HOW MANY IS TOO MANY, OR HOW OLD WILL YOU BE IN 36 YEARS?

By Paul

Climate change is in the news once again. And well it should be. The Huffington Post has reported that May, 2014 was the hottest May in recorded history, almost a degree and a half warmer than any previous reading for that month.

The good news, and there is a little, is that the Obama Administration has begun to take action. The President himself gave a speech over a year ago in which he laid out his own action plan. This was in part because efforts to get Congress to move in any positive way to make changes that would benefit the earth have come to naught. Many members of Congress, Republicans chief among them, deny either that the globe is warming at all, or that, if it is, the reasons for its warming have anything to do with human activity. Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA), for example, is on record as saying that “man-made global warming is a hoax.” Broun is also the same individual who said: ‘All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell.” And Rep. Broun, it should be noted, currently serves on the House Science Committee!

Small wonder, then, that the Administration has taken matters into its own hands in making attempts to mitigate climate change. Just this week, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and others from the White House are meeting with Tom Steyer and Hank Paulson, co-authors of a new report entitled “Risky Business,” which addresses the economic costs of climate change. Steyer is a billionaire activist and Paulson was Secretary of the Treasury under Pres. George W. Bush. Steyer has also pledged to spend 100 million dollars of his own money supporting politicians who take on issues related to the warming of the globe through his political action group NextGen Climate Action. Additionally, Secretary Lew, along with Atmospheric Administration head Kathryn Sullivan and FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate are holding talks with insurance company representatives regarding the anticipated impact and cost of atmospheric warming. The Environmental Protection Agency has also issued new guidelines related to the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere permitted from power plants, and the Supreme Court has recently determined most of these rules to be constitutional.

But while this may be the good news, unfortunately, plenty of bad news continues on unabated. I have recently been reading an interesting book called “Countdown” by Alan Weisman (also author of “The World Without Us,” which imagines the world, and its resurgence, after human beings become extinct). Weisman has a lot to say about where we are and where we are headed in regard to the effects of out-of-control population growth on climate change. What follows references just a small part of that report.

One essential question to investigate is: what is the optimum human population of the earth? This sounds simple enough, and to an extent it is, but it requires examining several other considerations before coming up with an actual number. The first of these prior questions has to do with the kind of lifestyle we are talking about for these earth inhabitants. And how, in fact, do we even measure something like lifestyle? One way that scientists have devised is by determining how many “terawatts” we use. A terawatt is a measure of how much energy is consumed by human beings (one terawatt equals one trillion watts). In 1993, a total of 13 terawatts of energy (13 trillion watts) were used by the earth’s 5 and a half billion people. In order to put this further into perspective, on average 7 and a half kilowatts of energy per person were used that same year by individuals in industrialized countries, and 1 kilowatt was used by each person in developing countries (all figures cited reflect standard forms of energy production, such as oil, natural gas, etc.). If these numbers are extrapolated and we assume continued current population growth, sometime this century (projected at the moment to be around 2082) there will be 14 billion people on the earth. Just for fun, go to www.census.gov. and take a look at something called the World Population Clock. You will note that right now we are at 7,174,896,000 people, and counting. It’s amazing, not to say daunting and even frightening, to see the numbers fly by on this clock, as you sit and watch.

But let us take a smaller number, say 10 billion people, and let us posit as an average 3 kilowatts per capita of energy usage. This still puts us at 30 terawatts (again, 30 trillion watts). At this level, and possibly even before, world systems begin to teeter. Indeed, some scientists predict a complete breakdown of the ecosystem. When will we reach that 10 billion number? No one knows precisely, as there are so many variables to calculate, but estimates put us somewhere between 9 and 9.7 billion people on the planet by the year 2050. That’s just 36 years from now. How old will you, or your children, be in 36 years? This is a question each of us should be asking ourselves, and we ought to be wondering what kind of world we will be living in at that date. And remember, these figures are relatively conservative, in that they posit a decrease of energy usage by some 4 and a half kilowatts per person for those in industrialized countries. This number is, however, actually achievable, if we continue, as we have, to work on ecologically friendly alternatives to energy production.

