I remember reading a short story titled “Farmer on the Dole” by a science fiction writer that first appeared in Omni Magazine (October-November 1982). Fredrick Pohl’s career (1937–2012) spanned 75 years. His numerous works earned him many prestigious awards for the following: Gateway (1977), The Years of the City (1985), Beyond the Blue Event Horizon (1980), Heechee Rendezvous (1984), and Man Plus (1976), Jem (1980). Also included were short stories Fermi and Frost (1986), The Meeting (1973).
This story became unforgettable and continued to trouble me because it contains a hint of what concerns me most about humanity. What it suggests about us leaves a negative aftertaste that cannot be washed or flushed away. It is a story where robots are created to imitate and replace the humans who have abandoned the planet they ruined to go to new worlds to repeat the process. Those humans remaining behind on the dying planet are a bit lonely and nostalgic and want company. It is a repulsive view of man and his unwillingness to solve the problems he created. It reveals the principal flaw in our species. We run from problems. We do not like having to work to solve them.
Farmer on the Dole focuses on an old human experience and attitude. Pohl merely changes the time, place, and circumstances. He takes the story out of our time and simply inserts it into the future elsewhere. Our species pollute, abandon, and go elsewhere to do the same all over again. We never learn. We never really grow or evolve in our behavior. It is a continuation of our stone-age primitive slash and burn agriculture practices to planetary levels. In Farmer on the Dole, mankind has launched himself into the stars, but his brain is still the naked ape hunter-gatherer. We are still the clever monkey of our dimming past.
Following his line of thought, we must ultimately accept mankind as incapable of learning from even the vilest of his past follies. Looking at our world at this juncture, we must accept that verdict as plastics flood the streams and rivers, clogging and collecting over vast stretches of the oceans that determine life. The conclusion is clear. We proceed to flatten mountain tops to extract fossil fuels raising the planet’s temperature and threatening to end civilization as we know it. It continues so a few can live luxuriously for a bit longer before the curtain falls.
Rather than solving problems, Pohl’s humanity leaves and creates a complete fleet of robot androids to carry on in their absence. What a novel idea; our ultimate dream. Androids have all the appearances and behaviors of living creatures like us. We are capable beings; however, we are not smart. Is this not the way we are currently treating the Earth, our home? Do we just go on wasting the land and ruining the water and air until the planet becomes a desert (physically and spiritually)? Will Ursula K. Le Guin’s observation in passing in The Dispossessed become our reality? Why would we bother to use science and technology to create phantom robot images of ourselves and an equally ridiculous likeness of a plastic replica of our world? What a ludicrous farce.
Our ‘slash and burn’ thought pattern has persisted from our prehistoric predecessors extending back for more than fifty thousand years. The world view of the last 300 years has been dominated by a Cartesian-Newtonian paradigm (Renee Descartes and Sir Isaac Newton) that operates on the assumption mind and body are separated, that the body is a clockwork machine, and reality can be learned or determined by the study of the smallest constituent parts. Not even Quantum theory and Relativity have managed to change the multitude’s thinking in this regard. Everything we have learned in the past 30 or more years with the rise of social media and the implications of our use of big data has not penetrated these beliefs among most. Our faith persists the universe is an orderly and predictable machine. Isn’t God in control? What is there to be concerned about? The book has been written, and events appear as written. We need not be concerned or worried. This has been a useful approach for many, however, the ideas we invent to explain and ensure our survival today become the cause of our demise tomorrow.
Philosopher William Irwin Thompson said the future belongs to the mystic and the systems analyst. Thompson suggested we get beyond our simple exploitive view of nature as a machine to be manipulated. We need to adopt a compatible view of nature that sees its parts as revealing its function rather than defining the entire system as a function of a few elements. We will appreciate the complexity of the system and act more harmoniously. The systems analyst will monitor and report on the organism’s health and the day-to-day conditions of things. The mystic will be the interpreter of the direction the organism must move in the future. The description and terminology Thompson uses are dated in light of all we have seen change over the past 40 years, but his thoughts are relevant and understood. Maybe there is a beneficial use for big data other than using it to control, manipulate, oppress, and enslave humanity.
Human minds internalize objects and make patterns. We internalize the universe as objects. These patterns, once constructed, are not easily changed or altered. The only way of altering embedded thought patterns, according to Thompson, is by one of three means. These changes result from insights often revealed in humor, because of a fortunate accident, and what the late creative thinker Edward De Bono called lateral thinking.
Our perception, according to Thompson, is based on the internalization of the mother/infant relationship, money (economic system), and religion. This illustrates how hard it is to change our way of thinking and perceiving reality. Our view of reality is dominated by ideas from 300 years past. The dominant economic paradigm dates from the same era. It threatens to destroy the planet, most life, and our civilization, but we resist changing or seriously questioning it. In addition to humor, the infant/mother relationship, and economics mentioned above, we should acknowledge our thinking also can be changed by catastrophic events. The ecological collapse caused by global warming and climate change, a massive planetary war, a meteor or asteroid strike, and the crumbling of governments across the planet due to the economic catastrophe caused by any of the above serves the same purpose. The universe within us is inseparable from the universe outside. One is the mirror image of the other. What we perceive influences, determines, and defines our reality. History shows us we rarely make such fundamental changes.
The human flaw may be due to our short life awareness of the consequences of our actions. We seem unable to appreciate the long-term implications of our behaviors. It reveals the inadequacy of our educational processes to foster a longer view. We have the acquired wisdom and knowledge of overcoming these shortcomings, but we refuse to employ them. Our resistance and comfort in wallowing in denial, ignorance, and superstition prevail. We must develop our awareness of the interrelationship of all things. We must acknowledge our role in the process. We must find and learn new ways to think about and approach our world. We must change our thinking from destruction and extraction of the planet to investing in its health and sustainability we require to survive and thrive. We will have time to explore the vast universe beaconing us. First, we must learn to solve problems in our own yard before we go about spreading our garbage and refuse across the cosmos. Wabi-sabi. Namaste.
What you see on the surface often obscures what hides underneath. On Valentine’s Day, I decided to make some chili for a cold winter day. After my wife left for a short errand, I put some items in the laundry, refilled my coffee cup, and sat down in front of my computer to work on an essay I was trying to birth.
I began to study what I had written when I was overtaken by a strange sensation. I had the feeling my consciousness was fading, yet it was quickly replaced by the feeling of being detached. I was an observer but not in control of my senses. This feeling lasted several seconds, followed by an involuntary jerking of my neck on my left side while simultaneously experiencing a twitching of my left eye and eyebrow. This continued for about 30 seconds and vanished as suddenly as it had appeared. I was able to move my hands, arms, and fingers throughout. When it stopped, I grabbed my phone and called my wife, who quickly quit her errand, came home in less than five minutes, collected me, and took me straight to the nearest hospital ER.
