Doing What We Can’t Not

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A great many tree branches came down in New York during the recent snowstorm, no doubt owing, in part, to our ever-more-delayed fall

The holiday season is upon us in the United States. I try not to succumb to the frenzy of excess and consumption that constitutes the most sacred celebration of our way of life. Still, it’s hard to find time and space of mind at the moment. I fear that the continuation of my Infrastructure Series will likely have to wait until next summer; however, continue it will, and in the meantime, I’m going to offer a skeletal sketch of my vision for climate action in 2019 and beyond.

First, I’m sure regular readers will have noted the barrage of alarming climate news in recent months. Following the October release of the IPCC’s Special Report (here’s the still-long Summary for Policymakers), came the White House’s own Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume II (here’s sample coverage from the Chicago Tribune). Meanwhile, reality bore out the dire predictions: Hurricane Michael did tens of billions of dollars of damage and left 45 people dead in Florida (and at least 15 more people dead in Central America); Super Typhoon Yutu caused massive damage and multiple fatalities in the US Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands; and fires across California killed close to 100 people and left tens of thousands of homes and businesses destroyed.

Even a summary attempt at a global round-up of bad climate news would have us here all day (it would probably have to start with the election of Jair Bolsanaro as president of Brazil), and I continue to try to keep my focus actionable, practical, and pragmatically optimistic. In a nutshell, there is emerging global consensus that “The next 10 years will be the most important in the next 10,000 years in terms of shaping a future where humans can have a hope for an enduring place within the natural systems that keep us alive.” Calendars are arbitrary relative to the biogeochemical processes of the Earth, but we live by them all the same, and readers who are grappling with how to meaningfully take or deepen their own climate action (ideally in collaboration with others as part of growing popular movements for climate sanity and justice) may find it helpful to set some time-based goals.

Here in the US, we have two more years of fighting for harm reduction. There are arenas beyond the national political, but federal headwinds hamper all of our climate actions. So perhaps it makes sense to see 2019 and 2020 as years of building, of planning, and of personal and social transformation, as well as as a time to limit the damage done. Of course, courageous individuals, communities, and activists have been fighting for climate sanity and justice for decades and generations; however, as a great many people contemplate for the first time the realities of imminent (and already unfolding) climate catastrophe, I suspect it will be productive to make space for ourselves and others to ask: “What’s next? What’s my role? What actions do science and my conscience demand?”

I’ve previously offered a very rough framework/roadmap for thinking about different levels of climate action that individuals might consider taking. Here, I’ll simply suggest that as we approach the new year of one particular calendar, and those of us in the US – whether we like it or not – are catapulted through another cycle of capitalist death and rebirth, that you set an intention to devote substantial time and energy in 2019 to making a climate audit of your own life and commitments; that you do so with an eye towards taking real and lasting climate action in 2020 and beyond; and that you embrace (and promulgate) the understanding that, if we fail to make the years 2021 through 2030 the most globally transformative in human history in a good way, then the years and decades that follow will be among the most globally transformative in human history in a bad.

What I’ve Been Reading

Some recommended (holiday) climate reading. In the US, it’s already an overwhelming time, so maybe just pick one or two pieces that speak to you and read them with care:

How Extreme Weather Is Shrinking the Planet – Bill McKibben’s long New Yorker article on the current state of the global climate and global climate justice movement. (There’s an audio version as well.)

Select Committee for a Green New Deal – Draft text regarding the new House committee the formation of which has been proposed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. (Here’s a ThinkProgress piece on the same.)

Averting Climate Catastrophe: What DSA Should Do – as the title suggests, this outlines how the DSA is thinking about holistic climate action. Short and very worth the time.

Call climate change what it is: violence – a 2014 essay from The Guardian by Rebecca Solnit which I came across in her new collection of essays, Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays). I encourage you not to buy it on Amazon.

New York’s transit woes and the looming climate crisis are inextricably linked – one example of the excellent NYC transit coverage from Aaron Gordon (as well as from Jonathan English, of CityLab). Incidentally, Gordon’s weekly newsletter on mass transit in NYC, Signal Problems, is superb – this reminder that recently-reelected Gov. Cuomo bears a great deal of responsibility for hamstringing our remarkable mass transit system was drawn from it.

Climate reports, a coal plant bribery, & military solar power – those of you in the American South may especially appreciate the good reporting being done by Southerly.

The Tiny Corner Of America Where Oil Titans Will Stash 2 Million Gallons Of Gas – because no newsletter should pass without a reminder that fracking is terrible, and we have an obligation to stop it (along with all fossil fuel extraction) and roll back the massive build out of fracked gas infrastructure currently being rammed through nationwide. (Corrupt politicians – like our Governor – and political appointees are making this buildout possible.)

Bonus

Can’t bring yourself to read one more word online than life and work already require? I understand. Perhaps you’ll enjoy:

  • This compelling interview from Democracy Now! with George Monbiot on why he embraced a plant-based diet and you should too.
  • This audio segment (also from DN!) with Noam Chomsky on the existential threat climate change poses to “organized human life on Earth.”
  • This short explainer from The Story of Stuff Project on the high human and ecological cost of Amazon’s free shipping. (More on Amazon here. I stopped using it years ago and have not missed it at all. Like giving up meat, I think you’ll find it’s much easier than you expect if you just take the plunge. And an aside: it’s truly obscene that the word amazon has become synonymous with the monopolistic tech giant at the same time that a neo-fascist in Brazil threatens wholesale destruction of the actual Amazon, that is, the most glorious rainforest on Earth.)
  • This upbeat episode of City of the Future – the techno-positive podcast from Sidewalk Labs (an Alphabet company) – on Closing the Recycling Loop and the future of recycling in NYC (a nice complement to my piece from September on solid waste management in New York).
  • Finally, guessing that other New Yorkers will be as entranced as I was by this video from 1905, taken of a moving subway train.

We have momentous years ahead. So please, wherever you are, start (or keep) thinking about what you can do, and what you can’t not.

The Time for Climate Action is Now

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This community solar facility in the Bronx is where we “get” our energy now (that is, it feeds into ConEd’s massive grid on our behalf)

Last week, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a dire report which suggests that, in the absence of an almost total transformation (and decarbonization) of the global economy by 2030, catastrophic global climate disruption is likely to unfold by 2040. Frankly, this is not news, but if it is to you, I encourage you to go dig into the report’s details.

The key distinction the report makes is that between a 1.5-degrees-Celsius temperature rise (the Paris Accord target, which is looking increasingly unreachable and some say has already been locked in) and 2-degree-Celsius rise; basically, with the former, things will be bad (massive insect die-offs, most coral reefs dead, millions of climate refugees owing to sea level rise, drought, lack of access to clean water, heatwaves, etc.) while with the latter, things will be – again – catastrophic, with near total global loss of coral reefs, cascading ecological and agricultural consequences from reef and insect loss, hundreds of millions more people subjected to water scarcity, tens of millions of additional climate refugees…

If we don’t act by 2030, by 2040, the latter scenario is what we are almost certain to face with all its attendant social and political disruptions.

My goal here, however, is not to recapitulate the IPCC report. My goal here is to issue a call to action. I have been alarmed to see many leading liberals meeting this latest news with resignation. Albert Wenger – the prominent venture capitalist (with whom I maintain a friendly personal acquaintance) – writes, on his decision to support geoengineering research, “I have concluded that we will not get on top of greenhouse gases in time. That means we will need more dramatic interventions to halt a further heating up of the atmosphere.”

