By Meteor Blades
The tragedy wrought by Katrina provides a chance to do what Mayor Ray Nagin said George Bush told him after the head-bumping died down last week: New Orleans can be remade into “a shining example for the whole world.”
I don’t know if Bush actually said that, and if he did, it surely wasn’t an environmentally sound renaissance he had in mind. In fact, I’d be willing to bet my mortgage that, when they’re not figuring how to blame somebody else for the lethal federal foot-dragging just witnessed, many in the Administration are pondering schemes to enhance their personal assets via this disaster. “Shining” to them has a distinctly different meaning than what I’m talking about.
Needed is a new city paradigm. Call it Eco New Orleans, a place attuned to the definition of “sustainability” found in the 1987 Brundtland Commission: “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Not just the city, of course, but the other places blasted by Katrina and Dubyanocchio’s five days of indifference. New Orleans doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and the Eco New Orleans I’m talking about extends for scores of miles in every direction.
Sen. Harry Reid’s off-the-cuff estimate puts the cost of relief and a conventional rebuilding of New Orleans and its Gulf Coast neighbors at $150 billion, $100 billion for FEMA alone, five times more than what FEMA spent on ALL of the nation’s previous Top Ten natural disasters.
Eco New Orleans would be even more expensive, take longer, require forming a plethora of public-private enterprises and demand an innovative politics not only to educate communities to the individual and community benefits of an environmentally sound approach, but also to spur them into providing input into how exactly to implement it. To use a phrase from my youth: participatory democracy.
Yes, not only am I asking that we add billions in public investment at a time when our economy is already shaky and undermined by the costs of war, I’m also suggesting that we add another layer or two of difficulty to a recovery that’s certain to be time-consuming and contentious. And not just contentious between eco-advocates and those who see the environment as a low priority, but among eco-advocates themselves.
Before you angrily reach for your keyboard, let me assure you I’m not forgetting the ongoing human disaster caused by Katrina and our wretched federal leadership. Who knows how many are dead, injured or permanently traumatized? Maybe a million people are homeless and jobless, heavy burdens are being put on states outside the region to deal with evacuees, and the economic troubles that Mimikatz has analyzed here - and bonddad and Jerome a Paris have written about here and here - will be immense. Immediate needs must be met. What happened last week may reverberate economically, socially and politically for a decade or more.
Nor am I promoting a utopian blueprint. If I were, I’d be claiming that solving the region’s environmental problems would eliminate those related to class, race, war, rampant consumerism, crime and the homogenizing forces of globalization that afflict cities from the Gulf Coast to the Heartland.
While some deep ecologists argue that any city with a footprint like New Orleans is, per se, an affront to nature, I’m not in that camp. Although born in a very small Southern town, and a great lover of the outdoors, I cherish the pleasures and interaction that urban life makes possible. As historian Lewis Mumford once noted, despite its many flaws, ”the city is the most advanced work of art of human civilization.” For millennia, it’s where people have fled to escape the narrow-minded conventionality that restricts their mental, social and economic well-being. No way would I argue, as might an ultra-green Dennis Hastert, that we should just bulldoze the flood-soaked portion of New Orleans and give it all back to the ‘gators and wading birds.
New Orleans must be rebuilt. The port at the mouth of the Mississippi is a necessity, and a city is a necessity for the men and women who work the port.
If, however, we as Americans are unwilling to spend the time and money to rebuild New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast with environmental concerns taking a front seat, then we’re as self-interestedly myopic as the Administration that couldn’t get its ass out of vacation mode to save people’s lives last week.
Much can be done to shape the damaged Gulf Coast into a model for unstricken regions to emulate, modifying it for their own unique circumstances.
As I said, I’ve got no blueprint. But here are half a dozen places to start:
Who hasn’t by now heard about how the Bush Administration gutted Louisiana’s proposed levee construction and maintenance? The cost of those projects, however, was in the few hundreds of millions. Coast 2050, a proposal developed by politicians, scientists, eco-advocates and other citizens in 1997 and updated as the Louisiana Coastal Area Ecosystem Restoration Project, has a far broader scope than levee building and a fatter price tag: $14 billion (over 30 years) is the estimate of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. Bush didn’t like that plan either.
Eco-advocates, the occasional politician like Sen. John Breaux and scientists like Denise Reed, a professor of Geology and Geophysics at the University of New Orleans, have been trying to explain for decades to the environment-is-a-low-priority crowd. "Wetlands act as a storm buffer for hurricanes and other large storms,” Reed says. ”With the rapidly depleting wetlands, people that have lived in southern Louisiana can tell that over the last 30 years, large storms now come in faster and the water rises faster, which gives less time to respond and less time to evacuate. In the next few years, it's going to get worse."
