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Thursday, December 22, 2016

Midwestern lawmakers green the grid, slightly

Midwestern lawmakers green the grid, slightly

Midwestern state capitals buzzed with energy legislation in the dying days of 2016.
In Illinois, legislators handed out $2.4 billion in subsidies to two nuclear plants, bolstered the state's renewable energy mandates and gave utilities added financial incentive to pursue energy efficiency measures. Michigan lawmakers haggled over how much of the state's power market should be open to competition but ultimately made few major changes. And in Ohio, legislators passed a plan to effectively make the Buckeye State's renewable power standards optional. The measure's fate now hinges on Gov. John Kasich (R), who has voiced his displeasure with the plan.
The net impact of all that paper-pushing: a slightly greener grid in one of America's most coal-dependent regions.
How much credit, or derision, lawmakers can claim is unclear. Coal was already under siege from cheap natural gas in the Midwest. Wind, too, has made inroads — especially in Illinois, where it accounts for the majority of new capacity.
"On the margin, some of the legislation will have an impact," said Travis Miller, an analyst who tracks the power sector at the investment research firm Morningstar. "But these are very large power markets, and at the end of the day, economics are going to drive what type of generation is in the energy mix."
That's not to dismiss the entirety of what lawmakers did, particularly in Illinois. Subsidies for Exelon Corp.'s two nuclear plants make the economic landscape for Dynegy Inc.'s coal plants even more challenging, analysts said. The Illinois Power Generating Co., an Dynegy subsidiary, filed for bankruptcy a few days after the bill passed.
Lawmakers in Springfield, Ill., provided a fix to Illinois' renewable portfolio standard, ensuring an annual budget of $200 million in renewable energy credits. Greens are especially excited that roughly half of that sum will go toward distributed and community solar.
"Illinois will have more wind power and solar energy, as they receive policy support and are increasingly economic in the marketplace," said Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago. "The public wants more clean renewable energy, and the public is going to get more clean renewable energy."
The bill also set energy efficiency goals of 21.5 percent and 13 percent, respectively, by 2030 for a pair of distribution utilities, Commonwealth Edison and Ameren Corp. (Energywire, Dec. 2)

Coal's struggle for survival

In Michigan, lawmakers boosted the state's renewable portfolio standard from 10 percent to 15 percent by 2021 (Energywire, Dec. 16).
The bill calls on utilities to provide a more robust analysis of their long-term plans to the Michigan Public Service Commission. Independent power providers will be able to submit bids when utilities file plans for generation projects greater than 225 megawatts. Though the commission is under no obligation to accept those bids, they can use them as a benchmark for rejecting the utilities' plans.
"I think these bills have clarified and reinforced the course we're on, which is a steady move away from coal and a reorganization of power markets toward wind and solar," said Nachy Kanfer, deputy regional director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign.
More telling, perhaps, is what the debates symbolize: Baseload power generators, like coal and nuclear facilities, are struggling to compete in markets with stagnant power demand and weak prices.
The dynamic is particularly acute in states like Illinois and Ohio, which boast competitive wholesale power markets.
Illinois lawmakers followed in the steps of New York in giving financial assurances to nuclear plants. Michigan lawmakers ultimately rebuffed calls to either expand or eliminate the 10 percent of its power market now open to competition. Instead, they effectively required independent producers to guarantee their supply.
The fights look set to continue. Ohio utilities are now lobbying lawmakers to re-regulate struggling coal facilities, guaranteeing them a financial return. The Midcontinent Independent System Operator has also proposed reforms to ensure future capacity, in a move analysts say would bolster struggling baseload plants (EnergywireJuly 15).
Utilities' switch to natural gas would likely be even greater if the matter were left to the market, said Paul Patterson, a financial analyst at Glenrock Associates LLC.
"What you're seeing is people having second thoughts about what the outcome will be," he said. "Otherwise, competition will drive out a lot of the generation we have, and we don't like the idea of that happening."

