EVs aren’t enough, WeWork exposes Uber, auto ‘safety’ systems not safe, Airbnb hikes rents, & more!

Issue 106

Hey urbanists,

I switched around the sections a bit this week. If you’ve been following for a while, you’ll know I’m concerned about how EVs are shifting us from fossil fuel extraction to mineral extraction. That’s the focus of the article I highlighted — though I’m not sure the outright rejection of the Green New Deal is the proper response, as they suggest.

There are so many other great pieces in this issue. Scott Galloway skewers WeWork and Uber, data is the new atomic power, WW2 as inspiration for climate action, new auto safety systems aren’t very safe, a B.C. union wants the province to learn from AB-5, car tires produce a ton of microplastics, Airbnb hiked rents in Barcelona, and tech organizing has a rich history.

I rewatched the Blade Runner films in the past few days, and I was really struck by how much Niander Wallace’s description of his work and the world of 2049 reminded me of Jeff Bezos’ vision for the future. I’ve written about Bezos’ future before, but now I want to find a place to publish this comparison.

I’m in Auckland for another couple days, then I’ll be in Melbourne to attend PAX Australia as a member of ~the media~. I’m considering holding some Radical Urbanist meetups in Canada and Europe in November/early December, and possibly in the United States and Canada in the new year. If you want to attend, complete this one-minute survey so I can gauge whether there’s enough interest.


P.S. — If you’re getting this newsletter for the first time, welcome! I neglected to transfer the subscribers from the form on my website — parismarx.com — over the past couple months, just in case you don’t remember signing up. The newsletter has now passed 900 subscribers, and we’re well on our way to hitting 1000 by year’s end. Finally, just a reminder that if you like the issue, press the heart below the headline or at the end of the issue. Thanks!

🔋 The Center for Interdisciplinary Environmental Justice describes how the electric vehicle revolution hailed in the Global North is terrible for indigenous communities in South America as lithium mining increases. Their slogan: “No comemos baterías — we don’t eat batteries.” Does it make sense to shift from one extractivism to another when we could reject automobility and improve our societies in so many other ways?

Current efforts to use electric vehicles to transition to a ‘zero-emission’ world reduce climate change to an emissions issue, without stopping the extraction and oppression that are the causes of climate change. […] A new wave of eco-exploitation threatens the Lickan Antay and the Kolla. This time the familiar mining industry is cloaked in the facade of sustainability, promoting the large-scale extraction of one finite natural resource to replace another. In today’s bustling green economy, the exploitation of Indigenous territories in the Altiplano is driven by the lust for lithium: the new “sustainable” fuel. […] The movement to protect planet Earth from the environmental and human costs of lithium batteries has the potential to unite marginalized people of color and Indigenous peoples across the world.

Tech dystopia

💡🔨 Tech-utopian blindness is to blame for many negative outcomes of the tech industry. Engineers with little interest in the arts believed new communication tools were always good for society, but historian Elizabeth Eisenstein wrote that the printing press produced significant “disinformation or propaganda” in the early days and its initial impacts “included heightened ethnic tensions, the spread of medical misinformation, and about a century’s worth of European religious wars.” Gabriella Coleman notes a glaring omission: the role of media in boosting tech determinism.

💥 NYU’s Scott Galloway: “Uber started the decline and WeWork has massively increased the momentum. […] after WeWork and Uber, there’s two types of companies in the unicorn space: ones that are overvalued and ones that are just going to zero.” WeWork’s mask is off after a “death by S-1” that hurt employees and investors, but spared Adam Neumann (who made a quarter billion dollars) or retail investors who’d’ve been hit had the IPO gone ahead. “‪Whereas Uber, the consensual hallucination continues. They have to maintain the illusion of growth. They have to maintain the growth story. Without the growth story, they’re worth 20% of what they’re worth now. I think that chops off 50-80% in the next 25 months.”‬

📉 “We need to ship more quickly and operate more effectively and efficiently than we are today.” After a terrible IPO, Uber has cut more than 800 jobs, reined in spending on research, reduced perks, and (gasp!) replaced craft coffee with Starbucks. Uber and Lyft hit record lows on the stock market.

💰 As A.I. research gets more expensive, universities can’t keep up with the tech giants. “The danger, [researchers] say, is that pioneering artificial intelligence research will be a field of haves and have-nots. And the haves will be mainly a few big tech companies like Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook, which each spend billions a year building out their data centers.” This kind of research should be done by and for the public, not controlled by tech monopolies.

⚛️ Is data really “the new oil,” as many commentators have said? In “The New Dark Age,” James Bridle argues it’s actually the new atomic power: “an effectively unlimited resource that still contains immensely destructive power, and is even more explicitly connected than petroleum to histories of violence.”

