Sisyphus and climate activism: the surprising truth

In December, the scientist who — probably more than any other individual — brought ocean acidification to the attention of the world, Ken Caldeira, gave a named lecture to the huge science conference known as the AGU (officially, the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union). He spoke on the legacy of Carl Sagan, and as transcribed today on his blog, pointed out that during his life Sagan did look at the central question posed by climate change: how long can we expect to enjoy the benefits of this lovely planet? Are we doomed to fatally foul our planetary nest?

Despite his influence and his learning, Caldeira speaks in an unpretentious, calm, and informal manner. He wondered out loud:

How hard is it to destroy modern civilization? — This shows up in the global change discussion a lot. There’s a lot of people who think that global warming is an existential threat to modern civilization. And other people think we’re going to just muddle through. And it’s going to be a cost on society. It will be an existential for some people who lose their livelihood or lose their lives, but as a civilization it’s a challenge but not an existential threat. I tend to be on that side of things.

This was interesting, but not very motivating to me, well versed in climate issues, but weary of their overwhelming heaviness. But in answer to a question, speaking of Carl Sagan, Caldiera quoted a thought from the French existentialist Camus (writing in “The Myth of Sisyphus”) that put this struggle in a more helpful context. He pointed out that to Camus, Sisyphus embodied the absurdity of human life on earth, but also the commitment of humans to the struggle. In the essay Camus focused on that moment after Sisyphus has rolled and pushed and sweated the stone to the summit, only to watch as it again tumbles down the mountain.

It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me [Camus writes]…. I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step towards the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks towards the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock. […]

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. The universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

Caldeira rephrases this message for our time this way:

…we are heavily culturally influenced. Camus, who Sagan was reading, had written about imagining Sisyphus as happy pushing that stone up the hill. And that you wonder about the people who built the Nortre Dame cathedral as a multi-generational project that was aspirational towards some idea of permanence. Are these are sort of serfs working on this thing and just because they need to get money for food or did this gave people meaning to people to lug these stones and build Notre Dame. We can get collective me out of a project that would be positive for all of humanity and that in a way this sort of economics and even evolutionary theory emphasizing self-interest and narrow personal gain ….

I think a lot of us are motivated by approval of our peers, by wanting a feeling of meaning in our lives and so on. And not everything we do is narrowly self-interested. And maybe if in our culture we tried to emphasize more doing things for the public good that maybe more people would start doing things for the public good.

In its think-y way, this example inspires. Of course the struggle seems overwhelming, exhausting, and futile, But seen in a social context, the struggle is what gives our lives meaning. This painting from Sandro Chia, in the Museum of Modern Art, expresses this idea memorably I think:

It’s Sisyphus’s work and he’s accepted it: in Camus’s words, describing his heroism: “His rock is his thing.”

We all have our own rocks. Perhaps today climate stabilizing is our culture’s rock.

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“Radical Distraction” by Saul Bellow

From Saul Bellow, in an essay from 1975, published in Critical Inquiry:

“We are in a state of radical distraction,” he writes in “A World Too Much with Us,” an essay for the journal Critical Inquiry, in 1975, the same year Humboldt’s Gift appears. “I don’t see how we can be blind to the political character of our so-called ‘consumer’ societies. Each of us stands in the middle of things, exposed to the great public noise…All minds are preoccupied with terror, crime, the instability of cities, the future of nations, crumbling empires, foundering currencies, the poisoning of nature…To recite the list is itself unsettling.” (T.S. Eliot could no longer read the daily paper, Bellow writes. “It was too exciting.”)

Via a review by Tom Jokinen, of a biography of Bellow by Zachary Leader.

Pic from the NYTimes review, showing Bellow on the subway in that same year of 1975.

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Performative Cruelty in the Presidency

The best essay on our very stable genius from last year, it is clear to me now, came from The Atlantic and Adam Serwer: The Cruelty is the Point.

Let me quote the “nut graph” as they say in journalism, the simplest possible outline of the argument to be made in the piece.

The cruelty of the Trump administration’s policies, and the ritual rhetorical flaying of his targets before his supporters, are intimately connected. As Lili Loofbourow wrote of the Kavanaugh incident in Slate, adolescent male cruelty toward women is a bonding mechanism, a vehicle for intimacy through contempt. The white men in the lynching photos are smiling not merely because of what they have done, but because they have done it together.

We can hear the spectacle of cruel laughter throughout the Trump era.

