Monday, December 31, 2018

R.I.P. Immortals 2018: Live Words

“ One voice speaking truth is a greater force than fleets and armies, given time, plenty of time...” Ursula Le Guin 1969: The Left Hand of Darkness

"Whatever may happen in the bad times, the verbal arts, at least, tend to become very important. It’s really important what you say in the bad times.” Ursula Le Guin 2017: Conversations on Writing with David Naimon

Yet another kind of immortality can belong to the writer.  Their words are preserved in small physical objects that circulate, are available and easily obtainable. Books provide the most accessible legacy.  They are in so many forms and places--from new and used bookstores to thrift shops, bargain bins and free boxes, libraries and in the homes of friends.  Now they are in digital form, and free on the Internet.  They are much easier to find--and especially, to serendipitously stumble upon--than old films or TV shows, let alone the evanescence of performances.  And they last.

There also seems to be something about the written word that can take time, to expand, to drop the reader into deeper levels, to open new eyes and ears beyond the writer's physical time.  Writers can live in the lives of strangers long after they are dead, perhaps more than they did in life.

The first month of 2018 was not yet over before Ursula Le Guin died. No Time To Spare, her wonderful selection of online writing, especially for her blog, had been a Christmas hit in December. I bought it on Christmas Eve at Kepler's Bookstore in Menlo Park, California.

This Christmastime I returned to Kepler's and saw a special Le Guin endcap, with that book still featured, as well as collections of short stories, her last volume of poetry, and the collected Earthsea novels, plus a new book, Conversations on Writing, that consists of interviews she gave in 2017. This book suggests some of the reasons that Le Guin was and will remain a strong influence on other writers, and all kinds of writing.

In terms of her fictions, her particular gift of anthropological science fiction is likely to influence even more visions of the future, as that future is more and more shaped by climate and ecological crisis. Margaret Atwood notes that all the oppressive aspects of the future she imagines in her novel, The Handmaid's Tale, do happen in parts of the world or did happen in history. Many of the striking imaginings in Le Guin's novels are derived from Indigenous cultures of the past and present. Her insistence on cultural attributes that serve the Earth as well as humanity, and preserve a realistic relationship between them, will only grow in importance.

Three very different writers who died in 2018, Philip Roth, Neil Simon and Tom Wolfe, did much to illuminate American life in the 20th century, and in so doing, helped define our view of our own culture.

Roth in his meticulous fictions, in both his grim and hilarious modes, and Simon in his comic plays and screenplays, explored Jewish-American experience, and revealed much about both sides of the hyphen. They also transcended nationality, imagining their way into other sorts of lives. Because Neil Simon was so popular, his achievement is perhaps undervalued, particularly his screenplays, including a lesser known gem like Max Dugan Returns. Tom Wolfe on the other hand came from the WASP world, and was equally comfortable writing about the rich and famous, and the oddball outcasts. He attempted more consciously to define the culture he observed.

William Goldman was one of Hollywood's most celebrated screenwriters, but he also wrote three books that became classics in their fields.  His Adventures in the Screen Trade is considered the best book on screenwriting and Hollywood, and his The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway is considered the best book on Broadway and American theatre.  But his little self-conscious fairytale novel, The Princess Bride, was a word-of-mouth hit that's now a classic, and the movie made from it has its own, still-growing cult of admirers.  I loved all three (or four, counting the movie.)

I remember watching a PBS documentary in the 1970s or early 80s on the new physics of the very large and the very small.  I knew nothing about it, so I struggled to understand something about quarks with color and the four forces of the universe.  The documentary culminated in speculation about a grand unified theory that would unite all the forces and all of physics.  There was one man, the announcer said, who might do it.  And the screen showed Steven Hawking, small and twisted in his wheelchair.  This was before he used his now-famous voice synthesizer, and so the soundtrack included his speech, completely unintelligible to all but a few intimates.  This was the greatest mind in science, in a body suffering a motor neuron disease.  It was an extraordinary mind-boggling moment.

Hawkings never did come up with the theory (then again, neither did Einstein.  Physicists today despair of its existence.)  But he became a global presence, beginning with his international best seller, A Brief History of Time.

For a few summer days at a workshop in Colorado, I was a student of writer Harlan Ellison.  It was 1969, when he was in his prime as enfant terrible, and was playing the part.  He was mercurial at best, but conveyed the fundamental seriousness of writing. (He also liked my story.)  Besides his own work ("A Boy and His Dog" was probably his most famous, and notorious) he edited two important anthologies in the late 60s and early 70s (Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions) that introduced and defined what would be called the New Wave in science fiction.  One of the authors he published was Ursula Le Guin.

Other well-known authors who died in 2018 were (most recently) Israeli novelist Amos Oz, V.S. Naipaul, Robert Bausch, poet Donald Hall, playwrights Maria Irene Fornes and Ntozake Shange.  But there were also a few lesser-knowns who I discovered in serendipitous fashion.  British philosopher Mary Midgely wrote boldly and sensibly and even heroically about evolution in particular.  American philosopher Stanley Cavell was across the street at Harvard when I discovered his books on film at the Harvard Bookstore in the early 70s.   I have a weakness for memoirs and histories of popular culture, so fairly recently I was pleased to discover Gerald Nachman's Raised on Radio.

