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The Last Supper

The Rising Sun Performance Company is now performing Dan Rosen’s movie cum play The Last Supper at The Red Room. It’s a rip-roaring good time, and well worth your dime.

A conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged

The official blurb runs something like this: A group of young, liberal graduate students in Iowa have a formal, sit down dinner once a week, to which they like to invite a stranger – to spice up conversation. Their ivory tower serenity is disturbed, however, when their latest guest, Zach (played in the 1995 movie by Bill Paxton!), turns out to be a redneck, pedophilic, murderous, Holocaust denier. Zach taunts the tolerant liberals, saying that they don’t have the balls to stand up for themselves, and pulls a knife on Marc, the resident Jewish artist. Zach is distracted for a moment while breaking the arm of Peter, another sissy liberal, and Marc seizes the opportunity to stab Zach in the back with his own knife. Existential angst ensues as the “liberals” try to justify their aggression. They rationalize it so well that they decide to recreate the scenario every week with a new flavor of conservative crazy. Their preferred method of execution? Poison in the chardonnay.

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Waiting for Lefty at ATA's Sargent Theater

You may not guess it from the picture of the handsome man above, but Lefty is a leftist, a commie, a red — and not in the Texas “Red Meat” way. You might think of this guy as a Lefty for The Great Recession — cool, hip, possibly living in a palatial squat in Buffalo, refusing to use currency or pay for food.

And yet, it was not always thus.

The enduring strength of Clifford Odets’s play Waiting for Lefty is its focus on character rather than identity. That may seem like a subtle distinction, but it’s an important one that traces the success and failure of the labor movement in the USA from Odets’s time to ours. Odets’s characters are honest, working people who strive for a measure of human dignity and are systematically deprived of it by the Bosses, the Owners, and the unsympathetic, pampered, and callous Elites. Odets builds his characters through their struggles: they are dynamic, not static. But in the intervening three quarters of a century since this play was first produced “identity” as a pillar of capitalist ideology has dominated and marginalized character so thoroughly that the didactic purpose of this play, what Brecht would have called a lehrstück, is easy to miss. Waiting for Lefty is the greatest work of American agitprop theater because it attempts to dramatize how a person learns courage in an act of character building, rather than appealing to the audience’s fear and pity.

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What does a world without hope look like? Is it a bleak moonscape — black sky, cold sun, gray hills? Or is it the too perfect world of American suburbia, where the sun — and the smiles — shine a little too bright; where too-green, cultivated lawns lead to soothing interiors, painted in shades named “Ocean Side”, “Interactive Cream”, and “Moderate White”; where real freedom is banished to the gritty, marginal, blind spots of ubiquitous surveillance cameras?

The Realm, running from now until April 18th at The Wild Project in the East Village, is a futuristic dystopia in the tradition of American post-apocalyptic dystopias like Logan’s Run, A Boy and His Dog (remember that one? Don Johnson starred in the movie!), and, closer to our time, Urinetown. The time is the not-too-distant future. After an unnamed cataclysm, humanity has been forced underground. Natural resources are scarce — especially water. Human beings have learned how to live spare, lean lives, stripped of all superfluity — and fun. And, for that matter, freedom. Water is rationed, life is rationed, even words are rationed.

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Yay! Obama announced a plan to invest $8 billion in high speed and existing rail projects! This is a welcome change from the plan of the past administration to strangle Amtrak and throw it in a tub to drown it. Build it, and they will come. Please lord, let the economically stimulating effect of mass transit in New York City show the Feds and the villains in the New York State senate that mass transit is a priority, not a privilege.

Chinese electric cars, courtesy of the NY Times

Chinese electric cars, courtesy of the NY Times

There’s plenty of uncertainty on what the future holds, but one thing is for sure, the 21st century will not be like the 20th.

While Obama and Gordron Brown try to convince the Europeans not to take away our capitalism toys, the Chinese are making exactly the kinds of massive public investments in the future that Krugman and others have argued the US must make in order to stay relevant. The money isn’t the problem. Excluding some rightwing nutters in Congress, our country has signed on to the idea that something must be done (other than cut taxes) to ameliorate this economic crisis. But why isn’t any of that money going to beef up Amtrak or the MTA? The answer: no one in power in America, either Democrat or Republican, has a 21st century vision.

But the Chinese have it.