👩‍⚖️ In leaked audio, CEO Mark Zuckerberg says he’d challenge (and win) any attempt to break up Facebook. Elizabeth Warren responded that a system that allows Facebook to “engage in illegal anticompetitive practices, stomp on consumer privacy rights, and repeatedly fumble their responsibility to protect our democracy” is a broken one. While I’m supportive of breaking up tech, her suggestion that simply having Facebook and Instagram compete will solve these problems doesn’t hold up.

⚖️ Lina Khan’s “Sources of Tech Platform Power” provides a framework to rein in dominant tech platforms: common carriage rules, limits on vertical integration, and halting and undoing acquisitions. It’s a good complement to Dan Hind’s “British Digital Cooperative,” which lays out a model for digital platforms and software that are publicly developed with democratic control. (See my Twitter thread for highlights.)

🤔 Mariana Mazzucato says we need to stop saying “tech giants” (I’m guilty) because it “implies they have invested in the technologies from which they are profiting, when it was really taxpayers who funded the key underlying technologies – from the Internet to GPS.” Instead, government should develop its own platforms “to improve the efficiency of the public sector and to democratize the platform economy.”

👨‍🔧 “Many modern multinationals in cities across the globe are now staffed by what amounts to a two-tier workforce. Employees enjoy protected employment advantages, while the outsourced people who keep the workspaces running often have more precarious roles with inferior terms and conditions.”

🇺🇸 U.S. Congress will probe how Amazon, Facebook, and Google have hurt small businesses. It will likely focus most on Amazon’s impact on small sellers. Comcast has also intervened to argue for antitrust action against Google, but it should be subject to antitrust scrutiny itself.

📱 A Google contractor explicitly targeted homeless people to get data for its facial recognition system

Climate crisis

⏱ “Capitalism, it seems, lacks the attention span required for survival.” In an excerpt from “Democracy May Not Exist But We’ll Miss it When It’s Gone” (US/UK), Astra Taylor argues climate action is our responsibility to future generations, but that the system makes that near impossible because it privileges the present over the future.

🇨🇦 Seth Klein is writing a book on how Canada’s WW2 mobilization could inspire climate action. He describes key takeaways, including the need for state planning, in a North99 podcast interview. “The leaders that we remember from WW2 didn’t actually ‘meet the public where they were at’; they took the public where they had to go.”

📉 Samuel Miller McDonald makes the case for going beyond growth: “the left should be monopolizing a controlled and deliberate degrowth strategy because if it doesn’t do it, the rich and their authoritarian, ideological vanguard will. And it will be ugly.” Christopher F. Jones explains the “fairytale of infinite growth is relatively recent. Economists have only begun to model never-ending growth over the last 75 years. Before that, they had ignored the topic for a century. And before that, they had believed in limits.”

😬 If you went to university, you likely read “The Tragedy of the Commons.” But you might not know that author Garrett Hardin was “an ardent nativist and eugenicist,” and his writings are some of the key texts for a growing group of ecofascists.

♻️ The plastics industry has worked for decades to blame pollution on individual consumers instead of producers. I was fascinated to learn that the recycling symbol was designed by a student for a corporate contest in 1970, and that after decades of recycling promotion, U.S. plastics recycling peaked at just 9.5%. (Read the full story.)

🐖 The African swine fever sweeping across Asia has killed more than 100 million pigs, and hundreds of millions more are expected to be killed by the end of the year. On a less depressing note, pigs have been observed using tools for the first time.

🥤 New research suggests microplastics could have a significant impact on the formation of Arctic sea ice

❄️ The loss of Arctic sea ice is having a terrible impact on polar bears

Critical mobility

🚁 Voom will let well-off people in the Bay Area book helicopter rides through an app to escape congestion. A pilot told Laura Bliss that a single trip burns 10 gallons (38 liters) of fuel. Uber is doing something similar in NYC. I’m not even joking when I say these services should be banned. Fix the streets; don’t let rich people opt out.

🚨 AAA tested four vehicles with high-tech safety systems, including a Tesla Model 3, to see how safe they really were. The results were alarming. In daylight hours while driving at 20 mph (32 km/h), they struck adult-sized dummies crossing the street 60% of the time and child-sized dummies 89% of the time.

🤦‍♀️ How many articles have you read about cities needing to plan for self-driving cars eradicating parking revenue? I’m so fed up. AVs are decades away (if ever) from a mass rollout that would have a significant impact, and they’re not even the solution. What we need is to reorient cities around transit, bikes, and pedestrians. That will also eradicate parking revenue, but where’s all the hand wringing about it?

📱 Privately owned mobility-as-a-service apps Transit and Lyft are bickering over access to data and transport services. I can’t help but feel that Transit should be nationalized and form the base of a public transport-planning and transit-booking app that works with local transit agencies to bring together the various services in their jurisdictions, while remaining convenient for traveling users.

