Sunday, December 18, 2011

The War in Iraq Is Over--Not

KNOW's Sunday vigil in front of the Federal Building in downtown Kalamazoo
Members of the Kalamazoo Nonviolent Opponents of War (KNOW) held their usual Sunday peace vigil in front of the Federal Building in downtown Kalamazoo as they have been doing since September 1, 2002.  And, it doesn’t look as though they are going away despite President Obama’s declaration of the end of the war in Iraq.

“Officially the war is over, the military has left, but our overall attempt to dominate the region is still there,” said today’s convener Ron Kramer. 

Kramer pointed out that U.S. foreign policy of regional dominance will continue with the presence of State Department officials and independent contractors in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, drone attacks in Pakistan, the militarization of America and our huge military budget ($642billion was recently approved for FY 2016).  

“So there’s still plenty for us to do,” said Kramer amid the honking car horns of approval on this cold but sunny day in downtown Kalamazoo.

There were only 20 people present at the vigil although the numbers averaged in the hundreds before and during the early months of the war.  KNOW attracted over 700 people, its highest attendance, for an evening candlelight vigil on March 20, 2003, the day after the war began.

“War is destructive.  War doesn’t build nations.  It doesn’t build peace.  It doesn’t build prosperity,” said Walter Ogston who has been demonstrating over the past nine years.  “It destroys things.  It destroys lives and it destroys livelihoods, and it destroys culture, and it destroys respect.  We need to respect people in the other parts of the world, in other nations, not try to manipulate and destroy them.”

“We should be using other means than military, [like] peaceful means, to solve conflicts,” said Tobi Hanna-Davies, who organized bus trips to Washington, D.C. and New York for peace demonstrations intended to prevent the war in 2002 and 2003.

“We’ve just used military force as our first resort,” said Hanna-Davies.  “It should be the very last resort.  We need a Department of Peace that’s funded where people really get educated in how to solve conflict.  We shouldn’t be acting like we’re in the Middle Ages still.”

Jean and Joe Gump
“If I’m not demonstrating, it’s because I’m sleeping,” said long-time activist Jean Gump, 85, whose demonstrations for peace go back to the Civil Rights Movement in 1965.  She with her husband, Joe, were standing on public street corners protesting sanctions imposed on Saddam Hussein in the 1990s following the first Persian Gulf War.  Gump is also a member of the Kalamazoo Women in Black who “mourn for all victims of war and violence,” as their placards say.

Last year Gump served time in federal prison for trespassing at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn. on July 5, 2010,during a 30th commemorative demonstration for nuclear resistance.  She was one of thirteen activists from Plowshares arrested and sentenced.  Plowshares is a group that works to rid the United States of its nuclear weapons through acts of civil disobedience. 

Gump previously went to federal prison for breaking into a Minuteman II missile silo near Holden, Missouri in 1986, as did her husband in 1987 when he went to the K-9 missile site in Butler, Missouri. 

Kramer, a criminologist at Western Michigan University who specializes in international law and state crime, has written extensively on the war in Iraq including a book titled Crimes of Empire: The Bush Administration’s Illegal War On Iraq. 

“The U.S. invasion of Iraq was a blatant and gross violation of international law,” said Kramer.  “It was a war of aggression.  The Nuremberg Charter called a war of aggression the ‘supreme international crime.’”

“During the phase of the occupation and the course of the war, the United States committed a number of war crimes,” continued Kramer who listed as evidence the use of depleted uranium, torture at Abu Ghraib, the devastation of the country, the creation of a population of refugees and internally displaced people and huge death tolls, which go largely unreported.

Various reports of Iraqi deaths range from 100,000 to 1 million.  

Kramer said that the war has resulted in huge consequences for the United States as well.  The official count of Americans dead is 4,484 with 33,186 wounded. 

The cost of conducting war in both Iraq and Afghanistan has reached $1.2 trillion although Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, believes the cost of the Iraq War alone will more likely be over $3 trillion.   His book, The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict (2008) discusses the extent to which these costs will be imposed for many years to come, including the enormous expenditures that will be required to care for very large numbers of wounded veterans.

Kramer also said that the war has created more anger against the United States throughout the Middle East, generating more recruits to terrorism and allowing Iran to emerge as a major force in the region now that Saddam Hussein is gone.

