August 21, 2014

Food Chain

I was out golfing this evening, trying to get in a few holes before dinner. Walking the last couple of fairways, I was surrounded by clouds of some swarming insect. Could have been lightning bugs, I'm not sure. There were hundreds of them crowding the air space in front of me, and I endured several mid-air collisions. All in all, not a pleasant experience, even for someone relatively inured to insects after living for a year in a tent in the tropics.

Suddenly, a monarch butterfly appeared, swooping and diving into the thick of the swarm. Feeding time. It struck me that as long as those swarming insects commune in the the early evening air by the hundreds and thousands, there will be something to eat them. And so life will go on, bigger eating smaller, all the way up the food chain to the apex predator--man, who is busily devouring himself. And when our twilight comes, the insects will still swarm and the butterflies will hunt.

August 19, 2014

Dagwood's Dog

Crosswords have been a part of my routine since my days at Georgetown, when a group of us would work them at Teehan's over coffee and doughnuts. (And yes, we did them in ink. That's how we nerds roll.) Yesterday's puzzle had a clue: Dagwood's dog. The answer came to me instantly, without thinking about it. It struck me how bizarre that was--the ability to recall a minor detail from a comic strip that I hadn't read in decades, this from the same guy often seen wandering aimlessly around the house in search of whatever it was he had forgotten he was looking for in the first place. Can't tell you what I had for dinner two nights ago, but ask me the name of  Dagwood's dog and I'm all over it.

Memory, like most brain functions, is defined and mapped but not really understood. You can look at all the images of synapses and neural networks you want, but you can't hold a memory in your hand. You can't weigh it on a scale or run it though a mass spectrometer. We understand the physical process of memory formation, but I don't think anyone truly understands how electrical pulses and chemicals are transformed into the sound of a song playing in your head or the smell of the yellow raincoat you wore in kindergarten.

Researchers say there are distinctly different types of memory, although how they define those categories depends upon who you are asking. Most models show three stages. We stick our head out the door and feel that it's a bit chilly. That sensory memory is moved into short-term memory, so we don't forget why we went looking for a sweater. Seasons worth of sticking your head out the door are stored in long-term memory. We remember the seasons differently than we remember the dates of the Civil War or how to change the oil in the car. Not all of it works seamlessly. That's why we forget things.

I have come to understand that forgetting is just as important as remembering. When I came home from Vietnam my brain was filled with memories of the sights and sounds and smells of the war. I could hear the artillery and the mini-guns and the B-52 strikes. I could smell the odors of thousands of years of human sweat. I could taste the fear. Eventually, time washed the memories away, just as the waves on a beach smooth away the sand castles we build. If I wasn't able to forget all that, I would be trapped in the war forever.

My goal became to remember as little as possible. The past and the future were ghosts I rarely summoned up. I yearned to live in the eternal present, the way animals seemed to do. Think about it, can you be happier than a dog? Yes, they have their labors and sorrows--nothing that lives is immune to fear or hunger or is not granted the grace of feeling pleasure, no matter how rudimentary--but for the most part they seem to live in the now. I know that is over-simplifying, but that's what it was all about, getting back to the simple life.

I was told once that pain has three components: remembering the pain you felt, thinking about the pain you were going to feel, and the actual pain. Eliminate the first two and you cut the pain down to manageable size. Works for me.

August 11, 2014

Climate Change Unchanged

Anyone who believes that human activities have changed our climate has to be a bit depressed. Very little has been done to stem greenhouse gas emissions. The latest U.N. report says we will have to cut those emissions by 70 percent in order to avoid an increase in average global temperatures of 2 degrees Celsius, which is equal to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Such an increase would make today's extreme weather events look like the good old days they may well prove to be.

The United States remains highly resistant to the idea of climate change. Polls consistently show that two-thirds of Americans don't think climate change poses a serious threat. Five years ago, I compiled a Top-Ten list of reasons why climate change has met such a chilly reception here. On re-reading the list, which is reprinted below, I have to say that little has changed. Well, things have gotten worse, so yeah, there has been change--just not for the better.

Why Climate Change Is A Tough Sell in America

October 2009 – With apologies to David Letterman, I offer up my top 10 reasons why climate change is a tough sell in America.
Climate change is not breaking news. We Americans have grown addicted to stories that sweep over us like a giant wave. Climate change creeps in with the tide.
Climate change is not easy to understand. Weather is what you see out the window today. Climate change is computer models trying to guess what you will see out the window 30 years from now.
Climate change is not easy to explain.  Weather is Al Roker. Climate change is Al Gore.
There is no single plan to rally supporters around. Pretty much everyone agrees that greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced. But which ones, by how much and how soon, through what methods … these are all topics of intense debate.
The pain is here and now; the gain is off in the distant future. Doing something about climate change will cost billions of dollars right now. The ultimate benefit will be a more livable planet 30, 50, 100 years from now.  That’s asking for a lot to be taken on faith.
The human brain is not wired to think in terms of centuries. We pretty much live in the moment. Somewhere between the here-and-now and 100 years from now, we just stop listening.
Future shock rocks. We are being bounced from one crisis to the next like a ping-pong ball in a room full of mouse-traps. Sooner or later, we just reach the point where we just want to pull back into our shells and stop listening.
Resistance is not always futile. Controlling greenhouse gas emissions will cost big business some big bucks. If they can avoid or mitigate that future expense by financing extensive (dis)information campaigns, why not do it? Spending millions today beats spending billions tomorrow. It’s not like the average politician is looking for a reason to believe.
The political process is exhausted. The battle over health care reform has given the political process a severe case of battle fatigue. It remains to be seen how much fight is left in both parties as they try to confront an issue as complicated and contentious as energy reform.
Nation states suck at solving global problems. The world is a bunch of teenagers who have been sent to their rooms. Each room is a nation-state with a big sign on the door that says, “You are not the boss of me.” Collective action does not come naturally or easily at this stage in our geopolitical development. 

Reprinted from Fifty Years of Global Warming, available without charge at all major e-book outlets.