By way of contrast to this depiction, the neo-conservative right in the person of Michael Gerson today calls Trump a fraud. 

Seems a bit late doesn’t it? But nevermind, we appreciate the negativity from a Republican on Trump.

Far more insightfully and powerfully, it seems to me, Slate’s science editor today hears the “cruel laughter” in Trump’s tweet about the worst cold freeze to hit the Midwest in a generation.

The sad thing about this tweet isn’t even the deliberate misrepresentation of facts. That’s par for the course from the only world leader who doesn’t accept the science on climate change. It’s the tone of it that grates—the taunt inherent to “please come back fast, we need you!” In the midst of constant chaos and tragedy and stupidity, it is easy to forget that one of the greatest costs of the Trump presidency is the opportunity cost—the loss of these four years in which we could have been taking action on one of the most serious threats facing humanity and instead walked backward. This tweet is frustrating not only because it’s wrong—it’s frustrating because it is cruel. People are already dying from global warming. The longer we wait, the worse it will get. But to the president, it’s just a punchline.

They call it performative cruelty.

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Don’t Push Me Because I’m Close to the Edge: 2019

A generation ago Grandmaster Flash had a huge hit with The Message, with a chorus that went like this:

Don’t push me ’cause I’m close to the edge
I’m trying not to lose my head
It’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder
How I keep from going under

That was 1982, twenty-seven years ago, but it’s still true. According to a national survey last year conducted by the reputable Harris Poll, nearly four-fifths of wage earners in the self-declared “greatest country on earth” live paycheck to paycheck, with no real savings. As Ted Rall notes, barely keeping his sense of humor. He draws:

Most stories reporting on this finding focus on the personal responsibility of wage-earners not to blow their desperately hard-earned money. USA Today wondered: Are Americans Responsible with Their Paychecks? as if it’s the fault of the underpaid and barely insured that they’re one or two steps from the street.

This blog focuses mostly on climate and culture, but really it’s understandable that people don’t think much about either — who has time for a future crisis, living one or two weeks from a personal crisis?

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A wild perspective on the government shutdown


My name is Randy, and I’m the raccoon resident of the dumpster enclosure at Yellowstone National Park’s Bridge Bay Campground. The park rangers refer to me as a “nuisance raccoon.” I’ve lost my fear of humans and ability to forage for natural food like fruits and nuts, the stuff that non-nuisance raccoons eat. Imagine trying to eat raw acorns after tasting the flavor-explosion of Jacked Ranch-Dipped Hot Wing Doritos — inconceivable.

As a trash-eating raccoon, the government shutdown has been the best three weeks of my life, and I urge the President to think long and hard about the effects of the shutdown on me, Randy Raccoon the Dumpster Terror of Yellowstone, and not worry about the rest of the American people.

Bridge Bay is Yellowstone’s largest campground with hundreds of campsites, so on the shutdown’s first day the filth of humanity started to pile up outsidethe animal-proof trash containers. It was a cornucopia of Carrot Cake Clif Bars, the constituent ingredients for s’mores, and a fully-loaded diaper, all marinating in stale PBR. After a couple ranger-free days, the pristine park turned into a Golden Corral buffet of trash for scavenging vermin like me. On day 7, I found half a Chicken Chalupa and a human shit pile (coincidence?) steps away from majestic Old Faithful!

I would have thought the government would close the parks if the rangers couldn’t be there, since they obviously are the only thing preventing total chaos. Tourists are dumb. They risk death trying to take selfies with 2,000 pound buffalo, which are basically sentient battering rams. But I’m just a raccoon who’s eaten a used condom and a wrapped Snickers bar, what do I know?

From a friend of a daughter, writing for The Belladonna. From personal experience, I must say raccoons are some gnarly beasts, and not to be messed with. Here’s the rest of the piece.

Read More →

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Eating the Thomas Fire (sort of)

A little over a year ago the Thomas Fire, powered by the strongest Santa Ana winds in memory, roared through Upper Ojai on its way to surrounding all of Ojai, rampaging into Santa Barbara county, killing two people, destroying 1,000 structures, and burning over 200,000 acres of land. The fire visited our property on the first night, got into a three-trunked oak overlooking the street, and wouldn’t die in that tree until a crew from (believe it or don’t) the Governor’s special Office of Emergency Services came by and put it out personally.

Here’s what that looked like. You can’t see the fire burning in the tree, but you can see the smoke and steam.