“The Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq was worst the foreign policy blunder in American history and the ‘supreme international crime.’  What bothers me is that no one in that administration is ever going to be held to account for the crimes they committed.”

Kramer said that under international law the Obama Administration has responsibility to prosecute those who committed these crimes but that it has done nothing and is, in fact, following some of the same policies.

Activists gather for brief meeting after their Sunday vigil
KNOW will continue with its weekly Sunday peace vigils as well as its monthly meetings, retreats and peace events. 

KNOW’s peace efforts have been chronicled in my book, Heroes of a Different Stripe:  How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq

Guest Essay: Act with Compassion, Not Out of Fear

by Patricia Lynn
Delton, Michigan

Fear is a strong emotion.  Traumatic experiences, phobias, or lack of confidence can cause people to be fearful in certain situations.  However, when a government continuously promotes fear, it is ultimately to control the thinking and behavior of its population.  In Hitler’s time it was fear of Jews.  Post-9/11 Americans have been constantly reminded to be fearful of “strange” behaviors, smells, appearances, parked cars, unattended items, and especially Muslims and Islam.

I was appalled at the article, “State Police Ask Public to Be Alert for Suspicious Activity,” appearing in the Reminder (Barry County) for the week of December 3rd.  There was no author identified, but internal to the article is the suggestion that this is a bulletin straight from Emergency Management/Department of Homeland Security.  The article specifically mentions “strange” behavior with no description of what might qualify as “suspicious.” 

Do we as citizens of Barry County really want to be calling 911 when a fellow citizen appears to be acting “strangely” or worry that our own “stressed out” activity might be interpreted by someone as “suspicious” and we’ll be turned into the authorities?

Let’s examine some behaviors that might appear “strange” to someone else, but have an understandable explanation. 

A mentally ill person who is not properly medicated may be screaming at an invisible enemy.  Someone whose bank has just refused to re-negotiate a mortgage, and is facing foreclosure, may make idle threats out of pure anger and utter defeat.  A jobless mother facing a long winter with reduced heating assistance could appear suspicious when seen wandering up and down an aisle, stopping to fondle a toy gun, over and over again, wishing she could buy it as a Christmas surprise for her son.  A father who has just lost custody of his children, and won’t be able to see them until after the holidays, might leave his briefcase in the court house, distracted by overwhelming sadness and loss.  Someone who is homeless and hungry could appear strange wearing unusual clothing and moving in odd, repetitive ways, trying to stay warm.  A combat veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder may act very nervous or become agitated in a crowd of people.

Examples and explanations for “strange” behaviors are many, as are the hardships facing our fellow citizens in Barry County for whom there is no relief in sight.  Every person has his or her own unique way of feeling and acting in the face of adversity, and many of those behaviors or activities could appear “suspicious” to an observer.  It seems to me that compassion is a more powerful and appropriate emotion to practice with our fellow citizens in these difficult times.  Compassion allows us to recognize and feel our shared humanity with another person and then compels us to act in some way to relieve their suffering or an injustice.

President Obama has stated he will now sign the National Defense Authorization Act, overwhelmingly passed by Congress, in which he is granted specific powers to authorize the military to arrest and indefinitely detain, without being charged or having a trial, any person anywhere in the world, including American citizens on American soil, merely “suspected” of being a terrorist or aiding a terrorist organization.  The “suspicious” activities listed by Emergency Management/Department of Homeland Security are so vague that it is possible to imagine countless innocent activities that could result in an arrest.

There are real and serious problems facing us in our communities, country, and world.  Some issues are very scary especially when our elected representatives and other world leaders seem unwilling or unable to negotiate solutions.  But, there is not a terrorist lurking around every corner. 

I refuse to allow fear to occupy my life or silence my voice!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Former Congressman Howard Wolpe Memorialized by Friends and Former Constituents

Courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives
Courtesy of WMU News

Friends of former Rep. Howard Wolpe gathered at Western Michigan University (WMU) on Tuesday to remember the man they had loved, admired and worked for in countless campaigns.

The seven-term U.S. congressman (1979-93) died at his home in Saugatuck, Mich. on October 25.  He was 71 and had a heart ailment.

