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Monday, June 21, 2010

Contaminated Oysters or Toxic Politics

Or is the DEP Trying to Hide its Abysmal Environmental Enforcement
Record Behind a Small Shellfish?

As the Baykeeper Emeritus, and a NY/NJ Baykeeper Trustee I feel I have an obligation to comment on NJDEP Commissioner Martin’s recent pronouncement that may end more than a decade’s worth of oyster research, restoration, education, and community involvement in most of New Jersey’s northern estuaries. This decision is untenable given the Department’s previous support of Baykeeper’s oyster restoration program. It is also disturbing, but not surprising that New Jersey’s very inexperienced Environmental Commissioner has caved in to a minority of special interests within the Department and issued an unwarranted, misguided, and scientifically indefensible “rule like,” directive to attempt to stymie research, habitat restoration, and oyster gardening specifically targeting Baykeeper. Can you imagine the fuss, the threat of law suits, and the public relations tsunami that would result if the same Commissioner arbitrarily and capriciously revoked a legally issued permit issued to a major developer and political donor?

I understand the Department’s reluctance to allow edible seafood to be grown in marginally polluted waters, however those waters remain polluted in significant part because of lack of action by the NJDEP to bring the targeted bays and tributaries – and the entities polluting those waters, into compliance with the fishable/swimmable standard of the Clean Water Act. Oysters and Baykeeper did not pollute those waters and the program to restore oysters there should not suffer as a result of DEP’s inability or unwillingness to bring legal and regulatory action necessary to stop pollution and restore the water quality and habitats in the State’s northern and urban estuaries.

Particularly troubling to me is the apparent lack of initiative on the part of the Department to address permitting of private docks in shellfish harvest areas, its ineffectiveness in addressing toxic site cleanup in the Raritan River, Raritan Bay, and Arthur Kill, and the permitting of residential projects under CAFRA along the Bayshore of Raritan Bay that would never be permitted anywhere else in the coastal zone. Additionally, allowing polluters like the Middlesex County Utilities Authority to close almost 1/3 of the Bay to shell fishing as a result of its gigantic and loosely regulated discharge pipe is morally unacceptable. The NJDEP must begin to evaluate its priorities and its willingness to serve the public good. Should a reckless discharger get more deference than a popular, scientifically verified, community supported restoration project? Should a developer be issued a CAFRA permit that does not conform to the rules? Should a deep pocket polluter get a pass on paying for clean up and compensation for natural resource damages while the Department spends time obsessing about Baykeeper’s economically and environmentally positive research efforts?

Why is it that at every forum in the NY/NJ Harbor Estuary, the NJDEP is the only federal or state agency that is actively opposed to large scale restoration of oysters in the Estuary? Why is it that Delaware Bay, an equally urban estuary has a subsidized oyster restoration program? Why is it that southern New Jersey shell fishing interests appear to have the support of the Department while northern fishermen rarely if ever, get support? Why is it that at a time when both the Governor and the President are calling for green jobs and green infrastructure projects, the one “shovel-ready” project in the State – Baykeeper’s oyster restoration project is being targeted in such a mean spirited way? Any politically astute and straight thinking person knows the answer – the Department is fearful that its lack of enforcement of clean water standards, its flaccid CAFRA permitting program, its under par toxic site cleanup program, its apparent disinterest in extracting natural resource damages from polluters of the Raritan River like National Lead, its multi-year lack of preparedness to meet FDA’s patrol criteria, and its shell fish program’s bias will be exposed.

I challenge the Commissioner to redirect the efforts of the Department to address urban river and estuary pollution, to be aggressive in addressing permit violations at sewage treatment plants, to reconfigure the Department’s contaminated site clean- up program so that sites actually get cleaned up, to stop issuing permits for development in wetlands and flood plains, and to develop incentives and penalties to address non-point source pollution and combined sewer overflows by mandating, rather than suggesting, that municipalities adopt Low Impact Development plans to manage storm water runoff.

And finally, let’s put the resources of the Department, behind pollution abatement and habitat restoration initiatives like Baykeeper’s oyster research, education, and restoration project that create jobs, and bring money into the State, rather than spending tax payer funded time in a tough budget period, figuring out ways to kill it.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Emancipation From Fossil Fuels a New Birth of Freedom

Dealing with the BP catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico is not only a technical, environmental, economic and cultural problem, it is a moral problem. Moral problems require us to decide which solutions are “right” and which are “wrong.” The rightness and wrongness of a solution is not based on science but on a sense of justice and ethics and cultural values.

Thomas Jefferson said, “A nation as a society forms a moral person, and every member of it is personally responsible for his society.”

