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Tag Archive for environment

Why Urban Gardening: An Answer for Atrios


Originally published November 2, 2009, except for the Arlo Guthrie video which I added tonight because the song fits and his version is better than John Denver’s and besides I wanted to give you an ear worm.

Atrios asks:

Please Get A Soil Lead Reading First
I guess we can make this contrarian Saturday. One thing I really don’t understand – help me! – is the regular stream of people promoting urban agriculture. I don’t understand the point. I’ve got nothing against community gardens and the like, I understand that even urban hellhole residents might want to play in the soil a bit, but I really don’t get what the point of promoting urban agriculture more widely is.

Well, there are a number of reasons, both direct and indirect.

Gardening helps remediate and clean up all that lead in the soil, which by the way is plentiful in your standard country-agriculture too, thanks to decades of lead-based pesticide use. As the linked article makes clear however, remediating soil with lime or compost can raise the pH of your growing medium, and make lead less of a problem. One of my friends, who works at one of Philadelphia’s urban farms, tells me that if you remediate your soil with compost ever year for three years or so, any lead is thoroughly dissipated. So that’s one reason: cleaning up and improving soil.

Another reason pertains to the whole “think globally, act locally” philosophy. Even though Philadelphia fits the description of a sustainable city due to our direct economic link to the farms of Lancaster county and beyond, it still costs money in terms of gasoline and road wear to truck meat and produce into the city. These costs are part of the price you pay at local farmers markets. Example: earlier this week, I paid $3.00 for a bag of baby greens and $2.50 for a head of red leaf lettuce. That same $5.50 pays for at least 2 packets of seeds which will grow ten times as many greens. In fact, the only reason I bought the baby greens this weekend was because mine aren’t fully grown and ready to eat. Urban farms encourage the local economy, and make our city more sustainable.

Planting crops like dill, cilantro, basil, and other herbs that bear very small flowers helps support our honeybee and beneficial insect population, all of which are under enormous pressures from chemical pesticides and pollution. Out in California, there’s worry that colony collapse disorder will literally destroy the bee-dependent almond industry: as we all should know by now, honeybee-based pollination is responsible for about two-thirds of all the food we eat, including beef (alfalfa is prime cattle feed, and wholly dependent on bees). Honeybees aren’t native to the US, and anything we can do to help them thrive and survive is a good thing. As it happens, there’s a hive somewhere on my block, and my cilantro and basil helps keep them alive, while playing a small role in ensuring biodiversity.

This brings us to the economics. A few years ago my buddy Larry let his daughters buy some baby chicks to keep as pets. Larry’s good with his hands and built a coop for the birds in the back yard. After about a year, the fluffy yellow birds had grown into full-size chickens, which lay eggs that Larry eats for breakfast. I don’t know the last time he had to buy a dozen eggs at the store. That’s a savings right there. Furthermore, the birds are pretty much self-perpetuating: chickens will eat just about anything, and don’t require a ton of care. It’s not like you pay out the nose for feed.

I’ll continue with the economics: it’s November and we just tore down our tomato plants yesterday. Even then, there was some discussion as to whether we could wring a few more fruits out of the vines. While it’s difficult to quantify exactly how many pounds of tomatoes we grew, I can tell you this much: our cabinets are stocked with quarts of tomatoes [my ex] canned herself. Last year, we didn’t buy a single can of whole peeled tomatoes ($1.79-$2.50 apiece, trucked in from someplace else, canned in a factory the doubtless generates runoff and other pollution) all winter. All of our turnip greens are canned. So are the green beans. I don’t think we ran out until March and by that time, spring was upon us and it was almost time to start the cycle over. Currently, I’m growing broccolli and cauliflower in the backyard, two crops I eat a lot of. Thanks to my urban garden, I don’t have to buy them at the store, where the price will include a markup that covers all the trucking costs and provides for the grocery’s profit margin.

Did you know most grocery store garlic comes from China? Again, there are ramifications for global warming (all that fuel spent in shipping the stuff), as well as worries about what chemicals the Chinese are using to grow the crop. Garlic is incredibly easy to grow: plant cloves each October, harvest whole bulbs by July.

Urban agriculture also adds greenery to neighborhoods that might otherwise be blighted with vacant lots, which in Philadelphia is another word for “impromptu landfill”. Community gardens help create a sense of ownership and neighborhood cohesion among the residents. For example, my neighbors have taken over the lot next to their house, setting up about 10 raised beds as well as a work space. Earlier this month, they got their hands on a cider press, and were going through crate after crate of apples. All the little kids on the block were looking through the fence and asking to help. What better way to teach kids about the value of nature and respect for their world than through hands-on activities that end with something yummy?