But we still have not answered our initial question, namely, what is the optimum world population? Again, we must make certain assumptions, the most important of which relates to the kind of lifestyle we wish to live. The 3 kilowatt per person figure mentioned above is not a bad one for such purposes, in that it is probably achievable, and it evens out energy usage between the industrialized world and the developing world. And surely we must assume that billions of people in the developing world (e.g. China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, just to name a few) are going to want, even to demand, more and more of what people in industrialized countries have for decades been enjoying.

For us to use 3 kilowatts of energy per person in order not to irreparably damage the ecological systems of the planet, that is, for us to expect a sustainable future for ourselves and our children, the optimum world population has to be about 2 billion people. This was approximately the number of people on earth in the year 1930.

In that year, the world used 2 terawatts of energy. But, we should bear in mind, it was also a world without all of the gadgets modern people have come to expect as part and parcel of a modern lifestyle: televisions, computers, cars and air travel for the masses, smart phones, tablets, central heating, air conditioning, and on and on. All of which are enormous energy consumers.  Calculating all this together, we reach an even smaller sustainable number of individuals on the earth. In other words, if we wish to continue using our cars and our computers and all of the rest listed above, the number of kilowatts needed gets raised to 4 and a half per person. And at 4 and a half kilowatts per person, the sustainable population of the earth drops to 1 and a half billion people!

How we are to bring the earth back to such numbers, particularly with the Rep. Paul Brouns of the world in charge, is another question. But clearly something has to be done. China started that process decades ago, and has made great progress with its one child per family policy, but is the rest of the world willing to put up with this kind of social engineering?   And religions abound which label it as sinful to “artificially limit” the size of one’s family.

Yet another question we have not explored is, if we presume that we will not reach this sustainable world population of 1 and a half billion people, or at least not any time soon, and if we continue on more or less as we are, what will human dominance of the planet look like in terms of space for other species? And here’s a self-centered question, if ever there was one, although it’s equally germane to human survival: if we have to say that some species on the planet “must go,” which ones go, and which ones do we allow to live, precisely because they are beneficial to human life? These are not just hypothetical questions at this point in history. They are real queries that will need to be answered, and answered before too long.

It is also true that the figures given by Alan Weisman are not necessarily the only numbers that scientists can spin. Even so, it does not take an advanced degree in demography to be able to see that more people means more demands on a limited number of resources. At some point, whether it’s in 2050 or 2082, or a bit sooner, or a bit later, some kind of tipping point will be reached. Maybe you will not be living at that time. I think I can say pretty surely that I will not be. But what of your children, and their children, and what of the other creatures on the planet, who have done nothing to contribute to the current mess we are in?

What can be said probably without much doubt is that, absent an almost inconceivably disastrous population reduction due to war or plague, a day of reckoning will finally come. And would it not be better to take steps now, while we still can, to stave off what none of us wants to see our offspring have to deal with?

LAST CONFESSION: AT THE INTERSECTION OF POWER AND RELIGION

By Paul

Last weekend, my partner and I went to see a production of Roger Crane’s “The Last Confession,” a play that recounts the events surrounding the death in 1978 of Pope Paul VI, the election of his successor, John Paul I, and then the subsequent death of the latter only 33 days after his election. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, or who is otherwise unfamiliar with the story, here is a quick summary.

