Green Town

Jim Davis (my blog)



The sun was pouring in the window this morning when I woke up. I must have overslept -- forgot to wind the clock radio last night. I gave it a couple of turns to catch the news while I pulled myself together. I had to go downtown to my education committee meeting.


On the way out, I peeked at the electricity meter. It was spinning backwards. Always a good sign when the meter ran backwards. Looking down the block, about half of the houses had been converted to solar, I could see a crew working on the next house in line. After gas hit $5 a gallon, Walmart's business model tanked[1] -- the cost of shipping all that junk from China went through the roof, so the city was left with the old Helene Curtis plant again. After Daley (Patrick now) couldn't find any takers, he took a big leap and made the huge facility into a city-run green manufacturing center: solar panels, wind generators, earth boxes, energy efficient windows, pedal generators, etc. The solar panels worked out all the way round. The plant provided panels for the city's solarization program; jobs for the Austin community; and city revenue from selling panels to downstate burgs.[2]


While I was thinking about how the solar program was turning out, I almost got run over by an electric jitney. That was the only bad thing about them -- you couldn't hear them coming. The jitneys were a kind of mini-bus that helped flesh out the enhanced transit system. Transportation had been a tough nut, because people had been so married to their cars. But when gas went through the roof, that simplified decisions.[3] Chicago by itself couldn't do much, but the state was also behind revamping transportation. Registration fees for the old gas cars were raised; but car makers were now compelled to sell gas-ethanol hybrids that could run up to 100% ethanol. The Brazilians had cracked this problem a while ago -- sensors would automatically adjust the engine to the amount of ethanol in the fuel.[4] The downstate farmers were keen on ethanol from corn and agricultural waste[5] and biodiesel from soybeans[6] so they were onboard in a big way with these fuels. The taxes on renewable fuels were negligible. Chicago went one step further. The city levied a hefty use fee on deep-fat fryer oil, but rebated the fee if the city picked up the used oil. The oil went to the CTA biodiesel converters. When a bus passed, you caught a whiff of french fries and egg rolls.


That was the state's mechanism for changing people's behaviors, a mix of carrot and stick. The general principle was "tax bads, not goods."[7] Resource usage was taxed, not income. If something was ecologically destructive -- pollution for example -- it carried a hefty fee. This helped out the Chicago-based emissions trading markets, and green cities like Chicago and governments around the world found them useful for managing the conversion process.[8] Where a tax was added, a cheap or free alternative was offered. For example, the automatic tolls on the Kennedy, the hefty parking tax, rigorous collection of parking fines, and heavy registration fees paid for decent mass transit.[9] London's scheme of fees for driving in the central city, and plowing those fees into buses and subways had worked well -- congestion eased, bus ridership rose, and travel time dropped.[10] Most of the controls were made possible by new technologies -- mostly radio frequency identifiers, like the PASS sensors for the automatic toll lanes outside of town. People had some privacy concerns at first, but rigorous protections were put in place to ensure that the massive amount of data was not abused. Of course, since the city had completed its wireless network, and made a solar/pedal-powered version of MIT's $100 laptop[11] available to whomever wanted it, people didn't have to commute as much either.


I got off the train at Washington. Downtown was a lot greener -- literally. Most of the roofs now had gardens, green vines cascaded out of window boxes, and thriving trees and planters lined the sidewalks and reclaimed some of the streets that weren't being used by cars anymore. Even though McDonough's Chicago Principles had never been implemented by Daley's father, the essence of them was more or less coming to pass: waste=food using cradle-to-cradle design; use current solar income; celebrate diversity; obey Nature. [12] The city's new building code required meeting green standards, and there were strong incentives to retrofit existing buildings with things like the rooftop gardens, solar panels, planters, decent weatherization, energy efficient lighting, self-cleaning water systems, etc.


