TRYING TO KEEP AN EYE ON THINGS

By Paul M. Lewis

You know you’re getting old when… I suppose there’s an endless string of completions that could be made to that sad beginning.

I was faced with one of my own the other morning when I woke up, opened my eyes, and saw a weird kind of amorphous, squiggly, circular outline dancing in the center of my vision. I remember saying to myself, “I don’t think that was there yesterday, was it?” As if some other person, other than the I of the dancing squiggle, might have been there to answer. The reply came back swiftly enough as a fairly definite “no, not that I recall!”

So, what to do, I wondered. Should I just ignore it and hope really hard that it would go away? This is a strategy that has worked for me in the past, sometimes with better results than others, to be sure. Or should I mention it to my partner? That, I knew, could have only one consequence: he would insist that I call the eye doctor as soon as his office opened up and try to get an appointment. And not that he wouldn’t have been right about it. Sometimes I may have the tiniest tendency to procrastinate, especially when it comes to dealing with doctors.

In this case, however, it was clear even to me that I really had to act. The background is that, for whatever reasons of genetics, or karma, or just the simplest of unfortunate happenstances, I was born with amblyopia in one eye. Sometimes called “lazy eye,” amblyopia is a condition wherein the brain favors the stronger eye over the weaker one. It can be corrected, if caught in childhood, which mine unfortunately was not. This means that my vision today mostly relies on my one good eye. I’m more or less legally blind in the other, and it was of course the good eye that now displayed the wavy lines.

I won’t go into a lot of detail about the visit to the doctor’s office. Suffice it to say that I did get in the same day, and he told me that this is just something that happens as people get older. Something about the vitreous humour, the clear gel between the lens and the retina, pulling away from the back of the eye. Most of the time, the moving circle that results eventually goes away, but you never know how long it may take, and if there are other symptoms, worse ones (e.g., exploding lights, whole darkened areas), then I needed to call him anytime, night or day, which I have to admit got my attention. I pictured myself no longer able to drive a car, maybe even not able to go to the gym anymore because I couldn’t make out the machines, or at least the buttons and levers you need to make the machines operate. I imagined bumping into grumbling people, while I stood there mumbling, “Oh, very sorry, but I can’t see a damn thing.” And what about reading? My God, what about reading?

The good news is that my worst fears have not come true, at least not yet. The darkened outline of the jostling circle seems to be diminishing. As a result, I’m having fewer fantasies about running into people while attempting to get on the treadmill. Still, all this makes me wonder: Is the body beginning to fall apart? In one sense, I suppose the answer is as simple and direct as, yes, absolutely! It could be said that the body begins to fall apart as soon as we’re born. It’s just that the process starts to get more apparent when you enter into your 70’s. Who ever called these the golden years?

All of this made me reflect further about the whole notion of what it means to fall apart. There’s a scientific term referring to this sort of thing that I have long been fascinated by. It’s called “entropy.” Stephen Hawking defines entropy as “a measure of the disorder of a physical system.” He goes on to talk about entropy as it relates to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which he defines as “the law stating that entropy always increases and can never decrease.”

That’s technical speak, of course, but here’s my take, using less scientific verbiage. What we’re talking about is the increasing unavailability of a system’s energy source and the gradual decline of that system into disorder. In other words, the demise of the body’s physical energy, the slow and steady contracting of the circle of life, ending in the diminution of our physical abilities as we age. When we’re young and full of energy, we’re eager to explore the world, to make our mark, to do something that makes a difference. With age, the energy it takes to do such things becomes less available. In extreme old age, or catastrophic illness (whichever comes first), we no longer have any energy at all to expand outwardly. Everything becomes focused inward.

This is what it means for a body when entropy begins to set in. At first, the gel of the eye pulls away from the back of the socket, creating peculiar shadowy shapes. If we’re lucky, that eventually dissipates. If not, it pulls away, tearing the retina and causing permanent damage to your ability to see and interact with the world out there. But note the part about being lucky. Is it really true, does chance, or random happening, have anything to do with entropy? It might in the detail of it, that is, in terms of how things happen (such as wavy lines in front of your eyes, or something else), but not in terms of its ultimate eventuality. As Hawking says, entropy always has its way.

Even so, the bigger issue isn’t so much about it simply happening, but about whether or not there is a larger, a greater scheme of things, a plan that our lives follow that has a meaning we can point to, beyond the stark imposition of natural law in our lives. These are questions that science has nothing to do with. Does religion, or philosophy, or even mysticism? That’s a question only each of us can answer on his or her own.

Who knew that waking up one fine day and seeing zigzaggy, undulating lines could bring about such thoughts? Even if the lines do go away, as I think mine are, or eventually will, it leaves me to wonder when some other morning will come when I might wake up and something is there that won’t go away. When will entropy finally catch up with my personal system, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics begin to exert its final, inexorable effects? As in physics, so in life, there are no reprieves from such laws.

Steven Hawking comes to mind yet again while reflecting on all of this. There’s someone who really understands entropy, not just in the abstract, scientific sense, but in terms of what it has done to his body. Talk about disorder and the break down of a physical system! How has he handled it? How has he managed to hold things together all these years? I don’t know him, but I can only imagine that it is surely with determination, definitely with dignity, and probably even with a measure of humor.

To me, this raises the question of whether there’s an even more fundamental law of the universe, one that charges us with facing our inevitable disbanding, the failing of our personal physical universe, and the release of the atoms of our bodies into the cosmos; in other words, the dissolution of our bodies. Human laws can be broken, even if there may be consequences to pay. The physical laws of the universe cannot be. They are inexorable, fixed forever, inevitable, utterly inescapable.

Whether there are yet other laws still, higher ones if you will, that require us to face ultimate questions of meaning, of purpose, or of cosmic design, is again up to each of us to answer on our own. But in the end, what could be more worth our time to look into? My own hope is that, maybe someday, I will get to see beyond the entropy of physical systems, past the universal laws of dissolution and disintegration into something higher and grander, something permanent and unmoving, beyond questions of unwinding or decay. Call these laws what you will, the word matters little, but this is what I would like to catch a glimpse of, wonky eye and all.

