A menacing act

You turn the key, harm is being done.

Red Cavalry, Kazimir Malevich, 1932

Earlier this year, two miles west of my house, a woman named Marilyn Wentworth was crossing the street to get a coffee at her favorite shop, a little family-owned place I go to all the time. As she used the crosswalk to navigate the four lanes of traffic that rip through the neighborhood’s business district, a car struck and killed her. Her husband of 42 years reported seeing her body “fly in the air.” 

That’s a particularly dangerous stretch of road, even for Boston, and the city is now pursuing a plan that would remove one car lane and add protected bike lanes. The Wentworth family and many others are advocating for it. But as you can imagine, there’s a lot of resistance. At a recent public meeting on the plan, one city council candidate charged the mic and said, “This is not a good idea.” 

That there’s any resistance at all is a testament to the dedication with which someone will defend their right to strap themselves into a two-ton cocoon of plastic and steel to get anywhere they want to go, as fast as they want to go, with as few impediments as possible.

That tragedy, others like it, having to drive around metro Boston, and the purchase of a new bike have all contributed to my own increasingly severe reassessment of the act of driving.

Growing up in the West, driving unambiguously meant freedom. Going 55 mph on sprawling suburban roads just to get a pizza or whatever. Vast stretches of open highway ultimately leading to the Pacific Ocean. Careening through the Mid-Atlantic to see fireflies for the first time. Criss-crossing the country in my 20s as many ways as I could, over and over.

These days, I’m more likely to think of driving as a menacing, harmful act, something I want to avoid as much as humanly possible. If you’re like whoa whoa pal sounds like you’re saying people who drive are bad people, keep in mind that I do drive a car. Jamie (Borat voice my wife) and I are fortunate enough to not have to drive very much where we live, but we still make a few car trips most weeks, plus occasional weekend trips out of the city. 

But when I get behind the wheel, I know that I’m a much worse person than I am when I’m not driving. I’m angry. I’m impatient. I’m unforgiving toward those around me. In no other setting do I think or say worse things about other humans except possibly on twitter. Statistics tell me I’m more likely to die from a road injury than any cause other than disease, and it’s the only activity I do where there’s at least an outlying chance that I will kill someone. (Of course, there would probably be no punishment, as killing a pedestrian while driving has been described as “the perfect crime.”)

The mean streets of Roslindale.

If you’re thinking, boy sounds like you need to become a safer driver, the numbers betray the case for individual blame. Pedestrian deaths in the United States are at a 30-year high (6,227 in 2018). A Guardian article this week on the topic explored why that number has been climbing, and the reasons are complex. But experts have no shortage of explanations for why roads are so much more dangerous here than in any other wealthy country—we drive more, we drive farther across urban sprawl, we drive faster and faster, though we know speed increases likelihood of death. More Americans than ever drive SUVs and trucks, which are between two and three times more likely to kill the people they hit. Experts largely doubt that automation technology in cars will solve this problem. In short, cars rule our roads.

There does seem to be a growing intolerance of this fact of American life. Recently, Allison Arieff, a writer on design and cities, wrote a column for the New York Times in which she made the case that “Cars are Death Machines,” recounting several personal stories of death and injury by car from among the hundreds she collected on Twitter.

We all have these stories. You do. I certainly do, though I feel like I can’t do my own justice in newsletter form. Despite our losses and pain, we allow cars to remain dominant.

We usually talk about emissions and climate change as separate issues from car safety, but I don’t really see them as all that different. In both cases, it’s a matter of personal freedom and convenience, disproportionately distributed, at the cost of collective health and safety. Transportation is now the largest source of American greenhouse gas emissions. A recent report showed that for all its progress California is not on track to hit its own emissions reduction goals, in large part because of its passenger vehicles. Traffic deaths and climate change are both consequences of a particular way we choose to live. One way or another, you turn the key, harm is being done.

I imagine we’ll always have cars, and yes, more electric vehicles if powered by renewables will reduce emissions. And again, I’m not trying to castigate anyone who drives a car, we’re all doing the best we can out here my dudes. But the strides we need to make on fossil fuel use and our deadly roads both point to the reality that we’ve just got to stop driving so much. And stop designing the world around us to cater overwhelmingly to cars. 

