Sunday, December 15, 2013

Space Station Logic Applied to Spaceship Earth

The International Space Station, orbiting above earth, has a problem. One of its cooling systems has failed. The astronauts responded in a refreshingly rational way. According to the AP report, they "dimmed the lights, turned off unnecessary equipment", and will take action over the next couple weeks to repair the cooling system. Even in space, where the outside temperature is -454 degrees F, cooling is a big deal. Extremetech reported that "Fortunately, there is a redundant cooling system, otherwise the six-person crew would be quickly bailing out and heading back to Earth aboard a Soyuz capsule before being cooked alive."

It's important to have a safe place in the universe to return to if the space station were to fail. Unfortunately, the earth has its own cooling problem. To keep its overall temperature steady, it needs to dissipate as much energy as continuously pours in from the sun. But the cooling mechanism has begun to malfunction, because we've altered the atmosphere with all the extra molecules we're pumping up into it from underground. Our neighboring planet, Venus, is 900 degrees F not so much because it's closer to the sun but because the atmosphere is so dense with heat trapping molecules--the same ones we're adding. That the molecules are invisible is part of their power. They seem harmless, but it is in their nature to let sunlight in while trapping heat headed out--the massive increase in their numbers is catching more and more of the earth's heat before it can dissipate out into space.

The heat buildup is not causing us to be baked alive, but it's enough to cause a gradual breakdown in the planet's critical systems. Unlike the cooling malfunction on the spaceship, which can be fixed by switching out some components, the earth's predicament has a momentum that builds with each passing day. Procrastination is the enemy; a last minute fix will be impossible. In addition, even if everyone on earth could jump in a billion Soyuz space capsules and abandon the planet, there's nowhere to go.

Space station logic dictates the obvious solution for earth--take immediate action to power down as much as possible so the problem doesn't get worse, all the while powering up with energy sources that won't harm the planet.

But earth logic doesn't work that way. If earth logic were applied onboard the space station, the astronauts would debate whether the warning signal on the dashboard was politically motivated. Or they might not talk about it at all because it's too depressing. They'd bridle at the inconvenience of reducing their power use, even temporarily. Instead of fixing the cooling mechanism, they might think the breakdown is too daunting to fix, or is God's will, and invest instead in dubious plans for somehow surviving the calamity when the other cooling mechanism also fails.

The space station has been controversial. Because it's so hard to keep people alive in the hostile environment of space, manned missions are far more expensive than using robots. The station's scientific value has been questioned, and it tends to transform astronauts from heroic adventurers into plumbers or, in this case, AC repairmen.

There is, however, one very important service the space station could provide humanity, as a demonstration of how to live within our means. While we on earth have seemingly unlimited supplies of energy and water streaming into our homes through wires and pipes, the astronauts must live within a strict energy and water budget. The station literally harvests today's energy--produced by the sun only eight minutes prior--to run its machines. Without the star-crossed option of raiding the earth's long buried stores of fossil carbon energy, the astronauts must make do with the 75-90 kilowatts of energy their one acre solar array captures. Rather than depending on nature to continually supply more water, most of which goes down the drain unused, the station is designed to use most of its water over and over again.

The astronauts, then, are directly responsible for harvesting the energy they use, and face immediate consequences if they misuse the energy and water available. We tend to think that the astronauts are living the fantasy life up in space, but they live in a world of responsibility and consequence that is far more reality-based that ours.

About the malfunctioning cooling system, a space station spokesman said, "the problem may eventually be serious, but is not an emergency at the moment." Out in space, a problem that "is not an emergency" gets immediate attention nonetheless. Worst case scenarios are taken seriously. The stakes are too high to procrastinate or hope for the best. We, too, live on a spaceship--the best ever fashioned. If we learn from the astronauts' example and adopt space logic in our own lives and policies, then what began as a fantasy of space travel will have paid unexpected dividends, by speeding our journey back to reality here on spaceship earth.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Nelson Mandela and What the World Demands of Its Leaders

With the passing of a leader who persevered beyond all measure, and finally triumphed to father a nation, a cluster of wishes:

- that a leader's job were easier, and a misleader's job much harder,
- that humanity's inner compass would lead more towards unity and compassion than division and resentment,
- that a nation's foundations were so strong and its trajectory so well considered that even a mediocre leader would do.

Telephone Town Halls, and the Unprocessed Politician

As the temperature dipped below 20 degrees F on a Thursday evening, the choice looked to be between fulfilling my responsibilities as designated dog walker or attending a "senate debate" at Clio Hall on the campus of Princeton University. The subject: Creationism. Their debates earlier this year dealt with gay marriage, gun control, and the use of steroids in sports, so you have to figure these debates are not historical reenactments. If not for the cold weather, I might have made it to Clio Hall, if for nothing else than to see how half of Americans process out of existence the overwhelming physical evidence of evolution. Instead, the pooch got a chance to correspond with the other local canines, after which a more substantial alternative to the debate suddenly arrived, in the form of a phone call.

It was an electronic call, from my representative in Washington, Rush Holt. Stay on the line, the recording said, to participate in a Telephone Town Hall session. What followed, as more than 1000 joined in, was about 45 minutes during which I had this eerie but pleasing feeling that I live in a civilized democracy where representatives listen, and take reality and people's diverse needs seriously. Consider how rarely we actually hear our elected representatives speak at length on any subject, in words unpackaged, unprocessed by the media filter. On news programs dominated by news personalities and pundits, a representative's words are used primarily as additives, fodder for the audience's amusement or scorn, or to make a pundit's point. If the representatives' faces appear at all, it tends to be when they have done something embarrassing. They become, then, caricatures, barely recognizable after all the media processing.

A telephone town hall, then, is a bit like eating whole food. It lacks the zing of an Oriole cookie, but is more deeply satisfying. One of Rush Holt's recurrent phrases is "as if we have a future". We must govern, he says, invest in our youth and in the nation's infrastructure, as if we have a future. His is a lonely voice in the current political universe. How do you build a future when people are so focused on denying past and present, and making enemies out of science and government? The miracle of the mind gives us equal capacity to see deeply into reality and to deny it. It's the heavy processing that's getting in the way.

We tend to think of politics as a corrupting influence, but in Rush Holt, one sees how politics has actually made him more thoughtful, more considerate of others' viewpoints. He says he has responded to some 50,000 inquiries from constituents this year, writing the responses himself. He obviously has learned not to be dismissive, but instead to receive each concern with the same  seriousness the voter feels in expressing it. The desire to get elected, most commonly characterized as a corrupting influence, can also give the representative incentive to listen better.

There's a lot of whole grained reality out there--real food, real evidence, real people, unprocessed by factories, fear, media format or ideology, and full of nutrients for body, mind and soul. Last night's dose unexpectedly arrived in an unsolicited phone call.

Monday, December 02, 2013

America's Best Days

Written for Memorial Day, 2013

In a time when most people feel disconnected from the nation's wars and those who fight them, there's something missing on Memorial Day and Veterans Day. To begin restoring a celebration of public service most exemplified by those who put their lives on the line for this nation, I have an unusual proposal.

We have to free ourselves of the "Greatest Generation"--not the extraordinary generation that came of age in the 1930's and 40's, but the expression itself and the mindset it implies. Though I admire the book by that name, to call any past generation the greatest is contrary to what politicians repeatedly tell us, and what we all want to believe: that America's best days still lie ahead.

Furthermore, though one generation paid the ultimate price in battle, it wasn't just one generation that survived the Great Depression and won World War II. As with any great movement to overcome adversity, all generations from that era pitched in. There were grandparents helping out at home while the parents were on the front lines or in the factories. There were scientists in mid-career who stepped out of academia to develop better weaponry. There were kids who pitched in while living with scarcity and the uncertainty of when or if a parent would return from overseas.

Deprivation during the Great Depression taught Americans to make do with less, to help each other out, and fostered a sense of shared destiny. It made people more resourceful and ready to sacrifice when the war came along. They postponed their personal goals--career, marriage, family--and many sacrificed their lives, for a cause bigger than themselves, bigger than this nation, to determine if this world would be worth living in.

The nation achieved true greatness not through a particular generation but through a particular forging together of spirit, resourcefulness, government and economy, all in collaboration with allied nations around the world. The result, though not perfect, was equal to the challenge.

