We Are the Wilderness: Gavin Van Horn’s “The Way of Coyote”

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The first time I saw a coyote in Chicago was more than a decade ago, turning one night onto Rockwell off of Addison, snaking past the darkened academic Gothic hulk of Lane Tech. I was taking the shortcut to Jewel to buy beer, I presume, heading into the Riverview shopping complex that was a melancholy reminder of the amusement park that once stood there, tilting madly along the river.

This night was before the city renovated the area, installing a boathouse and river access. The backroad there was weed-lined and vaguely fetid, abutting a field that stank of sewage. It seemed tired and forgotten, a little part of the city lost in the bewildered and inchoate transition away from a striding industrial power.

There in my headlights a ragged dog jump-trotted across the road, lanky and shambolic. It looked at the car with barely a passing glance, and I realized that it was a coyote: low to the ground, more feral, and more determined than some stray.

It was one of those vertiginous moments where you can’t come close to vocalizing the disconnect. It all seemed to fit though: the weedy stink of that stretch of street, the memory of industry, the ache of grubby commerce standing dully in an parking lot filled with torn-down nostalgia, and this creature that just didn’t belong; a creature, I naively thought, of the woods and the moon-howling sands. It was a dizzying reminder that just as there are no true separations in time, the distinction between the animal kingdom and ours is equally illusory. No matter how many times it happens, like with a fox on a full-moon summer night, it is still disorienting and indescribable.

Those sorts of encounters are at the heart of Gavin Van Horn’s The Way of Coyote, (University of Chicago Press), which I called last month one of my favorite books of 2018, and whose impact on me has only grown (and who actually can describe these encounters). Van Horn, who works for the Center for Humans and Nature, crafted a book that doesn’t so much break down barriers as point out that these barriers never existed, no matter how much we try.

(Needless disclosure: the company I work for designed the website for the Center for Humans and Nature, but it was before I worked there. It’s important to practice radical honesty. Radical, pointless, honesty.)

Van Horn, a fellow Evanstonian, shows himself in the book to be an inveterate walker, someone who moves along seeing the world at the ground level. At this level he sees that our buildings and sidewalks and river paths are more than an imposition onto the animal kingdom: they are actually a part of it.

One animal we get to see quite a bit of is the peregrine falcon, who live in urban environments, reaching speeds of over 200 miles per hour as they swoop and dart for food, much to the consternation of local rodent populations. Once on the verge of extinction, they have made a remarkable comback, thanks partly to the conversation efforts of some individuals to whom the book introduces us.

Why are they doing so well? Simply put, it’s because the city works for them. It has food. It has shelter. And it really sort of looks like home. As Van Horn writes:

Other than the wild tenacity of the birds, a key factor for peregrines’ success may be the city itself. Peregrines are historically cliff-dwelling raptors, and as Mary (a bird expert) observes, “If you think of the city, it’s nothing but a psuedo-cliff, with lots of ledges, ample prey, and no competition for the use of space.”

Now you, as a brainy human, might be thinking: idiot birds! A skyscraper is nothing like a cliff. Cliffs are rocks, you dumb bird!

Well, first of all, settle down. Second of all, from the bird’s point-of-view, so what? A falcon doesn’t enjoy a cliff because it prefers its homes to be eroded; rather, it’s because a cliff gives it advantages for food and shelter. If a skyscraper- or a city full of skyscrapers, with uncompromised vantage points- does the same thing, then the bird adapts. It barely even has to. The city just works.

Van Horn uses this to talk about reconciliation ecology, which is, as he explains, “the (often sweat-intensive) process of bringing a historical ecosystem or landscape back to a condition resembling its former functionality and diversity.”

It’s actually a radical concept: can a city, built by and for humans, with contours and structures dictated by the pressures of population and the maw-shoveling dictates of capitalism’s endless grind, work for other animals? Is that even possible?

North Shore Channel, dam existing as either an archaism or a strange future-perfect vision of a post-human world

Throughout the book, Van Horn time and time again says “yes.” He says it with an expression that points out that it isn’t easy, but also with the quiet knowledge that it is already happening. He sees traces of beavers along the North Shore Channel. He finds animal activities in TV graveyards. He spots the ghosts of coyotes in human graveyards.

And in the book, Van Horn introduces us to a large cast of people who are working to restore natural pathways in the city and urban areas, whether through restoring prairies on a large scale of neighbors banding together to help bees find food yard by yard, block by block, until they can fly across a city that has only recently sprung up in their ancient paths.

