Right now we're in a bad movie with a predictable ending

Without a doubt the winters in the Washington D.C. area have been getting milder. Of course we still get spells of arctic cold and your occasional snow storm, but if you’ve lived here for any length of time, as I have for almost 3 decades, there is no arguing the winters aren’t, on average, what they use to be. The trend is unmistakable. The climate is changing. Our warm weather seasons are getting more severe and longer and our cold weather seasons are getting milder and shorter. These well predicted warming shifts in climate are happening in various degrees all over the planet. And we have good reason to believe the climate crisis is far worse than scientist projected.

That it’s happening and the reasons for it aren’t surprising…at least to most of us. The scientific community has been warning us for a long time—decades—that human activity is principally responsible for a drastic increase in the amount of carbon in the earth’s atmosphere, which is causing global temperatures to rise. While we don’t know everything about something as vast and dynamic as the earth’s climate, but we do know a lot, and we’re about 99% certain humans are the main cause for rising global temperatures.

So I wasn’t surprised to see, for example, that last month was the warmest January in recorded history. Or that Antartica, a continent usually buried in snow and ice miles deep and registering the coldest temperatures in the world, recently had its warmest day ever recorded—69.35 degrees! And we know that as the Arctic ice continues to melt at an alarming rate, the sea levels—with mathematical certainty—will rise all around the world. With the largest percentage of the world’s population living near the coastlines, we can imagine the havoc this will eventually bring. There are a whole range of potentially large, global problems—increased disease, water resource problems, extreme weather events, agricultural problems, droughts, etc, etc,—that the coming climate crisis will likely bring.

But right now we’re in a bad movie with a predicable ending. Right now the scientists, imagine a team of heart doctors, who’ve spent their lives educating themselves about hearts, are (have been) telling us we’re heading toward a massive global heart attack if we don’t change our diet and habits real soon….like, right now. And the longer we wait to address this problem, the doctors are warning us, the more drastic the changes, costs, and sacrifices will have to be if we want to survive.

On the other hand, we have some fast food guys—and their fatty food science denial agenda—telling us we’ll be just fine: “Eat on! Those heart doctors are wrong! Experts can’t be trusted! They’re elites! The truth has a liberal bias!” Whatever. Not surprising, I guess, given we’re a nation with a big obesity (educational) problem. The “Eat on!” crowd has, for now, sadly, won the day. And so the long term costs and sacrifices that must and will eventually have to be made (mostly by the generation not responsible) in dealing with this climate crisis will only be greater and even more painful.

Real statesmanship (public leadership) is partly about getting people to face problems they’re avoiding….because it’s an uncomfortable topic to discuss…or, as we see on Capitol Hill, it cuts into their campaign donor’s profits. The tragic thing about our current national leadership—-the President and a large portion of Congress—is that there is so little statesmanship and so much pure selfish tribalism. The common good is not even remotely on the agenda. Because that would require political courage and compromise and bipartisanship. And we see so little of that anymore.

Though I continue to hold out hope, it’s getting harder and harder to be hopeful about the future. Whether it’s with the global climate crisis, massive inequality in this country, the cost of healthcare, or our tribal politics, I’m less and less optimistic we’re going to be able to avoid a major crisis. But I will continue to hope…and pray…and you’d had best do so also.

"I think this is way worse than we can possibly imagine."

It’s impossible to predict just how bad this Coronavirus outbreak will get. Given the entire situation, there is no need for panic….yet. But we must be prepared for a major outbreak in this country now and in the future. But are we?

What makes this situation potentially far worse is that China is not an open society, and so we cannot trust the information coming out of China. And without reliable information it becomes hard to calibrate and prepare a response.