Finally, there’s the whole notion of learning a skill. It wasn’t too long ago that everyone had some level of gardening and farming skills (as well as sewing and clothing repair, brewing, basic carpentry…). These days we’re almost entirely dependent on others to provide the necessities of life. If the apocalypse hit tomorrow, [my ex] and I would be set for a few weeks at least, and if we were able to avoid the rampaging mobs of zombies and flaming hailstone dropping from the sky, we’d have more crops going as soon as possible.

So: urban gardening helps individual households cut their dependence on corporate food and all the negative consequences that go along with that; helps build the local economy by encouraging small business and nurturing entrepreneurship; helps sustain populations of beneficial insects and encourages biodiversity; teaches adults and kids a meaningful skill; promotes responsibility and independence; and helps build community. Those are just some of the reasons for promoting urban agriculture widely.

Anthony Hardy Williams Writes a Letter

Anthony Hardy Williams, baloney salesman:

However, while I expect to be in your spotlight, when you come after my wife, you cross the line. Beyond incorrectly calling her a lobbyist when she is a communications manager, you implied that her hiring was the result of a vote I took, which ignores her decades of communications experience in the energy field. And, by extension, you insulted all women in the workplace by suggesting that an experienced, talented woman needs a man’s help to get a job.

My objection to your story is not about me, it’s about my wife and all of the women in the workplace who have to face the kind of backward thinking you put on full display. It was sexist, insulting and offensive.

Baloney. Williams’ cries of “sexism” are meant to be a distraction from the pertinent and important fact that the candidate -who has no stated environmental policies– is married to a natural gas lobbyist who brings home $112,00 per year to write and disseminate industry-friendly articles and video that explicitly reject taxing Marcellus shale gas. Those taxes would go (in part) to help fund Philadelphia’s public schools, and we all know how Anthony Hardy Williams feels about public education: specifically, that it would better privatized.

So no, I don’t see any sexism in the column: while the writer does mention the timing of Ms. Williams hire at MSC, her qualifications are clearly spelled out much earlier:

A former communications specialist for the Pennsylvania Utilities Commission, a regulatory body that oversees aspects of the state’s gas industry, Shari Williams now makes $112,000 a year working as the vice president of government relations for a fracking industry organization called the Marcellus Shale Coalition (MSC).

MSC is regarded as an “astroturf” group, built to rebut environmental criticisms of fracking and push positive stories about the gas industries’ economic successes, while organizing “grassroots” support for fracking with a pile of industry money.

Standard revolving door stuff: regulator goes to work for the industry he/she used to oversee, usually with a big pay hike. Congratulations to Shari Williams for being able to pull that off. But PUH-LEEZE, Mr. Williams: have some respect for the electorate, and stop pretending that Mrs. Williams’ career as a fracking lobbyist in NOTORIOUSLY CORRUPT PENNSYLVANIA is a non-issue.

Next you’ll be pretending you’re not in bed with the school reform movement. OH WAIT YOU DID THAT LAST WEEK.

Tony Williams: A Chicken in Every Pot, A Gas Well in Every School

My buddy Bill likes to joke that with with Mayor Tony Williams, you’ll get a chicken in every pot, and a gas well in every charter school. I always thought he was kidding, but Williams is actually married to the vice president of government relations for the Marcellus Shale Coalition (MSC), a fracking industry lobbying group

A former communications specialist for the Pennsylvania Utilities Commission, a regulatory body that oversees aspects of the state’s gas industry, Shari Williams now makes $112,000 a year working as the vice president of government relations for a fracking industry organization called the Marcellus Shale Coalition (MSC).

MSC is regarded as an “astroturf” group, built to rebut environmental criticisms of fracking and push positive stories about the gas industries’ economic successes, while organizing “grassroots” support for fracking with a pile of industry money.

The oil and gas industry spent some $41 million dollars lobbying Pennsylvania officials since 2007, according to a 2014 report by the Marcellus Money Project. More than $11 million came from MSC.

Her lucrative position at MSC has led Shari Williams to take some other positions on gas extraction in Pennsylvania potentially uncomfortable to her husband. She’s criticized a popular plan to impose an excise tax on fracking companies, which has become a cornerstone of Gov. Wolf’s educational funding strategy.

