Google: ‘By no means should Google Maps be used as a reference to decide military actions between two countries.’

Current incorrect border in Google Earth, showing the S-shaped river course.
Nicaragua Raids Costa Rica, Blames Google Maps
by Matt McGee / Nov 4, 2010

An error on Google Maps has caused an international conflict in Central America. A Nicaraguan military commander, relying on Google Maps, moved troops into an area near San Juan Lake along the border between his country and Costa Rica. The troops are accused of setting up camp there, taking down a Costa Rican flag and raising the Nicaraguan flag, doing work to clean up a nearby river, and dumping the sediment in Costa Rican territory. La Nacion — the largest newspaper in Costa Rica — says the Nicaraguan commander, Eden Pastora, used Google Maps to “justify” the incursion even though the official maps used by both countries indicate the territory belongs to Costa Rica. The paper points out that Bing Maps shows the correct and officially recognized border. A Google spokesperson in Central America told La Nacion that the company doesn’t know the source of the maps error. Earlier this summer, Google announced that it made “significant improvements to our borders for over 60 countries and regions.” The Cambodian government has previously accused Google of being “radically misleading” in how it shows the border between it and Thailand. Meanwhile, tension is rising in Costa Rica — a country without a military. Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla went on national TV last night and asked citizens to “be calm and firm, amid the outrage that these events provoke within us.”

Postscript: Our wording above, which implies that Pastora looked at Google Maps before moving troops into the region, may be incorrect. From reading additional news reports and speaking with journalists from the Tico Times, it sounds likely that the troops were already in the area before Google Maps was used to review the disputed border.

Map provided by Costa Rica to the ICJ


Costa Rica on Saturday stepped up pressure on international mediators to engage in its territory dispute with Nicaragua, after Google Maps was cited in an incident that saw the neighboring countries dispatch forces to their joint border. The Internet search giant joined the fray after a Nicaraguan commander cited Google’s version of the border map in an interview with Costa Rican newspaper La Nacion to justify a raid on a disputed border area. The area is hotly disputed by the two neighbors, and Costa Rica has asked the Organization of American States (OAS) to investigate the alleged violations of its territory. OAS Secretary General Jose Manuel Insulza is touring both countries in a bid to mediate the dispute. On Saturday, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla said she was prepared to take the dispute to the UN Security Council if the OAS cannot find a solution. “Costa Rica is seeing its dignity smeared and there is a sense of great national urgency” to resolve this problem, Chinchilla said after meeting Insulza. A discussion with US State Department officials led Google to conclude that “there was indeed an error in the compilation of the source data, by up to 2.7 kilometers (1.7 miles),” for its map of the region, the company said Friday. Google geopolicy analyst Charlie Hale said in a Google blogpost that the State Department provided a corrected version and “we are now working to update our maps.”

The error lies in Google’s depiction of the border in part of the Caribbean coast, near the San Juan River, the center of the dispute between San Jose and Managua that arose over Nicaragua’s dredging of a river separating the two countries. Hale said Google’s map of the area will be corrected to follow the demarcation laid out in an 1897 arbitration award of a previous border treaty. “The corrected version will follow the east bank of the San Juan River going northward, nearly to the Caribbean. It will then turn eastward and follow the southern shoreline of a large lagoon, Laguna los Portillos,” he explained. The Nicaraguan government demanded that Google reject Costa Rica’s request to change the depiction of the border, which it called “correct.” “I officially request that (the border marking) not be modified,” Foreign Minister Samuel Santos asked Google representative Jeffrey Hardy. Hale noted that cartography is a “complex undertaking,” borders constantly change and “there are inevitably going to be errors” in the data. Costa Rica and Nicaragua have clashed since the 19th century over navigation rights for the San Juan River, which runs along half the frontier between the two countries. Nicaragua has denied sending troops over the border, as claimed by Costa Rica, which says Nicaraguan soldiers have crossed the waterway, pitched tents on a disputed island and raised their country’s flag there. On Tuesday, Costa Rica, which does not have an army, dispatched fresh security forces to the border to bolster 150 agents sent earlier to the region, the scene of increasingly heated cross-border tensions since October 18.

Map provided by Nicaragua to the ICJ

Nicaragua Asks Google NOT To Change Its Map On Border With Costa Rica

Nicaragua is asking the internet giant Google not to change its maps with respect Isla Calero while it continues its border dispute with Costa Rica and the dredging of the San Juan river. The request came from Nicaragua’s foreign minister, Samuel Santos, in a letter sent to Jeffrey Hardy at Google, a copy of which was made available to the press. The Nicaraguan request is based on arguments made earlier this week by Eden Pastora “commander cero”, in charge of the dredging operations, relying on Google Maps to identify the border, resulting in an international dispute that is currently before the Organization of American States (OAS).

In his letter, Foreign Minister Santos confirms the request to Google by the executive director of the Nicaraguan Institute of Territorial Studies (INET), Alejandro Rodriguez, in charge of the official maps of Nicaragua, not to accept an alleged request from Costa Rica to change the border between both countries in their satellite mapping service. “This letter is to confirm and reiterate the official request of Dr. Rodriguez made on behalf of Ineter to not accept the request that Costa Rica has to do, or can do to amend the line of the border with Nicaragua that appears, and has been popping up on Google maps,” noted Foreign Minister Santos in the letter.

Map attached to the Sept. 30, 1897 Arbitration Award

Regarding the boundary between Costa Rica and Nicaragua
Friday, November 5, 2010 at 7:52 PM

Update (11/8/10): For those interested in reading more about the history of this dispute, consider checking out Stefan Geens’ thorough post over at Ogle Earth [most image on this page were found here too].

Yesterday we became aware of a dispute that referenced the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua as depicted on Google Maps. This morning, after a discussion with the data supplier for this particular border (the U.S. Department of State), we determined that there was indeed an error in the compilation of the source data, by up to 2.7 kilometers. The U.S. Department of State has provided a corrected version and we are now working to update our maps. Unlike our current depiction, the corrected version will follow the east bank of the San Juan River going northward, nearly to the Caribbean. It will then turn eastward and follow the southern shoreline of a large lagoon, Laguna los Portillos. This depiction follows the demarcation laid out in the First Award of Arbitration of 1897, which affirmed the Cañas-Jerez Treaty of 1858. It is our goal to provide the most accurate, up-to-date maps possible. Maps are created using a variety of data sources, and there are inevitably going to be errors in that data. We work hard to correct any errors as soon as we discover them. Given the complexity of the issue, I thought that I’d take this opportunity to provide some additional historical context.

The dispute in this area goes back to at least the mid-19th century, and both the International Court of Justice and the United Nations have weighed in. The dispute mainly centers around control of the mouth of the San Juan River, and was recently reignited because of dredging activity in this location. In 1888, U.S. President Grover Cleveland was called upon by Nicaragua and Costa Rica to arbitrate the dispute. That year, the New York Times published President Cleveland’s decision. The 1888 Arbitration upheld the 1858 treaty and its terms.

Then, in 1897, Cleveland sent Edward P. Alexander to do a more detailed Arbitration Award for this region. Alexander went into great detail on the San Juan river boundary and drew the map depicted above. Once our updates go live in Google Earth and Maps we will be depicting the border according to the most recent and definitive records available. But as we know, cartography is a complex undertaking, and borders are always changing. We remain committed to updating our maps as needed.

Cambodia blasts Google map of disputed Thai border
by Prak Chan Thul & Martin Petty / 2.5.2010

Cambodia has hit out at Google over what it called a “radically misleading” map of the disputed Thai-Cambodia border, accusing the world’s biggest search engine of being “professionally irresponsible”. Cambodia, which is embroiled in a bitter diplomatic row with Thailand over the demarcation of the frontier, said the Google Earth map was “devoid of truth and reality” and called for its immediate removal because it was not internationally recognized. Cambodia made the complaint in a letter issued a day ahead of the first-ever visit to the border region by its outspoken prime minister, Hun Sen, a move likely to raise tension between the historic foes. “(The map) is devoid of truth and reality, and professionally irresponsible, if not pretentious,” Svay Sitha, secretary of state of the Cambodia’s Council of Ministers, wrote in the letter seen by Reuters on Friday. “We therefore request that you withdraw the already disseminated, very wrong and not internationally recognized map and replace it,” he said. Both countries have a heavy military presence along the border, where deadly clashes have occurred in the past three years.

At the centre of the row is the 11th century Preah Vihear temple, ownership of which was awarded to Cambodia in a 1962 international court ruling. However, many Thais have never fully accepted the decision and the temple has been used by both countries to stoke nationalist fervor. Thailand last year withdrew its pledge of support for Cambodia to list Preah Vihear as a UNESCO World Heritage site, arguing that jurisdiction of land around the temple had never been settled. The move angered Hun Sen, who has since formed a provocative alliance with exiled Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra, giving him a base close to home in his fight to bring down the Thai government. Hun Sen is accused by Bangkok of colluding with the billionaire, offering him a home and a job as an economic adviser, to escalate a five-year political crisis in Thailand.

Disputed Territory? Google Maps Localizes Borders Based on Local Laws / 12.1.2009

Did you know that there are countries out there that have a dispute on where their border begins and ends? Yea, you know that. But did you know that Google will show different borders depending on how and where you access Google Maps?

Google Maps Help thread has a post from Brian from the Google Maps team who explains how this works. He said: It is Google’s standard practice to show all disputed regions around the world on its global properties, such as on It has been Google’s consistent and global policy to depict disputed regions as per the claims made by the disputing/claiming nations on its global properties. This does not in any way endorse or affirm the position taken by any side but merely provides complete information on the prevailing geo-political situation to our users of global properties in a dispassionate and accurate manner. Products that have been localized to the local domain of a region such as may depict that country’s position as per the mandate of their local laws

For example, compare Google India Maps to Google Maps and you will see the border lines look a bit different. Here are screen captures:

Google Maps India, The Border:
Google Maps India Border

Google Maps US, The Border:
Google Maps in US India Border

Notice the dotted lines in the US map, how it doesn’t seem sure.

Improving the quality of borders in Google Earth and Maps
by Charlie Hale, Google Geo Policy Analyst / July 20, 2010

“At Google, we are constantly making improvements to all of our products, from Search to Gmail, Blogger to Chrome. When it comes to products like Google Earth and Google Maps, we work hard to improve our cartography and depict geopolitical features as accurately as possible. Last year, we discussed the ways we strive towards that accuracy, and today we are happy to announce some significant improvements to our borders for over 60 countries and regions (the updates are live in Maps and are coming to Google Earth shortly). To provide some background on this update, we thought we would take the opportunity to talk a bit more about our approach to mapping geopolitical features like borders.

Making Google’s mapping tools as accurate as possible is a complex process, especially when a map’s accuracy has both quantitative and qualitative aspects. We receive spatial data of all kinds – imagery, boundaries, place names, etc. – from a variety of sources worldwide, and we review them carefully before integrating them into the best representation of a given location in Google Earth and Maps. In the case of geopolitical features on our maps, the depiction of borders is something upon which local authorities, governments and internationally recognized bodies often disagree. Our goal is to provide the most legible and accurate maps we can given the information available in these oft-changing areas of geopolitical disagreement. Like most maps, ours include symbology that makes borders and other geopolitical features clearer to users. For example, we employ various boundary styles in Google Earth and Maps to clarify the current status of boundary lines, viewable here in the Help Center.

Similar to satellite imagery, boundary data is available in varying levels of resolution; the higher the resolution, the better the boundaries will follow specific geographic features, such as rivers. While we always strive to display the on-the-ground reality of a boundary’s position, in practice some boundary lines are not as accurate as we would like them to be due to the available resolution of our boundary data. With these improvements, many borders will now more closely follow natural boundaries such as mountains and rivers. The pictures below show a portion of the border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which follows the Pamir Mountain Range, near the Zervashan River. As you’ll see, the new data follows the mountain ridgeline quite closely, even when zoomed in, which is a great improvement in positional accuracy.



In some areas we have improved our qualitative accuracy by changing the symbology of the boundary lines to reflect the updated status of a treaty or agreement based on political changes, new agreements or negotiations. This portion of the border between Ethiopia and Somalia changed from solid (yellow in Google Earth) – meaning “international” – to dashed (red in Google Earth) – meaning “disputed” – to reflect the ground-based reality that the two countries maintain an ongoing dispute in the Ogaden region.



In other cases our previous boundaries lacked key details and the new data provides more information. For example, we now show a disputed island near the borders of Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina:



There are many other examples of both quantitative and qualitative changes we’ve made to improve our maps and we invite you to explore them. We will certainly continue to update and improve upon the borders and other geopolitical features in Google Earth and Maps, keeping in mind that the dynamic nature of such areas presents a significant cartographic challenge. Mapping is a field where there is never total agreement, but we try to do our best and will continue to develop new ways to meet these challenges. As always, we are happy to hear from our users with any questions and concerns about our approach to these complex issues.”




“A petrodollar is a dollar earned by selling petroleum. Petrodollars flow into members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) at a steady rate, and flow out at an almost equally steady rate as these countries invest petrodollars overseas. In fact, often money makes a round trip, flowing from a country like the United States to an OPEC member which in turn reinvests the funds in the United States. Prices for oil sales are generally given in United States Dollars (USD). In 1973, economist Ibrahim Oweiss wanted to come up with a term to describe the large volumes of currency changing hands as a result of oil sales. He coined the portmanteau “petrodollar,” referring to “petroleum” and the United States Dollar. People also use the term “oil money” or “petrocurrency” to describe petrodollars, although “petrocurrency” is also sometimes confusingly used to refer to the currency used by an oil producing country.

At various points in history, OPEC members have literally made more petrodollars than they knew what to do with. Rising oil prices resulted in such a flood of currency that these countries were unable to invest it on internal development projects. As a result, many nations started engaging in a practice known as petrodollar recycling, in which they promptly reinvest the currency in banks in regions like Europe and North America. Changes in oil prices can lead to ebbs and flows in the movement of the petrodollar and in the investment funds available to OPEC members. Some of these nations rely heavily on income from oil sales and are placed at a disadvantage when prices are depressed. In regions such as Dubai, the profound impact of petroleum sales on regional economies can be seen firsthand in the form of extravagant and rapid development reflecting the increasing wealth of some members of the population.

While the bulk of oil sales are conducted in USD and prices are quoted in USD, some countries have opted to sell in other currencies. The dominance of the USD in global commerce is credited in part to the petrodollar, and some theorists have suggested that changing economic trends may result in petrodollar warfare, in which there will be a push to denominate oil sales in other currencies. If, for example, the world switched to the petroeuro, based on the currency of the European Union, the United States Dollar might weaken as a result.”

Investment Management industry, 2003 — Present (7 years )
“I created and ran a privately-held blackbox hedge fund based off of a proprietary, in-house FIX protocol implementation. We cribbed custom algorithms from bioinformatics, were the first to apply autocorrelation attacks to the market, and first to apply wavelets to price stochastics. As part of the management of this fund, we created our own international shipping arm to ease exploitation of petrodollar/petroeuro arbitrage. The chief chunks of our fund are global macro, managed futures and short bias, but you name it– options, swaps, rate agreements, bonds– we trade it in the course of a given week.”

Petrodollar warfare: Dollars, Euros and the upcoming Iranian oil bourse
by William R. Clark / August 05 2005

“This notion that the United States is getting ready to attack Iran is simply ridiculous…Having said that, all options are on the table.” — President George W. Bush, February 2005

Contemporary warfare has traditionally involved underlying conflicts regarding economics and resources. Today these intertwined conflicts also involve international currencies, and thus increased complexity. Current geopolitical tensions between the United States and Iran extend beyond the publicly stated concerns regarding Iran’s nuclear intentions, and likely include a proposed Iranian “petroeuro” system for oil trade. Similar to the Iraq war, military operations against Iran relate to the macroeconomics of ‘petrodollar recycling’ and the unpublicized but real challenge to U.S. dollar supremacy from the euro as an alternative oil transaction currency.

It is now obvious the invasion of Iraq had less to do with any threat from Saddam’s long-gone WMD program and certainly less to do to do with fighting International terrorism than it has to do with gaining strategic control over Iraq’s hydrocarbon reserves and in doing so maintain the U.S. dollar as the monopoly currency for the critical international oil market. Throughout 2004 information provided by former administration insiders revealed the Bush/Cheney administration entered into office with the intention of toppling Saddam.[1][2] Candidly stated, ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ was a war designed to install a pro-U.S. government in Iraq, establish multiple U.S military bases before the onset of global Peak Oil, and to reconvert Iraq back to petrodollars while hoping to thwart further OPEC momentum towards the euro as an alternative oil transaction currency ( i.e. “petroeuro”).[3] However, subsequent geopolitical events have exposed neoconservative strategy as fundamentally flawed, with Iran moving towards a petroeuro system for international oil trades, while Russia evaluates this option with the European Union.

In 2003 the global community witnessed a combination of petrodollar warfare and oil depletion warfare. The majority of the world’s governments – especially the E.U., Russia and China – were not amused – and neither are the U.S. soldiers who are currently stationed inside a hostile Iraq. In 2002 I wrote an award-winning online essay that asserted Saddam Hussein sealed his fate when he announced on September 2000 that Iraq was no longer going to accept dollars for oil being sold under the UN’s Oil-for-Food program, and decided to switch to the euro as Iraq’s oil export currency.[4] Indeed, my original pre-war hypothesis was validated in a Financial Times article dated June 5, 2003, which confirmed Iraqi oil sales returning to the international markets were once again denominated in U.S. dollars – not euros.

The tender, for which bids are due by June 10, switches the transaction back to dollars — the international currency of oil sales – despite the greenback’s recent fall in value. Saddam Hussein in 2000 insisted Iraq’s oil be sold for euros, a political move, but one that improved Iraq’s recent earnings thanks to the rise in the value of the euro against the dollar. [5]

The Bush administration implemented this currency transition despite the adverse impact on profits from Iraqi’s export oil sales.[6] (In mid-2003 the euro was valued approx. 13% higher than the dollar, and thus significantly impacted the ability of future oil proceeds to rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure). Not surprisingly, this detail has never been mentioned in the five U.S. major media conglomerates who control 90% of information flow in the U.S., but confirmation of this vital fact provides insight into one of the crucial – yet overlooked – rationales for 2003 the Iraq war.

Concerning Iran, recent articles have revealed active Pentagon planning for operations against its suspected nuclear facilities. While the publicly stated reasons for any such overt action will be premised as a consequence of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, there are again unspoken macroeconomic drivers underlying the second stage of petrodollar warfare – Iran’s upcoming oil bourse. (The word bourse refers to a stock exchange for securities trading, and is derived from the French stock exchange in Paris, the Federation Internationale des Bourses de Valeurs.)

In essence, Iran is about to commit a far greater “offense” than Saddam Hussein’s conversion to the euro for Iraq’s oil exports in the fall of 2000. Beginning in March 2006, the Tehran government has plans to begin competing with New York’s NYMEX and London’s IPE with respect to international oil trades – using a euro-based international oil-trading mechanism.[7] The proposed Iranian oil bourse signifies that without some sort of US intervention, the euro is going to establish a firm foothold in the international oil trade. Given U.S. debt levels and the stated neoconservative project of U.S. global domination, Tehran’s objective constitutes an obvious encroachment on dollar supremacy in the crucial international oil market.

From the autumn of 2004 through August 2005, numerous leaks by concerned Pentagon employees have revealed that the neoconservatives in Washington are quietly – but actively – planning for a possible attack against Iran. In September 2004 Newsweek reported:

Deep in the Pentagon, admirals and generals are updating plans for possible U.S. military action in Syria and Iran. The Defense Department unit responsible for military planning for the two troublesome countries is “busier than ever,” an administration official says. Some Bush advisers characterize the work as merely an effort to revise routine plans the Pentagon maintains for all contingencies in light of the Iraq war. More skittish bureaucrats say the updates are accompanied by a revived campaign by administration conservatives and neocons for more hard-line U.S. policies toward the countries…’

…administration hawks are pinning their hopes on regime change in Tehran – by covert means, preferably, but by force of arms if necessary. Papers on the idea have circulated inside the administration, mostly labeled “draft” or “working draft” to evade congressional subpoena powers and the Freedom of Information Act. Informed sources say the memos echo the administration’s abortive Iraq strategy: oust the existing regime, swiftly install a pro-U.S. government in its place (extracting the new regime’s promise to renounce any nuclear ambitions) and get out. This daredevil scheme horrifies U.S. military leaders, and there’s no evidence that it has won any backers at the cabinet level. [8]

Indeed, there are good reasons for U.S. military commanders to be ‘horrified’ at the prospects of attacking Iran. In the December 2004 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, James Fallows reported that numerous high-level war-gaming sessions had recently been completed by Sam Gardiner, a retired Air Force colonel who has run war games at the National War College for the past two decades.[9] Col. Gardiner summarized the outcome of these war games with this statement, “After all this effort, I am left with two simple sentences for policymakers: You have no military solution for the issues of Iran. And you have to make diplomacy work.” Despite Col. Gardiner’s warnings, yet another story appeared in early 2005 that reiterated this administration’s intentions towards Iran. Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh’s article in The New Yorker included interviews with various high-level U.S. intelligence sources. Hersh wrote:

In my interviews [with former high-level intelligence officials], I was repeatedly told that the next strategic target was Iran. Everyone is saying, ‘You can’t be serious about targeting Iran. Look at Iraq,’ the former [CIA] intelligence official told me. But the [Bush administration officials] say, ‘We’ve got some lessons learned – not militarily, but how we did it politically. We’re not going to rely on agency pissants.’ No loose ends, and that’s why the C.I.A. is out of there. [10]

The most recent, and by far the most troubling, was an article in The American Conservative by intelligence analyst Philip Giraldi. His article, “In Case of Emergency, Nuke Iran,” suggested the resurrection of active U.S. military planning against Iran – but with the shocking disclosure that in the event of another 9/11-type terrorist attack on U.S. soil, Vice President Dick Cheney’s office wants the Pentagon to be prepared to launch a potential tactical nuclear attack on Iran – even if the Iranian government was not involved with any such terrorist attack against the U.S.:

The Pentagon, acting under instructions from Vice President Dick Cheney’s office, has tasked the United States Strategic Command (STRATCOM) with drawing up a contingency plan to be employed in response to another 9/11-type terrorist attack on the United States. The plan includes a large-scale air assault on Iran employing both conventional and tactical nuclear weapons. Within Iran there are more than 450 major strategic targets, including numerous suspected nuclear-weapons-program development sites. Many of the targets are hardened or are deep underground and could not be taken out by conventional weapons, hence the nuclear option. As in the case of Iraq, the response is not conditional on Iran actually being involved in the act of terrorism directed against the United States. Several senior Air Force officers involved in the planning are reportedly appalled at the implications of what they are doing – that Iran is being set up for an unprovoked nuclear attack – but no one is prepared to damage his career by posing any objections. [11]

Why would the Vice President instruct the U.S. military to prepare plans for what could likely be an unprovoked nuclear attack against Iran? Setting aside the grave moral implications for a moment, it is remarkable to note that during the same week this “nuke Iran” article appeared, the Washington Post reported that the most recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of Iran’s nuclear program revealed that, “Iran is about a decade away from manufacturing the key ingredient for a nuclear weapon, roughly doubling the previous estimate of five years.”[12] This article carefully noted this assessment was a “consensus among U.S. intelligence agencies, [and in] contrast with forceful public statements by the White House.” The question remains, Why would the Vice President advocate a possible tactical nuclear attack against Iran in the event of another major terrorist attack against the U.S. – even if Tehran was innocent of involvement?

Perhaps one of the answers relates to the same obfuscated reasons why the U.S. launched an unprovoked invasion to topple the Iraq government – macroeconomics and the desperate desire to maintain U.S. economic supremacy. In essence, petrodollar hegemony is eroding, which will ultimately force the U.S. to significantly change its current tax, debt, trade, and energy policies, all of which are severely unbalanced. World oil production is reportedly “flat out,” and yet the neoconservatives are apparently willing to undertake huge strategic and tactical risks in the Persian Gulf. Why? Quite simply – their stated goal is U.S. global domination – at any cost.

To date, one of the more difficult technical obstacles concerning a euro-based oil transaction trading system is the lack of a euro-denominated oil pricing standard, or oil ‘marker’ as it is referred to in the industry. The three current oil markers are U.S. dollar denominated, which include the West Texas Intermediate crude (WTI), Norway Brent crude, and the UAE Dubai crude. However, since the summer of 2003 Iran has required payments in the euro currency for its European and Asian/ACU exports – although the oil pricing these trades was still denominated in the dollar.[13]

Therefore a potentially significant news story was reported in June 2004 announcing Iran’s intentions to create of an Iranian oil bourse. This announcement portended competition would arise between the Iranian oil bourse and London’s International Petroleum Exchange (IPE), as well as the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX). [Both the IPE and NYMEX are owned by U.S. consortium, and operated by an Atlanta-based corporation, IntercontinentalExchange, Inc.]

The macroeconomic implications of a successful Iranian bourse are noteworthy. Considering that in mid-2003 Iran switched its oil payments from E.U. and ACU customers to the euro, and thus it is logical to assume the proposed Iranian bourse will usher in a fourth crude oil marker – denominated in the euro currency. This event would remove the main technical obstacle for a broad-based petroeuro system for international oil trades. From a purely economic and monetary perspective, a petroeuro system is a logical development given that the European Union imports more oil from OPEC producers than does the U.S., and the E.U. accounted for 45% of exports sold to the Middle East. (Following the May 2004 enlargement, this percentage likely increased).

Despite the complete absence of coverage from the five U.S. corporate media conglomerates, these foreign news stories suggest one of the Federal Reserve’s nightmares may begin to unfold in the spring of 2006, when it appears that international buyers will have a choice of buying a barrel of oil for $60 dollars on the NYMEX and IPE – or purchase a barrel of oil for €45 – €50 euros via the Iranian Bourse. This assumes the euro maintains its current 20-25% appreciated value relative to the dollar – and assumes that some sort of US “intervention” is not launched against Iran. The upcoming bourse will introduce petrodollar versus petroeuro currency hedging, and fundamentally new dynamics to the biggest market in the world – global oil and gas trades. In essence, the U.S. will no longer be able to effortlessly expand credit via U.S. Treasury bills, and the dollar’s demand/liquidity value will fall.

It is unclear at the time of writing if this project will be successful, or could it prompt overt or covert U.S. interventions – thereby signaling the second phase of petrodollar warfare in the Middle East. Regardless of the potential U.S. response to an Iranian petroeuro system, the emergence of an oil exchange market in the Middle East is not entirely surprising given the domestic peaking and decline of oil exports in the U.S. and U.K, in comparison to the remaining oil reserves in Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. What we are witnessing is a battle for oil currency supremacy. If Iran’s oil bourse becomes a successful alternative for international oil trades, it would challenge the hegemony currently enjoyed by the financial centers in both London (IPE) and New York (NYMEX), a factor not overlooked in the following (UK) Guardian article:

Iran is to launch an oil trading market for Middle East and Opec producers that could threaten the supremacy of London’s International Petroleum Exchange.

…Some industry experts have warned the Iranians and other OPEC producers that western exchanges are controlled by big financial and oil corporations, which have a vested interest in market volatility. [emphasis added]

The IPE, bought in 2001 by a consortium that includes BP, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, was unwilling to discuss the Iranian move yesterday. “We would not have any comment to make on it at this stage,” said an IPE spokeswoman. [14]

During an important speech in April 2002, Mr. Javad Yarjani, an OPEC executive, described three pivotal events that would facilitate an OPEC transition to euros.[15] He stated this would be based on (1) if and when Norway’s Brent crude is re-dominated in euros, (2) if and when the U.K. adopts the euro, and (3) whether or not the euro gains parity valuation relative to the dollar, and the EU’s proposed expansion plans were successful. Notably, both of the later two criteria have transpired: the euro’s valuation has been above the dollar since late 2002, and the euro-based E.U. enlarged in May 2004 from 12 to 22 countries. Despite recent “no” votes by French and Dutch voters regarding a common E.U. Constitution, from a macroeconomic perspective, these domestic disagreements do no reduce the euro currency’s trajectory in the global financial markets – and from Russia and OPEC’s perspective – do not adversely impact momentum towards a petroeuro. In the meantime, the U.K. remains uncomfortably juxtaposed between the financial interests of the U.S. banking nexus (New York/Washington) and the E.U. financial centers (Paris/Frankfurt).

The most recent news reports indicate the oil bourse will start trading on March 20, 2006, coinciding with the Iranian New Year.[16] The implementation of the proposed Iranian oil Bourse – if successful in utilizing the euro as its oil transaction currency standard – essentially negates the previous two criteria as described by Mr. Yarjani regarding the solidification of a petroeuro system for international oil trades. It should also be noted that throughout 2003-2004 both Russia and China significantly increased their central bank holdings of the euro, which appears to be a coordinated move to facilitate the anticipated ascendance of the euro as a second World Reserve Currency. [17] [18] China’s announcement in July 2005 that is was re-valuing the yuan/RNB was not nearly as important as its decision to divorce itself form a U.S. dollar peg by moving towards a “basket of currencies” – likely to include the yen, euro, and dollar.[19] Additionally, the Chinese re-valuation immediately lowered their monthly imported “oil bill” by 2%, given that oil trades are still priced in dollars, but it is unclear how much longer this monopoly arrangement will last.

Furthermore, the geopolitical stakes for the Bush administration were raised dramatically on October 28, 2004, when Iran and China signed a huge oil and gas trade agreement (valued between $70 – $100 billion dollars.) [20] It should also be noted that China currently receives 13% of its oil imports from Iran. In the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, the U.S.-administered Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) nullified previous oil lease contracts from 1997-2002 that France, Russia, China and other nations had established under the Saddam regime. The nullification of these contracts worth a reported $1.1 trillion created political tensions between the U.S and the European Union, Russia and China. The Chinese government may fear the same fate awaits their oil investments in Iran if the U.S. were able to attack and topple the Tehran government. Despite U.S. desires to enforce petrodollar hegemony, the geopolitical risks of an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would surely create a serious crisis between Washington and Beijing.

It is increasingly clear that a confrontation and possible war with Iran may transpire during the second Bush term. Clearly, there are numerous tactical risks regarding neoconservative strategy towards Iran. First, unlike Iraq, Iran has a robust military capability. Secondly, a repeat of any “Shock and Awe” tactics is not advisable given that Iran has installed sophisticated anti-ship missiles on the Island of Abu Musa, and therefore controls the critical Strait of Hormuz – where all of the Persian Gulf bound oil tankers must pass.[22] The immediate question for Americans? Will the neoconservatives attempt to intervene covertly and/or overtly in Iran during 2005 or 2006 in a desperate effort to prevent the initiation of euro-denominated international crude oil sales? Commentators in India are quite correct in their assessment that a U.S. intervention in Iran is likely to prove disastrous for the United States, making matters much worse regarding international terrorism, not to the mention potential effects on the U.S. economy.

…If it [ U.S.] intervenes again, it is absolutely certain it will not be able to improve the situation…There is a better way, as the constructive engagement of Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi has shown…Iran is obviously a more complex case than Libya, because power resides in the clergy, and Iran has not been entirely transparent about its nuclear programme, but the sensible way is to take it gently, and nudge it to moderation. Regime change will only worsen global Islamist terror, and in any case, Saudi Arabia is a fitter case for democratic intervention, if at all. [21]

A successful Iranian bourse will solidify the petroeuro as an alternative oil transaction currency, and thereby end the petrodollar’s hegemonic status as the monopoly oil currency. Therefore, a graduated approach is needed to avoid precipitous U.S. economic dislocations. Multilateral compromise with the EU and OPEC regarding oil currency is certainly preferable to an ‘Operation Iranian Freedom,’ or perhaps another CIA-backed coup such as operation “Ajax” from 1953. Despite the impressive power of the U.S. military, and the ability of our intelligence agencies to facilitate ‘interventions,’ it would be perilous and possibly ruinous for the U.S. to intervene in Iran given the dire situation in Iraq. The Monterey Institute of International Studies warned of the possible consequences of a preemptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities:

An attack on Iranian nuclear facilities…could have various adverse effects on U.S. interests in the Middle East and the world. Most important, in the absence of evidence of an Iranian illegal nuclear program, an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities by the U.S. or Israel would be likely to strengthen Iran’s international stature and reduce the threat of international sanctions against Iran. [23]

It is not yet clear if a U.S. military expedition will occur in a desperate attempt to maintain petrodollar supremacy. Regardless of the recent National Intelligence Estimate that down-played Iran’s potential nuclear weapons program, it appears increasingly likely the Bush administration may use the specter of nuclear weapon proliferation as a pretext for an intervention, similar to the fears invoked in the previous WMD campaign regarding Iraq. If recent stories are correct regarding Cheney’s plan to possibly use a another 9/11 terrorist attack as the pretext or casus belli for a U.S. aerial attack against Iran, this would confirm the Bush administration is prepared to undertake a desperate military strategy to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions, while simultaneously attempting to prevent the Iranian oil Bourse from initiating a euro-based system for oil trades.

However, as members of the U.N. Security Council; China, Russia and E.U. nations such as France and Germany would likely veto any U.S.-sponsored U.N. Security Resolution calling the use of force without solid proof of Iranian culpability in a major terrorist attack. A unilateral U.S. military strike on Iran would isolate the U.S. government in the eyes of the world community, and it is conceivable that such an overt action could provoke other industrialized nations to strategically abandon the dollar en masse. Indeed, such an event would create pressure for OPEC or Russia to move towards a petroeuro system in an effort to cripple the U.S. economy and its global military presence. I refer to this in my book as the “rogue nation hypothesis.”

While central bankers throughout the world community would be extremely reluctant to ‘dump the dollar,’ the reasons for any such drastic reaction are likely straightforward from their perspective – the global community is dependent on the oil and gas energy supplies found in the Persian Gulf. Hence, industrialized nations would likely move in tandem on the currency exchange markets in an effort to thwart the neoconservatives from pursuing their desperate strategy of dominating the world’s largest hydrocarbon energy supply. Any such efforts that resulted in a dollar currency crisis would be undertaken – not to cripple the U.S. dollar and economy as punishment towards the American people per se – but rather to thwart further unilateral warfare and its potentially destructive effects on the critical oil production and shipping infrastructure in the Persian Gulf. Barring a U.S. attack, it appears imminent that Iran’s euro-denominated oil bourse will open in March 2006. Logically, the most appropriate U.S. strategy is compromise with the E.U. and OPEC towards a dual-currency system for international oil trades.

Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes…known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few…No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare. — James Madison, Political Observations, 1795

[1]. Ron Suskind, The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O’ Neill, Simon & Schuster publishers (2004)
[2]. Richard A. Clarke, Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror, Free Press (2004)
[3]. William Clark, “Revisited – The Real Reasons for the Upcoming War with Iraq: A Macroeconomic and Geostrategic Analysis of the Unspoken Truth,” January 2003 (updated January 2004)
[4]. Peter Philips, Censored 2004, The Top 25 Censored News Stories, Seven Stories Press, (2003) General website for Project Censored: Story #19: U.S. Dollar vs. the Euro: Another Reason for the Invasion of Iraq
[5]. Carol Hoyos and Kevin Morrison, “Iraq returns to the international oil market,” Financial Times, June 5, 2003
[6]. Faisal Islam, “Iraq nets handsome profit by dumping dollar for euro,” [UK] Guardian, February 16, 2003,12239,896344,00.html
[7]. “Oil bourse closer to reality,”, December 28, 2004. Also see: “Iran oil bourse wins authorization,” Tehran Times, July 26, 2005
[8]. “War-Gaming the Mullahs: The U.S. weighs the price of a pre-emptive strike,” Newsweek, September 27 issue, 2004.
[9]. James Fallows, ‘Will Iran be Next?,’ Atlantic Monthly, December 2004, pgs. 97 – 110
[10]. Seymour Hersh, “The Coming Wars,” The New Yorker, January 24th – 31st issue, 2005, pgs. 40-47 Posted online January 17, 2005. Online:
[11]. Philip Giraldi, “In Case of Emergency, Nuke Iran,” American Conservative, August 1, 2005
[12]. Dafina Linzer, “Iran Is Judged 10 Years From Nuclear Bomb U.S. Intelligence Review Contrasts With Administration Statements,” Washington Post, August 2, 2005; Page A01
[13]. C. Shivkumar, “Iran offers oil to Asian union on easier terms,” The Hindu Business Line (June 16, ` 2003). 2003061702380500.htm
[14]. Terry Macalister, “Iran takes on west’s control of oil trading,” The [UK] Guardian, June 16, 2004,3604,1239644,00.html
[15]. “The Choice of Currency for the Denomination of the Oil Bill,” Speech given by Javad Yarjani, Head of OPEC’s Petroleum Market Analysis Dept, on The International Role of the Euro (Invited by the Spanish Minister of Economic Affairs during Spain’s Presidency of the EU) (April 14, 2002, Oviedo, Spain)
[16]. “Iran’s oil bourse expects to start by early 2006,” Reuters, October 5, 2004
[17]. “Russia shifts to euro as foreign currency reserves soar,” AFP, June 9, 2003
[18]. “China to diversify foreign exchange reserves,” China Business Weekly, May 8, 2004
[19]. Richard S. Appel, “The Repercussions from the Yuan’s Revaluation,”, July 27, 2005
[20]. China, Iran sign biggest oil & gas deal,’ China Daily, October 31, 2004. Online:
[21]. “Terror & regime change: Any US invasion of Iran will have terrible consequences,” News Insight: Public Affairs Magazine, June 11, 2004
[22]. Analysis of Abu Musa Island,
[23]. Sammy Salama and Karen Ruster, “A Preemptive Attack on Iran’s Nuclear Facilities: Possible Consequences,” Monterry Institute of International Studies, August 12, 2004 (updated September 9, 2004)

Interview with Author Frank Touby / September 9, 2010

Worldpress: In your book “Burning Sands” you write about your experience fighting the oilfield fires in Kuwait that Saddam Hussein lit 19 years ago. You got a position as a trainee oilfield firefighter with Safety Boss Ltd., of Calgary, Alberta, to essentially better entrench yourself as a journalist. Some of the scenes you describe are quite intense. Can you tell us a bit about that experience?
Frank Touby: It was the most fascinating and virtuous adventure of my life. We worked 14-hour days with no days off, and yet we were eager to get out there again at the start of each day. When we quenched a fire on a wild well that had been burning for five or more months we pinched off a toxic smoke trail that had stretched for thousands of miles around the earth. As the tail end of that noxious smoke stream trailed into the sky there was such a sense of exhilaration that came with participating in a truly worthy effort. I especially gained an appreciation for the skills and intelligence of farm boys, who provide most of the labor in the oil patch. They can operate almost any piece of heavy equipment for the first time just by looking at it. They are smart, dependable and energetic. I’m a guy whose career resulted from formal education and had an inclination to disregard such people whose work gets them dirty and who speak in less-than-correct English. Never again. On the other hand, these guys were so strong, so competent in their rightwing universes, that many of them couldn’t imagine others being truly needy of aid that government properly must provide. Not entirely their fault.

WP: Can you elaborate on that last point? What do you mean by “so competent in their rightwing universes…”?
FT: Sure. They were brought up in that rugged frontier milieu of independence, strength, self-made personhood and self-reliance. You look after yourself, your buds and your family in that model and everyone else does the same. So there is no need for crooked politicians or carpet-bagging bureaucrats to come in and tell you what to do with your land, your property and yourself. The men I worked with at Safety Boss, the blowout company, were Canadians mainly from Alberta and Saskatchewan. But it was very much the same with many of them. Mike Miller, the owner of Safety Boss, was not like that at all. He is a more urbane, philosophical man and a great, considerate leader. His company set a world record that likely will never be duplicated: 126 wild wells “killed” in five months. It probably won’t ever happen again because nobody will again set so many wells ablaze. There’s no point to it since it’s now proven that the wild wells can be quenched in a relatively short period of time. But nobody knew that at the time Saddam had his troops and sappers spend over a year preparing 700-plus wells to be torched.

WP: What did it teach you about the effects of war over resources?
FT: I must admit to having a jaded view that didn’t come from my experiences in Kuwait, but from events that transpired ever since. In short, I think war is almost a requirement to keep certain resources scarce and their prices high. Monopoly also serves that purpose—as it does with diamonds and with oil refineries that produce gasoline. War also accommodates the needs of the cabal Dwight Eisenhower warned us against as he left the presidency in 1961: “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” So far we have failed.

WP: How do you think the BP oil spill compares to the oil fires in Kuwait?
FT: Aside from being wild wells, they couldn’t be more dissimilar. While the desert in Kuwait was aflame with over 700 oil fires, BP managed to contaminate an area larger than that from a single well. Kuwait was heartless and malicious; BP, to the best of our knowledge, was heartless and incompetent. I fear the harm from BP will both overshadow the severity and outlast the harm from six months of wild wells in Kuwait.

WP: What do you think government’s role should be in getting developed countries off oil?
FT: There’s no excuse for our dependency on oil from any source. It’s solely caused by the control transnational corporations hold over governments. Alcohol (ethanol) is a better fuel than petroleum: higher octane, clean burning, endlessly renewable. It’s what the Model T Ford originally used before J. D. Rockefeller gave huge funds to the Women’s Christian Temperance League to get it outlawed, allegedly so his oil wells would be worth a fortune. (It’s detailed in David Blume’s book “Alcohol Can Be a Gas: Fueling an Ethanol Revolution for the 21st Century.”) Ethanol poses a threat to corporate monopolists because it can be produced by little guys, in contrast to the millions of dollars worth of refinery that it takes to produce gasoline. Ethanol doesn’t have to be made from corn grain, which is an atrocity since that’s a food crop. Almost any vegetable matter will work, including corn stalks that normally go to waste. Bulrushes, or cattails, are especially productive. Government’s role should be to encourage such oil replacements, but that won’t happen so long as corporatists control politicians and corporations are considered equal to real human beings in our laws.

WP: Do you have any ideas as to how people can break that corporate stronghold? Because you’re right; in the United States, for example, we’ve seen Congress’ attempt at an energy bill fail miserably. Certainly corporate influence had something to do with that.
FT: Yes. The situation in Canada is nearly the same as in the U.S. Corporations buy politicians and universities. The latter are the principal mechanisms of corruption since universities produce the civil service and also issue the various scientific dictates that are used to justify regulations favored by their corporate patrons. The effects of purchased politicians need no explanation. In Canada both the Liberal and Conservative parties are on the same corporatist pages, just as Republicans and Democrats are identically compromised in the States. Government ministries or departments, such as the regulators of pharmaceuticals and broadcasters, function as advocates for the corporations they’re nominally regulating. The solution is simple to state and perhaps impossible to remedy, short of a revolution either by law or by arms. It requires an end to corporate personhood: the ridiculous notion that a business corporation has human rights identical to those of real human beings. That was recently confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court (Citizens United vs. FEC), which ruled that corporations mustn’t be denied the human right of freedom of speech by limiting the money they can spend on election campaigns. The result will naturally be that corporations can own any elections they choose. Enabled by government “regulators,” junk-food giants wreck the health of billions of people with unhealthful restaurant fare; farm and chemical oligopolies harm our food supplies; drug giants waste our health resources by ignoring or concealing unprofitable health alternatives while inventing new “diseases” and investing their research dollars on marketing schemes to sell prescription cures for such contrivances as “acid reflux disease” (aka, “heartburn,” effectively countered with baking soda); oil companies write their own environmental rules. Practically everything government regulates is now compromised by multinational corporations for their profit purposes. An intermediate step to remediate the harm might be to change tax codes in the U.S. and Canada, since both nations have well-established different tax categories for corporations than for individuals. Prohibit businesses from deducting any expenses and require them to report all worldwide revenues. It would have marked impact on each economy to start with, since many businesses and charities exist because of corporations’ abilities to write off related expenses. It would eliminate “charitable” deeds that are done in corporate names, but really those are promotional expenses. Corporations and all businesses can’t be expected to operate in any way except in their own interests. Regulation by government is needed to avoid oligopolies and other cancerous growths that strangle free enterprise or harm consumers and workers.
Universities should be prohibited from accepting funds from individuals or corporations to ensure their independence from corruption. They should be entirely funded by government, which has a responsibility to provide education just as it has to provide the military, healthcare, currency, police, fire departments, roads, regulation of enterprise and so forth. In other words, using the phrase of Seattle-based radio commentator Thom Hartmann, it’s incumbent on government to ensure and maintain “The Commons” that comprise civilization.

Petrodollars, Petroeuros and the Iranian Oil Bourse
by Luigi Frascati / 2007

“This notion that the United States is getting ready to attack Iran is simply ridiculous […]. Having said that, all the options are on the table” (President George W. Bush, February 2005)

Who would have ever imagined it?
Forget about the Prophet Mohammed, Islam, the Koran, President Ahmadinejad and his nuclear program, Islamofascism and all the umpah-pah. The Mullahs do not like American Dollars anymore. As reported by Reuters UK ([]) Iran announced that it has ordered its Central Bank to start using Euros for foreign transactions, and to transform the nation’s Dollar-denominated assets held abroad into the single European currency. “The government has ordered the Central Bank to replace the Dollar with the Euro to limit the problems of the executive organs in commercial transactions,” government spokesman Gholam Hossein Elham told reporters.

Coming from OPEC’s fourth oil producer, this is a move that will undoubtedly have both deep economic reverberations and grave political consequences worldwide. It would certainly appear that rather than ‘wiping out Israel’ from the face of the planet, Iran is setting the tempo to wipe out American capitalism and influence everywhere. To understand the implications of such a move in financial affairs, one has to first revert to the importance of money in our economic systems and the effects that the ravages of inflation have over it.

Money is one of man’s most amazing inventions. Imagine the difficulty of our daily lives without those metal coins and coloured pieces of paper. To make any kind of transaction – from shopping for groceries to purchasing a real estate asset – you would have to find someone who had what you want and who wanted what you have, and then the two of you could barter. In a world with thousands of products, one would spend most of the time looking for trading partners and devoting very little time to actually earn an income. The alternative to avoid having to find trading partners would be for each and everyone of us to do a little bit of everything by ourselves.

But with money on the scene everything becomes more straightforward, simple and less time-consuming, and all of us can increase our productivity by and through specialization – that is doing what we do best, and then trade with our partners. As a direct and proximate consequence of our increased productivity, each of us can therefore become richer. It is easy to lose sight of the very basic economic point that we all owe a large part of our high living standards to the existence of money, its possession and the spending power that stems out of it. But there is a catch: money works best when its value is stable over time. And this is nowhere more true than in international trade.

Economically speaking, the power of the American Dollar and its influence in economic and financial affairs worldwide was born during the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference held at Bretton Wood, New Hampshire in July 1944. The Conference was attended by the delegates of all 45 allied nations directly and indirectly involved in the fight against the powers of the Axis – Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and Fascist Italy, and their socio-economic doctrines. As a result of the Bretton Woods Conference, a system of exchange rate among different currencies was set up anchored on the American Dollar, which was made convertible to gold – the common denominator and measure of wealth worldwide. Thus, the American Dollar became de facto the reserve currency of the world, accepted and traded everywhere. This system remained in place until the early 1970’s and it allowed countries to accumulate reserves in American Dollars, as opposed to gold.

When in 1970-1971 an economically resurgent Western Europe began demanding payment for their US Dollars, as it became clear that the American Government did not have enough gold reserves to buy back all those Dollars, the US Treasury under the Nixon Administration rather than defaulting on its payment ‘de-anchored’ the Greenback – that is it severed the link between the Dollar and gold. To avoid an international collapse of the American currency in world markets, however, the US treasury had to substitute gold with another valuable commodity so as to entice foreign countries to keep their foreign reserves in Dollars and to continue accepting the American currency.

Thus in 1972-73 an iron-clad arrangement was made with Saudi Arabia to support the power of the House of Saud in exchange for accepting only U.S. Dollars for its oil. The rest of OPEC was to follow suit and also accept only American Dollars. Because the world had to buy oil from the Arab oil-producing countries, it now had the reason to hold Dollars as payment for oil. Because the world needed ever increasing quantities of oil at ever increasing oil prices, the world’s demand for Dollars could only increase. Even though Dollars could no longer be exchanged for gold, they were now exchangeable for oil. The Petrodollar was born.

In 2000, the first man who actually began demanding Euros for his oil was none other than Saddam Hussein of Iraq – and we all know what has happened to him. To be more specific, in fact, Saddam Hussein Abd al-Majid al-Tikriti (1937-2006), former President of Iraq, made two strategic mistakes, the second one of which would ultimately cost him his neck – literally. Firstly, on August 2, 1990 he invaded Kuwait, a country very friendly with both the United Kingdom and the United States, and holding approximately ten percent of the world’s oil reserves. Saddam, furthermore, became a real threat to Saudi Arabia as well. By invading Kuwait and threatening Saudi Arabia, Saddam breached the Carter Doctrine postulated by President Jimmy Carter in 1980, which states that “[…] an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” The Carter Doctrine was later on upheld by President George H.W. Bush in 1989 with National Security Directive 26, which declares that “Access to Persian Gulf oil and the security of key friendly states in the area are vital to U.S. national security […].” The Gulf War ensued in January 1991.

The second mistake of Saddam was to start demanding payment for his oil in Euros. At first, his demand was met with ridicule, later with neglect, but as it became clearer that he meant business the need arose to make an example of anyone who demanded payment in currencies other than U.S. Dollars. The punishment came with the worsening of the geo-political situation after the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers and an increased perception and worry about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction – which he had used extensively against the Kurds and his own citizens. President Bush’s Shock-and-Awe intervention in Iraq followed, which ultimately brought about the demise of the Iraqi dictator.

Contemporary warfare has traditionally involved underlying conflicts regarding economics and resources. Today these intertwined conflicts also involve international currencies, and thus increased complexity. Current geopolitical tensions between the United States and Iran extend beyond the publicly stated concerns regarding Iran’s nuclear intentions, and likely include a proposed Iranian “petroeuro” system for oil trade – the Iranian Oil Bourse (‘Bourse’ is the French word for Stock Exchange). The proposed Iranian Oil Bourse signifies that without some sort of US intervention, the Euro is going to establish a firm foothold in the international oil trade.

This is so, because the Europeans would no longer have to buy and hold Dollars in order to secure their payment for oil, but would instead pay with their own currency. The adoption of the Euro for oil transactions would provide the European currency with a reserve status that would benefit the European at the expenses of the Americans. Given U.S. foreign debt levels and trade deficit, Tehran’s objective constitutes an obvious encroachment on the Dollar supremacy in the crucial international oil markets, and America can hardly afford that to happen. It is really a case of lethal economic terrorism and financial warfare, a matter of life and death.

And speaking of economic terrorism and financial warfare, it is very interesting and worth mentioning the link between oil and Euros on one side and Iran’s nuclear programme on the other side that Gholam Hossein Elham has made during the foresaid announcement. He has stated: “They (the Westerners) should put an end to their hostilities towards our nation and should also be aware that we are capable of achieving nuclear technology through very transparent and legal methods – something that they must respect. They must not waste their time with venting hostility against this nation, otherwise they will be harmed, more so than us.”

If Iran follows up with the intention to charge Euros for its oil, the upcoming Iranian Bourse will introduce Petroeuros currency hedging in direct competition with traditional Petrodollars. More than that, in political terms, it will pit America, Israel and Sunni Islam against Iran, Syria and Shiite Islam and will fundamentally create new dynamics and competition into the biggest markets in the world – those of global oil and gas trade. One of the Federal Reserve’s nightmares may well begin to unfold if it appears that international buyers will have a choice of buying a barrel of oil for USD 60 on the NYMEX and IPE – or purchase a barrel of oil for €45 – €50 through the Iranian Bourse. In essence, America would no longer be able to expand effortlessly its debt-financing with the issuance of US Treasury bills, and the international demand and liquidity of the American Dollar would fall. This is a very good reason to go to war.

Undersea Cable Cuts and the Iranian Oil Bourse

“Through the research that I have exhaustingly done over the past few days, this is the one that has struck me as the most likely reason for the damages that have occurred to submarine internet cables. The Iranian oil bourse is going to be a stock market for petroluem, petrochemicals and gas. What’s the big catch here? The exchange planned on being ran with currencies excluding the U.S. dollar. If you remember from earlier in the post, Iran stopped allowing purchases of their oil with the U.S. dollar in December of 2007. So, obviously, the U.S. is not going to be happy about this. The biggest piece of information linking this to the recent damages is the proposed location of the bourse: the island of Kish. This is the island that is right next to at least two of the cuts that have recently occurred…”

Iranian Oil Bourse Opens
by Steve Austin / 2008.02.06

The Iranian Oil Bourse establishing Euro-based pricing of oil is set to open on February 17th 2008 and could have devastating effects on the US dollar. Currently all three major oil markets (WTI, NYMEX, IPE) trade barrels of oil in US dollars. Consequently any country buying oil needs dollars to pay for it. This enables the US Federal Reserve to issue huge volumes of dollars to meet increasing demand for oil. In return oil producing nations invest dollar proceeds in US treasury bills, allowing for the current US budget deficit. But this balance may become unsettled after a fourth major oil market opens this month, trading in Euros: the Iranian Oil Bourse (IOB).

Unlike other bourses, the IOB relies on a peer-to-peer trading model, using the Internet. IOB has been in the works for several years and encountered many hurdles on the way, the last of which are severed underwater internet cables creating an Internet outage throughout the Middle East days before the IOB’s opening and prompting conspiracy theories. In recent years the US has outfitted some of its submarines with the capability to splice optical fiber underwater so these theories may not be far-fetched. Having the world’s second largest oil reserves of 136 gigabarrels, Iran will likely extend its influence on financial markets when the IOB opens. Although under-reported by the media, this historical shift and its consequences should be watched closely.

Iran’s bourse booms despite sanctions
by Robin Pomeroy / Sep 30, 2010

In the busy foyer of the Tehran Stock Exchange an old woman in a black chador clutches her shopping bag and gazes up hopefully at the electronic display showing the latest share prices. Like the other Iranians bustling past her, she is betting on a market that has soared to record highs despite ever-tightening international sanctions, lackluster oil prices and political uncertainty after last year’s disputed presidential election. While U.S. diplomats were busy upping Iran’s economic punishment over nuclear activities Washington fears are aimed at making a bomb, Iranian shares, which might have been expected to fall, have, instead, gone through the roof. Tehran’s Tepix index has risen 65 percent to all-time highs this year. Its latest record was set on Sept. 18, when it hit 18,658, up from 11,295 at the start of the year. By comparison, New York’s S&P 500 Index has made no major gains this year as the U.S. economy struggles to recover from the financial crisis.

Officials say privatisation, cheap valuations and moves to cut red tape and encourage private investors have lured Iranians away from the once-booming property market, the traditional home of the Iranian nest egg, which stagnated in late 2008. The world’s fifth-largest oil exporter hopes to raise $12.5 billion by privatising over 500 state firms during the 2010-11 year, and plans to sell all of its refineries and petrochemicals units, promising potential investors a solid pipeline of IPOs. Iranians are also increasingly reluctant to park their spare cash in the bank, where interest on instant access savings has fallen from about 12.5 percent three years ago to 6 percent now. Those rates seem healthy compared to Western economies, where central bank rates are near zero, but are no match for the rewards promised by a bourse which already boasts more than 330 listed firms and a market capitalisation above $70 billion.

Speaking in his office on the upper floors of the stock exchange, bourse chief Hassan Ghalibaf Asl summed up the logic: “The opportunities and good factors affecting the growth of the capital market and attracting investors are more important, and the weight of them is more, than bad factors.” Few dispute however, that the bad factors are there. From a lack of transparency to tightening sanctions, myriad challenges belie the Tehran Stock Exchange’s stellar performance. Firms related to the elite Revolutionary Guards and other state bodies have bought large stakes in privatised companies, further muddying the waters between public and private in a country where powerful quasi-official foundations pervade.

Last year, a consortium linked to the Revolutionary Guards took a controlling stake in the Telecommunications Company of Iran for $7.8 billion, raising concern that some firms being put up for sale are just being transferred within the public sector. Investments by these vast semi-official or politically connected organisations have caused the surges in stock prices that small investors have been happy to ride, Meir Javedanfar, an Iran expert at Middle East analysis firm Meepas, said. “Very few stock exchanges have record gains in a country where sanctions, economic isolation, unemployment and inflation are increasing,” he said. “All indicators point to this boom being a government-made bubble. It’s difficult to predict when it will burst.” Even in parliament, questions are being asked about the disconnect between soaring share prices and an economy facing not just sanctions but looming cuts to multi-billion-dollar state subsidies that currently guarantee cheap fuel to domestic industries and reduce the cost of goods for Iranian consumers. Many small investors are ordinary Iranians, who could end up suffering the most if boom turns to bust.

Sheltering from the blazing sun under the porticos of the bourse building, a man sits on a fold-out stool and sells economics text books laid at his feet on sheets of newspaper. Traders, the majority apparently amateurs, pass him on their way inside to swap rumours as they crowd around touchscreens, looking up data provided by the bourse on their chosen stocks. Iranians can place orders with professional brokers, without having to go in person to the bourse, but the building, with its atmosphere of anticipation, attracts scores of people, placing their cash alongside institutions like Iran’s pension funds. Apart from one turbaned cleric and a handful of women, most are middle aged men, and the mood is optimistic though smaller trades are driven largely by rumour, since rules requiring listed firms to disclose their performance and plans are lax.

With his boy-band haircut, jeans and T-shirt, 26-year-old Navid Sadri is not the typical day-trader on Tehran’s bourse, but he has been making his living on the market for eight years, long enough to know that a boom usually ends in a bust. “Eight months ago there was a very small crowd,” he says, pointing to the amateur traders hovering in the corridors above the bourse’s modest trading floor. “If every day there’s a bigger crowd it’s a sign that there will be a drop.” While domestic investment in the bourse booms, international sanctions and political uncertainty are hampering the flow of foreign funds and expertise that Iran needs to modernize. Foreign investment on the Tehran bourse accounts for just 0.5 percent of the shares, according to the bourse chief. “We don’t even look at the Iranian market. There is just too much political risk involved,” Robert McKinnon of ASAS Capital, an asset management company in Dubai, said in June, when bourse officials travelled to the city to drum up foreign interest.

In an effort to attract cash from abroad, Iran revoked a rule this year that had forced foreign investors to hold their initial capital in the Islamic Republic for three years. While foreign investors can now repatriate their capital whenever they want, U.S. rules ban any bank that does business with the United States from making transactions with Iran. That rule is enough to keep most major international banks at bay. So far, Tehran’s bourse has lured only a handful of smaller institutions willing to gamble on the world’s riskier markets. Fund management company Castlestone calls Iran stocks “a jaw-dropping opportunity” and plans to include them in a new high-growth emerging markets fund. Turquoise Partners, an investment firm with offices in Tehran and London, manages a $100 million fund on behalf of foreign investors wanting a piece of the Iranian action. “We’ve had a flood of money coming into the market in the last one and a half years,” Ali Mashayekhi, head of investment research at Turquoise, said.

