It’s raining today in New York, and so felt fitting to finally write about sewage. According to the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), “heavy rainfall” can lead to “combined sewer overflows” (or CSOs) owing to the fact that New York, like many City’s with aging 19th century infrastructure, has an, in large part, combined sewer system in which the same pipes carry both stormwater runoff and sewage. The nonprofit Riverkeeper offers some further statistics on CSO events in NYC (“[more] than 27 billion gallons of raw sewage and polluted stormwater discharge out of 460 combined [CSOs]… each year”); the content of those CSOs (“raw sewage from homes, businesses and industries, as well as stormwater runoff and all the debris and chemicals that wash off the street or are poured in storm drains”); and some potential solutions to the CSO problem (green streets, street trees, green roofs, and rain barrels). Readers who are interested in keeping abreast of when and where CSO events occur in NYC should consider signing up for Notify NYC alerts.
Still, thankfully, the vast majority of New York City’s sewage flows to the City’s 14 wastewater treatment plants which, together, treat more than 1 billion gallons of wastewater each day. Readers who live in New York, I encourage you to look over the list of treatment plants to see with how many of them you are familiar. Most of us know the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant with its rudely nicknamed anaerobic digester eggs which, alone, process just shy of 20% of all of the City’s wastewater. I can say that, personally, of the plants, I can place the Hunt’s Point, North River (atop which sits Riverbank State Park), Owl’s Head (the smell from which wafts towards the increasingly hip Brooklyn Army Terminal at times), Rockaway (which we pass on our way from the ferry terminal to the beach), and Ward’s Island (which sits not so far from Robert Moses old headquarters), which is to say, I’m not personally aware of the locations of more than half of New York City’s wastewater treatment facilities beyond just having glanced at those locations on Google Maps.
That should give you an idea of my expertise. If you’re longing for a true deep dive on the historical development of New York’s remarkable sewer system – how the City went from dumping increasingly staggering volumes of untreated sewage directly into its surrounding water bodies (through stories of oysters grown fat on human feces, the accompanying spread of oyster-born typhoid, and the final closure of New York Harbor’s legendary oyster beds) to dumping now, still staggering volumes of untreated sewage into those water bodies, but alongside far more staggering volumes of treated wastewater – I can recommend Ted Steinberg’s Gotham Unbound and the work and tours of Steve Duncan as a few helpful jumping off points.
I imagine many readers will be heartened to learn that:
“As part of the mayor’s plan for OneNYC, we have a goal of zero-landfilling of biosolids by 2030. This means we will develop a program to reuse all biosolids beneficially. Some of the further processing technologies that can be used to qualify biosolids for reuse include composting, drying, and gasification or pyrolysis. New York City produces about 1,400 tons/day of biosolids or about 60 truckloads! Such a large quantity spread out over our 6 dewatering facilities means that our beneficial use program will need to be diverse and include multiple types of further treatment.”
Readers may also appreciate that as part of NYC’s Open Data initiative, a data set containing the names of all the establishments which were “in significant noncompliance with applicable pretreatment standards and other requirements” is available on the DEP website.
Given that my time is somewhat limited at the moment, and too much typing makes my body ache, I’ll briefly narrow the focus: Every one of New York’s 14 wastewater treatment plants lies in the floodplain. Each one of them sits right next to a water body. Couple that fact with the unfortunate reality that our largely combined sewer system means that rising sea levels will threaten to eventually swamp the outflow points, and – post-Sandy – the stage is set for potentially grim scenarios in which combined sewage outflows become combined sewage inflows, and untreated wastewater mixed with rainwater begins to flood city streets at the same time that wastewater treatment facilities themselves are inundated by storm surge events.
The Modern Infrastructure section of the current iteration of OneNYC points to a number of piecemeal projects and solutions being undertaken and implemented across the five boroughs, but the larger fact remains unchanged, that our political leadership, like most of the population, remains in deep, passive denial about the fundamentally-shifted realities of the world in which we are now living.
Solutions which will not fail are harder to conjure, but a first step towards imagining them is coming to climate acceptance and a second is embracing the urgent need for climate action, about both of which topics I’ll be writing more in the coming months.
Note: As with waste transfer station siting, the siting of wastewater treatment facilities is an environmental, racial, and social justice issue. Likewise, the massive ecological destruction wrought by our biological and chemical effluents merits far more attention than I was able to give it above. As Alon Levy points out, regarding transit, in his piece The Future Is Not Retro, evolving away from 20th century norms does not mean moving back towards those of the 19th; while it is instructive to look back to the closed-loop character of waste management in the early days of the settler-colonial project in New York (when carts laden with human and animal feces delivered this valuable fertilizer to surrounding farmlands), we cannot expect the future – even allowing for buzzword-y circular economics – to look much like that past.
