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Sunday, August 28, 2011

At Vacant Homes, Foraging For Fruit

ATLANTA — As she does every evening, Kelly Callahan walked her dogs through her East Atlanta neighborhood. As in many communities in a city with the 16th-highest foreclosure rate in the nation, there were plenty of empty, bank-owned properties for sale.
T. Lynne Pixley for The New York Times

Ms. Callahan cuts the day's foraging prize: a Sugar Baby watermelon. She also collected five pounds of tomatoes. More Photos »

She noticed something else. Those forlorn yards were peppered with overgrown gardens and big fruit trees, all bulging with the kind of bounty that comes from the high heat and afternoon thunderstorms that have defined Atlanta’s summer.

So she began picking. First, there was a load of figs, which she intends to make into jam for a cafe that feeds homeless people. Then, for herself, she got five pounds of tomatoes, two kinds of squash and — the real prize — a Sugar Baby watermelon.

“I don’t think of it as stealing,” she said. “These things were planted by a person who was going to harvest them. That person no longer has the ability to. It’s not like the bank people who sit in their offices are going to come out here and pick figs.”

Of course, a police officer who catches her might not agree with Ms. Callahan’s legal assessment. And it would be a rare bank official who would sign off.

But as the world of urban fruit and vegetable harvesting grows, the boundaries around where to grow and pick produce are becoming more elastic.

Over the last few years, in cities from Oakland, Calif., to Clemson, S.C., well-intentioned foraging enthusiasts have mapped public fruit trees and organized picking parties. Volunteers descend on generous homeowners who are happy to share their bounty, sometimes getting a few jars of preserves in return.

There are government efforts to turn abandoned land into food, too. In Multnomah County, Ore., officials offer property that has been seized for back taxes to community and governmental organizations for gardens.

But with more and more properties in foreclosure and large stretches of vacant lots available in some cities, a new, guerrilla-style harvest is taking shape.

Robby Astrove works with Concrete Jungle, a fruit-foraging organization in Atlanta that in 2009 began building a database of untended fruit and nut trees on commercial and public land. The group donates most of the food to agencies that feed the hungry.

Although Mr. Astrove and his colleagues have harvested abandoned community gardens and he has planted pear and fig trees on empty commercial property, the organization cautions volunteers against trespassing and does not pick fruit on foreclosed properties.

Still, he thinks it is a great idea, especially for cities like Atlanta, where one in 50 homes is in foreclosure. Already, he said, there is an underground network among the homeless who work the gardens and trees around vacant homes, he said.

“It’s a perfect storm of vacant properties and people who need a quality food source and an unused resource,” Mr. Astrove said.

One of the best-known urban foragers is Anna Chan, who lives in Clayton, Calif., east of San Francisco. She is called the Lemon Lady and was recently featured in People magazine.

Three years ago, Ms. Chan began collecting fruit that was going uneaten and delivering it to food banks. She soon expanded her efforts to local farms and grocery store produce departments. Since then, she and a group of volunteers have delivered more than 250 tons of fruits and vegetables to the hungry, she said.

But she has never harvested on foreclosed or abandoned property.

“I try to promote the legal way,” she said. “Without permission, it’s tricky. It’s trespassing.”

But she, too, applauds people like Ms. Callahan.

“It’s a beautiful idea,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a neighbor’s tree or a vacant lot or a foreclosure or whatever. It’s you and that fruit tree right at that precise moment when the fruit is ready and you need to make something happen.”

The point, she and other urban fruit foragers say, is to keep food from going to waste. Ms. Callahan, who works for the Carter Center and lived in Africa for eight years, has seen true hunger and cannot bear to watch food rot.

“If food is going bad on the vine,” she said, that says something about us as a society. “It doesn’t matter if the bank owns it. We should be more communal than that.”

Although urban foragers see no harm in picking the produce, one would be hard-pressed to find a real estate agent or a banker who would officially encourage the practice.

Still, a ripe fig is a ripe fig.

