Green Citadel in the Desert

SOURCE: Stephen Peters ( SUBHEAD: Masdar, a sustainable city, rises in the Arabian Desert and is arranged as a gated medieval fortress.

LinkBy Nicolai Ourossoff on 25 September 2010 for the New York Times - 

Image above: The "upper deck" of the city of Masdar suspended over the desert. Terracotta colored building is a residence building. Photo by Duncan Chard for NYT article.

Back in 2007, when the government here announced its plan for “the world’s first zero-carbon city” on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, many Westerners dismissed it as a gimmick — a faddish follow-up to neighboring Dubai’s half-mile-high tower in the desert and archipelago of man-made islands in the shape of palm trees. Designed by Foster & Partners, a firm known for feats of technological wizardry, the city, called Masdar, would be a perfect square, nearly a mile on each side, raised on a 23-foot-high base to capture desert breezes.

Beneath its labyrinth of pedestrian streets, a fleet of driverless electric cars would navigate silently through dimly lit tunnels. The project conjured both a walled medieval fortress and an upgraded version of the Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland. Well, those early assessments turned out to be wrong.

By this past week, as people began moving into the first section of the project to be completed — a 3 ½-acre zone surrounding a sustainability-oriented research institute — it was clear that Masdar is something more daring and more noxious. Norman Foster, the firm’s principal partner, has blended high-tech design and ancient construction practices into an intriguing model for a sustainable community, in a country whose oil money allows it to build almost anything, even as pressure grows to prepare for the day the wells run dry.

And he has worked in an alluring social vision, in which local tradition and the drive toward modernization are no longer in conflict — a vision that, at first glance, seems to brim with hope. But his design also reflects the gated-community mentality that has been spreading like a cancer around the globe for decades. Its utopian purity, and its isolation from the life of the real city next door, are grounded in the belief — accepted by most people today, it seems — that the only way to create a truly harmonious community, green or otherwise, is to cut it off from the world at large.

 Mr. Foster is the right man for this kind of job. A lifelong tech buff who collaborated with Buckminster Fuller, he talks about architecture in terms of high performance, as if his buildings were sports cars. And to some extent his single-minded focus on the craft of architecture — its technological and material aspects — has been a convenient way of avoiding trickier discussions about its social impact. (It’s hard to imagine Mr. Foster embroiled in the kind of public battles over modern architecture that his former partner, Richard Rogers, has fought with the traditionalist Prince Charles in London.)

 Not that Mr. Foster doesn’t have ideals. At Masdar, one aim was to create an alternative to the ugliness and inefficiency of the sort of development — suburban villas slathered in superficial Islamic-style décor, gargantuan air-conditioned malls — that has been eating away the fabric of Middle Eastern cities for decades. He began with a meticulous study of old Arab settlements, including the ancient citadel of Aleppo in Syria and the mud-brick apartment towers of Shibam in Yemen, which date from the 16th century. “The point,” he said in an interview in New York, “was to go back and understand the fundamentals,” how these communities had been made livable in a region where the air can feel as hot as 150 degrees.

Among the findings his office made was that settlements were often built on high ground, not only for defensive reasons but also to take advantage of the stronger winds. Some also used tall, hollow “wind towers” to funnel air down to street level. And the narrowness of the streets — which were almost always at an angle to the sun’s east-west trajectory, to maximize shade — accelerated airflow through the city. With the help of environmental consultants,

Mr. Foster’s team estimated that by combining such approaches, they could make Masdar feel as much as 70 degrees cooler. In so doing, they could more than halve the amount of electricity needed to run the city. Of the power that is used, 90 percent is expected to be solar, and the rest generated by incinerating waste (which produces far less carbon than piling it up in dumps). The city itself will be treated as a kind of continuing experiment, with researchers and engineers regularly analyzing its performance, fine-tuning as they go along.

Image above: View within the city looking towards the Masdar Science and Technology Institute. Photo by Duncan Chard for NYT article.

But Mr. Foster’s most radical move was the way he dealt with one of the most vexing urban design challenges of the past century: what to do with the car.

Not only did he close Masdar entirely to combustion-engine vehicles, he buried their replacement — his network of electric cars — underneath the city. Then, to further reinforce the purity of his vision, he located almost all of the heavy-duty service functions — a 54-acre photovoltaic field and incineration and water treatment plants — outside the city. The result, Mr. Foster acknowledged, feels a bit like Disneyland. “Disneyland is attractive because all the service is below ground,” he said. “We do the same here — it is literally a walled city. Traditional cars are stopped at the edges.”

Driving from downtown Abu Dhabi, 20 miles away, you follow a narrow road past an oil refinery and through desolate patches of desert before reaching the blank concrete wall of Masdar and find the city looming overhead. (Mr. Foster plans to camouflage the periphery behind fountains and flora.)

From there a road tunnels through the base to a garage just underneath the city’s edge. Stepping out of this space into one of the “Personal Rapid Transit” stations brings to mind the sets designed by Harry Lange for “2001: A Space Odyssey.” You are in a large, dark hall facing a row of white, pod-shaped cars lined up in rectangular glass bays. (The cars’ design was based on Buckminster Fuller’s proposal for a compact urban vehicle, the D-45, which helps explain their softly contoured, timelessly futuristic silhouettes.) Daylight spills down a rough concrete wall behind them, hinting at the life above.

The first 13 cars of a proposed fleet of hundreds were being tested the day I visited, but as soon as the system is up, within a few weeks, a user will be able to step into a car and choose a destination on an LCD screen. The car will then silently pull into traffic, seeming to drive itself. (There are no cables or rails.)

 It’s only as people arrive at their destination that they will become aware of the degree to which everything has been engineered for high-function, low-consumption performance. The station’s elevators have been tucked discreetly out of sight to encourage use of a concrete staircase that corkscrews to the surface. And on reaching the streets — which were pretty breezy the day I visited — the only way to get around is on foot. (This is not only a matter of sustainability; Mr. Foster’s on-site partner, Austin Relton, told me that obesity has become a significant health issue in this part of the Arab world, largely because almost everyone drives to avoid the heat.) The buildings that have gone up so far come in two contrasting styles.

Laboratories devoted to developing new forms of sustainable energy and affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are housed in big concrete structures that are clad in pillowlike panels of ethylene-tetrafluoroethylene, a super-strong translucent plastic that has become fashionable in contemporary architecture circles for its sleek look and durability. Inside, big open floor slabs are designed for maximum flexibility.

The residential buildings, which for now will mostly house professors, students and their families, use a more traditional architectural vocabulary. To conform to Middle Eastern standards of privacy, Mr. Foster came up with an undulating facade of concrete latticework based on the mashrabiya screens common in the region. The latticework blocks direct sunlight and screens interiors from view, while the curves make for angled views to the outside, so that apartment dwellers never look directly into the windows of facing buildings. Such concerns are also reflected in the layout of the neighborhood.

Like many Middle Eastern university campuses, it is segregated by sex, with women and families living at one end and single men at the other. Each end has a small public plaza, which acts as its social heart. Still, one wonders, despite the technical brilliance and the sensitivity to local norms, how a project like Masdar can ever attain the richness and texture of a real city.

 Eventually, a light-rail system will connect it to Abu Dhabi, and street life will undoubtedly get livelier as the daytime population grows to a projected 90,000. (Although construction on a second, larger phase has already begun, the government-run developer, the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, refuses to give a completion date for the city, saying only that it will grow at its own pace.)

 But the decision of who gets to live and work in Masdar, as in any large-scale development, will be outside the architect’s control. That will be decided by the landlord, in this case, the government. And even if it were to become a perfect little urban melting pot, Masdar would have only limited relevance to the world most people live in. Mr. Foster’s inspired synthesis of ancient and new technologies could well have applications elsewhere; it should be looked at closely by other architects. But no one would argue that a city of a few million or more can be organized with such precision, and his fantasy world is only possible as a meticulously planned community, built from the ground up and of modest size.

What Masdar really represents, in fact, is the crystallization of another global phenomenon: the growing division of the world into refined, high-end enclaves and vast formless ghettos where issues like sustainability have little immediate relevance.

That’s obviously not how Mr. Foster sees it. He said the city was intended to house a cross-section of society, from students to service workers. “It is not about social exclusion,” he added. And yet Masdar seems like the fulfillment of that idea. Ever since the notion that thoughtful planning could improve the lot of humankind died out, sometime in the 1970s, both the megarich and the educated middle classes have increasingly found solace by walling themselves off inside a variety of mini-utopias.

