Blog: Jacob Corvidae

Jacob Corvidae is our guest blogger this week. He is the Green Programs Manager for WARM Training Center and co-founder of Sustainable Detroit.

Check back here every weekday for Jacob's thoughts.

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Blog No. 5

The Lighthouse of Sustainability

I love Detroit and the Metro Detroit area with that crazy kind of heels-dug-in pride that’s a little peculiar. Many of you will know instantly what I’m talking about. Yet most of us who love this region so dearly also have certain misgivings about it. We know it’s not all working right. Sometimes that’s why we love it. Other times we love it despite all that.

Reading my blogs over the past few days it's obvious I’m pretty critical of several aspects of our region. Still, I tell you this:

I believe we have the potential to lead the rest of the nation, and even the world as an urban model, one the rest of the world will want to emulate. We can make "Detroit" synonymous with "an inspired future."

Recently, Chicago declared it’s intention to become the greenest city in the nation. Portland, Seattle and others are trying to get there too. They’re doing some incredible work in those cities to define the future. 

It’s also true that when these cities look to that future, they see that they don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the 20th century. They look to the best thinking in urban planning and see that they want to: decrease sprawl, increase investment in the urban core, and combine with that core tremendous access to green space, sustainable building and local foods.

Our 'next door neighbor,' Chicago often dwarfs Detroit with it’s prosperity and momentum. But they don’t have a lot of room to maneuver. The city is already very developed. There isn’t much more green space to work with. And so they’re building it on their roofs (which is pretty incredible). Yet, in a way, they are constrained by 50 years of success.

Detroit? Well, Detroit hasn’t had those same successes but it’s learning other important lessons –some which have been learned the hard way (as most important lessons are). 

Many people look at Detroit and see all the problems and waste: human, material and otherwise. But Nature knows that there is no such thing as waste. This concept can be put to use on any scale, large or small. 

For example: Avalon International Breads, one of Detroit’s shining gems of a local business, recently hired Bob Tinker of Archiopolis in Ann Arbor to research a way to make better use of the bakery's "waste heat." You see, Avalon produces a tremendous amount of heat from it’s ovens, but most of that heat is lost or becomes something their building has to fight to stay cool in the summer.

With Tinker’s research, Avalon hopes to use that "wasted heat" to warm the building, heat their water, and even possibly run an absorption machine that will turn around and cool the building. As a result “waste” actually becomes a resource.

In the natural world, "waste" is just potential for something else. The problems that plague SE Michigan are much the same.

Our unemployment rate is high, which means we have a lot of people willing and ready to try something new.

Remember what I said about monocultures in yesterday’s blog? The auto industry is one big monoculture. It’s a tremendously important "crop" for us, but we were hit too hard when it suffered a downturn. As a result, Michigan is starting to build a new economy.

Our racial, income and class diversity is tremendous. Right now, it leads to a lot of conflict and strife. But as we continue to embrace our diversity and commit ourselves to healing its rifts, we can become an important learning ground for other such conflicts around the world.

In Detroit proper, we have a tremendous amount of open green space. Chicago would love to have that kind of green space to work with. But they don’t. Very few cities do. Especially those cities surrounded by the wealth and diversity we still have in SE Michigan.

Planners in Chicago, Seattle, Portland and other similar-thinking cities are looking for ways to intersperse extensive green space between dense mixed-use urban developments in order to create the perfect balance of urban and natural living.

Our region is undergoing a tremendous redevelopment effort right now. If we rebuild Detroit like a city of the 20th century, we’ll have lost the game. We’ll be left in the dust while we’re still waiting for the concrete to cure.

We have the ability to shape that development so that it becomes the kind of city everyone else is striving for. We used to be the "Arsenal of Democracy." Maybe our next mission should be this:

Detroit will become the "Lighthouse of Sustainability;" shining a light into the darkness of the future, and showing us the way to the home we always dreamed of.

Post No. 4

No Foe of Info

Many of us are asking this crucial question for the 21st century: Where’s my jet pack?
When I was a kid, we were promised THE FUTURE, whatever that was. It had many fine features, such as free-floating motorized walkways, glass domed homes, and jet packs. Better yet, it also implied plentiful jobs, food, water, etc. Will any of these come to pass?!?  It seems that the only real feature of the future that’s making good on the promise is the Internet. It’s indicative of one of our greatest gateways to the future: the free flow of information.
Information flow is an essential ingredient for the new (and current) economy. A good information infrastructure is one of the foundations upon which economic transactions rely. But the Internet is not the only information structure around. Information channels exist throughout the world, and they depend on social channels.

