Saturday, January 07, 2017

The First Lady

This is the last official event hosted by Michelle Obama as First Lady.  Besides some under-reported revelations--like the Obama administration making the largest total investment in higher education since the GI Bill immediately after World War II--her passionate championing of diversity, personal freedom, hope and the future in this appearance suggest the innovative efforts she made and the good she did in the White House. This moment is one among many for this beautiful woman in all senses, a woman among women in this video, and why to me she will always be The First Lady.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

The Climate Crisis Future

In mid-December, environmental and city planning officials talked about the future of Arcata, here on Humboldt Bay on the North Coast of California.  Probably the most dramatic moment came when (as reported by the Mad River Union) the Community Development Director pointed to a map of the city and talked about a situation that could come to pass within the lifetime of Arcata's youngest citizens.

"Arcata is not going to be here in the future," he said.

Pointing towards the hills to the northeast he added, "It might be there."

He was talking about a possible future only some 80 years away. But to reach that kind of impact, destructive changes would begin decades earlier.

 Specifically he was talking about sea level rise and its impact due to the climate crisis.  Nobody really knows how fast those levels will rise or how high.  But the range of possibilities and the most likely prospects add up to a very big change, in perhaps the not too distant future.

Sea levels are rising now.  I saw one story that claimed that they are rising faster here than anywhere in California.  The situation is further complicated by land that is slowly sinking due to tectonic forces.  But how fast and how much sea levels rise will make the difference, and that could well begin long before even much of the low-lying areas near the Bay are inundated.  Flooding of underground utilities, especially sewer lines, could affect areas farther from the Bay.

The city is protected by what was described as "41 miles of aging dikes."  The city faces decisions--as many coastal cities now do--of what to protect and how.

Flooding caused by the climate crisis has already begun in the US. Many cities are looking to build dikes and seawalls and other infrastructure at huge cost, knowing that this investment may not protect areas of the city for very long.  But how long is not long enough?  And what are the tradeoffs in terms of environment such as wetlands, or wildlife sanctuaries?  Arcata's sewage treatment plant, a national model, uses marshes a stone's throw from the Bay.

To make those decisions requires studies that are as precise as they can be.  City officials have no choice but to think about the unthinkable.  Since many cities are facing the same decisions, they swap information and ideas.  Some "mitigation" (or addressing the effects of the climate crisis) may benefit from regional solutions, such as regional sewage treatment plants.  It's not possible for responsible people in these positions to ignore climate realities.

According to Kevin Hoover's Union story, "a minute number of Arcata residents...a few dozen total" attended the two events.  Yet I am confident that the vast majority of Arcata citizens accept the reality of the climate crisis.

That is not true of the incoming leaders in Washington.  All the relevant cabinet posts and congressional committee chairs are, like our homegrown Hitler and his vp, climate crisis denialists.  Their solution to problems like Arcata's is to deny that they are happening, to deny the causes of the climate crisis and methods of addressing the causes.  On this issue, the United States will shortly have the most extreme denialist government and policies of any major nation on the planet, as well as the vast majority of non-major ones.

The climate crisis in its essential outlines has been proven by every method known to science, from observation of contemporary and historical phenomena (from satellite imagery to ice-core analysis), from repeatable experiments, from models confirmed by data and refined, from predicted phenomena in the real world happening right now.  Physics, chemistry, biochemistry, mathematics, geology, hydrology and the various other components of "climate science," all have been applied, and they all contribute to the same conclusions.

The near unanimity of scientists studying these subjects, and the outlines of their findings, are widely publicized.  Never in history has a major crisis been predicted by so many scientists in so many related disciplines in so many parts of the world with such overwhelming confidence, for so long.

And just enough citizens of the US voted leaders into power who claim they don't know it's true, or they know it's not true, it's not been proven, it's fake.  So stop studying it, and certainly don't do anything about it.

So what does it mean when people claim, in the face of all this evidence and expertise, to not believe in the onrushing catastrophes of the climate crisis?

It seems clear to me that it means they absolutely do believe it--and it scares the shit out of them.

Sure, fossil fuel money funds denialist propaganda, politicians ally themselves with it to get their hands on some of that money and political support, and they and others bend their ideologies to embrace denialism and cluster together in their denialist support groups to exchange their certitudes that a left-wing conspiracy of scientists out to feather their nests has invented a crisis to destroy free enterprise and jobs, and sap the country of needed resources, initiative, Christianity and precious bodily fluids.

But that's just a consequence of the initial condition of being too scared to face it.

And that's where we are.  Everybody with an ounce of sense is scared.  I've lost more than one night of sleep over it.  The difference is denying it versus dealing with it.

For some, it's their job to deny it, and for others, it's their job to deal with it. There is this conflict and power struggle between the people who must confront at least dealing with the effects but also those determined to address the causes so things don't get completely out of hand in the far future, versus the professional denialists now assuming power.

Since it became clearer in the past decade or so that the climate crisis is proceeding faster than the split-the-difference UN reports predicted, it's become less certain that any efforts now or the near future will prevent the end of civilization as we know it.  But the Paris agreement said the good old stubborn human race was going to try.  That is, at minimum, healthy.  And it may be effective.