A close friend (and successful financier) writes that he is “fluctuating [between] despair / acceptance of what seems to be the inevitable [and] trying to make an impact.”

One need not look far to find other prominent examples of liberal elite climate-towel-throwing-in. People who know me, or who have consistently read my work, will be aware that I am highly critical of both the roots of the American project (in genocide and slavery) and of the contemporary state of American geo/politics (characterized by imperialism and white supremacy). I find it nonetheless deeply discouraging that the country that put human beings on the moon and has driven and shaped the hypertechnological contemporary world order now suddenly confronts the global crisis we’ve made with outright denial, or a helpless shoulder shrug.

So, sparing choice words, I’m instead calling upon – beseeching, imploring – my peers and the people in positions of power and influence in the United States and beyond to embrace this crisis and this challenge as the defining struggle of a generation, and really of the century, a civilization, perhaps a species, and certainly of the millennium to come.

According to the IPCC report “we” have 12 years to get it together, or my generation’s children will be facing (as I replied to that financier friend) “a fracturing world order and escalating catastrophes that make [the] current global situation look very rosy” by the time they are graduating college. Let’s set aside that in many places around the world, and for many people, catastrophic climate disruption is already unfolding and has been for years or even decades. If you care about your children, your grandchildren, or your own future, the time to act is now.

It bears noting that these same elites, liberal or otherwise, are by far the most responsible for global climate disruption. That is, we are.

For perspective, the US is estimated to have been responsible for nearly 30% of all carbon dioxide emissions between 1850 and 2007, and the top ten emitting countries accounted for more than 70% of global emissions during that same time period. The cumulative percentages have no doubt shifted in the last decade as the economies of China and India, especially, have rapidly expanded their consumption of fossil fuels, but the fact remains that Germany, France, greater Russia, and the Anglosphere account for something like 50-60% of all cumulative global carbon dioxide emissions. Imperialism and colonialism cast long shadows on the present and the future.

Additionally, something like 50% of all historic anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have been released since ~1970, yet those of us who bear the most responsibility as a class are now going to wash our hands of the matter and dream of injecting (toxic) sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere in perpetuity as a “solution”? Now, a choice word. That’s bullshit. More than that. It’s an utter abdication. For decades, techno-optimists promised real climate solutions through innovation. Now, suddenly, we careen from optimism to pessimism, and the only alternative is insane experimentation with biogeochemical cycles at a planetary scale?

As I wrote to Albert:

… ~70% of global emissions are generated by ~20% of the global population, ~50% by ~10%, and, one supposes, ~35% by ~5%, so ~20% by ~2%, and perhaps ~10-15% by ~1%. You and I both fall into some of those percentiles, and you fall into all of them. I understand that, through the lens of [an understandable] pessimism… it is hard not to foresee the worst here; however, given that you (and we) are deeply implicated in the escalating climate crisis, it seems both self-serving and a bit disingenuous to throw your hands up now. It is not the time for fatalism among those of us who are the key drivers of the problem.

Basically, I’m calling for some… optimism. Rather than endorse, and throw your not-insubstantial resources behind these dangerous moonshot half-solutions (that, after all, have the convenient ancillary of leaving the root causes of climate change unaddressed, and serving to justify ongoing business-as-usual), why not use your power and influence to push for NYC to embrace Japanese-style (Super) Cool Biz? Why not not-only fly less, but again, use your remarkable position to push for drastic substantive changes in the way that elites operate within VC and startup spaces (that is, encourage your peers to fly less, consume less, waste less, etc.)? Why not put that money (and perhaps much more) into real climate solutions rather than geoengineering research? In short, why not do the hard work now that we all have to be doing if we are to have any hope of addressing this problem?

Okay, so hopefully by now, you’ve embraced that the best time for climate action was 40 (or 400) years ago, but that the next best time is the present. So, what can you do? And what can we?

First, the world is not in need of droves of new (white) climate saviors, but it would probably benefit from fewer (mostly white) climate deniers and obstructionists.

Second, there is a spectrum of actions – ranging from the strictly personal to the more broadly institutional and political – which you might take. Moving from the former to the latter, here are some thoughts on potential action steps:

  1. Consume less: That means fewer flights, less driving, less plastic, turning the lights off, turning the thermostat down in the winter and up in the summer, giving up meat, not buying useless crap and then landfilling it, etc., etc., etc. You might consider giving up Amazon Now; using Postmates, Caviar, Seamless, etc. less; avoiding single use plastics for a month to see how doable it is…
  2. Go renewable: Move your residential and/or commercial electricity to solar, wind, tidal, or – barring other renewable options – hydropower. I don’t see nuclear as renewable (just look to Chernobyl and Fukushima for an explanation why), but there are well-informed people who disagree with me. If you’re in a position to, install solar panels (or a windmill for that matter!), do so. If you’re not, explore community solar or reputable energy services companies (ESCOs) that offer the opportunity to buy renewable energy certificates (RECs). If you rely on an automobile, go electric if possible.
  3. Donate: This is low hanging fruit. Do it, but don’t kid yourself that you’re making a serious dent unless the numbers are huge and the impact is veri- and quantifiable.
  4. Vote for climate sanity: This means being informed about local, state-wide, national, and global climate issues. In New York State, people can look to organizations like NY Renews, Sane Energy Project, Protect Orange County, and We Are Seneca Lake for guidance on issues like moving New York towards 100% renewable electricity generation and stopping the ongoing massive buildout of fracked gas infrastructure in New York State and across the region. (Bill McKibben’s 350.org is obviously also a helpful resource/starting point.)
  5. Take action for climate sanity: See all of the above, but consider going beyond the ballot box. Not everyone is prepared to chain herself to a fracked gas pipeline, or even to protest in the streets, but at very least, you can be on the phone to your elected representatives, at community meetings, and in conversation with your friends, neighbors, and loved ones about how essential climate issues and climate action are.
  6. Divest/Invest: When my father died, I divested his (modest) brokerage portfolio from Kinder Morgan. I’ve been proud to see significant action on fossil fuel divestment in New York City and State, but we need a lot more of it. Individuals and entities should be divesting from (and ceasing future investment in) fossil-fuel companies, broadly speaking. We should also be pressuring not only our city, state, and national governments, but our banks and financial services companies to divest. On the flip side, you can look for sound climate-friendly investments if that’s your thing; I’d only caution that it might be helpful to have a veteran climate activist vet these, lest you simply divert money to something that feels good but doesn’t do much good.
  7. Reshape your organization: Are you an executive, board member, or otherwise decision-maker within a corporation, non-profit, governmental body, etc.? Attempt to apply steps 1-6 to your organization. Convert to 100% renewable energy. Climate audit your supply chain and business practices. Turn off the lights in the office/skyscraper at night. Donate, divest, and invest with climate as a key pillar. Proudly declare that your organization is committed to climate sanity and climate justice and then actually walk the walk on the talk. Use your weight to move political conversations. This will likely be extremely hard as climate sanity and capitalism remain fundamentally at odds.
  8. Support broader civic initiatives: Not that we haven’t already touched on this – for example, in talking about fighting against pipeline projects – but there are opportunities everywhere – and especially in New York City in my view – to make climate progress. We should adopt municipal or regional (Super) Cool Biz: New York is only getting hotter, and a significant fraction of our energy consumption goes towards cooling buildings in the summer (which only further contributes to the urban heat island effect). We need to simply do away with (male) business attire when the weather is warm, set the thermostats to 78 degrees Fahrenheit, and spare those of us (disproportionately female) who dress sanely in the summer the necessity of carrying around sweaters when its sweltering. Golf courses have proven for generations that one need not wear a suit to close a deal; so when it’s hot, wear shorts and a t-shirt (rather than a blazer like a maniac), then get on with your business. Other ideas include actually enforcing a no-idling ban (I tremble to imagine the emissions tab accrued by New Yorkers simply idling as they wait to move for street sweepers, for example) and legislating against leaving those skyscraper lights on and in favor of stricter energy efficiency standards in new construction (and of retrofitting). Additionally, we should support the subway, the MTA, and public transit more broadly, and demand that the political gridlock and corruption which have starved and partially paralyzed our flagship transit system be broken. Right now, too many of New York’s richest and most powerful people don’t see subways (and buses and transit) as their problem. Meanwhile, the city chokes on Uber and Lyft for-hire vehicles and FedEx and UPS trucks (making Amazon deliveries); few things would make more of a climate dent than improved and expanded public transportation (which relates to why the Kochs, et al are so feverishly fighting against transit projects across the United States).
  9. Support a national Green New Deal, or equivalent: This one speaks for itself. We have roughly a decade to make this happen. We need to break the stranglehold of fossil fuels on our society and economy. We need to massively ramp up installation of renewable energy generation and storage capacity (and continue to drive rapid innovation in the underlying technologies) while putting a total nationwide moratorium on new fossil-fuel projects (that is, pipelines, power plants, LNG terminals, you name it). This may require some sacrifices and some adjustments, but it is the livability of the future for which we’re fighting. Significant outlier challenges involve developing and implementing the use of renewable fuels for container ships and airplanes.
  10. As a friend, quoting Donella Meadows, put it, question “the mindset or paradigm out of which the system… arises”: This will be especially hard and uncomfortable because conversations about capitalism, imperialism, genocide, slavery, militarism, white supremacy, and occupation always are. I’ve tried to have these hard conversations in tandem with calling for climate action, and will continue to do so, but at this juncture, it’s my view that the urgency of the crisis calls for a pragmatic strategy of striving for (real) progress wherever opportunities exist, even if intersecting challenges remain intractable. It is almost guaranteed that profound conflicts will arise in this arena. One need look no further than the example of climate offsets – which are designed to allow the rich in the Global North to continue their consumption unabated, with clean consciences, but often result in the displacement of poor/rural/indigenous people in the Global South from ancestral lands which have been deemed (by for-profit offset companies) as offset preserves – to understand how sinister and complex the dynamics involved can sometimes be.

