Sunday, July 05, 2015

The One Nest

After noting just a few days ago: "Unprecedented June heat scorched portions of four continents during the past week, and many all-time heat records are likely to fall across multiple continents this July as the peak heat of summer arrives for what has been the hottest year in recorded human history. Already on July 1, in Wimbledon, England--site of the classic Wimbledon tennis tournament--players are enduring the city's hottest day in tournament history," and noting that the month's heat wave in India killed upwards of 2500 while 1750 died just in Pakistan's largest city, Dr. Jeff Masters continued Friday:

Brutally hot conditions fried portions of three continents during the first three days of July, and four nations have already set all-time July national heat records this month: the Netherlands, the U.K., Thailand, and Colombia...Belgium's all-time hottest temperature was beaten on Thursday, as well as during the 2003 and 2006 heat waves. And in Paris, which measured its 2nd hottest temperature in its history on July 1 (39.7°C)... London's Heathrow Airport hit 98.1°F (36.7°C) on July 1, setting an all-time July heat record for the UK.

Speaking of heat waves in England and London's Heathrow Airport, Stewart Lee has an acerbic column in the Guardian about the heat, the business efforts to push forth a third Heathrow runway to add yet more carbon pollution, hastening eventual extinction.  It's a humorous column (possibly) since it suggests that the game is up and we ought to go straight to extinction as soon as possible, but the details he selects about conditions in England are telling.

First about the current heat wave: "In Norfolk on Thursday, the tarmac melted, and ducklings became trapped in sticky blackness. When a lioness whelped in an ancient Roman street, Caesar thought something was up. Here, solid matter transmuted to hot liquid and swallowed baby birds whole. How surreal do the signs and warnings have to become before we stop in our tracks? Are whales required to fall from the sky? Does Tim Henman have to give birth to a two-headed cat on Centre Court?"

As species disappear, on the diminishment already:

And in 50 years, will there be anyone left to remember what it was like before a sterile and toxic environment gradually became the norm? Can it only be four decades ago that every summer holiday trek along A-roads to South Devon caravan sites left our Morris Marina windscreen smeared thick with now-disappeared invertebrates, that sparrows swarmed around morning milk bottles, that sticklebacks and minnows spawned in every park pond, that hedgehogs gathered at night in suburban gardens and lay flattened in their thousands on roads every morning, and that an actual hare ran out of the encroached common land of Palmers Rough, on the fringes of Birmingham, to be chased by my grandfather along Arnold Road in that same Morris Marina, a sight that would seem as surreal today as escaped hippos wandering the streets of some collapsed eastern European capital?

"The absence of abundance is already accepted. The metaphors of the nature poets, mapping human hearts through once commonly understood imagery, are irrelevant and impenetrable. “The sun of Winter, / The moon of Summer, and all the singing birds / Except the missel-thrush that loves juniper, / Are quite shut out.” I’m sorry. The missel-what? Can the juniper be monetised? Is this missel-thing for sale? Our children already have no stable baseline from which to calibrate the loss of all that lives. It’s game over."

(Accompanying photo of a mistle-thrush was taken in Morocco.)

Saturday, July 04, 2015

An American Tradition

Among my eccentric interests, I keep a lookout for historical information about convergences of Native American and African American cultures, which seems a very understudied subject.  This interest began when I heard echoes of the blues in Native American songs and vice versa.

So this article on the origins of an Independence Day ritual, the outdoor barbeque, caught my eye today.  It's another convergence of those cultures, and like a lot of American traditions it's filled with irony.  These two subjugated groups created what has since been assimilated and appropriated as an American thing, which for most means a white thing.  The African origins in particular are never attributed, according to this article.

There were many places where African American and Native American cultures met, the most conspicuous being in Louisiana, especially New Orleans, and to some extent in Florida.  Another is South Carolina, as per this piece, and I wish I remembered more clearly what a Native American trio of singers (or maybe a duo--all women in any event) said in introducing a Native blues song--but I believe they referenced an area of North Carolina for this convergence.

I heard this group years ago at the Arts Festival in Pittsburgh, which is held in early June.  The July 4 events are part of the Pittsburgh Regatta, which this year does not include anything actually on the water.  The rains were so persistent in June that the flow rate of the rivers is four times normal, so boat races, etc. are too dangerous.  But the fireworks will go off tonight.  When I lived in Pittsburgh, particularly the year I lived on the South Side and could see them from just outside my apartment (and from my windows), I loved the fireworks.

It's a little more complicated here in California, where the drought adds extra danger to playing with fire.  We're just looking to get through it safely.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Get the Idea Yet?

Nothing happening here move along is harder to get away with when it's happening in your backyard, literally.  Lots of places--from PA to Georgia--experienced unusually severe weather in the past few days, but some of it converged on the Washington DC area.

The Washington Post reported: In the middle of the night, in July’s opening moments, the most violent complex of the storms since the June 2012 derecho blasted the immediate D.C. area. It downed scores of trees and produced blinding rain and almost non-stop lightning as it swept straight up the I-95 corridor from near Dale City through the District and into Baltimore. This morning, area utilities, including Pepco, are still dealing with thousands without electricity.

The story appended tweets and photos--a lot of the tweets said the same thing--I was as scared as I've ever been by a storm.  (The same thing Margaret's mother said from Arlington, VA.)  Booming thunder and near-constant lightning flashes as well as heavy rain (an inch in an hour) characterized this event.

Meanwhile, Jeff Masters latest blog at Weather Underground begins: Unprecedented June heat scorched portions of four continents during the past week, and many all-time heat records are likely to fall across multiple continents this July as the peak heat of summer arrives for what has been the hottest year in recorded human history.
WA Post time lapse photo over five minutes: Silver Spring, MD

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Summer Weather Report

A week's worth of weather--the first official week of summer-- as reported on the Weather Underground site is enough to fill the entire newspapers that mostly ignore it.

Last Sunday, the US Southeast was in the midst of a sweltering heat wave.  On Tuesday, reports of at least 12 damaging tornadoes in the High Plains and Midwest.  Severe thunderstorms hit the Northeast on Wednesday. On Thursday, storms caused significant damage and caused widespread power failures in Missouri.  Today a huge dust storm hit Phoenix, and flooding in the Midwest killed two while also causing power failures.

Meanwhile an extreme heat wave had settled into the interior Pacific northwest from northeastern California as far north as British Columbia.  Records for June highs were broken in many locations, and significantly for this area, so were record high nightime lows--that is, things didn't really cool off as much as they usually do at night there (Portland, Oregon for instance.)  Moreover, the conditions causing this heat weren't changing, and were likely to persist into July--breaking records for the length of the heat wave as well as its intensity.  The summer fire season in these regions is already far advanced to what used to be midsummer levels.

