Thursday, March 31, 2011

cosmic evolutionary step

--climate happenings are at the blisterdata--

The following is a magnificient letter from Japan from a friend of a friend (thanks to Livia Kohn):

"Things here in Sendai have been rather surreal. But I am very blessed to have wonderful friends who are helping me a lot. Since my shack is even more worthy of that name, I am now staying at a friend's home. We share supplies like water, food and a kerosene heater. We sleep lined up in one room, eat by candlelight, and share stories. It is warm, friendly, and beautiful.

"During the day we help each other clean up the mess in our homes. People sit in their cars, looking at news on their navigation screens, or line up to get drinking water when a source is open. If someone has water running in their home, they put out sign so people can come to fill up their jugs and buckets.

"Utterly amazingly where I am there has been no looting, no pushing in lines. People leave their front door open, as it is safer when an earthquake strikes. People keep saying, "Oh, this is how it used to be in the old days when everyone helped one another."

"Quakes keep coming. Last night they struck about every 15 minutes. Sirens are constant and helicopters pass overhead often.

"We got water for a few hours in our homes last night, and now it is for half a day. Electricity came on this afternoon. Gas has not yet come on.

"But all of this is by area. Some people have these things, others do not.

"No one has washed for several days. We feel grubby, but there are so much more important concerns than that for us now. I love this peeling away of non-essentials. Living fully on the level of instinct, of intuition, of caring, of what is needed for survival, not just of me, but of the entire group. "There are strange parallel universes happening. Houses are a mess in some places, yet then a house with futons or laundry out drying in the sun. "People lining up for water and food, and yet a few people out walking their dogs. All these things are happening at the same time.

"Other unexpected touches of beauty are first, the silence at night. No cars. No one is out on the streets. And the heavens at night are scattered with stars. I usually can see about two, but now the whole sky is filled.

"The mountains at Sendai are solid and with the crisp air we can see them silhouetted against the sky magnificently.

"And the Japanese themselves are so wonderful. I come back to my shack to check on it each day, now to send this e-mail since the electricity is on, and I find food and water left in my entranceway. I have no idea from whom, but it is there. Old men in green hats go from door to door checking to see if everyone is OK. People talk to complete strangers asking if they need help. I see no signs of fear. Resignation, yes, but fear or panic, no.

"They tell us we can expect aftershocks, and even other major quakes, for another month or more. And we are getting constant tremors, rolls, shaking, rumbling. I am blessed in that I live in a part of Sendai that is a bit elevated, a bit more solid than other parts. So, so far this area is better off than others. Last night my friend's husband came in from the country, bringing food and water. Blessed again.

"Somehow at this time I realize from direct experience that there is indeed an enormous Cosmic evolutionary step that is occurring all over the world right at this moment. And somehow as I experience the events happening now in Japan, I can feel my heart opening very wide. My brother asked me if I felt so small because of all that is happening. I don't. Rather, I feel as part of something happening that much larger than myself. This wave of birthing (worldwide) is hard and yet magnificent."

Sixty-nine months left.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

nippon sensei

--climate happenings are at blisterdata--

(revised 3-27)

Two weeks ago, on Friday, March 11, 2011, the Tohoku earthquake, as it is now known, spread from an epicenter offshore towards the northeast coast of Honshu island. With a magnitude of 9.0, the quake was one of the most massive ever recorded. Only three quakes had ever been discernibly stronger: the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean measuring 9.1; the 1964 earthquake in Alaska measuring 9.2; and the 1960 earthquake in Chile measuring 9.5. While the Tohoku epicenter was 30 km under the ocean floor, it was also quite close to the shore, 72 km from the coast. It caused a giant tsunami, with waves up to 23 m high that swept up to 10 km inland. The double-whammy of quake and wave hit the Fukushima I nuclear power plants, located at the ocean's edge, 200 km north of Tokyo. Consequences are dead, hurt, and homeless people, local destruction, and ongoing radioactive contamination from the plants that suffered meltdown and breach. The nuclear accident is an ongoing crisis. The tsunami-earthquake is over and done with. It appears more than 10,000 people have died and more than 15,000 people are missing.

Let's think of the earthquake/tsunami first. Not counting the as yet unknown toll of radiation victims, quake-related casualties may settle at around 25,000. The human cost is higher than at the stronger quakes in the Alaskan wilderness (143) and sparsely populated southern Chilean shore (2,500-6,000). It is an order of magnitude lower than that of the comparable Indian Ocean tsunami (230,000) and the weaker (7.0) 2010 Haiti earthquake (220,000). In the bleak rankings of deadliest earthquakes, Haiti figures on seventh place, and the Tohoku quake barely makes it to rank fifty. This is thought-provoking -- and encouraging. Japan was hit by an extremely hard punch and yet suffered astoundingly slight damage in proportion. A casualty rate of about 25,000 in a country of 127 million people is still 25,000 too many, for every single death is sorrow and tragedy, but is also very, very lucky. That more than just plain luck was involved becomes evident as soon as one remembers that not a single skyscraper fell over. This is what you get with a strong government that strictly enforces regulations based on scientific consensus, regardless of what they may cost to capitalists and real estate developers.

