The Casual Blog

Tag: Washington Post

Polar creatures and some of their problems

When I got home from Antarctica, I felt like I’d aged about 30 years.  I was very tired and weak for more than a week.  But I’m happy to say, I’m feeling back to normal, and maybe even better.  In fact, I’m starting to think about another trip there to see these beautiful creatures and their unique habitat. Anyhow, I wanted to share a few more pictures I made of penguins, an elephant seal, fur seals, and a leopard seal. I was trying to capture aspects of their personalities, customs, and environments.

As you may know, but many people don’t, Antarctica is in  big trouble from climate change.  Higher temperatures there are changing the habitats of the animals that live on and around the continent, and the collapse of giant ice shelves and melting glaciers are lifting sea levels.  The situation is dire, and has global implications.

But I’ve really been trying to stay positive, and given so many sources of fear and anxiety, would like to avoid making your and my fear and anxiety still worse.  Getting depressed is not going to help.  But it’s tough to keep learning more about what is happening to our planet and not be tempted to throw in the towel.

And so I almost skipped a couple of podcasts on climate change last week that I’m glad I didn’t.  I recommend both as antidotes for hopelessness put out by respected and trustworthy journalists.

David Wallace-Wells wrote what may well be the most detailed and gory account of what’s in store if we don’t change course in burning fossil fuels, The Uninhabitable Earth, in 2017,  But in an interview on Fresh Air last week, he explained that technology and market forces have made the worst-case scenarios he described back then much less likely.  We still stand a chance of putting in place the green energy infrastructures that would greatly mitigate disaster.  He made these same points in a recent NY Times magazine piece

Likewise, Bill McKibben has been a path-breaking writer on climate change, authoring among other things The End of Nature.  (Long ago, I worked with McKibben when he was a young reporter and I was a fact checker at the New Yorker.)   In an interview with Ezra Klein, McKibben said the long history of humans surviving by burning things will, one way or another, come to a conclusion, and it may be not be as terrible as we were recently expecting.  

McKibben explained that the lower cost of solar panels and storage technologies is changing the energy equation, as the persistence of climate activists has finally gotten through to more people.  The cost of renewables has fallen hugely, and is now lower than fossil fuels.  Now it doesn’t make economic sense not to switch to green technology.  L

Unfortunately, the fossil fuel companies aren’t admitting this and they’re not giving up, so there’s still a lot of work to be done.  McKibben continues to encourage activism, including in a new initiative called Third Act especially for those over 60.  He thinks we should continue to press for fossil fuel divestment by their biggest bankers, which unfortunately, are all banks I do or have done business with:  Bank of America, Citi, JP Morgan Chase, and Wells Fargo.  He also articulated these points in a New Yorker piece

Before my Antarctic journey, I started rereading Bleak House, the epic novel by Charles Dickens.  The hard back edition I had was a brick, at more than a thousand pages.  To save weight while traveling, I tried switching to a free e-book version.  This edition was full of bizarre errors, which I assume arose from relying on non-human editorial bots.  

Anyhow, I resumed making my way through my paper copy when I got home.  This year I’ve discovered, or rediscovered, that rereading can be extremely rewarding.   In many cases, I took on heavy duty literature when I was young that I was ill-equipped to understand.  The ordinary experiences of growing up — learning things, making a living, having friends and family, and everything else were transformative for me (as they are for everyone).  I’m now 67 (almost the age when my father died), and a different person in many ways  than I was at 15, or 25, or 35.  Or 55, for that matter.

Certainly I’m much better equipped for the adventure of reading a masterpiece like Bleak House.  On this, my fourth reading, I got much more from it, even as I better understood some of its shortcomings.  I easily grasped Dickens’s great love for humanity, his humor, and his anger at injustice.

Now, after having had a career in the American legal system and experience with the British, French, Indian, Argentinian, and other legal systems, I can better appreciate Dickens’s bitter critique of the English courts of equity of his time.  I now know a lot more about the history of colonialism and imperialism, and have a better frame of reference for the military and commercial struggles that happen offstage in his story.

Dickens was knowledgeable and critical of the ravages of early capitalism and industrialization, including extreme inequalities of wealth.  He had a wonderful flair for sniffing out and satirizing hypocrisy and moral posing, including poorly thought out philanthropy.  

