Day 1: It was good to be reunited with some old faces from the original Climate Ride in 2008, and to make new friends at the starting line. We ferried out to New Jersey under gray but nonthreatening skies and started our 300-mile journey. I arrived at the Princeton camp early enough to set up my tent and get in line for a massage while one of my riding buddies powered our phone chargers with a dynamo that had been hooked up to a cycle trainer. The massage turned out to be a mixed blessing. One of my upper vertebrae clicked back into alignment under the slightest pressure, but I awoke the next morning with my shoulder in more pain than ever from the tissue work.
Day 3: On the third day we awoke to a light mist and rain. Water's not so bad for riding as long as you're not cold. What water does, though, is stir up the shards of glass on the road and stick 'em on your tire. Revolution after revolution they get pounded in until your precious inner tube is punctured. Roughly 2 dozen riders got a puncture in the first hour of riding, some people more than once. I managed to skirt all the carnage and get a little ways down the road, but chivalry called me and my friend David Dubovsky to the rescue of Shawna Seldon, one of my fellow board members, as she struggled with a stubborn tire. We were rewarded several miles down the road with a piping hot pain au chocolat, one of the best I've ever tasted. The rain was letting up at that point, which made for great riding as we headed into Amish country, chasing buggies of stoic men and inquisitive children up the hills. The knee I had fallen on the week before had started giving me trouble on Day 2, so I raised my saddle thinking it would relieve some of the strain. It did, but little did I know that doing so would cause other problems down the line. Our camp that night was a Mennonite retreat nestled in a hollow off the road, where we were treated to a supernatural sunset reflected off of textbook-puffy clouds.
as a sculptor in Brooklyn. I had promised her I would wear it in return for a donation. Despite my flamboyant attire, I found myself in a withdrawn mood. Climate Ride is a lot about socializing and networking with great people from the bicycle and sustainability worlds, but for some reason on both rides I've felt the need to just Zen out on the open road on Day 4. Maybe it's because we head into my home state of Maryland and it causes me to reflect on my personal voyage. Maybe it's just the sheer build-up of exhaustion that comes from pushing my body past where it usually goes, the spiritual displacement of constant motion. In any case, I needed some serious Zen because I was starting to get persistent pain in my Achilles tendon opposite the knee that had been bothering me before. (A saddle too high can also cause strain, which is why proper bike fit is super important.) After a lunch stop at a traditional horse farm in rural Maryland, I pushed on, bolstered by the quiet companionship of another tired yet strong rider, Allison Smith, a friend from the 2008 ride. Coming around a bend we almost ran over a turtle crossing the road, which warranted a stop for some ridiculous photos. The lessons of the tortoise and the hare certainly came to mind. We pushed on. The pain intensified and narrowed my focus. Chatter tailed off. I just wanted the day to be over. And then we hit it. The biggest hill of the ride. Now, I usually try to gut out the steep ones, but I really wanted to get off and walk. I almost did. But about three-quarters of the way up the hill these miraculous chalk messages started to appear, Tour de France style, with words of inspiration. And names. And then my name! And with it I let out a yawp of purest joy that pierced the quiet forest, and with a heart reignited and my energy turned primal I charged up the rest of the hill. I waited for Allison at the top and we wound our way the last couple miles to camp. That night, Geraldine, one of the Climate Ride founders, floated the idea to me of joining the inaugural board. Everyone chowed down on delivery pizza to make up for the nutritional deficits of a delicious yet insufficiently vegan kosher meal. It was a special night, with a bonfire after dinner that put everyone under its pensive spell. We could feel the end of the ride somewhere out there in the dark, rushing up to meet us.
MY 2011 BENEFICIARY: TRANSPORTATION ALTERNATIVES
In 2011, my Climate Ride beneficiary was New York's best bicycling group: Transportation Alternatives. I have been a volunteer with them for years, so it really made me happy when they signed on to work with Climate Ride. Together with the other riders on Team TA, we raised about $22,000 to support their work. And since Climate Ride disburses funds to the beneficiaries in December, TA was able to pair their Climate Ride money with a year-end matching grant, thus doubling the impact to nearly $45,000. And it's all paying off for cycling in New York City. The bike network keeps growing, and we are on the cusp of getting a bicycle rental system that will revolutionize the way people get around town. Transportation Alternatives has been one of the major forces pushing this kind of project forward to build a culture of safe cycling, and reclaim our streets.