 This has involved not only the proliferation of suburban gated communities, but also the transformation of city centers in places like Paris and New York into playgrounds for tourists and the rich. Masdar is the culmination of this trend: a self-sufficient society, lifted on a pedestal and outside the reach of most of the world’s citizens.

 [Editor's note: It appears that the future lies in Masdar, not the nearby Vegas styled tourist trap of Dubai. Dubai may have it's gated speculative communities but they are not sustainable of defensible. If Masdar is the future then it will mark the return of the Moslem citadel (or qala'at - fortress) in Arabia. Like the monk's abbeys in Europe, places like Masdar may be where the flame of knowledge and civilization are maintained.

Unfortunately, the need for such constructs points to a more dangerous and less civilized world with safe enclaves for those who are prepared. But preparation includes self reliance on food production - something that took a great deal of the European monk's time. I don't see that effort in Masdar. 

A question arises, should our culture be looking for it's own manifestation of sustainable citadels of civilization? We could transform our public schools that could have facilities that would act as seeds for rebuilding our communities in a Post Oil future. 

Our school systems are almost universally in our communities and represent a large portion of our investments in our future. By transforming the schools I mean getting them off the grid, building up their vocational training capabilities, providing community gardening where needed, reinforcing their libraries and cultural facilities, etc.]

Image above: Qala'at Ja'abar jutting out into Lake al-Assad, central Syria. From ($24062-22). 


A World Lost in Screens

SUBHEAD: We have been conditioned to believe that the aim of life is not to understand but to be entertained.

By Chris Hedges on 27 September 2010 in Truthdig - ( 

Image above: "The Republic of Amnesia", painting by Mark Bryan, 2009. From (

Nemesis was the Greek goddess of retribution. She exacted divine punishment on arrogant mortals who believed they could defy the gods, turn themselves into objects of worship and build ruthless systems of power to control the world around them.

The price of such hubris was almost always death. Nemesis, related to the Greek word némein, means “to give what is due.” Our nemesis fast approaches. We will get what we are due.

The staggering myopia of our corrupt political and economic elite, which plunder the nation’s wealth for financial speculation and endless war, the mass retreat of citizens into virtual hallucinations, the collapsing edifices around us, which include the ecosystem that sustains life, are ignored for a giddy self-worship.

We stare into electronic screens just as Narcissus, besotted with his own reflection, stared into a pool of water until he wasted away and died. We believe that because we have the capacity to wage war we have the right to wage war.

We believe that money, rather than manufactured products and goods, is real. We believe in the myth of inevitable human moral and material progress.

We believe that no matter how much damage we do to the Earth or our society, science and technology will save us.

And as temperatures on the planet steadily rise, as droughts devastate cropland, as the bleaching of coral reefs threatens to wipe out 25 percent of all marine species, as countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh succumb to severe flooding, as we poison our food, air and water, as we refuse to confront our addiction to fossil fuels and coal, as we dismantle our manufacturing base and plunge tens of millions of Americans into a permanent and desperate underclass, we flick on a screen and are entranced.

We confuse the electronic image, a reflection back to us of ourselves, with the divine. We gawk at “reality” television, which of course is contrived reality, reveling in being the viewer and the viewed. True reality is obliterated from our consciousness.

It is the electronic image that informs and defines us.
It is the image that gives us our identity.
It is the image that tells us what is attainable in the vast cult of the self, what we should desire, what we should seek to become and who we are.

It is the image that tricks us into thinking we have become powerful—as the popularity of video games built around the themes of violence and war illustrates—while we have become enslaved and impoverished by the corporate state.

The electronic image leads us back to the worship of ourselves. It is idolatry. Reality is replaced with electronic mechanisms for preening self-presentation—the core of social networking sites such as Facebook—and the illusion of self-fulfillment and self-empowerment.

And in a world unmoored from the real, from human limitations and human potential, we inevitably embrace superstition and magic. This is what the worship of images is about. We retreat into a dark and irrational fear born out of a cavernous ignorance of the real. We enter an age of technological barbarism.

To those entranced by images, the world is a vast stage on which they are called to enact their dreams.

It is a world of constant action, stimulation and personal advancement.
It is a world of thrills and momentary ecstasy. It is a world of ceaseless movement.

It makes a fetish of competition.
It is a world where commercial products and electronic images serve as a pseudo-therapy that caters to feelings of alienation, inadequacy and powerlessness.

We may be locked in dead-end jobs, have no meaningful relationships and be confused about our identities, but we can blast our way to power holding a little control panel while looking for hours at a screen.

We can ridicule the poor, the ignorant and the weak all day long on trash-talk shows and reality television shows.

We are skillfully made to feel that we have a personal relationship, a false communion, with the famous—look at the outpouring of grief at the death of Princess Diana or Michael Jackson.

We have never met those we adore. We know only their manufactured image. They appear to us on screens. They are not, at least to us, real people. And yet we worship and seek to emulate them.

 In this state of cultural illusion any description of actual reality, because it does not consist of the happy talk that pollutes the airwaves from National Public Radio to Oprah, is dismissed as “negative” or “pessimistic.”

The beleaguered Jeremiahs who momentarily stumble into our consciousness and in a desperate frenzy seek to warn us of our impending self-destruction are derided because they do not lay out easy formulas that permit us to drift back into fantasy.

We tell ourselves they are overreacting. If reality is a bummer, and if there are no easy solutions, we don’t want to hear about it. The facts of economic and environmental collapse, now incontrovertible, cannot be discussed unless they are turned into joking banter or come accompanied with a neat, pleasing solution, the kind we are fed at the conclusion of the movies, electronic games, talk shows and sitcoms, the kind that dulls our minds into passive and empty receptacles. We have been conditioned by electronic hallucinations to expect happy talk. We demand it.

We confuse this happy talk with hope. But hope is not about a belief in progress. Hope is about protecting simple human decency and demanding justice.

Hope is the belief, not necessarily grounded in the tangible, that those whose greed, stupidity and complacency have allowed us to be driven over a cliff shall one day be brought down.

Hope is about existing in a perpetual state of rebellion, a constant antagonism to all centers of power. The great moral voices, George Orwell and Albert Camus being perhaps two of the finest examples, describe in moving detail the human suffering we ignore or excuse. They understand that the greatest instrument for moral good is the imagination.

The ability to perceive the pain and suffering of another, to feel, as King Lear says, what wretches feel, is a more powerful social corrective than the shelves of turgid religious and philosophical treatises on human will. Those who change the world for the better, who offer us hope, have the capacity to make us step outside of ourselves and feel empathy.

A print-based culture, as writer Neil Postman pointed out, demands rationality. The sequential, propositional character of the written word fosters what Walter Ong calls the “analytic management of knowledge.”

But our brave new world of images dispenses with these attributes because the images do not require them to be understood. Communication in the image-based culture is not about knowledge. It is about the corporate manipulation of emotions, something logic, order, nuance and context protect us against.

Thinking, in short, is forbidden. Entertainment and spectacle have become the aim of all human endeavors, including politics, which is how Stephen Colbert, playing his television character, can be permitted to testify before the House Judiciary Committee.

Campaigns are built around the manufactured personal narratives of candidates, who function as political celebrities, rather than policies or ideas. News reports have become soap operas and mini-dramas revolving around the latest celebrity scandal.

Colleges and universities, which view students as customers and suck obscene tuition payments and loans out of them with the tantalizing promise of high-paying corporate jobs, have transformed themselves into resorts and theme parks. In this new system of education almost no one fails.

Students become “brothers” or “sisters” in the atavistic, tribal embrace of eating clubs, fraternities or sororities.

School spirit and school branding is paramount. Campus security keeps these isolated enclaves of privilege secure. And 90,000-seat football stadiums, along with their millionaire coaches, dominate the campus. It is moral leprosy.

 The role of knowledge and art, as the ancient Greeks understood, is to create ekstasis, which means standing outside one’s self to give our individual life and struggle meaning and perspective. The role of art and scholarship is to transform us as individuals, not entertain us as a group. It is to nurture this capacity for understanding and empathy.

Art and scholarship allow us to see the underlying structures and assumptions used to manipulate and control us.

And this is why art, like intellectual endeavor, is feared by the corporate elite as subversive. This is why corporations have used their money to deform universities into vocational schools that spit out blinkered and illiterate systems managers. This is why the humanities are withering away.