I drove Upstate this week for my grandfather’s funeral, and found it jarring to encounter no less than five pickup trucks and roadside houses prominently displaying Confederate flags (generally in tandem with that of the United States), a phenomenon I don’t remember encountering in years past. In a rest stop bathroom, I passed an older gentleman wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan: “Clean Coal, It Works.” And along Scenic Route 20, en route back towards Albany, I passed a house with a large, un-ironic sign in its front yard reading: “Windmills Kill: Friendships, Wildlife, Property Values”.
In view of the generalities and particulars above, it would be easy to indulge in head-shaking disbelief or self-righteous disgust. But it’s important to differentiate between the display of white supremacist symbols or the wearing of factually inaccurate slogans on the one hand, and the assertion of subjective claims which – although perhaps counterproductive – contain significant elements of truth and are rooted in specific lived circumstances, on the other. Further, it’s necessary to confront the passive denial in which we engage every day. Certainly, the global climate crisis is more than a personal problem, and the call is not to sink into despair, self-loathing, and guilt. We have to confront the organized political and corporate power that stands in the way of necessary action, and to embrace the good work being done by conscientious politicians in Washington, in Albany, and at City Hall, as well as the courageous activism of the Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion, and Youth Climate Strike, among others.
Certainly, we need to be urgently moving forward with many forms of what have been billed “adaptation”, “mitigation”, and “resiliency” measures. But while some folks Upstate, and in other Red(der) parts of the country are engaged in active denial, we’re mired here in our own deep forms of passive denial of hard climate truths. Current concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide correspond to sea levels more than 50 feet higher than those at present. More than 50 feet higher. Of course, it will likely take centuries for all of the sea level rise we’ve already “baked in” to unfold, and perhaps in the meantime new technologies will emerge that allow for some huge amount of direct air capture (DAC) carbon capture and storage (CCS) (or Direct Air Carbon Capture and Storage, so DACCS, for short). Don’t holdyour breath though. In the meantime, we should be preparing for a radically and rapidly changing world while we still have time. Sadly, that almost certainly means large scale retreat from the waterfront, and the loss of entire cities to the rising oceans, rivers, and seas.
This is the reality that we currently confront, and the sooner that we and our political representatives can embrace this fact, the sooner we can start making farsighted decisions about how to employ our vast but limited resources from a position of relative advantage rather than waiting until the multiplying crises deepen and then – as New York City did during Hurricane Sandy – scrambling in a panic to address the eminently foreseeable that has befallen us.
In New York, we should be making a planned, citywide retreat from the waterfront. We should have a total moratorium on all new construction in the existing floodplain, at very least. We should be planning to decommission the West Side Highway and FDR and to build in their place berm parks at least 30 to 40 feet high with the understanding that everything on the waterside of these berms (Hudson River Park, all the piers) will, eventually, be subject to re-wilding. We should start to confront the painful reality that many parts of the city (the Rockaways, parts of Staten Island’s south shore, much of Coastal Brooklyn and the South Bronx, and arguably large parts of Lower Manhattan) will not be defensible as the waters rise. In short, we should be planning for the future we are almost certain to face rather than squandering more precious time (after decades already squandered) lost in magical thinking of the worst sort.
Lest anyone accuse me of undue pessimism or of being, here, too depressing, I’ll just point out that when one faces a life-and-death challenge – or really, any major challenge – one does not rise to the occasion by pretending that everything is fine and taking no meaningful action at all. Denial is not hope, nor is it optimism. Denial is, however, according to the Kübler-Ross Model, the first stage of grief. Climate grief and pre-trauma are now recognized as widespread human responses to the global climate (and ecological) crisis unfolding all around us. Indeed, we have a great deal to grieve; however, to avert unnecessary trauma and avoid what remains avoidable, it’s incumbent upon us to move from denial to acceptance of our new climate realities and fast, as time is of the essence.
To that end, I just finished reading Mike Wallace‘s remarkable Greater Gotham (and can’t recommend it, and Gotham, more highly), and am devoting August to a renewed round of climate reading. Just finished The Water Will Come – an accessible, journalistic primer on sea-level rise – and am currently reading Extreme Cities – a more academic and radically political take on the same – and can happily recommend both (probably best read in the above order) for readers who may want to deepen their thinking around these issues.
It’s 2019 and it is very hot in New York. And across much of the US. And across much of Europe. We’re still largely dressing for work like it’s pleasant fall weather out, then air conditioning our homes and offices into oblivion. It’s long past time we adopted saner standards around dress, climate control, and energy consumption, and thankfully, there is already an excellent model for how such an adjustment could be made in the form of the long-standing Japanese campaign, Cool Biz.
