Fire mars sky

A city in Texas is grappling with being a city in Texas, and the questions are coming in existential batches:

Making sure ITC isn’t spewing toxic fumes doesn’t require fining it out of existence. It requires a serious commitment to safety and transparency, which are sorely lacking in this state. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has a history of lax monitoring and enforcement. And Texas has refused to require widespread public disclosure of chemical inventories and Risk Management Plans of facilities that would improve journalists’ ability to inform the public during a crisis. A reporter who wants to see a facility’s RMP has to make an appointment with federal marshals to view it.

Patrick Jankowski, senior economist with the Greater Houston Partnership, told business reporter Jordan Blum: “We need these facilities here because it’s how we get our products to market.

Of course. But what is a booming economy without quality of life? Without peace of mind? Parents sent their children back to Deer Park and La Porte ISD schools Tuesday, but they couldn’t have felt great confidence when school officials restricted outside activities. Houston ISD took the same precaution. Good to err on the side of safety, but no parent should have to fear that just walking to school might endanger their child’s health.

Nothing that calls for fatuous comment or commentary. It’s just a situation reduced to its plainly naked reality. Companies do what they want, the public has no say. Regulations are too onerous. We need these companies here for our products. And what’s up with the air?

So that persons could thrive once more

Some time ago, as I was going through Ruskin’s Fors Clavigera, I would re-type sections into a message for a good friend, C______. Herein are some of the reasons we were so locked-in with the heart and mind of the Victorian savant:

The second major stage of his career may be said to begin in 1858, when Ruskin was visiting Turin and, having been depressed by a boring and stupid sermon, saw Veronese’s painting of King Solomon and the queen of Sheba. He was utterly overwhelmed by the sensual immediacy of the work, which seemed to him far more obviously true than the spectral doctrines of the Christianity whose hold on him had been gradually (though insensibly) loosening. He experienced what he later called his “deconversion,” and this lasted for nearly twenty years. This was the period of Ruskin as political economist—though, thanks to his incapacity to separate the forces that most of us find it convenient to separate, his thoughts about political economy were always connected to his aesthetic convictions and even (though in a new and often subterranean way) to his deep and detailed knowledge of the biblical call to justice.

The major product of this period of Ruskin’s life was the collection of monthly pamphlets known as Fors Clavigera. Ruskin thought of these pamphlets as open letters: the full title of the project was Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain. After decades of work as a historian and critic of art and architecture, Ruskin had come to believe that (1) the arts of his own age were, generally speaking, far less excellent than they should be; (2) that those deficiencies were inevitable by-products of a corrupt system of political economy that promoted profit for the industrialist above all and so enforced impersonal efficiency and productivity over the flourishing of makers and craftsmen; and (3) that, therefore, a critique of political economy must be articulated before anything else. The political economy of Britain had to be altered so that the conditions of labour could be improved so that the arts could be renewed so that persons could thrive once more. Thus Ruskin’s first major exercise in this endeavour was a series of 1857 lectures published as The Political Economy of Art.

EmPHAsis added. I can love some old-fashioned-y-ness, especially retro-fit with eye shadow and boots of punk or, like here, the scholarly sense of seeing so many things as inseparable.

Acting Globally

Some [many] people want to do away with the social safety net, and especially any generosity remaining therein, to rely instead on the goodwill and support of charities to take care of those in need. There’s a cognitive dissonance about the reality that government-funded programs to help people are somehow perverse, yet giving to charitable organizations is not. Not that these fine citizens care about the lack of harmony between their world view and their actions.

But individual personal virtue can never displace collective action, particularly on the scale of a country the size of Ecuador, much less the United States. And the very same concept holds with regard to environmentalism:

Environmentalism-as-personal-virtue was a bad route. It isn’t a substitute for collective action. People don’t like being told how to live their lives, especially as you don’t have to understand this stuff all that well to get that we’re almost all big hypocrites. We make some easy choices and ignore the rest. We can make slightly better choices, but there’s no solar powered plane to fly me to Europe.

