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Green City

Green City: Climate change could spark more wildfires


› news@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY Imagine a future in which hundreds of thousands of people in the more arid parts of the country flee wildfires. Imagine a future in which many of those people never return home when the winds shift and the temperature drops because the blazes have left their property a smoldering husk. Imagine this happening with ever more increasing frequency until it’s hard to tell where one fire season ends and the next begins.

Hard to imagine a future like that?

Then maybe it’s easier just to remember last summer’s fire season, when the fires in the American West and Southwest forced the evacuation of more than a half-million people and burned thousands of homes. That terrifying summer could become a more regular reality under our current climate-change trajectory.

Scientists generally don’t describe ecological changes in such apocalyptic terms. But it’s hard not to when faced with the early results of major experiments being conducted at the Nevada Desert Research Center. These experiments are designed to show the impacts on desert environments of climate change caused by soaring levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

"We need to see how natural ecosystems are responding to changes in the global climate," Desert Research Institute scientist and project director Lynn Fenstermaker said. "In particular we are interested in how well certain ecosystems are going to be able to sequester [contain in the soil] the additional carbon that’s being produced by fossil fuel burning."

Rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere are one of the main causes of global warming and could create all kinds of environmental mischief, particularly in sensitive desert ecosystems.

These changes could have devastating consequences, with effects including increased growth rates for plants, increased rain, and shifting varieties of plants and animals. These transformations may allow invasive, nonnative species to gain footholds, scientists warn. And with the additional fuel on the ground come bigger and more destructive fires.

The Nevada Desert FACE Facility is hosting one project to study these effects. FACE stands for Free-Air CO2 Enrichment. It’s a 10-year collaboration between several Nevada universities, the Desert Research Institute, the National Science Foundation, Brookhaven National Laboratory, and the Department of Energy. The two-square-kilometer desert facility is located on the Nevada Test Site, 65 miles north of Las Vegas.

FACE allows scientists to raise the CO2 level of large plots of land. For this project the concentration of CO2 is raised 50 percent above the present atmospheric levels in three plots in the Mojave Desert, North America’s driest ecosystem. It’s done by essentially fumigating the area with the greenhouse gas.

"Early results have shown that when we have a wet winter, an El Niño winter, we have invasive grass species producing a lot more and a lot bigger plants [including red brome, a relative of cheat grass]. This particular species leaves a lot of dead biomass [plant matter] on the surface, and then you get lightning strikes and then these nice rangeland fires," Fenstermaker said.

The worst part is that the wildfires also contribute to the carbon load in the atmosphere.

Experiments like those at the Nevada Desert Research Center are necessary because some 40 percent of the earth’s land surface is arid or semiarid, with more land becoming desert each year. This process — the degradation of formerly productive land, often caused by humans — is called desertification. It’s already responsible for an unknown number of deaths. For example, according to US Geological Survey documents, between 1968 and 1973 the desertification-caused Sahel drought in Africa led to the deaths of up to a quarter of a million people and the collapse of the agricultural bases of five countries.

Will increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere cause devastating fires, more powerful hurricanes, decreased land productivity, and inconceivable starvation? It may be hard to imagine that sort of future — and even harder to accept that it may already be happening.

D. Brian Burghart is the editor of Reno News and Review. View the climate-change study at www.unlv.edu/Climate_Change_Research/NDFF/NDFF_index.html.

Comments, ideas, and submissions for Green City, the Guardian‘s weekly environmental column, can be sent to news@sfbg.com.

Green City: The baby question


› amanda@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY I remember exactly where I was — sitting on a BART train, reading yet another magazine article about global warming — when it hit me harder than ever before: the year 2050 is going to suck.

Predictions suggest it’s going to be hotter, colder, drier, wetter, and stormier in all the wrong places. Sea levels will be up. Resources will be down. The view from 2007 is not good. So how can I, an educated, middle-class American woman, reasonably consider having a child with such a future to offer?

To have or not to have is the baby question everybody asks. I’ll admit I’ve been on the fence for a long time. A survey of my female role models reveals that exactly half took the motherhood plunge (including my own mother), yet the other half refrained. I’m clearly drawn to the childless life for a number of reasons, and reading the International Panel on Climate Change reports released this year has given me one more.

By virtue of our existence, we’re all contributing to global warming, and my impact will be at least doubled by every child I have. According to Al Gore’s carbon calculator (at www.climatecrisis.net), I’m emitting 2.35 tons of carbon dioxide per year, well below the national average of 7.5. But that would certainly increase if I were to have a baby. I’d need a bigger place to live, and that would require more heat and electricity. More flights back East to see Grandma and Grandpa would be in order, and I’d probably buy a car, not to mention all that crap that babies need.

I would become more like the average American, who has a life span of 77.8 years and, according to estimates by the Mineral Information Institute in Golden, Colo., needs 3.7 million pounds of minerals and energy fuels to construct and support a lifetime of stuff — from cars and roads to batteries and soap.

It seems like an effective way to cut our impact on the earth would be to cut population, yet such a strategy almost never comes up.

"In the entire discussion of climate change, there’s been no mention of population," Paul Ehrlich, Bing Professor of Population Studies at Stanford University, told me.

The IPCC’s fourth assessment, released in November, discusses mitigation measures but never suggests decreasing population — except as the unintended result of a natural disaster. Historic attempts to limit population growth have never been popular. China has been chastised for its one-child policy, as were environmental groups like the Sierra Club, which called for limiting immigration in the 1970s to curb population growth in the United States.

"It’s an incredibly personal decision," environmentalist and author Bill McKibben told me. "In our culture it’s not one that’s easy for people to talk about." He addressed it in Maybe One (Simon and Schuster, 1998), in which he explains his decision to have a child after years of saying he and his wife wouldn’t.

McKibben says he wrote the book to uncover the weak mythology that only children are spoiled, myopic brats, to show how religious beliefs have been manipulated, and to point out that an increasing population is really an economic advantage.

Ehrlich, who thinks the US should at least have a population policy, also had one child with his wife, Anne. The realization that having more would contribute to an unsustainable future for their daughter led them to author numerous books on the subject, including The Population Bomb (Ballantine Books, 1968), one of the bellwethers on the impact of unchecked population growth. Since then the issue has essentially disappeared from public consciousness, and Ehrlich thinks that’s because the world’s total fertility rate has, in fact, dropped — from five children per woman to three. In the US it’s decreased even further, to less than the replacement level. This has created the impression that population is no longer a problem.

But that’s not entirely true. While birthrates may be down, the overall population has still grown, because life expectancy has increased. Most of us don’t die when we give birth. We go on living, breathing, eating, drinking, shitting, idling in traffic, jetting between cities, and consuming more and more of the dwindling resources we have — with a child or two at our side.

And the equation is simple, right? The more people, the bigger the problem.

"Well, it’s not a direct multiplier," McKibben said. He offers as an example an Amish family of eight "living simply" and having less of an impact than the average American Brady Bunch. "In global terms it’s so much more about consumption."

Ehrlich and McKibben agree that’s really the problem. "An important point, which is usually missed, is the next 2.5 billion people are going to have a much bigger impact than the last 2.5 billion," Ehrlich said.

According to his research, we’ve surpassed the earth’s carrying capacity, and Americans are only able to overconsume because Africans, Indians, Asians and other developing countries are underconsuming.

If the entire world population ate and drank and drove around like Americans — which is the aspiration of many — we’d need two more Earths.

"The current population is being maintained only through the exhaustion and dispersion of a one-time inheritance of natural capital," the Ehrlichs and Gretchen Daily wrote in the 1997 book The Stork and the Plow (Yale University Press), in which they grapple with the question of a sustainable population for Earth.

Their answer: about two billion. How many are we now? Worldwide, 6.5 billion, which will rise to about 9 billion by 2050 — with most of the growth slated for developing countries. Family planning and education are largely considered the primary factors in keeping the US population under control, and that’s where international efforts have focused, according to Kristina Johnson, population expert for the Sierra Club.

This has required an artful dance around the Mexico City Policy, in place in one form or another since 1984, when Ronald Reagan refused aid to any international agencies that use any monies for abortions. So while we’ve managed to handle our head count at home, we’ve done the opposite abroad.

As for how to deal with our enormous abuse of natural resources, technology has long been hailed as the solution. The guiding principle has been that our children will be smarter than we are, so we’ll leave it up to them to figure it out. However, as the Ehrlichs conclude in their most recent book, One with Ninevah (Island Press, 2004), "The claim that ‘technology will fix the problems’ has been around for decades — decades in which the putative advantages of claimed technological ‘fixes’ have often failed to appear or proved to be offset by unforeseen nasty side effects."

For example, we essentially avoided large-scale famine by figuring out how to reap more crops from our soil. But we haven’t mastered how to do this without the use of pesticides and, increasingly, genetically modified organisms that have transformed diverse farms into precarious monocultures.

Today we’re counting on technology even more, but some of the proposed solutions still raise questions. Do we have enough acreage to grow biofuels? What would be the long-term impacts of capturing carbon emissions and burying them underground? Ditto for spent nuclear fuel.

And all of these variables factor in those 2.5 billion people to come, without suggesting people consider not having children.

If there’s a mantra for any concerned citizen to adopt, it should be less. Use less. Buy less. Be less of a draw on the system. But as Richard Heinberg writes in Peak Everything (New Society, 2007), "People will not willingly accept the new message of ‘less, slower, and smaller,’ unless they have new goals toward which to aspire."

Cutting carbon emissions is a serious goal, and it looks like leadership is going to have to come from within. The Bali talks have produced no binding agreement except … more talks.

Our elected representatives have finally raised US fuel-economy standards for the first time since 1975, to the slightly less shameful level of 35 miles per gallon by 2020. Environmentalism is peaking as a popular movement, but the credo to consume less has been divorced from its consciousness.

"Green" products are now the fastest-growing consumer market. In fact, this holiday season you can buy a pair of chic Little Levi’s for your kid. They’re just $148 at Barney’s, and "a portion of proceeds" will go to the Trust for Public Land. How much? Who knows? The company isn’t saying. Just shut up and shop and don’t worry about it — they’re organic. *

Comments, ideas, and submissions for Green City, the Guardian‘s weekly environmental column, can be sent to news@sfbg.com.

Presidio gets a Starbucks


› news@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY First came the troubling mandate that the Presidio needed to break even financially, a new model for a national park area. Then came the Starbucks. That’s right: the Guardian has learned that a Starbucks will open next month in the Presidio’s Letterman Digital Arts Center, replacing locally owned Perk Presidio.

The new Starbucks — and all it represents — has raised the ire of both park and city activists. Scott Silver, executive director of Wild Wilderness, based in Bend, Ore., is concerned that the Presidio’s self-funding requirement is a harbinger of things to come across federal land management agencies. He says other properties following the Presidio model include Fort Baker in Marin, Sandy Hook in New Jersey, Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico (Forest Service land), and Fort Monroe in Virginia.

