Delight Springs

Tuesday, November 29, 2016


It's our last Environmental Ethics class today. Our anchoring theme has been hope. How's that working out for us?

The elephant in the room is, of course, the impending presidential defenestration. Responsible environmental administration is about to be tossed from the tower. A climate science denier will head EPA - or decapitate it. Drumpf's understanding of earth science, by analogy to golf links, would be laughable if it weren't so appalling

On the other hand, he's said he'll "look at" climate change. Our best hope for the new administration is that he'll see something threatening to his unblinded and unsequestered business interests and be moved by narrow self-regard to do some of the right things. Climate facts, and facts in general, may not motivate him, but dollar signs and his personal popularity always have.

He's said the bottom line is what addressing climate change will "cost our companies." It'll cost them their market, aka the planet. Surely even he can be made to see that, and to see the ignominy in being remembered to history as the inept politician whose short-sightedness cost us our last chance to preserve and protect the earth for acceptable human habitation.

Our better hope resides not in the Oval Office but with the rest of the world, and finally within each of us. Look to Berlin and Copenhagen, not Washington, for direction and hope. California won't be leaving the union any time soon, but will have every opportunity to lead it away from the precipice. "When the wind of change blows, some people build walls, others build windmills."

Naomi Klein told us that the climate crisis, bound up with crises of economics and of the human spirit, would "change everything" and usher in a hopeful new era. We just have to hope that happens soon. We've wondered what unexpected developments would trigger a widespread recognition that we'd reached a tipping point on climate. This election, maybe?

Tim Flannery gave us lots of cold hard climate facts, but then concluded with a warm hug of hope for the next generation's resourcefulness and resolve. Hope he's right too.

Chick Callenbach left us a hopeful vision of a better world, filling in a few details as to how we might reach it. But more importantly, he left us a letter. His epistle to the ecotopians, to us really, admits "decay" and urges us to embrace it as the paradoxical but prudent composted condition of hope. It's possible that a more enlightened leadership, by the winner of the popular vote, might have lulled us into compromised complacency. Now, that's no option.  We're going to have to fight. Bring on the eco-war games.

We're well into this Anthropocene era of potentially catastrophic human impacts on the interdependent web of ecosystemic balance it's taken epochs to strike. Could it possibly be a good era, a good Anthropocene?

Andrew Revkin notes "the uniquely consequential nature of this moment," as we're blessed or cursed with an opportunity to change the game or lose it. Perhaps we are smack in the middle of a huge "transition from the lesser Anthropocene to the greater Anthropocene" and will be seen, in a century or so, as the Greatest Generation. That's hoping against hope.

Reflecting on all that has passed and is to come, I see the prospect of slow but substantial and productive shifts in the human enterprise. They will come along with a rich array of perceptions and responses among and within communities—from the scale of global society to that of the stratigraphic community.
Will this happen fast enough? Who knows. But this is the human way. A big part of engaging with the anthropocene, to my eye, is engaging with and even embracing ourselves as individuals and as a flawed and variegated yet amazing species. In 2003, biologists identified “response diversity” as a source of resilience in ecosystems. I’d assert that the same characteristic is an asset in societies as long as they work to level playing fields, foster education and transparency—and communicate.
Perhaps the last thing the world needs is another word. But in 2011, I offered a name for that kind of engagement. It might make you chuckle, given my earlier effort at naming something, but here goes. Anthropophilia.
Edward O. Wilson’s Biophilia was a powerful look outward at the characteristics of the natural world that we inherently cherish. Now we need a dose of what I’ve taken to calling anthropophilia as well. We have to accept ourselves, flaws and all, in order to move beyond what has been something of an unconscious, species-scale pubescent growth spurt enabled by fossil fuels in place of testosterone. In The World without Us, Alan Weisman created a haunting, best-selling, thought experiment—imagining a planet awakening after the vanishing of its human tormentor. The challenge: There is a real experiment well under way, and we’re all in the test tube.
We’re stuck with the story of The World with Us. It’s time to grasp that uncomfortable, but ultimately hopeful, idea.
Is that a hopeful enough ending?

But as I always like to ask, rhetorically, when semesters end: what has concluded, that we may conclude? Be calm. Carry on. Get up each day and ask that morning question.

It's gonna be okay.
5 am/6:39, 50/72, 4:31

Monday, November 28, 2016

Magnetic Plato

It's the end today and tomorrow in CoPhi, our last class meetings of the Fall semester. We'll pull Plato out of the MRI machine and send him back through time, after pondering his thoughts on free will and contemporary brain science. (He's been auditing MOOCs and is up to speed.)

Can we adequately explain a person's actions or the episodes of a life by assigning them to his or her neuronal processes? What is a person, anyway? "Agatha" the grad student and lab assistant is on a far more promising track to answer this than is her reductionist mentor "Dr. Shoket," who says "When you get right down to it, there isn't even a person. There's a brain..."

