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Ruminations on history, sustainability, culture, and life 

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On Quinoa

Posted on June 21, 2013 at 2:10 AM

I've been told that there's been a quinoa revolution, which has me worried.

Will there be a revolutionary tribunal? Will children rat out their quinoa-ambivalent parents? Will there be a bloody quinoa counter-revolution?

There's so much uncertainty in our age. 

On the Fact that People Should Stop Stealing Things From Me

Posted on June 20, 2013 at 1:30 AM

Until recently, I hadn't been the victim of theft all that often. My wife and I once had a backpack stolen on a bus in Costa Rica. Another time someone entered my backyard and stole an unlocked bike. But that's about all the thievery I can think of.

But for some reason I have had two items stolen from me in the past few months: an iPhone and an aging longboard. What's strange is that, through odd twists of fate, I was able to recover both stolen items without the intervention of outside authorities.

First, the iPhone. On Christmas day (also my birthday), I was in Seattle visiting family. I took my daughter to a hybrid QFC-Starbucks while she napped in the stroller. I parked her in the Starbucks and hung out for a while. A shady-looking man sat down next to me. Ironically, it would turn out, he asked me to watch his stuff while he ordered a water--a water!--from the counter. I obliged. A few minutes later my daughter started to stir, and so I got up, left my phone on the table between me and the seemingly trustworthy stranger, and started strolling her down the aisles of the QFC. When I headed back to the Starbucks, I noticed the aforementioned stranger bolting past me towards the door. He didn't make eye contact. It seemed fishy. And it was. My phone was gone and I knew instantly who had taken it.

So I panicked like everyone does when they realize they've been the victim of crime. I spoke to the Starbucks employees. They didn't know the culprit and hadn't seem him flee. I spoke to the manager of the QFC and asked for surveillance video. Surprisingly, he said he'd let me check it out, but only after the holiday was over. I called the phone company, tried to track the phone (to no avail), and then cancelled my service. But mainly I waited. And plotted. For some strange reason, I knew I'd see that phone again. The one with all the priceless photos of my children in it.

My wife joined me in Starbucks with our other daughter and we lamented the disappearance of the phone. We mourned the loss of the photos, mainly, and made chitchat with other Starbucks customers about the demise of civilization. "Stole it from you on Christmas, eh? On your birthday no less? While you pushed your daughter in the stroller? What a scumbag!" 

But then a funny thing happened. The four of us exited the store and walked through a long parking lot. As we neared its edge, a man crossed our path en route to the alley behind the QFC. I did a double take. It was him! It was the bastard who'd stolen my phone! I instantly confronted him without giving it a second thought. Here's what I remember from the conversation: 

Me: "Hey, you stole my phone." 

Him: "What? I don't know what you're talking about." 

Me: "You were the guy sitting next to me in the Starbucks when my phone went missing. I know you stole it." 

Him: "Hey, man, I didn't steal your phone." 

Me (internal monologue): "Shit. Maybe he didn't steal the phone and I'm accusing the wrong guy. But keep pressing him. The worst case scenario is that you've inconvenienced someone. The best is that you RECOVER THE DAMN PHONE."

Wife, cutting in: "Look, man, if you stole it, just return it to the manager at the QFC. We have priceless photos of our kids on that phone."

The wife and kids then exited the parking lot, leaving me face to face with the villain. A standoff ensued.

Me (internal monologue): "Yes, work the kids angle. And the psychological angle." 

Me: "Look, guy, we've got video tape showing that you stole the phone. The cops are gonna be all over you." 

Him, starting to turn his back and walk away: "You're crazy, man, I don't know what you're talking about."

Me, following him: "Wherever you go, I'm following you. This could take all day but I'm not letting you out of my sight until you give me back that phone."

Those words were true, too. At that moment, I decided that I would die for that phone. Honor was now on the line. I prepared myself mentally for a foot chase or a fist fight. At the funeral people would bewail my stubborn pursuit of the phone: "Why didn't he just let the guy have the damn phone? Was it worth dying over this?" Yes.]

Me, continuing to gamble on the psychological warfare: "We've got you on tape, man. We know who you are. We got your name, your address. We know everything about you." 

Him, looking shifty and outsmarted: "You got me on tape?" 