The vast stage of entertainment that envelops our culture is intended to impart the opposite of ekstasis. Mass entertainment plays to the basest and crudest instincts of the crowd. It conditions us to have the same aspirations and desires.

It forces us to speak in the same dead clichés and slogans. It homogenizes human experience.
It wallows in a cloying nostalgia and sentimentalism that foster historical amnesia.
It turns the Other into a cartoon or a stereotype.
It prohibits empathy because it prohibits understanding.
It denies human singularity and uniqueness.
It assures us that we all have within us the ability, talent or luck to become famous and rich.
It forms us into a lowing and compliant herd.

We have been conditioned to believe—defying all the great moral and philosophical writers from Socrates to Orwell—that the aim of life is not to understand but to be entertained.

If we do not shake ourselves awake from our electronic hallucinations and defy the elites who are ruining the country and trashing the planet we will experience the awful and deadly retribution of the gods. 

Step out of the stampede

SUBHEAD: The Earth is our master and is on a course we largely set her on. We have barely begun to pay the price.

By Jan Lundberg on 25 September 2010 in Culture Change -

Image above: A staged cattle stampede in Dallas, Texas. From (

If being human and living have value, we ought to celebrate what we are and how we're doing. The only real celebration can be of the truth, based on joyous reality of an improved condition.

Yet the truth today is that we are probably about to dangle from the noose that we ourselves stepped right into.

It's crazy to celebrate ecocide. Is there something else to celebrate that is also true? Sure, but it's not the whole truth: human dignity, beauty of life, love between two people -- wonderful and inspiring, but to celebrate them while closing off our senses to the bulldozing and poisoning going on around us is increasingly irrational.

Being honest would to admit of our celebrations today, "We are making ourselves feel better, numbing the pain or fooling ourselves."

For most of us, our personal world and its challenges are all we can deal with. So, little triumphs like selling more widgets than one's co-workers, losing ten pounds of body fat, or quitting alcohol become major accomplishments -- kind of in a vacuum, typical of individualism connected with "divide and conquer." It is rare that one celebrates getting rid of his or her car, for one's lack of a four wheeled machine is commonly equated with hardship.

There is organized and individual resistance to ecocide, climate catastrophe, species extinction, weakening of the human gene pool, erosion of human rights, and the coming trampling and starvation of the overpopulation. But the odds are that you're not part of resistance. It is tiny and does not deserve to celebrate much with a one-in-a-thousand chance for success or victory -- odds worsening each day.

What are we doing about this trend? Hardly anything; we keep up our activities in the dominant culture, often soothing ourselves electronically or going out to eat some trucked-in food. Ignorance or denial of overarching trends is bliss (and deadly). We may march on as protesters or blog on into the void, hoping to call attention to crises in need of a collective response.

There are times when amusement and passion can flow among those who are quite aware, resulting in some laughter between the tears -- but we know we are losing the fight. Many believe we have already lost. Interestingly, those who hold to that most pessimistic view (in all certainty, they feel) are unlikely to be activists or eco-warriors. Optimists keep busy, trying to help the situation. This gives them purpose, a little comfort, and a little hope at times, but no reason to really celebrate the health and glory of an Earth that can house in her bosom future generations of Earth's children.

The only honest thing to celebrate, if we are to celebrate the real truth, is the impotence of the human race to cease the killing of the Earth. I for one cannot do it, for who can embrace such a perverse idea? Yet, there are valid celebrations, even when times are worse than these, if the big picture is part of our perspective.

Otherwise, celebration may simply be to numb the mind: "Woo-hoo! we're drinking a lot of beer!" Everyone, from the aware activist to the downtrodden street survivor (sometimes the same person embodies that spectrum), needs to celebrate. That's like everyone needing to breath and urinate. Celebration is involuntary and somehow necessary for our species, such as after a good hunt or harvest.

But if we can somehow see that celebration is blind and irrational when we can't celebrate the truth, we might see that it's as crazy as trying to breathe underwater or urinate on our food. Since we would not do those things unless totally insane, we might be able to face that the dominant culture -- that says endless material expansion, greed, isolation from one another, and the cancer epidemic are acceptable -- is insane and finally must be stopped for good.

The lateness of the hour is such that we cannot wait and say, "We will gradually stop trying to breathe under water. We will only piss a little more on our food. Those are jobs, so we cannot shift away quickly, and besides there are alternatives around the corner if we change industrial investment."

This indefensible and obsolete attitude can be found in the technofix camp, as in gradually reducing fossil fuels emissions only in one's mind or in legislation. Such a program of Hope wishes to rely on painlessly and miraculously bringing about a consumer economy of less-polluting technology while continuing ecocide, as growth, toxicity and the stampede over the ecological cliff are hardly discussed.

Some in the stampede yell "Faster! See how fast we can go! Our speed and unity brought us here, and standing still is to be left behind!" Such spokespersons own all the megaphones and all the other trappings of the herders of humanity, mainly electronic media, etc. Apparently the much vaunted medium of the internet is not altering the stampede significantly. What does that tell us? Hard to say.

Even if through a mass awakening everyone wanted to stop the crazy stampede now, and tried to do so, we may not be able to stop it. This is because we are not the masters of the Earth; the Earth is our master and is on a course we largely set her on. We have barely begun to pay the price.

In this stampede we are somehow simultaneously trying to breathe under water (without scuba gear) and pissing on our food. This is absurd enough, but reality is worse than that: there are those holding our heads under water, while they themselves are under water, obliviously, forcing us to try to breath. Similarly, there are those among us pissing on our food and aiming our own piss onto our own food. Mass acceptance of such a pickle indicates both the low level and unpopularity of resistance as well as the impotence of the many, who are mostly unaware of the tiny number who are resisting and laying the groundwork for a livable future.

It is apparently irrelevant that those of the elite, or "the few," are also killing themselves as they kill the Earth. It is apparently irrelevant whether the few are aware of it or not.

For when the many are engaged in ecocide and suicide, wishing to remain ignorant and left in peace, closing their eyes to what is more painfully obvious by the day, the role of the few -- despite enforcing oppression and domination -- is not the prime factor in our lethal civilization's self destruction.

Many social justice activists today, and all past crusaders for freedom and equality who took their stand prior to the ecological crisis, believe that the problem we face is merely the bad guys at the top, whether identified as politicians in the pocket of banksters, the Trilateralists, the Zionists, the Neocons, ad infinitum -- any bad guy or elite seen as blameworthy and threatening.

For in a culture such as this, if one were to remove the head, ten aspiring Donald Trumps pop up to replace each of the few that could theoretically be taken down. At this point in history, focusing mainly on re-dividing the pie not a solution of any kind, and in any case it is not happening.

The Earth First!ers point out there's no social justice on a dead planet. Actually, their bumper sticker is "There are no jobs on a dead planet," in argument against clear-cutting ancient forests, for example. Impeccable logic, but does it go far enough to acknowledge that the entire modern culture of industrialism, hard wired to the dwindling cheap petroleum, has no future? Does the well-meaning environmental activist acknowledge that industrialism needs to be rejected now, when it means switching wholesale from four wheels to two? As long as society has new cars made and sold when there are too many on today's roads, we are engaged in mass insanity.

But Obama wants us to celebrate the so-called health of the U.S. automobile companies. This narrow impulse is propaganda for those who adhere to the nation's de facto slogan dating from post-WWII Imperial America: "What's good for General Motors is good for the country."

When we go along with such leadership, whether of Obama or any other pillar of the status quo, we have gotten into a vehicle with a nut case at the wheel -- leading motorized lemmings over the ecological cliff.

To growing mass disappointment, Obama wants consumers to celebrate now, urging them to honk and cheer and hope for a faster stampede, i.e., the "Recovery" that can't happen because the energy orgy is coming to an end -- most of the easily recovered, low-sulfur, light, cheap oil has been consumed.

Is it possible to piss on the whole stampede to good effect, or pull people's heads out of the water, making a social movement to save the herd and the planet? Not likely, unless the herd slows down. Unfortunately, the real slow-down will be due to lack of nourishment -- starvation due to the end of petroleum-based agriculture and transport. When this hits there will be revolt and chaos.

The megaphones and signs will fall, with various stampedes surging in different directions. Which will be your stampede? It's nice to believe about oneself that he or she is outside the dominant stampede today, but it may be only possible to be on the periphery at best.

