The Casual Blog

Tag: global warming

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.  

A sliver of hope

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We had some weird weather in Raleigh this week, including hail, intense winds, and tornado warnings. I was in a meeting on the 18th floor of Red Hat Tower when everyone’s smart phone gave a warning signal, and we agreed it was time to get away from the windows. We took our computers to a big interior closet, where we continued the meeting. The building was still intact when we emerged.

Was it global warming? Hard to say. Good scientists are by training careful and conservative, and usually avoid ascribing root causes to particular weather events. But we know for sure the globe is warming, and the problem is big. Make that existential.

This is not an easy subject to think about. First, it’s depressing: the long-term risks for humans, other animals, and other living things are grave. Also, it’s uncomfortable: in trying to understand the problem, we ultimately end up seeing part of it in the mirror. All of us who like having electricity and traveling with internal combustion or jet engines are complicit. Also, there isn’t a clear path to a solution with our existing dysfunctional institutions.

But there’s still a sliver of hope, which I try to keep in mind. Helpful on this is Al Gore’s new TED talk. He doesn’t pull any punches in describing the destruction humans have wreaked on the planet with greenhouse gas emissions, but he also notes that we’ve made tremendous progress in wind and solar power, and progress is continuing. We may turn this around. Anyhow, it’s encouraging that he hasn’t thrown in the towel.

In reading a Times report this week about rising sea levels and increases in coastal flooding, I clicked on this link
which is a great little primer on global warming. It’s organized in a FAQ format, with short form answers to questions like how much is the planet heating up, how much trouble are we in, and is there anything we can do. It takes just a few minutes to get the basic facts. And armed with those, there are some things we can do, like elect leaders who have a clue.

On the climate hope front, I also need to give a shout out to Bill Gates, whom I have not always viewed as a force for freedom and progress. Gates may ultimately do far more good for the world as a promoter of emissions reduction technology than he has done as a software technologist. Anyhow, he’s got up on his bully pulpit, and he’s clearly working hard to encourage innovative energy ideas.

Raleigh parks, climate change hopes, and a treatment for Islamaphobia

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For the last several Saturdays, I’ve made a point of visiting the Raleigh parks that I did not already know well. There are several pretty lakes and miles of trails close by. When inspiration strikes, I take some pictures. But mostly I just walk and look, look and listen, listen and breathe deeply. It’s good for the lungs and the head.

This Saturday I drove north a little farther, to Falls Lake. It was mild and overcast when I arrived, but gradually cleared up. I did some hiking and took some pictures, including those here. I also enjoyed driving the long and winding country roads with Clara in sport mode.
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That afternoon there was word that 195 nations at the Paris climate conference had agreed on wording to address global warming. It’s good to know there’s acceptance among world leaders that global warming is real and humans can and must act to address it. Unfortunately, they only agreed to CO2 reductions amounting to half of what is widely accepted as necessary to prevent rising sea levels, droughts, more destructive storms, and widespread food shortages.

In other words, absent further progress, we’re still screwed. But there’s still a chance that we won’t utterly destroy human civilization and much of the rest of the natural world. Perhaps we’ll have a major technological breakthrough, like practical nuclear fusion. Fingers crossed.

One thing barely being discussed is population control. The population of the planet has quadrupled in the last 100 years. I guess this is politically sensitive. But really, isn’t overpopulation a big part of the climate change problem? If we don’t figure out a way to control population growth in a humane way, aren’t we likely to see it unfold in a horrifying way (desperate people fighting for survival against each other and perhaps us)? Viz. the refugee crisis unfolding right now.
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This week was full of anti-Muslim fear and panic, with calls for addressing terrorist threats by extreme measures, including monitoring mosques and barring all Muslims from the U.S. Even more moderate voices saw no alternative to escalating the war against ISIS and other radical groups, and those who questioned this course were increasingly at risk of being branded terrorist sympathizers. But there were a couple of articles pointing the other way, which I flagged on Twitter (@robtiller). There was one by Gwynne Dyer in, of all places, the Raleigh News & Observer of Dec. 10. That evening, when I went to get a link, it seemed to have vanished from the internet, but fortunately I still had the paper copy.

