Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Global Warming's Big Three Numbers

Recent news stories and photos of air pollution in Harbin, a northern Chinese city of 11 million, no doubt shocked and nauseated most Americans. They showed air pollution so bad that some people compared it to a snowstorm, with the “snow” being particulate matter from coal-burning plants that provide Harbin with heat—the heat just having been turned on for the winter by the Chinese authorities. The air pollution level was 30 or 40 times what is considered tolerable, with 25 parts per million the acceptable level and Harbin’s at over 600 parts per million, and in some places 1,000 ppm!
            But we should neither be shocked—global warming, after all, means global—nor comforted that it’s ‘only China.’ Because, again, carbon in the air knows no boundaries. A recent reading of Bill McKibben’s new book, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist (Holt: 2013), reinforces that realization in several ways. First is his account of the civil disobedience battle he led (and still leads) against the Keystone Pipeline. Second is his account of his latest initiative, to induce colleges across the country to divest their endowments of any financial earnings from fossil fuel companies. The third, and what I’ll focus on here, are his elucidation of three key numbers in the fight against global warming. McKibben likes using numbers as symbols, as his major organization makes clear— the number 350 standing for 350 ppm of carbon in our air, a level which is high, but which most breathing beings can probably live with. Of course, earth has already overshot that mark, our current level being around 400 ppm—a number the 350 highlights nicely.
            McKibben’s other three numbers, though, are even more significant. The first is: 2, for 2 degrees Celsius. That’s the maximum rise in temperature that most scientists agree is the upper limit of temperature rise that humans can survive with. Most would prefer a lower number, 1.5 degrees or less, but 2 degrees is the limit. We’ve already raised the temperature 0.8 degrees, but anything over 2 degrees and it’s “game over.” The second number is 565. That stands for 565 gigatons of carbon in the air—the maximum amount, by midcentury, we can put into the air and still have a reasonable chance to keep the temperature rise at or below that limit of 2 degrees Celsius. The third number and the scariest is 2,795 gigatons—“the amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal, oil, and gas reserves of the fossil fuel companies and countries (think Venezuela or Kuwait) that act like fossil fuel companies” (146). As McKibben notes, this represents the carbon load from the fossil fuel we’re on target to burn. If you compare 565, the maximum, with 2,795, the amount we’re on target to burn, you realize that those who control fossil fuels are planning to add five (5) times as much carbon as the earth can take and remain viable for the kind of life humans have led for the past several thousand years. The point is simple: these are proven reserves (and the number could be far higher) still in the ground, but since the reserves are what companies use to establish their worth, borrow money, and budget around (and what stock prices are based on), there is no doubt that these fossil fuel companies plan to use all they’ve got. As McKibben points out,
“These are their assets, the holdings that give their companies their value. It’s why they’ve worked so hard these past years to figure out how to unlock the oil in Canada’s tar sands, or to frack the Appalachians—the value of ExxonMobil is, more or less, the value of those reserves. If you told ExxonMobil that they couldn’t pump out their reserves, the value of the company would plummet…” (148).

It’s also, of course, why these companies have spent so much to cast doubt on the idea that carbon burning by humans causes global warming. So if you told the CEOs of any of these companies—the Koch Brothers, Shell, Exxon, Chevron, British Petroleum, not to mention Saudi Arabia—that they should keep about 80% of their proven reserves in the ground, and write off trillions of their assets, they would laugh at you. Capitalism simply doesn’t work that way.
            This is why McKibben and those who have joined him in jail have decided that a new way of fighting global warming is necessary. If we continue to rely on the so-called market to keep us from burning 5 times as much fossil fuel as the planet can withstand, it’s really “game over” for the planet we once knew. So McKibben and his cohorts have, in their latest initiative to save the planet, targeted the companies themselves with their divestment campaign.
            One other element has come up in recent days to add to the plausibility of what McKibben writes in Oil and Honey. Last week, Al Gore made headlines when he said publicly that the next “bubble” slated to collapse is the one in the fossil fuel industry. Gore, basing his prognostication on the same figures McKibben uses, claimed that these fossil fuel companies are heavily overvalued. Why? Because there is no way they can make use of what they count as their assets, since to do so would push the world into catastrophe from global warming. In other words, to burn the reserves producing that 2,795 gigatons would push us over the brink into a global warming nightmare—rising sea levels, changes in plant and animal life, immense changes in weather and storms like Hurricane Sandy. Therefore, they will have to refrain from using their reserves, and hence are worth far less than what their current stock value, based on using those reserves, indicates. The fossil fuel bubble will have to burst—or the planet will.