While the book is decidedly first-person, and Van Horn takes on on his jaunts and kayak trips, he lets other people tell the story. We hear from luminaries like the great Aldo Leopold and the unknown activists dedicated to helping other species.

He’s a wry story-teller and gifted writer, capable of subtle sentences whose power reveals itself unexpectedly. (“Why do I walk? I press my toes against the edges of that question”) The book is also deprecatingly funny, with a particularly good bit when he is sinking in mud in the North Shore channel, as concerned about the embarrassment as he is about actually drowning.

My mind refocuses on the present. Gelatinous good oozes between my toes and I descend a few inches farther. Is there a bottom to this? I wonder. Who’s to say how deep the goop goes- beside the white egrets, who ignore my plight, stepping gingerly atop the sludge with enviable stilt legs and hollow-boned bodies. My bones will be hard to find in a few minutes. I wish for a pith helmet- my cartoon-based version of what remains of a British explorer caught in Amazonian quicksand- so next of kin can locate me once I’m fully submerged. At least I will have saved them a trip to another continent. I am standing with one leg mired in a tiny tributary of the Chicago River, and the river is doing its best to absorb me.

What’s striking is the uncertainty, the inability to really know the depth of the goop. It is just a “tiny tributary”, a man-made slop channel just now sprung back to life, but that doesn’t matter. It can absorb someone, and they can drown surrounded by impassive egrets.

The possibility of death only exists because the river has come back to life. That it has is partly due to the efforts of conservationists and city planners, but partly because, well: it is a river. Mud doesn’t care about intent; it forms when dirt hits water, and can create a sucking terror no matter what. The egrets are clearly happy that the Channel is clean, even if they don’t show that gratitude by throwing a goddamn rope or something. Because for them, this is now a pathway.

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As Van Horn points out, the last bullet point is pretty much as “you know what- just stay away, dorks.”

Pathways are key to the book. Our sidewalks and streets and buildings and highways and our plows and shovels and sewers have interrupted ancient pathways. Bees and butterflies and birds are confused where to fly on inherited migration paths. Ground-based animals have to deal with the terrors of the roads just to find food. Open space is interrupted, parceled off, relegated to a patch of strange color and odd-shapes on a gridded map.

That’s not the way it should be, and cities are beginning to recognize that. There are more attempts to link up habitats, create ways for animals to move from zone to zone. Whether that is by restoring waterways like the Chicago River or just providing bridges and tunnels and walkways, cities are linking open spaces.

That’s for every animal, including humans, and I think that’s the point of Van Horn’s subtitle, “Shared Journeys in the Urban Wilds”. We’re in these cities together, these unnatural aggregations, these dense and pulsing and terrible and wonderful zones. They are often indifferent to their own citizens, much less any other species.

Cities with this size and noise and intensity are incredibly new to the human experience, to say nothing of their eye-blink appearance in the natural world. We all need to learn to adapt.

In a short little book on the extinction of the passenger pigeons called Pilgrims of the Air, John Wilson Foster describes the superabundance of creatures that greeted European colonists in the New World. The world was so filled with fish and fowl that “sky-darkening” swarms of pigeons “didn’t leap off the pages of the discovery and settler narratives.”

But there was another reason. The birds and the fish and the game weren’t seen as natural wonders. “They were crude grocery lists rather than field-logs of the naturalist; they were files of potential merchandise; and the very abundance they roughly noted hindered an observant awareness…”

When settlers came to America, they adapted to the land by attempting to transform it and everything on, under, or over it into capital. Passenger pigeons, whose flocks were the size of counties, went extinct. Cities went up without any care for their impacts. The land was for taking. The animals were for eating or killing so as not to interfere with our plans.

We’re still doing that, of course. We still put capital over things like clean water and human rights, everywhere. But there is a new ethos competing with it. We are adapting.

Adaptation is everywhere in the book. How do we adapt to the weight of our disruption? How do we adapt to the weirdness of our cities? How do we adapt to the disconnect we’ve had with nature, of which we’re an indelible part? If we can drown in the mud, of course, we are a part of the natural world.

For Van Horn, it is about ethics, or creating new mindways, new journeys in our own lives, and a new way of seeing the world.

New patterns of thought about the purpose and possibilities of a city can create new corridors of life in the urban landscape. Imaginative leaps across neural bridges may build the bridges between our lives and those of other creatures, and may compel us to demand corridors that repair the frayed weave of life-giving pathways throughout the city. Rewilding the mind can rewild our cities.

