Mass Train-sit

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The “outskirts” of Hyderabad, one of the many megacities in Asia which are largely unheard of in the US

I’m delighted to declare victory in my campaign to make 2019 The Year of the Train! Thank you to Governor Cuomo, Mayor de Blasio, and all the other courageous politicians who made this momentous victory possible.

Jokes aside, a lot has happened related to mass transit in NYC in the last two months. We spent the month of February in India, and I’m personally still digging back out from a backlog of correspondence and chores, so hence will keep this brief. It’s always jarring to travel between India and the US, and the contrasts cast in stark relief the challenges and opportunities in both countries, not least of all related to mass transit. (Incidentally, it is especially jarring to transit between South India and the Northeast of the US at this time of year. We went from 37 degrees Celsius to 37 degrees Fahrenheit in a day!) And, of course, the hypocrisy of writing about the need for urgent climate action and my own elective transcontinental air travel in the same paragraph is not lost on me, although I’m not alone in grappling with such contradictions.

On mass transit in NYC, I was thrilled to see Corey Johnson’s sweeping plan, though haven’t yet had time myself to do it full justice. Its release followed close on the heels of the release of the Governor and Mayor’s joint plan. I recommend readers have a look at the Second Avenue Sagas roundup of Johnson’s ambitious plan and the Sagas and Signal Problems breakdowns of the joint gubernatorial-mayoral plan as well. (This piece from Sagas on Mayor de Blasio’s utter failure to address mass transit issues is also worth reading.)

All of these developments have me now questioning the viability of my own #CuomoDeBlasioFixTheSubway proposal, and I’ve been reflecting on what practical steps everyday New Yorkers can be taking to support sane, just, sustainable mass transit policies for the 21st century. For now, I’ll continue to reflect, but hope to write more on this by month’s end.

In the meantime, here’s:

What I’m Reading

The Subway Action Plan is not making the subway better. Here’s what is. – Illuminating piece from Aaron Gordon of Signal Problems on how political pressures distort narratives and practical action related to/by the MTA.

The MTA as a Worker – Great piece from an MTA worker that appeared in the NYC DSA’s newsletter.

Powerless: What it looks and sounds like when a gas driller overruns your land. – Powerful reporting from ProPublica on the abuse of eminent domain in the expansion of the fracking industry in Appalachia.

COP24: Developed Nations Continue to Dictate Terms of Global Climate Action – From December. Title says it all.

What I’m Doing

This month, just one action item:

  • Support efforts to block the Williams Pipeline. We don’t need this fracked gas pipeline running beneath New York Harbor and just off the coast of the Rockaways. You can sign petitions and submit comments via this website as a starting point.

And a…

Bonus

Actually three bonuses:

First, here’s some welcome, if quite serious, comic relief from the halls of Congress regarding the impact of seismic airgun tests on whales.

Second, this month’s sobering reminder about the scale and direness of climate change, courtesy of NASA.

Third, and finally, a humbling reminder of the courage of activists and communities at the frontline of climate action, this one from Wet’Suwet’en Land.

The Year of the Train

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I love our ferries, but what we need is not token pet political projects but functioning buses and trains

There is growing consensus that 2019 will be a “make-or-break” year for the subway – by which I think people generally mean New York’s remarkable, but ailing mass transit system more broadly. We all know how staggering in size and complexity are the interconnected networks of commuter trains, subways, and buses that serve the more than 20 million residents of Greater New York; that perhaps nothing more symbolizes the spirit of New York City than the subway; and that mass transit is a central democratic institution of our metropolis, so I will cut right to the chase: While there has been a great deal of hand-wringing and Twitter groaning about the state of the crisis; while the #FixTheSubway Coalition is doing admirable work to improve rider experiences; and while Governor Cuomo has made great symbolic shows of his commitment to action on mass transit, he has had eight years to give the people of New York substance rather than show, and all we’ve witnessed and experienced is steady deterioration of the quality of service and the state of our essential transit infrastructure.

Hollow words from our elected representatives are not enough. We need a mass people’s movement to demand restoration and renewal of New York’s mass transit systems. We need to make 2019 the year of the train.

Premises

1. New Yorkers are confused and upset about the state of our mass transit. Fares and tolls keep going up, and obviously a lot of money is being spent (speaking of token pet political projects, just look at the 2nd Avenue Subway!), but overall, the quality of services has declined sharply in recent years.

2. Politicians – especially Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio, as well as their respective predecessors – have passed the buck and blamed the MTA, but we know that the MTA was actually created (in 1968) for the very purpose of allowing politicians to pass the buck and avoid taking blame and responsibility for mass transit! And that it is the Governor and the Mayor who have outsized control over our mass transit systems and their budgets. They are disproportionately responsible for the current mass transit crisis and should be held accountable for it.

3. For the first time in a long-time, we have a Democratic Governor, State Senate, and State Assembly in New York State, plus a progressive Democratic Mayor and City Council in New York City, and an incoming Democratic United States House of Representatives spearheaded by young, new progressives who are prioritizing (green) infrastructure. Mass transit is a climate, social, racial, and environmental justice issue; the time is now to act such that every year going forward, the subway, commuter trains, and buses will improve, and by 2030, we have the world-class mass transit system that we – and the city we love – deserve.

Demands

1. Fully implement congestion pricing as soon as is possible (there’s backstory on congestion pricing on page 28 of the Fix NYC Advisory Panel Report from January 2018 for those who are interested).

2. Reorganize the MTA per the recommendations of the Metropolitan Transportation Sustainability Advisory Workgroup Report, and begin to implement the Workgroup’s additional recommendations as soon as is possible.

3. Fully fund the Byford Plan (a.k.a. the Fast Forward Plan) and commit designated (“lockboxed”) funds to the immense task of restoring and renewing our mass transit system by 2030.

Action Steps

1. Call the Governor (1-518-474-8390; and no harm in submitting a webform while you’re at it!) and demand that he accomplish the three steps outlined under Demands above.

2. Call the Mayor (may be necessary to call 311 to reach the Mayor’s Office; and ditto on the webform) and demand that he accomplish the three steps outlined under Demands above.

