Friday, November 27, 2009

The Lower Ninth Ward-The City Below the Sea

While all of us have heard that the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, few of us have actually seen it. What most of us are not aware of is that it was not devastated, it was utterly destroyed. After the flood waters receded, many of the homes had floated completely off of their foundations and were not necessarily even on the lot where they had once stood. Those that were still left standing had been filled with water up to the roof lines, and between the thick layer of mud that was left behind and the mold that soon blossomed from every surface, they also had to be demolished. What was left for nearly as far as the eye can see in some areas was block after block of nothing but the remnants of the fronts steps and concrete foundations upon which they once stood. For the most part, these were poor people before Katrina came and took what little they had to begin with. Over four years later, little has been done to restore these neighborhoods, and many of the residents will never return. Most have found new lives in places like Houston, a city that opened its arms to the busloads of refugees that poured out of the city.

We were not quite sure what to expect when we arrived on one of the rare cool and sunny days when the humidity is not stifling. We were there to tour the handful of homes that are being constructed by Make it Right, a non-profit organization spearheaded by Brad Pitt, and dedicated to helping rebuild this neighborhood. We were also there to answer the question that many of us ask ourselves. Should it be rebuilt?

As most of us are aware, the city of New Orleans sits on land that is largely below sea level. The wisdom of rebuilding a city that lies in such a precarious position, particularly in light of the potential for rising sea levels and increased hurricane activity associated with global climate change, has of course been questioned. As we toured the area however, here and there in the homes that had managed to survive, and in those that had been rebuilt, one could feel the spirit of this poor but once proud neighborhood struggling to rise from the ruins. In front of one of the few remaining FEMA trailers, a handwritten plea to the President and the people of this country not to forget that this was once a place where people lived and worked and had babies and died, stood as a stark reminder of that. Below it another hand painted sign showing the spreading base of a large banyan tree proclaimed “Roots run deep here”.

And deep they are for many of the residents and former residents of this area. Beginning before 1000 BC when the Mississippian culture built mounds and earthworks in their communities along the Mississippi and Ohio river valleys, and continuing when the French explorers, fur trappers, and traders arrived in the area by the 1690s, some making settlements amid the Native American village of thatched huts along the bayou, this area has been continuously occupied by a variety of cultures for thousands of years. Indeed the white settlers who came here considered what eventually became New Orleans, the “city that had to be built” lying as it does at the confluence of the Gulf of Mexico and one of the most important trade routes in the world, the Mississippi River. Today, many of the residents are direct descendants of the natives, French, Spanish, and African American slaves who helped build this city and its unique blend of cultures. For many of them, generations of their families have lived and died here, buried in the above ground catacombs made familiar to my generation by the acid-trip graveyard scene in the iconic movie of the 60’s, Easy Rider.

What is astonishing is the amount of work it took to build this city below the sea, and the equally incredible effort it takes to keep that sea and the rivers that feed into it from reclaiming it. From the bottom of the Lower Ninth Ward, the dikes and levees that hold back these waters rise way above your head, while the water itself on a beautiful sunny day like this is mere feet from their tops. One can only imagine the sights and sounds when the fury of Katrina breached those levees and filled these neighborhoods like a bathtub without a drain. In many ways this is sacred ground, and the occasional cross or memorial to the nearly 2000 people that died there are a stark reminder of what happened that day.

I happened to be in Miami less than thirty days after Hurricane Andrew did its number on that city, and the damage was tremendous. However when I returned there again on business less than a year later, it was already becoming hard to tell that the storm had ever occurred. Because it was a fairly affluent and well-insured city, money poured into rebuilding Miami. In the more affluent areas of New Orleans like the Garden District, or the French Quarter, where money flowed to rebuild these areas like the whiskey flows to feed the tourists, there are virtually no signs of the damage. However, due to a combination of a lack of insurance, a federal government that has a damaged economy and two foreign wars on its hands, the fact that this was a poor neighborhood to begin with, and that the question of whether we should rebuild still remains, four years later almost nothing has been done to rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward.

