Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Car Bombs, Carbon, and the Hijacking of America

Even if we were able to end all acts of terror, we’d still have the mimics of terrorism to contend with. As can be seen in ships lost at sea, or collapsing bridges and dance floors, inattention can mimic malicious intent, with even more destructive results. The collapse of a dance floor is a particularly good analogy for the ultimate imitator of terrorism, climate change. In both instances, each individual participant contributes inadvertently to a collective impact that the support system was not designed to bear.

Here are ten ways climate change is being allowed to imitate terrorism, as we downplay its importance and focus our attention elsewhere.
  1. Disguise--Hijackers present themselves as ordinary passengers on an airplane. Car bombs arrive in unmarked vehicles. Climate change comes disguised within the variable nature of weather.
  2. Unorthodox, improvised weapons--Whereas al Qaeda hijacked commercial airliners with full tanks of jet fuel, climate change hijacks the normally beneficial warming power of carbon dioxide and methane to melt ice caps and increase weather extremes. With 220 feet of sea level rise currently parked on Greenland and Antarctica, ice caps are a massive weapon to steadily unleash against coastal cities. The 40% increase in atmospheric carbon is also driving ocean acidification, a form of chemical warfare.
  3. Indifference to life, including one’s own. Climate change trumps the suicide bomber’s inhumanity. What could be more indifferent to life than an elemental process that has no life to begin with?
  4. Use the enemy’s infrastructure and technology against it. Al Qaeda used our flight schools to train its hijackers, then turned our airliners into missiles. Climate change uses our crowded highways as factories for the production of global warming molecules. It uses the energy needs of every building to do its work. The more we express our power through carbon-based fuels, the stronger and more destructive climate change becomes.
  5. Maximum destruction with a minimal budget. Climate change doesn’t need a budget when our economy is doing all the work necessary, busily transferring carbon from underground fuel deposits up into the atmosphere. It was the ticket-buying passengers who unwittingly paid the bill for al Qaeda’s 9/11 flights, and it’s all of us who are sponsoring climate change through utility bills and payments at the pump. Our good intentions are essentially being hijacked to achieve a completely unintended result.
  6. Terrorists are not connected to any nation. Molecules in the atmosphere driving climate change are unconnected to anything other than the laws of physics.
  7. Promote and exploit polarized political atmospheres. Though it should be seen as a common enemy for all people to rally against, climate change has been turned into a divisive issue. An actively cultivated resentment and distrust of the messengers has allowed climate change to gain critical time and momentum.
  8. Maintain the element of surprise. The common and usually false refrain after disasters occur is that “nobody saw it coming.” Even though the mechanism of global warming has been known for a century, and the science is clear about the huge risk we’re taking, many still refuse to “see it coming.” 
  9. An effective terrorist is patient and in it for the longterm. There is no more patient enemy than an elemental process. An overdose of carbon dioxide molecules lingers in the atmosphere for centuries.
  10. Terrorists seek to destabilize the existing world order, to eventually impose a new one. Climate change over time will disrupt and destabilize not only civilization but most of the natural world as well. Time and inaction are on its side. The destabilizing effect of climate change--as the predicted food shortages and dislocations feed discontent and put governments under increasing stress--will do the terrorists’ work for them.
We are, then, confronted with an enemy that is invisible, uses our power and people against us, hides in the natural variability of weather, is endlessly patient, has penetrated into every recess of our lifestyles, and exploits our fractious politics to gain time. Even as movies continue to feed us evil in the form of charismatic, monstrous enemies to be vanquished at the last possible minute, climate change tightens its grip on our future by being boringly incremental, diffuse, and immune to last-minute reprieve. One of our greatest resources, our adaptability, we seem to be saving for adapting to a changed world, rather than adapting our lifestyles now to reduce how much the world changes. The demonization of collective action means we are left helpless to counter collectively created problems. Another resource, our optimism, fails those who are skeptical of our powers of invention and suspicious of working towards a shared goal. Plants, thrift, and proactive action--our greatest allies in the fight against too much carbon dioxide in the air--gain little respect.

The 21st century, then, is playing out like the long form of 2001, when increasingly urgent warnings of peril were given low priority, culminating in the tragedy of 9/11. The mimics of terrorism, like terrorists themselves, thrive when our attention is elsewhere.