Will that agreement and its needed impetus (for its targets are acknowledged to be insufficient) survive the next several months and years?  Or will this retrenchment end our last best hope to make the climate crisis future less than civilization ending?

That's become the question, at least in how to think about the future. Meanwhile there are more practical concerns. The end of civilization due to climate crisis, the 6th mass extinction and a cascade of violent responses to resulting crises,  probably requires centuries (though the estimates range from 10 to 1,000 years.) But well before that, there are likely to be enough catastrophe to change everyday life and test all civic institutions long before the end of the century.

Not just coastal cities.  But places that aren't built for the amount of rain they will get, or the drought, or the more frequent and more violent storms, and the extended periods of major heat. Such effects are already happening.  Climate-induced or exacerbated food shortages are causes of war and forced migration in Africa and the Middle East.  Islands and isolated places face inundation and collapse.

Richer places are vulnerable partly because large populations and economies depend on fragile elements of infrastructure.  Every weakness in civic systems makes the whole vulnerable to climate crisis effects.  A weakened health care system--for instance, caused by chaos created by the suicidally stupid cancellation of Obamacare (i.e. the current healthcare system and infrastructure)-- could aid the spread of diseases manifested because of climate crisis caused changes in the range and lifespan of disease-bearing insects, for example.

Of course people are scared shitless.  It takes courage to face it, to figure out what to do and to work at it.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Dark Age Ahead: Choosing Ignorance

Jane Jacobs (1916-2006) is rightly remembered for changing how influential people thought about and designed cities, particularly in North America, because of her original and persuasive writings and activism.

But in this culture people get a single label, which is probably one reason that her last book, Dark Age Ahead was praised and ignored when it was published in 2004.

Another reason is that such a subject (a coming Dark Age in America) is hard to think about: difficult because it is complicated, difficult because it requires shedding habitual categories and ways of thinking, and difficult because it is emotionally huge, and invites displacement and denial.  The mind just can't get itself around it, while the emotions blur the brain and suggest sweets instead.

But at this cultural moment, as we really need to be clear on what's going on and what it may portend, this relatively short book may help focus observations and analysis, getting us beyond the usual paths that so many are now taken in trying to explain what's happened, and more importantly, what to do about it.

There is some agreement that this is part of a trend--not the only one, but a powerful one--that has been building and consolidating over years and likely decades.

There is perhaps less agreement that, as I believe, this is not a mere political problem, let alone an accidental outcome.  Though electoral margins were slim and there's the counter-evidence of the popular vote--and clearly the culture is divided-- the failure of the political system (including media) was so total that it more than suggests a larger cause.

In retrospect, for example, we can see the political and economic causes for Hitler's rise in the 1930s.  Something like it was in the cards at the close of World War I and the harshness of the Versailles treaty.

But that doesn't really explain Hitler.  C.G. Jung, who was in neighboring (German-speaking) Switzerland throughout this period--from before World War I until well after World War II--felt strongly that there was a mass psychological component that transcended politics and economics.  It continued to obsess him for years after.  Judging from the monstrousness of what occurred, I am persuaded he's right.

Jacobs doesn't get into the psychological realm, which I believe is part of the story today, and I believe it is directly related to the prospect of the climate crisis.

But Jane Jacobs also looks beyond ordinary politics and economics, though she includes them in her synthesis.  I approach her book now, determined to go through it carefully.

I begin reading with one of my questions in mind: has any civilization, prosperous and powerful and with domestic tranquility relative to many times and places in the past, actually chosen ignorance and thereby self-destruction?

In the early pages of the book, Jacobs cites two strong cultures that did themselves in: Mesopotamia (much of what we call the Middle East) before the Christian era, and late medieval China.

"The difference between these failures and those of conquered aboriginal cultures is that the death or the stagnated moribundity of formerly unassailable and vigorous cultures is caused not by assault from outside but by assault from within, that is by internal rot in the form of fatal cultural turnings, not recognized as wrongful turnings while they occur or soon enough afterward to be correctable. Time during which corrections can be made runs out because of mass forgetfulness.

The initial cause of decline in Mesopotamia was environmental degradation: they cut down their forests.  In China it was the result of a bad decision made by the head of an all-powerful--totalitarian-- central government, that turned the nation inward.

But at some point they made everything worse by choosing ignorance. “Cultural xenophobia is a frequent sequel to society’s decline from cultural vigor. Someone has aptly called self-imposed isolation a fortress mentality," Jacobs wrote.

The fortress mentality conjures up the inevitable image of walls.

Jacobs quotes historian of religion Karen Armstrong analyzing the Mesopotamian decline as continuing because of a shift "from faith in logos, reason, with its future-oriented spirit" to a "conservatism that looks backwards to fundamentalist beliefs for guidance and a worldview."

At its height, medieval China had huge fleets of ships capable of exploring the world.  The decision to destroy the fleets eventually led to government officials destroying all the records, designs, navigational charts, maps and findings associated with the fleet and these voyages.  Centuries of knowledge were lost.  Ignorance was chosen.

