Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Occupy sustainability: the 1% is blocking the transition to a renewable energy economy

Occupy sustainability: The 1% is blocking the transition to a renewable energy economy

Dan Miner, Beyond Oil NYC

In order to make our society sustainable, we have to deal not just with environmental issues and climate change, but with the economic crisis and the depletion of natural resources. The most effective responses will deal with all four at once. While climate change response has mostly been blocked, the Occupy movement is rapidly emerging as a major political force.

Occupiers are planning next steps for 2012, looking at new ways to get the public involved, and refining their visions for a more just society.  We need to protest and withdraw from corrupt, unsustainable systems and simultaneously create new systems that are both equitable and sustainable.  The transition to a sustainable, renewable energy economy can be a valuable addition to this discussion, since it addresses environmental issues and climate change, slows depletion of natural resources, and builds an economic infrastructure not controlled by the financial elites. 

The 1% absolutely does not want us to realize how urgently this transition to a renewable energy economy is needed. Their power and profits depend on keeping the unsustainable fossil fuel economy running as long as possible.

They’re heavily invested in it.
Of the 10 largest global corporations, 6 are oil companies. The International Forum on Globalization has identified the world’s top 50 individuals whose investments benefit from climate change and whose influence networks block efforts to phase out pollution from fossil fuels.  To continue making as much money as they can, they would have us wait until it’s too late to make a successful transition.

The consequences of our addiction to fossil fuels include the terrible pollution associated with fracking, tar sands development, offshore drilling spills, and coal-fired power plants, and vulnerability to volatile fuel prices and unstable foreign energy supplies.  Perhaps we could tolerate those costs of the energy status quo, but we can’t live with the catastrophic climate change it will surely trigger. The pushers of fossil fuels, the world’s largest corporations and their allies, don’t want us to know another world is possible. 

Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine, says that climate change response requires immediate adoption of policies hated by the free market right: reversing privatization; relocalizing much of the economy; scaling back overconsumption; bringing back long-term planning; heavily regulating, taxing and even nationalizing corporations; and cutting military spending. As she says, “Climate change supercharges the pre-existing case for virtually every progressive demand on the books, binding them into a coherent agenda based on a clear scientific imperative.” Right wing activists understand that climate change response and the abuses of unchecked free market capitalism are just not compatible. 

But climate change response of the scale needed to work will only take place if there is a massive, popular effort to get corporations out of politics.   The 1% is opposing this.  It is lobbying to reduce regulation and oversight on fossil fuels, which will make these pollution problems and climate change worse.

The 1% also doesn’t want us to know that getting off fossil fuels is inevitable, and that a successful transition to a renewable energy economy is not guaranteed.  It’s only possible if we stop the 1% from blocking the transition, and start building it now, while we still can. 
World crude oil production has been on a plateau since 2006, despite efforts to find more. Discovery of new oil fields peaked in the 1960s. Many analysts – including the US military – predict that in the next few years oil supply will fall short of demand and go into permanent decline. This will lead to shortages and high prices, which will continue the economic slowdown, and high unemployment. Of course, this is on top of whatever financial crises are already waiting in the wings. The longer we wait to get the transition started, the more difficult and costly it will be. 

Climate change and the limits to fuel supplies and natural resources may be abstract, but lead to very material consequences including food shortages, natural disasters and wars.   The world’s largest corporations have calculated that they profit more from maintaining their monopolies on the world’s food, commerce and transportation systems than from preventing human suffering and death.  Blowing the whistle on the financial elites blocking the renewable energy transition is one place to start. Another is by organizing to create the renewable energy economy at the local level.  

Further collaboration between the Occupy and sustainability movements

To respond to climate change, resource depletion and economic injustice our society has to be transformed from top to bottom: from energy, housing, food and agriculture, transportation, urban planning, and local economic development, to industry and manufacturing.

Although transformative federal action in these areas may be blocked, organizers may find opportunities to address these matters locally with little resistance. Projects can benefit the 99% by offering relief from continuing economic turmoil, encouraging production of local goods and services, lowering bills, redirecting the flow of money from large corporations to small businesses, and laying the groundwork for more democratic and just communities. Such projects would be natural ways to extend the values central to the Occupy movement, get more citizens involved, and pressure elected officials to do their parts. They might look less like protests, and more like other parts of the alternative economy now getting underway - consumer and worker cooperatives, barter networks and credit unions.

