Sunday, August 4, 2013

On Aging

Oliver Sacks, everyone’s favorite M.D., gave us a glimpse of what it is like to become 80. (See The New York Times, 7 July 2013.) This is the second time I’ve had an M.D. use 80 as an indicator of age. But why 80?  I was already 90 that first time .  Now I’m 100! And it seems that I’ve only just joined that cadre we call the aged.
     I do have a significantly longer perspective. What does it provide that one lacks at 80 or 50?  Not just more experience, even though, fortunately, most of my experience has been unmarred  by bad events.
    It is this enlarged perspective I value most. Dr Sacks presumably lumps this with enhanced freedom. For me that means escape from the urgencies  imposed on us before we can reason for ourselves.. And escape from the commercial wheel that dominates, as though there were no alternatives. Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were the devils of that pinioned view in my day. It is therefore a freedom to explore new Modus Vivendi, even those we hesitatingly label utopian. There is so much to unlearn in this final half-century. And so few reliable guides left to help us do it.  Some of our young, fortunately, are finding their own way.
   Paul Shepard, a neglected Yalie, was one such guide, however. He saw that “This is the Only World We’ve Got,” that our having invented agriculture was a basic ecological tragedy, and that our salvation lies not in some other world, but in rediscovering that we are part of a still-evolving Nature: not its master but a provisional care-taker of the processes of existence, as A. N. Whitehead, and almost only Whitehead, saw a century ago. Almost everyone complained that his magnum opus, Process and  Reality, was too thorny. It is if you leave out his everyman Modes of Thought.   
    So, for me, “being ready to go” means, not going to heaven or hell, since Emily Dickinson  freed  me long ago of that Roman intimidation, with “Some people go to heaven at last, but I’m going all along.”  Not at all grim; hardly weary; just bereft of the energy to continue to love and work, which Freud, despite so many other mistakes, saw as the simple task of life. But not quite yet!

Monday, August 22, 2011


   So long as I drove a car, here in Connecticut, I considered the New Haven intersection of Interstate Routes 95 and 91 an abomination, a dangerous example of the “technocratic fix” imposed by the automotive age of the 20th Century. Like others of their kind, the interwoven highway loops tore up much of the city’s downtown and separated it from its waterfront. In this, of course, it may have merely added insult to the injury the petroleum industry was simultaneously allowed to impose with it’s tank farms to feed the vehicular traffic that was somehow considered so vital. Trucks replaced freight trains. Short-sighted convenience and privatized profits!
   Even so, New Haven persisted, if lamely. Old-timers recall how disruptive the Oak Street Connector was, but it is a wistful complaint, lest they be considered negative. This is now what most adaptiveness consists of, the more interdependent we become: “the good old days”, and the half-blind Thatcherite notion that there is no alternative. Transatlantically, Reagan raised the stakes by foisting the lie that government is the problem. How quickly we forget the compromises that made democracy promising for hardly a century.
   So now, from the 17th floor outlook of a downtown residential center, I overlook this tangled mess and am surprised that it has an aesthetic appeal all its own. Distanced from its noise and its fumes, I am intrigued by the kaleidoscopic flow of boxlike truck forms during the day, and the colorful play of lights, golden or red, every evening. Beyond this circus is the gentle arch of the Quinnipiac Bridge and the docks of the inner harbor; to the right, the bay-like enclosure of the two-mile open harbor.
   But given our pronatalism and both widespread individual and institutional insatiability, one would be stolid not to ask what this scene will look like fifty years hence. Elide the more difficult question of regional habitability due to global warming constraints, whether sea-level rise or insufferable climate. What will running out of cheap gasoline do to the traffic patterns and the supportive infrastructures I now wonder at?  Will we recapture the waterfront for higher uses than storing and moving ephemeral resources? Will current tastes clue us in to what such higher uses might be? Shouldn’t such questions be natural for a species the taxonomist Linnaeus called Homo sapiens?           