Unfortunately, Michigan’s social channels are fragmented, and if we are not careful, they may break down further.

In ecology, biodiversity is an indicator of system health. That diversity is a strength because it means the overall system is more flexible. The system is able to adapt to changes without throwing the entire systems into disarray. Greater diversity allows for more channels of interaction that create a stronger web of health for the system. This is true in ecology and it’s true in cultural information systems.

The corresponding danger can be seen when farmers grow a monoculture (and despite the word “culture” being in there, I’m back to talking about plants and animals). If a disease comes along that the monoculture is susceptible too, then the entire system is wiped out. A monoculture has less flexibility to adapt to a changing environment.

Also diverse settings create greater opportunities for learning. Again, if we look at ecology, we see that the zones where two ecosystems meet is an area rich with new development. It can seem a bit more chaotic, with overlapping and intermingling systems, and it is a rich breeding ground of new developments. That’s exactly the sort of environment we need for new entrepreneurial development.

The information age is all about a changing environment and a robust web of information channels. So to have a healthy culture in Michigan, we need to build healthy, diverse systems. This is not merely an analogy.

We have a wealth of diversity here in the state, and that’s a great potential asset. Yet while we have a wealth of diversity, we do not necessarily have healthy diversity. Our region is very racially segregated. It is separated by class and income.  And with gay rights under attack, we are breaking down the web of health further.

This past fall Michigan outlawed affirmative action, despite never rallying against the forms of preferential treatment that many wealthy (and mostly white) people enjoy during university selections. Michigan also outlawed gay marriage, but along with a promise that it was just about preserving marriage and not about threatening domestic partnerships. Yet now, the courts have ruled that domestic partnerships are also out the door. Thousands of kids in Michigan just lost their healthy insurance because state universities have been forced to drop domestic partner benefits. This is not the way to build a healthy, robust future for our state. It is regressive, near-sighted and foolhardy.

My point is simple: we must learn to nurture and build upon our diversity if we want to engage in the economic prosperity of the next century. It is a key basis for the information age, and it is part of creating a vibrant society where we can continue to learn. The alternative is a weakened monoculture.

Now, I don’t want to make it all sound bad. SE Michigan has some cool things happening on the information front, from successful online magazines (where have I seen those…?) to the Google book-digitizing program at UofM. Or the great work on creating forums for bridging the racial divide, like the “Discussing Differences” dialogues.

I don’t think the link is often made between the necessity to have a rich cultural diversity to further our economic and entrepreneurial future. So here’s to building the bridges, and getting rich in diversity so that we can stay healthy for the future.

That’s all for today…. I appreciate having had the chance to blog here. I hope you’ll return for my final installment tomorrow where I’ll take a gander at why I think we could lead the nation into the 21st century.

Post No. 3

Sitting on Top of the World

Some knowledge runs much deeper than any one person. It’s knowledge that runs so deep it is visceral – a foundation for our understanding of the world. We know that when you throw something in the air it comes back down. We know that you can’t take a breath while underwater. We know that it’s pointless to try splitting a large rock with a dead chicken. Ludicrous? Yes, but it’s based on a lot of fundamental pieces of knowledge about the world.

Now imagine a culture that’s been around for a long time and explored a lot of land. One of the visceral pieces of knowledge acquired is that the really big bodies of water are not for drinking. They’re salt water. Now imagine that culture encountering the Great Lakes for the first time. It defies belief. Freshwater – but at this scale! It’s almost unfathomable. In both senses of the word.         

The only place you can find a larger reserve of freshwater is in the polar glaciers. And that’s frozen. And it’s beginning to drop into the salty oceans faster than a useless captive on a pirate ship. At which point it is freshwater no more.

Over 40% of the world’s population does not currently have sufficient access to safe drinking water. 80 countries now have water shortages that threaten health and their economies. According to the Financial Times of London, “Water … will probably become the most critical natural resource issue facing most parts of the world [in the 21st century].” It has been predicted that water will replace oil as the primary resource behind most geopolitical conflicts in this century.

