Friday, December 02, 2011

War of the World

"The rise of the human neocortex is the only example of evolution providing a species with an organ which it does not know how to use."---Arthur Koestler

That the international climate crisis talks in South Africa are being universally ignored in U.S. media, including the progressive shows and sites, and even including such climate sites as Climate Progress, speaks volumes not only about how unproductive these talks are expected to be, but about the dire state of human civilization at this stage in its lifecycle.

All the news coming out of the conference (which is being reported, if you look for it) is of a downward spiral of conflict.  Todd Stern, the U.S. special envoy on climate crisis, is blaming China and India for not joining in binding agreements (though you know not in a bad way) so the U.S. won't either.  So-called Third World countries are blaming the U.S.( saying in an echo of charges against the Bush team, that the U.S. is not a leader but a barrier) and going after Canada for some severe retrenching from Kyoto promises, and for burying its head in the tar sands.   And the poorer countries are going after everybody, including China.   It's even worse than no new agreements. Old agreements, even promising ones made at just the last conference, are unraveling.

Meanwhile the evidence behind the scientific consensus keeps getting stronger, including a study which further confirms the determinative role of greenhouse gases--especially CO2--in heating the climate.  The news of what's happening just keeps getting worse--on releasing methane, on the warming Arctic, on rapidly degrading environmental base to human civilization and the life of the planet.

In fact, once you get outside whatever news bubble you live in--from social networks, sports sites, political porn, entertainment etc.--and click on an environmental story on say, the BBC site, you are confronted with a list of other stories that sounds like a countdown to doomsday.

Long ago in the 1890s when Darwin's work was relatively new and some Europeans were already worrying about decadence in western civilization,  H.G. Wells was beginning to make the case that the survival of the human species--or at least of civilized humanity--was going to depend on global self-government, on governing the world as a whole.  He saw even before the invention of the airplane that mechanized warfare was going to push civilization into destroying itself as long as nations pursued self interest first and foremost.

After the immense devastation of the Great War, and again after the even more widespread destruction of World War II which ended with atom bombs, the practicality of an international body governing common interests was grudgingly recognized.  But Wells was making a larger point: that in order to govern themselves as a planet, civilized peoples were going to have to think of themselves as planetary citizens.  They would have to deeply feel that war was a global problem, and so were the causes of war.

Now we face a global threat requiring a global solution, though in not such a simplistic way as an invader from another planet or a giant asteroid on its way.  The Climate Crisis requires that we understand that we are truly all in this together.

Yet at this crucial point, we aren't even at the stage of political mindset we were after World War II. In the U.S. at least there is more suspicion of international agreements and the UN that at any time in my memory, precisely when international action is most necessary.  And it will be necessary in part for exactly the same reason that H.G. Wells said.  The effects of the Climate Crisis are going to be longlived and extreme, but uneven.  There are going to be nations that are suffering from drought, and nations that have plenty of water (though maybe too much.)  And there are going to be wars over resources, which not only can have--but will have--dire effects everywhere in this delicately interconnected world, with greater vulnerability than I've ever seen thanks to our dependence on trade and transportation (and therefore energy), and on electronic communications. 

  As Todd Stern says, all these nations at the climate crisis conference are pursuing their self interests, which he doesn't find all that upsetting apparently.  A certain amount of what's going on is understandable, given the state of the world economy and the problems in individual countries, including the U.S.  But instead of so easily giving in to this, it is the time to emphasize how serious this is by transcending it.

It seems that the human mind is capable of grasping the concept of global problems, but apparently not enough minds share it, or can overcome their own darker and dumber selves.  About the only words of significance out of this conference so far that I've seen referenced came from Bishop Desmond Tutu, who called for concentrating on confronting the Climate Crisis as a moral imperative as important as fighting apartheid was. "Now we are facing another huge, huge enemy. And no one, no country can fight that enemy on his own... an enemy called global warming, climate change...We have only one home. This is the only home we have. And whether you are rich or poor, this is your only home... you are members of one family, the human race."