“If I lived next to somebody who had abandoned fruit trees, I’d go get some myself,” said Jim B. Miller Jr., the chairman of Fidelity Bank in Atlanta. “You shouldn’t be starting a garden on somebody’s property, and you can carry this too far, but if there’s fruit on that tree, it ought to be eaten.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: August 15, 2011

An earlier version of this article included a picture that was published in error. The home shown in the photo is occupied; it is not among the vacant homes being foraged for fruit and vegetables.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Can Jeremy Grantham Profit From Ecological Mayhem

Click here to read the full piece from Carlo Rotella at the New York Times Magazine

Sitting in a Panera in Boston’s financial district in early July with Jeremy Grantham, I suddenly found myself considering how I might safeguard my children’s and notional grandchildren’s future by somehow engineering the U.S. annexation of Morocco. Grantham, the founder and chief strategist of the asset-management firm GMO, was reading aloud from a rough draft of his next quarterly letter to investors, in which he ranks some long-term crises of resource limitation along a scale from “merely serious” to “dangerous.”

Energy “will give us serious and sustained problems” over the next 50 years as we make the transition from hydrocarbons — oil, coal, gas — to solar, wind, nuclear and other sources, but we’ll muddle through to a solution to Peak Oil and related challenges. Peak Everything Else will prove more intractable for humanity. Metals, for instance, “are entropy at work . . . from wonderful metal ores to scattered waste,” and scarcity and higher prices “will slowly increase forever,” but if we scrimp and recycle, we can make do for another century before tight constraint kicks in.

Agriculture is more worrisome. Local water shortages will cause “persistent irritation” — wars, famines. Of the three essential macro nutrient fertilizers, nitrogen is relatively plentiful and recoverable, but we’re running out of potassium and phosphorus, finite mined resources that are “necessary for all life.” Canada has large reserves of potash (the source of potassium), which is good news for Americans, but 50 to 75 percent of the known reserves of phosphate (the source of phosphorus) are located in Morocco and the western Sahara. Assuming a 2 percent annual increase in phosphorus consumption, Grantham believes the rest of the world’s reserves won’t last more than 50 years, so he expects “gamesmanship” from the phosphate-rich.

And he rates soil erosion as the biggest threat of all. The world’s population could reach 10 billion within half a century — perhaps twice as many human beings as the planet’s overtaxed resources can sustainably support, perhaps six times too many.

Grantham, who is 72 and has what’s left of a British accent after living in Boston for more than four decades, outlined this wildly distressing assessment against a bland backdrop of chain d├ęcor and piped-in smooth jazz. He marked up his draft with a pen as he went along, departing from the text at times to emphasize a point. “Phosphorus makes up 1 percent of your body weight,” he said, looking up from the page to catch my eye. “It’s a basic element, the residue of exploded stars. You can’t just make more.” He also pointed out that most economists see global trade as a win-win proposition, but resource limitation turns it into a win-lose, zero-sum contest. “The faster China grows, the higher grain prices go, the more people in China or India who upgrade to meat, the higher the tendency for Africa to starve,” he said.

Grantham argues that the late-18th-century doomsayer Thomas Malthus pretty much got it right but just had the bad timing to make his predictions about unsustainable population growth on the eve of the hydrocarbon-fueled Industrial Revolution, which “partially removed the barriers to rapid population growth, wealth and scientific progress.” That put off the inevitable for a couple of centuries, but now, ready or not, the age of cheap hydrocarbons is ending. Grantham’s July letter concludes: “We humans have the brains and the means to reach real planetary sustainability. The problem is with us and our focus on short-term growth and profits, which is likely to cause suffering on a vast scale. With foresight and thoughtful planning, this suffering is completely avoidable.”

Thursday, August 18, 2011

An Economist For Nature Calculates The Need For More Protection

Click here to read the full article from John Moir at the New York Times

COTO BRUS, Costa Rica — Dawn is breaking over this remote upland region, where neat rows of coffee plants cover many of the hillsides. The rising tropical sun saturates the landscape with color, revealing islandlike remnants of native forest scattered among the coffee plantations.
Charles J. Katz, Jr.

A GLOBAL FOCUS Gretchen Daily, a Stanford biology professor, in Palo Alto, Calif.

But across this bucolic countryside, trouble is brewing. An invasive African insect known as the coffee berry borer is threatening the area’s crops. Local farmers call the pest “la broca”: the borer.

Despite the early hour, Gretchen Daily, a Stanford University biology professor, is already at work studying this complex ecosystem. Amid a cacophony of birdsong, Dr. Daily and her team are conducting experiments that demonstrate the vital connection between wildlife and native vegetation. Preliminary data from new studies suggest that consumption of insects like la broca by forest-dwelling birds and bats contribute significantly to coffee yields.

Since 1991, Dr. Daily, 46, has made frequent trips to this Costa Rican site to conduct one of the tropics’ most comprehensive population-level studies to monitor long-term ecological change.

