Sunday, December 15, 2013

How I Learned to Think my Hands Warm

In New York’s North Country, winter blew in with a white Halloween, followed by a white Easter, with nary a thaw in between.  I dressed for the season:  two pairs of socks, boots, thermal long underwear, corduroy pants, and flannel shirt – for inside the house.
One morning I borrowed my roommate’s car, promising to fill it up.  I put on my outside gear that I’d wear even for a trip to the mailbox: a down parka, a wool scarf, and down filled mittens. One didn’t take chances in below freezing weather.  
Along the road, the bottom layer of snow had packed into ice, the same process that forms glaciers.  When I got to the gas station, I took off my mitten to use the key to unlock the gas cap.  It wouldn’t turn.  Aaargh! One more thing that wouldn’t work in this godforsaken subarctic climate.  I was downright furious at the car, the weather, and general circumstances.
The gas station guy helping me said, “Aren’t your fingers cold?”
“No,” I said.  They really weren’t although the morning’s breeze had moved the wind chill factor to well below zero.
Back on the road with a full tank, I pondered what had happened.  I realized my frustration and anger had moved the blood down into my fingers and kept them warm.  So, if my mind could warm my hands when I was angry, it could do the same thing without my getting angry and upset.
  When I got back home, where the snow had blown under the door and hadn’t melted, I tried again to warm my hands.  All I had to do was relax and move the energy into my fingers.  I let it happen like when I fell asleep, rather than forced it to happen by using will power.  Behold, I could think my hands warm!  
Ten years later during my menopause, the ability to move the warm blood into my fingers came in handy. When I had a hot flash, I’d hold something cold like a glass of ice water and mentally move the heat out of my body through my fingers onto the cold surface.  At night I’d lay my palm on the cool floor to dissipate the heat.

Last year, I learned that when beginning meditators can make their hands warm, they know they’ve made progress in their meditation practice.  Hence, anyone can master what I learned by happenstance.  

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A Radical Nerd on Food Miles

Still a radical many decades after the events described in the previous blog post, I examined the roots of locavorism and food miles.  Locavores tell themselves that eating local means fresher, healthier, and tastier food, but couldn’t local food rot before it’s sold?  They feel they’re supporting their local economy, but aren’t people who live somewhere else just as good as locals?  They believe they’re increasing food security, but what if local crops fail and there’s no way to import food?   They enjoy the drive out to the country to meet their personal farmer. Locavores claim buying local food uses less energy because the food doesn’t travel as far.
        On the surface, the last claim, food miles, sounds plausible.  It follows that imported food would cost more if the added cost of transport is factored in, but I recalled that local food often costs more than imported.  I suspected that carrying tons of food for many families in one big eighteen-wheeler truck to a supermarket was probably as efficient as carrying pounds of food for a few families in a pickup to a farmer’s market, even though the semi got worse mileage and traveled farther.
Being a nerd, I did the math.  First, I checked the internet for reasonable numbers to assign to the distances traveled, the mileages of the vehicles, and the amount of food carried per trip in the pickup versus the semi.  Then I calculated how much gasoline it would take to move a pound of food in each vehicle – the truly relevant statistic rather than how far the food travels.  I converted the answer to tablespoons, easier to visualize than decimal fractions of a gallon. No higher math required, just multiplication and division.
  Let’s assume the pickup transports 500 pounds of food on each trip.  It gets 15 mpg and travels 50 miles on each trip from farm to farmers’ market, so 50mi/15mpg = 3.33 gallons gasoline is used per trip in the pickup.  If each trip moves 500 pounds of food, 3.33gal/500lbs  = 0.00667 gallons to move each pound of food in the pickup, which is equivalent to 1.7 tablespoons of gasoline.  [.00667 gallons x 256 T/gal  = 1.7 T]
We can do a similar calculation for a big semi food truck.  It gets only about 4 mpg, but it can carry 50,000 pounds of food.  Let’s assume the truck travels 1500 miles, the oft quoted distance from farm to fork.  So, 1500mi/4mpg = 375 gallons per trip.  Divide 375gal by 50,000lbs and you get 0.0075 gallons of gas per pound of food.  And, 0.0075 gallons = 1.9 tablespoons of gasoline, about 5/8 teaspoon of gasoline more than the pickup.
Guess what?  The Sierra Club magazine agrees with me.  The August 2008 “Ask Mr Green” column says, “A locavore's transportation footprint can actually be comparatively large, depending on loads and vehicles. Hauling 500 pounds of cabbage 50 miles in a small pickup, for instance, can burn about the same amount of fuel per pound of cargo as trucking 50,000 pounds 1,500 miles in an 18-wheeler. Plus, if the semi backhauls food, then it can be twice as efficient as a pickup that's returning empty or partially full.”  
However, the family who drives 50 miles in their Prius (50 mpg) to meet their farmer uses more than five tablespoons of gasoline per pound of food if they carry back fifty pounds of food for the week.  50mi/50mpg = 1gal gas per trip.  1gal/50lbs = 0.02 gal x 256T/gal = 5.12 T.
If you can’t do the math, you can be fooled by false claims.  The food miles fallacy is a perfect example of something that’s plausible but not true.  When your teacher explained word problems, even though your eyes were glazing over, she had your best interests at heart.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Becoming Radical

