Bike Riding to the Airport: Alternative Carbon Offset? (Part 1)

This morning I caught a 7am flight to Perth for the ‘Shakespeare and Emotions’ conference at UWA. The abundance of interstate and international travel involved in academic pursuits is one of the more enviable aspects of the field. But such travel, as requisite for career development, is problematic if you travel to the other side of the world in order to deliver a 20-minute work-in-progress paper on culture, climate crisis and environmentalism, as I have done. That aside, when contemplating how to get to the airport from our new digs in Earlwood this morning, the idea of bike riding seemed the most logical. Train would require a bag-laden hike to Tempe and a train change at Wolli Creek and an exorbitant fare for very short ride. And a Taxi would require booking and money and the stress of traffic. But my bike was just sitting on the balcony, leaning sweetly against the wall, as if patiently waiting for me to ask it to take me to the airport. The only other time I have ridden near the airport was on the all-night summer solstice ride in 2009 when we went up and around all the empty airport roads at about 3.30am. But we can see the runway from our house on the hill and virtually ride across the runway on our way to UNSW. Surely one of the perks of living within spitting distance of the airport is that you can ride right to the departure gate, right? The pundits on the Sydney Cyclist website were undecided. But I found one strikingly affirmative review, which was enough to cancel out all of the negative ones.

Long Term Parking at the Domestic Terminal

The ride from my place takes in a short stretch of the Cooks River then Coward St, Bourke Rd and O’Riordan St. Bike lanes service the route until Coward Street, but then you are on your own with the monster trucks (unless you are lucky like me and have a red-headed fiancé-sized cycle-buddy!). 6am is peak time at the airport; cars, trucks and taxies were backed up several sets of lights leading to the domestic terminal. While it is fun riding between cars that are stopped in traffic, the airport lacks proper cycling access. Designers and engineers of infrastructure around the airport must think exclusively in terms of either high-carbon emissions, or high-power travel, or both. In the formidable presence of 747s and A380s it is perhaps unsurprising that the lowly muscle-powered bicycle is marginalised: the discrepancy between the power of an jumbo jet and the power of a pushie is so great that bikes seem entirely obsolete. Why ride a bike at 15km/ph when you can fly at almost 100 times that speed? Further, if you are interested in travelling at such high speed, why would you even be remotely interested in travelling so slowly?

Well if you live close enough, you buy yourself an extra snooze or two because the one big perk about bike riding is that travel times are reliable. Where as train travel needs to be shaped around time tables and cars get stuck in traffic, bikes just get to where they are going on time. Furthermore, you save at least $30 on train fares and between $40 and $200 on taxi fares, depending on where you live and at least $300 on parking if you’re crazy enough to drive. You also get a bit of exercise before the muscle-atrophying experience of air travel. So I popped my rucksack in a basket on the back of my bike and rode on over. It was really very fun. And, although I like having proper infrastructure to support a safe ride such as bike lanes or a shoulder, there is something still quite fun and intrepid in being the only bike or two on a clogged arterial road.

One other thing I wondered whether or not biking to the airport can be seen to be the equivalent of a carbon offset. Carbon offsetting is bollocks and I didn’t pay the $2.21 to ‘carbon offset’ my flight. I reckon I am right to be suspicious of both the politics and mathematical formulae involved in such hair-brained tree-planting schemes that often commercialise large swathes of land, make trees commodities and criminalise the people who try to use them to survive. But  I wonder if biking to the airport could also be seen as an equivalent form of carbon offset? Surely riding to the airport is better than paying a conglomerate to pay police to incarcerate people who try and build a roof from a branch of a tree that has been ‘sold’ to offset my flight to Perth, right? Also, although no trees were planted in honour of my trip to Perth, ‘No Iraqi’s died to fuel my bicycle’ either. That slogan used to be screen printed on a patch on my backpack and, as we overtook a semi-trailer that was caught in traffic, it was what I yelled to my red-headed fiancé-sized cycle-buddy this morning. I dunno how eco-friendly or radically political I was this morning really. Actually, I think that the joy I got from riding between cars stuck on a choked artery road was much greater than any benefit to the environment or to Iraqis who died during the most recent US invasion. Nevertheless, I rode my bike to the airport, parked it near the entrance and now I am in Perth.

