December 26, 2015

Saturday Morning Essay: "Pond Scum," a New Yorker article by Kathryn Schulz

Such was the title of Ms. Schulz's essay about Henry David Thoreau.

She doesn't like Henry very much.  She threw the whole DSM-V (or whatever Roman numeral they're up to now) at Thoreau in her ill-tempered screed, particularly those chapters on personality disorders. It's the only thing about Thoreau I've ever read that had the word "Kardashians" in it.  Anyway, according to her, Thoreau was "narcissistic," "anti-social," "hypocritical," and a bunch of other things.

I read a rejoinder to Ms. Schulz's essay in a Sierra Club publication, which was much better written and set the record straight, including her scandalous beginning where she took Thoreau's account of a visit to the site of a shipwreck on Cape Cod completely out of context.  After I read that corrective, I realized what Schulz was doing: she was acting as the literary equivalent, in the case of the Transcendentalists (and Thoreau in particular), as Ann Coulter is to the "Liberals."  It accounts for her inflammatory title, idiotic over-simplifications and adamant refusal to delve beneath the surface to see what Thoreau was actually writing about.  The whole point of her essay was simply to draw attention to herself.

One of her main criticisms of Thoreau is that he occasionally went home to the family residence in Concord to get his laundry done and eat some of his mother's cooking.  I've reported on that here. I realize that for Ms. Schulz this violated one of the rules of "Survivor," which I think is the basis of her analysis of Walden. What Thoreau was doing at the pond, for her, was attempting to see if he could survive out in the woods for 26 months, without exogenous sustenance or assistance.  If he didn't do that, then he should be voted Off The Island.  He cheated.  Plus, he was a "failure," because Walden was not a best-seller in his lifetime.  And nobody reads its turgid prose, she says, and I have to admit it sounded as if she hadn't.

I'm sure Thoreau was something of a prickly and difficult personality.  From what I've read, so was Sir Isaac Newton and a lot of other geniuses.  Kathryn Schulz might have parked her own ego long enough to attempt an understanding of why so many people think Thoreau was great despite his asceticism or indifference to New York cocktail parties (another of her criticisms - Thoreau didn't drink).  A lot of it had to do with his willingness to "throw away" his brief life on the development of a philosophy that ran counter to the prevailing ethos of the Industrial Revolution. That's what Walden is actually about.  If you simplify life to the point where you meet the base requirements of maintaing "vital heat," what other things do you need to add to life in order to achieve a satisfying existence, and which things (when you keep adding) result in diminishing returns?  That's pretty interesting as an experiment, don't you think? To figure it out, maybe you have to be a little "narcissistic" and "self-involved" for a while.  Why does that matter at all?  What does that really have to do with the Kardashians?

He could have been, I guess, a successful academic or maybe a hack who cranked out dumb shit for the New Yorker of his own time.  But then America would have been deprived of one of its most interesting and original philosophers.  One could similarly argue that John Lennon would probably have made a pretty clever barrister, but then he wouldn't have written "In My Life," and the English bar association would have been only marginally better.

The essay is easily forgettable and apparently it did not serve Schulz's purpose of drawing a lot of attention to herself, despite her somewhat frenzied and dishonest efforts.  The net effect for me is that the New Yorker, in allowing such a terrible misrepresentation to be published between its covers, has fallen greatly in my estimation.  To compete against the rising tsunami of internet writing, the New Yorker now hires shock-jock writers and gives them free rein to publish unedited nonsense.  In her own ironic way, Kathryn Schulz has reaffirmed the importance of classic thinkers like Henry David Thoreau and the value of real integrity.

December 14, 2015

Now Is the Winter of Our Discontent Made Glorious Summer

Encouraging news from the City of Light with the conclusion of the COP21 talks and the commitment of 120 nations to action on global warming. Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute is very optimistic about the effect of this accord, which seeks a worldwide limit of 1.5 deg C above pre-industrial baselines for global average temperatures, and the goal of gradually phasing out the use of all fossil fuels. Paul Krugman in his column today believes there is now hope for the salvation of civilization, but notes two obstacles:

Until very recently there were two huge roadblocks in the way of any kind of global deal on climate: China’s soaring consumption of coal, and the implacable opposition of America’s Republican Party. The first seemed to mean that global greenhouse emissions would rise inexorably no matter what wealthy countries did, while the second meant that the biggest of those wealthy countries was unable to make credible promises, and hence unable to lead.

