Saturday, September 02, 2017

A Transformative Truth for Labor Day

Many of the jobs Americans did fifty years ago don't exist anymore, and for somewhat different reasons, many jobs that Americans do today won't exist in 50 or even 10 or 20 years.

A lot of that has to do with technology.  But that may not turn out to be the main reason, and certainly not the only one, for why there may be a radical change in the jobs people do in the future.

Jack Ohman in Sacramento Bee via Politico
This Labor Day is a good time to take a good long hard look at Houston and the rest of Texas that's been affected by Hurricane Harvey.

This is one set of effects of the climate crisis that are going to recur more often.
Other effects will also.
More and more people are going to be occupied in dealing with these effects: in responding as well as planning and implementing plans to respond to them and to soften their blows with preventive measures, design and strategies.  The climate crisis is a job creator.

Further effects will make more changes in the kinds of jobs society needs and demands.  Eventually climate change will be a major determinant.  But year by year the pace and extent will increase, and today might be a good day to take a good look at what is needed, and what you can do.

For the climate crisis is no longer an inconvenient truth.  The climate crisis is a transformative truth.

This has been argued by writers like David Orr (Down to the Wire, 2009), Bill McKibben (Eaarth, 2010) Mark Hertsgaard (in Hot, 2011) and Naomi Klein (This Changes Everything, 2014.)  It is argued partly to motivate people to address the causes of climate crisis, to ensure that things don't get even worse.  But there are--even more clearly now--effects that are coming that also must be addressed.  Because of the time lag between cause (greenhouse gas pollution) and effects, a near future of accelerating worsening is highly likely.

But it's not all about politics, and it's certainly not all about being victims.  It is also about the active work that will need to be done, and the people who will do it.

When today's children are young adults, their choice of occupations and careers will necessarily be influenced by the climate crisis and its ongoing effects.  But today's young adults, in their 30s and 40s, have the opportunity to start responding to this crisis in the work they choose to do.

People in the social media field right now might look closely at how social media is being used to deal with the crisis in Texas, and how it could serve the situation better.  People in technology might look at Texas with an eye on how their specific field or even a modification of their job could help deal with such a crisis.

Young people in their last years of education who are interested in management, or managers considering a change, might take a hard look at what emergency management entails, and the work they could do.

Those interested in medicine could look at the public health challenges, and what jobs there are or should be that respond.  And so on.  Many people in many careers can look at how their skills might apply.

Meanwhile, people will be looking for new ways to address the causes of global heating.  Jobs in clean energy are already transforming industry.

Eventually, people are probably going to specialize less, or at least many are going to have to know how to do more than one thing, and they will be practical things. Making things and growing food will no longer be outsourced quite so much. Careers in moving digital money around may not be so well-paid and appealing.

And it wouldn't be a bad idea for some people to learn some trades that are fast disappearing, like how to repair things (those things, that is, that are still not so foolishly complex that no one can fix them.)  Sewing and tailoring, shoemaking and repair, are probably good solid jobs for a few right now, but may well be important trades in the future.

Nobody really knows, but I do think many don't take into account that technology requires reliable power grids and global access to raw materials that remain relatively cheap.  All of that is likely to be up for grabs.  So I wouldn't necessarily count on AI drones and an internet of things.

The transformed world won't be easy, but at least these jobs are meaningful.  Jobs might be hard but they might be fulfilling, though it seems unlikely that word would be used much.  Maybe if people in position to do so started now to change, they could make the future a little easier for the next generations.

Update: As if to emphasize the changes underway, Saturday in Arcata was the hottest day we've experienced since we arrived here 21 years ago.  And not by a little.  I can count the number of 80+F days since then, but the temps hit the mid 90s.  Plus I've never experienced the density of smoke from forest fires over several days, leading to respiratory irritation and worse.  There are going to be effects of the climate crisis here, notably the sea level rise that could turn Arcata into an island.  But excessive heat isn't one of the predicted features.  Of course, it wasn't nearly as bad as the 100F+ temps in the Bay Area, or the temps in the 115 range east of us up here.  But this was a taste of what it would be like here. Temps are going down now, but the smoke is predicted to be with us into midweek. For a day or a weekend the heat and always present humidity were miserable, but also a chance for a more classic beach scene.  Long term however it could easily become dangerous.  And already, forecasters suggest the hot temps may return by next weekend.

And there's another hurricane headed for land.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Are We Ready to Hear This Yet?

Are we ready to hear this yet?  David J. Phillip in Politico:

"In all of U.S. history, there’s never been a storm like Hurricane Harvey. That fact is increasingly clear, even though the rains are still falling and the water levels in Houston are still rising.

But there’s an uncomfortable point that, so far, everyone is skating around: We knew this would happen, decades ago. We knew this would happen, and we didn’t care. Now is the time to say it as loudly as possible: Harvey is what climate change looks like. More specifically, Harvey is what climate change looks like in a world that has decided, over and over, that it doesn’t want to take climate change seriously."

Jack Ohman Sacramento Bee via Politico
There are other specific contributions to, for example, Houston's plight--its unregulated sprawl and environmental disdain.  There are the contributions of institutions and laws, like the bureaucratic Army Corps of Engineers and the way federal flood insurance does not penalize for building in flood-prone areas, so that 2% of those insured are responsible for 40% of the claims, including a home flooded 16 times in 18 years.

But the universal fact, no matter where, is climate change.  Its role in the hurricane itself and its behavior.  Its role in the rainfall and flooding.

The climate crisis has drowned all the old numbers.  Houston has experienced three "five hundred year floods" in the past three years.  Storms like Harvey are getting more powerful, more damaging, and more frequent.  And these are just one set of effects of global heating.