THE POPE’S CALL TO ACTION–MUCH THAT IS GOOD, AND SOME THAT IS LEFT OUT

By Paul M. Lewis

Pope Francis’ encyclical, “Laudato Si” (meaning “Praise be”), is a stirring reminder of the harm that human beings are doing to the environment in which we live and a call to action for us to change. In doing so, he has incurred the ire of climate change disbelievers, who claim that there is no credible evidence at all that the globe is warming, or that, if it is warming, it’s because of normal climate cycles as seen in the past, and that humans have nothing whatsoever to do with these changes. Pope Francis addresses these criticisms upfront when he says: “Numerous scientific studies indicate that the major part of global warming in recent decades is due to the high concentration of greenhouse gas…emitted above all because of human activity.”

It should be noted that the pope is speaking as a religious leader with a specific point of view, using the language of scripture and of Catholic theology, and not necessarily as a liberal politician or climate change activist. That said, it is true enough that there are times when the ideas, and even the terminology, of these various groupings may overlap and agree with one another. And this can only be for the good. An example of such a convergence is when Pope Francis talks about the grave implications of climate change. “Each year,” he points out, “sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever,” or again when he says that access to safe drinkable water is “ a basic human right.” These are areas of concurrence wherein politicians (most, at any rate), scientists, and climate activists can readily agree with the leader of the Catholic Church. Even so, it’s worth noting the essential anthropocentric nature of the pope’s statements. Animals are presented as creatures that humans will or will not see, not as creatures with their own right to live and prosper apart from human concerns, and water is a thing for human consumption. This may sound like mere quibbling within the larger context of the aims of such an important encyclical and the ultimate good it may bring about, but it does shed some light on a particular point of view. Humans may be the source of the problem, and of the solution, but they are nonetheless still very much at the center of things.

The major environmental argument used by the pontiff, the encasement in which it is packaged, is essentially a moral one. This fits in quite well with the general themes of his papacy, namely, care for the poor and dispossessed and respect for life. He points out time and again in the encyclical that those most affected by the disastrous warming of the globe, initially so at least, are those who live on the margins of society, those who do not have the time, the money, or the resources to work on mitigating the ill effects that will come, in ways that the more affluent of the globe might be able to deflect (again, at least until things get to the point where even the rich are overwhelmed). He castigates—rightly so—the selfishness and greediness of human beings in wanting more and more, far beyond what is needed even for what might be called a normally comfortable life, and for living in bubbles of technology that ever increasingly cut us off from most of the natural world. And as such, although it may not be easy, he urges us to make changes in how we live and in the amount we consume: “Every effort to protect and improve our world entails profound changes in lifestyles, models of production and consumption, and the established structures of power which today govern societies.”

The ethos of the modern world, in general, comes in for blistering criticism. There is, the pope tells us, an ever-increasing desire on the part of human beings for instant gratification, and a growing self-obsession that always puts the individual first, not just before other people, but well in front of any other living creature. He blames this on the excesses of individualism, and on the insistence that the “I” must always come before the “we.” Happiness is too often seen as depending almost entirely on the fulfillment of one’s own needs and desires, rather than on any kind of open and sharing inclusion in the collective. I have no quarrel with any of this. I also believe that we humans have far too often overshot the boundaries of our own impulses and cravings. The world, as a result, can no longer sustain the growing demands of individuals who are inordinately and unhealthily interested in acquiring more and more, in order to feel as though they are full and complete.

But what I do hold issue with in regard to the pope’s environmental declamation is what he leaves out. Nothing is said in the encyclical, for example, suggesting a cutting back on the consumption of meat, which would immediately decrease the number of animals raised for human consumption. Not only are current practices unsustainable at present rates in terms of how to feed these animals (in general, it takes 20 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of edible beef), but it also does not address the enormous problem of the emission of methane from animal waste. Estimates at the lower end of the range suggest that livestock account for a minimum of 18% of global greenhouse gas. Some experts put that estimate far higher—at close to 50%. And don’t forget that methane has 23 times the global warming potential of CO2.

Even more importantly, the pontiff omits any mention of the overwhelmingly devastating effects that the sheer numbers of people have on global ecosystems. Nowhere in “Laudato Si” do we read that it is time for humans to have fewer children. Nor does the pope say a word about the Church’s continued emphasis on banning all forms of artificial birth control, or indeed, on its unyielding insistence that such methods are outrightly sinful. How can he in good conscience leave out such an obviously crucial component in a rational, and even a moral, effort to argue against the human-induced warming of the globe? The world currently has 7.3 billion people in it. Realistic projections regarding growth put the global population at 9.6 billion by 2050, and at somewhere between 11 and 12 billion by the end of the century. How, in anyone’s calculations, can it be said that this squares with the “basic human right” for drinkable water, or for the “thousands of plant and animal species” which our children will never see? Are uncontrolled rates of birth not their own kind of excessive human self-centeredness?

Clearly, this is an important omission, as it obviously does not align well with Catholic doctrine or belief. And yet, in spite of such an extremely unfortunate exclusion, we must pleased with what the pope has said. Very few global leaders have taken on this vital issue as head on as he has, and he is to be congratulated and thanked for doing so. We can only hope that the moral authority of his person and his position will bring about an open and honest dialog regarding what we need to do and the changes that must be made. The poor surely are at greatest immediate risk, to say nothing of the creatures of the earth who have every bit as much a right to live and prosper as do humans. But beyond that, all life—human and non-human alike, that of the rich as much as that of the poor—is potentially threatened. As the pope aptly concludes: “Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age. But we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.”

This has been said before, but perhaps never more forcefully, or with such moral authority. The pope is right. Now, not later, is the time to act.