🇨🇦 Ride-hailing services will soon start rolling out in British Columbia. Inspired by California’s AB-5, the B.C. Federation of Labour, which represents 500,000 workers, “is asking the province’s ride-sharing regulator to only grant licences to companies that promise to treat drivers as employees, rather than the ‘independent contractors’ giants like Uber and Lyft have long argued they are.”

🇺🇸 “On October 3, the previously stalled 14th Street busway was installed after the state’s appellate division overturned a previous stay. Walking down the street on opening day, the blissfully empty corridor provided a glimpse of the future. […] Buses whisked down the open road so quickly that it seems likely the MTA will have to do a schedule adjustment.” San Francisco’s Market Street could also soon be closed to cars.

🚗 Switching to EVs isn’t enough: microplastics washed into San Francisco Bay from car tires is “300 times greater than what comes from microfibers washing off polyester clothes, microbeads from beauty products and the many other plastics washing down our sinks and sewers.”

🥵 Painting roads white is supposed to reduce temperatures in warming cities, but new research shows that “on a hot, dry day, a person could feel more than 7 degrees warmer on a ‘cool pavement’, as the reflective roads are called, as opposed to a normal blacktop.”

The warmer feeling, Middel says, is almost entirely attributable to solar radiation reflected off the roads. Normally, asphalt sucks it in, and it dissipates slowly into the air. These roads, however, reflected it back at a rate of 130 watts per square meter—akin to adding 10 percent more direct sunlight. That reflection was visible as glare, which was “really big” in the early evening, she says, just as people were getting home from work.

☠️ Allison Arieff writes that automobiles are “death machines” and making them autonomous won’t change that. She presents stories by people hit by cars, and wonders if that’s a way to get support for change. The War on Cars did two episodes on public meetings, one where they call for diplomacy and another where they admit that might not always work.

🇬🇧 U.K. Greens want to scrap £6.5 billion ($8 billion) planned for road construction and instead use it to fund free buses. They also want to ban ads for cars and flights — a policy I love as long as we also consider how that will impact journalism. It could be used to rethink media funding models.

📇 I don’t care much for the VC end of the ‘micromobility’ market, but Micromobility Industries has a good graphic of the major companies operating in the space

🛴 Rollout of Lime and Bird in Canada is encouraging people to buy their own e-scooters. “It’s a classic ‘try before you buy’.”

Housing crisis

🇪🇸 Working paper on Airbnb’s impact on housing in Barcelona finds “rents have increased by 1.9%, while transaction (posted) prices have increased by 5.3% (3.7%),” but in high-tourism areas, “rents are estimated to have increased by as much as 7%, while increases in transaction and posted prices are as high as 19% and 14%” [PDF]

🇩🇰 Denmark’s left-wing government called out Blackstone for buying up rental properties, driving up rents, and making it more difficult for low-income people to remain in Copenhagen. They’re planning new laws to address the situation.

🇺🇸 Data for Progress’ assessment of Bernie Sanders’ housing plan finds it would “construct 7.4 million new homes for extremely low-income Americans and 2 million additional mixed-income homes to ensure economic integration of social housing”

🇬🇧 Homeless deaths soared 22% in 2018 across England and Wales, and they’re expected to be even higher in 2019. This is a crisis; what are politicians doing about it?

🏠 Dodgy landlords aren’t just a problem for young people. A growing number of middle-aged renters are also having trouble finding decent accommodation that lets them live their lives and provide stability for their children.

Other great reads

📺 The media we consume has a significant impact on how we perceive the world: “What television programmes tell audiences about class plays out beyond the box, crossing the porous screen boundary into real-world beliefs, social exchanges and the structuring of society.”

✊ Worker organizing in the tech industry is being treated as a unique development, but a new article in Science for the People explains it’s reminiscent of a wave of unionization by technical workers spurred by the demonstrations in 1968. In that case, their focus went beyond wages and benefits to also demand greater autonomy, more control over their workplace, and the dismantling of corporate hierarchies.

🕵️‍♂️ Incredible report by Ryan Mac and Mark Di Stefano details how Elon Musk hired a private investigator after calling the British cave diver “pedo guy” — but he was a fraud who fed Musk what he wanted to hear and is currently back in prison serving the rest of a sentence for defrauding the company he cofounded.

💸 40% of corporate profits are shifted to tax havens every year. A new tool from the UC Berkeley and UCPH shows how much lost revenue that accounts for in major countries around the world.

🇹🇭 Thailand may copy Indonesia and move its capital from Bangkok because of congestion, overcrowding, and rising sea levels. But that won’t actually solve the problem for the millions who live there.

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