In his Politics, considered to be one of the founding documents for western political theory, Aristotle claims that every community organizes itself towards some good. My question is, what good is America aiming towards? Originally, I believe, it was towards a society where its individual citizens could live freely and pursue their own happiness. Yet, it seems that most Americans now define happiness, which Aristotle also saw as an end goal – at least in terms of moral behavior, as the possession of material things and monetary wealth. Yet these are all means to an end, and not the end itself. I think, given the current political climate in this country, we need to take a step back and ask ourselves a few fundamental questions – what exactly are we trying to accomplish as a nation and what exactly is the good life?

We also need to think long and hard regarding our ethics. There is a deep connection between politics and morality. Aristotle’s Politics begins where his Nichomachean Ethics ends. It has been understood for a very long time that virtuous citizens are a necessary condition for both republican and democratic forms of government. If citizens, for example, have no sense of justice, then a just government is impossible. In the decade between the Revolution and the adoption of the constitution, one of the driving questions was whether Americans were virtuous enough to sustain a democratic republic. They obviously concluded that they were, and yet, American history is full of ethical failures including, but not limited to genocide, slavery, and racism. Give me another hour and another cup of coffee and I’m sure I could create a much longer list of moral trespasses.

Part of the problem, I believe, is that we’ve historically confused religious belief with moral behavior. As a secular nation, we also need a morality that is not based on belief, but rather what is good. I think our current imbroglio with the Islamic world is America confronting its own shadow, we are like the psychotic who is unconscious of their own psychosis. Sanity can only be found by bringing into consciousness and facing what is worst about ourselves as a nation. We really need to take a long, hard look at ourselves and reflect upon who we really are as a people, rather than continuing to confuse our actual actions with our ideals. Evidence for this confusion is abundantly clear anytime the American president claims that we are a peaceful nation. We are not, neither at home or abroad. So another fundamental question we need to ask ourselves is who are we as Americans? What is it, really, to be an American? What kind of people do we want to be? What kind of nation? What do we do that supports this vision? What behavior do we engage in that is contrary to the kind of people and nation that we want to be? If our goal is to be the most powerful nation in the world, then I fail to see how we are any different than the tyrannical governments in which the U.S. Constitution was to be an antidote.

I think our inability, or downright refusal, to reflect on these questions has led us to our current sad state of affairs. We have one presidential candidate who is seen, rightly or wrongly, as being fundamentally dishonest, which violates one of the core virtues Americans seem to hold dear, as evidenced by the apocryphal story of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree, or our reverence for Honest Abe Lincoln. The other candidate seems to me to be the living embodiment of vice: he is greedy, arrogant, intolerant, gluttonous and prideful. He is also habitually dishonest, and encourages this bad behavior in the rest of us. Is this really who we are or who we want to be? If we want to make America great again, (and I’m not sure, given our past behavior, that we ever were great – whatever that really means in any case), we need to start with some self-examination which requires that core virtue of honesty, without which we are doomed to failure; after all, you can only get help when you first admit you have a problem. Indeed, without moral reflection and working to better ourselves as individual citizens, as a people and a nation, by continuing to embrace our vices rather than our virtues, we run the risk of losing all our freedoms and all that has been good about the American experiment.

Water bowl of doom

January 6, 2013 — Leave a comment

My roommate brought home a kitten this week. She was tired of being snubbed by my cats and wanted some unconditional furry love of her own, and so Kenya the jungle kitty was welcomed to our home, at least by its human occupants. As is probably true of every new pet parent, my roomie also came home with a new cat box, feeding dish, toys and water bowl – an electric water bowl that constantly circulates water.

Now, I know it is not easy living with me. I try to be as green as I can be. I compost and recycle. Something has to be on the verge of disintegration before I will get rid of it for a newer version. I am the bringer of the dark, going through the house turning off all lights that have been left on. I grow as much of my own food as possible and store it via canning, freezing and dehydrating. It is pretty clear to most of my family that sometime over the past ten years I became my grandfather. Having lived through the depression he viewed waste as a sin. I agree. While I welcome our new feline housemate, I can’t help but to find her electrified water bowl as wasteful and unnecessary. At the very least I see it as negating the LED light bulbs I had installed the day before.

I know her heart was in the right place. The water bowl circulates water so that it remains fresh. There is no question that pets deserve clean drinking water. But then, we already have a water filtration system so all of the water that comes out of our tap is fresh and pure anyway. Not to mention, dogs and cats have been domesticated for well over 8,000 years and they have gotten along just fine without electric powered water bowls. I had two cats that both lived long, healthy lives. They didn’t need electric powered water bowls. Neither do my two current cats. They get all the fresh water they need without increasing our kilowatts per hour.  Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I just don’t think pets should have their own carbon footprint.

