The Long Slow before the Quickening

Before it takes shape, as it gradually gains hold, the transition to consuming less – basically, what sustainable neutrality reverse is all about, no matter how specifically construed – is happening painfully too slowly. That ‘pace,’ if that’s the right word, explains part of the associated pain that feels all around, as though it were the the only thing accompanying the shift.

News media – ‘legacy’ is a very generous modifier at this point – have little at their disposal beyond the language of cost, suffering, loss, giving up, change in the context of deprivation. We can say this is the wrong framing, but acknowledging the limitation is important, especially if we are going to progress beyond it.

No magic button here, but a recognition of a kind of system-wide failure, of education, articulation, creativity. But that limit is shading another, broader system-wide failure unfolding right in front of us so slowly, slowly as it can and gradually as a massive system/combination of overlapping massive systems does, that it can seem invisible, not believable, deniable.

Maybe it has slipped the bounds of deniability, as several big things begin to occur at once and more quickly. The need to reckon with the slowness and the quickening, while not seeming to be our major challenge, is the key to unlocking all the other challenges. The cognitive dissonance of a world on fire/drowning will lead to despair absent the ability to think our way out of it.

In some quarters, that is indeed a dark thought. But that’s what we’ve got to do. As I’ve written here and elsewhere over the years, the Earth is still a kind of lady in waiting, with waning patience for us to get our act(s) together. She’s going to start touching herself soon and we’re still not close to ready to think about that.

What intelligence?

How we have prioritized as’ artificial’ as ‘improved’ or superior hearkens back to nothing so much as the advent of sugar substitutes. As we have come to understand artificial sweeteners, so should we think about, as in consider, so-called A.I. The emphasis on artificial has us reeling but in its best light it seems inadvertent – innocently derived from ‘simulated’ – and, whatever the case may be, is not new:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, ‘I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so’. Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:

While freely conceding that the Soviet régime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigours which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.

The inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. I should expect to find – this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify – that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship.

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.

You always want it to be more difficult to find an example from Orwell than it actually is.

Moving on from Cheap and Plenty

Waste – where does it all come from, where does it all go? In a closed system (Earth), a little of it goes everywhere and all of it goes nowhere. We ‘deal’ with waste by putting it out of view, all the while we make more stuff, want more stuff, buy more stuff, sell more stuff, invent fake stuff to buy and sell, even if it’s a ponzi scheme [Narrator: It’s a ponzi scheme].

Now comes the lament that the good days of cheap goods and easy access to them is coming to an end. It is but a scare tactic. And from the perspective of waste – and not only that – were those days so good? The ethos, such as it is, of disposable _____ (goods, culture, food) creates a self-fulfilling emptiness. We could argue that cultivation of these seeds of despair have bloomed and blossomed, and as we feast upon them, they only serve to further famish. Why? What’s the mystery? From wanting nothing issues the inability to figure out what is wanted, what is meaning, what’s it’s all for. As the noted philosopher Jethro Bodine reminds us, “naught from naught equals naught.”

We shudder at the very thought of empty shelves or infringements on long commutes, when fewer shelves and shorter drives represent a signal turn for the better. But gladly to rush into the arms of division and destruction only to maintain the misery fix, we’re only the worse and will fight to keep it.

These failings are ours, but within them lay great tools of rebuilding – not more new things, but better new selves. All of our many advantages were not achieved just to make money off of money, but to make music – whether that means actual notes and tones to you or not – to enjoy and enjoin.

How to channel the urge to exploit? Realize every instance of the act reserves a double portion for the actor and we won’t need to worry with saving the Earth (closed system) when we get serious about saving ourselves.

Two good shoes and all.

Planetary quandary as nomenclature

If you can get beyond the extraordinary and expected CEO worship, there are worthy bags to unpack on the subject of Capitalism struggling with the language of climate change:

Confusing climate terminology has become commonplace among governments, and in some cases can even understate more far-reaching goals. Kelly Levin at the World Resources Institute found that many European countries say their goal is carbon neutrality, but digging in the documents reveals the target covers all greenhouse gases. California, which would be the world’s fifth-largest economy if it were a country, makes the same mistake.

