Time to nationalize Amazon

Issue 130

Paris Marx

Hey urbanists,

I hope you’re staying safe and holding up well. This week’s issue is a long one, so plenty to read while you’re safe at home.

I started with a few of the pieces I wrote this week — particularly happy with my argument to nationalize Amazon — then a breakdown of what’s happening around the world with COVID-19 (that isn’t really related to the other sections of the newsletter).

Moving into the rest of the issue, I want to highlight the pieces on sanitation workers; what’s happening with Airbnb, Amazon, and Uber; efforts to get cars off streets; what might happen on April 1 with rent payments; France’s high-speed hospital; and the few pieces relating the COVID-19 crisis to climate change.

I also finished reading Rob Larson’s “Bit Tyrants” and it was really good. It’s still free for a few more days. Stay safe!

— Paris

News roundup

🛑 By Paris: Coronavirus stimulus and disaster plans reveal cruelty of capitalist and political 'reality' (NBC News): “With the restrictions of false political realism out the window, we now need to ask ourselves whether we’re willing to accept the harms and inequities that we’ve become so used to, or seize this opportunity to address them once and for all. The decision should be an easy one.”

📦 By Paris: To Fix the Looming Supply Chain Crisis, Nationalize Amazon (In These Times): “Instead of letting Amazon continue as a private monopolist or trying to build a public alternative from scratch in record time, the company should be nationalized and reoriented to serve the public good instead of predatory capitalism, while enhancing the infrastructure of the post office.”

✈️ Plus, my piece last week on nationalizing the airlines for Tribune is now also in Jacobin if you missed it!

🦠 COVID-19 around the world: 🇧🇷 Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro denies the threat, calls for governors to lift restrictions on movement. 🇫🇷 French President Emmanuel Macron is using the crisis to continue his attack on working rights. 🇦🇺 Australia is funneling money to big business and attacking unions. 🇲🇽 Mexico’s president is ignoring the threat because he’s too worried about the economy. 🇨🇺 Cuba has had a laudable response and is sending doctors around the world to help. 🇵🇹 Portugal will treat all migrants as residents until July 1 so they can access public services. ☠️ Neo-Nazis love COVID-19. 🇮🇹 COVID-19 is denying dignity to Italy’s dead. 🌍 Global South countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, are preparing an effective health response to COVID-19, but won’t escape the economic fallout. 📷 Photos of empty public places around the world. ✊ Comparison of measures governments are taking to protect workers.

Tech dystopia

👨‍💻🎉 “The tech giants are likely celebrating and the key to their success will be our quarantine. A different world will emerge as the economy recovers, a world where technology mediates a far greater proportion of our lives than any Silicon Valley ideologue could have dreamed was possible previously.” — Matthew Cole

✊ “Hopefully, this crisis will not only elevate the status of low-wage workers but spark a new wave of organizing to boost standards and build power across these ‘essential’ industries. Because it’s low-wage workers — not bankers, landlords, or CEOs — who make our society run.” — Mindy Isser

🚮 “While New York police officers and firefighters are usually regarded as the public employees who gird the city against chaos, it’s the sanitation workers who keep 21st century society recognizable. […] Sanitation workers already have twice the fatality rates of police officers, and nearly seven times the fatality rates of firefighters. They contend daily with germ-ridden environments.” — Ross Barkan

📉🏘 With Airbnb collapsing along with the global travel industry, the number of properties for rent in Dublin is up 64%. There’s evidence something similar is happening in Toronto, Paris, and a bunch of U.S. and British cities, while contributing to decreased rents in London.

📦 Amazon is prioritizing ‘essential’ items, but all of its own products are considered essential. Fire TV, Echo speakers, Ring doorbells, etc. will all ship immediately, while similar products made by other companies won’t ship until late April. It even hid faster delivery options offered by some third-party sellers. An Amazon worker describes how there’s little air circulation in the warehouses, and if they go over the little time they’re allotted for bathroom breaks and to complete their tasks they’re written up. “Six write-ups: Fired.” Meanwhile, workers at ten U.S. Amazon fulfillment centers have tested positive for COVID-19 and they’re furious that they often have to confront management before they’re even told if a coworker tested positive.

😈 Sarah Emerson spoke to Uber drivers who say the company’s announced COVID-19 support for drivers is almost impossible to access. “[Uber thinks] that drivers are college students, but what they don’t understand is that most are elderly, poor, and people like me.” It also requires applicants to agree they aren’t employees so they can’y challenge Uber over AB5.

✊🥘 Jack Campbell suggests we nationalize food-delivery apps and use them to start a National Food Service

👁👩‍💻 Bosses are quickly buying up surveillance software to keep an eye on all their workers now working from home — tracking keystrokes, taking screenshots, etc.

🦠📈 The Financial Times has some fascinating infographics on the spread of COVID-19, particularly its impact on the Chinese economy

🦠 In COVID-19 news: Instacart workers are planning a nationwide strike. Tesla still forced some workers to show up after production was shut down by authorities. Increase in video streaming is putting pressure on internet infrastructure. Google banned the Infowars Android app over misinformation. The rich are buying their way to the front of the line for COVID-19 tests. U.S. efforts to scale up production of lithium and rare-earth minerals hampered by shutdowns.

Critical urbanism

🚫🚗 “The coronavirus pandemic presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for cities to remake their streets by taking space away from cars and giving it to pedestrians and bicyclists — permanently.” Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to ban cars on some streets of New York City in response to COVID-19, so supposedly progressive Mayor Bill de Blasio responded with a terrible plan to close sections of just four streets… for four days. Toronto and Vancouver are also considering closing some streets to cars, following actions by Bogota and Mexico City to expand bike lanes.

🇺🇸💸 With more than 3 million Americans having already applied for unemployment benefits, and many more who are out of work but simply aren’t eligible, a lot of people aren’t going to be able to afford rent at the end of the month. “April 1 will bring contract chaos when thousands of leaseholders decide not to pay, pushing a tide of unpaid debts from lessees to owners to banks—and sometime soon, a flood of litigation back from banks to owners to lessees.”

