The Good News for 2022

Every new year begins with hope for a better one. This is traditional and expected. After the disasters of 2021 there seems to be a greater push than ever for optimism and change—even while we all feel the negativism out there. So how do you balance hope against realism, wishful thinking against despair? How can anyone account for the unpredictable path of the pandemic?

Some rely on the pseudo-science of forecasting, like the folks at Vox. See “22 things we think will happen in 2022” which features a fairly pompous introduction justifying the imperfect discipline of polling. They see the end of Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, Bolsonaro reelected, and the overturn of Roe v. Wade. Not too hopeful, is it? Most prognosticators like Brian Sullivan of CNBC focus on the economy, predicting a series of booms in areas that a majority of climate activists hope won’t happen—things like more babies and copper mining.

The one positive event that many seem to be ignoring is the launch and deployment of the James Webb telescope, a great scientific achievement that will, sooner or later, alter all our lives. Also, if you can believe the NY Times, Artificial Intelligence will begin to be used

to detect and combat algorithmic bias. Last month, 193 countries signed a first-ever global agreement to devise a common framework for the ethics of A.I. More recently, a researcher unveiled technology that might be used to predict breast cancer in healthy people. And maybe next year, robots will make better calls in baseball games.

One should especially pray for the latter development.

The Times also published an essay by Margaret Renkl entitled, “I Just Turned 60, but I Still Feel 22.” In it she doesn’t talk about feeling 22 but instead rambles on about feminism, getting fatter, and how it feels to be 60. She offers bromides about facing the future. I have to say that anyone who feels they are 22 at age 60 is not really facing the future. Or the past, for that matter.

For me, the really good news for 2022 is that a growing majority of people around the world are finally beginning to face the climate problem. Among them are young people, who of course are the best hope for the future. In an LA Times editorial, Tony Barboza writes that “when participants across the political spectrum were told that growing numbers of people are angry about climate change, they were more inclined to express their own outrage and support taking action.”

Anger and focused rage can be big motivators in persuading local officials and federal representatives to finally do something about the climate. 2022 could be a turning point. There’s always hope.

The Nutmeg’s Curse

The reviews of Amitav Ghosh’s new book, The Nutmeg’s Curse, have not always been positive. Some have declared it to be anti-science. Yet others, like Roy Scranton, found that it “elegantly and audaciously reconceives modernity as a centuries-long campaign of omnicide, against the spirits of the earth, the rivers, the trees, and even the humble nutmeg, then makes an impassioned argument for the keen necessity of vitalist thought and non-human narrative.” I’m with Roy, with a few reservations.

The overall best review I found with a contemporary context is here, in The New Yorker.

Ghosh begins with a narrative of how the 17th century Dutch arrived at the Banda Islands in the Pacific to capture, enslave and kill the islanders in order to insure a monopoly on, of all things, the nutmeg, that highly treasured spice. He finds these events a paradigm for how colonialism and the “free” market have come to dominate trade by subjugation. The result is also tied inextricably to climate change and the rebellion of nature it embodies.

The U.S. has led this robust decadence through military and economic dominance. These are Ghosh’s carefully chosen words:

The job of the world’s dominant military establishments is precisely to defend the most important drivers of climate change—the carbon economy and the systems of extraction, production, and consumption that it supports. Nor can these establishments be expected to address the unseen drivers of the planetary crisis, such as inequities of class, race, and geopolitical power: their very mission is to preserve the hierarchies that favor the status quo.

And our New Yorker reviewer Olufemi O. Taiwo finds that

Ghosh sees potential in what it calls a “vitalist” politics, and in an associated ethic of protection that would extend to “rivers, mountains, animals, and the spirits of the land.” Ghosh identifies this ethos, in contrast to the world-as-resource view, with peasants and farmworkers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America—places and people long seen as peripheral to history.

So in one way the book is a history of vitalism, culminating in the Gaia concept: “that living organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a synergistic and self-regulating, complex system that helps to maintain and perpetuate the conditions for life on the planet.”

In Ghosh’s terms:

The awareness of a Gaia-like earth did not wither away of itself because of literacy; it was systematically exterminated, through orgies of bloodletting that did not spare Europe, although its violence was directed most powerfully at the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. Yet, not only has that awareness survived among the Indigenous people of the Americas; many of them also credit their perceptions of the Earth with having made their own survival possible, in the face of exterminatory violence. Never have these perceptions of the Earth mattered more than at this moment when the mechanistically ordered world of modernity is disintegrating before our very eyes.