"It brings the entire standard of our national park system down from a high pedestal to a pretty base commercial reality," Silver said. "I just look at the Presidio as the first in what I fear will be a long chain of national parks that move away from the model of a publicly funded public good to a privately funded, largely commercial extension of our commercial world that’s really not in any way what we associate with national parks."

City activists point to Proposition G, which passed by a healthy 16 percent margin in 2006, requiring formula retail stores to get conditional use authorization from the Planning Commission before opening in neighborhood commercial districts. Richmond District residents demonstrated the power of this legislation in September by blocking a Starbucks slated for Fifth Avenue and Geary.

Dean Preston, a neighborhood activist and attorney launching a statewide organization called Tenants Together, said, "The law specifically applies to neighborhood commercial districts, but I think those same people who live in neighborhood commercial districts are using the Presidio, which is here in their backyard. I think that whether or not [Letterman Digital Arts] is subject to local law on the issue, they should be taking into account that city sentiment when deciding what kind of businesses to lease there."

Raul Saavedra, leasing director for Letterman Digital Arts, told us he didn’t know about Prop. G but that the company is aware that some people have opinions about Starbucks. That’s why the LDA originally selected Perk Presidio for the space. "We wanted someone like that to be successful," Saavedra said. "And they weren’t, unfortunately."

So the LDA decided to look for a new vendor, considering sole proprietors and local and national chains. Saavedra said the smaller operators he considered had credit issues and concerns about making the location successful. He said the key factors in selecting Starbucks were its strong credit, good service, and solid sustainability program.

Dana Polk, the Presidio Trust’s senior adviser for government and media relations, said that as master tenant, the LDA is free to sublet that space to any company it chooses. Nevertheless, Saavedra indicated that the LDA anticipated possible concerns with choosing Starbucks: "We went to the trust before we signed the deal with Starbucks, because we knew that there would probably be some opinions. And at that time there was no problem."

This will not be the first national park area to host a Starbucks. That dubious honor goes to the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park, which since October 2004 has housed a Starbucks as a subtenant of Kimpton Resorts in its Hazlett Warehouse, according to Shelley Niedernhofer, chief of administration and business services for the park.

However, National Park Service concessions program specialist manager Jo Pendry confirms that these Starbucks are the first examples of formula retail throughout the 391-site national park system.

Kim Winston, Starbucks manager of civic and community affairs for the western region, claimed that revenues from the Starbucks help fund National Parks Service operations, but Niedernhofer said of the Maritime Park, "We don’t receive any revenue directly from Starbucks." The Presidio arrangement will be similar.

But Preston isn’t mollified. He said, "To have a Starbucks go into the Presidio with no real public review right after a Starbucks is nearly unanimously blocked [by a Board of Supervisors’ vote] in the Inner Richmond does seem like a real contrast. The fact that there’s absolutely no public process for putting a Starbucks in such a visible spot is really a problem." *

Comments, ideas, and submissions for Green City, the Guardian‘s weekly environmental column, can be sent to news@sfbg.com.

Feed our students well


› news@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY Not long ago a green vegetable was a rare and startling sight on a lunch tray at a San Francisco school. Carnival-style food was the standard, with corn dogs as a regular entrée, packaged apple turnovers as the "fruit" course, and fried potatoes as the staple vegetable.

School lunches have come a long way since 2003, when San Francisco Unified School District parent volunteers, staff, students, public health professionals, and other community supporters joined together to begin creating the school district’s Wellness Policy. Lunches are fresher, tastier, healthier, and leaner, and the SFUSD’s "no empty calories" policy has been a role model in the nationwide effort to improve school food.

But even after all of those changes, a high school group recently surveyed more than 2,000 of their peers and learned that students still complain that school food doesn’t taste fresh and costs too much, and some question how nutritious it is.

So a growing movement argues it’s time to take the next step: the greening of school meals. Surely a food-savvy, health-conscious, environmentally aware city like San Francisco, which is located in one of the world’s most fertile agricultural regions, should be feeding its kids fresh, local organic produce at every meal.

But there’s an obstacle, and it’s green too. Government reimbursement for a free school lunch is just $2.71, nearly half of which goes to pay for labor. Other fixed overhead eats up another large chunk, leaving just about $1 to pay for the meal itself, including 34¢ for the required milk.

No wonder it’s hard to respond to requests for fresher, healthier food and more of it. New salad bars placed in three schools as part of a pilot program address these concerns, offering students mixed greens and raw vegetables, several kinds of fresh fruit, and whole grain breads and muffins, in addition to the hot entrée. When the first salad bar was created last year at Balboa High School, the average number of students eating its cafeteria lunch every day increased 26 percent, with virtually all of the new diners low-income students.

But that $1 per meal won’t cover a salad bar at every school, which is the SFUSD’s goal. The cost of just the equipment for a salad bar — the bar itself, added refrigeration and sinks, a couple more tables — can run more than $10,000 per school, depending on how much work needs to be done to reconfigure the lunch line. Organic produce drives the meal cost higher too.

Unfortunately, the SFUSD doesn’t have that money. Because it’s currently left to the school district to provide meals, the SFUSD must require that the Student Nutrition Department budget break even or else cut into classroom funds to cover the deficit.

The good news is that thanks to grants from the Department of Children, Youth and Their Families and Mayor Gavin Newsom, salad bars are being started in 25 SFUSD schools this year, stocked with seasonal, local produce. Still, despite this additional funding, only about 25 percent of district students will have access to the salad bars. Social justice demands that every student have equal access to a healthier school meal.

Most city officials and the greater community probably aren’t even aware of the situation. It’s time to put the need to feed our children adequately on the radar of the whole community and ask officials to step in with funding to ensure that our children can eat well without sacrificing classroom resources to cover the cost of their food. The Public Education Enrichment Fund, better known as Proposition H, provides a growing pot of city money aimed at improving the schools, and part of it could be used to fund the opening of more salad bars, so more school kids can enjoy the benefits of fresh produce and whole grains.

Providing the money to put salad bars in every school would pay off in healthier kids and related positive effects. Better nutrition is linked with higher academic achievement, improved behavior, and other benefits.

Let’s become a city that commits to teaching our children well, feeding them well, and promoting a greener food system. *

Paula Jones and Caroline Grannan are members of the SFUSD Student Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee.

Comments, ideas, and submissions for Green City, the Guardian‘s weekly environmental column, can be sent to news@sfbg.com.

Green City: Early puberty’s toxic causes and effects


› news@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY As if growing up weren’t hard enough, a new report published by San Francisco’s Breast Cancer Fund says girls, particularly African American girls, are hitting puberty earlier — and it’s lasting longer.

Environmental toxins, obesity, and psychological stressors are all cited as possible reasons for the trend in the report written by Ithaca College professor Sandra Steingraber. It was commissioned about a year ago to put together what she calls "pieces of a big jigsaw puzzle."

Steingraber found that many girls now start to develop breasts as early as eight years old — two years earlier than they did a few decades ago. On average, however, girls begin menstruating only a few months earlier than they once did — making puberty a lengthier process.

The consequences of growing up too soon are serious — depression and anxiety, eating disorders, sexual objectification, and early drug and alcohol abuse are just a few.

"As a mother of a nine-year-old girl," Steingraber says, "I was really impressed by the consequences, not just the causes. The world is not a good place for early-maturing girls."

The implications are not just psychological. According to Steingraber’s report, menarche before age 12 raises breast cancer risk by 50 percent.

"The data is pretty ample linking the two," she says. "The earlier a girl gets her breasts, the wider the estrogen window." Longer lifetime exposure to estrogen increases the risk of developing many forms of breast cancer.

Steingraber points to obesity and endocrine-disrupting chemicals (toxins that interfere with the hormonal system) as major factors in the new puberty equation. Phthalates, bisphenol A, and dioxin are a few of the culprits often cited by environmental health advocates as contributors to earlier puberty onset. These chemicals are often found in cosmetics and personal care products like shampoo, hand lotion, and sunscreen. They are also used in pesticides.

Dr. Tracey Woodruff, associate professor of reproductive health and environment at UC San Francisco, says the link has been researched and discussed anecdotally in scientific circles for the past 10 years, with the last major report issued in 1997.

A big obstacle to keeping kids safe, Woodruff says, is that most consumer products are not required to undergo US Food and Drug Administration approval before they are sold to the public, nor are companies required to disclose all ingredients.

"How chemicals are governed is somewhat archaic," Woodruff says.

Environmental health activists agree. In 2002 a national coalition of nonprofit organizations launched the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, an initiative to educate the public and influence policy. Marisa Walker of the Breast Cancer Fund — a founding member organization — says manufacturers jump through big loopholes in federal law to hide ingredients by claiming that chemicals are trade secrets.

An Environmental Protection Agency–administered program to test new chemicals was created more than a decade ago, but progress has been slow at best. In June the EPA announced it was still seeking comment on a draft list of 73 pesticides to be evaluated under the new screening program. Chemicals in consumer products are not slated for review.

The program has received widespread criticism, and in September the US House Committee on Oversight and Reform issued a letter to the EPA expressing its concern: "EPA’s actions have been a continued failure to protect the American public from these chemicals." The seven-page letter also requests that the EPA take immediate action.

Meanwhile, Woodruff, Steingraber, and many environmental health advocates point to Europe and neighboring Canada as better models of protecting consumer health. Their policies have a heavier emphasis on precaution. Woodruff says prevention can mean the difference between responding to a change in hormone levels and coping with a birth defect.

"At what point is there enough information to take action?" Steingraber asks. "Chemicals are turning up in the urine of some of these girls, and while more research needs to be done, we can’t even do more research until the industry gives us more data. The time of saying, ‘Hmmm, that’s interesting,’ is over. It’s time to take action." *

Green City: Solar solutions


› amanda@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY When Berkeley mayor Tom Bates recently announced a creative city plan to financially assist homeowners who want to dress their roofs in solar panels, people across the Bay wondered if San Francisco could come up with something similar.

It’s happening. Sup. Gerardo Sandoval is working with the City Attorney’s Office on legislation to make solar panels more affordable for property owners. "The idea with my proposal is the city would use its very high credit rating to borrow money at almost zero cost," the District 11 supervisor said. That money would be turned over to citizens as low-interest loans to be paid back through a monthly assessment, similar to a property tax, with a very low interest rate. "It’s going to be a lot cheaper than what homeowners can do on their own."

A photovoltaic array for a typical home can cost the owner as much as $40,000, though state and federal incentives can reduce the cost by about $10,000. Systems are typically guaranteed by the manufacturers for 20 to 25 years, and the cost is recouped over time in reduced energy bills.

But the initial investment is high enough to discourage many would-be solar users. "The main challenge for many homeowners is the substantial upfront cost. It could easily cost you up to $50,000 to upgrade your home," Sandoval said of the bill for items like insulation, solar panels, and wind generators that can help modify a building to use less energy more efficiently.

Under this new financial program, the entire city would be declared a tax assessment district — similar to a Mello-Roos, or community benefit, district — with a resident opting in by deciding to buy solar panels. Both Berkeley and San Francisco are charter cities, which gives them the ability to tweak state laws, like the one that permits the creation of Mello-Roos districts, to meet local needs.

