Thursday, December 20, 2007

Dr. Atomic, the Energy Bill & Edison

I have just seen one of the most moving theatrical spectacles ever, something that touches so profoundly, so humanely that it nearly transcends art. It was so powerful, so full of relevance and hope for everyone that it carries an essential message as we strive for hope in a world torn by energy wars.

John Adams and Peter Sellars's "Dr. Atomic" is an opera that was reworked in a new version now playing at the Lyric Opera of Chicago ( through January. It is three hours of riveting music, splendid poetry, pointed choreography, exquisite staging and soul-searing singing and performance. It is an immutable theatrical experience that starts out with J. Robert Oppenheimer singing about losing his soul while leading the atomic bomb testing project in 1945. The Germans have surrendered and the Manhattan Project is in its last phase in the desert of Los Alamos, New Mexico. "The Gadget," as the bomb is codenamed, is nearly ready for detonation, although no one is quite sure if it will work or if it will ignite the entire atmosphere as Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, predicts.

What starts out as a military rationale for continuing the project -- while carefully picking cities in Japan where it will be dropped -- ends up being a deep examination into the human soul and psyche. John Adams's melange of electronic music and scintillating use of the skilled Lyric Orchestra, brings you deep into the human problem: What happens after we release this power that fuels the sun? What will happen to the world? How will it sunder our souls?

Peter Sellars does not attempt to answer that question fully, yet provides insights through his libretto, using Baudelaire, Donne and the Bhagavad-Gita in his soaring lyrics.

In two arias that portray Oppenheimer's torment, he sings of this disconnected sense of the divine in the words of John Donne's Holy Sonnet XIV:

"Batter my heart, three person'd God.
For you,
As yet but knock, breathe,
Shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me,
and bend
Your force, to break, blow,
burn and make me new."

Oppenheimer's aria is not a religious invocation, despite Donne's context. The "three person'd God," in his meaning, is "Trinity," the name of the site of the bomb test. He's troubled by knowing that he will unleash the forces of nature, is humbled by it and admitting that it will change him -- and the world -- forever.

The perspective of the world's suffering to come is voiced by his wife Kitty, who sings in the words of poet Muriel Rukeyser:

"Those who most long for peace,
now pour their lives on war.
Our conflicts carry creation and its guilt,
these years' great arms are full of death and flowers.
A world is to be fought for, sung and built:
Love must imagine the world."

There's even a Native American perspective to the horror that's about to be unleashed, sung by Pasqualita (again the words of Ms. Rukeyser), the nanny for the Oppenheimers' children:

"We danced in prison to a winter music,
many we loved began to dream of the dead.
They make no promises, we never dreamed a threat.
And the dreams spread."

When the realization hits the Trinity team that the bomb will bring untold devastation, or in the words of Samuel Beckett "some things must remain unspeakable," the stage becomes a dynamic canvas of light and choreography that imitates death throes. The chorus then sings the words of the timeless Bhagavad-Gita:

"When I see you, Vishnu, ominpresent,
Shouldering the sky, in hues of rainbow,
With your mouths agape and flame-eyes staring --
all my peace is gone; my heart is troubled."

Thus Oppenheimer and the U.S. in its $2 billion quest to create the bomb to end all bombs, has created a monster that still resides with us. It is no Frankenstein, however. It can only be contained by the chains of our soul. Our ever-lusting desire to understand, tame and harness the sinews of the universe has us in a bind. Can we use this power to preserve or destroy? How will we bridle the wildness of our passions and hatreds?

Dr. Atomic doesn't seek to resolve these questions. It only provokes us to think about the questions and act -- guided by the angels of our better nature.

Adams and Sellars don't even try to duplicate an atomic bomb explosion in any theatrical way. They conclude their opera with the sound of a Japanese woman's voice (after the presumptive detonation of "Fat Boy" in the opera) -- and silence. In the end, we are left with the imploring gentleness of a single, female voice and the stark isolation of our own loneliness as we contemplate our future.

The future is like Grendel the beast staring at us from his cave. He is begging us to change.

Speaking of looking ahead, some civilized, good news came in the form of an energy bill just signed by President Bush. It re-orients our priorities on energy. Like any piece of legislation, it's full of disappointments and promise. Taken as a whole, though, it's full of hope that is the first step toward a future not obsessed with energy slavery.

The "Energy Indpependence and Security Act" mandated improved efficiency standards for cars, notching up fleet mileage averages to 35 miles per gallon by 2020. While on the surface this is a pathetically modest improvement -- my 12-year-old Toyota achieves that mileage now -- it was the first new fuel standard since 1975, when I graduated from high school.

More importantly, some of the mandates of the bill are comprehensive. Higher energy standards are put in place for federal buildings. Creation of biofuels from non-corn sources is encouraged. Advanced technologies such as generating electricity from ocean waves were supported. While there's still too many subsidies for making ethanol from corn -- a process that consumes a gallon of petroleum products for every gallon of ethanol produced (and no way to abate global warming) -- the law is loaded with pro-technology breaks.

There were two huge downsides of the bill: Tax breaks were not taken away from the petroleum industry (they don't need them) and the homeowner incentives for solar energy and alternative energy were not extended beyond 2008 (Congress may revisit this next year). The petroleum lobby got to the White House and Senate Republicans at the final stage of the bill's progress. Since the Democratic leadership wanted to pass energy legislation this year -- and the GOP didn't want to take away any of the bananas from the 900-lb. gorillas pumping oil and gas -- the downsized bill lost a lot of incentives to mandate use of renewable energy and electricity.

An obscure little provision pumps up research efforts for making something that's essential to the alternative-energy equation: A long-term storage battery. This concept has entranced everyone from Faraday to today's engineers of electric cars. But no one has been able to make it work and produce it cheaply. With a long-term battery, you can store wind, wave and solar power on site. You don't have to push it into the grid when you generate it. Cars can go thousands of miles cleanly without a stop and be recharged by solar panels on their rooftops or on every garage.

No less than Thomas Edison was perplexed by his inability to design the ultimate battery. Here's an excerpt from "The Edisonian," the newsletter from the Edison archives in New Jersey (just got this yesterday in the mail -- see

"Beginning in 1883, Edison began working on a system to convert coal directly to electricity. Although Edison never succeeded in his quest, he was later quoted as saying 'I'd put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don't have to wait till oil and coal run out before we tackle that. I wish I had more years left.'"

Oppenheimer, Edison and our Congress all were striving for the same goal: Reaping as much energy from nature in a safe, economical and (hopefully) peaceful way.

Or, better put from the Bhagavad-Gita (also from Dr. Atomic):

"A serene spirit accepts pleasure and pain
with an even mind,
and is unmoved from either.
He alone is worthy of immortality."

The world-soul is gradually acknowledging the wisdom of the Gita. We need to stay on course. Energy independence should be our destiny. Who will be the immortal who will engineer a solution that will negate the reason for resource wars? Will it come from Silicon Valley, where the founders of Google are funding ways of producing power that are cheaper and cleaner than burning coal? Will it come from the engineers at Nanosolar, who are using the nascent technology of nanotechnoloy to efficiently and cheaply "print" solar cells? Or will it come from some girl or boy's tinkering in a garage or shed somewhere in the North America, China, India or Africa?

As we approach the darkest time of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, we are desperately seeking many such serene souls. The solstice will pass, as we know, and the days will be become longer and more full of light.

It's my humble opinion that world peace will not be possible unless every nation can find a way of achieving energy independence without pillaging resources that contribute to everyone's demise. The cost of releasing the sun's power was enormous; the cost of not harnessing it fully is even higher.

Happy Holidays,

John F. Wasik

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

American Band Rocks!

If you care at all about music, American values, high school, teenage angst, the rise of fundamentalism or high school bands, read "American Band" by Kristen Laine.

First of all, it has nothing to do with the song by Grand Funk Railroad or anything connected with rock n'roll. It's a stirring portrait of growing up within the confines of a high school band program. I know this may bring sighs and propel you to the next blog or youtube, but consider this: there may be no finer tableau of the changing American landscape.

It's about teenagers, loss, coming to terms with God, love, winning, the healing nature of music and Middle America. The Concord High School band program is the setting. It's situated in Elkhart, Indiana, once the musical instrument capital of the world that has seen better days. Focusing on the leaders of the band from the legendary director Max Jones to kids who are struggling to fit in, the narrative takes you on a six-month journey from the beginning of the band's season to its competition to defend its title as state champion.

The kids in the band are starkly human. They range from being "perfect" to barely managing to step off correctly when the band marches down the field. We've all grown up with these people, seen them mature and blossom.

I know this book captured a slice of my life. I learned french horn to get into my high school band, eventually winning first chair after two years of playing (my native instrument is violin). I wanted to wear the uniform, be a part of something big marching to a definite goal. Our band director was a driven man (Wayne Erck), who eventually became a general in the Army Reserve. We traveled, played football games and went to contests, although we didn't place very highly.

My dad was a band director for more than 30 years, leading a band that had the fortune to play for a sensational basketball team that won the Illinois state title two years in a row (the awesome Thornridge). One of my first recollections was holding a banner in a 4th of July parade for his band. I grew up with Sousa before I even knew the Stones, Beatles or Beach Boys even existed.

The most penetrating truth about this book is how it captures the essence of the American experience. Two Hispanic girls are working hard to assimilate. A cadre of the top students are part of a fundamentalist Christian sect. The band's student leader is dealing with his mother's illness and beloved sister's death. Does this remarkable group of achievers take the state championship again? Read the book. It's worth your while. The music of life can be such an uplifting and heartbreaking tune at times.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Travails of the Health Care System

It's been a rough month so far, but I'm not feeling sorry for myself. I'm learning quite a bit and it's a "growing experience," as my mother used to say.

Basically it started with discovering that my payroll service messed up on withholding taxes. This is really my responsiblity, so I can't entirely blame them.

Moving onto another unresolved matter, I realized that a drug and medical service discount card I ordered never came. No paperwork, no card, nothing. I called and emailed the online provider and they couldn't offer me any explanation, so I cancelled something I was being charged for -- but never received. Overall, I've had a good experience with the vendor -- -- but on this service they dropped the ball. I tried to use a free card offered through my county government, but the pharmacist wouldn't accept it, so I was forced to pay the obnoxious full retail price for a small amount of medicine my wife needed and antibiotics for my youngest daughter, who caught bronchitis. Since we have a high-deductible health insurance policy, the doctor's visit is out of pocket. The irony is, the only solution the health insurance industry has for reducing costs is to have those who were formerly insured for most costs pay more!

Then as I was trying to save a hundred dollars on medication today, I got a call from my credit card company. My wife and I learned that we were the victims of identity theft. Some rapacious soul got a hold of our credit card numbers and went on a shopping spree, charging more than $10,000 in merchandise. Of course, we're not responsible for paying for all of this, and we promptly shut down the account. Not a big deal, since this is the second time this has happened and our credit card company (Citicards) alerted us through a special program that tracks unusual spending patterns. It's just unnerving to be a victim -- again.

On top of that, my father-in-law, who has been gravely ill, went back into the hospital.