Yes, you can do things – live closer to work, own fewer cars – but not on the scale that’s needed to turn the tanker! Sprawl creates culprits of us all. Vote against it. Don’t move out there. Campaign for carbon-pricing, rail, renewable energy infrastructure and more affordable housing – built in the right places. Massive progress on things we’ve already figured out is what’s needed. Plus, less vehicles means fewer bumper stickers and perhaps, perhaps! even the need for them.

Multiple Twists, Harmonious Terms

Amidst all the reading and writing, playing, viewing, listening, thinking about the regard – high and low – that greets what we do as well as that afforded to what we merely like and enjoyed, a few words from Artaud:

True culture operates by exaltation and force, while the European ideal of art attempts to cast the mind into an attitude distinct from force but addicted to exaltation. It is a lazy, unserviceable notion which engenders an imminent death. If the Serpent Quetzalcoatl’s multiple twists and turns are harmonious, it is because they express the equilibrium and fluctuations of a sleeping force; the intensity of the forms is there only to seduce and direct a force which, in music, would produce an insupportable range of sound.
The gods that sleep in museums: the god of fire with his incense burner that resembles an Inquisition tripod; Tlaloc, one of the manifold Gods of the Waters, on his wall of green granite; the Mother Goddess of Waters, the Mother Goddess of Flowers; the immutable expression, echoing from beneath many layers of water, of the Goddess robed in green jade; the enraptured, blissful expression, features crackling with incense, where atoms of sunlight circle–the countenance of the Mother Goddess of Flowers; this world of obligatory servitude in which a stone comes alive when it has been properly carved, the world of organically civilized men whose vital organs too awaken from their slumber, this human world enters into us, participating in the dance of the gods without turning round or looking back, on pain of becoming, like ourselves, crumbled pillars of salt.
In Mexico, since we are talking about Mexico, there is no art: things are made for use. And the world is in perpetual exaltation.
To our disinterested and inert idea of art an authentic culture opposes a violently egoistic and magical, i.e., interested idea. For the Mexicans seek contact with the Manas, forces latent in every form, unreleased by contemplation of the forms for themselves, but springing to life by magic identification with these forms. And the old Totems are there to hasten the communication.
How hard it is, when everything encourages us to sleep, though we may look about us with conscious, clinging eyes, to wake and yet look about us as in a dream, with eyes that no longer know their function and whose gaze is turned inward.
This is how our strange idea of disinterested action originated, though it is action nonetheless, and all the more violent for skirting the temptation of repose.

Every real effigy has a shadow which is its double; and art must falter and fail from the moment the sculptor believes he has liberated the kind of shadow whose very existence will destroy his repose.
Like all magic cultures expressed by appropriate hieroglyphs, the true theater has its shadows too, and, of all languages and all arts, the theater is the only one left whose shadows have shattered their limitations. From the beginning, one might say its shadows did not tolerate limitations.
Our petrified idea of the theater is connected with our petrified idea of a culture without shadows, where, no matter which way it turns, our mind (esprit) encounters only emptiness, though space is full.
But the true theater, because it moves and makes use of living instruments, continues to stir up shadows where life has never ceased to grope its way. The actor does not make the same gestures twice, but he makes gestures, he moves; and although he brutalizes forms, nevertheless behind them and through their destruction he rejoins that which outlives forms and produces their continuation.
The theater, which is in no thing, but makes use of everything- -gestures, sounds, words, screams, light, darkness-rediscovers itself at precisely the point where the mind requires a language to express its manifestations.
And the fixation of the theater in one language–written words, music, lights, noises–betokens its imminent ruin, the choice of any one language betraying a taste for the special effects of that language; and the dessication of the language accompanies its limitation.
For the theater as for culture, it remains a question of naming and directing shadows: and the theater, not confined to a fixed language and form, not only destroys false shadows but prepares the way for a new generation of shadows, around which assembles the true spectacle of life.

