Monthly Archives: March, 2013

Earthships

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On the flat sweep of highway between Chaco Canyon and Taos, New Mexico, you may not expect to see much except desert and a few a scrub bushes under a pastel blue sky. You certainly don’t expect to see Hobbit like homes all bending toward the sun, like minarets awaiting their muezzins. They are spectacular against the endless sky, but the real surprise comes when you stop by to investigate. You realize something important: these singularly humble ‘Hobbit’ homes –also known as Earthships –may be a glimpse of our future.

Mike Reynolds, the founder of Earthships, first came up with the idea for these self-sufficient dwellings when Hurricane Marilyn roared through the Caribbean, destroying a quarter of the homes on St. Thomas, one of the U.S. Virgin islands. Full restoration of power took several months. Three thousand miles away, in Taos, New Mexico, Reynolds, read the news and saw a demand for a self-sustaining housing systems—what would later evolve into Earthships.

Traditionally, Mike Reynolds notes, most houses were built from whatever material was plentiful and fast at hand–trees, clay, grass (on the plains). In modern urban culture our most plentiful material is our non-biodegradable waste. Thus, he decided to use tires which will spend three times or more of a human life time making an eyesore of a valley or mountainside as the building blocks for his new-fangled Earthship.

The basic Earthship design is a U. The U design is based on three tire walls, built on the North, East and West sides while the South side is glazed and slightly angled to receive maximum sunlight. The concept is surprisingly simple and efficient: using the building walls and windows to collect solar energy during the day. The walls of an Earthship give back the energy later in the day when the outside air cools. Earthships are built from old car tires full of rammed earth, these are the load-bearing walls (that create the thermal mass). The walls that aren’t as structurally important get interesting aesthetic treatments; the most common of which is the use of “glass bricks”, which is a “brick” made out of two glass bottles, cut in half and duct taped together.
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On to this mud, cement or adobe plaster is added. In addition, Earthship roofs can catch water when it rains and store it for later use in a cistern. Recycled greywater (from showers, dirty dishes, etc…) and blackwater (septic waste) are carefully separated. The grey water is fed into toilets for flushing and gardens where the waste is welcomed as nutrients to plants, and acts as a filter. The black water is broken down in an external solar septic tank which accelerates the anaerobic process by heating the waste with solar energy. The solids break down and travels through filtering layers of gravel, pumice, soil and roots where it is absorbed by plants and cleaned. Energy is provided by solar panels and/or wind generators stored in batteries. Methane gas from the breakdown of black waste can be stored for emergency energy needs.

The interior is comfortable and spacious. The rounded walls indeed give it a Hobbit feel, but this is a plus not a minus. One senses a return to a natural order living in the Earth, as this Earthship does, rather than on top of it.
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Earthships also have extensive gardening beds to reduce the need to rely on grocery stores for food. There are raised beds, roof top plots and indoor greens. All this, and the most expensive of all Earth ships is a mere $70,000 (excluding labor costs). The average pricing works out to about $120 per square foot. If you provide your own labor, of course, it’s less.

In The Legacy of Conquest, Patricia Limerick writes of the western pilgrims leaving great heaps of tin cans outside their little shacks. “Living out of cans,” she notes, with a bit of irony, “the Montana Ranchers were typical Westerners, celebrating independence while relying on a vital connection to the outside world.” Not unlike the ‘independent westerners’ of today, who take to the Rockies in their SUVs, powered by a web of connections that reaches all the way across the oceans to cluster bombs in Iraq.

“The [modern housing] systems give us power on one hand and poison on the other,” Mike Reynolds notes, “Acid rain, radioactive waste, spider webs of power lines, polluted rivers and oceans, vanishing wildlife are all part of the ‘price’ for the life support systems necessary to make the current concept of housing functional. A person on life support in a hospital has to always be within reach and ‘plugged in’ to the various systems that keep him/her alive. So it is with our current concept of housing.”

Earthships incorporate systems that are external to most traditional house designs. Thus, they are self-sustaining.

There are Earthship colonies in climates ranging from the deserts of New Mexico to the high humidity of the United Kingdom, Brighton and Edinburgh. There are also Earthship enclaves near the tropics in Honduras, in Bolivia and Mexico.

