11 January 2019

What Will You Do? A Birthday Request

I’m turning 55 this month. Facebook has been encouraging me to set up a donation link and ask all my friends to contribute to my favorite cause. Instead, I’m asking my friends to do something about the environment.

Climate change has become a huge problem, and we are all going to be affected in our lifetimes. You don’t need me to tell you all the ways we’re doomed.

I’m not going to tell you what to do — we need action in so many different spheres and at so many different levels. If you’re going to keep up a commitment, it has to be to something that you feel is meaningful and that you are comfortable doing. 

We need government action, we need corporate action, and we need individual action. We need carbon taxes, we need businesses to adopt environmentally responsible processes, we need better public transit, we need better pedestrian and bike routes, and we need to stop consuming and wasting so much stuff at the individual level.

Maybe you’d be comfortable making a weekly phone call to an elected official — local, state, or federal — urging them to take positive action on some issue concerning the environment. Maybe you hold stocks, and you can try to persuade the corporations you invest in to take more environmentally responsible actions. Or you are vested in a retirement account and you can persuade its managers to disinvest from fossil fuels.

Maybe you want to try giving up fast fashion, spending more money on fewer items of clothing that will last longer. 

Maybe you want to try eating lower on the food chain, or cutting back on beef and dairy, which are worse for the environment than vegetable sources of protein but also worse than chicken and eggs.

Maybe you think it would be an interesting challenge to give up single-use plastics, whether water bottles, take-out containers, or soap and shampoo bottles. Maybe you can persuade your favorite take-out place to switch to paper containers. Maybe you’ll get a reusable coffee cup and get your coffee shop to put your morning brew in it instead of into paper or styrofoam.

Maybe you want to turn down the heat and put on a sweater, or in the summer turn up the heat and put on a fan. Maybe you can buy your electricity from a company that uses renewable sources, or even put solar panels on your roof.

Maybe you’re willing to give up your lawn, and the chemical fertilizers and pest control chemicals you’re using to maintain it, and instead create a yard full of native flowers and shrubs that will attract bees and butterflies and birds, and native trees that will do those things plus sequester carbon and provide summer-time shade that will reduce your need for air conditioning.

Maybe you believe environmental justice should be our biggest priority, and you want to volunteer for a few hours a month with an organization that helps both people and the environment.

Maybe you’re contemplating a move, and you want to choose a new home based in part on environmental criteria: well insulated? In a multi-unit building, so it can share heating and cooling via walls adjacent to other units? Close to public transit so you can take a bus or train to work or to school? Close enough to work so that you can walk or ride a bike?

My own commitments for the year are to recommit to a number of environmentally responsible habits, including use of public transit, avoiding take-out, and keeping my shopping for anything other than necessities to a bare minimum, and to get back to blogging about environmental issues. My goal will be to post weekly. Once a month, I’ll tell you what I am doing myself to help the environment. In other posts, I’ll provide more information about the things I’ve mentioned above, along with links to sources, as well as other ideas about things we can do to make the world a better place, big as well as small.

Do I have 55 friends who are with me? Please post in the comments section, or if you’d rather be anonymous, message me. Thank you.

14 December 2018

Six years. A moment. A lifetime.

It’s been six years since the Sandy Hook shooting, 20 little kids murdered by an angry white man, and it feels like just a minute ago, and it feels like a lifetime ago.

All the shootings since then, schools and other places, all the angry white men collapse in my mind and I want to run to where my son is and hold him tight and somehow make my body protect him from the violence.

At the same time I feel like I’ve gone through a lifetime of sorrow and loss of illusions that we cannot, as a nation, do anything about this.

We fetishize the Second Amendment, though we have legislative and judiciary branches of government whose job it is to update and interpret the law.

The claim that we already have laws and they don’t keep guns out the hands of criminals is disingenuous. With no nationwide concensus on gun laws, we have ended up with a patchwork of weak laws and loopholes that lets anyone with gas money drive to a neighboring state and buy as much firepower as they want.

We regulate cars and Sudafed, lettuce and Adderal. We regulate free speech and voting. We have, since the original composition of the Constitution, abolished slavery, prohibited alcohol and allowed it again, extended the vote to former slaves and to women.

Yet as a nation, we deem it impossible to create national limits on the sale of automatic weapons, or create national standards for background checks.

And so people keep dying. Children keep dying. People of color, women, gays. Straight white men get killed, too, some of them police officers. People keep dying, and we keep avoiding naming the killers: men, white men almost to the one, a slim majority of them involved in domestic violence.

As a nation, it seems we can’t imagine limiting the rights of these white men to their guns, and so every week we go through spasms of grief about another killing, and then we go right on with our lives. I’ve gone numb. How about you?

29 August 2018

Weather and the Street Grid

The National Weather Service has issued another heat advisory for several upcoming days in New York City. Right now, they are reporting that it’s 87 degrees, but feels like 93.