Jacobs quotes a vice president of the War Ministry for China of the period as denying the fleet was ever large and impressive, or that the voyages brought back anything of value.

This reminded me of a talk I watched on YouTube by science fiction author and thinker Neal Stephenson who suggested that today's minority views could become predominate, so that in a matter of decades in America it would be generally believed that the Apollo moon landings never really happened.

(By the way, what might have happened had China continued to explore is explored in Kim Stanley Robinson's alternate history novel Days of Rice and Salt.) 

Jacobs adds another interesting comment:

“A fortress or fundamentalist mentality not only shuts itself off from dynamic influences originating outside, but also, as a side effect, ceases influencing the outside world.”

Reading about what could be causing the onset of a Dark Age is not the most pleasant--it can't be called diverting.  So I'm enforcing my reading by committing to writing about Jacobs' book in this space for the next few weeks.

Sunday, January 01, 2017


People will be presented with things, and will find things to be happy about in this new year.  But for America, the West, the planet, it is unlikely to be happy.

We will count it as not as bad a year as it might have been if we are not in a shooting war by the end of it, or no nuclear weapon has been used in the next twelve months.  And if the world's nations stay the course on the Paris climate agreement.  But it will almost certainly be a year of catastrophe for which we have no precedent in this country, even if some of those catastrophes aren't evident or don't manifest within the next twelve months.

Our imaginations work by metaphor, analogy, story.  There are lots of people trying to fit what is about to begin on January 20 within recent history, political and otherwise.  Some say 1968 is an apt analogy, for instance.

But 1968 is not. There is nothing of a normal pattern about it, and there is no analogy.  There are no precedents in American history, or history of the past century, except in the sense that photos cut up from various sources are precedent for the collage made from these fragments.

I use the term Hitler Millennium to suggest the direction and extent of what I see coming.  That's as close as I can get, and it is extreme in order to suggest that we are entering a period of extremes (and not simply extreme rhetoric), and it is best to err on the side of anticipating worse consequences than actually occur, rather than try to normalize and excuse events and actions that are by their nature and historical context extreme.  There is precedent for that attempt to deny and normalize, at least, in Germany of the 1930s.

The world may go completely to hell this year, but it may take a little longer.  Still, the UK is in almost as bad a shape as the US, and Germany is teetering.  (All this at a time of great prosperity and wealth, with relatively healthy populations.  None of which is guaranteed to last.)

The US is likely to see regression that goes beyond reversing progress and changes made in the past 8 years, or 50 years, to the past 75 years and beyond.  There is no precedent for that.

Perhaps it is worthwhile to realize that this perfect storm is composed of elements that we've been well aware have existed for some time.  Covert racism has been festering for decades, probably since it became culturally suspect to be overt. And while some see this as the revolt of an undervalued working class, it bears much more the hallmarks of the continuing revolt of the very rich, in unholy alliance with the political scum of the earth.

Some may hark back well into the previous century, to the conspiracies of power expressed, for example, in Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (which I have recently actually and finally completed reading.)  I've recently been re-reading Jim Harrison's 1998 novel The Road Home. One of its narrators, a 29 year old man and confessed nomad whose study and solace is the natural world, nevertheless makes these comments:

"...part of the Republican trance that required of the poor only that they behave and keep out of the way of the money-making possibilities.  The whole country had apparently become comfortable with the greed frenzy of its top one percent."

This is 1998, with the "one percent" rhetoric of 2012.  And more to the point:

"The rich and the upper middle class were now seething with resentment over protecting their position and were demanding an enforceable mono-ethic which was gradually turning the country into a fascist Disneyland."

I wouldn't lay that at the feet of Walt Disney, a better and more complex visionary than many credit him, but what the term "Disneyland" suggests is clear enough in this context.  And now there's no more "gradually" about it.  We're about to get a fascist reality show.  Produced chiefly by fossil fuel wealth.

People are frightened--especially people of color, Muslims, women, people whose health depends on Obamacare.   The effect on the planet I'll leave for another time, but the short version is that whatever chance civilization had to survive the climate crisis relatively intact may well be gone as a result of what begins on January 20.

 We'll see if large numbers, or even a few, actually employ the tools of resistance being talked about, and if they have any effect, and what people will do if these efforts don't immediately change things.  It's a long game, with lots of unknowns.   It seems more than possible that 12 months from now--or 24 or 36--people won't recognize what things were like, what they themselves were like, on this New Year's day of 2017.

The apocalypse as a time of revelation is embedded in the word.  We will learn much about ourselves, individually and collectively. The stakes are highest for the young, and there are jobs to be done, jobs of hope enacted in the present.  There are lives to be lived, for however long they last.  As a wise old friend wrote to me recently, "My life has taught me that resistance starts with endurance."

As for this blog, it will be around for the rest of the Obama presidency.  By that time, maybe something else.  But my resolution not to dwell on political commentary doesn't mean I won't have anything to say.