Archive for 2015 March

Who would Jesus’s flock be today? Farmworkers

The Abundant Table is a small but mighty non-profit farm education outfit in Santa Paula, founded by a group of idealistic CSU – Channel Islands students a few years ago. One of them, the eloquent Erynn Smith, director of farm education, explained to me in an interview last year that they had been inspired by the example of Christ, and the way he saw "the marginalized" of his time, the people and the suffering that others overlooked.

They asked themselves, if Christ was alive today and looked around Ventura county, who would be his people? What suffering would he see that others did not and do not? And they agreed that he would see the people who pick our crops, who work our fields, who apply our presticides. And so part of their mission, beyond environmental sustainability, was decent, healthy work for farmworkers. This they have done, I believe, on a small scale, but across this country, two million people work on farms, and all too many of them must struggle to survive.  

A few facts Foodtank, on March 31st, Caesar Chavez day, set aside to honor farmworkers:

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranked the agriculture industry as one of the most hazardous workplaces in the U.S. While in the fields, farmworkers are at risk for both fatal and nonfatal injuries, lung and skin diseases, and certain cancers associated with chemical use and prolonged sun exposure. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Labor reported at least one farmworker death per day, as well as hundreds of injuries due to work-related accidents—an injury rate 20 percent higher than that of the private industry.

Farmworkers are typically socioeconomically vulnerable immigrants with low levels of formal education. They receive low wages—in 2012, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that agricultural workers earn an average annual income of US$18,910—and one-quarter of the farmworker population live below the national poverty line. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, almost half of farmworkers lack work authorization, which, in addition to deficient resources, has created a population with little power to speak for themselves. 

The Ojai Chautauqua will discuss Immigration: American Dream or American Nightmare? on April 12th, at the Ojai Valley Community Church, with a panel of experts, and, God willing, a good representative of our local immigrant community. Boy have I been looking!


You wouldn't think it would be difficult, but life is ever surprising.

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California vs. the megadrought

Disasters by their nature are enormously loud, chaotic, disruptive events. Think the scream of hurricane winds, the crashing of boulders in floods, the phenomenal roar of a huge wildfire.

Drought is different. Drought stays quiet. Its powers cannot be seen directly, save in the unblinking glare of the sun. Drought lacks drama. 

Yet — as one publication after another brings out a story about the megadrought stalking the West – I cannot avoid the sense that we in California and the West face this new (to us) kind of disaster.

Countless stories have been written and will be written about it, but perhaps the best I've seen in the last six months or so came from Doyle Rice for USA Today under the head California's 100-year drought:

The dryness in California is only part of a longer-term, 15-year drought across most of the Western USA, one that bioclimatologist Park Williams said is notable because "more area in the West has persistently been in drought during the past 15 years than in any other 15-year period since the 1150s and 1160s" — that's more than 850 years ago.

We've all seen similar figures: the point is that USA Today and scientist Park Williams clearly put the question to us: if we are in megadrought, what is to be done?

The paper ran a fascinating interactive graphic available here, for the visually minded:

USA Today quoted a leading southwestern climate scientist on the question: 

Rising temperatures would tend to favor more droughts, University of Arizona scientist Jonathan Overpeck said.

"It's been anomalously hot recently, which was not likely to have occurred without global warming," Overpeck said. "The odds are only going up that we could have a megadrought as the Earth warms."

So again — what is to be done?

"If California suffered something like a multi-decade drought," University of Arizona climate scientist Gregg Garfin said, "the best-case scenario would be some combination of conservation, technological improvements (such as desalinization plants), multi-state cooperation on the drought, economic-based water transfers from agriculture to urban areas and other things like that to get humans through the drought.

"But there would be consequences for ecosystems and agriculture," he said.

That's what I'm interested in exploring and reporting, if I ever get the chance: the consequences not just to us humans, but for our landscape. What change is coming, and how do we prepare.

The USA Today story does inevitably turn to the question of climate change causing megadrought, and suggests that the jury is still out on that. That story was written last fall: six months later, the jury seems to be coming in with a "guilty" verdict for climate change and drought in California.

How do I know? The title of the last paper from a team of highly respected climate scientists at Stanford: Anthropogenic Warming has increased drought risk in California  


Note that this measure of drought shows ours this century is not long…but very deep.

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The emotional journey of climate change: Armitage

Twenty-odd years ago Bill McKibben called the climate crisis the biggest story in the world. Now, after years of scanty media coverage, by its own admission, The Guardian has launched a major effort to, in its own words, find a new narrative to tell a twenty year old story. They're going all out, with media (such as podcasts dramatizing their own deliberations) they've never tried before.   

Have we not changed enough? Do we not get it? Need we move from accepting the science to taking action?

(Well, duh.)