Reminds me of something I wrote once on brains, persons, and philosophy conferences. (One more James reference for you, Bryce.)
So long as [William James] and we persist in representing mental life and subjectivity generally as more intimately identified with the self that acts, or the whole person, than with the brain either in isolation or in mysterious contact with 'nether-regions, then any account of how a person may sometimes act freely even though his acts are produced by brain events and "bodily happenings" must take seriously the subjective experience of free will. This is not finally negotiable. As a practical matter for James, free will is not a "problem" but a datum. But it is a challenging datum. James could respond to the challenge, in part, by distinguishing the mechanism responsible for mental events (the brain, its neuro-physiological stimuli, and whatever other causes may be at work) from the experienced nature and content of those events. The latter is all interiority, personality and subjectivity. But does this provide adequate insulation? And should we want to insulate our minds in this way? Do not we court the bogey of dualism if we follow this line? Would it make more sense to rethink the prejudicial self-concept that treats the brain as somehow "external" to our persons and incapable of hosting or executing our spontaneity? But how do we do that? I do not think James wants to insulate the mind, nor does he want to backslide into dualism. The brain is not external, though anyone who has ever spent more than a moment trying to hold the thought "I am a brain" will report that the identity issue here is not easy. If we could say all that we want to say about our inner lives and experiences by referring to it, instead of to minds and consciousness, James should not object. In fact, he thinks there are processes of consciousness and dimensions of experience that brain-talk may miss. Contemporary debates continue on this issue, as we will see. For some of us, though, it is just laughably obvious that extreme "eliminative" materialists are out of touch with the very realities betrayed by their own activity in the world. I once had occasion to point this out at a professional gathering of philosophers when the claim was presented, in all apparent seriousness, that there are no persons but only organisms and their brains meeting a physical description matching our own. But brains do not attend philosophy conferences, persons do. And not uncommonly, many of them seem to have left their brains at home. One of the unfortunate "inveterate habits dear to professional philosophers" that James is eager to turn his back on is an almost indiscriminate, juvenile posturing, so much in evidence at such gatherings, that is in defiance of common sense. "Common sense is better for one sphere of life, science for another, philosophic criticism for a third. . . ." Why should not all philosophers know this?
Shoket doesn't know it. Agatha does, and so does Plato when he says "one must bring in the mind to explain his action."

The famous Libet experiments seem to suggest otherwise, in suggesting that the mind consists (only) in neuronal activity. We come to decisions before we're aware of having come to them. But can a philosopher admit that awareness may be highly overrated?

Maybe free will is too. Agatha and Plato agree, we can drop free will if we retain accountability. What's that? Just (says the sensible grad student) "offering each other our reasons, evaluating them, accepting and rejecting and reconsidering them and maybe even changing our minds. To be accountable means to be prepared to give reasons for the things we say and the things we do." It's to philosophize.

The reductive neuroscientist doesn't get that either, of course, but Plato does. "I gladly accept accountability." Freely or not. The really vital question for us all is, what shall we be accountable for? What will we make of this life, of this day? What are our goals?

Mine are pretty basic: keep moving, keep asking questions. It's gonna be okay.
Happy birthday Jon Stewart. whose comedic common sense we badly miss... and Nashville-born Alan Lightman, dreamer of Einstein's Dreams, who knows the end is always near in this accidential universe. “I don’t know why we long so for permanence, why the fleeting nature of things so disturbs. With futility, we cling to the old wallet long after it has fallen apart. We visit and revisit the old neighborhood where we grew up, searching for the remembered grove of trees and the little fence. We clutch our old photographs. In our churches and synagogues and mosques, we pray to the everlasting and eternal. Yet, in every nook and cranny, nature screams at the top of her lungs that nothing lasts, that it is all passing away. All that we see around us, including our own bodies, is shifting and evaporating and one day will be gone." WA

But maybe not today. Again: keep moving, keep asking questions, as the scanner that is the world attempts to map your brain and as your brain attempts to map the world that is our stage. We all have our entrances and our exits.  It's gonna be okay.

6 am/6:39, 56/63/48, 4:31

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

A reckoning

It's a study/research/writing day in Environmental Ethics. Perhaps we'll want to spend a bit of it reflecting on our "new media ecosystem" and the degraded political environment it's reinforced.

David Remnick, New Yorker editor and Obama biographer, has written the beginning of his subject's next chapter. "Obama Reckons With A Trump Presidency" is the smartest post-election punditry we've heard.
...The new media ecosystem “means everything is true and nothing is true,” Obama told me later. “An explanation of climate change from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’ payroll. And the capacity to disseminate misinformation, wild conspiracy theories, to paint the opposition in wildly negative light without any rebuttal—that has accelerated in ways that much more sharply polarize the electorate and make it very difficult to have a common conversation.”
That marked a decisive change from previous political eras, he maintained. “Ideally, in a democracy, everybody would agree that climate change is the consequence of man-made behavior, because that’s what ninety-nine per cent of scientists tell us,” he said. “And then we would have a debate about how to fix it. That’s how, in the seventies, eighties, and nineties, you had Republicans supporting the Clean Air Act and you had a market-based fix for acid rain rather than a command-and-control approach. So you’d argue about means, but there was a baseline of facts that we could all work off of. And now we just don’t have that.” (continues)
The 44th President's calm, intelligence, lucidity, and generosity of spirit could not stand in sharper contrast to his preposterous successor's embarrassing shortcomings. Too bad he didn't get more passionately and publicly engaged with the climate crisis earlier. The reflexive hostility of his benighted opponents would still have stymied his best efforts, but the collective resolve of the rest of us would have stiffened for the fight ahead.