From the preface of The Theater and Its Double by Antonin Artaud, Grove press, 1958

Unsprawling

So the New Green Deal is already getting a lot of attention and push-back – both to the good. It’s at least bold enough in some ways to get noticed, if not bold enough in others. For so long, the conversation has been muted by a sense of futility that is quite self-indulgent. Nonetheless…
Not far enough? Correct:

But the Green New Deal has a big blind spot: It doesn’t address the places Americans live. And our physical geography—where we sleep, work, shop, worship, and send our kids to play, and how we move between those places—is more foundational to a green, fair future than just about anything else. The proposal encapsulates the liberal delusion on climate change: that technology and spending can spare us the hard work of reform.

The Environment

America is a nation of sprawl. More Americans live in suburbs than in cities, and the suburbs that we build are not the gridded, neighborly Mayberrys of our imagination. Rather, the places in which we live are generally dispersed, inefficient, and impossible to navigate without a car. Dead-ending cul-de-sacs and the divided highways that connect them are such deeply engrained parts of the American landscape that it’s easy to forget they were, themselves, the fruits of a massive federal investment program.

Sprawl is made possible by highways. This is expensive—in 2015, the Victoria Transport Policy Institute estimated that sprawl costs America more than $1 trillion a year in reduced business activity, environmental damage, consumer expenses, and other costs. Leaving aside the emissions from the 1.1 billion trips Americans take per day (87 percent of which are taken in personal vehicles), spreading everything out has eaten up an enormous amount of natural land.

Tell them what they could win, Jonny:

But the good news is that if we do account for land use, we will get much closer to a safe, sustainable, and resilient future. And even though widespread adoption of EVs is still decades away, reforms to our built environment can begin right now. In short, we can fix this. We build more than 1 million new homes a year—we just need to put them in the right places.*

Unsprawling America isn’t as hard as it sounds, because America is suffering from a critical, once-in-a-lifetime housing shortage. The National Low Income Housing Coalition reported last year that the U.S. has a national deficit of more than 7.2 million affordable and available rental homes for families most in need. Of course, if we build those homes in transit-accessible places, we can save their occupants time and money. But the scale of housing demand at this moment is such that we could build them in car-centric suburbs, too, and provide a human density that would not just support transit but also reduce the need to travel as shops, jobs, and schools crop up within walking distance.

Walking distance needs to become an old/new catch phrase. Also, as another Slate article proclaims, plane trips CAN be replaced by train trips. Not LA to NYC, and not even NYC to Chicago. But most trips under 500 miles and all trips under 300 miles could be taken out of the equation with an updated modest-speed rail system. 100 miles per hour cuts what is a four-hour drive to three (math!), plus airports are never in city centers – you always have to drive in. Bump up the speed to even 150 mph and, well, a 2 hour trip. Math!

Image via Alon Levy on the twitters.

What does The New Green Deal mean?

On the local level, if you find yourself sitting in traffic day after day, or wonder why you can’t take a train to the airport, you often understand at least the short answers to these questions, even if you personally object to them. In this way, The Way Things Are (also known as Why We Can’t Have Nice Things) seem set in stone. Unchangeable, immutable facts of life, if not singular fibers in a hand-basket to the not-so-good place. I know stuff I can do that is planetarily positive that also makes a huge difference to me personally but not a dent in the broader problem. This dissonance can be paralyzing, and often results in people abandoning even the former, achievable, highly-recommended personal actions.

National-level solutions seem just as if not much more difficult. But are they?

Young activists, who will be forced to live with the ravages of climate change, find this upsetting. So they have proposed a plan of their own. It’s called the Green New Deal (GND) — a term purposefully reminiscent of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s original New Deal in the 1930s — and it has become the talk of the town.

the exact details of the GND remain to be worked out, but the broad thrust is fairly simple. It refers, in the loosest sense, to a massive program of investments in clean-energy jobs and infrastructure, meant to transform not just the energy sector, but the entire economy. It is meant both to decarbonize the economy and to make it fairer and more just.

But the policy is only part of the picture. Just as striking are the politics, which seem to have tapped into an enormous, untapped demand for climate ambition.

This is not Pollyanna, but it’s also difficult to criticize anything when nothing else is going on or has worked – especially with ‘nothing’ not being an option.