This week, I’ve initiated a series of conversations with relatives, friends, mentors, clients, and others to urge climate action (which simply represents an intensification and slight formalization of what I’d already been doing). Given my own limited time and energy, I’m reaching out to people in my life who are in positions to effect institutional change at scale; however, I think we could all do to be having more of these conversations. As I’ve said before, almost no interaction should pass at this point without an honest mention of the climate. We used to talk about the weather, but if the stadium is collapsing, it no longer makes sense to focus only on the action on-field. Such is our current predicament.

I’m using this document as a jumping off point for those conversations; invite you to do the same; and would welcome feedback on what’s wrong with it and how it could be improved. Planning to return to my NYC Infrastructure Series next month; in the meantime, be well and stay engaged. Apathy kills and there’s no time like the present.

Trash Rules Everything Around Me

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As New York City dumped its vast output of trash on Staten Island, Wu Tang sprang from that forgotten borough to wow the world

It is an entropic inevitability that the universe tends towards ever greater disorder. In New York City, one clear manifestation of this Second Law of Thermodynamics is our immense, constant production of “trash”. In the face of this tsunami of “waste”, our failure to maintain or develop closed-loop systems means we are then confronted with the challenge of disposing of all this “garbage”, the subject of this post.

(I’ll refrain from air-quoting throughout, but for an exploration of “mass terms” like “trash”, “waste”, “garbage”, and “sewage” – which might shed light on my choice to air-quote – read here. I’ll address “sewage” in a future newsletter, but it’s interesting to note that for approximately the first 200 years of the City’s post-colonization history, “human waste” was seen as a resource (that is, fertilizer) – for which there was, at times, an active and lucrative market – rather than as a toxic liability.)

Coming more to the point, New York produces more than 14 million tons (so approaching 30 billion pounds) of trash each year. This Guardian article does a nice job briefly summarizing the history and current state of waste management in NYC. Key points include that the NYC Department of Sanitation (DSNY) – with more 10,000 employees, more than 2,000 trucks (the Guardian underquotes here, probably for failure to include the entire fleet), and an annual budget approaching $2 billion – handles only a quarter of NYC’s total trash output, while fleets of lightly-regulated and often-poorly-maintained trucks from ~250 private carting companies – with historically strong, if now somewhat attenuated, mob ties, and which put ~4,000 more trucks on the roads – collect the remainder.

Basic breakdown is that DSNY collects waste from private residential units/structures, NYCHA buildings, and NYC public schools (in addition to making limited special collections, for example, for certain licensed professionals), while private carters handle all other commercial waste. As those who run businesses in NYC know, it is, in fact, City law that all commercial establishments must have a contract with a private carting company. Still – although the Guardian article hints at this fact – the amount of properly commercial waste is roughly equivalent to residential output, while nearly half of the total waste produced in the City can be attributed to construction and demolition; only by rolling all non-DSNY-collected waste into a single stream do we get the 75% figure the Guardian quotes. For clarity and simplicity then, we might think of the City’s overall waste stream as being constituted of approximately one-quarter residential waste, another quarter commercial, and fully one-half construction and demolition.

(For a deeper look into the murky, often-deadly world of NYC’s private carting companies, please read Kiera Feldman’s excellent reportage here, here, and here to which I’ve linked in the past.)

In 2014, NYC set the ambitious goal of being Zero Waste by 2030 (you may have seen the increasingly ubiquitous reusable orange 0x30 bags around town). Unfortunately, right now, the City is much more than zero waste. In fact, we capture less than half of our recyclable material (which, again for simplicity, constitutes roughly one-third of the City’s total waste stream) and, as yet, a risibly small percentage of our organic waste – which constitutes roughly another third – although admirable plans are afoot to dramatically scale-up the City’s composting program, in partnership with inspiring non-profit partners like the Lower East Side Ecology Center, GrowNYC, Earth Matter, Big Reuse, and most, if not all, of the City’s Botanical Gardens.

That leaves a final third of trash – that is, non-recyclable, non-compostable material – that, at present, we lack capacity to divert from landfills/incinerators even in a best-case scenario. Back of the envelope math suggests that fully 80% of the City’s solid waste is thus ending up landfilled or incinerated.

(Here‘s a breakdown of the national waste statistics which show a little more than half going to landfills, around a quarter to recycling facilities, another eighth to “waste-to-energy plants”, and the remainder – less than 10% – being composted. These numbers are comparable to – but significantly better than – ours locally. You may also want to have a look at the source from which the former data was drawn, which offers a number of helpful charts, the overall gist of which is that both recycling rates and overall waste production have risen dramatically in recent decades.)

In an NYC context, where does all this waste go, though? Historically, the City’s waste has been thrown in the streets, used to fill in so-called water lots (as well as in massive infilling projects more broadly, which have substantially expanded the area of the five boroughs and encroached extensively on wetlands, shoreline habitat, etc.), ended up in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “valley of ashes” (formerly, Flushing Meadows, today, Robert Moses’s Flushing Meadows-Corona Park), been dumped into the ocean, been incinerated (a major contributor to morbidity and mortality among City residents in those days), and, between 1947 and 2001, ended up in the now-closed Fresh Kills Landfill, which is currently in the long, slow process of being transformed into New York City’s second largest park.