     How ironic that Germany, which inadvertently initiated the atomic age, should also be the first scientifically advanced nation to recommend abandoning  it.  Along with carbon-based fossil fuels! Remember that before World War II, Germany was the foremost scientific nation.
     Of course, the United States first developed both of these energy sources, but it developed the atom bomb because it mistakenly assumed that Germany was about to do so. Hence the inadvertence.
     The compound disaster of a major earthquake combined with a monstrous tsunami at Fukushima, Japan, in March 2011, has initiated a widespread reappraisal. There have been prior atomic power plant accidents—at Lucens, Switzerland in 1969, Three Mile Island in 1979, and Chernobyl in 1986, but powerful industry lobbies have minimized the implications.  For example, there is a widespread media bromide to the effect that Chernobyl imposed less than a hundred deaths among “worker heroes” who subsequently buried the plant to contain its contaminations. Actually, a 2009 report by the New York Academy of Sciences coauthored by several Russian scientists calculated a toll of several hundred thousand premature deaths in the affected region. Remember that ALL media are owned by a handful of people, so what you know mostly depends on what they are willing to release for public consumption.
     The current German reappraisal was initiated in April by chancellor Merkel and her science advisors; with details in a governmental energy policy statement in June. China, Japan, and Italy also announced reexaminations of current policy. But not the United States, which has 104 atomic power plants in operation.  
     The mere announcement of a policy reassessment of course immediately generated opposition, with no real assessment of options. But since public apathy is generally the bane of policy-making, could there be a better time to assess the several presumptions that underlie present dilemmas?  People are beginning to pay attention. The looming questions concern not only the hazards of atomic use, but global warming, water shortages, climbing food prices, and overextended human populations, to name only those on our hazy horizon. 
     But where is there an open venue? The U. S. has brow-beaten the U.N. for so long that many consider its capabilities problematic. Perhaps a thousand blogs like this one could at least pose questions that expert panels have heretofore elided. Many of the questions are not technical at all: meaning, especially, that they are not questions that naturally occur to physicists, or economists.
     Nor are proposals to change the course of our civilization necessarily so radical, unless we let ourselves be scared into believing so by those who swallowed Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that “There is no alternative!” Or Ronald Reagan’s lie that “Government is the problem.”
     The most unexpected advantage in the German announcement is that chancellor Merkel is herself one of the best-equipped political leaders to attempt it; and that Germany is likewise perhaps the country most competent to accomplish such a transition with minimum disruption.
     Chancellor Merkel is academically competent in both physics and chemistry, so more sensitive to what is feasible and what is not. As a conservative, also, she can hopefully more effectively enlist the cooperation of industrialists.  Other political leaders come mostly from law or business, and are mostly abysmally ignorant of the sciences involved. Germany, if it can coordinate its mixed strivings, may thus lead the most crucial social experiment of the century and beyond. And China might consider it advantageous to become a principal collaborator in reshaping our tenuous occupation of the planet.
     If, therefore, we defer argument until we see the details rationalized by technologically competent people, what else will most repay reassessment and reform? Where have we most obviously neglected what ought to be plain to everyone who can add two and two?
   That obvious stumbling block, we would probably agree if we faced the question, is that of overpopulation. Evolutionarily, we depended on high reproduction to surmount our susceptibility to broken bones and infection when we were hunter-gatherers. Becoming agriculturists required many hands, and our churches, which developed at the same time--in the West at least-- internalized our concerns and institutionalized pronatalism.     
     Agriculture produced food surpluses for a while, and population grew apace. This initiated village life, and now 50% of us are urban. Five hundred years ago we reduced the Roman Church to just another social organization. But we hung on to many of its social institutions, including the pronatalism which, by now, has been made counterproductive by medical advances.
     Importantly, The Church had considered usury unsocial, so forbade it. Freed of this constraint by the 16th Century Reformation, an entrepreneurial subset of Europeans forged a new economy based on free entry to the growing market. Based on an initial primitive accumulation of wealth—by expropriation of land and sheer taking-- this quickly (as The Church had feared) reduced society to classes of “haves” and “have nots.”  
     No longer having access to land, the “have-nots” must work for wages, and the struggle to keep these at a minimum became characteristic of the ensuing Capitalism. This privatized economy became global as the Unites States imposed its post-World War II military superiority. Excess population now enforces minimum wages, since being poor means being trapped because one cannot afford the education required by the increasingly technical society the new economy has built. Modifying these inequities brings accusations of fostering a demographic winter.
     But we know that relative well-being fosters a demographic transition, wherein the well-to-do reduce the number of their offspring. The poor continue to overproduce themselves because they mistakenly view their young as insurance against the decrepitudes of age.
     If, therefore, we are to reduce overpopulation, and the stresses this puts on social and ecosystems, we must begin by building a floor in economic well-being, so that everyone may expect a reasonable future. The Church once had such a policy, having learned that wages must support a family. We could easily do this again. The real test of an economy is thus its intelligent allocation of incomes, not the emphasis on production and profit-making that has ruled Economics in the last century or two.
      Start here, and every other problem is made easier. Ecosystem overloads are first stabilized, then reduced; resources can be more equitably shared; wasteful conflicts between haves and have-nots are minimized; essential education becomes affordable; cooperation outproduces competition; etc., etc.
     Let’s welcome the leadership of Germany and complement it with an awareness of the underlying problem of human overpopulation.                                                                                                                                                                         

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


[Note: March 20th, at 7.21 pm., is the spring date when the sun  again crosses the equator to initiate summer for those of us in the New York City region. A good time to pay more attention to how we’re impacting the planet and how it is reacting. The Earth Society will celebrate the occasion at the U.N. See, also, my blog on an Anthropocene era. RCC.]