Me: "Yeah, you're screwed."

Him, sighing: "You want your phone?" You really want it"? 

At this point, he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out my phone. I was right! The confrontation had paid off! 

Him: "Here." 

He then took a step towards me. 

Me: "Whoa, whoa, whoa. Back off, man. I don't know you. You can toss it to me." 

The phone soared through the air. I caught it before it hit the ground. 

Me, getting moralistic on him, seizing the high ground: "You need to change your ways, brother. Stop stealing." 

Him: "I'm sorry man. Please apologize to your wife and kids. I'm trying to change my life." 

I then walked off, my heart palpitating at my highly uncharacteristic display of bravery. Since then, I have recounted the story to all of my living relatives, my friends, my dentist, my barber, and even people on the bus. 

The second event occurred a few weeks after the iPhone incident. While I was out of town, some teenagers--I presumed, correctly--had stolen my longboard off the porch of my house. Now, I don't ride skateboards any more but I had owned this particular one since 1998 and it held important sentimental value to me. I rode it through the pathways of USC as an undergraduate, down gigantic hills in Seattle, through countless towns and cities. I had shed blood because of this skateboard. It was a part of my past. 

So when it went missing I set up a one-man surveillance committee to track down its whereabouts. I just knew it would reappear if I paid close enough attention. After all, most thieves live in the area in which they commit crimes. Right? 

Sure enough, the skateboard eventually reappeared. One day, while gazing out my front window, two teenagers skated past my house....and one of them was riding my longboard! I quickly grabbed my phone--you know, the briefly stolen one--and darted outside. My wife and I were hosting guests while this went down, and everyone stopped to see why I was yelling at passing children from my front deck. 

Me: "That's my longboard!" 

Kid: "Uh, no it's not. It belongs to me." 

Me: "Yup, it's mine. And I can prove it." 

I walked down the stairs and toward the demonstrably frightened youths. I made the kid show me the bottom of the board. 

Me: "Those are all my stickers. I put that 'Don't Die in the House' sticker on there in 1999. The 'I'm Pro-Salmon and I Vote' sticker is from, like, 2001."

I took out the phone and flipped through the photo album. For some reason, I had photographed the skateboard a while back. 

Me: "See. Here's photos of my skateboard. Now, if it's not mine, then why would I know ALL the stickers on the bottom of it AND have photos of it on my phone." 

The teens shrunk in horror. 

Him: "Well, I found it at my apartment complex. It was sitting next to a dumpster." 

I was shocked. Not only had someone stolen my board, they had apparently overlooked its obvious value and abandoned it to the trash heap. 

Him, looking sullen: "Here, you can have it back." He handed the board back to me. 

But at that moment, something changed inside of me. I realized that this kid hadn't stolen the board; he had merely found a board that he thought was unwanted and unpossessed. I thought about how infrequently I ride it. I thought about how happy he'd looked riding on it. I thought about a children's book called Knuffle Bunny in which a child gives her favorite stuffed animal to a baby crying on a plane. 

Me: "You know what, you can keep it. Treat it well. And if you ever get bored of it, just bring it back to my house. You know where I live."

The kids thanked me heartily. They stood there a while looking dumbfounded before riding off into the sunset. 

So the moral of the story is to always listen to your parents. 


On the Politics of 'Coming Out'

Posted on June 18, 2013 at 6:25 PM

Will there come a point when those in the LGBT community won't need to 'come out'? That is, will there come a day when one's sexual orientation isn't such a stressful and politicized aspect of personal identity? When it's simply, well, normal?  

I think Foucault is probably correct to say that sexuality has become an increasingly large part of our identities. If we think of identity as a pie chart, what makes up the largest slice--nationality, religious affiliation (or lack thereof), family, hobbies, sexuality? It seems that sexuality has gobbled up more than it needs to. But was there ever a point at which sexual identity wasn't such a big deal? Or has sexual identity politics merely changed shape? 

My own suspicion is that the growing openness of the LGBT community since the 1960s has made heterosexuals uneasy and has thrust sexuality into the centre of modern identity. After all, it's the oppressive heterosexual majority that created the 'closet' in the first place. And while it goes without saying that I think gays and lesbians should be 'out of the closet' and live with the same rights and recognitions as the heterosexual majority, I still think it's unfair that 'coming out' is a kind of spectacle for heterosexuals. (Why is it so satisfying for heterosexuals to discover that so-and-so 'was gay'?) 