            And to give us an idea of what is already happening in one little corner of the ecosystem, McKibben tells us of the effect of our already-warming temperatures on the lives of that most wondrous animal, the moose. Moose are perfectly adapted to the climate they normally inhabit, their heavy coats able to keep them warm in sub-zero temperatures. However, if the temperature gets above 20 degrees Fahrenheit, as it has recently in places like Minnesota, the moose are in trouble. It’s not that they faint from the heat. It’s that warmer temperatures allow ticks to proliferate (deep cold used to kill them off), and the proliferating ticks drive the moose crazy. One moose could normally tolerate about 10,000 ticks, but with proliferation, moose now harbor as many as 70,000 ticks! This makes them so crazy that they scratch incessantly and tear away most of their fur. But fur is their protection against cold, so when a cold snap occurs, moose devoid of fur tend to freeze to death. The result is that the moose population in Minnesota has dropped by about half. Nor has tick proliferation stopped in Minnesota. In McKibben’s home state of Vermont, ticks have now begun to proliferate as well, leading to alarming increases in Lyme disease. Vermonters who used to love their woods are now reluctant to venture there for fear of ticks and Lyme disease—which has become almost pandemic.
            This is only one example of a subtle ecological change caused by warming temperatures that has deep and lasting consequences. It makes you wonder what is going through the minds of those who would continue to support denialists, and continue plans they know will plunge the earth into an unknown, and preventable transformation. One clue, though, comes from the aforementioned pollution crisis in China. A report I saw noted that many in China have begun to buy air purifiers. And which class is doing this most? You guessed it: the ruling classes who run the Chinese government, as well as the newly wealthy who can afford them. It appears that these neo-mandarins, like many of our own oligarchs, think they can ride out the global warming catastrophe they’re bringing about by buying safe havens for themselves and their families and purifying the rare air they breathe. This is the same kind of cruel indifference, rigidity and blindness that has led to civilizational collapses in the past. All that remains to be seen is whether the pattern will hold in our ‘more enlightened’ time as well. One thing is for sure, though: none of us can afford to stay on the sidelines hoping that recycling our cans or driving a prius will solve the problem; or that this time, because we’re all such nice, well-meaning people, things will be different.

Lawrence DiStasi

Friday, October 11, 2013

Are You Ready for some Brain Damage?

I have to be honest: I watch football on TV—a sport made for the screen. I watch the NFL games, especially if the San Francisco 49ers are playing, often watch Sunday Night Football (the successor to Monday Night Football and the allusion in my title) and I sometimes even watch college games. And when I was young and agile, I used to play a lot of sandlot football in our neighborhood. We played tackle without helmets or shoulder pads, and no one I knew ever got hurt because we were careful and friends and mostly not very fast or powerful. In high school, Friday night football games were the highlight: they were played in the cool, sometimes cold fall weather and all the girls I liked would huddle together with us in the stands and sometimes, after cherry cokes and fries in the local malt shoppe, let me drive them home with a stop at the park. So I’ve always liked the game. I like the skill displayed by the pros, the almost unbelievably balletic catches of today’s receivers and the stunning accuracy of today’s passers. I even like the bone-crunching hits on runners or wide receivers, when they’re clean.
            After watching “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” on PBS’s Frontline two nights ago, though, I’m ready to swear off the whole thing. Actually, I and most people I knew swore off pro football once before—during the Vietnam War protests—when football was so tightly allied with the flag wavers that it became nauseating to watch. And in truth, that connection still reigns today, because the ethic of dominating your opponent stands as a perfect symbol of the imperial attitude America imposes on the rest of the world. We are the one superpower, what we say goes, we are the USA and are trained from cradle to grave in the indomitable will to win, to persevere through injuries and pain, to gut it out, whatever the cost.