I'm back in the saddle of my trusty bike "El Fuego" and ready to tilt at windmills again on the Climate Ride from New York to Washington. It's a 5-day, 300-mile tour starting May 13. With your support, I'll ride to DC with 150 other cyclists to lobby Congress for climate change policy and sustainable transportation. We're raising money for some great bicycle and environmental nonprofits along the way.
If you're able to sponsor me in this project it would be deeply appreciated, whether you believe in bikes, believe in climate change (It's real!), or just believe in me.
You can DONATE HERE while I continue below about why this is so important to me, and why it matters for all of us.
MY BENEFICIARY: TRANSPORTATION ALTERNATIVES
A major part of why I decided to ride again this year is that my favorite New York bicycling group is now a Climate Ride beneficiary. I've been volunteering with Transportation Alternatives for years to help make the city safer for cyclists and pedestrians.
And it's working! TA does an amazing job when it comes to keeping the fire lit under the Department of Transportation, and the projects they have developed are saving lives in New York every week. TA is an efficient local nonprofit that makes a big impact on a tough city.
Without Transportation Alternatives we wouldn't have all the bike lanes and pedestrian plazas that are making people healthier, and making the streets of NYC even livelier... the first such innovations in more than 50 years.
The laws in New York require people to ride their bikes in the street, yet anyone who has ever ridden around town can tell you that the streets are not safe. The traffic is horrendous, and people get hurt and killed all the time. We need to correct this injustice to make our city a better place.
Bicycles are also one of the best and most immediate ways to lessen our impact on the climate. They are a clean, healthy, efficient, fun, and inexpensive way to travel. When you ride, the benefits flow to you and to everyone around you.
To get a feel for what my friends at Transportation Alternatives are accomplishing on the streets of New York, check out this video from executive director Paul Steely White:
HOW MUCH I NEED TO RAISE
The funding minimum for Climate Ride is $2,400 and my deadline is May 5. To challenge myself, I've decided to lift the bar even higher this year. In 2008, a peloton of 80+ donors helped me raise more than $3,400.
I made a promise in '08 that for every dollar over my goal of $3,000 I would make a matching donation to Transportation Alternatives out of my own pocket. I'm reiterating that pledge for my new target of $5,000.
You can give any amount, though I did create some potentially amusing donor levels below. If your company or organization gives matching gifts, that's doubly great! Everything is tax-deductible:
$25 – Chain Gang
$50 – Carbon Cutters
$100 – Breakaway Winners
$250 – Influence Pedalers
$500+ – Stratospheric Saviors
There are also prize incentives this year, including a bicycle valued at $1,200. And while I'm sure Debra would love me to have as many bicycles around the house as my heart desires, any prize I win will go to my top donor.
WHY WE NEED CLEAN ENERGY
One look at the news these days and it's easy to see that the energy situation is getting pretty ugly. BP. Fukushima. Fracking. Canada digging up its forests to mine for oil, which I reported on recently.
Meanwhile, Google just announced that it will invest $170 million in solar. Hm, the company with access to all the information in the world is investing in solar… It doesn't take a futurist to see where this is going.
Yet somehow our Congress just doesn't get it. The majority of Americans are in favor of clean energy, yet some members of Congress have actually voted to deny that climate change is real, and to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its Supreme-Court-mandated ability to control carbon emissions and give us clean air.
Meeting with your reps is the best way to influence them, and the brave and sane climate change voices in Congress need our encouragement.
WHAT I LEARNED FROM CLIMATE RIDE 2008
The people on Climate Ride are filled with sustainability wisdom, and there are lectures at each night's camp, but the top three lessons I learned last time are as follows:
1. My friends are among the most generous people in the world. It was no big surprise, of course, but having never done a major fund-raiser before I didn't know what to expect, and I was overwhelmed by the support from all corners, including digital friends I had never met in person.
2. Bicycling 300 miles is actually quite difficult. Fun, but difficult. I have to admit, I was pretty spent by day 5, and a fellow rider crashed into me that morning and broke my shifter. Nobody was hurt and luckily I was able to borrow a bike and finish the ride, while he was able to use my front wheel to get the job done.