Two areas to explore for potential projects are energy use and the food system. Residential energy conservation retrofits still offer low hanging fruit. They reduce energy bills, reduce fuel use, reduce pollution and carbon emissions, improve health and can create vast numbers of weatherization jobs.   Unlike the rest of the NYC manufacturing sector, food production is steadily growing. The thriving local food movement and city officials are working together to create a regional food system, which can employ many more area residents in all phases of agriculture and food production.  

Projects that enable people to benefit from accelerating the renewable energy transition locally could appeal to broader audiences than the sustainability and social justice movements have activated so far.  We need to connect the dots between the many such projects already out there and the broader context of why they’re needed.  Sharing the stories of these projects widely will help them get replicated, and catalyze the creation of new projects.  With a world to be transformed, we’ve got all the motivation we need.

Read the full version of this article.

Please post your suggestions and comments below, or contact beyondoilnyc@yahoo.com.  


Full spectrum sustainability: bringing together the climate change and economic justice movements
Dan Miner, Beyond Oil NYC

A sustainable world that works for the 99% is possible, if we can respond to climate change, economic injustice and resource depletion at the same time. The transition to a renewable energy economy can be a valuable frame for that discussion.  Just as the financial elites brought about the economic crisis, they are blocking the renewable energy transition to reap more profit from their fossil fuel investments. Because of fuel depletion as well as climate change, further delay may prevent a successful transition. Social justice and sustainability advocates can blow the whistle on the 1% for this issue too, and collaborate to speed up the transition locally.   Read full article

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Fossil Fuels vs. Renewables - Kurt Cobb

Fossil Fuels vs. Renewables: The Key Argument that Environmentalists are Missing

By Kurt Cobb

Which of the following can we count on to act as a “bridge fuel” to a renewable energy economy?

A. Oil
B. Natural Gas
C. Coal
D. None of the above

The correct answer is: D. None of the above.

Mark Twain is reported to have said: "It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so." What most environmentalists think they know for sure is that oil, coal and natural gas are all abundant--so abundant, in fact, that many environmentalists believe they are forced to make a Hobson's choice of natural gas as a so-called "bridge fuel" to a renewable energy future.

Though natural gas produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions per unit of energy than coal or oil, it still contributes mightily to climate change. And, natural gas drilling in the country's vast shale formations pollutes the air and surface waters surrounding drill sites and threatens the groundwater with toxic chemicals used in fracturing operations needed to free the gas.

It turns out, however, that what most environmentalists know about the future supply of fossil fuels is based more on industry hype than on actual data. And, that means that they are missing a key argument in their discussions about renewable energy, one that could be used to persuade those less concerned about pollution and climate change and more concerned about energy security: There is increasing evidence that no fossil fuel will continue to see its rate of production climb significantly in the decades ahead and so none of them is a viable "bridge fuel," not natural gas, not oil, not coal. This means that global society must leap over fossil fuels and move directly to renewables as quickly as possible. In advanced economies this leap must be combined with a program of radical reductions in energy use, reductions which are achievable using known technologies and practices.

Okay, perhaps you are wondering about the data. Let's discuss each fossil fuel separately:


The first thing you should know about oil is that worldwide production has been on a plateau since 2005. This is despite record high prices and furious exploration and drilling efforts. There have been well-publicized finds here and there that may seem large. However, at the current worldwide rate of consumption, one billion barrels of oil lasts only 12 days. Thus, the multi-billion barrel finds announced in the last decade or so will have little impact on the longevity of world supplies.

Another key issue is one that oil companies do not want to emphasize: depletion. The worldwide average for production declines in existing oilfields has been estimated to be about 4 percent per year. That means that each year just to stay even, the industry must develop new oil production capacity equivalent to the current capacity of the North Sea, one of the world's largest fields. To grow production, it must, of course, exceed this amount, and that hasn't been happening.

When you mention these hard facts in polite company, you will undoubtedly be met with skepticism. But the data are available to the public from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) website. The agency is the statistical arm of the U.S. Department of Energy and is widely considered the gold standard of energy information in the world.

Now, don't be deceived by shifting definitions of oil. When the petroleum glut long predicted by the optimists failed to appear, they started lumping in ethanol, biodiesel and natural gas liquids with petroleum and calling them all "oil." These other products are useful, but they are not as energy-rich, versatile or easily transported as oil. Our current infrastructure is heavily dependent on oil inputs with no real substitutes available in the quantities required.

You will also likely be met with protestations that we still have lots of oil: tar sands in Canada, heavy oil in Venezuela and even oil shale in the American West, primarily Colorado. Well, this represents the difficult-to-get oil. We extracted the easy stuff in the first 150 years of the oil age. And, while it is true that these resources and others like them represent an immense store of hydrocarbons, what matters is the rate at which we can produce them.

