Tuesday, February 22, 2005

The Best of All Possible Worlds

The recently published article was entitled America values jobs over unproven restrictions. "Restrictions" are those required under the recently implemented Kyoto Protocol, the treaty to deal with global warming. The writers of the article are members of a Washington, D.C. think-tank. Out of curiosity, I located their web site.

The organization's guiding philosophy is letting the free market have its way. The best of all worlds would appear to be one where government plays little or no role and regulations are mostly an impediment to the "genius" of the market place. Right.

Of course, feudalism was at one time the "perfect" solution. After feudalism we discovered the "divine" right of kings--sacred, inviolate--which eventually disappeared in history's ashcan. I think it's time to lift the ashcan cover again.

Like the proverbial war and the generals, global warming ( and environmental degradation ) in the twenty-first century is too important to be left to global capitalism. Most certainly the kind espoused by the leadership in the United States.

Global warming is occurring and has the potential of becoming a very nasty crisis, far more serious than religious fascism and the "war on terrorism." The U.S., the number one emitter of carbon dioxide in the world, by not being a participant in the Kyoto Protocol, has clearly made itself a significant part of the problem.

In the U.S. the assorted opponents of the Kyoto Protocol have had three principal reasons: ( 1 ) it's an environmental hoax, ( 2 ) it would hurt the economy and cost jobs and ( 3 ) it needs more study before we can reach any decision. As well, a fourth reason is now popping up more frequently. Yes ... perhaps global warming is occurring, but after two centuries of industrialization, we can't do much about it now. Best we not build any more condominiums on Florida's coast though. This dysfunctional, cartoon capitalism needs to be confronted.

The science is not in dispute. No, we do not know all the possible causes of global warming. No, we don't know the exact extent of the human contribution to the problem. But that global warming is occurring, and faster than we perhaps once thought, is clear to the vast majority of scientists that study climate change. The chairman of the International Panel on Climate Change ( a group comprised of more than 2,000 scientific and technical experts ) stated recently that "we are risking the ability of the human race to survive."

The noise about global warming being some kind of a trick foisted on the American public is a common theme, often uttered by influential politicians like U.S. Senator James Inhofe--sadly--the chairman of the Environmental and Public Works Committee, and one of the major recipients of campaign contributions from the energy industry. Industrial lobbyists and their various front groups are spending millions of dollars to thwart all serious efforts at dealing with the issue.

And there is the matter of "job loss" that continually comes up whenever someone talks about environmental protection. Much of this is short-sighted, self-serving drivel. In an ideal America government and industry would be working closely together to develop a new energy future; we'd be working out strategies, retraining our workers, and educating our citizens.

In an ideal America we would know it's not an either or situation, environmental or economic priorities. We would be making far more effort in the implementation of existing, clean, energy-efficient technologies. Without a doubt we would hurry up the development of renewable domestic energy sources. Certainly we'd be spending more money in both the public and the private sector in developing new technologies.

Improved energy efficiency standards would be common throughout the country, covering everything from better gas mileage to more efficient power plants. We could even see energy costs going down for both business and the consumer. Finally, we could become less reliant on parts of the world that are unstable and where hatred of America only festers and grows with our presence. During all this time we would be growing a new economy and creating new jobs.

Unfortunately, this is only an ideal America. This is still an America where the fossil fuel industry, not our elected representatives, write out energy policy. This is an America where the automotive companies have joined in a lawsuit against California's global warming law. These automakers want to prevent California from requiring a cut in global warming pollution in all new cars sold in the state, starting in 2009.

The idea that something like the Kyoto Protocol is not worth it because greenhouse gases are already in the atmosphere is a truly shortsighted and stupid rational for essentially not changing behavior.

Carbon dioxide, the major greenhouse gas, stays in the atmosphere a long time. Scientists believe it can linger from 50 years to 100 years. What this means is that even if we stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow, global warming would continue for decades. The important point, however, is that if we do nothing to reduce carbon dioxide, at some point it may be too late--to do anything. As well, we have to deal with other greenhouse gases like methane, nitrous oxide, ozone, and carbon monoxide. They all contribute to global warming.

The Kyoto Protocol is merely a first step. Of course countries such as China and India, because of their rapid industrialization, must become part of the Protocol. It is also likely that the basic requirements to cut global warming gases by 5 percent below 1990 levels ( by 2012 ) is nowhere near enough. And the research has to continue.