            What League of Denial showed was just what the cost really is, and has always been. Based on the book of the same name by brothers Steve and Mark Fainaru, the documentary focuses on the growing body of evidence proving that it is not just exceptional injuries that damage players’ brains; it is the routine slamming of heads together, in every game, and in practice, thousands of times in a season, with a force of 20 Gs (like hitting a wall at 35 mph), that eventually leads to CTE: Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. This is a disease that was once thought to plague mainly professional boxers, the vivid case being Muhammad Ali in his later, painful-to-watch years. But as League of Denial demonstrates, it is football players who are being affected more and more. Part of this stems, ironically, from the helmets players use to protect their heads from injury. The problem is—and when we played without helmets, we knew this instinctively, and so were careful—the helmet provides not only a false sense of security; it also gives defensive players a weapon. And so, the ideal for a lineman—these guys carry 350 pounds, these days, on 6’5” to 6’8” frames—or a linebacker or even a defensive back is to drive with full speed and power into whoever is carrying or trying to catch the ball. The aim is to rock the ball-carrier’s world to the extent that he won’t be able to concentrate on the ball so much next time. Players call the resultant disorientation from one of these head hits “getting your bell rung.” If a player like a quarterback gets blindsided, his spine can be crumpled by the blow. Both Joe Montana and Steve Young of the 49ers sustained such hits, the one on Young portrayed in the documentary giving him his 7th concussion, his last. Despite his love of the game, Young never played again.
            The type case in League of Denial, though, is Mike Webster, the all-star defensive center for the great Pittsburgh Steelers team of the 1970s. Watching it is enough to make you wretch. This giant of a man, with a will of steel, died at age 50, looking like a 70-year-old. He had seventy herniated disks, torn rotator cuffs, and teeth he maintained in his head with super-glue. His marriage fell apart when he could no longer remember what he was saying from one minute to the next and had outbursts of unexplainable rage. In 1997, broke and living in his car, Webster tried to get disability compensation from the NFL Retirement Board. The NFL fought Webster’s claim with everything it had—knowing that to admit that football causes brain damage could cost them millions—but finally granted Webster disability payments in 2000. Sadly, the great center had only two more years to live. That might have been the end of it, but a medical examiner in Pittsburgh, Dr. Bennett Omalu, asked to examine Webster’s brain. Being Nigerian-born, Omalu didn’t quite understand what a hornet’s nest he would be opening. Long story short, Omalu found unmistakable signs of CTE in Mike Webster’s brain.
            Even this, though, was no match for the public relations power of the National Football League—an industry worth billions. Omalu’s results were ridiculed, his background was belittled, and the medical “doctors” running the league’s so-called investigations into concussions produced their own “studies” proving that no linkage between football and CTE could be established. It should be said that even today—with all the pretend precautions that are now taken: penalties established for “head hits” and players forced to rest after anything resembling a head hit, and including funds for retired players to help them in their disabilities—the National Football League still refuses to accept the direct connection between football and severe brain injury, CTE. The really sad part is that some of the major researchers now working on the problem—Dr. Ann McKee, a leading Alzheimer’s researcher at Boston University medical center who was asked if she’d like to examine the brains of football players; and Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard player and author of Head Games, now a leading advocate finding the brains of dead players for Dr. McKee to examine—are convinced that it is not just professional football players who are at risk. Literally all football players are at risk. McKee herself has examined 46 ex-players and found 45 with CTE! Two high-school players were among them. And what Nowinski says is that even kids in the little leagues that dot America are risking brain damage in later life if they continue to play the game as it is now played.
            This gets to the real point for me. Football can be played as a game. But in the United States these days, football has become a killer sport. Coaches teach players to “hit” their opponents with maximum force. To knock them out of the game. Which is to say, to cripple them. They belittle those who don’t like to do this. They reward those who do. Recently, the head coach of the New Orleans Saints was suspended for tolerating his defensive coach’s offering his players a “bounty”—extra money—for knocking key opponents out of the game. This kind of vicious attitude filters all the way down to the pee wee leagues. And when players wear these helmets that serve as weapons, as battering rams, and delight in and are made heroes for blindsiding an opponent, the inevitable result is constant blows to the head, and eventual brain damage. For many, this is just the price to be paid for playing a “contact” sport. I profoundly disagree, and I’m hoping lots of people watch the Frontline documentary (, and lots of parents get horrified enough to keep their kids from playing the game in any organized fashion.