On Rod Dreher’s blog he passes on a comment from “Wyoming Doc,” a physician he knows who’s married to a Chinese immigrant and they get the People’s Republic of China’s official TV station piped into their home. Watching this station unfold, Wyoming Doc starts out by describing something you’d read in a totalitarian novel:

There have now been four occasions where I have witnessed on live Chinese national TV public officials being frog-marched out of press conferences in hand irons. Their crimes? One had his mask on upside down. One did not have a mask on at all. One was stating (translated by my wife) that he had repeatedly been telling Beijing about the problems for weeks – and there was no response. One was answering every question with obvious double-speak (not unlike listening to Nancy Pelosi or Ted Cruz). Shortly into the press conferences, young men from the PLA show up – slapped on the hand irons – and hauled them out and in all 4 cases – it was just stunned silence in the rooms. My wife just casually tells me – “no one will ever see them again.”

And between Wyoming Doc’s own medical expertise and what he’s witnessing in China he thinks things are far worse than the Chinese government is reporting.

It is also clear to me as a physician – listening to the Chinese doctors – and viewing footage from the hospitals and clinics – that this is many orders of magnitude worse than what they are saying. Common sense will tell you that as well – are they really going to torpedo their entire industrial heartland for months – just because 300 people have died? — I think not – I think this is way worse than we can possibly imagine.

And this leads Doc to ask some serious medical and political questions about preparedness in the U.S.

My other question is for us in the USA. Our supply lines – especially in things like medicine are DEPENDENT now on China. I have been saying for years this is a national security issue. And now their industrial heartland is on its knees. I do not know anything about auto parts and widgets – I do know a lot about medicine. There are many many things (saline bags, cardiac IV meds, antibiotics, blood pressure meds, diabetes meds, I can go on and on) that are only made in China. For the first time since this crisis began – late last week saw the very first issues I am having with my patients not being able to get things. We are promised this will just be the beginning. [emphasis mine — rd] There is no way that we can re-engineer factories quickly to start making things here – it will be at least a year. WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO? When will the Chinese be able to get back to work – is an open question….. This situation was brought on by globalization and neo-liberal policies. It is truly a national security issue at this point – and I think we are all about to get a big dose of blowback. OUR ELITES ON BOTH SIDES HAVE COMPLETELY FAILED US. THE COUNTRY NEEDS A POLITICAL ENEMA IN THE WORST WAY.

This situation should remind us—again—that a major global outbreak is a national security issue of the highest order, and our governments—federal, state and local, had better have serious plans (and laws) in place to deal with it. Of course the Feds must take the led. This is a reminder of how important good, competent government leadership is for our society and our own well-being. This situation can go critical very quickly. If you read enough virology, you know that eventually a very deadly virus will erupt in our society and be hard to contain. It’s only a matter of time. Are we really prepared for this in the U.S.?

Libraries, books, and education

Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent. ― Henry David Thoreau

Now here is a piece of good news. According to Gallup polling, visiting the local library remains, by far, the most common cultural activity Americans engage in. It’s nice to know Amazon hasn’t yet put libraries out of business!

For the most part, I think libraries have remained relevant in the cultural landscape because Librarians have adapted to the changing times fairly well: Bringing in advanced technologies—computers, Wifi, digital, etc, etc,—and continuing to be innovative in sponsoring various events at their libraries that attract young families. So let us applaud the librarians and the local government officials who’ve continued to support them at budget time.

With that said, I’ll add that while it’s encouraging to see how well libraries are doing, it would be even more encouraging if we knew Americans were actually reading more good books. The Gallup poll tells us that Libraries are being used and visited, but that doesn’t mean Americans—especially adults—are actually reading more quality books. The jury is still out on this one.

For example, when visiting my local library I notice all the computers are usually taken up by someone researching (or surfing). I notice people in the various conference rooms, and I usually see a few young families with small children walking the book aisles or sitting in the children’s area looking through a stack of books. But typically I don’t see a lot of adults checking-out or turning-in stacks of quality history, biography, or science books. Of course I’ll note that I have no idea how many adults check-out books via digital audio or print, which can be done online. So maybe I’m wrong. I hope so.

But then maybe it’s just me, but I don’t detect in a lot of people’s conversations that a lot of deep reading about complicated subjects, or the biographies of great men or women, or ideas in general, are something they do regularly…or at all. And I completely understand that some people may not care for reading—tragic though that may be. Maybe they’re just not interested or too busy. What people do with their time is their prerogative.

