Man Against the Earth


Jill Lepore’s New Yorker article on the great Rachel Carson is amazing, inspiring, and confirms the three intellectual giants of the twentieth century:

Shawn called her at home to tell her that he’d finishing reading and that the book was “a brilliant achievement.” He said, “You have made it literature, full of beauty and loveliness and depth of feeling.” Carson, who had been quite unsure she’d survive to finish writing the book, was sure, for the first time, that the book was going to do in the world what she’d wanted it to do. She hung up the phone, put Roger to bed, picked up her cat, and burst into tears, collapsing with relief.

“Silent Spring” appeared in The New Yorker, in three parts, in June, 1962, and as a book, published by Houghton Mifflin, in September. Everything is connected to everything else, she showed. “We poison the caddis flies in a stream and the salmon runs dwindle and die,” Carson wrote:

We poison the gnats in a lake and the poison travels from link to link of the food chain and soon the birds of the lake margins become its victims. We spray our elms and the following springs are silent of robin song, not because we sprayed the robins directly but because the poison traveled, step by step, through the now familiar elm-leaf-earthworm cycle. These are matters of record, observable, part of the visible world around us. They reflect the web of life—or death—that scientists know as ecology.

Its force was felt immediately. Readers wrote to share their own stories. “I can go into the feed stores here and buy, without giving any reason, enough poison to do away with all the people in Oregon,” one gardener wrote. They began calling members of Congress. E. B. White wrote to Carson, declaring the pieces to be “the most valuable articles the magazine had ever published.” At a press conference at the White House on August 29th, a reporter asked President Kennedy whether his Administration intended to investigate the long-range side effects of DDT and other pesticides. “Yes,” he answered. “I know that they already are, I think particularly, of course, since Miss Carson’s book.”

Which itself brings to mind (my recollection of) Abraham Lincoln’s words when he met Harriet Beecher Stowe: “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!”

But back to the 20th century giants, Jane Jacobs:

So perhaps now, on the 100th anniversary of her birth [2016], we should all be asking: what is it that Jane Jacobs made us want to see in the city?

Thinking about this question leads me to focus on the conditions that make a metropolis – the enormous diversity of workers, their living and work spaces, the multiple sub-economies involved. Many of these are now seen as irrelevant to the global city, or belonging to another era. But a close look, as encouraged by Jacobs, shows us this is wrong.

She would ask us to look at the consequences of these sub-economies for the city – for its people, its neighbourhoods, and the visual orders involved. She would ask us to consider all the other economies and spaces impacted by the massive gentrifications of the modern city – not least, the resultant displacements of modest households and profit-making, neighbourhood firms.

How do we see those aspects that are typically rendered invisible by modern narratives of development and urban competitiveness? In the early 1900s, the city was a lens for understanding larger processes – but half a century later, it had lost that role. It was Jane Jacobs who taught us again to view the city in a deeper, more complex way.

She helped us re-emphasise dimensions that were usually excluded – no, expelled – from general analyses of the urban economy. Indeed, I can imagine she would have affirmed without a quiver of doubt that, no matter how electronic and global the city might one day become, it still has to be “made” – and therein lies the importance of place.

And of course, Hannah Arendt

There is almost no politics in “Origins” beyond the decisions and processes that eventuated in total domination. It is a dark book, written in a dark time and reflecting on the darkest moment of modern European (and arguably world) history. But it is not without hope. In her preface, Arendt envisions a new form of transnational governance, insisting that “human dignity needs a new guarantee which can be found only in a new political principle, in a new law on earth, whose validity this time must comprehend the whole of humanity while its powerful must remain strictly limited, rooted in and controlled by newly established territorial entities.” And in her conclusion she insists that there is always the possibility of renewal: “But there remains also the truth that every end in history also contains a new beginning; this beginning is the promise, the only ‘message’ which the end can ever produce. Beginning, before it becomes a historical event, is the supreme capacity of man; politically, it is identical with man’s freedom . . . This beginning is guaranteed by each new birth; it is indeed every man.”

In her subsequent work, Arendt reflected at length about the revival of a politics of human dignity, autonomy and active citizenship. While she was highly critical of the depoliticizing tendencies of modern liberal individualism, she was a strong believer in the rule of law and in the importance of constitutional and extraconstitutional restraints on political power. This is most clear in her 1972 “Crises of Republic,” collecting four essays written in the midst of the legitimacy crises associated with the Vietnam War, the rise of the New Left and Black Power movements, and the deceit and authoritarianism of the Nixon administration.

