Thursday, June 01, 2006

The state of things

I will not, and cannot, paint myself as an expert on Iraq, or even really very knowledgable on the subject. Sometimes I avoid the news from there because it's just too discouraging and depressing -- but even an amateur such as myself can see that the state of things there is just as bad as it is possible to be.

I would imagine that the troops are under tremendous pressure. They're stretched extremely thin, there's no strategy, only tactics, there's no possibility of relief (since there were not sufficient forces held in reserve), there's little in the way of a clear-cut plan for making "progress" (however one defines that), there's no announced exit strategy (at least not one with any chance of being effected at any time in the near future), the insurgency grows and grows, on its way to evolving into a full-fledged civil war with our troops in the middle of it all, and safety can only be found in heavily fortified zones -- all this seems to me to be a recipe for disaster, and for further atrocities. When they happen, and they surely will again, a good part of the blame for them must fall on the heads of the people who put our soldiers in such an untenable and intractable position: Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Feith, Bolton and the rest of the neocon rabble who so whole-heartedly supported them.

If World War I was a terrible failure of generalship, as is sometimes said, then the Bush Invasion of Iraq will certainly be judged as the worst failure of civilian leadership of the military since World War II.

Ed Fitzgerald | 6/01/2006 04:36:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


Providing moral roots

Salon has an somewhat interesting interview with Karen Armstrong, the former nun who is now a fairly well known author of many books about religion, but you might want to follow up with PZ Myers' criticisms on Pharyngula.

I agree with much of what Myers says, but I don't think that it's "pander[ing] to the babbling sophistry that props up religion" to acknowledge that, along with the negative historical (and ongoing) consequences of religious belief (which have been well laid out by Richard Dawkins), there is also definite positive value that religion provides to a community, especially that of providing a moral center -- a topic Armstrong touches on when she discusses the role of the Golden Rule (or some equivalent precept) in many religions which developed at around the same time.

Where Armstrong is wrong, in my opinion, is in her insistence that religion can provide the meaning that people are anxious to find in life -- or, rather, that the meanings that religions promulgate can be considered to be in any reasonable way to be true. She's correct that science cannot provide meaning, but that's not a fault in science, that's simply because science reflects reality, and there is no meaning to existence. Existence doesn't mean, it simply is. We, as humans, can create a meaning for life that satisfies us, but that is a purely human construct, intimately linked to and dependent on human psychology, and not in any way eternal, general or universal outside of our particular species.

The irony is that while the comfort and certainty that religions attempt to provide is based on a falsehood, we desperately need the systems of morality which underlay these beliefs, because they provide a code by which we as a species can survive and not destroy each other. That's not to say that one can only follow a moral code if one is religious -- as an atheist I obviously don't believe that -- but simply to acknowledge that religions are an extremely powerful mechanism for spreading and rooting those codes, perhaps because they are so explicitly linked to promises to provide meaning and certainty in an uncertain and meaningless universe.

(Of course, these codes were meant to be totally internal ones, in that they told you how to behave amongst your fellow community members, but were not meant to be applicable to behavior with outsiders who were, very possibly, a threat to the security and continued existence of your society. It's taken centuries for these codes to be accepted as universally applicable to all people, and even now they are often honored in the breach rather than otherwise: the fear of the outsider, the foreigner, the alien, is still strong, and can still be used to justify behavior that is not acceptable within the community -- something we see all too frequently in Iraq. Given the undeniable fact that we all now live in one intimately interconnected global community, it's vital to our continued survival that moral codes like the Golden Rule be recognized as universal, something that some religions do a better job at conveying than do others.)

Ed Fitzgerald | 6/01/2006 02:05:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE



John Lynch at Stranger Fruit claims that this law journal article has the best title for a law journal article ever, and it's hard to disagree.

Ed Fitzgerald | 6/01/2006 01:03:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

New York as Ecotopia?

Nathan Newman says that New York City is the nation's Ecotopia:
Instead of looking in Alaska for a massive source of energy, look at New York City.

It doesn't look to most people like an oil geyser, but every day New York City residents consume just one-third of the gasoline used by other Americans and one-half of the residential energy use of a typical American. They drive fewer cars because of a well-developed mass transit system and their multi-unit buildings use less energy per household.

