Everything Isn’t Always OK

connection-to-the-world

I was listening to an Ezra Klein podcast interview with Elizabeth Kolbert as I cleaned the bathroom today (BTW, Klein’s podcasts are consistently worth listening to).

As they discussed the fragility of our life on this planet, I thought of a quote from a whisky tour in Scotland last summer that has stuck with me:

Today’s rain is tomorrow’s whisky.

(Pronounced in a heavy brogue, of course.) In other words, what is maybe not-so-pleasant but necessary gloom now will replenish our stocks and become, with time, refined and complex and to be savored much later.

Elizabeth Kolbert made the point that we live in the climate of the past, while altering the climate of the future, and that’s why this quote came back to me. Because there’s that flip side, too:

Today’s abnormally warm but kind-of-pleasant winter will become tomorrow’s drought.

In other words, at a more general level, everything may not always turn out OK.

We might not make it as a nation. We might not make it as a species. There might not be a technology or leader or alien lifeform or god that will save us.

The fact that we exist at all, on this particular planet, right here and now at this moment in time, is remarkable. (Read Sean Carrol’s superb From Eternity to Here for more on this). The happenstance cosmic circumstances and events and conditions that have come before us that enable us to now live are tenuous. We are lucky to be alive. Our existence, as a species, as an individual, is highly fragile, just as our planet’s current state is highly fragile.

There are moments in our lives when we suddenly see our extreme fragility through the lens of our own frail existence. Times such as when a friend or loved one dies, or when any other cherished relationship or job or possession is lost or close to being lost. When we have an accident. When we are sick or our health is compromised, whether due to circumstances beyond our control, or due to our own shortsighted decision-making. When we are expecting a child, and realize just how precious and influential every feeling, every nutrient, everything that we say and do has on our child to be.

Our lives are short and so very, very fragile. And only precious when we recognize them as such.

As my first love, Sade, croonsI cherish the day. I won’t go astray. I won’t be afraid.

We may not be able to have much influence over the cosmic and planetary changes under way, nor the brutal reactions of a nation’s mob. But we can channel our attention. We can savor the ones near to us. We can love every moment of our lives as closely and dearly and desperately and passionately as we can.

Even as our bodies or nation or earth may crumble.

 

We’re battling our own habits

History also shows that if we want to tame antibiotic resistance, we have to be ready to fight for a long time — perhaps forever. The problem is that we’re not really fighting against bacteria. We’re battling our own habits, which are deeply ingrained and hard to change.

 

—Carl Zimmer, “The surprising history of the war on superbugs — and what it means for the world today

People Living Lives of Quiet Despair

In general the epidemiological data show that only 20 percent of Americans are flourishing. The rest are either languishing or just getting by. Maybe they remember a time in their lives when things were coming together easily; there wasn’t a lot of self-concern, self-scrutiny, or self-loathing because they were focused outward and contributing to the world. But now they’re just doing the minimum necessary to get by. This “just getting by” mode is not depression or mental illness. It’s merely people living lives of quiet despair.

Barbara Fredrickson, in an interview on PositivityRatio.com

My $.02 On Health Care Reform

Health care reform. Does it need to happen?  Is it going to happen? Does it require an inclusive public health insurance option? God yes. Depends on your idea of reform. And yes.

This is a sticky issue that has been largely avoided by politicians who don’t want to tango with sticky issues. Props to Mrs. Clinton for even attempting it years ago, back when it should have been done. President Obama has elected to tackle it head on, and the issue has punctured his seeming political invincibility. But one cannot dock him points for giving it an honest effort. He could just sit back on his ranch and pretend that allowing the status quo to continue is the right thing for all Americans, not just the top 5%.

It’s amazing how much debate there even is revolving around the issue of public health coverage. Apparently the reality has been rendered so opaque to analysis that many a folk appears to have missed the obvious: that national health care coverage needs to be as universal as possible, or else all public health, both nationally and globally, is endangered. That’s the reality. Now the other reality at the moment, politically speaking, is how do we pay for it. But to me, at least, the answer to this is also clear: we need to tax the rich and use that money to cover public health insurance. The poor have never been able to afford health insurance. That’s why they go to the ER and make the public pay for it anyway. And the middle class can no longer afford health insurance either. Why? Because it’s big business. Health care is a luxury in this country. But public health can not be relegated to luxury/big business status. If we do not cover the majority of the population, then all of the population is put in grave danger due to outbreaks of disease. Evolved microbes do not recognize class distinctions.

A sidebar on “middle class”: apparently, the President seems to consider households that make below $250,000 a year to be “middle class”. I’m sorry, but if your household is making that much, then you are not middle class. You are doing just fine. You should be paying higher taxes so that the rest of us can get health care.