While that’s important, to some creatures, that’s almost superflous. The coyote, the ultimate adapter to every landscape across the country, is learning how to exist in the city. It prowls and skulks and feeds. We catch glimpses of it. Even just today, a coworker, with a thrill in her voice revealing that recognizable breathlessness of experience and that instinctual, bright and nameless wonder in pond-green eyes, told me that she spotted a coyote running across Ravenswood before slipping alongside the tracks. It was another glimpse at adaptation.

The coyote reminds us that we can adapt in the same way. The city is always changing: a fetid field along a sluggish, industry-wrecked river can become a spot of leisure and activity. An amusement park gets torn down, its laughter becoming a memory, fading into photographs and stories of streetcar journeys. A massive school can stand still as the world moves around it.

Our minds have to adjust to these changes, even if they do so while clinging to a weeping nostalgia. We long for things that are gone, which might explain why seeing the coyote disturbs and excites. These things aren’t gone. The world we wrecked is figuring out how to live with us. If we can take those lessons, and share that journey, we might be able to live with them. We just might be able to live with ourselves.

Plastic-Eating Enzyme Can Help Save A Plastic Planet

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(H/t to Tom Hochbaum for the tip, and for the ideas on what to write about)

I was looking online for a picture of the garbage vortex in the south Pacific, and having a surprising amount of trouble. It’s this Texas-sized patch of garbage that, coming from the land and borne by currents, has been swirling and collecting for decades. It’s pretty famous, so I was kind of frustrated that I haven’t been able to find a good image of it, until I remembered: it’s the size of Texas. 

How do you capture such an image? Have you ever seen a non-satellite photograph of all of Texas? Of course not. It’s impossible, just as it is impossible to imagine a garbage pile the size of that vast emptiness.

But it isn’t a fantasy. It is real. Even though the garbage patch is dwarfed by the enormity of the ocean, the idea that the waste of our civilization is gathering, and gathering size, is sobering and terrifying. Here are some horrible details.

The Patch is estimated to cover as much as 10% of the entire Pacific Ocean and it’s made mostly of tiny pieces of plastic that are the result of the process of photodegredation. Since plastic is non-biodegradable, it remains a polymer while the sun can only break it into smaller and smaller pieces. Once these pieces are small enough, fish and other aquatic animals mistake the plastic for plankton and ingest it. Even the plastic that isn’t eaten leeches harmful chemicals into the water, including pesticides, chemical byproducts, and toxic solvents. As a result, the plastics and chemicals that are consumed by the fish end up in our food supply. Delicious.

 

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This is Henderson Island. It is uninhabited.

 

It’s unsurprising that much of the waste is plastic. Plastic is a genuine miracle substance which has inarguably made life easier, but which lingers for centuries, choking our rivers and seas, filling our landfills, manifesting itself with hideous ocean-carried wreckage in the world’s most remote islands or as microplastics in the Great Lakes. Plastic bags flutter like ragged broken-spine scarecrows throughout the sky, catching themselves on trees and bushes, or drowning themselves in the sewers, soggy with a wordless permanence.

It takes thousands of years for plastic to break down. Which is why we’re so excited that there is genuinely great news about our addiction.

Scientists have created a mutant enzyme that breaks down plastic drinks bottles – by accident. The breakthrough could help solve the global plastic pollution crisis by enabling for the first time the full recycling of bottles.

The new research was spurred by the discovery in 2016 of the first bacterium that had naturally evolved to eat plastic, at a waste dump in Japan. Scientists have now revealed the detailed structure of the crucial enzyme produced by the bug.

The international team then tweaked the enzyme to see how it had evolved, but tests showed they had inadvertently made the molecule even better at breaking down the PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic used for soft drink bottles. “What actually turned out was we improved the enzyme, which was a bit of a shock,” said Prof John McGeehan, at the University of Portsmouth, UK, who led the research. “It’s great and a real finding.”

The mutant enzyme takes a few days to start breaking down the plastic – far faster than the centuries it takes in the oceans. But the researchers are optimistic this can be speeded up even further and become a viable large-scale process.

That’s absolutely astonishing. The natural evolution of an enzyme that can eat plastic is amazing enough, and shows the incredible flexibility of nature, which will eventually restore itself even if we kill ourselves off. It’s amazing that scientists could study its DNA, and tinker with it, and make it better, even if accidentally.

And it is just tear-inducing that they also think they can make it better. That they recognize a huge problem, have scoured the world to find a solution, and then, piece by piece, issue by issue, calculation by calcuation, they make it better. That they can use enzymes to offer hope in what seemed like an intractable problem.