And while Roberts is certainly correct that this is not new, and the politics of it might sound a little gimmicky, the emphasis on the politics might be the key. Plus, novelty is not what is required – it’s quite well-established which policy changes could work best. It’s the will that has seemed out of reach. The Green New Deal agitation might be just what is needed to get the gears moving. Ambitious enough, broad enough, frightening enough (backed by newly-elected officials) to get the attention of you idling in your car because maybe it comes across like a different story on Nice People’s Radio, much less something more foxxy. It’s backed by our leading new firebrand already – adding to the fright she causes but also lending weight to that fright. Maybe it will give us to a chance to at least ask, “Who Knows?” That would be quite a bit more than we have been doing.

The Young(ish) Fogey

A few days ago, I was confronted by a real-life fogey, and while neither of us is young, neither are we truly old, and my Young(ish) Fogey is definitely not sufficient in his years or dryness of ears to espouse what he openly shared with me. Of similar views on many things, and even proximate views on the very thing, we nonetheless diverged in a way I will essay to describe.

Familiarity, and a kind of nonexistent kinship, led me to quickly, too quickly, venture where I should I not have when my Young(ish) Fogey was apprising of the latest in personal developments. We were standing in the midst of an under-lavish event, raising fundraising drinks with an expected enthusiasm, but not more. It was only when I extended too quickly, dashed into an opening that was not one – and I should have known better – that the room and our association shrunk back to its actual dimensions. I will only say, as for his occupations, he is a lobbyist. But that’s okay! We need those, I thought and still want to believe.

It was on a related subject to his issue – central in my mind but certainly not to his – that I for better and likely worse parried, drifted too quickly, giving him the obligation to correct my wanderings, follow them up with further remonstrances, all tell-tale of the Fogey, I already knew. ‘But he was so young(ish),’ I ignored my own warnings. You think you may speak freely, but you may not understand how little your interlocutor may have given themselves to do so, or how long since they had given up on doing so. A quarrel was afoot, one that I had no real use for, nor did I wish to engage for amusement – either of which would have been a better prospect.

Friendship – really acquaintance – is not openness nor grounds for sharing. People can get offended by forward comments, especially in under-lavish settings. An assumption that he might provide helpful insight turned into a realization that I was dealing with a guardian of the middle. It was genuinely startling – a young(ish) fogey in the wild, though actually it was I who had wondered absently into his habitat. I was exhilarated, but all the same terrified with indifference. Convinced that compromise, a return to some unstated agreement and mutual concession was the key to progress and problem-solving, he counseled further, extensive negotiation with the facing-eating leopard Party as the ONLY way forward. I looked around the room and all the exits were sealed. I realized even the bar staff were trapped behind scrimmed tables. The folly of continuing was real and apparent, of further incursions where I only emphasized my blasphemy, or of re-winding the preceding five minutes back to some reparable shore, was all but impossible. I could go neither forward nor back.
I explained the leopards, the half-eaten faces littering our discourse. But, he objected then summarily effused, ‘if you demonize the leopards, you are part of the problem.’

I assured him that I would continue the treachery of leopard portrayals, based solely upon the mangled faces left in their ruin. This only precipitated a kind of filibuster that drained my interest as it went, so much that I was able to finish my drink. Uninterrupted, my young(ish) fogey soon also lost the vim of his harangue. I puffed hm back up with a couple of pepper-ish comments on related leopard doings, until he finally asked me: is everyone who voted for the face-eating leopards Party evil? To complain of binaries but reduce your argument to one is almost the truest sign of the young(ish) fogey. But there is one worse, one still more true. Should they deign to make the charge of ‘revolutionary’ in your pitiful direction, it is two-part gambit. For you will be re-assured, at least in the young(ish) fogey’s mind, when he calls himself, as captain protector of his mighty, right and true intentions, a ‘radical moderate.’

All just to remind: we really should be careful about what we say to people.

