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Will Obama create a national monument to gay rights in New York City?

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You know what a park looks like. It’s a green place, full of grass and trees, that lets people enjoy nature. And you know what a national park looks like: bigger, and even more naturey, than a city park. Except you don’t, apparently, because virtually every leading New York politician is calling on President Obama to create a national park that would be little more than a street corner.

Technically, what they want is a national monument, which like national historic sites and national seashores and so on falls under the National Park Service’s jurisdiction. The corner in question is on Christopher Street, in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. Long identified with New York City’s gay community (although no one but bankers and movie stars can afford to move there now), the neighborhood incubated the modern gay rights movement. Specifically, at the Stonewall Inn, a bar on Christopher Street, in 1969, patrons fought back against a violent police raid. The surrounding streets featured protests and riots in the days that followed. In 1970, on the first anniversary of the Stonewall riot, the first LGBT Pride march in U.S. history started on Christopher Street.

But the Stonewall Inn is a bar. How do you make a park out of a bar? You don’t. Rather, you turn the sidewalk in front of it and the city-owned pocket park across the street into a national park. Christopher Park — a fenced-off little garden with a bronze statue of Civil War general Philip Henry Sheridan and an oval of half a dozen benches — looks only slightly more like a national park than the bar itself. It is best known to most New Yorkers as a respite for the homeless. “That park that all the bums fill up?” said a friend of mine upon being told the subject of this story. “That’s amazing. I used to see a shrink near there and I’d never wait in that park. I’d rather stand on the sidewalk somewhere.”

The Gay Liberation sculpture by George Segal is already on display in Christopher Park.Stephen Rees

So would a physical monument to honor the gay rights movement be erected there? Not necessarily. A national monument is first declared, then designed. A physical monument could be proposed beforehand, but it hasn’t been yet. For one thing, the park already features two white statues depicting gay and lesbian couples, and the intention is to keep them. For another, space on the site is extremely limited.

So if the national monument status is merely notional, why bother with it at all? The answer is partly bureaucratic and partly philosophical. Bureaucratically speaking, it would move management of Christopher Park from the New York City Parks Department to the National Park Service. “What that does is it brings the storytelling and historic interpretation capacity and, frankly, brilliance of the national parks department to the gay rights story,” says Cortney Worrall, northeast regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association, an advocacy organization focused on protecting and enhancing national parks.

The National Park Service manages many sites that are primarily about historical storytelling — battlefields, for example — and so it would be well-positioned to do the same with gay rights on Christopher Street. It might lead walking tours of the neighborhood, or create a mobile app with a self-guided walking tour. It might post new signage that more dramatically tells the story of what happened in the area; currently there is only a small sign hidden behind a bench. There are precedents for this kind of national monument. Little Rock Central High School, in Arkansas, is a national historic site because of its high-profile role in school desegregation, but it has not been turned into a museum. “The high school still functions,” notes Worrall. “The park service does tours in the high school while kids are in class. What happened is interpreted outside of what you would consider a normal parklike experience.”

On a more philosophical level, creating a national monument — however abstract — would demonstrate national reverence for the achievements of the gay rights movement. The civil rights movement has the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail in Alabama, and there is a Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, N.Y. The fight for gay rights deserves the same recognition.

And by creating the park, you open the possibility of it growing into something more physically substantial over time. The New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park is dispersed over 13 blocks in the center of New Bedford, Mass. It has grown since its founding in 1996 to include buildings that now serve as a museum and a visitor center. National parks, says Worrall, “evolve into their final or best existence. The hope is that the designation happens and that’s a catalyst for fundraising to acquire another location in Greenwich Village that serves as a visitor center and archives of the uprising.”

So what happens now? Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), the congressman whose district encompasses the neighborhood, has joined with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) in introducing a bill to create the Stonewall national monument. National parks and monuments can be created by an act of Congress, but the current Republican-controlled Congress is about as likely to create Stonewall National Monument as it is to pass a carbon tax.

