The Math

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Spring in February in New York: Like many things that feel good in the moment – smoking, binge eating, the contraction of venereal disease – it should fill us with fear for the future

In the 50s in New York consistently through January and into February, and I, for one, am terrified. A silver lining of this lovely weather – and the unprecedented storms, wildfires, droughts, heatwaves, etc. – is the increasing impossibility of failing to recognize that the climate crisis is upon us. Utter ignorance, of course, presents little obstacle to many recent converts to climate urgency who are now certain that a carbon tax is on the only solution, or that all that New Green Deal money should go into carbon capture and storage research, or that the world is fucked and we are all going to die anyway, so why bother?

But I too was late in my climate awakening, and can attest that one of the chief barriers – beyond the staggering complexity of the involved phenomena – to beginning to really think about anthropogenic climate disruption (there’s also a lot of specialized vocabulary) or make sense of the IPCC reports (and a ton of acronyms; the preceding one means Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), but one of the chief barriers is simply the math.

We should all be familiar with at least the basic math when it comes to the climate crisis, and to that end, a primer:

Greenhouse Gases (Atmospheric Concentrations)

Immediately, we encounter the overwhelmingly complexity. To attempt to cut it down to size, a greenhouse gas is a substance (like carbon dioxide) that traps heat in Earth’s atmosphere. It does so by preventing energy that entered Earth’s atmosphere (in the form of sunlight) from exiting Earth’s atmosphere (in the form of infrared radiation). This trapping of heat has to do with the molecular structure of the gases in question.

As the graph below shows, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have risen from ~315 parts per million (or ppm) in 1960 to nearly 415 ppm today. I glance at this tracker from NOAA’s Earth System Research Lab every morning.

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This is called the Keeling curve, for Charles Keeling. It shows the trend in measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels as measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory which sits atop a sacred volcano in the midst of occupied and colonized indigenous land. I copied this version of it from National Geographic’s website.

Evidently, for the ~12,000 years (called the Holocene) leading up to the Industrial Revolution, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration remained pretty steady at around 280 ppm.

Carbon dioxide is not the only, or even the most powerful greenhouse gas though; in fact, methane, nitrous oxide, and various fluorine-containing compounds (known primarily as refrigerants, although they have many uses) are all far more powerful, but thankfully far less prevalent atmospheric warming agents. According to the EPA, once a very reliable source on such matters, in 2010, carbon dioxide accounted for roughly 75% of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, while methane accounted for ~15%, nitrous oxide for ~5%, the fluorine-containing compounds for ~2%, with the balance made up for by other less common substances and my rounding.

As we all know, carbon dioxide is generated by the combustion of fossil fuels (or of wood, including of vast forests), although our land-use choices – cutting down or planting trees, how we farm, etc. – also impact carbon dioxide emissions levels. In the U.S., leaks from natural gas extraction, processing, and distribution facilities and animal agriculture (ruminant burps and farts) are the primary sources of methane, although human flatulence must also have its role to play. Nitrous oxide emissions originate primarily from our use of synthetic fertilizers, while the fluorine-containing compounds seem to mostly be released in relation to the production, use, and disposal of freezers, refrigerators, and air conditioning units, though I’ll admit to having a limited understanding of these substances.

I believe this is already at risk of becoming too complicated, so suffice to say that methane is at least 20-30x more powerful as a warming agent over the short term (20 to 100 year time horizon) than is carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide is something like 300x more powerful over the same. Today, methane concentrations in Earth’s atmosphere are approaching 2 ppm while nitrous oxide concentrations are around 300 parts per billion (or 0.3 ppm), and concentrations of the various fluorine-containing compounds are, thankfully, measured in parts per trillion, although they are, in many instances, far more powerful warming agents than even nitrous oxide.

Greenhouse Gases (Total Amount)

In 2010, total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions totaled ~49 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. Carbon dioxide equivalent is arrived at by considering the global warming potential of a substance (for example, the “20-30x more powerful” mentioned above for methane) and the amount of that substance that was emitted – kind of like saying a dozen is equivalent to twelve, except in this case, you’re talking about how many carbon dioxide molecules say one methane molecule is equivalent to when it comes to warming.

