Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Burning of the Morea

Never in the world did I think that I’d be writing about wildfires more than once in a summer. But I’m preoccupied by the Peloponnesian fires, and the implications of the government’s lack of insight (as well as the possibility of duplicity—scapegoating in order to deflect criticism). I ache when I think the tragic irony implicit in the deaths of a mother and her four children who fled the fire—but whose house survived intact—and those of the couple who refused to leave their only donkey. I’m cheered by the successful efforts of the man who doused his neighborhood with his homemade wine, using a hand-cranked crop sprayer, and saved several homes. But I’m also reminded that, for all our civilized veneer, we are, at times, at the complete mercy of natural processes (whether or not they occur naturally).

I had already begun to regret my mention of the fires yesterday, only in passing, on the way to a different rant, when I read today’s article in the Times, “In Greece, Wine Saves Life; a Mother’s Arms Do Not,” and saw the vivid pictures of the fires in progress, and the aftermath. The situation deserved more consideration than I gave it, because I have loved this particular part of Greece since I first read Nikos Kazantzakis’s description of it, Journey to the Morea, during the summer after I my first year in college. I checked it out of the Hickam Air Force Base library soon after I arrived in Honolulu to spend the summer with my parents, and to be reunited with my brother, whom I hadn’t seen in five years. I spent much of my time pumping gas at the base service station, arriving home exhausted, and retiring to my room to read another chapter. I renewed the book several times (mostly because I was also reading John Fowles’s The Magus, which was a bit more riveting), and am not sure I ever actually finished it. But the double dose of Greece I soaked up over that summer left me with a persistant affection. I stood many times on the beach, gazing out over the Pacific, imagining that I was standing on the verge of the Mediterranean instead.

Five years later, at the Greek town of Pylos, I stood on the ramparts of the old fort, overlooking Navarino Bay, thinking of Kazantzakis, and of that summer, as I entered the third year of my first marriage (which would last only four years altogether). Nearby stood the site of the ancient Palace of Nestor, where Telemachos had gone looking for his absent father. I had begun to study archaeology by then, and had embarked on a three-month trip to ancient sites with my husband, a budding classicist. Pylos was our second stop in the Morea, after Olympia—a site saved from the fires by enormous effort, and only just. That summer we had taken the train from Patras down the coast, through much of the territory that would be almost unrecognizable after this summer’s devastation.

And although I carried the Blue Guide to Greece and a copy of Pausanius as references, the manuscript that truly illuminated the journey was that of Kazantzakis.

My trip through the Morea and the rest of Greece amounted to a rite of passage. I learned firsthand about Greek food (which I would come to love above all other) by choosing from fragrant pans in taverna kitchens, about train and bus travel, about incredibly friendly people, and about staying in tiny unrated hotels. I got to use my fledgling modern Greek (even phoning for reservations in Athens), caught a nasty throat infection on the way to Crete (which led me to “the best otorhinolaryngologos” on the island), and took photographs that would stand me in fine stead decades later in my humanities and art history classes. I still have the painstaking notes I took at each site: Olympia, Pylos, Sparta, Mycenae, Tiryns, Delphi, Knossos, Mallia. And now I go in search of the book that led me there, driven to revisit Kazantzakis by news of wildfires that have nearly obliterated an entire landscape.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa

The papers are full of disaster this week, some apparently natural, some caused by human agency: wildfires in one of the cradles of Western civilization; hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico; bombs everywhere. But even the “natural” disasters arise because of human activity, either accidental or deliberate.

At least some of the “wild” fires in Greece may have been deliberately set by greedy developers who cannot legally build on forest land. If developer-arsonists were to succeed in clearing these areas and build what they want, the people who would buy housing constructed on burnt-out areas are not the villagers who now live adjacent to them. Those who occupy these lands today would be replaced by rich Athenians looking for vacation homes, or rich foreigners. Greece, like other chronically dry regions—such as the Owens valley—is subject to periodic wildfires. Fire is actually necessary for the regeneration of certain forest species (like the Jack pines on Long Island). But persistent drought and human greed can over-burden the forest’s ability to “fix” itself. The irony here, as it is with any concept of razing existing spaces for new construction, is that what makes the area desirable in the first place (nature, neighborhood) is destroyed in the process.

