Monday, May 31, 2010

Congratulations, West Hartford!

My professional life is based in the San Francisco Bay Area, but I live in West Hartford, Connecticut. While everyone knows about the Bay Area’s qualities, I am pleased to see West Hartford on Kiplinger’s top 10 list for “Best Cities for the Next Decade.” A few snippets from the article:

  • “idyllic place to live and raise a family”
  • “regional destination for shopping and dining”
  • “two hours from both Boston and New York City”
  • “schools — both public and private — are the biggest draw for newcomers”

I am often asked what the Bay Area equivalent of West Hartford is. Imagine Palo Alto as a suburb of Sacramento. It’s something like that, albeit with more New England tradition than Bay Area tech.

Having lived in West Hartford for a few years, I can happily confirm it deserves Kiplinger’s praise.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Review: Dirt by David Montgomery

As the soil goes, the civilization goes. That is David Montgomery’s argument in Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. He explains how numerous civilizations, from ancient times to the present, committed slow suicide by depleting their soil and other natural resources.

What happened to those first farmers, the Sumerians? They exhausted their soil, which in turn starved the army, which let rivals take over.

The overstretch and fall of the Roman Empire? Brought to you in part by the constant need to go further afield for farmland, as the soil closer to home eroded under intense cultivation.

Migration of Europeans to the New World? If you look at the waves of immigrants, they largely came according to when their own countries were running out of usable farm land.

Every time, the pattern is similar. When humans farm the land without regard to the soil, erosion becomes a problem. However, because the soil erodes gradually, over decades or centuries, no one deals with it. Instead, when it gets bad enough, the farmers just move somewhere else. At some point, it becomes impractical to continue moving or to acquire more land. Then things get ugly.

The ultimate case study is Easter Island, where the inhabitants depleted their key natural resources far below sustainability for the population, withering the local civilization.

Those aware of Jared Diamond’s Collapse will remember that story, and Dirt indeed shares much in common with Collapse. Both authors make the point that despite a popular view to the contrary, the golden age when all people lived in harmony with the land never existed. Modern and ancient civilizations alike have trashed their environments. However, not all have done so. There are examples of ancient and modern civilizations that practiced sustainable agriculture, using techniques like manuring and crop rotation.

Therein lies the hope of both books: that today’s civilizations can learn from the failures, and occasional successes, of past civilizations’ environmental approaches. In Dirt, Montgomery is upbeat about the rise of organic farming, at least in its original spirit of rotating diversified crops and using natural forms of fertilizer and pest control. However, he cautions, “California’s newly industrialized organic factory farms are not necessarily conserving soil. When demand for organic produce began to skyrocket in the 1990s, industrial farms began planting monocultural strands of lettuce that retained the flaws of conventional agriculture—just without the pesticides.”


...[the United States] government subsidizes conventional farming practices, whereas the market places a premium on organic produce....Over the past decade American farm subsidies averaged more than $10 billion annually. Although subsidy programs were originally intended to support struggling family farms and ensure a stable food supply, by the 1960s farm subsidies actively encouraged larger farms and more intensive methods of crop production focused on growing single crops. U.S. commodity programs that favor wheat, corn, and cotton create incentives for farmers to buy up more land and plant only those crops. In the 1970s and 1980s, subsidies represented almost a third of U.S. farm income. A tenth of the agricultural producers (coincidentally, the largest farms) now receive two-thirds of the subsidies.

Although Montgomery does not raise the issue, I wonder whether government subsidies could target “soil neutral” farming, similar to how incentives are emerging for “carbon neutral” businesses. The goal would be to channel innovation away from the farm as a factory that consumes its inputs (including soil) to the farm as a productive system that supports and is supported by its local ecology. Historically, market forces have not driven innovation in this direction because the return on investment is distant in time. But when you put things in terms of how we want to the leave the earth for our grandchildren—and how so many civilizations have unintentionally failed on this account—it’s worth asking how we can do better.

That is what Dirt is about. I’m not qualified to judge Montgomery’s historical analyses or his prescriptions for what to do, but he is making an important case. However, as a consciousness-raising exercise, the book can be a challenge because it wavers between textbook-like scientific detail and more accessible narrative. For those who want a seminar along with a story, that may be just right. Otherwise, Collapse may be the better bet. Either way, their subject matter is worth knowing about.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Engage and Persuade: San Francisco Cabbie Edition

I’d like to highlight a fine example of persuasive writing. It’s about an obscure topic, so the author needs a way to engage us. Here is how he starts.