One morning when I was about nine, I was going on errands with my father in our new 1948 Packard.  My father pushed a knob on the dashboard that soon popped out with its tip glowing red hot and touched it to his cigarette.  He turned to me in his “I’m-right-so-don’t-argue” voice:  “People like Bernice who live in public housing projects shouldn’t be allowed to vote!”
“What?” I said, “How come?”   Bernice was our “colored” cleaning woman.  I loved her.
“Because they don’t own property and so they don’t have a stake in running the country.”  He stubbed out his cigarette in the little drawer that served as an ashtray.
I knew something was wrong with my father’s logic.  I stroked the grey-beige plush seat covering with my fingers.  Bernice worked and paid taxes in our country, didn’t she?  Shouldn’t she have as many rights as anyone else?   I knew I couldn’t convince my father he was mistaken, but I resolved to study hard so when I grew up I would have a comeback.  I would be on the side of people like Bernice.  People whom my father dubbed “The Great Unwashed.”
You can see that from an early age, I didn’t believe everything I was told.  I was a radical, one who looks at the roots of things.  In middle age, I became a Unitarian Universalist, hoping to continue as a radical with like-minded people.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Cascadia's Fault, Not Ours

The movie, “Shock/Wave” shows what will happen when the Cascadia Fault off the northwest coast of the United States slips and causes a magnitude eight or nine megathrust earthquake and up to one hundred foot tsunami waves.  Such a disaster could kill thousands and cause billions of dollars of damage, more damage than Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy combined.
Local communities are preparing for this eventuality with earthquake safe buildings, evacuation routes, and tsunami drills.  We don’t know when this Act of God/Nature will happen, but we’re getting ready for when it does.  More important, nobody is being blamed for earthquakes.   Saving human lives is the highest priority.
Another imminent disaster on people’s minds is climate change.  We can’t even predict whether this will really be a disaster; the latest [2013] IPCC report omits tipping points, climate refugees, increased storms and droughts, and accelerated sea level rise.  However, much argument and name calling has ensued.  Millions of dollars are being spent on costly mitigation schemes.
Unlike the Cascadia Big One, Climate Change has become politicized and moralized.   When an issue is moralized, someone is to blame.  Actually increased carbon dioxide is blamed for climate change, but since humans and their activities produce the demon gas, they are ultimately to blame – an ugly Malthusian subtext.
It’s unfortunate that we can’t look at climate change in the same way we look at the Cascadia Big One.  Unlike the Big One that will do untold damage in less than an hour, Climate Change will happen gradually.  We have plenty of time to prepare if we don’t waste it arguing, moralizing, and blaming.  

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Inherent Worth and Dignity of Selfishness

