Sunday, July 17, 2016

Cuba's Second Special Period - 2016

"Cuba’s economy minister told the Cuban Parliament last week, in a closed session, (drum roll) that the country would have to cut fuel consumption nearly a third in the second half of this year."

Foodlines in Soviet Union 1991 (photo by A. Bates)
The story of Cuba’s Special Period has been told here before, but just to refresh. (light bongo beat) In 1992 the Soviet Union was undergoing great social upheaval at home and in the shifts that followed could no longer support its massive foreign aid dole-out to client states such as Cuba. Without Russian fuel and food aid — and more importantly without the Eastern European export market for its sugar and other commodities — and still under the 30-year-old embargo imposed by the United States, Cuba sank into catastrophic recession. The caloric intake of its population shrank by a third. Oxen replaced tractors and combines. Cuba teetered at the brink of collapse.


In the face of these challenges, the spirit of the 1953-59 student-led revolt revived and bolstered the willingness of the population to come together, tighten their belts and do what needed to be done. (light guitar comes in with the bongo beat) Urban gardens led by permaculture instructors arriving from Australia and South America sprung up along sidewalks, on balconies, and on rooftops. Bicycles, horse taxis and “camels” (massive 300-passenger buses) replaced the diesel classic car fleet. Ride share coops, farmers coops, barefoot doctors and street markets ignored the daily power blackouts and kept the country alive, even thriving. (conga beat picking up, maracas coming in) It was an historic moment, although if you ask the average Cuban, as we did four years ago, they would tell you they would never want to repeat the experience.
Generalisimo Batista and his rival, medical student Ernesto "Che" Guevara

When we visited in 2012 we noticed, and blogged here, that Cuba was doing some remarkable things but that much of their economic development came from and is planning to go forward on, their alliance with friends in the South, notably Venezuela and Bolivia. Instead of being addicted to Soviet fossil energy, they were becoming enslaved to Orinoco Heavy. (castanet roll) Cuba uses 80,000 barrels per day of Venezuelan oil, but when we visited they had ambitious plans for offshore fracking, a giant harbor that would handle oil supertankers and Chinese container ships too large to dock in Miami or Houston, and a revival of the sugar industry using Brazilian next-gen technology to make ethanol. In Havana, the neighborhood gardens were still there, but they were beginning to look a little seedy. (tambourine, cow bell)
Following the student-led revolt, conditions improved markedly.

Cuba’s economy minister told the Cuban Parliament last week, in a closed session, (drum roll) that the country would have to cut fuel consumption nearly a third in the second half of this year because the Venezuelan spigot was slowly squeezing shut. Venezuelan oil exports to Cuba have dropped 40% since January. As the news rippled out through Havana there was a universal sense of Déjà vu. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, won’t be fooled again (as George W. Bush said in his being-folksy mode, unable to recall where he was in the fool-me-twice-shame-on-me proverb and so reverting to a rock anthem lyric from his Yale fraternity days).


Havana 2012 (photo by A. Bates)
Venezuela is running dry, as is neighboring Mexico, and bargain basement crude sales to bolster Venezuela’s economy don’t help. Venezuela can no more supply the Citgo stations in Havana than it can keep the lights on in hospitals in Caracas.

Since we are not exactly getting the White House morning briefing we can only speculate on connections between the US military/intelligence community (triple oxymoron there)’s goals in Venezuela. We know that as the curtain comes down on the Pentagon-mesmermized Drone King Administration and up on an uncertain successor, it could be a chessboard moment. (bass drum and brushed cymbals)


Havana 2012 (photo by A. Bates)
We know, for instance, that the shortages in Venezuela are specific products, so other food and consumer goods remain available. Could it be that the crisis in Venezuela is less about the oil economy and more about black ops by opposition elements? Those elements would include domestic food companies controlled by long-standing opponents of the Bolivarian revolution of 1999. They control, for instance, 62% of every arrepa, a staple of Venezuelan cuisine.


The market distortion is curious. Venezuelans can purchase yogurt, cheese, teas, vegetables, chocolate and fruit, but not meat, corn flour, milk, coffee, and personal hygiene products like soap, toilet paper, sanitary napkins and diapers. In a managed socialist economy you’d think the reverse would be true. It is only when you look at the ownership of the companies where scarcity exists that it begins to make sense.

V.P. candidate Mike Pence and actor Everett McGill - Under Siege 3?
The Friday night military coup in Turkey is another one of those things that can be explained by other factors but the timing is curious. There is no love lost in either Washington or Moscow for the Erdogan regime. Russian press and other sources linked Turkey to the CIA-covert resupply chain for the Islamic State in Syria (ISIS), which the Syrian Army, supported by spectacular Russian air strikes, is in the process of decimating. Erdogan was a klutz, but he was Washington’s klutz. He made that very clear when he shot down a commercial Russian airliner and then okay’ed a new pipeline to take offshore oil and gas Israel was stealing from Gaza through Turkey to Europe. That will potentially square US accounts with kleptocrats in Kiev who keep siphoning gas meant for Europe and not paying for it.


Havana 2012 (photo by A. Bates)
As we penned this Friday night this we were watching the air battle over Ankara not knowing who was fighting for whom over what. That Russia Today is a more reliable witness than The New York Times is the new normal.

Cubans have been here before, and actually, this time it may not be as bad. The embargo is lifting. Although Donald Trump is out-polling Hillary Clinton in Florida, especially with Cuban-Americans, his war-chest is no match for hers and
Havana 2012 (photo by A. Bates)
nationwide, at this point in the election cycle, he is a diminishing threat to US-Cuba détente. (muted instruments, brushed cymbals, then just bongo) With air routes opening, tourist hotels being planned, and Havana’s notorious nightclubs a shorter hop than Las Vegas for half the population of the United States, Cubans only have to hold their breath while they turn off the fans 8 hours per day.