Robert Kennedy Jr. has posited that fossil fuels are the new slavery: morally and economically corrupt. He has said, “industry and government warnings about ‘economic ruin’ if we wean ourselves from fossil fuel dependence, should not be heeded because abolishing slavery did not cripple the British economy as was predicted. Instead of collapsing, as slavery’s proponents had predicted, Britain’s economy accelerated.” Vanity Fair, A Manifesto for the New President.

"In fact climate change is also the most vexed kind of moral issue, precisely because it is also about economics. It’s a debate that is, or should be, requiring us to make ‘moral’ decisions that are more likely than not to have a price tag attached. 200 years ago Parliament heard identical caveats during the debate over abolition of the slave trade. At the time of its abolition, the Slave Trade and its associated activities were reckoned by those opposing the Bill to account, quite astonishingly, for well over a quarter of this nation’s GDP – which helped drive one of the central arguments deployed by the anti-abolitionists – that over-hasty action could only prove ruinous for the nation’s economy…" Ahimsa Day Celebration October 15th 2008, Portcullis House, House of Commons, London, Keynote Address By Lord Puttnam

The morally abhorent practice of slavery was the cheap energy of the early 19th Century in the US, and it took a flawed but brave President to change entrenched policies. In 1860, our country was at a frightening and wrenching crossroads – to accept the line drawn of no new expansion of its morally corrupt energy source, slavery, and to commit to building America's future on a new economic footing.

So it is up to the engaged and informed people of this country and this American President to do the right and moral thing. Despite the fact that it might not be popular and might cause some campaign contributions to dry up – we are at significant historical moment like the signing of the emancipation proclamation. The proclamation that represented a shift in the war objectives of the North. It represented a major step toward the ultimate abolition of slavery in the United States and a "new birth of freedom.” Emancipation from fossil fuels will be such a “new birth of freedom” for the United States.

A century and a half ago, fossil fuels replaced slaves as the underpriced energy source driving American economic growth. And like slavery, our deep economic dependence makes change difficult, despite the incontrovertible reality that our fossil-fueled system is profoundly immoral.

In a story about a widowed fictional President who falls in love with an environmental lobbyist who is assured by the President that if she gets a fossil fuel bill with enough guaranteed votes he will send it to congress. Unfortunately the environmental bill is competing with the President’s own flaccid gun control bill. In the climax of the film the President and his advisors learning that he can get some congressman to support his bill puts the environmental bill “in the drawer.” In the confrontational scene the “President’s girlfriend,” as a smarmy opposing Presidential candidate calls her, is gathering her things and leaving the White House – the President explains that he needs to pass the crime bill and doesn’t want to lose her.

SHEPHERD: Sydney. Please. I don't want to lose you over this. SYDNEY: Mr. President, you got bigger problems than losing me. You just lost my vote.

President Obama’s supporters, many of whom now, according to a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll, don’t think he is handling the BP oil disaster in the Gulf very well continue to be hopeful that the lesson learned about the “unholy alliance of the government and big oil” will result in more stringent regulations, but also a Climate Bill, that will actually make the US the leader in combating global climate change, our dependence on fossil fuels and big oil’s stranglehold on US energy policy.

We can hope that the administration has learned the lesson that there are no half measures with bullies. You either confront them or they continue to dominate the school yard. The President needs to continue lead the efforts in the Gulf to stop the gushing of toxic oil into the water column, and hold to his word that the “buck stops” with him and that the billions of bucks for clean up and compensation will continue to flow from BP to pay for the unprecedented environmental, economic, and cultural disaster in the Gulf will continue to flow unabated, for as long and as it much as it takes to make the environment and the community whole.

And as in the film, the President needs to put the present energy bill, one that will not do anything for climate change, one that will do nothing in the short term to avert disasters like the BP spill, and one that will do nothing to move us to an alternative energy future in the short term “in the drawer.” And be able to say to the American people, as the fictional President said to his girlfriend after doing the right and moral thing.

SHEPHERD: Sydney, I didn't decide to send 455 to the floor to get you back. SYDNEY: I didn't come back 'cause you decided to send 455 to the floor. American President, The (1995) movie script by Aaron Sorkin.

I for one want to come back. I believe that President Obama has an opportunity to not only do the right thing on energy and global climate change legislation, not because he politically needs to redeem himself on the handling of the BP disaster, but because he knows it is the moral thing to do.

It takes a look back at the past several decades to appreciate the true costs of burning fossil fuel: air, water, and soil pollution, environmental degradation, wars and military entanglements to protect access to the sources, transfer of American's earnings to foreign economies, political empowerment of those we buy from, and climate change.

