Archive for category Environment
I’ve always had a very logical argument as to why I am not a vegetarian. Vegetables are living entities just like animals. They feel in different ways, experience the world in manners we cannot comprehend, but they are life forms just as we are. Since in the animal kingdom it is natural for creatures to eat both plants and animals, there can’t be anything inherently wrong with eating meat. A cat could never become a vegetarian and survive, for example. As long as we do not over-indulge, eating other living entities, plant or animal, is natural.
Lately, though, I am rethinking my argument. Not that I’m doubting the logic, but there is another factor to take into account: corporate farming. Consider: In the Laura Ingalls Wilder book Little House in the Big Woods, Pa butchers a pig that they have been raising for some time. Every part of the pig is used, Laura and Mary even use the pig bladder as a balloon. Plants are sown and reaped, tended to by the family. In one book a locust attack ruins the harvest, such were the risks of life on the frontier.
That seems a healthy relationship between humans and nature. You may eat the plants and animals you raise, but you raise them with care. Certainly you should not be cruel to them. The food tasted better too – most of us will never know just how good natural food tastes.
This year many things are changing in my life, I feel like I’m entering a year of personal transformation. One change is to stop closing my eyes to ramifications of how I eat. I plan to think about where the food comes from, buy local, and move away from fast foods and the chemical laden processed foods that are so easy and convenient.
I was thinking about this as I walked through my local grocery store, seeing the packages of meat and vegetables, processed and ready for sale. Everything designed to entice you to buy; packages with idyllic farm scenes or products labeled “organic.” The bananas had a sticker that said “no cholesterol.” I’m glad they told me! It’s all marketing.
Then I look at the shoppers, behaving much like I have always behaved. Looking at different foods, picking them up, dropping in them in the cart. The intercom switched to the song “King of Pain” by the Police. I forced an ironic smile.
When I teach about the rise of fascism in Germany I try to explain it in a way that most people in the class end up admitting that if they lived in Germany in 1936 they’d probably have supported the Nazi government. The reason you can get something like fascism is that the culture accepts as natural and mundane that which should be condemned. It’s normal to eat genetically modified food. It’s normal to eat animals who have lived in ghastly conditions, genetically manipulated to increase profits. Assembly line cars, assembly line chickens. The fact they are alive is irrelevant, profit comes first.
How cruel are we to the plant kingdom when we manipulate every crop, altering the very nature of the environment. Farming itself is a violent act, taking the free form of nature and forcing an order to it in order to feed ourselves. But that’s the same kind of violence that a lion undertakes when he cuts down and devours a zebra. It’s part of who we are, it’s what we need to survive. We have brains that make it natural for us to move beyond hunting and gathering.
I can’t help but think that in a generation or two people will look back and see us as barbaric and ignorant. They’ll look at how factory farms treat animals, the way big corporations play with plant genetics and our penchant to not give a damn about nature if we can make money by manipulating it. They’ll wonder how we could have been so brutal.
But to us it’s normal. We don’t think about it. We’re good consumers, programmed to spend and to believe that Monsanto’s main goal is to end world hunger and that the chickens who will make up our McNuggets are happily scampering around the coop as a loving farm girl throws them seeds.
So I’m going to shift towards farmers markets, local food, and try to stop my long running contribution to the cruelty being undertaken against plant and animal. There are many family farms struggling to get by, working hard and treating their animals right. I want to give them my business, as much as possible.
Ultimately, that cruelty is really directed at ourselves because everything is connected.
Such is our culture – close our eyes, mock those who think differently and see the world as full of objects to use for our own self-interest, no matter how much damage it does to the planet – to the humans, the animals, the plants, the atmosphere, the land and sea. But I believe we are connected. Every bit of cold cruelty that we engage in or enable comes back to bite. And every bit of love we share or show returns in time to empower.
UPDATE: The comment from La Kaiser below suggests that my post may read as too broad. There are a lot of family farms here — the Daku dairy farm just up the road, Sandy River Farms that have their own store, and Marble Family farm, to name a few. These are the good guys! People struggling to produce quality food. I’m concerned about the mega-corporations that look only at the bottom line and are removed from the process. I hope that the practices shown in those images are more rare than common, but I fear that as the mega-corporations grow, it’ll be all about money.
For three years I have been running in place in terms of my research. It’s not that I haven’t worked. I’ve delved into new literature and even did some writing. I’ve blogged about it here and here. Yet somehow, despite lots of notes, books read and false starts, I’m left where I started – lots of ideas and ambitions, but no clear research strategy.
How do I restart my research? My last publication was in 2009, when I shifted to this “new project.” The final draft of my last major work, German Foreign Policy: Navigating a New Era, was sent to the publisher on April 3, 2003, the day my first son was born. With young kids I purposefully cut back on research, but now I have a desire to write and produce but progress is elusive.
The problem is that I lacked a clear center. The themes have been shifting- the changing nature of sovereignty, the impact of the communications revolution and social media, the profound challenge created by energy and environmental crises, the dysfunctional nature of economic policy throughout the industrialized world and the shift of power and influence from the West towards countries like China, India, and Brazil – whew! How do I come up with a clear framework? At times I think I have a track and then somehow it goes astray.
So I started to think. What is the point of my research, why am I motivated to move away from examining German foreign policy? The answer is because I feel myself lucky and intrigued to be living in an era of real crisis and transformation (the theme of this blog). As a social scientist I find it fascinating to be on the planet at this time, watching as one era folds into another, bringing about profound change.
A motive of mine is to focus on what I see as the biggest barrier to successful navigation of this period of transition – old thinking. Old thinking is everywhere! When I see someone call Obama a “socialist” or a “Marxist,” I shake my head in amazement — can’t they see how obsolete looking at the world in those terms has become? When people argue against globalization, talk as if a fossil fuel based economy is sustainable or speak of American power as if it still has the force it did in the last century, I realize “old thinking” dominates much of the political discourse.