Valentine’s Day is a day we traditionally celebrate our love and commitment to our special ones, wives, and sweethearts. This year I surprised my wife with a bouquet of red roses. It is not something I do every year. Over more than 50 years of our marriage, I did it when it seemed especially appropriate. I should add we are not inclined to show the importance of our love and commitment for each other in material ways. We do it daily. We skip commercially co-opted and promoted events.
This year I was moved to celebrate it when an opportunity appeared. I was in the store and saw the flowers. My wife divided the roses and placed them in several locations around the house. It added beauty, color, vibrancy, and a happy mood. What followed changed none of that.
I was admitted to the ER and interviewed by a physician assistant. As the assisting nurse prepared to transport me to have a CT scan and x-rays, I experienced another short seizure of twitching that lasted for about 10 seconds. This time my wife and the nurse were able to observe what was taking place. I was taken for a CT scan and x-rays. Upon returning, I had another conversation with the physician assistant. She identified the cause of my seizure as a small mass on the right side of my head. I was taken back for an MRI. When I came back, the ER doctor soon joined my wife and me to explain my medical situation. His demeanor was stiff and restrained. He chose words carefully, delivering a straight, honest, and factual message, no fluff.
The seizure was caused by an approximately one-centimeter tumor on the right side of my brain. It was located above the ear toward the frontal cortex and near the surface toward my right temple. It was causing a larger area of inflammation and swelling, thus the seizure.
Two days before I had become vaguely aware, I was having some difficulty while writing down a few reading notes. My muscle control seemed compromised. I had trouble writing legibly. I took notice and thought it strange but passed it off since I rarely write in cursive anymore. It was a clue I chose to ignore.
The doctor saved the most important news for the last. The mass in my head did not originate there. It had migrated from elsewhere, and when they x-rayed my lungs, they found some small nodules in my right lung. Here was the smoking gun. He said they could not make an accurate determination of what we were facing until a biopsy of the mass could be done to identify it precisely. He added these cases usually could not be cured. He left those words to hang in the air.
I returned to the hospital at 5:30 am on the following Monday, February 22, 2021, to be admitted to surgery to remove the tumor. I will not know what I face until the biopsy of the mass the doctor extracted from my head is identified. But some things are clear and do not require me to wait for an answer.
My response to this new reality was to accept whatever the future brings, knowing it will be challenging, difficult, probably painful, with an uncertain, or possibly a dreadful outcome. It is what it is. My choice is to play the hand I’m dealt with as much skill I can muster and hope to buy as much time as possible, taking advantage of each minute to do all I can to enrich this life and leave no stone unturned. But a greater awareness soon overtook me.
My life has been dominated by two diverse themes. One was the six decades of periodic severe depression that plagued every aspect of my life. The second theme was my having faced my death 35, now 36 times stretching over the whole of my life. I suddenly realized they were all aimed to this moment. My purpose was and is wrapped in these events. They prepared me to meet this challenge at this moment and in this place. The sudden insight unleashed a powerful jolt of energy. On this Valentine’s Day, I was gifted, granted, and bestowed the greatest gift I could ever dream of receiving. I was allowed intense insight, clarity, vision, intention, awareness, and purpose I could not have achieved by any other means. I am free! Writing that word does not begin to express the depth or breadth of its meaning. I perceived truth as taught throughout the ages and revealed in all religious traditions. It is overwhelming in a most profound way.
I am aware nothing is certain. Nothing is determined. Everything is impossible until it is done, or you do it. My mother was adamant in teaching me during her almost 104 years of life to never, never, never, ever, give up. That is how I am made.
That said, there are other equally or more important things to be shared and acknowledged. While I will never ever give up, I do understand surrender. I surrender to the experience and the challenges that lie ahead. I am comfortable with who I am. I know my reason and purpose. I live with intention. I understand today is all I have. What is most important is to live in this moment, do all and accomplish all I am able each gifted minute I am given. It is my way of honoring my creation. My gift of having received this wonderful life is filled with the love of family and friends.
I have goals to reach, tasks to complete, and promises to fulfill. My sense of urgency is increased, but I accept that as my motivation for becoming more focused, more intentional, more purposeful, mindful, and fully aware. I live my life with intention and purpose while pursuing work to awaken others to the perils we face. I encourage movement in the direction of restoring our Earth as we restore ourselves to lives filled with meaning, purpose, and love.
I focus on teaching and trying to be an example for others. My work is laser-focused on the questions that lurk behind every issue we humans face. We enter a future no less challenging than the one I am facing immediately. My goal is modest. I strive to change one person, change one life, make one more person aware, encourage one person to get involved and committed to changing our world. If I accomplish that, I view my work as being a success and my purpose fulfilled.
The filters, the governors, the censors have been removed. I am free to share as I feel. I know that I will without fear of what comes.
In the course of my more than 75 years of life, I faced my death 35 times. Before Valentine’s Day, I had hoped 36, the terminal event, would be delayed indefinitely. What is clear to me is these 35 moments were all designed to get my attention. Number 35 in May of 2018 did. I suffered a heart attack. I had experienced no symptoms nor prior indicators that would have been forewarnings. It was pure genetics. My father died of a sudden heart attack at age 73 with no previous conditions.
The heart attack got my attention. I took an extensive and intensive inventory of my life and decided what I should keep. I dumped the rest. It resulted in my making some profound life changes. A lot of things were cast off. It provided better insight and pointed to a different future with more purpose, intention, and practice living more in the moment.
This Valentine’s Day was a different kind of awaking. I face something I never considered as more than a remote possibility. There is no history of cancer in my long line of direct ancestors. Genetics may be missing, but environment and lifestyle also are a factor, however, none of this matters. I take what I know or will soon, and we will decide on a path and see where it goes, cherishing and relishing each moment we have together and enjoy the moments.
This event is a call for waking up. I have work to do, and each day, each moment is of much greater value and importance to use as best I can. I feel up to the challenge and surrender to the adventure. As described in Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, I seek the magic elixir to bring home so I can share its wisdom and its secrets with all others. The outcome of my path is unknown. I see the Balrog waiting on the precipice. I know I will prevail regardless of the result.
Like most of us, I grew up believing the United States was peace-loving and we were people who avoided war. After all, for a large part of our history, the military establishment and its emulation was kept very small. It was intentional. We didn’t want a large military that might become a threat to our government and institutions. Our founders were wise.
What changed us? What changed our view and our course?
Perhaps the only thing that has changed is our awareness. It seems what we teach in school leaves out some essential details, facts, and information. Let’s take a look at our record. Here is a list of the US military and surreptitious operations in foreign countries from 1798 to 2005. World Wars I & II are omitted.
1969-1975 Cambodia CIA supports military coup against Prince Sihanouk, bringing Lon Nol
to power. Intensive bombing for seven years along border with
1970 Oman Counter-insurgency operation, including coordination with Iranian
1971-1973 Laos Invasion by US and South Vietnamese forces
1973 Chile CIA-backed military coup ousts government of President Salvador
Allende. Gen Augusto Pinochet comes to power.
