Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Nuclear diplomacy in the age of Trump


Less than twenty-four hours since Mr. Trump and Mr. Un shook hands, many pundits are critical of  the outcome. I am certainly no fan of  either of these two national leaders. Trump defines arrogance and narcissism as well as any public figure. His braggadocio is so untethered to reality that it's difficult to believe anything he says (or tweets).

But, for whatever reason, he has resisted (thus far) a military solution to this vexing problem, and that is a very big deal as we might pause and reflect on the 17 year old war in Afghanistan that has gained nothing for anyone except the arms lobby. I am not sanguine about the possibility of him triggering a military encounter with Iran or some other "evil empire" du jour. The chances of that disaster became higher with the elevation of Mike Pompeo and John Bolton in his administration. But for the moment, he has resisted flexing his military macho side.

It seems pretty obvious that North Korea has had a target on its head since at least the days of George W. Bush's "Axis of Evil" claim. Regime change from the US has been the driver for pursuit of a nuclear missile as a possible barrier to a US led first strike. I can't imagine a sane person, giving that up, especially with the example of what the US did with Qaddafi after he relinquished his nukes. Trump's aversion to building a lasting trust does not bode well for a total denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. If you were North Korea, would you trust any deal made with Trump? Still, I applaud the diplomatic effort both sides have made. It's better than war!!!!

I certainly would be surprised if we see any movement on global arms reductions, let alone nuclear weapons, during this administration. Would even his pals, the Russians, trust him on a nuclear deal? His former allies, Britain and France, are probably not likely to believe much of what he proposes, especially after last weekend. Diplomacy needs trust to work and the absence of this arrow in his quiver suggests we will have to wait for a later administration to try and resurrect arms control.

But while Trump is clearly a champion of American Exceptionalism, the failure of the Congressional members of both parties to reconsider the sword of Damocles that nuclear weapons hangs over humanity (and all other species we share this special planet with) suggests our political leaders of both major parties suffer from the same toxicity of American Exceptionalism.

The US remains in the global driver's seat of weapons ownership in both nuclear and conventional weapons. As Trump proclaims, others should fear the US for both our military might and our economic power. A perfect example is the threat we use in the UN to hurt any country that doesn't vote with us. While President Obama spoke collegially about global partnerships and even hinted at nuclear weapons reductions early in his administration, he too fell into the muck of nuclear madness, proposing to spend $1.2 trillion over thirty years to rebuild the nuclear arsenal.

We need a statesperson that can get out of the muck and begin discussions with other sane members of the global family on ridding the world of these weapons, not just for lowly North Korea, but with all the nuclear nations - Russia, US, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel. As the first and only nation to use a nuclear weapon, we have a special responsibility to lead the world in abolition and destruction of the weapons that are only meant to destroy entire communities and every living thing in them.

Two Nobel-winning nuclear experts say that North Korea shouldn’t be alone in giving up nukes via Two of IPPNW’s founders, Drs. Jim Muller and John Pastore, have begun a dialog with North Korean mission in New York

Where are our political leaders? $1.2 trillion, plus whatever Trump tries to boost the pot with could be used for so many good things. Each of the other eight nations could also redirect their own funds saved from de-nuclearization into their communities to make life better for all. Every candidate for federal office should be forced to answer how they will end nuclear arms. What steps should the US be willing to lead with?

A little less than one year ago, 122 nations of the UN agreed to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Of course, the nuclear nations either voted against or abstained. How serious can they be about reducing and eliminating nuclear weapons. Words are cheap, but we're not even getting words for global de-nuclearlization out of American political leadership. What a travesty. 

ICAN logo

The folks at the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, winner of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize call today's meeting "Good for Diplomacy, But Little Substance." 

ICAN’s Executive Director Beatrice Fihn said, “Trump just pulled off the photo-op of a lifetime. Rather than signing an unsubstantial agreement, Trump and Kim should be signing a real document based on international law, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The Treaty doesn’t tweet, it doesn’t change its mind on the plane home, and can’t have it’s ego bruised. It’s the only comprehensive, verifiable and irreversible way to achieve meaningful nuclear disarmament”.

Since our elected leaders won't lead, we need to join with citizen driven organization like ICAN and our local Peace Education Center to push for getting global nuclear disarmament back on the agenda of our media and the government.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

A Search for Wisdom

The nearly two month absence in blogging is the biggest gulf since I started this activity some years ago. I think my small handful of regular readers probably appreciated the break.

I have certainly been reading and thinking but not much has jelled into anything approaching coherence in my mind. Maybe I have never been coherent  to the readers. I'm trying to understand why the notion to write arrives so irregularly, why The Muse avoids me amidst so much stimulation.

But here I am, trying to find a series of words worth sharing, worth someone else's time to peruse and ponder. What makes any of us think we have something so useful to share? There are so many great thinkers who have taken the time to capture thoughts and organize them and publish them over the centuries. Our libraries are full of them.

