Escape from L.A.


I’m returning this week from a 4 month sojourn in Mexico to the oldest city in the United States, Santa Fe, the capital of the  North American part of the Spanish empire over 400 years ago. Shortly thereafter, I will make another quick visit to the Ultimate City – LA. I go there a couple of times a year for my oncology checkup. This trip I’ll combine with some pro bono consulting for Children of the Night, which rescues children from pimps and drug pushers on the streets of cities across the nation.

I’ve supported Children of the Night’s work since Lois Lee started it nearly 40 years ago when she was my student. My how time flies ever faster the older you get. So, I’ll be reviewing with Lois the big changes she is making with the program as facts on the street change ( a complex story involving smart phones, gang violence, and some misguided policies of the FBI). We will also do an analysis of all the data on kids and the program since it began. We will review progress on the project for reports and proposals to the private foundations that help fund the programs. Children of the Night is in some important ways a child of the Ultimate City.

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Downtown Los Angeles

I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with L.A. – I’m referring to the entire metropolis, not just the much smaller central City of Los Angeles – founded in 1781 as “El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río de Porciúncula.” In 1821 it became part of México when “New Spain” gained independence from the Spanish Empire, until the Americans took control from the “Californios” in 1847. There is nothing like a discovery of gold to motivate conquest. So, who are the “illegal immigrants,” anyway? Certainly not the native Chumash, who mostly died off under colonial rule and the oppression of empire. History is ever rewritten. But I digress.

I grew up in the L.A. metro area and later worked there for decades. So I know well many of the short cuts a modern native uses to drive from one sprawling suburban cluster to another without spending hours parked on the San Diego Freeway – the I-405. The drive in a shuttle returning to LAX from the San Fernando Valley gave me pause to reflect on “urban development” – remember “China Town” with Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway? A classic of intrigue in regional empire building – I sat back and checked my email, occasionally glancing out at an old familiar setting. It was an uneventful 45 minutes in the early afternoon. You don’t get the same feeling of massive urban sprawl in a car as you do when flying over it all.

Contrary to news reports following the recent severe draught, there are still some green lawns in the suburbs – more behind the gates of the “McMansions” of Encino than in the flatlands of Inglewood or Van Nuys. However, it is hard to not call it all the City of Denial, as everyone seems to go about their business as if they had not experienced the greatest drought of California’s history. So many still treat each piece of evidence of the catastrophic changes wrought by global warming as an incident, never a trend. Under it all, the Los Angeles basin remains the coastal desert it always was. But I’m not sure most “Angelinos” realize that.

After my last visit to Children of the Night, I had to catch an early flight out of LAX. The driver took a circuitous route through the residential streets of the Encino hills to transition over the I-405 on Mulholland Drive, then back over to an onramp to beat most of the traffic heading south over the hill to Westwood and Century City, LAX, and the South Bay beyond. We were in a long line of commuters taking the same short cut. I was surprised at how early we arrived at LAX. But I wondered: why are all the car-service drivers in the Valley Russian immigrants?

Small World, Big Change: Chasing the New Great Transformation

The cliché, “the world is getting smaller,” sometimes jumps right out at you in an incident or experience that is entirely unexpected. That happened to me one cool fall evening. My wife sat at a table at the entrance to the Torreon Marriott Hotel (a small part of a global story of transformation in itself), as I retrieved my jacket from the car. She introduced me to the gentleman with whom she was talking. Georg is some sort of international executive with BMW, who was considering an extended stay in Mexico to help establish certain BMW business interests there. He had just completed a seven-year stint in China. Georg speaks five languages and owns a home in the U.S. One crosses interesting paths in unexpected places in the small world of international travel. I sat down, anticipating an interesting conversation.

Naturally, topics ranged from cars – especially those “ultimate driving machines” – to international agreements on climate action. Georg confirmed how terrible the smog has been in Beijing. However, he assured us that it is getting much better since the government forced the move of over a hundred companies out of the city. Of course, that does not change the total carbon pollution resulting from Chinese industry, but it does provide a bit of relief to Beijing residents. Georg confirmed my impression that the Chinese, despite their massive current levels of carbon emissions, are taking a number of positive steps toward carbon constraint.

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Beijing Smog. Source: BoredPanda.com

I asked Georg if he knew of any incentives for conversion to electric cars in China. He replied that in Beijing today, a license for a fossil-fuel driven car is more expensive than the car itself, and it is very difficult and time-consuming to obtain. If you want to buy an electric car, the license is free and immediately available. Since a charging infrastructure is not yet built, electric vehicle drivers in Beijing can rely on mobile charging units simply by calling a company that will come and charge their electric car for a modest fee, while they work, shop, etc., at a particular location.

Like so many, Georg affirmed his bafflement over the U.S. election of Donald Trump. He indicated how ambiguous the consequences seem for implementing international agreements on climate action. We didn’t dwell on “The Donald.”

I suggested that development of battery technology seems to be progressing well. Georg confirmed my thought, stating that 250-mile range is available now and 350-mile range configurations are coming on line for production. For the U.S. that would eliminate the issue of range if we built a recharging infrastructure soon. However, in the U.S., the political climate remains dominated by climate denial, despite the incontrovertible science and growing public awareness. Politicians of all stripes talk of rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, but they usually refer to roads and bridges for our fossil-fueled vehicles. Trump likes to assert that our airports are “terrible, terrible,” and need to be “modernized.” Airlines make public relations gestures around reducing carbon emissions, but no real plan to do so exists. Established economic interests dominate political decisions.

Mexico’s transportation sector is much like the U.S. Crowded cities with similar traffic jams punctuate vast open spaces. Neither have adequate rail transportation, except for industrial transport. In both, conversion to electric vehicles would require a deliberate government policy of establishing a network of recharging stations and incentives for conversion to electric vehicles. Of course, that will be a problem in the U.S. with its continued political culture of climate denial and fear of “liberal conspiracies” to control everyone by programs of climate action. Do we really have to leave climate progress up to Elon Musk?

The fundamental underlying fact is that humanity is now undergoing a New Great Transformation, much larger than the industrial revolution and vastly more crucial to our prospects on this planet. In 1944, Karl Polanyi, in his prescient book, The Great Transformation, predicted many of the problems that have resulted from the industrial revolution and subsequent proliferation of industry. The ecological consequences of globalization of the industrial system have reached far beyond anything he could have imagined.

Today we are already witnessing the early stages of a New Great Transformation that will change the role of humanity on earth forever. We must take action globally now if we are to make the big changes necessary for our own survival in the context of the converging crises that are leading to global chaos. We must act or suffer the consequences. The actions required themselves constitute a great social transformation.

We have already changed the world in entirely unanticipated ways. Vested interests in our increasingly suicidal path resist Big Change, seeking short-term profits while ignoring the obvious signs of a catastrophic future. Failure to take the extreme corrective actions needed to re-stabilize both the climate and ecological systems worldwide will be disastrous. We must take charge of the New Great Transformation; it is a matter of survival or extinction.

The world may be getting smaller, but its problems are getting much bigger than ever before imagined. We live within complex living ecological systems, long ignored by our economic and political elites. Our actions have destabilized those systems, yet we are utterly dependent upon them. That is the essence of our problem. Big Changes are already the reality we have inadvertently created. Our situation now calls upon us to change our behavior in ways that are unprecedented and very hard to imagine. The New Great Transformation is for humanity the point of no return. We must imagine a future that our world can tolerate.