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citisven-10yearsSunday (05/10/15) was my 10 year anniversary as an American citizen.

What has it meant? What have I learned?

Well, since I’ve never felt particularly patriotic in the conventional sense about my birth and growing-up country Germany (for obvious reasons), I didn’t expect a new (additional) passport to trigger my inner flag-waver all of a sudden.

What DID change though after 15 years of playing in the great American sandbox as a “resident alien” was that I felt a new sense of responsibility to help the place that has given me so much room to express myself creatively become a bit more sustainable, just, and humble.

Though humility is rarely associated with national pride, to me it’s the essential ingredient for a healthy sense of place and identity. Seeing that we’re all here for just a very short time, the thought that we could “own” anything on this planet seems, if anything, a figment of our often too fearful imagination.

For example, I have a deep connection to my German roots — the people, the landscapes, the intangible sensory familiarity that comes with being OF a place — but I know that ultimately I am but a blossom on an old cherry tree, with the potential to be delicious for a while before turning into the soil that will make new trees.

Likewise, I continue to revel in the grand American experiment — the wildness, the infinite potential, the ever-smoldering mass of regenerative lava — but I am keenly aware that I am but a ripple in a stream that will eventually flow into the sea.

Having been granted a second passport is like an extra ticket to understanding how we’re all really not that different from each other. It’s an invitation to embrace identity but never to anyone else’s exclusion. A teaser of the endless diversity of this beautiful planet and a peephole into the infinite mystery of the universe. This U.S. passport, more than anything, has served as one more certificate on my path towards universal citizenship.


photos by debra baida


An urban ecosystem

If you’ve ever tried to grow anything in your garden you’ve probably had your share of unrealized visions. In your rookie year perhaps the tomatoes never turned red or the strawberries got munched by bugs. If those mishaps didn't deflate you enough to replace the whole yard with a bocce court, you probably rebooted your spade and tried some different approaches before the next growing season. You may have moved the tomatoes to a sunnier spot and planted some dandelion to see if it would attract ladybugs with an appetite for your unwelcome strawberry-eating visitors.

As the tomatoes got a wee bit tastier and you celebrated your first strawberry (stolen by a finch, of course!), you got inspired and started thinking a bit broader. Perhaps you planted an apple tree and added a bee hive to your garden. You got more curious about soil and water, and started experimenting with compost and catchment bins. The more attention you paid to all the individual residents — both macro and micro — the more visible the interrelatedness between them became.

After watching and listening to your new garden community for a few seasons, you realized that the best way for any individual member to thrive with as little upkeep, energy, water, or pest control as possible, the overall design had to befit and benefit everyone else proportional to their needs and capabilities. You may have moved your daily attention-grabbing strawberries closer to the house and the more resilient dandelion further away. Perhaps you acquired some chickens for their eggs, just to discover that they could also be put to work tilling the topsoil and picking weeds and bugs.

Layer by layer, you cultivated a web of life that could sustain itself on the collective strength of all its threads, making maximum use of the natural climate, soil, and vegetation surrounding your home. In the process, you may have been comparing notes with other gardeners and reading books about this kind of holistic approach to farming. You may even have started calling it permaculture, but really, all you were doing was being patient and paying careful attention to your environment and its natural rhythms.

Skip below the orange wiggler for more digging...

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A week after Chevron CEO John "Hell Freezer" Watson received a "Distinguished Citizen" award from the Commonwealth Club, the gods of irony must have felt compelled to present the public with documentation of just how distinguished this man's work is when it comes to running one of the most ruthlessly irresponsible corporations in the world.  

They did it in the form of The Chevron Tapes, a treasure trove of Chevron misdeeds and corporate malfeasance shot by the oil giant's own technicians and consultants and sent by a whistleblower to rainforest watchdog group Amazon Watch.

Revealing in their own words to what length this oil giant has gone to cover up its dirty tracks that have caused so much death and misery for indigenous communities in the Ecuadorian Amazon, the company's consultants are caught on tape frustrated by their inability to find soil samples without oil, and then mocking the contamination, in an obvious attempt to pre-game the judicial inspections to defraud the court.

Here, have a look at how it's done The Chevron Way™ if you're a well-paid shill and you're finding extensive contamination in areas your sponsor has claimed to have cleaned up years ago. Wink wink!

"Good news," Dave says with apparent sarcasm. "Petroleum."

"No! No!" responds Rene. "Check it again."

"Well, do you want to smell it? I think it is," Dave says to Rene, as the two men examine a soil core sample.

