Wednesday, August 28, 2013

King's Dream, Lincoln, and Hurricane Sandy

Today, August 28, 2013, marks fifty years since Martin Luther King delivered his "I have a dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. One hundred years before that, in 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The extension of protections and rights to all people regardless of race, gender or sexual preference remains a work in progress. The short essay below, written after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Atlantic coast, suggests that King's dream must be extended to the most unprotected people of all, future generations.

Lincoln After Sandy

To watch Spielberg's movie, "Lincoln", as I did last fall with Hurricane Sandy still fresh in memory, is to witness people whose lives are one long power outage. Lots of candles and oil lamps, dimly-lit rooms. Lincoln wears a blanket to soften the chill of the White House. It comes off as a noble deprivation, fitting for a dark time in American history, and one the characters take in stride.

Noble deprivation is highly regarded when safely enshrined in the past, e.g. Lincoln's time or World War II, but considered irrelevant to our age, when unlimited consumerism is the ideal. Viewers of the movie may conclude that the nation's great battles have already been fought, that nothing of similar magnitude calls us now. Few have yet to fully grasp that we too are playing a high stakes game, stuck in a status quo that picks winners and losers, not by the color of their skin but by the timing of their birth.

At my house, in this present era awash in deceptively cheap energy, we keep our home lights brighter than in the Lincoln White House, but still on the soft side--enough to do what we need to do, with lamps that have some beauty to them. I used to think I was being stingy when I turned off a light no one was using. Light is associated with life and good cheer. But now I see the flicking of a switch, that selective powering down, as an act of generosity, a gift to those who will follow us on this planet. "Here," my gesture says, "You can have this light, this energy. I don't need it." There's pleasure in being able to give something as beautiful as light and energy, and connecting in some imagined way with generations future.

Much of our current prosperity is based on an inheritance. This wondrous energy we use, all too handily dug up or piped out of the ground, is not something we "produce" but is rather an extraction from the earth's one and only reserve. The machines that serve us--everything from cars and ships to furnaces and clothes dryers--reportedly burn a million years worth of stored up fossil fuel energy every year.

The inheritance of ancient energy we draw from also has a weirdly haunting Grimm's fairy tale aspect, as many more people began to surmise after Hurricane Sandy made landfall. For all this inherited energy's fabulous concentration and convenience, its use will over time sacrifice the stable climate and shorelines that have nurtured civilization. In one way, we get to live fairy tale existences, more comfortable, mobile, entertained and well fed than the royalty of kingdoms past. But the tradeoff is a curse on ourselves and all children to come. The present economy, then, exhibits an utter dependence on energy formed in the past, and a glaring indifference to the welfare of future generations. The past and future are sacrificed to elevate the present.

Through the centuries, one of the enduring conflicts in America, most eloquently expressed in Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, has been whether our nation and its institutions could survive steps to achieve greater equality. Could the nation's economy survive without slavery, labor camps and child labor?  What would happen if all men and women of all races were allowed to vote? Could industry make profits without polluting our shared world? Can the institution of marriage survive gay rights? Would the auto industry be hurt by regulations to improve gas mileage?

As in Lincoln's time, the answer in every case has been that this nation, its people and institutions, can continue to thrive even as equality is more broadly shared.

What, you might ask, have mileage standards to do with expanding equality? Hurricane Sandy answered that question in two ways. First was the realization, by many who waited in lines to get gas, that the size of the gas tanks in cars ahead of them would affect how many people would be left stranded when the gas was gone.

But in a larger sense, despite all the past struggles for equality our nation has survived and been made better by, Hurricane Sandy showed we now face the ultimate test. Can our economy and others around the world survive without the vast consumption of fossil fuels? We know that our mechanized comforts and mobility are destabilizing the climate and oceans. Without aggressive action to change our energy sources, future generations, like those cars at the end of the gas line, will be left stranded, with no temperate climate nor stable shorelines to enjoy. Given increasing extremes of drought and flood, they may not even have a stable food supply. Those who denied the problem have, like the New Jersey shoreline, found themselves increasingly undercut by changes occurring even faster than the climate models projected.

Not surprisingly, those who will be most affected--the young and generations unborn--lack the vote and any means of speaking out on their own behalf. And also not surprisingly, pessimists are saying that such an effort to shift away from fossil fuels would cripple the economy.

So I say, look at the nation's track record. We have survived past moves towards greater equality; we'll endure this one, and be better for it. There is, as Lincoln said, unfinished work, a great task remaining before us. Having found infinite ways to consume energy, we must now deploy ways to produce it that don't sacrifice the future. We might even find, in this struggle as great and noble as any undertaken, unexpected rewards and meaning along the way.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Blame High Gas Prices, or High Demand for Gas?

It's often said that a tax on carbon is both urgently needed and politically impossible. One reason for the political roadblock is numbers, specifically the ubiquitous numbers along the road at gas stations, stating the price of gas. If those most visible of numbers start going up, people notice, and start complaining.