Dignitaries from various periods in his life spoke of his faithfulness and passion to principle and problem solving whether it was legislation that allowed right turns on red or what was seen as his greatest achievement, passage of the U.S. Anti-Apartheid Act in 1986 that imposed sanctions against South Africa.

Lynn Jondahl, former state representative and Wolpe colleague, set the tone as master of ceremonies by quoting James Baldwin that Wolpe was a man who “earn[ed] one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life.” 

Jondahl also read condolence letters from President Barak Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.  The president characterized Wolpe as a “courageous fighter” and one who “helped make government work as a force for good.” 

The former political science professor turned legislator “obsessed with wrestling with ideas and theories” to get “reasonable people to come together to reach reasonable solutions to problems,” said Jondahl.

One of Wolpe’s first public actions took place in Kalamazoo in 1968 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  He organized a march to the all-white male City Commission demanding they do something about prejudice and racism in the city, said Chet Rogers, a colleague, friend, former campaign manager and aide.

The march came out of a brainstorming session that concluded the best way of attacking racism was to educate and change the white community. 

This action gave Wolpe the reputation as the town radical, said Rogers.  It later led him to a seat on the City Commission where he was elected to two terms and able to make some small changes. 

He then went to the state legislature in 1972 and became only the second Democrat to win that district in history.  Wolpe’s hands-on, door-to-door campaigning and constituent services led him to the U.S. Congress in 1978 after losing a 1976 bid by less than one percent.  He decided not to run for re-election in 1992 after redistricting. 

“Howard believed that government could be good and that the job of government was to create a fair and just society,” said Rogers.  “He worked at this fearlessly.”
 In this July 15, 1996 file photo, then United States presidential envoy Howard Wolpe, right, shakes hands with Burundian President Ntibantunganya Slyvestre at the presidential palace in Bujumbura, Burundi. Photo: Sayyid Azim / AP

As much as he loved being a legislator, nothing has satisfied Wolpe more than being a peacemaker in one of the most volatile regions of Africa.

In 1994, after an unsuccessful bid for governor in Michigan, he served as the special envoy to the African Great Lakes region under President Bill Clinton until 2001.

Later, as director of the Africa Program for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, his last position before retirement, Wolpe went beyond conventional diplomacy methods in order to help bring peace and reconciliation to Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Liberia. 

In a previous interview with Wolpe, he said that his secret in handling conflict is providing a communication platform for all factions involved and letting them share with each other the ways they perceive their opponents.

Conventional diplomacy is aimed at obtaining a “quick acceptance,” to agreements drawn up by lawyers, said Wolpe.  The element missing in this process is taking into consideration the personalities of the leaders who have just signed the agreement.

He said he learned this technique from his child psychologist mother, Zelda Wolpe, and first saw it in action when she applied it during a racial strife situation in the Kalamazoo schools in 1970. 

Around the same time, Wolpe and Chet Rogers, were at WMU running simulations of SIMSOC, a role-playing “game” created by then University of Michigan sociologist William Gamson.  The simulation requires participants to cope with the daily problems of governing society and to grapple with issues like abuse of power, justice, diversity, trust, and leadership as they negotiate their way through problems like labor-management strife, political turmoil, and natural disasters.

Former Rep. David Bonior of Michigan who served with Wolpe on the state legislature, also spoke highly of Wolpe saying he was “smart, serious, energetic, full of hope” as he worked on pet issues like the environment, peace, women’s rights, labor, people with disabilities and racial justice. 

“He had the skill of putting coalitions together [with both sides of the aisle] and to create the dynamics to get something done.” 

Bonior pointed to Wolpe’s fight for sanctions against South Africa.

Wolpe sat on the Foreign Affairs Committee and chaired that panel’s Subcommittee on Africa.  He wrote legislation against apartheid in South Africa and, after President Ronald Reagan vetoed the bill, he got Congress to override the veto.

Wolpe did this despite the fact that two major corporations in his district, the Kellogg Company and the Upjohn Company, opposed him.  Nevertheless, he remained in communication with them and he made friends with Nelson Mandala after his release from prison. 

“Few people make a significant difference on the world stage,” said Bonior.  “Howard did.  And, by his actions, he moved us closer to racial justice and harmony.”

