News and Features
Judgment Day is everyday with Mike Davis.
When plants in Nebraska carrying swine diarrhea drugs mingled with food for humans, all hell broke loose.
Dolores Huerta flouts the smug conventional wisdom that the 1960s are
behind us. She won't settle down and become an anachronism.
A new source of energy offers a way to wrench power from ever-fewer
In May 2001, the White House issued a National Energy Policy report, known as the Cheney Report: the state of our national oil reserves. In 2000, half the oil we consumed was imported.
How genetically engineered American corn has altered the global
Nothing is more galling to scientists than outsiders questioning their
We're trying to survey all the many good ideas being tried outside the range of the Beltway pundits. So tell us about any local, state or municipal initiative in your area that you're excited about and think is worth emulating nationally.
The debate over how to redevelop the World Trade Center site has
revolved around several key concerns: the commercial interests of the
real estate industry, the public's desire to embolden Manhattan's
skyline with exciting architecture and the historic obligation to
memorialize thousands of lost lives. As we continue to address and
balance these concerns, let's also seize the chance to reclaim Ground
Zero in the spirit of the twenty-first century, showcasing one of
today's most inspiring and politically meaningful industrial movements:
the revolution in clean energy.
Imagine for a moment that the structures surrounding the memorial will
be sheathed in an invisible skin of electricity-producing solar cells.
During the day, while electricity demand is peaking, the buildings will
silently, automatically produce energy. No power plants or transmission
lines necessary. No greenhouse emissions. No need for oil, coal, natural
gas or nuclear energy. No risk of blackouts. No spiking electricity
prices. Computer and phone networks, elevators, clocks, air conditioners
and ATMs will all run simply, cleanly, like a crop of corn or a grove of
trees, on sunlight. (The complex will be connected to the grid, drawing
electricity when necessary--at night or on cloudy days--and pumping
power back in when it creates a surplus.)
These high-tech buildings will supply all the services and comforts of a
traditional commercial or residential complex but require less than half
the electricity because of their green design features: superinsulated
walls and windows; highly efficient appliances and lighting, heating and
cooling systems; and a motion-sensing laser system that will
automatically switch off lights and equipment when not in use. Whereas
the original World Trade Center complex guzzled nearly 100 megawatts of
electricity a day on peak days, with associated emissions, the new
complex will be a net-zero-emission development. Moreover, this mini-El
Dorado of energy independence and its surrounding neighborhood will be
designed to have minimal need for cars and trucks. Once there, visitors
will be in the greatest walking neighborhood in the world. The three
airports, Kennedy, La Guardia and Newark, will be connected by train to
the downtown terminal, making it an easy commute. An expanded network of
ferries connecting lower Manhattan with Brooklyn, Queens, New Jersey and
uptown will provide a fast and pleasurable way to get around. The heart
of lower Manhattan will be knitted together by a clean, quiet street
grid restored for use by pedestrians alone.
"From both a technological and cost standpoint, this scenario is
entirely possible," says Ashok Gupta, an energy economist at the Natural
Resources Defense Council. Solar systems, fuel cells and
energy-efficiency measures have already been implemented in the design
of several skyscrapers in Manhattan, including the Condé Nast
building at Times Square and the residential tower at Battery Park
currently under construction. As clean-energy technologies become
rapidly more sophisticated and affordable, a large-scale application at
Ground Zero would galvanize their acceptance in the marketplace. As for
transportation, fuel-cell-powered buses and taxis may be too expensive
today, but already they're technologically feasible. The Lower Manhattan
Development Corporation (LMDC) and the Port Authority have approved
additional rail connections for commuters beneath the new complex; they
are also considering plans to depress the West Side Highway for a more
pedestrian-friendly environment, and to add new ferry lines at Battery
Park and on the East River.
The opportunities are real, but they can't be realized without leaders.
Yet neither Governor George Pataki, site developer Larry Silverstein nor
Mayor Michael Bloomberg has expressed much interest so far. "Mr.
Silverstein isn't really thinking about this," says his spokesperson.
"It's just too early to get bogged down in these kinds of details."
