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?

Surfside

The building went down in an area that I used to know well. The appalling collapse of the Champlain Towers South triggered for me a number of thoughts, as I’m sure it did for you. We read into disasters like this not only our observed failures as a society—which Florida for me represents on a grand scale—but our inability to protect ourselves from future calamities that we know are coming.

My parents, when they were alive, lived in a condo in Bay Harbor Islands, just a few blocks across Indian Creek from Surfside. I went to Surfside often, for bagels, for its Jewish ethnicity, its bazaar of stores, the beach and, nearby, the chic Bal Harbour shops. In recent times, Surfside has gotten built up, with more and more condos and an influx of people from all over.

Florida and its developers (commercial and political) have told us it may take years to find the cause of this disaster. They have ignored the unmistakable signs of climate change as a factor. They have also permitted, nay encouraged, the development of Miami and its barrier islands, building high-rise condos on a limestone bed that is totally permeable to constantly rising sea water. It doesn’t take a soothsayer to know that more buildings will come down. We seem temperamentally unable to deal with the effects of climate change that are staring us in the face.

Journalists are particularly cautious about making any such conclusion that climate must be accounted for. They don’t want to scare people and they don’t want to be found mistaken. I think it’s a fairly sure bet that more buildings will fall and more people will die, notwithstanding the engineering analyses. Florida has too many folks acting like the frog in the slowly boiling water.

Susan Matthews of Slate puts it this way: we might be entering a world “where building collapses are just another thing that journalists cautiously acknowledge as catastrophes that might be exacerbated by climate change, but we end up just dealing with them, just like we have learned to deal with the heat waves and the fires and the droughts and the hurricanes.”

May God save all those buried people.

Riding Out the New Normal

Music helps, and so does a good dinner with friends, but it’s hard to be optimistic about the human adventure these days. One’s faith in politics turns out to be a chimera. Religion offers nothing but the phantasm of hope. Reason is displaced by zeal, Aristotle by Hobbes.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was one tough customer but his views on the nature of man and society are coming back. He argued that “if society broke down and you had to live in what he called ‘a state of nature’, without laws or anyone with the power to back them up, you, like everyone else, would steal and murder when necessary.” Life without strong leadership would become in his words “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Well, our strong leaders have become brutish in their quest for power, totally failing their followers—Trump (the prime example), Narendra Modi, Jair Bolsonaro—all truth deniers and narcissists, all failed leaders. One who clamors to join the group is Netanyahu, now pushing for open war with the Palestinians.

In the U.S. and elsewhere the political urge has taken on a Wagnerian quest for mythical power and the fantasies that enable it. Yet there is no Valhalla in sight. I keep hearing echoes of Germany in the early 1930s. For rank chauvinism, Trump’s apostles in the GOP lead the parade.

Stooges like McCarthy and howlers like M.T. Greene (whom AOC guardedly called “deeply unwell”) have created a new theater of the absurd. The only reason now to watch the nightly news is to see what kind of new delusion they have come up with. At the same time old neoliberal gods are being dethroned as, for instance, revelations appear about Bill Gates and Jeffrey Epstein. Melinda, at least, knew she had had it.

Finally, the human adventure itself could ultimately come off the rails through climate change inaction and denial. Everyone knows this and yet the paralysis continues. In the struggle to acknowledge the primacy of the ecosphere, our great leaders have inevitably come down on the side of the techno-industrial society, if you can call it that, though for years it’s been known that continued material growth will lead to disaster.

Hobbes could not have foreseen this exactly, but he knew that the

right of each to all things invites serious conflict, especially if there is competition for resources, as there will surely be over at least scarce goods such as the most desirable lands, spouses, etc. People will quite naturally fear that others may (citing the right of nature) invade them, and may rationally plan to strike first as an anticipatory defense. Moreover, that minority of prideful or “vain-glorious” persons who take pleasure in exercising power over others will naturally elicit preemptive defensive responses from others. Conflict will be further fueled by disagreement in religious views, in moral judgments, and over matters as mundane as what goods one actually needs, and what respect one properly merits.