Weirdly enough, the April rent strike is being led by Bolshevik institutions like Mattress Firm, Subway, and the Cheesecake Factory. […] Pandemic surprise: When it comes to contract-breaking and collective action, chains are lawyered up and ready for Red April. […]

Rent strikes are relatively rare in the U.S. and are mostly reserved for slumlords who don’t provide services like heat or extermination. But they have an important history: A wave of rent strikes in New York beginning after the First World War led to the nation’s first rent control law. That those strikes were a political and practical success, the historian Robert Fogelson observed in The Great Rent Wars, was thanks to strong support from the then-powerful Socialist Party, as well as the role of women whose domestic social life was perfect for daytime organizing.

🇺🇸🇬🇧 “Both [New York City’s mayor Bill] De Blasio and [London’s mayor Sadiq] Khan were elected on platforms promising to nurture and protect the diversity their cities were built on. Both have ambitious targets for new homes that they claim will be fairly distributed between people of different income levels. Both say they can make their cities safe for the market as well as for those unable to successfully compete in it. Yet they have both pursued policies that essentially continue the paths laid down by their right-wing predecessors. In both cities, the housing crisis continues to worsen.” — David Madden and Glyn Robbins

🏙🦠 “When a pandemic comes, cities scare the hell out of people. The crush and bustle of the sidewalks and subways feels like a big petri dish.” But the truth is they’re the safest places to be.

🇬🇧🚌 The British government is signaling a shift in its transport policy, with the transport minister saying, “Public transport and active travel will be the natural first choice for our daily activities. We will use our cars less and be able to rely on a convenient, cost-effective and coherent public transport network.”

🇫🇷🚄 France retrofitted a high-speed train to serve as a speedy hospital to move patients to parts of the country with more hospital capacity

🛴💸 Lime might only have 12 weeks of cash left as it prepares for layoffs

🎉📉 Uber rides are down up to 70% in some cities, while Lyft is telling drivers to apply at Amazon

Climate crisis

🦠 Jeff Sparrow argues the ideological U-turns of prominent right-wing politicians around the world in the face of COVID-19 shows “if there’s an economic alternative now, there was an economic alternative then – and we are all suffering from the ideologically-driven failure to take it.” He warns we should be prepared for the aftermath, when they dismiss climate action “as a job-killing indulgence in a time of mass unemployment.”

💰📈 In response to the economic collapse, we need “an ambitious Green Stimulus of at least $2 trillion that creates millions of family-sustaining green jobs, lifts standards of living, accelerates a just transition off fossil fuels, ensures a controlling stake for the public in all private sector bailout plans, and helps make our society and economy stronger and more resilient in the face of pandemic, recession, and climate emergency in the years ahead.”

🌎 “Our response to this health crisis will shape the climate crisis for decades to come. The efforts to revive economic activity — the stimulus plans, bailouts and back-to-work programs being developed now — will help determine the shape of our economies and our lives for the foreseeable future, and they will have effects on carbon emissions that reverberate across the planet for thousands of years.” — Meehan Crist

🦠🦇 Fantastic essay by Sonia Shah explains that bats and other wildlife are not to blame COVID-19 and related viruses — we are. Specifically, a mode of production that destroys natural habitats and expands livestock production, making it easier for viruses that live harmlessly in wild animals to make the deadly jump to humans.

🇺🇸🚗 Infographics from the New York Times show how air pollution and traffic have plummeted in U.S. cities. The Guardian has the same for China, South Korea, Italy, and the United Kingdom.

🇺🇸🌃 Los Angeles’ air quality hasn’t reached unhealthy levels since February. It’s “a reminder that the vast majority of our air pollution comes from the transportation of people and goods.”

🇨🇦🌲 “[G]overnments in Canada have failed to act in the ecological and long-term interests of forest communities. With old forests on the brink, we only have a handful of years to reverse this trend. The policy choices that we’re making now will resonate for a long time.” — Tegan Hansen

🇺🇸🛢 The Environmental Protection Agency will not enforce environmental laws through the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, and no end date has been set for the suspension. It comes after being requested by the American Petroleum Institute.

🇬🇧🇨🇦🍅 U.K. government might fly in 90,000 workers from Eastern Europe to pick fruit and vegetables that will otherwise rot in the fields. There are similar worries about whether the 50,000 migrant laborers would pick food in Canada will make it this year.

🦠 Fascist groups are imitating Extinction Rebellion to make people think the group sees “the coronavirus as a natural ‘cure’ to the human ‘disease’”

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Digging deeper into the roots of COVID-19

Issue 129

Paris Marx

Hey urbanists,

I hope you’re all staying safe and keeping your social distance. I’ve hardly left home all week, and there are now three people who’ve tested positive for COVID-19 on the island of Newfoundland, where I’m currently holed up.

The main focus this week is, probably unsurprisingly, COVID-19. I highlighted a long article and interview below which delve into the political economy of the virus, and you’ll find there are also two other groupings of COVID-19 stories related to tech and cities throughout the newsletter.

I want to draw particular attention to the articles about Amazon’s cruel and monopolistic response to COVID-19, and Elon Musk’s similarly self-centered and irresponsible actions. Plus, see the pieces on Cuba’s biotech industry (part of that is also addressed in the Mike Davis interview), my argument to renationalize the airlines, Sy Taffel on ecological discourses, Kate Aronoff on the response to the economic collapse, and the piece at the very end on how capitalist is killing us while the rich are having a laugh.

I finished Chris Carlsson’s “Hidden San Francisco,” which is great if you want a radical history of the city, and I’m now reading Rob Larson’s “Bit Tyrants: The Political Economy of Silicon Valley,” which I love so far and am tweeting about here. I also want to point you to Haymarket Books, which is offering ten free ebooks (including “Bit Tyrants”) until April 2, and Verso Books, which has six free books (including two on the Green New Deal that I reviewed) and a big sale on all the rest.