The United States government, however, has demonstrated colossal irresponsibility. We have shown no leadership or set any worthy example. The most recent example of this took place at the world climate conference in Buenos Aires this past December. No substantive plans could be considered because the U.S. delegation blocked all attempts to come up with even the mildest proposal.

The United States, with approximately 6 percent of the world's population, uses 25 percent of the world's finite oil production. We have arguably the worst fuel efficiency standards among all the so-called "developed" nations, and we have no national energy conservation program. "Voluntary standards" on the part of industry is probably one of the most laughable phrases that the current American government has used. But of course it's the best of all possible worlds.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Absence of Rain (a short story)

The larger of the two male elephants wrapped his trunk around the four foot long ivory tusk lying on the dusty ground and deposited it in some nearby bushes. The tusk was all that remained of their dead comrade. He then turned to his companion, who nodded his massive head three or four times.
They lingered for no more than a minute and then the two bulls moved off across the barren, dry landscape of Etosha National Park in Namibia. A man and a woman waited quietly in their Land Rover until the elephants had nearly vanished from sight.
"I was nine years old when I saw that the first time," the woman said.
"I only saw it once before, in Botswana." The man put his binoculars under the seat.
"They know their tusks are a danger to them. They've learned from--" The woman hunched over, coughed, and pressed her hand against her chest. The skin around the corners of her mouth tightened for an instant.
"Let's go back," the man said placing his hand on the back of her neck.
The woman looked at him. "I love you, Robert," she said finally.
Robert Zimmer started the vehicle. They had not gone quite a quarter of a mile when the woman asked him to stop. They gazed toward the far horizon; the two elephants were gone. "They'll all be back in four or five weeks," he said.
"And I'll be here then."
Etosha National Park was about the size of the state of New Jersey. The central feature of the park was a huge salt pan surrounded by flat bush land. The minerals in the water that evaporated away completely killed the soil, giving the entire area a scorched earth look, devoid of life. But when the rains came, the pan provided water for all the wildlife that gathered in the area.
The woman and the man had been coming to this part of the huge national park for the past seven months, in order to complete their study of the shrinking, desert-dwelling elephant herds. It was about sound. It was about silence.
Their small cabin was more than an hour drive from this parched desert region. By the time they reached their destination, the late afternoon sun had touched the horizon.
Inside, the woman collapsed in a chair and stretched out her long legs. She closed her eyes and took shallow breaths. The man squatted down, untied her boots, and pulled them off. "Thank you," she said, her eyes still closed.
"Want something to drink?"
"Is there a Coke?"
The man studied the woman for a moment. She had gotten thinner in just a week he thought. She opened her eyes. "What?" The man shook his head and went to the small refrigerator.
Perhaps two hours later, as they sorted through some field notes, the woman said, "Did you get a letter from the university this week?"
The man glanced over at her. "Uh ,huh." He looked down at his papers.
"Jack wants to know my plans."
"Well ... I'll let him know."
"You'll let the head of the zoology department know what?"
"Do we need to talk about this right now?"
The woman sat up in her chair and dropped her papers on the floor. "Yeah, Robert, I'd like to. Communication is good for humans as well."
"Kam, I'm going to write him, when I decide what I'm doing."
"Decide what? Your sabbatical is over in three months, the research will be finished. And you go back to America."
"Maybe I'll stay in Namibia."
"Stay in Namibia? And do what?"
"I don't know yet." He stood up.
"Robert, I won't be here."
"You don't know--"
"I'll be dead."
"Shit!" He hurled his folder against the wall. The rage washed over him and then slipped away. Robert turned when he heard her cough. He knelt down and held her in his arms. Kamaria Grellmann, the woman he'd met fourteen months before, who now meant more to him than any living person in the world, was being consumed by ovarian cancer. "Kam, do you want your medicine?"
"Just hold me."
He watched his fingers slide across the back of her neck. When he had first met her at a cocktail party at the American Embassy in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, the first thing that caught his attention was the perfection of her cafe-au-lait complexion. Robert Zimmer was certain he'd never seen a woman so beautiful in his life.
He learned later that her mother had come from the Ovambo tribe and her father, Volker Grellmann, whose ancestors had arrived in what was then called Southwest Africa in 1900, was of German descent. Her mother had died when she was fifteen and her father was killed by elephant poachers while she was attending Cambridge University in England. She had just turned twenty-one when she learned of her father's murder.
On the day of her forty-first birthday, Kamaria learned she had inoperable cancer.
"I sent letters to Cornell and Cambridge last week."
Robert sat back. "Why?"
"I told them you would be handling everything from now on."