My most recently read book is a prime example, World Parliament: Government and Democracy in the 21st Century, Jo Leinen and Andreas Bummel (Democracy Without Borders, 2018) is, as international law scholar Richard Falk notes,  a seminal work. 400 pages of in-depth reading, thinking and organizing of the history of the idea of world parliament and its ebbs and flows to the current day. Supported with more than 1,000 footnotes, many I have highlighted to peruse as I get a chance (I picked up four books from the library today from those notes). Reading a book like this makes one really appreciate dedicated scholarship and care for the subject. The tone of writing, at least as translated so nicely into English by is welcoming. No stridency, but truly a search for wisdom that might help us figure our way forward together.

The authors offer no magic bullet, but they do offer some possible trajectories that give me, at least, a measure of hope. Hope that as a human family we can come together to wrestle with our globally shared problems (see for example the 17 Sustainable Development Goals the 193 member states of the UN have agreed to).
Democracy Without Borders

As I sit here tonight composing this brief foray into the current human condition, I recognize that the once bright shining light on a hill that America was supposed to be, or what the great American poet Langston Hughes hoped America could be "Let America Be America Again", it is not. In fact we are the biggest problem facing the human family. I say this because we have effectively given ourselves  a coronation as almost divinely inspired leader of the world = American Exceptionalism. We certainly were not democratically elected as such.

While founded on the principles of democracy for some (not women nor blacks) we don't consider that democracy should be applied globally. We frequently take exception to any international legal agreements that the bulk of humanity agrees. Heck, we even back out of agreements - see Paris Climate Accord, Iran Nuclear Agreement, etc. And, of course, we guaranteed ourselves a veto in all decisions of the UN Security Council,an exceptional device we were forced to share with a few other WWII victor states.

Militarily we have bases and troops stationed around the world pouring more money into military industrial complex than the next seven nations combined. If one of "our enemies" was to have a military base or floating warship as close to the US mainland as we are to many nations of the world we would throw a major hissy fit. History doesn't bode well for those who try and run a dominant empire for long. In pursuit of our myth of exceptionalism we have released more carbon, created more income inequality, and more social distress, while a select few prosper regally.

As a young boy I remember learning about virtues. For some reason the one that always stood out for me was "wisdom".  I figured if one had wisdom, one would naturally use all the other virtues in a balanced way. I have no real firm grasp of how one acquires wisdom. Some suggest that it comes with age or experience in the world. But, of course there is no guarantee. Some suggest that study will get us there, but that will likely only get us additional knowledge. And knowledge is not wisdom. Bernie Sanders explained this distinction well in debates with Hillary Clinton, where he noted she indeed had strong knowledge, but faulted her on her 'judgment'. Judgment is a key component of wisdom.

The authors of World Parliament while they surely do not claim any specific wisdom, have given us a glimpse of what it might look and feel like for the human family in the 21st Century as we try to find our way into a common future on a threatened planet. One of the undercurrents visible in their search for wisdom can be found I think in this quote:

A world legal system with a world parliament will not come about simply because it is ethically and morally superior to the present system of international law and because in any rational debate it has the more persuasive arguments. That may be a good starting position, but in and of itself it is of course not sufficient. The internal law expert Richard Falk has pointed out that '[i]n world order studies it is traditional to propose a better system of world order and then argue for its adoption. Such an approach tends to be "utopian" or "romantic" in the sense that it overlooks the transition from "here" to "there."' It was assumed that the better arguments would prevail. However, this dispute will not be settled in the debating clubs but in the political arena. 'Those who benefit from existing arrangements of power and interest', writes Falk, 'are unlikely to be swayed, except in marginal or cosmetic respects, by appeals based upon argument or values.' He argued that power can only be transformed only by countervailing power. 'No world order solution which presupposes the substantial modification of the state system can be achieved unless the advocates of the new system are aligned with important social and political forces within the existing world structure."

My hope is that we are wise enough to understand this before it is too late. The authors report that in world wide surveys as many as 72% of our fellow earthlings consider themselves "citizens of the world." Once the US citizenry can get beyond our self-appointed exceptionalism and truly commit to a global democratic system we may have a chance. But if we are to be successful in time, we better start pushing now.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Golden Parachutes and Income Inequality

This practice has irked me for decades. In higher education we see it more often reported in relationship to highly paid athletic coaches and athletic directors when they are fired. The rest of us stiffs can work 30 years or more and retire with maybe a watch or other symbol of appreciation. Not the high rollers. On top of extraordinary salaries year after year,  they walk away when they are finished with benefits the rest of us cannot fathom.

Image result for golden parachutes

Case in point is the Lansing State Journal story yesterday on the former Michigan State University president. It is a common practice for tenured full professors, not for the rest of us, to get an extra year of salary when they retire for basically doing anything they want, or not much at all. Now the janitors, food service workers and others who make somewhere  between  $30,000 - $40,000 or so  a year, might get  handshake when they leave after 30 years. The MSU president who made millions over the years  at MSU will make an additional $700,000 for her first retirement year and then some $562,000 year  thereafter.  The janitor/food worker would have to work 40 hrs a week for 14 to 18 years to see the kind of money the lame duck receives.

