Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Marking 5 years since Hurricane Katrina, Ed at Ginandtacos writes about the stages of "issue attention cycles."  From the pre-crisis stage, where, "All of the conditions exist for a crisis, but no one is interested. No attention is paid to the underlying, obvious, and persistent problems that will eventually become the crisis. "  Through alarmed discovery of the crisis and euphoric enthusiasm for solving it, on to realizing the true costs, followed by declining interest and the post crisis stage.  The last, according to Ed, "is misleading because nothing about the crisis has been resolved, but in the public mind it is history. We all did our part by pledging $25 to the Red Cross, and since the stories are disappearing from the TV and newspapers we can only assume that the problem has gone away."

It's a depressing cycle in which nothing is learned about the underlying causes to our crises, and the stage is simply re-set for the next one.

From the comments:

Ladiesbane: Do you think Thomas S. Kuhn read this, prior to writing The Structure of Scientific Revolutions chapter on paradigm shift in 1962? Or that Elisabeth Kubler-Ross read either prior to her model of the stages of grief in 1969? Each might have been formulated each separately, but all seem to touch on the same stages of "Doobie-doobie-doo…what?-No!-Damn.-I guess so.–Doobie-doobie-doo…."

Andy Brown: So, we have two obvious choices, join the mealy-minded masses in (to paraphrase ladiesbane), the cycles of doobie-doobie doo interruptus, or sit in our theater chairs like Alex de Large with his eyelids pried open, witnessing, but ultimately helpless to change the spectacle no matter what we do. And Beethoven gets ruined. Where's our third choice?

jazzbumpa:  As ladiesbane rather obliquely points out, this is just human nature.  We are fallible creatures, ruled more by emotion than logic, with short attention spans and no coherent understanding about what is actually good or bad for us over any time span longer than what's-for-dinner.  I'm not at all sure coming down from the trees was a good idea.

Andy Brown: JzB, [regarding coming down from the trees]  It wasn't our idea. The trees died out and left us ground-bound on the savannah, blinking in the sun. So at least we're consistent.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

I remember when I first saw the Talking Heads concert film, Stop Making Sense.  I was in Munich so it must have been the winter of 1985-86.  I don't recall so much the film, as walking the city afterwards with my friends and feeling unutterably happy.  I was in love, I was abroad, I was young and infinite, and David Byrne was brilliant.  It was good to be human.

This week some friends had given Monica some garden loot, and so I made tzatziki with yogurt and garlic and cucumber.  And Monica made spicy kebobs from Scott's beef, and a salad of tomatoes, olives, feta, cucumber, red onions and vinegar.  We put pitas in the toaster until they swelled into steam-ful spheres.  And though I failed to find retsina, the Toasted Head Chardonnay rose to the occasion.

And we watched the movie and god-dammit, it was still good to be human.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

After a long, wearying week of trying (with only mixed success) to plant the cognitive terrain of Americans with new information about nitrogen pollution, I was happy that Monica's colleagues at the nature center were pot-lucking the end of summer out on Mason's Island.  The long chain of weekly summer camps had finally played out -- though weeks too soon for the disgustingly tanned and fit Monica, who's not looking forward to trading her khaki shorts and water bottle for the slacks and lesson-plans of Señora Gallego, Spanish teacher and van-driver.  

People gathered at the old family house of the director -- if you can call a house old that's been erased by hurricanes in 1938 and then again in 1954.  The foundations at least have stood along the water for over a hundred years.  The weather was beautiful after four dreary days of rain and the sun set gaudily out over the water.  Herons and gulls and osprey cruised.  Kids pattered up and down the dock and I was glad I had none of my own there -- if kids fell in, got pinched by crabs or stung by jellyfish, well the kids weren't mine.  Steve set a couple of the older ones up with rods and they landed good-sized sand sharks.

The food was fantastic - much of it fresh from gardens - like edible works of art that filled one's veins with vitality and will to live.

Friday, August 27, 2010

John Holdren, via Climate Progress sums up the situation when it comes to the global experiment in heat-trapping:
We basically have three choices: mitigation, adaptation and suffering. We’re going to do some of each. The question is what the mix is going to be. The more mitigation we do, the less adaptation will be required and the less suffering there will be.
What's terrifying all the climate scientists now is that we seemed to have ruled out mitigation altogether -- that is, we are going to do nothing to try to reduce the intensity of global climate change.  (Changing lightbulbs, adjusting mpg requirements, and building every 10th building "green" doesn't count.)   If worst case scenarios don't get realized, it will not be because humans suddenly decided that future generations deserved a habitable world, it will only be because the experiment in endless growth and triumphal materialism crashed to the ground prematurely.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Ed over at Gin and Tacos is collecting tales of travel woe, so I didn't resist adding one, vintage 1986.