3. Call your State Senator and demand that they accomplish the three steps outlined under Demands above.

4. Call your State Assemblymember and demand that they accomplish the three steps outlined under Demands above.

5. Call your City Councilperson and demand that they accomplish the three steps outlined under Demands above.

6. If you’re feeling especially inspired, take to social media to demand the accomplishment of the three steps outlined under Demands above using #CuomoDeBlasioFixTheSubway.

All told, this should take you about 15 minutes. (Still itching to make more phone calls? I wouldn’t hesitate to reach out to your United States Senator and Representative either, although they’re somewhat remote from this.)

Thank you for taking action. Happy New Year!

If you need any additional motivation to get and stay involved with this struggle for the future of New York, here are words from the tireless Aaron Gordon – if you aren’t already, I encourage you to become a (paid) subscriber to his weekly newsletter, Signal Problems:

“It is for these reasons I suspect 2019 will be the most important year in this city’s transportation history. Never before have so many issues culminated at once. Congestion pricing, MTA reform, the L shutdown, the legality of for-hire vehicle surcharges, the Fast Forward Plan’s future, and on and on. 2017 was the year we recognized we had a problem. 2018 was the year we got a prognosis. Now what? It’s make it or break it, put up or shut up.”

And the Workgroup itself:

“Failure of the public transportation system is the single biggest threat to the continued livability and prosperity of the New York metropolitan region.”

I’d argue that climate disruption is actually “the single biggest threat” to New York City (and most of the other great cities of the world) but while climate change can feel daunting, abstract, and impossible to grapple with, transit is an everyday reality for many of us. It’s time we broke through our fatalism and the cynical obfuscation of our political leaders to demand:

#CuomoDeBlasioFixTheSubway! Transit (and therefore, climate) action now!

Postscript: Apologies to readers outside Greater New York that calls to action here are geographically specific! And note, as the congestion pricing lawsuit makes clear, these issues are (obviously) very complex. For sake of popular accessibility and immediate actionability, some simplification of demands felt necessary, but that simplification was by no means meant to obscure the political nuances at play here.

The Solution is Prevention

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Time to stop fossil fooling ourselves, for example, about late fall in NYC and its causes and consequences

This week, after roughly a year of construction and approximately half a million dollars in expense, repair work on the Morton Street Bulkhead appears to be winding down. Meanwhile, the Global Carbon Project estimates that global carbon dioxide emissions – which had leveled out briefly at the end of the Obama administration – are on pace to increase by 2.7% in 2018 on top of a 1.7% increase last year. As I have written before, coastal defense alone will likely cost New York City tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars in the foreseeable future, and yet, diligently, we are repairing aging bulkheads that, odds are, soon enough, will be regularly underwater. Clearly, as we hurtle towards the proverbial cliff’s edge, we are (almost) all in denial.

And who are we? The individuals and classes most responsible for the global climate crisis.

A loved one reached out to say she was feeling discouraged and personally culpable for climate change, and I responded: “It’s a tough reality at the moment and those of us who live comfortably in the US are all disproportionately to blame, but I don’t see any option at this point but working to reduce the harm.”

A friend declared that what she most feels in thinking about climate issues is “shame.”

By way of social media caption, I wrote: “If you’re not thinking, talking, and acting on climate every day at this point, then you are part of the denial. We have until 2030-ish to utterly transform the way the world works, and despair, cynicism, and resignation are all just different forms of cowardice. Time for concerted, sustained, collective, just, historically-rooted, and evidence-based action.”

Another friend publicly reasserted his conviction that geoengineering will be the only way to avert the most dire consequences of global climate disruption (a contention with which I firmly disagree).

On the one hand, we are desperately in need of a strong dose of reality; on the other, it’s about damn time for some pragmatic optimism and can-do spirit. Yes, the interwoven social, political, economicecological, and climate crises have grown to staggering and daunting proportions.

What are you doing about it?

In that spirit, here’s a very loose framework for thinking about your own climate action, and here’s an even looser roadmap about where we go in the coming twelve years.

If you’re in need of further inspiration, I recommend you follow the links to videos about what youth activists of the Sunrise Movement are doing here in the United States; what indigenous communities are doing in Canada; what members of Extinction Rebellion are doing in the U.K.; what farmers are doing in India; what Greta Thunberg is doing in Sweden (and her remarkable speech at the generally tepid and heavily-policed COP 24 Summit in Katowice); and what Amy Goodman (of Democracy Now!) modeled in chasing one of the chief representatives of the U.S. Government at the Katowice Climate Summit in pursuit of honest answers to a few simple questions.

I urge you, look to these good examples, and then ask yourself – this holiday season, this new year: What am I doing about the climate crisis? Why am I not doing more? How will I feel about my actions, or lack thereof, in a decade? Or fifty years?

Here’s to making 2019 the first year during which global emissions trend down, after which they stay down. Take Drawdown with a grain of salt, but we already have the solutions (chief among them, ending the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels, which Drawdown does not emphasize, hence the salt). And if you’re dreading challenging climate conversations with family and friends, here’s a primer.

We have a lot of work to do. See you next year.

Doing What We Can’t Not

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A great many tree branches came down in New York during the recent snowstorm, no doubt owing, in part, to our ever-more-delayed fall

The holiday season is upon us in the United States. I try not to succumb to the frenzy of excess and consumption that constitutes the most sacred celebration of our way of life. Still, it’s hard to find time and space of mind at the moment. I fear that the continuation of my Infrastructure Series will likely have to wait until next summer; however, continue it will, and in the meantime, I’m going to offer a skeletal sketch of my vision for climate action in 2019 and beyond.

First, I’m sure regular readers will have noted the barrage of alarming climate news in recent months. Following the October release of the IPCC’s Special Report (here’s the still-long Summary for Policymakers), came the White House’s own Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume II (here’s sample coverage from the Chicago Tribune). Meanwhile, reality bore out the dire predictions: Hurricane Michael did tens of billions of dollars of damage and left 45 people dead in Florida (and at least 15 more people dead in Central America); Super Typhoon Yutu caused massive damage and multiple fatalities in the US Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands; and fires across California killed close to 100 people and left tens of thousands of homes and businesses destroyed.