Monday, May 19, 2014

What's a Conservative? (Part 1)

My daughter has civics this year in 8th grade, so it's time to explain to her what a conservative is. This is not easy, because conservative-the-noun was launched on a trajectory a half century ago that has shifted it inexorably away from conservative-the-adjective, in much the same way the universe is now believed to be expanding outward from its origins at an ever faster pace, in defiance of gravity, driven by some force not yet understood.

There are many qualities commonly associated with conservatism, e.g. a suspicion of "the collective", a dismissing of root causes, a belief in personal responsibility, a tendency to see black and white where liberals might see grey, but one place to start is with the first two definitions of conservative, as found in Websters' online dictionary.

a : tending or disposed to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions
b : marked by moderation or caution

Now, a present day conservative faced with the first definition of what it means to be conservative--essentially that change is bad--might say that keeping things the same would be fine if things had always been that way. But they haven't. It took a lot of change to reach the present. Since change is bad, past change must be undone. Therefore, the existing conditions and institutions must be dismantled, particularly things like Social Security and the Environmental Protection Agency. This goes not only for governmental institutions but also for nature, as will be explained later on.

How do we undo past change? The second definition of conservative, "marked by moderation or caution", would be fine if the past change was only moderately bad. But this is not the case. The past change is viewed as having been very, very bad, and so, in the words of Barry Goldwater in 1964, "...extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice ... and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." In other words, a conservative cannot be marked by moderation or caution in a world so dangerously changed. This has led to conservative-led government shutdowns and other forms of brinksmanship that are anything but cautious.

Given the grave state of affairs that past change has placed us in, it is therefore impossible for a conservative to be conservative. That conservatives have jettisoned the definition of conservative, but not the label, has led to some confusion. The story of Superman would have been confusing, too, if he shed the coat and tie but kept calling himself Clark Kent while parading around in tights. I know, the analogy doesn't quite work because Superman was trying to protect the status quo, but you get the idea.

As with political institutions, nature too is highly suspect. The sort of conservative prominent today has no interest in saving what nature is or once was, or preserving any of the regulations that might keep it from changing, but instead wishes to consume as much of nature as possible, as fast as possible. If it benefits the economy in the short term, then old forests should be cut down, underground resources should be dug up and consumed, and any limits on the redistribution of chemicals--sometimes called pollution--that happens as a result should be voluntary.

Now, this may seem like a highly unconservative embracing of change, but in fact it is not. The trees in that forest were not there 500 years ago. And the oil, coal, etc. were not underground a few hundred million years ago. 20,000 years ago, glaciers had bulldozed much of the earth. Therefore, to cut the trees down or to dig up the underground fuels is not a change so much as an erasing of past change.

One problem conservatives have faced recently is that the economy in its current form is itself radically changing the planet's climate, i.e. the longer we keep the economy dependent on fuels from underground, the more the climate will change into something no humans have ever witnessed or attempted to adapt to. This is because the atmosphere and the underground are closely related. The more we  dig up fossil carbon, and tinker with the chemistry of the atmosphere by scattering all that extra carbon to the winds through exhaust pipes and chimneys, the more the climate changes. A radically changed climate brings lots of collateral damage--coastal cities destroyed by rising seas, agriculture crippled by extreme droughts and floods, vectors of disease spreading to new areas. We're already getting a taste of how destabilizing this can be--the unprecedented flooding in Colorado and Bosnia, unusually long and deep droughts in Australia, Texas and California, and the extraordinary devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy and Typhoon Haiyan. This may seem to put conservatives in a bind. Either the economy must change or the planet's climate will.

Some conservatives have responded by denying that this change is even occurring. But others have dropped denial and actively embraced this change, finding that beneath this seeming contradiction is a consistent policy. While the nation must return politically to a previous, unregulated, un-safety-netted state, the climate should be free to return to what it may have been, say, 50 or 100 million years ago. Though the change may prove disruptive, even disastrous, it should not be perceived as change, but as a stripping away of all the accumulated change that has occurred over many millions of years. If coastal populations and all their associated infrastructure have to be shifted to higher ground, this is not change but a return to a time when those coastal communities did not exist.

