WHERE YOU LIVE IS WHERE YOU BREATHE

By Paul M. Lewis

There are so many things happening in the political world these days that it’s hard to decide which to highlight. That being so, why not go for the biggest, the most menacing, the one that has the greatest overarching effect on all of us—namely, climate change, the warming of the very globe we all call home?

Yet the topic of climate change, in and of itself, is too vast and complex for any one article. It needs to be broken down into component parts. There are innumerable ways of approaching the myriad of issues related to it. But one that is surely among the most important, and yet which gets far less attention than it should, is that of overpopulation. In 1944, the year I was born, the world had fewer than 2.2 billion people in it. Today there are nearly 7.5 billion, an increase of more than 5 billion in the space of 73 years. Predictably, we will also see that number rise to 8 billion by 2024, and to 9 billion in 2042. What are we to do with all these people? How to feed them? Where to house them? Where to find enough arable land to grow crops for them? How will they make a living for themselves and their families? And what will be the effect of vastly increasing numbers of humans on the environment?

As daunting as these figures and these questions may be, hiding from them is not an option. We must look at them head on and not flinch. Once recognized, we then have to decide what to do about it, how to change what we otherwise know is coming. And, although it may be tempting to go to what seems like the simplest and most direct solution, that is, for people to have fewer children, as true as this may be, that option has not proven to be a particularly feasible one, at least as far as governmental regulations are concerned.

The one exception is China, with its now defunct one child policy. The population increase there has leveled off markedly in the last several decades, since the inception of the policy. For example, there were 33 births per thousand women in 1970, but only 15 births per thousand in 1998. This is an enormous difference, but the decrease comes with its own set of problems. Boys, always more desired in traditional Chinese society, were wanted and kept, while girls were often aborted, or sometimes even abandoned at birth. As a result, there are unnaturally more males in the population today than there are females, a major demographic and societal problem. And the rapidly aging population of China now has far fewer younger citizens to help support their elders in retirement. Additionally, it’s obvious that no western-style democracy would ever be willing, or able, to put into place the kinds of prohibitive restrictions the Chinese government did.

The best control on population growth is, and always has been, education—and education for girls, in particular. Note, for example, that the number of births per woman in Japan is 1.3; that same number for Guinea-Bissau is 5.7 births per woman. According to the Earth Policy Institute, “One of the most effective ways to lower population growth and reduce poverty is to provide adequate education for both girls and boys. Countries in which more children are enrolled in school—even at the primary level—tend to have strikingly lower fertility rates.” Let’s hear it, then, for more education.

But we know that there exist a number of obstacles to the education of children. Many countries are simply too poor to offer adequate teaching facilities for a large majority of their children, and there are others where social, religious and cultural factors prevent girls in particular from receiving an education. All of which points to a substantial likelihood that world population will continue to rise, at least for the foreseeable future. It’s therefore incumbent on us now to do what actually is in our power to help counteract the most deleterious effects of overpopulation.

The Trump Administration has already demonstrated that it does not believe in global climate change, or at least that the warming of the globe has anything to do with human activity. This perhaps should not be all that surprising. According to the Pew Research Foundation, almost three-quarters of Americans don’t trust the consensus of 97% of world scientists, who assert otherwise on climate change.

When it comes to actual numbers, however, and to hard data related to worldwide temperature variances, this is not really a question of belief. To cite one recent example, of the thousands that could be given, this past February was the warmest February on record. If the world really is warming, regardless of whom or what we believe may be responsible, it’s imperative to try to do something to prepare and protect ourselves and our environment from its worst effects. Decreasing the amount of fossil fuels used is what is most frequently suggested. And that must be done. But here, again, we run into corporate, and now governmental, doubters. If you don’t believe in human-induced global warming, why should you do anything about it?

Where, then, does that leave us? Fortunately, we do not have to rely solely on government at the federal level to effect changes. These days, a majority of the work is being done at the state and local level. And while I’m of the opinion that we need more than that, sometimes in the moment we have to take what we can get. Additionally, it’s encouraging that many businesses, and the military, have weighted in on the need for action to address global warming.

