People’s Climate March: 6 Weeks Later

In September, I joined 400,000 others in New York for the People’s Climate March. It was a joyous convocation of people of color, people of faith, old people, and young people, all demanding action to address climate change and expressing shared hope for a just transition.

A month and a half later, I’m trying to reconcile the march’s magnitude and passion for action with what the US midterm election results mean, especially for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. The probable new chair of that committee, which oversees the Environmental Protection Agency, has compared the EPA to the Gestapo and authored a book entitled “The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.”

The hundreds of thousands who marched in New York, and the millions around the world whom they marched to represent, see clearly that the conspiracy threatening their future is not a hoax, but politicians representing corporate money.

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Privatization and the Crisis of Bus Drivers in Santiago

Early in the morning of June 2nd, 2014, Marco Antonio Cuadra walked into a bus depot as he had done for his preceding 25 years as a bus driver in Chile’s sprawling capital city. This morning, however, instead of setting out to cover his routes across Santiago, he doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire, shouting, “This is for the workers! Let it mark a precedent!”  By the time his coworkers grabbed fire extinguishers from their buses and doused the flames, 90% of his body had been severely burned. Waiting for an ambulance to arrive, one of the drivers asked Cuadra why he taken such drastic action. The pained response (as seen in an extremely graphic video uploaded to Youtube): “For our coworkers – because of how [corporate managers] abuse us, how they don’t pay our wages, and how they fire union leaders, but nobody complains. ¿Hasta cuándo?”

Two weeks earlier, Veolia, through its Transdev branch and Chilean subsidiary Redbus, had initiated the firing of Cuadra, a leader of Redbus Union 2. The company claimed he and the treasurer of the Union failed to fulfill “the obligations expressly indicated in their work contract.” Other employees dispute this claim and note that Veolia/Redbus, a private operator for the public Transantiago/Metropolitan Public Transport Directorate, initiated the firing three days before employees were set to present a new collective bargaining plan.

The ambulance took Cuadra to Santiago’s main hospital where he underwent a series of amputations and surgeries as his organs progressively failed over the coming weeks. His wife shared her thoughts in an interview:

A memorial for Marco Cuadra in Central Santiago (picture from Laurel Paget-Seekins)

A memorial for Marco Cuadra in Central Santiago (picture from Laurel Paget-Seekins)

He was distraught because of all the injustice. He was enraged when he saw how [Veolia/Redbus] made the older drivers, and the workers in general, work very late, how the company didn’t respect them, and how they had to use diapers because of the lack of bathrooms and the length of the routes… I pray to God that he’ll come through this so he can tell me what really happened. What I think now, based on what I saw and what his coworkers have told me, is that it was a result of utter frustration, the most extreme frustration that a human being can take.

On June 27, twenty-five days after his act of desperation, Cuadra died from his injuries.
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Dinner on the T

Summer Commute, 2014

Last summer’s commute was done mostly by Metrolink commuter rail to Los Angeles Union Station. This summer, my primary commute was by folding bike to Tsinghua University’s School of Architecture:

Coal in China

China is the world’s largest consumer of coal, using more annually than the US, the EU, and Japan combined. Coal-fired plants are the primary source of electricity, and coal is also used extensively for household heating and cooking.

Coal Production in China

Shanxi Province is one of the leading coal producing regions, and the railways and highways between Shanxi and the east coast of China are full of hoppers and trucks. Even as renewable energy production has ramped up in recent years, there is a long way to go to catch up with coal generating capacity.

Mount Wutai

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One of China’s Four Sacred Mountains of Buddhism, Wutai Shan is home to 53 monasteries spread across five peaks.

Pingyao

Pingyao

Pingyao

One of the few Chinese cities with its ancient walls still intact is Pingyao. Its central location made it an early banking center in China.

Taiyuan

Fen River and Taiyuan

Fen River and Taiyuan

Straddling the Fen River, Taiyuan is the capital of Shanxi Province. It is notorious for air pollution, though coal burning in Shanxi has been reduced slightly in response to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and economic downturn. Taiyuan is home to 3.2 million official urban residents, plus another million who have rural hukou registrations. The latter group consists of a floating population of migrant workers, typical of those who provide much of the labor for China’s construction and manufacturing sectors, as well as long-time residents of “urban villages,” small settlements that have been engulfed by the expanding city. The focus of our urban design studio was Wucheng, one such urban village in the center of Taiyuan.

Wucheng’s small apartments and boarding houses are a source of affordable housing for laborers and students at Shanxi University and other nearby education institutions. While there are some nearby regional parks, neighborhood green spaces and basic municipal services are lacking for the urban village’s 38,000 inhabitants.

Social tensions stemming from the hukou system, poor working conditions, and an economy transitioning from mining and heavy manufacturing to high tech, lie just below the surface. South of Taiyuan, a Foxconn plant with nearly 80,000 workers in what amounts to a company town saw a riot in 2012.

The new mayor of Taiyuan, Yanbo Geng, has spoken about environmental priorities:

“碧水蓝天映衬唐风晋韵,良好生态扮靓魅力龙城。”
“Beautiful water and blue sky are an integral part of our province’s history. A good ecosystem is central to beautifying Taiyuan City.”

Planned ecological corridors seem like a promising step on paper, and the metro system under construction could help make transportation in the city more sustainable. But concurrent efforts to widen streets and construct highway flyovers will counteract these steps.

By 2030, it is projected that more than 40 other cities in China will, like Taiyuan, have populations that exceed 4 million people. Unless major shifts emerge to address social concerns and improve the energy performance of transportation and neighborhood systems, the environmental vision espoused by Mayor Geng may be only wishful thinking.