Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

""Yes, I suppose it was hard to talk about, because it seemed like it broke down in one of two ways, because people were asking: Is it too late or not? And it seemed like this:
If it isn't too late, we don't have to do anything.
On the other hand, if it is too late, we don't have to do anything.
So either way, don't do anything. That was the problem with that way of putting the question. What we came to realize was that it was a false problem or a question put the wrong way, because there was never going to be a too late. It was always going to stay a question of better or worse. It was more a question of, okay, how fast can we act? How much can we save? Those are the questions we should be asking."

Blog reply by "President Phil Chase" in Sixty Days and Counting
by Kim Stanley Robinson [Sculpture "The Journey" by Luke lksilktaaryuk)

350 Climate Action: Fifty Days and Counting

(Yeah, I kind of stole my own title from earlier in the week. This is now posted at DKos to massive indifference, and DK Green Roots. DKos wouldn't accept most of the links, though. And for some reason, this blog won't accept the proper paragraph spacing towards the end of the post. So Internet, baby, I give up.) Wait--I fixed this blog at least! Hah!

Earlier this week, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown emphasized the crucial importance of completing an effective global agreement to address the Climate Crisis at the upcoming Copenhagen meeting:

"If we do not reach a deal at this time, let us be in no doubt: once the damage from unchecked emissions growth is done, no retrospective global agreement, in some future period, can undo that choice. So we should never allow ourselves to lose sight of the catastrophe we face if present warming trends continue."

Referring to the time between now and the Copehagen meetings, the BBC report began: "Gordon Brown said negotiators had 50 days to save the world from global warming." Fifty days--and counting, I thought. And that reminded me of Kim Stanley Robinson's Climate Crisis trilogy, and the last volume titled Sixty Days and Counting. Some might think this a frivilous association. But in the midst of the scientific, political and economic considerations in the diaries today, I want to take a step back, and honor the equal need for perspective and imagination.

Fiction can focus on the human elements that often go missing in other discussions. Making up stories can be a reality check. Fiction can develop the problems in depth and over time, and it can propose and test solutions. For the kind of crisis we face, it is especially valuable as a tool for perspective.

Robinson's trilogy is a good example. It is set in an unspecified near future. As the final volume begins, a Democrat has just been elected President after a familiar-sounding Republican administration. President Phil Chase is fictional, a Vietnam vet like John Kerry, but with a disposition more like Barack Obama. He might also be characterized as a 21st century California athletic but very savvy and somewhat philosophical FDR.

In the first two novels, the Climate Crisis has become dramatically evident: Washington is temporarily flooded, an island nation is completely and permanently inundated, and the Gulf Stream has shut down, causing extreme cold in the U.S. So the Chase Administration has to deal with both parts of the Climate Crisis: the effects in the present, and the causes of even worse effects in the future.

That's the perspective that we need to maintain, particularly as the effects become more pronounced and less deniable. We have to keep both in mind, and not get suckered into a political war over which one we will address. We can't get caught in our own kind of Climate Crisis denial: concentrating so much on the efforts to save the far future through reducing greenhouse gases etc. that we deny the need to prepare for nearer term consequences. We can't get caught in a self-destructive either/or. We must do both.

This is the most complex kind of crisis humanity has ever had to consciously deal with. The Climate Crisis involves long lag-time between cause and effect. It involves "tipping points" in which effects themselves become causes, as they prime positive feedback loops, or start crashes and cascades.

Because of lag time, even if we do cut greenhouse gases in the present, bad things may still happen for some time to come. "The continuity effect, as they called it, and a nasty problem to contemplate," Robinson writes. Right now we may be feeling the effects of greenhouse gases mixing in the atmosphere of 50 to 100 years ago. It's a lag time measured in decades.

We have two Climate Crises, calling for two strategies. They can be described in different ways: the short term and the long term, the effects and the causes, or as I categorize the tasks: the "Fix It" efforts to fix the effects in the present moving forward, and the "Stop It" efforts aimed at saving the future from even worse catastrophe.