Image result for map of highest paid public employees

Of course, the president is not  the highest paid campus employee. That honor would go, like in most states, to one of our coaches.  Men’s basketball coach squeaks by on $4.2 million (2017). While head football coach  got a juicy raise this year (2018) of  $700,000, because $3.6 million wasn’t enough, putting the two at parity.  Lord only knows what golden parachutes they will exit with. MSU is a public institution, for which it is hard to justify how high these salaries go. Unless, of course you raise the feeble neoliberal argument that the market is the supreme ruler that trumps any other value worth consideration.

MSU doesn’t report its median salary – that point between which half of the employees make more and half make less, at least the last time I tried to find it. While there are many professors and administrators who make six figure salaries the vast majority of those are between $100,000 - $300,000. A relative handful rise above that level.

The median household income in Michigan is $52,492. That’s a household income, not a per capita income. According to a study from 2016 by the Michigan League for Public Policy, Michigan is the 11th worst state for income inequality, where the top 1% earn more than 22 times than the bottom 99%. If MSU’s lowest salary is approximately $30,000 then if that ratio (22) transfers to campus, the 1% would make more than $660,000. There are probably roughly 10,000 full-time employees at MSU. The  100 highest paid would be a rough equivalent of the 1%. Our highest paid coaches each make about 140 times the lowest paid employee. Of course golden parachutes are never calculated into the 1% income stream. They are hidden.

Growing income inequality is one of the biggest challenges facing the human family here and abroad. While raising the floor to ensure everyone can live a decent life for working 40 hours will help,  the unconstrained acceleration of wealth accumulation at the top needs to be halted if this gap is to reach some more morally defensible level. You would think a public institution would have that as a key goal and want to provide a model for its students to observe .  But if we continue to hire leaders who continue to imbibe the neoliberal kool-aid, we can be sure the accelerating inequality will grow. Perhaps the LSJ story can inspire a serious conversation about this most serious and growing problem.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

A Double Anniversary to Remember

Today, April 4, marks two significant anniversaries. Of course, one is the one remembered by nearly  all who were alive at the time - the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, on April 4, 1968, 50 years ago today. One of the most visible leaders of his time, executed by hate for his courage, his powerful orations and his fearless efforts on behalf of his race and all who suffer injustice. I was eighteen on that day and had just become awakened that winter and spring to the injustice of the Vietnam War, poverty and racial injustice.

Image result for time to break silence

I lived in Detroit and vividly remember the riots of  '67. My late father suffered a heart attack the morning of the beginning of the riot and I became his ambulance driver to the hospital emergency room where we waited for medical evaluation over the long day and evening before he was admitted. During that day and the days that followed we saw many of the wounded arrive by 'real' ambulance and wait for treatment. No doubt this was the beginning of my education into racial injustice.

Less than a year later, on the day of King's murder, I reconnected with an old grade school pal and we walked our Detroit neighborhood catching up and while trying to make sense of this shocking murder, who was behind it, what might it trigger,etc. I still remember feeling stunned, as much, if not more so than the assassination of President Kennedy four and a half years earlier. I was learning and  trying to understand whether Martin's take on the world was more accurate or if Malcolm's was the one to hitch on to. Of course, I didn't know their histories and personal and philosophical paths to the moment of their deaths. I knew really only what the media told me. But 50 years later I can clearly recall that discussion with my friend Rick and how we both were stirred to consider the racism that to us white northerner teenagers had been somewhat hidden.

Image result for time to break silence

It was only years later after becoming much more involved in anti-war activity that I learned more about King's own journey. Which brings me to the second anniversary, 49 years ago today, one year to the day of his assassination, - MLK Jr., Jr.s' powerful speech at the Riverside Church in NYC - "A Time to Break Silence". This speech hosted by the group Clergy and Laity Concerned was the one where Martin expanded his view of justice to nonviolence to address war and militarism. He was roundly chastised by friend and foe alike for stepping over the boundaries of civil rights in an attempt to enlarge the circle of compassion. I have listened and read this speech many times and as I did earlier today. His language is powerful as this early excerpt from the introduction confirms:

I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join you in this meeting because I'm in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization which has brought us together: Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam. The recent statements of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart, and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: "A time comes when silence is betrayal." And that time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.

He surely tackles the issue of Vietnam head-on in the remainder of the speech. But like most of his later work, he makes many connections with injustice across a wide spectrum of our society. War and militarism are not separate, discrete parts of injustice. They are deeply entrenched as he begins to layout his seven reasons for addressing Vietnam.

Since I am a preacher by calling, I suppose it is not surprising that I have seven major reasons for bringing Vietnam into the field of my moral vision. There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I, and others, have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor -- both black and white -- through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated, as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So, I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.

He sees the hypocrisy of calling for nonviolence for civil rights struggles while ignoring the violence of war. 

 I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.

He digs deeper to shine the light on how our nation has been found on the wrong side of the world revolution we seek.