That’s an entirely possible future. Prior to the 1970s, the Netherlands was far more car friendly and dangerous, but public outcry forced the pedestrian and cyclist paradise into reality. Even here in the States, in the 1950s and 1960s, we once had a mass movement of mothers demanding safer streets, blocking car traffic with baby carriages in radical demonstrations. And in the Boston neighborhood where Marilyn Wentworth was killed, residents formed a new group to advocate for pedestrian rights. There’s one in my neighborhood too.

And in the meantime, I’m going to keep driving as little as I can. And when I do drive, I will drive very, very slow. Sorry and you’re welcome. 


Links

  • The next Standing Rock is everywhere.

  • David Roberts predictably did a much better job writing about the Climate Emergency Fund than that Times article I was mad about last week. I will still respectfully note that I wrote about the fund three months ago ahem.

  • Unfortunate trends, and the most detailed map of auto emissions in America.

  • Salt water is creeping toward inland trees, creating dead, bleached, and blackened “ghost forests.”

  • The Klamath River now has the rights of a person under tribal law.

  • “For the first time on record, the 400 wealthiest Americans last year paid a lower total tax rate than any other income group.”

  • Argentine feminists are reclaiming the tango to make it less patriarchal.

  • The rare Fiona Apple interview is always a real gem. She’s also working on a new album, AND Pitchfork named Idler Wheel… the #5 album of the 2010s. It’s all coming up Fiona.


Listening

Since it’s Fiona’s world I thought I would keep it going and highlight a song of hers that I’ve been listening to lately. This is actually both a cover and a collaboration between King Princess and Fiona Apple, recording the final song on 1999’s When the Pawn. It is a good song and a good version.

Here’s a fun thing, after When the Pawn came out, Fiona Apple toured behind it in 2000 and then after an onstage breakdown took a five-year hiatus from performing and had this whole fiasco with her record label trying to stop Extraordinary Machine from coming out.

Well, when that album was finally released, she played her very first show in five years at the Roseland Theater in Portland, Oregon in 2005, and you know what, I was there. She put on a beautiful show and crowd was so warm and encouraging so that’s a nice memory. Fiona forever.


Watching

During October I watch scary movies pretty much exclusively and I always find it interesting how sometimes bad scary movies are the scariest and good scary movies aren’t really that scary. Goes to show you never really know what you’re going to be afraid of. It’s a real treat when a movie is both good and scary and so far this year, Lake Mungo scores high.


We are having what they call a mast year for acorns in New England which is a totally natural part of the boom and bust cycle of oak tree fruit, no climate change to see here move along. But it means there are acorns everywhere, lining the sidewalks, squirrels chucking them down on your head or the roof of your car like you’re some kind of Mister Magoo.

My sister just came to visit from Arizona and we saw some acorns and she said oh acorns my students love the ones I brought back last year we still have them. She works with tiny kids and for tiny kids in the desert, an acorn must be some kind of fairy tale object like a spindle or magic beans. Then later on I walked on a patch of like a hundred acorns and lost my balance for a second like a cartoon burglar walking on marbles.

So the lesson here is, if you see just a few acorns, pick one up and give it to a tiny child because they will be super into it. If you see many acorns in one place, be careful because you could fall and break your ass.

Tate

Washed away

It was 3,000 people arguing with 2 million people

Entrance to a crypt, 40 feet underwater in the Swift River Valley. Photo by Ed Klekowski.

This week I’m going to reach way back into the archives to share an article I wrote about the creation of the Quabbin Reservoir in central Massachusetts. A huge engineering feat—and a surprisingly common tactic as the nation migrated to cities—four entire towns were evacuated and wiped off the map to flood the valley that became a reservoir serving Greater Boston. 

I thought of it because one of the people I interviewed for it reached out recently about another history project he’s working on, and it reminded me that this was one of my favorite stories I ever reported.

The story of the Quabbin and reservoirs like it are also relevant to climate change. For one, it underscores how precious water supply is. There’s also the brutal social consequences of top-down engineering solutions. I also find it to be a reminder of just how much the world can change, and how during our current societal shift, we can appreciate what our ancestors were able to accomplish, but strive to do better. Anyway, here you go hope you like it.

