Like a somber “talking-to” from a family doctor, Superstorm Sandy forced New Yorkers to face an uncomfortable reality: the irresponsible lifestyle we have lived for so long has put us at risk, and we must take significant measures to preserve our health going forward. It will take a dual approach of both sustainability and resilience to prevent and respond to the threats of climate change. These issues are as important as they are complex, so let’s borrow some familiar concepts from medicine to understand what they mean for the health of our city.

In healthcare, we recognize a need for both preventative care — avoiding problems before they arise — and curative care — anticipating problems that will come about despite our best efforts to prevent them. The health of the urban environment is no different. When it comes to climate change, sustainability means “reducing it” whereas resilience means “reducing its impacts.” In one case we are trying to prevent something from happening, in the other we are trying to mitigate the negative impact when it does. While the two issues are complementary, their differences are important. “Sustainability” and “resilience” are not synonyms, but rather complementary forces, a yin and yang, which must be tackled in equal measure.

“Resilience” is one of those terms that sprung from obscurity after the storm, suddenly popping up in mayoral speeches, campaign platforms and government-commissioned reports. As with many conceptually dense terms that abruptly enter the social consciousness, it is widely misunderstood. Resilience is often mistaken for another term that we’ve heard a lot about lately: sustainability. While many people fall into the trap of mistaking one for the other, it is actually easy to distinguish between them.

In a nutshell, resilience includes “adaptations to our environment to increase the ability to withstand and recover quickly from weather-related events.”[1] Here in New York, it speaks to the need to protect the buildings, transportation, infrastructure and people from gradually rising sea levels and storm-induced surges. Meanwhile, sustainability is the never-ending pursuit of reduced environmental impact to limit climate change. It encompasses clean energy, waste and water management, and, in a city where 75% of greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings[2], energy efficiency.

Suppose you are the mayor facing a completely different social problem- an imminent flu epidemic, for example. The “sustainability” measures needed would include vaccination efforts and hygiene campaigns to limit the scale of the outbreak. The “resilience” measures you enact would include increasing access to medicines and enabling hospitals and clinics to handle the influx of patients to treat those who fall ill. Government leaders must understand the importance of both approaches or risk an anemic response.

Complicating matters is the fact that we are one of many players in a complex network in which the forces of climate change have already been set in motion. Global climate systems will wreak havoc on New York City despite our best efforts to prevent them. But we still must try. There is a social contract in effect that demands everyone’s participation and protection. When parents vaccinate their children, they do so first and foremost for their own child’s sake. Yet, in aggregate, their efforts lead to widespread impacts.

Through “herd immunity”, a society can effectively eliminate a threat that might have otherwise been a public health disaster. On the other hand, a high proportion of unvaccinated people can lead to broad negative impacts, where those who are too young, too poor, or too ill to be protected are put at risk. When it comes to severe weather, New York City is certainly among those most vulnerable, with its vast resources clustered so close to sea level. If we all participate, there can be real reduction in greenhouse gas levels, yet if enough cities or nations fail to participate, they will diminish the efforts of the others.

Here’s the good news: New York is on track to be a national and international leader on environmental issues. While we cannot hope to influence global climate trends on our own, we can be a positive force for increased sustainability that can make a tangible difference. In 2007, New York City adopted PlaNYC, a set of interrelated policies with a shared goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30% by 2013[3]. One component of PlaNYC is a mandate that large buildings complete an annual energy benchmarking report (Local Law 84 of 2009). Similar legislation has now been passed in major cities around the county: Washington DC, San Francisco, Austin, Boston, Chicago and Seattle[4] all have energy benchmarking laws aimed at improving building efficiency. Together, these cities make the whole herd safer. By taking the first step, New York has blazed a trail for sustainability with a widespread positive influence.

While the analogy is useful, climate change is not just a metaphorical health threat: extreme weather and other consequences of climate change can have life-threatening impacts. The challenges are daunting and the issues complex, but with greater understanding and sustained commitment, we can have a strong positive impact.