What is sin?  Where does sin come from?  Will we ever be able to totally eliminate sin and evil from the world?   Do bad people have inherent worth and dignity?
Let’s fast forward to the 23rd century and hop aboard the Starship Enterprise.  In an episode called “The Enemy Within” in The Original Series, a transporter malfunction splits Captain Kirk into two parts, his bad side and his good side.  We see the bad Kirk, pupils dilated, prowling about the Enterprise, grabbing whatever he wants. And he wants it now.  He forces the doctor to give him a bottle of medicinal brandy and gulps it down. Then he wants a pretty female officer so he assaults her.  He fights with all who try to subdue him.  This Kirk is totally selfish.
As we’ve all noticed, there are people everywhere who sometimes are like the bad Kirk, in that they do what they want regardless of other people. They range from the merely annoying like my neighbor who has a noisy heat pump under my bedroom window to downright dangerous like sociopathic killers.  Not to mention political despots like Hitler.   In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker calls predation, dominance, revenge, and sadism our inner demons, which make us act like the bad Kirk.
It’s difficult to reconcile our observation that there are bad people whose inner demons take over with our Unitarian Universalist principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person.  One deceased member of our congregation used to say he didn’t believe a person as bad as Hitler had any inherent worth and dignity.  Another congregant says people like Hitler have used up their quota of inherent worth and dignity.  Which leaves some people, the bad ones, without inherent worth and dignity and seems contrary to our first principle.
However, there is an idea that reconciles the Unitarian Universalist principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person and our observation there are bad people everywhere. That’s the idea that our selfishness is a necessary part of who we are, although it’s essential to keep it in check.
Back to the 23rd century and the Enterprise.  As we observed, the bad Kirk is selfishness personified.  Spock, always the rationalist as is his nature, says, “What makes one man an exceptional leader?  We see indications that it's his negative side which makes him strong, that his evil side, controlled and disciplined, is vital to his strength.”  Elsewhere on the ship, the good Captain Kirk shows signs of weakness.   He loses his ability to give orders and commands.  He no longer has the power of decision. The good Kirk says, “Somehow, in being duplicated, I have lost my strength of will.  Decisions are becoming more and more difficult.”
Then Spock speaks directly to the good Kirk, “Your negative side removed from you,
the power of command begins to elude you.”
So we see just as Kirk’s bad side made him a strong leader, we all need some selfishness to make a difference in the world.  We can do it constructively by starting a business, courting a partner, working for a cause, writing a memoir that will inspire others.
If, like the bad Kirk, we  focus only on ourselves and separate ourselves from the community, we’re acting like sociopaths who cannot manage their will to selfishness.   That’s what I define as sin. Obviously, some acts are more wrong than others.  Catholics, I think, make a useful distinction between serious mortal sins that affect others in a big way and petty venial sins.
In the 23rd century, Spock muses,  “We have here an unusual opportunity to appraise the human mind, or to examine, in Earth terms, the roles of good and evil in a man – his negative  side, which you call hostility, lust, violence, and his positive side, which Earth people express as compassion, love, tenderness.”  Spock continues: “Being split in two halves is no theory with me.  I have a human half and an alien half at war with each other. I survive because my intelligence wins, makes them live together.”  Spock reinterprets Steven Pinker’s list of our four better angels:  empathy, self-control, morality, and reason.
As the 23rd century Star Trek allegory concludes, the transporter gets fixed, Kirk’s two halves are reunited, and Captain Kirk is able to make the decisions necessary to rescue the crew members stranded on a frozen planet.  Watching the show, 20th and 21st century viewers learn about the benefits and drawbacks of selfishness.  
  Now we can answer the questions we posed:   Where does sin come from?   Sin, I propose, comes from the selfishness we all have, and which is essential to our functioning.  Will we ever be able to totally eliminate sin and evil from the world?  Probably not, because we can’t eliminate all selfishness without disastrous consequences.   Do bad people have the inherent worth and dignity of every person?  Yes, but they haven’t used their reason to balance their selfish and compassionate selves.
Meanwhile, what do we do with sinners? Marilyn Sewall, minister emerita from First Unitarian, Portland, believes that we need to remove or sequester bad people for the sake of the larger community.  She states, “Tolerance of harmful behavior is not consistent with our principles, for it is in violation of the law of love and healthy respect for the larger community.”   Prisons accomplish this function.
How does the Star Trek allegory relate to our own lives?  Selfishness dwells within each of us and since we can’t function without it, it must have inherent worth and dignity.  We have to be sure to keep selfishness in its place and use it for the service of the good.  We can’t let our selfishness dominate.  Remember,  our reason allows us to keep a correct balance between selfishness and weakness.
As the great Rabbi Hillel, who died about the time Jesus was born, said, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I?"

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Is the Beloved Community Like a Toastmasters Club?

At Toastmasters clubs, you pay your dues for the privileges of attending the programs and associating with people who also want to become better speakers, but there’s no loyalty expected to or from the club.  In fact, I’m going to drop out of my club for a month because I want to take a Spanish class that meets at the same time.  At Toastmasters clubs, there’s no reason for the organization to concern itself with its members’ lives.  
In Unitarian Universalist congregations, you likewise pay for the privilege of attending the programs and associating with people with similar goals.  Except in our congregations we hear the phrase “The Beloved Community.”   Doesn’t this phrase imply some kind of loyalty from the members to the institution and from the institution to the members?  Shouldn’t a church organization be different from a booster club?
Christine Robinson’s blog ( points out that some people object that only one’s family is beloved, not one’s fellow congregants.  The latter are merely like neighbors.  
But who is my neighbor, the young man asked Jesus?  Jesus replied with the story of the Good Samaritan who acted as neighbor to the man who fell among thieves.  The Good Samaritan, whom the Jews despised, went the extra mile for a stranger.  Can members of a congregation be that kind of neighbor to each other?  