“We are working to very specifically quantify in biophysical and dollar terms the value of conserving the forest and its wildlife,” she said.

In recent years, Dr. Daily has expanded her research to include a global focus. She is one of the pioneers in the growing worldwide effort to protect the environment by quantifying the value of “natural capital” — nature’s goods and services that are fundamental for human life — and factoring these benefits into the calculations of businesses and governments. Dr. Daily’s work has attracted international attention and has earned her some of the world’s most coveted environmental awards.

Part of Dr. Daily’s interest in natural capital emerged from her research in Costa Rica, where she became intrigued with an innovative government initiative known as Payment for Environmental Services. The program, initiated in the 1990s, pays landowners to maintain native forest rather than cut it and has contributed to a significant reduction in Costa Rica’s deforestation rate.

The Costa Rican program helped inspire Dr. Daily to co-found the Natural Capital Project in 2006. NatCap, as the program is known, is a venture led by Stanford University, the University of Minnesota and two of the world’s largest conservation organizations, the Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund. It aims to transform traditional conservation methods by including the value of “ecosystem services” in business, community and government decisions. These benefits from nature — like flood protection, crop pollination and carbon storage — are not part of the traditional economic equation.

“Currently, there is no price for most of the ecosystem services we care about, like clean air and clean water,” said Stephen Polasky, professor of ecological/environmental economics at the University of Minnesota. He says that because economic calculations often ignore nature, the results can lead to the destruction of the very ecosystems upon which the economy is based.

Monday, August 15, 2011

With Post-Its And Checklists, Schools Cut Their Energy Bills

Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times

Stickers offer reminders to conserve energy at schools in Holmdel Township, N.J.

Simple yellow Post-it notes with the message “When not in use, turn off the juice,” pointedly left on classroom computers, printers and air-conditioners, have helped the Mount Sinai School District on Long Island save $350,000 annually on utility bills.

Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times

William Balicki oversees a New Jersey district's energy-saving efforts.

Energy consumption in New York City’s 1,245 school buildings is down roughly 11 percent since 2008, as motion detectors have been installed on classroom lights and unused refrigerators and freezers have been unplugged for the summer.

In Yonkers, energy savings have financed $18 million in new boilers, windows and other capital improvements that the Westchester County district could not otherwise afford.

Schools, once known as energy wasters, are embracing conservation in increasing numbers. A desire to practice the environmentally friendly principles discussed in classrooms has been heightened by soaring energy costs and tighter budgets. With the help of a growing industry of energy consultants, school officials are evaluating every detail of their daily operations, like the temperature of the swimming pool and the amount of electricity the cafeteria ovens use, and are replacing energy-guzzling equipment with more efficient models.

Supporters say that even small adjustments can pay off almost immediately. “If we tested schools in efficient use of energy, many of them wouldn’t get a passing grade,” said C. David Myers, president of building efficiency for Johnson Controls, which has joined with 60 of the 125 school districts on Long Island to reduce energy use by 20 to 40 percent annually.

Nationally, more than two dozen states, including California, Idaho, Kentucky, Montana, New Hampshire and Virginia, have used millions in federal stimulus money since 2009 to pay for energy programs and upgrades in school buildings, said Judy Marks, director of the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities in Washington. These efforts include replacing light fixtures, adding solar panels and building geothermal heating and cooling systems.

Some states have also started programs to finance school conservation efforts and to create local contracting jobs. Most recently, Oregon passed legislation in June to provide school districts with low-interest loans and grants for school efficiency improvements; Washington State started a similar grant-based program in 2009.

In some instances, districts like Mount Sinai have appointed an official energy manager — in its case, Chris Heil, an assistant high school principal — to police hallways and classrooms to root out energy waste. Armed with yellow notes, he inspects 100 classrooms a day and “tickets” violators. Teachers have been known to run back to their classrooms when they see him coming. When one instructor refused to shut down his classroom computers at night, Mr. Heil sent him an e-mail calculating how much money was being wasted, and promised to share the next message with the superintendent.

“I’m kind of like the cop who walks around and makes sure people are doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” Mr. Heil said. “As soon as you take me away, people will start their bad habits again.”

Mr. Heil sometimes shows up at schools at 4 a.m. to make sure the custodial staff remembered to turn off the lights. He has rummaged through storage closets to locate switches to shut down rooftop exhaust fans that ran nonstop. Such vigilance has reduced the district’s utility costs by 30 percent since 2007, Mr. Heil said.