The good news is that he'll continue as a presence in Washington and a voice of conscience in the land. Maybe he'll even still be, as promised, a bridge to climate change we can believe in. First we'll have to suffer and survive the backsliding change of administration we didn't allow ourselves to see coming. His voice will help.

6 am/6:33, 31/61, 4:33

Monday, November 21, 2016

How the light gets in

It was Leonard Cohen, not Plato, who said everything's cracked and there's light in every word. But the poet's search for "a revelation in the heart rather than a confrontation" speaks directly to and for our broad-shouldered philosopher's preferred form of discourse, the inquisitive dialogue that shuns dogmatic bluster and blame in favor of mutually supportive curiosity and wonder.

Curiosity and wonder: that's the feeling of a philosopher, not cocksure certainty, enmity, self-importance and self-congratulation topped with hostility and belligerence. And that's the main takeaway from Goldstein's next chapter, sending Plato into the lion's den of cable news with an even more obnoxious talking head than O'Reilly. The "No Bull Bin" in his No-Spin Zone, but it never stops spinning. Why do rude, opinionated, uninformed, ideological, vainglorious, and intemperate media pundits get better ratings than polite, circumspect, courteous, humble, pragmatic, and thoughtful ones?

The Real McCoy is a real pip, calling everyone who challenges his set-in-stone opinions a pinhead. I'd have a hard time speaking with him for more than five minutes, give Plato credit for enduring the onslaught of venom. The bilious pundit doesn't understand the first thing about philosophy, quickly telling Plato he must not be much of a thinker if he's willing to entertain a new point of view. "You seem a little too ready to change your mind." Sapere aude does not win the ratings war.

The pundit knows nothing of the tides, or of science and mathematics, or intellectual sophistication of any sort. No Bull means "speaking so that people can understand you," whether you're speaking sense or nonsense. He'd rather see natural phenomena as mysterious and inexplicable, when rational and naturalistic explanations like Plato's "lunar gravity differential field" are available to anyone willing to put in the effort to grasp the basic principles of astrophysics.

The anxiety of influence, as Plato treats it, is really the anxiety of unearned authority. The only meritorious authority is reason.

The paradox of pleasure, that it only comes to those who effect an outer indifference to it - the familiar cliche that the "butterfly of happiness" eludes the nets of all who chase it - is usually overstated. I'm convinced that thinking about the conditions of happiness is in fact one of the conditions of happiness. And yet I think I wouldn't disagree with Plato and Susan Sontag, who said being happy is not "what it's all about. It's about becoming the largest, most inclusive, most responsive person you can be."

The Socratic elenchus sounds technical, but of course it's just the collaborative, conversational process of inquiry we've been practicing all semester. Every good question leads to another, and usually to the elimination of at least one bad answer. It's not a shortcut to truth, but over the long haul it's a path that takes you places. It's the Philosopher's Walk, rooted in confidence that reason - giving reasons, considering them, affirming or replacing them - works. 

That confidence was not Blaise Pascal's, a surprising spiritual gambler (for a mathematician) who thought the heart has reasons rivaling the head's. Plato of course was sure that the head has to rule, in the well-ordered soul no less than the polis.

Goldstein makes interesting use of the "knowing how/knowing that" distinction. I wrote about that once for American Philosophy: An Encyclopedia, as a reflection of the "knowledge by acquaintance/knowledge by description" distinction. Google's preview chops my entry off right at the place where I was about to endorse practical "how to" wisdom, which seems to be the form of Socrates' knowledge of the good life. We don't have to invoke his daimon, to acknowledge it. 

Image result for turtles all the way downNor must we assert brute facts beneath all our reasons. "It's not turtles all the way down, but rather reasons, logoi." Recall Bertrand Russell's comments on the First Cause arguments of Aristotle and Aquinas:
If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu’s view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, ‘How about the tortoise?’ the Indian said, ‘Suppose we change the subject.’ The argument is really no better than that.
Behold, the faith of the rationalist philosopher. Share it or not, if you're not a TV talking head or a partisan political hack you surely can accept Plato's ultimate teaching: "we should never rest assured that our view, no matter how well argued and reasoned, amounts to the final word on any matter." 

6 am/6:32, 26/53, 4:34

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Dream castles

Ernest Callenbach's Afterword says Ecotopia taught him "it's okay to dream... to imagine being happy..."

I'm sure he meant it's okay to be happy, even as we dream. For many of us the present moment partakes too much of nightmare, but we remain as committed to our present happiness and our grandchildren's as ever.

Surely Callenbach intended that we invoke the proactive, propulsive imagination, and not merely console ourselves with the distracted dreaminess that shuts its eyes and shuts down its hopes as voters and their designated Deciders stomp on our dreams of ecologically sustainable social structures and styles of living that draw their energy from renewable sources. Build your castles in the air, wrote Thoreau, that's where they belong. "Now put the foundations under them." But how, now?