To quote from my own Insta post:
I’m not here to defend ConEd, but when power demand exceeds 12K MW (when ConEd’s all-time record is 13K) and stays high for days or weeks, it puts strain on an aging and immensely complicated grid, and that strain is made worse when we insist on cooling tens of thousands of office buildings all around New York to a temperature that is comfortable for people dressed like it is 70 degrees Fahrenheit out. Obviously, this is idiotic, wasteful, and a climate disaster, and yet it is and remains the state of affairs. There is a simple solution: Dress like the gardener pictured here, go to work, and get shit done; in the meantime, turn the thermostat up to 80, save a lot of money, reduce consumption of fossil fuels, and don’t break the grid (which admittedly, could use some TLC).
It’s not rocket science, so rather than belabor the point, I’m simply going to urge all my friends, relatives, and readers out there to rethink the way they are approaching these issues, especially in their places of work (or gathering), and to take the lead in shifting culture, dressing comfortably, and turning the thermostat up.
In the spirit of sane and well-informed conversation about the climate crisis, energy consumption, and our habits, I’m sharing a piece of mine from 2017 below.
This piece was originally published on Medium (where I believe it is no longer available) in the summer of 2017 around the time that Hurricane Irma was bearing down on Florida. It has been very lightly edited.
Value, in Practice
There are many challenges in confronting the reality of global climate breakdown. Among these are the scale, scope, and complexity of the processes at play; however, another perhaps lesser remarked upon challenge is the fact that most of us lack even a basic vocabulary when it comes to energy. In a world fundamentally defined by the sources, quantities, and uses of energy, most of us are energy-ignorant and energy-illiterate. In what follows, I will attempt to establish a basic framework for thinking about energy issues (that should be accessible to anyone with strong literacy and basic numeracy) before going on to link these energy concepts back to the question of value.
Energy and Power
Energy is a quantity. Power is a rate (or a flow, if you prefer). For better or worse, both are used in many colloquial and metaphorical fashions. Here, I’ll try to hew to a simple but technical understanding of both.
In science, energy is usually measured in joules (J); however, even in basic science, multiple units of energy are employed, and in engineering and industry, a great many other energy units come into play. Here, we will use kilowatt-hours (kWh), in spite of the counterintuitive nature of this unit, because it is arguably the most standard measure employed in popular discourse.
In science, power is generally measured in watts (W). Here, we will stick to this unit, although you may see it modified by a number of prefixes. (Here is a simple chart of SI prefixes if you happen to find them intimidating.)
Coming back to the point, energy is a quantity, while power is a rate. We can use an analogy related to water to better understand this. Volume is a quantity, while water flow is a rate. To entirely fill a sink (volume), a certain flow of water (rate) must run from the tap for a given duration of time.
Generally speaking: quantity = rate x time.
Applying this to energy and power, to fully charge a battery (with energy), one must connect the battery to a certain flow (of power) for a given duration of time. This is obviously an immense simplification, but for sake of accessibility, we are going to completely ignore current, resistance, etc.
A brief note, what makes the kilowatt-hour a confusing unit is that it actually denotes energy (a quantity) based on power-time (the rate times the time). Sensible enough, but it is as if we were to denote the volume of water in a sink using the unit faucet flow-minutes.
Energy Basics: Bottom Up
Moving on, we confront another key challenge: The immense difficulty in connecting human-scale activities with global-scale activities. It is exceedingly hard to understand (and contextualize) the relationship between our own activities (say getting coffee in a to-go cup as I did this morning) and the activities of every human being on the planet (see the Great Pacific Garbage Patch).
Let’s try to establish some really simple points of reference. Most of us are familiar with 100W lightbulbs. When we say 100W, we are talking about the flow of energy, so power. If you let this bulb run for 10 hours, it should consume 1 kilowatt-hour (kWh) of energy (100 Watts x 10 hours = 1,000 Watt-hours = 1 kWh, kilo- being the prefix for 1,000). To consume a kilowatt-hour, one could just as easily run a 1,000W motor for one hour, or a 10W condensed-florescent light bulb for 100 hours. In each of these instances, power times time gives 1,000 Watt-hours or 1 kWh.
Coming back to our standard 100W lightbulb, we now have our baseline: Running a 100W lightbulb for 10 hours consumes 1kWh.
If you let that same 100W lightbulb run for 1,000 hours (a little less than three hours a day every day for a year) it should consume 100 kWh of energy (100 W x 1000 h = 100,000 Wh = 100 kWh).
