Saturday, December 21, 2013

Constitution Days

Two significant U.S. court cases, for the good for a change:

A U.S. District Court in Utah struck down that state's ban on same sex marriage as federally unconstitutional discrimination.  The judge's decision made prominent use of a Supreme Court dissent by Antonin Scalia.  Apart from instantly permitting same sex marriages in Utah, this decision is significant because it is based on the U.S. Constitution rather than a state constitution or other laws.

Getting much less press but possibly of great significance as well:  the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down major portions of the law that enables drilling for natural gas anywhere in the state.  This law, practically fascist in several of its provisions and its overall spirit, overrode the power of individual municipality to zone. Under the state law, drilling could be forced anywhere--in neighborhoods, near schools, anywhere.  The law enabled corporations to exploit the Marcellus shale formation for natural gas.  

 The Court  specifically cited the PA constitution's Environmental Rights Amendment. According to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette: "By any responsible account," Chief Justice Castille wrote, "the exploitation of the Marcellus Shale Formation will produce a detrimental effect on the environment, on the people, their children, and the future generations, and potentially on the public purse, perhaps rivaling the environmental effects of coal extraction." He goes on to say that although the state's regulatory powers are broad, they are "limited by constitutional demands, including the Environmental Rights Amendment."

The Court also addressed another totalitarian provision:

The court's decision, on a 4-2 vote, also sent back to Commonwealth Court for review and disposition challenges by a physician to the Act 13 provisions that would have prevented doctors from telling patients about health impacts related to shale gas development, and a constitutional challenge that the law benefits a single industry.

Drilling and fracking under draconian laws passed by corrupt state legislatures and governors has been virtually unrestrained across the country.  This is a single state decision but its basis is important: health and environment.  That opens to the door to arguments on those issues everywhere.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Hummers in Humboldt December 2013

Winters here are normally wet and mild.  But after two relatively dry winters (last winter being very dry), the old pattern has been broken in another way: we had several nights in a row of sub-freezing temperatures.

Since it hardly ever goes below freezing, and because of the rain, we have flowers of one kind or another virtually year round.  I recall our first Christmastime here, when we were invited to dinner and afterwards took a walk through the neighborhood to look at Christmas lights and decorations.  But what we saw also included lots of flowers.  Someone remarked that here it is already spring.  That's not quite true but the scene was certainly striking to folks recently arrived from western Pennsylvania.

But this year the freeze has visibly killed the flowers in our yard, and no new flowers have appeared.  That may be why the hummingbirds are sticking so close to my feeders.  They're usually around more at this time of year, before they disappear some time after Valentine's Day (though I suspect they don't go far.)  But this year they are around the back porch almost constantly.

I suspected there were four of them but never saw more than three at the same time.  But this month I've seen four several times.  One afternoon all four were even stationary at the same time--three perched on the clothesline and one on a feeder.  Another day three were at the same feeder while the other flew around.

Today started sunny and mild, and when I refilled one of the feeders all four came around.  They were much more concerned with each other than with me.  They were flying right in front of my nose at one point, and it seemed even around me.  It was dazzling.

Now in mid afternoon the wind has picked up and it's turned colder.  The trees that shed their leaves have mostly just begun the process.  Brown leaves are blowing by.  A chilly scene of winter, anywhere.

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

“Without Imagination we should have no knowledge whatsoever, but we are scarcely ever conscious [of this.]”

painting by Gino Severini

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Climate of War

One more point about climate before moving on for now...The potential for social conflict because of the climate crisis has been anticipated, especially by the Pentagon.  But the possibility that it is involved in current conflicts, including wars, rarely grabs attention.

Few for example think of the Darfur crisis and the ongoing and brutal conflicts in that region in relation to sudden and persistent drought, though more than one knowledgeable observer has asserted this.  And now at least one lonely voice is making the same point about the war in Syria.

On Monday the UN estimated that three-quarters of the Syrian population would need humanitarian aid in the coming year.  Savage civil warfare has destroyed economic and social infrastructures and created huge numbers of refugees.  International Rescue Committee president David Millibrand calls it an "absolute catastrophe." Others call it potentially the worst humanitarian crisis in modern times.  The UN is making the largest appeal for relief funds in its history.

But it's not so severe only because of a particular set of political circumstances.  It's also climate. The lonely voice--actually voices, of scientists --are pretty substantial on the subject:

Drought was a key factor contributing to unrest and civil war in Syria, and the severity of the drought was probably a result of human-caused climate change, new research presented here Monday (Dec. 9) at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union suggests.The study analysis suggests that the drought was too severe to be simply a result of natural variability in precipitation."

The drought led to food shortages and high food prices which often leads to unrest.  Perhaps the narrative of a citizenry finally rising to assert their freedom against a brutal dictator is more romantic than people rebelling against a government because they're hungry.  But such has happened before:

"There is a clear connection between the price of food and governmental stability, and in the long term, it is not hard to see how these year-to-year fluctuations can influence the long-term stability of even stable governments," said Brandon Lee Drake, an archaeologist at the University of New Mexico who was not involved in the study, but who has studied past climate change impacts on other civilizations."