(Incidentally, one can glimpse the distinctive grassy-mound look of capped landfills in Jamaica Bay – where the Pennsylvania Avenue and Fountain Avenue Landfills once stood – and in Pelham Bay Park, and I suspect there are other now-capped landfills hiding in plain sight around the City; for a more comprehensive, though still brief, history of solid waste management in NYC, have a look at this timeline.)

Today, our municipal solid waste is delivered by truck to ~60 waste transfer stations around the City from which it passes to barges, railcars, and yet more trucks on its way to the aforementioned landfills and incinerators/waste-to-energy plants in Upstate New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and perhaps other states (it’s, in fact, a bit hard to find conclusive information on where-all the waste is going) at a total cost to the City of more than $300 million per year and rising.

(This interesting, if dated, site offers a look at a few potential NYC waste paths, while this explainer video from the New York Times provides a characteristically synoptic perspective on NYC’s waste management challenge.)

As for the recyclables that do, in fact, get recycled, most of the paper products are sent to the Pratt Industries facility in the vicinity of Fresh Kills on the semi-industrial west side of Staten Island, while the vast majority of mixed glass, metal, plastic, and cartons goes to the Sims Materials Recovery Facility in Sunset Park (which offers frequent public tours, led by the friendly and knowledgable, Sam. Take one already!). Sims has an additional facility in Jersey City which receives material from DSNY, as well as from private haulers and municipalities in New Jersey; if I’m not mistaken, this facility was the primary recipient of NYC’s recyclables before the opening of the Sunset Park facility in late 2013. Worth noting that in all of these cases, the City pays tipping fees to these private contractors to process its recycling, though the financial picture is complicated by the fact that, at least in the case of Sims, the contract in question stipulates profit-sharing with the City beyond a certain threshold – according to Sam, reached for the first time since the opening of the Sunset Park facility relatively recently.

(A note for the urban waste spotter, should you catch sight of what appears to be a garbage barge on one of NYC’s many waterways, it is very likely bound for one of the Sims sites, as waste that has passed through a transfer station and is bound Up/out-of-state generally seems to be compacted and containerized first while recyclables travel on open barges to Jersey City or, more probably, to Sunset Park to be unloaded on the facility’s expansive tipping floor.)

Unfortunately, although I feel we’ve only scratched the surface here – for example, we haven’t even touched on the climate impact of the waste itself, let alone the millions of annual truck trips, the methane off-gassing from landfills, etc. or on the environmental justice ramifications of the inequitable concentration of waste transfer stations in certain areas/neighborhoods – alas, I’ve run out of time for this month, so will have to leave it at that for now. Given how resource-rich this post is already, I’m skipping the What I’m Reading section this month, and will just tell you a little bit about…

What I’m Doing

First and foremost, settling into a new school year with my students while also diving back into writing fiction, but I also:

  • Joined Clarinda Mac Low for the second annual Sunk Shore tour.
  • Checked out multiple of Justin Brice Guariglia’s Climate Signals currently up across the five boroughs.
  • Attended – and was deeply disappointed by the corporatism of – the launch party for The Climate Museum (like, I have friends at Goldman, too, but I’m not trying to pretend that the firm is a climate champion).
  • Joined NYC H20 for another tour, this one of the Ridgewood Reservoir, and for a cleanup of beautiful Plumb Beach.
  • Joined for another of the Social Justice Tours, this one regarding gentrification in Downtown Brooklyn.

Bonus

Still confused sometimes about what to recycle and how? You’re not alone. Consider bookmarking DSNY’s handy and straightforward What to Recycle page and looking into SAFE Disposal Events around the City (for so-called household hazardous waste), as well as the City’s Electronic Disposal Information site and the Lower East Side Ecology Center’s affiliated E-Waste Collection Events, which happen around the City throughout the year.

And if you haven’t yet taken note of DSNY’s tremendous brutalist masterpiece on Canal Street at the Westside Highway, please do go have a look!

 

Islands Unto Themselves?

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Sadly, a string of submerged mines will not protect New York from rising sea levels

With the exception of the Bronx, New York is a city of islands. Three in particular. One that may be the most famous in the world. But dozens of extant islands, and no doubt hundreds of former that have succumbed – over nearly four centuries of European colonization – to the ceaseless human remaking of this place.

Even the Bronx has its islands, in fact. City Island, far to the north, still has something of the feel to it of the fishing village it once was. North Brother – once a quarantine site, upon which the ruins of an old hospital are still visible today – has refreshingly been converted into a bird sanctuary, and South Brother – site of the city’s first dump – is likewise now uninhabited, while a short distance from the Brothers, across the tidal straight known as the East River, is located the infamous penal colony, Riker’s Island, a monument to our inhumanity – cage, on average, to approximately 10,000 people – over which, every day, pass hundreds of commercial airliners arriving at and departing from much-maligned LaGuardia Airport.

Manhattan’s islands are generally more well-known, if their histories – Ward’s and Randall’s Islands, joined by landfill; U Thant Island, artificial relic of subway tunnel construction, and now home to a small colony of double-crested cormorants; Liberty Island, formerly Bedloe’s, one-time home to a United States Army fort, the remains of which still frame, fittingly, the base of the Statue of Liberty – remain, in many cases, obscure.

Coney Island is no longer an island, but was once multiple, while the number of islands in the still-vast Jamaica Bay – although drastically reduced through dumping and infilling, hardening of shorelines, and, in particular, the massive construction, first of Floyd Bennett Field (once site of Barren Island, and multiple smaller), and later, of Idlewild, now JFK – is still such to inspire wonder.

Bitterly, ironically, if not surprisingly, the flooding from Hurricane Sandy largely mapped to areas of infill and encroachment on wetlands and water. Now, these same areas are epicenters of a building boom. (For an excellent, accessible ecological history of Greater New York – including extensive exploration of the “process of making land out of water” – I recommend Ted Steinberg’s Gotham Unbound.) And yet, when water isn’t flooding our streets or lapping at our doors, it is easy to forget how intimately this city (and metropolitan statistical area) is tied to its rivers and ocean. In fact, it is easy enough not to realize in the first place (as I didn’t until recently) that no less then seven rivers feed into New York Harbor and Long Island Sound in the Greater New York City Area.

I reject the self-serving corporatism of the Regional Plan Association; nonetheless, I believe it is essential that we eschew chauvinisms – at the level of the neighborhood, the borough, even the city – to grasp how fundamentally interconnected are all of our lives across the region, and indeed, around the world.

Still, to the resident of the South Bronx, whose grandparents came north to Harlem during the Great Migration; whose parents moved to Morrisania looking for better schools and to escape the slums; who witnessed as a child the destruction wrought by Robert Moses’s “urban renewal” and came of age during the savage era of “benign neglect” and “planned shrinkage” which followed New York City’s 1970s fiscal crisis; whose children faced criminalization, mass incarceration, and exclusion even as the City reemerged as the dynamo of the new, financialized, neoliberal American economy; and whose grandchildren now attend under-funded public schools, breathe the City’s worst air, and drink the City’s worst water, right next door to the Hunts Point Distribution Center that provides much of the City’s food; to the Major Deegan, the Sheridan, or the Bruckner, or for that matter, the MetroNorth corridors that carry wealthy commuters from Westchester into Manhattan; to the waste transfer stations that handle a disproportionate amount of the City’s vast flow of “trash” – to such a resident of the South Bronx – whose communities have suffered staggering transgenerational infra/structural violence and environmental racism – talk of interconnectedness may sound like so much more of the hot air already in the process of choking us.