My meeting was in the quaintly named Carbon Building.[13] Waiting for the meeting to start, my eyes wandered out over the lake. Offshore I could see the windmill platforms spinning away. Further out I saw one the food barges meandering around the lake. The wind-powered barge was basically a floating hydroponic farm, under robotic control, that provided vegetables for the city and also helped clean the lake.[14] The barges were part of the regional organic food system. Most of the city's waste now went to the organic farms that ringed the city in what were once suburbs, and it came back to town in form of fresh food. Waste=food.[15] After the mad-cow outbreak, followed by the mad-pig, and then mad-chicken epidemics, people were pretty much off meat, which was a good thing because there was no way we could go organic and keep eating so much meat.[16] It was amazing what they could do with soy protein nowadays though. We went from hog butcher of the world to soy texturizer.


At the meeting we were going to be talking about the progress of the city's education work. If I had to pick one key change in Chicago, it was education. One of the biggest problems, the poisoned inheritance from the past 150 years or so, was the awful alienation of people from nature. Nature wasn't even a source of useful things. It had become a cesspool for litter, runoff, garbage, exhaust, fumes, heavy metals, CFCs, PCBs, PCVs, etc. etc. Alienation was a total package. People were alienated from their work, their neighbors, their government, their natural environment, even themselves -- the sales of valium and prozac and alcohol and heroin testified to that. They had grown skeptical and suspicious of any kind of initiative or community activity. And you couldn't just address "alienation", because it was infused in everything -- it was what made the old economy turn. People had to re-grow their connections, the way some animals grow back parts that have been lopped off. And it had to be done on the basis of self-discovery.


The challenge was creating the context for the change to take place. Schools played a big part, with the new environmental programs starting in kindergarten. Getting the kids outside, learning about birds and animals and weather and seasons and how it all worked together. They read nature stories, painted flowers and landscapes, kept little gardens and took care of class pets. Older kids studied energy flows and hydrologic cycles and worked on outdoor community projects, or on the school hydroponic garden. Projects continued after high school. The state instituted an Illinois Conservation Corps, modeled after the CCC from the Depression years. Enlistees did conservation and reclamation work during the day, and picked up fresh air, manual skills and an appreciation for work at the same time. In the evening they had classes. This was part of a mandatory civic service that every 18-year-old had to participate in, no exceptions. There were lots of different kinds of things you could do for your service, ranging from public safety to eldercare to the ICC camps. The payoff for kids, besides the service itself, was an expanded GI Bill-type program -- tuition at Illinois universities was free for anyone who went through the program. Chicago's schools and colleges turned out a high number of environmental teachers, engineers and technicians who understood green; they became eco-ambassadors to the rest of the country. The city's annual Daley prize encouraged creative designs from students, like the mini-wind generators that competed with the satellite dishes on people's balconies.


(Those were my favorites -- the mini-generators that were popping up just about everywhere. Every time you went through the rotating glass doors at the Clark and Lake 'L stop, you were generating a bit of juice; most of the office buildings had them too. And that exercise gym that people went to at Webster Place? Those treadmills, stair steppers and stationary bikes were powering the projectors at the Loews movie theater next door. There really wasn't any shortage of ideas, really creative ones, if you just turned people loose, and helped with the wherewithal to bring the ideas into the world.)


The big change though had to come in the way people related to each other through their economic life. More and more enterprises were forced, by circumstance or otherwise, to employee-owned or cooperative models. In other cases, the city or state had to take on large-scale projects like the wireless network and the mass transit system. But some large-scale projects were being done on the peer-to-peer / open-source model.[17] Between the emergent non-market-mediated economy, the state intervention, and some strong coercion on the remaining private enterprises, people's relation to production was changing. Production for use, not for exchange. The biggest danger now was the threat of reaction, the organized violence of fundamentalist Christian terrorist networks.[18] We all suspected that the corporate remnants were behind it.

Outside of school and work, people started to take a greater interest in their neighborhood environment. To address the shortage of fresh, organic food in neighborhoods, neighborhood groups converted empty lots and unused parking lots into organic gardens, and created mobile grocery stores on wheels to get to folks who couldn't otherwise get out.[19] Other neighborhood ventures like computer kiosks, tool cooperatives, and childcare and laundry centers helped revive a sense of community as people worked together to ensure their success. The alderman offices now had an environmental coordinator that helped people out with weatherproofing, solarization, and little things like disconnecting waterspouts from the sewer system -- street-level change.


