The Climate in Emergency

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


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Update on the Candidates

Some months ago, I did a series of posts on the various candidates for present and how each looks from a climate perspective. Since then, the field has changed. Some people have dropped out, others have dropped in, and the Democratic part of the field has focused into a small group of serious possibilities (Biden, Warren, Sanders, and Buttigieg) and a larger group of long-shot hopefuls.

I figure it’s time to update my coverage. Except where noted, I’m drawing information here from the New York Times–their page on the subject is being updated, however, so if you click on it weeks or months hence you won’t find the same information on it that I did.

The Democrats

Of the Democrats running, I have already covered Michael Bennet, Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Julián Castro, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Joe Sestak, Tom Steyer, Elizabeth Warren, Marianne Williamson, and Andrew Yang. This blog continues to back Elizabeth Warren as the best candidate for the climate (it remains neutral on other considerations), though the other front-runners would also be quite good.

Of those I covered, several have already dropped out: Bill de Blasio, Kirsten Gillibrand, John Hickenlooper, Jay Inslee, Wayne Messam, Seth Moulton, Beto O’Rourke, Tim Ryan, and Eric Swalwell.

Richard Ojeda jumped in and then out again without my having a chance to write about him at all.

But there are two new Democratic hopefuls I need to cover.

Michael Bloomberg

Michael Bloomberg is a former Republican Mayor of New York, though he’s running for president as a Democrat with the specific, stated goal of defeating Donald Trump. His economic and cultural views suggest those of a centrist Republican–but his focus on gun control and climate change perhaps explain his current party affiliation.

His climate credentials are impressive.

Mr. Bloomberg is a billionaire who has been funneling large amounts of money into various climate-related projects. He has bankrolled the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal and Beyond Carbon campaigns, organized America’s Pledge, a formal effort by cities, states, and businesses to keep our commitments under Paris, and filled the budget shortfall at the UN left when President Trump pulled funding for most climate work there. And more. He is unquestionably a climate champion.

He is, however, having trouble getting support from activists, in part due to disagreements about strategy, and in part because of concerns over whether a pro-business billionaire is electable this cycle. After all, the Democratic Party is otherwise dominated by a progressive movement suspicious of the super-wealthy. It’s not just a case of people complaining that he’s not perfect enough; the worry is that if Mr. Bloomberg pours his money and attention into a doomed campaign for president, he might have less attention to give to climate–and clearly he does not need to be President of the United States to have an impact. He might better serve his cause by supporting a more viable candidate and making sure Democrats take the Senate.

Whether he progresses as a candidate or not, it is good to know he is out there.

Deval Patrick

Is a former governor of Massachusetts, and is running now on a call for unity, rather than on a particular issue or group of issues. As far as climate goes, he is a bit of a paradox; on the one hand, he has real credibility thanks to his leadership on renewable energy while governor, but on the other hand he is a former oil executive. His environmental work is more recent and can be taken as a better indicator of his current thinking. He has tossed around some interesting ideas, such as building manufacturing ups for solar cells and wind turbines in coal country to replace some of the lost jobs (somebody please do that!), though it’s not clear he knows how a US president might accomplish such a thing.

Ultimately, the paradox of Patric is less a matter of uncertainty about him–he was the driving force behind Massachusetts becoming the most energy-efficient state in the US with the eighth-highest solar capacity (pretty good for a small state with long, cloudy winters)–and more about whether he is electable given such an oily political liability?

The size of the Democratic field is a liability. The more energy the party expends fighting internally, the less will be available for the fights that matter–so is the thinking, anyway. And at this point in the process, additional candidates have to prove not just that they are credible as nominees, but also that they are worth the added complication their presence brings. But unlike most of the field, Deval Patrick is not just advocating for climate action, he has already accomplished it–and unlike Mr. Bloomberg, he has accomplished it as an elected official, and as a chief executive at that.

Mr. Patrick bears watching.

The Republicans

Of the Republicans running, I have already discussed Mr. Trump and Mr. Weld. Mr. Sanford, whom I discussed as well, has dropped out. But now we have another contestant for the Republican nomination in Joe Walsh.

Joe Walsh

Joe Walsh is current;y a conservative radio show host. He was also one of the Tea Party Republicans elected the the US House of Representatives in 2010, but he only served one term. In the past he was a vocal supporter of Donald Trump, but has since not only turned against the president but also expressed regret for some of his own anti-Obama language. His primary motivation for running is to deny Mr. Trump, who he describes as completely unfit for office, a second term, but he also wants to reduce the national debt and restrain executive power. He is a more traditionally Republican Republican than the President is.

Mr. Walsh’s score with the League of Conservation Voters is terrible–4%. In fact, so solid is his anti-environmental voting record that one wonders whether those few pro-environment votes were mistakes. Perhaps he was feeling poorly on those days? Not quite himself? But he has recently gone on record as recognizing that climate change is at least “impacted” by human activities and that the Republican Party needs to acknowledge the problem.

Change of heart? Transient illness? Or is at least a pretense of climate sanity becoming a political necessity for Republicans?

