Old Well: UNC Chapel Hill Campus

Sunday, February 27, 2011

An empty spot

I finished Carl Safina’s The View from Lazy Point yesterday, and I’m feeling an empty spot, or something missing, after spending several weeks in silent discourse with this eloquent work.  Safina, a MacArthur Prize recipient, is well known in the conservation movement.  Recently, Audubon magazine listed him among the 100 leading conservationists  of the last century. He’s the founder of  the Blue Ocean Institute.

Safina could have been a poet, given his metaphoric penchant and passion for seeing what most of us miss in the delicate tapestry of nature and our role in its weave.  If the book has a constant, it laments humanity’s increasing indifference to that world beyond itself, a callousness to its intrinsic connection with nature at large, and a harbinger of its penchant for self-destruction.  With coal-fired power plants belching carbon in exponential quantities into the atmosphere, our insatiable appetite for material goods, our conflation of growth with well-being, the explosion in our numbers, we are depleting our resources, accelerating climate change, and imperiling our children and grandchildren.  We live for today, impoverishing tomorrow

Every act has its consequence for good or bad, and now we live in a world where flora and fauna lie increasingly threatened, the seas emptied.  Even our trees, those sentries protecting us from breathing carbon dioxide’s toxic fumes, are in decline, decimated by disease, drought and a chainsaw pursuit of material gain and comfort.  Each year, the birds are fewer, the water tables of nations more contaminated or declining, the seas relentlessly rising.

At times, Safina nearly loses it, tongue-lashing market greed and political connivance.  He’s traveled to all the world’s environmental hot spots and, universally, the message is the same: man’s degradation of  the planet with its calamitous consequences.

Several scenarios standout in the book, one of which had all the earmarks of potential violence when Safina and a friend find themselves confronting a pick-up driver who’s  come to the Long Island shore to shovel horseshoe crabs into the bed of his truck.  Horseshoe crabs have been here for 450 million years, surviving even the extinction of the dinosaurs.  Individuals can live up to twenty years.  After all that, even these well-adapted creatures are facing depletion as a consequence of humans. They are now used for bait.

Shafira manages to drive him off, only to find he’s been replaced by scores of pick-ups in the early morning.  New York state may have reduced its quotas, but who’s watching?  As Safira remarks, “There is something in man that hates natural abundance, and something that clings to excess” (p. 196, Kindle edition).  Without horseshoe crab eggs, migrating shore birds cannot find the sustenance to complete their journeys.  We live in a world of delicate linkage.  Destroying one entity in that linkage doesn’t confine its results.

This book isn’t for the faint-hearted.  It gives you the trenchant truth; still, it also offers hope.  After all, when man has cared, he has succeeded.  Peregrines, bald eagles and red-tailed hawks show increased numbers.  Once they were threatened species.  But such successes are all too few.  Between 199 and 2005, horseshoe crab eggs have declined 90 percent along Delaware Bay.  Concurrently, Red Knots have declined 80 percent, or from 150,000 to around 30,000 (p. 138, Kindle edition), and here we’re considering just two species.  By 2021, some two thirds of animal and plant species will be gone.

Safina sounds the alarms at the end of his book:  “For twelve thousand years or so, humanity has lived in a period of very stable climate.  That stability has been the climate envelope for all of civilization so far. Now we are committed to leaving that stable period for points unknown. It’s humanity’s most hazardous journey yet” (pp. 349-50, Kindle edition).

Not many seem to be listening.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Searching for Dad

Lately I‘ve seen Ron Reagan, son of the late president, on TV several times in conjunction with his new book about his father on the occasion of the centennial of his birth.  Titled My Father at 100, it’s an interesting read, except we’ve been on this road before, familiar apart from several turnouts affording us new vistas such as Ron’s suspicion that his father may have already been displaying incipient Alzheimer’s disease when he fell into sudden, prolonged  silence, fumbling for notes and looking confused, in the first presidential debate with Walter Mondale in 1984.  Of course, he subsequently routed his opponent on the age issue in the second debate with his rejoinder that he would “not exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”  

What we do know is that Howard Baker, the respected Tennessee senator who replaced Donald Regan as White House chief of staff, found the President mentally lucid and focused.

