Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Diversity in urban agriculture training: a dialogue with Farm School NYC

Back in April I posted an article on this blog about an urban agriculture conference I attended.  The email newsletter I sent out a week ago included a link to it, which brought it to the attention of one of the presenters at the conference, who requested for a correction.  The following email correspondence will include that correction, which I hope will create and inspire an ongoing conversation.  So read along and feel free to add your comment. I'm in the process of learning more about localizing agriculture, and will be writing more about it in future posts.

So following is
my response, and the original email I received from Jane Hodge, director of Farm School NYC.  I have invited Farm School NYC and Just Foods to reply in as much detail as they wish.  I will update this post with their reply, when it arrives. 


May 31, 2011


Thanks for getting back to me about my article. As you recall, I sent it to you for comment on April 5, just after I posted it, and did not hear from you until my email newsletter went out on May 24, which included a link to it, and again brought the article to your attention. I am glad that you were finally able to review it.  Since I'm clearly a supporter of the mission of Farm School NYC, I was surprised to hear that you were disappointed in the article. Here’s what I wrote about Farm School:

Jane Hodge of Just Food described Farm School NYC, the new school of urban agriculture. Just Food, if you don’t know, has helped start 80 community supported agriculture programs around the City, and a project linking locally grown food to 44 City food pantries and soup kitchens. Its City Farm program trains community gardeners to teach workshops and get out of the garden to interact with the surrounding neighborhood.

In the first year of the Farm School program, students take 15 core courses. In the second year, students will focus on either teaching, advocacy, urban agriculture, or enterprise development, through classes and a lengthy apprenticeship. Demand for training is high. For its 2011 pilot year, there were over 200 applicants for the 20 official spaces in the part time certificate program. Over half of the applicants have been women, a large number in their 20s and 30s, over half from Brooklyn, over half white. The School hopes to put course content online – a very prudent move, considering that the courses are already taking place, and can easily be made available online for what seems to be a large number of eager students with a modest investment in video editor staff time. USDA gave them funding for three years of operations.

It seems that the main reason for your disappointment is one line: “Over half of the applicants have been women, a large number in their 20s and 30s, over half from Brooklyn, over half white.” As you point out now, “less than half of the applicants were white, less than half were from Brooklyn.”

I want to acknowledge this correction. I hope that you will understand that I was taking notes by hand in the back of the room, and didn’t have access to your presentation notes, let alone detailed recall of them. 

However, in your email which I copy below, you seem to be a little defensive about your efforts to ensure a diverse applicant pool and student body.  I don’t see why you should be defensive, if as you say, less than half of the applicants are white, and less than half are from Brooklyn. Sounds like you've been doing a good job, and that you learned from your outreach efforts.

I agree with you that it is important that urban agriculture training be made available to NYC’s diverse communities, and I salute the Farm School’s commitment to this principle. So I invite you to share what you’ve learned.

As soon as you reply in writing, I'll add your answers to this blog post.  I also hope to get lots of comments from readers.  Invite your students and partners to comment too!

- What has been the nature of Farm School NYC’s outreach to diverse communities?

- What have your students, partners and contacts in those communities told you are their motivations for getting involved with urban agriculture, and pursuing study at Farm School NYC?

- Have those contacts told you about obstacles or concerns preventing them from studying at Farm School, or pursuing urban agriculture?

- If so, what are they? How can you and other urban agriculture advocates lessen those barriers?

The article also reviewed what I could recall of the presentations of various other speakers: Karen Washington, president of the NYC Community Garden Coalition; green market farmer Keith Stewart; Severine von Tscharner Fleming of the Greenhorns; Jeremy Smith, author of Growing a Garden City; and Christina Grace of NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets.  I included quite a lot of links to various websites.   

Then, I asked a number of questions about where urban agriculture is headed in NYC.

Because I think Farm School NYC is such an important initiative, and few such trainings exist in NYC, some of the questions specifically mention Farm School. They're rhetorical questions and are not intended to be viewed as criticisms, but as opportunities for thought and discussion, and to advance the goals that Farm School NYC advocates.

The following questions go beyond the diversity issue to the larger context of scaling up urban agriculture in NYC.  We will all benefit from Farm School NYC’s experience. I look forward to your responses to these questions, which I will add to the new blog post as soon as you provide them. Here follow the questions from the original April 4 article:

The presenters covered a lot of ground, so to speak. How do we connect the dots, and identify possibilities, obstacles and fixes? Here's a number of questions to fill the next steps in our inquiry. Please add your answers, responses, and more questions in the comments section.

- The Farm School is certainly an attractive training program with strong demand. Where do the students trained in the Farm School go after graduation?

- With only twenty in the program now, what is the expected maximum number of students the program can sustainably train each year? Are there other training programs that are comparable?

- How many agriculture related job openings are there now in NYC? What are agricultural business opportunities not yet widespread in NYC which could reasonably be encouraged?

- Given that limited number of actual openings, is this program overly idealistic, with limited options for its graduates? If more options need to be developed for Farm School graduates, what might they be?

- Are there existing proposals to incentivize and encourage growth of NYC agriculture related jobs?

Thanks in advance for your response, which I will add below your letter. 



From: Jane Hodge [mailto:jane@justfood.org]

Sent: Tuesday, May 24, 2011 12:44 PM

To: Dan Miner

Cc: jacquie@justfood.org'; Amy Blankstein

Subject: Re: Jacquie & Jane - BeyondOilNYC report from an NYC urban agriculture conference - your comments please?

Hi Dan,

Thanks for forwarding on your article, and I apologize for not getting back to you right away. I appreciate you writing about Farm School NYC, but I feel disappointed about some of what you said.