And incidentally, heat waves in Pakistan have killed more than 1200 people, with more heat and more deaths expected.

Studies announced this week included one that showed that summers in every region of the US have been getting hotter consistently since 1970.  There's an interactive map to illustrate it.

Another study: Scorching summertime heat waves in Europe, Asia and North America, as well as extreme cold snaps in central Asia, have become more likely because of changes in the way air is flowing over those regions, a new study detailed in the journal Nature suggests.

The exact relationship of these changes in atmospheric patterns to global heating from greenhouse gases emissions is yet to be determined.  Is it causal or interactive? Do the two phenomena have different causes that tend to reinforce, exaggerate or counter effects of the other?  At this point it seems that the effects vary from place to place.  But for most places, it adds to the heat of hotter summers.

Amazing Grace

President Obama's eulogy in Charleston Friday has received various characterizations and praises, but most use the template of searing discussion of race.

My response to seeing it as recorded was different.  The context that he created for talking about Charleston and broader racial history and issues, plus related specific issues such as the Confederate flag and gun control, was what I found remarkable.  It was a highly Christian context, in a eulogy that seemed even more specifically evangelical.  He spoke with the vocabulary of a member--or a minister--of the church he spoke in, the African Methodist Evangelical church.

His overarching and at times subtle theme was grace.  I hesitate to call it a metaphor, since it seemed he meant it specifically in the Christian sense.  His definition in fact was the one I learned in Catholic school.

That he ended his eulogy by leading the singing of Amazing Grace--a few minutes excerpted from it in various media--was entirely consistent with the eulogy, even to its beginning as he recited lines from this song.  Update: I missed an aspect of this context; fortunately Jelani Cobb did not.  President Obama had just stated that the Confederacy fought for slavery, and it was wrong.  Then he launched into this song, written by a slaverunner who turned abolitionist.

My impression was that the murders in that church did send him deeper into his own faith.  And that faith is remarkably orthodox.  Much of it I can no longer share, but I found myself thinking that the logic of it for a real evangelical Christian would be profound.  I could even see sincere white evangelicals thrown into a crisis of political faith by his trenchant and clearly sincere lesson from their putatively shared religious faith.  It was, as some have pointed out, the most thoroughly religious speech a recent US President has ever given.  That alone should change some hearts and minds, if they are at all open.

The Week That Was: Legacy Continued

David Remmick's New Yorker piece continues the theme of Obama's big week, but adds some perspective on the week's events, especially Supreme Court decisions and President Obama's eulogy in South Carolina.

Jonathan Chiat at New York adds his perspective on what he calls a time of social revolution.  And another at the New Yorker, looking more specifically at the Charleston eulogy, comparing it with Lincoln's second Inaugural, and the way forward from it.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Obama Legacy

Sarah Larson's report in the New Yorker on President Obama's garage podcast interview has this key quote from it.  Obama said his job sometimes is  “to steer the ocean liner two degrees north or south so that, in ten years, we’re in a very different place than we are now.” People might want fifty degrees, now, but that might sink the ship, he said.

He's been using that metaphor since 2008, though he extended it a bit here.  And it's why I'm not disappointed with Barack Obama as President.  Because he's right, and that's what he's been doing, as well as setting an agenda and providing a framework for the future with what he chooses to talk about and what he says.  And he's been pretty consistent in those areas, too.

Sometimes the change comes pretty quickly.  Though the Affordable Care Act isn't ever going to fix the US healthcare system entirely, it's made a crucial difference for many, many people, and has beat most projections for coverage and cost containment.  That's a strong precedent as well as a "people eat everyday" reform.

Another change is the suddenly burgeoning clean energy industry.  President Obama used the stimulus package in 2009 to seed that sector, and it is taking off.  Bill McKibben had an eye-opening article about solar power this week.

I'm not saying people can't criticize this or that, or that I agree with everything, especially in the murky NSA/CIA areas.  And I'm in a pretty constant state of dismay over the politics in Washington and the reversion of an entire political party to barbarism, while the other party has it seamy sides as well.  But I can't think of any area where what Obama says contravenes important facts as I know them.  Of course, I can be like WTF host Marc Maron who admitted that he's had periods where he's tried to run the country from his couch.  "A lot of people do," Obama replied.  But I try to maintain a little humility about what I know and what I don't know.

But here's something I know.  There were a lot of stories today (Thursday) about how Obama had such a great day and great week because Obamacare didn't get dismantled by the Supreme Court, and after much politics on the Hill, he got the essentials of his trade package going.  At least one story said that these were two of the three remaining mainstays of his "legacy."  The third is a deal with Iran on its nuclear program.

That's wrong.  The achievement that will be just as important, and finally much more important that these, is a global deal on carbon and other efforts to address the causes of the climate crisis, and maybe even some framework for organizing responses to the effects.

That test will come finally in December.  Right now there is an unprecedented global momentum consciously being built, a maybe last ditch effort to get this done.  The encyclical by Pope Francis is a major part of that,  and the support for it from leaders of institutions both within the Catholic Church and representing other denominations is part of that effort.

As the year goes on, the do or die focus will intensify, hopefully so strongly that the media can't doze through it, their attention continually flickering away to the latest bright object.

President Obama already has the most significant legacy on the climate crisis of any President, but this is the big one.  As he is clearly aware, this is the most important issue for his youngest constituents, who will live on a planet that we hesitate to imagine.  That's the reality of legacy.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

No, It's the Flag!

At least couple of writers--like one at New York Magazine, another at the New Yorker--have now noted that the Confederate flag frenzy has rather neatly shifted all attention from doing something that might actually matter the next time somebody gets a mass-murder impulse: gun control.

Which leads me to wonder: could the power behind this flag thing actually be the National Rifle Association?

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Subject is Racism

Jonathan Chiat at New York:

The mysteriousness of Dylann Roof’s motivations for allegedly murdering a room full of African-Americans, rated on a scale of 1 through 10, is zero. Roof has been described by people who knew him as obsessed with racial hatred, has been photographed with racist symbolism, told his victims he planned to murder them because of their race, and even let one live specifically so that she could let the world know the reason for his crime. It is entirely possible that some form of mental illness or adverse life event caused Roof to embrace violent racism, but there is zero doubt that racism directly motivated his actions.

The rest of this column is about how Republicans, including presidential candidates, have avoided saying that this the motivation for this mass murder was racism.  A companion column provides a sampling of what candidates did say. As Chiat points out, they didn't have to handle it this way.  Call it racism, say it has no place in American society, disassociate yourself from these views.  This used to be the minimum political standard.  Not any more.  The Republican party is very close to officially admitting it is a party for racists.  I suppose they gets some points for acknowledging the truth.