Rene sniffs the sample and demurs playfully for a moment before conceding, "Okay, it is — it is, it is."

"Because I don't know what this fungus… this is," says Dave.

"Well, you might as well stop them now," puts in Rene. "Stop them. Just, uh — yeah, we're done here… We're trying to find a clean core, and we obviously we didn't go out far enough."

"Nice job, Dave," he continues. "Give you one simple task: Don't find petroleum."

"Who picked the spot, Rene?" Dave replies.

"I'm the customer," says Rene. "I'm always right."

Wow, Dave and Rene, so much for ever finding a legit science job. Then again, you're probably in the Bahamas, sipping Pina Coladas on Chevron's tab for the rest of your lives.

The second part of the video includes interviews with local residents -- ostensibly conducted by Chevrons reps -- about water contamination and health problems that they attribute to oil pollution.

In one of them, a 30-year resident named Merla talks about her cows:

"We've had our cows die there," she says. "Why did the cows die? Because they drank the water where the oil had spilled. Back then, that whole area was full of crude oil. The water there was filthy. They came and covered it up and they just left all of the crude there and it became a swamp. It's pure crude there. In the middle it's a thick ooze and you'd sink right down into it."

"When was this oil spill," asks the interviewer.

"More than 20 years ago," she responds. "But I still remember it, how there was oil over everything. The cows still die there. They came, threw some dirt on top of the crude oil, and there it stayed."

Well, I guess they just kept interviewing until they found some folks that haven't lived there long enough to be directly affected by the environmental havoc wreaked decades ago. Difficult though it would be for anyone who drinks water.

More background on this below the toppled orange oil derrick...

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Fri Apr 03, 2015 at 03:22 PM PDT

A drop in the bucket?

by citisven

In light of California's historic drought and Governor Brown's executive order to impose a 25 percent reduction on municipal water use, my partner and I thought about ways we can conserve more water than we already do.

The "problem" we have is that like many long-time California residents who have been through droughts before, water awareness and conservation is very much ingrained in our daily routines. We don't flush the toilet unless necessary (and have a low-flow toilet), we don't have house plants that need watering, we don't take showers every day (and keep them short when we do), and the three sources of water in our apartment are equipped with low-flow faucets (provided for free by the SF PUC!). The one in our kitchen sink even has a convenient switch to cut off water during dish-doing unless you absolutely need it.

water faucetlow flow shower faucet

After some brainstorming — including a wee bit of righteous indignation about how this mandatory 25% cut shouldn't really apply to those of us who have been tightening our faucets all along — we discovered a weak spot in our system:

Living on the 2nd floor of an old building where the water heater is in the garage means that it takes quite a while for warm water to move through the pipes. While that's not a big issue in the kitchen sink (plates and utensils are pretty immune to cold-water shock) or bathroom sink (no problem washing your hands or brushing your teeth with cold water), the shower is a different story. Despite my overlapping cultural heritage with the purveyors of the Kneipp therapy, I prefer to keep my full-body cold water exposure to the hottest days of the year, of which we don't have that many in foggy San Francisco.

Thus our decision, starting today, to capture the initial stream of cold shower water with a bucket.

This water, though not suited for drinking, can now be used for a variety of purposes, like flushing the toilet, doing the dishes, or watering our landlady's potted plants. And voila, we may be a step closer to squeezing out 25% more savings on our water tab!

Now, I can hear the voices all around me, including the ones in my head, screaming in bloody cynical unison, right below the orange cynicloud:  

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David Koch graphic for petition to kick him off the museum board
No more dinosaurs for you, Mr. Koch!
You just can't make this stuff up!

Science Museums Urged to Cut Ties With Kochs

So David Koch, he of the oil and manufacturing conglomerate Koch Industries and the Lord Voldemort to all that is good and lush and thriving on God's green Earth, sits on the Board of Directors at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and the American Museum of Natural History, all while bankrolling groups that deny climate science to the tune of $67 million since 1997.

Sign the Petition to Kick Koch Off the Board

I don't know what the correct analogy is here — wolf guarding the henhouse? too many rotten eggs in one basket? — but it looks like the chickens are coming home to roost.

41 scientists signed and sent an open letter to Museums of Science and Natural History, demanding they cut all ties with the fossil fuel industry and funders of climate science obfuscation.

When some of the biggest contributors to climate change and funders of misinformation on climate science sponsor exhibitions in museums of science and natural history, they undermine public confidence in the validity of the institutions responsible for transmitting scientific knowledge. This corporate philanthropy comes at too high a cost.