Even a summary attempt at a global round-up of bad climate news would have us here all day (it would probably have to start with the election of Jair Bolsanaro as president of Brazil), and I continue to try to keep my focus actionable, practical, and pragmatically optimistic. In a nutshell, there is emerging global consensus that “The next 10 years will be the most important in the next 10,000 years in terms of shaping a future where humans can have a hope for an enduring place within the natural systems that keep us alive.” Calendars are arbitrary relative to the biogeochemical processes of the Earth, but we live by them all the same, and readers who are grappling with how to meaningfully take or deepen their own climate action (ideally in collaboration with others as part of growing popular movements for climate sanity and justice) may find it helpful to set some time-based goals.

Here in the US, we have two more years of fighting for harm reduction. There are arenas beyond the national political, but federal headwinds hamper all of our climate actions. So perhaps it makes sense to see 2019 and 2020 as years of building, of planning, and of personal and social transformation, as well as as a time to limit the damage done. Of course, courageous individuals, communities, and activists have been fighting for climate sanity and justice for decades and generations; however, as a great many people contemplate for the first time the realities of imminent (and already unfolding) climate catastrophe, I suspect it will be productive to make space for ourselves and others to ask: “What’s next? What’s my role? What actions do science and my conscience demand?”

I’ve previously offered a very rough framework/roadmap for thinking about different levels of climate action that individuals might consider taking. Here, I’ll simply suggest that as we approach the new year of one particular calendar, and those of us in the US – whether we like it or not – are catapulted through another cycle of capitalist death and rebirth, that you set an intention to devote substantial time and energy in 2019 to making a climate audit of your own life and commitments; that you do so with an eye towards taking real and lasting climate action in 2020 and beyond; and that you embrace (and promulgate) the understanding that, if we fail to make the years 2021 through 2030 the most globally transformative in human history in a good way, then the years and decades that follow will be among the most globally transformative in human history in a bad.

What I’ve Been Reading

Some recommended (holiday) climate reading. In the US, it’s already an overwhelming time, so maybe just pick one or two pieces that speak to you and read them with care:

How Extreme Weather Is Shrinking the Planet – Bill McKibben’s long New Yorker article on the current state of the global climate and global climate justice movement. (There’s an audio version as well.)

Select Committee for a Green New Deal – Draft text regarding the new House committee the formation of which has been proposed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. (Here’s a ThinkProgress piece on the same.)

Averting Climate Catastrophe: What DSA Should Do – as the title suggests, this outlines how the DSA is thinking about holistic climate action. Short and very worth the time.

Call climate change what it is: violence – a 2014 essay from The Guardian by Rebecca Solnit which I came across in her new collection of essays, Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays). I encourage you not to buy it on Amazon.

New York’s transit woes and the looming climate crisis are inextricably linked – one example of the excellent NYC transit coverage from Aaron Gordon (as well as from Jonathan English, of CityLab). Incidentally, Gordon’s weekly newsletter on mass transit in NYC, Signal Problems, is superb – this reminder that recently-reelected Gov. Cuomo bears a great deal of responsibility for hamstringing our remarkable mass transit system was drawn from it.

Climate reports, a coal plant bribery, & military solar power – those of you in the American South may especially appreciate the good reporting being done by Southerly.

The Tiny Corner Of America Where Oil Titans Will Stash 2 Million Gallons Of Gas – because no newsletter should pass without a reminder that fracking is terrible, and we have an obligation to stop it (along with all fossil fuel extraction) and roll back the massive build out of fracked gas infrastructure currently being rammed through nationwide. (Corrupt politicians – like our Governor – and political appointees are making this buildout possible.)

Bonus

Can’t bring yourself to read one more word online than life and work already require? I understand. Perhaps you’ll enjoy:

  • This compelling interview from Democracy Now! with George Monbiot on why he embraced a plant-based diet and you should too.
  • This audio segment (also from DN!) with Noam Chomsky on the existential threat climate change poses to “organized human life on Earth.”
  • This short explainer from The Story of Stuff Project on the high human and ecological cost of Amazon’s free shipping. (More on Amazon here. I stopped using it years ago and have not missed it at all. Like giving up meat, I think you’ll find it’s much easier than you expect if you just take the plunge. And an aside: it’s truly obscene that the word amazon has become synonymous with the monopolistic tech giant at the same time that a neo-fascist in Brazil threatens wholesale destruction of the actual Amazon, that is, the most glorious rainforest on Earth.)
  • This upbeat episode of City of the Future – the techno-positive podcast from Sidewalk Labs (an Alphabet company) – on Closing the Recycling Loop and the future of recycling in NYC (a nice complement to my piece from September on solid waste management in New York).
  • Finally, guessing that other New Yorkers will be as entranced as I was by this video from 1905, taken of a moving subway train.

We have momentous years ahead. So please, wherever you are, start (or keep) thinking about what you can do, and what you can’t not.

The Time for Climate Action is Now

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This community solar facility in the Bronx is where we “get” our energy now (that is, it feeds into ConEd’s massive grid on our behalf)

Last week, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a dire report which suggests that, in the absence of an almost total transformation (and decarbonization) of the global economy by 2030, catastrophic global climate disruption is likely to unfold by 2040. Frankly, this is not news, but if it is to you, I encourage you to go dig into the report’s details.

The key distinction the report makes is that between a 1.5-degrees-Celsius temperature rise (the Paris Accord target, which is looking increasingly unreachable and some say has already been locked in) and 2-degree-Celsius rise; basically, with the former, things will be bad (massive insect die-offs, most coral reefs dead, millions of climate refugees owing to sea level rise, drought, lack of access to clean water, heatwaves, etc.) while with the latter, things will be – again – catastrophic, with near total global loss of coral reefs, cascading ecological and agricultural consequences from reef and insect loss, hundreds of millions more people subjected to water scarcity, tens of millions of additional climate refugees…

If we don’t act by 2030, by 2040, the latter scenario is what we are almost certain to face with all its attendant social and political disruptions.

