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Posts Tagged ‘food policy’

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Announced just over a week ago, your new infrastructure fund is now gone, Mr. President. It’s all been spent already, several times over, by politicians, constructors, lobbyists, trade associations. Get your staff to try googling “Obama infrastructure plan,” and up pop hundreds of thousands of web sites, and nearly every newspaper, magazine, financial analyst, and pundit, busily spending your billions over and over. Now it’s all gone. My goodness, that was fast.

Not to be too cynical, or skeptical, since some wiser voices do counsel you, Mr. President, to spend carefully, to use the plan to achieve larger goals, and to induce change in the way we live our lives. Good advice.

Because clearly we need much more than a make-work fix-it plan. In fact, our cities and towns need nearly complete reinvention to prepare for their futures. The infrastructure that supports our urbanism, and our urbanism itself, is obsolete. The shape and form of our cities, how we live in them, and the infrastructure that makes them possible works rather badly at the moment, and won’t work at all very soon. It’s time to start building the next city.

Here’s why we need to take the longest possible view of spending billions in the right way. The four categories below, energy, water, mobility and food, represent most of the necessary infrastructure for the next city. (Apologies to my readers who have been with us for a while – some of this I have said more than once).

Energy. Fossil fuels or renewables? No need for debate. Fossils alone won’t work as the sole foundation for our energy future, as you have said. Even Chevron, BP and ExxonMobil say it’s so. Thus we should not rip the tops off any more West Virginia mountains, or drill any more holes in Alaska or the Gulf of Mexico. Some will be crabby about this, Sir, but enough, finally, is enough.

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Photo by Edward Burtynsky.

Go for renewables, but remember that our electrical grid is an antique, it’s outmoded, and it’s a total mess. Shot. Some of the renewable energy you want to sponsor can’t even be transmitted over the grid because of the grid’s configuration. Overhaul, or start over? Sounds kind of like the auto-industry bailout proposition – good money after bad. Maybe a quick patch while we start over….

With the advent of distributed CHP (combined heat and power), we can circumvent much of the grid, and produce our power locally, taking advantage of local assets both fossil and renewable. Over a longer time, this may make the most sense for our cities and towns. How about this: New York City is experimenting with the generation of energy using the currents of the East River to turn underwater turbines. Can fuel cells be far behind?

Water. Problems with our water supply and wastewater treatment infrastructure are beginning to be felt ever more powerfully in regions across the nation. Debates about who gets to benefit from the Colorado River have raged for generations. But this year even the Great Lakes rolled up the Welcome Mat. The surrounding states ushered legislation through Congress forbidding siphoning this precious asset to needy far-away locales. “Find your own,” they snapped.

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Photo by Edward Burtynsky.

And in many cities like your new home place of Washington, D.C. every time it rains, millions of gallons of raw sewage get dumped in our rivers. Many American rivers, like our Anacostia and Potomac, are giant sewers: the Mississippi River alone receives over 700,000,000 pounds of toxic waste, including sewage, every year.

We need to close the water loop. Nothing goes down the sewer and out into a river, lake or ocean. Use it, recycle it, use it, recycle it. No discharge needed or allowed. Do we have the infrastructure to do this? No. Do we have the technology and knowledge to do this? Yes. Let’s get on with it – no new water is on the way.

Mobility. Problems?

Cars – way too many cars, and an auto industry that has been bankrupt for decades, and is only now realizing it. They may get it yet, but most of us think not. Painful, but at last the age of the 20 or 30 or even 40 mile per gallon car must come to a firm close. It’s over for fossilized autos. Check out Shai Agassi’s electric car plan at www.betterplace.com, now being implemented in Hawaii and Israel, among other locales – this is where we need to head.

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Electric cars.

As for rail, we in the U.S. have a rail system in which passenger and freight systems overlap, (they’re on the same rights-of-way, and they choke each other for space and time) and they drive each other crazy. More freight? Less passengers. More passengers? Less freight.

tracks

And we have no high speed rail, no interurban rail, and in big cities, transit systems are bursting at the seams with increased demand and no means to accommodate the swelling throngs. As if that weren’t enough, we have an airline industry that, when not declaring bankruptcy, is ceasing to serve smaller regional hubs while simultaneously cutting long-haul and shuttle routes.

So: create a very stiff Federal fuel tax. The Post here has advocated this on their op-ed page. Make it big – get gas prices way up to encourage alternative thinking, and then use the proceeds to fund solutions (yes, over $5 a gallon, all in, please).