It is against the subjectivities of people in the South Bronx, Central Brooklyn, and Southeastern Queens that efforts towards building a just, sustainable, and ecologically-sane future for New York City must be measured, as against the consciousnesses of those calling for decolonization of land and institutions here in one of the hearts of global capitalism. My ancestors came to New York themselves fleeing ecological and human catastrophes (the Potato Famine, World War I), but harnessing the desperation of immigrants has always been part of the logic, structure, and strategy of settler colonialism, and the fact of my forebears desperation little changes the hard realities of our shared present. Yet, as a person who has made my life in New York, and loves this City in spite of all its – and my own – contradictions and shortcomings, I fear for our collective future in the face of the all-but-unthinkable, and yet increasingly imaginable.

In many ways, the City Government is doing a remarkable job – especially since Sandy and under Mayor de Blasio – in improving its “climate readiness”, and yet, sadly, its actions remain insufficient; in fact, they fall far short of the truly necessary level of urgency, both in view of our already dire situation, but even more, given that, globally, there are few signs yet of truly concerted action being taken to end fossil fuel consumption, convert to a fully renewable economy, and, in the process, build a just and sustainable future. No amount of “resilience” can protect us if global average temperatures increase by six degrees Celsius.

There are no easy answers. But one starting point is committing ourselves to understanding where we really live; yes, in “the greatest city on Earth” (or its metro region), but more to the point, on a collection of islands and peninsulas. On land, much of which was once wetlands and tidal marshes (and which was taken by force and through massacres, not purchased with trinkets). In a beautiful, still-ecologically-remarkable, but damaged, fragile, and extremely vulnerable set of intersecting and overlapping ecosystems and built human environments – a place, today, at once of unique world-historical significance, and yet also emblematic of the threats that menace many of the megacities which constitute key nodes of the contemporary networked world order.

On the advice of my partner, going forward (and into the coming US school-year, given that my own work follows an academic calendar), I plan to devote these monthly newsletters to explorations of particular issues/topics related to Greater New York – think the infrastructure that ensures the safety and reliability of our water supply, our wastewater treatment facilities, the elaborate systems and infrastructures of “waste” management without which our streets would quickly begin to pile high with refuse – with the certainty that, at very least, I should learn a lot; the hope that, in the process, some of my fellow New Yorkers will as well; and the ambition that readers beyond the region (and outside the United States) may find inspiration in the approach, even if not always so much relevance in the details.

It’s been my experience that we – in New York, as in most of the rich places in the rich/core capitalist countries, at least those of us here who are not among the growing number of homeless and hungry – largely take for granted our water, food, and electrical supplies, until the tap runs dry, the shelves are empty, and the lights are out. Rather than wait for future disasters to teach us further hard and traumatic lessons, I think it’s time we confront our complacency and begin to plumb the depths and immediacy of our vulnerability.

What I’m Doing

I’ve supported my partner in a worthy undertaking and continued trying to make the most of the summer:

  • Love Child has partnered with our friends at PowerMarket to offer an incentive for New Yorkers to sign up for community solar. Long story short, PowerMarket partners with ConEd and a number of renewable energy projects across the region to offer (~10%) discounted electricity to ConEd users while feeding renewably-generated electricity into the grid. We have already subscribed – both at home and at Love Child – as part of the South Bronx Solar Garden (live as of this week), and I encourage you to consider moving your residential and commercial electricity bills over to a community solar project. In the process, you should save money; it’s free and easy to sign up; and you’ll be supporting the installation of more renewable energy generation capacity in New York. If you use this link to register (or the code LoveChildYoga), you’ll get a $50 gift card and we’ll know you came to community solar through us; if you’re interested, please feel free to reach out to me with any questions, and I’ll be happy to put you directly in touch with Travis at PowerMarket.
  • I attended a public meeting held by the Army Corps of Engineers regarding their multiple proposed potential plans for storm surge barriers in and around New York Harbor. The most extreme of these would entail building a massive barrier across the entire mouth of Lower New York Harbor, from Sandy Hook in New Jersey to Breezy Point in Queens. Critics, such as the organization Riverkeeper, have called that plan in particular a “threat to the very life of the Hudson & Harbor.” I encourage you to get informed about these potential developments (helpful video, fact sheet, and resources here), and give your comments to the Army Corps before the public comment period closes on September 20th. Although I’m opposed to almost all of the plans proposed by the Army Corps, the threat to our more than 500 miles of coast/shoreline is an urgent and very real one, and I’m happy to see public and governmental concern and awareness growing.
  • I visited multiple sites in the Gateway National Recreation Area, including the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge and historic Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island. The Wildlife Refuge is a welcome reminder of the rich ecology of New York City and the wide variety of non-human species that continue to live in or pass through the region, while Fort Wadsworth – in addition to offering some truly spectacular views, including the one captured above – offers insight into the geopolitical and military history of the City. An immense infrastructure of now-totally-obsolete coastal defense, built up over a matter of centuries, remains hidden in plain sight around the City. In Brooklyn, across from Fort Wadsworth, Fort Hamilton remains an active Army base, while Fort Lafayette – constructed on Hendrick’s Reef, another of New York’s now-vanished islands – was demolished in 1960 to make way for one of the towers of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Fort Tilden and Fort Hancock frame the mouth of the Lower Harbor; Castles Clinton and Williams remain in the Upper Harbor; and Forts Schuyler and Totten once guarded the approach to Manhattan via Long Island Sound in the vicinity of today’s Throgs Neck Bridge. Aerial warfare and long range missiles had already relegated even the most advanced of the coastal forts to irrelevance by the time nuclear weapons solidified it, but in considering these relics of strategic/maritime history, we get a glimpse into the forces that shaped New York and the centrality to this city of the waters that now, in the era of global climate disruption, harbor a new sort of menace.
  • I joined the infectiously-sewer-loving Steve Duncan on an NYC H2O tour. Spoiler: If you go on a tour, you’ll get to look under a lot of manhole covers. No actual infections should result.
  • I checked out the exhibitions at the Center for Architecture on “Designing Waste” and the Fourth Regional Plan. Both worth the time in my opinion.
  • I’ve tried to go to the beach as much as possible, which has been nice.

What I’ve Been Reading

Already running a bit long this week, so offering here a few books, and one long article, plus a rejoinder to it:

Fear City – Kim Philipps-Fein’s excellent analysis (and dramatic recounting) of New York City’s fiscal crisis.

Reclaiming Gotham – Juan Gonzalez’s illuminating take on the accomplishments (and failures) of the de Blasio administration and the broader urban progressive movement in the United States.

The Slums of Aspen – credit to Zero Waste Habesha for this rec (via Insta that is) – only just starting this book – subtitled “Immigrants vs. the Environment in America’s Eden” – myself, but already very into it.

Losing Earth & Capitalism Killed our Climate Momentum… – Nathaniel Rich’s (very long and highly white-male-technocrat-centric) look at the emergence and failure of high-level negotiations around climate disruption in the 1980s, and Naomi Klein’s necessary critique, in the Intercept, of Rich’s high-profile New York Times Magazine piece.