Outside the Court Square stop in Queens

Outside the Court Square subway station in Queens

What’s the news on NYC’s slice of the stimulus money? I hear complaints from conservatives that the money isn’t going to “shovel ready projects,” and then I hear complaints from liberals that the money that IS going to “shovel ready projects” is paying for thousands of miles of new highway in the fly-over. Ahem, but, NYC has billions of dollars of shovel ready projects ready to go. Second avenue subway anyone?

oil-fields

Dubai is a palace of excess and contradition. It is a mushroom that paradoxically bloomed under the whithering rays of the sun. But the leadership of the UAE is a lot smarter than anyone in America today. From today’s New York Times:

[The UAE’s] new investment [in renewable energy] aims to maintain the gulf’s dominant position as a global energy supplier, gaining patents from the new technologies and promoting green manufacturing. But if the United States and the European Union have set energy independence from the gulf states as a goal of new renewable energy efforts, they may find they are arriving late at the party.

The irony that the most wasteful and oil dependent part of the globe should be on the cutting edge of green energy is unremarkable next to the ambition — characteristic of the Gulf states — to go all the way all at once. Consider Masdar City, a planned community outside of Abu Dhabi that claims it will have a zero-carbon footprint. Even though skeptics doubt this claim, it is notable not for its complete success in execution, but for its audacity.

According to the Times article, Qatar has invested $225 million into a British research fund, and Saudi Arabia has invested untold millions into American universities, including $25 million for Michael McGehee an associate professor at Stanford, to develop cutting edge technologies. That is fifty times the amount invested by Western governments or industry.

Finally, the Times tells us Masdar City “goes beyond creating new materials and is in fact exploring a new model for urban life.” To wit: “The city will have no cars; people will move around using driverless electric vehicles that move on a subterranean level. The air-conditioning will be solar powered.” As a New Yorker I take exception to this. After all, we also have subterranean electric cars that move people around. It’s called the subway. If only the city, state, and federal government could get their posteriors and capitals wired together they could see that a massive investment in the New York City subway is a necessary good faith effort to putting America into the 21st century.

obama2

We all knew Obama was no Nader when we voted for him. But it still comes as a shock to this New Yorker to be reminded of exactly how conservative the traditional “Liberal” media is. And it is disappointing to see Obama waste his political capital and his mandate by falling into bad old Democrat habits. How many times do we have to say it? Do not pander to self-identifying conservatives!

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Muslim women buying Barbies

Dubai, unlike it’s neighbor Abu Dhabi, does not have oil riches. Though oil and gas were discovered in the 1960s, the Al Maktoum Emirs of Dubai knew early on they had to capitalize on oil money in the 80s, 90s, and 00s before the gravy train ran out of steam. Dubai creek was dredged several times over those decades so that today Dubai is the largest deep water port in the region.

Dubai’s rulers have also worked hard to make their town a financial center, giving sweetheart deals to major western financial houses to locate offices there. With finance comes real estate, which, according to Wikipedia, accounted for 22% of Dubai’s GDP before the housing bubble of started to inflate in 2004. It is difficult to find up-to-date figures on the financial situation in Dubai, probably for two reasons: first, if its economy was driven by a bubble, those interested in it do not want to spread the news it has popped and cause a panic; second, the government of Dubai and the UAE does not seem to be particularly transparent, at least if you are looking at the official website. (This article is indicative.) That said, my eyeball estimate of the economy in Dubai shows three salient categories of economic activity: commerce, service and tourism, and finance, under which I include real estate. (If you don’t like my categories, go talk to a professional economist.)

1) Kelly McEvers of Marketplace reported a couple of months ago that confidence in the Dubai’s real estate market has evaporated. 2) If players like Morgan Stanley are in trouble here, then you can be sure they’re in trouble at the Dubai satellite office. 3) And news that China is rethinking its investment in USD bonds should make any country with its currency pegged to the dollar (like the UAE) think twice about its future purchasing power. That leaves us with the service and tourism sector.

Kareoke machine in the Emirates Mall

Kareoke machine in the Emirates Mall

It’s true, everyone loves kareoke. And in the Mall of the Emirates you can record yourself in sound and vision doing a cover of Bowie to send to your friends back home.

Indoor skiing at the Emirates Mall

Indoor skiing at the Emirates Mall

I was particularly thrilled to know I could leave cold, rainy New York to go to the warm, sunny desert, and not have to miss a day of skiing. Not that it was so cold in New York. On the day we left for Dubai a friend who lives near Whiteface ski resort upstate lamented in a Facebook status update that it was unnatural to have 60 degree days at the end of December. But that makes indoor skiing in the desert all the more desirable.

