Aboard The Titanic (Again)

This is another of the several re-blogs I am posting in an effort to allow me time to collect those that seem to be the very best that I will include in an upcoming book. My hope it to whet your appetite!

Barbara Kingsolver’s excellent novels Flight Behavior is both disturbing and well worth reading. The reading goes slowly because the book, while extremely well-written, is so dense and so disturbing. One can take only so much at a sitting. This one is about climate change and the effect it is having on monarch butterflies. Actually, the odd behavior of the monarchs is the result of climate change and the stupidity of humans who have clear-cut a huge area in Mexico where the Monarchs usually Winter over. Because of the clear-cutting, torrential rains in that part of Mexico have destroyed the entire mountain area where the butterflies usually end their migration. As a result, they have found themselves in the Tennessee mountains and the question is “why?” The climate in southern Tennessee is not conducive to the survival of the butterflies over the Winter. Something has gone seriously wrong with the inherent navigational system they have relied upon for thousands of years, and the novel centers around a small group of people who are determined to discover the reasons and try to understand what is happening to their world — and to ours.

The novel’s focus is upon its hero, Dellarobia Turnbow, a young woman with very little education but a bright and inquiring mind, her slow-witted husband, and two very small children. They are dirt poor, but Dellarobia has discovered something extraordinary when she walks up on the mountain one day in a fit of despair over what she regards as a wasted life. She suddenly comes upon millions and millions of beautiful monarchs who have appeared from nowhere and seem determined to stay for a while. The novel recounts the results of her discovery: her mother-in-law’s determination to profit from the discovery by giving tours; her father-in-law’s determination to log the area for the money that he desperately needs after a series of financial disasters; Dellarobia’s fame as the news media seek her out and delight in romanticizing her story, without mentioning the terrible fact that there is something very wrong to bring those creatures to this place in such great numbers. But the discovery also brings a lepidopterist from New Mexico, an expert on Monarch behavior, with a small crew of three graduate students who are very much concerned to find out why this has happened.

I won’t spoil your surprise should you decide to read the novel, which I highly recommend to those with steady nerves. But at one point in the novel, after Dellarobia has gone to work for the scientific team helping with odds and ends around the laboratory they have set up in her barn, a discussion is taking place between the lead scientist, Ovid Byron, his somewhat cynical graduate assistant Pete, and Dellarobia. At one point Byron explodes in anger at Pete’s glib dismissals of the unconcerned,
“For God’s sake, man, the damn globe is catching fire, and islands are drowning. The evidence is staring them in the face.”
Later, Dellarobia reflects on the apathy of humans who choose to ignore the obvious.

“She spoke carefully to the room. ‘I think people are scared to face up to a bad outcome. That’s just human. Like not going to the doctor when you’ve found a lump. If fight or flight is the choice, it’s way easier to fly'”

The novel puts me in mind of a ride on the Titanic with all of us aboard. The captain and those in charge of the vessel have all the confidence in the world in the invincibility of this ship. After all, it’s the greatest thing men have come up with and the epitome of technological expertise. The passengers are all busy entertaining themselves in hundreds of different ways, in the lounge dancing and dining; in their staterooms making love or playing with their electronic toys (or both); a small group clusters in the stern, heads bowed in prayer, eyes shut tight, fingers in their ears; and a few scientists are standing in the bow of the ship pointing to the huge iceberg that is dead ahead and shouting against the wind. We all choose to ignore it, to “fly” as Dellarobia says, rather than fight. We are in group denial: it’s too painful to take into our consciousness. As she says, “It’s impossible.” So we continue to dine, dance, play with our toys, and keep our fingers firmly in our ears. The captain is certain that the ship can withstand any collision with an iceberg and denies that there is any real danger.

But there is danger; it is dead ahead, and we cannot survive if we continue to ignore it — especially since there are no lifeboats on this ship. The only possible option is for enough passengers to take the scientists seriously, band together and take control of the ship and steer it to safety. The question is whether enough people will realize that the scientists are right before it is too late.