Go to the demonstration, for one thing. You may get more than your share of abuse there, or not - probably not - but you will find solidarity and strength in growing numbers, and in the recognition that as more and more of us chase the dream of sustainable happiness we will create the change we need. "America as a society might be rapidly distancing itself from sustainability, but individual people could still try to live like Ecotopians. We could actually practice sustainability..."

Some of the dream's cinematic details. (Why hasn't someone made Ecotopia, the film yet?)

A pair of millennial-aged Ecotopians win a Nobel Prize for their work on botanical energy extraction. (Hope they're more gracious in acceptance than the guy who said you don't need a weatherman to tell you which way the wind blows).

Ecotopians aren't big on the social sciences but they love anthropology, biology, history, and philosophy. They prefer small teaching-intensive schools, they're not hung up on formal credentials or impressed by advanced degrees, they shun specialized expertise in favor of rich experience and rounded knowledge. Does the average person really want or need to know all about gamelan orchestras and feline endocrinology? But they do love their music, and apparently their cats. Dogs have always contributed more to my sustainable happiness.

Ecotopians are unimpressed by the refined arts, considering creative artistry a universal birthright. "We have no 'art,' we just do everything as well as we can." They do death humanely and practically, "comforting themselves with their ecological religion: they too will now be recycled."

Embrace decay.
6 am/6:28, 45/82, 4:36

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Socrates must die

Socrates was a peculiar person, possessed of uncanny powers of attentive focus that enabled him to ignore all kinds of weather - whether meteorological, emotional, or socio-political. He was indifferent to outer circumstance, a man out of time, regarding the nationalist politics of exceptionalism as irrelevant to the personal pursuit of excellence. In times like ours this may be the best possible news.

How can we best imagine his predicament, going against the tide of popular sentiment in 4th century BCE Athens, insisting on asking his own questions and charting his own path to virtue? Goldstein suggests a parallel with "those in our own day who are at a loss to say how there can be virtue independent of the word of God." They can't fathom being good without god, just as Socrates' accusers couldn't grasp the point of his "examined life." 

He disingenuity didn't help, pretending to bask enthusiastically in the light of his contemporaries' conventional pieties while setting verbal traps to catch them out in their un-wisdom. His encounter with Euthyprho was especially consequential for subsequent generations of freethinkers, "persuasively arguing that a belief in god(s) cannot provide the philosophical grounding for morality."

Why does Plato "relegate Socrates to the sidelines" in The Sophist? Goldstein speculates that he's trying to make a point about the non-indispensability of any one philosopher, and to warn against the infatuated bias of those who specialize in just one historical figure - Kant, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, whoever - and cannot then consider alternative possible worldviews. "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him." That's over-compensating, if you ask me.

Did Plato really believe in immortality, as in eternal life to come in a temporal boundless heaven? He probably envisioned a "less Christian and more Greek" form of infinitude, involving an infusion into one's natural life of "the vastness of beauty outside ourselves" and a corresponding shrinking of ego to fit a wider impersonal identity. 

That may not satisfy most of us, whether we aspire to a heavenly afterlife or not. As Woody Allen quipped: “I don't want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don't want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.” But Woody should read Samuel Scheffler's Death and the Afterlife.

"One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit." Indeed. Plato's about to encounter a boatload of it in the next chapter, when he meets an O'Reilly-like talking head. We should pay close attention to how he wades through it, dignity intact. Our era is anything but a no-spin zone, and we need to prepare for heavy weather.

6:13/6:27, 40/76, 4:36

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Ecotopia (3)

In Ecotopia women lead, and most everyone acknowledges the wisdom of the "cooperation- and biology-oriented policies" that supplanted "outdated and destructive male attitudes toward individualism, productivity" and life in general. Their Survivalists aren't paranoid conspiracy hounds, they're ecologists. Gyn-ecologists, you could say, a Mary Daly-esque Biophilic Brother-and-Sisterhood out to "realize the archaic future" and leave man-splaining patriarchs in the past.

As a long-suffering critic of committees and meetings I envy (but don't really get) the Ecotopian Survivalists' confabs, with no formal agenda, lots of "ventilation of feelings," and a gradually emergent consensus. Their "people enjoy such meetings." Huh.

They have extreme goals but use prudent and modest means to achieve them. Remember, Nashville, our dead-in-the-water highspeed bus lane proposal, torpedoed by shortsighted business interests afraid of doing anything that might impact "their" traffic flow?

They've done away with inherited wealth and property, and empowered working people as full "partners." Everyone's encouraged to work less - less even than the standard 20-hour week - and to play more. The visiting American who doesn't know how to play is an embarrassment.

Somehow they pay less in taxes (it helps that the military is comparable to Canada's) but receive more in the form of guaranteed food, housing, and medical care.

In the wake of our latest electoral college result it's noteworthy that Ecotopians are committed to giving urban voters full "one person one vote" representation.

They don't have overstocked drugstores full of tranquilizers, sleep inducers, cold remedies and other items they consider frivolous and gratuitous. They don't medicalize what they consider social conditions like insomnia, and anyway they like to stay up and party. They'll sleep when they're dead.

