Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Summer 2008 -- a New England Farm


For many decades, this farm was a dairy farm. By the time the farm came into my mother's family, there may have been on average 20 dairy cows -- Holsteins, Jerseys, and Guernseys, among other types -- named after the places where they had originally been bred. Every morning, they would gather at a fence across the street and wait for my grandfather -- who had been born and raised on a farm in Maine -- to escort them into the back of the long end of the barn. Once inside each cow would dutifully take her place at her designated stall. My grandfather fed and milked the cows and then transferred the milk into large steel casks that were lowered into a cooler in the milk room. (The milk room is the small, stone addition to the right of the original red barn.) A distributor would pick up the milk and take it to a local dairy processor.

Running this farm was a very labor intensive venture for my grandfather and the rest of the family. I don't know if my grandfather ever hired helpers, but I doubt that he ever took a vacation during the nearly 20 years that it was an active farm. In the late 1960s, he sold the cows -- I remember when some of them were being herded onto a truck taken away -- and went back to his first profession, teaching.

Richard Heinberg, among others, has suggested that in response to peak oil (the end of cheap petroleum upon which our way of life now depends), that food production will hopefully go through a process of decentralization and re-localization. In his November 2008 MuseLetter, he addresses the issue of food and farming.

This farm is on typically rocky New England soil, and I don't know too much about its history prior to the arrival of my mother's family in 1950. I doubt that it was ever self-sustaining, but if current practices are any indication, the people who farmed it over the years probably brought it close to a self-sustaining operation -- with the help of neighbors.

I also do not know about its future, and whether or not it will be a center for the re-localization of food production, as these are matters that are not under my control.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Summer 2008 -- This Old House

Revolutionary Era Farm House
These rooms are part of a Massachusetts farm house. Construction on the house was started before the American Revolution and completed afterwards. It would have been at one time an all purpose home where the occupants would have raised their own chickens and cows, and perhaps pigs and sheep. Over one hundred acres of rocky fields, woods, and wetlands are a part of the farm also. The fields have been used, over the years, for a combination of growing hay to feed cattle and for sale to other farmers, and for grazing livestock.

Before central heating was installed, fireplaces and iron stoves would have provided all the heat. Fireplaces and stoves are still part of the heating system. An annual project every summer and fall is collecting firewood from the woods, chopping it up, and stacking it for the winter.

One hundred and fifty years ago, most Americans were agrarian, farmers working the land for a living. With the advent of mechanized farming, made largely possible by the utilization of fossil fuels for agriculture, only a small percentage of Americans still farm. It's been suggested, that as supplies of fossil fuels diminish, more and more people will return to farming. That may be so, but it leaves me with some worries -- the vast majority of us have lost the farming skills that humankind has carried around with it for thousands of years.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Lowell, Massachusetts -- Water Works and Women's Labor

Scenes from Lowell

The system under which young, farm women were recruited into the Lowell Mills was called the "Waltham System," based on the first center to consolidate all aspects of the transformation of cotton into cloth in nearby Waltham, Massachusetts. While work beyond the home was not conventional for most New England women of the era, it was acceptable for young women to leave their farm families for several years before settling into marriage. The labor of young men, on the other hand, was needed on the farms.

Some of the women who went to the mills for work produced a paper trail of their experiences. Perhaps the most famous chronicler of the lives of the mill girls was Harriet Robinson, who published Loom and Spindle, or Life Among the Early Mill Girls, in 1898, and who, in 1836 at the age of 11, was a leader in a strike at the mills. Here she writes:

... In 1831 Lowell was little more than a factory village. Several corporations were started, and the cotton mills belonging to them were building. Help was in great demand; and stories were told all over the country of the new factory town, and the high wages that were offered to all classes of work-people -- stories that reached the ears of mechanics' and farmers' sons, and gave new life to lonely and dependent women in distant towns and farmhouses. ... The stagecoach and the canal boat came every day, always filled with new recruits for this army of useful people. ... The widow came with her little flock and scanty housekeeping goods to open a boarding house or variety store ... Many farmers' daughters came to earn money to complete their wedding outfit, or buy the bride's share of housekeeping articles. ...

She goes on and adds that women with past histories came to start their lives anew in anonymity and that the daughters of urban privilege came for the adventure, as well as women with children who sought to disappear behind the machines they operated and thus escape abusive marriages.

Over the decades, however, with increased immigration, due in part to the potato famine in Ireland and revolutionary turmoil in Central Europe, labor became more and more expendable, and the practice of hiring primarily Yankee farm girls and other women died down.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Summer 2008 -- Lowell, Massachusetts

My mother’s roots are in the northeast, mostly New England. She was born in Connecticut, and in 1950, after some years in Texas, her parents bought a farm in Massachusetts and moved the family there. The farm is still in the family, close to historic downtown Lowell.

