Monday, September 16, 2013

Screening of's "Do the Math" at Coffeed, Sept. 16

Len Maniace of Jackson Heights Beautification Group presents his group's report

The Neighborhood Resilience film screening series started on Monday, September 16, 2013 with "Do the Math."  The central figure in this 45 minute film is Bill McKibben, founder of  In a widely circulated article, McKibben wrote about three numbers that are critical to understanding climate change. 

There's universal consensus that two degrees celsius of average global warming above pre-industrial levels is the safe upper limit for human civilization.  We've already up to nearly one degree of warming, which has produced the warmest years on record, and accelerating rates of extreme weather disasters.  More would be worse, right? 2012 reports from PriceWaterhouse Coopers and The World Bank, not exactly leftist sources, warn that we're headed for four to six degrees celsius by the end of the century if carbon emission trends persist, with cataclysmic consequences for the human race as well as the ecosystem.

Coffeed's Frank "Turtle" Raffaele and his team
Some physicists measured around how much carbon could be burned, and thus shoveled into the atmosphere, without exceeding the two degrees of warming figure.  They figured it to be 565 gigatons of carbon.  (A gigaton is a billion tons.)

The third number is how much carbon is present in the recoverable reserves of oil, coal and natural gas in the ground accessible to the major fossil fuel companies and and national producers.  It's 2,795 gigatons. 

What this means is that if the fossil fuel companies burn all the fuel they can extract, they will dump enough carbon in the Earth's atmosphere to put us five times over the safe upper limit.  The climate will no longer be suitable for human civilization.  Game over.

Another possibility: cultural, political and economic change that leaves the carbon in the ground. Very difficult but possible. In the film, McKibben points out how we have the tools and know-how to turn to renewable energy, and cut back our appetite for fossil fuel energy, but we don't have the political will, because the fossil fuel companies have bought out the politicians and the media.  

During WWII, the US turned within months from a consumer economy to a vast armaments factory.  We could make a similar rapid transformation today - if there was enough public awareness of the urgency of the situation, and the political establishment was able to act on it.  The climate change movement isn't yet capable of that feat.

Coming up with neighborhood greening ideas is building a student movement calling for divestment of colleges and cities from fossil fuel investments, much like the 1980s movement opposing apartheid in South Africa. 

This doc is a good introductory video for climate change.  Hurricane Sandy gave NYC a major wake-up call about more frequent weather disasters as an inevitable part of a climate changed future.  So it's become possible to talk about adapting to climate change, and becoming more resilient to its disruptions - at least a little bit.  

But the NYC discussion usually fixates on flooding scenarios which repeat Hurricane Sandy, rather than other likely consequences like heat waves or droughts.  And no one ever suggests using a lot less fossil fuel energy, which would be essential to put the brakes on accelerating climate change.  Like 80 - 90% less.  No no no.  And no one is talking about declining supplies of oil and natural gas making a transition away from fossil fuels not just desirable, but inevitable.  Heck, even Bill McKibben avoids that, to keep the climate change message relatively simple.  So how can we change that, and start bringing those topics into NYC conversations about sustainability?

There's a longer answer at and - but here's the basic idea: organizing locally to raise awareness about big picture sustainability issues among New Yorkers, encouraging them to take action, and linking them to already existing sustainability projects.

Following screenings of films that raise awareness about climate change and limited fossil fuel resources with facilitated discussions among audience members is a starting point. 

Borrowing from the Transition movement and the group work of Joanna Macy, exercises lead audience members to make connections with each other, envision their community after green transformations, and hopefully encourage them to get involved with existing green initiatives.   

In the last exercise, I asked folks to get into groups of five or six, imagine time traveling into 2033, visualize NYC all green and sustainable, and come back with a list of ways that Queens in 2013 could make next steps in this direction. Technical accuracy and practical feasibility are not as important in this exercise as building community.  

There are hundreds of community Transition initiatives in England, Ireland, New England and the Pacific Northwest, and a number elsewhere in the US.  So far the organizing method does not seem to be present in NYC.

A number of the attendees were connected to green projects: two women from Community Environmental Center, an energy efficiency nonprofit, the leaders of a Jackson Heights green group and a LIC kayaking group, a tree planting activist, and of course the staff at Coffeed, all dedicated composting advocates. 

Coffeed, a sustainability-themed coffee house on the ground floor of Brooklyn Grange Farm in Long Island City, graciously donated its space, as well as free coffee, beer and pastries for the evening. 

The next two Mondays we'll screen "The Crash Course," a 45 minute version of Chris Martenson's full three hour video series on energy, environment and the economy, and "Crisis of Civilization," a virtually unknown 80 minute documentary that I think is the current version of "The End of Suburbia."  I'll come up with some new interactive questions too.  Come on out, it'll be fun!

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