Paul VI’s 15 year reign largely undid many of the liberal gains made by Vatican II, the General Council of the Catholic Church (1962-1965) that had been called by Pope John XXIII. The election of the liberal-minded John Paul I in 1978 to succeed Paul VI held out the promise that many of these liberal reforms, scuttled by his predecessor, might be reinstated. It also became clear at the same time that the new pope might deal with some of the many scandals surrounding the Vatican Bank, which had been accused of money laundering and other financial dirty dealing, as well as possible Mafia connections. John Paul I had, in fact, intended to make a number of shocking changes in regard to the Curia, the archconservative administrative arm of the Vatican, including who headed the Vatican Bank. However, the night before he was to make these changes public, he suddenly and unexpectedly died of a heart attack. He had never complained of prior heart problems, nor did he have any medical history of heart disease. In fact, it appeared that he had been in excellent health. Additionally, there were questions as to who found the dead pope, exactly when that was, and what he had been reading at the time of his death, that is, whether it was reports on these Church problems he had been wrestling with, as the moderates believed, or the Imitation of Christ, a medieval devotional book, as the conservatives maintained. Some of the more moderate cardinals, headed by Giovanni Benelli, Cardinal Archbishop of Florence (portrayed in the play by David Suchet, of Hercule Poirot fame) called for an investigation. But powerful members of the Roman Curia put an early stop to this, and eventually Benelli himself, and his moderate supporters, agreed that it would be better “for the good of the Church” not to insist on an autopsy, in spite of persistent rumors of poisoning that circulated in the aftermath of John Paul ’s death. As a result, John Paul I was quickly buried and no investigation was ever undertaken. Many years later, just before Cardinal Benelli, himself, died of a heart attack, he destroyed all of his notes (his “Last Confession”) on the events leading up to John Paul I’s death.

These are the barebones of the story. Theatrically, there is a lot more to tell, including the complicated role played by Cardinal Benelli, who had in effect been king-maker (i.e., pope-maker) in both papal conclaves, the one leading up to the election of John Paul I, and later to that of his successor, John Paul II. In fact, Benelli came within just a few votes of becoming pope himself.   But what may be of greater interest here is to examine the general themes of the play, rather than delving into the convoluted political ins and outs of the Vatican, as played out between conservative and moderate cardinals. And what more obvious theme can we point to than that of a naked grab for power, on the one hand, and the difficulty in defining the intersection between power and religion – to say nothing of spirituality – that is perhaps the hallmark par excellence of politics in the Vatican?

The desire for power is hardly a new theme, either in the theater or in life, itself. And as one character says to Cardinal Benelli early on in the play, “Be careful of power. Your punishment may be finding it!” There is probably many a politician, looking back on a long career wielding power and being affected for good and for ill by it, who may understand this admonition only too well. Such a person would likely understand not just the admonition, but the limitations of power. No doubt, presidents often go into the White House at the beginning of their term, eager to make a difference and chafing at the bit to make use of the awesome power of the office, only to realize soon enough just how restricted that power ultimately is. Popes, too, find themselves faced with a similar conundrum. In this sense, the Holy Father is as strong, or as limited, as his Curia allows him to be. Even popes have to work with their collaborators, whether they be friendly or unfriendly, or whether he agrees with them or not, or they with him.

In his famous 1919 modernist poem, “The Second Coming,” the great Irish writer William Butler Yeats examines these notions of power. As he says: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…The ceremony of innocence is drowned…The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” Is this not something we see over and over again related to the acquisition of power, that those least prepared for it, those most prone to its excesses, are the ones who often seek to achieve it?

Yeats was probably talking most directly about the horrors of the First World War, or perhaps even more directly still about recent unsuccessful attempts in Ireland to throw off the colonial grip that Great Britain had had on it for centuries. But, as with all great poems, his Second Coming also speaks to the millennium.

Which leads us back to the notion of the intersection between power and religion. It has always seemed to me that the two go together hand in glove. What, for example, was Jean Paul I trying to change, or to restore? For one thing, it’s clear that he was attempting to reinvigorate the debate within the Church on birth control within marriage, which many bishops and theologians attending Vatican II wished to discuss during the Council (remember that “the pill” had just come into popular use in the early 1960’s). As such, John XXIII had established a Pontifical Commission on Birth Control in 1963, which was to report to the Council. No one knows how John XXIII would have come down on this important issue, since he died before either the commission or the Vatican Council could complete its work. However, to be sure, Paul VI soon quashed all descent, and in 1968 issued one of the most famous and far-reaching of 20th century encyclicals, entitled “Humanae Vitae” (Latin for “Of Human Life”), which fully reaffirmed traditional Catholic teaching related to sex in marriage, and roundly condemned all forms of artificial birth control. This remains orthodox Catholic teaching up to this very day, even though a recent Gallop poll affirms that some 78% of US Catholics (more in Europe) support the use of modern birth control.