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This is from the the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (generally abbreviated AR5) from 2014.

Coming back to that number, ~49 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (or CO2e, though I’m going to mostly keep avoiding acronyms), that just means 49 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide, which is the same as saying 49 trillion kilograms, which is basically the same as saying 50 trillion kilograms.

For 2019, the Global Carbon Project has estimated that total carbon dioxide emissions alone were ~43 gigatonnes, and while I’m struggling to find an estimate of the carbon dioxide equivalent emissions for 2019, I suspect they fell not too far shy of 60 gigatonnes.

Finally, it’s important to have a sense of the total historical anthropogenic emissions. It’s surprisingly hard to find good graphs (perhaps because the underlying data is so mind-boggling). Please don’t be daunted by the graph below – what it shows is that, up to 2010, cumulative anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions were ~2,000 gigatonnes, so roughly 50x what was emitted globally last year. That should tell us just how much we are currently emitting, that 50 years like last year would come close to equaling the global historical total of carbon dioxide emissions.

Further, the graph shows that from 2017, there remained somewhere between ~500 to at most perhaps 800 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide budget to keep the total global mean temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius or below. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses have continued to be emitted at ever higher rates in the meantime, and I think it’s fair to say that the current carbon dioxide budget may be as low as ~300 gigatonnes to stay below 1.5 degrees of warming, which gives us about seven more years like 2019. (Actually, we might have less than that, but I’m erring on the bright side.)

 

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This is from the IPCC’s Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5 ºC – to quote: “The 2010 observation of surface temperature change (0.97°C […]) and cumulative carbon dioxide emissions from 1876 to the end of 2010 of 1,930 GtCO2 […] is shown as a filled purple diamond. The value for 2017 based on the latest cumulative carbon emissions up to the end of 2017 of 2,220 GtCO2 […] and a surface temperature anomaly of 1.1°C based on an assumed temperature increase of 0.2°C per decade is shown as a hollow purple diamond. […] Note these remaining budgets exclude possible Earth system feedbacks that could reduce the budget, such as CO2 and CH4 release from permafrost thawing and tropical wetlands.
Some Brief Review

Key takeaways thus far:

  • Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations are ~415 ppm;
  • Atmospheric methane concentrations are ~2 ppm;
  • Atmospheric nitrous oxide concentrations are ~300 ppb (or 0.3 ppm);
  • Methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorine-containing refrigerant compounds are far less plentiful in Earth’s atmosphere than is carbon dioxide, but are far more powerful short-term warming agents (I’m intentionally eliding the long-term for now, as we first just have to stop the bleeding and survive this century).
  • During the Holocene, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations were steady at ~280 ppm;
  • Annual total greenhouse gas emissions have been steadily climbing since ~1870, and are now around 40+ gigatonnes per year of carbon dioxide and 50-60 gigatonnes per year of carbon dioxide equivalent;
  • Total historic anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions have been ~2,400 gigatonnes.
  • Allowing for the immense uncertainties involved in trying to predict the future behavior of the Earth, there remains a carbon dioxide budget of perhaps ~300-600 gigatonnes (at the rosiest) to remain in the vicinity of 1.5 degrees Celsius warming, with the caveat that feedback loops (like the thawing of Arctic permafrost, the collapse of a major Antarctic ice sheet and its aftermath, etc.) confront researchers with profound uncertainties about actual future outcomes.
  • If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll note that I’ve avoided mentioning greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide relative to the carbon budget. You’re absolutely right. Short answer: Go read the whole IPCC Special Report, as it does, indeed, address “non-CO2 radiative forcing”!

Some Closing Remarks

The United States is responsible for ~25% of cumulative historical carbon dioxide emissions. In recent years, total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have been ~6 gigatonnes carbon dioxide equivalent per year and ~5 gigatonnes carbon dioxide. Similar historical and present-tense blame/responsibility can be attributed to the E.U./major European powers, Russia, and to a lesser, but growing, extent China and India.