This is only part one of this story. Whether or not the bike is still at the airport when I return on the weekend remains to be seen. I shall report back. But, for now, greetings from the most isolated city on the planet.

 


Climate Change, Neo-Liberalism and Progressive Policy Wonks

A “wonk” is a general and derogatory term for a nerd who takes meticulous interest in details of a particular field of knowledge. But it is usually reserved for people who are obsessively interested in the finer details of political policy. Lots of people in Canberra are “policy wonks”, for example. Although I have never been entrenched for long enough in a particular part of society to become fully wonkified, rest assured I am licensed to write about wonks because some of my best friends are wonks. And, let me tell you, although I love them to bits I wouldn’t invite all of my wonky friends to the same dinner party, nor would I design a panel discussion made entirely of real-deal wonks and wannabe wonks with a surrogate wonk as the moderator.

Last night I attended the City of Sydney’s City Conversations talk at Town Hall entitled “The Big Decision: How to fix Sydney’s Transport“, which was an incredibly important and energetic discussion designed in response to Infrastructure NSW’s completely ridiculous plan to “solve” the issue of traffic congestion with more roads. The discussion, while interesting was thoroughly hijacked by a panel of progressive wonks. But I will reflect upon the topic of the discussion first, before revealing precisely why the wonkish tone of the evening was a problem.

While in 2005 Seoul peeled back a highway to reveal the river buried beneath and that in 1995 Shanghai built a multi-billion dollar high speed metro system that by 2011 carried over 2 billion travellers annually, in 2012 InfrastructureNSW and the O’Farrell Government are planning a mid-twentieth century style concrete and carbon monoxide dreamworld of new motorways and bus tunnels. Firstly, the centrepiece of the State Government’s vision is “West Connex”. According to the PR video, West Connex “the highest priority project for NSW”. It is 33kms of motorway that allow motorists to avoid 50 sets of traffic lights. Tellingly, the video does not once claim that West Connex will ease congestion, but instead (and rather hilariously) they claim that it “will transform Sydney’s traffic congestion”. They remain unspecific as to what they mean by “transform”, thus there is the potential that the plan could be read as blue print for transforming congestion by creating new traffic jams on different roads. Secondly, there is the CBD Bus Tunnel,  the “CBD BRT” will, according to their website, “provide an alternative to light rail along George Street: a Bus Rapid Transit (‘CBD BRT’) tunnel from the Sydney Harbour Bridge to the Town Hall area, modelled on the underground busway that already operates in Brisbane.” It should be mentioned that the “CBD BRT” involves the partial pedestrianisation of George Street as well. But, in contrast the City wants to pedestrianise George Street and extend light rail network. For the moment, the City’s plan seems to be on the shelf, and in the next couple of weeks the Government will be deciding whether to move their own large-scale and insanely expensive infrastructure projects beyond the planning stages and into action.