One of the great American places for serendipity is the Strand Bookstore in New York, where in particular review copies go to live.  Fred Bass, who made it so, died in 2018.

There's a more complete list of writers who died in 2018 over at Books In Heat. May all those mentioned in these memorial posts rest in peace.  Their work lives on.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

R.I.P. Immortals 2018: Screen Lives

Another path to immortality is the freezing of living moments on film.  Usually they are youthful moments, so that sort of beauty lives on for future generations to see.  But sometimes they are moments from youth to age, and so much of a life is recorded, however artificial the images are in some respects.

Some of the movie and television actors who died in 2018 remain well-known, such as Margot Kidder (Lois Lane in Christopher Reeves' Superman series), Burt Reynolds, David Ogden Steirs (TV's M*A*S*H) Harry Anderson (TV's Night Court series.)  Penny Marshall was famous as an actor, and even more important as a director (Big, A League of Her Own, etc.)

Others were familiar for awhile, and we remember their names with a smile but only when we hear them.  Sondra Locke, Barbara Harris (who also co-founded Second City), Joseph Campanella and John Gavin might be among these.

Then there are others we might recognize but whose names are unfamiliar, unless we were fans of their movie or show, like Elmarie Wendel in 3rd Rock From the Sun, or Dudley Sutton in the British comedy, Lovejoy.

Then there are the many who we do not know as individuals, who may have appeared in something we loved, or who we saw in dozens of TV shows and a few movies without taking much note of them, or those whose screen moments were before or after our time.

But that doesn't matter, because these, too, have achieved this kind of immortality. Perhaps it will be only aficionados of their performances, or only their friends, their children and grandchildren who will delight to see them as they were in those moments captured on film.  But they live on for these relative few, and potentially for anyone, in those moments.

Some of the actors who passed from the world in 2018 but not from the screen are Charles Asnavour, Donald Moffat, Philip Bosco, Ken Swofford, Anne Carroll, Gilles Pelletier, Sheila White, Scott Bloch, Ken Berry, Peter Donat, Wright King, Roger Robinson.

Olivia Cole, John Mahoney, Georgeann Johnson, Mary Carlisle (at age 104), Glen Chin, Jean Porter, Celeste Yarnall, Peter Miles.

Jane Wenham, Charles Weldon, Carole Shelley, Mary Randall, Helen Burns (at age 101), Bette Henritze, Colin Campbell, Yvonne Gilan, Derrick O'Connor.

Special mention of Bernard Bragg, co-founder of the National Theatre of the Deaf.

And Douglas Rain, who took time off from Shakespeare on the Canadian stage to give immortal voice to HAL in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

More to come.

Friday, December 28, 2018

R.I.P. Immortals 2018: Boomer Memories

There are a number of ways people become immortal, or at least have the influence of their lives extended.

 One way is to remain present or even recurrent in the memories of the living.  Memories themselves are not dead.  They change and live according to the lives of the living.  Such living influence can last beyond specific memories of a person, in stories that may last for generations.  Those stories, like memories, continue to change, and become living influences in the world.

Such immortality is open to anyone.  Others remain alive in the lives of people who never met them, and may not know their names, through the lasting influence of the work they did, even during just a fraction of their years.  Sometimes this remains alive in the culture.

It is probably strongest in their generation and the first succeeding one, especially if their efforts became part of the lives and memories of children.  Those of us at the beginning of the baby boom were children in the 1950s, and in our most impressionable and formative youth in the 1960s.  So in remembering people who achieved something in the culture in those years, we both remember them and aspects of ourselves.  Some of those people died in 2018, and here are a few examples.  Their degrees of fame don't always correspond to the density of the memories.

From the 1950s: actor and singer Tab Hunter, actress Patricia Benoit (Mr. Peepers), actress Dorothy Malone, actor Bradford Dillman who specialized in creepy roles, Clint Walker (TV's Cheyenne); comic Marty Allen; Nanette Fabray, who used her innocent good looks to parody herself with Sid Caesar and other comic partners.  Actors we saw on numerous TV shows included Diana Jergens and Bill Daily.  Laurie Mitchell, Queen of Outer Space.

Meanwhile, a major shift was happening in America, not always apparent.  They involved civil rights activists Mary Louise Watson and Millie Dunn Veasley (who died at age 100.)  Also Arthur Mitchell, who founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem.  Leading to, among other outcomes, Marcelite J. Harris, the first black woman General in the USAF.

The 1960s: It was about the music, from Nancy Wilson, the jazz singer who broke through to the pop charts and hit albums, to Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul.  Marty Balin was the co-leader with Grace Slick of the most commercially successful acid rock band, the Jefferson Airplane.  The Grateful Dead long outlasted the decade: for awhile, John Perry Barlow wrote lyrics for them.

Dennis Edwards, lead singer of the Temptations.  D.J. Fontana, fabled bassist for Elvis.  Martin Allcock (Jethro Tull),  Jim Redford (Kinks' bassist), Ray Thomas (Moody Blues.) Geoff Emerick, the Beatles' engineer, and Tony Calder, who promoted them.

Cliff White chronicled it all in the UK.  Jerry Hopkins wrote for Rolling Stone Magazine, biographer of Jim Morrison.