That isn’t to say we should all start stocking up on plastic bottles and throwing them immediately away, because we’ve been saved. We should still strive to use as little plastic as possible, and recycle it as much as we can.

It doesn’t let us off the hook for the damage we have done, and continue to do. (Nor, I should state, is this a sure thing: there could be greenhouse ramifications, but that’s the best part of science. They’ll find out!) It doesn’t bring back the jetsam of our endless inventiveness.

It should still make you teeth-gnashingly angry, or at least frustrated and sickened, that we can wreak such havoc on such remote and unpopulated places, just by sheer dint of our material existence. And we’re all complicit. Lord knows I’m as guilty as anyone, through laziness and love of convenience.

But thankfully, there are a lot of people who don’t take “meh” for an answer. Thankfully, there are people who are working on mitigating and maybe even expiating our sins, and who can both invent new solutions and have the wisdom and flexibility to take advantage of happy accidents, of nature working in its own way to adapt to our impositions.

We aren’t saved. Nature doesn’t work quickly, which makes our outsized impact all the more stark. But it’s also true that our solutions are part of nature, since we are still, for all our inventions, part of nature. This odd and serendipitous partnership with a hungry enzyme might just be part of regaining that balance.

Michigan Water Bill Sums Up War Against the Common Good in Great Lakes

Remember last week, when we had all those lovely pictures of the Great Lakes? And were happy? Well, that’s done with. There’s no more time for lazy beer-drinking bocce along a sun-kissed Lake Michigan shoreline*. The war against the lakes and against the common good as a whole continues apace.

 

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A sort-of-adorable reminder that enormous lakes can disappear.

 

(*There’s always time for that. Holy moly, I can’t wait for the summer.)

A bill has been working its way through the Michigan legislature the last couple of weeks, and is pending a vote. This is the sort of bill that pundits call “business friendly”, but the rest of us might call “an abdication of our natural rights to corporate overlords.” Let’s let the Petoeksy News explain:

House Bill 5638, introduced by state Rep. Aaron Miller, R-Sturgis, would eliminate current Department of Environmental Quality requirements for some large water withdrawals proposed by businesses and farms to be screened through an online assessment tool at the agency’s website. This tool is intended to be used prior to large-quantity withdrawals — those of 100,000 gallons or more per day — to determine the impact on local water resources.

Rather than using the current review process, the legislation would allow some applicants instead to seek approval based on hydrological analyses they submit, completed by a hydrologist of their choosing.

 Now, reader, I confess I don’t know exactly how onerous the Michigan DEQ is when approving withdrawals. It might be very costly and time-consuming, and may have an overall negative economic impact that (somehow) outweighs the good it does.
It’s a pretty simple public interface in which the farmer plugs in their needs, and an algorithm determines if it is approved or there needs to be more investigation.  Apparently, some farmers can wait months for an approval.  It was meant to be unbiased, but can obviusly be slow and unwieldly. Maybe it needs reform and streamlining.
This isn’t it.

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Clean Water is a Common Good. That’s Why Its Access is Being Limited.

Pictured: Not Tang.

“Brackish” is a wonderfully descriptive word; it is nearly onomatopoetic in its immediate salinity. It has a scaly tangibility to it, and contains within it an instant shudder. “Brack” is the sound you make when you taste something undrinkable, something wrong, something poisonous.

But for too many Americans, that is the reality of their water. It is choking, dirty, and dangerous. It is the opposite of what water should be. It has been degraded by capitalism and left to fester by the people elected to remember the forgotten.

This is laid out in stark detail by Sarah Jones and Emily Atkin at the resurgent The New Republic, in an article titled, with no pulled punches, Rural America’s Drinking Water Crisis.

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Surprise! Scott Pruitt’s EPA Uses Bad Economics on the Clean Water Rule

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In the Aftertime, when our descendants are fighting over the last scraps of arable land, this fucking Okie hump is going to be one of history’s primary villains.

Scott Pruitt is not an honest man. He has one core belief–that extraction industries (and really any industry) should be able to do whatever they want to maximize profits. His ancillary beliefs–that there should be no regulations, that labor or environmental protections are evil, that climate change is a hoax, that we the poor and undeserving should choke on the ashes of capitalism–all flow from that.

