The blog of Chicago-based freelance writer David Johnsen.
Saturday, November 14, 2009
Precious Liquids
Tapped Out: The Coming World Crisis in Water and What We Can Do About It by Paul Simon - In recent years, many books have been published about water issues, but back in 1998 there were few. Since I've read extensively about the subject, I figured I wouldn't learn much from this book. All the same, I was interested in Simon's perspective. Much of "Section I: The Problem" covers familiar territory (alas, the problems haven't gone away), but "Section II: The Answers" is surprisingly informative, particularly the chapter about desalination. As a senator, Simon was a huge proponent of desalination, and this book includes historic quotes from Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy endorsing the need for desalination research. The U.S. was at the forefront of desalination technology until government funding was cut drastically during the Reagan years, which Simon felt was a serious policy failure. He offers other solutions as well, calling for realistic pricing, reduced pollution, and population control. Despite its age, Tapped Out is still an excellent introductory text about a crisis that has only intensified in the years since.

Return to Thunder Road by Alex Gabbard - Almost two decades before Bruce Springsteen invited Mary into his car, another "Thunder Road" was part of American pop culture.* Robert Mitchum directed and acted in the 1958 movie Thunder Road about running moonshine, plus he wrote and sang the theme song:
Thunder, thunder, over Thunder Road
Thunder was his engine and
White lightnin' was his load.
Moonshine, moonshine, to quench the devil's thirst
The law they swore they'd get him,
But the devil got him first.
This book is a joy to read. Gabbard explains the origins of homemade whiskey and the motivations of the men who risked their lives to deliver the illegal goods across the rural South. Much of Return to Thunder Road is presented in oral history form with extensive recollections from moonshiners, whiskey runners, and ATF agents. The 'shiners talk about the distillery process and how they built and concealed their stills. The drivers describe dozens of heart-racing midnight escapes in souped-up cars with big motors and heavy-duty springs. The U.S. Treasury agents recount raids and chases, along with the frustrations of a never-ending battle. In fact, moonshining came to an end not because of enforcement, but because of new economic opportunities (in the case of legendary Wilkes County, NC, a Holly Springs chicken plant). Gabbard discovers that the movie Thunder Road was likely inspired by the real-life final run of a certain driver. In the book's climax, he leads the reader along the fateful route, interlacing his narrative with the lyrics of the song. Anyone interested in fast cars, whiskey, the South, and/or 20th century American history should enjoy Return to Thunder Road. I'll have to bump the movie to the top of my Netflix queue.

Current tally: 87 books finished, 82 books acquired

* There is a Springsteen connection to this book, not in his "Thunder Road" but in "Cadillac Ranch." When he sings of "Junior Johnson runnin' through the woods of Caroline," he's talking about the famous moonshine runner turned NASCAR racer/owner. Junior and his family are quoted and mentioned many times within these pages.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009
When the Rivers Run Dry
As I've mentioned before, I have read a lot about water issues. Naturally, I have come to a point where many books, especially those without a narrow focus, don't provide much new information. I was pleasantly surprised, however, by Fred Pearce's When the Rivers Run Dry: Water -- The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-First Century. By presenting dozens of new (to me) case studies, this book shows just how pervasive water issues are. Despite the river-centric title and theme (each of the book's ten sections begins with "When the rivers run dry..." followed by "...the crops fail", "...engineers pour concrete", " go to war", and so on), Pearce recognizes that water is a system and that rivers are only part of the picture. He does not give short shrift to aquifers, rainwater, desalination, and other topics. My only complaint is that there should have been many more maps (those included are excellent).

Pearce describes the failures of a U.N. program to drill wells for "safe" water to replace disease-carrying river water in India and Bangladesh. It turns out that the groundwater is often polluted with poisonous levels of fluoride and arsenic (ironically, in one town the only healthy people were those of a lower caste who were not allowed to drink from the new wells). There is a sickening story about farmers using polluted water to grow crops. They try not to touch the water because it burns their skin, and yet they use it to grow the vegetables they eat. Pearce even adds depth to some familiar tales such as the tragedy of the disappearing Aral Sea.

It's hard to choose one definitive book about worldwide water issues, but When the Rivers Run Dry is a good candidate. An Americentric reader may be disappointed (for that person, I'd recommend Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert), but anyone interested in global examples of water-related troubles should thoroughly enjoy this book.