What other major figures might outflank them in impact and vital importance to the world as it was then, and as it is now? Russell? Derrida? Keynes? Orwell? It’s not even close. To be continued, hopefully.

Interrogating the Sabotage

Bon Dieu. Saltz catches us up on the techno-climactic imitation-felt confluence-peddling praxus-shuffling symbolically-metaphorical thrice-divorced yet still unimaginably and singly imponderable grammatically-scientific but geographically-sociological and revolution-intolerant latest art show:

The catalogue has words in it that I didn’t know. The show is about the “precariat” and “geontopower.” I looked them up. The first word is about a generation born during a period of the greatest accumulation of wealth in the history of the world but who nevertheless live in unstable economies. It’s worth pointing out that 99 percent of all artists have always lived like this. Needless to say most of the artists included here are relatively well-off —either schooled, degreed, living in more than one city (that’s a nice racket), recipients of important grants and residencies where they do “interventions with the local communities.” This is not to say, of course, that no beneficiary of art-world largesse should feel qualified to make work involving social critique. Quite the opposite. But I want to see them walking the walk, not just posing the pose.

To define the second word, “geontopower,” the catalogue offers a dodge: “a set of discourses.” You can’t win with these people! Words like “undercommons,” “hypercapitalism,” “networked mediascapes,” and “anarcho-syndicalists” are tossed off. There’s lots of usual art-speak about art that “interrogates,” leading us to conclude that in the last 15 years the art world has gone from being undertakers proclaiming mediums dead to becoming lawyers taking depositions. In an old neo-Marxist tip of the hat, the approved word for artists is now “cultural producer.” No artist can rise to these levels of activism. Especially not very very young ones. (And these are the same people who end up writing the histories, curating the shows, teaching the courses, editing out “impurities” from bibliographies, reviewing one another’s shows, hiring colleagues for jobs.) Meanwhile, a claque of critics lauds every show and demonizes all those who don’t. It’s airtight.

There is no joy in attending a gathering of people who [ostensibly] do what you think you do but all urgency is being discussed in a language you do not understand. It could be that the end-product of the eventual combination of art and business schools is to organize an end-of-the-world exhibition where nobody comes.

Slowed! to the Highest Bidder

Hilarity ensues as the Trump ministration launches a trial balloon for building a nationwide 5G network:

it was an unpleasant surprise to many when a draft proposal urging heavy federal involvement in the next generation of fast mobile networks emerged from the White House of Donald Trump — who won the presidency after promising massive cuts to regulations.

”We’re not Venezuela,” Representative Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican and the chairman of the House Commerce Committee, said at a policy gathering in Washington. “Government taking it over, controlling it, is probably — clearly — not the way to go.”

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican chosen by Trump, was even more blunt: “I oppose any proposal for the federal government to build and operate a nationwide 5G network”

The proposal is rooted in concerns about China and cybersecurity, according to two administration officials familiar with the plans who were granted anonymity to discuss them. Unresolved questions include the extent of taxpayer funding, and whether a fifth generation, or 5G, network would be owned by the government, one of the officials said.

If the federal government directly participates in building a wireless network intended for commercial use, it would be a departure from the decades-long tradition of auctioning licenses to telecommunications companies to build their own networks. Phone service has been on a deregulatory path for decades, including legislation in 1996 that President Bill Clinton said “promotes competition as the key to opening new markets and new opportunities.”

Very observant of Representative Walden, but so many (and varied) plans are afoot and this is where they play the V card? So frightened are we of the massive, self-created Beowulf of ‘government-run _____’ that we are willing to abide any and all inferior services because THE MARKET! One might say it is cunning to introduce the security threat into this discussion until you remember who’s in charge and that you have every reason to be suspect even of unscheduled emptying of waste baskets. But the rending of garments about how great our competitive monopolies are at doing everything and the temerity to threaten them with a network built and own by Guhvuhmint is indeed tender and endearing.

Banning the ban bans


In 2006, I visited a friend in France on the occasion of his 50th birthday. His girlfriend had purchased a painting from a friend in the states and I recklessly volunteered to hand delivery the gift. Much merriment on a short, extravagant trip ensued. I had been to France several times by then so the merriment included a souvenir shopping spree at the local supermarket in _____: wine, pate, chocolate and of course, our beloved cassoulet. Only the best for my girl.
But after I paid for the items, I reached down under the checkout counter to get a plastic bag for my prizes and… there weren’t any. Did I mention it was 2006?

Last November, California voters passed Proposition 67, upholding a ban on single-use plastic bags passed by the state’s lawmakers in 2014. A year later, preliminary data from thousands of volunteers who collected trash during California’s Coastal Cleanup Day in September appears to show a remarkable drop in plastic bag refuse.