“These are growing pains, as we translate the science into what it means for business and society,” said Ateli Iyalla, managing director of North America for CDP, a group advocating emission disclosures. “It’s important to use the right language and get the terminology right to send the right signals to the marketplace.”

Suspicion of implied deliberate obfuscation is warranted, so caveat lector always. A fixation on the marketplace, kicking the can as far out as it can be painlessly imagined deserves skepticism. But this struggle is admitting a chief flaw of capitalism, as a system seeking to right itself when solutions beg its very existence. As a system ideology, capitalism will not be able to completely reconcile its culpability without a commensurately profitable framing, it’s just an impossibility, a sine qua non of the entire, roll-up-your-pants, build-the-deck-higher mentality in the face of literal and figurative rising seas.

We can be interested in this struggle as an intellectual, artistic matter, yet parsing its ongoing circulation throughout financial systems and wealth management strategies it must be seen as an altogether different sort of reckoning: signal-sending, profit-guarding and bottom-line-feeding. Until mass audiences awaken to lead with solutions – changes in mindset, how we live and and move about, big finance will continue to lead from behind. It’s all they really know how to do, reinforcing an atmosphere in which it is highly incumbent on all to compare its track record with any new directions they are offering.

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Sects in the Afternoon

Caught but not certain. Laid low and silenced by the voices within, he withdrew from the room seriously, like he had a better reason than even a phone call to take. As though he would be relieved to be relieved of his colleague’s wife and his colleague for a moment, even of his own wife. She looked at her guests to see their reaction follow the silence created by the ringing but there came no obvious offense to the one face they seemed to share, looking in across the table. Green peas, everyone had green peas still on their plates, that’s what she noticed more. Maybe they had been no good, no good at all, and perhaps she wished that had been the reason her husband had left the room with a weak excuse. Perhaps.
All she knew now was that their conversation which had been so lively moments before had ceased, as if awaiting his return before it could more properly resume. This unnerved her. Was she so incapable of conversing that her guests needed him? Needed him more? Had she not attended _______ with him, earned better grades and knew more people, giver her own thoughts about a master’s in archeology a childish look back after it was decided, somehow fucking decided, that he would attend medical school as if in her stead, and indeed in the stead of many things? She had admired his boyish streak then, encouraged him and had witnessed how, in subscribing to some manly beliefs that would provide dark difficulties for the boy, he was seeding the luxury of a future utility. And thus was performed a type of acrobatics that made sense, even with gravity, even in medical school with her remembering school in all the same fall when they had been anything but slaves to the future and even their own commitment had more to do with love than anything beyond it. Another fall had rolled around, and she had grown painfully accustomed to waiting on him, now over cold peas and two frosty guests that she’d considered liking during the cold banana appetizer.
She could hear him talking in the next room and wondered why he had chosen a phone so close to where the guests waited, perhaps to let them overhear the muffled sound of his voice and further convey the seriousness his attention warranted. But she knew there was more, as he had stopped subscribing so closely to concerns of what others thought of him months before; it was reminiscent of giving up exercising for an injury. He nursed his injury, and let his wife answer the door, bake the ham and light the candles. He just breezed in looking fresh and nibbled, made excuses to leave whenever his hard-fought trappings became too much of themselves. Themselves in a painless light of caricature by which his accomplishments more resembled responsibilities. She hoped he might come back and say he had to leave, the phone call, ‘you know, they need me,’ he would say. She would then feel no further obligation in humoring the seriousness of her guests, no requirement to answer their questions about the old house or the painting in the hall like some multiple choice questions on a master’s exam she never took. She had her own calls to make.
But he didn’t. He returned and claimed his seat next to the wife of his colleague before his cold peas and across from his own sexy wife he hadn’t seen in years. He made a small joke about the presence of seamen at which his wife laughed out loud at exactly the wrong time so that she laughed alone and the other three just stared at her, and he could not even finish his joke then because all of a sudden, he was unsure what was so funny. He knew something was eating him alive, he even saw the teeth marks, but without the courage to stop it, so he could only blame her and claim as his evidence those times when she laughed out of place and embarrassed him. The colleague and his wife sat as one, unsure in movement and embarrassed themselves. But not as part of the fray; they refused to see what they could easily identify as a war on the cold pea horizon and were intent on remaining frozen, afraid even to look at the opposing forces. Silver clanged to china because now everyone, except the wife – who saw many things – everyone saw only one thing as the last recourse and the only thing to do until there was another opening like a beautiful phone call to be taken: eat the peas.