WATER, WATER NO WHERE

By Paul M. Lewis

To say that California is dying of thirst may be something of an overstatement, but there is no argument that the state is becoming more and more parched. The statistics don’t lie. Average rainfall has been off significantly for the last several years, and most disastrously the Sierra snowpack is so low as to be almost nonexistent. The annual measurement at Phillips Station, for example, just off of Highway 50, would normally put snow levels at above 66 feet for this time of year. Instead, it is now completely devoid of any snow whatsoever. What this means, for anyone unfamiliar with how things work here, is that the snow that normally accumulates in the higher levels of the Sierra Nevada mountains and slowly melts as the weather warms up, giving us lowlanders the benefit of regular runoff, is simply not there. That’s bad news for residents, for agriculture, and for all living things.

Just last week, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency and mandated a 25% reduction in water usage. Given record low rain and snowfall amounts, this is neither unexpected, nor unwarranted. We all have to do our part. Homeowners must reevaluate those thirsty, lush green lawns so favored by most of us, and we’d all do well to be thinking of replacing them with native, drought-tolerant plants. Even restaurants are being told that customers should only get a glass of water with dinner if they specifically ask for it.

But is everybody doing their part equally? It seems as though that hasn’t been true at the residential level, for one. Wealthier enclaves such as Beverly Hills and Newport Beach use far more water per capita than lower socioeconomic areas. And it’s not just because of those big swimming pools in their big backyards either. Take a drive around and compare the sumptuous lawns of Beverly Hills to what you see in Compton or Santa Ana. First of all, there are far more apartment buildings in poorer areas, but even single family dwellings in less affluent parts of town tend to have browner front lawns. Who knew that it wasn’t just politics, but water too, that followed the money?

As striking as some of this is, residential/urban use accounts for only about 20% of water allocation in the state. Included in this number is approximately 6% for industrial usage (it’s also interesting, by the way, to note that half of residential usage goes for outside watering). But agriculture uses up the remaining 80%, even if not all agriculture is equal. Here are a few interesting statistics:

COMPARISON OF WATER USAGE (in gallons per pound)

  • beef—1847 vs. chicken—518
  • almonds (shelled)—2126 vs. walnuts (shelled)—1226
  • rice—287 vs. corn—161
  • brussel sprouts—258 vs. broccoli—34
  • grapes—80 vs. potatoes—38
  • green beans—74 vs. carrots—26
  • eggplant—48 vs. tomatoes—26

In other words, it’s not just whether we do away with our lawns, or take shorter showers, or wash our cars a lot less often that makes a difference. Our choices as to what we consume also have an impact. The Los Angeles Times did a very interesting spread in their April 4, 2015 edition, in which they showed a photo of a plate of food. On the plate were pictured the following: an 8 oz. steak, 6 oz. of rice, 8 oz. of lettuce (i.e. a salad), and a 4 oz. glass of wine. The total water footprint for this meal comes in at just over 116 gallons of water—102 gallons of which are accounted for simply by the steak alone. So suggestions about cutting back on how much meat we consume, beef in particular, are reasonable from many different perspectives.

California, a state where every area is in severe, extreme, or even exceptional drought, currently provides 25% of food consumed in the United States. And yet, agriculture represents less than 2% of GSP (Gross State Product). But 85% of the Sacramento Irrigation District’s acreage is devoted to the production of rice, one of the thirstiest of cultivated plants. Does that make a lot of sense, at a time when mandatory water rationing is taking place for residential users? Almonds, too, another staple of state agribusiness, bringing in almost 6 billion dollars a year, require a gallon of water per single almond produced.

When Gov. Brown was asked recently if the state ought to be telling farmers what crops to raise and which ones not to, his reply was that it was not up to government to tell people (i.e. agribusiness) what to grow. But why not? Government regulates business all the time. Just ask the Better Business Bureau what it thinks about the supposed burden of laws pertaining to everything from the health and safety of workers, to fair payment of wages (e.g. minimum wage laws), working conditions, privacy regulations, truth in advertising, and of course a whole host of environmental laws.

To be fair, it is also worth noting that farmers have had their own difficulties, and many of them are finding it harder and harder to keep their crops healthy, due to decreases in deliveries of water. The Federal Bureau of Reclamation has mandated that no water be delivered to farmers with “junior water rights.” This speaks to the way water is divvied up in this state, which is arcane at best, and it’s an understatement to say that huge political pressure has come to bear on how water is allocated. As just one example of that complexity, certain types of water rights (so-called “senior water rights”), including groundwater, riparian, and pre-1914 appropriations, are excluded from the State Water Board’s authority. In other words, agreements that were made in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a time when the state had a mere fraction of its present population (1.2 million compared with 38 million—projected to be 50 million by 2050), and when we were not in drought, are still in effect.

No one is saying that the swimming pools and lawns of Beverly Hills ought to remain exempt, but neither is it fair to balance overuse of water by cutting Compton more than Newport Beach. Nor should farmers and ranchers whose families happen to have settled here in the 1890’s get a pass. Times have changed, and we have to change with them. California definitely needs to do something about its water problems. No argument. But that’s true for all Californians, not just residential users and some farmers. Everyone would do well to remember that no natural resource, water included, is unlimited. These last few years it’s been California’s turn, but Australia went through the same thing not so long ago, and larger and larger portions of the Sahel—the geographic region located between the Sahara and the plains and forests of north central Africa—are experiencing ever-increasing desertification. Weather patterns are shifting along with the warming of the globe and alarming increases in world population. One way or another, this will come to have an impact on everyone.

The water shortages in California are undoubtedly due to some combination of natural variability, changes in climate caused by human activity, our own choices as to what to grow and eat, and the enormous increases in demand that have come about over the decades. This is emblematic of a larger global problem, and the same complexities seen in California will eventually come to influence worldwide water supplies. It’s only a matter of time. What we do to address the consequences of such changes, and how people here in California and elsewhere decide to react, represent a set of choices that only we, humans, can make. Whether we make those choices wisely, or foolishly, is in the end up to us to decide.

GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS: HOW OPTIMISTIC ARE YOU WHEN IT COMES TO CLIMATE CHANGE?