The president also has the authority, under the Antiquities Act of 1906, to create national monuments by presidential proclamation. Don’t expect President Marco Rubio to do that in 2017 either. Even though Nadler and Gillibrand introduced a bill, their realistic hope is that President Obama will designate the monument while he’s still in office. “President Barack Obama has advanced the arc of gay rights and the last 17 months that he is in office provides a window,” says Nadler spokesman Daniel Schwarz. We’ve seen that national monuments can be well-integrated into the urban fabric, and it seems fitting that America’s first urban president in a century could create this one.

Filed under: Cities, Living, Politics

Electric car owners wage war over charging spots

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There’s a new face of road rage. She composts her coffee grounds, never forgets her reusable grocery bags, and turns into the Hulk over inconsiderate parking spot use. Meet the electric vehicle driver.

The New York Times reports that a shortage of charging stations is leading to bad blood between some EV drivers. From the Times:

Unlike gas stations, charging stations are not yet in great supply, and that has led to sharp-elbowed competition. Electric-vehicle owners are unplugging one another’s cars, trading insults, and creating black markets and side deals to trade spots in corporate parking lots. The too-few-outlets problem is a familiar one in crowded cafes and airports, where people want to charge their phones or laptops. But the need can be more acute with cars — will their owners have enough juice to make it home? — and manners often go out the window.

You can see why there would be problems. The limited range of electric vehicles — usually around 80 miles — means that drivers often have to recharge using public stations. While these stations are cheap or even free to use, there just aren’t that many of them. There is currently one charger for every 10 EVs, according to the Times, and with the vehicles taking anywhere from 30 minutes to four hours to recharge, people get pissy when you hog the pump.

Naturally, there’s a hierarchy among EV drivers, with all-electric cars like Nissan Leafs getting priority at charging stations (at least, according to all-electric car drivers), followed by plug-in hybrids, which can also run on gasoline. At the very bottom are Teslas, which have a range of several hundred miles and, more importantly, you probably can’t afford. From the Times:

Jamie Hull, who drives an electric Fiat, grew apoplectic recently when she discovered herself nearly out of a charge, unable to get home to Palo Alto. She found a charging station, but a Tesla was parked in it and not charging. She ordered a coffee, waited for the driver to return and, when he did, asked why he was taking a spot when he was not charging. She said the man had told her that he was going to run one more errand and walked off.

“I seriously considered keying his car,” she said.

Next time, we hope she does it.

Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Climate & Energy, Living

There are too many trucks coming into New York City

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Here’s a statistic for you: Ninety percent of the 400 million tons of freight coming into New York City comes by truck. I know you’re thinking, “Where’s the rail system?” Well, NYC isn’t directly connected to the national freight-rail network, so America’s most dense major city is also its most truck-dependent. Call it a “clustertruck.” But one politician is trying to do something about that. WNYC reports:

To get trucks off the road, Rep. Jerry Nadler has been advocating the construction of a freight rail tunnel under the Hudson River for three decades. The New York Democrat says the tunnel, which would connect the rail network in New Jersey with existing tracks in New York, would take 2,500 trucks off Hudson River crossings every day, reducing pollution, decreasing the price of goods, and creating redundancy in case of an emergency.

That would be good for the lungs of New Yorkers, since, as New York’s environmental commissioner told WNYC, “freight trucks are one of the worst air polluters in urban areas.” The effect is especially detrimental to those living in low-income communities, specifically the Bronx and Northern Manhattan, which has the most truck routes in the city. The result for area residents living with a higher load of diesel exhaust has been a higher prevalence of asthma. So it’s not surprising that representatives of Brooklyn and Queens have adamantly opposed rail unloading centers being located in their neighborhoods because of — you guessed it — increased truck traffic.

It seems that low-income and marginalized communities always bear the brunt of environmental damage. Good policies, like implementing vehicle emissions standards, can help — although in the Bronx, some activists think the state’s standards should be stricter. Strict oversight may be more important now than ever. The growth of online shopping and delivery services means the amount of freight being shipped is expected to increase by 46 percent in the next 25 years.

Filed under: Article, Cities, Climate & Energy, Living

Here’s the real story of Columbus that people prefer to ignore

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You’re chatting with your friend, and she says, “Why are people so hung up on this Columbus Day thing? It’s just about this Italian guy coming to America!”

Well, what can you say? Here’s what you can say — some of it, anyway:

After Christopher Columbus stumbled upon the island we know as Haiti 523 years ago, he wrote of the Taíno people who inhabited it, “They never refuse anything that is asked for. They even offer it themselves, and show so much love that they would give their very hearts.”

