Saturday, June 19, 2004

The Real News

Where do you go for the real news, the significant news, the news you need to heed? Well, you can get the latest on Britney's tour cancellation, the Lacy Peterson trial or Madonna’s name change, plus the furor over whether the voting is really fair for American Idol, in most any newspaper, TV network news, MSNBC, CNN and Fox. But for the real news, you might try the Weather Channel.

There you will see, day after day, a summer full of violent storms from the east coast through the Middle Atlantic States---particularly the Ohio Valley---and into the Midwest. Torrential rains, frequent and damaging thunderstorms. In much of the Midwest, this stormy weather has been accompanied by tornadoes---up to 100 in a day this spring, which NOAA has announced was the 3rd warmest spring on record. Storms in the mountain states, too. And in the West, the worst drought in 500 years. Get that? Since the continent was invaded, since it saw its first metal plow.

Nobody really knows how bad the global climate crisis will get, but it’s clearly underway. Not clearly enough for most people yet, it seems. Americans are incredibly literal---the only time they “got” global warming was the very hot summers at the end of the 1980s in the eastern U.S.---including the media capitals of New York and Washington. Hot summer equal global warming, get it? So the first flood of books and films made their way into the marketplace in 1990. But now there's just storms and floods in some places, drought in others, too scattered and slow for the pattern to look as real as a still photo, a special effects sequence.

Probably it will take a combination of extreme events and a new president to point out what the problem is. Or it might be the next international climate change report, due this year, though with a Bush-approved change in its leadership, probably not till after the election.

What really will matter is what the U.S. does or doesn’t do about climate change. Later it will also matter what China and other growing industrial economies do or don’t do. Much of Europe is getting itself into better position to both cope and begin slowing down the runaway train. But the consequences are likely to go on, and probably continue getting worse, for a hundred years or so. In twenty to fifty years, our children and their children will probably have a pretty good idea just how bad it will be---whether it’s going to be manageable, survivable or apocalyptic.

If it’s apocalypse in store, the half-full folks can cheer themselves by remembering that our species achieved its humanity, that we became pretty much what we still are, except with a closer relationship with nature and the realities of the universe now hidden to us, during the last period of major climate disruption---the most recent big Ice Age.

The kind of consequences outlined in the deadpan predictions of the last international report suggest there will be some big losers (in the Third World mostly) and a few offsetting winners (some in the U.S.), so this will be something we’ll just muddle through. I don’t really think so. For one thing, our current government is not only unprepared for any serious set of problems, but is bleeding away the financial resources the U.S. will need, even if incrementally over a very long time, to cope. The goodwill of the world to offer help that might offset what the U.S. can’t afford, is an even more precious resource being bled away. We could wind up with no recourse but to threaten people with our hydrogen bombs and other WMDs.

Or the whole nation-state vs. global corporation situation could come to a head, what with gigantic companies buying up fresh water and doing their best to destabilize governments that might stop them (I’ve even seen this charge applied to attempting to destabilize Canada, the biggest reserve of fresh water in the world.)

It’s all way beyond my meager knowledge, but my intuition does tell me that (and I suppose this is another half-fool move) a lot of the things people are terribly worried about in our technological future---wholesale genetic engineering, human cloning to order, etc.--—aren’t going to turn out to be problems, because society won’t be able to afford them (financially, in terms of energy or social stability), and technology is going to have to take quite a different turn.

There’s just no doubt that climate is going to shape how humans live in the future that is now beginning, for climate always has. And apparently we’ve usually been blind to that fact.

For the last half century or more, and certainly since the 1980s when coincidentally the “greenhouse effect” began to attract notice (although Arthur Miller notes in his autobiography that some scientist he met mentioned the possibility in the 40s) there’s been the drumbeat of the end of western civilization, one that has been growing so insistent that it seems a foregone conclusion. But we might have figured that, absent blowing ourselves up, this might turn out to be overly dramatic. Still, the end of a “civilization” is a bit abstract---a lot of people who wouldn’t agree with each other on what constitutes western civilization, believe it has already ended.

It’s “civilization” or “society” in the broader sense that’s now at issue---humanity that doesn’t shrink way down, that doesn’t go back to the caves and the deserts. Absent being overcome by barbarians---not an idle thought anymore, thanks to…well, let’s not get into that—we’re looking at biological threats. We might be poisoning ourselves fatally---I’ve always expected that my generation would be the litmus test of that, since most of this crap started when we were babies. Overcrowding breeding disease and spreading around the world in a flash, or even the coincidence of a few badly placed disasters that might have gone unnoticed in a less intensely interconnected and interdependent, smugly vulnerable time as ours---earthquake in LA, big volcano eruption somewhere else---or just another brazen meteor—there are lots of scenarios for the possibility of Armaggedon. I’ve even had the nasty thought that a fairly large human die-back is the only way this planet will survive without tossing out the last few million years of evolution: the Gaian enterprise. Still, it wasn’t until this climate thing that it truly seemed that major painful change became all but inevitable.