The statement is significant because of Tutu's moral authority in the fight against apartheid in South Africa, for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize, and his subsequent efforts in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  And perhaps for the fact that he was a voice in the wilderness at first, but that there were relatively sudden changes that ended apartheid.  Now these words, so simple and yet so scientifically as well as morally profound, are not yet heeded--perhaps not even in South Africa, where he spoke before only a few hundred people.  If time has not already run out for human civilization moving on from this level to greater fulfillment, it soon will.  Enormous changes at the last minute may still be possible, but it is far from certain that even such a fantastic turn would be soon enough.  

Thursday, December 01, 2011

The Ron Paul ad attacking Mitt Gingrich.  It's now widely believed among poltalkers that the upcoming Iowa caucuses may come down to Gingrich v. Paul, although Romney is making a belated effort.  That's our political porn for the day.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

You Read It Here, Now Read It There

You happy few, you happy band of readers, smaller than the Henry V army but maybe smarter.  At least you got a lead on a couple of heavy-hitter opinionaters with way bigger readerships.  To wit:

Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times sez what I've been saying: President Obama's real accomplishments are being overlooked by the sometimes rabid left as well as the media, and while differences are of course legitimate, the danger is in creating such a sour mood that the President's reelection is endangered--and you really, really don't want that.  You don't want Newt Romney, Mitt Gingrich or any of the Rabid Rightists.

And Kristof makes exactly the analogy I make, maybe too often: the self-hypnotic chant of the year 2000 that there's no important difference between Gore and Bush (remember the Bore v. Gush bumper stickers?) so it doesn't matter, vote for Nadir or stay home, flip a coin, who cares.  Please, please remember how that turned out.  As Kristof and a lot of people have been saying this week, the election is a choice, not a referendum.

Kristof was on Lawrence Tues. with Tom Friedman, usually the model of a moderate business-oriented futurist.  He was even more insistent on the absolute necessity of reelecting Obama, not just for the sake of the U.S. but for the world.  He thinks there's a strong possibility that the world will face a major crisis before election day. 

The other preview you got was to the thrust of Frank Rich's piece in New York Magazine.  Frankly, for me this was validation, because I hadn't seen anyone make these connections besides me.  Rich was writing about this year's books on JFK, comparisons to Obama, etc.  He writes that JFK was getting about the same media treatment as Obama--disappointment, he should be communicating better, he doesn't work Congress enough, etc.  But the main similarity Rich sees is that  JFK was surrounded by Rabid Right hatred that led to his assassination, and President Obama is surrounded by even more widespread hatred now.  So Rich takes the assassination attempt of 11/11/11 seriously.  These are both points I've made here.

Apart from several hours of conversations on the phone and in New York over several years a good many years ago, I don't have a great deal in common with Frank Rich except experiences of that week of November 22, 1963.  We were roughly the same age, we both idolized President Kennedy, we both were glued to the TV that weekend, and we both saw Lee Harvey Oswald shot to death on live TV.  So all of that remains real to us the way such a formative experience would.  And it remains an in-formative experience. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

R.I.P. Lynn Margulis

Lynn Margulis was one of the most original, fearless and important scientists of our age.  She died on November 22 at age 73.  Here's her Washington Post obit.

She studied the smallest forms of life, and developed theories and spoke about larger issues that eventually encompassed the Earth.  In fact she formulated the Gaia Theory, along with James Lovelock.

Her most important and striking work was a modification of evolutionary theory that was considered heretical.  She particularly butted heads with Richard Dawkins and the neo-Darwinists, who saw genes as the missing element in Darwin's theory of natural selection and the origin of species by means of random mutations.  But Dawkins and Darwin and other evolutionary theorists came out of the zoology tradition, she maintained--to them, only the big organisms mattered, the plants and animals.  She studied fungi, slime, algae and especially bacteria, which comprise most of the life on the planet.  She saw how microorganisms changed by symbiosis, by an eventual mutual dependence and a kind of cooperation. More complex forms emerged from this combination, a process called endosymbiosis.  Another important element was the role of these processes that had nothing directly to do with genes.  "There's much more to life than genes," she maintained.

This cut to the heart of a larger implicit view.  The selfish gene was singular, always out for itself.  Symbiosis suggested that organisms are created and thrive by working together for mutual benefit.  Since neither of these processes is likely to be conscious on that level, these are descriptions that turn into metaphors for an approach to the world, just as theories of evolution always have.

