Wednesday, March 23, 2016

More Skewed Logic on Invasive Species--Bradford Pear

Soon after writing a critique of the NY Times article that demonizes those of us who are concerned about invasive species, I received an email saying "They've done it again!" The email pointed to a NY Times oped by a science writer, Gabriel Popkin, about the Bradford Pear. Called The Ups and Downs of the Bradford Pear, most of the oped tells the standard story of how this tree, introduced by the nursery industry with great fanfare, became an ecological problem years later. Only at the end does the oped take a bizarre turn, using strange math and selective pessimism to conclude that, in a world full of bigger problems, we need not take any action.

The Bradford Pear turns our towns, and increasingly our countrysides as well, white with its intense, incandescent blooms in the early spring. It seems like a beacon after the long voyage of winter, telling us that the comforts of spring are close at hand.

But like many species introduced to our continent with great hopes,

Monday, March 14, 2016

Skewed Logic Thrives in NY Times Article on Invasive Species

One expects quality from the NY Times, but for some reason it periodically weakens its standards to publish an oped or article attacking native plant advocates and biologists who study biological invasions. (See list and previous detailed critiques here.) The tactics are always the same: a blurring of important distinctions, a failure to explain to readers the basic concepts of invasive behavior in plants and animals, the creation and tearing apart of strawmen, an embedding of bias in word choice and sentence structure, and a lot of mean-spirited pejoratives. This curious, recurrent smearing of those who seek to understand and tend nature's garden is fueled, as best I can tell, by a never-ending stream of resentment emanating most stridently from a couple California-based websites, then given undeserved validation by journalists who lack training and field experience in biology and ecology.

The latest, by veteran science writer Erica Goode, is a polemic loosely disguised as an article in the Science section. Entitled "Invasive Species Aren’t Always Unwanted", it portrays invasion biology as a xenophobic, militaristic, quasi-religious cult that has invented a false enemy and caused people and governments to behave in violent ways. We are asked to accept this dark psychological portrait largely on faith.

Like attacks on climate science, the article claims to shake the foundations of a major area of scientific study

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Longstanding Optimism of Al Gore

A recent piece about Al Gore in the New York Times displayed an unwitting bias that turns reality on its head. The bias stems from a faulty notion of what constitutes optimism, and a confusion of perpetrator and victim when discussing the agents of polarization in political discourse.

In "The New Optimism of Al Gore" (Science Times 3/17), John Schwartz suggests that Al Gore may be becoming an optimist. In fact, he has always been one, in that he long ago correctly diagnosed a dangerous threat to the nation and the world, and offered a way to combat it. Pessimism is instead exemplified by Gore's critics, who say at every turn that we are helpless: that scientists cannot know what lies ahead, that we have no influence over climate and therefore no control, that even if America took action it couldn't possibly influence other countries to do the same, and that any effort to slow global warming will fail.

Similarly, a quote by Anthony Leiserowitz in the piece, characterizing Gore as "one of the country's most polarizing political leaders", falsely implies that Gore has done the polarizing. Polarization occurs when a large and noisy political faction chooses to reject well-established knowledge and base its views instead on falsehoods and wishful thinking. Given that science is a pillar of our civilization, the divide in political discourse on climate is not an inherent one, but is artificially constructed by unilateral secession from the overwhelming consensus of scientists on the issue.

The article, though thoughtful in many ways, still reflects a common bias in mainstream thinking that protects the political right from taking responsibility for the pessimism and polarization it generates.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Ben Bradlee--After Watergate

There's a big gap in obituaries for Ben Bradlee, the gutsy, charismatic icon of journalism who passed away October 21st. We hear plenty about the journalistic heights of the Watergate investigation that led to President Nixon's downfall, and the embarrassing depths of the fabricated Janet Cooke story, which led to the Washington Post returning a Pulitzer Prize. But with the exception of one blogpost at, little is said of the years 1981 to 1991, which coincided with the Reagan/Bush era and Bradlee's last ten years as executive editor of the Post.

The reason for this gap can be found in the "After Watergate" chapter of Bradlee's book, "A Good Life", where he describes the "post-Watergate caution of editors". "What the newspaper did not need", he felt, "was another fight to the finish with another president--especially a Republican president, and especially a successful fight. Without the suggestion of a formal decision, I think the fires of investigative zeal were allowed to bank."

The scandals of the Reagan era, which Bradlee describes as "unconstitutional adventures that threatened democracy more than Watergate", came in the protective shadow of Nixon's resignation, an increasingly passive public, and the never-ending stream of accusations of liberal bias aimed at newspapers like the Washington Post. "That criticism," wrote Bradlee, "that suggestion of bias, wore me down over the years, I now think, and I know we walked the extra mile to accept the official versions of events from the White House--explanations that I doubt we would have accepted from the right-hand men of Democratic presidents. And the public was glad to go along." 

Bradlee notes that the alleged liberal bias, if anything, went the other direction: "at the Post anyway, we were always praying for good Democratic scandals". That reverse bias, along with the need in some political circles to avenge the resignation of President Nixon, contributed to the investigative excesses of the Clinton years.

Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, famed for their reporting of the Watergate story, said that Bradlee's “one unbending principle was the quest for the truth and the necessity of that pursuit. He had the courage of an army.’’ And yet, one aspect of Bradlee's truthfulness is his admission that, even for him, the journalistic pursuit of truth could be compromised, blunted, worn down by relentless ideological attacks and public apathy.

Sometimes it's hard to distinguish monuments from gravestones. In a country that remains paralyzed and artificially polarized as the global threat of climate change gathers power and momentum, the World War II monument on the National Mall becomes more like a gravestone for a lost era of national unity and sacrifice for the greater good. Given the timidity that crept into journalism in the 1980s, the courage and commitment to truth that marked the Watergate investigation, too, stands as both monument and gravestone.

As Bradlee is rightly celebrated for his long and iconic journalistic career, and the personal and financial risks taken in pursuing the Watergate scandal, it's good to remember that the greatest monuments to past glories are not built of stone, nor of words. They come not in the form of passive, ritualistic celebration--an annual parade, a comforting eulogy, or a ribbon slapped on the back of a car--but in emulation. These are the living monuments America seems to have forgotten how to build.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Two Conservatives Find Fallibility

In a forum at Princeton University's McCosh Hall entitled "Higher Education and the Intellectual Culture: Is Reform Possible?", columnist George Will and Robert George, director of the James Madison Program, presented themselves as tough- and fair-minded intellectuals in a sea of liberal academic group-think and political correctness. Universities, said George, should be encouraging thought rather than shutting it down. Conservative students, he alleged, express their views in term papers at the risk of being penalized with a lower grade by liberal professors.

George praised those who speak out against the majority view, even the supermajority view, mentioning climate change on several occasions. "Someone who questions your view is your friend", he said, recounting his one-on-ones with Cornel West. In the best encounters among intellectuals of different viewpoints, "the need to win an argument dissipates. When that happens, we're in business, we're on the right track."

Both spoke highly of, in John Stuart Mills' words, being "willing to entertain reasons why we might be wrong." George Will, who in personal appearances softens his hard-edged intellect with a ready, self-deprecating sense of humor, referenced a book he had written, "read by dozens, half of whom are in this room today", in which he wrote about the "spirit that you're not too sure you're right."

This idealized image of intellects in the pursuit of truth, humbled by an awareness of human fallibility, is appealing, but could not contrast more with the world George Will inhabits, where terse, mocking dismissal of opposing views is the norm. Read a George Will column such as this polemic against liberals, and you will see no evidence of readiness to be wrong. Dismissing the overwhelming scientific consensus on human-caused climate change, Will portrays himself as an Einstein fending off Nazi conformists. There is precious little in Will's writing style that encourages reflection, exploration, open-mindedness, and humility.

One thing George Will excels at is tossing out memorable phrases, like "the manufacture of synthetic indignation", or a "saving multiplicity of factions." The latter refers to James Madison's apparent promotion of "a varied means to buy property", which could be taken to mean we should encourage great wealth and great poverty in order to avoid the tyranny of middle class conformity.

If George Will and Robert George were truly serious about considering their own fallibility, and not just that of academia, they could begin by exploring where their arguments lead. In a surprising number of cases, they lead to letting people off the hook. Conservative arguments can be boiled down to this: "Don't let liberals make you feel bad." Don't worry about the collective impact of our lifestyles on global climate. It's all a hoax. Don't worry about the plight of the poor. They deserve it. Don't worry about trying to make government work well. It's dysfunctional by definition. Don't worry about regulating markets. They'll take care of themselves. Don't worry about species other than our own. They don't matter. And are you fabulously wealthy and want to feel good about paying a lower tax rate than your secretary? Congratulations. We have recast you as a champion of economic diversity.

Hovering over these two prominent conservatives, as they lectured academia on the importance of fighting against group think, was the conformity exhibited by conservative leaders in refusing to acknowledge human-caused climate change, and the propaganda techniques used by one of Will's employers, Fox News. For instance, leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Fox News cleverly switched to images of Saddam Hussein brandishing a rifle when opponents of the Iraq invasion spoke. Image overwhelmed whatever words were being spoken. Similarly, a "Green Tyranny" logo hung in the background while Fox host John Stossel pretended to have an open-minded discussion of climate science. Having invested so much of his reputation in denial of human-caused climate change, what would be the consequences for George Will's career if he were to change his view? Is a pundit who is hired to fill a certain ideological slot and dependably feed red meat to an expectant audience really free to reflect and reconsider?

Will and George spoke repeatedly of the dangers of tyranny. To guard against these dangers, we must promote and sustain divergent views. This raises the question: At what point do we know enough about a potential threat to take unified action as a nation? As the paths of commercial jets began to diverge from their established routes on 9/11, at what point should those charged with defending the nation have considered further debate foolhardy and taken decisive action, given the potential consequences?

And when, as atmospheric CO2 concentrations have diverged radically from established patterns and headed with tremendous speed into territory humanity has never before witnessed, do we see danger not in group-think but in a lack of group action?

Diversity of opinion is an admirable goal. We should be on guard against conformist thinking. But what Will and George are offering, in the guise of intellectual rigor, is an easy way out, a sugar-coated way of avoiding tough issues and thorny questions of shared responsibility for collective consequence.

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.)

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Joining the March for Climate

On Sunday, Sept. 21, beginning at 11:30, people from all across the country will gather at Columbus Circle in New York for what's being billed as "the largest climate march in history." I've never taken part in a march, but I'll go to this one, and I encourage everyone else to head to the Dinky that morning with plenty of time to spare.

The most troubling thing about climate destabilization is that so little is being done to slow it down. The worst sorts of problems, whether at the level of the individual or global, are those that languish and deepen for lack of action. Once a problem is acknowledged and the first few significant steps are taken to solve it, there is an immediate sense of relief.

For instance, there was no lack of scary pronouncements on the world’s prospects at a meeting of Princeton's chapter of the Citizens' Climate Lobby this past weekend. Yet, there's comfort in participating in a national organization working patiently for positive, bipartisan action.

At this month’s meeting, we gathered in a Princeton living room to hear via speaker phone from retired Rear Admiral Len Hering. It felt reminiscent of President Roosevelt's fireside chats during WWII. During his career in the Navy, Hering led a successful effort to reduce the Navy's energy consumption by 40%. I felt some kinship, having reduced our home energy consumption by a similar amount without sacrificing comfort.

Hering sees a clear and present risk to the world his three grandchildren will inherit, and says "we're not having the adult conversation needed." He described how a 12 year drought in Syria and the resulting social and political instability had opened the door for radical elements like ISIS. Dramatic sea level rise this century, combined with storm surges, will create millions of refugees, further destabilizing governments around the world.

These grim prognoses will be far less depressing the moment we take action and shift course. Staying with the status quo may feel safe, yet it is creating huge risks. Climate destabilization, collectively created, is a shared enemy. Action to slow it will be a unifying force, and that action must come at all levels, from the global down to the individual.

The march is timed to precede the U.N. Climate Summit later in the month. Details on how to participate in the march (e.g. no wooden sticks for banners!) can be found at

Note: Below are a book and links recommended by Rear Admiral Len Hering.

A Peace to End All Peace by David Fromkin

Other reports mentioned:

Climate Change, Migration, and Conflict

Center for Naval Analysis

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Soft Core of Hard-Core Conservatism

The brand of conservatism practiced by Republican leaders is generally thought to be hard-edged. It offers a harsh critique of government, characterizing it as indulgent, wasteful, and to be largely dismantled. The assessment of any Democratic president is unremittingly dour. A conservative is tough on crime, or at least blue collar crime, advocating severe consequences for breaking the law.

Liberals by comparison are usually portrayed as softies--soft on Communism, soft on crime. Their hearts bleed, their positions shift. They are wracked by guilt, constantly coming up with new things to worry about--the plight of the poor, global warming, polar bears, spotted owls. They seem to be making excuses for people, often portraying them as victims of circumstance. That would be the stereotype.

A conservative argues instead that people are wholly responsible for their fates, that success or failure is a product not of circumstance or opportunity but of character, initiative and determination. Poverty implies laziness. Drug addiction is due to a lack of will power. It's easy to think, then, that a conservative point of view places high standards and high expectations on the self.

And yet the core of hard-core conservatism is in fact very soft. Behind that facade of toughness is an ideology that largely lets people off the hook. The critique of government and the Democratic Party is so fervently pursued that no room remains for self-critique, for reflection. Conservatism is hard on others, soft on self. The legacy of the George W. Bush era--the Iraq War, expanded debt, the financial meltdown--begs for reflection and reappraisal, but prompted instead an even more extreme and defiant version of conservatism to emerge.

The soft core of conservatism allows the individual to take a pass on any number of issues. Climate change doesn't exist, and if it does, it's not our fault, and if it is our fault, we can't do anything about it. At every step in that logic, the individual and the nation are excused from taking action. The belief that government is destined to fail excuses a conservative from trying to make it work. Rather than taking on the tough issue of how to balance government revenue and expenses, a conservative maintains the illusion that tax cuts pay for themselves. The complex abstractions of statistics can be avoided by basing one's views on one's own limited experience. A conservative need not question beliefs, nor care about the poor, nor care about the impact of our lifestyles on future generations and the natural world that sustains us.

These are some serious perks. They excuse the individual from a responsibility to study, to understand, to reflect, to reappraise, to empathize, or to consider one's impact on others. And they go a long way in explaining the popularity of conservatism in its current manifestation. They indulge and satisfy like a chocolate whose hard shell obscures a soft, seductive center.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Cheering for the World

A question inspired by the World Cup: What if the team was all of us, together, and the trophy was a magnificent, life-giving planet orbiting through space?

The World Cup final was, for me, nerve-racking to watch. It was of more than idle curiosity, as my wife is from Argentina, thoroughly trumping my mostly German ancestry. In its semifinal against the Netherlands, the Argentine team was victorious but took a physical beating. Heads collided; bodies took jarring blows; legs were pushed to their limits. The hard road to the finals entails attritions large and small. Players reach the most defining game in their careers depleted, battered and bruised. The Germans, so ruthlessly efficient against Brazil, offered the Argentines the game with some early and glaring mistakes. But perhaps the Argentines lacked a killer instinct, and let the opportunities vanish as quickly as they were presented.

What a fickle and capricious game is soccer. First it strips players of the appendage that most defines humanity. With both hands figuratively tied behind their backs, they must channel a nation's aspirations unnaturally through foot and head. The result is a mix of grace and grit, tap dancing on turf alternating with bursts of speed. Its emphasis on endurance and nimbleness rather than brute strength also takes us back to our distant beginnings, as lean hunters who had to either outsmart our prey or chase them until they collapsed from heat exhaustion. There are echoes of the hunt, too, in the diminished role of the coach. No time-outs, only three substitutions, few set plays. The players have a basic plan and individual positions, but the rest is patience, improvisation and spontaneity.

Then there's the combination of nonstop effort and fleeting opportunity. Players push against a wall of impregnable defense for an hour, then through chance, clever maneuvering, or sudden defensive lapse, an instant of opportunity opens up. The World Cup, so elusive a prize, is suddenly there for the taking, the door wide open. In that moment, everything must go right, the ball struck at just the right angle, or the door slams shut, the opportunity gone, very possibly not to come again. This, too, is reminiscent of the hunt--the long prelude of stealth and savvy that leads to the moment upon which all depends. How hard it is to be in the moment when the moment arrives. As it happened, experienced players on both teams missed their chances, leaving it to a young German off the bench to be in just the right place, and make just the right kick in that one moment he was given.

Americans criticize soccer for not having enough scoring. And yet, when Germany routed Brazil, scoring easily and often, the game was cheapened. Soccer thrives on slowly building tension. The harder a goal is to score, the more it is prized. Because one goal can make the difference, and danger or opportunity can evolve very quickly, the game could be decided at any moment.

In basketball, another game that combines grit and grace, players get immediate gratification. Make a good shot, you get a point or two or three. But soccer at the World Cup level is full of excellence--perfect passes, deft touches, clever deceptions--all done with no promise of anything to show for it. In that way, it more accurately reflects our dreams and values, as we expend effort and seek to do the right thing with no certainty of reward. There is no quid pro quo in soccer, only a striving, and a hope that it will all lead to something worthwhile.

Soccer, too, with its uninterruptible stream of play, defies commercialism to interject itself into the fray and compete for the fans' attention and affections. For 45 long minutes each half, no softdrink or car brand can intrude on that sacred space between fan and national team and say "Buy me!"

I was surprised when my wife, who is working this summer in Argentina, called after the game and said that the streets of Buenos Aires are filled with celebration and national pride. Not the wild joyous frenzy of victory, but a pride in and celebration of their team and the extraordinary effort the players put forward. Though goals dominate the replays, the brilliance in this World Cup was in defensive efforts, particularly those of Argentina, and also of the U.S. team as its goalie and defensemen repulsed wave after wave of attacks in its loss to Belgium. Our national anthem, after all, is primarily about surviving relentless attack, not delivering the decisive blow.

And as the players gave their all for their country, fans cheered as if their cheers and hopes and passions might make a difference. That is what was so refreshing in this World Cup, the feeling of unity, the coming together of a nation to support its team, each fan invested in a shared outcome that will reflect positively upon the nation. In contrast to the intransigent polarization of politics, the pettiness and relentless effort to diminish any shared national achievement, it is deeply moving to see countries coming together for their respective teams, cheering together, wanting to be part of something larger than themselves. How extraordinary it would be if Americans defined themselves less by difference and more by shared interest, and sought a common goal, something whose lasting meaning and consequence would not be symbolic but have a substantive impact on our collective fate as a nation and a planet.

We've seen the dangers of national unity and collective endeavor, in the environmental atrocities of China under Mao Zedong, or the German imperialism and genocide in the 30s and 40s. But we desperately need to act collectively in an intentional way, to counteract the massive and unintentional negative impact we are having, collectively, through the biproducts of our day to day lifestyles. That unity will depend on everyone accepting reality, as soccer teams do. Unlike in politics, where denial of scientific findings is now entrenched, one soccer team doesn't unilaterally opt out if it doesn't like the facts. Regulation in soccer--the boundary lines and rules of the game--is calibrated not to weaken the game but to help channel the energy of the players in constructive directions.

It would have been hard to imagine, back when I was growing up, that the biggest of World Cups is being played every day. We have, it turns out, tremendous collective power to transform the planet. We really are, each day, playing to decide the fate of the world, and each one of us is a part of that power. The more of us there are, seeking understandably to live the good life, the more collective power we wield. Many people seek to deny responsibility for that power and its consequences. Some pretend it's negative impact is a hoax, or hope we'll get lucky, or are content to leave our fate in God's hands. In soccer, there is room for luck and for God, and yet the players do everything they can to influence the outcome, knowing the folly of assuming everything will turn out all right.

So imagine a world where, despite our differences, we are all rooting for the same team, and that team is us, with the planet's web of life and elemental powers as our allies. And rather than just pretending we each can have an influence on the outcome, we actually do. And imagine all hands on deck, not to tear each other down, but to raise the most precious trophy of all, spinning gloriously in space, and whose miraculous gifts to life are in our hands.

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.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Being Part of Something Larger Than Ourselves

(originally published in Princeton's Town Topics newspaper, after Memorial Day, 2014)

Every time Memorial Day comes around (or July 4th or Veterans' Day, for that matter) it feels more disconnected from reality. Yes, it's important to acknowledge those who died for our country. Parades are a spirited celebration of community. But are we fighting to protect the legacy of that past sacrifice? What I see is people going about business as usual, while the warnings grow that we are headed in a very dangerous direction.

This year, I went searching for meaning in Memorial weekend's speeches and sermons. A common theme was that soldiers face a difficult and sometimes perilous transition back to civilian life.
Whether it was Iraq War veteran Elana Duffy, speaking at the ceremony in front of Monument Hall, or the Reverend Bill Neely eloquently recounting the ancient tragedy of Ajax the next day, the stories were of soldiers unable to adjust to a civilian world lacking in shared purpose or any outlet for a soldier's engrained readiness to do battle.

Sergeant First Class Duffy spoke of a persistent desire to be part of something larger than herself, and finally found an outlet in Team Rubicon, a group that joins veterans and first responders in helping victims of tornadoes, floods, and storms like Hurricane Sandy and Typhoon Haiyan. For others, with an average of 20 veterans committing suicide each day and thousands being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, civilian life still brings a sense of isolation and alienation.

Meanwhile, there are those of us who have never worn a uniform, yet were deeply influenced by the afterglow of World War II--a time when civilians sacrificed for the war effort, when everyone found a way to contribute to a unified and ultimately successful struggle against a global threat. Many of us also find the dissipated energy of civilian life--the apathy, denial, pessimism, and reflexive political polarization--to be alienating and incongruous in a time when humanity again faces a global threat, this time of its own making.

Though veterans like Sergeant Duffy are finding meaning in helping repair the damage made worse by a destabilized climate, we will not truly be on the offensive again until we go beyond fighting symptoms and take on the causes of radical climate change. Only then can the giant and perilous chasm between uniformed and civilian outlooks be bridged, and a deeper healing of spirit, nation, and planet begin.

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.

Monday, April 07, 2014

The Internet's Founders Speak to Al Gore's Role

It's often said, usually after another poll comes out, that this is the first time in America that people believe the next generation will fare worse than the one before. This pessimism can be correlated with two increasing vulnerabilities of our nation: the tendency of misinformation to linger in people's minds, and the tendency of Americans to devalue foresight and ignore early warnings of approaching crises. Whether it was the wave of intelligence in the summer of 2011 pointing to an al Qaeda attack within the U.S., the misinformation leading up to the invasion of Iraq, the reckless behavior prior to the financial meltdown in 2007-8, or the long ignored warnings about accelerating destabilization of climate, problems are repeatedly allowed to grow into crises, then the local evening news programs revel in the stories of victims and heroes in the aftermath. We need to value people who are able to see beyond the present bubble of circumstance and distraction to what's coming.

That was one motivation for attending a discussion at Princeton University by two founders of the internet, Vinton Cerf and Bob Kahn. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web, and the 40th year since Cerf and Kahn published their paper describing the protocols for connecting computer networks. Back in 1974, there was little interest in the concept of an internet. Computers were bulky and very expensive, filling whole rooms, and the universities that housed them saw little advantage in connecting one to another.

After a discussion that showed Cerf and Kahn to be engaging, with a mixture of passion and objectivity often evident in people in the scientific and engineering fields, they fielded questions from the audience. One question I was particularly thankful for was about Al Gore's role in the development of the internet. Not surprisingly, there was some laughter from the audience, but Cerf and Kahn were very clear in their response. Al Gore was misquoted by his attackers, and in fact played an instrumental role in developing the internet so central to the economy and our lives today.

Back in 2000, when Al Gore was facing politically motivated ridicule, Cerf and Kahn wrote the following in his defense:
"As far back as the 1970s Congressman Gore promoted the idea of high speed telecommunications as an engine for both economic growth and the improvement of our educational system. He was the first elected official to grasp the potential of computer communications to have a broader impact than just improving the conduct of science and scholarship."
In other words, the true story--of a forward thinker acting decisively to better the country's future--was overshadowed by the myth that Al Gore had selfishly claimed he "invented the internet". One reason the misquote gained momentum was that "invent" and "internet" start with the same sound, and therefore sound like they belong together. What Gore actually asserted is in the full text below.

Vin Cerf told an interesting story about the news media's response to the accusation. Both Cerf and Kahn got more than 100 calls from journalists that day pertaining to what Al Gore had allegedly claimed. Rather than ask if the quote was accurate, the reporters all asked the same question: "Are you angry." When CNN showed up with a camera crew at Cerf's office, he actually had a picture in his office of him and Al Gore shaking hands. They were good friends, but that story, of the friendship and Al Gore's contributions to making the modern internet possible, didn't make it into CNN's coverage that night.

In other words, the nation not only lacks an adequate mechanism for correcting misinformation in political discourse, but the news media actually participates in the perpetuation of misinformation.

Though Al Gore can have a heaviness that is off-putting, and did not respond adequately to the false accusations during the 2000 campaign, his roles in launching the internet and providing early warning about climate change would, in any country that cares about its future, be broadly known and highly valued. Instead, his legacy is overshadowed and obscured by fabricated quotes and controversy.

Below is the full text, taken from one of many websites where it can be found. Click on "read more".

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

A Brain Speaks Up On April Fools Day

So, yesterday I saw there would be a talk at the university entitled “The Future of the Brain”. Being a brain, I was interested. Though most people take the brain’s future for granted, I’ve been wondering. I’m not so sure. You see, the more brains there are in the world, more than seven billion now, the more stupid our collective behavior seems to get. So, I’m thinking that, a lot of the time, maybe most of the time, brains are not additive. That’s the big mistake economists make. They think the more people there are, the more likely someone will come up with an invention that helps everyone. But really what happens is there’s just more chance for someone to invent something that screws things up even more. Roundup-Ready corn, anyone? Nuclear bombs?

What do you get when you put one brain together with another? You don’t necessarily end up with two brains. Sometimes there's a synergy and you end up with a sum greater than the parts, but other times you may end up with half a brain, or they could completely cancel each other out, given the tendency of brains to diverge in opinion. If one brain goes negative while the other brain is positive, the sum of all that nonsense is zero. Or else--and employers are familiar with this--the two brains get along so famously that they end up chatting and getting nothing done at all. Actually, one brain can do this pretty well on its own, thinking about all the things it needs to do until the day is comfortably over.

Sure, a brain is wonderful and all, a real miracle, but you’ve got to admit that it’s also the most dangerous organ to ever come into being. Okay, I’ll change that. It’s only dangerous when combined with hands. Dolphins and whales have really smart brains, but they haven’t screwed up the world because they don’t have hands. They can’t build what they dream up, they can only dream. I’ll bet you their imaginations are taking them places ten times better than anything we’ll ever find on the internet. They’re frolicking in one big womb out there. Doesn’t get any better than that. We’ve turned our homes into wombs--with those umbilical cords bringing in energy and water to maintain optimal temperature and fill the jacuzzy. But it’s not the same.

So let me take you on a brief history of the brain. In the beginning there was a brain. The brain fell in love with another brain, and they made more brains, who in turn made even more, until there were brains over here and over there, and all was love and spirituality until the brains grew hands, and started building stuff. Or maybe the hands came first, and the brain grew to better inform what the hands were doing. In any case, some brains over there decided they wanted what the brains over here had made, and vice versa, which hatched economies until one especially foolish brain decided war would get the job done faster. And the resentments hardened, and surviving brains made more brains that they in turn trained to keep hating the other brains, so it just kinda snowballed.

No other animal needs much stuff beyond a nest, but because we lack much in the way of teeth and speed and fur we needed lots of stuff, And when our brains needed more than what nature was giving them above ground, they started digging under her skin, digging all kinds of things up, stuff to make other stuff--enough stuff that they filled their homes with stuff until they needed other places to store still more. And as places got filled with stuff the brains needed to build superhighways to get away from it all. Which seemed okay, except for everything that had been living in their paths, until someone figured out that the superhighways were really superfactories for climate change. And meanwhile the whales are out there dreaming the finest dreams and leaving everyone and everything else alone.

So let that be a lesson to you. The next time you’re drifting through the galaxies and God comes along and deputizes you to start life on some lonely planet way out there, think twice about the brain-hand thing.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Space Station Logic Applied to Spaceship Earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 13, 2013

Nelson Mandela and What the World Demands of Its Leaders

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

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

Telephone Town Halls, and the Unprocessed Politician

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 02, 2013

America's Best Days

Written for Memorial Day, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Kennedy and National Sabotage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 22, 2013

Filibuster Busters

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 02, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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