Pataki's office expressed a similar lack of initiative, saying the
issues are important but not yet a priority. Alex Garvin, vice president
of planning for the LMDC, was more assertive in his commitment: "We plan
to establish standards for sustainability and green technology that
architects will be not only encouraged but required to meet. But we
can't get started on this now; it's too early to determine the details."
Prominent green architects disagree. Robert Fox, senior principal of Fox
and Fowle, the architecture firm that designed the Condé Nast
building, says planners should adopt the Leadership in Energy and
Environmental Design rating system, the gold standard for sustainable
building practices. "Now is the time to address this, at the beginning
of the planning process," stresses Fox. "Sustainability measures must be
incorporated into every aspect of the design, from the infrastructure of
the water, sewage and electricity systems to the external PV-integrated
It's a safe bet that the public will support much if not all of the
larger zero-energy vision. In addition to the LMDC, two
coalitions--Civic Alliance, representing more than 100 institutions, and
New York New Visions, representing dozens of local architecture
firms--have endorsed principles for downtown redevelopment that promote
sustainable design and clean energy. Furthermore, there's impressive
evidence that supports the use of clean-energy systems: Richard Perez, a
scientist at SUNY Albany who's been tracking sunlight in New York City
for more than ten years, has found that the average amount of sun that
hits the city annually is only 12 percent less than that in cloudless
Right now the Pataki administration is considering a proposal to limit
power-plant emissions of carbon dioxide 30-40 percent below 1990 levels
by 2010. Building a zero-energy complex and a state-of-the-art
transportation system would advance these goals and address the mounting
crisis of global warming, while making a clear statement about America's
commitment to energy independence. Since September 11 many energy
experts have called for a massive, government-funded research project, a
"Manhattan Project of alternative energy" to alleviate our dependence on
foreign oil. The opportunity for such an initiative now lies at the foot
of Manhattan. Nothing would be more appropriate for a memorial to a
traumatic past than one that points us in the direction of a sustainable
When Rio hosted the first Earth Summit in 1992, there was so much
goodwill surrounding the event that it was nicknamed, without irony, the
Summit to Save the World. This week in Johannesburg, at the follow-up
conference known as Rio + 10, nobody is claiming that the World Summit
on Sustainable Development can save the world--the question is whether
the summit can even save itself.
The sticking point is what UN bureaucrats call "implementation" and the
rest of us call "doing something." Much of the blame for the
"implementation gap" is being placed at the doorstep of the United
States. It was George W. Bush who abandoned the only significant
environmental regulations that came out of the Rio conference, the Kyoto
Protocol on climate change. It was Bush who decided not to come to
Johannesburg (even his father showed up in Rio), signaling that the
issues being discussed here--from basic sanitation to clean energy--are
low priorities for his Administration. And it is the US delegation that
is most belligerently blocking all proposals that involve either
directly regulating multinational corporations or dedicating significant
new funds to sustainable development.
But the Bush-bashing is too easy: The summit isn't failing because of
anything happening now in Johannesburg. It's failing because the entire
process was booby-trapped from the start.
When Canadian entrepreneur and diplomat Maurice Strong was appointed to
chair the Rio summit ten years ago, his vision was of a massive
gathering that brought all the "stakeholders" to the table--not just
governments but also nongovernmental organizations (environmentalists,
indigenous and lobby groups) as well as multinational corporations.
Strong's vision allowed for more participation from civil society than
any UN conference before, at the same time as it raised unprecedented
amounts of corporate funds for the summit (it helped that Coca-Cola
donated its marketing team and Swatch produced a limited-edition Earth
Summit watch). But the sponsorship had a price. Corporations came to Rio
with clear conditions: They'd embrace ecologically sustainable practices
but only voluntarily--through nonbinding codes and "best practices"
partnerships with NGOs and governments. In other words, when the
business sector came to the table in Rio, direct regulation of business
was pushed off.