As part of the Bloomberg administration’s campaign to reduce the municipal government’s energy consumption and carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2017, the city awarded $100,000 in May to schools that voluntarily decreased their energy use in a monthlong competition. Martin Luther King Jr. Educational Campus in Manhattan won top honors with a 35 percent reduction. And this fall, rooftop solar panels are being installed on three school buildings.

“We’re focused on energy reduction like crazy,” said Dennis M. Walcott, the city’s schools chancellor, who regularly checks on schools that he sees lighted up at night.

Many districts across the country have financed conservation efforts through so-called energy performance contracts with companies that advise them on how to be more energy-efficient and guarantee them specific savings, either in dollars or kilowatts. If the district’s actual savings fall short, the company writes a check to make up the difference.

With contracts involving equipment investments — which can be $50,000 to tens of millions of dollars, depending on the scope of the projects — districts typically use existing utility budgets or borrow money through third-party lenders, and then pay it back out of their immediate energy savings so that no budget increase is needed.

In Yonkers, the improvements included replacing Lincoln High School’s 60-year-old boilers, which guzzled 137,500 gallons of heating oil a year — “so much fuel that it seemed like we had oil trucks parked out front,” said John Carr, the executive director of school facilities in Yonkers. The new boilers burn only 80,000 gallons.

Three consultants — Johnson Controls, Trane and Energy Education — have reported that their school business has grown by at least a third since 2006. The companies send in engineers and specialists to conduct extensive audits of each district — Energy Education uses a checklist of 1,200 items — and then custom-design conservation programs. “Anything that consumes energy, natural gas or water is going to get evaluated,” said Larry Wash, Trane’s president of global services.

In New Jersey, the schools in Holmdel Township have lowered their electric and gas bills by about half since 2009, to $1 million annually. In environmental terms, that breaks down to 3.5 million fewer kilowatts of power and 240,000 fewer therms of heat a year.

William Balicki, Holmdel’s energy manager, said he kept a tight check on thermostats, and installed automatic timers on outdoor lights in bus yards and parking lots that once stayed on long after the drivers left.

Mr. Balicki also considered placing motion sensors on classroom lights, but instead settled for $75 worth of stickers to post above light switches as a reminder to flip them off.

“Anytime we can ask people to physically do it, we do,” he said. “This is pretty much a people-based program. It’s changing behavior.”

Monday, August 8, 2011

Bad Food? Tax It And Subsidize Vegetables

Click here to read the full essay from Mark Bittman at the Sunday Review of the New York Times

WHAT will it take to get Americans to change our eating habits? The need is indisputable, since heart disease, diabetes and cancer are all in large part caused by the Standard American Diet. (Yes, it’s SAD.)

Though experts increasingly recommend a diet high in plants and low in animal products and processed foods, ours is quite the opposite, and there’s little disagreement that changing it could improve our health and save tens of millions of lives.

And — not inconsequential during the current struggle over deficits and spending — a sane diet could save tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars in health care costs.

Yet the food industry appears incapable of marketing healthier foods. And whether its leaders are confused or just stalling doesn’t matter, because the fixes are not really their problem. Their mission is not public health but profit, so they’ll continue to sell the health-damaging food that’s most profitable, until the market or another force skews things otherwise. That “other force” should be the federal government, fulfilling its role as an agent of the public good and establishing a bold national fix.

Rather than subsidizing the production of unhealthful foods, we should turn the tables and tax things like soda, French fries, doughnuts and hyperprocessed snacks. The resulting income should be earmarked for a program that encourages a sound diet for Americans by making healthy food more affordable and widely available.

The average American consumes 44.7 gallons of soft drinks annually. (Although that includes diet sodas, it does not include noncarbonated sweetened beverages, which add up to at least 17 gallons a person per year.) Sweetened drinks could be taxed at 2 cents per ounce, so a six-pack of Pepsi would cost $1.44 more than it does now. An equivalent tax on fries might be 50 cents per serving; a quarter extra for a doughnut. (We have experts who can figure out how “bad” a food should be to qualify, and what the rate should be; right now they’re busy calculating ethanol subsidies. Diet sodas would not be taxed.)

Simply put: taxes would reduce consumption of unhealthful foods and generate billions of dollars annually. That money could be used to subsidize the purchase of staple foods like seasonal greens, vegetables, whole grains, dried legumes and fruit.