Big Picture

The big picture has not changed much since the last time I wrote on these topics. Donald Trump is still the candidate to beat–who must be beaten if we are to have a chance for the planet–and his most serious opponent will almost certainly be one of the four Democrats currently polling at the head of the pack. It’s possible that one or more of the Republican challengers will run as an independent and that they could complicate the race in interesting ways.

There is an outside possibility that either Mr. Bloomberg or Mr. Patrick could change the picture, if either can gain enough traction.


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Candidates for President on Climate, Part V: Independents, Third-Partiers, and Republicans

I spent some weeks discussing the many hopefuls for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States–the review took up five separate posts (click here and here and here and here and here). But there are more people running than just Democrats, and we need to think about them, too.

I should reiterate that I’m talking only about climate, here. There are many other important issues that bear on the election, but climate change is the focus of this blog and the one issue we have to get right or none of the other issues can possibly turn out well.

The Field of (Candidate) Dreams

The remaining field of candidates includes Republicans, third-party candidates, and independents (except no independents have declared, yet)–and even a few more Democrats.

Republicans

There are currently two candidates seeking the Republican nomination for president. A third is seriously considering it. It’s interesting to note that while neither potential challenger to President Trump is a climate hawk, both are on record as believing climate change is real and should be dealt with. They are where Democrats were just a cycle or two ago. This is progress.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump is running again, but since we already know he’s terrible from a climate perspective, and climate is the whole perspective of this blog, he can be safely eliminated from consideration; even if you liked everything else about him, his policies, and his performance as President, if you care about the climate and everything that goes with it, you can’t let Donald Trump win a second term.

Bill Weld

Bill Weld is making a serious attempt to challenge President Trump for the Republican nomination. He is currently practicing law, but has political experience (he was governor of Massachusetts in the 1990’s) and has run for national office (vice-president, on the Libertarian ticket, in 2016). He is, in general, a small-government fiscal conservative who favors liberal-to-progressive social policies. Despite his Libertarian connections, he not only calls for climate action, he supports rejoining Paris.

His record on climate is both minimal and a little mixed. As a Libertarian candidate in the previous election, Mr. Weld said humans were “probably” changing the climate and expressed concern about “needlessly costing American jobs and freedom,” but did support “regulation that protects us from future harm,” and he did have a good environmental record as governor. But there are signs his views continue to evolve. The primary thrust of his campaign appears to be a specific rebuttal of Donald Trump, and he has strongly criticized Mr. Trump’s anti-environment policies in terms suggesting that Mr. Weld understands climate change fairly well and accepts its seriousness–and he has invoked Teddy Roosevelt as an example of what he wants his party to be.

Is Bill Weld the Republican environmental leader the country needs? I have argued before that the US does need such a leader, since something as important as climate action should not be left to a single political philosophy. I have not been able to track down any specific policy proposals on his part relating to climate, besides rejoining Paris, but he does appear to be at least a semi-viable option.

Putting my political commentator hat on for a moment, I don’t like Mr. Weld’s chances. Aside from the fact that primary challenges to incumbents are extreme long-shots at best, Mr. Weld’s mix of policy positions puts him in a bad position. He is pro-choice, meaning he essentially cannot compete for the votes of the religious right–precisely those Republicans who might most object to Mr. Trump on moral grounds. Voters who do want a pro-choice, pro-LGBT rights, pro-climate action president are likely to find a stronger candidate on the other side of the aisle, in, say Elizabeth Warren.

But I wish him luck.

Mark Sanford

Mark Sanford is not yet in the race, but he is seriously considering it. He is more conservative, more simply Republican, than Mr. Weld, and thus may have a somewhat larger impact on the primary process, if he jumps in. He has more recent political experience, having been governor of South Carolina just a few years ago. And he wrote an op-ed calling for Republican climate action back in 2007.

Unfortunately, I haven’t heard of him saying anything at all about climate since.

Democrats

Yes, of course we’ve already covered Democrats. In fact, one of them, Eric Swalwell, has already dropped out. But Joe Sestak hopped in while I was writing the posts, and somehow Mike Gravel escaped mention though he’s been in the race since April and is now making noises about dropping out. Tom Stayer has also recently jumped in.

Mr. Sestak has some modest but real climate credentials and favors a carbon-fee-and-dividend system, plus rejoining Paris. Mr. Gavel has several strong environmentalist positions, but has a history of sometimes breaking with environmentalists. He has supported a carbon tax, and can discuss the economics of fossil fuel thoughtfully. But he doesn’t seem to have said anything about climate in some years. Mr. Stayer is a billionaire who has made a name for himself in climate advocacy, although as a candidate his major focus has been not on climate but on getting corporate money out of politics.

There are still a few others about whom buzz has developed and who have not yet ruled out a run.

Greens

The Greens have not yet entered their candidate-selection process, and do not have any high-profile hopefuls. It’s almost certain that the Green Party candidate for president will have excellent climate credentials; the question will be what his or her other credentials are and how the campaign influences the rest of the race.