"Our research is nearly completed," Robert said.
"Robert, as long as there are elephants here..."
"Kam, I'm not a bioacoustics expert."
"No, but you're one exceptional zoologist. You can find other good people. And the training of Namibians must never stop."
"Kam, please--"
"Promise me."
Robert had all he could do to hold back his emotions at that moment. He nodded slowly. "Promise."
A smile spread across her face, the same smile that he had fallen in love with immediately. "Come here you."
It was midnight when they went to bed. Kam told Robert that she seemed to need less sleep lately. He knew that was not the reason.
"Do you know what the San people call Namibia?" Shadows from the moonlight skipped along the wall. Robert said he did not. "They call this country the land that God made in anger."
"Do you agree?"
"I don't know anything about God's state of mind. But I do know I wouldn't want to live anywhere else.
"You'd miss your elephants."
"Yes. Would you miss them now?"
"My answer is important isn't it?" he said.
"The truth is I would miss them as well. I couldn't have said that even two months ago."
"When did you know?"
"When Zita's baby died five weeks ago, and we spent the day watching them all grieve. I experienced something I never felt before."
There was a long silence until Kam said, "This was always the best place to study them. Because survival is so difficult here. I knew it when I was a little girl, watching the elephants with my father. They had to be able to communicate over long distances. We humans just couldn't hear it."
"You can take a lot of the credit for this knowledge."
"Only some credit." Kam paused. "But will it make any difference? Will they survive anyway?"
"Yes what? All these elephants won't become little white carvings in jewel boxes?"
"Yeah, I think there's some hope."
"Is that just American optimism?" said Kam.
"More than that. We know a female is receptive only a few days every four or five years. And as soon as a female is in estrus, the males appear from practically nowhere. And, because of people like you, we understand how the communication works. More than two miles away--below the range we humans can hear--the elephants are speaking to one another, watching out for one another."
"And your point would be, Professor Zimmer?"
"The female will always know how to get her man. The elephants are going to survive."
The rains started within three weeks. At first, only dark clouds appeared on the horizon, then some sporadic rain drops bounced off the parched ground. A couple of days later the air smelled different, fresher, foreshadowing a change. Several wildebeests appeared not far from their cabin, then some zebras, a few kudos, and two giraffes. The rains began in earnest within the week.
At the end of the fourth week Kam and Robert rose early, packed what they needed, and departed. Because of the rain and the wet roads, it took longer than usual. They reached their observation point at 9 o'clock. Then they waited.
At 10 o'clock Robert saw something move on the horizon. "It's him," he said a minute later. The huge bull, at least 13,000 pounds, with two long ivory tusks, and a jagged scar on his left side, moved quickly across the scrub land, headed in their general direction. "Where's Masaku?"
Kam and Robert had always seen the two bulls together. Masaku, the smaller and younger of the two, always accompanied his larger comrade. Male elephants generally lived alone or in small bachelor herds, but once in a while one or two males would travel together.
"I know Masaku is all right. There's got to be a reason." She grasped Robert's hand. "I want to get out."
"We don't want to go too far from the Land Rover," he said. Kam pushed open the door. Robert hurried to the other side of the vehicle as she clutched the side mirror to steady herself.
The large bull was now close enough for both of them to see clearly. Suddenly, he half turned in their direction and raised his head. His ears spread out and he became perfectly still. "He's freezing," said Kam in a whisper.
Robert felt an incredible stillness all around him yet, at the same time, it was as though the surrounding air was now throbbing like distant thunder. Slowly he raised his binoculars and scanned the horizon. "Look," he said, handing the binoculars to Kam.
"I knew it." In the distance Masaku waited alone. Kam slowly scanned across the scrubland. "My god."
"What?" Robert took the binoculars. At first it was only a vague outline, but then he saw them. The herd was making its way toward them. Now the large bull began to sway from side to side, glancing occasionally in the direction of the herd. "Hell, he wants us to know." Robert started to say something to Kam, when he saw her tears. "You okay?"
"I need to sit down."
"I'm fine." Unexpectedly the large bull let out a loud trumpet sound, startling both of them. She began to laugh. "Yes, yes."
The male elephant looked in their direction for just a moment, then turned and started toward where Masaku waited. Kam leaned her head against Robert's shoulder. "You want to tell me."
"Just wait," she told him.
Slowly the herd came into view. The two bulls headed in the opposite direction. Kam's eyes were now closed and her breathing was labored. Robert raised his binoculars and then he understood.
In the middle of the small herd was a baby elephant walking beside its mother and the other females. The baby's father, along with his friend Masaku,had disappeared from sight. "He wanted to let us know," Robert said. "What do you think of that, Kam?"
He held her tighter because he knew she wouldn't answer. Several of the elephants raised their trunks as they passed by. The rain had stopped.