The City Conversation’s talk provided a place for a public discussion and a collective response to this proposal. The City’s Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, alerted people to the fact that decisions are about to be made on these big plans and motivated them to state their opinions now. So, spurred by the discussion last night, let me lay my cards out on the table. In case you haven’t yet realised, I am a cyclist. I have been for about seven years. I lived in the inner west most of this time, and have recently moved out to Earlwood, adding about 5kms to my daily commute. I now commute from Earlwood to the CBD or the Eastern suburbs on most days. This is between a 10 and 15km commute one-way on a combination of bike paths, quite streets and main roads. It is a great ride with the exception of my unavoidable encounters with main roads that do not support cyclists at all, like Unwin’s Bridge Road in Tempe, Anzac Parade in Kensington and Elizabeth Street in the CBD. I have previously recorded my opinion on cyclists’ place in the transport debate in New Matilda in a piece co-authored with Craig Johnson. Basically I believe more people should be cycling and I am very pleased that more people are cycling each year. The benefits of cycling are manifold from public health (cyclists tend to be fitter and healthier) and the environment (no gasoline necessary), to the budget (the latter itself is manifold because the health-benefits mean cyclists lighten the load on the  health system and bikes do not require as much infrastructure and also do not cause as much damage to roads and paths so thus do not need to be maintained as much). But getting everyone to submit to my dream of a car-free, bicycle and razor scooter utopia is unfortunately not a viable solution in sprawling greater Sydney. Indeed, there is something unique and masochistic about cycling in a culture where everyone is coasting around in cars,* so I am a firm believer in a “transport mix” that is “heavy” on mass public transit and “light” on more roads. While building a bus tunnel may “free up local roads” for drivers and therefore ease congestion, mass-transit would have the same effect for the roads and be more environmentally sustainable long-term. This was also the main argument against the O’Farrell vision proposed by those on the panel at Town Hall last night, except they emphasised this as “economic” rather than “environmental” sustainability.

Although I agreed with panel’s economic argument against the State Government’s plan to “transform congestion”, the problem with the discussion last night was that it was almost 100% about economics and which proposed transport solution produced a healthier bottom line. Transport is more than just about getting from A to B; it is at the heart of how we conduct our daily lives and live in the world. For a progressive discussion on this issue to be entirely hijacked by economic modelling forgets what really matters. Which is unfortunately what often happens when progressive policy wonks allow a neo-liberal government to set the terms of the argument.** When pressed to comment on the bigger picture the panellists referenced trends away from cars and towards mass transit in other nations from the US and the UK to Asia and India, but gone was any discussion of the possibility of modes different of inhabiting and moving around the city, and lost was all discussion of the even bigger picture: climate. Although environmental sustainability is something that the City of Sydney clearly wants to address and although their proposal for a light rail system was both economically and environmentally sustainable, the environment was not mentioned last night. Instead questions like “How many hundred-thousand ‘wallets’ would ‘disappear’ underground if O’Farrell’s vision were to get the green light?”, “Wouldn’t it be better if those wallets were on the light-rail above ground” and “What impact would the construction of the bus tunnel have upon local retailers?”

I “live tweeted” at this event and called for the environment to at least be mentioned in the discussion. Nothing. It was like the recent presidential debates in the US, except no one was championing drilling for oil or gas, rather they were supporting public transit, walking and cycling. Despite the somewhat radical vision of the City, the rhetoric of the status quo reigned supreme. Part of me thought: “Maybe it is just too obvious an issue to rate mention”, but ultimately and tragically I think that the reason climate did not come up was far more cynical. When the host of the night, the ABC’s Quentin Dempster, introduced the evening by sarcastically stating he was going to set aside his cynicism, I should have realised what we were in for. The conversation was dominated by a bunch of relitavely progressive policy wonks, armed to the teeth with various statistics about the economic benefits of the City’s plan but they failed mention the elephant in the room! In other words, so successfully has the right come to dominate this transport debate in NSW that a progressive panel did not mention climate change. But climate should be at the centre of every debate about urban infrastructure as all decisions made without taking climate into account will be made redundant soon by the climate itself. Furthermore, trying argue for environmentally sustainable transport solutions whilst submitting to the terms of a neo-liberal Government’s policy framework is like trying to solve the problem of the melting ice-caps by building a giant freezer. It is the absolute wrong way to go about it.

