Being a Member of Society

It’s been strange, in recent months, to continue to be concerned about COVID-19 in New York City as popular sentiment has leaned into “post-pandemic.” Although it runs counter to my nature, I’ve turned down invitations to both social and professional events that involved large groups gathering unmasked indoors. I’ve felt rather fugitive in having to explain to friends, especially as the weather has grown colder, that I’m back to not eating indoors. These are, of course, minor concerns, but they have me reflecting on the lived realities of people who deal with immunocomprimisation or mobility issues – the challenge of navigating social settings not structured to address one’s needs or that might put one’s life in danger.

In December of last year, I shared the hope that vaccines might bring a relatively rapid end to the COVID-19 pandemic, at least in countries rich enough to provide their citizens the privilege of vaccine access. Around the same time, I began to worry that variants that achieved some level of immune escape might upset this hopeful narrative. Sadly, although both expectations have been born out to some extent, the latter is arguably proving the more defining.

For a brief window in the late spring and early summer of this year, I truly let my guard down. Fully vaccinated, and breathing a sigh of relief, my partner and I resumed dining indoors, visiting friends homes, etc. (again, only relatively minor sacrifice had been involved in missing these pleasures, but they do add to the richness of life); however, by early July, as stories of Delta Variant breakthroughs proliferated, and multiple fully-vaccinated friends of ours experienced relatively nasty infections, we largely resumed taking pre-vaccination precautions, though informed by the latest science-based best practices (basically, masks indoors, and enjoying ourselves out). We agreed that we’d both keep that up until infection levels in NYC dropped down to at least the “Moderate” level according to the NYC DOHMH’s schema. Around the end of October, we were both starting to relax our precautions again, when a renewed increase in cases (sharper in our neighborhood than city-wide) caused us renewed mutual concern. Here’s what the citywide transmission chart looks like today:

Courtesy of the NYC COVID-19 data portal – the thick black line is the city-wide trend, the blue lines, those for the five boroughs.

For context, here’s the chart for the whole course of the pandemic in NYC:

Clearly, the numbers are much better today than during either of the previous two peaks, and infections now are disproportionately among the unvaccinated (although I’d venture, without having looked it up, that roughly equivalent numbers of vaccinated and unvaccinated New Yorkers are getting infected these days owing to our high vaccination rates). Additionally, the economy is much more open today than it was a year ago, and fewer precautions are being taken, on average, so perhaps the current trend should not be seen as too worrying. On the other hand, the sharp recent uptrend (broken at the very end only by a temporary break in testing over the holiday), could very easily be the start of a much more pronounced spike – fueled, as last year’s was, by holiday travel.

Rather than delve too much more deeply into all this, here’s a text to some friends from this morning that more or less sums up my current thinking:

GM! Hate to be the Cassandra, but in view of Hochul’s emergency order, etc, I’d like to propose drinks and oysters under a heater at [a restaurant] (or something like that!). Such a drag, but I’m quite concerned that we might be descending back into another pretty grim Covid winter […]. Hope I’m wrong but trends here, news from Europe, and now this omicron variant (about which I’m reserving judgment even if the financial markets aren’t) are all worrying.

Given that many people – including many friends of ours in service and healthcare jobs – have far less control over their exposure to infection risk, I’ve felt inclined, for my own health, and from a public health perspective, to stay cautious, as I enjoy the luxury of doing so. It’s been relatively easy to make that commitment as every week or so, I hear another story of a friend or acquaintance suffering brain fog, lasting loss of sense of taste or smell, etc. from a breakthrough, or have to cancel plans when, for example, many members of one branch of my family suffer breakthrough infections after attending an indoor event together.

At the same time I’ve been reflecting on all this, I’ve also continued my long-standing rumination on NYC’s public goods, which of course often brings me back to the central role of the automobile in our cities. Few activities lead people to engage in more casual sociopathy than driving, and yet through the dominance of car culture, these behaviors have been totally normalized. It is not seen as altogether surprising that an individual otherwise averse to threatening a stranger with deadly violence over a trifle might menace an elder, a child, or their own neighbor with a vehicle or fly into a screaming rage over something like a parking spot. That’s just car culture for you, and sadly, it’s been so totally naturalized in our collective consciousness that it is hard to see how ugly and disfiguring it is, or how totally insane. Such is the deep emotional attachment that people have to their vehicles, too, and the “freedom” those vehicles enable (the interminable hours in traffic, the bizarre alternate-side parking rituals, the expense, the stress, the occasional bouts of blinding fury), that attempts to challenge the dominance of car culture, even discursively, often as not lead to rather explosive encounters.

Not so dissimilar are people’s responses (at least some people’s!) should anyone dare to question their behavior with, say, their children, their dogs, their phones, their vapes… I recently made the mistake of suggesting to a fellow – who could easily have been mistaken for me by someone not good at telling people of vaguely similar age, build, and demographics apart – that it might be better not to let his toddler – who was just then stripping flowers, one at a time, from a shrub in a public garden – do too much damage to the plants “as a courtesy to everyone else, you know, and to set a good example.” He stared at me like bloody murder, and said, “You’re right. Thanks” in a way that clearly meant, “Fuck you. Drop dead.” It wasn’t a nice experience, but I continue to feel that part of what ails us in New York – as in the United States more broadly, as in much of the world – is the general collective unwillingness to intervene in the name of public goods and basic decency, an unwillingness, of course, often rooted in fear.

