Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Nice One, Darwin

I think I have this right ... in scientific parlance, most "theories" are really hypotheses awaiting thorough testing and re-testing, tweaking and revision, until enough verifiable and repeatable experiments have been performed that everyone is damn certain the hypothesis describes an actual fact.

In that case, the hypothesis can truly be called a "theory." And if that's the case, then Darwin's Theory of Evolution is no longer a hypothesis--from the macroscopic level (the fossil record of large animals) to microscopic (the near-real-time evolution of bacteria) to computational models (of human DNA, for instance) to the breeding of domestic dogs, there's enough proof to keep both scientists and lay-people happy. Move on.

That's not true though, is it. Such is the miseducation and politically inspired distortions surrounding "Darwinism" that it's perfectly reasonable for a President who openly questioned the theory to be voted into office twice and for a state school board to allow schoolchildren exposure to quasi-religious challenges to a theory that is as solidly built as the Theory of Gravity or the Theory of Electromagnetism.

Oh, and not forgetting that a former Vice Presidential candidate has gone so far as to confess her sincere belief that the Earth is as old as the Bible says it is (recall that advances in geology were crucial in order for Darwin to develop his hypothesis). "What will happen to the US Geological Survey if Palin wins?" my brother asked me, watching polls of last year's election from his home in London.

So what hope does the hypothesis that "increased human industrial activity will have a deleterious effect on the Earth's climate" have. Today the Associated Press reports that carbon dioxide levels are at 385 parts per million, nearly at a "worst case scenario" of 390 ppm. Scientists have never found evidence of that much CO2 in the atmosphere in one million years. They are not quite sure what's going to happen next, but the majority don't think it's going to be all that.

Scientific illiteracy has grown like a cancer around the Theory of Evolution. It allows and encourages the questioning of pretty incontrovertible scientific data, of the sober and careful assessments of that data by legions of trained scientists, and ultimately of the scientific process itself (although the scientific process/data collection/peer-reviewed assessment apparently is fine when its comes to fighting real cancer).

I fear that scientists such as John Barnes and Stephen Schneider--quoted in the AP story and quite willing to speak openly about "coin-flip odds for serious outcomes for our planet"--will end up being like Max Mayfield and the other meteorologists who correctly predicted Hurricane Katrina's devastation—I'm sure "I told you so" only goes so far with that lot.

--Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Yeah, they’ve got an app for that…

Well, the first SUNY Oswego Citizens Academy ended on October 24th. Long story short, the program has expanded into the community and there are plans for a Winter/Spring Citizens Academy in partnership with a local non-profit. Also, a student group on campus is planned as well. Generally, I would say it was a success. What follows isn’t really CliffsNotes version of the program, but rather an exegesis of sorts.

In the opening chapter of the Choices for Sustainable Living workbook, used by the SUNY Oswego Citizens Academy group, the question was posed: “If you think of the possibility of a sustainable future, are you generally optimistic or pessimistic?” As the group members described their thoughts on this issue there was, of course, a mix of both positive and negative emotions. Privately I mused…”that’s one of those questions that perhaps there’s no right answer to: you’re optimistic—and risk appearing na├»ve—or pessimistic, and an Eeyore.”

Further, it occurred to me, considering the arc of the program, and given the constituent elements included—discussions of sustainability, ecological choices, buying (Stuff), food, transportation, community, business and the economy—that it doesn’t really matter what we think or feel about the possibility of a sustainable future. The question, while well intentioned, and probably helpful to initiate discussion—is moot. Change is inevitable, or “resistance is futile” to quote the Borg.

We will all incrementally, be subject to decreases in non-renewable energy resources, and resultant (at first-lifestyle) changes in the way we live. Point. Fact. Given.

So how then to live…

In the final session, group members tackled this, and shared some of the personal changes made as a result of participating in the group. As said before, some folks had embraced the local—buying organic from a CSA. Others made changes in their transportation habits. Others still, are recycling more. My wife and I count ourselves among this latter contingent, making sweeping changes in reducing our contributions to the landfill, now barely one weekly garbage can of refuse (including mostly it seems those disposable diapers, oh well), and everything else recycled in two great blue bins—cardboard and paper products to bin right, and plastics and other recyclables to bin left, just because that’s the way we roll.