Recently, one of my high school friends came out to her former classmates on social media. But it was clear that the announcement was aimed at her heterosexual friends, and especially the ones with whom she had fallen out of touch. Her reveal made it clear that she had a partner and a close-knit group of lesbian friends. I think it's great that she's out of the closet, but I also don't think she owed an explanation to heterosexuals--the same ones who likely made her feel uncomfortable in high school. 

Thankfully, things do seem to be changing on a broader cultural level. Homosexuality has become much more socially acceptable even in my life time. Remember in the 1990s when celebrities would hold press conferences to announce their homosexuality to the world? Even when I was younger I found these spectacles bizarre, and thankfully they seem to be a thing of the past. I mean, what could be more mundane and unexceptional than a celebrity coming out of the closet? And that unexceptional-ness is a good thing. 

Of course, our society still has a long way to go on sexual equality. Issues of ethnicity, class, religion, and geography still play a major role in the process of coming out. I'd imagine it's easier to come out of the closet as a wealthy, male, atheist than it is as an impoverished, female, Baptist. 

But personally, I hope our culture develops in such a way that sexuality--and especially sexual anxiety--doesn't have to dominate so much of our identity and cultural preoccupations. A time should come when people define their own sexual identity and forget the demands of the narrow-minded heterosexual majority. 

The message I get when reading Foucault's history of sexuality is that true progress will occur when we can get past our obsession with sexual identity, in a sense, and move on to focus on the development of the self and personal autonomy. 


On Ecological Economists

Posted on June 13, 2013 at 1:30 PM

Where are all the ecological economists? 

Ecological economics (EE) is more recognizable and credible than ever. But it would be hard to argue that this school of economic thought has seriously displaced neoclassical economics (NE).

Of course, EE differs from NE in a number of important ways. Although EE works within a fundamentally capitalist framework--assuming the existence of private property, market mechanisms, exchangeable currencies, etc.--it departs from NE in its attitude toward the natural world, environmental regulation, the value of growth, and many other subjects.

Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, this new school of thought began to integrate ecological concerns into economic analyses. But the same divisions still separate NE from EE. The neoclassical economist wants growth (of population, throughput, and consumption); the ecological economist wants equilibrium--an economic system that operates safely within the Earth's biophysical limits. The neoclassical economist "externalizes" the natural world, treating pollution as something "outside" the system; the ecological economist internalizes those costs and rejects growth that drains resources, pollutes air, water, and soil, degrades ecosystems, and/or exacerbates social inequalities. The neoclassical economists employs conventional metrics, such as the GDP/GNP, to measure the health of an economy; the ecological economist uses alternative measures and systems to rate the health of society and the economy--indicators such as the GPI (Genuine Progress Indicator), which doesn't assume that all growth is good. 

EE has been around for a while now. It was developed between 1965 and 1980 by such economists, ecologists, and systems theorists as E. J. Mishan, E. F. Schumacher, Kenneth Boulding, Howard T. Odum, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, Herman Daly, Amory Lovins, and the members of the Club of Rome. Collectively, they challenged the growth-obsessed, destructive, business-as-usual economics of the 20th century that brought with it, at once, a rising standard of living in the West, but also a devastating assault on the natural environment, rapidly expanding cities, and a booming population. More recent practitioners of ecological economics include William E. Rees, Mathis Wackernagel, Peter Victor, Tim Jackson, John Elkington, and Richard Heinberg. They have helped develop the field and have been able to gain wide respect and recognizability in public discourse. They are the economists of the sustainability movement. 

Yet how effective have they been at creating change? Certainly Rees' and Wackernagel's concept of the "ecological footprint" has been hugely influential, and this metric has been used in countless cities, regions, and countries to reduce stresses on the environment. But it's also clear that EE still lags behind NE, which continues to have a stranglehold on Econ departments throughout the industrialized world. This is a huge problem, since it is NE that has gotten us in to our current mess. An economic system that values growth at all costs, externalizes the environment, and assumes that profit is the sole and unique purpose of private enterprise, is basically useless at helping society transition to a green economy--and as far as I'm concerned, creating a green economy is the challenge of our time. 