Trending today is the Confederate flag--move it from the South Carolina capitol, take it off the shelves of Walmart, etc.  In part this looks like a mix of guilty conscience, misdirection, a way to talk about this without talking about this, and an Internet-fed instant fad.  We'll see.

President Obama spoke some pointed words on racism in an unusual interview--a podcast recorded in a garage.  Here's a good story on it, here are some quotes, here's the link. Here's another story/summary in the New Yorker.

Update 6/23: The Confederate flag thing continues to spread.  There's an educational component about why that flag flies at all, addressed in this story, by Jelani Cobb, which also provides contemporary context:

Fifty-five per cent of the black population of the United States resides in the South. A hundred and five Southern counties have a population that is at least fifty per cent black. The idea of the Confederate flag as a symbol of Southern pride presumes that there was some universally accessible virtue associated with the circumstances under which that flag came into existence. The more honest assessment would preface the word “Southern” with the adjective “white.”

As for the flurry of other announcements today, there seems to be a degree of "we feel guilty but we can't think of anything else to do" apparently motivating retailers, who get positive publicity from people most likely to buy their products, and yet, as the above linked story concludes:

"When I spoke to Anton Gunn, a former state legislator who ran Obama’s primary campaign in South Carolina, he asked, “If you take the flag down tomorrow, what is going to substantively change in the lives of black people and people affected by inequality in South Carolina?”

The situation in South Carolina has become a tragedy wrapped in an irony. The Confederate flag was erected as a pandering symbol to a segment of the white population who could expect little else from the government. Taking it down offers a kind of equality—an equality of emptiness—to black South Carolinians."

Which is to say that Republicans aren't going to address substantive changes, nor in most cases support and implement government programs that address the needs of blacks as well as others, like Medicaid and Obamacare.  But apart from that, I suppose this flag frenzy could be the symbolic beginning of a new round of addressing residual racism as reflected in institutions.  And probably it will be taken too far, so that eventually some kid who brings a Confederate flag to school for history class will get expelled.  

Friday, June 19, 2015

Your Friendly Neighborhood Terrorist


President Obama calls out Congress for aiding and abetting killers by refusing to pass the simplest gun control laws, while the white racist murderer who was invited into an historic black church in Charleston for Bible studies says he almost didn't carry out his plan because they were so nice to him.  But he had a mission.  Jon Stewart calls him a terrorist, much more dangerous to at least black Americans than any foreigners who might target white people. David Remmick at the New Yorker places this in historical and political context (i.e. Obama.) There's not much more to add to what Stewart says in this video. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

A World of Falling Skies

For me, reading Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Everending Earth by Craig Childs felt like the end of a sequence of books I've read (and often written about) over the past decade or so--books specifically about the climate crisis.

The pre-history of this sequence begins in the late 1980s, when several very hot summers in the eastern US coincided with the first extended revelations of what were then called the Greenhouse Effect and Global Warming.  Bill McKibben claims to have written the first book on the subject in The End of Nature, but there were others at about that time, as well as After the Warming, James Burke's excellent television treatment (which included describing history that had been determined by climate, then a novel idea but now much more accepted.)  Science writer Jonathan Weiner devoted several chapters of his 1990 book The Next One Hundred Years to global heating research to that point, and its likely dramatic effect on the future.

After writing Earth in the Balance in 1992, then running for President without much mentioning these issues in 2000, Al Gore gave the climate crisis its highest profile to that point in 2006 with his film and book, An Inconvenient Truth.  Unfortunately, those needing political cover to oppose efforts to address the climate crisis so as to please fossil fuel billionaire donors, found it in a former Democratic presidential candidate--especially hated since they all knew he'd actually been elected.

But for my purposes here, I note An Inconvenient Truth as representing other books and articles of the period, in that they made the substantial case for global heating caused by carbon pollution, and warned of future consequences.  Gore in particular talked about how there was still time to "solve" the climate crisis.  How do you solve a crisis?  You don't--you address a crisis, you solve a problem--but it did convey the idea that action now could mean there would be no climate crisis.

Other works generally followed this line.  Then came Forecast by Stephan Faris, in which the author reported on consequences already happening.  The bigger ones were far away (Darfur, where climate caused scarcity that fed warfare), South Asia, South America and the good news for some/bad news for others of Arctic warming.  More subtle effects felt in the US included changes in the California wine industry as the best climate for grapes was moving northward.

Faris' book was largely ignored, however.  The idea of present consequences didn't follow either the rabid right line (move along, nothing will ever happen here) or the left line (we still have time to pass cap & trade or a carbon tax and solve this.)

The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning by James Lovelock (2009) was not the first to say it is basically too late, but Lovelock (co-originator of the Gaia theory) was both revered and considered a bit radical by environmentalists.  Bill McKibben gave this book a respectful review but found fault with main conclusions.  Lovelock wrote that perhaps only 200 million people on the entire planet would survive the climate crisis and related phenomena, all living in polar regions. There wasn't sufficient evidence for that, McKibben said.

But then something happened.  Scientific observations--particularly of polar melting--were showing consequences not predicted to happen for decades under worst case scenarios for global heating.  The change in tone was immediate.  For me the first and still most powerful was David Orr in Down to the Wire (2009.)  The evidence that global heating was causing grave consequences--and due to lag times in effects, would continue into the near future--became a guardedly accepted premise, it seemed almost overnight.

 As Orr wrote, "The news about climate, oceans, species, and all of the collateral human consequences will get a great deal worse for a long time before it gets better.  The reasons for authentic hope are on a farther horizon, centuries ahead...The change in our perspective from the nearer to the longer term is, I think, the most difficult challenge we will face."  So no longer were we going to solve the climate crisis.  We were going to have to deal with its effects, while at the same time attacking its causes, not to save ourselves or even our grandchildren, but the ultimate future of human civilization and perhaps the human race. (Al Gore eventually joined in this view.)

This presented two basic problems that are both intellectual and emotional.  One is: how do you work up the hope and resolve to attack and try to solve these problems when you'll never see the better outcome, but you will see things get worse?  The other--and perhaps emotionally the first--how do you deal with what's to come, that (somewhat depending on where you are) may look a lot like apocalypse?

Both of these became the grim and delicate subjects of such books as Bill McKibben's Eaarth (2010), the title indicating that the planet has already changed and won't change back, and the best we can do is "manage our descent."   Paul Gilding's The Great Disruption (2010), while suggesting that the climate crisis will mean "we'll tragically lose a few billion people," maintained that humanity will rise to the occasion and save itself from extinction, thus providing this book's rep as "optimistic."  In his third book on the climate crisis and related matters, James Gustave Speth mixed the same dire assumptions and hope with a plan in  America the Possible (2013.)  Mark Hertsgaard, who got onto the time lag consequences early, wrote clearly on the two time frames and what they mean in Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth (2011.)