1975 Cambodia Marines land, engage in combat with government forces
1976-1992 Angola Military and CIA operations
1980 Iran Special operations units land in Iranian desert. Helicopter malfunction
leads to aborting of planned raid.
1981 Libya Naval jets shoot down two Libyan jets in maneuvers over the
1981-1982 El Salvador CIA and special forces begin a long counter-insurgency campaign
1981-1990 Nicaragua CIA directs exile “Contra” operations. US air units drop sea mines in
1982-1984 Lebanon Marines land and naval forces fire on local combatants.
1983 Grenada Military forces invade Grenada
1983-1989 Honduras Large program of military assistance aimed at conflict in Nicaragua
1984 Iran Two Iranian jets shot down over the Persian Gulf
1958 Panama Clashes between US forces in Canal Zone and local citizens
1986 Libya US aircraft bomb the cities of Tripoli and Benghazi, including direct
strikes at official residence of President Muamar al Qadaffi
1986 Bolivia Special Forces units engage in counter-insurgency
1987-1988 Iran Naval forces block Iranian shipping. Civilian airliner shot down by
1989 Libya Naval aircraft shoot down two Libyan jets over Gulf of Sidra
1989 Philippines CIA and Special Forces involved in counterinsurgency.
1989-1990 Panama 27,000 troops as well as naval and air power use to overthrow
government of President Noriega.
1990 Liberia Troops deployed
1990-1991 Iraq Major military operation, including naval blockade, air strikes; large
number of troops attack Iraqi forces in occupied Kuwait
1991-2003 Iraq Control of Iraqi airspace in north and south of the country with periodic
attacks on air and ground targets.
1991 Haiti CIA-backed military coup ousts President Jean-Bertrand Aristide
1992-1994 Somalia Special operations forces intervene
1992-1994 Yugoslavia Major role in NATO blockade of Serbia and Montenegro
1993-1995 Bosnia Active military involvement with air and ground forces.
1994-1996 Haiti Troops depose military rulers and restore President Jean-Bertrand
Aristide to office
1995 Croatia Krajina Serb airfields attacked
1996-1997 Zaire (Congo) Marines involved in operations in eastern region of the country
1997 Liberia Troops deployed
1998 Sudan Air strikes destroy country’s major pharmaceutical plant
1998 Afghanistan Attack on targets in the country
1998 Iraq Four days of intensive air and missile strikes
1999 Yugoslavia Major involvement in NATO air strikes
2001 Macedonia NATO troops shift and partially disarm Albanian rebels
2001 Afghanistan Air attacks and ground operations oust Taliban government and install
a new regime.
2003 Iraq Invasion with large ground, air and naval forces ousts government of
Saddam Hussein and establishes new government.
2003-Present Iraq Occupation force of 150,000 troops in protracted counter-insurgency
2004 Haiti Marines land. CIA-backed forces overthrow President Jean-Bertrand
There have been many more interventions and operations since 2005. Here are a few notables:
Unrestricted use of drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. 2011 military intervention in Libya. The raid and killing of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan. 2011-Present, US combat troops in Uganda sent to advise. 2012, troops deployed to Jordan to help it contain the Syrian Civil War. Americans have been and are involved in Somalia, Chad, Syria, Iraq, Cameroon, and elsewhere. The US has been involved in numerous coups and attempted coups, including: 2007-Iran, 2009-Honduras, 2011-Libya, 2015-present, Yemen, 2019-present, Venezuela, and most recently the coup that overthrew Bolivian President Evo Morales in 2019 that has now been reversed and has blown up in our face.
It would seem we have had no qualms about flexing our military muscle and meddling in other countries whenever it suited our purposes and interests. It would appear the roots of an empire run deep in our family tree. During my more than 75 years of life, we have been actively involved in military operations, wars, and other actions almost without interruption. The US maintains more than 800 bases in at least 80 countries. It is the largest arms dealer on the planet and spends more annually on defense than the next dozen countries combined. It is one reason our democracy is in such peril.
Some of our bellicose behavior, I realize, is a reflection of the time they occurred. Nations with the ability to do so have rarely restrained themselves from flaunting their military superiority to obtain their objectives. That should not be interpreted and accepted as an excuse for behavior in any era.
Our ancestors arrived on this continent with the intention of conquest, colonization, and removal of any obstacle to their designs by whatever means necessary. This behavior is embedded in our DNA. We are programmed to eliminate any who are perceived as competition for access to resources.
War and conflict have been a part of our heritage. Conflicts with indigenous tribes commenced as soon as our European ancestors stepped foot on these shores in 1607. It continued until the Wounded Knee Massacre near the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota on December 29, 1890. Major conflicts during the colonial period connected to events elsewhere included: Queen Anne’s War-1702-1713, King George’s War-1744-1748, and The French and Indian War-1756-1763. To this list, we can also add instances of slave rebellions in the South.
We were not predestined to be a warrior nation. History, circumstance, and perhaps something peculiar in our national makeup may have made it more likely. Was England’s sending of more than 50,000 convicted felons to the colonies before the Revolution a factor? Was it convicted felons plus thousands more of the poor and unwanted sent to the colonies as indentured servants? Did Evangelical Christianity that fed abundantly off emotion and ignorance play a part? Was it a chance outcome fueled by personalities willing to take high risks that came to the colonies and uninhibited by society norms? These are questions others with more understanding and expertise will have to ponder. The result, however, is evident. We are not shy about asserting ourselves and using force to get what we want.
For most of our history, we have downplayed and hidden our behavior and activities from view. Our many intrusions and adventures around the world and especially in Latin America were never discussed or acknowledged. These things were never talked about or mentioned in any history class. The portrayal of our conflict with Native Americans was almost always a reaction to aggression and barbaric acts. Our massacring villages were recorded as ‘battles.’ My college classes in diplomatic history never mentioned any but the most famous instances listed above. We portrayed ourselves as exceptional, believing repeating this lie will cleanse us of sin.
Two world wars, the Cold War, and the endless preparation for war pushed us past a tipping point. What these events did was to expose what has been shielded from view. Embracing empire, militarism, and glorifying soldiers as warriors allowed us to see behind the curtain. We got a glimpse of who we are. We may try to ignore it. We may try to hide it, but it is what it is, and we are who we are.
Acknowledging these things allows us to look at and view our history from a different perspective. The toxic mixture of right-wing zealotry, paranoid fears of communism, and the Cold War, changed our attitudes toward war. Seduced by material abundance served up by a booming postwar economy and fueled by the release of pent-up energy of millions of returning veterans threw open the door to a growing militarization of society. Public attention was distracted, intoxicated, and addicted to the acquisition of things.
I remember the early 1950s when we practiced duck and cover drills in elementary school. We had no idea what we are doing, but we did as we were instructed by teachers who were as confused as we were. I remember rumors in my small midwestern town promoting fears of Russian bombers. It was whispered there were plane spotters with binoculars in the tower at the junior high school every night to keep watch.