Much of what Ron says about Dad is speculative, as in the preceding.  He offers that Reagan embroidered the facts when it came to his own father, hardly a profligate alcoholic heedless of his family: “If he was weak, he was also principled.”  But how does Ron come by this knowledge?  

Whatever one’s political persuasion, Reagan was hardly the “affable dunce,” as Clark Clifford dismissively remarked.  During his tenure, the country prospered economically, regained its pride, halted inflation, and saw an end to the gas crisis.  Perhaps his greatest accomplishment was negotiating a nuclear arms reduction with Gorbachev, ultimately moving the two Super Powers towards an ending of the Cold War to the chagrin of many conservatives and the surprise of most liberals.  It can be argued that a revived economy and massive defense outlays ultimately weakened the competitive Soviet economy, precipitating communism’s collapse.

Yet the fact remains that, domestically, the Reagans had a strained relationship with their children.  When Patti moved in with an Eagle rock singer, Reagan could not accept its morality.  Nancy, not just Reagan, quarreled with Patti on other issues and the two did not reconcile until 1993, when Reagan’s Alzheimer’s affliction became known.

When Ron dropped out of Yale, opting to become a ballet dancer, his parents suspected homosexuality.

There had been bad moments, too, though with lesser fallout, with Maureen and Michael.

One of  the book’s most fascinating passages recalls a supper time argument that many American families with teenagers will find familiar.  Ron can’t recall what precipitated the uproar, accept that when he got up to leave, his father said, “You’re not going anywhere, Mister,”  cocking his fist.  They wouldn’t  talk for several days.

At home, the Reagans represented old values in a new era, the incompatibility of old wine in new bottles.  Well meaning, they got into controlling, reacting rather than listening.  While they enjoyed an exceptional relationship as husband and wife, they unfortunately erected a firewall against intruders, including their own children, hungry for love, yearning to be heard, needing validation in their adolescent quest for emancipation from the shadow of extraordinary parents and the forging of their individual identities.  In their denial, came resentment and rebellion.

Ron’s book isn’t unfriendly. He calls his father “Dad” throughout. and yet resentment lingers like smoke from a fire, reduced to blue embers, seeking exit:

    “I could share an hour of warm camaraderie with Dad,  then once I’d walked out the door, get the uncanny feeling I’d disappeared into the wings of his mind’s stage, like a character no  longer necessary to the ongoing story line.” 

Tolstoy wrote famously at the outset of Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”   Ron recalls his father telling him, “You’re my son, so I have to love you. But sometimes you make it hard to like you.”  This becomes painful reading.  As parents, many of us have been there.  Reagan’s domestic failures despite his public success as the Great Communicator, hint at our own private follies as parents, made wiser by time, yet remorseful that we might have done better.

But it’s never too late to learn how to listen; to love our children unconditionally;  to undo past wrongs in the warm embrace of reconciliation.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Food for thought

The news is quite predictable now, with its 24/7 coverage of unrest in the Middle East.  And the contagion is swelling _initially, Tunisia, then Egypt, now Yemen, Bahrain, and just recently, Libya.  Can Saudi Arabia, a critical source of the world’s oil, be far behind?

Most media report the unrest as an unprecedented quest for democratic government and the choices it provides to individuals.  I argue that this over simplifies, not the first time media has done this, of course.  The root causes rest in the economic and, more specifically, in sharply escalating costs for foodstuffs.  To cut to the chase, these are food riots.

According to the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAQ), food prices on the world market have risen 30% over those of a year ago.  In January, these increases reached their highest point in 20 years, plunging 44 million into the already swollen ranks of the impoverished.  According  to World Bank president Robert Zoellick, “It is poor people who are now facing incredible pressure to feed themselves and their families as more than half a family’s income goes just to buy foodstuffs.”

In Egypt,  56% of a person’s income is spent on food.  In Yemen, prices for wheat and wheat products have doubled over the past year.  Wheat dominates North African and Middle East imports of foodstuffs. Gulf countries import 100% of their foodstuffs, offset by oil revenues.