Since then, the news of effects has been--as Orr predicted--increasingly bad.  Though the far future looks a little better, with the rise of clean energy and new carbon regulations (both fostered by the Obama administration), and with hopes for a meaningful global treaty later this year, we still must deal with those two basic problems, conceptually and emotionally.

That all leads to Apocalyptic Planet (published in hardcover in 2012, and in paperback in 2013.)  Dealing emotionally with the apocalyptic possibilities is an ongoing process, with lots of changes in perspective and feeling.  What Craig Childs did was to visit places where apocalypse is visible in various ways: where climate crisis consequences are visible and tangible and ongoing, and to extreme places where apocalypse already happened, perhaps a very long time ago, and in a sense is still happening.  Although I discovered this book late, it also took me a long time to read it all.  I could only handle so much apocalypse at a time.

Childs begins in the desert and moves on to the glaciers.  It's clear from these first two chapters that his writing is vivid, economical and eloquent.  He describes his own single set of experiences and those of companions in these extreme landscapes.  The combination of beauty and fear in these places produces a complex awe.  As his party of documentary filmmakers finds one astonishingly fast-melting glacier after another, several couples find crevices in the ice where they have sex.

These places are indicators of apocalypse.  The extreme and alien landscape of the Mexican desert is inexorably expanding into Arizona, as drought deepens and consolidates.  Scientists in his party are astounded by the speed with which the glaciers they observe can melt and drain away--feelings echoed more recently in statements about melting in Antarctica.

He goes to Alaska with his intrepid mother to look at consequences of sea level rise. He returns to his birthplace of Arizona to explore the rise and fall of civilizations, where he talks with an archeologist.  "As dark came on, Wright and I talked about how civilizations tend to fall, common themes you see throughout time: environmental decay, failure of top-heavy infrastructure, resource depletion, loss of social egalitarianism, disease, conflict."

He asked Wright what such an apocalypse would look like.  It would start out looking like Phoenix today, with decay beginning at the edges.  Apocalypse can be a slow process in human time.  Childs grapples with the twin sense that apocalypse simply happens over and over, and every civilization that has risen so far has fallen, but that once anticipated some of these fates may be avoidable.

Or apocalypse can happen relatively quickly.  In Greenland he discusses with a climate scientist the possibilities of rapid climate change.  It's happened before, without human help--and this is one of this book's contributions: it deals in different time frames, including a multi-billion year perspective.

A major figure in this long Greenland chapter is Koni Steffans, an European climate expert whose research camp Childs is visiting.  From time to time, government officials and others visit the camp for updates.  "What he tells people who visit is not that the sky is falling but that we live in a world of falling skies and it is best not only to know your options but to make moves ensuring the worst does not happen." [p.176]

Childs does not limit his explorations to consequences of the climate crisis.  He looks at tectonics in Tibet, volcanoes in Hawaii (a monster volcano eruption is probably the best candidate for near-instant, near-total apocalypse.) The Tibet chapter includes a daring ride down an uncharted river, a surprising release from the book's main tensions.

But for me the scariest landscape he describes is a corn field in Iowa--genetically modified corn to resist predators is combined with chemical killers of all non-modified life.  The crops themselves are depleting the soil without regenerating it: they are killing the future they are feeding.

This environment of deliberate industrialized death is the occasion for discussion of species extinction (the specific subject of Elizabeth Colbert's 2014 book The Sixth Extinction.)  This somehow is the most emotionally powerful aspect of apocalypse, perhaps because there is nothing of awe and terror in it.  It is indirect but conscious destruction, invisible and hollow.  A scientist points out that individual animals of species about to disappear are mostly not ill or weak.  Their environment, their breeding grounds, makes following generations smaller and then impossible.  So one day they are just not there anymore.

Childs and his companion spend days and nights in these corn fields, searching for any life at all--insects, birds, grass.  They find little, but the little they do find is a source of some hope.

Time scales and the constituents of apocalypse, including the climate crisis, come together in the final chapter, as Childs searches out the limits of life in the severest desert he could find, in South America.  He looks beyond what we define as the living to find the life of the planet.  "The earth is a seed planting itself over and over."

There is no easy solace, or easy despair.  This book expands the usual view of the Earth, in time and space, in levels and variety.  It becomes a little like contemplating the realities we suppress, of what happens over time in our own lives, in the inevitability of death and the mysteries of life changing and continuing.

This book helps to provide a different perspective for thinking and feeling through future prospects as shaped by global heating.  But it doesn't simplify those thoughts and feelings into a philosophical complacency.  Its strongest message is to experience fully what we are privileged to be part of in our own brief time on Earth, in all its dimensions.  It also supports hope as an operating principle, as a kind of responsibility that comes with being alive.  The responsibility is to contribute to a better future--even if that means a less awful future that it might otherwise be-- together with our responsibilities to people and communities and places in our present.    

Monday, June 08, 2015

A Tragedy We Share

A young black man in New York City, who had been imprisoned and tortured for three years without charge (he'd been arrested for stealing a backpack, which he denied) killed himself.  His story had been told in the New Yorker, and the writer posted this news.

The Mayor of New York, who had made changes in response to the initial story, today vowed more reforms.

We hardly needed more evidence to know that the entire police and prison system is enveloped in darkness.  In many places in America, corruption that apparently reaches into district attorney and judicial offices, institutionalized cruelty,  and the phenomenon of police departments acting as autonomous agencies that rule by their own law have become startlingly clear.  The Guardian (in England of course) has a running count of individuals killed by U.S. police.  The count for this year so far is at 490.

But especially troubling about the story of Kalief Browder, who was sent to Rikers Island when he was 16, kept in solitary for long periods without charge, and whose beatings by prison staff and other inmates are documented in video obtained and posted by the New Yorker, is simply how many people had to know what was happening to him, and let it happen, or helped it happen.  They cooperated, they said nothing.  No public officials responded (and perhaps were never contacted) until the New Yorker story, which was published after Browder was finally released without ever being charged.

For those who believe that human nature is all about individual survival and success, and that cruelty and violence dominate our genetic legacy, all of this must seem natural.  That view of human nature is historically recent and short, and is being superseded in our time by science that shows cooperation, empathy, altruism, generosity are just as vital to human nature.

Individual conscience and courage tip the scales, but cultural standards can make a big difference.  Law is part of those standards, and the law must take an interest in situations like this that should never happen in this country.  Never.

But cultural standards are everyone's responsibility.  That not a single person apparently rose to the occasion before Kalief Browder's psyche was destroyed is shocking and sobering.  None of us hold our heads high today.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Eulogy of Hope



President Obama's eulogy for Beau Biden is more than a tribute to this "good man" but the statement of life principles that illuminate not only his own commitments but a path for others.  His words were underscored by those of Beau's kid sister and his brother at the funeral Saturday.  The entire service is viewable on C-Span, as are the other eulogies and songs.