A lightly edited excerpt from Washed Away, originally published in The Magazine. Read the full story here

If you look at a map of Massachusetts, you can’t miss the Quabbin Reservoir. It’s made up of two long, narrow gashes separated by a peninsula, the centerpiece of a park in the middle of a protected watershed measuring about 81,000 acres. The 140 million gallons of water it supplies daily requires minor treatment and no filtration, because the watershed scrubs it crystal clear. Its aqueduct delivers water to 51 communities, 40 percent of the state’s population.

As far back as 1895, planners saw a unique opportunity in the Swift River Valley; they suspected that with some geographic jujitsu, they could use the natural landscape and gravity to trap and deliver more than enough water for the rapidly growing metropolitan area to the east.

Between 1870 and 1920, Boston’s population nearly tripled, according to census figures. At the turn of the century, the city bought some time with another huge and traumatic project, building the nearby Wachusett Reservoir, at the time the largest drinking water reservoir in the world. But it wasn’t enough.

Aside from growth, there was also a serious public health problem to solve, says Marcis Kempe, who held senior positions in Boston’s water system for 36 years before retiring to run the Metropolitan Waterworks Museum. He describes individual communities drinking from a hodgepodge of unhealthy water systems, some taking crudely filtered water from the Charles River and other sources heavily polluted by industry or sewage.

Around the time the Wachusett Reservoir was built, the Massachusetts Board of Health led a survey of long-term potential solutions and came back with a recommendation — the Swift River Valley farther west was surging with clean rivers and streams, and the geography was such that they could dam two gaps at the bottom of the valley to create an enormous reservoir. It was perfect.

But thousands of people lived in the Swift River Valley, with settlements that went back generations. One town had incorporated in 1754. Of course, these colonists displaced the Nipmuck tribe that was there long before, but that’s a different, longer, and far worse story.

Rumors started circulating among residents as early as the turn of the century that their towns were targeted, and there was resistance. But the deck was heavily stacked against them. Public meetings were held in Boston, too far for most to travel. The towns didn’t have anywhere near the money, political power, or organization to mount any viable defense.

As former resident Warren Doubleday says in Thomas Conuel’s Quabbin: The Accidental Wilderness, “It was three-thousand people arguing with 2 million people. We didn’t stand much of a chance.”

This was a time when the country forced massive flows of water to bend to its will: the Hoover Dam, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Hetch Hetchy in California, and hundreds of others. In fact, while Quabbin is a poignant example, displacing towns or clusters of housing for water projects was a common practice. The Scituate Reservoir in Rhode Island flooded five small villages. Then there were Elbowoods, North Dakota; Olive, Neversink, and several other towns in New York; Hailstone, Utah; and Falcon, Texas, as late as the 1950s. All flooded.

In 1926 and 1927, two acts were passed by the Massachusetts legislature that set in motion the creation of the Quabbin. What happened next took more than a decade. Aside from the elaborate construction of the two dams, the tunnel to connect the Quabbin to the Wachusett Reservoir, which feeds Greater Boston, is a 24.6-mile underground aqueduct with a maximum depth of 650 feet, still among the longest in the world. Twenty-six men died during the construction of the reservoir, half while building the tunnel.

Much of that work erased the four towns, plus sections of other towns and smaller villages. In all, 2,500 people would need to be relocated and the towns disincorporated. And to ensure a clean reservoir, they couldn’t just be flooded. All trees and vegetation below the waterline were cleared. Many houses were relocated whole and can be spotted throughout the region, but most were torn down and either sold for wood or burned.

Don McMillan, a resident of nearby Hardwick, was quoted in Michael Tougias’s Quabbin: A History and Explorer’s Guide: “We would sit on the porch of our house, and the western sky was aglow at night from the flames of the burning brush in the valley. It was eerie.”

More than 7,600 graves and headstones from the valley’s 34 cemeteries were moved, many bodies disintegrated except for skulls and larger bones. Most were moved in wood boxes by hearse to Quabbin Park Cemetery, in Ware, where they remain.

Houses and land were purchased cheap by the state under eminent domain. Most families, many of them already struggling at the height of the Depression, fled to nearby towns to start a new living.