We need an economic system that punishes pollution and profits made by it. Better yet, we need an economic system that regulates and even illegalizes pollution and overconsumption. By contrast, within conventional economic analysis, environmental destruction is often seen as a good thing, since it can be a boon for the economy. The famous example is the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which ended up boosting the US GDP by about 2 billion dollars (somebody was paid to clean it all up). So oil spills are a good thing? According to conventional economic analysis, yes, they are, and this is because of the almost total lack of qualitative interpretation of money-making. 

This lack of qualification in NE has been the subject of much discussion in EE, notably by Herman Daly (1977), Paul Hawken (1993), and John Elkington (1997). Daly argued that there needs to be a more nuanced understanding of economic growth. Is there good growth vs. bad? He coined the term "uneconomic growth" to refer to growth that harmed society and the economy down the line. We might think of it has instant gratification growth that has negative consequences for future generations. Much of the growth of the 20th century was likely "uneconomic growth." Similarly, Hawken has argued that businesses have no way of differentiating between good vs. bad profits. There are only two kinds of profit--net and gross--but neither of those concepts tell us anything about the ethical value of those profits. Ethics is also a strong theme in the work of John Elkington, who developed the theory of the Triple Bottom Line, which suggests that businesses should aim to succeed financially, socially, and environmentally. Profit should come only through ethical means. 

But again, where are the ecological economists? They have made headway in public consciousness, and in certain domains of academia, but they still play second fiddle in federal governments and in the media. I've never seen an ecological economist work as a talking head on a business show. It's 100% neoclassical wonks in the mainstream media, touting more growth and more consumption. The same old paradigm still dominates, despite growing awareness of resource depletion and anthropogenic climate change. But we can't fight fire with fire. If we want to get beyond the moribund, unstable economic system that we have created, then we need to look to the new generation of ecological economists to lead us there. 

Most ecological economists that I know work for environmental consulting firms or in departments of resource economics. Others run private foundations. But very few have infiltrated economics departments, the IMF, the World Bank (with the exception of Daly), the US Fed, or the business shows that trot out the same hackneyed analysis of the economy. Most countries still use the same catastrophically faulty systems of economic measurement, above all the GNP. When the G8 meets, literally all it can agree on is the need for more growth--and this despite the fact that net happiness does not grow past a certain average level of personal income and growth in the industrial world has driven overpopulation, overconsumption of resources, skyrocketing emissions, and climate change. 

In other words, we're still dealing with business as usual. And ecological economists are still marginalized, despite their obvious value to our civilization.

And that's a problem for all of us. 

On Dogs

Posted on June 9, 2013 at 2:30 AM

I dislike dogs. Actually, I dislike dog owners. Dogs can't be faulted for being dogs. That's their business. But why do we need countless thousands of these things cluttering our lives and our civilization?

My dislike of dogs dates to when I was a child. I can still remember the incident clearly. A ferocious dog was barking at me and my brother as we walked down our street. It lept against a fence and gnashed its terrible teeth. The gate swung open and the ravenous beast attacked me. It tried to bite my neck, but instead locked its jaws onto the hood of my jacket. By some bizarre twist of fate, my brother was carrying a large metal tube and began beating the dog mercilessly until it relented and ran back to its yard. My parents called the police and the city "arrested" the dog and euthanized it.

I did not attend the funeral. 

More recently, my oldest daughter was knocked down by a big, dumb dog that basically ran straight through her. Now she's afraid of dogs. Ten seconds before the dog barreled her over, the dog's owners said those self-deluded words that you hear every day from idiotic dog owners: "Oh, she's a really friendly dog. She's not dangerous" Do dog owners know how stupid they sound when they say that? Of course you think your dog is nice! And it's probably also true that your dog is nice to the people with whom it shares a home. It's when it's out in public that it becomes an untrustworthy menace. Many dog species are quite dangerous. The rest are just annoying. 

So those incidents have certainly colored my views about dogs. But even if they hadn't occurred, I would still dislike the things. It drives me insane that self-entitled dog owners routinely ignore leash laws and let their genetically-modified mobile shit factories run freely in city parks. Letting a dog off leash in a leash-on area is the equivalent to blowing a big puff of cigarette smoke into someone's face. (I can still remember my aunt Lulu complaining in the 1980s when airplanes banned in-flight smoking.) The assumption is that everyone needs to share in the dog owners love of the dog. 