Because of the high-cost, capital-intensive nature of such production, the rate of production will be slow to ramp up and difficult to maintain. The hydrocarbons locked in the tar sands and the Orinoco oil belt in Venezuela aren't what we call oil and must be heavily processed at high cost using enormous amounts of energy. As for the oil shale in the America West, the amount of commercially produced oil we are currently getting from that oil shale is zero. No one has figured out how to extract it profitably. Partly this is because oil shale contains no oil. Instead, it contains a hydrocarbon-rich waxy substance called kerogen which must be heavily processed to turn it into oil.

An analogy might be useful: If you inherit a million dollars with the stipulation that you can only take out $500 a month, you may be a millionaire, but you will never live like one. Increasingly, this is the situation we will find ourselves in when it comes to oil. The key issue is the rate of production, not the size of the resource. The hard-to-get oil resources are large, but they take a long time to develop and require strenuous, expensive and energy-intensive methods to extract. All this, when combined with the relentless depletion of existing fields, spells little or no growth in the worldwide rate of oil production in the coming years.

Natural Gas

By now you've been told so many times in television ads and news articles that we have a 100-year supply of natural gas in the United States, that you assume it must be true. While the claim itself is suspect, even if we accept it, there is a very serious omission. The claim in its entirety reads: a 100-year supply of natural gas at current rates of consumption. If natural gas is to be used as a so-called "bridge fuel"--a fuel that will power society with the least environmental cost while we deploy nonpolluting, renewable energy--then its rate of production will have to grow considerably if it we expect it to displace coal and oil.

Simple spreadsheet calculations will tell you what happens to such long-term supply claims under the pressure of a little exponential growth. At just 2 percent per year growth, the 100-year U.S. domestic natural gas supply is exhausted in 56 years. If we assume that production peaks when about 50 percent of the resource is exhausted, this puts the peak within 35 years. Think about it. Even if the optimists are correct, with a production growth rate of just 2 percent per year, the country reaches a peak within 35 years! What will we do after that?

The picture gets acutely worse as the rate of production growth rises. A 3 percent growth rate implies exhaustion in 47 years and peak in 31 years. A 5 percent growth rates means exhaustion in 37 years and a peak in just 26 years.

As it turns out, the EIA projects a growth rate of just 0.4 percent per year in U.S. natural gas supplies through 2035 with production jumping from about 24 trillion cubic feet (tcf) in 2010 to about 26.5 tcf in 2035, hardly a bonanza.

Beyond this consider that the vast resources of natural gas from deep shale layers, commonly called shale gas, may not be so vast. A U.S. Geological Survey assessment pared the EIA's original estimate of "technically recoverable" natural gas in the largest of the shale deposits, the Marcellus Shale, from 410 tcf to just 84 tcf, an 80 percent reduction. And, this says nothing about whether the gas will be economically recoverable.

The 100-year figure was based on inflated estimates of recoverable natural gas and on ignoring the fact that the rate of natural gas consumption would have to rise exponentially to displace other fossil fuels. These two facts suggest that natural gas will not be the bridge fuel environmentalists are looking for.


Among the environmental community, the big fear is that coal will displace clean natural gas and even become a source for liquid fuels as oil supplies wane. That fear is founded on industry claims of vast coal supplies in the United States and elsewhere. But four studies suggest that coal may not be nearly as abundant as once believed.

A 2007 National Academy of Sciences report concluded that claims of 250 years of coal reserves in the United States at current rates of consumption could not be supported. The number was more likely to be 100 years. However, it said that a comprehensive survey was necessary to determine a more accurate figure.

But if coal consumption were to grow beyond the current rate, then the 100 years of supply would quickly shrink as in the case of natural gas. And, data from EIA shows that the total heat content of coal mined in the United States has been declining since 1998 despite roughly level production. This means that coal grades are dropping and that the actual energy the United States gets from domestic coal peaked in that year.

A second study by David Rutledge at the California Institute of Technology concluded that worldwide reserves are probably half of those currently stated. Rutledge noted that unlike oil reserves, coal reserve estimates have been steadily dropping over time as unwarranted assumptions were stripped away and the focus was put on what is actually minable.

A third study in 2007 by an independent group of analysts in Germany, the Energy Watch Group, suggests a worldwide peak in the rate of coal production as early as 2025. The authors noted that poor quality data hampered their efforts. One of the troubling gaps was China, a country thought to have some of the largest coal resources in the world. Chinese coal data, however, have not been updated since 1992, and 20 percent of China's reserves have supposedly been mined since that date.