            I also hope that some, at least, begin to see that there is a dangerous connection here to our culture at large. The emphasis on winning at all costs, the insanity of encouraging young men to hit and cripple their opponents in that effort to win, reminds me of both the same attitude drilled into our military—the language of football is decidedly military: “blitzing” a quarterback, for example, harks back to the Nazis—and into the masters of corporate America. The trouble is, crippling opponents is accompanied by the inevitable “blowback.” Those who spend years using their heads as battering rams end up with brain damage. Those who spend their lives abiding by the ethic of anything goes in order to make a profit end up crippling the very planet that makes their blind quest to be “number one” possible. Sometimes, in fact, I think our entire culture, including the yahoos now holding our government ransom, is suffering from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.

Lawrence DiStasi

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Temple Veil

Anyone who’s been following the world scene in recent years knows that a great deal of attention is being paid to “the system” and what might be done to heal or supersede it. Capitalism has had free rein since the dissolution of communism in the late 1980s, but with its recurrent crises, especially the financial collapse that struck in 2007, growing numbers of economists and thinkers have been questioning whether the capitalist system that brought such a disaster to so many is viable any longer; and if it isn’t, what can replace it and by what means. These questions are of course reinforced by the increasing fears about global warming, ecological disasters, the depletion and acidification of the oceans, overpopulation, and other seemingly inevitable products of an out-of-control system which considers disasters like pesticide poisoning “externalities,” of no account to those who profit by it.
These questions have been amplified for me by two books I’ve read recently—Zealot, by Reza Aslan, and Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy—and by the pronouncements of Pope Francis about the need for the Roman Catholic Church to not only focus on the poor, but also take on a global system that has made money its god. Though not obviously related, the convergence of Aslan’s conclusions about the historical Jesus of Nazareth, Tolstoy’s late life obsessions about how to change a system in Russia that cruelly exploited the masses, and Francis’ concern about the dominance of Mammon all speak to a single issue: the difficulty and perhaps impossibility of changing the world, reality, life as it usually is, i.e. skewed to the immense advantage of a few at the expense of the many. How is this to be done? And is it worth trying to do, given the continual failure of all historical attempts at it; and, crucially, without adopting the very practices of those in control—violence and murder and vicious repression that always lead to the replacement of an existing hierarchy with even more repressive hierarchies?
In truth, I have been thinking a lot, lately, about the appeal of just such violence: fantasizing about some assassin or group of assassins who can be dispatched to pick off heads of corporations, the CEOs of Goldman Sachs or Chase or Monsanto, Tea Party frauds fronting for the Koch brothers to cripple government, and so on. It often seems the only way to deliver some sort of justice to the pigs and murderers who always manage to slip away.
Thankfully, these thoughts, though they recur often, don’t last very long. Because I am mostly a pacifist to begin with; and because such violence rarely accomplishes anything but repression more savage than what pertained before. So what then? Is one to simply tend to one’s own garden, take up practices that ease the pain and/or insulate one from daily outrages, and let the world go on its merry way? In short, the options for revolutionaries—and Reza Aslan insists that Jesus of Nazareth was, indeed, a revolutionary, an adherent of the sect called “zealots” whose constant aim was to rid Jerusalem of Roman occupation and the Temple of mercenary high priests in order to literally restore the Kingdom of the Jewish God in the Holy Land—have always been basically twofold: either take up arms and fight the oppressors with the same weapons they use, i.e. revolutionary violence; or, provide the masses with both insulation against this basically corrupt and insignificant life, and a consolation prize in the next, i.e. the kingdom of heaven in which justice will finally be done and the blessed will reign in peaceful, perpetual joy.
