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Oct 27

It’s election season here in the United States and in Illinois we are seeing a race for the Governor’s office.  Republican Judy Barr Topinka and Green Party candidate Rich Whitney are battling to unseat incumbent Democrat Rod Blagojevich.

It is an interesting race given the troubles Republicans are having nationally, Blagojevich’s ethics problems, and the fact that Whitney is polling well for a third party candidate.

The latest poll [Oct. 15] by the non-partisan Rasmussen Reports shows Blagojevich 44%, Topinka 36%, and Whitney 9%.  Since that poll was taken, however, one of Blagojevich’s associates pleaded guilty to using his state appointment to take kickbacks from firms with an interest in getting state business and his wife earned six-figures in a real estate deal involving friends who have received no-bid contracts from the state.

One would expect these latest revelations to further erode Blagojevich’s slim lead over Topinka.  He seems to be trying to lay low as he backed out from a previously-scheduled debate with his challengers.

One of the things that has been sorely missing from the campaign has been a discussion of actual public policy challenges facing the state.  The Chicago Tribune has done some good reporting in this regard and had all three candidates answer important questions in relative detail.

One of the major problems facing the northeastern part of the state has been the lack of planning for metropolitan growth.  Roads are inadequate to handle demand and public transit is non-existent.  In theory, state government  has quite a bit of authority to address growth and regional infrastructure.  The Tribune asked each candidate about their transportation plans which are central to regional policy.

The headline of Tribune transportation reporter Jon Hilkevitch’s article–“All candidates lack plans for roads, transit”–pretty much tells the story.,

Governor Blagojevich claims that he has been unable to get Republicans in the legislature to agree to a bond-issue that would raise $2.3 billion for roads and $425 million for transit.  Passage of the bond issue would allow for the state to be eligible for more than $3 billion in federal matching funds.

Topinka wants to put a casino in Chicago to help fund road improvements.  This seems to be her answer to every policy problem, as her casino plan is also supposed to fund schools, offer property tax relief, and supplant part of the state gas tax!  Many observers think that the expansion of gambling in the state is a tough sell.  Daley has unsuccessfully tried in the past to get state authorization for a Chicago casino and the fact that there are already multiple casinos in the state would make it a huge political fight.  Plus, the amount of money she is suggesting could be raised from a Chicago casino is questionable.  Daley claimed two years ago that revenues would be between $200-$700 million.  Topinka’s proposals require at least $4 billion!

Whitney has said that he is dedicated to developing mass transit options
both in the Chicago area, as well as improving rail service downstate.  It is unclear how he would pay for it, however.

In the next week or so I will run down the candidates’ positions on a variety of environmental issues.

Oct 27

Word

At this time of year, as the Autumn Quarter wanes and the work of writing (and grading) papers and exams occupy our days and nights, those of us in the academic community can ease the anxiety by realizing that the December break is just on the horizion.  The promise of exotic travel after a stressful quarter can keep us focused down the stretch.

With that in mind, it is important to come to the table armed with information about possible destinations for fun and relaxation.  While most people think of Puerto Vallarta, the Bahamas, or some other warm locale as the site for a December holiday, the good folks at the BBC give us some other alternatives to consider.
Susi–a student in my Sustainable Development class–tipped me off to the BBC’s list of the top 10 polluted places on earth.  Reporting on a recent study by the Blacksmith Institute which solicited input from scientists and environmentalists throughout the globe, it seems that Russia has the dubious honor of hosting three sites in the top ten.

Many of the sites on the list are relics of the Soviet military-industrial complex.  Places like Chernobyl, Ukraine join Dzerzinsk, Russia [a major center for chemical weapons production] and the uranium processing  town of Mailuu-Suu, Kyrgystan as toxic reminders of the Cold War.

Developing countries are well-represented on the list as well.  Linfen–the center of the Chinese coal industry–and Ranipet, India are both examples of the dark underbelly of recent economic growth in the two countries.

In the Caribbean, Bajos de Hania in the Dominican Republic made the cut.  Apparently Hania is the site of a shut-down automobile battery “recycling” plant, which happened to emit tons of lead into the community.

This report reminded me of the Top Ten Most Polluted Cities in the US list published by Forbes last year.  The winner:  Los Angeles.

Oct 11

Takamitsu Sawa–a prominent policy analyst working on environmental issues in Japan–has an informative article in the Japan Times on how Japan might reduce its CO2 emissions.

His main policy recommendation is to build more light-rail lines. Tokyo–being one of the most densely-populated places on the planet–has a pretty expansive train and subway system and an expressway system that used in excess of its capacity. However, many other cities in the country are less-equipped.

