She cannot be serious. It is impossible that the mayor of the country’s second largest city – a city so blue it might well give off its own ultraviolet radiation – would put forth a series of “environment protection” commitments this unambitious. Would announce those commitments in a social media post that confirms the “reality” of climate change.
But Karen Bass did; she really did mark the occasion of her first Earth Day in charge of Los Angeles by proposing that the city contribute to the global fight for climate resiliency by trimming a marginally greater number of trees each year. Absent is any mention of the port, the airports, the carbon-spewing buildings; each of which featured in Bass’s climate plan when she was still a candidate for office. Transportation comes in for a mention only with reference to replacing city vehicles with electrics and doing some installation of public charging stations for electric vehicles.
Tepid, tepid, tepid.
Some of this appears to be an apparent misunderstanding by Bass of the different context in which she now is operating. The line introducing the climate protection plan on social media (“Climate change is real. Climate change is here. And climate change is a threat to all of us.”) was lifted directly from the Mayor’s State of the City address. In that speech, the remark is an opportunity to elbow D.C. Republicans in the ribs (“my former colleagues in Washington are in denial”).
In Washington, congressional stalemate has allowed lawmakers from either party the ability to cast themselves as heroes eternally staving off the inhuman threat to their constituents that the other party represents. But Washington is far away. Bass deserves no credit, let alone to be accorded heroic, for repairing to stalemate mentality like a security blanket. Here action is possible and we will expect you to do more than contrast yourself with the other guy. There is no other guy.
Mayor Bass notes approvingly that the present danger posed by our warming climate is “a case long settled here.” This is true. Bass fails, somehow, to extrapolate from that knowledge: that Angelenos are no more in need of our Mayor confirming the reality of climate change than we would need her to tell us whether the ground on which we are walking is solid. As many steps as we are behind already in the fight to preserve a future for human life on this planet, we must be serious, must pursue with whatever means are at our disposal the course that will best allow us to protect one another.
What we have here is anything but that. That we could possibly focus on maintaining (maintaining!) city trees as a redoubt against climate change is beyond crediting. Not expanding the canopy of native shade trees, not removing invasive palms, not protecting mature trees from developers and homeowners. Trimming trees and removing stumps.
In her State of the City speech, Bass focused not just on electric cars, but announced her commitment, too, to building Metro ridership up. There were no details of how that might be accomplished, but the broad strokes appear to be addressing system safety (which is to say, responding to the much-reported-on condition of the trains) and “building out our system” (which is to say, passively allowing voter-approved expansions under Mayors Villaraigosa and Garcetti to continue apace). As bland and noncommittal as these statements are, neither would they, though they be perfectly executed, even be sufficient to move the needle when it comes to the percentage of regional trips taken by transit.
(Metro expansion is underwhelming to say the least: the politics of the agency has dictated the development of streetcar lines where they are unlikely to prosper; where, even, they are likely to be less of use than the noble but never much appreciated city bus. If ever, riding high, you need a memento mori, look at Crenshaw Line ridership.)
Bass’s vision on the climate seems to so determinedly eschew ambition as to be anti-ambitious; a chastened Caesar, so modest in appetite that Brutus and the senators, frazzled now, cannot recall why first they had picked up their knives.
“A chicken in every pot” has cultural ubiquity in the United States as the stand-in for the give-the-people-what-they-want sloganeering of politicians who neither have the means nor the intention of fulfilling their promises to voters. It cautions candidates, too: your stated aims are the rope by which you hang yourself; your opponents will be only too glad to remind voters of every shortfall. The lesson for the good student is to aim at nothing and make no promises.
That the slogan in question comes from a Republican circular leading up to the Great Depression which boasted of delivering “a chicken in every pot, and a car in every backyard” feels appropriate. For, now, the aspirational heft of car ownership is nothing like it was a century ago, so much so that increasing access to electric vehicles frequently (as in Bass’s plan) is the tent pole for many of the most meager attempts to face up to climate change. Our new slogan: an electric car in the driveway of every house on fire.
But this anti-ambition is unpardonable. It is self-preservation, not even in the literal sense, but in truth just the preservation of a career, counterposed against the preservation of human society. We need our Mayor to think bigger. It is, in truth, much preferable that a well-meaning official should aim higher and fall short than to cast about for the easiest and least impactful accomplishments.
Burnham said there was magic in big plans, but I do not find this to be so: with big plans, prosaic implementation will always trump the romantic self-indulgence of planning. But, with little plans, even perfect implementation can only amount to little achievements.
And we are not alone at play here, not safe in our sandbox. Shakespeare noted that there is an ambition that belongs to the ocean in its own right; as we dally, the ocean has a greedy eye on its borders, year by year it lifts up and up and up to peer in at the cities at its door, making no little plans for us.