The gluttonous annual defense budgets, the peacetime draft supporting the bulging military establishment infiltrated our thoughts and took over our thinking. The way current events were presented heightened the fears and hysteria ensuring the defense department would be well funded. There was the Korean War, the Suez Canal crisis in 1956, the shock of Sputnik in 1957, the intervention to prevent China from invading Taiwan in 1958, culminating with the Cuban Missile Crisis during October 1962.
President Dwight Eisenhower warned of the dangers posed by the growth of the military-industrial complex. No one listened. The page had been turned, and our conversion, not just to empire, but a highly militarized one that protected its interests, not necessarily the people’s.
An Empire is what we’ve been since Thomas Jefferson encouraged Congress to take advantage of Napoleon’s offer and purchased the vast center of the continent known as Louisiana Territory. It set a tone that has continued. We practiced ethnic cleansing and genocide on the indigenous peoples to clear the land. A manufactured war with Mexico gave us control over the continent, war with Spain freed us from North American containment. World War II ended with us in command. We controlled most of the world’s wealth, we had a large military, and we led in making the rules for the world that was to follow.
The Cold War facilitated the growing empire and particularly the military force required to enforce and control it. The Soviet Union became an unwilling but necessary partner in helping us achieve the militarization of society. They were the convenient boogieman used as an excuse for an ever-increasing military establishment.
The Soviet Union disappeared in 1991. The strain of trying to keep up with the US caused the Soviet Empire to collapse and disintegrate. The American Empire was unrestrained and able to impose its will for a time. But narrow thinking comes at a price, and we still have not acknowledged the terrible price we have paid. Nor have we experienced the impact of policies and activities that now threaten to come home and overwhelm us.
The rise of militarism was paralleled by the growth of the gun culture accompanied by pseudo-militias and other extremist groups. The culture was inundated by a fascination with violence. Our movies, TV screens, video games, and the evening news were filled with displays and portrayals of violence, particularly with a wild west shoot’em up attitude.
The constant threat of war and engaging in conflicts destroy a democracy. The Cold War caused a slow erosion and strangling of American democracy. Our transformation into a fascist empire was gradual. The change was subtle and almost invisible, revealed in small ways. Our servicemen and women were rechristened as warriors. There were constant references to those in uniform, thanking them for their service. Our leaders ended every speech with “God bless our troops.” Advertisements glorifying our armed forces filled the airways. However, the material support that would make their lives better or take care of them or their families in the event they were killed or injured was absent.
We spread our military tentacles of control around the planet. They are our means of influence and sway. Our goal is to maintain access to critical raw materials for Americans and our allies in poor and developing countries at prices we set. They have to adhere to the rules we made. The IMF, WTO, World Bank, and other international institutions are the enforcers.
Americans are confounded discovering how much we are distrusted and hated in the world. They are confused when the rest of the world watches the Star Wars saga and see the US identified with the evil empire. “Why do they hate us?”
What you send out into the world eventually comes home, and the policies and activities we developed and used in Latin America, Asia, Africa, and elsewhere are returning to haunt us. It was inevitable that the means we use to influence and control other countries would be used for the same purpose at home. The temptation to use the tools you have developed to achieve the desired end on others is not going to be restricted “for foreign use only.”
Where do we go from here? Having an empire abroad leads inevitably to autocracy and dictatorship at home. History provides ample examples. A culture’s values are expressed by what it promotes and presents to others. When I was in the Middle East in 2016, I observed American movies flooding the TV screens. They were examples of the vilest and most violent films Hollywood has produced. It made me sad. We are better than this.
Our fascination with war and addiction to violence leads to death and extinction. We are not the first to tread this path. The historical graveyard is filled with other examples. We must decide if this is how we want the American experiment to end?
Note: This list does not pretend to be definitive or absolutely complete. Nor does it seek to explain or interpret the interventions. Information and interpretation on selected interventions will be later included as links. Note that US operations in World Wars I and II have been excluded.
See also at: Jerrymlawson.medium.com
See also at: https://www.datadriveninvestor.com/2021/02/23/when-did-we-begin-worshiping-war/
Ascension Island is a tiny volcanic rock south of the equator in the middle of the South Atlantic. Located almost midway between Brazil and Africa, it may provide the key to changing the hostile environments we will encounter when we venture to other worlds. It may also be the key to restoring the Earth.
Ascension is an island of only 34 square miles (88 square kilometers). The British Overseas Territory was essentially a barren rock pile when Charles Darwin visited there at the end of his second voyage aboard the HMS Beagle in 1836.
The Spanish explorer, Joao da Nova, discovered Ascension Island in 1501. It attracted no interest due to its dry climate and little freshwater. Passing ships continued to stop so sailors could catch seabirds and turtles for a change-of-diet, but no permanent habitation.
Settlement of Ascension did not arrive until the British Navy placed a garrison in 1815 as insurance against Napoleon, exiled on Saint Helena some 800 miles to the southeast, attempting to escape. It became an imperial outpost and a rest stop for scientific explorers like Darwin and his friend botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker.
Darwin was on his way home after his five-year exploration mission on the HMS Beagle when it stopped at Ascension Island in 1836. He had visited Saint Helena first and came to Ascension out of curiosity and a desire to compare the two islands. He found little on Ascension about which to be excited. It was an arid island buffeted by dry trade winds from Southern Africa with sparse vegetation and few animals or insects. There were no trees and the little rain that fell quickly evaporated. The Scarcity of freshwater impeded the growth or expansion of the imperial outpost.
Despite its shortcomings, Darwin was intrigued by this island. A few years later when Joseph Hooker embarked upon his scientific adventure and stopped at this barren island outpost on his way home. After returning to London in 1843 and with encouragement from Darwin, Hooker, the botanist, devised a plan to alter its environment.
Hooker’s father was the Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew. Hooker, assisted by his father, arranged for trees to be shipped to Ascension to use them to capture the rain. They hoped that using trees to capture moisture from the rain would help make the soil fertile and change the barren island into a lush garden. It was hope without any evidence or example suggesting the plan might work.
Over the years that followed, new shipments of trees of many varieties were shipped annually from botanical gardens in Europe, South Africa, and Argentina. By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the island was home to Norfolk pines, eucalyptus, bamboo, and banana trees. The 2,817 foot Green Mountain, highest on the island, was transformed into a cloud forest characterized by a persistent low-level cloud cover.
The trees drew moisture from the clouds, enriching the soil and allowing other vegetation to thrive as hoped. Darwin and Hooker assisted by the Royal Navy turned the barren island landscape into a lush oasis. The success of this experiment was far beyond their expectations.
What Darwin, Hooker, and the Royal Navy created was the first self-sustaining and self-reproducing ecosystem. What might we learn from this first attempt in terraforming? The environment they created is artificial. It has a mixture of plants and trees that do not belong together in nature, but they are growing side-by-side. Such ecosystems as this should take over a million years to develop through a slow process of co-evolution. This ecosystem was built over a few decades by the Royal Navy. The lessons learned here are of immense future importance. It tells us we can create a fully functioning ecosystem through careful planning, trial-and-error, and aided by a few chance accidents.