One might survive in a form of eco-village or post-crash small town -- climate permitting. Being outside the U.S. offers more safety, such as in Bolivia where 80% of the population is non-dependent on fossil fuels. It's unfortunate that the stance of that nation's pro-development leadership is that climate change is just a problem of capitalism, and that domestic petroleum can and should be exploited.

The U.S. worker is increasingly pressured, especially in the Great Recession, to get with the program by associating with the vestiges of middle class living, and just saying no to homelessness. The poor are feared as bad news and bringing bad luck, even though for millions more of us poverty and homelessness are just one or two missed paychecks away. Hardly anyone is preparing for total global economic collapse, although some ponder it and there have been a couple of healthy adjustments to the Great Recession: less purchasing and more gardening.

Unfortunately, without being able to read the writing on the wall, the average U.S. American tries to stay safe by being still, even when being swept over the cliff in the relentless (and to most of us invisible) stampede. A return to basic, traditional skills is wise before they are desperately needed again, but people feel they cannot do such a thing in advance without being paid for it.

One of the risks of letting change sweep over you is to perhaps meet unanticipated cruelty or bloodlust, such as happened in Republican Spain in the 1930s: insurgent fascists believing in the supremacy of the ruling class and of the church massacred workers just for being workers, for they might have been in militant anarchist and communist unions.

Many victims were just undesirables wanting separation of church and state or standing up for women's rights. The Iberian workers and peasants did not fail to anticipate, nor were they very surprised by, the cruel reactionary force against them.

The U.S. worker is in comparison out to lunch and far gone: part of a weakened, soft, drugged population without the perspective of the Spanish Republican and almost all peoples around the globe. U.S. Americans' perspective is of two kinds: on the right, the post-WWII myth of riding tall in the saddle (via cheap oil and expansion), and on the left, believing the U.S. is a democracy that can be fixed by elections (instead of daring to get arrested in civil disobedience).

The goal of culture change is to have far more to celebrate about. Join us and step out of the stampede.

Don't Bring Me Down (eco/country rock song) Click here to download
I just bought a ticket to succeed in society Don't you ask no questions, better be nice to me Don't bring me down Don't you bring me down Don't come around if you'd bring me down
I have always thought our flag was the best I just close my eyes to nukes and all the rest Don't bring me down Please don't bring me down I'd see you drown Than let you bring me down
[guitar solo]
Put down your guitars, let's go buy some cars Join the den of businessmen carving up the Earth Don't bring us down Keep your country sound No money down Stay on the merry-go-round
If you have no cash and cannot pay the rent Prisons are for homeless too, justice is all spent
[guitar solo]
Down to the ground I hear a shakin' sound.
- by Depaver Jan, recorded as a demo at home in 1994, performed at Blues Camp, Ft. Worden, Washington, 1995, on CD "Redwood Dreams" (Volume One).

It's not about a Food Shortage

SUBHEAD: The function of a just farming system is to insure that everyone gets to eat.

By Jim Goodman on 17 September 2010 in Common Dreams

Image above: Africans lining up for food rations. From (  

The food crisis of 2008 never really ended, it was ignored and forgotten.

The rich and powerful are well fed; they had no food crisis, no shortage, so in the West, it was little more than a short lived sound bite, tragic but forgettable. To the poor in the developing world, whose ability to afford food is no better now than in 2008, the hunger continues. Hunger can have many contributing factors; natural disaster, discrimination, war, poor infrastructure. So why, regardless of the situation, is high tech agriculture always assumed to be the only the solution?

This premise is put forward and supported by those who would benefit financially if their “solution” were implemented. Corporations peddle their high technology genetically engineered seed and chemical packages, their genetically altered animals, always with the “promise” of feeding the world.

 Politicians and philanthropists, who may mean well, jump on the high technology band wagon. Could the promise of financial support or investment return fuel their apparent compassion? The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) an initiative of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation supposedly works to achieve a food secure and prosperous Africa.

While these sentiments and goals may be philanthropy at its best, some of the coalition partners have a different agenda. One of the key players in AGRA, Monsanto, hopes to spread its genetically engineered seed throughout Africa by promising better yields, drought resistance, an end to hunger, etc. etc. Could a New Green Revolution succeed where the original Green Revolution had failed? Or was the whole concept of a Green Revolution a pig in a poke to begin with? Monsanto giving free seed to poor small holder farmers sounds great, or are they just setting the hook?

Remember, next year those farmers will have to buy their seed. Interesting to note that the Gates Foundation purchased $23.1 million worth of Monsanto stock in the second quarter of 2010. Do they also see the food crisis in Africa as a potential to turn a nice profit? Every corporation has one overriding interest--- self-interest, but surely not charitable foundations? Food shortages are seldom about a lack of food, there is plenty of food in the world, the shortages occur because of the inability to get food where it is needed and the inability of the hungry to afford it.

These two problems are principally caused by, as Francis Moore Lappe' put it, a lack of justice. There are also ethical considerations, a higher value should be placed on people than on corporate profit, this must be at the forefront, not an afterthought. In 2008, there were shortages of food, in some places, for some people. There was never a shortage of food in 2008 on a global basis, nor is there currently. True, some countries, in Africa for example, do not have enough food where it is needed, yet people with money have their fill no matter where they live. Poverty and inequality cause hunger.

The current food riots in Mozambique were a result of increased wheat prices on the world market. The UN Food and Agriculture organization, (FAO) estimates the world is on course to the third largest wheat harvest in history, so increasing wheat prices were not caused by actual shortages, but rather by speculation on the price of wheat in the international market. While millions of people go hungry in India, thousands of kilos of grain rot in storage. Unable to afford the grain, the hungry depend on the government to distribute food.

Apparently that's not going so well. Not everyone living in a poor country goes hungry, those with money eat. Not everyone living in rich country is well fed, those without money go hungry. We in the US are said to have the safest and most abundant food supply in the world, yet even here, surrounded by an over abundance of food, there are plenty of hungry people and their numbers are growing.

Do we too have a food crisis, concurrent with an obesity crisis? Why is there widespread hunger? Is food a right? Is profit taking through speculation that drives food prices out of the reach of the poor a right?

Is pushing high technology agriculture on an entire continent at that could feed itself a (corporate) right? In developing countries, those with hunger and poor food distribution, the small farmers, most of whom are women, have little say in agricultural policy. The framework of international trade and the rules imposed by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank on developing countries, places emphasis on crops for export, not crops for feeding a hungry population.

 Despite what we hope are the best intentions of the Gates Foundation, a New Green Revolution based on genetically engineered crops, imported fertilizer and government imposed agricultural policy will not feed the world. Women, not Monsanto, feed most of the worlds population, and the greatest portion of the worlds diet still relies on crops and farming systems developed and cultivated by the indigenous for centuries, systems that still work, systems that offer real promise.

The report of 400 experts from around the world, The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), is ignored by the proponents of a New Green Revolution, precisely because it shows that the best hope for ending hunger lies with local, traditional, farmer controlled agricultural production, not high tech industrial agriculture. To feed the world, fair methods of land distribution must be considered.

A fair and just food system depends on small holder farmers having access to land. The function of a just farming system is to insure that everyone gets to eat, industrial agriculture functions to insure those corporations controlling the system make a profit.

 The ultimate cause of hunger is not a lack of Western agricultural technology, rather hunger results when people are not allowed to participate in a food system of their choosing. Civil wars, structural adjustment policies, inadequate distribution systems, international commodity speculation and corporate control of food from seed to table--- these are the causes of hunger, the stimulus for food crises. If the Gates Foundation is serious about ending hunger in Africa, they need to read the IAASTD report, not Monsanto's quarterly profit report. Then they can decide how their money might best be spent.


When the Oil Ran Out

SUBHEAD: Globalization abruptly ended and society once again began to revolve around local communities.