The sun still shines brightly. It warms us and helps fulfill our promise. If we didn’t have computers to keep track of the numbers, we’d hardly know about the threat of global warming. The melting of the arctic ice would be just another puzzle.
But we’re learning fast: everything is connected to everything else, and we’re all in this together. It matters to everyone what we all do. As never before, we need to share and work together to avoid the worst consequences of the mistakes we’ve piled up.
Perhaps the most amazing meaning of the new discoveries about the history of the life process, its DNA and other mysteries, is that all we living things are much more closely related to one another than we thought. Our gene pools are amazingly similar. We borrow, swap and modify the same building blocks of Nature, the atoms and molecules, just to get through the day. And, of course, to explore the potentials we glimpse as the days and months pass. The very complexity of things confirms what we long felt—what our religions told us—that we must share more, and work together more. We don’t do well alone.
In fact, by now we should know well enough that this world is too complex to be competently managed by such a late-comer species as we are. Scientists and economists could lead the way. Our world councils must remind us of this constantly, and cajole us into letting Nature do most of the work. This of course means that we must not short-change the natural systems—the forests and wetlands--that have always done this constructive work—for us and the rest of the tribe.     



A friend who thinks of me as more scientific than she is has asked that   I comment on geological eras in order to orient proposals that we label our own impact on the planet as unique. The Ice Age (aka Pleistocene) is said to have ended when continental glaciers melted back about 13,000 years ago.
Geologists called the short intervening era the Holocene. Some now propose that humans are changing Nature so much that we should label our era the Anthropogene. This will hopefully initiate wide-ranging discussion as to when the new era began, what it did, and what it implies. It could be a fascinating exercise in updating world views for everyone.
Given that most of us are specialists in one area or another, the first hurdle to that broad discussion I hope for is the tendency to see the task as simply one of coining “a stratigraphic signal” to end the Holocene and begin the Anthropocene. This would be preemptive, more clerical than reflective. But it is to be expected after our long affair with reductionism as preferred scientific methodology.  It has already been suggested that the advent of the Industrial Revolution, about 1800, is a suitable marker.
That would discount too much neglected history. Our ancestors  were hunter-gatherers for some 200,00O  years, wandering afoot on all the continents. We were part of Nature because our numbers were low, and our technologies simple, mostly extensions of our hands. We were semi-nomadic  and lived off biological surpluses. Except for the use of fire to modify vegetation, our environmental imprint was perhaps ephemeral.
It was the invention of agriculture, mostly between 5000 and 10,000 years ago, that began separating us from Nature, and led to grandiose notions of our having been put in charge of the creation, however that originated. We then had no clue to evolutionary emergence, so we invented causes, left and right.
Agriculture’s food production enabled more people to survive. More people demanded more food production, so world environments were drastically altered by cutting forests and draining wetlands to allow more agriculture. This truncated the accumulated checks and balances that tended to soften climatic change, at first locally, then regionally, now globally, as global warming suggests.  As Barry Commoner pointed out a generation ago, everything is connected to everything else.      
As human populations grew, so did problems of organization and decision-making, since we differ so. Is religion a social tactic to help keep us together? In The West we should be more mindful of the likelihood that Christianity was the bureaucratic imposition of Roman Emperors, probably to mitigate the problem of too many people in a climatically marginal Mediterranean environment.
 With agriculture, a gradual urbanization of the population also grew. This gave human ingenuity more vent.  As economic activity and accumulation systems grew in favored environments, some learned to monopolize surpluses. Usury was born. The Church contained this at first, but the 16th Century’s Reformation broke through that constraint, and Capitalism was born.  A free-for-all, so-called.
A chief problem of this economic mode, abetted by economists, is that it discounts innate value in most of Nature. Nature, we should recall, is the continuing creative synthesis of  accumulated,  successful evolutionary experiments on a climatic oasis, Earth, in the sun’s orbit: not created from scratch, but evolved one from another, and interdependent.
The concept of an Anthropogene era is timely, but not simply as marker in geology’s calendar of events.  The challenge is to make everyone aware that science, especially as ecology, now documents the ongoing interdependencies that religion’s insights early on glimpsed “as through a glass darkly.” 
Awareness demands normative guidelines, so there is much rethinking to do. A new marker in time must remind us not only of our accomplishments, but of failures like Mike Davis’ slum cities, which appear to be built-in end products of late-capitalism.  Is this how we want to be remembered?
 E  Era?