Category for thinking out loud

The biggest problem in California: Housing

State Senator Hannah Beth-Jackson came to Ojai recently, and visited with the Ojai Valley Green Coalition, where I volunteer, and met with the board of directors. We discussed many topics but ended up on the issue that has been dividing the state: housing — affordable housing — and the lack thereof. The New York Times this weekend had an excellent explainer (with anecdotes from Berkeley) on the issue. Here’s the nut:

The affordable-housing crunch is a nationwide problem, but California is the superlative. The state’s median home price, at just over $500,000, is more than twice the national level and up about 60 percent from five years ago, according to Zillow. It affects the poor, the rich and everyone in between.

In San Diego, one of the worst hepatitis outbreaks in decades has killed 20 people and was centered on the city’s growing homeless population. Across the state, middle-income workers are being pushed further to the fringes and in some cases enduring three-hour commutes.

Then there is Patterson + Sheridan, a national intellectual property law firm that has its headquarters in Houston and recently bought a private jet to ferry its Texas lawyers to Bay Area clients. The jet was cheaper than paying local lawyers, who expect to make enough to offset the Bay Area’s inflated housing costs. “The young people that we want to hire out there have high expectations that are hard to meet,” said Bruce Patterson, a partner at the firm. “Rent is so high they can’t even afford a car.”

From the windows of a San Francisco skyscraper, the Bay Area looks as if it’s having a housing boom. There are cranes around downtown and rising glass and steel condominiums. In the San Francisco metropolitan area, housing megaprojects — buildings with 50 or more units — account for a quarter of the new housing supply, up from roughly half that level in the previous two decades, according to census data compiled by BuildZoom, a San Francisco company that helps homeowners find contractors.

The problem is that smaller and generally more affordable quarters like duplexes and small apartment buildings, where young families get their start, are being built at a slower rate. Such projects hold vast potential to provide lots of housing — and reduce sprawl — by adding density to the rings of neighborhoods that sit close to job centers but remain dominated by larger lots and single-family homes.

Neighborhoods in which single-family homes make up 90 percent of the housing stock account for a little over half the land mass in both the Bay Area and Los Angeles metropolitan areas, according to Issi Romem, BuildZoom’s chief economist. There are similar or higher percentages in virtually every American city, making these neighborhoods an obvious place to tackle the affordable-housing problem.

“Single-family neighborhoods are where the opportunity is, but building there is taboo,” Mr. Romem said. As long as single-family-homeowners are loath to add more housing on their blocks, he said, the economic logic will always be undone by local politics.

bay_area_housing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Steve Lopez had a typically excellent, human column on the topic this weekend for the LA Times:

Like other transplants I spoke to in Nevada, Herndandez didn’t want to leave California. It’s home. It’s where she went to school and where her parents still live in the house she grew up in. But unless you choose a career that will pay you a small fortune to manage costs driven higher by a stubborn shortage of new housing, California is not a dream, it’s a mirage.

Moving to get a better job or move up the workplace chain is nothing new. But what’s going on here seems different — people leaving not for better jobs or pay, but because housing elsewhere is so much cheaper they can live the middle-class life that eludes them in California.

After college, Hernandez worked as a congressional staffer in Washington, D.C., and then went to Chicago for a few years. But the West drew her back. Not California, but Nevada, where she worked on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in Las Vegas and then joined the staff of a state legislator in the state capital.

“I started looking at the bigger picture in Carson City, where I was able to pay the rent, have a car and a comfortable life and put some money into a 401(k),” Hernandez said. “Would I be able to do that in California? Probably not.”

It’s a generational conflict, essentially, and it’s painful for me to contemplate how poorly once again my generation has prepared for those to come, including the creative young people of the golden state.

Full Story »

“Biology we haven’t discovered yet”

Ever stumble across something — even something you’ve not thought much about — and then suddenly see it everywhere around you?

This strange stumbling-into-obsession has caught me in the last couple of weeks with the concept of consciousness. What the hell? What is it? When do we have it? When do we have too much of it, or not enough? All questions I’ve assiduously avoided for god knows how many years.

It all began with a podcast: Sam Harris interviewing genius primatologist/neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky. The Biology of Good and Evil. The conversation can’t be summarized in a sentence or two — it’s too rich — but the quote of the nearly two-hour interview was Sapolsky declaring:

I believe free will is what we call biology we haven’t discovered yet.

