The Casual Blog

Tag: climate change

Wildflowers, back problems, conspiracy theories, and hope

Wild geraniums at Swift Creek Bluffs in Cary

There were a lot of wildflowers in bloom this week.  One morning I went to Swift Creek Bluffs and took some pictures.  For these, I got down in the dirt, trying to stay clear of poison ivy, ticks, and snakes.  At times a light breeze was blowing, moving the flowers slightly, and I waited for a while for the wind to pause.  It took some work, but it was also cheering to be close to the wild geraniums and lilies. Especially in this difficult time, I found these images soothing, and I hope they are for you as well.  

The next day, I somehow managed to pull a muscle in my back.  I think it was when I was practicing juggling with my three bean bags.  Juggling can look frantic, but for me it’s usually calming. But I probably should have done a little stretching before working on under-the-leg throws.  There was no sudden violent pain, but over the next several hours it got harder and harder to move.  

Atamasco lilies

So I’m struggling physically.  But otherwise, things are OK. Actually, I’m feeling surprisingly cheerful and energetic.  It’s been a great time to try new photographic processes (both with the camera and with software).  I’ve learned a lot about Lightroom, Photoshop, Topaz, and Nik applications from knowledgeable and generous people who’ve put up instructional videos on YouTube.  

I’ve also been trying new musical experiments on the piano, including working on some Liszt flourishes and the blues.  I cooked a crock pot full of Jocelyn’s famous vegetarian chili. I’ve made progress on my German and Italian with Rosetta Stone lessons.  My sketching is improving. And I’m getting better at juggling, though that is on hold for the moment.     

We were starting to get a bit worried about running out of toilet paper.  Anxiety and panic buying is understandable, but still, it’s odd, and kind of disturbing, that people are hoarding TP.  Fortunately, our neighborhood pharmacy/convenience store on Glenwood Avenue got a shipment just in time.  

The tenuousness of our relationship with reality is also in view with some bizarre new conspiracy theories.  Max Boot in the NY Times  wrote a piece describing some of these.  Some are self evident nonsense, like the idea that cellphone networks cause the virus, or that the pandemic was engineered by Bill Gates on behalf of the pharmaceutical industry.  Some are not absurd, but are unsupported and unlikely, like the idea that the virus is a bioweapon from China, or else the United States.  

Why do people gravitate to conspiracies?  According to Boot’s sources, people are especially likely to latch onto conspiracy ideas when they are feeling overwhelmed, confused and helpless.  By providing explanations, the conspiracy theories provide a degree of comfort, giving people a sense of power and control. The more bizarre theories may give a greater sense of agency, in that the believer has secret and therefore especially valuable knowledge.  Sharing such theories provides a tenuous sense of community and significance. 

Whatever psychological needs such ideas satisfy, there are major downsides.  They lead some people to disregard the recommendations of the most knowledgeable experts, and, say, refuse to adopt social distancing.  People have attacked cell phone towers and relied on unsafe cures.  

There is also a dangerous feedback loop.  As people get more accustomed to disregarding experts that oppose their conspiracy ideas, they’re more prone to adopt more conspiracies and disregard more actual experts.

Jack Krugman, Times columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist, had an interesting column recently related to this problem.  He pointed out that trickle down economics and climate change denialism both rely for their survival on disregarding informed scientists and experts.  The habit of disdain for science and expertise seems to have carried over to the pandemic.  

Krugman also noted that for those who think all government should be done away with, it’s a particularly difficult time.  For the less ideologically committed, it seems obvious that pure market forces aren’t going to get the job done in this pandemic, and we need effective government.  Right wingers may worry that if people see that government is saving lives, their central creed that government is bad may be unveiled as a sham.

The Times had a very good essay proposing that this moment of crisis is also a moment of opportunity. The editorial board observed that the pandemic is casting new light on some of our system’s worst failures, including shameful inequality and indifference to the suffering of those less fortunate.  Our systems for healthcare, housing, and the social safety net are costing many lives. The essay points out that at earlier times of national crisis, Americans have achieved a greater measure of compassion and fairness.  It is possible that this crisis will as well.