Unfortunately, our individual pocketbooks don't feel the true costs of what it takes for Americans to enjoy the energy derived from a ton of coal, or a barrel of oil. And that's why we make so little effort to use it efficiently, conservatively, or wisely.

So it is up to our young, charismatic, troubled, and beleaguered President to speak to the Nation about emancipation from the morally unacceptable continued dependence on fossil fuels, to take a real climate change bill “out of the drawer” and do the right if not politically expedient thing.

Delaying real change is intolerable. The global warming legacy will be forever irreparable and unrecoverable. What we eat, where and how we live, where, what, and when wars will be fought, and whose lives will be changed forever. Again, like during the debate over slavery, we face an undeniable moral imperative.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Spill Baby Spill

Spill Baby Spill!
Fossil Fuels and the Abuse of Power
by Andrew Willner

The BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill that killed 11 and threatens to annihilate the coastal economy of the southeastern U.S. is a good reason to question authority.

This disaster has and will continue to cause all engaged and informed Americans to abandon our faith in our government’s ability to regulate big oil and lead us to an alternative energy future. Everyone watching the disaster unfold on our TV screens and computers, and waiting on the Gulf shoreline for the oil to hit land, have been disheartened by the web of legislative loopholes and industry deregulation which has opened the door to potentially criminal negligence by the oil industry.

As oil continues to hemorrhage into the Gulf, it is now up to individuals, grassroots organizations and communities to demand that the U.S. government criminally prosecute those responsible for this disaster and amend the policies that have resulted in unregulated, out of control coastal drilling. It’s also time to make this a major pocketbook issue, a moment when all of us should divest ourselves of oil stocks.

Let’s be clear, BP and other companies drilling in the Gulf (and determined to drill on all of our coasts), are not drilling because it will add a few months of fuel to our current supply, but for the bloated profits those companies will earn – a significant amount of which end up in the election coffers of both parties.

Yes, it’s been a great time for the oil companies. BP alone made almost $6 billion in profits in the first quarter of this year. And to protect those profits, BP spent $16 million in 2009 to influence Capitol Hill lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, says Newsweek.

But now the Gulf disaster has ripped the filthy bandage off the festering wound of our oil-based economy, exposing it for what it truly is – bullying by a corrupt industry. This spill was easily preventable had government done its job, and had BP been a responsible company and put reasonable safeguards in place, such as a $500,000 emergency remote-control shutoff switch that two other oil producing nations, Norway and Brazil, require, says The Wall Street Journal. Instead, BP cut corners to save a buck, and is now doing senseless violence to the environment, our economy, and life on the battered Gulf coast.

It is now up to ordinary people to do what government has failed to do – to stand up to the bullies at BP and other fossil fuel companies and demand they be deprived of their privileged place at the bargaining table, and be stripped of the billions in subsidies and tax relief that keeps the playing field tilted precipitously against alternative energy. Instead of subsidizing oil production, we should tax every barrel to recoup the costs of stationing U.S. troops on foreign soil to protect private oil derricks, pipelines and tankers.

It is also time for people to work locally to transition our towns, cities, counties and states away from an oil-based economy to a “restorative economy,” an economy dedicated to core values of human and environmental health and safety, cultural and biological diversity, and care for commonly held natural resources.

A restorative economy embraces alternative locally based energy, is less extractive and less violent. One need only look at the utter lack of danger presented by a wind farm or solar array, compared to the horrific events in the Gulf, to see the difference.

As importantly, we must place blame for this disaster squarely on the shoulders of big oil. It is not enough to parade the BP board of directors through a congressional hearing. As an environmental activist who has gathered the corpses of oiled birds, and seen firsthand ecosystems wrecked by oil company negligence, and as a child played with tar-covered feet on oil-stained shores, I wonder if it's high time we paraded them to court to face criminal charges before the blinding lights of TV news cameras..

We must put our elected and appointed officials on notice that this is the beginning of the end for fossil fuels. It is time we rejected the morally bankrupt arguments of an industry that is destroying not only our environmental and economic future, but the democratic process.

Vote with your wallet and purse. Sell mutual funds that include fossil fuel securities. Tell charitable foundations, your churches, and higher education institutions to divest portfolios of oil stocks. Invest in alternative energy companies instead. This amounts to an investment in yourself, your community, the environment, and your children’s future. for more information about what Waterkeeper in the Gulf and the Waterkeeper Alliance are doing to respond to the spill go to

Friday, April 30, 2010

A Third Blog Post on an Agenda for a New America

A Tax Shift, Social Capital, and Sustainability

In economic terms, a tax shift would take taxes off labor and capital and put them on the third factor of production--resources, the gifts of nature.
Labor refers to people working. Capital means physical objects created by people, such as buildings, tools, and machinery. The gifts of nature are resources not made by people, such as air, forests, fossil fuels, land, metals, water, a stable climate, and rivers and other habitats. Taxing labor and capital tells businesses and households to scrimp on workers and tools--in other words, to practice underemployment and under-investment. Taxing the gifts of nature (or, more precisely, taxing actions that degrade the gifts of nature) tells people to conserve these gifts.

