Tuesday, September 26, 2017 Blog · News

Gala for birds. Water, water everywhere. Taxing carbon. Building better, less expensive cities. Support local farming or reform big agriculture? The answer is yes!

by Dana Beach


First, I made a mistake last week. I reported that the Center for Birds of Prey’s annual extravaganza had been cancelled because of too much water from Irma and too many exotic birds (like our sooty tern) to rehabilitate. In fact, it was their annual birding festival, Zughenruhe (It’s German – having to do with the migration of birds, in case you didn’t know.) Fest, that was cancelled. Their annual gala is still on, and scheduled for October 21 at the Center.

It’s a great event that we have enjoyed over the years. Here is a link for more information or tickets:

The Center for Birds of Prey: Wild at Wingswood, October 21

Now, on the ubiquitous topic of water… This editorial from the Post and Courier urges city leaders to move into a higher gear (let’s at least try 2nd…) to mitigate storm damage and attenuate flooding.

Post and Courier: Fix flooding at all costs

From the editorial:

If ever there were an issue that demands the full attention and resources of city government, it’s the heightened level and number of floods. The survival of Charleston as we know it depends upon it.

It suddenly looks as if the city’s ambitious ongoing efforts to deal with the problem leave a lot to be desired. Less than 40 percent of the critical drainage projects designated more than 30 years ago have been completed.

The urgency would seem obvious. But, apparently, it is not. The next piece, an op-ed from the Post and Courier by me, argues that a defeatist, lethargic attitude has paralyzed, (or at least slowed to a glacial pace), the city’s efforts to address this existential crisis. But the good news is that this perspective – that it is too expensive to protect Charleston from debilitating flooding and storm surges – is unfounded.

Post and Courier: Flood, storm relief are achievable if leaders are willing

From the op-ed:

There are a dozen or more obvious (federal, state and local) funding opportunities. Collectively, they exceed the amount needed to safeguard Charleston over the coming decades…

The deficit we face is not financial. It is political. I’m hopeful that Irma, the third major flood in three years for the S.C. coast, will infuse our leaders with a dose of creative energy. We don’t have time to waste.

We can do a lot in the Lowcountry to address the impacts of climate change. We should also do more to deal with the causes, by implementing an array of reforms that, even absent the climate threat, would be eminently reasonable – improving public transit, making the city more bicycle and pedestrian-friendly, reducing electric consumption in public buildings and investing in solar panels… all good things in themselves.

As a case in point, increasing building densities provides a wide assortment of benefits, including greenhouse gas reductions. This article, from the Berkeley Independent, reports on a study we helped launch and fund analyzing the tax implications of density.

Berkeley Independent: Study promotes density for better development

The short story is that denser areas – downtown Charleston, for example – produce vastly higher revenue streams for local governments than sprawl does. From the article:

Tax and planning policies have built-in biases in favor of suburban design, yet we cannot – on a national level or local level – sustain more suburbanization, Joe Minicozzi of Urban3 told a small group of elected officials, town staffers and Chamber members on Thursday

Further, it is the urban core of cities and towns that does the hard lifting in terms of producing tax revenue and subsidizing outer areas, he said.

The challenge is to change local zoning codes and investment policies that favor sprawl and disallow density – even at the modest levels of traditional downtowns like Charleston, Beaufort and Georgetown.

In addition to local advocacy for more sustainable city design, climate change requires that we take bold steps at the national level to provide a stronger framework for conservation. This article from Time reports that Senator Lindsay Graham, who has long been a leader in Congress on climate policy, announced last week that he favors a federal carbon tax to reduce fossil fuel consumption.

Time: Republican Senator Endorses ‘Price on Carbon’ to Fight Climate Change

From the article:

Speaking at a climate change conference held by former Secretary of State John Kerry at Yale University, the South Carolina Republican called for a “price on carbon,” saying he would take the idea to the White House for consideration

“I’m a Republican. I believe that the greenhouse effect is real, that CO2 emissions generated by man is creating our greenhouse gas effect that traps heat, and the planet is warming,” said Graham. “A price on carbon—that’s the way to go in my view.”

Another group of prominent Republican elder statesmen, including former secretaries of State James Baker and George P. Shultz and former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, offered a proposal earlier this year for a carbon tax and dividend that would pay returns to taxpayers.

While any positive federal action on climate change is unlikely for the next few years, it is important to get these ideas out and vetted. In the words of the legendary Chicago economist Milton Friedman,

“Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”

We’ve had a few crises recently and we will undoubtedly have a few more in the not too distant future. So, good for Senator Graham, and for Senators Kerry and Sheldon Whitehouse, for keeping these solution “alive and available.”

One of the simplest responses to the threats of flooding and storms is to identify areas that, because of their elevation above sea level, should not be developed. This editorial from the Post and Courier calls on the city and the county to take flooding, along with infrastructure limitations, into consideration before approving rezonings.

Post and Courier: ‘Time-out’ on Johns Island

From the editorial:

With thousands of housing units already in the pipeline, City Council should be reluctant to approve more housing on the outer edge of the UGB. It’s clearly time for a development pause and for the city to update its decade-old Johns Island Community Plan before the island is “built out.”

I have a slightly different perspective. The city has a transportation plan for John’s Island that is now more than a decade old. The problem is that there has been little progress implementing it. Even the simplest projects – notably the “pitchfork” improvement to the Maybank/River intersection – have been delayed, inexplicably, for years. And the slightly more ambitious elements – extending roads parallel to Maybank between River and Main/Bohicket – are nowhere close to starting.

More planning will not fix this. As is the case with flooding and storm protection, we need to insist on action now. More planning can, and has, become just another excuse for inaction.

Finally, on the subject of different but reconcilable perspectives, these next two pieces, from the Washington Post and Civil-Eats, present contrasting views on the potential for local farming to save the planet. The Post makes a persuasive case that local food production has limits, that large scale farming is with us for the long term, for a variety of reasons that are neither bad nor good, and that the “food movement” agenda should also incorporate large-scale agriculture reforms, in addition to promoting local, organic specialty production.

A few points come to mind:

  1. We are miles away from maximizing the benefits of local and organic production. Even a doubling of local, organic production would constitute a massive and positive shift in our current food landscape. So not only should we not slow these efforts down – GrowFood Carolina being a shining example – we should accelerate them.
  2. Big agriculture needs seismic reforms in order to become more sustainable, less polluting, and more humane. This must be part of the food movement’s “menu.” In fact, it should become a centerpiece of the effort.
  3. Visionaries like Wes Jackson at the Land Institute have spent decades working on new strategies for big and small agriculture. The Institute has developed perineal grains to reduce (and perhaps eliminate) the world’s current reliance on annual crops. For the many reasons this is necessary, here is a link: https://landinstitute.org/. These efforts should receive vastly more support – public and private – than they have if they are to realize the revolutionary benefits they offer.

Washington Post: Why small, local, organic farms aren’t the key to fixing our food system

Civil Eats: From Coal to Kale: Saving Rural Economies with Local Food

The Post article is, in my view, more important than Civil-Eats, who nonetheless make a very good case for continuing the push for local farming. This is an emergency and it will take more than one strategy to make the changes necessary for the people and the planet.

Lots of emergencies! But lots of progress, it seems to me. We simply need to step up the pace.

Have a great week!


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