3. The time is now to stand up for what we know is right. A politician's calendar is like the vacuum of space: It's filled with dark matter! Literally. The coal and oil companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars to keep things just the way they like it, and that gives them access. But money is money, and time is time, and Congress is limited in the latter category just like we are. That's why we need to get my bike shoes in the door at least a couple hours per year to stand up for what we believe in. The team at Transportation Alternatives does a terrific job keeping the pressure up here in New York all year round.
When you donate, send me a picture of you, as I'll be compiling a VISUAL PETITION to deliver to my reps so that they know there are dozens of people standing with me.
SPREADING THE WORD
To me the most important part is spreading the word that we need to get organized, buy clean energy, ride bikes, and imagine a sustainable future. Raising $5,000 in three weeks is pretty ambitious, so feel free to send word of this adventure to others who are interested in bikes and sustainability.
Thanks again for all your support. If you have any questions, please drop me a comment below.
PS: Here's my donation page again, in case you've read this far :)
After the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and now the nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima reactors in Japan, it should be clear that oil and nuclear power are not benign forces in our world. Both are toxic, dirty, and insecure forms of energy. It is thus astonishing that the Canadian energy industry proposes combining the two.
The boreal forest of northern Alberta sits atop one of the largest fossil fuel deposits in the world: the Athabasca bituminous sands. Energy insiders call it oil sands, while environmentalists prefer tar sands—each side seeing what it wants. At room temperature, raw bitumen has the consistency of asphalt and won't flow through a pipeline without being diluted or upgraded into synthetic crude oil.
Underground, the bitumen exists in a mixture with sand and clay, and there are two techniques for extracting it. Surface mines have been the predominant method since commercial production began in the 1960s. At the Suncor Energy mine, for example, the native forests, topsoil, and muskeg bog were cleared, and 50 meters of "overburden" earth was removed to expose a tar sand deposit itself about 50 meters thick. The bitumen is mined 24 hours per day with massive electric shovels that fill dump trucks three stories tall.
The dump trucks haul the tar sands out of the mine to a separation unit where it is mixed with hot water. The bitumen floats to the top and is skimmed off, while the wastewater slurry—containing sand, clay, salts, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, arsenic, naphthenic acid, and other substances—is pumped into large, open-air tailings ponds where it is left to evaporate. The problem with tailings ponds has been that the finest clay particles take decades to settle into sediment. To accelerate reclamation of the land, some companies are now experimenting with adding polyacrylamide flocculant, in a process similar to municipal waste treatment, to help separate the solids from the water.
Mining for deeper deposits is uneconomical, so the industry also employs in situ drilling. In a typical setup, two horizontal wells are drilled, one above the other. The top well injects steam into the sands, melting out the bitumen, which is then pumped out through the lower well in a process called Steam-Assisted Gravity Drainage, or SAGD. The well pads of these SAGD installations dot the remote boreal landscape in a network of roads, pipelines, and seismic cutlines.
Mining and in situ operations both consume a lot of energy. The advantage of in situ is that the land is much less disturbed, making it easier to return it to a natural state. SAGD also separates the sand and bitumen below the surface, requiring significantly less infrastructure. Of the total Athabasca deposit, 80 percent is thought to be recoverable through in situ and 20 percent through mining.
SAGD requires a lot of natural gas to make steam. The ratio of steam injected to oil extracted is what determines a project's carbon emissions as well as its profitability. Mining and SAGD together consume hundreds of billions of cubic feet of natural gas per year, a substantial fraction of Canada's entire demand.
That's where nuclear power enters the picture. As bitumen production in Alberta is slated to expand over the next several decades, gas production will be in decline. This means that eventually producers will have to either burn part of their bitumen, thus eating into their profits, or find new power sources to generate heat and electricity.
Nuclear power has been mooted to fill this gap. Japan, of course, turned to nuclear power during the 1970s oil shocks to offset its dependence on foreign oil. Now, in an ironic twist, Canada is considering nuclear power so that it can expand its oil exports. Most of the tar sands oil is sold south of the border through a pipeline network to meet American demand, while Canada still imports foreign oil to its eastern provinces.
One has to wonder why Canada would burn so much of its natural gas, a relatively clean fossil fuel, to extract an even dirtier energy. The answer is, of course, to make money. Most of the world's oil is controlled by national oil companies, making Canada one of the only remaining patches where the energy industry can really play in the sandbox.
