Paving over the sixth

Not that one, which is already mostly paved over. Except for the lovely jardin envisioned by Madame de’Medici way back when.

Just as she played her role in helping construct a civilization, are we playing ours in paving over an extinction? That it would be the sixth creates a misnomer, as if in reference to a series and not to an end. We aren’t able to recognize ends all that well, though we are frightened of them and the concept has meaning that we connect to negative consequences. And still the paving continues – not building cities but destroying them to build roads. I know:

That doesn’t matter to Maryland governor Larry Hogan, who proudly touts himself as a good Republican (and is being talked up as a primary challenger to Trump next year), even though he can be as squirrelly as the rest of them. His plan to widen this road would cost between $9 billion and $11 billion and, according to one presentation, would improve commute times by an estimated three minutes. That’s $9 billion plus in funds and umpteen years of construction. For three minutes.

‘This road’ is D.C.’s notorious Beltway, but several major highways into poorly planned cities can be substituted for it. Expanding highways with so-called private toll lanes (hint: not private – only expensive and paid for by the public) that do not ease congestion but do cost several fortunes, as nonsensical as it is, represents one of the only forms of acceptable infrastructure expenditure.

Roads. Look at those dollar amounts again and tell me there’s anything more gaudy than that. And they work, though of course, not as intended.

Public, private or purple, more roads do not lessen traffic. More lanes and wider roads invite more traffic. And more traffic happily accepts!

But there is a thing that lessens traffic, and it even throws a [tiny] wrench into sprawling suburbs, that is, of course, until those plucky little suburbs fight back.

Try driving around North Atlanta between noon and midnight (or, if you like, between the hours of midnight and noon) and you’ll see why they were having none of this train stuff. It. Just. Doesn’t… Actually, I don’t know what it doesn’t do but the lovely residents of the area should hope that Tesla fella is full of it because his auto-autos, were they to ever exist, would be sitting right there with them, not moving, on those same roads.

So the bizarre-o metaphors roll on. The apply named Toll Roads. Pay both ways! 3 hours, round-trip. Personal freedom and individual liberty to sit, and stew, burn and rage. It cannot have a logical end, because there is no logic to it. But surely an end shall it have. Closed Road Now Open. Merge. Expected Arrival Time: Mm Hmm.

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?

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.

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.

On Bigging, and Failing

Everyone loves an end-of-year top ten list, and we can pick from this Biggest Tech Lies of 2018 almost at random:

5. If we’re bigger, it will create more competition. – Everyone who runs a pseudo-monopoly

The most devastating merger of the year was AT&T and Time-Warner’s unholy union into a media machine with a telecom background operating under an FCC with seemingly no interest in policing anti-competitive practices. We still don’t know what the worst of the consequences will be, but we’ve already seen it strong-arm rival cable providers into paying more for HBO and the shut down of a beloved streaming service that wasn’t too big to fail. When AT&T argued that it needed to be bigger in order to create more competition, no one thought that would mean it just wants to plan a bunch of streaming services that will compete with each other and line AT&T’s pockets no matter which one you choose.

We can argue the legality of big companies merging with big companies until we’re blue in the face, but bigness is one of the biggest problems in the world today. The bigger companies are, the more power they acquire and the more difficult it becomes to hold them accountable. Current antitrust regulations have proven inadequate, and they are even more useless when the FTC is so bad at enforcing them.

Companies like Facebook and Twitter are too big to enforce their own policies, Amazon is too big for small businesses to compete against, and telecoms are so big they write laws prohibiting your city from building its own network. Venture capitalists now want to feel that your startup can become either accomplish the impossible feat of toppling one of these giants or that you at least have a solid plan to be acquired by one of the big boys. Bigness doesn’t create competition, it pulls everything into a black hole that’s hostile to consumers and citizens around the world.

It’s practically every problem incarnate, joined as one: Giant companies. By existential ethos, they cannot care about workers, conditions or any negative externalities of the doing of their business. Even the construct ‘big problem’ is itself a kind exacerbated by terminology. In this way, the supposed empirical challenges of capitalism should have actually been understood as a roadmap, as they have been by some, no doubt. But these roads are a leading to a fundamental weakness, a dysfunction in the system itself. It could have been that this way of organizing an economy would work if and only if monopolies and all other rule violations were avoided and all participants observed the rules for the health of the system, if not for the board itself. But the entire endeavor has been predicated instead on getting away with as much transgression as possible. “Tie it up in court for years, damn the torpedoes.” There’s some corollary with ‘Ships being safer kept in the harbor,’ but, we’ll work on that.

