Saturday, April 17, 2021

#107 / Fear Sells


David Altheide, who is Regents' Professor Emeritus of the School of Justice and Social Inquiry at Arizona State University, has written a book titled, Creating Fear: News and the Construction of Crisis. A shorter version of what I assume is his basic argument in the book can be found in Altheide's article in Counterpunch+. That article, which appeared on February 25, 2021, is titled, "Entertainment, QAnon, and the Politics of Fear.

Here is how Altheide begins that article:

Pogo’s wisdom applies to our country divided by the politics of fear: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” This is important because fear is the source of most anger and hate, which is fed by ignorance and stereotypes often promoted by popular culture and disinformation. Our current situation, highlighted by digital misinformation and by the absurd QAnon conspiracy of a government run by satanic worshipping pedophiles, is enabled by a profitable entertainment media industry fueled by fearful messages and images, as well as new communication formats that manipulate audiences.
My argument is that fear has been transformed by an entertainment oriented popular culture, including news organizations, as well as public agencies and officials who have a stake in fear. They provide the content for the ever-expanding market for entertainment. And it is fear that makes for good entertainment such as Donald Trump’s reality TV persona (“The Apprentice”) as well as his Presidential campaign and four years in office powered by the politics of fear that appealed to many of his followers (emphasis added).

Fear, as Altheide properly observes, demands our attention. It also "entertains" us. Fear sells!

You'll remember, I am sure, what the guy pictured above said, the one with the MAGA Hat. That's the picture Altheide placed at the top of his Counterpunch+ article. It's pretty good advice:

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Friday, April 16, 2021

#106 / White Sky In The Morning?


According to the Library of Congress, there seems to be some validity to the following adage:
As I promised I would, in an earlier blog posting, I have now read Elizabeth Kolbert's latest book, Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future, and I have been wondering what such a "white sky" might portend - whether in the morning, in the evening, or at any other time. 
Kolbert, as probably most of those reading this blog posting know, is the author of The Sixth Extinction, which won the Pulitzer Prize. The Sixth Extinction documents the impacts that human-caused global warming, and other human activities, are having on the natural world. The natural world, of course - "The World of Nature," as I call it, or "The World That God Made" - is the world upon which all life on this planet (including our own individual and collective lives) ultimately depends. Kolbert's latest book, Under a White Sky, is her follow-up to The Sixth Extinction
When I wrote my earlier blog posting, based on a review of Under a White Sky, and not upon my reading of the book itself, I indicated a concern about what I thought Kolbert might be saying:
Macdonald's review seems to indicate that ... Kolbert's latest book takes the position that we cannot "meaningfully distinguish between nature and humanity." If this is a correct understanding of Kolbert's thinking, that means that Kolbert has rejected a main feature of my "Two Worlds Hypothesis," which holds that we need to conform our Human World to the laws that govern the World of Nature. The implication is that it is now time for human beings to "grow up," and to assume full responsibility for running the Natural World, just as we have full responsibility for what happens in our Human World.... 
Since I haven't yet read Under A White Sky (it's now on my list), I don't know whether Macdonald is right about Kolbert's thinking, or whether I am misconstruing what Macdonald is saying. The review is somewhat equivocal, and Macdonald does complain, a little bit, about how difficult it is to understand what Kolbert actually thinks. I hope that Kolbert is not, in fact, thinking what Macdonald seems to suggest she is thinking....
Should human beings decide that they really want to try to "run the world" in its entirety, meaning that they will take responsibility for both the Natural World and our Human World, thus displacing the role that "Mother Nature" or "God" has always played with respect to the Natural World, I am afraid that it will soon be "Game Over" for almost all humans on the planet (emphasis added).
Since my earlier blog posting, from which that excerpt came, I have now read the entirety of Under a White Sky. I have also had an opportunity to read a little description of another book, Andreas Malm's Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Root of Global Warming, which I think is related to my inquiry about what a "White Sky" portends for our Human World:
Here, in one book [Malm's book], is "how we got into this mess," as so many these days put it. From preindustrial times to China, Malm (in 400 pages, + 60 more of notes) exhaustively covers the transition from "the flow" (water power, wind power, and other forms of energy, like sheer muscle power, directly or less directly derived from the sun) to "the stock" - "relics of solar energy of the very distant past." 
In a nutshell, as Malm sees it, manufacturers turned to "the stock" not because "the flow" was insufficient, and not because coal for steam engines was cheaper, but because they needed mobile forms of energy - energy in no way bounded by space, time, or the constraints of nature itself - so they could more efficiently (cheaply) control/extract/exploit the labor that produced the surplus value that made capital self-sustaining and self-aggrandizing. "Capitalism delivered the fossil economy," in Malm's words...not the other way around (emphasis added).

Malm's comments essentially reinforce my own way of thinking about the cause of our environmental and climate crisis. Human beings are the problem when they succumb to the ever-present temptation to act as if the constraints of the natural world (the world of "flow," in Malm's terms) do not apply to them. This is a big mistake, and perhaps "the" big mistake, if you take seriously the implications of my "Two World Hypothesis." 
We can blame "capitalism," as Malm, does, but the more general statement actually holds true. Our Human World in general, however the economics are organized, whether under the dominion of capitalism or not, is largely based on the principle that we, as humans, will not be constrained by the limitations of the Natural World. The world as it "flows" in patterns established by the natural processes of life and death, birth and rebirth, is bypassed, as much as possible. Humans are always tempted to put themselves in charge, and to act as though our accomplishments can themselves create a world that will sustain our lives. 
What does Elizabeth Kolbert think? 
Well, Kolbert really doesn't take a position in Under a White Sky. Her book is "descriptive," not "prescriptive." Kolbert is acting as a reporter, and is telling her readers about various current efforts to deal with our global warming and environmental crisis by helping Nature to recover from the injuries that have been inflicted upon the Natural World by the past and continuing actions of human beings:
This has been a book [says Kolbert] about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems. In the course of reporting it, I spoke to engineers and genetic engineers, biologists and microbiologists, atmospheric scientists and atmospheric entrepreneurs. Without exception, they were enthusiastic about their work. But, as a rule, this enthusiasm, was tempered by doubt."

The "white sky" of Kolbert's title refers to the way the sky would appear to us were humans to deploy the kind of "geoengineering" that Kolbert explores as her final example of "people trying to solve problems...." Humans have created our global warming crisis by burning fossil fuels. One way to try to solve the problem (besides stopping the use of hydrocarbon fuels, which at this point might not be enough) is to place aerosols in the upper atmosphere, reflecting back sunlight and diming the sun. Kolbert quotes Andy Parker, the project director for the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative, which is working to expand the "global conversation" around geoengineering. Here is Kolbert reporting:

We live in a world [Parker] has said "where deliberately dimming the fucking sun might be less risky than not doing it."
But to imagine that "dimming the fucking sun" could be less dangerous than not dimming it, you have to imagine not only that the technology will work according to plan but also that it will be deployed according to plan. And that's a lot of imagining.
The decision, says Kolbert, will be a "political decision." She is surely right about that. We do, most immediately, "live in a political world." 
Ultimately, however, all our politics (our politics and everything else) depend on a world that operates on the basis of "Natural Laws," not on the basis of human-created rules and political choices. The Kolbert book is convincing that we have ignored this truth so long that it is hard not to look to human-generated "assisted evolution" as we wonder what we should do. 
"Doubt" about our ability to be successful in attempting to place human controls over the World of Nature is well founded. As we look ahead, and think about what color the sky might be when we wake up to a new day, in ten years or twenty years time, I think this might be an adage to learn in advance:

White sky in the morning?
We all should take warning!

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Thursday, April 15, 2021

#105 / Grateful Or Ungrateful?



Many of us who deployed to Iraq naively thought we were doing the right thing.... This feeling was so persuasive that it led to many troops feeling that the Iraqis were somehow ungrateful when they started to shoot at us for invading their country (emphasis added). 

The above report comes from Andy Owen, a former British soldier who served two tours in Iraq. Owen's observation comes specifically from his article in the online magazine Aeon, "Reading John Gray In War." 

Gray is an English political philosopher who has written several influential books, including False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism (1998) and Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (2003). Here is Owen on Gray: 

The myth of progress was a key theme of Gray’s bestseller Straw Dogs.... There he attacks what he believes is the illusory faith that our species is apart and above the rest of nature, uniquely privileged in the Universe with the gifts of self-consciousness and reason. He attacks the idea of "humanity," saying that "there are only humans, driven by conflicting needs and illusions." Due to the plurality of human needs and illusions, it’s utopian to imagine that any one political system or social order could be universally good for all. For Gray, human nature is an inherent obstacle to advancing ethical or political progress. There’s no end of history as was once proclaimed when the Cold War finished and US hegemony was assured. Instead, our ceaseless attempts to try to find some meaning to life invariably drive us into the embrace of religious belief systems and their secular imitations – and, consequently, to continual conflict. Writing in 2020, Gray highlights that, throughout history "killing and dying for nonsensical ideas is how many human beings have made sense of their lives," and notes the irony of attempting immortality through death.
Having killed (and risked death), in the pursuit of what he calls a "utopian" idea, the idea that some kind of fabled and positive "New World Order" would be achieved by the invasion of Iraq, Owen is now aspiring to the wisdom of Blaise Pascal:

"All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone."

In other words - and I encourage you to read Owen's entire article - Owen is suggesting that we should all be "minding our own business," not trying to bring truth, justice, or the American (or British) way to those ungrateful types who would much prefer that we just leave them alone. In terms of the principles that should guide our foreign policy, the correct policy would be to allow other countries to confront their own problems by themselves and to provide assistance to such countries only when requested. That would, in fact, allow us better to confront our own problems, too!

Owen's thought is quite consistent with what I suggested would be a good idea, in my blog posting on Friday, February 26, 2021. I called that blog posting, "State Of The Empire."

If we would just follow that advice, a lot of people around the world would be really, really grateful.

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Wednesday, April 14, 2021

#104 / The Shared American Story

Ken Burns (pictured above) is an American filmmaker who is known for using archival footage and photographs in documentary films about American history. According to a New York Times article by David Marchese, which appeared in The New York Times Magazine on Sunday, March 21, 2021, it seems that Burns "still has faith in a shared American story."
On the same day I read that in The Times, one of my Facebook Friends provided me with this advisory:

This posting is a sobering reminder that "sharing" has not always played a very prominent role in the "American Story." Furthermore, the story of slavery and segregation is not the only part of our story that should remind us of that fact.
A shared story, in fact, is the only story worth telling - or perhaps I should say, "worth writing," worth creating. Reading the Marchese article, and then seeing the posting by my Facebook Friend, reminded me of my own recent posting about the January 6, 2021, invasion of the U.S. Capitol. Andrew Marantz presented us with a fine video reply to President Biden's statement, discussing what happened on that day, and claiming, "That's not who we are."
As he talked with Marchese, Burns said that he had learned this:

There is no "them." It's just "us."

Biden's statement (not unlike Burns' statement to Marchese, just presented in bold type, above), is really only one aspect of what needs to be a more comprehensive understanding. To refute Biden, the January 6th invasion of the Capitol both was, and wasn't, "who we are." To address Burns' claim, we must realize that our American story must either be a "shared" story, or it really isn't about America, at all. 
We must all be involved in both the action and the telling of the "American Story," and as I said before, in that posting about Biden's claim:

The long arc of history doesn't just bend itself. 
We have to do the work of bending it.

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Tuesday, April 13, 2021

#103 / Defenders Of The Rainforest

Dr. Stephan Schwartzman, pictured above, is known as kwaakriti (spider monkey) to the Panará people of the Amazon. Schwartzman is a Senior Director with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), and works on tropical forest policy. A recent "Special Report" from EDF, sent to EDF Members, calls Schwartzman a "defender of the rainforest."

The Amazon Rainforest desperately needs defending. See the picture below for just one indication of the extent of the ongoing damage. The article from which I obtained the picture, a New York Times report dated November 30, 2020, states that:

The scale of deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest surged to a 12-year high in 2020 ... with destruction soaring since President Jair Bolsonaro took office and weakened environmental enforcement. In 2020, destruction of the world’s largest rainforest rose 9.5 percent from a year earlier to 11,088 square kilometers — about 4,280 square miles, or a little smaller than Connecticut...

During the year and a half that Schwartzman lived with the Panará people, he stayed "in a thatch-roofed house, sleeping in a hammock and navigating between rivers of fire ants." He learned the language, and ultimately helped the Panará successfully to reassert their land rights over the tribe's traditional territory, which was about the size of the state of Delaware. 
Instead of burning off the forest, to provide grazing land for cattle - all the better to supply the demands of MacDonald's and Burger King for more and more beef - the Panará are now living in harmony with the natural environment, precious not only to them, but to every human being living on the planet. 
As The Times says in its article, "the Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest, and its protection is crucial to stopping catastrophic climate change because of the vast amount of carbon dioxide it absorbs."

Along with dealing with the pandemic, the United States government faces other critical tasks. For instance, we need to move the country away from the outrageous income inequality that is poisoning our politics (and our future). We must also find a way to provide more housing for average and below-average income people, and health care for all. Sizable challenges are demanding the government's attention, but let's not forget this: besides everything else, the United States government needs to move with the utmost speed to counter what is happening in Brazil, and in other parts of the Amazon Basin. 

We, the people, are the ones who are supposed to tell the government what to do, and what our priorities are. We need to make protection of the Amazon a priority that the our government simply must address. Our lives do depend on it, and the government is only going to respond and act if we organize, and if we demand and insist that it do so.

In other words, we all need to become "Defenders of the Rainforest." 

With or without the fire ants!
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Monday, April 12, 2021

#102 / Gavin Newsom Meets "The Rock"


California Governor Gavin Newsom will almost certainly face a recall election later this year, and handicapping the outcome has already begun. Many political observers have compared Newsom to Gray Davis, a former governor who was recalled. In general, political commentators think Newsom is in a lot stronger position than Davis was. For one thing, big donors are stepping up for Newsom. For another thing, at least until recently, there hasn't been any "celebrity candidate" who is planning to run in the recall. Davis had to face off against Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was immensely popular. Davis, most emphatically, was not.

The possibility of a "celebrity" contender in the upcoming recall just started getting more real. Yesterday's paper reported that Caitlyn Jenner is thinking about running. Jenner, who is seventy-one years old, has been "an Olympic hero, a reality TV personality and a transgender rights activist." Her next step could be candidate for California governor. I am pretty dubious, myself, that Jenner could pull off a recall win against Newsom, but that newspaper article yesterday quoted California Republican national committeeman Shawn Steel, who said Jenner “is not to be discounted at all."
The FiveThirtyEight website, which specializes in the analysis of political polls, also ran an article yesterday, and I find its political speculations significantly more credible than the musings of Steel, a Republican Party apparatchik in a state that is profoundly unimpressed by the Republican Party. The FiveThirtyEight story featured the picture at the top of this blog posting, and was headlined, "Why Americans Can’t Resist A Celebrity Political Candidate." Its "Pollapalooza" feature was short, and told readers the following:

Are Americans in favor of the celebrity politician post-Trump? Seems like it, according to recent polling. The consumer research platform Piplsay found earlier this week that 58 percent of respondents said they would like to see one or both of the actors Matthew McConaughey and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson launch bids for the Texas governorship and U.S. presidency, respectively. (Of course, the poll isn’t perfect — lumping answers about two different actors’ potential political aspirations under one question is not a good use of polling.) Other actors who people believed might make good future presidents included Angelina Jolie, Will Smith and Tom Hanks. 
I do remember reading, a little while back, that "The Rock" had some idea that he might run for President, someday. And we all remember Ronald Reagan, right? Actor; then Governor; then President.
I looked up Johnson, just to find out where  he was born and where he lives now. Where do you think? Born in Hayward. Lives in Los Angeles. 
If I were Newsom, despite all the money, I think I'd start to worry - at least just a little bit! 

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Sunday, April 11, 2021

#101 / The New Left


This picture, dated 1964, appeared at the top of an article in The New Yorker on March 22, 2021. The image was provided to the magazine courtesy of the Oakland Tribune Collection and the Oakland Museum of California. Design credit for the illustration was given to Paul Sahre.

What attracted me to the article, besides the picture, which brought that era right back into my immediate consciousness, was this statement, which served as a "sub-headline."

The movement inspired young people to believe that they could transform themselves - and America.
In fact, I believed that then, and I still believe it now. And the truth that we can transform ourselves, and America, is not a truth that applies only to "young people," either.
If you weren't part of the "New Left" yourself, and so don't really have a clear idea of how it started and what it was all about, I commend that New Yorker article to your attention. The article was written by Louis Menand, a professor at Harvard, and is titled, "The Making of the New Left."

Not only did I like that sub-headline at the very beginning of Menand's article, I liked how his article ended, too:
The nation was at a crossroads in the nineteen-sixties. The system did not break, but it did bend. We are at another crossroads today. It can be made to bend again. 
That's true. I can speak from personal experience. I was there. 
I have only one amendment to Menand's closing, though. It's just a one-word change: 

The system did not break, but it did bend. We are at another crossroads today. It MUST be made to bend again.

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Saturday, April 10, 2021

#100 / Nature's Playbook

Ruth DeFries is Denning Family Professor of Sustainable Development at Columbia University in New York City, and is a member of the US National Academy of Sciences. DeFries' most recent book is What Would Nature Do? A Guide for Our Uncertain Times. In a recent article in Aeon, the online magazine, De Fries provides what is probably a shorter version of the argument outlined in her book. The Aeon article is titled, "Nature's Playbook."
I enjoyed DeFries' article, which is 3,500 words long, relatively brief, and so I am pleased to suggest that you read it for yourself. There is no paywall, as far as I know, so you can just click that link. 
What I liked best about the article was DeFries' description of how life evolved on Earth, a story of how living complexity ultimately overcame the daunting geologic conditions from which it emerged. Our planetary environment is complex, and "nature shows a remarkable ability to take advantage of the benefits of all this complexity while avoiding its dangers." Our human situation is also complex, DeFries says, so nature should have some lessons for us.
The key lesson for us, as I read DeFries, is "diversity." Diversity, in fact, is what makes life possible: 
The life-saving benefits of diversity don’t just apply to ancient forms of life. In the current day, diversity is humanity’s insurance against the uncertainties of a changing climate. While our food supply depends increasingly on a homogeneous stew of a handful of crop species, nature’s experience shows the wisdom in keeping variety alive. The principle applies not just to plants and animals that humans eat, but to languages, world views, cultures, and forms of knowledge that the modern world overlooks as old-fashioned. In finance, the benefits of ‘portfolio diversity’ are well known, while ‘design diversity’ in engineering creates failsafe mechanisms by creating slightly different parts for the same function. Investments in seed banks and an awareness of the value of non-Western ways of thinking suggest we’re slowly absorbing the principles that allowed evolution to overcome inevitable calamities.
My only issue with what DeFries is saying is that human beings seem exceedingly reluctant actually to recognize "diversity" as the life-supporting and life-sustaining strategy it surely is. In order to make that strategy work for us - as it does for all life - human beings need to back off and let things alone, instead of trying to dominate everything. I have yet to read Under A White Sky, which I mentioned on Friday, but there seems to be some indication that even Elizabeth Kolbert thinks that it is time for human beings to start "geoengineering" our way out of the global warming crisis that we have created for ourselves (and for many other living species, too, of course). 

To honor "diversity" on Planet Earth, human beings need to defer to Nature, and to Nature's complexity, and not attempt to put Nature under ever greater human control. We need to live within the limits set by Nature, instead of thinking that we set the limits.
Trying to suggest that human beings should take charge of the diversity and complexity that is the precondition of life itself is the very opposite of good advice. In other words, Nature has not furnished us with a "playbook" which, once we consult it, we should then use to run the world. To the contrary, we are part of Nature, and subject to Nature, and we need to follow the requirements and respect the limits that Nature imposes on all that is alive.

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Friday, April 9, 2021

#99 / White Sky / Blue Sky


Elizabeth Kolbert's latest book is titled, Under A White Sky. Kolbert is, as I assume most who will be reading this know, an American journalist who writes for The New Yorker, and whose best known book is probably The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.

Under A White Sky was reviewed in The New York Times Book Review on Sunday, March 14, 2021. In her review of Kolbert's book, Helen Macdonald says this: 

Kolbert has for many years been an essential voice, a reporter from the front lines of the environmental crisis. Her new book crackles with the realities of living in an era that has sounded the death knell for our commonly held belief that one can meaningfully distinguish between nature and humanity.
By her use of the word "humanity," in the statement she makes above, I believe that Macdonald is actually referring to what I call "the Human World." By her use of the word "nature," I believe she is referencing the "World of Nature," or the "Natural World." 
It is my strongly-held view that we live, simultaneously, in "Two Worlds," the "World of Nature," upon which we ultimately depend, and a "Human World," a world that we create ourselves. That is the place we most "immediately" inhabit. For those who do not regularly read my blog postings, and who may not, therefore, really understand what I am talking about, let me suggest an earlier explanation, "Worldview 101," in which I briefly outline my "Two Worlds Hypothesis." 

The "Human World" is a world open to change and modification by human action. It is a world in which we, human beings, are in charge. Our "Human World," thus, is a "Political World," a world in which human choice and human action determine what happens. To repeat myself, it is within this "Human World" that we most immediately live. 
Ultimately, however, we live in the "Natural World." Sometimes, I say that this is "The World That God Created." Because the Natural World is not a human creation, and because we ultimately depend upon the Natural World for everything that makes our Human World possible, I think it is imperative that we not attempt to treat the Natural World the same way we treat the Human World. In our own world, anything is possible. We can do anything. Both dreams and nightmares can be the result of our human action. In the Human World, there are no "Natural Laws," like the law of gravity, that absolutely determine what must and will happen, in specified circumstances. 
In our world, "the law" is simply a written-down instruction we have given to ourselves, telling ourselves what we think we should do, or what we want to do. It's a self-directed and self-authored "prescription." If we decide we have made mistakes, and that what we are doing is not what we actually ought to be doing, if we decide our current prescription isn't providing the outcomes we desire, we can always change direction. This is true individually, but it is true collectively, as well. In the words of Bob Dylan, we can make ourselves "a different set of rules." 
We cannot make ourselves a "different set of rules" for the laws that govern the "Natural World." We need to be careful that we pay attention to the rules that have been set by Nature, and what the laws that operate in the Natural World tell us about a reality that we cannot change. Global warming, the topic of Kolbert's latest book, is the prime example of how human beings have ignored the laws that govern the operations of our planet. Our failure to heed these laws is imperiling human civilization, besides leading us into a Sixth Extinction, and pushing hundreds of thousands of species to the brink of disappearance.
The quote I have provided above, from Macdonald's review, seems to indicate that Macdonald believes that Kolbert's latest book takes the position that we cannot "meaningfully distinguish between nature and humanity." If this is a correct understanding of Kolbert's thinking, that means that Kolbert has rejected a main feature of my "Two Worlds Hypothesis,"which holds that we need to conform our Human World to the laws that govern the World of Nature. The implication is that it is now time for human beings to "grow up," and to assume full responsibility for running the Natural World, just as we have full responsibility for what happens in our Human World.

Since I haven't yet read Under A White Sky (it's now on my list), I don't know whether Macdonald is right about Kolbert's thinking, or whether I am misconstruing what Macdonald is saying. The review is somewhat equivocal, and Macdonald does complain, a little bit, about how difficult it is to understand what Kolbert actually thinks. I hope that Kolbert is not, in fact, thinking what Macdonald seems to suggest she is thinking. 
The title of Kolbert's book, Under A White Sky, "refers to the color the sky would turn were solar engineers to implement plans to spread mineral particles in the stratosphere to reflect sunlight and cut global warming." In other words, should humans decide to try to run the World of Nature, as well as the Human World, we might well end up with white skies, not blue skies. Among other changes, let me add!

As I say, Under A White Sky has now moved to the top of my reading list. Should humans decide that they really want to try to "run the world" in its entirety, taking over the role that "Mother Nature" or "God" has always played with respect to the Natural World, I am afraid that it will soon be "Game Over" for almost all humans on the planet. 

I know there are some who seem to think that it's time to move on from Planet Earth, anyway, but I don't think we're going to find some new place on Mars. Our "blue sky" future, if we have one at all, is right here on Earth, where we have always been:

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Thursday, April 8, 2021

#98 / The Failure Of Our Legislative Will


This photo of a prayerful former president, as he is pictured above, illustrates a March 13, 2021 article in the The New Yorker. Corey Robin, who is an American political theorist, and a professor of political science at Brooklyn College, headlines his article on the current status of our democracy this way: "Trump And The Trapped Country." Robin is writing more about us, we of the "trapped country," than about our former chief executive, although Robin's acknowledgment of Trump's totalitarian and tyrannical tendencies does open the discussion:
The attack on the Capitol was the latest, and most significant, data point supporting the claim that Trump has practiced strongman politics, variously described as authoritarian, fascist, or tyrannical. The strongman thesis was supposed to capture something novel on the right: not its cruelty or racism, which had long been observed by scholars and journalists, but its potential to end democracy itself. For many liberals and leftists, Trump threatened the people’s power to determine their future. While this idea provoked much debate during the Trump years, January 6th seemed to settle it. Even the sharpest critics of the thesis were shaken from their skepticism.
Robin quickly moves on, however. He suggests that the most important challenge to our democracy is not from the tyrannical tendencies of a Donald J. Trump - or from anyone else with a similar "strongman" approach to government:

If the fear behind the strongman thesis was the eclipse of democracy, we still have reason for concern—less because of a tyrant looming on the right than because of a paralysis of political agency across the board. The signal quality of Trump’s Presidency was not how unusual it was but how emblematic it was. In all likelihood, the first two years of the Biden Administration will see little transformative legislation and a lot of executive orders. (The stimulus bill may augur fundamental changes down the road, but its most redistributive provisions are temporary and will face major challenges upon their expiration.) [The Biden Administration will] look, in other words, like Trump’s Presidency and all but the first two years of Obama’s. It will mark twelve years of an era in which the call of the voters is answered by the palsy of our institutions (emphasis added).
By identifying our governmental institutions as "palsied," Robin is shifting the focus from the actions and intentions of our chief executive - Trump, Obama, Biden, or anyone else - and is reminding us of something Shakespeare told us, as Brutus and Cassius talked about that original and model "strongman," Julius Caesar:
Robin's analysis is worth reading in its entirety. He stresses the conundrum that has the Constitution playing "both sides," bringing us to political stasis: 

This is the situation we now find ourselves in. One party, representing the popular majority, remains on the outskirts of power, thanks to the Constitution. The other party, representing the minority, cannot wield power when it has it but finds its position protected nonetheless by the very same Constitution.

We are not witnesses to Prometheus unbound. We are seeing the sufferings of Sisyphus, forever rolling his rock—immigration reform, new infrastructure, green jobs—up a hill. It’s no wonder everyone saw an authoritarian at the top of that hill. When no one can act, any performance of power, no matter how empty, can seem real.

To my mind, the key phrase in this interesting article is Robin's statement that our focus on the executive "masks the failure of legislative will." 

We, the people, are not "underlings" in our democratic republic. We are in charge. But if we expect our government to generate the results we desire we must recognize our governing role and the power that goes with it. If we fail to exercise our political power, and fail to assert our "legislative will," if we wait for someone else, some president (Obama, Trump, Biden, or the next one) to do what we, the majority, wish to have done, our democracy will wither away in its desuetude. 
To make our democracy work, we must redirect our energies. We must cut back on our dedication to entertaining ourselves and put a priority on governing ourselves. The role of citizen, not consumer, must be the center of our life and action. We must insist that our political institutions actually accomplish what we, the majority, want. Such an insistence that our government actually do what we want can be realized only by never forgetting the obvious requirement for all those who prize self-government:
If we want democracy and self-government, we must be willing to get involved ourselves.
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Wednesday, April 7, 2021

#97 / Do The Math

Bill McKibben, writing in Sojourners magazine, makes our confrontation with climate change into a math problem. In the hard copy, his article is titled, "The Basic Math of Climate Change." Online, which is where this link will take you, McKibben's article is translated into this assertion:

McKibben makes six points in his article, and then says: "That's it. Climate change is a math problem." 

1) We are currently on a path to raise the temperature of the planet 3 degrees Celsius or more by century’s end. If we do that, we can’t have civilizations like the ones we’re used to—already, at barely more than 1 degree, wildfires and hurricanes have begun to strain our ability to respond.

2) In 2015, the world’s governments pledged in Paris to try and hold the rise in temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The United States, shamefully, exited that agreement for a time, but now we’re back in.

3) To meet that target, scientists say we need to cut emissions in half by 2030 and then go on cutting until, by 2050, we’ve stopped burning fossil fuel altogether. But the crucial year is not 2050. It’s 2030—if we haven’t made huge cuts by then, we’ll miss the chance to stop short of utter catastrophe.

4) Those cuts are entirely possible. Using the brains God gave them, engineers have made incredible progress: Solar power and wind power are now the cheapest ways to generate electricity on this planet. You can buy, for a reasonable price, an electric car if you must have a car. We could actually do this.

5) But—and here the math turns more directly toward moral issues—it means we’d have to not do some things. For instance, we’d have to stop letting our banks and investment managers try to make money off global warming—currently they’re lending and investing huge sums in the fossil fuel industry.

6) And we’d have to face up to the underlying math: While it’s true that humans are heating the planet, not all humans. The top 10 percent of us, those who make more than $38,000 a year, are responsible for more than half the world’s carbon emissions. We need to change our lives, but more importantly we need to change the systems we’ve set up: Instead of trying to maximize our own wealth, we need desperately to try sharing it, so that people in the poorest parts of the world can have solar panels too—so they don’t have to choose between development and a disaster that will hit them hardest.

I am not usually math-oriented, but I'll go with McKibben's characterization, because I think each and every one of the points he makes is absolutely on target. We need to change (and we can), but we have to get on it. Let's call it a "math problem," then, as McKibben suggests. I would call it a "political problem," myself, but if we're going to follow McKibben's prescription, the main thing is clearly to: 


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Tuesday, April 6, 2021

#96 / Letter To My Generation


Are we "Generation Screwed?" That's the question posed by Jordan Salama, who graduated from Princeton in 2019. Salama asked this question of this contemporaries in an essay published in the November 2020, edition of National Geographic. In the hard copy version of the magazine, Salama's essay was titled, "A Letter to My Generation." The essay reflected what Salama had learned as he wrote letters to his friends during the Covid-19 lockdown:

Who knew that stay-at-home orders could bring so much displacement? That’s how the spring of 2020 felt for many in our generation—we who were just starting to get a glimpse of independence and adulthood before the pandemic came crashing down.... 
As lockdowns were spreading earlier this year, hardly any of us seemed to stay where we were, racing instead to seek safer ground. I know where many friends sought refuge, because I’ve spent much of my time in quarantine writing letters—the classic long, handwritten letters—and that meant gathering mailing addresses.... 
In the letters my friends and I exchanged, we shared ... sentiments that weren’t expressed in texts or on group Zoom calls (which we still used, of course). Something about writing a letter seemed to draw out emotions and vulnerabilities in a way that many of us hadn’t really experienced before. And suddenly there was so much to feel....
As the pandemic wave washed over the United States, it became clear that the undertow was dragging people our age out to sea. Many were already struggling: wracked by debt from paying $20,000, $40,000, $60,000 a year for school. Priced out by the sky-high rents in major American cities. Exasperated by years of speaking out against systemic racism and gun violence and climate change, only to find corrupt and destructive politicians unwilling to act. The pandemic ripped the ground out from under all of us. (COVID-19 and climate change will inform how Generation Z navigates the world as adults.
We are, after all, a generation raised on post-9/11 dread and active-shooter drills in our elementary schools. If the future of the world looked grim to us before, what might it hold now?

Salama's answer was upbeat. Sort of upbeat, anyway: 

So although some like to call us Generation Screwed—and sometimes it might feel that way—I think that’s too negative. We’ve been battered and shaken up, but we’re certainly not going down easy....
For those of us at the beginning of our adult lives, the faltering start caused by the pandemic means that our choices will matter even more. We need reminders so we don’t forget what it felt like: Some suffered far more than others, but all of us were plunged into a period of questioning, of reevaluating, of trial. 
It’s only natural at times to feel as though we’re Generation Screwed—but I want to think that we’re shaping up to be Generation Renewed. We will not go down without a fight. And what will define us far more than our struggles in this moment is what we’ll do when we come out the other side.
I think Salama's idea of writing a "Letter to My Generation" is a good idea - for all of us. Don't we all have some sense that we share a kind of generational identity with others in our own age bracket? Let's communicate with each other, within our generational cohort. What should we do, given where we are and the time we have left?

Young or old, we ought to be discussing this. We should be figuring it out. With that global warming challenge becoming ever more apparent - ice storms in Texas and wildfires and drought in the West - we had better get right on it, too. 

All of us!

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Monday, April 5, 2021

#95 / The Road To Rights? It's Politics!


Samuel Moyn, a professor of law and a professor of history at Yale University, has written a very thoughtful article about "rights." Moyn's article is titled, "Why Do Americans Have So Few Rights?" The article appeared in The New Republic on March 9, 2021. Non-subscribers to The New Republic get three free articles a month, and my advice is to click on the link above, and to use one of those free looks to read what Moyn has to say. 

Moyn provides a very nice review of "rights" scholarship, including an historical review of how the courts have treated "rights." Moyn also compares how "rights" are declared and enforced in the United States, and how "rights" are vindicated in Europe. That is, in fact, a main theme of the article. Again, this is an article worth reading. 

For me, the point of most interest was Moyn's argument that seeking to find "rights" through judicial action has led to many problems - and certainly to the increased political polarization that has infected the judicial branch of government. Hardly anyone believes, anymore, that the courts are actually "impartial." Non-elected judges and justices receive lifetime appointments, and they are more and more known, primarily, by the partisan affiliation of the president who appointed them. Because deciding what "rights" people have, or should have, is actually a "political question," when we look primarily to the courts to define and enforce "rights," that requires the courts to play a "political" rather than a "judicial" role, and that is what they are increasingly doing. 

The excerpt, below, gives you the flavor of what Moyn is saying:

American history shows that citizens owe many rights they enjoy less to courts interpreting the Constitution (unless you are rich) than to legislatures providing them in response to social movements. Congressional statutes like civil rights laws and the Voting Rights Act of 1965—protections that the Supreme Court has treated very badly—are good examples, often correcting earlier judicial malfeasance. Disability rights are a just cause, but faulting the Supreme Court for failing to read them into the Constitution seems less pressing than pondering the fact that it was the legislature that acted to declare new entitlements. The lesson of American history is that the politics of rights needs democracy more than it needs proportionality. Democratic action for renovating citizenship could even include more amendments (which originate in the legislature) for better versions of old rights and altogether new ones, like socioeconomic protections ...
We have to recognize that the only way to make the citizenship everyone deserves is through democratic contest and engagement. Greene’s warning about the absolutism of rights in the hands of judges shows why political decision-making needs to be wrested from them in the coming years. What Frankfurter said of liberty is true of equality and solidarity: Our entitlements are those we must provide one another in clashes of vision, and successes in winning enough backing for our side. This is not nihilism. It is the recognition that, while democracy is nowhere close to affirming and defining all the rights we need, there is no one else to do it but us (emphasis added).

I think that Moyn is correct in directing our attention to the need to make our democratic politics work. That is what we need to do if we are concerned about "rights." In the end, we live most immediately in a "political world." If we want to change that world, Moyn has put his finger on the sore spot: "there is no one else to do it but us."

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Sunday, April 4, 2021

#94 / The Strangeness Of Easter


Christmas, as a Christian holiday, is founded upon an event that is normal, expected, usual, and within the experience of almost everyone, either directly or indirectly. There is nothing really "strange" about the birth of a child. 
While the circumstances that brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, and to the manger, were dramatic and outside the typical experience of most of us, and while the angels and the shepherds and the Three Wise Men were certainly not normal or expected as attendants upon a typical birth, and while the assertion that Mary was a virgin definitely puts the Christmas story outside the bounds of any normal human experience, the basic facts about Christmas were that a mother gave birth to a child. 
Other claims associated with Christmas might be discounted, but there was certainly nothing about the fact of that Mary gave birth to Jesus that suggested that this event, in and of itself, was "strange," or impossible, or a scandal to our human understanding of the nature of reality.

This is not so with respect to Easter, the Christian holiday that is being celebrated today, because the Easter story asserts that the baby born on Christmas (normal enough) after living and preaching for thirty-three years, was crucified, dead and buried, yet rose from the dead and was restored to a human body, as a sign to us all. 
There is nothing "normal," whatsoever, about the Easter story!
Robert Barron, who is auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and who is the founder of the Catholic ministerial organization Word on Fire, has written a reflection on Easter, published in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, that makes very clear how much Easter deserves to be understood in all its "strangeness." Bishop Barron's article is titled, "Recovering the Strangeness of Easter," and is subtitled, "For Christians, the holiday is about recapturing the surprise and excitement that the Resurrection brought to Jesus' first followers."
Particularly for Christians, this article is worthwhile reading, and given the fact that The Wall Street Journal may block non-subscribers who click on the link above, interested readers can click right here for an alternative route to read what Bishop Barron has to say.

Since I was raised as a Christian, and even attended theological seminary after graduating from law school, the Easter story is well-known to me. But as a corollary to its familiarity, perhaps it has been all too easy for me to acknowledge the elements of the story and then to return to a more "normal" life and thought. I appreciated the Bishop's successful effort to reawaken in me a realization of the compelling "strangeness" of Easter and the Easter story. 
For those who are not Christians, who might seek something in the Easter story by way of metaphor, the article is valuable, as well. The thoughtful among us know that our world aches for transformation, for radical transformation. Continuing on our current path is leading us all, and all of the natural world, towards death, and terrible perils lie ahead. To cite to Bob Dylan, often a source of insight, let me remind you of these words from his song, Precious Angel

My so-called friends have fallen under a spell
They look me squarely in the eye and they say, “All is well”
Can they imagine the darkness that will fall from on high
When men will beg God to kill them and they won’t be able to die?
When I wrote about "Collapsology," last August, and wrote about an article by Chris Hedges, just a few days ago, I was thinking about exactly the kind of human circumstances that Dylan is prophesying in his song. 

We need to act. We need to change virtually everything about the way we live. Is that even possible? 
It is. Easter says it is.
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Saturday, April 3, 2021

#93 / Infrastructure Plans


President Biden and the Democratic Party leadership in Congress are now working actively to pass a massive "infrastructure bill." Here is how an article in the March 30, 2021, edition of The New York Times presented the situation:
WASHINGTON — Senior Democrats on Monday proposed a tax increase that could partly finance President Biden’s plans to pour trillions of dollars into infrastructure and other new government programs, as party leaders weighed an aggressive strategy to force his spending proposals through Congress over unified Republican opposition.

The moves were the start of a complex effort by Mr. Biden’s allies on Capitol Hill to pave the way for another huge tranche of federal spending after the $1.9 trillion stimulus package that was enacted this month. The president is set to announce this week the details of his budget, including his much-anticipated infrastructure plan.
The Times' article was illustrated with the picture shown above. The picture made me pause. 
I am definitely in favor of repairing and restoring existing infrastructure that is now falling apart (roads, bridges, and public buildings). Constructing new super freeways, however, is not going to be helpful. 
Planting trees, working to restore degraded soils, and providing support for transportation modalities that will require us to share rides, not continue our use of individual vehicles as our main method of transportation, is what is called for in this time of global warming. 
That's the kind of infrastructure plan I'd like to see.

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Friday, April 2, 2021

#92 / The "Circular Economy" Fails Its Test

The January-February issue of Sierra, the national magazine of the Sierra Club, headlined one of its articles as follows: "Will The Circular Economy Save The Planet?" The "Circular Economy," as illustrated in the diagram above, is intended to reduce waste (thus, presumably, reducing environmental impacts). 

Elizabeth L. Cline, who wrote the article, doesn't think much of the whole idea. She particularly spotlights Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, a 2002 book that introduced the idea that our manufacturing economy can be made to "imitate nature's highly effective cradle-to-cradle system of nutrient flow and metabolism, in which the very concept of waste does not exist."

Great idea, Cline agrees, but the fact is that this is not what has happened, or is ever likely to happen. She wraps up her discussion as follows: 

The notion that we can go on making as much as we want as long as we reuse it all is a myth that we'll have to leave behind if we ever want to realize the dream of a circular economy. "We're already past the carrying capacity of the planet.... "Unless we repair something without also buying something new—unless we buy a used coat and don't also buy a new one—we are still perpetuating the same system. We'll just have two different marketplaces, and we'll be buying from both."

The "Circular Economy," as it has been implemented, proposes that we can continue to consume at current and increased levels, without causing resource depletion and death-dealing pollution (including the emission of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere). The fact is, that isn't possible. 

Less, always less. That is the actual solution, not a proposed solution that indicates that we don't have to change our consuming ways. As Gandhi said: 

Live Simply So Others May Simply Live

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