Archive for 2011 March

Earthquake forces us to “fight back” against Nature

This past week Ted Rall's Sleeper Agent made fun of those who would blame environmentalists for the deadly earthquake and tsunami in Japan. 

You might be asking yourself: Who would do such a thing/ And even a man had such an impulse, how could it possibly be done? How could you blame environmentalists, who reflexively recoil at nuclear energy, and endlessly warn of the dangers of ignoring the earth, for this disaster?

Who could manage such a feat, and how? 

Answer, a leading columnist in the Los Angeles Times, who pointed the finger at John Muir.

Believe it or don't. First he points out how Muir was excited by earthquakes in Yosemite, and ran outside to observe one bring down a portion of a Yosemite wall, back in l872.

How could anyone anywhere thrill to an earthquake? So mocks Gregory Rodriquez. Having personalized the disaster, he then goes on to psychologize: 

…when nature turns on us once too often, we may decide it's better to fight back than to defer.

That sentiment was expressed last January during Australia's devastating floods. Columnist Chris Gardiner, who contributes to a News Corp. commentary site called The Punch, reacted to the devastation by arguing that humans "should resist the naive nature worship" and "seek to direct and pacify its destructive outbursts."

Rodriguez links this fundamentally right-wing reaction with the emerging idea that the best way to protect nature is to "scale up" the city, as preached by David Owen in his Green Metropolis.

But under these noble sentiments is anger, is it not? Somehow Rodriguez feels betrayed by the earthquake. Because of that he says in his headline, he wants to "get the upper hand on nature." 

It's the fundamental impulse of so many op-eds: to lay blame and demand control. 

But credit where it's due. To blame John Muir, long gone from this earth even before the conception of nuclear power, for a deadly earthquake, tsunami, and reactor catastrophe in Japan!


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Tennessee Williams: How to live (and love) past despair

How to live (and love) with despair in our hearts is a question our disaster-prone century must face. And with the possible exceptions of Shakespeare and Chekhov, no dramatist has shown us how to face emotional disaster with the verve of Tennessee Williams. 

That's the subtext of this lovely essay on Williams, who turns 100 today. Curiously he is more revered in the UK than in the USA, perhaps because we Americans are still uncomfortable with Williams' hedonism. We prefer our writers, especially our gay writers, to be more tormented.

Williams should have been tormented, as emotionally abused as he was by both his parents, but somehow — perhaps because of his indefatigably loving grandparents, or perhaps because he early on experienced the love of the natural world, which he later expressed in his work and in lots and lots of sex in his life. By one means or another, not excluding a great deal of drinking, he escaped misery. 

Apparently in the UK, bold theaters have set out to revive his little-seen post-50's plays. On a lesser scale that's happening on these shores too, with the Wooster Group's brutalist version of Vieux Carre. (Clive Barnes once described this play as "the murmurings of genius" — the Wooster Group transformed it into the rantings of genius, a transformation that the soft-spoken Williams, methinks, would have abhorred.) 

And in Hollywood, the Fountain Theater had the nerve to put on Williams' very last play, A House Not Meant to Stand, which blatantly reimagines his parents as they might have been had their son, a promising young gay man, died young, and they been stuck with each other in poverty. 


Not a great play, but Sandy Martin, as his mother, losing her wits, was incandescent. 

This will be my year with Tennessee. Much more on this great writer in this space in 2011. 

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It’s not so bad being a stay-at-home Dad

You can leave funny Post-It notes around the house and photograph them:  


Well, you can if you're this guy

h/t: Metafilter

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La Niña dry winter prediction fails in 2010, experts agree

This fall experts, including the Forest Service, were predicting a strong La Niña condition likely to produce a dry winter, with heat and Santa Ana winds.

The oceanic pattern developed, but the prediction? 

Bzzzttt! Wrong. Here in Ventura County, we're at roughtly 150% of normal, and got pounded by about six inches of rain over the weekend, stranding literally dozens of hikers, including both a Sierra Club outing and a Boy Scouts outing, in the backcountry, requiring rescue. More rain is expected this week.

Leader of the forecasting pack Bill Patzert admits: the predictions were a bust

I have a rain gauge, but my old wheelbarrow makes the point more impressively…


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Metaphor watch: Cliches get Obama in trouble again

As Matt Iglesias (channeling Paul Krugman) points out, the fact that the Obama administration used misleading, overused metaphors to describe the problems afflicting the American economy has a lot to do with the wide-spread but false perception that their efforts to revive the economy made it worse.

Here's Krugman: 

I still don’t know why the Obama administration was so quick to accept defeat in the war of ideas, but the fact is that it surrendered very early in the game. In early 2009, John Boehner, now the speaker of the House, was widely and rightly mocked for declaring that since families were suffering, the government should tighten its own belt. That’s Herbert Hoover economics, and it’s as wrong now as it was in the 1930s. But, in the 2010 State of the Union address, President Obama adopted exactly the same metaphor and began using it incessantly.