Libertarians

There is a large field of Libertarians vying for their party’s nomination. Since even the eventual nominee will be an extreme long-shot, I’m not going to discuss them individually here. It’s also worth noting that Libertarian values are at odds with a President exercising much leadership in climate action anyway–when the US pulled out of Paris, the Libertarian Party Chair said that the content of the Paris Accord was less important than the principle by which such decisions are made–and that the President should not have the power to make the Paris Accord to begin with.

The political philosophy here, according to Chairman Sarwark, is that once the government is out of the way and no longer distorting the market, market forces will prevail and individuals will do the right thing (switch to renewables).

The problem here is three-fold.

  • First, market forces are inherently amoral. Even assuming the relevant body of economic theory is correct, the “invisible hand” of the free market serves only to ensure economic efficiency in the face of consumer demand–and what consumers demand is not always the same as what citizens want for their country, even when the “consumers” and the “citizens” are the same people.
  • Second, we all know that many individuals do not do the right thing in many different life contexts. Climate action is not necessarily an exception.
  • Third, government power is not the only form of concentrated and potentially despotic power that exists. Removing government power will not result in a free society unless there is also some mechanism to prevent the concentration of power through either money or physical force. Such a mechanism could be developed, on that subject this blog remains neutral, but one does not exist yet–and moneyed would-be despots with an interest in preventing the switch to renewables already exist. Removing government from the equation will only result in their operating directly rather than through government proxies.

A Libertarian President who refrained from exercising leadership on climate would be little different, in practice, from a President who actively opposed climate action.

Independents

Somewhat surprisingly, I have not found any confirmation that anyone is actually running for the U.S. Presidency as an independent yet. Most of the likely contenders have either announced they won’t run or declared as either Democrats or Libertarians. Even Vermin Supreme is running as a Libertarian this cycle, according to his Facebook page (although his Mandatory Tooth-brushing Policy would seem to be antithetical to Libertarian principles). Of course, with the election still more than a year away, there is plenty of time for someone to declare.

The Big Picture

The big picture is that for the first time, climate is being placed at or near the center of the agenda by the candidates of one major party, and at least some candidates from the other major party also have climate messages. It’s where we should have been a decade ago, but at least we’re here now.

From a climate perspective (remember, this blog is neutral on all else), I’d be comfortable with any of the Democratic front-runners, and not too uncomfortable with several others in the race. But if you’re looking for an endorsement, Elizabeth Warren has it. She combines serious, thoughtful dedication to the issue with true political grit and real electability.

Now we just have to get some climate sane person in.


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Ordinary Things, Reprise

The following is a reprise of my post from a year ago. The details of our situation have changed somewhat, but the underlying issue is still very much the same.

On the 23rd day of the month of September, in an early year of a decade not too long before our own, the human race suddenly encountered a deadly threat to its very existence. And this terrifying enemy surfaced, as such enemies often do, in the seemingly most innocent and unlikely of places.

Thus begins Little Shop of Horrors, a movie I was completely obsessed with for about five years as a kid. Thus also begins a post I wrote a year ago, in honor of the date and of then-current events. I’m reworking that post now. After all, Mr. Trump has been elected President, is giving all the signals up-and-coming fascist dictators do, has initiated the American pull-out of the Paris Agreement, largely dismantled the EPA, is quietly letting American citizens in Puerto Rico die while he dog-whistles racists over football, and may well start a nuclear war with North Korea any day now (if North Korea doesn’t start one with us, first).

Our very existence indeed seems under deadly threat.

As the subject of my post, I took, not the movie, Little Shop of Horrors, but the play it was based on. The critical difference between the two is that the latter does not have a happy ending. The carnivorous plant wins. It is a much darker–and more interesting–story.

In brief, the story is as follows:

A flower shop on Skid Row (a strange idea in itself) is about to go out of business, when the shop assistant, Seymour, puts a strange plant in the window, to draw in customers. And it works! Inexplicably, customers start pouring in! But then the plant wilts, and the owner orders Seymour to fix the plant Or Else. Seymour discovers that the plant perks up only when fed human blood. Of course, he pays up–his coworkers are the closest thing Seymour has to a family and the store is his only means of livelihood. The plant grows, business flourishes, and Seymour must give more and more blood. The plant gains the power of speech and tells Seymour to deliver an entire human. The man refuses. The plant temps him with money, respect, access to beautiful women. The man wavers. The plant points out that the woman Seymour loves is dating an abusive jackass who deserves to die. Sold.

Seymour gets the girl (who had always loved him, it turns out), money, fame, the whole nine yards, but then the owner of the shop discovers the murder and blackmails Seymour. Soon, the boss, too, is eaten.

Seymour now has everything, but the guilt is eating him and he tries to rebel. The plant attacks Seymour’s beloved, who then dies, asking Seymour to feed her to the plant because then at least they can be together. He complies, but then flies into a rage, tries to kill the plant, fails, climbs into its mouth intending to kill it from the inside, and dies. Shortly thereafter, a businessman arrives to take cuttings, intending to propagate the plant worldwide.