That’s true in the US, but not so much in Europe. I’m surprised by how Americans dismiss the European Union. When the Eurocrisis started a couple years ago bloggers said things like ‘bye bye Euro’ and a few dismissed the possibility that the EU could survive. I realized they were imagining people in the EU to be thinking about politics just like they were – with ‘old thinking.’ This is especially true from Great Britain and the US, the two former hegemonic powers where old thinking remains strongest.
Yet within the EU, new thinking has already become entrenched. The EU achieved the goals set by the Kyoto accords without harming their economy and are cutting ambitiously moving forward. Germany plans to be off fossil fuels by 2050. Military power is considered best used for humanitarian interventions sanctioned by the UN and not raw pursuit of national interest. Sovereignty has already been replaced by subsidiarity, and globalization is taken as a matter of course.
That’s it – the European Union needs to be the center of the research. All policies and issues connect, and it takes me back to a literature I know well and have been studying since the 80s – European integration! Moreover, I think there needs to be some work done really stressing the revolutionary, positive and sustainable aspects of the EU at a time when people want to prematurely embrace its demise. The fact the EU won the Nobel Peace Prize this year only adds to its relevance.
The Euro crisis opens the door to analyze the global economic crisis, its causes and the way out. The EU’s strong focus on human rights, the environment and energy opens the door to address those issues, including the diversity between France’s embrace of nuclear energy to Germany’s (apparent) rejection of the same. The diverging paths of the US and EU since the Iraq war, including questions about the future of NATO, open the door to discussing terrorism and the nature of war/conflict in this new era. Issues involving Islam and the West are profound in Europe. The whole package requires a new theoretical approach to politics, building on the neo-liberalism and identity theories of the 20th Century.
That necessarily includes the impact of the information revolution ranging from the internet to social media and beyond. But with the EU as the core, I can now envision how it will fall into place, including how all the work I did the last three years is not for naught — I simply needed something to center it. To find that I went back to my roots as an academic, a focus on Europe and the EU. In fact, my concluding chapter in the book on German foreign policy has those very arguments which I can build upon.
Of course! The answer has been in front of me all the time. I thought I had to venture away from my specialization to look at media and change. The key is to integrate these ideas into what I’ve already been doing. Time to get writing!
Although in retrospect the economic slowdown that continues across the globe to this day started sometime in 2007, the realization that we were entering a period of intense economic crisis became undeniable back in September 2008. The world stood at the brink of a collapse of credit and a spiral into severe depression. Various fiscal and monetary stimuli helped ward that off, but many of the core problems remain:
1. High debt levels in the advanced industrialized states from both government and private sector actors. US total debt is near 340% of GDP, about $50 trillion. In comparison total global government debt is just under $50 trillion. Total global debt is at $190 trillion, or about three times the global GDP. So this is a global problem, and it’s not primarily government debt that’s to blame.
2. Shifting demographics in the advanced industrialized states which will require a modification of retirement pension schemes and other reforms in order to stay solvent.
3. An imbalance between consumption and production, with the former focused on the advanced industrialized states of Europe, the US and Japan, and the latter in emerging markets such as China, Brazil, and India.
4. Environmental factors involving global warming, over population, chemical poisons and other results from over a century of unprecedented material economic growth. We don’t know how bad all this will be, but those who dismiss or minimize the danger are living in a fools’ paradise.
5. Potential problems with natural resources, particularly oil, water, and minerals needed in order to maintain economic growth. Energy shortages are the most visible (and have been experienced in small doses), but crises involving water and in the near future other valuable minerals may define the next century.
Political leaders are still trying to grapple with how to handle this transition. There are no easy solutions. Despite the election year rhetoric, no President would have fared any better than Obama on the economy – this is a global, structural crisis that defies quick policy fixes. The two favorite solutions are dubious. From the left you get the Krugman School that points to the need for a massive stimulus of trillions of dollars to retool the economy and get the country moving. On the right there is a call for less government regulation and less spending.
Less government spending will slow the economy, and in fact slows it faster than tax hikes would. Less regulation might be good in many sectors, but in some such as the financial sector it was the cause of allowing things to get so bad. The housing bubble (which helped fuel the growth of private debt) is directly attributable to lack of regulation of derivative markets and the collapse of effective financial regulation in general. Government regulations on small business may choke innovation, but lack of regulation of big corporate actors that buy government favors and transcend borders has been fatal.
Government stimulus would cause a short term spurt, but the evidence is strong that once you reach about a 100% debt to GDP ratio the increased debt does more harm than the good done by the stimulus. In Japan goverment debt soared to 200% of GDP without stimulating growth. Moreover, unless its directed in a manner that is assured to improve productive capacity and build the economy the money could end up going into consumption of foreign produced goods or risky financial speculation. In short, if not done right a stimulus would leave us no better off but with much more debt and a deeper structural crisis.
So four years in, here’s my assessment of where we are – an ambiguous assessment, I admit!
1. Gloom and doom has been overstated. This is a long term crisis, but not the collapse of western or global civilization. We have fiscal and monetary tools to avoid collapse or depression era numbers.
2. Debt levels in the private sector are down significantly (total US debt has gone from about 375% of GDP to 340%). That paying down of debt is a big deal — and is also one reason the stimulus from more government debt didn’t do more. In a best case scenario this will continue and level out and over time economic conditions will improve. However, the old “normal” of very low unemployment, easy credit and consumerism was built on sand – we won’t go back to 2006.
3. Big structural issues – especially demographics, energy, water and global warming — remain unknowns. Demographic change is less dangerous than global warming. Demographic problems can be solved through reform of pension systems and a growing economy with more reliance on technology. Ultimately too many people is more dangerous than too few. We are seeing a start of a transition from fossil fuels to alternatives, and relatively large natural gas supplies suggest this could be a stable rather than sudden transition. Global warming can make all these problems worse, however, and very little has been done on that front. That remains the gravest threat facing humanity.