A fourth study published in the international journal Energy last year came to the shocking conclusion that the rate of worldwide coal production from existing fields would peak in 2011. The authors did acknowledge that vast coal fields in Alaska and Siberia remained to be developed, but doubted that these difficult-to-extract and therefore expensive reserves would be developed in time to forestall a decline. They also wrote that production from existing mines is expected to fall by 50 percent over the next 40 years.

The researchers explained that this has serious policy implications. One such implication was that money currently being spent on carbon capture and sequestration technology—a technology that assumes vast additional supplies of coal—would be better spent on outfitting existing coal-fired power stations with supercritical steam turbines, lifting efficiency from 35 percent to 50 percent. This would reduce the rate of greenhouse gas emissions while stretching out the available coal supplies so as to aid an energy transition.


No one knows the future. But making public policy based on industry hype could turn out to be disastrous. Keep in mind that it is the job of fossil fuel industry executives to make sure they can sell their in-ground inventories. And, of course, it's not their job to make good public policy. Our current energy policy, which I refer to as the Good-To-The-Last-Drop Policy, has already meant a huge windfall for oil producers and to a certain extent coal producers. And yet, both regale us with tales of plenty even as constrained supplies send prices skyward.

It is certainly possible that yet-to-be-invented technologies will extend the life of fossil fuel supplies. The question is whether such technologies can be deployed before overall rates of production for oil, natural gas and coal begin to decline. Modern industrial society depends for its proper functioning on the continuous input of high-grade energy resources. If those inputs start to decline or even fail to grow, the system will falter. Some believe we are already seeing the effects of constrained oil supplies on the economy as record high prices suppress economic activity and pressure an already fragile financial system.

It seems doubtful at this time that future technologies for exploiting fossil fuels will be able to do much beyond softening the inevitable declines. And, given the known trends and data, it seems foolish to wait for these yet-to-be-invented technologies to appear. That means that leapfrogging now past fossil fuels to renewable energy is not just desirable but probably inescapable. The only question is whether we as a society will do it with a focused plan for a rapid transition or whether the transition will be chaotic and marked by violent swings in the economy as the world lurches from one energy-induced crisis to another.

Kurt Cobb is a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen and author of the peak-oil-themed thriller Prelude. His work has also been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights

Monday, October 17, 2011

Occupy Wall Street: the dominant narrative unravelling

My activist project for October was promoting four events.  Earlier this month, End of Suburbia director Greg Greene did a screening of his classic peak oil documentary at the BMW Guggenheim Design Lab.  I had the pleasure of reconnecting with Greg afterward, at workshops the next day at the Lab, and with Jim Kunstler after his not-really-a-debate with the mild-mannered James Russell.  Last week was a very modestly attended screening of Chris Martenson's The Crash Course
Come by on Wednesday, October 19 at 7 PM for a larger test of my new product - a screening of Transition video shorts.  Details here.

Very few New Yorkers seem aware of the issues discussed at these events. NYC is a busy place, after all.  On the other hand, Occupy Wall Street, after weeks of being ignored, has now gone viral.  I was there on Saturday afternoon, and went up to Times Square on Saturday night.  The tourists had quite the novelty, and so did everyone else reading about it after...is it possible to mix these themes together?

Dave Cohen, who blogs at Decline of the Empire,
had this to say about OWS.   A great piece in the Onion Magazine on the One Percenters, and their domination of NYC. James Howard Kunstler came out for them. So have Al Gore, Jesse Jackson, a bunch of unions, a dozen NYC Councilmembers....  It would be pointless now, and a lot of unnecessary work, to list who's come out in support of them.  The Bloomberg Administration, inextricably tied to its kindred spirits within the One Percent, is on the defensive.  OWS is now routinely getting hammered on the front page of the NY Daily News.  They may portray OWS as frivolous scruffy anarchist hippies - but they're still on the front page. 

Corrupt corporate domination of the US government, and fuel depletion: what the two topics have in common is that they are both repressed material, censored out of officially approved conversation and media.  #OWS has forced its way into that discussion.  http://www.occupywallst.org/

Doyle Canning, director of national strategy center smartmeme, suggests in this Yes! Magazine op ed that:

"...At smartMeme, we have always been interested in “Psychic Breaks:” moments when the dominant narrative unravels and there is an opening for a new story to take hold on a massive scale. We saw this opportunity come and go in 2008 when the stock market collapsed and $700 billion was given to financial giants. Underprepared and shell-shocked progressives mostly stayed home and kept quiet while the Tea Partiers harnessed common sense opposition to bailing out the rich into a movement that was cynically designed to support the status quo.