The process is now known as ecological fitting. The plants on Ascension were collected from locations around-the-world and have self-organized into a thriving artificial system. The success Darwin, Hooker, and the Royal Navy accomplished on Ascension Island remains relatively unknown and largely ignored by the scientific community. Its implications have immense potential importance both in our need to restore the Earth and in the future when we try to reshape environments on other worlds.
Combatting climate change and mitigating global warming, we must change our thinking and behavior. Rather than taking from it by drilling, extracting, stripping, and pumping resources from the Earth, we must invest in restoring the environment and ecosystems to protect its health and welfare. Creating artificial ecosystems by planting large-scale planned forests may not be our first choice, but it may become the only choice. The knowledge and expertise we acquire have implications and impact on what we do later elsewhere on the Earth and in outer space. We may learn how to turn deserts and other barren areas we have created by our rush to extract, drill, and pump Earth’s bounty to support our greed and lust green again.
Green mountain shows us much about how ecosystems form and function in ways we never imagined. It may help us understand how an ecosystem can be constructed and used for carbon sequestration to combat global warming and climate change. Planned forests may be lacking in diversity and the regional peculiarities we find in nature, but they are a small price to pay given what we have lost in our currently warming world.
History and experience suggest humans do not want to face hard realities. We try our best to avoid difficult choices and making painful decisions, even when our very survival is at risk. We seem unable to defer on pleasure even knowing continuing a behavior leads to death. Consequently, acknowledging we must learn to live within the sustainable limits of the Earth’s capacity to regenerate is a requirement and not a choice for becoming a spacefaring species.
Why? Because wherever we go into the cosmos, we take Earth with us. But before we go elsewhere, we have to have a healthy Earth to draw from and return. We have to recreate Earth wherever we go. Any life we find elsewhere will undoubtedly be toxic to us. Bringing the Earth with us wherever we go is not a choice. It is a necessity.
Global warming and climate change make studying what happened on Ascension Island imperative to help us restore the Earth. Here lies a gift for us, hidden on a small forgotten island in the middle of nowhere. We only need to see and take advantage of what we have inherited. It may provide how we may soon need to save ourselves.
The decline of American democracy has a long history with many actors. There are multiple domains, one of which is getting news and information to the public by sources independent of government control. It is the vital link in the health and welfare of any democracy. It is one reason why our founders enshrined freedom of the press in the constitution.
No discussion about reporting the news can ignore how news outlets have been gobbled up by a few large conglomerates. Comcast, Disney, ViacomCBS, Fox, AT&T, and Charter Communications are among the largest in the U.S. There used to be a local spin or angle to the news that came off the wires. Today there is sameness and uniformity in coverage and presentation that reminds me of how we once viewed Pravda in the former Soviet Union. All corporate news comes essentially from the same sources. Our alternative is to look at and read the many alternative news sites that have appeared and are continuing to grow. Some are practicing real journalism.
One who has written extensively about the problems of American media is Robert McChesney. He states,“Democratic theory posits that society needs journalism to perform three main duties: to act as a rigorous watchdog of the powerful and those who wish to be powerful; to ferret out truth from lies, and to present a wide range of informed positions on key issues.” Our media fails at all these tasks.
The decline in our getting the news and information we need and the rise of fake news, alternative facts, and post-truth can be traced back to the early 1970s. That is when the news became the news show. Up to that point, the evening news focused on providing the major news events and information to the public. There, were commercials, but they took a backseat. It was not the primary focus. True there were omissions, but news organizations did try to inform. That changed in the early 1970s when ratings became dominant and news became just another network profit center. The evening news ceased to about what was happening in the world, or often what was paramount, and transformed into an overpaid personality parade whose prime purpose was to hold the audience’s attention between commercials.
Blanket, non-stop news coverage of celebrity woes and high profile crime while ignoring or downplaying issues such as racism, inequality of wealth and opportunity, Medicare reform, healthcare costs and coverage, climate change and global warming, corporate crime, and a long list of other issues amounts to providing the public a lollipop in place of a meal of substance. It may satisfy your immediate desire to eat something sweet but does nothing to relieve your hunger. The media act in concert with government acts and corporate dictates by providing mental masturbation to distract us from our problems. Alas, it is no surprise their credibility has fallen faster than the stock market in the great crash.
Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency would never have happened without his celebrity TV program, The Apprentice, fueled by $1 billion in free advertising and television exposure supplied generously by all the major television and other news outlets.
The vulgar over coverage of celebrity shenanigans and bizarre crimes trivializes our institutions and their processes. Nowhere is this more evident than in what happens in high-profile criminal cases. What the public needs and deserves to know should not overshadow the accused’s right to a fair and just trial, including the presumption of innocence until otherwise proven by a preponderance of the evidence or beyond reasonable doubt presented at trial. Frankly, the public has no automatic right to know “anything” before its presentation at trial. That is the proper forum for the release of most information. The fact it floods the press shows us how corrupted we have allowed the process to become in the interest of achieving public relations and media rating objectives. I seriously doubt any of these high profile trials are in any way fair. It’s all about money, exposure, timing, appearances, and the 24/7 news feed. How sad this is for all of us.
The second and more profound change that impacted receiving the news and being informed was the bi-partisan act of repealing the fairness doctrine during the Reagan presidency that had required TV and radio news outlets to allow equal time for opposing views. Its elimination led to opening the doors and windows to talk radio. Fox News, Sinclair Media, and others moved in to flood the airways accentuating one highly biased point-of-view with nothing to contest it. It opened the door to fake news, half-truths, innuendo, lies, and more.
It cleared the way for a number of online sites and broadcast media to promote hate and lies that ultimately led to the assault on the U.S. Capitol and the Congress by an enraged mob egged on by the Liar in chief on January 6, 2021.
There was an important reason freedom of the press was enshrined in the constitution by our founders. They understood the importance of the public having access to accurate information about the actions, behaviors, policies, and character of those who held the levers of power. What has occurred over the last several decades is the erosion and suppressing of that function. Six media conglomerates control more than 90% of media in America. The people who are employed by these six media giants are paid lots of money. Money is, it’s not rocket science, very intoxicating and enticing. You do not have to spend a lot of time watching the commercial network media news to discover their boundaries. They know their limits; it is self-censorship. They have a higher priority to adhere to. It is a personal priority. The network news organizations will never allow an expose’ of their conglomerate employer. ABC is not going to investigate Disney. CBS is not going to reveal dirty laundry from VIACOM. NBC is not going to disclose anything derogatory, Fox, well, it is Fox. As Sinclair Lewis noted long ago, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding.” The quote applies to far more than he originally intended.
I find watching the evening news more interesting for all they ignore to report rather than what is covered. When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, I knew they were there 24 hours before the American media announced the invasion. How did I know? I was monitoring the Times of India at the time and saw their report. It pays to cast your net for news far and wide. Today that means looking at several online independent news outlets where the motivation is providing the public information unimpeded by concerns for a bloated salary.
