Cristian Pietrapiana is tired of excuses

Cristian Pietrapiana is losing patience.

You can tell from the work. Around the Plaxall Gallery on 46th Avenue in Long Island City hang pages of newspapers furiously scrolled on with paint, pastel and pen. Feverish lines encircle headlines and rippled down and across columns of newsprint. In one, a stock market chart on the front page of The New York Times’ Business Day is whited over, its trendline replaced by a traced measurement of surging carbon dioxide parts per million. The headline, once sober trading advice, takes on new meaning: “Everybody Take A Breath.”

Pietrapiana is fixated on climate change denial. It seems to baffle him. A former New York City public school teacher, the challenge of prying open eyes shut willfully seems irresistible. An immigrant who grew up under fascist rule in Argentina, the impulse to do so seems urgent.

We met last summer, when he last showed a series of his works as an exhibition titled “Fever” in the same storage space turned gallery near the East River. Until Monday, he’s showing his latest one, titled “Inexcusable.” The names capture the astronomical shifts in climate politics over the past 12 months. The emergence of the Green New Deal, Greta Thunberg and the election of climate realists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar to Congress signaled a change Pietrapiana welcomes. And yet, in Brazil, the country overseeing the world’s most vital carbon sink, we’ve seen the rise of Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right wannabe industrialist with bold deforestation plans for the Amazon. And for all the talk of radical climate action, we have yet to even rein in the plastic pollution.

We caught up over coffee last month. I edited and condensed the following, and did so hastily so I could get this out while there’s still time to drop by the gallery and see it:  

ACK: Is there something deeper in using newspaper print as a medium?

CP: It’s part of the concept. News is going to become old news. And your point of view of yesterday changed from today. By going back to the news, it makes you think. It makes you go deeper into it.

What is lost in helping people to understand something like climate change when you have a generation of people who have grown up reading articles online, if at all? Perhaps they’re only used to reading tweets or Facebook posts.

This, in a way, will invite them to go deeper into the issue, instead of a paragraph, or three or four lines. I know this is dying, so in a way I’m trying to say, “Look at this.” It’s not that I’m against technology.

Does it almost feel like there’s this literacy that’s been lost to us as citizens and as people that perhaps we once had when reading newspaper was the primary vehicle for consuming political information? That now in this age where there’s so much media and so much distraction that it facilitates the willful ignorance that goes into climate denial and climate inaction?

I hate to sound like an old fart, but humbly, yes. I don’t read the news on the phone. I wear glasses, and there’s the light [from the device]. Everything is more immediate. Everything is so instant coffee. Quick, give me the highlights, and let’s move on. There’s no depth.

I think it’s about taking in perspective. And I think physically this [points to phone] doesn’t give you perspective because it’s right here.

Talk a little about your background in teaching and how that lent itself to both taking on this topic from an artistic perspective and using this medium as a means through which to express that.

I taught New York City public high school for 25 years. Social studies. At the beginning I was part of an amazing program. Then there was no funding for it because it was a federal program. It was social studies through art, which was right up my alley. So I always incorporated art and history and I probably have, still in some box, from the ‘90s, handouts that I would make off curriculum about overpopulation, about mass consumption. It was that in my family. These are things that were always in my head. I was always very aware of nature and the environment. We used this, not from a stingy point of view but from a point of view of why waste more resources. That was always present in my teaching.

You said from a family point of view -- what was it about your family that made those things so?

My mother was a teacher as well. Her father was a painter and yogi, which was pretty much unheard of at the time. He was a vegetarian, and I spent many years with him. He instilled in me a respect for nature.

I go crazy in New York after Christmas, when they throw away the trees. I know it’s a custom, I respect that. But why the need of cutting down a tree? I know they have farms, and I know they have to be cut down, they go that route. But why do you have to throw it out so quickly? It’s the 26th and the trees are sticking out of the trash. Why not hold onto them a little longer? It has to do with this throwaway culture.

When did climate change become such a central focus and was there an epiphany moment?

It was a book. The epiphany was when a dear friend of mine gave me The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. I get Mother Jones, I’ve had it for years. I was reading articles. But that book brought me back to my grandfather. Things he’d say when I was 10 years old. He’d say, “It’s limited. There’s not enough gold in the world for everyone. There’s a point where you can’t extract anymore.” That’s what kicked it off i think. So I started reading articles about it. Now I’m with [Elizabeth Kolbert’s] The Sixth Extinction. And your newsletter, of course. How do you say that word in the name? Anthropo--

Anthropogenic. But I changed the name.

