Letter To A Young Girl

Dear A__,.

The decision to have you, to bring you into this world, was not an easy one; your mother and I agonized about it a fair amount. We went for it in the end because we were excited to see how our lives would turn out with someone like you in our lives. Our decision was the correct one; we cannot imagine life without you, and you have changed us for the better in many ways. All isn’t smooth sailing, of course; I regret that this world into which you’ve been born is not in better shape. Climate change is real; fascist political movements are on the rise all over the world; patriarchy is fighting very, very hard to maintain its power. And that’s just three of the many things that makes this world a worse place than it needs to be. I’m not a very optimistic person; and so I think that things will get worse before they get better. Still, there is plenty of occasion to cheer, and to offer me hope for what lies ahead of you. Here are the two biggest factors in my optimism–such as it is.

First, the world is still beautiful; you’ve seen some of it thanks to our family trips but there is so much more; literally, a whole world. I’ve only scratched the surface, but I’d like to think I’m exposing you to enough to whet your appetite. You like climbing, and I’m hopeful that you will keep it up–literally–and go to all those airy ledges that always seem to have the best views of the world below. There is much to see, much to explore; and if the big bad guys want to take away this wilderness from you, then you have a good battle to fight  waiting for you. It’s a good cause; you could do worse than to devote your life to keeping the outdoors wild and beautiful for future wild kids like you.

Second, young people are angry and politically organized. Just yesterday, a young and dynamic woman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, won a primary election–she is going to be the youngest woman elected to Congress. She spoke up for the communities she represents, putting their interests front and center; she did not compromise or triangulate; she spoke clearly and fearlessly; and she inspired many to come out and support her. You don’t have to emulate her; you don’t have to run for Congress; but you should learn from her that sincerity and passion and honesty will take you a long way even as many around you will try to tell you to be insincere and dishonest.

So, there it is. You don’t get an inheritance other than a a beautiful world and some beautiful people to share it with. Oh, there’s tons of trolls and ogres as  well; they’ve got their eyes on the prize too. But what kind of adventure would life be if there weren’t any ‘wild things’ to take on and best at their own game?

Yours with many hugs,


Melting Glaciers And The End Of Civilization

These are the days of grim warnings about climate change, about an overheated, crowded, polluted planet, slowly cooking in a noxious stew of greenhouse gases, its rivers and oceans clogged with plastic and crude oil, its animals dying, its cities drowning, as floods and famine and hurricane and arctic freezes deliver blow after blow to its staggering frame, bringing it slowly to its knees, to an undignified and premature death.

I have become used to these warnings, to the visions of catastrophe and desolation they induce. Rather, my imagination has tried and failed to reckon with the dimensions of the disaster that is supposedly foretold.  It has retreated to lesser challenges, to conceptualizing and grasping situations more easily brought within its confines.

There are times though, when the evidence for climate change strikes the right chords, when its associated images stand out, brighter and starker than ever. A few days ago, as I watched a documentary on the Alps, I learned once again about the phenomenon of The Receding Glacier: that sad, familiar tale of how these mighty rivers of ice, which once filled valleys and crept up their walls with their accumulated mass, dragging millions of tons of ice, mud, rock, and assorted debris hundreds of miles, forming striated bands of grey, black, and white visible from space, before terminating in lakes and bays and calving off into icebergs. were now melting, drying, and receding, becoming diminished and marginal and pathetic versions of themselves, forced back up the valleys that held them, slowly threatening to disappear, leaving behind scars and tracks of their once mighty presence.

I had heard this all before. It was happening in the Himalayas, in the Andes, in the Rockies. Every mighty mountain range on this globe was diminished. But that was not all.

As I watched the mouth of a glacier give birth to a small stream, which thanks to all the tributaries from other melting points joining it slowly turned into a mighty, frothy cataract speeding down one rapid after other, bringing life and seed and color to mountaintop and meadow and down-valley field, I realized what had happened. The glacier had given birth to a river, one which would become grand and ponderous, heading for its flood plains and delta flats before flowing into the ocean. On the way, it would play its part in sustaining the human communities it made its way through.

And those communities and lives and cultures would be the first ones to go when the rivers that had so animated their regions, watered and fed them and brought them to life, would die once the glaciers and the snowpacks that gave birth to them, and which resupplied them every year, would dry up and vanish. Somehow, I had not realized, when listening to stories of receding glaciers, that I was also being told about rivers drying up. It was only then, when I made the leap from rivers to cities that I also made the most uncomfortable connection of all: the end of glaciers sounded like the end of civilization. 