According to the FAQ, which traces monthly international prices of commodity products, including meat, dairy, cereals, oils, fats, and sugar, in just the last 3 months, sugar has risen 20%, oils 22%.  It’s worse with corn, now priced 73% higher than in June, 2010.

The contributing sources to these ills are multiple and largely of human mischief.  

1.  natural calamities:  2010 saw wildfires in Russia due to record breaking temperatures and prolonged drought.  Floods devastated Pakistan and Australia.  In Sri Lanka, floods destroyed 30% of its wheat harvest.  Drenching rains despoiled South Africa of much of its anticipated harvest. (I have written of the connection of volatile weather with global warming in an earlier post.) 

2.  escalating oil prices, driving up transportation costs. 

3.  diversion of cropland for production of biofuels to offset oil import costs.  In the  U.S., government grants oil companies a tax credit for each gallon of ethanol it produces, costing American taxpayers 6 billion dollars annually.  This has resulted in a 40% rise in corn prices on the world market.  

To these factors, I would like to add another often missed: the exponential increase in human numbers and its corollary, increased demand.  In the U. S,, one of the world’s fastest growing industrial nations, population increased from 130 million in 1940, to 150 million in 1950, and now doubled to a current 308 million.  

The UN anticipates a 9 billion world population in 2050, up from just under 7 billion presently. To feed everybody will require more land and water use and decimate forests still further.  Even if we were to succeed, many would remain malnourished and impoverished.  70 million, or two Californias, are added annually to the world’ s population.  While some take solace in declining fertility,  two thirds of Egypt’s population is under age 30.

And whatever happened to the Green Revolution with its high yield grain varieties, innovative pesticides and fertilizers?  The grim  reality is that its initial gains have been swamped by increases in human numbers.  Initially, a catalyst to its early promise was an increasing reliance on irrigation, with unforseen consequences for all in dropping water tables.  India, which became a food exporter, now imports rice, mostly from Australia,   Unfortunately, that windfall may be drying up quite literally.  Australia has cut its rice exports 90% because of prolonged droughts and more recent cyclones.

In China, the water tables are dropping 10 feet a year.  In the U. S, it’s worse, with water levels over past decades dropping 100 feet in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.  By 2025, two thirds of the world’s people will live in locales lacking sufficient water.  Water, not oil, may well mitigate future conflict between nations.

Meanwhile, upheaval in North Africa and the Middle East signals warning of history’s tendency to repeat itself.  Tomorrow, the just returned exiled Muslim Brotherhood cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi will address a mass rally in Cairo in Tahrir Square.   A brilliant articulator of purist Islam (100 books), he despises the West and loathes Israel.

Food prices?  More important than you thought: they can determine history, affecting us all.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Addendum: from journaling to blogging

Starting a blog has been one of the better things I’ve done lately and in just three weeks I’ve posted a dozen entries, as polished and informed as I can make them, though humble submissions compared with those professionals I read elsewhere, characterized by vivacity and creativity on hosted sites that sparkle with amenities.
But then I don’t write to compete.  I blog for the sheer joy of it, the sense of renewal, or vigor, or like how I feel when I work out daily on our elliptical machine, not giving in to urges to postpone or cut short, but following through.
I like blogging because it seems to keep the cerebral juices flowing,   Suddenly I am like some sentry on “qui vive,” or full alert, mindful of not allowing trespass. I aim to take the senses captive.  
Sometimes I find myself unable to sleep, a high tide of stimuli flooding my consciousness, forcing me to reach for my adjacent iPad and stack sandbag notes.  What happens nightly resumes at every dawn as I prepare to plant my feet on a winter floor and participate in a new day.
I think this is what I like best about blogging’s contribution to my daily round--this sense of connection with a wider world, not only with readers, but as one sentient creature among others who must earn his daily bread, grateful for morning, but never certain about nightfall.  Living in a crap-shoot universe it’s incumbent we sanctify the Now. I treasure each day and hoard its treasures.
I am immensely fond of how Helen Keller, in her inimical way, put it:
    “Use your eyes as if tomorrow you would be stricken blind. Hear the music of voices, the song of a bird, the mighty strains of an orchestra, as if you would be stricken deaf tomorrow. Touch each object you want to touch as if tomorrow your tactile sense would fail.  Smell the perfume of flowers, taste with relish each morsel, as if tomorrow you could never smell and taste again.”
Blogging helps me make this happen.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Why I keep a journal, or blog for that matter

Because a journal translates: my experience is but babel, even to myself, unless I first interpret its nuance. Only then can it resonate for others.