According to Aslan, the followers of Jesus, most specifically St. Paul (Saul of Tarsus), chose the second option. Along with the evangelists who wrote the four accepted gospels years after Jesus’s death without ever seeing him, Paul (who never saw him either) changed the mission of Jesus to one aimed not at fellow Jews but at gentiles, at Romans—the very imperialists who occupied and then destroyed Jerusalem—who were to become the core followers of Christ. And the message became one that imaged Jesus as the literal Son of God (he always referred to himself as the Son of Man) who had come to save all people and provide them with direct access to God, and the promise of eternal life to come. One way or the other, the message of Jesus the revolutionary who strove to overturn the existing political and religious order became the message of Jesus the Christ whose defeat of death pronounced the Kingdom of God not on earth, but in heaven. One of the major symbols of this transformation, according to Aslan and the New Testament itself, was the tearing of the veil in the Jerusalem Temple at the very moment that Christ died on the cross. This veil, in the Holy of Holies, traditionally separated God from his people, and could only be breached by the High Priest on the Day of Atonement, when he would sacrifice specific animals as a way of atoning for the sins of humanity. Pauline Christianity claimed that this separation of humans from God had been bridged by Christ’s death, by his sacrifice. Through him, all humanity now had direct access to God through the regular re-enactment of his sacrifice. That enactment, in the Catholic mass, is called “communion.” The word is critical, for in my opinion, it speaks to a central problem of humanity and this essay: how to heal the rift, that all of us feel, between our normally functioning selves, and what we might call godhead, or Mind, or Nature, or the Cosmos. Revolution is really about this. So is art. So is the act of love. So are such mundane delights as singing in a choir, going crazy in a crowded stadium over a sports contest, or demonstrating en masse for peace and justice. All are attempts to find a way to heal the conditions in the world so that human reality is not so focused on looking out for number one, so divorced from compassion for others, so apparently separate and alienated from all existence (the veil, or parochet, in the Temple of Jerusalem was “a constant reminder that sin separated people from the presence of God.”) And though it does not seem so at first, the healing of the separation felt by individuals is roughly equivalent to healing the economic and political crisis in the world. For if the inequalities in the world could be healed, it would bring about the same “kingdom” as would healing the separation each of us feels from that world.
Count Leo Tolstoy was obsessed with this problem. In a Russia that was seething with the unrest of recently-liberated serfs who still lived lives of absolute misery and subjection as peasants, Tolstoy tried to find a way to transform the injustices perpetrated by his own class—whose lives of obscene luxury were based on the slavery of the masses. Though he was the world-renowned author of two of the greatest novels ever penned—War and Peace and Anna Karenina—Tolstoy could not accept his inherited privilege while so many lived in misery. He wrote Resurrection to address this issue, and in it—the story of a Russian prince who, serving on a jury, recognizes one of the accused, who turns out to have been the servant whom he seduced as a youth and abandoned, thus turning her into a prostitute—he writes savage critiques of the members of his own class who collude in a system of punishment and exploitation that violates every principle of the Christianity they purport to live by. He has Prince Nekhlyudov try to amend his life and compensate for his youthful sin by accompanying the woman, Maslova, to her hard labor in Siberia where he vows to marry her. But in the end, she refuses him, and marries another, and he is left deprived of his ‘noble’ sacrifice and condemned to return to his not-so-noble life, chastened mainly in the realization that no one has the right to condemn others. In sum, Tolstoy doesn’t provide any easy answers to the problem of class exploitation or the suffering of the world. He didn’t find easy answers in real life either, for although he renounced his rights to his books, and renounced violence and organized government as well—inspiring Gandhi himself—he never could really solve the problem noted above: without using violence, how overturn a corrupt system? How find one’s true self when that self is indelibly shaped by and thus alienated by selfish concern? The imminent Russian revolution, of course, did use violence and did overturn the corrupt system Tolstoy hated; but for many, the system it substituted for the ancien regime was more corrupt, violent and self-destroying than what it replaced.
