Sea Change

Firstly, I’d like to apologize for my sporadic attendance on this blog as I attempt to surf the collapsing wave that is the “opening” of the New York City school system:

Jesus, make up your damn mind! “We’re opening!” “We’re closing!” “We’re happy about it!” “We’re mad about it!” “You do the hokey-pokey and you turn yourself around, that’s what 2020 is all about!”

Anyway, when last I posted I mentioned climate change, and then yesterday I came across this:

Rumors of New York’s demise are exaggerated. The other day more than 160 business leaders wrote Mayor Bill de Blasio about “widespread anxiety over public safety, cleanliness and other quality-of-life issues.” The city is in many ways back to life.

Is it really though? I was in Midtown the other day and all the boarded-up storefronts indicated otherwise.

Nevertheless, I would agree with the following:

But City Hall had been running low on leadership and good ideas before the pandemic. New York needs them both now.

Except…a “Climate Center?”

Before I go on, I should state that I’m not a climate change denier. If the data says the climate is changing then the climate is changing, and if the evidence indicates that human activity is contributing to it then human activity is contributing to it. Certainly it’s hard to imagine that all those factories and vehicles and chemicals and cow farts aren’t having some kind of measurable and lasting impact. And of course the human population has exploded recently:

[I hastily pulled this chart of the Internet and cannot vouch for its accuracy. Though, in my defense, arguably that same disclaimer applies to pretty much anything you see in any media these days.]

For millennia our numbers were tiny, we made stuff out of rocks and sticks, and we died when we were like 26. Now there’s roughly a gazillion of us, we live for nearly a century, and a typical modern family burns more fuel in a day than the entire world population in 1750 burned in a year. (I just totally made that up, I have no idea how many dead whales it took for the people of 1750 to have heat and light, or how that compares to our energy consumption today.) So basically the idea that human activity is profoundly affecting the world around us doesn’t strike me as particularly controversial or mind-blowing.

At the same time, I’m overcome by douche chills every time some politician spouts climate change platitudes in response to some disaster, or some advocate claims New York City will be underwater soon because the NIMBYs want their on-street parking, or some company sells you even more disposable shit on the basis that it’s “sustainable.” As I alluded to in my last post, as humans we remain highly susceptible to the primitive notion that we’re eternally on the verge of some Old Testament-style punishment for our evil ways, and whether it’s the Pope during the middle ages or the politicians today there will always be people and interests who prey upon that fear to advance their agendas. So for this reason, the Climate Center–or at least the article about the Climate Center, I suppose that’s an important distinction–also gave me the douche chills:

Now the West is ablaze. A Washington Post story this week describes two glaciers in Antarctica whose imminent collapse could raise global sea levels 10 feet. Covid-19, and America’s feeble response to it, dominate the headlines — but what has the pandemic proved if not that apocalyptic threats, man-made or otherwise, require preparedness, coordination, public education and fresh thinking?

Is that the lesson, really? As I mentioned some months back, all our lives we’ve been hearing dire predictions and seeing scary models about pretty much everything:

If we learn anything from 2020, it should be that, while we need to be vigilant, we also need to stop freaking the fuck out over scary models. Whether it’s The Climate or The Pando (or increasingly both, since lately people have been trying to link one with the other), the fearmongers have increasingly been advancing the notion that [Scary Problem X] has put us all on a collision course with certain death, but that this calamity is totally avoidable–just as long as we completely dispense with the idea of living life as we know it. Furthermore, underpinning the proposed response to [Scary Problem X] seems to be a paradoxically hubristic and self-hating notion that humanity is distinct from the world and not part of it, and that our existence is somehow inherently unnatural (or, you know, a “plague”), and that any endeavor we do undertake should somehow be magically devoid of consequence. We seem unwilling to grapple with the notion that human existence is also natural, and that the consequences of our existence are natural too.

That’s not saying we shouldn’t be mindful of the environment or that policy shouldn’t protect it. However, it is to say there’s a big difference between not shitting where you eat and not shitting at all. Furthermore, the most dire prognostications have a funny way of not coming true, which is why hitching your idealistic wagon to them is ultimately self-defeating. The reason it’s bad there are too many cars New York City isn’t because Manhattan will be underwater one day; it’s because there isn’t enough room for them all, and you’ll that much more likely to get hit by one of them right fucking now.

So if anything, building a Climate Center on Governor’s Island seems like an enduring monument to the fact that we haven’t learned shit. Regardless of what you think of our response to The Pando, I’d venture it’s safe to say one of the positive outcomes will prove to be the realization that we don’t need to travel so much. Not everybody has to sit in traffic every morning just to sit some more in front of a computer in an office and then sit in even more traffic on the way home. It’s not always necessary to fly all the way across the country or around the world just to attend a business meeting. Businesses don’t necessarily need massive, expensive resource-intensive headquarters in order to function. It’s easy to see how, once we stop panicking and start living again, these revelations could facilitate a shift towards a more efficient way of life.

Given this, the idea of a Climate Center seems almost comically outdated, like Netflix opening a brick-and-mortar video rental store. Also, here’s the 500-year floodplain for Governors Island by 2050 according to the City of New York:

I’m not sure if this means they’re confident that the geniuses at the Climate Center will have this problem licked before then, or if it means they’re not as afraid of climate change as they’re telling us we should be. To be fair, the article addresses this:

There’s a clear climate risk to building a climate research center on the waterfront. The trust counters that the island is, in fact, an ideal petri dish and laboratory for climate adaptation. It’s an argument. Part of the ingenuity of West 8’s design was to strategize protections that worked during Hurricane Sandy.

Still, it feels a little bit like building your geological research center on the rim of an active volcano.

Of course it’s entirely possible–probable, even–that I’m just a cynical douchebag who’s gainsaying a project that might potentially play a significant role in making the world a better place. If that bothers you, please bear in mind that this is a blog, and as such every word on it is worth precisely the “paper” upon which it is printed. However, I can’t help feeling how I feel, and when I read this article I feel like I did back when the proposal for every bit of underutilized land in New York City used to be “Build a Velodrome!”

[One of various velodrome projects that have been floated over the years.]

See, adorably, during the height of the fixie craze, there was this collective delusion that the popularity of these contraptions would somehow translate into some kind of track racing boom. Therefore we should build velodromes everywhere, because if we did track racing would once again become the most popular sport in America, like it was back in the late 19th century or whatever.

Of course, what really happened was that instead fixed-gear crits became a thing for awhile, track racing remained the obscure freakshow it’s always been, and then once the whole Red Hook Crit thing petered out everyone moved away from fixies and instead became obsessed with wide tires and converting 26-inch mountain bikes into 650b bikepacking rigs so they could ride around Brooklyn pretending to be Ultraromance.

In this sense I can’t shake my suspicion that the Climate Center is basically the new velodrome: a venue to house an ideal more than an actual need. (I do of course realize that some would apply that characterization to the entire City of New York, which is fair enough.) Anyway, obviously the correct answer is to turn Governors Island into a bike park. Because that would be rad.

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