Eleven years ago William E. Rees (University of British Columbia) wrote these still pregnant words: “The modern world remains mired in a swamp of cognitive dissonance and collective denial seemingly dedicated to maintaining the status quo. We appear, in philosopher Martin Heidegger’s words, to be ‘in flight from thinking.’”

The philosophers, for all their ranting, won’t get us to return to reality. I don’t know what will.

Climate Amnesia: How We Misperceive Chaos and Change

The scariest thing about global warming (and Covid-19)

 Proving the ‘shifting baselines’ theory: how humans consistently misperceive nature

David Roberts opens his impressive Vox piece this way: We lost 2,800 souls to Covid just last Thursday, more than died on 9/11. Instead of jumping to respond to “an unbearable collective national tragedy,” we adjust mentally to it and give it a kind of tacit acceptance. There’s no real national mobilization; half the population goes maskless; millions travel for Thanksgiving. Almost 3,000 deaths? Business as usual.

We’ve adjusted to the virus like we adjust to the inscrutable nature of climate change. Our acquiescence puts the lie to the commonly accepted notion that some horrible sequence of climatic events will shake us out of our torpor. It may be a new normal that the world could not adequately recognize the terrifying apocalyptic fires in Australia last year.

We are victims of what researchers call shifting baselines. Meaning that “our ‘baseline’ shifts with every generation, and sometimes even in an individual. In essence, what we see as pristine nature would be seen by our ancestors as hopelessly degraded, and what we see as degraded our children will view as ‘natural.’”

Roberts explains the behavior this way:

Consider a species of fish that is fished to extinction in a region over, say, 100 years. A given generation of fishers becomes conscious of the fish at a particular level of abundance. When those fishers retire, the level is lower. To the generation that enters after them, that diminished level is the new normal, the new baseline. They rarely know the baseline used by the previous generation; it holds little emotional salience relative to their personal experience.

And so it goes, each new generation shifting the baseline downward.

When the fish finally goes extinct, “No generation experiences the totality of the loss. It is doled out in portions, over time, no portion quite large enough to spur preventative action. By the time the fish go extinct, the fishers barely notice, because they no longer valued the fish anyway.”

Look at the opening sequence of this video for another way of putting it. I remember fishing in Florida in the late 1950s, and the fish were indeed very much larger and more prevalent than they became.

This is about climate amnesia, which operates on both an individual and generational level. We lose our cognizance of the past without being aware of the loss. Roberts asks how in the world can

Americans simply accommodate themselves to thousands of coronavirus deaths a day? As writer Charlie Warzel noted in a recent column, it’s not that different from the numbness they now feel in the face of gun violence. “Unsure how—or perhaps unable—to process tragedy at scale,” he writes, “we get used to it.”

This climate and cultural amnesia is such a common human failing that it’s hard to imagine a way to surmount it. Roberts thinks that finally “there is no substitute for leadership and responsive governance. . . . The most reliable way to stop baselines from shifting is to encode the public’s values and aspirations into law and practice, through politics.”

Well now, since Trump has totally disabled our political system, many have lost hope as well as any coherent sense of the past. I watched Biden on CNN Thursday night, and he did demonstrate a sense of competence and a willingness to look toward the past for solutions. We will need that from him and more.

Ducking the Climate Question

The Climate Won’t Let Us Forget

 Why People Aren’t Motivated to Address Climate Change

 ‘There Is a Real Opportunity Here That I Think Biden Is Capturing’

Climate change is the most overpowering issue of our times—and the least discussed. I searched several leading publications and found it displaced (as you might suspect) by these subjects: Covid, the election outcomes, the new Biden administration, Trump’s ongoing lunacy, sports, celebrities, and politics.

I wrote something that touched on this avoidance about a week ago. The focus was on the distractions that keep us from dealing with climate. Let’s look at it a little differently today. My premise is that the Covid pandemic has skewed how most of us not only live American life but evaluate it.

For instance, consider a recent Politico newsletter headline: “Wall Street rocks as food lines grow.” And further,

Those of us lucky enough to work in jobs we can do remotely have done mostly fine during the pandemic, though perhaps not psychologically. Underneath, Americans are suffering in terrible ways with food lines growing and unemployment claims still at record levels (which they will likely hit again today).

