Saturday, December 24, 2005

Chance Encounter in the Air

Visiting family in Florida at the moment. On the first leg of my flight out here, I had an interesting conversation with a young man in the adjoining seat. He’s a Marine, home from his third tour of Iraq. A very sociable kind of guy. At first we were just talking about all of the things that interested him, snowboarding and skiing and -- his favorite thing of all -- jumping out of airplanes. It was obvious that he loved the Marines -- especially all of the physical challenges of learning survival skills and parachuting and rock climbing.

Gradually we started talking about what things were like in Iraq and his mood got a bit more sober, although certainly not negative. He’d seen a fair amount of combat. He once was in a convoy and saw an Iraqi by the side of the road pop up to fire an RPG and accidentally blow himself up. Apparently the country is not only full of millions of those weapons, but a lot of them are so old they will either misfire or not fire at all. He said the Marines just watched this happen -- so quickly they could not have reacted anyway -- and quietly said “See you later…” as they rolled past. He said that streets that are crowded with women and children are generally safe. Streets that are empty are best avoided entirely -- the absence of people going about their daily lives almost certainly means an IED.

The most surprising thing about our conversation was the casual way that he mentioned that he himself had been shot. He’d been sitting in the gun turret of a vehicle when he was shot right in the chest. The force of the impact knocked him backwards three feet into the back of the vehicle, threw his feet over his head, and left a bruise on his chest the size of a dinner plate. If it had not been for the ceramic armor he was wearing he would have been shot through the heart. He said he’d never been so scared. No doubt.

From this topic we veered to his father’s farm in Illinois. His pop grows feed corn and soybeans, and supplements his income by repairing machinery for other farmers. The young man I was talking with does similar mechanic’s work for the Corps. Dad sprays everything with Roundup to kill all the plants except the genetically engineered corn that he grows. It’s how things are done these days.

Two other things struck me: The first is that this kid, who has seen so much more of the worst the world has to offer than I ever have or hope to, and who in all earnestness in the conversation one time offered “Like President Bush said…” by way of making a point, is certain that when the Americans leave Iraq there will be a civil war. Absolutely certain, from what he has seen.

The other thing was that this Marine doesn’t read. Even most magazine articles are too long for him. He told me that if he was sitting in a doctor’s office and bored, he probably would tough it out rather than pick up a magazine. Maybe in this respect he is not representative of most military people, or most young adults, but of everything he said it was what worried me the most…

Thursday, December 22, 2005

will the sun return?

this is it, folks.

the longest night of the year,
the time when humans huddle together for warmth and comfort
as they wait out the long dark.

you think you're immune to that old fear
you're enlightened, you're intelligent, you know how it all works
you're above all the primitive worries of your ancient forebears.

oh, how wrong you are
how deeply scored are the grooves of your history
the tattoo you bear that marks you human.

you can no more escape the collective, genetic memory of our kind
than a caterpillar can esacpe its need to cocoon
we fear the dark because we have always feared the dark.

hold on tightly to one another
keep the fire stoked, don't let it die out
this is it--- the longest night of the year.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

ANWR and the future

ANWR saved yet again!

back and forth, back and forth.

the struggle over ANWR --- oil reserve or a last bastion of pristine wildlands? --- continues to rage in the hearts and minds of many americans. I think now it begins to take on a new cast: no more merely (!) a symbol of the american environmental movement, ANWR has become a greater symbol still, of how we, as human stewards of the planet, intend to proceed, given our rapacious proclivities. The battle is no longer between resources and wildlands, it's now a matter of human nature's plodding status quo versus a new paradigm for our inclusion and participation in the cosmos.

I was raised around the dawn of the "modern" environmental movement, shortly after Rachel Carson's seminal work, Silent Spring, was published*. my parents were "environmentalists", especially my father, and I came to see humankind's expansion and domination of the natural world as a kind of virulent blight. I believed that "man" didn't belong in nature, that we should stay out of its way and watch with awe and wonder from the "outside". it wasn't until many years later--- rather recently, in fact--- that I stumbled upon the forest-for-the-trees obvious notion that we are, in fact, inseparable from "nature"; that the two things--- all things under heaven, in earth, actually--- are one and the same. you can no more take humankind "out" of nature than you can take death from life. the "natural world" is a unity.

which is why it's at once hideously disturbing and uncannily fascinating that we should continue our headlong race toward oblivion through the present rampant consumption and destruction of our own flesh and blood. I keep wondering if this bizarre death march is a sign of The End Times that the fundies keep wailing about. I mean, I think these people are somewhat disturbed, or at best shockingly unoriginal thinkers and laughably gullible wackos; but still, our plunge toward the abyss makes me wonder.

evidence of the lemming-like quality of our drive toward ecoannihilation comes in the form of the oil industry's (and their purchased congresspeople's) stubborn push for ANWR drilling rights. if I am to understand correctly, if drilling were approved today, it would take up to ten years to begin sending oil south, and the estimates of the reserve are in the neighborhood of six months at current u.s. consumption levels. why go to all that trouble when we could just conserve that amount now, with easily enacted measures--- and still retain the wildlands of ANWR? the answer is profit for a few, of course. how can these people put these two things in a scale-- environmental destruction and personal profit-- and come up favoring profit? of course, they don't put these two things in a scale. they keep blinders on to prevent the madness that would surely result if they had true awareness of the long-term, pervasive effects of their profit-motivated actions.

once more the clarion call: stop waiting for your leaders to lead. they aren't your leaders anyway-- most of them belong to monied interests. it's time we lead the way toward sustainability. for me, the choice is easy: sustainability or preventable apocalypse. this ain't rocket science, folks; it is, however, a paradigm shift, and that can be hard work.

let's roll up our sleeves.


* was DDT's supposed environmental harm a lie? is it, ironically, the falsely accused poster child of the new environmental movement? please read this brief paper and see if you can answer.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

A Reason for Hope

Last October I was channel surfing and landed on Book TV, that subset of CSPAN that broadcasts author interviews. The evening’s show was a panel at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco: "A Discussion with Bay Area Science Writers," and included Michael Pollan and Richard Rhodes among others.

At one point the moderator brought up the subject of science as a double-edged sword – the thing that can bring us so many miracles but also makes possible nukes and napalm – and Richard Rhodes said something that seemed to me to be so spot-on and moving that I tracked down a CD of the panel and transcribed the relevant bit myself:

"I don’t see anything else that can save us except science. It’s the only human discipline that requires evidential support and adjusts itself accordingly when the evidence isn’t there. With all of the fraud, with all of the confusion, with all of the excursions into horrors like eugenics, never the less science does actually progress, in the sense that we learn more about our world from year to year. And in addition to that – and this is a more spiritual reason for hope, I think, out of this wonderful, rich, discipline – it’s inexhaustible. The world is fractal. It’s equally complicated at every level. You can go down and down and down into the universe or up and out and out into the universe and it’s equally complicated.

"Anyone who follows astronomy must be as amazed as I am at how astronomers keep finding ways to tease more information out of seemingly tiny bits of light. It’s fascinating to me how this happens, and of course it’s made a world that is infinitely richer and more various than we ever imagined before. So it’s always been a source of hope for me."

Warm, yet rational, thoughts for your Holiday Season!