On Becoming Canadian

I’ve become Canadian. By that, I don’t mean that I’ve acquired Canadian citizenship, begun enjoying universal healthcare and ice hockey, started bragging about how much bigger Canadian grizzlies are than American ones or how much better Molson’s is than Miller’s. And so on. Rather, it’s just that I have become blasé about the cold weather that has been gripping the US East Coast this winter. And saying things like “This is such a beautiful day” on days when the temperature is just above freezing point.

There was a time, not so long ago, when temperatures below the freezing point were conversation-worthy and worth dressing up for. The thermometer would drop below 32F–or 0 C as we Canadians like to put it–and I would hasten to wear a pair of long-johns before heading out for the day. Hat and gloves were, needless to say, de rigeur. And on arriving at my destination, I would make sure to say something like “Damn, its freezing out there.” The roaring twenties induced this sort of reaction in me all too easily; the teens, ever so rare, provoked adjectives that were rather more extravagant.

But this winter, the twenties and the teens have been all too common, almost as common as the many, many snowflakes that have come drifting down from the heavens.  And indeed, so have single-digit temperatures. (Dropping as low as 2F or -19C at one point.) I know residents of the American Midwest and the great Canadian plains will snicker at this city slicker dropping these piddling temperatures about him like badges of pride. But trust me; I know why you feel that way now.

For now, I find myself increasingly unfazed by the cold. I don’t wear long-johns any more; I’ve just become used to a pair of frozen lower extremities. (Please don’t be distracted by the double entendre.) Hats and gloves, common accessories for the twenties, are now only so for the teens. And I hardly ever talk about the weather. (I just blog about it. The fact that the weather has made it to this blog should perhaps indicate that I’ve run out of things to say. That may be so.)

In this new, complacent-about-the-cold state, many deep thoughts occur to me: Is it true that cold is just relative? That man can get used to just about anything? (Nietzsche did say once that man could tolerate anything so long as he knew the ‘why’ of it. I have to admit that the technical details of this year’s cold snap, which involve depressing news about the melting of the Arctic ice cap, its effect on ocean currents, the jet stream, and masses of cold air sitting on Siberia, have certainly made this year’s cold comprehensible.) Will privation make me appreciate abundance? (That is, will this year’s spring or summer seem especially salubrious?)

I’ll admit that I don’t know the answers to these profound inquiries. I do know that the Niagara Falls are prettier on the Canadian side, that Wayne Gretzky is the greatest, and that everything tastes better with maple syrup.

Nationalism and Climate Change

Many contemporary commentators–sages all of them–have noted that the single most important barrier to expeditious action being taken on climate change is nationalism, that the prioritization of national priorities, the elevation of ‘local’ concerns–possibly short-term and limited in impact–over global ones would ensure failures of co-ordination between precisely those entities–nations–whose joint action is required to roll back the (almost literally) advancing tides.

There is little reason to contest this gloomy prognosis; climate change and global warming are not confined by national boundaries–indeed, they may be the most borderless of the many not-so-benign changes sweeping the globe–but strategies for combating them are. Some nations sign on to international treaty protocols to lower greenhouse emissions or impose carbon taxes; some do not. Some nations find their proclaimed aims of poverty alleviation and elevation of gross domestic product–that vital statistic which they have been trained and taught to treat as sacrosanct–dependent on the burning of fossil fuels, the depredation of rain forests and an increased pace of industrialization; yet others, having attained advanced stages of economic development on the back of precisely such strategies, and having found some of its blessings decidedly mixed, if not downright pernicious, have reluctantly cast about for alternative modes of engagement with the environment.

And because there is so much bad faith and so little trust in our cozy community of nations, there is little chance that the ‘do as we say, not as we have done’ injunctions flowing from the Developed North to the Developing South will succeed. More to the point, the Developed North often does not seem to take its own advice seriously, thus infecting its nostrums with a strong whiff of, at best, holier-than-thou hypocrisy, and at worse, malevolent conspiracy aimed at keeping the South where it has been all this while.

So, unsurprisingly:

After the dramatic collapse of the Copenhagen summit in 2009, there has been a retreat from the idea that climate change is going to be fought through international action. The talk has shifted to ‘voluntary national measures’ loosely coordinated at UN level.