Let’s build on this foundation. One gasoline-gallon-equivalent (the amount of energy contained in one gallon of gasoline) is equal to approximately 33kWh, so when you burn 3 gallons of gas, thatâ€™s roughly equivalent (strictly in energy terms) to the energy consumed by a 100W lightbulb in a year.
Now imagine that you drive a car that has a fuel efficiency of 33 miles per gallon. Conveniently, that would mean that in using one gallon of gas, you would drive 33 miles and consume 33 kWh of energy, for a rate of energy consumption of 1 kWh/mile. So say you went on a 1,000 mile roundtrip road trip – like the one my sister and her boyfriend are in the midst of, having been displaced from South Florida to Georgia by Hurricane Irma – in the process, you would consume 1,000 kWh of energy.
Or say you have a modest commute, and you drive around 10,000 miles per year in that same car; then you would consume 10,000 kWh of energy in gasoline per year.
Now imagine that you take a transcontinental flight. For sake of simplicity, let’s say you are flying from New York to Hyderabad as Neelu and I do at least once a year. Based on math from the late David JC Mckay, we can approximate that this round-trip consumes approximately 10,000 kWh (10MWh) per passenger. Again, a lot of simplification has taken place here, and factors such as windspeed, fullness of flight, weight of nonhuman cargo, etc. all obviously impact these calculations (not to mention that the actual climate impacts of different greenhouse gases and based upon different modes of emission may vary widely). Still, you can see that in taking just one transcontinental flight, an individual passenger is responsible for fuel consumption approximating that of a car in a year (if we accept the idea of averaging fuel consumption per passenger on a flight).
Further, the plane itself would then be consuming around 3,000,000 kWh (3 GWh) of energy in jet fuel for the same round-trip (assuming a full flight accommodating 300 passengers). If we allow for variations in distance and other conditions, we can speculate that transcontinental flights in general probably consume somewhere between 2 million and 4 million kWh in energy round-trip.
Power Basics: TopÂ Down
That all seems reasonable (if a bit disquieting), but how do we start to connect these human-scale numbers to numbers related to the global-scale consumption of energy?
Let’s start from the very top: Global Total Primary Energy Supply in 2014 was 160 PWh (consulting our SI prefix table, we see that peta- corresponds to 10 to the 15th, so 1 PWh = 1,000,000,000,000 kWh, given that kilo- corresponds to 10 to the third), so in 2012, the Total Primary Energy Supply (TPES, which basically corresponds to the total amount of energy in raw state consumed in a year) was approximately 160 trillion kWh. It’s almost impossible to put such a number in meaningful context, but at least recall that one 100W lightbulb â€œburningâ€ for one year (for approximately three hours a day) consumes around 100 kWh of energy.
So what is the relationship between 160 trillion and 100? It boggles the mind, of course. But perhaps we can move back towards the human-scale slightly, and start to make a little more sense of things.
In 2014, TPES in the US came to around 25 PWh, so 25 trillion kWH, or around 80,000 kWH per person for the year. Now, I believe we are getting somewhere. To round out our picture, letâ€™s interpose between the individual and the nation first a university, and then a city; in particular, let’s consider UNC Chapel Hill (where I went to college) and New York City (where I live). The former is powered primarily by a 32MW Cogeneration Plant, which, working at full capacity for an entire day, should in theory be able to produce around 800,000 kWh of energy, while the latter was consuming nearly 1 billion kWh per day of energy on average (as of 2011), so in the vicinity of 300 billion kWh per year. (These numbers are drawn from the cityâ€™s own data, and if anything, seem a little low.)
A Brief Summary before Moving on toÂ Value
a 100W lightbulb burning for 10 hours consumes 1 kWh of energy;
while that same 100W bulb subject to average use for a year consumes ~100 kWh;
which is roughly equivalent to the energy content of 3 gallons of gasoline;
whereas a 1,000 mile roadtrip might consume around 1,000 kWh of energy in gas, and an average year’s-worth of driving might consume somewhere around 10,000 kWh;
this latter value, 10,000 kWh, being roughly equivalent to the energy consumption per person for a round-trip transcontinental flight.
At the same time, the average American in 2014 consumed a little less than 100,000 kWh per year in energy;
while a power plant of modest size could produce around 1,000,000 kWh in a day working at full capacity (about the same amount of energy that a one-way transatlantic flight consumes in jet fuel);
and the City of New York consumes on average a little less than 1 billion kWh per day, so around 300 billion kWh per year, or approaching 1 trillion kWh over the course of three years;
while the entire United States consumed 25 trillion kWh (25,000,000,000,000 kWh, or 25 PWh) in 2014;
and the global TPES for 2014 was around 160 trillion kWh (or 160 PWh).