Taxes on resources correct one of the most glaring flaws of market economies: blindness to environmental costs. Failure to charge for the use of the atmosphere as a receptacle for poisonous gases, for example, results in too much air pollution. Failure to charge for the disruption of watersheds results in too many floods. Yet for individual firms, there is no place in the ledger for the environmental costs of production that fall on others—externalities or costs such as damage of a worker's DNA that causes disease decades later, the draining of a wetland that offers wildlife habitat, or the release of toxic substances so mobile they eventually permeate the breast milk of women. Environmental taxes put these costs--or at least crude monetary approximations of them--on the books. The prospect of aiding both economy and environment has sparked modest tax shifts in the Netherlands, Spain, the United Kingdom, and three Scandinavian countries since 1991.

Compared with the rest of the world, European countries have very well-developed "green" fiscal policies. While most of the these are applied to transportation (motor vehicles, gas and diesel), "green taxes" are used to address various other issues such as waste management, packaging, air emissions, fertilizer use, and extend to other market-based incentives such as trading "credits," take-back programs for manufactured goods, deposit-refund schemes, rebates, the removal of perverse subsidies (and introduction of others) and various other programs. While many of these measures were originally used to target certain environmental issues, there has been a trend towards more comprehensive tax reform to shape environmentally responsible practices across the board.

Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Western European countries and Japan have set up commissions to explore the opportunities for and issues surrounding introducing broader green tax shifts. In the three decades up to the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, there was growing awareness in Sweden of carbon dioxide emissions and global warming, and the signing of the Rio Declaration pushed them towards more clear commitments. The government had been trying to find the best way to reduce all types of emissions, but the economy had slowed down. Their dilemma was how to do this and still raise employment and also survive in a transforming global system that put increasing pressure on national industries to become more "efficient" by externalizing costs.

Knowing that environmental regulation was unpopular, especially among industry, the government decided to introduce several taxes in 1991. One of these was the carbon tax, levied on a two-tiered basis for two classes of users, household and industrial. They were able to introduce them to households (who depended on this mainly for home heating and transport) because there was broad popular support. Introducing these taxes began to have an effect on heating infrastructure, where the use of biomass increased in local heating districts. It also created new demand for biomass and led to innovations in the field, as well as improvements in other technologies in home heating efficiency.

For industry, which was opposed to the taxes, there were initial exemptions and incremental expansion of taxes. Sweden was among the first countries to initiate the "feebate" system, which was a way to get support from business. The revenue collected from these various taxes was returned to any businesses who increased efficiency of their plants, proportionate to the increase; in other words, the bigger the improvement, the bigger the refund. This would help businesses offset the costs of investing in improved efficiency. Under this feebate system, NOx emissions fell by 35% in the first year alone, and investment in abatement technologies went up accordingly. (This is a situation where heavier polluters are transferring resources to, or subsidizing, lighter polluters--instead of the case where government and public typically subsidize heavy polluters with elevated health care costs and reduced quality of life).

The taxes have influenced emissions even more dramatically on carbon and sulfur than on nitrogen. The tax on sulfur led to a reduction in sulfur content on fuels 50% below the legal requirement and halved SO2 emissions in the last eight years. The total decrease in emissions since 1970 has been over 70%, and Sweden has led the 30% club, in a pledge to reduce SO2 emissions by 1993-95, and other countries such as France, Canada, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and West Germany followed suit, pledging reductions of 40-50% by the mid-nineties.

The effects of these changes are apparent on ordinary lifestyles. Emissions controls are used on cars, appliances are energy efficient, homes are energy conserving, and household and industrial materials are recycled. One of the cleanest garbage-to-fuel plants in Karlstad separates and recycles most of its input and burns the rest for energy. Co-generated steam from the plant provides hot water and heating for 60,000 of the area's residents, and an adjoining landfill feeds a biogas system for additional energy. There is a "solar" village above 58 degrees latitude where households have managed to meet their heat and hot water needs by solar alone for five months of the year, which shows the potential for northern regions to take advantage of the longer days of summer. Taxes on nuclear energy have also been part of a plan to phase out nuclear power by 2010, while retaining limits on hydroelectric power. Over the years these programs have evolved and extended to nitrogen fertilizers, pesticides, scrapping cars, gravel extraction and others.
In 2000, a broad tax "shift" created revenue and raised employment levels through job skill training. The word "shift" is important because while the goal may be have been aimed at raising revenue, it has also redirected the flow of money through the Swedish economy where the tax burden is heaviest on those who exact the greater costs on society. For example, some of the taxes on home heating and electricity have been combined with offsetting tax cuts, which include lower income taxes and social security contributions.