With a new mayor coming into office on January 1, 2014 New York City has the opportunity to build on the significant environmental efforts of Mayor Bloomberg. As of September 24, 2013 resilience was added to the scope of the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability.[5]Meanwhile, millions of dollars in federal aid remain to be spent on post-Sandy recovery[6] and the City Council currently faces proposed legislation that covers broad environmental issues including plastic bag management, building heat retention, and flood management[7]. Bill de Blasio has the power to sign or veto these bills, and, if they become law, his administration will have the responsibility to implement similarly progressive legislation.

Change happens whether we like it or not, but we are not helpless spectators. Sustainability efforts to lower greenhouse gas emissions can reduce the frequency and severity of extreme weather events. Resilience measures to buttress our defenses can diminish the consequences of what we fail to avoid. There cannot be one without the other. The health of this City depends on our ability to apply this lesson. Re-Sus-Citate New York!

On Solitude

NCT Trail P 096

People, like deer and celebrities, tend to cluster amongst themselves. Anytime you should encounter a sitcom star, be still! Lower your gaze. Chances are good that his Emmy-winning girlfriend and the whole supporting cast will come trundling after. Continue reading “On Solitude”

Stub City

The 19th time this week I saw someone throw their cigarette on the sidewalk, I really wanted to let them have it; the butt that broke my back. I’ve had plenty of opportunities to think up biting one-liners after witnessing an act of illegal disposal, it happens all the time. Most of the time though I settle for a poorly-executed death stare, which I know to be ineffective because of my somewhat cute young-girl look and my pathetic eyebrows which are impotent converged in furrowed fury. Cussing them out doesn’t work either, I have no problem throwing the fuck word around but it would likely bounce off their thick New Yorker skin like an errant paper airplane. What I really longed for was a debate, a confrontation escalating into a righteous battle of words where my of irrefutable arguments would leave the offender chastened and changed forever.

I would first point out that the New York City features trash cans on every street corner. One does not have to walk more than twenty seconds to be in reach of a bin. Many buildings have ash trays incorporated into their facades. It is not due to a lack of proper disposal options that people throw their waste on the ground rather than where they belong.

Maybe this smoker, like so many people, would not consider his discarded stubs as “litter.” I would explain that they will either remain outdoors forever or be picked up by someone else. Many of the stray butts will be washed away into the sewers, contaminating and clogging up the overtaxed system. Others will be swept up by the myriad anonymous souls tasked with maintaining the patch of sidewalk before the building where they work.

Whether or not the litterer considers those poor souls tasked with retrieving stray sidewalk trash with pathetic plastic brooms, he is placing himself above them. Those who discard their trash on the sidewalk may not be outwardly malicious, they may not even consider if it will be picked up or who will do it. Yet such self-absorption is hardly better than knowingly asking someone else to pick up after you.

I became attuned to the superiority implicit in littering when I lived in South Africa. My friends there would toss McDonalds bags, empty water bottles and random trash out car windows on the highway. These well educated and otherwise good people gave a cheerful slogan every time: “job creation!” The truth is, these friends of mine really didn’t give a soggy fry about the 25% unemployed in their country who were mostly black and who would probably rather stay unemployed than pick up other people’s intentionally distributed junk. Even if litterers in New York are savvy enough not to say so out loud, they are following the same mindset.

The premise behind the “job creation” “argument” is that by doing less, you give someone else to do more. But if garbage collectors have so little to do picking up the property parceled mountains of bags then we should pick up the individual items as well? Maybe we should scatter the garbage from the bags- presto, more jobs! Better yet, we could start relieving ourselves on the sidewalks next to the dogs- just think how much work it would be to clean that up, see ya later unemployment! Call up the mayor!

