper the adoption of renewable energy technologies in the face of mounting concerns over climate change.

Wind energy in particular has the potential for providing a viable clean option for meeting growing energy needs without contributing to global warming. Greenpeace and the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC) have recently released "Global Wind Energy Outlook 2006" -- a report that makes the case for the immediate widespread deployment wind energy by pointing out how the perennial questions surrounding wind energy's economics, intermittency, grid integration, etc. have been addressed through advances in technology and/or policy development. (GW)

GWEC/Greepeace, Adelaide, September 20, 2006 -- The development of wind power is key in the fight against dangerous climate change, concludes ‘Global Wind Energy Outlook 2006’, a report launched today by the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC) and Greenpeace International. The report examines the future potential for wind power up to the year 2050 and is an industry blueprint that explains how wind power could supply 34% of the world’s electricity by 2050 and 16.5% by 2020. Most importantly, wind power would save 1.5 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions in 2020.“Wind power will significantly reduce CO2 emissions, which is key in the fight against dangerous climate change,” says Sven Teske, Energy Expert of Greenpeace International.

“The required CO2 reduction of one third by 2020 and half by 2050 can only be achieved if wind power plays a major role in the power sector. Getting this right will be critical if governments are going to be able to meet their medium and longer term climate targets – wind energy is going to play a major role in the future; the only question is whether or not it plays that role soon enough to help us reach our climate goal of keeping global mean temperature rise below 2o C. We urge Governments to support wind power development via electricity market reforms and by cutting down subsidies for fossil and nuclear fuels.”

In addition to climate change, other challenges such as security of energy supply and the increasing volatility of fossil fuel prices are important drivers for wind power.

“Wind energy is the most attractive solution to the world’s energy challenges. It is clean and fuel-free. Moreover, wind is indigenous and enough wind blows across the globe to cope with the ever increasing electricity demand. This report demonstrates that wind technology is not a dream for the future – it is real, it is mature and it can be deployed on a large scale,” said Arthouros Zervos, GWEC’s Chairman. “The political choices of the coming years will determine the world’s environmental and economic situation for many decades to come.”

The ‘Global Wind Energy Outlook 2006’ runs three different scenarios for wind power – a Reference scenario based on figures from the International Energy Agency (IEA); a Moderate version which assumes that current targets for renewable energy are successful; and an advanced version assuming that all policy options in favour of renewables have been adopted. These are then set against two scenarios for global energy demand. Under the Reference scenario, growth in demand is again based on IEA projections; under the High Energy Efficiency version, a range of energy efficiency measures result in a substantial reduction in demand.

Wind power has experienced major growth in OECD countries, especially the United States and Europe, with significant growth in developing countries such as China and India. The global market for wind power has been expanding faster than any other source of renewable energy. From just 4,800 MW in 1995 the world total has multiplied more than twelve-fold to reach over 59,000 MW at the end of 2005. The international market is expected to have an annual turnover in 2006 of more than € 13 billion, with an estimated 150,000 people employed around the world. The success of the industry has attracted investors from the mainstream finance and traditional energy sectors.

Click here to download a copy of the Global Wind Energy Outlook 2006

Thursday, September 28, 2006

The many colors of money

From the perspective of systems dynamics, communities and economies can be viewed as self-organizing systems. The greater the diversity within these systems, the greater the potential for self-organizing adaptability. Order in communities and economies is created and sustained through dynamic processes. Relationships are continually being formed and restructured. A key factor influencing these relationships are the options available for exchanging goods and services. Most of us take it for granted that money -- and specifically national currency -- is the most effective means for facilitating exchange.

John Kenneth Galbraith wrote that "Money is a very old convenience, but the notion that it is a reliable artifact to be accepted without scrutiny or question is... mostly a circumstance of the last century. Jane Jacobs is more to the point: "Currencies are powerful carriers of feedback information..and potential triggers of adjustments, but on their own terms. National currencies register, above all else, consolidated information on a nation's international trade. National currencies are potent feedback, but impotent at triggering appropriate [local] corrections.

Under the inspired leadership of Susan Witt and
the late Robert Swann , the E.F. Schumacher Society has been an unwavering champion in the movement to establish local currencies for decades. They long ago realized that "Our dependence on national currencies actually deprives regions of a very useful self-regulation tool and allows stagnant economic pockets to go unnoticed and unaided in a seemingly prosperous nation." (GW)

BerkShares Launch Weekend

If our common interest is to create more sustainable communities, then part of that effort will be to build more independent regional economies--ones in which, as economist Fritz Schumacher advocates in "Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered", the goods consumed in a region are produced in a region. Following Schumacher's lead, the late Jane Jacobs, a
brilliant regional planner and intuitive economist, argues in "Cities and the Wealth of Nations", the strategy for economic development should be to generate import-replacement industries. She would have us examine what is now imported into our regions and develop the conditions to instead produce those products from local resources with local labor. Unlike the branch of a multi-national corporation that might open and then suddenly close, driven by moody fluctuations in the global economy, a locally owned and managed business is more likely to establish a complex of economic and social interactions that build strong entwining regional roots, keeping the business in place and accountable to people, land, and community.

What then is the responsibility of concerned citizens in cultivating sustainable economies? An independent regional economy calls for new regional economic institutions for land, labor, and capital to embody the scale, purpose, and structure of our endeavors. These new institutions cannot be government-driven, and rightly so. They will be shaped by free associations of consumers and producers, working cooperatively, sharing the risk in creating an economy that reflects shared culture and shared values. Small in scale, transparent in structure, designed to profit the community rather than profit from the community, they can address our common concern for safe and fair working conditions; for production practices that keep our air and soil and waters clean, for renewing our natural resources rather than depleting them; for innovation in the making and distribution of the basic necessities of food, clothing, shelter, and energy rather than luxury items; and for more equitable distribution of wealth.

The building of new economic institutions is hard work. Most of us rest complacently in our role as passive consumers, not co-producers and co-shapers of our own economies. But it is work that can be done, and fine examples are being set.

One of these is in the Southern Berkshire region of Massachusetts, home of the E. F. Schumacher Society. A new organization, BerkShares, Inc. will launch a local currency on September 29th. Beautifully designed, the BerkShares honor historic figures of the area: the Stockbridge Mohican Indians, social rights leader W. E. B. Dubois, Community Supported Agriculture founder Robyn Van En, novelist and naturalist Herman Melville, and popular illustrator Norman Rockwell. They also feature the paintings of contemporary local artists and in so doing reflect the rich cultural traditions and natural beauty that make the Berkshires famous.

The Southern Berkshire region, with its economic hub in Great Barrington, is also known for a healthy mix of still locally owned businesses served by locally owned banks. It is these businesses and banks, their owners and staff and committed customers that make up the vibrant heart of the Southern Berkshire economy. And it is the same cast, led by the Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce and BerkShares, Inc that are the working together to
shape a local currency to serve their local community.

Beginning [September 30, 2006] Berkshire residents can exchange federal dollars for BerkShares at participating banks. The exchange rate is ten BerkShares for every nine federal dollars. The BerkShares circulate at full value, keeping trade local, and consumers conscious of "what their money is doing tonight." The federal dollars remain on deposit at the banks to redeem BerkShares for those who again need to make a trade in federal dollars.