But surely it would help if we could connect emotionally to the struggle to make a change. Change is hard. Countless allusions and gestures in dumb science-fiction/action films, no matter how huge, to climate and crisis don't seem to help. In truth, it's a tough story to tell well.

Here's a dance about it, staged most appropriately at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, by choreographer Karen Armitage. She has known the ecologist Paul Ehrlich of Stanford for decades, and has worked with his words in On the Nature of Things to express, as she said, that "the fact of global warming gives me dismay." She goes on to argue that dance, because it works through the body, without words, might be better equipped to tell this difficult story than other forms.

I kind of like the way she put it in The New York Times today:

This is a love affair with nature: It goes through some very tormented and dark and difficult times, but like any love affair, in order for it to continue, you have to grow.


Are we going to have to accept nature's anger at our excesses? Is that what she is hinting? 

Hmmm. Do we rightly fear nature's retribution? Is that part of our resistance to this story?

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Stupid F*!’&ing Bird: To wake Chekhov from the dead

The big winner this week in theater awards for 2014 in Los Angeles was a Russian playwright who's been dead for over a century.

Well, not exactly, but writer Aaron Posner's brilliantly free adaptation of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull did win the L.A. Drama Critics Circle awards for best ensemble, direction, and writing. It's just spectacular, and won countless raves from critics, but maybe the best "review" is an inspired look at Chekhov and his six major characters, in their (imagined) words, from writer Adam Silver in the Examiner,

Anton Chekov: One day I got shat on by a seagull. I f**king said "Stupid f**king bird" and murdered a gull in a play.

Aaron Posner: One day I was reading Chekov. I f**king decided to adapt "The Seagull" into a comedy where people would actually laugh and could use words that people couldn't use on stage in a pre-George Carlin 1895. My life isn't bound by tradition. I could change the names of the characters as you'll see below.

Emma Arkadiana is first and foremost a famous actress: One day I got old. I f**king hate anything that reveals my age. My life is so desperate. I could forgive my lover's many infidelities as long as they are with talentless wanna-bes.

Conrad Arkadina, the twenty-something son of famous actress Emma Arkadina, the main character: One day I was too old for my wanna-be forever young mother. I f**king became an albatross dragging my mother into middle-age. My life is so depressing I could kill myself, twice.

Dr. Eugene Sorn, the older or younger brother of Emma Arkadina, is alone in life: One day, after years of basking in reflective adulation, I was too old to be Emma's brother. I f**king no longer lived in her shadow but threatened to darken her days. My life is empty. I could fade into anonymity.

Doyle Trigorin is talented enough to be a golden boy facing his mid-life crisis with assorted short-lived liaisons with young untalented ladies: My life is so boring I could use some melodrama and adulation-laced sex. One day I could no longer stand Nina's clinging talentless body. I f**king needed to be with someone who actually understood artistry and was too old to leave me.

Nina Zachery the childhood friend and beloved of Conrad wants to be an actress like Emma: My life is messed up. I could act regretful if I could act at all. One day I ran away with the lover of my neighbor and had a baby who died prematurely. One day I will be too old to be eye candy on stage. I f**king made my unhappiness.

Mash Amberson works for the Arkadinas: My life is depressing I could dress in black every day because I'm in mourning for my life and it makes me look thinner. One day I could no longer wait for Conrad to return my love so I f**king settled for dependable Dev."

Dev Dylan longs for Mash's love: My life is so humble, I could eat pie. One day I got married to the one I loved. I f**king am the only one with a happy ending.

Silver continued:

One day I went to the Theatre@Boston Court to see "Stupid F**king Bird," an adaptation of Anton Chekov's curious comedy "The Seagull." I f**king finally laughed out loud and found the comedy in this classic, that now includes references to Cirque du Soleil and smoothies. This is in large part due to Michael Michetti's crisp direction. In comedy, timing is everything and this ensemble cast gets is right with every nod, wink, stare and pregnant pause. Posner's adaptation doesn't just tweak by adding in some modern day references and plenty of swear words and punch up the sexual content with full frontal nudity–male and female, it also breaks the fourth wall and plunges into the potentially dangerous territory of asking for audience commentary, taking time for small impromptu, unscripted conversations.

And yes, let me say It's just great — more than great, it's unforgettable. Hope to see it again some day, though I doubt it could possibly be better produced than it was at the Theater@BostonCourt in Pasadena.

Here's a picture that gives some idea of its stand and deliver nature — a little:


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What would Reagan do about climate change?

Ronald Reagan, the most beloved Republican president of our era, would act to avoid the oncoming train wreck that is climate change. Believe it or not. 

That is the contention of George Shultz, Reagan's long-term Secretary of State, and by God, Shultz has data to back up his viewpoint. He writes (in the Washington Post this weekend) of his experience in the Reagan White House. 

