Chilling Thoughts

GlaciersI don’t think much about glaciers. At least I didn’t. Now they keep me awake at night. Literally. I just finished Jorge Daniel Taillant’s Glaciers: The Politics of Ice. Never have these ice sheets ever seemed to have so much personality before. I don’t live near glaciers, but I have seen a couple. A number of years ago I visited Glacier National Park in Montana. It was summer and the one glacier that was right by the road (Highway to the Sun) was melting. It was the first glacier that I knowingly saw, and I went my usual way, not thinking any more about them. Taillant’s book, however, indicates why everyone should be concerned about ice sheets. Not only is global warming a reality, our ice caps are melting on what appears to be a runaway timetable and we are not likely able to reverse the process until the damage is done. Not only our ice caps endangered, but our glaciers as well.

Why should anyone care about glaciers? For purely selfish reasons, I might point out that they are crucial to supplying drinking water for much of the world. Looking at the globe, it seems there is plenty of water to go around. Only about 3 percent of all water on the planet is fresh water, however. And of that 3 percent about three quarters of it is locked up in glaciers. Glaciers are the only source of fresh water in dry climates during years of drought or excessive heat. Whatever water isn’t used as these ice giants melt flows into the ocean, becoming part of the salt water majority. When the glaciers are gone, they’re gone. They are part of the fine balance that makes life on earth possible. The politics enter the picture when Taillant reveals that large mining interests, particularly in South America, have been destroying glaciers to get at the gold underneath. They block legislation and provide disinformation, all in the name of wealth. When they destroy glaciers, they destroy future prospects for life in the regions they mine. It’s an issue of social justice.

On our little planet that seems so big, we don’t often stop to consider that we didn’t really show up here by accident. We evolved with the features that our planet gave us—notably water—and we have continued to thrive only in the presence of water. It has often been said that future wars will not be fought over petroleum, but water. We can live without oil. We can’t survive without water. And our industrial action is blithely wasting away the largest reserves of drinkable water on the planet. I don’t live near any glaciers. I’ve only seen one or two in my lifetime, but I now worry for their health. Their future is, in many respects, our future. And that makes me want to pour a glass of water and reflect.

Pontificating

I’ve been in a few New York crowds, but this one seemed on its best behavior. I was in the city later than usual since I’m giving a talk today at a friend’s church in the Upper West Side. My wife came to meet me and, knowing the Pope was going to be saying mass at Madison Square Garden shortly after her train arrived at Penn Station (for out-of-towners, Madison Square Garden sits atop Penn Station) we decided to meet at Herald Square and avoid the other kinds of masses. I walked to the square from work and realized my mistake—34th Street was barricaded and there were crowds already beginning to form. The Pope had a procession through Central Park, but I neglected to check on the remainder of his route. My wife arrived and, taken in by the rush of the moment, decided to stay and see what we could see. We were literally one person back from the road. The police kept saying that they couldn’t confirm he was going to come this way, but the helicopters hovering overhead seemed to tell a different story.

The crowd was so well behaved. No pushing or shoving, and even loud talking was mostly absent. It was, believe it or not, kind of reverent. Sure there were people with placards suggesting that one should get right with Jesus, and the occasional pedestrian saying, and I quote, “Why is there so much people here? The Pope? You’ve got to be kidding—can’t we cross the street?” By and large, however, there was good will. One of my coworkers had emailed during the day saying she’d gone by Saint Patrick’s the night before, but couldn’t see him. The crowd, she commented, was kind spirited. Perhaps that’s what having a kind-spirited Pope will do. After we’d stood for nearly an hour, I was beginning to wonder if the motorcade had taken another route—7th Avenue was closed as well. Then the cheering began.

Pope Francis rode by, the window down, waving at the crowd. My glimpse was only a fragment of a second, but it was clearly him. I’d met an Archbishop of Canterbury or two in my time, but here I was, no more than thirty feet from the Pontiff, if only for a second to two. And it was all pretty much by accident. Life surprises us that way sometimes. Reading his words about climate change to the leaders of the world, I can’t help but think we’ve needed a leader like this man for a long time. He’s as human as the rest of us, and he knows that we have only one world and in that one world are millions of people in need. And global warming will hit them first and hardest. And the God of the evangelicals who say the planet is ours to destroy is not the God he recognizes. He’s just one man, but he is able to bring the largest city in the country to a halt, even if just for a second or two. This could be saying something important for those who have ears.

