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.

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

What does Gilets jaunes mean?

Rumblings on the hustings, the corporate global economic order has Always been predicated on sacrificing the working class. Always:

It’s obvious now, however, that the new model not only weakened the fringes of the proletariat but society as a whole.The paradox is this is not a result of the failure of the globalised economic model but of its success. In recent decades, the French economy, like the European and US economies, has continued to create wealth. We are thus, on average, richer. The problem is at the same time unemployment, insecurity and poverty have also increased. The central question, therefore, is not whether a globalised economy is efficient, but what to do with this model when it fails to create and nurture a coherent society?

In France, as in all western countries, we have gone in a few decades from a system that economically, politically and culturally integrates the majority into an unequal society that, by creating ever more wealth, benefits only the already wealthy.

The change is not down to a conspiracy, a wish to cast aside the poor, but to a model where employment is increasingly polarised. This comes with a new social geography: employment and wealth have become more and more concentrated in the big cities. The deindustrialised regions, rural areas, small and medium-size towns are less and less dynamic. But it is in these places – in “peripheral France” (one could also talk of peripheral America or peripheral Britain) – that many working-class people live. Thus, for the first time, “workers” no longer live in areas where employment is created, giving rise to a social and cultural shock.

Switch out France périphérique for the Rust Belt. They are interchangeable, except that the former has not, as yet, voted straight fascist and retains the habit of taking to the street – as well as tearing up parts of it to throw at the police. It’s how different cultures tackle the same problem: the left-behindness, debt, low pay, high taxes, inequality, and ignorance upon which the limited successes of late capitalism depend. It’s certainly not pleasant, but people have long-understood this and attempted to warn us from the dragons – Dr. K, Joe Stiglitz, Thomas Piketty – nor it is unrelated to the bizarre vortex we’ve been documenting here for ten(!) years. And the Gilets jaunes are not solving this problem. But they are making us look, and we’re not even used to that.

Image: Author photo of a different type of inundation, near Pont Neuf, 2016

Expensive solutions: having two drivetrains

While at first, this may appear to be an innocent discussion about plug-in hybrids versus straight electric vehicles, it turns out to be, you guessed it, a terrific metaphor:

Another challenge for automakers is that hybrids are relatively complicated, with widely varying ranges. Some can travel only on electrons, while others never do. Electric vehicles, meanwhile, can be measured on two simple metrics: miles per charge and price.

“It’s just a much more simple story,” said Tal at UC Davis. His team’s research has shown that people are far more ignorant about plug-in hybrids than fully electric vehicles. In general, he said, shoppers don’t spend much time deciding which car to buy—most effort goes into finding the best price for the model they’ve already set their mind on.

The death of the hybrid, while seemingly inevitable, may be a long and slow. A spike in gas prices in the next few years may even draw it out. “I can see them having a role until 2040,” Tal said. “But the problem will always be [that] it’s a more expensive solution having two drivetrains.”

We are absolutely lousy with other expensive-because-they-are-redundant solutions, and some (private schools, for-profit hospitals and health insurance) do triple the damage we can afford for the pain and pound of flesh they exact from the commonwealth. Reality shows seem cheap because [some]people think they don’t have/need writers. Roads and highways seem far more convenient that public transportation somehow, even at 0-miles-per-hour in rush hour that’s really two. Fb is free, see it doesn’t cost anything!

Hatred for irony remains an untapped and unfortunately renewable-into-infinity resource.

Changing the neighborhood

WITH all the courting, cajoling, promises of [decades of] tax breaks and free land and infrastructure upgrades that we see towns and localities using to persuade the tech giants to relocate in and resuscitate moribund burgs large, medium and small, it turns out we could all learn a thing or two from Berlin:

Campaigners in a bohemian district of Berlin are celebrating after the internet giant Google abandoned strongly opposed plans to open a large campus there. The US firm had planned to set up an incubator for startup companies in Kreuzberg, one of the older districts in the west of the capital.

But the company’s German spokesman Ralf Bremer announced on Wednesday that the 3,000 m2 (3,590 square-yard) space – planned to host offices, cafes and communal work areas – would instead go to two local humanitarian associations.

Bremer did not say if local resistance to the plans over the past two years had played a part in the change of heart, although he had told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper that Google does not allow protests to dictate its actions.

“The struggle pays off,” tweeted GloReiche Nachbarschaft, one of the groups opposed to the Kreuzberg campus plan and part of the “Fuck off Google” campaign.

Some campaigners objected to what they described as Google’s “evil” corporate practices, such as tax evasion and the unethical use of personal data. Some opposed the gentrification of the district, which might price many people out of the area.

As we see everywhere, gentrification is a tricky thing to fight off. It helps if you can summon the power to think well and high of yourself, to defend your neighborhoods from a position of strength. An earlier article this past May lays out it pretty clearly:

“I’m not saying [Google] don’t have to come here, but they have to realise they are part of something that is really frightening people … If such a big enterprise wants to join the most cool, the most rebellious, the most creative neighbourhood in Berlin – perhaps in Europe – then there must be a way they can contribute to saving the neighbourhood,” Schmidt says.

Bravi, Kreuzberg!

Image: Author photo, Brandenburg Tor

A.I., A.I., captain!

Joseph Stiglitz, he of former World Bankiness, haver of the 2001 Nobel Prize in economics who warned that globalization was taking place at the behest international conglomerates rather than “forces,” now comes to light his hair on fire present similar cautions about Artificial Intelligence:

“Artificial intelligence and robotisation have the potential to increase the productivity of the economy and, in principle, that could make everybody better off,” he says. “But only if they are well managed.”

Beyond the impact of AI on work, Stiglitz sees more insidious forces at play. Armed with AI, tech firms can extract meaning from the data we hand over when we search, buy and message our friends. It is used ostensibly to deliver a more personalised service. That is one perspective. Another is that our data is used against us.

“These new tech giants are raising very deep issues about privacy and the ability to exploit ordinary people that were never present in earlier eras of monopoly power,” says Stiglitz. “Beforehand, you could raise the price. Now you can target particular individuals by exploiting their information.”

It is the potential for datasets to be combined that most worries Stiglitz. For example, retailers can now track customers via their smartphones as they move around stores and can gather data on what catches their eye and which displays they walk straight past.

The data farming of which we are all willing seeds know no boundaries, recognizes no politics and sees only profits. Shaded with the camouflage of complexity, it is a winning hand. Are we up for the ‘boring overwhelming’ of taking on the Tech giants? Wait, let me come in again…

Image: Warehouse operated by Amazon, via The Guardian