And the Athabasca deposit is a big sandbox. The area is roughly the size of New York State. It contains an estimated 1.7 trillion barrels of bitumen, of which about 170 billion barrels are extractable with current technologies. Multiply by $100 per barrel and pretty soon we're talking real money.
But it is capital intensive to slurp these heavy, unconventional dregs of the global oil barrel. Hundreds of billions of dollars have already been invested in the Alberta tar sands, where it takes an oil price of $65 to 85 per barrel to recuperate costs. As recently as 2009, oil was back down in the $40 range, slowing or canceling many projects.
So is tar sands oil dirty oil? Of course it is. All oil is dirty. But is it dirtier than other sources? On average, yes. According to Cambridge Energy Research Associates, oil from Alberta tends to be about 5 to 15 percent more polluting than the average oil consumed in the United States when compared on a well-to-wheels basis. Twenty-five percent of oil's emissions occur during the production phase, while 75 percent comes from combustion in a vehicle.
Industry insiders often repeat the following argument: It's the consumer's fault, whether they mean car owners or America in general. "If you would stop driving so much, we would stop digging up all this oil and pumping it in your direction," goes the typical line. Then whenever the United States wavers in its affection for Canadian energy, the argument becomes a threat: "We'll just sell it to the Chinese instead."
This argument is nonsense on the individual level. American consumers aren't presented with a significant choice at the pump. They get to decide between three octane ratings with maybe a dash of dubiously efficient ethanol in the blend. The only real power a person has to reduce oil consumption is in deciding where to live. Ditching the car and moving to a dense, pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly community with access to mass transit is the most effective solution. For those who cannot or do not wish to move, the alternative is to work through the local political process to redesign your community.
Most families haven't made the carless choice yet. Instead the typical response is to buy a bigger car when gasoline is cheap and a more efficient one when the price goes back up. Without a price floor of some sort, America will never break its addiction to oil, foreign or domestic. A strong gasoline tax could serve as a de facto price floor if it were set high enough. Unfortunately the United States has chosen to set the bar very low: Gas tax is a pittance relative to the price of gasoline, and it isn't indexed to inflation, meaning the value has actually declined over the last several decades.
It is an abdication of political responsibility to argue that an unorganized and reactionary collective such as consumers is at fault for oil consumption. The essence of ethics is whether our political institutions can make choices that are in the interest of all affected stakeholders, local and global, regardless of the political cost.
Seen in this light, can the Canadian and Albertan governments be trusted not to morph into petrostates?
Sadly the outlook is bleak. The federal environment minister recently declared that Canadian oil is "ethical oil." This concept is drawn straight from the title of a book by conservative political activist Ezra Levant, in which he argues that Canada's oil is morally superior to oil from countries with poor human rights records. Even if Canada and the United States were to boycott imports from all countries they consider problematic, an option neither is willing to consider, oil would still remain a globally priced and traded commodity and the benefits of its consumption would continue to flow to unsavory dictators.
On the provincial level, the Alberta government is of the opinion that the tar sands "should" be developed further, despite the fact that a panel recently found that water and environmental monitoring program has been inadequate. Alberta's Energy Resources Conservation Board, its regulatory agency for energy development, has one of the more Orwellian names one can imagine.
Bullish development of the oil sands has also contributed to Canada's violation of its Kyoto Protocol commitments. The goal was to decrease emissions 6 percent below 1990 levels. Instead, Canadian emissions have increased by a whopping 24 percent, in great measure due to tar sands expansion. Tar sands emissions now account for about 5 percent of Canada's total.
Alberta did manage to enact one innovative policy that few other jurisdictions will even consider: a carbon tax of $15 per ton. This move should be applauded, but it is unfortunately accompanied by billion-dollar investments in the unproven technologies of carbon capture and sequestration—an expensive crutch to help the fossil fuel industry limp into the future—with minimal focus on renewable energy research, development, and deployment.
Another concern for Canada's energy future is that the royalty regime [PDF] for tar sands leases is too weak. The rate is set at 1 percent until a project becomes profitable, and then it jumps to 25 percent, which is still low compared to some countries. Alberta risks squandering an opportunity to build its Heritage sovereign wealth fund while the people's resources disappear into private pockets, leaving the province without financial means to transition to a cleaner economy.