Image: Battle of Mobile Bay, by Louis Prang

Mining industry elected Prime Minister of Australia

Much less of an exaggeration than it sounds:

The fate of Australia’s embattled Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is likely to be decided within hours as rivals seek enough signatures to force a vote on his leadership.

Amid a flurry of ministerial resignations Thursday, Turnbull said he would call a special meeting of the governing Liberal party at noon on Friday only if his main challenger — right-wing populist Peter Dutton — can gather enough signatures on a petition.

Just Monday, Turnbull abandoned a modest effort to reduce energy emissions under pressure from conservatives in his party. And yesterday, those same conservatives just missed toppling his government. Hmm:

Australia’s resistance to addressing climate change — by limiting emissions in particular — is well documented. Turnbull could yet be turned out of office as rivals rally support for another challenge as soon as Thursday. If that happens, he will be the third Australian prime minister in the past decade to lose the position over a climate dispute.

Despite the country’s reputation for progressiveness on gun control, health care and wages, its energy politics seem forever doomed to devolve into a circus. Experts point to many reasons, from partisanship to personality conflicts, but the root of the problem may be tied to the land.

“The Europeans think we’re crazy,” she added. “Who’s got more solar, who’s got more tidal power than us? It just goes to show the strength of that particular group.”

The trend of hyper-partisanship has not helped. Just as climate and energy issues in the United States create a toxic divide, with many on the right opposing anything the left supports — including well-established science — any mention of emissions control tends to create an anaphylactic reaction among Australian conservatives.

The arguments differ. Some make a case for free markets, despite subsidies granted to fossil fuel companies, or they say action works only when all nations act. Others, like Turnbull’s opponents this time, emphasize local priorities such as reduced energy prices for consumers.

The Aristocrats!

Under Turnbull, a former investment banker and a moderate, the Australian government has increased its support for fossil fuel extraction projects, failed to meet goals set under the Paris climate agreement, and shied away from challenging the consumption status quo even as the Great Barrier Reef bleaches toward oblivion.

Darren Saunders, a cancer biologist in Australia, spoke for many in a popular tweet that said, “It’s incredibly hard to describe how utterly sad it feels to be a scientist and dad in a country being dictated to by a small group of science-denying clowns putting their own short-term political gain over the long-term public interest.”

Which of these underlying conditions don’t we share with the Aussies? Show your work.

Image: Coral bleaching at Heron Island in the Great Barrier Reef, via

Just Kool it

Famed architect Rem Koolhaas says a lot of smart things in this WAPO sitdown. Here he responds to a question about cities in the age of cyberspace and smart technology like self-driving cars and the Internet of Things becoming large neural networks that will develop their own mind and consciousness:

Koolhaas: If we simply let cyberspace run its course to a future determined by Silicon Valley, those libertarian-minded engineers will paradoxically lead us to cities shackled by algorithmic conformity. It would be a neural network, yes, but one that operates in lock step.

Like many of my friends, I am a car fanatic. So we have been looking very closely at the development of self-driving cars. What we know without hesitation is that self-driving cars will only work at the price of total conformity of every member of society. Such a system of mobility will depend on everyone behaving with no exceptions. As exemplified by self-driving cars, there is a built-in authoritarianism in this managed space of flows we call cyberspace.

More and more people are becoming uncomfortable with such a future.

He also thinks LA is the protype city of the future.

Image: De Rotterdam mixed use towers, next to the Erasmus Bridge, by OMA

Elevation of Silicon Valley

The lowest point in San Jose is 13 feet below sea level and though it has its high points, I agree that the tech boom is probably done. The way in which profits are squeezed from marginal web apps has gone the way of wide brim ties for the moment, and though Musk remains a hero at the major news outlets there seems to be only shadow chasing for the big start-up fashion show funding carnival that was all the rage until the lights came on. And despite the hype, even autonomous vehicles appear to be circling back to their original question: how?

BUT… the economy is… booming? Okay, the business news will all turn negative as we reach full employment and wages go up because anything that is good for workers must be bad. The captains of cronyism continue their long-term project of undermining capitalism from within. Now they’ll have pay higher wages or else. I kid. Will the know-nothings in power begin to learn to love the tariffs as they slingshot back at US? How many socialists will take the oath of office after November? Can capitalism be crippled without putting representative democracy in traction, too? This is to say nothing of the boiling racism at the heart of every policy question from immigration to the environment to voting rights.

Okay, enough vacation. Everybody back to work.

Image: Author photo from a somewhat great height.