But I’m still not satisfied because although these changes are a start, I’m still not sure what’s most critical to do…

There is the proverbial commentary on the difference between the map and the terrain; in this case, we can’t even be sure about the terrain. How much individual and communal and global modifications will be enough, soon enough?

Wouldn’t it be easy if there was just a Sustainability TomTom? “Turn right to reduce your carbon footprint. “ Etc.

No, really, it’s true--apparently, it’s possible now to download a TomTom app to your iPhone, and motor to your destination accompanied by the berating of Mr. T: “No fool, I said turn left!”, or the less directive, but equally menacing/moronic -- Dennis Hopper, Gary Busey, or even Homer Simpson. You didn’t realize your life was missing this essential, post-modern accoutrement, did you?

(Let me pause to ask: how did we ever find our way out of Africa, and across the Bering Land Bridge?) Fatherhood has compelled me into cell phone ownership, but I refuse to acquire a GPS system, no matter how putatively convenient. It’s a slippery slope, buy a GPS and before you know it, you’ll be buying a Kindle!

Until, TomTom, or iPhone, or some other entrepreneur comes up with the Sustainability app, we must proceed on our own. No metaphorical lighthouse, no Lonely Planet, no Zagat Guide. We are charged to figure it out as we go. Thankfully, lots of really smart people are on it.

In closing, consider the following feedback from an anonymous exit survey of the Citizens Academy program. Here’s what our grassroots group had to say:

“I liked meeting like-minded people from the community who I would not have known about otherwise. I enjoyed getting practical suggestions from seeing what others are doing.”
“I didn't know many people who were concerned about our country’s overuse of everything.”
“I liked learning that a lot of things I am already doing are positive and helpful to the problem. I hope to do more.”
“Not just the knowledge from the book, but the sharing of ideas from others and the challenge it brought for me as an individual to change things. I feel like I can do something, not just read about it.”
“The Easter Island reading was so provocative-And I became very fond of all my fellow class members. It was encouraging to see the growing commitment and sense of hope that people revealed as the class progressed.”

-Thad Mantaro, SUNY Oswego

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Al Gore Can Never Win

Which is not to say Al Gore isn't right on issues relating to climate change and sustainability. I mean that he'll never win the trust or respect of the media—and society—enough to be the "game changer" he is sometimes portrayed as, at least by his few friends in the fourth estate.

Gore can write books and give lectures on climate change till he's blue in the face, but look at what happened when it was "discovered" that Gore is investing in and making money from green and clean tech firms he's familiar with. Shock, horror! It's an absurd criticism. Warren Buffet writes books and gives advice about investing, and invests in those very firms he's writing about. Of course he does. Telling the hoi-polloi to invest in firms that you wouldn't touch with a barge pole is tantamount to a crime for a professional investment advisor.

The problem here lies not just in the "meme" (the cultural icon) that Al Gore has become, with all its attending baggage—the notion that he's a congenital liar, a blowhard, a Cassandra, self-aggrandizing: labels used against him in a nasty political campaign he's unable to escape—the problem is in the very idea that every battle needs a "game changer."

This phrase has been cropping up in newspapers and blogs a lot lately, particularly in respect to sustainability and environmentalism. While societal movements need "leaders," a "game changer" is more like a celebrity or spokesperson--less Martin Luther King and more Charlton Heston. A leader like King obviously drew media attention and scrutiny, but he was not a figurehead: he organized and marched and administered, and he collaborated with myriad other groups and individuals. Heston was mostly a publicity stunt for the NRA—albeit very good one.

The trouble with Al Gore being the unofficial leader of the sustainability movement is that he's treated as a celebrity and has become caricatured out of proportion. As good as he is at persuasion, he'll never, ever unite the nation toward sustainable goals the way it must be. So when Gore is found to be investing in green and clean tech, the media snarks—and cannot seem to make the story "Who are these green tech firms and how can you get in on the ground floor by investing in them?" even though the capitalist solution to the climate change crisis is exactly the sort of rallying point the country needs.

—Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence

Friday, November 6, 2009


George Carlin did this classic shtick about stuff:

“…that’s the whole meaning for life, trying to find a place for your stuff. That’s all your house is…your house is just a place for your stuff. If you didn’t have so much goddam stuff you wouldn’t need a house…

That’s all your house is… it’s a pile of stuff with a cover on it….that’s all your house is, is a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff.

Now sometimes you gotta move, get a bigger place…why?... too much stuff!

You gotta move all your stuff….and maybe…put some of your stuff in storage. Imagine that, there’s a whole industry based on keepin’ an eye on your stuff.”

This bit used to have me in stitches.

Now that I’m a homeowner, husband and father, I’m convinced Stuff conspires to overthrow the benevolent regime my wife and I have attempted to create in our little slice of paradise. Stuff reproduces on its own in the dark recesses of our basement. Gadgets I can’t remember what the heck they do appear and muster in the night. Family dog-related flotsam and jetsam litter the cubbies and forgotten nooks; books gather mournfully in straining shelves; paper accumulates like Kudzu in file cabinets spilling forth like a Stephen King horror fest.

A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse.

Would that there was a zebra mussel, a Golem to vanquish the Stuff.

And this, despite the fact that my wife and I are rabid, insufferable, militant, anti-Stuff-ites. Honestly. We take this anti-Stuff obsession to a new level, at least on the “getting rid of Stuff side of the supply-demand-cleanse equation.” If there was a bulimia for Stuff, we’d have it. We purge on a quarterly basis, but still have too much Stuff. When people come over, they say…”Wow (tension in their voices) your place is nice, minimalist, but nice.”

And yet, Stuff still plots the revolution.

Maybe it’s because we have an infant. I never knew my life was lacking before we had the “Diaper Genie.” Bibs in all colors of the rainbow (“Daddy loves me” “Mommy’s angel” ) manifest pride, succumb universally to toxic spit-up, retire to the basement, and decamp in stages before shipping out on the down-low to the Salvation Army.

Much of this Stuff we didn’t buy—gifts from generous relatives and friends, to whom we generally bear a great and genuine debt. Maybe it’s being a new parent, but I’m amazed that even at four months, our daughter has outgrown so much of what we were given, so quickly. Looking at next year’s tax return documentation, I’m astonished to see we’ve made donations of probably 250+ items already, of all this Stuff…baby Stuff, the year’s accumulated ephemera, Stuff we thought we’d need to live. STUFF.

Carlin’s wisecracking resonates because it reflects in part our collective, cultural obsessive-compulsivity and hoarding; also, in part--recognition of our own consumerist inertia. Carlin implies we buy the house to put our Stuff in. I think that’s putting the cart before the horse; home ownership seems to condemn us to a life consumed by Stuff because we buy in to the conspiracy of consumption.

Stuff to decorate, Stuff to demarcate (our social standing--leather couches required, never mind they’re cold as ice), Stuff to make our lives simpler and more “efficient” (we need those three TVs, gotta have a TV in the kitchen too!...otherwise we’d strain our neck stretching to watch Giada prattling on in the living room while we’re working on dinner in the kitchen).

But we never think about the Stuff. Where it comes from, what the cost is, how much Stuff we really need. In the culminating session of the Citizens Academy, one group member suggested we end by watching a devastating video called “The Story of Stuff.” You can find the video free for download here: http://www.storyofstuff.com/

In this video, the lifecycle of stuff--from third world destruction and toxic nightmare, to hidden costs, to packaging excesses, to landfill folly—is charted…pulling no punches. It’s good, really good, and you’ll find it hard to buy another juice box. Unfortunately, it limits much of the power of its suggestions to a near-footnote at the end. But it’s a critical condemnation, not just of stuff, but of our entire way of life.

It is the counter-revolution.

Ironically, soon after I posted an endorsement on Facebook, applauding the video, a friend emailed me to note that even they have a link on their website where you can purchase “The Story of Stuff,” Stuff.

In this round, I concede, it appears Stuff abides.

-Thad Mantaro, SUNY Oswego