Steve McDonald, director of the Africa Program at the Woodrow Wilson Institute, said he sat beside Wolpe when he berated an African president intending to go to war.  He saw how he worked with hardened Hutu and Tutsi soldiers by having them share their fears with each other.

In doing so, “they realized the aspirations and fears of the other guy,” said McDonald, and that changed the conversation.

Peter Yarrow of the Peter, Paul and Mary singing group, was friends with Wolpe and sang two songs in honor of him:  “Don’t Laugh at Me” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” 

Wolpe is survived by his wife, Julie Fletcher, and a son, Michael.  He lost his first wife, Judy, in 2006 when she drowned off the coast of Guatemala while the couple was on vacation. 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Guest Essay: High Stakes Testing in Schools

Could you pass a tenth grade reading test?   sample test

Could you pass a tenth grade math test?  sample test

By Marion Brady 
veteran teacher, administrator, curriculum designer and author 

A longtime friend on the school board of one of the largest school systems in America did something that few public servants are willing to do. He took versions of his state’s high-stakes standardized math and reading tests for 10th graders, and said he’d make his scores public.

By any reasonable measure, my friend is a success. His now-grown kids are well-educated. He has a big house in a good part of town. Paid-for condo in the Caribbean. Influential friends. Lots of frequent flyer miles. Enough time of his own to give serious attention to his school board responsibilities. The margins of his electoral wins and his good relationships with administrators and teachers testify to his openness to dialogue and willingness to listen.

He called me the morning he took the test to say he was sure he hadn’t done well, but had to wait for the results. A couple of days ago, realizing that local school board members don’t seem to be playing much of a role in the current “reform” brouhaha, I asked him what he now thought about the tests he’d taken.

“I won’t beat around the bush,” he wrote in an email. “The math section had 60 questions. I knew the answers to none of them, but managed to guess ten out of the 60 correctly. On the reading test, I got 62% . In our system, that’s a “D”, and would get me a mandatory assignment to a double block of reading instruction.
He continued, “It seems to me something is seriously wrong. I have a bachelor of science degree, two masters degrees, and 15 credit hours toward a doctorate.

“I help oversee an organization with 22,000 employees and a $3 billion operations and capital budget, and am able to make sense of complex data related to those responsibilities.

“I have a wide circle of friends in various professions. Since taking the test, I’ve detailed its contents as best I can to many of them, particularly the math section, which does more than its share of shoving students in our system out of school and on to the street. Not a single one of them said that the math I described was necessary in their profession.

“It might be argued that I’ve been out of school too long, that if I’d actually been in the 10th grade prior to taking the test, the material would have been fresh. But doesn’t that miss the point? A test that can determine a student’s future life chances should surely relate in some practical way to the requirements of life. I can’t see how that could possibly be true of the test I took.”

Here’s the clincher in what he wrote:

“If I’d been required to take those two tests when I was a 10th grader, my life would almost certainly have been very different. I’d have been told I wasn’t ‘college material,’ would probably have believed it, and looked for work appropriate for the level of ability that the test said I had.

“It makes no sense to me that a test with the potential for shaping a student’s entire future has so little apparent relevance to adult, real-world functioning. Who decided the kind of questions and their level of difficulty? Using what criteria? To whom did they have to defend their decisions? As subject-matter specialists, how qualified were they to make general judgments about the needs of this state’s children in a future they can’t possibly predict? Who set the pass-fail “cut score”? How?”

“I can’t escape the conclusion that decisions about the [state test] in particular and standardized tests in general are being made by individuals who lack perspective and aren’t really accountable.”

There you have it. A concise summary of what’s wrong with present corporately driven education change: Decisions are being made by individuals who lack perspective and aren’t really accountable.

Those decisions are shaped not by knowledge or understanding of educating, but by ideology, politics, hubris, greed, ignorance, the conventional wisdom, and various combinations thereof. And then they’re sold to the public by the rich and powerful.

All that without so much as a pilot program to see if their simplistic, worn-out ideas work, and without a single procedure in place that imposes on them what they demand of teachers: accountability.

But maybe there’s hope. As I write, a New York Times story by Michael Winerip makes my day. The stupidity of the current test-based thrust of reform has triggered the first revolt of school principals.