Margulis applied her approach to humanity, and its inborn need to cooperate in order to survive.  At the end of one event captured by C-SPAN cameras she got the audience to clap rhythmically to suggest the human propensity to cooperate in the rhythm of the hunt.  Through millions of years it has become part of us--we need to breathe together.  "If we don't use both our feelings and our rational approach we can't understand this [Earth] of which we are a part."

On an even larger scale, she brought greater rigor to Lovelock's Gaia Hypothesis, which she defined as a set of ecosystems where the cycling must be complete.  Bacteria is as essential to life--to human life as well--as any other factor.  Diversity is not just a pleasant idea, it is how this system of systems works. And understanding this was part of her mission: to understand "how the planet works and how many people can survive on the planet at what quality of life."

From her first paper on symbiogenesis in 1967, it took some 30 years until her theories were accepted.  But she never wavered.  "I don’t consider my ideas controversial,” she said. “I consider them right.”

Her first marriage was to astronomer Carl Sagan, and several of her books are coauthored with their son, Dorion Sagan--for example, the book that brings all these elements together: Acquiring Genomes: A Theory of the Origin of Species.        

Monday, November 28, 2011

Political Gossip Monday

Her Man Koch-Cain earned his Dreaming Up Daily nickname again Monday with seemingly airtight allegations that he's had a mistress for the past 13 years.  It's a shortlived story probably, since he's been sinking out of the GOPer prez wannabe sweepstakes, so its life will depend on prurient interest, both sexual and the kind that likes to watch car wrecks.  It's hard to feel sorry for the guy, but it's a good bet that his attempt to increase his market value by just enough exposure as a prez candidate has backfired: he got too much.  Lawrence had the most interesting story on this, though, when he claimed that Koch-Cain's long suffering wife (but how much longer?) voted in the Georgia Democratic primary in 2008.  He speculated that she might well have voted for Barack Obama, the first black candidate to have a real chance at the presidency, and if she did, she is among those black people that Her Man claimed were "brainwashed" into supporting Democrats.

So at least for the moment the GOPer race is between Newt Romney and Mitt Gingrich, and if you've wondered why Dreaming Up Daily keeps confusing their first names, Jonathan Chait confirms what is implied: "The Republican race now seems to be between Mitt Romney, the consummate establishmentarian, and Newt Gingrich, an hysterical blowhard. But if you watched Tuesday night’s national security debate, you’d never have guessed which was which."  Though Chiat's point was tht each sounded like the other used to sound (and David Letterman suggests it's easy to confuse them because Romney is the Mormon but Gingrich is the one with three wives), it ultimately supports my point within the conflict-driven horserace chatter: in policy, both foreign and domestic, they are two sad, corrupt and dangerous peas in the same extreme right pod. 

Right now Gingrich is pulling away in the national polls, and he got the endorsement of New Hampshire's largest (and extreme right) newspaper.  In one sense it's more important than the usual newspaper endorsements because that newspaper openly slants it coverage to support its endorsee and destroy his foes.  But among their past GOPer primary favorites were Steve Forbes and Pierre DuPont.  So they aren't exactly kingmakers.

Pol chatter opinion is divided on whether or how long Gingrich will last, and though it seems unlikely he will, GOPers seem hellbent on self-destruction so who knows.  Barack Obama has been very lucky with his opponents, but can he get this lucky?  Meanwhile, the Obama campaign and the DNC are wise to concentrate their fire on Romney (as in the ad above): it could weaken him in New Hampshire, favoring a weaker candidate, or it can define him before he's officially the party candidate.  Which might be awhile, even if he gets there.  Jonathan Bernstein warns that even if he wins Iowa and New Hampshire, it's not a done deal, and others are talking about a brokered GOP convention to select an entirely different nominee.

While attacking Romney as a flipflopper makes sense at this point, eventually the nominee's extreme and dangerous views as well as character (Romney's spinelessness, Gingrich's erratic lack of self-control, etc.) should be the central point, the opposite of the positive case for change.  In other words, the 99% versus the 1%.

Emerson for the Day

"If your heart does not want a world of moral reality, your head will assuredly never make you believe in one."

William James
photo: Big Bend