Most of us, by contrast, have lived through a long stretch of relative prosperity. We've been told to serve ourselves and the economy by shopping, and to be suspicious of government and global concerns. The keys to victory in WWII were everything that's now politically unpalatable: collective effort and personal sacrifice, strong government action, aggressive investment in new technologies. In our time, the Greatest Generation stands more as a shrine than an inspiration, a trophy on the shelf, to be given a solemn nod in political speeches--a sort of "glad we don't have to do that anymore."

To make matters worse, we are largely ignoring the one struggle that we, as individuals and collectively, could really make a difference in. What curious homage we pay to those who sacrificed for our country, as we cling to a status quo that speeds the loss of so much of our fertile land, precious shorelines and natural splendor to deepening droughts and rising sea levels.

If anything, our current challenge will require something far greater than the "Greatest". As seas rise and weather grows more extreme, we have no evil dictator to rally against. Guns will not protect us from climate change. Machines, vital for defeating fascism and long our ticket to extraordinary comfort and mobility, are liabilities in their current, fossil fuel-dependent form, as they exhale climate-changing gases through their exhaust pipes and chimneys. Because the enemy is not on some distant front but embedded in our lifestyles, we face a far more difficult task, emotionally and politically.

Those who defend the status quo, a "return to normal" after Hurricane Sandy, are not doing the American lifestyle and our futures any favors. "Normal" is what got us into this mess. Normal, by incrementally destabilizing the climate and the oceans, will in time make normal impossible.

While the meaning of Memorial Day parades and holding the flag high endures, the most meaningful way to show we value past sacrifice is by taking up the challenge of the future, rather than letting it wash over us. Though many get depressed by talk of climate change, as a force to oppose it has many convenient aspects. No one need die in the effort. Alternative energies are plentiful, and can be tapped with existing technologies. The human capacity to adapt to and overcome adversity--celebrated in the aftermath of catastrophes--can also be used to collective avert them. Tapping our own resourcefulness, we'll get better at squeezing fossil fuels out of the economy and our own lifestyles as we go along.

If we focus ourselves, our towns, states, nation and the world, on meeting the challenge of radicalized climate, will other problems languish? WWII showed that a massive, concerted effort to confront the central threat to civilization's future can bring progress in dealing with other problems as well. America came out of the war with a stronger, transformed economy. Women and minorities made gains. We can make progress on many problems by solving the biggest of them all.

If we act, we won't need our grandchildren to call us the greatest. The satisfaction of sparing their world, and ours, will be enough. We will know, and will have proven, that in a nation that both celebrates its past and believes in its future, the Greatest are always yet to come.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Kennedy and National Sabotage

Back when I was taking care of indoor plants at the Michigan Union, on whose steps John F. Kennedy announced his proposal for a Peace Corps, I noticed a disturbing phenomenon. As soon as a plant under my care happened to reach a state of perfect form and size, it would somehow become a target. It would be stolen, or blundered into, or, if it was in the U-Club, where beer was served, it would be spontaneously chosen as a receptacle for the vomit of some student celebrating Michigan's victory in a big game. There seemed to be peril in perfection.

I think of those plants when contemplating Kennedy's demise.

JFK wasn't perfect, but he had a lot going for him and he was evolving in a good direction. He was, they say, the first president to call civil rights a moral issue.  He called people to a new era of public service. He had a combination similar to Franklin D. Roosevelt--privileged upbringing along with a prolonged personal struggle with pain and partial debility. Biographer James Tobin says Roosevelt's battle with polio, necessitating ongoing improvisation with remedies, gave him a confidence in his inner strength, a deeper compassion for others' suffering, and informed his non-ideological search for solutions to the Great Depression.

People see what they want to see in Kennedy. What I see in him, rightly or not, is what I want to see in the nation--a capacity to evolve, to learn from mistakes, to see reality without the filter of ideology, to take on tough challenges, to move from intolerance to compassion, from pettiness to magnanimity, and an understanding that self-realization and public service--the prosperity of the private and shared realms--are not at odds but closely linked.

The mourning of his death is heightened by an awareness that the nation has drifted away from these qualities. Themes I internalized while growing up in the afterglow of the World War II victory--the thrift my parents needed to survive the Great Depression, the courage, sacrifice and winning spirit celebrated in so many postwar movies--are sidelined in today's emphasis on consumerism, denial of grave threat, and indifference towards shared destiny. America's history since Kennedy is one of lessons unlearned-- the descent into Vietnam made all the worse by the subsequent descent into Iraq--of ideologies willfully disconnected from reality, and of passive collective surrender to the slow motion demolition that is climate change.

Military service, noble and mainstream in World War II, became something to avoid in the Vietnam War. Civilian public service, which in Kennedy's vision was a noble pursuit, became the shared sacrifice of 55 mph speed limits and lowered thermostats during Jimmy Carter's presidency. Not seeing any greatness or nobility in observing speed limits or wearing sweaters, people embraced Reagan's vision of national destiny as the maximization of self, at the expense of what is held in common. The appealing optimism of self-realization was shackled to an increasingly debilitating pessimism about our capacity to achieve anything together as a nation.

It's appealing to think that, if Kennedy had survived the bullets and the next election, the nation's trajectory would have been much different. Might a personal thawing between Kennedy and Khrushchev have led to a thawing of the Cold War? Might Kennedy's thinking have evolved quickly enough to realize the futility of involvement in Vietnam? Might the giving of oneself to a national cause, which made victory in World War II possible, have survived sufficiently to be mobilized in the fight to stop feeding climate change?

"Ask what you can do for your country". That most people aren't asking that question is the biggest void now. Those who lived through the Great Depression and World War II had no difficulty understanding that the nation's destiny depends on an individual's contribution to a shared project. Problems collectively created can only be collectively solved. Kennedy tried to sustain and recast that ethic for a new era. But now, public service has been enshrined as military service and the rescue work of what we call first responders, whose courage is in actuality the last line of defense against crises that no one acted earlier to avert. That enshrinement all too conveniently lets the rest of us off the hook. The individual's role became relegated, in George W. Bush's presidency, to shopping. When Barack Obama, in his first campaign for president, asked people ever so modestly to keep their tires inflated rather than extract more oil from our coastlines, he was ridiculed.

If the present were more illuminated, an unrealized presidency 50 years distant might seem a glimmer. It is the darkness that makes Kennedy's light burn so bright.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Filibuster Busters

As of yesterday, an overweening lust to filibust has finally been busted in the Senate, restoring some trust that majority rule can at last be reinstated as the norm in the highly strained democratic process. Though both parties have used the filibuster when in the Senate minority, the tradition has been severely abused in recent years, with filibusters becoming the norm rather than the exception.

According to Harry Reid, "In the history of the Republic, there have been 168 filibusters of executive and judicial nominations. Half of them have occurred during the Obama Administration – during the last four and a half years."

Bringing an end to most filibusters can be seen as a rare imposition of consequence--you abuse it, you lose it--in a governing body badly in need of consequence for bad actors. The ubiquitous columnist David Brooks, at his usual spot on PBS's The News Hour, said that instead of consequence for bad actors, we should "try to get people to behave better." Columnists, of course, suffer no consequence for being wrong, nor do elected representatives, who successfully hide behind the "both sides are to blame" posture of the news media. There is no motivation to "behave better" when anyone who does so gets lumped into the "both sides are to blame" category regardless. The supposed public watchdogs, seeking to appear evenhanded, end up turning a blind eye to any imbalance in behavior.

Statistics like Reid's "168 filibusters" can be manipulated, but the news media, rather than hiding behind the false fairness of "both sides are to blame", needs to come up with some way to measure abuse, so that bad actors can be identified early on. Otherwise, as on a playground, the lack of early intervention leads to the need for more extreme action. 

Saturday, November 02, 2013

"12 Years a Slave" and the kidnapping of good intentions

At the local movie theater, we were already in a weakened state before the main feature began. The previews hit us like ten minutes of shock and awe, as our bodies were bombarded with those low bass detonations that movie house sound systems deliver with merciless accuracy to the gut, while the most grotesque images of violence danced before us in a relentless march towards doom. The images are so rapid fire as to seem like they are streaming from the barrel of an assault weapon that should have been banned long ago. There was, at least, one oasis of love and happiness halfway through--laughter, familial joy. I clung to that moment of felicity like someone might cling to a streetlamp pole in a hurricane, only to find out that it was a preview for a remake of Rosemary's Baby. The ten seconds of happiness served no purpose other than to set up more blood and gore.