Farewell to Sunflower’s, the dastardly Wall project, and The Great Derangement

Snow geese at Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

I was in Raleigh this week, and didn’t take any new photographs of note, but I had quite a few to work through of the more than 5,000 I took in Bosque del Apache, NM.  It sounds like a lot, but they add up fast when you shoot at 9 frames per second. The high frame rate helps in capturing different aspects of the birds in flight, but it also means there are a lot of images to analyze, which takes time and energy.  Anyhow, here are a few more Bosque shots that I liked.

Sandhill cranes

On Friday I went over to Sunflower’s Cafe, which has for a long time been my favorite neighborhood lunch spot, and noticed that the parking lot, which was normally pretty full, was empty.  I peered inside, and saw that the furniture was gone. The place had closed.

Sunflower’s invented several marvelous  vegetarian sandwiches  that they served in a bright, friendly space.  I felt happy and healthy having lunch there. I’ll never forget when I ordered the Portobello Ellen, and the friendly young woman taking my order said, “I’m Ellen.”  Her mom, the proprietor, had invented the sandwich when she was a baby.  But Ellen said that she wasn’t a fan of portobello mushrooms.  

I later learned from the News & Observer that there are plans for a hotel to go where Sunflower’s used to be.  No hotel will give me as much pleasure as Sunflower’s did.

Speaking of construction, I heard further news of The Wall this week.  The Wall has until now been a right-wing fantasy project, with much tough talk and little actual building.  Its alleged purpose is to address a non-existent problem — hordes of invading criminal Latin Americans. Just as the premise is a lie, the solution is bogus — defensive walls have been obsolete since the Middle Ages, and this one won’t stop anyone not in a wheelchair.  

Yet the idea of The Wall does serve a purpose:  whipping up fear of impoverished and desperate Latin Americans.  Sad to say, the idea seems effective in inflaming the folks who go to Trump’s rallies.  

Trump is raiding the military budget to get more money for this sad and absurd boondoggle.   And NPR reported that the project could cost $11 billion — the most expensive wall in the history of the world.  

We could use that money to build more unnecessary weapons of war, or we could just hand out bags of public money to corrupt building contractors.  In fact, almost anything would be better than actually building The Wall. A lot of the debate about the project omits that it will be an environmental disaster.  It will affect an estimated 1,500 species of animals and plants, including some that are endangered.  Species that need to move about in that area to survive will be trapped. 

Part of The Wall project apparently involves ignoring such environmental impacts.  It’s a fair example of our leaders’ mind set — willful ignorance of climate and other looming disasters, and indifference to the lives of both humans and other species.  

Admittedly, it’s not easy to know how to think about climate change — the scale boggles and scrambles the mind.  Amitav Ghosh addressed this problem in his recent book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, which I just finished reading.  

Ghosh, an Indian scholar and writer primarily known as a novelist, points out that the modern novel has largely failed to address the central issue of our time.  He has a lot of interesting things to say about the strange failure of much modern art to grapple with climate change, and also about the relation of imperialism to reckless greenhouse gas emissions. He points out that the most numerous early victims of rising sea levels will be poor people in China, India and less developed countries.  This could, he thinks, partially explain the West’s inaction — some might view the death of millions of Chinese as in the US’s interest.  

Could we really be that despicably callous?  Maybe so. Can we move from there to a mindset of caring and kindness , and of decency and generosity?  That could be the great construction project of our time.

 

Flying and fishing egrets, the possible survival of nature, and two books — Falter and the Evolution of Religion

It turned cooler here last week, and the leaves were starting to glow at Shelley Lake.  One day I saw three great egrets together at the other side of the lake.  Usually, at least around here, these are solitary creatures. One looked smaller, and I wondered if they were a family. Anyhow, they were too far away to photograph well. Then one decided to fly right towards me, and the others soon followed.  They spent some time standing in the water near me and did some fishing.