My goal here, however, is not to recapitulate the IPCC report. My goal here is to issue a call to action. I have been alarmed to see many leading liberals meeting this latest news with resignation. Albert Wenger – the prominent venture capitalist (with whom I maintain a friendly personal acquaintance) – writes, on his decision to support geoengineering research, “I have concluded that we will not get on top of greenhouse gases in time. That means we will need more dramatic interventions to halt a further heating up of the atmosphere.”

A close friend (and successful financier) writes that he is “fluctuating [between] despair / acceptance of what seems to be the inevitable [and] trying to make an impact.”

One need not look far to find other prominent examples of liberal elite climate-towel-throwing-in. People who know me, or who have consistently read my work, will be aware that I am highly critical of both the roots of the American project (in genocide and slavery) and of the contemporary state of American geo/politics (characterized by imperialism and white supremacy). I find it nonetheless deeply discouraging that the country that put human beings on the moon and has driven and shaped the hypertechnological contemporary world order now suddenly confronts the global crisis we’ve made with outright denial, or a helpless shoulder shrug.

So, sparing choice words, I’m instead calling upon – beseeching, imploring – my peers and the people in positions of power and influence in the United States and beyond to embrace this crisis and this challenge as the defining struggle of a generation, and really of the century, a civilization, perhaps a species, and certainly of the millennium to come.

According to the IPCC report “we” have 12 years to get it together, or my generation’s children will be facing (as I replied to that financier friend) “a fracturing world order and escalating catastrophes that make [the] current global situation look very rosy” by the time they are graduating college. Let’s set aside that in many places around the world, and for many people, catastrophic climate disruption is already unfolding and has been for years or even decades. If you care about your children, your grandchildren, or your own future, the time to act is now.

It bears noting that these same elites, liberal or otherwise, are by far the most responsible for global climate disruption. That is, we are.

For perspective, the US is estimated to have been responsible for nearly 30% of all carbon dioxide emissions between 1850 and 2007, and the top ten emitting countries accounted for more than 70% of global emissions during that same time period. The cumulative percentages have no doubt shifted in the last decade as the economies of China and India, especially, have rapidly expanded their consumption of fossil fuels, but the fact remains that Germany, France, greater Russia, and the Anglosphere account for something like 50-60% of all cumulative global carbon dioxide emissions. Imperialism and colonialism cast long shadows on the present and the future.

Additionally, something like 50% of all historic anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have been released since ~1970, yet those of us who bear the most responsibility as a class are now going to wash our hands of the matter and dream of injecting (toxic) sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere in perpetuity as a “solution”? Now, a choice word. That’s bullshit. More than that. It’s an utter abdication. For decades, techno-optimists promised real climate solutions through innovation. Now, suddenly, we careen from optimism to pessimism, and the only alternative is insane experimentation with biogeochemical cycles at a planetary scale?

As I wrote to Albert:

… ~70% of global emissions are generated by ~20% of the global population, ~50% by ~10%, and, one supposes, ~35% by ~5%, so ~20% by ~2%, and perhaps ~10-15% by ~1%. You and I both fall into some of those percentiles, and you fall into all of them. I understand that, through the lens of [an understandable] pessimism… it is hard not to foresee the worst here; however, given that you (and we) are deeply implicated in the escalating climate crisis, it seems both self-serving and a bit disingenuous to throw your hands up now. It is not the time for fatalism among those of us who are the key drivers of the problem.

Basically, I’m calling for some… optimism. Rather than endorse, and throw your not-insubstantial resources behind these dangerous moonshot half-solutions (that, after all, have the convenient ancillary of leaving the root causes of climate change unaddressed, and serving to justify ongoing business-as-usual), why not use your power and influence to push for NYC to embrace Japanese-style (Super) Cool Biz? Why not not-only fly less, but again, use your remarkable position to push for drastic substantive changes in the way that elites operate within VC and startup spaces (that is, encourage your peers to fly less, consume less, waste less, etc.)? Why not put that money (and perhaps much more) into real climate solutions rather than geoengineering research? In short, why not do the hard work now that we all have to be doing if we are to have any hope of addressing this problem?

Okay, so hopefully by now, you’ve embraced that the best time for climate action was 40 (or 400) years ago, but that the next best time is the present. So, what can you do? And what can we?

First, the world is not in need of droves of new (white) climate saviors, but it would probably benefit from fewer (mostly white) climate deniers and obstructionists.

Second, there is a spectrum of actions – ranging from the strictly personal to the more broadly institutional and political – which you might take. Moving from the former to the latter, here are some thoughts on potential action steps:

  1. Consume less: That means fewer flights, less driving, less plastic, turning the lights off, turning the thermostat down in the winter and up in the summer, giving up meat, not buying useless crap and then landfilling it, etc., etc., etc. You might consider giving up Amazon Now; using Postmates, Caviar, Seamless, etc. less; avoiding single use plastics for a month to see how doable it is…
  2. Go renewable: Move your residential and/or commercial electricity to solar, wind, tidal, or – barring other renewable options – hydropower. I don’t see nuclear as renewable (just look to Chernobyl and Fukushima for an explanation why), but there are well-informed people who disagree with me. If you’re in a position to, install solar panels (or a windmill for that matter!), do so. If you’re not, explore community solar or reputable energy services companies (ESCOs) that offer the opportunity to buy renewable energy certificates (RECs). If you rely on an automobile, go electric if possible.
  3. Donate: This is low hanging fruit. Do it, but don’t kid yourself that you’re making a serious dent unless the numbers are huge and the impact is veri- and quantifiable.
  4. Vote for climate sanity: This means being informed about local, state-wide, national, and global climate issues. In New York State, people can look to organizations like NY Renews, Sane Energy Project, Protect Orange County, and We Are Seneca Lake for guidance on issues like moving New York towards 100% renewable electricity generation and stopping the ongoing massive buildout of fracked gas infrastructure in New York State and across the region. (Bill McKibben’s 350.org is obviously also a helpful resource/starting point.)
  5. Take action for climate sanity: See all of the above, but consider going beyond the ballot box. Not everyone is prepared to chain herself to a fracked gas pipeline, or even to protest in the streets, but at very least, you can be on the phone to your elected representatives, at community meetings, and in conversation with your friends, neighbors, and loved ones about how essential climate issues and climate action are.
  6. Divest/Invest: When my father died, I divested his (modest) brokerage portfolio from Kinder Morgan. I’ve been proud to see significant action on fossil fuel divestment in New York City and State, but we need a lot more of it. Individuals and entities should be divesting from (and ceasing future investment in) fossil-fuel companies, broadly speaking. We should also be pressuring not only our city, state, and national governments, but our banks and financial services companies to divest. On the flip side, you can look for sound climate-friendly investments if that’s your thing; I’d only caution that it might be helpful to have a veteran climate activist vet these, lest you simply divert money to something that feels good but doesn’t do much good.
  7. Reshape your organization: Are you an executive, board member, or otherwise decision-maker within a corporation, non-profit, governmental body, etc.? Attempt to apply steps 1-6 to your organization. Convert to 100% renewable energy. Climate audit your supply chain and business practices. Turn off the lights in the office/skyscraper at night. Donate, divest, and invest with climate as a key pillar. Proudly declare that your organization is committed to climate sanity and climate justice and then actually walk the walk on the talk. Use your weight to move political conversations. This will likely be extremely hard as climate sanity and capitalism remain fundamentally at odds.
  8. Support broader civic initiatives: Not that we haven’t already touched on this – for example, in talking about fighting against pipeline projects – but there are opportunities everywhere – and especially in New York City in my view – to make climate progress. We should adopt municipal or regional (Super) Cool Biz: New York is only getting hotter, and a significant fraction of our energy consumption goes towards cooling buildings in the summer (which only further contributes to the urban heat island effect). We need to simply do away with (male) business attire when the weather is warm, set the thermostats to 78 degrees Fahrenheit, and spare those of us (disproportionately female) who dress sanely in the summer the necessity of carrying around sweaters when its sweltering. Golf courses have proven for generations that one need not wear a suit to close a deal; so when it’s hot, wear shorts and a t-shirt (rather than a blazer like a maniac), then get on with your business. Other ideas include actually enforcing a no-idling ban (I tremble to imagine the emissions tab accrued by New Yorkers simply idling as they wait to move for street sweepers, for example) and legislating against leaving those skyscraper lights on and in favor of stricter energy efficiency standards in new construction (and of retrofitting). Additionally, we should support the subway, the MTA, and public transit more broadly, and demand that the political gridlock and corruption which have starved and partially paralyzed our flagship transit system be broken. Right now, too many of New York’s richest and most powerful people don’t see subways (and buses and transit) as their problem. Meanwhile, the city chokes on Uber and Lyft for-hire vehicles and FedEx and UPS trucks (making Amazon deliveries); few things would make more of a climate dent than improved and expanded public transportation (which relates to why the Kochs, et al are so feverishly fighting against transit projects across the United States).
  9. Support a national Green New Deal, or equivalent: This one speaks for itself. We have roughly a decade to make this happen. We need to break the stranglehold of fossil fuels on our society and economy. We need to massively ramp up installation of renewable energy generation and storage capacity (and continue to drive rapid innovation in the underlying technologies) while putting a total nationwide moratorium on new fossil-fuel projects (that is, pipelines, power plants, LNG terminals, you name it). This may require some sacrifices and some adjustments, but it is the livability of the future for which we’re fighting. Significant outlier challenges involve developing and implementing the use of renewable fuels for container ships and airplanes.
  10. As a friend, quoting Donella Meadows, put it, question “the mindset or paradigm out of which the system… arises”: This will be especially hard and uncomfortable because conversations about capitalism, imperialism, genocide, slavery, militarism, white supremacy, and occupation always are. I’ve tried to have these hard conversations in tandem with calling for climate action, and will continue to do so, but at this juncture, it’s my view that the urgency of the crisis calls for a pragmatic strategy of striving for (real) progress wherever opportunities exist, even if intersecting challenges remain intractable. It is almost guaranteed that profound conflicts will arise in this arena. One need look no further than the example of climate offsets – which are designed to allow the rich in the Global North to continue their consumption unabated, with clean consciences, but often result in the displacement of poor/rural/indigenous people in the Global South from ancestral lands which have been deemed (by for-profit offset companies) as offset preserves – to understand how sinister and complex the dynamics involved can sometimes be.

This week, I’ve initiated a series of conversations with relatives, friends, mentors, clients, and others to urge climate action (which simply represents an intensification and slight formalization of what I’d already been doing). Given my own limited time and energy, I’m reaching out to people in my life who are in positions to effect institutional change at scale; however, I think we could all do to be having more of these conversations. As I’ve said before, almost no interaction should pass at this point without an honest mention of the climate. We used to talk about the weather, but if the stadium is collapsing, it no longer makes sense to focus only on the action on-field. Such is our current predicament.

I’m using this document as a jumping off point for those conversations; invite you to do the same; and would welcome feedback on what’s wrong with it and how it could be improved. Planning to return to my NYC Infrastructure Series next month; in the meantime, be well and stay engaged. Apathy kills and there’s no time like the present.

Trash Rules Everything Around Me

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As New York City dumped its vast output of trash on Staten Island, Wu Tang sprang from that forgotten borough to wow the world

It is an entropic inevitability that the universe tends towards ever greater disorder. In New York City, one clear manifestation of this Second Law of Thermodynamics is our immense, constant production of “trash”. In the face of this tsunami of “waste”, our failure to maintain or develop closed-loop systems means we are then confronted with the challenge of disposing of all this “garbage”, the subject of this post.

(I’ll refrain from air-quoting throughout, but for an exploration of “mass terms” like “trash”, “waste”, “garbage”, and “sewage” – which might shed light on my choice to air-quote – read here. I’ll address “sewage” in a future newsletter, but it’s interesting to note that for approximately the first 200 years of the City’s post-colonization history, “human waste” was seen as a resource (that is, fertilizer) – for which there was, at times, an active and lucrative market – rather than as a toxic liability.)