All of his dishonesty and petty idiocy come from this. He’s an industry shill who literally copy-and-pasted comments extraction flacks wrote for him about EPA regulations he was fighting (before he was put in charge of the damn thing). He forces his department to self-censor the truth or lose their jobs (many choose the later). He replaces scientists with industry goons. He’s says it is “insensitive” to talk about climate change being a cause of more powerful and destructive because he knows it is inarguable, and so hides behind a veneer of compassion for environmental victims his whole career proves a lie.

He’s one of the primary disasters of the Trump regime, coming in close behind or ahead of Sessions, depending on where you stand on things. I’ll consider them tied. It flows from the top, of course. Just like in Pruitt’s EPA, dishonesty has begun to affect the noble institution with every one of his idiotic appointments.

We can see that inherent dishonesty in a recent review of the Clean Water Rule of 2015 (this is also known as Waters of the United States Act, or just WOTUS). The administration has been trying to overturn these regulations, which changed what water could be regulated by the federal government. The definition was expanded to include many irrigation channels and small streams.

To many, this was big government intrusion at its worst. And to be fair, I find that argument sympathetic. Irrigation channels often run on private land. The problem, of course, is that they don’t end there. Water seeps into aquifers or it runs rivulets of phosphate into lakes, creating murderous algae blooms, or it is just wasted. But, more regulations could be onerous to farmers, who already eke out a meager existence.

Who was on their side? Well, nearly everyone.

President Donald Trump made repeated campaign promises to repeal WOTUS, which is opposed by a variety of industrial sectors, including agriculture, iron and steel manufacturing, home builders, and mining groups. Industry associations representing those sectors argue it would trigger requirements to obtain costly federal permits to dredge wetlands and streams that they say fall under state and local laws already.

Now, some argue, maybe we should protect wetlands more. It’s a compelling argument these days. So who knows what to do? But no fear! That’s why the EPA commissioned a study. And they found that the economic burden would be super expensive. There’s just, well, one problem. From the Commies at Bloomberg.

The Trump administration was sloppy in how it estimated the economic impact of a proposal to repeal an Obama-era water pollution regulation, relying on data and assumptions that industry previously criticized, according to economists and regulatory analysts interviewed by Bloomberg BNA.

Chief among their complaints was that the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers used recession-era economic data and failed to account for some of the benefits of leaving the 2015 Clean Water Rule in place. Their economic analysis even drew criticism from David Sunding, a University of California-Berkeley agricultural economist who was hired by industry groups to counter theanalysis the Obama administration used to back its regulation.

“I am not normally this dismissive, but this is the worst regulatory analysis I have ever seen,” Sunding told Bloomberg BNA in telephone interview.

It’s worth repeating that Sunding had been hired by industry groups, in large part because he criticized the conclusions of the Obama administration, saying they had used faulty data to overstate the benefits. But then the Trump admin under Pruitt used the same numbers to come up with even worse results.

When the program was first proposed, it was under one set of economic conditions (coming out of the recession). That skewed the benefits, because it started from an artificially low baseline. But Pruitt’s EPA used that same baseline, and ignored any benefits. Bloomberg can explain.

The Trump administration used the 2013 estimates as a starting point, assuming that the costs of that regulation would be avoided by a repeal and the benefits of the regulation would be foregone. The proposed repeal was estimated to result in $162 million to $476 million in avoided costs, while the estimated foregone benefits range from $34 million to $73 million per year.

In the 2013 analysis, the EPA estimated the annual costs of implementing the water jurisdiction rule to range from $133.7 million to $277 million, but those costs were outweighed by annual projected benefits of between $300.7 million and $397.6 million.

The EPA’s 2017 approach drew the ire of economists because no recent permitting data was used to estimate the economic impact of the proposed repeal. Instead, the analysis used data from fiscal years 2009 and 2010, a time when U.S. economic activity was at its lowest since World War II, particularly in the manufacturing, residential, and commercial development sectors.

Basically, the Obama estimates might have been wrong, but the Trump ones were almost deliberately misleading. Or, knowing them, not almost.

I err on the side of WOTUS, clearly. But it is worth looking into. We do need to know the impact of everything we do. Scott Pruitt sort of agrees. He thinks we should know the negative impact of any regulation. He doesn’t really care to know any of the benefits, or care about the long-and-short term destruction of our environment. That sort of impact doesn’t matter.

The only impact that matters is if business is happy. For some reason they don’t, or won’t, see the ground crumbling beneath their feet. They don’t see the flames licking up the sides of the house. They feel the lash of the storm, but assume it is passing, or pretend their boat can get out of the way. Theya re depserate and greedy murderers, and Scott Pruitt is their chief enabler.