For me, these images are about a moment, never to be repeated, in the lives of particular birds.  At the same time, they open a little window into a larger world of nature, where there’s always more to be discovered.   For me they speak of the beauty and fragility of the natural world.

Though I guess it’s possible to see only odd creatures.  Indeed, that may be the typical view. Our traditional attitude toward nature treats it as irrelevant, or else an antagonist to be exploited.  The concept of nature as foundational, as the ground for everything, is still far from mainstream, and needs more development and support.

Perhaps because of increasing weather emergencies, we seemed to have recently turned a corner on climate change, with some former climate change denialists finally acknowledging that our environmental situation is not good.  But the full weight of the dire reality still hasn’t sunk in.  

Bill McKibben’s recent book, Falter:  How the Human Game Has Begun to Play Itself Out, may help. It’s a well-written, well-thought-through book that somehow manages to talk about the frightening reality we face without panicking, and instead thinking constructively about our mitigation options. 

McKibben does a great job of piecing together some of the elements of the storms we currently face, including individual greed, corporate rapaciousness, and libertarian idealism.  One thing he doesn’t examine is the central assumption underlying our heedless exploitation of nature, which is that humans are ultimately more important than anything else in the world.  

The assumption that at the end of the day humans are the only species that matters is so deeply embedded that it’s hard even to get a good look at it, much less have a serious discussion about it.  (It may be even more embedded than our assumptions about race.) But that discussion needs to be part of our survival strategy.  

Our failure to appreciate the significance of other living things and our own relationship to the complex web of life accounts in significant part for our current dire predicament.  On the other hand, embracing the natural world with empathy and gratitude would point us away from fossil fuels, agribusiness, runaway consumerism, and the other drivers of global warming.

There’s a lot to be said about long-held assumptions about human psychology and culture that are now looking like they need reexamination.  For now, I’ll mention just one thought-provoking books: The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright, which I just finished reading for the second time. 

Wright takes on the ambitious task of addressing the functionality of religion for the earliest humans through to us.  He views the development of religious beliefs as a progression, starting with hunter-gatherer animism, continuing through the polytheism of early agricultural civilizations, and then on to monotheism.  

He gives a really helpful overview of the historical roots of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and shows how their central concepts are closely related.  Along with that, he addresses the psychological and economic factors that led societies toward variations on these main ideas.  

 

In the end, Wright disclaims having a view on whether there actually is a God, while arguing that the idea of God has been good for humanity.  Like McKibben, he doesn’t consider whether benefits to humans should be considered the highest good, and doesn’t address whether religion reinforces assumptions of human superiority and entitlement that have destroyed much of the natural world.  I found his argument on moral progress to be vague and unconvincing. But I still found the book tremendously valuable in providing a framework for considering varieties of religion.

Beautiful birds

Great blue heron at Shelley Lake

It took me a long time, but I finally faced a tough fact:  if you really want to see wildlife around here, you have to get up when it’s still dark.  I adjusted my routine recently, and instead of starting the day with a gym work out, I’ve been grabbing my camera bag and tripod and pushing up to one of Raleigh’s parks.  

Canada geese coming in low

Shelley Lake has been my primary target these last couple of weeks.  I’ve been watching squadrons of Canada geese and mallards practicing their flying, while I try to figure out how to catch them in the early light.  From time to time, a great blue heron or great egret scoots by. I heard a report of a bald eagle there last week, but haven’t yet seen it.

Great egret

There are a lot of smaller birds, which I know mostly from listening rather than seeing, since they are masters at concealing themselves in the leaves.  A few years back I put some effort into learning some birds’ songs, and with the fall migration coming soon, I’ve been refreshing on that skill.  There are several apps I’ve found helpful, including ones from Audubon, Cornell, and Merlin.  

The more I listen, the more I realize:  the birds are communicating. That is, they aren’t mechanically repeating a programmed sequence; they’re sending out messages.  Ornithologists have ideas about some of the messages, like alarm calls, but we’ve still got a lot to learn about their systems.  

Being a bird cannot be easy.  There’s always competition from other birds, and killer predators, like hawks and cats, can come out of nowhere.  And then there’s the problem of human activity.