Pundit Joel Kotkin wrote a piece in the weekend Post about your infrastructure plan, and he actually suggested that we shouldn’t invest in interurban or extra-urban rail transit, because outside of our cities, only 1% to 2% use transit (of course, only 20% of us live outside our cities). Could this be because driving is cheaper? Go gas tax! Or is it because there isn’t any transit? Hmm. Want to take the train home to Chicago? 17 hours and 35 minutes. Not good.

amtraktrain

I urge you to make the passenger rail system in this country work, (easy, since we barely have one) and make this a high priority. Not only will this get folks out of their cars, it will get them out of airplanes as well. Leave the airlines the long haul stuff – otherwise, take the train.

Oh, and an additional advantage to retooling passenger rail will be geometric improvements to freight rail, which is already able to move a ton of freight 436 miles on a single gallon of fuel.

Food. Shrimp from Vietnam? Cherries from Chile? The global industrialized agriculture system is a monster, sucking up energy, pumping out pollution, cutting food quality, and making us fat and sick. What we have here is a five alarm mess. 

Changing the industrial agriculture business may be the toughest of all infrastructure nuts to crack. What is clear is that we are eating our way through fossil fuels (to grow and fertilize it, process it, ship it, store it) at a breathtaking rate – while generating massive pollution. But changing the industry will likely mean changing the food culture of the nation – how and what we eat, how much we eat, where it comes from, how it’s grown.

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Some thinkers, like farmer and poet Wendell Berry, have been telling us for a very long time that we are headed toward disaster. Now some researchers tell us that if we don’t alter the way we produce and consume food, we will need to plan on reductions of global population – the existing food industry quite literally cannot sustain us all.

While this may sound overly dire, there are hopeful signs of change. In the U.S., farmers markets are springing up at a wonderfully high rate; the OED added the word locavore to the dictionary to describe those who eat locally; the “100 Mile Diet” has inspired websites, books, and videos. These are baby steps, but they indicate that we are becoming increasingly aware of a need to change this fundamental part of our lives. You have some empty lawn at the White House. Why not take author and food expert Michael Pollan’s suggestion and rip up some for a vegetable garden: I’d be pleased to buy your cabbage.

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Future veg garden?

What have I forgotten? Solid waste – this should probably go in at least the energy and food categories. And then there is the long list of social infrastructures that are failing. But that’s not for an architect to tackle, thankfully.

So should we fix the potholes? Bail out the auto industry? Build more interstate? Nope. We must think quickly, and act quickly, to prepare our communities for a future they cannot now sustain. I hope this hasn’t been too much. As Gertrude Stein once said, “Everybody gets so much information every day that they lose their common sense.”

There. Now I have spent all your billions too.

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I have been reading my usual array of favored websites, and have run into an interesting string of comments in the last couple of days. It seems that Michael Pollan’s piece in the NYT Magazine, which I recommended in the last post, has ignited a furor in some quarters. Pollan is being accused of “eco-armageddonizing.”

Notwithstanding the grotesque character of this ridiculous word, there remain many who say that there is no such thing as climate change, that we need not worry about environmental compromises being wrought across the globe, and that what is really required are massive increases in energy use as an expression of a flourishing civilization. (Yes, someone actually said that – I couldn’t make it up). I am flabbergasted at this thought, but let’s proceed.

Okay, so let’s just say that you are in the non-believer camp. You think that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by liberals led by Mr. Gore (conservative just doesn’t mean what it used to, does it?), and you’re headed out in one of your SUVs to the mall for some widget shopping and a stop at Burger King for a quick hit of 2,400 calories of mystery meat and high fructose corn (double Whopper with cheese, medium coke, large fry, medium shake: 2,380 calories). Before you go, give me just a minute or two for some thoughts.

Put aside global warming or climate change as urgent reasons for rethinking and remaking our urban centers, where 80% of Americans live. Some of the things that have shaped our cities are now becoming sufficiently scarce that a new city, and new ways of living in the city, are needed, and much faster than we can make changes. Try this:

Oil. Whether you believe that peak oil looms or that oceans of oil remain, and whether you believe that speculators are firing up oil prices or demand is bumping up against supply, you can be certain of one thing: you are paying a very high price to fill up your SUV. Assuming for a moment that you are cruising through the global financial meltdown in style, gas will not get much cheaper before it starts to rise again, as suppliers turn off the faucet. They’re meeting in Vienna on the 18th of next month to chat about lowering production to account for reduced demand accompanying the financial miasma – you might want to pop in for a heart to heart.

So what about alternatives? Well the airlines are now charging extra for everything from lunch to luggage, and they’re all choking on their gas bills. Alternatives? Not many. Humorist Gene Weingarten, in the Post Magazine this week, suggests that the airlines should fire all their flight attendants and sell regular priced tickets to those passengers willing to push the carts up and down the aisles. Bonus? They get to keep the tips.