I spotted a story today I won't dignify by linking that asserts that these events shed a different light on Joe Biden, who has otherwise been seen as a joke, a punchline. Pretty obviously, nothing has changed but the media spin.  Joe Biden, as these eulogies attest, has not changed--that's really the point that runs through these memorials, from Joe and his parents even before that, to Beau and his siblings, and to the next generation of their children, the same commitments to the love that is always there, to compassion, generosity and service.  But the media can't deal with anything so incomprehensible, and would rather stick with the Republican-fed cynicism, slavery to fashion and triviality and the cliche-ridden sensibility for which they are so justly infamous.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

A Family in Grief


I've moved this back to the top today, in honor of the official mourning period for Beau Biden.  Here is the White House page on Beau Biden, text and mostly photos, many with his two small children.  May he rest in peace.

Two similar pieces appeared recently in the wake of the death of Beau Biden, the Vice-President's 46 year old son, from a brain tumor: one in the New Yorker, one in Politico (not otherwise known for kindness towards Democrats.)  They both noted the tragic nature of this death, of a young man with an already distinguished record, who seemed to have no enemies, and who was headed for the governorship of Delaware and perhaps beyond.  They both noted all the tragedies endured by Joe Biden, including the deaths of his wife and child blindsided in their car, and the injuries of two other children including Beau.

But both pieces center on the universally recognized authenticity of Joe Biden and his family.  Without much saying so, they certainly imply the rarity of that authenticity in American political life.  This is especially obvious when this sad news broke the same week as revelations about the secret crimes of the former Republican Speaker of the House and multimillionaire, Dennis Hastert--a man so utterly not what he seems that fittingly enough, he has completely disappeared.

Joe Biden was "a surprise pick" for v.p. nominee, as the Politico piece says, but evidently Obama saw something authentic in the man and his family, and the the two families quickly bonded.  The Politico piece passes on an observation by David Axlerod, who was in the Obama White House in its first years:

Axelrod said the only day in his two years on staff at the White House that he remembers Obama being distracted was the day in 2010 when Beau Biden had his stroke — the first public sign of the brain cancer that took his life. “He just stared out the window and started talking about how hard this would be for Joe,” Axelrod recalled.

This piece implies that one reason Joe Biden wasn't actively pursuing a presidential nomination this year was his concern for his son's health.

Apparently, being asked to run for vice-president surprised even Joe Biden.  The New Yorker:

He rose through the Senate, ran twice for the Presidency, said things he wished he had not, paid for them, recovered—only to find himself, to his surprise, asked to join a fellow senator, Barack Obama, in a historic run for the White House. In the Vice-Presidency—the most maligned job in Washington—Biden has often projected the look of a man who can’t quite believe his good fortune. Ted Kaufman, his friend for more than four decades, once told me, “If you ask me who’s the unluckiest person I know personally, who’s had just terrible things happen to him, I’d say Joe Biden. If you asked me who is the luckiest person I know personally, who’s had things happen to him that are just absolutely incredible, I’d say Joe Biden.”

The New Yorker quotes President Obama:

After the news broke on Saturday, the President praised Beau Biden for “a life that was full; a life that mattered.” He said it was a testament to Jill and Joe Biden that Beau lived “a life that reflected their reverence for family.” “The Bidens,” he said, “have more family than they know.” 

There is something to that. In a town where “family” is often brandished as a political prop, the Bidens have never attracted a cynical reading. In their tragedy, their striving, their survival, and their improbable optimism, the Bidens are a deeply American family—a clan that, even as it edged into privilege, has never looked out of reach or out of touch.

Both pieces have variations on "an American family" in their titles.  Perhaps the Bidens are more like American families than most people in Washington.  It seems so plausible as to be obvious, so perhaps this moment should jolt us into realizing how seriously warped that is.  Really, once the Obamas and the Bidens leave, who is left?

On the other hand, maybe there aren't enough families like them to constitute anything but an ideal American family.  Which may be even worse.  But both pieces note the outpouring of real emotion from Washington and elsewhere. Perhaps they are models to aspire to and identify with, in our national heart of hearts.  And so we grieve with them.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Heard These? Probably Not.

Two bad news stories you probably haven't heard or seen or read: one of them very bad, and the other astonishingly bad.

There's an ongoing heat wave in India that has killed thousands. It's become the fifth deadliest heat wave in history. The Minister for Earth Sciences of India noted that this heat plus the predicted failure of this year's annual monsoons after last year's complete failure, indicates that climate change is involved.

"So, let us not fool ourselves that there is no connection between the unusual number of deaths from the ongoing heat wave and the certainty of another failed monsoon,” said Dr. Harsh Vardhan. He recalled President Obama’s candid statement on the three-year-running drought in California which has ruined that state’s fruit crop.

He pointed out that the Indian monsoon is known to be heavily dependent on oceanic, atmospheric and land surface conditions. The drastic changes brought about through change of the character of land and resultant atmospheric pollution are definitely influencing the monsoon. Dr Harsh Vardhan remarked, “Scientists till now had not considered the local implications of global change. Think global act local is happening now.”


That's the very bad story.  The possibly worse story--though no present deaths are involved--is a new study predicting that global heating is melting glaciers in the Himalayas so fast that by century's end their volume will be decreased by 70 to 90%.

Like other key areas of the world, the effects on local populations will be immense:

The food and livelihoods of more than a billion people living in Asia would suffer greatly by drastic glacial retreat in the Himalayas, a report by The Guardian says. Both the generation of hydroelectric power and agriculture would be severely affected. And, in addition to a dramatic reduction in meltwater, glacial retreat also can trigger a chain of events leading to avalanches and catastrophic floods, the authors say.

But that isn't the end of it.  For reasons not entirely understood, the Himalayas (especially near Tibet) are important to the world's weather.  The area greatly influences the atmospheric tides that govern global weather and climate in real time.  So in addition to local effects of the climate crisis, we're seeing the possibility of global consequences from local effects.

But of course all that isn't nearly important as the big stories of the day, like multimillionaire Caitlyn Jenner and granny panties.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Roosevelt & Hopkins: War Tourists, Congress and the President

The mythology of World War II has the United States, seeing Hitler as the evil threat he was, united to defeat him.  We've seen that wasn't true, before the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 or afterwards, until Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor meant the US declared war not only on Japan but on its ally, Germany.

The mythology also has the homefront united in the war effort.  While the homefront was crucial and most Americans felt it was their patriotic duty to obey rationing and endure other sacrifices, collect materials for armament, and work overtime if asked in war production.  But private enterprise was not always so dedicated.