This week's news is an opportunity to see in detail what such a crisis can do to a very large, complex city, especially one with petrochemical industries.  Though effects of this storm will continue making news, attention will waver.  Is the climate crisis fact sinking in?

It's become commonplace now to say that Houston will never be the same.  But that's not a given.  Powerful forces created this unregulated sprawl and they will be back, relentlessly forcing their vision.  They will want to rebuild in that old image.

It will take political courage to fight this fight in Houston and other affected areas of Texas.  And it will take political courage beyond any we've actually seen to bring this lesson home to the country.  It will never be obvious.  It must be said, and it must be faced.

These days I'm starting to believe that nothing dramatic will change until one candidate--for Senator, for Mayor of a big city, for Governor--runs relentlessly on the issue of the climate crisis, and wins decisively in a state that is not deep blue.

California is a model of a state that takes the climate crisis seriously, yet even here there is much work to be done.  Such work has started in many places, but often almost furtively.  To address the causes and prepare for the effects requires facing them together.  Civilization depends on this.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Eye of the Hurricane

President Obama comforting a victim of Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey in 2012
The test that the present White House incumbent must pass, according to many media stories, is Katrina, but that is a tragically low bar.  Between Katrina and Harvey there was Sandy, the model, by many measures, of optimal response to a disaster by the federal government.

That response by the Obama administration was on an immensely large scale in a number of states, in both immediate and sustained ways.  But then there are the individuals and what they go through, as well as the collective feelings of those affected, and an anxious, watching nation.

Many problems arise, perhaps fatal problems, with the role of father of the country that the presidency imposes.  But the nation needs the binding and consoling sense that in a time like this, the president understands.  His response as a person translates into a sense that the nation understands. The people most affected and the nation gain confidence from this, and confidence works wonders.  President Obama was always there to provide it.

The current incumbent has not expressed gratitude to those who have responded to the horrific challenges of Harvey.  Nor has he expressed sympathy for the families of those who died (including a police officer) and those suffering from its effects. On his visit he met none of them. He sat behind a desk and stood in front of a crowd.  That impersonal response is not really surprising.  He cannot express empathy because he has never shown the capacity to experience it.

The lack of gratitude and empathy in his words during this crisis and especially during his Texas visit have been noted by, among others, the press secretary for the prior president of his party. Instead he praised the size of the crowd to hear him speak (about a thousand, including protesters.)

These expressions of sympathy are expected (and as basic as being against Nazis), so one writer calls his response "tonally peculiar."  It is more than that.  It is one more heavy sadness, for an isolated, unengaged president leaves everyone feeling isolated.  He is another emptiness where there is only the anti-president.

Moreover it does not bode well for sustained efforts at relief, recovering and planning, which due to the nature of this catastrophe and the places it is happening, will be unprecedented.  The worst may be ahead, and the effects will be felt by the entire country and beyond.  Those effects may be especially harsh if this hapless White House screws up.

 They say the eye of a hurricane is silent and empty.  At the center of authority for future response is this egomaniacal robot, this emptiness.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Dunkirk in Texas

As the effects of Hurricane Harvey continue to unfold in Texas,  and as attention focuses on saving lives, we are also thinking about what it means for the future.

The unnecessary vulnerabilities in Houston, almost always as a result of greed, are again exposed, and as usual the costs are paid more often in the suffering of the most vulnerable people.

While first responders do their jobs with distinction, the failure of government--including the federal government--to engage in preventive measures in a time when such storms and related events are more frequent and ferocious, due especially to the climate crisis, is not a good sign for the future.

We have yet to face the enormity of the tasks, when huge catastrophes hit huge population centers with complex infrastructure. It's bad enough when it occurs in one place. But what happens when--and not if, but when--such catastrophic events occur in more than one place at one time?  This is the cost of denying reality.

But while this event is happening, this is a human story, and an article in the New Yorker ask those human questions that will recur in future disasters, and I'm sure already echo somewhere inside most of us:

"But if we now know more about how the climate will behave, we know less about how humans will react. The experience of frequent storms is one of incredible stress...There is now, too, a double anxiety that greets storms like this. There is the fear about the damage done by wind and rain. And then there is a fear, made stark by the memory of Katrina, about how we will treat each other."

The first news I saw out of Texas, which this piece references in the very next sentence, named one such fear: a homeowner, as the storm began. who saw someone he believed was trying to enter his house, and shot him in the head.

We fear this now especially because we are told we are a severely divided nation, and the politically opposed are often violent in their rhetoric, and vivid in their disdain and especially their suspicions.  That we have a chief executive who is actively inflaming disdain and suspicion, and setting race against race for political gain, only adds to these fears.

The other element of this story is the gun.  The valorization of guns, the encouragement to use a gun as a first resort, can turn a misunderstanding into a mortal wound or death.  Who would want to hold out a hand to a hand holding a gun?

But since Harvey made landfall, the New Yorker has published two new articles, one from a Houston neighborhood which tells how people on a single street--many who have never met--are selflessly helping each other, and the other which focuses on the efforts of  individuals using small boats to rescue those about to be inundated by rapidly rising floodwaters.  Learning of people needing rescue from social media, they coordinate the ferrying of people away from their own rooftops, as well as the forgotten (often elderly and handicapped) in group housing.

This citizen navy is conducting a computerized Dunkirk.  Notably, many of those involved are from Louisiana, who remember the help they got from people in Houston during Katrina and the more recent flooding in New Orleans.

This reciprocity makes literal the ethical rule that I regard as the most basic: "You'd do the same for me."  That's the essential faith of a civilized society, and as long as it prevails, there is hope for the future.