Compared to 2010, plastic bag litter has dropped by around 72 percent. Plastic bags now account for less than 1.5 percent of all litter, rather than nearly 10 percent. In Monterey County south of San Francisco, volunteers found only 43 plastic bags during the clean-up, compared to just under 2,500 in 2010.

The coastal cleanup, which covered some 1,800 miles across the state, had already shown a significant decrease in plastic bags thanks to educational efforts and local bans, and 2017 builds on that trend. In 2010, plastic bags came in third behind cigarette butts and fast food packaging as most frequently littered items, according to data from Coastal Cleanup Day. Now they appear to have fallen out of the top ten most littered items.

“For decades, plastic bags were one of the most common items collected during the annual California coastal cleanup,” said John Laird, California Secretary for Natural Resources, in a statement regarding the news. “This year, as California continues to transition to reusable bags, we are seeing a substantial decline in plastic grocery bag litter on beaches, rivers and parkways.”

As the article also documents, the rise of plastic bag bans in localities across the country has led to an commensurate rise in bans on plastic bags bans. Pre-emptive war against positive environmental trends and we are [still] so terribly petty and stupid. But good for California and its beaches. Reminds me of love notes, ibuprofen and white vinegar: stuff that actually works!

A Nobel gesture

Congratulations to Richard Thaler on his 2017 Nobel Prize in Economics. The professor took some hardly veiled shots at the Preznit, but also offered some “gee, I just can’t figure it” about the stock market:

“His ratio of certitude to knowledge is nearing record highs,” Thaler said on Bloomberg Radio with Tom Keene and David Gura. “We all need a lot of humility, and especially about the economy.”
Thaler also expressed surprise that the stock market is returning good performance with few disruptions during what he sees as uncertain political times. Congress is grappling with a tax reform proposal, but infighting among Republicans has called into question whether a package will ultimately pass.

“Who would have thunk that the stock market would just continue to go up” during “what has to be the most uncertain times of my lifetime,” Thaler said. “Surely it can’t be based on the certitude that there will be a massive tax cut, given the seeming inability of the Republican Congress to get their act together. So I don’t know where it’s coming from.”

Well, who knows? If you read PK, he seems clear headed about it, if full of Robert Hughes allusions. But how about this: Maybe the indices keep going up, despite the uncertainty and turmoil, because as a set of money-making wagers, they actually feed on that level of chaos. Maybe as a ruse, or cover, for the Ponzi nature of the games being plied and played. The ‘it’s all so complex and confusing, who knows how it works’ absolutely accrues to the benefit of some. See the bankster/fraudsters of 2008 and how they have ascended to far more dizzying heights in the time since, and the extent to which questions about all this convenient success equal nothing more than conspiracy theories. They don’t even bother with calling people Commies anymore.
Quite a trick.

Impervious surfaces

Include our brains. This report about Houston from last year outlines how unchecked development remains a priority in the famously un-zoned city, creating short-term economic gains for some while increasing flood risks for everyone:

The area’s history is punctuated by such major back-to-back storms, but many residents say they are becoming more frequent and severe, and scientists agree.

“More people die here than anywhere else from floods,” said Sam Brody, a Texas A&M University at Galveston researcher who specializes in natural hazards mitigation. “More property per capita is lost here. And the problem’s getting worse.”

Why?

Scientists, other experts and federal officials say Houston’s explosive growth is largely to blame. As millions have flocked to the metropolitan area in recent decades, local officials have largely snubbed stricter building regulations, allowing developers to pave over crucial acres of prairie land that once absorbed huge amounts of rainwater. That has led to an excess of floodwater during storms that chokes the city’s vast bayou network, drainage systems and two huge federally owned reservoirs, endangering many nearby homes — including Virginia Hammond’s.

We must learn to do better, but long-term thinking tends to challenge us more than anything.

Fiction and the carbon economy


The concept of imaginative fatigue in the Anthropocene presents a kind of heady platform for lighting into all kinds of literary corruption and gatekeeping issues that are holding the rising waters in place, out of view or at least off the page:

This makes itself evident in the paucity of fiction devoted to the carbon economy, something the Brooklyn-based Indian writer Amitav Ghosh addresses in his marvelous recent book, The Great Derangement, writing, “When the subject of climate change occurs . . . it is almost always in relation to nonfiction; novels and short stories are very rarely to be glimpsed within this horizon.” Ghosh, who has depicted the precarious ecology of the Sundarban mangrove forests of Bengal in his novel, The Hungry Tide, says that this absence has to be “counted as an aspect of the broader imaginative and cultural failure that lies at the heart of the climate crisis,” a failure so pervasive that he calls our era, “which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness . . . the time of the Great Derangement.”