As always, the complexity of the technical, social, and political challenges involved in imagining and then achieving progress towards a more just and sustainable world are immense, and in some sense, the numbers are beside the point. If we all started living (very) differently tomorrow, the problem could be solved – or at least the deepening of the harm could be arrested – and we could dispense with all these technocratic technicalities. As it is, though, having some basic facility with the top-line numbers can be helpful; in fact, I’d say that we all should have such facility, and that failing to know climate basics at this point reflects a total abandonment of the love we need to show for ourselves, each other, and the planet.

Postscript: 350.org is named for the concentration (350 ppm) of carbon dioxide that the organization’s founders considered the highest “safe concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.” In fact, even 350 ppm – and definitely our current concentration (which is, again, in the vicinity of 415 ppm) – very likely corresponds, based on ice core records, to a global mean temperature multiple degrees Celsius warmer than that of the Holocene. If we care about ourselves, we should work – among a great many other things – to stay within the ~300 gigatonne carbon dioxide budget. If we care about a livable future, we should also be setting our minds and hearts to how to remove this vast excess of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, which again, entails imagining and working for a better and very different world.

Post-postscript: for background on why staying below 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming is so important (if also increasingly unlikely), see the aforementioned IPCC report, or this round-up of its conclusions from the World Resources Institute.

 

Bernie Sanders is the Devil

Bernie Sanders is the Devil.

I had a conversation this afternoon with a loved one of mine who reads the New York Times, and Bernie Sanders is the Devil.

I’ve just had it with these Bernie Bros. And Bernie Sanders is the Devil.

Bernie Sanders may have been endorsed by AOC. And Pramila Jayapal. And Sean King. (Among many, many others.) He may have drawn a crowd, with AOC, of 26,000 in Queens. But his only supporters are the White Bernie Bros (who cost Hillary Clinton the 2016 election), and Bernie Sanders is the Devil.

Hillary Clinton may have supported destroying Libya and, de facto, handing it over to warlords. The War in Iraq. The 1994 Crime Bill. She may have failed to campaign in Michigan during the general election (and there may have been outright Jim Crow tactics employed to suppress the Black vote in Detroit); run a terrible campaign; and only secured the Democratic nomination through a highly-corrupt (one might almost say rigged) Democratic primary process, but Bernie Sanders is responsible for her loss (and the President it gave our great nation), and for that reason, among others, he is the Devil.

Bernie Sanders is the Devil. That is why he can be hands down the most popular politician in the United States and still barely get covered in the corporate media, until, in desperation, with Sanders leading the polls in the lead-up to the Iowa Caucus, that media at last turns on him in the open, because he is the Devil.

Bernie Sanders might barely pass for a moderate social democrat in the Scandinavian countries at which US Americans so love to marvel, but he is, nonetheless, the Devil.

The Democratic Party may be imploding (have already imploded?) as the Democratic Establishment seeks frantically, in a McCarthyite frenzy, to pin responsibility for its abject failure (in 2016; all across the country; in the Courts; morally) on anything (Russia! Please Russia!) or anyone (primarily Bernie) other than itselves. Not on its utter abandonment of the working class. Or on its wholesale neoliberalization. Or on its promulgation of false solutions to economic distress; inequality; racial injustice; the climate crisis.

Bernie Sanders is the Devil. In truth, I never really liked him personally. But I never met him personally either.

Bernie Sanders is the Devil, and he’s also very old. Even older than the other leading candidates, who are all old (in our gerontocracy, Amy Klobuchar, at 59, seems downright youthful!). In our white supremacy, he doesn’t look any whiter than our other leading candidates, who are all white. (Andrew Yang can’t even get a mention these days.) He doesn’t look less white than Joe Biden, who, um, “come[s] out of the Black community.”

Bernie Sanders is the Devil, which is why, devil that he is, he tempted Elizabeth Warren in private with his outrageous claims (claims which stand in clear contradiction to his own public statements, his past actions, and, in fact, his whole record) that courageous CNN was left to heroically publicize, sans evidence, only coincidentally, the night before the final (and CNN-broadcasted) Democratic debate.

