A Change is Gonna Come

All good things must come to an end. Especially good neighborhoods. Look at some of the neighborhoods in New York City. Greenwich Village was known for its bohemian culture from the mid-nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth. Jackson Pollack and Bob Dylan lived there, pre-fame. The East Village was known for punks like The Ramones and artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat. Williamsburg, Brooklyn was the center of cool when I was living in New York. Even then, it was becoming commercialized and taken over by investment bankers.

But before the I-bankers come, it’s the artists who do the displacement. The East Village was originally home to poor Russians and Ukrainians. Williamsburg was mainly Hasidic Jews and Puerto Ricans. It seems the cycle is that neighborhoods start poor, artist and musicians move in, it becomes hip, the rich move in, it becomes expensive and full of Duane Reades, then everyone who made it hip moves somewhere else. You can see the same trend playing out in Seattle, in Ballard, and more so Capitol Hill. Replace investment bankers with Amazonians.

It also seems that the speed at which neighborhoods change is accelerating. Greenwich Village was cool at least beginning from the 1850’s, when the Hudson River School painters opened shop there, to nearly the end of the twentieth century. The gentrification of Williamsburg took place on a much shorter timeline. Beginning in the mid-1990s, it probably reached peak-hipster in the early to mid 2000’s. Today, signifying full maturity, it has a Whole Foods.

Maybe the main culprit for the acceleration of changing neighborhoods is the ease with which people move around the country. For $54 a promising young coder can take a Greyhound from Detroit to New York City. In cities that have geographical constraints—like Seattle, San Francisco, or NYC—the effects of in-migration are magnified.

When I was an undergrad, I was part of a group that biked across the country to raise money and awareness for people with disabilities. I learned that there are people in need all over the country—and, therefore, jobs to be had. The Federal Government could, for example, spend to create jobs that service the disabled in West Texas. Or to hire more teachers in small town schools. Or to open rural health clinics. This sort of spending would allow people to live in smaller towns across the country. The people would be healthier and the children smarter. The towns would flourish. And maybe eventually they’d open a Duane Reade in Muleshoe, TX, rather than on the corner of 10th and Pike.

Patience Is a Virtue

It’s gotten to the point that no one can agree on anything. It’s widely reported that ninety-five percent of climate scientists affirm that mankind is the cause of climate change. Yet, 31% of Americans still don’t think humans are responsible. Only 27% of Americans believe that 95% of climate scientists think that humans are responsible. How will we ever be able to agree on the facts?

Maybe climate change needs a rebranding. Could whoever got smoking cigarettes to be “cool” make climate change uncool? I don’t know. Could shorter showers and a low flow valve ever seem cool? Maybe if this was country a country full of nerds. What about appealing to our better angels? Could living more sustainably ever be the equivalent of giving up your seat to an old lady on the bus? I still see a lot of old ladies standing on the bus.

My friend’s mother-in-law once asked me, Why worry about climate change if we’re all going to be dead anyway? Questions like these make me think it would be better to drop the whole thing and start over.

Break it down. Selling milk in bags is more sustainable than selling it in cartons. Do people buy milk in bags because they want to be more environmentally friendly? I doubt it. Buying milk in bags is cheaper and it’s available. Do people use coal power because they like burning polluting, non-renewable fossil fuels? Probably some, who are jerks. But most people do it because it’s cheap and available. People don’t buy Teslas because they want to offset climate change.

The key to reducing mankind’s negative effect on the climate might be patience. Money is pouring into renewables like wind and solar energy. In many places, you can put solar cells on your roof for no upfront cost and pay a lower energy bill than if you were relying on the grid. As renewables gain traction due to their lower marginal cost, oil and coal will lose economies of scale and become more expensive. It’s just a matter of time before the technology is there. Hopefully it’s not too late.

Climate Change: Let Someone Else Deal With It

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As far as I can tell, my life has been unaffected by climate change. I got rained on by Hurricane Matthew at a wedding in North Carolina. And Seattle had an unusually dry winter a couple years ago. These events were surely the result of climate change, but I otherwise haven’t felt any immediate consequences. It’s ironic that the area in the United States most affected by Climate Change is the Southeast—more frequent and intense hurricanes, flooding in Florida, etc.—and they seem to be the least vocal about it curbing it. Meanwhile in Seattle everything seems fine on the surface, yet we’re much more activist.

