Saturday, January 02, 2010

The Last Decades

It's an odd feeling, beginning this new decade. I start by realizing it could be my last, and almost certainly is my next to last decade. During the next ten years, I could well make the transition from late middle age to old age, that is to a certain frailty and disconnection. Not that I know really what to make of this, but it all gives a different sort of significance to this change of the calendar, compared to past decade markers.

The decade begins also as I'm beginning to read David Orr's new book, Down to the Wire. He starts by saying straight out what climate scientists seldom say very clearly (clotting it all with scientific caution and jargon) and politicians won't say: that we've already done so much damage to our atmosphere that the climate of the planet will be inevitably and seriously changed, and no matter what we do, the change will persist for thousands of years. Human civilization will have to adapt to "'a different planet,' one we won't like," or it will fall. Moreover, human civilization will have to change quickly and deeply to avoid causing an even hotter world, which would bring near certain doom, not only for humanity but for much of the planet as we know it.

Basically this is the same message I've been passing on here and elsewhere, except that Orr interprets it all in terms of time. It's that "thousands of years" that takes my breath away. He also quotes the UK's senior scientist Martin Rees as writing that human civilization has a 50% chance of surviving this century. James Lovelock is not even that generous. So I must consider the enormity of this: that this human civilization, which has sweated and bled its way to this point for several thousand years, could be gone in nine decades. Which likely means that it will be seriously unraveling, in blood and tears, in--what?--fifty years? Two decades? Some would say it has begun down that road already--in drought-stricken, war-torn parts of Africa, for instance. This is another head-spinner, and heart spinner, too.

Orr's book is about what needed for political and other kinds of change to avoid the worst: "I also write with the assumption that we will succeed in reducing atmospheric CO2 below the level that would create runaway climate change; otherwise there is no point in writing anything other than an elegy or funeral dirge."

But Orr also writes that preventing the worst--or even some of what is now inevitable--would have been easier and cheaper 30 years ago, or 20, or 10. But from now on, it gets harder and more expensive, and more uncertain. Very much harder, and very much more expensive.

I've also been saying this for awhile: that the climate crisis presents humanity with its greatest evolutionary challenge: can we as a civilization think and act in the more complex and sophisticated ways required by the nature of this crisis? If we can and do, we're fit for the future. If not, it looks as if civilization won't continue. So far, on balance, we're flunking the test.

Looking back on the past decade from the future, if there are historians to do so, the defining moment for humanity may well have been the theft of the presidency by the forces of G.W. Bush, and all that followed (apart from preventing the presidency of the man who has since won a Nobel Prize for his championing of climate crisis awareness.) In his latest column in the Washington Post, E. J. Dionne writes:

"Certain decades shape the country's political life for generations by leaving behind an era to embrace or, at least as often, to scorn...I'm afraid that the past 10 years will be seen as a time when the United States badly lost its way by using our military power carelessly, misunderstanding the real challenges to our long-term security and pursuing domestic policies that constrained our options for the future while needlessly threatening our prosperity."

But that isn't the half of it. The lost opportunity to build a consensus and begin addressing the Climate Crisis ten years ago may well be the fateful failure. Then again, it wasn't done in the 90s during the Clinton administration either.

And I look at what Orr and others are saying, and realize that I personally didn't do enough in the 90s and the past decade to make the stakes clear, to communicate clearly and well enough to cut through the denial and cognitive dissonance, the public relations smog engineered by fossil fuel profiteers, the sensationalistic distractions (if someone had an unbelievably profitable oil business and no conscience, might they not consider funding violent terrorists of any persuasion?) There's responsibility enough to go around.

The drumbeat of denial is comfortably part of our devolved politics (which even a right of center columnist like David Brooks notices, though he barely scratches the surface of it.) It plays into comfortable if tragically false analogies, like this op-ed piece which tries to compare the Y2K panic of 2000 to alarms over the Climate Crisis. The Y2K panic never smelled right to me--it is actually more like the panic over terrorism. We don't need panic. But we do need a crisis response. The evidence for the Climate Crisis has built up for more than 30 years, especially when contributing factors are considered (global population, loss of land and water, depletion of biological diversity, poisoning of the environment.) Even in the old story of crying wolf, the wolf finally came.

"It should not surprise us that the battle for the future will be shaped by struggles over the past," Dionne writes. But that's one of the traps we fall into--we fight the battles of the past, and lose the future. I for one am going to devote some time to trying to get my head around these timelines: the personal ones, within the context of the human prospect.

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.