4. Inflation is coming. An odd aspect of this whole crisis is the way deflationary fears have overshadowed inflation fears despite weaknesses in major global currencies. On the plus side, the ability to pay down (private) debt despite low inflation rates is a very good sign that we don’t need to inflate our way out of this crisis. However, to keep the Euro viable loose monetary policy will be embraced by the ECB to handle Spanish, Italian and Greek debt. The Federal Reserve may engage in another bout of “quantitative easing” (akin to printing money). This shouldn’t yield a currency collapse or hyper-inflation, but robust inflation rates of 5 to 10% probably will occur and create new difficulties.
5. The weatlhy are not always job creators. The growth of debt in the last ten years have yielded a growth of wealth for the investor class. This has not been earned through job creation but easy money schemes built on debt – the very thing that threatens the global economy. It was built on bubble money that yielded no productive gains; this kind of easy money at low tax rates is part of the problem, not the solution.
All told, I’m more optimistic now than I’ve been any time in the last decade about the future of the economy. I think we’re still five years away from emerging into a new kind of global economy and there are still difficulties and pain to endure. We’re four years in, and at least four years from the conclusion. But there is some light at the end of the tunnel.
It’s too early to say the strange weather we’ve been having is due to global warming, but as AP notes, this is what one would expect from global warming. Consider: temperatures have been rising consistently for decades. This increase correlates with increasing green house gas levels in the atmosphere, and the models and science have led to a strong global consensus amongst climate scientists: the earth is warming and humans are at least in part responsible.
Yes, there are dissents, but by and large most scientists believe that the odds that humans are creating this problem are too high to dismiss. Moreover, some scientists believe we are nearing a tipping point, in which human action pushes the earth to irreversible and sudden ecological changes. Whether humans can survive such a change with our way of life in tact is a questionable proposition.
The AP article states some pretty dramatic facts: 2/3 of the country is in drought, while some rivers have experienced floods from unexpected deluges. 3215 record highs were set in June, wildfires have destroyed 2.1 million acres so far this year (and it’s early in the fire season), and since January 1 over 40,000 new high temperature records have been set, as opposed to 6000 record cold temperatures. We’re also starting to see predicted changes in parasite and disease patterns as hotter weather (and warmer summers) allow species to survive and thrive where they once struggled.
This year the US has received the strangest weather. A couple years ago Russia was burning, and awhile back Europe had tremendous problems. Overall we’re seeing severe weather more often, precisely what one would expect if global warming theories are accurate.
One of the biggest frustrations for a rational thinker is how something as important and potentially devastating as global warming has been turned into a political issue by opportunistic politicians and corporations with massive resources. Ask someone if they believe that global warming is real and by and large ideology will dictate the answer. Even those unable to push aside the mounting evidence tend to add the caveat that “it’s not humans doing this” but some ‘natural’ event.
To be sure, climate change has occurred many times in the earth’s multi-billion year history, as have vast changes in the climate’s ecology. However there is no causal link between these changes and anything natural, but there is a clear causal link in climate science, with computer models pointing to the rise of green house gasses in the atmosphere. Looking at the deniers try to rationalize ignoring the data reminds me of the financial analysts of early 2008 dismissing talk of a dangerous housing bubble or threat to Wall Street. Ideology-driven thinking makes it hard for people to recognize errors; instead they find a way to re-interpret reality within their ideology. There’s been far too much of that in American politics in recent years, and it threatens our capacity to solve these problems.
In the excitement of Supreme Court decisions, political posturing over the 2012 elections and concerns about the economy, the real issue — how we as a planet will deal with a dramatically altered environment in coming years — may by trying to force itself into our collective consciousness.
Humans tend to learn the hard way – we wait until patterns of behavior become unsustainable before we make changes: The smoker who doesn’t quit until lung cancer hits, or the alcoholic who won’t stop drinking until his or her family and career are in shatters. Are we in the industrialized West on a similar path – with future generations looking back at how much we knew about what was going on and how little we did?
Smokers also often do quit before they get sick. Drinkers stop before their lives are destroyed. Humanity can make changes to avoid the worst case scenarios. But we have to start now and we have to take seriously the damage we’re doing to our planet. Given the state of political discourse in the US, that doesn’t seem likely to happen.
There is some hope. The Europeans have met the Kyoto Accord targets, achieving something that global warming deniers claimed was impossible. Some said it would destroy the economy, one in all seriousness told me it was a European plot to bring down the US economy by stifling us with regulations. Many European states not only have met and surpassed the goals, but in so doing have helped their economy and put themselves ahead of the US on green technology. If things keep getting worse, that edge may be a huge benefit to the European economies.
The US has to join in taking this seriously. So does China, India and emerging markets. This issue has the potential to bring us together in a way never seen before, as a common threat can induce enhanced cooperation. However, it can also divide if it’s every one for themselves in a world of immense change.
So to deniers – I ask you to think about it like this. If somehow your minority view is correct and nothing humans are doing are causing it, the most we risk if we take action is some economic costs (though these costs could turn to benefits if there are technological breakthroughs). But if you’re wrong and the climate scientists are right, the cost could be catastrophic. Rational choice theory would suggest you avoid the worst possible outcome, especially if the odds do not seem in your favor. So as you watch wildfires and power outages, storms and heat waves, think about your children and grandchildren. Ask yourselves if you are against doing something about global warming because it’s part of a political movement you identify with, or if you’ve really looked at the data and thought this through?
Ask yourself if you try to look at all sides of the argument and assess the quality of the sources, or if you cherry pick sources that agree with the point of view that you already have? Because if we don’t take our environment seriously this strange weather could get much more intense and deadly in years to come.
UPDATE: Found this image of last week’s strange weather:
Das Wirtschaftswunder, or economic miracle, is what Germans called the quick recovery of their economy after WWII. After a horrible winter in 1946, Germans went to work to rebuild their country, getting off rationing even before the victorious French and British. In the 1950’s Erhardt as Economics Minister presided over the regeneration of the German economy as he pushed for rapid free market reforms, even surpassing the pace suggested by the allies. Erhardt was Chancellor from 1963 to 1966 (replacing Adenauer, the first West German Chancellor who came to office in 1949), promoting both market economics and European economic unity.