The plan to help private property owners has a number of public benefits. By generating most of their power on their roofs, homeowners will draw less juice from the grid, which is heavily dependent on fossil fuels (and is ultimately inefficient, as much energy is lost through transmission from distant power plants).

San Francisco is fast closing in on its 2012 deadline to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels, and a July Civil Grand Jury report found the city would have to triple its current reduction rate to meet that goal. Sandoval’s plan would help. According to a federal study, one kilowatt of solar electricity offsets about 217,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per year. Additionally, the city is aiming to provide 31 megawatts of solar power capacity through Community Choice Aggregation, which Sandoval sees as part of his plan.

"Both programs are about organizing our city to get off the grid and get off fossil fuels," he said, adding that he hopes this financing model will expand to all renewable-energy and efficiency upgrades to homes and businesses.

The plan is still in its nascent stages, and a few administrative and legal questions remain.

It’s unclear which city department would administer the program, although San Francisco Public Utilities Commission spokesperson Tony Winnicker said, "We already have a framework to administer something like this," citing the management infrastructure of the city’s water and sewer systems. The Department of the Environment has also been suggested. Sandoval said, "There are a lot of different city agencies who see benefits of administering the program." He was clear that it should remain in the public sector, with the possible assistance of community-based nonprofits that understand the local needs of their neighborhoods.

Sandoval also sees his proposed program as a way to foster the right kind of industry in San Francisco. The volume of solar business could bring more manufacturing companies, and City College of San Francisco and other educational programs could partner with manufacturers to train consultants and installers.

Barry Cinnamon, CEO of Akeena Solar, a Los Gatos PV installer, expressed enthusiasm and support for the plan. "It’s really commendable that cities like San Francisco and Berkeley are trying to find ways to do this."

Sandoval hopes to see the program up and running within a year, and said, "If no one accuses me of conflict of interest, I’ll be among the first to sign up."

Green City: The bay-delta connection


› sarah@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY Until recently, politicians and the public tended to view the problems facing the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta levees as separate from the problems facing the San Francisco Bay. But now that human-made distinction is beginning to blur as scientists predict that rising sea levels and levee failures could have profound consequences for both ecosystems.

As wetlands scientist Philip Williams explained at the State of the Estuary Conference in Oakland last month, if the levees fail, a hole will open that will cause the northern area where the bay meets the delta (roughly from Richmond to Antioch) to fill with salt water and deepen, thereby eroding the delta’s valuable tidal marsh habitat.

This doomsday scenario has environmentalists clamoring for an increase in tidal marsh restoration efforts in the southernmost stretches of the bay, which are already home to the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project and a broader US Army Corps of Engineers effort to build levees and restore marshlands to protect property from flooding.

As Dr. Letitia Grenier of the San Francisco Estuary Institute said at the SOE conference, people aren’t the only ones who need habitat protection. The mosquito-eating Yuma bat, the California clapper rail, the least tern, and the chinook salmon are just a few of the many species that live around, fly across, or swim through the bay and the delta, and their survival depends on a mosaic of interconnected habitats.

Yet no agency has the clear authority to require that marshland marsh be restored, levees built, development prevented, and greenhouse gas emissions reduced.

In a recent report for the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, executive director Will Travis notes that while the BCDC, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, and the Association of Bay Area Governments are working together as part of a Joint Policy Committee, "none of the four agencies has the authority to prohibit development in flood-prone areas [or] require that levees be constructed to protect low-lying areas, and BAAQMD does not have the authority to regulate emissions from vehicles."

Pointing out that the BCDC was created in 1965 to regulate bay fill and thus prevent the bay from becoming smaller, Travis writes that his agency "is neither legally responsible for dealing with this dramatic change of conditions that is making the Bay larger, nor does BCDC have any explicit legal authority to address this problem."

That said, in an Oct. 29 report posted on the BCDC’s Web site, Travis announced that his agency "has taken the initiative to formulate a broad outline of a comprehensive strategy for addressing climate change in the Bay region and identified changes that are needed in state law so that BCDC can play a productive role in implementing such a strategy."

This strategy includes mapping flood-prone areas, ceasing planned developments in such areas, identifying property that requires protection, and identifying areas that should be allowed to revert to tidal marsh and other types of natural habitat.

"Another probable impact of climate change is that more precipitation in the Sierra Nevada will fall as rain rather than snow, and the snow pack will melt earlier in the spring," Travis writes. This will in turn reduce the amount of late spring and summer runoff into the delta, allowing salt water to extend farther into the delta than it does now.

Travis predicts that sea level rise and higher flood flows resulting from climate change, as well as earthquake risk, will also increase the probability of catastrophic levee failure. Travis also notes that "pulling existing development back from the Bay shoreline and foregoing planned development of low-lying areas can provide an opportunity to expand the restoration of tidal wetlands."

To address these challenges, the BCDC is proposing an eight-year work program with the goal of achieving environmental accountability. "Any proposed new development within the area likely to be inundated by sea level rise should be required to obtain approval both from the local government and from BCDC."

But first, the BCDC or a new regional agency will need state legislation giving it that authority — and public recognition that seriously dealing with climate change means accepting some new regulation of private property.

Comments, ideas, and submissions for Green City, the Guardian‘s weekly environmental column, can be sent to news@sfbg.com.

Are high-rises green?


› news@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY High-rises are popping up fast in San Francisco, altering the skyline from one month to the next. But are these giants environmentally friendly? Do they make San Francisco more green or less?

One of the major advantages of using tall buildings in city design is the potential to reduce suburban sprawl: building up instead of out lessens the demand for single-family homes, creates dense neighborhoods where cars aren’t needed, and allows for more open spaces to be preserved.

Additionally, the concentration of people in high-rise clusters encourages the creation of acceptable transit systems. "The high density of high-rise neighborhoods — whether residential, office, or mixed-use — creates the necessary population density to support efficient transit service, allowing people to take transit rather than drive," said Lisa M. Feldstein, a local affordable-housing consultant who grew up in a residential high-rise in New York City’s East Harlem. "The reason that bus service is poor in suburbs and rural areas is not that people in those areas don’t like transit. It’s that the population isn’t sufficiently dense to support a fast, frequent, and efficient transit system, so people can’t rely on it."

Density puts demands on transportation, but that doesn’t guarantee public transit use. When people working in city centers like San Francisco can’t afford to live there, that can create cross-commute situations that clog big-city roadways, which may be even more environmentally damaging than suburban-style development. In fact, San Franciscans drive to work alone more than they use public transportation to get there, according to a 2006 US Census Bureau study.

High-density residents tend to use fewer resources than their low-density counterparts. Because walls, pipes, and other materials are shared, it can take less energy, for example, to heat a high-rise unit than a single family home.

But high-rises use energy in ways that single-family homes don’t — for example, in thousands of elevator trips from top to bottom every day. According to a study found on the US Department of Energy’s Web site, elevators consume up to 10 percent of the total energy used to maintain tall buildings. Furthermore, these buildings are usually climate controlled (in part to counteract the heat created by their elevators), whereas opening and closing windows can more effectively regulate temperatures in single-family houses and low-rise units. High-rise buildings also include common areas that often leave lights burning 24 hours a day.

Not having private yards in high-rises reduces the water and the toxic chemicals used to maintain them and forces people into public spaces. But there is another environmental cost to this void, said Lisa Katz, a planner with Design, Community and Environment in Berkeley. "People living in high-rises have less connection to the land; for example, they can’t grow their own food," she said. Raising food sources in agricultural communities and exporting them to cities uses exorbitant amounts of energy in the form of fuel and packaging.

High-rises, however, have the potential to achieve the highest level of green building ratings, according to Maria Ayerdi, executive director of the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, which on Sept. 20 approved the proposal for the new Transbay Transit tower, which will be the tallest building on the West Coast. "In tall buildings there are creative efficiency, recycling, and energy-generating opportunities that may not be possible in smaller buildings," she said. In fact, several high-rises around the country have been built according to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification standards, which demand energy and resource efficiency.

But Calvin Welch, a local housing activist, said it is "virtually impossible to conceive a green-materials building of any sort" that would meet the seismic requirements of high-rises in San Francisco. These include the use of "heroic construction techniques" involving extraenforced foundations to build on "Bay Area mud," high-tinsel steel, which is packed with carbon and takes loads of energy to produce (often using coal or gas ovens), and thousands of gallons of diesel for the transportation of materials to the city center.

"This is one of the most disastrous building techniques of mankind," Welch said of high-rise housing, noting that "the environmental debt, even if compensated by solar panels, etc., is too great." *

Comments, ideas, and submissions for Green City, the Guardian‘s weekly environmental column, can be sent to news@sfbg.com.

Green City: Saving people and the planet


› news@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY The average young person doesn’t pay much attention to things like wind turbines and energy efficiency. Friends and family, yes. School or work, sure. Green technology? Probably not. And for youths in underserved communities, where violence and economic hardship are a backdrop for everyday life, the likelihood of thinking green is even lower.

Enter activist groups like the Oakland’s Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and watch as things begin to change. Under the leadership of cofounder Van Jones, the Ella Baker Center has received widespread attention for its role in the development of the Oakland Green Jobs Corps program, set to begin in early 2008.

The Green Jobs Corps will provide training opportunities for hard-to-employ populations (read: at-risk youths, low-income people, and those formerly incarcerated) while supporting the development of a greener economy. It’s no small task. For decades the environmental community has looked for ways to make green relevant to marginalized communities. And it hasn’t been that successful. Ian Kim, campaign director for the Green Jobs initiative, says the program is significant in that it bridges the gap between the environmental and social justice movements.

"The connections are obvious once you start to look at them," Kim told the Guardian. "Just as there are no throwaway resources or species, there are no throwaway people or communities."

The Ella Baker Center has worked closely with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers to anchor a larger coalition of activists called the Oakland Apollo Alliance. Together, these groups are propelling the initiative forward. The collaboration is a significant one. Historically, labor activists and environmentalists have been at odds. The assumption: there can be good jobs or a clean environment, not both. Victor Uno, a spokesperson for the IBEW, says that dynamic is changing.

"We think it’s important to partner with community groups, and we need alliances with environmental groups," Uno said. "Economic growth is going to mean green jobs, and we’re working together to create opportunities for people who have been historically locked out."

The Green Jobs Corps program received $250,000 in seed funding from the Oakland City Council in June — part of $2.3 million of unspent settlement funds the city received after the California energy crisis nearly a decade ago. The program will be administered through Oakland’s Community Economic Development Agency, and job training will focus initially on renewable-energy technology and efficiency — a requirement of the settlement funds. Forty young men and women are expected to participate in the nine-month program, which includes six months of training, a three-month paid internship, and services like case management and job placement. Kim says the likelihood of participants obtaining well-paying jobs afterward is good.

"Green-collar employers have jobs that pay a living wage, have benefits and good working conditions," he said. "They offer career ladders and real pathways out of poverty."

While recruitment for the program has not yet begun, Kim is aware that the initial draw will likely be the word job and not the word green. Still, it’s progress.