Is America being a good neighbor in this transaction, or merely abetting a fellow oil junkie? The proposed Keystone XL extension of the pipeline network that carries Albertan oil to the United States is currently under consideration, and final approval falls to the U.S. Department of State because of the international border crossing. It was announced on March 15 that a supplemental environmental impact statement would be issued, followed by a new public comment period, to determine whether the project is "in the U.S. national interest."
Buying more energy from a friendly neighbor appears like a good idea on the surface. But while energy security has the ring of a robust and consistent concept, it is actually a relative one. It wears a false halo of military necessity even during peacetime. Supplier countries want security of demand, and consumer countries want security of supply. What the oil industry really worries about is running out of business. "Producers who seek to maximize long-term revenue will want to maintain oil prices stable at the highest price that does not induce substantial investment in substitutes," writes technology and innovation expert Philip Auerswald.
Should we be worried about today's high prices? Auerswald doesn't think so. High prices merely hasten the inevitable transition to a post-oil economy. Estimations vary on the timing of peak oil, but the finitude of the resource is undisputed and so is its eventual depletion to a level where the cost of extraction will equal the value of the product.
Saying that America should be open to more tar sands oil is basically just another version of the "drill here, drill now" argument for tapping the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve in Alaska. The Obama administration, it should be noted, has been a booster of domestic production, and production has gone up in the last five years. Canadian production has also increased significantly in the last decade, mostly from growth in the tar sands. But after two major oil price spikes during the same period, in 2008 and again now, it should be crystal clear that domestic and Canadian production growth doesn't control the global price, and that a much better strategy lies in finding replacement technologies and actively reducing demand.
But this is a tough sell when you think of things like how many Caterpillar 797B dump trucks are needed to mine the tar sands, and how the parts are manufactured all over the United States, by quite a few workers in quite a few Congressional districts. Add to that the public's resistance to raising gasoline taxes, and it becomes quite easy to see why it's politically difficult to enact bold and necessary energy policy. The hundreds of millions of lobbying dollars the oil industry spends certainly don't help our Senators see things clearly.
American politicians have been saying we need to get off foreign oil for half a century. Canadian energy executives and politicians bristle when they hear things like that. They feel that somehow Canadian oil shouldn't be considered foreign because it comes from North America. But the ethical thing is for both countries to pursue energy independence based on clean, renewable sources that don't pollute the environment, harm human health, and risk massive destabilization of the global climate.
As it stands, Canada has become a climate change ostrich with its head in the oil sands.
A version of this article first appeared in the Carnegie Ethics Online column.
As Evan Hansen noted in an earlier post, the Haitian recovery will have to be down to earth, literally. Local food production is invaluable in a country where people struggle to feed themselves. For advice on this I sought out Geoff Lawton of the Australian Permaculture Research Institute. He answered my questions about how to strategize and deploy sustainable permaculture solutions across the country.
EVAN O'NEIL: Given the ecological degradation in Haiti, and the need for food and fuel, how can permaculture projects help rehabilitate the landscape and provide sustainable livelihoods?
GEOFF LAWTON: Permaculture projects can help through a holistic design approach that integrates people's ability, ingenuity, and skill-sets with the available resources that are locally understood. Integrating local people's skills together with local resources can increase community members' sense of self-reliance, have a unifying effect on the community, and empower local people to provide for their own needs, with the minimum amount of assistance from the outside world.
This process fosters and creates a sense of independence for local people in a situation that can be portrayed by the outside media as insurmountable. So the psychological and physical result of permaculture projects is that it creates a beneficial turnaround for the people and the landscape from a disaster situation to a meaningful future and recovery.
EO: What role can permaculture play in urban environments such as Port-au-Prince?
GL: Major solutions emerge out of major problematic situations. In Port-au-Prince, there are many solutions that can emerge, including the restructuring of built infrastructure in a way that creates hard-surface water runoff aimed at productive urban gardens; creating a microclimate through the recycling and redesign of the landscape; and implementing biological cleaning of urban grey- and blackwater waste.
Organic materials can be converted into high-quality inoculum compost useful for the production of extremely high-nutrient-dense food gardens within the urban and peri-urban landscape, where gardens would also include small animal systems, small aquatic systems, and medicinal food gardens.
Introducing and demonstrating appropriate alternate energy systems that can operate on a low economic investment and supply people with electricity would be an ideal inclusion and inspiration for local people as part of an empowerment and cooperative model.
A key reference and example for what is possible is given in the case of Cuba, with further information being available at www.pathtofreedom.com.