Petrodollar or Petroeuro? A new source of global conflict
by Cóilín Nunan

No observer of the lead-up to the war in Iraq and its aftermath could have failed to notice that the level of cooperation between Europe and America was extremely low. France and Germany were very strong opponents of the US/UK invasion and even after the war was declared over, disagreements persisted over the lifting of sanctions and how Iraq should be run. So was this just a one-off tiff or was it a symptom of deeper flaws in the relationship? I believe that the war on Iraq illustrated for the first time that continental Europe, led by France and Germany, no longer wishes to follow the Americans politically, although what has been termed a ‘clash of civilisations’ [1] is probably better viewed as a ‘clash of economies’.

While disagreements over the US trade barriers on steel imports or the European restrictions on imports of American genetically modified crops have attracted widespread comment, the most intense economic rivalry of all has received far less media attention than it perhaps should: this is the rivalry between the dollar and the euro for the position of world reserve currency, a privileged status that has been held by the dollar ever since the Bretton Woods agreement nearly 60 years ago.

At present, approximately two thirds of world trade is conducted in dollars and two thirds of central banks’ currency reserves are held in the American currency which remains the sole currency used by international institutions such as the IMF. This confers on the US a major economic advantage: the ability to run a trade deficit year after year. It can do this because foreign countries need dollars to repay their debts to the IMF, to conduct international trade and to build up their currency reserves. The US provides the world with these dollars by buying goods and services produced by foreign countries, but since it does not have a corresponding need for foreign currency, it sells far fewer goods and services in return, i.e. the US always spends more than it earns, whereas the rest of the world always earns more than it spends. This US trade deficit has now reached extraordinary levels, with the US importing 50% more goods and services than it exports. So long as the dollar remains the dominant international currency the US can continue consuming more than it produces and, for example, build up its military strength while simultaneously affording tax cuts.

Getting a share of this economic free lunch has been one of the motivations, and perhaps the main motivation, behind setting up the euro [2]. Were the euro to become a reserve currency equal to, or perhaps even instead of, the dollar, countries would reduce their dollar holdings while building up their euro savings. Another way of putting this would be to say that Eurozone countries would be able to reduce their subsidy to American consumption and would find that other countries were now subsidising Eurozone consumption instead.

A move away from the dollar towards the euro could, on the other hand, have a disastrous effect on the US economy as the US would no longer be able to spend beyond its means. Worse still, the US would have to become a net currency importer as foreigners would probably seek to spend back in the US a large proportion of the estimated three trillion dollars which they currently own. In other words, the US would have to run a trade surplus, providing the rest of the world with more goods and services than it was receiving in return. A rapid and wholesale move to the euro might even lead to a dollar crash as everyone sought to get rid of some, or all, of their dollars at the same time. But that is an outcome that no-one, not even France or Germany, is seeking because of the huge effect it would have on the world economy. Europe would much prefer to see a gradual move to a euro-dollar world, or even a euro-dominated one.

It turns out that there is a small group of countries which is playing the arbiter in this global contest. These are the world’s oil exporters, in particular OPEC and Russia. Ever since the days when the US dominated world oil production, sales of oil and natural gas on international markets have been exclusively denominated in dollars. This was partly a natural state of affairs since, up until the early 1950s, the US accounted for half or more of the world’s annual oil production. The tendency to price in dollars was additionally reinforced by the Bretton Woods agreement which established the IMF and World Bank and adopted the dollar as the currency for international loans.

The vast majority of the world’s countries are oil importers and, since oil is such a crucial commodity, the need to pay for it in dollars encourages these countries keep the majority of their foreign currency reserves in dollars not only to be able to buy oil directly but also to protect the value of their own currencies from falling against the dollar. Because a sudden devaluation of a country’s currency against the dollar would lead to a jump in oil prices and a possible economic crisis, every country’s central bank needs dollar reserves so as to be able to buy its own currency on the foreign exchange markets when its value needs to be supported.

The fact that oil sales and loans from the IMF are dollar-denominated also encourages poorer countries to denominate their exports in dollars as this minimises the risk of losses through any fluctuations in the value of the dollar. The knock-on effect of this is that, since many of these exports are essential raw materials which richer countries need to import, their denomination in dollars reinforces the need for rich countries to keep their own currency reserves in dollars.

While the denomination of oil sales is not a subject which is frequently discussed in the media, its importance is certainly well understood by governments. For example, when in 1971 President Nixon took the US off the gold standard, OPEC did consider moving away from dollar oil pricing, as dollars no longer had the guaranteed value they once did. The US response was to do various secret deals with Saudi Arabia in the 1970s to ensure that the world’s most important oil exporter stuck with the dollar [3]. What the Saudis did, OPEC followed. More recently, in June 2003, the Prime Minister of Malaysia publicly encouraged his country’s oil and gas exporters to move from the dollar to the euro. The European and American reactions were polar opposites: the EU’s Energy Commissioner, Loyola de Palacio, welcomed the suggestion, saying that ‘in the future the euro is [going to be] taking a place in the international markets in general as the money of exchange’ and that this was ‘a matter of realism’ [4]. Her counterpart in the US, the director of the Energy Information Administration, Guy Caruso, said that he couldn’t see ‘any particular merit’ in the move and that over the long run ‘the dollar’s always won out’ [5]. Either way, Malaysia is only a relatively minor oil exporter, so what it does can only have a very limited effect. A switch by a major oil exporter would be of far greater significance.

The first country to actually make the switch was a very important oil exporter indeed: Iraq, in November 2000 [6,7]. Before the war in Iraq began, some observers, myself included, argued that this might well be a major reason for the US desire to invade and the strong Franco-German opposition to the invasion [8,9]. Corroborating evidence included the apparent influence which loyalty (or lack thereof) to the dollar seemed to have on the US attitude towards other OPEC members. Iran had been talking of selling its own oil for euros [6,10] and was subsequently included in George Bush’s ‘axis of evil’. Venezuela, another important oil exporter, had started bartering some of its oil, thus avoiding the use of the dollar, and was encouraging OPEC to do likewise [11] – and the US was widely suspected in having played a part in the attempted coup against the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez.

Semi-official confirmation that petro-currency rivalry was at the heart of the split between France and Germany, on the one hand, and the US, on the other, was provided by Howard Fineman, the chief political correspondent for Newsweek, in an article he wrote in April 2003, in the aftermath of the war. The Europeans and Americans were then arguing over whether the UN’s oil-for-food programme in Iraq should remain in place or not. Using the term ‘clash of civilisations’ to describe the divide which was developing, Fineman explained that the disagreement had little to do with the French calls for the search for weapons of mass destruction to resume and for sanctions to remain in place until the search was complete. Instead, Fineman said, it was mainly about the dollar vs the euro. Citing White House officials and a presidential aide, he explained that the dispute between the two continents was really about ‘who gets to sell – and buy – Iraqi oil, and what form of currency will be used to denominate the value of the sales. That decision, in turn, will help decide who controls Iraq, which, in turn, will represent yet another skirmish in a growing global economic conflict. We want a secular, American-influenced pan-ethnic entity of some kind to control the massive oil fields (Iraq’s vast but only real source of wealth). We want that entity to be permitted to sell the oil to whomever it wants, denominated in dollars.’ Fineman concluded his article by confidently predicting that future Iraqi oil sales would be switched back to dollars [1].

Fineman’s White House sources would appear to have been reliable as that is precisely what has happened: when Iraqi oil exports resumed in June of last year, it was announced that payment would be in dollars only [12,13]. It was also decided that the billions of Iraqi euros which were being held in a euro account, controlled by the UN under the oil-for-food programme, were to be transferred into the Development Fund for Iraq, a dollar account controlled by the US [13,14,15].

Furthermore, Youssef Ibrahim, a former senior Middle East correspondent for the New York Times and energy editor on the Wall Street Journal, who is a member of the influential Council on Foreign Relations, has called Iraq’s switch to the euro ‘another reason’ for the war, saying that a general move by oil producers to the euro would be a ‘catastrophe’ for the US [16].

America’s willingness to use violence to defend its economic interests does not seem to have reduced the number of oil exporters considering switching to the euro as they recognise that their use of the dollar enables the US to build up its military strength. In addition to Malaysia, Indonesia has the switch under consideration [17] while Iran has been shifting its currency reserves into euros. Moreover, according to the Vice-President of the Iranian central bank, it has actually sold some of its oil to Europe for euros and is encouraging members of an Asian trade organisation, the Asian Clearing Union, to pay for Iranian oil in the European currency [18]. Along with Malaysia, it is also at the forefront of efforts to establish a new gold-backed currency, the Islamic Gold Dinar, to be used in international trade amongst Muslim countries instead of both the dollar and the euro [19]. In a further development, in June 2004, Iran announced that it had plans to establish an oil-trading market for Middle Eastern and OPEC producers which could threaten the dominance of London’s International Petroleum Exchange and New York’s Nymex [20]. Such a move could help remove some of the technical difficulties that exist with a switch away from dollar-denomination of oil sales.

It is therefore not surprising to find that, just as with Iraq, the European Union and the US are dealing with Iran in very different ways. While the EU has been holding trade negotiations with Iran [21] and involved in dialogue about its nuclear programme, the US has refused to get involved in direct talks with the Iranian government which it views as ‘evil’. The American Enterprise Institute, a highly influential American ‘think tank’, has in fact been actively calling for ‘regime change’ [22] and, although this policy has yet to be officially endorsed by the Bush administration, in July 2004 it was claimed in the British press that a senior official of the Bush administration had indicated that, if re-elected, Bush would intervene in the internal affairs of Iran in an attempt to overturn the Iranian government [23,24].

European enthusiasm for the ‘petroeuro’ also appears undampened by the US takeover of Iraq. Since the war, the European Union has been actively encouraging Russia, another opponent of the US invasion, to move to euro oil and gas sales. In October 2003, during a joint press conference with Germany’s Prime Minister Gerhard Schroeder, the Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that Russia was thinking about selling its oil for euros. A few days later, the European Commission President, Romano Prodi, said, after a summit between Russia and the European Union, that Russia was now drawn to having its imports and exports denominated in euros [25,26].

In December 2003, speculation about the future roles of the dollar and the euro increased when OPEC Secretary General Alvaro Silva, a former Venezuelan oil minister, said that the organisation was now considering trading in euros or in a basket of currencies other than the dollar, as the US currency was declining in value [27] . Although a few days later the Saudi oil minister Ali al-Naimi said that OPEC would not be discussing a switch to the euro at its next meeting (comments reinforced by the Qatari President of OPEC and the Algerian oil minister [28]), articles discussing a possible move continued to appear in the media [29,30] and the euro’s value against the dollar soared. Despite the speculation, no decision to move to the euro was taken at OPEC’s meeting in early February 2004 and thereafter the euro’s value fell back again.

In fact, close inspection of the dollar-euro exchange rate shows that since the euro’s introduction in January 1999, petro-currency rivalry appears to have played an important part in swinging the rate one way or the other. The markets, it seems, have noticed the importance of what is happening. On the other hand, the lack of an open discussion of the issues suggests that politicians and bankers are keen to move ahead with their plans with little or no explanation to the general public.

Should we not, however, be debating more openly what kind (or kinds) of international financial structure(s) we want to adopt, since the question has potentially huge implications for the stability of the world economy and for peace and stability in oil-exporting countries? A good starting point for such a debate would be the recognition that no country or countries should be allowed to dominate the system by controlling the issuance of the currency or currencies used. Similarly fundamental would be to prevent any country from running a persistent trade surplus or deficit so as to avoid the build up of unjust subsidies, unpayable debts and economic instability. At Bretton Woods, John Maynard Keynes, who understood how important these two conditions were, proposed a system which would have met them, but his proposal was rejected in favour of the dollar.[31] The dollar, though, is no longer a stable, reliable currency: the IMF has warned that the US trade deficit is so bad that its currency could collapse at any time.[32] Will we really have to wait for a full-blown dollar crisis before a public debate about creating a just and sustainable trading system can begin?

1. Howard Fineman, ‘In Round 2, it’s the dollar vs. euro’, April 23 2003, Newsweek,
2. Anon., ‘Will the euro rule the roost?’, January 1 1999, BBC News, u/225434.stm
3. David E. Spiro, The Hidden Hand of American Hegemony: Petrodollar Recycling and International Markets, Cornell University Press, 1999
4. Anon., ‘EU says oil could one day be priced in euros’, 16 June 2003, Reuters
5. Irene Kwek, ‘EIA Says Oil Price Switch To Euro From Dollar Unlikely’, 16 June 2003, Dow Jones Newswires
6. Recknagel, Charles, ‘Iraq: Baghdad Moves to Euro’, November 1 2000,Radio Free Europe,
7. Faisal Islam, ‘When will we buy oil in euros?’, February 23 2003, The Observer,,6903,900867,00.html
8. William Clark, ‘The Real Reasons for the Upcoming War With Iraq: A Macroeconomic and Geostrategic Analysis of the Unspoken Truth’, January 2003,
9. Cóilín Nunan, ‘Oil, currency and the war on Iraq’, January 2003,
10. Anon., ‘Iran may switch to euro for crude sale payments’, Alexander Oil and Gas, September 5 2002,
11. Hazel Henderson, ‘Globocop v. Venezuela’s Chavez: Oil, Globalization and Competing Visions of Development’, April 2002, InterPress Service,
12. Carola Hoyos and Kevin Morrison, ‘Iraq returns to international oil market’, June 5 2003, Financial Times
13. Coalition Provisional Authority Regulation Number 2,
14. UN Security Council Resolution 1483,
15. Judy Aita, ‘U.N. Transfers Oil-for-Food Program to CPA, Iraqi Officials Nov 22’, November 2003, Washington File,
16. Catherine Belton, ‘Why not price oil in euros?’, October 10 2003, Moscow Times
17. Kazi Mahmood, ‘Economic Shift Could Hurt U.S.-British Interests In Asia’, March 30 2003,
18. C. Shivkumar, ‘Iran offers oil to Asian union on easier terms’, June 16 2003,
19. Anon, ‘Malaysia, Iran discuss the use of gold dinar’, July 3 2003, Asia Times,
20. Terry Macalister, ‘Iran takes on west’s control of oil trading’, June 16 2004, The Guardian,,3604,1239644,00.html
21. Hooman Peimani, ‘EU and Iran talk trade, not war’, June 7 2003, Asia Times,
22. Guy Dinmore, ‘US lobbyists tune in for regime change in Iran’, December 5 2003, Financial Times
23. Michael Binyon and Bronwen Maddox, ‘US sets sights on toppling Iran regime’, July 17 2004, The Times
24. Jennifer Johnston, ‘Regime change in Iran now in Bush’s sights’, July 18 2004, The Sunday Herald,
25. Lisa Jucca and Melissa Akin, ‘Europe Presses Russia on Euro’, October 20 2003, Moscow Times
26. Simon Nixon, ‘What’s that in euros?’, October 18 2003, The Spectator,§ion=current&issue=2003-10-18&id=3619
27. Anon., ‘OPEC may trade oil in euros to compensate for dollar decline’, December 9 2003, Associated Press,,00020008.htm
28. Anon., ‘Saudi Arabia: Dollars only please’, December 13 2003, Reuters, .saudi.reut/
29. Patrick Brethour, ‘OPEC mulls move to euro for pricing crude oil’, January 12 2004, Globe and Mail,
30. Anon., ‘To euro or not: should oil pricing ditch the dollar?’, February 9 2004, AFP
31. Michael Rowbottom, Goodbye America! Globalisation, Debt and the Dollar Empire, Jon Carpenter Publishing, 2000
32. Charlotte Denny and Larry Elliott, ‘IMF warns trade gap could bring down dollar’, September 19 2003, The Guardian,,3604,1045193,00.html


Earthship n. 1. passive solar home made of natural and recycled materials 2. thermal mass construction for temperature stabilization. 3. renewable energy & integrated water systems make the Earthship an off-grid home with little to no utility bills.

Biotecture n. 1. the profession of designing buildings and environments with consideration for their sustainability. 2. A combination of biology and architecture.

Solving Haiti’s Housing Problems with Old Tires, Bottles / July 20, 2010

Made from used tires, discarded bottles, cardboard, Styrofoam and other waste materials, Mr. Reynolds designs and builds these homes to be essentially energy self-sufficient. Earthships use solar energy and wind to generate their own power and heat; homes are designed to collect usable water from rain and snow and are built with greenhouses where resident can grown their own food. Mr. Reynolds has built more than 1,000 of the environmentally-friendly structures, including a community of them outside Taos, N.M., through his company, Earthship Biotecture. Now he’s bringing earthships to Haiti.

Earlier this month, Mr. Reynolds and two builders, along with a cameraman, went to Haiti intending to survey the area to see how they could help. “There was nothing but tents, nothing but cleanup,” Mr. Reynolds says of what he saw in Port-au-Prince. Instead of just surveying the city, Mr. Reynolds and his team ended up building. A non-governmental organization called Grassroots United, which had contacted Mr. Reynolds before he arrived, met his group at the airport and told him that they had some land upon which he could build. Anticipating his arrival, the organization had gotten Haitian children to collect tires and plastic bottles from the tent camps.

Mr. Reynolds himself had one arm in a cast because of rotator cuff surgery, and the two builders with him both got sick from the water and heat. “The three of us were worthless, pretty much,” he says. But 40 locals, ranging in age from four to 50, built an earthship in just four days under his guidance. “They had nothing to do. They were all eager to learn, and it turns out all the skills we could do, they could do.”

The earthship, just 120 square feet, is made of 120 tires packed with dirt–such tires are the main building blocks of any earthship. Designed to be earthquake- and hurricane-resistant, the Haiti earthship is not completely finished. Mr. Reynolds plans to return in October to add plaster to the exterior and a screened-in veranda with flush toilets, as well as outfit it for solar energy and water collection. He hopes the home will be used as a prototype for more in Haiti, an example of what’s possible. Earthships could be a boon for a place like Haiti, says Mr. Reynolds, where even the capital city has little infrastructure like sewage or electricity. “The most substantial thing I saw down there was a plywood shack,” he says.

The Haiti home isn’t the first that Mr. Reynolds has built in an area hit by disaster. Following the 2004 tsunami, he says, an architect from the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean found his website and asked him if he could help rebuild. There, Mr. Reynolds and his team erected a building made from automobile tires and bottles during a two-week visit. “On our last day there, the monsoons came, and we saw it catching water,” Mr. Reynolds says. Though he hasn’t been back to visit, he hears that the locals now use the structure like a well. The Andaman Islands Earthship was too complex for the locals to replicate themselves, Mr. Reynolds says, but he has since perfected his model for disaster relief to help locals in devastated areas rebuild themselves.

When he returns to Haiti in October, he plans to find a site where he can build a small village of earthships. “It doesn’t have to be in the city because there is nothing in the city anyway,” he says of the lack of infrastructure. “These buildings would provide their own power, their own water, their own sewage (systems).” Most important, Mr. Reynolds says, is a sense of empowerment instilled in those who helped. “They built the building!” he says. “The real thing that shows it’s possible for them to do it is that they did it.”

Castles Made of Trash
by Dennis Nishi / June 16, 2009

Architect Michael Reynolds has built more than 1,000 homes from materials including used car tires and glass-bottle bottoms. He calls his self-sufficient designs “earthships” because they require little heating or cooling and generate their own electricity and water. His company, Earthship Biotecture of Taos, N.M., designs and builds sustainable homes world-wide.

Q: I hear you were a maverick even in architecture school.
A: I discovered early on that architecture needs to embody the needs of people. Most architects have impractical ideas that are wasteful. That’s why I’ve drifted away from what you know as architecture. The University of Cincinnati had a co-op program where you could work for three months and go to school for three months. It took me six years of working in a lot of architectural offices around the country to discover that I didn’t want to do architecture the way it was being done.

Q: Where did you get the idea to use trash?
A: Walter Cronkite did a piece on clear-cutting timber in the Northwest. Even in 1969, he predicted massive deforestation would result in wood scarcity and would affect our oxygen levels, things that have become big issues today. Charles Kuralt did another piece on beer cans being thrown all over the streets and highways. So I started playing with beer cans and trying to make them into building blocks. It was a way to kill two birds with one stone.

Q: How did you go from cans to car tires?
A: I later decided to try a different material and thought of the mountains of discarded tires that can be found everywhere. Pack them with dirt and they will store energy. Plus they’re strong and resilient, so I built an entire house out of them. I went on to add photovoltaic panels, windmills, water collection and onsite sewage treatment.

Q: It didn’t sound like you got many takers in the beginning.
A: We did sell houses here and there. I wasn’t trying to build a big corporation and, of course, our overhead was low. I just needed to get the idea out there. I was also a licensed contractor so I could work on other projects.

Q: Who were your early adopters?
A: When I started, it was young hipsters who were not afraid of trying something new. As recycling and conservation became more mainstream, it became a wider variety of people … from all walks of life.

Q: You relinquished your state architecture license in 2000. What led to this?
A: Some of the houses were too hot, went over budget and some roofs leaked. The customers complained and the investigators who were sent saw that I wasn’t following any of the rules. In the end, I was told if I relinquished my license, I could do more as a private citizen than under the cloak of an architect. Otherwise, they could fine me forever for violating codes. [He got back his national architecture license.]

Q: That’s when you took your fight to the state legislature?
A: I wrote a bill [that] makes it easier to build experimental homes [without the need for an architecture license]. It took three and a half years to get it through. Governor Bill Richardson signed it into law in 2007.

Q: And you went overseas with your ideas?
A: For awhile, … I went wherever there was a desire to use my ideas. After the earthquake and tsunami in 2004, an architect [from the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean] that lived right in the middle of the disaster saw our Web site and asked us to come.

Q: What did you see in the Andaman Islands?
A: Their whole community was just wiped out. We paid the local kids to bring us bottles, and we built a house out of them that collects its own water. We gave the plans to the engineers.

Q: What’s next?
A: We’re launching a village project called Eve: Earthship Village Ecology in Taos. The focus is complete independence. We’re specifically working on food production in the home, and we’ve dedicated 50% of the floor space to gardens.

Q: How efficient are your earthships?
A: We’re building homes today that don’t draw from the grid and have a $100 per year total utility bill. And they have flat screen TVs, broadband Internet and all the other comforts. The reason why more people are not doing it is because it takes forever for somebody doing a radical green project to get a permit.

Michael Reynolds
email : biotecture [at] earthship [dot] com

Green Building Construction Materials

House as Assemblage of by-products:
A sustainable home must make use of indigenous materials, those occurring naturally in the local area. For thousands and thousands of years, housing was built from found materials such as rock, earth, reeds and logs. Today, there are mountains of by-products of our civilization that are already made and delivered to all areas. These are the natural resources of the modern humanity.

An Earthship must make use of these materials via techniques available to the common person. These materials and the techniques for using them must be accessible to the common person in terms of price and skill required to use them. The less energy required to turn a found object into a usable building material the better. This concept is also called embodied-energy.

The Primary Building Block: Rammed-Earth encased in Steel Belted Rubber:
The major structural building component of the Earthship is recycled automobile tires filled with compacted earth to form a rammed earth brick encased in steel belted rubber. This brick and the resulting bearing walls it forms is virtually indestructible.

Aluminum Cans and Glass/Plastic Bottles:
These ‘little bricks’ are a great, simple way to build interior, non-structural walls. Aluminum can walls actually make very strong walls. The ‘little bricks’ create a cement-matrix that is very strong and very easy to build. Bottle can create beautiful colored walls that light shines through.

The Nature of the Materials
In keeping with the design and performance requirements of a Earthship Biotecture, the nature of the building matierials for an Earthship must have certain characteristics established. These characteristics must align with, rather than deteriorate, the environment of the planet. The requirements and characteristics below describe the nature of the ideal ‘building block’ for constructing the ideal building for residential and commercial applications. Many conventional materials satisfy one or two of these characteristics but no conventional materials satisfies all of them. Therefore, we must ‘invent’ or ‘create’ a new material or building block for the primary structure of the Earthship.

Materials are found all over the planet. Shipping materials for long distances is not sustainable and uses excessive amounts of energy. In order for the Earthship to be easily accessible to the common person and to maintain a low impact on the planetary energy situation, a “building block” found all over the globe would be required.

Able to be fashioned with little or no energy: If a building material was found that was indigenous to many parts of the planet but it required massive amounts of energy to fashion into a usable form, then it would not be sustainable and not considered. The major building materials for an earthships must require little or no manufactured energy to fashion into use. This keeps them easily available to common people and at the same time would allow the large scale production of Earthships to maintain a relatively low impact on the planet.

Since there are so many of us, if we are to survive without literally consuming the planet, everything we use must be chosen with consideration to the impact of large scale application. We must explore building materials and methods that are not dependent on manufactured energy and that have the potential to contribute to the general well-being of the planet rather than exploit it.

Thermal Mass:
The materials that surround the spaces of an Earthship must be dense and massive in order to store the temperatures required to provide a habitable environment for humans and plants. The Earthship itself must be a ‘battery’ for storing temperature. Making buildings out of heavy dense mass is as important as making airplanes light. Obviously a heavy airplane takes more fuel to fly. Obviously a light house takes more fuel to heat and cool.

We have built out of wood for centuries. Wood is organic and biodegradable. It goes away. So we have developed various poisonous chemical products to paint on it and make it last. This, plus the fact that wood is light and porous, makes it a very unsatisfactory building material. This is not to mention the fact that trees are our source of oxygen. For building housing that will last without chemicals, we should look around for materials that have durability as an inherent quality rather than trying to paint on durability. Wood is definitely a good material for cabinet doors and ceilings where mass is not a factor and where it protected so it will not rot, but the basic massive structure of buildings should be a natural resource that is inherently massive and durable by its own nature.

Earthquakes are an issue in many parts of the world. Any method of building must relate to this potential threat. Since earthquakes involve a horizontal movement or shaking of the structure, this suggests a material with resilience or capacity to move with this shaking. Brittle materials like concrete, break, crack and fracture. The ideal structural material for dealing with this kind of situation would have a ‘rubbery’ or resilient quality to it. This kind of material would allow movement without failure.

Low specific skill requirements:
If the materials for easily obtainable housing are to be truly accessibly to the common person they must, by their very nature, be easy to learn how to assemble. The nature of the materials for building an earthship must allow for assembling skills to be learned and mastered in a matter of hours, not year. These skills must be basic enough that specific talent is not required to learn them.

Low tech use/application: some systems of building today are simple if one has the appropriate high-tech expensive energy dependeant device or equipment. This, of course, limits the application of these methods to the professionals who have invested in the technology to enable them to use such methods. Becuase of the expense and energy required to get set up for these systems the common person is left totally dependent on those professionals for accessibility to these particular housing systems. Therefore the common person must go through the medium of money (bank loans, interest approvals, etc.) to gain access to a housing system that usually dictates performance and appearance.

If high-tech systems and skills are between the common person and their ability to obtain a home, we are setting ourselves up to place the very nature of our housing in the hans of economics rather than in the hands of the people. This situation has resulted in in human, energy-hog housing blocks and developments that make investors some quick money and leave the planet and the people with something that requires constant input of money and energy to operate. Earthship technology is the technology of natural phenomenon like the physics of the sun, the earth and people themselves.

by Michael Haederle / August 14, 2008

The speed limit posted on the rutted dirt road that winds through the Greater World subdivision is 20 mph, but Michael Reynolds is easily doing twice that as he rides his knobby-tired Yamaha TT500 bike to the job site, his white mane flowing in the slipstream. He pulls up next to a strange-looking structure with curving walls and a row of big, south-facing windows and leads me in the door. The rooms are set side by side, with glass-covered front walls opening onto a corridor running the length of the building. The result is a double greenhouse that captures sunlight pouring in through the windows. Although the June sun is already glaring over the vast mesa outside Taos, N.M., the smooth, mud-plastered walls inside the half-finished building are cool to the touch. “It makes the space that you hang out in 65 to 75 degrees year-round, with no fuel,” Reynolds says. That’s how it’s supposed to be in an Earthship, the self-sustaining dwelling Reynolds has been refining over the past 35 years. “This is our latest model,” Reynolds says. “It’ll probably work better than anything we’ve done.” Earthships have earned the 63-year-old renegade architect some attention over the years, much of it from cable television shows marveling at their novel construction. Reynolds builds exterior and interior walls from discarded tires, “steel-belted, rubber-encased bricks” packed tightly with soil. This creates mass that absorbs heat from the sun in the winter but keeps a cool, steady temperature in the summer. Multi-hued glass bottles used as building blocks in bathroom walls admit a jewellike pattern of light, while a honeycomb of aluminum cans and plastic bottles bulks up exterior walls that are later covered with stucco.

Earthships use photovoltaic cells that produce enough electricity to run lights, computers and flat-screen TVs; their roofs funnel rainwater into underground cisterns. “Gray water” from sinks and showers first irrigates vegetables, flowers and small trees in the greenhouse and then flushes toilets. Northern New Mexico’s high desert receives about 12 inches of precipitation a year, with temperatures that can top 100 degrees in the summer and plunge to 35 degrees below zero in the winter, yet Earthships are surprisingly comfortable, year-round. Reynolds has long preached that we need to go “off the grid,” eliminating our reliance on the fragile web of utility and sewage systems that knits together modern civilization. Now, as global climate change and energy scarcity loom, people are starting to pay attention.

Garbage Warrior, a documentary from British filmmaker Oliver Hodge that follows Reynolds on his quest to transform the way we live, is being shown at film festivals and in theaters around the world. Thanks to the publicity and Reynolds’ self-published books, people have been calling Earthship Biotecture, Reynolds’ design-build firm, to book $200-an-hour phone consults about building their own Earthships. “We’re swamped,” he says. He has built demonstration models in rural Bolivia and the tsunami-ravaged Andaman Islands, as well as in Holland, France and the United Kingdom. Reynolds will spend the summer launching an Earthship resort on the Caribbean island of Bonaire; in the fall, he’ll teach at an architecture school in Bergen, Norway.
“We’ve been doing this for 35 years,” Reynolds says. “All of a sudden, the world has realized they need it. The good thing is we’ve had 35 years to rehearse. To be honest, we’re pretty fucking good at it.”

If he sounds cocky, Reynolds has needed self-confidence to hew to his singular vision. In the past 10 years, he has been sued by disgruntled homeowners, accused by local government of building illegal subdivisions and forced by the state of New Mexico to relinquish his architect’s license. (He remains licensed in Colorado and Arizona.) He even donned a jacket and tie to wage a three-year fight to get the New Mexico Legislature to pass a law allowing people to test off-the-grid housing. But in a sign of changing times, he’s won county approval for Greater World, the most populated of the three Earthship subdivisions he’s built around Taos and has even been appointed to the Taos County Planning Commission. Those subdivisions include roughly 100 homes that cater to an eclectic mix of hippies, teachers, artists, architects, hospital workers and retirees. Greater World, which sits on a 650-acre tract a mile west of the scenic Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, has become a popular attraction for tourists, who stop by to see the nearly 60 Earthships dotting the landscape. That may explain why the state recently earmarked $300,000 to build a new visitor center there.

Reynolds grew up in Louisville, Ky., and after graduating from the University of Cincinnati’s architecture school in 1969, he moved to Taos, then an end-of-the-road haven for artists and hippies. Troubled by the accumulating debris of consumer culture — tires, bottles and cans, plastics — Reynolds decided to incorporate it into his construction. He bought 20 acres of cheap land in the early 1970s and started building experimental structures, including a meditation pyramid made of beer cans and a geodesic dome; he lived in them himself to see how well they worked. Like other builders in the Southwest who weathered the energy crisis of the Ford-Carter years, he copied the ancient Anasazi Indians and started orienting his houses south-by-southeast to capture solar energy. The idea of using earth-filled tires to store energy and maintain a steady temperature came later. Reynolds built his first Earthship in 1987 (at a dirt-cheap $17 per square foot). He still lives in it with his astrologer wife, Chris. A growing number of ecologically minded followers were inspired by his vision, and Reynolds soon wrote Earthship Vol. 1, the first in a series of how-to books to enable people to build their own homes.

The Earthship concept gained an early ally in the late actor Dennis Weaver (of Gunsmoke fame), who had Reynolds build a 10,000-square-foot home outside Ridgeway, Colo., and talked up Earthships on The Tonight Show. Reynolds meanwhile started several Earthship subdivisions around Taos. STAR (Social Transformation Alternative Republic) was set on 1,100 acres just west of Tres Orejas, an extinct volcano. He carved out building sites on a steep mountain slope near the mouth of Taos Canyon that he christened REACH (Rural Earthship Alternative Community Habitat), and Weaver commissioned him to build a second Earthship there. Pat Habicht remembers the heady days in the early 1990s when it seemed Reynolds could do no wrong. She lived for 10 years in one of the first Earthships, perched on Blueberry Hill west of the Taos Plaza; she later sold it to move into a retirement community. “The great thing about Mike is that he was the first person here to make people seriously think about what the options are,” she says. “He’s concerned with the whole world and not just a few houses that one person can build.” Habicht adds that Earthship living was a memorable experience. “I miss that feeling of being looked after by the Earth. They really do work.”

But even as his concept was catching on, Reynolds was heading for a fall. In building his Earthship subdivisions, he says he relied on informal agreements with county zoning officials and the state Construction Industries Division, neither of which objected to what he was doing because they understood that Earthships were still experimental. But then a new Taos County planner took office and in 1997 declared Reynolds’ subdivisions illegal — after all, they had no utility infrastructure. Several people for whom Reynolds had built homes sued or filed complaints with the state, alleging that their Earthships leaked or were too cold. There were also allegations of cost overruns. It was the prelude to years of conflict. Where Reynolds had once been hailed as a visionary, now “I was a crook,” he says. Responding to various complaints, the New Mexico Board of Examiners for Architects filed formal charges against him in 2000, and later that year he agreed to relinquish his architect’s license.

Meanwhile, in 1998, Reynolds was sued by Earthship owner Suzanne Martin, who alleged he had violated the state’s Unfair Trade Practices Act and breached their contract. Martin’s attorney, Lorenzo Atencio, says the construction on Martin’s two homes was shoddy. “The roof leaked,” he says. “The water storage system was not working properly. The wiring was exposed and unsightly.” And, Atencio says, the solar composting toilets Reynolds was using in those days didn’t work properly. A judge ruled in Martin’s favor in 2003. Reynolds appealed the decision, but the case was settled when Reynolds agreed to buy the Earthships back from Martin, Atencio says. Court records show all claims were dismissed in 2004. Reynolds, who represented himself in court, is bitter about the whole thing. “They took my license,” he says. “I got sued and lost a half-million dollars.” The way he sees it, his legal problems resulted from the trial-and-error nature of his ongoing experimentation. Reynolds is always tinkering, trying new ideas and discarding the ones that don’t work. At the same time, he has an obvious disdain for rules and regulations, which, in his view, hinder him from refining his designs in time to avert global catastrophe. Might some see that approach as reckless? “Hell yes, I’m reckless,” he declares. “How are you going to get through a jungle without swinging a machete?”

Sobered by the experience but unbowed, Reynolds says the ordeal taught him how little he needed to get by. “That stretch of hard times lightened my pack,” he says, “and I’ll never fill it up again.”
Although Reynolds is well known among alternative housing enthusiasts, he is far from a household name within the U.S. architectural establishment. “I think he’s making a big impact on a global level,” says his friend Marilyn Crenshaw, a Santa Cruz, Calif.-based residential and commercial architect. “I don’t think he’s making a big impact in the U.S. I wish he would because what he has to share is great.” His genius resides in his ability to integrate thermal mass, solar power, rainwater catchment, photovoltaic and other technologies into a working whole. “Michael is an amazing systems designer,” she says. But Reynolds doesn’t dress or act the part of the serious architect and so isn’t always taken seriously, Crenshaw says. “He’s an innovator — people resist change,” she says. Crenshaw predicts that in an era of global warming and skyrocketing energy prices, “They’re all going to call him a rebel until the day they’re begging for it.”

Reynolds has lectured at various U.S. architecture schools through the years, and architecture students from Reynolds’ alma mater, the University of Cincinnati, have come to Taos to study with him. His work has also been written about in a number of textbooks and earlier this year was included in a Canadian Centre for Architecture exhibit on designs responding to the energy shortages of the 1970s. He has been invited to participate in a design project at the Bergen School of Architecture in Norway this fall.

From a distance, the Earthships at Greater World look like they’re afloat in a sea of sagebrush. Their windows glint in the sun, their roofs sloping back to humps that blend into the terrain. Reynolds shows the energy of a man 20 years younger as he walks briskly from room to room at the newest Earthship, nicknamed the Corner Cottage, inspecting the progress that has been made. Bearded, with wary green eyes, he delivers a rapid-fire monologue peppered with apocalyptic analogies. (In a scene from Garbage Warrior, he likens modern society to a herd of buffalo about to plunge off a 1,000-foot cliff.) He sometimes stays up at night worrying about how easily the systems that support our civilization could be disrupted by natural disasters or man-made catastrophes. Events like Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami underscore his concerns. “I don’t trust that the power and water and sewage is going to be available in the future,” he says.

At the Corner Cottage, half a dozen workmen with ponytails and dreadlocks pause at their work as Reynolds discusses with them what they would tackle next. The loss of his New Mexico architect’s license hasn’t hindered him much: There is no requirement that an architect be used to design residential housing as long as the plans are reviewed and stamped by an engineer or architect. He retains his general contractor’s license, and several members of his crew have architecture degrees.
Not that they need much direction. They have built most of the homes at Greater World (a total of 130 are planned), and many live here. They have mastered the art of pounding soil into tires with hand sledges and building walls from bottles and gobs of cement. They know how to craft ceilings with 12-inch vigas — peeled pine trunks harvested from nearby mountains — and how to trowel a smooth mud plaster flecked with bits of straw. Most of them are young enough to be his sons, but Reynolds regards them as his friends.

Just down the road, the sprawling 6,000-square-foot showpiece home he’s dubbed The Phoenix features a two-story greenhouse big enough to house a small fishpond, a gazebo and some citrus trees. Reynolds rents this place to overnight guests, who come from as far away as Japan to experience Earthship living for themselves. The Phoenix has been advertised for sale on the Internet for $1.5 million, which Reynolds admits is pricey, but he says this project is intentionally over the top, calculated to get wealthy and influential people interested. Meanwhile, he and his crew are building the prototype for an affordable three-bedroom, two-bath house that would suit the finances of ordinary homebuyers.

The Phoenix needs landscaping at the moment. There’s an unfinished bottle-and-cement wall meant to serve as an enclosure for goats and sheep, and piles of construction debris dot the periphery of the building site, parched in the desert sun. Inside, though, it’s a semitropical arboretum. The air is fragrant with the scent of growing things — bananas, grapes, corn, lemons, tangerines, oranges, tomatoes, amaranth, coconut palm and eggplant. All told, about 2,200 square feet of the structure are devoted to food production. “A family of four could live here, period, with nothing from the outside world,” Reynolds says as we stand in the greenhouse. In the kitchen, a super-insulated refrigerator runs on current from the photovoltaic system. The compressor is located on the top of the unit instead of the bottom so rising heat won’t work against the cooling system. The stove runs on bottled propane —Reynolds’ one concession to outside energy sources. He estimates that a standard 500-gallon propane tank will last for about three years, totaling $50 a year in energy costs.

Behind the living space is a long, narrow corridor, one wall of which is the towering stack of tires that give the building its thermal mass (there’s another three feet of compacted earth behind the tires, a barrier of rigid insulation and then several feet of mounded soil moved in with a backhoe). Transom openings in the rear of the rooms vent into this hallway, which has two vertical shafts leading up to large, movable skylights. With the tug of a rope, the counterweight-loaded covers can be raised, allowing warm air to escape. Outside, I follow Reynolds as he climbs onto the slope leading up to the building’s roof. Reynolds shows a V-shaped membrane that collects rainwater running off green sheet metal and directs it into twin drains leading to buried 3,000-gallon cisterns. He opens a cabinet housing the deep-cycle batteries that store power from the photovoltaic cells and another containing storage for biodiesel containers. “What we’re doing now is putting a small biodiesel plant, about the size of a washer, in each home,” he says. With five-gallon cans of cooking grease obtained from local restaurants, occupants can produce 25 gallons of bio-diesel a week and use it to supplement the rooftop solar collector that heats hot water for the kitchen and bath.

Reynolds calls my attention to a multicolored decoration along the roofline made from enameled sheet metal. The panels were harvested from washers, dryers and dishwashers at the local dump, he says. His workers have even salvaged heavy-duty trampoline springs to operate the skylights. “The dump is a gold mine; it really is,” he says. “We’re using products that our neighborhood produces, and they don’t require any fuel.” A large Earthship like this one might use 1,000 tires, Reynolds says, each of which takes seven gallons of oil to produce. A growing number of the roughly 290 million scrap tires generated in the U.S. each year are burned for fuel or ground up for road base and other uses, but about 27 million still wind up in dumps. “I’ve got a mountain of tires,” Reynolds says. “There are more tires than there are trees.” He acknowledges that an Earthship still requires new building materials, including lumber, glass, insulation, wire, cement and steel. But by comparison with conventional construction, he estimates, “I’d say we’ve reduced the materials to the tune of 50 percent.”

The Earthships at Greater World run the gamut from lovingly tended to rough and half finished. That partly reflects the limited finances of some of the DIY owners but also something of the founder’s outlook. Pat Habicht, who did the finish work on her Earthship, says that for Reynolds, who favors function over form, aesthetics are strictly of secondary interest. “He doesn’t care what the hell it looks like,” she says, laughing. Reynolds believes it’s unconscionable for an architect to focus on how a building looks with little or no regard to what effect it will have on the environment. “They’re still allowing architects to make these little monuments to themselves that cost $60 million,” he snorts. “That’s a big part of the reason I’ve called this Biotecture. I don’t think architecture is capable of coming around fast enough. I don’t want to be labeled that.”

Kirsten Jacobsen, Earthship Biotecture’s educational director, was a college student in San Francisco when she came out to Taos 14 years ago to do a research project on Reynolds. “I thought it was great that people living in houses like these were making an impact just by getting up and reading a book,” she says. She wound up becoming part of his tribe, spending the next four years on a construction crew. She moved on to help run the Greater World visitor center, and now she serves as Reynolds’ right hand and air-traffic controller, keeping track of his commitments from the Earthship Biotecture office, a ramshackle structure with a dome on top. Jacobsen tells me it took her eight years to build her own 1,300-square-foot home in Greater World. While people simply live in a conventional house, she says, Earthship owners have to live with their houses. Jacobsen says maintaining the heating, cooling and water systems in her two-bedroom home doesn’t require much time; it’s mostly a matter of raising and lowering the shades and opening and closing the skylights. She estimates that she spends an hour every few months cleaning out water filters. “In the U.S., these ideas exist on the fringe of ‘green buildings,’” she says. “We’re not saying this is for everyone. We’re just saying this is a direction you ought to investigate.”

Tony Marvin, a longtime Taos resident who has renovated old adobe houses in town, bought a two-bedroom, 1,700-square-foot Earthship in Greater World two and a half years ago with his girlfriend. “It’s absolutely a stunning home,” he says. “There was actually nothing this beautiful at this price in Taos — not even close.” There was “a learning curve” in mastering the building’s water and electrical systems, Marvin says, but they work well. “One of the happiest days of my life was when I went to the gas utility and the electrical utility and said, ‘I want my accounts disconnected,’” he says. Serenity and self-sufficiency may be his goal, but Reynolds these days seems to be in perpetual motion, juggling international phone calls and supervising construction projects while finding time to draft floor plans and add to his collection of writings. His cluttered office at Greater World is strewn with blueprints and site renderings, the walls covered with large calendars mapping out his travel for the next six months.

He acknowledges the house-afire urgency, recounting a recent phone consult with a couple so worried about climate change that they told him, “We just need to get in a house that’s going to take care of us — now.” Reynolds warns there isn’t much time. “I knew that things were going down the tubes, and it was going to take a long time for people to get desperate enough to make these changes,” he says. “We extended ourselves out there for a long time, and nobody cared. Now that they see the icebergs melting, everybody cares.”


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Kids in Guinea Study Under Airport Lamps / by Rukmini Callimachi

The sun has set in one of the world’s poorest nations and as the floodlights come on at G’bessi International Airport, the parking lot begins filling with children. The long stretch of pavement has the feel of a hushed library, each student sitting quietly, some moving their lips as their eyes traverse their French-language notes. It’s exam season in Guinea, ranked 160th out of 177 countries on the United Nations’ development index, and schoolchildren flock to the airport every night because it’s among the only places where they’ll always find the lights on. Groups of elementary and high school students begin heading to the airport at dusk, hoping to reserve a coveted spot under the oval light cast by one of a dozen lampposts in the parking lot. Some come from over an hour’s walk away. The lot is teeming with girls and boys by the time Air France Flight 767 rounds the Gulf of Guinea at an hour-and-a-half before midnight. They hardly look up from their notes as the Boeing jet begins its spiraling descent over the dark city, or as the newly arrived passengers come out, shoving luggage carts over the cracked pavement. “I used to study by candlelight at home but that hurt my eyes. So I prefer to come here. We’re used to it,” says 18-year-old Mohamed Sharif, who sat under the fluorescent beam memorizing notes on the terrain of Mongolia for the geography portion of his college entrance test.

Only about a fifth of Guinea’s 10 million people have access to electricity and even those that do experience frequent power cuts. With few families able to afford generators, students long ago discovered the airport. Parents require girls to be chaperoned to the airport by an older brother or a trusted male friend. Even young children are allowed to stay out late under the fluorescent bulbs, so long as they return in groups. “My parents don’t worry about me because they know I’m here to seek my future,” says 10-year-old Ali Mara, busy studying a diagram of the cephalothorax, the body of an insect. They sit by age group with 7-, 8- and 9-year-olds on a curb in a traffic island and teenagers on the concrete pilings flanking the national and international terminals. There are few cars to disturb their studies. Most are working on memorizing their notes, struggling to commit to memory entire paragraphs dictated by their teachers on the history of Marxism, or the unraveling of colonial Africa, or the geology of Siberia. Tests are largely feats of memorization, a relic from Guinea’s French colonial rulers. According to U.N. data, the average Guinean consumes 89 kilowatt-hours per year – the equivalent to keeping a 60-watt light bulb burning for two months – while the typical American burns up about 158 times that much. The students at the airport consider themselves lucky. Those living farther away study at gas stations and come home smelling of gasoline. Others sit on the curbs outside the homes of affluent families, picking up the crumbs of light falling out of their illuminated living rooms. “We have an edge because we live near the airport,” says 22-year-old Ismael Diallo, a university student.

It’s an edge in preparing for an exam in a country where unemployment is rampant, inflation has pushed the price of a large bag of rice to $30 and a typical government functionary earns around $60 a month. The lack of electricity is “a geological scandal,” says Michael McGovern, a political anthropologist at Yale University, quoting a phrase first used by a colonial administrator to describe Guinea’s untapped natural wealth. The Oregon-sized territory has rivers which if properly harnessed could electrify the region, McGovern says. It has gold, diamonds, iron and half the world’s reserves of bauxite, the raw material used to make aluminum. For 23 years, the former French colony has been under the grip of Lansana Conte, a reclusive and temperamental army general who grabbed the presidency in a 1984 coup. Suffering from a heart ailment, Conte has repeatedly traveled abroad for medical treatment. Mass demonstrations earlier this year called for his resignation because of his health and the deteriorating economy, but he instead declared martial law. Eighteen-year-old Ousman Conde admits that sitting on the concrete piling is not comfortable, but says passing his upcoming exam could open doors. “It hurts,” he says, looking up from his notes on Karl Marx for the politics portion of the test. “But we prefer this hurt to the hurt of not doing well in our exams.”

The Best Development Plan in the World Originated With…the British Empire?

The secret to turning a poor nation into a rich one can’t be found in a World Bank report. It wasn’t hatched in the corridors of the International Monetary Fund, either. It came from the British Empire. That is one way, at least, of interpreting Stanford economist Paul Romer’s new plan for turning economically backward countries like Cuba into engines of growth like China. Experts have long known that the traditional tools of development don’t work: free trade, foreign investment, and charity have failed as many countries as they’ve helped. The rot in a dysfunctional country is at its core—in the laws, institutions, and informal rules that govern daily life.

How to fix a problem so fundamental? Let a rich country take over part of a poor one. The hope, says Romer, is that the superior norms of the developed country will take root abroad. He calls his plan Charter Cities and illustrates it with a thought experiment. Imagine if the U.S. closes its prison at Guantánamo Bay and hands the land over to Canada, which agrees to develop it. “A new city blossoms,” writes Romer.

It does for Cuba what Hong Kong, administered by the British, did for China; it connects Cuba to the global economy. To help the city flourish, the Canadians encourage immigration. It is a place with Canadian judges and Mounties that happily accepts millions of immigrants. Some of the new residents could be Cuban émigrés who return from North America. Others might be Haitians who come work in garment factories that firms no longer feel safe bringing into Haiti. The new city gives the Haitians their only chance to choose to live under a system of law that offers safety and opportunity.

Private contractors rush in to build airports and infrastructure, lured by the prospect of rising property values. Multinational firms open factories, attracted by the proximity to low-cost labor and the certainty of the Canadian legal system. Eventually, Cuban authorities decide to replicate the experiment across the island, opening new, Guantánamo-like “special economic zones,” much as mainland China did starting in 1979, taking the Hong Kong model to Shenzhen and beyond. When played out on a global scale, “the gains from doing this are just enormous,” says Romer.

Such a fanciful idea might be easily dismissed if it weren’t coming from such an economic heavyweight. Romer transformed the field of growth theory in the 1980s, and his name is peppered throughout macroeconomic textbooks; he’s been mentioned as a potential Nobel Prize recipient. “There’s a thin line between revolutionary and crazy,” says NYU economist and development expert William Easterly. “Paul Romer has been adept at walking that line throughout his career, staying just out of the crazy part. He’s still tiptoeing along that line with this new idea.”

Still, there’s a pie-in-the-sky grandiosity to the scheme that elides some major stumbling blocks. One problem, admits Romer, is the parallel between charter cities and colonialism. Great Britain, for instance, would surely have qualms about taking over a few hundred acres of coastline in Ghana, where the legacy of slavery is still deeply felt. Romer says the similarities are surface level only—there’s no coercion involved in a charter city since it would be founded on empty or near-empty land, and anyone who lives there would do so by choice. Charter cities would only be considered in countries that welcome them. But the colonial parallel would certainly still rankle some. One way to mitigate the PR problem would be to let a group of rich countries administer the charter area; that way, no single nation could be accused of exploiting the host.

But the image problem hints at a more basic choke point: politics. “What’s clever about Paul’s idea is he’s saying, here’s a totally brand-new government we can invent from scratch and make it compete with existing governments,” says Easterly. “Anyone who doesn’t like their existing government can move. That’s an appealing notion. We’re so sick of governments that mistreat us that it’s kind of sticking them in the eye to say, here, we’re going to come up with a new one.” But though political competition is a seductive idea, it’s also a threat to existing powers, some of whom would surely try to block it. And globally orchestrated projects have a very low success rate—just look at the molasseslike progression toward a climate-change agreement. “International politics is a swamp,” says Easterly. “Things that involve international politics do not inspire a great deal of optimism in me.”

Nonetheless, Romer is attacking the idea with the zeal of a, er, missionary. He’s left his teaching position at Stanford and founded a nonprofit to pursue Charter Cities full time. He says he’s already in talks with potential host countries, although he won’t divulge which ones. Romer is confident that, despite the challenges, we’ll see the first charter cities within a few years. For the world’s poor and oppressed, that will be none too soon.

Paul Romer
email : paul.romer [at] stanford [dot] edu

students do homework under the dim lights of a parking lot at G’bessi Airport in Conakry, Guinea

For richer, for poorer
by Paul Romer / 27th January 2010

Forget aid—people in the poorest countries like Haiti need new cities with different rules. And developed countries should be the ones that build them

On the first day of TEDGlobal, a conference for technology enthusiasts in Oxford in July 2009, a surprise guest was unveiled: Gordon Brown. He began his presentation with a striking photograph of a vulture watching over a starving Sudanese girl. The internet, he said, meant such shocking images circulated quickly around the world, helping to mobilise a new global community of aid donors. Brown’s talk ended with a call to action: developed countries should give more aid to fight poverty.

When disaster strikes—as in the recent Haiti earthquake—the prime minister is right. Even small amounts of aid can save many lives. The moral case for aid is compelling. But we must also remember that aid is just palliative care. It doesn’t treat the underlying problems. As leaders like Rwandan president Paul Kagame have noted, it can even make these problems worse if it saps the innovation, ambition, confidence, and aspiration that ultimately helps poor countries grow.

So, two days later, I opened my own TED talk with a different photo, one of African students doing their homework at night under streetlights. I hoped the image would provoke astonishment rather than guilt or pity—for how could it be that the 100-year-old technology for lighting homes was still not available for the students? I argued that the failure could be traced to weak or wrong rules. The right rules can harness self-interest and use it to reduce poverty. The wrong rules stifle this force or channel it in ways that harm society.

The deeper problem, widely recognised but seldom addressed, is how to free people from bad rules. I floated a provocative idea. Instead of focusing on poor nations and how to change their rules, we should focus on poor people and how they can move somewhere with better rules. One way to do this is with dozens, perhaps hundreds, of new “charter cities,” where developed countries frame the rules and hundreds of millions of poor families could become residents.

How would such a city work? Imagine that a government in a poor country set aside a piece of uninhabited land. It invites a developed country to enter into a new type of partnership, in which the developed country sets up and enforces rules specified in a charter. Citizens from the poorer country, and the rest of the world, would be free to live and work in the city that emerges. It could create economic opportunities and encourage foreign investment, and by using uninhabited land it would ensure everyone living there would have chosen to do so with full knowledge of the rules. Roughly 3bn people, mostly the working poor, will move to cities over the next few decades. To my mind the choice is not whether the world will urbanise, but where and under which rules. Instead of expanding the slums in existing urban centres, new charter cities could provide safe, low-income housing and jobs that the world will need to accommodate this shift. Even more important, these cities could give poor people a chance to choose the rules they want to live and work under.

To understand why rules are the way to harness self-interest, and why such new cities could work where old cities have not, look again at the example of electricity. We know from the developed world that it costs very little to light a home—on average, less than one US penny an hour for a 100-watt bulb. We also know that most poor people in Africa are not starving. They could afford some light. Africans do not lack electricity because they are too poor. Indeed, reliable power is so important for education, productivity and job creation that it would be more accurate to say that many in Africa are poor because they don’t have electricity. So why don’t they?

Why the right rules matter
Consider development the other way round. US customers have cheap electricity mostly because rules channel self-interest in the right way. Some protect investments made by utilities, others stop these companies abusing their monopoly power. With such rules, companies win; efficient providers make a profit. But customers win too; they get access to a vital resource at low cost. It’s the absence of these rules that explains why many Africans don’t have electricity at home. It might seem a simple insight, but it took economists a long time to understand it.

In the 1950s and 1960s, economic models treated ideas as public goods, meaning that once one existed it was assumed to exist everywhere. Some ideas are like this—for example, the formula for oral rehydration therapy, the mixture of sugar, salt, and water, that stops children dying from diarrhoea. No one owns it and you can find it easily online. If all ideas were like this it would be easier for poor countries to grow. But they aren’t: patents and other legal rules stop some ideas spreading, while others are just easy to keep secret.

When I started graduate school in the late 1970s I was convinced economists underestimated the potential for new ideas to raise living standards. The body of work that grew out of my PhD thesis came to be called new growth theory, or post-neoclassical endogenous growth theory in Britain (when it was infamously taken up by new Labour in the mid-1990s). Initially I just wanted to understand how good ideas, like those which make cheap electric light possible, were discovered. But then another topic began to interest me: why didn’t ideas common in some parts of the world spread to others?

Put simply, some countries are better able to establish the type of rules that help good ideas spread, while others are trapped by bad rules that keep ideas out. The rules stopping cheap electricity, for instance, are not hard to identify. The threat of expropriation or political instability stops many western electricity companies moving into Africa. Those that do set up there can exploit their power as monopolists to charge excessive prices. Often they offer bribes to stop rules being enforced, or pay bribes themselves. Good rules would stop all this. So to unleash the potential of the marketplace, poor countries need to find a way to create good rules.

The challenge in setting up good rules lies in solving what economists call “commitment” problems. How can a developing country promise to keep the rules that govern investment fair? Nobel prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling illustrates this problem with the example of a kidnapper who decides he wants to free his victim. But the kidnapper worries that the victim, once released, will go to the authorities. The victim, eager to be free, promises not to—but there is no way for him to guarantee he will keep quiet. As a result, the kidnapper is compelled to kill the victim, even though both would be better off if a binding agreement could be made. Poor countries face similar problems: their leaders cannot make credible commitments to would-be investors.

Rich nations use well-functioning systems of courts, police and jails, developed over centuries, to solve such problems. Two people can make a commitment. If they don’t follow through, the courts will punish them. But many developing countries are still working their way down the same arduous path. Their leaders can fight corruption and establish independent courts and better rules over property rights, but such moves often require unpopular measures to coerce and cajole populations, making internal reforms excruciatingly slow. Subsequent leaders may undo any commitments they make. A faster route would seem to be for a developed country to impose new rules by force, as they did in the colonial period. There is evidence that some former colonies are more successful today because of rules established during their occupations. Yet any economic benefits usually took a long time to show up, and rarely compensated for years of condescension and the violent opposition it provoked. Today, violent civil conflicts have led some countries to again consider military humanitarian intervention, but this can only be justified in extreme circumstances. My point was that there is a middle ground between slow internal reforms and risky attempts at recolonialisation: the charter city.

There are large swathes of uninhabited land on the coast of sub-Saharan Africa that are too dry for agriculture. But a city can develop in even the driest locations, supported if necessary by desalinated and recycled water. And the new zone created need not be ruled directly from the developed partner country—residents of the charter city can administer the rules specified by their partner as long as the developed country retains the final say. This is what happens today in Mauritius, where the British Privy Council is still the court of final appeal in a judicial system staffed by Mauritians. Different cities could start with charters that differ in many ways. The common element would be that all residents would be there by choice—a Gallup survey found that 700m people around the world would be willing to move permanently to another country that offers safety and economic opportunity.

I started thinking about city-scale special zones after writing a paper about Mauritius. At the time of its independence in 1968, economists were pessimistic about this small island nation’s prospects. The population was growing rapidly, new jobs were scarce in its only real export industry (sugar), and high tariffs designed to protect small companies manufacturing for the domestic market meant no companies could profitably use their workers to manufacture goods for export. It was politically impossible to dismantle these barriers to trade, so policymakers did the next best thing: they created a special category of companies, ones said to be in a “special export zone.” The zone didn’t physically exist, in that these companies could locate anywhere on the island, but companies “inside” the zone operated under different rules. They faced no tariffs, or limits on imports or exports. Foreign companies in the zone could enter and exit freely, and keep profits they earned. Domestic companies could enter too. The only quid pro quo was that everyone in the zone had to produce only for export, so as not to compete with domestic firms. The zone was a dramatic success. Foreign businesses entered. Employment grew rapidly. The economy moved from agriculture to manufacturing. Once growth was underway, the government reduced trade barriers, freeing up the rest of the economy.