For instance, Roosevelt and Hopkins records this episode:

 “The ships moving along the Atlantic Coast at night, although showing no lights themselves, passed between the waiting [German]submarines and the glare of lights from the shore and therefore presented easy targets. Morison has written, ‘Miami and its luxurious suburbs threw up six miles of neon-light glow, against which the southbound shipping that hugged the reefs to avoide the Gulf Stream were silhouetted. Ships were sunk and seamen drowned in order that the citizenry might enjoy business and pleasure as usual.’
After three months of this massacre, the military authorities ordered the lights dimmed in coastal areas—it was called ‘the brown-out’—and ‘squawks went up all the way from Atlantic City to southern Florida that the tourist season would be ruined.’”

Pressure from private enterprise was applied to Congress.  Congress approved war spending routinely, with one exception:

“However, seriously controversial political issues were created by measures which involved arbitrary interference with the civilian economy. The American people, who were so willing and proud to give whatever was required of them in blood and sweat, were loudly reluctant to cut down on their normal consumption of red meat and gasoline and their use of such essentials as electric toasters and elastic girdles. More than any other people on earth, Americans were addicted to the principle that you can eat your cake and have it; which was entirely understandable, for Americans have been assured from the cradle that 'there is always more cake where that came from.'”

When Congress couldn't take the heat, they gladly passed it on to Roosevelt, and then criticized him for acting.  That they criticized his use of executive power--though they were glad he did them the favor of taking responsibility and acting--sure sounds familiar. In taking action against inflation, FDR told Congress to act or he would--which is what President Obama did on immigration.  In both cases, Congress failed to act, but the President did.

“The President had the power to stabilize prices and wages by Executive Order without reference to Congress and some of us believed that he should do just that immediately and not run the risk of hostile action or no action at all on Capitol Hill. There were unquestionably many Congressman who fervently hoped that he would do it this way and thereby absolve them from all responsibility for decision on such a controversial issue. (It was an ironic fact that many of the Congressmen who were loudest in accusing Roosevelt of dictatorial ambitions were the most anxious to have him act like a dictator on all measures which might be unpopular with the people but obviously valuable for the winning of the war.) 
 Roosevelt himself was in favor of an arbitrary Executive Order to achieve stabilization, and his speech was at first written as a proclamation and explanation of that; but some of his advisers, notably Hopkins and Henderson, strongly recommended that he ut the issue up to Congress in the form of an ultimatum—‘you act before October 1st or I will’—and their arguments finally prevailed.”

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Daily News

Predicted and observed effects of global heating include more frequent and more violent storms...

Texas storm has 'tsuami-like power says governor
Twister kills 13 in Mexico border city; 12 missing in Texas flood
Update 4/28: Continuing severe weather and flooding in Texas, 16 dead
and a Texas newspaper notices it's evidence of climate change.

and longer and more intense heat waves...

India heat wave kills more than 500 people.
Update 4/28: Heat wave continues--deaths now over 1,000
Update 4/29: Death toll of India heat wave at 1800

and combined with other effects of mindless industrialization and sprawl, is leading to species extinctions.

Obama's plan to save the Monarch butterfly from extinction

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Spring (or Summer ?) Flowering


Every Memorial Day weekend, my grandfather would change the winter glass storm doors for screen doors, bring the window screens up from the cellar, and remove the dark cover from the glider on the front porch.  It was the signal for summer.

Hereabouts there's something blooming at all times of year, but the spring flowers are into their summer.  We've got varieties of roses (yellow in front, red in back), Iris (though they tend to bloom earlier in the spring) and California poppies.  We've even got purple sage (that's it above, along with the two flowers I'm about to mention.)

But two kinds are dominant, and in our walks in the neighborhood, I don't see them as profuse (or even as present) as around our house. Nasturtiums (proper name Tropaeolum) are orange or orange and yellow striped flowers, with roundish green leaves.  The stems are attached to vines which grow at an incredible rate that accelerated in April.  They threaten to cover the back porch, and I confess to enjoy being surrounded by them in my usual chair.

Nasturtium flowers are edible with a kind of peppery taste, and contain high amounts of vitamin C.  We use them in salads from time to time.

The other kind is the Calla Lily.  Before I came here, all I knew about calla lilies was what Katherine Hepburn said in Stage Door--it became one of the standard lines for Hepburn imitators.  I first noticed them growing in the narrow strip between the north side of the house and the fence with the neighbor house.  There's only one small door on that side of the house, from the garage, and access from the front through a small garden gate.  This area has always been dense with bushes and, close to the house, with ferns.  Back in the far western corner is where I first noticed a few calla lilies.

They stayed pretty much on that side until recent years, then migrated to the front (also accompanying ferns) and now we have them in the back bordering the porch and near the small fruit trees (fernless however), as well as in the front under the picture window.  They are strange and strangely beautiful white flowers on long stalks that can get quite tall.  (The books say three feet, but several in the front this year were at least four feet.)  I'm fascinated by their large leaves with their curves and folds.  We seem to have the most callas in the vicinity.  I don't know why.  They bloom for a lot of the year.

Nasturtiums came from South America, calla lilies from Africa (though some species have been in northern parts of the US for a long time.)  So I don't know where you draw the line on native plants.  They probably do compete successfully with other flowers, though there are varieties scattered in our yards that I can't name that seem more like California flowers-- very complex, with bands and spots of colors, bell-like parts and other complexities, all so different. Even the wild iris are remarkable in their stripes and patterns, the subtle blend of colors.

By contrast, I remember the flowers of my western Pennsylvania childhood as simpler: violets, daisies, profusions of dandelions considered weeds, the purple flowers I never knew the name of because they too were "weeds," flower beds of gladiolas and roses.

I was musing on this topic while out on the porch in April, on one of the rare occasions that I took my laptop out there (it doesn't do well in bright light.) What I was thinking of when I was out there watching and listening to what goes on around the flowers and trees was the profusion I recall--accurately or not I don't know, but I think pretty accurately. Here I watched a single wasp, and three bumble bees who are working the same territory but seemed to stay together at a respectful distance from the larger pollinator.  I heard crickets, a fairly uncommon sound. The sight of a butterfly is rare, and the sight of more than one of any appreciable size is rarer still.

In my childhood backyard and the adjoining field there were lots of bumble bees to watch and be wary of, and wasps and hornets were regular residents around the outside of the house. Lots of butterflies, large and patterned, all summer. Our neighborhood lore included the difference between Monarchs and butterflies that looked just like them. My favorites were the patterned butterflies in shades of blue.

We've made things as bird friendly as possible here. I have a makeshift birdbath on an old picnic table and have watched birds splashing in it, though its been dry lately.  I needed to find a smaller dish I can refill every day without drought guilt.