If we’re lucky enough to have history in 100 years, his name will be cursed.

A Brief Follow-Up on Houston, City Planning, And Over-Reactions

 

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Wetlands are pretty, but they wouldn’t have saved Houston. (They’re still good though!)

 

In the post below, I wrote “There might be some doubt if this particular tropical storm was a direct result of climate change, but there is no doubt that it was made worse by the simple fact that we have completely altered the way water drains itself, which is to say: it no longer does. It relies on our pavement floodplains, our sewers, our channels. And when those aren’t enough, as we know, water never slinks off.”

Charles Mahron and Daniel Herriges at Strong Towns think I am being unfair.

OK, they don’t think I’m being unfair. Neither of them have read my piece, and indeed wrote their articles before mine. I probably shouldn’t take it personally. But they both think that narrative- Houston overdeveloped, paved over wetlands, and is paying the price- is unfair. And that’s worth listening to.

They have a very good point. In their articles, they go into how Houston isn’t particularly less-regulated than other cities (though in a way it is) and how it is weird to say that “they shouldn’t keep developing”, as if development wasn’t a reaction to the desire of people to live there. (Essentially, if you took that to its logical conclusion, cities should shut people out once they reached a point, and the people shut out would most likely be poor).

But, more broadly, they point out that Harvey would have obviously overwhelmed the most porous city in the world.

As Mahron says:

he Texas A&M research I highlighted above suggests reckless wetland filling robbed Houston of 4 billion gallons of stormwater storage capacity. For context, the Washington Post is reporting now that Harvey dumped 19 trillion gallons on the Houston area. That means that, had those wetlands never been filled, they could have accommodated 0.02% of the water that fell in Harvey. I tried to plot this up in some type of graphic representation, but at no scale could I get the wetland capacity to even show up, it’s so insignificant.

That’s very true. It isn’t Houston’s “fault” that they got flooded. Harvey would have destroyed anywhere, and if my article implied that better city planning would have saved Houston, I take it back.

But the broader point is still true: our choices, all of them, helped create catastrophe, both isolated ones like Harvey and civilizational ones like climate change. And all the little disasters in Harvey, each individual explosion and each chemical leak, is the result of decisions made as to how we arrange our society and technology.

(And the point isn’t that wetlands are bad. You should still have them. Not every storm is Harvey (for now!), and a lot of flooding can be prevented.)

Both articles are very learned, well-reasoned, and worth reading, providing nuance to the story. I worry that there is a little too much “now is no time to be talking about this”. It’s the same argument about “politicizing” tragedy that lets us avoid making hard choices about how we’ve set up our lives. I don’t think either writer is saying that. Strong Towns, which I love and support, is based around the idea of asking hard questions about that very topic. But I always worry about a counter-narrative that “everything was fine and you are being hysterical” can easily take hold.

And, though both articles imply it, I think the idea that people are saying Houstonians “deserve it” is overblown. I haven’t heard any of that. And what is there shouldn’t be countered with overwhelming cries for “decency”. We can help the people of Houston and ask how we can do better at the same time. Irma might already be bearing down. The opposite of knee-jerk snark isn’t piled smarm. It’s intelligence.

The Fish Are On Anti-Depressants: The Great Lakes, Harvey, and Our Weird Global Climate Experiment

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Storm’s coming…

 

A few years ago, I read this cool report out of Northwestern University about an old, hidden, forgotten cemetery near downtown Chicago, underneath some of the most expensive and tony property in the city. This boneyard was the final resting spot of thousands, maybe tens of thousands, before it was forgotten, paved over, and built upon. Skyscrapers and artisanal donut shops linger with a sneering assumption of permanence over a Potter’s Field.

It’s weird, the things our civilization leaves behind. The past, when it burbles up like poltergeists, give us this disconcerting shudder, a weird hollow dread mingled with our awe. I think that comes from twin recognitions: the first is the Ozymandias-like knowledge that we’re all going to be just dirt in the ground one day, and our buildings won’t last forever. The bodies in the ground remind us of that.

But they also remind us that we leave traces. We have an impact not just on our lives, but on the future. And as a species, we have an impact on an entire planet, in sometimes positive but mostly weird and disturbing ways. We’re changing the ecology of our home in a grand experiment to which no one really consented, but in which we’re all both participants and experimenters.

Harvey is a sign of this. Fish on anti-depressants is a far weirder, but no less profound one. In fact, it might be the most damning and on-the-nose verdict on our society I can think of. Let me explain.

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