My ancestors waded ashore in the very early days and were part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Most definitely they considered themselves the "first" Americans. Half-naked red savages did not count. For heavens sake, they weren't Christians--not even despised Papists.

They arrived in North America with an unbending, intolerant fundamentalist ideology, one that would not tolerate questioning or disobedience in any form. Their ultimate constitution--interpreted of course by the leader of the tribe--was the Bible they clutched to their breasts.

My ancestors confronted a "Nature" unlike anything they had seen before. It was dark, foreboding, and unforgiving. And it seemed unending. They knew their God had given it to them to do with as they saw fit. It was obvious; it was completely undeveloped. The Indians certainly didn't deserve it, because they hadn't "improved" it in any meaningful way.

Improvement, of course, meant private property. Improvement meant putting up fences and farming the land. Improvement meant establishing property rights. Improvement meant the buying and selling of land for profit. And thus it began.

By 1900 the United States had turned nature into a commodity. It had clearly become the driving, sustaining ideology of the country. If you can turn everything, such as animals, oranges, timber into commodities you can reduce it to one single factor--price. Nature was no longer seen as separate, unique parts of something bigger, part of something else. America had become the supreme magician: It made nature vanish, in that the natural capital like water, plants, and trees--which made all these commodities possible--simply disappeared. Out of sight and out of mind.

Now we arrive at Mr. Bush and his assorted collection of friends inside and outside of government. Environmental stewardship does not seem to be part of their vocabulary. In general, the key positions that are responsible for environmental affairs in the Bush administration are held by people whose background is in the oil, gas, and mining industry. I don't believe they merely want to modify or fine-tune environmental accomplishments over the past thirty years. They want to gut environmental oversight period, and forever.

If I were to speculate, Bush and company in their own ideal world would like to return to around 1900, a time when Mr. McKinley was president, a time when we were helping our "little brown brothers" in Cuba and the Philippines, among other places. It was a time when rapacious capitalism was at its peak. It took a Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt, to put an end to some of the worst abuses of these robber barons and their bought and paid for politicians.

As well, if you happen to believe in some crude Christian fundamentalism, where the "apocalypse" is nearly upon us, it doesn't much matter what happens to the planet and the numerous species that reside on it. Everyone is clear on where the chosen will be going in this gloomy, Manichean universe. It's all just magic.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Weeds and Italian Nomads

Most Americans were not thinking about "ornamental" lawns in 1906. The problem in creating a lawn a hundred years ago was that it took time and money, and required a strong back. That's why only the monied class spent any time worrying about their greensward.

In the first decade of the twentieth century lawn "experts" advised Americans in quaint Victorian prose to make a "bold stand, attack the problem with a determination to have the best results that your opportunities will afford, and make your lawn the envy of the neighborhood!"

We didn't need those fancy English lawns. We had to stop importing French and English seeds. Of course we could have lawns that approached the color and the texture of the English lawn, but we had to make lawn grass mixtures suitable to the United States.

Instructions were precise. The ground that would in due course become the homeowner's lawn had to be cleared of all tree roots and weeds, as far as possible. We were told that tree stumps were relatively easy: a half-pound charge of dynamite was thought to be adequate for most stumps.

The homeowner was advised that the first mowing of the new lawn should begin when the grass reached a height of about three inches. Rotary mowers existed at the time but the scythe was recommended, because you would likely not cut the grass too close. How would you like to cut your lawn with a scythe?

