August 24, 2013

Saturday Morning Essay: On the Futility of Modern Waldenism

Brought to you by Peet's Dark Roast...

This is actually the second installment of my Grand Unified Theory series, as I inch up to my thesis. As soon as I figure out what it is.  I have this sense that if I'm going to take my place among great social thinkers, such as Henry David Thoreau (Walden),  Joseph Tainter (Marginal Utility), Emile Durkheim (Organic Society, Anomie), Sigmund Freud (Civilization & Its Discontents),  and Craig Dilworth (Vicious Circle Principle) and I'm probably not...then I need to come up with a seminal idea.  And I think what I've been ruminating on all these years without really realizing it is the interesting question: why is it that human beings, as a species, are constitutionally incapable, as a group, of reacting rationally to existential threats to their own viability?

You gotta admit: it's a grabber.  When I say, "react rationally," what I mean is, why can't human beings simply assess a dire problem, such as global warming, and set about solving it in a systematic fashion?  I believe it could be done, with effective communication and leadership.  I realize that the bell curve of human intelligence will always be such that about 80% of the human populace cannot grasp, in a comprehensive way, the intricacies of the problem itself.  It remains for the remaining 20% or so to show the way forward.  One immediate paradox is that the same bell curve distribution, in a democracy, produces the "leadership" that is supposed to show the way forward.  As a result, we wind up with empty suits like Barack Obama, full of smiles and conciliatory gestures towards one and all, but with absolutely no effective leadership and no resolve.  A kind of one-headed Zaphod Beeblebrox, for you Douglas Adams fans out there.

It was probably such a paradox that convinced the ancient Greek philosophers, probably the smartest human beings who ever graced the surface of the Earth, that democracy (though they invented it - it's a Greek word, after all) had its severe limitations, and that human groups were probably best led by a well-intentioned Philosopher King. 

Asking a stupid entity such as a democracy to make intelligent decisions based on highly technical details is a contradiction in terms.  That may be the first plank of my thesis.

It leads to other conclusions, such as the utter futility of acts of self-martyrdom, such as I was writing about yesterday when commenting on Guy McPherson's assessment of his own huge "mistake" in leaving his academic life and taking up residence in the "mud hut" of the Sonoran Desert.  I think he's absolutely right: he made a huge mistake.  The eensy-weensy, tiny-tiny, virtually-invisible rounding-error contribution such a lifestyle makes to the overall problem of global warming or resource depletion is a joke.  Really, what such an act of self-abnegation amounts to is simply narcissism by another route.  Look at me!  I live consistently with my principles!

Good for you.  And yet all of these spokespeople for ultra-simplicity, Guy McPherson, Dmitry Orlov, James Kunstler, routinely board jumbo jets and fly all over the country, or the world, and deliver their dire warnings after paying for the jet exhaust that has just wreaked havoc on the ozone level and dumped vast amounts of CO2 right at the level of the troposphere where it can do the most harm.

Dmitry Orlov doesn't actually parade his decision to live on a boat as any sort of virtuous decision, in point of fact.  He just likes boats and sailing, and he doesn't like work.  He enjoys the "broad margin" to his life that such simplicity allows, along the lines extolled by another Massachusetts resident, Henry David Thoreau.  Thoreau, indeed, is a very useful example of the pointlessness of self-martyrdom.  Contrary to the (80%) view that Thoreau lived in a shack beside a pond his entire life, Thoreau lived in many places during his brief years, and devoted only 26 months to the cabin he built next to Walden Pond.  He then, as he said, became again "a sojourner among mankind."

A sojourner among mankind is what we all actually are, and we are all, to one degree or another, participants in modern civilization. 

Anyway, a plank for the thesis has been laid.  My deep gratitude to the makers of such fine coffee this blue and fleecy white morning, here among the trees.

August 23, 2013

Grand Unified Theory of Unconscious Evolution, Part 1

From another Deep Green Resistance writer published on Guy McPherson's blog, Nature Bats Last:

If you have read or seen Guy McPherson, Dmitry Orlov, John Michael Greer, James Howard Kunstler, Richard Heinberg, Chris Martenson, James Hansen; seen the film “What A Way To Go: Life At the End Of Empire”, or spoken at length with anyone else who has brought up the issues of Peak Oil, environmental degradation, rising CO2 levels, the melting of the Arctic, release of methane from the tundra and clathrates, you know the score. We are in for one helluva ride, and it most likely will be unpleasant. 

As Maynard used to say on "Dobie Gillis:"  You rang?

By the way, Guy's blog is kind of fun.  The most heart-wrenching jeremiads are displayed there.  People write long, agonized posts in highly florid, ornate language, about coming to terms with near-term extinction, which even has an acronym now:  NTE. It's sort of like reading Silent Spring as Emily Dickinson might have written it.  Among these essays, Guy's are the most dire.  He's thinking about 2016, which I think is sort of cutting it close.  He's put his money down on Arctic methane release as the final hammer blow.  Other than a worldwide nuclear holocaust, Arctic methane release is probably the only horse in the pack that can finish us off by 2016.

When I first read about methane blooms, I have to admit it freaked me out, and I had the same disquieting feeling I had back in 1969 when I first read about rising CO2 levels; namely, we're not going to do anything signficant about this problem and it carries with it the possibility of mortal consequences.