This city is famous as one of the places where the American Industrial Revolution began. It was there that Francis Cabot Lowell and some fellow entrepreneurs decided to experiment with the consolidation of all aspects of the manufacture of cloth in one center. They pooled their talent and capital and started building water-powered factories along the Merrimack River. They oversaw the construction of canals for transportation (the Merrimack is rapid and rocky at some points), and started the practice of hiring young farm women who would be housed in dormitories and overseen by older women until they left, usually for marriage.

Lowell as an industrial center began to decline over a century ago, as industrialists moved their centers of production to places of cheaper labor.

Now, many of the Lowell Mills have been restored as museums or retails shops and incorporated into the National Park Service system.

Electric Cars Do Not A Game-Changer Make

Wow. People still just don't get it.

Ok, I'll admit, I'm about to head back to the East Coast for the grand Thanksgiving get-together at my extended family's farm in New England. But I know that I need to reduce my carbon footprint and restrict my movement (I'm getting there: I live in San Francisco and call anything on the other side of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge "California" at best, and the equivalent of different universe at worst).

But here's a Reuters story quoting San Francisco's Mayor Gavin Newsom about how he feels badly driving a hybrid. The point is, he wants to switch to an all-electric vehicle.

To me people switching from regular ICEs or hybrids to electric cars is like George W. Bush giving up golf during times of war.

Electric vehicles may be good as a transition to NO vehicles at all (or more realitistically FEWER vehicles). But how much coal would we need to extract from the planet, how many new nuclear plants would we need to commission (money-losing investments -- they would be public works projects at best), and how many LNG plants would we need to erect to transition from over 200 million vehicles in the United States alone now powered by gasoline to electric vehicles? And given the warnings about global climate change, how much time would we have to get there?

Here's a link to one of my favorite articles, one that I have posted in this blog before, The Road to Nowhere, about the fallacy of alternative-fuel vehicles (and electric vehicles ARE alternative-fuel vehicles, as long as the electricity plants are powered by anything other than petroleum).

Electric cars just do not a game-changer make. We need people to accept the reality that there are limitations to what they can have and where they can go. I know that's hard. It's hard for me, for goodness sake. But I know it.

What might be a real game-changer? Following the advice of expert planners who are telling us we need to create affordable -- and appealing -- housing where the jobs, parks, transit, schools, and retail already exist. And that ex-urban communities need to stop including wide streets and bountiful parking in their zoning regulations.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Revolution Will Be on the Streets

A New Transportation Deal for the Nation?

I participate in an email discussion group in San Francisco called "Car Free Living." Most of the participants are transportation wonks who ride bicycles and/or walk and then gather on the first Wednesday of every month at popular local watering hole to discuss transportation policy.

Right now, people are talking about the auto bailout, Barack Obama's choice of transportation appointees, and the fact that Henry Waxman (D-California) usurped John Dingell (D-Michigan) as chair of an important house committee that oversees energy matters.

Here's a link to President-Elect Obama's "Change" webpage regarding transportation:

If I were serious about change, I'd be thinking of nationalizing the auto industry (or at the very least, putting it into a receivership, as Michael Moore, below, suggests), and creating a New Transportation Deal for the nation with the very serious goal of reducing our energy use and sprawl. Moore, a child of auto manufacturing country himself, says the following:

"We're going to put the companies into some sort of receivership and we, the government, are going to hold the reigns on these companies. They're to build mass transit. They're to build hybrid cars. They're to build cars that use little or no gasoline.

"We're facing a national crisis, not just an economic crisis, but a crisis of the polar ice caps melting. There's only so much oil left under the Earth. We're going to run out of that, if not in our children's time, our grandchildren's time."

Does Henry Waxman's replacement of John Dingell as the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee signal revolutionary change (because that's what we need)? Let's hope so. We all know that newspapers run stories about the demise of the auto industry alongside stories about global warming -- and yet rarely, does the content of the stories overlap. The story on Henry Waxman in today's San Francisco Chronicle is an exception, as the environment and clean air do get mention.

Meanwhile, the president-elect is keeping a low profile regarding the automobile industry's desire for a bailout, and suggesting vague job creation programs that include rebuilding roads and bridges and the manufacture of alternative-fuel cars. But there is no mention of expanding public transportation or building affordable housing in our cities or elsewhere.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Should the Auto Industry Be Bailed Out?

Subsidizing the Auto Industry v. Union Busting

The pundits on this matter seem to be torn between the Democrats who are allied with the unions representing the workers and the Republicans who, in this particular instance, are salivating at the opportunity to union bust. See former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney's op-ed in the New York Times today here.