The presence of human beings in the world, with their big, active, inventive, restless brains, has initiated such a complex web of actions, reactions, and interactions, that the only way to ameliorate the consequences is to stop. Period.

If we want to save the world, it’s pretty clear that we’d better stop doing most of what we’re doing, and quickly. We need to slow down, breathe, think, ponder, deliberate, talk. I was going to add “do” to that list, but “doing” needs to be curtailed. Thinking before doing—and not just paying lip service to the thinking part—is something we really must do more of.

Unfortunately, deliberation can be debilitating, in the sense that thinking things through, weighing consequences, and choosing alternatives can lead to inaction. When faced with a multitude of possibilities, how does one choose the correct path? How does one choose, in the end, what to do?

Thinking things through is tough enough on a personal level, but nigh impossible on even a local level. In small-scale, face-to-face communities, with a relatively homogeneous citizenry (homogeneous not necessarily in the sense of ethnicity, race, or even religious affiliation; but in the sense of philosophical orientation, as in many of the “alternative” communities set up in the sixties and seventies), such deliberation might be possible, and even promise some success. But we don’t breathe local air.

And therein lies the rub. What everybody else does on this planet affects us down to the level of individual entities. So coal-mine fires in India and China may be polluting the air and warming the atmosphere to an extent similar to that of the car-loving, energy-hogging West. Nobody escapes guilt, because even the peasant farmers who aspire to what we have will do what they can to achieve our level of “civilization.” So, we try to do what we can to reduce our impact, our carbon footprint, our level of consumption—and we end up feeling angry and frustrated with our puny efforts.

Sometimes I really do want to live on another planet: one we haven’t messed up beyond repair. It’s pretty obvious to me that there’s nowhere on this formerly-green earth in which to start over—to stop doing what we’re doing and go back to considering the consequences of our actions before we actually take action. Not going to happen. Everybody breathes the same air, and there are few places left that are isolated enough to avoid political confrontation with neighbors. But that doesn’t mean we can’t conduct thought experiments designed to consider alternatives--and that might help us over the hump of despair.

In the current issue of Orion magazine, “Altar Call for True Believers: Are we being change, or are we just talking about change?” Janisse Ray exhorts the already-faithful to start making more significant changes in our lives. But we’re awfully comfortable, some of us believers who are well-educated, reasonably well-healed, and well-informed. Each small step we take toward lowering our dependency on fossil fuels and other exploitative technologies is just that: small. We’re part of the group Stanley Fish mentions in his blog for the New York Times yesterday, “Blowin' in the Wind,” in which he describes the fallacy of relying on “renewable” energy. In his experience, wind-generated power is so intrusive that his neighbors (many of whom fit the description of True Believers) don’t want any part of it. And I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t feel nearly as smug about getting my energy from Green Mountain (with its wind-farms in west Texas and other areas) if its turbines were next door.

The solution is, quite simply, to vastly decrease our dependence on energy of any kind. The thought experiment that might help us solve the problem goes something like this: What if we were to give up electricity? What kind of life could we imagine that relied completely on the sun, animals (see the article on “Horse Power,” also in this issue of Orion), and other natural sources? Of course we’re not going to do this (I wouldn’t be able to write this blog, were it not for the highly exploitative computer technology at my fingertips), but thinking about it might help with the education of desire: How much of this do we really need? How much of it could we reasonably do without?

The very small attempts in my household include the minimization of air conditioning. Last night, despite the fact that yesterday’s temperature reached the mid- to high-90s in our area, we slept without turning on the small window unit in our bedroom. We did cool the room where the (heavily furred) dogs sleep, although the thermostat is set at 80. In fact, for most of this summer, we’ve relied on the two attic fans, one atop the other, in the center of the house, which had been the only source of cooling in the house (built in 1922) for most of its existence. The summer here in north Texas has been relatively mild, with only four days in which the temperature hit 100 (last year the total number was more like forty), and (except for the mosquitoes brought on by the early summer rains) pretty tolerable. At my age I’m not sure how much heat I could stand before caving in, but we don’t have central air conditioning and make do with window units to cool the three rooms we use most. But before freon-based air conditioning was invented, people used the attic fans and the designs of their houses (solid timber on pier-and-beam foundations) to make it through the prairie summers. Janisse Ray’s article has renewed my effort to think even more carefully—beyond the recycle/eat organic food/seek humanely-raised food sources efforts most of us already practice—about how I live in the world. As long as all this deliberation doesn’t lead to immobility (sometimes I do just want to give up and go live in a cave) or complete lassitude, there are probably plenty of small choices we can make that, while not exactly saving the world, might help change it. But we have to choose more of these.

