Showing posts with label climate change. Show all posts
Showing posts with label climate change. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Misuse of the Word "Skeptic", and a Useful Book by Atmospheric Scientist Katharine Hayhoe

One of my pet peeves in journalism is the misuse of the word "skeptic" when discussing climate change. A recent example comes from columnist Margaret Renkl's opinion piece entitled "How to Talk About 'Extreme Weather' With Your Angry Uncle." In the essay, she repeatedly refers to "climate skeptics." But a true skeptic directs skepticism inward as well as outward--something that scientists are trained to do. People tend to associate skepticism with tough-mindedness, as in someone who refuses to accept mainstream belief unthinkingly. But the skepticism directed at climate science is one-way and self-serving--another example of the rightwing being tough on others, soft on self. It takes a tough mind to deal with unsettling realities, in this case the reality that people, by and large good and well-intentioned, are nonetheless collectively responsible for the radicalization of weather and the steady loss of our nation's sweet spot in the world's climate. 

The "angry uncle" in the title of Renkl's opinion piece might be angry because he has been encouraged to always look for blame and falsity in others, while leaving his own views unexamined. Much of the political polarization that tears at the fabric of personal relationships and the nation is artificial, sustained by misinformation and a refusal to vet one's own beliefs to see if they stand up to the facts. 

I doubt that anyone is going to get very far, talking to an angry uncle. Righteous anger is, I'm sure, a delicious feeling that would be hard to let go of. Perhaps, though, one could start by agreeing that fossil fuels are extraordinary in their power and convenience, and it would be a wonderful world if we could continue burning them without negative consequence. Maybe explore other things we really wish were true. 

It should not be too much to ask, however, for the angry uncle, so quick to attack, to direct as much skepticism inward as outward, especially at views that 1) flatter the self, and 2) let us off the hook. 

In her opinion essay, Margaret Renkl goes on to discuss a new book by Katharine Hayhoe, “Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World,” Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist who is also an evangelical Christian, so is better positioned than most to view climate change from multiple perspectives. One of the blurbs about the book says this:

“An optimistic view on why collective action is still possible—and how it can be realized.” —The New York Times

Therein lies another false notion: that we are not now acting collectively. The frustration and tragedy of our era is that we are currently acting collectively to create problems, but are being denied the opportunity to collectively solve them. A distinction must be made between intentional and unintentional collective action. Though it is not our intention, we are in fact acting collectively to create problems in the world, one of which is climate change. Each one of us is highly equipped with machines that require the burning of carbon-based fuels. They are, day to day, truly marvelous machines, keeping us comfortable, taking us where we want to go. Yet every time we as individuals use them, we are also contributing to the radicalization of weather. Despite a lack of intention, the sum of each individual's actions has proven transformative. The machines we use have collectively increased the concentration of carbon dioxide in that deceptively thin layer of atmosphere above us by 50%, with dramatic consequences for our collective future.  

Renkl states that many conservatives are convinced that "doing right by the environment will involve pain, a complete repudiation of their current lives, or both." In fact, doing wrong by the environment is the source of the radical changes we see in weather across the nation--changes that threaten the very lifestyle we seek to sustain. 

One feature of Amazon that I really appreciate is the "look inside" feature that allows you to read a sample portion of a book. A brief reading of Hayhoe's "Saving Us" shows it to be very well written and an excellent book for our times. Interestingly, Hayhoe avoid's Renkl's "climate skeptics" terminology in favor of "dismissives"--a term Hayhoe uses to refer to the 7% of people whose glee in rejecting climate science and ridiculing climate advocates makes them "nearly impossible to have a positive conversation with." Though the NY Times opinion piece is entitled "How to Talk About 'Extreme Weather' With Your Angry Uncle," Hayhoe gave up trying to talk to her own angry uncle, and instead finds hope in the potential to engage positively with the other 93% of humanity. 

One big question is how to sustain people's self-esteem even as they become aware of how each one of us is contributing to the existential threat of climate change. Hayhoe appears to address this in chapters about fear and guilt, and gives advice on how to navigate the perilous waters of tribalism and identity to find common ground. Here's a useful quote from Renkl's essay:

First, undercut the politics. Becoming a climate activist doesn’t require changing political parties or renouncing long-held values. “It’s really a matter of showing people that they are already the perfect person to care because of who they are, and that climate action would be an even more genuine expression of their identity,” said Dr. Hayhoe. “It’s about holding up a mirror and reminding people that they want to be a good steward, that they want a better future. That’s when we see change.”

The book also grapples with the question of whether individual action or structural change is needed. Hayhoe's answer is "both." 

Thanks to Renkl for getting the word out about Hayhoe's very useful and readable book, but please, stop using misleading terms like "climate skeptic."

Wednesday, May 04, 2022

Climate Change--Now You See It, Now You Don't

Though our machines are pouring a steadily rising amount of greenhouse gases up into our very thin atmosphere--a 50% rise in overall concentration since the industrial revolution--the earth's response to that radical change can seem sporadic and quirky. There will be a day here and there that feels outside our concept of the normal: a rain that's unusually intense, or a winter day when the air feels strangely cooked and stale. But those days quickly give way to another stretch of quasi-normality, and so we continue with the lifestyle we view as normal, which invariably includes being served by machines that continue stuffing the atmosphere with still more greenhouse gases. We are aware of climate change as a problem, yet can still go for long stretches hoping or pretending it is not. 

The same plays out in a newspaper like the NY Times. Yesterday there was a dramatic contrast between the climate and business sections. In a business article, countries wishing to free themselves of Russian oil desperately look for other sources, with no hint that their economy's demand for oil is anything other than logical and normal. Car commercials embedded in the article lure you to buy bigger, more powerful vehicles that consume still more fuel.

Then, one click away, an article in the climate section of the paper describes areas of the world that are becoming uninhabitable due to overheating.

As the consequences of fossil fuel combustion become ever more profound and incontrovertible, the marketplace's glamorization of that fuel consumption becomes ever more incongruous and irresponsible. If the marketplace were a character, it would be a brilliant, bold but blind man-child, forever pushing the boundaries, doing whatever it can get away with, brilliant in its deliverance of material bounty, stubbornly oblivious to future consequence. Government is forced into the parental role because the marketplace by nature is blind to the future and will never grow up. 

