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We Can’t Wait

I’m deep into writing my new novel, and so not paying much attention to my blog… But here’s a short essay I wrote as an introduction to a pamphlet being published in Porto Alegre, Brazil, by Monstro dos Mares. It’s based on an impromptu speech I gave in a park called Rendencão at the end of a very spirited Critical Mass ride there in 2012. It was during the first World Bike Forum (this year’s is in Manizales, Colombia in case you want to go!). This intro may finally be all I put out for the 30th anniversary of Critical Mass which falls this September, 2022… amazing! (I’m old!)

During the ride in the middle of the city everyone stopped and began clapping and chanting “Mas Adrenalina, Menos Gasolina” (more adrenaline, less gasoline!)

We Can’t Wait!
Much of what we experienced in Porto Alegre back in those celebratory and defiant days a decade ago was vital and thrilling. To be among thousands of other cyclists, reclaiming and reinventing the urban space while we rolled through it, created new spaces in our imaginations. The dull repetitive madness of daily traffic dominated by cars and trucks and buses was forced to give way to a fresh, light, breezy, convivial space invented together by thousands of people who probably did not know each other before arriving at that moment. Critical Mass was a surprisingly successful experiment in inventing a new form to challenge the imposing edifice of modern life. But in all honesty, it wasn’t an experiment that successfully expanded into other realms, nor was it able to sustain itself on that trembling edge of potential indefinitely. In most places, certainly here in San Francisco where it all started 30 years ago, Critical Mass has long passed into irrelevance and obscurity. If it does keep rolling, it is a shell of what it was, an imposter lacking the vital pulse of subversive possibility.

Surprisingly, the amalgamation of ideas and possibilities once embodied in the Critical Mass experience gave way over time to the simple choice that untold millions made to use their bicycle as everyday transportation. The choice to bicycle was a wise and self-rewarding one for most, and today in cities across the planet, hundreds of thousands more people use the bicycle for their everyday transportation than did at the end of the last century. Every ride each day by every rider is as the saying goes, “one less car,” and in aggregate, tons less CO2 being poured into our shared air. But the cultural experience that was so available in decades past, of being a rebel, a subversive, an outlaw, by cycling, has passed into history. No one claims to be a “microwavist” for using a microwave oven, nor are there “hammerists” who use hammers. Similarly, far fewer people today describe themselves as “bicyclists” just because they use a bicycle occasionally or regularly. And that is as it should be, in my opinion. We should not be defined by the devices we use or what we own, but rather by what we do.

The bicycle has proven for many to be a great beginning. It has been a radical break with car and oil dependency, a personal technological choice that embraces the possibilities implicit in making a different decision about how to go from Point A to Point B. But having made that choice to bicycle, how many have gone on to question what actually do at Point A and Point B? For this is the heart of our modern predicament. Every day we wake up and reproduce this world, not the world we could make together if we decided to finally break with the madness of our daily lives. The question we users of bicycles have to confront: If bicycling is the key, what does it unlock? Or put another way, if bicycling is the window we go through first, what is on the other side?

As I said a decade ago in the park in Porto Alegre, bicycling is not enough. If everyone were to ride bicycles in most cities, we would still be destroying the planet in myriad other ways, whether through industrial agriculture, mining, fossil fuel extraction, or crypto-currency “mining.” And our brutality towards climate refugees, towards “others,” whether Black, indigenous, or otherwise, would be untouched, just as our easy acceptance of a world based on incessant economic growth ensures that our rapid destruction of the conditions for life on earth would continue unchecked.

Faced with such enormous obstacles, it is easy to despair and to feel deeply pessimistic. And that’s where we must find that special combination I call “radical patience.” We can’t wait, we must take action every day and in every way to bring about the deep changes we need. But we have to recognize how slowly history moves. We have to maintain our confidence in the face of daunting odds and regular disappointments, while holding the passion and strength to keep pushing for the changes we know are necessary. We have to combine our radical insistence with a deep patience for our fellow beings, knowing that some of us would go faster if we could, while others will always move a lot slower than we’d prefer. Ultimately, we have to do this together, with our friends, family, and neighbors. And we have to find our connections across neighborhoods, between cities, across national frontiers, among watersheds, from mountains to the sea, and including all the inhabitants of earth, not just the human ones! Take a deep breath, and then another. And then carry on!

—April 12, 2022, San Francisco, California

The organizers launched the World Bike Forum to dramatize the event that took place exactly a year earlier, when an impatient banker had plowed through 200 cyclists on the road. Miraculously no one was killed and the injuries weren’t permanent. The banker at the time of the event one year later remained unpunished. Since then I think he was convicted but served little or no time.

A view from the back…

In the middle

And rolling by…

Scorched Earth and more

I wrote a couple of book review essays that I know regulars here would like to read. They are over at The Fabulist, so you’ll have to check them out there. Here are the opening paragraphs:

Scorched Earth: Beyond the Digital Age to a Post-Capitalist World, by Jonathan Crary, has a multiple-entendre title — he’s describing what the internet is doing to society, he’s describing what capitalism’s long trajectory is doing to the Earth, and he’s writing in a style that can only be characterized as a scorched-earth approach to the platitudes that dominate our contemporary lives.

