Monthly Archives: April 2013

The 2013 New York City Mayoral Race and Sustainability: Some Questions

Mayor Bloomberg touting the expansion of recycling in 2004.  What will his successor do?  What should New Yorkers ask his successor to do?

Mayor Bloomberg touting the expansion of recycling in 2004. What will his successor do? What should New Yorkers ask his successor to do?

The New York City mayoral race is heating up with several candidates in each of the Democratic and Republican primaries, as well as several potential independents. With the primaries this September and the general election in November, voters have a few months to get to know the various candidates.

Campaigns have reached out to seek student interns, and after a recent request, I was moved to write back with a few questions. Given the local concern over these issues, perhaps some general phrasing of these questions for all of the candidates might serve to inform voters of how New York may move forward on issues of the environment, social equity, and the economy.

While certain candidates have platforms on safe housing issues, we see few details about the current land use and zoning procedures in place in New York City. Recently, these policies (as depicted in Kelly Anderson’s documentary My Brooklyn) have been linked to the destruction of community fabric in Brooklyn as high-rise condominiums and big box commercial developments replace working-class businesses and housing. What steps (if any) will the candidates take to ensure existing communities are not destroyed and that affordable housing is readily available for working-class New Yorkers?

While candidates mention expanding recycling services, we have not heard discussions about composting food or biodegradable packaging, materials which are significant contributors to the solid waste stream. Large-scale composting would allow businesses to distribute biodegradable packaging that would otherwise sit in landfills. What specific steps do the candidates propose to expand composting? What timetable can New Yorkers expect for these composting services?

Continuing on the question of reducing local solid waste streams, thousands of plastic bags are distributed at local stores every day. These plastic bags are difficult to recycle because they jam processing equipment and they are light enough to fly out of trash cans and garbage trucks. From there, they produce visible blight in trees and threats to wildlife in our waterways. Several other communities have policies in place to limit or even eliminate plastic bags. Washington D.C., for example, has a small fee for each distributed bag. San Francisco has outright banned plastic bags in favor of paper or reusable canvas bags. Both policies have demonstrated effects at reducing plastic bags in their respective waste streams. Do the candidates support policy measures to limit plastic bag distribution, such as taxes or outright bans?

Last year, the current administration proposed developing waste-to-energy programs in the city despite a long track record of public opposition to incineration. What positions do the candidates have on WTE plants? Have they discussed the costs of maintaining and operating the plants, or the potential emissions?

Finally, it is encouraging that the CitiBike program is beginning this spring, and that New York City has a wide network of bicycle lanes. These developments are crucial elements of the PlaNYC platform on transportation. (Link opens a PDF.) That said, rare are the lanes that are not regularly abused by trucks and automobiles double-parking. What steps do the candidates propose to enforce and protect the existing bike lanes?

These are some of the important questions facing New York City. I hope the many politicians seeking to become the next mayor choose to address them in the days ahead so that the citizenry may make the best informed decision about the future of the city.

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Celebrate Earth Day: Watch the Documentary Trashed Online

sm_TRASHED_MOVIE_POSTER_A3_WEB_V3Last night, Jeremy Irons presented a new documentary he’s narrated at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s theatre.  Trashed is a global look at how our use of the waste stream — and especially plastics — has affected the land, air, and water.  For scholars of waste, the film isn’t a huge revelation.  Indeed, the summary I just gave sounds not all that far removed from the thesis of Joel Tarr’s 1996 book The Search for the Ultimate Sink.  And we may quibble about various points in the film, from a simple look at recycling to a lack of discussion of cradle to cradle design solutions to minimize waste.

Those, though, are quibbles about an otherwise impressive accomplishment.  The film presents an accessible narrative of the real threats to human and environmental health from our out-of-sight, out-of-mind waste disposal patterns.  It presents a conversation of how we can change our cultural patterns and infrastructure for more sustainable practices.  It does so with production values and a celebrity narrator who have the potential to reach a far wider audience than most scholars do.  As I mentioned to Mr. Irons, while I’m glad to have the Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage available to interested readers to learn more about the waste stream, this film will be seen by many more people than who will ever read it.  Getting the general public aware of the consequences of waste is crucial to devoting the effort and resources necessary to create those more sustainable practices.

