Climate Crisis Summit

Climate scientist Peter Kalmus, a friend of Root Simple and a guest on our podcast (116 and 39), took a long train trip this past week to be a part of the Climate Crisis Summit in Iowa with Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Here’s what Peter had to say on the Twitters,

I’ve found two articles since Bernie’s climate summit. One in NYT which focused condescendingly on the “buddy movie” aspect (not climate), and one in the Iowa State Daily that led with a climate denier. This event was a huge deal. The media continues to fail on climate.

In the interest of not failing on climate here at Root Simple I’ve embedded the summit in its entirety.

Our Hot Streets Are an Opportunity

I can’t remember where I got this idea from but I think it was Alissa Walker or someone she was writing about who had the bright idea to go out and check the temperature of our streets on a hot day with a IR thermometer. Since I have one of these handy gadgets for firing up my pizza oven, I thought I’d head out in the neighborhood at around 2:30 in the afternoon and take some temperature readings.

The asphalt in front of our house measured an egg-frying, temperature of 135.3º F (57.3 C).

A rare, tree-lined Los Angeles street one block over was a lot cooler at 80.9º F (27.1º C).

A few blocks north, and to much fanfare, our city coated an asphalt street with a gray coating as part of a “cool pavement” program. The temp on this street was 120.8º F (49.3º C).

Being a crank I have two conclusions:

1. Let’s plant trees.

2. How about instead of painting streets gray we do something really radical and pull them up entirely and start cooling people rather than serving cars?

According to the Los Angeles Times, “Recent research has found that when manufacturing emissions are taken into account, most cool pavements hurt the climate more than they help.”

So, as is typical for our mayor Eric Garcetti it’s all about the press conference and not so much about the actual science. The one glimmer of hope that I have is that people younger than myself are catching on to the empty gestures of neo-liberal, pseudo-environmental politicians like Garcetti and the rest of the Los Angeles City Council. They are beginning to see a more radical alternative to business as usual. As Mark Fisher says in a book everyone should read, Capitalist Realism Is There No Alternative?,

The long, dark night of the end of history has to be grasped as an enormous opportunity. The very oppressive pervasiveness of capitalist realism means that even glimmers of alternative political and economic possibilities can have a disproportionately great effect. The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.

So how about we tear a hole in these hot streets and plant some trees?

Le Phone Freak

I can’t believe how much easier my life has been since last year’s Western Electric/Apple merger and their introduction of a new card dialer. No more fumble-fingered spins of the dial! No more explaining rotary dialing to visiting young folks!

With the handy cards I can easily share all my contacts with friends instead of scribbling numbers on a napkin.

Of course, with all these handy dialing cards I’m beginning to forget my friend’s phone numbers when I need to use a pay phone. Maybe Western Electric/Apple will introduce a pay phone that accepts cards?

Okay, enough of the silliness. What caught my eye with this oddball piece of transitional phone technology is the punch card, invented in the early 19th century to control looms. I’m tackling Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow this spring after one failed attempt to read it in the 1990s. The book is full of loom metaphors such as this one, “While the great Loom of God works in darkness above,/And our trials here below are but threads of His Love.”

The loom represents for Pynchon a way to evoke the sinister command and control of the punch card operated looms of the industrial revolution and, ultimately, the semi-autonomous V2 rockets of the Nazis. As novelist and (superb) podcaster Michael S. Judge has pointed out, Pynchon’s book is eerily prescient, seeming to foresee an era when we’re all monitored and controlled by a enormous electronic loom in the form of the interwebs.

Not that I’m in favor of going backwards, but sometimes I can’t help but be nostalgic for my simpler, less mediated, 60s/70s childhood when Western Electric was still around making sturdy, oh-so-beige gadgets like this thing.

The Institute of the Present

Eric Garcetti at a Lyft party via Twitter.

I had planned an elaborate April Fools Day post for today involving the announcement of a new book entitled The Big Book of Anecdotes for Dentists. For, you know, those awkward times when the dentist has to do a monologue while your mouth is full of dental tools. But then I asked myself why am I making fun of people who work with their hands and minds for long hours in order to alleviate suffering? If anyone deserves good pay and days off to golf, it should be dentists.

Instead I thought I’d discuss what should be an April Fools Day joke but isn’t. And that is Los Angeles’ mayor Eric Garcetti’s appearance at a party last week with Lyft executives to celebrate their initial public offering on Friday. He tweeted, “L.A. is leading America’s transportation revolution, and @Lyft is a part of that promising future. Their spirit of corporate responsibility will guide the future of public-private partnerships that benefit residents first.” Keep in mind this tweet was sent out at the same time as Uber and Lyft drivers were on strike, asking for decent wages. He later tried to excuse his presence at this party saying that he was there to acknowledge an initiative of Lyft’s to donate $5 million towards transportation programs in Los Angeles.  Of course any sober economic analysis of Lyft’s impact on the city would, I’m certain, show that it costs us taxpayers way more than $5 million a year in terms of increased traffic and the cost of health care that the company doesn’t provide its “independent contractor” drivers.