I'm not saying I'm snakebit. It's been a good year overall. I got a book deal (for another investment book I will co-author) I didn't expect, several paid speaking engagements (which I thoroughly enjoyed) and some prospects for other projects. I've been blessed and happy to be doing what I love.

Without too much introspection, I am, however, dumbstruck at how inefficient this whole system of moving health care dollars around has become. Since I'm a small business owner, I pay the highest rates for insurance, medicine, dental care and other items. Why can't we create one entity to buy health care services and drugs and offer discounts to everyone? Why create so many layers between us and the services we need?

Every middleman is going to demand something and things get lost in the process, like direct care and well being. If you're on your own, you have absolutely no purchasing clout. You're at the mercy of the kindness of strangers. I asked one of our dentists for a discount and he flatly said, "we don't discount, period." Several years ago when Blue Cross nailed us for paying for a surgical procedure by calling it a "pre-existing condition" (my daughter was born with this malady), the non-profit hospital that was busy building a posh new facility wouldn't reduce their full-retail bill by a dime.

There is always next year. If the economy doesn't go belly up, our candidates may be serious about creating an efficient health care system. I, for one, will be supporting the one with the best plan. I have a few ideas of my own.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Sustainability and Property Assessments

If you can't afford to live in a place due to ever-increasing property taxes, it's not an economically sustainable situation.

So that's why I helped to form a non-profit group called It came about because some of the smartest people I knew couldn't figure out how their home assessments (the core for property tax valuations) were calculated. We've been appealing our assessments for years with meager results. This year we decided to organize into a group that will lobby for change. Our first public seminar was last night. Here's an account of it.

About 250 people showed up last night at our community center to hear Mark Biersdorf's excellent tips on how to successfully appeal assessments (now posted on Thanks to all who helped organized our first annual event, particularly Dick Hosteny, Steve Minsky, Thor Madsen, Bryce Carus and Stan Rosenberg (Jim Horine provided "security"). You'll be seeing more about it in the papers and on our website. We're also hoping to post a video of the meeting on Youtube.

The gathering confirmed the findings in our white paper that 1) the assessment system is opaque, arbitrary, inconsistent and unfair, 2) it's a county and possibly statewide problem, 3) our elected representatives can not only take action, there are several remedies available.

When we finished our white paper, we circulated it widely, making sure that every assessor, county board member and state representative got a copy. I'm not sure how many read it, but it got an instant response. After our presentation and press conference in July, it triggered a series of meetings between our allies Larry Leafblad and Terese Douglass with the country administration. Modest changes were made to the county assessor's website, so that more information is available. But we don't regard that as a victory. If anything, our humble effort was a faint echo in the halls of power.

Our Goals

• We'd like to see homeowners informed on exactly how their assessments are calculated -- and in plain English. That's not the case today.
• We're demanding a transparent system where you know how many and which properties are used to figure assessment increases or decreases.
• We want to know what formulas they used and if they are statistically significant.
• The system is stacked against homeowners, so we'd like to know all of the assessors' methods so that we have a fair chance of appealing our assessments.
• Last of all -- and this is what makes democracy sing an enduring song -- is accountability. We'd like to see an audit of assessment practices and oversight over their work.

We are a non-partisan, non-profit citizen advocacy group. That means we lobby for you and don't support specific candidates. We will be tackling numerous public-interest issues in the future, but we will need your help. You can help yourself in two ways: Through your time or a donation.

While you can't deduct your donation (due to our IRS designation as a 501(c)4 corp.), we will tell you how we are going to spend it. We’ve racked up some bills to do the white paper and we hope to go forward. We need to cover expenses incurred in our non-profit registration (still in progress), printing and other services.

If you choose to donate, please send it to Frank Mynard, treasurer, Citizens Action Project, PO Box 932, Grayslake, IL 60030. We know it's a tough time to be asking for money, but we'd like to pay our bills, which are mounting.

As for your time, you can either volunteer -- all of our directors and officers currently donate their time -- or become a citizen lobbyist. We have some form letters on our website so that you can contact county and state officials. Let them know how you feel. We have some suggestions for changes. Keep watching our website for news and future developments. We are hoping to do a fundraiser this winter featuring a compelling keynoter and will hold a contest for children to design our logo.

You can also appeal your assessments and help your own cause. We are also providing a one-page sheet prepared by Mark Biersdorf to help you do that (

Self-help is the core of citizen action and I urge all of you to show our officials that you won't stand for injustice and bad government. They work for us and it's up to us to keep them focused on our interest.

In the words of the patriot Thomas Paine (caps from the original pamphlet):

"Society in every state is a blessing, but GOVERNMENT, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil, in its worst state, an intolerable one, for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a GOVERNMENT, which we might expect in a country WITHOUT GOVERNMENT, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer."

-- Common Sense, Feb. 14, 1776

If you have a problem with figuring out your assessment -- it seems to be a nationwide problem -- contact your state representative and demand change. Nobody can afford to live in a community where property taxes are unfettered by economic reality. It's part of the sustainability dictum. The root word for economics and ecology is the same: oikos, which is Greek for household. If we can't afford our homes (or the taxes on them), we have to go elsewhere. That's not right. You can change things.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Samuel Insull and the Coal-Fired Crisis

The world will not be able to address or reduce greenhouse gases without dealing with the legacy of coal.

While much of the focus has been on crude oil, coal that's burned to produce electricity is responsible for a host of problems.

Most of the world's power is generated from coal-fired plants. There are 1,000 power plants using this fuel planned over the next 10 years. An average of 13 Chinese miners a day die mining it. Even if you don't think global warming is a fact (I'm NOT in that camp), burning coal releases a host of other pollutants such as mercury and particulate matter. And the way the earth's atmosphere works, we're all eventually breathing it.

Reducing our need for coal-fired power should be a priority in every country -- even where coal is plentiful and cheap. Other technologies need to be developed to bring their costs down to the level at which they are competitive.

In order to understand how we came to rely upon coal for electricity, you need to study the life of Samuel Insull, the former Thomas Edison protege who created the modern electrical grid. It was Insull's business plan, which I detail in my book "Merchant of Power," that we use today when we turn on our appliances, get in an elevator or walk under streetlights. His vision of central-station power -- big plants producing lots of electrons for everyone -- is still a part of our infrastructure. We have to change this if we're to survive on this planet.

Here's a paper I presented last night on Insull to the Chicago Literary Club, a 130-year-old institution that supports Chicago writers. I hope you enjoy it.

Samuel Insull and the Creation of the Modern Age
By John F. Wasik

Read before the Chicago Literary Club November 12, 2007.

Life is so often about confluences, two streams coming together to form a wider, stronger artery whose flow reshapes the land around it. The past is eroded and re-sculpted where this river flows. To understand our present, there was no better intersection of the currents of the old and new world than the year 1893, the year in which the modern age took shape. It wasn't a time, however, that we would recognize. Disease and pestilence plagued major cities. Only a handful of buildings had electric lighting. Children still worked in coal mines and factories. Late 19th-century cities were choking on filthy air, tenements, brothels, saloons and water that routinely sickened hundreds of thousands.

Although it was trying to present the face of modernity by entertaining some 21 million visitors during the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago was such a place. What a scene of contrasts, though! The gleaming White City with its combination of Beaux Arts facades, electric trolleys, a Midway with a giant Ferris Wheel and thousands of things most Americans had never seen on such a scale: electric light bulbs and motors.

Beyond the fair, created by the joint talents of Daniel Hudson Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted, lay the milieu that was Chicago, the fastest-growing city on earth at the time. Thousands of saloons served up their potables because the drinking water from the lake was constantly tainted with the offal of slaughterhouses and raw sewage. Built on a complex series of poorly drained wetlands in the Chicago River basin, the city naturally sent its discharges into the lake. Despite efforts to build pipes ever further out into the largest source of freshwater within the U.S., the poison swill led to typhoid and cholera outbreaks until city engineers reversed the flow of the Chicago in 1900 to push the massive effluent downriver into the Mississippi.

The public health crisis took a back seat to the exhibition that year, as Chicago not only celebrated its growth, but its role as the champion of the new civilization. The electrical genius Nicola Telsa was there to demonstrate the spectacle of running a million volts through the third rail of his lanky frame. It helped immensely that he was wearing rubber boots during his show. After the fair, nearly every major city would see the power of his idea -- alternating current -- and wire their cities using his technology, the operating system of the 20th Century. They wanted the power to illuminate their streets and rid them of the horse-drawn trolleys, which resulted in millions of tons of manure, yet another source for disease.

Seeing the light of the future in the city of broad shoulders was Samuel Insull, a bulldog of a businessman who cashed in his General Electric stock after virtually starting the company for Thomas Edison in New York. Insull also saw the potential to not only electrify entire cities but give their citizenries electric lights, irons, vacuum cleaners, refrigerators and 24-hour service. His Chicago Edison company and subsequent acquisitions created the modern electrical grid. Insull began his empire by consolidating tiny Chicago Edison with other small generating companies.

At the time Chicago Edison had one building on Adams Street that did triple duty as its headquarters, dynamo room and coal bin. Having accepted the Chicago job for $12,000 -- a drastic pay cut compared to the $36,000 he was making with GE -- he knew that electrical rates were uncompetitive with gas when he arrived in the Windy City. In fact, power at the time cost 50 percent more than the dim, dangerous gas used to illuminate most homes and buildings. He then proceeded to cut electrical rates to 20 cents a kilowatt hour and kept on cutting until he reached 2 1/2 cents per kilowatt hour in 1909 (we pay about 8 cents an hour today).

Insull's aggressive economics worked as he gave away flatirons, cut deals to wire homes and factories and unleashed his powerful marketing machine whose credo was "early to bed, early to rise, advertise, advertise, advertise!" In 1892, his company had 5,000 customers; 14 years later he had 200,000. Along the way Insull brought in power meters, created state utility commissions, built the opera house and ended up serving some 6,000 communities across the country.

While Insull saw the fair as a business opportunity, Olmsted, the godfather of modern landscape architecture and urban planning, had his feet firmly planted in the "City Beautiful" philosophy of making cities habitable. Having designed Jackson Park, New York's Central Park and the first planned suburb Riverside, Olmsted wanted the fair to reflect the spiritual values conveyed by open space. His parks, planned with his partner Calvert Vaux, were graced by abundant meadows, gentle ponds and curving promenades. Olmsted put those ideas into practice in the wake of the Civil War, when he served as an administrator in the forerunner of the Red Cross.

The Riverside Improvement Company was building an entirely new community on the banks of the Des Plaines River, just eight miles west of Chicago. It would be linked to the city by a rail line and take the idea of the suburb and turn it into something that could be dignified, serene and yet highly functional. Large homes on serpentine streets and open areas called Long Meadows conveyed a sense of rural detachment. Yet Riverside had a town center, although it wasn’t the traditional town square. A citadel-like water tower designed by William LeBaron Jenney, one of the first architects of the skyscraper, dominated the middle of town, a powerful reminder that this was a progressive community with a safe, controlled water supply. The water tower lorded over the train station and commercial district like the turret of a baron's castle, suggesting to residents, ``you may live in the bosom of the country, but here's the symbolic feudal connection to civilized world: You're protected." Generous parks and river vistas graced the small community, which hit hard times in the aftermath of the Chicago fire in 1871 and recession in the early 1890s. As such, it was one of the first master-planned, transit-oriented developments, a concept that sorely needs revisiting as every metropolitan area grapples with traffic and sprawl today.