Naomi Klein is the most articulate mainstream voice on the need for progressives to embrace a different kind of economic model. I agree with her argument that we need a new economic model to tackle climate change, because a more sustainable vision for future society needs industry regulation, collectivity and government intervention: all the things that neo-liberals loathe. Although Moore and her team at Town Hall also recognise the interconnections between the environment and the economy, those links were conspicuously absent from the discussion last night. The problem here as I see it is that if progressives erase climate change from big public discussions on issues as central to the environment as urban planning and transport infrastructure, what hope do we have? Indeed, progressive policy wonks need to unashamedly make climate change the centrepiece of their policy proposals at every opportunity and in the wonkiest of wonky ways. At the absolutely least a single voice from outside Wonka World should have been seated on the panel to keep climate and the environment alive as an issue when it comes to key discussions of massive infrastructure planning. Last night, with no non-wonky voice to remind them of the earth and climate and the ever-warming planet, these wonks were at the mercy of the O’Farrell governments neo-liberal facts and figures game, and they all seemed either too ashamed or too indoctrinated to think and talk about the issue of transport planning in anything other than economic terms. So, I am going to write to O’Farrell now and tell him that the State’s solution to Sydney’s transport problem is both environmentally and economically unsustainable.

*This is an idea to be explored at another time.

**N.B. Justin “Nightclub Baron” Hemmes was on the panel, I am not touting him as a progressive policy wonk, but he didn’t really contribute much to the discussion except to say that he thinks cars should be allowed back in after dark.


Frankenstorm versus Frankenstein

In case Sandy actually does destroy the entire North East of the USA, I might take this opportunity to reflect upon the significance of the neologism ‘Frankenstorm’, before such academic nit-picking comes to seem insensitive. Indeed, it might already be so, because this storm claimed 21 lives in the Caribbean before moving back out to sea. But this reflection seems particularly poignant given the storm’s coinciding with the final days of the presidential campaign.

The  nick name ‘Frankenstorm’ is not just a media buzzword, but a quirky name attributed to Sandy in the first instance by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Sandy is the convergence of two tropical cyclones, and the product is the giant monster storm we are all calling ‘Frankenstorm’. The name, of course, references Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. But Frankenstein is not the monstrous hybrid creature in the book, rather Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein, is the creator. Andrew Revkin writing on the NYTimes blog has already picked up on this and noted that “While the echo of Frankenstein in that Twitter moniker can imply this is a human-created meteorological monster, it’s just not that simple.” Ok, so we can’t just solely attribute the huge cataclysm to human activity. That is fine. But the blog’s correct reading of the neologism belies the fact that the media has picked it up and is using it in various ways to refer not to the storm’s creators but to the storm itself or its stormy effects: “Nick-named ‘Frankenstorm’ for its potentially monstrous effect”, for example.

In the recent presidential debates in the US climate change was not mentioned once. This is the first time that climate change has not been mentioned in such a significant debate in the US since the early 1980s. There is therefore tragic irony in the fact that although climate change is decidedly off the mainstream political agenda in the USA, that everyone is referring to the storm that threatens to devastate some of the most populous regions of the nation by a name that by virtue of the neologism’s literary origins, implies it is, in some way, a creation of humankind.

Then of course there is the actual name of the storm, Sandy, which is another topic altogether.


My Crown of Weeds

A long time ago I promised to think more about the crown of weeds in King Lear. On October 12, 2012, more than two years since I made that promise, I was given that opportunity in public. I participated in the creation of a tradition at UNSW that involved the actual construction of a weedy crown. On this day Professor Deborah Bird Rose crowned me with weeds to celebrate the submission of my PhD*. Hopefully future students in the Environmental Humanities** will also be similarly crowned! The tradition was the collaborative brainchild of Drs Eben Kirksey, Thom van Dooren and Ms-not-quite-Dr myself and made with the assistance of Diego Bonetto, Sydney’s own King of Weeds. Eben suggested I make a costume to celebrate my submission, Thom was amicable to this idea, I came up with the idea of crowning myself with weeds and Diego helped me select the edible weeds.