I know in the grand scheme of things, an automated water fountain is a minor blip on the grand scale of energy usage. I mean, at least she didn’t drive her new kitty home in a Hummer. I also don’t expect any appreciable increase in our utility bills. Perhaps I’m over reacting. My response to my roommate upon first seeing the water bowl was “An electric water bowl? Really?” to which she responded “It only uses a little bit of electricity” which technically is true. It only uses a little bit more than what we are using now. But that’s not the point. I suppose some may say this is a mental illness on my part, but I can’t help but to remember the oil gushing in the Gulf of Mexico during the BP disaster. That only happened because of our energy demands. I can’t help but to remember the thousands of American troops that gave their lives in Iraq so we can have oil to power our way of life. I don’t forget the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who died either. I can’t erase the knowledge that if we haven’t already hit peak oil, we are fast approaching the day when it starts to run out. Not to mention, I am acutely aware of oil’s role in climate change. Every time we plug something into a socket, we are burning a little bit more oil. Personally I believe that each and every one of us has a responsibility to consume less and instead of rationalizing that we are only “using a little bit more” we need to start focusing on using a little bit less.

For the past semester, my work week has ended on Friday at noon which allows me the luxury, weather permitting, of initiating my weekend with a hike into the Arroyo Seco Canyon near Pasadena in Southern California. For the first mile or so, the trail runs alongside the campus of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory before giving way to the Gabrielino Trail that meanders alongside the Arroyo Seco stream which eventually merges with the Los Angeles River. Most of the trail is canopied by maple, elm and douglas fir, however the charred corpses of trees burned in the 2009 Station Fire, the result of arson, stand as reminders of the negative impact of human activity.

When I first began hiking the Gabrielino Trail, I was not at all enamored by it. There was natural beauty, to be sure, but there was also too much evidence of human activity. In general, I like my trails to deliver me to at least an imagined wilderness. In the late 1800s and early part of the 20th century the trail was a popular spot for building cabins. Although most of the cabins were destroyed during a massive 1938 flood, many of their stone foundations remain. There are also remains of bridges, in several spots rusted and gnarled iron rebar seems to grow alongside the trail as if it were part of the natural flora and on occasion the dirt trail gives way to pavement. I’ve grown to love the trail because it challenges my assumptions of nature and culture by blurring the boundaries of both, and to be honest, it feels a little like walking along the ruins of civilization which feeds my affinity for the apocalyptic.

Much of the trail is still closed due to fire damage, so the furthest one can hike is to the Brown Mountain Dam which was built in 1943 as part of the US Forest Service’s Los Angeles River Watershed Program. The dam looks its age, colored by shades of rust and orange with thin veins of greenery growing out of its seams. Water falls 80 feet over its edge, giving birth to the stream that is followed to find the dam. Debris from floods and fire are held behind the dam’s massive wall and standing beneath its falling waters it is easy to imagine the forces of nature crashing over and toppling the aging dam, destroying what has been so carefully cultivated and managed below. It is, I think, an appropriate metaphor for the precarious situation in which civilization currently finds itself. For 10,000 years, beginning with the development of agriculture, humanity has been changing the face of the earth via its technologies and there is a growing sense that nature has taken all she can and the floodgates are about to burst open.

I do not fancy myself a prophet or a prognosticator of any kind. However, given current environmental, economic and political realities, I do not hold much optimism for the future of humanity. Although our technologies have leveled mountains, taken us to the deepest depths of the oceans and beyond the clutches of earth’s gravity to the moon, I am unconvinced that they will prevent great amounts of suffering. Indeed, I believe the wave of progress we have been riding has crested and we have likely begun an inevitable descent into global collapse.

In his study of failed societies, author Jared Diamond defines collapse as “a drastic decrease in human population size and/or political/economic/social complexity, over a considerable area, for an extended time.”[i] Diamond provides a five point checklist of possible contributing factors to environmental collapse: environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, friendly trade partners, and the society’s response to its environmental problems. While the first four items on the checklist “may or may not prove significant for a particular society,” he claims that response to environmental problems “always proves significant.”[ii]

There is little debate that human activity has caused environmental damage. Beginning with the development of agriculture, we have been breaking ecological constraints and creating artificial environments.[iii] In the forward march of civilization, humanity has altered and eradicated habitats and completely eliminated thousands, if not tens of thousands of species. Indeed, the rate of extinction is currently 1,000 times what it was before the industrial revolution and we are currently experiencing the largest crisis in biodiversity since the last great mass extinction which saw the end of the dinosaurs. [iv] The environmental damage to global ecosystems is staggering. We have polluted land, sea and air. The majority of the world’s forests have been cleared and rivers have been pumped so full of industrial toxins that they have caught fire. There are now dead zones in our oceans, mostly created by the run-off of nitrogen rich pesticides and herbicides. where nothing can survive. The oceans are also becoming more acidic and approximately one fifth of the world’s coral reefs, which support more marine species than any other ocean environment[v], have been lost. According to a report released by the United Nations, the world’s ecosystems are at risk of “rapid degradation and collapse.”[vi]  As Clive Ponting observed in his A New Green History of the World “the foundations of human history lie in the way ecosystems work”[vii] and given the precariousness of the world’s ecosystems, the foundations of human civilization should be considered weak at best.

