This post is an edited excerpt from the essay “Petro-Gotham, People’s Gotham,” sociologist Daniel Aldana Cohen‘s contribution to the wonderful new book Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas, edited by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro. The excerpt is preceded by a brief new introduction by the author.
Can urban mass politics push back against the Trumpocalypse? Yeah, they can. But I don’t see how they do that if cities like New York, renowned for its carbon-efficient density, keep imagining themselves as virtuous snow globes. In terms of both carbon and politics, urban places are crossroads in a world of flows. Thinking about cities and carbon and politics more carefully is key to getting this right.
As the data shows when you ask the right questions of it, New York’s low-carbon heroes aren’t the affluent progressives living in beautiful apartments and taking beautiful vacations. In fact, many of the city’s objectively greenest people live in dense, multi-racial neighborhoods anchored by public housing. Housing justice is climate justice.
Below is the first map that estimates per capita carbon footprints for residents of New York’s zip codes. Darker shades mean bigger footprints. This isn’t a map of local pollution, but of local residents’ responsibility for global pollution, based on everything they spend money on—from iPhones to utility bills to leisure travel. (The data was kindly provided by the researcher Kevin Ummel, based on his 2014 study “Who Pollutes?” published by the Center for Global Development.)
Sure, installing LED bulbs in street lamps and retrofitting office towers is good for the planet. But to fully decarbonize urban life, transformative urban climate politics need to go further, achieving livable density for all by addressing housing, racial, and economic justice. Then we need to tell the world stories about these broad alliances, and about the intersections of their many struggles and slashing carbon emissions.
Petro-Gotham, People’s Gotham
Climate change is an uneasy topic. Good news is welcome. For those lucky enough to live well in Manhattan, it’s comforting to imagine that at least as far as carbon is concerned, the borough’s density is right and good. Sure, the streets of midtown are clogged with cars. But walking, subways, and tall buildings with their cozy apartments and offices—all are exemplars of energy efficiency. Low-carbon virtuous, by default. This is the story told by the New Yorker writer David Owen in his classic essay “Green Manhattan.” It’s the story that’s been repeated a thousand more times by Michael Bloomberg.
But the story is incomplete. And the implications are global. Manhattan isn’t a snow globe, and neither is New York City. It just pretends to be one in its annual carbon-accounting reports, the city’s official tallies of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming and of those gases’ attribution to local activities. The unfortunate norm, which New York follows, is to use a method that ignores the emissions caused by growing and raising the city’s food, ignores the carbon emitted to power the factories that assemble New Yorkers’ smart phones and weave their clothes, and ignores the fumes spewed by planes that ferry New Yorkers around the world.
There are, however, more sophisticated methods for calculating the global carbon footprint of everything that a person (or organization) in a given area is responsible for. This consumption count paints a whole other picture.
Levels of density shape a person’s carbon footprint; so do income and lifestyle. When it comes to the carbon emissions of New York’s individual residents, as calculated in terms of consumption, Manhattan is the worst borough. Because it’s the richest. Crowded but well-to-do West Villagers’ carbon footprints are comparable to sprawling suburbanites’ all over the country. It is only residents of Manhattan’s less-gentrified neighborhoods who have really low carbon footprints. They reside by the island’s northwest and southeast tips, in zip codes anchored by public housing.
And so, the image of New York City that should inspire the world’s would-be low carbon urbanists is the combination of towers run by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and the outer boroughs’ mosaic of mixed-income, mixed-use neighborhoods. Sometimes beautiful, sometimes plain, from Woodside to Clinton Hill, a still-democratic New York teems with life and ecological promise. This isn’t to suggest celebrating the poorest New Yorkers’ lack of income, their inability to consume. On the contrary, the thing to celebrate is what the radical urbanist Mike Davis in his essay “Who Will Build the Ark?” calls the “cornerstone of the low-carbon city … the priority given to public affluence over private wealth.” Public housing, well-stocked libraries, accessible transit, gorgeous parks: these are democratic low-carbon amenities. And they’re the political achievements of working-class New York.
Still, your eyes are narrowing. Surely New York City has more to offer the politics of global warming than a stack of individuals’, even neighborhoods’, moral balance sheets, with pounds of carbon standing in for sins. And you’re right. New York isn’t a political snow globe either. Woven into the city’s local geographies of consumption are global geographies of power. From the United Nations Security Council to Citibank boardrooms to Fox News studios to the underventilated activist meeting room on Beaver Street, New York is a city where global political networks are knotted together. Here, people combine resources and symbols; they create stories, projects, and policies. All of this influences the ways that other cities try to organize themselves. And it helps shape the global debate about who matters to the climate and how. What happens here literally remakes the atmosphere—in direct and indirect, obvious and subtle ways.