Meanwhile, Jalal Mansur Nurridin and the Last Poets were merging word with rhythm decades before it became hip hop.  Leo Sarkisian began exposing radio listeners to African music.

In the shadow of Vietnam, David McReynolds joined the War Resisters League and founded the publication Liberation. Elbert Howard co-founded the Black Panther Party.  Years later Arnold Kopelson would produce Platoon, and Gloria Katz produced American Grafitti.

The 60s through the 80s: It was about the movies: Directors Nicolas Roeg, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.)

David Sherwin (screewriter of ...If, O Lucky Man), Bill Siegel (documentarian of Weather Underground), Lewis Gilbert (director, Alfie.) Actors Genevieve Fontanel (The Man Who Loved Women), Charles Aznavour (Shoot the Piano Player), Susan Anspach (Five Easy Pieces, Blume in Love.)

But there are cultures within cultures.  Koyukon author Poldine Demoski Carlo died in 2018, as did Native performance artist James Luna, Inuit artist Elisapee Ishulutag at age 93 and Cherokee potter Amanda Swimmer, at age 97.

Dancer Paul Taylor.  John Barton, co-founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company, who transformed acting in Shakespeare for generations--his inspiring videos are on YouTube.

More to come.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Here Comes the Sunrise

The Sunrise Movement is an organization of young activists advocating urgent efforts to address the climate crisis.  A thousand or so lobbied members of Congress recently.  A Think Progress story put it this way:

Spearheaded by Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), the idea of a Green New Deal has burst into the political mainstream over the past few months, upending congressional climate politics. The proposal responds to recent climate science by calling for a rapid transition away from oil, gas, and coal, and simultaneously seeks to ease the nation’s worsening income equality.

A recent poll suggests that the Green New Deal proposals could have overwhelming bipartisan support with the American public--over 80%.  Despite some powerful opposition,  the proposal to establish a Select Committee on climate is gaining support, thanks to the incoming Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

Republicans trying to preemptively kill the Green New Deal idea got surprised when they tried to get their own government officials to say the goals were impractical, only to have those officials say, no, it could be done.

Though Republicans dispute it, there is economic logic to the Green New Deal combining new clean energy efforts with new jobs in clean energy.  A new international study maintains that a major switch to clean energy to meet UN climate goals would mean more jobs, not fewer:

Our findings show that if we take action to limit climate change, we will have more jobs by 2030 than by not doing anything,” said Guillermo Montt, author of the study and a senior economist in the research department of the International Labor Office, a special UN agency that focuses on labor issues. “More jobs will be created than those that are lost, so the economy and countries as a whole stand to gain.”  Green New Deal proposals pay attention as well to job dislocations that might result.

Thanks to a coincidence of the Sunrise Movement's lobbying at the same time as a major convention of Earth scientists was in Washington, there's evidence that's there is also major support from scientists.  Speaking of the Sunrise Movement, one such scientist quoted by the TP story said:“What I do admire about that is the fact they are using new language. It’s not just, ‘Look at the sad polar bear,'” she said. “This is not talking about climate change like it’s this isolated issue. It’s talking about it in the context of all these other things that people care about. And I think that’s absolutely the right way to look at it.”

Another prominent scientist, Dr. Peter Gleick, went to Capitol Hill himself to discuss climate initiatives:

He met with Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) and a senior staffer with another member of Congress. Huffman had reached out to Gleick to discuss opportunities and critical issues that the 116th Congress might pursue related to climate change, including water issues, an issue on which Gleick is one the leading experts.

(I quoted that mostly because Huffman represents my district.)

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There have been marches and other advocacy on climate issues before, without much visible effect.  But this time may be different, due in part to the nature of the Blue Wave and the fact that some of the newcomers made addressing the climate crisis a major part of their campaigns.

But also due to the urgency.  The Sunrise Movement popularizes the slogan "12 Years," the time the latest UN report allows to prevent the worst climate cataclysm future.  But in fact time is much shorter than that.  The decisions to change must be made right away. Jonathan Watt's summary of the climate summit in Poland ran in the Guardian under the headline:UN climate talks set stage for humanity’s two most crucial years/Decisions made from now to 2020 will determine to what extent Earth remains habitable."

Dino Grandoni wrote in the Washington Post: "The next presidential election is nearly two years away. But it's already clear that climate change will be a higher-profile issue in the 2020 race than it was in the previous presidential contest."

While noting that this isn't a very high bar, he points out that thanks to the announced policy of the current administration, the US withdrawing formally from the Paris Agreements can happen as early as the day after the 2020 election.  That's a tangible marker of the overall urgency.

Another reason climate will be higher on the 2020 agenda, Grandoni said, is the Sunrise Movement, and the Green New Deal.  And this applies not just to the presidential race, but campaigns for the House and the Senate.  According to another Post reporter:

Democrats preparing to run for president have been rushing to shift their plans for combating climate change, highlighting an issue once considered a political liability, especially in Midwestern swing states won by President Trump.

Aides to a half-dozen senators considering a 2020 campaign met with supporters of the Green New Deal, an effort pushed by Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) that could turn into a litmus test for Democratic candidates, organizers said."