Climate change is intricately connected to environmental damage and the degradation of ecosystems. That human activity is contributing to climate change is not controversial to the overwhelming majority of climate scientists performing research and publishing in the field. The science of climate change is well over 100 years old and began as an attempt to understand the previous ice ages. That carbon dioxide, methane and water trap the sun’s heat in our atmosphere, creating a greenhouse effect, is not new science. It was first introduced by the French scientist Joseph Fourier in the early 1800s.[viii] The logic behind climate change is quite simple; a change in greenhouse gasses will elicit a change in climate. The more greenhouse gasses, the warmer the earth’s surface temperature, the less greenhouse gases, the cooler the earth’s surface temperature. As the globe cools and heats, climate changes. Humans have been continuously pumping more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere since the advent of the industrial revolution, particularly through the use of fossil fuels, and there has been a steady increase in the average temperature. Deforestation contributes to climate change since less trees mean less carbon dioxide is absorbed from the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is also absorbed by the oceans, and it is the extra carbon dioxide being absorbed that has led to the oceans becoming more acidic.

Although climate change cannot be inferred from single weather events, it is getting more and more difficult for people to deny that something is happening. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, over 15,000 high temperature records were broke in March 2012. As the planet warms, we can expect more extreme storms and this was confirmed by a rash of tornadoes that tore through the Ohio and Tennessee Valleys and Texas during the same month, initiating an unusually early tornado season[ix].

We can also expect longer and more intense droughts which are a threat to the global food supply. According to the U.S Drought Monitor over 36 percent of the United States was classified as experiencing moderate to exceptional drought by the end of March 2012, which is problematic as the US is one of the major grain producers in the world.[x] Indeed, Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute claims that the world is one poor harvest away from chaos. High food prices can lead to food riots and political unrest. It does not help that the world has been overpumping its aquifers in order to water its crops. Citing a World Bank study, Brown states that 175 million people in India and 130 million in China are being fed by grain produced by overpumping. Furthermore, Irrigation wells are running dry in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Saudi Arabia has completely depleted its nonreplenishable fossil aquifer.[xi] Add to this an ever increasing world population and the fact that more and more people are attempting to adopt the western grain-intensive diet of meat, milk and eggs and that a little over a quarter of the US grain harvest is converted into ethanol for fuel rather than being used for food, future famines seems like a grim probability. Indeed, In addition, prolonged droughts will increase the likelihood of forest fires and aid desertification.

As the globe warms, water levels will rise as land based iced sheets and polar ice caps melt. If the Greenland ice sheet, which stands nearly one mile high and is the second largest in the world, were to melt ocean levels would rise by approximately 20 feet. If all the world’s ice sheets melted the oceans would rise by about 260 feet.[xii] Obviously this would radically change the shape of the world’s land masses. Although drastic rises in ocean levels are still far off in the future, countries like the African nation of Mozambique are already being affected by rising sea levels[xiii]. As coastal cities and island nations face encroaching waters, it is likely that there will be a mass migration of climate refugees, placing further stress on the world’s political and economic systems. Victims of floods, hurricanes and drought will also contribute to migratory populations looking for relief.

Climate change, I believe, is the single most substantial threat to human civilization, and our survival as a species that we have ever encountered. In his Oscar winning 2006 documentary about climate change, An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore described the changes in ecosystems observed by scientists as “a nature hike through the book of Revelations.” Indeed, it does feel as if judgment is upon us. In fact, when considering Diamond’s five point check-list, climate change is a far more substantial threat than hostile neighbors, especially since we live in a world far different than the historical failed societies he examined. While individual nations may still be at threat of collapse due to hostile neighbors, that does not at the present time seem to apply to the larger, first world nations. Although war appears to be a constant, especially in the United States, and diverting funding from much needed social programs to defense spending contributes to social inequality, war no longer poses the same threat as climate change. Indeed, even the United States Defense Department is taking climate change as a serious threat to global peace and national security.[xiv]