The logic of all the violence is to achieve within us a sense of thrill and danger while we risk nothing in our comfortable theater chairs beyond the loss of two hours' time. The movies' monstrous creatures bring civilization to the brink of ruin, vanquished only at the last possible moment by some individual bestowed with unusual powers and courage. The hero, though suffering countless blows, emerges like the audience unscathed, lending us a pleasing feeling of immortality.

Meanwhile, outside the theater, the real world is threatened not by rapacious invaders but by the relentless liberation of tiny, odorless, invisible, normally harmless carbon molecules that accumulate in the atmosphere and oceans in concentrations that ultimately alter the earth's destiny. All of this is done not out of malice, but as a side-effect of well-meaning people seeking happiness and economic security. The enormous momentum of the changes wrought by all this unintention allows for no last minute reprieve, insuring a trauma measured not in hours but centuries.

In other words, the story that works for cinema, that danger comes from outside, is powerful and malicious, and can be overcome by last minute action, leaves people unprepared for combating or even identifying the real threats to our world.

More reality-based was the feature film, "12 Years a Slave", about a free negro, Solomon Northup, who in 1842 is lured out of his prosperous life in New York state, then kidnapped and sold as a slave in Georgia. It's based on a true story, from a book by the same name. Turns out that kidnapping free blacks to be sold into slavery was a common practice, and as Northup is sold and resold, bouncing from one plantation to another, the atrocities perpetrated in the name of picking cotton become one insult and humiliation layered upon another. Slave families are torn apart, affection and violence are joined as one in the slavers' behavior, a slave's intelligence and learning must remain hidden in order to survive, while the slavers' ignorance and vengeful insecurities are on full display. Plantation owners cherry pick quotes from the bible to defend the indefensible.

Most memorable and effective were the long, unedited shots, as in an interrupted lynching, when the lynchers flee and the slave is left alone, gasping for breath with the noose still taut around his neck, standing on tiptoes in the mud. Not even fellow slaves dare to intervene. In that lingering scene, with no sound but his constricted breathing, it is the inaction that is most terrifying of all.

We emerged from the theater shaken; I was barely able to walk. It seemed false to speak. We would rise later from the depths of feeling, enough to talk about what we had seen. I used to be comforted by the thought that the nation has come a long way since that sordid era. How could society have condoned such cruelty for so long? There have been great strides, and yet the evidence mounts that though the injustice due to the color of one's skin has been reduced, another injustice is deepening according to the timing of one's birth. We have learned to treat one another better, but the unborn generations, with no vote and no legal recognition, are the ones getting dumped on.

What one becomes aware of in the movie's plantation scenes is the vast amount of physical work that needed to be done--picking cotton, harvesting timber, cutting sugar cane. Society's physical work is now largely done by machines, and though the machines are wonderful, the rapacious extractions of fuels from the earth, and the pouring of carbon into the atmosphere, are decidedly not. To power our present day economy, the scars on a slave's back have become the scars in nature--the mountains blown up to mine coal, the Canadian forests obliterated so oil can be extracted from the underlying tarsands. And the destabilization of the climate and the acidification of the oceans are as invisible and even more lasting than the emotional and cultural trauma to slaves--trauma that has been taking generations to heal. Violence and injustice, that in "12 Years a Slave" are in full view, are now obscured by time and distance, giving the illusion of progress.

Our predicament--the need to extract ourselves from a fossil fuel economy--is much like that of John Woolman, the 18th century New Jersey Quaker who worked much of his life to end slavery. From a website honoring his legacy:
"he provided an example of non-participation in slavery. John refused to write wills, bills of sale, or any other document that perpetuated slavery. He boycotted slave products, willing to appear foolish in the eyes of others. And he capitalized on every opportunity to explain why he did not use the cotton, silver, rum, sugar or dyed clothing that others found acceptable."
"12 Years a Slave" drives home how a slave-based economy warps not only the nature of the slave but the slave-owner as well. Even those up north were compromised to the extent they used the products of an unethical economy. How different is our situation, as we seek to reduce our carbon footprints by consuming less red meat, using fewer plastic bags, and driving more efficient cars? Though we are free, we are not free to live moral lives. Every aspect of our generosity to ourselves and others--the comfort of our homes and offices, the food we eat, the trips we take--is dependent on energy that feeds a climatic sabotage of the future. Though the distant consequence allows the illusion of an ethical society, our good intentions are constantly being kidnapped, to later be used against us.

Perhaps the cruelest moment in the film is when Northup is handed a whip and given little choice but to whip a fellow slave. Even as beneficiaries of the economy, we too have no practical choice but to contribute to a massive and irreparable harm. The chairs in the movie theater provided some small comfort, but walking out of the theater into the present day did not.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Giving Good News its Due

News reports tend to emphasize the negative about any change proposed for or imposed on society, deepening the challenge of altering the status quo. Government's failures are put on full display, while its successes are given short shrift. Proactive efforts are seldom given credit when they succeed. Expressions of worst case scenarios, meant to discourage us from attempting change of any sort, go unchallenged. This focus on bad news ingrains in the public a belief that we cannot collectively solve our collectively created problems.

An exception to that can be found in a New York Times report entitled "Few problems with cannabis for California", which appeared on page A1 of Sunday's paper. Though it begins with a paragraph filled with negative aspects of marijuana legalization, it quickly pivots towards the positive in subsequent paragraphs, beginning with a dismissal of common fears associated with legalization:
"Warnings voiced against partial legalization — of civic disorder, increased lawlessness and a drastic rise in other drug use — have proved unfounded."
Reports of communities having trouble with legalized medical marijuana are followed immediately by solutions other communities have found to those problems:
"And though Los Angeles has struggled to regulate marijuana dispensaries, with neighborhoods upset at their sheer number, the threat of unsavory street traffic and the stigma of marijuana shops on the corner, communities that imposed early and strict regulations on their operations have not experienced such disruption."
Though potential downsides to legalizing marijuana are mentioned, so are the various upsides, such as increased tax revenue, reduced crime, and evidence that people use marijuana as a substitute for alcohol. Because marijuana supposedly does not impair drivers as much as alcohol, the reduction in alcohol use could lead to fewer traffic accidents. (Not that anyone would want to drive after using either one.)

What seems unusual here is not only the positive slant, which dismisses fears and then reports on how pro-active efforts by government have paid off, but also the embedding of this positive story in the fabric of the article.

Imagine if reports of floods, rather than devoting themselves to long testimonials of victims, would instead emphasize that towns with stricter regulation of development in flood zones suffered less destruction. Or if reports of wildfires, while documenting the damage and personal trauma, gave equal coverage to those areas where proactive "fuel-reduction" burns performed in previous years had saved forests and communities. Or if reports of weather extremes would integrate into the fabric of the text the link these extremes have with the use of fossil fuels, thereby showing that action now could reduce destructive storms later.

Though readers would lose some of the spectator thrills of bad news, we would gain the empowering sense that there are solutions out there. Government would be portrayed not so much as the entity that comes in and cleans up the mess, but the entity that did what it takes to forestall disaster.

Friday, October 04, 2013

George Will's Marxian Serenity

Convention holds that our political axis extends left and right from the moderate center in opposite directions, with extreme left and right extremely distant from each other. But what if the left and right are not divergent but instead tend to converge at their fringes, exhibiting similar traits in their most extreme forms.

I first encountered evidence of this in a talk in April, 2012 by columnist George Will at Princeton University's Whig Hall. He had recently joined the Board of Trustees for the university.

Will's tone of choice is supercilious, relieved periodically by some wit or even a moment of self-deprecation. The life of the mind, he said, should be fun, and then offered his "beer-centric theory of civilization", beginning with the Egyptians. Beer saved the Middle Ages from water-borne diseases. Benjamin Franklin offered beer as "proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy." But he primarily devoted his energies to denigrating government and skewering liberals like Pelosi and Biden as feeble-minded. He ridiculed the New York Times one minute, quoted it as an authoritative source the next. But he also offered students some advice.

Mr. Will ended his talk abruptly, calling for questions. I was becoming impressed by how many questions he was taking when, as he began responding to a questioner's doubts about our nation's future competitiveness with China ("It is a great nation, with problems, but...), he suddenly began coughing. His face turned beet red. His authoritative voice shrank to a near whisper, and he paced back and forth on the stage, telling the audience he would quickly recover. A woman offered him a pill. He looked at the container and said he was already full of the stuff.