Lately I’ve been noticing quite regularly that my car and the bank that displays the temperature nearby are routinely recording temperatures higher than those being reported. It appears the weather services are using Central Park as their baseline.

But most of Manhattan is not park, and most of the parks are not Central Park, but much smaller public spaces, many of them with significant percentages devoted to paths, basketball courts, and other things that soak up heat. Next City estimates 15 percent of the borough is parkland, and 36 percent streets, which presumably includes sidewalks. Several years ago, Newsweek wrote about a study stuggesting 20 percent of Manhattan is yard space — but much of that is also paved. That leaves about 30 percent of the city’s surface covered by buildings.

In other words, a large majority of Manhattan is paved or covered in buildings.

Which means in a large majority of the city, the temperature is going to be higher than it is in Central Park. Earlier today, the weather stations were reporting a temperature of 91 with a heat index of 100. But at Apple Bank in my neighborhood, the sign said it was 100 degrees. What’s the heat index in that case?

And what are the implications and consequences of consistent underreporting of daytime and probably also nighttime temperatures in Manhattan and other heavily urbanized areas?

It turns out that large portions of Brooklyn and much of the Bronx, areas with waste transfer stations and industry that also house populations that are mostly people of color, are even more vulnerable to high heat than most of Manhattan.

I have no idea if the temperature reporting discrepancies are enough, given the relatively small land area of New York and other cities in comparison to surrounding areas, to affect our understanding of the severity of climate change.

But the effects on individuals would be significant. If the weather services is saying the heat index is 101, based on conditions in Central Park, but its actually several degrees higher in much of the city, then that alone is putting people in danger. Given that hundreds of people die of heat-related problems in New York City every year, and that people of color are disproportionatly effected, I think it’s time the weather services reported temperatures in the neighborhoods people actually live in, not idealized conditions in Central Park.

15 June 2018

Drugs and Money (and the High Cost of Health Insurance)

My asthma medication retails for $400 a month. Thank god I have health insurance.

The medication contains two ingredients, developed in the 1990s and the 1970s, that if sold separately, would be long out of trademark and available for pennies a dose.

But big pharma is manipulating medication availability so that they can rake in big bucks by finding ways to create new combinations in new delivery hardware to keep medications under trademark for decades.

USAToday reported two years ago what the CEOs of some of the pharmaceutical companies were getting paid:
AstraZeneca, the manufacturer of the medication I take, isn’t on this list, but its CEO, Pascal Soriot, made $13.4 million in 2016.

I have no idea what my health insurance company is paying for the medication after my $25 copay, though I suspect they're negotiating some kind of discount. Health insurers' CEO salaries have spiked in recent years, and they too are pulling in millions of dollars:
Salaries in millions of dollars, 2016
There are a lot of reasons why health care costs in the United States are spiraling out of control. One of them is that big pharma and health insurance companies are tossing the ball back and forth in an orgy of greed, while passing on increasingly high prices to consumers in the form of higher policy costs, higher deductibles, and higher co-pays.

Making people ration health care because they can't afford it is terrible policy. It often leads to higher health care costs down the road. The only way to stop this is to take the profit motive out of the picture.

10 June 2018

There are No Bike Lanes in New York City

New York City's Department of Transportation publishes a map of bike lanes, and according to the cycle advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, half a million people ride a bike on a regular basis.  There are 10,000 Citibikes and an estimated 450,000 trips by bike every day on more than 1000 miles of green-painted lanes marked with bike icons all over the city. Mayor de Blasio's administration has been promoting Vision Zero, an attempt to keep drivers from mowing down pedestrians and cyclists. (Nevertheless, in 2017 almost 5,000 injuries were reported, and 130 people on foot or on bikes were killed in crashes with motor vehicles.)

Without enforcement, the bike lanes don't work as bike lanes. 

They function as pedestrian overflow: people jogging, walking with dogs and shopping carts and strollers and fishing poles and kids on scooters and coffee trucks and hand trucks and all the other things New Yorkers carry around.
They function as temporary stopping and parking lanes for tour buses, delivery trucks, police cars, school buses, and taxi cabs, on top of all the private vehicles whose owners are loading or unloading groceries, kids, or their latest Ikea purchases.
Alarmingly, they also get used as passing lanes by drivers in a hurry.

New York City hasn't created infrastructure for short-term parking, so the demarcation of all of the "bike lanes" fills a real need -- and forces cyclists to weave in and out of the line of traffic block after block, making cycling even more dangerous.

But what really convinced me that New York City does not have bike lanes is the dumpster on Suffolk Street.
The last time I was on that block, there were several other vehicles parked or stopped around it. If the city were remotely serious about allowing bike lanes to be used by bikes, that dumpster would have gotten towed immediately, and someone slapped with a hefty fine. It's been there for a week already.