Bonus

A huge thank you to the good folx at Culturework for featuring Climate / Change this month! Honored to be included. Please do check them out (and subscribe to my newsletter while you’re at it if you enjoyed this piece).

If You Can’t Stand the Heat…

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Ugly glass building is still there, but the rhino sculpture is now gone

It’s after midnight; we’re walking home from a jazz club; and our street – bathed, from atop historic lamp posts, in too-bright LED light – is abuzz with a haunting symphony of AC units.

It’s midday in the Village, and on block after block, cars are idling with people inside them – eating, writing, listening, sleeping, talking to each other or on their cellular phones – but most of all, seeking shelter from the heat.

It’s late afternoon and as I approach Astor Place, still on foot, I witness yet another stranger dumping bottled water over own head. When I reach the searing brightness at the corner – the Cube, Cooper Union, the hideous tower where Watson “lives” – I’m struck by the absence of The Last Three; the sculpture (of the last three northern white rhinos) has disappeared, gone the way that one of the rhinos already has and the other two – the species with them – soon will.

Taking shelter in the shadow of that monstrosity – home to IBM, a Carlyle Group subsidiary, others – as I wait for the 3rd Avenue light to change, I take my phone from my bag – late to meet someone; messaging I’ll be there soon – only to discover an email from a friend in Toronto who’s been working diligently in recent years to sponsor and support Syrian refugees as they “come to Canada and start a new life”; for a moment, I’m overwhelmed and feel I might begin to weep on the corner in the shade.

There is so much wrong. Sometimes one has to cry.

In his brilliant new book, The Progress of This Storm, Andreas Malm writes of pretrauma – the feeling (often channeled in pop culture and the mass media) associated with the disquieting knowledge that we are almost certainly rapidly speeding ever deeper into an era of chaos, catastrophe, and breakdown, an era which Malm aptly names “the warming condition.” I have reflected of late myself on this problem of naming; a keen interlocutor pointed out – in view of my use of the term “climate breakdown” – that it is not so much climate that is breaking down, only one instantiation of it, and he was absolutely right. Climate persists, and odds are that a new climate steady-state will be reconstituted, even if millennia from now and one far less hospitable to human life; it is only from a human standpoint that one can really speak of breakdown and imminent collapse.

Such may be my thoughts at the corner as I gather myself, put my phone away. The need for urgent, drastic action could not be clearer – news of heat records being broken globally marred the holiday festivities in the United States, or should have – and yet here we are – city- and world-wide – idling, dumping bottled water on steaming pavement, running AC day and night.

And who can blame us? It’s hot.

Only that it stands to get hotter, and we may yet live to blame ourselves.

What I’m Doing

Given that my previous newsletter went out less than a week ago, I’ll keep this brief:

  • I gave a private talk on climate issues to a handful of people of varying political dispositions and levels of concern about climate disruption. There is a chance that I’ll record a version of the same remarks to share online.
  • I’m attempting to have a #PlasticFreeJuly. I encourage you to do this same.
  • I’m urging friends – in the form of this newsletter and otherwise – to get serious about adjusting to our new climate normal; we could learn from a Japanese initiative. To quote Wikipedia: “Cool Biz… is a Japanese campaign initiated by the Japanese Ministry of the Environment from summer 2005 as a means to help reduce Japanese electricity consumption by limiting the use of air conditioning. This was enabled by changing the standard office air conditioner temperature to 28 °C (or about 82 °F) and introducing a liberal summer dress code in the bureaucracy of the Japanese government so staff could work in the warmer temperature. The campaign then spread to the private sector.” Post-Fukushima, these efforts were ramped up further (think khaki shorts and “Hawaiian” shirts at Goldman Sachs) under the name Super Cool Biz. We need a Cool Biz and a Super Cool Biz campaign of our own here in New York, the world’s most wasteful megacity. No more thermostats set to 65 degrees Fahrenheit while some people arrive at work, in the heat of the summer, in full suits, and others shiver and keep a sweater at their desk. Like it or not, we need to get used to the heat; get to work on ending our reliance on fossil fuels in a matter of decades; and in the meantime, stop making the climate problem worse as we seek to avoid its already unfolding consequences. In the meantime, by reducing our energy consumption here in NYC, we might also eliminate the need for the immense network of fracked gas infrastructure currently being installed – owing to our excess – across Upstate New York.
  • I joined the Climate Working Group of the DSA, and look forward to getting more involved with their great work, including around resistance to construction of pipelines and other fracked gas infrastructure.

What I’m Reading

The Progress of This Storm – a dense, sweeping, admirably short, and surprisingly funny survey of the current state of climate theory. Best book I’ve read on climate matters in some time.

Handbook on the Geographies of Energy – namely, the chapter by our friend Deepti Chatti; sadly, as an academic text, this book carries a hefty price-tag, but I can attest that the portion I’ve read is excellent.

The demise of the nation state – good “long read” by Rana Dasgupta, whose book, Capital – on contemporary Delhi – is also worth reading.

Rapid Spread of Polio in the Congo Threatens Global Eradication Efforts – frightening reminder of what’s at stake as we consider the global impacts of escalating climate disruption; this (horrifying) polio outbreak is not caused by climate breakdown, but climate breakdown can certainly take the bad and make it worse.

Minnesota just approved a new tar-sands pipeline. Activists say they will fight it.

Bonus

Good news, Seattle has “become the first major city in the U.S. to ban plastic straws, utensils and other single-use plastic items.”

Distracted from Distraction By Distraction: On Killer Convenience and Missing the Forest for the Screens

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The Javits Center green roof: home to a hundred nesting birds, five beehives, and the PR aspirations of an institution

A dozen odd people have assembled around the model who – having scaled part of a broken wall in a West Village lot, currently vacant, but no doubt destined for development – now makes, in no discernible sequence, expressions – raunchy, exuberant, incoherent – while vamping in modes – alternately, ambivalently – suggestive and defiant. I pass two such scenes on my five-minute walk home, a walk which culminates in my passing a gentleman wearing a backpack and cargo shorts who has mounted his iPhone on a selfie stick, and walks numbly forward, smiling, recording the emptiness of our block – someone is walking a dog; a few of the gentleman’s fellow tourists have assembled, at block’s other end, before a house notable for its relationship to a savagely-banal TV show; a construction crew eat lunch on the wood-encased stoop of one of the countless townhouses across the Village currently undergoing never-ending gut-renovation to accommodate future super-rich occupants; otherwise, nothing is happening – and numbly smiling into the screen through which he experiences the world, the gentleman walks on before, and one supposes behind me, as I pass him, recording it all – the picturesque scene, my backside – for some notion of posterity – my posterior – but more immediately, to be parsed by the machine-learning algorithms of some nascent AI in a vast, private, energy-devouring data center. These are the activities, the images, by which humans are consumed as the Earth, and we with it, hurtle ever deeper into global ecological and climate catastrophe.

One might be inclined to despair, but then – that very same morning – the Internet has been awash in the news that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has won her primary. Clearly, someone – a great many someones – are awake out there and caring.

Later that same afternoon, I walk out our front door to discover a third film crew shooting on our stoop. One of the crew members signals to me in alarm – mouthing something like, “One second,” finger held aloft as if to shoosh or correct – and for a moment I pause, bags of recycling and trash (we produce it too, and sometimes it stinks) in hand, before proclaiming, “Sorry. It’s our house” – which it is not; we rent, though the sentiment stands – and proceeding to deposit bags in proper receptacles, noting, in the process, that further down the block, another film crew is similarly abusing another stoop, that of our neighbors.