All this stripping away of past change places conservatives in the role of destabilizing current order. In other words, conservatism has evolved to a point where a conservative most closely resembles the definition of a radical: "a person who advocates thorough or complete political or social reform; a member of a political party or part of a party pursuing such aims." Time will tell if the gravitational pull of conservative-the-adjective can ever overcome the radicalizing forces at work on conservative-the-noun. In the meantime, despite my efforts to explain, my daughter can be forgiven if she remains baffled by the political reality being handed off to her generation.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Parenting, Cheap Energy, Work, and Jennifer Senior

I went to hear the author Jennifer Senior talk at our local middle school about her book, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, because I'd caught part of a radio interview in which she was speaking considerable sense. In particular, she had said that kids used to be put to work, but now the roles have reversed and parents mostly work for the kids. Sure, there's schoolwork, and a sport or two, but generationally speaking I stand between ancestral farmers and carpenters (people who made and grew stuff), and descendents preoccupied with consuming the never ending cascade of snapchat and netflix. Senior, having delved deep into sociological research, points to this lack of work as one of the big changes parenting has gone through in recent decades.

What I came away with, though, was an unexpected confirmation of another conclusion I've reached in recent years, that cheap energy, while proving to be a boon for us in so many ways, is also, to bend a phrase, the primary root of a whole lot of evil. Senior wouldn't make such a judgement. She repeatedly emphasized that her approach is descriptive, not prescriptive. But that conclusion is implied in her repeated references to the downside of spread out communities and kids who are, in the words of Viviana Zelizer, "economically useless and emotionally priceless".

I would describe it this way: Because of the one-time boon of cheap energy from underground, our communities have been scaled not to people but to automobiles, leaving most kids helpless to get around on their own, and machines do most of the work that teenagers might once have been expected to help with. Now that kids aren't needed to do any work, and can't just run out the door and find friends to play with, both parents and machines are put to work for them, chauffeuring them far and wide to soccer games, music lessons, and other enrichment activities meant to optimize what Senior calls "superkids", so they can reach their full potential and compete in a global marketplace. The spread out community not only isolates families and turns parents into chauffeurs, but also perpetuates dependence on fuels that speed climate change, thereby diminishing prospects for the kids whose opportunities we labor to maximize.

As if to drive this point home about the hidden oppression caused by the machines that serve us, halfway through her talk the air handler in the ceiling of the auditorium shut off, bringing a realization that we had been fighting background white noise for the past ten or twenty minutes to hear her speak. The tension, caused by the subconscious effort to filter out the noise, fell away as soon as the air handler shut off. Walking next to a busy road can cause the same tension, and I recently experienced a remarkable relaxation bicycling down the centerline of one of Princeton's roads that was closed one recent afternoon to all car traffic as part of a bike/ped event called "Ciclovia". What a pleasure and relief, fresh breeze blowing, to be on a road that at least for one afternoon wasn't serving as a climate change factory or producing that traffic noise we all subconsciously labor to ignore.

After the talk, the soundman expressed to me his frustration with the noise generated by the auditorium's air handler. It was a cool evening, there was no need for air conditioning, yet he was helpless to turn it off. A computer controls the school's heating and cooling, sometimes for the better, but in this case for the worse.

When I later asked Ms. Senior about the link of cheap energy to the parenthood dilemmas she had described, she said yes, of course, the industrial revolution, and it's all more developed in her book, as friends whisked her away in the obligate automobile to catch a train back to Brooklyn. 

Here are some more notes from the talk, including the three ways in which Senior sees parenthood as having changed in recent decades:
  1. Choice: Family size has dropped from 8 in colonial times to 5 in the 19th century, to 2 today. Each kid is more highly valued.
  2. We work differently: The only job back in the 50s where one could expect a phone call at night was that of a doctor. Now, we can work all the time, which means we can feel guilty all the time. Also, women are part of the workforce.
  3. Kids used to work: Though child labor laws were passed in the 1920s, kids still worked during the Great Depression of the 1930s and the war years of the 1940s. Only in the postwar years did we start working for the kids, rather than the other way around.
  • The transition from the 50s to now involved a shift in the perceived primary role of the mother, and can be seen in the terminology. The HOUSEwife became the "stay at home MOM". The 1960s mother kept an impeccable home. Now, time is spent with the kids while the housekeeping is neglected.
  • We think it's our job to keep our kids happy.
  • Benjamin Spock foresaw this shift, and warned of its implications.
  • The overprotection of kids can lead to what one professor described as kids entering college "underconstructed".
  • In reference to our distorted memory of the 50s, she mentioned the book The Way We Never Were.
  • People are unaware that the public school system didn't really get into full swing until the 50s. Only 50% of boys graduated from highschool in the 1940s.
  • Scandinavian countries are the prime example of how parents tend to be happier in countries with expanded social safety nets.
  • She mentioned Maslow's Hierarchy, which people live higher or lower on, depending.