For those who can’t feature themselves as over cautious environmentalists, and like, instead, to consider themselves ‘rugged individualists’, consider this: Earthships are the ultimate in an individual’s great goodbye to the systems that would otherwise keep them enslaved. Much more rugged and individualist than certain Montana Ranchers who ‘conquered’ the West while leaving behind their ‘externalities’: waste trails of empty tin cans.

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Thanks to Stefan Reed, APV’s Deputy Director of Environment and Clean Energy Task Force, and Jack Johnson who visited the Earthships in New Mexico and also took the photos.

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Swelling the Leeches

Leeches!

Believe it or not, there are at least a handful of individuals that actually consider austerity measures at this point in time ‘good medicine’. Almost none of these people are reputable economists, or business leaders. Most, in fact, are politicians with less than savory motives. Or Paul Ryan, but I repeat myself.

For the handful of individuals who honestly want to help the economy with austerity cuts, their basic thinking goes something like this:

‘In the short-term, austerity cuts will be painful, but it’s necessary to prevent the collapse of Western society as we know it.’

In fact, words to this effect can be found in a recent article by Joshua Green in Bloomberg Business Week, bemoaning the fact that no one takes the suggestions of the Simpson Bowles commission (i.e., Cat Food Commission) seriously. There’s just a little desperation to the evident failure of their grand plan:

“The outside strategy to persuade the public has also fallen short. It depended on scaring people into believing that a crisis is imminent. For all their resources and the attention they garnered…” they have managed to fail.

“They” of course, are Simpson and Bowles, and, more relevantly, the folks at “Fix The Debt”, under the steely guidance of Pete Peterson, the billionaire who is aghast that poor people can still manage to get money from the government, somehow.

Alas, “Millions of Americans are more anxious about jobs, stagnant wages, slow growth, and a host of other domestic problems…” than they are about ‘fixing the debt…’

Priorities, people! Priorities!

What comes to mind, on hearing these words, is the pale patient from some 19th century novel, broken by unrequited love or some other trauma, staring blankly at the ceiling while the meddling surgeon stops by to help. With leeches, naturally. Why? Well, because in the medieval theory of medicine, any sickness that caused the subject’s skin to become red (e.g. fever and inflammation), must have arisen from too much blood in the body. Similarly, any person whose behavior was strident and “sanguine” was thought to be suffering from an excess of blood. Thus leeches were used to draw off the excess blood and cure the illness. Viola! Similarly, we have our current crop of doctors holding onto a zombie economic cure that just won’t go away. ‘Cutting’ the national budget in a time of deep recession will somehow be good for our economic body; when there is zero empirical evidence to support this view.

Am I saying the current House Budget plan put forward by Paul Ryan that stoically embraces slashing programs that will eviscerate the middle and lower class is the equivalent of medieval blood-letting?

Why, yes, I am. And it is just as deadly in its unintended consequences, (killing the patient) and just as useful in producing a cure.

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You would think, in retrospect, that doctors of early 19th century would have looked at the available empirical evidence (dead and dying patients) and concluded that their remedy wasn’t working–but they didn’t. They assumed it was an insufficient dose of blood-letting and just went on all the more savagely until said patient kicked or somehow managed to survive the cure. Even after William Harvey (who famously described the circulatory system for the first time) disproved the practice as far back as 1628 and went on to decry the use of blood-letting, the practice never lost favor. Bloodletting was used to treat almost every disease. One British medical text recommended bloodletting for acne, asthma, cancer, cholera, coma, convulsions, diabetes, epilepsy, gangrene, gout, herpes, indigestion, insanity, jaundice, leprosy, ophthalmia, plague, pneumonia, scurvy, smallpox, stroke, tetanus, tuberculosis, and for some one hundred other diseases. Bloodletting was even used to treat most forms of hemorrhaging such as nosebleed, excessive menstruation, or hemorrhoidal bleeding. Before surgery or at the onset of childbirth, blood was removed to prevent inflammation. Before amputation, it was customary to remove a quantity of blood equal to the amount believed to circulate in the limb that was to be removed.

This progressed well into the 19th century. In the 1830s, the French imported about forty million leeches a year for medical purposes, and in the next decade, England imported six million leeches a year from France alone. Through the early decades of the century, hundreds of millions of leeches were used by physicians throughout Europe.

