The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


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Poetry

Balance-Day

September 22, and it’s been a day for dirges.

Nuni, my friend’s small white cat, felled by fleas,

lies dead beneath a heart-shaped row of stones

while Kendra’s dog plays host to tumors,

and Kofi Amman invokes the specter of a world 9 billion strong

by 2060.

I don’t know what will become of us.

I don’t know what blood

stains the momentum of our innocence.

But

there must be half a dozen PhD’s in this room tonight

and just as many guitars.

These are people who should know better

than to seek comfort in laughter, drink, and song

but these are also people who know we do not know

enough.

Joni Mitchell, Dave Carter, Bob Dylan,

voices thrown in familiar elegy,

the scientists invoke the sacred

the tapping foot becomes the thumping shaman’s drum.

Though rage and grief and fear may be implicit,

this yellow room is safe tonight.

If the Earth has a temple, we sing its hymns

and offer the ground our local-beer libations

with goofy, rag-tag grace.

In this puddle of life and light and laughter

in the exposed and urban night

this open, objective eye offers

the world

its care-worn, fierce

regard.

 

Note: I wrote this poem almost ten years ago, back when I attended parties with scientists more regularly–hence the reference to Kofi Annan, who was Secretary-General of the UN at the time. That year, the equinox was on the 23rd, but I changed the date just now to match this year.-C.


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Mustang Sally?

A photograph of a single palm tree standing by itself in a field with low trees behind it and some distance away. The dark gray, misty quality of the scene suggests heavy rain.

Photo by Siednji Leon on Unsplash

Yeah, there’s a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico right now named Sally. It’s been about 15 inches away from making landfall for approximately 4 1/5 years, now, which I imagine is wearing on the nerves of people who live there, among other problems. And, naturally, it keeps reminding me of that song.

Given that Sally already seems to have slowed down plenty, the song may be quite appropriate.

“Slow,” here refers not to windspeed (which is not slow) but to forward movement. Although we categorize these storms by their maximum sustained windspeed, that’s only one part of what makes a storm dangerous, and it’s not necessarily the most important part; case in point, a storm that sits in one place and rains heavily for several days can do more damage than a windier storm that moves through quickly and drops only a moderate about of rain. And as I alluded to by hyperbole a moment ago, Sally is a slow, rainy storm.

So, let’s check in with Sally, shall we?

Introducing Sally

Late on September 11, a storm just to the east of southern Florida received recognition as a tropical depression, meaning it derived its energy from evaporating hot water (not air masses of different temperatures) and had an eye, but did not yet have sustained surface winds over 38 mph. The next day, September 12, it crossed the southern tip of Florida, dropped a huge amount of rain, moved into the Gulf of Mexico, and intensified over 38mph, qualifying for tropical storm status and the name “Sally.” On September 14, it intensified enough to qualify as a Category 1 hurricane, briefly became a category 2, weakened again, and commenced to lurking just off the coast of Alabama. It’s there right now, as of this writing.

That sort of sounds like the storm hasn’t actually struck anything yet (except Florida) right? Well, these storms are very big, and while the convention is to treat the location of the eye as the location of the storm, Sally currently covers most of the Southeast and has for most of the day. Florida has been under now for about three days. That’s a very long time to be under a storm. And because the eye is still over water, Sally can still get stronger–and at least as of an hour ago, it was doing so.

What’s Sally Doing?

So, what’s going on under that big pinwheel of cloud?

That’s frustratingly hard to say. Or at least, it’s hard for ME to say. I can look up a nearly current radar image of the storm online, but apparently reading weather radar images is one of those things non-experts like me really ought not to do (we’re bad at it). I could tell you the pressure at the storm’s center, its forward speed, and a few other numbers (accurate as of 10 PM), those numbers are easily available online, but they don’t mean anything to me, and I doubt they mean anything to you. I want to know how much rain has fallen where. I want to know know if flooding (either storm-surge or rain-driven) has begun. I’m sure at least some of that information is being collected, but nobody’s putting it in any of the places I’ve looked so far. Mostly news sites are talking about what the storm will be. They’re saying it will be bad.

Frankly, I think the problem is it’s dark out, things are happening quickly, and half a story right now is not nearly so good as a whole story later.

One of the reasons I delayed writing this post until the middle of the night is that I was really hoping there would be a story to tell by now. Apparently, there isn’t yet.

Climate Change?

OK, if the question is climate change, the answer is nearly always yes. There’s some nuance to that “yes,” but basically it’s everywhere. The reason I decided to post about Sally (aside from the fact that it’s shaping up to be the kind of story I usually cover), is that this is one of those stories that just seems so disturbingly weird.

Operative word here is “seems.” I’m not a meteorologist, so I’m not qualified to assess the bizarreness of a given weather event in any rational way. Take this for what it’s worth.

But when this storm hit Florida, it didn’t even have a name yet, and two days later it was a Cat 2 hurricane. Doesn’t that strike you as odd? Like, the sort of odd the reminds you the rules have changed?

I may return to this topic next week, when there is more of a story to tell, but I strongly suspect that by then it will be time to talk about fire again.


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About That Revolution…

A photograph of a small motorized boat done up to vaguely resemble a Viking longboat.or so people onboard, though they are difficult to see clearly. The boat is seen almost directly head-on, and it is motoring slowly (there is no wake, and only a little froth at the bow) through quiet, blue-gray wayers. In place of a sale, it is flying a yellow banner with the Extinction Rebellion logo, a stylized hour glass, and the words "act now" in black.

Published in the Extinction Rebellion Newsletter, used by permission.

I wrote rather sympathetically last week about the activities of Extinction Rebellion in the UK. This week, I am pleased to hear there is also a “rebellion” underway in New York City and in other cities in many countries around the world.

I am less happy that I had to learn about the New York activity from a Brit.

Why Can’t I Hear You?

I am unhappy that Extinction Rebellion isn’t making the American news, at least not the PBS Newshour, which I watched last night. You’d think that organized street protests, including civil disobedience, in one of our largest cities would be an important story. You’d also think that semi-coordinated protests in multiple countries, including the UK, Poland, and Sweden would be considered important, too. Apparently not.

The failure to cover this sort of thing has, intentionally or otherwise, direct practical results; those of us who care about climate change end up thinking we’re alone. And we all know how hard it is to stand up when nobody else does.

I am also unhappy that I didn’t hear about the New York rebellion ahead of time from organizers. It’s true I’m not part of the US branch of XR. It’s also true that I have not gone looking for this sort of news in the last few weeks. But time was that I didn’t have to look–I didn’t have to be on the right lists. Invitations to upcoming marches circulated freely through the more liberal corners of Facebook or arrived through aggressive SPAM emails. That time appears to be over.

XR is a little different that the People’s Climate March, of course in that XR is all about civil disobedience, which requires careful organizing, special training, and at least some degree of secrecy from the authorities before hand. I wouldn’t expect an XR action to be widely publicized ahead of time, nor would I expect open invitations to go out to just everybody.

But why is XR acting alone?

Why isn’t 360.org, or other similar organizations, organizing conventional demonstrations simultaneously as a form of signal boosting? Why aren’t we all out in the streets–and why aren’t the people with the ability to call for mass demonstrations not doing so? Do we want our leaders and our neighbors to believe Americans don’t care about climate?

Can You Hear Me?

I’m not an organizer, OK? I don’t have the gift for that sort of leadership. But I do have a blog. I can say a few things, and I might be heard.

And what I have to say is we are not using all our available tools to the fullest.