Finally, I also picked up a microphone and I think I’m going to finally try to get my planned podcast on the go. Wish me luck!


P.S. — Press the heart below the headline or at the end of the issue if you liked it!

The political economy of COVID-19

If you want an excellent longread on the political economy of COVID-19, I can’t recommend “Social Contagion: Microbiological Class War in China” enough. It runs through how the expansion of capitalist agricultural practices, social systems, and economic forces has consistently been the catalyst for deadly viruses and pandemics, and the particular factors in China that have led to the emergence of COVID-19.

The furnaces of China seem to have stopped burning, or at least to have been reduced to gently glowing coals. In a way, though, the city has become another type of furnace, as the coronavirus burns through its massive population like a fever writ large. […]

Beneath the four furnaces, then, lies a more fundamental furnace undergirding the industrial hubs of the world: the evolutionary pressure cooker of capitalist agriculture and urbanization. This provides the ideal medium through which ever-more-devastating plagues are born, transformed, induced to zoonotic leaps, and then aggressively vectored through the human population. To this is added similarly intensive processes occurring at the economy’s fringes, where “wild” strains are encountered by people pushed to ever-more extensive agroeconomic incursions into local ecosystems. The most recent coronavirus, in its “wild” origins and its sudden spread through a heavily industrialized and urbanized core of the global economy, represents both dimensions of our new era of political-economic plagues. […]

If the English cattle epidemics of the 18th century were the first case of a distinctly capitalist livestock plague, and the rinderpest outbreak of 1890s Africa the largest of imperialism’s epidemiological holocausts, the Spanish flu can then be understood as the first of capitalism’s plagues on the proletariat. […]

[A]s capital accumulation subsumes new territories, animals will be pushed into less accessible areas where they will come into contact with previously isolated disease strains, all while these animals themselves are becoming targets for commodification as “even the wildest subsistence species are being roped into ag value chains.” Similarly, this expansion pushes humans closer to these animals and these environments, which “may increase the interface (and spillover) between wild nonhuman populations and newly urbanized rurality.” This gives the virus more opportunity and resources to mutate in a way that allows it to infect humans, pushing up the probability of biological spillover.

In addition to that piece, I highly recommend the interview Daniel Denvir did with Mike Davis on The Dig, where Davis, author of “The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu,” among many other fantastic books (I especially liked “City of Quartz”), talks about how the role of animal agriculture, Big Pharma, and the lack of international solidarity make us less able to respond to viruses and pandemics like COVID-19. He also warns that while COVID-19 death rates seem relatively low now, that will change when it inevitably hits Africa and other parts of Asia, where the health systems simply do not have the capacity to treat people and the people have other conditions, such as high rates of HIV/AIDS, that will make their bodies less able to fight it. Davis wrote a piece for Jacobin outlining many of these same issues.

News roundup

📦😷 Five people in Amazon warehouses in Italy and Spain have contracted COVID-19 and one person at fulfillment center in Queens also tested positive as workers say they warned the company it isn’t doing enough to keep them safe. Delivery drivers have also reported not having support from the company, only receiving a single wipe to clean their vehicles. Meanwhile, Amazon is offering a $2/hr pay bump in North America to try to hire more 100,000 workers, but how safe are they from the virus? Its supply chain is already breaking down as the company prioritizes essentials, which could threaten many small businesses whose entire operations depend on access to Amazon’s marketplace. Seems like the perfect time for Amazon’s warehouse workers to unionize, and for the government to consider outright nationalization.

“Amazon’s moves this week could prove presciently symbolic for a permanent transfer of traditional jobs at local small businesses to unreliable, part-time work for tech giants that distribute products and services through online platforms — the ‘Amazonification’ of our economy.” — Brian Merchant

Tech dystopia

💰😷 “America is now divided into two factions: Those who can afford to offload their risk of becoming infected with a deadly pandemic onto others, and those who serve people who are holed up in their homes, delivering them food, video game consoles, toilet paper, diapers, and scrapbook material at great risk to themselves.” — Jason Koebler

🇪🇺 Google will have to create a worker’s council in Europe, since EU law requires their creation if workers in at least two countries file a written request. “The works council is likely to include employee representatives from more than 35 Google offices across Europe […] The works council can’t veto company decisions, but the process means that employees should be consulted and can sometimes cast a vote to oppose or approve certain measures, allowing for greater input into management plans.”

🤦 The Bay Area is under a shelter-in-place order that forced most businesses to close, but Tesla’s told factory workers it was an essential business and would stay open after Elon Musk tweeted that “coronavirus panic is dumb.” However, then county officials and the local Sheriff’s office demanded the factory close, as it was open in defiance of the order and could spread the virus. Musk put his profit before people’s lives yet again, but is finally closing the factories in California and New York.

👏 Donald Trump announced Google would develop a COVID-19 test site the company apparently knew nothing about. But its search engine doesn’t even provide good COVID-19 results; we don’t need more Google. “Google is a company, with the self-interest of a company. Its mission statement is ‘to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’. It does not do that. It does not come close. It’s a data-hungry advertising company, first and foremost. It’s an instrument of massive surveillance and our dependence on it distorts our judgements and directs major decisions without deep human deliberation or contemplation.”

🇨🇺🚑 How Cuba developed a biotechnology industry to rival its wealthy neighbors. “Since its first application to combat dengue fever, Cuba’s interferon has shown its efficacy and safety in the therapy of viral diseases including Hepatitis B and C, shingles, HIV-AIDS and dengue. Because it interferes with viral multiplication within cells, it has also been used in the treatment of different types of carcinomas. Time will tell if Interferon Alfa 2b proves to be the wonder drug as far as COVID-19 goes.”

🇫🇷💶 “France’s competition watchdog on Monday fined iPhone maker Apple 1.1 billion euros ($1.23 billion), saying it was guilty of anti-competitive behavior towards its distribution and retail network.”