Of course, taken further, activities like ‘being white,’ ‘being male’, or ‘being rich,’ if admittedly more abstract than driving, are also far more likely still to lead to casual sociopathy. Those are, for all the obvious reasons, harder sorts of activities to talk about, given their foundationality to individual identity and social hierarchies alike.

In all of this, I guess the fundamental question is: What happens if everyone behaves the way that I’m behaving now? Do we end up with a dangerous, polluted, loud, angry, and schismatic metropolis? Do we end up with gardens stripped of flowers in the name of someone’s sentimental attachment to an idea of childhood (rather than a commitment to socializing children to be good lower-case-c citizens)? Do we end up with the intractably unjust social order we live within today?

These were much the issues and the question that were front of mind for me in March of 2020 when I began writing feverishly about the then-still-impending pandemic. Back in January, I made a conscious choice to shift my focus more or less fully back to the climate action that is at the center of my life’s work. These same issues and that same question have much the same relevance with respect to climate crisis and climate action, so as I hope we don’t descend back into another grim winter, but brace myself for the possibility that we do, I’ll end on a hopeful note: The pandemic will end, and I’m increasingly of the belief that the climate crisis will too, and not in a doomsday scenario. The work today is the hard, pragmatic social, political, infrastructural, and technological work of muddling through as quickly as possible to a more livable reality. I’m not particularly sanguine about the prospects that other social ills will be meaningfully addressed at the same time that worst-case-scenario climate crisis is averted, but it is good to have a North Star in engaging in the uncertain, taxing, long-term work of organizing – whether to remake our cities, redirect our often toxic culture, or steer away from the cliff’s edge with respect to greenhouse gas emissions (and other planetary boundaries) – and, even as most everyone is mired in contradiction and hypocrisy to some extent, my own North Star certainly resides somewhere around the intersection of public goods, public health, and public wealth.

Postscript: For anyone who’s interested, my last post, “Let’s Win a Gas Ban for New York City, was the first that I published in tandem on Mirror. After the New York City Council hearing last week on Intro 2317, I think we will win a gas ban for NYC before year’s end. Finally, reference is not an endorsement, but on the subject of New York City and society, I was reminded recently of what may be the funniest moment in all of Seinfeld (a low bar in the mind’s of some viewers, I know) and one relevant to this piece.

Let’s Win a Gas Ban for New York City

I’d hoped to write a nice long piece today after my long hiatus from writing, but, instead, I ended up taking three nice long fall walks instead.

As regular readers know, a significant part of my own work is around climate policy organizing in NYC. For the past year, a grassroots coalition of which I’m a part has worked to pass legislation to ban natural gas hook-ups in new construction and major renovations in NYC. Exxon has been funding a disinformation campaign on FB targeting us, but in spite of that headwind, and the opposition of REBNY, we have a hearing scheduled for this coming Wednesday for this important climate legislation. We have the co-sponsorship of 23 of the 49 seated members of the NYC City Council (two seats are currently open) as well as that of Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, and I’d love if we had your support as well. We’ll be holding a virtual rally at 11 AM ET this Wednesday, November 17th, and the hearing will follow at noon. Please do consider joining, testifying, or, at very least, writing to or calling your city councilperson to voice your strong support for Intro 2317.

Beyond that, on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, I’ve been thinking a lot about the crypto-climate intersection. There are suddenly a lot of interesting, credible projects at that interface – or at least projects that are not obviously either pie-in-the-sky or outright scams. A few of the more noteworthy efforts are KlimaDAO, Toucan, and MOSS, but there are dozens of others at this point, many of them organized as DAOs. Curious to see where this leads.

I hope to be writing more in the next month or so. In the meantime, hope to have your support on Wednesday in winning another major climate victory in New York!

No Time for Despair

There is a lot of bad (climate) news these days. I won’t rehash global or national events, but here in New York, we had our heaviest hour of rainfall in the city’s recorded history last night. One need only spend a few minutes on Twitter to get a sense of the impacts and human suffering brought on by the third major flooding event in NYC this summer.

Lots of people tell me they are “depressed” about the current state of (climate) affairs, and I understand why they feel that way. My early writings on climate crisis reflect the sense of despair that must of us feel in starting to grapple with our changed reality; however, as the meme goes, this is the hottest year on record, and – barring an even worse eventuality, like nuclear winter – it will be the coldest of the rest of our lives. Things will definitely get worse, but they can also get much much worse, and the call for our generations is to turn the corner on climate action and, in so doing, leave to future generations a livable planet. Wallowing will not get us there.