Over 150 businesses have signed up to accept BerkShares and the number is growing. You can build a house with BerkShares, purchase auto parts, repair the car, incorporate a new business, buy next season's CSA share, stay at a famous inn, dine at a fine restaurant serving locally grown food, shop for your family's groceries, fulfill your gardening dreams, buy toys for the
grandchildren, print invitations to your wedding anniversary and arrange for a caterer, make your home more energy efficient, find that new warm jacket in preparation for the winter ahead, see a movie, order a book by your favorite author, and get a massage (to name a few things).

To see images of the BerkShares local currency, access a directory of participating businesses and banks, read about the local heroes honored on the currency, view works by BerkShares artists, join in thanking supporters, or sign up to accept BerkShares, visit the website at:

Click here to learn more about local currency.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Sound grammar in a universal language

In his biography “Chronicles”, Bob Dylan recalls how the great jazz and blues artist Lonnie Johnson helped turn around his career. “Lonnie took me aside one night and showed me a style of playing based on an odd- instead of even-number system. He had me play chords and demonstrated how to do it… I had never used this style, didn’t see any purpose to it. But now all of a sudden it came back to me, and I realized that this way of playing would revitalize my world."

“ The system works in a cyclical way. Because you’re thinking in odd numbers instead of even numbers, you’re playing with a different value system. Popular music is usually based on the number 2 and then filled in with fabrics, colors, effects and technical wizardry to make a point. But the total effect is usually depressing and oppressive and a dead end which at the most can only last in a nostalgic way. If you’re using an odd numerical system, things that strengthen a performance automatically begin to happen and make it memorable for the ages…A song executes itself on several fronts and you can ignore musical customs."

I was reminded of this after reading a recent New York Times article by Ben Ratliff on the legendary and elusive jazz artist Ornette Coleman. Credited with inventing the style called "free jazz", Coleman now 76, has released "Sound Grammar" -- his first recording in over a decade.

Writing in the Socialist Review on the occasion of Coleman's 75th birthday, Peter Segal notes that "Ornette Coleman has changed the way we listen to music. He spearheaded the idea of improvisation without chord changes, while retaining the rhymic impetus - the swing - of jazz. By changing the way we listen to music and redefining ideas about collective improvisation, his radicalism divided his listeners into either staunch enthusiasts or those who decried him as a fraud."

Coleman admits that "Standard Western (music) notation is a big problem for him, particularly for the fact that the notation for many instruments ...must be transposed to fit the 'concert key' of C in Western music." He says he does not understand "how the listener will ever understand the power of notes when they are bossed around by the common Western system of harmony and tuning." (GW).

Seeking the mystical inside the music
By Ben Ratliff
New York Times

The alto saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman, one of the last of the truly imposing figures from a generation of jazz players that was full of them, seldom talks about other people’s music. People generally want to ask him about his own, and that becomes the subject he addresses. Or half-addresses: what he’s really focused on is a set of interrelated questions about music, religion and the nature of being. Sometimes he can seem indirect, or sentimental, or thoroughly confusing. Other times he sounds like one of the world’s killer aphorists.

In any case, other people’s music was what I wanted to talk to him about. I asked what he would like to listen to. “Anything you want,” he said in his fluty Southern voice. “There is no bad music, only bad performances.” He finally offered a few suggestions. The music he likes is simply defined: anything that can’t be summed up in a common term. Any music that is not created as part of a style. “The state of surviving in music is more like ‘what music are you playing,’ ” he said. “But music isn’t a style, it’s an idea. The idea of music, without it being a style — I don’t hear that much anymore.”

Then he went up a level. “I would like to have the same concept of ideas as how people believe in God,” he said. “To me, an idea doesn’t have any master.”

Mr. Coleman was born, in 1930, and raised in Fort Worth, where he attained some skill at playing rhythm and blues in bars, like any decent saxophonist, and some more skill at playing bebop, which was rarer. He arrived in New York in 1959, via Los Angeles, with an original, logical sense of melody and an idea of playing with no preconceived chord changes. Yet his music bore a tight sense of knowing itself, of natural form, and the records he made for Atlantic with his various quartets, from 1959 to 1961, are almost unreasonably beautiful.

Following that initial shock of the new came a short period with a trio, then a two-year hiatus from recording in 1963 and 1964, then the trio again, then a fantastic quartet from 1968 to 1972 with the tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman (who died three weeks ago), then a period of funk-through-the-looking-glass with his electric band, Prime Time. Mr. Coleman is still moving, now with a band including two bassists, Greg Cohen and Tony Falanga, and his son, Denardo Coleman, on drums.

He has a kind of high-end generosity; he said that he wouldn’t think twice about letting me go home with a piece of music he had just written, because he would be interested in what I might make of it. But there is a great pessimism in his talk, too. He said he believes that most of human history has been wasted on building increasingly complicated class structures. “Life is already complete,” he said. “You can’t learn what life is. And the only way you die is if something kills you. So if life and death are already understood, what are we doing?”

A week later we met for several hours at his large, minimal-modernist loft in Manhattan’s garment district. Mr. Coleman is 76 and working often: he is making music with his new quartet that, at heart, is similar to what he made when he was 30. On “Sound Grammar,” his new live album (on his new record label, of the same name), it is a matter of lines traveling together and pulling apart, following the curve of his melodies, tangling and playing in a unison that allows for discrepancies between individual sound and intonation and, sometimes, key.

Unison is one of his key words: he puts an almost mystical significance in it, and he uses it in many ways. “Being a human, you’re required to be in unison: upright,” he said.

Mr. Coleman draws you into the chicken-and-egg questions that he’s asking himself. These questions can become sort of the dark side of Bible class. Many of them are about what happens when you put a name on something, or when you learn some codified knowledge.

Though he is fascinated by music theory, he is suspicious of any construct of thought. Standard Western notation and harmony is a big problem for him, particularly for the fact that the notation for many instruments (including his three instruments — alto saxophone, trumpet and violin) must be transposed to fit the “concert key” of C in Western music.

Mr. Coleman talks about “music” with care and accuracy, but about “sound” with love. He doesn’t understand, he says, how listeners will ever properly understand the power of notes when they are bossed around by the common Western system of harmony and tuning.

He’s not endorsing cacophony: he says making music is a matter of finding euphonious resolutions between different players. (And much of his music keeps referring to, if not actually staying in, a major key.) But the reason he appreciates Louis Armstrong, for example, is that he sees Armstrong as someone who improvised in a realm beyond his own knowledge. “I never heard him play a straight chord in root position for his idea,” he said. “And when he played a high note, it was the finale. It wasn’t just because it was high. In some way, he was telling stories more than improvising.”

Click here to read more of the New York Times article.

Click here to read Peter Segal's 2005 article in Socialist Review.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Cadillac Delta?

There are so many lessons to be learned in the aftermath of Hurricane Katria. Scores of scientists, engineers and politicians have been convened to assess what went wrong and how to prevent a repeat of the widespread devastation should another storm hit. They all agree that the destruction of wetlands to expand oil and gas infrastructure was a major factor contributing to the severity of flooding in New Orleans. Surprisingly, they have all pretty much reached agreement on a plan to restore the wetlands around Louisiana. The plan, which would alter the course of the Mississippi River will bring a deja-vu shiver to anyone who has read Marc Reisner's "Cadillac Desert" (or seen the PBS series based on the book). Reisner details the role government-sanctioned water projects played in developing the American West. It is, in his words a "tale of rivers diverted and damned, of political corruption and intrigue, billion-dollar battles over water rights, of ecological and economic disaster." In the process, the Colorado River became the most "controlled, litigated, domesticated, regulated, and over-allocated river in the history of the world." (GW)

Time to Move the Mississippi, Experts Say

By Cornelia Dean
New York Times

Scientists have long said the only way to restore Louisiana’s vanishing wetlands is to undo the elaborate levee system that controls the Mississippi River, not with the small projects that have been tried here and there, but with a massive diversion that would send the muddy river flooding wholesale into the state’s sediment-starved marshes.