They haven't really solved race. But we shouldn't be smug, neither have we.

They have legalized marijuana.

They take a childish delight in windmills and wind-driven rooftop generators. Of course they love solar, geothermal, and wave power.

On TV they watch old films,  music, comedy, and (it sounds like) a CSPAN-ish Ecology channel. None of our "reality" enetertainment programming, none of our commercial advertising, none of our docility and disinterest in public affairs, none of our demagogic politics. Ready to emigrate? 

5:45/6:26, 42/69, 4:37

Monday, November 14, 2016

Plato's higher love

"Nothing in excess" and "Know Yourself," the oracular Delphic rules humans have always found so hard to follow, are nowhere more challenging than in affairs of the heart. That's our CoPhi subject today, as Plato offers advice to the lovelorn and points to a higher love atop Diotima's ladder. At this end, though, delusion and hubris block our ascent. Boundless self-confidence and pride hook up with ignorance and incompetence. Narcissus, blinded by his own image, can't find the first rung. Ignorance and vanity trump love, giving hate an open invitation to strategize and rule.

Thrasymachus and Callicles were a pair of deluded Platonic egoists stuck under the ladder, in love with their own presumptive power and privilege, entitled to whatever they could get away with. "Makes me smart," you can almost hear them boast. No, it makes them antisocial and unlovely. But there's no denying their charismatic appeal, to a certain sort of disaffected lovesick mentality. "They jump off the page."

The Athenian golden boy Alcibiades jumps at us too, described as a brilliant orator, soldier, lady killer, and lunatic, a uniquely irresistible but flawed figure whose lust for Socrates was unrequited. He placed gratifying his own ego above the welfare of his community, a great sin in old Athens. There were other notorious forms of love in old Athens we'd consider more sinful, though "changing views on sexual morality" have indeed brought us closer to their world. Even the President-elect says marriage equality is now a done deal.

Plato doesn't get our version of Platonic love. "Must it be asexual? Is it romantic or aromantic? What distinguishes it from ordinary friendship?" Good questions. I'd suggest a screening of "When Harry Met Sally," Plato. "Platonic" is what we call love when we think we don't want to climb the ladder.

6 am/6:25, 37/68, 4:38

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Decay's embrace

I didn't really think we'd have to embrace decay so soon, with such urgency. Visions of Ecotopia vie, suddenly, with the vicious repudiation of good sense, hard science, social inclusion, integrity and dignity. But the President's right, like it or not we're all on the same team. HRC is right, we must never allow ourselves the indulgence of discounting our future.

David Remnick's right too, "nativism, authoritarianism, misogyny, and racism" may rule the day but mustn't be allowed to define the age. "It is impossible to react to this moment with anything less than revulsion and profound anxiety," if you're one of those who thought the election of our 44th president meant there'd be no going back to the old cold monochrome world of paranoid white male privilege. There's no place to hide from it, even if we dare to hope this time it's finally breathing its last desperate gasps. Our mission as gatekeepers at the bridge that leads over the abyss of reaction  and denial is indeed "to combat authoritarianism, to call out lies, to struggle honorably and fiercely in the name of American ideals." And we must remember that, harsh as this moment may be, it's a moment destined not to last but to pass into the annals of human folly. Our successors, we must dream, will gaze back in grateful bemused astonishment at this detour on the journey to a sustainable say of life.

Andrew Revkin is right to remind us to mind the gap between our present and their Ecotopia, citing the President's “South By South Lawn” climate conversation with Leonardo DiCaprio:
I think it is important for those of us who care deeply about this... to not be dismissive of people’s concerns when it comes to what will this mean for me and my family. Right?
So if you’re a working-class family, and dad has to drive 50 miles to get to his job, and he can’t afford to buy a Tesla or a Prius, and the most important thing to him economically to make sure he can pay the bills at the end of the month is the price of gas, and when gas prices are low that means an extra 100 bucks in his pocket, or 200 bucks in his pocket, and that may make the difference about whether or not he can buy enough food for his kids — if you just start lecturing him about climate change and what’s going to happen to the planet 50 years from now, it’s just not going to register. [Watch the video here.]
Point taken.

Finally, Garrison Keillor is right (to an extent). There's no whitewashing it, this is all dreadful. But,
The government [will be] in Republican hands. Let them deal with him. Democrats can spend four years raising heirloom tomatoes, meditating, reading Jane Austen, traveling around the country, tasting artisan beers, and let the Republicans build the wall and carry on the trade war with China and deport the undocumented and deal with opioids, and we Democrats can go for a long , brisk walk and smell the roses...
Back to real life. I went up to my home town the other day and ran into my gym teacher, Stan Nelson, looking good at 96. He commanded a landing craft at Normandy on June 6, 1944, and never said a word about it back then, just made us do chin-ups whether we wanted to or not. I saw my biology teacher Lyle Bradley, a Marine pilot in the Korean War, still going bird-watching in his 90s. I was not a good student then, but I am studying both of them now. They have seen it all and are still optimistic. The past year of politics has taught us absolutely nothing. Zilch. Zero. Nada. The future is scary. Let the uneducated have their day. I am now going to pay more attention to teachers.
What's especially right about the Lake Wobegon perspective is that we who feel so deflated and disappointed by this moment must still live our lives, love and nurture our children, and cultivate our gardens - both literally and in Voltaire's sense. We must respect and absorb the hard-won wisdom of those among us who've "seen it all and are still optimistic." The sun will come up tomorrow, bet your bottom dollar...