It is no surprise American media are held in such low esteem. On some level, we know we are not being provided the information we need. We know crucial information is being either ignored or withheld. It is instinctive. The public does not trust the messenger, and for a democracy that cannot be. If we want our democracy to prosper, we must change how we are provided the news and information we need to be responsible and participating citizens. That means we must find a way to decouple the delivery of the news from profit-driven corporate conglomerates. We need some kind of independent funding of news providers.
Print media is in peril in America. I do not know if it is the same elsewhere. Our peculiar focus on profits skewers our approach. The newspapers I am familiar with first eliminated the composing room and gave the editorial staff the responsibility for pagination. That meant most of a reporter’s time was consumed with putting pages together, not digging for news. It meant calling contacts on the phone rather than seeing them and eyeballing their responses to questions. It meant developing relationships and seeing idiosyncrasies that reveal far more than words.
My local newspaper is slowly evaporating. The daily paper comes in four sections. The sections once were composed of many pages and multiple sheets. Today these sections are often no more than four pages. The Sunday paper is today the size of the daily paper of decades past. It also has changed from an eight-column to a seven-column format. Less is less.
As the size diminished did the coverage. Maybe if there was a focus on providing news readers were interested and cared about, they would find more readers. But, no, instead they cut more staff and deliver a shoddier product at a higher price. Such is the road to extinction.
The most dramatic change in media has been the emergence of the talking heads, or should I say thought shapers. Thought shapers are what they are. Fox News is the perfect example. Fox has a loyal cultish following. Its viewers believe without question the presentation they are getting is fair and balanced because Fox says so. This loyal cultish following can only repeat what they are told. They glued to or have Fox News on their TVs throughout the day. Fox is the only view they see, hear and believe. They become entranced. They repeat what they are told to think. It is as if they no longer have a mind of their own. I have many former friends to draw from. Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels would be ecstatic
These thought shapers come in all political stripes. They are on the left as well as on the right. Our most dramatic failure as a society and nation is our failure to adequately prepare our public to develop the critical thinking skills needed to identify bias, fake news, lies, and half-truths. Doing so, we arm them and immunize us all to the inevitable effects of the relentless repeating of the big lie. We must learn to seek out diverse views from a diverse number of sources, domestic and foreign. Of course, corporate America might then find using some popular forms of advertising ineffective. The government might have a more difficult time misleading all of us about its activities and intentions. Some preachers might find their ability to fleece followers more difficult. Things might actually have to work, and wealth might be more equitably shared. Imagine that.
The Problem of the Media: U.S. Communications Politics in the 21st Century, NYU Press, Monthly Review Press, 2004, page 57.
The 1974 science fiction novel The Dispossessed has relevance for us today. Ursula K. Le Guin’s works are filled with her concerns for the environment and health of planet earth and the dark underside of man and our governing institutions. In The Dispossessed, Urras is a mythical planet in the Tau Ceti star system in the constellation Cetus. Tau Ceti is a star closer than 12 light-years from the Earth and is spectrally similar to our sun, although possessing 78% of its mass.
Le Guin places a planet similar to ours with a larger moon in orbit around it. Environmentally, Urras is like Earth. Politically it mirrors what ours was during the Cold War in 1974 when the novel was written. A-Io, the dominant world power, is similar to the United States in 2013. There is the illusion of liberty and freedom, but everyone and everything is under constant surveillance by the state. It is a society driven by a lust for wealth and acquiring material possessions, and unrestrained corporate greed and power.
A-Io is a two-class society defined by extreme sexism. There are the very wealthy, a small struggling middle class, and a vast underclass of working poor who live in poverty. The poor are excluded and denied access to a more abundant life. They do not have access to human services available for the elite. A-Io is a fascist police state with an appearance of civility. Its resemblance to what we have become makes the careful and reflective reader more than uncomfortable.
The other principal power on Urras is Thu, a highly centralized socialist state resembling the Soviet Union of the 1970s. Urras has a planetary government similar to the United Nations. Thu and A-Io are careful never to engage in a war directly against each other. Engagements are limited to fighting in lesser developed parts of the planet without using weapons that might cause undue harm on a planetary scale.
The planet remains free of the environmental havoc and destruction we are experiencing. Those from the Earth who come to Urras see it is still a green garden, a reminder of what the Earth was.
The planet has experienced its own unique development. The moon of Urras, Anarres, is large enough to support life. More than 170 years before the story in the novel takes place, the poor rebelled. They had been inspired by the ideas of a woman philosopher named Odo. She promoted a society founded on anarchism combined with libertarianism and socialism.
The revolt ended with an agreement allowing Odo’s followers called Odonians to leave and be transported to Anarres. Anarres and Urras are actually a dual planetary system where each is seen as the moon. Anarres is not altogether hospitable. It is arid and has a less dense atmosphere, and most of its native life found in its small oceans. Anarres possesses limited plant and vegetable life, which means there are no land animals other than those transplanted from Urras.
The terms of separation closed most access to either world by the other. But Anarres has mineral deposits in critical need on Urras, and Urras has finished goods, plants, animals, and other products needed by Anarres. Transports arrive periodically on Anarres from Urras at tightly controlled designated areas for purposes of trade.
Anarres is a harsh world that requires much cooperation from its inhabitants. It has no highly centralized governmental bureaucracy or governing institutions. After enduring over 150 years living in a harsh environment, the Anarreans have found ways to effectively preserve their individuality. They learned to work harmoniously together to reach shared goals. They avoided having governing institutions that become self-perpetuating, self-sustaining, oppressive, and detrimental to their needs and interests.
Shevek is an Anarren mathematician/scientist who has made a scientific discovery he wishes to share with humanity. I-Ao wants to prevent his sharing his work and use it to their advantage. Shevek is hopeful sharing his discovery can become a means of bringing Annarens and Urrasns together, or at least open dialogue and increase contacts between the two worlds.
Ultimately Shevek realizes he is being used by A-Io and attempts to meet ordinary people who have been kept hidden from him. Becoming aware of A-Io’s intentions and the fact he is now a fugitive leads him to seek safety at the Earth embassy. Shevek gives his discovery to the Earth ambassador to ensure his discovery will be shared with all humanity. Earthlings not only save him from arrest and probable torture by I-Ao but also open their own contact with the Annarens that had been closed to them return him to Annares.
LeGuin’s fiction is a snapshot of the height of the Cold War in the mid-1970s. Both sides finally realized that nuclear war was unwinnable and would lead to the extinction of our species. The Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of its own internal contradictions. But the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union served only to expose our own weaknesses. Like the people of I-Ao, America needs an external enemy, a boogieman. We need an enemy to maintain our focus, provide purpose, distract us from more important issues, maintain control, and keep us from fighting amongst ourselves.