Sawa argues in favor of a system that has parking on the outskirts of the smaller urban areas where people could then transfer to light-rail to reach inner-city destinations. He is less explicit about how such systems would be financed.

Kiyohito Utsunomiya wrote a short article (.pdf) a couple of years ago in the Japan Railway and Transport Review making a more detailed case for light-rail transit and he nicely compares Japan to other countries. The main obstacle facing Japan is the history of not subsidizing transit. Utsunomiya notes a few examples from the 1990s where the national government gave some assistance for capital improvements, but railways are expected to generate enough fares to meet operating expenses.

Another unique way rail systems can contribute to energy savings is documented in the Real Tech News blog. They report on efforts by East Japan Railway Company to harness the energy produced by each passenger when they push the turnstyles at stations to power the electronic systems that monitor fare cards and grant access to the stations.

This type of energy micro-production stands in stark contrast to conventional wisdom where by energy needs are provided by large-scale industrial facilities.

Oct 08

The developers of a major New Urbanist planned community in Chesterton, Indiana–about 45 miles east of Chicago–have changed course. According to the Gary Post-Tribune, the Coffee Creek Center is no longer going to try and be “a neo-traditional community setting standards in land use sustainability, ecology & quality of life.”

Instead, the new developer is seeking to build a large shopping mall or perhaps a big box retail development along with a standard single-family home residential district.

This represents an interesting phenomenon. Over the past decade, “new urbanist” developments with integrated housing and commercial districts, pedestrian-friendly environments, and ample public spaces have attracted the attention of large-scale real estate developers. Modeled after successful projects like Celebration, Florida, developers found a new market niche that could be pitched as an alternative to the typical “cookie cutter” sprawl developments.

According to the article, sales for Coffee Creek were anemic.  It is unclear whether the recent downturn in the housing market is to blame for this, or rather changing consumer preferences.  Nevertheless it will be interesting to see if this is a harbinger for a general retreat from New Urbanism.

Oct 04

The Wall Street Journal had a great report on the front page yesterday about the town of Sauget, Illinois–a suburb just across the river from St. Louis.

As small communities struggle to attract economic development in a competitive environment, Sauget seems to have carved out a unique niche:  attract various unattractive industries.

Sauget was initially developed in 1926 as an industrial site to house operations–and employees–for the Monsanto chemical company.  In the pre-EPA era, Monsanto sited extremely hazardous operations in Sauget where they produced PCBs for many years.

With the banning of PCBs, the city diversified and attracted a whole host of other polluting industries making it one of the most polluted places in Illinois.

Unlike other cities in the state who are trying to transform their economies from an industrial focus to being more sustainable, Sauget is sticking to its tried and true plan.  In addition to being hospitible to normally-shunned businesses like strip clubs, Sauget is also being helped by the state to continue to attract other polluting industries–as evidenced by the recent announcement by Gov. Blagojevich to give more than $2 million to a British Zinc processing company to purchase and expand a pre-existing plant.

Sauget certainly has the right to attract any business it sees fit–however, the polluting nature of many of these businesses have historically had effects on regional ecological processes.  Because of the autonomy of municipal governments like Sauget, however, there is often little that can be done by neighboring communities to resist regional polluters.

Oct 01

Along with China, India has had one of the most dynamically-growing economies over the last decade. The country has quickly emerged as a center for both technology and manufacturing serving the global marketplace as a result of its relatively robust education system and low labor costs.

That growth, however, has not occured without problems. The New York Times has recently published a three-part series on the challenges posed by growth on the country’s water supplies.

The first article looks at the pressing problem of water provision in India’s cities. High levels of urban growth and the failure of the government to invest in sewers and water pipes makes simply finding water a full time job for many urban dwellers. This problem is found throughout the world, but the article shows how many people in the middle classes are having problems finding water. One of the main problems is the polluted Yamuna River into which raw sewage and industrial pollutants are deposited.
The second article looks at the problem of ground water depletion and how the scarcity of water is turning people who happen to own land fortunate to sit atop underground aquifer into water merchants.  Increased demand results in digging wells deeper and deeper and, in turn, minimizing recharge rates.  The article indicates that the intensive extraction of water above recharge levels is unsustainable over the long term.

Finally, the third article shows how a series of fundamental changes to part of the country’s hyrdological systems has made many communities vulnerable during monsoon seasons.  Damed rivers face the possibilities of breaches with the fast and intense percipitation that accompanies monsoon season.  As a result, local officials often have to open reservoir gates during periods of high rain.  The article reports that 120 people died this past summer when the Ukai Dam was opened without warning, flooding downstream communities.