I just tend to feel that a democracy—especially one that’s “of the people, by the people, and for the people“—is hard to maintain when a sizable amount of the population appears to be terribly uninformed or just plain ignorant about the nation’s history, government, policies, social challenges, or things like basic science. We can’t properly defend our own or our family’s self interests, better yet the nation’s, if we don’t understand enough to know whether the choices we’re making are actually serving ours or our nation’s interests at all. Many of us, for example, vote for policies or people that are in direct opposition to our interests.

A lot of us uncritically adopt the opinions of others—from our family, group, favorite media source, or some other talking head on TV. But the measure of our own education and personal freedom is when we get to a point where we can intelligently challenge (openly or in own mind) our relied upon sources of information—by weighing and analyzing in light of our own personal readings and observations and then being able to change our mind on a topic or cherished belief….and then having the courage to say it.

Knowledge and education, of course, aren’t a guaranteed cure human folly, prejudice, or our politics. Only a fool who hasn’t read History could honestly think that. Educated people can be just as willing as anyone else to ignore their conscience, twist facts, and advance deep seated prejudices.

But what deep and focused reading can potentially do is introduce us to ideas and thoughts that may gradually crack our caked prejudices and inherited world views and open us to the idea that maybe what we’ve believed all along may be wrong or misinformed or at least in need of some updating. That maybe we need to rethink some of our beliefs about people, your society, and the world.

I should add, that along with quality books and literature, Art in general typically aims at doing this, especially serious films and other performing arts. They can expand our ability to empathize with others—open us to feeling our shared humanity. Note, that’s one big reason authoritarian rulers immediately shut down writers and artists when they take over. Genuine Art is subversive in the authoritarian’s world view.

And then, of course, I can’t leave out, the reading of books that elevate our cognitive grasp. As we read about science and the methods of scientists and the incredible amount of experimentation and research put into their findings, we learn how successful the scientific approach to knowledge has been in promoting human flourishing and, in the long run, democracy itself. As we look back through history we see that science and democracy tend to rise together—a phenomenon to be discussed at length in another post, eventually. With an education in science (reading science books) we learn to think more systematically, more scientifically in other words, about things and ideas and the opinions of others. And that’s a good thing.

And so I’ll close with encouraging you to go to the library, check-out books, or buy books at the store, and then read those books whenever you can. Hopefully you’ll learn, grow, see and feel more deeply.

That’s what being truly educated is all about.

A Sunday Reflection

While looking through a box of books, I found my copy of William Butler Yeats’s Autobiographies. I read it probably 15 years ago. I opened it and saw these words I’d underlined in pencil during my reading.

I have remembered to-day that the Brahmin Mohini said to me, ‘When I was young I was happy. I thought truth was something that could be conveyed from one man’s mind to another. I now know that it is a state of mind.’

Here we have Yeats remembering a bit of wisdom passed on to him which he then memorializes in his own memoirs. Lucky for us. It’s a quote worth some deep reflection.

Choosing to pay attention

These where some memorable lines in David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest:

You can be shaped, or you can be broken. There is not much in between. Try to learn. Be coachable. Try to learn from everybody, especially those who fail. This is hard. . . . How promising you are as a Student of the Game is a function of what you can pay attention to without running away.

In the novel, the context of these lines are a conversation about competitive tennis. But of course they’re ultimately about life. Like it or not we’re all in the great Game, and there is no opting out. We can only choose to try and learn from our mistakes and, more importantly, from the mistakes of others.

As the experience of life shapes us…and, at times breaks us…our task is about “being conscious and aware enough to choose what [we] pay attention to and to choose how [we] construct meaning from experience.”* This is how we shape ourselves. It’s very hard. It can take a lifetime. But no one said the Game would be easy. It can crush you. But we’re better off to keep trying, to keep learning, to keep playing on, to pay attention…and to consciously choose.