When I was a kid, I saw the plant as no more evil than a mosquito (a potentially lethal blood sucker). I see the story now as a morality play and a true and disturbing tragedy.

In a classic tragedy, the hero loses, not because he (rarely she) is overwhelmed by superior forces or bad luck, but because he is destroyed from within by his own shortcomings–which are inextricably related to the very things that make him great. The scary thing is that Seymour is great only in that he is ordinary. He’s normal. A bit geeky and skittish, but basically one of us. It’s hard not to like him. And who among us would not behave as he does? A little blood to save our livelihood? Sure. From there, Seymour gradually crosses one red line after another, taking the least bad option at each turn while the options steadily get worse and the stakes grow ever higher–at what point can any of us honestly say we would have done anything differently?

The final song of the play states the moral of the story:

They may offer you fortune and fame,
Love and money and instant acclaim.
But whatever they offer you,
Don’t feed the plants!

Although there’s no evidence the people who wrote Little Shop of Horrors intended to create anything other than a goofy spoof of a grade B horror movie, it works very well as a metaphor for exactly the process that is threatening the world. After all, how could the fossil fuel industry create climate change, if not with our money? And yet we keep feeding them, sometimes in order to obtain luxury and power, but more often because how else are we supposed to get to work?

This week’s nuclear threat is a somewhat different animal. It is less obvious that we, the people, are directly complicit, for one thing, and it’s far from certain that a nuclear exchange in this case is a threat to the world as a whole–North Korea is not the USSR. The more realistic fear is regional destruction on an unprecedented scale. The United States can win a war against North Korea, provided China does not intervene, but with what stains on its soul? My president is casually threatening a level of violence that could kill close to 26 million people, most of them utterly innocent and powerless in this situation. Not global destruction, but bad enough.

But I’m a child of the eighties. You say “nuclear,” and I think Mutually Assured Destruction. I think nuclear winter. I think the end of the world.

I think I’ve got a couple of books I really want to publish before I die.

I don’t know what actually should be done about North Korea. Such things are outside of my field of expertise and beyond the scope of this blog. I do know what should be done about climate change, but I do not know what I can do, personally, to make it happen, beyond what I have been doing, which is not much and isn’t working. Somehow, we’re collectively feeding the plant. We’re feeding it through our elections, our purchases, and by our prioritization of other issues for reasons that anybody would understand. How do you stop being an ordinary person?

A nuclear bomb can destroy a city. But so can climate change–we’ve seen it happen. We’ve seen worse. There are people in Puerto Rico who will go to sleep tonight in houses that have no running water, no electricity, and no roof.

How do you stop being ordinary?

 

Hold your hat and hang on to your soul.
Something’s coming to eat the world whole.
If we fight it we’ve still got a chance.
But whatever they offer you,
Though they’re slopping the trough for you,
Please, whatever they offer you,
Don’t feed the plants!


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Ordinary Threats

On the 23rd day of the month of September, in an early year of a decade not too long before our own, the human race suddenly encountered a deadly threat to its very existence. And this terrifying enemy surfaced, as such enemies often do, in the seemingly most innocent and unlikely of places.

Thus begins Little Shop of Horrors, a movie I was completely obsessed with for about five years as a kid. Thus also begins a post I wrote a year ago, in honor of the date and of then-current events. I’m reworking that post now. After all, Mr. Trump has been elected President, is giving all the signals up-and-coming fascist dictators do, has initiated the American pull-out of the Paris Agreement, largely dismantled the EPA, is quietly letting American citizens in Puerto Rico die while he dog-whistles racists over football, and may well start a nuclear war with North Korea any day now (if North Korea doesn’t start one with us, first).

Our very existence indeed seems under deadly threat.

As the subject of my post, I took, not the movie, Little Shop of Horrors, but the play it was based on. The critical difference between the two is that the latter does not have a happy ending. The carnivorous plant wins. It is a much darker–and more interesting–story.

In brief, the story is as follows:

A flower shop on Skid Row (a strange idea in itself) is about to go out of business, when the shop assistant, Seymour, puts a strange plant in the window, to draw in customers. And it works! Inexplicably, customers start pouring in! But then the plant wilts, and the owner orders Seymour to fix the plant Or Else. Seymour discovers that the plant perks up only when fed human blood. Of course, he pays up–his coworkers are the closest thing Seymour has to a family and the store is his only means of livelihood. The plant grows, business flourishes, and Seymour must give more and more blood. The plant gains the power of speech and tells Seymour to deliver an entire human. The man refuses. The plant temps him with money, respect, access to beautiful women. The man wavers. The plant points out that the woman Seymour loves is dating an abusive jackass who deserves to die. Sold.

Seymour gets the girl (who had always loved him, it turns out), money, fame, the whole nine yards, but then the owner of the shop discovers the murder and blackmails Seymour. Soon, the boss, too, is eaten.