He seemed, suddenly and for the first time, vulnerable. He who had bristled with cutting remarks, with nothing but contempt for government and liberals, was suddenly speechless, coughing, voice shrunken. I felt for a moment some sympathy for this man. We waited for him to recover. When his voice had mostly returned, and after having expressed uncertainty about what will remain once the government bashers have fully exercised their passions, he finished by saying he has "almost a Marxist serenity..." And there it was, laid bare, the kinship with Marx, the shared certainty that the great evil, be it capitalism or liberalism, will collapse of its own weight. It was the serenity of a warrior prepared for come-what-may, armed with a nihilist's willingness to risk all, including country, on the certain truth of his ideology.

Where had I heard this before? I was taken back to 1973 and readings of Marx and Engels in a college economics course. Some students in the class, who were ready to turn Yellow Springs, Ohio into a miniature Soviet state where socialism could prosper in all its glory, made the argument for revolution. Capitalism has internal contradictions that will surely bring about its collapse. We must act now to overthrow the system. The insights of Marx and Engels had power and appeal, but my disillusionment came when the fearless student revolutionaries were asked who would assume power after the revolution. "We will," they declared. It sounded all too convenient.

One could speculate on how a rightwing columnist could adopt characteristics of those on the extreme left. There are the distorting requirements of his pundit's calling--the need, under the glare of stage lights to project certainty, the polarizing format of point/counterpoint, the threat to his niche, career and following posed by admitting error, expressing moderation or changing his mind. One could wonder at the privileged position of pundits like Mr. Will, who are given such ample space in multiple media to ascribe political and moral failings to others while their own training and cumulative track record remain unquestioned, their backgrounds and personal failings unexplored.

Now, in October, 2013, with the federal government shut down and an even more debilitating default looming, we see the fruition of a nihilism that George Will, and the pundit culture he inhabits, has done so much to cultivate.

Note: In a recent column, Will tries to pull Republicans back from the brink ("The government should not close."), while at the same time egging them on, encouraging them to complete "the neutering of this presidency."

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Going Negative On Natives--The Latest Example in the NYTimes

The New York Times is one of the bedrocks of news, which makes it hard to understand why its opinion page would show a weakness for ill-informed attacks on native plants and their proponents. The latest is by Verlyn Klinkenborg, a point-by-point rebuttal of which can be found further down in this post, but his is just one in a series.

First in my memory is George Ball, president of Burpee Seed Company and former president of the American Horticultural Society, who despite these distinguished labels launched an error-filled broadside (Border War, 3/19/06) against people who promote the planting of native flora. In his words, people who promote natives are xenophobic, narrowminded, the horticultural equivalent of radical fundamentalists, utopian, elitist snobs, anti-exotic partisans, and (last but not least) dangerous to a free society.

Then there was Sean Wilsey, (High Line, Low Aims, 7/9/08) who spoke disparagingly of the proposal to plant a ribbon of native species on Manhattan's High Line. Apparently lacking any botanical or ecological knowledge that might have heightened his appreciation of the plan, he made it sound like the High Line would be little more than a linear patch of weedy sumac--a species he may have confused with the ubiquitous non-native Tree of Heaven. Time, and the spectacular congregation of native plants that now thrive on the very popular elevated walkway, have proven him wrong.

(Update, 11.29.13: Another which I forgot to mention when writing this piece appeared on April 3, 2011. In “Mother Nature’s Melting Pot,” Hugh Raffles, an immigrant who had just received citizenship, characterizes native plant advocates as nativists with the same core fear of aliens as the Tea Party. After cherry picking a few beneficial aspects of some introduced species, he calls for an "inclusive" approach, which presumably would include disease pathogens and agricultural pests. As with Klinkenborg's piece, he mentions eucalyptus, climate change, claims that most efforts to control invasives are futile, believes the term "native" to be arbitrary, characterizes any "mythic time of past purity" as an artificial construct, and implies that the rapid introduction of new species from other continents is a natural phenomenon and nothing new. Letters rebutting Mr. Raffles' logic can be found here.)

The latest installment of this attack on native plant advocacy, as mentioned, arrived this past week (Hey, You Calling Me an Invasive Species?, 9/7/13), written by a member of the Times' editorial board, Verlyn Klinkenborg. Avoiding George Ball's name-calling and Sean Wilsey's dismissive tone, his thesis is that the distinction between native and nonnative species is now an arbitrary one, given the passage of centuries and the ever-expanding influence of humans on the natural world.

Klinkenborg's opinion piece was prompted by recent public protests against a plan to thin out a dense forest of non-native eucalyptus trees growing on Mount Sutro in San Francisco. The University of California San Francisco (UCSF) owns the property, which the local fire department has said is in urgent need of thinning in order to protect nearby buildings from the highly combustible eucalyptus. Reducing the dense shade will improve the health of the trees while providing some light for native vegetation to grow beneath them. Sounds benign, yet locals who walk in the forest are calling the proponents of the plan "plant facists" who want to impose the tyranny of nativism on a woods that is perfect just the way it is.

Joining the chorus of protest, Nathan Winograd, an animal rights advocate who blogs on the Huffington Post wrote a post about the Mount Sutro tree-thinning plan entitled "Biological Xenophobia: The Environmental Movement's War on Nature". Adopting the strident tone of George Ball, he has nothing but contempt for the concept of native plants, preferring that "every life that appears on this Earth is welcomed and respected." Apparently, he's never grown any plant he valued enough to save from the weeds.

The most informative report, as opposed to opinion, on the San Francisco controversy that I could find is here. The university describes the plan this way: "Under the guidance of an outside licensed arborist, UCSF will remove approximately 1,250 trees, each less than 6 inches in diameter, while also thinning shrubs and mowing non-woody perennial plants in the 100-foot buffer zone. All told, the work will encompass approximately 15.6 acres of the 61-acre Reserve."

Here is a point by point rebuttal of Mr. Klinkenborg's opinion piece:

"Since the 1880s, there have been blue gum eucalyptus trees growing on San Francisco’s Mount Sutro, which lies just south of Golden Gate Park. Recently, the University of California, San Francisco, which owns most of Mount Sutro, has been trying to thin the dense eucalyptus forest. The reason is fire control — eucalyptus trees are “fire intensive,” shedding a lot of debris and burning with unusual volatility. But the effort to cull the Mount Sutro forest has been met with strident protest by residents who want to see the eucalyptus left untouched."
Mr. Klinkenborg only mentions fire once in the oped, but fire hazard is a big deal in the California landscape, and the planting of Eucalyptus trees close to structures has doomed many a building when the trees' high flammability causes them to explode. The link he offers, another opinion piece in a distinguished scientific journal, Science, actually offers compelling reasons to alter the forest. There's the current fire hazard to reduce, and the opportunity to improve habitat for the resident great horned owls by re-establishing some native flora. 
By the standard of the California Native Plant Society, eucalyptus, which were brought from Australia, are officially nonnative trees because they were introduced after the first European contact with the New World. But the trees on Mount Sutro have been there within the memory of every living San Franciscan, and to the generations who have grown up within view of them, it seems almost perverse to insist that they are aliens.
No science here, just an anthropocentric view that wishes the rest of nature to conform to the human sense of time.
To keep a clear distinction between native and nonnative species requires nearly geologic memory. 
No, one hundred and thirty years, or even three or four hundred, is not even close to a geologic scale.
But humans, like most species, don’t live in the past, where the distinction originates. In the present, the difference is largely immaterial. 
This isn't true. Though wildlife don't literally live in the past, their tastebuds do. Herbivores tend to be extremely conservative in their food preferences. Whether it be deer or the larvae of moths and butterflies, they continue to reject exotic species introduced hundreds of years ago. They still prefer to eat the native species, which gives exotics a competitive advantage, which makes native plants rare, which then limits wildlife's food options. 
Native or nonnative, California’s eucalyptus trees, like the starlings of Central Park, have come to seem original just because they predate us.
Again, he imposes an anthropocentric view on nature.
Of course, the vast majority of nonnative species have not been intentionally introduced, as the Mount Sutro eucalyptus were, but have been distributed accidentally, unnoticed baggage in the wanderings of our species.
Whether a species is introduced intentionally or unintentionally has no bearing on the potential harm the species can do, just as the impact of human-caused global warming will bear no relation to whether we have intended to change the climate or not. 
Some species — invasive ones like kudzu, Japanese knotweed, rabbits and rats — find almost unlimited room for expansion in their new environs, often overwhelming native species. But not all introduced species are invasive, and pose a threat only when they outcompete native species.
Excellent! It's so important to make the distinction between invasive and non-invasive species. 
It’s important to remember that the distinction between native and nonnative depends on an imaginary snapshot of this continent taken just before European contact. 
Not so imaginary, really. Though American Indians transformed the landscape, spreading some plant species along trade routes, favoring some species through cultivation or burning, or denuding the landscape, e.g. around Teotihuacan to heat the plaster for their pyramids, the massive influx of species from other continents did not begin until Western colonization. It's well known which species are or were part of a particular plant community. The bur oak savannas of the midwest, which had disappeared due to the invasion of buckthorn and other exotics, were pieced back together through research and restoration, and now flourish once again. Whole books describe in detail the various plant communities of a given region, such as this one detailing the plant communities of North Carolina. 
               That distinction is becoming even harder to make as climate change alters the natural world.
A new study from the University of Exeter and Oxford University finds that plant pests and diseases have been migrating northward and southward an average of two miles a year since 1960. This suggests that the plants on which they prey have been moving at similar rates. In places like the Adirondacks, for instance, you can follow the boundary between southern and northern tree species as it shifts northward, year by year. As plants and their pests adjust their range, under the influence of global warming, what becomes of the distinction between native and nonnative? 
Plants and animals have been shifting their regional boundaries throughout the last four hundred thousand years, as glaciers advanced and receded. Human-caused climate change is happening much more rapidly, which is one reason why it is proving so destructive, but most plant species have broad geographic ranges. Climate change doesn't mean that plant communities developed over millenia suddenly have no integrity. 
To any individual species, it doesn’t matter whether it’s native or not. The only thing that matters is whether its habitat is suitable.
 Again, because herbivore food preferences tend to remain unchanged hundreds of years after the introduction of exotic species, suitable habitat tends to equate with native plant species. 
And this is where we come in.
For the most part, we don’t have an immediate impact on the species that surround us. But we do have an immediate impact on their habitat, which determines whether they survive or, in some cases, shift their ground.
Nearly every habitat on this planet has been affected by humans, no matter how remote it is. In the past decade, for instance, the habitats of grizzly bears high in the Rocky Mountains — places most of us never get a chance to visit — have been significantly altered by global warming. As the climate warms, the mountain pine beetle has managed to winter over and destroy vast tracts of whitebark pine trees, which produce pine nuts that bears eat.
When I visited a hillside in Smokey Mountain National Park where hemlock had been wiped out by the exotic wooly adelgid, growing beneath the dead trunks was a riot of native wildflowers and brambles, representing a plant community that deep shade had suppressed. The devastation of whitebark pine trees in the Rockies is tragic, and the loss of that important species may have broad ramifications over time for that ecosystem, but that doesn't mean that native landscapes suddenly lose all meaning and relevance because one species drops out.
CONSIDERED in this light, the natural world as a whole begins to look like Central Park — an ecosystem where human influence is all pervasive. Parts of the park seem almost wild, but every creature in Central Park, native or not, has adapted to a world that is closely bounded by human activity. It is nature bordered by high-rises, intersected by paths and roadways, basking under artificial light at night.
In late August, a group of scientists and students from the City University of New York’s Macaulay Honors College spent the day cataloging all the nondomesticated life forms living in the park. It will take a while to compile and compare the data, but even the anecdotal reports from that single day show how diverse and surprising the park’s ecosystem can be. It isn’t all squirrels and pigeons. The group reported sightings of several unexpected species — a diamondback terrapin in Turtle Pond, a Wilson’s warbler in the North Woods, a bullhead catfish in the Harlem Meer. And though it might seem like a stretch to talk about ecosystems in Central Park, that is exactly what the group found — a healthy mix of species, overlapping generations within many species, and a sense of balance, especially within the aquatic zones.
Actually, a lot of work has been done to restore native species and habitat in Central Park, and it's the only sizable green space for miles for wildlife like birds and insects to gravitate to, so it's not surprising it would exhibit some diversity.
Nature in Central Park can’t be neatly divided into native of nonnative species, and neither can it be on Mount Sutro. The eucalyptus trees that grow there may be naturalized rather than native, but try telling that to all the other creatures that live in those woods or the people who hike there.
 This would be more convincing if it actually described what diversity resides on Mount Sutro. In Princeton, we had a woods that was densely planted in the 1960s with white pine and spruce--species whose native range lies farther north. The woods had considerable charm and a nice mood to it, but it was an ecological desert, with little more than garlic mustard growing in the deep shade and thick mulch of the evergreens, and reportedly an owl or two making use of the dense canopy for protection. (Mount Sutro, from what descriptions I could find, looks to be similarly slim on diversity, dominated by the eucalyptus, with an understory of English ivy and poison ivy, and a stifling and highly flammable thick mulch of eucalyptus litter.) 
Their trunks weak from age and crowding, most of the pines and spruce in the planted woods in Princeton fell during several ice and wind storms, leaving an impenetrable mess that will become a fire trap as the debris dries out. Ash trees, the only seedlings that the too-numerous deer didn't eat, are now taking over, and before long, the introduced Emerald Ash Borer will arrive to kill all the ash.  
A similar fate could await the planted woods on Mount Sutro, in the form of a cataclysmic fire. That, though far more destructive than what the university is trying to do, would not be as controversial, because it would occur due to inaction rather than action. I'm well aware of the capacity for good intentions to go awry, but sometimes inaction can be the most destructive action of all.
And when it comes to the distinction between native and nonnative, we always leave one species out: call us what you will — native, naturalized, alien or invasive.
I don't want to read too much into this, but Mr. Klinkenborg seems to be suggesting here that because we are a species that invaded the American continent, we therefore cannot be judging other invasive species. With such logic, our compromised position brings into question our capacity to understand nature and act upon what we know. 

The attempt to blur the distinction between native and non-native depends on a highly simplified view of nature and evolution. It ignores the deep interconnections species develop while co-evolving over thousands of years.  It sees no symbiotic relationship between soil fungi and plant roots, between an insect and its obligate host plant, between a particular species of ant and the plant that depends upon it to disperse its seeds. Some species, like humans, are highly adaptable to new circumstances. Others are not. Embracing non-native landscapes may give people the comforting illusion of being open-minded, but it closes the door on those more conservative, less adaptable species. 

Related Writings by Verlyn Klinkenborg

It's long been my observation that environmental issues get marginalized on the opinion pages of the news media, likely because columnists and editors tend to lack training in the life sciences. If environmental issues come up, they tend to be treated in isolation rather than seen in the broader context of economics and political concerns. On the New York Times editorial board, Mr. Klinkenborg appears to represent the sum total of biological expertise. His doctoral degree from Princeton University is in english literature. I'm all for self-education, and hopefully he took some biology-related courses along the way. 

Some of his writings for National Geographic appear to contradict his opinion piece dismissing the relevance of native habitats. For instance, an essay on the Endangered Species Act states that people
"discovered, too late, how finely attuned to its home in the cordgrass the dusky seaside sparrow really was. That last bottled sparrow is what a species looks like when its habitat has vanished for good."
In an essay on the tallgrass prairie, rather than downplaying the importance of native plant communities, he seeks a deeper understanding of them:
"The hard part here in the Flint Hills—and in any of the few remaining patches of native prairie—is learning to see the tallgrass ecosystem for itself. It is a study in the power of modesty."
Rather than giving simplified plantings like the eucalyptus on Mount Sutro equal status with native plant communities, he states:
"In most of America, agriculture has meant replacing the incredible complexity of a natural ecosystem with the incredible simplicity of a single crop growing on bare ground."
That incredibly complex prairie ecosystem, however, is threatened by an invasive non-native plant called Sericea lespedeza (Lespedeza cuneata). Rather than showing concern about the impact of that invasion, Mr. Klinkenborg worries about the human intervention to counter the invasion:
"There is also a worrying trend toward ground and aerial spraying to control a highly invasive weed called sericea lespedeza, introduced decades ago to curb erosion around mines and provide forage and cover for wildlife around reservoirs."
Now, I happen to know Sericea lespedeza well. I've seen how it moves in and eventually replaces a richly diverse native meadow with a monoculture. Though originally touted as a good wildlife food, both its seeds and foliage provide little nourishment. Its roots release toxins that discourage other plant species. If you're looking for an example of intolerance, of a refusal to "play well with others", Sericea lespedeza is Exhibit A. When it invades new territory, land managers have a choice--either let the noxious weed continue to degrade native habitat, or attempt to limit the weed's destructive impact by intervening, often with selective herbicides.