The information that you gave about the demographics of Farm School NYC's applicants is incorrect and misrepresents what I actually said at the conference. Here is all of what you wrote about our demographics: "For its 2011 pilot year, there were over 200 applicants for the 20 official spaces in the part time certificate program. Over half of the applicants have been women, a large number in their 20s and 30s, over half from Brooklyn, over half white." For a start, your information is incorrect. According to what we presented that day, less than half of the applicants were white, less than half were from Brooklyn. We had applicants from all 5 boroughs and outside of NYC, representing a wide range of ethnic and racial backgrounds, and our students so far have ranged in age from 22 to 87. But what is almost more significant is that you didn't mention anything about our commitment to ensuring a diverse applicant pool and student body, and not only was that my point that day at the conference, but that is one of the strongest foundations of Farm School NYC.

If you remember, I discussed the demographics of our applicants in the first application process after we had done quite a bit of outreach. Then I described the demographics of the applicants in the second round of applications, when we had done no outreach. What we found was that our outreach significantly impacted the diversity of the applicants, and that we are now committed to continuing to do that outreach. That was my message that day, and unfortunately that message is completely missing from your report back.

If you continue to distribute this article, I’d appreciate it if you could make changes to accurately represent what I said and what Farm School NYC stands for.

Thank you



Jane Hodge

Farm School NYC Director

Just Food

(212)645-9880 x228


On Tue, Apr 5, 2011 at 6:16 PM, Dan Miner wrote:

Hi – I’m looking to identify promising new projects in urban agriculture / neighborhood food security, write about them, and find collaborators. Can you review this article, and suggest what future articles in the series should cover? Forward as you see fit. Please post your comments directly in the comments section of the blog. Thanks! - Dan


A report from an NYC urban agriculture conference

Dan Miner, BeyondOilNYC


At a recent urban agriculture conference in NYC, panelists discussed: the community garden movement; farming in the metro region for NYC greenmarkets; the transformative potential of community agriculture projects; the NYC Farm School; the growing community of young farmers; and today’s leading urban agriculture projects in NYC. To explore likely next steps in NYC food policy, and promising new projects, Beyond Oil NYC summarizes conference proceedings and poses twenty questions.

Answer a question, share your opinion, post your own question, and pitch your project in the comments section – or contact Dan Miner at 718.786.5300 x 27 or danminer@licbdc.org. Thanks!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Richard Heinberg of Post Carbon Institute and Exxon CEO speak at college graduation

"Where Elites Fail," Craig Comstock
Huffington Post, May 20, 2011


"Elites in both corporations and government are often quite good at running systems they create, and bad at looking beyond these systems at larger social effects. This doubleness was on display at the Worcester Polytechnic commencement. For its main speaker, the college invited Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon. A group of students and faculty, disturbed that fossil fuel purveyors are causing great harm, exercised the right of protest. One student said "we will not give the Exxon CEO the honor of imparting his well-wishes for our futures when he is largely responsible for undermining [our futures]."  This group invited their own speaker, Richard Heinberg of the Post-Carbon Institute and author of Powerdown, The End of Growth, and eight other books. Tillerson gave an unexceptional address (Worcester "embraces the cutting edge of technology," let colleges train more scientist and engineers, let graduates have personal integrity, take time off from your Blackberry every day). While he did allude to "creative financial schemes" that "destroy billions of value in pensions and other investments," he had nothing to say about the peak of oil production or the environmental costs of burning fossil fuel. Those who ducked out to hear Heinberg got an earful. In less than 3,000 words, Heinberg told about challenges that will require much more than personal integrity. He began by reminding his audience that U.S. oil production has been declining since 1970 (nearly a couple of generations ago) and according to the International Energy Agency in Paris, global crude oil production peaked in 2006, leaving oil, as Heinberg explained, that is lower in quality or located in places harder to access..."


Peak Oil: A Chance to Change the World
Yes Magazine, May 14, 2011

Oil protest, photo by schoCreative
Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, MA invited Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, to give the commencement speech at its 2011 graduation ceremonies on May 14. When students heard this, many were surprised and upset. As Linnea Palmer Paton of Students for a Just and Stable Future put it in a letter to the college president, “[W]e, as conscientious members of the WPI community and proud members of the Class of 2011, will not give [the Exxon CEO] the honor of imparting ... his well-wishes ... for our futures ... when he is largely responsible for undermining them.” 

The students then invited Richard Heinberg, Senior Fellow of Post Carbon Institute, to give an alternative commencement speech. After a few days of negotiations, the college administration agreed to give Heinberg the podium immediately after the main ceremony. Many students chose to walk out during Tillerson’s address. This is what Richard Heinberg had to say.

ExxonMobil is inviting you to take your place in a fossil-fueled twenty-first century. But I would argue that Exxon’s vision of the future is actually just a forward projection from our collective rear-view mirror. Despite its high-tech gadgetry, the oil industry is a relic of the days of the Beverly Hillbillies. The fossil-fueled sitcom of a world that we all find ourselves still trapped within may, on the surface, appear to be characterized by smiley-faced happy motoring, but at its core it is monstrous and grotesque. It is a zombie energy economy.
Of course, we all use petroleum and natural gas in countless ways and on a daily basis. These are amazing substances—they are energy-dense and chemically useful, and they yield enormous economic benefit. America started out with vast reserves of oil and gas, and these fuels helped make our nation the richest and most powerful in the world.

The End of the Cheap Oil Economy

But oil and gas are finite resources, so it was clear from the start that, as we extracted and burned them, we were in effect stealing from the future. In the early days, the quantities of fuel available seemed so enormous that depletion posed only a theoretical limit to consumption. We knew we would eventually empty the tanks of Earth’s hydrocarbon reserves, but that was a problem for our great-great-grandkids to worry about.

