investigating the grid part 2; New York, by which I primarily mean Brooklyn
Welcome to Digestable, your mouthful of things happening in the world.
We needed a week off, and it’s good to be back. This weekend, Gabriel and I had the pleasure of being in the same place, which doesn’t happen that often.
Other things that have happened since last issue:
Joe Manchin’s dirty deal is dead, thanks in part to the pushback from people like you. The rogue senator’s plan was to expedite permitting for new fossil fuel projects, in a deal tacked onto the Inflation Reduction Act. Thank you for calling your senators; I’m sure this won’t be the last time.
A thing I wrote got published (not by me for once, lol). It’s called A City’s Footprint? and is about the need for bioregional urban planning. Give it a read!
Vermont friends, I did some research on the ballot initiatives/candidates on our November 8th ballots.
Now, down to the business. As promised, I spent some time reading about what’s up with our electrical grid, if it can handle the additional burden that will come with transitioning off of fossil fuels, and what it was like to build the OG one that electrified the country.
As far as new construction is concerned, all-electric homes are already cheaper to build and operate than those that use mixed fuel (natural gas, wood, propane, so on). Also, hello, we can get electricity from the sky, which is free! The things we use to harvest it are getting more and more affordable and efficient every year. So, while electric retrofits (heat pumps, induction stoves, etc) may not immediately lower folks’ utility bills, they will lower costs in the mid- and long term.
And as far as infrastructure is concerned, the US doesn’t actually have trouble building it fast.
From 2010 to 2019, the U.S. added 107,400 miles of gas pipelines. You’ve got no leg to stand on arguing that isn’t a lot. of. infrastructure. We can build stuff, as long as there’s a streamlined process for it. Remember the dirty deal? That was an effort to even further streamline the process of permitting new fossil fuel infrastructure, which is the last thing we need right now. Making permitting easy is really impactful; here’s a metric. Hold that amount of new pipeline construction up against the equivalent in electric transmission lines over the same amount of time.
Zero new miles of transmission infrastructure. Why? Because there’s no streamlined process.
But at the beginning, the spread of electrification, like any American project, was driven by propaganda: electricity means progress, means potential for growth, means a future that is literally brighter. Electricity is good, and therefore mountains were moved, stations and lines were built. And such is the nature of American projects that propaganda and political will are hand-in-glove. If there was political will to update the electrical grid by building new transmission lines, surely there would be a clear story, a tasty morsel of propaganda pie to be shared with all, so that we could all rub our bellies and say mmm, new transmission lines, yesssss.
The Inflation Reduction Act, signed into law in August of this year, demands that we ramp up transmission line construction, or we just won’t be able to do all the other stuff in there (like cut greenhouse gas emissions). It seems like there isn’t necessarily a plan for this, but a ‘transmission boom’ is an essential investment for the transition off of fossil fuels.
Beyond the permitting issue, there is the cultural one. Americans love fossil fuels, because Americans were taught to love them by the fossil fuel industry. I’ve written a lot about this in the past; my favorite one-stop read about how culturally embedded oil and gas is in the American identity is Proud Boys and petro-masculinity, by Emily Atkin.
The piece cites a study about how climate deniers are overwhelmingly those who subscribe to an “industrial breadwinner masculinity.” Think, 1950s guy going out to earn a living so he can buy his wife a house to never leave. Ironically enough, the electrification of America created many of the jobs that enabled this flavor of masculinity—drawing labor into urban centers, creating the class of blue-collar jobs that have become such a hallmark of American individualism and bootstrap empowerment.
So, it seems like we should be able to square this problem: there are so, so many industrial breadwinner jobs out there in the big wide energy transition. As Megan Biven, former salesperson of fossil fuel leases, current climate thinker, says: we do not need oil and gas companies. But we do need oil and gas workers. Capping wells and monitoring ramped-down pipelines (which the Biden admin recently agreed to do some of), not to mention building all those transmission lines, are all opportunities to go out and, uh, win the bread.