Meanwhile, there is a new documentary from National Geographic, viewable on line, that shows how Americans are already working to address the climate crisis, and finding new jobs and careers in the process.  It's called From Paris to Pittsburgh.  Here's a direct link to the documentary--just scroll down to Nat Geo Specials.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Towards the Last-Ditch Transformation

As the global climate summit ended its official sessions, the Washington Post reported: "Negotiators from nearly 200 nations drew close to a deal Friday that would nudge the world toward stronger targets for reducing carbon emissions and enshrine a clearer set of rules for how to get there."

According to the Post, negotiations will continue until an agreement can be announced, probably this weekend.  No one expects a groundbreaking agreement, but some progress from the heady Paris Agreement would be an achievement, given the political mischief wrought by the US, which prompted both anger and scornful laughter during the conference.  Update: The deal was announced Saturday.

But there is only so much these conferences can achieve, since they require the agreement of 200 countries.  The Post quotes an unnamed scientist at the summit:“There is no documented historic precedent” for the sweeping changes to energy, transportation and other sectors that would be necessary to hold warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, the scientists said, citing the need for a “rapid and far-reaching” transformation of human civilization."  That transformation must come from political energies within nations, as well as more practical alternatives for achieving these transformations.

At least according to some, practical alternatives are probably needed to reliance on the carbon tax, a so far unpopular and regressive way of limiting carbon emissions.  But the energies to jumpstart a transformation politically in the US as well as around the world, beginning with young people, may well be poised to enter the halls of power in 2019.

Young demonstrators are rallying around the cry "12 Years," which is what the latest UN report says is all civilization has to pull back from the point where climate catastrophe becomes civilization-threatening climate cataclysm.  Entering Congress in just a few weeks are newly elected, younger, more diverse Democrats who are rallying around the Green New Deal that one of their leaders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is making a core issue.

These wide-ranging proposals that link efforts to address both the causes and effects of the climate crisis with employment opportunities are already attracting the backing of more experienced legislators.

Moreover, a Post analyst sees signs that climate will be a key issue in the 2020 presidential and congressional elections, and Democratic candidates are already working on it.

Given the information and forecasts that keep getting worse, and the short amount of time to change just about everything, this is a last ditch effort, and it easily could be too little and too late.  But what else is there to do but try?  The measure of this generation is how hard it tries in this effort, the most important in the history of civilization.

In any case, it is inevitable that climate will be just about everyone's job sooner or later.  Best to get started while there's still a chance that the future can still be saved.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Shrinking Planet, New Work for the Future

The UN climate summit took the day off on Sunday, after Saturday produced a predictable if dispiriting dissension.  The Guardian led:

The US and Russia have thrown climate talks into disarray by allying with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to water down approval of a landmark report on the need to keep global warming below 1.5C.

After a heated two-and-a-half-hour debate on Saturday night, the backwards step by the four major oil producers shocked delegates at the UN climate conference in Katowice as ministers flew in for the final week of high-level discussions."

Besides further evidence of US-Russia collusion, it was basically another effort to bury heads in the sand until the last profits can be rung out of our current carbon-based global suicide.

But the report, which was issued in October in draft form, warns of a catastrophic future for the planet, beginning of course with the poor and the poor countries, but sure to cause turmoil and suffering in the rich countries.  If this future isn't soon faced, as it appears it won't be, an even worse one is in the cards.  So thinking about the future is a moral imperative.  One aspect of the climate cataclysm future is the subject of the rest of this post.

Call it capitalism or imperialism or colonialism or call it endless greed backed up by ideology and armies, or just the way the human animal mindlessly spreads, but the result has been civilization's insistence on infinite growth in an unfortunately finite world, which sooner or later becomes tragically impossible. Thoughtless growth bashes away at a sturdy but not indestructible support system, sometimes also known as resources and otherwise known as what makes life possible.

Unlimited human expansion (in several senses) seemed to work for awhile, but the fast-growing number of humans plus the power of human technologies and the heedlessness with which we use it is rapidly using up the world.  Infinite growth is meeting the finite limit.

The size of planet Earth obviously remains the same, but the resources--that is, the life as well as the basic supports of a particular mix of gases in the atmosphere, the abundance of water and soil, and in particular, the quantity and quality of land necessary for the diversity of life that is also a vital part of the matrix that supports humanity--all of that is shrinking.  Throw in a climate that becomes increasingly inhospitable to human life and lots and lots of other existing lifeforms, and there's less room--not even to grow but to exist.

A couple of years ago Edmund O. Wilson proposed that we devote half of the actual planet to saving the many forms of life that otherwise are going to become extinct.  In the words of the Guardian reviewer: "So what should be done? For Wilson, there is only one solution. We must increase the land we have set aside for reserves for protecting wild plants and animals until this terrain covers half the globe. Such a project would then give us a reasonable chance of saving around 80% of species still alive today, he argues."

Unfortunately, the reviewer (Robin McKie) said, Wilson is vague on how this could be done, and offers no plan.

More recently, Kim Stanley Robinson endorsed the idea and gave it more substance: empty half the Earth of humans, concentrate them in cities and leave the rest to the rest of life.

Again, the reason for doing something like this is inescapable: Our situation, KSR writes,"can’t endure for long – years, perhaps, but not decades. The future is radically unknowable: it could hold anything from an age of peaceful prosperity to a horrific mass-extinction event. The sheer breadth of possibility is disorienting and even stunning. But one thing can be said for sure: what can’t happen won’t happen. Since the current situation is unsustainable, things are certain to change."