Then they can become addicted to tourism. Badda boom. 

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Jupiter’s Moons, Juno?

"The aliens of Europa could pack their whole sordid history onto the NASA transmitters aboard Juno and we would tell each other, oh yeah, that was an episode of Star Trek in 1964."

NASA’s Jupiter mission, having achieved orbit around the gas giant that is likely to be the earliest planet in our system, provides fodder for many fantasies of science and fiction. We are such a great species of animals, you know? Look at what we’ve done. Think of all the new knowledge we will derive from this mission. Think of the gizmos.

The real finds of the mission will probably not come from the giant itself but from its 67 moons, or others that may be discovered before the Juno spacecraft swan dives into Jupiter’s gas clouds on February 20, 2018, on its 37th orbit.

Moons like Europa, with silicate surface and water-ice crust, an atmosphere composed mainly of oxygen, and gravity about one sixth of ours, have offered writers and poets scenic backdrops since Galileo Galilei first glimpsed that moon’s profile on January 6, 1610. It is a pretty cold place, about minus 170 C (-274 F) most days. With that low gravity, perhaps it’s a bit easier than on Earth to hop around to try to stay warm.

Suppose, just suppose, that NASA discovers something truly provocative. Suppose on one of those moons there is evidence not only of oxygen-breathing, water-loving life similar to our own, but indisputable evidence of prior advanced civilizations. Suppose we were given to understand that they rose and fell by their own hand, either through their own induced runaway climate change or through the unleashed horror of their own unique weapons of mass destruction. How would that knowledge affect us?

Our guess: probably not much.

To be sure, it would be the news story of the year, even the decade. It would sell a lot of ink, make for plenty of new films and performances — all the ways we tell ourselves what is going on, with ourselves at the center. But would it change the political realities of climate change, nuclear weapons or self-destruction by overpopulation? Probably not.

Sages would bemoan our human inability to grasp the existential threats felt by the ancient Ioans or Europans, much as they do now. Skeptics would poke holes in the evidence, much as they do now. Many conferences would be held in posh hotels in scenic locations. Books would be written, eloquently imploring us to take these lessons to heart. In the end, none of that would matter. The news would fade from the headlines, and then from the back pages. Threads would still be found in history books and online discussion groups, but for the most part, we would be back to where we were in almost no time, and none the wiser.

Why?

Because we are humans. The ‘sapiens sapiens’ appellation is a bit of hubris. We are really not that bright as vertebrates or mammals go. We soil our own nest, sacrifice the patrimony of our young to our passing pleasures, are easily attracted to shiny things and addicted to sweets. As planetary citizens we tend to be more like planetary sociopaths. We’ll exterminate any other species that we decide we don’t like, or have a hunger for, or don’t even think about, regardless whether it matters in the greater scheme of things. Besides, we don’t really get the greater scheme of things, even though we pretend we do.


The aliens of Europa could pack their whole sordid history onto the NASA transmitters aboard Juno and we would tell each other, oh yeah, that was an episode of Star Trek in 1964. We are too jaded to be able to listen now.

If someone is right now hard at work crafting some message in a bottle—a dire warning to a race of future alien beings who may some day come to Earth and assay that layer of radioactive plastic in seafloor sediment that traces the ascent of Man — we’d say why bother? What makes you think alien explorers would be any more alert than we, who have known the dangers of the atomic Pandora since Einstein and the inevitable result of greenhouse warming since Arhennius?

Either you have the ability to behave appropriately or you don’t.

There is inescapable irony in the admission that our race is able to send a spacecraft 600 million miles to explore a large planet and its moons but is unable to muster the collective will to save itself from itself.
 

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Three Amigos!

"Wherever there is injustice, you will find us."

The Press Scorps are calling the three-way between Obama, Trudeau and Peña Nieto this past week a meeting of the “Three Amigos.” Whether or not it is a reference to the campy 1986 John Landis film of the same name, the allusion has legs.

Picture Barack Obama as Steve Martin’s character, Lucky Day, Justin Trudeau reprising the role of Chevy Chase as Dusty Bottoms, and Enrique Peña Nieto playing Martin Short’s Ned Nederlander. Tagline: They're Down On Their Luck And Up To Their Necks In Senoritas, Margaritas, Banditos And Bullets!

Scene One, They are behind closed doors, seated around a table. “Well,” says Lucky Obama, “I guess you are wondering why I asked you here.”

“We are in Canada,” reminds Dusty Trudeau.

Lucky Obama: “No matter, we all know who we are don’t we? So what are we going to do about the collapse of the European Union?”

Dusty Trudeau: “Well, we're just gonna have to use our brains.”

Ned Nieto: “Damn it!”

Lucky Obama:” What we're talking about is money, real money, Amigo money. No dough, no show.”

Dusty Trudeau: “I take it you are worried about the effect on trade?”

Lucky Obama: “With our trading partners in the East coming apart at the seams, we are going to have to turn our gaze westward. This is why the Trans Pacific Partnership is so important.”

Ned Nieto: “Errr, excuse me. Isn’t what that what you gringos used to say about NAFTA?”

Lucky Obama: "The prescription of withdrawing from trade deals and focusing solely on your local market, that's the wrong medicine. As North America United, we must stick together as our cross-Atlantic trading partners descend into a dogfight over the remaining scraps of their natural resources.

Dusty Trudeau: “No, we will not die like dogs! We will fight like lions! Because we are…"

Dusty Trudeau, Lucky Obama, Ned Nieto: “The Three Amigos!”