Winerip writes: “As of last night, 658 principals around the state (New York) had signed a letter — 488 of them from Long Island, where the insurrection began — protesting the use of students’ test scores to evaluate teachers’ and principals’ performance.”

One of those school principals, Winerip says, is Bernard Kaplan. Kaplan runs one of the highest-achieving schools in the state, but is required to attend 10 training sessions.

“It’s education by humiliation,” Kaplan said. “I’ve never seen teachers and principals so degraded.”
Carol Burris, named the 2010 Educator of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York State, has to attend those 10 training sessions.

Katie Zahedi, another principal, said the session she attended was “two days of total nonsense. I have a Ph.D., I’m in a school every day, and some consultant is supposed to be teaching me to do evaluations.”

A fourth principal, Mario Fernandez, called the evaluation process a product of “ludicrous, shallow thinking. They’re expecting a tornado to go through a junkyard and have a brand new Mercedes pop up.”

My school board member-friend concluded his email with this: “I can’t escape the conclusion that those of us who are expected to follow through on decisions that have been made for us are doing something ethically questionable.”

He’s wrong. What they’re being made to do isn’t ethically questionable. It’s ethically unacceptable. Ethically reprehensible. Ethically indefensible.

How many of the approximately 100,000 school principals in the U.S. would join the revolt if their ethical principles trumped their fears of retribution? Why haven’t they been asked?

QUIZ: How would you do on this same test taken by a school board member? Find out: Reading Quiz | Math Quiz. Questions come from the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) for 10th grade. Or try your hand at questions from the National Assessment of Education Progress for fourth and eighth graders.

Guest Essay: High Stakes Testing in Schools

Washington Post

This is a follow-up to Monday’s guest post about a school board member who took a version of a state standardized test and was horrified at what he found.

That post was written by veteran educator Marion Brady, who said he did not name the board member to save him from mean personal attacks by critics. The board member, however, agreed to talk to me about the experience on the record because he has come to feel very strongly about the issue.

The man in question is Rick Roach, who is in his fourth four-year term representing District 3 on the Board of Education in Orange County, Fl., a public school system with 180,000 students. Roach took a version of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, commonly known as the FCAT, earlier this year.

The FCAT, begun in 1998, has been given annually to students in grades 3 to 11 in mathematics, reading, science and writing. It is the bedrock of what is regarded as one of the nation’s most extensive and widely studied school accountability systems. In the last school year, the state began rolling out a next-generation FCAT. For more on the testing program, see here.

Roach, the father of five children and grandfather of two, was a teacher, counselor and coach in Orange County for 14 years. He was first elected to the board in 1998 and has been reelected three times. A resident of Orange County for three decades, he has a bachelor of science degree in education and two masters degrees: in education and educational psychology. He has trained over 18,000 educators in classroom management and course delivery skills in six eastern states over the last 25 years.

Monday’s post explained how Roach took a version of the FCAT and reached this conclusion in an email to Brady:

“I won’t beat around the bush. The math section had 60 questions. I knew the answers to none of them, but managed to guess ten out of the 60 correctly. On the reading test, I got 62% . In our system, that’s a ‘D,’ and would get me a mandatory assignment to a double block of reading instruction.

“It seems to me something is seriously wrong. I have a bachelor of science degree, two masters degrees, and 15 credit hours toward a doctorate. I help oversee an organization with 22,000 employees and a $3 billion operations and capital budget, and am able to make sense of complex data related to those responsibilities.... 
“It might be argued that I’ve been out of school too long, that if I’d actuall y been in the 10th grade prior to taking the test, the material would have been fresh. But doesn’t that miss the point? A test that can determine a student’s future life chances should surely relate in some practical way to the requirements of life. I can’t see how that could possibly be true of the test I took.”

Here are some of the highlights of an interview I did with Roach today further exploring his reasons for taking the test and reaching the conclusions that he did.

*Now in his 13th year on the board, he had considered taking the test for a while as he began to increasingly question whether the results really reflected a student’s ability. He was finally pushed to do it earlier this year, he said, after a board meeting at which the chairman listed five goals, and one of them caught his attention for being so unremarkable.