But clustering people into cities is not as big a change as it might seem, he says: people are already doing that on their own, emptying out territories where small towns and farm communities used to be. "So emptying half the Earth of its humans wouldn’t have to be imposed: it’s happening anyway. It would be more a matter of managing how we made the move, and what kind of arrangement we left behind." 

"One important factor here would be to avoid extremes and absolutes of definition and practice, and any sense of idealistic purity. We are mongrel creatures on a mongrel planet, and we have to be flexible to survive."  So some of the remaining land (and sea) would be wilderness, while some would be cultivated, used for recreation, etc.

This is less vague that Wilson, but huge problems remain. For instance, it's true cities are expanding, and fast, but many in the world are growing so fast, primarily because starving people flood into them, that they are chaotic places: unhealthy and dangerous, with intensely overcrowded slums.  They already constitute overwhelming management problems.

But the Half-Earth idea reminded me of a similar plan proposed 45 years ago by Paul Shepard in his book The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game.  Shepard saw these problems coming (resource depletion, extinctions, runaway human growth over the planet threatening all other life--though not so much the climate crisis yet), but he thought that by the 21st century, human civilization might be capable of designing a sustainable world, and ready to do so.

In particular he believed it would be possible to have low density human spaces and large natural spaces--with easy access for humans to non-human life.  He noted the work of an architect-planner who figured the optimum human city would have fifty thousand inhabitants.  Shepard figured the human population would be about 8 billion in 2020 (pretty much what demographers predict today), and so 160,000 such cities would suffice.

It would be possible to configure them in a simple way--by placing cities "in a broken line on the perimeter of continents" and therefore leave the interiors to nature.  He goes into more detail about how these cities might be organized internally and in relation to natural areas, all in a few pages.

At the time this proposal seemed so outlandish that even Shepard devotees (a small but enthusiastic and sometimes influential self-selected group) tended to ignore these pages as an overreach, if not an actual embarrassment.

Soleri's demonstration Arcosanti, built in 1970s in Arizona
On the other hand, it was the 1970s--the era of planned communities and big ideas, Buckminster Fuller and his floating cities and cities under geodesic domes, Paolo Soleri's arcologies, when Daniel Burnham's exhortation was widely quoted: "Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work."

The world has much bigger cities now, and more of them, but they grew virtually unplanned, and many observers would simply call them monstrous.  Meanwhile the world's population has more than doubled, from 3 billion to nearly 8 billion.  All of the ecological disasters identified in the 70s are getting closer or well underway, with the addition of the mother of all crises, the climate crisis.  (And the "perimeters" of continents in Shepard's suggestion can longer be coastal cities, thanks to flooding by the rising oceans.)

And thanks to the climate crisis, the Half Earth is likely to be realized, though not in a pretty way.  In fact the online version of  Bill McKibben's recent New Yorker  piece is entitled: How Extreme Weather is Shrinking the Planet. 

The changes may come in waves (literally on the coasts when the sea washes in) with gaps between them, but the changes--whatever they will be--will be as close to permanent as humans can conceive. McKibben:

"Human beings have always experienced wars and truces, crashes and recoveries, famines and terrorism. We’ve endured tyrants and outlasted perverse ideologies. Climate change is different. As a team of scientists recently pointed out in the journal Nature Climate Change, the physical shifts we’re inflicting on the planet will “extend longer than the entire history of human civilization thus far.”

If global heating reaches predicted levels, let alone levels allowed by doing little or nothing to limit them, areas of the world where human now live will be too hot for humans to remain.  Islands are already disappearing under rising seas, cites will next be pushed back or erased.  The entire state of Florida is endangered even in relatively modest scenarios.

The areas where humans can live (or work or visit or farm or even see) in a century or two (and possibly sooner)  may well constitute a much smaller part of the Earth than now. The planet is effectively shrinking now, as McKibben illustrates, as pollution, garbage and effects of global heating spread, along with concrete, razed forests, dying rivers, dead zones spreading in the oceans, and dead soil.  It will do so faster and for more people in the coming years and decades.

So new ways of living in new places won't be only a ecologist's proposals.  They will be the work of the future.  New ideas now, new designs, new strategies to make life worth living, and quite possibly better, are also the work of the present.

Sunday, December 09, 2018

Masters of Deceit

In the late 1950s, notorious FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover published a book that sold in the millions called Masters of Deceit.  It purported to describe the nefarious activities of the Soviet Union in the US by way of the American Communist Party.

Most of what Hoover described was specious, a holdover from McCarthyism and the discredited HUAC.  But he did mention Soviet espionage and its favorite techniques, including blackmail and threats of exposure.  He emphasized the insidious and especially the deceptive methods that the Soviets employed.  The Russians would do anything to undermine democracy in America.

The most virulent Red-baiting anticommunists of that and succeeding decades were Republicans.  They went after any Democrat who appeared too liberal, who was too insistent on racial equality (which Hoover linked to communist subversion), and anyone pointing out the insanity of the nuclear balance of terror as "soft on Communism."