But we believe that #OccupyWallStreet is re-opening that window and provoking another such psychic break moment, one that can amplify common sense progressive demands for structural change. At least we hope so.

We have an opportunity to offer a narrative explaining what has happened, how we got here, and how we can move forward together. We are faced with the potential of rooting this insurrectional energy into a strong social movement that can rival the Tea Party and change the story about our economic system—a movement that could unite behind real solutions to the economic and democratic crises we face. The actions by Right to the City this past weekend in Boston offer us an instructive model on the kind of analysis and organizing strategy that is necessary now.

But we must be agile and graceful and bold enough—like the ballerina on the bull of the #OccupyWallStreet poster. We must be visionary and courageous and tenacious enough—like the youth of Roxbury blessing their occupied garden. And we must be brave enough, like Presley Obasohan, to put our bodies on the line and commit civil disobedience against the banks and for the people and planet that we love...."

In the movie The Matrix, when there was a disruption to the digitally produced illusion people inhabited, continuity errors would appear - a cat walking backwards, for example.  The OWS movement is a continuity error in the mainstream discourse that has gone out of control.  

In other news...

Anne Pope from Sustainable Flatbush recommends a book that approaches the multiple crises in our society a bit differently: Eco-Mind, by Francis Moore Lappe, author of the classic Diet for a Small Planet. "She cautions the environmental movement against what she calls "scarcity mind" and always speaking in terms of diminishing resources; instead she urges us to think of the real problem as scarcity of *democracy*. This is consistent with her argument in Diet for a Small Planet (back in the 70s!) that the hunger crisis was not about a lack of food, but rather about the extreme inequity in how food and resources are distributed..."

Here's a video game about climate change and peak oil. 

Learning about peak oil from a comic book.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Come to the Transition video screening on October 19

Would you like to get your organization or neighborhood more involved in NYC sustainability? We’re setting up video screenings that will expand how New Yorkers think about sustainability, and encourage attendees to plug into existing initiatives.

Yes, New York City is making progress in lowering carbon emissions and becoming greener. But sustainability is more than just responding to climate change and preparing for extreme weather events - neither of which we’re doing as quickly as the science requires, by the way. As supplies of natural resources and fossil fuels deplete, rising costs will cause permanent economic changes. Urban planners and community activists are increasingly striving not just for sustainability, but resilience, so we can adapt as things change. Raising awareness about the interdependence of energy, environment and economy will encourage smart choices. By conserving energy, turning to mass transit and renewable power while relocalizing production of goods and services, we can assure better quality of life in NYC neighborhoods while moving toward real sustainability.

The Transition community organizing method accelerates this process. It starts by educating residents about the full scope of sustainability issues. Then participants envision their community successfully adapted by 2030, brainstorm what steps they need to take, and pick a few to start with (http://www.transitionus.org/). Hundreds of communities around the world have begun Transition initiatives. Many other communities have been influenced by the methods, such as Brooklyn’s Sustainable Flatbush (http://sustainableflatbush.org/).
Step up sustainability action in your neighborhood or organization by co-sponsoring a Transition video screening. After each short video, audience members can share their reactions, with a longer facilitated open discussion at the end of the screenings.

You’re invited to see how this works at the next screening on Wednesday, October 19, 7 – 9 PM. Join us at the Seafarer’s and International House, 123 East 15th Street in Manhattan, just east of Union Square. There is no charge to attend, but a $5 donation is requested to cover costs.

You can also watch the videos at your computer, at your convenience.

“300 Years of FOSSIL FUELS in 300 Seconds,” Richard Heinberg, Post Carbon Institute, 5 min.

ABC Catalyst Peak Oil Report 28-04-2011,12 minutes

Who killed economic growth? Animated video with Richard Heinberg, Post Carbon Institute
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EQqDS9wGsxQ, 6 minutes

TED talk with Rob Hopkins, Transition: grassroots organizing for resilience; 19 minutes

We’re also promoting screenings of related videos:

The End of Suburbia, with director Greg Greene, on October 5 at the BMW Guggenheim Lab

Chris Martenson's The Crash Course on October 13.

Download the flyer for details.

Would you like to collaborate in setting up a Transition video screening for your group or community? Please call me at 718.786.5300 x 27.


Dan Miner

Volunteer organizer, Beyond Oil NYC


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Join 350.org on September 24 for Moving Planet

If you're around this Saturday, consider joining the 15 or so walks and bike rides in NYC that will converge at a climate change rally at the UN.  It's one of thousands of climate change actions around the world, organized through 350.org. 