Mass Demonstrations

There are those who say mass demonstrations, such as protest marches, don’t change anything. Well, they don’t change anything all by themselves, no, but historically they’ve been a big part of the Civil Rights movement, the LGBT rights movement (hello? Pride!), the Arab Spring, and the successful Estonian bid for independence from the Soviet Union. Somewhat less sympathetically (from the perspective of most readers of this blog, I suspect), public marches have been a time-honored tool in the arsenal of terror of the Ku Klux Klan, and public rallies played a role in the later electoral success of the Tea Party.

Simply put, the proposition that “marches don’t matter” is not supported by the evidence.

Mass demonstration serves to show political will to leaders, offer encouragement to participants and sympathizers, and create networking opportunities for participants. After the People’s Climate March, the American news media started taking climate change much more seriously, presumably because journalists realized people really wanted to know about climate.

But for some reason, there are no more big climate marches. There have been a few events in DC that were not well publicized and whose leaders clearly did not expect large turn-outs. And there have been a number of distributed events consisting of hundreds of small, local events–with the result that each local news program treated its local event as an isolated story while ignoring the existence of the others.

Even those stopped with COVID-19. Black Lives Matter did not stop, but that’s because BLM is seen as a matter of life and death.

Climate change is a matter of life and death, too.

Civil Disobedience

The term “civil disobedience” is applied to any non-violent political action that involves deliberate risk of arrest,  but there are actually two kinds and they are very different.

Upping the Ante, Upping the Volume

Two people could stand in front of a business and accuse it of “greenwashing” (performing a few pro-environment actions to distract from deeply anti-environmental policy) without anyone really noticing–or caring. Now, if those two people instead get almost naked and bathe in a tub of green water in front of said business, they will make the news (weird naked people usually do) and probably get arrested. Folks will notice. Folks may even care.

A photo of two people, naked except for underwear and hats, standing in a blue bathtub filled with green water outside a building. One of the people is facing the camera and appears to be a woman. The other is bending over, butt towards the camera. Gender is not discernable. Several others crowd around, including someone wearing a suit and an oversized mask possibly resembling the British Prime minister. A sign on the tub reads "clean up your act" with an Extinction Rebellion symbol. Other signs are visible but hard to read. Lettering on the building reads BARCL, but is partially obscured by the masked figure. Presumably, it reads Barclays.

Photo published in the Extinction Rebellion newsletter, used by permission

Such a bath occurred this past week as part of the UK’s Rebellion.

Public protest is all about getting attention, and a small number of people can get a lot of attention through what amounts to street theater. Getting arrested, or risking arrest, is simply a way of forcing the authorities to join in the show and further amplify the signal. If legal peaceful protest can work, then so can can illegal peaceful protest.

But it’s important to recognize that they are basically the same strategy.

Defeating the Empire by Ignoring It

“We will defeat the British Empire by ignoring it” is a quote from the movie, Michael Collins, in which it is written by Eamon DeValera from prison. Whether DeValera actually originated the quote I have not been able to confirm–there are people online who think he did, but I don’t know whether any are authoritative. Anyway, it’s a great quote.

DeValera (the character, if not also the real man) didn’t mean peaceful civil disobedience; Ireland fought for independence quite violently. What he meant was that he and his colleagues would act with the authority of a real government over a sovereign nation regardless of whether the British government considered them such.

In a very similar way, Rosa Parks acted like a human being when she refused to give up her bus seat, as did John Lewis and his colleagues who sat down at segregated lunch counters and waited to be served. They did not wait for the white power structure to acknowledge their humanity, they just acted on it.

To defeat by ignoring means to act as though one has already won, and to keep doing so regardless of how violently your enemy objects. Whether you are violent or non-violent in the process makes a difference morally and perhaps strategically, but John Lewis had more in common with Michael Collins than with the public bathers I mentioned earlier.

It’s not that such strategic ignoring will always win. It won’t. In fact, people who engage in it tend to be beaten bloody and/or shot to death. Sometimes they win anyway, sometimes not, and historically the wins have often been mixed–only part of Ireland won its independence, and the success of the American Civil Rights movement is still incomplete.

But demonstration is all about getting attention. If you can’t, then you lose. But when you ignore the Empire, if it ignores you back, you win.

Lifestyle Changes

The 50 simple things YOU can do are not going to save the Earth, although they may help. But large-scale or deep efforts to ignore the Empire also involve lifestyle change. Rosa Parks not getting up was a lifestyle change on her part. The transition towns are another example of lifestyle change.

A transition town is, ideally, a community that has made whatever changes are necessary to get off fossil fuel entirely. In practice, it is a community that has an active movement working to make those changes.

For an individual or a family to get off fossil fuel usually requires money–money to buy land, money to purchase food and other resources through alternative sources at premium prices, money to avoid most kinds of paying work. And such individuals end up becoming oddities whose lifestyles don’t spread very far. The power of the transition town concept is that it creates a new world that everyone can participate in, including the powerless and disenfranchised. A fully-realized transition town would be a place where a low-carbon lifestyle is simply the default option, the simplest, easiest, cheapest way for residents to get through the day.

I don’t think there are any fully-realized transition towns yet. I think that the minute a community of any size does fully transition, the Empire will notice and will act.

Electoral and Legislative Politics

The end game for climate action requires government leadership. There are indeed people, in multiple countries, working both to both elect real climate hawks and to usher meaningful climate legislation through the system. We have had some successes. We have had some failures. The best demonstrations and “ignorings of the Empire” have worked to support such efforts.

Coordinated, Multi-Pronged Effort

A coordinated, multipronged effort–the use of all the tools together–is the real tool I don’t see in use.

What I’d like to see, personally, is a widespread, insistent transition town movement, defended and furthered by civil disobedience of both kinds–including actions to shut down pipelines, mines, propaganda machines, and other examples of that which we ought not to tolerate. I’d also like to see mass demonstrations providing political cover for both their less-than-legal colleagues and pushing for meaningful climate legislation.

I’d like to see more active cooperation between environmentalism and other movements, in recognition that virtually all other causes (human rights, healthcare, the economy, national security, world peace, etc.) depend on a stable climate for ultimate success.

I’d like to see the same kind of disciplined, organized long game played by our adversaries, frankly. The Nazis and the Climate Denialists have together made amazing strides to normalize the previously unthinkable and to cast doubt on the previously obvious until the future of American democracy and even life on Earth are in serious doubt.

Why are they beating us?

 


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You Say You Want a Revolution

A photo of a protest march through the streets of a city. The streets are broad, the buildings relatively low, and the sky is a mix of blue sky and cloud. Very few people are in the shot as they are marching widely spaced. Some of them carry flags with Extinction Rebellion symbols on them. Two carry between them a wide black banner that reads "life or death extinction rebellion" in bold white letters. One of the buildings they are passing is partially wrapped in a giant rainbow flag.

A march in Cardiff. Photo by David France, published in the Extinction Rebellion newsletter, used by permission.

News reports (like this one and this one) are beginning to trickle in to the effect that rebels have taken to the streets in the UK. I can’t say I’m surprised, as I happen to know some of the participants—anyway, the plans for the major demonstrations have been public for some weeks, now. Most of it is legal, or not very illegal, anyway. They aren’t rebels in the sense of Guy Fawkes.

More like V for Vendetta, maybe.

It’s not what they want to change that’s the issue. It’s what they want left unchanged; the climate of Planet Earth.

The Who, What, Where, When, and Why the Hell Not

This is Extinction Rebellion, and the language of rebellion, the practice of referring to participants not as activists or protesters but as rebels both is and is not meant to be taken literally. Yes, the group’s primary tactic is a form of non-violent civil disobedience. As of the publication of that BBC article I linked to earlier, 90 people had been arrested by the end of the first day. More will follow. For some rebels, especially in earlier actions last year, getting arrested was part of the point, a deliberate tactic. And it’s true that they are attempting to dictate policy to Parliament, something that would indeed have been considered rebellious in a less-democratic age. But this is not a revolution in the traditional sense of the word; it’s not the British government these people are rebelling against.