In other words, it’s a blistering polemic worthy of the blistering heat waves wracking the Indian subcontinent as I write, and that are baked in to our future by our continuing inability to halt the complex machine of global capitalism.

Crary’s 120-page screed follows in “a tradition of social pamphleteering,” but in a way that has long fallen by the wayside. Rarely do authors address our common predicament with the fine-tuned anger and precise rhetorical scalpel of a skilled surgeon working on the body politic. But Crary, a Columbia University professor, has done it before in his 2013 book-length essay 24/7, where he pulled down the facade masking the insanity of our sped-up world.

In Scorched Earth he’s trying to knock the legs from under our endless narcissistic return to the screen in our hands, and proposes that if he succeeds, our tasks will only be much more daunting than even breaking that obvious addiction.

 

In another new book by Peter Gelderloos (The Solutions Are Already Here: Tactics for Ecological Revolution from Below, Pluto Press: 2022), which parallels Scorched Earth in key ways, he argues “The cause of the global ecological crisis is colonialism. It is no coincidence that the political, economic, and cultural institutions that were developed by the most successful northern European colonizers are the ones that are now global.” (p. 34)

Both Crary and Gelderloos are offering short but comprehensive and totalizing critiques of the world as we know it. Both take on basic categories of our lives such as science and technology, militarism, and our relationship to nature. Where Crary excels is in his directed criticism of our ongoing acquiescence to the internet. For most readers who are almost certainly seeing these words on a computer screen, it may be difficult to digest that the entirety of the internet is the target of his most potent critique:

“… as a constitutive component of twenty-first-century capitalism, the internet’s key functions include the disabling of memory and the absorption of lived temporalities, not ending history but rendering it unreal and incomprehensible… The internet complex is now the comprehensive global apparatus for the dissolution of society.” (pp. 8–9)

 

The authors of Half-Earth Socialism are visionaries, utopians, and planners. In a short book they marshal an argument for what they argue is a way out of the double-bind of a seemingly inevitable capitalism bent on ecocide versus a myopic Left that is stuck on either centralized authoritarianism or ineffective, decentralized anarchist cooperatives:

“The goals of Half-Earth socialism are simple enough: to prevent the Sixth Extinction, practise ‘natural geoengineering’ to draw down carbon through rewilded ecosystems rather than SRM [solar radiation management], and create a fully renewable energy system. Realizing each of these aims requires large expanses of land, which is why we will see again and again that utopia is threatened by the Earth-eating livestock industry.” (Pg. 79)

“Half-Earth Socialism” sets out the importance of and necessity to consciously plan our material, economic lives, as opposed to leaving it all to the invisible hand of the market. The authors also argue that we must accept that nature, or global ecology, is the ultimate mystery that we cannot (and should not try to) master, even though we’ve spent two centuries laboring under the hubristic assumption that science will give us the tools and knowledge to do so.

Farewell Bob Isaacson

Bob Isaacson at the annual Fourth of July party at Huffaker Park along Mission Creek, 2013.

Saturday, May 7, 2022 at the Bayview Boathouse, a memorial for Bob Isaacson.

I am sorry not to be here in person, but as I am still testing positive for Covid, I think it best to stay home.

I met Bob Isaacson around 2010. I had known the amazing book Vanished Waters: A History of San Francisco’s Mission Bay for some years; it was (and is) the main source for understanding the history of the eastern side of San Francisco—Mission Bay, once a body of water, and now a dense and modern neighborhood. The book was produced in 1986 by the Mission Creek Conservancy and written by historian Nancy Olmsted. I was interested in getting more copies and when I made inquiries, Bob responded to let me know the book was out of print.

One thing led to another, and a few months later I was involved with Bob in exploring how we could reproduce the book and publish a 2nd edition. It was made more difficult by the fact that all the original materials for the first edition were lost, so it was going to take a fair amount of sleuthing and research to find the maps and photos from the first book, and of course all the text would have to be re-done as well. This was up my alley, being a book designer and longtime typesetter, as well as a self-taught historian and curator for Shaping San Francisco’s digital archive at foundsf.org.

About a year later, we had a sparkling new edition, with new and improved maps and images, and several new chapters that I wrote, some of which depended on Bob and his ability to wrangle a number of key participants in the multi-year process of building the new Mission Bay, to participate in a series of oral history interviews.

Bob himself was an indispensable character through all the years that Mission Bay went from a derelict industrial and rail yard zone to the dynamic neighborhood it is today. Along with Ginny, Corinne, Toby, Phillip, Ruth, and other Mission Creek Conservancy members Bob’s years-long effort to make Mission Creek an ecological gem has borne fruit. What was once a smelly Shit Creek, is now an ecological wonderland, a birding paradise, and a thriving waterway with rich life on and below the surface. Bob worked tirelessly to reconnect the area to its own history, both socially and ecologically. And he did it with great modesty, kindness, and good humor.

Few San Franciscans have left as important a legacy as Bob Isaacson, and though he has gone largely unheralded during his life for his steady presence and dedicated vision, I’m here to say that he deserves to be remembered in the pantheon of our most revered, and that he will not be forgotten. Thank you Bob!

A heron stands in the pickleweed overlooking Mission Creek, a vision inconceivable without the stalwart efforts of Bob Isaacson.