Because a journal enacts verbal photos that pause time’s flow.  As such,  a journal comprises my finite grasp for immortality: the moment preserved, the emotion captured, the elusive past amidst frozen time.  Here I can rollick in love never over, rekindle departed friends, mourn separations fostered by time from place and event, measure my steps and trace paths,  Not only can  I re-enter my past, I can unravel its meaning, grow wiser.  Journals  serve as correctives, providing future trajectories.

Because a journal reminds me of my individuality, my need to define who I am, to make contact with my psyche, and achieve its integration and, in wholeness, reach out to others.  Journal-keeping bears my thumbprint, my passport witness to who I am.

Because a journal teaches me to see and hear and smell and touch and taste and compels my signature as a witness to teeming life--that nothing is without its meaning or interest.   A meaningful act, journal writing fosters insight and thereby widens the circle of my compassion.

Because a journal is like talking to a best friend you can share secrets with, defining heart-issues, mining the psyche, tapping new veins of rich yield in the recesses of the Self.  Journals not only record, they provide passage into the light.

Because a journal is like keeping seeds, good for future plantings and resultant harvests.  Every invention began with an idea.  Journals help ideas grow. 

Because a journal helps my mind stay nimble across the years. The mind, like muscles, needs exercise to maintain its tone. 

Because a journal fosters capacity to make life interesting, a whetstone turning dullness into sharpened blade.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Political expediency and hunted whales

Whatever one thinks of Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, he has done a good thing for whales, those peaceful behemoths of the sea still plundered by Japan, Norway and Iceland.  (We remember that whales, in the 19th century, were the world’s oil wells and pursued nearly to extinction.)  Assange released a classified U. S. department of state document to the Spanish newspaper El Pais, which published its details on January 2, 2011.

Japan was willing to give-up its quota under the guise of science research in exchange for being allowed to hunt whales off its own coast as an offset to phased withdrawal from its controversial Antarctic whaling. Japan also demanded action be taken to curtail the inroads of  the anti-whaling organization, Sea Shepherd, whose vessel Andy Gil was rammed by a Japanese whaling vessel and the crew forced to abandon ship. Specifically, Japan called for the U. S. government to withdraw Sea Shepherd’s tax exempt status.

The “compromise” measure would supposedly save 14,000 whales over a ten year period.  The measure was supported, not only by the Obama administration, but Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund.  The measure failed when the Australian government objected.

The International Whaling Commission, which meets annually to set quotas, had been proposing two compromise alternatives: 

1.  to phase out Japan’s whaling in the Antarctic, but allow Japan to commercially hunt whales off its own coast.

2. to allow  Japan to continue its hunts in the Antarctic, provided it adheres to annual limits.

It takes a 75% majority among the 88 nations to effect any changes.  Meeting in Agadir (Morroco) in June 2010, the measures were voted down, led by Australia, the European Union and Latin American delegates.

Consider the fate of one of the world’s most majestic creatures, the Blue Whale, the most massive creature our world has known, with lengths exceeding 100 feet.  Hunted nearly to extinction, it barely survives in the Antarctic.  While the Japanese do not pursue them, they do hunt the fin whale, which reaches 90 feet, weighs 80 tons, and can live up to a century.  They also kill up to 850 minke whales among 100 other species they hunt. Humpback and fin whales are listed as endangered species.  The more plentiful minke whales are
designated as threatened species.  Whale meat is not a staple of the Japanese cultural cuisine.

Much of he Japanese hunt is conducted within the territory of the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary.  Recently, the Australian Federal Court found Japan in contempt of an earlier Australian Federal Court ruling, outlawing it from killing whales within the Australian Antarctic.

The failure to enact, and enforce, meaningful legislation curtailing Japan’s whaling emboldens other countries.  Iceland has announced it will sharply increase its kill to 150 fin whales and 100 minke whales annually through 2013.  Norway continues its own whaling unperturbed.