Olmsted stood alongside Burnham as a pillar of 19th-century urban planning. Central and Prospect Parks in New York were his gems, although he would also be known for landscaping the mammoth Vanderbilt Biltmore estate, designing a plan for Stanford University and hundreds of other parks throughout the country. Both men had grandiose, elegant ideas and could implement them with their considerable intelligence, charm and political skills. Where Olmsted was the designer with the all-embracing vision of man in the palm of nature, Burnham was the master planner, architect and promoter. With his firm Burnham and Root having designed the lion's share of the city's most famous buildings, Burnham strived to show the world a Chicago-styled glimpse of the 20th Century.

Chicago was at the vanguard of urban growth and architecture in the three decades following the great fire. In the decade prior to the fair, the skyscraper was born in the city. The production of steel beams through the Bessemer process made taller buildings possible. Before the limits on buildings supported by masonry walls was from 10 to 16 stories. Now steel skeletons and new electric elevators enabled architects to design behemoths that soared much taller. Burnham and his partner John Root had designed the forerunner to the steel-skeleton office building: the 10-story Montauk Building at the corner of Monroe and Dearborn. The first true steel-cage building was constructed by Jenney in 1885. The declining price of structural steel had made it possible for Jenney to build the Home Insurance Building and shift the weight-bearing load from thick exterior walls to the interior frame.

A rival firm captained by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler built the Auditorium building, which was a hotel, opera house and office building. It stood as the colossus in 1893. It was the tallest building in the world at the time, with its charming Tuscan-like tower and hulky stone presence lording over Congress and Michigan.

One of the young men who worked in the tower with Sullivan was his chief assistant Frank Lloyd Wright. Having a need to make more money to support his wife and six children in Oak Park, the former apprentice was to break off on his own in the year of the fair. Much to the consternation of his liebermeister Sullivan, Wright was beginning to form his own opinions on architecture and how it fit into the human sphere. In commissions with Sullivan's firm, Wright did some of the drawings and designs that employed Sullivan's idea of organic ornament. Filigrees of leaves and trees adorn Sullivan buildings. It's as if they sprang out of a meadow or forest. Wright took Sullivan's natural sensibilities further. He wanted homes and buildings to harmonize with the earth and not just depict it.

Burnham saw Wright's talent and wanted to lure him away from Sullivan, so he made a generous offer to Wright, calling his mentor Sullivan a "great decorator." Burnham promised to pay for Wright's education in the Beaux Arts school in Paris plus two additional years in Rome if he would join Burnham and Root upon his graduation.
Wright thanked "Uncle Dan" for his offer, but chose to follow his own course. "It was more than merely generous," Wright would later recall of the proposal. "It was splendid. But I was frightened. I sat embarrassed not knowing what to say."

Eventually Wright did find the words to refuse the powerful sway of Burnham's personality. He took the idea of the Japanese temple that Burnham and Olmsted had placed in the center of the fair's lagoon and created an American style of organic architecture that flaunted convention and embraced natural design at every turn. The Prairie School of Architecture would emerge a few years later, inspired by the aesthetic of that one structure.

Wright was the bridge between the neoclassical sensibilities of Burnham -- who would design American buildings as if they graced a Parisian boulevard -- and the organic insights of Sullivan. The link between Olmsted and the 20th century would be Jens Jensen, who was working up from immigrant laborer in Chicago parks to become its chief designer. Jensen expanded upon Olmsted's embrace of glorious waterscapes and meadows into something more Midwestern, bringing in native plants, flowers, trees, shrubs and bedrock. Employing his Olmsted-inspired palette, Jensen would not only have a hand in most of the great Chicago parks in the 20th century, he would do landscape designs for Henry Ford and Insull. Several of those private commissions would be in concert with Wright. It was the gentle, intuitive Jensen who would build some of Chicago's most splendid parks, believing as Wright and Olmsted did that inviting open spaces were a natural extension of democracy. Humboldt, Garfield and Douglas Parks bear his stamp as does his masterpiece the Lincoln Memorial Garden in Springfield.

Somehow in 1893, if not around that time, the collective genius of Burnham, Sullivan, Wright and Jensen coalesced. Perhaps they met at Jane Addams' Hull House on the near-West side, where there was an active Arts and Craft Society and great thinkers were invited to share their ideas. Insull joined this circle after obtaining a loan from Marshall Field to expand Chicago Edison with the backing of Robert Todd Lincoln, the influential attorney and son of the president. After the fair, Burnham, steeped in the 20th-century vision of a city with overpowering, muscular boulevards and olympian civic centers, moved onto the plan of Chicago, which was introduced in 1909. His ideas were not greeted with fanfare at first. Sullivan, supremely frustrated that modern architecture marched in lockstep with the baroque European look of Burnham, claimed the fair set America back 50 years in terms of architectural progress. Wright agreed with his former employer, yet took a fork in the road with Jensen to create an indigenous prairie style that celebrated the horizontal, broke the box of the conventional home and turned building into an art form that is still celebrated.

In contrast to Burnham's triumphal close to his career, Sullivan fell into despair, debt and alcoholism after the fair, barely able to scrape together a handful of commissions. He ended up designing florid banks in small Midwestern towns. He was almost right about the Beaux Arts school that Burnham espoused dominating American architecture for the next 50 years. Great skyscrapers, with the exception of Burnham's classic Flatiron building in New York, would look far too much like Parisian knockoffs. Wright, who helped support Sullivan in his final years, only managed to design a handful of skyscrapers, most of which were later torn down or never built, including a mile-high building for Chicago.

In 1903, the year in which Olmsted died, the utility-and-rail-tycoon-to-be Insull met Burnham on a train from New York to Chicago and exchanged pleasantries about the latest technology: horseless carriages. When they arrived in the Windy City, they shared Burnham's car for a jaunt to Evanston and "knocked a man over in Edgewater." Insull would heartily back his friend's master plan for the city in 1909 as a leading member of the Commercial Club of Chicago.

Sensible planning meant large buildings along spacious boulevards in Burnham's vision. For Insull, that meant new customers for his electrical service. When they shared that ride to Evanston, Insull had just married the coal-burning, steam turbine with a dynamo to create the first large-scale turbogenerator at his Fisk Street station, which is still running. This quantum leap in technology meant that entire cities could be powered. Every street, office and home could have clean, safe electric lights. Factories could have motors that didn't need inefficient pulleys powered by noisy steam engines. Housewives could throw away those nasty flat irons that constantly burned them. Offices could keep their workers longer and make them more productive. The modern age may have been imagined by Burnham, but it was engineered by Insull.

Like Sullivan and Wright, Burnham and Insull became friends until the end of Burnham's life in 1912. Burnham continued to build and plan, working on finishing the layout for Washington, D.C. and its Union Station. In Chicago, Burnham's firm also built Orchestra Hall, the Railway Exchange and the People's Gas Building, all still proudly shouldering each other on South Michigan Avenue. Insull later opened one of his offices in the Gas Building, but would suffer the humiliation of bankruptcy in 1932. He was acquitted of fraud in three trials in 1934.

I like to believe that these great minds spiritually met in one place: The Ho-o-Den Temple on Wooded Island in the lagoon created by Olmsted behind the Arts Building, which is now the Museum of Science and Industry. During the fair, it would have been a quiet, sylvan refuge in the middle of the bustle of the exposition. Maybe Insull then took an opportunity to sell Wright on wiring his new homes with built-in electric fixtures -- innovations artfully on display in Wright's revolutionary Robie House -- which still sits sphinx-like in disrepair a few blocks away from the island. Maybe Jensen received wisdom from Olmsted on how cities could offer relief and spiritual comfort to its huddled masses in glorious parks with palatial fieldhouses. And quite possibly social reformer Jane Addams was there to exhort the old savants and the young innovators to work together to eliminate squalor and bring natural beauty into the harsh world of the anthroscape, my word for the built environment.

I'm not sure if all of these people had communed at the same time on the same island, but what resulted is an electrified world still fighting with nature. You can still hear and feel the tension of our machine age from the island -- most of it from the din of Lake Shore Drive -- as you walk across Clarence Darrow bridge. It's now a tiny, unkempt Japanese Garden with little signage. Yet you can still feel the powerful karma in this little oasis. What transpired here was a battle between the integrated organic philosophies of Olmsted, Sullivan, Wright and Jensen and the industrial, metro-centric plans of Burnham and Insull.

The organic school's ideas may have been the most elegant, aesthetic and noble, but it was Insull's vision that prevailed; one that continues to power our modern age. It's also a powerful force that still bedevils us. Insull's technology still produces most of the power on the planet by burning coal -- at a great cost in terms of pollution and global warming. We are still searching for a way to use a clean, low-cost fuel to generate massive amounts of electricity and deliver it to where it's consumed. Maybe there is a young man or woman sitting in a school or lab today who has such an idea and can champion it the way Insull brought electricity to the masses. The river of change can flow swiftly -- if it's on course.

John F. Wasik is the author of The Merchant of Power: Samuel Insull, Thomas Edison and the Creation of the Modern Metropolis (

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Greenbuild Fact & Folly

Greenbuild is a great idea. Too bad the organizers didn't have their act together. I was there at Chicago's sprawling McCormick Place West yesterday. Combined with the other convention facilities in the complex, McCormick Place comprises the largest exhibition area on the continent -- and one of the largest buildings in the world. There's four million square feet of space. With that huge area, you would have thought that convention planners and the city would have figured out some basic things like adequate registration booths, a bigger ballroom, simulcasts and foodservice.

I feel it necessary to rant about Greenbuild's awful organization because it's such an important show and tens of thousands wanted to be there to hear some truly leading-edge minds. Sponsored by the US Green Building Council, they had four -- yes four -- pre-registration booths, all of which operated at a snail's pace. When I got there at 9am, this line stretched the entire length of the main atrium. I estimate it was at least 500 feet long. Some 22,000 people waited for hours to get in, missing Bill Clinton's and a host of other presentations that were not to be missed (more on that later). At 3pm, there was still a queue. Even if there had been more registrars, attendees wouldn't have been able to get into the grand ballroom, which was at standing-room capacity and closed down. There were overflow rooms with video simulcasts, although someone managed the technical blunder -- and this takes talent -- of broadcasting the audio before the video, which was incredibly disconcerting. Silly me, I thought this was the 21st century. Wait, it gets worse. Some of the most popular sessions were also filled to capacity, but provided NO overflow simulcasts, so attendees who had paid to get into the show were literally shut out of the presentations.

Shame on the USGBC, which I hold in awe for its LEED program, for blowing the logistics of this show. That's the extent of my rant. Whoever managed the show and planned pathetically inadequate food service should be sweeping streets. The city of Chicago, which didn't run the show, can do much better with this world-class venue. If not, hello Las Vegas and Orlando, two repulsive towns vying -- and taking -- Chicago's convention business.