By Dave Pollard on 25 September 2010 in HowToSaveOurWorld - (

Image above: Ferry docked at HorseShoe Bay, British Columbia. From (   
[Author's note: This story/scenario was written as part of the preparation for the visioning exercise for Bowen In Transition, the local Bowen Island, BC chapter of the Transition Initiative, which is helping communities all over the world to prepare for the threat of energy, economic, and ecological collapse, and to transition to a post-cheap-oil, post-global-industrial-economy, post-stable-climate future.
The visioning exercise is a collective collaboration to imagine how these crises will affect the local community, and what could be done now and in the near future to prepare for and adapt to these crises and increase local resilience. I’ve written this story because I think there’s a risk that those in my community may significantly underestimate the severity of the challenges the world will soon face, and hence how much work we need to do on our little (4 mile-by-5 mile, 3800 people, three miles west of Greater Vancouver) island to be ready, and to change. They will likely find my scenario too pessimistic, too dire for their liking. We’ll see I guess.
I’m not prescribing solutions here, especially as the crises become more complex and start cascading into each other: This is the work that our Visioning Team, and then the Transition Working Groups, will have to do. I’ve therefore left the story unfinished, and if we want it to have a happy ending, I think we’ve got our work cut out for us.]
At first we hardly noticed the changes. The price of gasoline went up, but we were used to that. It hit $1.50 and then $2 a litre. Because of the Canadian taxes and the American subsidies, at this point Canadians started flocking across to border to buy it for only US$5.50 per gallon, $1.50 less than what we were paying in Canada.

The Americans then started the first rationing — those with Canadian licence plates were restricted to just four gallons per purchase. It was a bit ironic, considering how much oil was flowing from the accursed Alberta Tar Sands into the US. They were, in a sense, restricting us from buying back our own oil!

We had always expected that the government would just let “the market” deal with the Peak Oil problem. We were told that if there was a shortage, prices would rise, which would both reduce demand and encourage innovation to find new sources for oil, and new alternatives.

But “the market” didn’t help at all. The demand for oil proved to be inelastic, and the rise in prices hardly dinted demand at all. After all, most of us just filed our expense reports with our employers, who reimbursed us for our gasoline costs and then wrote the soaring costs off as a tax deduction.

And the low price for oil in the first decade of the 21st century had so suppressed the profitability of new oil exploration, that when the prices skyrocketed all that happened was that governments,
short-term thinkers to a fault, yielded to the pressure from corporations (and taxpayers) to deregulate and increase subsidies to Big Coal and Big Nuclear and indemnify them from environmental laws.

The “green” alternatives — solar, wind, biothermal — turned out, as George Monbiot had warned in Heat, not to be plentiful enough, no matter what the price, to have much impact on the growing oil shortage.

So we were a bit surprised when the government, despite the howls from corporations and citizens alike, began to introduce rationing. Some of us remembered 1973 and 1979, when, due to constraints of supply from the Middle East, the refineries ran out of oil and gasoline stations, unable to get it at any price, simply shut their doors, regularly, sometimes for weeks at a time.

There were long lineups for gas then, but at least we could buy it when we waited long enough, and the price wasn’t too bad either. Heating oil subsidies, back then, were increased to ensure no one froze in the winter.

The first stage of the new 21st century government rationing was a bit like that. We were restricted to how much gasoline we could buy per day, and on which days of the month we could buy it. Tax credits to compensate residents for the doubling of heating oil costs were introduced.

But this time, that wasn’t enough. This time, the drop in oil production and availability wasn’t temporary or political, it was real, an economic fact.

The huge surge in Asian demand had pushed OPEC countries to force as much oil as possible out of exhausted wells, and accelerated the collapse of supply when the big wells just ran out, and the technology to find new, more expensive oil supplies proved to be both prohibitively expensive and horrifically environmentally dangerous.

The second stage of government rationing was much more severe. Rationing coupons, like those used in wars and depressions, were printed, and they applied not only to oil but also to selected high-energy-consuming products (some foods, clothing, and household products and most pharmaceuticals, electronics, furniture, appliances, and cosmetics), to all forms of transportation and energy consumption, and to all imported goods, since these required lots of oil to bring to market (NAFTA, already faltering, was an early casualty of Stage 2 rationing).

Given the fierce anti-government sentiment of the time, especially in the US, and the propensity of rich North Americans for buying their way out of (or around) inconvenient regulations, complex avoidance schemes thrived, and a huge black market for these products arose.

Much of the outrage over the rationing resulted not from the rationing itself, but from the fact that governments were unable to enforce it equitably.

Gasoline pumps had slow-release valves and cutoff timers installed. Thermostats had maximums and minimums set, and rations on daily energy use per household, after which energy was simply cut off for six-hour periods. Mandatory per-employee business travel limits were imposed, along with a 100% surtax on airplane travel.

But abuses abounded, and many citizens openly bragged about how they had skirted the restrictions. In impoverished areas, hidden or inaccessible to government inspectors, illegal gas pumps popped up to exploit the high prices and the desperation of big energy users, and they ignored the rations.
Contractors found ways to reset and bypass thermostat restrictions.

Counterfeit ration coupons were everywhere. Private airplane and jet owners “forgot” to log passenger information. And with a whisper in the right ear, almost any amount of anything could be purchased, without coupons, from the public used-goods markets that had sprung up (since used goods were exempt) — if one paid enough.

Not surprisingly, it was the poor, the ignorant, the sick, and the honest, who suffered most.
The Stage 1 rationing did not have a major impact on those of us living on Bowen Island, despite our dependence on imports from the mainland for virtually everything we needed to live. There was enough accumulated wealth on the Island to weather the storm.

The distance from our Island to the mainland was so small that most of us, even those who commuted to work by car and ferry each day, were not spending all that much on gasoline anyway. And our climate meant that our heating costs, by Canadian standards, were modest and our air conditioning costs negligible.

Stage 2 was a different matter, however.

In addition to rationing all Bowen residents (and visitors) to three round-trip ferry trips per week, Stage 2 effectively doubled the price of the ferry for automobiles, while keeping pedestrian and passenger fares unchanged. It also halved the number of scheduled ferry crossings per week.

This was initially cheered by Bowen’s “dark Greens”, but it outraged the 50% of Islanders who commuted daily to the mainland to work, and raised doubts, concerns, and finally protests, that Bowen would end up being abandoned by all except wealthy retirees, because working Islanders simply could not afford to live here anymore.

To our astonishment, while rising supply and drop in demand caused prices for smaller homes and lots on the Island to plummet, losing half their value in two short years, the prices of estate homes and large lots held firm — almost the opposite of what we, in our Official Community Plan, were striving to achieve.

We were so small and extraordinary, and the supply of global billionaires looking for idyllic places to retire (and/or launder illegal money) was so large, that the desire for oceanfront mansions on estate lots on our little island never waned.

The businesses on Bowen, faced with an exodus of residents and soaring costs for their products, began to fold. Construction, for years the lifeblood of livelihoods on the island (and of many contractors who worked mainly on the island), came to an almost complete halt. Because so little of Bowen was arable, the soaring price of imported food could not be offset by increased local production. Owners of large (and older, energy-leaking) properties were hard hit by the energy rationing, and many had to shut off parts of their homes over the winter.

A few things helped us cope as the situation deteriorated.

The tourist industry stayed healthy, since the two million residents of nearby Greater Vancouver, enjoined from long-distance travel, walked, biked, back-packed and hiked our island in ever-increasing numbers, though most were self-sufficient and bought little during their visits.

Much of the smaller-sized property on the island became affordable for the first time in decades. We had sufficient water for our needs, unlike many in the world who relied on importing theirs. We were significantly more physically fit than most North Americans, which helped wean us off our cars as these became unaffordable luxuries, and we had evolved a long-standing culture of generosity.

And the exceptional skill, knowledge, imagination and intelligence of Bowen natives was harnessed, largely through the Bowen In Transition initiative, to begin the task of reinventing the Island as a place that was at least somewhat self-sufficient and sustainable, and resilient to whatever was to come next.