They are rebelling against extinction. Quite simply, these are people who don’t want to die of climate change.

Do you?

A photo of a group of people holding a pink banner that reads "we want to live" in black lettering and also has heart-shapes and the Extinction Rebellion symbol (a stylized hour glass) on it. Several people in the crowd also hold colorful flags with the Extinction Rebellion symbol on them. There are trees and buildings in the picture, too--the setting appears to be a leafy urban area--and there is a lot of sunlight but also smoke or fog. The image looks very up-beat, serious yet playful.

Photo by Marina Illiara, published in the Extinction Rebellion newsletter, used by permission

The History of XR

There is a wonderful article on the history of Extinction Rebellion (fondly referred to as XR by its members and friends) here. I recommend reading it. In the meantime, here is my somewhat shorter version of the story—unless otherwise stated, my sources are that article and the individual rebels I know.

XR grew out of conversations within a loose group of experienced British environmental activists who had been winning small victories but were frustrated by the lack of overall progress. They felt the need to scale up. In 2017, those conversations created a loose network of activists interested in non-violent civil disobedience—the group called itself Rise Up (the same name belongs to a Ugandan-based group, and I am currently unclear as to what the relationship between the two is. They may or may not be the same. I need to do more research, but not today). Early in 2018, members of Rise Up created Extinction Rebellion as a decentralized movement fighting climate change that would appeal to people across the political spectrum.

XR invested itself heavily in outreach, and very quickly got very big.

In October and November of 2018, brief, largely symbolic actions drew thousands of participants to block roads and bridges, briefly shutting down parts of London in support of meaningful climate action. In April of 2019, XR declared its first “rebellion,” demonstrating across London for two weeks. The rebellion was quite successful, inspiring wide-spread public support and the ear of government officials, who began talking about the climate crisis in a way they hadn’t before.

A second period of rebellion occurred in October, but problems occurred. Some of the actions interfered with working people’s lives a bit too much, triggering backlash. Also, many people of color felt excluded from XR by strategies that centered around provoking mass arrests; while white, middle-class people can get arrested for minor issues (such as disturbing the peace) without serious long-term consequences, non-white people usually can’t. The perception that XR was for and by those with a certain privilege further cost the movement public goodwill. Meanwhile, serious internal disagreements over strategy cost the movement some of its focus.

Over the following months, XR continued to cope with internal disagreements but tried to learn from its mistakes and honor the criticism it had been given. A third rebellion was planned for May, 2020, but COVID-19 happened, instead.

The current rebellion has as its stated aim to force Parliament (which began its new term yesterday) to consider certain demands–essentially, meaningful climate action immediately. COVID-19 hasn’t gone away, but organizers are encouraging everybody to wear masks, practice social distancing, and stay safe. Anyway, since climate change is still here, too, the general feeling seems to be it’s time to get back in the saddle and ride.

Identity and Structure

XR isn’t an organization, it’s a movement.

One doesn’t join XR in the sense that one can join, say, the ACLU or the Democratic Party. There are no membership lists. There are no authority figures—if you and a few friends want to stage an XR action you can go ahead and do so, provided you operate within certain ethical precepts. You do not need permission, and there is no one to ask permission of.

At the same time, XR obviously is an organization, because it organizes things.

A group of people dressed in simple white clothing stand well-spaced in a plaza in front of a large building. There is a tree in the background. Several of the people are holding up a giant puppet that looks like a yellow bird with a brown, human face--a bird beak sticks out above the face--and the branches of an orange tree spreading across its front. The birds wingspan is about 20 feet.

An action in Manchester. Photo published in Extinction Rebellions newsletter. Used by permission.

Thousands of people do not all suddenly begin a series of coordinated events across multiple British cities without some group decision-making process. These are not simply public gatherings, either. Many actions are complex performances of street theater, complete with costumes, props, and choreography. Others are sophisticated non-violent attacks on infrastructure, temporarily shutting down roads, airports, meetings, and other instances of business-as-usual (these tend to also include street theater). Big actions come complete with medical staff, food service, toilet facilities, and internal but serious journalism. There is a helm, and somebody is at it.

This paradoxical organization/non-organization is because while XR lacks the kind of top-down control structure many of us take for granted, there are other ways to organize things.

XR is a network of interacting cells or groups, some of which further subdivide into smaller groups. Each group has its area of focus (such as maintaining the website or providing legal help), and each is run by consensus through one or more coordinators who serve rather than govern. Although the groups themselves are autonomous and sometimes rather isolated (to the point that some members of one group might not know another group even exists), people move fluidly from group to group as their interests and abilities shift. Information and resources flow, too, with each group working with and serving the needs of those other groups with related tasks. For example, groups charged with drafting strategy pass guidance along to action organizers, who in turn pass information about their actions on to groups charged with creating newsletters and blog.

Cutting across this network of networks is the fact that XR is, as rebels put it, a “movement of movements.” Many countries all over the worlds have their own XR groups, plus there are local XR chapters, a youth wing (for young adults and teens), a family wing (for families with young children), and semi-distinct XR movements with more specialized concerns, such as the environmental health of oceans. And there are allied groups, such as Black Lives Matter, the school strike movement, Beyond Politics, and others that do not use the XR name but do share similar tactics, philosophies, and at least some goals. All of these groups both work independently and cooperate on actions. Or don’t cooperate. Sometimes they argue, split, merge, inspire each other, cause problems….

Photo by Gareth Morris, published in the Extinction Rebellion Newsletter, used by permission.

XR is not really a movement—it is an iteration of, or a corner of the activist wing of the environmental movement itself (an earlier generation of which founded such groups as Green Peace, Sea Shepherd, and Earth First!), which in turn has ties to the Civil Rights movement, the Labor Movement, and others. There are no hard boundaries, and little that is radically new–only new approaches to older ideas and concerns. 

What all this suggests to me is what my grad school professors would call a self-organized, complex system. That is, it’s structure is close to that of an organism or an ecosystem–and thus able to grow, repair, and direct itself, of itself. As such, it could prove both more stable and more resilient than simpler systems with the command-and-control structures we’re more used to.

Issues

There are issues, of course.

XR must have broad support to hope to succeed, and that means tackling not just climate change but all of the other causes that rebels and potential rebels consider important, such as social justice and biodiversity conservation. The catch is that the more causes a movement includes, the more opportunities there are for internal disagreements or external backlash–trying to be universal risks throwing existing disagreements into even sharper relief.

In XR’s case, the major division is between those who want to work within existing governmental and economic systems, and those who want to tear down what they see as inherently problematic structures and rebuild fresh. Both agree on the importance of climate action, but each tends to want to undermine the strategies of the other.

Another issue is that not having institutionalized authority roles doesn’t prevent individuals from amassing power, it just makes it virtually impossible to hold such individuals accountable. The problem is nicely illustrated by Ursula K. LeGuin’s book, The Dispossessed, which largely takes place in a (fictional) peaceful anarchic society—the society mostly works quite well, but a few people do amass and abuse power on a small scale, and there is no way to deal with them. They can’t be fired since there are no bosses, can’t be arrested because there are no police, and can’t even be publicly called out for abusing their power because officially they don’t have any. I’m not saying that anyone within XR is abusing power, but there are certainly those who hold power, and they do so with an almost total lack of transparency. There are dedicated rebels, seasoned hands (or as close to seasoned as anyone can get in an organization barely two years old!) who don’t know what XR’s underlying strategies are, why those strategies have been chosen, or even who chose them.

And, honestly, sometimes I question those strategies. Given the marvelous opportunity XR has made for itself—the wonderful momentum it has built—I very much hope that its energies are being directed by top-notch strategic thinkers.