Monday, May 20, 2013

Training to Generalize

“New Yorkers are rude and pushy!”  “Catholics believe suffering is good for you – no pain meds in their hospitals!”  Sounds like trash talk from ignorant bigots, yet I’ve heard these remarks at my Unitarian Universalist congregation.  However, everyone there has learned not to make rude remarks about Londoners or Jews.  Why are some groups subject to verbal abuse and others not?
The answer lies in a dog training principle. Dogs need to learn a cue in different contexts before they can generalize. After I taught my dog Maggie that the cue “Wait!” meant wait for permission to exit at the back door, I had to teach her “Wait!” meant the same thing at the front door.  Dogs can’t abstract and generalize as well as people, who have language, can.
I’ll still have to teach Maggie not to bolt out the gate, even though she knows to “Wait!” at the front door and the back door.  Also, some members of my congregation need to learn that the cue, “know about a group”  means to wait before making prejudiced comments about that group.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Climate Crisis Movement: Grandson of Eugenics Movement!

A few weeks ago, I woke up early to a mental image of concerned citizens. They were well-dressed, white, and intense as they marched for their cause.  They carried signs, “The science is settled!” “Disaster looms by the end of this century!” “For our great-grandchildren!”  I figured they were marching against the climate crisis.
I turned over for more sleep.  The image wouldn’t go away, but it shifted.  The women’s clothes changed to cloche hats and dropped waistlines; the men wore three piece suits – early 20th century styles.  Maybe the concerned citizens were marching for the eugenics cause.
I gave up on sleep, turned on my computer, and nosed around the Internet. Sure enough, I found historical and ideological links connecting the eugenics and climate crisis movements by way of the conservation and population control movements.  Except for conservation, all these movements are plausible, pessimistic, and people-negative.
As a Unitarian Universalist who affirms the inherent worth and dignity of every person, I’m highly suspicious of anything people-negative.  I’m also suspicious of ideologies that demand sacrifice now to avoid doom in the future.  Whoever said (attributed to Stalin), “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs,” should have stayed in the kitchen.
Formulated by Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, the eugenics movement that began just before the turn of the twentieth century stated that the qualities leading to success or failure in life were inherited.  Therefore the fit should breed and the unfit should not. Eugenics was championed by those representing the elite upper classes such as the Carnegie Institution, the Rockefeller Foundation, Margaret Sanger, Theodore Roosevelt, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, a nominal Unitarian.
The ideas were plausible enough to be supported by the science of its day and Harvard, Princeton, and Yale Universities. However, lack of fitness was never really defined.   Often it meant epilepsy or “feeblemindedness”;  sometimes it meant poverty or promiscuity.
Eugenics was pessimistic.  If the “socially inadequate” didn’t quit reproducing themselves, they would outnumber the productive and the human race would decline irreversibly.  Better the elite should produce the future generations.
The eugenics movement was people-negative.  Take the case of Carrie Buck and her family. Carrie’s “feebleminded” mother was institutionalized for being “shiftless” and syphilitic.  Carrie had also been institutionalized for feeblemindedness although it’s probable that she was sent away when she became pregnant after she was raped by a nephew of her foster parents.  Carrie was an avid reader all her life and her daughter was a star pupil until she died of an infection at age nine.  But Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes, voting with the Supreme Court majority (Buck v Bell) that allowed Carrie’s sterilization in 1927, said, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
All together, more than 60,000 people in the United States were sterilized from 1927 into the 1970s without their consent.  Worse, eugenics “science” became the intellectual justification for the Nazi race theories, hence indirectly responsible for the deaths of nine million people in the Nazi Holocaust.
Besides having spawned the Holocaust, eugenics is now dead in the water for a couple of more reasons. Unnoticed and unexpected, although already going on during the twentieth century, was the Flynn effect, the phenomenon of rising IQ.  Hence, the number of “feebleminded” in the population has decreased.  The Flynn Effect, everybody getting smarter, means the human race has improved without selective breeding.  Too bad for those who suffered and died in the name of the junk science of eugenics.
Also, the circle of empathy has expanded – as President Obama said in his second inaugural –  “from Seneca Falls [women] to Selma [African-Americans] to Stonewall [gays].”  The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law in 1990, giving all humans full rights. People who used to be labeled feebleminded, unfit, or defective are now considered fully human.
Interestingly, some supporters of the eugenics movement, concerned about overpopulation, initiated the conservation movement.  Preserving scenic natural areas for all to enjoy is neither pessimistic nor people-negative, although in the early 20th century when few could afford travel, the early conservationists may have felt they were creating parks as elite preserves.   Henry Fairfield Osborne (1857-1935) who helped found the Save the Redwoods league in 1918 is a case in point.  In his paper at the Third International Conference of Eugenics in 1932,  Osborne said, “The outstanding generalizations of my world tour range from Over-destruction of natural resources, now actually worldwide; to Over-population beyond the land areas, or the capacity of the natural and scientific resources of the world, with consequent permanent unemployment of the least fitted.”
Although Osborne and some of his contemporaries worried about overpopulation, the population control movement didn’t become a popular cause until about forty years later with the publication of The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich in 1968.  Ehrlich is plausible, applying the idea of ecological carrying capacity to human populations;  that is, too many people will use up the limited resources of the planet.  He’s pessimistic, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over.  In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death.”  He’s people-negative.  “It is absurd to be preoccupied with the quality of life until and unless the problem of the quantity of life is solved.”
The climate crisis movement is likewise plausible, based on contemporary scientific findings that the planet warmed during the 1980s and 1990s.  The climate crisis movement says too many people (overpopulation again!) have been pouring carbon dioxide that warms the planet into the atmosphere by means of burning carbon-based fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas.  This movement is even more pessimistic than the population control movement.  Some examples of impending doom include Al Gore’s predictions of massive sea level rises, droughts, famine, spread of tropical diseases, and species extinction. [An Inconvenient Truth 2006]  And Sir James Lovelock’s prediction, "By the end of this century climate change will reduce the human population to a few breeding pairs surviving near the Arctic." [Revenge of Gaia 2007].   Lovelock has subsequently (2012) admitted he exaggerated, “We were supposed to be halfway toward a frying world now, [but] the world has not warmed up much since the millennium.”
Although the climate crisis activists claim to be saving the planet for their grandchildren, the climate crisis movement is nevertheless people-negative.  That’s because the cure for the climate crisis is to reduce use of carbon-based fuel with a carbon tax.  “Think about $5-a-gallon gas; consider $500-a-month power bills if you stick with your current electric-baseboard heating.  It sounds rough, financially, on the little guy. But advocates say that if gas were $5 a gallon, for instance, we'd see many fewer SUVs on the road. We'd see much more innovation in how to produce that winter heat on a way-slimmed-down energy budget – more weatherstripping, better insulation and so forth. The basic principle is that the economic pain of a carbon tax would spur all kinds of innovation to conserve fuel.”
Despite the disclaimer that a carbon tax could be structured not to be regressive, it can’t help but be rough on the little guy.  With $500-a-month power bills, who could pay for insulation?   The well-off activists I saw in my vision can afford expensive gasoline but what about a struggling single mother who can’t afford a Prius?  Not to mention developing countries, who need cheap energy to lift themselves out of poverty.
The eugenics movement, the population control movement, and the climate crisis movement, all ideologically and historically linked and based on Malthus’ postulate there never can be enough for everyone, are plausible, but pessimistic and people-negative. The difference between the movements is the eugenics and the population control movements strove to eliminate the poor, whereas if the climate crisis activists succeed in taxing carbon-based fuel, they will create more poor.  