Coming more to the point, New York produces more than 14 million tons (so approaching 30 billion pounds) of trash each year. This Guardian article does a nice job briefly summarizing the history and current state of waste management in NYC. Key points include that the NYC Department of Sanitation (DSNY) – with more 10,000 employees, more than 2,000 trucks (the Guardian underquotes here, probably for failure to include the entire fleet), and an annual budget approaching $2 billion – handles only a quarter of NYC’s total trash output, while fleets of lightly-regulated and often-poorly-maintained trucks from ~250 private carting companies – with historically strong, if now somewhat attenuated, mob ties, and which put ~4,000 more trucks on the roads – collect the remainder.

Basic breakdown is that DSNY collects waste from private residential units/structures, NYCHA buildings, and NYC public schools (in addition to making limited special collections, for example, for certain licensed professionals), while private carters handle all other commercial waste. As those who run businesses in NYC know, it is, in fact, City law that all commercial establishments must have a contract with a private carting company. Still – although the Guardian article hints at this fact – the amount of properly commercial waste is roughly equivalent to residential output, while nearly half of the total waste produced in the City can be attributed to construction and demolition; only by rolling all non-DSNY-collected waste into a single stream do we get the 75% figure the Guardian quotes. For clarity and simplicity then, we might think of the City’s overall waste stream as being constituted of approximately one-quarter residential waste, another quarter commercial, and fully one-half construction and demolition.

(For a deeper look into the murky, often-deadly world of NYC’s private carting companies, please read Kiera Feldman’s excellent reportage here, here, and here to which I’ve linked in the past.)

In 2014, NYC set the ambitious goal of being Zero Waste by 2030 (you may have seen the increasingly ubiquitous reusable orange 0x30 bags around town). Unfortunately, right now, the City is much more than zero waste. In fact, we capture less than half of our recyclable material (which, again for simplicity, constitutes roughly one-third of the City’s total waste stream) and, as yet, a risibly small percentage of our organic waste – which constitutes roughly another third – although admirable plans are afoot to dramatically scale-up the City’s composting program, in partnership with inspiring non-profit partners like the Lower East Side Ecology Center, GrowNYC, Earth Matter, Big Reuse, and most, if not all, of the City’s Botanical Gardens.

That leaves a final third of trash – that is, non-recyclable, non-compostable material – that, at present, we lack capacity to divert from landfills/incinerators even in a best-case scenario. Back of the envelope math suggests that fully 80% of the City’s solid waste is thus ending up landfilled or incinerated.

(Here‘s a breakdown of the national waste statistics which show a little more than half going to landfills, around a quarter to recycling facilities, another eighth to “waste-to-energy plants”, and the remainder – less than 10% – being composted. These numbers are comparable to – but significantly better than – ours locally. You may also want to have a look at the source from which the former data was drawn, which offers a number of helpful charts, the overall gist of which is that both recycling rates and overall waste production have risen dramatically in recent decades.)

In an NYC context, where does all this waste go, though? Historically, the City’s waste has been thrown in the streets, used to fill in so-called water lots (as well as in massive infilling projects more broadly, which have substantially expanded the area of the five boroughs and encroached extensively on wetlands, shoreline habitat, etc.), ended up in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “valley of ashes” (formerly, Flushing Meadows, today, Robert Moses’s Flushing Meadows-Corona Park), been dumped into the ocean, been incinerated (a major contributor to morbidity and mortality among City residents in those days), and, between 1947 and 2001, ended up in the now-closed Fresh Kills Landfill, which is currently in the long, slow process of being transformed into New York City’s second largest park.

(Incidentally, one can glimpse the distinctive grassy-mound look of capped landfills in Jamaica Bay – where the Pennsylvania Avenue and Fountain Avenue Landfills once stood – and in Pelham Bay Park, and I suspect there are other now-capped landfills hiding in plain sight around the City; for a more comprehensive, though still brief, history of solid waste management in NYC, have a look at this timeline.)

Today, our municipal solid waste is delivered by truck to ~60 waste transfer stations around the City from which it passes to barges, railcars, and yet more trucks on its way to the aforementioned landfills and incinerators/waste-to-energy plants in Upstate New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and perhaps other states (it’s, in fact, a bit hard to find conclusive information on where-all the waste is going) at a total cost to the City of more than $300 million per year and rising.

(This interesting, if dated, site offers a look at a few potential NYC waste paths, while this explainer video from the New York Times provides a characteristically synoptic perspective on NYC’s waste management challenge.)

As for the recyclables that do, in fact, get recycled, most of the paper products are sent to the Pratt Industries facility in the vicinity of Fresh Kills on the semi-industrial west side of Staten Island, while the vast majority of mixed glass, metal, plastic, and cartons goes to the Sims Materials Recovery Facility in Sunset Park (which offers frequent public tours, led by the friendly and knowledgable, Sam. Take one already!). Sims has an additional facility in Jersey City which receives material from DSNY, as well as from private haulers and municipalities in New Jersey; if I’m not mistaken, this facility was the primary recipient of NYC’s recyclables before the opening of the Sunset Park facility in late 2013. Worth noting that in all of these cases, the City pays tipping fees to these private contractors to process its recycling, though the financial picture is complicated by the fact that, at least in the case of Sims, the contract in question stipulates profit-sharing with the City beyond a certain threshold – according to Sam, reached for the first time since the opening of the Sunset Park facility relatively recently.

(A note for the urban waste spotter, should you catch sight of what appears to be a garbage barge on one of NYC’s many waterways, it is very likely bound for one of the Sims sites, as waste that has passed through a transfer station and is bound Up/out-of-state generally seems to be compacted and containerized first while recyclables travel on open barges to Jersey City or, more probably, to Sunset Park to be unloaded on the facility’s expansive tipping floor.)