Well, it wasn't easy, and it wasn't fast, but it seemed to be happening. I was hoping the meeting would be over soon. It was always good to get beyond instant messenger and have some face-to-face time with this group, but my attention kept wandering outside. It was the kind of day to be outside. It was a good day for a bike ride.



[1] Kunstler, J. H. (2005). The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of the Oil Age, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century. New York: Grove/Atlantic. A extract appeared in Rolling Stone, available at


[2] While there was a similar private project called "Spire Solar Chicago" (see, e.g., the Spire Corporation website makes no mention of the Spire Solar Chicago project, and I think it is defunct now. I need to do more research on this.


[3] Reiss, S. (2005, December). Why $5 Gas Is Good for America. Wired, 13:12. Retrieved February 5, 2006 from


[4] Luhnow, D. and Samor, G. (2006, January 9). As Brazil fills up on ethanol, it weans off energy imports. Wall Street Journal, p. A1.


[5] Also know as "cellulose ethanol". See, e.g.,; this was also featured in President George W. Bush's 2006 State of the Union address as part of his "Advanced Energy Initiative" (Available at


[6] Mello, T. B. (2004). Exploring biodiesel. Retrieved February 5, 2006 from If corn and soybeans continue to require substantial amounts of petroleum-based fertilizer, the benefits of these "renewable" fuels will be reduced or eliminated (Kunstler, 2005); so agricultural practices need to shift, too.


[7] de Jong, F. (2005, Spring). "Green tax primer." Synthesis/Regeneration. 37, 24-25.


[8] See, e.g., the Chicago Climate Exchange website ( There are a number of criticisms of emissions trading, in particular that it furthers dumping of pollution in the poor countries (Bachram, H. (2004, December). Climate fraud and carbon colonialism: The new trade in greenhouse gases. Capitalism nature socialism, 15(4).) These kinds of risk markets though provide a way of leveraging networking technologies to socially distribute risk. See e.g. Shiller, R. (2003). The New Financial Order: Risk in the 21st Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. There may well be a progressive use of these devices. Emissions markets work by fixing the amount of allowed emissions; the markets should allow stepping down the allowed emissions as a mechanism for transitioning to more environmentally-sound technologies.


[9] Registering your car in another state to avoid fees carried a stiff penalty -- chain gang time doing toxic dump cleanup.


[10] See, e.g., Steins, C. (2005, November 14). "Could New York City adopt London-style congesting pricing?". Retrieved February 5, 2006 from


[11] Two developments here, both featured on Clark Boyd's BBC World Technology podcast (available at See for more on the $100 laptop; see for more on "A low cost, ruggedized, pedal and solar-powered PC and communications system that provides remote villages access to simple computing, voice calling, e-mail and the Internet."


[12] McDonough W. and Braungart M. (2002). The living city: Nature, design and the greening of Chicago. Retrieved February 5, 2006 from


[13] The Carbide and Carbon Building, 230 North Michigan Avenue, was designed by two sons of Daniel Burnham, the architect whose 1909 master plan for Chicago helped to preserve green space for public use and provided a foundation for green Chicago.


[14] Sterling, B. (1988). Islands in the net. Ace Books.


[15] McDonough and Braungart.


[16] MacIlwain, C. (2004). Organic: Is it the future of farming? Nature 428, 792 - 793. Available online at


[17] Bauwens, M. (2005). Peer-to-peer and human evolution. The Foundation for P2P Alternatives. Also, Rheingold, Howard (2003). Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing; Weber, S. (2004). The success of open source. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


[18] While we are in imagination mode, one can imagine the political process unfolding in the United States like this: In an environment of economic, ecological, and social crisis, a movement develops that is capable of articulating a vision of a just and sustainable society in a way that communicate with the American people. Through the electoral process, this motion becomes the government. It sets out on a program of re-conceptualizing property in the age of abundance. The process of transformation to sustainability will be simplified by the nature of new technologies, especially "appropriate" (scaled to task, available resources, skills, etc.) and networking technologies. The electoral victory will be challenged by an "insurrection of the bourgeoisie", as in Spain in 1936, Chile in 1973, and Venezuela in 2002. The video "The Battle of Chile" ( is a moving and painful description of this process.


[19] Cotel, O. (2005, November-December). A moveable feast. Sierra, p. 8. See also