 But the birds who visit us mostly chirp--songs are rare. There were a lot more songbirds in the east, particularly where I lived in Pittsburgh. There were also cardinals and goldfinches we don't have here at all. (On the other hand, I can watch hawks circling above the community forest almost any day.)  In spring however we do get species of bird visitors we may never see the rest of the summer, or rarely. And in April on the HSU campus I saw a pair of stellar jays--large jays, blue feathers--and heard what sounded like a macaw, or some bird call I remembered only from movies set in jungles or swamps.  That was weird.

El Nino Update

The El Nino story evolves.  The Weather Channel predicts a strong El Nino, adding to factors they say forecast a cooler than usual summer in the central and eastern US, and a warmer than usual summer here in far northwestern CA, with a very much warmer August for us.  Guess that means 80.  But apart from our coastal strip, higher temps and a dry summer mean more and bigger forest fires.  We've been bracing for that, even with the El Nino hope of a rainy fall and winter.

Other models agree on a cooler central US but predict a warmer summer on both coasts.  And a wetter than usual summer for most of the country.  But since El Nino usually adds to global temperature, 2015 is still on track to be the hottest year on record--hotter than any year since way back in...2014.  Sensing a pattern here?

Something I didn't know: the 1997 strong El Nino also started late, in summer.  I remember the winters of 96-97 and 97-98 as particularly wet here, with heavy rains and storms.  Rains that washed down denuded hills and washed away homes and parts of small towns led to outcries against overlogging, including a video I scripted for a local enviro group called Voices of Humboldt County: Cumulative Impact. All of that helped along Maxxam's local downfall, and to some extent the Headwaters Forest deal.  Anyway, those were our first years here--we'd heard the winters were rainy, but not that rainy.  So while we pray for rain, it can come with costs in flooding and storm damage.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Duty

"When you’re on deck, standing your watch, you stay vigilant. You plan for every contingency. And if you see storm clouds gathering, or dangerous shoals ahead, you don't sit back and do nothing. You take action -- to protect your ship, to keep your crew safe. Anything less is negligence. It is a dereliction of duty. And so, too, with climate change. Denying it, or refusing to deal with it endangers our national security. It undermines the readiness of our forces.

It’s been said of life on the sea -- “the pessimist complains about the wind, the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.” Cadets, like you, I reject pessimism. We know what we as Americans can achieve when we set ourselves to great endeavors. We are, by nature, optimists -- but we’re not blind optimists. We know that wishful thinking in the face of all evidence to the contrary would set us on a course for disaster. If we are to meet this threat of climate change, we must be realists. We have to readjust the sails."

President Obama
graduation address, US Coast Guard Academy

Meanwhile, California Governor Jerry Brown announced a multi-state agreement to set and meet goals to reduce carbon pollution:

The agreement includes the states of Oregon, Washington and Vermont, as well as the provinces of British Columbia and Ontario in Canada, the states of Baja California and Jalisco in Mexico, and the British country of Wales. Also involved are states and provinces in Brazil, Germany, and Spain.

"We will strive to bring more states into this agreement," Brown said at the event.

Although the terms are not legally binding, by signing the agreement the leaders are committing to specific targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. At that point, emissions would either need to be at least 80% below 1990 levels, or less than 2 metric tons per capita.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Best of What's Still Around: Message in a Bottle



Sting's songs are, as he says, "muscular."  They can be done in all kinds of ways and still keep their integrity.  He's proven this point with a lot of them, by doing them in different styles and with different instruments and bands behind him. Lately he's taken to singing one of his best and most popular, "Message In A Bottle," originally recorded with The Police in 1979, with just his voice and an acoustic guitar (as at the end of his Ted Talk.)

Probably the first time he did this was as an encore to his first concerts after leaving the Police.  The gestation of the band that recorded his first two solo albums with him is chronicled in one of my favorite movies called Bring On the Night, that builds to their first concert in Paris. I saw it in a shopping mall theater when it came out in 1985 or so, watched it on cable TV, taped it off cable, bought the VHS tape on sale and most recently the DVD.  This version of "Message" --with just his electric guitar--runs with the end credits of the movie, but it's one of my favorites mostly because of the gentle French voices singing along.  The lyrics make it one of the most appropriate songs to sing along to.




From an encore to the song that began the concerts on the 2008 Police reunion tour. Its joyous power with the biggest three-piece band that's ever existed, and the bond with the audience are evident in this contrasting version.  This audience for the concert in Japan is actually a little muted compared to others, but the video is HD--and free.  

Update (sort of): There were actually two stories in the news today about messages in bottles that were found--one 21 years later, another 40 years later.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Day of Infamy

A kind of coda to the beginning of the U.S. in World War II from Roosevelt and Hopkins.  Even in my childhood in the 1950s, the story of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was powerful and unequivocal.  The surprise or "sneak" attack, the destruction and damage to the large battleships and the deaths of some 2,000 sailors could still provoke outrage and anger.  Iconic photographs and Hollywood movies kept the imagery alive.

The series of defeats to Allied forces in the Pacific immediately after the U.S. entry reinforces what seems obvious: in just 90 minutes, the U.S. Pacific Fleet was largely destroyed.

Military historians since then, both American and Japanese, suggest this attack didn't turn out to be as damaging to U.S. capabilities and the early course of the war as it appeared.  It turned out that the three most important ships in the fleet, the aircraft carriers Enterprise, Lexington and Saratoga--the only carriers the US had at the time--weren't in port, but safely out at sea. Though battleships were the "prestige vessels" in public perception, they would turn out to be less important than aircraft carriers.

The Japanese hoped the attack would demoralize Americans but after FDR named December 7 "a day that will live in infamy," the opposite happened.  The attack was used to motivate American resolve for the rest of the war.

What's interesting however is that even at the time, the White House knew that apart from the deaths and injuries, the US military capability had not suffered as badly as it appeared.  The weakness that led to those early defeats had their source in the isolationist votes in Congress. Here are some relevant passages from Roosevelt and Hopkins:

“There was fortunately a minimum of crying over the milk spilled at Pearl Harbor. The swift destruction of the ultramodern Prince of Wales showed that would have happened had the antiquated battleships of the Pacific fleet attempted to operate in the enormous area controlled by Japanese air power west of the international date line and north of the equator, Roosevelt said in February [1942,} “The only way we could use those ships if we had them now would be for convoy duty in case the Japs ever started using capital ships to break the life line to Australia.” 


 This, however, never happened, because American and Australian air power was established and maintained over that life line and the Japanese were reluctant to risk their own battleships within its range. American weakness in those days could not be attributed to what happened at Pearl Harbor, where the enemy could have done far more serious damage had he attacked the vital installations of the base itself rather than the defensively huddled battleships; the weakness was the obvious result of years of puerile self-delusion which had manifested itself in such errors of calculation as the refusal to appropriate funds even for dredging the harbor at Guam.”