Perhaps not much has changed between Jean Paul I’s uninvestigated and even questionable death and the present day when, in spite of the kinder and gentler exterior exhibited by Pope Francis, Church dogma and teaching remain the same. Which might make us question the reality of the new pope’s supposed liberal intentions. He has, after all, declared himself to be “a true son of the Church,” and who knows if he will ever address some of the sweeping changes that Jean Paul I spoke of before his untimely death?

Yeats says, “The darkness drops again,” and at the end of his poem he asks “what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” Bethlehem was the place of Christ’s birth, but the poet speaks here instead of some rough beast. Could this be a reference to the lower parts of ourselves, filled with desire and fear, eager to control others and the world around us? Is this, once again, the intersection of power and religion that has plagued us from the beginning?  Or, instead, might a visionary poet not equally be speaking of a rebirth, a Second Coming, admonishing each of us, churchmen and laity alike, to rise above our humble beginnings, our primitive urges, and to live a life beyond that all too human need for power, or even perhaps for religion itself?

TO TENURE OR NOT TO TENURE, THAT’S THE QUESTION

By Paul

As an administrator at one of the largest state universities in California for almost 20 years, I had the opportunity to work with many wonderful faculty members. The great majority were fine, dedicated men and women, learned in their specializations and eager both to contribute to their field through scholarly and creative activities of their own, and to share that learning with students. Most of those whom I knew were very good people, cultured, knowledgeable, and even erudite. They did their utmost to contribute to students, to their field, to the university at large, and to the wider world, and it was a pleasure, even an honor, to work with them.

There were, however, some who did not fit the above laudatory description. Some whom I knew personally, and others who were known to me through reports or simply by way of reputation, were slackers of the worst kind. Once having attained tenure, these few either barely did the minimum required of them, or in some cases even brought a kind of moral harm to the students whose educational lives were entrusted to them. But in all cases, the good, the bad, the mediocre, and the excellent, the benefits and protections of tenure covered everyone.

Just recently, the system of tenure was challenged in a California court, although not in regard to university faculty. Instead, the matter in question was tenure for primary and secondary school teachers, as much as the basic issues and questions related to tenure in general may be very similar. A ruling this past Tuesday, June 10, 2014 by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu found the system of tenure, as well as several other protections enjoyed by teachers, to be unconstitutional. The reason given for the finding was that the system especially harmed low-income students by allowing incompetent teachers to remain in the classroom. The same ruling also affects the practice of laying off teachers during hard economic times based solely on when they were hired (the so called last-hired first-fired method).

Focusing for the moment on the question of tenure at the primary and secondary level, here in California the only bar that teachers have had to reach is to remain in their position for some 18 months. If they make that cut off, then they are virtually in for life, since firing them for negligence or incompetence has proven extremely difficult, time consuming, and expensive. And it was for these reasons that suit was brought on behalf of several middle school students by a group called Students Matter, an organization itself funded by wealthy tech entrepreneur Dave Welsh.

Teachers unions argued vehemently that such a change would punish the vast majority of teachers, who do excellent work, and who are fully dedicated to their students. And I think that few people who know a teacher would disagree that many, indeed most people who go into teaching as a career, do so for high-minded, altruistic reasons. Unions argued further that, so far from excelling, students frequently continue to fail at learning the basics not because of uninterested or incompetent teachers, but because of larger societal issues having little to do with the classroom itself. And it surely is true that parents in particular, as well as school administrators, must do more to support students and teachers alike. Not even the best teacher can help a student learn, if that student comes to school hungry, or physically and mentally exhausted because of a chaotic home life, or if an unbalanced student is filled with rage and bent on disruption, or worse. And so safeguards must absolutely be in place to protect teachers who work hard, but whose students nonetheless fail for reasons other than what takes place in the classroom.