Williams -who for some reason is still considered the front runner- and his wife seem to be scrambling to over this one as quickly as possible. Shari claims that “she and her husband do not talk drilling or tax policy related to Pennsylvania’s fracking industry,” while her spokesman says ““Do he and his wife discuss the issue? Of course.” I would sooner believe that Bill and Hillary Clinton don’t discuss politics. Or that Mark Gleason and his wife don’t discuss charter schools. And speaking of charter schools…

Let’s not forget that Tony Williams is “that charter school guy”, even though he wishes you’d forget about that as this delightful series of word-salads demonstrates:

“So, what I said was it’s curious that I get tagged as the ‘charter-school advocate’ — and I know, when I talk to you guys, not everybody’s followed me, so I understand that, and someone reads someone else’s information and says ‘oh, he’s the charter-school guy’ and next thing you know, I’m the charter-school guy. I don’t have a problem with supporting charter schools. I guess I talk about it openly. That might be a novel idea while other people talk about it quietly, support it and let other people take the lead. I’m not that person. …

“I guess if I advocate about vocational schools enough, I’ll become the vocational-school guy. I’ll be uncomfortable about that for two weeks, too. But, it is what it is, and I hope the narrative becomes a little broader than one person carrying the weight of one type of school as opposed to a person understanding it’s about all schools.”

Fair enough.

But what seemed interesting here is that this man who has in fact long been an aggressive advocate of charters was talking about them almost as though they were a negative, as a brush he wanted to make sure his competitors got tarred with.

Maybe the signals are that the voters most likely to show up to vote on May 19 are not bullish on charters.

Indeed. Do we really need to re-visit the charter school track record, or do we all understand they’re not what they’re cracked up to be? And, not to bury my next lede, the Teachers Union made their endorsement today. It was not Tony Williams. More to come…

California Has One Year’s Worth of Water Left

Someone’s gonna have to re-work this song in reverse…

California was a garden of Eden
A paradise to live in and go
But believe it or not
You won’t find it so hot
When you ain’t got the H2O

because California has one year’s worth of water left:

Statewide, we’ve been dropping more than 12 million acre-feet of total water yearly since 2011. Roughly two-thirds of these losses are attributable to groundwater pumping for agricultural irrigation in the Central Valley. Farmers have little choice but to pump more groundwater during droughts, especially when their surface water allocations have been slashed 80% to 100%. But these pumping rates are excessive and unsustainable. Wells are running dry. In some areas of the Central Valley, the land is sinking by one foot or more per year.

As difficult as it may be to face, the simple fact is that California is running out of water — and the problem started before our current drought. NASA data reveal that total water storage in California has been in steady decline since at least 2002, when satellite-based monitoring began, although groundwater depletion has been going on since the early 20th century.

Right now the state has only about one year of water supply left in its reservoirs, and our strategic backup supply, groundwater, is rapidly disappearing. California has no contingency plan for a persistent drought like this one (let alone a 20-plus-year mega-drought), except, apparently, staying in emergency mode and praying for rain.

It’s Oklahoma all over again, and that should scare the shit of you if you like fruits and vegetables:

If California were to disappear, what would the American diet be like?

Expensive and grainy. California produces a sizable majority of many American fruits, vegetables, and nuts: 99 percent of artichokes, 99 percent of walnuts, 97 percent of kiwis, 97 percent of plums, 95 percent of celery, 95 percent of garlic, 89 percent of cauliflower, 71 percent of spinach, and 69 percent of carrots (and the list goes on and on). Some of this is due to climate and soil. No other state, or even a combination of states, can match California’s output per acre. Lemon yields in California, for example, are more than 50 percent higher than in Arizona. California spinach yield per acre is 60 percent higher than the national average. Without California, supply of all these products in the United States and abroad would dip, and in the first few years, a few might be nearly impossible to find. Orchard-based products in particular, such as nuts and some fruits, would take many years to spring back.

While author notes we’d find a way to cope, it will take about a decade to adjust. This has been a slow-motion disaster for years, and one that’s generally gone under the radar. I fear it’s too late, especially in a state as large as California, with such a cantankerous legislature. “You never miss the water ’til the well runs dry,” the old song goes.

Californians are learning that literally.

Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, Keurig Edition

In which my old buddy and former editor Joel Mathis riffs of me, riffing of the Atlantic on Keurig k-kups:

“No matter what they say about recycling, those things will never be recyclable,” Sylvan said. “The plastic is a specialized plastic made of four different layers.” The cups are made from plastic #7, a mix that is recyclable in only a handful of cities in Canada. That plastic keeps the coffee inside protected like a nuclear bunker, and it also holds up during the brewing process. A paper prototype failed to accomplish as much.

And because the K-Cup is made of that plastic integrated with a filter, grounds, and plastic foil top, there is no easy way to separate the components for recycling. A Venn diagram would likely have little overlap between people who pay for the ultra-convenience of K-Cups and people who care enough to painstakingly disassemble said cups after use…

Even in Halifax, Nova Scotia, one of the few places that can recycle category #7 plastic, K-Cups are accumulating in quantities that alarm people who see the waste coming out of offices using the machines…. Hachey and colleagues were embattled every time they finished making a cup. “We didn’t like having these little pods that we couldn’t just easily open up, compost the grounds, and recycle the plastic,” he explained. Even for the employees who were willing to take the time to separate the lid, remove the paper filter, and compost the grounds, the local recycling facilities were struggling with the cups falling through sorting grates.

Talk about your Isaac Newton moments: “Holy flurking schnitt: when a product is deliberately designed to be inexpensive, non-resusable, nonrecyclabe, and 100% disposable, you wind up with tons of it in our already mountainous landfills!”

A number of people linked to the article via FB, where on some now unfindable thread Joel and I were on, people were expressing their general dismay about this story, which could have NEVER been predicted. And so, in my inimitable bridge-building way, I channelled Bill Burr:

…and Steven Colbert:

You don’t get to act surprised that Keurig k-kups go right into the landfill anymore than you’re allowed to plead innocent on the grounds that your wife was asking for it or that you can kick the poors and still call yourself a Christian.

What Joel took from this comment was, I believe, a wholly unintended (although probably easily misinterpreted) statement about purity:

…I realize that almost all of us make tradeoffs when it comes to the environment. Unless you’re a vegan locavore cave-dweller who lives on geothermal heat and composts your own poop, the truth is you’re leaving a little bit of a mess behind every single day. Every choice — from coffee drinking to an airplane flight to the clothes you buy — has an impact, and not all of it is positive. Most of us do the best we can — and fall short in different ways. The only way to have no impact? Be dead.

This is, of course, 100% true. We make these choices, necessary and unnecessary, every day. For example, I am unemployed but I will probably head to my local bar for a quick beer tonight, paying a markup for the privilege of drinking in the presence of friends. Earlier this week, I chose to participate in the factory farming industry, buying conventionally-raised chicken at a mainstream grocery. As a result, I’m doubtless putting all sorts of hormones and chemicals in my body as well.

What I’m NOT doing is acting shocked and surprised that a beer that costs $2.50 at the store costs $4.00 at the bar, or that factory-farmed chickens are raised inhumanely. And that’s where I hope I’m not misunderstood: I want people to own their choices. You get to be dismayed, as a consumer that the Keurig company and their clones aren’t recyclable. In fact, as a consumer you get the distinct leverage of advocating for change. But you do not, YOU DO NOT, get to look at the mountain of plastic that you leave in your wake and say “I had no idea” any more than a 2-pack a day smoker gets to pretend he had no idea he might get cancer or emphysema from his habit.

So it’s not about judging: it’s about owning, and that means, at baseline, being willing to say “and yup, i don’t give a shit.” Now pass the factory farmed chicken, I’m hungry and it ain’t getting any earlier.

Oil Trains: More Philly Go Boom!






See that up there? That’s what it looks like when an oil train explodes. Here in Philadelphia, 45 to 80 of these trains go through the city every single week, yet the city won’t share its [clearly inadequate] evacuation plans with the public More than 700,000 people in the region – including 400,000 in Philadelphia…

It’s All Coming True

Polar vortex to unleash record-breaking cold in eastern U.S. on Thursday, Friday

Thursday morning lows will dive below zero from the Midwest into the western Mid-Atlantic. Kentucky may wind up being the hardest hit by the Arctic blast, where temperatures will plummet to an astonishing 40 degrees below normal. Forecasts suggest that the entire state will be well below zero on Thursday morning, with some rural areas approaching minus 15 degrees.