Social capital:

Social capital is a concept in business, economics, organizational behavior, political science, public health, sociology and natural resources management that refers to connections within and between social networks. Though there are a variety of related definitions, which have been described as "something of a cure-all" for the problems of modern society, they tend to share the core idea "that social networks have value. Just as a screwdriver (physical capital) or a college education (human capital) can increase productivity (both individual and collective), so too social contacts affect the productivity of individuals and groups"

Triple bottom line or People, Planet, Profit:

The process by which we meet our national needs is called “economic development. “There are significant differences between economic growth and economic development. The term "economic growth" refers to the increase (or growth) of a specific measure such as real national income, gross domestic product, or per capita income. National income or product is commonly expressed in terms of a measure of the aggregate value-added output of the domestic economy called gross domestic product (GDP). When the GDP of a nation rises economists refer to it as economic growth. The term economic development on the other hand, implies much more. It typically refers to improvements in a variety of indicators such as literacy rates, life expectancy, and poverty rates. GDP is a specific measure of economic welfare that does not take into account important aspects such as leisure time, environmental quality, freedom, or social justice. Economic growth of any specific measure is not a sufficient definition of economic development.” A critical examination must include not just economic processes and institutions, but also the theology of “growth,” and ecological, cultural, social, and political processes.

"Society must cease to look upon "progress" as something desirable. `Eternal Progress’ is a nonsensical myth. What must be implemented is not a `steadily expanding economy,’ but a zero growth economy, a stable economy. Economic growth is not only unnecessary but ruinous. Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn


Sustainability provides a framework for the integration of environmental, economic policies, and development strategies. It recognizes that economic development is essential to satisfy human needs and improve the quality of human life. But economic development must be based on the efficient and environmentally responsible use of all of society’s scarce resources – our natural, human, and economic resources.

“Sustained growth” is a cruel falsehood if it just means increasing production and consumption: on a finite planet, ultimately such growth is a physical impossibility. Talking about growth with no context is meaningless: growth can be good or bad or irrelevant; it must be judged in terms of its effects on people and nature, not in terms of the cash value of goods and services. Increased spending on nuclear weapons and increased spending on preventive health care services both contribute to the Gross National Product (GPN), but only one is of any value in a society concerned with human welfare.”

In the new American Agenda – government, entrepreneurs, environmentalists, and consumers must cooperate to find ways to finance the inevitable transition from sunset industries (an industry in decline or one that has passed its peak) to the sectors of a “conservation economy” that promotes economic relationships which maintain ecological integrity while advancing social equity. In a conservation economy, economic arrangements of all kinds are gradually redesigned so that they restore, rather than deplete, natural capital and social capital. The fundamental needs of people - and the ecosystem services that sustain them - are the starting point for a different kind of economic prosperity that can endure.

A conservation economy can be imagined as a healthy mosaic of bioregional economies forged within coherent units. Even in a globalizing economy, diverse bioregional economies that are more self-sufficient in meeting their own needs will be more competitive and less vulnerable.

Sunset industries are those most tied to carbon while the conservation economy is one that embodies the nurturing of diversity and productivity in natural systems; that uses renewable resources and eliminates waste in built systems; that fulfills social and environmental goals to create market opportunities in economic systems; and helps citizens to understand the whole in order to improve social systems.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Durable Economic Prosperity: Part 2 An Agenda for a New America

Durable Economic Prosperity:

Any plan for sustainability must insure that everyone in the United States has fundamental needs met as a non-negotiable condition of attaining a robust economy based on sustainability. At a minimum, these needs include nutritious food; shelter; healthcare; education; and ecosystem services – all provided affordably and reliably.
In order to achieve a sustainable or durable economic prosperity we must promote a diverse national economy as well as local economies that provide a wide range of employment opportunities; build assets that broadly distribute wealth; and encourages human-scale communities that provide shelter; and opportunity for all. Economic prosperity also requires that we work towards a tax shift that fully values social benefits and takes into account the externalized cost of pollution, and other negatives.

Over the mid-term, we must decrease economic dependence on activities that deplete natural resources or social capital . In the shorter-term investments must be made that have a triple bottom line, one that includes, economic, social, and environmental - returns. And we must begin to harness both market forces and changes in laws, taxes, and policies that favor a sustainable economy.