The history of development is littered with failed examples of similar zones. Mauritius was unusual because it had low levels of crime and the government already provided good utilities and infrastructure. The zone only had to remove one bad form of governance: trade restrictions. Yet many developing countries still can’t offer the basics, another reason why building new cities is an attractive option. Cities are just the right scale to offer basic conditions. So long as they can trade freely, even small cities are big enough to be self-sufficient. Yet because they are dense they require very little land.

To apply the lessons from Mauritius in countries with pervasive problems, the key is to create zones with new rules that are big enough to be self-contained. Big enough, that is, to hold a city. Then let people decide whether to enter.

When I returned to Mauritius in 2008, I outlined my ideas to Maurice Lam, head of the Mauritian Board of Investment. Maurice splits his time between Mauritius and Singapore. He and I knew that Lee Kuan Yew, former prime minister of Singapore, had experimented in the 1990s with a similar idea, establishing new cities that Singapore could help to run in China and Indonesia. These ran into difficulties because the local governments retained discretionary powers that they used to interfere after Singapore had made large investments in infrastructure. This convinced us that explicit treaties reassigning administrative control over land were needed. Maurice also said that countries in Africa would be open to this kind of arrangement. Some officials, eager to make a credible commitment to foreign investors, had already made informal inquiries about whether Mauritius would be willing to take administrative control over their special export zones.

What could go wrong?
Some economists have objected that a charter agreement between two countries will not necessarily solve the commitment problem that lies at the heart of development failures. The leaders of many countries enter into agreements, sometimes with the best intentions, that subsequent leaders or officials do not honour—as Lee Kuan Yew found to his cost. To guard against such an outcome, partners in a charter city must negotiate a formal treaty, like the one that gave the British rights in Hong Kong (see box, right). Under this arrangement the only way for the host country to renege on its commitment would be to invade. Even governments that resent having signed such agreements in the past almost always respect them. The Cubans hate the agreement that gave the US control of Guantánamo Bay, but learned to live with it.

Another objection comes from those who study urbanisation. They point out that the location of most existing cities is determined by accidents of history or geography, and suggest, correctly, that there are geographical requirements for a city to survive. But they are surely wrong to think that all the good sites for cities are taken. Here distance matters, but it is not an insurmountable obstacle: Mauritius continues to develop despite its remote location. Flat land is cheaper to build on, but many cities have developed on hilly terrain. A river can provide fresh water and access to the sea, but with desalination, so too can any coastal location where a port could be built. Access to the sea is the only real necessity—as long as a charter city can ship goods back and forth on container ships, it can thrive even if its neighbours turn hostile or unstable. And there are thousands of largely uninhabited coastal locations on several continents that could qualify.

Other urban economists fear new cities will repeat the unimpressive history of government-planned ones like Brasília, or Dubai’s recent bust. But these are both extreme examples. The state was too intrusive in Brasília and almost non-existent in Dubai. Hong Kong is the middle ground, a state ruled by laws not men, but one that leaves competition and individual initiative to decide the details.

The experience in Hong Kong offers two further lessons. The first is the importance of giving people a choice about the rules that govern them. Hong Kong was sparsely populated when the British took over. Unlike other colonial systems, almost everyone chose to come and live under the new system. This gave the rules proposed by the British a degree of legitimacy they never had in India, where the rules were imposed on often unwilling subjects. This is why building new cities, rather than taking over existing ones, is so powerful.

The second lesson is the importance of getting the scale right. Most nations are too large to update all their rules and laws at once. The coercion needed to impose a new system on an existing population generates friction, no matter who is in charge. Leaders on mainland China understood this when they attempted to copy the successes of Hong Kong by gradually opening a few places, such as the new city of Shenzhen, near Hong Kong. Yet while nations are too big, towns and villages are too small. A village cannot capture the benefits that arise when millions of people live and work together under good rules. Cities offer the right scale for dramatic change.

The demands of migration
As billions of people urbanise in the coming decades, they can move to hundreds of new cities. The gains new cities can unleash are clear. Picture again the students studying under the streetlights. By themselves, political leaders in poor countries won’t provide cheap, reliable electricity any time soon. They can’t eliminate the political risk that holds back investment or ensure adequate regulatory controls. But working with a partner nation, they can establish a new city where millions of young people could pay pennies to be able to study at home. And as these cities seek out residents, the leaders and citizens in existing countries will face the most effective pressure for good governance—competition.

We know from history that the competitive pressures created by migration can boost economic growth. But strong opposition to immigration in the world’s richest economies prevents many people from moving to better systems of rules. Charter cities bring the good systems of rules to places that would welcome migrants. Indeed, charter cities offer the only viable path for substantial increases in global migration, bringing good rules to places that the world’s poor can easily and legally access, while lessening the contentious political frictions that arise from traditional migration flows.

Intelligently designed new cities can offer environmental benefits too, a point increasingly made by environmentalists like Stewart Brand (see p39.) For example, Indonesia emits greenhouse gases at a rate exceeded only by China and the US. This rate is partly due to logging practices in its rainforest, and efforts to clear land for palm-oil plantations and pulp-producing acacia trees. Brand has cited the experience of Panama to demonstrate the green potential of urbanisation: as people there left slash-and-burn agriculture for work in cities, forest regenerated on the land they left behind. Similar migration to new cities in places like Indonesia could do much to reduce carbon emissions from the developing world.

Investment in charter cities could also make more effective the aid rich countries give. The British experience in Hong Kong shows that enforcing rules costs partners very little, but can have a huge effect. Because Hong Kong helped make reform in the rest of China possible, the British intervention there arguably did more to reduce world poverty than all the official aid programmes of the 20th century, and at a fraction of the cost. And, if many such cities are built, fewer people will be trapped in the failed states that are the root cause of most humanitarian crises and security concerns.

There are many questions to be resolved before the first city is chartered. Is it better to have a group of rich nations, or a multinational body like the EU, play the role the British played in Hong Kong? How would such a city be governed? And how and when might transfer of control back to the host country be arranged? But as we begin to explore these questions, we must not lose sight of the fundamental insights that advocates of the free market underestimate. The win-win agreements that we see in well-functioning markets are possible only when there is a strong, credible government that can establish the rules. In places where these rules are not present, it could take centuries for locals to bootstrap themselves from bad rules to good. By creating new zones through partnerships at the national level, good rules can spread more quickly, and when they do, the benefits can be huge.

The world’s fortunate citizens must be able to provide assistance when disasters like the earthquake in Haiti strike, but we must also be wary of the practical and moral limits of aid. When the roles of benefactor and supplicant are institutionalised, both parties are diminished. In the case of Haiti, if nations in the region created just two charter cities, they could house the entire population of that country. Senegal has offered Haitians the opportunity to return to the home “of their ancestors.” “If they come en masse we are ready to give them a region,” a Senegal government spokesman said. Outside of the extraordinary circumstances of a crisis, the role of partner is better for everyone. And there are millions of people seeking partnerships around the world. Helping people build them successfully is the opportunity of the century

Hong Kong: the first charter city?
Hong Kong was a successful example of a special zone that could serve as a model for charter cities. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was the only place in China where Chinese workers could enter partnerships with foreign workers and companies. Many of the Chinese who moved to Hong Kong started in low-skill jobs, making toys or sewing shirts. But over time their wages grew along with the skills that they gained working with educated managers, and using modern technologies and working practices.

Over time they acquired the values and norms that sustain modern cities. As a result, Hong Kong enjoyed rapid economic growth—in 1960, the average income was around £2,500; by 1997, it was around £20,000. Even if it had wanted to, the Chinese government acting alone could not have offered this opportunity. The credibility of rules developed over centuries by the British government was essential in attracting the foreign investment, companies and skilled workers that let these low-skill immigrants lift themselves out of poverty. As in Mauritius, authority rested ultimately with the British governor general, but most of the police and civil servants were Chinese. And the benefits demonstrated in Hong Kong became a model for reform-minded leaders in China itself.

The Politically Incorrect Guide to Ending Poverty
by Sebastian Mallaby / July/August 2010

Halfway through the 12th Century, and a long time before economists began pondering how to turn poor places into rich ones, the Germanic prince Henry the Lion set out to create a merchant’s mecca on the lawless Baltic coast. It was an ambitious project, a bit like trying to build a new Chicago in modern Congo or Iraq. Northern Germany was plagued by what today’s development gurus might delicately call a “bad-governance equilibrium,” its townships frequently sacked by Slavic marauders such as the formidable pirate Niclot the Obotrite. But Henry was not a mouse. He seized control of a fledgling town called Lübeck, had Niclot beheaded on the battlefield, and arranged for Lübeck to become the seat of a diocese. A grand rectangular market was laid out at the center of the town; all that was missing was the merchants.

To attract that missing ingredient to his city, Henry hit on an idea that has enjoyed a sort of comeback lately. He devised a charter for Lübeck, a set of “most honorable civic rights,” calculating that a city with light regulation and fair laws would attract investment easily. The stultifying feudal hierarchy was cast aside; an autonomous council of local burgesses would govern Lübeck. Onerous taxes and trade restrictions were ruled out; merchants who settled in Lübeck would be exempt from duties and customs throughout Henry the Lion’s lands, which stretched south as far as Bavaria. The residents of Lübeck were promised fair treatment before the law and an independent mint that would shelter them from confiscatory inflation. With this bill of rights in place, Henry dispatched messengers to Russia, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. Merchants who liked the sound of his charter were invited to migrate to Lübeck.

The plan worked. Immigrants soon began arriving in force, and Lübeck became the leading entrepôt for the budding Baltic Sea trade route, which eventually extended as far west as London and Bruges and as far east as Novgorod, in Russia. Hundreds of oaken cogs—ships powered by a single square sail—entered Lübeck’s harbor every year, their hulls bursting with Flemish cloth, Russian fur, and German salt. In less than a century, Lübeck went from a backwater to the most populous and prosperous town in northern Europe. “In medieval urban history there is hardly another example of a success so sudden and so brilliant,” writes the historian Philippe Dollinger.

Perhaps the only thing more remarkable than Lübeck’s wealth was the influence of its charter. As trade routes lengthened, new cities mushroomed all along the Baltic shore, and rather than develop a legal code from scratch, the next wave of city fathers copied Lübeck’s charter, importing its political and economic liberties. The early imitators included the nearby cities of Rostock and Danzig, but the charter was eventually adopted as far afield as Riga and Tallinn, the capitals of modern Latvia and Estonia. The medieval world had stumbled upon a formula for creating order out of chaos and prosperity amid backwardness. Lübeck ultimately became the seat of the Hanseatic League, an economic alliance of 200 cities that lasted nearly half a millennium.

Fast-forward several centuries, and Henry the Lion’s would-be heir is Paul Romer, a gentle economist at Stanford University. Elegant, bespectacled, geekishly curious in a boyish way, Romer is not the kind of person you might picture armed with a two-handed flanged mace, cutting down Slavic marauders. But he is bent on cutting down an adversary almost as resistant: the conventional approach to development in poor countries. Rather than betting that aid dollars can beat poverty, Romer is peddling a radical vision: that dysfunctional nations can kick-start their own development by creating new cities with new rules—Lübeck-style centers of progress that Romer calls “charter cities.” By building urban oases of technocratic sanity, struggling nations could attract investment and jobs; private capital would flood in and foreign aid would not be needed. And since Henry the Lion is not on hand to establish these new cities, Romer looks to the chief source of legitimate coercion that exists today—the governments that preside over the world’s more successful countries. To launch new charter cities, he says, poor countries should lease chunks of territory to enlightened foreign powers, which would take charge as though presiding over some imperial protectorate. Romer’s prescription is not merely neo-medieval, in other words. It is also neo-colonial.

Inevitably, Romer’s big idea attracts some skeptical responses. “Paul is very creative,” says William Easterly, a development economist at New York University, “and sometimes creativity can cross the line into craziness.” The way Easterly sees it, charter cities (like charter schools in American cities) may provide an alternative to incumbent government systems, promising experimentation, competition, and perhaps a new way forward. But Easterly also worries that Romer has fallen prey to an old siren song—the idea that you can slough off debilitating customs and vested interests by constructing a technocratic petri dish uncontaminated by politics. Other critics are blunter. “Romer makes it sound as though setting up a charter city is like setting up a fairground,” Elliott Sclar, a professor of urban planning at Columbia University, told me. “We take a clear piece of land, we turn on the bright lights, and we create this separate environment that will stand apart from everything that’s around it. I wish it were that simple.”

However simple-seeming his ideas, Romer is no lightweight. Starting in the late 1980s, he produced a series of papers that changed the way his profession thinks about economic growth; his most celebrated contribution, published in 1990, “was one of the best papers in economics in 25 or 30 years,” in the estimation of Charles I. Jones, a colleague of Romer’s at Stanford. Before the Romer revolution, theorists had explained an economy’s growing output by looking at the obvious inputs—the number of hours worked, the skills of the workforce, the quantity of machinery and other physical capital.

But Romer stressed a fourth driver of growth, which he termed simply “ideas,” a category that encompassed everything from the formula for a new drug to the most efficient sequence for stitching 19 pieces of material into a sneaker. In statistical tests, the traditional inputs appeared to account for only half the differences in countries’ output per person, suggesting that ideas might account for the remaining half—and that leaving them out of a growth theory was like leaving the prince out of Hamlet. And whereas the old models had predicted that growth would slow as population expansion put stress on resources, and as new investment in skills and capital yielded diminishing returns, Romer’s New Growth Theory opened the window onto a sunnier worldview: a larger number of affluent people means more ideas, so prosperity and population expansion might cause growth to speed up.

Romer’s enthusiasm for technology made him a natural West Coaster, so it is not surprising that, after spells on the faculty at the University of Rochester and the University of Chicago, he fetched up at the University of California at Berkeley and then at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. But the next turn in his thinking involved a rebellion against the libertarianism of his Silicon Valley home. “I was willing to be a bit confrontational,” Romer says, impishly. Starting with a paper he presented at a World Bank conference in 1992, Romer began to emphasize that “ideas” included more than just technologies and manufacturing processes. Ideas were also embodied in customs and institutions—or, as Romer later came to put it, “rules”—patent law, competition law, bankruptcy law, and so on, as well as the softer “norms” that govern people’s behavior. Indeed, these rules could be even more important than technologies, however much the digerati of Silicon Valley might wish to believe otherwise. Without new technologies, an economy might grow slowly. But without decent rules, an economy cannot even make use of the technologies that already exist.

To drive home the importance of good rules to economic growth, Romer sometimes shows a photograph of Guinean teenagers doing their homework under streetlights. The line of hunched, concentrating figures presents a mystery, Romer says; from the photo it is clear that the teens are not dirt poor, and youths like these generally own cell phones. Yet they evidently have no electric light at home, or they would not be studying by the curbside. “So here is the puzzle,” Romer declares: Why do these kids have access to a cutting-edge technology like the cell phone, but not to a 100-year-old technology for generating electric light in the home? The answer, in a word, is rules. Because of misguided price controls in the teenagers’ country, the local electricity utility has no incentive to connect their houses to the power grid. Their society lacks the rules that make technological advance meaningful.

For much of the 1990s, development economists built on Romer’s insights, so that laws and the institutions needed to enforce them became central to the mainstream view of what drives human progress. But then, having transformed academic economics, Romer shocked the profession once again—this time by abandoning it. Starting in 2001, he began to channel his energy into a start-up software company that he named Aplia. “I was extremely disappointed to lose Paul as an academic colleague,” Easterly told me. “By walking away from research, he no doubt ignored the advice of anyone he might have talked to.” But Romer shrugged off such complaints. “When I was young, there were too many old economists who were getting in the way,” he explained. “So after 10 years I wanted to get out of the way, and not stifle the next generation.” Besides, Romer’s father, Roy, a former governor of Colorado, had just begun running the Los Angeles school system. As a proponent of technology, the younger Romer was embarrassed that educators such as himself had barely used computers to boost their own productivity.

Like Romer’s research, his company was radical. It created teaching materials that could be accessed online by collegiate economics students, challenging the dead-tree model of the textbook-industrial complex. At first, Romer was told that his approach was crazy. Students were used to paying a fortune for textbooks and then getting the accompanying homework problems at a trivial cost; Romer’s little start-up presumed to invert custom. Sooner or later, Romer insisted, textbooks would be electronic, at which point they would be copied and shared. By contrast, access to online homework problems could be metered successfully on the Web, because the sale of the homework could be bundled with automatic, online grading. Professors would be drawn to the system, and to assigning Aplia’s online texts. And those who had stinted on handing out exercises because of the grading time required would now feel free to assign more, with the result that students would make faster progress. By the time Romer sold Aplia in 2007, students had submitted 200 million answers to its online problems, and the venture had made its founder independently wealthy—not rich enough to be invited to Silicon Valley’s fancy charity galas, but plenty rich enough to live without a salary. At 52 years old, he began to look for a new challenge.

Romer was not inclined to go back to academia. The World Bank sounded him out for the job of chief economist, a perch previously occupied by stars such as Stanley Fischer, Lawrence Summers, and Joseph Stiglitz, but Romer was not interested in that, either. What he wanted, he told me, was to draw on the intellectual creativity of his university days and the entrepreneurial initiative he had shown at Aplia—and above all, to be maximally ambitious. When he made his choice, in 2008, it was suitably bold. He gave up tenure at Stanford and set out to make his mark in his own way: with the help of three assistants, he launched his charter-cities campaign, operating partly out of the small office he retained at Stanford and partly out of a friend’s house or a local Peet’s Coffee. He also began to shuttle back and forth across the world, meeting with any developing-country leader who would grant him an audience. Especially in sub-Saharan Africa, a surprising number proved ready to do so.

When Romer explains charter cities, he likes to invoke Hong Kong. For much of the 20th century, Hong Kong’s economy left mainland China’s in the dust, proving that enlightened rules can make a world of difference. By an accident of history, Hong Kong essentially had its own charter—a set of laws and institutions imposed by its British colonial overseers—and the charter served as a magnet for go-getters. At a time when much of East Asia was ruled by nationalist or Communist strongmen, Hong Kong’s colonial authorities put in place low taxes, minimal regulation, and legal protections for property rights and contracts; between 1913 and 1980, the city’s inflation-adjusted output per person jumped more than eightfold, making the average Hong Kong resident 10 times as rich as the average mainland Chinese, and about four-fifths as rich as the average Briton. Then, beginning around 1980, Hong Kong’s example inspired the mainland’s rulers to create copycat enclaves. Starting in Shenzhen City, adjacent to Hong Kong, and then curling west and north around the Pacific shore, China created a series of special economic zones that followed Hong Kong’s model. Pretty soon, one of history’s greatest export booms was under way, and between 1987 and 1998, an estimated 100 million Chinese rose above the $1-a-day income that defines abject poverty. The success of the special economic zones eventually drove China’s rulers to embrace the export-driven, pro-business model for the whole country. “In a sense, Britain inadvertently, through its actions in Hong Kong, did more to reduce world poverty than all the aid programs that we’ve undertaken in the last century,” Romer observes drily.

Of course, versions of China’s special economic zones have existed elsewhere, especially in Asia. But Romer is not just arguing for enclaves; he is arguing for enclaves that are run by foreign governments. To Romer, the fact that Hong Kong was a colonial experiment, imposed upon a humiliated China by means of a treaty signed aboard a British warship, is not just an embarrassing detail. On the contrary, British rule was central to the city’s success in persuading capitalists of all stripes to flock to it. Romer sometimes illustrates this point by citing another Communist country: modern-day Cuba. Cuba’s rulers have tried to induce foreign corporations to set up shop in special export zones, and have been greeted with understandable caution. But if Raúl Castro convinced a foreign government—ideally a rich democracy such as Canada—to assume sovereignty over a start-up city in Cuba, the prospect of a mini Canada in the sun might attract a flood of investment.

It must have occurred to Castro, Romer says, that his island could do with its own version of Hong Kong; and perhaps that the Guantánamo Bay zone, over which Cuba has already ceded sovereignty to the United States, would be a good place to build one. “Castro goes to the prime minister of Canada and says, ‘Look, the Yankees have a terrible PR problem. They want to get out. Why don’t you, Canada, take over? Run a special administrative zone. Allow a new city to be built up there,’” Romer muses, channeling a statesmanlike version of Raúl Castro that Cuba-watchers might not recognize. “Some of my citizens will move into that city,” Romer-as-Castro continues. “Others will hold back. But this will be the gateway that will connect the modern economy and the modern world to my country.”

When I put this scenario to Julia Sweig, a Cuba expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, she described the whole notion as “wacky.” But not everyone has dismissed Romer’s vision so quickly. Romer maintains that when he started to discuss his thinking with governments in developing countries, he found many of them receptive. One nation in particular seemed eager to sign on: the island-state of Madagascar, off the southeastern coast of Africa, where 90 percent of the people subsist on less than $2 a day.

In July 2008, Romer made his first trip to Madagascar’s bustling capital, Antananarivo. Madagascar’s government was anxious to attract foreign investment, and it understood that a credibility deficit held it back. In an earlier bout of openness, the island had lured in foreign garment firms, but then the political climate turned hostile and the firms fled; now the government was having trouble enticing them to come back. Faced with this obstacle, the Malagasy authorities were open to unconventional arrangements. To boost investment in agriculture, they were ready to lease a Connecticut-size tract of land to Daewoo, a South Korean corporation, for 99 years. To boost investment in export industries, they were thinking about inviting a tiny Indian Ocean neighbor, Mauritius, to administer an export-processing zone on Malagasy territory. Romer’s proposal fit in with these adventurous ideas. He returned to Antananarivo in November 2008 and held another round of promising meetings with government officials. The final hurdle, he was told, would be to secure an audience with the president, a former businessman named Marc Ravalomanana. Nothing could happen without his say-so.

Romer returned to Stanford and waited to hear when the president might be available. Periodically, he would receive an e-mail: Ravalomanana’s schedulers were battling to fit him in, but dozens of competing issues demanded the boss’s attention, and they were reluctant to commit to a firm time for the meeting. As the end of the year approached, without any appointment, Romer decided it was time for a gamble: he made the 30-hour trip from San Francisco once again, arriving in Antananarivo on the Sunday before Christmas, figuring that the president’s schedule might open up over the holidays. He checked himself into the Hotel du Louvre, close to the presidential palace, and called his government contacts to announce his arrival; then he set about waiting. He found that a patisserie nearby served finer French pastries than he had tasted in any American city. Sitting in the café with an espresso and a mille-feuille, Romer could see young men, stunted from malnutrition, watching over the cars parked in front of the hotel, hoping for a few tips. A portly European of a certain age walked by with an attractive young Malagasy woman on his arm, and the men outside the hotel stared. The look on their faces expressed all that needed to be said about global inequality.

Two days after he arrived, Romer got the summons he was waiting for. Late in the evening, on the night before Christmas Eve, he was ushered into the president’s personal residence, a recently refurbished but relatively modest home high in the hills. Ravalomanana had a few guests over to celebrate the holidays, and the mood was relaxed. He invited Romer out onto his balcony to see the view of the city, and then the two men moved into a study. The only symbols of authority were a large desk and a flag. The president was in shirtsleeves.

In public, Ravalomanana cut quite a figure. Handsome, youthful in appearance, and wealthy, he had started out selling homemade yogurt off the back of a bicycle and ended up holding a national monopoly on all dairy and oil products. But in private, Romer found the president quite approachable. Romer made his pitch for a charter city, and Ravalomanana responded that he wasn’t sure one was enough; if Romer could identify two rich countries willing to play the role of government trustee, it might be better to launch two parallel experiments. The president and the professor agreed that the new hubs should be open to migrants from nearby countries as well as to locals. They rose to examine a map of Madagascar on the study wall. Ravalomanana suggested building the first city on the island’s southwestern coast, which was largely uninhabited because of its dry heat. To Romer, the site sounded very much like the coastal locations that appeal most to the world’s affluent as vacation spots.

Romer has a quick smile and a knack for saying big things with small words, but he is not much for emotion. Recalling his trips to Madagascar, he sounds typically cool about them. But a more excitable person would be whooping out the punch lines at this point in the story; the fact that the charter-cities movement had progressed so far so fast is little short of astonishing. Barely a year after launching his venture, Romer was on the brink of a rare coup: a nation of 20 million people was about to embrace a neo-medieval, neo-colonial scheme untested in the modern history of development. But then a different sort of coup occurred—the kind of coup, unfortunately, that underscores the obstacles to Romer’s project.

Even as Romer was meeting with Ravalomanana, the president’s main political opponent was sniping at the proposed lease of farmland to Daewoo, and the idea of giving up vast swaths of territory to foreigners was growing increasingly unpopular. The arrangement was denounced as treason, and public protests gathered momentum, eventually turning violent. In late January 2009, protesters tossed homemade grenades at radio and TV stations that Ravalomanana owned; looters ransacked his chain of supermarkets. In February, guards opened fire on marchers in front of the presidential palace, killing 28 civilians. At this, units of the army mutinied. Soon, Ravalomanana was forced out of office.

The first action of the new government was to cancel the Daewoo project, and Romer’s plans in Madagascar were put on hold indefinitely. But the larger question was what, if anything, this disappointment signified for Romer’s whole approach. The riots appeared to demonstrate the explosive sensitivities surrounding sovereignty and land—sensitivities that are not confined to Madagascar. Indeed, versions of the Daewoo story have played out elsewhere. In the late 1990s, for example, Fiji’s government decided to bring in a British nonprofit to manage its mahogany forests, and an indigenous leader launched a revolt under the slogan “Fiji for the Fijians.” The rebellion was hypocritical: as the Oxford economist Paul Collier recounts in his book The Bottom Billion, the indigenous leader had himself backed a rival foreign bid to manage the mahogany. But the venality of the rebels’ motivation didn’t change the fact that a demagogue could easily attract support by railing against territorial concessions to foreigners.

Ever since the setback in Madagascar, Romer has been coy, for obvious reasons, about which governments are interested in his plan. But he remains optimistic. “I revived growth theory. I made technology work in higher ed. I am two for two, and I think the impossible can be done,” he told me cheerfully. He added that the Daewoo deal might not have been the main impetus for the coup in Madagascar; the real reasons for Ravalomanana’s downfall lay in idiosyncratic local rivalries, even if the opposition exploited sensitivities over land to incite antigovernment protests. I suggested that the fact that land concessions could trigger such emotions was still not a good sign. Romer stopped, considered, and chose his words carefully.

“Anything that involves land can be manipulated by people who want to rise up against a leader,” he began. “You have to find a place where there’s a strong enough leader with enough legitimacy to do this knowing that he’s going to get attacked. It narrows the options quite a bit. But we shouldn’t give up without trying a few more places.” In short, a disappointment with one client is no excuse for failing to pitch other ones. Any entrepreneur knows that.

As politically freighted as Romer’s ideas are, they also carry a continuing attraction to the people in charge of many poor countries, particularly those with rapidly growing populations. By some estimates, 3 billion people will move to cities in the next few decades, abandoning miserable and environmentally destructive work as subsistence farmers in the hope of better lives in manufacturing and services. In the absence of a Romer-type solution, these migrants will move into urban slums with no running water, high crime rates, few steady jobs, and sewage in the streets; charter cities seem a better option. And Romer’s idea has the great merit of paying for itself. Land in successful cities appreciates in value, creating wealth that can be unlocked to finance new buildings, businesses, and infrastructure. And so African officials continue to meet with Romer, and Romer continues to jet off to wherever they are ready to see him.

When you listen carefully, you realize that much of what Romer is saying should not be controversial. A few development economists argue that geography is destiny, but most share Romer’s conviction that decent rules are paramount. After all, Asia accounted for fully 56 percent of world income in 1820, only 16 percent in 1950, and a substantial 39 percent in 2008; what changed over this period was rules, not geography. Equally, Romer’s contention that a developing country can achieve good government by importing the credibility of foreigners fits with mainstream thinking. When Panama or Ecuador decides to do business in dollars, or when Slovenia embraces the euro, each country is importing the credibility of a foreign central bank. Similarly, joining the World Trade Organization is a proven way to import the rich world’s tariff structure, intellectual-property rules, and domestic regulations—and, just as important, to persuade investors that the reform is permanent. Importing foreign election monitors or peacekeepers can compensate for weak political institutions or security forces. And so on.

But Romer is also urging us to reexamine assumptions about citizenship and democracy, and this is where he gets more radical. In the kind of charter city he imagines, the governor would be appointed by Canada or some other rich nation, but the people who work there would come from poor countries—the whole point, after all, is to bring the governance of the developed world to workers in undeveloped places. It follows that the workers in Romer’s charter city wouldn’t be citizens in the full sense. They would be offered whatever protections the founding charter might lay down, and they would have to take them or leave them. Rather than getting a vote at the ballot box, Romer is saying, the residents of a charter city would have to vote with their feet. Their leaders would be accountable—but only to the rich voters in the country that appointed them.

This viewpoint is, to say the least, not in keeping with the idealized vision of development, in which freedom and prosperity advance in lockstep, with democracy serving as the necessary companion to economic progress. In the 1980s Ronald Reagan declared confidently, “Freedom works”; and in the 1990s Bill Clinton lectured foreign counterparts on how democracy had become all the more indispensable to progress with the advent of the “knowledge economy.” But assertions like these have seemed more fragile recently, with authoritarian China breaking growth records and state capitalism apparently thriving; Romer is hardly the only person to doubt that democracy is a necessary condition for economic progress. And to the extent that opt-in charter cities offer a third way—something between pure democracy and pure authoritarianism—those who care for liberty might do well to embrace the experiment. Charter cities make it harder for authoritarians to claim that their system offers the only fast route out of poverty.

The real test for Romer’s attitude toward democracy is not whether it conforms to Western ideals, but whether it appeals to the poor people whom Western aid agencies claim to be serving. And on this score, the answer is clear. In fact, you could say Romer’s assertion—that voting with your feet can be a palatable alternative to casting a ballot—already has 214 million adherents, for that is the number of people who have chosen to leave their home countries and settle as migrants in places where they have no political vote. Real development, as distinct from the idealized vision of development, involves hard personal choices. If people are willing to live as legal or illegal immigrants, with rights that range from limited to none, then logically, they should be even more eager to move to a Romerplex, which would promise most of the economic gains of uprooting to another continent while allowing migrants to stay closer to their families and cultures.

If you have stuck with Romer thus far, you are ready for the last part of his argument. If good rules are the key to development, it follows that the big development challenge is to grasp how to reform bad rules—and to accept that conventional approaches are not terribly successful. Think back to the African teenagers reading under the streetlights. The bad rules they contend with are well understood: dozens of World Bank missions have doubtless pointed out that price controls on electricity destroy the electric company’s incentive to sign up new customers. But what is not understood is how to abolish those controls, since the country’s elite, which is already hooked up to the electric grid, will fight tooth and nail against higher prices.

The standard response to this obstacle is to advocate democracy and hope that voters will force change: the minority that has electric light will be outvoted by the much larger number of people who have been denied it. But Romer argues that this way forward is too slow. People don’t always vote their economic interests, and elites with tentacles all over the ministry of energy may keep price controls in place for decades. So rather than wait in vain for electricity rules to change, we are better off starting a new experiment with brand-new rules—a charter city that stands outside the ministry’s authority. Rather than going at an obstacle head-on, Romer is saying, sidestepping it is frequently a better option.

Romer likes to clinch this point with an analogy from industry. A firm like IBM may develop a culture—a set of corporate rules—that is brilliantly suited to handling the institutional customers that buy mainframe computers. But when the PC is invented, and individuals become customers, the IBM culture proves awkward and slow; and reforming its rules turns out to be difficult. So along come Dell and Apple, with business models better targeted at household consumers, and pretty soon computer-users start preferring their products. Change from without comes more easily than change from within. Industrial progress comes from new entrants and new experiments, not from the slow process of changing established corporate bureaucracies.

Sometimes, Romer continues, established businesses subject themselves to an internal version of this process. They spawn experimental subsidiaries, known as “skunkworks,” to try out new business models. For example, the discount retailer Target began as an experimental skunkworks spun off by the old-line retailer Dayton Company. Target was given its own charter and allowed to test out a new approach; it succeeded so resoundingly that Dayton eventually ditched the parts of its business that ran according to the old rules and embraced the Target formula. Again, generating change within an organization is often less effective than driving change from without. If companies can change themselves by setting up subsidiaries with new rules, countries could do the same with charter cities.

Throughout our conversation, Romer maintained a steady confidence that poor countries will eventually welcome charter cities. At the end of one of his overseas trips, he messaged me from his iPhone: “Sadly can’t say more yet other than that in two cases I’m waiting for next step meeting w the president. As before I remain optimistic about response from developing countries.” In one case, Romer and his government counterparts have progressed quite far: they have identified the site for the charter city, and agreed that its success will require the construction of a new port. Meanwhile, Romer is equally confident that elite opinion will come around to his idea—and my own recent straw poll of development economists suggests that at least some of them have already done so.

But the largest obstacle Romer faces, by his own admission, still remains: he has to find countries willing to play the role of Britain in Hong Kong. Despite the good arguments that Romer makes for his vision, the responsibilities entailed in Empire 2.0 are not popular. How would a rich government contend with the shantytowns that might spring up around the borders of a charter city? Would it deport the inhabitants, and be accused of human-rights abuses? Or tolerate them and allow its oasis to be overrun with people who don’t respect its city charter? And what would the foreign trustee do if its host tried to nullify the lease? Would it defend its development experiment with an expeditionary army, as Margaret Thatcher defended the Falklands? A top official at one of Europe’s aid agencies told me, “Since we are responsible for our remaining overseas territories, I can tell you there is much grief in running these things. I would be surprised if Romer gets any takers.”

Sensing the resistance among potential trustee nations, Romer has come up with new variants on his formula. A group of advanced countries could share the burden of trusteeship, rather than one nation shouldering the responsibility alone. To reduce the sensitivities over land and sovereignty, the territory for a charter city could be provided by one country while the migrant workers come from another. When I asked Romer about setting up a charter city in post-earthquake Haiti, he recoiled at the idea: the country has no functioning government, so there is no entity that could transfer sovereignty over a parcel of territory in a legitimate way. But Romer was happy to contemplate creative variations on this theme. What if Mexico ceded some land for a charter city for Haitians, with the charter being administered by a consortium of outside governments?

Whatever becomes of Romer’s movement, it is going to be interesting. His thinking taps into so many currents of our era—an era in which millions of migrants embrace his vote-with-your feet vision; in which the old faith in democratic development is questioned; and in which globalization scrambles settled notions of who rules what where. On one side, critics will be scathing: Elliott Sclar, the Columbia professor, warns, “Charter cities amount to a new form of colonialism, and that’s the last thing we need right now.” On the other side, adherents will cheer eagerly: charter cities are “one of the best ideas that anybody in development ever had,” according to Michael Clemens of the Center for Global Development, a think tank in Washington, D.C. And throughout these debates, it will be hard not to sympathize with Romer’s plea for fresh thinking. Charter cities face plenty of obstacles, and I could have written an article that dwelt exclusively on them. But when African teenagers do their homework under streetlights, isn’t Romer right to think the unthinkable?

Can “Charter Cities” Change the World? A Q&A With Paul Romer
by Dwyer Gunn / September 29, 2009

Weak institutions and bad rules are some of the most significant obstacles to economic growth in developing countries. Paul Romer, an economist known for his work on economic growth, has a plan to change that and recently resigned his tenured teaching position at Stanford to devote his full energies to the challenge. “Moving from bad rules to better ones may be much harder than most economists have allowed.” Romer’s plan calls for the establishment of Hong Kong-like “charter cities,” special zones within developing countries with better rules and institutions. Romer agreed to answer some of our questions about his crazy and/or revolutionary plan below:

Q. You recently gave up your tenured teaching position at Stanford to launch an ambitious development initiative. Can you tell us about your new charter cities project?
A. Yes, instead of being a professor, I’m now a senior fellow there, which means exactly what it says: I’m officially an old guy. The key to the project is a charter city, which starts out as a city-sized piece of uninhabited territory and a charter or constitution specifying the rules that will apply there. If the charter specifies good rules (or in our professional jargon, good institutions) millions of people will come together to build a new city.

Q. What makes you confident that land and a good charter are all it takes?
A. A well-run city lets millions of people come together and enjoy the benefit they can get from working together and trading with each other. The benefits per person increase with the total number of people; this is why big cities are more productive than small cities or villages. Of course, none of this is new. Adam Smith was referring to the power of exchange and the importance of increasing returns when he wrote that, “the division of labor is limited by the extent of the market.” There are many signs of the value created by all the exchange that takes place in a city. We see it in productivity and wage data. We also see it in the increase in the value of the land. Millions of people are willing to pay high rents just to live and work around millions of other people who are also paying high rents. Why? To get the benefits that come from exchange and interaction with so many others. In the developing world, most people don’t yet live in big well-run cities. Given the chance to move to one, hundreds of millions of people would go there to get a job, get an education for their children, and live in a place that is clean, safe, and healthy. Other people will make a profit by hiring them or supplying them with infrastructure and other services. If the rules let this happen, everyone can be better off. It doesn’t take any charity to build well-run cities.

Q. What kinds of rules would have to be specified in a charter for a new city?
A. Rules about public sanitation are a simple and familiar example. Without them, a city can’t be a healthy place to live; but these rules don’t just happen. The rules for a city are different from the ones for a village, but as a village slowly gets bigger, a city may be stuck with the rules of the village. In a village, it might be O.K. to rule that anyone can urinate anyplace they want. In a modern city, it is better to have a rule saying that people have to urinate into toilets connected to the sewer system. According to a recent news report, the city government in Paris is having trouble enforcing this rule. They have special police units that give tickets to men who urinate against walls. So when we speak of rules, we must understand both rules on paper and an effective system of enforcement. In many cities in poor countries, health is bad because governments don’t enforce basic rules about sanitation. The crime rate is appallingly high because the government doesn’t enforce rules that prohibit theft and violence. Traffic fatalities and congestion are both high because they don’t have good traffic rules or if they do, they don’t enforce them. The fact that people still flock to cities with such bad rules tells us something about how big the other benefits from living in a city must be. But given the choice, they would surely rather go to a city with good rules instead of one with bad rules.

Q. You have argued that new cities can speed up growth in the developing world. Aren’t the cities that the world needs springing up naturally? Why do we need the construct of a charter city to encourage faster or better urbanization?
A. Economists tend to assume that societies will naturally adopt good rules. If that were true, societies would put in place the rules needed to get the gains from a city and well-run cities would indeed spring up. The evidence suggests to the contrary that many societies are stuck with bad rules. Moving from bad rules to better ones may be much harder than most economists have allowed. The construct of a charter city is a suggestion about how we can change the dynamics of rules. It is a way to speed up the rate of improvement in the rules. There is an analogy that may be helpful here. Large corporations operate according to an internal set of rules that we sometimes call a corporate culture. A natural question to ask is what mechanisms lead to improvement in the rule-sets that prevail in all the corporations in an industry. If you think of an industry like computing, it is immediately evident that much of the change comes from the entry of new organizations. They have new rule-sets that attract resources away from the existing ones. IBM had good internal rules for working with big corporations and data centers, but they didn’t work as well for working with small businesses and individual consumers. If IBM had been the only company allowed to be in the computer business, it would have taken a very long time to get where we are now, with networked computers in our pockets. The entry of new organizations like Digital, Intel, and Apple that operated under very different internal sets of rules sped up change in the industry. Charter cities are a way to bring the power of entry and choice to the dynamics of the rules for cities.

Q. Let’s move on to logistics. Who might grant the charter for one of these cities and see that it will be enforced?
A. Different charters could specify different arrangements. This means that we could try many new types of innovative structures. If a national government has sufficient credibility, it could start a charter city within its own territory and administer it from the national capital. This is, in effect, what some countries have done when they have created special economic zones with rules that are different from the ones that prevail in the rest of the country. You could imagine that a country like India might try something like this to speed up urbanization by cutting through many local rules that get in the way of urban development. In poorer countries that don’t have the same kind of credibility with international investors, a more interesting but controversial possibility is that two or more countries might sign a treaty specifying the charter for a new city and allocate between them responsibilities for administering different parts of the treaty. Let me give you a specific example. Right now, the United States and Cuba have a treaty that gives the United States administrative control in perpetuity over a piece of sovereign Cuban territory, Guantanamo Bay. I’ve suggested that Canada and Cuba sign a new treaty in which Canada would take over administration of this area, bring Canadian rule of law there, and let a city grow up that could bring to Cuba some of the advantages that Hong Kong brought to China.

Q. Why will governments, particularly the entrenched, corrupt governments found in many countries, be willing to cede control of these zones?
A. First let me push back on an assumption that many people make and that seems to be implicit in your question. This assumption is that “bad guys” are why so many people are stuck living under bad rules. If you were a good guy and were the mayor of New York, would you be able to build enough consensus to implement congestion pricing for traffic, at least within our lifetimes? Or would you be strong enough to be able to coerce the people who don’t want it to go along? Narratives about good guys and bad guys are always entertaining, but there is a deeper reason why people get stuck under bad rules. For those of us who live in the United States, it is easier to understand in a context like New York that is more familiar. It is quite possible that its existing political system will never allow an improvement like congestion pricing, and yet many people would happily move to a new city that had sensible pricing and smoothly flowing traffic at all hours of the day. Systems of rules are “sticky”; they are difficult for any leader or group to change. With this in mind, suppose you were the president of Cuba. Suppose you wanted to do for Cuba what Deng Xiaoping did for China: engineer the transition from communism to rapid market-led growth. To do this, you might want to create a special zone where some of your citizens could opt-in to the market system without forcing others to make this change. You might be able to do this with a charter city that you control out of the president’s office. Now suppose you also want to make a binding commitment to rule-of-law protections for the foreign investors and potential residents from foreign countries you’d like to attract to this city. Investors from the rest of the world could finance the infrastructure for a new city in exchange for fee income from users. Entrepreneurs and managers from the rest of the world might come and run the businesses that would hire millions of people. Many of these highly educated and experienced people might be émigrés who left when the island turned to communism. These investors and these potential residents will come only if you can promise them the protections afforded by the rule of law. By yourself, with the Cuban institutions that you control, there is simply no way for you to make a credible binding commitment to the rule of law. You could simply change your mind later. More importantly, your successor, whomever that may be, might want to back out of any promises you make. The only way for you and your contemporaries to make a binding, long-term commitment is to sign a treaty with a country like Canada and to use it as a third-party guarantor. In effect, what a treaty lets you do is leverage the existing credibility of Canadian institutions and bring in the rule of law.

Q. But what if some future government in Cuba wants to violate the terms of the treaty and take the city over once it is built?
A. This is why the example of Guantanamo Bay is so revealing. In practice, countries around the world, even countries that can’t get along, still respect treaties. Cuba respects the treaty with the United States, even as they complain bitterly about it. Another good example is Hong Kong. The British clearly did not want to live up to the terms of the treaty they signed, which returned control of important parts of Hong Kong to China after 99 years. China didn’t want to wait that long to get Hong Kong back. But in the end, for 99 years, they stuck to the terms of the treaty they signed. Of course, in relations between countries there is always the possibility of an act of war that violates a treaty, but few nations are willing to cross such an explicit “bright red line.” Think back to how easy it was to mobilize a military reaction to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The armed nations of the world don’t respond well to unilateral acts of war.

Q. It all sounds great as a theoretical exercise, but honestly, don’t your colleagues tell you that something like this will never happen?
A. They do say this, which is actually kind of ironic when you line it up with the other things they say. They recognize that the construct of a charter city is something that could make everyone better off. They admit that there is no technological or economic constraint that keeps us from building many of these. Then they say that for political reasons, it will never happen. They tell me that you can’t change politics; you can’t overcome nationalism; there is no way for countries to work together to extend the reach of good rules. Then these same economists suggest that we should just stick to business as usual. We should offer conventional economic advice and assume that political systems will naturally follow our advice when we point to something that could make everyone better off. But of course, they have already revealed that they don’t believe this. What’s going on here is a kind of self-censoring. Economists seem to think that we should propose things that are acceptable and that political systems will pursue, but that we should avoid proposing or even discussing things that are controversial or politically incorrect. I think we’d do our jobs better if we just said what’s true without trying to be amateur politicians. For example, back in the 1950’s and 1960’s, lots of development economists didn’t talk about the benefits of direct foreign investment and spoke instead of self-sufficiency because they thought that this was what the political actors in most poor countries wanted to hear. Now, of course, almost all developing nations are encouraging inward DFI. When we self-censored back then, we just slowed down movement toward global flows of technology via foreign investment. It happened despite what development economists said, not because of what they said. Think about the truly important changes in political systems. Back in the middle ages, suppose that someone described a legal system that enforced rules and contracts that everyone had to obey, even the country’s leaders. What would informed opinion of the day have been? “Great idea, but it will never happen.” No question it was hard to pull off, but it did happen. People always think that the unfamiliar is impossible. Many times, all that holds us back is a failure of imagination.

Post-Scarcity Prophet
by Ronald Bailey / December 2001

reason: In terms of real per capita income, Americans today are seven times richer than they were in 1900. How did that happen?
Paul Romer: Many things contributed, but the essential one is technological change. What I mean by that is the discovery of better ways to do things. In most coffee shops these days, you’ll find that the small, medium, and large coffee cups all use the same size lid now, whereas even five years ago they used to have different size lids for the different cups. That small change in the geometry of the cups means that somebody can save a little time in setting up the coffee shop, preparing the cups, getting your coffee, and getting out. Millions of little discoveries like that, combined with some very big discoveries, like the electric motor and antibiotics, have made the quality of life for people today dramatically higher than it was 100 years ago. The estimate you cite of a seven-fold increase in income — that’s the kind of number you get from the official statistics, but the truth is that if you look at the actual change in the quality of life, it’s larger than the number suggests. People who had today’s average income in 1900 were not as well off as the average person today, because they didn’t have access to cheap lattés or antibiotics or penicillin.

reason: New Growth Theory divides the world into “ideas” and “things.” What do you mean by that?
Romer: The paper that makes up the cup in the coffee shop is a thing. The insight that you could design small, medium, and large cups so that they all use the same size lid — that’s an idea. The critical difference is that only one person can use a given amount of paper. Ideas can be used by many people at the same time.

reason: What about human capital, the acquired skills and learned abilities that can increase productivity?
Romer: Human capital is comparable to a thing. You have skills as a writer, for example, and somebody — reason — can use those skills. That’s not something that we can clone and replicate. The formula for an AIDS drug, that’s something you could send over the Internet or put on paper, and then everybody in the world could have access to it. This is a hard distinction for people to get used to, because there are so many tight interactions between human capital and ideas. For example, human capital is how we make ideas. It takes people, people’s brains, inquisitive people, to go out and find ideas like new drugs for AIDS. Similarly, when we make human capital with kids in school, we use ideas like the Pythagorean theorem or the quadratic formula. So human capital makes ideas, and ideas help make human capital. But still, they’re conceptually distinct.

reason: What do you see as the necessary preconditions for technological progress and economic growth?
Romer: One extremely important insight is that the process of technological discovery is supported by a unique set of institutions. Those are most productive when they’re tightly coupled with the institutions of the market. The Soviet Union had very strong science in some fields, but it wasn’t coupled with strong institutions in the market. The upshot was that the benefits of discovery were very limited for people living there. The wonder of the United States is that we’ve created institutions of science and institutions of the market. They’re very different, but together they’ve generated fantastic benefits. When we speak of institutions, economists mean more than just organizations. We mean conventions, even rules, about how things are done. The understanding which most sharply distinguishes science from the market has to do with property rights. In the market, the fundamental institution is the notion of private ownership, that an individual owns a piece of land or a body of water or a barrel of oil and that individual has almost unlimited scope to decide how that resource should be used. In science we have a very different ethic. When somebody discovers something like the quadratic formula or the Pythagorean theorem, the convention in science is that he can’t control that idea. He has to give it away. He publishes it. What’s rewarded in science is dissemination of ideas. And the way we reward it is we give the most prestige and respect to those people who first publish an idea.

reason: Yet there is a mechanism in the market called patents and copyright, for quasi-property rights in ideas.
Romer: That’s central to the theory. To the extent that you’re using the market system to refine and bring ideas into practical application, we have to create some kind of control over the idea. That could be through patents. It could be through copyright. It might even be through secrecy. A firm can keep secret a lot of what it knows how to do.

reason: A formula for Coca-Cola?
Romer: Yes. Or take a lot of the things that Wal-Mart understands about discount retailing. They have a lot of insight about logistics and marketing which they haven’t patented or copyrighted, yet they can still make more money on it than other people because they keep it closely held within the firm. So for relying on the market — and we do have to rely on the market to develop a lot of ideas — you have to have some mechanisms of control and some opportunities for people to make a profit developing those ideas. But there are other stages in the development of ideas. Think about the basic science that led to the discovery of the structure of DNA. There are some kinds of ideas where, once those ideas are uncovered, you’d like to make them as broadly available as possible, so everybody in the world can put them to good use. There we find it efficient to give those ideas away for free and encourage everybody to use them. If you’re going to be giving things away for free, you’re going to have to find some system to finance them, and that’s where government support typically comes in. In the next century we’re going to be moving back and forth, experimenting with where to draw the line between institutions of science and institutions of the market. People used to assign different types of problems to each institution. “Basic research” got government support; for “applied product development,” we’d rely on the market. Over time, people have recognized that that’s a pretty artificial distinction. What’s becoming more clear is that it’s actually the combined energies of those two sets of institutions, often working on the same problem, that lead to the best outcomes.

reason: We hear a lot of complaints from academicians about how business and corporations are taking over university research.
Romer: I think it’s important to have a distinct realm of science and a distinct realm of the market, but it’s also very good to have interaction between those two. One of the best forms of interaction is for people who work in one to move into the other. The people in university biology or biochemistry departments complain when they see somebody go on leave from the university and start a company that’s going to develop a new drug. That’s not the way it was done 30 years ago. But this is the best way to take those freely floating, contentiously discussed ideas from the realm of science and then get them out into the market process, because the reality is that there are virtually no ideas which generate benefits for consumers if there’s not an intervening for-profit firm which commercializes them, tailors them to the market, and then delivers them. You can point to examples where things jump right from science to benefits for the consumer, but that’s the exception, not the rule.

reason: Do we run the risk of ruining science by involving it too much in the market?
Romer: Well, some people would say that everything should be patented. The danger is that if you went that far, you could actually slow the discovery process down. There are very good theoretical reasons for thinking that market and property rights are the ideal solution for dealing with things, but there are also strong theoretical reasons for thinking that in the realm of ideas, intellectual property rights are a double-edged sword. You want to rely on them to some extent to get their benefits, but you want to have a parallel, independent system and then exploit the tension that’s created between the two.

reason: What are those theoretical reasons?
Romer: It traces back to this multiple use I was describing for ideas vs. single use for things. The miracle of the market system is that for objects, especially transformed objects, there’s a single price which does two different jobs. It creates an incentive for somebody to produce the right amount of a good, and it allocates who it should go to. A farmer looks at the price of a bushel of wheat and decides whether to plant wheat or plant corn. The price helps motivate the production of wheat. On the other side, when a consumer has to decide whether to buy bread or corn meal, the price allocates the wheat between the different possible users. One price does both jobs, so you can just let the market system create the price and everything works wonderfully. With ideas, you can’t get one price to do both things. Let me give an extreme example. Oral rehydration therapy is one of those few ideas which did actually jump immediately from science to consumer benefit. It’s a simple scientific insight about how you can save the life of a child who’s suffering from diarrhea. Literally millions of lives have been saved with it. So what price should you charge people for using it? Because everybody can use the idea at the same time, there’s no tragedy of the commons in the intellectual sphere. There’s no problem of overuse or overgrazing or overfishing an idea. If you give an idea away for free, you don’t get any of the problems when you try and give objects away for free. So the efficient thing for society is to offer really big rewards for some scientist who discovers an oral rehydration therapy. But then as soon as we discover it, we give the idea away for free to everybody throughout the world and explain “Just use this little mixture of basically sugar and salt, put it in water, and feed that to a kid who’s got diarrhea because if you give them pure water you’ll kill them.” So with ideas, you have this tension: You want high prices to motivate discovery, but you want low prices to achieve efficient widespread use. You can’t with a single price achieve both, so if you push things into the market, you try to compromise between those two, and it’s often an unhappy compromise. The government doesn’t pay drug companies prizes for coming up with AIDS drugs. It says they’ve got to incur these huge expenses, but then if they succeed, they can charge a high price for selling that drug. This has generated a lot of progress and we’re prolonging the life of people with AIDS, but the high price is also denying many people access to those drugs.

reason: Over the broad sweep of human history, technological progress and economic growth were painfully slow. Why has it sped up now?
Romer: It’s so striking. Evolution has not made us any smarter in the last 100,000 years. Why for almost all of that time is there nothing going on, and then in the last 200 years things suddenly just go nuts? One answer is that the more people you’re around, the better off you’re going to be. This again traces back to the fundamental difference I described before. If everything were just objects, like trees, then more people means there’s less wood per person. But if somebody discovers an idea, everybody gets to use it, so the more people you have who are potentially looking for ideas, the better off we’re all going to be. And each time we made a little improvement in technology, we could support a slightly larger population, and that led to more people who could go out and discover some new technology. Another answer is that we developed better institutions. Neither the institutions of the market nor the institutions of science existed even as late as the Middle Ages. Instead we had the feudal system, where peasants couldn’t decide where to work and the lord couldn’t sell his land. On the science side, we had alchemy. What did you do if you discovered anything? You kept it secret. The last thing you’d do was tell anybody.

reason: How did the better institutions come about?
Romer: That’s one of the deep questions. There’s some kind of political process, some group decision process, which leads to institutions. If you go back to what I said a minute ago about the advantages of having many people, you can see that there’s a tension here. There are huge benefits to having more people and having us all interact amongst ourselves to create goods and to share ideas. But you face a really big challenge in trying to coordinate all of those decisions, because if you have large numbers of independent decision makers who aren’t coordinating their actions appropriately, you could get chaos. Think about millions of drivers with no rules of the road, no agreement about whether you drive on the left or the right. So where do these institutions come from? It was a process of discovery, just as people discovered how to make bronze. They also discovered ways to organize political life. We can use democratic choice as an alternative to, say, a hereditary system of selecting who’s the king. What’s subtle here is, How do those discoveries get into action? It’s not like a profit motive in a firm that brings software to market. There was a process of persuasion when somebody discovered that, hey, this would be a better way for us to organize ourselves. So we had political and economic thinkers — Locke, Hobbes, Smith — who managed to persuade some of their peers to adopt those institutions. So institutions came from a combination of discovery, persuasion, adoption — and then copying. When good institutions work somewhere in the world, other places can copy them.

reason: Many economic historians are critical of New Growth Theory. Economic growth is a modern phenomenon, yet it appears that New Growth Theory should apply equally to the Roman Empire or Ming China as well as the modern world.
Romer: I think that’s a caricature of the theory. New Growth Theory describes what’s possible for us but says very explicitly that if you don’t have the right institutions in place, it won’t happen. If anything, it was the old style of theory which made it sound like technological change falls from the sky like manna from heaven, regardless of how we structure our institutions. This new theory says technological change comes about if you have the right institutions, which we have had.

reason: So what’s the crucial difference between Ming China and modern economies today?
Romer: Ming China was very advanced. It had steel. It had clocks. It had movable type. Yet it was far from generating either the modern institutions of science or the institutions of the market. The market and science differ in their treatment of property rights, but they’re similar in that they rely on individuals who are free to operate under essentially no constraints by authority or tradition. It took a special set of historical circumstances to persuade people that things could work if you freed people, within certain institutional constraints, to pursue their own interests. This is where Ming China was very far away from modern notions. Part of the answer to this big question about human history has been the acceptance of relatively unfettered freedom for large numbers of individuals. It’s something we just take for granted, but if you described it in the abstract to the people of 50,000 years ago, they would never believe it could possibly work. They were conditioned to systems where there was the head man or the chief, and as numbers got at all large, there was a sense that you had to have somebody with kind of dictatorial control. It was a deep philosophical insight and deep change in the whole way we viewed the world to tolerate and accept and then truly celebrate freedom. Freedom may be the fundamental hinge on which everything turns.

reason: You often cite the combinatorial explosion of ideas as the source of economic growth. What do you mean by that?
Romer: On any conceivable horizon — I’ll say until about 5 billion years from now, when the sun explodes — we’re not going to run out of discoveries. Just ask how many things we could make by taking the elements from the periodic table and mixing them together. There’s a simple mathematical calculation: It’s 10 followed by 30 zeros. In contrast, 10 followed by 19 zeros is about how much time has elapsed since the universe was created.

reason: Of all those billions of combinations, the vast majority are probably going to be useless. So how do you find the useful ones?
Romer: This is why science and the market are so important for this discovery process. It’s really important that we focus our energy on those paths that look promising, because there are many more dead ends out there than there are useful things to discover. You have to have systems which explore lots of different paths, but then those systems have to rigorously shut off the ones that aren’t paying off and shift resources into directions which look more promising. The market does this automatically. The institutions of science could tip either way. In American science, we have vigorous competition between lots of different universities, which leads to a kind of marketplace of ideas. You can think of other institutions of science that aren’t nearly as competitive. In the national laboratories, people are in the worst case civil servants: They’re there for life, and there’s always more funding for them.

reason: Does New Growth Theory give us some new insights on how to think about monopolies?
Romer: There was an old, simplistic notion that monopoly was always bad. It was based on the realm of objects — if you only have objects and you see somebody whose cost is significantly lower than their price, it would be a good idea to break up the monopoly and get competition to reign freely. So in the realm of things, of physical objects, there is a theoretical justification for why you should never tolerate monopoly. But in the realm of ideas, you have to have some degree of monopoly power. There are some very important benefits from monopoly, and there are some potential costs as well. What you have to do is weigh the costs against the benefits. Unfortunately, that kind of balancing test is sensitive to the specifics, so we don’t have general rules. Compare the costs and benefits of copyrighting books versus the costs and benefits of patenting the human genome. They’re just very different, so we have to create institutions that can respond differentially in those cases.

reason: You have written, “There is absolutely no reason why we cannot have persistent growth as far into the future as you can imagine.” Your Stanford colleague, the biologist Paul Ehrlich, disagrees. He believes that economic growth is an unsustainable cancer that is destroying the planet. How would you go about convincing people like Ehrlich that they are wrong?
Romer: Paul seems singularly immune to being convinced. He has been on the wrong side of these issues, so I wouldn’t set that as my standard of persuading anybody. However, if I took a neutral observer who might listen to me and Paul, there’s a pretty easy way to explain why I’m right and why Paul misunderstands. You have to define what you mean by growth. If by growth you mean population, more people, then Paul is actually right. There are physical limits on how many people you can have on Earth. If we took peak population growth rates from the ’70s at 2 percent per year, you can only sustain that for a couple of hundred years before you really run into true physical constraints.

reason: I would remind you that Ehrlich said that there would be billions of people dying of starvation in the 1980s.
Romer: He got the potentials wrong and the time frame wrong, but it’s absolutely true that population growth will have to come to zero at some point here on Earth. The only debate is about when. Now, what do I mean when I say growth can continue? I don’t mean growth in the number of people. I don’t even mean growth in the number of physical objects, because you clearly can’t get exponential growth in the amount of mass that each person controls. We’ve got the same mass here on Earth that we had 100,000 years ago and we’re never going to get any more of it. What I mean is growth in value, and the way you create value is by taking that fixed quantity of mass and rearranging it from a form that isn’t worth very much into a form that’s worth much more. A canonical example is turning sand on the beach into semiconductors.

reason: What do you make of the recent protests against globalization?
Romer: When we were describing the broad sweep of human history, we talked about how hard it was for people to get used to the idea of freedom. There was another kind of adjustment that we had to make as well: We had to get used to the idea of the market, and especially market exchange among anonymous strangers. People often contrast this with the institutions of the family, where you’ve got notions of sharing and mutual obligation. Many of us have a deep psychological intuition rooted in our evolutionary history that makes us feel warmly toward the family and suspicious of large, impersonal, anonymous market exchange. I think that emotional impulse is part of what some of the environmental ideologues draw on when they attack the whole market system and corporations and modern science and everything. This is a case where human psychology that was attuned to a hunter-gatherer environment is just a little bit out of touch with a new world that’s much more interconnected, much more interactive, and in many ways a much more satisfying and rich human experience. You can idealize life in a hunter-gatherer society, but nobody wants to go through the frequent death of a child — a very common experience for almost all of history that has been reduced a phenomenal degree within human memory.

reason: How would you convince protestors of the benefits of globalization?
Romer: First, just look at the facts. The protestors are amazingly ignorant about what has happened in terms of, say, life expectancy. Life expectancy for people in the poorest countries of the world is now better than life expectancy in England when Malthus was so worried about it. Then you look at the variation of experience between the poor countries that have done best and the ones that have done worst, and try to see what the correlations are. Which countries did best? Was it the countries that adopted the market most strongly, embraced foreign investment, and tried to adopt property rights? Or was it the other countries? The evidence again is clear. One of the untold stories about the ’80s and ’90s was the really dramatic turnaround in the developing world that took place on this issue. If you track the legislative history on foreign investment, you see a colonial legacy, even as late as the ’70s, where developing countries have laws designed to keep corporations out. Then there’s this dramatic turnaround as they saw the benefits that a few key economies received by inviting in foreign investment. It’s not the people from the developing world who are making the argument that Nike is a threat to their sovereignty or well-being. It’s people in the United States. The people in the developing world understand pretty clearly where their self-interest lies.

reason: What about boosting economic growth in developed countries?
Romer: For Europe and the United States, I think we need to be thinking very hard about how we can restructure our institutions of science. How can we restructure our system of higher education? How can we make sure that it has the benefits of vigorous competition and free entry, especially of those bright young people who might do really different kinds of things? We should not assume that we’ve already got the ideal institutions and the only thing we need to do is just throw more money at them. Unfortunately, I think a lot of countries have a long way to go to catch up to the state where we are in the United States — and I’m not that happy about where we are in the United States. Many European countries simply have not recognized the power of competition between institutions. So they have monolithic, state-run university systems. That stifles competition between individual researchers and slows down the whole innovative process. They also need to let people move more flexibly from the university into the private sector and back. This is something that many countries watching venture capital start-ups have become aware of, although they’ve been slower to get their institutions to adjust.

reason: In your recent paper on doing R&D, you said you think it would be possible to raise the growth rate from its average rate of 1.8 percent between 1870 and 1992 to 2.3 percent.
Romer: Well, I was trying to set a goal. When you’re thinking about the future, you never really know what we’re going to discover, but I think there’s a reason to set for ourselves an ambition of trying to raise the rate of growth by half a percent per year. The United States achieved about 0.5 percent a year faster growth than the U.K. did since 1870, so we’ve got a historical precedent for creating institutions which lead to better innovation of the market and strengthen science significantly. We should aim for that kind of improvement again.

reason: Why would that be important?
Romer: As you accumulate these growth rates over the decades, we get much higher levels of income. That lets us deal more effectively with all the problems we face, whether it’s making good on commitments to pay for people’s health care as they get older, preserving more of the environment, or providing resources so that people can have time to be out of the labor market for a certain period of time — when they’re raising kids, say, or when they want to take an extended sabbatical. Income per capita in 2000 was about $36,000 in year 2000 dollars. If real income per person grows at 1.8 percent per year, by 2050 it will increase to $88,000 in year 2000 purchasing power. Not bad. But if it grows at 2.3 percent per year, it will grow to about $113,000 in year 2000 purchasing power. In today’s purchasing power, that extra $25,000 per person is equal to income per capita in 1984. So if we can make the choices that increase the rate of growth or real income per person to 2.3 percent per year, in 50 years we can get extra income per person equal to what in 1984 it had taken us all of human history to achieve. One policy innovation, for example, that would boost the growth rate would be to subsidize universities to train more undergraduate and graduate students in science and engineering. Also, you could give graduate students portable fellowships that they could use to pay for training in any field of natural science and engineering at any institution the students choose. Graduate students would no longer be hostage to the sometimes parochial research interests of university professors. Portable fellowships would encourage lab directors and professors to develop programs that meet the research and career interests of the students.

reason: What’s next in New Growth Theory? Any conceptual breakthroughs on the horizon?
Romer: Because the economics of ideas are so different from the economics of markets, we’re going to have to develop a richer understanding of non-market institutions, science-like institutions. This is going to be a new endeavor for economics.

reason: Do you think that there is a big role for economic historians in helping uncover this richer theory?
Romer: History is an absolutely essential body of evidence, because you can’t make inferences about long-run trends using year-to-year or quarter-to-quarter data.

reason: There is a growing movement against technological progress around the world. Why is there this negative reaction to technological progress and what can we do about it?
Romer: You’re a big believer in turmoil and creative destruction when you’re early in life, because you can knock down the old and create your new thing. Once you achieve a certain level, you tend to get very conservative and try to slow the gales down, because they might blow you over. So I think we have to seriously commit ourselves to maintaining space for new entrants and for young people. That’s one way to keep the process going. Another is to do what scholars have always done: to proselytize, to dissect incoherent arguments. I think we’ll be able to maintain this dynamic of progress that was unleashed a couple centuries ago. There will be small setbacks and a lot of noise and complaining, but the opportunities and the benefits are just too great to pull back.

reason: Could anything stop economic growth and technological progress?
Romer: Even if one society loses its nerve, there’ll be new entrants who can take up the torch and push ahead. Mancur Olson talks about Caldwell’s Law, the idea that no nation has remained truly innovative for very long. Look at Italy, and then Holland, and then the U.K., and then the United States. The pessimistic interpretation is that nobody can keep the process going. The optimistic interpretation is, Yes, you can, but somebody else comes along and the progress moves from one place to the next. We’ve seen individual societies where conservative or reactionary elements suppress the changes. What has protected us in the past is that there were other nations that could try new paths. You didn’t have the same political dynamic everywhere at once. If in the far future we reach a situation where there really is truly global political control — if multinational institutions grow more powerful over economic affairs so that there is imposed uniformity across all nations — then there’d be a loss of diversity. And if the reactionary elements got in control of those institutions, there’d be no room for the new entrant, the upstart, to adopt new ideas. But that’s a pretty distant and unlikely prospect.