Roach said: ‘He [the chairman] said that by 2013 or 2014, he wanted 50 percent of the 10th graders reading at grade level....I’m thinking, ‘That’s horrible.’ Right now it’s 39 percent of our kids reading at grade level in 10th grade. I have to tell you that I’ve never believed that that many kids can’t read at that level. Never ever believed it. I have five kids of my own. None of them were superstars at school but they could read well, and these kids today can read too.

“So I was thinking, ‘What are they taking that tells them they can’t read? What is this test? Our kids do okay on the eighth grade test and on the fifth grade test and then they get stupid in the 10th grade?”

He asked someone who works at the board to help him take the FCAT but state law only allows it to be taken by students, so it was arranged for him to take a version of it.

He took 60 math questions and a four-part reading test.

How did he score?

On the reading section, he scored 62 percent, a ‘D’ in Orange County. On the math, he said he knew none of the answers but guessed correctly on 10 of the 60.

*Thousands of Florida students with 3.0 or higher grade point averages are denied high school diplomas, Roach said, because they fail at least one portion of the FCAT. Last year, he said, 41,000 kids were denied diplomas across the state — about 70 in his district — and some of them have a 3.0 GPA or better.

*He said he understands why so many students who can actually read well do poorly on the FCAT.
“Many of the kids we label as poor readers are probably pretty good readers. Here’s why.

“On the FCAT, they are reading material they didn’t choose. They are given four possible answers and three out of the four are pretty good. One is the best answer but kids don’t get points for only a pretty good answer. They get zero points, the same for the absolute wrong answer. And then they are given an arbitrary time limit. Those are a number of reasons that I think the test has to be suspect.”

He said he visits schools frequently in his district, including the three high schools (there are 19 high school in the entire county), and talks to principals about this issue. He said they are frustrated that students who they know can read and do math can’t graduate because they can’t pass the test.

Could that mean that all of the teachers in all of the schools are grading too easy?

Roach said “absolutely not.” He knows a lot of the teachers and they aren’t a “soft touch.”

*He said he never brought it up at a board meeting in part because the meetings are publicized and he wasn’t ready until now to publicly discuss it.

*The math section, he said, tests information that most people don’t need when they get out of school.

“There’s a concept called reverse design that is critical,” he said. “We are violating that with our test. Instead of connecting what we learn in school with being successful in the real world, we are doing it in reverse. We are testing first and then kids go into the real world. Whether the information they have learned is important or not becomes secondary. If you really did a study on what math most kids need, I guarantee you could probably dump about 80 percent of math scores and leave high-level math for the kids who want it and will need it.

*His final conclusion on the FCAT:

“They are defending a test that has no accountability.”

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Michigan Can Be a Leader in Dealing With Climate Change

 The opportunity to pull Michigan out of its economic slump and deal with climate change is right in front of us.

"Michigan is one of the key places on earth where we can turn this around," said Peter Sinclair, an award-winning graphic artist, illustrator, animator, long-time environmentalist and blogger of Climate Crocks.

"[Green technology] can become the spear point of a major industrial revolution more impacting than the computer revolution."

He spoke recently at the Kalamazoo Nature Center about the effects of greenhouse gases (GHG) on the natural cycles of the earth and what we can do about it.

Millions of young people prepared for jobs in the emerging green technology could make a huge difference on our world in much the same way that young people were inspired by President Kennedy's call to put a man on the moon, said Sinclair.

"We need that kind of national mission now!" said Sinclair who contends that green technology can help the planet and create a new, green economy.

Many people fear that any change from our current fossil fuel economy will mean that we will have to live in caves, candlelight and be without cars. Many detractors and non-believers in climate change play on that fear, too. Here, too, the reality differs from the rhetoric.

Dow Chemical in Midland has been progressively reducing its carbon footprint and making money from improved energy efficiency, said Sinclair. Between 2009 and 2010 the Fortune 500 company saved $760 million. This came about in 1990 when the company made a $2 billion investment and designed a sustainability strategy. It has resulted in $9.4 billion in savings, with a $7 billion net savings.

"Solar shingles" can be put on the roofs of new "zero-energy houses." They use 70 percent less energy than today's houses -- and then generate enough energy to be sold to other users. These shingles are made in Saginaw and they have attracted other solar fabrication companies to move into Michigan.