The film has limited screenings, but anyone reading this post can see the film.  It begins streaming over the net today. Click the link at the previous sentence to watch.

Today is Earth Day.  Historian Adam Rome has a new book out about the history of Earth Day, characterizing it as an event that galvanized a disparate group of people with shared concerns, if not up to that point shared organization.  A result was a more coherent environmental movement in 1970.  In the United States, we have seen limits to action created by that organization (and a retrogressive pushback that has unfortunately transformed the Republican Party from an active agent in environmental protection to a force bent on endangering American citizens and ecosystems to the benefit of few).  Sharing Trashed with casual fans of Jeremy Irons or Vangelis, or to friends and neighbors, is an excellent way to continue the inclusive spirit of Earth Day.  Discussing our present concerns, future challenges, and future opportunities is utterly in keeping with the conversations women’s groups, college students, workers, scientists, suburbanites, Gaylord Nelson and all those who gathered 43 years ago did on the first Earth Day.

See it online.  Schedule a screening.  But watch, and discuss it.

Spaces Still Left for the Fall 2013 Sustainable Core at Pratt

How do humans live in concert with the environment?  Discuss this question in these two Fall 2013 courses.

How do humans live in concert with the environment? Discuss this question in these two Fall 2013 courses.

An update on my two sustainability seminars at Pratt for Fall 2013.  Each of these courses may count as a Social Science or Philosophy elective, and there are no prerequisites for any of them.

SS 490-24 Production, Consumption, and Waste has filled to capacity.  The seminar examines the ways production and consumption patterns from the start of the Industrial Revolution to the present day have shaped the waste stream, the ways we have defined and handled waste, the consequences of that waste, and ways in which we might reduce the impact of our waste.  Here’s a quick summary:

SS 490-24 Production, Consumption, and Waste
What happens to the trash we toss in dumpsters?  How do we determine what waste is, and why do we make so much of it?  Learn about the environmental and social consequences of mass production and disposal (past and present), and ways to make the waste stream safer.

Fall 2013: Tuesdays, 2pm-4:50pm.  3 credit hours.

The range of topics will in many ways resemble the scope of the Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage, as I kept in mind that reference work’s utility in the classroom when I was editing it.  (Students will not have to buy that book, let alone lug it around!)

While Production, Consumption, and Waste has filled up, space is still available in my other course — and it’s an especially good choice for students wishing to get an introduction to the practice of sustainability both at Pratt and in general.  I am leading a team of Pratt Institute faculty teaching the third offering of SUST 201P The Sustainable Core.  This course is designed as our introduction to sustainability, and it is a required course for Pratt’s Sustainability Studies minor.

SUST 201P The Sustainable Core
This course provides an overview of sustainability by exploring definitions, controversies, trends, and case-studies in various systems and locales (urban/rural, local/national/global). Investigation of critical elements of sustainability, including environmental history and urban ecology, sustainable development and landscape transformations, recycling/waste management, ecosystem restoration, and environmental justice.

Fall 2013: Mondays, 2pm-4:50pm.  3 credit hours.

This course may count as a Social Science or Philosophy elective, and there are no prerequisites for any of them. If you are a Pratt student and have any questions for me about these courses, please feel free to contact me at czimring@pratt.edu.

Trashed Documentary at BAM Sunday April 21

sm_TRASHED_MOVIE_POSTER_A3_WEB_V3In advance of Earth Day, BAM hosts the documentary film Trashed Sunday evening at 7pm along with a Q&A period with its narrator Jeremy Irons.

We buy it, we bury it, we burn it and then we ignore it. Does anyone think about what happens to all the trash we produce? We keep making things that do not break down. We have all heard these horrifying facts before, but with Jeremy Irons as our guide, we discover what happens to the billion or so tons of waste that goes unaccounted for each year. On a boat in the North Pacific he faces the reality of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the effect of plastic waste on marine life. We learn that chlorinated dioxins and other man-made Persistent Organic Pollutants are attracted to the plastic fragments. These are eaten by fish, which absorb the toxins. We then eat the fish, accumulating more poisonous chemicals in our already burdened bodies. Meanwhile, global warming, accelerated by these emissions from landfill and incineration, is melting the ice-caps and releasing decades of these old poisons, which had been stored in the ice, back into the sea. And we learn that some of the solutions are as frightening and toxic as the problem itself.

