Environmental Justice Should Not Be an Either/Or Proposition

02/25/2014 04:37 pm ET | Updated Apr 27, 2014

Part One -- K And E Shout In My Face

I thought I might get punched yesterday at a heavily attended and contentious city council meeting to discuss New York City's environment, specifically as it is affected by New York City garbage. The meeting was so heavily attended, hundreds of people had to wait hours in the cold outside the building to eventually get in to testify.

This could have happened anywhere because most big cities are struggling with this problem, some more successfully than others...

A garbage site is being built about a mile from where I live in Yorkville in Manhattan. It will change the lives of many people for the worse, not mine, but the residents of nearby public housing and city children who play soccer on a field right beside the garbage site.

The 91st Marine Transfer Station, is intended to take some of the garbage currently going to sites in poorer neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. People around these sites are understandably eager for the Yorkville dump to open.

Yesterday I met some of them. Many had read my previous articles opposing the 91st< Street Marine Transfer Station (for reasons you can read about here) and were pissed off.

Two in particular were memorable.

One, a woman I'll call "K", yelled at me for five straight minutes. Another, a man, refused to talk to me at all and became so flushed with anger I thought he was going to hit me. I chased him down a hallway. We argued vociferously. I'll call him "E".

As I hate apathy and love commitment, I was not surprised that I ended up admiring K and E, and found myself appreciating their situation in a more human way.

Part Two -- The Logical Fallacy

A little later I was I struck by how very odd it is that what angers your supposed enemy is often literally identical to what angers you. I don't mean the same but opposite -- I mean identical.

It's the competition for resources, the divide and conquer strategy seen from the inside.

E and K are outraged because they are afraid their kids' health is being damaged by too many garbage trucks driving through their neighborhoods. They have every reason to be afraid and outraged.

People next to the 91st Street garbage site supposed to help them believe the health of their children will be damaged by the new proposed dump, and their fear and their outrage is equally genuine and justified.

And we've all been scammed. We've all been sold a "logical fallacy".

In philosophy, this one is called the Bifurcated Fallacy or the Either/Or Fallacy:

EITHER E and K in Brooklyn and the Bronx get what they want OR the residents of Yorkville get what they want. EITHER pollution is reduced in one neighborhood OR it is reduced in another.

To use another highly technical philosophical term, this is total bullshit.

Nobody deserves to live in close proximity to garbage. Nobody deserves to have their kids' lungs baked with diesel fumes or, even worse, to see them get run down by garbage trucks. Nobody needs to be involved in such a choice or have to fight about it. In a city this rich, why are we even contemplating the idea that only one of us deserves protection?!

Dozens of poorer cities than ours have found ways of disposing of garbage that don't excessively damage any particular neighborhood at the expense of another.

Part Three -- The Really Depressing Question

We are told that we can't both be happy, that one of us must suffer, that there isn't enough money to keep all our children safe. This is absurd. Instead of fighting, we should be asking the following questions -- and then one more:

Why is there so much garbage in New York City? Why has the recycling rate in New York City been so incredibly low? (15 percent compared to 45 percent in Los Angeles and far more than that in European cities.) Why has the city allowed commercial trucks to remain toxic? Why isn't the private garbage-hauling industry regulated? Why aren't its workers protected as municipal garbage workers are? Why did the city sign a 20-year contract with a massive garbage disposal company with an economically and environmentally dubious record? Why sign any contract for such a long time? Why, when everyone knows that "disposal" is the worst garbage strategy, is this so central to the plan?

Like most Americans, none of us wants to ask the final and most depressing question, the one that actually lies at the heart of all of this:

Why, in the "greatest democracy on earth", does my vote or K's vote or even the relatively powerful E's vote have so much less influence than the super-vote of raw money?

The reason why E and K and I fight with each other is not because we disagree, but because we are unable to find and come to grips with the real enemy. The real enemy is hidden in the incremental corrosion of democracy achieved by the avid rich at the expense of the exhausted poor.

Part Four -- Real Estate And The Big Teat

New York City's economic landscape is dominated by the real estate industry. If you are a politician running for office, you must promise to give them what they want so they'll finance your campaign. If you take their money and don't give them what you promised once you're elected, forget about a second term, they'll finance someone else.

This huge dripping real estate teat was dangled over the candidates for Mayor in the last election. Quinn jumped at it with gusto and got in a decent gulp or two, but in the end de Blasio's height gave him the advantage. I don't impugn the integrity of either. I'm sure both would rather have been doing something else, thinking about policy, perhaps, or about doing the right thing for the people. But they couldn't. This was the dance required of them to get elected.

Real Estate Developers need friends in government. They need land, they need it rezoned, they need permits to build on it. Without these "accommodations" (pun intended) they can't build the luxury apartment buildings that make them the most money.

This is why most of the Marine Transfer Sites in Manhattan have not been built. The places where they should go -- away from housing, in existing ports, at existing shipping piers -- are the areas most ripe for development.

The only Marine Transfer site in Manhattan that is progressing is the only one where there is no room for development, the one up in Yorkville. It has already been fully developed by the city for public housing. It is jam-packed. It is one of the most densely populated areas of the city.

With no pressure from real estate interests to stop the worst (from a human perspective) of all the Manhattan garbage sites by far, the city has been forced to shrug it off, to let it go: "The hell with that congested area and its residents," or to put it another way, "Let them eat garbage."

The fact that the city already has a problem disposing of its existing garbage is not inhibiting development. Real estate developers develop. What do they care about the increase in the amount of crap this generates? As with so many large industries, the effluvia will take care of itself. Over there. Later. At someone else's expense.

Part Five -- Dear K And E, We Are Allies Not Enemies

E and K may think I'm their enemy, but I am not. I am not a Republican. I am not rich. I do not find de Blasio "radical" and never have. I voted for, and lived under, a mayor in London who makes him look like Ronald Reagan. It was fine.

You and I -- E and K -- and de Blasio (and all the government agencies trying to solve problems) have been dissed, demeaned and diminished by the purchase of the electoral process. Because of the power of real estate interests (in this particular case), we are now set against each other, perplexed, lashing out.

How the developers must laugh, and how relieved they must be, when they look down from their penthouses and see us wrestling with each other in the garbage. "Take that bag, bitch!" "No, you take it, you prick!" "No, I'm throwing it here!" Etc. Oh, what a hoot.

Part Six -- A Reasonable Proposal

I say forget that puny little tax for pre-K. Let Cuomo give us State money. Who cares where it comes from? Instead, let's tax over-development in New York City. Let's raise enough money from it so that all existing trash and all future trash can be disposed of in an equitable modern fashion that hurts no one.

This is one of the rare occasions where the inevitable threat of "Then I'll take my business elsewhere," is empty.

There is only one New York City.


Further Reading: Talking Trash Report. This outlines a bunch more fallacies about the whole New York City trash plan cobbled together by Bloomberg.