Part of the problem is that Climate Change has been politicized. Generally, people on the Left think humans are responsible, whereas people on the Right don’t. Even though most climate scientists say that humans are the cause of climate change, many Americans remain unconvinced—it’s like another reality. However, it’s questionable that even if every day Americans rallied and wrote to their Congressmen and Congresswomen, it would move the needle.

A study by Princeton professors Gilens and Page found that a policy backed by voter opinion had an average chance of passing in Congress of 31%. If it was not favored by the public, the chance of passing fell to 30%. Further, bills supported by the richest 10% of Americans had a 65% chance of passing. And bills opposed by the rich, but with the support of the public, had basically no chance.

I wish that things individuals can do—recycling, taking shorter showers—could have a meaningful impact on the climate, but they don’t. We need to make changes at a much larger scale. It was encouraging to read the New York Times article about Big Business, having seen climate change affecting profits, acting more sustainably. I think to have a meaningful impact on climate change we first need to rebrand it so that it isn’t a political issue. Hopefully, that would give a mass of support to businesses that operate sustainably. Businesses can then influence policy. We can send mean tweets to those who don’t.

Better Cities Through (In)convenience

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People who live in New York City seldom travel more than a few subway stops if they don’t have to. When I first moved to the city, I thought it seemed like a stubborn habit—something New Yorkers would gripe about just because it was a New Yorker thing to do. I lived on Wall Street, Downtown, for several months and my roommates would balk at the idea of going out on the Upper West Side, about a 20-minute subway ride away. But the longer I lived there, the more of a pain it became to travel even short distances. Two of my best friends lived just one stop away, in Brooklyn, but you had to cross the East River to get there. This was as much a psychological barrier as a physical one. I felt travel-weary every time I went over there, so weeks would pass without seeing them. Call me lazy.

Living in Seattle now, I regularly drive 30 minutes to Issaquah to visit friends. What’s the difference? Maybe in New York, having so many options—restaurants, bars, culture, history, Amazon Prime Now—at your fingertips makes relatively short commutes seem pointless. Or maybe it’s that every time you step out your door you’re facing down 8.5 million people—fast-walking, slow-walking, loud-talking people—and the thought of that is downright exhausting.

However, this sort of neighborhood xenophobia gives such great character to each block of the city. Whatever causes New Yorkers to want stay local, it seems there are two ways for other cities to encourage this behavior: make it easy to stay local, make it hard to do anything else. Thoughtful higher density would allow Seattle to support more interesting local shops, restaurants, galleries, and services within walking distance of more people (no street parking, no problem). There would be so much to do nearby that just the thought of leaving your neighborhood would make you want to curl into a little ball and not move at all.

Transit, Quick and Easy

I lived in New York City for about a year and a half. I found that people my age came in one of two types. One was that you earned enough money to live, but didn’t have any time. Or two, you had enough time, but didn’t have enough money to live. I was the second type. Every month, I kept one paycheck for myself and gave the other to my landlord. What was left, I spent on frozen orange chicken from Trader Joe’s and watery $5 beers at Brother Jimmy’s.

When I moved back to Seattle, people often asked me what I missed most about the city. Half-joking, I replied: the subway. There are a lot of things about New York that I miss more than its hot, crowded, steamy subway system—bagels, for one—but it’s just so dang easy to get around there. For about $2.50 and 30 minutes, you can get just about anywhere you want in the city. As someone who didn’t have much money, the subway made New York City accessible.

My experience with public transportation in New York has made me excited for the extension of the light rail in Seattle. Granted, our system will never offer the convenience of New York’s, which began construction 100 years ago with cheap labor. But the light rail could provide the backbone for diverse transportation modes.

Seattle could learn something from the transportation network from Nairobi, which also has high barriers to implementing rail lines. Nairobi has an informal transit system made up of matatus (minivans) and piki pikis (motorbikes). Matatus run on informal routes around the city. A driver drives, while a conductor swings open the sliding door and collects cash from riders—sometimes 16 people are crammed in a van. There are loosely designated stops that matatus stop at, but often you just flag one down as it drives by. When you want to get out, you simply tell the conductor. Piki pikis tend to hang out on corners and in front of shops—generally you can’t go more than a couple blocks without seeing a group huddled together. Walk up to one, ask them to take you where you’d like to go, haggle a bit about price, and you’re on your way.