 

Killdeer

I was saddened, but not really surprised, at the report last month that bird populations had dropped precipitously in the last 50 years.    In North America, there are 29 percent fewer birds, or almost 3 billion less than there were.  That’s a lot of dead birds! The reasons are complex, but ultimately they have to do with us — our destruction of habitats, our use of pesticides, and of course, the environmental changes related to our irresponsible use of fossil fuels.  All this bird destruction is terrible for the birds, obviously, but also for us and other creatures. Birds are important parts of ecosystems, spreading seeds, controlling pests, and pollinating plants. And of course, they’re beautiful. So, another wake up call to change course. 

Young deer

Jocelyn got married to Kyle! With some street photography

The Vessel at Hudson Yards. 

Our daughter Jocelyn got married in New York City last weekend.  I have a new son-in-law! That’s Kyle DePew, and he’s a good one!  It was a truly happy day, including a superfun party, though also a little drama.

Even for former New Yorkers like us, NYC is a tough town — hard to take in and hard to get around.   It’s really big and loud, and it can make you feel small. Some of it seems expressly designed to intimidate, like the new Hudson Yards high rise area on the West Side (pictured above), which I visited for the first time, and felt like the merest ant.  There are always unexpected flashes of beauty in the city, but even the intimate views tend to have some grit on them. 

Flower stand

On Friday morning I went to the Whitney Biennial, and took in some very new art.  Almost by definition, bold new art is hard to like, and there was a lot of work there that was not cheery.  There were several artists working on themes relating to racism and discrimination, and also some work relating to climate change — themes that regular readers know to be of interest to The Casual Blog.  

At the Whitney, Joe Minter’s sculpture involving racism and southern yard art

In the afternoon I walked down to Battery Park for  the NYC edition of the worldwide student strike for climate action, with tens of thousands of students and others.  I normally find large noisy crowds unsettling, but I was glad this one was large and noisy, and hoped it would be unsettling to the politicians that are still failing to mobilize to address our crisis.  The signs and chants expressed a lot of anger about the mess adults had made of the environment, but there was also hope for change.

Student protest at Battery Park

That evening, Kyle’s mom, Debbie, hosted the wedding  rehearsal dinner at San Marino Ristorante, a lovely Italian restaurant in the West Village.  The food was really good, and we enjoyed talking to some old friends, and meeting family and friends of the happy couple.

A sunny day for the protesters

The wedding was at sunset on Saturday at Sunset Terrace, at the end of Pier 61 on the Hudson.   A string quartet was playing as the 130 or so guests got seated. The groomsmen and I wore black tuxedos, and the bridesmaids had champagne colored long dresses.  Jocelyn was radiant in white! She gave Sally and I just one warning before we walked her to the front of the room for the ceremony: be sure not to step on the trailing veil, which was attached to her hair.  We walked slowly up the aisle with no accidents.  

Then, as Jocelyn turned to Kyle and we turned to find a seat, a shoe went the wrong way, and out came the veil.  In a fraction of a second, I wondered: can we get it back on, and if not, is Jocelyn going to freak out?  It took only another couple of seconds for all this to be clarified: she smiled and said, forget about it, just keep going.  I rolled up the veil and put it under my seat. I watched carefully for any signs of bridal distress, but there were none.  She seemed completely happy. I was so proud of her!

A fruit stand

The officiant was Dylan Goldberg,  a good friend of the couple’s.  His remarks were a sweet and highly personal appreciation of Jocelyn and Kyle and their love.   As he noted, the ceremony was an important symbol of the partnership they had built and the promises of their complete commitment.  It was really touching; I got pretty misty. They had a really good kiss at the end.

Then we had drinks, dinner, and an epic dance party!  Jocelyn and I managed our solo dance (to Stevie Wonder’s You Are the Sunshine of My Life) with more grace than expected, and I got some laughs in my toast to the couple.  As I meant to say (though I’m not sure I quite got out), I was grateful to our guests for serving as witnesses and helping to consecrate the new marriage. I thought about talking a bit about Martin Hagglund’s theory that love is precious not because it is eternal and unchanging, but rather because it is grounded in time, finite and fragile, and its existence depends on continuing devoted care.  But it didn’t quite fit with the vibe, so I figured we could talk about it another time.