And most of them have long dismissed the idea as impractical, unaffordable and lethal to the region’s economy. Now, they are reconsidering. In fact, when a group of researchers convened last April to consider the fate of the Louisiana coast, their recommendation was unanimous: divert the river.

Far from rejecting the idea, state officials have embraced it, motivated not just by the lessons of Hurricane Katrina but also by growing fears that global climate change will bring rising seas, accelerating land loss and worse weather.

“A major diversion in the lower part of the river is something that needs to be done,” said James R. Hanchey, deputy secretary of the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources. He said the state was convening a planning meeting on the idea this fall. The diversion would be well downstream of New Orleans, in the bird-foot delta at the river’s mouth. Even so, there would be tremendous engineering challenges, particularly in finding a new way for freighters to make their way into the Mississippi’s shipping channel, said Mr. Hanchey, who took his job after retiring as director of engineering and technical services for the Mississippi Valley division of the Army Corps of Engineers. But he added, “I think it’s within the realm of possibility.”

Ellis J. Clairain Jr., interim director of the Louisiana Coastal Area science and technology program for the Army Corps, called the idea “a possible alternative.”

And Virginia R. Burkett, coordinator of global-change science for the United States Geological Survey and another participant at the April meeting, called it “the only practical solution.”

The diversion proposal was recommended by a panel of dozens of scientists and engineers from all over the world invited to Louisiana to view the state’s marshy coast and to envision its future, said Denise J. Reed, a coastal geologist at the University of New Orleans who organized the meeting.

“The thing is to stop wasting 120 million tons of sediment” the river carries into the Gulf of Mexico on an average year, Dr. Reed said. Because the bird-foot delta has grown so far into the gulf, she said, the river’s mouth is at the edge of the continental shelf. As a result, the sediment it carries ends up in deep water, where it is lost forever.

A diversion would send the river’s richly muddy water into marshes or shallow-water areas where, Dr. Reed said, “the natural processes of waves, coastal currents and even storms can rework that sediment and bring it up and bring it into the coast.”

“It’s a lot,” she said, enough to cover 60 square miles half an inch deep every year, an amount that would slow or even reverse land loss in the state’s marshes, which have shrunk by about a quarter, more than 1,500 square miles, since the 1930’s. Such a program would not turn things around immediately, “but every year new land would be built,” said Joseph T. Kelley, a professor of marine geology at the University of Maine, who took part in the April meeting.

As the bird-foot delta broke up, Dr. Reed said, it would provide needed sediment to the frail strings of barrier islands that line some of the Louisiana coast.

Another potential benefit, Mr. Hanchey said, would come from the substantial nutrient runoff from inland agriculture in chemicals that contribute to the so-called dead zone of oxygen-poor water near the river’s mouth. Applied to the marsh, the nutrients might encourage desirable plants, he said.

Designing such a diversion would be complex and time-consuming, and the experts who met in April did not even attempt it. Even this fall’s meeting is not to plan the project, but to plan how the project should be planned, Mr. Hanchey said. Though Louisiana is rich in experts on river, wetland and coastal science, he said, state officials hoped to recruit scientists and engineers from all over the world to tell them “what we would have to know before we could initiate work on something like this, and what we would have to do to gain that knowledge.”

In a way, the bird-foot delta is an artifact of engineering. Without the levees and other structures that keep the river in place, it probably would have taken another path.

Like many major rivers, the Mississippi has tributaries, which feed water into it, and distributaries, which carry water away from it as it nears its mouth. Its tributaries include the Missouri and Ohio Rivers; one way or another, every stream, storm drain and parking lot from the Rockies to the Appalachians drains into the Mississippi. But about 250 miles from the gulf, near Lettsworth, La., the river stops taking water in and starts feeding it out, into the gulf through the main stem of bird-foot delta but also in distributaries like the Atchafalaya River, which flows into Atchafalaya Bay to the west.

Until people interfered with its flow, the Mississippi’s path to the gulf silted up naturally over time; water flow slowed and the river bed lost its capacity to carry a big flood. When next the big flood came, the river would suddenly turn one of its distributaries into its new main stem.

This kind of switching has occurred roughly every 1,500 years, geologists say, and since about 1950 the river has been ready for a change — to the Atchafalaya. The Corps of Engineers prevents that from happening with an enormous installation of locks, dams and power stations near Lettsworth, north of Baton Rouge and about 100 miles northwest of New Orleans.

Simply letting the Mississippi shift to the Atchafalaya would do a lot for the sediment-starved marshes west of the Mississippi. But it would leave cities like Baton Rouge and New Orleans — and the petrochemical infrastructure between them — without fresh water or a navigable waterway.

The diversion the scientists propose would be much farther downstream, but where exactly is not at all certain. One possible location is near Davant, about 45 miles southeast of New Orleans. Another is near Empire, further down the river, where the levees could be opened. In either case the river flow into wet and marshy areas to the west. Another way would have to be found — or constructed — for ships to reach the shipping lane, possibly something engineers call a slack-water channel.

As Dr. Clairain explained, “You divert the river, and then you create an avenue in which you are not allowing the river or the sediment to pass,” a channel or lock in which water does not move. “The ship comes up to whatever control you have” — a gate or the like — “and the ship passes through and then the control is reinstituted.”

He said he was not aware of similar installations on this scale elsewhere but said, “We have a lot of great people in the state and around the nation who are contemplating these kinds of solutions.”

Almost certainly, he and others say, such an approach would require vast new construction. Dr. Clairain said it was unlikely planners would consider using the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet as a shipping channel. Known as Mr. Go, this outlet, just southeast of New Orleans, was blamed as a path for some of the floodwaters that inundated the city in Katrina. Chief among its drawbacks as a shipping channel would be the difficulty of keeping it dredged for big ships.

Other issues include the fate of those who live south of the proposed diversion, compensation for land lost to the project and ownership of any land created by it.

Mr. Hanchey said relatively few people would have to be relocated.

“The closest community is Venice, at the end of the levee system, about 10 miles north of Head of Passes,” where the river splays into the gulf, he said, but its population even pre-Katrina was tiny. South of that is Pilottown, but that, he said, is little more than a place for river pilots to stay while they wait for ships.

“There might also be some oyster-lease issues, but those would be minor,” he said.

Another question has to do with land rights. Oliver Houck, a professor of environmental law at Tulane University, said fishing access and oil and gas rights are the crucial land issues in Louisiana. “Under traditional land regimes,” Professor Houck said newly created riverside or marsh land belongs to the abutting landowner. “The wild card here is, what if you gain it through a huge federal-state project?”

But Mr. Hanchey and Mr. Houck say those issues can also be dealt with relatively easily. Navigation is a bigger problem.

People involved in the proposal recognize that the lower Mississippi is “a working landscape” that must continue to function, said James T. B. Tripp, a lawyer for Environmental Defense and a member of the Louisiana Governor’s Commission for Coastal Restoration.

“One of the major obstacles to doing any of this pre-Katrina was the navigation industry,” he said. “As a result of Katrina, everyone’s thinking has become more flexible. Katrina brought all that home: how vulnerable this economic infrastructure has become. So there is a greater readiness today to think more boldly about how we can manage the river in a way that will help restore and build wetlands.”