We could sell those staples cheap — let’s say for 50 cents a pound — and almost everywhere: drugstores, street corners, convenience stores, bodegas, supermarkets, liquor stores, even schools, libraries and other community centers.

This program would, of course, upset the processed food industry. Oh well. It would also bug those who might resent paying more for soda and chips and argue that their right to eat whatever they wanted was being breached. But public health is the role of the government, and our diet is right up there with any other public responsibility you can name, from water treatment to mass transit.

Some advocates for the poor say taxes like these are unfair because low-income people pay a higher percentage of their income for food and would find it more difficult to buy soda or junk. But since poor people suffer disproportionately from the cost of high-quality, fresh foods, subsidizing those foods would be particularly beneficial to them.

Right now it’s harder for many people to buy fruit than Froot Loops; chips and Coke are a common breakfast. And since the rate of diabetes continues to soar — one-third of all Americans either have diabetes or are pre-diabetic, most with Type 2 diabetes, the kind associated with bad eating habits — and because our health care bills are on the verge of becoming truly insurmountable, this is urgent for economic sanity as well as national health.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

On Nauru, A Sinking Feeling

From the New York Times

Yaren, Nauru

Wesley Bedrosian


Related in Opinion

I FORGIVE you if you have never heard of my country.

At just 8 square miles, about a third of the size of Manhattan, and located in the southern Pacific Ocean, Nauru appears as merely a pinpoint on most maps — if it is not missing entirely in a vast expanse of blue.

But make no mistake; we are a sovereign nation, with our own language, customs and history dating back 3,000 years. Nauru is worth a quick Internet search, I assure you, for not only will you discover a fascinating country that is often overlooked, you will find an indispensible cautionary tale about life in a place with hard ecological limits.

Phosphate mining, first by foreign companies and later our own, cleared the lush tropical rainforest that once covered our island’s interior, scarring the land and leaving only a thin strip of coastline for us to live on. The legacy of exploitation left us with few economic alternatives and one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, and led previous governments to make unwise investments that ultimately squandered our country’s savings.

I am not looking for sympathy, but rather warning you what can happen when a country runs out of options. The world is headed down a similar path with the relentless burning of coal and oil, which is altering the planet’s climate, melting ice caps, making oceans more acidic and edging us ever closer to a day when no one will be able to take clean water, fertile soil or abundant food for granted.

Climate change also threatens the very existence of many countries in the Pacific, where the sea level is projected to rise three feet or more by the end of the century. Already, Nauru’s coast, the only habitable area, is steadily eroding, and communities in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands have been forced to flee their homes to escape record tides. The low-lying nations of Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands may vanish entirely within our grandchildren’s lifetimes.

Similar climate stories are playing out on nearly every continent, where a steady onslaught of droughts, floods and heat waves, which are expected to become even more frequent and intense with climate change, have displaced millions of people and led to widespread food shortages.

The changes have already heightened competition over scarce resources, and could foreshadow life in a world where conflicts are increasingly driven by environmental catastrophes.

Yet the international community has not begun to prepare for the strain they will put on humanitarian organizations or their implications for political stability around the world.

In 2009, an initiative by the Pacific Small Island Developing States, of which I am chairman, prompted the United Nations General Assembly to recognize the link between climate change and security. But two years later, no concrete action has been taken.

So I was pleased to learn that the United Nations Security Council will take up the issue tomorrow in an open debate, in which I will have the opportunity to address the body and reiterate my organization’s proposals.

First, the Security Council should join the General Assembly in recognizing climate change as a threat to international peace and security. It is a threat as great as nuclear proliferation or global terrorism. Second, a special representative on climate and security should be appointed. Third, we must assess whether the United Nations system is itself capable of responding to a crisis of this magnitude.

The stakes are too high to implement these measures only after a disaster is already upon us. Negotiations to reduce emissions should remain the primary forum for reaching an international agreement. We are not asking for blue helmets to intervene; we are simply asking the international community to plan for the biggest environmental and humanitarian challenge of our time.

Nauru has begun an intensive program to restore the damage done by mining, and my administration has put environmental sustainability at the center of our policymaking. Making our island whole again will be a long and difficult process, but it is our home and we cannot leave it for another one.

I forgive you if you have never heard of Nauru — but you will not forgive yourselves if you ignore our story.

Marcus Stephen is the president of Nauru.