Try the electricity thought experiment. If nothing else, it’ll make you aware of how much you rely on this one technology. And then maybe you can find ways to minimize that reliance.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Mine-Affected World

Photo: an abandoned mine near Independence, California

I apologize for the title pun, but it seemed destined after yesterday’s post. The topic of mining has fascinated me ever since I was a child, when I read Enid Blyton’s adventure novels—many of which took place in the mining regions of Great Britain. Children in these stories found themselves trapped in smugglers’ caves and abandoned mines (most of which contained stores of tinned food, providing the kids with a ready source of nourishment during their adventures). Later, Daphne du Maurier’s novels, set mainly in Cornwall and Devon, often used the mining tradition as a backdrop. Still later, when I began to study the development of technology after the Industrial Revolution, mining kept reappearing as a major theme—one of the unfortunate, but necessary, byproducts of the human “need” for more (and more complex) sources of energy. Even my studies of William Morris touched on the mining industry, since it was his father’s shares in the Devon Great Consols Copper Mine that “earned” the income that allowed him to pursue his interests.

As a child, growing up in Japan and Taiwan, the smell of coal (the primary source of heat and cooking fuel in many of the houses we lived in) burning in the grate made me feel comfortable; it meant warmth. The first coal fire was a seasonal beacon, and the shiny bits in the scuttle next to the pot-bellied stove were fascinating to a five-year old. That stove was the single source of heat in our first house in rural Japan; the goldfish bowl was often placed nearby during the winter—until one night the fire went out, and the goldfish froze.

Years later, in a philosophy of science course, I was introduced to Susan Griffin’s poetic exploration of the connection between Woman And Nature, in which—among many other such meditations—she considers how men have perceived the earth through time: there for the taking, conveniently stratified, so that minerals can be extracted for use in machines.

Perhaps my interest in mines is congenital. My ancestors first moved to the Owens River Valley in California to mine silver; Uhlmeyer Spring, near Big Pine, marks the spot where my grandfather’s uncle washed the ore he took out of the mountain behind the spring. Owens Lake, because of its location near the end of a long Pleistocene drainage system, contains myriad metals and chemicals, and steamboats once plied the lake servicing the mining town of Keeler. My father, as a young man, worked at the Pittsburgh Plate Glass plant on the western side of the lake, helping to harvest potash out of the drying lake. The Inyos, forming the eastern ridge of the basin/range complex that includes the Owens valley and the eastern Sierra Nevada, are studded with abandoned mines. Once, in my teens, I spent a year living with my grandmother, and I remember scaring the living bejeeziz out of her when I came home covered in powdered Dolomite after having spent the afternoon sliding down piles of it outside a mine near Keeler. I looked like somebody’s ghost (not Vonnegut’s, though; he was very much alive and influencing my sense of humor at the time). A recent blog in Mental Floss notes that there are about 40,000 abandoned mines in California alone, several of which are visible from the highway that bisects the valley. Mining was a significant factor in the building of California, and a major constituent of the economy for about a hundred years.

Only recently I came across Wallace Stegner’s novel, Angle of Repose, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize in 1972, and which generated a measure of controversy because it was based on the letters of Mary Hallock Foote. She was the wife of Arthur deWindt Foote, who managed the North Star Mine near Grass Valley, California, at the turn of the nineteenth century, and she made a small career for herself writing and illustrating articles and novels that recounted the life of a miner’s wife during the period. Stegner’s novel uses Foote’s letters, often intact, as the basis for his novel, and they’re frequently riveting. She had met many of the great personalities involved in the world of mining geology, including Clarence King, and her letters about these encounters make the “moment” truly immediate. [One of her articles for Scribners, “A California Mining Camp,” and other works are available through Prof. Donna Campbell’s pages at Washington State University.] Living among mines and miners seems to be a character-building experience second to none.