The fact that I don’t personally know that the thinking behind the rebellion is sound is not, in itself, a bad sign; top-notch thinkers need not prove themselves to sympathetic bloggers in order to be real. But I’d feel a lot better if some of them did prove themselves, frankly.

And yet not all issues are problems. My favorite XR issue is embodied by the individual rebels I have met. Put simply, they’re good people. They don’t come off like radicals–which is to say they show no sign of retreating into a self-referential counterculture, as many of the radicals I’ve met over the years do (and I say this as someone who sometimes identifies as a radical and tends to enjoy the countercultures radicals create). They seldom discuss ideology or visions (stirring or otherwise), but instead quietly go about their work, one foot ahead of the other. They are less likely to shout “strike for God and Country!” and more likely to remind each other to wear sunblock and carry a water bottle while protesting in the streets. And they do not waste time or energy on hatred—I have never heard a rebel mock or denigrate any polluter or climate denier by name.

They are kind. Every rebel I have met—not a large sample size, I admit, but still—will begin every interaction by asking “how are you?” and listening to the answer.

None of this is by accident, for it is precisely these values of kindness, acceptance, and pragmatic positivity that XR’s published materials emphasize. This is a group that seems to genuinely walk some excellent talk.

These people must be doing something right.

Hear Ye, Hear Ye

I chose to write about XR for two reasons. One is that when thousands of people take over parts of three UK cities in the name of climate action, I kind of have to cover the story, just as I couldn’t let Hurricane Laura blow by without some kind of acknowledgment. But the other reason is that there will doubtless be people in the press and elsewhere attempting to paint the rebels as pointlessly lawless, as fringe-group radicals, as something less than serious shapers of their country’s future—and that’s to the extent that they make the news at all. In recent years I’ve seen even widespread climate demonstrations buried well behind the headlines, at least in the US.

And that’s not fair. These people deserve to be heard and listened to, if not uncritically that at least sympathetically and honestly.

I am not convinced that XR is going to fulfill its potential. I’m not convinced that it is the movement we’ve been waiting for, the one that will save us by offering us the strategies, resources, and leadership to save ourselves. But I am convinced that someone needs to be taking to the streets for climate, and no one else is at the moment. Massive marches with the proper permits might be better, who knows, but there aren’t any, not for some years, now, and none on the horizon. Well-organized, fully intersectional efforts to get climate hawks into office would certainly be excellent, but no one seems to be doing that, at least not in the United States–climate is being treated as a secondary issue mentioned occasionally by candidates running largely on social justice and economic reform (as if either were really separate from climate). Somebody has to do something—and XR is doing something.

I’ll tell you what I think.

I think it’s possible that XR, together with the various other assertive, confrontational branches of the modern environmental movement, may or may not be able to drive the change it seeks—but it may nonetheless be the change it seeks.

Kind, practically-minded people self-organizing into a society willing to care for each other and the planet at whatever cost? If that gets big enough, it may not need to persuade anybody or force anything, it may simply become the world.

And then we win.

The photo shows what appears to be a tea party in formal dress, except table, chairs, and humans are all in about two feet of water out in what looks like a large harbor. The sky is partly cloudy and gorgeous. The table has a cheery red table cloth with a square of white lace on top and what looks like various cakes and other fancy food stuffs. There is a green and blue banner above that reads "stop global warming" in red letters and there is a tall pole with a short cone on top nearby. The people are all posed very elegantly as though they were upper-class people taking tea together. Most of them are wearing masks to prevent COVID-19 transmission, including one woman who is pretending to sip her tea.

Originally published in the newsletter of Extinction Rebellion. Used by permission.


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Catching Up

I was going to write a well-researched science explainer or something this week–I have several topics in mind–but there are too many things going

A very artisty-looking black-and-white photograph of the face of an African elephant. The ears and the whole body are lost in black shadow, only the face is visible. It is a very wise-looking face.

Photo by James Hammond on Unsplash

on in current events not to at least acknowledge them. I mean, when there is an elephant in the room, you kind of should mention it.

So.

We’ve Got Flood, Fire, and Pestilence….

Or, we will shortly, anyway.

The nation’s wildfire-fighting capability is currently at Preparedness Level 5, meaning that there is so much fire activity out west that they have to call in people from all over that country (and even, at the moment, from Canada and Australia) to help. California and Arizona are especially active, and the smoke from these fires is causing serious air-quality problems across much of the country.

Meanwhile, Hurricane Laura will likely make landfall soon as a category 4 storm, passing over or near Houston, which is particularly vulnerable to flooding because of various land management issues. At least it’s the only hurricane in the Gulf–for a while it looked like there might be two at once.

As someone said on social media recently, “Who has ‘square-dancing hurricanes’ on their Year 2020 Bingo for August?”

Is climate change involved? Yes, obviously. And well, I’m not quite sure.

Fire

On the one hand, yes, climate change is Miracle Grow to wildfire risk. I’ve written about that

A photograph of a hill partially on fire at night. The flames are either small or far away, because they look like clusters of sparks. Everything in the picture is either black or glowing orange. It's quite pretty.

Photo by Christopher Seymour of a “burn out” operation in Arizona this week.

before. Longer periods of hotter, drier weather increase the likelihood of severe fire, plus the longer fire seasons and hotter working conditions make wildfires harder to fight.The record-breaking heat-waves driving this year’s fires appear to be part of the same story.

But the weird thing is that I looked up this year’s fire activity relative to the ten-year average (I used the website of the National Interagency Fire Center, but since it’s updated almost daily you won’t find the same information there that I did, unfortunately) and so far we’re below average.

From 2010 through 2019, by August 24th there had been, on average, 40,797 large wildfires across the United States, and 5,144,783 acres had burned. This year, by August 24, we’d had only 38,531 fires (that’s over 2000 fewer) and burned 3,714,355 acres. A bit of math suggests that the average size of a wildfire is smaller this year, too.

So why are there so many articles being published about how bad the fires are this year?

Maybe it’s that there’s really no such thing as a minor disaster. Some disasters are bigger or worse than others, but even a small one is bad–a disaster. Maybe these fires are bad for some reason not addressed by the figures on the website. Maybe it’s that this year’s woes are complicated by COVID-19. Traditional arrangements for evacuees aren’t safe, and poor air-quality due to smoke might well make the disease even more dangerous. Or maybe a greater proportion of the thousands of fires in the year to date have been concentrated in the same region or in the same few weeks–I don’t know that’s true, but it could be. The website doesn’t say.

A photo of a hill partially on fire during the daytime. Although most of the burning area is obscured by dense, gray smoke, there are some small, orange flames visible on the leading edge. The hill is sparsely covered by shrubby desert vegetation. In the foreground are some trees that look rather like tree-sized asparagus ferns (they are most likely tamarisk trees) and a couple of power lines.

Photo by Christopher Seymour, of a “burn out” operation in Arizona.

Or it could be that ten years really isn’t a very long time, that climate and fire danger are rapidly changing, and that this year’s fire activity has been in excess of anything our system was designed to handle and would appear frighteningly and bizarrely intense in any decade except this one.

The website doesn’t say.

Flooding

I should remind readers that even though hurricanes are famous for their winds and are officially categorized by their windspeeds, wind is seldom the most dangerous thing about them. The real problem is water, both from storm surges along coasts and from intense rain.  Hence the heading of this section.

Admittedly, the prospect of two hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico at the same time sounded weird, the sort of thing that might be expected to happen in 2020. And it is weird, in the sense that it’s never happened before. But it didn’t happen, it only almost happened, and it’s almost happened twice before. As far as I’ve been able to gather, the only reason we don’t often get two in the Gulf at once is that on the scale of a hurricane, the Gulf isn’t very big.