Ideally, my target is a fiscal conservative, I’d ask him if he thinks his tax dollars are best spent sweeping asphalt. Or maybe the person is a fireman or teacher about to get laid off so the local government can spent more on city services.

Maybe my conversation would reveal that New York smokers are feeling embattled with law after law coming down on them. Their ever-shrinking smoking pastures must be giving them claustrophobia, and for most people a clam-bake is way too retro. There have been recent murmurings of threats to take away their sidewalks too. I have to admit it’s a little thrilling to imagine smokers confined to little perches above the pavement or even boxed into glass cubes like in European airports, but I’m after the litterers here. If we’re into making laws, lets just slap a nice fine on the people who litter in the street. Talk about job creation! New York’s finest would have 4G-enabled ticket-writing machines in no time with all the cash they’d make off those fines. I favor this approach as it would certainly punish the lax dog-owners and any of the afore-mentioned street-shitters as well.

Sadly, this debate has only taken place in my mind, I have yet to effectively confront a litterer and I expect that my South African friends are carrying on as blithely as they were when I lived with them. As consolation, the next loose-fingered litterers who pass my on the street will feel my wrath as I mutter under my breath “I hope you step in gum.”


This is one from the archives, but it seemed fitting in light of the [ongoing] government shutdown.

Sometimes it is painful how much my mom and I seem to fulfill the stereotypes of our roles. She is the faithful conservative, religiously devout, financial over-comfortable and stubbornly old-school. I play the role of the steadfast liberal, en-route up the economic ladder, evangelically atheist, and sensible to an extreme degree. We love each other fiercely and clumsily display our political and religious views when we have a particularly potent weapon or, as is more often the case, an unbearable itch to scratch.


I want badly to tell my mom that every time we have a political debate, I end up respecting her less. But to do so would be to admit that my respect for her arguments has already flagged to half-mast. We are dabbling with a truce period in which we do-not-preach-and-so-do-not-get-preached-to but there is a “right-place right-time” exit clause. Conveniently, I am an ocean away, spending 4 months abroad traveling and learning to speak French. In this configuration our debates cannot possibly spoil any family dinners or holiday celebrations so, it is basically all fair game. My mom sent a lovely email updating me to the goings-on of our family, which ended with a salutation that included some combination of “tax day,” “tea party,” and “educate yourself” all in the same paragraph. I shouldn’t have to point this out but it should be known that I didn’t start this.


Anyway, I wrote a message back about my stance. What I considered a well written, off-the-cuff, brutally accurate statement-of-beliefs which served as a subterfuge for my devastating attack. Since we are still related, I ended with a plea for clarification, asking her to explain that which I cannot understand and which I can only hope to have misunderstood. 3 weeks later, my mom has not responded.


This exact scenario has played itself out before. Just over a year ago when I was in South Africa for 4 months working with an environmental rights group, she chose to bait me with some very reasonable snippets from the Communist Manifesto to prove that I was a Socialist (at best). I went into my analysis of the spectrum of political philosophy from Dictatorship thru to Communism and have yet to get any feedback. The point is that, however air-tight or swiss-cheese my arguments are, I am left unsatisfied because I am not given the dignity of a response. My mother has the maddening strategy of a drone attack. Leaving the victim looking around at the shit that just rained down on them and deprived of the dignity to respond. Unable even to utilize a snappy come-back, since the comedic pause has long expired.


Maybe it is better this way. After all, when we are left to truly debate, we never convince each other of anything, we end up becoming more polarized in our beliefs, spoiling birthdays and recitals, and pushing apart from one another. Maybe at this point, the long-armed attack is better than none. We can prove ourselves every once in awhile with a self-righteous jab when the other one is looking the other way.  Our debates are indefinitely postponed and deadlocked. Of course this mild aggravation is far better than the consequences if we were able to truly flush out our thoughts. Ultimately it leaves me with a sense of respect for politicians whose job it is to address their differences every day, and an utter lack of hope that they will every get anywhere.