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Rights Of Man

Back in the day when folks used the word “man” to denote all humans and before the rad-fems got their collective drawers in a bunch because they were convinced that the term was another sign of male dominance in their world, there was talk about the “Rights of Man.”  The doctrine was decidedly an Enlightenment concept and could be found in declarations from the French after their revolution in 1789 and was later to be found in the title of Thomas Paine’s famous book that attempted to encapsulate the rationale behind the American Revolution and the subsequent attempt to ratify a Constitution. It did not, of course, talk about the rights of the males of the human species. Rather, it spoke about the rights of all human beings — French or American, or anything else.

The recent movements the world over toward a new Nationalism is disturbing  on many levels, but most disturbing of all is its tendency to fly in the face of the notion that lies behind the declarations of the rights of all humans; namely, the notion that all humans regardless of race, color, creed, or sexual preference have the same rights. We see this in the recent decision of Great Britain to go it alone and separate itself from the rest of Europe and in the recent movement in this country to “Make America Great Again” by building a wall between the United States and Mexico and refusing sanctuary to those who have been displaced and are homeless. These attempts to isolate the countries reinforce the notion that England or the United States are somehow different from the rest of the world and, clearly, superior in that there is a thinly disguised jingoism hiding behind the movements. We don’t need you: stay away; we can go it alone.

This is absurd on its face, of course, because the economy of any single country these days is dependent on the rest of the world; but more important than that is the “hidden agenda” of jingoistic nonsense that denies the fundamental Enlightenment notion that all human beings have the same rights and while we are not the same in any other respect we are none the less the same in our right to be (as Kant would have it)  respected as “ends in ourselves.” Kant regarded this as the cornerstone of his ethical system: all persons are ends in themselves and ought never be treated merely as a means. That is, regardless of who we are we are not to be used or to use others “merely as a means” to our own ends. This undermines slavery, obviously, but it also undermines what has come to be called “discrimination” of any sort.

I have always thought Kant’s ethical system to be the strongest of any I have studied even though it places huge responsibilities on all of us to acknowledge the fact that other humans are basically the same as ourselves. It’s a truly Christian notion, of course, though Kant doesn’t couch his theory in the language of the New Testament. There is no talk about loving our neighbors. Still, he would insist that we must acknowledge our neighbor’s rights because they are the same as our own. The notion that we should build walls to keep them out, or that we should send people away because they practice another religion or seem to pose a distant threat because others who look like them pose a threat, is in direct contradiction to the fact that all humans have the same rights.  This is so despite the fact that we show ourselves ready at a moment’s notice to de-humanize other people by gearing up the propaganda machine and inventing pejorative names for the “enemy.”  After all, if they are the enemy then they are not really human and they are to be destroyed. War propaganda is a terrible thing, but in its way the movement toward Nationalism is a step in the same direction. It makes us out to be better than “them” no matter who “them” happens to be.

I am not naive and I do realize that others do not always recognize our rights and there are those in this world who would just as soon that we not exist and would love to make that happen. But we should never lose sight of the moral high ground and insist that any violence toward other people, in the form of walls or the nightmare of another war, should never be an option until all else has been shown to fail. There is no moral defense of war. When it happens it is always a matter of expedience and neither side is right if it is willing and able to kill those who wear a different uniform or have a darker skin, or practice a different religion. All humans have the same rights and we have a responsibility to recognize those rights until it has been demonstrated that they refuse to recognize ours. Even then, if he must, the soldier goes to battle with a heavy heart because he knows that what he does is wrong. And, in a small way, this is true of those who build walls.

It is one world and we are all in this together, like it or not. And we must always keep in mind that all humans have the same rights and no one has any sort of claim to be superior in any legitimate sense of that term to any one else.

Good Behavior

I taught ethics for many years. It was my area of primary study in graduate school; I wrote and defended a dissertation on the subject and later published a book trying to convince readers that one could think critically about ethical issues — one doesn’t simply have to go by hunches and gut feelings. But the thing I always found most difficult when teaching and thinking about ethical issues was how to close the gap between the determination of what is right and wrong and actually doing what one has decided is right.

For example, let’s say I live in a border state in the American Southwest. My government has decided to build a wall to keep the Mexicans out of this country and I am aware that the local police randomly arrest Mexicans off the streets, whether they are here legally or not, and keep them locked up for days at a time. I fear for the lives of my family because I am aware that many of these people who are here from Mexico are poor and unable to find work; as a result I worry that they are likely to steal from me and possibly harm my family. It matters not whether these people actually pose a threat to my family: what is important here is the perception that this may be so, because that is my primary motivation. In any event, I know that from an ethical perspective determination to keep “foreigners” out is wrong, as are the racial profiling and the false arrests. But I support the efforts of my government and the actions of the police because it seems to be a way to keep my family safe.