Seymour now has everything, but the guilt is eating him and he tries to rebel. The plant attacks Seymour’s beloved, who then dies, asking Seymour to feed her to the plant because then at least they can be together. He complies, but then flies into a rage, tries to kill the plant, fails, climbs into its mouth intending to kill it from the inside, and dies. Shortly thereafter, a businessman arrives to take cuttings, intending to propagate the plant worldwide.

When I was a kid, I saw the plant as no more evil than a mosquito (a potentially lethal blood sucker). I see the story now as a morality play and a true and disturbing tragedy.

In a classic tragedy, the hero loses, not because he (rarely she) is overwhelmed by superior forces or bad luck, but because he is destroyed from within by his own shortcomings–which are inextricably related to the very things that make him great. The scary thing is that Seymour is great only in that he is ordinary. He’s normal. A bit geeky and skittish, but basically one of us. It’s hard not to like him. And who among us would not behave as he does? A little blood to save our livelihood? Sure. From there, Seymour gradually crosses one red line after another, taking the least bad option at each turn while the options steadily get worse and the stakes grow ever higher–at what point can any of us honestly say we would have done anything differently?

The final song of the play states the moral of the story:

They may offer you fortune and fame,
Love and money and instant acclaim.
But whatever they offer you,
Don’t feed the plants!

Although there’s no evidence the people who wrote Little Shop of Horrors intended to create anything other than a goofy spoof of a grade B horror movie, it works very well as a metaphor for exactly the process that is threatening the world. After all, how could the fossil fuel industry create climate change, if not with our money? And yet we keep feeding them, sometimes in order to obtain luxury and power, but more often because how else are we supposed to get to work?
This week’s nuclear threat is a somewhat different animal. It is less obvious that we, the people, are directly complicit, for one thing, and it’s far from certain that a nuclear exchange in this case is a threat to the world as a whole–North Korea is not the USSR. The more realistic fear is regional destruction on an unprecedented scale. The United States can win a war against North Korea, provided China does not intervene, but with what stains on its soul? My president is casually threatening a level of violence that could kill close to 26 million people, most of them utterly innocent and powerless in this situation. Not global destruction, but bad enough.
But I’m a child of the eighties. You say “nuclear,” and I think Mutually Assured Destruction. I think nuclear winter. I think the end of the world.
I think I’ve got a couple of books I really want to publish before I die.
I don’t know what actually should be done about North Korea. Such things are outside of my field of expertise and beyond the scope of this blog. I do know what should be done about climate change, but I do not know what I can do, personally, to make it happen, beyond what I have been doing, which is not much and isn’t working. Somehow, we’re collectively feeding the plant. We’re feeding it through our elections, our purchases, and by our prioritization of other issues for reasons that anybody would understand. How do you ? How do you stop being an ordinary person?
A nuclear bomb can destroy a city. But so can climate change–we’ve seen it happen. We’ve seen worse. There are people in Puerto Rico who will go to sleep tonight in houses that have no running water, no electricity, and no roof.
How do you stop being ordinary?

Hold your hat and hang on to your soul.
Something’s coming to eat the world whole.
If we fight it we’ve still got a chance.
But whatever they offer you,
Though they’re slopping the trough for you,
Please, whatever they offer you,
Don’t feed the plants!


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Tilting Windmills

My friend says she’s sometimes not sure activism is worth it anymore, because the world is about to end. I don’t share that problem. My problem is I don’t know how to choose among the many possible forms of activism, when I believe they might all be fruitless anyway. Six of one one, half a dozen of doing not much. Also, sometimes I get so anxious I can’t do anything at all.

A few days ago, my friend posted to Facebook, attempting to start an “informal dialogue” about how to cope with climate change psychologically. How to deal with the often paralyzing and exhausting fear that awareness brings, especially when the surrounding society offers so often the tempting narcotic of pretending it’s not happening, or is happening only in a distant and mild way. As if we had fifty or a hundred years to sort all this out. As if climate change weren’t especially important. It’s lonely, as she said.

I thought I can help! I have a blog about this very thing! But, when I looked, I saw no entries that really suggested a solution. And when I searched online, while I found confirmation that the discipline of psychology is, indeed, tackling the issue, I saw nothing of particular immediate benefit to me.

Enter the Man of La Mancha

Coincidentally, into my doom and gloom, came an email from another friend about something totally different. Among other topics, he referred to some of his own environmental work as “tilting at windmills.” Of course, that’s a reference to Don Quixote, the classic figure of fiction who deluded himself into believing he was a heroic knight and who attacked windmills, believing them to be fairy-tale giants. My friend is doing nothing in any way similar–the giants he is attacking are all very real–but he has a self-deprecating sense of humor.

But what occurred to me when I read his email was the following:

Alternative Energy Revolution

From: https://xkcd.com/556/

 

If you can’t see the comic I’ve pasted for whatever reason, it starts out with a picturesque landscape of modern wind turbines silhouetted against a peach-colored background. In subsequent panels, two people (rendered as stick figures, this is XKCD, by Randall Monroe, and he mostly does stick figures) admit that the turbines look disturbingly like the tripodal monsters from certain sci-fi stories–and the turbines promptly grow legs and become exactly such monsters, ravaging the landscape. Their huge legs pound the ground with calamitous thunder. The terrified humans despair–but a voice calls “stand aside!” and there, on a hill, lance at the ready, stands DON QUIXOTE!