(Apparently hurricanes can’t merge, by the way–so says Dan Satterfield on Facebook–but if they get close enough they can start orbiting around each other, hence the jokes about square dancing)

A lone palm tree stands in a very gray landscape with a row of trees behind it in the distance. It's hard to be sure, visually, but it looks as though the palm might be being lashed by the wind and rain of a huricane.

Photo by Siednji Leon on Unsplash

So I’m not sure if there’s a climate story there.

The climate story is that this year’s season is running through the alphabet with record-breaking speed–literally, as we’ve gotten to several letters earlier in the year than has ever happened so far. Also, and far more ominously, Laura rapidly intensified last night.

Rapid intensification is what these storms do when they pass over a patch of unusually warm water. Several historically awful storms, including Katrina, Rita, and Harvey have done it, suddenly bumping up a category or two, a prospect I personally find terrifying. And it’s much more likely now with climate change.

Friends of mine live in Houston, and while they could get a glancing blow, depending on the storm track, they could also get a direct hit. Either way, it will happen tonight or tomorrow.

I’ve written several posts about flooding in Houston, and not just because I have friends there. Houston is vulnerable to flooding because it is a low-lying area that has undergone a form of rapid intensification of its own, paving over large areas such that water now has no real good place to go.

And part of any natural disaster is where the storm happens to hit. Laura will be more destructive if it hits a major population center, like Galveston and Houston or New Orleans, then if it doesn’t, even if it is otherwise exactly the same storm.

So, What’s the Story?

Clearly, both the story about fire and the one about flooding have a climate change component, but clearly both have other components, too. And I’m honestly not sure what these stories are. Is this a terrible season for fires following a decade of even worse seasons? Or is it a merely average season that’s worse than it otherwise would be because of climate change? Are we having a bizarro hurricane season, one moving insanely quickly and generating sting jets and near-miss square dances and yet another flood for Houston, or does weird weather happen every year and this year it’s just our turn?

This is where it would be good to get some additional information, some context for the numbers. This is where it would be good to know how abnormal this abnormality really is.


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The Thing About Fire

A photograph  of low, rolling mountains under a blue sky. In the far distance, behind the mountains, is a rising plume of white and gray smoke. Given how big the plume must be to be that obvious at such a distance, the fire generating the smoke must be huge.

Photo by Dominik Lange on Unsplash

My husband went to go fight a wildfire this morning. I can’t help but worry a little. Fire is fire, and anyway this is the year I’ve been seeing pictures of a fire tornado on social media and blogs and so forth.

Actually, the fire tornado is not the source of any rational fear on my part. My understanding is that they grow out of the sort of fire-created storm cloud that my husband says are inherently unstable–they can collapse at any time, sending an outward splash of fire in all directions. When such a cloud develops, the teams all pull out and away. If a “firenado” happens, chances are good nobody’s there. But it’s still a scary thought.

The more pressing concern, the rational one, is not the fire itself, but the heat. He’s going to Arizona, in the middle of a serious and record-setting heat wave. Hot weather kills more people than all other natural disasters combined.

I mentioned my concerns, and my husband assures me that air conditioning will be available. And I know that he and his team are professionals, they know how to be careful, how to recognize and get out of bad situations and, yes, into air conditioning if necessary. I’m only nervous, as spouses tend to be in these situations, not actually scared.

But there is a larger issue that bears noticing.

I’ve written before about how climate change is not only increasing fire danger directly, but also making fires more dangerous to fight simply because the weather is often hotter, now. Not only must firefighters work in heavy, heat-trapping protective clothing, but hotter conditions at night mean they can’t sleep well. Exhausted firefighters are more likely to make mistakes and get hurt.

The thing is that climate change is rendering some places uninhabitable in the summer. I’d suggest, actually, that some places count as uninhabitable already, despite the fact that people live there–these kinds of problems always exist on something of a sliding scale. How many days a year does a coastal area need to flood before we consider it lost to the rising sea? Less than 365, I can tell you that. How many days a year can a place get so hot that the ill or the impoverished (those who can’t afford air conditioning) are at serious risk of death?

We’re making these places where human life is getting marginal, but we still want firefighters to go into those places.

This is my realization of the day; in changing the climate, humanity is not simply making things difficult for ourselves in general, we are creating problems that specific other people have to deal with. Lots of folks have the option to move to cooler climates or to structure there lives so as to avoid going outside–and especially to avoid being physically active outside–when it’s dangerously hot. For these folks, climate change might still seem like some abstract problem of the future, and they may act accordingly. But there are people who can’t avoid the heat, people who have no where to do and no way to get there. And there are people, like my husband, who choose not to avoid it because they go in to deal with problems made by others.

Stop causing problems for other people. Vote for climate action.

A photo in which the camera is looking down a dirt road in a wooded, grassy area. The woods and the grass are on fire. Some flames are visible in the foreground, but they're actually hard to see because they are close to the same color as the dry grass around them, but there is a lot of smoke, including a huge, black billow of smoke farther away, and smoke covers the road in the distance. From out of that smoke is driving a white pick-up truck. The people in the truck are lucky to be alive, based on this picture.

Photo by Marcus Kauffman on Unsplash


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Do or Do Not Do; There Is No “Try”

When I was a teenager in a therapeutic boarding school (long story), the cool kids were the ones best able to display, or at least mimic emotional and spiritual progress. They did it largely through artful repetition of psychobabble and easy-but-impressive-sounding wisdom. A favorite trick of some of the coolest kids was to respond to a nervous “OK, I’ll try” by inviting the nervous kid to try to pick up a tissue box. The kid would pick up the box, whereupon the Cool One would exclaim “no, you did pick up the box! You didn’t try, you did it!”

A photo of a plastic figurine of the character, Yoda, from the Star Wars movies. The figurine is set among the foliage of a houseplant, as if Yoda were at home on his jungle and swamp planet. The figurine does not look silly. It is obviously plastic, but has a lot of dignity.

Photo by Nadir sYzYgY on Unsplash

The intended lesson was that if you really intend to do a thing, you will do it. Promising to “try” is just a weasily way to avoid making a real commitment. As Yoda says, there is no “try,” there is only “do.”

BS

Yes, confidence and commitment may increase one’s chance of success at any given thing, and yes, sometimes sufficiently motivated people accomplish things previously thought to be impossible, but it does not follow that anybody can do anything just by thinking they can. There are limitations. There are unfortunate accidents. There are enemies with superior forces. It’s possible to do everything right and still come up short.

If I don’t know whether I can do a thing, promising to try is perfectly valid.

Maybe the objective is to win a high school basketball game. Maybe it’s to get good grades. Maybe it’s to “deal with your crap” (that amorphous and slippery goal of amateur psychotherapy). Whatever the goal is, the feel-good doctrine of “there is no try” is a particularly pernicious way to beat people when they’re already down–to say, if you don’t succeed, it’s your own fault because you didn’t want it badly enough.

So I am a champion of trying. I’m a champion of uncertainty in the face of outcomes. I am particularly a champion of doing the best you can with what you have.

But I make an exception.

“At Least I Tried”

Having told the story of how I came to champion “trying,” let me now tell two stories that make me rather more sympathetic with Yoda’s famous admonition.

The Life of the Party

In my early twenties, I got involved in third-party electoral politics. Never mind how or why, that’s a subject for another time and a different blog. The point is that I was both intrigued and frustrated by my colleagues’ lack of interest in actually getting anybody elected.

First, we focused on national and sometimes state-wide offices, where our competition had us out-spent and out-gunned from the beginning. Conceivably we could have won a few local elections, but nobody volunteered to run in those races. Our eye was on the prize–the presidency.

Second, the one time we did discuss trying to draft candidates for local races, one of our most influential leaders flat-out said it didn’t matter who we ran because we weren’t going to win–he thought we should literally just run anybody.