While it may seem odd and almost like shaking their fist at them, Make It Right has chosen to rebuild only a stones throw from those infamous levees. Using some of the latest in green building materials, and constructing them on stilts that would have protected them from even the highest water in the area, each of these brightly colored homes is unique, much like the people who live here. As we toured the neighborhood, these residents waved at us from the porches and yards of their newly constructed homes. Only fifteen of these homes have been built so far, but what is plainly clear is that they are not just rebuilding homes, but attempting to rebuild a community.

Should we rebuild this city? I guess that depends on who you ask. For the people we saw stubbornly rebuilding their homes there, I would have to say the answer is yes, yes we will.

To learn more CLICK HERE to visit our website.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Grass to Gas

As one travels through the South, the incredibly invasive species known as Kudzu is everywhere. If you have never been in the South and have never seen Kudzu, then you cannot imagine the havoc that this plant is causing on the landscape and the environment. When I say everywhere, I mean hanging from the trees, power lines, buildings, road signs, and even cars that are parked too long will soon disappear from sight as the vine crawls relentlessly forward. This stuff is unstoppable. It can grow over a foot a day and up to sixty feet a year and it will eat anything in its path. If you cut it down, two plants will spring up in its place. First introduced to the U.S. in 1876, the planting of this non-indigenous species was actually encouraged by the Soil Conservation Service from 1935 until the 1950’s when it was discovered that we had unleashed a monster. It now covers over 7 million acres of land in this country and will soon cover millions of acres more.

As we gazed upon this vast sea of bio-mass that not only needs to be removed, but is free for the taking, we wondered if Kudzu was a viable material for making cellulosic ethanol. A little research on the internet led us to Agro*Gas, a small company in Cleveland, TN that has not only looked at it as a source of feedstock, but has developed the technology to make it work. A few days later we were able to speak with Tom Monahan, one of the principles in the company, and an expert on bio-fuels.

Tom is passionate about the subject of bio-fuels, and we quickly discovered that he sees a future in which his grandchildren can still enjoy the same quality of life as we, but without the damage to the environment. Tom sees biomass every where, and Agro*Gas has developed a proprietary method for extracting the sugars needed to produce ethanol from a wide variety of feed stocks. The problem is, there is currently no money coming to these types of projects. Somewhere along the line, the powers that be decided that corn based ethanol was the way of the future. For those of you familiar with the story of corn in this country, and its complete control by the likes of Monsanto, Du Pont, and Cargill, this will come as no surprise. Apparently using readily available bio-mass that does not depend on genetically modified seeds, petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides, makes absolutely no sense at all.

Tom also made it clear the unlike the corn ethanol industry, his company not only does not seek government subsidies and financing, they abhor the thought. They have what they believe is a viable technology for producing economically feasible bio-fuels from a variety of feed stocks, and they will be damned if they will let the government get their hands on it and completely screw it into the ground like they have done with everything else. To be truly economically feasible, this technology needs to stand on its own, without the need for subsidies that support so many of the so-called “alternative” energy programs in this country. It’s amazing, they actually believe that if you don’t have a system that can stand on its own and start to make money from the get-go you don’t actually have a viable business model. In this day and age it is rare to see this kind of entrepreneurial spirit.

What really makes the Agro*Gas system different is that it is designed to work using almost any bio-mass feedstock for its input. Corn ethanol plants, upon which we have spent billions of dollars in research and subsidies, are designed to run on one thing and one thing only, corn. Corn is food, and unless you are someone like Cargill who will profit immensely from the process, the idea of turning food into fuel when there are millions of tons of non-food bio-mass just waiting to be used is insanity. The Agro*Gas process can turn almost any type of agricultural waste of which there are many and most of which the producers actually pay to have hauled away, into fuel.