Political expedience often saves the day, 
with the future left to pay for the indulgence.

Thank you, dear Aussie friends for choosing a better way.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Kill the golden goose?

“Sometimes I’ll drive by the old stadium,” Lisa Carver said, “and it kind of feels like a dream.  You can almost hear the cheers from the crowds, even though the place is empty”  (Bob Greene, CNN, Feb. 5).

The annual hoopla is underway again in what has become America’s foremost  celebration, the Super Bowl.  As I write, two of the NFL’s most storied teams, the Green Bay Packers  and Pittsburgh Steelers, will take-on each other like two brontosauruses for mastery. It’s a field day for television, with myriad analysts honing their skills in prophecy like Delphi oracles. Pre-game coverage began hours ago on some networks. In all, 100 million Americans will watch the Fox Network broadcast.  In countless homes,  families and friends will hover in obeisance, gorging themselves  with burgers, beer, and cheese dip into the late evening.  No other happening unites Americans apart from catastrophes such as 9/11 or the assassination of a president.  Today also marks the centennial of  Ronald Reagan’s birth, one of America’s most popular presidents.  The Super Bowl washes away reminiscence. It is the moment, the Super Bowl moment.

When I grew up, baseball was America’s past time.  In those pre-TV days, I would play with trucks and toy soldiers on the living room floor, our radio tuned to the Phillies game.  A daily ritual, I became knowledgeable about the game, followed the players, combed the newspaper for their stats, and above all, checked the league standings.  In summer, each day found me playing ball with neighborhood toughs using a broom stick to bang a half tennis ball against factory walls. I couldn’t get enough. We didn’t have gloves, cleats, Little League.  We didn’t have a playground with manicured grass and raked diamond. It didn’t matter: baseball was our frenzy and stickball our game.

Today, America's game is  football, whether college or NFL, its culmination, a national playoff for the colleges; the Super Bowl for the NFL.  TV ratings have been the best in 20 years and provided the NFL with 4 billion earnings. Then there is advertising, which has now become an alluring plus for the Super Bowl audience, a kind of Passadena Rose Bowl procession of visual floats, digitally rendered, replete with a prize winner at its end.  One 30 second spot costs 3 million.

After the game is over this evening in Cowboys Stadium,  a monument itself  to money at 1.2 billion, what then?  On March 3, the present contract between the players and the owners expires.  The two sides seem far apart.  A lockout threatens.  Owners want some of the player outlay reduced.
They want new policies regulating rookie salaries and retirement.  They seek revenue enhancement by adding two games, presently 16, to the season schedule.

On the other hand, players don’t want to fork over any percentage of their earnings.  They want to divvy up more of the league revenue, this year, 9 billion. They adamantly oppose adding games, arguing it would increase the chances of injuries.  The last stoppage was in 1987.

In 1994, major league baseball went on strike. They didn’t even finish the season, going out in August.  For the first time in over 60 years, there wasn’t a World Series. The impact was enormous, with the public expressing its chagrin in diminished numbers going past the turnstiles.  Only the burgeoning home run derby of 1996 saved the gave from further demise, though we later discovered its steroid origins.  While attendance is now up, many clubs can barely pay their way, subjecting their fans to engrained mediocrity.

Today, football reigns as America’s passion. The fans have been generous, especially given the worst economic turndown since the Great Depression.  I read today of many out of a job more than two years and losing even their extended unemployment compensation.  One gentleman sent out hundreds of applications. He couldn’t  land even a cashier’s job.  The average cost for a family of four to go to an NFL game is $250.  The ticket price at tonight’s game reserves most of the seating for the money tier. 