Why?

I suspect he thought that a respectable-but-losing showing in any race would built the party. But toward what end? What did he hope to accomplish as a political party that didn’t aim to win?

We were trying, not doing.

We’ll Show Them

I recently heard about a political demonstration designed to force a government body to accept certain demands. Never mind what government body or which demands, that, too, is irrelevant to this blog. The point is that the organizers didn’t expect to win. And because they didn’t expect to win, they didn’t bother to construct a strategy that could win.

They said they just wanted to show the government that it can’t do certain things without a fight.

They also were trying, not doing. And the sad thing is, if they had aimed to win, if they had acknowledged the long odds but resolved to beat those odds anyway, they might have found a winning strategy instead.

They might have won.

At Least We Tried

Lately, I’ve been hearing a number of prominent, climate-sane people asserting that their central motivation heading into this election is so that no matter who wins they will know they did their best. That is, they think they are probably going down, but they want to go down fighting.

I’m sympathetic to that impulse; I’ve felt it myself. And I agree that “I might not succeed, but I’m going to try!” is, at times, a useful antidote against despair.

(Assuming despair needs an antidote, which it doesn’t always; despair can be transformative)

But it’s worth noting that such a shift of focus comes perilously close to a shift of objective; it hurts too much to admit we might fail, so we change the goal, attempting not to save the world anymore so much as to guarantee ourselves credit for having attempted to save it.

Me, I’d rather my leaders keep their eyes on the ball, not their self-esteem.

Frankly, My Dear….

Simply put, promising to try (because success is never certain) is both honest and legitimate. Comforting someone

A photo of an iceberg floating in quiet, dark water on a foggy day. The iceberg itself is long and blocky, with several cave-like openings. The mood of the image is somber.

Photo by Torsten Dederichs on Unsplash

guilt-wracked over failure with “well, you tried your best” is both realistic and kind. But taking “trying” as your objective isn’t good enough.

The thing is, this is the world we’re talking about. If the United States doesn’t get a climate-sane president and a climate-sane (and filibuster-proof) majority in both houses of Congress in this coming election, I very much doubt we’ll have time to do anything meaningful about climate change at all.

Yes, mental health, including self-esteem and happiness, is important in that it’s hard to do anything well if one is miserable, discouraged, and exhausted. We’ve got to take care of ourselves and each other. But we also have to get over ourselves–feeling fulfilled or empowered is nice, but it’s not the point. Getting credit for honest effort is nice, but it’s not the point. Feeling the joy of success–or coping well with the pain of failure–is nice, but it’s not the point.

The point is ending anthropogenic climate change.


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The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: At Least the Rotation Will Be.

I dreamed last night.

I dreamed that my mother hand rented a lovely house in which to throw a party for the whole family and then some. It was larger than her home, though with a smaller yard, with a creek running right out back. My sister was there, and some girls I went to school with, and a little baby who so wanted to examine the ivy on the wall, so I lefted her up and she grabbed  some ivy at stuffed it in her mouth. I pulled it out again, and when some busy-body told the baby “you must never play with plants, it’s too dangerous, play inside,” I said no, you go ahead and play with plants. You go ahead and grow up to be a geek, like me.

I dreamed.

I dreamed that someone told me my dog, Una, had gotten away and they’d had to leave her at the shopping center. I went outside to look for her, but the park was full of extremely long cows. I looked out the back door and saw that it had begun to rain. I hoped I’d get to see the moment that the creek began to rise. I’ve always loved beginnings.

I dreamed.

The creek expanded to fill its banks brown and muddy, and it kept on coming. I wondered if we would be flooded. I looked around, thinking how to prepare, then realized the creek was indeed flooding in, seeping slowly under the doors. I ran around picking up small objects that might float, cleaning up trash, trying to warn the others at the party, get them to help, but no one could hear me. No one was listening.

I dreamed.

Because no one was listening, I could no longer speak. I’d lost the self-confidence to even try to make myself heard. The party continued around me and I stood at the sink, whimpering a little, hoping someone would notice and care, but no one did, and I wasn’t even sure anymore if I wanted them to. They’d yell at me for whimpering, for being so pathetic, so needy. I’ve always been such a bother to everyone.

I dreamed.

I dreamed that the recollection of my dog gave me back my voice, though not much else. My dog, Una, was out in that storm somewhere, perhaps lost. I had to find her, and I had to drive, because she was so very far away, and the storm was so violent. I had no car. I’d come with my mother. I asked if I could drive hers, but she said I could not, something about it being a rental and the insurance. Could I ask my dad? Sudden;y I wasn’t even sure I could drive, cars had become so complicated, all manual transmissions, all weird, convoluted controls. I needed a car, I needed to go save my dog, but no one would help me, and no one would hear me about the flood slowly seeping across the living room floor.

I awoke.

I awoke and tried to remind myself I had no reason to be so anxious, I didn’t need to go find Una, she wasn’t missing. She was dead. She died almost a year ago. And my sister died just over a year ago. And while the party wasn’t exactly happening, the tornado warning that had woken me was real.

Isaias had arrived.

The “I” Storm

A photo of dark, roiling storm cloids. The view is through a window and there are raindrops on the glass.

Photo by Valentin Müller on Unsplash

For those who either don’t know or who are reading this post long after the fact and have forgotten, Isaias is the name of a tropical cyclone that made landfall last night as a Category 1 hurricane, tracked overland, weakened to a strong tropical storm, and moved more or less right over top of me–the eye passed just to our west, moving up the Chesapeake Bay and making a second landfall near where my in-laws live, and then hitting my mother right…about….now.

Of course, these storms are pretty big, so the entire experience lasts eight hours or so, no matter where the eye happens to be.

The name, Isaias, is Spanish, and it got attached to this storm in recognition that Spanish speakers get his by tropical cyclones, too. American English speakers fall all over it, of course, not because we find it difficult to pronounce (“ees-ah-EE-ahs”) but because we find it difficult and intimidating to read. The same thing happens to my last name, which is also easy to pronounce yet trips everybody up (“uh-LAN-thus”). Anyway, my husband started calling it the I-Storm. It’s a good epithet, for a storm that has an eye.

What We Experienced

We’re all alright now, and the sun is shining, but things were pretty hairy there, for a while. We got all our hatches battened down last night and went to bed, knowing the storm would move in as we slept. I expected to wake to the sound of rain. We did not. Instead we woke around five-thirty to the tone of the tornado warning of my husband’s pager (he’s a firefighter). The day had not yet dawned, and the air was utterly still, utterly silent, in a way that you’d think would be comforting at such times but isn’t.

The warning was for the southern part of our county, though, not us. I persuaded our second cat to come inside

An image of an arm of a white person in an otherwise dark space. Only the arm is visible, and it looks to be reaching plaintively.

Photo by Cherry Laithang on Unsplash

while Chris checked the radar on his phone, and we went back to sleep. The wind started to pick up.

When the tornado warning woke us up the second time, day had come. We were busy discussing whether this one a  threat to us when Chris’ mother called to tell us to take shelter. We obeyed her and gathered both dogs, both cats (did I mention one of our cats hates the dogs?) and my laptop into the guest bathroom and huddled there listening in to the county’s emergency response communications as a tornado touched down in a nearby town, setting off electrical fires. We later learned that was the fourth confirmed tornado in our region from Isaias. There would be two more, to our north.

When the warning expired at eight, we left the bathroom and went about our morning. Small branches broke off our trees and rattled on the roof. Martha  meowed to go outside and I explained to her why she should not. She meowed again and again. Percy curled up in a safe little nest under a table. He’d been panting from fear in the bathroom. Reilly lay on the floor looking worried. He doesn’t like odd noises. Kizzy slept. Kizzy could sleep through a hurricane. Chris turned on the local weather report–broadcasting in crisis-mode, of course–so he could stay abreast of the latest developments, while I puttered around the kitchen, frustrated to the depths of my geeky soul that the reception kept cutting out whenever they started explaining something sciency.