It’s hard to say. But, then, I’m E.S.L.

Yeah, it was, uh, a mouthful. A dumb name.

This one is better.

When you’re thinking of climate change and the limitations of nature and when overpopulation becomes a key metric by which you’re judging it, how do you maintain humanistic values? There are the environmental hardliners who say the preservation of nature should be for nature’s sake and not for humanity, but that raises questions about the degree to which you sanction human suffering.

I paint, and I take out the garbage and I walk the dog. I’m not a specialist on this. But at least it would be interesting to have a conversation about it. Especially in government. I hear what you’re saying. Should we be extreme about it? And preserve nature in lieu of --

Let me frame it this way. You are seeing this rise of an eco-right. The shooter in New Zealand -- while I don’t want to quote his manifesto as a serious expression of environmental concern, it discussed climate change and migration caused by that as a factor motivating his violence. Given that you lived under a fascist government for a period of your life, how concerned are you that when we finally move beyond the point where climate denialism is tolerated that we keep extreme environmental stresses from being used to justify the oppression of vulnerable people?

There will have to be a dialog. I hear what you’re saying, but I think everything starts with a grain of sand. What do I do? What do you do? What are we doing about it? I would be more interested in focusing the way we consume. That to me is maybe at this point more interesting. That’s the cause of everything. Even, probably, overpopulation. This notion, and I see it every day, and this neighborhood; you see it here, now that people are moving in. It’s more people. These minorities they’re building. You see more garbage. I find that at home every time I take the garbage out, when I was a kid it was a heavy bag of organic, basically, stuff. Now it’s very bulky but it’s very light. It’s all this plastic containers and all that crap.

I might be not answering you question, but it’d be interesting to address how we consume. It’d be interesting to see it more in the media and in TV shows and in this era of reality TV. Everyone wants to be a celebrity. Everyone wants to be a star with a limo and this and that. And there’s not a lot of models out there. So what are the kids looking at? All they want to be is a big celebrity and they have no idea what the price of that is. I see everyone with their Fiji bottle on TV. It’s not even Poland Spring from here. Or the chichi people with the San Pellegrino. It’s Italian. It has to be imported.

If there’s a right wing ecological thing coming down, that’ll be something to address in that moment, when we’re all on board. But that would be a victory if everyone’s discussing that. We’re all at least in the same boat, then. We’re not in the same boat now. I wish there were some extreme guy saying, “No more bottled water, drink it from the stream.” I’d adapt! I don’t mind. The problem is that nobody here wants to give up their lifestyle. And I don’t mean to say it because I’ve been living in this country for many years and I don’t mean to be the foreigner who comes here and criticizes it.

Go ahead.

But they feel entitled! Everything is the jumbo Coca-Cola. And they’re buying all the aquifers in India, with people who don’t even ahead water for farming. It’d be nice to see the regular people and the kids be aware of those things. And I don’t see that in the media. I don’t see why society has to adapt so much and cater you because you don't want to change your lifestyle you’re entitled to.

So is the goal for making art like this, then, to influence enough for a mass of people there is a cultural change? Or to influence potentially that one individual who rises to power to the point where they can change the policy that makes mass change?

That’s the lotto. I welcome everything. I’m not here to influence, that would be too ambitious for me. I’m just doing my artwork and I’m pointing at something and I want people to draw their own conclusions. Ultimately what I want for them when they see this is to think. Everyone has access to the newspaper. To the news. To me, the whole point of art is to make you look at the world from a different point of view to make you thin. Whether you like the aesthetics is a whole different story. This is something that’s turned into quote-unquote art. If you touch one, it’s like teaching. When I used to teach, in the 90s, I had up to 40 kids in a classroom. But if a few bunch, hopefully all  of them, but if some of them follow you, and they make changes, that’s hopeful.

I’m not here to brainwash anybody. I had experience with that. I’m just pointing at something.

What experience did you have with that?

I was a kid, but I remember there was censorship. Certain books they’d give you passages, you wouldn’t have access to the entire book.

Is there anything that stands out to you that when you look back you’re horrified at what was withheld?

It’s hard for me to get horrified.