Were every person in the world to consume energy at the rate at which Americans consume, global energy consumption would approximately quadruple. And yet, by many accounts, such unfettered (energy) consumption is exactly the goal, both of national governments around the world and underlying the whole idea of so-called â€œdevelopmentâ€ economics. Already, for a single nation, China is by far the world’s largest energy consumer (consuming roughly 50% more energy than does the US); however, given that China’s population is also nearly five times greater than that of the United States, the per-person energy consumption in China remains but a fraction of that here in the US.
Value, in Energy
Here in the United States, we have among the highest ratios of TPES and carbon dioxide emissions per person in the world, although small island nations (like Trinidad and Tobago) and oil-producing countries, especially the Gulf States, tend to exceed even our high ratios in both respects. Meanwhile, in many other OECD countries (for example, Japan, Germany, and France), average per person rates of energy consumption and carbon dioxide emission are roughly half as high as those in the US.
Coming to the point, in 2014 the world had GDP approximating US$73 trillion (this and all following GDP valuations given in 2010 USD equivalents). Of that, the United States accounted for more than US$16 trillion, China for another US$8.5 trillion, Japan for US$5.6 trillion, Germany for US$3.6 trillion, France for US$2.7 trillion, and India for US$2.2 trillion, to give a few major points of reference.
By examining the ratio of TPES to GDP, we can see how energy intensive the production of (monetary) value is, on average, in each country, while bearing in mind that GDP is a noxious, misleading, and at root suicidal concept (as we will come to discuss). Note that, in this instance, lower values actually indicate more efficient production of dollar value per consumption of energy, given that the units here are kWh per dollar:
World: 2.20 kWh/dollar
US: 1.63 kWh/dollar
China: 4.19 kWh/dollar
Japan: 0.93 kWh/dollar
Germany: 0.93 kWh/dollar
France: 1.05 kWh/dollar
India: 4.42 kWh/dollar
If that still seems a little bit opaque, basically, we are saying that for each dollar of GDP produced (globally, on average), 2.2 kWh of energy are consumed. Unsurprisingly, energy efficiency per dollar of GDP is better in the more â€œadvancedâ€ capitalist economies, and comparatively worse in China and India. To further contextualize, electricity prices between $0.10 and $0.20 per kilowatt hour are pretty standard in the United States, which means that your average cost of energy input per dollar of GDP generated in the US would be somewhere between $0.16 and $0.32.
It can also be instructive to consider the carbon dioxide emissions per GDP ratio. The following are given in kg of carbon dioxide per 2010 USD:
World: 0.44 kg CO2/dollar
US: 0.32 kg CO2/dollar
China: 1.08 kg CO2/dollar
Japan: 0.21 kg CO2/dollar
Germany: 0.20 kg CO2/dollar
France: 0.10 kg CO2/dollar
India: 0.92 kg CO2/dollar
With a few exceptions (probably related to France’s reliance on nuclear energy and China’s dependence on its massive coal reserves, among other things), the pattern is very similar to that of the TPES to GDP values. Looking just at the US again, to produce $100 in GDP would, on average, generate around 32 kg (so around 70 pounds) in carbon dioxide emissions.
Now that we have some clear points of reference regarding energy consumption, it is easier for us to understand how much energy we are actually consuming to produce the (monetary) value which is then abstractly indexed in the form of GDP.
But what do we actually produce in the process of generating GDP? This simple infographic gives a sector-wise breakdown of the US economy (in 2013, but we can suppose things were not all that much different in 2014). In an era of financialization and skyrocketing inequality, I believe it is clear to most people that increases in GDP do not necessarily correlate (or even correlate at all) to improvements in well-being for most people. Leaving aside “Finance” (19.6% of US GDP in 2013), which now dominates the US and global economies, and giving a good faith pass to “Government” (13%), I find myself asking: What fraction of “Manufacturing” (12.4%) is made up of production by so-called “defense” contractors? Does the prison-industrial-complex get rolled into “Business Services” (11.9%)? What is the true value of the “Education” (along with Healthcare, 8.3%) we receive in this country when so much of it amounts to propaganda, babysitting, and carcerality? When our health outcomes are so poor in a global context, why do we pay so much for “Healthcare”? What fraction of our “Retail and Wholesale Trade” (11.6%) amounts to traffic in useless garbage destined for landfills? Of the “Information” (4.8%) we consume, share, and store, how much of it is misinformation, disinformation, or so trivial as to be effectively value-less? Why is so much of our “Arts & Entertainment” so hateful and trite? Why, in undetaking “Construction”, do we build so much that we do not need, and with so little respect for aesthetics and true consequences? Or, in short, what notion of value (and of the world) is it that we accept when we accept the idea of GDP?