Mark Hertsgaard has been warning about this for years. The American Association for the Advancement of Science noted that "We need an aggressive research, development and deployment effort to transform the existing and future energy systems of the world away from technologies that emit greenhouse gases," but also that "it is essential that we develop strategies to adapt to ongoing changes and make communities more resilient to future changes. The growing torrent of information presents a clear message: we are already experiencing global climate change. It is time to muster the political will for concerted action."

There are efforts now to deal with both crises. As representatives of several nations met in London this week for talks preliminary to Copenhagen, there was a conference in Vancouver focused on preparing for the near future of climate-caused disasters, which may well characterize the next several generations. That AAAS statement from a few years ago uses the word "resilience," and it has since become a kind of watchword among some of those preparing for the future. And so the Vancouver meeting was called the "Resilient People + Climate Change Conference." It was mostly concerned with psychological and cultural resilience, a necessary if not sufficient emphasis.

We're used to crises that are happening before our eyes. It takes imagination to anticipate effects, as well as the will to face the consequences already happening elsewhere in the world, and to grasp the patterns of what is happening around us.

It takes imagination to understand that the Climate Crisis is two crises, and we can't be so intent on one part of the problem that we neglect the other part. That's a political as well as a policy peril. Another fictionist and futurist, Bruce Sterling, has been warning of this (as well as a near future in which the Climate Crisis dominates everything, including the world economy.) If Republicans suddenly pivot away from total denial to demanding total concentration on what's inelegantly called "adaptation" or "remediation," (words that only bureaucrats can love) then efforts towards changes to save the long-term future will again be endangered.

Though we haven't yet seen the kind of large-scale dramatic effects Robinson writes about in his trilogy, this fiction does in a sense rehearse our future. The Climate Crisis has begun, and no matter what we do, the lives of several generations to come--including people living now--are going to be affected, and probably changed more than we can otherwise imagine.

Fiction is not only about issues and events, it is about people. First of all, the people who must deal with the problems. They can't afford to choose one crisis or the other--they must confront both.

Fiction can suggest how people can deal with change, how they can themselves change, and yet go on with their lives. Fiction can provide reassurance that this is possible. This last novel of the trilogy, for example, ends like a classic Shakespearian comedy: with marriages.

Fiction like this can give us a vision of a better future we work towards in the present, as in President Phil Chase's goal of a permaculture: "a culture that can be sustained permanently," with meaningful work, education, and health care for all. "Taking care of the Earth and its miraculous biological splendor will then become the long-term work of our species."

The title of this last book in Robinson's trilogy comes from the Chase administrations'plan to turn the government towards confronting the Climate Crisis in its first sixty days. But soon Chase realizes, "It's like our first sixty days never ended, but only keeps rolling over. It's like sixty days and counting all the time."

It's fifty days and counting all the time. Every day is to going to be Climate Action Day.

Climate Action Day

Today is the International Day of Climate Action: Some 5200 events in 181 countries to call for strong action to confront the Climate Crisis. Check out to find an event near you (and to see some great photos.) I missed's Blog Action Day on climate, but not this one: in addition to thousands of other bloggers, I'll be one of 16 slated to blog on the Climate Crisis, one every half hour, to be posted on Daily Kos and DK Green Roots as well as our own blogs, organized by Patriot Daily News Clearinghouse. My slot is 6:30 pm Pacific. See you then.
[graphic: "The Edge" by Susan Point (Coast Salish.)

Friday, October 23, 2009

Troubling (with Less Troubling Update)

I mostly ignore reports on who is saying what in negotiations, since these reports tend to be contradicted. But I am troubled by this latest report that the White House is pushing back against Majority Leader Reid's efforts to include a public option (with opt-out) in the Senate healthcare bill.

To me it's one thing for the White House to back a bill that comes out of the Senate but doesn't have a public option, and quite another to oppose a Senate bill that does have a public option, because (reportedly) Senator Olympia Snowe opposes it. Especially since the report also says that Reid is closing in on the 60 votes he needs to stifle a fillibuster.

I hope this report is wrong, but it is troubling.