As I said earlier, I have a few reservations about this really wonderful book. One is that vitalism can be undercut (and often is) by superstition and turgid magical thinking. Ghosh documents this but not sufficiently so.

Also, it’s hard for an old rationalist like me to accept this total spiritualizing of nature. Yet the alternatives seem to have led the world deeply astray. If you accept Ghosh’s arguments about our awful colonialist appropriation of nature, his approach to vitalism, or something like it, must follow.

The book makes you think of the many varieties of human wretchedness and, maybe, of human possibilities for redemption. More than a critique, this is an indictment of much Western thinking. In its way it is finally a religious statement.

Bites That Itch to Be Scratched

I came home from a week’s vacation to find that cockroaches, at least four or five, had taken over my kitchen. Cursing and swatting them ultimately makes no difference, since they will thrive no matter what you do. Just stay out of the kitchen at five a.m.

Similarly, despite your insistent urge to scratch mosquito bites, you know that will only make them worse. The bugs continually remind us of our powerlessness over them. And of course they will be here long after we humans are swept away by climate change or another disaster.

For me and many of you, we now live in a world that seems driven by forces we can no longer control, if we ever did. Nature responds with unmistakable signals. So does Covid; so does our politics.

Trump, the biggest cockroach of all, has created a movement that will thrive even without him. His political opponents keep trying to find new kinds of bug sprays that won’t work. It’s like those who defend growing organic food by claiming they use organic bug sprays—a ridiculous contradiction in terms.

The planetary and political disasters we face are all man-made. They are a consequence of hubris—that is, trying to be godlike, flying too near the sun and, mostly, presuming that man’s law supersedes nature’s. We see it everywhere, from the proliferation of space and plastic junk to political movements denying the will of voters.

We are now in the process of committing one of mankind’s greatest acts of hubris ever in challenging the gods of nature. Climate change may be the final act in response to man’s defiance of the natural world. The punishment is going to be severe beyond our imagining. COVID-19 is a signal warning, its spread enabled by climate change.

I have been harping on this in the blog and referring to Amitav Ghosh frequently, as he is one of the few who sees the impending danger very broadly.

The hubris embodied in our myth of perpetual progress and growth has led modern capitalism to this state. Our myopic focus on extraction, deforestation, paving, overfishing, carbonizing (the list goes on) has made us blind to what we are doing to nature and what this disrespect will lead to. One who does understand this is Amitav Ghosh, whose book The Great Derangement I reviewed here last year.

Ghosh has a new one out, called The Nutmeg’s Curse, to be reviewed here when I finish it. Basically he argues that western colonialism through centuries of “omnicide” (murderous conquest and exploitation) has now brought us to a crisis not only of the environment but of our culture.

The same thing is true with the crisis in our politics and geopolitics. The recent ills that have come to beset us have a deep and complex history. The many racial, ethnic and religious conflicts, the flaws of capitalism—all comprehended in climate change—are confounded by the predilections of many who believe in lies, rumors and fantasies, and the propensity of tech and media to intensify them.

It would be nice to find a grand solution to all this confusion, but that doesn’t appear likely. Are the cockroaches really going to take over?

The Mad Craziness

Ralph Steadman, Police Convention 1971

To honor the memory of Hunter S. Thompson we’ve assembled some factoids regarding the mental health of the U.S. population. As one who follows such things, I’ll note that it has gotten considerably more hopeless since Hunter’s time.

    • Thirty-nine percent of them believe the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. Forty percent trust far-right news.
    • “In the hours following the Arizona call [for Biden], a paranoid conspiracy theory spread rapidly on Parler and in other right-wing online forums: Voters in conservative counties had been given felt-tip pens that supposedly made vote-counting machines reject the ballots that they marked for Trump.”
    • “It was at a Turning Point USA event at Boise State University Monday that a member of the audience asked organizer Charlie Kirk, ‘How many elections are they going to steal before we kill these people?’”
    • A US senator [Ted Cruz] loudly defended a man who gave a Nazi salute as a protest at a school board meeting.
    • The unconstitutional Texas law that effectively bans all abortions is now being heard by the Supreme Court. The Court has agreed to duck the constitutional issue and to decide only procedural questions.
  • And we could go on—about Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert and the other loonies—but you get the drift, and it’s all historical, of course. Hunter Thompson was our political harbinger, and what he had to say about Nixon goes double for Trump:

Writing about the final days as president of his nemesis Richard Nixon, Mr. Thompson observed, “The slow-rising central horror of ‘Watergate’ is not that it might grind down to the reluctant impeachment of a vengeful thug of a president whose entire political career has been a monument to the same kind of cheap shots and treachery he finally got nailed for, but that we might somehow fail to learn something from it.”