I had to do military service. People project and we all fantasize about it, ‘Oh how was it’. Well, you adapt. I was 18. You adapt. You’re resilient. They could give you one meal a day and you adapt. You judge later once the events pass, then you get tricked by memory and the story you want to tell. So I want to stay away from that, because I cannot be fidèle, loyal to the facts.

Are you worried that there is going to be that same kind of memory trickery 20 years from now when climate change is much worse and there are people who were standing in the way of any kind of action now, or were feeding into it now, act like they weren’t?

People tend to glamorize their past. It’s part of the human psyche. So I don’t know. But hopefully they’ll take action now so they can tell a true story 20 years from now instead of bullshit.

Thank you for reading Melting Point. If you like it, send it to someone else who might. It’s free. Reach me at alexanderckaufman@gmail.com.

Kim Stanley Robinson on why Green New Dealers should embrace the word ‘socialism’

Fifty-one percent of millennials, now becoming the biggest voting bloc, viewed socialism favorably in a Gallup poll last August, while just 45 percent felt similarly rosy about capitalism. Nearly half of millennial Democrats identify as socialists or democratic socialists, a BuzzFeed News and Maru/Blue survey found two months later.

So why are the Green New Dealers -- the movement to enact an industrial plan capable of decarbonizing the United States at the rate scientists say is required to avert climate catastrophe -- allowing their critics to deploy the term as an epithet?

Kim Stanley Robinson, the leftist sci-fi novelist and godfather of the climate fiction genre, thinks it’s time to embrace the once-verboten s-word.

In a roughly 90-minute interview with the podcasts The Antifada and Chapo Trap House, the 67-year-old writer staked out his reasons why. I listened to the whole thing on my flight home from Brasília on Friday night, and thought he made some interesting points. I transcribed what he said here:

The attacks on the Green New Deal have been revealing how shoddy and insufficient that ideology is at this point. The old-style Republican capitalist business-as-usual that is leading us to the mass extinction event just looks bad. There is even old-time right-wingers who are used to sounding plausible with 50 years experience like George Will, their attacks on the Green New Deal are entirely empty of substance. Usually they toss the word, “Oh but that’s socialism,” as if that is a Q.E.D. on why it can’t be done at all. One thing that [Marxist academic Fredric] Jameson pointed out quite recently at a lecture at Duke that I’m listening in on as if it’s a podcast is that in the previous moments of American leftism that have been prominent and then crushed -- this is after World War I, and then after World War II, and the third was it the ‘60s -- they all had a moment of efflorescence and appeal, and then they all got crushed by political reversals and by deliberate suppression. But none of them even dared to say the word socialism in America. Mostly after World War I, but this is Jameson’s point, the idea would be that the socialist cause in the United States would do the good things without telling the general American public what they were, in a kind of avant-gardism. Then after the fact, after we ran a better state, they’d say, “by the way, that’s actually socialism.” Which is a silly way to go about it, because the American populace isn’t that easily fooled. And we are the American populace.

What’s different this time is people are actually using the word socialism and claiming it’s OK to say that word and still be in the American political mainstream discourse. It’s a new moment. I myself am stunned because I’ve been paying attention to the situation ever since those early ‘70s moments. This is kind of a first, an early horizon. It might be a sign, I think it’s true what you said to me that climate change is shoving this onto us. It’s kind of an enormous pressure that’s forcing us to reconsider the way we think about politics.

Thanks for reading Melting Point. If you’re enjoying the email, send it to someone else who will enjoy it. It’s free.

Image credit: Library of Congress

Consider the pirarucu

Good morning. It’s been a while. I’ve been traveling. (I’m traveling now; this newsletter is my distraction while I wait in Miami International Airport for my connecting flight home to New York.) Last month, I spent a week in Puerto Rico, exploring and reporting in San Juan and Vieques. For the past two weeks, I’ve been on assignment in Brazil, bouncing between Brasília, Manaus and Pará. I’ll have some stories about those places in the days to come.

For now, I want to tell you about a fish.

The pirarucu, also known as the arapaima or paiche, is a giant Amazonian freshwater fish that can grow longer and heavier than an adult human. In addition to gills, it has a swim bladder made of lung-like tissues that allows it come to the surface and breathe air. Silvery with flashes of red on its fins, the heavily-armored fish looks a bit like a northern pike. Except much, much bigger.

All those traits make it difficult to hide. Add to that the curse of being delicious.