Yet U.S. oil production has been declining since 1970, even with huge discoveries in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico. Other countries are also seeing falling rates of discovery and extraction, and world crude oil production has been flat-lined for the past six years, even as oil prices have soared. According to the International Energy Agency, world crude oil production peaked in 2006 and will taper off from now on.

Exxon Mobil says this is nothing we should worry about, as there are still vast untapped hydrocarbon reserves all over the world. That’s true. But we have already harvested the low-hanging fruit of our oil and gas endowment. The resources that remain are of lower quality and are located in places that are harder to access than was the case for oil and gas in decades past. Oil and gas companies are increasingly operating in ultra-deep water, or in arctic regions, and need to use sophisticated technologies like hydrofracturing, horizontal drilling, and water or nitrogen injection. We have entered the era of extreme hydrocarbons.

This means that production costs will continue to escalate year after year. Even if we get rid of oil market speculators, the price of oil will keep ratcheting up anyway. And we know from recent economic history that soaring energy prices cause the economy to wither: when consumers have to spend much more on gasoline, they have less to spend on everything else.

But if investment costs for oil and gas exploration and extraction are increasing rapidly, the environmental costs of these fuels are ballooning just as quickly. With the industry operating at the limits of its technical know-how, mistakes can and will happen. As we saw in the Gulf of Mexico in the summer of 2010, mistakes that occur under a mile or two of ocean water can have devastating consequences for an entire ecosystem, and for people who depend on ecosystem services. The citizens of the Gulf coast are showing a brave face to the world and understandably want to believe their seafood industry is safe and recovering, but biologists who work there tell us that oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster is still working its way up the food chain.

Of course the biggest environmental cost from burning fossil fuels comes from our chemical alteration of the planetary atmosphere. Carbon dioxide from oil, gas, and coal combustion is changing Earth’s climate and causing our oceans to acidify. The likely consequences are truly horrifying: rising seas, extreme weather, falling agricultural output, and collapsing oceanic food chains. Never mind starving polar bears—we’re facing the prospect of starving people.

The Misinformation Machine

But wait: Is this even happening? A total of nearly half of all Americans tell pollsters they think either the planet isn’t warming at all, or, if it is, it’s not because of fossil fuels. After all, how can the world really be getting hotter when we’re seeing record snowfalls in many places? And even if it is warming, how do we know that’s not because of volcanoes, or natural climate variation, or cow farts, or because the Sun is getting hotter? Americans are understandably confused by questions like these, which they hear repeated again and again on radio and television.
Now of course, if you apply the critical thinking skills that you’ve learned here at WPI to an examination of the relevant data, you’ll probably come to the same conclusion as has been reached by the overwhelming majority of scientists who have studied all of these questions in great depth. Indeed, the scientific community is nearly unanimous in assessing that the Earth is warming, and that the only credible explanation for this is rising levels of CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels. That kind of consensus is hard to achieve among scientists except in situations where a conclusion is overwhelmingly supported by evidence.

I’m not out to demonize ExxonMobil, but some things have to be said. That company plays a pivotal role in shaping our national conversation about climate change. A 2007 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists described how ExxonMobil adopted the tobacco industry’s disinformation tactics, and funded some of the same organizations that led campaigns against tobacco regulation in the 1980s—but this time to cloud public understanding of climate change science and delay action on the issue. According to the report, between 1998 and 2005 ExxonMobil funneled almost $16 million to a network of 43 advocacy organizations that misrepresented peer-reviewed scientific findings about global warming science. Exxon raised doubts about even the most indisputable scientific evidence, attempted to portray its opposition to action as a positive quest for “sound science” rather than business self-interest, and used its access to the Bush administration to block federal policies and shape government communications on global warming. All of this is well-documented.

This is a big victory for ExxonMobil, but it is a disaster for democracy, for the Earth, and for your generation. And it worked. Over the course of the past few years one of our nation’s two main political parties has made climate change denial a litmus test for its candidates, which means that climate legislation is effectively unachievable in this country for the foreseeable future. This is a big victory for ExxonMobil. Its paltry $16 million investment will likely translate to many times that amount in unregulated profits. But it is a disaster for democracy, for the Earth, and for your generation.

But here’s the thing. Everyone knows that America and the world will have to transition off of fossil fuels during this century anyway. Mr. Tillerson knows it as well as anyone. Some people evidently want to delay that transition as long as possible, but it cannot be put off indefinitely. My colleagues at Post Carbon Institute and I believe that delaying this transition is extremely dangerous for a number of reasons. Obviously, it prolongs the environmental impacts from fossil fuel production and combustion. But also, the process of building a renewable energy economy will take decades and require a tremendous amount of investment. If we don’t start soon enough, society will get caught in a trap of skyrocketing fuel prices and a collapsing economy, and won’t be in a position to fund needed work on alternative energy development.

In my darker moments I fear that we have already waited too long and that it is already too late. I hope I’m not right about that, and when I talk to young people like you I tend to feel that we can make this great transition, and that actions that have seemed politically impossible for the past forty years will become inevitable as circumstances change, and as a new hearts and minds comes to the table.

Even in the best case, though, the fact that we have waited so long to address our addiction to oil will still present us with tremendous challenges. But this is not a problem for ExxonMobil, at least not anytime soon. When the price of oil goes up, we feel the pain while Exxon reaps the profits. Even though Exxon’s actual oil production is falling due to the depletion of its oilfields, corporate revenues are flush: Exxon made almost $11 billion in profits in just the past three months. This translates to jobs in the oil industry. But how about the renewable energy industry, which everyone agrees is the key to our future?