John Robb interview: Open Source Warfare & Resilience
by Chris Arkenberg / Jun 15, 2010

John Robb is a globally-recognized author, technologist, and entrepreneur specializing in the complex systems of insurgency and asymmetrical warfare. His book, Brave New War, is an Amazon best-seller and established his expertise as a researcher & military consultant. He has been featured in the New York Times, The Economist, and the Wall Street Journal. His daily thoughts are collected on his blog, Global Guerrillas.

Q. In your book Brave New War you explore the changing nature of warfare. What are some recent examples of insurgency, resource conflicts, or terrorism that you feel best illustrate this new landscape?
A. Here’s an interesting story that may do the trick. Back in 2004, the US military was getting trounced in guerrillas in Iraq. Worse, the US military establishment didn’t know why. Didn’t have a clue. To correct this, I began to write about how 21st Century warfare actually worked on my blog, Global Guerrillas. Essentially, I concluded that guerrilla groups could use open source organizational models (drawn from the software industry), networked super-empowerment (freely available high tech tools, network information access, connections to a globalized economy), and systems disruption (the targeting of critical points on infrastructure networks that cause cascading failures) to defeat even the most powerful of opponents, even a global superpower.

The new theories of warfare I developed on the blog proved both predictive and very popular. As a result, I spent a lot of time on the speaking circuit in Washington DC (DoD, CIA, NSA, etc.). Of course, since my work was on a blog everyone could read it, even the guerrillas themselves.So, it was a little surprising although not unexpected when I got an e-mail in 2009 from Henry Okah, a leader of MEND (the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta). He invited me to Nigeria and stated that he was an avid reader of my blog.

It was a moment out of history, as if the UK’s General Liddell Hart (the originator of blitzkrieg armored warfare) got a note from Germany’s tank General Heinz Guderian in 1939, thanking him for his work. Here’s why: MEND’s campaign against Shell (the oil company) and the Nigerian government between 2006 and 2008 was a great example of how I thought 21st Century warfare would be fought. The organization structure was loose and organized along the lines of an open source movement. Lots of small autonomous groups joined together to take down the country’s oil infrastructure by targeting vulnerable points in the network (Nigeria is a major global oil exporter). During 2007, they were able to take out one million barrels a day of oil production. This shortfall was the reason oil prices rose to $147 a barrel. Those high prices had a negative global economic impact: the start of a global recession and a spike in default rates in US sub-prime mortgages (due to higher driving and food costs). That spike in sub-prime mortgage default rates radically accelerated the demise of our grossly over leveraged global financial sector, which in turn led to the financial panic of 2008.

In short, MEND’s disruption campaign, yielded tens of trillions of dollars in global economic damage for tens of thousands of dollars spent on making the attacks. That’s a return on investment (ROI) of 1,000,000,000%. How do nation-states survive when an unknown guerrilla group in a remote corner of the world can generate returns on that magnitude? They don’t.

Q. The United States is suffering both the economic decline of its industry and the ongoing dismantling of the social welfare apparatus supporting the citizenry. In your opinion, will this inevitably lead to some form of armed insurgency in America?
A. Yes. The establishment of a predatory and deeply unstable global economic system – beyond the control of any group of nations – is in the process of gutting developed democracies. Think in terms of the 2008 crisis, over and over again. Most of what we consider normal in the developed world, from the middle class lifestyle to government social safety nets, will be nearly gone in less than a decade. Most developed governments will be in and out of financial insolvency. Democracy, as we knew it, will wither and the nation-state bureaucracy will increasingly become an enforcer for the global bond market and kleptocratic transnational corporations. Think Argentina, Greece, Spain, Iceland, etc. As a result, the legitimacy of the developed democracies will fade and the sense of betrayal will be pervasive (think in terms of the collapse of the Soviet Union). People will begin to shift their loyalties to any local group that can provide for their daily needs. Many of these groups will be crime fueled local insurgencies and militias. In short, the developed democracies will hollow out.

Q. How big of a domestic threat is there from the narco-insurgency in Mexico and the growing power of Latin American gangs in America?
A. Very big. A threat that dwarfs anything we face in Afghanistan (a useless money pit of a war). It’s not a threat that can be solved by conventional military means, since the problem is that Mexico is a hollow state. Unlike a failed state like Somalia (utter chaos), a hollow state still retains the facade of a nation (borders, bureaucracy, etc.). However, a hollow state doesn’t exert any meaningful control over the countryside. It’s not only that the state can’t do it militarily, they don’t have anything they can offer people. So, instead, control is ceded to local groups that can provide basic levels of opt-in security, minimal services, and jobs via new connections to the global economy – think in terms of La Familia in Michoacana. The real danger to the US is that not only will these groups expand into the US (they already have), it is that these groups will accelerate the development of similar homegrown groups in the US as our middle class evaporates.

Q. Do you see a diminishing role for the state in large-scale governance? Does this compel communities to do it for themselves?
A. Yes, large scale governance is on the way out. Not only are nearly all governments financially insolvent, they can’t protect citizens from a global system that is running amok. As services and security begin to fade, local sources of order will emerge to fill the void. Hopefully, most people will opt to take control of this process by joining together with others to build resilient communities that can offer the independence, security, and prosperity that isn’t offered by the nation-state anymore. However, this is something you will have to build for yourself. Nobody is going to help you build it.

Q. In what ways are the new methods of insurgency & terror instructive towards building strategies for resiliency?
A. Here are a few of the parallels:
* Powerful technologies. Inexpensive tools that make it possible to produce locally what it used to take a global economy to produce.
* Networks. The ability to draw on the ideas of hundreds of thousands of people working on the same problems through open source tinkering networks. The ability to create new economic networks that accelerate prosperity.

Q. You’re currently writing a book about local resiliency. What are the primary global drivers behind your interest in resiliency?
A. Yes, I am. It’s about building resilient communities. Communities that offer energy independence, food security, economic prosperity, and protection. What are the global drivers that make resiliency important? Simply: stability, prosperity, and security is going away. You will soon find you are on your own, if you haven’t already. If you do nothing, you will suffer the predations of gangs, militias, and corrupt bureaucracies that will fill the void left by retreating nation-states. If you want to avoid this fate, you can build resilient communities that not only allow you and your family to survive intact, but to thrive. My goal with my new book, is to provide people with a road map on how to build resilient communities from scratch.

Q. What is the core messages you have to communities about preparing for the coming age?
A. Produce everything you can locally. Virtualize everything else. The value of your home will be based on the ability of your community to offer energy independence, food security, economic vitality, and protection. Survivalist stockpiles and zero footprint frugality are pathways to failure. Think in terms of vibrant local economic ecosystems that are exceedingly efficient, productive, and bountiful.


Curitiba’s “Surface Metro” to New York: The “Surface Metro” system uses dedicated bus lanes, and cylindrical loading tubes which allow passengers to pay in advance and board quickly. When the bus pulls alongside the tube, the bus driver opens the bus and tube doors, and the passengers walk directly onto the bus. The reduced dwell time required by the buses at the tube station results in less waiting time, increased speed and roadway capacity, and lessened air pollution. In 1992, the system was demonstrated in New York where four of the tubes and buses were installed in lower Manhattan, with buses operating for six weeks.

Sao Paulo’s Alert II to New York City: Alert II was an air pollution reduction program in Sao Paulo utilizing publicly-displayed air pollution monitors and a comprehensive public education campaign to voluntarily close down the streets of downtown Sao Paulo on dangerously smoggy days. The program was adapted in New York City by a task force including Commissioner of Environmental Protection Albert Appleton and Commissioner of Transportation Gerard Soffian. The New York version of Alert II, which was called “Green Alert/No-Drive Day” involved shutting down Park Avenue to traffic on World Environment Day, June 3, 1993.

Bangkok’s Magic Eyes Anti-littering program to Rio de Janeiro and Los Angeles: Magic Eyes is a unique anti-littering campaign targeted at children age 6-16. It utilizes green cartoon eyes (derived from traditional Thai mythology) which remind the children with songs and rhymes to pick up litter, and remind their parents to do the same. This program, which has reduced littering in Bangkok by an estimated 90% is now being replicated in Rio de Janeiro as part of the Clean Rio campaign through the Department of Sanitation and the School System. The enigmatic green eyes of the Thai version have been re-interpreted as a playful cartoon extraterrestrial more appropriate to the Brazilian culture. This innovation is also being adapted in Los Angeles, through the efforts of LA’s Best, an organization based in the Mayor’s office which designs and runs children’s educational programs.

Cairo’s Zabbaleen initiative to Manila and Bombay: In Cairo, the Zabbaleen people have eked out their existence for centuries by collecting trash and selling it to manufacturers capable of recycling it. Through the Zabbaleen initiative, the Zabbaleen have been given the training, equipment, and start-up funds necessary to organize small micro-enterprises where they convert the trash into marketable products, such as shoes, textiles, or pots and pans. In this way, the Zab baleen receives the benefits of adding value to the recyclable and can channel their profits into improving their community through the creation of better housing, schools, and health care centers. The Zabbaleen initiative is now being replicated in Bombay through the Bombay Municipal Corporation, which is incorporating the innovation into their “rag-pickers initiative”, in Manila through the Partnership of Philippine Support Service Agencies and it will also be replicated in Los Angeles by the Concerned Citizens of South Central (a community-based organization) as part of the W. K. Kellogg funded Urban Leadership for the 21st Centuty Project.

New York City’s “City Harvest” to Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro: City Harvest is a non-profit organization in New York City which collects unused, unserved food from restaurants and redistributes it to soup kitchens and homeless shelters. In 1992, the basic idea of this innovation was introduced to a number of key government leaders in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo and was incorporated into the National Campaign Against Hunger and Misery, coordinated by IBASE.

Los Angeles’ Small Business Toxic Minimization Program to Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires: Through the Small Business Toxic Minimization Program, retired chemical and environmental engineers are enlisted to site visit small businesses and help them to find creative ways to reduce toxic waste, while maximizing their bottom line profit as well. In 1992, the project was transferred to Rio de Janeiro where it is now being tested on a small scale by the Guanabara Bay De-Pollution Group. This year, it is also being replicated by the Mayor’s office of Avelleneda, one of the municipalities comprising Greater Buenos Aires. Through the Small Business Toxic Minimization Program, retired chemical and environmental engineers are enlisted to site visit small businesses and help them to find creative ways to reduce toxic waste, while maximizing their bottom line profit as well. In 1992, the project was transferred to Rio de Janeiro where it is now being tested on a small scale by the Guanabara Bay De-Pollution Group. This year, it is also being replicated by the Mayor’s office of Avelleneda, one of the municipalities comprising Greater Buenos Aires.

Bombay’s “Child-to-Child” Community Health Care program to Rio de Janeiro: Through the Child-to Child Program, children in Bombay’s squatter settlements are trained as mini-doctors who teach their friends and family about basic approaches to curative and preventative health care. The program is being adapted for implementation in Rio de Janeiro, by a team led by Maria Teresa Ewbank, who represents the Escola Nacional de Daude, ENSP.

UN report: World’s biggest cities merging into ‘mega-regions’
Trend towards ‘endless cities’ could significantly affect population and wealth in the next 50 years
by John Vidal / 22 March 2010

The world’s first mega-city, comprised of Hong Kong, Shenhzen and Guangzhou, home to about 120 million people. Photograph: Nasa
The world’s mega-cities are merging to form vast “mega-regions” which may stretch hundreds of kilometres across countries and be home to more than 100 million people, according to a major new UN report. The phenomenon of the so-called “endless city” could be one of the most significant developments – and problems – in the way people live and economies grow in the next 50 years, says UN-Habitat, the agency for human settlements, which identifies the trend of developing mega-regions in its biannual State of World Cities report.

The largest of these, says the report – launched today at the World Urban Forum in Rio de Janeiro – is the Hong Kong-Shenhzen-Guangzhou region in China, home to about 120 million people. Other mega-regions have formed in Japan and Brazil and are developing in India, west Africa and elsewhere. The trend helped the world pass a tipping point in the last year, with more than half the world’s people now living in cities. The UN said that urbanisation is now “unstoppable”. Anna Tibaijuka, outgoing director of UN-Habitat, said: “Just over half the world now lives in cities but by 2050, over 70% of the world will be urban dwellers. By then, only 14% of people in rich countries will live outside cities, and 33% in poor countries.”

The development of mega-regions is regarded as generally positive, said the report’s co-author Eduardo Lopez Moreno: “They [mega-regions], rather than countries, are now driving wealth. Research shows that the world’s largest 40 mega-regions cover only a tiny fraction of the habitable surface of our planet and are home to fewer than 18% of the world’s population [but] account for 66% of all economic activity and about 85% of technological and scientific innovation,” said Moreno. “The top 25 cities in the world account for more than half of the world’s wealth,” he added. “And the five largest cities in India and China now account for 50% of those countries’ wealth.” The migration to cities, while making economic sense, is affecting the rural economy too: “Most of the wealth in rural areas already comes from people in urban areas sending money back,” Moreno said.

The growth of mega-regions and cities is also leading to unprecedented urban sprawl, new slums, unbalanced development and income inequalities as more and more people move to satellite or dormitory cities. “Cities like Los Angeles grew 45% in numbers between 1975-1990, but tripled their surface area in the same time. This sprawl is now increasingly happening in developing countries as real estate developers promote the image of a ‘world-class lifestyle’ outside the traditional city,” say the authors.

Urban sprawl, they say, is the symptom of a divided, dysfunctional city. “It is not only wasteful, it adds to transport costs, increases energy consumption, requires more resources, and causes the loss of prime farmland.” “The more unequal that cities become, the higher the risk that economic disparities will result in social and political tension. The likelihood of urban unrest in unequal cities is high. The cities that are prospering the most are generally those that are reducing inequalities,” said Moreno.

In a sample survey of world cities, the UN found the most unequal were in South Africa. Johannesburg was the least equal in the world, only marginally ahead of East London, Bloemfontein, and Pretoria. Latin American, Asian and African cities were generally more equal, but mainly because they were uniformly poor, with a high level of slums and little sanitation. Some of the most the most egalitarian cities were found to be Dhaka and Chittagong in Bangladesh.

The US emerged as one of the most unequal societies with cities like New York, Chicago and Washington less equal than places like Brazzaville in Congo-Brazzaville, Managua in Nicaragua and Davao City in the Phillippines. “The marginalisation and segregation of specific groups [in the US] creates a city within a city. The richest 1% of households now earns more than 72 times the average income of the poorest 20% of the population. In the ‘other America’, poor black families are clustered in ghettoes lacking access to quality education, secure tenure, lucrative work and political power,” says the report.

The never-ending city
Cities are pushing beyond their limits and are merging into new massive conurbations known as mega-regions, which are linked both physically and economically. Their expansion drives economic growth but also leads to urban sprawl, rising inequalities and urban unrest. The biggest mega-regions, which are at the forefront of the rapid urbanisation sweeping the world, are:
• Hong Kong-Shenhzen-Guangzhou, China, home to about 120 million people;
• Nagoya-Osaka-Kyoto-Kobe, Japan, expected to grow to 60 million people by 2015;
• Rio de Janeiro-São Paulo region with 43 million people in Brazil.

The same trend on an even larger scale is seen in fast-growing “urban corridors”:
• West Africa: 600km of urbanisation linking Nigeria, Benin, Togo and Ghana, and driving the entire region’s economy;
• India: From Mumbai to Dehli;
• East Asia: Four connected megalopolises and 77 separate cities of over 200,000 people each occur from Beijing to Tokyo via Pyongyang and Seoul.

The Future of War and the Indirect City

In 1564, the Tuscan urban planner, archaeologist, military theorist, mathematician and writer Girolamo Maggi published a work of military urbanism called Della fortificatione delle città, written by his colleague Giacomo Fusto Castriotto. That work, on the fortification of cities, devoted several passages to what might be called indirect or soft fortification: that is, protecting an urban population from attack not through the use of heavy walls, inner citadels, or armed bastions—although the book is, of course, filled with such things—but through a complex street plan.

Indirect streets and narrow walkways could be put to use, Castriotto and Maggi argued, as agents of spatial disorientation, leading an invader everywhere but where they actually wanted to go. It was a kind of urban judo, or the city as martial art. The city itself could be weaponized, in other words, its layout made militarily strategic: turning the speed at which your enemy arrives into exactly what would later entrap him, lost, unable to retrace his footsteps, fatally vulnerable and spatially exposed.

The CCA exhibited much of its collected manuscripts on urban fortification seventeen years ago, under the name The Geometry of Defence: Fortification Treatises and Manuals, 1500-1800. In the accompanying pamphlet, curator and former CCA historiographer Michael J. Lewis describes the geometric complexification that the fortified cities of the Renaissance underwent in the name of self-protection (Alberto Pérez-Gómez’s Architecture and the Crisis of Modern Science also contains a very lengthy history of this same material and is well worth consulting in full). A constantly shifting imbalance of power between the wall-builders and the invaders led to new spatializations of the metropolis. Whether due to the invention of gunpowder, massed assaults or simply new building techniques, the urban landscape was constantly reformatted according to the weapons that might be used against it.

Of course, this will be a very familiar story to most readers, so I don’t want to repeat it; I do, however, want to focus on the idea of forsaking mass—thick walls—for complexity in the name of strategic disorientation. There are well-known stories, for instance, of English coastal villages during World War II removing their road and street signs so as to prevent logical navigation by German aggressors, even erecting dummy signs to send confused Nazi paratroopers wandering off in the wrong direction.

But if the well-fortified Renaissance city could be seen, for the sake of argument, as something like the Hummer of military urbanism, what is the city-as-Bruce-Lee? A city that is lean, even physically underwhelming, but brilliantly fast and highly flexible? What is the city that needs no defensive walls at all?

There are a variety of possible answers here, all of which would be interesting to discuss; but I’m most struck by the possibility that the phenomenon recently dubbed the feral city is, in a sense, the anti-fortress in exactly this spatial sense. In a 2003 paper for the Naval War College Review, author Richard J. Norton describes the feral city as “a great metropolis covering hundreds of square miles. Once a vital component in a national economy, this sprawling urban environment is now a vast collection of blighted buildings, an immense petri dish of both ancient and new diseases, a territory where the rule of law has long been replaced by near anarchy in which the only security available is that which is attained through brute power.” From the perspective of a war planner or soldier, Norton explains, the feral city is spatially impenetrable; it is a maze resistant to aerial mapping and far too dangerous to explore on foot. Indeed, its “buildings, other structures, and subterranean spaces would offer nearly perfect protection from overhead sensors, whether satellites or unmanned aerial vehicles,” Norton writes, creating, in the process, an environment where soldiers are as likely to die from rabies, tetanus, and wild dog attacks as they are from armed combat.

I’m led to wonder here what a 21st-century defensive literature of the feral city might look like—from temporary barricades to cartographically incoherent slums experimenting with limited forms of micro-sovereignty. If the feral city is a city with no external walls but an infinite interior—endless spaces made of oblique architecture and indirect streets—then its ability to defend itself comes precisely through letting invaders in and disorienting them, not by keeping people out.

So if a city does away with defensive walls altogether, what specific spatial strategies are left for it to protect itself? For instance, can a city deliberately be made feral as an act of preemptive self-defense—and, if so, what architectural steps would be necessary to achieve such a thing? Channeling Archigram—or perhaps even Cisco—we might call this the insurgent instant city complete with its own infrastructural practices, its own rogue designers, and its own anti-architects.

How, then, could the spatial practice of urban feralization be codified, and what architectural lessons might be learned if this were to happen? Michael J. Lewis, describing the treatises on display at the CCA nearly two decades ago for The Geometry of Defence, refers to “fortification literature” or “the literature of the fortification,” including the publishing practices peculiar to this—for its time—top secret field of study. Privately circulated manuscripts, incomplete essayistic reflections, and even word of mouth only gradually solidified into full-length narratives; only at that point were they intended to communicate finely tuned, often firsthand, military knowledge of the city under siege to anyone who might want to discover it, whether that was a king, a layperson, or an enemy general (indeed, much of the literature of fortification went on to the form the core of an emergent field known as urban planning).

In another 50, 100, or even 500 years, then, will there be a defensive literature of the feral city, its systematic description, techniques for its defense (or obliteration), and its urban logic (or lack thereof)? Even if only on the level of urban form, this would be a fascinating journey, going from Castriotto’s and Maggi’s indirect streets to whole cities gone wild in the name of resisting outside intervention.

Redrawing the Map of the Future
by P. H. Liotta and James F. Miskel / Spring 2004

When the Cold War ended, scholars, pundits, and policymakers turned to the task of defining the new world order and America’s place in it. Some warned of coming anarchy or of the clash of civilizations. After September 11, those warnings seemed prescient. Since 9/11, our sense of insecurity has only increased, as has our reliance on military solutions to the problems we see before us. Yet the more we rely on military force, the less secure we feel. Perhaps the difficulty is in how we see the world that confronts us. It is as if we are trying to find our way using an old map, only to discover that the roads marked no longer exist.

One new map that may be particularly useful in helping us to see the contours of the future is the “earthlights” image reproduced here and available on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s website. The image is a composite of satellite photographs taken over a period of months that recorded the illumination from city lights, producing, according to NASA, a unique measure of “the spatial extent of urbanization.” The earthlights map forces us to think about some disturbing trends and effects that, if left unchecked, will likely come to haunt us in the coming decades. These developments, broadly considered here, are: the changing demographics of cities, particularly in what we call the Lagos-Cairo-Karachi-Jakarta arc; the increased possibility of failing regions within functioning but troubled states; and the rise of the “feral city” in states and regions inextricably linked to the process of globalization.

As one looks at the earthlights image, patterns of world order and disorder begin to emerge, and it becomes clear that tectonic forces are at play in the globe’s physical, economic, cultural, and political geography. The patterns of light suggest the inevitability of Central and Eastern Europe drawing ever closer, like moths to a flame, toward an enlarging European Union. Likewise, North Africa is being pulled away from the rest of Africa—and from the Middle East, despite certain cultural ties—and drawn toward a larger Euro-Mediterranean community. The earthlights image is revealing in other ways as well. It is interesting to see that India and Pakistan, which began from relatively equal starting points at partition in 1947 have gone in radically different directions: all of India is lit, while Pakistan is dark. The same story is evident on the Korean peninsula, where the thirty-eighth parallel forms a dramatic dividing line between the lights of South Korea and the dark shadow that is North Korea. The lights in the People’s Republic of China are clustered in the east, along the country’s Pacific coast, not evenly distributed throughout the country as in Taiwan or Japan. This suggests the eventual formation of “two Chinas”—one consisting of ever more densely populated urban zones, the other of underdeveloped and undergoverned hinterlands.

It is our view that we must pay greater attention to the shadows on the earthlights map. Like the drunk who loses his keys in the dark and looks for them under the streetlight because that is the only place he can see, we tend to focus our gaze on places where the lights are shining, even though the keys to greater security lie elsewhere. The attacks of September 11 not only revealed that Americans were vulnerable on their home soil; there also came the disturbing awareness that the new threat we faced came not from an enemy whose identity and capabilities were “in the light,” but from one operating from the shadows.

There now seems to be an emerging understanding that certain nontraditional security issues that have long plagued the so-called developing world—and which traditionally minded, state-centric strategists were content to consign to often ineffective nonstate entities (the United Nations, nongovernmental organizations, corporations)— have circled back to haunt us. This is not to say that traditional state-centric security problems are things of the past, or that military force will have no role to play. They are not, and it will, as the war in Iraq demonstrates. But the “boomerang” effect of these nontraditional security issues could increasingly affect the policy decisions and options open to the developed states. Our concern is that while the military is wrestling with the challenge of developing ever more impressive means of deterring and defeating “in the light” threats, no agency of government at the state or multi-state level (including the U.S. military) is doing enough to understand and overcome the threats that are taking shape in the shadowy and dark areas on the earthlights map.

Anarchy, governmental collapse, ethnic rivalry, cultural grievances, religious-ideo-logical extremism, environmental degradation, natural resource depletion, competition for economic resources, drug trafficking, alliances between narco-traffickers and terrorists, the proliferation of “inhumane weapons,” cyberwar, and the spread of infectious disease threaten us all. We cannot isolate ourselves from their effects. The question is not whether we should concentrate on traditional “hard” security issues, which normally derive from the relationships between states, or on “soft” nontraditional security issues, which are not confined by national boundaries. The answer is that we must focus on both.

As our understanding of security concerns broadens and deepens, the traditional assumption that states and governments are the sole guarantors of security will be increasingly challenged. This is because our security may depend on how we cope with the broader human dilemma. Addressing this dilemma will require sustainable development strategies and must take into account population growth, particularly in the emerging world; the rapid spread of epidemic diseases such as HIV/AIDS; the impact of climate change, including shifts in precipitation patterns and rising sea levels; water scarcity; soil erosion and desertification; and increased urbanization and the growth of “mega-cities” around the globe. In the Lagos-Cairo-Karachi-Jakarta arc over the next two decades, more and more people will be compelled by economic or environmental pressures to migrate to cities that lack the infrastructure to support rapid, concentrated population growth.

To take just one of these problems, most of the states in the Middle East are already experiencing water scarcity (some have per capita water availability rates that are significantly lower than the minimums recommended by the World Health Organization) and water resources will obviously be stressed even further as the population surges by a third between 2000 and 2015. This population growth in the Middle East will likely have a deleterious effect on nearby regions and perhaps the developed world. The combination of indigenous population growth and water scarcity will undoubtedly lead to pressures on the Middle East’s large number of guest workers to return home, often to countries with struggling economies, where jobs are scarce. The return home of guest workers will eliminate remittances (for some countries the value of remittances from overseas workers is greater than the state’s foreign aid receipts) and increase the number of individuals who will draw upon the home government’s already limited resources. The differences between Israel’s low natural population growth rate and the high rates in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as well as in neighboring Arab states mean that Israel will be demographically swamped unless it aggressively promotes immigration—the very thing that water scarcity (and terrorism) seem likely to discourage. It also suggests that however the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation is resolved, the real power struggle in the region may soon revolve around natural resources.

The Mega-City
Truly cataclysmic demographic changes will occur in the Lagos-Cairo-Karachi-Jakarta arc, with momentous shifts in the global landscape resulting from the “flocking” of people to urban centers. According to the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2015: A Dialogue About the Future With Nongovernment Experts, as well as data compiled by the National Geographic Society and the United Nations Population Division, world population will reach 7.2 billion in 2015, up from 6.1 billion in 2000. Ninety-five percent of the growth will take place in “emerging” countries, and nearly all projected population growth will occur in rapidly expanding urban areas.

The population of the greater New York metropolitan area, which stood at 12 million in 1950, is projected to grow to 17.6 million in 2015. In comparison, Nigeria’s capital city of Lagos, which had a population of 1 million in 1950, is projected to have 24.4 million inhabitants by 2015. While the population of Los Angeles is projected to increase over the same period from 4 million to 14.2 million, Karachi’s population will explode from 1.1 million to 20.6 million. Cairo in 1950 was a city of 2.1 million; in 2015 it will have 14.4 million inhabitants. Jakarta’s population will have grown from 2.8 million to 21.2 million. Thus, the real cause for concern lies not in the developed world but in the “population belt” from Lagos to Jakarta.

Urbanization in and of itself is neither a good nor a bad thing. Tokyo’s population is projected to reach 28.7 million in 2015, but Tokyo will likely be far better equipped to handle the infrastructure requirements of the mega-city than the cities of the emerging world. Seventy-two percent of Japanese already live in cities, and Japan has accommodated itself to an urbanized existence. It is unlikely, however, that Lagos or Dhaka or Tehran will be able to sustain growth rates such as those projected above. Indeed, it is doubtful that many cities in developed states could sustain such rates of growth as cities in the emerging world are experiencing. If, for example, New York’s rate of growth were the same as Dhaka’s (the capital of Bangladesh will have a population of 19 million by 2015, up from 10 million in 2000, and from 400,000 in 1950), the (Really) Big Apple would have a population just shy of 600 million people by 2015. As it seems unlikely that even a city in the world’s richest country could handle such rapid growth, how will impoverished Bangladesh accommodate such a dramatic surge in the population of its capital city?

Compounding the problem is the fact that in numerous regions where U.S. interests are involved we will see the continued reality of a (threat-based) security dilemma along with the rise of various (vulnerabilitybased) human dilemmas. By 2015, the number of cities with a population of over 5 million will skyrocket from 8 (in 1950) to 58, and we may see more than 600 cities worldwide with populations in excess of 1 million inhabitants by 2015; in 1950, by contrast, there were only 86 such cities. As our colleague Richard J. Norton notes in the August 2003 issue of the Naval War College Review, many of the burgeoning cities of the future may well become petri dishes of instability, disease, and terrorism. In other words, at least some of these cities will grow far beyond the “natural” carrying capacity of their respective national governments, with the result that governmental infrastructure and public services will be stretched past the breaking point. Cities in this condition will pose a particularly serious security threat because they will have both substantial pockets of darkness within their municipal boundaries and extensive commercial, communications, and transportation links to the rest of the world. In other words, it will be easy for groups in these urban pockets of darkness to export instability.

Pockets of Darkness
The issue of state failure began to be widely discussed in the 1990s. Instead of the peace dividend that was the promise of the end of the Cold War, instability and a collapse of governance appeared to be on the rise. The “failed state” was seen as a breeding ground for anarchy and violence, and the natural home of terrorists, warlords, ethnic militias, holy warriors, criminal gangs, arms dealers, and drug merchants. Policymakers hoped that research into state failure might provide early warning indicators that would trigger timely international interventions to prevent collapse, and to this end the Central Intelligence Agency established the State Failure Task Force to conduct a comprehensive examination of the issue. (The task force developed a “failure” model, with a claimed predictive accuracy of 67 percent.) Yet, as events of the past few years have illustrated, there are other bubbling petri dishes that deserve greater attention—pockets of darkness in undergoverned areas within functional but struggling states.

The para-states that take shape in these pockets of darkness (for example, the war-lord-dominated “tribal areas” of Afghanistan and the militia-run enclaves in Bosnia and Kosovo) develop Night of the Living Dead characteristics. Possessing some of the functional aspects of statehood, but lacking the civic equivalent of balanced, flexible limbs, these figurative zombies stagger into the future, unable to function independently without massive and continuous life support—in the form of U.N. aid, or bilateral assistance from other states, or “export earnings” from various criminal enterprises. These para-states and lawless zones inside “nonfailing” states often present greater threats to international stability than do failed states. Examples include eastern Colombia where narco-terrorists have operated for years inside remote valleys; the “lawless” triangle where Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina meet and where Hezbollah, arms dealers, and smugglers of all stripes conduct business freely; the hinterlands of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where opposing ethnic groups, invading armies, and gangs pillage the countryside and terrorize the people (albeit at a temporarily lower level of intensity since the U.N. intervention in 2003); and Afghanistan beyond the outskirts of Kabul and Kandahar.

Focusing on failed states may have caused us to pay insufficient attention to the possibility that undergoverned zones in remote rural areas—or the mega-cities on the Lagos-Cairo-Karachi-Jakarta arc—may pose a greater threat to developed states than do failed states. It is inevitable that feral zones will emerge in both the ungoverned outback and inside cities along the arc.

Further compounding the problem posed by rapid urban population growth is the “youth bulge” phenomenon. In the near future, almost half of the adult populations of many African, Middle Eastern, and Southwest Asian countries will be between the ages of 15 and 29. Despite the recent spate of Chechen and Palestinian suicide bombings by women, young men are responsible for most acts of violence. As the overall population grows, so too will the population of young males looking for employment and educational services. If, as seems likely in the emerging megacities of the arc, there are too few jobs and educational opportunities to satisfy the demand, discontent, crime, and urban instability will result.

Other pockets of darkness are also likely to form around semi-urbanized collections of “displaced” populations. Tens of millions of refugees now live in semi-permanent camps in the West Bank and Gaza, Sudan, and the Great Lakes region of Aftica. These veritable slums, with their swollen populations—where life is lived without opportunity or hope—are themselves evolving into para-states, fertile ground for instability. The only saving grace from a security viewpoint is that the displaced are typically not well connected by road, rail, or air to the rest of the world and thus will be less efficient exporters of violence to distant locations.

Finding a Way Out
In a world that is becoming more interconnected economically and physically, it is impossible to separate zones of light from pockets of darkness. Many of the states that will be most adversely affected by demographic pressures and rapid urbanization are already entwined in the globalization process and are simply too important to be left to their own devices. Egypt, Pakistan, and Indonesia fall into this category. They are struggling—though not failed—states whose stability, or lack thereof, will influence security and economic trends all along the arc of emerging mega-cities.

We need to encourage internal public sector reform and public security improvements in states where governments are currently failing to keep the lights lit, where urban population growth is likely to lead to failure at the municipal level or force overstretched governments to withdraw from remote rural areas. If September 11 taught us anything, it is that our security is inextricably connected to domestic governance shortcomings elsewhere. Unfortunately, the United Nations, by virtue of its own inefficiency, the divergent agendas of its leading members, and its orientation toward state-level solutions, is not up to the task of promoting effective public sector reform. A more flexible approach is called for. We need to better organize the efforts of all of the actors in the international community: governments, international organizations, international nongovernmental organizations, national civil society organizations, and for-profit corporations. As Jonathan Lash, president of World Resources Institute, has aptly put it, what we need is a “shift from the stiff formal waltz of traditional diplomacy to the jazzier dance” of issue-based networks and creative partnerships.

Future strategies must move beyond policing actions and military interventions toward active prevention of resource scarcity and governance failures. Active prevention was the central premise of the strategy of cooperative security, developed by former secretary of defense William Perry and others at the Brookings Institution shortly after the end of the Cold War. The idea was to prevent discontent from leading to internal armed conflict by creating jobs, reducing poverty, and improving governance—especially in urban areas—before aggrieved groups resort to violence. Our current strategy of preemptive war, of using the military to force regime change and then for nation building in sustained “governance stability operations”—in essence for “kicking the door in” and then “putting the door back on”—is ill-suited to the challenges ahead.

A few heretics (most notably, Robert D. Kaplan, the author of The Coming Anarchy) claim that development—not poverty— leads to unrest by raising expectations. The destabilizing effects of rising expectations are undeniable, but in this wired and interconnected world, expectations are likely to continue to rise no matter what national governments do. The destabilizing effects will be most dramatic in struggling states with overpopulated cities.

Unfortunately, the typical response to situations of such complexity is to do nothing. Yet, that cannot be our response. Our first order of business must be to promote a sense of urgency. Then we must devise approaches for radical improvements in public infrastructure and governance—particularly in the states and municipalities along the Lagos-Cairo-Karachi-Jakarta arc. If we are to redraw the map of the future, there must be a new division of labor among governments, international agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and corporations. Perhaps what is needed is the equivalent of the 1972 Stockholm Conference, which launched the global environmental movement and established the United Nations Environment Program as the environmental conscience of the world. Another example of an attempt to build new approaches to global problems was the U.N. Habitat II Conference, held in Istanbul in 1996. Neither of these initiatives was completely successful in mobilizing international support, but they represent useful starting points.

This is not an argument for supremacy by stealth or to justify future intervention. But unless we act to contain, if not reverse, the worrisome trends outlined here, we are likely to be in for decades of military engagement and increased insecurity. Rather than justifying intervention, we ought to be thinking about investment. When we look at the map of the lit and unlit world, we can see where work needs to be done.

{P. H. Liotta holds the Jerome E. Levy Chair of Economic Geography and National Security and James F. Miskel is associate dean of academics and professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed here are the authors’ own and do not represent those of the Department of the Navy.}

MEANWHILE : CONTEST to PRODUCE LIGHT[showUid]=11&cHash=f3709743abb32487cfe52cc8677d5248

The five winners of the World Bank Group’s Lighting Africa 2010 Outstanding Product Awardswere recently announced:

by Nathan Wyeth / May 20, 2010
Looking for Killer Apps at Lighting Africa 2010

At the World Bank/IFC Lighting Africa Conference in Nairobi, some numbers are looking good for a change. There are still 1.6 billion people without access to electricity, but decreasing costs of solar panels and LED lighting have put individual solar-powered lamps at a price that is affordable for much of the base of the pyramid. Solar lantern distribution is projected to grow at 25-40% rates over the next 5 years in Africa.

Does this mean the path to modern energy for rural Africa is in clear view? I’m not sure it is, which is why when I’m meeting people at this conference sponsored by the IFC’s Lighting Africa program, I’m saying that I’m still looking for killer apps. Engineering better, cheaper products is often a process of putting one foot in front of the other, but distributing them will require side-stepping the barriers that solar energy has continually run up against at every price point.

And even if the goal is defined as lighting for Africa, lighting products themselves may not be the best starting point or a standalone approach, as opposed to more comprehensive platforms for energy access – laying the groundwork to go from portable pico-power retail products to household and community scale energy distribution, in terms of both business infrastructure and customer readiness/ability.

Even at these huge projected growth rates that are probably as much as any single product distribution company can handle, Gaurav Gupta of Dalberg Development Advisors is quick to point out that over 5 years, that will take solar lighting market penetration in Africa from an estimated 1.3% to an estimated 2.3%. So I am on the lookout for approaches that will also open up whole new horizontal growth and distribution in this sector.

I’m not sure I’ve found the killer apps here just yet, but there are promising new ideas floating around, some embodied in new start-ups operating in Africa. Here are a few things that I’m looking for:

– Defining and increasing the value of solar by linking to income and tangible payback. There is generalized information available on what people currently pay for kerosene lighting, but very fuzzy understanding of actual willingness to pay for new energy products – and this may reflect unclear marketing and product positioning as much as lack of data collection.

Anecdote-based discussion is unfolding at this conference about whether end-user financing is necessary for solar lighting products that cost anywhere from $10-50, illuminating the fact that while product designers have been focused on a combination of lighting price and quality, there’s no clearly established understanding of what people will pay for modern lighting at what income levels.

What is clear is that payback and specific utility matters more than price. For example, Barefoot Power is having great success with its Firefly 12 product – not the least expensive in its line – because this can charge mobile phones. If solar is linked to specific utility, or payback for lighting is clearly defined, customers will be able to tell retailers what they will pay for it and the supply chain will be able to adjust accordingly.

– Building customer relationships. What makes solar attractive as an energy source makes it more difficult as a retail product – if you do a good job with your lamp product you won’t see your customers again for a few years and they won’t need to buy a single thing from you until they’re ready for a second lantern. But as a new technology, solar product companies need to develop intense technology loyalty and evangelism and probably need to be focused as much on reselling to existing customers and finding new ones. How to stay connected to customers who hopefully won’t have to talk to you more than once ever few years?

Companies that offer energy as a service might begin by suppling rechargeable battery stations that can power a home’s electricity need, but could then build on this by installing distributed power generation with the same customers at a much lower cost of acquisition and much greater readiness to install and value a household solar system.

– Building distribution and maintenance platforms. As alluded to above, electricity is a unique product. It’s only useful in tandem with other products, and some certainty of supply is needed before those products become worth it.

Distribution platforms offer the opportunity to meet energy needs beyond lighting – both in terms of energy supply and the appliances that can be linked specifically to distributed energy generation. For example, an energy efficient fan is valuable when it can be linked to a reliable energy supply, and solar panels gain in value when they can power an energy efficient fan. I would love to find an energy company that could sell both to a household in tandem.

In places with even more constrained ability to pay for energy services, a village energy vendor who recharges phones or LED lamps from a solar array can become a future distributor of products and the village expert in repairing solar panels.

These ideas are peeking through the cracks here at Lighting Africa, but perhaps by default, disruptive ideas are not an easy fit for this kind of forum, focused specifically on delivering lighting. Development banks operate on a programmatic basis, with certain starting points, end points, and program strategies in between. A focus on lighting markets – rather than energy markets – is one such construct that I’m not sure is helping here. Within this, the IFC is focusing on product quality. I can’t disagree with supporting high quality lighting products, but this presupposes that retail solar lantern distribution is actually the first step that you want for electrifying Africa. Disruptive approaches may pop up here but will go against the grain.

Battery re-charge subscription services, income-generating village energy vending opportunities, and technology-agnostic energy retail chains are among the disruptive and promising approaches that I’m seeing here. Mobile communications and payments can and will be wrapped into effective approaches – they may become killer apps in themselves. And as one persuasive participant said towards the end of the conference, when solar companies get as smart at marketing at Safaricom has in Kenya, these products will find their way into customers’ hands. This sector is moving fast but the clear winners have yet to emerge.


The term and meaning of a Resource-Based Economy was originated by Jacque Fresco. It is a system in which all goods and services are available without the use of money, credits, barter or any other system of debt or servitude. All resources become the common heritage of all of the inhabitants, not just a select few. The premise upon which this system is based is that the Earth is abundant with plentiful resource; our practice of rationing resources through monetary methods is irrelevant and counter productive to our survival.

Modern society has access to highly advanced technology and can make available food, clothing, housing and medical care; update our educational system; and develop a limitless supply of renewable, non-contaminating energy. By supplying an efficiently designed economy, everyone can enjoy a very high standard of living with all of the amenities of a high technological society.

A resource-based economy would utilize existing resources from the land and sea, physical equipment, industrial plants, etc. to enhance the lives of the total population. In an economy based on resources rather than money, we could easily produce all of the necessities of life and provide a high standard of living for all.

Consider the following examples: At the beginning of World War II the US had a mere 600 or so first-class fighting aircraft. We rapidly overcame this short supply by turning out more than 90,000 planes a year. The question at the start of World War II was: Do we have enough funds to produce the required implements of war? The answer was No, we did not have enough money, nor did we have enough gold; but we did have more than enough resources. It was the available resources that enabled the US to achieve the high production and efficiency required to win the war. Unfortunately this is only considered in times of war.

In a resource-based economy all of the world’s resources are held as the common heritage of all of Earth’s people, thus eventually outgrowing the need for the artificial boundaries that separate people. This is the unifying imperative.

We must emphasize that this approach to global governance has nothing whatever in common with the present aims of an elite to form a world government with themselves and large corporations at the helm, and the vast majority of the world’s population subservient to them. Our vision of globalization empowers each and every person on the planet to be the best they can be, not to live in abject subjugation to a corporate governing body.

Our proposals would not only add to the well being of people, but they would also provide the necessary information that would enable them to participate in any area of their competence. The measure of success would be based on the fulfilment of one’s individual pursuits rather than the acquisition of wealth, property and power.

At present, we have enough material resources to provide a very high standard of living for all of Earth’s inhabitants. Only when population exceeds the carrying capacity of the land do many problems such as greed, crime and violence emerge. By overcoming scarcity, most of the crimes and even the prisons of today’s society would no longer be necessary.

A resource-based economy would make it possible to use technology to overcome scarce resources by applying renewable sources of energy, computerizing and automating manufacturing and inventory, designing safe energy-efficient cities and advanced transportation systems, providing universal health care and more relevant education, and most of all by generating a new incentive system based on human and environmental concern.

Many people believe that there is too much technology in the world today, and that technology is the major cause of our environmental pollution. This is not the case. It is the abuse and misuse of technology that should be our major concern. In a more humane civilization, instead of machines displacing people they would shorten the workday, increase the availability of goods and services, and lengthen vacation time. If we utilize new technology to raise the standard of living for all people, then the infusion of machine technology would no longer be a threat.

A resource-based world economy would also involve all-out efforts to develop new, clean, and renewable sources of energy: geothermal; controlled fusion; solar; photovoltaic; wind, wave, and tidal power; and even fuel from the oceans. We would eventually be able to have energy in unlimited quantity that could propel civilization for thousands of years. A resource-based economy must also be committed to the redesign of our cities, transportation systems, and industrial plants, allowing them to be energy efficient, clean, and conveniently serve the needs of all people.

What else would a resource-based economy mean? Technology intelligently and efficiently applied, conserves energy, reduces waste, and provides more leisure time. With automated inventory on a global scale, we can maintain a balance between production and distribution. Only nutritious and healthy food would be available and planned obsolescence would be unnecessary and non-existent in a resource-based economy.

As we outgrow the need for professions based on the monetary system, for instance lawyers, bankers, insurance agents, marketing and advertising personnel, salespersons, and stockbrokers, a considerable amount of waste will be eliminated. Considerable amounts of energy would also be saved by eliminating the duplication of competitive products such as tools, eating utensils, pots, pans and vacuum cleaners. Choice is good. But instead of hundreds of different manufacturing plants and all the paperwork and personnel required to turn out similar products, only a few of the highest quality would be needed to serve the entire population. Our only shortage is the lack of creative thought and intelligence in ourselves and our elected leaders to solve these problems. The most valuable, untapped resource today is human ingenuity.

With the elimination of debt, the fear of losing one’s job will no longer be a threat This assurance, combined with education on how to relate to one another in a much more meaningful way, could considerably reduce both mental and physical stress and leave us free to explore and develop our abilities.

If the thought of eliminating money still troubles you, consider this: If a group of people with gold, diamonds and money were stranded on an island that had no resources such as food, clean air and water, their wealth would be irrelevant to their survival. It is only when resources are scarce that money can be used to control their distribution. One could not, for example, sell the air we breathe or water abundantly flowing down from a mountain stream. Although air and water are valuable, in abundance they cannot be sold.

Money is only important in a society when certain resources for survival must be rationed and the people accept money as an exchange medium for the scarce resources. Money is a social convention, an agreement if you will. It is neither a natural resource nor does it represent one. It is not necessary for survival unless we have been conditioned to accept it as such.



Cleveland razed! Rust Belt remaking foreclosures into forests
by Nin-Hai Tseng / June 25, 2010

In a housing market still struggling to regain strength, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have quickly become two of the nation’s biggest landlords. By the end of March, the troubled mortgage finance companies had taken over 163,828 foreclosed houses. That’s more homes than there are in Seattle. In hopes of recouping some losses, Fannie and Freddie are working to sell the houses. In a healthy housing market, that makes sense. But they wouldn’t be in this predicament if that were the case. We’re still grappling with the same housing problems: too much supply, not enough demand.

How can the nation downsize with grace?
A growing chorus believes turning foreclosed homes into wide-open spaces — neighborhood parks, community gardens, or even urban forests — is the way to do it. It’s not exactly a far-fetched idea. Fortune has learned The Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit land conservation organization, is examining Wells Fargo’s (WFC, Fortune 500) portfolio of foreclosed homes to buy tracts in order to return the land to a greener state. Record foreclosures and lower land prices has created some unlikely opportunities — what the organization is calling a “green lining” to the real-estate crash. “We’ve always worked with banks to acquire properties, but obviously there’s a lot more pieces and much more opportunities these days,” said Will Rogers, president of The Trust for Public Land, which help governments put together financing to acquire lands through grants, public dollars and private fundraising. For decades American cities such as Cleveland, Detroit, Youngstown, and St. Louis have responded to everything from white flight to population decline by converting abandoned lots or properties into plots for public uses. To be sure, not every structure has been demolished and turned into greener spaces. Some in good shape have been transformed into affordable housing, but creating open space has become a viable option for cities trying to shrink prosperously.

Conservation of land has its roots in the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. In keeping with the spirit of our late President, known as the Father of Conservation and a crusader for saving wild places, the idea of turning unneeded homes into green space is worth exploring. Roosevelt helped create 150 national forests, five national parks, and 18 national monuments, among other conservation projects. Altogether, he was instrumental in the conservation of about 230 million acres. “Roosevelt is famous for being a conservationist — he was onto this idea that the great outdoors built strong Americans,” says Armando Carbonell of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a Cambridge, Mass.-based policy research organization. “The amount of failure of real estate projects is so great that there are probably a lot of opportunities out there.”

In 2008 the federal government seized Fannie and Freddie because they were deeply troubled by bad loans. The companies hold titles to the foreclosed properties, and have hired real estate and marketing agencies to help sell their inventory. When a property is sold, the companies take payment and give the new homeowners title. As of the end of March, Freddie had taken over 53,831 homes, mostly concentrated in states with some of the nation’s highest foreclosure rates: California, Florida, Arizona, Michigan, Illinois, and Georgia. Listings for homes in California ranged from $19,000 to $59,000; those in Florida, $5,000 to $24,000; in Illinois, $2,000 to $36,000; in Arizona, $15,500 to $37,500; in Michigan, $100 to $19,900; and in Georgia, $4,000 to $31,000.

The weak housing market has kept Freddie from selling at prices that would help it recoup all its losses. On average, the recovery rate has been approximately 60%, said Brad German, a spokesman for Freddie. Clearly there are few winners in this nightmarish housing market. No doubt there’s a better way: Freddie and Fannie need to be part of the solution. The companies could sell their properties to governments or a land trust, which could then turn them into neighborhood parks or urban gardens or some form of open space. Not every piece will work.

Location, location, location
The Trust for Public Land prefers homes it is looking at to sit in a neighborhood that does not already have a park or green space. However, if the foreclosed parcel is located adjacent to an existing park, it could be added into it. Finding a willing government, church, school or organization to maintain the open space is also important. Efforts to turn foreclosures into green space could prove economically beneficial, helping reduce the nation’s oversupply of homes. In turn, this could support and possibly raise home prices.

In Ohio’s Cuyahoga County, home to the rust-belt city of Cleveland, momentum has increased to ease the area’s rampant foreclosures through a greener approach. In April the county of about 1.3 million launched a land bank, an independent government corporation with the power to acquire tax-foreclosed properties or buy up discounted structures from banks or loan services. The agency is a variation on a handful of land banks that have formed nationwide — the first of which emerged in the 1970s in St. Louis, where residents’ flocking to the suburbs left an inventory of empty homes and buildings.

Unlike land banks of the past, Cuyahoga’s agency appears to have teeth. Not only can the land bank pick up vacant property, but it can also acquire homes, buildings, and other structures. The county apparently has received an outpouring of requests from a public that envisions greenhouses, parks, trails, and community gardens, in hopes of redefining neighborhoods left hollow by subprime lending and mortgage foreclosures. But not every parcel or property should be demolished and turned into wide-open spaces. Affordable housing is still in demand, and many communities dealing with record foreclosures would probably benefit more from attracting new industries and more businesses. Local and state governments dealing with budget shortfalls would probably rather see new homes or a new office park on their tax rolls, leading to increased government revenues from property taxes. State governments face one of the worst budget seasons in years. Between now and 2012, states must still close budget gaps totaling about $127 billion, according to a survey by the National Association of State Budget Officers. If market demand for homes just isn’t there and the location is right, communities could find even more value in greener spaces. “It suddenly becomes an asset for the community rather than a liability,” says Frank Alexander, a professor at Emory University Law School who has helped form land banks in Atlanta and Michigan’s Genesee County.

The green space effect
In 2007, Philadelphia saw an $18.1 million windfall in property taxes because property values rose in certain residential areas near parks, according to a 2008 study by The Trust for Public Land. What’s more, parks attract tourists. Philadelphia collected $5.2 million worth of sales tax from tourism spending by out-of-towners who visited the city primarily for its parks, according to the report. If anything, open spaces might just add to life’s simple pleasures. A separate survey by The Trust for Public Land has found that the economic downturn has occasioned more visitors to free parks and playgrounds, while admissions to paid events, like professional sports, have gone down. In a 2009 poll, 38% of adults with children under 6 years old said they’ve made greater use of parks.

John Perry Barlow: Internet has broken political system
by Gautham Nagesh / 06/03/10

“The political system is broken partly because of Internet,” Barlow said. “It’s made it impossible to govern anything the size of the nation-state. We’re going back to the city-state. The nation-state is ungovernably information-rich.” Speaking at Personal Democracy Forum in New York on Thursday, Barlow said there is too much going on at every level in Washington, D.C., for the government to effectively handle everything on its plate. Instead, he advocated citizens organizing around the issues most important to them.

Barlow also said that President Barack Obama’s election, driven largely by small donations, has fundamentally changed American politics. He said a similar bottom-up structure is needed for governing as well. “It’s not the second coming, everything won’t get better overnight, but that made it possible to see a future where it wasn’t simply a matter of money to define who won these things,” Barlow said. “The government could finally start belonging to people eventually.”