Today it appears the Russians are Republicans' best friends.  There is a picture emerging of Russian money being laundered through the National Rifle Association and ending up in the Republican campaign for President or even the RNC bank account of the president-elect.  This past week, further evidence emerged of multiple pathways for Russian influence exerted on behalf of a candidate in Republican primaries who successfully became the Republican candidate for President in 2016.

This past week we saw more damning evidence of direct financial motivation for allowing the Russian government to interfere with the US election of 2016, influence or dictate policy proposals in the campaign, and possibly influence or dictate actual policy out of the White House.  This is a piece with the corruption in plain sight that this administration has so far gotten away with.  But its initial effect was to defraud voters and the election process, the basis for constitutional government.

Greed may furnish the dots, but they are connected with lies. The evidence emerges out of systematic lies that continue today.  Today's Masters of Deceit run the White House and, in perhaps different ways, the U.S. Senate.

Meanwhile the Republican party begins to mirror the Russian autocracy.  The first blatant example was the Republican Senate ignoring their constitutional responsibilities to advise and consent on the President's appointment to the Supreme Court in 2011.  They got away with that, so Republicans engage in even bolder efforts to undermine democracy in several states--notably Wisconsin and Michigan--to contravene the results of democratic elections.

Not content with completely blatant efforts to limit voting and cynically deny voting rights to entire segments of the public they can't persuade to vote for them, it's now pretty clear that Republicans in at least one congressional district in North Carolina actually destroyed or changed ballots, or both.  It wasn't the first time--at least the third time in that district.  I'm not convinced it didn't happen in Ohio in the 2004 presidential election.

All in all the Republican party is moving quickly towards becoming as close to an American Fascist political party as this country has ever seen.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Trees of Life's Future

Wednesday's news out of the UN climate summit in Poland was grim: the results of research by the Global Carbon Project, projecting the fall or rise of global annual carbon emissions.  For 2018 they expect the largest rise in three years, resulting in a record high.

Major US media including the NY Times ("Greenhouse Gas Emissions Accelerate 'Like a Speeding Freight Train' in 2018"(, the Washington Post,("We Are in  Deep Trouble")  and CNN had stories on the report that, if not as prominent as its importance merits, were at least somewhere near the front.  They each emphasize different aspects of the report, especially the causes.  The Guardian story which seems to have the broad outlines, begins:

"Global carbon emissions will jump to a record high in 2018, according to a report, dashing hopes a plateau of recent years would be maintained. It means emissions are heading in the opposite direction to the deep cuts urgently needed, say scientists, to fight climate change.

The rise is due to the growing number of cars on the roads and a renaissance of coal use and means the world remains on the track to catastrophic global warming. However, the report’s authors said the emissions trend can still be turned around by 2020, if cuts are made in transport, industry and farming emissions."

Also launched at the UN summit, the World Resources Institute reported on the conflict between the food needs of the rising human population and the planetary need to cut emissions.  A number of major efforts are required, including one that Paul Hawkens Project Drawdown figured out was very big: cutting down on the one-third of all food that is wasted.

But the need for more food without clearing more land for agriculture will require a major dietary change in the US and other western countries.  Namely, a drastic reduction of beef.

Amazon deforested cattle "ranch" 
For at least forty years it's been known that a leading cause of deforestation, especially in the Amazon, has been cutting down trees to make growing and grazing land, so that the hamburger empires could expand.  We're reaching a hard limit, the report says: if we insist on so much beef, all the forests in the world will be cut down.  Or to quote the Guardian's subhead: Current food habits will lead to destruction of all forests and catastrophic climate change by 2050, report finds.

That trees are key to drawing down CO2 is not new.  Hawkens' project named protecting tropical forests in the top five most effective strategies.  Recent research confirms that rainforest regrowth also contributes.  Meanwhile, rainforests and forests in general host a huge percentage of land species, probably more than half of all plant and animal species on the planet.

But in general, the role of plants--and specifically trees--in regulating the global environment has been stubbornly overlooked.  The familiar and seemingly inert vegetation isn't very sexy to a society hypnotized by shiny new technologies. Lots of economic vested interests don't want forests to be looked at or valued: including agribusiness, energy extraction industries (including logging but also fracking and oil), real estate speculators and builders, and fast food nations requiring clear-cutting forests so beef cattle can waddle on their short walk to becoming hamburger.

But according to this article which originated in Quanta, the problem also exists within climate crisis science, dominated by atmospheric scientists who pay little attention to trees:

"Atmospheric scientists—and everyone else—could be excused for thinking of a stoically standing tree or a gently undulating wheat field as doing little more than passively accepting sunlight, wind, and rain. But plants are actually powerful change agents on the planet’s surface. They pump water from the ground through their tissues to the air, and they move carbon in the opposite direction, from air to tissue to ground. All the while, leaves split water, harvest and manipulate solar energy, and stitch together hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon to produce sugars and starches—the sources of virtually all food for Earth’s life."

What new research shows (and old research at least suggested) is that forests can affect weather and climate even at a distance.  According to one scientist quoted:

“None of the atmospheric scientists are thinking about” how plants could influence rainfall, Swann said, though hints have appeared in the scientific literature for decades. And, she added, “it blows the ecology community’s mind … that the plants over here could actually influence the plants over there.”