I am also impressed by an experience I had in the mid-1980s. Many scientists thought the ozone layer was shrinking. There were doubters, but everyone agreed that if it happened, the result would be a catastrophe. Under these circumstances, President Ronald Reagan thought it best not to argue too much with the doubters but include them in the provision of an insurance policy. With the very real potential for serious harm, U.S. industry turned on its entrepreneurial juices, and the Du Pont companydeveloped a set of replacements for the chemicals implicated in the problem along a reasonable time frame and at a reasonable cost. It came up with something that could be done then — not some aspirational plan for 2050. Action is better than aspiration. As matters turned out, the action worked and became the basis for the Montreal Protocol, widely regarded as the world’s most successful environmental treaty. In retrospect, the scientists who were worried were right, and the Montreal Protocol came along in the nick of time. Reagan called it a “magnificent achievement.

We all know there are those who have doubts about the problems presented by climate change. But if these doubters are wrong, the evidence is clear that the consequences, while varied, will be mostly bad, some catastrophic. So why don’t we follow Reagan’s example and take out an insurance policy?

Good question, George. Thanks for asking. Now, please, go convince some important Republicans — maybe beginning with Jeb Bush? 



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A song and prayer for rain on a hot spring day in Ojai

In the first chapter of the climate book that caught the imagination of The Guardian (and myself), called This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein argues that we are entering an era of climate change cognitive dissonance:

Meanwhile, each supercharged natural disaster produces new irony-laden snapshots of a climate increasingly inhospitable to the very industries most responsible for its warming. Like the 2013 historic floods in Calgary that forced the head offices of the oil companies mining the Alberta tar sands to go dark and send their employees home, while a train carrying flammable petroleum products teetered on the edge of a disintegrating rail bridge. Or the drought that hit the Mississippi River one year earlier, pushing water levels so low that barges loaded with oil and coal were unable to move for days, while they waited for the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge a channel (they had to appropriate funds allocated to rebuild from the previous year’s historic flooding along the same waterway). Or the coal-fired power plants in other parts of the country that were temporarily shut down because the waterways that they draw on to cool their machinery were either too hot or too dry (or, in some cases, both).

Living with this kind of cognitive dissonance is simply part of being alive in this jarring moment in history, when a crisis we have been studiously ignoring is hitting us in the face—and yet we are doubling down on the stuff that is causing the crisis in the first place.

Another example of this cognitive dissonance:, but without the industrial irony: a rain prayer from a native elder, Julie Tumamait, on a record-setting day of heat in SoCal. Yes it reached 94 degrees on March 14 in Ojai, and yet indefatigable Tumamait and her brother Pat and many supporters and even a Shinto priest connected to the Ojai Foundation came out to a local park to pray for rain, each according to their own tradition:


What was touching about the song and prayer to me was "the ask" for water for our streams and rivers, for our "winged people and rooted people and finned people," for lizards and men and women and birds and all creatures alike, so that we all could have a drink. Not just human municipalities, farmers, and homeowners, but for all those who live on and about and in the land itself.  

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Good news for the world; bad news for California?

Today in the LA Times, Jay Famiglietti, a scientist who oversees the data gathered by the pair of gravity-measuring satellites known as GRACE, and who as a result has as good an understanding as anyone of California's groundwater supplies, revealed that California has but one year left of water:

As difficult as it may be to face, the simple fact is that California is running out of water — and the problem started before our current drought. NASA data reveal that total water storage in California has been in steady decline since at least 2002, when satellite-based monitoring began, although groundwater depletion has been going on since the early 20th century.

Right now the state has only about one year of water supply left in its reservoirs, and our strategic backup supply, groundwater, is rapidly disappearing. California has no contingency plan for a persistent drought like this one (let alone a 20-plus-year mega-drought), except, apparently, staying in emergency mode and praying for rain.
It's true: heck, I'm going tomorrow morning to a rain song ceremony. Doing what little I can. Yes, I'm ready and willing to ration, and may well have to — just hope I can help keep the trees on this lot alive and give them a chance at another winter. Seems impossibly far off at this moment. 
On a brighter and unexpected note, for the first time in forty years, the Energy Information Agency reported that the levels of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere did not rise last year. This is a real sign of hope, and probably reflects China's determination to stop burning ever more coal. 

Somebody tapped the brakes.

Carbon dioxide emissions from the world’s energy producers stalled in 2014, the first time in 40 years of measurement that the level did not increase during a period of economic expansion, according to preliminary estimates from the International Energy Agency.

The research suggests that efforts to counteract climate change by reducing carbon emissions and promoting energy efficiency could be working, said Fatih Birol, the agency’s chief economist and incoming executive director. “This is definitely good news,” he said.