EO: Organizationally is there a management or ownership structure that you’ve found most sustainable? Do permaculture projects work best at a certain scale?
GL: The organizational structure most suitable for permaculture projects is management by a local nongovernmental organization operating as a nonprofit education and demonstration entity, where information is networked by the project locally, nationally, regionally, and internationally with the support and partnership of an internationally connected nonprofit NGO. This helps to pool the international skills and experience of its students, teachers, administrators, and project managers.
The education center functions best when it teaches courses for 25–35 people per site, and it is crucial that the education facility be open not just to local students but also to international students who are prepared to pay first-world international prices for education and internship programs and are inspired and encouraged by the fact their tuition provides a major part of the project's funding.
The infrastructure on these projects needs to operate as a dual-function example of local and renewable housing—i.e., energy efficient, constructed of local materials which are readily available, and affordable to local people.
An ideal land area for a project is a site that is typical of local land use, somewhere where the land is no longer productive or is a difficult production area for local people; somewhere where the land is not the worst, or the most difficult land and not the best or ideal land, but a piece of land that represents an average example of what local people have to deal with in their everyday life.
EO: How would you strategize the best sites around the country? Are there any challenges unique to the Haitian landscape?
GL: The over-exploitation of natural resources and the depletion of biodiversity in the landscape of Haiti creates a situation where the prioritization of good key-point positions in the landscape would be an imperative for a fast result, and getting a fast result would be a powerful way to inspire local people to extend and replicate the permaculture model. A key strategy is to identify specific water-harvesting points at the tops to the mid-slopes of watersheds, in order to supply gravity irrigation and organic nutrient flow to areas that are appropriately shallow in slope for an intensified, diverse, and interconnected productive yield.
These systems need to be set up within a practical distance of the population so that numbers of local people can be involved in the implementation and establishment, and through their involvment in this process they can get the added educational benefit of acquiring new knowledge and skills that can support them in supporting themselves, now and into the future.
EO: Some conservation organizations use the concept of cores and corridors to protect wildlife. Are there analogous benefits in permaculture? Would it make sense, for example, to connect farms to the national parks, or to the forested Dominican border, in a larger green network?
GL: Ecosystemic processes and principles are inherent and central within the design science of permaculture planning and recovery and blend perfectly with natural and conservation forest ecosystems within a contoured corridor pattern, watershed dendritic pattern, and also along human transport routes, within the urban or larger landscape area. Permaculture project designs always emphasize the integration and integrating benefits of harmonizing with natural landscape forms and profiles.
[PHOTO CREDIT: Manioc on a steep slope. By Nick Hobgood (CC).]
Dujarric notes that historically in times of war the U.S. government has successfully played the patriot card for various goals: recruiting, war bonds, rationing, etc. Sociologically this argument is dead. America today is a post-sacrifice dreamland. In an economy driven by consumption, there are no costs, only opportunities.
[This is the fluff fed to the American people through marketing, from the bully pulpit (go to war and lower taxes), and by a media that sanitizes the true human experience of war or revolution. (The photos leaked from Abu Ghraib were an exception to this taboo, and the Neda Sultan video a stark intrusion of the Real.) Little wonder our fictional visual media constantly grow more casual, visceral, celebratory, and creative in their depiction of torture and murder. The problem is less that these media motivate violence and more that they are an expression of our repressed refusal to maturely engage the ongoing violence and evil of our world, whether banal or dramatic—poverty, rapes in Congo, strip mining.]
Practically speaking Obama has been reluctant to coax or force people into cutting oil consumption. During the campaign he rejected the idea of raising gasoline taxes, which would have satisfied Dujarric's desire to make life harder for authoritarian petrocrats. And now the administration is handcuffed by the need to stimulate the economy, while the underlying fundamental problem has not been solved: the economy equals pollution. Dujarric rightly notes that the global recession has been the only effective means of slowing emissions.
But the major fault line in his argument is its appeal to a very retrograde expression of patriotism, one based on fear, hate, enemies, and "the other." Gone are the days when we can blanket lump and demonize a "foreign" people to accomplish domestic or international goals. Destabilization of regimes and democracy promotion of this stripe is dead.
If Obama wants to appeal to American patriotism, he should elevate the debate. Americans pride themselves on being the type of people who don't run from their responsibilities. And when you look at current, cumulative, and per capita emissions, Americans bear a lot of responsibility for the current crisis.
