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December 30, 2004

2004: The Year of 1 Percent

This was the year of small but significant percentages: 1 percent or less. I’m speaking not only of Washington’s governor race, the Montana legislative elections, or the Ohio presidential vote tally.

I’m speaking of budding trends toward a durable way of life in Cascadia. The region reached the vicinity of 1 percent on a number of heartening, if incipient, measures during the past twelve months.

  • In British Columbia’s Fraser Basin—the heart of agriculture in western Canada—there are now almost 100 certified organic farms, as the Fraser Basin Council reports (pdf, page 5). That’s 1 percent of all basin farms. Organic isn’t the alpha and omega of environmental responsibility (as I’ve been saying), but it’s something.
  • The area of Cascadia’s forestland managed under the standards of the Forest Stewardship Council has risen steeply since the late 1990s. It hit 1.8 million acres in 2004 after the announcement of Potlatch’s certifying its Idaho lands. That’s roughly 1 percent of the region’s forestland.
  • The green building movement surged in 2004, drawing a lot of media attention along the way. The number of LEED-certified green buildings doubled to 30 in the region during 2004. An additional 214 buildings under construction have applied for registration with the US Green Building Council. The trend is sharply up, as the chart displays. Altogether, applicants and certified buildings come to about 20 million square feet of indoor space. Reliable figures on total buildings (thousands!) under construction are hard to come by, but my guesstimate suggests the LEED segment is at least in the ballpark of 1 percent of new construction. And LEED has yet to issue guidelines for the vast residential building market. Leed_buildings
  • Wind power now provides about 1 percent of electricity in the Northwest states. Virtually all this power has come online since 2000.
  • The region’s (mostly new) voluntary green power purchasing programs are growing nicely: they recently saturated 1 percent of the market in the central Puget Sound region, as Clark noted recently.
  • Hybrids, especially the Toyota Prius, are hot commodities, moving so fast from dealers’ lots that waiting lists run to months. They remain a tiny fraction of the region’s fleet, but I bet they’ve exceeded the 1 percent mark, as a share of new vehicles sold.

Getting to 1 percent may seem disappointingly little, but the diffusion of innovations—whether new products, business practices, or habits—typically follows a bell-shaped curve (discussed here and here).

In less arcane terms, that means the next step after 1 percent may not be 2 percent but 10 percent. So let's hope 2005 is the year of 10 percent.

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Preparing for High Water

Most of Cascadia's coast is equipped with early warning systems for tsunamis, so we're better prepared than the people of the Indian Ocean. (See, for example, this article from the Newport (Oregon) News-Times and this one from the Eureka Times-Standard.)

But that doesn't make us immune from giant earthquakes and the resulting tsunamis. The 1964 Alaska earthquake was actually bigger on the Richter scale than Sunday's Indonesian temblor, and it set off a giant wave that swept a few Oregonians and Washingtonians to their deaths. A similar-scale quake and wave with more-local origins likely occurred around 1700, according to a good article in the Coos Bay (Oregon) World.

Of course, flooding rivers pose a similar threat. They're typically not as sudden as tsunamis, but far more Cascadians are exposed to them. Cascadians are settled more on their rivers than on their outer coast. And unlike tsunamis, river flooding is an annual occurrence, with massive floods coming once or twice in a lifetime. (As climate changes, the severity of flooding may be accelerating.)

This fascinating article in the Eureka Times Standard relives the near-biblical Christmas Flood of 1964, when 27 inches of rain fell in six days and the Eel River rose an astounding 29 feet, inundating town after town in southern Cascadia. (The Coos Bay World has another good retrospective on the same flood, but further north in Oregon.)

Preparedness for tsunamis and river floods in the form of disaster kits, escape routes, and early-warning sirens is still a pale imitation of true preparedness for high waters.

True preparedness means not building in flood plains and just behind the dunes: it means not needing an evacuation plan. And one of the biggest obstacles to true preparedness, unfortunately, is part of the US federal government's approach to floods.

It's the National Flood Insurance Program, operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which provides subsidized reimbursement for property owners who build in harm's way and then suffer the predictable consequences. Property owners do pay premiums to receive the insurance, but it's run and subsidized by the government because no private insurer would underwrite the risk. Here's a case where the market definitely knows best.