Unfortunately, although I feel we’ve only scratched the surface here – for example, we haven’t even touched on the climate impact of the waste itself, let alone the millions of annual truck trips, the methane off-gassing from landfills, etc. or on the environmental justice ramifications of the inequitable concentration of waste transfer stations in certain areas/neighborhoods – alas, I’ve run out of time for this month, so will have to leave it at that for now. Given how resource-rich this post is already, I’m skipping the What I’m Reading section this month, and will just tell you a little bit about…

What I’m Doing

First and foremost, settling into a new school year with my students while also diving back into writing fiction, but I also:

  • Joined Clarinda Mac Low for the second annual Sunk Shore tour.
  • Checked out multiple of Justin Brice Guariglia’s Climate Signals currently up across the five boroughs.
  • Attended – and was deeply disappointed by the corporatism of – the launch party for The Climate Museum (like, I have friends at Goldman, too, but I’m not trying to pretend that the firm is a climate champion).
  • Joined NYC H20 for another tour, this one of the Ridgewood Reservoir, and for a cleanup of beautiful Plumb Beach.
  • Joined for another of the Social Justice Tours, this one regarding gentrification in Downtown Brooklyn.

Bonus

Still confused sometimes about what to recycle and how? You’re not alone. Consider bookmarking DSNY’s handy and straightforward What to Recycle page and looking into SAFE Disposal Events around the City (for so-called household hazardous waste), as well as the City’s Electronic Disposal Information site and the Lower East Side Ecology Center’s affiliated E-Waste Collection Events, which happen around the City throughout the year.

And if you haven’t yet taken note of DSNY’s tremendous brutalist masterpiece on Canal Street at the Westside Highway, please do go have a look!

 

Islands Unto Themselves?

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Sadly, a string of submerged mines will not protect New York from rising sea levels

With the exception of the Bronx, New York is a city of islands. Three in particular. One that may be the most famous in the world. But dozens of extant islands, and no doubt hundreds of former that have succumbed – over nearly four centuries of European colonization – to the ceaseless human remaking of this place.

Even the Bronx has its islands, in fact. City Island, far to the north, still has something of the feel to it of the fishing village it once was. North Brother – once a quarantine site, upon which the ruins of an old hospital are still visible today – has refreshingly been converted into a bird sanctuary, and South Brother – site of the city’s first dump – is likewise now uninhabited, while a short distance from the Brothers, across the tidal straight known as the East River, is located the infamous penal colony, Riker’s Island, a monument to our inhumanity – cage, on average, to approximately 10,000 people – over which, every day, pass hundreds of commercial airliners arriving at and departing from much-maligned LaGuardia Airport.

Manhattan’s islands are generally more well-known, if their histories – Ward’s and Randall’s Islands, joined by landfill; U Thant Island, artificial relic of subway tunnel construction, and now home to a small colony of double-crested cormorants; Liberty Island, formerly Bedloe’s, one-time home to a United States Army fort, the remains of which still frame, fittingly, the base of the Statue of Liberty – remain, in many cases, obscure.

Coney Island is no longer an island, but was once multiple, while the number of islands in the still-vast Jamaica Bay – although drastically reduced through dumping and infilling, hardening of shorelines, and, in particular, the massive construction, first of Floyd Bennett Field (once site of Barren Island, and multiple smaller), and later, of Idlewild, now JFK – is still such to inspire wonder.

Bitterly, ironically, if not surprisingly, the flooding from Hurricane Sandy largely mapped to areas of infill and encroachment on wetlands and water. Now, these same areas are epicenters of a building boom. (For an excellent, accessible ecological history of Greater New York – including extensive exploration of the “process of making land out of water” – I recommend Ted Steinberg’s Gotham Unbound.) And yet, when water isn’t flooding our streets or lapping at our doors, it is easy to forget how intimately this city (and metropolitan statistical area) is tied to its rivers and ocean. In fact, it is easy enough not to realize in the first place (as I didn’t until recently) that no less then seven rivers feed into New York Harbor and Long Island Sound in the Greater New York City Area.

I reject the self-serving corporatism of the Regional Plan Association; nonetheless, I believe it is essential that we eschew chauvinisms – at the level of the neighborhood, the borough, even the city – to grasp how fundamentally interconnected are all of our lives across the region, and indeed, around the world.

Still, to the resident of the South Bronx, whose grandparents came north to Harlem during the Great Migration; whose parents moved to Morrisania looking for better schools and to escape the slums; who witnessed as a child the destruction wrought by Robert Moses’s “urban renewal” and came of age during the savage era of “benign neglect” and “planned shrinkage” which followed New York City’s 1970s fiscal crisis; whose children faced criminalization, mass incarceration, and exclusion even as the City reemerged as the dynamo of the new, financialized, neoliberal American economy; and whose grandchildren now attend under-funded public schools, breathe the City’s worst air, and drink the City’s worst water, right next door to the Hunts Point Distribution Center that provides much of the City’s food; to the Major Deegan, the Sheridan, or the Bruckner, or for that matter, the MetroNorth corridors that carry wealthy commuters from Westchester into Manhattan; to the waste transfer stations that handle a disproportionate amount of the City’s vast flow of “trash” – to such a resident of the South Bronx – whose communities have suffered staggering transgenerational infra/structural violence and environmental racism – talk of interconnectedness may sound like so much more of the hot air already in the process of choking us.

It is against the subjectivities of people in the South Bronx, Central Brooklyn, and Southeastern Queens that efforts towards building a just, sustainable, and ecologically-sane future for New York City must be measured, as against the consciousnesses of those calling for decolonization of land and institutions here in one of the hearts of global capitalism. My ancestors came to New York themselves fleeing ecological and human catastrophes (the Potato Famine, World War I), but harnessing the desperation of immigrants has always been part of the logic, structure, and strategy of settler colonialism, and the fact of my forebears desperation little changes the hard realities of our shared present. Yet, as a person who has made my life in New York, and loves this City in spite of all its – and my own – contradictions and shortcomings, I fear for our collective future in the face of the all-but-unthinkable, and yet increasingly imaginable.

In many ways, the City Government is doing a remarkable job – especially since Sandy and under Mayor de Blasio – in improving its “climate readiness”, and yet, sadly, its actions remain insufficient; in fact, they fall far short of the truly necessary level of urgency, both in view of our already dire situation, but even more, given that, globally, there are few signs yet of truly concerted action being taken to end fossil fuel consumption, convert to a fully renewable economy, and, in the process, build a just and sustainable future. No amount of “resilience” can protect us if global average temperatures increase by six degrees Celsius.