For the past forty years, every U.S. president, without exception, has said we must reduce our country’s dependence on imported petroleum. Addiction to oil has become our nation’s single greatest point of geopolitical, economic, and environmental vulnerability. Yet here we are in 2011, still driving a fleet of 200 million gasoline-guzzling cars, trucks, and SUVs. The inability of our elected officials to tackle such an obvious problem is not simply the result of ineptitude. In addition to funding climate denial, fossil fuel companies like Exxon have contributed to politicians’ election campaigns in order to gain perks for their industry and to put off higher efficiency standards and environmental protections. Denying looming fuel supply problems, discouraging a transition to renewable energy, distorting climate science—these are all understandable tactics from the standpoint of corporate self-interest. Exxon is just doing what corporations do. But once again, it is society as a whole that suffers, and the consequences will fall especially on your generation.

Mr. Tillerson may have informed you about his company’s Global Climate and Energy Project at Stanford University. Exxon is now funding research into lowering the cost and increasing the efficiency of solar photovoltaic devices, increasing the efficiency of fuel cells, increasing the energy capacity of lithium-ion batteries for electric cars, designing higher-efficiency engines that produce lower emissions, making biodiesel fuel from bacteria, and improving carbon capture and storage. This is all admirable, if it is genuine and not just window-dressing.

Here’s a reality check in that regard: Exxon is investing about $10 million a year in the Global Climate and Energy Project—an amount that almost exactly equals Mr. Tillerson’s personal compensation in 2010. Ten million dollars also equals about three hours’ worth of Exxon profits from last year. You tell me if you think that is a sensibly proportionate response to the problems of climate change and oil depletion from the world’s largest energy company.

Even if Exxon’s investments in a sustainable energy future were of an appropriate scale, they come late in the game. We are still in a bind. That’s because there is no magic-bullet energy source out there that will enable world energy supplies to continue to grow as fossil fuels dwindle.

Renewable energy is viable and necessary, and we should be doing far more to develop it. But solar, wind, geothermal, tidal, and wave power each have limits and drawbacks that will keep them from supplying energy as cheaply and as abundantly as we would like. Our bind is that we have built our existing transport infrastructure and food systems around energy sources that are becoming more problematic with every passing year, and we have no Plan B in place. This means we will probably have less energy in the future, rather than more.

A Chance to Change the World

Again, I am addressing my words especially to you students. This will be the defining reality of your lives. Whatever field you go into—business, finance, engineering, transportation, agriculture, education, or entertainment—your experience will be shaped by the energy transition that is now under way. The better you understand this, the more effectively you will be able to contribute to society and make your way in the world. You will have the opportunity to participate in the redesign of the basic systems that support our society—our energy system, food system, transport system, and financial system.

We are at one of history’s great turning points. During your lifetime you will see world changes more significant in scope than human beings have ever witnessed before. You will have the opportunity to participate in the redesign of the basic systems that support our society—our energy system, food system, transport system, and financial system.

I say this with some confidence, because our existing energy, food, transport, and financial systems can’t be maintained under the circumstances that are developing—circumstances of fossil fuel depletion and an unstable climate. As a result, what you choose to do in life could have far greater implications than you may currently realize.

Over the course of your lifetime society will need to solve some basic problems:
  • How to grow food sustainably without fossil fuel inputs and without eroding topsoil or drawing down increasingly scarce supplies of fresh water;
  • How to support 7 billion people without depleting natural resources—including forests and fish, as well as finite stocks of minerals and metals; and
  • How to reorganize our financial system so that it can continue to perform its essential functions—reinvesting savings into socially beneficial projects—in the context of an economy that is stable or maybe even shrinking due to declining energy supplies, rather than continually growing.
Each of these core problems will take time, intelligence, and courage to solve. This is a challenge suitable for heroes and heroines, one that’s big enough to keep even the greatest generation in history fully occupied. If every crisis is an opportunity, then this is the biggest opportunity humanity has ever seen.

Making the best of the circumstances that life sends our way is perhaps the most important attitude and skill that we can hope to develop. The circumstance that life is currently serving up is one of fundamentally changed economic conditions. As this decade and this century wear on, we Americans will have fewer material goods and we will be less mobile. In a few years we will look back on late 20th century America as time and place of advertising-stoked consumption that was completely out of proportion to what Nature can sustainably provide. I suspect we will think of those times—with a combination of longing and regret—as a lost golden age of abundance, but also a time of foolishness and greed that put the entire world at risk.
It’s a time when it will be possible to truly change the world, because the world has to change anyway.
Making the best of our new circumstances will mean finding happiness in designing higher-quality products that can be re-used, repaired, and recycled almost endlessly; and finding fulfillment in human relationships and cultural activities rather than mindless shopping. Fortunately, we know from recent cross-cultural psychological studies that there is little correlation between levels of consumption and happiness. That tells us that life can in fact be better without fossil fuels.

In the Face of this Truth

It’s time to talk honestly about collapse–no matter how others may respond. So whether we view these as hard times or as times of great possibility is really a matter of perspective. I would emphasize the latter. This is a time of unprecedented opportunity for service to one’s community. It’s a time when it will be possible to truly change the world, because the world has to change anyway. It is a time when you can make a difference by helping to shape this needed and inevitable change.

As I travel, I meet young people in every part of this country who are taking up the challenge of building a post-petroleum future: a 25-year-old farmer in New Jersey who plows with horses and uses no chemicals; the operator of a biodiesel co-op in Northampton; a solar installer in Oakland, California. The energy transition will require new thinking in every field you can imagine, from fine arts to banking. Companies everywhere are hiring sustainability officers to help guide them through the challenges and opportunities. At the same time, many young people are joining energy and climate activist organizations like 350.org and Transition Initiatives.