While Diamond mostly examined individual societies, he recognized the importance of trade relations between nations. This association is particularly heightened in the interconnected global economy of the 21st century. The latest economic slump did not affect just one or two national economies; it affected the entire global economic network. Diamond states that “societies today are so interconnected that the risk we face is of a worldwide decline.”[xv] Indeed, the global economic situation remains precarious, with a double dip recession or even worse global depression hanging above the global economy like a sword of Damocles. For citizens of first world nations, it may seem like apocalypse mongering to suggest that civilization is on the border of collapse. After all, groceries are full of food, the average human lifespan has increased and many of the diseases humanity has historically faced have been either entirely eradicated or are on the brink of being annihilated. To many, it would seem that the only way to go is forward and to continue riding the escalating curve of progress. However, Diamond warns citizens in collapsing societies do not often notice the downturn, with the slippery slope into decline frequently beginning within a few decades after a society “reaches its peak numbers, wealth, and power.”[xvi]

The final and I think most important factor of collapsed societies that Diamond notes is how they respond to environmental challenges. I think we are at a crucial point in human history and our collective actions in the next twenty years will determine the fate of the human species. Diamond identifies two types of approaches for dealing with environmental problems; a top-down and the bottom-up approach. The top-down approach is associated with larger civilizations that have centralized governments in which the governing bodies establish the policies for dealing with environmental problems. A bottom-up approach originates not with centralized governments, but with local communities where people work together to manage environmental issues. These two approaches are not exclusive and can and do exist side by side. Indeed, that is what is currently happening in the United States and other countries throughout the world. However, the question remains whether we can act boldly enough and quickly enough to avert the worst of environmental degradation and climate change.

The worst case scenario is collapse and extinction. If humanity does survive, the population will be greatly reduced due to famine, war and infectious disease. With no meaningful reduction in greenhouse gasses, the climate may very well enter a vicious cycle where increased warmth releases more greenhouse gasses, particularly methane which is twenty times more potent than carbon dioxide, from thawing permafrost and melting sea ice in the Arctic Ocean.[xvii] The quality of life will likely match Thomas Hobbe’s assessment of an existence that is “solitary, poor, nasty brutish and short.” It is difficult to determine exactly what the average increase in temperature may be. There is no question that the planet will not be able to sustain the current number of humans. Although I think extinction remains unlikely, a recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports that if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at their current rate, an average warming of seven degrees Celsius would make many regions of the earth hostile to human life. The authors of the paper claim that there is a five percent risk that the entire planet will become uninhabitable by humans.[xviii] Of course this is debatable. The risk could end up being far greater.

On most days, I believe that this worst case scenario will not come to pass. I do have my doubts though, especially when I consider how the world’s governments have failed to rise to the occasion.  In a recent editorial commenting on the latest meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change which took place in Durban, South Africa, linguist and political gadfly Noam Chomsky commented that intelligent extraterrestrials observing the failure of world governments and in particular the United States to seriously address climate change would not be remiss if they inferred that humanity was infected by “some kind of lethal insanity.”[xix] Of course, any economic system that requires infinite growth based on finite resources is irrational, if not insane. That said, there are a variety of “rational” reasons why the world’s governments have been dragging their feet on this issue, most of which are also centered on the global economy. The nature of capitalism is that immediate profits typically take precedence over the wisdom of long term thinking. Furthermore, seriously addressing climate change requires the world to radically lessen its reliance on fossil fuels, but fossil fuels are what have been driving progress, development and industry so climate change is a direct challenge to political, social and economic structures constitute modern civilization.

In his book The Ascent of Humanity, author Charles Eisenstein argues that what is required is a paradigm shift where the human concept of self is transformed. The western trajectory of progress has been such that it has created a sense of a separate, atomistic self that exists apart from nature. This was largely accomplished via technology, beginning with the development of agriculture. According to Eisenstein “Inherent in technology is the division of the world into self and other.”[xx] The modern sense of self is also defined via global capitalism so that the self is identified primarily as consumer. The engine of capitalism is not only fueled by fossil fuels but also by manufactured desires. The trajectory of western progress has left humans so void of relationships and connections with each other and the natural world that we are left to identify ourselves via our possessions. Yet we remain unfulfilled and incomplete. As Eisenstein notes

Today, inundated in an unprecedented deluge of material conveniences and luxuries, we are nonetheless desperately in want. Think of that phrase, to be in want. I want, I want, I want. To be constantly in want is the very definition of poverty, no matter how large one’s house or bank account. By that measure, ours is perhaps the poorest society the world has ever known.[xxi]