Local historian J.R. Greene details the final days of the towns in the valley. At Greenwich’s last town meeting in March 1938, reporters set up a photo op in which selectmen held a pencil eraser over the town on a globe, but at least one was disgusted by the display.

Greene describes April 27, 1938, when the town of Enfield held a Farewell Ball at the town hall. An estimated 1,000 people crammed into the event, and 2,000 more gathered on the outside. At midnight, the band played Auld Lang Syne, and a hush fell over the crowd, followed by “muffled sounds of sobbing,” according to one reporter.

That September, the slow-motion destruction was punctuated by a hurricane, the most powerful in the region’s recent history. Sally Norcross remembers being the last family left in Dana, watching the storm from their house while her older brothers hoped the church steeple would fall down so they could take it as a souvenir. When the hurricane passed, her father and brothers had to carve their way through the fallen trees to make their way out of town.

Less than a year later, flooding began. It took seven years for the reservoir to fill.

Read more about the flooding of the Swift River Valley, including what its former residents are up to now, in the full article here


Autumn Mood, Ladislav Mednyánszky, 1890 via Slovak National Gallery.

Links


If you want to see a few tweets in a row, a thread if you will, about a New York Times article that I thought was stupid, you can right here:


Listening

This week’s music recommendation comes from my dad, who in a very fatherly move, said I should be watching the new Ken Burns documentary on country music. I have not watched the documentary but have been enjoying its formidable soundtrack. I particularly like the second disc a period of country music I enjoy that is roughly the 1950s, Hank Williams kind of stuff. Here is a song from it:


Boy lot of stuff going on in the news today right? Well there is one thing I hope you remember amidst all the chaos. Get a flu shot. It takes like two seconds and is free in a lot of places. Drink plenty of water. Remember that you are a strong person.

Tate

Raze and rebuild

Wild possibilities and the heroes at the edges or at your side

Neighbors, by Christopher Frost, in Forest Hills Cemetery where I walk my dogs sometimes.

“Political awareness without activism means looking at the devastation, your face turned toward the center of things. Activism itself can generate hope because it already constitutes an alternative and turns away from the corruption at center to face the wild possibilities and the heroes at the edges or at your side.” - Rebecca Solnit

Where I live in Roslindale, a diverse and still somewhat accessible neighborhood toward the southern end of Boston proper, there’s a 130-year-old house a couple doors down with a really nice big tree out front. We got a note in the mail that the owner intends to raze and rebuild the house, not a huge deal in the grand scheme, as the entire city of Boston feels more or less like one giant raze and rebuild project these days. But for the years we’ve lived here, we’ve watched as the owner let this house sit in various states of disrepair and inattention. Now the longtime tenants are being kicked out for a swift 100% displacement. The owner Jerry, who bought the house in 1990 for $161,000, will cash in on Boston’s surreal housing market, turning the property into three units that will probably sell for half a million each. This is a very common occurrence around here.

Last week I went to a meeting in a community center basement to hear about the project. There were a couple dozen people there and as always some had serious qualms about zoning variances, landscaping, quality of siding. A handful of us kept trying to steer the conversation toward affordability, but the perfectly nice people from the city reminded us that unless a building is 10 units or more, they can’t require affordable units, our hands are simply tied you understand. Just for fun, I asked Jerry if he would voluntarily consider making one of the three units affordable and he politely said no, I’m afraid that is not a thing that will be happening. 

I abut this house. I am an abutter.

A few blocks away from that house, there is a city-owned parking lot just outside of the neighborhood’s business district. Boston has this program that is trying to add housing stock to existing public properties (libraries, firehouses, etc.), and given this sizable lot, it seemed like a good opportunity to retain the public parking while building affordable housing maybe on top of it, for example. 

So this week, I went to another meeting in the same community center basement about this project, and there were many, many more people in attendance. You might not be surprised to find out that lots of them were very angry! A lot of people talk about how the internet is ruining public discourse, but those people should attend more community meetings because they are kind of like live-action Twitter, lots of yelling and heckling. For most of the people opposed, the concern was parking and that losing any of those parking spots would kill the local businesses. The rough concept had no net loss of parking, so seems like maybe also some people just really didn’t want new affordable housing being built. There were, however, quite a few other people who were in favor, freaked out about the affordable housing crisis in the city, and even some who brought up climate change. 