“Would anyone like more wine?” she watched him say with genuine curiosity in his voice. He rose at his place at the table as the colleague and his wife agreed certainly and without doubt that yes, they would love some more wine. “What about you, honey?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I think I want Scotch. Does anybody want Scotch?” she asked with a different curiosity. The husband began to sink where he stood, almost reaching his chair again. He had been stabbed by her once again, he thought. The guests watched them and looked at her with the assurance that they definitely did not care for, could not more fervently beg against – it was only Tuesday night – the very idea of Scotch. Their eyes squared with hers, emboldened by the clarity they had yet ever met; squinting, they tried to remember her but after a few seconds all they could do was look back at the husband, who had now reseated himself. “Okay, I guess wine sounds good.”
“Great!” he said and sprang from his seat again, making her smile somewhat in the old way, before medical school; perhaps she even let out a slight peep of a giggle. She had no course for intimidating him or turning their marriage into a true success or an actual failure, neither of which it could be classified at that moment. Things just happened. And as easily as both of them were bothered by his life and her especially of being the same small island off of it she had been when he had decided, it often passed as easily as the cork through the bottle’s top and not the needle’s eye, which it more properly resembled. He congratulated himself on what he considered small victories such as these, but his vision often failed him such that he was unable to see that she had only made a decision to call it off for a while. He proceeded to unconsciously gloat in his conversations about the hospital and the boy who would surely have died if not for the technique he had executed perfectly just that morning, which he recalled from an obscure journal article he had read and which had surrendered to his magnetic memory. Things that did not, could not, involve her, and these made up the blurred and windswept roadside she had been seeing all along. More he gloated, pushing his colleague into silence he mistook for respect and permission to continue the never-ending story of his worth. His duty was unclear, he thought and said in the same instant, and played tricks with his mind during the long days he spent at the hospital, at the humble service of a generic man. The wife sipped her wine and listened. Not to him, but to the voice inside her own thoughts, which she garnered without the need to verbalize immediately. She looked down on herself in the dining room among the three other people and imagined the scene just as it was, even with her husband talking. Except this time he was saying things which kept her interest and even flattered her; the colleague and his wife kept looking at her in amused adoration mixed with sensual envy as the husband shared brief tales not especially extraordinary except for the smile of believability through which he slipped them the words. She felt in love, not because she thought about it or was reminded of the fact by something he said to their guests, but simply in adjusting her eyes to where he sat. It aroused her, where he sat, the way he sat, and she knew the days and nights and places and unplaces where they had made love and loved each other almost as much as they did, sitting feet apart among two guests they had been obliged to entertain and nothing more. He made her feel the way only women at 24 or 28 know sex, just by the movements of his crossed leg, ever so perceptibly, back and forth. She could not wait, then, for the guests to complete their visit and bid an unacquainted farewell so she could take him by the trousers wherever she wanted as soon as the door slammed shut. It never took him long, she thought.
“Well, this has been wonderful,” the colleague began, interrupting more than he knew of the evening’s progress, of its host of events left incomplete, of its untold manners, of its ability to distract even itself. Things just happen, she considered as she re-entered the room consciously, slowly, reluctantly, with a pain immobile unless he would only, finally, press her into service.

© 2018 Alan Flurry

Hand the match*


In a complete coincidence having nothing whatsoever to with eye shadow or other heretofore smoldering fires in the D.C. area, this terrific digression on Smoke in The Paris Review, courtesy of the late great John Berger, with illustrations by Selçuk Demirel.

* another old-timey saying involving smoking, common among the hobo gentry when one too-many were gathered around your flame.

Man Against the Earth


Jill Lepore’s New Yorker article on the great Rachel Carson is amazing, inspiring, and confirms the three intellectual giants of the twentieth century:

Shawn called her at home to tell her that he’d finishing reading and that the book was “a brilliant achievement.” He said, “You have made it literature, full of beauty and loveliness and depth of feeling.” Carson, who had been quite unsure she’d survive to finish writing the book, was sure, for the first time, that the book was going to do in the world what she’d wanted it to do. She hung up the phone, put Roger to bed, picked up her cat, and burst into tears, collapsing with relief.