It was this perceived generosity and goodwill that Columbus thought would make it easier to seize the giant island, with its “fine, large, flowing rivers” and forests “full of trees of endless varieties, so high that they seem to touch the sky.” Years later, the Taíno would be reduced to a tiny fraction of their population of approximately 300,000 — and Haiti would lose 98 percent of those trees Columbus coveted.

There was nothing trivial about Columbus’ violent destruction of Taíno people. While the sailor and his crew are sometimes lumped in with all the other conquest-crazy Europeans of their era, their particular cruelty can’t be so easily exonerated and shouldn’t be ignored.

Natives were regularly whipped for what Columbus considered minor offenses — but stealing a vegetable or animal could result in cutting off a Taíno’s nose, ear, or hand; the offender was sometimes forced to walk around with their severed body part in shame. Columbus took and gifted Taíno women to his crewmen, who would violently beat and rape them. Pregnant Taíno women who were taken captive gave birth to babies who were sometimes thrown to hungry dogs. Columbus established a business in the sale of 9- and 10-year-old Taíno girls for sexual slavery. He also kidnapped and enslaved Taínos themselves — personally initiating the transatlantic slave trade in his voyage back to Europe.

In short, Columbus was a murderous, enslaving, sexual-abusing, treacherous colonizer to the peoples he encountered in the Caribbean. Only two-thirds of the Taíno survived just four years after Columbus’ arrival; some were killed, others succumbed to diseases, and fully half of the dead killed themselves rather than live with his tyranny.

Columbus was also responsible for creating a system in which Taíno land was treated the way Taíno women were. Not that the Taíno didn’t resist: Columbus left behind 39 colonizers in the first European settlement in the Americas, which he called La Navidad, in present-day Haiti. When he returned from Spain several months later, he found that all the Europeans were dead. That didn’t stop him; Columbus’ practice of settling on other peoples’ lands in the Americas sparked the European imagination, and those lands would soon be the backbones of empires.

What followed was centuries of oppression — to the human beings who lived there, and to the land they lived on. Spain cleared land for massive tobacco plantations, beginning a long process of deforestation and soil erosion. After France came into possession of Haiti, it cleared even more land, and brought in enslaved Africans to cultivate sugar to satisfy European palates. The first place Europe settled in the Americas also became the first place that successfully revolted against it — but the destructive practice of monocropping for overseas consumption had already taken hold.

We shouldn’t forget that Columbus is responsible for launching an ecocide as well as a genocide. The wealth from resources like sugar, tobacco, and cotton ushered in the start of the Industrial Revolution, which began emitting carbon at an unprecedented record level.

Haiti remains the poorest country in the all of the Americas; the European Union region remains one of the wealthiest in the world. This isn’t because of some innate curse on Haiti. It’s because its peoples, their labor, their lands, and their resources have long been embezzled without reparation. The insidious nature of the colonization of the Americas, which started in Haiti, not only terrorized the people who lived there at the time; it also created a system that kept indigenous peoples in slavery or perpetual poverty, while Europe basked in wealth.

And that, you can tell your friend, is why so many of us roll our eyes at the idea of celebrating Columbus Day.

Filed under: Article, Living, Politics

Bolivia delivers stirring climate manifesto to U.N., issues decrees to pump more oil

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In the world of U.N. climate negotiations, as with most things in life, there are heroes and villains. Heroes are countries like, say, tiny Bhutan, which has pledged to remain entirely carbon neutral and keep a minimum of 60 percent of its land under forest cover. Villains are countries like Russia, whose carbon-cutting pledge has been described as a “magnum opus of hypotheticals.” And then there are vigilantes like Bolivia.

On Monday, Bolivia communicated its climate pledge to the U.N., and with it, ten “structural solutions to the climate crisis.” Top of the list: the “adoption of a new model of civilization in a world without consumerism, commercialism, and warmongering, a world without capitalism.” Negotiate that, ineptocrats!

Also on the list were items like public implementation of the human right to water, establishment of an International Court of Climate Justice and Mother Earth, reallocation of military spending to climate-change adaptation projects, and the elimination of technological patents. If that doesn’t make you want to kick down the U.N. General Assembly door and hammer out an Andean flute solo at Ban Ki-moon’s feet, I really don’t know what lights your fire.