It is with such activity in mind that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin...we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

... A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, "This way of settling differences is not just." This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

This speech of King's may not be his best, although it is my favorite. How might one make such a judgment? But it is clearly entwined with all the vigor, courage, vision, wisdom of someone who saw the world connected in ways most of us have not. Throughout this talk he continues to chide his own weaknesses, but in doing so calls on our better selves to ponder our own responsibility for the world we live in. You can read and ponder his words for yourself HERE. Or better yet, listen to his own voice HERE

True wisdom does not grow old. His words are as important today as they were 51 years ago, maybe more so.

We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood -- it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, "Too late." 

Sunday, March 11, 2018

What is Enough and Who Decides?

Enough - sufficient to satisfy a need

Sufficient - Being as much as is needed

These definitions from the American Heritage College Dictionary( 4th edition, 2002) are worthy of  more than passing consideration as we face multiple challenges of trying to live well, justly, equitably on a single finite planet and to leave those that follow us the same possibility. To fall short of 'enough' is to live in poverty or wretched conditions in a most fragile state. Too many of our brothers and sisters share that plight. There are more than 65 million displaced persons - families forced from their even most modest homes. More than a billion mired in extreme poverty.

There is modest attention in the developed world directed toward enabling those who struggle at the bottom of the pyramid in their own nations to receive a 'minimum wage' for their labor. But by almost any measure that minimum alone will not lift anyone out of poverty. Thus the call for a 'living wage' that coupled with a sufficiently strong social safety net would provide for 'enough' to live on.

I just finished reading through a new short, but thoughtful book that examines the concept and possibilities and constraints around the idea of a "living wage." The Living Wage, by Donald Hirsch and Laura Valadez-Martinez is part of a new series of short primers that "introduce students to the core concepts, theories and models, heterodox and mainstream, contested and accepted, used by economists and political economists to understand and explain the workings of the economy."

The Living Wage

The authors do an admirable job of getting into the weeds to help us see better what such a concept means, how attempts to apply it have fared, and what  we might also use to assist in meeting the goal of insuring that workers make an adequate income from which to live a modest life. They spend time examining the difference between a mandatory minimum wage and the various ways a living wage has been defined. While I won't attempt to summarize the breadth of their explorations in this short blog, I would like to use it as a jumping off point of something they largely ignored, but which I think is essentially required if one is to realistically provide an economy where all workers make enough income to live a life with "minimum acceptable living standards".

The elephant, that I see standing in the room, in all of this discussion about a realistic living wage is the moral obligation to consider a "maximum wage" or perhaps in the view of Socioeconomic Democracy author Robley George, "maximum allowable wealth." Wealth is obviously the cumulative measure of income, not simply a weekly check or an annual salary. With all the talk and increasing data about growing income inequality you might think that there might be equal discussions not simply about the limits we believe those at the bottom need to have acceptable living standards, but also of the limits at the top. In other words, in this finite world, how much is too much?

As were were struggling to emerge from the Great Depression, which like our most recent downturn a decade ago was driven by the greed in the financial world, there was a debate about what was "too much". President Roosevelt, during the early years of WWII pushed strenuously for a maximum after tax income [the only one that ultimately matters] of $25,000 (the equivalent of some $350,000 today). Although he kept pushing this idea a conservative Congress pushed back. But by the end of WWII there was in place a 94% tax on all income above $200,000. As author Sam Pizzagati notes,

"Americans making over $250,000 in 1944 — over $3.2 million today — paid 69 percent of their total incomes in federal income tax, after exploiting every tax loophole they could find. In 2007, by contrast, America’s 400 highest earners paid just 18.1 percent of their total incomes, after loopholes, in federal tax."

The graph above from Wikipedia shows that the top rate stayed above 90% into the 1960's when it dropped to 70%, and with adoption of the Reagan trickle-down theory in the 1980s a more precipitous drop to below 40%. That last drop also included a collapse of the number of brackets which is similar to what we saw preceding WWI, when we were in our earlier period of gross inequality.

Roosevelt's strategy was to simultaneously support the war effort and build a strong safety net for the citizens who had suffered through the Depression. It's pretty easy to see that the growth in income and wealth inequality we have experienced since the end of the Eisenhower administration is directly correlated with the drop in the maximum tax rate since then further diminished by Reagan and Bush II tax cuts. So we shouldn't be surprised when we see the results of the recent Trump/Republican tax cuts to keep that inequality increasing.

Increasing the marginal tax rates is one approach to shrinking income inequality. Another approach which has been murmured in a few places is the idea of mandating maximum wage ratios. This is the idea that the ratio between the highest paid employee and the lowest should not exceed a certain ratio, e.g., 20:1. The founders of Ben and Jerry's ice cream initially had a self-imposed 5:1 ratio that they held for 16 years before it shifted to 17:1. Once they were swallowed up by Unilever that practice evaporated.

CEO to worker wage ratio has ballooned in the past few decades peaking during the Clinton bubble years.