So here is my message to you in a nutshell: Fossil fuels made it possible to build the world you have inhabited during your childhood and throughout your years in the education system. Now it’s up to you to imagine and build the world after fossil fuels. This is the challenge and opportunity of your lifetimes. I wish you good cheer and good luck as you make the most of it.

Richard Heinberg
Richard Heinberg is a senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute and the author of The Party’s Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies, Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines, and The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The White Roof Campaign: declaring victory and moving on

I am officially declaring victory in the White Roof Campaign and moving on to new projects.  Here's the season wrap-up.  If you've followed the White Roof Campaign, some of this will be repetitive, but I'll be quick about it. 

The City launched NYC CoolRoofs, its program to paint the roofs of NYC buildings with highly reflective white coating, in the summer of 2009.  It's one of many initiatives within PlaNYC, the City's long-term sustainability plan.  Mayor Bloomberg and Al Gore painted the first building in the program, the roof of the Long Island City YMCA.  I and other sustainability activists saw its potential as an organizing tool, and a way of getting volunteers involved.  Tip of the hat to John Kolp, who convinced me of its merits, and has been one of the program's biggest advocates. 

Since then I have been involved in various efforts to recruit volunteers to paint roofs, and to recruit building owners and tenants to get their roofs painted...oh, excuse me...the correct term in the program is "coated."  I was told confidentially this has something to do with requirements that painting jobs go to union workers who get high hourly wages, rather than to volunteers or individuals receiving very modest stipends.   So that's coating roofs, y'all.  They are highly reflective special coatings - not paint.

In fall 2010, I and Anne Craig of Stop Oil NYC helped organize the coating of four roofs, along with a number of volunteers, around the time of 350.org's 10/10/10 international day of climate action.  The photo at BeyondOilNYC.org was taken on the roof of the Democracy Prep Charter School in Harlem. 

In late 2010 and early 2011, I focused on recruiting buildings for the program.  Since my day job at a local economic development nonprofit involves promoting City programs, it was possible for me to do this as an official LICBDC initiative. I sent out letters of introduction to elected officials and civic leaders, aimed at getting nonprofits to coat their roofs.

Commercial building owners are motivated by costs and benefits rather than the urban heat island effect.  I researched the exact circumstances when putting a white roof coating on a commercial building would yield its owners a profitable return on investment: when it's an owner occupied building, built around 1980 or before, only one or two stories, with a standard black tar roof. 

If the owner of such a building uses the CoolRoofs program's offer of free labor, their cost of white coating will be paid back in three years or less through lower air conditioning bills.  Outside of those conditions, the coating project is no longer a slam-dunk good investment, and is simply a good public spirited thing to do.   It is a waste of time to ask commercial building owners to coat their roofs when their buildings fall outside that category.  Civic leaders and nonprofits are more interested in promoting their participation in City sustainability efforts, so analyzing their return on investment in coating costs is less central to discussions with them.

I also put together: a detailed guide to using the program, reviewed by the program's director; outreach flyers for civic leaders and commercial building owners; and a news release about the program. 
All of these documents are available online for the use of would-be supporters and participants.   Go for it. 

The Bloomberg Administration's Office of Long-Term Sustainability Office wants cool roofs, green roofs, and water retaining roofs to become standard building features. They have their own internal goals and budgets of which I am unaware.

NYC climate change and sustainability activists must evaluate this test campaign to promote the CoolRoofs program and ask whether it is a good way to create grassroots change, raise local participation in climate change response practices, and recruit volunteers and collaborators.  And how many roofs got painted, and how many neighborhood residents and leaders knew about it.  Is it really a good place in which to invest volunteer efforts - or a waste of time better spent on other actions?

I especially invite activists to comment on whether painting the roofs of buildings white is a good focus, or whether they would suggest better ones. 
See the YouTube clip here


Show me the money

In Jerry McGuire, Cuba Gooding plays a sports star who demands that his agent, played by Tom Cruise, show him the money 

I am indebted to Dave Cohen, former Oil Drum editor and ASPO writer, for the technique of illustrating points with movie references and YouTube clips.  Dave blogs at http://www.declineoftheempire.com/

We don't know the final 2011 results from my western Queens outreach campaign, but here's what we have so far, from the buildings I referred to the program.  In April, NYC CoolRoofs volunteers coated the the 14,000 square foot roof of Sunnyside Community Center, in Sunnyside, Queens, and the 8,000 s.f. roof of Variety Boys and Girls Club in Astoria.

The program is in touch with buildings owned by several Long Island City businesses: Petrocelli Electric Co. (with a roof of perhaps 20,000 s.f.); Mayer Malbin Co., which owns three buildings; Conserve Electric; and Pumpernickel Bagel and Deli. Goodwill Industries has two Astoria warehouses in line for coating – with an unknown number of other Goodwill Industries stores and warehouses around the City potentially to follow.

Other Queens businesses include the Corona clothing retail store All Dressed Up; and Coppola’s Pizza in College Point. There are a few residential buildings.  Three buildings of the Linden Towers Co-Op in Flushing are cleared for coating, and co-op board leaders are part of a much larger group of residential buildings.

It’s unclear how many of these buildings will actually be coated this summer, whether there are others that have heard about the program and will seek to get coated eventually and whether media and community outreach connected with any of these projects will have ripple effects, getting yet other roofs coated.