On a frosty morning Diego, Carin (from Slow Food Sydney) and myself went walking along the Cooks River and Wolli Creek in search of rogue edible plants. Below are a series of photos that capture the creation of this foraged weedy crown.

My PhD is on the storm in King Lear and during his time in the storm Lear strips naked and then crowns himself with weeds. My favourite interpretation of this crown is from Akira Kurosawa’s 1985 Adaptation Ran (Chaos).

Hidetora’s Crown of Weeds (Emperor Hidetora is the Lear of Kurosawa’s Film)

I wanted to make the crown because I like what it represents. It is usually considered an indicator of Lear’s madness or the chaos in the kingdom. But I think the weedy crown represents the promise of an alternative political order. Taken out of its dramatic context, I think a weedy crown can be worn by anyone (of the 99%!) to represent an alternative way of imaging and living in the world. For me this alternative world positions disorderly natural forces (such as weeds, parasites and storms) and the unwieldy patterns of life and death at the heart of a refigured body politic.

This post comes with two disclaimers.

*Firstly, I have not yet received the award of PhD, given all this attention I can only hope I pass!

**I am a student of English at UNSW, not Environmental Humanities but I have been teaching in the Environmental Humanities and it was lovely of them to help mark this occasion. When I do finally receive the award, however, it will be through the English department.

Nevertheless, I am incredibly honoured to have been crowned with weeds by Professor Bird Rose and I can only hope to live up to the ideals represented by this digestible and perishable diadem.


Cars

I have spent the day trying to construct a talk about my WALK project for The Right to the City Symposium this weekend. My project is entitled “walking in the rain” and is, as it says it is, a walk in the rain. The walk will happen rain, hail or shine along the Cooks River in Canterbury. I chose the site because of a range of reasons, but largely because the river is one enormous drain. Also I thought it would be interesting to think about rain in the city in relation to the infrastructure designed to drain it all away. I’ve been trying to think about my work in terms of the politics of storm water management, private property and urban planning. But it is really hard to construct a talk about a work that is not yet finished. So today I’ve been easily distracted from this task by Google Images, Flickr and YouTube. I was looking for engineered urban river systems, to help me think differently the particularities of the Cooks River system.

When thinking of urban waterways The Seine and the Thames of course came to mind, as did New York’s Hudson River. But as soon as I saw the picture I realised that the Los Angeles River is really the most extraordinarily stark example of a river that has been engineered in order to suit the water management needs of a modern industrialised city.

Los Angeles River

It is the epitome of ugliness and hasty, unsustainable urban planning. But it is also spectacular in its own way; for me the scale of the concrete system is almost sublime. It is a drain that is so big that it is iconic. But this is not what this post is actually about. This post is about cars. The Cars that Flooded Toowoomba.

In the process of looking for my urban riverscapes, I came across a video of the Toowoomba flash flood from earlier in the year. This footage was replayed over and over on TV at the time, probably under the headline ‘Inland Tsunami’, but I had never heard the original audio until today. The audio is a discussion between a group of colleagues, one holding the camera and the rest looking on in awe, while the flood waters rush into their work’s car park.

If you watched the video, did you notice that the discussion only refers to the flood waters a couple of times? Did you notice that for the majority of the clip entirely about the cars parked in the car park? This struck me as a telescoping of all media representation of disasters; ‘Nature’s’ fury doesn’t make sense to us unless pictured in relation with what ‘she’s’ furious with, in this case it’s the cars. Watching the footage of the Tsunami in Japan recently was the same for me; bridges crushing boats, suburbs of houses swirling around together like crumbs in a sink hole were the things that enabled me, with my limited human capacity, to begin to understand the scale of the non human wave.