Unsurprisingly, nationalism has found its usual ugly bedfellows in its push-back against the cautionary formulations of climate change worriers: the invocation of external threat and cultural superiority, xenophobia, racism, and perhaps most depressingly of all, a retreat to an atavistic skepticism about science. This blinkered anti-science attitude, with its rejection of overwhelming scientific evidence for retreating icecaps, elevated atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide and rising ocean waters, has been most visible in the US but it has its fans elsewhere, notably in Australia, whose prime minister, Tony Abbott, has acquired some notoriety for his incoherent views on climate change. Abbott has decided, for instance, that Australia does not need a national commission to inform and educate its citizens about, nor devise any strategies to combat, climate  change. As a result, for the first time since the 1930s–my Australian friends reliably inform me–Australia will not have a science minister in its federal government.

Nationalism–and its related ideologies–have had a lot to answer for during the almost unimaginably violent twentieth century; this may be its deadliest impact of all.

Creationism, Climate Non-Change, And All That

Phillip Kitcher‘s Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism (MIT Press, 1982) makes for depressing reading. Not because of any problems with its arguments, style, or content, but rather because, even as you read it, you realize that though the book was published in 1982, essentially the same points–in addition to others that would bolster the scientific standing of evolutionary theory–would have to be made today in any debate against creationists and their latest incarnation, the Intelligent Design-ers. Those folks are the Undead–zombies, vampires, take your pick–they won’t go away, they won’t stay down. And they certainly won’t listen to reason.

Kitcher’s thirty-one year old dismantling of creationist ‘arguments’ and polemics against evolution is careful and thoughtful and–though he occasionally lapses into an ironic or sarcastic aside–scrupulously fair to his opponents. I will confess that I have never read any creationist text in its entirety; my exposure to it over the years has been piecemeal, and perhaps the closest I’ve come to any serious engagement with its arguments was when I taught a section on intelligent design in my philosophy of biology class a few semesters ago. Thus, I was appalled to see the arguments that Kitcher set out to combat; their understanding of evolutionary theory being vanishingly small was the least of their errors. The sense of depression I alluded to above was exacerbated by the thought that a) book-length versions of this nonsense have been written, published and widely promulgated and b) they now require book-length refutations. (To Kitcher’s credit, his brief is literally so; it clocks in at a breezy two hundred or so pages.)

A dozen or so years ago, I saw an article in The Onion titled ‘Christian Right Lobbies To Overturn Second Law of Thermodynamics‘. An attached image showed a protester with a sign that read ‘I Don’t Accept the Fundamental Tenets of Science and I Vote’. I chuckled when I read the story and later that night, told a physicist friend of mine–he studied quantum many-body interactions–about it. His reaction was interesting; at first, he guffawed loudly, and then suddenly, he sobered up, his expression changing to one of concern and alarm as he said, ‘You know, that’s actually not funny. There really are people who think like that.’ Till then, I had been chuckling away too; on hearing this, I stopped. My friend was right; the Onion story was funny all right, but in a pretty disturbing way, one that reminds us that arguments like Kitcher’s–and many more that have been made since–need to be made and disseminated as carefully as they are because of a very particular context, one populated by a particularly intransigent mind-set.

The climate non-change folks aren’t quite yet at the level of those that resist evolutionary theory but they are getting there. Their attainment of that standard of hostility to empirical investigation and careful theorizing will be made visible to us–if it hasn’t already–by the marker indicated above: when they become the subject of an article in the Onion.

One that will make a scientist first laugh, and then grimace.

Procreating in a World With an Uncertain Future

A few days ago, Aaron Bady asked on Twitter:

Do people think about climate change when they think about whether or not to have kids? I m genuinely curious.

As might have been expected, this sparked an interesting set of responses. I thought of tweeting a reply, but then decided that I’d rather think about it and write a more considered response.

The short answer to Bady’s question is: Yes. I did think about it. The longer answer is, well, longer.

Our decision to have a child was a complicated one, as many such decisions are. The factors that went into our decision calculus were varied, as most people’s are: the economics of child rearing, the impact on our professional careers, the paucity of childcare options–especially as neither of us have family living in New York City that could serve as babysitters–and so on. These are almost identical to the issues that press most heavily on would-be parents in our socioeconomic class and circumstances. We are, of course, also a very privileged couple in many ways: for instance, we both have jobs that afford us some flexibility in working hours and offered us reasonably good deals for parental leave. (We both work in unionized workplaces, you see. Don’t hate us; just unionize your own.)

