Saturday, December 12, 2009

Rainy Season

"Rain" by Yukie Adams. Though it feels late, the rainy season seems to be starting here on the North Coast. But we had unusually cold and clear days last week--while much of the U.S. was getting hammered by snow, ice and wind. El Nino perhaps? Anyway, if that was our rain, sorry... As for El Nino, it along with global heating has led the UK Met Office (Met is short for Meteorological) to conclude that 2010 is "very likely" to be a warmer year than 2009, and more likely than not will become the hottest year on record (exceeding 1998.)

The Future of Hope

Recently I've been trying to read Hope in the Age of Anxiety by Anthony Scioli and Henry B. Biller (Oxford), which was blurbed to suggest it surveys psychology, philosophy and theology for news on hope. Instead it seems more of a self-help book, with little tests and inspiring examples. But what's most troubling to me is that I can't locate an idea of what the authors define as hope that makes much sense to me. Some of it may be optimism, or faith. Some of it may be courage. But hope? What is hope?

The question was raised again in some of the responses to President Obama's Nobel Prize address [see the post below for more responses.] Here's one from Alex Steffan at WorldChanging (a site I like and find useful), which includes the last paragraphs of Obama's address:

President Obama's Nobel Prize acceptance speech is a truly remarkable piece of writing. He manages, in an incredibly conflicted moment, to neither dodge the conflicts nor let those conflicts define the possibilities of our time. It is a speech that is honest, humble and at the same time profoundly high-minded. The last few lines, in particular, reveal a sentiment that's critical for the era of instability we know we're headed into:

"So let us reach for the world that ought to be — that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls. Somewhere today, in the here and now, a soldier sees he's outgunned but stands firm to keep the peace. Somewhere today, in this world, a young protester awaits the brutality of her government, but has the courage to march on. Somewhere today, a mother facing punishing poverty still takes the time to teach her child, who believes that a cruel world still has a place for his dreams.

Let us live by their example. We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and still strive for justice. We can admit the intractability of deprivation, and still strive for dignity. We can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace. We can do that — for that is the story of human progress; that is the hope of all the world; and at this moment of challenge, that must be our work here on Earth."

"This is a set of ideas very much the moral core of the politics of optimism that I've written about before," Steffan concluded. And if you follow the link, he expresses a fairly nuanced view of the concept of optimism. But I don't quite buy it--that is, I don't quite buy that it is necessary, or more particularly, that this is what Obama is expressing.

Steffan opposes the negativism that says we are incapable of solving the major problems, of saving the future. I agree with most of what he says, but I stop with this definition of optimism: That we have the capacity to create and deploy solutions to the world's biggest problems."

I believe it's wrong to say solving great problems is impossible: that we can't. But I don't believe that we necessarily "have the capacity to create and deploy solutions to the world's biggest problems." I believe that it is possible we do. But it is impossible to know.

Optimism may help to motivate people, just as faith may. But neither is necessary. In terms in what will or won't happen, or even what can or can't happen, optimism and pessimism are irrelevant.

But admitting uncertainty doesn't mean not doing anything. Envisioning what success might look like, for instance--that's something else. That's useful. Yes we can is a clarion call, an assertion of possibility, although it can equally mean "yes, we can try." But even belief in the possibility isn't necessary for hope.

To clarify what I mean, here's another interpretation of Obama's speech, by Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan and I apparently share a Catholic background, including some knowledge of what they were calling the New Theology in the early 60s. Otherwise, not so much. Plus he's stayed with the Church and I have not. But he writes this:

" Hope is not optimism. We have little reason for optimism given the first decade of the twenty-first century. Hope is a choice."

(He also adds: As much a choice as faith and love, which I don't entirely buy. Love is something of a choice, and something of not a choice, and faith is less of a choice than either love or hope. According to my definitions.)

But I do agree that Obama makes the case, especially in those last paragraphs, that hope is a choice ("we can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and still strive for justice," etc.) But I would take the concept further.

To me hope is embedded in a quotation from F. Scott Fitzgerald, which is famous only for the first part: "…the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." But the full statement concludes: "One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise."