So by the time of what would come to be called the Slow Collapse, we’d been working on our Transition programs for nearly a decade, and we had community-based initiatives underway in nine areas, being stewarded by nine very active working groups of Bowen Islanders:
  • Energy working group: initiated conservation and energy re-fit programs, and large-scale wind farm and mountaintop solar array
  • Food working group: established six large community gardens and a food delivery cooperative
  • Transportation working group: established a community-based bus and water taxi service, and a free taxi service run by retirees
  • Livelihood working group: created Enterprise Bowen, a co-op business that grew to employ 10% of the island’s workforce in twenty innovative lines of business that previously didn’t exist on the island (or in some cases at all)
  • Waste and water working group: developed an on-island organics composting program, recyclables pickup service, and water conservation program
  • Local finance working group: established “Invest in Bowen” program with thirty investment funds that attracted 60% of retired residents’ savings and invested them in mortgages, businesses and co-ops right on the island; initiated Bowen Bucks, a new local currency
  • Building working group: initiated four co-housing developments to make housing more affordable and dense on the island; established a local recycled building materials depot
  • Education working group: created a “virtual high school” (previously high school students had to take the ferry to Vancouver to continue their education after grade nine); participated in establishing the Gulf Islands University; created an Unschooling Co-op
  • Youth working group: leased and managed a fleet of three small electric buses specifically for travel to youth-oriented events; developed the Apprenticeship Bowen program; participated in the BC-wide First Home program for first-time homeowners
collapse timeline
Just as were starting to become more resilient through these and other programs, we were hit with the Ten Crises, during what came to be known as the Slow Collapse: over a period of twenty years, we had to cope with:
  1. The Rotating Blackouts: A global phenomenon as oil supplies began to run low. Started with 6-hour blackouts and brownouts, but then they increased in frequency and duration, sometimes lasting three days or more.
  2. The Debt Crisis and Currency Collapse: As debt-holders began to realize that borrowers, individual, corporate and governments, simply would never be able to repay their crushing debts, defaults became common, bankruptcies soared, and lenders who were unable to collect on their investments failed. When large nations started to default, some other countries stopped accepting the defaulting nations’ currencies, leading to a whole series of currency collapses.
  3. The Long Deflation and the Long Depression: Prices, especially for real estate and automobiles, dropped for ten successive years, aggravating the debt crisis and plunging the world into another depression. Wages also dropped, year after year, to half what they had been a decade earlier. Unemployment soared and half of the 500 largest companies in the world folded.
  4. The Bankruptcy of State and Local Governments: While many national governments teetered, their regional and municipal governments simply stopped functioning, laying off all their employees and leaving citizens to manage health, education, roads and other services themselves. On Bowen, the ferry service was shut down entirely when the province ran out of money and laid off 90% of its workers.
  5. The Failed State Crises: Dozens of countries drifted into lawlessness as federal governments became incapable of operating. The two biggest were Mexico, which fell to the drug cartels after the Corn Drought, and China, which brought a charismatic leader to power in a coup after exports collapsed, fuel ran out and desertification devastated the country.
  6. The Energy Riots: All over the world, but especially in the US, citizens took to the streets when oil became so scarce they had to abandon their cars and shutter their homes. Rogue operators began cutting public forests for fuel and building materials.
  7. The Great Pandemics: The first major impacts of climate change were tropical diseases and pests that moved to temperate areas and wiped out factory farms, boreal forests, fish and monoculture grain crops in successive waves.
  8. The Food & Pharma Riots: Areas that depended either on food imports or on oil-based fertilizers and chemicals to sustain their crops saw shelves emptied and farmlands turned to dust and abandoned. And other petrochemicals, notably pharmaceutical products, also became scarce. Angry citizens dumped their unaffordable cars in government parking lots and set them ablaze in protest. Operating food banks became the principal remaining activity of many governments.
  9. The Vanishing Forests Crisis: As insect pests eradicated the boreal forests, desertification and rampant illegal logging destroyed the tropical forests. When citizens saw photos from space showing how rapidly the forests, ice caps and glaciers were disappearing, the grim reality of climate change finally sunk in. Panic, radical political movements, nihilistic religions and large-scale depression and suicide became endemic.
  10. The Year of the Great Storms and Water Riots: As climate change rapidly altered the face of the land everywhere, huge shifts in ocean currents and wind patterns produced a self-reinforcing pattern of massive storms, which leveled major cities, flooded coastal areas and polluted much of the world’s remaining fresh water supply.
Although the Slow Collapse hit us hard, it would have been much worse without our Transition programs. By the time of the big blackouts, we already had a blackout contingency plan in place, and we’d even done some island-wide rehearsals, complete with simultaneous potluck barbecues in eight communities around the island. But when the blackouts got longer and more frequent, the contingency plan had to be completely revamped.

When the US began reneging on debt repayments, and its currency slid, Asian and Mideastern nations refused to accept their currency, creating a new “basket” currency as the global standard.

The US dollar then plummeted, and the Canadian dollar followed. Imports from Asia largely ceased at this point, creating scarcities of many manufactured goods, but an opportunity for new domestic manufacturers to fill the void.

When Asian nations outbid the US for Canada’s filthy Tar Sands oil, which had become a critical source of supply as all the major oil fields were exhausted, the US threatened military action if Canada didn’t honour the North American energy security agreement that had been part of the abandoned NAFTA.

Our Bowen Bucks began to be worth more than Canadian dollars, a Gift Economy began to take hold on the island, and fortunately we were a small enough community to know who and what was, and wasn’t, credit-worthy.

The Long Deflation and the Long Depression were the inevitable result of the debt crisis and the end of cheap oil. People everywhere just stopped buying, as they waited for prices to fall further and struggled to pay off pre-deflation mortgages and huge debts with lower take-home pay.

When foreigners started buying up local real estate at bargain prices, governments, including BC’s, banned non-resident purchases of property, driving prices lower still. Although we had created two hundred jobs on Bowen through our entrepreneurial co-op, now we needed to create two thousand more.

When the provincial government almost went bankrupt, it shut all “non-essential” activities, including the (essential to us) provincial ferry service. Our local transport initiatives were designed to save energy and reduce car dependence, not replace the ferry entirely.

But with many of the daily commuters to the mainland laid off, volume was way down on the ferry, so finding ways to replace it entirely were not as daunting as they would have seemed before. And with such a highly-educated citizenry (many of whom were either retired or unemployed), taking over the local schools from the province wasn’t that hard either.

A bigger challenge was health (there were no hospitals and few doctors on the island), and we had to scramble to initiate self-diagnosis and self-treatment facilities, a fund to encourage doctors to relocate here, and a volunteer ambulance service. Taking over our own road maintenance was also going to be a huge challenge.

When Mexico and China failed, the oceans filled with boat people and, being an island, we got our share of them. Vancouver got hundreds of thousands, and anti-immigrant sentiment there got really ugly.

Because most of our electricity came from hydroelectric power, we were not affected as badly as most by the energy scarcity, and there were no riots or people freezing to death here, or in Vancouver. And being on an island, timber poachers found our abundance of forest just too hard to get at.

But with blackouts commonplace and no oil for generators or oil heaters, a disturbing amount of forest was “disappearing” and the only possible culprits were we islanders ourselves.

Likewise, with no large-scale farms, we escaped relatively unscathed from the crop and factory farm pandemics. But we were very worried about the risk of insects to our forests, as several new species of beetles had devastated much of Canada’s northern boreal forest — millions of acres of trees lost.

Would three miles of ocean be enough of a barrier to keep them away from our island?

And while the pandemics had (so far) few human victims, they had become so common that a panic mindset had set in, especially in port cities like Vancouver. Some of our “dark Greens” even suggested establishing the island as a permanent quarantine zone.

And while we didn’t have rioting here over food or pharmaceuticals, the skyrocketing cost of food caused great hardship for many (our Bowen food bank was helping as many as half of all residents now), and because of the shortage of prescription pain-killers, illegal substitutes were a huge black market activity, and addiction was becoming a major problem among older residents.

We were not immune to the Great Storms, either. Hundreds of homes were damaged by winds and fallen trees, and storms often left our roads impassable. Home insurance was now unavailable (all the insurance companies had closed up shop when the Great Storms resulted in claims many times greater than their reserves), so many islanders pitched in after each storm to repair structural damage or resettle the affected residents. After the great Seattle earthquake, some wondered if it made any sense to live here at all. But where else was there to go? And at least we had fresh water.

Transition was no longer a local initiative or a movement — it had become a way of life. We had thought that what we mostly had to worry about was the end of cheap energy, but we ended up facing a lot more — and more severe — crises than just energy shortages.

The problem was that there was no “problem” — something that could be fixed quickly once and for all with the right “solution” — but rather a complex, lasting predicament, of cascading crises with no end in sight. We were exhausted, tired of dealing with catastrophes and threats and permanent disruptions to the way of life we loved, the way of life we had come here to enjoy.

The world had become much smaller again, as globalization abruptly ended and society once again began to revolve around local communities. And although we watched anxiously as the flood of refugees pushed the city of Vancouver, just a few minutes boat-ride away, to the breaking point, we were lucky. We had prepared. We lived in a paradise. We were small enough to be agile.

We had an exceptional citizenry, with extraordinary talents, knowledge and creativity. And we had each other.

Wind’s Impact is Just a Breeze

SUBHEAD: Hawaii's challenges stall wind energy source’s unlimited potential.  