Grass had to be continually "stimulated," unless we wanted weeds to crawl in like thieves in the night. Some of the principal weed desperadoes of the period were dandelions, the plantains, dock, Bermuda grass in northern lawns, wild carrots, chickweed, sorrel, and moss. The leading weed enemy, however, was crab grass. This was a determined foe. The only way to get any control over this monster was to tear it out by the roots. One authority claimed that a three thousand-pound roller had allegedly killed some crab grass in Philadelphia.

If the only way to effectively deal with most weeds was to cut them out, someone had to get down on his hands and knees and dig out the roots. Fortunately, it was not uncommon in the early spring to see wandering Italians going from garden to garden digging up dandelions, which they then sold in cities for salads. These people were to be encouraged the homeowner was told; the Italian nomads were saving innumerable lawns from the occurrence of weeds.

Chemical control procedures were still primitive at the turn of the century. A crystal of sulphate of iron was recommended to be put on top of plantain that had been cut. The crystal would eventually kill the root. On the other hand, you were cautioned that the chemical could damage the grass roots and might necessitate "turfing" or reseeding. Of course, as some pointed out, a few drops of gasoline were just as effective.

Insects as well were considered a problem for lawns: ants, grubs, and earthworms were some of the major troublemakers. Bisulphide of carbon was highly recommended as a poison against ants. A couple of tablespoons poured into the opening of the ant nest were considered sufficient in most cases. The only problem was that bisulphide of carbon was highly inflammable. Its users were told not to apply this poison near a fire of any kind, no matter how small. There must have been more than a few disastrous mishaps.

A good deal of literature was published on manure. Stable manure was thought to be one of the best fertilizers, but it needed to be "well rotted." Fresh manure contained weed seeds. Sheep manure on the other hand did not contain weed seeds. For the homeowner who kept poultry, the manure could be spread over the lawn in the fall. This would cause grass growth in the spring and likely crowd out any weeds, manure authorities suggested. An added bonus of having poultry around is that you could let them forage on the lawn for grubs, which they liked. So much to do and so little time we must have thought, in our age of innocence.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Back in Time

The first week in October of 1999, three months before the "end" of the world, my son and I boarded an Air France flight to Paris, drank some good wine, and watched a bad movie. We wanted to visit Normandy on the Atlantic coast of France and see Omaha Beach.

What happened to Paris? I had last visited this fascinating city in 1968. Charles DeGaulle was running the country, and former members of the French Resistance were writing their memoirs. On the Left Bank, near the University of Sorbonne, US Assassins was scribbled on walls, protesting the war in Viet Nam, while the dark eyes of the Argentinean revolutionary Che Guevara, on his pop-art poster, followed you down cobblestone streets. If you couldn't speak French--too bad. And the Parisians looked different in 1968 ... like Parisians.

But in 1999? Everyone spoke "American," had a cell phone attached to his or her ear and looked ... like Americans. The end of the world didn't happen but the bubble did burst in September 2001, and not just for Americans. A planet shifted slightly.

The info-entertainers on the cable news stations still drone on about the November election, telling us what it means and doesn't mean. But no one knows what it will really mean.

In April 1968 it was cold and "dark." My wife and I were staying in a pension in Berlin, owned by a German widow in her eighties. Her house had been the only one left standing in the area at the end of the war in 1945. Her husband had been a professor of romance languages, until he lost his job in 1938 because he refused to join the Nazi party.

The second day at the pension this elderly woman entered the dining room carrying a newspaper. She had tears in her eyes. She pointed to the headline and told us that Martin Luther King had been assassinated.

On our last night there we sat around a heavy wooden table in a semi-dark living room, a setting out of late Victorian England. Two other guests had arrived the day before: two American girls who had been studying at the Sorbonne. They were catching a train at midnight and going East, to bear witness to a democratic experiment in Prague, Czechoslovakia.

We traveled back in time that evening. More than fifty years before, August 1914, a week before the start of World war I, this woman and her husband had stood on the sidewalk in front of her home and watched Kaiser Wilhelm pass by in a horse drawn carriage. She hesitated for a moment and shook her head sadly. "We of course all believed our cause was just," she said in clear English with only a slight accent. Twenty years later Hitler's motorcade passed by her house.

In June Robert Kennedy was assassinated, and in August Soviet tanks entered Prague, uninvited. We returned to America and paused briefly, before leaving for South America. Richard Nixon arrived.