Fitzgerald may well have been thinking of the ending of The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, in which the Time Traveller has seen a future when humanity is finishing its self-destruction. The novel's narrator is his friend, Hillyer, who acknowledges that the Traveller "thought but cheerlessly of the Advancement of Mankind and saw in the growing pile of civilization only a foolish heaping that must inevitably fall back upon and destroy its makers in the end." Though this is not Hillyer's view he still concludes, "If that is so, it remains for us to live as though it were not so."

My own sense of hope takes elements from all of these statements. In terms of fact or reality, hope is based on complexity, on the absurdity of our reflexive either/or: humanity is either evil or good, selfish or altruistic, destined for greatness or damned, etc. And also on fallibility and uncertainty: I am convinced that the Climate Crisis is real and is heading us towards the end of human civilization. But how it will all play out, and whether our efforts can really stop it, no one really knows.

So in that sense hope is a choice. It's not optimism--yes, we will solve it! Or pessimism--not with our selfish genes we won't! It isn't even about what will or won't happen in the future. It's about what we choose to do now. Hope is a condition of the present.

But in another sense, it's not even a choice, at least not as a discreet concept, any more than Samuel Beckett's famous"I can't go on. I'll go on"--is a statement of despair. It's just living. Hope is just another word for choosing to live, although it does imply an embodiment of values: a larger sense of life that includes doing for others, and for the future. Or put it this way, it's not so much a choice as a commitment.

When we do for others, we often can see the results (though not always.) But when we act for the future, we will never know if we were successful. Some people have faith. For me, faith is a trick of the heart, but it's possible that for others it is more, and they aren't deluded. But hope is more humble--it only hopes. Yet hope without works is empty. Envisioning and building a future worth hoping for is the work of hope. Idea by idea and brick by brick (or solar panel by solar panel.) "We can do that — for that is the story of human progress; that is the hope of all the world; and at this moment of challenge, that must be our work here on Earth."

Friday, December 11, 2009

Nobel Speech Reaction

I admit to being a bit surprised at the response to President Barack Obama's speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. My own response was that it was a trenchant presentation but, as Andrew Sullivan wrote, "Nothing in it was very different from anything he has said before." I don't think it was Obama's best speech, and it was not as good (or as bold) as a speech he quoted from, President Kennedy's American University speech.

Nevertheless, this speech has been almost universally praised, even by GOPer and hardliners. "I am staggered that so many neoconservatives and conservatives seemed shocked and enthused by the address," Sullivan writes. "This does not, it seems to me, reflect on the address's novelty for Obama....Distilling it all in one 36 minute address may have clarified it for his opponents. But I have to say their welcome applause merely reveals that they have not been listening for so many months."

Joe Klein at TIME describes the speech's balancing act: "How does a rookie President, having been granted the Nobel Peace Prize, go about earning it? Well, he can start by giving the sort of Nobel lecture that Barack Obama just did, an intellectually rigorous and morally lucid speech that balanced the rationale for going to war against the need to build a more peaceful and equitable world."

But as Klein suggests, they're impressed with the justification for war, the statement that there is evil in the world, and Obama's assertion to the European audience in the room that their peace has been largely paid for by the U.S. military. But a lot of GOPers had to close their ears to other balances. Sullivan wrote: "The neocons are also trying to coopt Obama for Bush, while his speech, if you examine it closely, is, in fact, as brutal a debunking of Bush utopianism and incompetence imaginable. Just give the principled neocons time to save face and they'll understand (and appreciate) him in the end for how he is marshalling and rescuing American power from the Cheney wreckage."

Sullivan also quoted these two paragraphs by Peter Beinart :

"[Obama]...understands, in a way Cheney and Palin never will, that true moral universalism requires recognizing that Americans are just as capable of evil as anyone else. And that means recognizing that we are in just as much need of restraint. For Obama and Truman, the paradox of American exceptionalism is that only by recognizing that we are not inherently better than anyone else, and thus must bind our power within a framework of law, can we distinguish ourselves from the predatory powers of the past.