The contribution of the climate crisis to Middle East drought--which is expected to continue--can't be quantified, but that's hardly the point.  The point is that it is a global phenomenon that in some places makes drought more likely, longer lasting and/or more severe.  Drought should not come as a surprise in the era of the climate crisis.  Ignoring its contribution is functionally the same as denying it.  Being aware of its possibility could sensitize responses to be quicker and more effective.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

"Democracies need not merely freedom to think and talk, but universal information and vigorous mental training...The choice is a plain one now: Train yourself for freedom or salute and march."

H.G. Wells 1937
in an unpublished article recently discovered

Now we return to our regularly scheduled bad news which is already in progress

Let's get it over with and then douse ourselves with holiday spirit.

There's retrospective bad news in the sense that scientists are revising various gloomy estimates upward.  On the heels of climate scientists suggesting they've underestimated global heating since 1997 by, oh, 50%,  the EPA says they've underestimated the amount of methane emitted in the U.S., also by 50%.  Methane is perhaps the most potent of the greenhouses gases, and the EPA is preparing to regulate these gases for the first time.

The National Research Council released two studies that remind us that while the predictions of effects used by planners is based on gradual change, abrupt climate change is possible.  That's how things typically happened in the past--big sudden changes, which means over decades or years.  The reports are full of warnings that we're not addressing any phase of the climate crisis fast enough or as comprehensively as needed.  But they also rate most of the scenarios for abrupt change as not likely in this century.

Wonder why the latest UN climate report hasn't made more of a difference?  Only parts of it have been released, but the executive summary is supposed to galvanize attention.  The Real Climate site says it hasn't, possibly because it's poorly written for its purpose.

That's been an ongoing problem, from counterproductive jargon to a reluctance or inability to state the facts in a usefully actionable context--emotionally, politically, humanly.  But that's hardly the only reason.  Another may well be embedded in another very clearly stated conclusion that nevertheless didn't make any headlines, let alone go twitteringly viral: according to the Climate Accountability Institute, there are but 90 companies responsible for two-thirds of the greenhouse gas pollution in the world.

Since they include the richest corporations in the world with a huge proportion of the world's wealth, it doesn't take a communications genius to see that there's unlikely to be a lot of money advertising this fact, and a whole lot of money available to obscure it.

We can vary the old story, attributed to various Native American tribes and possibly other Indigenous cultures, and say that in the understandable struggle between an internal animal that wants to focus on addressing the climate crisis to save the future, and another internal animal who wants to deny its place in consciousness or even in reality, the one that wins is the one you feed.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

American Exceptionalism

The United States has arguably been declining and falling for years, but occasionally there are new markers.  Apart from internal measures--decline in relation to principles and ideals, decline in relation to the past--there are comparisons with other countries.  Some of these are discounted, thanks to the collapse of the economic power of Japan, the country that scared America in the 70s and 80s.  But discounting everything is perilous.

We note this week that there is a new robotic rover on the surface of the Moon, and it is from China.  There was an apparently successful orbit of a living being and safe return, conducted by Iran.  At least some of the space activity these days is due in part to the U.S. outsourcing its own technology, and others quickly adapting it.  That technological and intellectual capital is being spent, and may not be renewed.

May not if trends in U.S. education continue.  There have been scary headlines and warnings for years, so what's new about the latest?  For one thing, the U.S. had fallen behind in average math achievement, but our best were still among the best.  No more.  Our best students languish "in the middle of the pack" internationally.  They can't keep up.

Add this to other downward trends, if not spirals: infant mortality, longevity, and above all, the enormous gulf between rich and everybody else--very likely the source of much of the rest, along with the retrenchment of governmental resources.  With even the modest advance in healthcare coverage in the Affordable Care Act under intense political fire, our healthcare system remains near the bottom of the industrialized world.   Instead the U.S. leads the world in gun violence and captial punishment--with no fear of relinquishing that dominance.

Despite this country's residual strengths and the advances in less quantifiable qualities, this all has the distinct aroma of decadence.  America is exceptional in its self-satisfied paralysis, its furious conflicts that stalemate action or even enough of a common diagnosis to proceed.

From the  New York Times editorial on Sunday:

In a post-smokestack age, there is only one way for the United States to avoid a declining standard of living, and that is through innovation. Advancements in science and engineering have extended life, employed millions and accounted for more than half of American economic growth since World War II, but they are slowing. The nation has to enlarge its pool of the best and brightest science and math students and encourage them to pursue careers that will keep the country competitive. 

But that isn’t happening. Not only do average American students perform poorly compared with those in other countries, but so do the best students, languishing in the middle of the pack as measured by the two leading tests used in international comparisons.... 

On the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment test, the most recent, 34 of 65 countries and school systems had a higher percentage of 15-year-olds scoring at the advanced levels in mathematics than the United States did. The Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland all had at least twice the proportion of mathematically advanced students as the United States, and many Asian countries had far more than that.

Other tests have shown that America’s younger students fare better in global comparisons than its older students do, which suggests a disturbing failure of educators to nurture good students as they progress to higher grades. Over all, the United States is largely holding still while foreign competitors are improving rapidly."

Meanwhile, the Chinese are talking softly about their rover on the Moon (the peaceful exploration of space) which they are conducting methodically, with plenty of resources committed to it.  But their longer range plans may be more complex.  This BBC story says they are looking at future potential for the Moon's minerals. This is not really a new or necessarily sinister idea, unless the fact that the Bush administration expressed interest in the same thing tilts the balance for you.  But it shows that while these days the only Americans thinking that far ahead are science fiction writers, the Chinese aren't just wondering, they're exploring.