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Tsuga’s View - Part 4



A Long-Term Look At Environmental, Political, and Social Issues, From The Perspective Of Michigan’s Oldest (and Most Optimistic) Tree Species

Installment 4

By Marvin Roberson

The photo which accompanies this column is at the end of my neighbor’s driveway. Look at it, and think closely about what it tells us about my neighbor. It says that not only is he a Trump supporter, but that he is pleased by Trump’s angry, combative attitude (“Give ‘em Hell, Donald”). It says that he’s not only not a Clinton supporter, but that he’s a virulent sexist (note the “bayatch” reference).

But one of the things it points out to me is how strongly held his views are and how important it is to him to broadcast them publicly. He didn’t just go down to Republican headquarters and say “Give me the biggest Trump banner you’ve got”. No, he went to a professional sign painter, and paid money to have his personal brand of anger, bigotry, and sexism memorialized for all to see. He is indicating not just support of Trump, but a desire to make sure that all can see that what it is he finds so attractive about Trump are these odious attitudes.

We see this kind of this everywhere, and since Trump’s win they have only increased. Attacks on those of differing races, religions, gender identities, and national origin are on the rise. A clear sense among some that “white anger” is justified and should be expressed. A strong sense that  white privilege is under attack, and needs to be protected.

Many of us are astounded. As I said in my first installment of the Tsuga’s View, what I found most disturbing about the election was not that Trump will be president, with all that brings and means (although I’m pretty disturbed by that). No, what I found truly horrifying was that No one in the electorate could have failed to see that Trump expressed bigoted, racist, repugnant views. And yet 50 million people though that either that was not a problem, or more likely, approved of it.

During the election, a friend and I had a continuing series of conversations about this phenomenon, what it meant, and whether or not it was a good thing (before you start throwing things, remember that the Tsuga’s View is the long one, and give me a bit to explain). What our differences came down to was the question of causality, and which direction the causal arrow points.

My friend was convinced that Trump was the cause of a significant portion of this, and therefore felt that it was terrible. I feel that the causal arrow runs in the other direction, and is therefore a good thing, even though it’s also terrifying.

Here’s what I mean - I don’t think Trump took millions of otherwise reasonable, rational people, and turned them into rabid bigots. I think that we had millions of rabid bigots in this country already. They didn’t feel able to speak or act on those disgusting attitudes. However, with the rise of Trump, they felt empowered, as though it was now OK, they had been given permission to be publicly racist, sexist, homophobic, you name it.

And, in the long run, that’s a good thing. No, it’s not a good thing that millions of Americans hold those horrifyingly hostile views towards others. But if they do hold those views (and it certainly appears that they do), it is good that we now all know it. Because I don’t think most of us realized the depth, and extent, of bigotry in this country. It has been simmering under the surface, but now it’s broken through and we can all see it. And we have to be able to see it to address it - invisible bigotry is unaddressed bigotry.

I have friends (we’ll call them T and C) who live in a beautiful house in a wonderful location in northern Michigan. C is very sensitive to toxins and other problems in her immediate environment. A number of years ago, she began having some respiratory issues in their home. The problems seemed to be coming from the floor in the living room.

Now, they had a number of options. They could have just ignored it, since it wasn’t really all that bad. They could have put down new carpet, or refinished the wood, and hoped that replacing the surface would be enough. Or, they could pull up the floorboards, inspect the subfloor and joists to determine the extent of the problem, and conceivably put themselves on the hook for time consuming, expensive, and life-disrupting repairs to solve a deep-seated problem.

They pulled up the floorboards. They discovered black mold all through the subfloor, joists, and parts of the walls and basement. This required ripping out and replacing large amounts of material in the house, some of it structural. It costs a mint. They had to live elsewhere while the work was done.

However, if they had done nothing, and lived with it, the mold would have spread and gotten worse. If they had gone with a surface treatment, the result would have been the same as doing nothing, although it might have taken longer to manifest. Only by pulling up the floor and exposing the true extent of the problem could it actually be fixed.

I see the Trump candidacy as helping pull up the floorboards in this country, exposing the moldy, rotten attitudes which many of our fellow citizens hold. My neighbor’s sign is a view of that black mold. But it’s also a wake-up call that more needs fixing than we probably realized.