He didn’t just condemn human rights horrors in Congo, Burma, Zimbabwe and Iran; he acknowledged that an unfettered America is capable of moral horror itself—which is why we must ban torture and submit to the Geneva Conventions. He didn’t just praise US soldiers; he praised the peacekeepers of the United Nations, thus acknowledging that military force can occur within a framework of international institutions and international law."

Frankly I wish the public dialogue were mature enough for Obama to get beyond conclusions I came to in high school so he could envision and articulate practical steps towards creating peace--the skills of peace that are required. He could have given Europe more credit for creating institutions that have used the time and space American protection has provided to keep their continent--the focus of two devastating world wars--unthinkably peaceful.

But what he did say was worth saying. Especially having given the tragic justification for war he recognizes: "So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace. And yet this truth must coexist with another - that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy.

The soldier's courage and sacrifice is full of glory, expressing devotion to country, to cause and to comrades in arms. But war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such.

So part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly irreconcilable truths - that war is sometimes necessary, and war is at some level an expression of human feelings. Concretely, we must direct our effort to the task that President Kennedy called for long ago. "Let us focus," he said, "on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions."

Except that when I heard the speech, I didn't hear "human feelings" but "human folly."

I suggest (or will suggest) more in the post above. This one is getting too long.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Far and Near

In a new image, Hubble shows us farther into the universe than we've ever seen before, including galaxies formed in the first 600 million years of the universe, some 13 billion years ago. And a recent photo from orbit of the blue Earth, the only place in that vastness known to have at least a little intelligent life.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Hey, Deny This

After a lot of hot air about global cooling, the World Meteorological Organization and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have concluded that the current decade--beginning in 2000--is the warmest on record. The WMO said:

"The decade of the 2000s (2000–2009) was warmer than the decade spanning the 1990s (1990–1999), which in turn was warmer than the 1980s (1980–1989)."

It was the warmest in the 30 decades since instruments records began. This is a global finding, and many areas of the world were warmer this year specifically as well. According to the secretary-general of the WMO, Michel Jarraud: "There were above-normal temperatures in most parts of the continents, and only in USA and Canada there were significant areas with cooler-than-average conditions," he said. "But in large parts of Southern Asia, Central Africa, these regions are likely to have the warmest year on record."

Mr Jarraud says the year has also been notable for extreme weather events. "China with the third warmest year in the last 50 years, heat waves in Italy, UK, France, Belgium, Germany, an extreme heat wave in India, and Australia the third warmest year on record with three exceptional heat waves," he said.

Not So Hopeful News

Update 12/9: Howard Dean, Bernie Sanders and others insisting on a strong health care reform bill were speaking this morning in favor of the compromise. So maybe it's good news after all?

There was some good news Tuesday. The U.S. Senate decisively defeated an amendment to the health care bill that would have added a provision that for all practical purposes repeals Roe v. Wade. And President Obama spoke about jobs and the economy, outlining plans to tap into TARP for more job creation. The LA Times story (and video) is here, and the White House statement with more details is here.

But on our two fateful topics, some news was not good at all. The AP is reporting that the Senate has reached a compromise eliminating the public option in the health care reform bill. The CBO has been asked to score the compromise, so it isn't public yet. But other "news" or "rumors," suggest it's even worse than it sounds. There's been discussion of a Medicare buy-in but it may be so narrow and limited as to be meaningless. There's disquiet about whether the bill will really save people money, or just indenture them to the same insurance companies, but this time with force of law.

Reporting since then suggests it isn't quite as bad as that, although it's hard to call it good. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid insists the public option is still part of the bill, but other reporting suggests it's on a hard-to-pull trigger. We'll see, but probably not until the CBO scoring (for its financial impact) is done in a few days.

There's also talk that there won't be a conference committee to reconcile the House and Senate bills, but a straight up or down vote in the House of the Senate bill. While conventional wisdom has been saying that the Senate was unlikely to pass a public option, the hope was that it would be restored in conference.