“Silent Spring” appeared in The New Yorker, in three parts, in June, 1962, and as a book, published by Houghton Mifflin, in September. Everything is connected to everything else, she showed. “We poison the caddis flies in a stream and the salmon runs dwindle and die,” Carson wrote:

We poison the gnats in a lake and the poison travels from link to link of the food chain and soon the birds of the lake margins become its victims. We spray our elms and the following springs are silent of robin song, not because we sprayed the robins directly but because the poison traveled, step by step, through the now familiar elm-leaf-earthworm cycle. These are matters of record, observable, part of the visible world around us. They reflect the web of life—or death—that scientists know as ecology.

Its force was felt immediately. Readers wrote to share their own stories. “I can go into the feed stores here and buy, without giving any reason, enough poison to do away with all the people in Oregon,” one gardener wrote. They began calling members of Congress. E. B. White wrote to Carson, declaring the pieces to be “the most valuable articles the magazine had ever published.” At a press conference at the White House on August 29th, a reporter asked President Kennedy whether his Administration intended to investigate the long-range side effects of DDT and other pesticides. “Yes,” he answered. “I know that they already are, I think particularly, of course, since Miss Carson’s book.”

Which itself brings to mind (my recollection of) Abraham Lincoln’s words when he met Harriet Beecher Stowe: “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!”

But back to the 20th century giants, Jane Jacobs:

So perhaps now, on the 100th anniversary of her birth [2016], we should all be asking: what is it that Jane Jacobs made us want to see in the city?

Thinking about this question leads me to focus on the conditions that make a metropolis – the enormous diversity of workers, their living and work spaces, the multiple sub-economies involved. Many of these are now seen as irrelevant to the global city, or belonging to another era. But a close look, as encouraged by Jacobs, shows us this is wrong.

She would ask us to look at the consequences of these sub-economies for the city – for its people, its neighbourhoods, and the visual orders involved. She would ask us to consider all the other economies and spaces impacted by the massive gentrifications of the modern city – not least, the resultant displacements of modest households and profit-making, neighbourhood firms.

How do we see those aspects that are typically rendered invisible by modern narratives of development and urban competitiveness? In the early 1900s, the city was a lens for understanding larger processes – but half a century later, it had lost that role. It was Jane Jacobs who taught us again to view the city in a deeper, more complex way.

She helped us re-emphasise dimensions that were usually excluded – no, expelled – from general analyses of the urban economy. Indeed, I can imagine she would have affirmed without a quiver of doubt that, no matter how electronic and global the city might one day become, it still has to be “made” – and therein lies the importance of place.

And of course, Hannah Arendt

There is almost no politics in “Origins” beyond the decisions and processes that eventuated in total domination. It is a dark book, written in a dark time and reflecting on the darkest moment of modern European (and arguably world) history. But it is not without hope. In her preface, Arendt envisions a new form of transnational governance, insisting that “human dignity needs a new guarantee which can be found only in a new political principle, in a new law on earth, whose validity this time must comprehend the whole of humanity while its powerful must remain strictly limited, rooted in and controlled by newly established territorial entities.” And in her conclusion she insists that there is always the possibility of renewal: “But there remains also the truth that every end in history also contains a new beginning; this beginning is the promise, the only ‘message’ which the end can ever produce. Beginning, before it becomes a historical event, is the supreme capacity of man; politically, it is identical with man’s freedom . . . This beginning is guaranteed by each new birth; it is indeed every man.”

In her subsequent work, Arendt reflected at length about the revival of a politics of human dignity, autonomy and active citizenship. While she was highly critical of the depoliticizing tendencies of modern liberal individualism, she was a strong believer in the rule of law and in the importance of constitutional and extraconstitutional restraints on political power. This is most clear in her 1972 “Crises of Republic,” collecting four essays written in the midst of the legitimacy crises associated with the Vietnam War, the rise of the New Left and Black Power movements, and the deceit and authoritarianism of the Nixon administration.

What other major figures might outflank them in impact and vital importance to the world as it was then, and as it is now? Russell? Derrida? Keynes? Orwell? It’s not even close. To be continued, hopefully.