Dyer pointed out that for Americans, the panic at the terrorist threat does not have much basis. In the last 14 years, we’ve had an average of two people per year killed in the U.S. by Muslim terrorists. He calculated that “Americans are 170 times more likely to drown in the bath than to be killed by Islamist terrorists.” This is something public figures feel they can’t mention, because of the extreme dissonance with related facts: more than 6,000 U.S. soldiers killed in this period fighting terrorism, and a trillion dollars has been spent on the War on Terror. Dyer acknowledges that if you live in Arab countries, the terror threat is real and serious, and that western countries fighting ISIS might do some good for some Syrians. But it probably won’t reduce the already tiny risk of terrorist attacks here.
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Hitting the little white ball, the appalling debate, ocean concerns, and reading Hamilton

At Raulston Arboretum, September 18, 2015

At Raulston Arboretum, September 18, 2015

On Wednesday after work, I went over to Raleigh Country Club and practiced on the range for a bit. Lately I’ve been trying to get out to practice a couple of times a week, with a view to making prettier and longer parabolas. It looks so much easier than it is. The late afternoon was peaceful and mild.

Sally was waiting on the terrace looking out on hole number 10 when I finished, and we had dinner there. It was overcast, and looking west we couldn’t see the sun directly as it was setting. But suddenly the clouds lit up a bright orange-pink, and for a few minutes the colors were amazing.
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After dinner, Sally had to go to her mom’s apartment to take care of Diane’s two greyhounds, and so I watched the Republican presidential debate alone. It was, of course, appalling, though also by moments fascinating. The eleven candidates were all, in their various ways, intelligent and well spoken, and also in varying degrees bizarre or utterly benighted. I watched a good chunk of the three-hour spectacle, and kept waiting for a serious treatment of the serious issue of climate change. From press accounts, it appears I missed a few brief comments on the subject, to the effect that either it’s a liberal conspiracy or there’s just nothing to be done about it, so there’s no point in thinking or talking about it. Appalling.

I read most of the World Wildlife Fund’s report this week on the state of the world’s oceans, and recommend it. The news, of course, is not good. About half the population of creatures that live in, on, and over the oceans have disappeared since 1970. Coral reefs, on which much ocean life depends, have likewise diminished, and may disappear by 2050. But the report presses the point that the situation is not hopeless. There are ways we can address the over fishing and climate change problems that largely account for the crisis.
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Through diving dive on some of the world’s most beautiful coral reefs, I’ve developed a deep love for reef ecosystems, and will be seeing another one next week. Sally and I are leaving next Friday for a trip to see the reefs and animals of Mozambique. We’re hoping to see whale sharks, manta rays, humpback whales, and many other remarkable creatures. We’ll also be doing a land based photo safari in Kruger Park in South Africa. This trip has been a big dream, and has taken a lot of planning, but it should be amazing. Anyhow, I expect to be offline for a couple of weeks, but hope to have some good stories and pictures to post after that.

For this long trip, I’ll need some good books to read, and I’d expected I’d be working my way through Ron Chernow’s Hamilton, a biography of the Founding Father who was our first Secretary of the Treasury. But I’ve been so fascinated by the book that I may finish it before the trip. The Times review is here.

Hamilton, it turns out, was a brilliant, energetic, and passionate person, who accomplished an amazing amount in his short life. Among other things, he helped win the Revolutionary War as Washington’s most trusted aide-de-camp, played a primary role in fashioning the Constitution, wrote most of the Federalist to win passage of the Constitution, established a financial system for the new republic, and served as President Washington’s primary advisor. And he was handsome and well-liked by the ladies, and also the gentlemen. Of course, he had his flaws of character, and his enemies, including the sainted Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The politics of the time were at least as ungentle as now. This is a remarkable and remarkably relevant book, which I highly recommend.
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A few chimney swifts, fine Fiction Kitchen, finishing physical therapy, the fossil fuel endgame, and a fishing blue heron

A spicebush swallowtail at Ralston Arboretum on September 11, 2015

A spicebush swallowtail at Ralston Arboretum on September 11, 2015

According to Sally’s calendar, this week should have been a good one to see the chimney swifts in downtown Raleigh. Last year at this time there were thousands, swarming and swirling, and eventually shooting down a large chimney to roost for the night. So we went downtown with our binoculars on Wednesday night and waited at sunset. There were some mini-flocks flying, and we kept hoping for the grand congregation, but it didn’t happen. We saw dozens of swifts, rather than thousands.

