Saturday Links for the Week – March 17, 2007

turtle prayer martha greenwald
Image: Acrylic Painting Turtle Prayer by Martha Greenwald

“Nobody is Controlling What You Do Here”: Bob Neuwirth’s 2005 TED talk summarizes and expands on his book Shadow Cities. About 1.5 billion people, 20% of humanity, now lives in squatter communities in the world’s cities, mostly in struggling nations. By 2050, 3-4 billion people, a third of humanity, will do so. They are growing at a rate of 250,000 per day. Their homes are not recognized as legal, they have no political rights, and no legal services, though they beg, borrow and steal electricity and water. Their main products are garbage and sewage, which accumulate in massive nearby piles and cesspools. What they are are self-managed communities, probably as close as we have to large-scale intentional communities, though their intentions are not ambitious. Despite the squalour and disease, many residents say living there is addictive — you owe no homage to The Man, pay no taxes, don’t have to fight in unjust wars or kowtow to the boss or the customer. They are probably not in the census: Even the Canadian census authorities admit that they undercount by at least 3% because of incomplete surveys and forms. The numbers of those in the Shadow Cities might be much higher than the unofficial numbers — the global population may have already exceeded 7 billion, and the number of uncounted (as we try to assure ourselves that the population explosion is moderating) is soaring. Neuwirth wants them to be granted security from eviction (not property rights, which only make things worse) and the right to political self-management. They are, as Neuwirth says, the real cities of the future. Thanks to David Gurteen for the link.

Replacing the Desktop Metaphor with…You!: A prototype $99 computer called the XO puts you, not your desktop, as the icon of its user interface, and instead of showing the architecture and connections of documents, it shows the architecture of your person-to-person networks. The project is controversial and unproven (both the technology and user acceptance) but its holy grail — affordably bringing a vast array of self-paced learning resources to communities that have none — is a worthy one. Thanks to Innovation Weekly for the link.

Is Ethanol Fuel an Environmentally Devastating Corporatist Scam?…: Artist Martha Greenwald (that’s her painting above) writes: “In Heron Lake, Minnesota, they are constructing a 50 million gallon coal-fired corn ethanol plant, funded by farmer-investors. They are doing this because the price of natural gas is going up, and coal is cheaper in the Upper Midwest. Federal government subsidies support this expansion of agricultural production. These include a 51 cent tax credit for each gallon of ethanol sold in the U.S. Also, ethanol producers receive a 10 cent per gallon production income tax credit for the first 15 million gallons. There are so many things wrong with this picture.

  • First, the energy economics of ethanol production: Robert Rapier, who writes for the Oil Drum, says for every 1 unit of energy expended on producing corn ethanol, we get 1.3 units of energy. 
  • Second, the greenhouse gases burned by using coal to heat the ethanol mash. 
  • Third, the enormous water usage of ethanol plants, depleting groundwater sources. 
  • Fourth, the increase in acreage devoted to corn production created by higher prices, which is reducing acreage put into conservation programs. 
  • Fifth, the soil erosion, fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide costs on the environment associated with corn production, including the “dead zone” in the Mississippi River. 
  • Sixth, the rising costs of corn driving up the costs of everything from tortillas to meat, not to mention driving down the Mexican peso. This is the wisdom of the markets, folded, spindled, and mutilated. All in the name of energy independence. Incredible.”

… and Is a Prius Bad for the Environment?: Some of the assumptions and math are suspect, but a recent study suggests that, due to the environmental cost of extracting some of its materials, and the huge distances some of these materials and components are transported, the Prius is hardly green. After learning that long-haul ‘organic’ foods may be worse for the environment than locally-grown products, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. Thanks to Scott Cale for the link.

The Horrors of Factory Farming: In the NYT, a cattle rancher describes the unimaginable animal cruelty that personifies the US factory farming oligopoly, and calls for an end to it.

Thought for the Week: From Amy Hempel again:

I think of the chimp, the one with the talking hands [taught sign language]. In the course of the experiment, that chimp had a baby. Imagine how her trainers must have thrilled when the mother, without prompting, began to sign to her newborn: “Baby, Drink, Milk.”  “Baby, Play, Ball”.  And when the baby died, the mother stood over the body, her wrinkled hands moving with animal grace, forming again and again the words: Baby, Come Hug, Baby, Come Hug, fluent now in the languageof grief.
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4 Responses to Saturday Links for the Week – March 17, 2007

  1. Evan says:

    The Amy Hempel comment just tears at me. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. Gary Dikkers says:

    I just sent the following letter to the editor of the Rochester newspaper about the Heron Lake coal-fired ethanol plant:

    I read Tom Webb’s story on the ethanol plant at Heron Lake using coal as a source of thermal energy with great interest, particularly David Morris’s statement that ethanol is a way not only to reduce our dependence on oil, but also a way to reduce our greenhouse and overall emissions. But Morris also then says coal-fired ethanol plants produce twice as much carbon dioxide, more mercury, and more particulates. That led me to ask the following: If natural gas has become too expensive because of soaring prices and unpredictable supplies, and coal is too dirty, why are ethanol plants using either fuel? According to ethanol industry doctrine, they produce more energy than they consume. If they are truly concerned about the price of natural gas and the adverse environmental effect of coal, why aren’t they using some of the ethanol they make as their source of thermal energy? They say they make more energy than they use, and that their ethanol is good for the environment, yet they decline using the fuel they make to power their plants. The cynic in me thinks that ethanol industry dogma is wrong and that they don’t actually make more energy than they consume. If they did, why would they use unpredictable natural gas and dirty coal instead of the clean fuel they make?

  3. Raging Bee says:

    You’re right — the article bashing the Prius is indeed suspect. I just bought a Prius myself, so I’m probably a bit biased, but here’s my response…First, if all the bad news about the plant in Ontario is true, then the owners need to be pressured to change their procedures in order to reduce destruction of the surrounding environment. This is so regardless of who buys their product or why. If that makes the Prius more expensive, so be it — I think most prospective buyers will take it in stride, if they’re informed of the issues.When you pool together all the combined energy it takes to drive and build a Toyota Prius, the flagship car of energy fanatics, it takes almost 50 percent more energy than a Hummer – the Prius

  4. Raging Bee says:

    One more thing: the Prius-bashing article was an “opinion” piece, not a news article. Another opinion in the same publication equated a TV show about an alleged tomb of Jesus to “attacks” on Christian faith, and lamented thusly:No history class in any public school in America teaches the divine and religious aspects of Jesus…I am strong in my faith and no amount of science will ever cause me to waver in my belief of Christ; for those who are not so solid in faith, attacks on Christ could be traumatic…When you deliberately attempt to prove the Bible or any scripture wrong and try to disrupt an entire population

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