Central was the concept of the Soziale Marktwirtschaft or social market economy. In terms of economic theory this relates to the Freiburg school or Ordoliberalism. Essentially the role of the state is to try to assure that the free market economy produces as close to possible the maximum amount it is capable of producing. Ordoliberalism rejects the idea that markets can function ‘magically’ or efficiently without the state – the state has a key role to play. This includes social welfare protections, collective bargaining, and state support of some industries. However, it is a liberal theory, rejecting socialist planning and socialist goals. The desired end result is not based on a theory of social justice or exploitation, but on having the market economy work as well as it possibly can.
(To American readers who haven’t studied political philosophy: liberalism here means a belief in limited government and a capitalist market economy — Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were ideological liberals. The jargony use of liberal to mean leftist in the US is idiosyncratic to US politics!)
Even when the Social Democrats were in power from 1969 – 1983 and 1998 – 2005 they did not veer from the main components of Erhardt’s vision. The Christian Democrats never embraced a more radical form of liberalism like what Thatcher brought Great Britain or Reagan brought the US, also remaining true to the social market economy.
Right now Germany is out performing almost every major industrialized economy, except perhaps some of the Scandinavian states.
Think about what that means. Here in the US pundits want to tell us that higher taxes, social welfare spending, and more regulation are all “job killers” that would destroy our economic recovery. Yet the best performing states during this recession (and Germany’s record is solid for the entire post-war history) have far higher tax rates, more social welfare spending and more regulation than ours. Indeed, thanks to the power of Germany’s Green party the environmental regulations in Germany are among the most extensive in the world. Germany has met and gone beyond the Kyoto protocol goals. The first lesson from Germany is not to believe the ideological punditry!
That doesn’t mean we should emulate Germany; US culture is different, as are our strengths and weaknesses. Germany has also done some things Republicans would admire. The two major parties – Christian Democrats and Social Democrats – agreed on a balanced budget amendment designed to assure that German debt doesn’t increase. That sent a clear signal to bond markets and currency traders that the Euro’s anchor is secure. Regardless of what happens on the periphery, the underlying value of the Euro will remain strong because the German economy is stable.
A second thing we should learn from Germany is the strength of pragmatism. Pragmatism means avoiding ideological thinking in order to figure out the best way to solve a problem. Moreover, pragmatism for Germans is rooted in principle – the idea that the social market economy reflects support for a free market economy that operates as best as possible, with the public interest protected. That means all citizens should have a chance to succeed, and basics such as health care, education, pensions, job training and a decent standard of living are guaranteed. It’s not an effort to equalize out comes — there are many extremely wealthy Germans — but to assure equal opportunity and a minimum standard of living.
This pragmatism means that the two parties share a deep set of principles that unite them. As much as they disagree on various policies and programs, they know that its most important that Germany deal with problems through compromise and avoiding either an ideological lurch to the left (massive debt, redistribution and spending) or to the liberal right (deregulation, massive tax cuts, leaving the poor to their own devices). Moreover, the social market economy is based in part on understanding the power of incentives — all policies from the tax code to social welfare programs should be structured in a way that does not create incentives to cheat the system or avoid work. Germany’s balanced all this better than most advanced industrialized states.
It works. It’s not perfect. The budget contains inefficiencies, there have been recessions and economic problems, but looking at Germany’s economy today one can’t help but be impressed. If it weren’t for Germany, the situation in Europe would be far bleaker.
Those reading this blog over the past couple years recall that I’ve started rather bold research programs involving the media, consumerism, and the construction of values. These questions have intrigued me and helped guide my teaching. But ultimately I found myself unable to push the research along, it was too daunting to really shift my focus.
So I’m back to what I’ve published on, wrote my dissertation about, and remain keenly interested in: German politics, and by extension, the European Union. My focus is going to be to write a book that gives an accessible history of German economic policy and the keys to on going success, and then investigate what we can learn from Germany’s experience. Does Germany’s success mean we have to rethink the theoretical and ideological arguments so common from both the right and the left in the US? Does Germany have the capacity to help guide the EU into a much brighter future? Moreover, might this be a complete metamorphosis of Germany from a state that wanted to dominate Europe to one that embodies the best European values, building a European Union based on cooperation, markets, and values? I’ll keep you informed of my progress!
At 9:30 Wednesday morning Farmington was the scene of a horrific accident. It took place near the busiest intersection in town, where routes 2/27 connect with route 4, near the university and the local McDonalds. A number of people were injured and one person killed, a 12 year old girl named Tess Meisel. Early on the only news available was that the van was associated with a YMCA camp. The picture in the news story showed the back part completely crushed, and the girl was sitting in the back seat.
In the grand scheme of things, it’s just a statistic. Another highway fatality, one of about 35,000 we’re likely to have in the US this year. Many will be children, far too many will be teens, and it’s easy to simply chalk it up to life’s risks. Yet like so many of us in Farmington who never knew the girl and communicated and shared links on facebook to discuss the day’s big accident, I found it devastating. Sometimes you have to think about the faces and emotions behind a statistic.
My son Ryan is 8, and he participated in the UMF Summer Daze camp this year. They often took vans to various field trips, some as far away as the coast. It did cross my mind that there’s always the risk of an accident, but the vans always returned safe and sound, if not always on time. I immediately thought of what the parents of this young girl must be experiencing. They send their daughter to camp in Maine for amazing experiences, not expecting fate to launch such a vicious blow.
They might think they did the wrong thing sending her to camp — if only she’d stayed home in Connecticut she’d be fine. But the thing about this kind of accident is that it is literally out of the blue. There is nothing the van driver could have done to avoid it, you don’t expect a truck to roll over on a busy street! Such events can happen anywhere, any time. There’s no way to know in advance what the right move would be.