In the face of all our competing interests, who thinks about those dreadful food lines, much less about climate change? We psychologically rank our interests in importance, proximity and potency. And climate is still something remote for many of us. It’s an abstraction to most people and most people don’t deal well with abstract subjects.

Biden appoints a new climate czar in John Kerry, and the news coverage focuses on his background in diplomacy and long-time efforts for climate action. Instead, a friend and I talk about his wife Teresa Heinz, the ketchup heiress. No, we didn’t discuss his policies or Biden’s on climate. People gravitate to what they are exposed to in the media—and their susceptible interests.

Joe Biden very much seems to be making climate a top priority. He has drafted an elaborate $2 trillion over ten years proposal that could be remarkable—if it ever gets through Congress. Climate seems often to be put in a totally political frame. Instead, we would do better to consider it, as many have said, an existential threat.

The Covid pandemic could frame the climate threat for a majority of people, I think. If nothing else, it has made us all disease conscious. Texas Professor Art Markman linked disease to climate in a Harvard Business Review piece two years ago. When I confront climate skeptics, he said,

I ask whether they would be willing to forgo something today to invest in a disease that has a one in five chance of affecting a grandchild. And if so, then I ask how taking climate change seriously is different. You don’t have to be a skeptic to try this logic on yourself. Consider what you’d be willing to forgo today knowing that in one generation there will be serious, catastrophic consequences because of inaction.

The perspective of incipient disease is immediate and powerful. Comparing climate to a catastrophic disease and its long-term effects on a loved one might be one way to cut through the fog of denial.

The Climate Won’t Let Us Forget

There Is Only One Existential Threat. Let’s Talk About It.

Tropical Storm Iota Deals Devastation to Central America Still Recovering from Eta

What Keith Richards Can Teach Us about Beating Our Donald Trump Addiction

The election naturally commanded our public thoughts; now it’s done. Trump perpetually has commanded our attention; finally the fixation may be waning. COVID more than ever forces itself on our presence; a quarter of a million people have now died from it in the U.S.

But the issues of climate change, more formidable than ever, keep bearing down on the world with dreadful frequency and energy. For many, climate issues have recently gotten displaced by politics, but nature is not about to let us discount her power.

Those who live in California won’t soon forget the massive fires that swept their state and are still a threat. Two massive hurricanes a week apart just pummeled Central America, saturating the same areas (an unheard-of event) in Honduras and Nicaragua, “seriously affecting” some 3 million people, and causing many deaths. Hurricane Eta alone in a few days “cost Honduras the equivalent of around twenty per cent of its gross domestic product.”

The campaign and the election have turned into a major distraction from climate change. The political media, the voters and the candidates all gave climate short shrift. Biden was the exception. He has offered a $2 trillion clean energy plan, and proposes to incorporate climate into most other policy areas. If any of this gets done, at least through regulation (if the Senate is a nonstarter), it will be a good beginning.

New York Times writer Farhad Manjoo puts it in context:

But passing a climate plan wouldn’t be a partisan win for Democrats—it would be a win for human beings. Climate change isn’t a policy issue—it’s a reality that every other political question hinges on: jobs, tax policy, national defense, and the size and scope of the welfare state. As climate change becomes increasingly damaging, we will have to think about all of these issues through the larger response to a changing planet.

It’s just too easy to compartmentalize our thoughts about climate. The enormity and extent of what it represents are simply daunting, maybe beyond the ken of most of us. Moreover, our political culture, the media pundits, and of course social media all tend to trivialize and downplay the issues of climate in favor of the latest political sensation.

Well, clearing the ground by getting rid of the Trump addiction might be a first step. John Harris of Politico had some thoughts on this and used the old drugmeister Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones as an example of how to get clean and kick the Trump obsession. Keith learned not only to ignore the junkies around him but to sit back and enjoy their performance.

Harris puts it this way: Trump learned early on

that once you provoke someone into an emotional response they are in a contest on your terms. So he learned how to surprise, to entertain, to confuse and distort, to offend. As he moved to the political arena, Trump exploited one more psychological reality: His supporters are attracted to him precisely because he so easily outrages his opponents.

