Monday, May 11, 2020

How we Saved/Lost the Planet

Tremendous National Geographic edition for April.  One half told the optimist's guide to life on Earth in 2070 (How we Saved the World) and the other half reflected the pessimist's guide to life on Earth in 2070 (How we Lost the Wold).  Each detailed the successes and failures of the next 50 years, along with the same for the past 50 years since the first Earth Day in 1970, all adding up to a planet that will be user friendly or quite hostile to human life, depending on one's perspective.

I read the optimist's guide first, which in retrospect was a poor choice.  It might have been more helpful to be left with a positive viewpoint rather than negative, especially in light of the current pandemic. 

The overriding sense of optimism which was portrayed, was heavy on the fact that many of the dire predictions of the 1970's did not come true.  The boom in farmland productivity forestalled the fear that our growing world population would result in mass starvation.  In fact, there is less food insecurity on the planet than in 1970, as well as an increase in the average time in a classroom, a higher percentage of people with access to clean water, a higher proportion of people with access to electricity, an increase in the overall live expectancy, and a decline in the maternal mortality rate. 

In addition to few of the cataclysmic predictions coming true, there has been a dramatic increase in the conversion to cleaner energy sources.  Renewable sources of energy has surpassed coal in America and is about on par with nuclear, trailing only natural gas, with the expectation that by 2050, clean energy production will equal even that booming industry.

But the biggest reason to be confident is that the generation that is agitating for even more attention to be paid to climate change, is the youngest generation today.  Worldwide movements inspired and often led by people in their teens and 20's, are not only educating the rest of us about the science of climate change, but will soon be the generation in power.  I wrote a story about 6 1/2 years ago called The Next Greatest Generation.  While it didn't address climate change specifically, it did detail the achievements
of (perhaps) the next greatest generation (born since the year 2000), a generation which addressed the problems of humanity as adults, unlike the generation in charge today.

On the flip side, how we might lose the planet is not hard to fathom.  We see evidence of it today as the forces of nationalism (America First, for instance), trump the power of cooperation that will be required to defeat any challenge, whether it be COVID-19 or climate change. Without the achievements of a next greatest generation, humanity will be assailed with higher daily as well as record temperatures, an exponential increase in energy use to cool us which might outstrip the gains we make in using greener sources of energy, rising water anxiety as coastal cities begin to face the result of their insatiable plans  for development on ground that is both too close to the oceans and had previously been a buffer to protect the land from rising sea levels, less potable water as our aquifers are less able to recharge themselves due to over use or ground water pollution from fossil fuel extractions, and far more severe weather occurrences which will produce longer and hotter fire seasons, stronger and more frequent hurricanes and tornadoes.  And, of course, the poor will more be more likely to suffer the consequences of our actions resulting in the retraction of the gains made to reduce poverty since 1970, plus the addition of an even higher percentage of people living in poverty due to the ravages of the changing climate.


In any event, whether you tend to be positive or negative about the next 50 years, or most likely, waver between the two as information is gained, opportunities lost, I would recommend procuring a copy of the April edition of Nat Geo.  There is a lot to learn from both perspectives.


Tuesday, May 5, 2020

COVID-19 protests and syncretism

Happy Earth Day, albeit a bit late.  Sorry.  After 4 weeks of being paid not to work, I was declared an essential worker a few weeks ago.  Worked 11 out of 12 days at one point to get things in order for my staff to execute the various (and changing) requirements as directed by my employer.  To be honest, I enjoyed being home for those four weeks, despite the restrictions about going out.  While I imagine I may continue to work for another 5 years, I could also easily imagine not working at all, or at least not full time, sooner than that. 

It was especially disappointing that the planned celebrations and marches that would have occurred to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day were spoiled.  I would have enjoyed seeing millions of people all over the planet expressing their happiness and frustration (depending on the location) with the progress we have made in the past 50 years in terms of recognizing the importance of acting in harmony with nature rather than against it, and in our battle to limit the damage that the changing climate will wreck upon the Earth.  While it might be a stretch to link the current crisis related to the coronavirus to climate change, it is not outlandish to recognize that our arrogance as it relates to our relationship with the plants and animals that share this planet with us, will be causal in future calamities, whether they be from weather or bacteria.

One type of demonstration that did occur in the last week, was protests against the stay at home orders currently in place in various states.  As one Republican Governor said, I respect my constituents rights to express their opinions, but I wish they were a bit more responsible in doing it, referring to those who failed to observe social distancing or wear masks in public, or who were just obnoxious in how they directed their frustration.  We will never know how many of those protesters spread the virus, or contracted it in their misguided expression of their rights, but we do know that some of them, either directly or perhaps through a family member, were spared the difficult days of dying from COVID-19 because of the very orders that were enacted by the governors they protested against.  It is one of the great ironies of life, that all people benefit from sound, sensible, science based policies, whether they be to reduce acid rain, keep our air and water clean, guarantee our food supply is safe, or help reduce the spread of a dangerous pathogen, even those who fight tooth and nail against those policies.