There does seem to be a shift in consciousness happening from the bottom up. The modern environmental movement is now over 40 years old and is not without its successes. Over the past year social movements have sprung up, challenging the inequalities inherent in global capitalism and frequently the connection is made between the economy and environment. There seems to be rebirth of community building at the local level. Community gardens are becoming more and more frequent and community supported agriculture is also becoming more popular. There is no question that a good number of people have been attempting to adopt more sustainable lifestyles. Yet too often, we are left with only market driven options for change; change our light bulbs, purchase fuel-efficient cars, avoid plastic bags by using reusable ones, and eat organically grown food. While these are important steps, they are hardly sufficient responses for the task at hand. Yet, it is the bottom up approach that gives me the greatest hope. I do not think it is possible to dismantle the current system, but what can be done is to begin creating new systems to take its place. Eisenstein describes examples of local communities creating alternatives to the global economy via gifting economies and local currencies as well as offering alternatives to public education. As Buckminster Fuller is credited as saying, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”[xxii]

Although Diamond offers two primary approaches to solving our environmental problems and saving ourselves from collapse, there is a third option which is that technology is what will save us from ourselves. Author, inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil argues that there is no stopping technological progress as it is on an unstoppable trajectory towards what he refers to as the singularity. In his book What Technology Wants, author Kevin Kelley calls this evolution of technology the technium. However, Kelley defines the technium in an everything but the kitchen sink kind of way so that it includes not only the “interconnected system of technology vibrating around us” but also includes “culture, art, social institutions…software, law and philosophical concepts.”[xxiii] He claims that the technium is different than culture in the fact that the technium is a “self-reinforcing system of creation.”[xxiv] How culture or civilization are not a self-reinforcing systems of creation is not explored. Perhaps his best definition of the technium is when he describes it as an “ecosystem of technologies.”[xxv]

Neither Kurzweil or Kelley offer much evidence to support their views that inevitable advances of technology will solve our environmental problems. Instead, they act on faith and ignore the detrimental effects of technology. Indeed, Kelley sometimes comes across as techno-Pollyanna as when he insists that when existing technologies cause damage we can simply make better technologies.[xxvi] He fails to consider the fact that new technologies often create their own set of environmental problems. The classic example which is also discussed by Diamond is the introduction of the automobile. Before cars became commonplace, the primary mode of transportation was via horses which fouled city streets with urine and feces, creating an unpleasant and potentially unhealthy environment. Cars were believed to solve this problem and allow for a cleaner, more healthy environment. Fast forward several decades to metropolitan areas choked with pollution and the emissions of automobiles contributing to a warming planet.

There is also something downright fascist about Kelley’s technium. For example, he tells readers that we will not have a choice whether genetically engineered crops will one day appear everywhere because they will. Our only choice will be whether innovations in genetically engineered foods are regulated by industry or government. This troubling tendency to ignore the darker ramifications of technology is apparent in his discussion of the proliferation of recording devices:

The further diffusion of cameras into cell phones and digital devices birthed a universal sharing of images, the conviction that something is not real until it is captured on camera, and a sense that there is no significance outside of the camera view. The still further diffusion of cameras embedded into the built environment, peeking from every city corner and peering down from every room’s ceiling, forces a transparency upon society. Eventually, every surface of the built world will be covered with a screen and every screen will double as an eye. When the camera is fully ubiquitous, everything is recorded for all time. We have a communal awareness and memory.[xxvii]

Although Kelley is suggesting that this panopticon will actually lead an increase in individual freedom, I find that his optimism blinds him from seeing the potential of this technology being abused and individual liberties swept aside by the security state’s omnipresent gaze.

While Kelley at least acknowledges our environmental problems and social injustices, Kurzweil does not appear to be as balanced. He bluntly claims that we are approaching the time “where only thing that has value is information” and the raw materials of which our technologies are made are essentially worthless. There is no discussion about the worth of rivers and communities poisoned by extracting these resources.[xxviii] He also states that by 2030 somehow we will magically be able to meet all of our material needs via nanotechnology and artificial intelligence[xxix], which essentially disregards the entire physical foundation of the planet on which we live. Yet, this should not be surprising since Kurzweil’s main project is to argue that humans will eventually escape our biology. This epitomizes the separation that Eisenstein describes as the root of our ecological crises.

Diamond considers the idea that “technology will solve our problems” a one-liner solution that will not work. First, he states that “all of our current problems are unintended consequences of our existing technology” and that the advance of technology has created problems faster than we have been able to solve them[xxx]. He also identifies other hidden assumptions in the technological solution: that new technologies will succeed, that they will not create any further problems and that they will be developed in time to make a meaningful difference.

There are too many contingencies to put all of our faith in technology. Although there may be the potential for developing technologies that will help us out of our environmental dilemma, there is not always the political will to see that research and development funded. Private industry may take a lead, and most do invest in research and development, but their primary emphasis will always be on immediate profit over long term technologies that support sustainability.