A year later, against odds laid by a couple of local expert tree trimmers, that tree still stands, badly burned, splitting, hazardous to stand under, but undauntedly alive. And directly in the burn this week grew a massive mushroom, of the “lions mane” variety. Amazing and amazingly wild creature.

For folks living in wetter environments, wild mushrooms may not be so surprising. But for SoCal: Holy Cow! I only know about this variety from a mushroom forager named Omar Uribe, whom I interviewed working last year on a story about mushroom growing and foraging and products generally.

Omar told me that lions mane is unusual among mushrooms because not only is it mild and almost sweet, but unlike many other succulent and edible varieties it has no toxic look-alikes. In other words: it’s safe to eat! After he reassured me by identifying it from a picture, I went ahead and cooked a moderate harvested portion into a leek and mushroom shepherd’s pie, according to an excellent and mild NYTimes recipe. Mmmmwah! Served it to a number of friends and relations to much appreciation. Thank you, universe, for a wildness we can taste, that wildness that will not go away.


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Climate change hits ag in Ventura County

Proud to have published this story recently in a prominent Ventura County publication. With the help of Ben Hatchett of the Desert Research Institute, we showed I think that avocados, though now a substantial part of Ventura County agriculture, will in the not-too-distant future be a much more risky proposition…but that other crops, such as mangos, might possibly become much more practical. I included perspectives from growers, farmers, ranchers, scientists, advocates and government officials. A comprehensive look, dare I suggest:

Local growers and ag experts weigh in

Is climate change impacting agriculture in Ventura County?

“Yes, but …” say the farmers, ranchers, water agency representatives and scientists I talked to about climate change in Ventura County. Growers and ranchers proceeded to talk about the harrowing drought and the devastating Thomas Fire, though many of those interviewed pointed out that these could be examples of weather, not long-term climate changes. They also mentioned the extreme two-day July heat wave that damaged avocado groves throughout the county.

Yet after detailing the damages they suffered, farmers and ranchers without exception stressed to me that they remain committed to their work with the land, and expressed confidence about the future of agriculture in Ventura County. (more)

A couple of excerpts worth noting and possibly tweeting:

On Ranching:

“The [ranching] industry has been severely impacted by drought,” [agricultural adviser Matthew Shapero] says. “You can define ‘drought’ in different ways, but precipitation has been significantly below average for six of the past seven years, and even the last two years, which provided some drought relief statewide, have not really benefited Ventura County all that much.”

On Bringing State Water to the Ojai Valley and W. Ventura Area:

John Krist, CEO of the Farm Bureau in Ventura County, doubts that any plan will bring much state water to Ojai agriculture.

“I’m pretty pessimistic about the chances of additional state water making much of a difference in the relatively dire situation in the west county,” he says. He explains that although Casitas has for years paid for the right to an allocation of 5,000 acre-feet a year of water from the state, on average the state fulfills less than 60% of the allocation for water districts, meaning that the amount of water available to Casitas would probably be less than 3,000 acre-feet a year. That number could fall to zero in a statewide drought, as happened during the drought in 2014.

Lakes Casitas in 2018

And on the rising temperatures:

In the future, those high temperatures [in Ventura County] will become more common and more extreme, according to projections calculated for us by Benjamin Hatchett, PhD., a climate scientist at the widely respected Desert Research Institute, working on a grant for the Watersheds Coalition of Ventura County.

Consulting with an expert at the California Avocado Commission, Hatchett learned that temperatures higher than 95° stress and can damage or kill avocado trees. Historically, Hatchett says, farmers in the Ojai and the Fillmore areas could expect to see temperatures in excess of that mark about 30 and 15 days a year on average, respectively.

Estimates using downscaled global climate models predict [Ojai] could have up to a seven-fold increase in the number of these very hot days for the late 21st century. “To be fair,” says Hatchett, “these are very preliminary results from this ongoing Ventura County study and show a worst-case scenario, but the increase is certainly concerning.


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How Yoko turned on John’s imagination

A charming piece via the BBC, drawn from a new book, reveals how Yoko’s idealism turned on John’s imagination and — pretty directly it seems — inspired the creation of his most iconic song: Imagine. Specifically, Yoko’s book Grapefruit. Lennon said:

“There’s a lot of pieces in it saying like ‘imagine this’ or ‘imagine that’,” he said about Grapefruit. “Imagine could never have been written without her. And I know she helped on a lot of the lyrics but I wasn’t man enough to let her have credit for it. So that song was actually written by John and Yoko, but I was still selfish enough and unaware enough to take her contribution without acknowledging it. The song itself expresses what I’d learned through being with Yoko and my own feelings on it. It should really have said ‘Lennon/Ono’ on that song, because she contributed to a lot of that song.”