Of course the proposed project will be expensive. But Mr. Tripp said there were already “three or four” available financing sources, including coastal oil and gas revenues and other money already approved for coastal restoration.

“Is it practical? Yes,” he said. “Will it be expensive? Yes. But when you look at the alternatives it’s very cost effective,” particularly in an era of rising sea levels.

Obviously, no one wants to make irrevocable changes in the flow of the Mississippi River only to find out they cause more problems than they solve. Could that happen? “I think it’s possible,” Mr. Hanchey said.

But he added: “Our ability to understand and model river responses to actions like this has improved. The technology of hydrodynamic modeling has improved, and of course we have tremendously increased computational power we did not have before. We can run models today in a matter of hours that took weeks even 20 years ago. All of that has improved.

“Still, whether we can model the river precisely I don’t know. It’s going to require a lot of data. It’s going to require a lot of brains. There are probably a limited number of people in the world who have worked on something as large as the Mississippi River.”

Dr. Clairain said the idea of constructing a project and then watching unanticipated consequences lead to disaster “is the kind of thing the Corps of Engineers as a whole worries about.” He continued: “We are talking about doing projects that can have huge impacts to large portions of the nation, the economy, the people. If the project does not deliver all the ecosystem benefits you are hoping it will, you can make tweaks and the ecosystem will survive. That’s not true of flood control and economics.”

But there is a growing recognition that the cost of not acting will be high as well.

Along the Louisiana coast, in the delta plain along the river and the oaky woods along Chenier Plain to the west, much of the land is only a few feet above sea level. If seas rise as expected by two or three feet, or more, in the next century, and if the muddy sediments that form this landscape continue to compact and subside, land loss will only accelerate.

Given the proposal’s many unknowns, it is hard to say how soon water might begin to flow from the river into the marshes. If there is a decision to go ahead, designing the project might take three or four years, Mr. Hanchey said. “And then of course to build something like this — depending on what this thing ended up looking like, it would take another 5 to 10 years,” he said.

Meanwhile, Dr. Reed said, participants in the April meeting are going to produce “a scholarly report” outlining their views in more detail.

"We want to get the citations and the context and the substance behind the arguments,” she said. Dr. Reed said she was “invigorated” by the support the idea had received. “My job is to try to carry it through,” she said, “and make sure people don’t forget about it.”

Click here to go to the original New York Times article.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Cuban life, beauty and complexity – in black and white

Photographs by Jack Kenny
Corazon Press, 2005
Hardcover, 120 pp., $65

Reviewer Scott Vlaun recommends that
anyone with a genuine interest in Cuba should go and spend some time there, although a recent U.S. crackdown has made it harder than ever for U.S. citizens to "see for themselves." I've never been, but friends of mine have. They were impressed with the progressive social agenda there and especially the national sustainable agricultural initiative which places special emphasis on farming in the city --something that I've been interested in for decades. For someone like me who is curious but without firsthand experience, Cuba continues to be an utterly complex, intriguing and mysteriously inspiring place. Jack Kenny's "Cuba" uses the "power of photography" to bring the reader closer to the soul of the country. (GW)

by Scott Vlaun

People's Weekly World

The island nation of Cuba is one of the most fabled places on earth. Just the mention of its name evokes a plethora of images, from steamy salsa music and the world’s finest cigars to the vintage American cars on the streets of Havana and the ubiquitous revolutionary image of Ché Guevara. The Cuban Revolution is a source of hope and pride for many in Latin America and a thorn in the side of others who wish for a return to the days when U.S. business interests reigned supreme.

Depending on who you talk to, you will hear of the highest literacy rates in the region or of draconian food-rationing; a highly effective health care system or of rampant political repression.

A visit to Cuba reveals a complex reality deeply affected both by the U.S embargo against the country, which limits access to basic medicines and other supplies, and the rapid influx of tourist dollars from Europe and Canada, which challenge the socialist example.

Cuba is many things to many people, including the Cubanos themselves. For some, it is an outward-looking culture, obsessed by the perceived riches and excesses of capitalist economies, while for others it is possessed of a proud heritage and stands as a model of defiance and sustainability in a world gone awry.

See for yourself

In the early 1980s I was deeply moved by the photographs of Susan Meiselas chronicling the triumph of the Nicaraguan Revolution, which she was clearly enamored with. When I was lucky enough to see her present the work in person, she implored the people in the audience not to take her word on the matter but to “go see for yourself.”

Having had the good fortune to spend time in Cuba in the late 1990s studying their cutting-edge organic agriculture program, I would suggest that anyone with a genuine interest in the country try to do the same, although a recent U.S. crackdown on travel to the Cuba has made it harder than ever for U.S. citizens to go and “see for themselves.”

Short of being able to travel to Cuba, we can “visit” this beautiful and inspiring country through the eyes and hearts of others. A recent book of photographs simply titled “Cuba” by Jack Kenny is useful in this regard. Kenny’s passion for the people of Cuba and for photography as a means of communication are clearly evident in his carefully executed and richly reproduced black and white images that are the result of his more than 30 trips to the country. While “Cuba” is not a detailed survey of the island and its culture by any means, it is a portal into the lives of a people through a distinct and passionate perspective.

‘Around the island’

Kenny begins his book with a journey that takes us “Around the Island” with a selection of photographs from various provinces, touching on numerous themes. Most are portraits, either intimate or environmental, with the occasional landscape to set the scene. Many of his portraits are piercing, eyes locked on the lens, as if the person is looking through to communicate something of their reality with the viewer.

The pictures are striking on many levels and introduce us to the themes that run through this book. We see families, elders, religion, agriculture, architecture, youth and, of course, cigars, vintage cars and revolutionary imagery.

Kenny’s choice of a picture to start the book is indicative of not only what is to come in the pages that follow, but also points to the inherent dichotomy of the project. Three women, a baby and a man stand in a deteriorating but solid doorway. We know that it is a family because the title tells us so, but it is unclear as to the details. The picture is ripe with ambiguity.

Other pictures are less ambiguous but still open to the viewer’s stance: A man toils at a lathe in a rustic shop; a patched up ’50s vintage Cadillac drives in front of a crumbling, yet beautiful, Greek Revival-style home; boys play a game of chess on a tattered “board” sitting on the stoop of a rundown building; a man tills a field with a team of oxen and a makeshift harrow.

Those of us sympathetic to the Cuban project read these richly detailed images as a record of the fortitude, resilience, ingenuity and pride of a people who have figured out how to do more with less and see the glass as half full. Taken a step further, the Cubans in these pictures could be seen as world leaders in sustainability as they recycle products and practice sustainable agriculture.

‘Playa Baracoa’

The second and shortest section of the book, “Playa Baracoa,” has only 13 photographs, but does much to tell the recent history of this seaside town and Cuba in general. Kenny photographed Playa Baracoa before and after Hurricane Ivan, which dealt the former summer resort of rich Cubans a direct hit. Vestiges of the town’s former opulence are evident in a few of the pictures: an elaborate and detailed stone foundation, a beautifully tiled floor, and a whitewashed summer cottage interior festooned with starfish and hanging nets, all speak to an earlier time when this town was a summer haven for the city’s wealthy.

Beyond this vestige of a storied past, numerous portraits speak to a new reality. A boy on a mountain bike sports a pair of stylish sunglasses and gleaming white pair of basketball sneakers, two young girls clad in bathing suits and flip flops smile by his side, a well groomed street spreads out behind them. Other more intimate portraits might be of families anywhere expressing the joy of a summer vacation, albeit in less prosperous times, posing in front of a weathered facade or swimming off of a crumbling breakwater.