The factors I have mentioned above were supplemented by, in my case, a host of genuine worries that made me quite reluctant to have a child. It seemed to me that I would be bringing a child into a world that besides facing an uncertain future–precisely because of the climate change that Bady asked about–would be one infected by sexism, violence, rampant economic inequality, diminishing financial opportunity, religious fundamentalism, a crass consumer culture, and most prominently, a growing political-corporate nexus worldwide that aims to aggregate its power and entrench itself firmly in a position to control the world’s intellectual, cultural and material resources to the detriment of the ‘rest.’ This world didn’t seem like a great one to grow up in; it didn’t seem like a great world to function as a parent.

I don’t intend–in this highly public space–to ruminate about the excruciating, highly personal details of the discussions that finally prompted my wife and I to press on regardless and have a child. Suffice to say our decision  was just a little irrational, precisely because it felt compelling even in the face of so many perfectly rational arguments made against it. Parents who will read this line of mine might nod their heads in agreement; others’ mileage will vary.

Still, the natural, if man-made, disasters of climate change were, in the Great Procreation Decision balance sheet of ‘For’ and ‘Against’, less significant than the disasters–listed above–that are visible everyday. Perhaps that’s because the effects of climate change, manifested quite regularly and uncomfortably, are acute reminders that it is a man-made catastrophe, one requiring for its redressal, a kind of political change that would also address the weekday worries we entertained.

Now that I am the father of a girl, I worry far more about this world’s vicious sexism, its continued violent oppression of women, its day-in, day-out, active subjugation of women, the limited opportunities it offers them.

To sum up: we did think about climate change, even as other political, economic, and cultural factors seemed more pressing; we did go ahead and have a child anyway. I hope she finds our decision agreeable.

Sandy: Master Interdictor of Supply Chains

It was on Wednesday morning I finally began to understand New York City had been hit hard by Hurricane Sandy, because that symbol of the 24/7 city, the subway, wasn’t running. Since then, there have been dozens and scores of unsettling images: neighborhoods under water (if you can call a foul toxic sludge containing oil, trash, sewage and indeterminate chemicals, water), streets lined with destroyed household goods, city-dwellers suddenly made homeless, blocks-long lines of cars and pedestrians with plastic gas containers waiting for fuel pumps to service them.

I am one of the lucky ones: no loss of power or Internet service, no disruption to the heating (last week was not remarkably cold but those made homeless are now facing life-threatening conditions), no flooding or severe damage (but sadly, a couple of our neighborhood residents were killed last Monday night by a falling tree.) As a result, I rode out the storm in relative comfort, hunkering down at home with a well-stocked fridge and Netflix queue. While the day off from teaching on Monday was a little guilty pleasure, losing a second day of classes on Wednesday had become alarming.  Now, its pretty clear our academic calendar has taken a beating, and its unclear what sorts of rescheduling will be necessary later in the semester.

Somehow, through this all, the most unsettling image yet, was a row of empty food shelves at a coffee shop; on asking the barista why their normal snack offerings were not available, I was told it was because the usual deliveries were not being made by trucks.  At that moment, again, I became aware I lived on an island, one serviced by road and train connections to the ‘rest of the world,’ that bridges and tunnels were still lifelines for it, that most connections between its points occur in relatively mundane, non-glamorous, and as Sandy showed, eminently disruptable ways. It was at that moment too, that the fragility and contingency of our existence here became just a little clearer; I was reminded again of the logistical connections, of the coordinated work of hundreds and thousands of men and women that keeps everything  ‘normal’ on a day to basis: those trucks that make deliveries day and night, the gas that keeps them running (and that heats our buildings). All those supermarket shelves–normally bursting to the seams with packaged goods and produce efficiently delivered from afar–would rapidly empty, if the gas-tunnel-truck disruption continued. (For remember: we live on an island, we don’t grow our food around here.) This city is only able to play home to ten million people because a vast interdependent network of supply chains lets it do so.  And so again, that modern military cliché rears its head: amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics. In this battle with the elements, among other things, the opposing forces of Sandy showed quite convincingly they had the upper hand with their ability to interdict supply and logistics lines so easily and effectively, bringing one of the world’s largest and richest cities to its knees.