The stakes are high. The carbon dioxide emissions of the world’s cities make up about half of the world’s total. Between now and 2030, argues a thorough report from the London School of Economics’ Cities Centre, smart pro-density planning by just 724 of the world’s largest cities could save 14.4 gigatons of carbon. That’s over half of the currently recoverable carbon stored in Canada’s tar sands. A lot of carbon. So the question is: What counts as smart? And what can New York contribute to that conversation?
Occupy Wall Street, even at the peak of its 2012 American Autumn, probably never managed to put over 50,000 people in one spot. On September 21, 2014, the People’s Climate March managed over eight times that number: more than 400,000 marchers assembled above Columbus Circle, streamed past Central Park, cut through midtown, and finally spilled through Hell’s Kitchen, fronted by colorful banners, giant yellow flowers, bright orange life preservers, and tents perched on poles. Is marching bigger and better than occupying? Patient planning better than spontaneous outburst? Or is that like asking if cakes are better than flour?
“There are so many ways you can look at the People’s Climate March and see Occupy infrastructure throughout it,” said my friend Tammy Shapiro, who was deeply active in both. The march was largely organized through a networked hub system inspired by the cross-country InterOccupy network. Most of the march’s art pieces were built in the Mayday space housed on Starr Street in Bushwick, which is mostly run by former Occupiers. The march’s exclamation point was the next morning’s “Flood Wall Street,” a defiant denunciation of the Street’s global climate-change complicity. Thousands strutted past Zuccotti Park in exuberant rage, then piled up and roiled at the edge of Wall Street. It was a show of confrontation that the march had been polite enough to only whisper.
In a sense, Flood Wall Street realized a concern for climate change long dormant in the Occupy movement. After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, a network of Occupiers sparked the 60,000-strong relief network called Occupy Sandy. Seizing on the instincts of some of the original Occupiers, the network made the atmosphere a central concern. Still—as I learned at a postmortem summit at a waterside bar in Bay Ridge months later—many key activists wished they had done even more to connect local inequalities laid bare by the storm with the imperative to slow global warming everywhere.
Meanwhile, if the People’s Climate March owed a lot to Occupy, it also drew on groups that never flocked to Lower Manhattan to wiggle their fingers. The march started as a partnership—proposed by the climate activist group 350.org and the broader online activist group Avaaz—with the Climate Justice Alliance, a national network of organizations, based in poor communities of color, which have borne the greatest brunt of urban regions’ toxic pollution and are now most vulnerable to climate-linked extreme weather.
This was no trivial coalition. “We live in a very segregated society, by class, color, and communities,” Luis Garden Acosta told me after Hurricane Sandy. Acosta is a founding leader of El Puente, an environmental justice group based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He continued, “Nowhere is [that segregation] more starkly apparent than in the environmental activist community.” Bridging that gulf, even for the march, took long and painful meetings. Likewise for building partnerships with the city’s powerful big unions. “To change everything, we need everyone,” ran the climate march’s unofficial kicker. It was easier said than done.
Through the summer of 2014, the march’s organizers gathered in midtown, in a grim office near Grand Central. The tall, gray neighborhood that helps coordinate carbon capitalism served the same purpose to that system’s enemies. By day the growing ranks of staffers, seconded by green groups, planned the family-friendly march. By night they combined with the veterans of Occupy to plot the more confrontational Flood Wall Street.
There were immediate results. New York mayor Bill de Blasio, who was elected with rhetoric and political supporters borrowed from Occupy, saw what was coming. He polished up a plan to slash the city’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050, building on and accelerating the prior administration’s commitments, but this time with more emphasis on affordable housing. De Blasio announced the plan on the eve of the march. Months later, he reframed the city’s “sustainability vision” in terms of social justice.
Will those emissions cuts actually happen, showing the world that urban climate politics can be turbocharged by long-standing social justice campaigners? Can New York divest itself of Petro-Gotham, instead prioritizing democratic, low-carbon communities? Can the Occupiers’ irreverent networks build lasting power with the more stable, rooted community groups of the climate justice movement? What sound like local questions are also global questions. Will a red-green coalition transform New York into a democratic mural that shows other cities how to slash all those gigatons of carbon in an effective, democratic, and egalitarian way? What will it look like if it does?
You can read the rest of the essay—which also explores the political history of “Petro-Gotham,” and delves further into an alternative vision for democratic, low-carbon urbanism—in Nonstop Metropolis. The book is a collection of twenty-six imaginative maps and accompanying essays, and is out now from the University of California Press.
Top photograph by Enrique Rivera Jr./Flickr.