In previous columns, I’ve expressed the views that overall, we’re moving in the direction of Progressive victory, and that we’ll continue to do so. We elected an African-American President.  We almost elected a woman. And keep in mind, that while a bigot won the election, a woman won the vote. Hilary got over 2.5 million ore votes than Trump.


However, I’ve also expressed the admonition that this doesn’t mean we can get complacent or rest on this progress. We can’t.

But now that we’ve exposed the extent of the problem, we can get to work on it with a vigor that I think many of us didn’t realize was needed.

A friend has taken issue with my description of the current political situation as analogous to Hemlock Control (see installment #1 for a description of Hemlock Control). He thinks that it’s more akin to a crown fire which results in the death of the Hemlock grove, and a replacement with something else. I think Hemlocks (Progressive ideals, in this metaphor) are far more resilient than he gives them credit for, and that while we’re seeng a big fire coming, it’s far too early to predict the demise of the Hemlock grove

And That’s The Tsuga’s View

In the next installment of “The Tsuga’s View”, I explain why we almost all of the current attacks on the environment are, by the very way they are presented, in fact progress.

The Tsuga’s View - Part 3



A Long-Term Look At Environmental, Political, and Social Issues, From The Perspective Of Michigan’s Oldest (and Most Optimistic) Tree Species

Installment 3

By Marvin Roberson

I’m a huge Gloria Steinem fan. She is one of the smartest, most insightful, most thought-provoking people I’ve ever read, heard speak, or met (I say “met” just to burnish my credibility - 15 years ago, I paid to sit in an auditorium with hundreds of other people to hear her speak - after, I waited in line to have her sign my book, while I gushed like a fanboy - I don’t think she has me on speed dial).

However, lately, I think she is misreading the strength of our social fabric in a way that my 16-year-old niece Molly is not, and I think Molly is right.

Molly
The past couple years, and especially during this election, Ms. Steinem has been admonishing us to remember how hard-fought the gains were in civil rights, women’s rights, reproductive rights, etc. She has expressed concern that many young people today take those gains for granted, without recognizing that they are relatively recent gains. She has also been cautioning us to consider this progress. as fragile and possibly temporary.

I think she’s right about almost all of that. However, I think that the fundamental foundations of that progress are fairly secure, and I think that the very fact of the manner in which the younger generation takes it for granted is both an indicator of this, and a measure of how secure it is.

Let’s take an example from Molly. She is a Junior in High School, at the same school where her mother (my sister) and I went, our mother went, and her mother and father (our grandparents) went. We’ll follow a couple examples through the time our family attended this school.

This fall, a young man with Autism was elected to the Homecoming Court. Some folks made a big deal about this. Molly was outraged about that, expressing the opinion that it was not relevant and no one’s business, he was just a student like anyone else.

Think about that in the context of my family’s attendance at that school. During my grandparents’ tenure, this young man would have been hidden at home or sent away to a “home” (as in fact my eldest uncle was). During my Mom’s time, he would have likely been in “Special Ed” classes, possibly not even in the same building as the rest of the students. When my sister and I were there, he probably would have been beginning to be “Mainstreamed”, where he had some Special Ed classes, but possibly some regular classes, and he would have had “opportunities” to interact with the “regular” students.

And today, not only is he eligible, but in fact elected, to the Homecoming Court. And not in the “aren’t we tolerant for electing him” sense that would have been the case a decade ago. No, his classmates don’t think that it’s terrific that he’s “overcoming his autism” to accomplish this. They think it simply isn’t relevant, and is no one’s business, it’s just part of who he is.

This is progress that was hard won, and fought bitterly. “Mainstreaming” was very controversial when I was in high school. Parents expressed concern over the safety of their children interacting with “those kids”. My family actually went to court to help establish the first group home for developmentally disabled adults in our county (for the uncle who was sent away as described above).

But it’s not fragile. And it’s not going away, exactly because of the fact that Molly takes it for granted, not in spite of that fact. That doesn’t mean folks with disabilities won’t experience intolerance - recall Trump’s horrific mocking of a disabled reporter. It doesn’t mean that some, or many, individuals won’t experience serious discrimination, and the resulting isolation, rejection, and pain that comes with it.

