Archive for the ‘Sustainability’ Category

The half-full, half-empty view from Oregon

Opinion makers at The Oregonian today offer differing takes on Oregon’s green reputation.

A self-described “glass-half-empty kind of guy,” columnist Steve Duin (URL unavailable) cites Oregon’s toothless Department of Environmental Quality, befouled Willamatte River and wind turbine opponents in the Columbia River Gorge. Then he concludes, “Green? Us? Please. Smug? Definitely. But as far as Oregon’s reputation as an environmental pacesetter? Way overrated.”

If Duin wants to find additional evidence for his case he need look no farther than one of his paper’s editorials today. The editorial board sees a green lining in a report by Joe Cortright. The Oregon economist dispenses with the notion that Portlanders are making financial sacrifices because of the city’s environmental protection policies. On the contrary, Portland’s economy is the richer for these policies, Cortright argues. The editorial writers like that, and — one might say, smugly — conclude, “And the other upshot — sigh — is continued stardom for Portland. It’s not easy being a green celebrity.”

I assume Duin is including Portland when he lashes out at Oregon’s “laziness and neglect” toward the environment. Portland, in particular, continues to haul in accolades across the country and globe for its green ethic. As far as Oregon overall, one of Duin’s sources laments that the state continues to “rest on our laurels.” Agree. Just look at the Willamette River. How can a so-called green state continue to tolerate such a cesspool for so long?

Still there’s no denying we’re making progress on many fronts, particularly in Portland: bicycle usage, renewable energy legislation, light rail, streetcars, green building. At the citizen level, I see widespread passion toward green issues. That’s the half-full view.

But to look through Duin’s eyes is to see that it was also the citizens who passed Measure 37, that ominous threat to our land-use laws. And you see unwillingness among state political leadership to fully fund DEQ and ensure that it enforces the environmental regulations in place.

Half full, half empty? It doesn’t really matter. In either case, the green glass is still not full. Until it’s overflowing, we can be optimistic or cranky, but not satisfied.

Thursday, August 23rd, 2007
Posted in Oregon, Politics, Sustainability | Comments Off on The half-full, half-empty view from Oregon

The ‘ism’ that rules America

Got a book you must read if, like me, you’re wondering how it is consumption came to rule our lives. Check out “An All-Consuming Century: Why Commercialism Won in Modern America,” by Gary Cross, a history professor at Penn State. It isn’t exactly hot off the presses, having been published in 2000. But it’s no less relevant now, as the urgency to build a more sustainable economy grows each day.

As a long-time marketer (previously in high tech), I’m well aware that marketing, advertising, public relations and the like are big reasons why, in Cross’ words, “Consumerism was the ‘ism’ that won” in the 20th Century. But, as Cross shows, it was hardly just the power of advertising that explains why this ism prevailed.

“Consumerism,” he writes, “succeeded where other ideologies failed because it concretely expressed the cardinal political ideals of the century — liberty and democracy — and with relatively little self-destructive behavior or personal humiliation.”

Cross considers consumerism one of the “meaning systems for human life.” Among his keen observations is that 20th Century critics of mass consumption on the Left and the Right failed equally to create credible alternatives. Those on the Left who advocated simple living and downscaling “all too readily ignored the deep psychological and cultural meanings of goods.” Their counterparts on the Right, meanwhile, decried the threat to “family values” by an overly permissive consumer culture. And yet they also stood with conservative politicians (most importantly Reagan) who worshipped the free market and tore down “the walls that held back the market from seeping into every corner of the American psyche and society.”

Unlike many writers of history who would let the facts speak for themselves, Cross couldn’t resist closing with a chapter on the need to confront the social costs of unleashed consumption. He calls on the Left and Right to find common ground. “A society that reduces everything to a market inevitably divides those who can buy from those who cannot, undermining any sense of collective responsibility and with it, democracy.”

Consumerism has provided meaning for Americans unlike any other alternative system. Cross isn’t optimistic we can replace it anytime soon. Americans, he said, perfected 20th Century consumerism. Now we have to figure out ways to control it.


Newspaper’s green pages worth the read

If you’re not among those regular readers of the Portland Tribune’s SustainableLife section, I suggest you become one. The staff there is doing a terrific job every couple weeks of bringing a cross-section of stories on all things green and sustainable, especially around these parts. I especially liked this week’s look at Cotton vs. Polyester.

Wednesday, August 15th, 2007
Posted in Oregon, Sustainability | No Comments »

When green values collide

Interesting article this morning foreshadowing what is almost certain to be an ongoing clash of values as Oregon and other regions of the country and world escalate their pursuits of renewable energy. In this case, a wind farm proposed for siting near the eastern mouth of the Columbia Gorge is drawing determined opposition from nearby residents and Gorge preservationists who fear a blighted landscape within view of their property and the Gorge.