It's assumed that gas prices have a big impact on people's budgets--an impact that ripples out into the rest of the economy. A standard article in the business section included this bit of text:

"Shares of Wal-Mart fell 2.4 percent after it posted lower-than-expected quarterly sales in the United States, as shoppers were pinched by higher payroll taxes and gas prices." 
But the amount of money we spend on gas involves more than the price at the pump. More important are the number of miles driven, and how many miles our vehicles get on a gallon of gas. The article could just as easily have said that Wal-Mart has been getting pinched for years by the legacy of low gas mileage standards, which spawned the building of inefficient cars, which make people more dependent on cheap gas to drive the extra distance to Wal-Mart. Inefficient cars not only require more gas to run, they also collectively increase the cost of gas by increasing demand.

As so often happens, this news story gives emphasis to what we cannot control--the price of gas--rather than what we can control--the efficiency of the car we buy, and whether we live in suburban sprawl or a more compact community with amenities and employment closer by.

A tax on carbon is the sort of tax one can avoid, by using less carbon-based fuels. It encourages investment in greater efficiency, and thereby frees people from the treadmill of waste and the resulting dependency on cheap fuel. The bias of news reports that focus on the price of gas rather than other factors is making it harder to get off that treadmill.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

News Reports and the Unanswered "Why"

Being a problem solver, my first impulse upon seeing a headline like ("Sinkhole Causes Florida Resort to Partially Collapse") is to ask why it happened. If we determine the cause, the problem might recur less often in the future. Journalism is not oriented towards answering this sort of why, however. Articles about disasters--wildfires, buildings falling into sinkholes, bridges collapsing, buildings blowing up--focus on the action, the who, what, where and when. If there's a perpetrator in the form of a specific person, then the "why" takes center stage. But if the "why" has to do not with a character but a process, like miscommunication, mismanagement, poor landuse decisions, or climate change, then the "why" gets relegated to the last paragraph or two of the article, or is dropped altogether.

Unfortunately, the most preventable tragedies are those caused by processes rather than individuals. By not clearly implicating and giving emphasis to those processes, the news media reduces awareness and therefore support for policies that would make tragedies less common.

For instance, one reason why so many people remain clueless about the underlying causes of wildfire and climate change is the lack of explanations in everyday reporting. Wildfire coverage focuses on the drama of victims and heroes, leaving no room for mention that building houses in fire-prone landscapes leads to fire suppression, which leads to fuel buildups in forests that depend on periodic fire to consume accumulating pine needles and fallen limbs, which leads to massive wildfires destructive to both forests and communities. Because people think nature, rather than the mismanagement of nature, is the cause of destructive fires, there will be no broad support for improving management. Thus, we're condemned to endless repetitions of the same old war-like, victims-heroes scenario. Not understanding the human role in phenomena like wildfires, people are less prepared to accept that human activity could also be driving the rapid change in climate underway.

The report on fifty units of a luxury resort in Florida collapsing into a sinkhole offered a partial exception to this tendency. As with coverage of wildfires out west, the article offered the usual graphic details and quotes from witnesses. What it also included, however, were a few paragraphs at the end providing context so that we could better understand why a building would suddenly drop into the ground.

"Sinkholes can develop quickly or slowly over time.

They are caused by Florida's geology — the state sits on limestone, a porous rock that easily dissolves in water, with a layer of clay on top. The clay is thicker in some locations making them even more prone to sinkholes.

Other states sit atop limestone in a similar way, but Florida has additional factors like extreme weather, development, aquifer pumping and construction."

The last sentence at least obliquely implicates human activity in making sinkholes more common. In fact, human activity can promote sinkhole formation in multiple ways. The website for the St Johns River Water Management District lists four ways sinkholes can be triggered or exacerbated:

  • Overwithdrawal of groundwater 
  • Diverting surface water from a large area and concentrating it in a single point 
  • Artificially creating ponds of surface water 
  • Drilling new water wells

It's understandable that consumers of news would want to be fed exciting action and the human drama of villains, victims and heroes. But what will make the world a better place is if we become familiar with underlying causes and effects, and thereby develop stronger support for preventative action. 

Saturday, August 03, 2013

1000 Years From Now

The Aug. 1 CNN headline read "Judge sentences Cleveland kidnapper Ariel Castro to life, plus 1,000 years". I'm sure many people felt reassured by this, given he had spent the last ten years torturing three women in a boarded up house in a Cleveland neighborhood. You'd think neighbors would have been curious about the house. But, then, you'd think people in general would be curious about what the world will be like in 1000 years, and how our actions now may influence that. All we know thus far is that Ariel Castro will still be in prison.

"Life, plus 1000 years" is a useful mindset for judging our nation's policies. Do they serve not only the living but also all those who will live over the next 1000 years? Otherwise, what are we sentencing future humanity to endure?

In jurisprudence, multiple life sentences are handed out to mere mortals because there's a tendency for convicts to come up for parole early in their sentences. A judge leaves a margin for error, exagerating a sentence, knowing it could shrink. When considering our collective impact on the future, the tendency of many is to conveniently discount it, to minimize or dismiss altogether, to assume everything will work out. This is a perilous path, given that consequences could be far greater and come much sooner than expected.

The future is unprotected by any of civilization's institutions. Future people have no legal standing, (although, interestingly, a landowner's right to future profit does). Financial markets suffer from a severe case of near-sightedness. Government is under siege around the world. We punish criminals as if they will live forever, yet talk, or don't talk, about the future of civilization as if it has none.