And earlier this week, the White House budget director declared: “There is an agreement that we should be reducing spending,” suggesting that his only quarrel with Republicans is over whether we should be cutting taxes, too. No wonder, then, that according to a new Pew Research Center poll, a majority of Americans see “not much difference” between Mr. Obama’s approach to the deficit and that of Republicans.        

Regarding Libya, the Obama administration is making the exact same kind of metaphorical mistake, according to veteran war correspondent Tom Ricks

I grow weary of talk of an "exit strategy." It is a canard and a false concept. Can anyone remember the last time there actually was an exit strategy going in that actually worked? Military actions aren't interstates.  

For a smart guy, President Obama sure steps in a lot of dumb cliches. 

Via the indispensable Andrew Sullivan

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The risks of profit dependence: McKibben and Toles

In the Guardian on Friday, Bill McKibben published an essay

…Because the one thing we've never really imagined is going to the supermarket and finding it empty.

What the events reveal is the thinness of the margin on which modernity lives. There's not a country in the world more modern and civilised than Japan; its building codes and engineering prowess kept its great buildings from collapsing when the much milder quake in Haiti last year flattened everything. But clearly it's not enough. That thin edge on which we live, and which at most moments we barely notice, provided nowhere near enough buffer against the power of the natural world.

We're steadily narrowing the margin. Global warming didn't cause the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the Miyagi coast, but global warming daily is shrinking the leeway on which civilisation everywhere depends.

Toles makes pretty much the same point today, with his sharp pencil:

Toles is funnier. But with his words, McKibben shows a way out of this mess, though I expect his ideas are already familiar to my readers. The solutions are known: it's the changing that's difficult. 

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When Tennessee met Christopher (Isherwood, that is)

We need a break from all this disaster, don't we? Well, I do. To clear our minds, here's a note about the encounter of a couple of famous writers, who maybe should have gotten along, but didn't.  

In the l940's, while working for M-G-M on a Lana Turner picture that never happened, young Tennessee Williams happened on another writer in Los Angeles he admired greatly — Christopher Isherwood. 

Speaking of Isherwood's classic "Goodbye to Berlin," Williams wrote in his diary:

He interests me profoundly. Sally Bowles a brilliant study. A new something in it. How they can be lost and found again. And even their treachery isn't true, anymore than their apparent truth. 

Isherwood seems strangely like me — his mind, his attitude. Only clearer, quieter, firmer. A better integrated man. 

What is our purpose? To understand our lives and to communicate our understanding. Let's all join hands in the dark! 

Williams wrote Isherwood a gushing letter, but when these two met, it didn't go smoothly. They met at the Brown Derby, at Williams' invitation. He wrote:

I recognized him at once, just by instinct, and he does look just the way I imagine myself to look — it was funny. I like him awfully, and I think he must have thought me rather school-girlish about his writing which I place with Chekhov's.

By contrast, in his diary, dated a day later, May 13, 1943, Isherwood wrote:

Yesterday, I had lunch with Tennessee Williams, the writer. He's a strange boy, small. plump and muscular, with a slight cast in one eye; full of amused malice. He has a job with Metro. He wanted to buy an autoglide [scooter] to ride to work on. I tried to dissuade him, but he insisted. We went to a dealer's, and he selected a very junky old machine which is obviously going to give him trouble.

Isherwood was right about the "amused malice," by the way. Speaking of his assignment for MGM, Williams told a friend that the script he was given to revise "contained every cliche situation you've ever seen in a Grade B picture. They want me to give it "freshness and vitality" but at the same time keep it "a Lana Turner sort of thing.'" Eventually he was fired, considered too "fey" to work with the star. 

Williams concluded:

I feel like an obstetrician required to successfully deliver a mastodon from a beaver. A bad comparison, as the beaver is a practical little animal who would never get herself into such a situation.  


From Tennessee Williams Notebooks, ed. by Margaret Bradham Thornton, Yale University Press, 2006, pp368

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All Things Considered: Misjudging a catastrophe?

As a fan of National Public Radio, as someone who knows most of the reporters on All Things Considered by the sound of their voice, and as a reporter who knows how difficult it can be to get a fast-moving highly-technical story right, I tend to cut NPR some slack. But I must say, their story this afternoon about the scope of the disaster appears to have committed a cardinal sin in science reporting — underestimating huge risks.

In the story, called Sizing up Japan's nuclear emergency: No Chernobyl, the reporter quoted experts confidently comparing the risk to that of Three-Mile Island, which devastated the nuclear power industry in the U.S., but did not lay waste to an entire town, as did Chernobyl. The story confidently suggested there had been and would be no large releases of radiation, in part because the reactors had been shut down, and in part because the steel containment vessels were intact and would remain so.