This is not to say that I believe that technology has no role to play in solving our problems. Humans are and always will be technological beings. As Charles Eisenstein writes

Someday soon, when we fully digest the futility of control arising from the non-linearity of our universe, we will begin to adopt a wholly different approach to technology, one that does not attempt nature’s reduction but seeks rather its fulfillment. This is not simply a decision about the “appropriateness” of such-and-such a technology; it is the recognition that we are incompetent to determine its ultimate effects. Technological development will come from a place of humility.[xxxi]

I believe this new kind of technology can be found in biomimicry as described by Janine Benyus. Biomimicry is technology that is modeled on natural systems. It is technology informed by nature, where we approach nature as a mentor rather than lifeless substance to be appropriated as resource. Indeed, it would seem that biomimicry is a new paradigm in technology. As Benyus writes “Once we see nature as a mentor, our relationship with the living world changes.”[xxxii]

Biomimicry is technology that uses an “ecological standard” to gage the merits of our inventions. Instead of asking what a technology can do for us, how it can help achieve instant gratification we will instead ask “Does it run on sunlight? Does it use only the energy it needs? Does it fit form to function? Does it recycle everything? Does it reward cooperation? Does it bank on diversity? Does it utilize local expertise? Does it curb excess from within? Does it tap the power of limits? Is it beautiful?”[xxxiii]

Examples of biomimicry include modeling agriculture on local diversity of plant life and attempting to create solar cells that harness the sun’s light as efficiently as a leaf. By modeling our technology on nature we should be able to avoid harmful unintended consequences. While there are researchers actively developing technologies based on nature, too few of them have been implemented to help us out of our current environmental predicament. However, there is no technology at present that can do that.

Jared Diamond explains that there are two kinds of choices that have been crucial in whether a society is able to achieve long-term success or inevitable collapse. One choice is recognizing the virtues of long-term planning and the other is willingness to reconsider core values.[xxxiv] The first choice is one that must be made by our governmental officials and industry leaders. As Diamond points out, all too often our politicians focus only on issues that may arise within a 90 day period. Add to this the economic imperative to emphasize short-term profits over long term benefits. While there are a few politicians and business leaders who recognize the benefits of long-term planning, I am afraid they are too few to make any real difference.

That leaves reconsidering core values. For Diamond, this involves reflecting upon the values that have served society well and rejecting values that have led us to the point of collapse. I believe this is where religion can help play a part. Diamond does not discuss religion except to point out that “religious values tend to be especially deeply held and hence frequent causes of disastrous behavior.”[xxxv] While this is true enough, religions have also been the source of some of the best humanity has achieved. Religions can also provide a foundation for ecological security. Every religion has something to say about the human relationship to the environment. They also have something to say about the evils of materialism. Considering that most people continue to base their values on their religious belief, I think we would be remiss to reject the role they can play in determining the fate of humankind.

The fact of the matter is that we are all standing before the dam of collapse, hoping that it will hold for just a little bit longer. Diamond suggests that many engage in psychological denial in an attempt to preserve their sanity. They observe the dam every day, see its leaks and stress points, and yet deny the possibility that it could ever burst.[xxxvi] If we are to survive as a species and defer as much pain and suffering as possible, I believe we need to be honest with ourselves about the possibility that the dam will burst. At the same time, we need to make contingency plans and develop technologies that will work with the forces of nature pressing at the dam. Some water will escape and some damage may be sustained, but if we are smart we will be able to avoid the full unleashing of the floodwaters and live to tell the tale.

[i] Jared Diamond. Collapse: How Societies Chose to Fail or Succeed, rev ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 2011), 3.

[ii] Ibid., 11

[iii] Clive Ponting. A New Green History of the World, rev. ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 2007), 409.

[iv] Bo Normander, Biodiversity: Combatting the Sixth Mass Extinction State of the World 2012

[v] National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Importance of Coral Reefs

[vi] Matthew Knight. UN Report: Ecosystems at Tipping Point (May 10, 2010)

[vii] Ponting, 409.

[viii] Spencer Weart. The Discovery of Global Warming, rev. and expanded ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), 2.

[ix] Matt Daniel. Recap of Deadly US Tornado Outbreak Feb 28 – March 3 (March 5, 2012)

[x] National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. State of the Climate

[xi] Lester Brown. World One Poor Harvest Away from Chaos (February 15, 2011)


[xii] Richard Poore, Richard Willians, Jr., Christopher Tracey. Sea Level and Climate. October 11, 2011

[xiii] Kate McGeon. Rising Sea Levels: A Tale of Two Cities (November 24, 2009)

[xiv] Suzanne Goldenberg. Pentagon to rank climate change as destabilizing force. (January 31, 2010)

[xv] Diamond, 519

[xvi] Ibid., 509

[xvii] CBC News. Arctic Ocean leaking methane, scientists say. (April 23, 2012)

[xviii]Steven Sherwood and Matthew Huber An Adaptability Limit to Climate Change Due to Heat Stress. (March 24, 2010)

[xix] Noam Chomsky. Marching Off the Cliff (December, 2011)

[xx] Charles Eisenstein. The Ascent of Humanity. (Harrisburg, PA: Panenthea Press, 2007), 59.