Update: Later reporting suggests that the White House was concerned about Reid's vote count--they want something to pass the Senate, and are focused on the Conference Committee between House and Senate versions for the final outcome. On a conference call a few hours ago, President Obama said this:

" Conference is where these differences will get ironed out. And that's where my bottom lines will remain: Does this bill cover all Americans? Does it drive down costs both in the public sector and the private sector over the long-term. Does it improve quality? Does it emphasize prevention and wellness? Does it have a serious package of insurance reforms so people aren't losing health care over a preexisting condition? Does it have a serious public option in place? Those are the kind of benchmarks I'll be using. But I'm not assuming either the House and Senate bills will match up perfectly with where I want to end up. But I am going to be insisting we get something done."

First Family

An official First Family portrait, by Annie Leibovitz.

Dreaming Up Daily Quote

On President Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize:

"I won it unexpectedly and he won it unexpectedly. America means a lot [to the world] and will continue to do so for a long time... That's why [we have to] support a president of such stature, who gave his own country and the world such a strong push forward. And it's already showing real effects. That's honorable."

Mikhail Gorbachev

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

"We are told that when Jehovah created the world he saw that it was good. What would he say now?"
G.B. Shaw (photo credit)

Fifty Days and Counting

While America struggles to come a little closer to joining the civilized world on universal health care, UK leaders are focused on the civilized world's survival. Prime Minister Brown warned on Monday that the nations of the world have 50 days to get their act together on the Climate Crisis negotiations in Copenhagen, and if action isn't taken, Brown painted a graphic picture of what Europe is in for--more frequent and more intense killer heat waves, flooding and disease:

"If we do not reach a deal at this time, let us be in no doubt: once the damage from unchecked emissions growth is done, no retrospective global agreement, in some future period, can undo that choice. So we should never allow ourselves to lose sight of the catastrophe we face if present warming trends continue."

After India, China and Brazil made news with their at least rhetorical support for significant action, UK leaders (including Prince Charles) are trying to broker a global deal. To that end, representatives of 17 nations held preliminary talks in London this week, and at least one Brit official pronounced himself "more hopeful" that a Copenhagen agreement can be reached.

Scientists in the UK have been the most outspoken (in the English speaking world at least) about the basic threat to human civilization of a runaway Climate Crisis, and Gordon Brown--otherwise not very popular in the UK--is focused on the issue.

This is the continuing story of trying to prevent the worst--what I've called the "Stop It" half of the Climate Crisis efforts. There is also increasing attention to the "Fix It" half, which unfortunately is starting to go by the bloodless misnomers of "adaptation" and "mitigation," words that only bureaucrats can love. But more on that anon.

Dept. of Not Really Great News

A new internal Congressional Research Service report and government sources say there are an unprecedented number of death threats against President Obama -- and that the Secret Service is insufficiently funded and staffed to deal with them. Original story at Boston Globe; summary with link at TMP.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


In this culture of brief global explosions and temporary ripples that disappear in a day or a week, the value of the individual perspective grows, especially the breadth and acuity of perspective over time. And once that individual dies, the perspective dies as well, except as record and retrospect.

This thought forces itself on me after months of fitfully reading John Leonard's last collection of essays, Lonesome Rangers (although there may be a posthumous collection of later work, I suspect.) Leonard died a year or so ago, after actively writing about books, television and other cultural matters since the early 70s. The connections he made, the depths and breadth of his insights, are invaluable. And unique.

I've also been reading some G.B. Shaw, and watching his plays on DVD. In his plays and prefaces and commentary, Shaw provided a unique voice, and still provides a unique perspective on his times, which stretched from the late 19th century to the mid-20th. There's been no one like him since. Looking into articles on the immense changes happening with blinding speed involving computer technologies, in The Best Technology Writing 2009 (Yale), I pause to wonder what Shaw or Leonard would have made of all this. Something no one else has thought of, and probably something more than anyone else has thought of. Maybe something we need.

Three Little Swine and How They Flu

They found swine flu in U.S. swine: three little pigs at the Minnesota State Fair tested positive for the H1M1 virus, the first in the U.S. Time to panic? Maybe for the pigs. Because the swine likely caught the swine flu from humans.