This is a time when the business section of a newspaper, and to some extent even those of us who feel a deep sense of foreboding, can still huddle in pockets of normality and cling to what has always passed in our lifetimes for normal.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Repost: Shedding Our Martian Ways: Coronavirus and H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds

This is a repost from

A deserted airport. A civilization shut down by a virus. It makes me think of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, in which Martians conquer England with heat-rays and "black smoke", and seem unstoppable until, suddenly and surprisingly, they succumb to lowly pathogens to which they have no resistance.

We have watched as civilization has been taken over by forces alien to reality, as cold and unsympathetic as Wells' Martians, with a rigid ideology that aims all skepticism outward, and denies the connection between combustion and climate change, between spending and taxation, present and future, self and responsibility, words and truth.
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Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Anti-Science Ideology Destabilizes Economies

My friends have voiced a broad range of opinions about the coronavirus. Some think it poses a big threat, while others think the whole thing is overblown. Meanwhile, the stock market swoons, and our local university with all its magnificent facilities is switching to virtual education for the rest of the semester, and telling students to stay home after spring break.

The swoon in the stock market brings back memories of a similar swoon during the subprime mortgage crisis in 2008. Back then, the great uncertainty was in the mortgage-backed securities--those bundles of home loans. Which loans were bad and which were okay? No one could tell because they came in bundles, sort of like a bunch of passengers on a plane, or students in a classroom. If one person in the group has coronavirus, then the entire bundle becomes suspect.
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Wednesday, January 29, 2020

False Strength and the Artificial Polarization of Our Era

Most of the polarization of our time is due to people's failure to direct their skepticism inward. Skepticism is associated with strength of mind--an ability to resist and scrutinize what others accept as true. But people who claim, for instance, to be climate skeptics are merely pretending to be tough minded, because they practice one-way skepticism, aiming it all outward. True skepticism, the kind that demonstrates strength of mind, is directed inward as well. The current president is an extreme example of directing criticism outwards but none inward. He's tough on others, soft on self. Scientists have an incentive to practice two-way skepticism, because the rigor of their profession requires that they look for flaws in their own data and conclusions, lest they later be discredited by their peers. They have to be tough on themselves, as well as others.
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Monday, November 12, 2018

Future as Mirage

When did the U.S. give up on the future? Or, to rephrase, when did the Future stop being a galvanizing possibility and become instead a mirage fed to the masses to make people feel better about an increasingly dystopic present? Think of all those articles about technological and medical breakthroughs that sound world-changing but never seem to make the leap from lab to mainstream. America fiddles while the world burns, literally, for those living in California.

Halfway down a NY Times article about why the whole town of Paradise, California, was lost to unprecedented wildfires, an ad by Shell Oil offers a seductive view of the future, featuring a streamlined truck with solar panels on top.  The article was entitled, "Why Does California Have So Many Wildfires?", and explained that climate change (caused in part by the products Shell Oil sells) is one of the causes.

That sleek truck looked familiar, not so much like the future as like something 80 years in the past. Researching a renowned astronomer from the early 20th century, I had been reading about the 1933 Worlds Fair in Chicago, which they called "The Century of Progress." Exhibited at that fair was the Pioneer Zephyr train. This was not some mockup of a possible future, but was a real train that had just made its maiden trip from Denver to Chicago, averaging 77 mph. Within a year, innovations in diesel-electric engines and stainless steel construction had been incorporated into a train that was lighter, faster, more efficient, and actually used to carry real people to real places. Incredibly, according to wikipedia, the train carried 72 passengers plus 50,000 pounds of freight at high speed while powered by one 600 horsepower engine. That's less power than in a souped up SUV unveiled by Jeep last year.

Interestingly, that innovation and quick adoption of new technology happened in the middle of the Great Depression, associated more with frugality than gleaming progress. Why? Because people were buying less stuff, railroads sought to lure passengers to fill the void in freight business. Gleaming new high-speed trains were an enticement to travel.

But other factors played a role as well. The First World War had served as a model of quick mobilization of people and technology. Even beyond the victorious involvement in the war, collective effort and personal sacrifice for the greater good were more deeply embedded in the national psyche. That was before the 1980s, when the relentless demonizations of government, collective effort, taxes, and personal sacrifice began eroding the national will to take on great projects. When intentional collective effort to solve problems is undermined, we are left helpless to counter the unintentional collective impact of billions of carbon emissions that are undermining nature and ultimately ourselves.

Another picture in the Shell Oil ad showed solar panels on top of the truck that is supposed to carry our economy into the future. The panels look great, and trucks really should have them, but an article on the subject explains that the panels can provide power for everything except making the truck move. The image, then, is intended to make us feel good about a future that logistically remains a mirage.

Yesterday, 11.11.18, was the hundredth anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I, and one of the news reports recalled a French town totally destroyed during the war. Fast forward to the present, and witness in our era the obliteration of the town of Paradise, CA, by a wildfire said to be the worst in California history. Climate change, caused by the burning of fossil fuels sold by Shell Oil and others, is playing a big role in making wildfires more destructive.

America, increasingly paralyzed and torn by economic and ideological disparities, can find unity only in grief for lives lost and possessions destroyed. Its vulnerability to apocalyptic damage from hurricanes and wildfires has been on full display--threats our massive military is helpless to protect us against. Warnings dating back 30 years have been ignored, while many passively put their trust in God's will, and an economy indifferent to the future. Bereft of government action to address the underlying cause of mayhem, we as individuals are given little choice but to continue feeding a dystopic future, even as a sleek, attractive mirage is suspended in front of us.

Only when government makes it in everyone's economic interest to stop poisoning the planet will necessity kick in, and be the mother of true invention.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

"Losing Earth" and the Socialization of Blame

It's been weeks since the publication of Nathaniel Rich's "Losing Earth", the much-hyped article that went cover to cover in an August issue of the NY Times Magazine, but its giant contradictions are as jarring now as when I first read the article.