In addition to fuel, much like the “cracking” process that turns a barrel of oil into everything from cosmetics to plastic bags, Agro*Gas sees fuel as only a small part of the chain of products that can be produced by the breakdown of cellulosic feed stocks. They are actively pursuing many by-products of the bio-fuel process that may be commercially viable. Indeed much like gasoline that was burned off as a waste product by the early refineries in this country, the fuel side of the process is actually not the center point of the production. There are a variety of products that can be produced from this process that can contribute to a commercially viable process. The entire business model revolves around small regional plants that can turn local produced bio-mass into regionally consumed products. This is Buy Local-Use Local defined.

Tom let us know that they realize that they may not get rich from their process, but they firmly believe that it is the right thing to do. Based on our evaluation of anything that bucks the trend of big business or government, and takes on the Cargill’s and Monsanto’s of this world, we would wholeheartedly agree with them that they will not get rich. Most probably they will get delegated into the realm of good ideas whose time will never come because it makes too much sense. It is our hope that the Richard Branson’s and the T. Boone Pickens of the world will recognize the difference between the world that Cargill creates, and the world of the sustainable future, and step up to the plate and actually make a difference.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Vintage Airplanes, Cajun Sushi and Southern Hospitality

Yesterday, as we wandered the streets of Natchitoches, LA (pronounced I am told by the locals “Nack-a-tish”although it seems to be missing a syllable) I saw a poster for a Vintage Aircraft Fly-In and 1940’s Hanger Dance. Always a sucker for vintage aircraft, and looking for a place to spend the night, we decided to drive out to the airport where this event was scheduled to begin later in the day. We found the “terminal” as it were, a small nondescript building near the entrance, and I wandered inside. I told the young man at the counter that we were “here for the air show”, and asked if he knew if there was anyplace we could park the Airstream for the night. He did not, but he quickly introduced me to a very friendly gentleman named Larry, who it turned out was the Airport Operations Manager.

As soon as I mentioned that we were here for the show and told him a little about our vintage Airstream, Larry’s southern hospitality gene went into overdrive, and two phone calls, one locked gate, and a drive across the tarmac later we had ourselves a choice spot on the grass right between the hangers and next to a small lake! We also got a Welcome Kit from the Chamber of Commerce and two free tickets to the “Aviator’s Reception” party to be held that night at a local restaurant. We felt like royalty, and after a visit from some curious members of the staff at the airport, we set up camp for the night.

As evening approached, and armed with the secret code that Larry had given us for the automatic gates that control entrance to the airport property, we headed into town for the reception. We had met one of the promoters Marc earlier in the day, and as we came around the corner still nearly a block away from the restaurant, he began waving us down and then welcomed us warmly. We were beginning to understand that southern hospitality is more than just a cliché. These people are some of the friendliest folks we have ever met, and throughout the evening, people would come up and introduce themselves to “that couple from Oregon” and welcome us to their community.

The Aviator’s Reception was being held oddly enough in this land of Cajun and Creole, in a Japanese restaurant, and we were treated to a huge spread of Sushi and other Japanese delicacies. Before long a local band set up and began a great evening of cover songs done in a decidedly Louisiana style. I ended up on stage playing a tambourine for their rendition of “Brown Eyed Girl” and as we excited the building later that night, the lead singer called out his thanks to “John from Or-y-gone!”

After a surprisingly quiet night at the airport (not much coming and going here in this small town) the next morning we watched as the planes flew in and then wandered around the grounds looking at vintage aircraft and making some more new friends. Tonight we can listen to the Big Band sounds of the 40’s as the dance is in the hanger we are camped behind. Our special thanks to the wonderful people of Natchitoches!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Containers Become Homes in North Carolina

We recently had the pleasure of spending a few days with our friend Jennifer, in Boone, NC. I met Jennifer through my work with the Sustainable Furnishings Council, and she is a joy and a pleasure and one of the inspiring young people I know who really cares about the future for her generation, and the generations to come.

While we were holed up at her cabin overlooking the hill country of North Carolina, we had a chance to visit with Ethan Anderson from Dwellbox. Ethan’s company is a East coast leader in the development of “container” homes, a small but growing segment of sustainable design that revolves around the use of used shipping containers. These shipping containers, of which there are thousands and thousands , just sitting around waiting to be used or recycled, are readily available, waterproof, structurally significant, and relatively cheap.