Yet he was  oblivious to problems with various other hierarchies, like race, gender, and species.  The book has some of his most gorgeous writing, and also passages that feel like they were recycled on a tight deadline.  Some of his characters are memorable and touching (I still adore Esther Summerson) or comic (Old Turveydrop), though others, like John Jarndyce, are more generous than any known human.  

Apropos of climate change, Bleak House is also about what industrialization means for the environment, such as horrific and deadly pollution.  His description of London fog and iron factory emissions are fascinating and disturbing.  He also can be brutally honest in describing the struggles of enslaved animals, such as horses who fall while trying to pull a coach through the snow and mud.  

Apropos of non-human animals and efforts to better understand their lives, I wanted to pass along a link to a thought-provoking story about pigs, which humans generally greatly underestimate and devalue as a species. Research reported by Leo Sands in the Washington Post indicated that pigs’ social lives have surprising dimensions. For example, when two pigs have a serious fight, a third pig will sometimes help resolve the dispute by nuzzling or similar touching. That is, some pigs are concerned about the unhappiness of other pigs, and know how to calm anger and increase happiness. Of course, humans also sometimes try to defuse tensions and resolve disputes, though we could do a lot better. Perhaps the pigs’ nuzzling approach would help.

Rectal feeding???

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This week I was quite shaken by the new Senate report on the CIA’s program of “enhanced interrogation techniques” used on those suspected of Jihadist terrorist intentions. I had, of course, already heard there’d been some very rough stuff, like water boarding. But I hadn’t known (and may still not, since much information is still secret) the full extent of the barbarity and depravity.

For example, the concept of “rectal feeding” was new to me. I suspected based on high school biology that it was not possible to feed humans through the southern side, and I checked – this is correct. Folks, we’re talking about our government, which is to say, humans purporting to act on your and my behalf, anally raping prisoners. It’s hard to see how we can just let this pass.

I also hadn’t known that the foundation of the program included systematic and pervasive lies not just to the public but also to Congress and the Executive. It was certainly news to me that the architects of the program were amateurs with no prior experience in intelligence. And I hadn’t previously known for certain that the program was not remotely justified by intelligence gathering achievements.

Some may say I’m just sentimental about human dignity and the concept of the rule of law, and these are notions we can’t afford when we’re in an existential battle with evil. Perhaps. But the evidence from the Senate report is that the successes of the CIA interrogators actually came from conventional, non-“enhanced” methods. The enhanced techniques produced misery, madness, and death, but did not defuse any ticking time bombs. It may be that those who directed this program were the ones who were in a dream world, imagining both an existential threat from terrorism and a simple solution to that threat.

It’s fascinating, and disturbing, to see present and former CIA and Bush administration officials stepping up to praise and defend the program. It’s no surprise that they would defend their work, and perhaps they are in some sense sincere. They’ve probably got cognative dissonance, and are managing it as best they can. They could also have more practical and selfish motives, like heading off any discussion of whether they should be tried for war crimes.

In any event, the fact that these officials are still willing to defend the CIA torture program underlines the importance of our holding accountable those who directed and participated in this abomination. We cannot leave ambiguous the question of whether it is acceptable to torture prisoners. No future official should be in doubt that this is criminal behavior, for which they are subject to imprisonment.

Of course, though I hate to say, they’ll probably get away with it. There’s no special interest that will provide campaign dollars in exchange for standing up for human rights of prisoners. There are a few, but too few, of our representatives prepared to spend political capital on an issue that none of us enjoy thinking about.

And the knowledge, thanks to Edward Snowden, that our electronic communications may well be being screened by the NSA for signs of dissent will make some of us who feel outrage and shame hesitate to speak up and demand justice and accountability. These are, after all, the people who so far have the unchecked power to make us disappear into “black sites” and rectally feed us. I don’t mean to exaggerate. Plainly, I don’t think this is an immediate threat, since I’ve just made a critical public statement about it. But I must admit, I hesitated. I’m so sorry this has happened to our country.

I’d like to call out The Washington Post for its extensive and clear-eyed coverage of this dark and shameful chapter. Here is a particularly helpful quick guide to the Senate report from the Post.