Going forward, successful nations will be defined less by whom they confront, and more by what they can construct (and how they share it). This in the end is one symbolic lesson of the falling towers of 9/11: What have we built?
Given the urgency of global warming, the situation has moved past specific battles like saving polar bears to the idea of saving civilization. But this requires that we also be civilized. To achieve this, honesty is the change people have been waiting for, not jingoism.
I sat in on a conference call yesterday with Forum One and OneWorld U.S. concerning the use of technology to direct earthquake relief and recovery funds to Haiti. There were some innovative orgs on the line, many of which have already been covered extensively in the media, so I'll just summarize some of the main points here.
Michaela Hackner of Forum One emphasized the transformation we're witnessing as charities reach out to people online and through their mobile devices. She said the crux of the new paradigm is money, connections, and awareness. You could also add speed: Michaela cited stats from the Red Cross indicating that they raised $10 million in 48 hours via text-message donations.
There is also software springing up to assist aid workers, such as the Ushahidi Haiti map, and a Creole translation app emerging out of Crisis Camp. Of course with the new frontier that digital technologies make possible there is also room for abuse, such as the false rumor that American Airlines would be donating relief flights.
Michaela's key conclusion was that humanitarian and development aid and technology innovators need to get in the same room to understand challenges and share data. This would not only make the current response more effective, but could also help with longer-term questions of planning, transparency, and sustainability.
Andy Carvin of NPR presented a high-resolution map of Port-au-Prince that volunteers have helped build from satellite imagery, tagging hospital locations and other useful data. He said the map is downloadable to GPS devices for navigating the city. He also mentioned the Google People Finder tool, which the State Department has embedded on their website.
Jacob Colker of The Extraordinaries described a crowd-sourced system whereby global volunteers help process missing persons data from their home computers. Haiti earthquake images are pulled from news stories and Flickr and uploaded to a system where volunteers tag the photos with various characteristics—female, living, etc.—to populate a search engine. Matches in the search engine are then used to try and identify or connect people on the ground. He said that of 750 potential matches generated this way they had tried to reach out to 60 families, but had found it very difficult to get in contact.
Clearly some of these collaborations and projects are in early stages and rapid response mode, but there is a lot of potential for funding long-term, innovative crisis management strategies and technology infrastructure.
[PHOTO CREDIT: Georgia Popplewell (CC).]
I attended a great Social Media Week panel on the future of Haiti yesterday at the New York Times. While the majority of the discussion analyzed social media and citizen journalism in crisis zones, several Haiti-specific lessons also emerged. Here's video; below are my highlights from the panel.
THE DOCTORS WITHOUT BORDERS STORY
Jason Cone, communications director for Médécins sans Frontières (aka MSF or Doctors without Borders), said that the Haiti earthquake had really been a "game-changer" for his organization. Subscribers to their social media platforms multiplied rapidly and he said that going forward social media would likely be the "most important place we interact with the public," outstripping their main website and the traditional press release model. Their Twitter feed pretty much speaks for itself.
MSF had staff already working in Haiti when the quake hit, so first priority was to make sure their people were alright. The staff mobilized for disaster relief but found that they were "rapidly blazing through emergency supplies," which was compounded by their relief planes not being allowed to land in Port-au-Prince. The control tower was down at the airport and the U.S. Air Force had taken over to direct traffic, but coordination was difficult and MSF planes were diverted to the Dominican Republic multiple times.
This prompted MSF to engage the U.S. Air Force on its Twitter page, with an assist from NBC journalist Ann Curry. Saying to herself, "Lives are at stake," Ann decided to reach out through personal channels to Adm. Mike Mullen to lobby on behalf of MSF and secure access for its relief supplies, including an inflatable hospital. She had seen MSF doctors working literally at gunpoint in other conflict zones and had admiration for the organization's effectiveness. Eventually her networking plus MSF's use of traditional contacts to coordinate flights paid off, but Cone said it was a "firestarter to have this conversation online."
SOCIAL MEDIA AND CITIZEN JOURNALISM IN TIMES OF CRISIS
Moderator Andrew Rasiej of Personal Democracy Forum asked Rob Mackey of the New York Times Lede blog how they filter social media to find relevant information when a major event floods the web with status updates. Mackey indicated that live blogging the 2008 Mumbai attack was nearly impossible, but that techniques have improved since then. The location feature can be useful, but it is still necessary to investigate and verify a person's details. For example, as we saw with the Iran election, Twitter users were encouraged to change their locations to Tehran in "I am Spartacus" solidarity with the protesters, to make it harder for authorities to track and persecute people.
