Friday, January 8, 2010

Chaos Is What Killed the Dinosaurs, Darling

Today Jonathan Schwarz at A Tiny Revolution linked to an article by the eminent journalist Orville Schell, on America as a "can't-do" nation. What stuck in my mind about this mostly forgettable article (anyone who uses the phrase "tipping point" without reference to cows should not be taken seriously) was this part:

Lately, I’ve been studying the climate-change induced melting of glaciers in the Greater Himalaya. Understanding the cascading effects of the slow-motion downsizing of one of the planet’s most magnificent landforms has, to put it politely, left me dispirited. Spending time considering the deleterious downstream effects on the two billion people (from the North China Plain to Afghanistan) who depend on the river systems -- the Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, Irrawaddy, Brahmaputra, Ganges, Indus, Amu Darya and Tarim -- that arise in these mountains isn’t much of an antidote to malaise either.

If you focus on those Himalayan highlands, a deep sense of loss creeps over you -- the kind that comes from contemplating the possible end of something once imagined as immovable, immutable, eternal, something that has unexpectedly become vulnerable and perishable as it has slipped into irreversible decline. Those magnificent glaciers, known as the Third Pole because they contain the most ice in the world short of the two polar regions, are now wasting away on an overheated planet and no one knows what to do about it.

To stand next to one of those leviathans of ice, those Moby Dicks of the mountains, is to feel in the most poignant form the magnificence of the creator’s work. It’s also to regain an ancient sense, largely lost to us, of our relative smallness on this planet and to be forcibly reminded that we have passed a tipping point. The days when the natural world was demonstrably ascendant over even the quite modest collective strength of humankind are over. The power -- largely to set an agenda of destruction -- has irrevocably shifted from nature to us.

Doesn't Schell know that the glaciers began receding thousands of years before the invention of the internal combustion engine, when human beings were fewer and weaker than they are now? Their "downsizing" (a word I think Schell also misuses) is a consequence or symptom of the end of the last Ice Age. To say that is not to deny that human actions have aggravated or accelerated the rising temperatures, only to point out that climate changes in any case, and not for the better.

Nor is it only human beings who change the biosphere. Scientists agree that the amount of oxygen, a poisonous gas, in the atmosphere increased greatly about 2.3 billion years ago, in what is called the Great Oxidation Event. Why this should have happened is debated, but a common theory is that one-celled organisms converted carbon dioxide to oxygen and exuded that waste product into the atmosphere. That probably had an effect on the anaerobic bacteria that are supposed to have been the dominant life form till then. Science cultists enamored of war metaphors can have a field day with such events, imagining an aerobic bacterium putting a tiny foot on the neck of the fallen anaerobic foe, beating its chest and uttering a victory call to attract females, thus ensuring its evolutionary success. But that's neither here nor there.

That third paragraph, with its rhapsody about the "creator's work," and its concluding lament that the "power -- largely to set an agenda of destruction -- has irrevocably shifted from nature to us", makes particularly painful reading. The "creator's work" is destructive at least as often as it is constructive -- volcanoes, numerous extinction events, tsunamis, earthquakes, supernovae, plague, the ichneumon wasp, and death. The "creator" killed off the dinosaurs, for heaven's sake! The metaphor of human disobedience to a benevolent deity or Nature makes for good Mad Scientist movies, and it plays a major role in the current narrative about global warming: "Man" has meddled in matters that he ought not, sought knowledge that properly belongs to Gawd, but soon he will reap the harvest of his sinful pride when Nature strikes back, cities are drowned by the rising sea, and blah blah blah.

Schell then switches topics and moves on to failures in American civil society, comparing us unfavorably to China, South Korea, Europe, and other countries. Unfortunately his approach is the same as his approach to Nature: comparing "China’s gleamingly efficient airports to our chaotic and all-too-often broken-down versions of the same, or Europe’s high-speed trains to our clunky railroads", but what is the carbon footprint of those gleamingly efficient edifices? (What is the plural of edifice? Edifaeces?) That gleaming efficiency, which is often wasteful, has other downsides, which is why "developed nations" want to export their pollution to the less developed nations, where Orville Schell won't have to see it and get all depressed.

TomDispatch founder Tom Engelhardt contributes a much more relevant note as a preface to Schell:
New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which runs the city’s bus and subway lines, finds itself (like many other transportation systems across urban America) facing a sudden financial “shortfall” -- in the MTA's case, almost $400 million, which means severe cuts in service just when we couldn’t be more in need of public transportation. Whole subway and bus lines lopped off or significantly scaled back in places like the borough of Queens, which guarantees that, for many, getting to and from work, especially in the off-hours, will be a nightmare, or in some cases for late night workers essentially impossible. “The cuts,” reported the New York Times, “would eliminate two subway lines, create more crowding on subways and buses, and reduce frequency at off-peak hours. Service on dozens of bus lines would be reduced or ended, and disabled riders would find it more difficult to get around. ...

This has one practical meaning. If you’re poor and young in New York and your family can’t afford approximately $4 a day in subway or bus fares, you’re stuck in your neighborhood, maybe at the crumbling, overcrowded school around the corner. No hope of better. The finest, most competitive schools in the city’s public school system will be left for those who can afford to get to them. It’s a small thing on the scale of this planet’s problems, but it tells you a good deal about the direction this country is heading in and even if the MTA reverses its decision under pressure, the thinking behind it goes with an America I’ve never known.

The America Engelhardt has never known, however, is an America that has always been there -- the America of slums, high infant mortality, sweatshops, industrial accidents, and the upper strata that don't mind all that as long as it doesn't affect them. It's always going to be a struggle to create and maintain structures that benefit the mass of people, like public health, public education, and public transportation. I'm not blaming Schell and Engelhardt for that struggle, only for supposing that it can ever be resolved finally, that the well-off will ever give up.

I think something else is going on here, though. It's the childish wish that everything should stay the way it was in our first memories, that stories should always be told exactly the same way every time. I remember how strange I felt the first time I passed the site of my first elementary school and saw that the building had been demolished; it was as if something had been destroyed in me. But someone who'd passed by that site when the school was newly built would probably have mourned the loss of whatever was there before, whether it was a familiar house or an open field. I suspect that our fear of mortality is related to this wish to stop the world. Not that I think death is a good thing, or that wanting not to die is unrealistic or childish; what I mean is that the way we think about mortality is affected by our wish that nothing should change. Change is always destructive as well as constructive; something that was there must be replaced with something that will take its place. The hard part is figuring out what to change and what to keep.