First, there's the title, which suggests that we are despoiling and ultimately losing the most precious of all things--a habitable planet upon which to live. If true, and the evidence is strong, you'd think it would have been front page news for decades, not something that pops up in the magazine as a done deal after forty years of sporadic coverage, like a jack in the box. The logic of that is, let's not worry about this climate change thing too much until we can safely feel it's too late to do anything.

Second, the premise of the article is that there was a decade--the 1980s--when action to solve the climate crisis was nearly taken, but that human nature kept us from acting. Here, again, there's a comfortably safe logic that avoids pointing fingers: it was nobody's fault and everybody's fault at the same time. The premise contradicts itself. If action was nearly taken, that means that a lot of people wanted to take action. Either those people are not human, or the article's premise is wrong.

The body of the article is well written and contains some useful research that, surprise, further contradicts the premise. In 1980, as it was becoming clear that strong U.S. leadership was needed to generate international action on climate change, Ronald Reagan was elected president. According to Rich's telling, Reagan moved to expand coal production, appointed "an anti-regulation zealot" to lead the EPA, and considered eliminating the council that had just warned him about the disastrous effects of global warming. "Reagan’s violence to environmental regulations alarmed even members of his own party," Rich declares.

This vivid telling, in which there were people who wanted to act, and others like Reagan who did not, completely undermines the article's central premise that "Almost nothing stood in our way--except ourselves."

It's often said that capitalism has a socialist element. It seeks to privatize profit while socializing loss. Pollution, for instance, is dumped on the global commons--in the atmosphere and waterways. Unlike profits, pollution's many costs and impacts are shared by all. We as individuals are allowed to operate under a similar logic, enjoying personal comfort and mobility as the CO2 rises from our chimneys and exhaust pipes to mix in the shared atmosphere. Rich's article does the same with blame, spreading it across all of humanity even while animating the text with the dramatic tension between those who wished to take action, and those who scuttled progress.

Particularly dramatic is the account of the first months of the George H.W. Bush administration, following a campaign in which Bush called for action on climate change. Soon after Bush took office in 1989, Secretary of State James Baker and EPA administrator William K. Reilly called for the U.S. to lead on climate change, but Bush's chief of staff, John Sununu shut them down while President Bush looked the other way. Again, the article's narrative clearly points not to some universal defect in human nature but towards particular individuals whose ideologies blinded them to the existential threat posed by a warming planet.

Though some blame goes to citizens who didn't pay attention, who listened to what they wanted to believe rather than a harder truth, it is the leaders who are ultimately to blame. They are the ones who take the solemn oath to protect the nation, and who ignored the evidence in order to let the voters off the hook. They are the leaders who failed to lead, and who chose the easy way, who opted out, who in a bout of reverse elitism decided they knew more than the scientists who have devoted their lives to studying the planet.

Journalism has long had trouble pointing the finger of blame, particularly at conservatives who since the 1980s have been battering the media with accusations of liberal bias. There's a palpable relief a journalist feels upon declaring "both sides" are to blame. But spreading the blame equally around when the facts suggest otherwise is hardly objective. It is a form of bias that provides reprieve for the guilty and smears the innocent. "Both sides" journalism leaves the public unprotected from malefactors, while offering no incentive for politicians to do the right thing. If extended to a schoolyard, a no-blame policy would lead to mayhem where bullies never face consequences. That, in essence, is what national politics has descended into.

Take Rich's surprise declaration: "Nor can the Republican Party be blamed." Rich defends this statement by mentioning a handful of Republicans who supported action, as if a small and ultimately powerless minority within the party somehow compensates for the behavior of the party as a whole. It is breathtaking to see how a political party that lectures the disadvantaged on personal responsibility is so easily let off the hook for its primary role in sabotaging action on climate change. Interestingly, insofar as generosity and forgiveness are liberal traits, then the forgiveness of the Republican Party for obstructing climate action supports the claim that the news media has a liberal bias. The Republican Party, then, benefits from an externalization of blame in much the same way as industry benefits from the externalization of costs like pollution.

Perhaps the least sympathetic to Nathaniel Rich's logic will be those who, fifty or a hundred years hence, look back in disbelief on decades of inaction, followed by self-serving attempts to wash our generation's hands of responsibility by chalking it all up to human nature.

12.13.18 Update: A "We're all to blame" sub-title was attached to an oped by John Kerry. The title was later changed to "John Kerry: Forget Trump. We All Must Act on Climate Change. If we fail, it won’t be just the president’s fault." The titles of opeds are chosen by editors rather than the oped author, suggesting an editorial tendency towards socializing blame for climate change.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Will Princeton's carbon footprint spur action?

Through a generous grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Sustainable Princeton has been able to fund a study of Princeton's carbon footprint, that is, how much carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases we are collectively sending skyward. That number represents the extent to which we as a town are trapped in a carbon economy, and thereby contribute daily to a collective, chemical undermining of nature. The main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, plays important positive roles in the earth's atmosphere, oceans, and in delivering to plants the carbon they use to grow, but as in our bodies, a significant change in its concentration can have disastrous consequences.

Few of us pay any notice to the exhaust pipes and chimneys in our lives, even though their emissions are quietly day to day determining our planetary fate. We abuse nature because we see little choice, because everyone else does it, because each individual's contribution seems insignificant, and because we can. Abuse can be inadvertent or, as in the photo of an outsized exhaust pipe in the back of a Dodge Ram pickup truck, a brazen show of power.

I may have been the first to attempt a carbon assessment of Princeton's energy use, in 2011, when I sought data from our energy provider, PSEG, on Princeton's consumption of gas and electricity. At the time, Princeton University was beginning to assess its own energy use, as was Sustainable Lawrence just down the road.

The premise, at least for me, was that awareness of our collective energy use as a town could help spur a move to use less, knowing the catastrophic global consequences of using carbon-based energy. We could compare our energy use year to year, and with other towns in the area, and thereby gain a sense of progress towards a shared goal.