By Paul M. Lewis

If you’re like me, you oscillate back and forth between depression and a guarded, though still hopeful, optimism when it comes to global climate change.

A lot seems to depend on what I’ve been reading of late. Just last week, for example, there was an article in the Los Angeles Times by Ralph Vartabedian and Evan Halper entitled “High-tech Climate Fixes Get a Boost,” which fed my more paranoid side. The underlying premise was that, while we need to continue doing whatever is possible to cut back on the pollutants that cause the warming of the planet, we also simultaneously have to research high-tech solutions, in the event that all else fails. It’s worth noting this recommendation comes from no less a distinguished an organization than the National Research Council, the government’s main scientific advisory body, made up of some of the brightest and most insightful minds in the country.

The report talks about things that have the tinge of science fiction to them: giant machines that vacuum greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, aerosol sprays spewed into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight back into space, and fertilizers spread about and mixed into the oceans in order to produce plants that eat carbon. To me, not only do these sound like desperate measures, but I am enough of a skeptic regarding the limitations of human intelligence to fear a whole host of unintended consequences that may come with such solutions, things we are perhaps currently not even capable of imagining. If there’s one thing about global systems I feel I do get, it’s that their complexity can verge on the infinite. Even our most sophisticated computers cannot begin to calculate the innumerable, unknowable, potentially damaging outcomes of such massive human intervention.

That said, and as much as I am reluctant to admit it, I also have to concede this kind of planning may make some sense. What these perfectly sensible scientists are not saying is, let’s do this in place of efforts to curtail man-made emissions into the atmosphere. What they are sayings is, let’s have a backup plan at the ready in case. After all, our lack of progress so far in doing what we need to makes it increasingly likely that we may have to deploy such ultimate measures in a last-ditch effort to control the earth’s spiraling temperatures.

On the other, more positive, side of things, a few days after having read the above mentioned article, I received my copy of Solutions, a magazine published by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). I’ve been a member of EDF for many years, and believe it to be one of the premier organizations in the world related to issues of global warming. In other words, I’ve come to trust them. So, I was frankly a little surprised to see that the lead article in this issue was called “A Plan for Climate Stability.” Really? If EDF thinks maybe there’s hope yet, who am I to disagree? In the article, they discuss five recent trends that point to an ambitious plan to cut global emissions by as early as 2020: (1) the joint announcement this past November on the part of China and the United States to limit global warming pollutants; (2) the fact that emissions in the industrialized world have been trending downward in the last decade or so; (3) a clean energy future has actually begun, as seen in the enormous increase in production of solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles etc.; (4) there is action that can be taken against methane (84 times more dangerous than carbon dioxide), as noted in a recent report showing how oil and gas companies can cut methane emissions by 40% with technologies that already exist and which cost mere pennies; and (5) younger voters overwhelmingly support climate action.

These are the good things that are already happening. And as noted in its title, the article goes on to speak of a plan for the future. The first point mentioned in that plan is the need to reduce carbon emissions. Fine, no argument there. Second, limit short-lived pollutants. For the United States, this means cutting back on carbon emitting plants and making sure that billions of dollars will be invested in clean energy systems. China is required by 2020 to cap “half of its emissions at 2015 levels, improve energy efficiency by 25%, and shift its energy mix to one-third renewable energy.” The third point has to do with stopping deforestation. One way to do this is to “reward forest protection in a global carbon marketplace.” Brazil, for example, has reduced its Amazon deforestation rate by an astounding 70% in the past decade. And finally, number four has to do with breaking the political stalemate in the global warming debate, both nationally and internationally.

Unfortunately, this is where my skepticism kicks back in. Clearly, this fourth point is far more easily said than done, given the intransigence of the Republican-controlled congress, as well as the ever increasing desire of people in developing countries to enjoy the good life that those in developed countries have benefited from for so long. And if this weren’t enough, let me add another thing, a point that the report, to my astonishment, says nothing at all about. What I’m referring to is the absolute need to limit out-of-control population growth. How, I wondered, could EDF not have mentioned a thing that so obviously affects the emission of both short-lived and longer-lived pollutants into the air, to say noting of the continued deforestation of the planet? It’s obvious that the more people there are to feed, clothe, house, and to warm in winter and cool in summer, the more stresses there will be placed on all of the earth’s ecosystems.

So, here I am again, back to my old oscillation. Sometimes, when I’m feeling most pessimistic, I think that whatever schemes we come up with to halt the destruction of our global systems are mere palliatives, gossamer, will-o’-the-wisp fantasies that at best delay what we just don’t want to face, or at worst outright hide what is all too inevitable. And yet, the optimist in me won’t give up. As my partner continually tells me (and I can’t argue against him), big business is selfish and greedy enough NOT to want the world to implode. A dead world is, after all, really bad for business.

Is there a way each of us can help? That’s an interesting question. EDF has its recommendations on that, too, with a handy five point plan: (1) make your home as energy efficient as possible; (2) reduce, reuse, recycle; (3) buy a gas efficient vehicle, or walk, bike, or ride public transportation; (4) wash your dishes and your clothes in cold or warm water (not hot); and (5) sign up for EDF action alerts to stay engaged politically at every level, federal, state, and local (www.edf.org/climateupdates). And who can argue with this? All good, there is no doubt.

Of course, the big question remains: Are such efforts good enough? I admit I don’t have the answer to that question, and I suspect no one does at this point. Unfortunately we may not know until we either see the positive effects of our actions, or until it’s too late.

One thing we humans have always had in spades is hope. Or is it more a remarkable ability to turn a blind eye to the worst of the worst? For now, I’m sticking with the Environmental Defense Fund in its optimism. But just in case, I think those scientists had better keep working on that giant vacuum and those aerosol sprays in the sky. Who knows? Maybe, in the end, such measures will be our only hope for survival. And if so, as they say, we’d better be prepared.

WIND TURBINES VS. WILD BURROS: OR CAN WE HAVE BOTH?