The More the Problems, the Simpler the Solutions

In this day and age, as the perennial problems of humanity grow ever greater in the face of our increased global interconnectivity and environmental fragility, it becomes more evident that all of our problems are interrelated and cannot be solved without an enlightened holistic approach. We cannot tackle the problem of public health without tackling the problems of poverty, which cannot be tackled without confronting the issue of rampant hydrocarbon dependency, which cannot be conquered without resolving fundamental issues of human rights and freedom, and this goes on and on and on. It can also be phrased thus: we cannot ignore human rights abuses in Sudan, nor environmental degradation in China, for the cost will ultimately fall upon all of us.

While that may at first make resolving any of the major dilemmas humanity faces in the oncoming years of increased natural disaster and antibiotic resistant microbes seem especially daunting, these compounding converging problems in fact present us with opportunities to enact revolutionary structural changes that can work to harmonize disconnected and fragmented elements of humanity and bring them together in a greater, unifying global interconnection.

An example of this point could be taken quite literally down to the case of a human body. Our bodies eventually let us know when we have pushed them beyond their capacities of maintaining health, and some organ will fail, or a disease will take hold, or a heart will exhibit stress. At that point, we look at immediate symptoms and seek a means of addressing that sole symptom. Beyond that, however, we then seek to discover how to prevent a reoccurence of this problem, as well as to prevent other related issues springing from the same source, and we thus must seek manners of altering our lifestyles, our behaviors, and our perspectives in order to resolve more fundamental issues.

Our environment is letting us know that we are toeing the line–and may well have already significantly crossed–on the path to complete destabilization of all life supporting habitats. There is no doubt in the mind of any cognizant scientist, activist, politician, nor concerned citizen that we are facing some major problems due to global warming and widespread environmental stress. And so we are now looking at immediate ways to address these symptoms, such as by seeking alternative sources of energy, carbon emission cap and trades, and worldwide standards of environmental regulation. But as we begin to look beyond these immediate symptoms, we also begin to see that we must address even more fundamental issues in our societies, governments, economies, cultures, and perspectives, as they all stem from the same source.

So now is the time that we are really gaining the opportunity, as a human species, to deeply address issues that we have had since the birth of human consciousness, such as disparity between the rich and the poor, segregation and bigotry due to birth and appearance, and all other manifestations of hatred, division, and greed. Does that sound idealistic and glorifying of my own age and time? Undoubtedly. But what can also undoubtedly be stated is that the world we are living in, as of this writing, is a world quite unlike the world that it was a mere 50 years ago. We are globalizing, networking, trading, and traveling at an exponentially snowballing rate. And due to this global interconnection, all of our actions and behaviors become magnified in effect. So while once upon a time we were only destroying some land downstream, now we are destroying the entire globe. We cannot detach ourselves from the fate that we are creating. We cannot ignore the effect that our actions will have on our children.

Anyway, I could go on like this for a while. The point that I wanted to make is that all of these major problems that we are now facing can be seen as an opportunity for widespread positive change. Never before has humanity as a species been so positioned as to fundamentally address our disconnection from our planet, from each other, and from ourselves. The time is now.

Sick of Partisanship

As the whole presidential race idiocy begins winding itself up in the media, I grow increasingly agitated at the state of politics in this country (the ol US of A for those of you who stumbled acrost this page randomly). The whole nature of all interactions here, whether political, economic, or legal, all seem to have to be made on adversarial terms. It’s always A vs B. It’s never A working with B to produce C. It’s Democrats vs Republicans. It’s capitalism vs socialism. It’s environmentalist groups vs corporations. It’s good vs evil. Etc, ad nauseam.

The problem with this state of affairs is that when it comes to issues where all parties involved need to work together to create any kind of real solutions to major problems, such as in the arenas of public health, or reducing carbon emissions, then there is never any progress made until things attain such a state of degradation that it is undeniable to everyone that drastic measures must be made. And by that point, of course, it’s just a little too late. It’s “damage control,” instead of “preventing catastrophe.” It’s “rebuilding from the ground up,” instead of “retrofitting existing structures.” Aside from those of us who subscribe to neither liberal nor conservative, nor Democrat nor Republican, most Americans are quite happy to delimit their perceptions to one side or the other. Once you’ve picked a side, most issues resolve themselves rather conveniently into black or white. And you will never understand the perception of the “other side.”

If you’ve read any of my political rants in the past, then you know that I obviously don’t hold much patience with Republicans and conservatives of most any stripe. I really don’t have any interest in seeing their point of view, because it dominates enough of the political and cultural scene as it is, even as “liberal” as Americans pretend their major cities might be. But I also despise Democrats and people who blindly adhere to notions of liberalism as simply ideological opposition to Republicans, while mostly, in action, still just big-business economic ass-kissing just like conservatism. But ultimately, I really don’t give a hang about Republican or Democrat. I care about issues that truly affect the world and the nation, and that truly need to be addressed, one way or another. Issues such as revitalization of the economy, global warming, and public health. And the only way that such issues will ever get addressed is if people in positions of leadership put their fat heads together and work out the nitty-gritty details as a team, instead of squabbling over ideological issues that they will never resolve simply so that they can maintain political supremacy.