The former Grateful Dead songwriter said those disppointed in Obama are disregarding the extent to which the political system is broken. He blamed the Beltway establishment, which he said is loathe to give up any accumulated influence. “There is a circle of fat around the Beltway that is incredibly thick” Barlow said. “We can no longer try to run this country from the center. We’ve got to run it, just like the Internet, from the edges.”

A longtime advocate of individual’s rights online, Barlow also had some harsh words for the world’s leading search firm. “Google’s capacity to control human thought makes the Catholic church jealous, I bet,” Barlow said. “They wish they’d thought of it.” Despite his concerns, Barlow remains optimistic about the Internet’s ablitity as a force for good in politics, describing himself as a techno-utopian. “There are lots of battles to be fought, we can’t give them up,” Barlow said. “You folks in this room have the capacity to be some of the greatest ancestors anybody ever had.”

Future Farmers of the Mall
by Katie McCaskey / Mar 12th 2010

Quick, name three things in your local mall. Did you say “farm”? Probably not. Perhaps you envisioned listless teenagers, stale pretzels or exercise-minded senior citizens – you would not be alone in listing these ho-hum responses. The country is littered with disinterest in dead malls. But don’t dismiss the shopping temples of yesterday too quickly. Shopping malls may be on the brink of major reinvention and adaptive reuse…as farms.

The Galleria Mall in Cleveland, Ohio is leading the way by growing organic food for mall patrons and local restaurants. The mall has transformed the lost retail space within its glass-top confines into a gigantic, organic-food greenhouse. The idea sprouted when the mall’s marketing and events coordinator Vicky Poole teamed up with Jack Hamilton, a business owner in the Galleria. Together they began operating Gardens Under Glass, a hydroponic garden in the Galleria at Erieview in downtown Cleveland. The project is funded by a $30,000 start-up grant from the Civic Innovation Lab.

Gardens Under Glass at the Galleria will start with lettuce, spinach, peas, tomatoes, and herbs, and, if successful, add fruits, more vegetables and edible flowers. Food will be raised hydroponically, aquaponically and in organic soils through a combination of raised beds, vines and vertical structural supports. The plan also includes composting and using nutrient-rich waste from aquariums to nourish the plants. The duo hopes that the project will be a model for sustainable farming, while bringing additional visitors or curious onlookers to the mall’s stores.

If successful and implemented at the mall on a larger scale, Gardens Under Glass could help extend Ohio’s short growing season and increase the amount of food dollars spent locally. It could also serve as a case study for communities struggling to figure out productive uses for otherwise underutilized or abandoned shopping malls.

The adaptive reuse of the space is not without obstacles. For example, even though the glass ceiling provides ample light and the interior location significantly reduces possible pests, the mall was not built to be insulated and heated like a typical greenhouse. So, hardy crops need to be selected. Another challenge — and opportunity — is finding people to tend the mall’s gardens. For now, the workers will be volunteers, but one can easily imagine a future where farmers are hired to work inside the mall. It’s predicted that shopping malls and other “single use” structures will slowly disappear over the next thirty years. That could be the extreme pressure required for positive reinvention.


Millions in Cleveland have passed through the Galleria at Erieview, sun glinting on its barrel-shaped glass roof. But it took a nurseryman’s granddaughter to look up and think: This place looks like a giant greenhouse. Now Vicky Poole, the Galleria’s marketing and events director, who worked on her grandpa’s farm as a child, expects that by late spring or early summer, there will be fresh tomatoes for sale among the shops and galleries at the downtown Cleveland mall. Very fresh — as in vine-grown in bags and troughs hanging from steel stair banisters and ceiling beams in the shopping center that stretches between East Ninth and East 12th streets. Poole got the idea last year when she spotted a photo of dozens of plants growing on a two-story window grid in a New York cafe. “I said, ‘That’s our food court.’ ”

She was reminded of the picturesque glass rotunda in the Galleria’s food court that she often curtains off for wedding receptions. Renting out party space is one of the ways Poole has found to make up for the Galleria’s losing many of its retail businesses. “It’s not really a shopping mall anymore,” she said about the complex that opened in 1987. It wasn’t long until Poole and Jack Hamilton, whose Artist Review Today magazine office and gallery are in the Galleria, teamed up to form Gardens Under Glass, their name for a project they call an “urban eco village.” This month, they were awarded a $30,000 start-up grant from Civic Innovation Lab.

Poole and Hamilton said the project is meant to be a bold statement about sustainability as well as a novel way to attract more people — and their money — to the mall. “I know of no other urban garden in the country like this,” said Hamilton about Gardens Under Glass. He hopes the project will grow every day. Poole and Hamilton put in the first green stuff this week — a 12-foot cart of lettuce and other greens near the Galleria’s first-floor escalators. Their aim is to start an education center and store in a former candy shop, invite sustainable-product makers to display and sell their items, and sell produce to restaurants and individuals.

They dream of hosting school groups and teams of volunteer urban gardeners eager to work beds of herbs and greens and vine systems raised hydroponically, aquaponically and in organic soils. Their giant greenhouse idea has raised interest around town. On Thursday, Poole gave a presentation to the Cleveland chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, composed of professionals and students. “One of the students came up to me after and said, ‘Have you ever considered growing aereoponically?’ ” said Poole. “I invited him to come in and help me set up a system.”

Because of Ohio’s short growing season and the fact that the Galleria will not be heated to greenhouse temperatures, Poole is focusing on easily raised greens, herbs and tomatoes. That is good news for Saravanan Chandrababu, manager of Sweetwater’s Cafe Sausalito, a long-established Galleria restaurant. He sells a lot of salads at lunchtime. “I’m very excited about the project,” said Chandrababu, who has already given a list of the herbs the restaurant uses to Poole. He doesn’t foresee replacing the five vendors from whom he now buys large orders with Gardens Under Glass’ produce, which will be available only in small quantities at first. But he’s interested in the novelty of mall-turned-greenhouse. “We’ll try it,” Chandrababu said. “We’ll advertise that it’s fresh. Maybe that will bring more people to the Galleria.”

Michele and Mark Bishop, who operate Urban Organics from their Brunswick farm, will soon provide Sweet Peet, an organic mulch, as well as organic soils to Gardens Under Glass. Meanwhile, Poole, 57, and Hamilton, 44, have collected products from other such vendors to grow the plants they are purchasing with grant money. “So far, we haven’t had to pay for a thing,” said Poole, who is also searching for a composting system that would take care of scraps from the food court. Within two weeks, two portable 6-by-12-foot beds will be installed on the first floor of the Galleria, where passers-by will watch greens grow. “We’ll be propagating seeds for that this week,” said Poole. By summer, she expects lush banister mountings of greens and tomatoes. “It will be beautiful.”

Vicky Poole & Jack Hamilton
e-mail : gardensunderglass [at] yahoo [dot] com

The Curse of Zombie Shopping Malls
by Katie McCaskey / Mar 4th 2010

What happens to “zombie” commercial spaces and, in particular, those dead shopping malls? Is your local “zombie mall” the masked, serial slasher in your hometown’s struggle for economic recovery? The recession has left many desolate malls and office buildings in its wake, and this poses a potential economic crisis. If these malls and commercial properties fail, they could take down hundreds of small and medium-sized banks with them. This, in turn, may lead to reduced lending and even eviction of families from rental properties, MSNBC recently reported. Shopping malls were particularly hard hit by the economic crisis that began in 2008, as consumers reined in their legendary spending and national chains such as Circuit City, Sharper Image, and Lillian Vernon went bust, leaving gaping vacancies at many shopping centers. Suddenly, the mall — the temple of American consumerism — was in trouble. Today, consumer spending is still down and commercial property values have fallen 40 percent from their peak. The landscape is littered with struggling or dead malls.

There are no government programs for underwater commercial property owners who owe more than the property is worth. Has the time come for the shopping mall to be reinvented? For many people, the answer is yes. In fact, you might be surprised by some of the folks who have publicly rejected the mall concept. Victor Gruen, the Los Angeles-based architect credited with building the first shopping malls, said in a 1978 speech that he swooned in horror at “the ugliness…of the land-wasting seas of parking” around most shopping malls, and the soul-killing sprawl beyond. The recession may only hasten cultural changes already underway. Today, people have embraced online shopping and big-box discounters such as Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart models itself as a “mall” which provides an array of deeply discounted items under one roof. A full thirty percent of Americans are said to shop at Wal-Mart every week.

After decades of furious growth, no new malls have been built in the last two years. And in 2008, more than 150,000 individual mall stores closed, according to a report by CBS News Early Show. Once the anchor tenants leave or default (hello, Circuit City), smaller stores frequently suffer from significantly decreased foot traffic and eventual closure. (That’s one reason why General Growth Partners, one of the nation’s largest mall operators, filed for bankruptcy protection last year). If the inventor of malls isn’t too happy with the result, and shoppers are pinching pennies or buying online, what will become of the once-mighty American mall that has become a central feature of the landscape?

Some malls are simply torn down. Others are rebuilt. Some are revamped to resemble a “town square” with play areas, dining, and even apartments or condos in a compact, walkable format — a sort of Disneyfied downtown. Others are rebuilt as strip malls with side-by-side individual stores sharing a common parking lot. Some more creative thinkers envision a future where dead malls will be remade into “water parks, wave machines, or other fascinations.” Meanwhile, the zombies lurch forward. For a glimpse of our mall-challenged future, take a look at the difficulties experienced by Chicago’s “Block 37” project, which was hardly filled to capacity when it opened. Here’s a video showing its multiple empty floors. There’s even a web site that tracks the decline of this cultural and economic institution:

Good riddance, you might say. But a dead mall creates more than just job losses and built-environment waste. These zombies can also damage your hometown in other, less obvious ways. Smaller banks are more vulnerable to dead mall losses since commercial real estate makes up a larger portion of their portfolios. A shopping plaza project turned disaster can wreck a small bank, bringing down every other depositor and small business with it, or curtail lending in the area. Small banks, however, might be bolstered by the grassroots movement to do business with small institutions, rather than large mega-banks — you know, the ones that brought on all of the trouble we’re now in. (See Huffington Post’s call to action as well as the website Move Your Money). More deposits could cushion the loss of a dead mall for a local bank. Still, with the mall model heavily reliant on cars and fuel, shopping malls may soon exist as dinosaur parks of another age.

Dawn of the Dead Mall : The landscape is littered with the giant carcasses of failed retail emporia. Ideas for what’s next are no less visionary. But are they any more practical?
by Mark Dery / 11.09.09

Dead malls, according to, are malls whose vacancy rate has reached the tipping point; whose consumer traffic is alarmingly low; are “dated or deteriorating”; or all of the above. A May 2009 article in The Wall Street Journal, “Recession Turns Malls into Ghost Towns,” predicts that the dead-mall bodycount “will swell to more than 100 by the end of this year.” Dead malls are a sign of the times, victims of the economic plague years. The multitiered, fully enclosed mall (as opposed to the strip mall) has been the Vatican of shiny, happy consumerism since it staked its claim on the crabgrass frontier — and the public mind — in postwar America. The nation’s first enclosed shopping mall, the Southdale Center, opened its doors in Edina, outside Minneapolis, in 1956. Southdale was the brainchild of the Los Angeles– based architect (and Viennese refugee from the Anschluss) Victor Gruen. A socialist and former student of the modernist designer Peter Behrens, Gruen saw in the covered mall a Vision of Things to Come.

In his dreams, Southdale would be the nucleus of a utopian experiment in master-planned, mixed-use community, complete with housing, schools, a medical center, even a park and lake. It was all very Gropius-goes-Epcot. None of those Bauhausian fantasies came to pass, of course. (Do they ever?) On the bright side, Southdale did have a garden court with a café. And a fishpond. And brightly colored birds twittering in a 21-foot cage. Reporting on the opening, Architectural Record made it sound like the Platonic Ideal of Downtown — what downtown would be “if downtown weren’t so noisy and dirty and chaotic.” A town square in a bell jar: modern, orderly, spanking clean. But it wasn’t Gruen’s Mad Men take on the Viennese plazas he remembered so fondly that made his Ur-mall go viral. Developers liked the way Gruen used architecture to socially engineer our patterns of consumption. His goal, he said, was to design an environment in which “shoppers will be so bedazzled by a store’s surroundings that they will be drawn — unconsciously, continually — to shop.” (Remember, Gruen was from Freud’s Vienna, where psychoanalysis was a growth industry.)

Until Southdale, shopping centers had been “extroverted,” in architectural parlance: store windows faced outward, toward the parking lot, as well as inward, toward the main concourse. Southdale’s display windows were visible to the mall crawler only; from the outside, it was a blank box, blind to its suburban surroundings — the proverbial “world in miniature, in which customers will find everything they need,” as Walter Benjamin put it in his Arcade Projects description of the proto-malls of 19th-century Paris. In Gruen’s galleria, shopping becomes a stage-managed experience in an unreal, hermetically sealed environment, where consumer behavior can (in theory, at least) be scientifically managed. This innovation, together with Gruen’s decision to squeeze more stores into a more walkably small space by building a multistoried structure connected by escalators, and his decision to bookend the mall with big-name “anchor” stores — magnets to attract shoppers who, with luck, would browse the smaller shops as well (a strategy James Farrell, author of One Nation Under Goods: Malls and the Seductions of American Shopping, calls “coopetition”) — cut the die for nearly every mall in America today, which means Gruen “may well have been the most influential architect of the twentieth century” in Malcolm Gladwell’s hedging estimation.

Unfortunately, Gruen made the fatal mistake — fatal for an arm-waving futurist visionary, anyway — of living long enough to see American consumer culture embrace his idea with a vengeance. In a 1978 speech, he recalled visiting one of his old malls, where he swooned in horror at “the ugliness…of the land-wasting seas of parking” around it, and the soul-killing sprawl beyond. Good thing he didn’t survive to see the undeath of the American mall. Most economic commentators attribute its dire state to the epic fail of the American economy. In April of this year, one of the country’s biggest mall operators — General Growth Properties, owner and/or manager of over 200 properties in 44 states — filed for bankruptcy, mortally wounded by the exodus of retail tenants.

Good riddance to bad rubbish, some say. In the comment thread to the November 12, 2008, Newsweek article, “Is the Mall Dead?,” a reader writes, “The end of temples of consumerism and irresponsibility? Sweet. The demise of a culture of greed? No problem.” But wait, my Inner Marxist wonders: isn’t that the voice of bobo privilege talking? Teens marooned in decentered developments didn’t ask to live there; for many of them, the local mall is the closest thing to a commons, be it ever so ersatz. And malls are employment engines. Sure, in many cases the jobs they generate are low-skill and low-wage, but From Each According to His Ability, etc. “I’m fine if some malls die,” says Farrell, “but it’s important to remember that malls had good points too. In a world in which no-new-taxes has made most new public buildings look like pole barns, malls have provided an architecture of elegance and pleasure — they are some of the best public spaces in America. In a country of cars, malls have provided a place for the pleasures of pedestrianism, and for the see-and-be-seen people-watching that’s one of the delights of the mall experience.”

Still, Woodstockian dreams of getting ourselves back to the garden — demolishing every last mall and letting the amber waves of grain roll back — are popular these days: “tear them down, recycle what can be recycled…and turn them back into carbon-absorbing, tree-filled natural landscape, habitat for wild animals,” a reader writes, on The New York Times site. For many, malls have come to symbolize the culture rot brought on by market capitalism: amok consumption, Real Housewives of New Jersey vulgarity. Visions of taking a wrecking ball to malls everywhere are satisfyingly apocalyptic. But sending all that rebar, concrete, and Tyvek to a landfill is politically incorrect in the extreme. Already, architects, urbanists, designers and critics are thinking toward a near future in which dead malls are repurposed, redesigned and reincarnated as greener, smarter and more often than not more aesthetically inspiring places — seedbeds for locavore-oriented agriculture, vibrant social beehives or [fill in the huge footprint where the mall used to stand].

Brimming with evangelical zeal, New Urbanists are exhorting communities with dead malls to reverse the historical logic of Gruenization, turning malls inside-out so storefronts face the wider world and transforming them into mixed-use agglomerations of residences and retail; repurposing parking lots into civic plazas; infilling the dead zones that surround most malls with transit-accessible neighborhoods checkerboarded with public spaces (a rare commodity in sprawl developments),and weaving the streets of said neighborhoods into those of the surrounding suburbs. The more visionary ideas sound a lot like what the cyberpunk designeratus Bruce Sterling calls “architecture fiction,” somewhere between Greg Lynn and Silent Running, Teddy Cruz and Ecotopia. The San Francisco-based Stoner Meek Architecture and Urban Design, finalists in the 2003 Dead Malls competition launched by the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design, propose a post-sprawl take on the Vallejo Plaza in California: deconstruct the moribund mall, they advised, and reconstruct it as a shopping center-cum-ecotourist attraction, its stores squatting, half-submerged, in the nearby wetlands remediation project. For his third-place-winning entry in the Reburbia competition, Forrest Fulton wonders, in “Big Box Agriculture: A Productive Suburb,” why a ghost-box grocery store can’t morph “from retailer of food — food detached from processes from which it came to be — to producer of food”? The store as lookalike outlet for the trucked-in, tastealike products of factory farming is reborn as a grocery store Alice Waters could love. The box transforms into a restaurant; a greenhouse pops out of its roof. Where the desolate parking lot once stood, a pocket farm springs up. Light poles turn into solar trees studded with photovoltaic cells. Fulton imagines “pushing a shopping cart through this suburban farm and picking your produce right from the vine, with the option to bring your harvest to the restaurant chef for preparation and eating your harvest on the spot.”

Two other entrants, Evan Collins (“LivaBlox: Converting Big Box Stores to Container Homes”) and Micah Winkelstein of B3 Architects (“Transforming the Big Box into a Livable Environment”), envision the radical re-use of ghost boxes as termite mounds of domestic, retail and agricultural activity. Collins conjures Legoland stacks of brightly colored modular homes, fabricated from a recycled store and its discarded shipping containers. Where his “vacated megastore” now stands, Winkelstein sees a “behemoth structure” that is home to a mini-city of lofts, its ginormous common roof crowned with solar panels and carpeted with gardens and landscaped greens, wind turbines sprouting everywhere. Radiant City, here we come. But Farrell spots some potholes in the road to Erewhon. Projects that resurrect dead malls “are visionary and wonderful,” he says, but many of them “involve a sense of public purpose that seems absent in America just now. I would love to see malls function as a commons, with public-private purposes, addressing the environment we really live in instead of the consumer fantasyland that has been the mainstay of mall design so far.”

As we cling by our hangnails to the historical precipice, with ecotastrophe on one side and econopocalypse on the other, that consumer fantasyland is an economic indulgence and an environmental obscenity we can’t afford — the dead end of an economic philosophy tied to manic overdevelopment (codeword: “housing starts”), maxed-out credit cards (codeword: “consumer confidence”) and arcane financial plays that generate humongous profits for Wall Street’s elite but little of real worth, in human terms. It’s the last gasp of the consumer culture founded on the economic logic articulated early in the 20th century by Earnest Elmo Calkins, who admonished his fellow advertising executives in 1932 that “consumer engineering must see to it that we use up the kind of goods we now merely use,” and by the domestic theorist Christine Frederick, who observed in 1929 that “the way to break the vicious deadlock of a low standard of living is to spend freely, and even waste creatively.”

The extreme turbulence that hit the American economy in 2008 offers a rare window of opportunity to hit the re-set button on consumer culture as we know it — to re-tool market capitalism along greener, more socially conscious and, crucially, more profoundly satisfying lines. Because an age of repurposing, recycling and retrofitting needn’t be a Beige New World of Soviet-style austerity measures. On the contrary, while we’ll likely have far fewer status totems in the near future, the quality of our experiential lives could be far richer in diversity, if we muster the political will to make them so. “The most important fact about our shopping malls,” the social scientist Henry Fairlie told The Week magazine, “is that we do not need most of what they sell.” Animated by the requisite “sense of public purpose,” the post-mall, post-sprawl suburbs could be exuberantly heterogeneous Places That Do Not Suck, where food is grown closer to home, cottage industries are the norm and the nowheresville of chain restaurants and big-box retailers and megamalls has given way to local cuisines, one-of-a-kind shops and walkable communities with a sense of place and social cohesion. Or we could persist in the fundamentalist faith in overproduction and hyperconsumption that has brought us to this pass. In Dawn of the Dead (1978), his black comedy about mindless consumption, George Romero offers a glimpse of that future, one of many possible tomorrows. Two SWAT team officers have just escaped from a ravening horde of cannibalistic zombies, into the safety of an abandoned mall. “Well, we’re in, but how the hell are we gonna get back?” Suddenly, they realize no one’s minding the store.

Peter: Who the hell cares?! Let’s go shopping!
Roger: Watches! Watches!
Peter: Wait a minute man, let’s just get the stuff we need. I’ll get a television and a radio.
Roger: And chocolate, chocolate. Hey, how about a mink coat?

Shopping ‘zombies’ offer US hope
by Julian Delasantellis / Jan 3, 2008

Like salmon driven upstream by instinctual forces beyond their control, there is something deep down, probably at the core of our DNA programming, that forces pundits to make predictions for the new year in early January. Here’s my economic prediction for 2008. The American economy may very well come to resemble scenes from the two Dawn of the Dead movies. And that’s the good news.

First made in 1978 by horror maestro George Romero, as a sequel to his 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead, remade by Zack Snyder in 2004, Dawn of the Dead tells the story of the human race under siege from hordes of recently deceased risen zombies, ambulating about with no higher brain functions, only existing to feed lustily on the rapidly decreasing numbers of actual people still around.

In both the 1978 original and the 2004 sequel, a hardy group of human survivors seeks shelter and security in an abandoned shopping mall, barricading themselves from the zombies until some salvation for the human race can emerge. But the zombies still come. They mill around aimlessly in the parking lot, (making them fine sporting practice for the survivors, with their high-powered rifles filched from the mall’s sporting goods stores, shooting away what used to be the zombies’ brains) occasionally attempting to overcome the survivors’ improvised defenses to gain access to the mall. The survivors are astounded, but then they come to realize their mistake in seeking shelter in a shopping mall. The zombies, even with most of their brains decayed or shot away, still carry an inherent memory of the malls as a place that once held a central focus of their lives. As one of the survivors put it: “They’re after the place. They don’t know why, they just remember. Remember that they want to be in here.”

Mindless zombies haunting shopping malls as if by instinct, for reasons they barely know. You don’t have to wait until the end of the world to see that – you can see it all the time, including during the recently concluded holiday shopping season, in any American shopping mall. And that just may be the salvation of the American economy after all. We’re now coming up on what I consider to be the first anniversary of the starter’s pistol of the subprime crisis, HSBC Holdings’ February 5, 2007, announcement of the problems at its Household Bank subsidiary that first alerted the financial world to the putrescent swamp that US housing finance had fallen into over the past few years.

I started writing about the seriousness of the problems with subprimes in March; slowly, a lot of the pundit community has followed suit. Many prominent economic analysts and forecasters, among them former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, Economics Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz and Goldman Sachs chief US economist Jan Hatzius, are now putting the odds of a US recession (technically defined as two quarters – six months – of negative economic growth) at roughly 50-50. Maybe they’re right. But as someone who has followed every twist and tribulation of the subprime crisis since its inception, I’m starting to wonder if subprime’s hype has outrun its reality.

Subprime is one crisis with multiple manifestations. First is the effect on the US housing sector. A core reason why it is frequently so difficult to get a grip on just where housing is at any one moment is the fact that there are so many varied metrics that seek to provide snapshots. You have reports on home sales. Home prices. Home inventories. New-home sales prices and volumes, existing-home prices and sales volumes, new-home starts, pending home sales, mortgages becoming delinquent, mortgages entering foreclosure; all available for the nation as a whole, and, more importantly, for the widely varied individual regional markets that, amalgamated, comprise the national housing picture.

It is true that, for the past year, most of the indicators have marched in lockstep in one direction – down. Still, you occasionally get outliers, reports that indicate things may not be as bad as they seem. Among these was the report on December 31 that sales of existing homes actually rose 0.4% in November. In contrast to sales of new homes – those omnipresent cookie-cutters, New England-style in the Arizona desert housing-development monstrosities that despoil the virgin landscape like indelible ink spots around America’s outer suburbs – existing home sales seemed to have reached a plateau late in 2007, stabilizing at around an annual rate of about 5 million units.

Home prices are falling in the US, but it is important to keep that data in a geographical and historical perspective. On all but the most superficial level of analysis, it is probably incorrect to think of a unified US housing market. The housing picture in the US more closely resembles an agglomerated average of all the different individualized local and regional housing markets. Thus, the current price declines in US real estate values are concentrated in places such as the US Midwest, devastated by the continuing contraction in the US auto industry, and southern California and Florida, where real estate speculation was at its irrationally exuberant best up to the end of 2006. Most other markets have real estate prices stable to only declining marginally; in some markets, such as the Pacific Northwest and the area around Charlotte, North Carolina, real estate price appreciations continue, albeit at a more reasonable pace.

Here it is also important to look at the bigger picture. According to the Case-Shiller Real Home Price Index, US home prices fell about 3.4% in 2007. Even with the declines seemingly accelerating to around a 10% rate by the end of the year, that should be looked at in the context of a 52% rise in prices since 2001. In other words, if you bought your home before, say, mid-2005, and unless you borrowed away the appreciated value of that home with home equity loans, your home can still be your piggy bank. You can still head to the mall with the other zombies.

It’s true that every month about a quarter of a million Americans are losing their homes through foreclosure, and that number should continue through 2008. The subprime “teaser” mortgage resets should peak in April, then taper off into mid-2009. Still, if one is expecting the American consumer to go into spending mourning over the fate of his poor foreclosed brethren, one has not spent all that much time with American consumers lately.

Just before Christmas, the US television network ABC had on its Nightline news program the most insightful broadcast report I’ve seen yet on how American society is adapting to the subprime crisis. Far from being a dour and foreboding account of sad homeowners gathering their paltry belongings in preparation for foreclosure, the report showed happy, giddy prospective homeowners on big tour buses, on an excursion, organized by a Stockton, California real estate agent (who provided the snacks and drinks), to view recently foreclosed properties.

The atmosphere on the buses was more approbation than Armageddon, more game show than Gotterdammerung: “You wanna get a good deal off someone else’s life-wrecking misfortune – come on down!” “It hadn’t crossed my mind,” one prospective homeowner replied when asked if he was giving any thought to the misfortunes of the previous homeowner. “I look at it as more or less an opportunity.” An opportunity to then join the zombies at the mall’s home furnishing store, no doubt.

The other side of the subprime crisis coin is what the subprime securities did to the balance sheets of America’s proudest and most austere names of commercial finance. Through much of the late summer and autumn, I elaborated on this site how it was then being revealed how some of the bluest names of American blue-chip finance, names like Bear Stearns, UBS, Merrill Lynch and Citibank, had treated subprime-related and originated debt securities not as the highly speculative investments they have now revealed themselves to be, but as hot dogs at the quintessentially American “sport” called competitive eating, greedily stuffing as many subprime securities down their fat portfolio gullets as their trading desks could find.

When it became obvious just how little real value these securities actually contained, the tumbrels rumbled down Wall Street and the heads rolled, most prominent among them Merrill Lynch chief executive officer (CEO)Stanley O’Neal and Citigroup CEO Charles Prince, along with roughly 100,000 other finance-related jobs. So far, US financial conglomerates have “written down” (ie admitted as most likely worthless) about US$80 billion of subprime-related debt. Everybody knows there will much more to come; that the total amount of writedowns may finally end up in the $250 billion to $400 billion neighborhood.

Still, as 2007 drew to a close, Wall Street seemed quite complacent with the prospect of around another $300 billion or so of American finance capital being wiped out of existence. With the exception of mortgage insurers such as MBIA (who probably sang “Auld Lang Syne” for themselves after learning that they will soon have a Warren Buffett financed entity as a competitor), most of the stocks of America’s finance industry have held at the lows of mid-November, before Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke raised the white flag and indicated his willingness to continue cutting rates. Some, like Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, even show signs of the beginnings of a rally.

Perusing comments from traders, I see some credit accruing to Bernanke from this at least temporary respite from the long fall off the cliff that most of the financial sector suffered in 2007. A lot more is being given to the real heroes of the end of 2007, the sovereign wealth funds (SWFs) , the huge Asian and Middle East pools of government capital that are beginning to fulfill my prediction that, flying out of the sun like Han Solo in the Millennium Falcon, they would save the day for plucky little American finance capital. ( I first wrote of the likelihood of US finance capital being rescued by SWFs in my August 21 ATol piece When the big guns fail, call in China, and when the rescues actually commenced, my November 29 ATol piece, Selling the US by the dollar).

With the belief now pervading the markets that the SWFs are going to be buying up American finance, US traders are commensurately less willing to sell its stocks, figuring that it’s better to hold on to them now in order to sell them dearer to the SWFs later. Am I saying that the subprime crisis is over, that its once again morning in America, that all Americans can once more, after morning services at the megachurch, settle down in front of the 50-inch plasma TV with rack upon rack of baby-back pork ribs to watch Dallas defeat all comers in the NFL playoffs?

Not in the least. If it turns out that the total subprime bill is substantially in excess of the current projected figure, say past $500 billion or more, the bloodletting on Wall Street will resume, as it will should a major financial institution actually shutter its doors and fail. What I am saying is that for the first time since at least last spring, Wall Street seems to think that it can see the far side of the subprime crisis. Yes, there’s plenty of bad news now, and plenty more to come, but bad news is an essential component of rising stock prices – the time to worry is when the news is all good, not all bad. An old stock market adage is that bull markets climb a wall of worry. At least for now, Wall Street seems to think that it can at last see over the wall.

Another old Wall Street adage, sometimes attributed to one of the barons Rothschild, is to “buy when there’s blood in the streets”. Maybe Stan O’Neal and Chuck Prince’s headless corpses fit the bill for that. What about the American consumer and homeowner, the other main actor in the subprime drama? A backbone of conservative, free-market economic theory is what is called the “rational expectations” school of economic thought. This theory states that economic actors, be they investors, business owners, farmers or consumers, keep tabs on the economic news of the day, make an informed assessment of what the news means for their individual future prospects and then act accordingly. They spend and/or invest more should they believe future prospects are bright and cut back if things look less promising.

If rational expectations were right there is no way we would have seen the roughly 3.6% rise in holiday retail spending that America saw for this just concluded holiday season. This was less than in the booming years of 2004-2006, but still, you only had to go back to 2002 to find a similarly “bad” holiday season. If you listened to many pre-holiday economic prognosticators, you might have thought that America was facing the worst holiday season since the soup kitchens and breadlines of the Great Depression, maybe the worst shopping season since the British burned Washington in the war of 1812. Why didn’t rational expectations work? Why did Americans ignore all the bad news to once again be zombies at the mall?

One thing that the rational expectations theorists probably didn’t factor into their calculations as to why Americans ignore economic news is that Americans just hate economic news. Whenever it comes on the TV there is a mad, desperate scramble for the remote control to change the channel; anything, whether it be meetings of the local sewage treatment committee on the community affairs cable channel or Venezuelan soap operas, will get some viewing time in preference to actually watching economics news on TV. Had it not be for the fact that the viewers of business cable channel CNBC have the most desirable demographics of all US television, in other words they’re rich, the meager ratings of business and economics TV in America would not have survived past the 1980s.

So the reason that the news of the subprime crisis has not led to a greater contraction of US consumer spending is that most Americans have little or no comprehension or understanding of what the subprime crisis actually is. They know it involves big words and complicated concepts, and in high school or college they got out of their economics requirement by substituting another elective, basketweaving or woodworking, maybe “Contextual Critical Analysis of Bruce Springsteen-101”.

What Americans do know is that they have jobs. At 4.7% the US unemployment rate is still very low, just 0.3% off the low for this cycle set in March, 2006. Former US president Harry Truman once said that Americans define a recession as a neighbor losing their job, a depression as them losing their own jobs. By that measure, with American employment still strong, Americans just don’t see that much urgency in cutting back spending. And that’s what’s keeping the US economy humming. If they don’t see a few of the people they used to see in the neighborhood, because they’ve been foreclosed on and are thus now living in a rental property in a far less desirable location, well, that is sad, but look at the bright side. There’s a lot less wait for the swings on the neighborhood jungle gym, or to get a latte every morning at Starbucks.

This is why it is so absolutely critical to follow the monthly US employment reports, starting with the report for December due out on the morning of January 4. As long as the US consumer has a job he is going to keep spending (“Saving? What’s that, oh, I know, it’s what the goalkeepers in soccer do!”) and as long as the spending spree continues there is a safety net as to just how bad the subprime crisis is going to hurt the American, and by extension the world, economy.

Americans feel more secure if they see the headline unemployment number still low. A factor that is probably artificially keeping the employment numbers rosy is the fact that the layoffs in the US construction industry don’t really show up in US employment numbers. That is because it has been an unacknowledged but obvious fact that, for most of this decade, the boom in US real estate construction has been populated by America’s signature reserve army of the unemployed, its undocumented, primarily Hispanic, illegal alien workforce. These workers weren’t really counted among the officially employed during the boom, and, as housing construction employment now evaporates, they’re not now counted as among the unemployed in the bust. (I wrote on the phenomenon of illegal immigrants building US housing in my March 29, 2007 ATol piece Exurbia-built on paradox and hypocrisy.) The hard-working builders of America’s homes and hearths are proving to be as disposable as tissue paper, which, if you ever talk to the immigrants themselves, pretty much sums up how they feel America always saw them in the first place.

Like many other observers, I have been astounded at the continuing prosperity of the US economy during the latter half of 2007, a time when the nation’s financial system essentially became dysfunctional. The financial sector and “real” economic sectors are supposed to work in close tandem, with the financial system providing finance for investment and then having the real economy place the profits from that investment back into the financial sector to be turned into more productive new investments.

By all accounts, this transmission procedure broke down in the second half of 2007, as credit quality concerns arising from out of the subprime crisis caused lenders to pull back from loans to even the previously most creditworthy borrowers. Still, consumers kept spending, and the economy kept chugging along, posting a very impressive 3.9% growth rate for the third quarter of 2007. Maybe we need a new metaphor for the relationship between finance and the real economy. Instead of being something like twin brothers working together in the family business, the free-market ideologues’ total deregulation of the financial services industry in the early years of this decade has turned the real economy into the sound, sensible brother capably managing the family business, with the financial sector being the uncontrollably bipolar sibling, prone to extremes of giddy elation (as in the credit creation orgy of 2003-2006 that stoked the subprime crisis) and suicidal despair (as in the current crisis). Meanwhile, the real economy goes to work each day, earns a paycheck, supports its family and the country.

Squeezing the metaphor until it screams, proper regulation of the financial sector is like Prozac. In the colloquial jargon of psychopharmacology, the financial sector needs to get back on its meds. In what is, according to some media reports, the bleakest time in finance history since the moneychangers were driven from the Temple, Americans keep spending. How can they not? As that the French are justifiably proud of their culture and cuisine, the Germans their engineering and manufacturing prowess, what is it that Americans can be more proud about than their continued willingness to exhaust 200 years of built-up treasure on cheap trinkets that they will dispose of and replace in six months? No matter what the politicians bleat on in the Iowa cornfields about the centrality of Jesus in American life, the country’s real unifying faith, affirmed no matter what race, color, creed, gender, or sexual orientation, is mindless consumerism.

In this, the nation’s 1,100 enclosed shopping malls are temples to this national faith, with the 500-store Mall of America, in Bloomington, Minnesota, the faith’s new Vatican, its shining food court on a hill. With the consumerist religion flourishing as it is in America, it will take more than what we’ve seen from the subprime crisis so far to shake the foundations of the faith. A moral philosopher or theologian might question the value of the new creed to its believers’ souls; then again, isn’t the whole point of being a zombie that you’ve lost your soul?

{Julian Delasantellis is a management consultant, private investor and educator in international business in the US state of Washington. He can be reached at juliandelasantellis [at] yahoo}


Maker Faire 2010: Seed Libraries
by Jaymi Heimbuch / 05.24.10

S.P.R.Out (Seed and Plant Resource Outreach) is a non-profit seed and plant library based in West Marin, and while the project is one that many gardeners are thankful for, it’s also an exercise in nursing along an idea. S.P.R.Out founder Medea Aranda was working hard to not only expand the library, but also just simply keep it going. She spoke with us about her model for the organization, as well as some of the challenges that make seed libraries – indeed most lending libraries – a labor of love.

SPROut is based on gardeners taking only the seeds they need for the plants they’re really going to grow (one doesn’t need a whole packet of seeds of broccoli when they only have room for 5 plants) and bringing back at least one seed of that type of plant. It’s not a whole lot to ask, but it can be difficult to get even a handful of gardeners to grow out a plant, save the seeds, and bring them in for other gardeners to utilize. Still, the seed library is maintaining its existence, and is even expanding a little. Medea Aranda holds events like seed-saving classes to show people how easy it can be to collect seeds from their garden to use during the next season.

Seed swaps and sowing parties are two great ways the library gets people together and creates a community around gardening. When people meet the fellow gardeners they’re helping out by saving seeds and contributing to the library, they’re more likely to go to the effort of growing out at least one of each type of plant they grow and collecting the seeds. Everyone interested in being part of the library signs up as a member, and they can start utilizing the resources. The more gardeners who participate, the more diverse the seed library becomes as members contribute the plants that they enjoy the most.


the ‘DROPOUT’ ECONOMY,28804,1971133_1971110_1971126,00.html
The ‘Dropout’ Economy
by Reihan Salam / Mar. 10, 2010

Middle-class kids are taught from an early age that they should work hard and finish school. Yet 3 out of 10 students dropped out of high school as recently as 2006, and less than a third of young people have finished college. Many economists attribute the sluggish wage growth in the U.S. to educational stagnation, which is one reason politicians of every stripe call for doubling or tripling the number of college graduates. But what if the millions of so-called dropouts are onto something? As conventional high schools and colleges prepare the next generation for jobs that won’t exist, we’re on the cusp of a dropout revolution, one that will spark an era of experimentation in new ways to learn and new ways to live.

It’s important to keep in mind that behavior that seems irrational from a middle-class perspective is perfectly rational in the face of straitened circumstances. People who feel obsolete in today’s information economy will be joined by millions more in the emerging post-information economy, in which routine professional work and even some high-end services will be more cheaply performed overseas or by machines. This doesn’t mean that work will vanish. It does mean, however, that it will take a new and unfamiliar form.

Look at the projections of fiscal doom emanating from the federal government, and consider the possibility that things could prove both worse and better. Worse because the jobless recovery we all expect could be severe enough to starve the New Deal social programs on which we base our life plans. Better because the millennial generation could prove to be more resilient and creative than its predecessors, abandoning old, familiar and broken institutions in favor of new, strange and flourishing ones.

Imagine a future in which millions of families live off the grid, powering their homes and vehicles with dirt-cheap portable fuel cells. As industrial agriculture sputters under the strain of the spiraling costs of water, gasoline and fertilizer, networks of farmers using sophisticated techniques that combine cutting-edge green technologies with ancient Mayan know-how build an alternative food-distribution system. Faced with the burden of financing the decades-long retirement of aging boomers, many of the young embrace a new underground economy, a largely untaxed archipelago of communes, co-ops, and kibbutzim that passively resist the power of the granny state while building their own little utopias.

Rather than warehouse their children in factory schools invented to instill obedience in the future mill workers of America, bourgeois rebels will educate their kids in virtual schools tailored to different learning styles. Whereas only 1.5 million children were homeschooled in 2007, we can expect the number to explode in future years as distance education blows past the traditional variety in cost and quality. The cultural battle lines of our time, with red America pitted against blue, will be scrambled as Buddhist vegan militia members and evangelical anarchist squatters trade tips on how to build self-sufficient vertical farms from scrap-heap materials. To avoid the tax man, dozens if not hundreds of strongly encrypted digital currencies and barter schemes will crop up, leaving an underresourced IRS to play whack-a-mole with savvy libertarian “hacktivists.”

Work and life will be remixed, as old-style jobs, with long commutes and long hours spent staring at blinking computer screens, vanish thanks to ever increasing productivity levels. New jobs that we can scarcely imagine will take their place, only they’ll tend to be home-based, thus restoring life to bedroom suburbs that today are ghost towns from 9 to 5. Private homes will increasingly give way to cohousing communities, in which singles and nuclear families will build makeshift kinship networks in shared kitchens and common areas and on neighborhood-watch duty. Gated communities will grow larger and more elaborate, effectively seceding from their municipalities and pursuing their own visions of the good life. Whether this future sounds like a nightmare or a dream come true, it’s coming.

This transformation will be not so much political as antipolitical. The decision to turn away from broken and brittle institutions, like conventional schools and conventional jobs, will represent a turn toward what military theorist John Robb calls “resilient communities,” which aspire to self-sufficiency and independence. The left will return to its roots as the champion of mutual aid, cooperative living and what you might call “broadband socialism,” in which local governments take on the task of building high-tech infrastructure owned by the entire community. Assuming today’s libertarian revival endures, it’s easy to imagine the right defending the prerogatives of state and local governments and also of private citizens — including the weird ones. This new individualism on the left and the right will begin in the spirit of cynicism and distrust that we see now, the sense that we as a society are incapable of solving pressing problems. It will evolve into a new confidence that citizens working in common can change their lives and in doing so can change the world around them.

We see this individualism in the rise of “freeganism” and in the small but growing handful of “cage-free families” who’ve abandoned their suburban idylls for life on the open road. We also see it in the rising number of high school seniors who take a gap year before college. While the higher-education industry continues to agitate for college for all, many young adults are stubbornly resistant, perhaps because they recognize that for a lot of them, college is an overpriced status marker and little else. In the wake of the downturn, household formation has slowed down. More than one-third of workers under 35 live with their parents.

The hope is that these young people will eventually leave the house when the economy perks up, and doubtless many will. Others, however, will choose to root themselves in their neighborhoods and use social media to create relationships that sustain them as they craft alternatives to the rat race. Somewhere in the suburbs there is an unemployed 23-year-old who is plotting a cultural insurrection, one that will resonate with existing demographic, cultural and economic trends so powerfully that it will knock American society off its axis.

{Salam is a policy adviser at the nonpartisan think tank e21, a blogger for the National Review and a columnist for},32068,71274225001_0,00.html

Farmland in Trinoma’s center lobby

Cooperatives: A Better Kind Of Corporation
by Paul Hazen / 05.13.10

The great recession we’ve been going through will lead to nothing less than a new era in the economy and culture of America, a time of vigorous prudence and ethical self-regulation. That’s the prediction of the writer Kurt Andersen in a recent cover story for Time magazine. Like many cultural prophets, Andersen sees us at the end of the age of limitless greed, McMansions and credit default swaps. He doesn’t know what will take their place, but he says he’s sure our innovativeness will come through for us. His cultural reckonings may be true, but he needn’t have such a nebulous sense of our economic and cultural possibilities. We don’t need vast innovations. We already have a business model–the cooperatively owned business–that has been proven to embody just the kind of corporate social responsibility Andersen espouses, in times of both crisis and prosperity.

A cooperative is a democratically run business whose members are also its owners. Co-ops aren’t just for alternative groceries. There are some 29,000 of them in all sectors of the American economy, a recent study by the University of Wisconsin found. They have revenues that exceed $3 trillion and employ 856,000 people. Household names among them include Ace Hardware, Ocean Spray, the Associated Press and Sunkist.

Many co-ops exist to bring services to millions of people who would otherwise lack them. Much of rural America, geographically marginalized, didn’t have electricity until residents formed utilities cooperatives during the Great Depression. In the 1970s, communities joined together to create food co-ops, the only stores that would stock natural and organic foods. And in many major U.S. cities, housing cooperatives provide almost the only way people with lower incomes can afford to own homes.

All these cases reflect the basic value that guides cooperatives, a value that has set them apart in the current economic crisis. To put it simply, they exist to serve people’s needs rather than to maximize profit. With their shared ownership, cooperatives serve their members’ needs democratically. They offer each member-owner a vote in board elections and a say in the running of the business, thus establishing a greater degree of mutual responsibility and accountability than in investor-owned companies. Member-owners answer to one another rather than to outside investors, and that interrelationship tends to minimize fraudulent, deceptive and damaging behavior.

Investor-owned firms, on the other hand, operate with built-in conflicts of interest as investors dictate the direction of the business and often sacrifice quality or ethical standards to guarantee higher returns. This happened recently on an unthinkable scale in finance and housing. Yet the investors in companies like AIG have escaped with a clean conscience, because they don’t feel any direct connection to the foreclosures on people’s homes that AIG’s actions wrought.

This wouldn’t–and didn’t–happen with cooperatives. Co-ops don’t have an inherent conflict between their investors and the customers they serve. Their owners are the people who use their services. This personal involvement makes gambling with their fate much less attractive. The only way an individual’s fortune will grow is if the cooperative grows; a loss for the cooperative is a loss for each individual. Co-op executives don’t have the incentive to pilfer their businesses that executives at investor-owned firms do.

More often than not, co-ops are locally owned and run. For that reason, too, their owners have to bear witness to the effects of their decisions. This isn’t usually the case with investors who own shares in public corporations from a geographical and cultural distance. With all these qualities, cooperatives make much more natural vehicles for corporate social responsibility. Just look at the difference between investor-owned banks and credit unions, which are cooperatively owned financial institutions. Large-scale banks have been publicly flagellated for the risks they took with securitized subprime mortgages and the ways they artificially–and even illegally–inflated the value of their assets. They did all this, we know, because they were under heavy pressure from boards and investors to maximize earnings.

Credit unions simply didn’t do that. Credit union executives are unabashed when they say they run boring businesses. No risky, faceless customers, no fancy junk bonds. Banking should be boring and simple, they like to say. At last these conservative practices are beginning to look more respectable, and boring banking has piqued the public’s interest, given the ill effects we’ve all seen stem from the flashy excess of Wall Street-driven banking.

As consumer confidence in investor-owned businesses continues to plunge, credit union membership has spiked. In just the first quarter of 2009, Navy Federal, the nation’s largest credit union, gained 85,000 new members. Other credit unions have reported increased membership, too, and many co-ops, from purchasing ones–people who pool together resources to buy in bulk–to agricultural ones, have reported positive or at least even sales through the recession.

Why? Perhaps at least partly because the public has grown more hospitable to cooperative values. Cabot Creamery, an agricultural cooperative that sells dairy products nationally, hasn’t suffered during the recession. The people there believe it’s because of customers’ affinity for their brand, which stresses its ownership by farmers and its stewardship of the land. Most U.S. farmers don’t own the brands under which their goods are sold; they’re just atomized commodity producers. At Cabot each farmer can participate democratically in running the co-op. That and their shared ownership gives them great loyalty to it. Cabot’s strengths have kept it financially healthy even as households have cut back on spending.

So, is the cooperative the perfect business model? Of course not. If your goal is the maximum accumulation of money, the co-op model probably isn’t for you. It may be the best model for combining social and economic progress, but it will never attract as much capital as an investor-owned business. Nor will it prevent human error. The people who run co-ops make management mistakes just like anyone else. Still, they’ve got built-in incentives to avoid error that just don’t exist elsewhere.

When the recession’s full force first hit us, people began talking extravagantly of “the end of capitalism.” Of course nothing like that has happened, but we can’t ignore the fact that many of our basic beliefs in truly unbridled capitalism have been shaken. Amid all that shaking, as weak and unstable businesses begin to fall, we should keep our eyes trained on a kind of steady and unassailable business that has lived through crises before and will certainly live through crises again.

{Paul Hazen is the president of the National Cooperative Business Association.}

Paul Hazen
email : phazen [at] ncba [dot] coop



Detroit wants to save itself by shrinking
BY David Runk / Mar 8, 2010

Detroit, the very symbol of American industrial might for most of the 20th century, is drawing up a radical renewal plan that calls for turning large swaths of this now-blighted, rusted-out city back into the fields and farmland that existed before the automobile. Operating on a scale never before attempted in this country, the city would demolish houses in some of the most desolate sections of Detroit and move residents into stronger neighborhoods. Roughly a quarter of the 139-square-mile city could go from urban to semi-rural.

Near downtown, fruit trees and vegetable farms would replace neighborhoods that are an eerie landscape of empty buildings and vacant lots. Suburban commuters heading into the city center might pass through what looks like the countryside to get there. Surviving neighborhoods in the birthplace of the auto industry would become pockets in expanses of green. Detroit officials first raised the idea in the 1990s, when blight was spreading. Now, with the recession plunging the city deeper into ruin, a decision on how to move forward is approaching. Mayor Dave Bing, who took office last year, is expected to unveil some details in his state-of-the-city address this month. “Things that were unthinkable are now becoming thinkable,” said James W. Hughes, dean of the School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, who is among the urban experts watching the experiment with interest. “There is now a realization that past glories are never going to be recaptured. Some people probably don’t accept that, but that is the reality.”

The meaning of what is afoot is now settling in across the city. “People are afraid,” said Deborah L. Younger, past executive director of a group called Detroit Local Initiatives Support Corporation that is working to revitalize five areas of the city. “When you read that neighborhoods may no longer exist, that sends fear.” Though the will to downsize has arrived, the way to do it is unclear and fraught with problems. Politically explosive decisions must be made about which neighborhoods should be bulldozed and which improved. Hundreds of millions of federal dollars will be needed to buy land, raze buildings and relocate residents, since this financially desperate city does not have the means to do it on its own. It isn’t known how many people in the mostly black, blue-collar city might be uprooted, but it could be thousands. Some won’t go willingly. “I like the way things are right here,” said David Hardin, 60, whose bungalow is one of three occupied homes on a block with dozens of empty lots near what is commonly known as City Airport. He has lived there since 1976, when every home on the street was occupied, and said he enjoys the peace and quiet.

For much of the 20th century, Detroit was an industrial powerhouse – the city that put the nation on wheels. Factory workers lived in neighborhoods of simple single- and two-story homes and walked to work. But then the plants began to close one by one. The riots of 1967 accelerated an exodus of whites to the suburbs, and many middle-class blacks followed. Now, a city of nearly 2 million in the 1950s has declined to less than half that number. On some blocks, only one or two occupied houses remain, surrounded by trash-strewn lots and vacant, burned-out homes. Scavengers have stripped anything of value from empty buildings. According to one recent estimate, Detroit has 33,500 empty houses and 91,000 vacant residential lots.

Several other declining industrial cities, such as Youngstown, Ohio, have also accepted downsizing. Since 2005, Youngstown has been tearing down a few hundred houses a year. But Detroit’s plans dwarf that effort. The approximately 40 square miles of vacant property in Detroit is larger than the entire city of Youngstown. Faced with a $300 million budget deficit and a dwindling tax base, Bing argues that the city can’t continue to pay for police patrols, fire protection and other services for all areas. The current plan would demolish about 10,000 houses and empty buildings in three years and pump new investment into stronger neighborhoods. In the neighborhoods that would be cleared, the city would offer to relocate residents or buy them out. The city could use tax foreclosure to claim abandoned property and invoke eminent domain for those who refuse to leave, much as cities now do for freeway projects.

The mayor has begun lobbying Washington for support, and in January Detroit was awarded $40.8 million for renewal work. The federally funded Detroit Housing Commission supports Bing’s plan. “It takes a true partnership, because we don’t want to invest in a neighborhood that the city is not going to invest in,” said Eugene E. Jones, executive director of the commission. It is not known who might get the cleared land, but with prospects for recruiting industry slim, planners are considering agricultural uses. The city might offer larger tracts for sale or lease, or turn over smaller pieces to community organizations to use.

Maggie DeSantis, a board member of Community Development Advocates of Detroit, said she worries that shutting down neighborhoods without having new uses ready is a “recipe for disaster” that will invite crime and illegal dumping. The group recently proposed such things as the creation of suburban-style neighborhoods and nature parks. Residents like Hardin want to keep their neighborhoods and eliminate the blight. “We just try to keep it up,” he said. “I’ve been doing it since I got it, so I don’t look at nobody trying to help me do anything.” For others, Bing’s plans could represent a way out. Willie Mae Pickens has lived in her near east-side home since the 1960s and has watched as friends and neighbors left. Her house is the only one standing on her side of the street. “They can buy it today. Any day,” said Pickens, 87, referring to city officials. “I’ll get whatever they’ll give me for it, because I want to leave.”

Mayor Uses Census Tally Showing Decline as Benchmark in Overhaul
BY Alex P. Kellogg / February 27, 2010

This city is shrinking, and Mayor Dave Bing can live with that. The nation’s once-a-decade census, which gets under way next month, usually prompts expensive tally-building efforts by cities eager to maximize federal funding tied to the count. Detroit, which faces a population decline of as much as 150,000, has used that tactic in the past and once fought a successful court challenge to boost its count. But this time, Mr. Bing is pushing the city to embrace the bad news. The mayor is looking to the diminished tally, down from 951,270 in 2000, as a benchmark in his bid to reshape Detroit’s government, finances and perhaps even its geography to reflect its smaller population and tax base. That means, in part, cutting city services and laying off workers.

His approach to the census is a product of not only budget constraints but also a new, more modest view of the city’s prospects. “We’ve got to pick those core communities, those core neighborhoods” to sustain and preserve, he said at a recent public appearance, adding: “That’s something that’s possible here in Detroit.” Unlike his predecessors, Mr. Bing, a Democrat first elected last year to finish the term of disgraced former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, hasn’t touted big development plans or talked of a “renaissance.” Instead, he is trying to prepare residents for a new reality: that Detroit—like the auto industry that propelled it for a century—will have to get smaller before it gets bigger again.

With no high-profile census push, the city risks an undercount that would mean forgoing millions of dollars in federal funding. Nationwide, each person counted translates into about $1,000 to $1,200 in federal funding to municipal governments. But some community leaders see the hands-off approach as a sign the city’s leadership under Mr. Bing, a 66-year-old businessman and former basketball star, is prepared to face up to the depopulation problem and rethink Detroit’s future. “This is going to be hard to wrestle to the ground,” said Rip Rapson, president of the Kresge Foundation of Troy, Mich., a national philanthropy that has invested heavily in development projects aimed at salvaging the nicest remnants of the city. “He deserves enormous credit for leading the community into this.”

Soon after being elected to a full term in November, Mr. Bing began cutting back on city services such as buses and laying off hundreds of municipal workers. The mayor is now making plans to shutter or consolidate city departments and tear down 10,000 vacant buildings. And Mr. Bing is supporting efforts to shrink the capacity of the city’s school system by half. Along with the mayor, a number of academics and philanthropic groups are sketching visions of a different Detroit. One such vision has urban farms and park spaces filling the acres of barren patches where people once lived and worked. In a city of roughly 140 square miles, vacant residential and commercial property accounts for an estimated 40 square miles, an area larger than the city of Miami. “The potential of this open space is enormous,” said Dan Pitera, an architect at the University of Detroit Mercy who has done land-use studies on the city.

Thirty years ago, Mayor Coleman Young fought the census count in federal court, setting a precedent by arguing successfully that it missed tens of thousands of residents and cost Detroit millions in federal dollars. In 2000, Mayor Dennis Archer worked with schools, health clinics, neighborhood associations, charities and the like to pump up the numbers. The city even paid for census registration to be done at special block parties it helped throw. But that last count was ultimately a blow to Detroit’s pride, pinning its population below one million for the first time since the 1920s. At its peak in the 1950s, the city had been home to nearly two million people. Some experts believe the population will eventually settle just below 700,000, about the current size of Charlotte, N.C.

Long-term declines triggered by suburban sprawl, home-loan bias and racial strife have accelerated in recent years as home foreclosures and auto-industry cutbacks tear through even more stable, wealthy neighborhoods. Meanwhile, declining home values in Detroit’s better-off suburbs have made them more accessible to the city’s poorer residents, fueling the flight. The city is counting on nonprofit partners to take the lead on the census this year, rather than funding efforts itself. But with a population that is widely dispersed and largely poor and minority—two segments traditionally disinclined to fill out government paperwork—Detroit is already difficult to count. In the last census, just 62% of Detroiters responded, compared with an average of 71% statewide. “That’s why I keep telling the city, ‘you are in trouble,’ ” said Kurt Metzger, director of Data Driven Detroit, an organization founded by large local philanthropies that want to help the city collect accurate demographic, housing, economic and other information. “Unfortunately, they don’t have the resources.” Erica Hill, the mayor’s census coordinator, says Detroit is in a bind. It knows an undercount would be costly, but it is too broke to promote the census the way it used to. “We need to make sure the city gets its due,” she said. But “we have to be creative and build a lot of partnerships to make this happen.”

Can farming save Detroit?
BY David Whitford / December 29, 2009

John Hantz is a wealthy money manager who lives in an older enclave of Detroit where all the houses are grand and not all of them are falling apart. Once a star stockbroker at American Express, he left 13 years ago to found his own firm. Today Hantz Financial Services has 20 offices in Michigan, Ohio, and Georgia, more than 500 employees, and $1.3 billion in assets under management. Twice divorced, Hantz, 48, lives alone in clubby, paneled splendor, surrounded by early-American landscapes on the walls, an autograph collection that veers from Detroit icons such as Ty Cobb and Henry Ford to Baron von Richthofen and Mussolini, and a set of Ayn Rand first editions. With a net worth of more than $100 million, he’s one of the richest men left in Detroit — one of the very few in his demographic who stayed put when others were fleeing to Grosse Pointe and Bloomfield Hills. Not long ago, while commuting, he stumbled on a big idea that might help save his dying city.

Every weekday Hantz pulls his Volvo SUV out of the gated driveway of his compound and drives half an hour to his office in Southfield, a northern suburb on the far side of Eight Mile Road. His route takes him through a desolate, postindustrial cityscape — the kind of scene that is shockingly common in Detroit. Along the way he passes vacant buildings, abandoned homes, and a whole lot of empty land. In some stretches he sees more pheasants than people. “Every year I tell myself it’s going to get better,” says Hantz, bright-eyed, with smooth cheeks and a little boy’s carefully combed haircut, “and every year it doesn’t.” Then one day about a year and a half ago, Hantz had a revelation. “We need scarcity,” he thought to himself as he drove past block after unoccupied block. “We can’t create opportunities, but we can create scarcity.” And that, he says one afternoon in his living room between puffs on an expensive cigar, “is how I got onto this idea of the farm.”

Yes, a farm. A large-scale, for-profit agricultural enterprise, wholly contained within the city limits of Detroit. Hantz thinks farming could do his city a lot of good: restore big chunks of tax-delinquent, resource-draining urban blight to pastoral productivity; provide decent jobs with benefits; supply local markets and restaurants with fresh produce; attract tourists from all over the world; and — most important of all — stimulate development around the edges as the local land market tilts from stultifying abundance to something more like scarcity and investors move in. Hantz is willing to commit $30 million to the project. He’ll start with a pilot program this spring involving up to 50 acres on Detroit’s east side. “Out of the gates,” he says, “it’ll be the largest urban farm in the world.”