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The most recent study from the Economic Policy Institute on this issue from 2016 showed the average ratio of the 350 largest public corporations to their median wage employee (not the lowest paid - the one in the middle) was 271:1.

A report last week from Equilar of 356 corporations for 2017 puts the average CEO to median wage worker at 241:1. We can expect more reports as the 2010 Dodd-Frank legislation require this figure to be reported by public corporations starting this year.

The AFL-CIO looks at the average pay ratio between the CEOs of the Fortune 500 and their production and non-supervisory workers and found the ratio for 2016 was 347:1. The various studies note  that corporate CEO's also usually get many more benefits that are not tabulated into these compensation studies.

If we were to decide how much was enough at both the bottom and the top, how might we do that? Who gets to decide? Robley George has offered and very intriguing possibility worth some serious consideration. To really appreciate it one should read his book length review of these issues in Socioeconomic Democracy. A short, but well done summary of his arguments and suggestions is available here. George suggests that all voting citizens of the nation discuss and vote simultaneously on the "Guaranteed universal minimum income" and the "maximum allowable wealth" [note this is wealth not income. He discusses the rationale for this distinction and approach].

If a citizen feels that there should be no maximum they could vote for the cap to be at infinity. If they decided that there should be no floor, than can vote for zero. Using a system of preference voting the votes are tabulated and collapsed until a figure is reached at each end for which 50% +1 is achieved and the benchmarks are set until revisited at the next general election where they can again be changed by the popular vote.

Of course this seems radical to our well-seasoned eyes. But a year long public discussion might lead to some businesses, local governments or communities, or even states giving birth to approaches that accomplish some of the same goals in a democratic fashion. While this approach might help us move closer to a more equal society within one nation, this still leaves us the serious and moral dilemma of how to address global inequality that is so much more severe. While the difficulty could easily steer us away from addressing what to many appears intractable, we need to address this with the same commitment to fairness and justice for which we seek it within our own country.

There is only so much of this planet to share and yet preserve for those generations to follow. Grappling with these issues will require all of us to dig in, to study, to listen and to seek solutions that perhaps we cannot yet glimpse from where we stand. When we do this in a spirit of solidarity with all we share this planet with, the outcome must improve our current state. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to reach senior citizen status especially owe our remaining days and years to seek solutions for those we love and the residents of planet earth we leave behind.

Let's get on with it. Up off the couch.

AN ADDENDUM: Monday, March 12.

In 1935, Marine Major-General Smedley Butler wrote  "War is a Racket" . In it he offered the following relevant advice pertinent to this blog entry:

     "The only way to smash thus racket is to conscript capital and industry and labor before the nation's manhood can be conscripted. One month before the government can conscript the young men of the nation -- it must conscript capital and industry and labor. Let the officers and the directors and the high-powered executives of our armament factories and our munitions makers and our shipbuilders and our airplane builders and the manufacturers of all the other things that provide profit in wartime as well as the bankers and the speculators, be conscripted -- to get $30 a month, the same wage as the lads in the trenches get. [That soldier's wage would be $526.56 in 2016 dollars. The monthly wage for a modern E-1 (enlisted soldier) is $1,599.90.] 
[as cited in Gar Smith, The War and Environment Reader (2017) p.266.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Who Me Worry? I Believe We All Should.

"It is not light that we need but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder." 
Frederick Douglass


I signed into a webinar this week hosted by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. The webinar was presented by Jessica Gehl   on “Sustainable Development Goals(SDG’s) – How Will They Impact Your Business?”

The bulk of the webinar was based on some extensive survey work done by PwC with responses from 986 businesses from 90 countries and more than 2,000 citizen responses from 37 countries. Business, not surprisingly,  sees  Goal #8- Decent Work and Economic Growth as most important goal of the 17 SDG’s. They also see opportunities with Goals  #9 -Industry Innovation and Infrastructure, Goal # 7- Affordable and Clean Energy,  Goal #12 -Responsible Consumption and Production,  and Goal #13- Climate Action. While this is heartening on the face of it, when you compare it to the citizen responses there appears little shared vision.

Citizens see it a bit differently. Goal  #2, -Zero Hunger was highest priority followed by Goal #13- Climate Action,  Goal #4- Quality Education,  Goal #1 - No Poverty, and Goal #6 -Clean Water and Sanitation. Admittedly all goals are important and no country has met them all yet. An interesting attempt to visualize this was produced at the University of Leeds.

The following morning I was reading further in Michael Walzer’s most recent book A Foreign Policy for the Left(Yale University Press, 2018) in which he makes a key observation worth holding while looking at this disjuncture between business and the public good that PwC has reported.

Capitalist corporations and their governmental servants will never by themselves address avoidable hunger and disease, works towards the elimination of global poverty, defend the environment, or accede to the empowerment of their workers. They must be challenged by social movements and subjected to the political control of a mobilized demos.” (p.43)

Ms. Gehl’s webinar in fact went on to show that Goal #1 No Poverty and Goal #2 Zero Hunger  were among the least important goals reported by businesses in the survey. That seems to confirm Walzer’s point quite clearly. I would like to offer another consideration that both points to confirming Walzer’s observation, but is rarely discussed.