One plan that has gotten recent press (see “Housing is key factor in climate goals” in the Los Angeles Times, March 6, 2017) puts the emphasis on greater collectivity within cities—in other words, population density—as a way of drastically reducing commuting and the consequent use of gasoline. The idea, obvious enough, though not necessarily easy to accomplish, is to create urban spaces where people can both live and work in their own neighborhood. This eliminates the need for long commutes by car, and it allows people to get to jobs and places to eat and shop and play that are either within walking or biking distance, or that can be readily reached via fast, clean, affordable and reliable public transportation.

What’s being suggested is not so different from the kind of city I grew up in the 1940’s and 50’s. My family did not have a car, and that fact never felt to me like a burden. My father walked to work every morning; my mother took the bus to the department store where she worked; and my brother and sister and I all either walked or took the bus to school. The local grocery—a literal corner store—was a block away, and we lived across the street from our parish church. Sometimes, it may be that what was good was mistakenly discarded in the pursuit of what we like to think of as progress.

This new, or not so new, concept of closely packed housing near places of work and shopping and worship may not be welcomed by all. We have grown accustomed to driving in our private cars, sometimes long distances, to work and elsewhere. The concept of the soccer mom has become so acceptable as to even go unnoticed. Meanwhile, she drives her children hither and yon to team practice, to sporting events, and even to parent-arranged “play dates.” What ever happened to kids playing with others in the neighborhood? Some of the most affordable and desirable housing has been put up in sprawling suburbs with few amenities within easy reach. It is not uncommon in places like Los Angeles for an individual to drive an hour, even an hour and a half, each way to and from work.

As much as we may wish for a house in the suburbs with three bedrooms and two baths, it may be that we have to face the fact that it is, in the long run, unsustainable. And if it is difficult to maintain now, with the population we currently have, what will happen in 2042, when there are 9 billion people on the planet? The idea of attempting to reduce some of the excesses of overpopulation through the encouragement of urban population density is of course not a panacea. Indeed, like most things, it falls far short of a complete solution, and it brings with it its own pluses and minuses. It is, though, one of the many factors about which humans will have to make choices in the coming years, if we are to hope that our children, and their children, will be able to live on a healthy planet.

The truth is that change is coming, whether we like it or not, and whether we acknowledge it or not. Surely, it is better to look directly at what will be, and to make the adjustments needed now, in order to help diminish some of the worst effects of these eventualities. What is needed is a willing coalition of ordinary citizens, of city and county government officials, of the private sector, of state leadership, and eventually (or so we can hope) support and encouragement at the federal—and the international—level, to make the kinds of changes that are needed.

This is a tall order, especially in today’s hyper-partisan atmosphere. But in the end, the consequences of doing nothing may be too terrible not to contemplate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

LIBERTY and NATURE Embracing for Life

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SOME THOUGHTS ON EMBRACING FOR LIFE

by Paul M. Lewis

Emma Lazarus wrote, as seen on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless and tempest tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” This is—or was—the sacred promise of America, and if that doesn’t sound like today’s refugees and immigrants, the poor and dispossessed of the earth, it’s hard to imagine what else it could describe. What does the notion of liberty actually mean, other than freedom of choice, the ability to do as one wishes, unfettered by physical or social constraint, so long as others are not harmed and, in doing so, one does not unduly trample on the rights of others?

But why, in the picture, do we see Lady Liberty embracing Mother Nature? The two come together because none of us, neither human beings nor any of the other creatures of the earth, can live our normal lives beyond the boundaries of the physical world, or beyond an emotional and social context. What this suggests is that our vaunted freedom to choose is best used in opting for the right and the good, not only for ourselves, but for the life of the planet as a whole. It’s incumbent on each of us to recognize the natural world in all of its diversity. As Yeats put it a century ago: “…the young in one another’s arms, birds in the trees, the salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas, fish, flesh, or fowl…whatever is begotten, born, or dies.” This is the world of nature, seen, experienced, and lived in by all of us.