While the City did not agree to a permit for a single unified march to the rally site, individuals will be bicycling, rollerblading and walking to the UN from meeting sites throughout the City. Find the one you prefer at:

I will be representing Beyond Oil NYC and helping to lead the march from Merchants's Gate at Columbus Circle, 59th Street and Central Park West.  Look for me with several 350.org signs.  I'll need some help in carrying the signs, so if you get there by 11:30 you may get one.  Or make your own sign and bring it. 

Gather at noon and at 12:30, we'll set out down Broadway to 48th Street east to First Avenue, and make our way to the 
rally at 2 PM at the United Nations' Dag Hammarskjold Plaza on 47th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues in Manhattan. More from the press release below.

"The UN General Assembly will be in session at that time debating important resolutions just 2 months before the UN climate summit in Durban and in the critical run-up to Rio +20.

The NYC event has attracted a wide array of support from student groups, climate change activists, faith and environmental justice leaders, bicycling proponents, and opponents to hydrofracking of natural gas and nuclear power.

The dozens of sponsors of the NYC rally include 350.0rg, NYPIRG, Beyond Oil NYC, Carbon Tax Center, Climate Week NYC, Climate Reality Project, Conversations with the Earth, Earth Day New York, Earth Matters, Environment Action Association, Food and Water Watch, Frack Action, Green Maps System, Green Cents Solutions, Human Impacts Institute, Manhattan Greens (Manhattan Local of the Green Party, No Impact Project, NYC Friends of Clearwater, NYC Climate Coalition, NY Society for Ethical Culture, Oxfam Action Corps, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Sane Energy Project, Small Planet Institute, Slow Food NYC, Solar 1, Time's Up!, Transportation Alternatives, United for Action, Water Defense, We Act/Faith Leaders for Environmental Justice.

350.org recently helped coordinate several weeks of civil disobedience protests at the White House in opposition to the Tar Sands pipeline from Canada.

The demands of the global day of action include: relying upon science-based policies to get us back to 350 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; rapid, just transition to zero carbon emissions; ensuring adequate funding to assist third world countries with the climate change transition; and lifting the rights of people over the rights of polluters. To preserve our planet, scientists tell us we must reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere from its current level of 392 parts per million to below 350 ppm.

The local events are part of a worldwide day of action on September 24 calling for a fossil fuel-free world. Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to participate by moving their bodies towards solutions to climate change in nearly 2,000 events across the globe ranging from 5 mile hikes to 350 hour bike rides."

Monday, August 22, 2011

Turning NYC yards into food forests

For most New Yorkers, food is something grown far away and trucked to the neighborhood supermarket. Occasionally, someone has a garden in their backyard. Recently, as local produce has become popular, neighborhood green markets offer the harvest of farms within the NYC metropolitan area. With NYC food and agriculture policy rapidly changing, we’re sure to see many innovations.

Rooftop farms are newly glamorous but let’s not forget the 52,236 acres of private yards in NYC. [ “Regionalizing the Food System for Public Health and Sustainability,” Columbia U. Urban Design Lab, Nov. 2010, p. 17] Now, they’re mostly planted in lawns and ornamental species.
What if we started seeing the food-producing potential of our lawns and yards?

A growing number of landscape designers are planting food forests, which combine fruit and nut bearing trees with lower layers of bushes, vines and groundcovers – all of which have edible yields. Food forestry is a central theme within
permaculture, an ecological design movement recently featured in the New York Times.

How might we start food forests in NYC yards? Here’s a few starting points for collaboration between landscape designers, permaculturists, fans of locally grown food, and entrepreneurs.
- Inventory the fruit and nut bearing trees and understory that can make up food forests in NYC.
- Compile a wiki with best practices about their planting, care and harvest.
- Put together sets of marketing materials about food forest options for NYC backyards.
- Create options of various sizes and species customized for space, yard condition, client type, etc. - like a take-out menu.

Who makes it happen?

Anyone who has knows how to apply food forest design principles, and plant trees and shrubs – and who recognizes a new business opportunity. Who’s available to help out? The entrepreneur could put out a call for permaculture design course graduates who want to learn practical skills.

Where does it start?

Go to church groups, environmental justice communities, nonprofits in low income communities, propose a variety of options. Permaculture has a long tradition of permablitzes - volunteer efforts much like barn raisings.  Start out by offering permablitzes as long as the recipient raises funds to pay for plants and materials.