If true, of course, this means that we are all fundamentally unconscious. At least in the sense that we do not realize or cannot see how powerfully we are being driven by biology. Driven perhaps even against our own beliefs, or what we think we believe.

How about that? Makes a fellow feel small, and foolish. And maybe that’s why I’ve noticed a few things as of late.

From Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground [part one, chapter nine]:

Suffering — why this is the sole cause of consciousness. 

And from poet W.S. Di Piero‘s lovely little Table Talk essay in the latest Threepenny Review:

In Hardy’s “The Self-Unseeing,” he visits the remains of his childhood home and recalls where the door was, how the floor felt, how his mother sat “staring into the fire” while her fiddler husband “bowed it higher and higher.” The last two bittersweet lines, “Everything glowed with a gleam/Yet we were looking away” remind him that they couldn’t possibly have been aware of the harmonious moment while living it. We’re always late for consciousness, the neuroscientists say.

Does it follow then that happiness requires a kind of un-consciousness? A life inside our biology?

What would Fyodor say?

dostoevskyday

There’s more, but I haven’t found it yet…

Full Story »

Thoreau: Craving Reality

The New York Review of Books posts in its entirety a spectacular essay from Robert Pogue Harrison, this time on Thoreau on his centennial birthday, and en or so books and exhibits about The True American.

Thoreau (to my blinkered view) is that exceedingly rare writer/philosopher capable of seeing afresh the most fundamental elements of our lives, such as the ground on which we walk and the air we breathe. For example:

Paradise exists all around us, in America’s “wildness,” the natural environment of the continent. In the contact between his own body and America’s forests, meadows, lakes, rivers, mountains, and animals, Thoreau discovered what he called “hard matter in its home.” That home was the “hard bottom” or “reality” that we crave. “I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound,” he wrote in his journal. “Daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it,—rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks!… Contact! Contact!”

That contact between body and wilderness speaks to me, having spent the last week and half on the PCTsleeping on the ground (and sleeping well). I’ll try to post a picture to give some idea. But let me conclude this post with another compelling — even alarming — quote from Mr. Thoreau,

If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter [scimitar], and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality.

If only this were true! But from the world I stand in awe of, with him, here’s a sunset at mile 1600 of the PCT.

Sunset at mile 1600

Full Story »

David Foster Wallace thinks about nature

In his classic (and often hilarious) essay for Harpers on the Illinois State Fair from l993, Ticket to the Fair, David Foster Wallace ruminated on many questions, including how people see nature in the MidWest.

He wrote:

Rural Midwesterners live surrounded by unpopulated land, marooned in a space whose emptiness starts to become both physical and spiritual. It’s not just people you get lonely for. You’re alienated from the very space around you, in a way, because out here the land’s less an environment than a commodity. The land’s basically a factory. You live in the same factory you work in. You spend an enormous amount of time with the land, but you’re still alienated from it in some way. It’s probably hard to feel any sort of Romantic spiritual connection to nature when you somehow have to make your living from it. 

To concentrate this thought: because rural Midwesterners can’t escape nature, they can’t romanticize it either. By contrast — he theorizes later in the piece — Easterners can see going to nature as getting away from it all because they don’t have much of it in their life.

A theory: Megalopolitan East-Coasters; summer vacations are literally getaways, flights-from — from crowds, noise, heat, dirt, the neural wear of too many stimuli. Thus ecstatic escapes to mountains, glassy lakes, cabins, hikes in silent woods. Getting Away From It All. Most East-Coasters see more than enough stimulating people and sights M-F, thank you; they stand in enough lines, buy enough stuff, elbow through crowds, see enough spectacles. Neon skylines. Convertibles with 110-watt sound systems. Grotesques on public transport. Spectacles at every urban corner practically grabbing you by the lapels, commanding confines and stimuli — silence, rustic vistas that hold still, a turning inward: Away. 

Here’s an example of an “Away” in Wallace terms: Half Dome last week from over its back (Eastern) shoulder, or officially, the “subdomes.

And as a Westerner it’s true for me too — I believe in “Away.”

HalfDomefromthesubdomes

Full Story »

Wounded Earth: poem and photograph

The late great C.K. Williams thinks through the suffering of the earth — whose suffering is it really?