There are no easy answers. But one starting point is committing ourselves to understanding where we really live; yes, in “the greatest city on Earth” (or its metro region), but more to the point, on a collection of islands and peninsulas. On land, much of which was once wetlands and tidal marshes (and which was taken by force and through massacres, not purchased with trinkets). In a beautiful, still-ecologically-remarkable, but damaged, fragile, and extremely vulnerable set of intersecting and overlapping ecosystems and built human environments – a place, today, at once of unique world-historical significance, and yet also emblematic of the threats that menace many of the megacities which constitute key nodes of the contemporary networked world order.

On the advice of my partner, going forward (and into the coming US school-year, given that my own work follows an academic calendar), I plan to devote these monthly newsletters to explorations of particular issues/topics related to Greater New York – think the infrastructure that ensures the safety and reliability of our water supply, our wastewater treatment facilities, the elaborate systems and infrastructures of “waste” management without which our streets would quickly begin to pile high with refuse – with the certainty that, at very least, I should learn a lot; the hope that, in the process, some of my fellow New Yorkers will as well; and the ambition that readers beyond the region (and outside the United States) may find inspiration in the approach, even if not always so much relevance in the details.

It’s been my experience that we – in New York, as in most of the rich places in the rich/core capitalist countries, at least those of us here who are not among the growing number of homeless and hungry – largely take for granted our water, food, and electrical supplies, until the tap runs dry, the shelves are empty, and the lights are out. Rather than wait for future disasters to teach us further hard and traumatic lessons, I think it’s time we confront our complacency and begin to plumb the depths and immediacy of our vulnerability.

What I’m Doing

I’ve supported my partner in a worthy undertaking and continued trying to make the most of the summer:

  • Love Child has partnered with our friends at PowerMarket to offer an incentive for New Yorkers to sign up for community solar. Long story short, PowerMarket partners with ConEd and a number of renewable energy projects across the region to offer (~10%) discounted electricity to ConEd users while feeding renewably-generated electricity into the grid. We have already subscribed – both at home and at Love Child – as part of the South Bronx Solar Garden (live as of this week), and I encourage you to consider moving your residential and commercial electricity bills over to a community solar project. In the process, you should save money; it’s free and easy to sign up; and you’ll be supporting the installation of more renewable energy generation capacity in New York. If you use this link to register (or the code LoveChildYoga), you’ll get a $50 gift card and we’ll know you came to community solar through us; if you’re interested, please feel free to reach out to me with any questions, and I’ll be happy to put you directly in touch with Travis at PowerMarket.
  • I attended a public meeting held by the Army Corps of Engineers regarding their multiple proposed potential plans for storm surge barriers in and around New York Harbor. The most extreme of these would entail building a massive barrier across the entire mouth of Lower New York Harbor, from Sandy Hook in New Jersey to Breezy Point in Queens. Critics, such as the organization Riverkeeper, have called that plan in particular a “threat to the very life of the Hudson & Harbor.” I encourage you to get informed about these potential developments (helpful video, fact sheet, and resources here), and give your comments to the Army Corps before the public comment period closes on September 20th. Although I’m opposed to almost all of the plans proposed by the Army Corps, the threat to our more than 500 miles of coast/shoreline is an urgent and very real one, and I’m happy to see public and governmental concern and awareness growing.
  • I visited multiple sites in the Gateway National Recreation Area, including the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge and historic Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island. The Wildlife Refuge is a welcome reminder of the rich ecology of New York City and the wide variety of non-human species that continue to live in or pass through the region, while Fort Wadsworth – in addition to offering some truly spectacular views, including the one captured above – offers insight into the geopolitical and military history of the City. An immense infrastructure of now-totally-obsolete coastal defense, built up over a matter of centuries, remains hidden in plain sight around the City. In Brooklyn, across from Fort Wadsworth, Fort Hamilton remains an active Army base, while Fort Lafayette – constructed on Hendrick’s Reef, another of New York’s now-vanished islands – was demolished in 1960 to make way for one of the towers of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Fort Tilden and Fort Hancock frame the mouth of the Lower Harbor; Castles Clinton and Williams remain in the Upper Harbor; and Forts Schuyler and Totten once guarded the approach to Manhattan via Long Island Sound in the vicinity of today’s Throgs Neck Bridge. Aerial warfare and long range missiles had already relegated even the most advanced of the coastal forts to irrelevance by the time nuclear weapons solidified it, but in considering these relics of strategic/maritime history, we get a glimpse into the forces that shaped New York and the centrality to this city of the waters that now, in the era of global climate disruption, harbor a new sort of menace.
  • I joined the infectiously-sewer-loving Steve Duncan on an NYC H2O tour. Spoiler: If you go on a tour, you’ll get to look under a lot of manhole covers. No actual infections should result.
  • I checked out the exhibitions at the Center for Architecture on “Designing Waste” and the Fourth Regional Plan. Both worth the time in my opinion.
  • I’ve tried to go to the beach as much as possible, which has been nice.

What I’ve Been Reading

Already running a bit long this week, so offering here a few books, and one long article, plus a rejoinder to it:

Fear City – Kim Philipps-Fein’s excellent analysis (and dramatic recounting) of New York City’s fiscal crisis.

Reclaiming Gotham – Juan Gonzalez’s illuminating take on the accomplishments (and failures) of the de Blasio administration and the broader urban progressive movement in the United States.

The Slums of Aspen – credit to Zero Waste Habesha for this rec (via Insta that is) – only just starting this book – subtitled “Immigrants vs. the Environment in America’s Eden” – myself, but already very into it.

Losing Earth & Capitalism Killed our Climate Momentum… – Nathaniel Rich’s (very long and highly white-male-technocrat-centric) look at the emergence and failure of high-level negotiations around climate disruption in the 1980s, and Naomi Klein’s necessary critique, in the Intercept, of Rich’s high-profile New York Times Magazine piece.

Bonus

A huge thank you to the good folx at Culturework for featuring Climate / Change this month! Honored to be included. Please do check them out (and subscribe to my newsletter while you’re at it if you enjoyed this piece).