Finally, Some Sense on Climate

The discussion on how to control the out-of-control climate has always seemed to me somehow out of whack. Climate doctors invariably focus on changing our energy sources, but pay little attention to how to cool this rapidly overheating planet. And that is the presenting problem.

Dr. David Keith, a professor of applied physics and of public policy at Harvard, finally addresses this crucial issue in “What’s the Least Bad Way to Cool the Planet?” He offers what will be to many a new framework for addressing our most immediate urgency.

Eliminating emissions by about 2050 is a difficult but doable goal. Suppose it is achieved. Average temperatures will stop increasing when emissions stop, but cooling will take thousands of years as greenhouse gases slowly dissipate from the atmosphere. Because the world will be a lot hotter by the time emissions reach zero, heat waves and storms will be worse than they are today. And while the heat will stop getting worse, sea level will continue to rise for centuries as polar ice melts in a warmer world.

Keith’s conclusion is that we need both to stop carbon emissions and find ways to cool the planet. To do the latter we need some form of social geoengineering, likely in the form of reflecting sunlight. As another report notes, such technologies will likely involve “adding small reflective particles to the upper atmosphere, by increasing reflective cloud cover in the lower atmosphere, or by thinning high-altitude clouds that can absorb heat.” The report acknowledges that there may be “an array of unknown or negative consequences.” And many critics have focused on these. Others have tried to account for them.

The other way to reduce heat is by using carbon removal (capturing it from the air) technologies. This, it seems to Keith, is far less feasible, considering the scale and time required to bring it about.

Planting sufficient trees would require a lengthy and immense transformative effort. Industrial removal methods must confront the challenge that there is just too much carbon to remove from the air in too short a time. The technology is nowhere in place.

The challenge is that a carbon removal operation—industrial or biological—achieves nothing the day it starts, but only cumulatively, year upon year. So, the faster one seeks that one degree of cooling, the faster one must build the removal industry, and the higher the social costs and environmental impacts per degree of cooling.

Geoengineeering—e.g., putting sulfur particles into the stratosphere—sounds “reckless,” says Keith, and will surely exacerbate some climate changes, but

the harms that would result by shaving a degree off global temperatures would be small compared with the benefits. Air pollution deaths from the added sulfur in the air would be more than offset by declines in the number of deaths from extreme heat, which would be 10 to 100 times larger.

And, of course, the “grand challenge is geopolitical.” What countries would get to decide on such a course and execute it? And for how long? Carbon removal is the safest path, but “solar geoengineering may well be able to cool the world this century with less environmental impacts and less social and economic disruption. Yet no one knows, because the question is not being asked.”

More research, and there is very little now, is essential. “Cooling the planet to reduce human suffering in this century will require carbon removal or solar geoengineering or both.”

Boredom, Tedium and Ennui Continues

Have we been able to break out of the Covid blues in the past year? What new rounds of exciting things to do have emerged? I’ve now got a regular weekly poker game with friends, and what else? Our biggest excitement was acquiring the vaccine, and that doesn’t alleviate boredom. Aside from folding laundry, most rely on TV and wine. I wrote the following in August 2020, and it still applies.

Isolation makes some people angry. Some take up knitting or art. Some are just bored to tears. I have experienced plenty of boredom in my life, starting with early formal dinners with my parents. Most classes in high school produced long stretches of stifling tedium. In graduate school my friends and I used to entertain each other by getting drunk and reading aloud from the Oxford English Dictionary. Kids today resort to their phones during lectures.

With the pandemic I find myself sleeping a lot more. I often avoid getting up in the morning, lying in bed and letting the mind wander into frivolous paths. Avoidance of boredom often produces more boredom: watching baseball on TV, trying to get into a boring book, avoiding the exercise machine.

It’s hard to agree on what constitutes boredom. Is the capitalist system at fault? Is boredom a social construct? A built-in human response? Margaret Talbot recently wrote a wonderful anatomy of boredom, which you ought to read. She touches on the many definitions and descriptions of the complaint. Here’s one I like: “a cognitive state that has something in common with tip-of-the-tongue syndrome—a sensation that something is missing, though we can’t quite say what.”