The trouble is, of course, the cost. As the events at Utah’s Crandall Canyon Mine during the last two weeks illustrate, this is a dangerous business, and potentially the source of real tragedy, in the Greek sense. It’s even more hazardous in this case, as Kirk Johnson notes in his article for the New York Times on Thursday, because of the method used to extract the coal from this particular mine: “there is little doubt, mine experts said, that retreat mining at extreme depth in Utah, where mine-produced tremors are common, creates a tapestry of forces that adds to mining’s inherent hazards.” And the results are tragic, not just because people have died (three rescuers so far, and any hope for the original six trapped miners has all but evaporated)—tragedy wasn't about ordinary people—but because the protagonist of the story is Big Energy and because of the tragic flaw that’s becoming increasingly apparent in human interaction with nature: the overweening arrogance and faulty sense of superior wisdom the Greeks called hubris.

We think we can control nature, use it however we want, and somehow come out ahead. Never mind that deep mining causes lung problems, that jobs disappear when veins are tapped out, and that miners are rarely paid wages that actually compensate them for the dangers they face, or that another technique (strip mining) leaves the landscape barren and polluted. Never mind that the coal extracted from these mines is used in power plants that spew particulates into an atmosphere already so burdened with greenhouse gasses that we’re probably dooming our grandchildren to lives dominated by cancer and lung disease (not to mention irreversible climate change and its consequences). We think (using those big brains) we’re in control. And then the god of the mountain burps, and men with families lose their lives, and towns with few other sources of income lose their economic base.

The only real solution is to lessen our dependence on energy, period. But we’re addicted to the stuff. One wag in the local newspaper (sorry, it was several days ago, and I forgot whose column) commented that we were sacrificing human lives so as not to annoy a few caribou—as if drilling in the Arctic were really going to solve anything. And few of us seem to be getting the message that all of these energy sources we pull out of the earth are finite, and extremely difficult to access. We’re clearly not smart enough (or at least we lack the imagination and political will) to create safe, non-polluting technologies to feed our energy “needs.” So maybe what we really need to do is to carefully assess how much energy is actually necessary, and to think about how to reduce our dependence not just on coal or oil or natural gas, but on what we do with all the energy itself.

Walk more, eat less, grow some of our own food, eat local produce, work when it’s light, sleep when its dark, limit our use of electronic devices, talk, learn, understand.

When William Morris's "Guest" returns to Hammersmith after his adventure upstream in News From Nowhere, rather than being discouraged by the fact that his “epoch of rest” has been a dream, he muses that “if others can see it as I have seen it, then it may be called a vision rather than a dream.” The true visionaries today will have to be those who can see beyond what simply is. Just because we live the way we do doesn’t mean we can’t live differently.

So now I’m going to turn off the computer, go out into the accidental garden, and check on my tomatoes.

Friday, August 17, 2007

The Mind-Affected World

Photo: The Owens River, near Lone Pine, California. Taken before the City of Los Angeles began to release water into the river to help reduce air pollution in the Owens valley.

I was going to write about mining this week, in response to recent events in Utah, but this morning I came across Verlyn Klinkenborg’s short essay in the New York Times (“The 17 Percent Problem and the Perils of Domestication”) about a recent article in Science concerning the disappearance of wilderness. The original article (“Domesticated Nature” in the June 29 issue; it’s available in .pdf format here if you don’t have a subscription to Science) was co-authored by the Nature Conservancy’s Peter Kareiva—who’s interviewed on the topic at the organization’s own website.

The notion that human beings have so intensively penetrated the fabric of nature that little exists untouched by our influence isn't new; Wilhelm Dilthey coined the term "mind affected world" in the nineteenth century to describe this situation as he saw it then, and I remember college anthropology classes in which Dilthey's philosophy formed a core component. After class we would debate the future of human impact on the environment, often over pitchers of beer, with fellow students in physics and geology. Those were heady days, when we thought that there might be a possibility of mitigating that impact in some way, by limiting population, reining in technology (all this was, after all, taking place in the seventies, amidst the "energy crisis" and lines at the gas pump), or otherwise learning how to interact with nature rather than simply to dominate it. But I am now much more skeptical, as is Klinkenborg, because the human track record is so abysmally bad in this regard. Our very intelligence might, in fact, be our most substantial stumbling block--as Kurt Vonnegut posited in his novel,
Galápagos. Our big brains are what get us into trouble.