And here in the Great Lakes State what do we do with potable water? Well, whe it comes to water in our homes, we mostly defecate into it. We also mix it with a lot of biotoxins in the form of pesticides, carcinogenic cleansers, automotive run-off, etc. We only drink or bathe in a small proportion of it. Then our communities spend lots of money and energy to clean that water as best we can and send it back through the loop again.

Who’s idea was this?

Well, it wasn’t so much a plan as it was a response to increasing patterns of use.

The good news is that many of us in SE Michigan get our water through the Detroit water system which is one of the least expensive and cleanest (and best tasting I might add) municipal water systems in the country. And we’re surrounded by these amazing bodies of freshwater that I was raving about earlier.

As a result water is not on the radar for most of us in Michigan. But may I suggest that we’d do well to give it a lot more consideration. Though, the Great Lakes states and Canadian provinces are starting to pay attention, we citizens need to as well. I’d like to think that being surrounded by the Great Lakes would not lead us to take them for granted. Rather, I’d like to see us step up to our rightful place as the world’s best steward of its water supply.

If we don’t earn that title, then I don’t think we’ll have much claim to determining how the rest of the world makes use of this precious resource.

Post No. 2

Putting the Pow! back in Power…

I think the push for more science in our schools is great. Especially if it involves radioactive spiders.

Or maybe we just need a few more playboy billionaires with engineering genius. Then again some uncanny artifact from outer-space might suffice.

In any case, I think we should fill U of M’s labs with freaky experiments and accidents so that we can get on with the process of getting some local superheroes. If we can just hit the right combo of weird experiments with tortured social histories and some extraterrestrial influence, then I’m sure we’ll churn up someone who can step up to the plate, jam their glowing hands into the generators and satisfy Michigan’s annual energy needs.

What? You don’t think that’ll work? Oh. Well, tell me a better plan, because the status quo sure ain’t it.

Actually, the Michigan Public Service Commission just released its 21st Century Energy Plan for Michigan. The plot stinks and don’t even ask me about the character development. But many of the ideas in it are pretty good.

Come to think of it, this makes it frighteningly similar to a lot of science fiction. How the Michigan public and legislature deal with it now will determine whether it gets shelved under sci-fi or history. Even if it makes it into our history (which we should all push legislature to do), it must stand as our first step, not our last. Otherwise, it’ll be our final resting ground.

Last year I conducted a small study on energy efficient housing in Michigan. It found that standard new construction in Michigan produces homes that use twice as much energy as they would if built to the Energy Star standard (which isn’t that hard or expensive to achieve). This represents about $1,500 in wasted money a year per house spent on energy that, if built right, the house wouldn’t need.  Yet builders know that granite countertops win out again and again, despite the fact that energy efficiency improvements would actually pay for the granite countertops over time.

And that’s just the low-hanging fruit for energy and housing. Why think small? Last year in Texas a home-construction company built what newspapers hailed as the first affordable zero-energy home. This 3-bedroom, 2 bath home with attached garage used the company’s standard housing plans and sold for $185,000. But its net energy demand is zero. It’s not rocket science. It’s using best practices known around the country.

Back to the superheroes. Remember the 6-million Dollar Man? --"We have the technology. We can rebuild him."-- What if this was the approach we took to housing development? Imagine a zero energy community. What people and businesses would that attract? What sort of community stability would that create? What sort of attention and inspiration would that gather? And how would all that saved money be spent?

Of course, it’s not really zero-energy if living in these houses requires the residents to drive 20 miles to get to a grocery store and 40 miles to get to work. Others have been talking about transit and other transportation issues here. I saw Erik Tungate talking about it just last week. I won’t duplicate it here. But I will point out that it’s a tried and true improvement. Most urban regions know the value of their transit systems and many have even added brand new transit systems in the past few decades with good success.

Not convinced that energy is one of the most important issues facing our region? How long can you go without energy? A person can survive for approximately 30 days without food. The typical car gets about 420 miles without fueling up. After that, it's little more than a really expensive, funny looking little greenhouse. An SUV might get only 300 miles, but would have a bit more room for a tomato crop. A typical house without a heat source still beats a cardboard box, but it’s not exactly the future I was hoping for.