The end of the Cold War-era introduced far more uncertainty. We are faced with increased competition for increasingly scarce resources, locked into an economic model destroying habitability and the ability to sustain life. It is worth noting that although Le Guin makes little mention of what Earth is like, she leaves no doubt about where we may soon find ourselves. She provides us a picture of what we face if we continue our current path, addicted to fossil fuels and failing to invest in the Earth rather than continually taking from it.
If climate change and global warming are ignored or given little support or effort beyond lip service, the consequences are dire. Le Guin mentions in passing what our world had become. It was ravaged by war, destruction of the environment, and the collapse of ecosystems caused by the rush to extract natural resources fueled by greed and lust for money. The few who survived were forced to live under a totalitarian system necessitated by extreme circumstances.
We govern our activities adhering to an economic paradigm from another time. Neoliberal globalism is wreaking havoc on the planet, putting all civilization at risk. Our political system, considered brilliant for its time, was developed 250 years ago in a vastly simpler world that is no longer relevant or able to cope with and solve problems. Populations across the globe are growing restless. Global temperatures are warming, causing drought, famine, and increased desertification. Sea levels rise as ice caps and glaciers melt. Soon, two billion or more people will be forced to move elsewhere to survive, threatening global stability and order. Chaos looms on the horizon, and no wall will stem its flow. Desperate people will do whatever they must to survive. Our world is ripe for someone, an Odo, to redefine and re-state and enunciate the meaning and purpose of human existence and civilization in a new age.
What is it about a steam locomotive I find so alluring? Why do I feel such deep emotion whenever I hear its whistle? Why do so many others find it so enticing and enchanting? On Wednesday, October 10, 2019, my son and I got up before 5 am, and left Santa Monica for Yermo, California. Newly restored Union Pacific 4014 steam locomotive stopped there overnight before continuing to LA in preparation for scheduled weekend excursions.
More than 100 enthusiasts gathered at the Yermo UP yard to take pictures, stare, talk with the crew, and watch the dragon come alive in the predawn darkness. The assemblage included railfans, photographers, children of many ages, old railroaders, and the curious.
After leaving Yermo, we stopped in Barstow, CA, to watch the monstrous #4014 pass. The locomotive has a 4-8-8-4 configuration and is 132 feet long. After Barstow, we proceeded to Victorville, where 4014 paused, to perform routine greasing of vital parts and a 45-minute rest. A large crowd packed the area of the Amtrak station with those wanting to see this marvelous machine.
The rest of the day was more of the same. Wherever we went, there were hordes of people assembled eager to see this almost 80-year-old mechanical marvel come alive again.
My fascination with steam locomotives began sometime around age 4 or 5 in Fortville, Indiana, a small bedroom community northeast of Indianapolis. It is located on what was then mainline of the New York Central Railroad. I was drawn to and fascinated by the big locomotives hauling freight as they passed through the center of Fortville at 60-70 mph.
Why do I react so emotionally? Is it pure nostalgia, or does it originate somewhere in my psyche? Maybe I connect these machines from my early childhood to my feelings of rejection by my father. He ignored me and showed significant partiality to my older brother.
I understood at 4 or 5-years-old, my father didn’t care about me, wasn’t interested, and purposefully ignored me. It was only the last year of my mother’s almost 104 years of life that she revealed he had tried to have the doctor abort the pregnancy and thus me.
I was reminded of when our youngest son purchased throttle time for his brother and me to control another steam locomotive. Nickel Plate #765 is owned and operated by the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society in Fort Wayne, Indiana. It has always been and remains one of my most memorable moments. To be in control of a machine weighing close to a million pounds was an unforgettable experience.
I have shared many such moments with my sons throughout our lives. We lived close to the Norfolk Southern Railroad, and our oldest son was fascinated and attracted to every freight train that passed by. His younger brother later joined him, but the big turning point came a bit later.
Locomotive Nickel Plate #765 was rebuilt in 1979 after spending almost 20 years perched along the St. Mary’s river in a Fort Wayne park. The “Berkshire” locomotive was built by the Lima Locomotive Works in 1944. It was principally used to haul freight. Nickel Plate 765 weighs 800,000 pounds, loaded with 22,000 gallons of water in one tender and 22 tons of coal. Because the water towers once used to refill steam locomotives have vanished, 765 has an auxiliary tender with a second 22,000 gallons of water.
When our sons were 8 and 10-years-old, I took them on an excursion behind Nickel Plate 765 from the railyard in nearby New Haven to Peru, Indiana, and back. The excursion route flooded me with many boyhood memories. It passed through Wabash, Indiana, where I saw what remained of the woods and fields where I played. I saw “my” house from the railroad standing on the hill in the distance. It was home to three generations of my family and to me for 18 years. I felt a momentary pang of pain.
The old Wabash line of the modern Norfolk Southern Railroad follows the broad flat Maumee Spillway carved from the glacial lake once covering the area. The railroad was built in places on the old Wabash & Erie Canal towpath. You can often see the old canal bed. You also see the remnants of the old interurban railroad that ran along this same route.
The rich farmland, some of which was once a swamp, appeared as a sea of browning corn broken by the green trees. There were birches, willows, box elders, maples, ashes, hickories, oaks, some walnuts, and others.
There has always been something special about steam locomotives and listening to their high-pitched whistles piercing the stillness. I recall listening for two longs, a short and another long blare of the whistle as the engine approached another crossing. Seeing a steam locomotive and especially hearing the whistle lying in bed in the still of the night is akin to the mystical experience many feel going to the ocean. It is a compelling experience.
The old Wabash Railroad line is physically a central feature of my life. My paternal grandparents lived in a house located next to the Wabash yard in Peru, Indiana. My maternal grandparent’s house, where I grew up, is located near the railroad. The house we lived in when my sons were introduced to trains was close to the railroad. I have lived somewhere near this railroad most of my life.
These thoughts filled my mind as I sat in the backseat while my two sons discuss our route and strategy for chasing Union Pacific 4014. We stop periodically at strategically identified locations where we can get out and find a vantage point to observe and take countless pictures. At every stop between Barstow and the Union Pacific’s West Colton Yard in Bloomington, California, east of Los Angeles, we are met or joined by hordes of others gathering for the same ill-defined mystical purpose. We are all attracted to the same magic and enchantment of this magnificent relic of a lost world.
As the days passed, my thoughts turned to my hometown of Fort Wayne. The Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society proposed a rail and transportation history center to be included in the city’s riverfront development plans. Some who are influential in this proposed development have failed to see the value of such an attraction. Sadly, they recently removed the idea from the riverfront plans with a promise to help The Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society find a suitable site nearby. I hope they are sincere, but experience has taught that governments are overly adept at using this tactic. It is a useful tool derailing and putting in “as soon as hell freezes over” projects and ideas beyond their vision. It’s analogous to Lucy, Charlie Brown, and the football.
