Wednesday, April 15, 2015

This Is Not The Technological Age

This is not the technological age.  We may be seduced into believing this by the tiny devices that increasingly rule our lives, and the rooms of books, records, photo albums and letters that have vanished into electronically accessed clouds in the ephemeral realms of cyberspace.

Even the names that dominate our days--Google, Yahoo, Apple, Twitter, Facebook, Amazon--suggest the whimsical worlds of make believe.  But this insubstantial pageant masks the hard and increasingly terrible truth: we still live in the Industrial Age.

Technology may have revolutionized our lives, and may well change our circumstances even more in the near future.  But we are too easily deceived by the bright screens and images at the speed of a fingertip, and by all the giddy power that fits in the palm of your hand.  For despite its seemingly inconsequential size and weight, this device is manufactured out of materials mined and constructed in huge industrial operations, and gathered together from many distant places.

There is no "cloud."  There are only miles of  servers, requiring gross and exotic materials, vast quantities of electrical power which in turn requires vast quantities of fuels.  And that's true of all other new technologies, in medicine, communication, and industry itself.

 Technology is a subset of the industrial age, because without the systems of that industrial age, there would be no technological marvels in your hand.

For a generation or more we in the US have been told that we live in a service economy, dominated by communications--that manufacturing and mining are occupations of the past.  The manufacturing and mining, the industrial byproducts of deadly chemicals, poisoned land, water and air as well as cheap labor and pitiless human health risks, may mostly exist now in distant and hidden places, but their scale is ever more immense and growing.

Industrialization in those parts of the world where it did not exist means that industrialization is spreading and accelerating to far larger sizes and impact than the "Machine Age" of textbooks and museum shows.  3-D printing and the Internet of Things do little if anything to change this fact.

In fact the Industrial Age has spread beyond the processes of manufacturing things to the industrialization of the food supply--crop farming (with heavy use of GMOs and pesticides), livestock (with heavy use of antibiotics, engineered feeds and chemicals) and fishing (with the collateral damage of other species and habitats.)

Though attention has turned away from it, clearcutting and other industrial timber cutting continues.

The Industrial Age is vast and insatiable.  Capitalism's addiction to relentless growth insists on this.  It is also increasingly fragile.  Fossil fuels are harder to find and extract, requiring more complex machinery and greater damage to the natural world, both in remote and biological sensitive locations, and dangerously near human communities.  The metals and minerals that computers need are especially vulnerable, as some vital ones come from few countries, which may be in strife or controlled by criminals.

Industrial farming is depleting soil that only thousands of years could nourish.  Industrial logging continues to destroy all that supports the life of forests, streams, wildlife and ultimately people.

Garbage and waste is itself a huge industry, poisoning land and now immense areas of the oceans, which among other things, regulate global weather.

Transportation is perhaps the defining industry of our age, so comparatively cheap that much of our material goods come from afar, including our food.  Transport that uses fuels, power and packing materials in massive quantities.

Disruption of  transportation is now easily the most consequential of industrial processes. Disruption of computerized communication may overall be worse in the short term, but its effect on transport could be deadly.  With our lives so dependent on multiple industrial processes far away, they are stunningly fragile.  How many of us can depend on even locally produced food, once the supermarket shelves and the cupboards are bare?

It may be comforting to think it's the technology age--it sounds smarter, cleaner, smaller.  The reality is larger, dirtier, more violent and ultimately horrifying in its abuse and insanity. It is important to recognize that our shiny technologies and the culture's obsessions with them may blind us to realities that need to be addressed.  Both to our fragile dependence and to the effects of industrialization on our planet and its ability to sustain life.      


I've posted the paragraph below as an update to a previous post but it got me thinking.  In 1972 the Firesign Theatre troupe fielded its own presidential candidate: George Papoon, candidate of the National Surrealist Light Peoples Party.  I'm not even going to try to explain Firesign Theatre to people who didn't experience them.  If you did, you can probably still repeat lines from their records.
("I'm not talking about hate...")

But the point is this was a comedy group, however hip and intelligent.  And the entire Papoon candidacy was predicated on his single slogan: Not Insane.  

With Nixon in the White House (and Watergate already unfolding), the Vietnam War inexplicably continuing etc. that slogan was a sly commentary on the Zeitgeist. I probably still have one of these buttons and bumper stickers somewhere.

But in 2016, it is apparently a main argument for a major party candidate advanced by a sophisticated political commentator.  And one that Jonathan Chiat  believes will carry the day.  Following arguments from demographics and surveys, complete with charts and graphs, he concludes:

"The argument for Clinton in 2016 is that she is the candidate of the only major American political party not run by lunatics. There is only one choice for voters who want a president who accepts climate science and rejects voodoo economics, and whose domestic platform would not engineer the largest upward redistribution of resources in American history. Even if the relatively sober Jeb Bush wins the nomination, he will have to accommodate himself to his party's barking-mad consensus. She is non-crazy America’s choice by default. And it is not necessarily an exciting choice, but it is an easy one, and a proposition behind which she will probably command a majority."

There it is: "Not Insane."  End of campaign.  I'm ready to vote.

P.S. Firesign Theatre is still around.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Canada and the Climate Crisis

The climate in Canada appears to be changing on climate change.  A meeting (or summit) of provincial leaders made news, first for climate crisis activists staging a protest march of some 25,000 people in Quebec City, and secondly for some action--as the premiers of Quebec and Ontario provinces signed on to a cap and trade deal.   British Columbia province had earlier instituted its own carbon tax.