Note the conflict here between the ethical considerations of the rights of the Mexicans to share our way of life if they so choose — certainly as much right as we had, if not more, to take this country away from the native people. Human rights are based on the capacity to make moral choices, according to Immanuel Kant. And the Mexicans have that capacity as surely as I do. So, on the one hand, I must recognize their rights while, on the other hand, I experience fear and suspicion of those who are different from me and I support steps I know are wrong in order to keep my family safe. Here’s the gap between what I know is right and my ability to act on that knowledge. In the best of all possible worlds, where everyone does the right thing, I would welcome the Mexicans to my town and make an effort to ease their transition to a new way of life. But this is not the best of all possible worlds. This is the real world where people base their actions on perceived danger, real or not, and act out of ignorance or on impulse rather than on sound reasoning.

In my book I distinguish between justification, explanation, and rationalization in ethics. The first is the ability to find sound ethical reasons to support a claim. I know, for example, that the right thing to do in my example is to treat all humans, including “foreigners,” with respect. An explanation simply accounts for my determination to act as I do. I can explain my reluctance to welcome those who differ from me even though I cannot justify my actions: I fear for my family’s safety. And finally, I find it easy to rationalize my actions: it’s what everyone else is doing so why shouldn’t I? The latter is an attempt to find bogus reasons for  what we are inclined to do anyway. One would like to find sufficient justification for doing the right thing. But, as Dostoevsky noted in several of his novels, the problem is frequently not one of justification, explanation, or rationalization but of reconciliation —  to the fact that at times we must do the thing we know is wrong.

In the end the gap is still there. I may know what is right, but I am unable to do it even though I can rationalize and even explain it. I cannot justify my actions from an ethical perspective. I know I am not doing the right thing. Knowing what is right and doing what is right are two entirely different things. How to close the gap between thought and the real world which as Machiavelli tells us is full of humans who are “ungrateful, fickle, liars, deceitful, fearful of danger, and greedy of gain.” In the end  I have come to realize that this is not a philosophical problem; it is a psychological problem. Why do we find it so difficult to do the right thing?

Bad News, Good News

As one who tries to keep up with what’s going on in the world, especially the world of humans as they interact with the environment, I check out the Sierra Club’s monthly magazine column “Up To Speed” from time to time. In that column they list some of the more notable things going on around the world that affect us all. Let’s start with the bad news in the latest edition of the magazine.

Transcanada has bypassed a review by the State Department and announced that it will go ahead with the southern leg of the infamous Keystone XL pipeline. This project has the  qualified approval of President Obama which Republican opponents think is a stall until he is reelected. Let’s hope so. Candidate Romney has pledged to build the pipeline if he has to do it himself. Now there’s a thought!

Mexico’s most severe drought in history has left 2 million people in the north-central part of that country without water or the hope of it until the next rainy season — if it comes.

Satellite measurements indicate that from 2003 to 2010 earth lost 1,000 cubic miles of ice, enough to cover the United States in a foot and a half of water. In a related issue, the United States winter of 2011-2012 was the fourth warmest in recorded history while Europe experienced bitter cold that killed 650 people. Both phenomena can be directly linked to the loss of summer sea ice in the Arctic, though there are still those who deny global warming.

Warmer sea temperatures are extending the oxygen-less “dead zones” in the world’s oceans, causing sea life to squeeze together in narrower corridors to avoid suffocation. Meanwhile, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is acidifying the world’s oceans faster than at any time in the past 300 million years. And, again, there are still those who deny global warming. But there is also some good news, and I will turn to that.

The EPA has forbidden cruise ships and other large ocean-going vessels from dumping sewage within three miles of the California coast. And the Interior Department has banned uranium mining for 20 years on more than a million acres of public land surrounding Grand Canyon National Park. Also, the United States has become the first nation in the world to establish catch limits for every variety of fish it manages (46 varieties) in hopes of rebuilding depleted stocks.