Embrace decay, count on new growth in the spring.

5:50/6:21, 43/68, 4:41

Wednesday, November 9, 2016


Embrace decay, said Ernest Callenbach, it's the necessary condition of change, of new growth and new life. Above all, don't abandon hope. If you don't like the news, get out there and make your own.

Older Daughter was so right last night, and I'm so proud of her for saying it: "It's our job as the voices of tomorrow to be the change we want in the world, regardless of what happens tonight." 

Can't say I'm much in the mood to attend this morning's Study Abroad Fair, or to preview Plato's panel discussion at the 92d Street Y for CoPhi this afternoon. We'll improvise. 

UPDATE, 11:45 am. So now the baton passes, we all need to pull (as both #44 and HRC said this morning) for a smooth transition. Let's hope #45 runs a more magnanimous administration than he did a campaign. That's holding the bar pretty low.

Don't stop thinking about tomorrow.
Happy birthday Carl Sagan. A porter at Union Station in Washington, D.C., once refused Sagan’s tip, saying, "You gave me the universe." The universe is so much bigger than any election result. "It is impossible to react to this moment with anything less than revulsion and profound anxiety." Yes, but step back the way Carl did in Contact, and look at the bigger picture. This dark moment will be brief.

6 am/6:17, 54/64/37, 4:40

Tuesday, November 8, 2016


Election Day at last. Thought it would never come. At day's end we'll know (won't we?) if the present remains safe for occupancy. 

If not, Ernest Callenbach's alternative future may be our lifeboat. Or at least a welcome distraction. Ironic that we would begin Ecotopia today. It was ahead of its time in 1975, and it still is. That't the beauty of utopian fiction, it shines like the beckoning green light across the way, giving us a destination to row for and a sense of possibility too often suppressed by the weight of day-to-day facticity. 

"It is so hard to imagine anything fundamentally different from what we have now," Callenbach said, "but without these alternate visions, we get stuck on dead center.” With them, maybe we can move forward. We can re-inspire ourselves at least, as Callenbach has inspired successors in the genre like Kim Stanley Robinson. (Still hoping someone in class picks up and reports on Pacific Edge.)
Ecotopia is about how Washington, Oregon, and Northern California seceded from the union in 1979 in the midst of a terrible economic crisis, creating an environmentally sound, stable-state, eco-sustainable country... a land that banned the internal combustion engine and the car culture that went with it, turned in oil for solar power (and other inventive forms of alternative energy), recycled everything, grew its food locally and cleanly, and in the process created clean skies, rivers, and forests (as well as a host of new relationships, political, social, and sexual) remains amazingly lively, and somehow almost imaginable -- an approximation, that is, of the country we don’t have but should or even could have.
Callenbach’s imagination was prodigious. Back in 1975, he conjured up something like C-SPAN and something like the cell phone, among many ingenious inventions on the page. Ecotopia remains a thoroughly winning book and a remarkable feat of the imagination, even if, in the present American context, the author also dreamed of certain things that do now seem painfully utopian, like a society with relative income equality. Tom Engelhardt
Sixties-era Berkeley was his "Ecotopia" incubator, with its socio-economic experimentation, its co-ops and communes, and its pioneer "recognition that the earth could not possibly sustain an ever-increasing population or an ever-expanding economy." 

Callenbach was a social libertarian and "free-love" enthusiast but also a pragmatist, set on solving the most urgently earthy and practical problems. He was also a feminist and a limits-to-growth guy, and no friend of the 2d amendment. He was an early promoter of walkable and bikable public spaces, an urban renewalist, a participatory sportsman, and a Whole Earth DIYer.

He left us a note, an Epistle to the Ecotopians that encouraged our embrace of catalytic decay to hasten the eco-revolution. How much closer are we about to find ourselves to that? How resolutely will we persist in sustaining the hope he told us we must treasure even, especially, as conditions decline?
Hope. Children exude hope, even under the most terrible conditions, and that must inspire us as our conditions get worse. Hopeful patients recover better. Hopeful test candidates score better. Hopeful builders construct better buildings. Hopeful parents produce secure and resilient children. In groups, an atmosphere of hope is essential to shared successful effort: “Yes, we can!” is not an empty slogan, but a mantra for people who intend to do something together -- whether it is rescuing victims of hurricanes, rebuilding flood-damaged buildings on higher ground, helping wounded people through first aid, or inventing new social structures (perhaps one in which only people are “persons,” not corporations). We cannot know what threats we will face. But ingenuity against adversity is one of our species’ built-in resources. We cope, and faith in our coping capacity is perhaps our biggest resource of all.
On this day in particular it's important to recall Callenbach's reply to the High School  students who told him they wanted to live in a society like the one he'd imagined. They could, he replied, if they and others of their generation were committed to it. “If you don’t save us, nobody will,” he said.