By Sophie Cocke on 20 September 2010 in Pacific Business News -

Image above: Abandoned windmills at South Point on the Big Island. From (
A 100-kilowatt wind turbine will soon hover atop a 120-foot-high tower owned by the Hawaii Water Service Co. on the Big Island. Or, at least that is what’s planned.

But so far the process for the single wind turbine in Waikoloa has been far from easy. Hawaii County zoning ordinances require a use permit, which took six months to secure, planning department approval, which is ongoing, and a building permit, which is expected to take another four to six months.

“There needs to be more certainty on the county levels to streamline wind energy permits, and clarity on exactly where and what kind of wind system uses each county wants to permit.” said Leo Caires, president of Gen-X Energy Development in Haiku, Maui, which is partnering with Boulder, Colo.-based NexGen Energy Partners for the project’s financing. “Technology can be deployed only as fast as local policies are developed.”

This story’s look at wind energy and its role in Hawaii’s push for energy independence is the third in an occasional series designed to analyze the status of our state’s alternative-energy options, where the best opportunities lie and what’s needed to overcome myriad obstacles.

There are currently four operational wind farms on Maui and the Big Island, and four more in various stages of development. Currently, about 9 percent of Maui’s energy comes from wind and about 12 percent of the Big Island’s supply.

First Wind is planning to expand the 30 megawatt Kaheawa Power Project on West Maui by 21 megawatts, and San Diego-based Sempra Generation hopes to begin a 22-megawatt wind farm at Ulupalakua Ranch in upcountry Maui.

The Kauai Electric Utility Cooperative has signed an agreement with UPC Kauai Wind Power for a 10.5-megawatt to 15-megawatt project, and Oahu has its own plans for wind on the North Shore. Boston-based First Wind has broken ground on a 30-megawatt project in Kahuku, but the biggest plans for powering Hawaii’s most populous island with wind energy are intended for Molokai and Lanai.

Wind technology has come a long way since the first-generation wind turbines of the 1980s, and even on a small scale the energy delivered can rival the price of oil if turbines are constructed under favorable wind conditions. Small wind turbines can range from $3,000 to $5,000 per kilowatt capacity, with commercial turbines reaching more than $2 million, according to Windindustry, a nonprofit industry group.

But the permitting process has strangled businesses hoping to take advantage of Hawaii’s abundant wind resources.

“It’s a very tough hurdle to get small wind going,” said Nick Dizon of Honolulu Nidon Clean Energy, a renewable-energy design and engineering company that has been working with state and county government agencies to improve the process. “If that’s all we did, we’d be broke.”

Part of the draw of so-called “small wind” — as opposed to large-scale wind farms whose primary function is to sell capacity to utility companies — is that it can work in sync with agriculture. Farmers can get paid for selling energy from wind turbines installed on their land back to utility companies, and the process doesn’t disrupt farming practices. But difficulties with permitting remain an obstacle.

“I have farmers on Maui who tomorrow would sign a contract, but if we have to do all the land-use permitting — and investors don’t want to wait for every approval — it can seem like a very long task to do,” said Caires.

Once approved, it takes only one to three days to put up a wind turbine.

County-level proposals are currently under review for expediting the process, including an initiative on Maui that will help extend wind energy to residential areas. An unknown number of off-grid and grid-tied wind turbines power homes and businesses, particularly in remote rural regions of Hawaii, and the state Department of Transportation has installed 16 small-scale wind turbines to power its airfield along Lagoon Drive on Oahu.

As small wind struggles to get a foothold, large utility-scale projects are lumbering ahead.
In addition to their own permitting processes, big wind must also contend with the Public Utility Commission’s competitive bidding process. Implemented two years ago, the requirement pertains to projects of more than 5 megawatts on Oahu and 2.7 megawatts on Maui and the Big Island. While well-intentioned, the process has bogged down energy projects.

“It’s a three- to four-year process to get a project moving before you can even start putting a spade in the ground,” said Karl Stahlkopf, a partner at Kairos Energy Capital, a Honolulu merchant bank specializing in renewable-energy projects. Formerly, project developers could engage in bilateral negotiations with Hawaiian Electric.

The process can be a drain on investment.

“That’s got to go away,” said Stahlkopf of the bidding requirement. “Because if it doesn’t, we’re going to end up with either a lot of sub-optimal size projects — very small — or end up with no projects at all because of the difficulties in getting through all the hoops to get projects done. Capital is going to redeploy itself to places where it can be deployed quicker, more efficiently, and with appropriate rates of return having to deal with the risk.”

Despite the laborious permitting, bidding and approval procedures, Hawaii remains an attractive investment because of its high average wind speeds, the state’s aggressive clean-energy policy and high electricity prices, which can be as high as 38 cents per kilowatt hour for businesses in some parts of the state.

The state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, and utilities, are moving aggressively to integrate utility-scale wind farms into Hawaii’s energy mix.

Oahu lacks the abundant wind of other islands, but has by far the highest energy needs. In concert with Castle & Cooke and First Wind, Hawaiian Electric hopes to lay a $1 billion cable between Oahu and two neighbor islands that will pull 400 megawatts from proposed wind farms on Molokai and Lanai. If successful, the wind energy could provide 20 percent of Oahu’s annual energy needs.

The cost of the project could total roughly $3 billion, according to Ted Peck, the state’s energy administrator. Required grid upgrades would be financed by Hawaiian Electric, and the state would be responsible for finding financing for the undersea cable. The wind farm developers would be responsible for financing their operations.

“But $6 billion is the cost of the petroleum for the next 20 years that will be displaced by these wind farms,” Peck said.

Permits for the project still need to be secured, but perhaps the largest obstacle lies in the location of the wind farms. Neither the electric grids of Lanai or Molokai can tolerate the high penetration of energy, meaning the residents of the islands will have to bear the effects of roughly 100 to 175 wind turbines blanketing their islands without reaping the benefits. On Lanai, the wind farms could cover a fourth of the island and disrupt the hunting and fishing practices of a highly sustainable population, as well as disturb cultural and archeological sites.

“It’s tough to get an appreciation of how this will affect our island,” said Butch Gima of Lanaians for Sensible Growth, a community advocacy organization. “Even residents have a hard time conceptualizing it. When we presented a 3-D model, people were just flabbergasted. People on Oahu need to understand that out-of-sight, out-of-mind does not relieve them of the responsibility to address this issue.”

Hawaiian Electric, which has been meeting regularly with residents of the islands, acknowledges the burden of the projects and the need to give something back in return, but what this would amount to remains unclear.

While major efforts are under way to secure the project, Peck said it wasn’t a done deal.
“We know that there are community concerns, and it’s critical that they are addressed,” said Peck. “The environmental impact statement is going to do a robust analysis of alternatives, and we are looking at everything to get us to a clean-energy future and get us off this drug called oil that is so dangerous to our communities.”

While Hawaii’s islands may not be dotted with wind turbines overnight, rising oil costs, national security concerns and an aggressive commitment by the state and utility companies to switch to alternatives nearly ensures that wind will play an increasing role in the state’s energy future. Though like the intermittent nature of the wind itself, the process may not always be smooth.

Current and proposed wind projects, by island, project and company

Big Island • Pakini Nui Wind Farm Apollo Energy Corp.: 20.5 mw online • Hawi Wind Farm Hawi Renewable Development: 10.5 mw online - Lalamilo Wells Wind Farm Hawaii Electric Light Co.: 1.2 mw online

Maui • Kaheawa Power Project First-Wind: 30 mw online, A 27 mw expansion is proposed • Auwahi Wind Project Sempra Generation: 40 mw 

Lanai • Lanai Wind Farm Castle & Cooke: 200 mw proposed Molokai Molokai Wind Farm First Wind: 200 mw proposed

Oahu •  Kahuku Wind Farm First Wind: 30 mw proposed 

Kauai • Kauai Electric UPC Kauai Wind Power: 10.5 – 15 mw proposed  

Hawaii's Farm Future

SUBHEAD: The islands' diversified farmers rise to the challenge of sustainability amid uphill conditions.
Image above: Vast farmer's market on a Saturday morning in Hilo, Hawaii, under the tarp. From ( By Dave Koga on 26 September 2010 in Star-Advertiser - (


In 2008, a report from the University of Hawaii-Manoa and the state Department of Agriculture estimated that between 85 percent and 90 percent of the state's food was imported every year and concluded that there wasn't much anyone could do to change the situation.