Flowers and ice

But I must say, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much radiating love!  It seemed to be coming not just from Jocelyn and Kyle, but from everyone!  I hadn’t danced to pop music since ancient times, and had almost forgotten how much fun it can be.  It was a blast. DJ Blak did a terrific job with the music, which was curated by Kyle, and managed to get just about everyone moving.  A lot of the guests boogied right up until the last song at midnight.   

While I wasn’t really surprised at how excited and happy Jocelyn and Kyle were, I was surprised at the intensity of my own happiness.  Our little girl! With Kyle now part of our family! Lives full of promise! And on the horizon — grand babies!

Crossing against the light

Snow geese and tundra swans, Roman history, and another wall problem

Tundra swans at Pungo Lake

Each winter thousands of migrating tundra swans and snow geese stop in eastern North Carolina for a while to collect themselves and eat what’s left in the farm fields.  For a human, all that bird life is a thrilling sight.

In addition to the thrill, I was hoping to capture some images of the birds in flight.  In preparation, I did some research on optimal settings and customized some of my camera buttons.  This process was involved and confusing, and I thought it possible I would end up with a hard-to-repair mess.  I also decided to try wielding my Sigma 150-500mm, a beastly large lens, free hand (no tripod).

Pungo Lake, where I saw most of snow geese and most of the tundra swans, is about 2.5 hours east of Raleigh.  For part of the time I traveled with other members of the Carolina Nature Photographers’ Association, including some friendly and very well-traveled shutterbugs.  I got to hear some of their stories and picked up some helpful tips.

I saw thousands of big white birds, as well as several species of ducks, waders, and one black bear.  We had good weather until Saturday afternoon, when the rain came in and the temperature started to drop.  I was happy with some of the shots I got before then.

On an ordinary day, I check the digital news headlines frequently, which  rarely puts me in a more relaxed, pleasurable state of mind. So it was good to unplug for the weekend and concentrate on the beauty of the natural world.  

I also spent some of the driving time learning about the classical world.  I finished listening to a series of lectures titled The Rise of Rome, by Gregory Aldrete, from the Great Courses series.  It traces the rise of Rome from a settlement to the Western world’s first superpower.

Aldrete is a good teacher and a good story teller, and mixes broad themes with interesting anecdotes.  The Romans were certainly great engineers and organizers, as well as fearsome warriors. In the late Roman Republic, the levels of corruption, extreme inequality, and political dysfunction were even worse than our own, which I found somewhat comforting.  Leaving aside the lives and civilizations destroyed by Rome, life went on.

Snow geese coming in for a landing near Pungo Lake

I’ve been trying to avoid spending too much time obsessing over the latest Trump conflagration, since it does little or no good.  But I have been keeping a sharp eye on the presidential approval poll numbers, hoping to see a change in the national mood, and possibly our direction.  Even though Trump has been generally unpopular almost since day 1, his Republican base has been mostly steadfast.

I know some sane, well-informed, thoughtful, kind and generous Republicans, and have found it hard to understand how people like them could support a President with none of those virtues.  Trump, it seemed, might have been right when he said that no matter how crazy or heinous his acts, his base would never abandon him. But in the latest polling, after his reckless government shut down and non-stop nonsense about the Wall, the polls indicate some of his loyalists may be rethinking their position.

Although Trump has a gift for bringing out the worst in people, at times he inadvertently brings out better things.  For example, his racist language encourages the no-holds-barred racists, but it also makes others think more and talk more about the hard-to-see realities of our longstanding, everyday privileging of whiteness.  His climate change denialism is getting harder for the base to swallow as they face more frequent droughts, floods, fires, hurricanes, and other storms.