"There’s no shortage of people looking for job training," Kim said. "It’s within the course of the program that they’ll receive education about environmental awareness and sustainability. We need to educate people where they’re at."

Late last month the Ella Baker Center took the Green Jobs training initiative to the national arena by launching the Green for All campaign.

"We have definitely realized the green job idea is too big for one organization or one group," Kim said. "It’s turning into a really big movement with a lot of players."

The launch comes shortly after Congress approved the Green Jobs Act of 2007 (HR 2847) as part of the proposed energy package. It is legislation that would direct millions of dollars toward green job training and is now awaiting approval or, more likely, a veto from President George W. Bush. Kim said defeat wouldn’t be a surprise.

"We’ll just come back next year," he said. "We’ll come back with more political will and more ideas. There’s a lot to look forward to."

Green City: Meeting the Climate Challenge


› news@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY It is easy to become discouraged by environmental problems, but a few San Franciscans are reminding us that we have collective power to make positive change. And we might even have a little fun along the way.

Paul Scott came up with the idea of the San Francisco Climate Challenge, a citywide contest to reduce household energy consumption. Scott is a lawyer and founding member of One Atmosphere — a nonprofit created by North Beach neighbors concerned with sustainability and conservation. "I think a lot of folks are concerned about climate change, but frustrated by the seeming inaction by the government to solve the problem," Scott told the Guardian. "The purpose of the San Francisco Climate Challenge is to give people something they can do right now."

A joint project by One Atmosphere, the Sierra Club, and SF Environment, the Climate Challenge officially starts Oct. 25 and registration ends the day before. Two top prizes of $5,000 (cash!) will be awarded for greatest overall energy savings and greatest percentage reduction in energy use. Winners will be determined by comparing last November’s Pacific Gas and Electric Co. bill with this November’s bill, so participants must pay their own utility bill and have lived in their current home — apartment, condo, or house — for at least a year.

Private residences account for about 20 percent of San Francisco’s carbon emissions, so the SF Climate Challenge is specifically focused on reducing household emissions. "Hopefully, this contest will increase people’s awareness of what they can do and the environmental damage done by normal activities," said Jonathan Weiner of One Atmosphere. "Simple changes can have significant impacts."

And what are some of these simple changes to make at home? Turn off lights when you leave a room, replace incandescent lightbulbs with compact fluorescents, wear a sweater instead of turning up the heat. And something that people often forget is that appliances use energy even when they’re turned off. So plug your television and stereo into a power strip and, when you’re done watching TV or listening to music, turn that power strip off.

"Eliminating unnecessary, wasteful use and being more efficient with the energy we do use is important," said Aaron Israel of the Sierra Club’s San Francisco chapter. "But you don’t have to eat in the dark or live like a monk. There are very easy things you can do if you’re just a little bit more aware."

Contest participants can sign up for the Climate Challenge as individuals or teams. So far, there teams have been created by neighborhoods, social groups, and sports teams. Even the Board of Supervisors has formed a team, with supervisors Michela Alioto-Pier, Aaron Peskin, and Sean Elsbernd already committed to participating. Word on the street is that even the Mayor’s Office may compile a team.

The Climate Challenge is also about building community. "This is an initiative to bring together a bunch of folks around how we, as residents in the city, can do things differently," said Mark Miller of One Atmosphere. "The more we see how we’re connected, the more we see how much we affect each other."

Making simple, painless changes at home is a great place to start taking responsibility for the health of our communities, city, and planet. Hopefully, the San Francisco Climate Challenge will inspire people to think about the environment in terms of the positive changes we can make instead of the overwhelming problems we feel helpless to fix.

"We need to paint a vision of our own lives that is better in the future than it is right now, so we are all motivated to take action," said Cal Broomhead of SF Environment. "How can we transform our neighborhoods so they’re more sustainable? We have collective power to make change."

To register for the San Francisco Climate Challenge, or to see a list of sponsors, prizes, and energy-saving tips, go to www.sfclimatechallenge.org. Or attend this upcoming event to learn more: ClimatePalooza, Fri/Oct. 19, 7 p.m., $12 or free with sign up for the SF Climate Challenge, at the Swedish American Hall, 2170 Market, SF. Live music by Ryan Auffenberg, Hyim, Valerie Orth, Sheldon Petersen, and Pixie Kitchen. Call (415) 861-5016 for more information. *

Comments, ideas, and submissions for Green City, the Guardian‘s weekly environmental column, can be sent to news@sfbg.com.

Green City: Plugging into what’s next


› news@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY Hybrid cars — those that run on a combination of gasoline and electricity — are all the rage among drivers looking to go green. But imagine a car that could drive 100 miles on one gallon of gas. That’s what a hybrid could get if converted into a plug-in version, something Bay Area residents are starting to do themselves, filling a void left by the auto industry.

The California Car Initiative (a.k.a. CalCars) is on a mission to make plug-in hybrid electric vehicles widely available. In collaboration with organizations like Plug-In Partners and Plug-In Bay Area, CalCars is on a mission to persuade carmakers to mass-produce plug-in hybrid vehicles. The technology already exists, allowing our cars to be much more fuel efficient.

The first prototype PHEV was created by CalCars in 2004. This Palo Alto nonprofit converted a Toyota Prius into a Prius+, a plug-in hybrid able to travel more than 100 miles using only one gallon of fuel.

A PHEV is essentially a hybrid that has additional battery capacity and can be recharged from a household 120-volt electrical outlet. CalCars promotional materials explain the way a plug-in hybrid works: "It’s like having a second fuel tank that you always use first — only you fill up at home, from a regular outlet, at an equivalent cost of under $1 per gallon."

"Conversions are a strategy, not an end in themselves," Felix Kramer, CalCars founder, told the Guardian. "The game is all about getting hundreds of thousands of PHEVs on the road from carmakers."

Toyota recently announced it will be testing PHEV prototypes this fall in Japan, Europe, and the United States. General Motors has also announced it is working on a plug-in hybrid called the Volt, to be publicly released in 2010. A handful of other car companies have expressed their intention to produce PHEVs but haven’t given release dates.

Public support by municipalities — including San Francisco, which passed a resolution to support PHEVs in 2006 — is also putting pressure on car manufacturers. Until plug-in hybrids are put on the market, PHEV advocates are keeping the pressure on. CalCars has posted its Prius conversion method on EAA-PHEV.org, a wiki dedicated to discussing and documenting plug-in hybrid conversions.

The step-by-step instructions are continually being improved, part of the beauty of open-source material. Only 2004 or newer Priuses are capable of being converted with this process. And for now, only do-it-yourselfers who are "comfortable around high-voltage batteries and automotive workshops" should attempt to convert their cars.

One such person is Daniel Sherwood, an electrical engineer living in Berkeley. He is in the process of converting his Prius into a plug-in hybrid using CalCars’ open-source instructions.

"In a regular hybrid car, I couldn’t go two blocks without using gas," he told us. "With this conversion, I’ll be able to drive about 12 miles using only electricity." When he needs to drive longer distances or needs to drive faster than the 35 miles per hour allowed by the battery-only power, the gas engine will kick in.

Darren Overby, who operates a hostel in San Francisco (and has previously worked as an electrical technician), is also in the process of converting his Prius. He is thrilled at the prospect of owning a vehicle that relies mostly on electricity. "Electricity is the only alternative fuel that is both sustainable and scalable. It could actually grow to meet the needs of everyone in the country. "

Plug-In Supply of Petaluma is also creating conversion kits that have all of the necessary components already assembled. Everybody agrees that the conversion process isn’t cheap. But the price of oil — including greenhouse gas emissions and war — makes plug-ins an increasingly attractive option, at least until the car companies get in gear.

"Had it not been for the grassroots effort," Sherwood said, "backyard conversions wouldn’t be possible. Car companies wouldn’t even be thinking about making plug-in hybrids." But they’re thinking about it now.

Comments, ideas, and submissions for Green City, the Guardian‘s weekly environmental column, can be sent to news@sfbg.com.

Green City: PG&E’s two faces


› news@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY If Pacific Gas and Electric Co. is really working to become "the nation’s greenest utility," as it claims, why is it opposing more renewable energy in California? Pending legislation — which PG&E opposes — would require a larger percentage of the state’s energy to be produced from renewable resources by 2020.

The fact that PG&E is against Senate Bill 411 doesn’t jibe with its self-proclaimed goal of going green. Current law — established as the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) — requires investor-owned utilities like PG&E to procure at least 20 percent of their energy from renewable resources by the end of 2010. SB 411 would increase the amount of required renewable energy to 33 percent by 2020. It makes sense that a green-aspiring company would want to support renewable-energy generation, right?

Yet PG&E is struggling to meet the current deadline of 20 percent by 2010, as the Guardian reported in "Green Isn’t PG&E" (4/18/07) and San Francisco Chronicle business reporter David R. Baker wrote Sept. 27. By way of explanation, Baker wrote, "California currently doesn’t have enough windmills, solar panels, and geothermal fields to do the job."

Jim Metropulos, legislative representative for Sierra Club California, told us the issue is one not of resources but of priorities. "PG&E has continued to make investments in fossil-fuel generation while not investing as much as they should in renewables." In other words, PG&E is in danger of not meeting the RPS deadline — and actively opposing more renewable energy generation in our state — because it’s been choosing to put its money elsewhere (such as front-page "Green is …" ads in the Chronicle and other campaigns to greenwash its image and fight public power).

PG&E did not return our phone calls seeking comment, but the "opposition argument" against SB 411 listed on the California Senate Web site reads, in part, "Opponents argue the bill … eliminates opportunities for utilities to identify potentially less costly means of meeting requirements."

This is a seemingly innocuous sentence, but it brings to mind another piece of pending legislation, Assembly Bill 809, that is currently on the governor’s desk, awaiting his signature. This bill would enable utilities to meet the current requirement of 20 percent by 2010 by changing the legal definition of renewable energy. AB 809 would effectively dilute the definition of renewable and give investor-owned utilities renewable credit for power generated by environmentally destructive large dams.

Under current law, hydroelectric plants that produce fewer than 30 megawatts meet the standards of renewable. AB 809 would extend the definition of renewable to include larger hydro plants that implement "efficiency improvements."

Instead of investing in legitimately sustainable means of producing energy, PG&E seeks to water down the standards and gain RPS credit for already existing hydroelectric plants. Nice way to cut costs, eh? As Metropulos puts it, "PG&E supports AB 809 since they get a lot of power from hydro."

Again, the question at hand is: if PG&E is seeking the title of "the nation’s greenest utility," why is it working against green energy in California?

Aliza Wasserman of Green Guerrillas Against Green Washing said the answer is simple: "Their actions are blatantly hypocritical." She sees PG&E as a duplicitous entity, pandering to the public with its "Let’s green this city" marketing blitz while simultaneously lobbying against renewable energy.

Wasserman notes that while PG&E is touting itself as a friend of the environment and sponsoring "every environmental event and organization in town to appear green," it only generates 1 percent of its energy from solar and less than 2 percent from wind. Comparatively, 24 percent of its energy is from nuclear generation, an energy source that produces toxic by-products and harms aquatic ecosystems.