For tickets and information, please visit the BAM website.

Update on Fall 2013 Pratt Sustainability Courses

How do humans live in concert with the environment?  Discuss this question in these two Fall 2013 courses.

How do humans live in concert with the environment? Discuss this question in these two Fall 2013 courses.

An update on my two sustainability seminars at Pratt for Fall 2013.  Each of these courses may count as a Social Science or Philosophy elective, and there are no prerequisites for any of them.

SS 490-24 Production, Consumption, and Waste has two seats available as of this morning.  The seminar examines the ways production and consumption patterns from the start of the Industrial Revolution to the present day have shaped the waste stream, the ways we have defined and handled waste, the consequences of that waste, and ways in which we might reduce the impact of our waste.  Here’s a quick summary:

SS 490-24 Production, Consumption, and Waste
What happens to the trash we toss in dumpsters?  How do we determine what waste is, and why do we make so much of it?  Learn about the environmental and social consequences of mass production and disposal (past and present), and ways to make the waste stream safer.

Fall 2013: Tuesdays, 2pm-4:50pm.  3 credit hours.

The range of topics will in many ways resemble the scope of the Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage, as I kept in mind that reference work’s utility in the classroom when I was editing it.  (Students will not have to buy that book, let alone lug it around!)

I am also leading a team of Pratt Institute faculty teaching the third offering of SUST 201P The Sustainable Core.  This course is designed as our introduction to Sustainability Studies, is an excellent way to get familiar with the many ways sustainability is practiced at Pratt, and will be required for students opting to minor in Sustainability Studies (an option that is coming soon — watch this blog for details).

SUST 201P The Sustainable Core
This course provides an overview of sustainability by exploring definitions, controversies, trends, and case-studies in various systems and locales (urban/rural, local/national/global). Investigation of critical elements of sustainability, including environmental history and urban ecology, sustainable development and landscape transformations, recycling/waste management, ecosystem restoration, and environmental justice.

Fall 2013: Mondays, 2pm-4:50pm.  3 credit hours.

Both of these courses may count as a Social Science or Philosophy elective, and there are no prerequisites for any of them. If you are a Pratt student and have any questions for me about these courses, please feel free to contact me at czimring@pratt.edu.

Update on Fall 2013 Pratt Sustainability Courses

How do humans live in concert with the environment?  Discuss this question in these two Fall 2013 courses.

How do humans live in concert with the environment? Discuss this question in these two Fall 2013 courses.

An update on my two sustainability seminars at Pratt for Fall 2013.  Each of these courses may count as a Social Science or Philosophy elective, and there are no prerequisites for any of them.  (I will have news soon on something else students may do with these courses. Watch this space.)

SS 490-24 Production, Consumption, and Waste has three seats available as of this morning. (Friday afternoon update.  Two seats remain available.)  The seminar examines the ways production and consumption patterns from the start of the Industrial Revolution to the present day have shaped the waste stream, the ways we have defined and handled waste, the consequences of that waste, and ways in which we might reduce the impact of our waste.  Here’s a quick summary:

SS 490-24 Production, Consumption, and Waste
What happens to the trash we toss in dumpsters?  How do we determine what waste is, and why do we make so much of it?  Learn about the environmental and social consequences of mass production and disposal (past and present), and ways to make the waste stream safer.

Fall 2013: Tuesdays, 2pm-4:50pm.  3 credit hours.

The range of topics will in many ways resemble the scope of the Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage, as I kept in mind that reference work’s utility in the classroom when I was editing it.  (Students will not have to buy that book, let alone lug it around!)

I am also leading a team of Pratt Institute faculty teaching the third offering of SUST 201P The Sustainable Core.  This course is designed as our introduction to sustainability and is an excellent way to get familiar with the many ways sustainability is practiced at Pratt.