This means that the three most populous provinces in Canada, accounting for nearly 90% of the country's population, are instituting carbon pricing schemes.  However, several of the major fossil fuel energy producing provinces are not participating.

These provinces are joining several US states like California in taking state and regional action to price carbon. Unlike the US at the moment, the federal government of Canada is unsympathetic (it's still Bush up there.)  Nevertheless, though the Obama administration has taken meaningful actions to regulate carbon and encourage clean energy, Congress has stymied federal participation in a carbon tax or the previously Republican-proposed alternative of cap and trade.

The complexities (and perhaps futilities) of states and provinces acting without broader participation is analyzed from a business orientation here. The need for national government action was a point made by protesters, especially regarding oil pipelines in Canada.  The premiers themselves called for federal action in their final statement.

As even the business analyst admitted, something is better than nothing.  For at least one Nobel Prize winning activist however, it was the march itself that will have the most lasting consequences, as opposition grows to a pipeline in eastern Canada, within the context of growing concern over the climate crisis.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Best of What's Still Around

Recently via YouTube, PBS etc. I've been catching up with Sting.  He's a great performer and a very great songwriter.  This is from his 60th birthday concert a few years ago, which featured many guest artists.  The video available on YouTube is a strange amalgamation of professionally shot and pretty bad amateur video from the audience.  But this is one from the professional part at the beginning--it's Rufus Wainwright singing "Wrapped Around Your Finger."  Such a great voice, and his opera interests really show in great intonation and force--it's already my favorite version of this song, including the original Police recording.

For fellow boomers, Rufus Wainwright is the son of songwriter and singer Loudon Wainwright III and singer Kate McGarrigle of the McGarrigle Sisters.   I once was in their apartment in the Village, tagging along with Georgia Christgau and maybe her brother Robert.  I don't remember why we were there, but the apartment was empty (maybe to water the plants?): no Kate (I think she and Loudon were separated at that time) and no infant Rufus.  Just hundreds of motel keys hanging from nails near the ceiling, all around one big room.

This may be the first of a series, inspired by Sting's line: "When the world is running down/ you make the best of what's still around."  Which includes: appreciate, savor, enjoy, celebrate.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

When the Rainbow Is Enough (with Update)

An editorial in the Sunday New York Times begins:

"It is a peculiar, but unmistakable, phenomenon: As Barack Obama’s presidency heads into its twilight, the rage of the Republican establishment toward him is growing louder, angrier and more destructive.

Republican lawmakers in Washington and around the country have been focused on blocking Mr. Obama’s agenda and denigrating him personally since the day he took office in 2009. But even against that backdrop, and even by the dismal standards of political discourse today, the tone of the current attacks is disturbing. So is their evident intent — to undermine not just Mr. Obama’s policies, but his very legitimacy as president."

It is peculiar (and some would say, nothing new for the rabid right) but not inexplicable.  It is peculiarly extreme politically, as an attempt to pre-demonize the 2016 Democratic candidates and poison the electorate.  If Republicans can create the fantasy of a failed Obama presidency and color the mood of the media and the country particularly in the summer before the election,  they might have a chance--and perhaps their only chance--of winning.  By either associating candidates with an unpopular President, or creating enough panic (not hard to do among Dems unfortunately) so they run away from the Obama legacy (as many did in 2014) they hope to replicate the outcomes of 2014.

So they need to keep hammering at Obamacare before its success becomes generally accepted, and they need to undermine a deal with Iran that could not only forestall very deadly warfare there, but could go a long way to establishing peaceful change in the region.  These ends for the good of the country, for the lives that might be otherwise wasted and lost, for the good of the world--they are nothing compared to political party advantage--because this is a holy war, a last desperate gasp war, and in more ways that one, a race war.

I like passing along the funny spin that Borowitz etc. put on things, but unfortunately they exaggerate very little.  The party of Cheney really does want war with Iran, among others.  The Republican party really is deeply beholden to racism, and to apocalyptic fundamentalism.  The fact that they use outrageously extreme rhetoric to describe their political enemies--even when those enemies are pursuing policies that Republicans only recently abandoned--cannot confuse the issue: they are extremists, and getting more extreme all the time.

The 2016 campaign that essentially starts today promises to be the ugliest of my lifetime, and I've lived through some ugly ones.  I plan to ignore it as much as possible.  I fully expect it to be beneath contempt.  But though I turn my attention to where it might do more good, I'm not for a moment fooled as to the suicidal reign of hatred and ignorance that is embodied by a willing Republican Party.  I don't need wasted hours of angst for more than a year to know how I will vote.

Update: The last paragraph of Jonathan Chiat's column concluding that there is only one choice for President in 2016: "The argument for Clinton in 2016 is that she is the candidate of the only major American political party not run by lunatics. There is only one choice for voters who want a president who accepts climate science and rejects voodoo economics, and whose domestic platform would not engineer the largest upward redistribution of resources in American history. Even if the relatively sober Jeb Bush wins the nomination, he will have to accommodate himself to his party's barking-mad consensus. She is non-crazy America’s choice by default. And it is not necessarily an exciting choice, but it is an easy one, and a proposition behind which she will probably command a majority."

The hope for a different, better politics in Washington was not fulfilled.  Hope may best be directed elsewhere. Different hopes, some smaller, some larger, that inform what we do.  For hope is enacted in the present.  There are arcs of history still to bend, and rainbows still to follow.