Plus, Japan is a country crisscrossed by train lines, many of them of the high speed variety, which means 300 km/h are standard. In the 45-year history of bullet trains carrying more than 7 billion passengers, there have been one or two earthquake-related derailments, but not a single casuality. It remains to be seen if or how the Tohoku quake will alter this. News right after the quake told of four vanished trains; later news reported that five missing trains had reappeared and that one train had derailed. All of this still awaits confirmation but ridership casualties had apparently been minimal. There is no other country in the world as committed to a postcarbon transit system as Japan. After suffering through one of the worst seismic punches in recorded history (in the afternoon, at peak traffic times) with such results, it is clear that the transit technology works.

It remains to be seen what to make of the nuclear accident. I am not sure we can meet all our postcarbon energy needs without relying on nuclear power at all. At the same time, the accident was possibly worse than the Japanese government lets on. Independent analyses by the Atomic Energy Commission, at any rate, are quite ominous. Some analysts, such as C Busby (U of Ulster), conclude that contamination from the Fukushima-Daiichi site is equal to that of Chernobyl.

The nukes were old and made in USA by a company (GE) that sold the technology even though engineers resigned in protest over design flaws they identified as safety risks from the outset. The nukes were officially certified to withstand a severe quake, but then it turned out the paper work was fraudulent, and the actual certification was for weaker impacts. So the accident happened for technological and regulatory reasons. Would not better designs and stricter oversight suggest themselves as solutions?

Japan is rightly called one of the most advanced nations on the planet. It has prevailed in a disaster of monstrous proportions better than most other nations could have (remember how it took five days for the US government to react to Katrina hitting New Orleans?). Japan's architecture and transit technology pass the test and point to a future of civil evolution. As runaway changes begin, and sustainability starts looking like a distant ideal, resilience is a more attainable pragmatic objective. Here Japan serves as our teacher.

The nuclear accident remains a question. Can we make it through the climate crunch by renewables alone? Can we decouple ourselves from fossil fuels at the same time we give up on nuclear power?

Lester Brown suggests an answer in Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to save civilization (New York: Norton 2010), 113 and 111:

"Wind is the centerpiece of the Plan B energy economy. It is abundant, low cost, and widely distributed; it scales up easily and can be developed quickly. Oil wells go dry and coal seams run out, but the Earth's wind resources cannot be depleted."

And this: "In the United States, three states--North Dakota, Kansas, and Texas--have enough harnessable wind energy to run the entire economy."

Sixty-nine months left.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

humus and the stem

--climate happenings are at blisterdata--

How can the humanities help out with the crisis of society? In the debate at USF two weeks ago a key was offered by Gurleen Grewal (USF India Center). She took issue with the myopic Western emphasis of the sustainability discussion and proposed a question that matters, too: what is it that we do love?

This gives us enough bits and pieces to pull it all together. For review, here's the summary of the points made by the panelists. Martin: "Houston, we have a problem." Cheryl: "whatever we need to sacrifice now is no great loss." Dell: "stop praying to false idols--go green!" Laura: "heed the river's being." Carl: "you don't like the Great Dying aka the hypoxic zone in your Gulf? Well, then how about thinking about agrobusiness in a clearer spatial framework?" Becky & Christian: "it's time to learn a new word: Mayanization." Noel/Sofie/Cesar: "forget wealth and the ugliness that it spawns. It's time to create beauty."

The old paradigm has failed. This paradigm contained Cartesian modernism, Christian dualism, and neo-liberal utilitarianism. This is the cultural humus in which our forebears had planted Science, Technology, Engineering, and Medicine, or what we call STEM here at USF. As a result of STEM growing the wrong way since 1900, we multiplied our numbers sevenfold; we multiplied the world economy twentyfold; we crossed all sustainable yield thresholds; we crashed through biospherical limits; and like utter morons we changed climate, thereby setting the world on edge.

This failure threatens world civilization. We need a new paradigm, of sustainability and resilience. To get there we must think outside the box. Outside the box means to retrieve native information, reinstate indigenous wisdom, and reconceive reality in terms of beauty, love, and meaning. Outside the box means to use the playful, creative, and interpretive skills of the humanities to guide the way towards a feasible and viable reload of culture. Gurleen's hippie question has heuristic power. The hermeneutics of drawing the arrow of love points the way to civil evolution.