This means that Trump’s power—just like Keith Richards’ drug transactions—requires two sides to work. His hold on supporters will wane at the same time his hold on political foes and the news media does. Just say no and watch their faces.

This is not like Nancy Reagan’s “Just say no.” It’s the satisfaction in watching a performance that you no longer need to participate in. Maybe that would be a first step to reclaiming the climate values that so drastically need our attention.

Biden the Trimmer

In Praise of Trimmers

Biden’s debate-night comment on oil highlights the delicate tightrope he must walk on climate change

Biden Pledges Ambitious Climate Action. Here’s What He Could Actually Do.

Trimmer is a good old English word, usually meaning “a person who adapts their views to the prevailing political trends for personal advancement,” a flip-flopper in other words. There are other meanings too, according to Cass Sunstein. He describes two kinds of trimmers: compromisers and preservers—those who would pursue a middle course and those who would keep the best of competing positions.

In the last presidential debate (and its consequences) we saw Joe Biden caught up on a comment he made that he would “transition from the oil industry” to fight climate change. Trump jumped all over this, of course, and Biden was later forced to backwater, at least somewhat, from the controversy his comment generated. You know the old phrase, “hoist by his own petard.”

Biden and his aides quickly tried to clean things up, saying that he was talking about ending federal subsidies for oil companies and underscoring the long arc of his plan. “We’re not getting rid of fossil fuels for a long time,” he told reporters later that night.

The liberal climateers were very pleased with the transition remark. House Democrats in Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas were quick to take issue with it. Biden has also had trouble with some ambiguous remarks about fracking. And he has sometimes behaved like what Sunstein would approvingly call a compromiser.

There are plenty of Democrats as well as Republicans upset with his stance on oil. Yet many back his $2 trillion climate plan to counter global warming. Biden knows the politics of this are going to be extremely difficult, and so he is walking a tightrope. Should the Dems win the Senate, the existing filibuster rule will be his biggest obstacle. Some of the pitfalls and difficulties are laid out here.

Several commentators have encouraged Joe to “go big” on the Green New Deal. If he doesn’t he will come off as a trimmer—in the negative sense of that term. But his whole experience in politics has been to seek compromise, work across the aisle, and enlist opposition support.

I think Joe is sincere but in my view he has to stop the trimming and stick to his “transition” sales pitch. In a recent interview with Dan Pfeiffer he made an elaborate defense of his climate plans. As usual, he’s good on the goals but glosses over the political problems in getting there.

You know, we cannot discount the concerns of people, what it means for their well-being and not only in the future and now, but what about how they make a living? That’s why I’m the first person I’m aware of that went to every major labor union in the country and got them to sign on to my climate change plan, which is extensive. We’re going to get to zero net emissions for the production of electricity by 2035. It’s going to create millions of jobs. But we’ve got to let people—we can’t be cavalier about the impact it’s going to have on how we’re going to transition to do all this. But I just think it’s a gigantic opportunity, a gigantic opportunity to create really good jobs.

Boredom, Tedium and Ennui

What Does Boredom Do to Us—and for Us?

Why Boredom Is Anything but Boring

From what I hear, you’re all pandemically bored, right? I have no suggestions of what to do about that but Google uncovers 7,860,000 answers. My thoughts about boredom may or may not make you feel better. After all, it’s our common fate. We’re all in this together, as the Democrats continue to remind us.

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 that most people couldn’t stand to sit alone in a room for fifteen minutes.

A while back some researchers put together what’s been called the most boring video ever.

Other researchers have had study participants watch an instructional film about fish-farm management or copy down citations from a reference article about concrete.” Thanks, I’ll go on hanging up my laundry.

Black Lives Don’t Matter

Of Course There Are Protests. The State Is Failing Black People.

Trump Threatens to Unleash Gunfire on Minnesota Protesters

Horace Silver: The Natives Are Restless Tonight

From the days of the Klan, through Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Ahmaud Arbery and now George Floyd, the U.S. has been saturated with black lynchings—daily, weekly, however you can count them. When I was in college in the 1950s a guy I knew named Clark Eubanks made jokes at the local bar about the recently murdered and mutilated Emmett Till. I was appalled and have never forgotten or forgiven him. My parents, great aficionados of black jazz, would not hire black household help. They could never explain that preferential prejudice.