By Paul M. Lewis

No matter what, the impact human beings have on the natural environment is seldom entirely benign.   Often it is extremely destructive, as is the case with the proposed construction of the XL pipeline, which the House of Representatives recently passed a bill regarding. As is normally the case with most Republicans, environmental issues have taken a back seat, and a distant one at that, to other concerns. So-called energy independence and job-creation are the ones most often cited, but in reality even a little digging reveals instead ominous and disconcerting signs of covetousness and greed, particularly on the part of already well-heeled owners of energy supply companies.

But what are we to think when we are talking not about the transportation and use of fossil fuels, however it is to be done, but the creation of clean energy? Surely, this is a good thing, and one that Democrats and environmentalists of every stripe can get behind, right? Unfortunately, the answer is: not necessarily

As an example, take a look at the recent proposal that a Spanish company by the name of Iberdrola Renewables has made for a major project in California’s Silurian Valley. To get ourselves situated geographically, picture the familiar shape of California, and focus for a moment on the area near the Nevada border not far from Death Valley, about 100 miles southwest of Las Vegas. This is pristine desert territory par excellence. Death Valley itself is the largest National Park in the United States. And the nearby Silurian Valley is located in a prized location sitting astride the old Spanish Trail, itself managed by the National Parks Service. Although outside the park’s boundaries, the Silurian Valley is a well-known wildlife corridor in the Mojave Desert, to say nothing of a place visited by tourists who want a little solitude and a whole lot of open space.

Iberdrola has asked for a variance here, a legal term that indicates a kind of dispensation from the usual rules, in order to construct up to 133 wind turbines towering as high as 480 feet off the ground, as well as a 200-megawatt facility that would consist of 400 pairs of photovoltaic panels. The Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the area, is considering whether or not to allow this to happen.

Here, then, is the dilemma: on the one hand, clean, renewable energy that replaces polluting, greenhouse gas-causing fossil fuels is a good thing; on the other, cluttering up pristine land that also serves as irreplaceable wildlife habitat, and killing some of that wildlife in the process, or otherwise making it impossible for these creatures to live and reproduce there, is bad. The whole brouhaha might be thought of as a win-win for the no-federal-regulation types, who espouse unfettered free enterprise as the only way to live, and as the panacea for all freedom loving people everywhere. You can almost hear them jeering: these environmentalists can’t even agree among themselves. First they want to do away with fossil fuels and replace them with renewable energy, and then they won’t even allow entrepreneurial companies to build the very plants that produce renewable energy, because of what? They’re afraid it’ll harm the damn desert tortoise, or something!

But let’s slow down a bit and look more closely at the dilemma. Just because environmentalists object to a company building in one location in the desert, doesn’t mean that they object to building everywhere. In other words, not all desert parcels are equal. As Jenny Kordick, a renewable energy representative for the Wilderness Society says: “My job as renewable energy representative is to push forward an important part of protecting wilderness: replacing dirty forms of energy with clean, non-polluting options. But poorly located energy projects can scar wild areas and harm sensitive species. To prevent this, the Wilderness Society is working to guide wind and solar development to low-conflict areas and away from special places like Silurian Valley.” The key phrase here is “poorly located energy projects.”

An article on the subject by Julie Cart in last week’s Los Angeles Times (Sunday, Nov. 9, 2014) also points out that the Bureau of Land Management has 22 million acres that it can choose from in California’s deserts. And there are definitely portions of that desert that are far less environmentally fragile and susceptible to damage than the one proposed in the Silurian Valley. Not only is this locale, just off of Hwy 127, on the way to the magnificence of Death Valley National Park, it is in its own right a prime area of unspoiled beauty and ecological importance. It is clear that building such an enormous project in an easily spoiled area is not only bad for the animals who live and travel through there, but also for those humans who seek to experience true wilderness (or as close as we can get in the 21st century). Why not find a location where the impact is less destructive, and the clean-energy deliverables are, if not one hundred percent as good, at least good enough, given all of the drawbacks of the originally proposed site?

Not only would the Iberdrola project build the huge wind turbines and dangerous photovoltaic panels mentioned above (both of which, it is well know, kill birds, sometimes in their thousands), but it would also require construction of 45 miles of new roads and 11 miles of transmission lines through California’s Mojave Desert. Surely, we can do better than cluttering up and despoiling an area long known for its untrammeled vistas

As mentioned at the beginning of this essay, human intervention in any landscape is always and everywhere problematic. No matter where, it is dangerous for the creatures who had lived there before, because humans seldom take into consideration any other being on the planet, aside from ourselves and our own needs. The feral desert burros of the Silurian Valley that escaped from miners and explorers who traversed these same desert landscapes a hundred years ago have now fully acclimated to a sometimes unforgiving land. They have prospered and returned to a more natural life for themselves, one that up until now had been blissfully free from further human encroachment.   And now we want back what we once had so freely given away, when we thought the land was of no value to us.

Human beings seem to want everything. I remember an old friend of mine once saying of her then (now ex) husband: “He wants what he wants when he wants it.” But can’t most of us say the same thing about ourselves? We want modern life styles that provide all the energy we require at the flick of a switch; we want our ease and our comfort; and we surely want money, that blessed commodity that brings with it all good things, or so we are convinced.   But above all, we want power. We want control over everything.

It may be time for us to begin realizing that we’ve got to come to a place of compromise. In fact, the more we humans over-populate the world, the more we need to share what is left of that world with other life forms. It’s not even just as a matter of morality (why does everything always belong only to us?), but also simply of sustaining our own lives.

Humans and burros can coexist. So can birds, and even those much maligned desert tortoises. But we’ve got to make allowances for them, and to learn to be more generous in how we live our lives. Believe it or not, not everything is only about us. If we motivate ourselves, in the end we actually can find other places on earth – and here in the California deserts – where it’s possible to safely build turbines and photovoltaic panels. All in the hope that one day we will learn to tread more lightly on the planet that nourishes and sustains us all.