As I muse on these words, roll them over in my mind, I pass a man sleeping across the street from the Tesla store in the great open pit of the Meatpacking District; he curls, fetal, on the sidewalk beneath the awning in front of what used to be a dive bar, is currently shuttered, and will no doubt soon reopen as luxury retail. I’m on my way to the High Line – not for a relaxing walk, because such is not possible, for a New Yorker, on what has become the City’s premier architectural showroom-cum-tourist attraction; I’m going to tour the green roof of the Javits Center – the City’s largest, the nation’s second, or so the Center advertises – and once aloft on the elevated train platform-turned-park, I find children dancing as if they were embodied memes; young adults Periscoping their uneventful walks to who-knows-whom (comments and emojis springing, not quite to life, on the screens as I pass this screen-following sleepwalker, that); my peers vaping absently with dead looks, blowing their treacly-sweet toxic smoke, indifferently, into the faces of passersby; then I’m face-to-screen face with a giant Kate Spade video ad – infused with a neoliberal whimsy no words are necessary to accentuate – no doubt the product of just such a production as those that have dogged my morning into my afternoon, though now confronting me from the side of 10 Hudson Yards. I wend my way around that immensely banal monument to waste, greed, tastelessness, climate denial, ecological insanity, and (no doubt) corruption, and only then catch sight of that other Hudson – which has other names that predate, by millennia, the arrival of the so-called explorer – swelling, as it always now seems to be, swelling within encrouched-upon and foreclosed banks nearly to the point of bursting.

The caption above summarizes my impressions of the green roof. I’ll only add that, as I’m up there – amidst the birds, and with the bird watchers; chaperoned by our lovely, over-exuberant, true-Javits Center-believer of a guide – hundreds of construction workers stop traffic on 11th Avenue, protesting at-the-moment-I-can’t-exactly-say-what treatment at the hands of Related on that very same vast Hudson Yards mega-project. Everywhere one looks, potential reasons for hope mingle with the numb indifference of the transfixed spectators, transmogrified by spectacle.

Then I’m back on the High Line, headed south; every which way one looks, people – not models – are posing and shooting, posing and shooting, reflexively; and as if by way of coda, I pass a fifth and final crew – this time only a photo – capturing images for I-know-not-what.

“They are always like,” says the model, in her Italian accent, as she mimics an expression of awe and surprise. “People these days are just obsessed.”

What I’m Doing

Enough of that dourness, though! Please allow me to offer some potential reasons for optimism and – hopefully – sources of inspiration:

  • I have, at last, joined the Democratic Socialists of America. I encourage you to self-educate and consider doing the same. Ocasio-Cortez’s inspiring primary victory (and my experience canvassing, donating to, and spreading the word about her campaign) was most certainly the catalyst for my choice.
  • I’ve been making the most of my summer schedule. I’ve been to Swale; The River Project (again, this time with a bevy of Love Child toddlers, no less!); Weeksville (if you’re not familiar with it, absolutely go pay a visit); AgTech-X; and on a number of Social Justice Tours across Brooklyn and Manhattan. I urge you to check out all of these great orgs/institutions/initiatives; we live in New York for a reason – please, this summer, go out and learn and love your City that much more, and support it becoming the best/a better version of itself. In my opinion, that collective process is rooted in education, and each of us can take action to be educating ourselves for change.
  • On the subject of the City, I made a Tree Service Request in June and re-acquainted myself with the Wait… pilot project. The City doesn’t always do the best job communicating with citizens about its numerous and various initiatives, but it’s nice to be reminded how responsive, progressive, and accountable our municipal government is in many respects if one can only navigate its layers.
  • Finally, I had the privilege of speaking with Travis at PowerMarket about their evolving community solar model. Working on the possibility of arranging site visits at the new solar installation in the Bronx, but in the meantime, I encourage you to consider (if you live in NYC) switching to community solar. We already have.

What I’m Reading

Our natural world is disappearing before our eyes. We have to save it – The latest from George Monbiot. Title speaks for itself.

Treated Like Trash and Hell on Wheels – continuation of Kiera Feldman’s must-read coverage of the deadly and hyper-corrupt private trash collection industry in NYC.

Cities face dramatic rise in heat, flood risks by 2050 and Antarctic melt holds coastal cities hostage – both brief, but to keep things in perspective.

How the Koch Brothers Are Killing Public Transit Projects Around the Country –  monthly reminder to keep in mind the well-funded and coordinated efforts that exist to undermine sane public policy and climate action.

Pennsylvania Fracking Health Impacts – monthly reminder of the human-cum-ecological ravages of the fracking currently unfolding all across this country.

The War of Hunger That Afflicts the World’s Poor – one of numerous must-read articles from the indefatigable Vijay Prashad, whose Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research is consistently doing some of the most important, socially-engaged intellectual work of which I am aware.

Vigil held for Queens taxi driver whose family says committed suicide – monthly reminder of the human toll of convenience-consumption coupled with political corruption and corporate greed.

‘Poop Train’ Full of NYC Sewage Raises Stink in Alabama Town and How worried should New Yorkers be about sewage ending up in city waterways?– sewage for thought on the subject of NYC’s (massively excessive) consumption of “resources” and production of “waste.”

Illuminated Futures and Is LEED Tough Enough for the Climate-Change Era? – two pieces on design (failure) – the first, on the harms of LED streetlights, is essential reading for New Yorkers as we think about how to take swift and well-considered climate action while avoiding inadvertently creating major new problems or making old ones worse.

Are You Paying Enough for Your Food?There Are Ecological Limits to Growth – Just Look at Himachal PradeshWhy the War Against Plastics Must Be Unforgiving and Brook No ConcessionAs bioplastics get popular in India, a more genuine green choice is to boot out plastic altogether, and Avoiding meat and dairy is ‘single biggest way’ to reduce your impact on Earth (other than not having kids) – and finally, a handful of articles from India, and one from the UK, on food, plastic, and excess consumption.

Bonus

If that wasn’t enough (or far too much!) already, please take a minute to watch this segment from Democracy Now! in which the executive director of Indigenous Climate Action criticizes the Trudeau Government’s purchase of Kinder Morgan’s embattled Trans Mountain pipeline as a “huge step backward” for Canada.

And if you are dying for more TED videos, eat your heart out: Here’s one on sane economics (that centers thriving, not growing) and another on a breakthrough in cooling technology. Both worth watching, and to be taken with the requisite TED grain of salt, and then some.

Finally finally, here’s a photo – by way of thank you for making it to the bottom – that I hope will brighten your day:

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Fennel courtesy of Roots, Shoots, and Flowers at our local GreenMarket

Climate is a Culture Problem

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Moving towards food independence in our kitchen

At root, climate problems are culture problems, which is to say, at once, that climate “solutions” do not depend (solely) on technological advances, and that climate “progress” is unlikely to be made in the absence of massive cultural change.

We were upstate recently owing to a death in my mother’s family, and I couldn’t help but reflect how suicidal and dead-hearted persons (corporate or otherwise) must be not to value water. Sitting lakeside in the small town outside of which my mother grew up, looking out over the water towards the forested hills surrounding, how could I not feel reverence?