This thinking is vital for competitiveness and survival. A case in point is the Humboldt academic reform in 19th century Germany. Humboldt stuck the stem of science, tech, engineering, and medicine in the humus of the humanities. He argued that the stem must be planted. Only then will it get enough humidity to grow tall, supple, and strong. Without humanities the stem will go brittle and break. By their very nature the result-oriented disciplines lack the capacity to think outside the box. Humboldt's academic reform was enacted. Fast forward one generation, and lo and behold, Germany was reaping all the Nobel Prizes ... in the STEM disciplines. That from our viewpoint the old humus is now poison does not matter. At that time, it was the right bunch of nutrients. What matters is Humboldt's insight beyond paradigms: any stem needs humus or it might break in the next stiff breeze. And a climate storm is rising.

Sixty-nine months left.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

chillin' and gelassenheit

--climate happenings are at blisterdata--

The USF Humanities Center did a symposium on the crisis of the humanities (the 'Global Humanities Symposium'). I was on the "Cultural Sustainability" panel to say something about "thinking ahead--globalization, sustainability, and existence." I pulled out a few stats on the American Disenlightenment and Year One of the Long Emergency, and asked: how can the humanities help?

The other panelists suggested answers.

Cheryl Hall (Poli Sci) discussed the meaning of being Green.
Dell deChant (Religion) talked about the consumer economy as the American god. Laura Runge (English) shared her creative reflection on the waters of the Hillsborough River.
Carl Herndl (English) offered observations on Levefre, social space, and farms--the authentic sort and the alienated sort. This spawned a Q&A on why green farms, using intercropping, are more resilient to climate change.
Christian Wells & Rebecca Zarger (Anthropology) talked on Mayanization in Honduras and Belize: how children preserve their native culture as long as it is still there, and how entrepreneurs resurrect it when it has already disappeared.
The panel ended with slides from Art History. The curator Noel Smith showed images of Cuban art; and a graduate student (Sofi Ruhi) introduced the project of Cesar Cornejo, how to turn favelas into humane living spaces that double as art galleries.

As we do Abendgespraech in einem Kriegsgefangenenlager in Russland in my seminar, I have been mulling over Heidegger's use of Gelassenheit (chillin' or letting-be).

Gelassenheit matters in space, in a chemical fashion. Less busy people leave smaller carbon footprints. In "Shifting Values in Response to Climate Change" in the 2009 SoWR, T Kassner writes:

A recent cross-national study concluded that, "if, by 2050, the world works as many hours as do Americans it could consume 15-30 percent more energy than it would following Europe. The additional carbon emissions could result in 1 to 2 degrees Celsius in extra global warming.

(See D Rosnick/M Weissbrot, "Are shorter workhours good for the environment? A comparison of US and European energy consumption," CEPR, Washington DC 2006.)

Chillin' matters in time. Kassner coined time poverty for the result of a lack of gelassenheit. Its presence creates time wealth; a desideratum but also inexorable: when gelassenheit is spurned, nature's Way just crams it down our throats anyway, by not sustaining the unsustainable. A talk by D. Orlov, posted on Idleworm, touches on how the meltdown of the USSR created a new social experience of time. Suddenly everything takes forever. Going to the grocer (as in: walking, since gas is rationed and mass transit breaks down) then takes the whole day.

I showed statistics about how the consumer world is a culture of suffering (as reflected in the 43% polled by gallup who don't see themselves "thriving," which places the US fourteen notches below happier nations); about how this culture produces the profitable imprisonment of its citzens, 743 per 100,000, higher by an order of magnitude than Japan (59) or Canada (117); and about how this waning and troubled society leaves behind the worst per capita carbon footprint in the world, only being surpassed by urban islands and Arab gas stations.

So here is a culture entering failure mode. Everyone works too hard, consumes too much stuff, and creates too much waste. The crisis of the humanities is symptom of an out-of-whack culture based on unsustainable neoliberalism.

How can the humanities help out?

Hall proposes inspired environmental sacrifice.
DeChant suggests a cultural reload with a dark green religion.
Runge shows how, if we're willing to listen, the rivers teach us love for the place, a first step to a new cultural paradigm.
Herndl makes it clear that there is no alternative--runoff from industrial Iowa farming creates a dead zone in the Gulf.
Wells and Zarger show how to retrieve indigenous knowledge.

And Smith as well as Ruhi depict the time wealth of a culture of gelassenheit: in a post-consumerist world, you paint; you turn your dwelling into a space of art; and you just create beauty.

Sixty-nine months left.