Secretary Ban for his part was in Bolivia preceding the delivery of its climate pledge and mini-manifesto. “Caring for Mother Earth is a moral issue,” he said in Cochabamba on Sunday, speaking at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Defense of Life. “We must change how we use Mother Earth’s resources, and live in a manner that is sustainable.”

“Droughts. Fires. Floods. Landslides. Glaciers melting. Oceans turning to acid. Mother Earth is giving us a warning. We must listen,” said Secretary Ban. “And we must act.”

Act we must. But one of the problems with vigilantes is that they’re often accused of hypocrisy. Bolivia is no exception. Petroleum gas makes up nearly 50 percent of the country’s exports, and another 4 percent comes from crude oil. And while the country’s climate pledge vows to eliminate illegal deforestation, it has nothing to say by way of legal deforestation, which fuels the expansion of Bolivia’s soybean plantations.

Bolivian President Evo Morales recently came under fire for passing a set of decrees that will allow oil and mineral prospecting in several of the country’s national parks. The hypocrisy is of two degrees here, since in addition to perpetuating an extractive fossil fuel industry, much of the land exploitation will affect largely indigenous territory. Two of the country’s “structural solutions to the climate crisis” included the “eradication of the commodification of nature” and the decolonization of natural resources. This dissonance breeds an understandable skepticism toward Bolivian climate action among climate hawks.

We can likely expect more of these kinds of grand statements and attempted rewrites in the rest of the run-up to December’s Paris Climate Conference. Also on Monday, a team of researchers led by the U.K.’s former chief climate adviser argued in Nature that the goal of the Paris negotiations should be to implement a global carbon price, a tax (or equivalent) that polluters would have to pay for each ton of carbon dioxide emitted. Which, at this point in the game — when negotiators are splitting hairs over whether to use the word “contribution” or “commitment” to describe countries’ pledges — is exceedingly unlikely.

But so is dismantling capitalism. And, setting hypocrisy aside for the moment, that’s exactly why radical statements like Bolivia’s (and projects like This Changes Everything, for example) are so important: Lodging deep discomfort with the status quo and offering visions of alternative realities are the only ways to actually confront structural problems. After that, there’s just that minor detail known as follow-through.

Filed under: Climate & Energy, Politics

California: Stop medicating animals! Animal ag industry: Cool

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On Saturday, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a law that people are calling the toughest regulation of agricultural antibiotics in the U.S. Under the new law, if an antibiotic is important to humans, it can’t be used to promote growth in farm animals, or to prevent their diseases.

Advocates have been pushing for laws like this because the more we use antibiotics, the more likely it is that diseases will evolve to survive their use. We’re already seeing a rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Around the world, some 700,000 people die each year from antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections, and scientists are scrambling to find new ways of killing germs.

The California law is interesting because it goes a step beyond the current federal rules, by banning the prophylactic use in animals of those antibiotics that treat human diseases. The federal Food and Drug Administration has banned the use of those antibiotics for growth promotion, but it still allows farmers to use them for preventive purposes under the guidance of a veterinarian.

California’s upgrades to fuel-efficiency standards for cars have world-changing effect, because automakers around the world tune up their entire production lines to meet the regulations. This law won’t have that kind of impact since it only applies to animal farmers within the state. Still, the passage of the law provides a powerful signal that the world is changing.

The most striking evidence of change was the lack of opposition to the bill. As Bloomberg reported:

The state’s meat and poultry associations stayed neutral on the bill. No one was squawking about heavy-handed regulation or government interference. Just seven lawmakers voted against it.

“I think the bill is basically doing something that we in California have been doing all along, which is phasing out antibiotic use,” said Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation, which represents large poultry farmers. “It’s something that the industry is living with. We’re happy to get this bill the way it is, and I think we’re going to see more of this.”

That’s a sea change from just five years ago, when farmers were vigorously protesting any limits on the way they used antibiotics. Just last year, when I visited with Iowa farmers to ask about the FDA regulations coming into effect, people were pretty nervous about the rules restricting their ability to farm. But that seems to have shifted as the industry has embraced the cause of reducing its use of medically important antibiotics.

