For a limited time only, I am offering a free e-version of Requiem for Ahab. E-mail me at gjlau [at] hotmail.com to request a copy in your preferred e-reader format. It's my way of saying thanks for stopping by.

April 1, 2014

Climate: No Change

Back in 2009, there was a big UN-sponsored climate change conference held in Copenhagen. All the countries, great and small, would gather round and divvy up the globe into must-do, ought-to-do, and don't-have-to-do lists for reducing carbon emissions. To no one's surprise, the lists varied depending upon perceived national self-interest.

Those who produced the most carbon emissions wanted to do the least. Those on the front lines of climate change -- usually poorer countries relying on the good will of others -- sought immediate action. Emerging nations wanted to avoid anything that might impede their emergence. The conference ended in disarray, with each group blaming the other groups for failing to agree on anything other than to disagree.

Nothing has changed since that conference. Zero progress has been made towards eliminating what scientists decry as the single most significant threat facing humanity. Here is what I wrote in the immediate aftermath of the failure at Copenhagen:
"So where does that leave the rest of us? Pretty much on our own, I’d say. It is every man, woman and child for himself or herself. That can mean ... thinking real hard about what it might be like to live with the kind of problems you get with climate change: people on the move, scarcities of food and water, extreme weather, rising rates of disease."

A recently released U.N. Report entitled "Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability" stresses these same problems, no longer potential but very real. A summary of the report in the New York Times states:
“Throughout the 21st century, climate-change impacts are projected to slow down economic growth, make poverty reduction more difficult, further erode food security, and prolong existing and create new poverty traps, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hot spots of hunger,” the report declared.
The report also cited the possibility of violent conflict over land, water or other resources, to which climate change might contribute indirectly “by exacerbating well-established drivers of these conflicts such as poverty and economic shocks.”
... climate change is not just a problem of the distant future, but is happening now.
We are in deep trouble. Nothing has happened to reduce carbon emissions. Nothing has been done to prepare for the human and natural catastrophes that are coming our way. By every measure, things have gotten palpably worse. What was unthinkable just a few short years ago is now looming on the horizon line of our lifetimes.

Governments have let one window of opportunity after another slam shut. At this point, it would take drastic measures to get us to the lesser zone of risk, and there is virtually no political will in sight to make this happen. Instead, governmental leaders at the national level continue to be incapable of dealing with this problem. Local governments are doing what they can, but a problem like global warming requires a global solution.

Meanwhile, we the people must face a hard truth. We are on our own. There really is nothing to do at this point but to begin building our Arks in whatever way seems to make the most sense.

March 13, 2014

Does the United States of America Still Make Sense?

I was listening to a show on NPR about education in Finland. Finland is about the size of Minnesota. Like Lake Wobegon, the Finnish children are all above average, even though they don't start school until the age of 7. Finland consistently outranks the United States in math, reading and science.

Krista Kiuru, Finland's minister of education, talks about the "Finnish way," which includes day care and  preschool for every child under 7. This isn't a goal; it is a right, guaranteed under Finnish law. And the preschool teachers are college graduates who teach a curriculum which meshes exactly with Finland's National Curriculum Guidelines. We are talking horizontal and vertical integration to a degree unknown in this country, where textbooks are still determined by what the Texas State Board of Ed deems to be suitable. Really?

Okay, so the Finnish people pony up a bundle in taxes to pay for this. That would turn off a lot of Americans. But I'll bet there are some folks out there, especially parents just starting their families, who think this looks pretty darned good.

Could it happen here in America? Not a chance. No way, no how is Congress ever going to pass such a national system. Free day care? Free preschool? Seriously? And you got this idea while listening to NPR? Okay, next!

This got me thinking. What if we weren't a United States of America? What if were were a union of several totally autonomous regions, countries, area, ... call it what you want? Don't you think that the folks up in New England might be interested in the Finnish way? Ar maybe the Left Coast?

Suppose were weren't one big tent of a country? Suppose we were a territory consisting of geopolitical divisions that reflected a much higher degree of consistency than we have today? To some degree we have this with our system of states. But we also have the supremacy clause, which says that the Federal government prevails in any clash between Federal and state policy.

Then there is the matter of scale. Some states are as big as countries, granted, but there are smaller states who would benefit from confederation with like-minded bigger states. Somewhere between E pluribus and unum, there has to be a sweet spot: just big enough to be able to support the wishes of the populace, but just small enough to ensure a high degree of homogeneity in terms of political philosophies.

I'm not saying we would eliminate entirely the concept of a Federal level of government. I think of it as more of a tweak to the system, which after all was created in vastly different times and circumstances. Remember, that the country envisioned by the founding Fathers was the thirteen colonies along the Eastern seaboard, not an empire that spread from sea to shining sea. So yeah, I could still see a role for the Federal government, but one perhaps more strictly limited to the original intent, defense and certain common issues that require cooperation across internal boundaries.