SB 411 comes up for vote again in January 2008, pending a feasibility report by the California Energy Commission. "This is a critical moment in history," Wasserman says. "Are our legislators going to sell out or step up?"

Comments, ideas, and submissions for Green City, the Guardian‘s weekly environmental column, can be sent to news@sfbg.com.

Green City: Reaching critical mass


› news@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY Fifteen years ago this month, San Franciscans mobilized for the first Critical Mass, an unpermitted monthly bicycle parade and social protest that has subsequently been exported to cities around the world.

The movement formed in the streets as the Commuter Clot, just a handful of bicyclists seizing their stretch of pavement together. Among them rode former bike messenger Jim Swanson, whom many credit with coining the name Critical Mass, a reference to the traffic-controlling power achieved when enough bicycles join a ride.

Two months into the project, Swanson watched Ted White’s short film The Return of the Scorcher. The surreal footage of bicyclists in China fording intersections inspired Swanson: "When there was enough of them, they crossed and took over the road."

Thus, in September 1992, the autonomous and leaderless collective known as Critical Mass was born, picking up momentum — while enduring an often rocky relationship with the city and its motorists — ever since.

On Sept. 28, around 6 p.m., thousands of bicyclists are expected to convene around Justin Hermann Plaza for the 15th anniversary ride, just as they do on the last Friday of every month. Each rider brings a unique cause and perspective to the ride. Swanson wheels out his 1965 blue Schwinn Tandem each month and makes it a regular date with his sweetheart and friends.

Longtime rider Joel Pomerantz focuses on the political undertones of the event. "For me, the ride is about community. It’s an opportunity for people to take over public space that is usually destructive to the community," he told the Guardian.

During Critical Mass, riders change the use of street space and establish bicycles as the dominant form of transportation, taking control of every intersection they encounter, at least for the 10 or 15 minutes it takes the mass to pass.

Bicyclists in San Francisco have also attained critical mass in other ways, with more and more residents realizing the environmental, health, safety, and monetary benefits of trading the gas pedal for a pair of pedals. The 35-year-old San Francisco Bicycle Coalition now boasts a peak membership of 7,500, and the city has the highest per capita membership in the Thunderhead Alliance, a national conglomeration of cycling and walking advocates.

According to the Urban Transportation Caucus’s 2007 report card, automobiles and trucks account for 50 percent of San Francisco’s carbon emissions, a major cause of climate change and respiratory ailments. "Simply reducing the number of driving vehicles will be the biggest thing in reducing carbon emissions and improving people’s health. Bicycling comes up as the most cost-effective way to reduce private vehicle trips," SFBC director Leah Shahum said.

Some groups want to take big steps toward furthering that trend. For example, San Francisco Tomorrow is pushing a plan to ban private automobiles on Market Street. But for now the city is prevented by a court injunction from undertaking bike-friendly projects after a judge found procedural flaws in how the current Bicycle Plan was approved (see "Stationary Biking," 5/16/07).

Carla Laser, founder of the San Francisco Bicycle Ballet, said getting the plan back on track is also essential to minimizing bike-car conflicts: "The striping of bike lanes is an example of how the Bike Plan educates the public on how to share the streets. Drivers can clearly see that the city actually supports bikes on streets and is willing to give them a nod of space with the stripes. Every street is a bike street."

That’s especially true for Critical Mass, a situation that can cause tensions between motorists and cyclists and fuel a backlash toward bike riders seen as overreaching into the realm of automobiles. Yet Critical Mass remains more popular than ever, and it only seemed to grow larger a few months ago, when the San Francisco Chronicle publicized some motorist-cyclist clashes (see "Did Critical Mass Really Go Crazy?," SFBG Politics blog, www.sfbg.com, 4/4/07).

Yet as the event becomes a popular rolling party, some longtime massers have started openly wondering what’s next for those looking to send a serious message about minimizing dependence on cars.

As transportation activist and former SFBC executive director Dave Snyder told us, "I’m looking forward to the next public phenomenon in San Francisco that inspires a humane use of public space, as Critical Mass was to so many people."

Comments, ideas, and submissions for Green City, the Guardian‘s weekly environmental column, can be sent to news@sfbg.com.

Green City: Little prefab boxes


› alerts@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY Lately, I’ve been reacquainting myself with the sticky herbal side of green. How I turned over a new leaf after having sworn off the bud so long ago might have something to do with my recent enthrallment with Weeds, Showtime’s suburban family drama about a pot-dealing mama of two, which I keep watching and rewatching on DVD.

Consequently, the opening theme, Malvina Reynolds’s "Little Boxes," has gotten more stuck in my head than my Planet Unicorn ringtone or Amy Winehouse’s ubiquitous tribute to inebriation, "Rehab." For those who aren’t intimately familiar with Reynolds’s terse 1962 folk ditty, it begins like this: "Little boxes on the hillsideThe sing-songy, childlike tune looped through my head as I made my way around a model prefab home now sitting across the street from City Hall in the Civic Center Plaza. Builders plopped down the 800-square-foot structure in just a day, in time for West Coast Green, an expo for green residential building being held this week at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. Designed for ExtremeHome (www.xhllc.com), a year-old company in Oroville, and constructed mostly in a factory, the one-bedroom house costs a mere $199 per square foot, and that’s with all the fancy fixings like a stereo system and rosewood floors.

The home was dubbed the mkLotus house by its designer, Michelle Kaufman Designs. The exterior is smart and sleek, with double-paned, floor-to-ceiling windows surrounding the living room and sustainably grown red balau wood and slabs of fly-ash concrete siding the back half. It certainly looked attractive enough, but as someone who spends my spare time scouring Craigslist in search of people’s one-of-a-kind heirlooms to furnish my apartment, the place seemed a little too IKEA for me.

Nevertheless, prefabricated housing is all the rage these days. Who can beat the price and the prospect of actually having a finished home within months of approving a design? A number of panels on the trend took up large chunks of time at Dwell magazine’s "Dwell on Design" conference Sept. 14 to 16.

According to XtremeHome CEO Tim Schmidt, without all the extras, an mkLotus could cost as little as $64,000, and he can have one good to go in less than six months. It’s all very practical. Everything is energy efficient, from the interior LED lighting to the structurally integrated Styrofoam panels that make up the walls of this one- to two-person abode, to the cross-ventilation design. Varnishes use as few toxins and as little formaldehyde as possible, and the shower tile is made from a soothing green recycled glass. Energy Star, Build It Green, and the Forest Stewardship Council have all given Schmidt’s models high marks.

It’s said that Reynolds, a San Francisco–born folksinger, wrote "Little Boxes" about Daly City, though many associate it with Levittown, N.Y., on Long Island, the first planned community of mass-produced housing in the United States, started by the Levitt and Sons construction firm in 1947. Either way, it’s clear that Reynolds, on the cusp of ’60s cultural rebellion, was criticizing ’50s suburban monoculture and the conformity it elicited from its little box dwellers. Anyone growing up in a subdivision can relate.

And yet many lefty locals have taken umbrage at the song’s apparent elitism. "What’s wrong with affordable housing?" sniped one critic in a recent Sfist.com posting, drawing the connection between the song and our south-facing neighbor.

When considering how prefab will catch on in San Francisco, where everyone is encouraged to march to his or her own beat, one wonders if ’60s-era individualism will make way for Ikea-style pragmatism. These days it’s just too darn expensive to be one of a kind. On the other hand, one wonders how San Franciscans can go for prefab when there isn’t any open land anyway.*



Bill Graham Civic Auditorium

99 Grove, SF

(415) 974-4060


Green City: Gray-water guerillas


› sarah@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY The task sounded simple: help our friend Kristal set up a bathtub in her backyard over the Labor Day weekend so she could soak under the stars and her plants could drink the gray water.

Gray water is water from the sink, shower, bathtub, and washing machine, but not the toilet. And I’ve been inspired by its use since reading gray-water guerrillas Laura Allen, July Oskar Cole, and Cleo Woelfle-Erskine’s book Dam Nation: Dispatches from the Water Underground (Soft Skull, 2007).

Allen, Cole, and Woelfle-Erskine describe how to install fairly radical gray-water systems, including dry and composting toilets and rainwater capture zones, as well as ways to recharge groundwater with rain gardens and treat gray water using homemade wetlands.

Installing gray-water systems usually requires government permits, and public health officials caution that flawed systems can spread disease and contamination. But our system was a simple one meant to dispose of clean hot water that cascades from the tub into a lava rock–filled drainage ditch that will hopefully, in time, support a small wetland.

Like many Californians, Kristal can only afford a tiny place, but she has hit the rental jackpot with her latest abode. It’s a barn red, vine-covered cottage behind a bigger house, but it comes with a private yard, thanks to artfully placed trellises and interwoven tree branches.

The only downside of her cottage is the absence of an indoor bathtub, so Kristal decided to set up a cast-iron bath outdoors and fill it with water piped by a hose from her sink. We tried it out July 4, and it was magical looking at the fireworks while sitting in steaming water that wasn’t steeped with hot-tub chemicals.

But when Kristal let out the plug, the gray water splattered out noisily and created an unsightly, muddy hole in the yard. This growing mess got Kristal worried that she would attract mosquitoes, kill her plants, and rot her cottage foundations. So I decided to help, relying on the gray-water guerrillas’ manual and my husband’s years of experience in restoring wetlands. Together, the three of us talked through the science, economics, and aesthetics of the proposed project to come up with a viable plan.

The science was simple but critically important, given that we were contemputf8g creating a homemade wetland near other dwellings and gardens. Water flows downhill and follows the path of least resistance, while wetlands, which are nature’s water purification system, create breeding grounds for native plants, insects, and animals. As such, they are fragile ecosystems that are easily harmed by bleach, bath salts, and any boron-containing products. So it’s critical to use all-natural, biodegradable soaps in a tub whose gray water will flow into homemade wetlands.

We reconciled these principles with Kristal’s need for inexpensive materials, her love of simple designs, and her desire to camouflage unsightly plumbing. In the end, we settled on a cascading system that uses cinder blocks to elevate Kristal’s tub and a wine barrel to hold the gray water, which flows by gravity into the barrel and then into the wetlands.

To control and direct water flow, we linked the barrel by way of a garden hose to a piece of slotted, corrugated drainage pipe. We buried the pipe in a lava rock–filled trench that was dug in a serpentine shape so that the gray water flows away from homes and into the lowest part of the garden, which is filled with sandy, drainage-friendly soil.

After a hard weekend of work, Labor Day found us basking in a freshly painted and elevated aquamarine bathtub, imagining how great Kristal’s wetlands will look once she adds water-loving plants like native cattails, which will attract a host of dragonflies, frogs, and beetles. Then we pulled the plug and waited anxiously for the tub to drain. To our delight, the water swirled smoothly into the barrel, then gurgled quietly underground.