[xxi] Eisenstein, 209

[xxiii] Kevin Kelley. What Technology Wants. (New York: Penguin Group, 2010), 11-12

[xxiv] Ibid., 12

[xxv] Ibid., 208

[xxvi] Kelley, 101

[xxvii] Ibid., 299

[xxviii] Ray Kurzweil. Excerpt from The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, (2005), 10

[xxix] Ibid., 15

[xxx] Diamond, 505

[xxxi] Eisenstein, 384

[xxxii] Janine Benyus. Biomimicry. (New York: Perennial, 2002), 9

[xxxiii] Ibid., 291

[xxxiv] Diamond, 522

[xxxv] Ibid., 432

[xxxvi] Ibid., 436

Supporting the Troops

April 19, 2012 — 1 Comment

The earliest photograph I have of my father is actually a picture of a framed photograph of him kept on top of the television console. The photo was taken while he was serving one of two tours of duty in Vietnam. I can’t pinpoint my earliest memory of my father as a living, breathing presence in my life as he was largely absent the first few years I was alive, having been sent to by the government to scout the jungles of Southeast Asia. Most of my childhood memories associated with my father are linked to airports and the anxious heartache of departure or the relieved tears of a safe return home.

Even when my father was stationed stateside I was left living with my grandparents. This was the result of strange family dynamics that to this day I do not understand. I can’t say that I know my father the way a son should know his dad. I love him and respect him for what he has accomplished. He retired as a Sergeant Major, the highest rank an enlisted soldier can achieve. Not only did he serve two terms in Vietnam, but he also participated in the first Gulf War. He currently teaches Jr. ROTC at a high school just outside of Phoenix.

Given the distance between us, it should not be surprising that I did not follow in his footsteps although at one time I was encouraged to do so. In fact, I’ve had to reconcile what my father does for a living which goes against my own value system. I do not like seeing the military in our high schools, yet I know my father has done a lot of good. Whenever I visit I can count on my dad running into one of his former cadets while we’re out at the store or at dinner. I can tell they respect and like him. My dad always did have a way with kids even if he was kept alienated from his own son.

It is not so controversial now to say the war in Vietnam was a mistake, especially since we now know that like the second war in Iraq decades later, we entered under false pretenses. The Gulf of Tonkin incident was as fabricated as Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Yet something changed in American rhetoric between these two wars, around the time of the first Gulf War, and that is the meme of “supporting the troops.”

I think this began as a mantra intended to insulate our troops from the kind of venom and bile they received upon their homecoming from Vietnam. On one level, I agree. I support the troops in the sense that I do not want to see harm come to them. I believe that as a country we have a moral responsibility to never send them in harm’s way unless all other alternatives have been depleted and there is no other, and I mean absolutely no other, option available. Whenever war is on the table, and it seems that it always is in America, I ask the question if I would be willing to see my father participate in yet another battle. I also think of all those children who will only know their fathers or mothers through framed photos, never having the gift of knowing them for real, sacrificing that for the nation’s glory.

All too often, and by this I mean nearly always, the “I support the troops” meme is confused to often with support for the war. It is intended to silence criticism of sending our soldiers into combat. The ugly truth though is that we do not support our troops.

Bumper stickers and Facebook shares are empty words and gestures. If we actually did support the troops, one out of every four homeless persons would not be a veteran. If we supported our troops, there would not be an epidemic of suicides amongst those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. According to recent reporting in the New York Times, a veteran commits suicide every 80 minutes. The Times called this the nation’s shame and I couldn’t agree more.

Like any steady drum beat, the drum beat of war is designed to put the nation into a trance where critical thought is replaced by a nationalistic fervor. We do not stop to think of the blood sacrifice required for American imperialism, or the lives given so that we can continue an economy predicated on fossil fuels. Think about that. Any time you purchase another product made of plastic or eat food that was transported thousands of miles or grown using petro-chemicals, you are not supporting the troops. In fact, you are ensuring that they will continue to be used, abused and forgotten.

Casting my line

March 29, 2012 — 3 Comments

I set up this blog at the beginning of the year with nothing but good intentions. And yet, as the third month of 2012 comes to an end I have made exactly one post. So much for my good intentions.