The objections of Klinkenborg and others to intervention are in part a failure to make distinctions. They want to blur the distinction between native and non-native species. The toxicity of herbicides varies according to type and method of application, but its easier for protesters to demonize them all. Nathan Winograd, in his broadside against native plant advocates, wishes to obliterate all distinctions and treasure every living thing equally. More broadly in national discourse, we see a trend towards accepting all opinions as worthy, whether they are founded on fact or fancy.

Saying that we don't need to make these distinctions, nor intervene to restore native plant communities, sounds less to me like open mindedness than a convenient way of letting ourselves off the hook.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Fixing the Present by Saving the Future

"If a problem can't be solved, enlarge it" -- attributed to Dwight D. Eisenhower

After a showing of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech at the public library last night, there followed a free ranging discussion of how to improve the economy and reduce economic hardship. Reverend Gil Caldwell, who marched with King, and his son Dale were there to lead the discussion. Dale said we need to promote small business. An audience member said we need to start making stuff again, that cities like Trenton, NJ need manufacturing jobs in addition to small business. Another said that raising the minimum wage would help people make enough to live on, and provide them with some spending money, which in turn would bring small businesses more customers. Another said that education and training are the keys to helping people get ahead. Another lamented how Trenton had collapsed into dysfunction after seeming to be on a comeback fifteen years ago.

Listening to all of this, I felt as if we were living a parable, in which problems had grown so large, society so complex, that no one could see more than a small part of it. The "elephant" has grown too big to comprehend, even for those who have all their senses.

I also felt as if we were living through a version of the late 1930s, when the great depression had the nation and world in its stubborn grip, and the ambitions of brutal dictators were darkening the horizon. I wanted to take the lid off of this conversation about the seemingly intractable problems of the living, and levitate everyone far above the earth, to look down on this one-of-a-kind oasis of life in a stark universe, and ask a larger question about its trajectory. Do we, the living, care about future generations? Like other groups that have been marginalized and oppressed, they have no vote, no legal status, no voice.

The obvious answer is "Of course we do!" Tremendous care and commitment goes into raising children. Vast sums are spent to pay for schools and college. But there's another reality running parallel to that. Groucho Marx once said, "Why should I care about posterity? What did posterity ever do for me?" If you think about it, future generations are being asked collectively to pay for what we borrow, to deal with the delayed consequences of our present comforts and conveniences. Carrying such a burden not of their own making, have they no say in the matter? And is there a way that caring about them might help solve our own entrenched problems?

The dictators of today's world are far less powerful than in the 1930s. Terrorism will always be a threat, thus far contained, but what is darkening the horizon now is climate change. We are losing the stability of shorelines and climate upon which we have built our cities and planted our crops. Gil Caldwell said that it may have been Martin Luther King's views on economics, more than his struggle for racial equality, that people were most threatened by. The changes required to free our economy of dependence on climate-changing fossil fuels also pose a big threat to the status quo.

And yet, it was the decision to take on the global threat of totalitarianism in World War II, and the necessarily radical upheaval of our economy required to win the war, that lifted the nation out of depression and led to decades of economic prosperity. By uniting to take on the great global threat of the day, the nation not only helped save the world but also saved itself.

I made this point afterwards, and the response was that not enough people see climate change as a problem, that the disasters like Hurricane Sandy have not been numerous enough, that some parts of the country will be more affected than others.

To understand why preventing radical change in the climate is the nation's number one problem, consider the fate of the cruise ship Concordia that was run aground off the coast of Italy in January, 2012. The ship's captain had steered close to shore, overriding the ship's computers and warnings about local reefs. When the reefs appeared ahead, the massive ship's forward momentum made it impossible to avoid collision. Damage from the collision transformed the ship from comfort palace into death trap. We, too, are "driving" spaceship earth in a very risky direction, and already the altered climate is beginning to make droughts and storms more extreme. By the time we've had multiple climate-related disasters like Hurricane Sandy, the momentum will likely be too great to change course. With each day of pumping more global warming gases into the atmosphere, the quietly building momentum of an altered climate increases the risk to coastal cities and a stable food supply.

It's that very stability that has up to now allowed us to talk about and try to solve society's social and economic problems. Without the stable climate that nurtured civilization, there's little hope of pursuing greater justice, prosperity, freedom and equality.

Earlier, when Rev. Caldwell asked the audience if they had witnessed instances of racism, a young woman offered her recent experience teaching "south of the Mason Dixon Line" in a small community where most everyone was a member of the Klan. People talked about burning crosses. When she handed out copies of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou, some of the students threw the book on the floor because it had the picture of a black woman on the cover.

150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, racism persists. Though its effect is felt more acutely in some parts of the country than others, we consider it a national problem. Few people seem to realize that the changes being wrought to the planet's climate have an even greater momentum and persistence, and that generations to come, regardless of race, nationality, gender, sexual preference, and class, are powerless to raise objection to the sort of world they will inherit.

When an individual is stuck, absorbed in his or her own problems, one way to break through is to look beyond the self to the world around one, to find self-fulfillment by working on something larger than oneself. That is our predicament as a society. If we seem stuck as a nation, part of the solution is to see our present problems in the context of a much larger one. We are but one generation in a long progression, and our future with a livable planet can no longer be taken for granted.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Taste of Honey Gets Daft Punked

This was the summer that Taste of Honey got Daft Punked. If you wonder what others have been doing with their summer, the 120 million hits on the youtube video of "Get Lucky" offers a clue.

Hearing the melody of "Get Lucky" emanating from my daughters' rooms upstairs, I was reminded of the 1960's hit Taste of Honey. How could this be? Time to launch those serious music theory chops, and begin with the underlying harmonic progression of Get Lucky, which is four bars long, repeating over and over underneath the joyous, infectious vocals. That harmony is essentially the same as the first four bars of Taste of Honey (after the slow intro). And the two melodies (in Get Lucky, the melody that carries the words "We've come too far to give up who we are.") have a matching rise with a small fall at the end, which, if you think about it, approximates the arc of a wave as it approaches the shore. Each group of four bars is a miniature wave, rising to a fall, over and over, with each fall being immediately followed by the next rise, as mesmerizing and endlessly engaging as the ocean's lapping at the beach.

Most tunes have a "bridge"--a contrasting section partway through that has different harmony. But "Get Lucky" sticks with the same four-bar harmonic progression all the way through, with contrasting melodies over the top. A day at the beach, too, has no "bridge" section. The ocean delivers one wave after another, its repetition saved from monotony by the endless variation.

Music styles with an African-based rhythm, like salsa or samba, remind me of the sounds and images nature produces--ocean waves, cloud patterns, the play of light on water, the morning chorus of birds--in that the underlying complexity registers as something beautiful, emotionally direct and compelling.

In Get Lucky, it's the rhythm guitar that provides the rhythmic stream, complex but engaging, direct but elusive enough to maintain interest. The melody on top of that rhythmic stream starts as unison ("We've come too far"), then breaks into harmony ("to give up who we are.") like the shimmering light on a breaking wave.

Trumpeter Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, who popularized Taste of Honey back in the early 1960s, worked the beach metaphor to the max in this youtube video.

I didn't make it out to the Jersey shore this summer, but thanks to Daft Punk, who single handedly have resurrected the word "daft" from the deep dust of dictionaries, the feel of the beach was delivered to our home.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

King's Dream, Lincoln, and Hurricane Sandy

Today, August 28, 2013, marks fifty years since Martin Luther King delivered his "I have a dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. One hundred years before that, in 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The extension of protections and rights to all people regardless of race, gender or sexual preference remains a work in progress. The short essay below, written after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Atlantic coast, suggests that King's dream must be extended to the most unprotected people of all, future generations.

Lincoln After Sandy

To watch Spielberg's movie, "Lincoln", as I did last fall with Hurricane Sandy still fresh in memory, is to witness people whose lives are one long power outage. Lots of candles and oil lamps, dimly-lit rooms. Lincoln wears a blanket to soften the chill of the White House. It comes off as a noble deprivation, fitting for a dark time in American history, and one the characters take in stride.

Noble deprivation is highly regarded when safely enshrined in the past, e.g. Lincoln's time or World War II, but considered irrelevant to our age, when unlimited consumerism is the ideal. Viewers of the movie may conclude that the nation's great battles have already been fought, that nothing of similar magnitude calls us now. Few have yet to fully grasp that we too are playing a high stakes game, stuck in a status quo that picks winners and losers, not by the color of their skin but by the timing of their birth.

