Friday, February 19, 2010

Emerson for the Day

"The stars awaken a certain reverence, because though always present, they are inaccessible."
Emerson ("Nature"). Photo: Andromeda galaxy, NASA, from first Wide-field Infrared Explorer images.

Hope v. Optimism

Just to clarify the difference between optimism and hope I tried to make in a post a few weeks ago, here's a similar distinction made by David Orr in Down to the Wire, which (by the way) I review at Books in Heat (double meaning where this book is concerned, I guess, given its topic.)

"Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up," Orr writes. "Hopeful people are actively engaged in defying the odds or changing the odds. Optimism, on the other hand, leans back, puts its feet up, and wears a confident look, knowing that the deck is stacked."

He quotes Vaclav Havel: "Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons...Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well...but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good."

“I know of no purely rational reason for anyone to be optimistic about the human future,” Orr writes. Indeed, given events since this book was written--the weak agreement of Copenhagen and subsequent international murk, the Obama administration's loss of momentum and the apparently fated showdown with the reactionary ultra-minority in collusion with the most monied interests--the outlook is even bleaker for a relatively painless and positive transition. There just isn't enough time anymore for this two steps forward, one and a half steps back. One positive is the work people are doing now, scientists and others, in developing knowledge and tools to be ready when people are ready to face this, which will likely be after a set of catastrophes that can't be ignored or rationalized. I'll be writing about that work here.

Those folks are doing the work of hope, at least according to my perhaps even more restrictive definition. I see hope as a commitment of the present, that works towards an envisioned good future, but has no expectations of the outcome of those efforts. I admire those who have faith in the future, who have that kind of vision. And I see reasons for that faith, in the human potential. I don't necessarily have it. Imagination has to be in some way its own future, just as imagining and working for a human future must be its own reward.

I've postponed this post, partly because I like seeing that photo of the snow leopard at the top of the blog, looking out. The best substitute I could come up with is the slightly smaller version, which for now I'm posting in a permanent position, top left. It's not quite as good--something missing from the eyes and the expression in the smaller version. So maybe I'll have to repost the original from time to time.

Monday, February 15, 2010

New DNA tests suggest that tigers evolved as a sister species to snow leopards (top photo), and are a far older species that previously believed. This comes at a time when both species are very close to extinction. The largest subspecies of tiger may already be fated for extinction. But these heart-breaking extinctions only suggest the much larger problem. We're losing thousands of species every year. The 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment says that nearly two-thirds of the "services provided by nature to humankind" are in decline worldwide. The planet we know and that has always supported us is dying, and humanity is both largely the cause and the only species capable of addressing this crisis, if indeed that's still even possible. One likely reason we aren't addressing it is suggested in the post below.

The Evolution of Ignorance: Television

"Even though the mass extinction of species and the wholesale decline of ecosystems have yet to trump contemporary fixations on the economy, politics, peak oil, terrorism, and entertainment, biodepletion will undoubtedly be judged, in retrospect and not soon enough, as the most momentous, far-reaching event of our time."--Eileen Crist & H. Bruce Rinker, "One Grand Organic Whole" in Gaia in Turmoil (MIT Press.)

You would reasonably expect that if there is substantial evidence that an intelligent species is systematically destroying what supports its existence, that species would focus on the issues involved. You might even consider such a focus to be a reasonable definition of an intelligent species.

You might reasonably expect that such a danger would be the main topic of inquiry and debate. Our species has in place the communications media to involve pretty much the entire planet in such an urgent and thorough discussion of the mortal danger to the biosphere, including the ominous threat of the Climate Crisis. But we're not using it for any such intelligent purpose.

We don't even use it for serious exploration of issues of the economy, terrorism and the rest of that list. We do use it to display some of our species other great qualities--wit, imagination, music, physical achievement in sports. But then there's the degradation on parade called reality TV. And the money-making games called politics.

What we don't have--or have enough of-- is what got us here. We developed as an intelligent species by looking ahead, at future dangers and opportunities. But our greatest means of communicating fails entirely to focus on the greatest dangers we have ever faced.

The pioneers of television stressed its vast potential for education. Even as commercial interests took it in other directions, the educational mission held on, undernourished until it starved to death.

What did it in was a numbness to consciousness, to the ability of the medium to involve and expand consciousness. That hasn't died completely--you see it in programs that still inspire awe, both fact-based and imaginative. But it's been largely numbed, and overwhelmed by the purposeful evolution of ignorance.

In 1957 Vance Packard published The Hidden Persuaders. It exposed techniques being used and developed for advertising, especially television commercials. Shocking in its time, it's a modest description of normal television today. But among the essential elements of these persuaders is that they remain hidden. They operate by direct appeal to the unconscious.

Today's commercials are layered with irony, yet the same appeals are made in basically the same ways. American men will do anything for beer. Etc. While we may laugh at the stereotypes, we basically identify with them, and assume everyone else basically does, too, because that's what we're supposed to be, and what we're supposed to care about.

The commercials define us. They define what we are and what we aren't, and what we expect. The programs permitted on television are those that support the appeals and the stereotypes created in the commercials.

Crucial to their successful operation in getting us to buy their crap is that they keep us ignorant, and happy to be ignorant. And so we are. And it is the very crap we buy that largely is destroying our future. As a society we have not yet been overwhelmed by a new Dark Ages. But television pretty much has. It is a mirror held up to our decadence and willful ignorance. But we've been persuaded that it's all ok.

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

"Every man lives in two realms, the internal and the external. The internal is that realm of spiritual ends expressed in art, literature, morals, and religion. The external is that complex of devices, techniques, mechanisms, and instrumentalities by means of which we live. Our problem today is that we have allowed the internal to become lost in the external. We have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live.

This is the serious predicament, the deep and haunting problem confronting modern man. If we are to survive today, our moral and spiritual "lag" must be eliminated. Enlarged material powers spell enlarged peril if there is not proportionate growth of the soul. When the "without" of man's nature subjugates the "within", dark storm clouds begin to form in the world."
--Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Nobel Prize Lecture

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Messages of the Snow, part 2

One more snowbound Washington photo--a great one that accompanies an LA Times story. It appears to be the Supreme Court building, lost in the clouds, which perhaps is where they found their decision on corporations as individual citizens. The story under this photo is another on the relationship of the snowstorms to the Climate Crisis debate. In a terse Q & A format, it also debunks the Deniers, emphasizing the scientists saying that snow is in some ways a symptom of relative warmth--those of us who grew up knowing that it often was 'too cold to snow' also know this kind of clinging snow is evidence of warmer temps. In fact, the average temp in DC in January was about a degree warmer than normal for the past 40 years.
This part did surprise me: Q. How will the snow affect the politics of the climate bill? A. Probably not much, because proponents are pitching the bill as a boost to national security and a creator of clean-energy jobs, as opposed to a curb on global warming. The swing voters who will dictate the bill's fate are senators who more or less say they accept the science behind climate change.
Update: stats showing more snow in warmer winters.