5:50 am/6:19, 57/67/49, 4:42

Monday, November 7, 2016

In the Shadow of the Acropolis

Very hard not to think about November 8, on this November 7, but that's my next act of free will ("the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts").

Our next chapter is "In the Shadow of the Acropolis." In the shadow of our own local acropolis, aka the dog park overlooking Nashville's Parthenon (why didn't they put it up there in 1897?), I rode my Raleigh on Saturday en route to TPA and my old pal's latest attempt to quell the problem of the criterion.
"The problem of the criterion is an epistemic regress problem. It assumes that justification requires justified criteria of truth that are reasons for belief. I provide an account of criteria of truth that supports this assumption. Paradigmatic criteria of truth provide sufficient conditions of (probable) truth. Other principles can be criteria of truth including (i) propositions stating that belief-forming procedures are reliable and (ii) epistemic principles. All of these would provide us with procedural epistemic reasons for belief by underwriting the reliability of the ways in which we activate our beliefs." AC
Back to Centennial Park, where I encountered the hundreds of Harleys that later would trap us up on the Sitar side of West End), and the Marchers for Diabetes. It was a glorious late autumn day, not (let's hope) a harbinger of hotter and harder days ahead.

As for that other Acropolis...

The old Parthenon was all about Greek exceptionalism, the newer one a centenary celebration of Tennessee statehood and "the Athens of the South," but both now stand as reminders that time marches on. It's very cool, though, to have our very own giantess of wisdom reminding us to think before we fight (Athena was the goddess of wisdom and war).

We face a big choice at the polls tomorrow. Achilles chose glory, though I think his dilemma was false. You should enter every meaningful battle with the intent of making it home. Live long and prosper.

Speaking of extraordinariness, how about that Axial Age?  "Confucius and Lao-Tse were living in China, all the schools of Chinese philosophy came into being, including those of Mo Ti, Chuang Tse, Lieh Tzu and a host of others; India produced the Upanishads and Buddha and, like China, ran the whole gamut of philosophical possibilities down to materialism, scepticism and nihilism; in Iran Zarathustra taught a challenging view of the world as a struggle between good and evil; in Palestine the prophets made their appearance from Elijah by way ofIsaiah and Jeremiah to Deutero-Isaiah; Greece witnessed the appearance of Homer, of the philosophers – Parmenides, Heraclitus and Plato, – of the tragedians, ofThucydides and Archimedes. Everything implied by these names developed during these few centuries almost simultaneously in China, India and the West."

Does our arete lack kleos, in this era of celebrity for its own sake? The Greeks can teach us something about that, and about how a genuinely virtuous person would use his superpowers for good. How many of us, though, would you really trust with Gyges ring?

More good questions today: How many Renaissance People do you know? How many of us sprang from the very soil we occupy? How many of us are truly atopia, and how many more will feel that way after the polls close tomorrow night?
"It’s the birthday of the Algerian-born French author Albert Camus (books by this author), born in Mondovi (1913). He’s the author of many books, both fiction and nonfiction; these include The Stranger (1942), The Plague (1945), and The Myth of Sisyphus (1942)." WA

Also of Stephen Greenblatt, who said “I am constantly struck by the strangeness of reading works that seem addressed, personally and intimately, to me, and yet were written by people who crumbled to dust long ago.”

And of Marie Curie, born in Warsaw (1867), who said “Be less curious about people and more curious about ideas.”
The morning routine experts recommend for peak productivity includes "Stop reacting. Get up before the world starts making demands so you can figure out what’s important to you." And put down the selfie-stick.

5:30/6:18, 46/78, 4:43

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Keep hope alive

Cubs win! Congrats to their long-suffering fans, and to Cleveland's for coming oh-so-close this time-their time's coming. (And thumbs down to the churlish sour-grapes Cards' tribalists who make me question my ancestral allegiance. It's a game, people.)

We close Atmosphere of Hope and look ahead to Ecotopia today.

When the climate gives us lemons, we can make lemon shandy. That's one way of thinking about chemical capture and storage. Generously pour that excess CO2, not on the rocks but into them. Or into cement, or sand, or some other smart and safe hideaway. We could even capture ships' exhaust at sea and release it in a carbonate form that might go on capturing more CO2 from seawater.

The famous 1953 Miller/Urey experiment didn't really "create life in a flask" but it did forge new frontiers with the potential to replace fossil fuels through power generation based on captured carbon. Crossing those frontiers won't be cheap, but there are no intrinsic technical barriers to make them impassable. Energy economics may be dismal but it's not rocket science.

Some people who don't like looking at wind farms or other renewable technologies want to keep the Antarctic a visual wilderness. I'm with Flannery, they don't have to look. They can retrain their aesthetic sensibility to reflect eco-reality. And Exxon, Mobil, et al, can change their business model. What did Mr. Wells say, adapt or perish?