Drawing on both our scientific expertise and personal care for our planet and people, we believe that the only ethical way forward for our museums is to cut all ties with the fossil fuel industry and funders of climate science obfuscation.

Not only that, but the Natural History Museum published the letter on its website and is promoting a petition to get science deniers out of science museums and kick Koch off its Board, specifically calling out David Koch, a major donor, exhibit sponsor and trustee on the Board of Directors at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, and the American Museum of Natural History.

Holy cow! That's a full-fledged mutiny and it couldn't happen to a nicer captain!

And guess what? The petition is co-sponsored by Daily Kos, so even more fun to support the mothership in some good old fashioned house cleaning.

I call that "Evolution Strikes Back!"

frog crossing

Michael Mann, climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University, fellow Kossack and signer of the letter, sums up the utter sham that is greedy, science-despising oilmen sitting at the controls of leading scientific educational institutions:

Cloaked in the garb of civic-mindedness, they launder their image while simultaneously and covertly influencing the content offered by those institutions.
Now go sign the petition to kick the Koch to the curb.

And because this is so much fun and going nicely viral, here's another version by the Sierra Club.


So a bunch of concerned citizens of all stripes came out to Oakland yesterday to talk some fracking sense.


More specifically, according to's count, over 8,000 of us marched...


and gathered to call for a ban on fracking in California. To me, it seemed like a sea of people.


The message was, specifically, for Governor Jerry Brown to put the kibosh on fracking...


but more broadly, to use his smarts when it comes to California's energy policy.


The good thing is that we know Governor Brown is a smart and caring guy who just called for expansive new environmental regulations and ambitious cuts to carbon emissions in his recent inaugural speech. We also know that Jerry knows something about We the People.

The problem is that in the frack-of-war between The Oil Barons and The People, Jerry is currently being pulled dangerously close to the barrel.

photo by kimoconnor

The oil industry seems to have planted enough $eed$ in Governor Brown's head to make him believe in the fairy tale that hydraulic fracturing for natural gas is a climate-friendly alternative to coal and oil. However, when you pull the curtain on all the flowery clean-gas talk and do an honest accounting, you quickly realize that the combined effects of toxicity and greenhouse gas emissions from fracking are no better if not worse than coal and oil.

The People have done the math and spelled out the simple equation for the Governor.


An equation whose effects rings way beyond California...


and whose messengers are intimately familiar with how this planet works...


It's time for Governor Brown to use his noggin and start whacking the oil demon...


put together the pieces of the puzzle...


so we can roll up our sleeves...


and get serious about real solutions.


More photos and bon mots below the orange drill bit...

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I have a sticker in my office that says "Zen Buddhism: Don't even think about it!" This kind of humorous take often leads to the (false) perception that Buddhism and its more western-palatable "mindfulness" cousin are about disengagement, a sort of blissful denial of reality in which the practitioner's magical skill is to sit there in utter peace and emptiness, able to tune out the world even while the world around is unraveling.

In an open letter to California Governor Brown published yesterday in anticipation of tomorrow's massive March for Real Climate Leadership in Oakland, dozens of leaders and members from the San Francisco Zen Center -- including the central abbesses and well-known figures such as actor Peter Coyote -- dispel the notion of the passive, agreeable monk unfazed by any earthly rumblings below or outside his or her cross-legged self.  

February 5, 2015

Dear Governor Brown,

We write to urge you to ban hydraulic fracturing -- fracking -- in California and, more generally, move away from making our state a major producer as well as a consumer of fossil fuels. We celebrate that you have, in your inaugural address, made a renewed commitment to addressing climate change.

We know -- you, and us, and many in California and elsewhere -- that hydraulic fracturing is destructive of so many things. It has a long, deep, devastating impact on many species, as well as human beings. It is a theft the present makes from the future, compromising for the sake of the few who profit in the present, longterm well-being for the many to come. It commits us to continue pursuing fossil fuel and with it climate-change emissions when we know, as you said in your inaugural, we need to take "significant amounts of carbon out of our economy." This should mean not only what we consume here in the state, but what we produce to be consumed anywhere.