Lucky Obama: “Wherever there is injustice, you will find us.”

Ned Nieto: “Wherever there is suffering, we'll be there.”

Dusty Trudeau: “Wherever liberty is threatened, you will find…"

All: “The Three Amigos!”

Ned Nieto: “But Lucky, about those natural resources you mentioned….”

Lucky Obama: “Yes, Ned?”

Ned Nieto: “Well you know we are out of oil now, right?”

Dusty Trudeau: “And our tar sands are stranded by low prices, the time-bomb of finance and the Paris Agreement…”

Lucky Obama: “Not to worry my little friends. We are going green! We will lead the world. This Brexit vote is not just going to knock the London finance market off its pedestal, it will gut and skewer Europe’s solar and wind manufacturing capacity. We can carve up that market and sell everything from finance packages to Tesla batteries to our new partners across the Pacific.”

Ned Nieto: “I am as committed as my amigos to producing half of our continent's power from renewable energy by 2025, but you know we are not going to be able to get there by selling margaritas to tourists in Mazatlan, we will need some help.”

Dusty Trudeau: “No amigo stands alone, Ned. Canada will put up many beautiful aluminum windmills in Mazatlan, so that our winter vacationers from Saskatchewan and Alberta can enjoy air conditioning while they sip their margaritas.”

Ned Nieto: “Many windmills?”

Dusty Trudeau: “Oh yes, many!”

Ned Nieto: “Would you say I have a plethora of windmills?”

Dusty Trudeau: “A what?”

Ned Nieto: “A plethora.”

Dusty Trudeau: “Oh yes, you have a plethora.”

Ned Nieto: “Dusty, what is a plethora?”

Dusty Trudeau: “Why, Ned?”

Ned Nieto: “Well, you told me I have a plethora. And I just would like to know if you know what a plethora is. I would not like to think that a person would tell someone he has a plethora, and then find out that that person has no idea what it means to have a plethora.”

Dusty Trudeau: “Forgive me, Ned. I know that I, Dusty, do not have your superior intellect and education. But could it be that once again, you are angry at something else, and are looking to take it out on me?”

Ned Nieto: “Well, you are right. I have always felt I am the junior partner in this alliance, and that you have invited me in just because you wanted my natural resources, especially oil and gas, and now that those are gone, and anyway we have to stop using them, you don’t really have much need for me. Soon it will be warm all winter in Canada and your citizens will not need to vacation in Mazatlan. I feel like perhaps I will become a burden to you.

Lucky Obama: “Oh, don’t feel that way Ned. You know you have always been a valuable brother to us, watching our southern border. We will need you there to help us stop the flow of immigrants from below. That is going to soon become very serious. You must be strong. You must be fearless.”

Dusty Trudeau: “Wherever there is injustice, you will find us.”

Ned Nieto: “Wherever there is suffering, we'll be there.”

Lucky Obama: “Wherever liberty is threatened, you will find…"

All: “The Three Amigos!”

Ned Nieto: "You must forgive me if I keep harping. When we speak to our real longings, why must we get behind the mass roll-out of unaffordable, bland, identikit housing and unsustainable cities, dead-end jobs, fracking the oceans and a financial system that channels money into a few hands when we could take a different model, of cooperating, equitable and resilient partner nations, showcasing a completely renewable energy grid, home to thriving and antifragile food economies, meeting our housing and energy needs through truly affordable, gorgeous homes and micro-grids in community ownership, supporting each other through the long-overdue disintegration of neoliberalism, creating diverse thriving working cooperatives?"

Lucky Obama:"You are such a kidder, Ned. I guess it is one side of the Donald Trump and Brexit public dialog that people feel emboldened to just say whatever comes into their heads."

Dusty Trudeau: “But at the same time, it's good that we really practice deep listening.  It's only through deep listening that we can hear and connect to the longings, fear, loneliness and so on that underpins much of what we've been afraid of."

Lucky Obama: "I hear you Dusty, deeply. And what I fear you fear is the coming undone of all we have worked for, what our forefathers worked for, what they shed blood for..."

Ned Nieto: "Globalization?"

Lucky Obama: "Ned, would you rather the people of your country be part of the food chain of an offshore elite that preys on their insecurity, or would you rather be the offshore elite that eats their guacamole?"

Ned Nieto: "No, we will not die like avocados! We will fight like mescalitos! Because we are…"

All: “The Three Amigos!”

Lucky Obama: “Wherever there is injustice, you will find us.”

Ned Nieto: “Wherever there is suffering, we'll be there.”

Dusty Trudeau: “Wherever liberty is threatened, you will find…"

All: “The Three Amigos!”

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Tales We Tell Our Children

"It is difficult to imagine how anyone who encounters these stories as a youth could grow up to have anything other than profound respect for the latent power of the natural world."

On the comments page for a popular environmental radio show a listener asked for suggestions for books or stories on nature themes to read or to give to children —  the kind that maybe influenced you when you were little.

Three titles immediately came to mind, and now seem more relevant than ever. One was set in the steaming tropics — Leiningen Versus the Ants by Carl Stephenson (in Brazil, in 1938). The other two are set in the far north — To Build A Fire by Jack London (in the Klondike, in 1910) and Master and Man by Leo Tolstoy (in northern Russia, in 1895). Why they appealed to us as a child and seem even more relevant now is because each are about battles with extreme, elemental forces of climate and about the hubris implicit in human attempts to dominate and control. In the end, each is humbling, which is a good lesson for any child.