At my house, in this present era awash in deceptively cheap energy, we keep our home lights brighter than in the Lincoln White House, but still on the soft side--enough to do what we need to do, with lamps that have some beauty to them. I used to think I was being stingy when I turned off a light no one was using. Light is associated with life and good cheer. But now I see the flicking of a switch, that selective powering down, as an act of generosity, a gift to those who will follow us on this planet. "Here," my gesture says, "You can have this light, this energy. I don't need it." There's pleasure in being able to give something as beautiful as light and energy, and connecting in some imagined way with generations future.

Much of our current prosperity is based on an inheritance. This wondrous energy we use, all too handily dug up or piped out of the ground, is not something we "produce" but is rather an extraction from the earth's one and only reserve. The machines that serve us--everything from cars and ships to furnaces and clothes dryers--reportedly burn a million years worth of stored up fossil fuel energy every year.

The inheritance of ancient energy we draw from also has a weirdly haunting Grimm's fairy tale aspect, as many more people began to surmise after Hurricane Sandy made landfall. For all this inherited energy's fabulous concentration and convenience, its use will over time sacrifice the stable climate and shorelines that have nurtured civilization. In one way, we get to live fairy tale existences, more comfortable, mobile, entertained and well fed than the royalty of kingdoms past. But the tradeoff is a curse on ourselves and all children to come. The present economy, then, exhibits an utter dependence on energy formed in the past, and a glaring indifference to the welfare of future generations. The past and future are sacrificed to elevate the present.

Through the centuries, one of the enduring conflicts in America, most eloquently expressed in Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, has been whether our nation and its institutions could survive steps to achieve greater equality. Could the nation's economy survive without slavery, labor camps and child labor?  What would happen if all men and women of all races were allowed to vote? Could industry make profits without polluting our shared world? Can the institution of marriage survive gay rights? Would the auto industry be hurt by regulations to improve gas mileage?

As in Lincoln's time, the answer in every case has been that this nation, its people and institutions, can continue to thrive even as equality is more broadly shared.

What, you might ask, have mileage standards to do with expanding equality? Hurricane Sandy answered that question in two ways. First was the realization, by many who waited in lines to get gas, that the size of the gas tanks in cars ahead of them would affect how many people would be left stranded when the gas was gone.

But in a larger sense, despite all the past struggles for equality our nation has survived and been made better by, Hurricane Sandy showed we now face the ultimate test. Can our economy and others around the world survive without the vast consumption of fossil fuels? We know that our mechanized comforts and mobility are destabilizing the climate and oceans. Without aggressive action to change our energy sources, future generations, like those cars at the end of the gas line, will be left stranded, with no temperate climate nor stable shorelines to enjoy. Given increasing extremes of drought and flood, they may not even have a stable food supply. Those who denied the problem have, like the New Jersey shoreline, found themselves increasingly undercut by changes occurring even faster than the climate models projected.

Not surprisingly, those who will be most affected--the young and generations unborn--lack the vote and any means of speaking out on their own behalf. And also not surprisingly, pessimists are saying that such an effort to shift away from fossil fuels would cripple the economy.

So I say, look at the nation's track record. We have survived past moves towards greater equality; we'll endure this one, and be better for it. There is, as Lincoln said, unfinished work, a great task remaining before us. Having found infinite ways to consume energy, we must now deploy ways to produce it that don't sacrifice the future. We might even find, in this struggle as great and noble as any undertaken, unexpected rewards and meaning along the way.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Blame High Gas Prices, or High Demand for Gas?

It's often said that a tax on carbon is both urgently needed and politically impossible. One reason for the political roadblock is numbers, specifically the ubiquitous numbers along the road at gas stations, stating the price of gas. If those most visible of numbers start going up, people notice, and start complaining.

It's assumed that gas prices have a big impact on people's budgets--an impact that ripples out into the rest of the economy. A standard article in the business section included this bit of text:

"Shares of Wal-Mart fell 2.4 percent after it posted lower-than-expected quarterly sales in the United States, as shoppers were pinched by higher payroll taxes and gas prices." 
But the amount of money we spend on gas involves more than the price at the pump. More important are the number of miles driven, and how many miles our vehicles get on a gallon of gas. The article could just as easily have said that Wal-Mart has been getting pinched for years by the legacy of low gas mileage standards, which spawned the building of inefficient cars, which make people more dependent on cheap gas to drive the extra distance to Wal-Mart. Inefficient cars not only require more gas to run, they also collectively increase the cost of gas by increasing demand.

As so often happens, this news story gives emphasis to what we cannot control--the price of gas--rather than what we can control--the efficiency of the car we buy, and whether we live in suburban sprawl or a more compact community with amenities and employment closer by.

A tax on carbon is the sort of tax one can avoid, by using less carbon-based fuels. It encourages investment in greater efficiency, and thereby frees people from the treadmill of waste and the resulting dependency on cheap fuel. The bias of news reports that focus on the price of gas rather than other factors is making it harder to get off that treadmill.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

News Reports and the Unanswered "Why"

Being a problem solver, my first impulse upon seeing a headline like ("Sinkhole Causes Florida Resort to Partially Collapse") is to ask why it happened. If we determine the cause, the problem might recur less often in the future. Journalism is not oriented towards answering this sort of why, however. Articles about disasters--wildfires, buildings falling into sinkholes, bridges collapsing, buildings blowing up--focus on the action, the who, what, where and when. If there's a perpetrator in the form of a specific person, then the "why" takes center stage. But if the "why" has to do not with a character but a process, like miscommunication, mismanagement, poor landuse decisions, or climate change, then the "why" gets relegated to the last paragraph or two of the article, or is dropped altogether.

Unfortunately, the most preventable tragedies are those caused by processes rather than individuals. By not clearly implicating and giving emphasis to those processes, the news media reduces awareness and therefore support for policies that would make tragedies less common.

For instance, one reason why so many people remain clueless about the underlying causes of wildfire and climate change is the lack of explanations in everyday reporting. Wildfire coverage focuses on the drama of victims and heroes, leaving no room for mention that building houses in fire-prone landscapes leads to fire suppression, which leads to fuel buildups in forests that depend on periodic fire to consume accumulating pine needles and fallen limbs, which leads to massive wildfires destructive to both forests and communities. Because people think nature, rather than the mismanagement of nature, is the cause of destructive fires, there will be no broad support for improving management. Thus, we're condemned to endless repetitions of the same old war-like, victims-heroes scenario. Not understanding the human role in phenomena like wildfires, people are less prepared to accept that human activity could also be driving the rapid change in climate underway.

The report on fifty units of a luxury resort in Florida collapsing into a sinkhole offered a partial exception to this tendency. As with coverage of wildfires out west, the article offered the usual graphic details and quotes from witnesses. What it also included, however, were a few paragraphs at the end providing context so that we could better understand why a building would suddenly drop into the ground.

"Sinkholes can develop quickly or slowly over time.

They are caused by Florida's geology — the state sits on limestone, a porous rock that easily dissolves in water, with a layer of clay on top. The clay is thicker in some locations making them even more prone to sinkholes.

Other states sit atop limestone in a similar way, but Florida has additional factors like extreme weather, development, aquifer pumping and construction."

The last sentence at least obliquely implicates human activity in making sinkholes more common. In fact, human activity can promote sinkhole formation in multiple ways. The website for the St Johns River Water Management District lists four ways sinkholes can be triggered or exacerbated:

  • Overwithdrawal of groundwater 
  • Diverting surface water from a large area and concentrating it in a single point 
  • Artificially creating ponds of surface water 
  • Drilling new water wells

It's understandable that consumers of news would want to be fed exciting action and the human drama of villains, victims and heroes. But what will make the world a better place is if we become familiar with underlying causes and effects, and thereby develop stronger support for preventative action. 

Saturday, August 03, 2013

1000 Years From Now

The Aug. 1 CNN headline read "Judge sentences Cleveland kidnapper Ariel Castro to life, plus 1,000 years". I'm sure many people felt reassured by this, given he had spent the last ten years torturing three women in a boarded up house in a Cleveland neighborhood. You'd think neighbors would have been curious about the house. But, then, you'd think people in general would be curious about what the world will be like in 1000 years, and how our actions now may influence that. All we know thus far is that Ariel Castro will still be in prison.

"Life, plus 1000 years" is a useful mindset for judging our nation's policies. Do they serve not only the living but also all those who will live over the next 1000 years? Otherwise, what are we sentencing future humanity to endure?