Amtrak is having the best year since its inception, and will likely carry 27 million passengers this year, a bit less than Continental Airlines or US Air, but ahead of AirTran or jet Blue. But guess what? They have only 632 usable rail cars, and besides, we travel 900 times further in cars on highways than in trains on rails. Changing this circumstance will reshape our cities and their regions, but it will take time – years – and lots of money. Cozy up to that gas pump.

Nearly every major urban public transit system is operating beyond capacity as well. But because of the financial meltdown, tax revenues are rapidly shrinking. Waiting for that rapid bus or streetcar system? Get comfy. And that’s just transit. Check out how funding is going for the rest of our urban infrastructure. Not so good. With only $1 trillion in national debt, we should see investment in infrastructure turn around real soon. Maybe not in our lifetimes, but real soon.

A more efficient car? Well, you just helped give the U.S. automakers $50 billion to figure out how to compete with Toyota and Honda, who have them cold, and our guys have proudly announced that we should start to see the benefits of taxpayer largess by 2010 or 2011 or so. By the way, did you know that one in thirteen Americans is employed in the automobile industry? Happy days ahead.

Food. Food prices are rising rapidly. In some places outside the U.S., the increases this year alone are as high as 40%. Screw the rest of the world, you say? Fine. A little hard, since so much of what you eat comes from somewhere else, but food prices in this nation are quickly on the rise as well: produce, milk, beef, fish, are all headed higher. Why? Fuel costs, weather, scarcity. A buck for a tomato, $.80 for a mushroom, and $.75 for an apple this week at our market, and $4.00 for a bushel of corn ($4.03 at close Friday).

If we actually did what Pollan tells us to do, and sourced a vastly increased amount of our food locally, and increased the numbers of local markets, we would have a chance at controlling prices. Oh, and by the way, our food system consumes more oil than any other part of the U.S. economy except cars. If we had cities that could subsist on locally grown agriculture, they would have to be designed differently. But we don’t, so not to worry.

Water. Water scarcity is a critical problem in most of the world. 40% of the world has no access to clean water, and 95% of the world’s cities still dump raw sewage into their waters.

Don’t care? Well, the central valley of California is not exactly swimming in water at the moment, and that’s where a lot of U.S. food comes from (they use 23 trillion gallons of water a year). The long term drought outlook for the valley, as charted by the USDA, is not too terrific. But never mind, all that water scarcity will do is drive up food prices.

Thinking about tapping into the Great Lakes for a cool one? Think again. The eight states that abut the Great Lakes have created a Compact, just approved by Congress and signed into law, that forbids the diversion of that water. Who says water scarcity is a problem?

As ever, the point of all this is very simple. The city we need to live in is not the city we live in today. Even skeptics should be able to understand this.  It seems that when you start to pull on one thread of issues in the fabric of today’s urbanism, the whole place starts to unravel.

Anyway, you know what to do – when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.

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As I have noted here previously, I have been reading up on the history of food, and how we have arrived at the current state of industrial agriculture – endless fields of monocultures of corn or soybeans, giant factories filled with chickens or pigs or cows, a diet that featured 1/2 pound of high fructose corn syrup annually in 1970, and now includes 62 pounds of the stuff every year. (A favorite source: Felipe Fernandez Armesto’s extraordinary book, “Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food”).

And I do this because I now understand that global food production is the single largest source of carbon pollution – some estimates say nearly 40% of all greenhouse gas comes from food production – intensively requires water (2 nice big juicy steaks? About 4,000 gallons of water required), and relies on massive doses of fossil fuels. The next city cannot be fed with this system – we simply won’t be able to afford the fuel or water, or absorb the pollution.

We should all try to get our food from as many local sources as possible. This still isn’t easy (take a look at www.100milediet.org for a snapshot of an interesting experiment), but it is increasingly becoming received knowledge that we will eat better, and feel better, and pollute less if we can get our daily sustenance from local sources.  The Oxford English Dictionary last year added a word to their tome to describe those who eat locally: locavores. It must be official if the OED says so.

All of this is prelude to an invitation to get to know much more about these matters. To wit: an absolutely sensational essay written by Michael Pollan (“The Omnivore’s Dilemma,””In Defense of Food”), which takes the form of an open letter to the “Farmer in Chief,” whoever that might be after the election. The piece ran October 12th, in the New York Times Magazine. It is quite long, but I urge you to read every word – it is a very well reasoned and clearly argued appeal to substantially alter the way we eat, and in particular the way federal policies influence our daily meals. You can find the article by following this link:

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/12/magazine/12policy-t.html

My personal favorite of his suggestions: tear out five acres of White House lawn and plant organic fruits and vegetables. Take a look – it’s a very significant piece by a very powerful  writer. Bon appetit!

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