But I think you get the point. Bernie Sanders may (still) be the most popular politician in the United Staes. He may stand the best chance of defeating the omnicidal buffoon in the White House. He may have, by far, the most consistent record of principled commitment to social justice of any of the remaining Democratic candidates; and the most compelling vision for confronting the climate crisis; and the clearest position in support of, among other things, Medicare for All. He may be the best available answer to all that ails a Democratic Party that has abandoned everything it once stood for in an unwinnable race to the bottom with a Republican Party increasingly intent on the destruction of the human species.

He may be all that (and a bag of chips, to use an expression not half as dated as every other sentence that comes out of the current Democratic “frontrunners” mouth), but he’s a socialist, and so the Devil, and for that reason, must be stopped. The New York Times told me so.

So just remember, about Bernie Sanders (aka, the Devil): “Nobody likes him, nobody wants to work with him, he got nothing done.” I look forward to the CNN interview when, challenged with this assertion, Bernie Sanders defends his record, only to have the interviewer turn to Hillary Clinton (waiting in the wings) to ask, “And when Bernie was getting nothing done… ?”

But this isn’t about Hillary Clinton and getting the War in Iraq, and the PATRIOT Act, and regime change in Libya done. This isn’t about Elizabeth Warren, who, among the current candidates, is the person I would second most like to see become our next president, and who will have my full support should she win the Democratic nomination. This is about Bernie Sanders, the socialist Jew from Brooklyn who for 40 years has been a voice of relative sanity in the wilderness of our toxic politics.

Bernie Sanders. The Devil. That’s who.

Postscript: No matter that the 2016 Sanders campaign sparked nationwide movements that number among the few authentically hopeful signs in our national politics. Devil!

No matter that Sanders actually vigorously campaigned on behalf of Clinton after losing the 2016 Democratic primary. Devil!

No matter that even Sanders is a creature of the military-industrial war machine, and has his own crimes in Iraq for which to account. Devil…

The Year of the Bus?

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Which a-way? Bus-a-way

I started 2019 by calling for it to be The Year of the Train. Reflecting back, perhaps it was the year of the bus instead. As we look to the future, and confront deepening uncertainty and accelerating effects of the global climate crisis, we will be forced to make tough decisions and heartbreaking trade-offs. Retreat was one of Grist’s “words that defined our planet in 2019” – I hadn’t planned to start this year by calling for prevention of war with Iran, and as I cover in my first planned post of 2020, the 2020s must be the decade during which global action on the climate crisis finally becomes commensurate with the scale of the problem.

Still, perhaps it will prove untenable to defend our much-maligned subway system, with its immense underground (and hence flood-menaced) network of tunnels. I love the New York City Subway, and certainly hope not to see it be among the things from which we are forced to retreat, but in celebrating the victory on 14th Street and the model of the 14th Street Busway, we should be looking to a future free of personal automobiles in which buses, bikes, pedestrians, scooters, one-wheelers, and all the rest move freely, safely, (and ideally, respectfully!) through public space.

Contemporary New Yorkers inherit 150 years of automobile-centric infrastructure, and from the Brooklyn Bridge to the region’s vast network of roads, highways, and expressways, we should be looking to reimagine, repurpose, and dismantle as needed in service to a vision of a just and sustainable New York.

Postscript: For the sake of thoroughness, I think it’s worth noting that “Subways had best on-time performance in six years during 2019” while “NYC bus ridership fell for sixth straight year in 2019, hit lowest level in decades“, so calling 2019 The Year of the Bus would probably be a little optimistic. We should be working to turn the limited victories on 14th Street and elsewhere into a more coherent city-wide program of Bus Rapid Transit, protected bus lanes (entirely separated from traffic and/or camera-enforced), etc., etc.

The 2020s

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Beauty can be a great motivator of action

The 2020s must be the most transformative decade in human history (in a good way), or we’ll confront the near-inevitability that the decades of the 2030s, ’40s and beyond will each, in turn, outstrip the previous as the most transformative in a bad. When even BlackRock and McKinsey are signaling that the climate crisis will be the defining issue of coming decade, there can be little doubt about the extent to which our world has changed. Great recent reporting from The Intercept on plastics / the petrochemical industry, the current US Administration’s deregulatory agenda (The War on the War on Cancer), pesticides, and how US companies are undermining progress in “healing” the ozone layer point to the complexity of the interlocking nexus of interests / challenges we face as we work to move rapidly towards climate / ecological sanity and justice.