Issues of water provision and management are core environmental policies that could severly threaten India’s growth if they are continually ignored.

Sep 29

The Washington Post reports on some new research coming out of the DC metro area that suggests that geese, bears, deer, livestock, and other wildlife are major contributors to rising levels of bacteria in the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers.

Bacteria Levels

The article contends that the high percentages of bacteria are the result of “unnaturally high populations of deer, geese and raccoons living in modern suburbs and depositing their waste there.”

Of course one of the reasons that there are “unnaturally high populations” is because low-intensity suburban sprawl destroys prevailing ecological systems and certain species are better able to adapt than others. Curiously, these species are the ones tagged by the article as the “wildlife” responsible for the high levels of pollution.

Thus, it doesn’t seem entirely accurate to talk of “wildlife” waste as something emanating separately from human activities. In fact, high populations of one of the more polluting species–non-migratory Canadian geese–are apparently decendents of geese brought to the mid-Atlantic region as hunting decoys.

The distinctions between “wildlife” and human behavior are not quite so clear.

Sep 26

The Christian Science Monitor has a pretty basic article today on environmental challenges facing the United States as the nation’s population reaches 300 million people.

The article mentions such things as the rising amount of farmland being changed to development and the fact that new land development is rising at a rate twice as fast as population. These issues are significant, but in framing the issue as one of simple population increases, it obscures the real challenge: how the nearly 300 million Americans live and the ecological processes that support this particular way of life.

The problem is less the raw number of people and the rate of population growth; rather it is the fact that per capita consumption of ecological space far surpasses that of other countries. The article does mention the “ecological footprint” of the US, but doesn’t unpack the global processes that undergird our practice of mass consumption. Instead, it goes on to talk about federal environmental legislation enacted a year ago and fails to mention the fact that many of the important enviornmental protections have been eroded by lax regulatory enforcement and redefinitions over the past several years.

The article does have a telling graphic, however, that compares the US to other countries’ ecological footprints:

Ecological Footprints

Sep 25

According to the tech website, Cnet, a European Commission task force on the environment has announced a voluntary program spearheaded by Nokia which will encourage cell phone consumers to unplug their phones once they are fully charged.

The seemingly insignificant practice of leaving a cell phone plugged into a charger after the phone is fully charged is a prime example of a cumulatively collossal waste of energy.  The Cnet article indicates that if 10% of the world’s cell phone users unplugged their phone upon full recharge, enough electricity would be saved to power 60,000 European homes.

Under this scheme, the cell phone manufacturers will develop alerts on the phones which will give an indication when a phone is fully charged.

The significance of this step is hard to determine, but it represents a common practice on the part of large industrial producers of polluting commodities: developing voluntary changes in corporate practice in order to stave off governmental regulation.

Sep 22

In his post-Presidency days Bill Clinton has established a high-profile humanitarian effort called the Clinton Global Initiative. The purpose of the initiative is to bring together global power-brokers annually who pledge to develop a particular project that will contribute to resolving a pressing social problem. If you don’t follow through on your commitment, you don’t get invited back the following year.

It may not be sufficient enough to solve all of the world’s problems, but the results-based approach is rather ambitious. This year one of the issues the CGI is tackling is climate change and today, Sir Richard Branson–the head of the British-based Virgin conglomerate–pledged $3 billion to address global warming.

The sum is staggering. However, Bronson’s pledge is to invest the money in one of his own start-up companies, Virgin Fuels. The company has been in the works for several months with the goal to expand research into cellulosic ethanol. Branson has a distinct business interest in the development of biofuels, as his airline company could benefit greatly from lower fuel costs.

Whether this initiative will really be able to solve global warming is debatable. Ethanol is currently highly subsidized and requires a significant amount of energy & water intensive inputs. Furthermore, Bronson’s supposed “philanthropy” within the context of the Clinton Global Initiative is suspect given the fact that he was going to invest hundreds of millions of dollars anyway into this project.

Nevertheless, I expect Sir Richard to be invited back to New York next year.

In the interim, Friday is the last day of this year’s meetings and there is an interesting session on “Cities of the Future” featuring Jaime Lerner, the former mayor of Curitaba, Brazil–a city known for innovative sustainable urban development schemes. Today featured sessions on “Building a Sustainable Future” featuring Al Gore and “Energy and Climate Change.”

Follow the links above to view archived video of the sessions.

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