But: I don’t want to live in a petromasculine world, even when the petro- has been swapped for renewables. The just transition framework is helpful here: we have an opportunity to see the massive transformation of our hard infrastructure systems as an opportunity to revisit our soft infrastructure systems, like cultural norms and social dynamics. (It feels a little rash to refer to the patriarchy as ‘soft infrastructure,’ but we must believe it is shakeable in order to shake it.)
Rightfully so, there’s been a lot of attention on reproductive rights and bodily autonomy in the US and around the world recently. While those most involved in these movements and those for climate justice do not always overlap, the oppressive systems that both fight against are feeding each other. We must, and often do, move together.
Constructing the first grid was really hard, as is deconstructing deeply-rooted power structures. Building that new hard and soft infrastructure will also be, is also, really hard. But in both cases, we have the tools. We just need the will.
The Second Look
Half-baked cultural criticism from Gabriel Coleman.
I really enjoy the new Beyoncé album. No work is perfect and neither is Renaissance but it's beautifully crafted, infinitely danceable, and effortlessly fun. But until this week I’ve been enjoying it primarily solo, putting it in my headphones while I walk to the office or clean my room. The one exception has been blasting it in the car while I was visiting my friend Lily in north Kerry, when we decided the lyrics were more appropriate as “you won’t break Listowel.”
But that has all changed as I’ve been back in New York this week as part of a whirlwind trip through these so-called United States visiting friends, family, and all the places that still feel like home - despite no longer having keys to my own place. I had forgotten how New York, by which I primarily mean Brooklyn, is a place where you can’t help but experience things collectively. There are so many people in this city that you can’t help but passively absorb the lives of other folks on the street, notice what people are wearing, pick up snatches of conversation, and wonder where they’re coming from, where they’re headed, who they’re waiting for.
After walking and biking through these streets all week, I’ve decided that the music of Beyoncé is meant to be experienced collectively. I walk through Prospect Park and hear Virgo’s Groove pumping from the LeFrak center where a roller-disco is taking place. Waiting for the light to change at Church Avenue, a car rolls by playing Church Girl with their windows down. Someone passes me in the Williamsburg Bridge bike lane and Grace Jones compels me to “move out the way” from the bluetooth speaker clipped to their backpack. It feels less like I’m listening to this album than living in it, soaking it up in snatches of lyrics and doppler-effected drum beats from the collective breath of the city.
The phenomenon is familiar to me, I remember it happening in the early months of the pandemic before I left for Dublin. When the remix of Megan Thee Stallion’s Savage came out in April 2020, I was stuck in our apartment on Gates Avenue, but between the ambulance sirens, it was hearing Queen Bey belting “THEM JEANS” from car speakers and apartment windows on our block that made me feel like we were all taking part in - instead of just getting through - something.
It seems Beyoncé knows that she can count on this collective listening experience; her releases are tailored for it. Instead of an extended PR campaign and a parade of singles and music videos, Mx. Knowles-Carter is fond of an unannounced release. Renaissance has no music videos yet, just teasers and “cliquebait.” It’s one of the refreshing things about the way she does music, I never feel like she’s overhyped. I always listen because someone else who listened liked it enough to tell me about it, choreograph a drag number around it, or play it from the rooftops.
As Lena and I were talking this weekend, I kept thinking how New York, and other large cities, are full of gaps: spaces between buildings, unoccupied steps, abandoned lots, and empty parking spaces. These gaps are where the city really lives, where people intervene in the urban fabric like Lena’s dad pasting prints of trees to the mailbox outside their building, a vendor selling tamales from a shopping cart on a street corner, or a flock of pigeons perched on an NYPD security camera. Renaissance seems built for the sonic gaps, the spaces between car honks and the sounds of my suitcase wheels on the pavement. The 12 minute gaps between Q trains where crickets serenade us from the track.