Maybe I could just sit in that SUV’s greenhousey interior, growing food and telecommuting. Hurray for computers! Except that most of our electricity in the region comes from coal-burning power plants. Never mind the grandfathered old technology that’s allowing pollutants to fly through our skies, contributing to asthma and mercury levels that perevent your kids from eating the fish in our lakes. (Why that simple reality alone hasn’t put the populace in a rage is beyond me.)

Oh right – nevermind all that! Let’s just look at the fact that most of our electricity fuel is imported to the state. Which means those dollars are exported.

Improved energy policy is not just some naive political agenda. It’s good economic sense. Keep those dollars in the state and they’ll recirculate and contribute to the local economy instead of draining it.

In the not-so-distant future the world will require us to pay for carbon usage, in order to mitigate climate change (global warming). Better energy use now means greater returns later. Think of it as an investment in our future economic health.

Personally, I’d rather my kids inherit a clean, abundant energy supply than asthma and poisoned fish. I think their odds at becoming superheroes are much better that way. But if that fails, maybe my son can get struck by lightening while eating a mercury-laden fish and I can be the proud father of Slippery Fish Boy.

Monday: Sitting on Top Of The World

Post No. 1

Kill ourselves now or later?

Put a bullet in the chamber, grab the handle, hold your hand out as far from yourself as possible (best to pretend it’s not even there) and point the gun toward yourself. Now pull the trigger. Still here? Lucky you. 

If asked, "Would you like to kill yourself now?” Most of us will say “no.” How about later, then? No? I’m with you there.

How about we adopt a policy of let’s-not-kill-ourselves-at-all? It seems that with a bit of ingenuity we should be able to make that work, right? Yet it’s not the current plan (Plan? Is there a plan? Where is it?)and so the default design is the kill-ourselves-later option. That means that we ignore the long-term issues, undermining the health of our region and our families in the future in the hopes of making good today.

I think we need a new plan.

My daughter got lead poisoning when she was one. I’m the sort of person who knows about these dangers. This couldn’t happen to my family, could it? It did.

We had moved into a big old house and the rent was good. The landlord hadn’t done the promised maintenance before we moved in and the neglect continued over the next 6 months. I had thought of the lead test just as one of those things you should do but didn’t expect it to discover anything.

When I got the results, my heart started beating too fast and too hard. I knew and understood what lead poisoning could do to small children. It causes brain damage and learning disabilities. It’s connected to increased aggression in teens.

Nothing is scarier to me than brain damage. What had I just done to my daughter’s life?

I’m happy to report that she’s totally fine. She’s in a great elementary school and at the top of her class. She’s very bright, articulate, thoughtful, caring and ethical (in other words beautiful, a genius like every other parent’s child).

The key is that we caught the lead poisoning early on. We responded to it quickly and thoroughly, drawing on the best information available to address the issue. Her lead levels dropped and she never exhibited any outward symptoms. She is now a picture of health and vitality.

In our circumstances lead poisoning probably wouldn’t have killed her as a child if it had gone unchecked. But it could easily have ruined her life and, in essence, killed her later.

Our region has many wonderful features. It is also showing signs of economic, social and environmental poisoning. We have a choice as to how we respond to these challenges, but if we choose to ignore long-term indicators then we are simply choosing to kill-ourselves-later.

Oil’s reign is fading, but that only places the wider issue of energy as a huge question mark for this era.

Analysts have been predicting for some time that the most important geopolitical resource of this century will be water. Meanwhile, Michigan sits in the middle of the largest freshwater reserve in the world, paying it little attention.

It’s often discussed that we are in the midst of shifting from an economy based on objects to one based more and more on information. Yet, the cultural divides wracking our state (urban/rural, white/black, queer-supportive/religious right) also hinder our ability to foster the information flows needed in the new economy.

In no particular order energy, water and information are fundamental issues for our region. And those ride on other crucial challenges such as housing, transportation and even cultural diversity.

Personally, I’m a big fan of the let’s-not-kill-ourselves-at-all option and so I thank you for joining me as metromode’s guest blogger for this week. I hope to provide some of the useful pointers I’ve found for moving toward improved designs in our lives. I’d like to share some stories from the trenches and I’d to take a peak at some hope for our region.

But first, can we put that gun down?

Photograph © Dave Krieger

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