Krugman never misses a chance to ding either of these favorite nemeses of his (China and the Republicans), although in the case of China, Krugman's peculiar singling out of coal as a culprit has always seemed a little off.   "Coal" is not a heat-trapping greenhouse gas.  It's a dirty pollutant, but we should not forget that China has 1.2 billion people and is responsible for 26% of all GG emissions, whereas the United States has 300 million people (5% of the world's population) yet manages to belch out 16% of all emissions.  I think this is part of Krugman's idiosyncratic belief that the solution to global warming is to eliminate all use of coal and "reduce somewhat" other fossil fuels. I'm not sure, as I've said before, where he got this formulation, although I suspect that he wonders how well his career (or legacy, at this point) as a Keynesian "growth" economist will do in an age of steady-state economics.

As to the second hurdle, the Idiot Caucus in the U.S. Congress, we may as well face it: nothing is going to change that, and "executive action" will never be enough. The "leadership gap" that Krugman laments is part of a New York Times conceit about the "indispensability" of American leadership in, well, everything.  That is a hoary and out-of-date viewpoint. The United States is a huge problem and should be one of the leaders, but it's increasingly obvious the world can handle the crisis with America as the Great Workaround.  

The European Union, with roughly the same population as the United States, emits 10% of global GG emissions.  Americans have a lower standard of living than the Germans but use twice as much energy per capita.  China is aggressively moving forward with alternative energy, and it's obvious that China, Israel and Germany will dominate the field of alternative energy while the USA continues to debate whether there is a problem, which is not surprising since we have a Congress where well over half the members disagree with basic empirical science on fundamental subjects like evolution.  The world has probably never seen such a thing since the days of Galileo.  I think it's a serious possibility that the Republican majorities in both houses mostly do not believe that the sun is at the center of our solar system.

 Despite the feeble-mindedness at the level of American federal government, our saving grace is that U.S. GG emissions have flatlined because we're broke. Gasoline usage continues to decline despite radically lower prices.  I think this is because about 100 million Americans who should be working are not working because there's nothing to do.  If you don't have a job to drive to, and no car even if you had the job, the "miles per capita" stat works in your favor.  In turn, I think the miserable state of our economy owes to the same stupidity that leads to the composition of the Congress, so the two tend to reinforce each other in a virtuous feedback loop.  By remaining stupid and too broke to drive, Americans can make their contribution to solving the dire problem of climate change, and the U.S. percentage of emissions will continue to fall.  Fighting foreign wars for no reason, for example, spends a lot of money and is energy-intensive for the military overseas, but does not translate into higher energy use by the people back home, where most of us are.  In fact, by wasting all that money that would otherwise be invested, for example, in building a new economy based on alternative energy (as Germany has done), America doubles down on its stupid economy and guarantees that we will not have the wherewithal to contribute much to GG emissions.

Thus, I agree with the Republican position that Obama should not have sent a delegation to Paris. We would have saved the marginal contribution to GG emission from flying Kerry & Co. over there, and the educated people in the world would not have had to tiptoe around the dumbest people in the room.  The biggest complaint from the Republicans was that Obama should have been concentrating on the "terrorist" problem, such as stopping the San Bernadino attack that had already happened, rather than wasting resources on an environmental problem that is not real from the U.S. point of view. Keeping our focus on "terrorism," even if we mostly exacerbate the problem by fighting unnecessary wars in the Middle East in the first place, maintains a steady flow of the national treasury to the military industrial complex, which, one must admit, is a bipartisan beneficiary of our political system, and it will be no different under Hillary.

Yet all in all, there is reason to rejoice in this holiday season. The world will move forward without us (as it has been doing for some time, in point of fact) and Americans at the individual or state level (California, for example, is very progressive on issues of climate change, such as AB 32) can do their part to join in with those in the international community who possess the intellectual capacity, and the good faith, to deal with the problem.  

June 13, 2015

Over at Fielding's Place

February 14, 2015

A few notes from Mellish on 9-11 Truther

Happy New Year.