Friday, February 13, 2015

Where the Future Is (II)

Global Divestment Day: South Africa 
Who among us in the US (apart from more than 80% of scientists and more than 95% of climate scientists) recognizes the reality of the climate crisis?

82% of African Americans say the world is getting hotter, and 56% correctly identify fossil fuel pollution as the chief cause.  That's the reality that 54% of Latinos recognize as well.    Compared with 37% of white Americans surveyed.

So the question arises: are white people inherently inferior?

A glance at American politics would suggest that conclusion.  Especially when one of the two major political parties is officially stupid on the subject.  And most white people are Republicans, as most Republicans are white people.  So if a Republican politician is not actually a moron, he or she still has to pretend to be one.

 Willed ignorance and strategic stupidity, while  probably more dangerous than sincere if psychologically twisted ignorance and stupidity, in the end amount to the same thing, for their clueless selfishness risks the well-being of the planet and the future.  Which makes white people seem inferior in more than intelligence.

But the world is actually bigger than America.  As counter-evidence to the white inferiority theory there's Scandinavia, where there's been a meaningful safety net for all citizens for generations, and where the question of whether the climate crisis exists or not probably comes up as often as fierce debates on whether gravity is real.

Those of us Americans who don't get out much anymore may be surprised as how the world views our willed ignorance and sociopathic stupidity, so a reminder such as Ann Jones' bracing piece in TomDispatch ("Is This Country Crazy? Inquiring Minds Elsewhere Want to Know") is a much needed splash of perspective.

While it's true that the few pockets of climate crisis denial in other countries (Australia, Canada, etc.) tend to be mostly white people, on the whole the reality of the climate crisis is accepted by the rest of the world, including whites, and they would just like to get on with dealing with its causes and effects.

Which is why political activities such as Global Divestment Day (today and tomorrow, according to datelines)  organized by 350 and related organizations are in fact international, even when their chief aim is to affect policy in the US.

Racial prejudice is not necessary in evaluating white American behavior.  But the increasing isolation of older white Americans (which may in part be a defensive response to our minority status) should motivate some conscious reflection.

 Especially since, as Jones' piece points out, white dominated America is seen not only as shockingly brutal, it is recognized as falling behind the rest of the world, both internally (collapsing physical and social infrastructure) and internationally (collapsing education, health etc. compared to many other countries, including some that Americans have long considered inferior.)  It's not that America is the worst.  It's the contrast with America at its best, as well as this comparative fall.

That's far from the whole story--America still has vast resources of intelligence and compassion, knowledge and resilience. (It actually takes a lot of energy to keep up the pretense that there is credible evidence the climate crisis isn't happening, or that frigid winter weather in the Eastern US is an argument that there is no global heating.)  But it also seems that America is becoming too much like the last days of Rome, decaying at a very bad moment for the world.  That possibility also should motivate people to step up their efforts to meet these challenges.  Old assumptions no longer accurately reflect the whole reality, for the whole world.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Put Your Money Where the Future Is

It started in a circuitous way as a Vietnam War protest.  It went global and was instrumental in ending apartheid in South Africa, and it helped free the US from Big Tobacco.  Now divestment is being applied to the climate crisis, and it's starting to take off.

A number of universities, local governments, pension funds and organizations have withdrawn their financial investments in coal and other fossil fuel enterprises.  It's a matter of heavy debate at others (Harvard for instance.)   In total some $50 billion has already been withdrawn. And there's legislation in the California senate to divest two huge state pension funds from coal.  If successful, it would be the mightiest blow yet.

This Friday-Saturday has been named as Global Divestment Day by 350 and Greenpeace, with a range of activities scheduled around the world.  According to the Guardian, the event has the fossil fuel fossils worried:

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you,” said Mahatma Gandhi. The climate change campaign to divest from fossil fuels seems to be moving through those stages at express speed, with a sudden barrage of attacks from the coal and oil lobbies ahead of its global divestment day on Valentine’s day.

The speed is appropriate given that the campaign, which argues the fossil fuel industry is a danger to both the climate and investors’ capital, is the fastest growing divestment campaign yet seen, moving quicker than those against tobacco and apartheid. It’s moving fast in the financial world too, with one finance executive calling it “one of the fastest-moving debates I think I’ve seen in my 30 years in markets”.

Divestment is not just negative in this instance.  California is among those considering investing that money in clean energy.  This is not the throw your money away on a do-gooder gesture it once might have been, nor is it even that risky.  What's risky long-term, as even conservative investors know, is staying with coal.  What with the climate crisis coming on as well as other factors, coal is a future loser.