The world’s largest offshore wind farm with more than 100 turbines producing 367 megawatts opened recently off the coast of Cumbria, England. It will eventually be eclipsed by the mammoth London Array with 175 turbines producing 1,000 megawatts. Meanwhile, pushed by Big Oil, the Congress in the United States debates ways to expand off-shore drilling for oil and gas. And the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has granted permits to the Southern Company to add two new nuclear reactors to its facility near Waynesboro, Georgia. If built, they would make these plant the largest nuclear facility in the country. This reminds me:  A 1987 Congressional report entitled “NRC Coziness with Industry” concluded that the NRC “has not maintained an arm’s length regulatory posture with the commercial nuclear power industry… [and] has, in some critical areas, abdicated its role as a regulator altogether.” The fox is watching the chicken coop, and apparently, the fox thinks accidents never happen. Not on our watch!

This last bit, of course, is not good news. So I lied: I ended up with more bad news. But there is hope as long as there is any good news to report amidst the reams of bad news — at least as it is perceived by those who worry about the planet we are supposed to care for.

Training Followers

Noam Chomsky has recently written an editorial attacking the American educational system for its many failures, not the least of which is the rise in tuition costs by 600% at public colleges and universities since 1980, driving many prospective students to on-line “education,” or mundane jobs. The public colleges and universities have indeed ceased to be public institutions, in fact, since students now pay for more than half of the cost of a degree at a public college or university.  And they leave college with huge debts. This contrasts interestingly with neighboring countries like Mexico where tuition costs in higher education are nominal or even free.

But Chomsky’s is a broader concern than the cost of public higher education, and his attacks on the education establishment for focusing attention on job training are on the money. As Chomsky says,  “Mass public education is one of the great achievements of American society. It has had many dimensions. One purpose was to prepare independent farmers for life as wage laborers who would tolerate what they regarded as virtual slavery.

“The coercive element did not pass without notice. Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that political leaders call for popular education because they fear that “This country is filling up with thousands and millions of voters, and you must educate them to keep them from our throats.” But educated the right way [they thought]: Limit their perspectives and understanding, discourage free and independent thought, and train them for obedience.”

This is precisely what job training does. One might quibble about whether America’s public education system is a “great achievement,” but leaving that aside, Chomsky’s charges are for the most part well founded. Indeed, he sounds much like Antonio Gramsci, the Italian radical socialist, in seeing the present emphasis on job training as turning out obedient followers who would do what their bosses tell them to do. This was Gramsci’s charge in the 30s in Italy — and we know how things turned out there! It remains true today in America.

Chomsky is also correct in seeing one of the main problems with education of late as “the corporatization of the universities. That has led to a dramatic increase in layers of administration, often professional instead of drawn from the faculty as before; and to imposition of a business culture of “efficiency” – an ideological notion, not just an economic one.” This, of course, explains much of the rise in tuition that Chomsky mentions above. I have addressed this in a previous blog, pointing out among other things how dangerous it is to allow the corporations into the schools under the pretense of wanting to help balance tight budgets. Corporations will at some point want to dictate curriculum, eliminating “useless” courses. Schools run as businesses with an eye on the bottom line will be “forced” to cut the programs that are the least popular — and most likely to educate the young (like physics and philosophy). As Chomsky notes in this regard, “The decision harms the society but conforms to the business ideology of short-term gain without regard for human consequences, in accord with the vile maxim.” In a word, schools err in blindly adopting the business model and in focusing their attention almost exclusively on job training. It benefits business but it does not benefit society.  Detractors will insist that what benefits business benefits the country — echoing Milton Friedman — but this is arrant nonsense.

Education is about helping young people take possession of their own minds, to become free and independent thinkers who can see through the bloat and rhetoric to the tender truth that hides within, or who have the wisdom and courage to reject out of hand the absurdities and blatant nonsense that overwhelm us in a “commodified” culture. Education is precisely the opposite of job training that stresses “know-how” and is designed to place a straight-jacket on the minds of the young so they can do one thing and do it well enough to please those who call the shots. When Chomsky suggest that  American public education was a “great achievement” he forgets that it has always been geared to turning out workers, not thinkers — as his own comment above about farmers as slave-laborers suggests. It’s just gotten worse of late. As Robert Hutchins said long ago, “we have no idea what education could do for us, because we have never tried it.”