Such deep strains of racism and fear go back forever in the American culture. They surface especially when the country is in crisis as it is now. The U.S. desperately needs a cultural climate change, and it’s not likely to get one. Trump advocates violence against looters, and the protestors face angry, ill-trained cops. A friend from Minneapolis thinks the police union is at fault, indoctrinating the force in tactics of intimidation and violence.

More than that, it’s the power of the state and the federal government that is exercised against the most vulnerable and persecuted, those it should be defending. A black NY Times opinion writer puts it clearly: “ . . . the fact that Mr. Floyd was even arrested, let alone killed, for the inconsequential ‘crime’ of forgery amid a pandemic that has taken the life of one out of every 2,000 African-Americans is a chilling affirmation that black lives still do not matter in the United States.” The pandemic’s attack on black populations has been simply horrifying. And the trend to lynch innocent people in the street is accelerating. If we needed proof of how the infection spreads, there’s the case of Amy Cooper in Central Park.

Trump called the protestors “THUGS,” a term better applied to his cabinet. May the protestors finally succeed—at least for a moment—in bringing the country out of its racial trance. The natives are restless tonight, and the chickens have come home to roost.

The Coronavirus Blues

Ten Reasons Why a ‘Greater Depression’ for the 2020s Is Inevitable

Why Our Economy May Be Headed for a Decade of Depression

 Welcome to the End of the ‘Human Climate Niche’

I want to call it the coronavirus blues, that empty, groping housebound depression that keeps you from engaging with all that free time. It’s a coma of aimlessness—not really to be compared to clinical depression, though maybe a second cousin. Wearing a mask intensifies the detachment. Even with walks outside one feels alienated from life; taking off the mask doesn’t help much .

Social isolation causes it, and one way or another it seems to infect everybody. Camus called it a “feeling of exile, that sensation of a void within which never left us, that irrational longing to hark back to the past or else to speed up the march of time, and those keen shafts of memory that stung like fire.”

These thoughts are reinforced from reading recent remarks by Nouriel Roubini, the infamous Dr. Doom who was one of a very few who predicted the housing debacle and near-global collapse of the financial system in 2006. Now he predicts something even worse to come, what he calls the Greater Depression, which will make your coronavirus blues look like small change. (How the word depression got to be applied to economic collapse is another story.)

Roubini considers ten factors or trends that will be exacerbated to produce a severe global depression, a series of events that make another crisis inevitable. A summary of the ten: fiscal deficits and private-sector debt; the healthcare crisis and the aging; the coming deflation; currency debasement; digital disruptions like automation; deglobalization and protectionism; populism; the standoff of the U.S. and China; cyberwars accelerating to cold wars; and the environmental disruptions.

Finally in the list he considers man-made climate change.

The Paris Accord said 1.5 degrees. Then they say two. Now, every scientist says, “Look, this is a voluntary agreement, we’ll be lucky if we get three—and more likely, it will be four—degree Celsius increases by the end of the century.” How are we going to live in a world where temperatures are four degrees higher? And we’re not doing anything about it. The Paris Accord is just a joke. And it’s not just the U.S. and Trump. China’s not doing anything. The Europeans aren’t doing anything. It’s only talk.

And then there’s the pandemics. These are also man-made disasters. You’re destroying the ecosystems of animals. You are putting them into cages—the bats and pangolins and all the other wildlife—and they interact and create viruses and then spread to humans. First, we had HIV. Then we had SARS. Then MERS, then swine flu, then Zika, then Ebola, now this one. And there’s a connection between global climate change and pandemics. Suppose the permafrost in Siberia melts. There are probably viruses that have been in there since the Stone Age. We don’t know what kind of nasty stuff is going to get out. We don’t even know what’s coming.

Roubini is one of those economic savants who puts it all together in one totally depressing yet horribly believable package. For some reason, skeptics like this make entire sense to me. His grim analysis, oddly, can offer a program to treat your coronavirus despair, unlike other doom-sayers such as David Wallace-Wells. One takes a kind of weird comfort in thinking that somehow these cheerless predictions can turn into a recipe for reform and, one hopes, reconstruction.