Eureka! We were now bona fide gray-water guerrillas and had experienced, in microcosm, the challenges people grapple with, yard by yard, block by block, as they try to green the concrete jungle, one low-impact development at a time. It was exhilarating, empowering, and addictive. But before we had a chance to fully recover, Kristal was on her feet, talking about installing a solar-powered water heater this Thanksgiving. *

Comments, ideas, and submissions for Green City, the Guardian‘s weekly environmental column, can be sent to news@sfbg.com.

Green City: Burning contradictions


>>Gonzo burner Paul Addis’s exclusive statement to the Guardian about burning the Man early — and our readers’ reactions


GREEN CITY Well, the Man was back up the morning of Aug. 30, albeit without a head. And because the Man didn’t have a head, the green pavilion under its feet was still cordoned off and closed to visitors when I visited, so my impressions of this year’s Green Man theme are lacking a key input.

The environmental pavilion was only open for a few hours before the Man’s premature Aug. 27 burn, and most of those who went in were underwhelmed. It was like a wordy trade show exhibit, too earnest and static to stir much inspiration in the average burner.

One exhibit just outside the perimeter displayed an electric car, complete with promotional signage with phrases like "Electric cars equal freedom." Ugh.

But even if the official, environmentally themed installations fell a little flat, the green theme has permeated many of the large-scale artworks all over the playa.

There are pedal-, wind-, biomass-, alt-fuel-, and solar-powered pieces of all kinds, from spinning solar artwork and theme camps (including my own, which runs almost completely on solar power) to vehicles that run on gasified fuel to pedal-powered blenders to Peter Hudson’s Homouroboros, which uses pedals to power its spinning monkeys and drums to power the strobe lights that make the monkeys appear to swing from branch to branch.

I caught up with mayoral candidate and longtime burner Chicken John Rinaldi as he was tinkering with his Café Racer truck, which runs on gasified walnut shells. He was basically happy with the green theme and liked how the pavilion under the Man served as a green salon where people could share their ideas and technologies.

But he was less happy with how that sort of community building and discussion didn’t happen about the event that has overshadowed everything this week: the torching of the Man, allegedly committed by 35-year-old San Franciscan Paul Addis. "I think this was an excellent opportunity to have some democracy," Rinaldi said, noting that the burner community should be able to weigh in on whether Black Rock City presses charges or pushes for leniency, or even whether and how the Man should be rebuilt. "The reaction has been very top-down," he said.

BRC communications director Andie Grace said the community, through the organization and the volunteers who build the Man, was coming together in reaction to the incident. "To me, this turned into an opportunity for Black Rock City to shine," she said. "It’s heartbreaking, for sure, but it’s not going to break us."

Rinaldi has a different take. He’s known Addis since 1995, when they attended Burning Man together, and he said that he 86ed Addis from his old Odeon Bar maybe a dozen times. They ran in the same social circles, both tied closely to estranged Burning Man cofounder John Law (who is currently suing BRC over his partial ownership of the event’s icons) and the Cacophony Society, which originally brought the Man to the Black Rock Desert.

Rinaldi, Law, and many of their cohorts who helped run the event in the early days have long talked about burning the Man early. In fact, Rinaldi said, cofounder Larry Harvey clashed with Law in 1995 — the beginning of their falling out — when the latter wanted to burn the Man early and had to be talked out of the idea by his friends.

"[Addis is] a hero. He did the thing that we’ve been talking about doing for a decade," Rinaldi said. "No matter how misguided he was, his intention was to facilitate art."

Indeed, it was a piece of performance art that has overshadowed the Green Man theme, with all of its earnest good intentions, returning Burning Man to its anarchic roots and injecting chaos back into a routine that had become well established and, to some, a bit tired.

Because at the end of the day, Burning Man isn’t green. It’s a city that runs mostly on fossil fuel–powered generators and lights flammable fuels and gases just to see them burn.

The Burning Man experiment is one that many of us want to influence the world. But to expect it to play a leadership role in the environmental movement was probably too much. We can do many things, but we can’t simultaneously commit ourselves to fire and to global cooling, at least without wrestling constantly with Burning Man’s many contradictions.<\!s>*

Comments, ideas, and submissions for Green City, the Guardian‘s weekly environmental column, can be sent to news@sfbg.com.

Green City: Signs of asbestos


› sarah@sfbg.com

A new front has opened up in the fight for environmental justice in the asbestos-dusted Bayview–Hunters Point community, this time featuring a Nation of Islam–affiliated nonprofit that’s using Proposition 65 — California’s "right to know" law — to force Lennar Corp. to take responsibility for what activists say is a failure to provide clear and reasonable warning that thousands of Californians are being exposed to asbestos on a daily basis in Bayview–Hunters Point.

It’s a creative use of the 21-year-old law to promote environmental justice.

On Aug. 2, the Center for Self-Improvement and Community Development, which runs the Muhammad University of Islam school next to the Parcel A work site, filed suit individually, and on behalf of the public, against Lennar Corp., Lennar Homes of California, Lennar Communities, Lennar BVHP, Lennar Associates Management, and Lennar’s subcontractor, Gordon N. Ball.

At issue is the alleged failure of Lennar and its subcontractor to notify the surrounding community of exposures to asbestos dust during the 16 months that an entire hilltop has been graded on Parcel A of the Hunters Point Shipyard in preparation for developing a 1,500-unit condominium complex.

The suit contends that Lennar and Ball engaged in construction site activities, including grading, scraping, and excavation of materials containing asbestos as well as storage and transportation of materials off site, and continues to engage in these activities without first providing "the adjacent community and persons working at the site with toxic health hazard warnings under California’s ‘right to know’ law."

Enacted in 1986, Prop. 65 was intended to protect California citizens and the state’s drinking water sources "from hazardous chemicals and to inform [citizens] about exposure to any such chemicals." As such, it requires the state to maintain lists of hazardous chemicals and requires businesses to provide a "clear and reasonable warning" before exposing individuals to any of these listed chemicals.

But though asbestos has been listed as a carcinogen since 1987 and has been subject to Prop. 65’s warning requirements since 1988, Minister Christopher Muhammad, who heads the school, claims he first learned that asbestos was in Lennar’s Parcel A construction dust six months after grading began in 2006 —and two months after Lennar admitted to the city that its air monitoring equipment hadn’t been working.

"I did not know that the dust contained asbestos until a young worker, Christopher Carpenter, blew the whistle in October 2006, the same day he got fired from the site after asking the crew to stop digging on account of the dust being too heavy," Muhammad told the Guardian. He recalled how Carpenter visited the school, worried it hadn’t been notified after he saw children playing right next to Lennar’s site.

"The dust clouds were so thick during the summer of 2006, they were like minitornadoes on the hill, which is surrounded by water, so the wind swirls upwards," Muhammad said. He noted that the baseball courts, classroom windows, and jungle gym are 10 feet from a chain link fence that is the only thing separating Lennar’s site from the school, and noted that a Boys and Girls Club, a public housing project, and many residences lie in close proximity to Parcel A, whose dust was seen drifting across the entire neighborhood.

There’s a strong case here: there’s no doubt that the construction project was generating asbestos dust — and still may be. The suit seeks to prohibit Lennar and Ball from engaging in construction activities or any other work at the site "without first providing clear and reasonable warnings to each exposed person residing, working, or visiting the adjacent community and to workers at the site regarding asbestos exposures."

Enforcing Prop. 65 is the responsibility of the state attorney general, the local district attorney, or the city attorney, but as attorney Andrew Packard told us, the law also allows private entities to sue.

Matt Dorsey, spokesperson for City Attorney Dennis Herrera, said the office is "keeping an eye on the situation, including this private effort, and would take it very seriously if a determination is made that a case of action exists in favor of the city."

Comments, ideas, and submissions for Green City, the Guardian‘s weekly environmental column, can be sent to news@sfbg.com.

Green City: Nice day for a green wedding


› news@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY The desire to go green is starting to color everything, even the traditional white wedding. There is an increasing desire to make an ecofriendly statement on the big day, according to the Feb. 11 New York Times article "How Green Was My Wedding?" In fact, the demand is large enough now that a directory called Green Elegance Weddings (www.greeneleganceweddings.com), which aggregates contact info for green wedding vendors and services in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain, was created to satisfy it.

In her new book, One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding (Penguin Press HC), author Rebecca Mead estimates that during her three years of research from 2004 to 2006, the US wedding industry’s annual revenue grew by $40 billion to $161 billion, twice the amount of 1990. With so many greenbacks going into weddings, it’s no wonder that everyone from brides to entrepreneurs is considering how to marry the ceremonies with a desire to do the right thing.

One enterprising environmentalist, Corina Beczner, started Vibrant Events, a planning service based in Marin that pulls together local resources to create resource-efficient weddings for like-minded couples who are about to tie the knot. She got the idea after witnessing the weddings of friends while in business school.

"I realized the lack of meaning in modern weddings … and that aligning values of sustainability with weddings was a great way to integrate a more meaningful experience for everyone," Beczner wrote in an e-mail to the Guardian.

Weddings planned by Vibrant Events and other green wedding planning agencies, such as Chico’s Love Events, are fairly similar in time frame, staff volume, and other traditional planning factors. But they also use fewer finite resources, offset any possible pollution caused by the wedding, and take other steps to promote localism and sustainability.

This can mean using locally grown organic flowers and ingredients (in hors d’oeuvres and the cake), local vendors, and shuttle services and venue selections designed to cut down on emissions. Those who want a green wedding must be committed to the cause before any planning gets done.

Kelly Nichols and Alan Puccinelli of Danville, who met four years ago at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, are set to get married in October and hired Beczner to help them create a sustainable wedding. "I had taken a class on global warming, and I just felt that a wedding was the best venue to show my friends and family what they could do" to combat it, Nichols told us.

Nichols says that Beczner, who holds an MBA in sustainable management, let her take the reins in picking vendors, a location, methods of transportation, and other expenses. "There wasn’t any specific part of the planning process that was mandatory. [Beczner] made suggestions based on what we wanted to do for the wedding, such as telling us where to go to offset our carbon emissions and get local and organic food."

The couple’s green choices include the wedding site, Wildwood Acres in Lafayette, which rents chairs, tables, and china plates to patrons, cutting down on the long-term waste of resources on those obligatory supplies. Also, the couple reserved rooms for out-of-town guests near the Lafayette BART station, meaning celebrants can take the train in lieu of polluting taxi rides from the airport.

But greening one’s wedding isn’t cheap. Beczner estimates that a green wedding costs up to 15 percent more for items like flowers, food, and alcohol; that increase comes on top of the Bay Area’s higher [tk: mean or median? average] total wedding cost of approximately $35,000, according to Beczner — 125 percent the approximate national average of $28,000 reported in Mead’s book. This money ends up in the pockets of an average of 43 businesses at wedding’s end, according to Mead.

However, all those involved in the industry don’t share the benefit equally. When asked how lucrative Vibrant has been, Beczner replies, "I’d have to say that I’m making less money now than I was when I worked for nonprofits."

Of course, the financial aspect isn’t the most important to Beczner. She told us, "I’m much more excited [about helping] the earth than anything else."<\!s>*

Comments, ideas, and submissions for Green City, the Guardian‘s weekly environmental column, can be sent to news@sfbg.com.