Use projects like those to train a pool of skilled participants. Entrepreneurs can take material from the wiki - or the existing books and articles that certainly already exist in the gardening literature - and turn them into open source marketing materials. That sounds idealistic, but only the most enterprising and skilled individuals will actually turn this into a business, so they can earn social capital by adding to the available forest gardening information free to the public - and promote their own services. They could start by promoting backyard food forest makeovers in their own neighborhood, starting with free gigs to raise awareness, leading hopefully to paid gigs.

Raising awareness of urban agriculture benefits

Even where there are active community gardens or community supported agriculture (CSA) group buying services, lots of New Yorkers don’t see the context that makes more urban agriculture not just desirable, but a necessary part of our future. So hosting film screenings on these topics in your neighborhood is a good way of building awareness, and finding out who has some yard they want to turn into a garden. The key is probably making personal connections with leaders of neighborhood civic groups and explaining how they could get their own backyard garden or plant the first food forest in their neighborhood.

Post your comments, suggestions, and improvements!  

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

August update: Will Allen, September film screening, a proposal, 350 on 9/24

Beyond Oil NYC Update - August 2011

In this issue:

- Screening of Transition video shorts, 9/14
- Report and photos from Growing Power workshop on greenhouse building in Brooklyn
- A proposal on how neighborhood groups can make money from promoting sustainability
Join 350.org on 9/24 with Moving Planet


Here's a monthly update from our exploration into making NYC more sustainable.
In July, Will Allen, the founder of Growing Power, led a workshop on urban agriculture in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn. We have great photos from Murray Cox. We also organized a well-attended screening of End of Suburbia at Orchard House Cafe, and helped promote a screening of Urban Roots at the Horticultural Society. We're going back to Orchard House in September with a new approach: a series of short videos rather than a single documentary.

My talk at a June conference on African children in conflict zones led to an invitation to co-host an online radio show about African environmental issues. So far that's going well. At the NYC Solar Summit that month I got some ideas on promoting solar PV installations, now in process. Look for details in the fall.

What started as an article on applying Transition organizing methods turned into a proposal for brainstorming events that would bring together entrepreneurs and sustainable business sectors. The goal would be to identify new business models that would allow neighborhood and civic groups to earn revenue from sustainability projects. And incidentally, build public support for PlaNYC. Since the next Mayor may be less green than Bloomberg, or face more economic constraints, PlaNYC is less sustainable than you might think...



Transition Video Shorts and Networking, Wed., Sept. 14, 7-9:30 PM
Orchard House Cafe, 1064 First Avenue (at 58th Street), NY, NY 10022
www.orchardhousecafe.com No charge.

Transition organizing starts with raising awareness about concepts that are very basic, but not widely discussed: to be sustainable communities must address not just climate change, but resource depletion and the economic changes now underway. Following some shorts like "The End of Growth;" "300 Years of Fossil Fuels in 300 Seconds;" and ABC's April report on world oil production, we'll screen a great presentation by Richard Heinberg on his new book, followed by networking and discussion. Here's the trailer.

Urban agriculture in Brooklyn

On July 19 and 20 - the hottest days of the year - Will Allen and his team from Growing Power came to the Brooklyn Rescue Mission in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, to build their signature urban agriculture system: a greenhouse with a fish tank, and industrial size worm bins. Photos by Murray Cox. Read the report.

A modest proposal about how neighborhood groups could make money by promoting sustainability - and help maintain future PlaNYC efforts.

It explains how representatives of entrepreneurial groups and sustainable business sectors could come together, to find ways for neighborhood civic groups to earn revenue through sustainability projects. Just one good idea could provide funds for struggling nonprofits, while also building public support for PlaNYC.

Maybe the City's official program to build public support - the Change By Us social media website - will make a real difference in the number of New Yorkers getting involved with green programs. Please look at it and let us know what you think.

Maybe City leaders can be convinced to support social movements that catalyze neighborhood level sustainability organizing, like Transition or Bright Neighbor, a great online platform that's being used throughout Portland, OR. That's probably not likely - but isn't it worth raising the suggestion?

Review the proposal here. With just a few co-sponsors among business schools, green business groups, or civic groups, the process could take off. Add your response to the comment section.  If you don't like it, please say so - and please suggest what you think are better ideas.

Join 350.org on Sept. 24 with Moving Planet

Join a bike/march and rally in NYC in support of moving away from fossil fuels and toward a clean energy future. It's part of an international day of action called Moving Planet, aimed at demonstrating the strength of the climate movement and showing decision makers that the climate crisis must not be ignored. Share the new video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ztEgLXSiek.