Even the Wall discussion seems to have crossed a threshold.  For many, it seems to have gone from being primarily a fun slogan to yell at a Trump rally to looking like a nutty and wasteful boondoggle.  There’s an aspect of the Wall idea that hasn’t gotten much attention, which I was glad to see noted in the  news  recently: the harmful effects on non-human life. The 650 miles of wall already in existence is very bad for the hundreds of species of animals and plants that live in the vicinity. Many of these need to travel north and south for food, water, and mating.  We need to take their needs into account.

The big lake, Leonardo, and Blue Planet II

This week was raw and rainy, and I was sick with a cold.  But it brightened up for the weekend. On Saturday morning I went up to Umstead park and walked around the big lake.  At a certain point, I set up my tripod and took some pictures with various lenses and filters. As usual, my objective was to practice the craft and come up with a few new images that, if not masterworks, at least weren’t too embarrassing to share.  Which is what I did, as shown here.

On the drive back I neared the end of the audiobook version of Leonardo, the recent biography of Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson.  I’d gotten bogged down in a couple of sections where Isaacson describes and interprets particular paintings more than I found helpful. But I thought he did a good job over all of telling Leonardo’s story and bringing to life aspects of the early Renaissance.  

I’d known in a general way that Leonardo was a polymath, but I had not appreciated the full range of his interests and accomplishments.   He was a professional musician, theatrical producer, and writer, as well as an inventor, engineer, designer, architect, urban planner, and proto-scientist.  Not to mention a pretty good painter.

Leonardo was good-looking and convivial, though there was a dark side.  Isaacson notes some very disturbing behaviors, including probable sexual exploitation of minors and eagerly offering his services to murderous tyrants.  His reach frequently exceeded his grasp, and he started many more things than he finished. But it’s hard not to be inspired by his powerful curiosity and passionate attempts, sometimes successful, to see things that no one had seen before.  

This week we watched a several episodes of Blue Planet II, a BBC documentary about the life in the world’s oceans.  We’d gotten tired of waiting for it to show up on Netflix and decided to pay for it on Amazon. It was worth it!  The photography was just incredible. As scuba divers, we’ve swum in some of the places and seen some of the creatures, but many were new to us.  And we saw some almost unknown behaviors — fish playing, using tools, and working cooperatively with different species.

It’s exhilarating to experience such wonders, and troubling that the level of the threat to them is dire.  Rising ocean temperatures and acidification are killing the big coral reefs, and plastics and other chemicals are strangling and poisoning many creatures.  The reefs and underwater forests could be gone in a few decades. The question remains whether humans will get their act together and save our oceans.    

Muted fall colors, Ax’s piano recital, Crocetto’s Norma, and some thoughts on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi

It’s definitely fall, but we’re not seeing much of the fall colors that usually come to the forests of piedmont North Carolina this time of year.  On Saturday I went to Lake Johnson, where the trees were shedding leaves, but not brightly. It was pretty quiet, and about to rain. I experimented with my neutral density filters, and enjoyed the lake and the trees.

That night, Sally and I went over to Duke for the first concert of its piano recital series.  We ate at Watts Grocery, which we’ve enjoyed in the past. Unfortunately, that night there were no vegetarian entrees on the men. When we raised the issue with our server, he didn’t seem much concerned, and the resulting food was undistinguished.  

Sally and I disagree on the best approach to addressing the problem of restaurants with low appreciation for vegetarians.  She favors talking to them and encouraging them to raise their plant food games. I’m inclined to boycott them, and spend my dining out money where I can wait for my meal with high confidence that there will be food I can enjoy.

The piano recital was by Emanuel Ax, an extremely distinguished concert artist whose recordings I have always enjoyed.  I was very familiar with some of the music from having played it myself (Brahms Op. 79, Chopin Op. 62, No. 1), and found his interpretations of these pieces intelligent and tasteful, though not revelatory.  I very much enjoyed hearing for the first time a set of short contemporary pieces by George Benjamin, which was highly pianistic, with varying textures. Ax used the sheet music for this work, but relied on his memory for the rest.