While I think it is a banal, base and impulsive response, and (in the Toowoomba clip at least) it is also a funny response, it is nonetheless meaningful. If there was nothing meaningful in that relation between the natural event (wave, flood, storm) and the damage (houses, bridges, cars) what’s the difference between the footage of the Tsunami and images or footage of Niagara Falls? The ‘disaster’ is the relationship between the two. In fact, one scale for measuring the force of a tornado turns the basic human perspective into a kind of scientific method: the Fujita Scale measures the intensity of the cyclone by the amount of human infrastructure and vegetation it destroyed.  For me the video of the flood in Toowoomba is a wonderful example of this curious human reflex.

As someone trying to write a thesis about a storm, I actually long for the opposite to be true. My entire thesis tries to circumvent this basic impulse to account for the human and not the storm. I am in engaged in a struggle to account for the storm itself; but then most of my observations have to begin with the drama of human perspectives that plays out within it/beside it/below it. I wonder what would need to be different for the basic reflex to be the opposite? I wonder what it would take for most of us non-experts to be able to imagine the storm instead of the broken power lines, the bush fire instead of the roadblock, the wave instead of the devastated town and the flood waters instead of the cars (the rising sea-levels instead of the politics?).

*******

But how to link this impulse to focus on the cars in Toowoomba anyway to my day of thinking about urban storm water management? Here’s an idea. Our cities are built on the promise that we can manage the rain water. But, as French theorist Paul Virilio once stated that the invention of the train was also, in the same instance, the invention of the train wreck; by extension, the invention of the drain in some sense is also the invention of the flood.[1] When the drains fail, be it the drain in the bathroom or the network of drains in the state of Queensland, it is logical that we take note of the damage to the things that the drain was supposed to keep dry. And perhaps recognise the drain itself as a mediator of the relationship between the flood waters and the damaged property; the drain/riverdrain is the conduit of meaning. The drain in this sense is meaningful.[2] But meaningful how? I hope the meaning of the drain and its relevance to my my WALK project, to The Right to the City and to my talk on Saturday will emerge in a dream tonight. Sorry to leave this one hanging.

[1] all machines can be viewed in this way: plane/plane crash, ship/shipwreck, car/car crash. In fact perhaps it is just the industrialised version of Life/Death. Hmmm. That’s food for thought.

[2] It reminds me of this quote from the first episode of Treme “Hurricane Katrina was a natural disaster, but what happened in New Orleans was a man made catastrophe of epic fucking proportions”.


An Unoriginal Gripe

Sometime in the middle of the hottest night of the longest heatwave, in Sydney’s recorded meteorological history, I was sitting on a pontoon on Sydney harbour, in my underpants, talking about leaf blowers. The conversation had drifted from the phenomenon of the manicured lawn, to the lawn mower, then onto the leaf blower. Leaf blowers have, for a long time, symbolised to me everything that is wrong with the world today. For example, I have a page of this blog saved in drafts called “Despair”. The page is a work-in-progress list of the top things that make me lose faith in the world and everything in it. Leaf Blowers currently sits at number one.

When I mentioned this gripe, two of Sydney’s bright young professional science and environment writers, also in their underpants, rolled their eyes and said (to radically paraphrase), “everyone wants us to write about leaf blowers, it is such a cliche, we can’t see that there’s anything wrong with one or two leaf blowers, there are bigger fish to fry.” I argued my point briefly, which I will come to in a minute, and I was given the concession that perhaps if I was writing in an academic rather than journalistic context the problem could be framed in a more interesting way. Even so, the general feeling toward leaf blowers was a resounding “meh” or “bleargh”. But, this is beside the point, I didn’t need convincing that the issue/symbol of the Leaf Blower is interesting (it’s my number one gripe!). The point is, it was actually the first part of their criticism that really disturbed me. My Number One Gripe, the gripe that I thought contained within it the hitherto unexpressed problem with the world today, is actually entirely unoriginal and a tired old cliche?