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Hunter-Gatherers

PandorasSeedEvery once in a while I put down my work long enough to look at where we are. It’s often a frightening experience. Not many of us would be equipped to survive the collapse of civilization, despite the many television shows that depict such future anarchy. I suppose that’s why Spencer Wells’ Pandora’s Seed: Why the Hunter-Gatherer Holds the Key to Our Survival was such a compelling book. The more anthropological studies I read, the more clear it becomes that “civilization” has changed us about as much as evolution has. If not more. We have turned into something else, a creature of our own making. Wells demonstrates throughout the pages of this book how, with the first development of agriculture, we began on a track that has made us less healthy, less happy, and more dependent on technology than we have ever been. True, life as hunter-gatherers was never easy. Still, it is telling that they have much more free time than agriculturalists. And, as far as we can tell, they are better-adjusted. They are doing what we evolved to do.

Addressing issues as diverse as from how our diet has changed to genetic engineering, Pandora’s Seed is a wide-ranging and fascinating book. It does show that technology far outraces ethics and our ability to figure out the proper response to complicated questions. We often lack the time to reason things out. And yet, we live in a world where mental illness is set to become the number two natural cause of death within this century. We are profoundly unhappy. We deny climate change although it’s evident all around us. We’ve put into place a global warming that will take a millennium to dissipate even if we stopped using fossil fuels today. We deny that it’s true, we go to dehumanizing jobs, and we eat food that’s not nutritious because it’s the kind we can afford. We lack time and motivation for exercise and disease takes hold. Such a lifestyle even affects our religion.

Tellingly, Wells’ last chapter deals with Fundamentalism. Noting that humans use both logos (logical) and mythos (mystical) thinking for a balanced view of things, fundamentalisms utilize a logos system to try to explain mythos. Violence often ensues. In order to be fully human we have to admit that rationality alone does not solve all our problems, or meet all of our needs. Some of what we require is simply not material. While Wells does not suggest reverting to hunter-gatherer lifestyles, he does suggest that the only solutions to a world of limited material goods (food, fossil fuels, fresh water) that the only way to make civilization sustainable is to learn to want less. Evolution predisposes us to gather more than we need, and certainly, to hear college career counselors talk, we have to want jobs that will bring in more, more, more. The world is becoming smaller, and people are demanding that the greed come to an end. Until that day perhaps the best solution for us all would be to take a walk in the woods and to remind ourselves how we came to be where we are.

Worth Saving

Once we speed past Easter/Passover, holidays start to fall by the wayside as we try to get back to the serious business of either finishing up school for the year or, in a more pedestrian view, just plain business. Holidays interrupt the flow. Break the continuity. Stop and start. That’s why those of us on the working end of the spectrum appreciate them so much. Nevertheless, what should be the most important sacred day of them all is just another work day. Today is Earth Day. Recognized by no major religion (what religion wants to shake the status quo of business that brings in lucre?), Earth Day is a chance to pause and think about the undermining that we dole out to our long-suffering planet. We are nearing the point, many scientists warn, where climate change will become unreversible. We’ve had years, indeed, decades of lead time, during which the wealthiest nation in the world has been digging the grave the fastest. Even the popular media has been sending its subtle hints: anybody wonder why flood stories predominate in this climate? Think about it.

Reading books about environmental degradation is a depressing exercise. The size of the task is overwhelming and we’ve lost the ability even to reach our own government officials who are nevertheless impotent before big business. We can try to plant a tree, pick up trash, or recycle our plastics, but the destruction is taking place on an industrial scale. Ironically, as we go about making our own planet uninhabitable, scientists are beginning to believe that there is life on other planets. Some of us have suspected that all along. And if they come here that must mean we have something worth preserving. My guess is that it is nothing big business can provide. We can be so much more than consumers.

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Businesses are like all of the selfish motives we’ve had to suppress congealed into an anonymous venture in which none have the ultimate responsibility. Driving at night with the headlights off. I have worked for companies that have wanted to be seen as environmentally friendly. None of them, however, have taken the step of making Earth Day a recognized holiday. A moment of silence. A requiem for a dying planet. The draw of profit is just too strong. The old adage is that if a business is not growing it’s not healthy. Instead of ensuring that the only planet we can reach will be able to sustain us for a few more years, we want to go out with our pockets full. And where, I wonder, to we plan to spend all that money?

Almost Purgatory

Although it is difficult to tell from 32,000 feet, I think I might have flown over Purgatory on my way home from the UK. The two days I was in Oxford were uncharacteristically sunny and warm. Although it was cloudy around London when we lifted off, the skies cleared by the time we hit the Irish Sea and once Ireland came into view I kept a close watch for what I hoped might be Lough Derg, the site of what was once deemed to be Purgatory. Our flight path took us over the right region, but the maps in the back of the in-flight magazine are never detailed enough for navigation, and the lake itself is not large enough to appear on any but the most detailed charts. Still, I think I might have seen it. If this was Purgatory and I was overhead, I guess I must’ve been in Heaven for a while.