My own experience with a home energy monitor, which displays how much electricity my house is using at any moment, suggested that knowledge is power. If I turned on the electric clothes dryer, our home energy use jumped by 3500 watts. Who knew? That's when we got clothes racks to hang-dry the clothes. A noisy, inefficient fan in the attic was replaced by passive ventilation. Turning off a few unneeded lights made the number drop even further. It was empowering and satisfying. We saved 35% on energy costs in the years that followed, with no loss in comfort or livability.

Immediate feedback seemed key in changing behavior. I dreamed of being able to go to a website where Princeton's energy use would be displayed in real time. Even more fine-grained data would allow neighborhoods to compete to see "how low we could go." But I quickly came up against the technical hurdles. PSEG was only set up to provide data every three months. Determining energy use by town government, or by the school system, required sending PSEG the meter numbers on every building. And then there's all the consumption of gasoline by cars and trucks driving through town. How to assess that?

I was stunned to learn that our town's biggest energy hog may be the incinerator that burns sewage sludge down on River Road. When natural gas prices were high, the town was spending more than one million dollars each year to fuel an incinerator most people don't even know exists. (I bet "Princeton's Finest" could outcompete Milorganite any day, and dramatically reduce our carbon footprint at the same time.)

In 2014 Heidi Fichtenbaum of Sustainable Princeton contacted me, wanting to pick up on my initial work with PSEG to quantify Princeton's energy use. I passed the data to SP's Christine Symington, who attended Hack Nights hosted by Code for Princeton, and sent the following update to me in 2015:

"Your past efforts to get this data were instrumental in getting a conversation started with PSEG that has led to us getting a commitment to getting updated data each quarter. 

We now have the start of a webpage that gives anyone in Princeton the ability to visualize our collective energy consumption. The team working on this included a 7th grader that designed the logo & created the styling for the site. Keep in mind that this is a work in progress. Ideas out there to expand on this include:
  • providing an import tool for residents and businesses who opt in to upload their personal utility bill information so it can be collected and used to create a "Princeton" energy consumption profile. This could be used to gather before and after energy costs from homeowners that participated in the EnergySmart Homes campaign 
  • an import tool for Sustainable Princeton to upload the data from PSEG easily and dynamically update the site with current usage data
  • a map of Princeton that would display energy efficiency or renewable energy implementations 
  • scenario builders that would show what Princeton could do to get to a 20% reduction in fossil fuels by 2020, i.e. increase solar installations by x%"
Then, in the fall of 2015, Christine published a report on Princeton's energy use on the SP website, the aim being to identify a baseline of energy use from which to measure Princeton's progress towards reducing energy use 20% by 2020.

Now, a grant-funded professional study should yield the long-sought number for Princeton's carbon footprint.

The big question going forward will be what Princeton does with that number. If we've learned anything in this long struggle to get action on climate change, it's that numbers don't make people change their behavior. The number on my home energy monitor moved me to action only because of a feeling in my gut that it is ethically wrong to be using energy that risks the future of our children, our nation, and a livable planet. How, we must ask, if Princeton is to be an example to the rest of the world, do we plant that feeling of ethical revulsion deep within more than a conscientious few of its residents?

One heartening development over the past year or two has been the growing gut-level rejection of discrimination, sexual harassment, and most recently gun violence. These issues have gone from the level of intellectual and political objection to a cathartic, visceral imperative that such behavior must be purged from society.

The Academy Awards this week was emblematic in its conscious shift towards inclusion and respect. And yet, predictably interspersed throughout that program and many others are car commercials that not only tolerate but glorify our collective chemical abuse of nature.

Our senses, of course, will not help us to reject the daily practice of pouring more and more CO2 into the atmosphere from the underground fuels we burn. Invisible, odorless, it all seems harmless enough. But if we were doing to our closely regulated bodies what we are doing indiscriminately to the earth--raising its temperature, acidifying the waters that sustain its life--we would literally feel in our guts the revulsion necessary to drive change in behavior.

It will be interesting on Wednesday to see the numbers that Sustainable Princeton has come up with, how business, commercial, residential, school and municipal sectors compare, and to see if the numbers are fine-grained enough to help drive decisions that will lead to substantive, measurable change.

Climate change is deceptive on so many levels. It is human nature to cling to the status quo, and yet it is the status quo that now drives radical change that increasingly threatens the lifestyle we wish to preserve. The more we cling, the less control we will ultimately have, as rising oceans claim our cities and super storms devastate communities. Each of us is left to grapple with the personal predicament arising from a collective failure, as in some lines I read at a recent poetry event at the library:

I don't mean to
I don't mean to
I don't mean to be so mean
To the earth.

How I love so much about it
As I travel all about it,
Spewing all that carbon as I go.
Where will I go,
When all that I love so,
When all that I go to,
Is gone?

Pessimists will say that it's already too late, that too much change is already baked into the system. But that is just one more in a long line of convenient excuses for inaction. Ending abusive behavior helps everyone. It not only makes life better for the abused, but also makes the former abuser a better person. Reducing the incredible disrespect for nature embedded in our economy and our culture will free us from an existential predicament we face as individuals every day, and make us better people.

A version of this piece was first published by

Monday, March 05, 2018

Good People Trapped in a Carbon Economy

Most of us were raised to be good people, but we live in an era when it is impossible to be good. Sure, we do all the things that good people would do: drive loved ones to where they need to go, keep the house comfortable, cook dinner, navigate the workaday world, travel to fascinating places. But each one of those life-affirming gestures, try as some might to deny it, is haunted by the collateral damage it causes. It is combustion that enables every one of those actions, and the kind of combustion we do leaves behind a chemical curse, all the more potent for being invisible.

Cars going by, planes flying overhead, steam rising from a chimney--the positive associations of each in the present is polluted in our minds by the dreaded portent for the future, as each person's seemingly insignificant legacy of combustion mixes with tens of billions of others past and present in the atmosphere and oceans, creating a vast chemical and thermal imbalance over time. This is the power of collective action.

It's as if every gallon of gas we buy, and every cubic foot of natural gas delivered silently to our homes, comes with an automatic donation to the End-of-the-World-As-We-Know-It Fund, dedicated to flooding coastal cities, promoting ecological collapse, and destabilizing weather patterns worldwide. Any intentional plot to do such damage would be considered Public Enemy #1. How, then, are we supposed to think ourselves good people without building a wall through our brains to prevent this unintentional harm from invading our awareness?

The inevitable guilt may cause some to trim their personal impact, but it seems paralyzing for most people. Better to feel outrage, at the powerful ideologues, pessimists and political cowards who keep us trapped in a dependency on fuels that power the present by sacrificing the future. This is not freedom, when we are cheated of any positive collective response commensurate with the threat, when we remain little more than conscripts, prodded by car commercials, cultural norms, and enforced economic necessity to collectively sabotage a beloved planet and our children's prospects. 

People think of climate change as an external threat, largely distant in place and time, but I feel it just as much on the inside, aware of the devil's bargain that pollutes any good I might do day to day. 

There was a time when nations were free to collectively counter global threats. We should be even more willing now, proud of sacrifice, challenged to be resourceful rather than extractive, because this time around, no lives need be lost, no war fought--only a rapid disarmament in the insidious chemical war against nature, a shift in habit and technology that squeezes fossil fuels out of our lives. 

This short essay was published in Town Topics on Feb. 21, 2018.

Friday, January 05, 2018

Drill-Baby-Drill vs Pump-Baby-Pump

The move by the Trump administration to open all U.S. coastal waters to drilling brings back memories of the 2008 election and the Republican chant "Drill, baby, drill". Where does one begin with all the rich meaning that can be mined from the race to extract more carbon energy from underground?

Collectively Created Problems? Yes. Collectively Solved Problems? No
Though conservatism as currently defined might seem to be against collective action, as it dismantles or paralyzes government and demonizes regulations, this is only half true. Conservatism allows problems like climate change to be collectively created, but is opposed to collective action to solve those problems. When Obama, responding to McCain's "drill, baby, drill" proposal to sell drilling rights along the coasts, pointed out that we wouldn't need to burn the oil from the coastal waters if we kept our tires properly inflated, he was ridiculed. He was proposing collective action to reduce climate change, while McCain was promoting action that would maintain or increase the collective releasing of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Libertarians, according to the Libertarian Party website,
"strongly oppose any government interference into their personal, family, and business decisions. Essentially, we believe all Americans should be free to live their lives and pursue their interests as they see fit as long as they do no harm to another."
Those last words, "as long as they do no harm to another", render libertarianism fraudulent from the get-go. It is a libertarian's deregulatory fervor that increases the harm individuals do to one another. To the extent that any individual creates nonpoint pollution, be it car or chimney exhaust, trash, sewage, or fertilizer runoff, that individual is creating harm, particularly to those who are downstream in topography or time. Libertarianism, being a substantial component of conservatism, is compromised at its core. Liberals, acknowledging basic realities that a libertarian chooses to ignore, work to free us from the negative impact of others.

Energy Independence Now, Energy Dependence Later
There's a flip side to claims that drilling more domestic oil will reduce U.S. dependency on foreign oil. Draining the nation's reserves of oil and gas now leaves fewer reserves to tap in the future. True energy independence is achieved only by reducing the need for energy, through greater efficiencies of which keeping tires inflated is a small but valid example, and by tapping the inexhaustible energy from the wind and sun.

Public vs. Private
Part of our individual wealth is what we own collectively through government. The logic of government can be seen in a public park. Owned by everyone, a park enables the individual to enjoy a landscape that otherwise would be accessible only to those with the wealth to acquire it. We all own the nations coastal oil reserves. Leasing that shared wealth, most likely at very low prices, shifts that wealth to a few private companies, leaving the public poorer.

Radical Conservatism Co-ops the Language of the Radical Left
The "Drill, baby, drill" of 2008 was preceded by the "burn, baby, burn" phrase associated with the Watts riots in Los Angeles in 1965, when urban blacks rioted to protest police brutality. Though the burning of fossil fuel is highly controlled, hidden within internal combustion engines and furnaces, its consequence is a permanent heating of the planet and radicalizing of the weather, with consequences that are far more destructive than an urban riot.

Lyrics in a 2001 song by Ash, entitled "Burn, Baby, Burn", capture the radical result of a conservatism that untethers the individual from responsibility for collective consequence:
Tumbling like the leaves
We are spiraling on the breeze
Almost to the point of no return
Everything will burn baby burn
U.S. Rushes to Become Europe
Resource abundance has long distinguished America from Europe. Dismissive of Europe and its ways, conservatism ironically hastens the resource depletion that in time will make America more closely resemble Europe.

The Quandary of the Conservationist
The work of preservation is never done, while it only takes one action to permanently exploit or destroy.

It Only Takes One Bad Tenant in the White House
Anyone who has been a landlord for awhile has learned that it just takes one bad tenant to trash a house. Likewise, it takes only one bad president to trash a nation. The George W. Bush administration left a legacy of 9/11, two wars, an economic meltdown, and tragic delay on climate change. With one political party in the grips of an anti-government philosophy, the federal government is caught in a recurrent cycle of demolition followed by repair, followed by even more aggressive demolition.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Slavery and Fossil Fuels: Unethical Energy, Then and Now

Preface: Actors study for a role in part by seeking in themselves aspects of the character they wish to portray onstage. That technique, or instinct, could be used to more deeply understand a time long past. When Princeton University began to look into the role slavery played in its past, researchers and archivists found all sorts of interesting documents, then recently invited the public to take a look. Attending events, I couldn't help but exercise the actor's approach, looking for aspects of today that can help us more vividly understand a seemingly distant era. Even without considering how slavery's long shadow extends into our century, the parallels between past and present were so numerous that I felt an eerie connection with that antebellum era. Most eerie is the tacit acceptance of a disturbing status quo. There's a great risk in not talking about our dependency on unethical energy. It nearly split a nation in two, and now threatens a civilization's future. 

The Slavery in Princeton project’s revelations have blurred distinctions between good and evil, North and South. For me, they also blur distinctions between past and present. The symposium will rightly focus on racial injustice, but additional insight can come from comparing economies dependent on unethical energy, slave-based or otherwise.

To make the point, here's what I've learned thus far from Slavery in Princeton's events, exhibits, and website, plus some additional reading:

Slaves were sold on Nassau Street. Slavery was common in Princeton, a part of everyday life, and seldom discussed. The university benefitted from wealth generated by the slave economy. Nationally, the Bible and junk science were used to rationalize the continued use of slaves and to claim that victims were actually beneficiaries. Those most victimized by slavery had no vote. Those calling for a rapid end to slave use were considered radical. New Jersey chose to phase out slavery over many decades. Everyone supported the slave economy by buying its products. A few people of conscience sought to buy slave-free goods, but struggled with issues of higher cost and verification. A technological breakthrough made slavery much more profitable as time went on, expanding U.S. exports and stiffening political resistance to ending the slave economy. Ending slave use would mean stripping slave owners of the tremendous wealth bound up in the slaves themselves. The political party advocating continued slave use became radicalized, in part because demographic trends might erode its power. That Party chose to secede rather than face the unethical nature of the slave economy. Even after slave use was abolished, its harmful effects would linger for centuries.

Now, reread the above paragraph, substituting the word "fossil fuel" for slave and slavery. The technological breakthrough, by the way, was the cotton gin then, fracking now, and secession was from the Union then, from reality-based thinking now.

There are, of course, important distinctions. Slavery in the U.S. was an intentional subjugation, a race-based exploitation of one person by another, with much of the overt or covert cruelty playing out in real time.

Climate change, by contrast, is collective, unintentional and impersonal, essentially collateral damage from the carbon-based economy. Its veiled, crowd-sourced form of cruelty is largely indirect, displaced in distance and time, disguised within the natural variations of the weather. Climate change most directly targets earth, which can be thought of as a body, physically scarred by extraction, its oceans acidified, its land and sea made feverish by a 40% increase in carbon dioxide. These radical changes to atmosphere and oceans cripple nature and increasingly endanger people through a devastating intensification of winds, floods, droughts, and heatwaves.

And yet we drive down freeways, which function as climate change factories, with the best of motivations--to get to work, run an errand, or do a favor--exiling awareness of collective consequence. To more deeply understand slavery's grip on society, consider how unethical energy continues to trap even free people in dependencies that can be viewed as both perfectly normal and unconscionable.

Background readings that I found helpful can be found at this link

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Climate Think: Comparing Climate Change and Drunk Driving

Here are two examples of what can be called Climate Think:
  • If we viewed terrorism the way we view climate change, there'd be no security checks at airports, because no one could prove definitively when or even if a plane will be hijacked in the future.
  • If we viewed drunk driving the way we view climate change, there'd be no law against Driving While Intoxicated, because no one could prove for certain that alcohol was the cause of the accident.
The burning of carbon fuels previously stored safely underground has increased atmospheric carbon dioxide by 40%. All weather is now influenced by climate change. The oceans are now 25% more acidic, due to some of that extra carbon dioxide turning into carbonic acid when it's absorbed by the oceans. All ocean chemistry is now influenced by climate change. Our bodies strictly regulate our internal chemistry, including pH, yet many people seem to think we can radically alter the earth's chemistry without consequence.

If the universe were patrolled by police, the earth and its drivers would be arrested for DWI.


When it comes to terrorism and drunk driving, the potential for harm is considered sufficient to take action. Contrast that mindset with the tortured and timid suggestions that climate change can in part be blamed for the destructiveness of recent hurricanes and wildfires.

Using Climate Think, a drunk driver could argue that his accident was minor compared to many accidents caused by sober drivers. He'd point out that many drunk drivers make it home safely, and there's no way it can be definitively proved that his alcohol levels caused the accident.

You can see these sorts of rationalizations being used in news coverage of climate change quoted below: "the possible role climate change played..", and "climate change is not necessarily causing specific fires to occur." Imagine the same sort of apologist approach being used to report on drunk driving.

An editorial in the Washington Post: This editorial has a brave headline, but then gets very timid, with its "time to talk" and "possible role" and "measures the nation should take."

See it, say it: Climate change
"While California prepares for what promises to be an arduous rebuilding, Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and other places hit by this year’s unprecedented back-to-back-to-back hurricanes are still mopping up and, in Puerto Rico’s case, just beginning to rebuild. So it would seem to be a natural time to talk about the possible role climate change played in these disasters and about measures the nation should be taking to slow global warming."
An article in the NY Times: It would be interesting to see a news report state that alcohol levels accounted for half of a driver's weaving on the road, or half of a deadly accident.

California’s Wildfires: Why Have They Been So Destructive?
Researchers from the University of Idaho and Columbia University published a study last year saying that climate change had caused more than half of the dryness of Western forests since 1979. 
Parched landscapes can increase fire size and duration, said Scott L. Stephens, a professor of fire science at the University of California, Berkeley. 
But it is important to note, he added, that climate change is not necessarily causing specific fires to occur. Wildfires are a natural part of a forest’s life cycle and have been part of the state’s history since long before anyone called it California.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Unintentional Acts of Good People are the World's Greatest Threat

Text from the president's address to the U.N. earlier this week provides a good example of how the greatest threat to our future is being ignored. The text pits the "righteous many" and "decent people and nations" against "the wicked few."
"The scourge of our planet today is a small group of rogue regimes that violate every principle on which the United Nations is based. They respect neither their own citizens nor the sovereign rights of their countries. If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph. When decent people and nations become bystanders to history, the forces of destruction only gather power and strength."
There are, of course, people out there with destructive intent who pose a danger. Nuclear weapons will always keep the end of civilization potentially just minutes away. But such a good vs. bad duality leaves the door wide open for the most powerful and insidious agent of destruction to do its work.

Though each one of us may lead a productive and caring life, we remain in another respect like beasts of burden, harnessed to pull civilization closer to the cliff. To the extent that our machines run on fuels extracted from underground, we serve collectively as a team of mad chemists, redistributing carbon and thereby unleashing powerful forces of radical change. Of course, we don't mean to play this role. We are, as stated in the president's address, "decent people." But our participation in the destabilizing of the planet's chemical balance is no less substantive and real for being unintentional. Why, in order to conform and fit in to society, are we essentially forced to wear that harness and daily contribute to destructive transformations of our climate and our oceans?

We know who is keeping us in this bondage. It's the politicians who pretend that all evil is intentional, who pretend that the fuels combusted to run our lives and our vast economy do not have vast and lasting negative consequence, and who, armed with deeply entrenched pessimism, actively oppose alternatives to that bondage.

We won't be free, nor our nation truly defended from danger, until the deniers of human-caused climate change are stripped of their political power. Until then, preoccupation with the evil intent of the "wicked few" will leave us vulnerable to the collective and unintentional impact of the "righteous many."

Thursday, May 11, 2017

James Baker Lobbies for Climate Action

A pretty good crowd showed up at Princeton University for James Baker's talk entitled "A Conservative Approach to Climate Change". Years ago, you'd be lucky to get 10 or 20 in an audience for anything having to do with climate.

At 87, Baker looks back on many successes for those he served. He lent competence to the Reagan and Bush 1 administrations, and outmaneuvered the Gore team in the 2000 post-election fight for Florida's electoral votes. Reagan cut funding for climate research, and the Baker-assisted Republican victory in 2000 tragically stalled progress on combatting climate change for 8 years.

Having used his considerable diplomatic and administrative skills in the service of those who sabotaged solutions to the problem, Baker and some of his esteemed Republican colleagues, such as George Schultz, are offering what he calls a "conservative" solution for climate change. He is now, in effect, going up against the monster of denial and political expedience his former employers--Reagan and the Bushes--did so much to create. It's hard to see how even the extraordinary charm and tactical capacity of a James Baker could crack the nut of Republican resistance--a resistance that has served Republicans so well by letting voters off the hook for dealing with a massive problem.

Baker deserves credit for backing a worthy goal--a carbon tax. Essentially, a tax is levied on carbon-based fuels used to create and transport products, whose cost in the marketplace is then affected. The tax would be predictable, starting low and gradually rising. The carbon "content" of imports would be taxed as well. Business would appreciate the predictability, and be motivated by cost incentive to shift towards renewable energy. The tax revenue would be returned to all citizens of the U.S. as a check in the mail. A $40/ton of carbon tax would make that check $2000/year, in Baker's estimation. Regulations--many of which, it should be said, were created because Republicans have resisted solutions like a carbon tax--would be eased as the carbon tax took effect.

Though he claims that he and other conservatives came up with it, the approach sounds remarkably similar to what the Citizens Climate Lobby, a bipartisan group that's been around since 2007, has been working towards. George Schultz is very involved with CCL, and Baker claims to have started speaking about climate change as a problem back in 2004, but it's unclear to what extent they contributed to the development of the approach. There was no mention of CCL in his talk or during Q and A. (Note: I've since been told that Baker's approach gives more emphasis to rolling back regulations, and starts with a higher tax/ton that the CCL proposal.)

Baker doesn't admit that carbon emissions are causing the problem, but instead says the risks are too large to ignore. He declares hyper-partisanship to be a problem, but doesn't admit that much of the partisanship is artificially created by his ideological brethren who deny the overwhelming scientific evidence that climate change poses a huge risk to our future. Truth is an important source of unity. Denying it creates polarization where none need exist. We do not have, therefore, a "both sides are to blame" equivalence when it comes to political gridlock on climate change.

There seems to be a tacit understanding that Baker needs to label the proposal conservative in approach and origin, in order to avoid being labeled an "Other" by the Republicans he seeks to persuade. Therein lies the greatest sadness, that his political party has embraced the political expedience of climate denial, purging itself of any who dare acknowledge reality, so that Baker must still pretend there is scientific uncertainty, as in "carbon emissions may be causing our problem."

At least Baker dares to use words like "tax" and "liberal" in positive contexts, as in his support for a "liberal global order". These are small victories, coming long after the brutal effort, by Newt Gingrich and his progeny, to burden those words with enough negative connotation that no one dare use them, and to demonize liberals to the point that anything they say is rejected out of hand. Thus is political dialogue rendered dysfunctional, and problems like climate change fester for thirty years. 

At the beginning of the talk, Baker joked about a friend of similarly advanced age who told Baker that they were living "in the fourth quarter". No, Baker replied, "we're in overtime." He's happy to be alive, still active, still relevant. If he contributes to an unlikely last minute victory for climate action, we can cheer him on, while being mindful that he spent most of his life serving those who have set the nation up for defeat.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Climate March, Start to Finish

If you weren't able to make it to the Climate March, or only got to see the portion of it you were a part of, click below for a showing and telling of the whole progression, all four hours worth, as it passed down 42nd Street. Included are its many themes, a compilation of the most memorable slogans and chants, and serendipitous visual interactions between the march banners and the commercial billboard mega-images that served as a visual frame for the marchers. Having long ago realized that human-caused destabilization of the planet was the overarching issue of our times, I was deeply moved by its spirit, its sounds, diversity, and sheer scale.
(Click on that little "read more" below, then click on "Home" when you've had your fill.)

Sunday, July 06, 2014

A Brief Conversation With Fox News' John Stossel About Climate Change

As mental nourishment for the alumni who gather each spring on the beautiful Princeton University campus for the annual reunion, morning panels are offered on topics of the time. Non-alumni, if not clearly welcomed, are not unwelcome, so I took the opportunity to attend a panel discussion entitled "Perspectives on Modern Conservatism and Libertarianism", moderated by Robert George.

Of the two libertarians on the panel, the first to speak was someone named John Stossel, currently with Fox News, and surely one of the most youthful looking members of the class of '69. He said he graduated from Princeton with a liberal perspective like most others, but that he began to see flaws in liberalism and gravitated towards a libertarian perspective. He is, by his own account, "a lousy conservative", because he was against the Iraq War, believes in the right to die, drug legalization, even prostitution--anything that's peaceful and doesn't harm others. He said the welfare state has obviously failed, and though he doesn't think that Walter Cronkite really was telling us "the way it is", he believes that liberals, conservatives and moderates are now much too isolated and should be talking to each other more.

What followed from other panelists were recurrent themes associated with modern conservatism: government regulation and debt are bad, privatization and charter schools good. Liberals were presented as wanting to impose a culture of dependency, in which government takes care of you from cradle to grave. This characterization sounded over the top. Panelist Bob Ehrlich, former governor of Maryland, found particular catharsis in turning liberals into straw men who could easily be knocked over. If I give my daughter money to buy lunch at the mall, or help pay her college tuition, am I imposing a culture of dependency? Or is it only when government doles out money, usually to people who don't have prosperous parents, that dependency is cultivated?

Robert George, director of Princeton's James Madison center and a strong promoter of the conservative perspective on campus, made some interesting interjections. Conservatives, he said, view freedom as an absence of outside interference, while liberals view freedom as something given by government, through programs that help people live a good life. He also suggested that conservatives more closely reflect Hamiltonian liberalism than liberals do. By coincidence, I had just been thinking that liberals adhere more to the definition of conservative-the-adjective than the current sort of conservative who promotes destabilization by shutting down the government and denying climate change. 

If called on during Q and A, I would have asked what conservatives will say when they have to admit that climate change is real, largely human-caused, and that the failure to act in recent decades is risking massive damage to the planet and human economies. "Oops," perhaps, in the tradition of Texas governor Rick Perry?

Afterwards, noticing Mr. Stossel standing alone, I asked him. Yes, he acknowledged, "Oops" is a possibility. But he says there's too much doubt to act, and besides, action is unlikely to be successful. I responded that he was denying both the problem and the solution. He said that maybe it won't be so bad, and besides, there's always a chance that someone will come up with a way to fix the problem at the last moment. He said we will eventually run out of fossil fuels, at which point people will have to come up with some different source of energy. 

There were a number of things I pointed out to him, and another alumnus who joined our conversation. One was that we are collectively creating the problem, each one of us contributing, and it makes no sense to allow people to collectively create a problem while denying all possibility that we can work together to solve it. The idea that we have the freedom to consume all of this wonderful energy, then leave future generations to deal with the negative consequences, seems irresponsible and unfair. And how can a free market be free if it doesn't factor in the future cost of consuming a commodity like carbon-based fuels?

Now, Mr. Stossel may have thought he was being optimistic. After all, he thinks that climate change, if it's real, won't be so bad. And he holds out the possibility that someone will solve the problem at the last moment. But this is the optimism of a gambler, a form of wishful thinking. It's like a coach telling team America to wait until the game is all but lost, then throw a hail mary.

Mr. Stossel is in fact preaching a form of resolute pessimism, about America's capacity to identify hazards in its path, about America's capacity to take on a technological and leadership challenge and win, about the power of collective action, about the government's capacity to complement the private sector. 

I didn't say all of this at the time, but did point out the pessimism embedded in Mr. Stossel's denialism. He appeared less than pleased, drifted off into another conversation, and I continued talking to the other alum, who characterized Germans as having foolishly cluttered up their towns with unattractive solar panels and wind generators while turning their backs on nuclear energy. France, I noted, had invested heavily in nuclear. And at that point, when I didn't respond negatively to nuclear energy, we started to find some things in common. I would say the appearance of solar panels seems a small price to pay for clean energy, but we agreed that the government's ethanol requirement is a destructive boondoggle, harmful to the environment and, according to him, harmful even to car engines, and that the only reason ethanol production is subsidized is because the first presidential campaign primary is in Iowa. He gleefully said that fossil fuel had saved the whales, because the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania provided an alternative to whale oil. Interesting, though the next question is who will save us from the consequences of fossil fuels? And the whales could easily be hunted to extinction now, by deadly fishing fleets made possible by fossil fuels. Only regulations and international law stand in the way.

I suggested that the conservative panelists were exaggerating the intensity of government intrusion, that the back and forth about government and markets sounds like past debates on nature vs. nurture. Both play a role and have their place. Too little regulation is as harmful as too much.

Afterwards, I had to agree with Mr. Stossel on one thing, that liberals, conservatives and moderates are too isolated and should be talking to each other more. One example of this is when Stossel had NASA climate scientist Gavin Schmidt on his program. Schmidt's performance is a tour de force of optimistic realism. Stossel suggests we can't know how much climate is changing or what's causing it. Gavin details how it's changing and how various natural factors that have caused climate to change in the past have been considered and ruled out, leaving human influence as the primary cause. Stossel then goes through a rapid sequence of one pessimistic view after another: We can't do anything about it, and if we can it won't do any good anyway, and if action would do some good, then poor people will suffer. To each of these negative propositions, Gavin offers a positive solution. After Gavin left the stage, the rest of Stossel's program on climate change was a celebration of the good that fossil fuels and carbon dioxide have done. Burning fossil fuels means fewer trees being cut down for wood. Machines have taken the place of slaves. Carbon dioxide helps plants grow. All of this is true, but just because a substance is beneficial in one way does not mean it isn't harmful in another. Though water is essential to my life, that doesn't mean I want it flooding my basement. Nor does our need for warmth make an argument for parking our cars in the summer sun with the windows rolled up. Whether something is good or bad depends on how much and where.

At some point, John Stossel will have no alternative but to say "oops". When he does, he'll gain in optimism and realism what he loses in identity, ideological certainty, and wishful thinking. Meanwhile, precious time is being lost.

Details of the event:
Alumni-Faculty Forum: Views of Modern Conservatism
and Libertarianism
Moderator: Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of
Jurisprudence, Professor of Politics, and Director, James
Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions.
Panelists: John F. Stossel ’69, Host of Stossel; Robert L.
Ehrlich, Jr. ’79, Senior Counsel, King & Spalding LLP;
Henry E. Payne, IV ’84, Columnist, The Detroit News;
Andrew L. Malcolm ’09, Communications Director, Office
of Representative Greg Walden. To 10:00 AM. Sponsored
by the Alumni Association of Princeton University. Frist
Campus Center, Room 302.

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.

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.

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.

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.