And we need to fight against all of that. But remember, we’re taking the long view here. And in the long term, the student Molly voted for in the Homecoming Court isn’t being sent away to a “Home” for “people like him”. He’s part of the fabric of our society, and he’s here to stay.

Let’s follow another example through my family’s history at that same school. My grandfather graduated from that school. My grandmother stopped in 6th grade, because that’s as far as girls were allowed to go. My mother graduated at the top of her class. However, she was told not to apply for law school at UM, and had to forsake her dream for something “more suited to a woman”.

My sister, however, has more degrees than you can shake a stick at, and her daughters look poised to do the same. Heaven help the fool who tries to tell either girl (or their mother, or in fact their uncle) that they are disqualified from some field of study pr profession by their gender.

Or consider this - my grandmother attained voting age at a time when voting age didn’t affect her - because women were simply not allowed to vote.

My mother vividly described her joy at seeing the beginnings of women representing Americans in Congress. My sister and I both were ecstatic at the prospect of being able to vote for a woman for President of the United States, for the first time ever.

And here’s where I will again cite Molly over my hero Ms. Steinem. Gloria Steinem (and many others, I’m using her as an example, not singling her out) has expressed concern over the fact that not enough young people, especially women, understand how historic that was, and what a bitter disappointment the loss represented.

I get that, and I understand it. However, I asked Molly about that. Her response was that while she understood that no woman had been elected as President of the US, that all it meant was that no woman had been elected - not that being a woman disqualified a candidate from office, or that no woman could be elected.

And that, folks, is Progress - permanent, irreversible progress. It is unthinkable that the US will ever again tell women they can’t vote because they are women. It is unthinkable that policy makers will ever again debate in public the question of whether a person’s gender in and of itself makes one unsuited for office.

And again, don’t get me wrong. Some (maybe many) people feel that way (see the next installment). There will still be obstacles, and attempts to roll back progress. Reproductive rights are clearly under attack.

But the fact that women vote, run for office and get elected, will eventually be President of the US, and that no one is debating these fundamental rights, means that we have been, and will continue, to move in the Progressive direction, and that’s good news, even in this terrifying time.

And that’s the Tsuga’s View

In the next installment of “The Tsuga’s View”, I explain why we should thank my neighbor for helping pull up the floorboards, and why the current political situation is not yet a crown fire, no matter what my friend says.

Friday, December 2, 2016

The Tsuga’s View Part 2

A Long-Term Look At Environmental, Political, and Social Issues, From The Perspective Of Michigan’s Oldest (and Most Optimistic) Tree Species

By Marvin Roberson

I’m a single, (late) middle aged, crusty, cynical fellow who lives in the middle of nowhere. I was described by friends as “the youngest old curmudgeon” they’d ever met, before I was 30 (they still do, but now they leave off “youngest”). I’ve been doing this for over 25 years, and I’m often close to burnout. I live a very solitary life - partly by my choice, but partly, it seems, as a consensus decision by most of the rest of society.

So why does my boss call me “Marvy Sunshine”?

Because in almost every discussion about the tragic state of some political issue or other, after she has described some setback, I describe it as a long-term positive development (remember, we’re looking at things here from the perspective of a tree which lives 800 years and which colonizes sites for many thousands of years).

Much of the progress we’ve made in environmental, social, and political issues seems under attack, with significant attempts to roll that progress back - even before last week. We’ve seen attempts to roll back progress in voting rights, environmental protection, women’s rights, LBGT issues, and a whole host of others.

But what is the common denominator in every attempt to roll back progress, whether successful or not? Progress. There can be no attempts to undo Progressive accomplishments without first actually achieving those accomplishments. We only have to protect gains if there actually are gains.

In most cases, I describe the very fact that we’re seeing attacks on progress as a good thing, because it means that we have progress to protect.

As an example, take Transgender rights. We’ve seen legislative attempts to restrict the civil rights of Transgender citizens, especially teens. While that’s a terrible development, look at it in the long view. When I was in high school, most people did not know, and probably would not have believed, that Transgender citizens existed. The fact that state legislatures are attempting to restrict the rights of Transgender citizens means that they are acknowledging the existence of, and issues affecting, this group of people. In the long run, that’s huge progress.