That adds up to the equivalent of between 221,000,000 to 296,000,000 barrels of oil saved per year by New York residents -- just a bit less than the 320,000,000 barrels per year that would be produced by the ANWR field in Alaska at its peak production. Just by its urban design, New York City is one of the most important energy sources in the country.


And existing high-density urban areas like New York City should be treated like the natural resource that they are-- and encouraged to keep producing more energy savings for the nation. Projections are that New York City is likely to add a million people in the next decade or so-- a million people who would collectively cut projected energy use by tens of millions of barrels per year. The more federal and state governments do to support the mass transit and housing needed to absorb that growth, the better for the environment of the whole nation.


New York City is the Ecotopia of the nation and greater density here means less land destroyed for suburban sprawl and less global warming. So progressives nationally and locally should be rolling up their sleeves and figuring out how to maximize population growth in the Big Green Apple as smoothly and quickly as possible.

(See also this earlier unfutz post.)

Of course I love New York, and I'm very comfortable with old-style centralized cities, but it's not at all clear to me that the solutions which work for those places will be all that effective for the sprawling cities in the Sun Belt which evolved on a different model altogether. They're too decentralized for a mass-transit system to really be effective at saving energy until it's a complete system -- a point I made here responding to Ray Bradbury's suggestion that LA build monorails instead of subways.

Still, Newman's essential point is correct: old-style high-density centralized cities are fundamentally more efficient than sprawling cities and suburbs which rely on the automobile to keep them knitted together -- but is New York too different from other cities to serve as a role model? Urban historian Kenneth Jackson wrote this almost 10 years ago:

What is unusual about New York is that its transformation has been consistent with its own past and different from that of other cities. In at least 10 ways, the metropolis remains distinct from in ways exaggerated, not diminished, by the passing of 100 years.

Tempo. New Yorkers walk faster, work longer, eat later and compete harder than most other Americans.

These behavioral patterns have deep roots. In 1626, when the Dutch set up a permanent trading post on Manhattan, their goal was not to convert the Indians or to achieve religious freedom, but to make money. ...

Diversity. In recent decades, every important city has become multicultural, multiracial and multireligious. But New York has never been anything else. As early as the 1640's, 18 different languages were already being spoken in colonial New Amsterdam, whose population was still less than a thousand.

Ever since, New York has been the most polyglot place on Earth...

Tolerance. Despite tragic ethnically charged incidents in Howard Beach, Crown Heights and other neighborhoods, most New Yorkers have learned to control their prejudices.

Again, the Dutch set the standard. In the early 17th century, even as Anne Hutchinson was being kicked out of Boston for minor religious differences, the West India Company was welcoming Lutherans, Quakers, Anabaptists, Catholics and Jews to Manhattan.

New York has always been a haven for outcasts, sinners, revolutionaries, anarchists and dissidents. ...

Density. Compared with other American cities, New York has always been crowded. The first Dutch settlers huddled together below Wall Street. A century ago, the average population density on the Lower East Side exceeded 260,000 per square mile, and in certain precincts it reached 600,000 per square mile, a total never matched at any other time or in any other place. Today, New York still stands apart. The population density of San Francisco is 16,000 per square mile; in Chicago the number is 12,000; and in Los Angeles it is 7,5000. The density figure for the five boroughs is 25,000 per square mile, and for Manhattan it is 65,000 per square mile.

As a rule, Americans have been fleeing from the inner city. Since 1950, the population of Chicago proper has dropped 25 percent, Baltimore 28 percent, Philadelphia 29 percent, Washington 32 percent, Cleveland 43 percent, Pittsburgh 45 percent, Detroit 46 percent and St. Louis 54 percent. New York and San Francisco are the exceptions. The population of each is down only about 5 percent from its peak, and has grown for the past 15 years....

What makes New York exceptional is that even as many have left the city, others have always been ready to take their place.

Public transportation. A century ago, the United States had the best and most extensive public transportation system in the world. Since then, in city after city, Americans have ripped up their streetcar tracks, starved their bus systems and built superhighways.