🇺🇸▶️ Bernie Sanders’ campaign is pioneering the virtual campaign rally, while Joe Biden’s attempts run into constant technical glitches

🚗👩‍⚖️ Anthony Levandowski pled guilty to stealing trade secrets from Google

🦠 In COVID-19 news: Elon Musk is tweeting misinformation and Twitter won’t do anything about it. Janitors are still told to show up even when office workers are sent home. Israel and England are using smartphone data to track people, and more countries could do the same. Article views are up ~50% with so many people at home. Scientists changed the way they work to be much more collaborative. COVID-19 could be the final nail in WeWork’s coffin.

Critical urbanism

🇺🇸🚌 U.S. transit agencies are going to need a bailout. Aaron Gordon writes that also presents an opportunity to permanently direct more funding to operating expenditures instead of just capital costs.

💔🚗 Stephen Zoepf describes how he fell out of love with cars. “The choice was simple: let commuting turn me into a worse husband and father every day of the week, or choose an enjoyable, stress-free commute and accept the increased possibility that I might have a bad accident.”

🇪🇺🚄 What might a Europe-wide high-speed-rail network look like? Alon Levy has a map.

✈️ By Paris:Nationalise the Airlines” (Tribune): “(Re)nationalised airlines should be planned as part of a broader transportation system, with the goal of reducing unnecessary air travel, particularly on short-haul routes, to achieve emissions reductions. Ideally, this would be in conjunction with a rail system that is also returned to public ownership, which would allow for improvements to reliability, frequency, and a reduction in ticket prices to encourage people to use trains instead of cars and planes.”

🦠 In COVID-19 news: Joe Cortwright compares its spread in China, Italy, the United States, and Canada. The Nigerian government is trying to shut down Lagos to prevent the spread, but that’s not so easy. Iran has been hard hit, its poor and working class in particular, but the United States refuses to lift sanctions even temporarily. Norway is banning citizens from their vacation homes to avoid overrunning rural hospitals. Italy’s cities are ghost towns, Spain didn’t act fast enough and is now seeing the consequences, but the impact on migrant camps in Greece could be disastrous. Uber and Lyft suspended their pooled and shared-ride services, while Lime pulled its scooters in California and Washington. Homeless families in Los Angeles seized 12 publicly owned houses to protect themselves themselves.

Climate crisis

🔮🌏 Sy Taffel outlines and critiques four leading discourses on ecological futures: extinction, currently promoted by Extinction Rebellion; ecological apocalypse, which focuses on overpopulation and thus redirects the blame to the global poor; technological solutionism, pushed by narrow-minded tech leaders and some people on the left who’ve bought into it; and degrowth, a rejection of capitalist economics.

🇮🇳🌡 “[M]ore than 60% of India has experienced significant warming during the 1951-2015 observed record. The rise in summer temperature is already more than one degree in the last 60 or so years,” says Vimal Mishra of the Water and Climate Lab at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Gandhinagar. “The hottest summers in the observed record occurred once in 60 or so years and had lasting impacts on public health, water availability, agriculture, and labour efficiency.”

🛢 “With crashing oil prices, all manner of stimulus measures on the table, and previously tight-fisted politicians now thinking more creatively, nationalizing the fossil fuel industry might just be one of the most sensible ideas on offer. […] For the 1.6 million workers currently in the oil and gas sector, government leadership of the industry might be the only way they avoid crashing out of the carbon economy and facing mass unemployment during the (likely) recession.” — Kate Aronoff

👷‍♀️ In another piece, Aronoff calls for green jobs as the response to the oncoming economic crash: “the choice right now is between crisis responses that double down on the dangerous policies of the past few decades or those that help shift society and the economy in a better direction. How lawmakers respond to Covid-19 and its economic fallout could either protect the next century from the persistent crises threatened by rising temperatures, or make them far worse.”

🛩 Why do rich people consume so much more energy than everyone else? A lot of it is from travel.

☠️ “Capitalism is killing us. There’s no way around it. While we languish inside, unpaid and uncertain, unprotected by an ideology of American exceptionalism and individualized meritocracy, RuPaul and his capitalist cohort are happily fracking at the end of the world.”

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Coronavirus presents an opportunity to rethink the status quo

Issue 128

Hey urbanists,

I feel like so much has happened in the past week. My travel plans are on hold as I see how the COVID-19 coronavirus spreads and efforts to contain it develop in the coming weeks.

I put together some links that stood out to me in recent days re: COVID-19 below, and there are more stories relating to it in the news roundup. Can I please just say though, I really don’t understand how anyone retains any respect for Elon Musk with the Trumpian downplaying tactics he’s employing right now. It’s very irresponsible.

With that said, the piece on why this crisis should be used to transform the economy by the authors of “A Planet to Win” is a must-read. The past week has shown that the levels of spending and state action we were told weren’t realistic or possible are now happening — just to retain the status quo instead of fundamentally altering it. Plus, I recommend the excerpt from Nicole Aschoff’s book, Lizzie O’Shea on ‘unskilled’ work, tech hating history, Aaron Gordon on U.S. transit construction, and the backlash to highway expansions.

Stay safe and try not to spread this virus — but feel free to spread the newsletter!


P.S. — If you like this issue, press the heart below the title or at the end of the issue.

Rachel Maddow had a really informative interview with Donald McNeil, NYT’s science and health reporter, who explained why China’s COVID-19 response was so effective and why family self-isolation has risks we don’t currently seem to be considering in North America.

Obviously, I can’t recap everything on COVID-19 here, nor am I an expert. However, I do want to draw attention to a few news stories which caught my attention:

  • After being criticized for speaking about a ‘herd immunity’ strategy that would require 40-60% of the population to be infected and potentially collapse the NHS, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his government seem to be preparing sweeping measures that would include four months of isolation for the elderly, forced requisition of private hospitals and hotels, emergency manufacture of respirators, and the closure of schools with minimal staff kept on to care for the children of emergency workers.