Some really good news is that NYC CoolRoofs just hired two full-time staff to focus on outreach and building recruitment.  This seems to be the bottleneck for expanding the number of square feet coated through the program. I encouraged the new staff to contact elected officials, focus on getting their offices to refer well known nonprofits in their districts, and aim for a few highly visible projects that can be leveraged and promoted to recruit similar projects.  The same advice  goes for any any other activists who want to use CoolRoofs as an organizing tool in their neighborhoods. 

I think that CoolRoof boosters should not seek to raise funds to buy coating for a nonprofit. IMHO, activists are better off encouraging nonprofits to be self-reliant and raise the coating funds themselves.  If nonprofits want to do this, they can make the modest effort to fundraise among their own members and neighbors, increasing neighborhood support for the project.  Then, as long as the discussion is already under way, they can set up next steps: bringing other good sustainability initiatives to their neighborhood, like GrowNYC, and the Con Ed energy upgrade program.

But as far as my involvement with Cool Roofs, I hereby declare victory, and I'm done.  Time to move onto other projects.

One is the question of how the Transition Movement model of community organizing and communicating about sustainability challenges can be applied to NYC.  Look for future posts around this theme.  The other is looking for a full time green job.  So far, I've sent out some applications but nothing has materialized.  A friend suggested that I research entrepreneurial opportunities in regional food production and go into business for myself.  Bright ideas - and comments - are welcome.   

Friday, May 13, 2011

Promoting the Global Village Construction Set - and decentralized manufacturing

Here's an email I wrote to the mechanical engineering faculty members at Columbia University, NYU Polytechnic, and Cooper Union, encouraging them to host a presentation by Marcin Jacubowski, director of Open Source Ecology, an amazing project in decentralized, do it yourself, manufacturing.  Much of the text is selected from OSE's website.  

I’m writing to introduce you to Open Source Ecology (OSE), an exciting technology and economic development project. Open Source Ecology is a network of farmers, engineers, and supporters creating the Global Village Construction Set (GVCS). The GVCS is a low-cost, high performance technological platform that allows for the easy, do-it-yourself fabrication of 50 different industrial machines needed to build a sustainable civilization, with modern comforts, from scratch. The GVCS lowers the barriers to entry into farming, building, and manufacturing, and can be seen as a life-size Lego-like set of modular tools that can create entire economies, whether in rural Missouri, where the project was founded, in urban redevelopment, or in the developing world.

We would like to arrange a September presentation in NYC from OSE Director Marcin Jakubowski. After earning a Ph.D. in fusion physics from the University of Wisconsin, Marcin founded OSE in 2003. As OSE’s lead fabricator, designer, blogger, and technical curator, he lives and works at OSE’s land-based facility, Factor e Farm in rural Missouri. Marcin has been selected as a TED 2011 Fellow. See his TED Talk on the Global Village Construction Set.

“Your project is amazing. Thrilling, actually...It's people like you who really give me hope for the future.” – Chris Anderson, TED Curator

OSE is looking for co-developers: engineers, designers, CAD, prototyping support for the 50 GVCS machines. See the Crash Course on OSE and get involved. You can join us on site for Dedicated Project Visits or for remote work.

The GVCS aims to be a complete appropriate technology platform for the 21st century. It will use local resources as raw materials, drastically reducing transportation costs. GVCS components can run on a variety of power sources: conventional gasoline, steam from locally produced biofuels, or solar power. Respecting real limits on natural resources, and minimizing carbon emissions, the GVCS will allow communities to maintain the basic amenities of industrial society in a modest, sustainable way that improves the environment with time.

America’s declining industrial capacity, financial stability, and employment rates are partly due to our dependence on the global production and financial system. Reducing this dependence will decentralize production and stimulate prosperity. As open source designs, GVCS blueprints will not be patented, but will be widely distributed to entrepreneurs to boost local economies. By catalyzing community-based, small scale industrial production, the GVCS will create new investment opportunities and blue collar jobs.

A presentation by Marcin this fall will be of interest not only to engineering and business students, the clean tech and sustainability communities, and many New Yorkers interested in innovation. Please let me know if you would like to arrange such an event. He will require a $1,000 honorarium. Contact me at 718.786.5300 x 27 or beyondoilnyc@yahoo.com.


Dan Miner
Volunteer, BeyondOilNYC


More about Open Source Ecology and the Global Village Construction Set

OSE Crash Course: http://openfarmtech.org/wiki/Crash_Course

OSE Website: http://opensourceecology.org/

OSE Wiki: http://openfarmtech.org/wiki/Main_Page

Blog: http://openfarmtech.org/weblog/

Media / Interviews: http://openfarmtech.org/wiki/Media_Background_Reading

Two minute GVCS video overview: http://openfarmtech.org/wiki/GVCS_in_2_Minutes

Tri-fold brochure: http://openfarmtech.org/weblog/2011/04/ose-trifold-brochure/

The GVCS is an open source construction set for creating civilization with modern day comforts: food, fuel, energy, building materials, transportation, materials, and fabrication. In the technologies of the set, OSE aims to simplify, modularize, and make transparent the critical technologies used by humans, so they are extremely user-friendly; and allow people to substitute common resources for scarce ones; and substitute benign, closed-loop, small-scale, open source, industrial processes for toxic, centralized ones. OSE aims to complete working prototypes of all 50 GVCS technologies by 2012.

As of mid-2011, three GVCS prototypes are ready for full production: the Compressed Earth Block Press, the Torch Table, and the LifeTrac tractor.

OSE has already received orders for equipment. OSE’s budget is $50,000 in materials and project management for each piece of equipment. Expected soon are the power module, the soil pulverizer for the CEB press, and a steam engine. OSE is seeking to raise $2.4 million to develop prototypes for the full set.