If it’s the end of the world as we know it, I can’t say I feel fine about it. I’d like to believe we’ve learned enough to make a conscious transition, to do what plenty of us know has to be done (and plenty of people smarter than me know how to do). We could even eventually go back for what we mistakenly jettisoned and see if we can’t recover what we lost in the process of developing certain other aspects of ourselves. At the edge of science and other thought, we seem primed for that.

Oh well.

I’ll keep plugging at this for as long as I’ve got the resources and the wits to do so, because I believe that the future is what we do and what we dream right now, so living in the future and living in the present are really the same thing, as far as our mortal lives go. There are a lot of people working that future more diligently, more knowledgeably and more effectively than me. But facing the climate challenge will take the whole society, and sooner or later it will change the whole society, maybe all societies and cultures on the planet. The longer we do nothing, the worse and the longer-lasting the crisis will be. The sooner people start taking in the real news, the better chance we’ll have to make the major changes that might keep this enterprise going with the least possible amount of pain and destruction.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

A Guy Thing

Several of the recent posts in this particular blog have been about sports. In a way they're an anomaly; there probably haven't been any before that for several months. But what do you expect? I'm a guy. I like sports. (Some sports.) I have to, right?

Of course during NBA finals week I also read William Irwin Thompson's book Coming Into Being, which has no sports in it at all, I saw the new Harry Potter movie and watched some DVDs, including "The Hours." You know, the Virginia Woolf thing, the chick flick? And it blew me away.

Maybe I'm strange, and maybe there's no maybe about it, but what's really strange is how strongly gender stereotypes have returned. A great deal of what young men (especially of draft age) went through in the 1960s was redefining our masculinity, and then "women's lib" and feminism in the 1970s seemed likely to sweep away all gender stereotypes forever.

But then some feminists of all genders found it politically convenient to simultaneously insist that gender roles were obsolete (so women could get any job, hopefully at equal pay) and that women were different and essentially better. Gender became a popular political tool, trumping race and totally obscuring what was most important in determining the limitations of my life: class. Feminism of a certain sort became exclusionary.

Which made it much easier for the stereotyping of men to resume. It got much harder to stereotype women beyond the continuing emphasis on sexual attractiveness, but men could be stereotyped with impunity as dumb and barely housebroken. Every societal ill up to and including war was the fault of testosterone.

So strong is the reaction against anything traditionally "male" in some quarters that young boys who don't act enough like young girls in school may be routinely drugged and treated as dangerous mental cases. All children are victims of America's scandalously impoverished schools, but it's the boys who more often wind up in jail. Amongst the upper to mid class young adults, the New Age man is not much of a solution either. Someone once described such fellows as forever looking as if they'd just been hit on the head with a board.

But the most effective stereotyping of men was launched by those who most profit by it: advertisers. Men became not just sports-watching louts, but beer drinking sports watching louts. And so on. You've seen the commercials. It's much easier to sell to a defined market, and much, much better to define the market so it requires the product you're selling. Define this lifestyle repeatedly, and you create a self-fulfilling prophesy, otherwise known as a market of men who believe that being a guy means drinking beer, hating wine, and not being able to shop for groceries without a woman supplying you with photographs of the correct cans and boxes.

There's the true story of a man---and I've got his name somewhere---who made a lot of money writing New York Times columns, and giving lectures and workshops, on feminism. But when he began advocating for men, he stopped getting published, he stopped getting paid big bucks for lectures and workshops, and so on. Remember the reaction to Robert Bly and the men's workshops? They were widely ridiculed as a bunch of comical suburban wildmen, running in the woods, beating on drums and crying. No one would dare ridicule a feminist workshop in these terms, but that kind of gross insulting disdain was widely accepted, without a raising an eyebrow.

But now we've seen that the Iraq prison scandal involves a fair number of the fair sex, just as there seems to be no distinction in behavior exposed by this scandal based on ethnicity or race.

Actually, before I read the Thompson book this week, I was ready to deny any broadly defining role at all for gender, apart from the continuing gender roles and equal pay injustices. I still find most references to "the patriarchy" as offensive and reductionistic, as do folks like James Hillman and Thomas Moore (of course they're just MEN so what do you expect?) But Thompson persuades me that at least the archetypes of gender are meaningful, and that "patriarchy" has some real if limited reference. He's even pretty convincing on the Goddess mythology, though I still think the popular view is much too simplistic, not to mention sentimental, divisive, self-serving and irrelevant. (The problem with nation-states, monotheistic religious cults, industrial civilizations and violence isn't that they're patriarchial; it's that they are nation-states, monotheistic religious cults, industrial civilizations and violent.) And I still think gender as explanation is used inappropriately and unhelpfully most of the time.

As for sports, maybe it's because I come from Pittsburgh, where little old ladies could discuss the Steelers' interior defensive line with comfort and insight. And I suppose I do believe there is something I'd call a chick flick---a movie about relationships with no resonance beyond the mundane---and I'd rather see a good baseball game than one of those. But I find the idea that I have to moan about how "The Hours" is so slow and nothing really happens, because that's the paradigmatic guy reaction, equally as infuriating as the idea that still being captivated by the beauty of a home run swing as I was when I was 10 can be reduced to some cliche that involves swilling Budwisers and scratching.