Some think it’s inherent in the human condition. Others, like Margaret, see it as a function of how we work and live, part of the capitalist nightmare:

David Graeber, in his influential “bullshit jobs” thesis, argues that the vast expansion of administrative jobs—he cites, for example, “whole new industries,” such as financial services and telemarketing—means that “huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed.” The result can be soul-choking misery.

The French call boredom ennui, which adds the suggestion of lassitude or languor. Baudelaire’s great poem “Au Lecteur” (To My Reader) identifies it with decadence and death, calling all of us brothers, tainted with the apathy of evil. The best book I ever read on boredom is Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.

There’s an old saying from Pascal that most people couldn’t stand to sit alone in a room for fifteen minutes.

O Solitudo!

Here’s a blog I posted on July 4 of 2020. More than a year later I’ve gotten clearer about the benefits (and the downsides) of living alone. As the insanity around us grows, I find comfort with friends. But the routines and rituals I talked about here have helped me gain equanimity if not some tolerance for the irrational behavior of our species. I might write a book about it.

 The morning is easy. I have my routines after waking—breakfast, then the computer for an hour or two, checking out email and the news sites. Besides the usual Trumpcrap, there are always a few uplifting pieces like “Unemployment, isolation and depression from COVID-19 may cause more ‘deaths of despair.’”

Solitude isn’t always bleak. I’ve been living alone for years, mostly liking it, but the virus has put a new dimension on it. Instead of filling up one’s down time with friends, amusements and travels, we are for the most part confined to quarters. My life was bound by solitude before this; now there is more of it and it’s enforced.

Things got more pressing after I finished writing and publishing Moot Testimonies a couple of months ago. Searching for another writing project made me anxious and uptight. I finally gave that over for small bouts of exercise, TV, reading, a lot of sleeping, and music—none of which has proved very satisfying. I couldn’t develop or keep to the routines which are necessary to flatten time.

Occasional Zooms with family and friends didn’t do it for me. Trips to the market I eagerly looked forward to: just give me some masked human contact, for Christ’s sake! Finally I remembered Thoreau, the king of solitude, and “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” It wasn’t despair that I felt but a nagging need to fill time with something productive or absorbing. I think we’ve all felt that.

I picked up Octavio Paz the other day, to reread The Labyrinth of Solitude and its search for Mexican identity. The book begins this way:

Self-discovery is above all the realization that we are alone: it is the opening of an impalpable, transparent wall—that of our consciousness—between the world and ourselves. . . . It is true that we sense our aloneness almost as soon as we are born, but children and adults can transcend their solitude and forget themselves in games or work.

We do rely on games or work. In the COVID solitude we have to create them, and that is not easy. Yet if you face the prospect of solitude with some equanimity, you will beat it. We can import or create the routines and rituals that have sustained us, and perhaps they will flourish. What we bring to solitude is what grows there.

Coming to Grips

After 98 people died in the Champlain Towers collapse, you’d think that many condo boards in Florida would be on edge—about their long-deferred repairs, faulty inspections, costs, accountability for insurance, and their failures to act. A board finally gets estimates from qualified people, and its members scream bloody murder about the costs. So essential maintenance is put off and nothing gets done.

For far too long, condominium owners have, in essence, eaten at the table and then left the restaurant, moving on and leaving subsequent owners to pay the bill for maintenance that should have been carried out long ago. That’s why crucial decisions about structural, fire and electrical problems must always be made by professionals, not members of condo boards. . . . [Their] general attitude has often been, “Why pay today for what you can put off until tomorrow?”

At Champlain Towers, its condo association “took two and a half years, after much internal strife, to pass a special $15 million assessment. For years, the association had not set aside enough money to deal with the problems, forcing the large special assessment to pay for them.” Those members who wanted to face the issues instead faced resignations of frustrated or intransigent board members.

One could compare this to the same impulse that keeps people from getting vaccinated. It’s another kind of denial and, like the condo boards, the unvaccinated claim ultimately bogus reasons for not acting. Some 93 million people “are eligible for shots but have chosen not to get them.” A thorough NY Times article breaks down the refusers into two groups: those who adamantly trash the vaccines (will never get it) and those who are persuadable.

That is, they either deny the reality and threat of the disease, or they offer a multitude of excuses for their hesitation. Among the latter: presumed side effects, waiting to see if it’s safe, not trusting the vaccines, not trusting the government, assuming they can repel the disease, and so on.

