May 29, 2011

Paths Not Taken

A writer never sees his book in quite the same way that a reader does. A finished book contains not just the final plot: it holds the author's memory of paths not taken, possibilities considered and abandoned, failed gambits, choices regretted, missed opportunities. Kind of like real life, you could say.

May 28, 2011

A Matter of Geography

I recently put three of my e-books out on a new site, XinXii.com. The domain name sounds vaguely Chinese, but the web site is actually an off-shot of a traditional German publishing company, GD-Verlag. The site is well-organized and very easy to use, although I had to do a bit of prep work in order to make full use of the options they offer, including an extract. I chose the PDF format, figuring that it is still the most universal way of reading an electronic document. The whole-e-book thing is just getting started in Europe, but I figure it can't hurt to have a seat on the train before it leaves the station.

What I found interesting is that my collection of essays on global warming has attracted quite a bit of interest. I also found that traffic on my old climate change web site, PlanetRestart.org, has really jumped. Here in the good old U.S. of A. the e-book has attracted a few scales, but nothing to talk about. As someone who still believes passionately in the clear and increasingly present danger posed by climate change, I find the difference between the two continents to be revealing.

Think about all the fuss a couple of weeks ago over the May 21st end-of-the-world prediction that riveted the world's attention . . . until May 22. You had folks selling their homes and taking to the streets passing out Bibles and carrying signs warning that the end is near; then when it didn't happen, it was back to business as usual.

That sums up the reception that climate change has received. So a few glaciers are melting. So a year doesn't go by without breaking some sort of weather record, one that was just set a few years before that. So we have more extreme weather. So what?

Well, here's what: the end is near. Not the end of life on the planet, but certainly the end of life on the planet as my generation knew it. And that's what matters to me: the lives that my children and grandchildren will live.

They already sense that they will grow up in economically-diminished times, that the days of wine and roses are over, at least for a long time. As a caring parent and grandparent, it has been my sad duty to tell them that's not even the half of it, that the really bad news is that the world they see around them today won't be there for them to pass along to their grandchildren.

I know how those poor folks felt on May 21st. I know what it feels like to be convinced that a great calamity is about to unfold; you just aren't sure when. I know what it feels like to want to prepare people for a future that you see as a certainty but that most don't see at all. I know what it is like to wave warning signs prophesying the approach of doom.

Seems to me like the folks in Europe get it. Here at home, mostly they don't. Certainly the Republican Party remains opposed to any acceptance of the science behind climate change. Denial runs strong in them. Given that time may not be on our side, their intransigence is doubly frustrating.

Well, a figurative May 21st will be here at some tipping point. Like my fellow environmental doomsdayers, I remain 100 percent convinced that me and my fellow believers will be vindicated. Unlike the religious doomsdayers, I will be thrilled to be wrong.

May 24, 2011

A Twist of Fate

Some questions can't be answered. Like the time I was home on leave after my tour in Vietnam and I went to the funeral of a local boy who had been killed in action and his mother asked me why I was alive and her boy was dead.

Or maybe you have just watched your house and your neighbor's house and your whole damn town get wiped out by a tornado, and you are sitting there amidst the debris field of your life wondering why of all the places in the world that tornado had to touch down right on top of you.

This gets to the larger question of why bad things happen to good people, what Herman Melville called "the accidental malice of the universe." Another question without any answer, at least none that satisfies.

I could have told that young man's mother that there really was no reason at all why I lived and her boy died. I was just a little lucky; he was a little unlucky. Just like the guy across the street whose house was spared while his neighbor's house was reduced to a splintered rubble pile.

They will sit there, looking at each other across the street and wonder what the difference was. But on that one, God seems to have a "don't ask, don't tell" policy, so we are left to fill in our own blanks. Maybe that is the answer.

May 19, 2011

Greed

The U.S. Senate recently voted to block moves to end $2 billion in tax breaks for the five biggest oil companies. Supporters of retaining the tax breaks for these oil companies argued that the the measure to eliminate the tax breaks was '"misguided, unwarranted and ultimately counterproductive." Opponents of retaining the breaks argued that the oil companies had posted $1.2 trillion in profits and hardly could claim poverty.

So, how much were we really asking the big five oil companies to give up? Well, one site I found put it like this: if a million dollars in $100 bills would fit inside a shopping bag and a billion dollars would fill a small room in a house, then a trillion dollars would cover an entire football field.

Part of the problem in understanding what this really means is that we humans find it hard to visualize very large or very small numbers. If you think about it, we humans evolved in a world that was bounded by the physical senses. The largest numbers early man had to estimate was a herd of animals. The smallest objects were those visible to the naked eye, about the width of a strand of hair.

The modern world is quite different. As citizens, we have to deal with bailouts, budgets and tax breaks by the billions and trillions. We read about them on computers that process information in billionths of a second. However, our brains still process really big and really small numbers using neural networks that were forged during the Stone Age.

The bigger problem is an equally ancient human attribute: greed. It obviously never occurred to these oil company executives that in these troubled times when all of us are feeling the pinch and a lot of us are really suffering, the patriotic thing to do would be to set an example and voluntarily give up the tax breaks. Nope. Apparently never crossed their minds.

We have come a long way from the days when the country came first. Even during World War II there were people making money—good money—from the war machine. But war profiteers were held up for public contempt. It was understood that making some money was okay but taking advantage of a situation to gouge a helpless public was considered . . . well, unpatriotic.