Sadly, Eric Garcetti and many others in this city, instead of doing the unglamorous and often politically unpopular task of installing things like dedicated bus lanes and improvements to bike and pedestrian safety, are betting that somehow, someday technology will save us from the already unusable, congested streets of Los Angeles. This city made a bad bet back in the early 20th century on the automobile. Sadly, it’s making another bad bet now on a hoped for future of self driving cars which Lyft and Uber’s business models depend on. I had thought, ten years ago, that Los Angeles’ elected officials were beginning to imagine a future not dependent on cars but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

I’m going to stick my neck out and make a few predictions. Self driving cars won’t work unless they have dedicated lanes. Those dedicated lanes will quickly fill to capacity and we’ll be right back where we started. The artificial intelligence self driving cars depend on is a just a deceptive term for a branch of predictive statistics which may prove useful but should not be compared to human intelligence. The hoped for future that Eric Garcetti is is betting on will never arrive. Meanwhile the changes we need to make right now won’t happen and the city will continue to be congested, dysfunctional and corrupt.

Proposed Institute of the Present headquarters at the Silver Lake Reservoir.

Which leads me in this rambling post to suggest the need for the formation of an Institute of the Present. What if, instead of hoping for self-flying pie in the sky we focused on the things we could do now to make our cities more equitable, livable and, in the process, mitigate the damage of climate change? That’s where the Institute of the Present comes in. Consider the Institute of the Present as the think tank version of flossing your teeth: unpopular and unglamorous but eminently practical, preventative and forward thinking by, paradoxically, being grounded in the present moment. Think trees, affordable housing, bus lanes, trains and a lot of bikes. Our slogan? Be present!

Los Angeles: A New Beginning

From now on when I get triggered by a panel discussion featuring our mayor’s underlings, rather than run home and report on it I’m just going to make up what I’d have rather heard. This little imagined scenario was inspired by hearing the mayor’s current and former sustainability director spend an hour discussing pie in the sky notions that, in my cranky opinion, will never materialize. The mayor and his people seem to think that self flying vehicles are the solution to our current crisis. I could be wrong, but I’m willing to gift a LA River crayfish dinner in ten years time to the folks that prove my more down to earth climate change solutions notions wrong. So instead of waiting for that flying Uber, let’s trim the sails and plot a course for a different utopia . . .

Los Angeles, 2025
Enveloped in the white arc of a exploding battery, the mayor’s self driving electric limo careened off the road and ground to a halt along side of a mini mall convenience store at the corner of Temple and Alvarado. Who knew that the limo’s algorithms favored raccoons over human passengers?

Three hours later an autonomous ambulance pulled up.

“I’m Siri the paramedic,” said a disembodied voice emanating from a speaker next to a dirty and stained touch screen. “Are you okay?”

“Ugh. I think so,” said the mayor. “But I can’t see.”

“An Uber is being dispatched,” said the screen.

Later that evening, after a long and painful Uber ride, Garcetti awoke at KFC General Hospital. He would have many hours to reflect on his record as LA’s longest serving mayor while enjoying the ever popular Cheeto Chicken Sandwich™ that replaced the bland hospital fare of his youth. At his side was Lauren his sustainability minister.

The mayor put down his sandwich and began to stammer, “Bi, biiiiii bi biiiiii”

“What are you trying to say?” asked Lauren.

“Biiii, biii, biiii, biiiiiiiiii, biiiiicyyyyy . . .  bicycle,” said the mayor.

It was the first time in his many years as mayor that anyone had ever heard the mayor say the word.

“You mean those things kids use?” said Lauren.

“Maybe we could have protected lanes for them,” said the mayor. “That way you’d be safe and you wouldn’t get stuck in all the self driving car jams. Maybe more people would use them.”

“That’s insane. It will never happen,” replied Lauren. “I mean, it’s over 120º for most of the summer here now thanks to climate change.”

“Maybe that’s why we need ttttttt . . . trrrrrrr . . . trrreeeees . . . trees,” replied the mayor.

“What’s a tree?” asked Lauren.

“I think it’s some kind of self growing thing that makes oxygen and shade,” replied the mayor.

“Won’t they block the solar panels?” asked Lauren.

“Ba, ba, bu, buuuuuu . . . bus,” said the mayor.

“Huh? Mr. Mayor are you okay?” said Lauren.

“It’s . . . it’s like a car but carries over 100 people,” said the mayor.

“We’ll have to run that past minister Musk,” said Lauren as she gazed out the window.

“We could have lanes dedicated to buses,” blurted the mayor. “Maybe there could be affordable housing too?”

“With trees and bicycles? That’s impossible!” said Lauren. “How will we keep the coders employed?”

“Wait, who’s this minister Musk?” asked the mayor. “Is he that guy who accused a diver of being a ‘pedo’ so that he could buy some more time to make his own boy sized mini-submarine?”

“Really? He said that?” exclaimed Lauren.

“Yeah, I think that’s him,” replied the mayor. “Why the hell did I trust him so much?”

“Are you okay? Can I get you more Cheetos?” asked Lauren.

But all the Cheetos in the world wouldn’t bring the mayor back to his former self. Fredric Jameson once said, “it has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” But that’s just what the mayor began to imagine thanks to the unlikely conjunction of an algorithm and a raccoon.

He realized it was well past time to learn to dig not learn to code. It was time to build sea walls instead of apps, bus lanes instead of battery packs, affordable housing instead of Olympic villages. With all the freeways gone he was able to make room for gardens and orchards.

It was a new start. The people of LA were no longer consumers in a climate change crisis but, instead, neighbors working hard to assure their children’s bright future.