The most striking image of this section has little to do with the seaside culture, but is one of the rare images in this book that speaks to the artistic vitality of Cuba. A young girl in a wheelchair, leg in a cast, sits in front of her brother’s painting. She seems to emerge from the artwork itself, which evokes the highly regarded work of painters like Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat. A close look at the photograph reveals that the artist’s “canvas” is actually the side of a building.

Havana life

The final and by far the most extensive section of “Cuba” documents the street life of Havana, arguably one of the most photogenic cities on earth. Its colonial architecture and bustling streets have engaged countless documentary photographers, and Kenny follows in that tradition with a broad overview of the activities that take place there, interspersed with some penetrating portraits.

While there are a few images in this section that stand out as powerful statements in their own right (his “Diving on the Malecon” is among the best, evoking the work of the great Hungarian photographer Martin Munkacsi), it is the sum of the pictures presented that paint a portrait of the city in all its vibrancy.

In Kenny’s Havana, vintage cars share the road with bicycles, and laundry hangs to dry in brilliant whiteness. Groups of people gather to play games, vendors vend, hair is cut, fingernails painted, elaborate tattoos revealed. Lovers stroll Kenny’s streets. Except for the city’s stunning backdrop, this explosion of life could be anywhere, which may be Kenny’s point.

Power of photography

Contrary to popular belief in the U.S., the people of Cuba are mostly a happy and vital lot, going about the business of life much as everyone else. If there is repression, it’s not visible in these streets. If there is poverty, it’s not of the wrenching kind that we see in the war-torn parts of the world that dominate our news. Kenny’s Cuba is full of hope, inspiration and beauty.

If we wonder for a minute where his sympathies lie, we need only to turn to the last two pages of the book. On the first of these two pages a “revolutionary” proudly displays a tattoo of Ché that covers the better part of his chest. The following and final page of the book is a portrait of Alberto “Korda” Diaz, the photographer who made the iconic photograph of Ché, a potent symbol of revolution, from which the tattoo and millions of other reproductions have been made.

Whether you find yourself with the opportunity to visit Cuba and “see for yourself” or not, Jack Kenny’s “Cuba” has much to reveal about this glorious island and its people. It also speaks of the power of photography to communicate, albeit subjectively, across boundaries of all kinds, whether physical, cultural or political.

Scott Vlaun ( is a writer, photographer and co-founder of Moose Pond Arts and Ecology in Otisfield, Maine.

Land and life

"The ancient balance of natural soil communities had at last been upset by opportunist intelligence. Man stepped outside the scheme of nature, and started the process we call history." So writes Edward Hyams in Soil and Civilization (1952) -- one of the first books to examine human history from an ecological perspective. Hyams argues that food and soil are the long-term drivers of civilization. If he's right, what does that say about our future? Three current views on the topic follow. (GW)

E: "The Scoop on Dirt: Why We Should all Worship the Ground We Walk On"

by Tamsyn Jones

It’s one of nature’s most perfect contradictions: a substance that is ubiquitous but unseen; humble but essential; surprisingly strong but profoundly fragile. It nurtures life and death; undergirds cities, forests and oceans; and feeds all terrestrial life on Earth. It is a substance few people understand and most take for granted. Yet, it is arguably one of Earth’s most critical natural resources—and humans, quite literally, owe to it their very existence.

From the food we eat to the clothes we wear to the air we breathe, humanity depends upon the dirt beneath our feet. Gardeners understand this intuitively; to them, the saying “cherish the soil” is gospel. But for the better part of society, dirt barely gets a sideways glance. To most, it’s just part of the background, something so obvious it’s ignored.

Even among the environmentally minded, soil sags well below the radar of important causes. But the relationship between soil quality and other aspects of environmental health is intricately entwined. What’s more, it’s a relationship that encompasses a vast swath of territory, from agricultural practices to global climate change, and from the well being of oceans to that of people.

Despite humankind’s long relationship with soil, the stuff remains a mystery. Even our language manages to maligns it. Somehow, “dirt” has acquired a bad reputation. And it’s been codified in some of our most common idioms, with people described as “dirty rotten scoundrels,” “poor as dirt” or “dirtbags.” The modern word “dirt” itself descends from the less than complimentary Old English word “drit,” meaning “excrement.” Instead of marveling at the mystery of soil, we have mocked it, by dredging and paving; desiccating and polluting; and working it to exhaustion.

Now our poor husbandry of this essential resource is catching up with us, in the form of disconcertingly rapid erosion and loss of farmland, widespread agricultural pollution, damage to fisheries, and alarming levels of pesticides and other chemicals building up in our bodies. The subject of soil is rarely billed as glamorous or sexy, but it should be. From its remarkable properties to its critical ecological importance, the dirt under our feet is a goldmine of scientific wonderment, and it’s about time people got excited about soil.

Click here to read more.

"Seeds of Hope"

What do you need to create a green revolution in Africa? Women and fertilizer

Christine Gorman

Walk through countless small villages in sub-Saharan Africa, and you will find the same scene repeated again and again: women bent over double, hoeing scrawny plants in dirt packed so hard it's tough to imagine anything ever growing in it. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent over the past half-century trying to do something about the region's crushing poverty, but the situation remains desperate. Rural Africa is hollowing out, unable to feed itself, let alone supply food to the continent's rapidly growing megacities.

In this context, the Gates and Rockefeller foundations announced last week their plan to spend $150 million over the next five years to boost agricultural productivity on the continent. The initial investments will go to developing hardy seed varieties of regionally appropriate crops, creating markets for the distribution of those seeds and educating a new generation of African plant scientists. It's a back-to-basics approach that avoids gambling on shortcuts. But to be successful the new initiative--dubbed the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa--will very soon have to address two equally pressing issues: the need for widespread use of chemical fertilizers to replenish exhausted soil and some sort of system to ensure greater participation of women--who perform the bulk of the work on Africa's farms.

Action is urgently needed. More than 80% of African soil is seriously degraded, and in many areas it is on the verge of permanent failure. For centuries, farmers survived by clearing new land for each season's plantings and allowing old fields to lie fallow and replenish their nutrients. But the continent's fourfold increase in population since the 1950s has forced farmers to grow crop after crop on the same fields, draining them of all nourishment. Do that for a long enough time, and the physical nature of the soil changes. It becomes so tightly compacted that it can't hold water or let roots spread. "Eventually you get to the point where even weeds won't grow," says Gary Toenniessen, director of food security at the Rockefeller Foundation. "Just adding fertilizer back doesn't help. You actually have to replace the soil." The loss of productive land has driven farmers to clear ever more marginal areas, including forests and hillsides, for agriculture.

Click here to read more.

BBC News:
"Debt drives Indian farmers to suicide"

By Zubair Ahmed
BBC News

The family of young cotton farmer Kailash Jhade wanted to marry him off before the cash crop season began in June. The timing is considered auspicious, and symbolises hope.

But the family's hopes were dashed when they discovered their eldest son's body in a communal well a few weeks ago.

Why did he kill himself? "Mounting debt," his family said.

The 26-year-old farmer's cousin, Pramod Manorathi, knew how disturbed he had been.

"He had a loan from the bank and he used to be quite worried about how to pay it back," he says. "He often thought about how he'll finance his wedding."