  • After injecting $1.5 trillion into financial markets for a temporary bump, even CNBC’s Jim Cramer agrees with Elizabeth Warren that student debt should be canceled (it would cost $1.5 trillion). And Newt Gingrich is calling for a WWII- style mobilization against the coronavirus, despite Republicans saying a similar program against climate change was crazy. As Donald Trump fails to address the crisis, Joe Biden’s response has been underwhelming, while Bernie Sanders has illustrated why his platform (and approach to politics) is essential. The Democrats passed a coronavirus bill, but it only gives sick pay to 20% of Americans.

  • Canada is placing limitations on travel and provinces are starting to close public facilities. The government is also preparing a stimulus package to assist businesses and provide “income support” to people — though it remains to be seen what exactly that will look like and whether it will be designed in a forward-thinking way (seems unlikely). Unlike the United States, Canada does seem to be adequately testing people suspected of having COVID-19.

  • COVID-19 has spread quickly in Iran, with a rising death toll. Part of the problem was a lack of preparedness by officials, but the country’s efforts are also hampered by heavy U.S. sanctions, leading U.S Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and President Hassan Rouhani to call for them to be lifted.

News roundup

🚨✊ Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen, and Thea Riofrancos, authors of “A Planet to Win,” make the case for using this crisis to fundamentally overhaul the economy: “Political change is uneven and multifaceted. There are long slogs of workaday organizing, sudden bursts of acceleration when opportunities appear, slow grinds of governance, defeats that send us back to the drawing board, and moments of rupture when everything is up for grabs. Right now, we’re in one of those rare times when sharp, structural change is possible in the heat of the crisis. We’re not in the position we hoped we’d be a few weeks ago. But we can’t let it slip away regardless.”

Tech dystopia

“Business insiders say they are valuable because of their network potential. This is true, but also obfuscatory. Instagram’s or WhatsApp’s value, just like the value of so many other tech companies, is in the unpaid work they command, their ability to appropriate life — your life.” An excerpt from Nicole Aschoff’s new book, “The Smartphone Society” (I haven’t read it yet, but looking forward to it):

The appropriation of unpaid work isn’t new. In Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici illuminates how, in the long transition from feudalism to capitalism, women’s unpaid labor became concealed, transforming the process of accumulation, and thus power relations for both men and women.

In the development of the digital frontier, we are once again seeing a redefinition of life activities and the emergence of new power dynamics. In the making of the digital frontier, a new combination of appropriation and exploitation has been formulated, a model that has generated unimaginable wealth for the tech titans.

Once again, we are witnessing the concealment of unpaid, appropriated work. Except today, it’s not just women’s work that is being appropriated, being made to appear as a natural resource, a “labor of love.” It is all of our work — the hours we spend every day on our smartphones creating content and generating data through our constant connection to our hand machines. In these hours, our lives become ever more deeply enmeshed in the circuits of capital. Our appropriated work, and our digital selves more broadly, are the key to the digital frontier.

🦠🙄 After declaring “the coronavirus panic is dumb,” unparalleled genius Elon Musk sent a memo to all SpaceX employees downplaying the growing threat of COVID-19: “As a basis for comparison, the risk of death from C19 is *vastly* less than the risk of death from driving your car home. There are about 36 thousand automotive deaths per deaths [sic], as compared to 36 so far this year for C19.” It’s further proof that we should all be more critical about what Musk says on topics he doesn’t actually know much about — including the future of urban transportation.

👩‍⚕️👨‍🔧 Lizzie O’Shea breaks down our misconceptions about ‘unskilled’ work: “We are told these jobs are unskilled, but the work is actually skilled; we are told it is often pointless and superfluous, and yet many workers find it to be meaningful. Unskilled jobs may be miserable and alienating, but it is the task of critical thinkers to ask: To what extent is this a regrettable, inevitable reality rather than a socially constructed phenomenon? To what extent does the category of unskilled work bolster the idea that we live in a meritocracy and therefore justify egregious exploitation? If the meritocracy is illusory, then so is the idea of unskilled work.”

🚗😷 Safety drivers for Waymo’s autonomous taxi service feel they’re being put at risk as the company expects them to keep reporting for work: “It feels like the drivers are treated like second class citizens, having to report to work and serve ‘hails’ while the full-time employees are required to work from home to stay safe. Safety for some.”

📚 Why does tech hate history? “If the past has no relevance, everything is innovation. […] This anti-history bias is not merely a curious quirk of a group of people that has drastically shaped the modern world. It is a foundational principle.”

Critical urbanism

🇺🇸🚇 Aaron Gordon dissects why the U.S. sucks at building transit, and the problem goes right to the top: “Ultimately, this is not about trains and buses. This is about a political system uninterested in reform, a system unconcerned with fixing what’s broken. If we can understand how politics failed American transportation systems, perhaps we can make the solution part of broader reform that must occur if American government is to start addressing the needs of the people in all aspects of life, from health care to criminal justice to housing to employment law to digital privacy to climate change.”

🇨🇦🚄 Canada’s public rail company, Via Rail, is struggling due to delays and low ridership because the tracks it uses are owned by a private company that gives freight priority. The government is considering a plan for Via to build its own tracks between Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal-Quebec City, but it’s not clear if that will be enough to revive it. CN Rail, which owns the tracks used by Via, was privatized in 1995 and, as of 2011, Bill Gates was its largest single shareholder.

🦠🇪🇺 As Europe shuts down schools, bans large gatherings, and takes even more extreme measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19, even neoliberal French President Emmanuel Macron says, “There are goods and services that must be placed outside the laws of the market. To delegate our food, our protection, our ability to care, our living environment, basically to others, is madness. What this pandemic is already revealing is that free health care [and] our welfare state are not costs or charges, but precious goods, essential assets when fate strikes.”

🦠🏘 “While infectious disease spreads faster where people are more densely clustered — hence the strategy of social distancing to contain the coronavirus — that doesn’t necessarily make suburban or rural areas safer, health experts say.”

🚫🛣 Laura Bliss details the growing U.S. backlash to highway expansion, with a focus on how the new age of freeway revolts is playing out in Houston and Portland

🚇🚲 New York City transit ridership is declining as COVID-19 spreads, but more in wealthier neighborhoods than poorer ones. Meanwhile, bike ridership is surging: Citi Bike is up 67% y/y and traffic on bridges from Manhattan to Queens and Brooklyn is up 50% y/y.