Leiningen Versus the Ants is the story of a German colonial planter, a relative newcomer to the tropics, having only 3 years experience there, who is warned in the opening scene by a District Commissioner that the army ants are approaching and he needs to evacuate. The aristocratic planter scoffs, vows to stay and protect his work, and therein lies the tale. A Hollywood version staring Charlton Heston, The Naked Jungle, came out in 1954.

In the original, it is just the young, brash, commanding planter, whom Stephenson symbolically has given neither a first name nor an age, marshaling his troops of underpaid, overworked and easily sacrificed peons to fight the diabolical flanking and pincer movements of the besieging ants. In the end, he sacrifices himself for his tiny piece of paradise and the lives of his laborers, but defeats this elemental force by calling upon greater elemental forces.

Douglas Fowley
In the Hollywood version (there was also a radio drama in 1948), it's 1901 and a 19-year-old Christopher Leiningen comes to South America to convert thousands of acres of Rio Negro terra preta to a chocolate factory. Now 34, with no knowledge of women, he recruits a mail-order bride from New Orleans. Eleanor Parker’s character is beautiful, independent, and arrives ready to be his stalwart helpmate; however, no one has told him she's a widow. He rejects her as unclean. During the next week, as she awaits the boat to take her back to the US, they are warned by a medicine man (Douglas Fowley) that legions of ants will strike in a few days' time. She joins the fight to save the plantation; their courage and his near loss of all he's worked for cements their Naked Jungle marriage.

Joanna: Do you think this moat will stop them?
Leiningen: Ants are strictly land creatures. They can't swim. Right, Incacha?
Incacha: Monkeys not swim also. They cross rivers even so.
Leiningen: The intelligence of monkeys is more than ants, less than man.
Incacha: Is so.
[laughing]
Incacha: When ants come, monkeys run.

Jack London’s tale is based on the real-life experiences of the author during the Klondike Gold Rush. A man — no need give him a name as he is the story’s only character — is braving extremely cold temperatures as he travels across the Yukon to join his companions. Instead of a medicine man to warn him of the elemental threat, he brings along a wolf-dog. This is a good thing because London’s typical characterization of indigenous peoples and their cultures was about as ignorant and incurious as most Anglo Klondikers, but his appreciation of animal intellect was much keener.

At minus 75F (−59 °C), the dog can sense that something is awfully wrong. The dog’s frightened behavior is supposed to show the man that he has underestimated his danger and get him to turn back, but no. Like Leiningen, he is stubborn, oblivious to the powers he has challenged. Likewise, the powers are entirely insensitive to him. The animal just wants badly to bug out. The man does not comprehend that because he is in the position of Leiningen to his peons — the dog is merely a slave. For the dog’s part, he feels no need to communicate, only to stick close and obtain the warmth of a fire.
The dog made no effort to indicate its fears to the man. It was not concerned with the well-being of the man. It was for its own sake that it looked toward the fire.

One of London’s great writing talents was his ability to describe natural landscapes. In To Build A Fire his descriptive passages tell us that the seeming peace, emptiness and tranquility of the snowy landscape masks a power far greater than any mere humans. When the man abruptly falls through an ice spring and and wets his legs to his waist, the author spares 24 words to alert readers to the bigger picture: “The cold of space smote the unprotected tip of the planet, and he, being on that tip, received the full force of the blow.”
Well, here he was; he had had the accident; he was alone; and he had saved himself. Those old men were rather womanish, he thought. All a man must do was to keep his head, and he was all right. Any man who was a man could travel alone.

He does not survive.

The third title we recommended to young readers today was Master and Man and after reviewing it with the eyes of an elder now, we almost wish we could read it in the original Russian, Хозяин и работник. While translations reveal Tolstoy’s power as a storycrafter, they cannot show us his ability to apply words to paper the way an artist touches paint to canvas.

In the story, wealthy young Vasili Andreevich Brekhunov takes along one of his serfs, Nikita, for a short journey to visit the owner of a forest he is eager to purchase. He is obsessed with getting the best price, has calculated the ROI for cutting it down, would like to increase that, and is oblivious to the weather. Driving a one-horse sleigh over snowy roads, he finds himself in the middle of a blizzard, the likes of which is seldom seen.

As master and servant leave the village of Kresty ("The Crosses") Tolstoy “sets about dismantling the barrier between this world and the next:”
"As soon as they passed the last [building], they noticed at once that the wind was much stronger than they had thought. The road could hardly be seen...The fields were all in a whirl, and the limit where sky and earth met could not be seen."
Nikita would rather be close to a cozy fire somewhere but is accustomed to taking orders, despite the fact that Vasili prides himself in cheating him of his wages. The master orders they press on because, although the blizzard is blinding, they have only 4 miles to travel and competition waits for no-one. They repeatedly get lost, travel in circles, are given second and third chances to abort and take lodgings, but the master is too stubborn.

The mind of the master is preoccupied with "the sole aim, meaning, joy, and pride of his life – of how much money he had made and might still make” while the minds of the serf and the horse hear instead the “whistling of the wind, the fluttering and snapping of the kerchief in the shafts, and the lashing of the falling snow against the bast of the sleigh."

Like Leiningen, Vasili Andreevich is finally pushed by the prospect of being inevitably overpowered by General Winter to sacrifice himself for his serf, bringing home Tolstoy’s oft-repeated theme that the only true happiness in life is found by living for others. The second theme is that the elemental force of nature invariably prevails in the end and how that plays out is seldom pleasant.

We were just a child when we first read these stories and we read with the wide eyes of a child. Looking back now, it is difficult to imagine how anyone who encounters these stories at that age could grow up to have anything other than profound respect for the latent power of the natural world. Although separated by decades and distances, each of them tells the story of a strong, solitary individual who regards others, and the whole of nature, as subservient to their will, but who, after tasting reality in a most profound way, become transformed, even heroic, at last gasp.