Kailash was one of the most eligible bachelors in Linga village of 400 farmers, just a stone's throw from Maharashtra state's prosperous Nagpur city, famous for oranges.

Ironically, the pesticide he consumed was also bought on debt.

'Three deaths a day'

The plight of 3.2 million cotton growers in Maharashtra's cotton-growing region of Vidarbha is no different. Crippling debts have resulted in 470 farmers committing suicide since June last year.

I have to look after our two children, his old parents - and I have to pay his debt back
Rekha Bhan, farmer's widow

"On average, three farmers are killing themselves here every day," says Kishor Tiwari, who left a lucrative job with General Electric a decade ago to devote himself to the farmers' cause.

Kailash's debt - an initial loan of $200, with interest stacking up another $300 - was five times his annual income, on which he was already making a loss every year.

But relatively well-off farmers are committing suicide too.

Vitobha Shette, 40 and one of the richest farmers in the backward district of Yuvatmal's Mangi village, borrowed $6,111 from a government bank and a private village money lender.

But he wasn't able to pay the money back - so, his brother said, he killed himself.

Another wealthy farmer, Chandra Bhan, owed $3,000. On 1 April, while his family was taking the afternoon siesta, he poured kerosene all over himself and then lit a match.

Mounting demands

For men such as these, the debt trap proves a death trap.

And usually the final straw is a blizzard of money-lenders' threats and bank notices.

In Kailash's case, a bank notice was accompanied by the threat of confiscation of his land. Chandra Bhan died in hospital two days after his self-immolation saying that money-lenders' demands had pushed him to the edge.

Unfortunately, for the families of the farmers who take their own lives, the tragic loss of sons, husbands and fathers is only the start of their problems.

Chandra Bhan's wife Rekha is angry with her dead husband.

"I'm very angry with him," she says. "I have to look after our two children, his old parents - and I have to pay his debt back."

Click here to read more.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

"Civilization has many problems, energy is central to all of them."

Interesting isn't it, how Buckminster Fuller's idea of a global electric grid keeps popping up in discussions and articles focusing on long-term solutions to the world's energy problems? The physical artifact itself seems to be emerging organically even as experts continue to argue against its construction on the grounds that it's too ambitious, too expensive, and/or politically impossible. Bucky was convinced that Nature is determined to make an evolutionary success of the humanity. He saw the world-around grid as a synergistic means of sustainably meeting society's energy needs, and a way of reconnecting us to one another as a single species as well. Our new-found energy interdependence would be a powerful illustration of just how disempowering the arbitrary political boundaries that divide us really are.(GW)

It's Not Too Early

By Marty Hoffert
Technology Review

We know where we must go eventually: toward a sustainable energy infrastructure. Why not head there now?

In the 1970s, Buckminster Fuller proposed superconducting global-scale electrical grids to wheel solar energy collected on the daylight hemisphere halfway around the earth to the nighttime hemisphere.

Given the potential for catastrophic climate change, a question must be asked: What has happened to such far-out and disruptive -- but not necessarily unfeasible -- visions for a renewable-energy future? Right now, hundreds of new coal plants are on drawing boards around the world.

Today, the world uses about 13 terawatts of power, approximately 80 percent of it from carbon-dioxide-emitting fossil fuels. If we want to keep Earth's average temperature low enough to prevent eventual large sea-level rises (see "The Messenger") -- and also accommodate continued 3 percent annual economic growth -- we will need between 10 and 30 terawatts of new carbon-free power by 2050.

The time to start building a sustainable carbon-free energy infrastructure is now. We need Apollo-type research to accomplish this, beginning perhaps with funding of far-out programs along the lines of ARPA-E ("E" for energy), an initiative proposed by the National Academy of Sciences and modeled on the U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency (now prefaced by "Defense"), which gave us the Internet.

A global-energy-systems engineer -- if such a profession existed -- would probably have recourse to many technologies that are disruptive of today's powerful coal, oil, and gas industries. Wind turbines are already economically competitive with conventional energy sources in some regions. Steadier and faster high-altitude winds might be harvested someday by flying wind turbines (pictured in illustration) that transmit electricity to Earth through tethering wires.

The greatest potential for terawatt-scale renewable electric power lies in harvesting solar energy directly. About 2,000 megawatts of silicon-based photovoltaic cells have been manufactured, but the existing technology is expensive. A promising path to cost reduction is thin-film cells that include materials like copper indium diselenide, cadmium telluride, and amorphous silicon. Aggressive R&D and expanding markets will reduce costs, but a big push from government could help realize solar's vast potential.

One weakness of solar power is its intermittency. But photo-voltaic panels in geostationary orbit could be positioned to receive constant sunlight and thereby furnish the earth with a reliable stream of electricity. They should be the focus of experiments on the scale of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor scheduled to be built in France. Unlike fusion, space-solar technologies -- including wireless power transmission -- are well understood. The aesthetics, like those of offshore wind turbines, are contentious. But for me, the image of a ring of sun-reflecting solar-power satellites in the night sky evokes Yeats's "golden apples of the sun" -- humankind's coming of age on star power. On Earth, we need entirely new electrical grids that are "smart," store excess power, and minimize resistance to enable transmission of renewable but intermittent energy across continents.

There's much more that can be done to promote "green" homes and offices through a more enlightened federal policy. Mass public exhibits of creative sun- and wind-powered technology, buildings, and communities could stimulate consumer demand in the way that General Motors' "Futurama" exhibit at the 1939 World's Fair created demand for cars and parkways and, by extension, suburban homes.

The late Nobel laureate Rick Smalley observed that even though our civilization has many problems, energy is central to all of them. Questions that begin "What is...?" are often the wrong ones; the better question is "What could possibly be?" Spurred by World War II, the United States went from biplanes to jets, from laboratory U-235 fission to Hiroshima, from microwaves to radar -- all in less than a decade. The coming battle for a sustainable energy infrastructure will require every bit as much a team effort from government, researchers, and industry. We know where we must go eventually. Why not head there now?

Marty Hoffert is professor emeritus of physics at New York University.

Copyright Technology Review 2006.

Monday, September 18, 2006

The city of first priorities

I first heard of Curitiba while working at the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) in Roxbury, Massachusetts. I was curious to see if some of their successes in comprehensive planning were transferable to a community like ours. Although I never got a chance to visit Curitiba myself, I did have the opportunity to hear Bill McKibben give a talk describing his impressions of the city and its people -- which really is the next best thing to being there. (GW)

by Donella Meadows

RESIDENTS OF CURITIBA, BRAZIL, think they live in the best city in the world, and a lot of outsiders agree. Curitiba has seventeen new parks, ninety miles of bike paths, trees everywhere, and traffic and garbage systems that officials from other cities come to study. Curitiba's mayor for twelve years, Jaime Lerner, has a 92 percent approval rating.

There is nothing special about Curitiba's history, location or population. Like all Latin American cities, the city has grown enormously -- from 150,000 people in the 1950s to 1.6 million now. It has its share of squatter settlements, where fewer than half the people are literate. Curitiba's secret, insofar as it has one, seems to be a simple willingness of the people at the top to get their kicks from solving problems.

Those people at the top started in the 1960s with a group of young architects who were not impressed by the urban fashion of borrowing money for big highways, massive buildings, shopping malls and other showy projects. They were thinking about the environment and about human needs. They approached Curitiba's mayor, pointed to the rapid growth of the city, and made a case for better planning.