Current tally: 36 books finished, 31 books acquired

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Monday, January 19, 2009
Not a Drop to Drink: America's Water Crisis [and What You Can Do]
Sub-zero high temperatures last week kept me in the house (the greatest perk of freelancing, no doubt), so I made some progress toward rebalancing acquisitions versus completions.

I have a peculiar interest in books about water issues. Ever since I read Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert seven or eight years ago, this stuff just fascinates me. Now I've reached the point where whenever an author refers to another book about water issues, the odds are better than 50-50 that I've already read it. I have more books about the subject than most Midwestern libraries.

It was once hard to find books about water, but there has been a flood (sorry) of them in the past few years as problems become more acute all over the world. Almost all of them state that water is becoming "the new oil" in terms of scarcity and conflict. I first saw Not a Drop to Drink: America's Water Crisis [and What You Can Do] by Ken Midkiff in my local bookstore in December 2008, although it came out in 2007.

The book serves as a decent introduction to the range and severity of water problems in the United States. It discusses the Ogallala Aquifer going dry, the Colorado River being overallocated, and the looming threat of privatization. Midkiff scores points for including (albeit briefly) some regional issues that aren't mentioned in similar books, as well as discussing the negatives of solutions such as desalination plants and Arctic icebergs. He also devotes more coverage to privatization, which is rarely addressed in general books that tend to focus on scarcity. Unfortunately, most topics are not covered to a satisfying depth.

The "What You Can Do" part of the title caught my attention even though I'm too pessimistic and jaded to ever be much of an activist. Midkiff didn't really convince me otherwise; I still think money and power will determine the outcome of most water wars regardless of the sign-wielding, parched masses.

Overall, Not a Drop to Drink is an adequate Cliffs Notes about American water issues. If you haven't been paying attention to water troubles, it will bring you up to speed and perhaps inspire you to read further. Alas, for someone well-read in the subject, there isn't enough new ground covered to make the book particularly noteworthy. I have included links to some other water books that I like below.

Current tally: 6 books finished, 7 books acquired

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Monday, February 18, 2008
Grand Challenges for Engineering
While everyone was distracted by yet another school shooting last week, the National Academy of Engineering put out a list of 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering facing us today. Engineering is a bit of a misnomer; most of these challenges require a healthy contribution from scientists and others as well.

You can even vote for your favorite from this intriguing list on their Web site. I suppose I'm biased because I've read extensively about the subject, but I chose "Provide access to clean water" as the most important. The two most popular so far, "Make solar energy economical" and "Provide energy from fusion," were my second and third choices. To me, the bottom line is that water is essential to human existence whereas energy is not (although, theoretically, finding a way to generate cheap, abundant energy would make water solutions such as desalination plants more feasible).

Alas, most Americans still have their heads in the sand regarding water issues. A report from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography last week said that there's a 50-50 chance Lake Mead will be dry in 13 years, putting the millions of people in Las Vegas and southern California in jeopardy. And they used "conservative estimates of the situation," so things might be even worse. Of course, drought conditions continue in the traditionally moist Southeast, too. My cousin who lives near Atlanta claims the water is "fine" -- she's one of the many Americans who won't believe there's a problem until the kitchen tap literally runs dry. Check out this map, updated weekly, to see how much of the United States is short of water. Even if your state is fine now, what will happen when the Southwest dries up? Will California, Nevada, and Arizona try to get your water? Then realize that the United States is much better off than many populous nations in Africa and Asia, and you will begin to see the imminent global water crisis.

Most of the other engineering challenges pale in comparison to clean water and cheap energy. Secure cyberspace? Advance personalized learning? Enhance virtual reality? Those would be nice, sure, but our continued existence doesn't depend on them.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007
Who Blogs for the Bastard Polluters?
Today the EPA helpfully suggests seven ways Bastard Polluters could help the environment without changing their plans to dump toxins into Chicago's drinking water. Buried in the article is this disturbing nugget:
BP, which has taken out full-page newspaper advertisements and paid Internet bloggers to defend the permit, says it needs to discharge more pollution...
As a public relations tactic, paying bloggers to say nice things about your deadly discharge ranks lower than refinery sludge. I'd like to know who these spineless, pathetic, corporate-butt-kissing bloggers are, and not so I can shake their dirty hands.