Research done at the University of Leeds referenced above that tries to help us visualize the challenges of meeting all the SDG’s simultaneously, shows a striking reality we must surely confront.  Given that we have only a single finite planet to call home there are limits we are forced to face. When the researchers at the Sustainability Research Institute at Leeds looked at seven environmental indicators and eleven social indicators for 150 countries that closely parallel the SDG’s they found that:
Based on the social thresholds that we chose, we concluded that resource use would need to decline by a factor of two to six times for all the world’s people to live well within planetary boundaries.[emphasis added]

That is one heck of lot of resource reduction needed. While technology improvements (efficiency) will surely be essential in a hurry, the size of the necessary reductions also demands substantial behavior changes (conservation). Technological optimists typically brush off the need for, or value of, conservation efforts. This tendency exists despite the fact that conservation is almost always less expensive and a quicker response to the problem.

A couple of  local examples make this point for me.

At Michigan State University where I worked for 30 years we struggled to increase both efficiency and conservation to reduce our carbon footprint. On a campus of 5,000 acres hundreds of buildings including many research facilities housing and feeding 15,000 of the 50,000 students getting to neutral will be a long haul. Yet even while investments in efficiencies and conservation measures were heartfelt, much of the resulting gains were lost to a combination of continued growth of the built environment and questionable exceptions to the energy reduction plans.

Under construction currently are in excess of 130,000 additional square feet of building space to be heated, cooled, lit and powered. In recent years additions to the football stadium have added giant scoreboards and other lighting that are not on simply on the few days the football stadium hosts an event. The softball and baseball fields have added electric field heating systems to help speed up thawing of fields for Spring baseball and softball. Somehow the limits to growth seem beyond the administration's comprehension.

Just across city limits, the local municipal utility, Lansing Board of Water and Light, in its effort to move away from coal has proposed a very large natural gas plant to replace the coal fired plants it wants to take down. While all agree that natural gas is more efficient in reducing carbon releases than coal, the construction and reliance on a large centralized fossil fuel plant with the threats of climate destabilization staring us in the face seems like a death wish - perhaps not for us senior citizens, but certainly those that follow.

picture of natural gas plant

From what I have learned, the rationale the management has accepted is based upon:
  • A lack of  sense of urgency to address climate destabilization driven largely by human activity 
  • Low expectations from potential efficiency or conservation reductions
  • Assumption of higher costs for renewable options, even as the speed of those cost downturns increases
  • Low threshold stance for return-on-investment(ROI) expectation
Changing any one or two of those figures in the equation would of course change the result. Yet, if there is no sense of urgency, the will to push for alternatives is absent. I suspect part of this epidemic of denial regarding the urgency required of humans to limit their footprint, is based on the religion of technological optimism. That we will manage to invent all we need in the time we need it.

 Almost twenty years ago,  economist Robert Costanza offered a very potent reflection on the quandary before us in an article “Will it be Star Trek, Ecotopia, Big Government or Mad Max” in the Futurist magazine. In this short six-page article he lays out the possible scenarios based upon a matrix looking at technological optimism vs. technological skepticism. He paints two pictures for each-- when they are right and when they are wrong.

A summary of his scenarios would not do it justice. But a read by all might help us work our way forward together by understanding whether one is an optimist or skeptic on technology our judgments should consider the possible ramifications Costanza  hints are before us. As he notes, “We need to take a closer look at the costs of being wrong.” Such a reading and reflection is not only timely. It is urgent.

Perhaps the best explanation of this needed sense of urgency is explained by the late Prof. of Physics Al Bartlett at the University of Colorado to his students. This 90 second video should be viewed and reflected on by us all.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

A Compass for the Future

Michigan State University (MSU) is making national and international news. And it's not for its prowess on athletic fields or courts. In fact, as I'm sure everyone reading this is aware, it is for the tragedy of sexual abuse that went on for years without being stopped. The president is gone, the gymnastics coach is gone, the athletic director just quit and the abuser will remain in prison until he dies. Yet to go, but likely so, are the board of trustees.

There is plenty of anguish in these parts for the victims and for the stain on the university that will outlive many of its supporters. I wrote a couple of days ago about this horrible set of events being an opportunity. In the house cleaning that has started there is an opportunity to pause as an institution and decide in what direction to steer. Many of us believe the current board of trustees is not capable of the clear thinking and leadership necessary to make the transition. Those who visit this blog will recognize that I do read a bit. Most of what I read I bump into. Sometimes as a footnote to a work in hand, sometimes on a new book shelf in a library or a used book in a bookstore. Rarely do I decide to buy a copy of a book after I have just read a library or used copy. One of the books in my hands the past few mornings is this exception to the rule, even though I'm past the halfway point. It is a book that anyone looking to find a direction for MSU and higher education to head would be wise to read!!