There was a lot of big national news about climate change this week—the summit in New York, ongoing protests, a grim oceans report—but I wanted to talk about these meetings because they have been on my mind and also they are one way the climate crisis, and climate justice specifically, unfolds in very local form. Housing and land use are multifaceted issues, but they are inextricably linked to both carbon emissions and climate impacts. Cities are going to continue changing dramatically, both as a result of mitigation and adaptation and sometimes chunks being swallowed up by the ocean unfortunately.  

As more extreme changes are required, communities will have to make serious decisions about what we want our neighborhoods to look like. The range of people being asked to sacrifice, being pushed aside, or being forced to relocate will grow, but always starts with lower-income families and communities of color. Housing discussions are often grouped into either NIMBYism or YIMBYism, two not particularly helpful terms describing either knee-jerk opposition or support for any new building. In reality, these decisions are complicated and emotional, and don’t fall along easy divides. There are good reasons to support new developments and good reasons to be skeptical that they will deliver what they promise. The challenge at hand is to deliberately build, rebuild, and rehab in ways that are low-carbon, equitable, and allow communities to thrive.

Lately I’ve been interested in the work of community nonprofits like PUSH Buffalo in New York, which is developing green affordable housing, local renewable energy projects, and offering green jobs training, all while lobbying at the state level for better housing and climate policy. It’s the kind of thing that presents a vision for future neighborhoods, while trickling up to bigger national change.

I would very much like to finish here by saying when you get together with your neighbors to discuss these issues, it is very refreshing compared to bitter national debates. But honestly, it is also kind of a pain in the ass. Still, there is common ground to be found, battles to be won, and bonds to be forged right in our backyards. And at least there you get to see people you know and wave, oh hi how have you been, and every now and then great things emerge. Not sure they will emerge on that parking lot though, we’ll see. People seem pretty attached to it.


Reading

I read this book a few years back, but it’s so good and very relevant to this topic so I’m going to recommend the Pulitzer-winning Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond. It’s basically a sprawling work of journalism, a masterpiece of nonfiction storytelling and observation, but Desmond is a sociologist who spent years living alongside the families he profiles. The rigor is unbelievable and it’s both heart-wrenching and inspiring as it closes with policy solutions to the problems he documents. 


Links

  • Every system made of water on the planet will be thrown into turmoil, to varying degree, depending on how much we can reduce carbon pollution in the next few decades.

  • Scooters, e-scooters, bikes, ebikes are great. But I hate electric scooter startups for a bunch of reasons. Two new reasons—most of the time they don’t replace car trips and there are hidden emissions in the business model.

  • The revival of 90s fashion is forcing Aya Cash to confront her angsty, self-loathing 90s youth.

  • Arizona faces deep cuts to its use of Colorado River water, with farmers losing access in the next few years on an accelerated timeline due to climate change and overuse. At the same time, the Ak-Chin and Gila River tribes are becoming agricultural leaders.

  • Those freaky robot dogs are hitting the streets. They will always make me think of this horrifying Black Mirror episode, and maybe for good reason seeing as how their maker is funded by military contracts.

  • How dare you. You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.”


Kickflip Batman courtesy of Watertown-based artist Jesse Lonergan. This is my favorite drawing I saw this week, but all of Jesse’s work is fantastic.

Watching

We just finished the third season of The Good Place as the fourth and final season approaches. Ted Danson is a national treasure and D'Arcy Carden 100% deserves an Emmy. It also makes zero sense for this weird show about moral philosophy to be a primetime network sitcom. My dear friends/family Josh and Theresa told me about a meme where everyone is some combination of two humans from the Good Place. I am clearly Chidi and Eleanor because I can’t make a decision and I am an Arizona trash bag. For example, I strongly identify with heaven smelling like a waterpark to Eleanor.


Listening

This song was in a show I was watching and now I love this French-Congolese rapper Youssoupha even though I have no idea what he is saying.


I mentioned now and then good things emerge from local politics, and sure enough, we had a preliminary city council election this week that was cause for celebration. We’re heading toward what could be one of the city’s most diverse and progressive city councils. I did a little volunteering for a candidate in our district, Ricardo Arroyo, who ran on a platform of equity (including affordable housing). He is a very inspiring and good dude, and ended up winning the most votes, heading to the general election in November.