Afterwards we went a few blocks south to Fiction Kitchen, Raleigh’s best vegetarian restaurant. The last few times we’d tried to get in, the place had been full with many people waiting. This time it was full, but the wait was only a few minutes. The waiters we liked were still there. There were some new menu items, along with familiar favorites. We started with squash and zucchini cakes appetizer, which was delicious. For entrees, Sally had the succatash farro risotto. I had the mock pork BBQ, a tempeh-based dish that was so outrageously good that, as a vegetarian, I felt a bit guilty.
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The next day I had my graduation session from physical therapy. For the last few weeks, I’ve been trekking out to Cary to see Geert Audiens a couple of times a week to get treatment for my torn rotator cuff. As ordered, I’ve been doing my shoulder exercises twice a day (most days). The exercises were not too interesting at the start, and have gradually become a huge bore.

But most of the discomfort in my shoulder is gone, and the strength is improved. To complete the program, Geert directed me to continue doing the exercises for 25 minutes a day every day for the next three months. Then I should call him and give a report. This is a big assignment, but I’m going to try, since I am still motivated to get better. I expect to be using that shoulder for quite a few years yet.

Driving back to Raleigh, I saw a bald eagle fly across the beltline into the trees. There are some that live a bit west of here at Jordan Lake, but this was the first one I’d seen in Raleigh.
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On Saturday morning, I read a piece in the NY Times ran a piece on a new climate study that projected a more-than-200-foot rise in sea levels if we continue to use fossil fuels until they are used up in the 22nd century. That would mean no more New York, Amsterdam, London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Beijing, Sydney, and Tokyo, among other nice places. All the ice on earth would melt, with half of that occurring in the next thousand years, and seas rising at 10 times the current rate. The study out of the Potsdarm Institute for Climate Impact Research was published in the journal Science Advances.

Curiously, the Times put this horrifying news on the bottom of page A10 of the print edition, rather than the top of page 1. It was similarly buried in the online edition. Did the editors think it wasn’t important? That’s doubtful. Did they think their readers are tired of bad climate news and would prefer not to hear more? Perhaps, but in whatever case, we’ve got to get our minds around this, and get to work, or things are going to get grimmer. We’ve had a good run with fossil fuels, but that’s over. It’s time to get serious about the alternatives.
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After reading of this and other unsettling things and finishing my coffee, I drove up to Falls Lake to look for birds and insects. I hadn’t been there in a while. My plan was to explore several spots, but I discovered they now charge $6 for the main areas. I found my way to a non-charging spot in the Beaverdam reservoir area, where the road was almost too rough and rutted for low-slung Clara. I spent twenty minutes or so watching this blue heron move very very slowly. I kept hoping she’d catch a fish, but she didn’t.
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A photo contest, getting shoulder therapy, trying fasting, and not debating climate change

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Sally spotted a notice in the local paper of a nature photography contest at Raulston Arboretum. The theme was gardens and plants, which you may have noticed I have an interest in, and so I decided I might as well have a go.

Competition is a good way to make yourself try a little harder. With the thought of critical judging, I took a careful look through some of my favorite images, and found little disqualifying problems on most of them. Of those still left, some just didn’t touch me. That exercise alone was worthwhile, good for my eye and mind, win or lose. Ultimately, I settled on the two bees shown here, worked on them for a bit with Lightroom software, and got them printed on metallic paper nearby at JW Image. Still to do: getting them framed, submitted, back, and hung in the apartment.

Speaking of self-improvement, I finally decided this week to get physical therapy help for my left shoulder. I’d tried letting the thing heal itself with several weeks of relative rest (no heavy weight lifting), but that didn’t work. I got in to see Geert Audiens at Results Physiotherapy, who’d helped me with back and shoulder issues before. Geert quickly diagnosed a torn rotator cuff, which, he said, would get worse if not attended to. He predicted it would take several weeks of specialized exercises, but it would likely get better. It’s good to have well-functioning arms and shoulders. And so we began, with simple little exercises, antiinflammatories, and icing four times a day. It’s a substantial commitment, which I hope will be worth it.

I’ve also been experimenting for a few weeks with a modification of my food consumption. I’d somehow picked up 5 pounds that would not come off, even with hard cardio work outs and careful healthy eating. I saw a story on alternate day fasting for the weight control, which basically means eating very lightly (500 calories) every other day. I decided to have a go for two days a week, a variation which, I just learned by googling, has been promoted elsewhere by others.

My method was my normal greens-and-fruit smoothie for breakfast, salad for lunch, and nothing for dinner. The no eating intervals were challenging, especially at dinner time with Sally eating. But it helped clear the mind, and made me more conscious of eating well on the normal eating days. And I did get rid of those 5 pounds in about 3 weeks.
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The debate of the Republican presidential contenders this week promised to be rich with irony and ridiculousness, with the numerous conventional candidates facing off with the loutish Donald Trump. As a Democrat, I’d never looked forward to a Republican debate so much. There were, as it happened, no meltdowns. In fact, I was surprised at how articulate and intelligent most of the field seemed (with the Donald as usual the big exception).