Here are the highlights:

* Bill Clinton announced a series of initiatives to "green" commercial buildings and schools. He had a passel of people on stage with him to launch the program for his foundation. "We can do this," said the charismatic former president, "and there's a tremendous economic opportunity here." Bravo for Bubba! Where was Al Gore? All he does is win an Oscar and Nobel Prize and he was nowhere in sight. What's he doing to actually stem global warming? Clinton got GE Real Estate, school boards, teacher's unions and a host of other groups on board to actually do something. It's a win-win situation for everyone and has almost nothing to do with his wife's presidential campaign. Well, maybe something, but that's a rant for another day.

* The Exhibition Floor. It was disappointing, dominated by mainstream flooring and fixture companies like Kohler and Armstrong. Kohler makes any number of fixtures to save water, although most of what they sell are designed to make you consume as much water as possible. Notable for their absence (except for Kyocera) were the major solar panel and heating companies, which are making major inroads into lowering their production costs. Why isn't our Congress doing what Japan, Germany and most of Europe have done by offering juicy incentives to put solar on every rooftop in America? There was no mention of the energy/climate change bills snaking through Congress at GreenBuild (write your Congressman now). But the news on solar is good and getting better.

Here's a piece that ran on Bloomberg News today:

By Christopher Martin Nov. 8 (Bloomberg) -- First Solar Inc., a Phoenix-basedpower-module maker, climbed as much as 38 percent afterreporting a 10-fold increase in third-quarter profit on highersales of its thin-film photovoltaic panels. First Solar rose as much as $62.88 to $230 and was up 37percent at 11:11 a.m. on the Nasdaq Stock Market, valuing thecompany at $17.8 billion. The earnings statement was releasedafter the close of regular U.S. trading yesterday. The companyfirst sold shares at $20 on Nov. 6, 2006.

``This is an amazing growth story that nobody reallyexpected would go this far,'' said John Hardy, an analyst atAmerican Technology Research in Greenwich, Connecticut, whoraised his price target on the stock today to $230 from $114.``The most positive signal was the cost reductions, which reallyimproved their gross margins in a way that looks sustainable forthe next couple years.''

Solar power demand, driven by government incentives in Germany, Spain and California, has increased 40 percent annuallyover the past four years. In the 25 states that requireincreased use of renewable energy, solar power has become thefirst major alternative to wind turbines. Third-quarter net income climbed to $46 million, or 58cents a share, from $4.29 million, or 7 cents, a year earlier,the company said. Sales more than tripled to $159 million. Thecompany was expected to earn 19 cents a share, the average ofnine analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg.

Low-Cost Photovoltaics

``We believe low-cost PV represents an attractive solutionfor regulated utilities,'' Chief Executive Officer MichaelAhearn said on a conference call yesterday. ``First Solar isseeking opportunities to open new markets that are not dependenton the level of subsidies that traditionally have supported thePV industry.'' Second-generation technologies, like First Solar's thin-film process that uses less refined silicon, will reduce coststo where it may be cheaper than getting electricity fromutilities in the next four years, executives and analysts say. Gains made by First Solar, which sells its modules to 12suppliers of solar panels for rooftop and larger land-basedsystems, has helped raise the outlook for other solarmanufacturers.

SunPower Corp. the largest supplier of panels inCalifornia, rose $15.45, or 11 percent, to $160.45. EvergreenSolar Inc. jumped $3.40, or 25 percent, to $17.05. Suntech PowerHoldings Co. gained $7.98, or 12 percent, to $72.78.

Falling Costs

First Solar's average production cost dropped 17 percent to$1.15 per watt in the third quarter from $1.39 in the secondquarter as it increased output, Chief Financial Officer JensMeyerhoff said yesterday on the call with analysts andinvestors. The cost will be cut by up to 50 percent by 2012. The company plans to make panels that can generate as muchas 390 megawatts next year from about 200 megawatts this year,Meyerhoff said. Solar module efficiency, or the amount of sunlightconverted into electricity, rose to 10.5 percent in the thirdquarter, up from 9.7 percent in the previous quarter.

* Speakers. There were some great presentations on green homes and communities. Douglas Farr of Park Associates blew the roof off with his new approach to designing communities so that you don't need cars. Much of his philosophy is based on New Urbanism, but he takes it a step further by plotting pedestrian "cool spots" and re-orienting foot traffic to popular destinations. Check out his work. You're going to be hearing more from him and his group.

So what can I take away from Greenbuild? First, the planners need to be less anal about on-site registration and let attendees print badges on their own computers. Then ask them to recycle them. Second, either book bigger halls or offer multiple presentations of the same sessions. Some of the rooms were literally packed to the brim with every seat filled and people standing outside. There's no excuse for this.

There also should be some lobbying aspect to the event. Without a doubt, most of the speakers were preaching to the choir, a group that could be mobilized to get some important energy legislation passed. Those 20,000-plus people can make a huge difference in getting higher mileage standards, bigger solar incentives and new green building codes passed through that lumbering beast called Congress. Greenbuild's next venue is in Boston next November. The world can't wait that long for what needs to be done to "green" the world economy.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Book Proposal on Green Home Building

Some of the best-laid plans run into the buzzsaw of economic reality. I had started to write a book on green building last year and had hoped to find a publisher for it this fall. Then the housing market bubble exploded. Now people are much more worried about selling their home or retaining its value than environmental concerns. That's life.

So here's the proposal for the book that lays out my manifesto on green homes. Not only should they create their own energy and conserve resources, green of "ecodynamic" homes should be parts of communities that are connected to public transportation and use resources wisely. I live in a place that aspires to do that now: Prairie Crossing. It's a conservation community without a single solar panel, though. As I've written before, the economics of ecology have to align with good intentions, and that hasn't happened yet.

In any case, if you're a publisher and like what you see, let me know. I'm at I've traveled from Florida to Northern California to research this book. I'm hoping to see it in print one day. If you're looking for more conventional advice on home buying and selling, see my weekly column at

If you just want to learn about how my family and I live in a conservation community, skip down through the proposal to the sample chapter. There's quite a bit of biographical information there. I also outline my ideas on an ideal green home and community.

Home in the World:
Why American Homes and Communities Must Be Reinvented to Avert Ecocide

By John F. Wasik
Author, The Merchant of Power

A book proposal

Our energy- and resource-consuming culture will have to be rethought and reinvented if we're to survive on this planet. Few sentient people disagree with this statement.
But conventional thinking on how to reduce energy and resource consumption, make the suburban lifestyle sustainable and stem global warming issues on a daily basis is obsolete. And the 2 million homes that are built annually using the finest in 19th-century technology are not only hallmarks of eco-obsolescence, they are big contributors to the overall problem. The vast majority of houses and the communities in which they are built have become untenable in a global environmental, economic and community sense.

Why change? Are there barbarians at the gate? Are we suffering catastrophic climate events described in the movie The Day After? Countless scientists tell us we don't have much time left to stem our wasteful, carbon-spewing ways. Global warming has hit home in myriad ways and each of us needs to contribute to the solution. The "inconvenient truth" of climate change is staring us in the face with each new headline. An even more unpalatable -- and uncomfortable -- truth is that our homes and communities are at the center of what needs to change.

Global Warming's Harsh Evidence

A recent U.S. Department of Defense study says that previous estimates of climate change are understated. It's may be much worse than we think.

A massive heat wave swept through the entire country and electricity use hit an all-time high with power outages from St. Louis to New York this past summer. Fossil records and ice samples suggest our current era is the warmest it's been in 12,000 years. Polar bears are drowning because their icy habitat has melted. Only three years ago, more than 50,000 died as Europe experienced the hottest summer in half a millennium. The Greenland ice sheet is melting and will cause ocean levels to rise. Ironically, U.S. utility giants have united with consumer energy groups to form a coalition to prevent the building of power plants and focus on conservation. Gasoline and crude oil also hit record highs.

Homes are prolific energy consumers. More energy use means more global warming gases are pumped into the atmosphere. Natural gas usage, for example, also hit a record high at the nadir of the heating season because so much of the commodity is being burned to produce electricity. Meanwhile, the energy industry's top experts are saying that oil and gas production may have peaked and an increased combustion of coal from China to Pennsylvania is not only fueling global warming, it's poisoning the air we breath. This can't go on. The revolution that needs to take place to stem climate change must begin in the heart of American homes and communities.
Aggravated by sprawling metroscapes, energy-intensives lifestyles can change to become more renewable. But it will take massive personal and social commitments to change our households and communities. It starts with the Great American Dream: the home itself, a prodigious consumer of gas, oil, electricity, water and resources.

When the U.S. consumes one-fifth of the world's energy and creates one-third of the world's total greenhouse gases, everyone on the planet feels the impact. Much of what's wrong with the way we live is centered in the way our homes and communities operate. We drive too much. Our homes and lifestyles are energy gluttons. That results in the climate-changing carbon dioxide emissions, something that may be responsible for 150,000 deaths a year. Can it all be blamed on the American hometown? Certainly our energy-intensive way of life has something to do with it. And it's clear we need ecodynamic change that impacts a number of systems at once. What better place to start than in our homes? We've reached an ecodyne, an ecological tipping point that demands that we act soon to avoid global catastrophes.

A Book About Change

Why choose the American home and community as a wellspring for change? Buildings alone consume 30 percent of the energy used in the U.S., which consumes 25 percent of total global energy resources resulting in roughly that amount of carbon emissions. Combined with transportation-intensive lifestyles, the lion's share of resources can be conserved and renewed. It's a tall order, but one that can start one household at a time.

I'll take readers on an odyssey that starts in my own home and community and show them the history of the American home and metroscape. Along the way, I'll explore the thoughts and creations of such geniuses such as Thomas Jefferson, Frank Lloyd Wright and Jens Jensen and show how they seeded – and often failed – in integrating the anthroscape (man-made environment) into the gaiascape (natural environment). This is a personal narrative that starts and ends in my home, yet encompasses architecture, history, social criticism, urban planning, energy engineering and travelogues.

Readers will meet pioneers like Jeff Christian and Rosario Milana, who are dedicating their careers to bringing zero-energy homes to the masses. They'll gain insights from builder-developers like Perry Bigelow, who have a powerful spiritual vision of how to rebuild seminal suburbs. Along the way, they'll gain insights into what some of the greatest minds in architecture, urban planning and landscaping have discovered in trying to create "garden cities" and ``green homes.''

I derive my inspiration not only from researching this subject over the past 30 years and traveling more than 100,000 miles to nearly every major city in 48 states in search of ecological progress, but a wealth of new knowledge from people ranging from my own neighbors to government researchers, builders, politicians, clergy, philosophers, economists and dreamers throughout North America. I'll explore the New Urbanism and Smart Growth movements, which combine downsizing with an aesthetic sense of old, high-density community building. Readers will see renewal efforts in the South Side of Chicago, where there are 10,000 vacant lots in poor neighborhoods, and builders who are combining energy-producing technology in new communities to create the zero-energy home. It's a movement rooted not only in environmentalism, but touches upon housing affordability, urban renewal, economic sustainability, design, renewability and personal finance.