These stories have been assigned reading for children for more than a century, in the case of the two winter tales, and more than 80 years in the case of their summery companion. They seem to have been literarily backwatered by technophilic hubris that set in around mid-20th century. But that is how each of these tales begins: technophilic hubris. And then there is a come-to-Gaia moment for each protagonist — Leiningen, The Man, Vasili Andreevich — and received wisdom. For the latter two, it comes too late. Charlton Heston, ant-bitten to the bone, got the girl. A Hollywood ending.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Battle of the Holocene

"The end results are definite and dire, that much is known."

7,827 PEOPLE DIED TODAY.  Men, women, children, and all religions alike.  It was avoidable, it was unnecessary, and the same thing will happen again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day, and every single day that we chose to do nothing about Anthropogenic Climate Change

I'll explain.  Let's just pretend that we have 35 years to do something about climate change, after which it is too late.  Let's also pretend that if we do nothing before that 35 year mark, that 100 million people will die (famine, disease, extreme weather...).  That means that we have 12,775 days (365 * 35) left to save 100 million people from an unnecessary death.  100,000,000 people / 12,775 days = 7,827 people / day. 

This is just a way to make the intangible feel tangible.  There is no precise and scientifically agreed upon deadline, a deadline before which we can still chose to either do “something” or “nothing”, after which it is too late.  There are a series of milestones that will be crossed, and most of them only visible in hindsight.  There are infinite “somethings” that can be done, and no indisputable delineation between what is the “right” something or the “wrong” something.  It is a game of nuance.  A game where words such as “assuming”, “might”, and “if” are used a lot.  But the end results are definite and dire, that much is known.  So to avoid getting lost in the endless mire of debating numbers, I gave it a number.

What really eats at me personally, is how almost without mention we are indiscriminately committing hundreds of millions, if not billions to death and suffering, and they are us, and our children, and it is all completely unnecessary, and the mainstream media and government don't seem to pay it but the occasional meaningless lip service compared to the immediacy and scope of the problem. 

What if they had names?  Maybe if we were to arbitrarily chose 100 million people and their unborn children, and every ten minutes another 54 would be listed.  Undoubtedly a morbid and interesting ploy, but unlikely to change the course of history.  It would be pretty interesting to send that list out to various groups though; news organizations, political organizations.  I would love to see that email sent directly to the desks of top fossil fuel executives and the investors who support their companies.

What can be done?  Something.  Do something.  Say something.  The silence is deafening.  Every day that nothing is done, the problem grows. 

I’ll say something; Go fly a kite Rupert Murdoch, I’ll take the truth and spread it.  Screw you Exxon, I’ll take your carbon and put it back in the Earth.  I am a warrior in a battle to save the Holocene, the best darn climate humanity has ever known.

But somehow, for some reason, this sort of conversation is socially taboo.  We don’t talk about it much, lest we be labeled a Debbie downer, or get stuck in endless debates of “if’s” and “maybe’s”.  Or perhaps we need new ways to talk about it?  I guess in time… but it couldn’t be sooner, because while I have sat here at my desk frustrated, angry, writing, another 326 people died.


This has been a guest post by biocharista Josiah Hunt. We invite others to send us their blogable thoughts for possible publication on The Great Change. 

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Hot Brain Cool Brain

"Voting these days is like choosing between the hot faucet and the cold faucet, but only the hot faucet works."
 
  Lion and wolf cubs, when they learn to stalk prey, learn fairly quickly that they must delay the urge for immediate gratification if they are to be successful. They have to cultivate patience.

Babies who are taken to their mother's breast whenever they cry do not learn this as early. Those allowed milk only after they stop crying, and maybe even then not right away, learn patience.

Last month Walter Mischel gave a Long Now talk that eventually found its way to our earbuds as we bicycled through Amish country in Southern Tennessee.

It is wheat harvest time here and Amish men are out scything the sheaves, tying bundles, and forming them into shocks to field dry in the sun. When the wheat has cured, the shocks will be collected by horse wagon and carried back to the barn for threshing. The Amish abide in the Long Now.

Walter Mischel’s psychology experiment at Stanford in the 1960s took students from the Bing Nursery School, put them in a room one-by-one, gave them a choice of a cookie, mint, pretzel, or marshmallow and the following deal: they could eat the treat right away, or wait 15 minutes until the experimenter returned. If they waited, they would get an extra treat. 

Michel and his team then went behind the one-way glass and filmed for 15 minutes.
Footage of these experiments, which were conducted over several years, is poignant, as the kids struggle to delay gratification for just a little bit longer. Some cover their eyes with their hands or turn around so that they can’t see the tray. Others start kicking the desk, or tug on their pigtails, or stroke the marshmallow as if it were a tiny stuffed animal. One child, a boy with neatly parted hair, looks carefully around the room to make sure that nobody can see him. Then he picks up an Oreo, delicately twists it apart, and licks off the white cream filling before returning the cookie to the tray, a satisfied look on his face.
-- Jonah Lehrer, The New Yorker 

The genius of the experiment was not in discovering what percentage of children delayed gratification and how that might correlate to sex, age, race, ethnicity or income, but in following the children with a longitudinal study for the rest of their lives.
As they matured and became adults, the kids who had shown the ability to wait got better grades, were healthier, enjoyed greater professional success, and proved better at staying in relationships—even decades after they took the test. They were, in short, better at life.
-- Drake Bennett, Bloomburg 

Mischel showed that a child’s ability to delay eating the first treat predicted higher SAT scores (by 210 points) and a lower body mass index (BMI). They got paid more, lived longer, and had fewer divorces. 