After 25 years as a San Francisco cab driver, I’ve accumulated enough stories to yak my way through a dinner party: celebrities, hookers, a $103 tip, a hand­gun held to my head, and—the blockbuster—a $20,644.90 ride from the Golden Gate Bridge to the White House. But whenever I begin to tell my most important (but perhaps driest) tale, the one about how the mayor and a handful of transportation officials are working together to strong-arm a large fortune away from the cab industry, I notice eyes glazing over and hear minds switching channels. So tell you what: Hang with me for as long as a $10 cab fare might take, and next time you’re in my backseat, the ride’s on the house. Assuming my cab hasn’t been stolen out from under me. Deal?

The author, Brad Newsham, wants us on his side. But he knows we’re not up for a lecture on the issues. Instead he weaves the issues into a story about himself and his cabbie colleagues: They worked hard to succeed in San Francisco’s old system, where a long-time cabbie could earn a medallion to operate his or her own cab. With a medallion, the cabbie could make money not just from driving but also, when not driving, from renting the medallion to other drivers. This system...

...enabled hundreds of medallion holders to buy a home, put a kid through college, afford healthcare, or just relax a bit. Many senior drivers consider Prop K’s largesse the best break—often the only break—they’ve ever gotten. So, since I enjoyed the work, I shook off my inaugural mugging, cleaned up after the pukers, and just kept grinding, with that shiny medallion always dangling in the distance.

Shoulder to shoulder with me were hordes of other hopefuls, many of whom had clawed their way out of political or economic chaos in the developing world. Wondwossen had left Ethiopia after the Communist government killed hundreds of his friends. Moham­med, a former driver at the American Embassy in Kabul, had led his family on foot across the Hindu Kush just ahead of the Russian invasion. Ali had fam­ily living not far from the pyramids of Giza who still counted on his support.

While waiting, we cheered friends who summited the list. Adam’s medallion allowed him to take care of some much needed dental work. Mulugeta splurged on horse-riding lessons for his son. Gary, a lifelong baseball fan, bought a Giants’ season ticket. But not everyone made it: My friend Chris died of AIDS before achieving medallion status; Ron became a full-time teacher and dropped out of the hunt; Zareh was past 70 and nearing the top of the list when his cab was broadsided on Broadway by a drunk—he and a pas­senger died instantly.

Newsham uses the struggles and camaraderie of his fellow drivers to imply a larger camaraderie with the reader. This set-up is key because he then tells us the city of San Francisco wants to confiscate all the medallions and auction them to the highest bidder—which will be companies, not cabbies. How can that happen? Voters approved an ordinance that included, buried somewhere in the middle, a few lines that nobody noticed about changing the rules for cabs.

But Newsham doesn’t just tell us that. He puts it in terms of the cabbies and their connections to you:

San Franciscans have always had a soft spot for their cab drivers. We are the late-night ride home, occasional entertainment, the city’s unofficial ambassadors. The cab world is seen as foreign and vaguely exciting, and often as a potential backup strategy: If my life ever blows up, I can always drive a cab. So people hope we’re being treated decently. And if this new bill had not been conceived in darkness and disguised in camouflage gear (“Rescue Muni!” was a campaign rallying cry), it wouldn’t have had a chance. As is, it passed with the votes of only 15 percent of the electorate, most of whom had—and still have—no idea they were dynamiting the cab industry.

Please read the whole piece. It’s a case study for how a skilled writer can make something matter when, for the vast majority of people, it otherwise wouldn’t.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Owl Pellets Again?

Last week I wrote about the owl pellet economy, a random find so obscure I expected to never run across the topic again. But one week later, dear reader, I must report a second random, related encounter.

Sunday I was at the Museum of Arts & Design in New York City, where I came across Alastair Mackie’s untitled (+/-):

Here is the description from the artist’s Web site:

over a period of one year barn owl pellets have been collected and processed in to their raw components of mouse fur and bone. the fur has been spun in to yarn and, with the use of a loom, the yarn has been woven in to a sheet of fabric. the skeletons have been left as a heap, the size of which correlates directly with the size of the sheet of material.

I trust that now—really—I have fulfilled my lifetime quota of owl pellet marginalia.