My Commitment

After having written several books on the relationship between environment and consumption in the 1990s, I can report some remarkable progress. At last, Western societies have gone beyond piecemeal approaches such as recycling to reinventing entire systems such as homebuilding and urban planning. Although the new paradigm thinking has roots reaching back into the middle 19th-century, the ecodynamic process is in full flower as energy and global warming issues dominate our future.
More importantly, I am writing this book because I believe in the power of new ideas and progressive change. What does all this have to do with the American home? Because where and how we live is at the center of the American progressive philosophy, we need to re-examine it, perhaps discard it and rebuild it. A man's home is his castle, the old saw goes. Yet we need to come down from the parapet of our self-centered existence to see what we're doing to ourselves and our planet.
I'll take readers back to the origins of modern Enlightenment-influenced, Eurocentric North American culture and how it cultivated unsustainability at its start. I journeyed to Charlottesville, Virginia, to examine the unique and perilous vision of Thomas Jefferson. I've explored mammoth American cities like New York, Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, Portland and Minneapolis. Along the way, I traveled coast-to-coast several times, along the way climbing Mayan pyramids in the Yucatan to the new pyramids in New York, Toronto, Houston, Memphis, Portland, Seattle and Chicago. All told, I've logged more than a 100,000 miles to show you the uniquely American developments in the man-made, natural, political, information and intangible environments. I'll profile the movers and shakers in each sphere, target where change is happening and paint a picture of a progressive future.

Not only do I tell specific stories about people who are change agents, but networks that multiply these progressive ideas and action agendas throughout the world. Because of the power of infinite nodes in a global knowledge network mushrooming in cyberspace, positive change can occur on an exponential scale. I'll look at the people behind bio-energy, zero-energy homes, self-produced power and sustainable community building. From Miami to Seattle, I've traveled the continent to explore the great leaders in the Ecodynamic movement.

I will go beyond the headlines and examine different pieces of the ecological world view. It will involve much more than Brad Pitt calling for ``green housing'' in New Orleans and Newsweek doing a cover story on green buying. I will show how suburbia is being reinvented and recreated, how transportation can be made more efficient and how the entire country can adopt a plan that works that integrates education, energy/land/resource use, political action and community building.

Why our Metroscape Is Imperiled: Some Myths

When you peel back the mythology upon which our lifestyle is based, some unpleasant realities emerge. Our entire way of life is built a lifestyle that's centered on energy- and resource-intensive homes and communities. It's a surprisingly fragile way to live, but most of us can't see it. You can't truly be ``at home'' in the world if you believe that our consumption of resources is infinite or our use of energy doesn't need to be curtailed and cleaned up. If you take a look at the truth behind these assumptions, it's clear that massive change is needed.
Cheap energy, water and land have been fueling the expansion of our metroscape since Europeans arrived on this continent. Long regarded as abundant and infinitely available commodities, that will no longer be the case as more than 6.5 billion people compete for ever-scarcer resources. These are the major fallacies that underlie our distorted view of the world and must change the way our homes run:

* There's Plenty of Oil to Go Around to Feed Our Homes and Cars. The world's petroleum producers are pumping 84 million barrels of crude a day and consuming about that much. By 2010, experts agree that the most accessible oil will be gone for good. While there may be trillions of barrels in the ground, it's in places where it's expensive and environmentally damaging to pump out – the tundra, shale deposits, deep ocean beds, etc. With the tumult in the Middle East and huge demand coming from developing Asian countries, prices are not likely to drop down to the lows of the mid-1980s. This means that everything from cars to plastics will rise in price and every manufacturing and energy process will have to focus on greener source fuels or a raft of alternatives. Much of the move away from the petroleum economy is pure lip service. More drastic changes are needed as alternative sources of energy will take decades to come on line. Meanwhile, shopping malls may be abandoned, mega-subdivisions will lie empty. Peak oil and gas production means many, draconian changes, but it doesn't have to be traumatic if we change the way our homes and lifestyles consume energy. As long as American consume 26 barrels of oil per year (versus 12 for Europeans), the consumption spiral will be out of control. The era of the SUV lifestyle may be over. Aggravating this vehicle-oriented lifestyle is the fact that more people are moving farther from cities just to be able to afford homes. These so-called "extreme commuters'' contribute to traffic nightmares, sprawl and, of course, global warming.

* There's Plenty of Home Power to Go Around. New records were set for electricity use in July and August last year, but there isn't enough power to supply the skyrocketing demand of plasma TVs, home computers, track lighting and Sub-Zero refrigerators. New and remodeled American homes consume more power than ever, yet the electrical infrastructure is outdated and there aren't enough clean power plants to fulfill the need. Buildings themselves, from apartments to skyscrapers, are largely energy hogs and never designed to conserve power. Some 80% of them were built before 1980. Each home can be redesigned and retrofitted to conserve power and produce its own energy. That's where we need to start.

* There's Plenty of Food to Go Around. Moving food in North America is labor intensive and inefficient. Most food travels at least 1,000 miles before it reaches its destination. A single calorie of iceberg lettuce consumes 36 calories of energy to get from the fields of California to the East Coast. If cheap energy is no longer part of the equation, food will be more expensive to transport and become less plentiful. Another salvo to turn Midwestern cornfields into "the Saudi Arabia of ethanol" will further diminish the food supply by turning some of the most fertile farmland in the world into energy factories. Homes can be made to produce food much more efficiently. The technology is nothing new, but we have to integrate food production into every community.

* Asia Will Never Catch Up to Us. What will happen if 3.5 billion people in developing Asian countries garner the economic wealth to drive as many cars, generate as much electricity (using fossil fuels), use as much land and pollute as much as the U.S., which already uses 25 percent of the world's energy output? It won't be a pretty outcome for any of us. If the Chinese buy three cars for every four people – the average in the U.S. today – it will have 1.1 billion cars. That's in addition to the 800 million vehicles on the roads today. It would take 99 million barrels of oil a day to power those cars, versus about 84 million barrels produced at peak capacity today. And China will have to build roads, highways and parking on the equivalent of all of the land it now uses to cultivate rice. And this is just China, and talks nothing of the pollution and resource depletion this will create. This book looks at the alternatives that can be created here and exported to the Third World. No one on the planet can afford for Asia to adopt the wasteful ``me-too'' consumption of the West. We can start the ecodyne rolling by reinventing our homes, streets, highways and transportation.

* Water Is Plentiful. Not a surprise to anyone living in the Southwestern U.S., this largely off-the-radar problem is plaguing big metropolitan areas like Atlanta and Denver. Western cities, which have been fighting for water for decades, will again renew their skirmishes, this time fighting with mega-farms in the California breadbasket. More than 36 states will have water shortages within the next seven years, yet homes with verdant lawns and gardens waste water prodigiously. The water shortage crisis is a worldwide problem – the world has a finite amount of it -- although most environmentalists largely focus on global warming and pollution. China alone is adding 15 million people to cities every year and is severely short of water because most of its major watersheds are polluted. While most demographers look at the massive populations of China and India in terms of overpopulation and water crises, there will be 400 million souls in the U.S. by 2040. With the exception of a handful of cities, most of the highest-growth metroscapes are water challenged. Overall, water problems will be worsened by global warming. Last year alone, 45 percent of the contiguous US was in moderate to extreme drought, according to NOAA, the US government agency monitoring climatic conditions daily. This book will take an incisive look at the growing depletion of a truly essential resource.

* Land Is There for the Taking. Millions of arable acres are being devoured by developers every year, a disproportionate land grab that's far exceedingly population growth. While North America has plenty of land to support population projections, much of this development is occurring in places where water and energy are scarce. Irreplaceable farmland and topsoil are being lost forever. I will highlight new movements that are reshaping land use, urban planning and development. While the picture is certainly not bright in developing countries, where millions of acres are being burned or plowed under for farming, ranching or urban growth, North America is gaining a more enlightened attitude on land preservation. Over the last six years, more than $27 billion was set aside by American voters for land conservation with a 77 percent approval rate at the ballot box. This is a powerful, growing movement that rarely gets attention, although I'll highlight this part of the Ecodynamic movement in my book.

* Natural Gas Supply Is Plentiful to Heat and Power Our Homes. Not only is petroleum likely to hit peak production within the next 10 years, there's a more pressing concern with natural gas, which is in such short supply in North America that it needs to be imported. It will take years to fully build the infrastructure to do this and it's a dangerous and costly business. Few cities want the danger and potential terrorist targets of liquified natural gas terminals. Since most of the fertilizer produced in the world also comes from natural gas, this is an acute problem for agriculture. Most homes in the U.S. are heated by natural gas, which is in such short supply largely because we are burning it to produce electricity during peak consumption times. I will examine alternatives to this growing problem, including homes that produce their own heat.

* There's Plenty of Money and Credit to Go Around to Finance Our Homes. Every day, the U.S. borrows $1 billion to finance its energy habit. Asian countries buy that debt and hold their foreign reserves in dollars. What if these lenders decided to stop buying our debt or start dumping the U.S. Treasury bonds they own? To date, they haven't done so, instead choosing to export cheap commodities and provide even more credit. Since the lion's share of wasteful, ecologically unsound development is financed by debt and tax breaks, in an environment of rising energy costs and interest rates, this can't continue. My book will show that there's a profound new way of linking ecology and economics, one that focuses on life quality and can be measured.

The Birth of The Ecodynamic Home or E-Home

What we do in North America disproportionately impacts the rest of the world. We have the freedom to invent things, profit from them and spread them around the planet. I don't regard myself as a cock-eyed optimist, utopian, or burned-out product of the 1960s. I'm a pragmatic progressive, an economic realist and someone who sees personal ecology as not just a philosophy, but a utilitarian worldview. We're all part of the web of life and can destroy it all too easily. Nobody's stopping us from creating practical and profitable ecodynamic systems that any country can use. We need a blueprint, a home blueprint, that's modular and can be built or customized anywhere. The developing world clearly needs our ideas the way we need their human capital.
Most importantly, this book will give readers the tools to reduce their own household impacts on global warming. My final chapters show readers how to take direct action in reducing their "carbon footprint" and show how their personal ecological contributions will help people in the developing world. It all comes home to roost and we can all participate in ecodynamic change in a personal way.


Introduction: Why the World Needs the Ecodynamic Home. I lay out my blueprint for change, one that is ecodynamic and considers all realms of our culture and environment from the perspective of the American home.

I. My Home: Prairie Crossing and the Building of a Renewable Community. I start out literally where I live – a conservation community north of Chicago. This personal look at one of the nation's experiments in new urbanist developments takes the reader deep into the myriad dilemmas of the best use of land, resources and energy. As the first leg of my odyssey, I show how my community is trying to make a difference, yet is immersed in some of the most trenchant problems of modern life -- an energy-intensive home and lifestyle that can be changed for the better.