But a large portion of Earth's food is possible because of forest-driven rainfall.  Scientists are beginning to suggest that in the most important rainforests, it's the forest that came first, and then the rains.

Understanding the life of the forest can also aid in preventing or minimizing the huge wildfires that occur more frequently and more intensely thanks to global heating and its effects.  The state of California is making some headway in dealing with forests and fires, despite the fact that upwards of 60% of the state's forests are under federal control.  And those who live in fire zones can also do more.  But these efforts are only beginning, and must be based on a thorough understanding of forests themselves.

An extensive and more sophisticated understanding of the importance of trees and forests to the planet, its climate and its ability to support life should make its way closer to the top of topics in conversations about the future.

Which also means that studying forests and the role of vegetation is a top future-oriented vocation for those making such decisions about their life's work today.

Monday, December 03, 2018

Climate Conference Opening Day

Two issues related to the climate crisis emerged today as the UN global climate conference opened in Poland.

AP coverage began:

KATOWICE, Poland (AP) — As leaders attending the U.N.’s annual climate summit heard fresh warnings about the dire consequences of leaving global warming unchecked, a new issue emerged Monday as a pressing concern: how to persuade millions of workers their industry can’t have a future if humanity is to have one.

Hosting the talks in the heart of its coal region of Silesia, Poland tried to set the tone for the two-week meeting by promoting the idea of a “just transition” for miners and other workers facing layoffs as countries adopt alternative energy sources.

“We are trying to save the world from annihilation, but we must do this in a way that those who live with us today in the world have the best possible living conditions,” Polish President Andrzej Duda said. “Otherwise they will say, ‘We don’t want such policy.’”

This issue only suggests the range of consequences that also must be addressed for successful attempts to lower and eliminate greenhouse gases pollution that cause global heating.

Some activists criticize the choice of  Poland for the conference because of the country's dependence on coal. Coal remains a major greenhouse gases pollutant, and coal-fired plants in many parts of the world (including planned new ones in China) remain a major threat.   Yet Silesia (which may be where my paternal great-grandfather came from, when he was brought to America to mine coal in the late 19th century) has great symbolic power in reminding the powerful that workers and poor people as well as the poorer countries of the world should not be left to bear the burden either of the climate crisis nor efforts to address it.

Coinciding with the start of the international conference is the annual 24 Hours of Reality, a global stream of information and advocacy on the climate crisis, associated with Al Gore.  In an interview with New York Magazine's David Wallace-Wells, Gore honed in on another issue, this time on the effects side of the climate crisis: public health.

Gore began by pointing out, that during the northern California wildfires: "For most of the week, the four most polluted cities in the world were Sacramento, San Francisco, San Jose, and Chico, worse than any cities in India."

The Bay Area experienced as much air pollution in a few days as the entire state experiences from automobiles for the year. This pollution came from the wildfires, which burned not only trees but houses and other structures, releasing toxic chemicals into the air.  A wide range of illnesses is now associated with air pollution, including obvious ones like asthma (a growing problem) but also unexpected ones like schizophrenia.

The public health issue--which extends to effects of floods, hurricanes, heatwaves and other disasters induced or exacerbated by global heating--is also more directly linked to greenhouse gases pollution, especially from burning coal.  Air pollution is now killing more than nine million people a year globally.

In Poland, the distinguished natural historian David Attenborough spoke on the opening day: "If we don't take action, the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon."  He spoke as the official representative of the people of the Earth, and showed a montage of video messages made by ordinary people around the world.

"The world's people have spoken. Their message is clear. Time is running out," Attenborough said. "They want you, the decision-makers, to act now."

Climate Crisis to Climate Catastrophe

The latest UN climate summit opens today (Monday) in Poland for two weeks.  Since there is always a shinier object to catch media attention, it will require some effort to find reports on what's going on.  I'll try, and during those weeks also post on some related matters.

But there are already two differences this year, right at the start.  The first is the sense of urgency.  And related to that, more attention to the neglected half of the climate crisis.

The reasons for the sense of urgency are all in recent reports, including the US government's much-ignored assessment released on the Feast of Rabid Consumption, otherwise known as Black Friday weekend.  That case was made in the Guardian article Sunday entitled Portrait of a Planet on the Verge of Climate Catastrophe:

"But this year’s [UN summit] will be a grimmer affair – by far. As recent reports have made clear, the world may no longer be hovering at the edge of destruction but has probably staggered beyond a crucial point of no return. Climate catastrophe is now looking inevitable. We have simply left it too late to hold rising global temperatures to under 1.5C and so prevent a future of drowned coasts, ruined coral reefs, spreading deserts and melted glaciers."

After describing the latest reports and current situation, as well as the likely effects, the article concludes:

"It will be bad for humans, but catastrophic for Earth’s other inhabitants... Scientists warned more than 30 years ago that such a future lay ahead, but nothing was done to stave it off. Only dramatic measures are now left to those seeking to save our burning planet..."

infographic by the  Click to enlarge
Though it's been several years that we've known that the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere will continue to warp climate for the next decade or so, and nobody knows yet if we've crossed the ultimate point of no return to runaway climate cataclysm, the latest (and usually conservative) UN report demonstrates that the world is almost certainly going to cross the 1.5C line, which is widely believed to be the limit before major climate catastrophes are in the cards.  And  major means more than we're seeing now.