And yet, these matters immediately become overwhelmingly, fractally complex; our ability to drive upstate – the condition of my state of revery – had been app-mediated, facilitated by a venture-funded startup, and, of course, only the availability of (cheap) gasoline had made the drive possible. While my ancestors settled in Upstate New York – poor Bavarian peasants fleeing the ravages of the Interwar Years in Germany – settle they did, and their participation in the settler colonial project still unfolding in what’s called the United States becomes, then – like global neoliberal capitalism – a kind of precondition for my moment on the dock looking out over the lake as the sun set behind the wooded hills.

All to say, there are no easy answers or outs if one is really committed to cultural conversation, but, in my opinion, it is the only conversation that stands any reasonable chance of halting (and reversing) climate breakdown while also opening the door to a future more just and equitable than the ravaged present.

Does that lessen my commitment to the brave little-c citizen activists fighting upstate to protect, for example, Seneca Lake or Orange County from the depredations of state-and-federally-abetted fossil fuel companies? Not at all. It’s just that things are complicated, and people aren’t always very good at staying committed to their own struggles while also acknowledging those of others – especially when most of us find ourselves constantly both part of solutions and part of problems in ways that often feel irreconcilable. As Tuck and Yang point out, Decolonization is not a metaphor. (Credit and thanks to our friends at Decolonize This Place for pointing me to this brilliant and unsettling essay.)

The struggles of We are Seneca Lake and Protect Orange County rhyme with the ongoing struggle at Standing Rock, and the more that we form local, national, and global coalitions around true and honest reckonings with our common needs and aspirations and our meaningful differences, the greater our chance of winning something that looks like a just and livable future. Who this we is – and how it comes to have more than sentimental or rhetorical meaning – may be among the hardest of cultural questions to resolve, however.

Incidentally, for our part, New York City draws its water from watersheds upstate that are menaced by the same pipelines, power plants, and natural gas infrastructure projects  that are threatening lakes and farmland, health and livelihoods, and one of the farmers at our local Greenmarket hails from Orange County, just downwind of the CPV Power Plant.

Back in our neck of the woods, repair of a short stretch of Hudson-fronting bulkhead drags into at least its seventh or eighth month. According to the “Minutes of a Meeting of the Board of Directors” of the Hudson River Park Trust from July of 2016, the contract for this work was valued at approximately $400,000 – frankly, lower than I expected; to do some quick math, I’d guess that the “Morton Street Bulkhead” in question is no more than 100 yards in length, and probably well less. New York City alone has more than 500 miles of coastline. At more than 1700 yards per mile, we’re in the vicinity of 10,000 Morton Street Bulkhead-lengths of NYC coastline. Now, admittedly, much of the City’s coastline – for example, in Washington or Brooklyn Heights – is mercifully not terribly exposed to the immediate threat of sea-level rise, but if even half of NYC’s coastline is under relatively immediate threat from rising tides, the cost of some equivalent remediation based on this no-doubt-low price would already be into the billions (5,000 x 400,000 = 2,000,000,000); however, for the areas, like our own, that are exposed to an immediate and growing threat from rising sea levels and increasingly extreme weather, simply repairing existing bulkheads and the like will obviously not be enough. Massive sea walls will be necessary. If we speculate that such an undertaking would cost an order of magnitude more than basic repairs, then we’d be looking at a $20 billion price tag. For comparison, that’s about on par with the recently-proposed plan to “Fix the Subways.”

Now imagine that another Superstorm Sandy-like event devastates the City. And then perhaps five years later, another. Christian Parenti’s great piece in Jacobin, If We Failto which I’ve linked before – is a good notional primer on the type of spiraling fiscal-infrastructural crisis that climate change could catalyze in New York, as elsewhere, including in many of the world cities – like Singapore, Tokyo, and Bombay – that serve as key nodes in the global economy.

Anyway, enough (highly realistic and pragmatic) doom and gloom. As always, in the end, this blog is meant to be devoted to tangible action, and the point I hope I’m making here is this: In the absence of dramatic changes in culture, technological “solutions” to climate breakdown will almost certainly fall short. The changes start with each and all of us. Here’s what I’ve been to.

What I’m Doing

Short version: Not very much right now. Between the end of the school year, family and friends visiting, and nice weather, I’ve put off everything I can until June.

  • Still, I’ve started laying groundwork to facilitate a series of “sustainability” site visits for (especially young) New Yorkers, and hope/plan to make significant headway on this over the summer with a goal of launching at least some programming in the fall. More to come on this, but my vision is to create experiences that will help people better understand the systems/infrastructures of water, food, energy, and “waste” upon which we rely in the City through the lens of great work being done within the five boroughs, for example, on urban ag, recycling, and river stewardship.
  • I never cease to marvel at the grandeur of the trees, and have made a priority this spring of luxuriating in flowers in bloom and trees in bud. I believe that – along with empathy – reverence will be at the heart of the essential cultural shifts we so desperately need to make, and I’ve been making a point of embracing – and making time and space – for my own sense of wonder.
  • Finally, I donated to our friend Electra’s GoFundMe, Food Security for Puerto Rico, and I encourage you to do the same! (Big thanks to Fred Wilson for his support for this worthy campaign.)

What I’m Reading

WHITE HOUSE THOUGHT BURYING A REPORT ABOUT POISON DRINKING WATER WAS A GREAT IDEA & THE EPA’S “LEADERSHIP SUMMIT” ON PFOA POLLUTION WILL EXCLUDE VICTIMS AND COMMUNITY GROUPS – I recommend reading these two pieces through the lens of the recent report on the catastrophic health impacts of fracking, and as parables about just how essential cultural change is. As long as we (that is, corporations) keep pumping our environments full of toxins and carcinogens, no amount of pharmaceutical research (often pursued by corporations which are, themselves, major polluters) and no number of 5Ks will cure cancer. You may want to take a minute to look up your own water utility in this helpful database, and to consider using a water filter at home if you don’t already; please don’t start drinking exclusively bottled water though unless you, like the people in Flint, really have no other option – that would be stupid and self-defeating.

Paid actors faked public support for a power plant in New Orleans & Crowd Source:
Inside the company that provides fake paparazzi, pretend campaign supporters, and counterfeit protesters – because we are all almost always being subjected to (state and corporate) surveillance and manipulation. Especially in view of recent developments regarding the Bayou Bridge Pipeline in Louisiana, these articles are sobering.

America is more diverse than ever — but still segregated & Gerontopoly: Homeownership, wealth, and age – the first of which allows you to look at neighborhood-by-neighborhood segregation in every major American city, and the second of which offers perspective on how macro factors have shaped the national “housing crisis”.

The Last Conversation You’ll Ever Need to Have About Eating Right – as my friend Josh, of Green Top Farms, pointed out after sharing this with me, the authors make no mention of food justice, but the piece is very helpful from a nutritional perspective.

No Mincing Words: India Is Warming RapidlyA rough monsoon has left India’s ramshackle cities more decrepit than ever. Get used to it – reminders that the people most immediately paying the harshest price for climate breakdown are those least responsible for it.

Tick and Mosquito Infections Spreading Rapidly, C.D.C. Finds – because it’s summer in the Northern Hemisphere, and we should all be doing our best to keep ourselves healthy and safe.

Bonus

I encourage you to check out (and subscribe to) the ZeroWasteHabesha newsletter. My partner pointed me to it, and the author, Olivia, does a far better job than do I in centering environmental justice (and calling out environmental racism).

Finally, this excellent, long interview with Vijay Prashad and this short blurb on the mother and daughter who attempted to stop a fracked gas pipeline from being built through “their own property” in Virginia – before being literally starved out of the trees in which they were sitting – should provide perspective and inspiration.