30 October 2012

As I was saying about global warming

This week two huge storms hit the Western Hemisphere's two signature cities, New York and Buenos Aires, with unprecedented deluges. New York, Atlantic City and nearby cities were by far hit worse, the Frankenstorm being, by all accounts, unprecedented in the history of the city and of a nature never before seen (a post-tropical cyclone encountering a polar mass). I don't have to go into details, as they are all over the news. My thoughts go with all the hapless people who have been displaced, who have lost their houses, who have lost a loved one, who face months of recovery efforts.

Buenos Aires was hit with a lesser storm two days before. The winds, flooding, and damage were nonetheless without precedent. In the last decade or so, for the first time, tornadoes have formed in varioius part of the country. Argentina never before had tornadoes. That part of the globe having much more water than land, the temperature differentials necessary for creating twisters were absent.

Global warming has already changed that. Scientists have said all along that warmer air holds more water, and that the warming trends would bring massive rain and snow events on a scale we could not imagine. They are not surprised by what is happening, only that it is happening much sooner than they expected. Our future is very grim and I fear for the world my granddaughters will have to live in. Can't  we decide now to stop whatever we are doing to contribute to global warming?

25 October 2012

One Glaring Omission

The two presidential candidates did not mention global warming even once in the three debates. The climate is the biggest problem we face and it is closely linked to our economies and our lifestyles, but neither man has the guts to say so. I can only assume they have no intention of doing anything about it if elected.

I use the term global warming as opposed to climate change because the earth is warming and it augurs more than just a natural change. Careful measurements show that the average temperature of the earth as a whole has been rising steadily and precipitously since the beginning of industrialization based on petrochemical power. This warming in unmistakable and undeniable.

Already there are troubling consequences, the biggest of which is the near disappearance of sea ice in the Arctic during the summers. Ice reflects sunlight back into space but the lack of ice heats up the water, which in turn heats up the air. This heat gets trapped by the greenhouse gases which we are pouring into the atmosphere at alarming rate. We are already in a feedback loop that threatens severe and accelerated warming.

There are other consequences. Tropical life-forms are moving into Texas and the Southern states, bringing with them diseases that formerly did not affect us. The best known of these is West Nile Fever, a virus-caused disease transmitted by mosquitoes. It has no cure. The heating and increasing acidification of the ocean is killing the coral reef off the Texas coast. The reef is at the base of the feeding chain of a rich bio-system which will die without it. The sea level is beginning to rise and increasingly intense storms buffet populations in summer and in winter. The warmer atmosphere holds much more water, so precipitation, whether as rain or snow, is more intense and damaging.

You must not be lulled by any spells of cooler weather. The warming of the globe will lead to localized cooling in some areas. Besides, the weather always fluctuates, but now it is fluctuating along an ascending curve of temperature. Things will become more drastic than any of us imagine if we do not stop pumping carbon into the atmosphere. Whatever the underlying natural climate variation may be, we are magnifying it many times over by all the activities that put carbon into the air.

The only people who benefit from this state of affairs are the oil companies and their investors. They will not change what they do of their own volition and the government clearly will not tackle them. There is to much money involved in the process of getting elected and our elected "representatives" are unlikely to bite the hand that feeds them.

You and I are the only ones who can do anything about it. We must stop buying petroleum-based products: gasoline and plastics (which are highly toxic, by the way) primarily. We do this by moving entirely to electrical cars as quickly as possible. We can refuse to buy plastics to the fullest extent possible as we speak. Such measures are just a band aid, however. On a longer term basis we must redesign our cities so that soon we can walk or bike to where we shop and work and use public transportation to places further away. Starting now we can eat all natural, organic foods and put industrialized farming and cattle raising to a permanent rest, along with processed foods. Finally we can change from an economy based on consumerism and "growth" to one based on small business, the professions, and the arts. We can't all do all of this at once, but we must get a start on whatever of it we can now. You will be healthier and feel happier for it.

22 October 2012

Presidential Debates and Political Advertising

By now the presidential debates are useless, simply because the real issues, if mentioned at all, get no thoughtful consideration. Instead the candidates accuse each other over their respective positions, call each other "liar," and try to come across as the toughest. It is no more than kiddie playground argument:

"You're a liar!"
"Am not!"
"Are, too"
"Well, you're dumb!"
"Am not!"

And so on.

Many, if not most people are disgusted with the political ads on TV as well. I know I am.

I have a solution: turn off the TV. Don't watch any ads, news programs or entertainment; just use it to watch your movies or hook it up to your computer and stream solid informational material. There is a wealth of documentaries out there that are an effective antidote to advertising.