In Johannesburg, these "partnerships" have passed into self-parody, with
the conference center chock-a-block with displays for BMW "clean cars"
and billboards for De Beers diamonds announcing Water Is Forever. The
summit's main sponsor is Eskom, South Africa's soon-to-be-privatized
national energy company. According to a recent study, under Eskom's
restructuring 40,000 households are losing access to electricity each
And this cuts to the heart of the real debate about the summit. The
World Business Council for Sustainable Development, a corporate lobby
group founded in Rio, is insisting that the route to sustainability is
the same trickle-down formula already being imposed by the World Trade
Organization and the International Monetary Fund: Poor countries must
make themselves hospitable to foreign investment, usually by privatizing
basic services, from water to electricity to healthcare. As in Rio,
these corporations are pushing for voluntary "partnerships" rather than
"command and control" regulations.
But these arguments sound different from a decade ago. Post-Enron, it's
difficult to believe that companies can be trusted even to keep their
own books, let alone save the world. And unlike a decade ago, the
economic model of laissez-faire development is being militantly rejected
by popular movements around the world, particularly in Latin America but
also here in South Africa.
This time around, many of the "stakeholders" aren't at the official
table but out in the streets or organizing countersummit conferences to
plot very different routes to development: debt cancellation, an end to
the privatization of water and electricity, reparations for apartheid
abuses, affordable housing, land reform. The most ambitious is the Week
of the Landless, a parallel event arguing that unfulfilled promises to
introduce substantive land reform--in South Africa and across the
postcolonial developing world--have been the single greatest barrier to
sustainable development globally.
Key to these movements is that they are no longer willing simply to talk
about their demands--they're acting on them. In the past two years,
South Africa has experienced a surge in direct action, with groups like
the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, the Landless People's Movement,
Durban's Concerned Citizens' Forum and the Western Cape Anti-Eviction
Campaign organizing to resist evictions, to claim unproductive land and
to reconnect cut-off water and electricity in the townships.
A mass demonstration is planned for August 31, but the fate of the march
is by no means certain. The South African government appears to have
decided that if nothing else comes of it, the summit is at least an
opportunity "to change misconceptions about safety and security in South
Africa...[and] attract the attention of foreign tourists and investors,"
in the words of Provincial Police Commissioner Perumal Naidoo.
What this means in practice is that while street signs welcome delegates
to "feel the pulse" of "the Sensational City," Sandton, the ultrarich
suburb where the conference is being held, has been transformed into a
military zone, complete with "mega search park" and remote spy planes
patrolling the skies. All protests are confined to a 1.8-kilometer
"struggle pen," as many are calling it, and even there, only
police-permitted marches are allowed.
Vendors and beggars have been swept from the streets, residents of
squatter camps have been evicted (many have been relocated to less
visible sites, far from busy roads). Moss Moya, a township resident
facing eviction from his home of eighteen years, holds out little hope
that the summit will help South Africa's poor. "If they are going to
help us," he said, "they need to see us."
But when Moya and his neighbors held a rally to resist the attempts to
relocate them behind a grove of trees, the police cracked down, and
Moya, a former ANC supporter, was shot in the mouth with a rubber
bullet, knocking out six of his teeth. When he went to file a complaint
with the police, he was thrown in jail.
Moya and some 1,000 other township residents decided to take their
struggle to downtown Johannesburg, holding a peaceful rally outside the
offices of the Premier of Gauteng, the province in which Johannesburg is
located. Right underneath a sign that announces, The People of Gauteng
Welcome WSSD Delegates to the Smart Province, seventy-seven
demonstrators were arrested, including the entire leadership of the
Landless People's Movement. (All but one--a US citizen, still facing
deportation--have since been released.)
On August 24, police even attacked a candlelight "freedom of expression
march," held to protest these and other mass arrests. The spontaneously
organized march was headed to a downtown prison, but before the crowd of
1,000 local and international activists had walked a block, riot police
surrounded them and barricaded the road. Without warning, stun grenades
were fired at the marchers, injuring three.
The World Summit on Sustainable Development isn't going to save the
world; it merely offers an exaggerated mirror of it. In the gourmet
restaurants of Sandton, delegates are literally dining out on their
concern for the poor. Meanwhile, outside the gates, poor people are
being hidden away, assaulted and imprisoned for what has become the
iconic act of resistance in an unsustainable world: refusing to
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