Is it as I suspect not that rare for you to be
wounded ravaged stripped of so much
of what you wore with seeming pride

your seething glittering oceans your forests
nothing new for you meteors comets
volcanoes extinctions the battering ice ages

so perhaps we shouldn’t psalm poor earth
for truly we moan and despair for ourselves
cast into that future we dread while the time

in which we sorrowed you’ll not have regretted
because how can earth not have a past
and how can earth even with a past so fouled

not notice how we departed leaving our heirs
to mourn this patch this sherd of existence
we’d been so confident we’d cherish forever

C. K. Williams

Falling Ill
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The last lines haunt, and bring up the work of the great wounded landscape photographer Edward Burtynksy, recently profiled in The New Yorker (and esp powerful on-line by the way).

Burtynsky photographs the “wounded ravaged stripped” earth without apology, rather like the earth in Williams’ poem I think, and photographically strips it of us and all our wailing and moaning and shows it as it is. Our feelings about the damage mean so little to the planet really.

oilbunkering5nigerdelta2016

 

Or Burtynsky puts it in The New Yorker story:

“I am not out to tell people a unitary story about what they should do to save the earth but, rather, to give people a picture of what it takes to live the way we do.’ ”

Full Story »

What put Trump over the top?

According to The Economist it was the sick.

….even after controlling for race, education, age, sex, income, marital status, immigration and employment, these figures remain highly statistically significant. Holding all other factors constant—including the share of non-college whites—the better physical shape a county’s residents are in, the worse Mr Trump did relative to Mr Romney.

For example, in Knox County, Ohio, just north-east of Columbus, Mr Trump’s margin of victory was 14 percentage points greater than Mr Romney’s. One hundred miles (161 km) to the east, in Jefferson County, the Republican vote share climbed by 30 percentage points. The share of non-college whites in Knox is actually slightly higher than in Jefferson, 82% to 79%. But Knox residents are much healthier: they are 8% less likely to have diabetes, 30% less likely to be heavy drinkers and 21% more likely to be physically active. Holding all else equal, our model finds that those differences account for around a six-percentage-point difference in the change in Republican vote share from 2012.

The data suggest that the ill may have been particularly susceptible to Mr Trump’s message. According to our model, if diabetes were just 7% less prevalent in Michigan, Mr Trump would have gained 0.3 fewer percentage points there, enough to swing the state back to the Democrats. Similarly, if an additional 8% of people in Pennsylvania engaged in regular physical activity, and heavy drinking in Wisconsin were 5% lower, Mrs Clinton would be set to enter the White House.

Substantiating this result is the independent work of the incredibly good reporter Sam Quinones, whose “Dreamland” is about opioid addiction in the USA. From a post Quinones put up recently:

Though this scourge has affected every region of the country, it is felt most intensely in rural, suburban – Heartland – areas of America where Donald Trump did extraordinarily well.

Some of these areas did not fully rebound from the Great Recession of 2007 (southern Ohio). Others fared much better (North Carolina). A common denominator, I think political scientists will find, is that in these areas since the last presidential election the incidence of opiate addiction spread, grew deadlier, more public, and went from pain pills to heroin. In southern Ohio, where heroin has hit like pestilence, particularly Appalachia, Trump trounced his opponent in counties that Mitt Romney barely won four years earlier – though unemployment in many of these counties is at its lowest level in years, sometimes decades.

Shannon Monnat, a rural sociologist and demographer at Penn State I talked with, found strong correlations between suicides and fatal drug overdoses in counties where Trump’s increase was larger that the share of the vote compared to Romney’s four years earlier – this in six Rust Belt states, another half-dozen state in New England and all or part of the eight states comprising Appalachia.

“The situation is worse than it has ever been” was a line that struck me from Donald Trump’s acceptance speech at the GOP Convention. To whom would this be more resonant than to those struggling from addiction?

Opiate addiction – to pain pills or heroin — is the closest thing to enslavement that we have in America today. It is brain-changing, relentless, and unmercifully hard to kick. Children who complain at the slightest household chore while sober will, once addicted, march like zombies through the snow for miles, endure any hardship or humiliation, for more dope.