One of the books I purchased for my wife for Christmas was "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind" by Yuval Noah Harari.  I found it a thoroughly enjoyable read, humorous, thought-provoking, illuminating even.  I was especially surprised by the advancements in our understanding of the history of humans as related to the timeline of our ancestors.  When I was young, all the extinct species of mankind, were believed to be more like precursors to us, or at least that is how I remember it.  "Sapiens" tells a much different story about how the various types of ancient man, including Neanderthal, were less ancestors than competing species.  Harari indicated that my understanding that one species followed another is wrong; multiple species existed at once.  Evolution took place, not in a linear way but with overlapping lines of existence, until one, Sapiens, won out over the others.

But the concept that particularly struck me, a concept with which I was not familiar, is syncretism.  In a nutshell, syncretism is the amalgamated or attempted amalgamation of different religions, cultures or schools of thought.  Sort of like the melting pot theory, in that the end result is the elimination of the original in its purest existence for a new entity which combines the old with the new influences. 

What I found fascinating about the idea is that it is the process itself, the ongoing subtle changes that lead to the end of one paradigm to another, similar, but different paradigm, that causes so much of the friction that we see in society.  So many of today's 2nd and 3rd generation Americans forget that when their ancestors came to America with their foreign cultures, food, customs, etc, there was much backlash against them for trying to change America.  They were ostracized, forced to live in slums with their own kind, barred from certain jobs and shops while being funneled to perform the functions of society that the "native" population wouldn't do.

Just as with those early 20th century immigrants, we see the same thing playing out today as people from south of the border are forced to take jobs that today's Americans won't do, jobs that, unfortunately in light of COVID-19, put them at even higher risk to die as they process our meat and poultry, pick our fruits and vegetables, and take care of our elderly.  We fail to link the deaths of the immigrants of yesteryear who died building our bridges and skyscrapers, died in the bowels of the earth digging out coal and other precious metals, or died in the work place accidents that plagued the textile industry and other business where long hours, low pay, and unsafe conditions were prevalent with those happening today, because we refuse to see how our mistreatment of today's immigrants mirrors the mistreatment of the true natives of this continent, or the slaves we ripped from their homes in Africa to labor on our plantations, or the immigrants who sacrificed so that us, their ancestors, could live a better life.

I would imagine a similar blindness will occur in 50 years hence, when today's successful immigrant families, treat the next wave of newcomers with little regard.

Syncretism might also be at work in the strange interpretation of who a free people should take direction (orders) from.  Clearly, America was built on the idea that no foreign government shall dictate what we can or can't do.  From there, an almost DNA like resistance to a strong government presence in our lives has evolved, so that at once we exhort the values of individualism and being self made, while running at breakneck speed for state or federal assistance when the shit hits the fan.  I don't know for a fact how many of the protesters at the various state capitals were unemployed, but I would imagine that a large percentage of them were receiving money from some type of assistance program, either unemployment, or small business assistance, or perhaps being paid to stay home like I was.  If I were to suggest that they go out to one of the meat packing plants and fill in for a sick worker, or take a job at a local grocery store, or delivery service rather than take any assistance, would that not be in line with their view of themselves as individuals with inalienable rights?  I would imagine that many people did just that, rather than taking government money and driving to protest a government stay at home order. 

But what I really mean by syncretism at work is the fact that we take orders from business all the time.  We follow the rules of our employer, even when those rules might seem arbitrary or unfair.  We follow the rules of business that encourage us to buy the newest or latest or most best, whether we actually need the item or not.  And we follow the rules of capitalism which require us to consume more and more, leaving us with high debt and little savings.  I am fortunate in that my employer allows me to accumulate sick and vacation time, so that if I were to need an extended leave of absence, I will receive my full salary.  But most people do not have this luxury, are told to use it or lose it, and when they truly need an extended period of time off, are forced to accept a percentage of pay through disability, or use their savings fund, if they have one. 

We have created a belief system that encourages us to protest against any kind of government directive which we believe contradicts our pursuit of happiness, while accepting all manners of restrictions to that very happiness in the guise of being good employees, or good consumers, or even patriotic Americans.
Throw in those who believe that God will protect them personally from this virus, or enable America to survive and recover, and we have a conglomeration of beliefs that hold sacred the might and sanctity of the individual, while sacrificing all types of freedoms to the will of business, the economy, capitalism, our leaders, and the concept that God will protect us, in the end.

Finally, I reread my last reference to the COVID-19 crisis.  In that post, I calculated that upwards of 75,000 Americans would die by the fall while stating that I didn't think this a dire prediction, only reflective of the trend of the time.  Obviously, and unfortunately, I will probably be wrong.  We will have lost 70,000 American lives this week, perhaps 100,000 by end of month or very early June.  At some point in June, more people will have died from this virus than American soldiers in the first World War. I have said in a previous post that we underestimated this virus from the start, and loss of life was inevitable.  In light of the protests against policies that have saved countless lives, I imagine that even earlier action would not have prevented thousands of deaths.  But it sure would be nice if we could demand from our leaders an explanation as to why our choice is death from disease or a dying economy.  I would think that if we truly our the greatest country in the history of the world, we would have been able to find a third option.