Ax’s playing was altogether musical, but I really didn’t get swept away until the last piece on  the program, Chopin’s Andante spianato and grande polonaise brillante, Op. 22.  Ax is no spring chicken — getting on and off the stage didn’t look easy for him — and I wondered how he was going to meet the intense physical demands of this highly emotional showpiece.  But he did it. It was magnificent, and thrilling.

On Sunday afternoon, we went to the N.C. Opera’s presentation of Bellini’s Norma.  It was superb! The leads were all very fine singers, the chorus was good, and the orchestra, conducted by Antony Walker, sounded particularly rich and full.  But Leah Crocetto as Norma was beyond superlatives. When she sang the famous aria Casta Diva, I nearly lost it, and managed, just, to weep quietly. She sang, and Maestro Walker accompanied, as if this were the first performance ever, and might be the last. Her singing was technically brilliant and musical, but also truly transcendent.  It penetrated and illuminated the extremities of human emotion, from love to fury to despair

The murder of Jamal Khashoggi, apparently by order of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, has been much in the headlines, and provoked leaders around the world (with the U.S. president, as usual, a sad exception) to condemn the Saudi government.  Needless to say, it’s a heinous crime. But I’ve been puzzled at such a strong reaction to one killing, while the Saudis’ mass atrocities in Yemen, including blowing up thousands of civilians, rarely make the news.

Addressing this puzzle, Max Fisher wrote a piece this week in the NY Times that’s well worth reading.    Fisher noted that journalists commonly use the device of a single individual’s story to cast light on a larger problem.  I’ve tended to think of this as an inherent weakness of ordinary journalism, but Fisher makes a case that it’s unavoidable and even necessary.  

It’s not just that readers can more easily relate to stories of individuals.  People are wired to understand and feel compassion about a single death, but they can’t do the same in reaction to mass death.  Psychologists have found that people switch off their emotions in reaction to large-scale slaughter as a self-protective measure, which is called collapse of compassion.  

This theory may explain a lot of moral inconsistency and inaction.  It’s really hard to think about the deaths of millions or billions as a result of global warming or a nuclear accident that starts a nuclear war.  Talking about these topics is not something anybody really likes. It’s hard to get them on the political discussion agenda.

The prospects admittedly are not good.  But I was a little cheered by an interview on NPR this weekend with a climate scientist who had a good understanding of how bad an environmental disaster we’re likely to have with a 1.5 Celsius temperature rise.  She pointed out that however bad things get, they can always get worse. A 3 degree rise is not a bad as a 4 degree rise. There is no point while we’re still here that the struggle to prevent a worse disaster is pointless.  

Managing through some bad news, including a climate change update

Bad news has been coming in fast this week.  I usually keep a fairly even keel and manage to look on the bright side.  But with hurricane Michael wreaking havoc, the stock market tumbling, democracy on the skids, and my glaucoma medication out of stock, just for starters, I’ve been jangled.  

It cheered me up when Sally brought home a new orchid, and I enjoyed taking some pictures of the pristine beauty in the early morning light.  I found the work absorbing.  In addition to visual imagination, it takes a bunch of equipment and software: a Nikon D850 (full frame), a Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 macro lens,  focus rails on a tripod, and a cable release. I sort and process the images in Adobe Lightroom, and tweak some of them with Photoshop and Helicon Focus. I consider the images here works in progress, but I like them, and thought they were worth sharing.    

I finally confessed to Sally that I’ve become obsessed with Natalie Dessay.  The short of it is I’m in love with a recording of the French soprano called simply Italian Opera Arias, with music by Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi.  I recall listening to it some years back, when I was starting to explore bel canto opera, and thinking it was nice enough, but finding her voice a little on the light side.  

But for the last several months, I’ve been listening to Italian Opera Arias over and over, and amazed at her vocal facility, the intelligence of her interpretations, and the unique beauty of her voice.  Listening closely to the nuances of phrasing and tonal color, part of me is a student, looking to enrich my own musical vocabulary and insight But mostly it’s pure joy. The recording is available on Spotify, Amazon Music, and iTunes.  