Flannery is heartenend by the spirited activism of young people lately. "If their elders had been half as effective as they are, we would have the climate problem under control by now." Despair is not a constructive attitude. Let's remember that as November 8 impends. "Younger people need to be given the chance to create a better world for themselves." Their time's coming too.

6:15 am/7:14, 68/82/55, 5:47

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Plato's tour

We're back today in CoPhi with Goldstein's Plato, on book tour in Mountain View. "One preposterous premise" is all it takes to get us there, in our literary time-and-space ship of the imagination.

Some readers love the artifice, some hate it. As an old fan of Steve Allen's "Meeting of Minds" (which hosted the likes of Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Cleopatra, Marie Antoinette, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Paine, Francis Bacon, Thomas Jefferson, Voltaire, Karl Marx,Charles Darwin...) I think it's both fun and instructive, a charming invention of fictive ingenuity that takes to heart the conception of philosophy as humankind's reflective conversation across the years.

Plato (but shouldn't he be Socrates, if Goldstein's miming Plato's text?) seems to love it here, at the Googleplex and in our century. He exudes passionate curiosity, courtly courtesy, and a compulsion to "understand our tools" and distinguish information from knowledge and wisdom. His mathematical bent for "formal exactitude" finds itself right at home among the engineers and programmers.

He's more inter-personally democratic than we might have expected the author of Republic to be, giving equal deference and respect to everyone he encounters. His unimpressed media escort Cheryl, standing in for Glaucon, is unaware of Plato's notoriety. She's offended by the Platonic notion that anyone could ever gain expertise and authority in the business of telling others how to live. Marcus the engineer (Adeimantus?) seems eager to take on the famed philosopher, who responds with delighted dialectical enthusiasm. He professes Socrates' preference for face-to-face conversation over static writing. The life in Goldstein's text stands as an unspoken rebuke to this attitude.

The Googlers can't believe Plato's never googled. How telling, that his first "search" is of his old familiar mentor, rather than something new. His utopian republic is as conservative and tradition-bound as can be.

A nice peripatetic moment: "...we simply have to start walking. You can ask your question while you walk, can't you? Of course, he said. In fact, I highly recommend walking while thinking." 

Me too, let's get out there. The grounds of our Academy are also lined with pathways, and "I always encourage ambulatory cerebration" too.
"Go Cubs go!"

6 am/7:13, 63/85/59, 5:48

Tuesday, November 1, 2016


H.G. Wells and Carl Sagan bookend Tim Flannery's hopeful chapters today, ominous and optimistic. "Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature's inexorable imperative"... "the most amazing discoveries will be the ones we are not today wise enough to foresee." Wisdom is the condition of adaptability, survival its reward. We'll be wise to expect the unexpected, to roll with the change we don't see coming, to reject desperation and apocalypse. That'll be a lot easier after November 8. I hope.

To what must we adapt? A warmer world, of course. It's here. So are some examples of successful or at least promising adaptation, though the real message here is that we don't yet know what forms our flexibility must take. "There is no 'one-size fits all' adaptation." Floating libraries, schools, clinics, and gardens in flooded Bangladesh, post-glacial ice reserves in India, proliferating greenhouses in Spain, painted mountaintops in Peru,, white-painted urban infrastructure everywhere...

"But the most sensible form of adaptation is surely to adapt our energy systems to emit less carbon pollution."

What about geoengineering? We've already talked about that with Naomi Klein, who is a bit more dubious than Flannery. He also thinks sulphur in the stratosphere may have too many unintended and incalculable consequences, but is open to a project called SPICE that sounds improbable - balloons on 25-kilometer tethers? - but wouldn't involve sulphur. The thought of deliberately inducing even a mild "nuclear winter," though, still sounds reckless, and would still leave too much CO2 in the atmosphere.

Iron in the ocean? "Severe unintended consequences" like toxic algae are too likely.

Space sunshades, cloud whitening? Maybe it's time for Dr. Strangelove, but let's start with white roofs and see what that gets us. Bottom line: "geoengineering is no substitute for emissions reductions."

Flannery's vaunted Third Way to "recreate, enhance, or restore" the pre-human climate? Richard Branson and his Virgin Earth Challenge, ridiculed by Klein, returns to the stage. Flannery was a VEC judge, "astonished" by the ingenuity it elicited in thousands of submissions now boiled down to a shortlist of biological and chemical proposals for extracting and sequestering carbon. More photosynthesis and more trees sounds safe and smart.

And seaweed again. Flannery's most excited about seaweed. I'm still holding out for something even more amazing.
Speaking of ingenuity:

On this date in 1952, the United States detonated “Mike,” the code name forthe first hydrogen bomb. The H-bomb was a thousand times more powerful than the atomic, or fission, bombs that the United States had dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many scientists tried to delay the testing of the hydrogen bomb, because the presidential election would be held only three days later... The test took place on Elugelab Island, part of the Eniwetok atoll in the Marshall Islands, about 3,000 miles west of Hawaii. It was detonated from a ship 30 miles away. The bomb completely obliterated the island on which it had stood, and wiped out animal and plant life on the surrounding islands. The mushroom cloud rose 120,000 feet into the atmosphere... WA

5:35/7:12, 63/87/60, 5:49