🇬🇧🌳 All the trees in London don’t just look nice. They reduce the need for air conditioning in the summer, and increase productivity because summer temperatures are more bearable.

🦠🇮🇹🇺🇸 As part of Italy’s coronavirus response, people won’t have to pay their mortgages. Some U.S. cities are banning evictions.

Climate crisis

📺🦠 Why won’t the media cover climate change like COVID-19? “More than 3,000 people have succumbed to coronavirus yet, according to the World Health Organization, air pollution alone – just one aspect of our central planetary crisis – kills seven million people every year. […] Urgent action to prevent a pandemic is of course necessary and pressing. But the climate crisis represents a far graver and deadlier existential threat, and yet the same sense of urgency is absent.”

🌎 “Climate dystopia isn’t the immeasurable winds or the towering infernos erasing entire cities. It’s the fact that when these things happen, we choose not to change. And that is a dystopia that could end any time we want it to.” — Eric Holthaus

🇮🇹🏭 Air pollution and GHG emissions plummeted in Italy after strict measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 were implemented

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North America can have a little high-speed rail, as a treat

Issue 127

Hey urbanists,

I should be done my Master’s thesis in the next couple of days — then just a few rounds of edits and I never have to think about it again. 🎉 I’ve also been wondering what to do next (see this week’s [picture-heavy] essay for some thoughts inspired by that). Over the next month and a half, I’ll be in Montreal, Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and likely Denver and Los Angeles. Feel free to reach out if you want to chat.

I recently read Joanne McNeil’s “Lurking,” which I highly recommend, and now I’ve moved on to Chris Carlsson’s “Hidden San Francisco.”

This week, I recommend the highlighted story on plastics most of all, but also really liked those about automated management (with a caveat), Ring doorbell abuse, how the rich are responding to coronavirus, why cities aren’t labs for smart tech, and the infiltrated Shell meeting.

Have a great week!


P.S. — Press the heart below the title or at the end of the issue if you liked it.

High-speed rail, pretty please?

Over the past week, I’ve been looking at flights and trains as I consider my route for the next few months, coronavirus be damned, and I’m so sad/frustrated that there’s no high-speed rail in North America (don’t come at me about Acela, it’s not fast enough and they just cut it back until May anyway). Specifically, I was looking at Portland to San Francisco — 2-hour flight vs 19-hour train — and San Francisco to Denver — 3-hour flight vs 33-hour train. Why can’t North Americans have nice things?

(Yes, I know the answer is “neoliberalism hollowed out public budgets with tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefited the rich and large corporations.” Big thanks to Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan for kicking off that shitstorm.)

Alternative link if the tweet doesn’t work.

Anyway, thinking about that reminded me of a little rabbit hole I went down a few weeks ago where I discovered this beautiful map of U.S. rail lines in 1918. So many!

But that was, of course, whittled down over the following century to the sorry state of the railways that we have in North America today, most of which are for freight transportation, and where passenger rail does exist, it has few exclusive corridors. Most of the time it shares with freight, and has lower priority, leading to delays if freight trains need to use them.

But what might a North America high-speed rail network look like, if our politicians someday escape the neoliberal curse and realize — wow! — the government can actually do things once again?

The Obama White House put out the following map as part of a plan to build high-speed rail with stimulus funds in 2009, which would have some key segments throughout the country with great connections down the East coast. As you may have noticed, those segments don’t exist today — the California line is still being built — because, as usual, the Democrats didn’t actually fight very hard to get it done. Thanks Obama.

A similar plan by America 2050 for a Trans-American Passenger Network adds a few more segments, but not enough to add another image (clickthrough if you want to see it). One of my favorites, however, was designed by Alfred Twu with plenty of long-distance (but sorta messy) high-speed lines, which I feel is essential to getting people to really consider trains for longer journeys. That will become more important in the coming years to cut emissions by making flying more expensive through shifting subsidies from planes to trains, if not banning some of it altogether. Twu also, notably, includes high-speed rail from Windsor, Ontario to Quebec City (which would obviously have to be owned by the Government of Canada).

So anyway, I’m here, considering how I’m going to cross these long distances, dreaming of a high-speed rail future, but sadly accepting the reality that I’m likely going to still be spending some time in the cattle cars of modern aviation for quite a while to come. Workers of the world, unite, we have a train network (and a lot more) to win!

News roundup

🚨🥤 “When people in the global north throw something ‘away,’ much of it ends up in the global south because there is no such thing as ‘away.’” Tim Dickinson digs into the plastics industry for Rolling Stone, explaining how recycling is basically useless, the oil industry is doubling down on plastics production, and all that plastic is creating health and environmental crises that we really don’t know the extent of.

Big Plastic isn’t a single entity. It’s more like a corporate supergroup: Big Oil meets Big Soda — with a puff of Big Tobacco, responsible for trillions of plastic cigarette butts in the environment every year. And it combines the lobbying and public-relations might of all three. […]

When it comes to plastic, recycling is a misnomer. […] Since 1950, the world has created 6.3 trillion kilograms of plastic waste — and 91 percent has never been recycled even once […] Unlike aluminum, which can be recycled again and again, plastic degrades in reprocessing, and is almost never recycled more than once. […]

American fracking is literally fueling the global surge in plastics. […] Since 2010, according to the [American Chemistry Council], U.S. companies have ramped up “334 chemical and plastics projects cumulatively valued at $204 billion.” Europe has built new plastics plants fed by fracked U.S. exports.