A sustainable or durable economy requires the development of programs, policies, and implementable initiatives that encourage activities that will empower communities and conservation of resources; promote environmental justice; preserve ways-of-life; and promote by example and through discourse the ideas of ecological and participatory democracy and its real world implications.

“Sustained growth is a cruel falsehood if it just means increasing production and consumption: on a finite planet, ultimately such growth is a physical impossibility. Talking about growth with no context is meaningless: growth can be good or bad or irrelevant; it must be judged in terms of its effects on people and nature, not in terms of the cash value of goods and services. Increased spending on nuclear weapons and increased spending on preventive health care services both contribute to the Gross National Product (GPN), but only one is of any value in a society concerned with human welfare.” Roy Morrison Ecological Democracy
Sustainable development is a process of continuous improvement by design, of natural, built, economic and social systems. Meaning__

 Nurturing diversity and productivity in natural systems;
 Using renewable resources and eliminating waste in built systems;
 Fulfilling social and environmental goals to create market opportunities in economic systems;
 And helping citizens to understand the whole in order to improve social systems.

Sustainable development means dynamic abundance, not static scarcity . If we apply our collective ingenuity, creativity, and know-how in a comprehensive planning process, it is possible for our social and environmental goals to be transformed into ecological improvement and economic opportunities. For example, environmentalists and businesses need no longer be opponents as long as those businesses get that environmental compliance is in their bottom line interest. A vision of a durable or sustainable future includes a market for creative entrepreneurs motivated by enlightened self-interest. The future is not something to be feared or fought over – it is something we have to guide creatively and cooperatively. We can work together, live better, and waste less.

Local Economies:

The wealth of our nation depends in large measure on the economic health of its cities, towns, and bio-regions. Strong local economies are the foundation of strong communities that can withstand the pressures created by an increasingly urbanized society – one in which many live far from their roots, have less direct social contact, friends and support.
Strong communities require an approach that not only provides the traditional deliverables of economic development—jobs, income, wealth, security—but also protects the environment, improves community infrastructure, increases and develops local skills and capacity, strengthens the social fabric, and respects heritage and cultural identity. This systematic approach assures that the whole is examined rather than simply its individual components.

While individual actions and lifestyle choices, such as buying organic produce, participating in local politics, or supporting the work of a regional environmental organization are important personal contributions. Strengthening local economies requires a cooperative shift in individual actions and choices. The cooperative economy of Emilia Romagna in northern Italy, the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and other micro banking initiatives, Vancity Credit Union in Vancouver, the Women’s International Sewing Cooperatives of Nueva Vida, the Mondragon Cooperative in Spain, urban farms in Burlington VT, Brooklyn NY, and Detroit, “eco-villages, and the campaigns for local trade across North America are all examples of the potential of community mobilization to help strengthen local economies.

The migrations from central cities during the 1950’s and 1960’s and the decentralization of urban centers have created “centerless” communities where suburbanites commute from the outer suburbs and formerly rural areas along highway corridors and rail lines that slice through the inner ring suburbs. Big box stores, the mortgage crisis, and the disconnection of eating and our food supply have all led to the loss of local communities.

Even in our most rural areas, people drive from their farms miles to the local “gigantomart” to buy “ organic” fruits and vegetables flown and trucked from all over to the world, and inexpensive tools, clothing, and toys, made in many cases in sweatshops in third world countries to the detriment of the local economy.

Strong local economies give communities the capacity and resources to address specific and immediate problems such as the provision of health care, adequate housing, clean water and sanitation, and disaster prevention and response. Human settlements—large and small, rich and poor—need strong local economies to withstand the pressures created by an increasingly urbanized and isolating world.

A tax shift:

The traditional relationship between the environment and the economy usually pits the environment against the economy. Instead of pursuing economic activities and distribution as primary and looking at the consumption of natural resources and the impacts on the environment as incidental, we must begin to put the environment first. This means committing ourselves to conserving resources, including habitat resources. It also means including the environmental “costs” of an economic activity as integral to the overall costs of that activity, not treating those costs as incidental or an afterthought – not as clean-up or “mitigation. Economics and the environment must be completely integrated in the decision making and lawmaking process – not just to protect the environment and human health, but also to protect and promote sustainable development

Economics tells us that when you tax something, you get less of it. Our problem is that we tax things we want more of, such as income and enterprise, instead of things we want less of, such as toxic waste and resource depletion. The logical outcome is that we get less money and more messes. Tax Shift is about doing the opposite--removing taxes from "goods" and putting them on "bads." Whether you think government is too big, too small, or just right, tax shifting appears to make sense.