What fraction of the immense energy we pour into production, and justify through the blunt index known as Gross Domestic Product – of which, as good economic nationalist, we are meant to celebrate the eternal rise – is of any true value? And when I say true value, what does that even mean? This brings me back to my previous essay, Value, in Theory (which I believe is no longer available, but check out the Genuine Progress Indicator instead). We need new conceptions of value and new measures of it. No doubt, people who have spent more time on these questions than have I have already done much of the work that I am imagining – something along the lines of an index that would be calculated roughly as follows:
Monetary Value + Social Impact + Ecological Impact = True Value
I do not embrace a strictly utilitarian framework, but I also doubt that B Corps and TBLs will be sufficient in the face of the crisis now unfolding on Planet Earth. It is not enough to make cosmetic (and kitschy) adjustments within our existing paradigm. Judged according to the True Value scale, I suspect that even (perhaps especially) the most valuable objects would have net negative TV, and that our contemporary societies as a whole are deep in the red, quantitatively econobiosocially bankrupt as they have long, morally, been proclaimed to be.
Still, we are into very gray territory. How to measure and quantify social and ecological impact, for example, is a question (are questions) for someone(s) with skillsets more technical than my own. Even determining the comparative energy cost and carbon footprint of something as simple as a disposable plastic cup becomes immensely complicated in the context of our global economy (which is, in part, why I steered clear of considering commodities in writing this piece). It can be helpful to have some foundational principles (for example, non-toxicity is always better than toxicity, and in view of that first principle, reusability is generally better than disposability, allowing for potential differences in energy constraints and taking into account materials use and waste production), and perhaps I will give further thought to those in the future.
For now, I hope this essay has served to catalyze your thinking about energy, both in its day-to-day manifestations, and in the world-moving guise it has taken on in an era of carboniferous capitalism and in the Age of the Anthropocene.
Postscript on Carbon Dioxide Emissions
There is a strain of thought which posits that the demise of civilization is effectively inevitable – coded as it is into the destiny of technology. Throughout the Holocene Age, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations were apparently steady around 280 ppm (parts per million). This stability was radically disrupted with the rise of industrialization. In 2013, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration passed 400 ppm for the first time since records have been kept. Measurements from this past summer show concentrations nearing 410 parts per million, and there is no sign yet that we are anywhere near slowing (let alone reversing) the steady increase in the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Total global emissions of carbon dioxide in 2014 amounted to more than 32,000 Mt (million tonnes). To do our last brief math, a tonne (or Metric ton) is equivalent to 1,000 kg, so 1 million tonnes is equal to 1,000 million kg, or 1 billion kg. Therefore, 32,000 Mt is equal to 32 trillion kg of CO2. It is by dividing this 32 trillion kg of CO2 by the roughly $73 trillion of global GDP (in 2010 USD) that we obtain the above mentioned ratio of 0.44 kg of CO2 per dollar of GDP as a global average (for 2014).
Is civilization – which at this point, I think we cannot help but view as a global phenomenon – doomed to collapse? When we consider the brutality of the violent repression being faced by indigenous air, land, and water protectors around the world – at Standing Rock, in Chhattisgarh, in the Bolivian highlands and the Brazilian Amazon, all across Canada as across Australia, in the Niger Delta as right here in New York City – it is sometimes hard to imagine that it is not.
The International Energy Agency’s (IEA’s) outmoded 450 Scenario – even less ambitious than the much-vaunted Paris Climate Accord – called for global emissions to be reduced such that they would dip below 20,000 Mt of CO2 by 2040, thus in theory keeping atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide beneath 450 ppm (hence the Scenario’s name) so as, purportedly, to prevent anything more than a 2°C rise in global average temperature. In a 2016 report, the IEA also suggested that continuation of various existing national policies as they now stand would lead to a scenario in which global emissions approach 37,000 Mt of CO2 by 2040 (and of course, as probably should have been noted earlier, carbon dioxide is just one of a number of greenhouse gases which humans are pumping into the atmosphere in massive quantities).
All this just to show that continuing with business as usual (pursuing ever-increasing GDP with no regard for the social and ecological impacts) is indeed suicidal on the existential and species level. To many people, this appears too obvious to require demonstrating, and the very idea that quantitative analysis is necessary to shed light on that which is intuitively crystal clear is itself, perhaps, problematic. There are deeper conversations to be had here about colonization, genocide, and slavery, and how all three of these phenomena are intimately interwoven in the history of the rise (and the present supremacy) of capitalism; it may be that our inability to have those deeper conversations will yet lead to our demise, but we should not fool ourselves: The realities and challenges of climate breakdown are realities and challenges we can face – whether or not we have the courage and vision to do so is up to us.