This is possibly not as crazy as it sounds. Granted, the notion of devoting valuable city land to agriculture would be unfathomable in New York, London, or Tokyo. But Detroit is a special case. The city that was once the fourth largest in the country and served as a symbol of America’s industrial might has lately assumed a new role: North American poster child for the global phenomenon of shrinking postindustrial cities. Nearly 2 million people used to live in Detroit. Fewer than 900,000 remain. Even if, unlikely as it seems, the auto industry were to rebound dramatically and the U.S. economy were to come roaring back tomorrow, no one — not even the proudest civic boosters — imagines that the worst is over. “Detroit will probably be a city of 700,000 people when it’s all said and done,” says Doug Rothwell, CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan. “The big challenge is, What do you do with a population of 700,000 in a geography that can accommodate three times that much?”

Whatever the answer is, whenever it comes, it won’t be predicated on a return to past glory. “We have to be realistic,” says George Jackson, CEO of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. (DEGC). “This is not about trying to re-create something. We’re not a world-class city.” If not world class, then what? A regional financial center? That’s already Chicago, and to a lesser extent Minneapolis. A biotech hub? Boston and San Diego are way out in front. Some think Detroit has a future in TV and movies, but Hollywood is skeptical. (“Best incentives in the country,” one producer says. “Worst crew.”) How about high tech and green manufacturing? Possibly, given the engineering and manufacturing talent that remains. But still there’s the problem of what to do with the city’s enormous amount of abandoned land, conservatively estimated at 40 square miles in a sprawling metropolis whose 139-square-mile footprint is easily bigger than San Francisco, Boston, and Manhattan combined. If you let it revert to nature, you abandon all hope of productive use. If you turn it over to parks and recreation, you add costs to an overburdened city government that can’t afford to teach its children, police its streets, or maintain the infrastructure it already has.

Faced with those facts, a growing number of policymakers and urban planners have begun to endorse farming as a solution. Former HUD secretary Henry Cisneros, now chairman of CityView, a private equity firm that invests in urban development, is familiar with Detroit’s land problem. He says he’s in favor of “other uses that engage human beings in their maintenance, such as urban agriculture.” After studying the city’s options at the request of civic leaders, the American Institute of Architects came to this conclusion in a recent report: “Detroit is particularly well suited to become a pioneer in urban agriculture at a commercial scale.” In that sense, Detroit might actually be ahead of the curve. When Alex Krieger, chairman of the department of urban planning and design at Harvard, imagines what the settled world might look like half a century from now, he sees “a checkerboard pattern” with “more densely urbanized areas, and areas preserved for various purposes such as farming.

The notion of a walled city, a contained city — that’s an 18th-century idea.” And where will the new ideas for the 21st century emerge? From older, decaying cities, Krieger believes, such as New Orleans, St. Louis, Cleveland, Newark, and especially Detroit — cities that have become, at least in part, “kind of empty containers.” This is a lot to hang on Hantz. Most of what he knows about agriculture he’s picked up over the past 18 months from the experts he’s consulting at Michigan State and the Kellogg Foundation. Then there’s the fact that many of his fellow citizens are openly rooting against him. Since word leaked of his scheme last spring, he has been criticized by community activists, who call the plan a land grab. Opponents have also raised questions about the run-ins he’s had with regulators at Hantz Financial. But Detroit is nothing if not desperate for new ideas, and Hantz has had no trouble getting his heard. “It all sounds very exciting,” says the DEGC’s Jackson, whose agency is working on assembling a package of incentives for Hantz, including free city land. “We hope it works.”

Detroit’s civic history is notable for repeated failed attempts to revitalize its core. Over the past three decades leaders have embraced a series of downtown redevelopment plans that promised to save the city. The massive Renaissance Center office and retail complex, built in the 1970s, mostly served to suck tenants out of other downtown buildings. (Today 48 of those buildings stand empty.) Three new casinos (one already bankrupt) and two new sports arenas (one for the NFL’s dreadful Lions, the other for MLB’s Tigers) have restored, on some nights, a little spark to downtown Detroit but have inspired little in the way of peripheral development. Downtown is still eerily underpopulated, the tax base is still crumbling, and people are still leaving. The jobless rate in the city is 27%. Nothing yet tried in Detroit even begins to address the fundamental issue of emptiness — empty factories, empty office buildings, empty houses, and above all, empty lots. Rampant arson, culminating in the annual frenzy of Devil’s Night, is partly to blame. But there has also been a lot of officially sanctioned demolition in Detroit. As white residents fled to the suburbs over the decades, houses in the decaying neighborhoods they left behind were often bulldozed.

Abandonment is an infrastructure problem, when you consider the cost of maintaining far-flung roads and sewer systems; it’s a city services problem, when you think about the inefficiencies of collecting trash and fighting crime in sparsely populated neighborhoods; and it’s a real estate problem. Houses in Detroit are selling for an average of $15,000. That sounds like a buying opportunity, and in fact Detroit looks pretty good right now to a young artist or entrepreneur who can’t afford anyplace else — but not yet to an investor. The smart money sees no point in buying as long as fresh inventory keeps flooding the market. “In the target sites we have,” says Hantz, “we [reevaluate] every two weeks.”

As Hantz began thinking about ways to absorb some of that inventory, what he imagined, he says, was a glacier: one broad, continuous swath of farmland, growing acre by acre, year by year, until it had overrun enough territory to raise the scarcity alarm and impel other investors to act. Rick Foster, an executive at the Kellogg Foundation whom Hantz sought out for advice, nudged him gently in a different direction. “I think you should make pods,” Foster said, meaning not one farm but many. Hantz was taken right away with the concept of creating several pods — or lakes, as he came to think of them — each as large as 300 acres, and each surrounded by its own valuable frontage. “What if we had seven lakes in the city?” he wondered. “Would people develop around those lakes?”

To increase the odds that they will, Hantz plans on making his farms both visually stunning and technologically cutting edge. Where there are row crops, Hantz says, they’ll be neatly organized, planted in “dead-straight lines — they may even be in a design.” But the plan isn’t to make Detroit look like Iowa. “Don’t think a farm with tractors,” says Hantz. “That’s old.” In fact, Hantz’s operation will bear little resemblance to a traditional farm. Mike Score, who recently left Michigan State’s agricultural extension program to join Hantz Farms as president, has written a business plan that calls for the deployment of the latest in farm technology, from compost-heated greenhouses to hydroponic (water only, no soil) and aeroponic (air only) growing systems designed to maximize productivity in cramped settings.

He’s really excited about apples. Hantz Farms will use a trellised system that’s compact, highly efficient, and tourist-friendly. It won’t be like apple picking in Massachusetts, and that’s the point. Score wants visitors to Hantz Farms to see that agriculture is not just something that takes place in the countryside. They will be able to “walk down the row pushing a baby stroller,” he promises. Crop selection will depend on the soil conditions of the plots that Hantz acquires. Experts insist that most of the land is not irretrievably toxic. The majority of the lots now vacant in Detroit were residential, not industrial; the biggest problem is how compacted the soil is. For the most part the farms will focus on high-margin edibles: peaches, berries, plums, nectarines, and exotic greens. Score says that the first crops are likely to be lettuce and heirloom tomatoes.

Hantz says he’s willing to put up the entire $30 million investment himself — all cash, no debt — and immediately begin hiring locally for full-time positions. But he wants two things first from Jackson at the DEGC: free tax-delinquent land, which he’ll combine with his own purchases, he says (he’s aiming for an average cost of $3,000 per acre, in line with rural farmland in southern Michigan), and a zoning adjustment that would create a new, lower tax rate for agriculture. There’s no deal yet, but neither request strikes Jackson as unattainable. “If we have reasonable due diligence,” he says, “I think we’ll give it a shot.”

Detroit mayor Dave Bing is watching closely. The Pistons Hall of Fame guard turned entrepreneur has had what his spokesman describes as “productive discussions” with Hantz. In a statement to Fortune, Bing says he’s “encouraged by the proposals to bring commercial farming back to Detroit. As we look to diversify our economy, commercial farming has some real potential for job growth and rebuilding our tax base.” Hantz, for his part, says he’s got three or four locations all picked out (“one of them will pop”) and is confident he’ll have seeds in the ground “in some sort of demonstration capacity” this spring. “Some things you’ve got to see in order to believe,” he says, waving his cigar. “This is a thing you’ve got to believe in order to see.”

Many have a hard time making that leap. When news of Hantz’s ambitious plan broke in the Detroit papers last spring, few people even knew who he was. A little digging turned up a less-than-spotless record at Hantz Financial Services. The firm has paid fines totaling more than $1 million in the past five years, including $675,000 in 2005, without admitting or denying guilt, “for fraud and misrepresentations relating to undisclosed revenue-sharing arrangements, as well as other violations,” according to the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. (Hantz responds, “If we find something that isn’t in compliance, we take immediate steps to correct the problem.”)

Hantz Farms’ first hire, VP Matt Allen, did have an established reputation in Detroit, but it wasn’t a good one. Two years ago, while he was press secretary for former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, Allen pleaded guilty to domestic violence and obstructing police after his wife called 911. He was sentenced to a year’s probation. Hantz says he has known Allen for many years and values his deep knowledge of the city. “He has earned a second chance, and I’m willing to give it to him,” he says. Some of Hantz’s biggest skeptics, ironically, are the same people who’ve been working to transform Detroit into a laboratory for urban farming for years, albeit on a much smaller scale. The nonprofit Detroit Agriculture Network counts nearly 900 urban gardens within the city limits. That’s a twofold increase in two years, and it places Detroit at the forefront of a vibrant national movement to grow more food locally and lessen the nation’s dependence on Big Ag.

None of those gardens is very big (average size: 0.25 acre), and they don’t generate a lot of cash (most don’t even try), but otherwise they’re great: as antidotes to urban blight; sources of healthy, affordable food in a city that, incredibly, has no chain supermarkets; providers of meaningful, if generally unpaid, work to the chronically unemployed; and beacons around which disintegrating communities can begin to regather themselves. That actually sounds a lot like what Hantz envisions his farms to be in the for-profit arena. But he doesn’t have many fans among the community gardeners, who feel that Hantz is using his money and connections to capitalize on their pioneering work. “I’m concerned about the corporate takeover of the urban agriculture movement in Detroit,” says Malik Yakini, a charter school principal and founder of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, which operates D-Town Farm on Detroit’s west side. “At this point the key players with him seem to be all white men in a city that’s at least 82% black.”

Hantz, meanwhile, has no patience for what he calls “fear-based” criticism. He has a hard time concealing his contempt for the nonprofit sector generally. (“Someone must pay taxes,” he sniffs.) He also flatly rejects the idea that he’s orchestrating some kind of underhanded land grab. In fact, Hantz says that he welcomes others who might want to start their own farms in the city. “Viability and sustainability to me are all that matters,” he says. And yet Hantz is fully aware of the potentially historic scope of what he is proposing. After all, he’s talking about accumulating hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of acres inside a major American city. And it’s clear that he views Hantz Farms as his legacy. Already he’s told his 21-year-old daughter, Lauren, his only heir, that if she wants to own the land one day, she has to promise him she’ll never sell it. “This is like buying a penthouse in New York in 1940,” Hantz says. “No one should be able to afford to do this ever again.” That might seem like an overly optimistic view of Detroit’s future. But allow Hantz to dream a little. Twenty years from now, when people come to the city and have a drink at the bar at the top of the Renaissance Center, what will they see? Maybe that’s not the right vantage point. Maybe they’ll actually be on the farm, picking apples, looking up at the RenCen. “That’s the beauty of being down and out,” says Hantz. “You can actually open your mind to ideas that you would never otherwise embrace.” At this point, Detroit doesn’t have much left to lose.

CITY SERVICES,-Laptop,-or-Cell-/
Pedal-Power in Detroit: Green Gym for the Homeless
BY Roberta Cruger / 01.27.10

Between 1950 and 1980, Detroit lost 500,000 trees to Dutch elm disease, urban expansion and attrition, according to Paul Bairley, director of Urban Forestry for The Greening of Detroit. Among the city’s various environmental initiatives, it’s looking to slash residential land use by 30 percent, letting areas grow into natural greenways. There are green job initiatives, and for the homeless, a community center provides training for eco-conscious work and just opened a human-generated workout room. With green gyms popping up in Seattle and Hong Kong, why aren’t we tapping into sweat equity everywhere?

Gives new meaning to upcyling
Converting otherwise wasted energy, from the kinetic motion of treadmills, elliptical machines, and stationary bikes, into renewable energy is cost-effective and energy-efficient. That’s what a community organization in Detroit did this week with its new green gym, for people living in its transitional housing and other shelter programs, staff and volunteers. “Not only is this gym a good idea for the environment, but it will help build the general health of our clients who often struggle with diabetes or heart disease,” states Rev. Faith Fowler, the executive director.

The Cass Green Gym’s facility offers weight machines, boxing bags, a treadmill, and stationary bikes featuring Green Revolution technology that generates electricity. Cass Community Social Services (CCSS), located on Detroit’s Cass Avenue, projects that full classes with ten people, is enough power to light three homes for an entire year. It will redirect it back to the building’s electrical grid, reducing operating costs.

The company, Green Revolution, taps into pedal power, providing exercise machines and consulting to facilities, harnessing the energy of gym rats into green power. Its technology can be installed on most brands of indoor cycling equipment. At its retrofit gym in Ridgefield, Connecticut, a typical cycling class with 20 bikes has the potential to produce up to 3.6 Megawatts (3,600,000 watts) of renewable energy a year. This is equivalent to lighting 72 homes for a month, and reduces carbon emissions by over 5,000 pounds.

CCSS also links job training and permanent employment with ways to reduce the footprint. One venture, modeled after a Native American enterprise in Oklahoma, recycles old illegally dumped tires from vacant lots and converts them into mud mats. So far, formerly homeless men have collected more than 5,000 tires and sold over 2,000 mats. Another of its programs involves x-ray recycling, removing patient information from films and packaging the remains for recycling. And its document shredding effort will reuse the paper for insulation in seniors and low-income homes. As a native Detroiter, who worked a block from this center, renewal efforts are personally meaningful to me — and it should be for all of us. It was heartening to read a Time article on addressing urban post-industrial problems: “we could regenerate not just a city but our sense of who we are.”

Streets With No Name
BY James Griffioen / June 23, 2009

This past winter, the snow stayed so long we almost forgot what the ground looked like. In Detroit, there is little money for plowing; after a big storm, the streets and sidewalks disappear for days. Soon new pathways emerge, side streets get dug out one car-width wide. Bootprints through parks veer far from the buried sidewalks. Without the city to tell him where to walk, the pilgrim who first sets out in fresh snowfall creates his own path. Others will likely follow, or forge their own paths as needed. In the heart of summer, too, it becomes clear that the grid laid down by the ancient planners is now irrelevant. In vacant lots between neighborhoods and the attractions of thoroughfares, bus stops and liquor stores, well-worn paths stretch across hundreds of vacant lots. Gaston Bachelard called these les chemins du désir: pathways of desire. Paths that weren’t designed but eroded casually away by individuals finding the shortest distance between where they are coming from and where they intend to go.

photo by James Griffioen

It is an urban legend on many college campuses that many sidewalks and pathways were not planned at all, but paved by the university after students created their own paths from building to building, straying from those originally prescribed. The Motor City, like a college campus, has a large population that cannot afford cars, relying instead on bikes and feet to meet its needs. With enormous swaths of the city returning to prairie, where sidewalks are irrelevant and sometimes even dangerous, desire lines have become an integral yet entirely unintended part of the city’s infrastructure. There are hundreds of these prescriptive easements across neglected lots throughout the city. Desire lines are considered by many landscape architects to be proof of a flaw in the design of a physical space, or more gently, a sign that concrete cannot always impose its will on the human mind. But what about a physical space that no longer resembles its intended design, a city where tens of thousands of homes have been abandoned, burned, and buried in their own basements? While actual roads and sidewalks crumble with each season of freezing and thawing, Detroiters have taken it upon themselves to create new paths, in their own small way working to create a city that better suits their needs.

photo by James Griffioen

Academics around the world argue about whether the first paths were created by hunters following game trails. There are scientists who study ants to better understand highways. They have created mathematical models for trail formation. When the great cities were built, sometimes roads were built along ancient paths. The Romans imposed grids on every city but their own. In Detroit many of the streets are named for the Frenchmen whose ribbon farms stretching north from the river were covered in asphalt: Beaubien, Dequindre, Campau, Livernois, Chene. In many cities, there are streets named for dead men once revered throughout the land but now mostly forgotten (Fulton, Lafayette, Irving) and others named for men no one remembers. In Detroit, there are streets no one has named. And they belong to anyone.

photo by James Griffioen

Detroit is a city in terminal decline. When film director Julien Temple arrived in town, he was shocked by what he found – but he also uncovered reasons for hope
BY Julien Temple / 10 March 2010

When the film- maker Roger Graef approached me last year to make a film about the rise and fall of Detroit I had very few preconceptions about the place. Like everyone else, I knew it as the Motor City, one of the great epicentres of 20th-century music, and home of the American automobile. Only when I arrived in the city itself did the full-frontal cultural car crash that is 21st-century Detroit became blindingly apparent. Leaving behind the gift shops of the “Big Three” car manufacturers, the Motown merchandise and the bizarre ejaculating fountains of the now-notorious international airport, things become stranger and stranger. The drive along eerily empty ghost freeways into the ruins of inner-city Detroit is an Alice-like journey into a severely dystopian future. Passing the giant rubber tyre that dwarfs the nonexistent traffic in ironic testament to the busted hubris of Motown’s auto-makers, the city’s ripped backside begins to glide past outside the windows.

Like The Passenger, it’s hard to believe what we’re seeing. The vast, rusting hulks of abandoned car plants, (some of the largest structures ever built and far too expensive to pull down), beached amid a shining sea of grass. The blackened corpses of hundreds of burned-out houses, pulled back to earth by the green tentacles of nature. Only the drunken rows of telegraph poles marching away across acres of wildflowers and prairie give any clue as to where teeming city streets might once have been. Approaching the derelict shell of downtown Detroit, we see full-grown trees sprouting from the tops of deserted skyscrapers. In their shadows, the glazed eyes of the street zombies slide into view, stumbling in front of the car. Our excitement at driving into what feels like a man-made hurricane Katrina is matched only by sheer disbelief that what was once the fourth-largest city in the US could actually be in the process of disappearing from the face of the earth. The statistics are staggering – 40sq miles of the 139sq mile inner city have already been reclaimed by nature.

One in five houses now stand empty. Property prices have fallen 80% or more in Detroit over the last three years. A three-bedroom house on Albany Street is still on the market for $1. Unemployment has reached 30%; 33.8% of Detroit’s population and 48.5% of its children live below the poverty line. Forty-seven per cent of adults in Detroit are functionally illiterate; 29 Detroit schools closed in 2009 alone. But statistics tell only one part of the story. The reality of Detroit is far more visceral. My producer, George Hencken, and I drove around recce-ing our film, getting out of the car and photographing extraordinary places to film with mad-dog enthusiasm – everywhere demands to be filmed – but were greeted with appalled concern by Bradley, our friendly manager, on our return to the hotel. “Never get out of the car in that area – people have been car-jacked and shot.”

Law and order has completely broken down in the inner city, drugs and prostitution are rampant and unless you actually murder someone the police will leave you alone. This makes it great for filming – park where you like, film what you like – but not so good if you actually live there. The abandoned houses make great crack dens and provide cover for appalling sex crimes and child abduction. The only growth industry is the gangs of armed scrappers, who plunder copper and steel from the ruins. Rabid dogs patrol the streets. All the national supermarket chains have pulled out of the inner city. People have virtually nowhere to buy fresh produce. Starbucks? Forget it. What makes all this so hard to understand is that Detroit was the frontier city of the American Dream – not just the automobile, but pretty much everything we associate with 20th-century western civilisation came from there. Mass production; assembly lines; stop lights; freeways; shopping malls; suburbs and an emerging middle-class workforce: all these things were pioneered in Detroit.

But the seeds of the Motor City’s downfall were sown a long time ago. The blind belief of the Big Three in the automobile as an inexhaustible golden goose, guaranteeing endless streams of cash, resulted in the city becoming reliant on a single industry. Its destiny fatally entwined with that of the car. The greed-fuelled willingness of the auto barons to siphon up black workers from the American south to man their Metropolis-like assembly lines and then treat them as subhuman citizens, running the city along virtually apartheid lines, created a racial tinderbox. The black riots of 1943 and 1967 gave Detroit the dubious distinction of being the only American city to twice call in the might of the US army to suppress insurrection on its own streets and led directly to the disastrous so-called white flight of the 50s, 60s and 70s.

The population of Detroit is now 81.6% African-American and almost two-thirds down on its overall peak in the early 50s. The city has lost its tax base and cannot afford to cut the grass or light its streets, let alone educate or feed its citizens. The rest of the US is in denial about the economic catastrophe that has engulfed Detroit, terrified that this man-made contagion may yet spread to other US cities. But somehow one cannot imagine the same fate befalling a city with a predominantly white population. On many levels Detroit seems to be an insoluble disaster with urgent warnings for the rest of the industrialised world. But as George and I made our film we discovered, to our surprise, an irrepressible positivity in the city. Unable to buy fresh food for their children, people are now growing their own, turning the demolished neighbourhood blocks into urban farms and kick-starting what is now the fastest-growing movement across the US. Although the city is still haemorrhaging population, young people from all over the country are also flooding into Detroit – artists, musicians and social pioneers, all keen to make use of the abandoned urban spaces and create new ways of living together.

With the breakdown of 20th-century civilisation, many Detroiters have discovered an exhilarating sense of starting over, building together a new cross-racial community sense of doing things, discarding the bankrupt rules of the past and taking direct control of their own lives. Still at the forefront of the American Dream, Detroit is fast becoming the first “post-American” city. And amid the ruins of the Motor City it is possible to find a first pioneer’s map to the post-industrial future that awaits us all. So perhaps Detroit can avoid the fate of the lost cities of the Maya and rise again like the phoenix that sits, appropriately, on its municipal crest. That is why George and I decided to call our film Requiem for Detroit? – with a big question mark at the end.


“It should be noted that The Michigan State land bank’s executive director Carrie Lewand-Monroe, And Development Specialist Khalilah Burt both extended themselves for a community based project in a manner that is not so commonly seen in other States. It is because of their continued interest in community stabilization, and their goal of fostering the development of the blighted, tax reverted properties that they got behind our project from the very beginning. Michigan State Land Bank- thank you for keeping Michigan a productive State.”

Michigan State Land Bank,1607,7-154-34176-200357–,00.html,1607,7-154-34176-127130–,00.html,1607,7-154-34176_37400—,00.html

Detroit homes sell for $1 amid mortgage and car industry crisis
BY Chris McGreal / 2 March 2010
One in five houses left empty as foreclosures mount and property prices drop by 80%

Some might say Jon Brumit overpaid when he stumped up $100 (£65) for a whole house. Drive through Detroit neighbourhoods once clogged with the cars that made the city the envy of America and there are homes to be had for a single dollar. You find these houses among boarded-up, burnt-out and rotting buildings lining deserted streets, places where the population is shrinking so fast entire blocks are being demolished to make way for urban farms. “I was living in Chicago and a friend told me that houses in Detroit could be had for $500,” said Brumit, a financially strapped artist who thought he had little prospect of owning his own property. “I said if you hear of anything just a little cheaper let me know. Within a week he emails me a photo of a house for $100. I thought that’s just crazy. Why not? It’s a way to cut our expenses way down and kind of open up a lot of time for creative projects because we’re not working to pay the rent.”

Houses on sale for a few dollars are something of an urban legend in the US on the back of the mortgage crisis that drove millions of people from their homes. But in Detroit it is no myth. One in five houses now stand empty in the city that launched the automobile age, forged America’s middle-class and blessed the world with Motown. Detroit has been in decline for decades; its falling population is now well below a million – half of its 1950 peak. But the recent mortgage crisis and the fall of the big car makers into bankruptcy has pushed the town into a realm unique among big cities in America.

A third of the population are unemployed. Property prices have fallen 80% or more in large parts of Detroit over the last three years. The average price of a home sold in the city last year has been put at $7,500 (£4,900). The recent financial crash forced wholesale foreclosures among people unable to pay their mortgages or who walked away from houses that fell to a fraction of the value of the loans they had taken out on them. Banks are selling off properties in the worst neighbourhoods, which are usually surrounded by empty and wrecked housing, for a few dollars each. But even better houses can be had at a fraction of their former value.

Technically, Brumit paid $95 for the land and $5 for the house on Lawley Street – which fitted what estate agents euphemistically call an opportunity. Brumit said: “It had a big hole in the roof from the fire department putting out the last of two arson attempts. Both previous owners tried to set it on fire to get out of the mortgages. So there’s a big hole about 24ft long and the plumbing had almost entirely been ripped out and most of the electrics too. It was basically a smoke damaged, structurally intact shell with a snowdrift in the attic.” Setting fire to houses to claim the insurance and kill off the mortgage is not uncommon in Detroit; a blackened, wooden corpse of a house sits at the bottom of Brumit’s street. But it is more common for owners to just walk away from their homes and mortgages.

On the opposite side of Lawley Street Jim Feltner and his workers were clearing out a property seized by a bank. “I used to be a building contractor. I was buying up places and doing them up. Now I empty out foreclosures. I do one or two of these a day all over the city,” he said. “I’ve been in Detroit 40 years and I’ve watched the peak up to $100,000 for houses that right now aren’t worth more than $20,000 tops. I own a bunch of properties. I have 10 rentals and I can’t get nothing for them, and they’re beautiful homes.”

Feltner’s workers are dragging clothes, boots and furniture out of the bedrooms and living room, and dumping them in the front yard until a skip arrives. Kicked to one side is a box of 1970s Motown records. A teddy bear lies spreadeagled on the floor. “You could get about five grand for this place,” said Feltner. “Nice house once you clean it out. All the plumbing and electricals are in it. Roof don’t leak.” Brumit said a man called Jesse lived there. “Jesse had mentioned that he was probably going to get out of there because he knew he could buy a place for so much less than he owed. That’s a drag. You don’t want to see people leaving,” he said.

The house next door is abandoned. On the next street, one third of the properties are boarded up. It’s a story replicated across Detroit. Joan Wilson, an estate agent in the north-west of the city, whose firm is offering a three-bedroom house on Albany street for $1, says that more than half of the houses she sells are foreclosures in the tens of thousands of dollars. “The vast majority of people that call to enquire, almost the first thing out of their mouth is that they want to buy a foreclosure. I have had telephone calls from people looking online that live, for example, in England or California, who’ve never set foot in the area. They’re calling about one specific house they see online. I tell them they need to look at the neighbourhood. Is it the only house standing within a mile?”

But what is blight to some is proving an opportunity to remake parts of the city for others living there. The Old Redford part of Detroit has suffered its share of desolation. The police station, high school and community centre are closed. Yet the area is being revitalised, led by John George, a resident who began by boarding up an abandoned house used by drug dealers 21 years ago and who now heads the community group Blight Busters. They are pulling down housing that cannot be saved and creating community gardens with fresh vegetables free for anyone to pick. “There’s longstanding nuisance houses, been around seven, eight, nine years. We will go in without a permit and demolish them without permission,” said George. “If you, as an owner, are going to leave something like that to fester in my neighbourhood, obviously you either don’t care or aren’t in a position to take responsibility for your property, so we’re going to take care of it for you.” Blight Busters has torn down more than 200 houses, including recently an entire block of abandoned housing in Old Redford. “We need to right-size this community, which means removing whole blocks, and building farms, larger gardens, putting in windmills. We want to downsize – right-size – Detroit,” George said.

Houses that can be rescued are done up with grants from foundations. “Detroit has some of the nicest housing stock in the country. Brick, marble, hardwood floors, leaded glass. These houses were built for kings,” George added. “We gave a $90,000 house to a lady who was living in a car. She had four children. It didn’t cost her a dime. We had over a thousand people apply for it. It’s probably worth $35,000 now.” Old Redford is seeing piecemeal renewal. One abandoned block of shops has been converted to an arts centre and music venue with cafes. One of the few remaining cinemas in Detroit – and one that’s among the last in the US with an original pipe organ – has been revived and is showing Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Brumit calculates that he has spent $1,500 to buy and do up his house, principally by scavenging demolition sites. He will move in with his wife and four-month-old child once it is complete, probably in the summer. He said: “The Americans we know got ripped off by the American dream. But [the renovation] is the most like moving out of the country that we can actually do. We’re the minority in terms of ethnicity and this is a rich environment … there’s 30% open space in the city and that doesn’t include the buildings that should be torn down. You’re in a city riding your bike around and you hear birds and stuff. It’s incredible.”


(Editor’s note: This statement arrived anonymously in our inbox recently and we felt it would be of interest to our readers.)

In the “D”, “D” doesn’t really stand for “Detroit”, but “Demolition.” Take a look around and you’ll notice a great number of buildings marked on the front with a circled “D” in faint chalk. Off to the side, many of these same buildings will also have a noticeable dot, courtesy of our own native son, Tyree Guyton. These dotted buildings have stood for so long that they have become, arguably, the most memorable landmarks of our fair city. In addition to Tyree Guyton, Detroit has had more than its fair share of artists who have taken notice of this situation and done something about it. Recently, however, we have taken up a particular project that has actually netted results – faster than anyone, especially us, could have anticipated.

The artistic move is simple, cover the front in Tiggeriffic Orange – a color from the Mickey Mouse series, easily purchased from Home Depot. Every board, every door, every window, is caked in Tiggeriffic Orange. We paint the facades of abandoned houses whose most striking feature are their derelict appearance. A simple drive would show you some of our most visible targets. Just off I-75, around the Caniff/ Holbrook exit, on the west side, towers a three story house, saturated so deeply in orange that it reflects color onto the highway with the morning sun. Also, on the east side of the highway by the McNichols exit, is another house screaming orange. In that same area, where the Davison Highway and John C Lodge M-10 Highway intersect, sit a series of two houses painted orange, most visible from the Lodge side. In our only location not visible from the highway, on the Warren detour between 94 and 96 on Hancock Street, sat a house so perfectly set in its color that it garnered approval from the Detroit Police Department.

Two of four locations have already been demolished. Of the four, the building on Dequindre, by the Caniff/ Holbrook exit, remains, as does the site that intersects the Lodge and Davison. There was no “D” on any of the façades, only burnt boards, broken glass, and peeling paint. Rallying around these elements of decay, we seek to accentuate something that has wrongfully become part of the everyday landscape. So the destruction of two of these four houses raises a number of interesting points. From one perspective, our actions have created a direct cause and effect relationship with the city. As in, if we paint a house orange, the city will demolish it. In this relationship, where do the city’s motivations lie? Do they want to stop drawing attention to these houses? Are the workers simply confused and think this is the city’s new mark for demolition? Or is this a genuine response to beautify the city?

From another perspective, we have coincidently chosen buildings that were set to be demolished within the month. However, with so many circled “D”s on buildings, it seems near impossible that chance would strike twice. In any case, what will be the social ramifications of these actions? Each of these houses serves within the greater visual and social landscape of the city. If the city doesn’t rebuild, will it be better to have nothing there rather than an abandoned house? In addition, each of these houses served as a shelter for the homeless at some point in time. Now there are, at least, two less houses for them. Why didn’t the city simply choose to renovate? Everything affects not only our experience now, but also that of the next generation. So before they are all gone, look for these houses. Look at ALL the houses in Detroit. If you stumble upon one of these houses colored with Tiggeriffic Orange, stop and really look. In addition to being highlights within a context of depression, every detail is accentuated through the unification of color. Broken windows become jagged lines. Peeling paint becomes texture. These are artworks in themselves.

If you see a house that you would like to see painted orange, paint it. Afterwards, email the good people at at ws [at] thedetroiter [dot] com. These buildings aren’t scenery. Don’t look through or around them. Take action. Pick up a roller. Pick up a brush. Apply orange.

The dialogue is going. Our goal is to make everyone look at not only these houses, but all the buildings rooted in decay and corrosion. If we can get people to look for our orange while driving through the city, then they will at the same time, be looking at all the decaying buildings they come across. This brings awareness. And as we have already seen, awareness brings action.

Yours Truly,
the DDD project


Inchvesting In Detroit: A Virtual Realty
BY Sarah Hulett / March 4, 2010

For $1, you can own a piece of Detroit. It will be a small piece: 1 square inch, to be exact. But your deed to that microplot of land will also buy you passage into an online community that could yield big ideas for the city. Jerry Paffendorf is not your typical real estate developer. But then, the people lining up to buy into his project are not your typical investors. He calls them “inchvestors.” Paffendorf’s project is called Loveland. And it’s a hybrid: part virtual and part physical. “What we want to do is we want to build this wild social network of people that’s literally built out of the dirt and the ground,” Paffendorf says. The physical part is a vacant lot on Vernor Highway in east Detroit. Paffendorf bought the property at auction for $500. Then he put 10,000 square inches up for sale, and people from all over the planet began snapping them up. They’ve now all been sold to nearly 600 people. The “deeds” Paffendorf mails out are not legally valid, so the people who buy inches won’t get to vote in Detroit, or have to pay taxes.

A Real-Life SimCity
Some inchvestors have sentimental ties to the city, and they just liked the idea of having a physical stake in the place where they — or their parents or grandparents — grew up. But a lot of them are attracted by the project’s virtual possibilities and say Loveland is sort of like the SimCity computer game, but with real land. Rita King is the biggest “landholder” in Loveland, with 1,000 square inches. She works for IBM, and she’s an entrepreneur with a firm that helps companies use social media and virtual worlds. King is excited about the project’s potential to help the real city in which Loveland sits. “Because Loveland is physically located in Detroit, it takes those 500 inchvestors, and it ties us to Detroit, which means that the development of Detroit is now of critical importance to hundreds of people who don’t live or work in Detroit,” King says. “And now I, for one, am starting to look very closely at Detroit, and how can I help Detroit level up along with Loveland in our small way.” “Leveling up” is a phrase from the world of video games. It’s what happens when the character you’re playing makes it to the next level in the game. And for many, it’s an apt description of what Detroit needs to do. King says she expects the online component of Loveland to include interactive maps and stories. And proceeds from the project’s next phase are expected to be used to fund grants for nonprofit groups around Detroit.

Feedback From Locals Not Always Positive
But for all the excitement about the possibilities Loveland holds among high-minded techno-futurists, the project is also fodder for derision and mockery in some quarters. Here’s a sampling of some of the comments posted to an online discussion board called Detroit YES: “Sounds like a pyramid scheme … without the pyramid.” – “A virtual art project? That sounds to me like a project that’s almost an art project.” – “This guy’s laughing all the way to the bank.” Bill Johnson, who goes by the pseudonym “Gnome” on Detroit YES, thinks the project is just exploitation. “You know in places outside Detroit, we’ve got a bad reputation as sort of a pitiful, worthless place,” Johnson says. “And this guy’s preying on that. That’s what he’s really peddling.”

An Optimism
Paffendorf says Detroit is a place of opportunity and creativity. He shares an optimism about the city and his project with Ricki Collins. She’s 9 years old and lives next door to the empty lot Paffendorf bought. Hers is the only house left on the block. “I want people to remember this place. Remember it. And I want people to come over so we can get to know each other, learn new things about each other,” Ricki says. It’s not clear how many of the people who have bought into the project will actually visit their square-inch plots in person. But King says she intends to make the trek from New York City. She also plans to install a mailbox so people can send things to and from the site.

For Sale: The $100 House
BY Toby Barlow / March 8, 2009

Recently, at a dinner party, a friend mentioned that he’d never seen so many outsiders moving into town. This struck me as a highly suspect statement. After all, we were talking about Detroit, home of corrupt former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, beleaguered General Motors and the 0-16 Lions. Compared with other cities’ buzzing, glittering skylines, ours sits largely abandoned, like some hulking beehive devastated by colony collapse. Who on earth would move here? Then again, I myself had moved to Detroit, from Brooklyn. For $100,000, I bought a town house that sits downtown in the largest and arguably the most beautiful Mies van der Rohe development ever built, an island of perfect modernism forgotten by the rest of the world. Two other guests that night, a couple in from Chicago, had also just invested in some Detroit real estate. That weekend Jon and Sara Brumit bought a house for $100.

Ah, the mythical $100 home. We hear about these low-priced “opportunities” in down-on-their-luck cities like Detroit, Baltimore and Cleveland, but we never meet anyone who has taken the plunge. Understandable really, for if they were actually worth anything then they would cost real money, right? Who would do such a preposterous thing? A local couple, Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert, started the ball rolling. An artist and an architect, they recently became the proud owners of a one-bedroom house in East Detroit for just $1,900. Buying it wasn’t the craziest idea. The neighborhood is almost, sort of, half-decent. Yes, the occasional crack addict still commutes in from the suburbs but a large, stable Bangladeshi community has also been moving in.

So what did $1,900 buy? The run-down bungalow had already been stripped of its appliances and wiring by the city’s voracious scrappers. But for Mitch that only added to its appeal, because he now had the opportunity to renovate it with solar heating, solar electricity and low-cost, high-efficiency appliances. Buying that first house had a snowball effect. Almost immediately, Mitch and Gina bought two adjacent lots for even less and, with the help of friends and local youngsters, dug in a garden. Then they bought the house next door for $500, reselling it to a pair of local artists for a $50 profit. When they heard about the $100 place down the street, they called their friends Jon and Sarah. Admittedly, the $100 home needed some work, a hole patched, some windows replaced. But Mitch plans to connect their home to his mini-green grid and a neighborhood is slowly coming together.

Now, three homes and a garden may not sound like much, but others have been quick to see the potential. A group of architects and city planners in Amsterdam started a project called the “Detroit Unreal Estate Agency” and, with Mitch’s help, found a property around the corner. The director of a Dutch museum, Van Abbemuseum, has called it “a new way of shaping the urban environment.” He’s particularly intrigued by the luxury of artists having little to no housing costs. Like the unemployed Chinese factory workers flowing en masse back to their villages, artists in today’s economy need somewhere to flee. But the city offers a much greater attraction for artists than $100 houses. Detroit right now is just this vast, enormous canvas where anything imaginable can be accomplished. From Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project (think of a neighborhood covered in shoes and stuffed animals and you’re close) to Matthew Barney’s “Ancient Evenings” project (think Egyptian gods reincarnated as Ford Mustangs and you’re kind of close), local and international artists are already leveraging Detroit’s complex textures and landscapes to their own surreal ends. In a way, a strange, new American dream can be found here, amid the crumbling, semi-majestic ruins of a half-century’s industrial decline. The good news is that, almost magically, dreamers are already showing up. Mitch and Gina have already been approached by some Germans who want to build a giant two-story-tall beehive. Mitch thinks he knows just the spot for it.


RIOTS of 1943
BY Vivian M. Baulch + Patricia Zacharias / Detroit News / 2.11.99

“Recruiters toured the South convincing whites and blacks to head north with promises of high wages in the new war factories. They arrived in such numbers that it was impossible to house them all. Blacks who believed they were heading to a promised land found a northern bigotry every bit as pervasive and virulent as what they thought they had left behind in the deep south. And southern whites brought their own traditional prejudices with them as both races migrated northward. The influx of newcomers strained not only housing, but transportation, education and recreational facilities as well. Wartime residents of Detroit endured long lines everywhere, at bus stops, grocery stores, and even at newsstands where they hoped for the chance to be first answering classified ads offering rooms for rent. Even though the city enjoyed full employment, it suffered the many discomforts of wartime rationing. Child-care programs were nonexistent, with grandma the only hope — provided she wasn’t already working at a defense plant. Times were tough for all, but for the Negro community, times were even tougher. Blacks were excluded from all public housing except the Brewster projects. Many lived in homes without indoor plumbing, yet they paid rent two to three times higher than families in white districts. Blacks were also confronted with a segregated military, discrimination in public accommodations, and unfair treatment by police.

Woodward was the dividing line between the roving black and white gangs. Whites took over Woodward up to Vernor and overturned and burned 20 cars belonging to blacks, looting stores as they went. The virtual guerrilla warfare overwhelmed the 2,000 city police officers and 150 state police troopers. A crowd of 100,000 spectators gathered near Grand Circus Park looking for something to watch. Despite Detroit’s history of problems, the Seal of the City of Detroit offers hopeful and timeless mottoes: “Speramus meliora” (We hope for better things) and “Resurget Cineribus” (It will rise from the ashes.)”

RIOTS of 1967

“Affordable housing, or the lack thereof, was a fundamental concern for black Detroiters. When polled by the Detroit Free Press regarding the problems that contributed most to the rioting in the previous year, respondents listed “poor housing” as one of the most important issues, second only to police brutality. (Detroit Free Press 1968, Thomas 1997:130-131). In Detroit, the shortage of housing available to black residents was further exacerbated by “urban renewal” projects. In Detroit, entire neighborhoods were bulldozed to make way for freeways that linked city and suburbs. Neighborhoods that met their fate in such manner were predominantly black in their composition. To build Interstate 75, Paradise Valley or “Black Bottom”, the neighborhood that black migrants and white ethnics had struggled over during the 1940s, was buried beneath several layers of concrete. As the oldest established black enclave in Detroit, “Black Bottom” was not merely a point on the map, but the heart of Detroit’s black community, commercially and culturally. The loss for many black residents of Detroit was devastating, and the anger burned for years thereafter.”

photo by James Griffioen

US cities may have to be bulldozed in order to survive
BY Tom Leonard / 12 Jun 2009

The government looking at expanding a pioneering scheme in Flint, one of the poorest US cities, which involves razing entire districts and returning the land to nature. Local politicians believe the city must contract by as much as 40 per cent, concentrating the dwindling population and local services into a more viable area. The radical experiment is the brainchild of Dan Kildee, treasurer of Genesee County, which includes Flint. Having outlined his strategy to Barack Obama during the election campaign, Mr Kildee has now been approached by the US government and a group of charities who want him to apply what he has learnt to the rest of the country. Mr Kildee said he will concentrate on 50 cities, identified in a recent study by the Brookings Institution, an influential Washington think-tank, as potentially needing to shrink substantially to cope with their declining fortunes. Most are former industrial cities in the “rust belt” of America’s Mid-West and North East. They include Detroit, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Memphis.

In Detroit, shattered by the woes of the US car industry, there are already plans to split it into a collection of small urban centres separated from each other by countryside. “The real question is not whether these cities shrink – we’re all shrinking – but whether we let it happen in a destructive or sustainable way,” said Mr Kildee. “Decline is a fact of life in Flint. Resisting it is like resisting gravity.” Karina Pallagst, director of the Shrinking Cities in a Global Perspective programme at the University of California, Berkeley, said there was “both a cultural and political taboo” about admitting decline in America. “Places like Flint have hit rock bottom. They’re at the point where it’s better to start knocking a lot of buildings down,” she said.

Flint, sixty miles north of Detroit, was the original home of General Motors. The car giant once employed 79,000 local people but that figure has shrunk to around 8,000. Unemployment is now approaching 20 per cent and the total population has almost halved to 110,000. The exodus – particularly of young people – coupled with the consequent collapse in property prices, has left street after street in sections of the city almost entirely abandoned. In the city centre, the once grand Durant Hotel – named after William Durant, GM’s founder – is a symbol of the city’s decline, said Mr Kildee. The large building has been empty since 1973, roughly when Flint’s decline began.

Regarded as a model city in the motor industry’s boom years, Flint may once again be emulated, though for very different reasons.
But Mr Kildee, who has lived there nearly all his life, said he had first to overcome a deeply ingrained American cultural mindset that “big is good” and that cities should sprawl – Flint covers 34 square miles. He said: “The obsession with growth is sadly a very American thing. Across the US, there’s an assumption that all development is good, that if communities are growing they are successful. If they’re shrinking, they’re failing.”

photo by James Griffioen

But some Flint dustcarts are collecting just one rubbish bag a week, roads are decaying, police are very understaffed and there were simply too few people to pay for services, he said. If the city didn’t downsize it will eventually go bankrupt, he added. Flint’s recovery efforts have been helped by a new state law passed a few years ago which allowed local governments to buy up empty properties very cheaply. They could then knock them down or sell them on to owners who will occupy them. The city wants to specialise in health and education services, both areas which cannot easily be relocated abroad.

The local authority has restored the city’s attractive but formerly deserted centre but has pulled down 1,100 abandoned homes in outlying areas. Mr Kildee estimated another 3,000 needed to be demolished, although the city boundaries will remain the same. Already, some streets peter out into woods or meadows, no trace remaining of the homes that once stood there. Choosing which areas to knock down will be delicate but many of them were already obvious, he said. The city is buying up houses in more affluent areas to offer people in neighbourhoods it wants to demolish. Nobody will be forced to move, said Mr Kildee. “Much of the land will be given back to nature. People will enjoy living near a forest or meadow,” he said. Mr Kildee acknowledged that some fellow Americans considered his solution “defeatist” but he insisted it was “no more defeatist than pruning an overgrown tree so it can bear fruit again”.

Daniel Kildee
email : dkildee [at] sbcglobal [dot] net

Food Among the Ruins
BY Mark Dowie / August 2009

Detroit, the country’s most depressed metropolis, has zero produce-carrying grocery chains. It also has open land, fertile soil, ample water, and the ingredients to reinvent itself from Motor City to urban farm. Were I an aspiring farmer in search of fertile land to buy and plow, I would seriously consider moving to Detroit. There is open land, fertile soil, ample water, willing labor, and a desperate demand for decent food. And there is plenty of community will behind the idea of turning the capital of American industry into an agrarian paradise. In fact, of all the cities in the world, Detroit may be best positioned to become the world’s first one hundred percent food self-sufficient city.

Right now, Detroit is as close as any city in America to becoming a food desert, not just another metropolis like Chicago, Philadelphia, or Cleveland with a bunch of small- and medium-sized food deserts scattered about, but nearly a full-scale, citywide food desert. (A food desert is defined by those who study them as a locality from which healthy food is more than twice as far away as unhealthy food, or where the distance to a bag of potato chips is half the distance to a head of lettuce.) About 80 percent of the residents of Detroit buy their food at the one thousand convenience stores, party stores, liquor stores, and gas stations in the city. There is such a dire shortage of protein in the city that Glemie Dean Beasley, a seventy-year-old retired truck driver, is able to augment his Social Security by selling raccoon carcasses (twelve dollars a piece, serves a family of four) from animals he has treed and shot at undisclosed hunting grounds around the city. Pelts are ten dollars each. Pheasants are also abundant in the city and are occasionally harvested for dinner.

Detroiters who live close enough to suburban borders to find nearby groceries carrying fresh fruit, meat, and vegetables are a small minority of the population. The health consequences of food deserts are obvious and dire. Diabetes, heart failure, hypertension, and obesity are chronic in Detroit, and life expectancy is measurably lower than in any American city.

photo by James Griffioen

Not so long ago, there were five produce-carrying grocery chains—Kroger, A&P, Farmer Jack, Wrigley, and Meijer—competing vigorously for the Detroit food market. Today there are none. Nor is there a single WalMart or Costco in the city. Specialty grocer Trader Joe’s just turned down an attractive offer to open an outlet in relatively safe and prosperous midtown Detroit; a rapidly declining population of chronically poor consumers is not what any retailer is after. High employee turnover, loss from theft, and cost of security are also cited by chains as reasons to leave or avoid Detroit. So it is unlikely grocers will ever return, despite the tireless flirtations of City Hall, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Michigan Food and Beverage Association. There is a fabulous once-a-week market, the largest of its kind in the country, on the east side that offers a wide array of fresh meat, eggs, fruit, and vegetables. But most people I saw there on an early April Saturday arrived in well polished SUVs from the suburbs. So despite the Eastern Market, in-city Detroiters are still left with the challenge of finding new ways to feed themselves a healthy meal.

One obvious solution is to grow their own, and the urban backyard garden boom that is sweeping the nation has caught hold in Detroit, particularly in neighborhoods recently settled by immigrants from agrarian cultures of Laos and Bangladesh, who are almost certain to become major players in an agrarian Detroit. Add to that the five hundred or so twenty-by-twenty-foot community plots and a handful of three- to ten-acre farms cultured by church and non-profit groups, and during its four-month growing season, Detroit is producing somewhere between 10 and 15 percent of its food supply inside city limits—more than most American cities, but nowhere near enough to allay the food desert problem. About 3 percent of the groceries sold at the Eastern Market are homegrown; the rest are brought into Detroit by a handful of peri-urban farmers and about one hundred and fifty freelance food dealers who buy their produce from Michigan farms between thirty and one hundred miles from the city and truck it into the market.

photo by James Griffioen

There are more visionaries in Detroit than in most Rust-Belt cities, and thus more visions of a community rising from the ashes of a moribund industry to become, if not an urban paradise, something close to it. The most intriguing visionaries in Detroit, at least the ones who drew me to the city, were those who imagine growing food among the ruins—chard and tomatoes on vacant lots (there are over 103,000 in the city, sixty thousand owned by the city), orchards on former school grounds, mushrooms in open basements, fish in abandoned factories, hydroponics in bankrupt department stores, livestock grazing on former golf courses, high-rise farms in old hotels, vermiculture, permaculture, hydroponics, aquaponics, waving wheat where cars were once test-driven, and winter greens sprouting inside the frames of single-story bungalows stripped of their skin and re-sided with Plexiglas—a homemade greenhouse. Those are just a few of the agricultural technologies envisioned for the urban prairie Detroit has become.

There are also proposals on the mayor’s desk to rezone vast sections A-something (“A” for agriculture), and a proposed master plan that would move the few people residing in lonely, besotted neighborhoods into Detroit’s nine loosely defined villages and turn the rest of the city into open farmland. An American Institute of Architects panel concludes that all Detroit’s residents could fit comfortably in fifty square miles of land. Much of the remaining ninety square miles could be farmed. Were that to happen, and a substantial investment was made in greenhouses, vertical farms, and aquaponic systems, Detroit could be producing protein and fibre 365 days a year and soon become the first and only city in the world to produce close to 100 percent of its food supply within its city limits. No semis hauling groceries, no out-of-town truck farmers, no food dealers. And no chain stores need move back. Everything eaten in the city could be grown in the city and distributed to locally owned and operated stores and co-ops. I met no one in Detroit who believed that was impossible, but only a few who believed it would happen. It could, but not without a lot of political and community will.

There are a few cities in the world that grow and provide about half their total food supply within their urban and peri-urban regions—Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; Havana, Cuba; Hanoi, Vietnam; Dakar, Senegal; Rosario, Argentina; Cagayan de Oro in the Philippines; and, my personal favorite, Cuenca, Equador—all of which have much longer growing seasons than Detroit. However, those cities evolved that way, almost unintentionally. They are, in fact, about where Detroit was agriculturally around one hundred and fifty years ago. Half of them will almost surely drop under 50 percent sufficiency within the next two decades as industry subsumes cultivated land to build factories (à la China). Because of its unique situation, Detroit could come close to being 100 percent self-sufficient.

First, the city lies on one hundred and forty square miles of former farmland. Manhattan, Boston, and San Francisco could be placed inside the borders of Detroit with room to spare, and the population is about the same as the smallest of those cities, San Francisco: eight hundred thousand. And that number is still declining from a high of two million in the mid-nineteen fifties. Demographers expect Detroit’s population to level off somewhere between five hundred thousand and six hundred thousand by 2025. Right now there is about forty square miles of unoccupied open land in the city, the area of San Francisco, and that landmass could be doubled by moving a few thousand people out of hazardous firetraps into affordable housing in the eight villages. As I drove around the city, I saw many full-sized blocks with one, two, or three houses on them, many already burned out and abandoned. The ones that weren’t would make splendid farmhouses.

photo by James Griffioen

As Detroit was built on rich agricultural land, the soil beneath the city is fertile and arable. Certainly some of it is contaminated with the wastes of heavy industry, but not so badly that it’s beyond remediation. In fact, phyto-remediation, using certain plants to remove toxic chemicals permanently from the soil, is already practiced in parts of the city. And some of the plants used for remediation can be readily converted to biofuels. Others can be safely fed to livestock.

Leading the way in Detroit’s soil remediation is Malik Yakini, owner of the Black Star Community Book Store and founder of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. Yakini and his colleagues begin the remediation process by removing abandoned house foundations and toxic debris from vacated industrial sites. Often that is all that need be done to begin farming. Throw a little compost on the ground, turn it in, sow some seeds, and water it. Water in Detroit is remarkably clean and plentiful.

Although Detroiters have been growing produce in the city since its days as an eighteenth-century French trading outpost, urban farming was given a major boost in the nineteen eighties by a network of African-American elders calling themselves the “Gardening Angels.” As migrants from the rural South, where many had worked as small farmers and field hands, they brought agrarian skills to vacant lots and abandoned industrial sites of the city, and set out to reconnect their descendants, children of asphalt, to the Earth, and teach them that useful work doesn’t necessarily mean getting a job in a factory.

Thirty years later, Detroit has an eclectic mix of agricultural systems, ranging from three-foot window boxes growing a few heads of lettuce to a large-scale farm run by The Catherine Ferguson Academy, a home and school for pregnant girls that not only produces a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, but also raises chickens, geese, ducks, bees, rabbits, and milk goats.
Across town, Capuchin Brother Rick Samyn manages a garden that not only provides fresh fruits and vegetables to city soup kitchens, but also education to neighborhood children. There are about eighty smaller community gardens scattered about the city, more and more of them raising farm animals alongside the veggies. At the moment, domestic livestock is forbidden in the city, as are beehives. But the ordinance against them is generally ignored and the mayor’s office assures me that repeal of the bans are imminent.

About five hundred small plots have been created by an international organization called Urban Farming, founded by acclaimed songwriter Taja Sevelle. Realizing that Detroit was the most agriculturally promising of the fourteen cities in five countries where Urban Farming now exists, Sevelle moved herself and her organization’s headquarters there last year. Her goal is to triple the amount of land under cultivation in Detroit every year. All food grown by Urban Farming is given free to the poor. According to Urban Farming’s Detroit manager, Michael Travis, that won’t change.

Larger scale, for-profit farming is also on the drawing board. Financial services entrepreneur John Hantz has asked the city to let him farm a seventy-acre parcel he owns close to the Eastern Market. If that is approved and succeeds in producing food for the market, and profit for Hantz Farms, Hantz hopes to create more large-scale commercial farms around the city. Not everyone in Detroit’s agricultural community is happy with the scale or intentions of Hantz’s vision, but it seems certain to become part of the mix. And unemployed people will be put to work.

Any agro-economist will tell you that urban farming creates jobs. Even without local production, the food industry creates three dollars of job growth for every dollar spent on food—a larger multiplier effect than almost any other product or industry. Farm a city, and that figure jumps over five dollars. To a community with persistent two-digit unemployment, that number is manna. But that’s only one economic advantage of farming a city.

The average food product purchased in a U.S. chain store has traveled thirteen hundred miles, and about half of it has spoiled en route, despite the fact that it was bioengineered to withstand transport. The total mileage in a three-course American meal approaches twenty-five thousand. The food seems fresh because it has been refrigerated in transit, adding great expense and a huge carbon footprint to each item, and subtracting most of the minerals and vitamins that would still be there were the food grown close by.

photo by James Griffioen

I drove around the city one day with Dwight Vaughter and Gary Wozniak. A soft-spoken African American, Vaughter is CEO of SHAR, a self-help drug rehab program with about two hundred residents recovering from various addictions in an abandoned hospital. Wozniak, a bright, gregarious Polish American, who, unlike most of his fellow Poles, has stayed in Detroit, is the program’s financial director. Vaughter and Wozniak are trying to create a labor-intensive economic base for their program, with the conviction that farming and gardening are therapeutic. They have their eyes on two thousand acres in one of the worst sections of the city, not far from the Eastern Market. They estimate that there are about four thousand people still living in the area, most of them in houses that should have been condemned and razed years ago. There are also six churches in the section, offering some of the best ecclesiastical architecture in the city.

I tried to imagine what this weedy, decrepit, trash-ridden urban dead zone would look like under cultivation. First, I removed the overhead utilities and opened the sky a little. Then I tore up the useless grid of potholed streets and sidewalks and replaced them with a long winding road that would take vegetables to market and bring parishioners to church. I wrecked and removed most of the houses I saw, leaving a few that somehow held some charm and utility. Of course, I left the churches standing, as I did a solid red brick school, boarded up a decade ago when the student body dropped to a dozen or so bored and unstimulated deadbeats. It could be reopened as an urban ag-school, or SHAR’s residents could live there. I plowed and planted rows of every imaginable vegetable, created orchards and raised beds, set up beehives and built chicken coops, rabbit warrens, barns, and corrals for sheep, goats, and horses. And of course, I built sturdy hoop houses, rows of them, heated by burning methane from composting manure and ag-waste to keep frost from winter crops. The harvest was tended by former drug addicts who like so many before them found salvation in growing things that keep their brethren alive.

That afternoon I visited Grace Lee Boggs, a ninety-three-year-old Chinese-American widow who has been envisioning farms in Detroit for decades. Widow of legendary civil rights activist Jimmy Boggs, Grace preserves his legacy with the energy of ten activists. The main question on my mind as I climbed the steps to her modest east side home, now a center for community organizers, was whether or not Detroit possesses the community and political will to scale its agriculture up to 100 percent food self-sufficiency. Yes, Grace said to the former, and no to the latter. But she really didn’t believe that political will was that essential. “The food riots erupting around the world challenge us to rethink our whole approach to food,” she said, but as communities, not as bodies politic. “Today’s hunger crisis is rooted in the industrialized food system which destroys local food production and forces nations like Kenya, which only twenty-five years ago was food self-sufficient, to import 80 percent of its food because its productive land is being used by global corporations to grow flowers and luxury foods for export.” The same thing happened to Detroit, she says, which was once before a food self-sufficient community. I asked her whether the city government would support large-scale urban agriculture. “City government is irrelevant,” she answered. “Positive change, leaps forward in the evolution of humankind do not start with governments. They start right here in our living rooms and kitchens. We are the leaders we are looking for.”

All the decaying Rust-Belt cities in the American heartland have at one time or another imagined themselves transformed into some sort of exciting new post-industrial urban model. And some have begun the process of transformation. Now it’s Detroit’s turn, Boggs believes. It could follow the examples of Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Buffalo, and become a slightly recovered metropolis, another pathetic industrial has-been still addicted to federal stimulus, marginal jobs, and the corporate food system. Or it could make a complete break and become, if not a paradise, well, at least a pretty good place to live.

Not everyone in Detroit is enthusiastic about farming. Many urbanites believe that structures of some sort or another belong on urban land. And a lot of those people just elected David Bing mayor of the city. Bing’s opponent, acting mayor Ken Cockrel, was committed to expanding urban agriculture in Detroit. Bing has not said he’s opposed to it, but his background as a successful automotive parts manufacturer will likely have him favoring a future that maintains the city’s primary nickname: Motor City.

And there remains a lasting sense of urbanity in Detroit. “This is a city, not a farm,” remarked one skeptic of urban farming. She’s right, of course. A city is more than a farm. But that’s what makes Detroit’s rural future exciting. Where else in the world can one find a one-hundred-and-forty-square-mile agricultural community with four major league sports teams, two good universities, the fifth largest art museum in the country, a world-class hospital, and headquarters of a now-global industry, that while faltering, stands ready to green their products and keep three million people in the rest of the country employed?