Tech dystopia

🤖👨‍💼 Josh Dzezia writes for The Verge about how despite all the fears about the automation of jobs, what’s really happening (at least in the short-term) is the automation of management, and that means more surveillance of workers that leads everything they do to be tracked and much more pressure to perform tasks in shorter and shorter periods of time. This not only makes jobs like those in warehouses, call centers, and software development more demoralizing, and potentially more dangerous, but robs workers of their autonomy. However, note how Dzezia frames the story (as pointed out by Wendy Liu and Brian Merchant): it’s all about automated management and the effect on workers; there’s little mention of the bosses implementing those technologies and profiting from the harm they’re inflicting on workers as a result. It’s a typical blind spot of tech media.

🇺🇸🗳 There a massive political divide between the bosses and the workers in Silicon Valley. Workers at most tech companies are most likely to donate to Bernie Sanders, the only exceptions being those at Twitter, who donated most to Elizabeth Warren, and Netflix, where Pete Buttigieg was the favorite. Amazon’s warehouse workers, in particular, overwhelmingly support Sanders. Yet elites and venture capitalists say they’d likely back Donald Trump over Sanders. In Tuesday’s Democratic primary in California, this trend was reflected in the votes.

👏 “Allowing people who share responsibility for our tech dystopia to keep control of the narrative means we never get to the bottom of how and why we got here, and we artificially narrow the possibilities for where we go next. And centering people who were insiders before and claim to be leading the outsiders now doesn’t help the overall case for tech accountability. It just reinforces the industry’s toxic dynamic that some people are worth more than others, that power is its own justification.”

👁 “Customers who bought the cameras in hopes of not becoming victims joke that instead they’ve become voyeurs.” Drew Harwell writes in the Washington Post about how Nest and Ring cameras are causing homeowners to surveil people in and around their homes without telling them, perceive normal things as threats, and rob children of what little autonomy they have left. One woman put it well: “We’re all getting too paranoid. Everybody thinks they’re going to be the next victim. And it’s set into us this mentality that we have to watch everything and everybody. They think, ‘If I put all these cameras up, I’ll be safe.’ Safe from what? … It’s only making them more afraid.”

🇺🇸📦 “Amazon warehouses have uniquely high rates of turnover for the warehouse industry.[…] Between 2011—the year the first fulfillment center opened in California— and 2017, the turnover rate in five counties with Amazon warehouses leaped from 38 percent to 100 percent, according to the report. In other words, more warehouse workers departed from their jobs each year in counties with an Amazon presence than the total number of warehouse jobs.”

🦠 “The rich are sparing no expense when it comes to minimizing their experience with the coronavirus.” Private flights, yacht vacations, exclusive hospital rooms, luxury bunkers — the rich are making sure they separate themselves from regular people.

Critical urbanism

😷🚇 Don’t let the coronavirus make you scared of public transit. “Not only is public transportation probably not where people are actually getting sick, but avoiding it—or, in extreme cases, limiting service—has serious consequences in the health care community’s ability to respond to such pandemics. Health care workers often rely on public transportation to get to work, and have cited unreliable transportation as a major source of absenteeism during pandemics, which strains hospital resources when they need workers the most.”

🌇👁 “The city is not a lab; it is not the public’s interest to subsidize private companies’ experiments with little to no oversight. (To say nothing of constructing a surveillance state.) Even major consultancies such as Deloitte have found that most smart cities have failed to improve people’s lives, despite costing governments tens of billions of dollars.”

🇺🇸🚄 Clare Coffey makes the case for trains: fast ones, slow ones, all of them. “Tough luck, budget hawks: civilization costs money. The aim should be to increase use, not cut costs. And since competitive speed is out of the question, the focus should be on reliability and comfort.”

🇸🇪🛴 Stockholm considered making a combined fare for public transit and e-scooters, but found the price would have to double and the number of e-scooter rides would still be limited to three or four per day. It’s way too expensive.

🏙🤝 Joshua Freeman explains how Bernie Sanders’ experience growing up in New York City helped inspire his support for democratic socialism. “Mid-20th-century New York had serious flaws, including poverty, economic inequality (though not as bad as today), and racial and gender discrimination. But it stands as an example of what can be done when the power of government is combined with a capacious vision of human rights, equality, and democracy. It is this that Bernie Sanders refers to when he calls himself a ‘democratic socialist’. We could do a lot worse.”

🇺🇸🏘 Alissa Walker compares the housing plans released by Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders

Climate crisis

🛢🤔 Malcolm Harris was invited to a private Shell planning meeting and didn’t have to sign an NDA, so he wrote an article about it. “These companies aren’t planning for a future without oil and gas, at least not anytime soon, but they want the public to think of them as part of a climate solution. In reality, they’re a problem trying to avoid being solved.”

🇺🇸🏚 “Funded by the federal government, local governments in coastal states are buying out thousands of homes in vulnerable areas every year, reshaping and breaking up communities as they go. In their wake, the departed residents of these communities have left what may be the country’s first climate ghost towns, abandoned places made uninhabitable by the warming of the planet.” [Elizabeth Rush wrote an excellent book called “Rising” that touches on this.]

🌊😬 New study finds “the coral species that are bleaching and dying are hauntingly similar to the ones that vanished in the last mass extinction 66 million years ago” and that “the modern corals that are still thriving—those that form small colonies, favor deep water and thrive in a variety of locales—are the same ones that ‘hopped over’ the extinction boundary millions of years ago and survived.”

🚫🛢💰 “In the 2018 study, emissions reductions from subsidy removal were calculated by the researchers to be five hundred million to two billion metric tons of carbon dioxide per year by 2030. This figure is by no means ‘small’. It amounts to roughly one quarter of the energy-related emission reductions pledged by all of the countries participating in the Paris Agreement.”

🌳 “Tropical forests are taking up less carbon dioxide from the air, reducing their ability to act as ‘carbon sinks’ and bringing closer the prospect of accelerating climate breakdown.” Simon Lewis, professor in the school of geography at Leeds University, says, “We’ve found that one of the most worrying impacts of climate change has already begun. This is decades ahead of even the most pessimistic climate models.”

🇨🇦🛢 “After years of fossil fuels subsidies, government intervention is now necessary to quickly build a clean energy production and distribution infrastructure sufficiently large enough to get all of Canada off fossil fuels.”