Search as I do, I can find very few people talking about the auto industry crisis as an opportunity to create a long-term transportation/community building plan for the nation that addresses environmental ills caused by our way of life. I found Mark Brenner on Democracy Now! on November 12, calling for a game changer:

MARK BRENNER: Well, look, Michigan’s lost over 350,000 manufacturing jobs in the last eight years, most of them in the last three years. Unemployment has already hit ten percent in Flint; it’s nine percent statewide. There’s no question that the impact of the free fall of the auto industry has really decimated, and it’s going to continue to decimate, the state and the region.

So, you know, from my perspective and I think from most of the perspective of the labor movement and hopefully the whole progressive community, there’s no question that something needs to be done. The question is, what do we do? And I think, here, we really need a game changer. ...

Read the transcript of this show here.

Yet I'm still waiting for someone to very specifically link the automobile industry to planetary demise, but perhaps people are afraid to go there. Van Jones, author of The Green Collar Economy and budding environmental justice superstar, came close to this on Sunday, November 16 at the San Francisco Green Festival, but he avoided suggesting that Americans and others divorce their cars (or at the very least get separations). Scroll down in this story to see what Van Jones had to say.

There are people weighing in on the current battle between John Dingell (D-Michigan) and Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) for chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, with environmentalists siding with Waxman, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi refusing to take sides. But it just feels like, three years after Katrina, no one is really tackling these issues.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

July 27, 2008 -- Lowell

Scenes from the
Lowell Folk Festival

My sister and her family attend the Lowell Festival every year. This festival is as good as any in San Francisco or any other large city -- in fact, maybe it's even better because the crowds are small.

Musicians, singers, and dancers come from all over the nation and the world to perform. Two of the women in the top photograph eventually stepped down onto platform in front and danced. The people on chairs in the lower platform are actually dancing, also.

July 26, 2008 -- Out of Boston

The Lowell Commuter Train

From North Station in Boston, I took the Lowell train. Usually, I don't go all the way to Lowell, instead disembarking at an earlier stop where my sister picks me up.

Thanks, sis.

It's usually an uneventful train ride through mostly working class towns outside of Boston and through wetlands areas with ponds overlaid with water lilies -- and those are scenes that you have to imagine because I did not take pictures.

This station in the picture -- and others like it that ring Boston -- is a commuter station. People come in the morning and park their cars, pay a parking fee, and take the train to Boston's North Station to get to their jobs. This particular station is also Grand Auto Theft Central, as my sister discovered many years ago when she and her husband first moved not too far away, and someone heisted her little, used Toyota that she had bought just for the commute from their house to the station. When she filed her police report, she found out that there is a lot of auto theft at this station.

Boston has an old and well-built up system of commuter lines to outlying communities. There is a debate in the San Francisco Bay Area about whether or not to extend BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) to outlying suburbs so that people can forego their personal cars in order to get to work. I think the planners with these ideas are thinking about reducing congestion on the roads leading to jobs, but others of us are thinking about the environment and social justice issues.

Because here's the thing: while it's true that many people have been forced out of San Francisco and other dense communities by the high cost of housing, the people who live in the communities that BART is being extended to tend to be middle class. BART, a rail system, is very expensive to operate, especially compared to buses. People who live in the denser communities such as San Francisco and Oakland argue that BART should not be extended to the suburbs because that will induce sprawl and because BART is so expensive to build and operate. They say that instead, BART should rely on shuttles to get people in the suburbs to BART connections and that the region as a whole should concentrate on constructing affordable infill housing in parts of the region that are already transit rich. Doing anything less, they argue, is a subsidy for the middle and upper classes at the expense of providing better public transportation for poorer people.

But the conventional wisdom is that middle class people in the suburbs have some kind of aversion to buses. So we're back to extending BART. At the very least, parking at the BART commuter lots should not be free. Parking should NEVER be free, in fact, according to Donald Shoup, UCLA professor of Urban Planning.

Back to commuter rail in the Boston area: I depend on it for my travels and am very happy that it exists. I just wished that my family members lived closer to the stations than they do.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

July 26, 2008; 7AM -- Finally, The Big Dig

The Big Dig

Once I got from South Station to North Station, I had an hour or so to spare before my next train to my sister's town near the New Hampshire border. Tired and grimy as I was, I decided to wander outside with my luggage and take some pictures.

Above are two photographs of the famous (or "infamous") Big Dig bridge. Boston Garden and North Station are to the left.

This bridge is a work of art (one that was decades in the making, from conception to completion), but what for? At a cost of $14.8 billion, the public officials who let this project move forward should have been required to take into consideration climate change (they knew about that back in the early 1990s, no one can say they did not) from increased vehicular traffic. And they should have been required to weigh the cost-benefits of simply connecting North Station to South Station versus the financial and environmental expenses of the Big Dig. Someone said to me this summer with a certain amount of hyperbole, "It would have cost an additional $30 billion to connect North Station to South Station."