Upgrading the insulation of old houses is another opportunity, and although the cost is still high, it is declining precipitously. Part of the reason why is that some companies like Sungevity are adopting a "solar leasing model" where panels are installed for free, the homeowner rents them and unused energy goes back into the grid.

Actually, the price of solar energy has fallen 5 percent every year since 1970 while the cost of electricity has risen by 5 percent every year in the same period, according to Andrew Birch, CEO of Sungevity.

Sinclair called solar technology a definite paradigm shift where we can generate more energy than we use. This is possible because it takes 15 terawatts to supply the earth's power needs for one year while the sun provides 6,000 times more energy (8,600 terawatts) every day -- for free, according to Sungevity.

Today, there are one million solar roofs operating in America and there is a lot of potential for growth, said Sinclair.

While Sinclair admitted that the zero-energy house is not the total answer to our climate change problems, green buildings are the direction we need to go. For more than a decade, Leadership in Engineering and Environmental Design (LEED) has been the standard to which green builders aspired. Now, a new standard has emerged called the "living building." It generates all of its own energy with renewable non-toxic resources, captures and treats all of its water, and operates efficiently and for maximum beauty.

The Ford Rouge Plant in Dearborn has a "living roof" where several varieties of sebum (a mossy-looking plant) are trained to grow up the factory's outer walls to keep the factory warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

This came about when Ford called in acclaimed "eco" architect Bill McDonough in 2004 to help with the redesign of their Rouge plant in Dearborn where the F150 pick-up truck is made. As a result, the factory now has one of the biggest green roofs in the world.

Roger Gaudette of Ford Land talks about the idea behind the green roof in this video.

Wind turbines provide yet another energy-producing alternative and Michigan once again is well-positioned to take advantage of this technology. Pigeon (in the Thumb area) is a leader in generating wind power while hundreds of turbines are going up in Gratiot County (south of Mt. Pleasant) with plans for more in Montcalm County (east of Gratiot County).

Sinclair said that there is enormous potential for the Great Lakes region to equal the wind generation expected of the Great Plains, often dubbed the "Saudi Arabia of wind." The East Coast alone has enough wind to power the whole country, he said.

Skeptics may ask, however, what happens when the wind stops blowing?

"This is a non-problem," said Sinclair who explained that every energy source is intermittent and that they are designed to store energy for those down times. The same thing can happen with wind.

He added that Michigan has excellent geology for underground caverns where energy may be stored.

Several community colleges have already created educational training programs for wind energy technicians who can make $22 to $33 per hour, said Sinclair. That would command salaries of $40,000 to $60,000 per year.

There is also a need for people who can build, design and transport windmills.

"This is good for Michigan and it could create 30,000+ new jobs -- if we want them," said Sinclair. "The window is now open but it can close. Right now, we are dithering."

Monday, December 5, 2011

Cold Climate Christmas -- Imagine It in Toronto

How typical is it to go north for Christmas vacation unless you are a skier or snowmobiler? Not very.

Nevertheless, my husband and I recently went to Toronto for the holidays and were quite surprised by the quality of life in this metropolitan area of 4.4 million people.

As we walked the neighborhoods and streets, tried out ethnic restaurants and talked to local residents at an evening pot luck dinner, we discovered a whole new world free of distractions and the usual sightseeing repertoire and instead learned something about life in this popular Canadian city that is very appealing.

The most significant impression I had of Toronto is that its people are so civilized. Imagine that people in the fifth-most populated city in North America actually praise themselves for their tolerance of ethnic and racial differences, which are evident everywhere you go.

Imagine a place where over 100 languages are spoken and neighborhood utility poles don signs advertising language classes in Spanish -- as well as Persian, Urdu and Turkish. Street posters also declare that "Literacy is a right."

Tolerance for differences is exhibited in other ways. In the St. Lawrence Market you see Asian women making French crepes. Stores and shops are largely staffed by young immigrants. The bank ATMs include directions in Chinese characters. We ate a lovely meal in a Thai restaurant to the tunes of the Supremes' hit "Baby Love" and the "Dirty Dancing'" theme song, "Time of My Life."

While it's not unusual to hear other languages spoken in a major urban area, it is a delight as well as a shock to walk clean and litter-free streets.