The Compressed Earth Block Press is a machine that makes compressed earth blocks (CEBs). It takes earth and squeezes it very hard to make solid blocks which can be used for building. Compressed earth blocks have many advantages as a building material: by making the building materials from the ground on the site, they eliminate the need to cart them in from elsewhere. This cuts down the costs and environmental impact of transport. Compressed earth blocks are very strong and insulate well against both heat and sound. Best of all, there is no charge for using dirt; it is literally a dirt-cheap way of building! You can now buy a CEB Press machine from OSE, or a kit, or follow OSE’s instructions to build your own.


The Torch Table is a CNC (computer numerical control) machining device that uses a plasma torch to cut metal – and automate the fabrication of other components of the GVCS. http://openfarmtech.org/wiki/Torch_Table_Build


Power Cube III is a 55 HP gasoline powered module that can be attached to other components in the Set. http://openfarmtech.org/wiki/Category:Power_Cube

The LifeTrac III combines features of agricultural and construction tractors and a skid loader. It can be equipped with a backhoe, a winch, and a well drilling tool.

RepLab is a proposed digital fabrication workshop equipped with 15 computer-controlled tools that could melt metal and plastic, pour it into molds for any shape, print circuit boards, scan 3D shapes, to make any electronic or mechanical device. In go scrap metal, plastic and silicon - out come bicycles, saucepans, tractors, medical equipment, mobile phones, laptop computers, Internet nodes, solar turbines, sculptures, robots and other RepLabs, allowing the labs to multiply like rabbits. The tools would include the 3D printer, the 3D scanner, the CNC Torch Table, http://openfarmtech.org/wiki/RepLab#Tools

RepRap is a self replicating rapid prototyper, a 3D printer capable of creating any shape you can think of in plastic. http://openfarmtech.org/wiki/Category:RepRap

The Multimachine is a multipurpose machining tool. http://openfarmtech.org/wiki/Multimachine

Other tools in the GVCS include:

MicroTrac; Bulldozer; CNC Mill, Drill, Lathe, Surface Grinder, Cold Cut Saw, Abrasive Saw, Metal Bandsaw; Ironworker Machine; RepTab (CNC Torch Table; CNC Router Table); 3D Scanner; CNC Circuit Mill; Robotic Arm; Laser Cutter; MIG Welder; Plasma Cutter; Induction Furnace; Metal Hot Rolling; Moldless Casting; Wire Extrusion; Forging; Modern Steam Engine; Gasifier Burner; Steam Generator; Solar Turbine; 50 kW Wind Turbine; Extraction of Aluminum from Clay; Pelletizer; Universal Seeder; Tiller; Spader; Microcombine; Universal Auger (String Trimmer, honey extractor, posthole digger, tree planting auger, slurry mixer, washing machine); Materials-moving Auger; Hay Cutter; Baler; Hay Rake; Loader; Backhoe; Chipper/Hammermill/Stump Grinder Trencher; Open Source Car; CEB Press; Dimensional Sawmill; Cement Mixer; Well-drilling Rig; Inverter; Electrical Motor/Generator; Hydraulic Motors and Cylinders

Key Features of GVCS components


• Open Source - we freely publish our 3D designs, schematics, instructional videos, budgets, and product manuals on our open source wiki, and we harness open collaboration with technical contributors.

• Low-Cost - The cost of making or buying our machines is on average 8 times cheaper than buying from an industrial manufacturer, including labor costs of $15/hour for a GVCS fabricator.

• Modular - Motors, parts, assemblies, and power units can interchange, where units can be grouped together to diversify the functionality that is achievable from a small set of units.

• User-Serviceable - Design-for-disassembly allows the user to take apart, maintain, and fix tools readily without the need to rely on expensive repairmen.

• DIY - The user gains control of designing, producing, and modifying the GVCS tool set.

• Closed Loop Manufacturing - Metal is an essential component of advanced civilization, and our platform allows for recycling metal into virgin feedstock for producing further GVCS technologies - thereby allowing for cradle-to-cradle manufacturing cycles.

• High Performance - Performance standards must match or exceed those of industrial counterparts for the GVCS to be viable.

• Flexible Fabrication - It has been demonstrated that the flexible use of generalized machinery in appropriate-scale production is a viable alternative to centralized production.

• Distributive Economics - We encourage the replication of enterprises that derive from the GVCS platform as a route to truly free enterprise - along the ideals of Jeffersonian democracy.

• Industrial Efficiency - In order to provide a viable choice for a resilient lifestyle, the GVCS platform matches or exceeds productivity standards of industrial counterparts.

Mechanical Infrastructure - life-size, Lego-like construction set for agricultural and utility equipment in which modularity is emphasized. The mechanical infrastructure is based on a chassis (tractor, microtractor, car, or bulldozer) with modular add-ons. Implements, motors, and power units can interchange, thereby maximizing the range of uses that can be composed from a small set of components. For example, the power unit can be interchanged readily between the tractor, bulldozer, or car.

• Agriculture - The food infrastructure for a resilient community (Open Source Agroecology) aims to demonstrate a best-practice system for feeding 100-200 people with a core team of 4 agricultural generalists, or Open Source Agroecologists.

Energy Infrastructure - includes Fuel, Motive Power, and Electricity. The energy infrastructure consists of solar turbine or by plant biomass.

Housing - The housing infrastructure consists of a number of multipurpose tools: CEB Press, Sawmill, Cement mixer, Modular Housing Units, Living Machines and others. We will produce professional architecture drawings for CEB and other natural building structures.

Transportation - includes an Open Source Microcar and utility Truck with implement attachability, all powered by Power Cubes.

Digital Fabrication - RepLab up to Hot Metal Processing and full-featured industrial robots.