You can find pirarucu served all over the Amazon Basin. At buffet lunches in Itaituba, a remote mining boomtown in the northern state of Pará, pirarucu is a staple, often cooked in a tomato sauce with local spinach-like greens. In downtown Manaus, the sprawling capital of Amazonas, you can treat yourself (as I did) to a hefty filet of smoked pirarucu at a low-key theater-district restaurant called Caxiri. The flavor is wonderful. Imagine a cross between catfish, cod and haddock.

A decade ago, the pirarucu, a prehistoric fish that dates by five million years, began showing signs it was headed for extinction.

In 2010, a study in the Journal of Applied Ichthyology found that there were four subspecies of the fish — not just one, as previously thought. And, due to overfishing, the pirarucu had become “critically dangered” and “faced extinction,” according a write-up in The Guardian.

Three years later, another species was discovered. By 2014, new research showed three of the five known species had “not been observed int he wild in decades,” Donald Stewart, a professor with the State University of New York at Syracuse's College of Environmental Science, told LiveScience.

At the time, Brazilian regulators put faith in the market to fix the problem, believing that the cost of the fishing the pirarucu would surge as the population plummeted.

Yet scientists warned that sort of economic logic failed to account for the realities of the communities that depend on the animal.

"Fishers continue to harvest arapaima regardless of low population densities," Leandro Castello, an assistant professor of fisheries at Virginia Tech's College of Natural Resources and Environment, told LiveScience.

"Bioeconomic thinking has predicted that scarcity would drive up fishing costs, which would increase price and help save depleted species,” he added. “If that prediction were true, extinctions induced by fishing would not exist, but that is not what has happened."

A commercial fishing ban did little to stop poaching. But there are some bright spots. Regulators in some areas of the Amazon began adopting what’s known as a Community-Based Management approach. Indigenous communities agreed to accords that set certain dates during which protected lakes where pirarucu live could be harvested.

The results in at least one region, Juruá, were staggering, according to a 2016 study published in the journal Nature.

In lakes under the management system, pirarucu populations numbered on average nearly 305. In open-access lakes without a community-management approach, that number fell to a little over 9.

The researchers, University of East Anglia professor Carlos Peres and University of Rio Grande do Norte’ Dr. João Campos-Silva, compared the system to a “high-interest savings account” for the communities that protected the lakes. Maintaining the populations guaranteed an average annual revenue of nearly $11,000 per community, and $1,050 per household, the study found.

For some more color, this New York Times feature from 2014 offers nice look at what a pirarucu hunt through piranha-infested waters is like.

Still, it’s unclear from the study if this applied across different species. And, even if it does, that limited success could now be in jeopardy. President Jair Bolsonaro’s right-wing government is waging an all-out assault on environmental regulations. He campaigned on industrializing the Amazon, opening once off-limits areas to mining, logging and development. On his first day in office, Bolsonaro signed an executive order transferring the power to demarcate new indigenous territory from FUNAI, the agency charged with championing the welfare of tribes, to the Ministry of Agriculture, widely viewed as controlled by the powerful agribusiness lobby. That seems to reduce the likelihood of good-faith new accords with communities.

The administration muzzled Brazil’s main environmental enforcement agencies this month, barring them to talking to the press except to respond with a boilerplate statement saying they can no longer talk to the press. So, few expect there to be increased conservation efforts of the traditional sort, either.

And all that says nothing of what climate change will do to the populations.

“We’re hoping the pirarucu can withstand such challenges, since a die-off would rob villages across the Amazon of their lifeblood,” Claudio Batalha, 47, a coordinator of a project to protect the pirarucu, told The New York Times in 2014. “Without making such fishing sustainable, more outsiders could claim the forest as their own… That’s when the threat of greater forest devastation gets real.”

Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons, me

The green dream

It was early 2018 and the hunt for a three-word slogan was on. Democrats’ disastrous electoral defeat nearly two years earlier had electrified the party’s left wing, and propelled Medicare-For-All into the mainstream debate. Yet, even as the Trump administration took a flamethrower to nearly every major federal greenhouse gas regulation, the debate over climate change seemed to be moving at a much lower pace than the warming itself.

Then, one day in May, I noticed something. Randy Bryce, the mustachioed ironworker running to flip then-House Speaker Paul Ryan’s seat in Wisconsin, described his vision for a climate policy focused on clean-energy infrastructure as a “Green New Deal.” Days later, I saw it again, this time on the campaign website of some little-known twentysomething from near my neighborhood, about whose long-shot bid for Congress my old colleague Ryan Grim and his Intercept colleagues kept writing. Then I saw it again on another campaign site. And another.