Applying austerity measures to a depressed economy is the same kind of perverse bloodletting. You take what minor liquidity remains in the economy and suck it off to no good purpose. You are killing the patient, which, in this extended metaphor, just happens to be a large portion of the American public–and ultimately, much of the national economy. The bloodletting has left a landscape riddled with political violence, instability and massive unemployment –in short dying patients. Greece. Portugal. Spain. Ireland.

There’s one exception in this bleak economic landscape of blood spattered doctors. Iceland.

Iceland kicked out the leech mongers. They sensibly held bankers to the same rules of law that applied to the average citizen…Instead of bailing out the banks and cutting social programs, Iceland paid off loans for consumers and threw bankers in jail for corruption. They let homeowners wipe out debt up to 110 percent of the property value. They declared loans indexed in foreign currency illegal and said debtors could pay them back in krona, their local currency. According to Bloomberg:

“These policies helped consumers erase debt equal to 13 percent of Iceland’s $14 billion economy. Now, consumers have money to spend on other things. It is no accident that the IMF, which granted Iceland loans without imposing its usual austerity strictures, says the recovery is driven by domestic demand.
In addition to easing consumer debt, Iceland reduced government spending and increased revenue by raising taxes and cutting deductions that mainly benefited the well-off, a path the U.S. might profitably emulate. In fact, relief for overburdened U.S. consumers is a cause promoted by former U.S. Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman Sheila Bair. Bair would have done more to aid sinking homeowners and done less for banks, but she said her efforts were blocked by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and others.

It worked in Iceland. A deficit that reached 13.5 percent of gross domestic product in 2009 fell to 2.3 percent last year. The IMF predicts Iceland will have a primary surplus (excluding interest on debt) of 1.5 percent this year.”

Iceland isn’t a miracle. They just acted rationally on available evidence. They rejected the austerity measures, threw out the blood-letters, and jailed their bankers. Conversely, much of Europe where austerity is being applied vis-a-vis the ‘Washington Consensus’ is rioting. Unemployment is spiking, the young are unschooled and the old are starving as social programs are slashed.

One thing I should add. Modern science has found that there are a few instances when bleeding someone with leeches has some benefit, especially in instances of hemochromatosis, or an overload of iron in the blood supply. Sadly, the same thing can’t be said for severe austerity measures—the economic equivalent– on the brink of a great recession. The only result is a patient growing weaker with each progressive treatment, while leeches on the body politic swell.

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Once again, APV thanks our friend, writer and activist Jack Johnson for contributing to our blog!

The Rand Paul Filibuster & Bridging the Divide

"Really the great irony of this is that President Obama’s opinion on this is an extension of George Bush’s opinion.”~Rand Paul

For the record, I do not like Rand Paul. I think his libertarian ideology would see the better part of America holding gruel cups like Oliver Twist and begging for more porridge in miserable work houses built circa 1875 to further the blessings of the ever illusive ‘free’ market. The best that I can say about the man is that is he probably isn’t innately evil, he’s just deeply misguided. Like most Republicans he wants rich people to pay almost nothing in taxes, and he wants ‘big’ government to fail. In the infamous phrasing of Grover Norquist, he wants to drown big government in a bathtub—only, drowning ‘big’ government is an abstraction. What he’s really advocating is drowning hundreds of thousands of poor and vulnerable citizens.

But …..BUT….in this one instance, God help me, Rand Paul is right. Last night, he took to the floor of the U.S. Senate and filibustered John Brennan’s nomination to head the C.I.A. For the best of reasons –at least on its surface–which in the realm of politics is all you’re going to get:

“I rise today to begin to filibuster John Brennan’s nomination for the C.I.A.,” Mr. Paul began. “I will speak until I can no longer speak. I will speak as long as it takes, until the alarm is sounded from coast to coast that our Constitution is important, that your rights to trial by jury are precious, that no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found to be guilty by a court.”

Let me state categorically that this is a good thing. Habeas Corpus was trashed at the first passage of the Patriot Act and hasn’t been reinstated since–by either the Bush administration or the Obama administration. Anybody that slows our Executive Branch enough to decry the stripping of basic human rights that have been in place since the Magna Carta is doing a good thing. So kudos to Rand Paul for this filibuster.