Yet collectively they have such enormous blind spots. It’s difficult to see how you could propose to govern or even talk seriously about social policy without quickly getting to the issue of what to do about CO2-caused global warming and the many related problems, like rising oceans, mass extinctions, famine, resource-related wars, mass population dislocations, destructive storms, drought, etc. These related disasters are front page news now. Yet this issue doesn’t appear on the Republican agenda, except for opposing whatever action the President proposes. This is wildly irresponsible. The situation is dire, and getting worse.

Rolling Stone published a good piece featuring new climate change research by James Hansen and others, which I recommend. It isn’t easy to think about this problem, which makes us uncomfortable and unhappy, but we’ve got to do it. I was glad to see that Hansen thinks a carbon tax could potentially pull us out of our present suicidal course. Anyhow, we all need to get more educated on this, and to keep pressing our politicians for action.

Pope Francis’s vision

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It’s been ungodly hot in Raleigh this week, with a record high of Fahrenheit 99 on Tuesday. Humid, too. So instead of running on Saturday, I settled in to read some of Pope Francis’s new encyclical, Laudito Si. From newspaper reports, I’d expected a sort of primer on the perils of global warming, but it turned out to be much more than that, and I felt enriched and inspired by the experience. It’s available online here.

Even though I’m a thorough-going non-believer, I’m a big fan of Francis. He seems to be a genuinely warm, caring, and thoughtful person. What are the odds? How daunting and disorienting to be considered by many as infallible, and fully realize you aren’t. (Remember his famous words,“Who am I to judge?”) How dissonant to live amid Vatican magnificence and rock-star adulation and try to focus on the problems of the poor. And who would volunteer to be in charge of cleaning up pedophile priest networks, bishop cover ups, money laundering holy bankers, and God knows what other crimes and misdemeanors? And after all that, who would have the courage and drive to speak truths that implicitly threaten the world’s wealthiest, most powerful interests on what are, for them, as well as us, issues of existential importance? That’s right: my man Francis.

I was hoping that Laudito Si would have an executive summary, but it does not. Still, I kept reading. The prose is lucid and emphatic, with an animating passion. Francis leaves no doubt that he agrees with the scientific consensus that man-made greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide are responsible for much of the global warming crisis. He states that there is an urgent need to reduce such emissions and develop renewable energy. If he accomplished nothing more than calling more attention to this issue and inspiring high level discussion and action, that would be a lot. But Laudito Si does more than that, persuasively articulating a powerful ethical vision that calls for reforming both societies and our selves.
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Francis calls on the people of the world to recognize that we are in an ecological crisis, and need to expand our dialog and work together to address this crisis. The dimensions of the crisis include air and water pollution, fresh water shortages, rising oceans that threaten large cities, and increasing extreme weather events. Not to mention the extinction of many species. He states, “Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.”

At the same time, Francis reminds us of the vibrant beauty of the natural world. He has sections on rainforests and other wonders. On a topic particularly close to my heart, he writes of “the immense variety of living creatures” in our oceans which are threatened by uncontrolled fishing and the coral reefs that have been harmed by pollution and rising temperatures.

Early on, Francis rejects the reading of the Bible that entitles humans to dominate and exploit all earthly resources. He writes instead that humans are meant to be careful stewards of those resources, and regard them with awe and wonder, and recognize our essential connection to animals, vegetables, and minerals. “Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another.” He returns a number of times to the theme of our interconnectedness to each other and the world.

An aspect of this theme is concern for both the poor and for other living creatures. He writes, “We should be particularly indignant at the enormous inequalities in our midst, whereby we continue to tolerate some considering themselves more worthy than others. We fail to see that some are mired in desperate and degrading poverty, with no way out, while others have not the faintest idea of what to do with their possessions, vainly showing off their supposed superiority and leaving behind them so much waste which, if it were the case everywhere, would destroy the planet. In practice, we continue to tolerate that some consider themselves more human than others, as if they had been born with greater rights.”
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Similarly, Francis draws connections between our treatment of animals and our basic humanity. Recently I’ve been feeling indignant about the new North Carolina ag gag law, which among other things protects industrial agriculture operations from those who propose to publicize their cruelty to animals. Let me just say, this is so wrong! This excerpt is apropos: “When our hearts are authentically open to universal communion, this sense of fraternity excludes nothing and no one. It follows that our indifference or cruelty towards fellow creatures of this world sooner or later affects the treatment we mete out to other human beings. We have only one heart, and the same wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships with other people. Every act of cruelty towards any creature is ‘contrary to human dignity.’”