This piece originally appeared in the WestView News. To read the lightly-edited version there, click here
New York State has witnessed two major climate victories in recent weeks. First, on May 15th, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation rejected the Williams Company’s proposed Northeast Supply Enhancement (NESE) pipeline which would have carried fracked gas under New York Harbor off the coast of the Rockaways to Long Island. Second, on June 19th, news broke that the Climate and Community Protection Act (CCPA) – an ambitious slate of climate-equity laws – had passed in Albany. Even in its watered-down final form, the CCPA represents a monumental step towards climate sanity, and if fully realized, will put New York at the global forefront of climate action.
Coupled with bold legislation from the New York City Council – mandating, among other things, stringent new energy-efficiency requirements for buildings – these victories provide real reason for celebration, and even more, stand as invitations to us all to deepen our commitment to confronting and combating the climate crisis. Although the Federal situation remains rather grim, and there are deeply concerning events unfolding around the world – in Australia, Brazil, and Canada, among other places – as well as across the United States, there is reason to hope that what is taking shape today in New York will, in short order, transform the nation.
Already, we see glimmers, in the inspiring vision of the Green New Deal and the bold youth activism of the Sunrise Movement, and while climate denial continues to grip the Republican Party, and corporate Democrats have been slow to embrace the true urgency of the climate crisis, young House newcomers – led by New York’s own Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – and seasoned progressive political veterans alike are laying the foundations for a new climate consensus.
Just, sane, equitable climate action will be better for our health, better for our economies, and better for the planet than the violent and outdated fossil capitalism now being propped up by lies and cronyism. Next year, we have to break the stranglehold of the Right on Washington; thereafter, we have to make the 2020s the most transformative decade in human history. We have the technology; we have the vision; and I believe we have the political will as well.
In short, the time for pessimism and despair has passed. The call today is to get informed, get engaged, and embrace the epochal challenge of building a just, sane, and livable future on planet Earth.
It always takes me a few weeks to transition into summer, and the seemingly endless rain in New York of late has only slowed my progress. As I’m only now writing my May newsletter – badly delayed by the end of the school year – I thought I’d do a quick roundup of news and action items here before devoting my next few newsletters to the continuation of my Infrastructure Series.
Speaking of New York, the news is mixed relative to our mass transit system; there seems to be growing awareness that the Governor controls the MTA, and that it has been on his 8+-year watch that the recent pronounced deterioration has taken place, and there have also been a number of good ideas put forward about what the future of NYC’s mass transit might look like, including by Reinvent Albany. Of course, strange things continue to sometimes happen underground, and the path forward remains very uncertain, with Gov. Cuomo evidently struggling to coexist with the very talented Andy Byford. (I continue to believe a mass movement of informed citizens will be essential to break the impasse and move towards socially-just and climate-sane transit policies.)
Lots of news in New York City, around the country, and around the world – refreshingly much of it positive – so where to begin?
In the US, I remain cautiously optimistic that we are witnessing a slow sea change around questions of climate and ecological action and justice. Hard to guess what the future holds for the Green New Deal (GND), but we need it, or something like it, and the thing to remember is that the true critique of the GND is not that is too sweeping, but that it may not be ambitious enough.
On that front, perhaps nothing feels more urgent and potentially transformative right now than the direct actions being taken by Extinction Rebellion. From what I gather, it is a sort of radical, ecstatic circus of dissent that is looking to make business as usual impossible (most notably, in London, at the moment) until real and commensurate action is initiated to address the global climate emergency. Amazing to note that not only Extinction Rebellion, but also the Sunrise Movement here in the US have taken inspiration from the courageous actions of a single teenager, Greta Thunberg. Sometimes – if you’re feeling despondent or paralyzed by indecision in view of the scope of the climate crisis – it can be helpful to remember that we generally don’t appreciate what the impacts of our actions will be. Of course, global climate change epitomizes negative (somewhat) unforeseen consequences of human action, but isn’t it about time we contributed to some positive unforeseen consequences?
What can you be doing, then? I’m at least considering joining Extinction Rebellion myself, but am not sure I’m ready to deal with the potential legal consequences. If you, too, are finding yourself shy of taking radical direct action, you can at least be working to change your own mind, and in the process, to change the minds of those around you. (Here’s my climate action primer from a few months ago as a starting point.)