These days, big time sports have chosen to get in the “follow the money” lane.  They expect our beleaguered cities to float bonds to finance their sumptuous new stadiums. They threaten to leave if they don’t get their way.  Sometimes they get their way and leave anyway.  Both in football and baseball, the urban landscape is littered with abandoned stadiums financed by the people.  For fans, football and baseball should exist for them; for the owners and players, they exist to make money.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Reflections on global warming

We’ve had a very cold winter in most areas of the nation, with persistent below-freezing temperatures accompanied by weekly snows.  This is true even in Kentucky.  Daily I see newspaper reports of cities and towns already exceeding their budgets for snow removal and salting roads.  With the cold, what’s all this business about global warming?  I had been shopping at the local Kroger, eager to reap the 10% discount for senior citizens the first Wednesday of each month when an elderly gentleman asked me this very question in the parking lot as we both headed to our car trunks, a thrashing wind gust encouraging our rapid steps.  I was briefly startled, wishing to reciprocate his well-meaning pleasantry early in the morning of truly a not very nice day.  The best I could manage was, “It’s complicated.” The poor chap looked bewildered, and I can’t say that I blame him. The truth is that all this cold and recent snow may very well relate to what we call ”global warming.”  
The facts are worrisome, like finding out at the doctor’s that you’ve got inoperable cancer. Best make your plans.  All the praying and fussing won’t help.  Global warming is here and we’re vulnerable.  As Tony Blair tells us, “Climate change is perhaps the most challenging collective action problem the world has faced.”  Can you fathom that statement?  Bubonic plague, the flu epidemic of 1918, two world wars, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, AIDS--all pale before this present menace.  Though we cannot halt it, whether a cyclic change or a catastrophe human induced, we can modify its impact. Unfortunately, few are listening, even as the hands ot the clock near  midnight.
What makes things so difficult are the seeds of doubt some have sown, disparaging the notion of global warming as a hyperbolic conflation of temporal cyclic change with something approaching the eschatological, or Armageddon, of fatal consequences, with humanity their primary catalyst.  Where does the truth lie?
Until 1975, we weren’t sure whether the earth was cooling or warming. In that year, however, we developed computer models indicating that a doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would raise global temperatures five degrees.  By 1988, scientists became so concerned that they established a panel to report every decade on global warming.  Their last report, in 2001, gave alarm.
For 10,000 years the world’s”thermostat” has hovered around 57 degrees.  Carbon dioxide is  pivotal to the Earth’s temperature.  Undetectable by color or smell, it’s vital to maintaining the balance necessary to sustain life.  Planets such as Mars and Venus have atmospheres dominated by carbon dioxide. Thus these planets cannot support life. On earth, in our modern age, every time we cook, drive, or even turn on a light, we send carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, where it remains for a hundred years.  In doing so, we increase Earth’s temperature. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, meaning it has the capacity to entrap heat near the earth’s surface and produce global warming.
Automobiles contribute significantly to carbon dioxide emission; even more so, power plants that use coal to generate electricity.  Black coal is minimally 92% carbon.  Additionally, power plants are often inefficient.
20,000 to 10,000 years ago the Earth experienced the fastest increase in surface temperatures in its history, or a nine degree increase.  However, that increase happened at a rate of  two degrees every millennium.  In our time, we are doing so thirty times faster.  Just since the advent of  the Industrial Revolution, the Earth’s temperature has risen 1.13 degrees.  Nine of the ten warmest years have been since 1990.  2010 was the warmest of all.
Some argue that our turbulent weather patterns can be explained by the phenomenon known as El Nino, which when severe, can produce sustained droughts, heavy moisture, and blizzards. New evidence indicates global warming can unleash semi-permanent El Ninos.
The consequences of global warming aren’t hard to see. Antarctica is turning green; the polar caps are melting; island settlements are being evacuated; species are rapidly disappearing or are threatened; then there is this exponential increase in violent weather. Of all countries, the United States faces the greatest threat with its susceptibility to the most variable weather.  Katrina was a bellwether of our possible future.
There are many things each of us can do at the private level to help control the consequences of global warming. Both in the private and public sectors we must give priority to transitioning to non-fossil fuel sources.  No matter what we do, global temperatures will rise. We can, however, mitigate against a maximum rise that would imperil all life by taking action now.
Unfortunately, we face two formidable barriers: complacency and cynicism; the former because the threat isn’t perceived as immediate or personal; the latter, because of those who discredit the threat and its proponents.  As I write, Fox News (imagine my surprise) is soliciting sources to dispute Al Gore’s statement that global warming can, indeed, cause cooling in some instances (the guy in the parking lot syndrome again). See HuffingtonPost