 

I’ve previously outlined (in The Time for Climate Action is Now) a “spectrum of actions – ranging from the strictly personal to the more broadly institutional and political” which people committed to climate action might take. Foundational to almost any climate action though is simply being informed, so as you consider what your role will be in this defining struggle of our age, I urge you to make getting, being, and staying informed about climate issues a priority: The Intercept, Democracy Now!, The Guardian, and InsideClimate News are all great starting points.

For my part, I’ve resolved to make climate work my central focus in the coming years, and will be devoting the next nine months to figuring out exactly what that means. To that end, I imagine / hope that the way in which I’m using this blog / newsletter will evolve.

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Destruction, another

After all, we’ve been given a small gift. Generally, when asked to count to 10, a person starts with one, but although the online debates about whether a new decade has or hasn’t started have now mostly died down, the fact remains that there are roughly 11 years from now until the end of 2030. In the end, the atmosphere, the ocean, and the soil obey their own laws, and thresholds breached and tipping points passed can’t be argued back into equilibrium by appealing to IPCC reports, but to the extent that we’ve set an arbitrary goal of “by 2030” (and I’m giving us until the end of 2030), we have one year to gather ourselves and ten to act.

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Destruction of beauty, perhaps the greatest of all, so in honoring the legacy and immense courage of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., here’s to flowers in winter (when they’re meant to be; prunus mume, I think), hope in the dark, and a new world growing to replace the old

 

We Have to Prevent a War with Iran

Those of us who lived through the attacks of September 11th, 2001 should remember the lies and manufactured hysteria that were used to justify the disastrous invasions (and ongoing occupations) of Afghanistan and Iraq. We should be wise enough to recognize when history threatens to repeat itself.

Imagine: Someone punches you in the face; you slap the hand that punched you; and then that person who punched you threatens to cut your head off.

Imagine: A US Secretary of Defense openly flies to Canada on a commercial flight to meet with the Canadian Prime Minister and, upon leaving the Toronto International Airport, is assassinated by a missile the launch of which was ordered from Tehran. (In the aftermath, Iran criticizes American aggression throughout the North American region.)

Imagine: That in 1953, the US toppled the democratically-elected government of Iran; that, thereafter, until the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the US propped up a brutal dictator in Iran; that, heroically, as Ben Affleck has shown us, the US opposed the Iranian Revolution in Iran; that having failed to reverse it, the US underwrote Saddam Hussein’s nearly decade-long war on Iran during which Iraq extensively employed chemical weapons and more than a million Iranians died; that shortly before the end of the Iran-Iraq War, the US shot down a civilian Iranian airliner, killing all 290 people onboard; that the US has worked for decades, employing a strategy of hybrid war – including covert operations and devastating sanctions – to undermine the Iranian government and destroy the Iranian state; that after the remarkable breakthrough embodied in the JCPOA (or Iran Nuclear Deal), the US withdrew from the Deal in barely more than two years’ time in spite of the fact that Iran had been, and continued to be, in compliance with the Deal’s terms; that the US continues to subject Iran to some of the harshest peace-time financial sanctions in modern history; and that after all that, the media in this country still has the audacity to characterize the recently-assassinated General Soleimani as a “bad guy,” as if that somehow served as a justification for extrajudicial killing via drone bombing of a senior official of a major world power.

Imagine. Then act: We have to prevent a war with Iran.

The stakes – for the Iranian people, the people of the United States, the rest of the world, and for desperately needed global climate action – could not be clearer, so I’ll simply urge you to remain critical in the face of the US corporate media’s drumbeat for war. Iran did not so much strike bases “where US troops were stationed” as target bases that were understood to be connected with the US drone war across West Asia while warning in advance that they intended to do so. There have been no casualties, and there need not be any further escalation. This is not a defense of the Iranian government, but a plea for rejection of further escalation and business-as-usual US militarism at a moment of profound global historical urgency.