The Oregonian reports the proposed development “sets up a conflict between Northwest values, pitting a revved-up desire to advance clean, renewable energy against the long-held belief that rural and scenic areas deserve special care.”

Meanwhile, owners of property where the 40 turbines would be located relish the idea of substantial new cash flow from their farmland. Kind of like I imagine ranchers once did when they learned that oil was below the surface of their property.

This is the kind of complicated, if not wrenching balancing act between conflicting interests that we can expect to see played out in public for years to come. What is the ultimate price we are willing to pay for renewable energy? Because renewable doesn’t mean it’s free. Wind farms dominate landscapes. As long as they are located in remote areas, most people don’t object. But when ideal wind conditions are found within view of many people’s homes or a national scenic area like the Gorge, then what? Does the need for renewable energy trump the desire to protect scenic treasures? Do property owner development rights exceed the rights of nearby residents who object to noisy, marred surroundings?

And I would add one other matter not touched on in today’s article: the value or lack thereof from having an outside company as the wind project developer. From an economic development standpoint, I would much rather see Oregon companies behind these projects. If we don’t have home-grown companies willing or able to tackle energy developments like this, that signals another problem. But first comes the larger question of whether this site should be developed for wind energy. What do you think?


Local developer breaks with convention

I grew up near a bowling alley and have many fond memories hanging out there as a kid. But that’s not why I look forward to the opening later this year of the Grand Central Building on Portland’s inner east side. Before its large-scale remodel the building was a 28-lane bowling alley. In addition to retaining 12 bowling lanes it will house a bar, restaurant, billiards room and 12 tenants in storefronts along and between Belmont and Morrison avenues.

The local developer John Plew tells the Oregonian that tenant interest in the storefront spaces is high. What I was most pleased to hear him say is this: “I could fill it up tomorrow with the national guys, but I don’t want to…We want local and regional businesses that are distinctive to the city and region. We want an urban feel. We’re not looking to make it something you’d find in the suburbs.”

Now that’s something you don’t hear many developers say. Depending on which report you read, Plew’s firm sunk between $8 million and $11 million into buying and renovating the historic building. Even with that financial exposure, Plew isn’t following the depressingly conventional formula of filling it with national chain outlets. Although his tenants will pay a premium for their store space, Plew’s commitment to area businesses is hugely refreshing. And another re-emerging Portland neighborhood is soon to be the richer for it.

Thursday, August 9th, 2007
Posted in Business & Economics, Oregon, Sustainability | No Comments »

Corn ethanol advocates take the patriotic path

We here on the West Coast when talking about the need for renewable energy usually point to climate change. It seems the people and organizations behind corn ethanol, mainly in the Midwest, prefer to make the case in more patriotic terms, as in greater “energy security” from relying less on imported oil. And they’re finding favor in Congress at the moment.

I noticed the nuance today after doing some follow-up reading on an article that reported on the skyrocketing costs of farmland in the Midwest. The price hike is attributed to the demand for corn by ethanol producers. Can’t help but feel we’re in the midst of yet another real estate bubble and those buying the farmland today at highly inflated prices, their lenders and the taxpayers who will have to bail them out, will be big losers down the road. Among the losers right now, as the article points out, are the younger farmers who are priced out of buying more farmland.

The farm bill recently passed by the House contained provisions that apparently made the corn producers and ethanol lobby happy. One major lobbying organization, the Renewable Fuels Association, sent a letter to the House Agriculture Committee praising it for passing the bill (HR 2419) out of committee. It called the bill “a pathway that will provide a more stable and sustainable energy future for all Americans.”

A Sacramento Bee columnist called it and the recently passed energy bill “monuments to waste, stupidity and policy distortions.” Peter Schrag says the farm bill is more akin to an energy program.

“The link is corn — already subsidized to the tune of billions — since corn is the source of ethanol, which refiners are now required by federal law to mix into almost everybody’s gasoline. The theory is that gas blended with ethanol doesn’t emit greenhouse gases in the same concentrations as regular gas, and that it reduces dependence on imported oil. In fact, it does little of either.”

Schrag explains some of the reasons for this and why “the cheers for corn ethanol are far more political than they are scientific.” If the corn ethanol lobby cannot make their case as the best option for reducing greenhouse gases, it’s understandable they would hang their hat on energy security. In our post 9/11 world, politicians prefer to be seen fighting for security than against global warming. But the scientific, environmental and economic facts are not on the side of corn ethanol as a viable solution for either energy independence or lower carbon emissions.

Wednesday, August 8th, 2007
Posted in Climate Change, Politics, Sustainability | No Comments »