Our big brains and our small imaginations. Human beings are metaphor makers (homo translator, I call us). We see the world in terms of other things--what we know, the familiar. We can't learn anything except through experience (ours or someone else's), and that experience provides us with metaphors (examples, analogies, patterns, models) that help us decide how to proceed. We're not quite as circumscribed as the Tamarians in the old Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, "Darmok" (used with great glee by those of us who teach about metaphor), because we don't have to have stories on which to base all of our thought processes, but we do require a certain richness of experience in order to be able to think creatively. As Klinkenborg points out in his essay, the very metaphor at the heart of domestication (making the earth our home--domus, in Latin), may itself be the problem. If we see our role on this planet as one of home-making (for us), we compromise the experiences of all the other occupants of the planet--animal, vegetable, mineral--and thus diminish our own. What makes our home comfy comes at the expense of other beings and their homes. Even some of the most evocative words we use to write about nature (ecology, ecosystem) and about how we earn our livings (economics) are grounded in the Greek word for home: oikos.

The Science article quantifies the effects of millennia of human efforts to make earth homey, and describes the processes and impulses that drove us to the present situation--beginning with efforts of early peoples to secure their own safety and food supply. The authors then go on to paint a pretty bleak picture of future interactions (mostly in terms of "tradeoffs": what we give up in order to achieve the level of domestic wealth we now enjoy). Leaving out the question of global warming/climate change, much of what we're seeing in nature (blight in monoculture forests, subsequent wildfires, flooding along leveed rivers, etc.) can be traced to those very tradeoffs. And while I think Kareiva, et al, do a laudable job of describing current conditions, my blood chills when I read passages like this: "The key scientific goals for the study of domesticated nature are to understand what tradeoffs exist between the promotion or selection of different ecosystem services and to determine to what extent we can change a negative tradeoff to a positive one by altering the details of our domestication process" (second to last paragraph).

We are in the habit of referring cavalierly to "natural resources"--as if nature were simply a repository dedicated to the material fulfillment of perceived human needs. (Don't get me started on the use of the term "human resources" for what used to be called "personnel.") Add to this the utterly mechanical notion of "ecosystem services" and the underlying metaphor is laid bare: the earth is a commissary, where human beings line up to acquire "resources" and "services" made available for their use. We have bigger brains, we have machines, we want stuff, so we can decide how and whether or not every other species gets to live.

Maybe the only hope we have is to stop trying to figure out how we can make nature do our bidding and start thinking more about what we really need and what we can do without. But we're not likely to do much self -examination when we're not even aware of how deeply we have altered the entire planet. I'll end with an example drawn from the first exercise I assign to my first-quarter History of Art and Design students. I ask them to locate an image of a natural object, one as little affected by human agency as possible--not, for instance, a picture of a domesticated cat; a tiger or a lion instead. But even after I explain the assignment to them (they are to create an image that reflects what the reference picture evokes), and what I mean by "mind-affected," the results can be dismaying. Reference images frequently include animals in a zoo, or a shot of an American Bison, a dog chained in a back yard, clearly artificial images, and (this quarter) even a boom box! It becomes more difficult every year to remove the veils of technology from over their eyes, and to get them to think carefully about the fact that there isn't a single object within miles of the campus that hasn't been directly impacted by human existence. Kareiva and the others acknowledge this condition, noting that the "choices and actions of urban dwellers influence nature far removed from cities, yet urban dwellers are increasingly unaware of these impacts." Nonetheless, they seem far more sanguine than many of us are about the possibility of improving the situation through conscious human actions. The fewer natural models we have, the fewer metaphors we have to inform our decisions. And without better metaphors, we simply have no way to use these big brains imaginatively enough to foster meaningful change.

The ghost of Kurt Vonnegut, as it haunts the decks of the Bahía de Darwin, has got to be chortling over this latest evidence that our big brains have doomed us.