As the eye came up even with us and the maps on TV showed the storm clouds clearing off, the wind picked up, launching a series of gusts that leaned our trees over harder than I’ve ever seen them. Bigger-sounding branches fell nearby, and distant trees made odd noises. For the first time since we’d left the bathroom, I got scared. The weather people had told us to take this storm seriously, that although it would hit us as only a tropical storm, it would not be like the tropical storms we were used to–they normally pass us to our east, but this one passing to our west would put us on the “dirty side” and would be a whole different ball-game. The swarm of tornadoes we got was certainly new for us, but it was predicted, but these late big gusts were a surprise–I don’t know the numbers on those gusts, but I can tell you that nether Irene nor Sandy did anything comparable in our neck of the woods. Apparently, nearby Ocean City was getting some heavy winds, too, sustaining heavy damage. The weather people admitted surprise–apparently it was something called a “sting jet” that doesn’t usually happen in tropical systems.

Go figure.

By early afternoon though, the wind had fallen off to a gentle bluster, and the sun had come out. It’s a gorgeous day, now.

What the Weather People Said

A few weeks ago, I wrote, among other things, that it’s important to notice the experts we rely on–and to notice them as individuals. I wrote about huddling in the bathroom during a tornado warning, anxiously watching for updates by an on-air meteorologist, and later not remembering who that was. That seemed wrong to me. Accordingly, this time I paid attention.

While huddling in the bathroom we were not watching a person, merely the work of one or more persons, as warning boxes appeared and disappeared on the online map. However, afterwards, watching TV, those were people, people who looked distinctly worried, people standing closer to the path of the eye than we were, people whose families may have been huddled in a guest bathroom at that moment, for all I know. Of course, they were all very professional about it.

Of course, one of them was Dan Satterfield, whom I have interviewed, and noticing a person I have interacted with, however briefly, comes naturally, but I also payed attention to his colleagues on-air and enjoyed noticing them work as a team–the complexity they all had to be keeping track of, monitoring various streams of information while simultaneously performing live on TV, was impressive (lots of weather teams do the same, of course; it’s still impressive). All of them had that focused, high-energy manner of people on deck in a storm real or metaphorical, and I imagine they were all having a great deal of fun, the sort of fun you don’t really notice until after the fact, in retrospect, when you know that nobody died on your watch after all.

(Isaias did kill at least one person in the Carolinas and another in New York, but I have not yet heard whether there were any fatalities in WBOC’s listening area)

Just before we finally lost patience with the terrible reception–a byproduct of the storm, of course–they said that something about Isaias was weird besides its name. I could not hear what the weird thing was. Maybe it was the sting jet. Maybe it was something else, or the sting jet and something else together. I keep checking social media, hoping for some elaboration there, but there has been nothing. I suspect they’re all at home now, asleep.

It’s been a long, difficult day.

Climate Change?

Of course I’m not just telling you about my day. This here is a climate story. I am not yet aware of any particular climate connection for Isaias, some way that it is better than your average tropical cyclone for telling the climate story–although the aforementioned “weirdness” may turn out to be relevant.

All tropical cyclones are pretty good climate stories, but I’ve told those stories already, here, here, here, and here.

Mr. Satterfield said, in our interview, that “climate is what you expect, weather is what you get.” Some of our climate expectations involve tropical cyclones, and today we got one. It’s worth noticing.

But I was also very struck, and not for the first time, by the urge to watch reality unfold on television. Yes, there was a practical element to wanting to watch the coverage, and yes, watching the team explain things would have been fun had I gotten better reception, but there is also a sense of being more connected, more in control, if one is getting the latest news on a thing. There is even some element whereby reality gets realer if seen on TV.

How much of reality gets on TV?

Mr. Satterfield mentioned climate change on social media relative to Isaias–someone had asked about the storm surge, and he responded by saying it wouldn’t be bad, but worse than it otherwise would have been without climate change. He’s good at calling a spade a spade, when the subject of digging comes up. But otherwise I haven’t seen the topic come up much of late. although it’s clearly relevant to both storms and to COVID-19.

What I’d like to see is a BIG climate march, the kind we’ve had before, the kind that gets LOTS of media attention, the kind that reminds us and our elected leaders that we care. Why isn’t this happening? Why are big climate marches no longer being organized in the US? For years there have been only small, local events that don’t get the coverage, or bigger, dramatic events that involve activists getting arrested–and therefore only draw those people comfortable getting arrested. Why? We need to get the revolution back on television.

Because as easy as it is to mock the televising impulse, and as genuinely questionable it sometimes is, societal self-reflection is a legitimate function of television. It’s part of how we interpret the world to ourselves.

Think of how it actually feels to watch, say, televised storm coverage?

It’s practically useful, of course. Climate change is an emergency, and just as in any emergency it’s helpful to have someone on TV explaining the scope of the problem and how and when to respond. But it’s also comforting to be told you’re not alone–it’s not just the weather people and the reporters, it’s the people they tell us about, the other people out there also getting wet, also getting blown around, also cowering in their guest bathrooms. It’s comforting to be told yes, you’re right, this is big. It’s comforting to be told you’re not a fool to be afraid.

You’re not a fool to want to take action, and there are other people taking this seriously, too.

We need to get the revolution back on television, because sometimes I feel like the water is rising, something or someone important is missing and needs help, and no one is listening to me.

 


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The Real Plague Problem

I’m one of those people who reads randomly when I’m bored. That is, I don’t go looking for a good book, I just go looking for a book, and I read a few pages from the middle and then go on my way. Lately, my favored book of randomness has been In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made, by Norman F. Cantor. I read it through, beginning to end, some years ago, so my recent random reading is simply reacquainting me with material I already knew.

Only this time, I’m reading it in the middle of a modern pandemic.

I can’t say that I recommend the book. Despite its history on the New York Times bestseller list, it’s not well-written; all too often, it’s hard to tell what point the author is trying to make. For example, I can’t tell whether, in chapter eight, he is seriously advancing the idea that the black death was caused by cosmic dust or merely reporting the quackery as historically interesting. Such uncertainty makes the book hard to trust.

And yet.

Consequences in the 14th Century

A photo of a person wearing a birdlike plague-doctor mask and a top-hat, seen in profile. The background is black, but the scene is full of glowing smoke or fog.

Photo by Kuma Kum on Unsplash

The overall theme of Wake of the Plague is that the Black Death had a huge and mostly (not entirely) negative effect on European society, but not the one that most of us think it did.

Most casual discussions (and some scholarly treatments) of that era focus on sweeping statements of generalized cause and effect, such as the idea that the vast biomedical disaster created a gloomy, fear-based culture obsessed with death. For the most part, Dr. Cantor rejects such generalizations, pointing out that the large-scale cultural shifts at the time were mostly underway before the Black Death happened. A few wide-spread reactions occurred, such as a great deal of anti-Semitic violence, but most of the changes were individual or economic, not societal and cultural.

For example, one of the people who died was a scholar whose work anticipated the scientific revolution in certain ways. Had he lived several decades longer, it’s possible that revolution could have come several centuries earlier. Likewise, the deaths of several members of the nobility reshuffled the political landscape in ways that had long-term consequences.

What I found especially intriguing was the claim that the economic repercussions of the plague were largely delayed for a generation (at least in Great Britain, where Dr. Cantor’s focus lay). The initial loss of part of the work-force was largely absorbed because unemployment had been high before the plague–but afterwards there was no “give” left in the system, so that subsequent disease outbreaks, crop failures, and social convulsions all become much more serious than they would have been otherwise.