If it's a question of helpless travel suffering . . . I remember my friend and I were on an overnight train through Yugoslavia (back when there was such a place) and 5 local workmen piled into the compartment made for 6. And settled in, kicking off their shoes, the fumes from which immediately drove all oxygen from the train, or would have if the window had opened, so maybe the oxygen just died. Even the cheap Russian cigarettes that someone was always smoking, couldn't compete. Propped by the entryway door we at least got the occasional welcome whiff of diesel exhaust, but couldn't even pass into unconsciousness, because the 5 guys only had 4 tickets between them, so somebody had to climb over us and go hide in the bathroom whenever the clairvoyant one thought the ticket taker might be coming.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

People are strange creatures.  They talk a lot.  Not just to exchange information, though they do.  Not just to posture and jockey for regard or status, though they do.  Not just to craft a persona or witness a crafting, though they do.  Nor just to form a connection, to entertain and be surprised with laughter or pique, to learn about another's limits or the histories they traverse, nor just to elicit a reaction, to make the empty air something human, to make or tell a story.

Wednesday Monica had spent the day with her young campers in the mossy brooks, and I'd spent mine prospecting in the internet for memes and analogies and arguments and rhetorical constructions about government privatization, and Iuri had turned mice marrow green for tracking proteins through the brain/blood barrier, and Sarka had dwelt on her new unemployment and her children away off on another continent.  We gathered at the Dog Watch Cafe and we talked.  We talked through the beers and bouillabaisse at the restaurant, and  dockside we talked through more beers as the sun set like molten gold behind the still masts of Stonington Harbor.  We talked under the stars and satellites, and around the kitchen island that Sarka cluttered with foods and sauces from the refrigerator.  We talked until it was the next day and it was too late to go home, what with another workday stalking up, and so they went up to their bed and we went below to the guest bed and we all stopped talking for a few quiet hours.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

My sources with televisions tell me there is much debate among the stupid about whether Muslims ought to be shamed or intimidated into not worshiping (or playing basketball) too close to the 9-11 site.  Punditiots, politicians and their lazy media barkers making people stupider and stupider.

It's not so much that they have murdered democracy, it's more that they have tortured it into imbecility, let it befoul itself with its own feces, then put a funny hat and clown shoes on it. You can't help but turn away.

Monday, August 16, 2010

I am not really interested in spending a fortune on a Prius or one of the industry's new coal-powered cars like the Chevy Volt or Nissan Leaf.  So it warmed my environmentalist heart to see the New York Times talking up the movement toward updating the 4 cylinder engine.  Our 1997 Saturn station wagon, may be lacking in glamour (and missing some paint), but it still gets 34-35 mpg.  New smaller, lighter, non-sci-fi cars, likewise might not be a glamorous solution to our ecological problems, but in the short-term it's certainly likely to be a bigger help then Chevy's $40,000 bauble.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Buckwheat Zydeco were playing a free concert along the Thames in New London, so I  went down to Bank Street with friends (who're also momentarily kid-free) to holler and take in the cajun music.  Monica joined us later looking good in an orange and black dress that got compliments from drunks and sober alike.  After, as we had beers along the bustling street we felt that we had discovered an oasis of urban life.  

Friday, August 13, 2010

I've been research director on some communications projects focused on sustainability -- trying to get the public to understand the concept. It's easy to get fooled into believing that people understand what you're talking about, only to discover later that their perceptions were quite different from what you thought. There are certain parts of the sustainability story that are easy to tell -- resource depletion or economic viability, for example -- and then there are parts of the story that are nearly impossible to tell. One of these is the relationship between diversity and resilience (especially when it comes to sub-optimal, even maladaptive, traits and forms).  Across the long term a diversity of imperfections makes whatever system more resilient and ready for changes.   

Evolutionary biologists have the best grasp on it, since non-optimal forms are the stuff that evolutionary change is built of.  People who take the long view, ecologists like Wendell Berry or meta-farmers like Sharon Astyk, understand that this applies to our food system as well.  At the moment our tendency toward monoculture, genetically narrow breeds, and our one-size-fits-all approaches make us vulnerable to any kind of change (whether it’s a new pest, climate weirding or the declining availability of cheap fossil fuel).  Things always change eventually, and when change comes we'll want more rather than fewer varieties to choose from.

But Americans tend to believe there is always a "best" variety, and it is very, very hard for most people to really see the value in having a system full of waste and noise and inefficiencies (that is, diversity).  

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Backyard Blogging

Bergamot brings the bees.

A Pearl Crescent butterfly in the shadows of the
Brown-Eyed Susans.

