October 18, 2013

On the Book Shelf

Currently I'm reading an Italian novel by Fabio Volo (in English translation, of course). He's a European sensation, this guy Volo, whose easygoing writing style reminds me of Nick Hornby's books.  Fabio is a radio personality, a film maker, an actor, and a lady's man.  I don't guess he's having much fun in Roma, right? 

This novel is called "One More Day," and it's kind of an extended thought experiment.  A young Italian guy living in Rome, Giacomo, with a ho-hum job, takes the tram to work every day.  His schedule is the same as a young woman's who also takes the same tram almost every day.  He becomes obsessed with her.  He finds her a thing of matchless grace and beauty.  Uncharacteristically, he finds he is too shy ever to speak to her or to make much in the way of eye contact.  This goes on for a long time.  Finally, one day she asks him if he would like to get off the tram and have a cup of coffee with her.

So he does.  They talk and it develops that the next day she is flying to New York to take a new, dream job.  She is having a party that very night, in fact, and she (her name is Michela) invites Giacomo to come.  He makes up an excuse and begs off (his diffidence still in place).  The next day, however, he goes to the airport to spy on her departure.  Giacomo sees Michela in the company of a young man and figures she must be attached (this proves to be wrong; it is her brother).  Naturally, at some point Giacomo travels to New York to find her, and it is at that point that the "thought experiment" about relationships begins.

I like simple human tales like "One More Day."  I needed a break from the doomsday stuff, frankly, having just finished a couple of books by Clive Hamilton, the Australian economist/natural philosopher, including "Requiem For A Species."  This book, as the title hints, explores the reasons that humans never did anything about global warming.  Why the outbreaks of Denialism, the obstinance, the venality that blocked any effective response?  If, 30 years ago, we had simply reacted rationally, as a species, it is probable that the global warming crisis could have been averted without significant pain.  Indeed, it is likely that the overall quality of life would have been much better at this point.

A "reaction," of course, would have meant a comprehensive response involving Draconian population control, a powering down in energy usage, a massive retreat from consumer materialism, a "de-Americanization" of the world's economies, and a shift to ecological rhythms and limits in the way we live.  But it would have been fine.  It would have been nice. I would actually prefer it if the Pacific Ocean were not filled with a Texas-sized slurry of degrading plastic.

That's not what we did, of course.  We went the other way, although we began talking a great deal about what we weren't doing.  We substituted "concern" for action, and that's still mostly where we are. 

As far as the "Requiem" is concerned, I'm not completely convinced of explanations, where human psychology is concerned, that involve "many reasons."  I don't think humans really process decisions that way.   The adage that a decision is simply the last thing we were thinking when we got tired of the problem makes the most sense to me.

I think that human beings are simply naturally fatalistic.  While modern industrial civilization, the artifact of human ingenuity, has now produced our own extinction event, we each had a personal extinction event that predated this one.  We call it death.  When we read that we must do something now to avoid a sea level rise of 20 feet in the year 2100, for example, unconsciously we do a quick calculation and move on to the...Fabio Volo novel.

Eventually, the threat of near-term extinction will match up, or be congruent with, the timeline we associate with a human life.  We may well be there now, but the vagaries of climate science give us enough wiggle room to avoid thinking that way in conclusive terms.  Maybe I will get through my life and experience only these "super storms" that the mass media now write about, timorously suggesting that maybe this is connected to climate change, before the news outlet is inundated with vicious, corporate-sponsored Denialist troll attacks.   The weather has always varied!

It's what makes this trudge toward oblivion darkly humorous, in a sad, George Carlin way.  Our extinction is hiding in plain sight.  It's the weather, for crying out loud.  But as I say, maybe that's all I will ever see, and with luck, it's all my daughter's generation will ever see.  Strangeness in the weather, as the Arctic ice disappears, and Greenland melts, and the oceans acidify, the meridional flow of the jet streams brings us odd climate events like annual 100-year floods and searing droughts - but we get through it okay.  The wheels don't completely come off. 

As a selfish Homo sapiens, another ape not half so smart as he thought he was (and definitely Too Smart For His Own Good), I would gladly take that.  Let me read about Italian romances in peace, and may my daughter have the same luxury.  That's all I really ask at this point.

October 17, 2013

Sound & Fury, Signifying Nothing

Another line borrowed from the "This Shit Writes Itself" man.  A particularly good line, actually, although Shakespeare's reference was to all of life.  Anyway, the corrupt solons of the District of Calumnia are busily strutting and fretting their hour upon the stage, but it's not likely we'll hear no more from them.