A trolley of Folly

Via the powder blue Satan, an instant classic in the emerging genre of parody far superior to the original:

I was reminded of this when—I can see certain readers rolling their eyes already—I read the news, last September, that numerous California cities, including Oakland and San Francisco, had filed lawsuits against Exxon, BP, and several other oil companies. The cities argue that rising sea levels, caused by global climate change, driven by fossil fuel consumption, will cause billions of dollars in property damage, and that “big oil” should foot the bill for costly infrastructure projects to shore up below-sea-level neighborhoods and oceanside communities.

If you believe the science is settled and the models are correct, of course it makes sense to take a page from the “Big Tobacco” lawsuit playbook. If it were the case that Exxon and the others were acting in ways that could ruin much of the California coastline, with full knowledge of the certain results of their conduct, it would indeed be just to ask them to foot the bill for protecting our cities and communities.

But I can’t help but think of those Navy prognosticators, who probably knew more about computers than just about anyone else in the United States government but didn’t know what Silicon Valley was up to right at that very moment.

The only real way to push back against the gratuitous provocations of the NYT editorial page or the dogsh*t political coverage at NPR is to send it up, up and away. Merely disagreeing only confirms their primary, fundamental fallacy: “Hey! If both sides are criticizing us, we must be right!” – a sweet spot only further plaqued with the appearance of even-handed contrarianism. This is more like transmitting articles through a ridicule device. One can only hope it embarrasses the other Stephens and his colleagues, if for nothing else the flimsiness of their shoddy talents.

Perfect Cases in Point

We wish they were more rare. But just as rising wages are bad news for business(?) and solar most horribly spells doom for coal, word in the oil game is that consistent catastrophes are needed for oil to remain strong:

The weakness comes at a time when speculators have started rebuilding bullish positions after a sell-off last month, betting the market will tighten in the second quarter. Yet, Brent physical oil traders say the opposite is happening so far, according to interviews with executives at several trading houses, who asked not to be identified discussing internal views.

“We need to see the market going really into deficit for oil prices to rise,” Giovanni Staunovo, commodity analyst at UBS Group AG in Zurich, said. “If this is temporary, it could be weathered, but it needs to be monitored.”

The weakness is particularly visible in so-called time-spreads — the price difference between contracts for delivery at different periods. Reflecting a growing surplus that could force traders to seek tankers as temporary floating storage facilities, the Brent June-July spread this week fell to an unusually weak minus 55 cents per barrel, down from parity just two months earlier. The negative structure is known in the industry as contango.

There’s a new word for you. And yes, many of the other words they use are the ones you know, with commonly agreed-upon definitions. I know one needs a lot of sophisticated financial knowledge to really get the subtleties of these economics, but is the overall message really lost? Of no consequence whatsoever? Yes, we can play terrible music on beautiful instruments, just as we can vote against our interests and condemn ourselves with our own words ( though it really isn’t necessary to do all three at once). Thanks to Bloomberg for delivering the straight dope in the top story today. It’s important, you know? Just like it will be to move past the market riff, as I hope to soon.
And also, the term ‘oil futures.’ FY, irony.

Self-Sanctioning

$5 per gallon gasoline is still in your future.

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) isbeing chaired by Iran at the moment. And Iran thinks the run-up of the price of crude to over $90 a barrel is just dandy and requires no new OPEC meetings or adjustment of production quotas among members.

Meanwhile, the US is back to using 20 million barrels a day of petroleum, an increase of 4.4 percent over last year this time. The US, the superhog of gas hogs, uses nearly a fourth the world’s daily petroleum production despite having only a twentieth of the world’s population. Increased US demand, along with rapidly growing demand in Asia, helps account for the relatively high petroleum prices. Some analysts think you could see another big run-up in oil prices in 2011 reminiscent of 2008, with gasoline prices going to $4 a gallon by this summer and then ultimately going on up to $5 a gallon.

That and everything that goes with it will be re-run from 2008. You remember that time, when the whole country gathered around the national dining room table to contemplate living closer to work, buying lighter cars and building trains? Me neither.

And good to remember that as some will scream bloody murder at $4 gas, others would be relieved at such a bargain. Evil relativism. Good thing we just elected a bunch of know-nothings deciders to lead us on all this important stuff, i.e., we’re so screwed.