This begins a series of pieces exploring this thought to its logical or illogical conclusion. For now, just ask yourself this question: When you first got what I was driving at, was your reaction "Hell, no" or "Hmm." I'm betting that there are some aspects of this idea that have an appeal, be it education or the environment, or the  business of business.

Or maybe this is just another way of exploring the dysfunctional nation we have become, bacause that is exactly what we are. The good old U.S. of A., the country that got things done, has become gridlock central. If we don't do something about it soon, we will end up on the ash heap of history, just like other failed empires. Think it couldn't happen? Think again.

February 13, 2014

Mass Murder

Elizabeth Kolbert, who writes for The New Yorker, has published an important new book with a very simple message: we humans are killing the planet. Literally. This message is not something we want to hear, but it is one we will have to learn to live with.

THE SIXTH EXTINCTION: An Unnatural History examines the notion of extinction, which turns out to be a surprisingly recent concept. Thomas Jefferson fully expected Lewis and Clark to find mastodons roaming the wild west. The assumption was that God's creations were permanent. It wasn't until 1796 that scientists were persuaded otherwise by the work of the French naturalist Cuvier.

Modern research has documented five previous periods of mass extinction, defined as the loss of a significant part of all life on the planet in a relatively short period of time. Some are due to external events, most famously the 6-mile wide meteor that struck earth about 65 million years ago. Others are attributed to lava flows, glaciers or earlier bouts of global warming.

Extinctions are nothing new. What is new and different about the sixth extinction is that it is man-made. Climate change due to global warming is a huge factor, especially for marine life. But so is the impact of 7 billion people competing for habitat. The heavy footprint of mankind on the planet is crushing out competing life forms at a rate far above normal -- by one estimate, 10,000 times the natural rate in the tropics. Fifty percent of all living species are facing possible extinction by the end of this century.

Cities spread relentlessly across open land and into the oceans and rivers. Forests are destroyed to feed our ever-growing appetites for animals, vegetables, and minerals. And you can add illicit drug growers to the list of forest killers as well. Ships carry invader species to fertile new hunting grounds; Kolbert writes that supertankers move an estimated 10,000 species a day around the world. Diseases are spread among animals with the same devastating effects as any global flu pandemic on humans. Our pathetic quest for longer sexual arousal has brought several species to the brink of extinction.

Life prospered when the exchange of carbon and oxygen was mastered over millions of years. Now we use the atmosphere as the dumping ground for billions of tons of carbon generated through the burning of fossil fuels and cement production. About half of that carbon returns to the sea, where it makes the water more acidic, with devastating effects on coral and the phytoplankton that make up the bottom rung of the ocean's food chain.

None of this is breaking news. Those of us who see climate change as a clear and present danger -- we're dismissed as global warming alarmists by those who deny its existence -- have been sounding the warning bell for several decades now. Politicians like to deal with difficult issues by pushing them off into the future, so it's no surprise that governments have largely ignored the warnings on climate change and over-population, choosing instead to burn our fossil fuel candle at both ends while paying lip service to reform. But the future has a nasty habit of arriving when we seem to least expect it. And by the time we figure out that the future is now, it is usually too late to alter whatever fate has in store for us.

I have always maintained that if you want to judge fairly who is right about the impact of climate change and human population growth on the planet then don't ask a pundit or a politician or even a scientist. Seek out instead the birds overhead or the beetles underground or the fish in the seas or the wildlife that live on the mountains and the plains.

They have no political agenda. They belong to no party. They merely do what they have to do to adapt to a changing environment .... or they die. And right now they are dying in record numbers. That's on us. The only question is when we will join the roster of the sixth extinction, for make no mistake about it, that is where we are headed. We are killing the planet that supports all life, including ours. We instinctively turn away from that thought, confident that we can trick Mother Nature one more time, but sooner or later it has to catch up with us.

Kolbert quotes Pope Francis during an interview. I'll give his entire quote here:
I wish to mention another threat to peace, which arises from the greedy exploitation of environmental resources. Even if ‘nature is at our disposition’, all too often we do not ‘respect it or consider it a gracious gift which we must care for and set at the service of our brothers and sisters, including future generations’. Here too what is crucial is responsibility on the part of all in pursuing, in a spirit of fraternity, policies respectful of this earth which is our common home. I recall a popular saying: ‘God always forgives, we sometimes forgive, but when nature – creation – is mistreated, she never forgives!’.
I'll close with another quote, this one from Loren Eiseley, another great writer and explorer of the natural world: “If it should turn out that we have mishandled our own lives as several civilizations before us have done, it seems a pity that we should involve the violet and the tree frog in our departure."