A tax shift would allow us to reduce or eliminate many existing taxes: regressive property, payroll, and sales taxes that are hardest on the lower and middle classes; enterprise-killing business taxes; perhaps even personal income tax. Instead we could tax actions that corrode the public good. We could tax emissions of deadly fine particles, greenhouse gases, and other air pollutants; discharges of toxic metals and other water pollutants; and the manufacture and use of pesticides and other hazardous chemicals. We could tax away most traffic jams, by charging drivers for use of major routes at rush hour. We could protect natural ecosystems by taxing the pumping of fresh water, the impounding of rivers behind dams, and the felling of virgin timber. Finally, by moving the weight of the property tax off buildings and onto urban land values, we could promote the growth of compact, walk able neighborhoods and slow the creep of our suburbs into farms and forests.

Shifting the tax burden would send out powerful signals--signals that would reorient consumption and production in our homes and businesses. Tax shifting would harness the profit motive for environmental ends and wring out the waste of resources. Governments would still get their money, and--because taxes on "bads" do not bog down the economy as much as many existing taxes on "goods"--employment levels and incomes would rise.
In economic terms, a tax shift would take taxes off labor and capital and put them on the third factor of production--resources, the gifts of nature.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

An Agenda for a New America

The first of several posts on a proposal for an agenda for a New America

With the inauguration of Barack H. Obama as the 44th President of the United States, there is, after almost half a century, the potential for a pragmatic progressive agenda to be formulated and implemented is tantalizing. President Obama consistently said during the campaign that it was time for bold leadership and real change. This proposal for an Agenda for a new America takes a pragmatic look at how we can foster a positive transformation of our culture and our country. It is my hope that some of these thoughts will help to begin the process of government reform and change the disastrous status quo.

For the first time in a very long time there is a genuine opportunity to work together despite significant obstacles to make a difference – to galvanize the will of the people, and involve the engaged and informed public in an implementable undertaking to create new jobs in sustainable industries, energy independence, an improved quality of life, and a preserved and restored environment.

This proposal for an Agenda for a New America is built on three “pillars, (or more aptly three legs of a stool)” – durable economic prosperity, social justice, and human and ecological health – the highest possible quality of life in the best possible environment. An Agenda that will advance programs and policies, will respond effectively to the real limits of ecological systems while fostering the unprecedented opportunities of democracy in which all people are able to develop to their fullest potential. Sustainable (or durable) development, for the purposes of this proposal, is a process of continuous improvement by design of natural, built, economic and social systems. This means nurturing variety and productivity in natural systems; Increasing efficiency, using renewable resources and eliminating all waste in built systems; using social and environmental goals to create market opportunities in economic systems; helping all citizens understand whole systems and act on that knowledge in social systems.

Some of the following ideas should be implemented by government. Many will be successful only when partnerships are formed with open minded and engaged people from the entire gamut of the political spectrum; with elected officials from both sides of the aisle in congress; and with the States, municipalities, businesses, and NGO’s. Each of the “pillars” will contribute to the protection of our Country’s people, and its land, air, water, communities, and natural resources, and make us once again a beacon of democracy and hope.

The suggestions for initiatives, goals, and objectives contained in these blog posts are designed for thoughtful consideration and debate and will entail even greater communication and cooperation between the government and those that it serves. Although some of these goals and objectives deal with suggestions that may not be immediately implementable, we must start now to make sure they will be in the near future. These agenda items and suggestions can be used to foster authentic debate and to highlight both the difficulties and promises of implementation. Some of these Agenda items can be the basis of legislation, and others can be the foundation of a national dialogue about where we want to go as a country and a people.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Bridging the Gap

Bridging the Gap

One of the topics of discussion At Monday, October 26, 2009 Port of New York-New Jersey's 9th Annual Port Industry Day, will be "what to do about the Bayonne Bridge."
The span, one of the most beautiful in the Harbor is said to be an obstacle to large container ships passing under it on the way to and from Newark Bay. It's clearance of 150+ feet above the Kill Van Kull, depending on the tide, means that some of today's ships must fold down antenna masts, or wait for low tide to pass through. The problem will become more serious after the Panama Canal is widened and new generation of so called post Panamax ships that can potentially carry double the load of current vessels are expected to call on some East Coast Ports.

Some vocal Port interests have proposed replacing the bridge. The Port Authority has commissioned a study of the question by the Army Corps of Engineers, and has authorized up to $10 million for planning and engineering services to develop options to deal with the bridge's low clearance.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey recently released a study that looked at three options to deal with the height-challenged bridge. The "quickest" option is a $1.3 billion project to jack up the bridge 40 percent above its 150 feet which might be completed by 2019 at the earliest. It will need a clearance of 215 feet to handle the new ships. Another option is to build a whole new bridge which would take until 2022. The most expensive option would be to get rid of the bridge altogether and replace it with a tunnel through which traffic would traverse under the Kill Van Kull. This option would take to 2024 to complete. There has been a lobbying effort by port interests to "move quickly."