8 years ago, every major Presidential candidate was on record supporting the “Defense of Marriage” Act, which outlawed gay marriage. We may forget this, but that group included Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. This summer, I had a number of same-sex friends get married, legally and formally. Their right to do so may come under serious attack soon, and we need to defend that right. However, that attack is occurring on the progress we have made.

We’ve all heard about “the pendulum swing” in politics, first Progressive, then back to the Right. However, I would argue that since the Dark Ages, the pendulum, while swinging back and forth, has slowly but inexorably moved in a Progressive direction. What followed the Dark Ages? The Enlightenment. The gains in scientific understanding, democratic processes, and basic human rights echo through today.

Now, while I believe that the pendulum is inching left over the long term (the Tsuga’s View), there are clearly intermittent setbacks, sometimes pretty far - witness the Spanish Inquisition. Last Wednesday, I was reminded of quote from an old Monty Python bit - “Well of course we didn’t see the Spanish Inquisition coming - no one saw the Spanish Inquisition coming!”.

But I don’t mean to make light of real suffering, caused by these attacks. Nor do I mean to minimize how serious they are, or suggest we don’t need to fight against them. Some of the attacks are very serious, some have horrific consequences, and some may be permanent.

In the 1960s, Klan activity in the south was a pushback against real progress in civil rights. That doesn’t diminish the horror of lynchings, church bombings, or the murder of civil rights workers.

Today, as described above, legislative attacks on Transgender rights are an indication of the fact that real progress has been made in that area. That doesn’t reduce the sense of exclusion and alienation, and sometimes physical danger, that these citizens endure as a result of those attacks.

The pushback on global climate change might very well have far-reaching, undoable, permanent catastrophic consequences.

After the election, I saw lots of “buck up and fight the good fight” messages from my Progressive friends. I was more discouraged than that. What I found most disheartening was not the prospect of President Trump - horrifying as that may be.

What disturbed me the most was the fact that over 59 million fellow citizens saw a candidate who overtly promoted bigoted, racist, misogynist policies, and thought that voting for him was a fine idea. After reading many of the emails regarding continuing the fight, I said to a friend that I felt much closer to hightailing it to New Zealand than many of y colleagues. I emailed my boss this sentiment, and said “Marvy Sunshine has left the building”.

However, that was premature. I began looking at the issues with the Tsuga’s View, and realized that we’re still moving in the right direction, even with the coming conflagration. Part of that was the realization that the horrible things we’re seeing from our fellow Americans aren’t new, and weren’t caused by Trump. Those attitudes were there all along, we just didn’t see them. Trump simply exposed them, which now allows us to address them, whereas before they were below the surface and not visible.

I’m not pretending that everything is sweetness and light. I’m not suggesting we don’t need to be vigilant, and defend vigorously the gains we’ve made. But I will suggest that we place these things in the context of the long term. On almost every Progressive issue there is, compare where we are now to where we were 50 or 100 years ago, and you’ll see that we’ve made incredible, and sometimes unthinkable strides.

A friend recently said “It’s so frustrating - it just feels like 3 steps forward and 2 steps back”. That’s true, and it is frustrating. However, when you look at the statement “3 steps forward and 2 steps back” - do the math.

That’s the Tsuga’s View.

In the next installment of “The Tsuga’s View”, Gloria Steinem is one of my all-time heroes. However, I describe what my 15 year old niece gets that Ms Steinem doesn’t.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Sierra Club Files Antitrust Complaint Concerning the NEXUS Gas Pipeline

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
Thursday, November 17, 2016
 
Contact: Jonathon Berman, (202) 495-3033jonathon.berman@sierraclub.org
 
 
Sierra Club Files Antitrust Complaint Concerning the NEXUS Gas Pipeline
 
Washington, DC -- The Sierra Club has filed a complaint against Michigan’s largest electric utility, DTE Electric Company, alleging that a 250-mile, multi-billion dollar gas pipeline project owned by its affiliate, NEXUS Gas Transmission, LLC, threatens to monopolize the market for the generation of electricity in Michigan. The complaint alleges that the pipeline project, if permitted to continue, will raise retail electricity customers’ rates above competitive levels and exclude more cost-effective energy suppliers, including renewable energy sources.
 