II. Jamestown, Jefferson and Manifest Destiny: How the Big Home and Land Grab Tainted the American Dream. Where did this idea of infinite land and resources come from? It developed as soon as Europeans were able to exploit the natural wealth of North America and continues to this day. The narrative continues with a critical, historical tour from Jamestown to Jefferson, profiling a vision of America and how the American Dream became firmly rooted in the homestead and domicile. The ecological examination of the American experience moves into urban planning from the Garden City movement to the post-World War II expansion of suburbs. With the creation of the megalopolis – built on the concept of cheap energy and land – the man-made environment or Anthroscape, accelerates a head-long collision with the Gaiascape. This section lays the groundwork for the specific ecodynamic ideas in the following chapters. I show how the American home evolved to consume less land, but more energy and resources, especially in the creation of the suburbs and the legacy it's created.

III. The Organic Home and City: How Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and Jens Jensen married Home and Cities with Nature. At several points in American history, there were visionaries who thought the home and community could be successfully integrated with nature. This chapter examines how these ideas came about and communities like Riverside, Illinois, where they took shape. This section shows how a handful of visionaries had profound impacts on how homes and landscapes were created, although many of their best ideas were ignored or fell out of fashion. Although leapfrogged by massive suburban growth, the organic home concept is a useful one with which to address the renewability of home and communities. The chapter looks at some of the key ideas behind Sullivan, Wright and Jensen and how they inform us today as we struggle with gargantuan ex-urban sprawl. Much of it was born in Chicago, where I will be profiling several seminal sites and events in the history of the American home. I'll also visit the vibrant community that spawned Frank Lloyd Wright and examine a little-known "solar hemicycle" home he built in the 1930s when he was considering doing manufactured housing. Adjacent to Wright's revolutionary home is a new urbanist community that seeks to perpetuate some of the master architect's ideals. From the modern era, I examine the creation of suburbia in one of the first, planned post-World War II communities, Park Forest, Illinois, and how it became a template for several environmental benefits and drawbacks.

IV. The Zero-Energy Home: Houses that Produce Power and Directly Address Global Warming. From the organic and conventional wisdom of tract-home heaven to the ecodynamic, I leapfrog through history to what can be done today. This section will examine how the modern home can be completely re-invented to accommodate ecodynamic principles and produce its own energy. I examine the total redesign of the home that will eventually lead to entire communities of "zero-energy" homes that create their own energy and have little impact on the Gaiascape. I will also show how the ecodynamic network of change is completely restructuring ideas on how we should live in a truly sustainable manner and builders and scientists who want to build entire communities of zero-energy houses. I will profile the revolutionary work of people like Jeff Christian, who is developing a holistic concept of a home that cuts outsides energy requirements to zero in some cases and throws out old ideas on how American homes should be built. This section will highlight some of his exciting ideas and look at the kind of home that could dominate the future. I will visit and profile some zero-energy homes from California to Florida and show how they can reshape our environmental future.

V. The Soul of the Zero-Energy Home: Inside Its Revolutionary Design. In this chapter, I continue the examination of a home that produces it own energy by detailing its inner workings. I will discuss specifics on photovoltaic/solar heating, lighting, window, wall insulation, appliances, foundation, roof, cooling and water conversation systems. All of these components are integrated into a house that produces/saves energy, conserves resources and reduces its ``carbon footprint'' and may even be ``carbon neutral'' during certain times of the year. This section will explore the concept of the ecodynamic home, one that interacts and responds to the environment to produce and retain energy and water and may be capable of recycling its own waste. It's truly a revolutionary concept that could change the way we live and reduce our burden on the planet.

VI. Resistance to the Revolution: Why Ecodynamic Homes Aren't Being Built. The economics of these homes, once they are built, are astoundingly beneficial. But builders still cling to the idea that few homebuyers will want them, much less pay a premium for items like solar appliances. Advances in technology and modular design are increasingly tilting the economic equation in the favor of mass production. I will discuss how this formula is changing and how these homes can become the standard models for future development. This section will take a hard look at the often-unfavorable economics of ecodynamic homes and how that formula is changing. Builders, economists, architects and environmentalists will be featured.

VII. Homes Everywhere: How to Fix Sprawl. This chapter looks at the unique history of the American suburban home and how it brought cheap housing, larger lots and endless highways to the American metroscape. Readers will see the re-development of the first centrally planned suburb (Park Forest) and witness its revival and spiritual renewal in the guise of Legacy Square, an energy-efficient development in the heart of the town. The chapter will dismiss a number of myths about sprawl and look at some of the alternative visions presented through the New Urbanist movement, which seeks to revive the small-town, high-density layout. This section explains why re-inventing the American home isn't enough -- entire communities must be rethought with consideration for transportation, amenities, social activities and energy conservation.

VIII. The Renewable Home in the City: How Inner-City Communities Can be Reinvented. There's little question that there's a huge need for renewable and affordable housing within cities. This section shows how cities are being revived through the innovative design of homes and developments within neighborhoods. Readers will witness the rebuilding of a blighted area of South Chicago, where steel mills used to dominate a working-class neighborhood that is the site of a new megadevelopment, nature park and energy-producing urban homes. Largely focusing on renewing the city through affordable, efficient housing, this chapter will highlight the pioneering work that's being done by people like Rosario Milana, who wants to rebuild places like the blighted West Side of Chicago with energy-producing homes that can be assembled in a week.

IX. Leaving Home: Renewable Transportation that Works. No community can be ecodynamic if you can't get there and back without spewing tons of carbon dioxide and other poisons. Rather than condemn sprawl and car-crazed suburban life, this chapter embraces the concept with surprising new alternatives for transportation. Concentrating on the home as the center of transportation, this section will show how vehicles can be integrated into the home's power system. This means that cars can not only be emission-free, but the home itself will be generating power for the vehicle in many cases. Better yet, typical tract homes that represent ``garages with attached homes,'' can become part of mass transportation networks and short trips to local retail, commerce or office locations can be fueled by solar energy that renewable homes produce themselves. I will profile the new mode of suburban transportation that favors ``transit-oriented development'' and a new generation of electric cars that can be powered cheaply and produce no emissions.

X. Personal Ecology: Applying Carbon Footprinting to Household and Community Lifestyles. I will outline the importance of doing "carbon footprints" for home and transportation energy consumption and give specific pieces of advice on how to make the mundane aspects of life more renewable and rewarding. Readers will be able to see how they could personally change their energy-intensive lifestyles to make a difference in a number of significant ways to reduce pollution and carbon emissions. Most of the surprisingly effective items center on their use of home and transportation.

XI. Massive Global Change A Home at a Time: Why Reinventing the North American Home is in the World's Best Interest. Closing with the powerful theme of personal ecology writ large, I show how my home – and anyone's household – can make a difference in helping the environment here and abroad. I extend the promise of the ecodynamic home to widespread environmental problems that can be addressed in the developing world.


This non-fiction, mainstream narrative will appeal to a wide audience of readers who enjoy authors like Michael Lewis, Eric Schlosser, Malcolm Gladwell and Jared Diamond. Those who buy environmental, business/management, social criticism, historical, architectural and general-interest titles would buy this book. Although the book will delve into urban planning, architecture, transportation, energy and environmental subjects, I see it as a general-interest trade title that would be of great interest to those who need to know about real estate, development, business trends, economics, urban history, architecture and finance. I project that business readers would be my primary audience much in the same way they were attracted to Malcolm Gladwell's Blink and The Tipping Point.
The readers of this book will be committed ``cultural creatives'' who want to take action on environmental responsibility and global warming. They have likely seen or read Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, participate in environmental activities, camp, hike, bike, jog, birdwatch and donate money to progressive social organizations. Politically, they tend to be progressive or moderate. They buy organic produce, recycle, garden and own hybrid autos. They may even be activists and academics.
The most well-known work in this area has been authored by James Howard Kunstler. This stinging critic of suburbia has written three books that are at the center of this genre – The Long Emergency (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005); Home From Nowhere (Simon & Schuster, 1996) and The Geography of Nowhere (Free Press, 1994). His most recent book falls into the genre of catastrophe tomes. My book will focus less on overt criticism and more on pragmatic solutions to the sprawl problem as well as providing detailed profiles on the leaders behind the most progressive ideas and communities. The middle book in his ``sprawl'' series Home from Nowhere, superficially profiles the New Urbanism movement, but doesn't explore demographic trends, the housing bubble or highly-efficient homes. The last book forecasts an energy crisis. I will delve into these subjects with the latest insights into real estate markets, tax policy and new building technologies.
Architects who've published works in this area include Peter Calthorpe and Andres Duany, whose work and books have been well noted, although not all that visible in the mainstream media. Unlike these aforementioned books that have a critical or urban-planning focus, my book will employ a holistic overview that includes specific details on how homes can be built with the latest in energy-producing/conserving technologies and new policies. My book will also address the no-less-important issues of housing affordability and urban revitalization.
The title can be promoted effectively through my extensive media network, business magazines, newspapers, radio, television and internet campaigns. There are a dozens of planning, environmental and architectural groups that would be interested in bulk sales. Groups such as the Congress for New Urbanism, American Institute of Architects and American Planning Association would be bulk-sale prospects. Nearly every environmental and urban planning group will be interested in this book as it will present their stories, struggles and successes.
This book can be promoted through a targeted media campaign and lecture tour. This book would also serve as a source for a documentary on public television, cable or direct DVD.

About the Author

My latest book is The Merchant of Power, an epic tale of the life and times of Samuel Insull, the Chicago utilities magnate from the 1920s. Studs Terkel called the book "not only personally enthralling but an informal history of that traumatic time.'' The book tells the story of how the modern metropolis was created through the broad distribution of electricity and rapid transit systems. The book was one of only 26 books reviewed annually by The New York Times Sunday business section. It was also featured in The Chicago Sun-Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Boston Globe, Washington Times, Arizona Star, Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, Ft. Myers News-Enterprise, The State (Columbia, SC) and dozens of other papers throughout the U.S. Fortune Magazine named it to their 2006 Summer Reading List. I also promoted the book on NPR's Marketplace Radio, PBS (Nightly Business Report), WOR and WGN.

The award-winning author of 10 books, I've spoken to crowds from coast to coast on investing, retirement and social issues. Three of my books have been on environmental topics. In addition to being a journalist, teacher, author, speaker and musician, I am an active environmentalist and community activist.

As personal finance columnist for Bloomberg News, the world's third-largest news service, my columns reach 400 newspapers on five continents and have appeared in The Financial Times, International Herald-Tribune, Washington Post, Orange County Register and other papers in Canada, Europe, Japan, South America and Africa.

I've won 18 awards for my columns and investigative reporting, including the National Press Club award for Consumer Journalism. I've also contributed to Reader’s Digest, The New York Times, Modern Maturity, Parade, Smart Money, Popular Science, Health, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, Barron’s, The Chicago Tribune and other papers.

My books include:
The Merchant of Power (2006)
The Bear-Proof Investor (Owl, 2002)
The Kitchen-Table Investor (Holt, 2001)
Retire Early and Live the Life You Want Now (Holt, 2000)
The Late-Start Investor (Holt, 1999)
The Green Company Resource Guide (NCI, 1997)
The Investment Club Book (Warner, 1996)
Green Marketing & Management: A Global Perspective (Blackwell, 1996)
The Green Supermarket Shopping Guide (Warner, 1995)
The Electronic Business Information Sourcebook (Wiley, 1987)

I've appeared on NBC, NPR, PBS, CNBC, MSNBC, CNN, CNNfn, WGN, Marketplace Radio, Bloomberg TV/Radio and on hundreds of TV and radio stations across the country.