In The Mechanical Bride Marshall McLuhan said, with reference to print advertising, that it is destructive of all traditional cultures. We have plenty of evidence of that all around the world. He also said something that most people have taken little notice of: that advertising is totalitarian in nature. It no longer seeks to present the qualities of the product for our consideration. Instead, it appeals to our emotions: if we buy the product we will feel happy, have inner peace, be among the beautiful people. No one in the ads is sad (unless you are pushing anti-depressant drugs). Television is the medium par excellence for advertising, as it holds us in its mesmerizing power. George Orwell understood this perfectly and showed us a chilling vision of what TV can do. We are every bit as mesmerized by the screen as the characters in 1984 are and we do not have to be reminded to keep the machine on: we gladly do that ourselves.

In the novel, the programming shown on screen was designed to keep people adolescent by using the compelling but fictional figure of Big Brother to make people compliant and obedient to the government. We have gone one better. The relentless commercial propaganda has turned out to considerably more effective than Big Brother at controlling us and bending our wills to the large corporations. We watch our hearts' desires displayed on screen, we go out and buy, return and find ourselves dissatisfied, so we go out and buy more. We have conditioned ourselves to consider what appears on our TV, computer, tablet, and phone screens as reality and use them to shield ourselves from the real world and its complexities. In so doing, we also miss the richness of life and its true rewards coming from relationships.

The overall effect is to deaden our capacity to think, consider, analyze, and come to conclusions which can in turn be subjected to more thought and analysis when warranted. We are afraid to be alone with our thoughts in silence with no machines on. So we turn the TV back on and what it tells us becomes our world.

Democracy cannot survive the relentless onslaught of frantic advertising and programming. We would do well to turn off the TV until the election, minimize our consulting of the Internet for political discussion, and THINK. What is happening in Europe, exactly? Why? Is cutting government programs drastically helping their economies recover? If not, will doing that here help ours recover? Do we need austerity (cutting government spending) or stimulus (increasing spending so that more people get jobs and pay taxes and buy houses and cars and so on)? Which is best? How do we make American democracy relevant now that the world view and values of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries are no longer relevant to the reality on the ground? As a society we have turned completely inward since the early 70's but, listen to the young people! They want something different and they are finding meaning in service.

12 October 2012

Election-Year Issues: More on the Economy

In an earlier post I discussed how austerity measures bury economies and impoverish nations and how stimulation of the economy is needed in times of recession. This is the "big-picture" or macroeconomic view of the issue.

There is another side, however, that of the individual family. This is one kind of microeconomics. When I arrived in college in the late sixties, from Argentina where I grew up to Texas where I was born from a family with roots all the way back to the Mayflower, I observed a situation which was not apparent to most people. At the time Argentina was rich and stable, with a standard of living approaching the richest countries and a life expectancy exceeding that of the the US. There were storm clouds on the horizon, but I was too young and inexperienced to see them.

The US was nevertheless at the historical peak of its prosperity. But I could see that this prosperity was unsustainable. There were two major trends visible to anyone paying attention, both dealing with lifestyle expectations. In general, everyone expected to live as richly as everyone else. To me, coming from a different country, the expectation seemed unrealistic. If construction workers, plumbers, electricians, and others providing services to owners of houses lived at the same level of prosperity as those paying for the services, the charges would soon be out of reach for the buyers. No one providing a service can charge as much as per hour (much less more per hour) than what those paying for the service make. Soon the owners of the houses would be unable to hire anyone to work on the house.

The other trend was households with two incomes. When I arrived in college, many households lived very well with one income, especially those of doctors, college professors, and other professionals. However, other families thought that they should be able to live just as prosperously as the professionals. If both spouses worked, they could live as well as anyone else. Now, women have every right to work, just as men do, and to make the same salary for the same work. In fact, during World War II many women did just that and were understandably unhappy after the war to be expected to sit at home. The only problem was that, as two-income households became more and more common, inflation from demand caused prices to go up. Soon it became necessary for both spouses to work in order to cover all the expenses and have a little left over.

By the nineties it became clear that, though we had more gadgets than ever before and our salaries were higher than ever before, no one had reached the combination of prosperity and stability we enjoyed in the 1960's. We had lots of money, yes, but it bought very little by comparison. We had to resort to sending almost all manufacturing to other countries with low industrial wages in order to be able to buy what we wanted reasonably cheaply. Still it cost more to buy anything than it did in the 60's to buy the same product made in the USA. The ideology said that by sending manufacturing to other countries they would become as rich as we are. (Of course that never happened.) If they did manage to be as rich as we are, they would make as much as we do, and then we could not afford to buy their products or services. Everyone's standard of living would inevitably collapse. We are nearing that situation now.