The mayor sponsored a contest for a Curitiba master plan. He circulated the best entries, debated them with the citizens, and then turned the people's comments over to the upstart architects, asking them to develop and implement a final plan.

Jaime Lerner was one of the architects. In 1971 he was appointed mayor by the then military government of Brazil. He has since served two more four-year terms (nonconsecutive, as required by Brazilian law) -- one of them appointed, the other elected.

Given Brazil's economic situation, Lerner had to think small, cheap, and participatory -- which was how he was thinking anyway. He provided 1.5 million tree seedlings to neighborhoods for them to plant and care for. ("There is little in the architecture of a city that is more beautifully designed than a tree," says Lerner.) He solved the city's flood problems by diverting water from lowlands into lakes in the new parks. He hired teenagers to keep the parks clean.

Lerner prefers rehabilitating built-up areas to spreading the city outward. He converted a former warehouse into a theater and an abandoned glue factory into a community center. He met resistance from shopkeepers when he proposed turning the downtown shopping district into a pedestrian zone, so he suggested a thirty-day trial. The zone was so popular that shopkeepers on the other streets asked to be included. Now one pedestrian street, the Rua das Flores, is lined with gardens tended by street children.

Orphaned or abandoned street children are a problem all over Brazil. Lerner got each industry, shop and institution to "adopt" a few children, providing them with a daily meal and a small wage in exchange for simple maintenance, gardening or office chores. Brazil forbids child labor; Lerner says, "By law, a child mustn't work, but society looks the other way when he goes hungry or homeless or works for a drug trafficker."

Another Lerner innovation was to organize the street vendors into a mobile, open-air fair that circulates through the city's neighborhoods.

Concentric circles of local bus lines connect to five lines that radiate from the center of the city in a spider web pattern. On the radial lines, triple-compartment buses in their own traffic lanes carry three hundred passengers each. They go as fast as subway cars, but at one-eightieth the construction cost.

The buses stop at Plexiglas tube stations designed by Lerner. Passengers pay their fares, enter through one end of the tube, and exit from the other end. This system eliminates paying on board, and allows faster loading and unloading, less idling and air pollution, and a sheltered place for waiting -- though the system is so efficient that there isn't much waiting. There isn't much littering either. There isn't time.

Bus fares are low (twenty to forty cents per ride, with unlimited transfers), but the system pays for itself. Private companies own and operate the buses and keep part of each fare. The city gets the rest to pay for roads and terminal and to buy up old buses, which are refurbished as classrooms, day-care centers, and clinics.

Curitiba's citizens separate their trash into just two categories, organic and inorganic, for pickup by two kinds of trucks. Poor families in squatter settlements that are unreachable by trucks bring their trash bags to neighborhood centers, where they exchange them for bus tickets or for eggs, milk, oranges and potatoes, bought from outlying farms.

The trash goes to a plant (itself built of recycled materials) that employs people to separate bottles from cans from plastic. The workers are handicapped people, recent immigrants, alcoholics.

Recovered materials are sold to local industries. Styrofoam is shredded to stuff quilts for the poor. The recycling program costs no more than the old land-fill, but the city is cleaner, there are more jobs, farmers are supported, and the poor get food and transportation. Curitiba recycles two-thirds of its garbage -- one of the highest rates of any city, North or South.

Curitiba builders get a tax break if their projects include green areas. The city has a hotline to report industrial polluters. In spite of strict environmental laws, 341 major industries, including Fiat, Pepsi and Volvo, have plants or offices in Curitiba.

Jaime Lerner says, "The dream of a better city is always in the heads of its residents. Our city isn't a paradise. It has most of the problems of other cities. But when we provide good buses and school and health clinics, everybody feels respected. The strategic vision leads us to put the first priorities on the child and the environment. For there is no deeper feeling of solidarity than that of dealing with the citizen of tomorrow, the child, and the environment in which that child is going to live."

The city of first priorities. (Curitiba, Brazil). Donella Meadows. Whole Earth Review n85 (Spring 1995)

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Curitiba's Bus System is Model for Rapid Transit

Bus systems provide a versatile form of public transportation with the flexibility to serve a variety of access needs and unlimited range of locations throughout a metropolitan area. Buses also travel on urban roadways, so infrastructure investments can be substantially lower than the capital costs required for rail systems. As a result, bus service can be implemented cost-effectively on many routes. Yet, despite the inherent advantages of a bus service, conventional urban buses inching their way through congested streets don’t win much political support. The essence of a Bus Rapid Transit is to improve bus operating speed and reliability on arterial streets by reducing or eliminating the various types of delay.

The bus system of Curitiba, Brazil, exemplifies a model Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, and plays a large part in making this a livable city. The buses run frequently—some as often as every 90 seconds—and reliably, and the stations are convenient, well-designed, comfortable, and attractive. Consequently, Curitiba has one of the most heavily used, yet low-cost, transit systems in the world. It offers many of the features of a subway system—vehicle movements unimpeded by traffic signals and congestion, fare collection prior to boarding, quick passenger loading and unloading—but it is above ground and visible. Around 70 percent of Curitiba’s commuters use the BRT to travel to work, resulting in congestion-free streets and pollution-free air for the 2.2 million inhabitants of greater Curitiba.

The Evolution of Curitiba’s BRT

Thirty years ago, Curitiba’s forward-thinking and cost-conscious planners integrated public transportation into all the other elements of the urban planning system. They initiated a system that focused on meeting the transportation needs of all people—rather than those using private automobiles—and consistently followed through with a staged implementation of their plan. They avoided large-scale and expensive projects in favor of hundreds of modest initiatives.

A previous comprehensive plan for Curitiba, developed in 1943, had envisioned exponential growth in automobile traffic with wide boulevards radiating from the core of the city to accommodate it. Rights of way for the boulevards were acquired, but many other parts of the plan never materialized. Then in 1965, prompted by fears among city officials that Curitiba’s rapid growth would lead to unchecked development and congested streets, they adopted a new Master Plan. Curitiba would no longer grow in all directions from the core, but would grow along designated corridors in a linear form, spurred by zoning and land use policies promoting high density industrial and residential development along the corridors. Downtown Curitiba would no longer be the primary destination of travel, but a hub and terminus. Mass transit would replace the car as the primary means of transport within the city, and the development along the corridors would produce a high volume of transit ridership. The wide boulevards established in the earlier plan would provide the cross section required for exclusive bus lanes in which an express bus service would operate.

A Hierarchical System of Bus Services

Curitiba’s bus system is composed of a hierarchical system of services. Minibuses routed through residential neighborhoods feed passengers to conventional buses on circumferential routes around the central city and on inter-district routes. The backbone of the system is composed of the Bus Rapid Transit, operating on the five main arteries leading into the center of the city like spokes on a wheel hub.

Buses running in the dedicated lanes stop at cylindrical, clear-walled tube stations with turnstiles, steps, and wheelchair lifts. Passengers pay their fares as they enter the stations, and wait for buses on raised platforms. Instead of steps, buses have extra wide doors and ramps that extend out to the station platform when the doors open. The tube stations serve the dual purpose of providing shelter from the elements, and facilitating the simultaneous loading and unloading of passengers, including wheelchairs, efficiently. This system of same-level bus boarding, plus the pre-boarding fare payment, results in a typical dwell time of no more than 15 to 19 seconds at a stop.

Passengers pay a single fare equivalent to about 40 cents (U.S.) for travel throughout the system, with unlimited transfers between buses at terminals where different services intersect. Transfers occur within the prepaid sections of the terminals, so transfer tickets are not needed. Also, located within these terminals are conveniences, such as public telephones, post offices, newspaper stands, and small retail facilities.