I earned my B.A. (psychology) and M.A. (communications) from the University of Illinois-Chicago and reside north of Chicago with my wife and two daughters.

Sample Chapter

My Home

The sienna glow erupted from the burning prairie like an aurora. My neighbors were at it again with the help of a crew of professional fire-starters, known in our circle as ``restoration ecologists doing a managed burn.'' This was not a scene out of Fahrenheit 451, however. My community was burning the prairie sections of our community's open space, something we do every year to keep out invasive weeds and restore the native forbs and grasses that thrive after the burnings, the way natural fires and Native Americans applied their restorative powers over the past 10,000 years. Great blue herons, fresh from fishing in the lake nearby, squawk indignantly as the see the searing flames approaching. They flap their long, silken wings, lift their spindly legs and glide away in a huff. Patches of big bluestem, joe pye weed, goldenrod and dropseed whirl in the miniature cyclones created by the upswirl of heat and smoke. My neighbors gather on the streets, in backyards and watch through their back windows as the autumn sky is a miasma of color and convection. It's a strangely controlled fury of intense light, flame and horrible possibility.

This is not your ordinary subdivision; this is one of the many ways we amuse ourselves while we renew and protect the land around us. It may seem counterintuitive in a community dedicated to land conservation to scorch the landscape, but then so many things are in Prairie Crossing, one of the first New Urbanist developments in the U.S., a place still struggling to find its identity. We burn the prairie in order to nurture it. Yet we have homes that consume inordinate amounts of energy, plugged into the ``grid'' of power plants that contribute mightily to global warming. While our dedicated residents contribute a portion of their home's sale price to the local conservation group and are environmentally conscious, some think little of driving gas-guzzling Hummers and run every electric appliance you can imagine. In the quest to be ahead of the curve on environmental awareness, we are stunningly average in our consumption patterns.
Despite our many contradictions, when I look out my back window or front door I see the verdant promise of hope.

I live in a Northern Illinois community that advocates change on a daily basis, although like most places in America, it's slow in coming. At the core is a working organic farm where we can buy our vegetables. We have the only community-owned windmill producing electricity for the farm – one that I helped build -- conserve land around the development for eternity, are connected to open greenspaces, a trail system and have two train stations that connect us to downtown Chicago and other suburbs.

Our homes are designed to be more energy-stingy than average suburban dwellings. We can even compost our kitchen waste, which is picked up on Monday, to make organic fertilizer and produce bio-diesel fuel from cooking oil. Our main, man-made lake, named after the great conservationist Aldo Leopold, is so pristine from water filtered by surrounding, functioning wetlands, we regularly swim in it during the summer. It's one of the cleanest bodies of water in a county that will burgeon to nearly 500,000 people within the next decade or so. In an ecological connection to the rest of the world, most of our storm water filters through three lakes (one of which shelters endangered fish species), then into a creek that flows into the Des Plaines River, which eventually joins the Illinois, Mississippi and Gulf of Mexico. We also try to restrict the amount and toxicity of our lawn treatments.

Our little paradise is brimming with ideas like a tree bursting with fruit. We have a community barn that hosts everything from concerts to weddings. Our organic farm a block away from my home, run by my neighbors Peg and Matt Schaeffer, has had many shaky starts, but seems to be on a sound footing as three new greenhouses are in place and they find new markets for their organic food. A special Montessori school and learning farm tie into the many sustainable agriculture projects going on there. For those who don't grow food in their yards, there's a community plot next to the pig house, goat pen and horse barn where my daughter Sarah grooms and rides our neighbor's feisty pony Norman.

Across from my front yard is an open area better known as the "fire pit." Once a month and sometimes on impromptu occasions such as the winter and summer solstice, we gather before the bonfire, roasting marshmallows, making s'mores, drink beer and exchange stories. Even though a bonfire is not doing global warming any favors, it serves as a communal focal point. Our community has often been ridiculed by the relatively conservative towns beyond our borders, which is a source of amusement for us in the "collective."


Our utopia is not without imperfections. We are struggling with how to make all of our activities environmentally sound. Many of them, like our monthly bonfire, will never make a list of environmentally sound practices. Although the developers of Prairie Crossing did a noble deed in preserving hundreds of acres of open land around us, they declined to use active or passive solar technology in any of their homes and commercial buildings. Our three charter school structures use geothermal heating systems, daylighting, sustainable materials and conserve water, but they are far from state of the art. They don't produce a watt of electricity.

The Prairie Crossing houses have had construction defects and leak more air through windows and doors than they should, considering that they were part of the energy-efficient "Building America" program. My roof vents leaked, for example, and eventually blew off because they weren't nailed down. None of the 300-plus homes uses real passive solar construction nor is there a single solar panel or windmill on any home.

The hardest reality about the unsustainability of my community may be the economic stress in the community. Since there's little or no retail, commercial and industrial tax base around us, we pay dearly in property taxes. Our 2,100 square-foot home has a $9,000 annual tax bill that climbs nearly every year. Some of my neighbors are paying up to $15,000 a year. These bills are felt especially deeply in our household since we homeschool our two daughters. It's a constant source of anguish and economic strife around here since we seem to be surrounded by ever-newer subdivisions and endlessly clotted highways.

Although we are billed as a conservation community, we are reminded of our sins by looking west to an asphalt plant and huge landfill. Only a handful of my neighbors own hybrid-electric cars. Most of us own either minivans or sport-utility vehicles, our family included. It's difficult to find a house here priced below $400,000, as homes here are well above average for this county. I doubt if my children would be able to afford to live here when they are starting their lives as independent adults.

In short, we are a flawed oasis of ideas stuck between three highways and a prairie preserve within walking distance, which we cherish and volunteer to restore. Like a nascent republic, we have "guiding principles" that call for environmental protection/enhancement and energy conservation; lifelong learning; healthy lifestyles; a sense of place and community; convenient and efficient transportation; esthetic design and high-quality construction and economic viability. Of those principles first articulated by our developers George and Vicky Ranney, our crowning achievements to date are our establishment of a vital community around good train transportation, aesthetically indigenous homes and charming open space that is at least embracing some ethics of environmental protection. We are probably one of the few communities with a full-time "environmental leader," our friend and neighbor Mike Sands, who not only guides our prairie burns twice a year (sometimes we torch an occasional dead tree stump), he's one of our guiding lights.

The rest of our manifesto is a challenging work in progress in which we are happy to participate. Although our little community is a flawed social and economic experiment, at least it's guided by our principles, which, is a starting point that's sorely lacking in the typical American runaway development paradigm. It's also a bold attempt to build upon personal ecology, or the idea that we are personally connected to other communities and natural systems.

Filling the Void

When my wife and I first moved to Prairie Crossing, although we were environmentally sensitive, we weren't necessarily environmentally active. The ideas of better-insulated homes with more energy-efficient appliances surrounded by conserved open space sounded good to us, but it wasn't the primary reason we moved here. At first, the appeal of a shorter commute and more living space held more sway. When we bought the home, I was hoping to cut my driving time to my (then) job as special projects editor at Consumers Digest magazine, which was typically at least two hours a day, four hours when it snowed. Nearly a year after we bought the house -- which nearly tripled our property taxes -- the magazine's management downsized and fired the entire editorial staff and I was out of a job. It turned out to be a godsend as I rebounded as a columnist with Bloomberg News and could work from home. My commute then effectively went from 20,000 miles a year to about 10 feet per day. Despite the obvious joy of not having to brave the increasingly agonizing traffic in Chicago every day, I discovered that I drove very little, nor had any desire to get into a car unless I was running an errand or driving to the train station. It only occurred to me about a year later that I was also employing one of the best carbon-reduction strategies available -- not driving. I have relished this opportunity to spend more time with my family and on my work and less time on the road. Yet it didn't seem to be enough. Something was absent, a feeling that a void was left and that I wasn't quite home free in my obligation to be a decent environmental citizen.

As we availed ourselves of the organic farm by buying produce and eggs and using compost for our garden, it sank in that we were part of a system that encompassed much more than the 2,200-square feet in our home and our quarter-acre lot. We were part of a much larger network of consumers, and we were devouring a disproportionate amount of resources relative to someone in Europe, Japan or a developing country. Were we entitled to this resource gluttony? As 9/11 and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq instructed us, the answer was no.
Catalyzed by Hurricane Katrina, the two Gulf wars and the Bush Administration's steadfast opposition to energy conservation legislation, we turned our gaze inward. We started to once again question how we were living. Were we somehow implicated in the need to go to war to protect resources? While the 9/11 conspirators clearly had other objectives, they pointedly reminded us of our poisoned relationship with the oil-rich Saudis and other regimes that were funded by petrowealth.

As is usually the case with damaging American lifestyles, we paid a price for our arrogance in zealously protecting our petroleum addiction. The markets reacted to our fear of losing the opium war of our time and penalized everyone except the oil-producing nations, commodity traders, hedge funds and natural resource companies. At the beginning of 2003, a barrel of oil sold for around $30. Since then, the average price has been near $50, having soared to $78 in the summer of 2006. As a result, gasoline climbed over $3 a gallon. Apart from the impact of war, natural disaster (Katrina) and speculators roiling the markets, there's the uncontested reality that more people in the world want energy and are willing to pay whatever it takes to get a steady supply of it. In addition to the European Union, South America and Asia are hungry for oil, gas, coal, uranium (and other commodities) and electricity. The markets have responded to this demand. In 1997, coal was $29 a ton. It's now $35. Natural gas cost $2.91 for a thousand cubic feet and more than doubled in price. Uranium went from $12.50 a pound to $36. You can look at these cold numbers and say, well, this means it costs more to produce energy and these expenses are passed along to everyone who needs it. It also means that each homeowner and renter is paying for these costs. Although there's plenty of coal left on every continent to meet energy needs well into the future, burning it heats up our atmosphere and unleashes a pandora's box of poisons ranging from mercury to nitrogen dioxide.

We are clearly paying a tax for the increased demand for energy and the threat that its supply might be interrupted either by terrorism or Mother Nature. Our heating bills have doubled, for example, and our electrical bill will likely climb 20 percent to 50 percent. Although most of our electricity is generated by nuclear power plants -- there are more of them in Illinois than in any other state -- it provides cold comfort. Less carbon means more nuclear waste that will sit somewhere for tens of thousands of years. They have to put it somewhere and they can't recycle it into anything useful. Even John Rowe, the chairman of Exelon Corp., which owns our local electrical utility, says he won't propose any new nuclear plants until a way is found to dispose or reprocess nuclear waste in an environmentally sound manner. The cost of our energy for our home and cars -- and the way it's produced -- began to trouble us, even though our energy bills rose modestly relative to our income.