The thing that blows my mind about dogs, and cats, is that most species were basically created by humans over long periods of time through selective breeding. We created these damn things as companions for us. They're a physical embodiment of our own narcissism, our own powers over nature, our own neediness and lonliness. We made them our best friends. 

The other thing that bothers me about dogs is how much time and energy our society dedicates to them when people everywhere go starving. The pet industry is in the billions. I remember listening to an epsidoe of "This American Life" in which an American couple befriended a group of young Iraqi men (via the internet) during the war. The Iraqis and the American couple shared stories about their respective lives. They came to care about each other. Cultural exchange and dialogue took place. The only thing that the Iraqis could never understand about the Americans? Their undying love for the family dog. "You mean you feed it and keep it in the house? In our country, we swerve out of our way to kill these things in the road. They'll attack you if given the slightest chance."

The Americans defended Fido. "Oh, he's a very gentle and loving animal. He would never hurt a soul." 


On Climate Change Denial

Posted on June 5, 2013 at 2:35 PM

Is there anything more annoying than denying the obvious reality of climate change? I am not a climate scientist. But it doesn't take a PhD in atmospheric sciences to understand and accept that the entire scientific community has agreed that growing concentrations of greenhouse gases--mainly carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide--correlate directly to the overall spike in average global temperatures. They create a "heat blanket" (it's worse than it sounds) that traps heat from escaping from the atmosphere. 

It isn't enough that the world needs to quickly transform our unsustainable industrial juggernaut of an economy into a stable and sustainable green economy. We also have to deal with the misinformed climate change deniers and an entire industry-backed "denial industry." It adds insult to injury because the needless sabotaging of the sustainability movement merely delays the path to social, ecological, and economic equilibrium. Meanwhile, the parts per million of carbon dioxide surpassed the symbolic 400 mark this year. 

One of the main arguments that I've heard against climate science is that scientists can't make up their minds about whether the Earth is warming or cooling. The argument goes that climate scientists had a "consensus" about the fact that the Earth was cooling, only to perform an about-face a few years later and agree that the Earth is warming. This is because a handful of scientists argued between 1965 and 1979 that climate data suggested a global cooling trend. 

However, there was no consensus about the cooling trend and it was quickly discovered that this slight levelling off of temperatures was part of a longer trend of global warming. A fantastic article called "The Myth of the 1970s Global Cooling Scientific Consensus" shows that there was no consensus on the subject and that, as climate science advanced, the irregularities were figured out. (Here's the link to the pdf of the article.) Sorry, climate change deniers. You'll need to grasp at different straws.  

It's also important to keep in mind that the climate is a complex system that is affected by multiple variables. It's clear that man-made pollution is causing temperatures to rise, but other factors are often at play, and there are no simple models in climate science. 

Societies have been aware for a long time that humans have the ability to affect the weather and the climate. In the 17th and 18th centuries, European colonial administrators wrote quite explicitly about how deforestation on tropical islands tended to warm and dry out the local climate. Indeed, the 18th century was a period obsessed with climate and its relationship to human society. However, it was only in the 1870s that accurate global temperature records began to be kept. To understand temperatures before that requires data from ice cores and other sources. But it's incontrovertibly true that industrialization since the late 18th century has caused the overall spike in global temperatures. As time passes and climate science improves, we're better able to understand that phenomenon. 

Science might not be able to answer everything. But it's the best method we have for understanding the phenomenon of climate chance. Now it's up to the deniers to get with the program and accept it. 

On Aliens

Posted on June 5, 2013 at 2:15 AM

Have people always believed in aliens? Did prehistoric cave-dwellers look to the stars at night and envision hairy, half-naked cave-dwellers eking out a living on distant orbs? 

It's clear that humans have thought about aliens for quite a long time. In the late medieval and early modern period, there was a raging debate about the possibility of "moon men," as aliens were called at the time. Many of the participants in these debates were astronomers (or students of it), which makes sense, since they saw a lot of outer space with telescopes. In the 17th century, the heliocentric astronomer Johannes Kepler dreamt about the possibility of intelligent life on the moon. Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, a popularizer of natural philosophy in the 18th century, wrote extensively about moon men. 