Wetlands already lost to erosion and subsidence probably worsened Hurricane Katrina's destruction. About 90 percent of America’s coastal wetlands loss each year occurs in Louisiana, 1900 square miles since 1932, an additional 700 square miles by 2050. If they disappear at even a fraction of this amount, immense harm will be caused to human populations, the infrastructure, the seafood industry, fisheries and wildlife.
Coast 2050 is no radical proposal even though the motivation behind it is grim. As with any plan built by diverse stakeholders, it’s a compromise. My greener side sees some gaps. But the plan is a radical departure from the manic and sometimes maniac human activities contributing to the destruction of Louisiana’s wetlands. It was designed …
…to sustain a coastal ecosystem that supports and protects the environment, economy and culture of southern Louisiana, and that contributes greatly to the economy and well-being of the nation. …
Because natural processes created the highly productive wetlands in coastal Louisiana, reestablishment of these processes is essential to achieve sustainability. Reestablishment does not imply controlling nature but does require constructive use of the forces that formed coastal Louisiana (the rivers, rainfall, and the gulf). Neither does reestablishment imply a return of the coastal system to a pristine condition, because too much has changed for that to occur. The intent is to design restoration strategies based on ecological principles so the future coast will have the productivity and other desirable features of a highly-valued natural system.
• Upgrade refineries:
While it appears that only two of the ten oil refineries shut down by Katrina will be closed for more than a couple of weeks, when operational they are environmental disasters, founded on hundred-year-old technology with a heavy output of pollution. Out of necessity prompted by peak oil, some day in the not-too-distant future, oil refineries will be phased out by bio-refineries or fuel cells or (gawd forbid) Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s coal-to-liquid-fuels panacea. But, until we reach that halcyon future, oil refineries need an upgrade to reduce their environmental impact in a process we can call “industrial ecology”
As RedDan explains, “any time you concentrate that much energy, carbon, hydrogen, sulfur, oxygen - volatile chemicals and elements all - into one place at one time, you are guaranteed to get pollution. Period.” So no such process can ever be truly green. But greener refineries would install shielded pipes and conduits, isolated and double barrier-protected towers, tanks, reservoirs, multiple pressure relief and blow-out prevention devices, and so on and so forth - essentially enhanced containment. Greener refineries would initiate more efficient processing and capture effluents and reaction products better. Greener would require better scrubbing and filtering. Greener would involve better oversight, maintenance, training and siting.
Of course, the Bush Administration, never keen on enhancing environmental controls of any sort, takes the view that the solution to America’s so-called refining crunch is to put new refineries on closed military bases with no new environmental controls. So, getting the Administration to press even minor upgrades to existing refineries would be no easy matter.
•Curtail oil and gas drilling in the Delta:
Ever since Katrina struck, many blogs have taken note of Joel K. Bourne Jr.’s almost supernaturally prescient piece Gone with the Water in the National Geographic just a year ago.
The oil industry has been good to Louisiana, providing low taxes and high-paying jobs. But such largesse hasn't come without a cost, largely exacted from coastal wetlands. The most startling impact has only recently come to light—the effect of oil and gas withdrawal on subsidence rates. For decades geologists believed that the petroleum deposits were too deep and the geology of the coast too complex for drilling to have any impact on the surface. But two years ago former petroleum geologist Bob Morton, now with the U.S. Geological Survey, noticed that the highest rates of wetland loss occurred during or just after the period of peak oil and gas production in the 1970s and early 1980s. After much study, Morton concluded that the removal of millions of barrels of oil, trillions of cubic feet of natural gas, and tens of millions of barrels of saline formation water lying with the petroleum deposits caused a drop in subsurface pressure—a theory known as regional depressurization. That led nearby underground faults to slip and the land above them to slump. "When you stick a straw in a soda and suck on it, everything goes down," Morton explains. "That's very simplified, but you get the idea.” … The oil industry and its consultants dispute Morton's theory, but they've been unable to disprove it.
Continued exploitation of the wetlands environment for short-term gain by the oil and gas companies is likely to make New Orleans ever more vulnerable to another of the Category 4 or 5 storms that scientists say are on the upswing. This is not to argue against all oil and gas operations in the region. But a more restrictive approach is crucial, with some areas now being drilled redesignated “off-limits.”
