27 September 2006

How high can we go?

The New York Times reports today that the city, having finally given up on its idea of building a stadium on top of the Westside Yards, has reached an agreement with the MTA to rezone the railyard between 30th and 33rd Streets on 11th Avenue for residential development. And by residential development, they mean luxury highrises.

Never mind that such development will obliterate my office's view of the river. I'm as selfish as the next person, and would prefer not to work next to a building site for the next five years, breathing in the dust kicked up by the backhoes and the additional exhaust from the traffic that will be idle longer than ever.

But come on, is no one in charge of city planning? What text book are they reading that encourages blocking visual and physical access to the river? What real estate forecasts are they consulting that tell them anything other than that there is a glut of upscale condominiums in Manhattan as there is?

And, of course, at the same time that they add to environmental and economic pressures on the city -- all these new buildings are going to be plugging into the same fragile electric grid that the rest of us are barely tethered to, for one; at least some of their residents will want to send their children to our already overcrowded schools, for another -- building more highrises blows yet another opportunity for New York to show some leadership on urban development (the World Trade Center site being the other recent egregious one).

Small buildings, parks, local businesses that offer more than the bland sophistication of another Banana Republic store: these are the things that encourage us to know and care about the people we live with, and don't contribute any more to climate change and energy pressures. Incidentally, they also create the kind of city many of us want to live in.

26 September 2006

What's going on

I haven't been here that much lately. Something has happened to me in the last few months; my life is changing rapidly, though from the outside, it probably doesn't look that much different.

Where to start. You know about global warming, right? It's taken a few years, but the facts have finally started to sink in. But as scary as global warming is, it still feels abstract, hurricane Katrina notwithstanding. There are two other trends that make this a particularly strange time to be alive.

First: Do you know about peak oil? Peak oil is shorthand for the idea that at some point, we will have pumped half the amount of oil that exists out of the ground. Then there will be a ever-decreasing amount of it. And while the first half of the oil supply was relatively easy to get at and out -- in early days of oil production, it took only 1 barrel of oil to get 100 out; now that ratio is closer to 1 to 3 in U.S. production and 1 to 10 in Saudi Arabia -- the rest won't be so easy. It won't be of as high quality, either. There are geologists and economists who believe we may have passed global peak oil a year or two ago; if that's the case, it will become clear in another year or two. You can read much more about peak oil here, and here, and here.

Everything about our lives in the West runs on oil and products derived from oil. Gasoline is only the most obvious. Our food travels thousands of miles in trucks and on planes. Much of our clothing and other consumer products comes on ships from China. Every plastic fork, water bottle, crayon and rubber tire you use is made from oil. Our economy depends on all those things continuing to work as they do now, and more. There’s a reason our world runs on oil; it’s a great energy source, and there is no miracle alternative out there that can come close to replacing it.

When these simple facts finally sunk in, sometime in late July, I got anxious, depressed, obsessed. I'm no longer those first two things, but obsessed, yeah, you betcha. And while on many days I have the overwhelming sense that there's nothing I can do about what's to come, because I'm not going to buy land in upstate New York and learn 19th-century survival skills (not yet, anyway), and my individual efforts to conserve energy, buy local food, and cutback on unnecessary purchases is so much spitting into the wind, there are other days when I feel: yes, we still have time; I can be a part of the movement to turn this around.

Because here's the thing: no one knows when this is going to happen, and what it’s going to look like. Some people are planning for an energy and economic crash in the next few years and are organizing their finances and learning permaculture accordingly. Others think it will be more like 30 years, in which case we may still have time to invest in alternative energy sources. But even the most optimistic oil company executives, who, after all, owe their survival to the stuff, concede that the oil will be completely gone in 150 years. They are full of shit, but even if they weren't, should we continue to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere until the gulf stream shuts down? Should we extract every bit of coal out of the earth until every child has asthma and we're all swimming in acid rain? It's possible that my great-grandchild will be alive in 150 years; it's close enough that I should feel responsible.

What's the third thing making this so worrisome? Population. 6.5 billion of us live here. 1.3 billion of us have an economy growing at the rate of 8% a year (that would be China). We only want the best for the rest of the world, or so we would say if someone asked us directly whether we'd prefer African countries remain in abject poverty or develop modern economies. But as countries get richer, they use more energy. Look at the United States. We are 4% of the world's population and use 25% of the oil. And yet, world population continues to climb, and I have a sick feeling that our world leaders are secretly hoping for an avian flu epidemic.

Now that I've dumped this all on you, what do I plan to do about it? I'm still working on that part. There are cities (Portland and San Francisco are two of them) who have passed peak oil resolutions in their city councils. The next step is to enact "energy descent" legislation that force cities to cutback their fossil fuel consumption in a wholesale way. There are people working on a plan for NYC. It will be an uphill battle to convince our political leaders and neighbors that such a thing is necessary and possible, but it's one I will join. Finally, my operations and PR experience starts to feel like it might have an important real-world application.