And this is the exact point where the pseudo-Democracy of the United States begins to look a bit out-dated and inefficient. Because it seems to be in the very nature of our economic, legal, and political systems to be adversarial, partisan, and privatized and individualized. Any kind of notions of “teamwork” seem to invoke knee-jerk allergic reactions to the ideologies of socialism and communism. But addressing and resolving trenchant issues such as those embedded in public health and global warming require a social cohesiveness that will not be achieved through mere partisanship. We must somehow go beyond ideologies, whether political, economic, or otherwise, and attempt to look at issues through a cumulative scattered cohesion of lenses, the liberals and conservatives and goods and evils all sewn together into a temporary visage of futurity. A rainbow quilt of different perceptions, meshed into a higher vision, beyond that which could have ever been achieved through the simple antagonism of isolated fragments. Such a networked collectivity of expression can still be competitive, aggressive, and progress oriented. But it must necessarily demolish the currently seemingly intractable obstacles of factions squabbling over (largely irrelevant) ideological issues.

Accepting the Bad

Eliminate the bad, extend the good. This could be said to be the mantra of humanity. It’s an understandable outlook, of course, given that it is in our biological nature. Problem is, people take it to the furthest extent possible, such that in doing away with all the bad (temporarily), we also end up eradicating the good things which originally and naturally kept the bad in check. We upset balances in favor of an idealistic and unachievable victory.

The problem is not simply that we are attempting to eliminate the bad—it is that we are attempting to address immediate symptoms instead of looking at the root causes. We do this in everything from agriculture to health care, from scientific research to judicial systems. Examples are:

1) In the attempt to eliminate all harmful insects from our food bearing crops, we blanket them with pesticides. We kill not only all bad insects, but also the good insects which prey upon them.
2) We attempt to eliminate all malevolent microbes by making everything as sterile as possible with toxic chemical solutions and through the flippant use of antibiotics. We destroy most of the microbes, for a short amount of time, until they mutate resistance, and then they come back even stronger than before.
3) We lock up poor adolescents who are selling drugs in the attempt to find means (as businessmen with little other option) of escaping the ghetto. We render all narcotic substances illegal, even if some narcotics have a proven medicinal use, or are simply relatively benign on their effects on society in comparison to accepted substances like tobacco and alcohol.
4) We incarcerate and marginalize prostitutes and people who are addicted to illegal substances, rendering their lives incredibly dangerous, as well as encouraging the spread of disease.
5) We go to doctors mainly to treat extreme sicknesses or injuries. They barely attempt to address underlying behavioral issues, diet change, and preventative care through education and a holistic approach. Rather, they have a tendency to be mere pill-pushers and organ vultures, as their main function is to treat immediate symptoms and then send you on your way.
6) We reduce and fight forest fires, upsetting natural cycles and balances, and creating extensive brush and fuel, such that we have generated a future of increasingly apocalyptic wildfires.

These are just a few examples of what the conventional outlook of “eliminate the bad, extend the good” results in. One could extend the idea yet further into issues such as rampant hydrocarbon use or conventional sewage systems.

This perspective is extremely childish, selfish, and short-sighted when seen for what it is. In taking a whole-systems, holistic approach to these issues, one begins to see that the simple treatment of immediate symptoms, and the attempt to eradicate all immediately manifested outbreaks of all things “bad”, only leads to deeper and broader problems. What must be done is to take a step back and look at the root causes, and seek a means to realign structures into a harmonized cyclical and balanced system.

Such an approach, of course, takes time and patience, and that is one thing most of us these days are in dire lack of. We want problems to be solved immediately. We are also overconfident in technology and man’s ability to eventually overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles through breakthroughs in technological ingenuity and innovation. But no matter how many immediate problems we may solve through such means, the fact is that our essential outlook is still skewed, and eventually the rooted causes of our suffering will become so magnified as to destroy us completely. Because no matter how advanced we become, we will never be able to completely eradicate “bad” things such as disease, substance abuse, violence, or poverty.

However, in balanced and well-designed systems, we can achieve a sustainable harmony, in which these “bad” things are naturally regulated and subsumed to a greater whole; they can be accepted into the fold, temporary eddies rendered inconsequential by their eventual flow back into the main stream.

Take as an example a well-designed garden (as modeled on nature): when “pest” populations begin to rise and threaten the flowers and herbs, natural predators slim them back down before they can pose a threat. When diseases break out on a microbial level, the nutrient rich soil and humus—which is full of life so dense that it can’t even be fathomed by science—naturally fights back, just as a healthy immune system will work to set itself back into harmony after exposure to malevolent microbes.

The reason such a garden is healthy and balanced is because it fosters diversity (as opposed to monoculture), complex interconnectivity of independent systems, and natural cyclical processes (as opposed to enforced dependency on chemicals).

Now think of our society in terms of this garden, and you may begin to get some ideas on what some root causes might be underlying such immediate symptoms as illness, apathy, war, and poverty. . .