The story linked above about the girl shows that she was an intelligent and impressive young woman. She had won an award for environmental innovation by inventing a reusable pizza box and tray. Given what my last blog entry was about, the pizza connection made me feel a bit closer to this stranger. I know very little about her or her family, but can imagine how horrible life has suddenly become for them as they try to adjust to a world that will always have an empty spot. It brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it; they have to live it.
Yet, that is life. Every day is full of risk. In the Spring Dr. Mellisa Clawson and I will teach our ‘Children and War’ class, with stories of child soldiers forced to fight, often being drugged up with cocaine. We’ll talk about lives and families torn apart by conflict, realizing that children suffer and die in much of the world. As horrible as this one accident is, things like this happen. Every day brings risk.
That isn’t what I bring away from this, though. Instead I look over into the other room where my five year old son is watching “Ben 10,” or upstairs where my eight year old is working with legos. It’s easy to take them for granted and to think of childhood as primarily preparation for the future, giving children the tools to succeed. That is part of it. What they experience now will hopefully give them the strength to say no to drugs, to treat women with respect and have a strong sense of values. Now is when they develop their work ethic and core beliefs about reality. But that’s only a part of childhood; success and accomplishments are only a part of living. We plan, compete, measure our accomplishments and seek to improve. Each success is quickly past and a new challenge arises.
Live life focused on seeking success and when it’s over it can seem pointless. Our accomplishments are transient and likely to be forgotten within a generation. To see life purely in terms of what one accomplishes would be to see the loss of a 12 year old girl as a waste; the accident denied her potential for success and eliminated all that she might have achieved. Perhaps her pizza box will catch on, otherwise, so much potential was obliterated.
No. That’s not the way to look at life. None of us are here for an eternity. For even the famous less than one tenth of 1 % of ones’ dance on this planet gets remembered or recorded. To measure life in that way is to deny the true essence of living. Whether you live to 12 or 120, each moment is at any given point in time all that exists. Now lasts forever. What matters are connections with others, interactions with family and friends. Laughter matters, a sense of joy matters, the light she brought into the lives of family, friends and acquaintances matters. Those things are just as consequential if one’s life lasts 12 years or100.
Those moments are true reality, they are where the human soul resides. They can’t be measured in days or money because time and wealth are transient and ultimately dissipate. No one gets out of here alive. You can’t take it with you. The joy one brings into the world simply by being has power and meaning on its own. Her 12 years could well have been more consequential and powerful than many peoples’ entire lives. Not a wasted life, just shorter one.
For me this also means vowing not to let a day go by without thinking about my children not in terms of who they might become or what they might do, but for the spark of light and life they bring to each day: for the way in which their laughter and sense of play brings joy, contentment and exuberance to all of us. To cherish the moments today, NOW, when we are connecting is the meaning of life, not plans or accomplishments. Cherish life in the present. If the future brings tragedy, those moments and memories will be the essence of what that life meant, and it can be powerful, good and change who we are. That is as real for a 12 year lifespan as for a 95 year life. That is as real for widow who loses her life partner as it is for the parent who lose their little girl.
And maybe as we connect to that part of life, those moments and memories can transcend time. Time with my five year old is unique; he will never be five again, these moments are valuable in and of themselves. To cherish life is to realize no matter what the future brings, now has meaning.
Tonight a family in Connecticut is likely grasping for meaning, staring into a void that feels like it will never go away. Life goes on; time doesn’t heel all wounds but it can hide them. Yet ultimately it does disservice to the life of anyone if their death brings long term pain and saddness to others. It may take awhile, but hopefully the family of Tess Meisel will see that remembering the moments of living and how they enriched their experience not only dignifies her life but overshadows the fact she left early. For now, many of us in Farmington are sending prayers, positive energy and shedding tears for a family whose little girl we did not know, but whose life ended tragically in our town.
You want to make me dictator? OK, here’s what I’ll do:
1) Slash US military spending, start an orderly but fast withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, leave the NATO alliance, and instead focus on enough military to defend the homeland, and a long range plan of intelligence sharing and operations to counter terrorism and other threats;
2) Abolish the current tax code and create a progressive fair tax that had marginal rates lower than the current ones, but wipes out almost all tax breaks and loopholes. The new system would be a revenue generator, but would not place a greater burden on families earning less than $125,000 a year;
3) Restructure the health care system to guarantee care to every citizen through state run programs with federal benchmarks and requirements. States will have considerable leeway how they do this, and we can learn from their different experiences. Medicare as we know it will be subsumed in this new system. Costly duplications and pharmaceuticals will not be covered unless absolutely necessary (and generics will be the only drugs covered where they’re available);
4) Social welfare programs would be restructured to be results-driven — not simply transfers of income but actual opportunity creators focused on jobs, education/apprenticeship, and community action. This would be done with a focus of community organization rather than federal bureaucracy with the idea of building community solidarity;
5) A blue ribbon panel of economists will focus on economic investments that are designed to return the country to sustainable economic production to replace the hyper consumerism of the past thirty years (especially the 00’s).
Of course, I’m not about to be made dictator, and even if President Obama privately agreed with all that, he couldn’t do much to turn it into reality.
The US was founded on the core governing value of political pragmatism. The founders knew that competing interests and ideals meant that conflict and disagreement would be at the core of the American political soul. Moreover, they felt that such conflict and disagreement could be good — it could force people to have their beliefs critically challenged, and have to find common ground with people of different interests. The only way the US can undertake major political initiatives is through compromise.
The right wing of the Republican party and the so called “tea partiers” (at least the radical ones) are the most virulent and dangerous wing of the current anti-pragmatists. Using that old canard of “standing on principle” (which all too often means ‘calling my subjective beliefs principle and refusing to look at any evidence that might call them into question’) they enthusiastically and with the demeanor of a self-righteous crusader out to slay Satan’s hordes hoped to force the country into a crisis. They lied to themselves that the US “wouldn’t really default” and that they could somehow bring back fiscal sanity. They wanted to get their way completely. If they couldn’t then they’d cause so much damage that the whole system would collapse. One person equated it to an alcoholic whose life has to hit rock bottom before he changes. The country needs default and a currency collapse before it will change its habits.