I read, as the occasional readers of my blog would know, many works I do recommend. Few do I find so special that I can't wait to let the world know. Such is the case with David Orr's Dangerous Years: Climate Change, The Long Emergency and The Way Forward. It is not that it covers territory that no one else has explored. David refers to many of the works I have read and mentioned in this blog over the years. His 50 pages of notes are themselves worth a read. But there is simply something striking about the 'wholeness' quality of his thought combined with the clarity of thought and language, and a palpable infusion of deep caring. While I can't quite find adequate words to describe this book, let me just say that one could open up randomly to any page and find paragraphs that are profound and lyrical. I will post below a small handful of examples from my reading thus far.

Image result for david orr

David recently retired from Oberlin College where he was the Paul Sears Distinguished Faculty for Environmental Studies and Politics. He has been a leader in awakening higher education to the responsibility to help us recognize our interdependence with nature and to the coming challenges of climate change and other forces.

Dangerous Years came out at the end of 2016. Something I overlooked until a week ago when I pulled it from the library shelf. I met David 20 years ago at a meeting in Atlanta of some emerging leaders of sustainability in higher education. I had read and been inspired by his 1992 book, Ecological Literacy. I have bumped into David a number of times over the years at conferences, and organized a panel program with him . Since Oberlin is only a four hour drive from East Lansing I invited him speak a number of times over the years at our campus, from which he received his M.A. before going off to the University of Pennsylvania to complete his PhD. I also have visited David in Oberlin for the dedication of the remarkable Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies at Oberlin in 1999. This was then and remains one of the most environmentally conscious designed buildings on any campus. It's worth a blog in its own right.

Image result for adam joseph lewis center

More recently I visited David with a colleague in 2015 to interview him about the Oberlin Project -  a city/campus partnership that was re-conceptualizing community development. The last chapter of this book goes into some detail on that effort. Throughout the years I have followed David's writings and talks as one follows any mentor you might admire. For years he wrote profoundly thoughtful essays for the scholarly journal Conservation Biology. Many of these made their way into some of his later books. Those essays challenged us to re-think what we knew about the world and our role in it. Dangerous Years seems to pull it altogether. While I like to think that I read broadly, David's breadth of reading is light years beyond me. A short visit to his lengthy and informative notes will prove that.

But unlike most scholars who manage to get lost in the cloistered vernacular of their discipline, David is able to condense and provide access to the thoughts of others turgid prose leaping intellectual boundaries. Perhaps a couple of the accolades say it better.

"No one has thought more deeply about the great challenges of our time than David Orr. Dangerous Years is an erudite, impassioned, and deeply wise book."—Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

"No one knows more about the hole we're in, and no one has worked any harder to get us out of it—David Orr is a necessary guide to the great climate crisis we find ourselves in, and this is a vital book."—Bill McKibben, author Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
"David Orr has written a perfectly marvelous book, a deep and wide-ranging reflection on the human condition. It's a winner, and a rare one at that."—James Gustave Speth, author of Red Sky at Morning, The Bridge at the End of the World, and America the Possible

 Some examples from Dangerous Years follow:

     "The deeper challenge, however, is to transform the substance and process of education, beginning with the urgent need to prepare the rising generation -- as best as we are able -- for a rapidly destabilizing ecosphere for which we  have no precedent. We cannot know what they will need to know or how they should be taught, but we do know that they will need the kind of education that enables them t see across old boundaries of disciplines, geography, nationality, ethnicity, religion, and time. They will have to be intellectually agile without losing their sense of place and rootedness. They will need to rise above fundamentalism of all kinds, including those rooted in the faith that more and better gadgets or an ever-growing economy can save us. They will need an ethical foundation oriented to the protection of life and the rights of generations to come. They will have to rediscover old truths and what biochemist Erwin Chargaff called "forgotten knowledge." They will need to know how to connect disparate fields of knowledge, how to "solve for pattern," how to design systems of solutions that multiply by positive feedback and synergy. (pp.105-06)

     "Other questions will arise. What kind of knowledge will be necessary for the journey into the "Anthropocene"? What is the proper balance among intellect, heart, and hands? How do we join smartness with compassion? How should we improve the curriculum or reform the pedagogy to better prepare our students for the novel challenges they will surely face? How do we engage the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences in way commensurate with climate destabilization? How do we sustain our morale or that of students in difficult times and keep authentic hope alive? How do we calibrate our concerns for justice and fairness with a remorseless and unrelenting biophysical reality. ((p.109)

     "The reason that climate destabilization does not attract foundation attention is that the great majority of trustees, foundation administrators, and program officers -- even at this late date -- know relatively little about climate science and how the earth works as a physical system and why such things matter for what they and their grantees do. They are selected and hired because they have been successful in their endeavors, notably finance, business, law, media, academics and public affairs, fields that offer little incentive or occasion for serious reflection on such things as the fate of the earth. Not having thought much about it, and consorting with others similarly disinclined, they have not thus far been moved to do much about it. With some exceptions, they are, by and large, not people easily alarmed even by alarming things and so are inclined to overlook rapid climate change as only another item on a long list of problems. In philanthropic circles, then, climate destabilization lacks priority among the myriad of other concerns. (p.124)