One method is to find a nodal person on the ground such as a photographer and build a filter based on their contacts. Ann Curry did something similar with Luke Renner, a humanitarian worker based in Cap-Haïtien prior to the quake. He reached out to her via Twitter and gave her his phone number. She put him in touch with NBC Nightly News, they vetted him, and the next day she was interviewing him live as cohost of the Today Show.
Later that day her team was en route to Haiti and trying to figure out how to connect with Luke once there, as most of the communications channels were down or unreliable. Through a mix of Blackberries, Twitter, satellite phones, and Skype they eventually managed to coordinate a rendezvous at the airport. Ann's experience of watching Luke start to double as a humanitarian and a citizen journalist drove home the message that "Twitter is teaching people the power of information."
Rasiej asked whether citizen journalism and Haiti have changed our relationship with traditional media. Mackey responded that the change began during the Iran election when hundreds of YouTube videos were uploaded daily. He said that when you're relying on anonymous sources from the web you have to have a transparent discussion with your audience about that fact. Rasiej noted that in some cases the veracity of video clips has even been crowd-sourced, with viewers pointing out continuity mistakes in the shadows of different scenes.
Curry described an emerging ethos where people with useful info express a "real wish to serve" and a desire to "be part of a force for good" by passing that info to the right people or simply retweeting it to their networks. But the buck stops with the reputation of the journalist when it comes to responsibility for vetting the info. If you let yourself be misled you will end up misleading. She mentioned that a lot of biased info came out of Iran, specifically regarding torture, and it was "never backed up."
Cone noted that it is easier to preserve neutrality in a humanitarian situation like Haiti than in a political crisis like Iran. In the case of MSF, their effectiveness depends on depoliticization. He said that in Haiti they turned to traditional radio interviews to debunk rumors that going to a hospital meant certain amputation.
THE EMOTIONAL QUOTIENT
After seeing the horrible human devastation of the earthquake, Curry feels that a lot of humanitarian workers and Haitian citizens alike will need post-traumatic stress counseling. Cone agreed, noting that they have already started to rotate out some of their original response staff, debriefing them in the Dominican Republic. Curry says that seeing bodies everywhere and looking into the eyes of people you know are going to die provokes a lot of survivor's guilt. Psychological restoration in Haiti will be an important component of long-term stability.
On that note, Andrew Rasiej asked whether social media could be used to keep attention focused on Haiti. Cone said MSF will continue its social media efforts despite reconstruction stories being less dramatic than the original event. Ann Curry noted the media's tendency to lapse into disaster fatigue, citing the bloody and drawn-out conflict in Congo, which Nick Kristof revisited again in a recent column. She said network coverage of Haiti started to fade while the topic was still trending high on Twitter. This prompted her to go to her boss and ask if they should cover it more. [Used in this way, there can be self-reinforcing feedback with trend metrics, as people tend to tweet what they're exposed to—a new media Ouroboros.]
Curry also predicted that social media would continue to nourish niche knowledge, speculating that disasters will leave in their wake a "tough core group that continues to be informed," which pretty much sums up the HaitiRewired mission. Rasiej cited stats about mobile phone penetration worldwide, saying we might see global consciousness before we know it, even in places like Congo.
LESSONS FOR FUTURE FOCUS
Several elements emerge from this picture as key focal points for the HaitiRewired community: Fund-raising, Distributed energy, Mobile phones, and Psychological restoration.
It's clear that the success of text-message donations in this crisis means that we'll see a proliferation of organizations using such services the next time disaster strikes somewhere. In this vein, it may also be relevant to explore microfinancing and peer-to-peer donations as a source of sustainable development income.
Communication on the ground is crucial in emergencies, making mobile phone service a priority in Haiti. Of course, the phones and other relief services need power that can't be knocked out easily, which is why a distributed network of energy sources is necessary for resilience.
Finally, the psychosocial restoration of Haiti must be taken into account when exploring design options for urban infrastructure. Of course, the greatest stress relief for the Haitian people would be an end to their crushing poverty.
[PHOTO CREDIT: Georgia Popplewell (CC).]