Thursday, April 18, 2013

When the Left Turned Green

At college in the mid-fifties, a Pete Seeger concert opened my mind to non-Republican ways of thinking –  about working people getting their just due and everyone getting a share of the pie.  I loved the lyrics of  “Roll on Columbia” by Woody Guthrie that advocated technology bringing wealth to all the people.
And on up the river is Grand Coulee Dam
The mightiest thing ever built by a man
To run the great factories and water the land
So roll on, Columbia, roll on
Your power is turning our darkness to dawn. . .
I was proud to identify with a Left that advocated a better world for all.
During the 60s, a couple of books were published, initiating the environmental movement. Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, making DuPont’s phrase “better living through chemistry” a joke. Carson’s book inspired much needed citizen action to clean up pollution of our air, water, and land.
In 1968, an ugly side of the environmental movement emerged when Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb.  This book representing the radical, people-negative branch of the environmental movement, implies consumption [not the TB kind] is bad, because there are only so many resources to go around, and the best thing to do is have fewer people using them, else humanity will crash like a neglected fruit fly population in a milk bottle.   Ehrlich didn’t take into account that human ingenuity creates resources by finding new uses for existing materials.  In the Stone Age, iron ore was just dirt.  And the Stone Age didn’t end because they ran out of stone.
Ehrlich stated:  “India where population growth is colossal, agriculture hopelessly antiquated, and the government incompetent will be one of those we must allow to slip down the drain,” in other words, die.  Despite his callous recommendations, Ehrlich became the guru of the radical environmental movement.   However, Black Panthers and Catholics, unlikely bedfellows, understood the problem was one of distribution, not finite resources.  
Pete Seeger climbed onto the environmental bandwagon writing songs about the population explosion, species extinction, and pollution in general with such songs as “We’ll All Be A’Doubling” and “The Last Whale” in 1970, and “Garbage” in 1977.   These songs focus on people’s relationship with the earth rather than with each other.
As the concern for the planet increased, concern for the ordinary people on it decreased.  We all need a healthy planet for our own survival, but there are those, such as Ehrlich and the Club of Rome, who believe humanity is a cancer on the planet.  