President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner learned that if a large enough contingent of such radicals make it into Congress and refuse to play by the tradition of American pragmatism, they can make the entire government dysfunctional. On the left, a lot of liberals want to reject the agreement for only slightly less insane reasons. They’re mad that a radical cadre of Republicans could force this down their throat, and believe that they only way to respond is in kind. The President should do what’s necessary to fight them — risk default, risk a constitutional crisis by invoking a 14th amendment not meant for this kind of case, and go the mattresses in partisan war!
In some ways this is typical for the House. It’s always more partisan and rowdy than the stoic Senate. The President, by comparison, is meant to be a unifying symbol and has to look out for the long term good of the country. If the US didn’t raise the debt ceiling, and more importantly if the US didn’t show signs of making progress cutting the debt, our credit rating would have sunk. That sounds bland, but the consequences would have been severe, perhaps catastrophic. Pushed by their own core constituencies into a difficult situation, they realized they had to compromise.
The compromise is the essence of pragmatism. No major decisions were set in stone — the cuts they agreed to were agreed upon early on in the process and were probably a minimum to avoid a downgrade. A no-cut scenario was out of question, without progress on the debt a downgrade was virtually certain. The bi-partisan commission who will report recommendations includes all the top players, assuring no one can get steamrolled by something like the “Gang of Six” Senate moderates who had true independence. They rigged the deck further by making consequences for not acting on that bi-partisan committee report painful to both parties. They had enough votes to allow the more partisan in both parties to complain loudly. But they did what they had to do.
The left simply cannot get its way in this political environment. Not only is there no chance for tax increases or a new stimulus, but not cutting deficits will lead to a downgrade with a further drag on the economy. The right is simply out of touch with reality — they’ll never get entitlement reform and deeper cuts without tax increases and the closing of loopholes. It cannot happen.
Little was decided with the debt ceiling compromise. This was an opening skirmish in a political battle that will continue. The 2012 election will be a war, followed by diplomacy to determine how the relative balance of power decides what kind of policy will prevail. It’ll be slow, agonizing, and the advantage will shift from left to right quite often over coming years. There will be emotion, anger, and new compromises and deals that will satisfy no one.
Leaders will be blamed for the political reality they inherit. Populists will make it sound like an easy solution exists if only the politicians would grasp it. I don’t know how the future will turn out, who will win in 2012, or where the economy is going. I do know that if political pragmatism ever loses out partisan warfare of the kind we saw flashes of here, we may shift to a very destructive phase of America’s democratic experience.
The tradition of pragmatism is strong; it is the American way and has been for generations. Tradition and political culture are resilient, especially in a country this stable and old (yes, in terms of functioning democracies we’re older than European states). The spectacle was exciting, the anger on the left and right over a compromise neither like is palpable. But pragmatism won the day, and assures that the battle over the future simply moves to another venue down the line. That’s what the founders intended.
In the first comment in response to my last post Modestypress wrote: “I’ve decided to live life as if the world I sense is “real.” I don’t see any point for doing otherwise.”
That got me thinking. I did not mean to imply the world isn’t real. Rather, is reality constituted by each of us as a subject in a world populated with objects? If so, then subjectivity is a unique personal experience. We can assume that other humans are also subjects (and ethically we tend to believe we should treat them as such), but the rest of reality consists of objects of various sorts.
If we have a view of expanded subjectivity, then the nature of reality is different. We are connected at some level with that which we experience. Rather than being discrete entities navigating an external reality, we are entities enmeshed in experience, part of a deeper unity.
Such a possibility actually gets support from cutting edge science. The most obvious example is how particles can impact each other across vast distances instantaneously. This seems impossible, the fastest information should be able to get from one particle to another is the speed of light. (To read more on the science behind it check out the Wikipedia articles on quantum entanglement and the principle of locality.)
The only way that such a result makes sense is if at some level the two particles are connected. Yet they are not connected in space-time. If they are connected it is either through something outside space-time which we cannot fathom, or space-time itself is not populated by discrete separate objects but has a deep underlying unity.
While this meshes well with many eastern religions, it also captures neo-platonic thought which heavily influenced Augustine and the early church. The idea that reality is a unified whole containing diverse perspectives and attributes is not that hard to imagine. I experience my body as me, an entity comprised of different physical attributes. I can sit in nature and imagine myself part of the entire scene in much the same way; poetry explores this kind of imagined connection quite often.
So what would it mean if reality actually was unified? What would it mean if the self isn’t only the thinking mind inhabiting a body, but actually is connected to and a part of all we experience?
First, everything we do to others (whether living or not) we would be doing to a part of ourselves. We would at some level be connected to all the pain and joy that exist in the world; if we cause pain or joy, we also would at some level receive it.
Death would have a new meaning. Rather than being the annihilation of the self, with the only hope of continued identity being either a transcendent supreme being or the possibility that a soul could be reincarnated into different bodies, death would simply be the cessation of one perspective of experience. That happens all the time. The person I was 20 years ago no longer exists in the sense that the perspective of experience I had then has been transformed into something completely different. Life is constantly changing perspectives.
If reality is unified, then no perspective has a privileged position or permanence. Death may be less an ending than a change of focus — rather than experiencing the world as a human living at a certain period in history, my perspective could shift, perhaps mingling with other perspectives or taking on a new manner of experience. Death may be the equivalent to finishing one book and starting another one — or turning the channel on a TV.
Ones’ perspective on life would alter as well. One might better know oneself by looking at the world one inhabits. What kind of reality do I experience, and why is it that I have chosen (or have been drawn to) this type of experience? What does the world around me say about who I am? Usually identity is separate from the external world, here it would be integrated. How we look at luck, coincidence and chance would change completely. Life would be a maze of interrelated coincidences, full of symbolic meaning. Rather than seeing the world as a cold harsh stage upon which one lives a short often difficult existence, it would be a rife with opportunities and possibilities that we draw to ourselves in some way.