Historians also agree with this assessment that destroying the base itself would have hurt more, possibly extending the war by another year.  The Japanese had a plan to do so, but US resistance (including planes from the Enterprise) convinced them to call off the third wave of their attack.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Weekend Update

A few stories from the past week, notably linked.

The War on Trains (and Infrastructure in General): In the wake of a major train crash on the highly traveled eastern corridor that could have been prevented by equipment that has since been installed but wasn't before because Congress won't appropriate enough money, Adam Gopnik's NewYorker piece  on why it's happening, why it matters and especially what trains are all about, is definitely worth a read.  (Some more specific political/ideological reasons for infrastructure opposition here. )

Antarctica Preview: Ice Sheet to Collapse in Five Years or Fewer:  From NASA: "Ice shelves are the gatekeepers for glaciers flowing from Antarctica toward the ocean. Without them, glacial ice enters the ocean faster and accelerates the pace of global sea level rise. This study, the first to look comprehensively at the health of the Larsen B remnant and the glaciers that flow into it, has been published online in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters." Conclusion? A new NASA study finds the last remaining section of Antarctica's Larsen B Ice Shelf, which partially collapsed in 2002, is quickly weakening and likely to disintegrate completely before the end of the decade." 

I've read a little about glaciers collapsing and was amazed at how fast it can happen (but then so were scientists.)  This study suggests the nature of that speed: After the 2002 Larsen B collapse, the glaciers behind the collapsed part of the shelf accelerated as much as eightfold – comparable to a car accelerating from 55 to 440 mph.


El Nino Looks Real.  According to Jeff Masters' blog at Weather Underground: The robust El Niño event anticipated for more than a year is finally coming to fruition, according to the latest observations and forecasts. NOAA's latest monthly analysis, issued on Thursday morning, continues the El Niño Advisory already in effect and calls for a 90% chance of El Niño conditions persisting through the summer, with a greater-than-80% chance they will continue through the end of 2015.

The blog notes this is pretty unusual. "Forecasters and computer models alike have been confounded by this event."  That's partly because stuff is happening out of its usual season.  That's climate change for you, it changes things."If this El Niño event does intensify, as models strongly suggest it will (see below), it'll be one for the record books. There are no analogs in the database for a weak event in northern winter that becomes a stronger event by summer. Persisting into northern fall will also greatly raise the odds of this becoming a rare two-year event."

So if it happens, what will happen?  Nobody knows really.  Could mean more rain this winter for California, and then again, maybe not.  It has however meant rain for southern California last week, which is weird.  But that's climate change for you, things get weird.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Greatest Possible Challenge

Last week there was a rather quiet commemoration of the 70th anniversary of one of the most important achievements of the twentieth century: the Allied victory over the Nazis in World War II.

Indispensable to that victory was the US President, Franklin D. Roosevelt.  My next few excerpts from Roosevelt & Hopkins will pertain to that, especially as it is the actual subject of this long book.

The book chronicles the months and years after German invasions began the war in Europe but before US formally entered it.  That period was characterized by growing desperation, especially from England, for US help.  While western civilization and liberty arguably hung in the balance, FDR was stymied by a recalcitrant Congress, especially the Republicans who were in the main Isolationists, and viewed with extreme suspicion any attempt to increase US military readiness or aid European allies.  Some factions and celebrities (notably Charles Lindbergh and Ann Morrow Lindbergh) praised the Nazis and called them the wave of the future.

The US public was traumatized by World War I to an extent that history seems to have forgotten.  But the Republicans weren't pacifists--they were Isolationists, opposing American involvement beyond US borders or at least outside its hemisphere.  This isolationism was in part domestic politics, for it gave them a clear identity in contrast to FDR.  They used this important issue about the future to make outrageous charges and gin up their supporters.  And they took it to ridiculous extents, refusing to pass appropriations bills for anything that even sounded like supporting military overseas. Sound familiar?

But that changed on December 7, 1941, with the Japanese attack on ships of the US Pacific Fleet at the US base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  When Congress voted to declare war on Japan and its allies the next day, the US was woefully underprepared.  Only the quiet build-up FDR had engineered (partly by refocusing Depression work programs) ran counter to the obsolescence of US forces, in a war that more than any in history would depend on the quantity and quality of ships, planes, weapons and technologies, and the ability to keep producing them and getting them where they were needed--not only to US forces but to allies, in huge numbers.  How all that happened is covered in great detail in this book.

But US forces in the Pacific suffered defeat after defeat in the first months of the war. In January 1942, everyone knew that the US would have to massively step up its war production or face complete defeat, with Europe lost to the Nazis as well. FDR had gathered experts who went over figures of what the US was producing, and what industry estimated they could produce.  Under FDR's influence, they set goals for the coming year--astounding goals.  Here's Sherwood:

 
“The production goals determined upon the Arcadia Conference and announced in part by Roosevelt in his Message to Congress were so astronomic that they were greeted with derision and, in some cases, despair by military and civilian authorities alike. Some officers in the War Department were passing the remark, “The President has gone in for the ‘numbers racket’! Others could see nothing humorous in these impossible figures; believing that the goals could not possibly be realized, they foresaw grave criticism and probable injury to public morale when failure became evident.”

As usual, when critics in the press or among Republicans were afraid to lambast FDR directly they went after Hopkins, the "free spender," for unduly influencing FDR.

"However, as Hopkins had once told Quentin Reynolds, he was no Svengali, and Roosevelt was in no trance when he proclaimed the Victory Program of production. It was in Roosevelt’s nature to believe that the surest way to capture the imagination of the American people was to give them the greatest possible challenge.[my emphasis]

The total cost in money bothered him not at all; he always believed it was far better to squander the taxpayers’ dollars than to squander the taxpayers. As a matter of fact—and I can state it as such because I was one of those present when it happened—Roosevelt himself arbitrarily revised some of the figures upward on the eve of his speech to Congress. When Hopkins questioned him on this, Roosevelt said, ‘Oh—the production people can do it if they really try.’

 He did the same thing years later en route to Chicago where he proclaimed a national, postwar goal of sixty million jobs. He was never afraid of big, round numbers.”

Roosevelt the master politician and now leader of the Allies turned criticism into cheers by making these production goals a patriotic statement:

“When Roosevelt announced a part of the Victory Program to Congress, he said, ‘These figures and similar figures for a multitude of other implements of war will give the Japanese and Nazis a little idea of just what they accomplished in the attack on Pearl Harbor.’ The Congress cheered that vociferously and proceeded to appropriate the necessary funds with few of the quivers that assailed those who were responsible for carrying out the incredible program.”

The United States met and surpassed FDR's production goals, widely credited as a crucial element in winning the war.