We should be ashamed what has been done in our names. We should take courage from the people’s movements challenging corrupt and unjust regimes all around the world. We should reject false narrative and bald-faced lies being propagated in the media.

We have to prevent a war with Iran.

Work Hard. Have Fun. Make Dystopia…

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Beneath the scaffolding in front of a now-shuttered Duane Reade, an impromptu Amazon logistics hub

It’s the holiday season in the United States which means, among other things, even more frenzied hyperconsumption than usual, and no single company is more synonymous today with this country’s unique brand of consumerism than Amazon.

Amazon, which paid no federal income tax on more than $11 billion of corporate profit in 2018.

Amazon, which is named for the vast rainforest now under thread of destruction and which, at least on my browser, knocks the rainforest entirely off the first page of Google search queries.

Amazon, the CEO of which is, even after his divorce, the richest person in the world.

That Amazon. The one, it seems, that almost everyone in the US uses these days. The sprawling paragon of surveillance capitalism. The defense contractor extraordinaire (the CEO of which recently proclaimed, of his company’s relationship with the Department of Defense, “We are the good guys.”) The cloud platform that hosts/dominates much of the contemporary Internet. The online retail behemoth that has clogged US streets with its deliveries and US landfills with those deliveries’ detritus.

Amazon: Isn’t it about time you stopped using it?

Bezos is not your friend and the company’s business model is driving us towards panoptic dystopia and global climate crisis.

But as LeVar Burton used to say: Don’t take my word for it.

Here’s Reveal’s piece, Behind the Smiles, on how “Amazon’s internal injury records expose the true toll of its relentless drive for speed”.

Here’s Jeremy Scahill’s interview (jump to the 50 minute mark), from his podcast Intercepted, with journalist Emily Guendelsberger on her new book “On the Clock, What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane”.

Here’s a segment from Democracy Now! and some Rutgers investigative journalism students entitled “As Amazon Hits $1 Trillion in Value, Its Warehouse Workers Denounce “Slavery” Conditions”.

And here’s a Vox video short, “The environmental cost of free 2-day shipping” – it’s short, but pairs nicely with the slightly longer, “The Story of Stuff”, from The Story of Stuff Project.

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For the Bird: Love the USPS, but can Amazon has public space for free whenever Amazon likes?

As for the purchases, you don’t need all that crap, at least not most of it, and neither do your friends and loved ones (and acquaintances and colleagues). Here in New York, we’re lucky to still have locally-owned businesses, and if we don’t want to see them destroyed, we ought to patronize them. Slight differences in convenience and price should easily be offset by the value of human relationships and functioning communities.

Oh, and if you’re salving your conscience about your overconsumption by religiously recycling – keep doing it; it’s important and worthwhile – but sadly, much of that stuff is still ending up in landfills and incinerators at best, and oceans and rivers at worst, and the whole push to personalize the problem of mass waste is being underwritten by the plastics industry. Sorry.

The consumption is the problem. Amazon is built on fueling it. Let’s give that name back to the trees.

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Good sticker. Wishing you a happy, restful, and Amazon-the-company-free holiday season!

Water Is Life

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I can also recommend the excellent The Magic School Bus at the Waterworks as a good jumping off point for new students of New York’s old water system

It’s Thanksgiving in New York. Approaching five hundred years ago, the first historically-documented European passed through the waters of what is now known as New York Bay and encountered the region’s Lenape inhabitants. Approaching four hundred years ago, the first permanent European settlement was established in what is today New York City. New York was among the earliest significant outposts of the European settler-colonial project in North America, and yet our American History textbooks are largely silent on the early history of New York City (perhaps owing to its Dutch roots) and the genocidal roots it has in common with the colonies at Jamestown and Plymouth. Only in studying the start of the Revolution War do most schoolchildren in the US first begin to read about the City that for more than two centuries has been at the heart of US power and imperialism, and for approaching one century has been the/a center of the global order which is now trembling.