🇦🇺🔥 Thought the recent fires in Australia were bad? A new analysis suggests conditions like those in 2019-2020 could become up to eight times more likely in 2ºC warmer world.

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Tech billionaires won't save the planet

Issue 126

Paris Marx

Hey urbanists,

I’m in the home stretch with this Master’s thesis, but it’s getting increasingly difficult to motivate myself to keep going. About another week, and I think it should be pretty much done. I did get the unfortunate news yesterday that I technically won’t graduate until the fall, which was a bit of a letdown, but I’ll survive.

I don’t have an essay this week; instead I have an article for NBC News that I wrote in between all this thesis work. I hope you like it!

Of the articles in this week’s issue, I want to recommend those on predatory lending in Kenya, how billionaires’ space visions are changing movies, ride-hailing pollution, unsafe Autopilot, landlord tech, and the environmental and social crises in Chile. I also included a short tweet video at the end of a new British Labour MP who I’m really liking because she’s drawing attention to how big business influences politicians.

Have a great week!


P.S. — If you like the issue, press the heart below the title or at the end of the newsletter.

🌎✊ By Paris:Jeff Bezos' climate change philanthropy has quite a few (hidden) strings attached” (NBC News THINK): “The truth is that, in the face of a challenge as immense as climate change, government action is necessary if we want to ensure that our planet remains livable for future generations. […] The highways, the suburbs and the victory against the Nazis — just to provide a few examples — are products not of the private sector but of government action.”

Tech dystopia

🇰🇪📱 “It’s as if they know an African has no options.” Tech startups offering high-interest loans through apps have flooded in Kenya. Tala’s founder was feted by investors and philanthropists, but her company traps Kenyans in a cycle of debt with interest rates of 180% and debt collectors who say they’re pushed to aggressively retrieve the money or they’ll be fired. Silicon Valley loves it because the company requires borrowers to give them all the data on their phone, regardless of whether they’re approved. “App-based lending has become synonymous in Kenya with predatory practices, much like payday lending in the U.S. About 2.5 million people have been reported to credit reference bureaus by digital lenders.”

🇨🇦✊As a result of a decision by the Ontario Labour Relations Board, Foodora couriers have won the right to join a union. The Board also determined that couriers are not independent contractors, but dependent contractors, given that they can be deactivated based on performance, do not set their own pay rates, are not given the opportunity to negotiate a contract, cannot make their own agreements with restaurants and customers, and Foodora controls their shifts.

🎬🚀 Marta Troicka argues tech billionaires’ musings about living in space have changed the kind of space movies that get made — and they’re not nearly as good. “These movies all take the human move towards space as a given, an inevitable part of natural progress. Yet, while we are not technologically capable of this move yet, the truth is that we are even less morally prepared to do so.”

📱🦠 How might the gig economy respond to the coronavirus? “Crossbreeding this disease with the nation’s platform economy might mean that the rich will shelter in place, safe and sound, while the poor troll through the streets, taking their chances for a necessary payday.”

🎬📱 Knives Out director Rian Johnson revealed that Apple won’t let bad guys use iPhones in movies

🚗😕 Uber and Lyft want to put ads on top of their drivers’ vehicles

Critical urbanism

📱🏭 Uber and Lyft generate an estimated 70% more pollution than the trips they replace. Ban them.

🚫🏠 “The reign of the single-family home is over. Whatever its habitable charms and nostalgic appeal, the single-family home is out of step with the future.”

🚗💥 NTSB investigators found that Tesla’s Autopilot was partially responsible for a fatal crash in 2018. They further said that reliance on cameras (without LIDAR) has limits, Tesla’s method of sensing whether a driver is holding the wheel isn’t sufficient, that the vehicle didn’t alter the driver of impending impact, and that the driver was overconfident in Autopilot’s capabilities. The NTSB has now asked the NHTSA to evaluate the limits of Autopilot and use its regulatory powers to ensure Tesla acts.

🇬🇧🚌 U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson is promising other cities and towns around England will have greater power to regulate and control their bus services, which London has had for decades. But the details remain scant, and few cities have announced an intent to use them.

🇦🇺🚌🚇 Transit ridership in Sydney was forecast to grow 26% between 2011 and 2031 — but there were already “93 million more trips taken on buses and trains last year” than was forecast for 2031. There’s crowding on many services because adequate investments were not made, and one of the city’s signature projects, the Sydney Metro, has had its projected cost increase A$4.3 billion to A$16.8 billion.

🇱🇺🚌 Public transit in Luxembourg was made free as of Saturday, with the exception of first-class train travel and some night buses

💻🏠 New tech makes it easier for landlords to sue and evict their tenants. What’s that about tech making the world a better place?

🚫🚗 Taking cars off Market Street in San Francisco made transit faster and more reliable. Who could’ve guessed?

Michael Hertz, who played an integral role in the design of New York City’s subway map, died at the age of 87

Climate crisis

🇬🇧👨‍⚖️ The third runway at London’s Heathrow airport has been ruled to be illegal by the court of appeals because of the government’s climate commitments. “The court’s ruling is the first in the world to be based on the Paris agreement and may have an impact both in the UK and around the globe by inspiring challenges against other high carbon projects.”

🇨🇱✊ “Various ills converge in Til Til: severe attacks on the environment provoked by a high concentration of industrial activity, locals’ degraded health, trying socio-economic conditions, and a lack of access to mechanisms for citizen participation. These Sacrifice Zones are emblematic of a development model that was established under Chile’s dictatorship, and that was reinforced when the country returned to democracy. Such spaces illustrate the limits of a development model that now prompts feelings of injustice and anger across the country. Social and economic issues, employment, precariousness and health issues have become intertwined with the environmental crisis.”

🇨🇦🌍 “The Trudeau government, like the Harper regime, continues to defend the profits of a few wealthy owners of mining corporations who steal from Africans. Meanwhile, hundreds of millions continue to face the social and environmental impacts of resource extraction, without the supposed economic benefits mining and foreign investment are said to bring.”

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