I think many can’t face the idea of possible death. It’s hubris, finally, this thinking that the virus will somehow pass them by, that the condo maintenance can be postponed, that you can beat the devil.

Nor can some Americans come to grips with the notion that Trump over and again demonstrates: that he is a mentally incompetent swindler, a threat to democracy. As to climate change, they are acting like the condo boards—grudgingly acknowledging the reality but failing to act. Racism is recognized if not tolerated. Denial is the agenda of the Republican party.

Ibram X. Kendi in The Atlantic writes that “Denial Is the Heartbeat of America.” He cites a number of political leaders who all claimed that January 6th “is just not who we are,” that it was un-American. But their kind of blind denial has always been central to American history and American politics, as Kendi shows. Our time is no different.

A Modest Proposal to Deal with the Unvaccinated

Well, you got a situation here that’s pretty outrageous. These idiots are maybe 40% of the population, and if things keep going this way, they’re gonna infect most all the rest of us. The public health people like Fauci are pretty good at scaring us about the unvaccinated, but they got no good solutions on how to deal with ‘em.

At the bar last night me and my friends came up with a few. You may find some of ‘em a little harsh but we don’t recommend outright killing these “purveyors of pestilence,” at least for now.

One-Eyed Jack said, “We got the biggest standing army in the world. Most of the time since Afghanistan they’re just sitting on their ass. Put ‘em in combat gear and send ‘em door to door to have a little talk with these people. Put on a mask and get your shots is the message. Or you’ll be on our list of subversives and threats to the American Way. Meaning fines for going without masks, no more government benefits, IRS harassment—it’ll be like a big No-Fly List.”

“That won’t work,” says Blade Runner. “These people don’t give a shit, and they hate government anyway. I think just let ‘em get sick and close the hospitals to people who aren’t vaccinated. The disease will take its course—and we got way too many red state Republican nitwits out there anyway. Setting up more crematoriums will make the economy grow.”

Darth Schwartz had another idea. “We should put ‘em in camps, like we did with the Japanese in WW II, electric fences and guard dogs. They’d be happier with their compatriots anyway. Maybe make ‘em wear yellow stars.”

Biden should think about that. He wants to be like FDR anyway.

On Covid

It seems the world is on its way to losing the game of fighting the Covid virus. What that will finally mean we can’t yet know, but warnings abound. We see Europe’s fumbling responses, the continuing disaster in India, the confused and irrational reactions from masses of Americans—and the obvious conclusion is that many more will die, the variants will easily proliferate, and the world will incorporate this virus into its domicile of disease, just as it does with cancer.

There is something maniacal about Covid, its ability to adapt and thrive, multiply and avoid the vaccines, and finally infect people’s minds. J.M. Coetzee wrote about this some fourteen years ago in an excellent lesser-known book of his opinions called Diary of a Bad Year. I just finished reading it and was struck by the author’s visionary thinking—and how little we have learned in those fourteen years. Here are some excerpts.

If we can speak meaningfully of viruses as possessing or being possessed by a drive or instinct, it is an instinct to replicate and multiply. As they multiply they take over more and more host organisms. It can hardly be their intention (so to speak) to kill their hosts. What they would like, rather, is an ever-expanding population of hosts. . . .

The protagonists are involved in a strategic game, a game resembling chess in the sense that the one side attacks, creating pressure aimed at a breakthrough, while the other defends and searches for weak points at which to counterattack. . . . Two parties who embark on a game of chess implicitly agree to play by the rules. But in the game we play against the viruses there is no such founding convention. It is not inconceivable that one day the virus will make the equivalent of a conceptual leap and, instead of playing the game, will begin to play the game of game-playing, that is to say, will begin to reform the rules to suit its own desire. . . .

We assume that, as long as it is applied with enough tenacity, human reason must triumph (is fated to triumph) over other forms of purposive activity because human reason is the only form of reason there is, the only key that can unlock the codes by which the universe works. Human reason, we say, is universal reason.

But what if there are equally powerful modes of “thinking,” that is, equally effective biochemical processes for getting to where your drives or desires incline you? What if the contest to see on whose terms warm-blooded life will continue on this planet does not prove human reason to be the winner? The recent successes of human reason in its long contest with virus thinking should not delude us, for it has held the upper hand a mere instant in evolutionary time. What if the tide turns; and what if the lesson contained in that turn of the tide is that human reason has met its match?