Even so, the question remains, is tenure the best policy given the fact that there are some teachers (estimates vary from 1% to 3%), who really ought to be let go? In fact, is the current system even that good for teachers who do work hard, excel in their profession, and have the best interest of their students at heart, given the fact that these very teachers must sometimes work alongside very poor ones, or may themselves be let go in tough fiscal times because they do not have sufficient seniority?

Union representatives have argued that the ruling is anti-teacher. But perhaps it is not so much anti-teacher as it is pro-student. Even a few percentage points in a system the size of the Los Angeles Unified School District represents thousands of teachers. And can there ever be a reason to keep in place teachers who do not do their jobs, when so much is at stake not only for the students as individuals, but for the state, and for society as a whole?

I have never seen estimates of tenured university professors who fail to do their jobs, but can it be any less than the 1% to 3% of primary and secondary school teachers? Probably not, judging simply from the anecdotal evidence I have seen over the years – tenured professors, for example, who come to class uninterested and unprepared, who rush in and rush out of the classroom, who spend only a few hours a week on campus, or who even have whole other jobs that interfere with and take away from the teaching they are paid to do.

One of the strongest arguments for tenure has always been that it protects the academic freedom of faculty and allows them to pursue ideas and research that may be unpopular with or even antagonistic to those in power. University professors do, as a matter of fact, go through a greater degree of scrutiny, a more stringent vetting process, than primary and secondary teachers, before they are awarded tenure. Not only must they prove themselves to the administration, but to a jury of their peers, as well. Additionally, in most universities, especially ones that emphasize teaching as much as research, student evaluations also form part of that vetting process, as does working with the local community.

In my experience, in all the years that I spent as an administrator – and I sat in on many high-level meetings – I never once heard a single word spoken which might in any way be construed as negative toward a faculty member because of the research or creative work she or he was pursing. Of course, it may rightly be argued that no such word was spoken BECAUSE faculty had tenure, and because everyone knew that you could not get rid of a “gadfly” (as Plato says in his “Apologia” – that annoying person who loves to provoke others), even if you wanted to. Still, the question remains, is it not possible to imagine that there may also be other ways to protect faculty from arbitrary or “politically correct” firing than tenure? And shouldn’t there be ways to get rid of what is sometimes referred to as “deadwood,” that is, faculty members who weigh down and clog up the system through their disinterest or ineptitude? Again, when the best interest of students is in the fore, or even when the very nature of academic and scholarly or creative work is at stake, why should an institution dedicated to learning be saddled with, and unable to get rid of indifferent, apathetic, or downright recalcitrant members of the faculty?

I do not expect any time soon to see a judicial ruling that would address these questions related to university faculty, the way one recently has been handed down concerning primary and secondary teachers. And again, perhaps that is just as well. As noted, the process of attaining university tenure truly is more rigorous than it is at other levels of education. And in it, individuals who prove themselves not to be appropriate sometimes are rooted out. Though this still does not explain away or right the wrong of those who have attained tenure, but who then either comfortably coast, or do actual harm to their students.

For now, it may be enough that the question related to tenure for primary and secondary teachers has been raised so forcefully and so publicly. The battle is not over. Teachers Unions have vowed to appeal and to fight the ruling at the next level of the courts, and that is as it should be. Such important questions deserve as wide a discussion and review as possible, before decisions are made that will affect the lives of many people. Whatever the final decision may be, though, let us hope that it redounds to the best interest of students. Indeed, it must be our wish that, in the end, it will be our students, and the wonderful teachers who truly dedicate themselves to the education of these students, who will come out as the winners.