Gripes are trivial complaints. I tend to feel despair in relation to many gripes, not because I empathise with the griper, but that the object of the gripe (the gripee?) is  actually capable of stirring enough negative emotion and energy in the griper to warrant a gripe in the first place–long queues at Woolworths, the cost of parking in the city, a faulty iphone 4, the slight struggle to comprehend the accented voice of the phone banking attendant in South East Asia, bad customer service at the Yacht Club–I tend to think most gripes warrant the hash-tag “first world problems”. That is why I was shaken up by the knowledge that every bleeding hearted greenie has a fundamental problem with leaf blowers, and that the gripe itself is actually a “gripe” rather than an “issue”, and is therefore really trite. Further, this gripe might not only warrant the hash tag “first world problems” but something even worse, #boring. So here, without doing any more research, without checking to see who in the world might also have expressed this opinion, without wasting one more second of my time on this hackneyed topic, I want to briefly defend my position on Leaf Blowers, but at the same time perhaps get it out of my system, retire this unoriginal gripe and focus on the bigger picture.

Leaf Blowers are a power tool that look like a cross between a chainsaw and a vacum cleaner. When in use, it is held about waste height so the large tube could considered by the user as a fantastically long and powerful, mechanical extension of the human penis. They are designed to blow leaves from one place to another: from path/park/yard to the drain, or, as is no doubt sometimes the case, designed to move stuff that I do not want on my property onto someone else’s. The practical function and fundamental purpose of the leaf blower is, therefore, a metaphor for the problems of property ownership. The person blowing the leaves from their property to their neighbours, or from Local Council jurisdiction to Crown Land, or if you happen to live on some geopolitical border, from one nation to another, it implies that you do not see a valuable connection between your land and someone elses. As long as your land is free from dead leaves and rain-soaked snail-eaten poorly-discarded junk mail, then you are OK. (There’s a metaphor for the refugee crisis in there too… but I won’t go into it now).

It is also a metaphor for, and literal embodiment of, “outsourcing” and all its adjunt political issues. In blowing my leaves from my front lawn to yours, I am effectively striking a deal with a developing nation to bury my toxic waste, or I am hiring a Human Resources firm to come in and get rid of “all the dead wood”, so to speak. If someone who has just been unreasonably fired by a large corporation not by their direct superior, but by some weirdo temp guy with a plastic smile and an unnaturally logical reason for ending the employment contract asks, “How come my termination notice smells like diesel and sounds like a two-bit engine?”, perhaps direct them to this post.

I also believe that leaf blowers are a literal embodiment of, and metaphor for, the resources crisis and climate change. The Leaf Blower, which itself requires petrol to power, expresses all the problems of hidden costs, supply chains, oil dependence and deregulated free-market capitalism and, therefore, Leaf Blowers could be understood as being responsible for the melting of the polar ice caps. The leaves that I could move from my yard to the compost or even to the green bin with my hands, requires an product delivered to me via an unregulated international supply chain and therefore the Leaf Blower helps to prop-up slave labour markets, an oil economy built on warfare, and, if you include purchase a sausage sandwich and can of coke at the Bunnings charity barbeque at the same time as you buy your underpriced garden machine, factory farming and the third world fresh-water crisis.

Not to mention the noise.

I also think that what needs some serious cultural analysis is the children’s toy version of the “humble” leaf blower. These toys are available via Amazon, and no doubt in a toy store near you. The method of production of the toy of course repeats the same problems as the product itself, plus one.

Kiddy Leaf Blower

Second wave feminists were good at pointing out the way in which children’s toys produce gender identities. Trucks and lego go with penises to make “Boys”. Dolls and kitchen sets go with vaginas to make “Girls”. I would like to add that  Kiddy Leaf Blowers can be matched with either penises or vaginas in order to make “Neoconservatives“.