Success and failure would alter form completely. Neither would be completely real, and certainly not permanent or all that important in the grand scheme of things. Even poverty, wealth, exploitation and violence would shift meaning – if there is unity, the “self” experiences everything at some level. The idea I’m living a comfortable life is just a focus of perspective at this moment. At a deeper level all experience is shared.
Most people would simply dismiss all this as meaningless speculation. We have jobs to do, families to raise, and the reality we experience runs by particular rules we have to navigate. However, I would argue that thinking about reality from a new perspective might actually have some beneficial consequences.
It could certainly mean letting go of a lot of stress and anxiety — just entertaining the thought that the world is not cold and cruel but rather purposeful and full of opportunity alters ones’ mood. It also could cause one to consider different goals; if this moment of experiencing life through this perspective is only a partial taste of a greater reality, then striving for material success for the sake of material success alone starts to seem pointless.
The mind would shift to looking for clues in relationships and life activities that might hint at how one can enrich ones’ experience at a deeper level. The world as a whole would be more important; the day to day struggles and dilemmas could seem more trivial. Fear of death would give way to acceptance of transitions. Hatred would become irrational, since hatred of the other would be hatred of a part of the self. Love would be the ultimate truth, in that it would entail the connection between apparent-self and apparent-other.
Human history contains many versions of reality that seemed absolutely natural to those living within them. Slavery, the superiority of one gender over another, sacrifices to Gods, tribal customs, religious faith, and secular rationalism are all ways humans have conceptualized and thus interpreted reality and experience. The idea that what seems natural at this point in time is based on a misunderstanding of reality certainly is feasible.
If we are willing to try out different ways of conceiving experience and reality we can avoid being trapped into the mode of thinking dominant in our particular culture. To me, that’s liberating, and gives me some power over how I choose to interpret my experience. Rather than accepting a world view created by otherse, I can use reason and reflection — the heart and the head — to determine what I believe to be true, and choose how I want to live my life. That is real freedom.
Today was an unusually warm and humid day for Maine in June — upper eighties by late afternoon. That made it the perfect day to see how well the A/C function on the newly installed and operating system functions. Unfortunately for the workers they had to work in the heat of the day (finishing in the attic at about 11:00, as the temperature hit 120 there) and couldn’t enjoy the cool air until right before they left.
It was still an intense work day for them. Any retrofit requires working around the idiosyncrasies of a house not built for geothermal. Still, they answered all my questions and cleaned up before the left. One issue is the desuperheater, which sends very hot water directly to the hot water tank when the unit is running. It can send it at either 125 or 150, though 150 is above the state regulation. I can set it there, but the installer couldn’t.
The problem is our water was set at 135, meaning that the boiler would still kick on and we’d save little in summer, even when theoretically we should be getting a lot of “free” hot water. If I set it for 150 that could overcome that, but then there’s danger of severe burns if the kids got under it at its hottest. I lowered the temperature to about 115 instead, so hopefully that’ll help. The most efficient way to use the desuperheater is with an electric hot water heater. In summer it would hardly ever go on, and only sometimes in winter. If we really want to save we could go that route.
While he was explaining this there was some commotion and cold white “smoke” was coming out of the heat exchange pump. “I’m stopping it with my hand,” one guy said. “Move it, you’ll get frostbite,” another responded. The leader of the crew started to work on it and got everything under control. Other than that, things went very well!
The pump draws in water from the well, currently about 52 degrees, and takes heat from the house and puts it in the water. The water is then sent back to the well about five or six degrees warmer. In essence it refrigerates our house by removing heat rather than injecting cool air — though it feels like the latter as cool air comes from the vents. In the winter it’s reversed, heat is taken from the water and colder water is sent back to the well (warming up from the earth’s heat as it makes its way back.)
It’s a split level system so heat is sent up from the basement to the attic for distribution. There are 15 vents upstairs and three downstairs. Basements stay around 50 anyway, so it doesn’t take as much heat — but we were limited by the inability to do much duct work in the basement.
The other bit of maintenance is to replace the upstairs filteres every three months. There are two return vents that suck air out assuring a good flow of air through the house, keeping humidity down as well. To protect both our air and the duct work, it’s important to filter this. It’s possible to buy filters you can clean and reuse, though it’s not expensive to just replace them every three months — and our thermostat will remind us when it’s time to replace them.
One of the beauties of this form of air conditioning is that it isn’t like the rush of cold air that comes from most central AC systems. The air flows gently, meaning that the temperature lowers slowly (they measured air coming out was at about 59 degrees, while the return air at that time was at 75). You don’t have cold air blowing on you, you have to reach up to feel near the vent to tell — but it is effective, the house cooled from 78 to 70 within an hour.
The system is not loud at all. The heat exchange pump does make noise, but it’s less than what the boiler produces. The fan in the attic is hardly noticeable. At least on day one, using the “Cool” mode, it works easily and quietly. The thermostat is easy to operate. It can be programmed, and you work from either “cool” or “heat” mode (there is an automatic, but that can switch back and forth and burn a lot of electricity). We choose to have only one zone to save money, we didn’t see the point of multiple zones, especially if you can dampen the vents individually.
Although this will end my “daily” blogging about the project, I will post periodically about performance and cost — I’ll probably put together a page of posts like I did for the Italy trip. It’s too early to say if the investment was worth it, or if the system will work as promised. Yet I was very happy with both Jeff Gagnon Heating and Air Conditioning, and Goodwin Well and Water. They communicated clearly, did what they said they’d do, were professional, and clearly understood their task (they’re the most experienced at this in the region). RDM Electric (Ryan Morgan) also did a great job creatively dealing with the electrical needs of the system.
Wow. I started asking about geothermal possibilities way back in 2007, playing with ideas, but all the time thinking the high initial price tag would keep this theoretical. At UMF they are now drilling 80 wells for a massive conversion to geothermal for a good chunk of the campus. For the sake of the economy I hope oil prices drop, but it’s nice not having to worry as much about them in planning next winter’s budget!