The “mouseover text” is “The moment their arms spun freely in our air, they were doomed–for Man has earned his right to hold this planet against all comers, by virtue of occasionally producing someone totally batshit insane.”

When my friend mentioned “tilting and windmills” I also thought of Quixote’s story from the character’s own perspective. To others, he seems simply to be having a mental health problem–and that is part of the truth, as the book makes clear. But the deeper, more complicated part is that Quixote is attempting to live by the rules of a vanished, and perhaps always fictional world, a world characterized by honor, nobility, and bravery such as most people now ignore. He is not so much fighting against windmills as fighting for the proposition that there is something worth fighting for, that a man on a horse and with a sense of honor can make a difference in the world.

In the actual book, that fight is a losing proposition. Quixote’s attempts to be a hero all backfire, he helps nobody, and ultimately he regains his sanity and disavows all interest in the romantic stories that used to fascinate him. It is Randall Monroe’s contention, however, that crazy Don Quixote is still out there somehow, and that there will come a time in which we need him.

When we need precisely someone who is crazy enough to believe that he or she can make a difference, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Is the real question, then, how do we maintain ourselves as the right sort of “batshit insane”?

Some Provisional Answers

I’m hardly an expert on how to solve the world’s problems. There are days I can barely manage to clean the cat box. I’d be much more comfortable if I could have Googled up some DIY tips on how to fight the good fight, recommended by a successful activist with a background in psychology besides. But that didn’t happen. So, instead I’m presenting a couple of ideas of my own. After all, I’m going to be forty next week. I figure that after forty years (less one week) on this planet, I’ve learned a few things worth sharing.

1. You Can Only Do What You Can Do

A primary struggle for me is finding myself mysteriously unable to do things. I mean I intend to do it, I plan to do it, I mean to do it, and I don’t. “It” could be anything from losing weight to cleaning the toilet, but the most relevant example is the expansion of this site that I began soon after the election and have not yet completed. Why not?

I’ve tried on a lot of explanations, mostly revolving around quirks of my brain that really do make a lot of things harder for me, but none of those explanations suggested a solution. I suspect I’ve simply been engaging in my own version of what my mother does–calling herself lazy when she finds she can’t work more than anyone humanly could (she’s retired now, but still busy with four grandkids and a big house and yard, plus volunteer commitments). Both of us are under the persistent delusion that we have super-powers, and we set goals and priorities for ourselves accordingly.

I mean, here I am, working as a free-lance writer to pay the bills, plus maintaining three unpaid blogs and writing multiple novels all at once, and I’m down on myself for not also building this site into a major online resource for activists?

Maybe if I sat down and made an honest assessment of what I can do, and then re-prioritized, I’d be more successful at meeting my goals.

I’m not just talking about time management, here. I’m talking about energy. I’m talking about money. I’m talking about resilience in the face of stress. I’m talking about physical and mental health. I’m talking about ability, which, yes, does vary. All of this varies, from person to person and from day to day, often for reasons we do not and cannot know. To some extent we may be able to change our reality–I may be able to do things tomorrow that I can’t do today–but we can’t just wish it away.

If you only have ten minutes a day to devote to saving the world, then accept that and make your ten minutes count. Develop a plan you can actually enact.

2.Don’t Ask Whether You Can Do It–Ask How

I realize this point and the previous one look like contradictions, but I’m actually addressing two different aspects of “can.” There is choosing an achievable goal, and there is choosing a workable method.

For many years I confused the two. When I despaired of achieving something and people told me to believe in myself, I thought they meant I should make like the Little Engine That Could and motivate myself to the top. And that just made me feel worse, because while strong motivation can indeed unlock hither-to un-guessed-at possibility, I knew that real limitations exist also. Sometimes, even the Little Engine can’t.

Maybe that’s what they did mean–the idea that attitude is everything is a very common fallacy, and it results in people not only feeling terrible for not being good enough, but also torturing themselves with the thought that somehow they must not have wanted it badly enough.

But eventually somebody nudged me into realizing that there is a better way to think about goals; don’t ask whether the goal is attainable, assume that it is–then ask what method is workable.

Maybe the Little Engine can take a different way up the mountain.

There is no logical reason whatever to waste time and energy wondering whether we can still prevent climate change disaster. We know that this goal is worth everything we can throw at it, and that if we are to succeed, we must throw everything at it. We will get up that hill or we will die trying, because the alternative is to die without trying and that is worse.

The real question is how are we going to try getting up that hill?

3. Just Pick Something

Ok, but how are we going to attack that hill? Let’s be honest; there are days when each of us thinks we may be facing a no-win scenario, here. And when you believe that you’ll fail no matter what you do, how do you pick a thing to try to do anyway?