Green City: When it rains …


› amanda@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY A few years ago my friend Andrew and I sailed a small boat to the northern Abaco region of the Bahamas, a shallow archipelago frequented by Palm Beach, Fla., sports fishers and vacationing couples on sailboats.

We made our first landfall on Walker’s Cay, and while Andrew paid the customs official for the cruising permit, I hosed salt off our decks and refilled our water tanks. I didn’t notice the fellow standing at the spigot, watching a meter, and it wasn’t until we’d fired up the engine and were untying the spring line that he handed us a bill for $30 worth of water.

We couldn’t pay it — after clearing customs, we had about $12 in cash between us — and the meter tender was livid. This was my first experience in a place where every house has a cistern, only the wealthy can afford the luxury of desalination, and dry spells mean costly shipments of water from the United States.

To Bahamians, water is almost more precious than wine. And yet they’re surrounded by it.

A scorched San Francisco faced a similar dilemma back in postquake 1906, and a series of savvy politicians laid the political piping that would eventually funnel a steady, cheap supply of drinking water to the city by damming the Tuolumne River at the Hetch Hetchy Valley near Yosemite.

It was ultimately way more than we needed, and most of the 225 million gallons of river water diverted daily is piped to 28 wholesale customers. The overdue upgrade to the Water System Improvement Plan is being orchestrated by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. But a joint study by the Tuolumne River Trust and the Pacific Institute has found several flaws in the plan.

While the SFPUC included conservation and efficiency when calcuutf8g a marginal decrease in San Francisco’s water use over the next 23 years, similar standards weren’t applied to the wholesale customers, who claim they will use 14 percent more — almost entirely for irrigation and landscaping. This could draw another 51 million gallons a day from the Tuolumne, the lower branch of which is already considered an impaired water body under the Clean Water Act.

Yet encouraging its suburban customers to conserve may not be in the financial interests of the SFPUC, which is pursuing $4.3 billion worth of repairs and upgrades, about two-thirds of which could be financed by tripling the price of water. The TRT-PI study argues that cost will be an incentive to conserve and concludes that a number of the SFPUC’s predictions are based on a continuation of people’s wasteful ways. It instead recommends that San Francisco set an example for its suburban neighbors and collaborate on efficiency and conservation measures.

Global warming will disrupt worldwide water cycles in unpredictable ways. Accordingly, the PI says one-third of urban water use can be cut employing existing technologies to recycle gray water and capture rainwater. We’re still flushing our toilets with the sweat of the Sierras while the California Department of Water Resources predicts that 33 percent less snowpack will melt into the Tuolumne over the next 50 years.

But people can adapt to such circumstances. Working with the premise of one gallon per person per day, Andrew and I got by: we washed our dishes in salt water and donned bathing suits when it rained, plugged up the drain in the cockpit so that it filled like a bathtub, and let the furls in the mainsail pour rinse water onto our heads.

During one memorable thunderstorm, several other boats sailed into a safe harbor where we’d anchored. Andrew was busy taking a rainwater shower while I washed a load of laundry in the cockpit, and it wasn’t until I was pinning our clothing up to dry on the lifelines that I noticed couples on the boats around us doing the same thing. It was comic to see, and heartening too, because we were doing it out of poverty, and they were doing it just because it looked like fun.

Or maybe because it was the right thing to do.

The SFPUC is still in the review stage of the plan and will hold hearings in September, at which the public may comment on our aquatic future. Stay updated by visiting www.sfwater.org, and read the critical study at

Carbon-neutral madness


› news@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY Are you carbon neutral yet? Al Gore says he is. The concert tours for the Rolling Stones, Dave Matthews, and other big acts say they are too. Indeed, going neutral is hot these days as, almost overnight, the fledgling market in carbon offsets has burgeoned into a multimillion-dollar industry.

The method is simple, at least in theory. For a fee, companies will balance, or offset, the greenhouse gases emitted by your car or home by spending money on climate-healing initiatives such as renewable energy, forestation projects, and capturing deleterious gases like methane from farms and landfills.

But the sheer number of offset firms out there is staggering, with hundreds of companies vying for your dollars. And as the industry has exploded in popularity, questions have arisen about its reliability and whether the millions of dollars being spent are really making it to worthwhile projects.

"It’s the Wild, Wild West out there with carbon offsetting," the Sierra Club’s Aaron Israel told the Guardian. "Until it becomes a truly functional market, it’s going to continue to be confusing to the consumer who really wants to do the right thing."

A San Francisco firm is looking to bring some accountability to the freewheeling new sector. Since California’s energy deregulation disaster, the nonprofit Center for Resource Solutions has run the Green-e program, which oversees and authenticates energy companies that claim to produce renewable power. Starting this fall, the CRS’s Sarah Krasley told us, Green-e will police the carbon offset market as well and put its seal on worthy companies.

Green-e has already been certifying one method for slowing climate change for years: the sale of renewable energy certificates, or RECs. A local firm called 3 Degrees (formerly 3 Phases Energy) specializes in RECs, mainly for small and large businesses. With each one-megawatt-hour certificate its customers buy, the company helps wind, solar, and other renewable-energy producers compete with cheaper, fossil fuel–based sources of energy. As 3 Degrees’ Steve MacDougal explained, "Utilities purchase energy at a commodity price, the same price for coal as for renewables. RECs allow [green-power companies] to have a premium, which makes them more profitable."

While 3 Degrees deals primarily in RECs for business clients, two other local firms, TerraPass and LiveNeutral, peddle offsets for individuals. Since it opened shop just two years ago, the for-profit TerraPass has sold tens of thousands of "passes" on its Web site for car emissions, air travel, home electricity use, and even weddings. The average buyer spends "about $50," company founder Tom Arnold told us, with the money going to initiatives like wind farms in the Midwest and the capturing of greenhouse gas emissions from farms and landfills. About one-third of 3 Degrees’ outlays go to RECs.

LiveNeutral takes a different approach from TerraPass or any other company. Rather than spending money on individual projects or methods, the Presidio nonprofit buys and then permanently retires carbon offset credits from the Chicago Climate Exchange. "By purchasing these credits and then never reselling them," LiveNeutral executive director Jason Smith explained, "we drive up the price of the credits and encourage [big greenhouse gas emitters] to reduce." LiveNeutral sells a one-ton emissions reduction credit for $7.50, Smith said. Most customers use the company’s DriveNeutral program and purchase five credits to offset one year of driving. The firm also offers a FlyNeutral option for air travel.

But many critics have likened the offset business to medieval papal indulgences, with environmental sins like owning an inefficient vehicle or cranking up the thermostat absolved for the right price. Israel said the Sierra Club does not openly oppose the practice, but he is worried that offsets could become "a distraction for people…. It’s really the last thing you should do, not the first. First you should conserve and become more efficient, then you can see about offsetting what’s left."

For Arnold, TerraPass’s phenomenal success is not about exploiting guilt or bad behavior. Instead, he reasoned, it simply shows that people want to do all they can to make a difference. "Most of our users are already green," he said. "But we want to reach the people who are just now waking up to enormity of the problem too…. What our customers are saying is very American: ‘Let’s not wait for someone else to do it, let’s get something done ourselves.’ " *

Comments, ideas, and submissions for Green City, the Guardian‘s weekly environmental column, can be sent to news@sfbg.com.

Of people and plastics


› sarah@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY Alan Weisman’s book The World Without Us begins with a funny but humbling exploration of what would happen to New York City if humans were gone, wiped out by a virus or a wizard who perfected a way to sterilize our sperm. "Or say that Jesus, or space aliens rapture us away, either to our heavenly glory, or to a zoo somewhere across the galaxy," Wiseman writes, launching into a delicious deconstruction of a great world city.

Without people to unblock the sewers or run the power stations, it wouldn’t take long, Weisman predicts, before the city flooded, streets cratered, weeds sprang up, pipes burst, and fires broke out.

"Collectively, New York’s architecture isn’t as combustible as, say, San Francisco’s incendiary row of clapboard Victorians," Weisman notes as he describes how, with no firefighters to answer the calls, fires triggered by lightning would engulf the city.

Over the following centuries, corrosion would periodically set off "time bombs left in petroleum tanks, chemical and power plants, and hundreds of dry cleaners," while outdoors a great return to wildness would occur, repopuutf8g the city with maturing forests, coyotes, wolves, "and a wily population of feral house cats."

Tracing the Big Apple’s demise through to the next ice age, Weisman concludes that "after the ice recedes, buried in geologic layers below will be an unnatural concentration of reddish metal, which briefly had assumed the form of wiring and plumbing."

Reached by phone, Weisman says he came up with his World Without Us fantasy after reading and writing about the environment for two decades, including stints covering Chernobyl and the melting of the Artic permafrost.

"I saw all this stuff and began to say, ‘Oh man, this hopeless,’ but then I stepped back and saw that there are places that are still untouched and beautiful and that even in Chernobyl, voles were throwing off bigger litters," he says.

Weisman’s book resulted from his struggle to find a way "to get people to read about environmental issues without saying, ‘Oh, forget it,’ and throwing away their newspapers." The author says his fantasy is intended to help people take a long view of our current challenges and begin to understand, for example, the profoundly serious impact of, say, plastic on our world.

He focuses on "the Great Pacific Garbage Patch," or the North Pacific subtropical gyre, as it’s officially known. It’s in this swirling sink, Weisman writes, that "nearly everything that blows into the water from half the Pacific Rim eventually ends up, spiraling slowly towards a widening horror of industrial excretion."

"They say it’s an enormous sump, and there are others on the planet where all the plastic ends up," Weisman says, noting that discarded plastic accounts for only 20 percent of the material in landfills, with the rest consisting mostly of construction debris and paper products. But unlike the Rocky Mountains, which are slowly, almost imperceptibly eroding and will end up in the ocean, plastic gets blown into the sea much faster.

"It’s only been around since World War II, but already it’s everywhere," Wiseman says of plastic, which has the featherweight ability, once broken into tiny particles, to ride global sea currents.

Weisman’s account should leave San Francisco proud to be the first US city to ban plastic bags, since these limp suckers apparently feature heavily in the oceanic sumps. But with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch measuring 10 million square miles in area (nearly the size of Africa) as of 2005 and six other tropical oceanic gyres swirling with ugly plastic debris — not to mention all the other environmental problems humans have caused — is it too late to heal our world?

Specuutf8g that microbes will eventually evolve to eat all our plastics — something that could take 100,000 years to occur — Weisman suggests a healing path that doesn’t require a world without us. "Green technology won’t be enough on its own," he notes. "The answer lies in lowering the number of humans on the planet. I don’t mean shoot ourselves, but that we don’t replace ourselves at same rate."

There are 6.6 billion people on the planet, and 9 billion are predicted by 2050. Weisman says that by restricting reproduction to one child per couple, "our population could shrink to 1.6 billion by 2100, and the world will be a better place." And in the meantime, don’t forget the reusable bags on your next trip to the grocery store.*

Comments, ideas, and submissions for Green City, the Guardian‘s weekly environmental column, can be sent to news@sfbg.com.