New York is the exception. Its proportion of the nation's transit riders has doubled in the 20th century, and its subways, buses and commuter trains are used by more people today than a quarter century ago.

Vibrant central business district. Bustling department stores, once the signature institution of every city, are now only memories in many places, thanks to the urban exodus of the last 50 years, which has given us subdivisions, shopping malls, office parks and highway strip developments but has left American downtowns desolate and forlorn, especially after dark.

New York is again an exception. Despite the loss of Gimbels, B. Altman and Bonwit Teller, the sidewalks of midtown Manhattan remain crowded, and grand emporiums like Macy's, Lord & Taylor, Bloomingdale's, Saks Fifth Avenue, Brooks Brothers, Bergdorf Goodman and a dozen others continue to enchant window shoppers as no mall ever could.

A substantial middle class. In most North American cities, the rich near live the edges and the poor remain in the middle. New Yorkers, to be sure, started this trend. They pioneered the suburban movement in Brooklyn Heights and later in Westchester County, Long Island and New Jersey. But the middle class has never really abandoned the center of New York. Neighborhoods throughout the city include the kinds of people who elsewhere would be firmly ensconced in the suburbs. The affluent are conspicuous, too, so much so that Manhattan is the richest county in the nation per capita, the wealthiest ZIP code in America is Manhattan's 10021, and the highest residential real estate values in the United States are along Fifth Avenue, Park Avenue and Central Park West.

A sustainable environment. The idea of pristine nature and clean air and water conjures up images of wood-burning Vermonters, not cliff dwellers in Manhattan. But New Yorkers also tread lightly on the land. They use fewer fossil fuels to get from place to place and to heat and cool their residences. By any measure, apartments are more energy efficient that houses, just as walking and using public transit are more efficient than moving a ton and a half of metal to make a trip to the grocer.

Public housing. Today, public housing, especially of the high-rise variety, is generally considered to be a failure in the United States. Thousands of units have been abandoned because even the poor refuse to live in such miserable environments. But not in New York, where tens of thousands of families are on the waiting list and many of the public housing complexes are in remarkably good order, despite major cuts in Federal subsidies in the last 15 years.

Safety. The scary image of New York, fed by movies and television, causes newcomers to feel a twinge of fear when they venture out. Actually, New York has seldom been among the nation's most dangerous cities....

[T]he unusual freedom from sudden death that New Yorkers enjoy is related to the transportation system and population density, not crime. Quite simply, most New Yorkers are less likely to die prematurely than other Americans because of a low automobile fatality rate.

In other parts of the country, automobiles are required for virtually all journeys. But New Yorkers walk to many destinations. Short trips are the norm. By reducing distance traveled, New Yorkers remain out of the street and thus out of harm's way.

These 10 characteristics have contributed to New York's status as a unique metropolis. Although many consider it out of date and out of touch, in truth it should be a model for other American cities. ...

No other place can convincingly claim to be the capital of capitalism, the capital of the 20th century and the capital of the world. As John Steinbeck said: "It is an ugly city, a dirty city. Its climate is a scandal. Its politics are used to frighten children. Its traffic is madness. Its competition is murderous. But there is one thing about it -- once you have lived in New York and it has become your home, no other place is good enough.
Kenneth T. Jackson
"100 Years of Being Really Big"
New York Times Week in Review Op-Ed page (12/28/97)

I'm a New Yorker by choice, so there's little in Jackson's exposition that I'm going to disagree with, although I will point out that surviving as a middle class person in New York is not all that easy, especially in Manhattan, because of the great cost of everything here. Perhaps some future progressive administration will consider the concept of a tax write off for people of lesser means who live here, to help defray that cost, and keep us from leaving our Ecotopia?

Ed Fitzgerald | 5/31/2006 04:31:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


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Bullshit, trolling, unthinking knee-jerk dogmatism and the drivel of idiots will be ruthlessly deleted and the posters banned.

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Substantive textual changes, especially reversals or major corrections, will be noted in an "Update" or a footnote.

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(You might want to keep a watch on me, though, just to avoid the syrup ending up on your feet and the pancakes on your forehead.)

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original content
© 2003-2008
Ed Fitzgerald


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but credit all you take.

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