Bzzzzt! Wrong. Just three hours later, in the New York Times it's reported that fuel rods from Reactor #4, which had been turned off long before the tsunami, apparently have partially melted down, the containment vessel at Reactor #2 has been breached, a huge release of radioactivity is feared by experts, and it's possible that all workers at the plant will have to be evacuated, meaning a full-scale Chernobyl catastrophe could still be in the cards.  

“We are on the brink. We are now facing the worst-case scenario,” said Hiroaki Koide, a senior reactor engineering specialist at the Research Reactor Institute of Kyoto University. “We can assume that the containment vessel at Reactor No. 2 is already breached. If there is heavy melting inside the reactor, large amounts of radiation will most definitely be released.”

That's not the reassuring story we heard on NPR.  

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“Radical libertarians” hijack GOP, says Republican

Andy Revkin interviews a frustrated David Jenkins, of Republicans for Environmental Protection, a group that has been around for decades, but has been pushed to the edge of irrelevance this century:  

Jenkins speaks out: 

…the Republican Party has been hijacked. I maintain that it is being unduly influenced by what I call “pretend conservatives.” These are the radical libertarians that dominate right-wing talk radio and outlets like Fox News. If you listen to people like  Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck you cannot really find any traditionalist conservative ideas in their world view.

The policies being peddled by these folks reflect a live for today-let me do what I want mentality that has nothing to do with the conservative notion of protecting the interests of future generations. Their support for fiscal restraint is primarily due to their desire to starve and weaken the federal government, not to protect our children and grandchildren from debt. Otherwise, they should be able to recognize the fiscal stewardship and environmental stewardship are equally conservative. Their energy and environmental views promote waste, pollution, and overdependence on finite resources. Is there anything less conservative than waste?

I personally would call them liberal, because their attitude reminds me of the liberal “if it feels good do it” mantra of the 1960s, only the vices are different.

On this topic, a well-known American had a pertinent thought:

We may consider each generation as a distinct nation, with a right, by the will of its majority, to bind themselves, but none to bind the succeeding generation, more than the inhabitants of another country.
Thomas Jefferson

As David Brower liked to point out, those who would waste our natural resources, our lands, the air we breathe, and would do nothing to stop climate change, bind future generations to our mistakes. 

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What does this devastating earthquake say about God?

It's an age-old question that has arisen again, after the earthquake in Japan, in a most unlikely place — a remarkable front-page think piece by Scott Gold and Hector Becerra in the Los Angles Times this past Saturday morning. 

Not having the ability to look at the event from the inside, because they weren't on the scene, these two reporters looked at through the eyes of knowledgeable individuals they interviewed about the disaster. 

Late in the story the conversation turned abruptly theological:

"The hubris of humanity makes us forget how powerful nature can be," said Bill Patzert, a climatologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge. He said this was "not an act of God" — but then he paused and added: "Well, I hope not. I could be wrong."

Theologians were left with ambiguities of their own.

Martin, the Jesuit priest, said that nonbelievers may well have an easier time digesting the disturbing images from Japan than believers, because "the nonbeliever does not have to grapple with: How does a good God let this happen?"

"Most people can make sense of what theologians call 'moral evil' — evil that comes from human decisions," he said. "But natural disasters and catastrophic illnesses really test the believers' faith. There is no satisfactory answer for why there is such suffering in the world on a natural level."

Some faiths — Christianity in particular — are imbued with the notion that God is not impersonal and accompanies humans in their suffering, Martin said.

"But no explanation can fully satisfy that question of why we suffer," he said. "And anyone who says they have the answer is either a fool or a liar."

True. But some have attempted to answer the question of why we have earthquakes. A minister newly made of my acquaintance, Don Baldwin of Grass Valley, who served for three years in the Yosemite Chapel, and who has taken up appearing as John Muir recently, found this quote of Muir's after the earthquake in Haiti last year:

All Nature's wildness tells the same story: the shocks and outbursts of earthquakes, volcanoes, geysers, roaring , thundering waves and floods, the silent uproot of sap in plants, storms of every sort, each and all, are the orderly, beauty-making love-beats of Nature's heart.

No mention of nuclear reactors.


Speaking of God and earthquakes, forgot to mention the classic work on the subject — Voltaire's lengthy poem on the Great Lisbon Earthquake, which like this recent disaster, also measured nearly 9 on the Richter scale, and killed between 10,000 and 100,000 people in 1755. That was bad enough, but some august figures in the church rashly declared that, in effect, the quake was God's punishment on the city.

Voltaire got mad:

To that appalling spectacle of woe,
Will ye reply: "You do but illustrate
The Iron laws that chain the will of God"?
Say ye, o’er that yet quivering mass of flesh:
"God is avenged: the wage of sin is death"?
What crime, what sin, had those young hearts conceived
That lie, bleeding and torn, on mother’s breast?
Did fallen Lisbon deeper drink of vice
Than London, Paris, or sunlit Madrid?

Let us hope that Pat Robertson stays out of this one. 

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