If Seattle’s formal transit system adopted the aspects of Nairobi’s informal system, you might see higher transit participation. Imagine a system of Metro minibuses (or motorbikes) zooming about Seattle. You’re walking along the street, turn your head, and see one coming along. You flag it down and ask the conductor, “Heading near Safeco?”

“Yep,” he says, and you hop right in. Three bucks. Venmo is fine.

What Will Happen with Energy?

With his frequent flip-flopping on any number of matters, who knows where Donald Trump truly stands on energy and the environment? You might start by looking at the president’s cabinet picks. Trump, having claimed Climate Change to be a hoax, appointed another skeptic, former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. Trump’s choice of Rex Tillerson, the former ExxonMobile CEO, for Secretary of State suggests a soft spot for oil and gas. And Trump nominated former Texas governor Rick Perry for Secretary of Energy despite Perry’s having once called for the department’s closure…after forgetting its name.

However, whether Perry will suggest action that is environmentally friendly remains to be seen. In fact, some sources have proposed that he could be a “champion” of clean energy. As governor of Texas, Perry improved the state’s energy infrastructure to get wind-generated electricity from West Texas onto the grid. Perry also advocated for carbon capture and underground sequestration, which the EPA recommends until non-carbon-generating energy sources are further adopted.

Thankfully, it may be largely up to the market whether clean renewable energy takes off—or rather, continues to take off. Between 2008 and 2014 solar energy usage grew 50 percent annually. Its growth is due to several factors that don’t depend on U.S. Federal policy. One factor is China, which began manufacturing solar panels around 2005, and lowered profit margins for manufacturers globally. Another factor involves financing. Generally, people do not pay upfront for the solar cells, which cost around $20,000 to install. The common model for solar usage involves a third-party company that pays for and installs the panels. The homeowner makes monthly payments to the third-party at an amount less than their electricity bill, but enough for the third-party to be profitable.

One issue with residential solar power is that it leads to inefficiency for the electrical grid. During the day, users of solar power can generate their own electricity and don’t rely on the grid. However, solar users must access the grid once the sun goes down, causing energy demanded from the public utility to spike. The gap between the peak and trough of energy usage is exacerbated by solar power. This is where the inefficiency comes in. The electrical grid is designed to accommodate maximum energy usage—summer days when everyone has their A/C on max. This means that on an average day, less than 50 percent of the grid’s capacity is used. An oversized grid is costly to build and maintain.

A solution to this problem is for utilities to charge time-of-use rates, based on supply and demand. This would set a higher price for electricity consumed during peak energy usage times, encouraging people to use energy off-peak. Only Italy and Ontario, Canada have time-of-use rates and have seen reduced demand during peak hours with a relatively small increase in price. California will institute time-of-use rates in 2018, but underwent a five-year process to get through red tape.

Another solution involves batteries, which would allow solar and wind energy to be used long after it is generated and reducing the need for the grid. At its Gigafactory outside Reno, NV, Tesla is building higher capacity batteries intended for consumers to use at home. Tesla hopes to double the supply of the world’s lithium-ion batteries by 2020.

While what the next four years will look like is uncertain, it is promising that there are forces that are pushing us towards renewable energy sources. A relatively small increase in the global supply of natural gas, led to a disruption in the oil markets. It’s encouraging to think that a similar effect could be caused by a small advancement in energy technology.

 

Sources:

Graham, Thomas. “Rick Perry will ‘breathe life’ into Department of Energy.” The Hill. N.p., 13 Dec. 2016. Web. 24 Jan. 2017.

LeVine, Steve. “Battery Powered: The Promise of Energy Storage.” Foreign Affairs Apr. 2014: 119-24. Print.

Pinner, Dickon, and Matt Rogers. “Solar Power Comes of Age: How Harnessing the Sun Got Cheap and Practical.” Foreign Affairs Apr. 2014: 111-18. Print.

Warhay, Brian. “Upgrading the Grid: How to Modernize America’s Electrical Infrastructure.” Foreign Affairs Apr. 2014: 125-31. Print.