Sometimes politics feels enormous like this giant monster, maybe a UN summit or an actual monster facing impeachment charges. But it’s important to remember that politics is also really small, sitting on a folding chair in a community center basement. So small you can wave hello to it or even wrap your arms around it if you are on good terms.

Tate

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Ring the bells

I want you to panic and act as if the house was on fire

The Climate Strike in Boston today. It was a sweaty scene.

Pretty much as long as climate change has been in the realm of public dialogue, there’s been this oddly accepted wisdom that there are certain ways you should and should not talk about the issue. It basically boils down to don’t raise your voice, don’t be alarmist, don’t be a pessimist. Otherwise your message would be too depressing, too disturbing, and leave people without the necessary hope for constructive action. 

Even worse, some warned, is politicizing climate change. The worst thing you could do was present it as a problem of people and power, intertwined with other issues that might come across as divisive like poverty, inequality, health care, or taxes. In fact, better to not even call it climate change. People respond much better in polling to ideas like energy independence or efficiency so maybe we can just sort of trick people into supporting climate action by way of euphemism. 

Some of this wisdom came from well-intentioned academics and pollsters, doing their best to divine the tea leaves of why people were simply not engaging on the issue despite its growing urgency. But much of this fear of alarming or upsetting people comes from an intense aversion toward disruption as a path to change. There’s a certain theory of political change that the right way (or third way, if you will) is to find an appealing path most people in power will agree on. This was in part the theory that brought about Waxman-Markey in 2009, which did not go that great because people didn’t really give a shit about it. 

Another theory is that periods of sweeping, rapid change are steeped in unrest. At first, most people react really badly to it. It makes us uncomfortable and can feel like everyone hates each other kind of like right now. But it also can jolt our norms and pull the culture into completely different realms of what’s possible. “There’s nothing new under the sun,” Octavia Butler said. “But there are new suns.”  

I have to wonder what people who have called for optimistic, measured responses to climate change think when they see a global event like today’s climate strike. Do they see millions of people in the streets across 150 countries and think, boy that’s really going to rub people the wrong way? Do they see signs made by 16-year-olds that read “This is a fucking crisis” and “I want to die of old age” and “Earth is in a state of emergency” and think about how poorly such messaging does in polling?  

Because when I see that kind of thing up close—like the thousands of mostly young people who marched on the State House in Boston today—I think, Jesus we’ve been doing it totally wrong this whole time. And finally, gloriously, we are talking about climate change from the heart. 

Another thing that was really striking about the climate strike (sorry I’m tired and don’t have that many words) is just how different it was compared to the countless marches and rallies I’ve been to over the years. Sometimes when you go to a thing, especially an environment thing, there’s this kind of gut response I get like oh it’s a bunch of these mf’ers again. This thing was very different. The activists have a different arsenal of funny songs and chants and dances. The mayor got one minute to speak and an 18 year old kid got like 15. Packs of actual children were running around unattended, like some kind of reverse Children of the Corn. There may have been the suburban white anarchist dudes there somewhere, but there were also hoodie-wearing black and brown teens pounding on drums spray painted with Extinction Rebellion and Sunrise logos. There were plenty of old people there like me but we all kind of had this look of like, holy shit, on our faces, at least I did. In other words, it felt weird and new in the best way.

One of my favorite little moments was this one older lady I was walking near toward the end and when people would chant like Fuck Charlie Baker or whatever, she would be like “no, no, no” scolding them. And one time some kids chanted something bad about cops and she said, hey those are people’s fathers and brothers and sisters. And this one teen said, “Yeah and they alllll suck.” Which I thought was pretty funny. Not the most strategic messaging I guess, and the teens were overall very chill, but the take home message being—that lady can no longer tell these young people the right thing to say. It’s not her show anymore. 

Not anyone’s show really, and by that I mean not the environmental movement or liberals or the Sierra Club or very rational and concerned white people or communications professors or any particular interest group. Nobody gets to warn everyone to keep it down, don’t be alarmist, don’t upset people, and even if we did it wouldn’t work. We’ve lost control in the best way. That’s what change feels like. 