Despite big auto’s crash, “Detroit” is still synonymous with the industry. When people ask, “What will become of Detroit?” most of them still mean, “What will become of GM, Ford, and Chrysler?” If Detroit the city is to survive in any form, it should probably get past that question and begin searching for ways to put its most promising assets, land and people, to productive use again by becoming America’s first modern agrarian metropolis.

Contemporary Detroit gave new meaning to the word “wasteland.” It still stands as a monument to a form of land abuse that became endemic to industrial America—once-productive farmland, teaming with wildlife, was paved and poisoned for corporate imperatives. Now the city offers itself as an opportunity to restore some of its agrarian tradition, not fifty miles from downtown in the countryside where most of us believe that tradition was originally established, but a short bicycle ride away. American cities once grew much of their food within walking distance of most of their residents. In fact, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, most early American cities, Detroit included, looked more like the English countryside, with a cluster of small villages interspersed with green open space. Eventually, farmers of the open space sold their land to developers and either retired or moved their farms out of cities, which were cut into grids and plastered with factories, shopping malls, and identical row houses.

Detroit now offers America a perfect place to redefine urban economics, moving away from the totally paved, heavy-industrial factory-town model to a resilient, holistic, economically diverse, self-sufficient, intensely green, rural/urban community—and in doing so become the first modern American city where agriculture, while perhaps not the largest, is the most vital industry.

Detroit arcadia: Exploring the post-American landscape
BY Rebecca Solnit / July 2007

Until recently there was a frieze around the lobby of the Hotel Pontchartrain in downtown Detroit, a naively charming painting of a forested lakefront landscape with Indians peeping out from behind the trees. The hotel was built on the site of Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit, the old French garrison that three hundred years ago held a hundred or so pioneer families inside its walls while several thousand Ottawas and Hurons and Potawatomis went about their business outside, but the frieze evoked an era before even that rude structure was built in the lush woodlands of the place that was not yet Michigan or the United States. Scraped clear by glaciers during the last ice age, the landscape the French invaded was young, soggy, and densely forested. The river frontage that would become Detroit was probably mostly sugar maple and beech forest, with black ash or mixed hardwood swamps, a few patches of conifers, and the occasional expanse of what naturalists like to call wet prairie—grasslands you might not want to walk on. The Indians killed the trees by girdling them and planted corn in the clearings, but the wild rice they gathered and the fish and game they hunted were also important parts of their 
diet. One pioneer counted badger, bear, fisher, fox, mink, muskrat, porcupine, rabbit, raccoon, weasel, wildcat, wolf, and woodchuck among the local species, and cougar and deer could have been added to the list. The French would later recruit the Indians to trap beaver, which were plentiful in those once-riverine territories—détroit means “strait” or “narrows,” but in its thirty-two-mile journey from Lake St. Clair to Lake Erie, the Detroit River also had several tributaries, including Parent’s Creek, which was later named Bloody Run after some newly arrived English soldiers managed to lose a fight they picked with the local Ottawas.

Fort Pontchartrain was never meant to be the center of a broad European settlement. It was a trading post, a garrison, and a strategic site in the scramble between the British and the French to dominate the North American interior. Cadillac, the ambitious Frenchman who established the fort in 1701, invited members of several Indian nations to surround the fort in order to facilitate more frequent trading, but this led to clashes not just between nations but between races. Unknown Indians set fire to Fort Pontchartrain in 1703, and the Fox skirmished there in 1712. After the English took over in 1760, deteriorating relations with the local tribes culminated in the three-year-long, nearly successful Ottawa uprising known as Pontiac’s Rebellion.

This is all ancient history, but it does foreshadow the racial conflicts that never went away in Detroit, though now white people constitute the majority who surround and resent the 83 percent black city. It’s as if the fort had been turned inside out—and, in fact, in the 1940s a six-foot-tall concrete wall was built along Eight Mile Road, which traces Detroit’s northern limits, to contain the growing African-American population. And this inversion exposes another paradox. North of Eight Mile, the mostly white suburbs seem conventional, and they may face the same doom as much of conventional suburban America if sprawl and 
auto-based civilization die off with oil shortages and economic decline. South of Eight Mile, though, Detroit is racing to a far less predictable future.

It is a remarkable city now, one in which the clock seems to be running backward as its buildings disappear and its population and economy decline. The second time I visited Detroit I tried to stay at the Pontchartrain, but the lobby was bisected by drywall, the mural seemed doomed, and the whole place was under some form of remodeling that resembled ruin, with puddles in the lobby and holes in the walls, few staff people, fewer guests, and strange grinding noises at odd hours. I checked out after one night because of the cold water coming out of the hot-water tap and the generally spooky feeling generated by trying to sleep in a 413-room high-rise hotel with almost no other guests. I was sad to see the frieze on its way out, but—still—as I have explored this city over the last few years, I have seen an oddly heartening new version of the landscape it portrays, a landscape that is not quite post-apocalyptic but that is strangely—and sometime even beautifully—post-American.

This continent has not seen a transformation like Detroit’s since the last days of the Maya. The city, once the fourth largest in the country, is now so depopulated that some stretches resemble the outlying farmland and others are altogether wild. Downtown still looks like a downtown, and all of those high-rise buildings still make an impressive skyline, but when you look closely at some of them, you can see trees growing out of the ledges and crevices, an invasive species from China known variously as the ghetto palm and the tree of heaven. Local wisdom has it that whenever a new building goes up, an older one will simply be abandoned, and the same rule applies to the blocks of new condos that have been dropped here and there among the ruins: why they were built in the first place in a city full of handsome old houses going to ruin has everything to do with the momentary whims of the real estate trade and nothing to do with the long-term survival of cities.

The transformation of the residential neighborhoods is more dramatic. On so many streets in so many neighborhoods, you see a house, a little shabby but well built and beautiful. Then another house. Then a few houses are missing, so thoroughly missing that no trace of foundation remains. Grass grows lushly, as though nothing had ever disturbed the pastoral verdure. Then there’s a house that’s charred and shattered, then a beautiful house, with gables and dormers and a porch, the kind of house a lot of Americans fantasize about owning. Then more green. This irregular pattern occurs mile after mile, through much of Detroit. You could be traveling down Wa bash Street on the west side of town or Pennsylvania or Fairview on the east side of town or around just about any part of the State Fair neighborhood on the city’s northern border. Between the half-erased neighborhoods are ruined factories, boarded-up warehouses, rows of storefronts bearing the traces of failed enterprise, and occasional solid blocks of new town houses that look as though they had been dropped in by helicopter. In the bereft zones, solitary figures wander slowly, as though in no hurry to get from one abandoned zone to the next. Some areas have been stripped entirely, and a weedy version of nature is returning. Just about a third of Detroit, some forty square miles, has evolved past decrepitude into vacancy and prairie—an urban void nearly the size of San Francisco.

It was tales of these ruins that originally drew me to the city a few years ago. My first visit began somberly enough, as I contemplated the great neoclassical edifice of the train station, designed by the same architects and completed the same year as Grand Central station in Manhattan. Grand Central thrives; this broken building stands alone just beyond the grim silence of Michigan Avenue and only half a mile from the abandoned Tiger Stadium. Rings of cyclone fence forbid exploration. The last train left on January 5, 1988— the day before Epiphany. The building has been so thoroughly gutted that on sunny days the light seems to come through the upper stories as though through a cheese grater; there is little left but concrete and stone. All the windows are smashed out. The copper pipes and wires, I was told, were torn out by the scavengers who harvest material from abandoned buildings around the city and hasten their decay.

On another visit, I took a long walk down a sunken railroad spur that, in more prosperous times, had been used to move goods from one factory to another. A lot of effort had gone into making the long channel of brick and concrete about twenty feet below the gently undulating surface of Detroit, and it had been abandoned a long time. Lush greenery grew along the tracks and up the walls, which were like a museum of spray-can art from the 1980s and 1990s. The weeds and beer cans and strangely apposite graffiti decrying the 1993 passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement seemed to go on forever.

I took many pictures on my visits to Detroit, but back home they just looked like snapshots of abandoned Nebraska farmhouses or small towns farther west on the Great Plains. Sometimes a burned-out house would stand next to a carefully tended twin, a monument to random fate; sometimes the rectilinear nature of city planning was barely perceptible, just the slightest traces of a grid fading into grassy fields accented with the occasional fire hydrant. One day after a brief thunderstorm, when the rain had cleared away and chunky white clouds dotted the sky, I wandered into a neighborhood, or rather a former neighborhood, of at least a dozen square blocks where trees of heaven waved their branches in the balmy air. Approximately one tattered charred house still stood per block. I could hear the buzzing of crickets or cicadas, and I felt as if I had traveled a thousand years into the future.

photo by James Griffioen

To say that much of Detroit is 
ruins is, of course, to say that some of it isn’t. There are stretches of Detroit that look like anywhere in the U.S.A.—blocks of town houses and new condos, a flush of gentility spreading around the Detroit Institute of Arts, a few older neighborhoods where everything is fine. If Detroit has become a fortress of urban poverty surrounded by suburban affluence, the city’s waterfront downtown has become something of a fortress within a fortress, with a convention center, a new ballpark, a new headquarters for General Motors, and a handful of casinos that were supposed to be the city’s economic salvation when they were built a decade ago. But that garrison will likely fend off time no better
than Fort Detroit or the
 Hotel Pontchartrain.

Detroit is wildly outdated, but it is not very old. It was a medium-size city that boomed in the first quarter of the twentieth century, became the “arsenal of democracy” in the second, spent the third in increasingly less gentle decline, and by the last quarter was a byword for urban decay, having made a complete arc in a single century. In 1900, Detroit had a quarter of a million people. By midcentury the population had reached nearly 2 million. In recent years, though, it has fallen below 900,000. Detroit is a cautionary tale about one-industry towns: it shrank the way the old boomtowns of the gold and silver rushes did, as though it had been mining automobiles and the veins ran dry, but most of those mining towns were meant to be ephemeral. People thought Detroit would go on forever.

Coleman Young, Detroit’s first African-American mayor, reigned from 1974 to 1993, the years that the change became irreversible and impossible to ignore, and in his autobiography he sounds like he is still in shock: “It’s mind-boggling to think that at mid-century Detroit was a city of close to two million and nearly everything beyond was covered with corn and cow patties. Forty years later, damn near every last white person in the city had moved to the old fields and pastures—1.4 frigging million of them. Think about that. There were 1,600,000 whites in Detroit after the war, and 1,400,000 of them left. By 1990, the city was just over a million, nearly eighty percent of it was black, and the suburbs had surpassed Detroit not only in population but in wealth, in commerce—even in basketball, for God’s sake.”

The Detroit Pistons are now based in Auburn Hills. According to the 2000 census, another 112,357 whites left the city in the 1990s, and 10,000 more people a year continue to leave. Even three hundred bodies a year are exhumed from the cemeteries and moved because some of the people who were once Detroiters or the children of Detroiters don’t think the city is good enough for their dead. Ford and General Motors, or what remains of them—most of the jobs were dispatched to other towns and nations long agoin trouble, too. Interestingly, in this city whose name is synonymous with the auto industry, more than a fifth of households have no cars.

“Detroit’s Future Is Looking Brighter,” said a headline in the Detroit Free Press, not long after another article outlined the catastrophes afflicting the whole state. In recent years, Michigan’s household income has dropped more than that of any other state, and more and more of its citizens are slipping below the poverty line. David Littmann, a senior economist for the Michigan think tank the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, told the paper, “As the economy slows nationally, we’re going to sink much farther relative to the other states. We’ve only just begun. We’re going to see Michigan sink to levels that no one has 
ever seen.”

In another sense, the worst is over in Detroit. In the 1980s and 1990s, the city was falling apart, spectacularly and violently. Back then the annual pre-Halloween arson festival known as Devil’s Night finished off a lot of the abandoned buildings; it peaked in 1984 with 810 fires in the last three days of October. Some of the arson, a daughter of Detroit’s black bourgeoisie told me, was 
constructive—crackhouses being burned down by the neighbors; her own respectable aunt had torched one. Between 1978 and 1998, the city issued 9,000 building permits for new homes and 108,000 demolition permits, and quite a lot of structures were annihilated without official sanction.

Even Ford’s old Highland Park headquarters, where the Model T was born, is now just a shuttered series of dusty warehouses with tape on the windows and cyclone fences around the cracked pavement. Once upon a time, the plant was one of the wonders of the world—on a single day in 1925 it cranked out 9,000 cars, according to a sign I saw under a tree next to the empty buildings. Detroit once made most of the cars on earth; now the entire United States makes not even one in ten. The new Model T Ford Plaza next door struck my traveling companion—who, like so many white people born in Detroit after the war, had mostly been raised elsewhere—as auspicious. But the mall was fronted by a mostly empty parking lot and anchored by a Payless ShoeSource, which to my mind did not portend an especially bright future.

When I came back, a year after my first tour, I stopped at the Detroit Institute of Arts to see the Diego Rivera mural commissioned in 1932 by Henry Ford’s son, Edsel. The museum is a vast Beaux-Arts warehouse—“the fifth-largest fine arts museum in the United States,” according to its promotional literature—and the fresco covered all four walls of the museum’s central courtyard. Rivera is said to have considered it his finest work.

It’s an odd masterpiece, a celebration of the River Rouge auto plant, which had succeeded the Highland Park factory as Ford’s industrial headquarters, painted by a Communist for the son of one of the richest capitalists in the world. The north and south walls are devoted to nearly life-size scenes in which the plant’s gray gears, belts, racks, and workbenches surge and swarm like some vast intestinal apparatus. The workers within might be subsidiary organs or might be lunch, as the whole churns to excrete a stream of black Fords.

Rivera created this vision when the city was reveling in the newfound supremacy of its megafactories, but Detroit had already reached its apex. Indeed, the River Rouge plant—then the largest factory complex in the world, employing more than 100,000 workers on a site two and a half times the size of New York City’s Central Park—was itself built in suburban Dearborn. In 1932, though, capitalists and Communists alike shared a belief that the most desirable form of human organization—indeed, the inevitable form—was not just industrial but this kind of industrial: a Fordist system of “rational” labor, of centralized production in blue-collar cities, of eternal prosperity in a stern gray land. Even the young Soviet Union looked up to Henry Ford.

But Detroit was building the machine that would help destroy not just this city but urban industrialism across the continent. Rivera painted, in a subsidiary all-gray panel in the lower right corner of the south wall, a line of slumped working men and women exiting the factory into what appears to be an endless parking lot full of Ford cars. It may not have looked that way in 1932, but a lot of the gray workers were going to buy those gray cars and drive right out of the gray city. The city-hating Ford said that he wanted every family in the world to have a Ford, and he priced them so that more and more families could. He also fantasized about a post-urban world in which workers would also farm, seasonally or part-time, but he did less to realize that vision. Private automobile ownership was a double blow against the density that is crucial to cities and urbanism and against the Fordist model of concentrated large-scale manufacture. Ford was sabotaging Detroit and then Fordism almost from the beginning; the city had blown up rapidly and would spend the next several decades simply disintegrating.

Detroit was always a rough town. When Rivera painted his fresco, the Depression had hit Detroit as hard as or harder than anywhere, and the unemployed were famished and desperate, desperate enough to march on the Ford Motor Company in the spring of 1932. It’s hard to say whether ferocity or desperation made the marchers fight their way through police with tear-gas guns and firemen with hoses going full bore the last stretch of the way to the River Rouge plant. Harry Bennett, the thug who ran Ford more or less the way Stalin was running the Soviet Union, arrived, and though he was immediately knocked out by a flying rock, the police began firing on the crowd, injuring dozens and killing five. The battle of the Hunger March or the huge public funeral afterward would’ve made a good mural.

No, it wasn’t cars alone that ruined Detroit. It was the whole improbable equation of the city in the first place, the “inherent contradictions.” The city was done in by deindustrialization, decentralization, the post–World War II spread of highways and freeways, government incentives to homeowners, and disinvestment in cities that aided and abetted large-scale white flight into the burgeoning suburbs of those years. Chunks of downtown Detroit were sacrificed early, in the postwar years, so that broad arterial freeways—the Edsel Freeway, the Chrysler Freeway—could bring commuters in from beyond city limits.

All of this was happening everywhere else too, of course. The manufacturing belt became the rust belt. Cleveland, Toledo, Buffalo, and other cities clustered around the Great Lakes were hit hard, and the shrinking stretched down to St. Louis and across to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Newark. Now that it has entered a second gilded age, no one seems to remember that New York was a snowballing disaster forty or fifty years ago. The old textile district south of Houston Street had emptied out so completely that in 1962 the City Club of New York published a report on it and other former commercial areas titled “The Wastelands of New York City.” San Francisco went the same way. It was a blue-collar port city until the waterfront dried up and the longshoremen faded away.

Then came the renaissance, but 
only for those cities reborn into more dematerialized economies. Vacant lots were filled in, old warehouses were turned into lofts or offices or replaced, downtowns became upscale chain outlets, janitors and cops became people who commuted in from downscale suburbs, and the children of that white flight came back to cities that were not exactly cities in the old sense. The new American cities trade in information, entertainment, tourism, software, finance. They are abstract. Even the souvenirs in these new economies often come from a sweatshop in China. The United States can be mapped as two zones now, a high-pressure zone of economic boom times and escalating real estate prices, and a low-
pressure zone, where housing might be the only thing that’s easy to come by.

This pattern will change, though. The forces that produced Detroit—the combination of bitter racism and single-industry failure—are anomalous, but the general recipe of deindustrialization, depopulation, and resource depletion will likely touch almost all the regions of the global north in the next century or two. Dresden was rebuilt, and so was Hiroshima, and so were the cities destroyed by natural forces—San Francisco and Mexico City and Tangshan—but Detroit will never be rebuilt as it was. It will be the first of many cities forced
to become altogether something else.

The Detroit Institute of Arts is in one of those flourishing parts of Detroit; it is expanding its 1927 building, and when I said goodbye to the Rivera mural and stepped outside into the autumn sunshine, workmen were installing slabs of marble on the building’s new facade. I noticed an apparently homeless dog sleeping below the scaffolding, and as I walked past, three plump white women teetered up to me hastily, all attention focused on the dog. “Do you have a cell phone?” the one topped by a froth of yellow hair shrilled. “Call the Humane Society!” I suggested that the dog was breathing fine and therefore was probably okay, and she looked at me as though I were a total idiot. “This is downtown Detroit,” she said, in a tone that made it clear the dog was in imminent peril from unspeakable forces, and that perhaps she was, I was, we all were.

I had been exploring an architectural-salvage shop near Rosa Parks Boulevard earlier that day, and when I asked the potbellied and weathered white man working there for his thoughts on the city, the tirade that followed was similarly vehement: Detroit, he insisted, had been wonderful—people used to dress up to go downtown, it had been the Paris of the Midwest!—and then it all went to hell. Those people destroyed it. My traveling companion suggested that maybe larger forces of deindustrialization might have had something to do with what happened to the city, but the man blankly rejected this analysis and continued on a tirade about “them” that wasn’t very careful about not being racist.

On the Web you can find a site, Stormfront White Nationalist Community, that is even more comfortable with this version of what happened to the city, and even less interested in macroeconomic forces like deindustrialization and globalization: “A huge non-White population, combined with annual arson attacks, bankruptcy, crime, and decay, have combined to make Detroit—once the USA’s leading automotive industrial center—
into a ruin comparable with those of the ancient civilizations—with the cause being identical: the replacement of the White population who built the city, with a new non-White population.” It could have been different. “In more civilized environs, these facilities might have easily been transformed into a manufacturing and assembly center for any number of industrial enterprises,” writes the anonymous author.

A few months before the diatribe in the salvage yard, I’d met a long-haired counterculture guy who also told me he was from Detroit, by which he, like so many others I’ve met, meant the suburbs of Detroit. When I asked him about the actual city, though, his face clenched like a fist. He recited the terrible things they would do to you if you ventured into the city, that they would tear you apart on the streets. He spoke not with the voice of a witness but with the authority of tradition handed down from an unknown and irrefutable source. The city was the infernal realm, the burning lands, the dragon’s lair at the center of a vast and protective suburban sprawl.

The most prominent piece of public art in Detroit is the giant blackened bronze arm and fist that serve as a monument to heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, who grew up there. If it were vertical it would look like a Black Power fist, but it’s slung from cables like some medieval battering ram waiting to be dragged up to the city walls.

Deindustrialization dealt Detroit a sucker punch, but the knockout may have been white flight—at least economically. Socially, it was a little more complex. One African-American woman who grew up there told me that white people seemed to think they were a great loss to the city they abandoned, “but we were glad to see them go and waved bye-bye.” She lived in Ann Arbor—the departure of the black middle class being yet another wrinkle in the racial narrative—but she was thinking of moving back, she said. If she had kids, raising them in a city where they wouldn’t be a minority had real appeal.

The fall of the paradise that was Detroit is often pinned on the riots of July 1967, what some there still refer to as the Detroit Uprising. But Detroit had a long history of race riots—there were vicious white-on-black riots in 1833, 1863, 1925, and 1943. And the idyll itself was unraveling long before 1967. Local 600 of the United Auto Workers broke with the union mainstream in 1951, sixteen years before the riots, to sue Ford over decentralization efforts already under way. They realized that their jobs were literally going south, to states and nations where labor wasn’t so organized and wages weren’t so high, back in the prehistoric era of “globalization.”

The popular story wasn’t about the caprices of capital, though; it was about the barbarism of blacks. In 1900, Detroit had an African-American population of 4,111. Then came the great migration, when masses of southern blacks traded Jim Crow for the industrialized promised land of the North. Conditions might have been better here than in the South, but Detroit was still a segregated city with a violently racist police department and a lot of white people ready to work hard to keep black people out of their neighborhoods. They failed in this attempt at segregation, and then they left. This is what created the blackest city in the United States, and figures from Joe Louis and Malcolm X to Rosa Parks and the bold left-wing Congressman John Conyers—who has represented much of the city since 1964—have made Detroit a center of activism and independent leadership for African Americans. It’s a black
 city, but it’s surrounded.

Surrounded, but inside that stockade of racial divide and urban decay are visionaries, and their visions are tender, hopeful, and green. Grace Lee Boggs, at ninety-one, has been politically active in the city for more than half a century. Born in Providence to Chinese immigrant parents, she got a Ph.D. in philosophy from Bryn Mawr in 1940 and was a classical Marxist when she married the labor organizer Jimmy Boggs, in 1953. That an Asian woman married to a black man could become a powerful force was just another wrinkle in the racial politics of Detroit. (They were together until Jimmy’s death, in 1993.) Indeed, her thinking evolved along with the radical politics of the city itself. During the 1960s, the Boggses were dismissive of Martin Luther King Jr. and ardent about Black Power, but as Grace acknowledged when we sat down together in her big shady house in the central city, “The Black Power movement, which was very powerful here, concentrated only on power and had no concept of the challenges that would face a black-powered administration.” When Coleman Young took over city hall, she said, he could start fixing racism in the police department and the fire department, “but when it came time to do something about Henry Ford and General Motors, he was helpless. We thought that all we had to do was transform the system, that all the problems were on the other side.”

As the years went by, the Boggses began to focus less on putting new people into existing power structures and more on redefining or dismantling the structures altogether. When she and Jimmy crusaded against Young’s plans to rebuild the city around casinos, they realized they had to come up with real alternatives, and they began to think about what a local, sustainable economy would look like. They had already begun to realize that Detroit’s lack of participation in the mainstream offered an opportunity to do everything differently—that instead of retreating back to a better relationship to capitalism, to industry, to the mainstream, the city could move forward, turn its liabilities into assets, and create an economy entirely apart from the transnational webs of corporations and petroleum. Jimmy Boggs described his alternative vision in a 1988 speech at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church of Detroit. “We have to get rid of the myth that there is something sacred about large-scale production for the national and international market,” he said. “We have to begin thinking of creating small enterprises which produce food, goods, and services for the local market, that is, for our communities and for our city. . . . In order to create these new enterprises, we need a view of our city which takes into consideration both the natural resources of our area and the existing and potential skills and talents of Detroiters.”

That was the vision, and it is only just starting to become a reality. “Now a lot of what you see is vacant lots,” Grace told me. “Most people see only disaster and the end of the world. On the other hand, artists in particular see the potential, the possibility of bringing the country back into the city, which is what we really need.” After all, the city is rich in open space and—with an official unemployment rate in the mid-teens—people with time on their hands. The land is fertile, too, and the visionaries are there.

photo by James Griffioen

In traversing Detroit, I saw a lot of signs that a greening was well under way, a sort of urban husbandry of the city’s already occurring return to nature. I heard the story of one old woman who had been the first African-American person on her block and is now, with her grandson, very nearly the last person of any race on that block. Having a city grow up around you is not an uncommon American experience, but having the countryside return is an eerier one. She made the best of it, though. The city sold her the surrounding lots for next to nothing, and she now raises much of her own food on them.

I also saw the lush three-acre Earth Works Garden, launched by Capuchin monks in 1999 and now growing organic produce for a local soup kitchen. I saw a 4-H garden in a fairly ravaged east-side neighborhood, and amid the utter abandonment of the west side, I saw the handsome tiled buildings of the Catherine Ferguson Academy for Young Women, a school for teenage mothers that opens on to a working farm, complete with apple orchard, horses, ducks, long rows of cauliflower and broccoli, and a red barn the girls built themselves. I met Ashley Atkinson, the young project manager for The Greening of Detroit, and heard about the hundred community gardens they support, and the thousands more food gardens that are not part of any network. The food they produce, Atkinson told me, provides food security for many Detroiters. “Urban farming, dollar for dollar, is the most effective change agent you can ever have in a community,” she said. Everywhere I went, I saw the rich soil of Detroit and the hard work of the gardeners bringing forth an abundant harvest any organic farmer would envy.

Everyone talks about green cities now, but the concrete results in affluent cities mostly involve curbside composting and tacking solar panels onto rooftops while residents continue to drive, to shop, to eat organic pears flown in from Argentina, to be part of the big machine of consumption and climate change. The free-range chickens and Priuses are great, but they alone aren’t adequate tools for creating a truly different society and ecology. The future, at least the sustainable one, the one in which we will survive, isn’t going to be invented by people who are happily surrendering selective bits and pieces of environmentally unsound privilege. It’s going to be made by those who had all that taken away from them or never had it in the first place.

After the Panic of 1893, Detroit’s left-wing Republican mayor encouraged his hungry citizens to plant vegetables in the city’s vacant lots and went down in history as Potato Patch Pingree. Something similar happened in Cuba when the Soviet Union collapsed and the island lost its subsidized oil and thereby its mechanized agriculture; through garden-scale semi-organic agriculture, Cubans clawed their way back to food security and got better food in the bargain. Nobody wants to live through a depression, and it is unfair, or at least deeply ironic, that black people in Detroit are being forced to undertake an experiment in utopian post-urbanism that appears to be uncomfortably similar to the sharecropping past their parents and grandparents sought to escape. There is no moral reason why they should do and be better than the rest of us—but there is a practical one. They have to. Detroit is where change is most urgent and therefore most viable. The rest of us will get there later, when necessity drives us too, and by that time Detroit may be the shining example we can look to, the post-industrial green city that was once the steel-gray capital of Fordist manufacturing.

Detroit is still beautiful, both in its stately decay and in its growing natural abundance. Indeed, one of the finest sights I saw on my walks around the city combined the two. It was a sudden flash on an already bright autumn day—a pair of wild pheasants, bursting from a lush row of vegetables and flying over a cyclone fence toward a burned-out building across the street. It was an improbable flight in many ways. Those pheasants, after all, were no more native to Detroit than are the trees of heaven growing in the skyscrapers downtown. And yet it is here, where European settlement began in the region, that we may be seeing the first signs of an unsettling of the very premises of colonial expansion, an unsettling that may bring a complex new human and natural ecology into being.

This is the most extreme and long-term hope Detroit offers us: the hope that we can reclaim what we paved over and poisoned, that nature will not punish us, that it will welcome us home—not with the landscape that was here when we arrived, perhaps, but with land that is alive, lush, and varied all the same. “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” was Shelley’s pivotal command in his portrait of magnificent ruins, but Detroit is far from a “shattered visage.” It is a harsh place of poverty, deprivation, and a fair amount of crime, but it is 
also a stronghold of possibility.

That Rivera mural, for instance. In 1932 the soil, the country, the wilderness, and agriculture represented the past; they should have appeared, if at all, below or behind the symbols of industry and urbanism, a prehistory from which the gleaming machine future emerged. But the big panels of workers inside the gray chasms of the River Rouge plant have above them huge nude figures—black, white, red, yellow, lounging on the bare earth. Rivera meant these figures to be emblematic of the North American races and meant their fistfuls of coal, sand, iron ore, and limestone to be the raw stuff of industrialism. To my eye, though, they look like deities waiting to reclaim the world, insistent on sensual contact with the land and confident of their triumph over and after the factory that lies below them like an inferno.


Wardenclyffe Foreclosure Proceedings, pp.177-179; Nikola Tesla for Defendant—Direct:
“Yes. You see the underground work is one of the most expensive parts of the tower. In this system that I have invented it is necessary for the machine to get a grip of the earth, otherwise it cannot shake the earth. It has to have a grip on the earth so that the whole of this globe can quiver, and to do that it is necessary to carry out a very expensive construction.”



Tesla Lab: $1,650,000
5 Randall Road, Shoreham, N.Y., between Tesla Court and Randall Road
AVAILABLE: The only surviving workplace of Tesla, commemorated by a plaque in the laboratory, could be preserved if money can be raised to buy the site.
SIZE: 15.69 acres
ZONING: Two-acre residential
PROS: Complex of 14 industrial buildings, including historic Tesla laboratory. Property can be delivered fully cleared and level.
CONS: Property was a New York State Superfund cleanup site, with the main concerns being silver and cadmium. Remediation was completed last year, but the site still requires semiannual groundwater monitoring as well as periodic inspections of two soil areas of concern, to ensure that they undergo no disturbance.

[Mark Twain, frequent laboratory guest]




BY William J. Broad / May 5, 2009

In 1901, Nikola Tesla began work on a global system of giant towers meant to relay through the air not only news, stock reports and even pictures but also, unbeknown to investors such as J. Pierpont Morgan, free electricity for one and all. It was the inventor’s biggest project, and his most audacious.

The first tower rose on rural Long Island and, by 1903, stood more than 18 stories tall. One midsummer night, it emitted a dull rumble and proceeded to hurl bolts of electricity into the sky. The blinding flashes, The New York Sun reported, “seemed to shoot off into the darkness on some mysterious errand.” But the system failed for want of money, and at least partly for scientific viability. Tesla never finished his prototype tower and was forced to abandon its adjoining laboratory.

Today, a fight is looming over the ghostly remains of that site, called Wardenclyffe — what Tesla authorities call the only surviving workplace of the eccentric genius who dreamed countless big dreams while pioneering wireless communication and alternating current. The disagreement began recently after the property went up for sale in Shoreham, N.Y.

A science group on Long Island wants to turn the 16-acre site into a Tesla museum and education center, and hopes to get the land donated to that end. But the owner, the Agfa Corporation, says it must sell the property to raise money in hard economic times. The company’s real estate broker says the land, listed at $1.6 million, can “be delivered fully cleared and level,” a statement that has thrown the preservationists into action.

The ruins of Wardenclyffe include the tower’s foundation and the large brick laboratory, designed by Tesla’s friend Stanford White, the celebrated architect. “It’s hugely important to protect this site,” said Marc J. Seifer, author of “Wizard,” a Tesla biography. “He’s an icon. He stands for what humans are supposed to do — honor nature while using high technology to harness its powers.” Recently, New York State echoed that judgment. The commissioner of historic preservation wrote Dr. Seifer on behalf of Gov. David A. Paterson to back Wardenclyffe’s preservation and listing in the National Register of Historic Places.

On Long Island, Tesla enthusiasts vow to obtain the land one way or another, saying that saving a symbol of Tesla’s accomplishments would help restore the visionary to his rightful place as an architect of the modern age. “A lot of his work was way ahead of his time,” said Jane Alcorn, president of the Tesla Science Center, a private group in Shoreham that is seeking to acquire Wardenclyffe. Dr. Ljubo Vujovic, president of the Tesla Memorial Society of New York, said destroying the old lab “would be a terrible thing for the United States and the world. It’s a piece of history.”

Tesla, who lived from 1856 to 1943, made bitter enemies who dismissed some of his claims as exaggerated, helping tarnish his reputation in his lifetime. He was part recluse, part showman. He issued publicity photos (actually double exposures) showing him reading quietly in his laboratory amid deadly flashes. Today, his work tends to be poorly known among scientists, though some call him an intuitive genius far ahead of his peers. Socially, his popularity has soared, elevating him to cult status.

Books and Web sites abound. Wikipedia says the inventor obtained at least 700 patents. YouTube has several Tesla videos, including one of a break-in at Wardenclyffe. A rock band calls itself Tesla. An electric car company backed by Google’s founders calls itself Tesla Motors. Larry Page, Google’s co-founder, sees the creator’s life as a cautionary tale. “It’s a sad, sad story,” Mr. Page told Fortune magazine last year. The inventor “couldn’t commercialize anything. He could barely fund his own research.” Wardenclyffe epitomized that kind of visionary impracticality.

Tesla seized on the colossal project at the age of 44 while living in New York City. An impeccably dressed bon vivant of Serbian birth, he was widely celebrated for his inventions of motors and power distribution systems that used the form of electricity known as alternating current, which beat out direct current (and Thomas Edison) to electrify the world. His patents made him a rich man, at least for a while. He lived at the Waldorf-Astoria and loved to hobnob with the famous at Delmonico’s and the Players Club.

Around 1900, as Tesla planned what would become Wardenclyffe, inventors around the world were racing for what was considered the next big thing — wireless communication. His own plan was to turn alternating current into electromagnetic waves that flashed from antennas to distant receivers. This is essentially what radio transmission is. The scale of his vision was gargantuan, however, eclipsing that of any rival.

Investors, given Tesla’s electrical achievements, paid heed. The biggest was J. Pierpont Morgan, a top financier. He sank $150,000 (today more than $3 million) into Tesla’s global wireless venture. Work on the prototype tower began in mid-1901 on the North Shore of Long Island at a site Tesla named after a patron and the nearby cliffs. “The proposed plant at Wardenclyffe,” The New York Times reported, “will be the first of a number that the electrician proposes to establish in this and other countries.” The shock wave hit Dec. 12, 1901. That day, Marconi succeeded in sending radio signals across the Atlantic, crushing Tesla’s hopes for pioneering glory.

Still, Wardenclyffe grew, with guards under strict orders to keep visitors away. The wooden tower rose 187 feet over a wide shaft that descended 120 feet to deeply anchor the antenna. Villagers told The Times that the ground beneath the tower was “honeycombed with subterranean passages.” The nearby laboratory of red brick, with arched windows and a tall chimney, held tools, generators, a machine shop, electrical transformers, glass-blowing equipment, a library and an office.

But Morgan was disenchanted. He refused Tesla’s request for more money. Desperate, the inventor pulled out what he considered his ace. The towers would transmit not only information around the globe, he wrote the financier in July 1903, but also electric power. “I should not feel disposed,” Morgan replied coolly, “to make any further advances.”

Margaret Cheney, a Tesla biographer, observed that Tesla had seriously misjudged his wealthy patron, a man deeply committed to the profit motive. “The prospect of beaming electricity to penniless Zulus or Pygmies,” she wrote, must have left the financier less than enthusiastic. It was then that Tesla, reeling financially and emotionally, fired up the tower for the first and last time. He eventually sold Wardenclyffe to satisfy $20,000 (today about $400,000) in bills at the Waldorf. In 1917, the new owners had the giant tower blown up and sold for scrap.

Today, Tesla’s exact plan for the site remains a mystery even as scientists agree on the impracticality of his overall vision. The tower could have succeeded in broadcasting information, but not power. “He was an absolute genius,” Dennis Papadopoulos, a physicist at the University of Maryland, said in an interview. “He conceived of things in 1900 that it took us 50 or 60 years to understand. But he did not appreciate dissipation. You can’t start putting a lot of power” into an antenna and expect the energy to travel long distances without great diminution.

Wardenclyffe passed through many hands, ending with Agfa, which is based in Ridgefield Park, N.J. The imaging giant used it from 1969 to 1992, and then shuttered the property. Silver and cadmium, a serious poison, had contaminated the site, and the company says it spent some $5 million on studies and remediation. The cleanup ended in September, and the site was put up for sale in late February. Real estate agents said they had shown Wardenclyffe to four or five prospective buyers. Last month, Agfa opened the heavily wooded site to a reporter. “NO TRESPASSING,” warned a faded sign at a front gate, which was topped with barbed wire.

Tesla’s red brick building stood intact, an elegant wind vane atop its chimney. But Agfa had recently covered the big windows with plywood to deter vandals and intruders, who had stolen much of the building’s wiring for its copper. The building’s dark interior was littered with beer cans and broken bottles. Flashlights revealed no trace of the original equipment, except for a surprise on the second floor. There in the darkness loomed four enormous tanks, each the size of a small car. Their sides were made of thick metal and their seams heavily riveted, like those of an old destroyer or battleship. The Agfa consultant leading the tour called them giant batteries. “Look up there,” said the consultant, Ralph Passantino, signaling with his flashlight. “There’s a hatch up there. It was used to get into the tanks to service them.” Tesla authorities appear to know little of the big tanks, making them potential clues to the inventor’s original plans.

After the tour, Christopher M. Santomassimo, Agfa’s general counsel, explained his company’s position: no donation of the site for a museum, and no action that would rule out the building’s destruction. “Agfa is in a difficult economic position given what’s going on in the global marketplace,” he said. “It needs to maximize its potential recovery from the sale of that site.” He added that the company would entertain “any reasonable offer,” including ones from groups interested in preserving Wardenclyffe because of its historical significance. “We’re simply not in a position,” he emphasized, “to donate the property outright.”

Ms. Alcorn of the Tesla Science Center, who has sought to stir interest in Wardenclyffe for more than a decade, seemed confident that a solution would be worked out. Suffolk County might buy the site, she said, or a campaign might raise the funds for its purchase, restoration and conversion into a science museum and education center. She said the local community was strongly backing the preservation idea. “Once the sign went up, I started getting so many calls,” she remarked. “People said: ‘They’re not really going to sell it, are they? It’s got to be a museum, right?’”

Sitting at a reading table at the North Shore Public Library, where she works as a children’s librarian, Ms. Alcorn gestured across a map of Wardenclyffe to show how the abandoned site might be transformed with not only a Tesla museum but also a playground, a cafeteria and a bookshop. “That’s critical,” she said. Ms. Alcorn said the investigation and restoration of the old site promised to solve one of the big mysteries: the extent and nature of the tunnels said to honeycomb the area around the tower. “I’d love to see if they really existed,” she said. “The stories abound, but not the proof.”

Wardenclyffe Foreclosure Proceedings, pp.177-179

Nikola Tesla for Defendant—Direct.
A. Yes. You see the underground work is one of the most expensive parts of the tower.  In this system that I have invented it is necessary for the machine to get a grip of the earth, otherwise it cannot shake the earth.  It has to have a grip on the earth so that the whole of this globe can quiver, and to do that it is necessary to carry out a very expensive construction.  I had in fact invented special machines.  But I want to say this underground work belongs to the tower.

By Mr. Hawkins:
Q. Anything that was there, tell us about.
A. There was, as your Honor states, a big shaft about ten by twelve feet goes down about one hundred and twenty feet and this was first covered with timber and the inside with steel and in the center of this there was a winding stairs going down and in the center of the stairs there was a big shaft again through which the current was to pass, and this shaft was so figured in order to tell exactly where the nodal point is, so that I could calculate every point of distance.  For instance I could calculate exactly the size of the earth or the diameter of the earth and measure it exactly within four feet with that machine.

Q. And that was a necessary appurtenance to your tower?
A. Absolutely necessary.  And then the real expensive work was to connect that central part with the earth, and there I had special machines rigged up which would push the iron pipe, one length after another, and I pushed these iron pipes, I think sixteen of them, three hundred feet, and then the current through these pipes takes hold of the earth.  Now that was a very expensive part of the work, but it does not show on the tower, but it belongs to the tower.
Nikola Tesla for Defendant–Direct.

By Mr. Fordham:
Q. Was the hole really one hundred and twenty feet deep.  did you say?
A. Yes, you see the ground water on that place is about one hundred and twenty feet.  We are above the ground water about one hundred and twenty feet.  In the well we struck water at about eighty feet.

By the Referee:
Q. What you call the main water table?
A. Yes, the main well we struck at eighty feet, but there we had to go deeper.

By Mr. Hawkins:
Q. Tell the court generally, not in detail, the purpose of that tower and the equipment which you have described connected with it?
Mr. Fordham: How is that material?
The Referee: I will take it.
Mr. Fordham: We except.
A. Well, the primary purpose of the tower, your Honor, was to telephone, to send the human voice and likeness around the globe.

By the Referee:
Q. Through the instrumentality of the earth.
A. Through the instrumentality of the earth.  That was my discovery that I announced in 1893, and now all the wireless plants are doing that.  There is no other system being used.  And the idea was to reproduce this apparatus and then connect it just with a central station and telephone office, so that you may pick up your telephone and if you wanted to talk to a telephone subscriber in Australia you would simply call up that plant and the plant would connect immediately with that subscriber, no matter where in the world, and you could talk to him.  And I had contemplated to have press messages, stock quotations, pictures for the press and these reproductions of signatures, checks and everything transmitted from there throughout the world, but—-

from Wizard, ch 33, p. 291
“At the base of the edifice, deep below the earth, along the descending spiral staircase, was a network of catacombs that extended out like spokes of a wheel.  Sixteen of them contained iron pipes which protruded from the central shaft to a distance of three hundred feet.  The expense for these “terrestrial grippers” was notable, as Tesla had to design “special machines to push the pipes, one after the other” [Nikola Tesla On His Work With Alternating Currents . . . , Foreclosure Proceedings] deep into the earth’s interior.

”Also in the well were four stone-lined tunnels, each of which gradually rose back to the surface.  Large enough for a man to crawl through, they emerged like isolated, igloo-shaped brick ovens three hundred feet from the base of the tower.

”Although the exact reason for the burrows has not been determined, their necessity was probably multifaceted.  Tesla had increased the length of the aerial by over a hundred feet by extending the shaft into the earth.  Simultaneously, he was able to more easily transmit energy through the ground with this arrangement.  It is possible that he also planned to resonate the aquifer which was situated slightly below the bottom of the well.  The insulated passageways which climbed back to the surface may have been safety valves, which would have allowed excess pressure to escape.  They also provided an alternative way to access the base.  Tesla may have planned to fill other shafts with salt water or liquid nitrogen to augment transmission.  There may have also been other reasons for their construction.” — Marc Seifer, Wizard : the life and times of Nikola Tesla, p. 291 [After “Dig for Mystery Tunnels Ends With Scientist’s Secret Intact,” Newsday, Feb. 13, 1979, p. 24, and “Famed inventor, Mystery Tunnels Linked,” Newsday, March 10, 1979, p. 19.]

Ron Short Correspondence:

From: Ron Short
To: Gary Peterson
Subject: TWP
Date: Thursday, February 07, 2002 12:45 PM

Hello, I am presently a student at the State University at Buffalo, New York and I was wondering if you could help me with a few questions.  I grew up in Shoreham, NY and have always been inherently interested in Tesla and his experimentation, especially his links with the now-defunct Radio Central, located only 5 miles south of his Wardenclyffe plant.

For a few years back, I have heard constant rumors, through friends and colleagues, that an extensive tunnel network had stretched from the beaches off of Shoreham, to Tesla’s laboratory (Now Peerless Labs), and further to a building in RCA.  This is interesting because I have also heard rumors that old equipment was stored down here (possibly some of Tesla’s?!).  These tunnels were rumored to have originated during the civil war; used to transport goods from the beach clandestinely to surrounding communities, and again in WWI to avoid any German intelligence gathering.  These tunnels, which still do exist, were enormous in width and height (when they were building the Shoreham-Wading River fire house (which lies right next to the old Tesla site), a crane FELL IN the underlying tunnel.  This I have seen the pictures of.

With all of this information, however, I have not been able to “dig up” any information locally, or via the internet, on these famed tunnels.  The last tidbit I heard was that, in order to prevent injuries or lawsuits, the entrance at Shoreham Beach was collapsed, and they are apparently now therefore inaccessible.  However, with the now overlying towns that did not exist when they were built, it is highly unlikely that that took the time to collapse the entire length of the tunnels.  In fact, a friend has a neighbor whose house is relatively old, and in his basement, on opposite walls, lies a huge, red-brick arched tunnel entrance, which is now walled off by cinder blocks.  He stated that his children used to go and “play” in the tunnels until they encountered a dead dog, and he walled off the entrance himself.  It is also rumored that the Peerless Laboratories used these tunnels to dispose of harmful photochemicals, which now may be why the old Tesla site is one of the most prominent EPA superfund sites in the country.  This is also why there has been no development on that land.  The EPA deemed it safer and more cost-effective to leave the site in its present state than to clean it up.  This is also why I am afraid that the sight might never be recognized as an Historical Site, if only for the reason to avoid an environmental scandal.

I have dragged on, but I have nowhere else to turn.  Hopefully, you will be able to help me in my search for further information  on the tunnels.

Sincerely yours,
Ron Short

From: Gary Peterson
To: Ron Short
Subject: Re: TWP
Date: Tuesday, February 19, 2002 5:49 PM

Thank you for contacting me about the mysterious “Tesla tunnels” that have worked their way into the folklore which surrounds Tesla’s experimental work at Wardenclyffe.  I too am intrigued by this story and would like to learn the truth behind the rumors.

Let me start out by comparing some pieces of your account with what I have heard.  Regarding the firehouse incident, I was told that an underground chamber was exposed during excavation and a dead dog was found there.  And it is said that some of Tesla’s Colorado Springs apparatus had been put into a tunnel at the site.  As for the disposal of chemicals by Peerless, it’s my understanding the present concern is that chemicals may have been dumped down the 120 foot central shaft which was part of the underground portion of the wireless communications tower.  (Not directly related is a report from another Shoreham native of Wardenclyffe-related artifacts residing in an old landfill now partially under a parking lot, located near and in Gill’s Gully (near Gill’s Rock and Shoreham Shore Club), said to have been used by the Wardenclyffe Hotel, now Briarcliff School.)

This brings me to another aspect of the story that leads to even further confusion.  In trying to piece together an account of Tesla’s activities at Wardenclyffe it has been said that the rumored tunnel had been build by Tesla himself, dug between the lab building and the tower foundation.  While Agfa has looked for this tunnel without success, there is a written description and photographic documentation of two approximately 12″ round conduits for air and electrical power lines connecting the two points.  There is no doubt that Tesla did some major excavation in assembling his L. I. facility.  The tower shaft alone involved the moving of some 14,400 cubic feet of earth, at least.

Your account of the tunnels dating back to the Civil-War era is new to me.  Up to this point I had assumed the story was a corruption of eyewitness accounts of Tesla’s 1901 activities — the Shoreham Firehouse account not withstanding.  Of particular interest to me is the walled-off tunnel entrance in your friend’s basement.  Do you know how old the house is, i.e., was it built circa 1860-65?  Do you think he would be willing to have the cinder blocks removed to allow for exploration?

Getting back to the ongoing Peerless-Site cleanup, we have been in touch with the fellow at the N.Y.S. Dept. of Environmental Conservation’s office in Stony Brook who is in charge of monitoring the cleanup.  He says that Agfa is committed to the performance of any required remedial actions needed to eliminate the existing problem.  I understand the public input part of the process might occur this summer.  Is it possible that you might be able to participate at that time?

Gary Peterson

From: Ron Short
To: Gary Peterson
Subject: Re: Update on new info
Date: Thursday, February 28, 2002 10:16 AM

Hello again.  First, I would like to thank you for graciously taking some time out to reply to me concerning the tunnels.  I have e-mailed many others concerning this, but you were the only one who has replied as of the present.  Now, for the new information.

I have been in constant contact with a couple of close friends that are as interested in the tunnels as you and I.  Conveniently, one of them lives in Shoreham.  He and another have recently begun investigating the exact location of these tunnels.  We have recently learned that the tunnels did, in fact, extend to the beach, and existed intact until 1965, when the beach entrance was collapsed and permanently sealed.  The location of this entrance, not surprisingly, was about 500 feet west of the present day Shoreham Club House.  I have been unable to find, however, any records from either the town or the state regarding this event.  My friend surmised the location, and is at present attempting to determine whether the tunnels are at all intact in that site.  Further (which corroborates with the story you had mentioned to me about the landfill), my friend says that he thinks he may have encountered an outcropping of machinery very near the clubhouse and therefore the rumored entrance to the tunnel.

As for your question about the age of the house with the tunnel outline in the basement, it dates back at least the the first decade of the 1900’s.  We have also obtained an old map of Wardenclyffe approx.  1905, and the house is clearly shown on the map.  The house, however, was said to be a speakeasy, which make me wonder whether the basement anomalie was a tunnel entrance, or simply a secret “hiding place” for liquor or other contraband.  We are, at present, attempting to get permission from the owner to observe this entrance first-hand.

Another new tidbit is that concerning a medical complex directly across from the Tesla site.  In the late 1950’s and 1960’s, the complex was an orphanage.  There have surfaced many stories about the children going into the basement, and emerging hundreds of feet from the building actually in the Peerless site (undoubtedly another reason for the tunnels to be closed.)

Summarily, it seems that finally we are getting some concrete proof of the tunnels’ existence.  I have also recently spoke to an ex-employee of Grumman, and he stated that the tunnels were known about for YEARS by the employees of Grumman, and they even actually went down them in the past.
So now, the next step is to attempt to gain access.  This, of course, might not be possible, but I am attempting every legal route I can think of.  I don’t think anyone wants a trespassing charge on their record (especially me, I am currently applying for my PhD in psychology).  If proof of the existence of these tunnels can be found, I think that it would do wonders for the Wardenclyffe site and hopefully compel a further official investigation of the site.

Anyhow, if you have any more information (web sites, e-mail contacts), it would be greatly appreciated.  Hopefully, the existence of these tunnels will not remain shrouded in mystery for long.

Sincerely yours,
Ron Short

From: Gary Peterson
To: Ron Short
Subject: Re: Contact Information
Date: Monday, April 15, 2002 11:26 AM

Hi Ron,
Here is Tesla’s own description of the underground work associated with the tower from the 1923 Foreclosure Proceedings:
. . . In this system that I have invented it is necessary for the machine to get a grip of the earth, otherwise it cannot shake the earth.  It has to have a grip on the earth so that the whole of this globe can quiver, and to do that it is necessary to carry out a very expensive construction.  I had in fact invented special machines.  But I want to say this underground work belongs to the tower.
There was . . . a big shaft about ten by twelve feet goes down about one hundred and twenty feet and this was first covered with timber and the inside with steel and in the center of this there was a winding stairs going down and in the center of the stairs there was a big shaft again through which the current was to pass, and this shaft was so figured in order to tell exactly where the nodal point is, so that I could calculate every point of distance.  For instance I could calculate exactly the size of the earth or the diameter of the earth and measure it exactly within four feet with that machine.
. . . the real expensive work was to connect that central part with the earth, and there I had special machines rigged up which would push the iron pipe, one length after another, and I pushed these iron pipes, I think sixteen of them, three hundred feet, and then the current through these pipes takes hold of the earth.  Now that was a very expensive part of the work, but it does not show on the tower, but it belongs to the tower.  . . .

The as-built underground installation appears to have included a 120′ vertical 10′ x 12′ shaft with an additional 300′ of iron pipe pushed straight down to a depth of 420′.  It’s not surprising he spent so much time in this area considering the overall complexity of the job.

As for EPA info, as early as 1994 the had NYDEC listed Peerless as an “Inactive Hazardous Waste Disposal Site.” The report gives, CLASSIFICATION CODE: 2, REGION: 1, SITE CODE: 152031 & EPA ID: NYD002044139.

From: Ron Short
To: Gary Peterson
Subject: Re: Thank you for the communication
Date: Monday, May 27, 2002 4:42 PM

Gary, concerning the company Cornell-Petsco, it is a real estate company.  I researched online, but was unable to find any info.  regarding the sale of the Telsa property.  It is apparent, however, that AGFA is looking to sell the property, whether it be a building or as a whole.

My associate on long island that I had mentioned in prior letters has, in fact, been talking to a gentleman who was contracted to install duct work around approximately 1982.  This gentleman was able to give my friend a relatively detailed map of a tunnel underground that matched the descriptions I have heard about for some time now.  This tunnel led underground in a westerly fashion from the laboratory building to a single-story office building.  He described the tunnels as being black in color (probably carbonized) and as seeing workstations along the sides of the tunnels with purple-color lights (probably used for photographic purposes).  The tunnels were, though, constructed of stone mortared together and apparently when he drilled the anchors for the HVAC, it was quite difficult.

This is the first real concrete eyewitness map we have encountered as of yet, and will investigate this further, hopefully.
Actually, out of curiosity, I was wondering if is is true that AGFA and Peerless are owned by the same parent company, Bayer?  Either way, I appreciate your continued contact and information.  My friend and I will continue further research and will contact you soon.

Thank you.
Ron Short

Nikola Tesla’s Wireless Work : a ground-based system for wireless transmission

“The tower was destroyed two years ago but my projects are being developed and another one, improved in some features, will be constructed. . . . My project was retarded by laws of nature. The world was not prepared for it. It was too far ahead of time, but the same laws will prevail in the end and make it a triumphal success.” Nikola Tesla, My Inventions, 1919

The Creation of a Monument to Nikola Tesla
by Gary Peterson

I. Introduction
Radio communications, fluorescent lighting and AC power, these are all familiar and vital components of life as we know it in the latter part of the twentieth century and all were contributions of the prolific turn-of-the-century inventor Nikola Tesla. In spite of their exceptional significance, there are additional inventions which this remarkable man left to the world with the capacity to be of an equivalent or perhaps even greater value to society. Much of Nikola Tesla’s legacy, that which can be read about, built and used, is in the form of these inventions—much but not all.

Near the North Shore Long Island community of Shoreham, New York there remains a sturdy 94 by 94 foot red brick structure which is another, no less significant reminder of this great man’s work. Its importance lies not so much in the technology which it represents nor in the engineering clues that remain buried there. It is in the fact that the Wardenclyffe Power Plant / Office Building, designed by the well renowned architect Stanford White, is the last of Dr. Tesla’s own work places to remain standing anywhere in the world. The saga of the building’s history, from its construction in 1902 alongside a 187 foot companion tower to house the various components of a prototype world broadcasting and communications facility to later less glamorous uses, is a story yet to be fully told. And, there is history in the making as well. For a movement is underway which, if successful, will result in the establishment of the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe—a permanent monument to this great creative genius and his work.

II. Background
Just to the east of Manhattan, Nikola Tesla’s principle place of residence from 1884 until his death in 1943, is another somewhat larger body of land known as Long Island. Extending about 115 miles along the Atlantic shoreline of the United States, this 12 mile wide island is bounded by Long Island Sound to the north, and the East River, New York Bay and the Narrows to the west. It was formed due to the effect of glaciations, with its geography being defined by the deposition of two glacial moraines and associated outwash plains. Settlement of the area started in the late 1600s and continued on through the year 1800, after being purchased from the indigenous people known as the Montauks. The occupations of the residents were mainly related to farming, a character which the area retains to this day. A cordwood industry eventually developed as well, with logs of chestnut, oak and pine being shipped by sailing vessel to heat homes and fuel brickyard kilns in nearby New York City. Around 1850 the effects of an increasing demand for fuel along with a chestnut blight combined, resulting in forest depletion. The introduction of coal as wood’s replacement occurred at the same time.

III. Wardenclyffe-On-Sound
About 50 years later, having just returned to New York from a productive scientific expedition at the edge of the Colorado Rockies, Nikola Tesla was anxious to put a mass of new found knowledge to work. His vision was focused on the development of a prototype wireless communications station and research facility, and he needed a site on which to build. Long Island was already home to more than one-and-a-quarter million people when in 1901 he cast his eyes some 60 miles eastward to the north-shore village of Woodville Landing. Only six years before the northern branch of the Long Island Railroad had opened, reducing travel time to the locality from a horse-drawn five hours to less than two. Seeing an opportunity in land development a western lawyer and banker by the name of James S. Warden had purchased 1400 acres in the area and started building an exclusive summer resort community known as Wardenclyffe-On-Sound.[1] With an opportunity for further development in mind, Warden offered Tesla a 200-acre section of this parcel lying directly to the south of the newly laid track. It was anticipated that implementation of Tesla’s system would eventually lead to the establishment of a “Radio City” to house the thousands of employees needed for operation of the facility. The proximity to Manhattan and the fairly short travel time between the two, along with the site’s closeness to a railway line must surely have been attractive features and Tesla accepted the offer.

The Wardenclyffe World Wireless facility as envisioned by Tesla was to have been quite different from radio broadcasting stations as they presently exist. While there was to be a great similarity in the apparatus employed, the method in which it was to be utilized would have been radically different. Conventional transmitters are designed so as to maximize the amount of power radiated from the antenna structure. Such equipment must process tremendous amounts of power in order to counteract the loss in field strength (P = 1/R2) encountered as the signal radiates outward from its point of origin. The transmitter at Wardenclyffe was being configured so as to minimize the radiated power. The energy of Tesla’s steam driven Westinghouse 200 kW alternator was to be channeled instead into an underground structure consisting of iron pipes driven from a point 120 feet beneath the tower’s base.[2] This was to be accomplished by combining an extremely low frequency signal (ELF) with the higher frequency signal coursing through the transmitter’s master oscillator and helical resonator. The low frequency current in the presence of an enveloping corona-induced plasma of free charge carriers would have “pumped” the earth’s charge.[3] It is believed the resulting ground current and its associated wave complex would have allowed the propagation of wireless transmissions to any distance on the earth’s surface with as little as 5% loss due to radiation. The terrestrial transmission line modes so excited would have supported a system with the following technical capabilities:

1. Establishment of a multi-channel global broadcasting system with programming including news, music, et cetera;
2. Interconnection of the world’s telephone and telegraph exchanges, and stock tickers;
3. Transmission of written and printed matter, and data;
4. World wide reproduction of photographic images;
5. Establishment of a universal marine navigation and location system, including a means for the synchronization of precision timepieces;
6. Establishment of secure wireless communications services.[4]

Nikola Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Powerplant & Laboratory
The plan was to build the first of many installations to be located near major population centers around the world. If the program had moved forward without interruption, the Long Island prototype would have been followed by additional units the first of which being built somewhere along the coast of England.[5] By the Summer of 1902 Tesla had shifted his laboratory operations from the Houston Street Laboratory to the rural Long Island setting and work began in earnest on development of the station and furthering of the propagation research. Construction had been made possible largely through the backing of financier J. Pierpont Morgan who had offered Tesla $150,000 towards the end of 1900.[6] By July 1904, however, this support had run out and with a subsequent major downturn in the financial markets Tesla was compelled to pursue alternative methods of financing. With funds raised through an unrecorded mortgage against the property, additional venture capital, and the sale of X-ray tube power supplies to the medical profession, he was able to make ends meet for another couple of years.[7] In spite of valiant efforts to maintain the operation, income dwindled and his employees were eventually dropped from the payroll.