In 2012, researchers at the University of Rochester added more nuance to the original work.  In "Rational snacking: Young children’s decision-making on the marshmallow task is moderated by beliefs about environmental reliability," Celeste Kidd, Holly Palmeri and Richard N. Aslin tested children who had little reason to trust that the scientists would return in 15 minutes versus a control group of children who were more likely to have trust. Children raised in homeless shelters or alleys, for instance, have much less faith in the reliability of their environments, or adult authorities, than children who are raised in stable family settings surrounded by environmental constancy.

What do children plucked from bus station bathrooms do when told that if they delay gratification they will get a bigger reward? They eat the treat right away. While the study is too recent to track those kids for a lifetime, the long term effects of mistrustful childhood do not require a leap of imagination.

Kidd et al report:
The results of our study indicate that young children’s performance on sustained delay-of-gratification tasks can be strongly influenced by rational decision-making processes. If self-control capacity differences were the primary causal mechanism implicated in children’s wait-times, then information about the reliability of the environment should not have affected them. If deficiencies in self-control caused children to eat treats early, then one would expect such deficiencies to be present in the reliable condition as well as in the unreliable condition. The effect we observed is consistent with converging evidence that young children are sensitive to uncertainty about future rewards.
***
To be clear, our data do not demonstrate that self-control is irrelevant in explaining the variance in children’s wait-times on the original marshmallow task studies. They do, however, strongly indicate that it is premature to conclude that most of the observed variance—and the longitudinal correlation between wait-times and later life outcomes—is due to differences in individuals’ self-control capacities. Rather, an unreliable worldview, in addition to self-control, may be causally related to later life outcomes, as already suggested by an existing body of evidence.

There is also an existing body of evidence that tells us that humans are predisposed to disbelieve scientific facts, or even their own experiences, if they conflict with strongly held beliefs. This is likely the phenomenon most responsible for our failure not merely to make the cultural changes required of us to avert climate Armageddon and Near Term Human Extinction – even simple lifestyle changes like eating lower on the food chain, cutting discretionary travel, living in a smaller house and having no more than one child – but our failure to even acknowledge, as individuals or collectively, that we have a problem. We have chosen instead, to use the words of Dr. Kidd, an unreliable worldview.

As John Michael Greer says, human beings are like yeast. They respond to increased access to food and energy with increased reproduction. In other words, marshmallows make us horny.

Our cockeyed worldview has a concatenation of causes. We are products of the religious views of our parents. We inhabit a globalized culture that infantilizes us while it trains us to become dedicated followers of fashion.  We like hearing the sound of our "own" voice in our heads. Add all that up and it amounts to simmering distrust. We are not at all prepared to delay gratification. The average child in Kidd's study waited only 6 minutes.

In his Long Now talk and in his book, The Marshmallow Test,  Walter Mischel spoke of our internal dialog in terms of a conflict between the "hot brain" that wants to operate on impulse and take what is right in front of it, and "cool brain," that is willing to wait, willing to trust, and then to reap the greater rewards.

Those who find themselves more often on the winning side – whether in athletics, business, politics or relationships – are those who have cool brains. They play the long game.

All too often they use the inabilities of opponents to see that long game to pad their advantage. That is how they get ahead.

Climate change and the existential threat it holds cannot even be perceived without a long view. It needs a cool brain, not a hot one. But there is a self-reinforcing feedback being played out here that does not work in favor of our species. Climate change weirds the normal course of things. It makes the environment for everyone unreliable. It seeds distrust. It makes brains hot.

The question then becomes, how can we develop cool brains? Mischel suggests several techniques of ideation that can help build self-control. What is clear, however, is that the best self-control starts early in life and is built upon a foundation of trust. The environment a child experiences will affect how much trust they can invest in adults, their culture -- its rules and social responsibilities -- and their future. Take away stability and trust from children and the effects of that loss ripple out to very large consequences for everyone.

"By changing cognitive skills and motivation, we can use the cool system to regulate the hot system," Mischel says. "Is it all pre-wired? My answer is an emphatic no."
Attention control strategies and cognitive transformations/reappraisals can 'cool' the immediate temptations and 'heat' the delayed consequences is what's important.
***
The point I am trying to make is that if we are going to talk seriously about taking long term consequences like climate change into account, we've got to make the consequences hot. We have to really make them hot. And that's not easy to do.

One of the reasons that it is not easy to do is because that limbic system, that hot system that activates automatically when you have high stress, is there for good reason.

We have often wondered whether continuing to write scary tomes about our future is an effective strategy. Mischel says it is and we need more of it. But we also need to cool our brains once they have grasped hot consequences.

His advice is to narrow the economic class divide, teach self-control in schools, assume everyone is capable of improving their skills, and stop creating new victims of biological and social biographies.
Mischel’s main worry is that, even if his lesson plan proves to be effective, it might still be overwhelmed by variables the scientists can’t control, such as the home environment. He knows that it’s not enough just to teach kids mental tricks—the real challenge is turning those tricks into habits, and that requires years of diligent practice. “This is where your parents are important,” Mischel says. “Have they established rituals that force you to delay on a daily basis? Do they encourage you to wait? And do they make waiting worthwhile?” According to Mischel, even the most mundane routines of childhood—such as not snacking before dinner, or saving up your allowance, or holding out until Christmas morning—are really sly exercises in cognitive training: we’re teaching ourselves how to think so that we can outsmart our desires. But Mischel isn’t satisfied with such an informal approach. “We should give marshmallows to every kindergartner,” he says. “We should say, ‘You see this marshmallow? You don’t have to eat it. You can wait. Here’s how.’ “
-- Jonah Lehrer

From the presidential campaign now playing out in the United States and similar dramas in Brazil, Philippines and elsewhere, we can surmise that a cool brain standard is not in the immediate offing. It is easy to see the distinctions between the many hot brain / instant gratification candidates and constituencies, whose policies would widen the class divide, rekindle the Cold War and heat the planet, and the rare cool brain / calm and steadfast candidates and constituencies, who want to end divisive rhetoric, level the playing field, and pursue a path to real progress in peace, justice and transformative change.