• Adopt “smart growth” concepts as regional policy:
The smart growth movement focuses on environment in the broadest possible way: quality of life, design, economics, health, housing and transportation. Principles guiding smart growth include developing a range of housing types; creating walkable, architecturally distinctive neighborhoods; encouraging community participation in decision-making; opting for mixed land uses; making “development decisions “predictable, fair and cost effective”; preserving farm land, open space and natural beauty; providing for a variety of transportation modes; adopting compact building styles; and directing development toward existing communities.
• Rebuild with the National Green Communities Initiative in mind:
The NGCI, in partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council, is a five-year, $555-million program dedicated to building 8,500 environmentally healthy dwellings for low-income residents nationwide. Money for the projects – like Seattle’s 50-unit Denny Park Apartments, comes from city, state and federal housing authorities as well as NGCI’s subsidiary, the Enterprise Social Investment Corporation. Rehabilitation of rental and owner-occupied dwellings is also part of the agenda.
Denny Park will include a metal roof for clean rainwater runoff; storm water detention through the collection of water in landscaping planters; durable 50-year exterior materials (roofing and siding); efficient centralized heating and hot water system; maximum natural lighting; energy efficient lighting and controls; continuous ventilation of bathrooms for moisture control; low maintenance landscaping; and recycling of at least 85 percent of existing building when demolished. All this in an architecturally interesting building, not some green version of a Soviet tower block.
Before Katrina, New Orleans was the fifth most densely populated city in America, filled with low-income neighborhoods that would benefit from an expansion of the NGCI, or, at least, an imitation of it. In addition to those 8,500 green units nationwide, why not 85,000 such units for Eco New Orleans?
• Establish green housing and commercial building standards:
More affluent dwellings in the new New Orleans should also be built or rehabilitated with more than a modest concern for environmental effects. Rigid rules could lead to unintended consequences. But fresh regulations based on a system that assigns “points” for, among other things, energy efficiency, use of green materials, window glazing, siting angles, landscaping could make a big difference regionwide. New housing and rehabs that reach a minimum point threshold would be the only ones approved, but they wouldn’t be required to follow a strict architectural formula, thus avoiding the kind of problems noted by Mimi9 and others in New Urbanism and how to rebuild New Orleans
The Guardian recently published an illustrated example of how one architectural firm handled the building of an eco-home in Great Britain. And, for those who want to go all out – no doubt getting 100 out of 100 points from any city’s green regulators – there’s the Planet Earth Home, described by its designer as “the ultimate self-sufficient home for any location in the world.”
• Implement a distributed energy program:
Louisiana (Alabama and Mississippi) could all benefit from retooling their practically invisible state energy departments. Although each gives lip service to conservation, none has made moves toward developing a renewable energy, conservation-oriented mind-set among its citizens, nor assisting those citizens who already “get it.” Using the experiences of other states from Oregon and California to Texas and Massachusetts, and going a few steps farther, Eco New Orleans should be outfitted with solar electric, gas micro-turbines, combustion turbines, wind turbines, fuel cells and cogeneration systems so the region can begin the march toward independence from fossil fuel that is essential for the planet’s long-term health.
Eco New Orleans should also put considerable effort into community outreach to teach people to become energy smart. A neighborhood ”eco-teams would be valuable. Less affluent consumers should have access to subsidies so they can make the change along with everyone else.
For the longer term, the region’s rebuilders could find no better visionary than Steve Silberman. His July 2001 article The Energy Web in Wired Magazine is a must-read:
The best minds in electricity R&D have a plan: Every node in the power network of the future will be awake, responsive, adaptive, price-smart, eco-sensitive, real-time, flexible, humming - and interconnected with everything else. …
The smarter energy network of the future, [the Electric Power Research Institute] believes, will incorporate a diversified pool of resources located closer to the consumer, pumping out low- or zero-emissions power in backyards, driveways, downscaled local power stations, and even in automobiles, while giving electricity users the option to become energy vendors. The front end of this new system will be managed by third-party "virtual utilities," which will bundle electricity, gas, Internet access, broadband entertainment, and other customized energy services. (This vision is reminiscent of Edison's original ambition for the industry, which was not to sell lightbulbs, but to create a network of technologies and services that provided illumination.)
As I keep saying, I’ve got no blueprint, just an outline combining ideas other people have been thinking about far longer than I. And I’ve left out a lot of issues, both big and small: cleaning up “cancer alley,” mass transit, bike lanes, park development, sewage treatment, zoning issues, farmland preservation and environmental justice. Eco New Orleans cannot, obviously, spring up full-grown. No great changes are ever accomplished overnight. But someday all cities will be “eco” or they will be dead. New Orleans and its battered neighbors have a chance to be pioneers.