EYE SURGERY — Improved Vision and Attitude Adjustment

by Kevin

I was amazed to feel as good as I did 24 hours after my epiretinal membrane peel eye surgery. Minutes after taking this photo I removed the bandage. At first my vision was blurry, but three days after surgery I could see better than I did the day before surgery, and my eyesight will improve in coming weeks and months.

I was amazed to feel as good as I did 24 hours after my epiretinal membrane peel eye surgery. Minutes after taking this photo I removed the bandage. At first my vision was blurry, but three days after surgery I could see better than I did the day before surgery, and my eyesight will improve in coming weeks and months.

Life is a school and daily events are lessons in how to live better. Some weeks serve up whole courses, employing some rather unique instructional approaches. Then there are those days when you get sent to the principal’s office. That was the case with my eye surgery last Friday. On Tuesday I visited retina specialist Dr. Roy Brod in Lancaster, PA, to evaluate the status of my macular pucker — extra epiretinal membrane tissue growing over my right retina and progressively obscuring the vision in that eye. He had told me three years ago that we would need to wait for the right time to do surgery — when the unwanted tissue was massive enough to remove, but before it was too well established.
 
Seven Tactics for Successful Surgery, Improved Vision, and Attitude Adjustment:
 
1. Motivation: Last Tuesday Dr. Brod finally said, “It’s time.” He had a cancellation in his Friday surgery schedule. We’d have to hustle through some preliminary lab tests and forms, but I could have the slot if I wanted it. I said “yes,” and three years of hypothetical dread of eye surgery became suddenly sharp and clear.
 
I said “yes,” because my vision was getting so bad that It was affecting my ability to work, make art, drive, negotiate stairs, and engage in daily activities. I may be 65, but I don’t feel finished yet. I’m not done working or making art or doing all sorts of normal activities. I cherish my vision as much as everyone else does, and that is sufficient motivation to sign up for surgery. But now I had to figure out how to survive the actual dreaded cut and peel procedure, especially since I would be awake for it. How was I going to hold still and be a good patient? Hell! How was I going to avoid bolting and running screaming out of the operating room?
 
Nobody can abide the thought of sharp objects near or in their eyes, and I am no exception. It seems to be a primal fear, like falling or being eaten by wild animals. I suppose humans have been accidentally poked in the eye by sharp sticks throughout our history, and that collective memory grosses us out — every one of us.
 
We have even turned this ancient fear into a childhood chant. When we want someone to make an excellent promise we require them to repeat: “Cross my heart and hope to die! Stick a needle in my eye!” The threat of a sharp object in the eye is sufficient to enforce any difficult commitment. But I had signed on for the dreaded poke deliberately and voluntarily, and I knew I was going to need more than just the motivation of better vision to get me through it.
 
2. Trust and Confidence: It was clear to me from the start, that you have to trust the guy with the sharp stick or there’s no hope. The “eye principal,” Dr. Roy Brod, is the best of the best in his field. Everyone says so. Along with a few bona fide saints, he is one of the most respected individuals I have ever encountered in any field. And he’s an incredibly nice guy. He’s just so amazingly kind to everyone. You can’t help wishing he lived next door. He’s a prince of a man who inspires confidence and trust with every look and word. And his touch is almost magical. When he gently places a hand on your shoulder or brow, you feel instantly comforted and strangely at peace. This quality is essential in someone you are going to trust with sharp objects close to and in your eyes, believe me.
 
3. Great Drugs: Nevertheless, I strongly recommend that you make damn sure there is a wonderful anesthesiologist with miraculous drugs at hand, whenever you go into surgery. They hooked me up to an IV and pumped God knows what into me throughout the procedure — a sedative? — a mood elevator? I don’t know… but whatever it was it worked. AND they totally knocked me out for the two minutes it took them to administer shots directly into my eye, so I was not awake for that choice moment, thank goodness! The rest of the time I felt so calm that I had NO trouble holding still, and I was basically just fascinated by the whole process, including the visuals, like a good movie playing right inside my retina.

I’m so grateful for those great drugs, because I was awake and could see the entire procedure. I was watching the needle-fine instrument when its tiny jaws opened and grabbed the largest piece of my extra epiretinal membrane tissue to peel and pull it away and out of my eye. I was quite calm and intrigued, and my only thought was, “There goes my problem!” When Dr. Brod administered iodine drops I was mesmerized by the beautiful swirling magenta patterns in my field of vision. And when it was all over I realized that it had been a walk in the park.

4. Support of Friends: Oh sure… It’s a picnic when it’s all over, but what about the suspense beforehand? How do you deal with the adrenalin surges every time you realize, “Oh my God! I’m having eye surgery in two days!” How do you cope with the terror associated with eye torture when you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t go back to sleep? I decided to tell people about my surgery, not because I needed the world to know, but because I wanted as much moral support from the positive thoughts, prayers and hopes of friends and loved ones as I could get. And it worked! I could really feel it powerfully. It helped so clearly that the day before my surgery, even without any drugs, I was already flying. My profound thanks to everyone who said a prayer or sent me a positive thought.

5. Attitude Positioning: The day before surgery I decided that this procedure was a cosmetic luxury afforded only to the rich (people with some means, Medicare and supplemental insurance like me) who happen to be living in modern times. As such, it seemed to me that it was like going to the spa for a professional massage, shampoo, haircut and facial. I adopted that attitude. I was there to be pampered, and I remained in that frame of mind throughout. When Dr. Brod entered the operating room I was blindfolded, but I raised my hand and said, “Thank you for coming to my party!” He laughed and said, “Yes! Let’s have a great party!” I really like Dr. Brod so much. He is so generous with everyone. That helped with my “spa pampering” attitude positioning. Dr. Brod was my personal masseur and spa master who was there to spoil me and make me feel special and wonderful.

