Hand the match*


In a complete coincidence having nothing whatsoever to with eye shadow or other heretofore smoldering fires in the D.C. area, this terrific digression on Smoke in The Paris Review, courtesy of the late great John Berger, with illustrations by Selçuk Demirel.

* another old-timey saying involving smoking, common among the hobo gentry when one too-many were gathered around your flame.

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.

A trolley of Folly

Via the powder blue Satan, an instant classic in the emerging genre of parody far superior to the original:

I was reminded of this when—I can see certain readers rolling their eyes already—I read the news, last September, that numerous California cities, including Oakland and San Francisco, had filed lawsuits against Exxon, BP, and several other oil companies. The cities argue that rising sea levels, caused by global climate change, driven by fossil fuel consumption, will cause billions of dollars in property damage, and that “big oil” should foot the bill for costly infrastructure projects to shore up below-sea-level neighborhoods and oceanside communities.

If you believe the science is settled and the models are correct, of course it makes sense to take a page from the “Big Tobacco” lawsuit playbook. If it were the case that Exxon and the others were acting in ways that could ruin much of the California coastline, with full knowledge of the certain results of their conduct, it would indeed be just to ask them to foot the bill for protecting our cities and communities.

But I can’t help but think of those Navy prognosticators, who probably knew more about computers than just about anyone else in the United States government but didn’t know what Silicon Valley was up to right at that very moment.

The only real way to push back against the gratuitous provocations of the NYT editorial page or the dogsh*t political coverage at NPR is to send it up, up and away. Merely disagreeing only confirms their primary, fundamental fallacy: “Hey! If both sides are criticizing us, we must be right!” – a sweet spot only further plaqued with the appearance of even-handed contrarianism. This is more like transmitting articles through a ridicule device. One can only hope it embarrasses the other Stephens and his colleagues, if for nothing else the flimsiness of their shoddy talents.

Perfect Cases in Point

We wish they were more rare. But just as rising wages are bad news for business(?) and solar most horribly spells doom for coal, word in the oil game is that consistent catastrophes are needed for oil to remain strong:

The weakness comes at a time when speculators have started rebuilding bullish positions after a sell-off last month, betting the market will tighten in the second quarter. Yet, Brent physical oil traders say the opposite is happening so far, according to interviews with executives at several trading houses, who asked not to be identified discussing internal views.

“We need to see the market going really into deficit for oil prices to rise,” Giovanni Staunovo, commodity analyst at UBS Group AG in Zurich, said. “If this is temporary, it could be weathered, but it needs to be monitored.”

The weakness is particularly visible in so-called time-spreads — the price difference between contracts for delivery at different periods. Reflecting a growing surplus that could force traders to seek tankers as temporary floating storage facilities, the Brent June-July spread this week fell to an unusually weak minus 55 cents per barrel, down from parity just two months earlier. The negative structure is known in the industry as contango.

There’s a new word for you. And yes, many of the other words they use are the ones you know, with commonly agreed-upon definitions. I know one needs a lot of sophisticated financial knowledge to really get the subtleties of these economics, but is the overall message really lost? Of no consequence whatsoever? Yes, we can play terrible music on beautiful instruments, just as we can vote against our interests and condemn ourselves with our own words ( though it really isn’t necessary to do all three at once). Thanks to Bloomberg for delivering the straight dope in the top story today. It’s important, you know? Just like it will be to move past the market riff, as I hope to soon.
And also, the term ‘oil futures.’ FY, irony.

Self-Sanctioning

$5 per gallon gasoline is still in your future.

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) isbeing chaired by Iran at the moment. And Iran thinks the run-up of the price of crude to over $90 a barrel is just dandy and requires no new OPEC meetings or adjustment of production quotas among members.

Meanwhile, the US is back to using 20 million barrels a day of petroleum, an increase of 4.4 percent over last year this time. The US, the superhog of gas hogs, uses nearly a fourth the world’s daily petroleum production despite having only a twentieth of the world’s population. Increased US demand, along with rapidly growing demand in Asia, helps account for the relatively high petroleum prices. Some analysts think you could see another big run-up in oil prices in 2011 reminiscent of 2008, with gasoline prices going to $4 a gallon by this summer and then ultimately going on up to $5 a gallon.

That and everything that goes with it will be re-run from 2008. You remember that time, when the whole country gathered around the national dining room table to contemplate living closer to work, buying lighter cars and building trains? Me neither.

And good to remember that as some will scream bloody murder at $4 gas, others would be relieved at such a bargain. Evil relativism. Good thing we just elected a bunch of know-nothings deciders to lead us on all this important stuff, i.e., we’re so screwed.