Earlier, in the 15th century, the philosopher and theologian Nicholas de Cusa had accepted the chance that intelligent life could exist on other planets. But he scoffed at their inferior digs and their likely stupidity: "Even if there are inhabitants of another kind on other stars...with regards to the intellectual natures a nobler and more perfect nature cannot, it seems, be given than the intellectual nature which dwells both here on Earth and in its own region." Translation: no creature could be smarter than humans and Earth is the best planet of them all. (Christians have always been particularly uncomfortable with aliens. What if other beings have missed out on the divine message? If Scripture doesn't mention other beings on other planets.....) 

I know that it is unpopular to do so, but I greatly doubt the possibility that there is intelligent life on other planets. Of course, with a never-ending and continuously-expanding universe, anything is possible, and astronomers like to wager on the "probability" of life on other planets. 

But what if they're wrong? What if we're alone and "lost in the cosmos," as the existentialist Walker Percy famously put it? Perhaps our solitude is even scarier than the idea of unknown cognates, potential rivals, existing somewhere out there, watching us and plotting our destruction--or at least salivating at the thought of probing us. (Aliens are often very rapey and invasive, come to think of it.)  

For my money, I bet it's all bacteria and simple life forms in the heavens. A planet needs perfect conditions to create life, and even then, the number of evolutionary mistakes that have lead to, well, this seems like a one-off event to me. 

What's always so funny about alien sightings is that the aliens always look vaguely like us. They're humanoids, at the very least. Perhaps these dubious sightings are indicative of some deep yearning for some celestial companionship? (If there were aliens out there, what would be the chances that they could breathe oxygen, have the ability to see, are able to communicate, have mastered intergalactic flight, etc., etc., etc.?) I was particularly delighted to learn of the recent book that suggests, with strong evidence, that the moon men seen in New Mexico in the 1940s were, in fact, human lab rats created by evil geniuses in the Soviet Union and sent in wild-looking "spaceships" to America, where they were meant to cause mass panic upon crash landing. This theory seems altogether more plausible than the notion of real aliens.

The reality, as best I can tell, is that we're alone in this vast, black ocean of nothingness. If anything, we're the aliens. We're the odd creatures that have learned to fly in the heavens. Is not the whole discourse on aliens really about our own existential discomfort?

Yes, we are the aliens. And that frightens us. 

And even if we're not, as Nicholas de Cusa suggested long ago, what could possibly be better than Earth? The discussion of space exploration is always underwritten by some vague notion of finding other planets to inhabit. Maybe our social resources are better spent on keeping Earth a habitable place to live. 

On Blogs

Posted on May 27, 2013 at 1:05 AM

This is my first "web log." I am blogging. 

First, a confession: I have tremendous reservations abouting getting involved in a medium that seems to be dying. I feel like I just discovered Radiohead or Seinfeld. In fact, Seinfeld might be the appropriate reference here since my blog postings will probably be 'about nothing.' But of course, Seinfeld was never 'about nothing.' It was 'about something' and that something was the peculiarities and ambiguities of modern life. So I guess it's fitting that my random musings on history, sustainability, and culture take that particular show as its point of departure. 

I quit twitter. I used to be on there--a lot. It was kind of taking over my life. I always scoffed at Facebook and its cliquishness, but twitter is basically no different. Twitter became my access to the outside world on those long days, months, years of reading and writing books. It was, at once, a way to keep up on the news, stay in touch with friends and family, follow soccer teams, and basically avoid focusing on work. But mainly I liked it because it was an outlet of expression. I need to express myself. It's one of the reasons that I became a writer and a teacher. I have a lot to say and I need someone to hear about it. I feel most comfortable crafting a sentence, leading a seminar discussion, or pontificating in front of a classroom. My mother used to say that I should be an actor. She was probably right. 

In any case, I've turned to blogging since I committed twitter suicide. I considered getting a podcast, but I don't think I'm ready for that just yet. It's nice to get back to long-form--or medium-form--writing and away from the enforced pithiness of 140 characters. To hell with 140 characters! Vive run-on sentences and pointless asides!