The complaint was filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), United States Department of Justice, and the Federal Trade Commission. It alleges that while electric utilities like DTE Electric have legal monopolies to sell electricity to ratepayers, they cannot use that monopoly to gain control over the market for generating capacity. According to the complaint, the NEXUS project uses DTE Electric’s power to charge ratepayers for the project’s above-market costs in order to expand its presence in the generation market. DTE Electric already controls about 50% of the local electricity generation market, according to the complaint.  
 
“The dirty and dangerous NEXUS project is a payoff scheme for corporate polluters with Michigan consumers footing the bill,” said David Holtz, Chair of the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club. “Solar and wind power continues to be a better and cheaper alternative to dirty fuels, which only gives further indication as to the real reason behind this pipeline.”
 
The Sierra Club’s complaint comes on the heels of an antitrust complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission by a retired Department of Justice Antitrust Division attorney regarding the Atlantic Coast Pipeline Project, a 600-mile proposed gas pipeline co-owned by electric utilities Dominion Resources and Duke Energy. According to the latter complaint, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline gives Dominion and Duke unlawful monopoly power in the market for utility-scale electricity generation.
 
“Our complaint shows that there is no plausible competitive justification for DTE Electric to make a long-term commitment to buy gas at above-market prices,” said Pat Gallagher, Director of the Sierra Club’s Environmental Law Program. “The federal competition authorities should take notice because ratepayers, the environment, and competition in the generation market all are harmed by this deal.”
 
Both complaints add to increasing scrutiny and criticism of the overexpansion of gas pipeline capacity throughout the United States. The Sierra Club’s complaint refers to statistics published by the United States Energy Information Administration showing that 46% of the nation’s gas pipeline capacity is unused, even as new pipeline projects continue to be approved by federal regulators. The Club’s complaint highlights perverse incentives toward overbuilding gas pipelines that arise when the pipelines are owned and operated by utility affiliates, pointing out that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission typically allows high profit margins on new pipeline projects, even as state regulators permit developers to pass off the costs of pipeline construction to retail ratepayers. According to the complaint, “the combination of abnormally high profit margins with the ability to shift project risks to ratepayers creates a powerful incentive to overbuild natural gas pipelines.” The Complaint charges that DTE Electric has taken the trend of overexpansion one step further by using this low-risk, high-profit transaction structure to gain control over the market for the generation of electricity in Michigan.
 
The Club’s FTC complaint in the FERC proceeding is part of a motion to dismiss filed on November 16 by Michigan members who oppose NEXUS’ application for a certificate of public convenience and necessity. There, the Club charges that DTE’s ratemaking scheme is clearly not in the public interest.  “DTE’s machinations fall well short of the Commission’s expectation that the pipeline must not penalize existing customers,” said Terry Lodge, attorney for the Michigan Sierrans. “NEXUS flatly refuses to consider any alternatives but a greenfield pipeline, built on the backs of residential and business customers. We believe that violates the Commission’s environmental and consumer-protective mandates and are asking FERC to say ‘no’ to NEXUS.”
 
###
About the Sierra Club
The Sierra Club is America’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization, with more than 2.4 million members and supporters nationwide. In addition to creating opportunities for people of all ages, levels and locations to have meaningful outdoor experiences, the Sierra Club works to safeguard the health of our communities, protect wildlife, and preserve our remaining wild places through grassroots activism, public education, lobbying, and litigation. For more information, visit http://www.sierraclub.org.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Tsuga’s View - A Long-Term Look At Environmental, Political, and Social Issues, From The Perspective Of Michigan’s Oldest (and Most Optimistic) Tree Species

By Marvin Roberson

Welcome to the first installment of “The Tsuga’s View”, an irregular (in many senses of the word) look at Progressive Issues and Politics, with a positive emphasis on where we are, how we got there, and why we should keep working for the common good, even in the face of adversity.

In this first column, I’ll describe the life cycle of Tsuga canadensis (Eastern Hemlock), what we can learn from it, and how it makes a good metaphor (and example) for progressive issues. In the next issue, I’ll describe the general concept behind applying this life strategy, and why things are much, much better than they seem. And in future installments, I’ll apply this idea to specific issues about which we should and do care.