In jurisprudence, multiple life sentences are handed out to mere mortals because there's a tendency for convicts to come up for parole early in their sentences. A judge leaves a margin for error, exagerating a sentence, knowing it could shrink. When considering our collective impact on the future, the tendency of many is to conveniently discount it, to minimize or dismiss altogether, to assume everything will work out. This is a perilous path, given that consequences could be far greater and come much sooner than expected.

The future is unprotected by any of civilization's institutions. Future people have no legal standing, (although, interestingly, a landowner's right to future profit does). Financial markets suffer from a severe case of near-sightedness. Government is under siege around the world. We punish criminals as if they will live forever, yet talk, or don't talk, about the future of civilization as if it has none. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Striving After Sand

Some thoughts on "The Beach Builders", a New Yorker article by John Seabrook that asks the question, "Can the Jersey Shore be saved?"

How many houses were destroyed by Hurricane Sandy? The article, quoting Governor Christie, says 365 (thousand!). 365,000 ?!!

Where sand for beach renourishment comes from: In the documentary "Shored Up", sand is described as a limited resource along the Jersey shore. There's only so much to dig up from deeper waters to replenish what the ocean erodes away. In the article, Seabrook describes how the sand now being used to buttress barrier island development from storm damage comes from a beach from the last ice age, back when vast glaciers covered much of North America and the sea was 60 feet lower. In other words, past solar energy (in the form of fossil fuels) is being used to dig up past beaches in order to prop up present day lifestyles. 

Shifting Perceptions: The article contemplates how people will view the ocean after a couple more storms like Sandy. Will the ocean maintain its appeal, or will people "see only the menace"? 
        We've seen this shift elsewhere. People's views of cigarettes changed, as the romance fell away, revealing the underlying addiction and danger. Planes in the sky after the 9/11 terrorist attacks appeared menacing. I've wondered when we'll start looking at automobiles and other machines differently, once their role in altering climate and sea levels becomes more apparent in coming decades. 

Ocean Avenue, and what's in a name: Oftentimes, developments are named after what is no longer there--some natural feature or animal banished by the development. Ocean Avenue, however, is an example of a name that actually foretold what it would become, at least during Hurricane Sandy. The road was covered by the ocean, requiring snowplows to clear the sand from the pavement.

Christie's quote denying human-caused climate change was worse than originally thought: The governor is, of course, serving as cheer leader for the shore, which is a big part of the Jersey economy. But for someone who brags of taking action when past governors have not, and who speaks of what sort of world our grandchildren will inherit, his dismissive attitude towards climate change is jarring. The full quote in the article is worse than the snippet reported in the news. Asked about climate change and Hurricane Sandy, he said "I haven't been shown any definitive proof yet that that's what caused it. Listen, this is distraction. I've got a place to rebuild here, and people want to talk to me about esoteric theories. We've got plenty of time to do that later on." 
        "Distraction.....esoteric theories.....plenty of time.....later on." These words, like New Jersey's beaches, offer a flimsy defense against the rising tide.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

A Refreshing Admission of Wrongdoing

A surprise to look at the June 26 Trenton Times and see a sheriff admit to taking bribes "from people seeking positions or promotions" in his office. The sentence is 9 years, with a minimum of 2 years before probation, and loss of pension. He had been sheriff for nearly 30 years.

The surprise was in such a clear admission of wrongdoing, particularly after a Frontline documentary, called Rape in the Fields, on PBS the night before, about widespread sexual exploitation of young, undocumented immigrant women by foremen at large agricultural businesses--orchards and poultry plants-- out west. No convictions, no admissions of wrongdoing. The images are of vast industrial enterprises--almond orchards that extend to the horizon, massive buildings for egg production and animal slaughter--dwarfing the human cogs in the profit wheel. The repetitive patterns of the tree rows and the cold facades of the buildings reinforce the message of repeated patterns of abuse.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Trading Innocence for Empowerment--Journalistic Narratives Old and New

One reason climate change does not get mentioned in day to day reporting of events such as droughts and floods is the persistence of the stereotypical portrayal of people as victims of a whimsical and often cruel nature. By suggesting that human activity is influencing weather patterns, climate change muddies the story line and blurs the distinction between victim and perpetrator.

A June 9 front page article in the New York Times, After Drought, Rains Plaguing Midwest Farms, is a good example. It describes how last year's drought segued into this year's deluge. One farmer called it “the worst spring I can remember in my 30 years farming." Farmers were "pleading for rain" last year, and now "are praying for the rain to stop." Helpless victims they are, "trying to divine if and how their pocketbooks can survive another curveball from nature."

The article ends with a reprise about nature's power: "the whim that brought moisture could just as cruelly take it back." Who's the hero in this storyline? The farmer who, though victimized, perseveres in the face of nature's extremes, and the government, which provides crop insurance.

Though it be an article bearing bad news (crops and farmer income imperiled, more government payouts), the narrative is comforting. There is nothing to be done other than to admire the farmer's resilience and send some aid.

But that storyline increasingly loses validity as human activity melts the arctic ice cap, warms the earth and raises sea levels. We are not spectators but active participants. Nature is no longer fully natural, its whims not entirely inexplicable but instead influenced by forces we have set in motion. It's harder to be the helpless victim praying to God for help, when in fact we are intruding into God's domain by radically changing the composition of the atmosphere.

While journalistic convention perpetuates storylines like the one in the New York Times, other approaches to reporting accept the human role in climate and explain the mechanisms that are contributing to making extreme weather more frequent and destructive. There's a tradeoff here. By abandoning the old storyline, the reader loses a sense of innocence, but gains a new sense of empowerment. Being a part of the problem, we can be part of the solution.

The articles below describe the string of causes and effects, abetted by human-caused global warming, that can lead to prolonged droughts one year, prolonged rain the next.

Arctic Warming Favors Extreme, Prolonged Weather Events ‘Such As Drought, Flooding, Cold Spells And Heat Waves’

Friday, February 01, 2013

Navigating to Reality in the Misinformation Age

A critique of the news media's abdication of its role in correcting widespread misperceptions (from a 12/12/12 letter to a local newspaper):

Let it be known that on Nov. 28, a new approach to journalism was born, on page 7 of the Town Topics. Though I had been waiting nearly two decades for this breakthrough, it took several readings for the importance of the headline to sink in. "Not Everybody Knows That Hospital Has Moved From Princeton to Plainsboro." I know, it doesn't sound like much, and my first inclination was to pass it by. Only when I re-encountered the headline, in the process of recycling, did the headline's import sink in.

The article was about people still making the drive to the old hospital site in search of medical care. But on a broader scale, consider how many people labor under the burden of misinformation, and spend their lives driving their fevered thoughts to the wrong conclusions time and time again. Though this is considered the Information Age, it is equally the Misinformation Age, when lies go viral, replicating exponentially in nutrient-rich environments of resentment and fear. People are lost not only because they aren't paying attention, but because they are being actively misled.

Fortunately, as the hospital article described, there is someone waiting at the old hospital site to redirect those who are lost. Additional signs directing people to the new hospital are now in place.

These steps make obvious sense, but ask yourself if the same steps have been taken to help people arrive at reality-based destinations in their thinking. Where, for instance, will people encounter, in an adequately redundant way, the basic facts about the human-caused transformations now underway that will change life on earth forever? Princeton probably contributes to the global problem of rising oceans and radicalized climate as much per capita as any other town, and yet there is precious little "signage" in news media--local or otherwise--directing us towards an understanding of the gravity of the situation.

An article in the pioneering style of "Not Everybody Knows...." would give the basics about how human activity is warming the earth and acidifying the oceans, and that the many consequences--more destructive storms and droughts, coastal flooding, undermining of marine ecosystems, melting of ice caps, temperature rise-- are playing out faster than scientists' models had projected. It would say that sea level rise is accelerating, with three feet likely this century, and 220 additional feet of rise still locked up in the ice fields of Greenland and Antarctica. It would say that the impacts of pouring climate-changing gases into the atmosphere, unlike many other forms of pollution, are essentially permanent, and continued dependency on fossil fuels will only destabilize climate and marine systems further.

That's the sort of "signage" we need, posted like hospital signs in well-traveled places where people are sure to see them again and again, until the message gets through. The lack of it, the fact that one almost never encounters this information in daily living, reading, and listening without considerable search, is sending a very clear message: that it doesn't really matter where we're headed.

First appeared in the Town Topics, 12/12/12