Green City: Slow climate change U-turn


› news@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY It seems like most of the recent talk about global warming has been in terms of its apocalyptic potential in the distant future. Yet Bay Area heat waves and soaring temperatures in the Central Valley of late could certainly cause me to wonder whether it’s already begun. What has happened to our legendary cold summers and heavy rainy seasons? Sure, we’ve gotten patches of fog and wind, but for the most part this summer has felt, well, summery.

And apparently I’m not the only one thinking about climate change and what we need to be doing today to minimize it. Let me tell you, it’s going to take a lot more than driving a Prius and using energy-efficient lightbulbs to get the job done. That’s why the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and the Department of the Environment published the city’s Climate Action Plan in 2004. The plan evolved from the Board of Supervisors’ 2002 resolution to reduce the city’s annual greenhouse gas emissions by 2012 to 20 percent below their 1990 levels and included a series of recommendations on how to achieve this goal.

In 1990, San Francisco emitted 9.1 million tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, but by 2004 it was pumping out an extra 600,000 tons per year and counting. In order to get down to the ideal of 7.3 million tons by 2012, things need to make a major U-turn. Last month the San Francisco Civil Grand Jury released a report on how successful the Climate Action Plan has been so far, and while the city has made some progress in reducing its annual greenhouse gas emissions, the report noted that if the board’s goals are to be met, the entire city needs to step it up.

According to the grand jury report, the reduction of emissions in 2005 (the most recently available local emissions inventory) was "500,000 metric tons, only half the amount hoped," and "to achieve the reductions to 7.3 million tons by 2012 will require a tripling of the reduction rate."

The Department of the Environment remains optimistic. "We haven’t fallen behind," Mark Westlund, the department’s public outreach program manager, told the Guardian. "But we need to do more. We are currently at 1990 levels. At this point we’ve made the U-turn and are lined up to reach 7 percent [below] our 1990 levels, which would put us up to pace with the Kyoto Protocol’s goals, but we just need to ramp it up to reach our 20 percent."

City government can do a lot to control emissions. There are already regulations in place regarding the city’s vehicle fleets and setting green standards for municipal buildings. Mayor Gavin Newsom’s Green Building Task Force on July 11 announced a proposal to create incentives for private-sector buildings to adopt green building standards over the next five years.

Other city efforts include 2001’s Proposition B, which expanded solar power possibilities, and Community Choice Aggregation, which recently received preliminary approval from the Board of Supervisors; the latter program will allow the city to develop renewable energy projects on behalf of its citizens. But when it comes to making San Francisco a truly green city, much of the dirty work will fall to private citizens.

Nonmunicipal sources are responsible for 90 percent of San Francisco’s emissions, with a whopping 50 percent coming from private transportation, mostly cars. While the Climate Action Plan and the Civil Grand Jury report both give suggestions on how government agencies can motivate the public to reduce emissions, these suggestions can also be read as a map for how we can help ourselves. Simple changes in transportation habits — more walking, bicycling, and public transit — could cut 963,000 tons of greenhouse gases per year. And those who must use cars could carpool more often and switch to more-efficient vehicles.

The Climate Action Plan also indicates we can reduce emissions by an estimated 328,000 tons by changing how we live at home, including better energy efficiency and waste management.

Westlund told us, "Twenty percent is not just a municipal target, it’s citywide. Residences can help. Businesses can help. We’re all in this together. Getting the message out is half of it."*

The grand jury report is available at www.sfgov.org/site/courts_page.asp?id=3680#reports.

Comments, ideas, and submissions for Green City, the Guardian‘s weekly environmental column, can be sent to news@sfbg.com.

Green City: People versus death monsters


› steve@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY Pedaling or walking along a Panhandle pathway is the essence of green, a simple act of sustainable living and connection to a natural area within an urban core. It’s a calming, transformative activity — at least until you get to Masonic Avenue and the telling words painted on the path: "Death Monsters Ahead."

The death monsters, a.k.a. automobiles, that bisect this three-quarter-mile-long green runway into Golden Gate Park would be jarring even if traffic engineers had made that intersection the best it could be. Instead, it’s closer to the opposite — dangerous, illogical, and frustrating for all who must navigate it, a testament to what happens when the primary intersection-design criterion is moving cars rapidly.

After getting word of a rash of bicycle- and pedestrian-versus-car accidents at the Masonic-Fell intersection in recent months, Walk SF and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition reinitiated (two years ago, it was the same story) a voluntary crossing-guard program on Saturdays and weekday evenings and lobbied City Hall to finally do something.

Sup. Ross Mirkarimi took up the cause, announcing at the June 26 Board of Supervisors meeting, "I find it simply unacceptable that the city has ignored the problem to the point where a volunteer program has become imperative. Traffic safety is a baseline city responsibility."

Mirkarimi is asking the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which has responded to years of complaints about this dangerous intersection with only minor and ineffective tinkering, to finally make a substantial change. He and the activists want a dedicated signal phase for pedestrians and bikes and a dedicated left-turn lane for cars coming off Fell.

It doesn’t take a traffic engineer to see what’s wrong with this intersection. Cars trying to turn left onto Fell from busy Masonic regularly get stranded by a red light and are stuck blocking the crosswalk. Even more dangerous is when bikers and walkers cross on their green light only to find cars — which also have a green light — turning left from Fell Street, cutting across their path.

The problem is vividly illustrated with too much regularity. I can still picture the female bicyclist who flipped through the air and crumpled to the ground a few feet from me after getting hit hard by a motorist. It was almost three years ago, but it remains a vivid, cautionary memory.

I was riding my bicycle west on the Panhandle trail, even with the motorist. Our eyes locked, his anxious and darting, and I knew he might try to cut me off, so I slowed. Sure enough, the driver made a quick left in front of me and hit the bicyclist coming from the opposite direction, who assumed that the green light and legal right-of-way meant she could continue to pedal from one section of parkland to the next. Instead, she joined a long list of Fell-Masonic casualties, to which attorney Peter Borkon was added May 19, a few days shy of his 36th birthday.

Borkon was on his road bike, training for the AIDS Life Cycle ride, when he cautiously approached the intersection, slowed, and unclipped from his pedals. When the light turned green, he clipped in, crossed into the intersection, and then, he says, "I was run over by a Chevy Suburban."

He was hit so hard that he broke his nose and gashed his face on the car, an injury that resulted in 15 stitches, and was thrown 10 feet. The fact that he was wearing a helmet might have saved his life, but he nevertheless went into shock, spent a day in the hospital, and is still waiting for the neurological damage to his face to heal.

How dangerous in that intersection? When I asked the MTA for accident statistics, a response to the criticisms, and a plan of action, public information officers Maggie Lynch and Kristen Holland first stonewalled me for two days and then said it would take two weeks to provide an answer.

Maybe Mirkarimi will spark a change, or maybe the MTA will just keep doing what it’s always done: plod along at a bureaucratic pace with tools ill suited to an evolving world that must do more to facilitate walking and bicycling as safe, attractive transportation options, even if that means delaying the death monsters.*

Comments, ideas, and submissions for Green City, the Guardian‘s weekly environmental column, can be sent to news@sfbg.com.

How is that gratitude?


› amanda@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY Doing the right thing often costs a little more. Organic food, solar panels, and compact fluorescent lightbulbs are all pricier than conventional options. But Café Gratitude is now adding legal fees to the cost of going green for terminating a linen service contract in order to use unbleached cotton napkins in its four restaurants.

It’s hard to imagine how a restaurant could be any more humane, sustainable, and environmentally conscious. Café Gratitude’s raison d’être is encouraging deeper human relationships with one another and the world while serving strictly raw, vegan food. Wheatgrass grows on its counters, and if it’s not organic, it’s not on the menu.

Terces and Matthew Engelhart opened the first restaurant in the Mission District in 2004 and have since spread to the Sunset, Berkeley, and San Rafael, with a Los Angeles location on the way. Each spot has compact fluorescent lightbulbs, toilets that flush with a low-flow gush, high-output hand dryers, and cornstarch to-go containers.

In order to eliminate plastic from their entire supply chain, the Engelharts have leaned on their bulk-food carriers to use fusti containers (large, stainless-steel casks provided by the café) instead of those ubiquitous, unrecyclable five-gallon buckets when shipping their raw goods. A recent raw food recipe book by Terces was printed on 100 percent recycled paper at her insistence. The cafés frequently host fundraisers for local nonprofits. Of course they compost, recycle, and buy local. The delivery van putters along on biodiesel.

Yet in the process of seeking to further green their business, the issue of bleached napkins came up. The Engelharts have always used cloth napkins rather than paper. Once washing napkins themselves became infeasible for their growing business, they contracted for clean cotton napkins from Mission Linen Supply. From the start, they asked the company for an unbleached alternative, but none was available.

Anyone with a bottle of Clorox can read the warning label cautioning against allowing its contents anywhere near your skin, mouth, or eyes. The use of chlorine bleach in laundry produces chloroform, a human carcinogen, and additional industrial uses create another 177 organochlorine byproducts, including dioxin, the stuff found in pesticides like DDT and Agent Orange. No level of exposure to dioxin is considered safe, but it has pervaded the environment so deeply that it typically turns up in breast milk and semen, drinking water, and the fatty tissue of the fish we eat. Dioxin can lead to hormone imbalances, reproductive disorders, kidney and liver diseases, and cancer of all kinds.

So the Engelharts decided to switch from Mission Linen to another nationally known company, Aramark, which offers unbleached cotton cloth rags, often used in the auto industry. The rags, which are a creamy beige color and look like they could have come off a shelf at Crate and Barrel, would have a first run at Café Gratitude, then be recycled for their next job, wiping oil dipsticks. "We thought this was a great green solution," Terces said.

But now Café Gratitude is being sued for $25,000 by Mission Linen for breach of contract.

Before terminating their contract with Mission Linen, the Engelharts continued to press the company for a green solution, but no dice. They decided to keep the bleached supply coming to the Harrison Street location, but as new cafés opened, they’d use Aramark’s unbleached alternative, which is the same price.

After repeatedly requesting a greener laundry service from Mission Linen, they reviewed their contract and determined it could be terminated if Mission Linen couldn’t provide a product or service of the quality found at a similar laundry in the area. Mission Linen did not return calls for comment, but according to the Engelharts’ lawyer, Fania Davis, the linen company interprets that language more narrowly and is suing for the estimated lost profit. The Engelharts offered a settlement, and the company turned them down, so the fight continues, but the Engelharts still think it’s unfair.

"We were more committed to green than to continuing to bleach in ever-increasing numbers," Terces said.

Matthew added that the point isn’t to cast Mission Linen in a bad light but to bring attention to an important need in the restaurant community for more environmentally friendly laundry options.

"We’re not doing this for us," Matthew said. "It’s for everyone, our children and grandchildren." *

Comments, ideas, and submissions for Green City, the Guardian‘s weekly environmental column, can be sent to news@sfbg.com.