Anyway, Guy presents that personal conundrum I have adverted to before: the mismatch between a perspective that takes into account the generations ahead versus the natural, and very human, narcissistic desire to have fun and do what you want in your one and only life.  Difficult tango steps to execute.  Guy's a tall, handsome guy with an enviable head of thick hair, and he frequently reminds us that he was a "tenured professor" at a world-class research university, by which he means he was a professor of geology natural resources at the University of Arizona.  Which is impressive, and everything, but you might think for a moment he must be talking about being head of CERN or director of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.  His evident need to impress you suggests that he's a little uneasy about what he's done, "walking away from the apex of empire," and sure enough, lately I read where he admits that leaving his university sinecure was "the biggest mistake" of his life.  There's that tension again. It's what keeps us all playing the game of advanced civilization, despite the enormous, obvious damage to the ecosphere.  Meanwhile, we all hope that "they" will come up with something which allows us to keep nice things, like MRI machines and advanced hip replacement therapy, and high-speed Internet, while eliminating excessive CO2 emissions, water scarcity, oceanic death, topsoil depletion, overpopulation, and right-wing talk radio.

I think of Guy as sort of the Rod McKuen of doomsayers.  His essays seem more poetic than scientific.  The blog, founded by Michael Mann and others involved in the "hockey stick" controversy, does not share his dire assessment of the Arctic methane problem, nor do more rigorous thinkers such as Dmitry Orlov.  I think Guy's intellectual gambit is that if he has to give up the glamorous academic life (or, I guess, now that's he given it up, whether he had to or not), then it's better to think that he only has to live his mistake three more years.  In a way, he's thinking in Millenialist terms, only with methane taking the role of Our Lord & Savior.

Not to make fun of Guy, who seems like a good...guy.  Rather, it introduces my thesis, which I guess I'll get to next time out.

August 21, 2013

The Safe Side of The Line

David Gregory and Karl Rove get down.

I confess that a small frisson of concern traveled up my somewhat anatomically compromised spinal column (degenerative disc problems, age- and otherwise-related) when I read about the United Kingdom's detention of David Miranda, Glenn Greenwald's partner in life, at Heathrow Airport.  Unless you've been on a solo dogsled run to the South Pole in recent months, you know that Glenn Greenwald is the American blogger and journalist who has broken most of the big stories about Eric Snowden and the NSA's massive, pervasive and patently illegal electronic eavesdropping.

The United States and the UK are the two big anti-terrorist countries, of course, meaning that they are the two countries where it is most politically advantageous to keep their respective populaces whipped into a frenzy of paranoia about burnoosed malefactors plotting day and night to do something evil, thus behooving the spy agencies to collect every last pixel and bit transmitted between any two human beings on the face of the Earth to see whether it might have something to do with such a plot.

There has been a laudable pushback against the thuggish repression of the Cameron and Obama Administrations, which has leveled the playing field in favor of a free press.  Somewhat, at least, although the truth is that individuals never have any chance against the coordinated might of the Powers That Be, once they decide to go after someone.  This was the central message of George Orwell's 1984.  Glenn Greenwald has been defiant, so far, but in time I imagine he will get worn out by the intimidation and hassling and will revert to a role of "responsible" critic and observer rather than a "player."  Mr. Greenwald has been dancing a little too close to the fire: the actual conduit of information from a notorious whistleblower, Eric Snowden, which means he has put himself squarely in the crosshairs of the Establishment.  Sometimes I think Glenn Greenwald can be a little naive; he seems to believe that it's enough that he's "right" about what he's doing, but in America this has almost nothing to do with anything anymore, at least on the Big Stage. After his Fifteen Minutes of Fame, the American people will move on to their next diversion, but any legal complications will be Mr. Greenwald's alone.  Beltway toadies such as David Gregory felt obliged to ask Greenwald whether he (Greenwald) didn't think he ought to be prosecuted for "aiding and abetting" Eric Snowden in his illegal disclosures.  David Gregroy, after all, would never do something like that, meaning, commit an act of actual journalism.  David Gregory's got a nice life pretending to be hard-hitting and dancing the frug with Karl Rove at Washington Correspondents dinners, meanwhile raking in huge sums of money being on TV.

Greenwald's venture into playerism distinguishes him from other radical critics, such as Noam Chomsky.  Mr. Chomsky writes and says extremely critical things about the United States, and particularly its foreign policy, but I can't see Noam Chomsksy ever acting as a conduit for a whistleblower's illegal disclosures.  Noam knows where The Line is, and I think in time Glenn Greenwald will move back to the safe side of The Line, having elevated his visibility markedly through his participation in the Snowden disclosures.  That increase in visibility will be good for his blogs, his journalism, his books and his public appearances, but I doubt that he wants to become so "hot" that it becomes uncomfortable to sit around the table on a "Morning Joe" show and shoot the breeze, however tendentiously. 

There is a reason that actual whistleblowers, such as Eric Snowden, tend to be loners and iconoclasts, even emotionally unstable.  Being an outlaw is rough work, and most of us want nothing to do with it. Along a continuum in public debates regarding human freedom, you have those who revel in the role of being Insiders, those who occupy positions of "responsible dissent," and then you have the genuine outlaws.  The latter are very rare, and those who successfully traverse the dangers are rarer still.  Daniel Ellsberg, perhaps, but that was another time when the world seemed much younger.