The containers can be stacked and welded together in a variety of configurations, and then various openings can be cut out for doors and windows. In a matter of a few days, the basic structure is up and ready for the finishing touches. Complete houses can often be built in less than 90 days, significantly lowering the cost per square foot, and using far fewer wood products in the process. Structurally, the containers are designed to ride on the deck of an ocean going vessel loaded with tons of goods, and riding out thirty foot waves and torrential rain. I’m pretty sure they are adequate for the average household.

Because of their modular design, and the fact that they can be cantilevered out up to 14ft without additional support, the opportunity for creative designs including, carports, overhangs, and rooftop gardens is tremendous. Advances in eco-friendly insulation, interior finish materials, solar, rain catchment and gray water recycling systems can all be combined to create a cutting edge small space home on a budget.

We met Ethan at his office in downtown Boone, and learned quickly that he is a rapid-fire talker, and full of enthusiasm for his buildings. We headed over to their first project, a spec home on the property next door to Ethan’s own home. A small studio style apartment with an ample deck sat over the small garage nestled below. Ethan, an avid mountain biker was renting the space to one of his buddies/bike mechanic, and apologized for the rather lived-in condition of the place, including a pile of bikes in the garage. We promised to look around it and spent the next half hour learning more about the construction details of the project.

Container homes are brilliantly simple, and Dwellbox has overcome many of the challenges associated with plumbing, electrical, insulation, and interior walls with creative solutions. Perhaps the biggest challenge was convincing the local building department who, unlike some cities on the West Coast, was unfamiliar with the process, and a bit skeptical to say the least. Through their perseverance, they finally got the city to sign off on it, although not without first having one of the inspectors, a large gentleman I am told, spend some time bouncing up and down on the solid steel sub-floors just to convince himself the thing was structurally sound.

After our energizing meeting with Ethan, we drove by one of their other projects, a 1600 sq ft home outside of town that they had recently completed. This home was a good example of what can be done by creatively stacking the containers.

In addition to residential homes, Dwelbox is working on a variety of other designs including a Mobile Learning Lab, and a temporary shelter design that could replace the use of FEMA’s famous toxic trailers after Hurricane Katrina.

For more pictures or to learn more CLICK HERE to visit our website.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Sending Out An SOS (Save Our Species)

I participated in an interesting thread on FaceBook lately. My friend Sally had reposted one of my posts on a piece about the disappearing glaciers of Kilimanjaro. One of her friends had responded by calling bullshit on global warming. The exchange went back and forth and a number of other people stuck in their two cents, but in the end, it was essentially a conversation between me and another gentleman who does not believe that manmade CO2 emissions are something we should be particularly concerned with. He did not believe that science has enough evidence to call manmade CO2 a culprit in global climate change, or that it even exists, and he was adamantly against any government regulation to limit those emissions. His point was that we simply do not know enough about how things work to make a judgment call. We argued passionately back and forth, and in the end neither of us really changed our position much. We both still believe strongly that the other is wrong.

As a result however, I did come to realize, both through his arguments and some other things I have come to understand lately, that one thing is certain, and perhaps it is good news. We do not need to save our planet. In spite of years of arguments by treehuggers and conservatives, naysayers and doomsayers, recyclers and political extremists, pundits, hippies, weirdoes, whackos, and those that just want to cash in on a buck no matter which side they are on, rejoice in the fact that there is no doubt, THE PLANET IS GOING TO BE OK!!

One of the main points the gentleman I sparred with appeared to be making was that there have been plenty of periods on this planet when things were warmer or colder, or wetter or drier, or maybe just full of a lot more dinosaurs than we seem to have today. But the point is, things change and Mother Earth really doesn’t give a damn. She likes trilobites and dinosaurs just as much as whales and humans. However She also doesn’t really give a hoot when She decides to sentence one of us to extinction either. As it turns out, She likes Asteroids and Ice Ages, Global Warming and perhaps even Nuclear War, just as well. She will simply, through the process of evolution and adaptation, adjust the life forms to fit the current situation on the planet accordingly.