Writing is important to me. When I was a teenager my life goal was to be a writer. I spent some time writing for a small family of newspapers, and received some recognition for my efforts, including two shared editorial writing awards from the Colorado Press Association. I’ve taken a whole host of creative writing courses, including one with the fantastic and fantastical writer Rikki DuCornet. I have written what by now must be thousands of pages of academic papers. I have been told on many occasions that I have talent, a gift even. And yet I have left many words unwritten and ideas uninvoked. I suppose I could blame my schedule. Work and a school do leave me with little time for extracurricular activities. And yet, I also manage to find plenty of hours for mindless diversions. Do I really need to check Facebook more than once or twice a day? Do I really need to watch another hour of television? Probably not. At the end of the week, when once again I have failed to write anything substantial, I am left feeling like I have committed a sin. What else do you call allowing a gift to atrophy?

It is not that I haven’t sat before my computer with the intention of saying something. However words and ideas seem to elude me. I am a master of staring at blank screens and empty pages. In some sense I feel like a fisherman, sitting in a boat on a quiet pond. I know there are fish to be caught, yet I’m not even throwing out my line. The question isn’t whether or not I can write, but rather, what do I have to say? Or maybe it is even more than that. Perhaps the question is what do I need to say?

We live in a time when it seems like everyone is saying something. This blog is just one of millions. I do not know if anyone will read it, and honestly that is not the point really. The point is to write, to think (because writing is thinking), to hone my craft and to speak with confidence. In an age when idiocy reigns supreme and people like Rick Santorum, Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman and Rush Limbaugh are given public platforms to spew forth drivel and demagoguery, the urge to speak, to incant some truth as a counter spell is becoming more and more overwhelming.

Some time ago I had a dream in which a former friend told me “You have a voice,” and then asked “Don’t you think it is time you used it?” Indeed, I believe it is.

Pipe Dreams

January 19, 2012 — 2 Comments

It should come as no surprise that with Obama’s rejection yesterday of the Keystone XL pipeline that there would be a lot of disingenuous wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth from his political opponents. Much of the claims being made are blatantly false and misleading. For example, the pipeline would never have created many jobs. The original 2008 permit application TransCanada submitted to the State Department stated that no more than 4,200 temporary American jobs would be created. According to an independent study done by Cornell University’s Global Labor Institute, the keystone pipeline would not create any more than 6,500 temporary jobs at most and a maximum of 50 permanent jobs. The State Department’s estimate was 20 permanent jobs. Claims by politicians that this would have created tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of jobs are flat out lies.

Of course, there are political reasons why politicians are lying about this. By forcing the president’s hand and then grossly exaggerating the number of jobs that would have been created, they have turned this into an election issue. There may though be other reasons for the misinformation. Take Speaker of the House John Boehner for example. According to the Washington Post, Boehner invested between $10,000 to $50,000 each in seven firms that had stake in the oil sands, including BP, Chevron, Conoco Phillips and Exxon.

Most of the oil was never intended for American use. The pipeline would end in New Orleans where it would be refined and then make its way to the Gulf of Mexico for export. Most of it would end up on the global market. Another popular criticism is that Obama’s rejection of the pipeline will force us to continue to be reliant upon foreign oil. However, the last time I checked, Canada was a foreign country so we would still be dependent on foreign oil even if it was all to remain in the US.

There are other serious problems with the pipeline. One, oil from the tar sands is incredibly energy inefficient as it takes more energy to convert bitumen into usable oil. Here’s an analogy for you, with extracting oil by the old fashioned way via wells, it would take about a quarter cup of oil to retrieve one gallon of oil. With the tar sands, it will take approximately half a gallon of oil just to produce one gallon. Retrieving the oil also requires the clear cutting of thousands of acres of boreal forest which threatens several species with extinction and will demolish the lands of indigenous peoples.

One of the main reasons the State Department needed more time to consider the pipeline was because the Republican governor of Nebraska insisted that the pipeline be rerouted. He was supported by a good number of Midwestern farmers and ranchers. The reason for this was because the original route would cut through the very sensitive Sandhills region of Nebraska and the Ogallala aquifer, which provides drinking and agricultural water to eight states, which accounts for thirty percent of the nation’s agricultural water. The pipeline in Canada has already had 12 leaks in one year. In May of 2011 over 20,000 gallons of oil spilled. If an oil leak made its way into the Ogallala it could be catastrophic. So the president is being criticized for rejecting a pipeline that at this point in time doesn’t even have a set route. The Republicans knew this when they added the Keystone provision to the payroll tax extension.

Finally, as NASA climate scientist James Hansen observed, if the pipeline went through, it would essentially be “game over” in regards to battling climate change. What we do not need to be doing right now is committing ourselves to the most inefficient and dirtiest of fuels. If politicians are really concerned about getting us off of foreign oil and creating jobs then maybe they might want to consider supporting research and development in green technologies and a public works program that will build more energy efficient infrastructure. That has been documented to have created jobs, far more than the Keystone pipeline ever would.