Westerners working at the ski slopes in the Emirates Mall

Westerners working at the ski slopes in the Emirates Mall

When they close down mountain resorts in the US for lack of snow all the ski bums will be able to get jobs at the Mall in Dubai. The Dubai Mall also has ice skating and hockey…

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Ice rink in the Dubai Mall

… and a massive indoor aquarium.

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Dubai Mall Aquarium

Cool huh?! Notice all the folks in Western dress. That’s because most of the people in the malls were either Indian/Pakistani or European. I saw a few Emiratis, but not enough to keep these massive emporia open. Most of the shops are Western too, from Hardee’s and KFC (the writing is Arabic)…

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YUM brands

… to lingerie.

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This may be what Emirati women wear under their black robes, but I wouldn’t know.

Lingerie shoppers?

Lingerie shoppers?

The malls all have a space for “local” stuff, either tourist kitch or jewelry that is dressed up in a faux souk.

dubai-gold-souk

Gold "souk" in the Dubai Mall

If you have any problems shopping, any disgruntled counter help or problems with your credit card, you can appeal either to the mall management or to God.

A higher power

A higher power

In sum, as long as tourists can afford to spend money, as long as novelty and kitch can last, as long as a flower can grow in the desert, Dubai will have a future.

burj-dubai-2009

Burj Dubai

The Burj Dubai is the tallest building in the world and holds records for many “biggest” and “most” categories including tallest structure, tallest freestanding structure, building with the most floors, and highest vertical concrete pumping for any structure. The picture above was taken (by me) from the roof of Al Ghaya Residence on Sheik Zayed road, a pitiful 30+ story building. In the foreground you can see several other buildings in various stages of construction.

dubai-skyscraper

This is the building next door to Al Ghaya Residence, some 80+ stories tall. It has been under construction for more than a year, and it looks complete from the outside. It is empty, however, and the entrances are sealed. This building became emblematic, for me, of our unique historical moment.

The Baharain Tribune noted on October 2nd 2008 that Dubai’s growth is “founded to some extent on a burgeoning property market heavily dependent on borrowed money”, and Norton Rose, a corporate law firm specializing in investing, said on its “credit crisis blog” that “there are rumors that some large projects will be placed on hold.” The analyst at Norton Rose is optimistic, if not in the near term, at least in the medium term:

The “real” market, that is where construction has commenced (and therefore finance is in place to complete the project) or the property has been completed, is suffering a short term state of confusion although the medium term view is that the market will bounce back particularly in quality sectors in quality locations.

But this may be a species of optimism ridiculed by Paul Farrell (my new favorite Wall St. contrarian) in his Marketwatch.com editorial today. Norton Rose thinks the fundamentals of Dubai’s growth are strong, and that the financial problems of the last year will clear up soon, but one could also make the case that demand in Dubai has always been artificial, and that its incredible ten (really five) year growth spurt is an effect of the global bubble that has driven over-production in all sectors to astonishing, never-before-seen levels. As the New York Times reported recently, globalization led to global growth, and now it is leading to a global contraction. Is it implausible to postulate that globalization, growth, and blowing bubbles were interconnected, self-reinforcing phenomena?

But beyond a global contraction, Dubai has other worries. Norton Rose again spins the situation in positive terms:

Dubai has built itself as a trading hub, financial centre, tourist resort and is an attractive and exciting place to live. The number of expatriates moving to Dubai from throughout the world is staggering; all of these people will need a home. Office space still remains in very short supply with heavy demand. Rents in all sectors have continued to increase and demand remains strong, however owner occupiers are struggling to find lenders to accommodate them.

On one hand, many of the immigrants to Dubai are from India and Pakistan, and those people are definitely not the people Dubai wants filling up its empty towers. Certainly, Dubai’s planners have gone to great lengths to lure Western investment. Investment banks are able to run by Western laws — within the walls of their own buildings.

The lush courtyard of the Dubai Financial Center

The lush courtyard of the Dubai Financial Center

But outside the walls Dubai is still a theocratic state run under Sharia law. The world chuckles at Vince Acors and Michelle Palmer who were caught having sex on the beach and sentenced to three months in prison. The situation is made human and poignant, however, by the case of Marnie Pearce who was accused of adultery by her estranged husband and consequently convicted and sentenced to six months in prison. As a result she may lose custody of her two children entirely. In the print version of the article from January 5th, Ms. Pearce tells the reporter for the Telegraph with obvious passion that Westerners need to remember that Dubai is not a liberal state. A woman — any woman — can be punished for being alone in the company of a man who is not her husband or kinsman. And that is a kink in Norton Rose’s projection of continued demand for Dubai properties.

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