If I wanted to, I could even go a step further and suggest that the Leaf Blower was the cause of the heatwave that prompted us to go an sit on a pontoon in Sydney harbour in the middle of the night in order to survive. But, I won’t. We were really on the pontoon for a friend’s birthday. And it was an enormously fun night out! So, I will leave it there. That’s my gripe. It’s unresearched. Superficial. Hyperbolic. It smacks of my status as a bleeding hearted greenie with an overly-generalised-knoweledge of the complex international system and a trumped up sense of self-righteousness. But, screw it. I like it. I’ve said it. It’s my unoriginal gripe. It is out of my system. I can move on. I hope you did not find this post too #boring.


Cyclone Yasi

“God had thundered vengeance from on high … A God full of revenging wrath, / From whom the thunder and the lightning breaks”

Tamburlaine, Christopher Marlowe, (Lns 2923 … 4294-95)

“We are all in this together. When one part of Queensland hurts, every part of Queensland hurts.”

Anna Bligh, Televised Press Conference, February 2, 2011

It’s perverse, maybe insane, but I get really excited by massive storms.* The excitement starts when I hear a change in the rhythms of speech in the voices of people on TV. I love the shift in people’s way of thinking and talking about themselves and the world when a storm presents itself as a threat; everyone is suddenly a rhetorician, consciously describing their mind and body, as well as their place in the community and the world. Everyone is suddenly not only aware of their indelibly material presence at this point in History, but is willing to make extensive comment upon it. Everyone is keen to acknowledge their dependence on infrastructure and community and each other. Oceanography, geography, meteorology and climate are suddenly at the forefront of everyone’s mind. The fundamental instability of human life, social arrangement and development is suddenly universally acknowledged by everyone and the inferiority of the human-made world in relation to the non-human is front page news. Our individuality, our desire to survive and not to be hurt, is suddenly bound in really particular and definite ways with our shared experience and our desire to all live here together in safety; all our eyes are collectively fixed on Yasi, but what is of utmost importance is Yasi’s relation to me and also my loved ones and my community and my state and my nation and the rock and dirt of the continent and its geopolitical relation to the rest of world.

In a society with the luxury of modern weather prediction technologies, the capacity to predict a storm in advance also shows up the actual impossibility of really knowing anything in advance: what will the real effects of such a storm actually be? In the space between knowing and not knowing is panic. The panic that manifests seems to clearly contain both fear and excitement, the mass evacuations and clogged roads mean that school and work is cancelled, the empty shelves in supermarkets might mean someone might get ice cream for dinner, all this combined with the flood of journalistic attention: it’s like a holiday and a carnival, except of course it is not. It is impetuous, a system entirely indifferent to all in its path, but also transforming everything its wake. It could, if we were to try and stand up to it, kill us without remorse.

So, on top of the human drama generated by the threat of the storm, there is the awe inspiring scale of the storm system itself and the magnitude of its energy. The fact that Yasi, this individual entity, appeared as if from nowhere in the ocean and is suddenly larger than New Zealand and Italy. The fact that storm is over 500Km in diamater, with winds of over 300kms per hour. And, everything in Yasi’s path has to flee because of his extraordinary power, but we can’t help but look back in awe and fear and wonder and concern, like Lot’s wife (except without the whole pillar of salt thing).

“Wow, will you look at that, that is something Mother Nature has just whipped up overnight”, said the Man. “Yes, sure, amazing. I know. But of course as well as this meteorological alchemy, there is the likelihood that I am also a symptom of the the entire history of industrial civilisation” said Yasi.

So, I guess we will see what Yasi brings us in the next 24 hours or so. Grab the photo albums and run for your lives. I hope everyone up north stays safe.

(*Of course, I can’t separate my perverse excitement from the horror of the death and devestation, the aftermath. I do not intend to glorify the suffering caused by such events. But, the extraordinary nature of event itself needs comment, this unique temporality before the storm waiting, watching, and speculating is not often captured. So often we are relegated to comment after the fact and show respect for those directly affected. I hope by getting in in advance I am sort of insulated from that obligation. [Is that even logical? Can thought and writing even work like that?])

 

Yasi over Europe

Yasi over Asia

Yasi over USA