The Russian River watershed, just north of San Francisco, is surely one of the more progressive and resource-conscious areas of the country. I was staying in Guerneville on the river for a few days, about midway between Santa Rosa and the coast, and I got into a conversation with a local couple about the river and related water issues. They were in their sixties. They had lived in Guerneville over 30 years, raised their kids there and remained involved in the community.

When the topic of water use came up, the man spoke with deep resentment. I’ll paraphrase:

Santa Rosa just keeps dumping on us. Literally! This has been going on for decades. They take the water out of the river for development, always more development. The more water they use, the more waste they’ll wind up flushing downstream.

Once we proposed that they put their own intake pipes downstream from their effluent, so they’d need to use the same water we do. They looked at us like we were crazy. “Why would anyone want to do that?” they asked.

I asked him if there was any solution that might work. He smiled.

Well, we had a farmer around here who once drove up to Santa Rosa City Hall and dumped a truckload of manure on the steps. I think that got their attention.

His wife added that another step, at least as effective, had been the construction of a pipeline that ships treated wastewater to the Gysers steam fields – over 10 million gallons per day – where it helps produce enough electricity to power all of San Francisco.

Since then I’ve been intrigued by the question of water use along the Russian River. One important pitfall which that conversation highlighted: the temptation to frame a resource crisis as a conflict between two opposing groups, in this case the city upstream and the town downstream. Here’s what I’ve learned so far, and some big questions that remain unanswered.

Competing Interests:

  • Downstream Residents: the river provides most of their water supply; sufficient water quality and flow is also needed for tourism and recreation (swimming, canoeing, fishing) which is vital to the local economy
  • Fish: Endangered species such as the Coho and Chinook salmon need unpolluted rivers for spawning with sufficient forest cover to provide shade and erosion control along the riverbank. However, apparently they also require LOW overall flow rates on the lower river near the estuary.
  • Agriculture: Sonoma county vineyards and other agriculture use the lion’s share of water. But extractive industries, including logging and gravel mining, also require water for their operations.
  • Urban Residents and Development: Earlier this year, water contractors representing Santa Rosa water users successfully fought a proposed 30% increase in water rates. Meanwhile, the Sonoma County Water Agency continues to try to increase the amount of water it draws from the river from 76,000 to 101,000 Acre Feet/Year (over 30 billion gallons).

Of course there are many more groups and subsets of groups at work, and agencies that represent different interests and mandates. Brenda Adelman at the Russian River Watershed Protection Committee has been reporting on these issue now for some time: see


Are there any solutions on the table that would balance the needs of all the impacted groups fairly> Could pricing water use in accordance with its scarcity and high environmental impact not only curb unsustainable development in urban/suburban areas like Santa Rosa (by reducing the economic incentives for developers) but also reduce waste discharges downstream. Less water used equals less wastewater discharged.

My biggest question is this: if Guerneville and Santa Rosa can’t make peace over the Russian River, what are the chances for India and Pakistan over the Indus?

(Photo Credit: brian-m under a Creative Commons Attribution License

Cocoa Bucks

February 17th, 2009

Endangered Species Belgian Chocolate Bars - Chimpanzee Smooth Dark Chocolate

Endangered Species Belgian Chocolate Bars - Chimpanzee Smooth Dark Chocolate

Like many people I’ve been paying more attention to prices at the grocery store and to what’s on sale. So when I noticed a row of organic chocolate bars on sale at Rainbow Market, I decided to go for that instead of the pricier choice. Never mind that the best choice all around would have been: no chocolate.

Standing at the checkout line, I looked at my selection. It was Endangered Species Chocolate: specifically, the bar with the Endangered Belgian Chimpanzee on it. Or maybe it was just the chocolate that was Belgian. I wondered why I had never tried it before. Even now, about to buy it on account of the dollar discount, it just wasn’t…. appetizing.

I care about endangered species. I appreciate that this company donates 10% of their profits to wildlife conservation. I will even generally pay a little more to support fair trade imports. So why my resistance to this product?

I think it’s the juxtaposition of the endangered chimpanzee (or bat or butterfly) on the wrapper versus the chocolate bar inside. I’m used to packaging doing one of two things:

  1. the more usual scenario, showing us an appetizing or stylized vision of what we’re about to eat.
  2. the more visceral strategy of luring us with a picture of some celebrity or model — and the implied promise that by eating this food, we will become more like they are. I think this is related to some mythic impulse to ingest our deities and heroes — without the mess of actually eating, say, Lance Armstrong.