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Symbolism began to kick in, despite the lack of sleep. Our view of the earth today corresponds in a rough way to that of the ancients. For sure, we are more sophisticated, as we suppose, but there remains a lake of fire beneath our feet and the heavens above our heads. The area in between, according to medieval thought, was Purgatory. It’s the place where we live. Believing in the intensely mythological development of a rich afterlife that borrowed elements from the Greeks, Zoroastrians, and Egyptians is hardly something anyone could undertake seriously in the modern world, but the trials we undergo here and now somehow make Purgatory believable as a symbol. When I think of the troubles over the past few weeks alone I can take some solace in a symbolism designed to help us avoid Hell.

As on my trip from New York, I watched hundreds of miles of ice floes, icebergs from the air. I’m not sure if this is unusual—I don’t fly overseas very often, and sometimes it is dark and I can’t see the water below. Of climate change, however, I am absolutely certain. We have undertaken to bring about Hell on earth because of industrial greed. I can’t help but compare how companies continued to promote smoking heavily even after they knew it was killing people. Lucre can make monsters out of ordinary humans. Was that Purgatory I saw back there, over the Emerald Isle? I may never know, but down here on the ground the warming trend continues. Perhaps the ancients knew more than we think they did.

Heat’s Up

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I must admit being perplexed. Days ago, although many of us have long known it to be true, climate scientists announced unequivocal evidence that human activity is responsible for global warming. I have perhaps been naive in my supposition that the “full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes” approach of some fundamentalist groups that welcome anything that speeds along the apocalypse, has played a major role. Maybe it was because so many politicians openly sided with such groups that that I supposed the two concepts to be connected. I suspect, however, that it may be something much more insidious. How can any intelligent person refuse to admit the facts when the consequences are nothing shy of catastrophic? How can elected officials turn a blind eye to the desolation of their own planet? It must be more than simple ignorance. But what?

Those in my generation—however we are currently classed—have been declared to be those attempting to make up for the excesses of the “me generation.” I’m not sure who the “me generation” is, but I know when I see individuals who allow their personal gain to endanger everything that has come along since the Sumerians invented the wheel, I feel a little queasy. What could the Zeitgeist have been that infected so many minds with such a godlike sense of entitlement? We call the younger demographic the “entitlement generation,” but when I taught them in college, they were much more environmentally conscious than many elected officials. They at least could see beyond their own wallets. They take pride in recycling.

It would seem to me that even if (and it doesn’t) the Bible suggested that the world itself would end to bring about a better one, we assume too much divine prerogative when we proactively destroy the only ground upon which we stand. Has any religion ever been so truly shortsighted? And that’s asking quite a lot, if you think about it. Or is religious faith just an excuse to gather wealth at the expense of others? Does God want you to be rich? If so, it would seem, God would also want you to act responsibly. According to a report in The Guardian, there is no longer any question that the climate blame lies with us. Perhaps now that the smoking gun is on the table we will do the right thing. But then again, I admit to being perplexed. Maybe it’s just my generation. Or maybe I’m just hopelessly naive. I’m entitled.

Denying Truth, For Profit

Sometimes I’m questioned about why I bother with creationism. Everyone who’s intelligent knows it is religious ideology masquerading as science and people will eventually figure it out. But will there be time? An editorial in yesterday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger pulls the curtain back on creationism’s incestuous cousin, climate-change denial. As the editorial notes, key documents of the Heartland Institute—one of the major propagators of climate change as “just a theory”—have been leaked and show that they have learned their lesson from creationist tactics. They want “debate the question” instilled in science classes in lieu of facts. And much of their money comes from big oil. It is the hope of such institutes that an American public already woefully pathetic at understanding science will be led to believe “just a theory” equals “likely not true.” The data are stacked completely against them and the entire rest of the developed world knows that.

While the issue may seem less religious than creationism—which is based on getting Genesis 1 in the classroom as science, no matter what you call it—it has deep roots in that same insidious cocktail of politics, religion, and dirty money. Biblical literalists tend to believe the world is about to end. The belief has been around for at least two millennia. It is a damning and damaging belief that declares the world was made for raping because it is about to end. This deranged thinking is fueled, literally, by unrestrained economic interests. Sometimes the groups can’t see beyond the Bible to realize that they too are being screwed. Science is objective, and it is science that has been challenged by various religious and political groups since the 1920s. Today, when there is far too much information for anyone to stay on top of it all, and in an American society deeply distrustful of higher education, I smell an explosive amount of methane in the air.

Climate change is real. The “theory” is so well supported by evidence as to be fact. Is anyone really surprised that supporters of the Heartland Institute have also backed Newt Gingrich’s campaign? We have placed ourselves in a very dangerous position as the last remaining “superpower.” I tried to read a book on environmental issues that Routledge published, but was so scared after the first three pages that I had to put it down. What is the lesson here, class? Is it not that money is the root of evil? And that, my dear literalists, is biblical.

The future of human economic evolution