Now you can watch teenagers shut down a grown ass congressman:


Links

  • Relevant to the day, American teens are frightened by climate change and 1 in 4 are turning that fear into action.

  • A “full-blown crisis,” there are 29% fewer birds in the US and Canada than there were in 1970.

  • In news about the color black, this chicken is entirely black its feathers, bones, organs, everything. Also, researchers made the “blackest black” even blacker than vantablack. It absorbs at least 99.995 percent of incoming light.

  • “Making our first album with Ric Ocasek remains the most transformative and magical experience I've been lucky enough to have.” (h/t Swedlund)

  • If you have been confused about what is going on with Jeremy Renner, Anne Helen Petersen is here to explain.

  • An ode to Speckle.


Podcasts

That bird study is pretty brutal, and it made me think of this New Yorker Radio Hour episode with Elizabeth Kolbert, in which they were talking about a new report on biodiversity loss. She says:

The general trend line of biodiversity loss, it’s all just playing out according to plan, unfortunately. And it’s true that global GDP is larger than ever, and at the same time, species loss and the destruction of the natural environment, the natural world, is also greater than ever, and those two things are very intimately linked, and if you only pay attention to the GDP part you might say oh everything’s fine. But I think the point this report is really trying to make is that those lines are going to cross. People are still dependent on the natural world…these are biological and geochemical systems that we’re still dependent on for better or worse, and we are mucking with them in the most profound ways.


Watching

Years ago I saw a commercial for the American version of a miniseries called “The Slap,” and I thought to myself, my god that looks like the stupidest show ever made I will not watch it. If you google the slap one of the results is “Is The Slap a real TV show?” But I kept hearing good things about the original Australian version, which aired back in 2011. I’m halfway through and it is quite powerful and suspenseful in its own weird middle-class, middle-age way. I’m reading A Visit from the Goon Squad at the same time, also from 2011, and they are kind of thematically similar. Flawed people circling each other and the random interactions that shape all of their lives. Anyway, it’s a real adult drama and I guess now and then it’s nice to watch a show that is not about teenage witches or homicidal robots or my other bullshit. 


Listening

I first came across A Tribe Called Red because they were referenced in Tommy Orange’s amazing novel There There. Here is a song of theirs, sorry if you don’t like electronic music go listen to some James Taylor grandpa.


That’s all for this round, sorry this one may be a little rough around the edges I wanted to crank something out about the strike. So if it turns out I am wrong about all of this I do not want to hear about it thank you.

Remember a lot of people work hard to make these actions possible so kick a little money their way why don’t you. And remember it is OK to panic a little.

Tate

Loving the world to death

I've developed an uneasy ambivalence

H. Widayat, Ikan Laut Dalam [Deep sea fish], 1987. via Rabih Alameddine

Between Epstein and the Sackler family, there’s probably more scrutiny being placed on philanthropy and the donor class now than in decades—the sector’s flown under the radar for way too long. Along with the indispensable work of investigative journalists hunting down abuses and dirty money, I also think it’s important to grapple with questions of what philanthropy is, why we subsidize it, and if there is a form of it that serves society better than the problematic version we have now.

Although I wrote it before the Epstein story blew wide open, I had a pretty lengthy essay run at the end of last week in which I broached some of those big picture questions head on in a way I hadn’t really done before. I like how it turned out and it’s also one of the best-received things I’ve written on the subject. So this week, I’m posting a chunk of that essay—the introduction and then the very ending. But you know if you want to read all the words in the middle, you can do so here.


Generosity and Impact Aren’t Enough. Let’s Judge Philanthropy on How Well it Shifts Power

I’ve developed an uneasy ambivalence toward philanthropy over the years I’ve been writing about it. It stems from a kind of inner conflict over the fact that nearly every case of philanthropic impact, even impact I may celebrate or encourage, is also a case of concentrated wealth exerting its power. 

I get the feeling many people who cover or work in the sector have a similar sort of queasiness. Following the death of his hometown benefactor Gerry Lenfest, philanthropy scholar Benjamin Soskis wrote about his own conflicted feelings, describing the American attitude toward philanthropy as a “tincture of gratitude and apprehension.” Or as David Callahan writes of covering the sector in The Givers, “I’ve come to feel whiplashed between hope and fear.” Others prominent critics like Anand Giridharadas are less ambivalent, and as the New Gilded Age grinds on, there’s been a warranted backlash against wealthy donors. 