And Progressives and Democrats and Democrats in name only should take notice. This is what Democracy looks like.

Maybe there’s a sweet spot here– a new ‘grand bargain’ so to speak. And it’s not really that complicated. On one side, don’t murder people without a fair trial  -especially not US citizens – just like we promised in the constitution. Roll back the creeping power of the Executive Branch that began with Nixon, really took wings with George W. Bush and has not slowed an iota under Obama. Reinstate Habeas Corpus, and maintain a standard trial by jury of peers for every citizen (again, just like we promised in the constitution). No more Executive executions, either here or abroad. Suspend the portion of the NDAA that provides for military detention of US citizens on US soil. On the other side, don’t trash our national economy in a childish tantrum. Republican economic policies (and neoliberal economic policies, in general, for that matter) are deeply dysfunctional and everybody knows it. Furthermore, implementing these wildly unpopular austerity measures flies in the face of the popular will—as dictatorial a move in its own right as invoking Executive privilege. The majority of Americans don’t like the austerity measures, don’t agree with the Republican policies and do not want their Social Security savings cut or their Medicare benefits revoked to further enable corporate welfare or tax breaks for millionaires. That’s what these last elections proved.

I’m not holding out much hope, but if our polarized country could agree on those two things: basic principles of fairness, really, maybe we could begin a long overdue national conversation about how to move forward in the 21st century.

 

Welcome to the Poor House, Virginia

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Much of the sequester talk in the main media outlets is abstract, focusing on the political story line, the tactical advantage one side might potentially gain over the other. House Speaker Boehner even said he ‘wasn’t sure’ what the overall impact on the economy might be—which is remarkable given the estimates that are out there.

The effect on the economy will be bad, there’s no doubt. Nearly all economists agree. Business leaders also agree, austerity cuts when our economy is still on life support is the worst kind of policy, guaranteed to make our recovery long and painful. But the effects, both long-term and short-term, on individuals across this nation are going to be deeply harmful. Back in July, 2012 the Senate Appropriations Committee compiled an estimate of the sequester cuts, broken out by states, and then by individual departments and programs within those states.

Below are some of the greatest hits for Virginia. Top of the list? One of the most successful educational programs in this country: Headstart. Ten million dollars is being cut from the Headstart budget in Virginia—essentially a third of its budget. That’s 301 jobs down the toilet and 1,444 children who will not be able to access the program.

For those who aren’t familiar with it, Headstart provides comprehensive early childhood services for low-income children and families. According to the Senate Appropriations Committee, “High quality early childhood education has been proven to have lasting effects for children and families and save taxpayer dollars in the long run by reducing costs for welfare, special education, and criminal justice.”

Aside from the obvious economic advantage in training early, there’s an obvious societal benefit in doing so. Who exactly benefits by cutting this program?

Unfortunately, the list of cuts doesn’t stop there. It’s like an acid addled Grover Norquist with a butcher cleaver was set loose on the state. In the health and human services area, the toll is going to be horrific:
Child Care and Development Block Grant, $3,388,746 cut: 1,090 fewer children receive child care subsidies

Maternal and Child Health Block Grant, $948,491 cut: 32, 273 fewer women, children, and families served

AIDS Drug Assistance Program, $1,753,360 cut: 293 fewer patients receive life saving drugs

HIV Prevention and Testing, $525,132 cut: 13, 128 fewer people tested for HIV

Breast and Cervical Cancer Screening, $77,821 cut: 309 fewer women screened for cancer

Childhood Immunization Grants, $375,882 cut: 5,502 fewer children receive MMR, Tdap, flu and Hepatitis B vaccinations

People, lots of people will suffer and die because of these cuts. Inevitably they will be our elderly, our poor and our least powerful citizens.

An energy assistance program is sliced by over 5 millions dollars, because, God knows, we can’t raise taxes on millionaires just to make sure someone doesn’t freeze to death this winter now, can we?

Oh, yes, we’ll cut food programs for old people as well. Up to $1,171,915 is to be cut from a program that delivers meals to needy seniors. Thousands no longer served.