The two figures are depicted as holding each other and kissing. Just as with human lovers, each needs and chooses the other in an ultimate exercise of freedom. But that choice can only be made in the absence of coercion and of political or social authoritarianism. If Lady Liberty and Mother Nature hold each other today, it is the duty of each of us to do all we can to ensure that continued ability to embrace and kiss. In so doing, Liberty and Nature engender love and creativity, as well as a hope for a better future for us and for the planet. If the politics of the day work against this, only our will and our eternal vigilance can counteract it.

 

SOME ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS

from the artist – Kevin L. Miller

Lady Liberty is one of the primary symbols for the United States of America. Mother Nature, of course, represents all of Nature and the Earth itself. When a friend and former colleague suggested that I might consider drawing Lady Liberty and Mother Nature as friends, I thought “What a good idea!” But when I began to develop a composition on the screen of my mind their “friendship” became much more – a deeply committed intimate relationship of love and mutual support. And this seems entirely appropriate, since the U.S. and the Earth need each other in order to survive. America cannot thrive if the Earth becomes unable to sustain life. And the Earth will cease to be able to do so, if the U.S. and all of humanity does not quickly learn how to nurture, honor, and respect our planet. Lady Liberty and Mother Nature are embracing for life. Their intimate embrace is a fundamental necessity, whether we and the world’s nations and leaders acknowledge it or not. If we want to avoid the looming Sixth Mass Extinction and leave a planet where our children and grandchildren can thrive, then we will support and celebrate Lady Liberty and Mother Nature embracing for life.

 

COSMIC MYSTERIES AND OUR NEED TO KNOW

By Paul M. Lewis

Watching Stephen Hawking’s “Genius” series on PBS recently has reminded me what fascinating topics theoretical physicists study. They specialize in asking such big questions as “Where did the universe come from?” and “Is there a center to the universe?” And while it’s true that there has always been a degree of contention in regard to how these questions are answered, there is at least general consensus on the Big Bang itself, that is, the very beginning of the universe. That term may be a bit misleading, however, in that physicists do not believe it to have been an actual explosion. In fact, the term Big Bang was coined as a kind of put down of the theory by an early doubter. Instead of an explosion, it was probably more of an almost inconceivably rapid expansion, followed immediately by what is called “an inflation,” indicative of the fact that the infant universe moved rapidly outward, expanding in all directions. And the universe continues to expand even now, 13.7 billion years after the initial expansion. No less a figure than Einstein, himself, long doubted the idea of an expanding universe, but even he finally came to accept it, due to the patient observations of another renowned scientist, the great astronomer Edwin Hubble.

How did the Big Bang come about in the first place? Where was it located? And doesn’t it make sense to think of it as having somehow occurred in what might be thought of as the center of the universe? These are all legitimate questions to ask. The answer to the first, that of how the Big Bang came about, is very simple: no one knows. In that sense, it becomes, at least for now and in the absence of further scientific break throughs, more or less a philosophical or a theological question, although naturally scientists do continue to explore it. Regarding the query having to do with the Big Bang being in the center of the universe, the problem it raises becomes a question of logic. To think in locational terms assumes there was some “place” to be. However, there could have been no place for the universe to begin in until there actually was a universe. In other words, how could there have been a physical place, before there was such thing as space to be in? This also means another way to think of it is that everywhere is the center of the universe.

Before the Big Bang, nothing at all existed. It’s extremely difficult for us to conceive of nothingness. Language itself begins to break down, but it’s clear that nothing cannot be “a thing.” The definition of nothing is “no thing,” a complete non-existence of whatever can be perceived by our senses. How can we imagine what this might be like? Some might suggest we can envision it in terms of outer space being a vacuum, that is, of it “containing nothing,” again, as if nothing could somehow be contained. But even that is not the case, since physicists now understand that space is actually filled with Dark Matter. And as much as Dark Matter is unperceivable, it is known to comprise some 80% of all of the matter in the universe. On the other hand, normal matter that can be seen (i.e. asteroids, comets, stars, planets, galaxies, cosmic gas, as well as you and I and all the creatures of the earth and on any of the other planets) therefore accounts only for about a fifth of the known universe.