An interview in Grist with Naomi Klein describes the history of divestment and this particular divestment campaign, as well as its rationale.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

It Came From the Screen

Jeff Masters at Weather Underground unearthed this brief video excerpt from a Bell Laboratory Science series episode in 1958, that includes a mention of the climate crisis consequences of CO2 pollution.  He gave more historical examples to show that global heating has been a topic of concern for longer than generally realized.

 This included a specific warning in a 1965 message to Congress by President Lyndon Johnson--when the far-seeing Stewart Udall was still Secretary of Interior (he was appointed by JFK), with responsibility for environmental matters before they got their own cabinet secretary in the Nixon administration.  Though as a high school student I knew of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (which I saw on the Best Seller List in 1963), it was Udall's 1963 book, The Quiet Crisis, that began my education on environmental matters.  (I still have the paperback copy I first read then.)

But this video is fascinating in itself.  I remember these programs, as I'm sure lots of Baby Boomers do.  If we didn't see them on TV, we saw them run from film projectors in school.  There were 8 of these specials made in the decade of 1954-64, each on a specific subject.  "The Unchained Goddess" about weather was the one that mentioned global heating, in a characteristically dramatic way.

 This was the fourth and last of the specials produced and written by the eminent Hollywood filmmaker Frank Capra (Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Meet John Doe etc.)  Disillusioned with Hollywood  (and/or vice versa) in the Blacklist era, he used his science schooling and filmmaking chops to create these, which included technical as well as narrative innovations that became standard for both documentaries and feature films.  Shot in technicolor, several of the films won Emmys in various categories.

The basic interplay in the film is between a science expert (Dr. Frank C. Baxter, and it's recognizing him that brought these all back to me) and a "fiction writer," played in this episode by actor Richard Carlson, who also directed it. (You'll see just a moment of him in the above one-minute excerpt.)

But Carlson wasn't just any actor, especially to the young Boomer audience. Many adults were familiar with him as the star of the 1953-56 espionage TV series I Led Three Lives. But he was also the star of such Saturday afternoon epics as It Came From Outer Space and Creature From the Black Lagoon.

 Moreover, the characters he played were significant.  In most Hollywood films (as in most fiction), scientists were either mad and evil,  or blandly evil.  Though the first scientist as hero was in H.G. Well's The Time Machine (published 120 years ago in 1895) it took a long time for the movies to catch up.  Carlson played several of the early examples of scientists as heroes--even action heroes-- in 1950s science fiction and monster movies.

The combination of FBI man on TV and sci-fi scientist gave him a weird sort of credibility with both adults and children.  I'm sure we were captivated as well by color if we saw these in school, as well as by the high level of filmmaking skill and familiar stars.  For me they came at an age that I wanted to be a scientist, before the realities of math overcame the romance of the scientist who saves the world, and not incidentally rescues the beautiful girl.

Imaginative stories that used scientific what-ifs got two basic responses in the 50s--very negative (from embarrassment to angry scoffing) and very positive, because the ideas as well as the action were stimulating.  Today, a lot of deniers count on the angry scoffing of what they would like to believe is the science fiction of the climate crisis.

But we're all facing its reality now.  The difference may be that some of us were opened to possibilities of real science speculations in the Bell series and other documentaries by fictional stories in which an international team of scientists convinces leaders of a mortal threat to the planet, and the world unites to overcome the threat.  In that regard it turns out they were science fiction, at least so far.  

Monday, February 09, 2015

The Week in Borowitz, Internet Hysteria Etc..

Sometimes the funniest part of an Andy Borowitz piece at the New Yorker is the headline, as in last week's Zombie Jonas Salk Rises from Grave to Hunt Idiots. But his piece on bringing back the glories of the Bush years with Jeb (speaking of zombies) is a satirical masterpiece from start to finish.

The Salk piece of course is about the Internet-stoked and celebrity-enabled justification for refusing measles inoculations that is now paying off in a resurgence of a once-dead disease.  Millions of dollars, suffering and perhaps some lives will be the price for this.  Notably, a whole lot of backtracking is going on now, as people wake up to the consequences that were staring them in the face.

Hysteria, born of repressed unconscious emotions, has been a feature of so-called civilization since well before the witch hunts, but contemporary complacency (it can't happen here, or now) is unwarranted, especially since the instantaneous mobs enabled by the Internet have proven such eruptions are alive and well, and larger and faster than ever.

It's easier for some to discount or ignore these phenomena, based on the conventional dogmas of mechanistic psychology and the brain as computer.   Yet old fashioned Freudian/Jungian terms are the only ones that actually explain what's going on, as unconscious fears are displaced (from suspected conspiracies that are too big to think about, to seemingly safer but illusory ones) and projected (furnishing a lot of the lynch mob energy that gets focused on leadership figures, currently including Brian Williams but also, on any given week, President Obama.)