It's not enough, but it's a start, and it's something I can actually do. And while some of the people who I'm meeting who have similar concerns are of the conspiracy theorist crank variety, most aren't. I'm enjoying finding a new community; one that is finding a mission.

And so, while I am still going to be writing about walking, and NYC, and walking in NYC, there are going to be a lot more posts about my obsession. I know a lot. I've been following some of these issues for years, and have been fully immersed in them lately. But being well informed is not the same thing as knowing what to do. There are plenty of sites where you can get news and information about these issues, and I’d encourage you to check them out. What I'd like this blog to be is part personal observation and critique of that information and part group project in figuring out how we get from where we are now to where we'd like to be.

I hope you'll stick with me.

14 September 2006

Two times, two times

Back in the 80s, Seventeen Magazine ran a regular feature about the trials and tribulations of being a teen, written by a fictional girl named Sylvia Smith-Smith. The joke, of course, was that her parents were both named Smith, and had avant gardedly hyphenated their family name. It was funny only because hyphenating was just starting to come into the mainstream; people wondered what would happen when one hyphenate married another? Would their children have four last names?

I haven't heard of anyone with that particular problem -- though I haven't picked up a Seventeen in a while; maybe they have a new character named Sally Smith-Smith-Jones-Smith by now -- but in today's New York Times, in an article about the first immigrant to set foot on Ellis Island, was this:

It’s a classic go-West-young-woman tale riddled with tragedy,” said Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, a professional genealogist. “If only it were true.”


Mrs. Smolenyak Smolenyak (a genealogist’s dream: she’s a Smolenyak married to a previously unrelated Smolenyak) became interested in Annie Moore four years ago while researching a documentary film on immigration. Pursuing the paper trail, she found that the Annie who died instantly when struck by a streetcar near Fort Worth in 1923 was not an immigrant at all but was apparently born in Illinois. Moreover, she traced that Moore family to Texas as early as 1880.

11 September 2006

Five years on

I wasn't going to do anything special for the 9/11 anniversary -- except go to a lecture on alternative energy this evening, though that's only tangentially related -- but I ended up taking the day off work at the last minute. This was the first year that 9/11 fell on a weekday that I worked in an office. I didn't want to be with co-workers who mostly weren't living in the city five years ago.

Watching the reading of the names of the WTC victims, I cried every time someone stumbled over the name of their loved one -- this year's readers were all "spouses, partners and significant others", in Mayor Bloomberg's words; I like the inclusiveness: there were more than a few gay couples represented.

I knew three people killed that day, none of them close friends. I heard two of their names read, one of which was accompanied by a picture. Fred Rimmele -- the reader mispronounced his name, something that happened over and over; I hope their families weren't hurt by it -- a college classmate of mine, was pictured in his doctor's white coat and stethescope. He was by all accounts, a good doctor, a kind and decent man. I remember him only as one of those disciplined fit people who got up at 5 a.m. to row crew in the frigid waters of the Connecticut River.

The other was Marnie Pont, who turned out to have been Marnie Pont O'Connell. I didn't know she was married. Why would I? She was two years behind me in elementary school; our older brothers were friends. I remember them having what would these days be called a play date at our house one time and making each crack up over the "sometimes you feel like a nut" tv ad for Almond Joy. About Marnie I mostly remember that when the 5th and 6th grade girls of P.S. 41 had a night of sex ed in the school auditorium, her name was murmured authoritatively among the sophisticated 6th graders as an "early developer".

I can no longer remember the name of the third person I knew who died, a former co-worker who had started his job in the WTC only the week before. I thought I remembered his name was Terrence Smith, but that name isn't in the list of the dead. He had been a professional basketball player in Europe. He was married and had two children. He worked in the IT department at CitySearch and was always friendly.

These are the things you remember about people you don't know well. A general outline that could describe anyone and little hints about who they might have been, what worlds they left behind.

06 September 2006

Big Oil Find?

Three oil companies announced today that they had discovered an oil reserve in the "ultra-deep water" in the Gulf of Mexico. This is the most significant oil find in the United States in 20 years. It will take another year to prove that these 3 to 15 billion barrels can be usefully brought up, and at least 5 before they would start hitting the market.

3 to 15 billion barrels. Does that sound like a lot? The United States currently uses more than 7 billion barrels of oil a year. So, no, it's not very much at all, but the share prices of the companies -- Chevron, Devon Energy and Statoil ASA -- all rose on the news.

Two more years of U.S.-controlled oil is not a bad thing, but this is the kind of news that allows people to kid themselves that peak oil isn't a major concern. We'll keep finding new fields, see?