There may be other categories, like the cartoon monsters on cereal boxes that little kids eat, but anyway — the point is, when I’m craving chocolate, I’m rarely also in the mood to either eat or become an endangered chimpanzee.

“The chimpanzee isn’t in the chocolate, silly,” my friend said as we sat outside finishing our lunch and eying desert. She had bought fruit.

“I know, but instead of helping the chimpanzee, I feel like I’m eating him.”

“What you’re eating is your paycheck,” she pointed out.

“Well, if they had a picture of my paycheck on the wrapper, I probably wouldn’t have bought it now would I?”

She did not argue with this logic. But it reminded me of something even more remarkable. Chocolate used to be money.

I told her about the presentation on sustainable economics at the Green Festival. The speaker was Daniel Pinchbeck and he was talking about Ithaca Hours, a local currency in Ithaca NY which encourages people to spend their earnings within their community. Afterwards someone asked what happens when this currency pools — when one business is stuck holding alot of the Ithaca dollars but needs to pay suppliers that don’t participate in the program. After looking at different mechanisms for dealing with this scenario, Pinchbeck took a longer view of the issue.

Our current economic system encourages investments that will yield the highest short-term return regardless of the long-term consequences. But what if we could measure and reward investments according their ability to sustain community? Currency only has value as long as it’s in play. Pinchbeck mentioned the work of Bernard Lietaer, architect of the Euro, and alternative systems that Lietaer had proposed including currency that would depreciate over time — a kind of negative interest.

The Ancient Aztecs, Pinchbeck noted, traded in cocoa beans. The actual unit of currency decayed over time and lost value. The point was to spend and trade wisely, not hoard the wealth.

With this in mind, I let go of any impulse I might have had to hold onto that chocolate bar with the picture of the chimp on it, to use it as a hedge against an uncertain future. I broke off a small piece for my friend, and before we knew it, the whole thing was gone.

Critical Mass

January 30th, 2009


It’s like a full moon or a really low tide. It comes once a month and often catches me by surprise: on a Friday night I’ll be heading through the Mission or Market street and see a mass of cyclists and the flashing bike lights. It’s carnival time and the circus passing through town. But even if I’m riding my bike, I always have somewhere else to go.  Or I decide that the crowd looks a little too raucous.  And being all raucous like that really doesn’t further a serious cause like transportation alternatives now, does it…

Maybe under that judgement is the wistfulness of the kid with too much homework and a curfew who wishes he could join in the fun.  If I can’t have fun, then having fun must be wrong.  Right?

Tonight I landed right in the middle of the surging crowd of cyclists riding up Division St. and just fell in without giving it too much thought. We rode up Valencia to 22nd, then to Mission St., looped back to Valencia and up Market toward the Castro. There must have been 1000 cyclists in a sprawling caravan of tinkling bike bells and blinking red tail lights as far ahead as I could see.

It was an unexpected feeling of solidarity and closeness. There were a few DJ’s with huge speakers on bike trailers booming and I’d find one I liked the sound of and keep pace with it pedaling in time to the beat.  When you’re a driver among other drivers, you’re alone in your cacoon of music or silence or your cell phone conversation. If you interact with other drivers it’s often out of anger and righteousness.  They disobeyed some rule or did something stupid, so you become irritated and honk at them.

Well, obviously, being in the middle of critical mass feels different from being in a car in a traffic jam.  But it’s also different from riding to work on the Folsom St. bike lane from the mission to downtown, which I used to do on a daily basis.  I mentioned that to my neighbor and she agreed, then added how when you go a distance along a bike lane, it’s like these little families or tribes that spontaneously cluster then disperse.  “You ever notice,” she said, “how there will be like a mom and a dad and then a sister and a little brother, and you’ll be riding along together and it’s like this little family that just assembled itself on the fly.  You can imagine everyone’s personality and the role they’d play.  And then you get to 4th street and — Woosh! sister goes off to college and then at 2nd St. — Whoosh! mom leaves home without saying goodbye.”

In the transition from small virtual family to large mobile village comes not just stability, but safety. I guess that’s why they call it Critical Mass.  I’d never realized that constant note of fear that plays in the background every time I ride my bike on a road shared with cars, fear that a car might run a stop sign or make a turn, the uneven stakes in terms of what it would mean for the car and what it would mean for me. And now that note of fear is gone, and that absence is the most unexpected and exhilarating aspect of the experience.

Most of the people in the cars were smiling or tapping on their horns or waving out the window. But at a few intersections I’d see drivers leaning on the horn, or  screaming through their windshield at the cyclists who just kept coming like a parade, regardless of the traffic lights. One well-dressed driver stepped out of a sports car and was ranting at the bikes in front of him. “Look at the light! It’s my light! It’s a green light!”