SUST 201P The Sustainable Core
This course provides an overview of sustainability by exploring definitions, controversies, trends, and case-studies in various systems and locales (urban/rural, local/national/global). Investigation of critical elements of sustainability, including environmental history and urban ecology, sustainable development and landscape transformations, recycling/waste management, ecosystem restoration, and environmental justice.

Fall 2013: Mondays, 2pm-4:50pm.  3 credit hours.

Both of these courses may count as a Social Science or Philosophy elective, and there are no prerequisites for any of them. If you are a Pratt student and have any questions for me about these courses, please feel free to contact me at czimring@pratt.edu.

The Journalist Roger Ebert

PulitzerEbertI grew up with Roger Ebert. He was on TV, yes, but even as a kid, I read him more than I watched him. He was, from 1967 until his death this week, the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. We were a Sun-Times family, favoring the tabloid’s focus on what was going on in the city over the larger, more conservative Tribune’s coverage of the suburbs, the Board of Trade, and the hated, hated Cubs. The Sun-Times shaped my reading habits, starting with the comics, then the obituaries (placed near the comics and usually as short and repetitive, familiarizing me with words like “injuries,” “survived by,” and “visitation”), sports, entertainment, and the front page.

My timing was good. In the five years between the damp March day in 1978 when the late great afternoon Daily News was folded into the Sun-Times and Rupert Murdoch gutting the paper in 1983, it was home to a large stable of accomplished journalists. Some, like Mike Royko, Irv Kupcinet, and Ann Landers, were local and national celebrities. Others, like Pam Zekman, Zay Smith, Art Petacque, Robert Feder, and Lloyd Sachs, might have less familiar names, but no less impressive work under publisher James Hoge. Zekman and Smith collaborated on a series of articles in which the Sun-Times created a bar (the aptly-named Mirage) to reveal local corruption in the regulation of taverns. Eight-year-old me read each installment, fascinated by new words like “shakedown” and “graft.” Visiting the front page after reading Bill Gleason and John Schulian lament the fortunes of my beloved White Sox was as much of my education as anything I learned in third grade.

And every Friday, Roger Ebert published several movie reviews. By this point, Ebert had already won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, but I was too young to realize or appreciate this honor. I just liked his writing, clear, descriptive, prolific, comprehensive. I appreciated it all the more when John Belushi (who with his partner Dan Aykroyd, made a big-budget love letter to Chicago called The Blues Brothers that opened the doors to Hollywood productions in my home town) died of a drug overdose in 1982. The Sun-Times had plenty of capable writers, but Ebert wrote the succinct yet by no means detached obituary that ran hours after the body was found. (And followed up on Belushi after Bob Woodward’s Wired came out two years later with a thoughtful essay that was a hallmark of his work.) That obituary made me appreciate how Ebert could write so many good reviews each week. He was prolific, he was fast, but he was also literate.

And loyal to his paper. Murdoch bought the Sun-Times in 1983 and quickly set to work turning it into Chicago’s version of the New York Post with screaming headlines, Wingo games, and right-wing editorials. Many of the writers who earned the paper its Pulitzers fled, led by Mike Royko, who jumped to the rival Tribune. Ebert stayed, remarking: “It’s not Murdoch’s paper. It’s my paper. He only bought it.”

He outlasted Murdoch, who sold the paper a couple years later in order to purchase WFLD-TV and a string of other stations nationwide that would form the Fox Network. In Murdoch’s place came Canadian media baron Conrad Black, who would eventually go to prison for his personal reallocation of company funds. Before Black’s conviction came some high-profile labor squabbles with the employees he robbed; despite Ebert being a wealthy celebrity, the critic sided with his fellow workers. Black criticized him, which was about as smart an idea as a drunk in a bar taking a swing at Mike Tyson.

Ebert responded by summarizing the charges against Black and how they were related to the labor dispute: “You can imagine my dismay when I read auditor’s reports indicating the company was run as a ‘kleptocracy,’ and that, between you, you allegedly pocketed 97 percent of Hollinger’s profits. This while the escalators in the building were actually turned off to save on electricity and maintenance. It is hard to believe that the departing millions were not somehow related to compensation levels at the Sun-Times, since management pleaded poverty in its negotiations.”