As the Skagit Valley Herald points out today (as part of a series of articles on the Skagit River), the federal government paid nearly $1 million after the October 2003 floods just to the residents of one tiny Skagit River community. Without federal flood insurance, banks probably would not finance any real-estate transactions in flood plains, so very little would get built. Instead, with Uncle Sam underwriting the flood risk, homes get flooded and rebuilt repeatedly.

Some good news comes from the hamlet of Hamilton, on the Skagit River, where plans are coming together to move residents out of the path of the river. (The cloud behind this silver lining, of course, is that taxpayers, having already helped rebuild flooded homes, are now asked to help move the town for several million dollars extra.)

In British Columbia, flood-related aid from provincial and federal governments came to Can$13 million in the 1990s, according to the Fraser Basin Council (large pdf). That's a pittance compared to the US program. Yet, as the council notes, "both federal and provincial financial assistance programs for flood mitigation and prevention have 'sunsetted,' leaving local governments on their own for major capital costs such as repairs and rehabilitation of flood protection works.” That's good thinking--thinking the US government should emulate.

River flooding is a predictable hazard; those who ignore the risk should bear the cost to repair their own buildings. This point is broader than just flood insurance. It also applies to forest fires, and construction on bluffs and other steep slopes. And to tsunamis. In all these cases, development ought to pay its own way. As we argued in This Place on Earth 2001, when development has to pay its own full costs, sensitive ecosystems stay intact, lives get saved, taxpayers don't get gouged, and the economy is spared unnecessary burdens.

(A big tip of the hat to Tidepool, Cascadia's single most important news aggregator, for most of these links. We scan the region's big-city newspapers daily, but Tidepool scans a much larger set of Northwestern publications.)

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Fresher Air

There’s end-of-the-year good news for almost everyone who breathes in Cascadia: particulate pollution is mostly declining, as is ground-level ozone pollution.

EPA released its Particle Pollution Report last week, which summarizes trends in concentrations of particulates: tiny specks of airborne pollution. Don’t think of happy little flecks like in Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who. Think of nasty little killers.

Aside from cigarette smoke (a form of pollution that roughly a quarter of adults pay to breathe), these particulates are the most worrisome form of air pollution in Cascadia for human health. Particulates come from burning fossil fuels and wood. They also come from tires rubbing on roads and brakes rubbing on wheels, from forest fires, dust kicked up in construction and roadwork, and many other activities. Some studies suggest that particulates shorten more lives than do roadway crashes in North America.

Particles_epa_lg The most dangerous of particulates are the smallest ones, because they can lodge deep in our lungs and do the most mischief. Average airborne concentrations of these tiny particles, called “PM2.5” because they are “particulate matter of less than 2.5 micrometers in width,” have declined by 15 percent in the past five years in the Northwest’s major cities, as this map-chart shows. (Note that the EPA’s definition of the Northwest for this chart is larger than Cascadia. It extends further south and east.) The Northwest outdid the national rate of improvement and ended the period with the second lowest concentrations in the contiguous United States. Regional trends are here (pdf).

These declines are part and parcel of larger, longer-running decreases in particulates concentrations achieved in the region since 1988. The Northwest slashed its overall particulates concentrations by 39 percent, the largest decrease of any region, and ended 2003 with the second lowest particulate concentrations in the United States, after the Northeast. The steepest decrease came between 1988 and 1996.Bc_particles

Unfortunately, the Fraser Basin Council reports in its latest snapshot of regional trends (large pdf), (which we posted on here) that PM2.5 concentrations in the few places monitored are flat or even rising, as you can see in this chart.

Fortunately, BC’s ground-level ozone concentrations (another major air pollutant) are on a long down trend, though there was a small uptick in 2001-2002. And overall, Cascadia is a low-ozone zone, compared to many parts of the world, as you can see on this global map from an remote-sensing project from Europe. (A large, high-resolution version of the map is available from that site.) On the map, Cascadia has only slight concentrations of ground-level ozone, indicated by the pale smudges around Puget Sound, for example. Of course, this is just one snapshot from space. At certain times in the summer, ozone levels can get bad, especially downwind from major cities, as we pointed out here.