This brings us to the question at hand. How do we heal the gulf between what we feel we truly are and the separation and objectification of all else that daily life seems to demand? This is really what the word ‘religion’ tries to get at: it derives from the Latin religare, meaning to tie back, or re-bind, thus making ‘religion’ the re-linking or re-connecting of humans with God, with all else, and ultimately with what we are. This is the task of Christianity, though as anyone who has ever taken communion knows, the alleged re-connection it provides rarely works and never lasts—as attested to by how quickly I and everyone I knew, right after imbibing the holy host, relapsed right back into the same sins we had just confessed. Buddhism takes on this same task, and though it is not a religion that commands belief in a god (the standard definition of religion), nor with the idea that humans exist in a fallen state due to some original sin that requires a re-uniting, its prescription for this problem still involves the idea of separation. That is, according to Buddhism, our felt separation from the world is not the fault of the world, or even of sin, but of our misperception. All of us. It is a delusion; a product of ignorance, of our small, self-absorbed brains taking the world for an object outside us, to be controlled or conquered in our short-term interest, rather than as the ground of our being from which we are not separate at all, or ever have been. What Buddhism offers are practices designed to help us realize that we are not truly separate, never have been, never could be. Though our brains are geared to create this sense of separation to enhance our survival, it is not the whole story or even the most important one. This realization itself, when it comes, or rather when it is yielded to, constitutes the re-connection.
Of course, some would argue that this is nothing more than the same old promise of a future state—realization or enlightenment—which solves the problem by ignoring the world and its trials and tribulations. And for some, it no doubt is: an attempt to escape from the problems of the world rather than confront them; a solution for the wealthy, high-minded few, leaving the rest of humanity to itself, praying for it, perhaps, sending it good vibes, but in truth placing the hope for a solution in the gradual and necessarily distant transformation of all, one by one, into a future, more compassionate world. For others, though, it could mean that the realization of non-separation leads not to quietism but to militant, non-violent resistance—the determination to alleviate the mass objectification of others, but without resorting to violence or putting it off till the millenium. Still, the record of such resistance is not encouraging and, particularly in our time, where governments have less hesitation than ever about murdering or jailing protesters no matter how peaceful, not likely to provide much solace.
In short, there seems no effective, much less lasting solution to the problem of the world. Which, in the end, may be a solution in itself. The world, that is, if seen aright, is not something to be solved; human nature is not something to be solved; cruelty and injustice and death are not aberrations to be corrected. They are the conditions that we know and accept as living beings. So long as we living beings are alive, we will be driven by the conditions of life—the fears, deeply embedded by evolution in our brains, of being consumed or absorbed or defeated or getting the short end of life’s stick. And all we can do is become ever more aware of these drives, and try to avoid both poles of the apparent solution: killing or eliminating those with whom we disagree; or withdrawing our commitment to the living and putting our hopes in some future, more pleasant state. Neither will do. Both are ultimately fantasies. So is the idea that something, somewhere back in prehistory or some imagined garden, went wrong, and thus can be put right. The chan master Huang Po had a great metaphor for this search for what went wrong, what is wrong, and what we can do to right it. ‘You are like a man,’ he said to his students once, ‘who has a precious jewel on his forehead, and who exhausts his life searching for it, longing for it, fighting for it, none of which does a bit of good. For all along, this precious jewel has been there for all to see, for you to enjoy, only you didn’t know it.’ Huang Po’s apparently lost jewel is like our feeling of alienation from the world, of separation: we think we are separate, we feel the discomfort of being so, and so use all our powers to find its cause and divert it or bridge it, and it has been nothing but our illusion all along. We are not separate; the world is not fallen; we are not sinful beings separate from a fallen world. We are precisely that world and it is us. Which means that it is only in this world, with all its apparent flaws, that we find ourselves. Not by trying to destroy it or those who screw it up; or by ignoring it for some pie-in-the-sky to come; but by coming to see it as it is in all its fullness—sometimes glorious and sometimes wretched, sometimes needing our neglect and sometimes needing our help—but never distant, never separate at all; rather as identical to who and what we are.
This is not easy. Nor is it necessarily lasting, or proof against despair. Criminals and charlatans always arise; banksters always get away with murder because their money buys them influence and immunity; and because the public swallows their diversions eagerly. But sooner or later, the world produces a reaction, the whole corrupt charade is exposed to view, the system begins to fail, the empire begins to disintegrate. Something like that seems to be happening now, and it is that unpredictable natural reaction, the response of the world—as for a brief moment, the Occupy Wall Street movement responded—to unsustainable excess and over-reaching that we can count on. Take part or not take part, the reaction will sooner or later do its work. And though it may not be comfortable, even for those who have predicted it, wished for it, the destruction too will have to be accepted as part and parcel of the whole. Of that continually changing process that we all, individually and collectively, are.

Lawrence DiStasi