I agree with the reviewer that any discussions about the ‘ravages of the carbon economy’ would necessarily include story lines on the failure of capitalism. And talk about a contrivance. Who would believe that? Perhaps at no point have we ever been so self-hemmed in – constrained by our own no-go areas. Does any writer today imagine Zola or Hugo, or Anatole France or, good grief Racine, adhering to such constraints? Is it only fear? Will the publishers and agents love us no longer? What then? Asking for a friend of the fate of the world.

Image: Author photo of the flooded Seine, June 2016.

A Financial Choice, Act II

In early September 2008, I drove down to Charleston to visit a cousin who had recently suffered a terrible accident. Throughout the drive I listened to extended public radio reports on an evolving calamity: the collapse of Lehman Brothers financial services firm. The horror that the government was going to allow such a large firm to go under was decorated with the baroque gadgetry of terms that would become more familiar in the coming years: credit default swaps, subprime mortgage lending, tranches, CDOs. The gore and detail of the cover that had been constructed around scams and fraud at the broadest level was audible in the voices of interviewers and guests. There was a tinge of disbelief within their attempts to explain what these terms meant and how they had gotten us all (!) into so much peril. It was as close to 1929 as we had come and potentially far worse – so extensively had the giant vampire squid of financial engineering welded its tentacles to every sector. Housing, banking, investing, construction, debt, bonds… this is business America now, and every other activity is vulnerable to its caprice. It was the stretch run of a presidential election as well; one candidate tried to suspend the campaign, the other fortunately tried to hold things together.

And he did mange to hold things together, despite rather obvious at the time challenges he personally faced. But the Lehman moment got everyone’s attention, everyone who mattered. $700 billion for Troubled Asset Relief (TARP), $250 billion for Capital Purchase(CPP), in addition to billions more in government-backed guarantees to individual banks. And eventually, in July 2010, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act was enacted. It seemed the public assistance required to save the vampire from itself had sealed the argument in favor of financial reform.

Yesterday, the Republican House of Representatives passed the Financial Choice Act and can you guess what it does? Right! Overturns Dodd-Frank. And not only is it a bad idea to weaken a law that requires stronger banks,

The bill also offers the wrong kind of relief. During the last crisis, all kinds of financial activity — including insurance, money-market funds and speculative trading at banks — depended on government support. That’s why Dodd-Frank placed limits on banks’ trading operations and provided added oversight for all systemically important institutions, and why regulators require them to have enough cash on hand to survive a panic.
Those provisions aren’t perfect — simpler and more effective options exist — but the Choice Act just scraps them. What’s more, it would eliminate the Office of Financial Research, created to give regulators the data they need to see what’s going on in markets and institutions. The law would leave regulators in the dark, and taxpayers implicitly or explicitly backing much of the financial sector.

If you didn’t click, that’s coming from fcking Bloomberg. The financial industry doesn’t even think it’s a good idea. In trying to undo more Obama-era legislation, the know-nothings in Congress are re-setting the table for our financial catastrophe guests. Sure, certain things could make Dodd-Frank unnecessary. But unfortunately, none of the thousands of people, firms, funds and frauds who populate this sector care about a stronger financial system or its being more competitive. It’s the logic of business – the democracy, whiskey, sexy of fools.
Image: Detail from The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymus Bosch, ca. 1500

Holy Chapter 11, Batman!

“That’s right, Robin.”
The Affordable Care Act has driven down personal bankruptcies by 50% since 2010:

As legislators and the executive branch renew their efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act this week, they might want to keep in mind a little-known financial consequence of the ACA: Since its adoption, far fewer Americans have taken the extreme step of filing for personal bankruptcy.

Filings have dropped about 50 percent, from 1,536,799 in 2010 to 770,846 in 2016 (see chart, below). Those years also represent the time frame when the ACA took effect. Although courts never ask people to declare why they’re filing, many bankruptcy and legal experts agree that medical bills had been a leading cause of personal bankruptcy before public healthcare coverage expanded under the ACA. Unlike other causes of debt, medical bills are often unexpected, involuntary, and large.

Emphasis added. There’s no way to be flippant about this. President Obama took a beating over this for years. Congresspeople lost their jobs, and knew they would, for voting for it. Still, they did it. This is what the whole thing is about – all the politicking, all the voting, all the clever name-calling and ratfcking. It mobilized the entire right-wing firmament because they are expressly against this. This!
This is socialism?