Three’s a trend in journalism. I counted at least five. So I wondered, could this be the “Medicare-For-All for climate change?” The thing activists I spoke to regularly had pined after for so long? I started working on a story that examined the origins of the term Green New Deal, which went back more than a decade.

By June, the story was ready to go. Then, the day before it was set to publish, the results of New York’s federal primary came in. That woman from the Bronx and Queens won the biggest upset in recent memory. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was going to Washington, the first of the Green New Dealers. I had a bunch of unused material from my interview with her for the other story, so I wrote it up that night, declaring that Ocasio-Cortez would likely be the leading Democrat on climate change.

Last Thursday, that proved true. The freshman congresswoman and Sen. Ed Markey, a veteran lawmaker who led Democrats’ last effort to pass a cap-and-trade bill in 2009, released a six-page joint resolution outlining the core tenets of a Green New Deal. (You can read my breakdown here, or google any of the many others.)

It’s a sweeping document filled with ambitious, idealistic goals. After just two days, 67 House Democrats and 11 senators are cosponsoring the resolution. But it’s run into some controversy. Ocasio-Cortez’s office released the resolution to reporters on Wednesday night with a separate FAQ that appeared to contradict some aspects of the resolution, taking stances on nuclear energy and farming emissions that didn’t appear in the official legislation. Ocasio-Cortez said Saturday “a draft version that got uploaded + taken down,” but questions remain.

The politics of this matter. The resolution is, above all, a political statement. It’s also a map. For years, the Democratic Party was adrift on climate change. Its legislators patted themselves on the back for saying they believed in science. Yet nearly every bill proposed to deal with emissions focused on tweaking markets to give polluters a gentle nudge. The introduction of the first Green New Deal legislation ever is, if nothing else, acknowledgement that whispering “stop” at a racing train won’t untie us from the tracks.

In what seemed like a dismissive remark published Thursday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the Green New Deal “the green dream, or whatever.” At a press conference later that day, Ocasio-Cortez embraced the term. “I think it is a green dream,” she said. It’s one she’s got a whole lot of people chasing.


Need more but don’t want to read? I went on the podcast Trump On Earth to talk about the Green New Deal last month. You can listen here. I also went on Cheddar to talk about the resolution on Thursday. You can watch that here.


Welcome back to the newsletter. You may have noticed that I haven’t sent one since November. I got busy, felt depressed, and kind of lost interest. I also couldn’t stand the name. It was a bad pun. I know. I think I made a mistake in trying to format it the same way every time.

I’m relaunching the newsletter today with a new name, Melting Point. It came courtesy of my good buddy Damon Beres. I’m going to do my best to keep it relevant, timely and fun.

Thank you for reading. If you want to reach out with any questions or ideas for things to include in this newsletter, email me anytime: alexanderckaufman@gmail.com.

👋

Happy hour TONIGHT in Brooklyn with Kate Aronoff and me

Hello, friends.

I’m sorry it’s been a couple weeks since I’ve sent you something. I’m a schmuck! But a schmuck who’s co-hosting a happy hour tonight in Brooklyn. From about 7 p.m. - 10:30 p.m., you can join me and the very great Kate Aronoff at Cherry Tree Bar in Brooklyn. It’s super cheap, and the pizza is pretty good.

Kate did a nice job of summing up the event in an email she sent to friends last night, so I’m going to just blockquote that and hope those of you who agree “that Kaufman guy is a real schmuck” will show up for her. Come through!

The basic idea is just to bring together folks who work on, think and/or worry about climate change in any way shape or form. It will be a chance to hang out with cool/fun/smart people who are interested in the same stuff as you. It will not be a horribly depressing and studious, structured discussion about the National Climate Assessment, COP 24 et. al. No special knowledge of greenhouse gasses is needed to attend, just a vague commitment to prefiguring our leisurely eco-socialist future (i.e., chilling).

Please bring and/or invite any friends, comrades, coworkers, etc. who you think might be interested! I've almost certainly left off several people who should be on this list. 

Hopefully see you soon!

Kate

P.S. - This will hopefully soon become semi-regular. Maybe even regular! And certainly with a little more advanced notice than this late-night-email. So if you can't make it tomorrow but want to stay in the loop let me know :) 

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