Bad news coming out of Copenhagen, too, of a leaked draft of a proposed agreement backed by major nations that disses the developing world in several significant ways, so that, according to the Guardian (which broke the story) "The UN Copenhagen climate talks are in disarray today after developing countries reacted furiously to leaked documents that show world leaders will next week be asked to sign an agreement that hands more power to rich countries and sidelines the UN's role in all future climate change negotiations."

Perhaps the most sinister element in this proposal is to bypass the UN and give power over major climate provisions to the World Bank. The same World Bank that enforced the "Shock Doctrine" on developing nations, destroying their social infrastructure, devastating their economies and enslaving them to pay debt to rich nations and institutions. The last thing we need is a Climate Crisis Shock Doctrine.

But the good news about the bad news is that both stories are in process. Nobody actually knows what the Senate compromise is, nor do they know whether the climate agreement draft that was leaked really represents what big nations (including the U.S.) intend or ever intended to propose. So stay tuned.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Hi. Remember Me?

Fateful days, especially with the Copenhagen Climate conference beginning today, the subject of an unprecedented editorial appearing simultaneously in newspapers across the planet, trying to save the planet. More about that in the post below.

This Fateful Moment: Everyone

The whole world is watching.

Because the whole civilized world is at stake.

The Copenhagen climate meetings begin with excitement and dread, and a strong message that 56 newspapers around the world deliver in concert.

Fifty-six newspapers are printing the same editorial in 45 countries, in 20 languages. The newspapers include 20 in western and eastern Europe, 11 in Africa, two in China, an Arab language newspaper, a newspaper in Israel. They include the Guardian in the UK, Le Monde in Paris, the Star in Toronto, and the Miami Herald--the only English language paper in the U.S.

The editorial begins with a statement of purpose behind the "unprecedented step of speaking with one voice through a common editorial: " We do so because humanity faces a profound emergency. Unless we combine to take decisive action, climate change will ravage our planet, and with it our prosperity and security." Excerpts:

"In scientific journals the question is no longer whether humans are to blame, but how little time we have got left to limit the damage. Yet so far the world's response has been feeble and half-hearted."

"Climate change has been caused over centuries, has consequences that will endure for all time and our prospects of taming it will be determined in the next 14 days. We call on the representatives of the 192 countries gathered in Copenhagen not to hesitate, not to fall into dispute, not to blame each other but to seize opportunity from the greatest modern failure of politics. This should not be a fight between the rich world and the poor world, or between east and west. Climate change affects everyone, and must be solved by everyone."

The editorial admits that the hope for a "fully polished treaty" at the end of this conference is probably gone, "But the politicians in Copenhagen can and must agree the essential elements of a fair and effective deal and, crucially, a firm timetable for turning it into a treaty."

This has been President Obama's announced goal, and one set of good news so far has been the targets announced not only by the U.S. but also China and India.

"At the deal's heart must be a settlement between the rich world and the developing world covering how the burden of fighting climate change will be divided..." "Social justice demands that the industrialised world digs deep into its pockets and pledges cash to help poorer countries adapt to climate change, and clean technologies to enable them to grow economically without growing their emissions. "

And there's hopeful news here, too, as President Obama has done what no U.S. administration did before: he's agreed to a global assistance fund to help developing countries deal with the Climate Crisis. John Podesta of the Center for American Progress noted: "President Obama’s decision to commit the US to a global climate assistance fund for developing countries and to go to Copenhagen on December 18th is a game changer. After the President’s trip to Beijing and the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to the White House, subsequent commitments to reduce carbon intensity by both China and India have produced a burst of momentum in advance of next week’s UN summit in Copenhagen."

Even more momentum is expected later today (Monday) when the "EPA is expected to finalize its endangerment ruling on CO2 ...making regulations on CO2 legally mandated and all but inevitable."

The editorial includes support for cap and trade, and other measures that the developed world, the rich countries, must take. It doesn't dismiss or even underestimate the challenges. "The transformation will be costly, but many times less than the bill for bailing out global finance — and far less costly than the consequences of doing nothing."

The editorial mentions "fair rewards for protecting forests" as part of the deal, and some good news is emerging on this as well: a deal between rich and poor countries to protect the world's forests is reportedly near. If it happens, it's likely to be announced in Copenhagen.