Neither of the two expected the global reaction:

Ono describes how they felt about Imagine at the time: “We both liked the song a lot but we honestly didn’t realise it would turn into the powerful song it has, all over the world… We just did it because we believed in the words and it just reflected how we were feeling.”

Usually on my birthday and Lennon’s death date, December 8, I post some sort of tribute to Lennon, one of the greatest artists (and thinkers, sez me) of my generation. But I always conclude with the same message: miss you John.

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California Weather Outlook: Dry or Wet 2019?

In recent years, the mighty California Department of Water Resources has committed to researching the possibility of extending weather forecasting beyond the 3-14 days that is currently “skillful” according to statistical measures. In the fall they have been hosting a discussion of these questions at the National Academy of Sciences outpost at UC Irvine. This year’s presentation was called Water Year 2019: Feast or Famine?

Without getting into a long and wonky discussion, suffice to say that researchers seem to have turned away from the past emphasis on the influence of El Nino on precipitation in the Southwest, and instead are pioneering new methods, working with the support of NOAA, focused on the identification of specific “weather objects” such as Atmospheric Rivers nearer the West Coast. (see forecasts here)

State climatologist Michael Anderson warned the audience of scientists to take this “outlook” with “a whole shaker of salt,” and included this slide, discussing conditions and factors forecasters must consider.

Anderson admitted a little later that the amount of information in that slide might have been “abusive.”

Nonetheless, he went on to summarize the outlook for rain and snow as follows. These are some of CA’s best forecasters making observations about what they’ve seen so far from this water year. Notes in [brackets] are my off-the-cuff translations of the science

Slow start to water year: no significant precipitation until Thanksgiving. [factor in wildfires]
Eastern Tropical Pacific warmer than usual [meaning more clouds closer to West Coast — potential moisture]
Jet stream zonal [systems moving directly across Pacific, east to west, and rapidly]
“pattern suggests faster moving storms regularly impacting California with precipitation totals dependent on AR [Atmospheric river] characteristics — watch your weather forecasts”
Dynamical seasonal forecast suggests above average winter [but these forecasts have not been shown to have skill]
NOAA forecast calls for wetter than average winter

Sounds to me like these folks are expecting a wet winter, even if they don’t want to be quoted saying so.

This morning the LA Times reports that the storm system that hit SoCal this week was wetter than expected, and veteran observer (and friend) Bill Patzert puts that in context:

There are a couple of reasons why it’s hard to say whether the rest of the season will be rainy.

Not only is there a “wannabe” El Niño in the Pacific Ocean along the equator, a weather phenomenon that can cause a series of subtropical storms to hit California, Patzert said, but there’s also a “blob” of warm water in the northeastern Pacific Ocean, which in years past has reinforced a drought-worsening ridge of high pressure that diverts storms away from the West Coast and into the central United States.

“It’s a rematch of the blob versus El Niño,” Patzert said. “Most forecasters are being cautious about January, February and March, which are usually our wettest months.”

As the story notes, one reason it may feel wetter than normal is that it’s been much drier than normal in recent years, especially early in the season. (Last year at this time SoCal had recorded only a trace of moisture.) This year so far we’ve had about 4 inches here in the Ojai area. So it seems wetter.


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Thomas Fire (one year ago tonight)

The Thomas Fire began about five miles from our home near Thomas Aquinas College near Santa Paula on the night of December 4, 2017, a date Upper Ojai will never forget.

In a bad twist of fate documented in my story in the Santa Barbara Independent a couple of weeks later, an electric transformer at the top of my street blew up about half an hour after the fire began near Santa Paula, setting off a shower of sparks that fell to the ground and immediately started a fire. The Koenigstein Road branch of the fire rapidly burned down my street and overwhelmed Upper Ojai, going on to destroy over 100 structures, including my office and a barn/studio. You can’t see the trees swaying and the winds rushing in that picture, nor feel the heat of that strangely dark night, lit solely by the light of a wildfire.

But this is what it more or less looked like that fateful night, a photo hastily snapped at the fire about a quarter mile or so behind the house, as I took one last look around before evacuating. Can you feel the menace?

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