Alps drips dipping Rhine

With all honor to Vic, but something else loves the Alps but hates the snow:

After a prolonged summer drought, the bustling traffic at one of the shallowest points on the Rhine ground to a halt for nearly a month late last year, choking off a critical transport artery. The impact damped Germany’s industrial machine, slowing economic growth in the third and fourth quarters. It was the latest sign of how even advanced industrial economies are increasingly fighting the effects of global warming.

and

With its source high in the Swiss Alps, the Rhine snakes 800 miles through the industrial zones of Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands before emptying into the sea at Rotterdam, Europe’s busiest port. It serves as a key conduit for manufacturers such as Daimler AG, Robert Bosch GmbH and Bayer AG.

When low water halted shipping this summer, steelmaker Thyssenkrupp AG was forced to delay shipments to customers like automaker Volkswagen AG as it couldn’t get raw materials to a mill in Duisburg.

Though not nearly as important a commercial waterway, we saw this on the Elbe during the summer of 2015. ‘What did we think would happen?’ is being displaced by ‘what do we do now?’ Imagine an average teenager in a ‘borrowed’ car, three drinks more than he’s used to, dashed from the drive-through without paying but not before dinging the BK awning and hitting the highway, sees a patrol car pass in the opposite the direction, hit the lights and squall a U-turn. Our answers in a pinch of what’s best to do next might not be the most trustworthy. If we had planned for this, sure, we probably would have had the drinks but maybe not taken the car so no dine-n-dash, cops or DUI fender scuffs. But we did do all those things, in that order, the lights are flashing and sirens blaring. So what do we do now? Our lines are open, higher-than-normal rates apply.

A Noteful Hope

At the outset of the newest year, with walls incoherently at the center of our discourse as we contemplate how best to keep people out rather how best to help them up, a bit of perspective provides a reminder that we might be mixed up about parts of the story:

For most of their history, humans lived in tiny egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. Then came farming, which brought with it private property, and then the rise of cities which meant the emergence of civilization properly speaking. Civilization meant many bad things (wars, taxes, bureaucracy, patriarchy, slavery…) but also made possible written literature, science, philosophy, and most other great human achievements.

Almost everyone knows this story in its broadest outlines. Since at least the days of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it has framed what we think the overall shape and direction of human history to be. This is important because the narrative also defines our sense of political possibility. Most see civilization, hence inequality, as a tragic necessity. Some dream of returning to a past utopia, of finding an industrial equivalent to ‘primitive communism’, or even, in extreme cases, of destroying everything, and going back to being foragers again. But no one challenges the basic structure of the story.

There is a fundamental problem with this narrative.

It isn’t true.

Overwhelming evidence from archaeology, anthropology, and kindred disciplines is beginning to give us a fairly clear idea of what the last 40,000 years of human history really looked like, and in almost no way does it resemble the conventional narrative. Our species did not, in fact, spend most of its history in tiny bands; agriculture did not mark an irreversible threshold in social evolution; the first cities were often robustly egalitarian. Still, even as researchers have gradually come to a consensus on such questions, they remain strangely reluctant to announce their findings to the public­ – or even scholars in other disciplines – let alone reflect on the larger political implications. As a result, those writers who are reflecting on the ‘big questions’ of human history – Jared Diamond, Francis Fukuyama, Ian Morris, and others – still take Rousseau’s question (‘what is the origin of social inequality?’) as their starting point, and assume the larger story will begin with some kind of fall from primordial innocence.

It’s from earlier this year in 2018, but read the whole, etc. There is no ‘them’ but there are assumptions and many of ours may be wrong or at least worth re-considering.

Banksy image from the original.

Reading 2018

I’d love to tell you want it all meant, but instead I’ll just share a partial [but unranked] list of the books I read this year.

Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif

The Grass Crown by Colleen McCullough

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Doblin

Arcadia by Tom Stoppard

Primeros Pobladores; Hispanic Americans of the Ute Frontier, by Frances Leon Quintana

God, Dr. Buzzard and the Bolito Man: A Saltwater Geechee talks about life on Sapelo Island, Georgia by Cornelia Walker Bailey and Christena Beldsoe

Les Passions Intellectuelles by Elisabeth Badinter

Do well and be well in 2019.