Today we had commencement ceremonies at UMF as the class of 2011 graduated. Jeffrey Lees, the student speaker, had an edgier than usual speech. Rather than just “what great times we have had and now we are ready to face the challenges ahead,” he defended his generation from critics. Noting that the critics are usually from the generation that has created a massive economic crisis, been involved in countless wars, and who say love is what matters most but want marriage to only include a man and a woman, he vowed that his generation could change the country’s course.
Breaking from the usual generalities, he praised fellow graduates Nancy Varin and Benjamin Engel (both of whose honors defenses I attended this week), citing their work, motivated by a sense of principle, to improve Maine. He said that if we all work together and pledge each day to do something to help someone else, his generation could help the country back to prosperity, and move forward to expand freedom, democracy and human values.
His speech was a perfect segue into the main commencement speaker, William McKibben. McKibben is known as one of America’s leading environmentalist and strong advocate for action to fight global warming through improved community efforts. Yet his focus was not global warming, but community — and in such his address complemented Lee’s call for action.
McKibben is most known for starting 350.org, a grassroots network devoted to trying to counteract global warming. CNN called the organization’s “day of action” on October 24, 2009 the largest global day of political activism in the history of the planet, as events were held in 188 countries drawing millions of participants. He didn’t talk about the issue of global warming, but rather how that organization operated. It started with seven students working with him to try to do something significant — and by reaching out to others and making connections they succeeded beyond what anyone expected.
He also noted a rather alarming statistic. An organization (I forget which one) polls people annually about how happy they are with their life. The number answering “Very satisfied” peaked in 1956. Since then the trend has been downward to below 25% today. Yet during that time period we’ve had a massive growth in economic well being and prosperity. If individual wealth and consumption were the key to happiness, we should be euphoric. Instead, people are more anxious and stressed than ever — with true happiness more elusive than ever.
The reason, he argued, is our focus on individual wealth and consumption over community and shared values. As a society we’ve become far more fragmented as we’ve become wealthier. He noted that a study was done in which shoppers entering supermarkets were compared to those at farmers’ markets. At farmers’ markets the average patron engages in ten times more conversation than in supermarkets. There is more community.
If we worked closer as communities we could not only create sustainable economies, but have more connections and be able to work through problems better. We’d also be happier, and we could make choices that aren’t so harmful for the environment. McKibben noted that recent years have seen a dramatic growth in movements built around community, such as farmers markets, and efforts to produce and consume locally. This gives him optimism that we’re starting to recognize (perhaps forced to by economic reality) that we need a sense of community to give us the connections required for a satisfying life.
Nancy Varin’s honors thesis (she was one of the students praised by Jeffrey Lees, the student speaker) was about social welfare reform. She compared the “collectivism” of Rousseau to the “individualism” of Locke, and said that our political debates are too often defined by those extremes. Offering an alternative of “communitarianism,” she said that a focus on community is the answer. Communities do not exist without individuals, but individuals are defined by and in part even constructed by their community. The extremes are unrealistic “ideal types,” easy to build an ideology upon but not reflective of reality.
She noted that such an approach to welfare reform could yield pragmatic compromises, and would move decision making closer to those impacted. Moreover, the receivers of aid would have to give back and learn how to be active in the community rather than just consume tax dollars and focus on getting their individual lives in order. Some of the most important work in the future could be what is done by community organizers rather than government bureaucrats.
It strikes me that the tea party movement, as much as I disagree with much of their politics, is driven by this sense that community has been lost. Often that gets channeled into nostalgia, memories of what communities used to be like, and thus fear that Muslims, immigrants and others are the cause for having lost what America used to be. The reality is that our lack of community is not because of people who are “different,” but because of the path our culture took towards radical individualism and consumption as an end itself. Meaning became defined in terms of material success in a way that almost guaranteed psychological failure.
Lacking that nostalgic yearning for what’s been lost, the up coming generation is in a position to change the world. The idealism Jeff admitted he was espousing is not misplaced and in fact necessary. Driven by a desire for more consumption and the capacity to fulfill our material wants, my generation has become addicted to oil, reckless about the environment, and has come to see war as akin to an interesting reality TV show. We say we support the troops as long as the President tells us our patriotic duty is to go shopping and keep consuming. Soldiers suffer the pain and pay the price (as do their families) and we cheer them on, insensitive to the demands we through our government place on them. We’ve been “living high and living fine on borrowed time” and the price is coming do.
The next generation isn’t afraid of people who are different, understands that globalization changes everything, and has the potential to embrace the idea of community. Communities can be global (like 350.org) or local, they can be virtual through facebook or real as in town meetings. They let us connect; they empower without relying on the bureaucratic state to solve problems. And students are active. Back in the sixties they protested while young and then become yuppies seduced my material prosperity when they matured. This generation doesn’t protest as much, but is more activist than any I’ve seen since I started teaching over twenty years ago.
At some point as McKibben’s short but powerful defense of community was ending I felt myself tear up. I realized I was really moved not just by his speech, but by the sense of optimism that we weren’t stuck in a downward spiral, doomed to what Stephen Kahn calls the “collapse of civilization.” There is a solution, and we have a generation emerging that not only is dissatisfied with what conditions they inherit, but also with the mode of thinking being passed down. They are starting to embrace a new thinking centered around community, a sense of ethics, and a need for practical action to solve problems and make the world — or at least the community in which they acting — a better place.
So congratulations to the class of 2011. You are graduating in some of the most difficult economic times since the Great Depression, with traditional jobs fading, as well as careers that are likely to shift numerous times during your working life. You’ll face energy crises, environmental crises, and challenges to our lifestyle that we can only imagine. Yet you may well forge a new future based on thinking that rejects 20th century ideological dichotomies and recognizes that the individual without the community is meaningless. As communities we can not only solve problems, but can live much happier and more satisfying lives.