I went to the Michigan Secretary of State a couple weeks ago, and applied for a personalized license plate. I’m a Forest Ecologist, and I applied for “TSUGA”, in honor of Tsuga canadensis, the scientific name for Eastern Hemlock, my favorite tree.

I say “applied for”, because a few years ago I ordered “Pinus”, in honor of Pinus strobus, or White Pine. This plate was rejected by the Secretary of State on the grounds that some might find it “obscene”, despite the fact that Pinus strobus is the State Tree of Michigan, and “Pinus” appears dozens of times on State-owned web sites. Apparently, Beavis and Butt-Head run the license plate office (“Heh, heh - he said ‘Pinus’ “). To view dozens of news articles about this license plate debacle, Google “Pinus license plate”.

I applied for this plate before the election, and of course, before any of us had an inkling of what the election might bring. While I’m not foresightful enough to have ordered the plate as a prelude to the election, I do think it’s apropos. I’ll be glad to sport “TSUGA”,  not only because I love the tree, but because the very facts about the life cycle of Hemlock which I love also make it a great metaphor for our current political situation.

Hemlock is the longest-lived of Michigan tree species, with some specimens reaching 800 years of age. Trees often take 250 - 300 years to reach maturity. Hemlock is patient. However, once Hemlock gets established on a site, it sets up camp and stays there, often for thousands of years.

Hemlock exerts something called “Hemlock control” over sites where it gets established. Hemlock can grow in very acidic soils, in conditions where most species cannot thrive. Not only does Hemlock thrive in acidic conditions, but it’s needles are also very acidic.

Once established, Hemlock begins to “control” the site by dropping it’s own needles. The already acidic soil becomes even more so, further inhibiting growth of other species. The shade from the mature trees also works to keep other species from colonizing the site.

This can go on for thousands of years, as the slow growing, slow maturing, very long lived trees continue to alter the site, making it more acidic, cooler and shadier, which is more conducive to Hemlock, and less favorable to species needing more nutrient rich soils.

Every once in a while, something disturbs the site, and interrupts this cycle, seemingly rolling back progress. Let’s say a lightning strike hits the base of a mature tree, and starts a fire in the layer of dried, dead needles on the ground. This burns up those needles, reducing the acidity, and kills the smaller trees, causing more sunlight and warmth. Further changing the site, the ash from the fire is more basic (less acidic), allowing nutrient loving species to come in and colonize.

Things are looking bad for our Hemlock grove, aren’t they? But wait - things aren’t necessarily as they seem. Because it’s pretty rare that these surface fires kill the huge, old Hemlocks. This means that even as the new species, which need non-acidic soils, are getting established, the Hemlocks are re-working the site, making it more acidic once again.

The big trees are also continuing to shade out the site, and are dropping Hemlock seeds, which can thrive in the re-acidified soils. In addition, the new nutrients from the ashes of the fire are temporary. The fire was a single occurrence, and the changes to the soil do not re-occur. So the colonizing species use up the nutrients, and are left once again with shady, wet, cool, acidic, Hemlock-friendly conditions.

So the long-term strategy of the Hemlock works, and prevails, even in the face of seemingly catastrophic disturbances like wildfires, and competition from other species. These disturbances appear to roll back the progress of the Hemlock, and in fact, temporarily do that. But the life cycle of the Hemlock is so strong and substantial that progress is made, even as setbacks happen.

We just had a wildfire like nobody imagined, it’s still burning, and frankly promises to do so for a while. But I will claim that Progressive ideas are like the Hemlock - long-lived, resilient, and able to prevail in the long run.

And the long run is the view that we should be taking, like the Hemlock. Our huge, massive, site-altering Progressive trees are still alive and dropping seeds. Many of the things we see as “setbacks” are actually indicators of progress. Much of what we have accomplished will not be lost, even if it is rolled back for a while. And the direction our society is moving is inexorably the right one.

In the next installment, I explain why things which seem like “setbacks” are actually indicators of progress, why we’re moving in the right direction, and why reports that “Sunshine Marvy Has Left The Building” were premature.