I know pay-for-posting isn't new. But shilling for a product to generate "buzz" is relatively harmless; advocating the rape of our lake is entirely different. If BP wants to spread bullshit in its own blog, that's fine. But integrity-deficient "independent" bloggers who take cash to kiss ass deserve to rot in Hell.

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Thursday, August 02, 2007
Lyrics of the Day
Today we continue toward the exciting conclusion of DBT Suicide Week!

Since most of the band hails from northern Alabama, the Tennesee Valley Authority (TVA) is a topic of several Drive-By Truckers songs. The TVA brought many changes to that region, not all of them good. In "Uncle Frank" from the DBT's second album Pizza Deliverance, Mike Cooley explores the dark side of the TVA's impact. Uncle Frank lost his land when it was submerged by a new dam, and the promises of economic development were greater than the reality.

The cars never came to town and the roads never got built
and the price of all that power kept on going straight uphill
The banks around the hollow sold for lakefront property
where doctors, lawyers, and musicians teach their kids to waterski.

Uncle Frank couldn’t read or write
so there was no note or letter found when he died.
Just a rope around his neck and the kitchen table turned on its side

This song interests me because I read about the TVA recently in Water Wars by Diane Raines Ward. In its early days, the TVA served as a model for water development. It lessened the flooding along the Tennessee River, which in turn helped combat malaria and other maladies. It provided cheap, clean hydroelectricity for a region where many homes didn't even have power and those that did had been powered by dirty coal plants. It provided jobs during the Great Depression in a region sorely in need of economic development. Its hydropower fueled some of the aluminum plants -- as well as Oak Ridge National Laboratory -- that helped the U.S. win World War II. While some critics complained about too much government control, the TVA showed how important it is to manage a river as a whole system. TVA consultants were sought by developing nations wishing to control their water resources in a similar manner.

But by the time those countries came calling, the TVA was already heading downhill. Instead of staying true to their charter, they decided their business should be power generation rather than river management. Consequently, the TVA started building nuclear power plants and even coal plants (keep in mind part of their original mission was to replace coal plants). The nuclear plants crippled the TVA with debt, so "the price of all that power kept on going straight uphill." Now the TVA is an example of a good idea gone wrong, or at least a good idea that lost its focus. Of course, "Uncle Frank" is looking at the TVA from a "micro" point of view. While overall it did a lot of good, the lives of some people were deeply affected and even ruined in the name of Progress.

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Wednesday, August 01, 2007
Bastard of the Day
It has to be EPA administrator Stephen Johnson, who claims that Indiana's BP butt-kissing is good for the Great Lakes. This article is so full of bullshit that it defies critical analysis (although Jennifer tries). It's no surprise that the Bush administration is against the environment in general (which is why Christie Todd Whitman quit the EPA), especially when it's sucking up to the oil industry. But like Senator Dick Durbin said, that doesn't make it acceptable.

An overwhelming majority of the U.S. House approved a resolution asking Indiana to reconsider its decision to let Bastard Polluters dump extra toxins into my drinking water, but the state doesn't care. I've had enough of their crap lately (the Illinoisans-pay-full-boat-on-the-toll-road debacle is another example). It's bad enough they gave us Dan Quayle. Let's declare those Hoosier bastards a "rogue state" and attack. Or better yet, let's make Indianapolis draw its drinking water out of Lake Michigan, preferably within 50 feet of the BP refinery's drainpipe. Then we'll see whether it really poses no threat to people.

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Saturday, July 14, 2007
Bastard of the Day
Today's winner is BP, which of course stands for Bastard Polluters. The state of Indiana has granted them permission to dump more ammonia and industrial sludge into Lake Michigan as part of a refinery expansion program. That's my drinking water, you bastards!

You can read the article for all of BP's public relations garbage about "minimal environmental impact," blah blah blah. But the state's explanation is even worse:
In response to public protests, state officials justified the additional pollution by concluding the project will create more jobs and "increase the diversity and security of oil supplies to the Midwestern United States." A rarely invoked state law trumps anti-pollution rules if a company offers "important social or economic benefits."
How many jobs? Eighty. That's all. So Indiana gave BP an exemption to pollute the drinking water of millions in the name of creating 80 jobs. Thanks a lot, you Hoosier bastards.

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