Three years ago, in confronting a manifestation of that order – the Dakota Access Pipelinewater protectors at Standing Rock injected the phrase that gives this post its title into global consciousness. Water has been central to the history of New York City: its preternaturally excellent natural harbor and strategic location at the heart of the colonial Atlantic Seaboard positioned New York to emerge as first a mercantile and commercial and then financial hub; the vision (and perhaps greed) of its elites in the early 19th century allowed New York to capitalize upon (and drive) the westward thrust of US imperialism through the construction of the Erie Canal and the cementing – by capture of Great Lakes trade on top of that of much of New England – of New York’s premier position among North American cities; even the consolidation of its five boroughs, in 1898, into one vast megacity had to do with water (as well as the growth of rapidly burgeoning Chicago), though in that case, with its bridging and tis lack, for, although New York is blessed in many ways – and before the devastation of colonization and industrialization, was evidently blessed much more with a natural wealth that was, to the first European visitors, truly staggering – as the City expanded, polluted, and despoiled, it ran up consistently against limitations in the availability of potable water.

Beset again and again by outbreaks of cholera and other water-borne diseases (no coincidence that the purview of New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) encompasses both Drinking Water and Wastewater), only in 1842, with the opening of the first Croton Aqueduct, did the City, at last, secure a steady source of clean drinking water; commentators at the time believed it would be generations before the City required a greater supply, and yet such was New York’s greed for (and profligacy with) water that within a few decades, the City was once again pushing up against the limits of its water supply.

Fast forward to today, and the vast majority of New Yorkers give basically no thought to the source, security, or infrastructure underlying the availability of their water, and yet New York’s water system is one of City’s most remarkable infrastructural accomplishments (and perhaps one of the world’s). To quote from the NYC DEP‘s own New York City 2018 Drinking Water Supply and Quality Report:

The New York City Water Supply System provides approximately one billion gallons of safe drinking water daily to more than 8.6 million residents of New York City, and to the millions of tourists and commuters who visit the City throughout the year. The water supply system also provides about 105 million gallons a day to approximately one million people living in the counties of Westchester, Putnam, Orange, and Ulster. In all, the New York City Water Supply System provides nearly half the population of New York State with high-quality drinking water.

New York City gets its drinking water from 19 reservoirs and three controlled lakes spread across a nearly 2,000-square-mile watershed. The watershed is not located in New York City, but rather upstate, in portions of the Hudson Valley and Catskill Mountains that are as far as 125 miles north of the City. The New York City Water Supply System… consists of three individual water supplies called the Catskill/Delaware supply… the Croton supply… and a groundwater supply in southeastern Queens… [from which water] has not been delivered to customers in many years.

In 2018, New York City received a blend of drinking water from the Catskill/Delaware and Croton supplies. The Catskill/Delaware supply provided approximately 94 percent of the water, and approximately six percent was supplied by Croton.

The Report, which I encourage New Yorkers to read in its entirety, includes basic information (for example, about treatment of New York City’s water supply; see image below for more details) and remarkable facts (for example, that the 85-mile-long Delaware Aqueduct – currently undergoing repairs which themselves reflect the technical sophistication and capacity of the system and those maintaining it – is the longest continuous tunnel in the world). Readers who are interested in system maintenance, water quality testing, watershed preservation, and water conservation efforts will find the report an accessible and concise summary, and those in New York and looking to learn more might also enjoy paying a visit to the Queens Museum which has a fascinating, if dated, topographic map showing the extent of the City’s water supply (along with the famous Panorama of the City of New York, which offers – in view of rising sea levels and climate crisis-driven extreme weather – a sobering perspective on New York’s future relationship with the bodies of water which have defined it).

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Again, Miss Frizzle covers all of this in the above-mentioned primer

Given that my own time has been limited this fall, I’ll leave it at that – more of an invitation to those who might be interested to dig deeper than an attempt at (or pretense of) offering anything more comprehensive. For readers looking to go deeper, Ted Steinberg’s Gotham Unbound and the incomparable Gotham (by Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace) and Greater Gotham (by Wallace alone) offer treasure troves of historical perspective on their common theme (that is, Gotham, the origin of which name may have something to do with goats), while Nick Estes recent Our History is the Future offers both further insights regarding the ongoing struggle at Standing Rock and a necessary corrective to (even excellent) histories which fail to center indigenous experiences in making sense of how we came to be where we are.