The international goal of keeping global temps below the 2.0C line is also in danger.  The US report imagines rise of 3C, the consequences of which are unimaginable.

In terms of global response, there is a mixed bag of good and bad news.  To the good,  clean energy (which doesn't spew greenhouse gases, as well as other toxics) is growing and getting cheaper than most would have predicted, while fossil fuels, still vastly larger energy suppliers, are on the wane.  In the US, while carbon tax proposals didn't fare well in the 2018 elections, several other states are considering them.

But the situation is so dire now that incremental good is not going to offset the continuing bad news about glaciers melting, the oceans heating, sea level rising and so on.  So another Guardian article includes this quote:

“We are clearly the last generation that can change the course of climate change, but we are also the first generation with its consequences,” said Kristalina Georgieva, the CEO of the World Bank."

And that's the other change, the other difference.  Unless the world quickly cuts greenhouse gases emissions to nearly none, the future will continue to get worse and worse, until it will never get better, for thousands of years at least.  Changing course has been the priority, and is now more urgent than ever.

But there's the second half of that statement--we are the first generation that has to deal with climate induced disasters, which so far include wild fires, drought, flooding, intense storms, killer heat, lost crops, climate refugees and warfare, and probably more.  The world is waking up to the need to anticipate and respond to predictable and likely threats and changes, such as sea level rise.

In bureaucracy-speak, those two sets of tasks are called adaptation and mitigation.  Frankly I can never remember which is which, because the words don't make sense.  I call them addressing the causes, and the effects of the climate crisis.

So this year the World Bank takes the lead in making the inevitable swing towards dealing with the effects, that everyone can see. The Guardian: "The bank announced on Monday that its record $100bn (£78bn) of climate funding from 2021-2025 would for the first time be split equally between projects to cut emissions and those protecting people from the floods, storms and droughts that global warming is making worse. In recent years, just 5% of global funding has gone on protection..."

Why so little towards protection previously?  Besides taking awhile to recognize the scope of the problem, there was likely also a reluctance to divide attention from the need to cut back emissions, the need to deal with the causes.  Some feared that a phenomenon that already seemed too complex would lose even more people with this additional set of tasks.  It's hard enough to get people to concentrate on one huge goal; two might be too much.

There's the additional fear--and it might be coming--that efforts to address effects will become so central that efforts to address causes will slow or stop.  This could happen particularly if those who refuse to recognize the climate crisis suddenly switched strategy and say something like, "well, we don't know why the climate is going crazy so we can't do anything about that.  But we do see what it's doing, and we must deal with that."

This suggests that an already narrow window for effective change in limiting global heating is even narrower, not only because we probably have little time to limit future catastrophe, but because we will be too busy dealing with the effects in the here and now, and we will need all the attention and resources we can muster to do so.

But the need to keep addressing the causes won't end.  Now is the time to insist on both, which is another reason I employ this vocabulary: cause and effect are automatically linked forever.  They aren't two different things; they are logically and actually bound together in an easily understandable way.  Though it took a long time, we eventually dealt with both causes and effects of automobile accidents and lung cancer, to name two prominent problems of recent decades.  It just makes sense.

It will be interesting therefore to see if current advocates of climate crisis action stop resisting the discussion of dealing with effects, and take control of both aspects of addressing the climate crisis, without losing efforts to address either one.  This has slowly been happening.  These meetings in Poland may suggest whether a common strategy can be achieved.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

R.I.P. Robin Metz

Robin Metz, professor and writer, died yesterday after a long illness.  He taught writing for fifty years at Knox College, and was its longest serving faculty member at the time of his death.  He began teaching fiction in 1967, and eventually expanded the Knox writing program to become one of the school's largest.  He died in his sleep, on his farm in Wisconsin, with his wife and his daughters near him.

Robin with me in the background in
my Arlo Guthrie hat
I was one of Robin's first students and majors, and knew him for a few years at the very beginning of his teaching career.  He came to Knox directly from the Iowa Writers Workshop.  Since I was a senior, there was only about four years difference in our ages.  It also happened that we were near neighbors that year, both residing on West First Street.  So in addition to the campus classes and interactions, I spent many evenings at his house, sharing tumblers of bourbon and lots of talk--everything from politics to old Pittsburgh radio shows we remembered (we were both from western Pennsylvania) and even literature and writing.

We were in his living room to see LBJ announce he wasn't running for another term, and the night Robert Kennedy was shot.  He was on the bus of Knox students that went to Washington for the antiwar protest at the Pentagon.  At a rest stop on the way back, some women got fed up with the lines in the ladies room and invaded the men's.  He glanced back at them and said, "This is the most revolutionary thing that's happened this weekend."

 Robin was kind and helpful to me, and for awhile after I'd officially left Knox the guest bedroom in his new house was open to me on Galesburg visits.  He was married to a different Lynn then, the mother of his two little girls.

Robin was a fiction writer in those days.  Later he turned to poetry and plays, for which he won awards.  He was a teacher throughout, and his qualities and influence as a teacher I am sure will be fully praised by the following forty-nine years of students.

Robin combined warmth with an incisive sense of humor. He had great charm, and despite tragedies, he probably would have agreed that he also led a charmed life, and a full one.  May he rest in peace.