Theoretical physics routinely deals with imponderables. It works at the edges, at the border between science and philosophy/theology, between what can be known empirically and what can be inferred, or imagined, or intuited. Take another question that physicists are currently studying, that of the multiverse. The idea is that there may be many universes aside from the one we live in. Some even suggest that evidence points to there possibly being an infinite number of these universes, all existing in parallel form. In part, this originates from studies done by the German physicist Erwin Schrödinger. Schrödinger is one of the founding fathers of Quantum Mechanics, which studies the mysterious workings of the micro world of atoms and subatomic particles. He posited that a quantum state is the sum, or the “superposition,” of all possible states, hypothesizing in his famous “cat experiment” that an imagined feline in a box could be both dead and alive, and that we simply point to one or the other state as a kind of convenience, a sort of book-keeping device, only knowing if it is one or the other when the box is opened and it is observed. Additionally, according to another famous student of the field, Werner Heisenberg, quantum particles can exist in multiple locations simultaneously. This is referred to as his Uncertainty Principle, whereby the location of a subatomic particle can be calculated, but not its speed; or the speed can be calculated, but not its location. Some subatomic particles even appear to spring automatically, if fleetingly, into existence from nothing. All this happens at the tiniest—the quantum—level.

At the macro level, on the other hand, String Theory has to do with the workings of gravity and the vastness of the universe, and may ultimately help explain both Dark Matter and Dark Energy (the latter being the mysterious force that is thought to drive the expansion of the universe). The holy grail of modern physics is to come up with a theory that would adequately explain the universe using both the laws of Quantum Mechanics and those of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, which deals with the macro universe. So far, unfortunately, no genius physicist has yet been able to explain this so-called Grand Unification Theory.

As for the multiverse, speculation on that question has not yet risen to the level of an actual theory. In fact, it is useful to remember exactly what is meant, in scientific terms, by the word theory. What it is not, and what many non-scientists believe it to be since this is how the word is used in everyday speech, is a kind of guess—as in, “your theory (of whatever) is as good as mine.” Instead, scientifically, a theory is a system of ideas meant to explain something, based on principles independent of the thing being explained. Thus, we speak of the Theory of Evolution—which is not a guess at all, but a hypothesis that has been tested and retested over the years, and proven itself to be true beyond any reasonable doubt. This is also the case with Quantum Mechanics, whereas String Theory (admittedly, confusingly) has not yet been fully accepted by the scientific community as a whole.

So, we see from merely a short sketch that there are myriad puzzles, inconsistencies, and mysteries in the universe. Any number of others could be added, such as the inexplicable nature of Black Holes, and other singularities like the Big Bang itself. How the two are alike, or not alike, is as yet unknown. And what happens to Space-Time, when it enters into a Black Hole, if even light itself cannot escape its super gravitational pull? Does intelligent life exist on other planets? How did self-reflective consciousness come about? And what exactly is antimatter, which was created at the time of the Big Bang? In principle, when antimatter comes into contact with matter, the latter is annihilated. So, how do we exist? One possible explanation is because there is one extra particle of matter for every billion particles of anti-matter. And is this a matter of luck, or something more mysterious, more mindful?

Which ultimately brings us to the question of God, or if you prefer, some ultimately unknowable Universal Intelligence. How does he—or she, or it—fit into the picture? Does he exist? My own theory, to use the everyday vernacular form of the word, is that he does, and the way toward understanding him lies within, in private, not out there in the practices of organized religion. As Einstein once famously said: “Teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God, that is, give up the source of fear and hope which in the past placed such vast power in the hands of priests.”

To be sure, science can help point the way, by examining the mysteries of the universe that we somehow have an innate longing to comprehend. Even if we never get there by using the scientific method, or generally through the normal processes of the human mind, at least we know we are trying to elucidate these ultimate questions. And if, as I believe, there is a Mystery Beyond All Mystery, one we will never fully plumb with our ordinary minds, then I should think such a Divine Being would really be pleased with the efforts of his clever, curious and ever-striving creatures.

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.

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.