Contact 350.orgNYC@gmail.com. 350's NYC volunteers are partnering with with Al Gore's Climate Reality Project "24 Hours of Reality" on Sept 14th, and with Climate Week NYC Sept 19th - 26th, http://www.climateweeknyc.org/.

If you've made it this far, thanks for reading.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Growing Power Workshop in Bed Stuy, part two

This is the second part of a report on a urban agriculture workshop using Growing Power's integrated system of greenhouses, fish tanks, worm bins and composting.  Thanks again to photojournalist Murray Cox for use of his photos. 

Growing Power uses worms to create fertilizer used in their hoop house garden beds, and to make worm compost for sale.  Read about it here. During the workshop, some worms from one of the Mission's existing bins were transferred into a new bin. 

The bins need to have lots of holes in the bottom. 
Really lots and lots of holes. 

This is not your home-scale worm bin in a plastic tub. (This past year I've been using such a bin, with much frustration. I'm now planning to return to taking compostables to a drop-off site. Sigh.)  Next step is adding layers of compost, and layers of brown - dried plant matter - as well as worms. 

It was an honor to hear directly from Will Allen about how urban communities are using these techniques to raise food locally and be more self-sufficient.

There were lots of interesting conversations with other attendees at the workshop about how to promote urban agriculture in NYC. 

In a previous post, I set out a proposal for increasing public participation in sustainability initiatives and PlaNYC.   What if we could set up a series of brainstorming meetings in which subject matter experts in sustainability intiatives get together with MBA types and those skilled in developing business models?

Might they be able to figure out ways for neighborhood groups, civic associations, and faith groups to make money for themselves while implementing sustainability initiatives?   One way of structuring those meetings would be the World Cafe method, but as part of the approach, I'm inviting people who see some possibility here to suggest better ways to organize it.  It's open source, so please look at the post and add your comments - or suggestions on how to improve it - below.  Thanks! 

Growing Power Workshop in Bed Stuy, part one

On July 19 and 20, Will Allen and his team from Growing Power came to the Brooklyn Rescue Mission in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, to build their signature urban agriculture system: a greenhouse with a fish tank.  About 30 people came for the workshop.  

Brooklyn Rescue Mission is led by the Reverends DeVanie Jackson and Robert Jackson. "BRM envisions urban farming as the starting point for a self-reliance movement, empowering neighborhood residents to take ownership of their own food supply, nutrition and neighborhood revitalization. BRM endeavors to build community pride, provide healthy provisions to its neediest residents, encourage youth entrepreneurship and develop a communal culture towards land use and community health through an innovative sustainable food system."

This post showcases the work of photojournalist Murray Cox.  Murray is currently living in central Brooklyn and seeking sustainability projects to document.   See his work at
www.vistadelmundo.com, and let him know about potential projects. We appreciate Murray's permission to share his images.

Two carpenters who have been working with Growing Power for years directed attendees through the process.  July 19 was the hottest day of the year, with temperature over 100 F.  It was a little cooler the next day.

Hoop houses start with foundation pipes, hammered several feet deep into the ground at precisely measured intervals.  The frame of the hoop house is made from steel pipe that is light enough to be bent on a carefully designed wooden form called a jig.  Two lengths are bolted together and bent into a hoop.  The hoops are set down on the foundation pipes.

Sturdy wood boards are secured at the ground level, and horizontal pipes and boards connect the hoops.

Next is the construction of a frame for a fish tank and a shallower tank to be mounted above it. 

We shared battery powered drills to create holes for large bolts.

A large piece of thick rubber liner will turn the lower part of the frame into a watertight container suitable for fish. 

The upper tank with a similar liner will contain a layer of gravel and water plants. Water from the fish tank will be pumped up into that tank, where the plants and the bacteria living in the gravel purify the water for return circulation to the fish tank.

You can try this at home - with the guidance of skilled carpenters! The Growing Power method is not very high tech, but still requires serious skills.  Fortunately there are plent of very handy people who can assemble hoop houses and aquaponics tanks.

Next steps for the house would be the addition of plastic roll-down liners that can keep the house warm enough to raise vegetables through the winter, as well as keep the worms and fish comfortable.

The Growing Power method composts food scrap and vegetable waste, then feeds the compost to worms in large industrial size bins.  Worm emulsion, liquid drained from the worm bins, nourishes plants in the hoop house.  See
http://www.growingpower.org/ for details.

Click here for the second part of this post, more of Murray's photos of other parts of the process: compost and worm bins.  And some thoughts about how NYC civic groups can learn how to produce real goods and services through sustainability initiatives like this.