Voting these days is like choosing between the hot faucet and the cold faucet, but only the hot faucet works.

Watching the Amish gather in the sheaves we see a culture that invests in trust. Children grow up relying on adults to be steadfast, seasons to come and go, and the good earth to provide. They learn self-denial and delayed gratification early. It becomes a joyful practice because it underpins a greater love of community, and the return of community love for each member.

Humans are capable of these things. We are capable of designing entire societies that function this way. Whether we choose to act rationally, with self-control, and not on impulse, is simply a matter of choice.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Aunt in the Attic

"By the time the price slump hit exports Caracas was already into grades of Orinoco Heavy that resembled tarry pipe opium."

Many eyes are now on Venezuela, which the Organization of American States is trying desperately to keep from becoming a failed state, but just up the coast lies another Bolivarian Republic leaning like a domino.

Mexico’s wells are running dry.

You would almost not know if you took your news from television or the mainstream media. It is like a closely guarded secret — the aunt in the attic.

While international prices Mexico gets for its crude fell 18% in 2015 and another 10% this year, the average VW bug owner in Morales is paying 11% more (vs. 17% in the US) every time they pump a liter. The government is slowly releasing price controls at its retail PEMEX stations, trying to hold fluctuations at +/- 3%, but warning of completely unregulated prices coming in 2018. It hopes to sell off its retail chain by then.
 

This is not neoliberalism driving that kind of change, although Mexico has more than its share. It is a desperation to stem its own domestic appetite for oil. Mexico is becoming an oil importer.

Not long ago Mexico was the US’s single largest supplier of crude. The giant field at Cantarell was second only to Ghawar in Saudi Arabia. Today Ghawer still produces 4.5 million barrels per day (mmbd) of 350-million-year-old sunlight — down from 5 million mmbd a few years ago — while the giant Cantarell, which once produced 2.1 mmbd, has been on nitrogen drip since 2000 and is approaching closure. PEMEX, Mexico’s recently-privatized national oil company, will spend $US 6 billion this year in a Quixotic attempt to maintain production levels at around 325,000 bpd.


In April Mexico’s oil export revenues fell 30.8%.  That month the national trade balance showed a deficit of $6.65 billion dollars. Mexico’s trade exchange with the US is roughly neutral in non-oil areas — $30.4 billion exported against $32.5 imported in April, for instance. What allowed the Mexican economy to grow was the extra $300 billion per year coming in from oil sales, creating a 2:1 favorable balance of trade.

In 2015 Mexico’s oil export revenues fell 45 percent. Petroleum now makes up about 5% of total exports, compared with about one-third in 1990. It was not just the decline of the world price, although that certainly hurt. 


Mexico is running dry.


One need only gaze a little farther south to see how that progression will play out.  Venezuela’s problems are often blamed on politics, Hugo Chavez’s populist redistributions,  generous foreign aid, CIA covert efforts to destabilize, and class warfare, but truth be told, Venezuela was an oil addict and its habit outgrew its abilities to find the next fix. By the time the price slump hit, Caracas was already into grades of Orinoco Heavy that resembled tarry pipe opium.

Last year Venezuela’s oil revenues, really its only source of trade, fell 40%. At the same time, climate change struck its agriculture and hydroelectric sectors with a megadrought. Nonetheless, its creditors demanded timely payment on loans — $7 billion per year — or risk default and IMF sanctions a la Argentina or Greece. Much of that debt was racked up by the state-owned oil company, PDVSA (aka Citgo), which had a drill-baby-drill philosophy through the Chavez years. 


On April 22, Venezuela’s leaders announced mandatory electric fasting — 4 hours per day — formalizing the blackouts that people had already been experiencing. Electricity Minister Luis Motta said the rolling blackouts would last for 40 days or until water levels stabilize at the Guri Dam. 


In April, federal employees were reduced to a 4-day work week. In May, it was cut to two. The health care system has collapsed, the crime rate is one of the world’s worst and the slide of the Bolivar is uncontrolled. By some estimates, inflation could reach nearly 500 percent this year and 1,600 percent in 2017.

The amount of time ordinary Venezuelans spend to purchase life’s daily necessities has frustrated and angered them, and this builds a slow burn of civil unrest with calls for impeachment or revolution. Looking for popular support, President Maduro has gone after business leaders, arresting the managers of a pharmaceutical and other companies on charges of artificially creating shortages.

On May 15 The New York Times’ Nicholas Casey reported:

The day had begun with the usual hazards: chronic shortages of antibiotics, intravenous solutions, even food. Then a blackout swept over the city, shutting down the respirators in the maternity ward.

Doctors kept ailing infants alive by pumping air into their lungs by hand for hours. By nightfall, four more newborns had died.


***

The figures are devastating. The rate of death among babies under a month old increased more than a hundredfold in public hospitals.


***

Here in the Caribbean port town of Barcelona, two premature infants died recently on the way to the main public clinic because the ambulance had no oxygen tanks. The hospital has no fully functioning X-ray or kidney dialysis machines because they broke long ago. And because there are no open beds, some patients lie on the floor in pools of their blood.


***

“I doubt that anywhere in the world, except in Cuba, there exists a better health system than this one,” Mr. Maduro said.