Still, Tesla was certain that his wireless system would return handsome rewards if it could only be set into operation and so the work continued as he was able. A second mortgage in 1908 acquired again from the Waldorf-Astoria proprietor George C. Boldt allowed some additional bills to be paid, but debt continued to mount and between 1912 and 1915 Tesla’s financial condition disintegrated. The loss of ability to make additional payments was accompanied by the collapse of his plan for high capacity trans-Atlantic wireless communications. The property was foreclosed, Nikola Tesla honored the agreement with his debtor and title on the property was signed over to Mr. Boldt. The plant’s abandonment sometime around 1911 followed by demolition and salvaging of the tower in 1917 essentially brought an end to this era. Tesla’s April 20, 1922 loss on appeal of the judgment completely closed the door to any further chance of his developing the site.

Another Time And Another Use
Little is known about the next 17 years of the building’s history. In 1919 the Radio Corporation of America established an overseas communications facility in the area. As part of this system a high power transmitter was build only two miles away in the adjacent town of Rocky Point. It is possible the building saw use as a storage warehouse in conjunction with this operation. Then, on April 24, 1939 a story about Tesla’s building appeared in the news. It was reported the property had been sold to new interests, specifically a Mr. Walter L. Johnson of Brooklyn, New York.[8] Within a few months the building was in the hands of Peerless Photo Products, Inc., it having been selected “due to its location in a smoke and smog free environment with an abundant supply of pure water and high grade, intelligent labor.”[9] Shortly thereafter on-site manufacturing operations that would span the next 48 years had begun. The primary activities at the Peerless Photo Products plant were related the production of photographic emulsions used in the manufacture of photographic film and the emulsion coating of photographic paper.

In July 1987 all manufacturing operations at the Peerless Photo Products site ceased and decommissioning of the plant began. The bulk of the decommissioning process would require more than three years. The first step involved the removal of some remaining semi-solid material from an onsite wastewater treatment plant and its shipment to a permitted disposal site. About the same time, remaining treatment chemicals were also disposed of in a similar fashion. In addition, various unused chemicals associated with the actual manufacturing processes along with some salvaged materials were shipped off of the site. In the next stage all of the tankage and piping from emulsion manufacture through wastewater treatment plant were thoroughly flushed with a hot high pressure wash system and the rinse water removed. The floors in areas of chemical use and coating machinery operation were also cleaned and the labs were washed down, with all of the resulting wastewater once again being shipped off site for disposal. The usable process equipment was dismantled for later shipment and other less easily cleanable pieces of equipment were removed. As an additional measure the septic tanks were completely pumped to remove any residuals from in house operations. The final phase of decommissioning saw the removal of eight underground storage tanks. [10]

A New Beginning For An Historic Building
The third period in the history of Nikola Tesla’s laboratory can be said to have opened on March 3, 1967 with the recommendation of a research committee appointed by Brookhaven Town Supervisor Charles W. Barraud that the building be designated as an historic site. At that time, just about 50 years after the tower’s demolition, the historical significance of the property as it relates to Nikola Tesla’s engineering legacy was officially recognized. The American bicentennial year of 1976 saw an even greater revival of interest in Nikola Tesla and his work. A number of notable events entered into the historical record during this year.

One of the first was the establishment by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE) of the Nikola Tesla Award. On January 27, 1976 the first award was presented to Leon T. Rosenberg for his outstanding contributions in the field of generation and utilization of electric power. This was followed a few days later by the IEEE’s “Nikola Tesla Symposium” conducted during their January 30, 1976 meeting at the Statler-Hilton Hotel in New York City. Presenters included Robert W. Flugum, Assistant Director—Transmission Division of Electric Energy Systems, USERDA; Frank A. Jenkins, Duke Power Company; Prof. Vojin Popovic, Beograd Yugoslavia; Tomo Bosanac and Lazar Ljubisa; J. R. Morin, GTE Sylvania Inc.; Charles L. Wagner, Manager, Transmission Systems Engineering, Westinghouse Electric Corp.; John J. Dougherty, Director, Transmission & Distribution Division, EPRI; Dean B. Harrington and Karl F. Drexler; Veljko Korac; and, J. C. White, General Electric Company.

About five months later, on July 7, 1976, ceremonies timed to coincide with the 120th anniversary of Tesla’s birth were begun at the Brookhaven National Laboratory. The event included a symposium co-chaired by Vasa Veskovic, Council General of Yugoslavia and R. C. Anderson, Assistant Director, BNL and organized with cooperation of the Westinghouse Electric Corporation. Among the scheduled speakers were Frank A. Jenkins, President IEEE Power Engineering Society; Walter H. Bales, Westinghouse Electric Corporation; Gorden D. Friedlander, Senior Editor, IEEE Spectrum; and, Eric B. Forsyth, head of BNL’s Power Transmission Project. That same day, with the cooperation of the Brookhaven Town Historic trust, an historical marker was dedicated and placed near the entrance of the Tesla Laboratory building.[11] The plaque, donated by Yugoslavia, bore the following inscription:


The following Saturday, July 10, 1976, a 5 dinar stamp was issued by Yugoslavia, marking the 120th anniversary of Tesla’s birth on July 10, 1856. Designed by Andreja Milenkovic, it carried an image reflecting the Tesla monument in front of the Electrical Engineering Facility in Belgrade against a background of Niagara Falls. Another effort this year was the July 24 dedication of the Nikola Tesla statue on Goat Island adjacent to Niagara Falls. One further action which took place in 1976 was the first application seeking to have the property containing the Tesla Laboratory Building and the Communications Tower Foundation placed on the New York State Register, and National Register of Historic Places. This important act would set the stage for future efforts directed towards preservation of the historic Wardenclyffe landmark.

In the Spring of 1994 at the request of Dr. Ljubomir Vujovic of the Tesla Memorial Society, noted Tesla historian Leland Anderson contacted the various Tesla-named organizations here in the United States. The mailing was to encourage the initiation of a letter writing campaign once again advocating placement of the Wardenclyffe site on the National Register of Historic Places. It was requested that letters be directed towards three specific U.S. Government offices.

The first office was that of the Vice President of the United States. It is significant that Vice President Gore is presently aware of Dr. Tesla’s achievements in the areas of electrical and mechanical engineering. The second was the National Park Service, Cultural Resources, U.S. Department of the Interior. The National Park Service oversees the preservation of federal historic sites and administration of buildings programs. Their programs include the placement of properties on the National Register of Historic Places plus grant and aid assistance. The third entity was the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. This agency advises the President and Congress on historic preservation issues. It reviews and comments on federal projects and programs affecting historic, architecture, archaeological, and cultural resources.

What ensued over the course of the next few months was an outpouring of support by individuals from across America. At the advice of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, follow-up letters were addressed to the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. It should be noted that National Historic designation is always preceded by historic designation at the state level. By mid-October 1994, a second Application for Technical Assistance had been filed with New York State on behalf of the historic Wardenclyffe building and tower foundation sites. This reinitiated the formal nomination process which, if entirely successful, will result in placement of the Wardenclyffe sites on both the State and National Registers of Historic Places.

Subsequently the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation conducted an on-site inspection which established that the sites meet with the seven New York State criteria for Historic Designation. Up until May 1995 much of this work had been conducted by members of an ad hoc group called the Tesla Wardenclyffe Project Committee. By that time it was apparent that we needed to coalesce into a formal institution in order to successfully achieve our growing set of objectives.

On May 6, 1995 the first meeting of the Board of Directors was held and it was agreed that the ad hoc committee would be re-established as the Tesla Wardenclyffe Project, Inc. The Directors were confirmed and its Officers were elected. At the same meeting a Technical Advisory Board was established. This group presently includes such notable individuals as Leland Anderson, Margaret Cheney, James Corum, Harry Goldman, William Terbo, and George Westinghouse, IV. Our most important objective was, and still is, acquisition of the 16.2 acre parcel in Shoreham upon which are located the Wardenclyffe building and the transmitting / receiving tower foundation.

The present owners, AGFA Corporation, had stated their intention to divest themselves of the property after completion of a final cleanup. Furthermore, they indicated that donation of the entire facility to a properly configured receiver would be a cost-effective way for them to proceed. It is with this in mind that we initiated discussions with an Eastern Long Island group known as The Friends of Science East, Inc. This not-for-profit corporation was created in January 1996 with the mission of establishing a regional science center in their area. The Peerless Photo Products site was among the possible locations being considered in that regard. (Please note that in addition to the 10,000 square foot Tesla Laboratory Building an additional 90,000 square feet of floor space exist at the Peerless site.)

What Does The Future Hold?
Since a primary goal of the Tesla Wardenclyffe Project is to acquire Tesla related memorabilia with the hope of establishing a Tesla museum in the lab building and that of the Friends of Science East is to establish a science museum, it is felt that a common interest exists in the acquisition of the property. Ongoing discussions between the two groups have resulted in the development of a common vision for the site’s future. This is centered around the concept to establish a joint operating entity called Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe. While AGFA has expressed an interest in seeing the site conserved for a future use that is in harmony with its historical nature and has stated that donation of the property for such purposes is under consideration, the company will not make a final decision in this regard until their present decommissioning activities have been completed.

If the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe is successful in its bid to acquire Tesla Laboratory Building, a vast field of possibilities will be opened up. Defined in the broadest terms, its mission will be the reintegration of Nikola Tesla back into the mainstream of science and academia, and to instill visitors with a greater interest in the sciences in general. Once plans for the Nikola Tesla Museum, the Nikola Tesla Library and Historical Archives, and the Science Museum are sufficiently advanced it is felt that restoration and placement of the building and the adjacent tower foundation on the New York State and National Registers of Historic Places will naturally follow.

IV. Conclusion
As more and more commercial and residential development takes place across America and around the world, much greater importance becomes attached to the preservation of such rare sites as Wardenclyffe for the benefit of the present and future generations. While considerable progress has been made in advancing our program, many formidable challenges still lie ahead. Working together, the Tesla Wardenclyffe Project and the Friends of Science East have established an open dialogue with the building’s owners, and strong assurances have been received that we are prime candidates to acquire the property.

How do you the reader fit into all of this? The Tesla Wardenclyffe Project, Inc. is a small but growing institution. We are registered as a 501(c)(3) tax exempt membership organization and are actively seeking additional people to fill out our ranks. If you have something to offer the Project, whether it is in the form of financial support through a membership contribution, access to a particular talent, or simply your vote of confidence, then please take some time from your schedule to send us a note or make a phone call. A plan to steer the destiny of an important historical landmark on the North Shore of Long Island, New York is now underway. We are working to earn your support and would very much like to hear from you. All correspondence should be addressed to:

The Tesla Wardenclyffe Project
P.O. Box 8041
Breckenridge, CO 80424-8041
United States of America
or call: (970) 453-9293.

Suffolk County is looking into the possibility of making renowned scientist
Nikola Tesla’s Shoreham lab into a science museum.
BY Alison Snyder / North Shore Sun / February 6, 2009

The former research lab of famed inventor and scientist Nikola Tesla in Shoreham has taken a step closer to becoming the science center and museum that advocates have long dreamed of. Legislation sponsored by Suffolk County Legislator Daniel Losquadro (R-Shoreham) and passed by the legislature enables the county to begin the planning process to acquire the 16.2-acre site off Route 25A between Randall Road and Tesla Street. “We’re going to take the lead on this,” said Mr. Losquadro. “Everyone has been saying all along they want this property to be preserved.” The move comes nearly two years after the cleanup of the contaminated site wrapped to a close. The site is owned by Afga-Gevaert, a Belgian photographic film company.

The county now will contact Afga and begin the appraisal process and discussions to possibly acquire the property, Mr. Losquadro said. He added that he wants to see the government be proactive about it, instead of a reactive effort he fears would follow if an entity offered to purchase the property without preservation in mind. Jane Alcorn, president of the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe, the nonprofit organization formerly known as Friends of Science East, said she is happy to see some movement toward transforming the 10,000-square-foot former research lab on the property into a museum. “We just hope that all the involved parties come to an amicable agreement and allow this to go forward and become a museum,” she said.

The group envisions a museum with a permanent exhibit highlighting Tesla, who pioneered the alternating current power system and invented radio and the bladeless steam turbine, which harnessed hydroelectric power at Niagara Falls. Mr. Tesla is believed by many to be the most important scientist and inventor of the modern age. His famous Wardenclyffe tower and laboratory in Shoreham were built between 1901 and 1905. The tower was dismantled in 1917. Ms. Alcorn said she also wants the museum to foster a wider interest in science with other science-related exhibitions, Saturday science programs, seminars and lecture series, science-related films and a playground that teaches children about physics as they play. She would also like to see the museum serve as a community center for gatherings and meetings. “The idea is we’d like to have something that’s useful for the community as well as providing scientific education,” she said.

Despite the difficult economic times, Mr. Losquadro said the county has dedicated land preservation funds — which can’t be spent on anything else — available for purchasing the site. And now would be a good time to purchase the property, he added. “With the economy in a downturn, we have the ability to preserve important lands when they’re worth less,” he said. If the county ends up purchasing the land and the building, Mr. Losquadro acknowledged that both would require a significant amount of money for restoration and upkeep and said the county likely wouldn’t do more than owning the property. What he is looking for, he said, is a public-private partnership with the Tesla Science Center, which would be responsible for the building and developing the site. He said corporate sponsorships of a museum would also be possible, since Tesla did a lot of pioneering work with wireless communications technology.

Neither Mr. Losquadro or Ms. Alcorn had an indication of what type of time frame it might take to acquire the property and turn it into a museum, citing the willingness of Afga to sell the property to the county. The company is aware of the goal to purchase the property and turn the research lab into a museum, Ms. Alcorn said. Mr. Losquadro said the county’s planning and real estate departments are now in charge of the matter and will be contacting the company.

Cleanup Reaches Milestone
BY Jane Alcorn / The Sound Observer / May 25, 2007

The cleanup at the Agfa-Peerless Photo Products site in Shoreham reached a milestone recently when all the physical removal of contaminated material was completed, and final testing was done. According to Agfa representative Charlene Graff, the removal of soils and remediation was completed over a month ago, and the cleaned areas were tested for safety. “The preliminary test results are good,” she said. Levels of cadmium and other chemicals that were dumped on the grounds from the photo emulsion processing conducted on the site years ago led to it being placed on a list of places requiring cleanup under the supervisions of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC).

The Agfa staff will be working on writing the reports that describe the completed work and test results over the next six weeks, and plan to send the reports for review by the DEC and the state and county health departments. These agencies will examine the reports, and make recommendations for changes, clarifications, or improvements in the reports. When all of the paperwork is done, the DEC will release the site from its list of contaminated sites and allow Agfa to make a decision as to its future use. This process could take several months. There will be ongoing monitoring for years of several places on the property where remediation included stabilization of soils, resulting in restrictions on the future use for some of the land.

Graff said the company plans to remove some of the remaining buildings on the site: the wastewater treatment plant, the administration building, and the old white house facing Route 25A are slated for demolition due to asbestos and structural issues. These activities do not require the oversight of the DEC. Additional structures on the site may also be removed after assessment of their safety and usefulness. On May 18, Graff and Girish Desai of the DEC conducted a brief tour of the property for New York State Assemblyman Mark Alessi, Brookhaven Councilman Kevin McCarrick and their assistants. “We walked the property and were shown where work had been done,” said John Kreutz, assistant to McCarrick. “They’re doing an assessment of what the place is worth.”

“They are looking to find out what the property is worth,” agreed Kaitlin Boyd, chief of staff for Alessi. “They said it was a unique property in a residential area. There is nothing to compare it to, and it is hard to come up with a price.” Peter Scully, regional director of the DEC, was also on the tour of the grounds. “The good news is that the cleanup of the site has followed the plan.” said Scully. “What remains to be seen is how the property will be treated as a real estate asset. I’m interested in how the plans of town and other public officials who have shown an interest in its future will play out.” The property is the site of scientist and inventor Nikola Tesla’s turn-of-the-century laboratory. Tesla’s lab, a 94’x94′ square brick building, was designed by his friend, renowned architect Stanford White. The brick building still stands. Also on the site is the remains of the base of Tesla’s 187-foot tower that was intended to be a wireless transmissions tower. The tower was demolished in 1917 when Tesla encountered financial difficulties. The tower base was one of the places where contamination remediation caused particular problems. The base was originally dug 120 feet down. After the tower was removed, subsequent occupants of the property used the large hole in the ground for dumping unwanted material, some of it hazardous. Agfa and the DEC arranged for the tower base contamination to be stabilized through injecting a cement-like slurry into the area that solidified the soil and discarded material, and prevents any spread of contamination. As to the future disposition of the property, many suggestions have been made, among them a plan to convert the Tesla laboratory into a science museum and Tesla archive.

Friends of Science East, a local group, has been following the cleanup for over ten years, while maintaining contact with Agfa, in hopes of realizing their goal of the museum. “We envision a Tesla Science Center that brings the excitement of science to the people of Long Island. That excitement drove people like Tesla at the dawn of our modern age of electricity and communication, and it is very much alive on Long Island today,” said Chris Wesselborg, secretary of FSE. “Tesla’s laboratory in Shoreham is an important historic landmark. It testifies to his fundamental contributions to some of our key technologies. What better way to celebrate Long Island’s heritage than with a regional science and technology center and museum at that site,” he said. Tesla was the developer and inventor of the alternating current induction motor, neon lighting, radio wave remote-controlled devices, and the formative patents for radio, Tesla was declared to be the “father of radio” by the Supreme Court, his patents superseding Guglielmo Marconi’s. The Shoreham laboratory, called Wardenclyffe, was planned by Tesla to be the center of his World Wireless System, where he planned to send wireless communications and to transmit energy without wires.

No decision has been made by Agfa regarding the future use of the site. One potential owner is a coalition of the state and town. “We’re not going to make any decisions until all the paperwork is done and the state (DEC) signs off on it,” said Graff. “First I want to be sure the cleanup is done properly. I want to see the reports,” said Alessi. “I really think the site is of historic significance, and I would like to see the Tesla building preserved.” “I would like to hear from the community about what the property should become overall,” he said. “There is so much history surrounding what Tesla has done there in terms of electrical experiments. Shoreham has a legendary past, this is part of it, and I don’t want to see that lost,” said Alessi. “I’m happy we’re at the point where we can see the light at the end of the tunnel regarding the remediation process. Now maybe the town get together with Agfa to begin a negotiation process,” said McCarrick. “Everybody [on the tour] was in agreement to take whatever steps were necessary to preserve the historic Stanford White-designed laboratory. This property has the potential to become an education center and to be a testimony to Nikola Tesla’s legacy on Long Island,” said Kreutz.

Wardenclyffe, An Historical Landmark

“We would like to see Wardenclyffe placed on both the New York State and National Historic Registers. The National Register of Historic Places is the official list of the nation’s cultural resources worthy of preservation. Authorized under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the Register is part of a federal program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect our historic and archeological resources. Placing Wardenclyffe on the National Register of Historic Places will provide the world with a tangible reminder of Dr. Tesla’s work. Wardenclyffe’s importance lies not so much in the technology which it represents or in the engineering clues buried there—it is in the fact that Wardenclyffe is the last of Dr. Tesla’s work places to remain standing anywhere in the world. The saga of the building’s history, from its design by Stanford White, to its contruction to house a prototype world communications facility to its later adaptation for other commercial uses, is a story yet to be fully told.

Efforts to have the property placed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places were begun in September 1994 by the Tesla Wardenclyffe Project through contact with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. Our application has subsequently received approval after a finding that the site meets with the seven New York State criteria for listing. Efforts for National Historic Designation will be greatly facilitated if the Tesla Wardenclyffe Project / Friends of Science East coalition is successful in acquiring the property from its current owners.”


The three fundamental principles behind the operation of Tesla’s wireless system are:
1. Low frequency alternating current can be transmitted through the inhomogeneous earth with low loss due to the fact that the net resistance between antipodes of the earth is considerably less than 1 ohm.  The electrical displacement takes place predominantly by electrical conduction through the more conductive regions.  The electrical energy also propagates through the earth by means of displacement current.
2. Low frequency high voltage alternating current can be transmitted through the atmosphere with low loss.  The electrical displacement takes place by a) electrostatic induction, b) electrical conduction, or a combination of these two.
3. The earth possesses a naturally existing negative charge or DC electrostatic potential, on the order of 400,000 volts, with respect to the conducting region of the atmosphere beginning at an elevation of about 50 kilometers, and near the earth’s surface there is a ubiquitous downward directed E-field of about 100 V/m. The Tesla coil transmitter can create a disturbance in this charge, which is manifests itself as an annular distortion of the background electric field around it.
My experiments . . . in Colorado showed that at a height of 1 mile it is plenty enough rarefied to break down under the stress and conduct the current to the distant points. . . . My patent says that I break down the atmosphere “at or near” the terminal. If my conducting atmosphere is 2 or 3 miles above the plant, I consider this very near the terminal as compared to the distance of my receiving terminal, which may be across the Pacific. . . . I have constructed and patented a form of apparatus which, with a moderate elevation of a few hundred feet, can break the air stratum down.  You will then see something like an aurora borealis across the sky, and the energy will go to the distant place. . . . An apparatus which permits displacing a certain quantity of electricity in the terminal—we shall say so many units—will produce an electric potential at a distance of 5 miles, and the fall of electric potential per centimeter will be equal to the quantity of electricity divided by the square of the distance. . . . Now, I have satisfied myself that I can construct plants in which I may produce, per kilometer of the atmosphere, electric differences of potential of something like 50,000 or 60,000 volts, and at 50,000 or 60,000 volts that atmosphere must break down and will become conductive. . . .

The earth is 4,000 miles radius.  Around this conducting earth is an atmosphere.  The earth is a conductor; the atmosphere above is a conductor, only there is a little stratum between the conducting atmosphere and the conducting earth which is insulating. . . . Now, you realize right away that if you set up differences of potential at one point, say, you will create in the media corresponding fluctuations of potential. But, since the distance from the earth’s surface to the conducting atmosphere is minute, as compared with the distance of the receiver at 4,000 miles, say, you can readily see that the energy cannot travel along this curve and get there, but will be immediately transformed into conduction currents, and these currents will travel like currents over a wire with a return.  The energy will be recovered in the circuit, not by a beam that passes along this curve and is reflected and absorbed, . . . but it will travel by conduction and will be recovered in this way.

Tesla earth pump

With Additional Comments by Henry Bradford and Gary Peterson

Atmospheric Conduction Method
Energy Transmission By Means of a Spherical Conductor Transmission Line With an Upper Half-space Return Circuit.

Tesla’s ideas about electrical conduction through the “natural media” fall into two categories: closed circuit and open circuit. [Henry Bradford]

In 1932 journalist John J. O’Neill conducted an interview with Tesla in which he talked about the difference between the wireless transmission of electric energy using what Mr. Bradford describes as either “closed circuit” or “open circuit” principles.

I also asked him if he is still at work on the project which he inaugurated in the ’90’s of transmitting power wirelessly anywhere on earth.  He is at work on it, he said, and it could be put into operation. . . . He at that time announced two principles which could be used in this project.  In one the ionizing of the upper air would make it as good a conductor of electricity as a metal.  In the other the power is transmitted by creating “standing waves” in the earth by charging the earth with a giant electrical oscillator that would make the earth vibrate electrically in the same way a bell vibrates mechanically when it is struck with a hammer.  “I do not use the plan involving the conductivity of the upper strata of the air,” he said, “but I use the conductivity of the earth itself, and in this I need no wires to send electrical energy to any part of the globe.” [“Tesla Cosmic Ray Motor May Transmit Power ‘Round’ Earth,” Brooklyn Eagle, July 10, 1932.]

The closed circuit system consists of a large Tesla coil transmitter, an ionized path connecting the transmitter to the upper atmosphere, the upper atmosphere, a second ionized path connecting the upper atmosphere back down to a receiving location, and the receiver itself.  The circuit back to the transmitter is completed through the earth.  The upper atmosphere, like any low-pressure gas, is not an ohmic conductor, but will conduct electricity if broken down; i.e., ionized.  The portion of the upper atmosphere between the transmitter and the receiver would then conduct current like a neon tube of planetary proportions.  It would require a certain amount of energy to maintain the electrical discharge through it.

The earth is 4,000 miles radius.  Around this conducting earth is an atmosphere.  The earth is a conductor; the atmosphere above is a conductor, only there is a little stratum between the conducting atmosphere and the conducting earth which is insulating. . . . Now, you realize right away that if you set up differences of potential at one point, say, you will create in the media corresponding fluctuations of potential.  But, since the distance from the earth’s surface to the conducting atmosphere is minute, as compared with the distance of the receiver at 4,000 miles, say, you can readily see that the energy cannot travel along this curve and get there, but will be immediately transformed into conduction currents, and these currents will travel like currents over a wire with a return.  The energy will be recovered in the circuit, not by a beam that passes along this curve and is reflected and absorbed, . . . but it will travel by conduction and will be recovered in this way. [NIKOLA TESLA ON HIS WORK WITH ALTERNATING CURRENTS AND THEIR APPLICATION TO WIRELESS TELEGRAPHY, TELEPHONY AND TRANSMISSION OF POWER, Leland I. Anderson, Editor, Twenty First Century Books, 1992, pp. 129-130.]

In operation, the electrical energy flowing through the air is characterized by its high voltage and low current, and through the earth by its high current and low voltage.  For any given power level, the I2 R losses in the plasma transmission line is proportional to the value of the resistance (R) of the ionized path between the two stations, and inversely proportional to the amount of current (I) flowing along this path.  The voltage drop (E) across R is given by Ohm’s law, E = IR.  There is an inverse relationship between voltage and current, so for any given load, increasing the transmission line voltage would reduce the current.  For any given load, with a constant transmission-line resistance, lowering the current that flows through the transmission line would also reduce the voltage drop.  This equates to greater transmission-line efficiency.  In Tesla’s words,

. . . by such means as have been described practically any potential that is desired may be obtained, the currents through the air strata may be rendered very small, whereby the loss in the transmission may be reduced. [SYSTEM OF TRANSMISSION OF ELECTRICAL ENERGY, Sept. 2, 1897, U.S. Patent No. 645,576, Mar. 20, 1900.]

Tesla’s wireless transmitter-receiver station was designed to develop extremely high potentials on the elevated terminal in order to minimize the loss due to the plasma transmission line resistance.

Another characteristic of the Tesla apparatus is that a high current flows in the conductor that connects the oscillator to the earth.  Looking at an entire atmospheric conduction system, each of the transmitter-receiver stations serves, in a sense, as a lever and a fulcrum that converts the power flowing through the air and ground paths. [Corum & Corum]

An independent power source is required at the receiving location to sustain the conducting path to the upper atmosphere.  Both the transmitter and the receiver have to be capable of ionizing the upper atmosphere out to some distance, in much the same way that a corona discharge ionizes the air out to a radius at which its electric field falls below the breakdown value for air, or the leader in a lightning discharge ionizes the air ahead of the bolt.

Tesla described the ionization process like this:

For example, a conductor or terminal, to which impulses such as those here considered are supplied, but which is otherwise insulated in space and is remote from any conducting-bodies, is surrounded by a luminous flame-like brush or discharge often covering many hundreds or even as much as several thousands of square feet of surface, this striking phenomenon clearly attesting the high degree of conductivity which the atmosphere attains under the influence of the immense electrical stresses to which it is subjected.  This influence is however, not confined to that portion of the atmosphere which is discernible by the eye as luminous and which, as has been the case in some instances actually observed, may fill the space within a spherical or cylindrical envelop of a diameter of sixty feet or more, but reaches out to far remote regions, the insulating qualities of the air being, as I have ascertained, still sensibly impaired at a distance many hundred times that through which the luminous discharge projects from the terminal and in all probability much farther. [SYSTEM OF TRANSMISSION OF ELECTRICAL ENERGY, Sept. 2, 1897, U.S. Patent No. 645,576, Mar. 20, 1900.]
Both wireless stations would be individually capable of ionizing the upper atmosphere in their vicinities out to distance that is based upon four physical parameters.  Tesla identified these as the “electromotive force” of the transmitted impulses, the atmospheric density, the height of the elevated terminal above the ground, “and also, apparently, in slight measure, . . . the degree of moisture contained in the air.”  By using a vertical ionizing beam the requirement for very tall towers is reduced.
I have also found it practicable to transmit notable amounts of energy through air strata not in direct contact with the transmitting and receiving terminals, but remote from them, the action of the impulses, in rendering conducting air of a density at which it normally behaves as an insulator, extending, as before remarked, to a considerable distance. . . . [Ibid.]

Tesla also spoke about instances in which the connection between the elevated terminals is, in part, by electrostatic induction.

In some cases when small amounts of energy are required the high elevation of the terminals, and more particularly of the receiving – terminal D, may not be necessary, since, especially when the frequency of the currents is very high, a sufficient amount of energy may be collected at that terminal by electrostatic induction from the upper air strata, which are rendered conducting by the active terminal of the transmitter or through which the currents from the same are conveyed. [Ibid.]
This means that a wholly conductive path between the transmitting and the receiving stations is not an absolute requirement.  A portion the transmitter’s energy can be collected at the receiver by electrostatic induction alone.  This also suggests that a flow of energy may occur between the two high-altitude ionized regions by means of electrostatic induction, that is to say, by so-called displacement current.  Once the initial atmospheric connection is established by the means of true conduction and displacement currents, each high-altitude ionized region might grow in size in the direction of its counterpart with the passage of time,

I have likewise observed that this region of decidedly-noticeable influence continuously enlarges as time goes on, and the discharge is allowed to pass not unlike a conflagration which slowly spreads, this being possibly due to the gradual electrification or ionization of the air or to the formation of less insulating gaseous compounds. [Ibid.]

To accomplish this would be a stupendous undertaking.  It strikes me that Tesla’s concept of transmitting electric power wirelessly via electrical conduction through a closed circuit consisting of the earth and the atmosphere is not promising from a practical viewpoint.  This is because of the enormous voltages needed to reach to useful distances from the transmitter through the atmosphere, and the power requirements for maintaining the air path in an ionized state.

Wireless power transmission by means of the atmospheric method appears to be feasible.  It can be accomplished exactly as Tesla said it could without violating the known laws of physics.  It has not been adopted for economic reasons, and because certain basic engineering challenges that Tesla addressed while developing the system have not been revisited.  Tesla spoke about the commercial establishment of a wireless system in which the transmitted energy is utilized in at least three different ways—high-frequency lighting, turning electric motors, and wireless telecommunications.
Wireless communications is not as demanding as the transmission of power.  Tesla seems to have favoured carrier frequencies in the range of tens of kilohertz or so, which would be reasonable for transmission of information at a useful rate.  He had in mind transmitters and receivers as those shown in his patent drawings, communicating through the earth via current from the ground terminal of the transmitter and the partially or wholly ionized path described above.  This raises the question of whether the current from the ground terminal of a Tesla transmitter, which definitely would exist, would have a range comparable to or greater than that of a radio wave from a radio transmitter of the same power and frequency, and the induced earth current that would accompany it.

The principal difference between Tesla’s system, either closed or open circuit, and open circuit low frequency radio systems is that a radio transmitter is designed primarily to emit energy in the form of electromagnetic radiation from its antenna, whereas the Tesla communications transmitter is designed primarily to inject an electrical current into the earth at its ground terminal.  The mode of propagation for both systems appears to me to be the same; i.e., earth currents and surface charge coupled to a vertical electric field in the Earth-ionosphere cavity.

Mr. Bradford describes the mode of propagation for both the Tesla system and LF radio systems as, “earth currents and surface charge coupled to a vertical electric field in the Earth-ionosphere cavity.”  While this is not a description of space wave electromagnetic radiation, it is, however, consistent with the definition of the electromagnetic field associated with an electrical current flowing through a transmission line.  Of course there is also a space wave component associated with the emissions of an LF radio transmitter in the form of electromagnetic radiation launched from its antenna.  Tesla argued the emissions from the great low frequency AM radio transmitters of the early 20th century were, predominantly, in the form of transmission line surface waves.

The principal difference between the Tesla-produced and radio-produced disturbances appears to be the difference in the configuration of currents and fields close to the transmitter.

The basic idea is that the earth currents and charge-coupled electromagnetic field associated with Tesla coil transmissions gradually decouple from the associated charge carriers and become ordinary radio waves as a function of the distance from the transmitter.  Mr. Bradford states,

I do not believe that the theory for it has been worked out, but in principle it is a straightforward application of electromagnetic theory.

An alternative hypothesis is one in which the configuration of the electromagnetic field associated with an ordinary radio antenna changes as it moves out of the near-field zone, as described by presently accepted antenna and propagation theory, while the configuration of the electromagnetic field associated with a Tesla coil transmitter remains unchanged as it moves out beyond the near-field zone, through the far-field zone, all the way to a well grounded phase-conjugate or synchronized Tesla coil receiver.

There are two distinctly different forms of electromagnetic-wave propagation.  The first is by means of electromagnetic radiation or ordinary radio waves, such as emitted by an ordinary dipole radio antenna.  The second is by ordinary electrical conduction, such as takes place when a current flows through a transmission-line accompanied by a charge-coupled electromagnetic field.

There are three types of transmitter-antenna excited propagation modes.  The first is by means of an ordinary radio wave launched by a dipole antenna in the form of electromagnetic radiation.  The second is a combination of the radio wave and the transmission-line charge-coupled electromagnetic wave launched by a grounded or counterpoise monopole antenna, i.e., the Marconi-type antenna, the emissions of which more or less predominate as electromagnetic radiation plus the second component.  In addition to space waves, Marconi antennas also appear to launch the type of surface wave described by Arnold Sommerfeld and Johann Zenneck.  This surface wave is different from the well-known Norton Surface Wave that is the result of the interaction of the ground wave part of a radio antenna’s radiated space wave with the earth’s surface.  The third is by means of the transmission-line wave launched by a high voltage, pulse-driven, top loaded helical resonator in the form of earth currents and a charge-coupled electromagnetic field.  A small radio-wave component might also be present, but this is viewed as an energy loss.

My guess is that at very large distances from the transmitter, the two disturbances would be indistinguishable.

If, as predicted, the two disturbances are distinctly different then the effects at a distance will be very much distinguishable.  In fact, the emissions of a Tesla coil transmitter should be practically undetectable when using an ungrounded radio receiver with a balanced magnetic loop antenna.
So it would boil down to which method of producing the disturbance is the most efficient and cost effective.  One disadvantage of very long distance radio is that VLF transmitting antennas tend to be very large and inefficient, which is one reason why long distance radio communications mostly switched from long wave to short wave in the 1930’s.  One thing bothers me.  If the Tesla earth currents propagate to long distances at low frequencies, why don’t the earth currents from the ground terminals of low frequency radio transmitters do likewise, or do they?

According to Tesla they do.  Some portion of the earth current associated with the excitation of a well-grounded LF radio-transmitting antenna propagates to great distances.

 You say radio engineers put too much energy into the radiating part. What, as a matter of fact, according to your conception, is the part of the energy that is received in the receivers in the present system? . . . To illustrate my question, take for instance the energy used at Sayville [Long Island, New York] and the reception of that at Nauen [Germany]. I want to know whether it is your idea that the reception there is due to the earth currents that you have described or to the radiated energy.

It is far more due to the earth currents than to the radiated energy. I believe, indeed, that the radiated energy alone could not possibly produce the effect across the Atlantic. It is simply because they are incidentally sending a current through the globe—which they think is their current—that the receiver is affected. The current produces variations of potential at the earth’s surface in Germany; these fluctuations of potential energize the circuit, and by resonance they increase the potential there and operate the receiver. But I do not mean that it is absolutely impossible to use my apparatus and operate with electromagnetic waves across the Atlantic or Pacific. I only say that according to calculations, for instance, which I have made of the Sayville plant, the radiated energy is very small and cannot be operative. I have also calculated the distribution of the charge on the antenna. I am told that the Sayville antenna is without abrupt changes of capacity. It is impossible. There are changes even in a cylindrical antenna; but particularly in that form at Sayville—there are very abrupt changes. [NIKOLA TESLA ON HIS WORK WITH ALTERNATING CURRENTS AND THEIR APPLICATION TO WIRELESS TELEGRAPHY, TELEPHONY AND TRANSMISSION OF POWER, Leland I. Anderson, Editor, Twenty First Century Books, 1992, pp. 142.]

A grounded radio transmitter generates an earth current, and observations of it might help to answer questions about the range of earth currents.  However, distinguishing current from the ground terminal from earth current induced by the radio wave (or part of the wave, depending on how you look at it) might be difficult.  The two types of earth current might be distinguishable because earth current from the ground terminal of a radio transmitter should be free from the variations in the strength of the radio wave (e.g., day-night) caused by the ionosphere.  I am not aware of such observations.  On the other hand, VLF to MF radio transmitters often use some sort of counterpoise instead of a ground connection, and do not produce an earth current directly.  The most reliable answers would come from a computer analysis.

It is conceivable that a powerful Tesla coil earth resonance transmitter operated at a non-earth-resonance frequency might result in the creation of radio waves somewhat as predicted by Mr. Bradford.  In the operation of a Tesla coil transmitter, earth resonance results from the constructive interference of outgoing Tesla waves with the reflection of preceding Tesla waves returning from the antipode.  If the transmission frequency were to be precisely adjusted so that the interference were to be wholly destructive instead of constructive, then radio waves might result.  Going out on a limb even further, rather than a gradual transition from Tesla waves to Hertz waves with an increase in distance from the transmitter, the radio wave emissions would be global in nature and ubiquitous.
“The chief engineer shook his head slowly, “all radio stations went off the air at seven-fifty-one, and nobody can discover why.  We’ve called the electronic laboratory of the State Science Institute.  They said it looks like radio waves, but of a frequency never produced before, never observed anywhere, never discovered by anybody.  It looks like a wall of radio waves jamming the air, and we can’t get through it, we can’t touch it, we can’t break it.  What’s more, we can’t locate its source, not by any of our usual methods.  Those waves seem to come from a transmitter that makes any known to us look like a child’s toy!  That’s it, Dr. Stadler, it can’t be possible, it shouldn’t be possible, but there it is.” [Atlas Shrugged]

Ionospheric effects like the day-night variations indicate that the radio signal received is mainly accounted for by radio waves.  Is it that low frequency radio transmitters generally use counterpoises rather than actual earth connections?  Is it that the currents from the ground terminals of the transmitters (as opposed to induced currents in the electrical disturbance in the Earth-ionosphere cavity; see the next section) do not propagate to a significant distance?  Once again, the answers to these questions, like all the other questions, could be found theoretically by straightforward computations made on a realistic model of the transmitter, receiver, and intervening medium.
Construction and operation of full-size Tesla transmitting and receiving apparatus, as described in his patents and elsewhere, would also facilitate this computer analysis.  The creation of a realistic model demands the collection of empirical data related to the performance of actual functioning Tesla coil transmitters, and active and passive Tesla coil receivers.  At the same time these data were being collected it might be shown that radio waves are not involved with the transfer of electrical energy between the Tesla transmitting and receiving stations.  This would be attempted using a radio receiver with a balanced magnetic loop antenna, which is tunable to the Tesla coil transmitter’s operating frequency.  The radio receiver’s antenna would be configured in such a way so that would interact more efficiently with radio waves than it would with the non-radiating emissions of the Tesla coil transmitter.  Grounded monopole and low-counterpoise radio antennas could not be used.  Even the vertical 1/2-wave dipole antenna, with or without loading coils and suspended high above the ground to minimize capacitive coupling to the earth might be compromised in its performance.  Appropriate antennas for this purpose are the tuned air loop antenna and the tuned ferrite loop-stick antenna.

The Schumann Cavity Resonance Hypothesis
Proposed Energy Transmission By Means of a Concentric Spherical Shell Waveguide
Tesla spoke about the wireless transmission of electric energy utilizing some type of terrestrial resonance mode.  Three different forms of terrestrial resonance have been identified.  These are the “single-wire transmission line” resonances (for lack of a better term), the transverse cavity resonances, and the Schumann cavity resonances.  As their names suggest, the latter two are resonances that can be excited in the concentric spherical shell waveguide formed from the earth and the ionosphere.  Of these three, only transmission systems utilizing the transmission line resonances and the Schumann resonances are under consideration for power transmission.  Both mechanisms fall under Mr. Bradford’s so-called “open circuit” category.

Natural lightning excites the Schumann resonances.  They are observed at the lowest few resonance frequencies (about 8 Hertz and multiples of that).  Their measured Q’s of order 5 – 10 suggest that the electrical disturbances produced by lightning make a few circuits of the Earth before damping out, and create a fairly definite terrestrial standing wave of a few cycles duration.  What is wanted for wireless transmission of power is for the electrical load connected to the receiver to draw power from the transmitter via the standing wave.  I.e., when the load is switched on, the transmitter should “feel” the load, as it would in a closed circuit, and respond by providing more power via the standing wave.  According to my estimates, this would require an Earth-ionosphere cavity Q of order ~10^6 or 10^7 at the lowest Schumann resonance frequencies, whereas it appears the actual value is more like 5 or 10.  Cavity Q is defined here as the ratio of the electric field energy stored in the Earth-ionosphere cavity per cycle of the oscillation to the average power input to the cavity from the transmitter.
This estimate of the required Q is based on the requirement that the current induced in the input impedance of the receiver should reciprocally induce power in the output impedance of the transmitter similar to the power that was transmitted initially.  This is a way of expressing the coupling between the transmitter and receiver required for the transmitter to “feel” the load on the receiver.  The Q in my estimate is the value that produces an electric field in the cavity strong enough to induce the required current in the input impedance of the receiver.  At higher frequencies, the required Q is larger, but I expect that the Q of the Earth-ionosphere cavity probably decreases because propagation losses in the Earth and ionosphere increase.  So my opinion is that Schumann electrical oscillations would not allow efficient transfer of power from the transmitter to the receiver over long distances.

The concept of transferring power with small losses in this manner will not work because the standing wave would occur in the Earth-ionosphere cavity, which is too lossy (Q too small) to enable a standing wave of sufficient amplitude to be generated. This limitation is independent of the power of the transmitter.  In order for the transmitter to feed power to the receiver as efficiently as it would in a closed low-loss circuit, the power transferred to the receiver should be able to transfer power of the same order of magnitude reciprocally to the transmitter.  This is a necessary condition for the transmitter to “feel” the load connected to the receiver, and to supply power to it via the standing wave.  In order to do this, the required Q of the Earth-ionosphere cavity is of the order of 10^6 or so at the lowest Earth-ionosphere cavity Schumann resonant frequency of about 8 Hz, according to my estimates, whereas measurements based on the spectrum of natural electrical radio noise yield a Q of only about 5 to 10.  I believe that the situation only gets worse at higher frequencies because of increasing energy losses in the earth and ionosphere, as is the case in radio transmission.
In my opinion the reason Tesla believed that he could generate very high Q whole-earth oscillations was that he did not know about the existence of the ionosphere and its damping effect.  He also dismissed the practicality of long-range radio because he was unaware of the ionosphere and its reflecting properties.

On the other hand, it has been pointed out that wireless energy transmission using the concentric spherical shell model, as discussed above, is not consistent with the Tesla type transmitter.

The conceptual difficulty with this model is that, at the very low frequencies that Tesla said that he employed (1-50 kHz), earth-ionosphere waveguide excitation, now well understood, would seem to be impossible with the either the Colorado Springs or the Long Island apparatus (at least with the apparatus that is visible in the photographs of these facilities). [“Spherical Transmission Lines and Global Propagation, An Analysis of Tesla’s Experimentally Determined Propagation Model,” K. L. Corum, J. F. Corum, Ph.D., and J. F. X. Daum, Ph.D. 1996, p. 10.]

The maximum recommended operating frequencies of 25 kHz as specified by Tesla is far above the highest easily observable Schumann resonance mode (the 9th overtone) that exists at approximately 66.4 Hz.  Tesla’s selection of 25 kHz is wholly inconsistent with the operation of a system that is based upon the excitation of a Schumann resonance mode.

Another terrestrial propagation mode is far more promising.

The Earth Resonance Method
Energy Transmission By Means of a Spherical Conductor “Single-wire” Surface Wave Transmission Line
The type of transmitter used to excite this propagation mode is described and illustrated in Tesla’s patent ART OF TRANSMITTING ELECTRICAL ENERGY THROUGH THE NATURAL MEDIUMS, May 16, 1900, U.S. Patent No. 787,412, Apr. 18, 1905 and elsewhere. It is essentially the same as the transmitter used for the atmospheric conduction method, connected to the ground and to an elevated terminal, with the elevated terminal having the modified spherical shape seen in a number of photographs and artistic renderings of the Wardenclyffe wireless station prototype.  A similar rendering of a Wardenclyffe-type structure appears in the specifications of Tesla’s APPARATUS FOR TRANSMITTING ELECTRICAL ENERGY, Jan. 18, 1902, U.S. Patent 1,119,732, Dec. 1, 1914 in which this terminal is drawn as a modified torus.

It is apparent from documents on file at the U.S. Patent Office pertaining to U.S. Patent No. 787,412 that Tesla collected actual performance data.  In response to a question from U.S. Patent Examiner G.C. Dean regarding three stated requirements that, “seem essential to the establishment of the resonating condition” Tesla’s attorneys responded,

These three requirements, as stated are in agreement with his numerous experimental observations.  .  .  .  we would point out that the specification does not deal with theories, but with facts which applicant has experimentally observed and demonstrated again and again, and in the commercial exploitation of which he is engaged. [“Spherical Transmission Lines and Global Propagation, An Analysis of Tesla’s Experimentally Determined Propagation Model,” K. L. Corum, J. F. Corum, Ph.D., and J. F. X. Daum, Ph.D. 1996, p. 3n.]

Tesla determined that the time required for a transmitted pulse or wave train to travel from the transmitter to the antipode and back again is .08484 seconds.  This equates to a fundamental earth resonance frequency of 11.786892 Hz.  He believed that by incorporating a portion of the earth as part of a powerful earth-resonance Tesla coil transmitter an electrical disturbance could be impressed upon the earth and detected, “at great distance, or even all over the surface of the globe.”

Tesla also made an assumption that Earth is a charged body floating in space.

A point of great importance would be first to know what is the capacity of the earth? and what charge does it contain if electrified?  Though we have no positive evidence of a charged body existing in space without other oppositely electrified bodies being near, there is a fair probability that the earth is such a body, for by whatever process it was separated from other bodies—and this is the accepted view of its origin—it must have retained a charge, as occurs in all processes of mechanical separation. [ON LIGHT AND OTHER HIGH FREQUENCY PHENOMENA , Nikola Tesla, Inventions, Researches and Writings of Nikola Tesla, 1894, pp. 294-373.]

Tesla was familiar with demonstrations that involved the charging of Leiden jar capacitors and isolated metal spheres with electrostatic influence machines.  By bringing these elements into close proximity with each other, and also by making direct contact followed by their separation the charge can be manipulated.  He surely had this in mind in the creation of his mental image, not being able to know that the model of Earth’s origin was inaccurate.  The presently accepted model of planetary origin is one of accretion and collision.

If it be a charged body insulated in space its capacity should be extremely small, less than one-thousandth of a farad. [Ibid.]

We now know that Earth is, in fact, a charged body, made so by processes—at least in part—related to an interaction of Earth’s magnetosphere with the continuous stream of negatively charged particles called the solar wind, flowing outward from the center of our solar system.

But the upper strata of the air are conducting, and so, perhaps, is the medium in free space beyond the atmosphere, and these may contain an opposite charge.  Then the capacity might be incomparably greater. [Ibid.]

We also know one of the upper strata of Earth’s atmosphere, the ionosphere, is conducting.
In any case it is of the greatest importance to get an idea of what quantity of electricity the earth contains. [Ibid.]

Earth possesses a naturally existing negative charge with respect to the conducting region of the atmosphere beginning at an elevation of about 50 kilometers.  The potential difference between the earth and this region is on the order of 400,000 volts.  Near the earth’s surface there is a ubiquitous downward directed E-field of about 100 V/m.  In LIGHTNING PROTECTOR, May 6, 1916, U.S. Patent 1,266,175, May 14, 1918 Tesla referred to this charge as the “electric niveau” or electric level.
It is difficult to say whether we shall ever acquire this necessary knowledge, but there is hope that we may, and that is, by means of electrical resonance.  If ever we can ascertain at what period the earth’s charge, when disturbed, oscillates with respect to an oppositely electrified system or known circuit, we shall know a fact possibly of the greatest importance to the welfare of the human race.  I propose to seek for the period by means of an electrical oscillator, or a source of alternating electric currents. . . .  [Ibid.]

A Tesla coil earth resonance transmitter creates a local disturbance in the earth’s charge that manifests itself as an annular deviation in the density of the background electric field.  This disturbance propagates away from the transmitter and diminishes in intensity as the distance from the transmitter increases.  A sufficiently powerful transmitter produces a field distortion that propagates all the way to the antipode, at which point the energy is reflected back towards its point of origin.  The transmission of electrical energy across the entire globe and its reflection all the way back to its source is the basis of Tesla’s earth resonance method.

While the atmospheric conduction method requires that both transmitting and receiving apparatus be placed into operation, a properly tuned and sufficiently powerful earth resonance transmitter, on the other hand, can be made to operate exactly as intended without any man-made Tesla-type receivers being activated.  The earth itself fulfills the important requirement that a synchronized receiver be present.

Long-distance wireless transmission by means of the Atmospheric Conduction Method is quite feasible, defying none of the known laws of physics.  The hypothesized Schumann Cavity Resonance Method, unto itself, is totally unworkable.  Wireless transmission by means of the Earth Resonance Method may be possible, a feasibility study using a sufficiently powerful and properly tuned Tesla coil earth-resonance transmitter being called for.


Advanced Concepts for Wireless Energy Transfer
BY Prof. Dr.-Ing. Konstantin Meyl

It will be shown that scalar waves, normally remaining unnoticed, are very interesting in practical use for information and energy technology for reason of their special attributes. The mathematical and physical derivations are supported by practical experiments. The demonstration will show:

1. the wireless transmission of electrical energy,
2. the reaction of the receiver to the transmitter,
3. free energy with an over-unity-effect of about 3,
4. transmission of scalar waves with 1.5 times the speed of light,
5. the inefficiency of a Faraday cage to shield scalar waves.

Tesla radiation
Here is shown extraordinary science, five experiments, which are incompatible with textbook physics. Following my short lecture I will present you the transmission of longitudinal electric waves.

It is a historical experiment, because already 100 years ago the famous experimental physicist Nikola Tesla has measured the same wave properties, as me. From him stems a patent concerning the wireless transmission of energy (1900)1. Since he also had to find out that at the receiver arrives very much more energy, than the transmitter takes up, he spoke of a „Magnifying Transmitter“. By the effect back on the transmitter Tesla sees, if he has found the resonance of the earth and that lies according to his measurement at 12 Hz. Since the Schumann resonance of a wave, which goes with the speed of light, however lies at 7.8 Hz, Tesla comes to the conclusion, that his wave has 1.5 times the speed of light2.

As founder of the diathermy Tesla already has pointed to the biological effectiveness and to the possible use in medicine. The diathermy of today has nothing to do with the Tesla radiation; it uses the wrong wave and as a consequence hardly has a medical importance.

The discovery of the Tesla radiation is denied and isn’t mentioned in the textbooks anymore. For that there are two reasons:
1. No high school ever has rebuilt a „Magnifying Transmitter“. The technology simply was too costly and too expensive. In that way the results have not been reproduced, as it is imperative for an acknowledgement. I have solved this problem by the use of modern electronics, by replacing the spark gap generator with a function generator and the operation with high-tension with 2-4 Volts low-tension. I sell the experiment as a demonstration-set so that it is reproduced as often as possible. It fits in a case and has been sold more than 200 times. Some universities already could confirm the effects. The measured degrees of effectiveness lie between 140 and 1000 percent.
2. The other reason, why this important discovery could fall into oblivion, is to be seen in the missing of a suitable field description. The Maxwell equations in any case only describe transverse waves, for which the field pointers oscillate perpendicular to the direction of propagation, as I have just explained.

Vortex model
The Tesla experiment and my historical rebuild however show more. Such longitudinal waves obviously exist even without plasma in the air and even in vacuum. The question thus is asked, what the divergence E describes in this case? How is the impulse passed on, so that a longitudinal standing wave can form? How should a shock wave come about, if there are no particles which can push each other? I have solved this question, by extending Maxwell’s field theory for vortices of the electric field. These so-called potential vortices are able to form structure and they propagate in space for reason of their particle nature as a longitudinal shock wave. The model concept bases on the ring vortex model of Hermann von Helmholtz, which Lord Kelvin did make popular. In my books3 the mathematical and physical derivation is described.

In spite of the field theoretical set of difficulties every physicist at first will seek for a conventional explanation. He will try two approaches:

Resonant circuit interpretation
Tesla had presented his experiment among others to Lord Kelvin and he already 100 years ago has spoken of a vortex transmission. In the opinion of Kelvin it however by no means concerns a wave but radiation. He had recognized clearly, that every radio technical interpretation had to fail, because alone the course of the field lines is a completely different one.

If both electrodes of the capacitor are pulled apart, then between both is stretching an electric field. The field lines start at one sphere, the transmitter, and they bundle up again at the receiver. In that way a higher degree of effectiveness and a very tight coupling can be expected. In this manner without doubt some of the effects can be explained, but not all.

The inductance is split up in two air transformers, which are wound completely identical. If a fed in sinusoidal tension voltage is transformed up in the transmitter, then it is again transformed down at the receiver. The output voltage should be smaller or at maximum equal the input voltage– but it is substantially bigger! There can be drawn and calculated an alternative wiring diagram, but in no case the measurable result comes out, that light-emitting diodes at the receiver glow brightly (U>2Volt), whereas at the same time the corresponding light-emitting diodes at the transmitter go out (U<2Volt)! To check this both coils are exchanged.

The measured degree of effectiveness lies despite the exchange at more than 100 percent. If the law of conservation of energy should not be violated, then only one interpretation is left: The open capacitor withdraws field energy from its environment. Without consideration of this circumstance does the error deviation of every conventional model calculation lie at more than 90 percent. There one rather should do without the calculation. It will concern oscillating fields, because the spherical electrodes are changing in polarity with a frequency of approx. 7 MHz. They are operated in resonance. The condition for resonance reads: identical frequency and opposite phase. The transmitter obviously modulates the field in its environment, while the receiver collects everything what fulfils the condition for resonance.

Also in the open question for the transmission velocity of the signal the resonant circuit interpretation fails. But the HF-technician still has another explanation at the tip of his tongue:

Near field interpretation
In the near field of an antenna effects are measured, which on the one hand go as inexplicable, because they evade the normally used field theory, which on the other hand come the by me shown scalar wave effects very close. Everyone knows a practical application: e.g. at the entrance of department stores, where the customer has to go through in between of scalar wave detectors.

New problems will occur to the HF-specialist, when in my experiment the distance between the transmitter and the receiver is 10-times more than the near zone. Students of the TU-Berlin have shown and proofed this. Tesla as well had demonstrated a power transmission over 30 miles, whereas his near field was less than half a mile. I have shown how vortices are forming and how they come off the dipole, that the fields in the near zone of a Hertzian dipole are longitudinal scalar wave fields. But the scalar waves of Tesla and of my experiment show even more.

The vortex decay however depends on the velocity of propagation. Calculated at the speed of light the vortices already have decayed within half the wavelength. The faster the velocity, the more stable they get, to remain stable above 1.6 times the velocity. These very fast vortices contract in the dimensions. They now can tunnel. Therefore speed faster than light occurs at the tunnel effect. Therefore no Faraday cage is able to shield fast vortices.

Since these field vortices with particle nature following the high-frequency oscillation permanently change their polarity from positive to negative and back, they do not have a charge on the average over time. As a result they almost unhindered penetrate solids. Particles with this property are called neutrinos in physics. The field energy which is collected in my experiment, according to that stems from the neutrino radiation which surrounds us. Because the source of this radiation, all the same if the origin is artificial or natural, is far away of my receiver, every attempt of a near field interpretation goes wrong.

At the function generator I adjust frequency and amplitude of the sinusoidal signal, with which the transmitter is operated. At the frequency regulator I turn so long, till the light-emitting diodes at the receiver glow brightly, whereas those at the transmitter go out. Now an energy transmission takes place.

If the amplitude is reduced so far, till it is guaranteed that no surplus energy is radiated, then in addition a gain of energy takes place by energy amplification.

If I take down the receiver by pulling out the earthing, then the lighting up of the LED´s signals the mentioned effect back on the transmitter. The transmitter thus feels, if its signal is received.

The self-resonance of the Tesla coils, according to the frequency counter, lies at 7 MHz. Now the frequency is ran down and see there, at approx. 4.7 MHz the receiver again glows, but less bright, easily shieldable and without discernible effect back on the transmitter. Now we unambiguously are dealing with the transmission of the Hertzian part and that goes with the speed of light. Since the wavelength was not changed, does the proportion of the frequencies determine the proportion of the velocities of propagation. The scalar wave according to that goes with (7/4.7=) 1.5 times the speed of light!

If I put the transmitter into the aluminium case and close the door, then nothing should arrive at the receiver. Expert laboratories for electromagnetic compatibility in this case indeed cannot detect anything and that, although in spite of that the receiver lamps glow! By turning of the receiver coil it can be verified that an electric and not a magnetic coupling is present although the Faraday cage should shield electric fields. The scalar wave obviously overcomes the cage with a speed faster than light, by tunnelling!

1 Nikola Tesla: Apparatus for transmission of electrical energy.
US-Patent No. 645,576, N.Y. 20.3.1900.
2 Nikola Tesla: Art of transmitting electrical energy through the natural mediums, US-Patent No. 787,412, N.Y. 18.4.1905.
3 Konstantin Meyl: Scalar Waves, INDEL-Verlag.

Konstantin Meyl
email: meyl [at] k-meyl [dot] de


With the current RFID technology the transfer of energy takes place on a chip card by means of longitudinal wave components in close range of the transmitting antenna. Those are scalar waves, which spread towards the electrical or the magnetic field pointer. In the wave equation with reference to the Maxwell field equations, these wave components are set to zero, why only postulated model computations exist, after which the range is limited to the sixth part of the wavelength. A goal of this paper is to create, by consideration of the scalar wave components in the wave equation, the physical conditions for the development of scalar wave transponders which are operable beyond the close range. The energy is transferred with the same carrier wave as the information and not over two separated ways as with RFID systems. Besides the bi-directional signal transmission, the energy transfer in both directions is additionally possible because of the resonant coupling between transmitter and receiver. First far range transponders developed on the basis of the extended field equations are already functional as prototypes, according to the US-Patent No. 787,412 of Nikola Tesla, New York 1905 [1].

[title credit : caution]