Oddly, the streets that feel safest are the ones marked with "sharrows" -- arrows indicating that motor vehicles are supposed to share the road with cyclists. There's no weaving in and out of traffic, and there's not enough room for them to get blocked indefinitely by Fed Ex trucks and cab drivers.
But sharrow lanes are right next to parked cars, and drivers and passengers don't look before they open their doors. I've only been doored once, thrown into (fortunately stopped) traffic, but I've completely lost track of the number of near misses.

Free street parking massively subsidizes car ownership, and it has to go, to be replaced by metered parking expensive enough to keep the spots clear for short term parking and official vehicles. Obstruction of bike lanes by police cars and other official vehicles needs to stop, as this sets the example that the bike lanes are a free-for-all. Cyclists are 150-pound assemblages of flesh and bone atop 25-pound machines, but the culture of New York City treats us as equivalent to ten-ton trucks.

The city needs to fix this. Bike lanes need to be bike lanes.

15 April 2018

Vegans, Palm Oil, Soy Products, and Almonds -- Oh My!

If you're paying any attention at all, you've heard that hectares of rainforests are being razed to produce palm oil and soybeans, and gallons of water expended on almonds, and if you're a vegan, you might be wondering what's left to eat.

It takes a little over a gallon of water to produce just one almond, according to this graphic, which translates into a shocking 400 gallons of water per pound.

from Mother Jones
Shocking, that is, until you realize that it takes 1799 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef

How about soybeans? Aren't the vegans responsible for that deforestation? After all, no one else could possibly be interested in eating tofu, right? Well, it turns out that 70 percent of the soy beans grown world-wide are fed to animals. Tofu? Six percent. And the rest, soybean oil, which is used in mayonnaise, baked goods, barbecue sauce, and salad dressing. The vegans are probably eating some of the soybean oil, it's true.

Palm oil, meanwhile, is in something like half of the products you can buy in a supermarket, including soap and shampoo, ice cream and pizza dough, and -- yes, margarine and soy cheese. 

So it's true, it would be better (not to mention healthier) to eat your grits with olive oil instead of palm-oil-laced margarine, and to eat traditionally prepared and simple foods made from unrefined beans and grains instead of highly processed soy cheeses and tofu pups. 

But the six percent of Americans who identify as vegan still have a far lower impact on the planet than those who eat beef or pork every day. 

Meanwhile, you don't need to go completely vegan, or even vegetarian to save the planet. 

To mitigate the impact of your diet on climate change, start by eliminating food waste. The average American family throws away 33 pounds of food every month. Eat everything you buy in the supermarket or order in a restaurant. Bring leftovers home for lunch later in the week. Buy groceries with a plan to make sure you'll be able to cook everything you bring home.

Next up: reduce your beef intake. Pork and chicken are lower in impact than beef and lamb, but peanut butter and lentils have a fraction of the impact. 

You'll also do your arteries a favor if you use meat for flavor most days, and only make it a main dish once or twice a week.

The bottom line: worry about the soybeans and palm kernels that are being fed to cows. Don't worry too much about the ones you're consuming directly. Become a demitarian and don't let the leftovers rot in the fridge.

18 March 2018

Living in Interesting Times: Now What?

I was born in Germany, nineteen years after the end of World War II. Growing up in the US, I often wondered what it was like to live in Germany in the 1930s, to watch Hitler gain power, to see Jewish neighbors taken away by force.

The world I live in today feels eerily like what I imagined then, except it's 2018 in the United States. And I feel completely helpless.

The government grants "thoughts and prayers" to domestic terrorists white men who routinely shoot people at malls, movie theatres, dance clubs, schools but refuses to take any action that would limit their impact. The government incarcerates people of color, deports people born in other places. The president was elected with a minority of the vote under a system that, whether it was designed to do so or not, it must now be acknowledged that it deliberately disenfranchises people of color, immigrants, urban residents, and the poor. Washington's current crop of "elected" officials seems to be at war against women, poor people, trans and gay people, people of color, and the earth itself -- anyone, in short, other than heteronormative white men with economic security.

But as the president fires increasing numbers of public servants, the real goal seems to be to destroy democracy.

This is "my" government. If I don't actively resist, I believe that I am complicit.

Yet I have little power. I am not a scholar of political science and I don't feel sure I understand what Trump and his allies (or his puppetmasters?) are up to. In my classes, while I don't pontificate on the news, I do raise issues of power and justice as they relate to language, environmental issues, and medieval literature, and point out how those cultural formations influence the present.

And so I feel paralyzed to act on any scale that feels meaningful.

Also, I am busy, with work and family responsibilities, and I am tired.

My sense of disquiet about current events keeps growing, threatening to become real panic, yet meaningful resistance seems out of reach. Acts like chaining myself to the fence at the White House grounds or hunger striking don't seem like they'd have much more impact than blogging, bloviating on Facebook, or joining another march.

Now what?