Then it dawned on us: We were falling miserably behind in doing our fair share in the undeclared war of resource dependency -- a global conflict that gave the world's remaining superpower and allies tacit permission to battle for petroleum and gas, bolster brutal regimes and oppress native societies. The cost has been too high. Some 400,000 Iraqis have lost their lives in addition to more than 3,000 Americans, with no end in sight. Nearly everywhere there's petroleum and gas drilling, transport and refining in the Third World, there's been death, destruction and environmental degradation from Sudan to Burma. We feel that burden deeply -- and feel partly responsible for it. You don't see lives being lost over wheat, soybeans or hay. Is this all in the name of being able to fuel our mini-van for under $3 a gallon, heat our homes and create more plastic?

Adopting a Personal Ecology

The grievous acts of war are not entirely due to energy concerns. There are other geopolitical concerns at play that are rarely discussed in detail on the evening news. Yet I feel pressed to examine what we can do as homeowners, indeed, as a nation of dwellers, to introduce some piece of what will be a multi-layered solution to global warming and resource depletion. There are so many bright lights, powerful ideas and innovative approaches coalescing, that they deserve to be illuminated, because they garner so little attention in this world of millions of trivial distractions. Then again, we start with the home and move outward.

In the U.S., we have the zero-energy home movement, an odd but relatively tiny smattering of architects, engineers, manufacturers, entrepreneurs and visionaries who believe that homes can produce their own energy, store their own water, and use resources in a renewable manner. In Europe, this revolution is called the "passive house" movement. The same principles of conserving energy and tapping solar, wind and geothermal power is very much at play. In Japan -- and to some extent China -- energy resources are even more critical as China and India expand, industrialize and add hundreds of millions of new souls to the planet's burden. In this global perspective, I am connected to the need to narrate the many forms of progress that start with simply redoing the average home. I am going to see how homes can be made more ecodynamic, integrated into a community that's in the world and not just of the world. I may even build one of these homes myself.

We all need to have a personal stake in change and personal ecology gives us a framework. What's needed is a widespread sense of personal ecology; an awareness of the intimate connections between the various parts of our lives and the outside world. Since they are bound together in a web of often subtle connections, environmental, social, political and commercial concerns are inter-related.

Ecology is derived from the Greek word oikos, meaning household, and is the root for both economics and ecology. Even the ancient Greeks knew that matters of balance and money began in the home. Personal Ecology, in my definition, should not be the exclusive study of relationships in nature, but the observation of links between man-made things and the environment. There are connections between what I call the Anthroscape and the earth that we are only beginning to understand. When Brazilian housing developments are built, they displace and redirect water flow. When American highways are built, they channel pollutants into soil and trees. When Chinese and American power plants emit massive clouds of particulates, we breath these toxins all over the world. Ecology is the over-arching science of all of these relationships, which are omnipresent. We avoid examining these links at our peril.

It seems natural that ecology should become a guiding philosophy in understanding politics, the economy, resource use, education and citizen action. Tying that into physics, chemistry, biology, the humanities and civic responsibility is also logical. Not only is my approach multidisciplinary, it focuses on how the different realms of our world are coming together to create planetary solutions for the daunting problems of global warming, resource depletion, pollution, poverty, overpopulation and sprawl.

You know the old Chinese saying that a butterfly's wings flapping on one side of the world impact events on the other? This has been proven to be true in quantum physics. You take a pair of sub-atomic particles, separate them and reverse the spin of one and the other will follow suit. On a larger scale, reducing the water in the glaciers of Tibet will reduce the water flow to rivers flowing into China. A hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico will make oil prices rise all over the world. We are all connected in some way and we need to employ this thinking to help heal our culture. Ideally, I'm borrowing and integrating the thinking of systems/network theory, information theory, quantum physics, evolutionary biology, holism, sociology, economics, finance and the perennial philosophy of the world's great spiritual traditions.

My Odyssey

I'm on a quest. I've traveled a long way from my home in Prairie Crossing to search for the true ecodynamic home and community. I haven't found it yet, but my odyssey continues. It was more than a divine accident that I was born at the crossroads of America. At least that's what the sign said at the corner of Dixie Highway, which went from Chicago to Miami, and Lincoln Highway, which once linked San Francisco to New York. At this otherwise unassuming intersection was St. James Hospital in Chicago Heights, Illinois, where I was born in 1957. It was the perfect point of departure from which to explore the world. Over the last 50 years, I've come to travel and relish each horizon and try to learn from the places I've been. My personal ecology has led me to question the way I am living and to see how I can make a personal contribution to a renewable lifestyle.

I've traversed the length of the Mississippi by car and by plane several times, renewing my connection to New Orleans, the devastated bowl of misery that gave Chicago the genius of her people and the blues and jazz tunes they brought up from Storyville to Streeterville. Belfast, Paris, London, Edinburgh, Dublin, Rome, Florence, Munich, Amsterdam and Vienna were my destinations during and after college. Then I longed again for the perplexing breadth of North America, traveling to Canada, Mexico, the Pacific Northwest, Southern California, the South from Texas to Florida and then from Acadia on the coast of Maine back to Chicago. I spend the bulk of my out-of-town trips in Manhattan, a place that I continue to learn from and relish.
Yet all roads led back to Chicago as I began to ask some questions after my 50-year sojourn and the more than a hundred thousand miles that have enriched my soul. What troubles me is that much of what I've seen can't continue the way it has been. Are we at the end of the road with the metroscape as we know it? If we've nearly reached peak oil capacity, raised the temperature of the planet past a perilous tipping point and depleted resources to such an extent that we have sowed the seeds of our spaceship's destruction, where can we travel to find the redemption we must find from our excesses?
My home and Prairie Crossing in general, are a rough draft for what needs to be done. It's clear we need a better blueprint to create renewable communities. What would this blueprint look like? My Ecodynamic Home would have the outward appearance of my family's modified Chicago bungalow with a number of key innovations:
1) It would be an energy producer. Solar "tiles" would be integrated into the roof and any south-facing surface to produce electricity. An ultra-efficient horizontal turbine would convert the wind's energy into electrons.
2) It would store energy. Long-term storage batteries would store power for the days when the sun wasn't shining (quite a few of them in the Chicago area). South-facing walls and floors would have thermal mass or have water-storage units that would soak up solar energy during the day and release it at night. Super-insulation would keep that heat from leaking out windows, doors, walls and ceilings. Even the roof would be able to store and transfer energy for heating water and the house.
3) It would heat and cool itself. Solar energy could be employed to heat water and an exchanger would be combined with a fan to circulate that heat throughout the house. A geo-thermal heating and cooling system would convert the earth's constant temperature to heat in the winter and coolness in the summer. The tight building envelope and windows would prevent the structure from overheating or losing its comfortable temperature in the winter.
4) It would not be stick built. Modular sections would be mass produced and built to exacting, energy-efficient standards in a factory. The home would be assembled on site in a week. Not only would this home cost less than $200,000 excluding land costs, it would be much more affordable in city and rural areas with existing infrastructure. It would employ renewable and recyclable materials that don't emit toxins. It would be built with either sustainable or recycled materials. Since it would be built in a factory, I would avoid sending 30 to 40 percent of the building materials (used in stickbuilt homes) to the landfill.
5) It would recycle its own waste. Organic garbage would be composted to make fertilizer for a biodynamic garden that could be planted year-round inside of the home or in an attached greenhouse. "Gray" water from baths and showers would be used to water the garden or lawn. More advanced models with larger lots would have functional wetlands to recycle other waste water. A rainwater cistern would store water from the roof and gutters for the garden and the bathrooms.
6) It would have little or no carbon footprint and conserve energy. Ideally, it wouldn't burn any fossil fuels and produce little or no carbon dioxide and other air pollutants. Although it could be hooked up to the electrical grid, as a nominally zero-energy home, whatever net power it produced would be "clean" power and sold back to the local power company. Lighting and appliances would use as little power as possible through either LEDs or systems that turned themselves off when not in use. A computer would monitor energy use and tell me when to turn off things. It would be a "smart" house.
7) It would be integrated with plug-in cars. Electric cars would be recharging at night using cheap, off-peak power that costs from 2 to 3 cents per kilowatt hour versus more than 8 cents during the day. Deep-cycle batteries could store power from the solar roof and wind turbine. My zero-emission vehicle would be used for short trips and commutes and be recyclable. It wouldn't require any oil changes, fill-ups or tune-ups.
8) The grounds of the home would employ resource-efficient, energy-efficient landscaping. I would use hybrid or natural grasses and shrubs that require little or no water. All of the ornamental plants would be perennials. Evergreens would be planted to block the Northwest wind in the summer and deciduous trees would provide shade in the summer. Fruit-bearing trees and bushes would provide food. A computer system linked to the Internet would tell the home's sprinkler system when the outside plantings needed to be watered from my cistern containing either rainwater or recycled graywater.
9) My community and home plot (and even a green roof) would produce food. I would only have to walk a block to find fresh organic produce, eggs and meat. A farm would be at the center of the community and my family would support it through labor, purchases and compost materials (this is already a fixture of Prairie Crossing). A greenhouse would be attached to my home.
10) My community would foster lifelong learning, entertainment, political discourse, renewability education and culture. This is a principle that would strengthen my community and perpetuate its growth and development into the future.
11) Public transportation would be within walking distance. At present, I have access to two train lines that link my community with downtown Chicago and the far Northwest Suburbs and O'Hare Airport. The growing commuter train system in the Chicago area could also be expanded to take me to Western and Southern suburbs. Ideally, this home would be within walking or biking distance of public facilities such as supermarkets, libraries and post offices.
12) My home would have access to open lands, trails and nature preserves. A hallmark of Prairie Crossing now, trail extensions would be extended to our town's center, library, supermarket and other trail systems. Every community should have some preserved open land that includes working wetlands, meadows, groves and other natural areas.

Sound like some unrealistic utopian vision from the 1960s? Actually, most of what I described exists in pieces in various places, including my own community. Current technology can implemented with a little imagination, planning and capital. It's truly an ecodynamic community that starts with individual homes and doesn't conflict with the gaiascape, utilizing the marvelous power and creativity of the infoscape and poliscape.

If this blueprint works for us, our technology could help make growing countries in Asia, Europe, Africa and South America more manageable and self-sufficient. There is no downside as we will be creating and preserving jobs and wealth. In the words of John Ruskin, ``that country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings; that man is richest, who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence , both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others." It all starts in our homes and communities – my home, your home.

I once made a pilgrimage to Walden Pond to try and feel the spirit of the place. At the time, I was between jobs and thought I might move to the Boston area to be near by (then girlfriend, now wife) Kathleen. I have read Thoreau and Emerson countless times and am always struck at how they wanted to pull the world back from the dehumanizing piper's call of the industrial age. Walden Pond offered me some serenity, although it yielded few big answers at the time (I decided not to move East).

In summing up his ascetic experience of living in a hut on the shore of Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, Henry David Thoreau gained some profound insights into how we could best live with nature – and ourselves.

``I learned this, at least by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which [one] has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings...If you build castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.''

We all still live in Thoreau's world of promise, hope and imagination and strive to build our castles. First, we need to transcend those invisible boundaries that divide our political and intellectual spheres. It can be done. In order to build a home in the world that will outlast our proclivities for waste and energy consumption, we need to rethink and rebuild where we live.