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Belonging to the Beloved Community

When I signed up for the annual Canvass Dinner, I explained that I needed to eat in the Social Hall because I have to wear a gas mask in the sanctuary to filter out the allergens in that room and I can’t eat wearing a gas mask.  No problem, they said.  I confirmed my need to eat in the Social Hall twice more.  Not to worry, they said.
That day I arrived at three to help set out brats and buns for the dinner.   After we separated out special foods for the gluten-free, the dairy-free, the pork-free, the meat-free, and the all animal products-free diners, I laid my raincoat on a chair to reserve my place in the Social Hall.   Then around five someone asked me to welcome the arrivals and I went out to the parking lot with an umbrella.   Half hour later, when I came into the Social Hall to eat, my coat had been moved and the table was full. Nobody claimed to know why the coat was there or whose coat it was although my name was printed prominently on it.   One person at the table said, “Everybody knows you were supposed to reserve a place by drawing on the newsprint.”  The others at the table laughed.
  I was so furious I couldn’t speak. My mind flashed back to middle school Mean Girls.  Wasn’t my need to simultaneously eat and breathe as important as the needs of the voluntary vegans?  
I took my plate of food and went home.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Global Warming: A Real Movement

From my couch, I can see Global Warming in my own back yard.  For the last few years, my quince bush that used to lose its leaves every winter has stayed green all year.  Now it’s morphed into a Little Shop of Horrors monstrosity.
Global Warming is real, yet it’s also a movement.  Movements have several characteristics.   The issue is so important that the end justifies the means.  It’s so necessary to sway people to the proper beliefs that a little exaggeration is okay.   Movements preach that if we make a few sacrifices now, a glorious future for posterity will ensue.  Movements are ideologies, causes, cults.  It seems odd that a scientific issue can become a movement, but global warming has.
From Al Gore (in interview with Grist Magazine May 9, 2006, concerning his book, An Inconvenient Truth)
“Nobody is interested in solutions if they don't think there's a problem. Given that starting point, I believe it is appropriate to have an over-representation of factual presentations on how dangerous (global warming) is, as a predicate for opening up the audience to listen to what the solutions are...” What is the difference between “an over-representation of factual presentations” and a lie?
The Global Warming movement uses images to sway people. Images can illustrate facts, but they’re not facts in themselves.  Take the famous picture of the polar bears huddling on a shrinking ice floe.  The reader is supposed to imagine the grim future when all the polar bears have become extinct as the Arctic ice melts.  For all we know the picture was taken in August and that it might even have been photoshopped.
In the case of global warming the warnings are slanted toward the worst case scenarios.  Positive aspects of climate change are ignored: longer growing seasons, CO2 as a plant stimulant, increased areas for settlement and agriculture in northern latitudes and that more people die of excess cold than excess heat.
Possible negative effects are seized upon.  Will malaria increase with a warmer climate?  Probably not, because malaria was endemic in cold climates in the 19th century. Some say Climate Change was responsible for Superstorm Sandy, but no one storm can be due to Climate Change, just as no one case of lung cancer can be attributed to smoking because not everyone who smokes gets lung cancer and people who’ve never smoked get lung cancer.  One case does not a trend make.
The issues keep being restated to ramp up their urgency.  Global Warming has switched to Climate Change and has now been reframed as the Climate Crisis.  The word crisis means something has to be done and it has to be done now.
Movements insist it’s extremely urgent to act now.  From  “Accelerating arctic warming and other early climate impacts have led scientists to conclude that we are already above the safe zone at our current 390 ppm, and that unless we are able to rapidly return to below 350 ppm this century, we risk reaching tipping points and irreversible impacts such as the melting of the Greenland ice sheet and major methane releases from increased permafrost melt.”
Ad hominem arguments, the hallmark of those who must stoop to attack their opponents’ character, distinguish movements.  From Oregon State philosophy professor Kathleen Dean Moore: “Unchecked anthropogenic climate change will profoundly harm the chances of future generations, undermining the necessary conditions for human life and liberty...It’s wrong to violate human rights, condemning all future people to struggle and misery.”
Another hallmark of a movement is that anyone who disagrees is treated like a heretic.  In the global warming movement, instead of heretics, they’re called  “climate change deniers.”  It’s a good thing we don’t do the burning at the stake thing anymore.   (The other side calls climate change activists “Warmists.”)
It’s always handy to have someone to blame.  Dean Moore continues, “millions of dollars are poured into attacks on climate science and scientists by those deeply invested in preventing society from drawing any conclusions that might block the unimaginably profitable activity of pouring carbon into the air. What they really must believe, but cannot say, is that greed and limitless profit trump the human rights of all future generations.” OregonLive 12/01/12
I conclude with another example of the end justifying the means from Stephen Schneider (leading advocate of the global warming theory in interview for Discover magazine, Oct 1989)
"We have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we may have. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.”
But are the exaggerations and propaganda doing science any good? Says Dr Richard S Lindzen, leading climate and atmospheric science expert of MIT,  "In the long run, the replacement of the precise and disciplined language of science by the misleading language of litigation and advocacy may be one of the more important sources of damage to society incurred in the current debate over global warming."
The scientific method is our best method for gaining knowledge we can have confidence in about our world.   Political advocacy about science is a travesty of science.  Science is science, not a movement.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Credo Part III: How then shall we be religious?