Ten private bus companies, which run the actual buses, are paid by distance traveled rather than passenger volume to allow a balanced distribution of bus routes and eliminate clogging of main roads. All ten bus companies earn an operating profit. The city pays the companies about one percent of the bus value per month. After ten years, the city takes control of the buses and uses them for transportation to parks, or as mobile schools.

The Intersection of Transit and Land Use Planning

Curitiba’s Master Plan integrated transportation with land use planning, calling for a cultural, social, and economic transformation of the city. It limited central area growth, while encouraging commercial growth along the transport arteries radiating out from the city center. The city center was partly closed to vehicular traffic, and pedestrian streets were created. Linear development along the arteries reduced the traditional importance of the downtown area as the primary focus of day-to-day transport activity, thereby minimizing congestion and the typical morning and afternoon flows of traffic. Instead, rush hour in Curitiba has heavy commuter movements in both directions along the public transportation arteries.

Other policies have also contributed to the success of the transit system. Land within two blocks of the transit arteries is zoned for high density, since it generates more transit ridership per square foot. Beyond the two blocks, zoned residential densities taper in proportion to distance from transitways. Planners discourage auto-oriented centers and channel new retail growth to transit corridors. Very limited public parking is available in the downtown area, and most employers offer transportation subsidies, especially to low-skilled and low-paid employees.

The BRT—A Success Story

The popularity of Curitiba’s BRT has effected a modal shift from automobile travel to bus travel. Based on 1991 traveler survey results, it was estimated that the introduction of the BRT had caused a reduction of about 27 million auto trips per year, saving about 27 million liters of fuel annually. In particular, 28 percent of BRT riders previously traveled by car. Compared to eight other Brazilian cities of its size, Curitiba uses about 30 percent less fuel per capita, resulting in one of the lowest rates of ambient air pollution in the country. Today about 1,100 buses make 12,500 trips every day, serving more than 1.3 million passengers—50 times the number from 20 years ago. Eighty percent of travelers use the express or direct bus services. Best of all, Curitibanos spend only about 10 percent of their income on travel—much below the national average.

This article is excerpted from a Federal Transportation Administration publication on Issues in Bus Rapid Transit. Bert Arrillaga, chief of the Service Innovation Division in the Office of Mobility Innovation, provided guidance and overall direction for its content. Staff members from both the Federal Transportation Administration and the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center (Volpe Center) participated in its writing.

Race, Poverty & The Environment

Plugging the energy gap with wind

Cordis News Service
September 9, 2006

Many energy forecasts have significantly overestimated global oil and gas reserves, and a serious shortfall between demand and supply could be evident within the next ten years. This is the stark message from a new report launched in Brussels this month by the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC) and Renewable Energy Systems Ltd (RES).

According to the report, 'Plugging the Gap - A survey of world fuel resources and their impact on the development of wind energy', supply forecasts from bodies such as the International Energy Agency (IEA) are often too optimistic, giving the impression of plentiful and even growing reserves of oil, gas and coal.

'Public data about oil and gas reserves is strikingly inconsistent,' the report writes. 'Furthermore it seems to be unreliable for legal, commercial, historical and sometimes political reasons.' Different reporting practices and confusing terminology also help to confuse the picture.

To gain a clearer perspective of the reserves available, the GWEC and RES went back to drilling logs from individual wells, which are compiled into databases which can be used by the industry. Although much of the data is not available to the public, details of important regions and global totals can be found in published papers.

What the researchers found was worrying; their figures suggest that world oil production will peak in around ten years time and then tail gradually off, even as demand for oil continues to rise. They forecast that by 2030, there will be a gap between supply and demand equivalent to five times the current production of Saudi Arabia.

'The oil gap is the most urgent and the hardest to fill because no alternative to liquid fuels have been developed on a large scale so far and the time to do so is running out,' notes the report. 'Eventually the oil gap will be filled by a mix of demand reduction and vehicle efficiency, liquids from coal, biofuels and natural gas.'

For gas, the report predicts that production will peak in 2030. However, demand is growing so fast that by then demand will considerably outstrip supply. The resulting energy gap will be filled by a mix of energy efficiency, power generation from renewables, coal and nuclear and heat production from renewable sources.

Coal reserves are more extensive, and the report estimates that they will not run out until the end of the 21st century. However, producing energy from coal has a high environmental impact and mitigating these is an expensive process. Furthermore, some coal will have to be used to make materials and substances like plastics and fertilisers, which are traditionally made with oil.
Overall, the report finds that a gap between supply and demand for oil and gas will become evident soon after 2010. According to the authors of the report, wind power is an important part of the solution.

'World energy sources are not sufficient to sustain the expected growth trends,' commented Dr Ian Mays, Managing Director of the RES Group. 'Wind power is very much ready to keep the lights on and fill the gap. Wind power technologies are working successfully all over the world and with foresight and appropriate policy frameworks there is enough resource to role out wind power on a huge scale.'

'GWEC estimates that more than 1,000 GW [gigawatts] of wind capacity could be installed by 2020, if significant policy changes are implemented,' added Arthouros Zervos, Chairman of GWEC. 'This potential is technically realisable but will require continuing development of policies to facilitate more substantial integration of wind energy into the generation mix.'

The renewable energy sector has been lobbying hard for two thirds of the non-nuclear energy research budget under the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) to be allocated to research into renewable energy sources. Although the European Parliament passed amendments to this effect when it voted on FP7 back in June, the European Commission subsequently reversed the decision in its amended proposal.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Greening The Dragon

"What happens in China, happens to the rest of the planet, for good or ill," according to Jonathan Porritt, Chair of the UK Sustainable Development Commission.

Porritt's comment is in reference to what the UK publication Green Futures calls "the most important unfolding story anywhere in the world" -- China's drive to modernize its economy.

There's no question that in some respects, living standards in China have improved dramatically as a result of the country's economic boom. According to "Greening the Dragon" an outstanding special supplement to Green Futures, the average life expectancy increased from just 35 years in 1949 to 72 years in 2004. Some 250 million people have found jobs allowing them to escape extreme poverty.

But these gains have extracted a heavy toll on the environment:
  • Within ten years, China is likely to be the prime emitter of greenhouse gases worldwide.
  • China is building a new coal-fired power station every ten days.
  • Overall, China added 65,000 megawatts of new power generation in 2005 alone (approximatley equal to the UK's total installed capacity) .
  • 1,000 new cars are rolled out onto the streets of Bejing each day.
  • According to the Chinese deputy environmental minister, acid raid is falling on one third of the country.
  • Sixteen of the world's 20 most polluted cities are in China.
There is reason for optimism, however. When China released its 11th Five Year Plan earlier this year, Premier Wen Jiabao vowed that China could not afford to follow the "old path of grow first and clean up the environmental mess later."

As a result the government has set some ambitious sustainable development targets:
  • 10% reduction in total pollutants
  • 20% fall in energy consumption per unit of Gross Domestic Product (GDP)
  • 30% reduction in water usage (per unit of industrial value added)
China is also developing a green accounting system that will include full environmental costs in its calculations of GDP.

Jonathan Porritt writing in "Greening the Dragon" views the commitment to these goals as a sign that China could lead the world in a kind of "green industrial revolution that Western leaders love to pontificate about."

Orville Schell, author of nine books on China and Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley sums it up this way: "China thinks long-term, but can it re-learn to act long-term?" (GW)