All that said, I’ve had a wonderful summer and enjoyed taking a break from writing. Sadly, neither the pandemic nor climate change took a break, and in the spirit of reflection, I’m linking back to my hopeful take from December that the pandemic might be over in the US by the spring, and my concerned takes, from January, that variants might prevent that hopeful outcome. I’m also pointing back to the piece with which I started the year, “The First Climate Decade“; my conviction is stronger than ever about the necessary transformation, and my cautious hopefulness has only grown as escalating climate impacts begin to spur intensifying climate action.

I continue to be engaged with the push for aggressive, sane climate policy in NYC, and would welcome support from anyone interesting in getting behind our push for a municipal gas ban (in new construction and gut renovations). We’re up to 22 co-sponsors (the NYC City Council has 51 seats, with a couple currently vacant, for context).

I’ve also been much more actively angel investing around “climatetech” this year; may write more, in coming months, about all of that, my approach, and some of my investments; and am always happy to speak climatetech/early-stage investing with anyone who might be interested.

Reading

In roughly chronological order, here are some articles, etc. I flagged over the course of recent months: “Intro 1524 Will Protect New York City Residents from Toxic Pesticides”; from The Guardian, “Chemical giants hid dangers of ‘forever chemicals’ in food packaging” and “Study finds alarming levels of ‘forever chemicals’ in US mothers’ breast milk“; from The Wire, “Stunned by Data, Gujarat Blames Death Certificate Spurt on Duplicate Registrations“; from Nature India, “India’s sewage surveillance for SARS-CoV-2 going down the drain“; from National Geographic, “Antidepressants in waterways may make crayfish bolder, increasing risk of predation“; from Oxford, “Obsessing over electric cars is impeding the race to net zero: More active travel is essential“; from NY Focus, “Albany Just Blew it on Climate, Again” and “The World’s Most Important Local Climate and Jobs Law is in Eric Adams’ Hands“; from Yale Environment 360, “In Push to Find Methane Leaks, Satellites Gear Up for the Hunt“; from the Times of India (with respect to the quiet transfer of mega-assets from a South Indian tycoon to a close North Indian ally of Prime Minister Narendra Modi), “Adani Group takes over Mumbai airport“; to state the obvious, with respect to something that I wrote a great deal about, “First wave COVID-19 data underestimated pandemic infections“; from Democracy Now!, “Floods, Fires & Heat Waves: Michael Mann on “The New Climate War” & the Fight to Take Back the Planet” (I highly recommend Mann’s new book) and ““All We Can Save”: As Climate Disasters Wreck Our Planet, Women Leaders Are Key to Solving the Crisis“; this Behind the News segment with Christian Parenti on a Left approach to carbon dioxide removal; from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, “Segmenting the climate change Alarmed: Active, Willing, and Inactive“; from the Hindustan Times, “Bihar recorded 251k excess deaths since Covid-19 pandemic: Data“; and from The Wire, again, “‘India May’ve Reached COVID Endemicity, With Local Ups and Downs’: Soumya Swaminathan“; enjoy!

#GasFreeNYC

Short and sweet today, as I’ve been enjoying the onset of summer weather in NYC and focused on organizing work, among other things, rather than writing of late. To quote from an email from my friend Pete Sikora of New York Communities for Change:

Intro 2317 – which ends gas in new construction and gut renovations – now is up to 11 co-sponsors. That’s great progress! Now, it’s time for Council Speaker Corey Johnon to make a decision: does he support people or the real estate and gas corporate lobbyists? 

RSVP now to join us and the #GasFreeNYC coalition to rally this Thursday, June 17th from 4:30-5:30 outside NBC studios at 30 Rockefeller Plaza (50th Street entrance)

We know Speaker Johnson will be there since NBC is taping the next Comptroller election debate there. We’re there to urge him to co-sponsor and pass Intro 2317. Please join the rally for a #GasFreeNYC. 
RSVP here!


Pete goes on to link to some articles which share background on gas bans in general, and our gas-ban push in NYC in particular, including the following from the WSJ, The Real Deal, SP Global, and Politico. I hope you’ll read up, and – if you live in NYC – get on the phone with your city council person and plan to join us on Thursday at 4:30 PM if your schedule allows.

Here’s to a transformative decade ahead.

Banning New Fossil Fuel-Powered Power Plants in New York State: An Invitation

There are currently bills in the NY State Senate and Assembly to ban the construction of new fossil fuel-powered power plants. To quote the identical bill summaries:

“Prohibits the development of any new major electric generating facilities that would be powered in whole or in part by any fossil fuel, unless the developer of such facility can demonstrate a need for such facility, and that there is no other reasonable method to satisfy such need.”

The focus, in particular, here is to prevent the construction of wasteful, highly-polluting, and environmentally-unjust peaker plants in NYC (such as those currently proposed for Astoria and Gowanus), but fracked-gas projects Upstate – like the Danskammer, Cricket Valley, and CPV power plants – speak equally clearly to the need for such legislation.

Do you live in New York? Are you interested in supporting this push? Given that the NYS legislative session ends on June 10th, the timeline for passage of this only-recently-introduced bill is compressed, and thus prospects for passage a bit of a long shot, but the time is right, the need is urgent, and your help can be part of winning this victory, so please do reach out if you want be a part of the effort.