Materials - Aluminum Extraction from Clay; Bioplastic Extruder including bioplastic synthesis from plants

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Starhawk's talk on bringing the spirit of wilderness to the city

Noted activist and author Starhawk spoke to a sold-out NYC room in early April, organized by Evolver.  A recurring theme was the importance of connecting to the natural world.

Starhawk's new children's book, "The Last Wild Witch," tells of a town in which everything is perfectly organized and very orderly.  Next to it is a magic forest, in which lives a friendly witch.  The town's children are excessively well-behaved but occasionally break into free-spirited behavior, which troubles the villagers, who blame the trees and try to destroy the forest.  The children connect with the friendly witch, and find joy and courage as well as wildness. 
Ultimately, they save both the witch and the magic forest. 

Occasionally, we'll encounter natural forces more powerful than ourselves which cannot be ignored, like the recent Japanese tsunami and earthquake.  As in the story, we generally plug up our ears to hearing nature's calls, most of which are subtle and easily ignored.  But the forces of nature want us to listen.  By entering into the subtle conversation, natural forces can help us cope with the mess we've created. 
Urban people can't help but be disconnected from nature.  For many, the environment isn't a real part of their daily lives, but something outside it, something experienced in a Discovery special.  Starhawk teaches gardening to young people in some of San Francisco's poorest neighborhoods.  As an extreme example of this disconnect, some of them don't know that food comes from dirt.  

How do we break the spell of this cultural separation from the natural world?  Pressing far past our edge could take us beyond safe urban locations, into the wilderness. While that's good to do now and then, we don't have to go that far to regain the connection. Letting the wildness in can start by simply getting our hands in the dirt, or by regularly making a very simple shift in awareness.

As a spiritual writer and teacher of some note, Starhawk has long had a regular meditation practice.  For about twenty years, it was internally focused: the flow of the breath, an image, a thought.   Then she was spontaneously drawn to focus externally, silently watching and listening to the natural world.  Whether in a park or a garden, or an urban street or vacant lot, we can connect to the natural world through awareness and intent. 

In addition to focusing out onto the natural world, we can evoke wilderness within us, through pursuing some form of creativity that's eccentric, silly, and not so socially acceptable. "If you lose social inhibition, you become dangerous." How often have you blocked your own impulse, instead of going into into an uncomfortable place? If you're not making mistakes you're not learning, and part of accepting the wild is acknowledging and allowing our mistakes, and that of others.

While good ways to enhance our personal growth, how do these approaches help accelerate the evolution of our larger society, whose institutions seem paralyzed in the face of multiple world crises?

Starhawk cited systems theorist Donella Meadows, lead author of the 1972 book The Limits to Growth,  one of the first efforts to predict with computer modeling what would happen when rising human population and constantly increasing rates of growth meets limits to the Earth's finite resources.

Here's some background.  The book, a major early milestone in the sustainability discussion, concluded that unlimited growth could not continue permanently and would have to be replaced by a steady-state economy.  Despite mountains of supporting evidence, The Limits To Growth has been vigorously attacked by business interests ever since its publication.

More recently, Meadows proposed 
twelve leverage points at which to intervene in systems, based on the observation that there are levers, or places within a complex system (such as a firm, a city, an economy, a living being, or an ecosystem) where a "small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything."  The most effective interventions are those that change or transcend the system's dominant paradigm.  Meadows wrote that "...Many today see Nature as a stock of resources to be converted to human purpose. Many Native Americans see Nature as a living god, to be loved, worshipped, and lived with. These views are incompatible, but perhaps another viewpoint could incorporate them both, along with others..."  Starhawk's injunction to get back in touch with nature is just such a paradigm-changing middle way.

Speaking to more mundane leverage points in the system, she noted that our government is doing the exact opposite of what should be done - laying off firemen, cops, and school teachers - so a tiny minority of the very rich can avoid paying taxes.   "You don't have to be a rocket scientist to know that the Arctic is melting.  Yet, the people who thought they could safely harness nuclear power were dumb enough to put the plant's backup generators in their basements, vulnerable to same floods that could knock out the plants."

We need to evoke the primal creativity of wilderness now in society, to alter the self-destructive systems of business as usual, and bring abundance out of scarcity. Bringing the wild into our urban lives can put us in greater harmony with the natural world, and allow us to receive help from allies within the forces of nature - such as bacteria, compost, and mushrooms.

With things falling apart, we have a time of opportunity to create new things, and we need to have a vision and the energy to make it happen. Part of the vision is a relocalized food growing systems, to create systems that are both smaller and more complex.

With constantly increasing use of resources no longer possible, a new paradigm based on maximum cycling and recycling of resources is the only sustainable course.  Not mentioned by Starhawk, but a good illustration, is Annie Leonard's online video, The Story of Stuff.  It shows how our economy is based on rapidly turning natural resources into consumer goods, many of which are not truly needed, and then quickly into trash, trucked and landfilled at great cost.  The alternative includes full product reuse and recycling, and the composting of all biodegradeable waste, returning it to the soil.

Mushrooms can play a big role. Botanist Paul Stamets explains in this TED Talk how mushrooms can clean polluted soil, produce insecticides, and break down the toxins in nerve gas.

To help manifest this broad vision, Starhawk produces permaculture trainings which aim to teach visionary and practical sustainability solutions to social change activists, and to teach practical skills, organizing and activism to visionaries. 

Starhawk encouraged listeners to take a risk and go past their edge; and to exercise the power that they already have in order to strengthen their capacity to be of service.  To those already working to improve the world but still feeling overwhelmed with all the bad news, she offered a note of comfort: remember that you're not the only person working on this.  We're all part of a team.