May 14, 2011

Wish I Didn't Know Now ...

I read a story in CNN today that made me wish I was back in the 1950s when we weren't constantly awash in the dirty laundry of the world. I won't provide details, but let's just say this story is one I wish I had skipped. Guess I'm getting old, but do we really need to know this stuff?

Of course, I understand that the answer is emphatically "yes." Exposure is the first step in cleansing disease. The winds of change are sometimes badly needed in this sad world of ours. I guess I was just shocked to discover that at my age I could still be profoundly shocked at something that never should have been tolerated and almost certainly does not belong in the current family of mankind.

Many of the violent clashes affecting Africa and the Middle East involve similar growing pains, as modern societies seek to slough off ancient beliefs and practices that no longer are tolerated or tolerable. So I guess the reporters should keep right on shoving this stuff into my face. As someone said, "Attention must be paid."

May 13, 2011

The Pivot Point

I've been getting ready to write about growing up in the 1950s. What surprised me after some preliminary research is how many "firsts" there were in the 1950s: credit cards, bar codes, the pill, microchips, and Mickey D's, just to name a few. All were born during the 50s.

The 20th Century was dominated by wars, both hot and cold. But during the pivot point of the 50s, something else was happening. The seeds of the 21st Century society we live in today were being firmly planted. The pill that liberated women, the microchip that built the first personal computers, the bar codes that are the very symbol of consumerism ... all these were unveiled during the 1950s. Far from being a sleepy decade, the 50s were a social and technological explosion waiting to happen.

Of course, as a kid growing up during those years I was unaware of all these momentous events that lay just around the curve of time. My life was unfolding in slow motion on a small street in a small town in New England. It was a time when children were expected to play at home within earshot of their parents instead of being shuttled around to an endless round robin of activities to keep them "busy." Homework didn't start until the 5th grade. Talk about a lost world!

May 4, 2011

Torturous Debate

It didn't take long for the political bickering to resume. Within hours of the announcement that Osama bin Laden was dead, some on the right proclaimed this to be a vindication of harsh interrogation techniques. This drew an immediate response from the left. The official response from the White House seems to point both ways. My guess is that yes, water-boarding may have produced ultimately useful information, but that information only became meaningful because of other information gathered through more traditional means. In other words, color it gray, not black and white.

The larger issue to me is our inability to savor a moment of national unity for longer than five minutes. What the hell would we do if we ever had to really cooperate for a sustained period to get something done? Have we as a nation lost the capacity to find common ground? Is the divide really that wide or is it just the media that makes it seem so?

These are always important questions, but for those of us who believe that climate change represents the single greatest long-term threat to global well-being, the debate has added significance. Dealing with climate change requires agreeing to make severe sacrifices now in the hopes of sparing later generations even greater problems. Does anyone see that happening in the current political climate?

May 2, 2011

Osama bin Laden Dead

I woke up this morning expecting just another day in the life. Instead, I was greeted with a startling announcement: Osama bin Laden had been killed during a raid on the compound where he had been hiding for several years. The operation was a triumph of intelligence gathering, planning, and execution. As far as I am concerned, it is good riddance to a pestilential presence on the planet. I don't like war, but you can't just let people screw with you, either.

Now comes the aftermath. Questions are already being asked about the location of the hideout, a massive compound in a city less than an hour's drive from Pakistan's capital, a city that housed a large Pakistani military base. Surely a lot of people in the Pakistani military and intelligence community knew that someone important was living there.

Then there will be those who doubt that bin Laden is really dead. After all, the body was buried at sea, so how can we be sure? My guess is that there is plenty of evidence, including DNA, to back up the claim. Burying the body at sea was a smart move. Now there can be no place for followers to go, no symbolic site for future commemorations of his death and life.

As for the President, this has to be a revealing moment. No one can say he didn't act when the time to act was upon him. I have always felt that Obama's greatest strength was his patience, thoroughness, and inner toughness ... and his ability to act once his mind was made up.

There will inevitably be those who try to throw a shadow across this moment. The afterglow will soon fade to black as the doubters and critics find their voice. Doesn't matter. This moment is for all those who lost loved ones in 9/11. Let that be enough.

May 1, 2011

Rebuild or Restart

I called my climate change blog Planet Restart, the idea being we needed to push the "restart" button to begin a new way of thinking about how we should be living on the planet. I heard an echo of that phrase listening to an interview of Dmitry Orlov, author of Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Example and American Prospects.

He argues that President Obama is making a mistake by trying to restart the economy instead of rebuilding a new more sustainable economy. I find his specific point, as well as his more general argument, to be worth thinking about. We Americans are reluctant to think of ourselves in old world terms such as "empire," but that is in fact what we are. Not a territorial empire, perhaps, but very definitely an ideological and economic empire.

The USSR was perhaps the last of the old school empires. The US is part of the new world empires born in the rush to globalism. China and India and Europe are also in the running to join us. Unfortunately for them, the only thing they may end up joining us in is the collapse. For that is the sense one has, that the end of something is coming, that the current ruling structures are facing their own collapse of authority, and with it, everything else.

The extravagantly heedless wastefulness of the endless demand for growth to fuel these empires have summoned up the modern-day Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse: climate change, peak oil, and population growth.

William Butler Yeats said it best in his famous poem, The Second Coming: Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world ... And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?