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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I’m Doing

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

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

What I’m Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonus

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

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

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

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

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