Partly as an answer to good friend TJR's welcome letter: I have managed to maintain a sang-froid attitude about these budget & debt ceiling shenanigans because I don't think the country's real problems are related to choosing the right "political theory" to manage the economy, or to redistribute wealth, or to ensure our "freedoms."  The use by the Tea Party of Obamacare as its rallying cry, because enforced health insurance is the surest sign of tyranny, must be some kind of bad joke. How utterly confused can you get?  Obamacare was devised by the Heritage Foundation, a right wing think tank.  It is a corporate giveaway that channels money from the government to private health insurance companies by means of tax-supported subsidies.  Obamacare is the result of liberal/conservative compromise because it's politically impossible to provide single payer health care in this country to the general populace.
But we all knew that.  The Tea Party is simply the kind of political movement that arrives right on schedule whenever times get hard for the general populace, and things have gotten hard and will probably stay hard...more or less forever.  That is because we have reached the limits to growth in the United States and in the Western world (including Japan) generally.  Tea Parties, or the Ku Klux Klan, or the Nazis, are political parties of resentment and opportunism.  The Tea Party is mostly made up of obese, diabetic, poorly-educated, Baby Boom white trash, and their militaristic cadres in the younger generations,  who know their lives have gone off the rails, who don't understand how the modern economy works (or why it doesn't work), and are looking around for someone to blame.  In Germany scapegoats were provided by the Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and Slavic untermenschen.  In modern America we have turned to our perennial favorites, African-Americans (thus, the rabid, irrational hatred of the President), along with immigrants and gays, who have been brought back for a command encore. Playing off these hatreds and prejudices can propel a mediocrity like Ted Cruz to national prominence, exactly as it did a failed Austrian artist about 80 years ago in Germany.

Well, what other avenue was Ted Cruz going to follow to the top?

Meanwhile, back at ground level, the Earth's bounty is beginning to sputter.  Although you would never know it from reading liberal economists such as Paul Krugman, an economy is ultimately dependent on the natural world, a circumstance which arises from our carbon-based essence.  Mr. Krugman and his ilk, who live inside dry lab models of an America which existed mainly between about 1950 and the late 1990's, cannot admit their irrelevance without becoming one of the unemployed masses studying books on subsistence organic farming.  As Gail Tverberg wryly notes - Mr. Krugman, or Larry Summers, or Eugene Fama, the latest Nobel winner in this dubious field, these witch doctors are proponents of a political system called "Economism," which posits the likelihood (and necessity) of endless growth on a finite planet, with an ever-increasing population.  Thus, the addition of more and more debt, which multiplies itself exponentially, will never be a problem because of the exponential growth that lies just ahead, as soon as we come up with the right re-jiggering of the elements of the economy, the correct level of money-printing, or stimulus, or tax redistribution.

Well, it works on paper.  Does it work so well in the real world where the increasing cost of the basic energy fuel, petroleum, keeps going up because of the increasing costs of extraction and the daunting difficulties of getting at the ever harder to find remaining supplies?  Does it work so well when the atmosphere now has 400 parts per million carbon dioxide, and ominous signs, such as methane vents in the Arctic and Siberian tundra, presage the onset of a runaway greenhouse effect?

That's the real world, if you ask me.  The circus in Washington is a massive, hallucinatory diversion in which the corporate politicians give interviews to the mouthpieces of the corporate media and talk as if all this "debt ceiling" and budget cutting nonsense is any kind of answer to the problems of the real, physical world.  As you watch the spittle fly from Chris Matthews's bloated face, do you ever hear him place these problems in any kind of environmental context?  Does the President ever mention this stuff?  He's talking again about igniting "growth" in the country so we can have "good jobs" and "get America working again."  So America can "pay its bills."

Nature bats last, as Guy McPherson reminds us.  We are moving full-speed into a resource-constrained world, where oil, fresh water, arable land, and a viable climate will all be in increasingly short supply.  We narcotize ourselves with ideas of easy transition to alternative energy and "renewables," figuring there will be plenty of time for such a seamless transition "some day" into a Green Future, but for the moment, let's bail out General Motors, squeeze those tar sands, level those Kentucky mountains and extract that "clean coal," fill the Pacific Ocean with cesium and strontium from crumbling reactors.  We have all the time in the world, we just have to get the country moving again so that the economy is operating at "full potential."

The ultimate fantasy being: the world at large will enjoy the American lifestyle, in all its opulent, porcine glory circa-1985, all seven or eight billion people, warm, toasty and well-fed with their solar and wind-powered everything doing the work.  It will all take care of itself, and no one ever has to even talk about it.  We just need to lift that debt ceiling and get America back to work, doing something or other, powered by something or other else.