Black went to prison. Ebert stayed at the Sun-Times. By this point, he had already started his fight with cancer, initially undergoing surgery in 2002. Four years later, he nearly bled to death when his carotid artery (weakened by radiation) burst. Resulting surgery removed his jaw and speaking voice.

But it did not silence him. Already a prolific blogger (in addition to reviewing hundreds of films each year), Ebert intensified his writing with longer essays on film, society, politics, and his personal history. Sometimes two or three long essays would come out in a week, joined by half a dozen film reviews. The volume was matched by the quality. As he approached his late sixties, Ebert was recognized by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences with a Webby Award.

The long form of his essays, including personal stories remembered with astonishingly acute recall for details, led to a memoir published in 2011. The work Ebert did after he lost his jaw is his finest writing, more than 40 years after he first joined the Sun-Times.

Ebert stayed at the paper to the end, 46 years in total. He broke his hip last December, which turned out to be due to a recurrence of cancer. This finally slowed his writing down, but did not stop it. In his final month, he stayed engaged in the events of the world, writing about the election of the new pope and the economic interests preventing action on climate change.

On March 18, he wrote:

I have watched with a kind of petrified fascination in recent years as the world creeps closer to what looks to me like disastrous climate change. The poles are melting. Ocean levels are rising. The face of the planet is torn by unprecedented natural disasters. States of emergency have become so routine that governors always seem to be proclaiming one. Do they have drafts of proclamations on file?

The political responses to this condition seem to fall along party lines. Democrats think legislation is needed Republicans don’t want the feds interfering with private enterprise. Vested interests weigh in. Pork barrel projects are protected by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Washington fiddles. Earth burns.

I get stirred up more than many people, because I see so many documentaries. Yes, they’re “biased.” There’s much less motivation for an “unbiased” documentary. Docs are usually made by people who have something they think you should know. There is little motivation for objectivity, something people forget when yet another doc comes along. And there are so many causes! Genetically modified crops! Chemical fertilizers! Trademarked genomes! The downside to wind power! An explosive-blowing doc like Chasing Ice comes along, and hardly causes a stir.

I write an entry. It rounds up the usual comments. We’re stuck. Just today, however, a glimmer of hope shone on the political front. I read on Bloomberg: “President Barack Obama is preparing to tell all federal agencies for the first time that they should consider the impact on global warming before approving major projects, from pipelines to highways.”

“Consider.” Not the most electrifying word I can imagine. Yet consider the response. I read on: “It’s got us very freaked out,” said Ross Eisenberg, vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers, a Washington-based group that represents 11,000 companies such as Exxon Mobil Corp. and Southern Co. The standards, which constitute guidance for agencies and not new regulations, are set to be issued in the coming weeks, according to lawyers briefed by administration officials.

“Freaked out.” You know what has me freaked out? I consider it a real possibility that millions now living will die as a result of the interests of the National Association of Manufacturers and its 11,000 members….

This time the line has not been drawn on a map. This time the enemy, if we can use the word in this context, is an American lobbyist group. They seem focused on maximizing profits and shareholder benefits, at the cost of any environmental conscience. It seems possible that their policies will lead to a different kind of seasonal calendar. Instead of Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall, this new generation will know Blizzard, Flood, Heat and Fire. Month follows month as the seasons tear themselves apart….

Today, the Sun-Times is a skeleton of its former self, having had several rounds of layoffs and buyouts after Conrad Black raided its accounts and the 2008 economic collapse. The economic shocks of the transition to digital media have hurt many papers, and the Sun-Times is no exception. At the time of his death, Roger Ebert was the last great link to the paper’s 1970s prominence under Hoge and its brightest internet presence (measured both in terms of his popularity and his quality).

Roger Ebert was an old-school journalist, prolific and literary, yet unpretentious and accessible. In this way he reminded me of another legendary Chicagoan, Studs Terkel. As he got older, he became more prolific, and embraced new media to reach more and different people. In the near future, his massive archive of writings will be reorganized for accessibility, but no new essays will arrive. I will miss that. We were lucky to have him as long as we did.