So writes Quinones. Here’s a chart that attempts to quantify this correlation:

trumpvoteandillness

Full Story »

ON THE BRINK: SoCal faces dire, drier future

Here’s a story I spent a month or so reporting over the summer for the Ventura County Reporter: What the science is saying about the prospects for drought this century in Southern California

ON THE BRINK: Southern California faces dire, drier future

I’d like to dedicate this story to the late great climatologist Kelly Redmond, who died of cancer yesterday. Kelly was a legend in the field for his knowledge and his ability to communicate with others. (As an example, here’s a link to his Tyndall Lecture at the AGU a couple of years ago on accelerating environmental change — not just climate change). I think it’s probably the most thoughtful talk I’ve ever heard at the AGU.

Certainly, Kelly was the nicest guy this reporter ever met on the job. He took a call from me about fifteen years ago, completely out of the blue, from a complete unknown (me) working for a not very big paper, asking a great number of very naive questions about climate, and for well over an hour gave me, impromptu, over the phone, an introduction to the science. Climate 101. Amazing. When I saw him at conferences he always would chat, and always had something interesting to say. In 2012, I think it was, I saw him at a mixer at the AGU, and when I asked what’s new in the field, he said that “We [climatologists] never expected the Arctic to go over to the dark side so soon.” Jeez. I liked to say that he had a bit of the poet in him, as well as the scientist.

Miss you already, Kelly Redmond.

Will discuss the story more in days to come: here’s the cover picture.

cover-110316

 

 

Full Story »

A country Nirvana song via Sturgill Simpson

NPR and Rolling Stone today both note the arrival of new country star Sturgill Simpson’s version of Nirvana’s “In Bloom.” The second song on the epochal Nevermind album, universally agreed to be the band’s masterpiece, and as well Country Love’s fave song on the record, Sturgill completely upends it. Sez me.

The Nirvana version is as hard as rock can be; with massively crunchy guitars, Cobain at full yowl, and an abiding sense of discovery and self-loathing — or so it seemed to me. Of course I found out the song was an ode to a close friend of Cobain’s who loved to shoot guns but didn’t seem to understand what that could mean, which in retrospect makes the song darker than its prideful roar might indicate. Perhaps Cobain envied his oblivious friend.

To Sturgill, who was in middle school when the song came out, it sounded much different, as he discussed with Rolling Stone:

The Kentucky singer-songwriter penned every track on A Sailor’s Guide to Earth except one — a cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom,” off Nevermind. The tortured Kurt Cobain, and that seminal 1991 grunge album in particular, were an inspiration to the junior-high Simpson.

“I remember in seventh or eighth grade when that album dropped, it was like a bomb went off in my bedroom. For me, that song has always summed up what it means to be a teenager, and I think it tells a young boy that he can be sensitive and compassionate — he doesn’t have to be tough or cold to be a man,” explains Simpson. “I wanted to make a very beautiful and pure homage to Kurt.”

I love what Simpson has done with this song, even though to me it’s as different as it can be. Adding “love” to the chorus changes everything. Or does it? Love the gentleness, the sorrow, the deep understanding.

Must confess I don’t get the video at all, but oh well — I rarely do understand music videos these days.

More Sturgill? Sure — how about a Tiny Desk Concert? Man can that guy pick a guitar. Jeez.

 

Full Story » Comments (3)

Rockefeller charity calls Exxon “morally reprehensible,” disinvests

Today a fifty-year-old charity founded by the descendants of John Rockefeller, of Standard Oil wealth, disinvested their funds from Exxon Mobil and accused the company of misleading the public to enable the company to damage the climate. In a statement the Rockefeller Family Fund called the company morally reprehensible and said:

“Evidence appears to suggest that the company worked since the 1980s to confuse the public about climate change’s march, while simultaneously spending millions to fortify its own infrastructure against climate change’s destructive consequences and track new exploration opportunities as the Arctic’s ice receded,” the Rockefeller family wrote.

Where did they get this idea? From what was probably the best environmental story/expose published last year, in which Inside Climate News blew the lid off Exxon’s climate distortions and destruction, fact by fact, document by document, drawn from company files donated to a university, combed through by a team of students from Columbia University. Plus interviews statements pictures follow-ups and more. It’s greatness in journalism.

This has led to multiple investigations, as detailed in an RT story:

In November of 2015, the state of New York launched an investigation into whether the largest US gas and oil company had misled the public and investors about the risks of climate change. A similar inquiry has been opened in California, the Los Angeles Times reported.

 

Exxon: The Road Not Taken. Read it. Please.