Perhaps ... But I think the costs of connecting two transit hubs to each other will eventually pale in comparison to our delusions about endless cheap energy to fuel our current way of life.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

July 26, 2008; 7AM -- Arrival in Boston

Getting Around in Boston

At 10 pm on the night of July 25, I boarded a train from Washington, DC to Boston. The train was filled to capacity when we left, but by the time we arrived in New York City, I was able to stretch out on two seats and sleep. We arrived at Boston's South Station at about 7 am the next morning. From there, I needed to get to my sister's house near the Massachusetts border with New Hampshire. For people like me, who do not own cars and who resist the expense of cabs, getting to her home can be an ordeal.

But the trouble starts even before I leave Boston proper. Amtrak travelers coming from the west and south, as I did this past summer, arrive at Boston's South Station (or Back Bay, but I never get off there), and air travelers arrive at Logan Airport. Once I get to South Station or Logan Airport, I need to get to Boston's North Station in order to get out to my sister's town (or the towns where other people in my family live). And you can tell by looking at this map that Boston's major transit hubs -- South Station, North Station, and the airport -- are not conveniently connected to each other for users of mass transit.

If I arrive by plane, I land at Logan Airport, and take the shuttle to the Blue Line, and the Blue Line to Government Center where I change to the Green Line, and the Green Line to North Station. I have to remember to the get on the right Green Line trolley -- the Haymarket one does not go all the way to North Station.

If I travel across country by train, I arrive at South Station, and have to take the Red Line to Park Station where I transfer to the Green Line, and the Green Line (destination Lechmere or North Station, but not Haymarket) to North Station.

And none of that is easy.

Invariably with several pieces of luggage in hand, I negotiate the turnstiles and stairs to the Red Line, the second set of stairs up and then down at Park Station where I always transfer to the Green Line, and the elevators and ground-level walkway to North Station.

But if you are a car traveler, why you have the Big Dig. ... See next entry.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Bailing out the auto industry

Since the election of Barack Obama on Tuesday, November 4, and the election of Democratic majorities in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, the media has been talking about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's plans to meet with representatives of America's Big 3 automobile companies and the unions that represent the auto workers. There have been hints that she wants to craft a bailout plan for the Big 3 car industries. See the following links:

Market Watch story.

Financial Times story.

Reuters story. story.

Detroit News Story.

Pelosi has said that conditions of the bailout should include a commitment on the part of the automobile industry to design and manufacture fuel efficient cars. But will that be enough to combat global climate change and prepare the nation for a world in which there is inevitably less energy and what is available is increasingly expensive? We doubt that at Car-Free Talk.

Today, Amy Goodman, on Democracy Now!, interviewed a guest who responded to the plans for a bailout of the auto industry by calling for a transportation plan and a 'game changer.' We agree. You can read the transcript by copying and pasting this URL into your search engine:

Monday, November 10, 2008

Day Four, Part Two -- Change, anyone?

Union Station, Washington, DC

What will happen now?
I was eager to contemplate the Bush administration transgressions against democracy when the train got to Washington, DC -- the efforts to repeal the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 which restricts the use of the military in domestic law enforcement, the creation of the Northern Command -- a new center for military operations in North America -- and the deployment of the 3rd Infantry, 1st Brigade Combat unit from Iraq to the United States to fulfill the military requirement at USNORTHCOM. Sounds like someone is getting ready for martial law to me.

Amy Goodman, on Democracy Now!, pointed out in her October 7, 2008 show that the brigade that had been stationed in North America had just "spent three of the last five years in Iraq in counterinsurgency." "It’s a war-fighting unit, [and] was one of the first units to Baghdad," she added. In fact, it took part in the battle of Fallujah. "That’s what they’ve been trained to do. And now they’re bringing that training here?" she asked rhetorically.

The Posse Comitatus Act remains intact on paper, but the Bush administration has been quite successful at undermining so much of the rule of law and the US Constitution that it must have felt it could easily blur the line between civilian and military law enforcement if it ever felt the need to. Remember, at the behest of the administration, the telecommunications giants engaged in illegal monitoring of people's electronic communications, and even the New York Times did not have the courage to expose the collusion between the telecoms and the administration -- at least not until after the 2004 election. And then instead of beginning impeachment proceedings against members of the administration who ordered the spying, Congress acquiesced and passed the FISA Amendments of 2008, giving the telecommunications industry immunity from civil suits for its illegal spying.

And how did the telecommunications giants thank Congress? By footing the bill for a good part of the Democratic National Convention in Denver this past summer.

Ok, so we're getting a new president, Barack Hussein Obama, who ran on a vague platform of "change" and "hope." But Obama himself voted for the FISA Amendments ...