Late last fall, the aging pumps that supplied water to the University of the Andes Hospital exploded. They were not repaired for months.

So without water, gloves, soap or antibiotics, a group of surgeons prepared to remove an appendix that was about to burst, even though the operating room was still covered in another patient’s blood.


***

In a supply room, cockroaches fled as the door swung open.

Dr. Diaz logged a patient’s medical data on the back of a bank statement someone had thrown in the trash.


***

Doctors tried everything they could to keep the babies breathing, pumping air by hand until the employees were so exhausted they could barely see straight, she said. How many babies died because of the blackout was impossible to say, given all of the other deficiencies at the hospital.

In January Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto began to dance with the shadows his future throws. The government announced $8.3 billion in budget cuts, much of it falling most heavily on PEMEX, now generally regarded as a wasted investment of the past decade. He also  canceled the Chinese bullet train project that threatened to expose corruption tied to his family’s personal wealth.

As its oil company struggles, Mexico has made commitments to tackle climate change. In 2012, the Mexican Congress unanimously voted for a General Law on Climate Change, which went into effect later that year — making Mexico the first developing country to pass a comprehensive climate change law. Some of the aims of the law are to set mandatory greenhouse gas emissions requirements, reduce fossil fuel subsidies and increase renewable electricity generation to 35 percent by 2024. Owning a national oil company does not seem to square with that law.

— Gina-Marie Cheeseman, Mashable


PEMEX had been Mexico’s cash cow for half a century, financing a meteoric rise in standards of living. This miracle came thanks to the heroic stand of Lázaro Cárdenas Del Rio against Franklin Del Roosevelt in the 1930s, defying the effort of the Seven Sisters  to glom Mexico’s oil by blocking the transfer of refinery technology. After Mexican scientists successfully developed their own process, Cárdenas sent FDR a vial of clear, home-brewed gasoline. Goaded by Winston Churchill, Walter Teague and other oil obsessives almost to the point of invasion, FDR was dissuaded by his Joint Chiefs, who were riveted by Germany’s remilitarization and what it foretold. He turned his gaze away and left Cárdenas alone.


In December of 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked, Mexico was one of the first countries to pledge support and aid, and severed all diplomatic ties with the Axis powers. Grateful, FDR placed large contracts for Mexican oil and sent technicians to quickly build up Mexican mining operations for much-needed metals like mercury, zinc, copper and more. After FDR visited the Mexican President in Monterrey, transfers of US weapons and training began and the Mexican Air Force, Fuerza Aerea Mexicana (FAM), fledged the Aztec Eagles, who aided in the conquest of the Philippines, Formosa, Okinawa and Kyushu, flying P-47s (‘Peh-Cuas’) with bright Mexican tricolor markings on the tail and U.S. star-and-bar insignia on the fuselage and wings.

Mexico was warned of impending petrocollapse more than 10 years ago by the top brass at PEMEX. It might have made efforts to dampen Catholic fecundity and curb consumer growth, ration fossil reserves and build out its renewable portfolio. Instead, a succession of administrations — Salinas, Fox, Calderon, Peña-Nieto — poured billions into new drilling technology and offshore exploration. What came out of the ground was too little, too late, but until 2014, when it finally began liquidating PEMEX and cutting its losses, Mexico never stopped hoping to hit another jackpot. 


As a hedge, Mexico poured its final decade of oil profits into boosting tourism — one only need look at Cancún, Puerto Vallerta or Cabo San Lucas — and until now that seemed to work. The country’s azure seas and sandy beaches realigned international air routes. Hotels, restaurants and adventure tours boomed.

A trifle short-sighted, we would say.

Cancún was devastated by Hurricane Wilma but rebounded on the strength of tourism. Can it do that again? And again?

Tourism, even ecotourism, can boost the economy of a remote region, but only as long as jet travel is cheap and flights are available. Tourism is profoundly fragile, compared to say, agriculture. Mexico’s tourism was hampered by air travel security measures put in place after 911, a drumbeat of largely-unsubstantiated scares about endemic bird flus, Zika, Dengue and West Nile, uncontrolled kidnappings and random street violence, often at the hands of police and federal army, and other threats to unwary teens on Spring Break. 


All of these pale in comparison to peak oil or financial crash. Global tourism’s circulatory system is on an IV drip that requires regular infusions of First World discretionary spending power and discount airfares. Right now, airlines are basking in the glow of low petroleum prices. It can’t last, and neither can the happy-go-lucky Mexican tourist economy. Mexico doesn’t just import petroleum and vacationers now. It imports rice, beans, corn and tomatoes.

Venezuela’s failed state is instructive. What will a Mexican failed state with a long border and deep cultural ties mean for the United States? President Trump may not have to wait long to find out.

One hopeful note is a new initiative Mr. Peña Nieto is taking to ramp up a small but pricey agricultural sector that could keep the Mexican economy afloat, even in hard times.

The United Nations special session on drugs was heavy on empty talk, but several positive things came out of it. One was that there is no appetite to make countries abide by the United Nations treaties that prohibit the legalization of marijuana. Another is that a range of voices across the world are calling for a new approach to drug policy. The growth of a legalized, binational marijuana market would be a step toward turning those calls into reality.

— Ioan Grillo, "Legalized Pot, Free Trade," NY Times Opinion Page


What Peña Nieto has proposed for Mexico for now is to allow cannabis consumption but leave growing and selling of it to the illegal market, effectively continuing the profitable  Drug Wars, criminal syndicate finance of local politics, and police-gadget pork supplied by the DEA and Pentagon. If Mexico were to take the next step up the attic stair and legalize production and sale, its world-famous strains could rival anything being grown in Colorado and Oregon. It could have a trade balance to rely on.  






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