Over 20 million is cut from our educational block grant funds, effectively gutting the program. But after all, this makes sense, because if you are going to impoverish an entire nation for the benefit of a handful of wealthy plutocrats and preening mouthpieces that purport to represent the people, you want to make sure those same people aren’t able to read or communicate this effectively. In the same way you would make sure to reduce any funds that would be provided for work-study or learning centers, etc… All of which this sequester effectively accomplishes.

The numbers are astounding and once you see them you realize how badly this little self-inflicted political kabuki is going to play out. Many people will be hurt in Virginia and all across the nation. But keep in mind, the purported rationale for this is so we can balance the budget without having to raise taxes on millionaires. This is all so we can continue to maintain subsidies for corporations (8 billion and counting for the fossil fuel industries, alone) and, for the insane purists like Grover Norquist and the libertarians and their tea party acolytes, so that we can drown ‘big government’ in a bathtub. Here’s the thing, you don’t drown ‘big government’: that’s an infantile abstraction.

You drown people.

Rather than disturb the rich enclaves of the new plutocracy, we’ll cut grants for workers who have lost jobs to the tune of $1,281,545. We’ll cut veterans retraining benefits by over $300,000. Why? To ensure that folks who fought and died to preserve our ostensible freedoms will not unduly burden our wealthier citizens with their own petty struggles to survive. Welcome to Dickens’ London. With our apparent nativist distaste for immigrants, we won’t have to greet the tired, the poor, the huddled masses on their way to Ellis Island, anymore. We’ll just grow them here, on our own.

Below is the Senate Appropriations Committee study:

http://www.harkin.senate.gov/documents/pdf/500ff3554f9ba.pdf#page=172&zoom=100,69,720

“The World is coming.”

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If you follow local news, you know that Richmond was chosen last fall to host the 2015 UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale, or International Cycling Union) World Road Cycling Championship. Perhaps you’ve also heard that this is going to be a big event, with 1,000 world-class athletes participating, approximately 450,000 spectators expected to descend on Richmond, and 300 million people tuning in to broadcasts of the nine days of racing.

Think of it: for more than one week in September 2015, the Richmond region’s population is expected to swell by almost half a million enthusiastic cycling fans who will be here to share their love of bicycle racing with us, the Richmond region. An additional 300 million bicycle racing fans will be tuning in via television or Internet, and almost all of them will be making their first acquaintance with Richmond via this event. The 2015 UCI Worlds, as the race is known, is going to give us an incredible opportunity to introduce the world to our city and region, and to capitalize on future bicycle tourism. All we, as individuals and a region, have to do is be prepared.

2007 U.S Open of CyclingInformation on how the City and surrounding counties are preparing is thin on the Internet, but you and I already know what our local governments and Richmond 2015, the group that mounted the campaign to bring the UCI Worlds to Richmond, need to do to make sure our region is ready: improve our roads, ensure we have ways to house and move our visitors around efficiently, make sure we can feed all our guests, and communicate early and often with local residents whose day-to-day lives will be affected by the races. But what can you do to prepare yourself?

My best piece of advice to you is to go ride a bike. What better way to connect with out-of-town visitors than to share a pastime or a passion? Richmond and the surrounding counties are home to miles of bike trails, rural roads, busy streets, any kind of biking environment you might want to experience. If you’re not already familiar with a favorite route or two, now is the time to start. Hop on a bike now, and your role as bicycling ambassador will feel like second nature when your new best friend from Belgium asks you to recommend a nice ride she can get in before the next race.

Whatever your confidence and desire level, there is a place for you, on a bike, in our region. If you’re new to bicycling, go visit a local bike shop and ask its knowledgeable staff to help you pick a dependable bike you’ll enjoy riding. They will also be able to give you the names of local biking organizations that sponsor group rides and skills clinics to help you build confidence riding in any conditions. Finally, be sure to familiarize yourself with the rules of the road. The Virginia Department of Transportation page “Bicycling and Walking in Virginia” covers the laws governing biking in the Commonwealth, and is a good place to start.

Above all, have fun. We’re going to have front-row seats to an exciting international sporting championship. Our streets are going to be full of people on bikes and hundreds of thousands of others cheering them on. Let’s join them in the joy of the moment.

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Lora ToothmanLora Toothman is APV’s Deputy Director for Richmond, Virginia’s Local Government Task Force.