Now, this all works fine and good, unless you happen to be one the life forms slated for extinction. I am sure that if the Dinosaurs had had their druthers, they would have continued to rule the earth for another 500 million years. We on the other hand, apparently being the one of the first species on this planet which actually has a choice, appear to be generally unconcerned about Mother Earth’s possible rejection of our species in the not too distant future. The fact that we may have elected to take most other major life forms with us in this mad dash for extinction doesn’t really matter to Her either.

So, my point is that both we and Al Gore can totally relax. The planet will be just fine. Hotter, colder, drier, wetter, bombarded by cosmic rays, or covered in ice, She will survive. The question we must ask ourselves, and be darn glad that we actually can, is if whether or not We and many other life forms will survive and more importantly if We really care.

Our history and religions tell us that we seem to think we hold some special place in the Universe. If this is the case, we need to be working on our placeholder if we intend on staying there. You can bet that if the Dinosaurs had seen headlines in stone tabloids that screamed “Killers Asteroids Headed Toward Earth” they would only have turned away and continued to devour other life forms. We on the other hand can at least look at the large body of scientific data that is being generated and decide. Will we open our eyes and look at global climate change as the asteroid that may be bearing down on us, or will we go on consuming the natural resources and other life forms around us until our fate slams into the planet like a runaway train. Most dinosaurs had brains barely large enough to support their life systems. We on the other hand appear to have been blessed with an incredible quest for knowledge and new technology. In the end however, perhaps it will be the dinosaurs that were blessed. As the world around them changed irreversibly, they simply looked up and perhaps thought “strange weather we’re having”.

So,we all need to make a choice. Will you do what you can to help save not the planet, but our species, or will you bury your head in the piles of garbage we are creating until Mother Earth decides she is done with us and sends us to the trash heap of evolution. Personally I shouldn’t really have much reason to give a damn. I have no children, and the world I hand off to the next generation is their problem, not mine or my progeny. But much like the Lakota Indians we met on this trip, we believe in the circle of life. Kate & I both have nieces and nephews that are every much as part of our families as children might be and I think we owe it to them to try and do something. I suspect however that many of you may have children or grandchildren or hopefully someday great grandchildren of your own and that you might have a hard time explaining your apathy to or downright disdain of the increasing evidence for man-made global climate change to them. “What did you do Grandpa” they will ask as the world that supports their life changes around them. And just like the War in Viet Nam that my generation suffered through, I will be able to say “I fought. Not in the war, but against it. And I’m proud.” What will you say?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Return to Pine Ridge-The White Plume Saga Continued

With all of our travels, I have not had a chance to finish the remarkable story of Alex and Debra White Plume who we were fortunate to visit at their home on the Pine Ridge Reservation. If you missed the first installment of this story, I suggest you visit these pages on our blog to catch up.

Bring Back the Way-Our Visit to the Pine Ridge Reservation

Our Visit with Alex White Plume

The Treaties and the First Crop of Hemp

The Bust

As the helicopters and Suburbans full of DEA Agents swept on to their property, Alex and other members of their family went out to meet them. Alex was determined that if they were going to steal his crop, they were going to have to arrest him in the process. He had contacted the U. S. Attorney for the area and invited him to witness the harvest so that everyone could see that this was industrial hemp and that no deadly marijuana was being grown here. Now this attorney was here to watch as the DEA destroyed the hard work of these people just days before they could reap what would have been their first commercially viable harvest.

Alex positioned himself in front of his crop until the DEA agents changed his mind by pointing their automatic weapons at his head. “Don’t make this hard Alex” the attorney implored him. Still determined to be arrested so that this action would end up in court and where he stood a damn good chance of blowing the DEA’s case for making illegal raids on a sovereign nation, Alex told the attorney he could either arrest him or Alex would “kick him in the shins” and began to dance around him taking little jabs at his legs. “Please don’t make this hard Alex” he implored and walked away as the DEA held Alex at bay with their rifles.