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December 29, 2004

Tsunami Response

If you’re wondering what to do about the Indian Ocean tsunami, here is some advice I trust from my friend Vicki Robin of the New Road Map Foundation and Conversation Cafe: make a donation to the Sri Lankan grassroots development movement Sarvodaya. (Back when I studied such things--a dozen or more years ago--I regarded the organization as among the best in Asia.)

Vicki passes along a note from a friend of hers named Sharif Abdulla:

Give money directly to Sarvodaya, the organization I have been working with for many years. As you may know, while the international donor organizations provide much-needed material assistance, they rely on organizations like Sarvodaya to actually distribute this aid to the people who need it. The list of organizations that rely on Sarvodaya’s thousands of volunteers reads like a who’s who of the development world. I have seen Sarvodaya workers distributing aid from UNICEF to poor villagers in a village that the Sri Lankan government didn’t even know existed.  And, most importantly, Sarvodaya delivers assistance in Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim and Christian communities.

Another reason to give directly to Sarvodaya:  of all the countries hit by the quake and tsunami, Sri Lanka is the most impacted. Countries like India and Thailand have significant internal resources to draw upon. Sri Lanka has virtually none. Giving to Sarvodaya ensures that the money will go where it is most needed.

Send a check to: Sarvodaya USA, 5716 Manchester Avenue #3, Los Angeles, CA 90045.

You also can’t go wrong with Mercy Corps, a large, Portland-based international development organization.

Update: Cascadian Alex Steffen and the other good folks at worldchanging have assembled an impressive stream of posts and resources on the disaster and on assistance options. Check it out.

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December 28, 2004

Idaho Power

Old timers jest that the state of Idaho is actually named after Idaho Power, the ultra-influential utility that furnishes most residents of the Gem State their electricity.

So it’s welcome news that Idaho Power—among the most old-guard of all Northwest utilities in what is arguably the most conservative part of Cascadia—has recognized the economic advantages of the clean-energy revolution. The company’s latest proposal to the state utility commission is packed full of plans for major investments in energy efficiency and renewable power, including both wind and geothermal. ConWEB reports here and here.

These proposals would begin to align Idaho Power with the Fifth Plan of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, which we’ve praised. The Fifth Plan is no longer a draft; it was formally adopted earlier this month.

Idaho stands to gain much from clean energy. It uses more energy per capita than any other Cascadian state, as we documented here in the Cascadia Scorecard's energy indicator.

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Guns, Germs, and Measure 37

Jared Diamond, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel -- which described how quirks of geography and environment (rather than, say, racial or cultural superiority) helped some cultures succeed -- has a new book out.  This one analyzes why some cultures fail; it's titled, appropriately enough, Collapse.  In this week's New Yorker Malcolm Gladwell's reviews the book, giving an interesting twist that's very relevant to the Northwest.

As a caveat:  I haven't read either of Diamond's books, though I have read a brief version of his "collapse" arguments here.  Essentially, Diamond argues that cultures often fail because they mismanage basic resources:  soil, trees, water, and the like.  The review highlights an interesting case:  the failure of the Norse colonies in Greenland in the 1400s.  Apparently, the Norse re-created European culture (including agriculture) in two of the more livable corners of the island; but eventually they exhausted the fragile arctic soils, which caused their cattle-based agricultural system to enter terminal decline. Ultimately the settlers were forced (gruesomeness alert!) to eat their pets before they finally starved to death.

What's curious about all this (and I will get around to the point eventually) is that, even when the going was terrible, the Norse colonists never ate fish.  Archeologists simply can't find fish bones -- or at least, hardly any -- in their settlements.  Apparently, a cultural bias against eating fish prevented them from even considering them as an option, even at the end.  Diamond's lesson: the residents of the outposts valued their culture (which, at the time, apparently looked down on fish) more than their very survival.

The Northwest connection?  In his review, Gladwell mentions the passage of Measure 37 in Oregon, which pitted a cultural preference for land-use decisions unfettered by regulatory meddling, against a far-sighted set of laws designed to protect Oregon's landscapes for the long haul.  Here's what he says...

It is hard to read “Collapse,” though, and not have an additional reaction to Measure 37. Supporters of the law spoke entirely in the language of political ideology. To them, the measure was a defense of property rights, preventing the state from unconstitutional “takings.” ...

The thing that got lost in the debate, however, was the land. In a rapidly growing state like Oregon, what, precisely, are the state’s ecological strengths and vulnerabilities? What impact will changed land-use priorities have on water and soil and cropland and forest? One can imagine Diamond writing about the Measure 37 debate, and he wouldn’t be very impressed by how seriously Oregonians wrestled with the problem of squaring their land-use rules with their values, because to him a society’s environmental birthright is not best discussed in those terms. Rivers and streams and forests and soil are a biological resource. They are a tangible, finite thing, and societies collapse when they get so consumed with addressing the fine points of their history and culture and deeply held beliefs...that they forget that the pastureland is shrinking and the forest cover is gone.

I don't know that I believe that the ultimate effects of Measure 37 will be so dire.  But it is clear that this is a case where a clearly articulated set of cultural values -- those regarding the sanctity of private property -- trumped a less-clearly articulated set -- maintaining the integrity of the landscapes that support and enrich us, and that will allow our children and grandchildren to thrive.

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Sin Tax Era

This article from Missoula, Montana's newspaper (aptly named The Missoulian) highlights a new poll showing that even residents of that traditionally conservative state are increasingly willing to use taxes as a tool of social policy, to reduce the things they want less of.  To wit:

By an 84 to 13 percent margin, Montanans favor raising taxes on electronic gambling machines, with 3 percent undecided.

Similarly, a plurality of poll respondents supported a tax on big box stores (49 percent in favor, vs. 44 percent opposed).  But they aren't blanket tax raisers, with a plurality opposing a 5-cent tax on soda pop. (Apparently Montanans prefer Coke to Wal-Mart.)

On the down side, the majority of poll respondents would accept a sales tax (Montana currently has none) in exchange for lower property taxes. Sales taxes fall particularly hard on the poor, who spend a larger share of their income on things that would be taxed.  Typically, sales taxes exclude the sorts of things that rich people buy more of, like houses, private education, and better medical care.  (A high sales tax, but no income tax, makes Washington State's tax system the most regressive in the nation, while Montana's tax system is among the gentlest on the poor.)

Property taxes are generally progressive, since the wealthy tend to own the most land and the priciest buildings.  In general, taxes on buildings tend to be harmful to the economy, but taxes on land values may actually be a boon by reducing land speculation and encouraging development in downtown areas, among other effects.  (More on all of this in our book Tax Shift.)

Every tax system affects people's behavior, encouraging certain kinds of activities and discouraging others.  That's what taxing is all about.  So it's heartening to see the dawning recognition among Montanans that they can use the tax system to get something that they actually want.  But at the same time, it's disheartening that so many people seem perfectly happy to shift taxes onto the people who can least afford to bear their burdens.


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The Bell Curves

According to the old adage, "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer."  But the real story is far more complicated. 

Take a look, for example, at Gapminder.org, a site that looks at global economic and human development trends -- and that does a fantastic job of helping people visualize complicated data.  Their most recent take on global income distribution offers competing insights:  material wealth has increased since 1970, but in the U.S. at least, so has income stratification.

Here's what U.S. income distribution trends looked like in 1970.  There were essentially two humps, representing two broad classes:  the poor (the smaller hump to the left), and everyone else (the bigger hump to the right).

Between 1970 and 2000 average incomes in the U.S. grew, adjusting for inflation.  And even the incomes of the poor rose some.  But by 2000 America's income distribution (see below) consisted of three increasingly distinct bell curves, rather than 2.  To the left of the graph, the divide between the poor and the middle class appeared to sharpen (immigration may have played a role here), while to the right of the graph, the super rich began to split off from the middle class (double-income families may play a role here).  So on average, incomes grew over three decades; but so did income stratification.
The interesting thing is that Japan experienced the exact opposite trend.  In 1970, Japan was a society clearly divided into rich, middle class, and poor.  And the middle class made up a far smaller share of the population there than in the America.


But over time, Japanese incomes became more and more equal -- to the point that there's now a single bell curve representing the whole country, rather than three distinct classes.  On average, the Japanese middle class still makes a little less than in the U.S. (though cross-national income comparisons are notoriously difficult to do:  different cultures have very different standards of living).  And there aren't as many super-rich Japanese as there are in the U.S.  But there are also fewer of the super-poor, and the middle class went from being far behind the U.S. in 1970, to just a little bit behind.  So rising income equality was no barrier to rising middle-class incomes.