February 6, 2014

A Hard Winter

Geese float down from the sky in wavering V formations, their raucous honking filling the air with discordant riffs worked out over millions of years. They settle onto a nearby field and work in silence, gleaning the remnants of last year's corn crop through a thin layer of crusty snow.

It's been a hard winter. One storm after another. Last week's was spun out of a polar vortex, bitterly cold air that produced light powdery snow perfect for skiing and shoveling. This week's storm carried in moister air from from the tropics that made for large flakes that quickly aggregated into dense-packed snow that pulled against the shoulders as you tried to lift the shovel ... what folks call a heart attack snow. We are expecting another by the end of the week. And another after that.

I think back to childhood days in New England, when winter routinely came and stayed for long visits. I remember the intense silence of wintry landscapes, where the only sound was of dripping water thickening into icicles that would hang like fruit, waiting to be plucked. Bundled up from head to toe by harried mothers eager to get the kids out of the house, we run out and quickly gather up small bits of snow on the end of our woolen mittens and delicately lick at it with outstretched tongue. Then we would confirm that it was cold by studying the mist that formed when we exhaled the warm air from our lungs in large puffs. Dry snow crunched underfoot as we pulled our sleds back up the hill for another run. Snow-covered marshes and fields stretched out to a horizon that drew a sharp line across a clear blue sky that seemed as endless as winter itself.

The child is grown ... the dream not quite gone. For all of the aggravations of winter, there is a beauty in the stillness of the silent snow before which the universe surrenders. Coming home last night, I looked across a nearby farm to a line of ice-covered trees at the foot of the mountain, forming waves of delicate white fans glowing softly in the fading afternoon light, a Japanese print come to life ... ineffable beauty as fleeting as the melting ice that would soon be gone.

Geese Under a Winter Sky


January 21, 2014

Fleeing the Draft

On this day in 1977, newly elected President Jimmy Carter issued a nearly blanket pardon for all those who had fled the country to avoid being drafted during the Vietnam War. Out of slightly over 2.2 million draftees, about 100,000 chose to flee to Canada. It certainly crossed my mind at the time.

I was a college graduate and could have chosen the more genteel version of draft dodging known as grad school. Or I could have gotten married and had a kid. Neither of those options was available or viable, nor did I have any interest in pursuing them.

So yeah, I did think about going to Canada ... but not for long. My thought was that if I fled to Canada I would be stuck there for life, a fugitive from the law, never able to return to see my family except under clandestine circumstances. In a very real sense, I would be under the control of the Army for the rest of my life.

I decided I would rather roll the dice and take my chances on a tour of duty in Vietnam and be done with it one way or another, rather than flee to Canada and always have the shadow of being caught and sent to prison hanging over me. It was a "Live free, or die" moment, I guess you could say. Of course, like most folks who spout that well-known phrase, I pretty much stopped at the "Live free" part, not really considering the  "or die" aspect of the bargain.

Truth be told, I was not all that unwilling to go to Vietnam. Patriotism had nothing to do with it. I was curious, plain and simple. I grew up in the shadow of WWII and had read a lot of the books and seen most of the movies. I wanted to see for myself what it would be like. I wanted to see what I would be like.

I never regretted my choice, just as I never begrudged those who chose not to go. The year I was drafted -- 1968 -- was maybe the last year the war seemed even remotely plausible as an undertaking. If you were sitting around the house in 1970 or 1971 waiting for your draft notice, the choice of dying in what was clearly a lost cause or running for your life was kind of hard to ignore.

President Carter's decision to issue a blanket pardon was controversial, even though President Ford had also offered a more limited pardon. The traditional veterans groups like the VFW and the American Legion were bitterly opposed. Arguments were made that if we do this we would never be able to depend on conscription in the future. Those folks misunderstood the mindset of those opposed to the war and they underestimated the patriotism of that and future generations.

The problem was not with our patriotic instincts. The problem was with leaders who led the country into a war that ultimately had no demonstrable connection to our national security. Give us a reason that is persuasive, show us a clear and present danger ... folks will respond. Just look at how we answered the call after 9/11. Hell yes, I would have gone.

But then look equally hard at what happened as it morphed into a nation-building exercise in bringing democracy to tribal and religious cultures that had little experience and even less interest in it. But that's another story. Or maybe it's the same old story.

January 5, 2014

The Big Chill

An Arctic air mass has settled over the entire mid-section of the country, bringing with it the coldest temperatures in 20 years, up to 30 degrees below zero in the upper mid-west. Donald Trump and Rush Limbaugh have led a chorus of deniers who have taken great delight in pointing to these record cold temperatures as proof positive that global warming is a false alarm. And let's not forget those climate change scientists who got stuck in the ice in Antarctica. Uh, guys, here's a news flash: climate change does not mean the end of the seasons. We will still have winter. So, yeah, it's going to get cold, especially in Antarctica. But guess what? A very long and very hot summer is coming, maybe a whole lot sooner than we thought.