"But the shift to a low-carbon society holds out the prospect of more opportunity than sacrifice." Yes, and some find this exciting as well as scary, while others find it just scary. Change is frightening, and I'm convinced that much of the support for Climate Crisis denial comes from deep fear of change, to the world we know as well as anxiety over the impact to individuals and families. But once again, there really is no choice between change and not changing. Change is coming--the effects of the Climate Crisis have already begun--the Copenhagen conference will hear from some of those who are suffering from it now--and these effects will spread and grow.

The editorial concludes:

Kicking our carbon habit within a few short decades will require a feat of engineering and innovation to match anything in our history. But whereas putting a man on the moon or splitting the atom were born of conflict and competition, the coming carbon race must be driven by a collaborative effort to achieve collective salvation.

Overcoming climate change will take a triumph of optimism over pessimism, of vision over short-sightedness, of what Abraham Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature".

Those better angels will have to overcome well-funded disinformation as well as the revival of political thuggery, including break-ins and intimidation. Even if Copenhagen succeeds in getting a deal started, there are prominent scientists and others who don't think what's being proposed is nearly enough, especially in goals for reducing carbon. But let us begin.

Back when Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection was in its first decades, T. H. Huxley (and his most articulate disciple, H.G. Wells) proposed that while human beings were subject to natural selection just like the rest of nature, through its unique cultures and civilization, it could to some meaningful extent guide its own evolution.

Now we are faced with a profound test. We have unconsciously altered the natural world, and consequently it is changing in ways that can actually end human civilization. Can we summon the consciousness, and the knowledge, the will and the best of ourselves ethically and morally, to confront this challenge? If we do, human civilization has a chance--not only to survive, but to take the next big step. If we don't, human civilization is unlikely to last another century or so, along with the natural world as we know it. The changes will accelerate. No one can really say just when. But soon enough.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

This Fateful Moment: Health Care

President Obama's visit and talk to Democratic Senators signalled the home stretch for the Senate health care bill, while negotiations apparently still continue within the Senate. According to TPM: President Obama evoked Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the creation of Social Security today in a rare weekend meeting with the Democratic caucus, in a bid to keep his party united behind a historic health care reform bill currently being debated on the Senate floor.... A number of senators suggested Obama's remarks provided the party and the legislation with much-needed momentum. "I think it helped, more than significantly," said Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT).

The slog through the posturing, lies, obstructionism and politicized idiocy is enough to make anyone sick beyond the help of any health care plan. If President Obama had to remind them of the whole point of this effort, that speaks volumes in itself. This is beyond politics. Catastrophic illness and accidents hit Republicans and Democrats, people of all genders, races, ethnicities and religions, in every region of the country. Except for the richest few, health care costs are increasingly a cause of fatal human tragedy.

I've been thinking about this column all week. It is only one story among too many that sickens the heart and mind, that this could happen in this wealthy nation. But this one, about a sawmill worker in Oregon not far from where I am, has features that surprised even me. This man has a condition that causes him daily pain, including pain so severe that he vomits, every day. His condition can be cured with surgery, but no surgeon will do the operation because he has no health insurance. Nicholas Kristof writes: "Without insurance, John has been unable to get surgery or even help managing the pain. When he collapses or suffers particularly excruciating headaches, Esther rushes him to the emergency room of one hospital or another, but an E.R. can’t do much for him. One hospital has told them not to come back unless he gets insurance, they say."

This is human abuse. This is cruelty for profit. Forget for a moment that businesses large and small are going broke because of health care costs. Forget for a moment that U.S. business are less able to compete in the world because of health care costs, when other nations pay for them, contributing to America's slide into second class status. Forget for a moment that unless health care costs are reigned in, the federal government will face ever more massive deficits and the economy could collapse.

And maybe even forget for a moment about FDR and history. Think about the people who are suffering and dying needlessly. And about what that says about us as a people. As a Christian, if that's what you are. As an American. Think about what it says about you as a person.

It might be different if this were Somalia. This is America. Health should not be for sale. It still will be, apparently, but maybe it doesn't have to be at such a high human cost to all of us, body and soul.