One year ago, I was writing about chicken giant Perdue vowing to remove most antibiotics from production. Then, in April 2015, there was Tyson, announcing that it was wringing antibiotics out of its farming practices. People started talking about a tipping point. Then McDonald’s, and Foster Farms, and Walmart, and many other companies climbed on the bandwagon.

The fear of change is gone. Farmers used to worry — and people in the food movement used to hope — that, without routine use of antibiotics, animals wouldn’t be able to survive in the close quarters of modern, indoor farms, so maybe the entire confined-animal-feeding-operation system would collapse. But the meat industry has found that antibiotic bans are not a threat to its business model. In fact, moving more animals indoors may actually be reducing farmers’ dependence on antibiotics. That’s what Marian Swain found when she interviewed hog farmer Larry Sailer for her Grist explainer on antibiotics. Sailer told her that:

[H]e uses antibiotics only on pigs that are showing symptoms of illness, and after consulting with a vet. But he says this wasn’t the case 50 years ago, when they kept their pigs outdoors and they were more exposed to weather and pests. “I can’t say that I ever used antibiotics for growth promotion back then, but I was worried more,” he told me, and explained that they used to use antibiotics more regularly than they do now.

The industry support for — or at least lack of opposition to — the California law suggests that we really have turned a corner on agricultural use of antibiotics. It also suggests that the industry will thrive without too much upheaval as it puts the squeeze on antibiotic use.

Filed under: Article, Food, Science

Charles Koch comes out against special interest groups. LOL!

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He looks a little bit like your favorite grad school philosophy professor. He’s got a full head of gray hair, a strong, guileless smile, and socks that don’t quite match. He’s been married for 40 years and seems like a family man, deeply devoted to the ideals instilled in him by his father. He talks about hard work and good jobs and fighting against the powers that be. No, I’m not talking about the produce buyer at the Park Slope Co-Op. I’m talking about Charles Koch.

During a rare interview on CBS Sunday Morning, Charles Koch, the sixth richest man in America, tried extremely hard to win your sympathy. Speaking with reporter Anthony Mason, the billionaire industrialist emphasized his dedication to democracy and the political process. “To get rid of these special interests,” Koch said, “that’s the whole thing that drives me.”

Mason, showing immense willpower, didn’t even roll his eyes. “Do you think it’s good for the political system that so much what’s called ‘dark money’ is flowing into the process now?,” he asked Koch.

“First of all, what I give isn’t dark,” said Koch. “What I give politically, that’s all reported. It’s either to PACs or to candidates. And what I give to my foundations is all public information.”

HA! The reason PACs exist in the first place is to funnel money to political campaigns without disclosing where it comes from, and Koch, according to CBS, will spend some $300 million on the 2016 campaign. THREE HUNDRED MILLION!!! The Koch brothers’ spending rivals that of the Republican National Committee, and much of it will be funneled through tax exempt PACs and advocacy groups.

“But do you think it’s healthy for the system that so much money is coming out of a relatively small group of people?,” Mason asked the very rich man.

“Listen, if I didn’t think it was healthy or fair, I wouldn’t do it,” Koch replied. “Because what we’re after is to fight against special interests.”

Hmmm. That seems curious considering the Kochs are special interests. And unless you too are a billionaire industrialist, their interests probably go against yours. They have attacked clean energy, climate action, and environmental regulations, and paid bribes to win contracts. On a Keystone alone, they stand to make $100 billion if the pipeline is approved. Yes, billion. And that, folks, is what you call a “special interest.”

But Charles Koch doesn’t want you to see him as just another billionaire oligarch shopping for a president to call his own. He wants you to see him as human — as a victim, even. “I get a lot of death threats,” Koch told Mason. “I’m now on al-Qaeda’s hit list, too. So that’s really getting into the big time. Gets pretty scary.”

Much like the prospect of a Koch-backed president winning the election. Alas Koch is undeterred by death threats. “I decided long ago, I’d rather die for something than live for nothing,” he said on CBS Sunday Morning. Well, at least there’s one thing we can agree on — we’d rather you die for something too, Mr. Koch. Anything, really, at all.

Filed under: Article, Living