Climate is a Culture Problem

Moving towards food independence in our kitchen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I’m Doing

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

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

What I’m Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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