I guess there have been sillier, or more expensive, and/or less needed projects proposed (like the infamous bridge to nowhere), but I am hard pressed to understand the logic behind, and the zeal to move forward on this ridiculous project.

Mariners, in particular the Pilots that have to navigate the narrow, rocky, dangerous channel called the Kill Van Kull, a tidal strait that connects The Upper New York Bay, and the Ports of Elizabeth and Newark in Newark Bay are adamant that the bridge is not the problem, but the location of the Ports and the logistics of moving huge ships in a channel that was never envisioned to accommodate them.

The Bayonne Bridge is the fourth longest steel arch bridge in the world, and was the longest in the world at the time of its completion. It connects Bayonne, New Jersey with Staten Island, New York, spanning the Kill Van Kull.
The bridge was designed by master bridge-builder Othmar Ammann and the architect Cass Gilbert. It was built by the Authority and opened on November 15, 1931,

The primary purpose of the bridge was to allow vehicle traffic from Staten Island to reach Manhattan via the Holland Tunnel.
The designers were far sighted enough to include the option of rail service across the bridge.

Ironically, there are less dangerous and less expensive alternatives than trying to get these monster ships to an inappropriate Port. Unlike the European Union, the United States does not have a comprehensive port plan therefore each port on the East Coast, from Florida to Nova Scotia is competing for the next generation of very large container ships. Instead of designating certain ports with deep unobstructed facilities as feeder or hub ports, and creating a fleet of very fast smaller ships to move container cargo to less accessible, but no less important ports in a coordinated way – US ports are competing with each other by building duplicate facilities for the few very large ships that are likely to call on East Coast Ports in the next twenty years.

When the Army transferred the Military Ocean Terminal Bayonne (MOTBY) to the City of Bayonne, those of us with an interest in the port, dredging, and the environment were heartened by the plans that included a state of the art container terminal for the largest of the ships that may call on the Port of NY and NJ (the so called post Panamax 10,000 teu container ships). The Bayonne Local Redevelopment Authority (BLRA) asserted that they would bring a port developer on board who would raise $500 million for a new container port, bringing with it more than 3000 jobs.

Not only could the former MOTBY be the closest port to deep channels – it will save billions of public dollars, avoid the height limitations of the Bayonne Bridge, and reduce the significant environmental impacts that will be caused by continuing to attempt to deepen the dangerous, narrow Kill Van Kull, and dredging more of the contaminated sediments of Newark Bay – the new port on the Harbor side of Bayonne, could be built using the newest most efficient container management technology including alternative fuel and electric vehicles, and direct transfer of containers from ship to trains or ships to container barges, or ships to container rail cars on barges.

The additional benefit of a new container port at MOTBY is its juxtaposition to the Global Terminals, and the Greenville rail yards. The MOTBY Port also creates a cross harbor synergy if the "cross harbor float" system is re-invigorated as is envisioned by the Port Authority of NY and NJ the new owners of the Cross Harbor Railroad. Taking all that into account, MOTBY is the premiere maritime asset in the Harbor and one of the most valuable maritime properties in the world.

The (pre-real estate meltdown) plan proposed by the Bayonne Redevelopment Authority (dubbed the Peninsula at Bayonne Harbor) is for high rise housing and offices, with a yacht harbor in the last huge graving (dry) dock in the harbor, and only a minimum amount of port commerce space, what appears to be one cruise ship berth. The dry dock on MOTBY is one of the world’s largest graving dry docks and is the only one remaining in New York Harbor after the dry docks in Brooklyn were lost under a parking lot for a non water dependant furniture store.

I can understand Bayonne’s impulse to become part of the "gold coast" of the Hudson, but does it make sense to lose a significant number of good paying, port related jobs for the short term and questionable benefits of housing or the loss of public access and working waterfront as other Harbor communities have experienced?

I am convinced that if cooler heads can prevail, a compromise can still be reached. One in which the significant acreage at MOTBY be used as a container port and port related commerce, while reserving some smaller portion for housing, commercial and recreation. The two are not incompatible. Some of the most desirable housing in Seattle WA and Portland ME overlooks the port and its complex and interesting operations.

This solution would not only save one of the most beautiful bridges in the Port, but would be a more efficient use of the $1-10 billion that it would cost to modify or eliminate the Bayonne Bridge. A cross harbor float, rail, and port infrastructure investment will provide more port jobs, reinvigorate the Brooklyn and Bayonne waterfront, and will be a smarter use of scarce resources.