6. Surrender: From that attitudinal perspective it was easy to lie back and relax. Living in the woods, I have noticed that when the animals are dying or in dire situations, they surrender and become still and quiet. They let go. I thought often in the few days prior to my surgery about specific animals I have witnessed in these kinds of situations and how deeply instructive their behavior was. I decided to imagine that my circumstances were much more dire than eye surgery — What if I were scheduled to be unfairly executed in the morning? What attitude would I want to adopt in that case? I thought of other dire cirumstances. When I returned to the reality of eye surgery, it did not seem so difficult or frightening after all.

This is my 4 x 7 ft oil on canvas, "Poseidon's Prophecy," in progress. I'm looking forward to getting back to work on it with improved vision.

This is my 4 x 7 ft oil on canvas, “Poseidon’s Prophecy,” in progress. I’m looking forward to getting back to work on it with improved vision.

7. Divine Intervention: But I still had one ace up my sleeve, and the day of the surgery was the time to play it. Much of the time before, during and after the procedure, I managed to chant to the Divine Beloved, and to think of five very saintly individuals I have been so fortunate to meet or know in my lifetime. I called upon them to stand with me. This was very calming, reassuring and helpful. I was especially aware of one of them holding my right hand where the IV was inserted. Whenever I was tempted to feel afraid or stressed, I focused on The Infinite Beloved in the forms of these five saints, and  was at peace instantly. The stress left my body and I became pyscially relaxed and still.

My brother, Dr. Chris Miller, picked me up after the surgery. Dr. Brod called him to say that the procedure had gone extremely well and that I had been a perfect patient — didn’t move a muscle. Chris was very kind to me and allowed me to rest quietly in his beautiful garden or sleep in his recliner. He made us a fantastic lunch — grilled vegetable and fried egg sandwhiches on whole grain toast. Yum!

Then Chris took me back as Dr. Brod had requested for a post-op evaluation six hours after the surgery. The doctor was so excited when he analyzed the results of his own work that he was almost jumping up and down. He said, “Just for the fun of it, let’s take some more images. I won’t charge you for them. It would just be so interesting to compare the images immediately before and after surgery.” He was so pleased with the pictures that he said he might write a paper about my case.

I described my visual experience of the procedure and he was fascinated and delighted. When it was time for me to leave, Dr. Brod admonished me not to do any strenuous activity or lift anything heavier than 25 lbs, and to leave the bandage on overnight, before starting to administer drops four times daily. I asked if I could pick berries, because it is high berry season in the woods. He said “yes.”

We have a bumper crop of berries on our 12 acres this year, and I was relieved when Dr. Brod agreed to allow me to pick them. I wore big sun glasses to protect my eye from thorny berry branches and glaring sun, as I picked a half-gallon of ripe berries two days after eye surgery.

We have a bumper crop of berries on our 12 acres this year, and I was relieved when Dr. Brod agreed to allow me to pick them. I wore big sun glasses to protect my eye from thorny berry branches and glaring sun, as I picked a half-gallon of ripe berries two days after eye surgery.

I have not had one minute of discomfort through this entire experience. The doctor wrote me a prescription for a heavy duty pain killer and said that I would very likely have to use it to get through the pain that would eventually come. But there has been no pain whatsoever. Well… okay… I did have a few moments of rather exquisite pain yesterday when I was picking berries two days after the surgery. I unknowingly stepped on the home of a colony of ground-dwelling bees. They swarmed and five of them stung me on my right arm within five seconds. Now THAT hurt! It hurt infinitely more than anything I experienced during eye surgery.

The bee strings made me realize that sometimes the pain we think we feel is imaginary. We feel it whether it really is painful or not, just because we perceive the circumstances to be hurtful — like a needle in the eye — because of how awful it looks or seems. When I analyzed the actual pain of the bee strings, as opposed to the perceived pain, that wasn’t as bad as I had thought either. In fact it was entirely gone within minutes, and a few hours later there was no sign of the very understandable assault by the poor bees against whom I had trespassed.

Today, just three days after my epiretinal membrane peel eye surgery, I can already see much better than I did the day before the procedure. And Dr. Brod has assured me that my vision will continue to improve for several weeks and months. I am excited to discover how much of my original visual acuity might return and to experience what that will mean when I am working, making art, driving and just living daily life. I am deeply grateful for this opportunity, and aware that not so many decades ago it would not have been possible. I would have gone nearly blind in my right eye and coped as best I could with one remaining eye.

A close-up view of this summer's berries.

A close-up view of this summer’s berries.

Life is a school, and I learned some important lessons in this Course on Vision: I learned that it isn’t just Dr. Brod’s incredibly steady hands that make his practice so successful, but also his obvious joy and pleasure in his chosen vocation. That intrinsic love of his work inspires confidence in his patients and insures positive outcomes. I also learned that there are at least seven tactics that patients can adopt to help doctors perform successful surgeries, but more importantly, those same tactics can be applied for a more rewarding life in general. Well… okay… when it comes to #3, “Great Drugs,” at least in my case, this is primarily about my ongoing efforts to moderate my morning tea and evening cocktail intake… and come to think of it, that really is quite important. So all seven of these principles apply to life in general, for me anyway.

Another week… another course in the School of Life… another step closer to clear vision. By the way, in case you were wondering, attendance is compulsory in the lessons and courses offered by the School of Life, until graduation, when we shall see all things clearly. Until then our job is to be attentive students. Don’t be afraid to challenge the authorities and ask really hard questions. When the opportunity presents itself, be generous and offer to help others with their studies, especially if they are struggling or fear they may even be failing. Finally, the wise student will pause regularly to express private inner gratitude for the invaluable and rare opportunity to learn and progress in this School of Life.

 

SANTO TORIBIO, YANOMAMI SHAMANS, AND THE IMMINENCE OF TRANSCENDENCE

By Paul

The Los Angeles Times Sunday edition, July 13, 2014, carried a front page article about the “visit” to Southern California of the holy statue of Santo Toribio Romo Gonzalez from Mexico. Santo Toribio was a Catholic priest who was killed, martyred as it is said, during the so-called Cristero War in Mexico. The usual dates given for this conflict are 1926-1929, but some fighting and killing continued on during the 1930’s, and even into the early 1940’s, a time of land redistribution, anti-clericalism, and civil disturbance, pitching an educated, socialist, governmental elite against an uneducated, but devoutly religious peasantry. Toribio Romo was shot in 1928 by federal soldiers because he continued to conduct Catholic religious ceremonials, which were at the time against the law. He was canonized in the year 2000 by Pope John Paul II.