Part of the ambition of Laudito Si is to reset our relationship to technology. “Ecological culture cannot be reduced to a series of urgent and partial responses to the immediate problems of pollution, environmental decay and the depletion of natural resources. There needs to be a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational programme, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm. . . . To seek only a technical remedy to each environmental problem which comes up it to separate what is in reality interconnected and to mask the true and deepest problems of the global system.” Francis envisions a world where the capitalism and technological progress are no longer allowed to drive increasing inequality and alienation, but instead are put in the service of human needs.

Of course, I don’t mean to endorse all of Francis’s views. I read the sections on God’s acts and intentions in much the spirit that I read the poetry of Milton. I think he’s quite mistaken about the value of building a market for carbon credits, which would creative incentives to reduce emissions. I also regret that he dismisses the serious risks of overpopulation, which needs to be moved way up on our list of priorities. But I’m finding the work inspiring, and hope many will read it and think about it.

Breathing better, climate change changes, and the amazing Birdman

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A lot of things that are good for us are kind of tough, at least initially. I’m thinking especially of avoiding junk food and exercising, which require an up-front investment of time and energy. So I was pleased to come upon a report of a good-for-you activity that’s free, easy, and immediately rewarding. According to the Wall Street Journal this week, deep, slow breathing can help with stress, migraines, and other disorders. This stimulates the vagus nerve and causes the release of acetylcholine, which slows down the digestive system and heart rate.

This beneficial effect was not completely surprising to me, as this is the kind of breathing we do in yoga, and it feels good. At our 6:00 a.m. yoga class last Tuesday, Suzanne was coaching us to breath in on a slow count of 4, pause, then breathe out to a count of 4, and pause again. I later tried this technique when I was having trouble sleeping, and whoosh, off I went to dreamland.
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I’ve been taking particular note lately of how many of our most fervent beliefs are dubious, and how resistant many of those beliefs are to change. For example, no amount of evidence seems to shake the certainties of opponents of evolution (forty some percent of Americans). I was worried that this was where we were on global warming, as we head toward the precipice.

But this week there was some good news: more people are taking the view that we’ve got to get serious about climate change. This week a NY Times poll“found that 83 percent of Americans, including 61 percent of Republicans and 86 percent of independents, say that if nothing is done to reduce emissions, global warming will be a very or somewhat serious problem in the future.” Two-thirds said they’re more likely to vote for political candidates that support addressing global warming. Even Republicans are moving in the right direction: 48 percent of them went with the majority.

So the overwhelming majority of us agree that we’ve got to get to work on saving the planet. This is encouraging.

Still, what could explain the people who think we have a serious problem but will not support doing anything about it? Is it amoral cynicism and greed? Whatever it is, we need to make sure those people do not win.
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We finally got out to see Birdman this week, and thought it was great. Michael Keaton plays Riggin Thomson, a former action movie star who’s gone downhill but has decided to take a big chance and direct and star in an angst-ridden play that’s opening on Broadway. Riggin seems to be going crazy, with bursts of despair and brilliance.

Is it a very dark comedy, or a surreal drama? It’s edgy and intense, and doesn’t fit neatly into any genre. It reminded me of the great movies of Bergman, Fellini, and Scorsese — psychological, visionary, and manic. A very interesting score (jazz drumming, Mahler), evocative photography, and very fine acting. It challenges us with ambiguities. It would like us to think.

I wish its gifted creators (including the remarkable Spanish director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu) good luck at the Academy Awards (where it has 9 nominations), but I’m afraid that it will be too original and unsettling for the Academy. I note that when Sally and I went to see it at the multiplex last Thursday, we were the only ones in the theatre.

Re the pictures: Sally brought home some roses from Whole Foods and made a lovely arrangement. She’d discovered that though the cats like to eat certain flowers, and then throw up on the rugs, they were less drawn to this kind. I liked the light on Saturday morning.
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In the news: some problems with our nukes

This week there was some good and some bad technology news, but first the good news. Kudos to the European Space Agency, which managed the remarkable feat of landing a robot on a modest-sized comet. Understanding and managing the risk of asteroid and comet collisions is a big challenge, and it appears we’re making progress. Also three cheers that the world’s two largest contributors to global warming (that’s us and China) officially agreed to work on it. Sure, talk is cheap, but it’s a step in the right direction.