An aside: there is a popular and alluring notion that nature has ended and that we are living in an era of natural-social hybridization owing to the global ascendance of humankind. According to this view, there is no nature anymore, and everything is shaped by human influence/the social. This reflects the pinnacle of hubris. The earth is but a tiny speck in the vastness of the universe, and the universe is ruled by natural laws which function beyond any possibility of human intervention. Our climate system is but the tiniest microcosm of our solar system, our galactic system, and the universal system within which we sit. This is not New Age abuse of language, but an attempt to precisely state facts. If we neglect fundamental laws of the universal system – not as a transcendental abstraction, but as the overarching frame of our reality – we do so at our own peril, as it is not so much the Earth that is under threat right now, but humans and all our fellow living beings on the planet, and the climate system and the natural laws of which it is a function are beyond indifferent to human discourse.
Anyway – coming back down to Earth – urgent action is necessary in view of the above, and thankfully we find ourselves in a moment when it is increasingly possible to imagine new and better futures, futures different from the dystopias and post-apocalyptic cli-fi which we’ve so long been fed by the mass media. Case in point, here‘s an encouraging – if quite basic – video from from AOC, Molly Crabapple, Naomi Klein, and others at the Intercept. Check it out.
We need a Green New Deal, not as an end point, but as a starting point, and I hope you’ll commit yourself to imagining a just and sustainable future and becoming an advocate for the transformations we need to undertake to make such a future possible. This encouraging piece from Douglas Rushkoff – entitled Selling the Green New Deal With Positivity – might be a helpful jumping off point.
I’ve been regularly calling the Governor (at 518-474-8390; I encourage you to ring through to speak to an operator rather than leaving a voicemail, but every call counts) and other elected officials, signing petitions, joining demonstrations as I find time, and generally speaking out against the construction of the Williams/NESE Pipeline under New York Harbor, as well as against any and all fracked gas infrastructure in New York State. National Grid is threatening a moratorium on new gas hookups if the State does not approve the project by May 15th (have a look at this 350.org report for the case against National Grid’s claims regarding the need for this pipeline), and it is urgent that you make your voice heard on this matter. Want to make your voice heard on other fracking-related matters as well? Here‘s a really helpful map from the Sane Energy Project – called the You Are Here Map – that “allows users to see the big picture of the shale gas network statewide, then zoom in on their own region, learn the current status of a project, and connect with the local group that is fighting it. “
What I’m Reading
Renewable Energy – short, accessible, and optimistic primer on renewable energy technologies that is well worth reading if you’re looking to better understand the progress of and challenges to renewable energy generation.
Shortly after our return from India, a young man asked me what I thought about the Green New Deal (GND). I said I supported it wholeheartedly, and he blurted out in reply:
“But don’t you think it’s a little extreme?”
Upon inquiring what exactly he meant by that, I came to learn that he was under the impression that the GND would entail all Americans becoming vegan and giving up all air travel. Now, of course, moving to a plant-based diet and reducing air travel are both sane and rational choices in view of the global climate crisis, but I wouldn’t say that mandatory veganism and an air travel ban represent key pillars of the GND as I understand it.
Of course, there is humor in this, but also a deep lesson to be learned. In this profound moment of urgency, we can’t afford to be victims of our own defensive and reactionary urges and the propaganda of climate change deniers which is designed to prey on just those insecurities. I have now adjusted my position on the GND so as to preemptively shift the terms of discussion. The GND is insufficiently ambitious and too-little-too-late, but it is also by far the best option we have in our national discourse around climate, and we should all be throwing our wholehearted support behind developing a robust plan from what is currently only a bold proposal. The devil may be in the Republican Party, but it is also in the details.
“Do I think people give up power willingly or in a happy-go-lucky way? No. And that’s why it’s important to build public support and build a movement around this. And I think, hopefully that’s what we’ll do.”
“You can only get big things done if you get public, broad-based support from the people it affects the most.”
I recommend that you read/listen to both (and consider becoming a subscriber to Signal Problems, as the full interview with Johnson is paywalled, but makes for interesting reading for those of you who are concerned about the nitty-gritty).
I’m still waiting for my hardcopy of the 103-page report, so my own assessment of it will have to wait until April, but for the time being, I’ll just echo this notion, that what we need is a mass movement of informed and engaged citizens demanding sane and just policies around transit, and around climate, for the future of our City, as of the country and the world.
What I’m Doing
Just two things this month:
Thinking long and hard about my ongoing failure to transition away from Chase in view of its long-standing role as the leading financier of fossil fuel companies and projects globally. For context, have a look at this (short) report – all the major American banks are major culprits and nearly $2 trillion have flowed into fossil fuel projects since the signing of the Paris Agreement.
My New Plan to Climate-Proof Lower Manhattan – Bill de Blasio’s ambitious, vague, and in my opinion, confused proposal to “push out the Lower Manhattan coastline as much as 500 feet” so as to defend all that real estate.