It was my first ever night of riding with Critical Mass, and already I wanted to stop and and give him a helpful lecture:  “Every night of the month, it goes by those rules, except once a month, on the last Friday, the rules change, like carnaval.  you know, just to remind us that all invented systems can be changed if we decide to change them.”

Instead of delivering this speech, I kept on going, and saw other riders who seemed more familiar with the sort of thing just surround his car with their bikes and quietly calm him down.  That seemed like a better way of diffusing the situation, but as I rode on, I continued my imaginary conversation with the angry driver:

We get to feeling that a car is an essential tool, or even an inalienable right.  Anyone who interferes with your car is disrespecting you as well as the rules.  But who invented those rules?  Who benefits by them?  Do cars have rights?

Once in I remember a cab driver complaining to me about the foot traffic in American cities, all the jaywalkers.  In his country, he told me in heavily accented English, the cars get more respect.  The pedestrians know that if they don’t jump out of the way, they will be killed by the cars.

In your country, he said, there are too many laws against killing the people.

Well, we choose to have a system where hitting people with cars is not cool.  We could also have system where it was easier and safer for people to ride bikes.  It’s up to us.

As I put my bike in the garage and walked up the steps of my house, I had a lingering image of the angry drivers, who were kept from their plans by some random, unfair event.  I imagined their reaction: “If it’s not a construction crew or an accident, it’s a bunch of freaks on bicycles.”

Maybe in regards to them, Critical Mass doesn’t measure up. To those who are already bicycle believers,  it’s an affirming experience. But for those who are dependent on their cars, or who just believe that they are, we probably hadn’t opened their mind to other points of view.  More likely that they felt confirmed their sense of their own righteousness — and victimization — in the face of irresponsible and raucous people who had nothing better to do on a Friday night than ride their bikes around, having way too much fun.

Photo Credit: luxomedia via Creative Commons Non-Commercial/Share-Alike license.


Children of the Amazon is an exquisite film, and a very personal look at a vital issue.

Clips on YouTube:

Filmmaker Denise Zmekhol of Brazil recently returned to the Amazon to find some of the indigenous people whom she had met and photographed there almost 20 years before.  She documents how their lives had been altered by the construction of roads and clearcutting of the forest to make way for cattle, logging and mining, and how they gradually acquired the awareness and the organization to have a voice in these changes.

Those 15 years between her two visits are a critical time span.  Several of the tribe members she interviews refer to “tempo de floresta,” forest time, before all the changes came.  The children of the amazon whom she photographed, within their lifetime, have witnessed the destruction of their land and their way of life. As she shows them the photos she had taken of them, it turns out they had never seen photographs of themselves as children.

It’s a very personal and inspiring film: it translates the movements of peoples and continents to the scale of an individual, a family, a village.  It doesn’t sentimentalize, but it’s hard not to be affected by the story of Chico Mendes, who had organized and represented the rubber tappers in that region.

Though not indigenous, the rubber tappers depended on the Amazon forest for their livelihood, so ultimately they joined forces with the native peoples to resist the ranchers and other forces of development.  Zmekhol remembers her conversations with Chico over the years, interweaving photographs and video footage with recent interviews she conducted with his surviving family and friends.

Chico was assassinated in the intervening years, along with several other leaders of the movement to resist deforestation.  One of the young girls whom Zmekhol had photographed and hoped to meet up with again had also been killed.  She drank some poisoned juice that had been intended for her father, a chief of the Surui tribe.

Watching this movie,  I found myself wondering about all the all the indigenous peoples throughout history whose lands and lives gave way to invasion, genocide and other forms of progress, from the Aztecs and Native Americans all the way back to the Ancient Hebrews, Gauls and Celts under the Roman Empire. It’s a pattern as old and as inevitable as the progress of time.  Two thousand years ago Virgil’s Aeneid told the story of Turnus, a mythological prince who resisted the first Roman invaders.  Virgil ascribed to Turnus the noble yet misguided heroism of a man devoted to a lost cause.

I find myself thinking, or hoping, that this story might yet turn out differently than all those others,  that the children of the Amazon might actually stand a chance — because their land and way of life is as important to our survival as it is to theirs.  The film is not a polemic, and does not preach.  But biodiversity — and the role of indigenous peoples in preserving it — has gradually been recognized as essential to the continuity of human life.

Consider this : the amazon forest is home to one third of all plant and animal species on the planet, and source of about 20% of the world’s supply of oxygen.