But I wanted to call attention to a news story that you may have missed, as I almost did: two separate Pentagon studies concluded that the infrastructure of our nuclear program is in serious disrepair and will cost billions to fix. The NY Times put this on page A16 (news death valley).

Though far from the front page, the language was strong: “a searing indictment” of how nuclear weapons facilities have been allowed to decay. They described “a culture of micromanagement and attention to the smallest detail . . . creating busywork, while huge problems with equipment and readiness, most arising from the age of the systems, were ignored.” One study found that morale was low and turnover high among crews for intercontinental ballistic missiles and long-range bombers. Missile submarines were frequently out of service.

You may remember the cheating scandal involving missile crews of some months back. One of the new reports blamed not the crews but “a culture of extreme testing” in which tests were required to be near perfect so that good results could be reported up the chain of command, instead of a program to improve the crews’ readiness.

A few months back I wrote about reading Eric Schlosser’s excellent book, Command and Control, Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. The book cites chapter and verse of major problems in our nuclear program, including some that put Americans at serious risk of a catastrophic accidental nuclear explosion. Schlosser found there had been important improvements in safety, but the Times story made me worry.

The Times also reported that the President had told the Pentagon to plan for 12 new missile submarines, up to 100 new bombers, and 400 land-based missiles. Holy kamoly! I thought we were at least keeping in sight the possibility of reducing our nuclear stockpiles and the threat of nuclear war.

Before we spend billions or trillions more, I’d like to hear a good answer to the question, what is the purpose of our nuclear weapons? What good do they do?

The conventional wisdom, more or less, is that we need them to deter nuclear attacks and maintain our prestige. But no nation is currently threatening us, or anyone, with a nuclear attack. Only one nation has ever been the victim of a nuclear attack (by us, on Japan). All other nations without nuclear weapons – that is, those with no deterrence forces – have not come under nuclear attack. That includes ones that got us and other nuclear powers really mad, like North Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Syria.

Furthermore, even if North Korea or Iran somehow managed to destroy one of our cites with a nuke, does anyone seriously think we’d retaliate against their civilians with a massive nuclear attack? I submit that deterrence, whatever its validity as a theory in the cold war, is valid no longer.

As to prestige, our nuclear weapons have not appeared to strengthen our negotiating power with enemies or friends. Iran and North Korea have been notably unimpressed. And our nukes certainly haven’t saved us the trouble of fighting conventional wars. We have surely not won the contest of who can spend the least on actual war fighting, having spent over a trillion dollars fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The nation with the most nuclear weapons is also the nation that has lost the most treasure through conventional warfare.

A major nuclear war would not only destroy millions of lives directly, but would alter the earth’s ecosystem so as to cause untold additional deaths. As Jonathan Schell explained in The Fate of the Earth, it could amount to the end of human civilization, not to mention the extinction of countless other animals and plants.

It would be nice to think that mismanagement of our nuclear force has reduced this risk, but I’m afraid that it suggests an increased risk of nuclear accidents, and an uncertain capacity for disaster. I submit we need to change our direction, and recommend a visit to http://nuclearrisk.org

Let me close on a positive note: civilization still exists! In fact, right here in Raleigh, NC, there is great music making and art. Last Sunday, the N.C. Opera did an excellent concert presentation of part of Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. This is very dramatic, romantic music. They did the prelude and second act, which focuses on the intoxicating love story of the title characters. Jay Hunter Morris, who was a sensation in the Met’s recent Siegfried, was a sensitive and moving Tristan, and Heidi Melton was an Isolde for the ages. Her voice was amazingly powerful, but also warm, flexible, and true. Conductor Timothy Myers seemed to have a real feeling for this strange and irresistible music, and he had a good band. Thank you N.C. Opera!

I should also give a plug for the current exhibits at Duke’s Nasher Museum of Art, which we visited on Sunday afternoon. We started with the late works of Joan Miro. I liked his sculptures, better than his paintings. It was inspiring to see him continuing to experiment with new ideas into his 70s and 80s. There was also a strong exhibit of the work of Robert Rauschenberg. I never quite got Rauschenberg before, but it really helped seeing the wide range of techniques and concepts he worked with. It turns out he was serious about his photography, as well as his painting and constructions. I liked it.