     "We instinctively affiliate with "life and life-like processes," or what biologist E.O. Wilson calls "biophilia." Very young children have a rudimentary, prearticulate sense of fairness. I am inclined to think that compassion, kindness to strangers, mercy, and forgiveness are in some patchy way woven into our behavior. Deep in our bones, some things just feel, right and others abhorrent. This, I think, is the substratum of our still-evolving moral consciousness and may explain why it seems very odd whether -- by any stretch of logic or sophistry -- a few generations have the right to hog more than their fair share of Earth's resources, including climate resilience. We are perhaps the first and perhaps the last generation likely to have the moral elasticity and inclination to debate such questions. (p.133)

     "For serious philanthropists of all kinds, the first challenge of truly loving humankind requires that we understand, protect, and, when possible, enhance the natural systems that nourish our bodies and souls. Restoring health to the systems we have damaged and on which we depend, however, is more than tidying up a bit after a binge. It is rather an act of atonement for the original sin of being so casually, carelessly, and sometimes wantonly destructive of things, about which we know so little and on which we depend so much. But it requires no more than an enlightened, ecologically informed self-interest. The second challenge is harder and goes further. It is to make certain that the good Earth is passed on in full to those who will (or would have) come after us. Call it a gift if you so choose, or trusteeship or stewardship, but by any name the safe passage of Earth to coming generations would be the first deliberate act of  true philanthropy from one generation to another. (p.136)

“We live in a tightly interconnected but also highly fractured nuclear-armed world in which our very survival depends on our learning to overcome our various parochialisms and divisions. We may never learn to see each other as brothers and sisters, but we have to learn to get along. That is not so much a  breakthrough as a long process by which we learn empathy and acquire the art and science of systems thinking—by which I mean the quality of mind that discerns the “patterns that connect,” in Gregory Bateson’s words. The ability to see our connectedness in larger systems is inherent in all religions, the root word for which means bound together. Like it or not, the fact is that we are kin to all that ever lived and all that will ever live—one link in the great chain of being. We may not appreciate all of our kinfolk, but their pictures are in the family scrapbook alongside our own. We are a small thread in the fabric of evolving life on Earth. In the presence of such vastness and mystery the only appropriate attitudes are those of wonder, gratitude, and lots of humility. But this is not what modern education aims to cause or cultivate. (p.158)

…The purpose of education presently is not to foster wonder or gratitude or ecological competence but rather to equip young people for jobs and careers in an economy designed to expand without limits. As Thomas Berry puts it:
            The university prepares students for their role in extending the human dominion over the natural world, not for intimate presence to the natural world. Use of this power has devastated the planet…so awesome is the devastation we are bringing about that we can only conclude that we are caught in a severe cultural disorientation, a disorientation that is sustained intellectually by the university, economically by the corporations, and legally by the Constitution, spiritually by religious institutions. (p. 158-9)

…The modern university has come to resemble a Maginot Line with separate fortresses surrounded by moats and minefields. Against nearly impregnable fortifications, direct assaults are almost always futile, especially when organized and led by the non-tenured. When it advances, knowledge does so indirectly by flanking maneuvers and what Thomas Kuhn describes as paradigm changes by gerrymandering the boundaries and patrolling the borders to prevent either defections or intrusions. In fact, all disciplines in higher education endeavor to maintain a monopoly of terms, theories, and agendas, and befuddlements for the un-credentialed. It is called rigor, but is often hard to distinguish from rigor mortis. For all its needless complexity, Rube Goldberg might have been thought the architect of the byzantine machinery of knowledge “production” and transfer, but alas it was done as absent-mindedly as the British once acquired an empire. Nearly everywhere the results are the same. Our academic efforts are generally centripetal, focused (even in this day of “interdisciplinarity”) on the problems narrowly defined by discipline and subdiscipline. And the discussions among the professoriate, with some notable exceptions, leave aside the messy, big questions about the fate of civilization and human survival that are beyond this year’s departmental budget and the pressing problem of parking permits.

            It is not surprising then, that higher education has lost its way and the reasons are many. It is too expensive and too oriented to careers. The system is often demoralizing to students and faculty alike, populated by a growing number of underpaid and exploited adjunct faculty and administered in its upper reaches by educational barons paid princely salaries with lavish perks. In the larger and more successful universities, the ancient purposes of learning and so forth have become adornments to the sports programs that rake in millions of dollars while budgets for the philosophy department are slashed. Those who believe that markets are the answer, whatever the question, might propose that philosophers field their own teams that would play in stadiums suitably named for Immanuel Kant, Rene Descarte, Socrates, or maybe even Milton Friedman, paid for by the sales of books on the meaning of life and other deeper subjects. (p. 159-60)

As MSU attempts to move forward, they could learn much from the analysis and prescriptions their noted alum offers in these pages. It's not too late, but time is running out.