The US economy continued to grow primarily on consumer spending. But since our money did not buy anywhere near what it used to, we resorted to credit cards. We indebted ourselves far beyond our ability to pay. Put another way, the limits of growth, as defined by ever increasing profits for investors, have been reached.

The economy is flat because families have realized that they can no longer live on credit. Millions of people have destroyed their credit cards and have no intention of getting in debt again. We will be undergoing a huge adjustment. Which party, if any, is saying anything about this? Are they aware of it? Are they listening? Where is anyone questioning the candidates about this? How do we redo our economy on another basis and not on consumerism? Because the time for that is over.

The hope is that the young people will come along with better values than we had. In part that is what I write about in my novels. You may want to take a look at Angela 1: Starting Over at www.strategicpublishinggroup.com/title/Angela1.html

06 October 2012

Democracy Is a Culture

As a country we have been singularly unsuccessful at creating democracy in countries we have occupied. The exceptions were Germany, Japan and South Korea, which had enjoyed a vigorous culture of democracy before being taken over by extremist ideologies. After the respective wars, they had that culture to draw on.

The story is very different elsewhere. Whether it was Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic or, more recently, Iraq and Afghanistan, democracy has been fragile or nonexistent. Everywhere we have encouraged the right kind of institutions (legislatures, elections, courts, etc.), but problems, from instability to dictatorship have been endemic. We scratch our heads and wonder why.

The answer lies in the centuries of history of each country and the resultant culture. Let us take the US as an example. The first British colony, Virginia, was a publicly traded corporation whose purpose was to make money for its investors by growing cash crops and selling them. At first the colony was governed by directors elected by a periodic meeting of the Shareholders' Assembly, which also established policies. Each share in the company commanded one vote. The second colony, Massachusetts, was also a corporation, in which the settlers owned the controlling shares. Both colonies became accustomed to governing themselves, sharing a common commercial (and in the case of Massachusetts also a religious) purpose. In the latter colony local governance of towns by a meeting of all the adult males was dominant, while in Virginia it became the House of Burgesses, a legislature which grew out of the Shareholders' Assembly. The colony also gave land and some shares to all the indentured servants once they had served their seven years of work for the company.

The natural result was that voting was connected to land ownership, representative government at the state level was firmly established, and local governance was especially connected with religion in the north. (We have been like that ever since.) The colonies were so successful economically that the British Crown understandably established taxes on the activities across the ocean. The colonists responded with rage.

That response lies, again, was due to a long history which created a culture, in the sense of commonly held values and ways of doing things. One of the effects of the Magna Charta, signed in the fourteenth century between King John and the nobles, was that no new taxes could be levied without the consent of the latter, as represented in Parliament. With time this principle applied to all British citizens: one could not be taxed without the consent of Parliament and all the men got to vote for their representative in the House of Commons.

The residents of the, by then thirteen, colonies had no representation in Parliament. That is why they responded to new taxation with rebellion. By the way, the famous Tea Party was a protest against a tax established without representation, not a protest against any and all takes. We are now all represented on the bodies that tax us.

Once independent, the governance of the colonies drew on these experiences and also on the values of the time, that is, of the Enlightenment: equality, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness. It took all that and more to create our culture of democracy, which subsequently was forced to deal with the grave inequality created by the slavery system and by 20th-century discriminatory laws.

Iraq and Afghanistan share none of this history. They have their own (much longer) history, which in turn creates their cultures, vastly different from ours. Those cultures will not be ignored. If you try to go against them, they will block your way. This is why we can set up the institution we consider democratic (a congress, courts, and an executive) but democracy does not happen. That is not to say that they cannot become democratic with time. It is to say that we are not equipped to tell them how to accomplish it and we should not even try.

One last thought. Cultures change slowly, but their constructive aspects can collapse rapidly, leaving primarily the negative side of the culture. We are in danger of being overwhelmed by our worst impulses. We have chosen not to educate our people except for the children of the most privileged classes. We have turned our noses up at history and opted for bread (consumerism) and circuses (entertainment). As Ernesto Sabato said, it has "the whiff of decadence." We had better wake up. As for voting, I hold little hope that anyone in either party has any idea of where we are headed. Nonetheless, it is our responsibility to try to discern which party is more likely to learn what is needed and vote accordingly.

I invite any of you who enjoy youth literature to read my Angela 1: Starting Over in which the young protagonists are discovering some of what I discuss above and grappling with what it may mean to them. You can check it out, if you wish, at www.strategicpublishinggroup.com/title/Angela1.html