I have lots of experience with this conundrum, because I have a really hard time making seemingly arbitrary choices. There are days I do no housework at all because I can’t decide whether to clean the kitchen or the bathroom first. Based on my extensive experience, I can offer two suggestions:

  1. Pick something. If it doesn’t matter which you pick, then you can’t pick wrong.
  2. Once you pick, do something to make it seem less arbitrary, like investing money in your choice, or commiting to a friend you’ll stick with it.

4. The World Usually Doesn’t End

This one’s pretty simple. Yes, it seems plausible that everything we hold dear is about to be destroyed, especially this week, as the leaders of two nuclear-armed nations engage in what might even charitably be termed a pissing contest. But the end of everything has seemed plausible before and the world didn’t end. It usually doesn’t.

5. Don’t Dis Despair

Another friend of mine insists that despair is a useful state, not to be resisted. I don’t really understand this. I trust him to be wise, however.

I do know that temporarily giving into despair can be useful if only in that it allows a rest from the work of resisting despair. Rage, cry, curl up in a fetal position, and then pick yourself back up and get on with things again. I also know that giving up on one thing can be the first step to trying something else–a different, more workable method, perhaps.

How to…?

So, how to keep it together in the face of climate change, or at least fall apart in a useful way? I’m not entirely sure. I haven’t found anyone who can tell me. But at least part of the solution, in my experience, involves the following:

  1. Honor your own situational and personal limits
  2. Choose ambitious, pie-in-the-sky goals and practical means of reaching those goals
  3. If no course of action looks better than any other, choose randomly
  4. No matter how bad things look, remember the world usually doesn’t end
  5. And if you do get caught up in despair, give in to it occasionally–you might find something useful down there in that pit.

That’s what I’ve got. Let’s see how it works.


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As If

A few weeks ago, I sent an email to my teacher.

To be clear, I’m not currently taking any classes, nor am I in a training program of any kind. There are simply some people who remain one’s teachers no matter what. I have two, and I sent an email to one of mine the other week, more or less just to say hi.

He asked how I was. I confessed I was not well; multiple people I care about have cancer and a president named Trump. He made the appropriate sympathetic noises (we’ve never talked much about private matters with each other) and then reminded me that “especially in politics, this too shall pass.”

I suspected him of being blithely ignorant, though of course I didn’t say so. The forces that would see the Earth burn so they can make a buck seem to be winning, and he tells me it will be ok? Yes, this, too, SHALL pass; in twenty million years, biodiversity and climate stability will likely have recovered, but that’s supposed to be comforting?

Actually, it is comforting. As I think I’ve said before, I find great comfort in Ursula K. LeGuin’s line, “No darkness lasts forever, and even there, there are stars.” The character who speaks this line is talking about the literal end of the world. “There” refers to the land of the dead. That no matter what we humans do, the Earth will probably be able to repair itself in a few million years is a kind of good news.

Beyond that, “this, too, shall pass” is not necessarily a note of hope in the ordinary human sense. The idea is not necessarily that things will get better (though they may), but simply that things are transitory, that the current situation is not the only context, and not the permanent context, that can apply. I have heard it suggested that the way to really internalize and believe “this, too, shall pass” is to make a point of saying it when things are going well.

As a Buddhist might, I can take refuge in the simple truth of impermanence.

I suspect my teacher would be on board with all these interpretations, but could he also have meant what he initially seemed to mean, that yes, indeed, things will be alright? This isn’t the end of the world?

Back when he was more obviously engaged in teaching me, I became fairly sure this man was always right, that things he said were true because he said them. Even before I finished grad school, I’d modulated that stance somewhat. Yes, he could be wrong (though it does seem to be rare), but it was more interesting, and ultimately more educational, to begin with the presumption that he wasn’t. The principle here is a bit like that of a Tarot deck or a zodiac–the process of figuring out how the oracle applies to your question is a wonderful source of insight, whether the oracle actually applies to your question in a literal sense or not. Rather than wondering is my teacher right? I made a practice of asking myself what if he is right? What can I see from the perspective he is offering me?

(I mean this principle within certain limits, of course. Clearly, treating individual human beings as totally infallible could cause problems)

So, I decided to return to that practice and ask myself what if things aren’t as bad as I fear that they are? What does the world look like if the anti-environment plutocracy we now face is simply transitory?

The thought echoed one I learned many years ago–when faced with a challenge, don’t ask whether I can succeed. Assume that I can, and seek to discover how.

And from my teacher’s vantage point of hope and optimism I looked out and saw…a spaghetti pile of possibilities that I find utterly overwhelming. I don’t know about you-all, but I find it very difficult to choose among equally valid options. Faced with a to-do list of five quick items and an afternoon to do them in, I not infrequently end up spending the whole afternoon playing on Facebook because I can’t decide which one to do first. Occasionally I have actually asked my husband to pick a task for me. He complies with good humor.

So, I seem to be paralyzed now, not by the awesome awfulness of Trump (who, after all, will pass, one way or another), but by the difficulties of my own brain. But while awesome awfulness seems like a very big problem to tackle, I have at least some hope of learning to operate my own grey matter. It’s a start.