Even a nerd like me needs more than abstract intellectual speculation in my religion.  I need an image of the Divine to evoke awe and wonder and also to give me a way to connect with the Ultimate.  Rabbi Arthur Waskow suggests Ruach, the Breath of the Universe as such an image: “What we breathe is what the trees breathe out, what trees breathe in is what we breathe out. Thinking of G-d as the Breath of Life is a profound metaphor and theology of G-d, as the Breath of Life, in and out breath, that which unites all life, that which is beyond us and within us. Words are physical breathing shaped by intellectual consciousness into emotional communication.  So when we pray or share words of compassion we breathe ourselves into the Breath of Life.”  
According to Seligman, we can partake in the process toward God. We can increase knowledge as a teacher, increase power as an engineer, increase goodness as a social worker.   We can breathe with the Breath of the Universe that is moving toward the Omega Point of all win-win.
I’ve now unraveled the answer to the questions of salvation: Whose are we?  To whom do we belong?  To whom are we accountable?  What keeps us going when life throws us a curve?  What larger Something are we part of?
As a contented nerd, I answer:  I am part of the Universe evolving toward the Omega Point of more knowledge, more complexity, more win-win systems.  I’ve helped push this evolution in my life.  I’ve contributed to knowledge by working as a laboratory  research assistant, to empathy by publishing a memoir about becoming gay, and toward less violence by clicker training dogs. I celebrate this belonging with my breath that I join with the Breath of the Universe.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Credo Part II: Win-win gets us to the Omega point

Last year I discovered a book that articulated and extended much of what I had been pondering about increasing complexity and win-win in human affairs.  The Better Angels of Our Nature; Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker was worth spending $24 for a hardback copy.  Moreover, for a nerd like me, figuring out the mathematical, statistical, and philosophical patterns in the book was as much fun as figuring out the patterns in a sudoku puzzle.  Pinker establishes, unequivocally in my mind, that all kinds of violence have been decreasing over the ten thousand years of human history.  
At the beginning of our history ten thousand years ago, we all lived as hunter gatherers.  According to Matt Ridley [blog 1-28-13 Mind and Matter WSJ] almost one-third of people in such societies die in raids and fights, a higher proportion than the people in worst hit areas during World War II.
Fast forward seven thousand years to the Near East world of three thousand years ago.   The society that produced such wisdom as “Love justice and do mercy”  was rife with slayings, smitings, and stonings.  The Bible tells us so.
By the turn of the 20th century, slavery and cruel and unusual punishments had been outlawed in the civilized world, but there was still a lot of violence in everyday life toward those who didn’t really matter: racial minorities, homosexuals, women, children, and animals.
When I was a young adult in the 1960s, spanking children, jerk and pull dog training, and gay bashing were still part of everyday life.    Fifty years later, time outs, clicker training, and marriage equality have replaced these hoary customs.