That carbon goes into the upper atmosphere, wherever it is burned. Too, fracking devastates water, both in the huge amounts used in the process, and in the lasting contamination of groundwater, a terrible waste in a dry state. We can leave that oil in the soil. And we must. We ask that you sign a bill banning fracking and help turn us away from the age of fossil fuels with its immeasurable and lasting damage to the biosphere. California, with its extraordinary implementation of energy-efficiency standards during your first term as governor, with Assemblywoman Fran Pavley's emissions legislation in 2002 that set nationwide standards under the Obama administration, with the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, has often led the way for the rest of the country. What happens here matters everywhere.

California Zen Leaders Urge Gov. Brown to Ban Fracking

some unthinking thoughts below the orange meditation cushion...
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It is said that Jesus was able to turn water into wine. While such truly miraculous skill to this day remains confined to the realm of saints and sages, I bring good news about a wine-making technique that is — especially in light of Pope Francis' recent warning about the destructive consequences of unbridled consumerism on the planet — no less uplifting, and most importantly, attainable by any and all:

The composting of municipal food waste into organic fertilizer to provide the nutrients necessary for soils to support healthy vines and carbon-sequestering roots that produce the kind of grapes responsible for heavenly wines, from here to eternity.

The revelation occurred to me last Saturday, when I received a last minute invitation by my garbage guru to join a congregation of the compost curious on a pilgrimage to Chateau Montelena, a vineyard located in the heart of the promised wine valley about 80 miles north of the City of St. Francis.


Before we pop the orange cork below, a word from the Book of Garbage...

The Genesis

With the advent of an economic system in the mid-20th Century that demanded ever more rapidly increasing levels of consumption and inputs of natural resources, communities across the world were faced with the problem of what to do with the mounting heaps of discarded items that were no longer deemed valuable in a throw-away society.

plastic, waste, garbage
Mountain of plastic trash found on a beach
in Lima, Peru in one afternoon.
In countries with a lot of open space like the United States, the solution was to simply truck everything into designated open areas and create mountains of trash. Less spacious countries like France and most of Europe came up with what they thought to be a more elegant way to deal with the unwanted excess, by burning the whole steaming pile in high tech furnaces.

Countries unable to afford expensive waste disposal infrastructure largely relied on the resilience of their poorest citizens to deal with the mounting piles of consumer goods. However, with the rate of production and consumption increasing so dramatically over such a short period of time, the sheer volume of unwanted refuse overwhelmed the collective human capacity to deal with the excess in a sustainable fashion. There was so much stuff designed for one-time use only — thanks to artificially cheap oil enabling the proliferation of non-degradable plastics — that much of it began slipping through local retrieval systems and washing into the planet's oceans.

Feeding the 5000 in Nantes, France
Trash-bound food made into meals
at "Feeding the 5K" event in Nantes, France.
Moreover, one-third of the edible parts of food produced for human consumption in the world — about 1.3 billion tons per year — ended up in the trash, where it not only failed to feed the world's 852 million people suffering from chronic undernourishment but emitted a whopping 3.3 billion tons of CO2. In the United States alone, 95% of uneaten food was being thrown away, accounting for more than 20 percent of all methane emissions in landfills. If food waste were a country, it would be the 3rd largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world.

In other words, humans were not only wasting a sinful amount of food, but the waste was speeding up climate chaos which led to disruptions of agriculture and global food security.

A vicious cycle if ever there was one.

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Mon Jan 05, 2015 at 02:12 PM PST

What Santa does after Christmas

by citisven

You'd think after sledding for thousands of miles to drop presents through chimneys across the world, Santa would be kicking it in his igloo penthouse, chilling in a massage chair with a bottle of Bourbon.

But no, the job is far from done. Trading in his glamorous red garb for a yellow safety vest, Mr. Claus was found this morning doing overtime at the San Francisco transfer station, helping to dispose of hundreds of Christmas trees piled up 40 feet high and 50 yards across.

Mt. Christmas Tree


For my Christmas decoration I like to

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Medellín went from being ground zero of Colombia's drug war to UN poster child for urban equality—and the people made it happen, by designing the city they wanted.

Note: This article appears in Cities Are Now, the Winter 2015 issue of YES! Magazine, a nonprofit, independent publication dedicated to solutions-oriented journalism. I wrote it to show what's possible in transforming not only cities but society at large when good governance and a commitment to social justice meet citizen participation and creative resilience. My previous two posts offering more context for my trip to Medellín earlier this year are here and here.

Comuna 13, Medellín
Posters throughout Comuna 13 neighborhood. The Héroes 13 campaign features gigantic posters of leaders who offer alternative visions to kids and teenagers in a community with little resources. Photo from Pazamanos Foundation.
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One of my beloved British pals proudly sent me a link to this encouraging news about UK energy use.