Curiously, although Santo Toribio had nothing to do with immigration northward during his lifetime, in recent times he has been venerated and celebrated by Mexicans and other Latin Americans, desperate to make the border crossing into the United States. He is even said to have appeared numerous times to some who are attempting to make the perilous and uncertain journey across the border, dressed in the same cowboy hat and boots worn by many of the migrants. The four-foot tall statue of the saint displays in a glass case in the center of the chest a part of Santo Toribio’s ankle bone, and thousands have lined up to reverently touch the glass casement, in hopes of securing special favors from the saint, either for themselves, or for loved ones contemplating making the dangerous crossing.

Modern people, even many Catholics, dismiss such acts of devotion as nothing less than the superstition of the uneducated. How can the ankle bone of a priest, who died over 85 years ago, be of any use to living, breathing human beings, facing extreme hardship and challenge? Better to rely on your own wits and resources, and to spend your money getting practical legal help, rather than chipping in, as many Southern California Latinos have done, to buy a first-class seat on an airplane from Mexico for a wooden statue and its keeper. What contemporary person can argue with this kind of reasoning? How can help of any kind, spiritual or temporal, be somehow transmitted to and bestowed on people by a dried piece of bone, no matter how holy the body of the saint it was taken from?

But here’s another question that can be asked: is it possible that the world is more mysterious than even modern, educated people can ever fully understand, using only the evidence of our senses and of the logical mind? Another way to phrase it might be: does Spirit exist, and if so, does it infuse, permeate, and manifest itself in physical form?

These are questions that have been repeatedly asked over the ages and answered in different ways by various cultures. Here is another example of how people understand and explain the manifestation of Spirit in nature, what I call the “imminence of transcendence.” The Yanomami are a loose cultural and linguistic configuration of indigenous peoples who inhabit the remote rainforests of northern Brazil and southern Venezuela. There has been a great deal of destruction over the years, not only of the Yanomami culture by Christian missionaries, but later on of the rainforest itself, once gold was discovered in the region. Many Indians of the Americas have known for centuries that both religion and gold make Western peoples crazy. They will do anything for gold, including bribing, threatening, stealing, despoiling the natural environment, and even killing those who stand in their way. The Yanomami have, in fact, experienced all of these tactics, and more. Yet, large segments of their culture and of the rainforest (the two are intimately intertwined) still remain intact, in part through the assistance of some not-so-crazed Westerners (Brazilians and others), who have become their allies. But what has helped most of all is the knowledge and the “dreaming” of Yanomami shamans.

As is true with many other indigenous peoples, the Yanomami believe that the forest is alive. And not just the forest as a kind of abstraction, as Westerners might think, but each segment thereof, including every rock, tree, stream, and river. Overseeing all of these are a spirit-people called the “xapiri” (pronounced “sha-PEE-ree”).   Yanomami shamans go through a long and arduous apprenticeship. Partly using this tradition and training, and partly through the aid of powerful hallucinatory drugs, they contact these “xapiri, who appear in the form of tiny humanoids wearing very bright, feather-covered garments. And not only do shamans contact these spirits, they become them. It is in this spirit-form that shamans then defend and protect the forest from evil, both foreign and indigenous.

Here we see another level of belief in a spirit world. Not only do devotees of a religion get to touch the glass that covers the bone of a man believed to have attained spiritual knowledge and, in so doing, contact and attain some of his power, but through the process of chanting, and “dreaming,” and of entering into an altered state of mind, they become the very spirits they see and interact with.

The Yanomami, in fact, have a ready explanation as to why many Westerners are so crazed, so cruelly acquisitive, avaricious, and destructive. White people, according to Yanomami myth, are the offspring of Yoasi, the evil brother of Omama, their Creator God. It is believed that Yoasi gave birth to white people, who come from “the back of the sky,” and who are associated with the evil spirits of the forest. According to the myth, if not controlled, these evil spirits will bring about the end of the world through the “falling sky.” By this, the Yanomami mean the toxic invasion of the deadly smoke of metal and fuels. As Davi Kopenawa, a Yanomami shaman who has co-authored a book entitled “Falling Sky,” says: “When they think their land is getting spoiled, the White people speak of ‘pollution.’ In our language, when sickness spreads relentlessly through the forest we say that ‘xawara’ (epidemic fumes) have seized it and it becomes ghost.”

What do Santo Toribio and Yanomami shamans have in common? Some might say only the ignorance of the uneducated, and an attempt to achieve some level of control on the part of those who otherwise feel disenfranchised and powerless. And there may be some truth in this. However, others may also point to a less logical, more innate, unconscious, chthonic, or even deeply spiritual way of seeing and understanding a world that even modern science does not claim to fully understand.

What I mean by the phrase “imminence of transcendence” is the inherent, essential, deep-born, fundamentally ingrained presence of the Great Mystery of the Universe intertwined with and imbedded in nature. Can it equally be felt in the ankle bone of a saint, or in the tree that grows in your backyard, in the great forests that still, here and there, cover parts of the earth, or in the vast oceans that struggle today with the poisons humans have dumped into them? I will leave that for you to decide for yourself.

In the end, whether we think of all this as some kind of manifested spiritual essence, or merely the ordinary, everyday ebullient effervescence of nature itself, it is our job as human beings to respect the planet. Otherwise, it may not be too far fetched a myth to think that the sky will, in a sense, someday come falling down upon our heads, and that we and our children will no longer be able to breath the very air that surrounds us. Who knows? Maybe with the help of Santo Toribio and the Yanomami shamans, and a bit of our own native wisdom, we, too, may someday learn our lessons and mend our ways. There is, at least, always that hope.