When people challenge my contention that there is less violence in the modern world, I tell them to imagine themselves in front of our local courthouse.  What will they not see?  Lots of things:  a stake to burn witches, a pillory, a stocks, a gallows, a slave market, a debtor’s prison in the basement.  What they might see: same sex or mixed race couples strolling arm and arm without fear of being attacked.
Pinker sees the process of declining violence as a consequence of more and more win-win systems. Win-win is a non-supernatural process that can be analyzed using game theory, although for me it evokes awe and wonder.  Although he identifies as a Jewish atheist, Pinker says his views are compatible with a theology that makes God inherent in the nature of the universe. Maybe that’s what God is – where win-win wins.  Win-win wins gets us to the Omega point.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Credo, Part I: To the Omega Point

When I was in high school in the 1950s, I fell in love –  with biology, a relationship I’ve maintained all my life.  During the genetics unit, I quivered on the edge of my seat because it combined biology with my last year’s favorite subject, algebra. [I was born a nerd, one who rests at the intersection of three sets of qualities:  social ineptitude, intelligence, and obsession.]  I remained glued to the blackboard during the next unit, evolution.  Kingdom, phylum, order, family, genus, species arranged themselves on a tidy tree.  At the time, I believed the Catholic God created the glorious panoply of life.
College biology centered around Darwin’s theory of natural selection and evolution, the unifying paradigm of biology. All the factoids in my head now fit into a pattern that made sense.  The evolutionary process was presented as mindless and purposeless, but I still believed God steered the process.  Besides, at least one species in the universe had opposable thumbs.
In my twenties, I discovered Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who seemed to reconcile science, evolution, and Catholic dogma.  The Phenomenon of Man was philosophical rather than scientific, so there wasn’t data to back up his conclusions. Teilhard believed the Universe was evolving toward an Omega Point, defined by Teilhard as a convergence with the divine.
Liberal arts were, in my callow mind, just intellectuals’ opinions with no basis in the real stuff, the physical world.  History was about a bunch of dead white guys fighting stupid wars.  Learning history meant remembering which event went with which four digit number.  It wasn’t until fifteen years out of college that I had the epiphany that dates let you order historical events in a sequence.  
By that time I’d fallen away from Catholicism.  I raised a family, worked as a lab tech, mostly in microbiology labs.   After a few years meditating at a Quaker meeting, twenty years ago, I became a Unitarian Universalist.  
Our first Unitarian Source affirms “direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder.”  We can draw inspiration from the Great Story of our glorious origin from stardust and our overall increasing complexity, as preached by Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow.  This couple mostly focuses on our marvelous past, rather than the future of our species.  Our glorious past inspires awe and wonder, but we need a faith that looks to the future.
About a dozen years ago I came across Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond, a physiologist, ornithologist, and environmental scientist. When scientists do history, it gets interesting. Diamond found patterns in historical data to show why things happened the way they did over the long haul. He traces the development of political organization from band to clan to tribe to chiefdom to nation-state.  Complexity increased in human history as it did with organic evolution. Complex organisms and societies are consistently more successful than simpler.
I continued my nerdy reading habits with NonZero by Robert Wright. He points out that both organic evolution and human cultural evolution have proceeded in the direction of greater complexity and win-win systems, meaning when opposing parties cooperate, everyone wins.  Also, given enough time, complex intelligence will emerge.  Then across history and the world, human social systems have grown more complex from savage to barbarian to civilization, the same process that Diamond traces.  I was reminded of Teilhard’s Omega Point.
Evolution, a bottom up process, is a messy affair that generates a lot of garbage along the way.  It’s not all up, up, up.  The ichneumon wasp is fiendishly cruel and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire should never have happened.   Wright uses the image of a balky horse, three steps forward, two steps back.  A world that produced tapeworms along with formations of flying geese looks as though it was designed by the Native American deity Coyote.
I delved into psychology, found books by psychologist Martin EP Seligman, who writes about the joys and benefits of optimism.  Seligman ends his book Authentic Happiness with a chapter on finding meaning and purpose in life, essential to authentic happiness.  Seligman summarizes the theology inherent in a win-win process and demonstrates there can be meaning in life without the Supernatural:
“Where is the principle of win-win headed?  Toward a God who is not supernatural, a God who ultimately acquires omnipotence, omniscience, and goodness through the natural process of win-win.  Perhaps, just perhaps, God comes at the end.”   Again  Teilhard de Chardin’s Omega Point.  Seligman continues:
“A process that continually selects for more complexity is ultimately aimed at nothing less than omniscience, omnipotence, and goodness.  This is not of course a fulfillment that will be achieved in our lifetimes, or even the lifetime of our species. The best we can do as individuals is to choose to be a small part of furthering this process. This is the door through which meaning that transcends us can enter our lives. A meaningful life is one that joins with something larger than we are – and the larger that something is, the more meaning our lives have.  Partaking in a process that has the bringing of a God who is endowed with omniscience, omnipotence, and goodness as its ultimate end joins our lives to an enormously large Something.”