I was glad to hear on the BBC’s morning newscast this week that they are planning to do more stories about climate change, since it’s a big problem, to put it mildly.  The climate report last week by the United Nations’ scientific panel was clear: we’re almost out of time.  Unless we act quickly, many of us alive today could see the start of the greatest disaster in the last 66 million years.  It’s a break-glass emergency. We need to move quickly, shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy, instituting carbon taxes, mobilizing our research capabilities, and then looking at what else is possible. And to state the obvious, there’s good reason to doubt that our leaders and systems are up to such a task.  

The situation is truly terrifying, and it’s hard not to despair.  I found it helpful to talk to Jocelyn about this. She recommended 1. taking deep breaths, 2. compartmentalizing, and 3. not getting obsessed.  She pointed out that we might find a way out, but in any case we need to live our lives.

I appreciated her reminding me that there are sometimes unexpected solutions to big problems.  An example: at the beginning of the 20th century, it appeared that Manhattan would become uninhabitable because of the mountains of horse manure.  Many horses were needed for transportation in the densely populated city, and there was no known practical way of managing the piles of excrement. And then from nowhere came a new technology that took care of the horse manure problem:  the automobile.

So  there may be a new and unexpected technology just in time.  You never know what may come next.  But it’s foolish and beyond irresponsible to count on it. We need to use every social, political, economic, and technical capacity we have right now, right now.  

 

Losing our air conditioning, and getting Gone With the Wind

Yates Mill Pond last Saturday, calm and warm

It was hot again this week, and our air conditioning failed again.  The AC repair person said the system was worn out and needed to be replaced, at a mind-boggling price.  Sally began work on getting another quote. Without thinking about it, we’ve gotten very used to AC, and it feels like a hardship not to have it. That’s privilege for you.  I wonder, would we be more motivated to address our warming climate if we weren’t insulated by AC?

We liked Spike Lee’s new movie, BlacKkKlansman.  It’s funny, in a way, and unsettling.  It shows us something about our society that is ultimately tough to look at.  

The movie starts with a famous scene from Gone With the Wind:  Scarlett at the train depot in Atlanta, looking for her man among the thousands of Confederate wounded and dead.  It’s a brilliant scene, with stunning photography. There’s no comment from Spike Lee about it, so you’re invited to think, why is he quoting it?  

When I first saw Gone With the Wind, my mom told it was the greatest movie ever made. This is a conventional view. It won several Oscars and was hugely successful financially. It’s romantic and exciting, and it has a great look. But since Spike Lee brought it up, I finally understood that it is deeply racist.

It is essentially about the importance and beauty of white supremacy.  The valiant struggles, both during the Civil War and afterwards, are for the purpose of subjugating black people.  Scarlett triumphs in the post-war period with a lumber business of re-enslaved black prisoners. Rhett and the men folk’s “political activities” are about KKK terrorizing of black people.

So my generation of white people (Boomers) learned that Gone With the Wind was a great movie, worth repeated viewings, and absorbed its message of the proper relations of whites and blacks.  This is how racism now works in America: we learn it without talking about it, or even consciously hearing about it. Like the air, it’s usually invisible, and white people hardly think about it as a thing.  White privilege seems natural.  Opposing this invisible (to white people) thing can seem odd, radical, or nutty.

One good thing about the Trump presidency is it is bringing racism and other ills out to where we can see them.  For all his ignorance, he understands the white fear of dark skin, and is brilliant at arousing, magnifying, and exploiting it.  It’s his gift, and the secret of his improbable political success.

We’re in the midst of an epic social psychology experiment. Like Stanley Milgram’s electric shock obedience experiment or Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment, but so much bigger, Trump is testing the limits of power, “othering,” and ethics.  Some of what we’re learning in this experiment is discouraging.  There are a surprisingly large block of unapologetic hard-core racists.  But they are still a minority. Their vile hatred is inspiring a counterforce.  We’re reexamining themselves and this system.  We’re getting a new view of invisible racism, which is a step towards ending it.

Last week protesters just down the road in Chapel Hill pulled down “Silent Sam,” a Confederate memorial.  That’s progress.