There were also plague-triggered changes that were simply very slow to play out. Apparently, the gentry–a social class between the peasants ad the nobility–had a serious problem with widows. Prior to the plague outbreak, most men would lose a wife to death in childbirth and then remarry several times. As a result, there weren’t very many widows, and even fewer of them had any real connection to the dead man’s male heirs. Inheritance law therefore forced widows out of the family but gave them a generous severance package. During plague outbreaks, however, male mortality either equaled or exceeded female mortality producing lots of widows–sometimes a father, son, and grandson would all die of the plague together, leaving three widows who left the family taking huge chunks of its income with them. Decades of either paying off widows or paying lawyers to try to avoid paying widows destroyed many family fortunes either directly or by leaving them unable to cope with later challenges.

Several themes emerge:

1. The plague did not change “society;” it killed people. The historical impact of those deaths was individual and unpredictable.

2. Right after the plague was over, the survivors would have said “Wow, that was terrible, but not much has changed.” They wouldn’t have known that in a way the plague was not over, that it would continue to remake society for decades.

3. The biggest impact of the plague was that it impaired society’s ability to deal with other problems, such as crop failures and war.

Is any of this sounding familiar yet?

Consequences in the 21st Century

There are a lot of differences between the Black Death and COVID-19. We face a much lower mortality rate, but our society is much more vulnerable to disruption. We have a much better chance of finding effective treatments soon, but infection–and news about the infection–travels much more quickly. Our experts understand the disease much more clearly, but misinformation is widespread as well.

But certain dynamics can be expected to remain the same.

Whatever we fear or hope COVID-19 will do to society probably isn’t doing to happen. We’ll get a vaccine, hopefully combined with effective public health policies in the United States and other hold-out countries, and the pandemic will simmer down to occasional and promptly dealt-with local outbreaks. Many of us will walk around saying “see? Nothing’s changed. It WAS a hoax!” And yet everything will be subtly and gradually different–forever.

The worst thing will not be the number of people who died but the people who died, and what might have happened if they had not.

The other worst thing is and will remain our increased vulnerability to other problems–which is why I’m talking about all this in a climate change blog.

Texas just got hit by the season’s first hurricane. Rescue and relief efforts have been complicated by the fact that Texas is also a COVID-19 hot-spot. This will not be our season’s last hurricane, and the fact that parts of the Atlantic are ridiculously hot right now does not bode well–it’s not that we’ll necessarily get a lot of hurricanes, it’s that those we do get will be worse. All this hot water is not a coincidence; it’s a clear and present symptom of climate change, and it is dangerous. Suppose we get a monster this year, like Sandy or Harvey or Katrina. Suppose it slams into a city simultaneously experiencing a big COVID-19 flare-up. Where will the casualties of the storm go? How will people socially-distance in evacuee shelters?

We’re also in the middle of a big heat wave. Heat kills more people than all other kinds of natural disasters combined, plus it exacerbates whatever human rights problems and violence happen to be going on at the time. All this hot air isn’t a coincidence, either, it, too, is a sign and symptom of climate change, and it, too, is being complicated by COVID-19.

Look, I don’t want to sensationalize any of this. It’s the real world, not a Michael Bay movie.

Three panels of a cartoon drawn with stick figures. Its quite text-heavy, but the overall point is that journalists reportining on a disaster reject the serious and sober accuracy of a scientist in favor of wild speculation by Michael Bay. This site, https://www.explainxkcd.com/wiki/index.php/748:_Worst-Case_Scenario, has a description and a transcript.

Excerpt from xkcd, by Randal Munroe https://xkcd.com/748/

My point is not that we’re facing some dramatic attack of all four horsemen of the Apocalypse, my point is that we’ve got to remember that none of our issues is happening in isolation. It’s not part of the reason we’ve got to deal with climate change is that it’s one of the things that’s going to make the wake of COVID worse.

 

 


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In Praise of Ignorance

A close-up photo of some kind of antique anatomical model. It may be made of plastic or plaster. Its a human face with closed eyes and reddened lips, but the top of the skull is gone, exposing the brain. There are words written on the face, but they are hard to read. The surface looks roughed-up or weathered.

Photo by David Matos on Unsplash

“Know-it-all.”

It’s a weird phrase. It sounds like it ought to be a compliment. I mean, imagine having someone around who actually knows everything. You wouldn’t need Google or Wikipedia anymore. Searching for information would be very straightforward, and your personal data would be at least as safe as it would be with any other individual human. What a useful person to have around!

Of course, know-it-alls don’t actually know everything, they just act like they think they do—which might be part of the problem, but in that case you’d think the correct insult for such a person would be “fraud,” or “ignoramous.” It isn’t

I know it isn’t because I’ve been accused of being a know-it-all.

They’ll tell you that know-it-alls are pushy, that they think they’re better than other people, but I wasn’t and didn’t. Yes, I liked to show off as a kid, but all children do, and I had no idea I was smarter than other kids until they started teasing me about it. I was an adult before I realized that my knowledge might be appreciated by some people, and to this day if you want to make me seriously uncomfortable, telling me you think I’m really smart is a great way to do it.

Know-it-alls are not disliked because they are obnoxious—some are, I’m sure, but others are not—but because intelligence itself is perceived as obnoxiousness. We do not live in an age that is kind to smart people.

Our age is even less kind to those who are not smart.

Consider that the reason why most people are uncomfortable with smarts is that they feel “stupid” around smart people. However uncool it is to be smart, it’s even less cool to be anything else.

Ignorance and lack of intelligence are two very different issues, but they are conflated more often than not. To be caught being ignorant is to be ashamed of being unintelligent. Knowledgeableness and intelligence are different, too, and likewise conflated. I’m letting these two pairs merge into a single pair for this post because I’m talking about a social phenomenon that treats them as merged.

There are many reasons why our culture is suffering from a rejection of expertise (especially scientific expertise) these days. Part of it is the natural tendency of the uninformed to overestimate their understanding—my guess is that it’s just hard to know how big a subject really is until you’ve gotten into it a bit. Part of it may be an outgrowth of the deep cultural tension between rural and urban people, since the latter tend to be more affluent and therefore more likely to be college-educated. But part of it might be that nobody likes to feel dumb.

But suffering we are. We need experts. We need their help.

So, let’s get this out of the way:

1. There’s nothing wrong with not being smart. “Feeling stupid” is actually a kind of shame, and we need to collectively recognize that no mental ability, no matter how modest, is shameful. In point of fact most of the people who have accused me of “making them feel stupid” were quite smart, but so what if they had not been? So what?

2. There are people who are smarter and more knowledgeable than you (or me) in ways that matter. Intelligence isn’t a linear measure, there are many ways to be smart, and objectively determining which of two people is smarter is difficult to do and problematic to attempt—but be that as it may, you’re not the smartest person around. Get used to it.

3. We need experts, persons whose knowledge and intelligence equip them to do what we ourselves cannot. Really, this is one of the really cool things about being human—we don’t need to figure everything out by ourselves.

I’ve been doing a series of posts on the value of experts and of expertise. The relevance of such a serious to climate change should be clear. But let me take today to put a pitch in for ignorance.

I’m just supposing here, but the widespread rejection of expertise I see happening—people believing that some online reading means they know more about medicine than doctors, more about pandemics than epidemiologists, more about autism (what causes it, how to handle it) than autistic people, more about climate change than climatologists—is not so much a rejection of knowledge as a rejection of ignorance, a rejection of the capacity of others to help us.

But you are ignorant. So am I. And that’s a beautiful thing.

A close-up of a purple and white lotus flower with the plant's leaves, another lotus flower, and dark blue water all visible in the background. It's hard to tell whether the image is a photograph or a painting.

Photo by Joydeep Pal on Unsplash