" ... Even though Hawaii can conceivably grow anything that we consume, the quest to achieve 100% food self-sufficiency is impractical, unattainable and perhaps impossible, as it imposes too high a cost for society," the researchers said.

Hawaii's relatively small farms could never match the output or efficiency of the vast mechanized farms on the mainland, the report said. Island products would always be more expensive to grow and buy.

Still, the report was more a call to arms than a dark prophecy.

Pointing out that Hawaii's geographic isolation left its food supply vulnerable to disruptions caused by forces and events beyond control, such as fuel costs, shipping strikes and farm production fluctuations, the report said it was of vital importance that the state not overlook the value of a small but thriving home-grown market.

A healthy agricultural base not only serves as a buffer against outside forces, it provides residents with fresher, tastier, healthier food and could put millions of dollars back into the island economy, the report said.

"I think we are at the crossroads," says Dr. Matthew Loke, administrator of the state's Agricultural Development Division and a co-author of the 2008 report with Dr. PingSun Leung of UH-Manoa's College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. "Whether we can seize those opportunities or not, that's our challenge."

"Sustainability" drives today's farmers

They came from around the state: ranchers and farmers gathering to hear about the latest techniques and technology, to show their products and to network at last week's Hawaii Agricultural Conference at the Ihilani Resort in Ko Olina.

They listened to speakers such as Kyle Datta, a founding partner with Pierre and Pam Omidyar's Ulupono Initiative, which will be investing in sustainable agricultural projects; learned how M&H Kaneshiro Farm on Kauai speeds composting by using green waste as bedding in its pig pens; and munched on a "Gourmet Locavore Lunch" based on Kanu Hawaii's Eat Local Challenge.

This was the new face of agriculture in Hawaii: smarter, more streamlined and focused.

"Agriculture's not dead here, it's just different," says Jim Hollyer, program manager of UH-Manoa's Agricultural Development in the American Pacific Program. "There's a huge collage of opportunities out there."

That's a stark contrast to island agriculture's not-too-distant past.

Once, a lot of working people in Hawaii knew the fields. Knew hoe hana.

In the 1930s, more than 50,000 from a population of 370,000 worked the flumes and furrows of 254,500 acres of sugar cane.

In 1959, it was said that sugar signed the paycheck of one in 12 workers.

As late as 1970, sugar and pineapple, though eclipsed by tourism as Hawaii's driving industry, still employed 76 percent of the agricultural workforce, with 9,500 laborers.

But for all that human effort and turning of land, it was a one-sided partnership.

For a place that had come to be defined by agriculture, Hawaii saw virtually nothing in kitchen-table returns for the massive investments of money, machinery and manpower over the years. The harvests were always meant for others.

Folks could put sugar in their coffee. They could slice a pineapple now and then. But day to day, it was largely subsistence gathering, backyard gardening and the canned goods that came off the barges that filled stomachs.

"Twenty, 30 years ago, we didn't even think about where our food was coming from," Hollyer says. "We just brought in whatever we ate. It wasn't a priority to be self-sufficient."

These days, with "sustainability" a buzzword, the emphasis has shifted toward feeding Hawaii.

Diversified crop operations are producing a variety of fruits and vegetables such as cabbage, onions, eggplants, string beans, tomatoes, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, broccoli, bananas, watermelon, cantaloupes and honeydew melons.

Smaller specialty farms are growing hydroponic lettuce, vanilla beans, heirloom tomatoes, strawberries and herbs.

"It's not so much a matter of whether we can grow stuff," Hollyer says. "We can grow almost anything here. It's just, how do we grow it cheaply enough?"

Easing the islands' dependence on imported food, even on a modest scale, figures to be a huge task.

Farmers here face unique hurdles, foremost being the acquisition of large parcels of land.

Where many mainland operations are family farms that have been passed from generation to generation, almost all of Hawaii's farmers lease because of the price of land and have no guarantees of longevity.

"Landowners are developers," said Milton Agader, who leases 300 acres and specializes in asparagus at Twin Bridge Farm in Waialua. "They're always going to be looking to get the most for their buck. That's how all the ag lands have disappeared.

"The end of our farm is going to be when the land is sold."

Agader would like to see the state become more involved in protecting agricultural lands.

"They say the state doesn't have any money, but I think they have a lot of expensive zoned land in Kakaako that businesses would love," he says. "Maybe they could make a trade -- one acre for 300 acres."

Then there is labor.

The National Agricultural Statistics Service says Hawaii's paid agricultural workforce is down to an estimated 6,250.

Recent headlines suggest that might be a factor in some disturbing revelations.

Brothers Alex and Mike Sou, who operate 3,000-acre Aloun Farms in Kapolei, go to trial in November on charges related to human trafficking. They are accused of tricking 44 workers from Thailand into coming to Hawaii and then essentially enslaving them.

The workers say they each paid $20,000 for the chance to earn $9.42 an hour at Aloun Farms. Once here, they say, they were forced to live in storage containers and were threatened with deportation if they complained.

The Sous, using a recruiter, were able to import the workers under the U.S. Department of Agriculture's H-2A program, which allows employers to hire immigrants at lower costs if they anticipate a shortage of American workers.

The Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation has said that many farms are looking to outside labor because island residents no longer want to work in fields.

"I think, more accurately, there is a shortage of people living in Hawaii now who want to fill existing job openings on Hawaii farms at the wages offered," says Hollyer.

"Ag wages are not minimum wage," says Dr. Matthew Loke, the state's Agricultural Development Division administrator and co-author of a 2008 agriculture report with UH-Manoa's College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. "On average it's about $11.40 an hour.

"But you have to work all day in the sun. It's hard work. Kids today would rather work in the mall where there's air conditioning.

"So to feed expectations, maybe $11.40 is not enough. Maybe it needs to be $14.40. But in order to pay workers $14.40, you have to really be selling some high-end stuff. You can't do that with watermelons."

Not all farms are struggling. Some have found comfortable niches.

In Aiea, siblings Barbara and David Sumida produce 5 tons of watercress a week, or 70 percent of the state's supply, at their 10-acre, 11-employee Sumida Farm, which has been in the family since 1928.

"It's a lot of hard work," David says, "and the demand is always greater than the supply.

"But we feel fortunate. We wanted to keep the farm in the family, so it's like we're the keepers of the flame."

Sumida says that while specialty farms will always fill needs in Hawaii, it will be the larger, diversified crop operations like Aloun Farms and Larry Jefts Farm in Kunia that will boost self-sufficiency.

"They're going to have to grow our basic necessities, like cabbage, tomatoes, onion, corn," Sumida says. "They're the ones with the big ideas."

In the end, the question comes down to whether island residents are willing to pay more for food in tough times.

The state Department of Agriculture has been trying to brand local foods with its Hawaii Seal of Quality push -- so far with limited success.

"On the high end, yes, it's worked," Loke says. "Last May we did a retail event at Whole Foods. Just one afternoon, you know, where we had chefs come in to prepare food with local produce. And then we tracked sales for three months after the event.

"On average it went up 37 percent. So it was really good for us and really good for Whole Foods. But that's Kahala.

"A lot of our farmers are so busy farming they don't even have a brand. And if you don't have a brand, how do you tell if it's a local product or not?"

Loke says most consumers can't even distinguish between local and imported eggs ("If it's stamped, it's imported") so education has to be key.

"You have two products. One's a dollar a pound, one's a dollar quarter. If people train themselves, they'll say, 'Hey, I'll buy local,' " Agader says. "But sometimes when huge quantities of mainland products are just dumped on the market at really low prices, there's just no way you can compete."

Monty Richards, the straight-talking, suspender-wearing chairman of the Big Island's Kahua Ranch, asks, "Do you realize that the milk you buy in the supermarket has been double-pasteurized and that it comes from California in big tanks?

"They re-pasteurize it and put it into your nice containers and you take it home and wonder why you don't get much shelf life. Well, it's because it's old milk before you ever got it! Same thing with fruits and vegetables. But they've done such a hell of a good job advertising that people just don't realize it."

Loke sees change coming in small increments.

"Think about it," he says. "If you talk about pumpkins ... before Aloun (Farms), we were importing all of our pumpkins. Now I think we may be 80 percent self-sufficient. Watermelon? I'm sure we're at least 75 percent. We could be totally self-sufficient in pineapples and papayas. Chinese cabbage and head cabbage? Definitely. Sweet potatoes? Definitely. Herbs, for sure.

"It will take time, but I think we can get there."