The confusing thing about climate change is that there are a lot of different things that affect climate, the introduction of massive amounts of greenhouse gases being but one, albeit a big one. For example, scientists are still puzzling over the role clouds play. Depending on the assumptions used, clouds can either retard or accelerate the warming process. The latest thinking is that the cloud cover will diminish as we move towards the next century, resulting in even higher temperatures because clouds have a cooling effect, so fewer clouds means less cooling.

This gibes with what I have been seeing more often: scientists are finding that as they refine their models, the results more often than not show that earlier estimates of the pace of climate change have erred to the low side. In fact, it seems that climate change is coming at us faster and harder than we thought even five years ago. One thing is indisputable: levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are still climbing and governments aren't doing squat to address the problem. Okay, so that's two things.

Look, it's not that the world is going to end. But the living conditions of millions of people have and will continue to take a turn for the worse. Rising sea levels threaten most of the world's mega-cities: Boston, New York, Miami, San Francisco,New Orleans, Tokyo, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Calcutta, Shanghai, Mumbai, Tianjin, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City ... even a slight rise in sea level will result in huge losses. Throw in extreme weather events and you have costs that significantly affect the world's GDP or gross domestic product, a common measure of a country's wealth.

A recent paper suggests that the tipping point --  when the average temperature of a location's coolest year will be greater than the average temperature of its hottest year between 1860 and 2005 -- could come as early as 2020 under a business-as-usual scenario. New York City could hit the wall about 2047. The best case scenario delays the increasingly inevitable until  2069 or thereabouts. Think about that. We are not talking about some remote time in the future. We are possibly talking 50 years from now.

My bottom line remains the same. The train has left the station. Given the current levels of carbon emissions and the potential from other, even more potent greenhouse gases such as methane that will be released in larger quantities as the ice melts ... if you combine that with the continued lack of significant action on the part of world governments, then you get a lethal chain reaction of cause and effect that is about to pass a tipping point of no return.

I won't be around to see it, but my children likely will be. Certainly my grandchildren will be right in the middle of it. Things will be worse in ways we can easily predict, but maybe better in ways we can't see right now. There are always winners and losers in anything ... the trained and the untrained, the prepared and the unprepared. Which will your children and grandchildren be?

November 30, 2013

Black Friday

Another Black Friday has come and gone ... the great American potlatch where throngs of shoppers for one day find common cause in buying for others what they wouldn't want for themselves if you paid them. Millions of visitors from Planet Me, tight-faced in their grim pursuit of the Christmas spirit, will once again be sucked into the black hole of consumerism, most to emerge stripped of their money and their holiday cheer.

The term derives from the belief that Black Friday is the day that retailers go from being in the red to being in the black. The irony is that even Black Friday is being debased by greed. It used to be that Black Friday was the weekend to save big bucks, but store chains desperate to show improving bottom lines have expanded it beyond the original concept.

Walmart offered Black Friday savings a full week early on some items in an attempt to avoid the riots that have marred previous Black Fridays. Gray Thursday notes the emerging practice of opening stores on Thanksgiving Day, a sort of negative Miracle on 34th Street effect where if one store opens then all the stores feel they must open to avoid losing sales. Cyber Monday has been added to the list to entice those who prefer not to have to mingle with the hoi polloi.

Folks react differently when I tell them I work in retail. For some, there is a whiff of social stigma attached to it ... definitely a bit déclassé, don't you know. They won't say it, but you can tell they consider retail work to be something one does in high school, perhaps, but not the sort of thing a successful adult would be doing.

Then there are those who have worked retail. The word alone is enough to evoke an immediate connection ... a meeting of the eyes, a knowing nod, an unspoken band-of-brothers moment that is felt in few other occupations. I'm sure cops and ER workers experience the same feeling, the instant understanding that only shared tribulation brings.

The common denominator is working with the public. People can be wonderful or they can be a mess. Like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to get. The only sure thing is that in the few minutes it takes to buy those shirts or shoes, a person's character will be revealed as fully as it is after weeks of therapy. I am continually astonished at the intimate details that people share about their lives. Some of it is heartbreaking to hear. At other times, you can't help but share a laugh. Either way, you are as affected by the transaction as is the customer.

I think every young person should do two things before they settle down: live alone in a big city and work retail. Life in the big city teaches you self-reliance. Working retail teaches you how to read people and control situations. Both experiences breed a self-confidence that will help them throughout their lives. If you can handle the invaders from Planet Me when they are having a bad day, well, you can pretty much handle most anything.