Friday, August 6, 2010

I remember the month that I first started eating raw tomatoes and olives.  Traveling in Greece in March 1986.  I could subsist on a fair amount of souvlaki, fries and Amstel, and I'd discovered moussaka.   But a body also needs to eat a little lighter sometimes, and there wasn't much fresh to eat at that time of year.  But there was the salad -- always fresh tomatoes, red onion, olives, some fresh herbs and a dash of olive oil.  Some bread and tzatziki on the side.  If I ever start growing tomatoes it'll be a result of those Greek salads.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Every morning lately there's been a brisk traffic of small yellowjackets passing in and out from under a decorative chunk of wood a few feet away from the side door.  I'd been meaning to massacre them at some point.  (I like wasps.  If I were an entomologist I would study wasps.  But some of us are territorial.)  I wanted the massacre to happen after dark, when they were all back in the nest, but I kept forgetting.

Finally, yesterday one of them gave me a remarkably painful sting on my temple, and that settled it.  (I would still have forgotten, but I went out one last time before bed to see if there were any signs of the aurora borealis lingering from the recent sunburst.  And sitting there in the night I remembered them.)

We have a can of ant poison -- probably left here by the previous owners 5 years ago -- but I figured that most deadly consumer products have a good shelf life and one insecticidal toxin is a good as another.  If it didn't work the screen door was only six feet away.

I'd confronted yellowjackets before -- spraying insecticide as best I could down into the burrow they dig.  I figured I'd tip over the wood, find the hole, spray into it, cover it with a rock and hope that discouraged enough of them.  

Well, when I tipped over the wood, up came the whole volley-ball sized hive, swarming with black and yellow wasps.  It's a good thing I waited until night because they were just surprised enough and sluggish enough to enable me give the whole thing a fatal soaking of ant poison.

There must have been 5 or 6  hundred larva on the way.  They were clearly planning on conquest.


Wednesday, August 4, 2010

I leave the occasional comment over at the Archdruid's green wizardry effort . . . .

Today's theme . . . . compost.

Because we haven't been doing a kitchen garden, we have been able to be pretty generous with our scraps. Yes we get a wheelbarrow of good dirt out of the compost heap now and then, but it accumulates slowly. That's mostly because the annelids and microbes only seem to get what the neighbors don't swipe. That is, the stuff we discard gets taken by (or as I like to think, "transformed into") crows, jays, raccoons, deer, coyotes, vultures, wasps, flies, and I suspect, fishers, mice and salamanders. Dragonflies, phoebes, red-shouldered hawks, garter snakes and so on hang around -- as though it were some sort of little Serengeti waterhole -- to snap up the unwary visitors. 

Earlier, when I thought about becoming more dependent on the garden, and protecting my compost a bit from the their depredations, I kind of regretted the unneighborly attitude that goes along with gardening -- kill the bugs, harass the woodchuck, fence out the deer -- but now I'm thinking that if I gardened more, I would just have more compost to share!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Sharon Astyk has a nice post up on her blog about the way in which government and business after World War ll strove together to obscure for people how our "private" actions (like what we eat, what we buy, how we live and work) were artificially severed from the "public" sphere (obscuring how our collective resources are consumed, shaped, distributed; how power and opportunity come to be distributed so unevenly among different groups).  She implies that people were relieved of their responsibility for their actions even as they were gradually transformed into lucrative consumers and better subjects (as opposed to citizens) for government.

She makes a pretty persuasive case, but the comments show the difficulty that people have with this kind of argument.  Americans, like every other set of humans, are thoroughly enmeshed in all kinds of constraining relationships (with powerful institutions, with other people, with the narrow boundaries of normal discourse and politics, with material limitations -- the list goes on).  Unlike many other peoples, however, Americans prefer a self-image that denigrates and denies most of these limitations (and connections) in favor of an ideology of Individualism and Self-Invention.  In this ideology, to the extent that you are "bound" by limitations and connections, this is a concession or even failure on your part.  The ideal is to maximize your independence, your liberty, as much as you have the strength to manage and master it.

The problem, at least when you are making an argument like Astyk's, is that such people have a strong motivation not only to resent limits, but to deny those limitations, even to themselves.  That is, they blind themselves to the way in which they are enmeshed with other people and institutions (in relations of power, submission, reciprocity, mutual assured destruction, etc.) and constrained by some very real limits in terms the material and cultural options they're given.  So, when Astyk points out that we can't just go on acting as though the "public" has no stake in something like our "private" consumption, they interpret that to mean someone is coming to take their freedom away.  They may believe in the "freedom" they've built and they react negatively to being pushed toward a vision of something that seems to be (and even claims to be) as much about limits as freedoms.

In this particular case, it's not about less or more freedom, but about not being hoodwinked.  Astyk points out that we have been living in a society where the true extents of our freedoms, our responsibilities and our limits have been systematically misrepresented to us, and we ought to negotiate a better arrangement - a new position on that spectrum of freedoms and limitations that serves our interests and more honestly reflects our values.  It's about inhabiting one's responsibilities with intention and clarity and satisfaction and knowledge, and carving one's own place within that.  

But that's not an argument that a lot of people like to hear.  Hell, often enough it's not even an argument that I like to hear!