Dr. Birol noted that many nations have promoted energy efficiency and low-carbon energy sources like hydroelectric, solar, wind and nuclear power. China, he noted, has worked to reduce carbon emissions as part of an intensive effort to limit environmental damage from economic development. That China appears to be successfully moving down that path, he said, portends well for the deal struck with the United States in November. China committed in that agreement to turning around its growth in carbon emissions by 2030, or earlier if possible, while increasing the share of non-fossil fuels in energy production to 20 percent of its menu.

Andrew Freedman of Climate Central posted an encouraging chart: this could be big news.


Doesn't mean the story has a happy ending, as Mashable makes clear, but if we can grow the world economy without growing emissions; well, that's a , start. 

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NASA vs. Ted Cruz: Round One

Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has been spoiling for a fight with NASA administrators every since GOP triumphed in the elections last fall. He has taken the helm of the Senate subcommittee that overseas NASA, which flies under the awkward moniker of the Space, Science, and Competiveness Subcommittee. Cruz has made clear when he took over that he wants a "more space, less earth" agency, as recounted by the National Journal. and is pressing that point in hearings. 

With NASA administrator Charles Bolden on the hot seat before the committee, Cruz pounced. 

Cruz pointed to a chart behind him titled "Focus Inward or Focus Outward? Refocusing NASA's Core Priorities" that compared NASA's budget in 2009 with the current request. He said that since 2009, funding for Earth sciences has seen a 41 percent increase, while funding for exploration and space operations, what Cruz "would consider the core function of NASA," has seen a 7.6 percent decrease.

"In my judgment, this does not represent a fair or appropriate allocation of resources, that it is shifting resources away from the core functions of NASA to other functions," Cruz said. "Do you share that assessment?"

BoldenNASA administrator Bolden thoughtfully considered the question, despite objecting to the "chartsmanship," and discussed manned missions to space in NASA plans in the near future. But it's well known that Cruz doesn't accept the reality of climate change. Cruz continued to press for his space agenda, implicitly dismissing NASA's huge and deeply considered investment in satellite technology to better understand the earth and what's happening to it. 

Eventually, it appears, Bolden snapped.  

"We can't go anywhere if the Kennedy Space Center goes underwater and we don't know it—and that's understanding our environment," Bolden said, alluding to the risk that climate change poses to the low-elevation state of Florida. "It is absolutely critical that we understand Earth environment because this is the only place that we have to live."

[well — yeah. Round One to Charles Bolden and NASA]


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Obama at Selma: the true meaning of America

In his extraordinary speech at Selma this past Saturday, President Obama said something I've never heard any other American President say in forty-odd years. He lionized those who walked into this country without papers, looking for a better life. They were the "hopeful strivers," he said, part of the nobility of this country, and deserved mention with the marchers at Bloody Sunday at Selma, with James Baldwin, with Walt Whitman, with Emerson, as embodiments of "the true meaning of America."

Here's the central paragraph, this startling moment, where this thought is first heard:

The American instinct that led these young men and women to pick up the torch and cross this bridge is the same instinct that moved patriots to choose revolution over tyranny.  It’s the same instinct that drew immigrants from across oceans and the Rio Grande; the same instinct that led women to reach for the ballot and workers to organize against an unjust status quo; the same instinct that led us to plant a flag at Iwo Jima and on the surface of the Moon.

The whole speech is powerfully wrought and flawlessly delivered: a speech worth of our history.   

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In the end, Guardian editor puts Earth on front page

At the end of a distinguished career at The Guardian, editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger thinks back over his long tenure. With a few months left to serve one of the finest reporting and writing operations of news on the planet, does he have any regrets?

Not many, he says, except that he thinks because of the nature of the story, newspapers and journalists and readers overlook the threat of climate change to the planet and to us.

 This summer I am stepping down after 20 years of editing the Guardian. Over Christmas I tried to anticipate whether I would have any regrets once I no longer had the leadership of this extraordinary agent of reporting, argument, investigation, questioning and advocacy.

Very few regrets, I thought, except this one: that we had not done justice to this huge, overshadowing, overwhelming issue of how climate change will probably, within the lifetime of our children, cause untold havoc and stress to our species.

Rusbridger then goes on to publish the first two chapters of Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything.

One of Klein's first points I must endorse, and admire her eloquence:

I denied climate change for longer than I care to admit. I knew it was happening, sure. Not like Donald Trump and the Tea Partiers going on about how the continued existence of winter proves it’s all a hoax. But I stayed pretty hazy on the details and only skimmed most of the news stories, especially the really scary ones. I told myself the science was too complicated and that the environmentalists were dealing with it. And I continued to behave as if there was nothing wrong with the shiny card in my wallet attesting to my “elite” frequent flyer status.

A great many of us engage in this kind of climate change denial. We look for a split second and then we look away. Or we look but then turn it into a joke (“more signs of the Apocalypse!”). Which is another way of looking away.

So hard not to look away. For example —


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