And yet, these pools of wealth remain, as do the many, varied foundations and donors trying to put them to public good. In spite of our reservations, philanthropy large and small fuels civil society, our cultural institutions, and often social change, as it has in some form throughout history. 

This presents a dilemma, for me, at least. How can we appreciate and encourage “good philanthropy,” while simultaneously sounding the alarm about the dangers of concentrated wealth and its influence? Are those two sentiments in conflict, and do they have to be?  

To be perfectly honest, I don’t really know. I do know that the dangers are very real, as real as our weakened public sector and tax base. And some days, I think we’d be better off scrapping the entire charitable tax deduction, or at least vastly changing it. But after much writing and reading on the subject, I’ve come to think that part of this conflict, and a possible way to reconcile it, lies in how we judge what makes good philanthropy. 

Namely, we often gauge the success of philanthropists by some combination of generosity and impact (by impact, I mean achieving intended, measurable outcomes). I increasingly think we ought to, if not completely replace those yardsticks, supplement them by considering as a measure of true philanthropy a funder’s success at shifting power out of its own hands and into others. This could involve funding program areas that challenge plutocracy, putting into place more diverse and participatory governing structures or simple grantmaking practices that yield power and control to recipients instead of funders. 

I’m not so naive that I think those in the sector might read this and throw out their playbooks. And I know there’s a large contingent in philanthropy that believes wealth does, in fact, entitle them to more power. This is also admittedly far from a fully baked solution. It’s not too difficult to imagine a scenario in which someone is generous, impactful, and shifts power, but the outcome is still quite bad. 

But it’s a framing that I think has merit, and feels more like what philanthropy ought to be than it often is. Maybe looking to a kind of generosity of power instead of money can bring some moral and practical clarity to using existing pools of wealth to make the world a better, more just place.

Read the whole thing here. OK now back to the rest of the newsletter.


Make it a Blockbuster night.

Links!

  • “I will reckon with a gathering sense that regular travelers like me are loving the world to death. And that perhaps this love might be better expressed by letting it be.”

  • As wealthy residents flee vulnerable coastal real estate, low-income communities on higher ground are sent packing. Also, Flagstaff, Arizona has seen an influx of people fleeing Phoenix.

  • There was a bigot parade in Boston and when the DA Rachael Rollins dropped charges against counter-protestors, a judge refused. It was a clear overreach and an attack on Rollins, who ran on prosecuting fewer minor crimes.

  • The time Roxane Gay ate an edible, tied herself to her bed with a sheet, and called 911 to tell them she was dying.

  • A bar near me that first opened in 1882 is closing down because the neighborhood has become too expensive. The liquor license was sold for $455,000 for a “megarestaurant” that will open up in the Seaport. Cool city!

  • A piece of cocktail party wisdom about free will has been debunked but don’t get all excited that doesn’t mean you have free will.

  • Blockbuster Video was one of my first jobs in high school, and I can confirm, it was not that great. I did, however, love that job as I got to rent movies for free. One time I spilled a giant soda on a credit card machine and my boss was pretty cool about it.


Listening

Tacocat is one of my favorite bands and they are currently on tour in Europe which you can follow along on Instagram if you want. Here is my favorite song on their latest record.


Jamie and I went on a little vacation to the Hudson Valley where we saw all kinds of farm animals, went on a nice hike, and ate a lot of very good food. It’s a beautiful place. It is also like a lot of aging East Coast vacation destinations where there are these random pockets of ruin. We drove by a huge old resort that looked like it had been abandoned forever but turned out it closed just under a year ago. It was built in the 1950s, and “once was one of the grand Borscht belt resorts of the Catskills.” It has seen tough times since then, including a tragic drowning, and just 11 months out of business it looked like the earth was already trying to take it back.

That Roxane Gay story reminds me of the last time I ate an edible and two hours later was frozen on the couch asking Jamie to touch my foot so I could be certain I still had a body. Readers, I’m here to tell you that you too still have a body. If you aren’t sure, ask someone dear to you to touch your foot, and if you’re alone maybe tie yourself to your bed and hold on tight.

Tate

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