Back when I first got interested in politics and activism it was over environmental issues, and global warming/climate change in particular. Back then we called it the greenhouse effect, but the idea is still the same. Carbon dioxide (and methane, and several other emissions that are the result of our addiction to carbon-based fuel) trap heat in our atmosphere. That extra heat slowly builds up, melting the ice caps and warming the oceans, leading to stronger storms and eventually a permanently altered climate. And one of the big things we were worried about –back in 1992, nearly 25 years ago– was EXACTLY this change in the jet stream. If you want to get super-sciencey about it, Steven D at the Pond has more, but the long and short of it is this:

A new study from Francis and University of Wisconsin-Madison scientist Stephen Vavrus, published in IOPscience, backs up that theory, with evidence linking regional and seasonal conditions in the Arctic to deeper north-south jet stream waves which will lead to more extreme weather across the country.
“The real story is how persistent the pattern has been. It’s been this way nearly continually since December 2013…Warm in the west, cold in the east,” Francis said. “We think with the warming Arctic these types of very wavy patterns, although probably not in the same locations, will happen more often in the future.”
This research has been controversial since the Hurricane Sandy disaster, when the wavy jet stream steered the storm on its sharp left turn and smack into the Jersey Shore. Francis and other researchers say the jet stream’s configuration was a key ingredient in the monster storm.

So what to do now? Damned if I know. It’s nice that we’ve come so far with wind and solar, but our carbon emissions continue to increase. We are dependent on oil in our daily lives in ways we often don’t even recognize: your plastic sandwich bag and Tupperware are made from byproducts of oil production, as are the soles of your running shoes.The ships and trucks that bring us food that shouldn’t be available in winter run on petroleum. Our roads are paved with petroleum. In short, we have [oil] painted ourselves into one hell of a corner, and I for one don’t know the way out.

It’s one hell of a feeling when you wake up and find you’ve turned into Cassandra.

Oil Train Go BOOM

Here we go agaaaaaaaaain:

Multiple tanker rail cars carrying crude oil derailed Monday afternoon in Fayette County, triggering explosions and a 100-yard-high flames as several cars rolled through a residential subdivision and into the Kanawha River. CSX officials say “at least one rail car appears to have ruptured and caught fire.”

At least one house was destroyed, but police have found no evidence of fatalities. CSX said one person was treated for potential inhalation (of fumes).

Not to bigfoot on West Virginia’s most recent indignity, but a couple of weeks ago we had a similar derailment in South Philly, just a year and ten days after the last derailment left a DOT-111 oil-bomb tank car dangling over the Schuykill River, less than 100 feet from the heavily traveled and always jammed I-76. We have been lucky both times. Because if that car had blown up, we’d have been well and truly fucked. Back in December 2013, one of these oil cars exploded in North Dakota, forcing the evacuation of nearly 1,500 people within a five-mile radius. Here’s what that looks like, applied to Philadelphia:

Five Mile Radius Evacuation

For those of you not from here, the interstates that surround Philadelphia have been obsolete from the get-go. There would have been no escape for people stuck on 76, 676, and parts of 95 if that car had blown up in 2013. As for the car that derailed this past January, you’d pretty much have the exact same impact.

As a species, humanity has made its share of mistakes, but there is no subspecies that I know of as obstinate and determined to keep making the same mistakes as Homo sapiens Americanus (that’s a real designation, I promise I didn’t make that up). We know that the DOT-111 cars keep blowing up. Thanks to the AP we know that the cars meant to replace the DOT-111 are not up to the task either:

This train was bound for an oil shipping depot in Yorktown, Virginia, using model 1232 tank cars, which include safety upgrades voluntarily adopted by the industry four years ago. An estimated $7 billion has been spent to put 57,000 of these cars into service, according to the Railway Supply Institute.

But a similar accident, also involving model 1232s, happened along the same route in Lynchburg, Virginia, last year. It was one of a series of ruptures and fires that prompted the Obama Administration to consider requiring upgrades such as thicker tanks, shields to prevent tankers from crumpling, rollover protections and electronic brakes that could make cars stop simultaneously, rather than slam into each other.

Some of these measures would cost billions more and have been strongly opposed by the oil and rail industries.

Philadelphia is, at some point, going to face a major disaster. It is not a matter of “if”, but “when”. We are home to 1.5 million people, national corporations like Comcast and Blue Cross/Blue Shield, renowned institutions of higher education including the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University, two major interstates, and four national sports franchises, all within the evacuation zone.

West Virginia is sending us a message. I’d like to think we’re going to listen. My common sense tells me we won’t.