UK using less energy despite growing economy, report finds

People in the UK are using less energy even though the economy is growing, new figures confirm.

Increased wealth typically leads to increased energy use - but this link appears to have been broken by technology and government policy.

New analysis of government statistics for BBC News shows that the average person in the UK is using 10% less electricity than five years ago.

That is despite the boom in large TVs, computers, smartphones and tablets.

EU standards on household appliances have allowed people to do the same tasks with less energy.

I don't want to be the energy Grinch, but this sentence...
"despite the boom in large TVs, computers, smartphones and tablets"

begs another question. Namely, how much energy is used to manufacture all those new and frequently replaced devices Brits (and the rest of us in wealthy consumer nations) are enjoying?

This is one of the key issues in (global) energy and greenhouse gas accounting, and one that once again almost tripped up the recent UN climate change negotiation process. Developed countries like the US, UK, EU, or Australia point to exactly the kind of energy savings mentioned in the article as a reason why they are doing their part, while developing nations insist they should be graded on a larger scale that also includes manufacturing & shipping footprints, as well as rich nations' historic burning of fossil fuels that made them wealthy enough in the first place to now invest in renewable energy grids.

09_0822_iphone01In other words: when we buy an iPhone, how much of its overall footprint are we liable for? Only the energy it takes to recharge it, or the energy it took to extract the raw materials all over the world (yes, even California), ship them to the factories, manufacture them (often with energy from coal), package them (including energy cost of packaging, often full of petroleum products), ship them to the consumer nation, then distribute them on trucks to retailers? And that's just before we ever send our first text message, not accounting for the huge footprint of disposing of the device, which incidentally often ends up polluting a developing nation again.

09_0724_101_02I am using the iPhone as just one example, but the same question applies to any other consumer product, from TVs and computers to household appliances and cars (The environmental impact of our cars begins long before the first drops of gasoline are combusted, or the battery is first recharged). Shouldn't every improvement of their energy efficiency also include an assessment of the energy and materials it took to source, manufacture, ship, and dispose of such products?

If the answer is that the consumer country has at least a partial responsibility for the total energy used in a life cycle of a product, then we have to find more honest ways to account for and communicate our energy use. I recommend the Global Footprint Network as a great source for more holistic accounting tools that reflect the true impact of our consumption. We can all start by calculating our personal ecological footprint, which I think is really helpful in understanding our impact on the planet beyond the obvious things in our immediate environment.

That said, it's a step in the right direction to see energy efficiency in the UK and EU improved! But if we really want to reduce energy use on a global scale, we need to get much more serious about addressing things like planned obsolescence and consumerism.


Yesterday the whole left brain greenhouse gas haggling exercise at the COP20 Climate Summit got a huge kick in the pants when 20,000 marching souls took to the streets of Lima for Latin America’s biggest ever climate march.


Indigenous people from all over South America were calling attention to the disproportionately devastating effects climate change is already having on native lands, especially the Amazonian rainforests down here.


On this International Day of Human Rights, they were joined by a diverse coalition of international allies, who not only understand that it is morally untenable to stand by while the people who did the least to cause the climate calamity have to bear the brunt of its burden, but who are keenly aware that as the Amazon goes, so go all of us.


The “March in defense of Mother Nature” (Marcha en defensa de la Madre Tierra) was part of the People's Climate Summit, the alternative gathering outside of UN talks that brings together civil societies and social movements from across the globe. The people's message is deeper than just another piece of tinkering around the edges of the corporate-industrial-fossil complex. They point to the fatal folly of the current development model, with its priority of massive accumulation and consumerism that "is based on irrational and accelerated extraction of natural resources with no account taken of the globe’s limits."


While the prophets of environmental fixes at the official talks are often bureaucrats and bankers (and even oil company executives), the messengers of planetary healing at the people's march are the rivers and the forests.


It seems that we have come to a crossroads where we have two choices: Trust the forces that got us into this mess to get us out of it, or sync our steps to follow the rhythms of Pachamama. Which will it be?


The reason I'm here is to network on behalf of the Ecocitizen World Map Project, which seeks to empower and educate urban communities living under the hardest conditions in cities around the world. So aside from the great energy and inspiration the people's march provides it is quite relevant to my work because they both seek to address fundamental questions of inequity that are at the core of the social, environmental, and economic imbalances that have brought our planetary ecosystems on the brink of collapse.


Follow me across the jump for more impressions from yesterday's march.

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