But here’s the twist. Before turning on Exxon, the $130 million Rockefeller Family Fund turns out to have been a funder of Inside Climate News, and apparently assisted in the investigation!

Or so Exxon alleges:

“It’s not surprising that they’re divesting,” the company told CNBC. “The Rockefeller Family Fund provided financial support to InsideClimate News and Columbia University Journalism School which produced inaccurate and deliberately misleading stories about ExxonMobil’s history of climate research.”

!!!

Story there — somewhere.

exxon-to-start-15-billion-lng-project-18055_1

Full Story »

When will we start to see ice sheet disintegration?

James Hansen has published hundreds of scientific papers in his long and distinguished career as “the father of climate change awareness,” as described in The Guardian. With a team he published another one this morning, but this one is different.

For one, although Hansen organized the effort, he is one of a team of 18 experts from around the world, signaling a global consensus around a central scientific idea.

For another, Hansen gave up his tenured post in a government-backed research post in order to lead the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and to be able to stand outside the government critically.

The idea is that the little-controlled experiment that humanity is conducting on its home planet resembles a period of 120,000 years ago called the Eemian, which was much much warmer than it is today.

The Washington Post reported:

The research invokes collapsing ice sheets, violent megastorms and even the hurling of boulders by giant waves in its quest to suggest that even 2 degrees Celsius of global warming above pre-industrial levels would be far too much. Hansen has called it the most important work he has ever done.

The sweeping paper, 52 pages in length and with 19 authors, draws on evidence from ancient climate change or “paleo-climatology,” as well as climate experiments using computer models and some modern observations. Calling it a “paper” really isn’t quite right — it’s actually a synthesis of a wide range of old, and new, evidence.

“I think almost everybody who’s really familiar with both paleo and modern is now very concerned that we are approaching, if we have not passed, the points at which we have locked in really big changes for young people and future generations,” Hansen said in an interview.

As reporter Chris Mooney noted, to call the warning a “paper” is not quite right. It’s scientific, but it’s also an argument. Hansen argues as he has since at least 1988 in a famous warning delivered to Congress that our present almost uncontrolled release of greenhouse gases is “highly dangerous” to civilization as we know it.

Hansen and team write in an open source European journal called Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics:

If the ocean continues to accumulate heat and increase melting of marine-terminating ice shelves of Antarctica and Greenland, a point will be reached at which it is impossible to avoid large scale ice sheet disintegration with sea level rise of at least several meters. The economic and social cost of losing functionality of all coastal cities is practically incalculable. We suggest that a strategic approach relying on adaptation to such consequences is unacceptable to most of humanity, so it is important to understand this threat as soon as possible.
In the words of the New York Times:
The paper by Dr. Hansen and 18 co-authors dwells on the last time the Earth warmed naturally, about 120,000 years ago, when the temperature reached a level estimated to have been only slightly higher than today. Much of the polar ice disintegrated then, and scientists have established that the sea level rose 20 to 30 feet.
Hansen and colleagues say the world was only about 1 degree Celsius warmer then than it is now. The paper has been controversial, because it was published before undergoing the traditional mostly secret peer review process, and because it posits a mechanism that could bring catastrophic warming in decades, not centuries, which has been the usual view, even among scientists most concerned about risks such as sea level rise.
But as Chris Mooney points out for Wa-Po, the mechanism of ice sheet melting and cold water pooling described by the team of the Eemian era looks quite a bit like what NOAA just found in recent datasets:.

Indeed, shortly before the new paper’s publication, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released new recent data on the globe’s temperature that certainly bears a resemblance to what Hansen is talking about. For not only was the globe at a record warmth overall over the last three months, but it also showed anomalous cool patches in regions that Hansen suspects are being caused by ice melt – below Greenland, and also off the tip of the Antarctic peninsula.

“My interpretation is that this is the beginning,” Hansen says of these cool patches in curious parts of the global ocean. “And it’s one or two decades sooner than in our model.”

Hansen has been sounding the alarm in public since l988 — but he’s been right more often than not. That’s the problem. What if the climate is changing much faster than our ability to bring down greenhouse gas emissions?

After all, it’s been 66,000,000 million years since the earth saw greenhouse gases released as rapidly as they are now — ten times faster than at any point in the planet’s history — according to the World Meteorological Organization.

.

Full Story »