What about you? What lies in the way of your own action? What does the world look like if you assume you’ll succeed?


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Independence

Happy American Independence Day.

The best of America has always been an ideal to which reality aspires in an irregular and sometimes ambivalent way. Our principle of equality has always been marred by racism, sexism, and various other interrelated isms, and yet the principle itself is valuable as a stated goal—and for much of our history, we have enjoyed a more egalitarian, and more participatory political and legal system than much of the rest of the world. It is not true that anyone can be anything if only they work hard, but hard-working people do have more latitude here than they might, as the flow of economic refuges to our borders attests. We are not the bastion of democracy that we should be, but we are the imperfect bastion that we are.

Anyone who thinks that the United States is the greatest and most perfect country on Earth has not been paying attention. But anyone who cannot tell the difference between the US and a third-world dictatorship hasn’t been paying attention either.

So, with that caveat, I’ll get to my point: the US is not currently independent.

Russia did try to get Donald Trump elected. Whether their involvement was decisive is debatable—it’s possible he would have been elected anyway. That Candidate Trump himself actually cooperated with Russian interference on his behalf has not been proved and might not be true. Yes, his public joking, during the campaign, to the effect that Russian hackers should help him is not, by itself, a smoking gun that he actually expected him to do so, or that any quid pro quo arrangement was made between the American oligarch and any Russian counterpart. That other people connected to the campaign were actively working for, or trying to work with, foreign entities during the campaign is also not proof, nor is the fact that President Trump has some odd financial ties to foreign entities (the extent of which we don’t know because he won’t release his taxes) proof. The whole thing is suspicious as all get-out, but we don’t actually know.

But the fact remains that by attempting to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, President Trump is acting in the interests of Russia (and Saudi Arabia) and not those of the United States. Maybe he’s doing it out of the “goodness” of his own heart, a spontaneous volunteerism with no prior planning or thought of reward, but he is acting in the interests of a foreign power.

I’ve argued previously that pulling out of Paris, and otherwise minimizing or reversing American action on climate, is the primary reason for Mr. Trump’s presidency, the true central plank of his personal platform. His rhetoric on the subject of the economy and American security, his dog-whistles to white nationalists, his consistent vocal abuse of women both individually and collectively, all of that can be chalked up to either personal proclivity or empty campaign promise. A wall on the border with Mexico would do nothing whatever to protect his constituents’ job prospects or personal safety, even if Mexico did pay to have it built. Getting out of Paris, though, is the one campaign promise he’s acted on and the only one that will actually help anyone.

It will help the owners of the fossil fuel industry.

I said that part already. What I did not point out before was the way in which acting on behalf of that industry constitutes selling out American interests in favor of those of other countries. It is true that Russia has powerful interests in oil, but so does the United States. While transnational corporations are, in some ways, independent of any country, Exxon, for example does have an American origin and the US still produces substantial amounts of coal, oil, and natural gas. It’s possible to tell this story as one of private, corporate interest, and many of the interested parties are Americans.

But the United States doesn’t need the fossil fuel industry. We have a fairly diversified economy, a highly diversified resource base, and we’re a net exporter of food. There is huge economic opportunity for us in a properly managed transition, and we’ll likely survive, or even come out ahead, as fossil fuel prices drop due to lessened demand. Russia is simply not as well prepared for the shift. Oil is its primary source of national wealth.

While I haven’t looked into what climate change will do for Russia, I don’t imagine that a rapidly warming planet is actually good for that country. And Russia did, in fact, sign the Paris Climate Agreement. But even if they don’t have less to lose that we do to a changing climate, certain elements within Russian society do have more to gain from hanging on to fossil fuel a little longer.

And we do have a lot to lose. Most of our major cities are coastal and thus vulnerable to sea level rise and a possible increase in hurricane activity. Much of our landmass is already capable of experiencing killer heat waves, and thanks to air conditioning, many of our most vulnerable citizens live in places that get dangerously hot (like Arizona and Southern Florida)—a problem that will only get worse. Increased drought and increased flooding will likely interfere with our agriculture. In many areas, our use of irrigation water is already unsustainable. The United States already gets more tornadoes than any other country on Earth, and while there is no way to tell whether climate change is increasing tornadic activity (there’s no reliable baseline data), it is a fair bet that it will. Political and economic instability in other countries caused by climate change represents a major threat to American security.

Mr. Trump is willing to risk all that for the sake of short-term economic gain—by people other than us.

I want to make very clear that I do not have anything against Russians as a people. Russia is not, at present, a free democracy, so I don’t hold its people accountable for what their leaders are doing. I also want to make clear that I’m not blaming Russia for America’s troubles. While it does seem clear we are under attack, our vulnerability to such attack is entirely home-grown. I’m only pointing out that our laws and government institutions are currently being used to protect a foreign government’s revenue stream at our expense.

241 years ago today, we told the world we weren’t going to let that happen anymore.