So two lessons for the Northwest.  First, we should all be aware of the trend towards rising income inequality here -- and be especially careful when we look at statistics concerning "average" income, since the average is increasingly influenced by income trends involving the very high end of the income scale.

And second, watch out for claims that rising inequality is a sign (or even a cause) of rapid economic growth.  Japan emerged as a legitimate economic superpower even as its inequality fell.  And rising equality may have had side benefits:  Japan is now the world's leader in promoting long, healthy lives, and developed nations with greater income equality tend to have better health. 

Clearly, there's no reason we can't improve health, economic equality, and middle-class incomes all at the same time.  If Japan can do it, so can the Northwest.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (0)

December 23, 2004

Water Rights Done Right

In stark contrast to my post of yesterday about the federal government paying irrigators for their water, here's a pay-for-water scheme that I wholeheartedly endorse: Montana's innovative water-rights leasing program, covered last week by the Missoulian.

What's the difference?

In the California case, the federal government signed a compensation agreement implying that it had no right to restrict water to water-rights holders. In Montana, the state government has simply made it legal for water-rights holders to lease their rights to certain other entities, such as the state or fishing groups.

The Montana program--which needs renewal from the state legislature in 2005--does not convert the water right itself into anything more proprietary than before, it simply makes the right (as limited a right as before) tradeable. It's a subtle difference, but it makes all the difference.

We wrote briefly about the promise of tradeable water rights here.

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Get Local!

The Bush Administration’s plan to put greater control of National Forests into the hands of local forest rangers is provoking cries of outrage from the environmental movement and Democrats, as reported in the New York Times, the Seattle Post Intelligencer, and the Bend Bulletin. I share the discontent but, unlike many of my mainstream environmental associates, I am attracted to one rather un-green reordering of public-lands governance. Just not this one.

One quarter of Cascadia is US government property, and most of that is National Forest, which makes the question of how National Forests are managed a huge issue for Cascadia’s future. The expected right-left tug of war is between development and conservation of these lands. And the form that tug of war takes is often a battle between local and national control. National Forests belong to all Americans, argues the environmental movement and the left, so they should be managed in accordance with the wishes of all Americans. National Forests are the homes of struggling rural communities, and those communities deserve a special role in managing the lands, argues the right.

I favor the conservation goals of the left and the environmental movement, in part for the conservation itself and in part because conservation is the key to true economic vitality. But I’m increasingly convinced that a greater degree of regional and local control has profound long-term benefits. In particular, it’s never seemed a wise long-term strategy to me to depend on the political influence of outsiders (or, for that matter, courts) to achieve conservation objectives. In the long run, Cascadia needs to practice good stewardship because it chooses to do so--because Cascadians know and love their place. At present, forest protection often prevails in US Cascadia because large concentrations of Democrats in places such as California and New York impose it on us.

Of course, embracing localism is an enormous gamble for an environmental movement that does well in the media in metropolitan areas and in court but not too well in rural towns. It’s a strategy that may lead to some painful losses in the short term. So it’s not one to undertake lightly. But it’s something for conservationists to debate and experiment with far more than most seem willing to do.

The starting point of that debate ought to be the passionate and well-argued book by Daniel Kemmis, This Sovereign Land. Kemmis, the former mayor of Missoula, Montana, and a fairly liberal Democrat, argues that only giving the American West greater responsibility for its own land—through joint management at the watershed level by consensus-based community councils, in his prescription—will induce the kind of responsible management that the West needs. Bicker with the particulars, please! But don’t deny that it’s a powerful idea, the kind of idea that could ultimately transform our place and our politics.

British Columbia has much more experience with this approach than the Northwest states. The provincial (and not the federal) government controls most of the land in the province. Beginning in the early 1990s, a series of regional decision-making panels assembled by the Commission on Resources and the Environment crafted land-use plans for huge swaths of forest. The panels’ history was full of problems and disappointments, but it was also a mammoth achievement: community-based long-term planning for the public's lands.

A variety of smaller, independent watershed planning councils in the Northwest states also deserve attention. I profiled one called the Henry's Fork Coalition in Idaho in my 1996 book This Place on Earth. Kemmis writes about many of them in This Sovereign Land.

The record of such place-based attempts at governance is something the Bush administration and its environmental critics would both benefit from studying.

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