Soon the DEA had pulled down the crop and in the process of dragging it across the field, spread thousands of seeds and next years crop across the land. They then loaded up the White Plumes hopes and dreams and fled the reservation with their illegally confiscated goods.

This game of cat and mouse would go on for the next several years as the White Plumes continued to plant their crops and the DEA continued to steal them. The Feds finally came up with the idea of simply getting an injunction against them. This would allow them to put Alex in jail for violating the injunction without the benefit of a trial that the Feds knew they would lose. With this lose-lose proposition in front of them, the White Plumes finally relented, and stopped planting their crop. Some people think they have given up and wonder why they don’t take this case all the way to the Supreme Court. But that is easy to say when you don’t have to feed and cloth your family and even more importantly when your basic beliefs tell you that the Feds have no jurisdiction in this case and the Supreme Court is a white mans court and not applicable on Indian land.

The White Plumes struggle to grow hemp will continue and is being played out by farmers across the land. Nineteen states have now legalized the growing of industrial hemp, and wait only for the Federal Government to recognize the difference between hemp and marijuana.

Here are some excellent links to learn more:

PBS-Standing Silent Nation
Friends of the Lakota
Bring Back the Way

Monday, November 2, 2009

Some Rich Men Came & Raped the Land...and Nobody Caught Em'

Recently we passed through the coal country of West Virginia and Kentucky on our way to Lexington. This is a land of sharp contrasts, steep canyons, tall limestone bluffs, and deep poverty. As we wound our way through the little towns that dot these canyons, many of them bearing dark black scars from the coal that is being ripped from the earth there, we passed a strange blend of boarded up businesses and run down houses right next to state of the art schools that seemed strangely out of place. We hoped the schools represent this areas hope for the future and that the people here understand that by educating their children instead of sending them into the mines to suffer a slow and painful death, perhaps they can carve out some kind of real future for them.

While coal will continue to be mined here for many generations, the process is being increasingly automated, and thankfully for their health but furthering their poverty, the number of workers needed continues to decline. In the meantime however, coal mining continues to dominate this area. Trains filled with coal line the tracks that run down the narrow canyons for miles. Black seams of coal protrude from the bluffs and the mine shafts and conveyer belts spring from the hillsides high over the towns. There is a kind of dark grey tint from the coal dust that covers everything. Every once in a while a Burger King or a Wendy’s pops up with it’s shiny façade designed to mask the bleak existence of these hard working people, but right next door the shuttered windows and rusting cars can’t hide the broken dreams of the businesses and people that once flourished there.

But by far, the most insidious thing that is taking place in this part of the country is the practice called MTM or Mountain Top Mining by the coal industry. It is more accurately called MTR or Mountain Top Removal by its opponents. Recently this practice has been receiving more attention as the likes of Daryl Hannah and other celebrities who are working to end it. If you not familiar with it, this method of mining will shock you to say the least. First any and all vegetation is indiscriminately removed. Then the blasting begins to remove the “overburden” which actually consists of the topsoil and any rock that lies on top of the coal. This overburden is then dumped into the surrounding valleys and becomes “holler fill” where it buries the small streams that run through them. The coal is then removed until all that is left of the mountain is a flat barren plain. Although the coal companies were originally supposed to return the mountains to their “pre-mining contours” in most cases they are given waivers allowing them to create "a level plateau or a gently rolling contour with no highwalls remaining." The Bush administration in one of their more brilliant moves further eroded any protections by changing the rules to allow the dumping of the overburden directly into the headwaters of the streams. Under these heinous violations of the Clean Water Act, as well as any sensible interpretation of the Environmental Protection Agency charter, almost 500 mountains have now been destroyed and over 1000 miles of streams have been buried. The EPA estimates that by the end of 2010, over 1.4 million acres will have been leveled with the permits they have issued.

I urge you to learn more about massive ecological damage being inflicted by MTR and to help end this practice. Our use of coal to generate over 50% of our energy is already causing us huge problems by releasing massive quantities of greenhouse gases as well as other pollutants like Mercury into our ecosystems, but MTR is like coal mining on steroids and the effects are devastating. Here are some excellent links to learn more: