Tuesday, December 29, 2009

R.I.P. 2009

Among those we lost in 2009: guitar innovator Les Paul, actor Gene Barry, Soupy Sales, Senator Ted Kennedy, writer Larry Gelbart, Farah Fawcett, Ricardo Montaban, writer John Updike, Walter Cronkite, Mary Travers of Peter, Paul & Mary. Also: writer J.G. Ballard, director Budd Shulberg, producer Don Hewitt, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, actor Patrick McGoohan, Michael Jackson, director John Hughes, actor Natasha Richardson, painter Andrew Wyeth, dancer Merce Cunningham, Robert MacNamara, deep ecologist Arne Naess. Many of them--and other actors, directors, writers, artists, entertainers who passed away in 2009--brought us joy, and depth to our souls. Others made a difference in our world, taught and informed us, guided us by good and bad example. We owe them. Farewell. Click collage to enlarge.

The Nameless Decade

Update 12/30: A version of this is on the Rescued List at Daily Kos.

Update 1/02: Think Progress notes exactly how much of nothing this decade was for American workers: zero net job growth and the first decline in median income since the 1960s.

Ten years ago, I speculated on what this first decade of the 21st century ought to be called. The choice wasn't obvious, and the alternatives weren't very appealing. I used this conundrum as a way to talk about purpose: would this be the decade of zeros--the postmodern, consumer society, corporate dominated nothingness-- or the decade of the Oughts--when we assumed responsibility for what we ought to do, our responsibility for the future?

The problem of what to call the decade was solved by ignoring it, which pretty much sums up how that responsibility idea went. As trend writers this week struggle to come up with something to say about the past ten years, a new title is bandied about--the "noughties." (As my piece linked above traces a bit of the history of "ought" for zero as slang for "nought" as nothing, zero or the "o" in x's and o's, this piece from this week explains more about "nought.")

Whatever you call it, writes Paul Krugman, it's been a big zero. "Maybe we knew, at some unconscious, instinctive level, that it would be an era best forgotten. Whatever the reason, we got through the first decade of the new millennium without ever agreeing on what to call it. The aughts? The naughties? Whatever."

In terms of economics, he writes, this was "the decade in which we achieved nothing and learned nothing." He suggests we just call it the Big Zero.

My 1999 piece questions the whole enterprise of dividing experience into decades with their defining characteristics. At best, it's shorthand for an image, a mood. Mostly it's advertising.

But when it comes to time, I realize more and more I can only speak for myself, with some reference to my contemporaries. Maybe that's why I can locate a complex of feelings as well as images for "the 50s" or "the 60s." But when it comes to the decade we're leaving, I've got nothing.

I have images and memories, of course. But nothing defining. This decade for me is nameless because it is incoherent, without defining characteristics. Except perhaps for the cell phone. That's not much to hang a decade on.

It wasn't bland. It was extreme, but in every direction. How can you define a decade that began with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, and ends with Barack Obama? It may be remembered as the decade of lost opportunity, of too late a start, of fatal delay and suicidal strangeness. And with a little hope near the end.

Of course people who grew up, got married, etc. in this decade will always remember its textures. But apart from what began in 2008, let's hope this decade is forgotten, that it remains nameless. And the next one is very different.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Snow Flyer

Lots of snow in lots of places this winter--this photo is from Washington, D.C. Before global heating changed the predictable winters of western PA, snow was the default condition from late November through much of March. In my 1950s childhood, a white Christmas was such a fixed event that the subject of my first play--in third grade--was the amazing Christmas when it didn't snow (or at least, not until the last minute.) So it was that riding down the hills on my Flexible Flyer was a regular adventure, and Frosty the Snowman was a myth made from the world around me.
Where I live now it never snows, and I miss it--especially the silence, the muffling white of it. In the promo for his winter album, Sting mentions the beauty and mystery the blanket of snow brought to the industrial town where he grew up, and though my town was something like that but more picturesque--the snow did have a transformative effect. I loved walking in the town during and just after a snowfall, also in the city of Pittsburgh. (I did arrange my life so I could survive without driving in the snow.) Even in New York, where snow quickly became blackened slush, walking in the snow was exhilarating. In fact, when I realized my brief residence in Manhattan would be coming to an end, I walked from midtown above 50th down to 13th Street in the swirling snow--my last Manhattan memory.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Christmas Carol

By way of Charles Dickens and the Marx Brothers, Paul Krugman offers a near-future version of A Christmas Carol, set in the U.S. after current health care legislation takes effect--Tiny Tim's bleak 2009 fate with a pre-existing condition and expensive health insurance (not through Scrooge, of course) is changed by the Senate of Health Care Past: "But reform legislation enacted in 2010 banned insurance discrimination on the basis of medical history and also created a system of subsidies to help families pay for coverage. Even so, insurance doesn’t come cheap — but the Cratchits do have it, and they’re grateful. God bless us, everyone."

While Krugman sees merit in progressives who grieve for the bill's insufficiencies (but says this was the best that could get enacted), he scorns opposition from the "Bah, Humbug" fiscal conservatives who ignored the CBO's evidence that the bill is fiscally conservative, and especially "the crazy right, the tea party and death panel people — a lunatic fringe that is no longer a fringe but has moved into the heart of the Republican Party. In the past, there was a general understanding, a sort of implicit clause in the rules of American politics, that major parties would at least pretend to distance themselves from irrational extremists. But those rules are no longer operative. No, Virginia, at this point there is no sanity clause."

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Invention of Holidays

“Holidays were invented in 1203 by Sir Ethelbert Holiday, a sadistic Englishman. It was Sir Ethelbert’s hope that by setting aside specific days on which to celebrate things...that the population at large would fall into a collective deep depression. Holidays would regulate joy so that anyone who didn’t feel joyful on those days would feel bad. Single people would be sad they were single. Married people would be sad they were married. Everyone would feel disappointment that their lives had fallen so far short of their expectations.”--Christopher Durang.
Merry Christmas and happy holidays anyway.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

This One's For Ted

Dana Milbank of W Post, writing about Senator Ted Kennedy and the final Senate health care vote: " The president pro tempore of the Senate, 92-year-old Robert Byrd, shot his finger into the air to signal his "aye" vote. "This," the West Virginia Democrat called out strongly from his wheelchair, "is for my friend Ted Kennedy." That was very much the story of the massive health-care legislation that finally cleared the chamber early Thursday morning...
More than anything, it was his memory, and his final exhortation, that allowed the Senate Democrats to overcome considerable differences between moderates and liberals in drafting a compromise. President Obama, in his address to Congress in September, read from a letter Kennedy had written as he neared death, saying he was 'confident in these closing days that while I will not be there when it happens, you will be the president who at long last signs into law the health-care reform that is the great unfinished business of our society.'""One after the other, Senate colleagues invoked his name in a manner more often associated with his slain brothers."

The Eve of History

Today's New York Times:

President Obama said after the vote that the health care bill was “the most important piece of social legislation since the Social Security Act passed in the 1930s” and that together with the House bill, represented “the toughest measures ever taken to hold the insurance industry accountable.”

If the bill becomes law, it would be a milestone in social policy, comparable with the creation of Social Security in 1935 and Medicare in 1965.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Politics 2009

Now just hours away from the last Senate vote on the health care bill, which once again is expected to be 60-40, with all GOPers voting against, David Herszenhorn in the New York Times opines that " [t]he votes also marked something else: the culmination of more than a generation of partisan polarization of the American political system, and a precipitous decline in collegiality and collaboration in governing that seemed to move in inverse proportion to a rising influence of lobbying, money, the 24-hour news cycle and hostilities on talk shows and in the blogosphere."

Meanwhile the voices pointing out the dangers of current misuse of the Senate filibuster now include President Obama, in a PBS interview: " I mean, if you look historically back in the '50s, the '60s, the '70s, the '80s - even when there was sharp political disagreements, when the Democrats were in control for example and Ronald Reagan was president - you didn't see even routine items subject to the 60-vote rule. So I think that if this pattern continues, you're going to see an inability on the part of America to deal with big problems in a very competitive world, and other countries are going to start running circles around us."

Update: The actual final vote was 60-39. One GOPer didn't bother to show, but the elderly and ailing Senator Robert Byrd, who earlier this week some of those Christian Republicans prayed would die before the vote was taken, made sure he was there. He voted in honor of "my friend," Senator Ted Kennedy.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Shortly after I took photos of the rainbow last Saturday I've already posted, I walked around to the back, and took some photos of the clouds above the setting sun. This is one of them.

This Fateful Moment: Follow-Ups

Copenhagen is over, the health care bill passed its first and probably decisive test in the Senate on a straight party-line 60-40 vote, the minimum necessary to avoid an unbreakable filibuster. So evaluations of the outcomes have begun.

Internationally there's a lot of skepticism about the Copenhagen agreement, expressed particularly in UK papers, like the Guardian. This BBC summary is a bit more balanced but still pretty brutal.

Update: Sam Hummel's useful and detailed account at Salon questions much of the reporting on Copenhagen. He asserts that no better accord was rejected, that while they were disappointed that the accord wasn't stronger, most developing nations supported it; the accord was put together by a representative group rather than a "backroom deal" of a few countries; and that the accord is meaningful: "The importance of getting an agreement under which the major developing nation emitters recognize they have a responsibility to act cannot be overstated!" He also says that Obama is not to blame for any perceived weakness in the accord, and that his contribution was positive. He concludes: "The things I saw, in every segment of the COP15 negotiations that I had the opportunity to watch, gave me hope."

On the health care bill, while some on the left are still angry, some oppose provisions or especially what's lacking so intensely that they remain opposed to the bill, others--like Kos--are calling for the left to continue to try to improve the bill until it is in absolute final form. At that point, if it doesn't become "worse," he and others will likely support it.

There's a growing sense that it's the best that could be expected, that all major "revolutionary" legislation began in a limited, inadequate form, and that what it does is better than things as they are. And there's the beginning of admission that it's an historic achievement for the Obama administration. As Andrew Sullivan wrote, "It was as grueling a victory as the one in the primaries, and took even longer. But it was a victory, a substantive, enduring legislative victory the like of which no president has achieved since Reagan."

In the context of the ongoing madness in the U.S. Senate on health care, several more voices have joined mine and Ezra Klein's in asserting that the current misuse of the filibuster as demanding a super-majority for any substantive bill is the prime suspect in a government that can't quite govern: The Nation's Chris Hayes said so on MSNBC, and Paul Krugman concludes that "the U.S. government as a whole — has become ominously dysfunctional."

But what does all this mean for "this fateful moment" in the shape of things to come? It's more than a truism to say, only time will tell. It's a reminder that quite a lot is unpredictable. But from this perspective, it is ominous. The basic fact is that neither the need for a decent health care system in the U.S. and a concerted effort to address the Climate Crisis by the entire world could overcome the power of other political and economic interests.

While there is plenty of responsibility to go around, the usual suspects of the huge financial and economic interests--the multinationals and their banks, the big fossil fuel and insurance conglomerates--have been busy in the shadows, pulling silent strings.

Those interests mightily influence U.S. politics, and since I know this landscape better, this is where I see the most disgusting and disquieting evidence. It's true on the Climate Crisis as well as health care--for the lack of congressional action on carbon limited what President Obama could promise or persuade in Copenhagen.

This is despite what I believe is much stronger public support for universal health care and for action on the Climate Crisis. Polls suggest this as well, including a new one on the Climate Crisis, in which 65% favored regulating carbon emissions.

So at this moment, the conclusion on both issues suggest important beginnings, but containing flaws that may turn out to be fatal. The health care bill may not control costs or lower premiums enough, may impose an unpopular and perhaps unconstitutional "individual mandate" to buy products from private insurance, and may be phased in so gradually that it remains vulnerable to political destruction before it takes full effect. The Copenhagen agreement may not lead to real agreements to act, and may signal that national governments won't act quickly enough or sufficiently to either blunt the effects of the Climate Crisis in the near future, and especially stop the worst from happening later on.

I agree with those who say that even if he had done some things differently, President Obama could not have altered either outcome for the better. And I'm not going to waste my energy on political posturing. I have no editors to please or ideological banner to wave from my masthead. I have no producers to please by being outrageous.

As far as what we do to make a better future using the instruments of politics as well as of science, business and law: this is where we are. Both the health care bill (assuming that something like this becomes law) and the Copenhagen agreement do reverse the recent and seemingly unstoppable official refusal by the U.S. government to recognize and confront these fateful issues.

Most of these efforts will be conducted by people younger than me. To them I reiterate that hope is not what you feel but what you do.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Health Care Deal

Senate Democrats have apparently secured the necessary 60 votes to pass the current version of their health care bill by Christmas. Judging from what I've read about the contents of the bill, I believe it should be passed.

Here's some sense of the latest changes, and while I am troubled by what the bill lacks, I am most persuaded by descriptions like this--in a Washington Post oped Sunday by Victoria Kennedy--of what the bill does do:

" Thirty million Americans who do not have coverage would finally be able to afford it. Ninety-four percent of Americans would be insured. Americans would finally be able to live without fear that a single illness could send them into financial ruin.

Insurance companies would no longer be able to deny people the coverage they need because of a preexisting illness or condition. They would not be able to drop coverage when people get sick. And there would be a limit on how much they can force Americans to pay out of their own pockets when they do get sick."

It is even more important to pass this bill, and quickly get through conference committee and get the final bill signed into law. It is time for this to be over.

Once the bill is passed, the light can shine on the disgraceful conduct of congressional Republicans. As a candidate, Barack Obama made a persuasive case for an end to political divisiveness for its own sake, particularly on major issues of common concern. He tried to work with Republicans on this issue and others, and was rebuffed, insulted, lied to and lied about, and worse. For the next several days anyone paying attention will see even more clearly the Republican strategy of obstruction for its own sake. At at time when we need substantive attempts to find the best solutions for increasingly dangerous problems, we are mired in politics of the worst sort, and discourse that is as crude as any I remember, and even more shamelessly mendacious than any in my lifetime.

The end of the health care debate will free the White House from the pretense that congressional Republicans are acting as a legitimate partner in governing, or that the political hysteria Republicans are whipping up nationally is either normal or useful. It is all unpatriotic and undemocratic. I expect President Obama to unleash hell on the Republicans in the next year for their obstructionism, for their abdication of a constructive role in democracy. And they deserve it.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Don't Dis Beginnings

President Obama chose his words well in describing the final agreement made at Copenhagen. "Today we've made a meaningful and unprecedented breakthrough here in Copenhagen. For the first time in history all major economies have come together to accept their responsibility to take action to confront the threat of climate change."

This is undoubtedly true, if only because the United States was at last a party to the agreement. It means all the major developed nations now are on record committing themselves to not simply acknowledging the Climate Crisis but to addressing it, as individual countries and as international partners.

Further, the developed countries have acknowledged responsibility for both causing the problem and aiding the most vulnerable nations in dealing with the effects:

"We agreed to join an international effort to provide financing to help developing countries, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable, adapt to climate change. And we reaffirmed the necessity of listing our national actions and commitments in a transparent way."

But he also recognized that the agreement is inadequate--that it is a first step, in direction and in the necessity of working together:

" Taken together these actions will help us begin to meet our responsibilities to leave our children and our grandchildren a cleaner and safer planet. Now, this progress did not come easily, and we know that this progress alone is not enough. Going forward, we're going to have to build on the momentum that we've established here in Copenhagen to ensure that international action to significantly reduce emissions is sustained and sufficient over time. We've come a long way, but we have much further to go.

To continue moving forward we must draw on the effort that allowed us to succeed here today -- engagement among nations that represent a baseline of mutual interest and mutual respect. Climate change threatens us all; therefore, we must bridge old divides and build new partnerships to meet this great challenge of our time. That's what we've begun to do here today."

The greatest disappointment was in solid commitments to reduce carbon emissions. The agreement specifies a goal of doing what is necessary to keep the temperature from rising more than 2 degrees C. This is more than the goal some developing nations wanted (1.5C) or many scientists, but it is a lot better than what is likely to happen without efforts to reduce greenhouse gases.

President Obama often stresses the positive, which is alternative energy: not only the best way to limit greenhouse gases (by creating more of our energy with technologies that don't pollute with these gases) but as an economic boon, as what America needs to re-energize its economy and lead the world economically again. Once again, let's remember that this is a commitment by the American President that reverses eight years of resistance.

So in his statement, President Obama talked about his administration's efforts to jump-start alternative energy innovations and use, ending:

"And around the world, energy is an issue that demands our leadership. The time has come for us to get off the sidelines and to shape the future that we seek. That's why I came to Copenhagen today, and that's why I'm committed to working in common effort with countries from around the globe. That's also why I believe what we have achieved in Copenhagen will not be the end but rather the beginning, the beginning of a new era of international action."

The details of the agreement have yet to be analyzed. Some are speaking of it as a betrayal of the United Nations. Yet it is worth remembering how compromised and less-than-ideal the UN itself has been, from its inception. That's not to endorse more authority for--perish the thought-- the World Bank, but to remind us all of the international political context.

Will this be enough, soon enough? Such an effort should have begun twenty years ago, or even ten years ago. But it didn't. This much has begun now. This is where we are. We start from here. We have no other choice.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

rainbow 3


Update: Another voice--Paul Krugman-- supporting the compromised health care bill. What the bill does, its supporter say, is insure the uninsured, while admittedly not doing much else. Krugman on the disillusion and the bill: "But don’t take it out on the tens of millions of Americans who will have health insurance if this bill passes, but will be out of luck — and, in some cases, dead — if it doesn’t."

Original post:
Sometimes I hear a commentator say something I hadn't thought of. Sometimes I hear something I had thought of, but days or weeks after it occurred to me. But it's particularly startling to hear a major if tentative conclusion come out of someone else's mouth on the same day it came to me.

As the Copenhagen meetings reach their climax, so does the health care reform legislation in the U.S. At the moment, everything is pretty much up in the air on both. The latest Senate health care proposal is creating new divisions, notably within the mostly Democratic "progressives." Howard Dean and Senator Bernie Sanders are among those against the bill. Kos makes his statement against it. John Podesta makes his for it, as does Ezra Klein.

It was Ezra Klein on Charlie Rose who read my thoughts. Not about health care specifically, but about Congress. Klein suggests that this debate demonstrates that under current conditions, Congress is unable to deal constructively with big issues, to make big changes no matter how necessary they are to the country, its economy, its identity, its future. He noted exactly the prior example I was thinking of: California. In combination with the kind of extreme politics prevalent now, a few rules in the legislature and in state government make this state ungovernable. The same is becoming true in Washington, where the misuse of the "filibuster" rule in the Senate now requires 60 votes out of 100 to pass anything of significance. It is that rule which has turned the health care reform effort into a shameful farce.

Klein also said something else I believe: that the media concentrates on the President, but the President's actual power is limited. Not everything that goes wrong is the President's fault. Congress is where the buck stops now. So it's too simplistic to assume that Hillary Clinton or anyone else could simply have kicked some ass and gotten this done. There's too much power accruing to too few very flawed Senators.

I'd go beyond Klein's naming of the media: it's also our focus on the President as our substitute king, our symbol, the president of projection. It's true however that the Bush presidency tended to mask the congressional black hole, partly because he had a rubber stamp Republican Congress doing his destructive bidding.

Now Democrat Obama has a large Democratic majority in the House and a tenuous 60 votes in the Senate, but there are two differences: the Democrats aren't a rubber stamp monolith, and the Republicans are shameless in opposing everything the Democrats propose or the President supports. That shamelessness extends to the criminal misuse of the filibuster, which has become just another way to vote no, and thwart the majority.

As Klein pointed out, even FDR didn't have to have 60 votes in the Senate to pass the New Deal. But President Obama must have 60 votes, and that has not only turned health care into a tragic farce, it is feeding an increasingly ugly mood and divisions within the country. At least one poll indicates that growing opposition to health care reform is coming principally from liberals who wanted the public option, but probably more broadly it is coming from people who are just disgusted with the process. It looks like Wiemar to too many.

What's the remedy? The Democrats are unlikely to be in a stronger position after the 2010 congressional elections. Their mythical 60 vote majority in the Senate is likely to be a memory. Only reform of the filibuster rule can save this country from sinking far and fast for the foreseeable future.

I don't know if this health care bill should be passed or not. I do know that it is far, far less than it should be, and it will do far, far less than it could have. Whether it would do more good than harm is debatable, and maybe even unknowable. It's just all pretty disgusting. And it suggests that both in terms of ugly, destructive politics and intractable structural deficiencies in the states as well as the federal government, this country is verging on the ungovernable.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

rainbow 2

Copenhagen Context: Why the Horseshit

The second article I wanted to recall as context for the Copenhagen talks (the first is here) is in the New Yorker, where the formidable Elizabeth Kolbert takes on the currently hot (or is it cool?) Climate Crisis denying book, SuperFreakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. It's not just that she dismantles their pernicious silliness, but she also isolates what I believe is the primary reason people want to hear that the Climate Crisis doesn't exist, probably, and even if it does, it's going to be all right.

She starts with the Parable of Horseshit, a story the book also tells, about how in the 1890s, big cities like New York were being smothered by piles of horseshit from the transport these cities depended on. "One commentator predicted that by 1930 horse manure would reach the level of Manhattan’s third-story windows. New York’s troubles were not New York’s alone; in 1894, the Times of London forecast that by the middle of the following century every street in the city would be buried under nine feet of manure."

Doom was predicted, stern and costly measures were planned, and then, suddenly it all went away. Because the horses did, ushered out by the automobile. The SuperFreaks tell it to make the point that simple solutions emerge, and they are usually technological.

Of course they deny there is a Climate Crisis. But if there is, they know how to fix it: with huge new technologies: “Once you eliminate the moralism and the angst, the task of reversing global warming boils down to a straightforward engineering problem,” Levitt and Dubner write. All we need to do is figure out a way to shoot huge quantities of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere on our own. This could be done, they say, by sending up an eighteen-mile-long hose: “For anyone who loves cheap and simple solutions, things don’t get much better.”

First of all, Kolbert suggests the extent of their ignorance about climate science. "Given their emphasis on cold, hard numbers, it’s noteworthy that Levitt and Dubner ignore what are, by now, whole libraries’ worth of data on global warming. Indeed, just about everything they have to say on the topic is, factually speaking, wrong." In one case their conclusion is based on faulty arithmetic. Not sophisticated math: arithmetic.

Kolbert's disdain for the craziness of their main proposal is probably more muted than it deserves, because it is truly crazy. It looks attractive: a big tech fix, aping the action of volcanoes in cooling the earth, while CO2-spewing fuels can continue and even accelerate. But ir ignores just about every aspect of how climate, weather and life on the planet--let alone chemicals-- interact. In the guise of saving the planet we know, it would poison and otherwise fundamentally change life on earth (there goes the sun)--even if it were possible to do. And it is much more drastic than anything Al Gore and others in the mainstream propose. As Kolbert says, some legitimate scientists say such geoengineering should be studied, but only as a last resort.

It's not hard to understand what these guys are doing or why. They have found a marketing niche--by wearing suits and offering contrarian but simple-sounding solutions, they're making a fortune shoveling horseshit, the future be damned. But why are people listening? Actual solutions to the Climate Crisis involve change that will, Kolbert writes, "require a lot from us. It would mean changing the way we eat, shop, manufacture, and get around, and, ultimately, how we see ourselves. It is the difficulty of imagining such changes that makes schemes like Levitt and Dubner’s at once so alluring and so dangerous. Just about every time anyone with any sort of credentials offers a “simple and cheap” solution to global warming, the idea is hailed as bold or innovative, and taken far more seriously than it deserves to be."

It makes human sense that people would rather avoid wrenching change--it could be arduous, even dangerous, and you don't know if you'd be better off, or worse. Better the devil you know.

But the flaw in the argument is this: it's not a choice between change and no change. Things are going to change, big time. Perhaps gradually, perhaps more quickly, but probably in fits and starts over the next half century, the Climate Crisis is going to become a dominant fact of life, and engine of change. And most of it isn't going to be better.

The problem is that unless civilization anticipates and prepares for that change, and unless it works to prevent even greater (and much worse) change in the farther future, things are going to change for the worse, big time. At first for some people (that's happening already, in the far north, in drought-stricken Africa, in heat waves and storms, etc.), then for a lot of people, and then for everyone. Eventually, after generations of increasing hardship and permanent crisis, of accelerating misery, the survival of civilization, which means the survival of most of humanity, is at stake--along with life on this planet as we know it.

So among all the other difficulties, it's the horseshit shoveled by the likes of these guys that is smothering our chances at a future. People may think they're just sticking their head in the sand. But it's not sand.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Rainy Season

"Rain" by Yukie Adams. Though it feels late, the rainy season seems to be starting here on the North Coast. But we had unusually cold and clear days last week--while much of the U.S. was getting hammered by snow, ice and wind. El Nino perhaps? Anyway, if that was our rain, sorry... As for El Nino, it along with global heating has led the UK Met Office (Met is short for Meteorological) to conclude that 2010 is "very likely" to be a warmer year than 2009, and more likely than not will become the hottest year on record (exceeding 1998.)

The Future of Hope

Recently I've been trying to read Hope in the Age of Anxiety by Anthony Scioli and Henry B. Biller (Oxford), which was blurbed to suggest it surveys psychology, philosophy and theology for news on hope. Instead it seems more of a self-help book, with little tests and inspiring examples. But what's most troubling to me is that I can't locate an idea of what the authors define as hope that makes much sense to me. Some of it may be optimism, or faith. Some of it may be courage. But hope? What is hope?

The question was raised again in some of the responses to President Obama's Nobel Prize address [see the post below for more responses.] Here's one from Alex Steffan at WorldChanging (a site I like and find useful), which includes the last paragraphs of Obama's address:

President Obama's Nobel Prize acceptance speech is a truly remarkable piece of writing. He manages, in an incredibly conflicted moment, to neither dodge the conflicts nor let those conflicts define the possibilities of our time. It is a speech that is honest, humble and at the same time profoundly high-minded. The last few lines, in particular, reveal a sentiment that's critical for the era of instability we know we're headed into:

"So let us reach for the world that ought to be — that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls. Somewhere today, in the here and now, a soldier sees he's outgunned but stands firm to keep the peace. Somewhere today, in this world, a young protester awaits the brutality of her government, but has the courage to march on. Somewhere today, a mother facing punishing poverty still takes the time to teach her child, who believes that a cruel world still has a place for his dreams.

Let us live by their example. We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and still strive for justice. We can admit the intractability of deprivation, and still strive for dignity. We can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace. We can do that — for that is the story of human progress; that is the hope of all the world; and at this moment of challenge, that must be our work here on Earth."

"This is a set of ideas very much the moral core of the politics of optimism that I've written about before," Steffan concluded. And if you follow the link, he expresses a fairly nuanced view of the concept of optimism. But I don't quite buy it--that is, I don't quite buy that it is necessary, or more particularly, that this is what Obama is expressing.

Steffan opposes the negativism that says we are incapable of solving the major problems, of saving the future. I agree with most of what he says, but I stop with this definition of optimism: That we have the capacity to create and deploy solutions to the world's biggest problems."

I believe it's wrong to say solving great problems is impossible: that we can't. But I don't believe that we necessarily "have the capacity to create and deploy solutions to the world's biggest problems." I believe that it is possible we do. But it is impossible to know.

Optimism may help to motivate people, just as faith may. But neither is necessary. In terms in what will or won't happen, or even what can or can't happen, optimism and pessimism are irrelevant.

But admitting uncertainty doesn't mean not doing anything. Envisioning what success might look like, for instance--that's something else. That's useful. Yes we can is a clarion call, an assertion of possibility, although it can equally mean "yes, we can try." But even belief in the possibility isn't necessary for hope.

To clarify what I mean, here's another interpretation of Obama's speech, by Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan and I apparently share a Catholic background, including some knowledge of what they were calling the New Theology in the early 60s. Otherwise, not so much. Plus he's stayed with the Church and I have not. But he writes this:

" Hope is not optimism. We have little reason for optimism given the first decade of the twenty-first century. Hope is a choice."

(He also adds: As much a choice as faith and love, which I don't entirely buy. Love is something of a choice, and something of not a choice, and faith is less of a choice than either love or hope. According to my definitions.)

But I do agree that Obama makes the case, especially in those last paragraphs, that hope is a choice ("we can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and still strive for justice," etc.) But I would take the concept further.

To me hope is embedded in a quotation from F. Scott Fitzgerald, which is famous only for the first part: "…the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." But the full statement concludes: "One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise."

Fitzgerald may well have been thinking of the ending of The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, in which the Time Traveller has seen a future when humanity is finishing its self-destruction. The novel's narrator is his friend, Hillyer, who acknowledges that the Traveller "thought but cheerlessly of the Advancement of Mankind and saw in the growing pile of civilization only a foolish heaping that must inevitably fall back upon and destroy its makers in the end." Though this is not Hillyer's view he still concludes, "If that is so, it remains for us to live as though it were not so."

My own sense of hope takes elements from all of these statements. In terms of fact or reality, hope is based on complexity, on the absurdity of our reflexive either/or: humanity is either evil or good, selfish or altruistic, destined for greatness or damned, etc. And also on fallibility and uncertainty: I am convinced that the Climate Crisis is real and is heading us towards the end of human civilization. But how it will all play out, and whether our efforts can really stop it, no one really knows.

So in that sense hope is a choice. It's not optimism--yes, we will solve it! Or pessimism--not with our selfish genes we won't! It isn't even about what will or won't happen in the future. It's about what we choose to do now. Hope is a condition of the present.

But in another sense, it's not even a choice, at least not as a discreet concept, any more than Samuel Beckett's famous"I can't go on. I'll go on"--is a statement of despair. It's just living. Hope is just another word for choosing to live, although it does imply an embodiment of values: a larger sense of life that includes doing for others, and for the future. Or put it this way, it's not so much a choice as a commitment.

When we do for others, we often can see the results (though not always.) But when we act for the future, we will never know if we were successful. Some people have faith. For me, faith is a trick of the heart, but it's possible that for others it is more, and they aren't deluded. But hope is more humble--it only hopes. Yet hope without works is empty. Envisioning and building a future worth hoping for is the work of hope. Idea by idea and brick by brick (or solar panel by solar panel.) "We can do that — for that is the story of human progress; that is the hope of all the world; and at this moment of challenge, that must be our work here on Earth."

Friday, December 11, 2009

Nobel Speech Reaction

I admit to being a bit surprised at the response to President Barack Obama's speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. My own response was that it was a trenchant presentation but, as Andrew Sullivan wrote, "Nothing in it was very different from anything he has said before." I don't think it was Obama's best speech, and it was not as good (or as bold) as a speech he quoted from, President Kennedy's American University speech.

Nevertheless, this speech has been almost universally praised, even by GOPer and hardliners. "I am staggered that so many neoconservatives and conservatives seemed shocked and enthused by the address," Sullivan writes. "This does not, it seems to me, reflect on the address's novelty for Obama....Distilling it all in one 36 minute address may have clarified it for his opponents. But I have to say their welcome applause merely reveals that they have not been listening for so many months."

Joe Klein at TIME describes the speech's balancing act: "How does a rookie President, having been granted the Nobel Peace Prize, go about earning it? Well, he can start by giving the sort of Nobel lecture that Barack Obama just did, an intellectually rigorous and morally lucid speech that balanced the rationale for going to war against the need to build a more peaceful and equitable world."

But as Klein suggests, they're impressed with the justification for war, the statement that there is evil in the world, and Obama's assertion to the European audience in the room that their peace has been largely paid for by the U.S. military. But a lot of GOPers had to close their ears to other balances. Sullivan wrote: "The neocons are also trying to coopt Obama for Bush, while his speech, if you examine it closely, is, in fact, as brutal a debunking of Bush utopianism and incompetence imaginable. Just give the principled neocons time to save face and they'll understand (and appreciate) him in the end for how he is marshalling and rescuing American power from the Cheney wreckage."

Sullivan also quoted these two paragraphs by Peter Beinart :

"[Obama]...understands, in a way Cheney and Palin never will, that true moral universalism requires recognizing that Americans are just as capable of evil as anyone else. And that means recognizing that we are in just as much need of restraint. For Obama and Truman, the paradox of American exceptionalism is that only by recognizing that we are not inherently better than anyone else, and thus must bind our power within a framework of law, can we distinguish ourselves from the predatory powers of the past.

He didn’t just condemn human rights horrors in Congo, Burma, Zimbabwe and Iran; he acknowledged that an unfettered America is capable of moral horror itself—which is why we must ban torture and submit to the Geneva Conventions. He didn’t just praise US soldiers; he praised the peacekeepers of the United Nations, thus acknowledging that military force can occur within a framework of international institutions and international law."

Frankly I wish the public dialogue were mature enough for Obama to get beyond conclusions I came to in high school so he could envision and articulate practical steps towards creating peace--the skills of peace that are required. He could have given Europe more credit for creating institutions that have used the time and space American protection has provided to keep their continent--the focus of two devastating world wars--unthinkably peaceful.

But what he did say was worth saying. Especially having given the tragic justification for war he recognizes: "So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace. And yet this truth must coexist with another - that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy.

The soldier's courage and sacrifice is full of glory, expressing devotion to country, to cause and to comrades in arms. But war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such.

So part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly irreconcilable truths - that war is sometimes necessary, and war is at some level an expression of human feelings. Concretely, we must direct our effort to the task that President Kennedy called for long ago. "Let us focus," he said, "on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions."

Except that when I heard the speech, I didn't hear "human feelings" but "human folly."

I suggest (or will suggest) more in the post above. This one is getting too long.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Far and Near

In a new image, Hubble shows us farther into the universe than we've ever seen before, including galaxies formed in the first 600 million years of the universe, some 13 billion years ago. And a recent photo from orbit of the blue Earth, the only place in that vastness known to have at least a little intelligent life.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Hey, Deny This

After a lot of hot air about global cooling, the World Meteorological Organization and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have concluded that the current decade--beginning in 2000--is the warmest on record. The WMO said:

"The decade of the 2000s (2000–2009) was warmer than the decade spanning the 1990s (1990–1999), which in turn was warmer than the 1980s (1980–1989)."

It was the warmest in the 30 decades since instruments records began. This is a global finding, and many areas of the world were warmer this year specifically as well. According to the secretary-general of the WMO, Michel Jarraud: "There were above-normal temperatures in most parts of the continents, and only in USA and Canada there were significant areas with cooler-than-average conditions," he said. "But in large parts of Southern Asia, Central Africa, these regions are likely to have the warmest year on record."

Mr Jarraud says the year has also been notable for extreme weather events. "China with the third warmest year in the last 50 years, heat waves in Italy, UK, France, Belgium, Germany, an extreme heat wave in India, and Australia the third warmest year on record with three exceptional heat waves," he said.

Not So Hopeful News

Update 12/9: Howard Dean, Bernie Sanders and others insisting on a strong health care reform bill were speaking this morning in favor of the compromise. So maybe it's good news after all?

There was some good news Tuesday. The U.S. Senate decisively defeated an amendment to the health care bill that would have added a provision that for all practical purposes repeals Roe v. Wade. And President Obama spoke about jobs and the economy, outlining plans to tap into TARP for more job creation. The LA Times story (and video) is here, and the White House statement with more details is here.

But on our two fateful topics, some news was not good at all. The AP is reporting that the Senate has reached a compromise eliminating the public option in the health care reform bill. The CBO has been asked to score the compromise, so it isn't public yet. But other "news" or "rumors," suggest it's even worse than it sounds. There's been discussion of a Medicare buy-in but it may be so narrow and limited as to be meaningless. There's disquiet about whether the bill will really save people money, or just indenture them to the same insurance companies, but this time with force of law.

Reporting since then suggests it isn't quite as bad as that, although it's hard to call it good. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid insists the public option is still part of the bill, but other reporting suggests it's on a hard-to-pull trigger. We'll see, but probably not until the CBO scoring (for its financial impact) is done in a few days.

There's also talk that there won't be a conference committee to reconcile the House and Senate bills, but a straight up or down vote in the House of the Senate bill. While conventional wisdom has been saying that the Senate was unlikely to pass a public option, the hope was that it would be restored in conference.

Bad news coming out of Copenhagen, too, of a leaked draft of a proposed agreement backed by major nations that disses the developing world in several significant ways, so that, according to the Guardian (which broke the story) "The UN Copenhagen climate talks are in disarray today after developing countries reacted furiously to leaked documents that show world leaders will next week be asked to sign an agreement that hands more power to rich countries and sidelines the UN's role in all future climate change negotiations."

Perhaps the most sinister element in this proposal is to bypass the UN and give power over major climate provisions to the World Bank. The same World Bank that enforced the "Shock Doctrine" on developing nations, destroying their social infrastructure, devastating their economies and enslaving them to pay debt to rich nations and institutions. The last thing we need is a Climate Crisis Shock Doctrine.

But the good news about the bad news is that both stories are in process. Nobody actually knows what the Senate compromise is, nor do they know whether the climate agreement draft that was leaked really represents what big nations (including the U.S.) intend or ever intended to propose. So stay tuned.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Hi. Remember Me?

Fateful days, especially with the Copenhagen Climate conference beginning today, the subject of an unprecedented editorial appearing simultaneously in newspapers across the planet, trying to save the planet. More about that in the post below.

This Fateful Moment: Everyone

The whole world is watching.

Because the whole civilized world is at stake.

The Copenhagen climate meetings begin with excitement and dread, and a strong message that 56 newspapers around the world deliver in concert.

Fifty-six newspapers are printing the same editorial in 45 countries, in 20 languages. The newspapers include 20 in western and eastern Europe, 11 in Africa, two in China, an Arab language newspaper, a newspaper in Israel. They include the Guardian in the UK, Le Monde in Paris, the Star in Toronto, and the Miami Herald--the only English language paper in the U.S.

The editorial begins with a statement of purpose behind the "unprecedented step of speaking with one voice through a common editorial: " We do so because humanity faces a profound emergency. Unless we combine to take decisive action, climate change will ravage our planet, and with it our prosperity and security." Excerpts:

"In scientific journals the question is no longer whether humans are to blame, but how little time we have got left to limit the damage. Yet so far the world's response has been feeble and half-hearted."

"Climate change has been caused over centuries, has consequences that will endure for all time and our prospects of taming it will be determined in the next 14 days. We call on the representatives of the 192 countries gathered in Copenhagen not to hesitate, not to fall into dispute, not to blame each other but to seize opportunity from the greatest modern failure of politics. This should not be a fight between the rich world and the poor world, or between east and west. Climate change affects everyone, and must be solved by everyone."

The editorial admits that the hope for a "fully polished treaty" at the end of this conference is probably gone, "But the politicians in Copenhagen can and must agree the essential elements of a fair and effective deal and, crucially, a firm timetable for turning it into a treaty."

This has been President Obama's announced goal, and one set of good news so far has been the targets announced not only by the U.S. but also China and India.

"At the deal's heart must be a settlement between the rich world and the developing world covering how the burden of fighting climate change will be divided..." "Social justice demands that the industrialised world digs deep into its pockets and pledges cash to help poorer countries adapt to climate change, and clean technologies to enable them to grow economically without growing their emissions. "

And there's hopeful news here, too, as President Obama has done what no U.S. administration did before: he's agreed to a global assistance fund to help developing countries deal with the Climate Crisis. John Podesta of the Center for American Progress noted: "President Obama’s decision to commit the US to a global climate assistance fund for developing countries and to go to Copenhagen on December 18th is a game changer. After the President’s trip to Beijing and the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to the White House, subsequent commitments to reduce carbon intensity by both China and India have produced a burst of momentum in advance of next week’s UN summit in Copenhagen."

Even more momentum is expected later today (Monday) when the "EPA is expected to finalize its endangerment ruling on CO2 ...making regulations on CO2 legally mandated and all but inevitable."

The editorial includes support for cap and trade, and other measures that the developed world, the rich countries, must take. It doesn't dismiss or even underestimate the challenges. "The transformation will be costly, but many times less than the bill for bailing out global finance — and far less costly than the consequences of doing nothing."

The editorial mentions "fair rewards for protecting forests" as part of the deal, and some good news is emerging on this as well: a deal between rich and poor countries to protect the world's forests is reportedly near. If it happens, it's likely to be announced in Copenhagen.

"But the shift to a low-carbon society holds out the prospect of more opportunity than sacrifice." Yes, and some find this exciting as well as scary, while others find it just scary. Change is frightening, and I'm convinced that much of the support for Climate Crisis denial comes from deep fear of change, to the world we know as well as anxiety over the impact to individuals and families. But once again, there really is no choice between change and not changing. Change is coming--the effects of the Climate Crisis have already begun--the Copenhagen conference will hear from some of those who are suffering from it now--and these effects will spread and grow.

The editorial concludes:

Kicking our carbon habit within a few short decades will require a feat of engineering and innovation to match anything in our history. But whereas putting a man on the moon or splitting the atom were born of conflict and competition, the coming carbon race must be driven by a collaborative effort to achieve collective salvation.

Overcoming climate change will take a triumph of optimism over pessimism, of vision over short-sightedness, of what Abraham Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature".

Those better angels will have to overcome well-funded disinformation as well as the revival of political thuggery, including break-ins and intimidation. Even if Copenhagen succeeds in getting a deal started, there are prominent scientists and others who don't think what's being proposed is nearly enough, especially in goals for reducing carbon. But let us begin.

Back when Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection was in its first decades, T. H. Huxley (and his most articulate disciple, H.G. Wells) proposed that while human beings were subject to natural selection just like the rest of nature, through its unique cultures and civilization, it could to some meaningful extent guide its own evolution.

Now we are faced with a profound test. We have unconsciously altered the natural world, and consequently it is changing in ways that can actually end human civilization. Can we summon the consciousness, and the knowledge, the will and the best of ourselves ethically and morally, to confront this challenge? If we do, human civilization has a chance--not only to survive, but to take the next big step. If we don't, human civilization is unlikely to last another century or so, along with the natural world as we know it. The changes will accelerate. No one can really say just when. But soon enough.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

This Fateful Moment: Health Care

President Obama's visit and talk to Democratic Senators signalled the home stretch for the Senate health care bill, while negotiations apparently still continue within the Senate. According to TPM: President Obama evoked Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the creation of Social Security today in a rare weekend meeting with the Democratic caucus, in a bid to keep his party united behind a historic health care reform bill currently being debated on the Senate floor.... A number of senators suggested Obama's remarks provided the party and the legislation with much-needed momentum. "I think it helped, more than significantly," said Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT).

The slog through the posturing, lies, obstructionism and politicized idiocy is enough to make anyone sick beyond the help of any health care plan. If President Obama had to remind them of the whole point of this effort, that speaks volumes in itself. This is beyond politics. Catastrophic illness and accidents hit Republicans and Democrats, people of all genders, races, ethnicities and religions, in every region of the country. Except for the richest few, health care costs are increasingly a cause of fatal human tragedy.

I've been thinking about this column all week. It is only one story among too many that sickens the heart and mind, that this could happen in this wealthy nation. But this one, about a sawmill worker in Oregon not far from where I am, has features that surprised even me. This man has a condition that causes him daily pain, including pain so severe that he vomits, every day. His condition can be cured with surgery, but no surgeon will do the operation because he has no health insurance. Nicholas Kristof writes: "Without insurance, John has been unable to get surgery or even help managing the pain. When he collapses or suffers particularly excruciating headaches, Esther rushes him to the emergency room of one hospital or another, but an E.R. can’t do much for him. One hospital has told them not to come back unless he gets insurance, they say."

This is human abuse. This is cruelty for profit. Forget for a moment that businesses large and small are going broke because of health care costs. Forget for a moment that U.S. business are less able to compete in the world because of health care costs, when other nations pay for them, contributing to America's slide into second class status. Forget for a moment that unless health care costs are reigned in, the federal government will face ever more massive deficits and the economy could collapse.

And maybe even forget for a moment about FDR and history. Think about the people who are suffering and dying needlessly. And about what that says about us as a people. As a Christian, if that's what you are. As an American. Think about what it says about you as a person.

It might be different if this were Somalia. This is America. Health should not be for sale. It still will be, apparently, but maybe it doesn't have to be at such a high human cost to all of us, body and soul.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Working (and the Dreaming Up Daily Quote)

Fewer jobs lost and lower unemployment than anyone had expected in the monthly report for November issued today had the New York Times story beginning: "The nation’s employers not only have stopped eliminating large numbers of jobs, but appear to be on the verge of rebuilding the American work force, devastated by the recession."

President Obama was more measured, telling an audience in Allentown, PA that there are going to be ups and downs before the economy settles. Most economists agree, but according to the Times "Many forecasters suggest that the turning point — from jobs being cut to jobs being added — will come by March, assuming the economy continues to grow, as it finally started to do in the third quarter. If they are right, the beginning of a work force recovery would come more quickly than after the last two recessions, in the early 1990s and 2001, despite the much greater severity of this downturn."

The uptick suggests that the much maligned Recovery Act is helping, which is what the Congressional Budget Office affirmed in a mostly ignored report earlier in the week. Another usefully obscure report named a different benefit related to the act--yet another quiet limitation on the influence of lobbyists ("Pursuant to the President's memoranda, restrictions have been placed on certain kinds of oral and written interactions between federally registered lobbyists and executive branch officials responsible for Recovery Act fund disbursement. ")

Early next week, President Obama will announce further plans to encourage employment. Statements this week have been quoted to emphasize the private sector's responsibility in creating jobs, which can be interpreted in different ways. There's certainly frustration that the bailed-out banking sector is not loaning enough for investment, while continuing pressure on home foreclosures. But all the right wing rhetoric and anticipated problems with the deficit aside, the private sector isn't primarily interested in employing people but in making profit. If that means overworking and exploiting fewer people that's great, especially if they're too frightened by the spectre of unemployment to complain. Thanks in part to the electronic workforce--the Internet and cell phone alliance--I seriously doubt this country will ever again see just 5% unemployment, the usual measure these days of "full" employment.

That's one reason FDR was right, in words from his second Inaugural that Jed Lewison at Kos quoted this week, and which are worth quoting again here:

" Instinctively we recognized a deeper need—the need to find through government the instrument of our united purpose to solve for the individual the ever-rising problems of a complex civilization. Repeated attempts at their solution without the aid of government had left us baffled and bewildered. For, without that aid, we had been unable to create those moral controls over the services of science which are necessary to make science a useful servant instead of a ruthless master of mankind. To do this we knew that we must find practical controls over blind economic forces and blindly selfish men. "

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

"This weather does not belong to us. It belongs to someone else."
--Inuit hunter. Photo by Stanley Green. Click to enlarge.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

For all the concerns about new committments, both real and reflexive, a very different emphasis to U.S. foreign policy emerged in President Obama's address at West Point Tuesday night. See post below.

Deepest of Fears or Highest of Hopes

Update 12/03: The New York Times reports "interviews on Wednesday suggested that, while opinions on the war remained wildly diverse, Mr. Obama managed to persuade a significant number of people on both sides of the political aisle..."

The first reactions to President Obama's address on Afghanistan seemed even more than usual to reflect the mood and prior political position of the reactor. But certainly the tenor of many responses expressed a war weariness, and a wariness of more commitments.

The President announced a greater troop commitment, a set of goals, a basic strategy, and a date when the troops start coming home. I don't know if the specific steps the President outlined will meet the goals he stated. I do know that this effort, though it may sound somewhat the same as in the past, is quite different.

Though the military goal is fairly narrow--to finish off the terrorist infrastructure in Afghanistan and the border region of Pakistan--there are other efforts to help create a context where such safe havens won't exist and grow. Apart from training Afghan troops and police, the additional U.S. and NATO troops are being sent partly to protect a vastly expanded civilian presence, and so that our own "peacekeepers"--ironically enough, our military--can engage local leaders and people in rebuilding their society, and especially their agriculture.

It is different because of the credibility of the man who says it's different. When President Obama looked into the camera and told Afghanistan and the Muslim world that the U.S. will not be an occupier, it was another occasion that his race and his background and his demeanor spoke volumes. President Obama's dip in popularity in U.S. polls is due almost entirely to white people. But for much of the rest of the world, his race has a different message.

"We will have to use diplomacy, because no one nation can meet the challenges of an interconnected world acting alone. I have spent this year renewing our alliances and forging new partnerships. And we have forged a new beginning between America and the Muslim World - one that recognizes our mutual interest in breaking a cycle of conflict, and that promises a future in which those who kill innocents are isolated by those who stand up for peace and prosperity and human dignity."

I react from my own point of view. I don't see Obama as another Bush or Nixon or LBJ. His speech I believe will be historic, even if his attempt fails to change American foreign policy and to rededicate it to goals and ideals lost in the past.

He acknowledged his own opposition to the Iraq war. "I opposed the war in Iraq precisely because I believe that we must exercise restraint in the use of military force, and always consider the long-term consequences of our actions."

He announced a date for the beginning of withdrawal from Afghanistan, just as he has begun the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. "So as a result, America will have to show our strength in the way that we end wars and prevent conflict."

He said that this engagement in Afghanistan and Pakistan is essential to our national security, but he also acknowledged the great importance of our economy. "Over the past several years, we have lost that balance, and failed to appreciate the connection between our national security and our economy." We've frittered away a trillion dollars in Iraq and in haphazard efforts in Afghanistan. We can't keep doing that, and so this effort has limits. "That is why our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended - because the nation that I am most interested in building is our own."

He affirmed that the U.S. must walk the walk as well as talk the talk. "That is why we must promote our values by living them at home - which is why I have prohibited torture and will close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. And we must make it clear to every man, woman and child around the world who lives under the dark cloud of tyranny that America will speak out on behalf of their human rights, and tend to the light of freedom, and justice, and opportunity, and respect for the dignity of all peoples. That is who we are. That is the moral source of America's authority."

"In the end, our security and leadership does not come solely from the strength of our arms. It derives from our people - from the workers and businesses who will rebuild our economy; from the entrepreneurs and researchers who will pioneer new industries; from the teachers that will educate our children, and the service of those who work in our communities at home; from the diplomats and Peace Corps volunteers who spread hope abroad; and from the men and women in uniform who are part of an unbroken line of sacrifice that has made government of the people, by the people, and for the people a reality on this Earth."

He noted the danger of being so reflexively and irrationally divided. "This vast and diverse citizenry will not always agree on every issue - nor should we. But I also know that we, as a country, cannot sustain our leadership nor navigate the momentous challenges of our time if we allow ourselves to be split asunder by the same rancor and cynicism and partisanship that has in recent times poisoned our national discourse."

No one should be surprised that President Obama decided to finish the fight in Afghanistan--he said he would during the campaign. The number of troops he is committing is great, but he committed even more without much comment several months ago. What is most significant here is the plan. It may work more or less well. If it does, it will change how America uses its power in the world, and it will be a great change from Bush, Reagan and Nixon. It may not work, but it may well be worth the trying.

This is the President who stood up to the military and demanded a strategy with a beginning and an end--he denies open-ended commitments that military leaders adore, or that questionable leaders abroad look for, all the better to soak the U.S. for all it's worth. Of course this is just the first step--there will likely be difficult tests ahead.

No one should be surprised that President Obama is redefining American foreign policy even as he brings it in line with American ideals, and his own perspective:

"We will go forward with the confidence that right makes might, and with the commitment to forge an America that is safer, a world that is more secure, and a future that represents not the deepest of fears but the highest of hopes."

No President in my lifetime has faced so many challenges of such huge consequence, nor has any acted with such comprehensive vision, while dealing with such a potentially catastrophic and volatile inheritance. I have as much confidence in him as I ever did, though I can't say I am as confident that what he is attempting will succeed. But I wish him well. For what is the alternative?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

" For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give--yes or no, or maybe--
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep."
--William Stafford

The Copenhagen Context: Gaia or Medea?

The wires are burning with news relating to the Copenhagen Climate talks--how things are moving fast towards agreements, how things are hopelessly bogged down, how it's a great step forward, how it's a predestined failure.

There are also a flood of announcements of study results timed for maximum impact, leaving no doubt how truly serious the Climate Crisis is, and an ill-timed diversionary flap over mostly misread and willfully distorted stolen emails among some climate scientists.

Rather than trying to keep up with contradictory reports even before the conference begins, there are a few interesting articles out there that perhaps help to create contexts for what's about to happen--which of course may well also mean what's about to not happen.

There's an interesting review by Tim Flannery of three important recent books bearing on the Climate Crisis context, in the November 19 issue of the New York Review of Books. The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning
by James Lovelock posits an extreme outcome for the Climate Crisis, both in terms of consequences (civilization essentially eradicated) and in terms of predictions. James Lovelock: In Search of Gaia by John Gribbin and Mary Gribbin (Princeton University Press) is both a brief biography of Lovelock, including recent interviews, and a history of global warming science.

Flannery passes on some of Lovelock's biography, including his scientific discoveries in several fields (he's the guy who figured out that the common cold is spread by touch, not through the air), which apparently are due to his skepticism of both outcome and method, and his powers of imagination. "Lovelock's exceptionally effective research method derives from a strong capacity for empathy," Flannery writes. He imagines himself being the phenomenon he is studying--even if it's bacteria in a drop of water.

Lovelock's greatest--and certain largest--insight was Gaia: the planet as a self-regulating system in which, over time, life alters conditions to maximize the continued existence of life. He first proposed it as an hypothesis, which was ridiculed by, among others, the Selfish Gene guy, Richard Dawkins. However, this criticism sparked Lovelock's imagination anew, and he created a model of a planet with just one form of life, and set about testing whether it would become Gaia-like through Darwinian determinism. It did. And other models like it have as well.

So for all the New Age appropriation, Gaia is now a theory, like the theory of natural selection, not just an hypothesis. The theory explains several situation in earth's past where the survival of life defies the logic of physical conditions. Scientists from four international climate research programs endorsed a version of Gaia in 2001.

The third book Flannery reviews is The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive? by Peter Ward (also Princeton.) Ward recites a record of huge catastrophes and massive extinctions which make the earth sound less like the goddess of life than a raging murderer of her own children, the mythic Medea. "This name thus seems appropriate for an interpretation of Earth life, which collectively has shown itself through many past episodes in deep time to the recent past, as well as in current behavior, to be inherently selfish and ultimately biocidal."

Flannery doesn't think much of his book, mostly because author Ward never confronts the evidence for the Gaia theory. Ward is a strict neo-Darwinist, a Selfish Gene ideologue, it seems, and that style reminds me of circular theological argument. But when it comes to humanity, he may be on to something.

Is it Gaia, guiding the scientists trying to save the planet with evidence and argument, with their latest warnings of rising temperatures, record levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, of impacts piling up faster since the Kyoto treaty, of a whole set of scary evidence? Of the Arctic sea ice all but vanished, and the East Antarctic ice, previously considered solid, is melting?

Or is it Medea, handily provided purloined e-mails to make specious headlines and further confuse a public that--at least in the U.S.--seems to want to believe that the Climate Crisis isn't happening? (Here's a taste of the email distortions, and an even more instructive and detailed account of just how several supposedly damning statements were taken out of context and willfully misunderstood, with a wealth of available evidence that the interpretation was distorted.)

Will it be Gaia, inspiring humanity to heroically save its own future, even if it means sacrifice and change, to steeply reduce greenhouse gases, quickly create a green energy economy, and respond compassionately to emergencies caused by the Climate Crisis?

Or will it be Medea, selfishly sowing the seeds of discord and doubt, fear and ignorance, in order to hold onto wealth and the order that created it, to keep on burning oil and coal, and when things get really bad, lashing out to destroy supposed enemies and temporarily grab their resources? Is this The Road to Medea as child cannibal?

As for Mr. Gaia, James Lovelock, when it comes to humanity, he's a Medea man. He doesn't believe civilization can or will avoid its collapse, based partly on what reviewer Flannery suggests is outmoded information on green energy such as wind and solar. (Lovelock doesn't think they can supply enough energy to discourage coal and oil use.)

His climate projections are themselves out of the mainstream, which does make you pay attention, because all of his discoveries were, too. He uses a particular climate model to predict, that when COs concentration gets past 400 parts per million, the planetary temperature will lurch upward suddenly by 9 degrees C, which is very hot indeed. Flannery points out that carbon concentration probably has already exceeded 400 ppm, so according to this model the lurch could begin at any time.

He adds that the model also predicts that just before the lurch happens, global temperatures cool a bit. In the six weeks since his review was published, the Climate Crisis Deniers have been crowing about evidence that warming has stalled on a global average for the past few years. The evidence is partial, but even so, it's enough to send a chill up your spine when you read Lovelock's theory, proposed months ago.

Other scientists don't buy this model, but Flannery notes that a summit of climate scientists in Copenhagen this March concluded that"the worst-case IPCC scenario trajectories (or even worse) are being realised." Scientists also propose several "tipping point" or "time bomb" scenarios that could lead to relatively sudden and drastic Climate Crisis effects.

Anyway, Lovelock has proposed in the past that the end of industrial civilization and a steep reduction in human population could be Gaia's way of getting rid of her biggest problem, and allowing life to go on, although absent most current species of any size. I tend to believe that Gaia not only operates by Darwinian mechanisms, but by other principles we see in various forms of life, including ourselves. We all have some Gaia in us, as well as some Lovelock: skeptical, empathetic, imaginative, cooperative, compassionate, life-loving.

But we also have a lot of Medea. Which is stronger is really the fatal question, and it may be answered for this civilization relatively soon.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

Via Pixdaus via Kos.


Three years makes a tradition, right? The perpetual crisis, it seems. Here again are some excerpts from an article by Joanna Macy called "Gratitude," published in Shambhala Sun magazine:

"We have received an inestimable gift. To be alive in this beautiful, self-organizing universe--to participate in the dance of life with senses to perceive it, lungs that breathe it, organs that draw nourishment from it--it is a wonder beyond words. It is an extraordinary privilege to be accorded a human life, with self-reflexive consciousness that brings awareness of our own actions and the ability to make choices. It lets us choose to take part in the healing of our world."

"Gratitude for the gift of life is the primary wellspring of all religions, the hallmark of the mystic, the source of all true art. Yet we so easily take this gift for granted. That is why so many spiritual traditions begin with thanksgiving, to remind us that for all our woes and worries, our existence itself is an unearned benefaction, which we could never of ourselves create."

"That our world is in crisis--to the point where survival of conscious life on Earth is in question---in no way diminishes the value of this gift; on the contrary. To us is granted the privilege of being on hand: to take part, if we choose, in the Great Turning to a just and sustainable society. We can let life work through us, enlisting all our strength, wisdom and courage, so that life itself can continue."

"The great open secret of gratitude is that it is not dependent on external circumstance. It's like a setting or a channel that we can switch to at any moment, no matter what's going on around us. It helps us connect to our basic right to be here, like the breath does. It's a stance of the soul...."

"There are hard things to face in our world today, if we want to be of use. Gratitude, when it is real, offers no blinders. On the contrary, in the face of devastation and tragedy, it can ground us, especially when we're scared. It can hold us steady for the work to be done."

And this year we can at least add this, from a Thanksgiving eve email from President Obama: "So when we gather tomorrow, let us also use the occasion to renew our commitment to building a more peaceful and prosperous future that every American family can enjoy."

But even though this is a U.S. holiday today, let's not limit that committment to American families.