Headwater’s Junction, as the proposed rail history attraction was called, would attract thousands of visitors to the city’s downtown. The plan included a roundhouse filled with other FWRHS locomotives and rolling stock, Interurban display, meeting room, restaurant, and other facilities. The proposed location placed it on a site where a railyard had been. It was also adjacent to property connected to the city’s interurban past. It would also have allowed for building a future short connecting these attractions to the city’s acclaimed children’s zoo. It did not happen. Vision is the rarest of traits and is not often associated with politicians and established interests. We can hope the next turn of the wheel will bring new leadership with a different perspective and willingness to take advantage of the opportunity it represents. At this point, it is only a wish and a hope.
Throughout the days of these excursions, I watched the large crowds in wonder. People lined the more than 100-mile route. They chased 4014 in cars and gathered at the most photogenic locations. As a witness, I could not help but ask myself what it is about these awe-inspiring mechanical machines of a simpler age that so many find enticing and irresistible. Large caravans of cars jammed Interstate 15 and side roads, doing best to tag along, follow, and chase 4014 wherever it went. I watched as we stood in awe, joy, and even a few tears. These machines invoke something deep inside us. They rouse emotions, unconscious feelings, and yearnings we never realized were there, waiting for the proper stimulus to be awakened.
I stood on the bridge over the West Colton Union Pacific Yard surrounded by 200 or more people of all ages, sexes, races, and ethnicities. We were all part of the same tribe with the focus of attention on a colossal black bemouth belching smoke and steam, filling the air with its rhythms and its music as it passed under us.
I cannot explain the attraction. I have tried to understand it. I have tried my best to understand and express it, but I really cannot explain it. More importantly, it does not matter. I simply enjoy being in the moment and letting the experience wash over me and consume my awareness. Next year, if the opportunity arises, I will do it all over again.
Roadrunner cartoons were among my favorites growing up. When my sons were young, I enjoyed watching and sharing these classic funnies with them. It was a cherished Saturday morning ritual for a few short years. Cartoons in the early 1980s were primarily for entertainment and not the not-so-cleverly contrived animations we see now that seek to do far more than entertain. I watched them with my sons because it was something they enjoyed. Watching, I discovered the Road Runner cartoon seemed to put our approach to problem-solving into clear perspective
The roadrunner is a dumb bird possessing only one asset, incredible speed. On the other hand, the wily coyote seems to have everything going for him. He is a regular genius. So how does this dumb bird keep from ending up in the jaws of the intelligent predator?
We soon learn the coyote has a peculiar flaw. The predator, with all his advantages, still cannot catch the dumb little roadrunner. Here, in metaphor, is how we, like the wily coyote, have learned to approach problem-solving situations. The coyote, rather than devising a straightforward plan, continually escalates his approach. After each failure, it adds more inputs. It expends more energy, time, capital, technology, and resources expecting to satisfy his obsession. It wants the stupid bird for dinner. Of course, what we see, and what makes the cartoon funny and work are the luckless carnivore’s progressively more spectacular failures. His genius is repeatedly thwarted by the dumb bird’s simple defense.
Our approach to solving problems bears a striking resemblance to that of the wily coyote. We keep using more energy, capital, time, technology, and scarce resources to solve problems, yet things keep getting worse. We are mired in muck, trying to solve our problems using the same thinking that created them. The climate crisis looms. The health crisis grows more overwhelming. A financial collapse waits only for the right moment, and terrorists threaten us at home as well as abroad. Like the coyote, we still are no closer to solving our problems than before. All we seem to have accomplished is the squandering of vast quantities of energy and resources on more elaborate schemes resulting in more frustration and failure.
Consider our experience from the Vietnam War. We had vast advantages in technology, armaments, firepower, and logistics but could not defeat a determined enemy using simple tools and solutions to combat us. Our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has some similar qualities. Our solution? Use drones that cost millions of dollars to shoot missiles that cost thousands of dollars each to destroy mud huts and kill people who make less than a dollar a day.
Americans, in particular, are apt to fall into this trap. We have two flaws that make this outcome probable. One, we often believe we have the solution to whatever the problem is. All that needs to happen is for others to get out of our way and let us show how wonderful we are. The second is our twisted belief that acquiring great wealth bestows knowledge and wisdom providing an almost god-like adoration by the envious masses.
On another front, the pontifications of the billionaire elite are received almost as gospel. Their pronouncements receive plenty of attention from the press and electronic media. They are experts because they are rich. They are listened to even when what they propose or write is balderdash. The Gates Foundation has funded geoengineering schemes to address climate change and global warming while speaking against measures to discourage and halt the use of fossil fuels. Jeff Bezos wants to build cylinder habitats in space to move humans off-planet. It might be a useful idea in the future for us to learn how to create sustainable environments in outer space. First, we need to learn how to live sustainably within the habitat we know as earth. If we fail here, what happens there will not matter. Elon Musk plans to send people, not himself naturally, to Mars without us having the technologies and capabilities to support such an endeavor. It would be a one-way death trip for whoever signs up to bolster an over-sized ego.
No entity on earth spends more money developing increasing numbers of sophisticated equipment, gadgets, and weapons than the U.S. Department of Defense. Our nation’s treasure is pouring into this wealth devouring creation in ever-increasing amounts. The benefits versus the costs are rarely or never asked. Like the coyote cartoon, we believe spending more brings more benefits and solves problems.
The scheming coyote never sees or suspects the glaring error of its approach. Despite its intelligence and skill, the canine never sees or suspects the mistake. It is incapable of sitting down and re-conceptualizing and redefining the problem. Men often have the same difficulty. We believe more information or more resources, more equipment or more of everything will solve the problem—whatever it is. However, adding more only serves to lock us more deeply in the same approach to problem-solving. Albert Einstein said it best, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” His words define insanity.
In other words, the solution to a problem is most often not achieved by applying more of anything! The answer is found in approaching our problems differently, to see them from new perspectives and angles. Solving twenty-first Century problems beginning with climate change and global warming will not be accomplished locked into our current mode of thinking and problem-solving. Solutions will be determined by how effectively we can teach ourselves to see our problems in new ways. We need to reopen the doors of our minds and let in new approaches and ideas. In doing this, we move beyond merely acquiring more information and more knowledge toward applying wisdom.
Mr. Jenks was old, with short-cropped gray hair, thick black-rimmed glasses, and wore a bow tie with a wrinkled blue-gray suit nearly his own age. He sat to the right of the front of the class under a small window on a rocking chair that reclined into a horizontal position when he leaned back. His classroom was in the basement of the junior high that was once the high school. It was next to the gym that added a bit of noise and the smell of sweat. The school was built in the late 19th century, and Mr. Jenks’s classroom was a cramped and stuffy little room with one small window. The basement was converted to use when a growing enrollment forced school officials to use every bit of space in the old building.
It was here, in seventh-grade science, I was introduced to the idea there are two kinds of people. Mr. Jenks told us that our world was made up of philosophers who ‘created’ knowledge and technicians who applied it. Obviously, this simplified view of humanity left out most, but he did so to help us grasp a point.
Had Mr. Jenks used a more inclusive description, he might have noted that somewhere between one and five percent are responsible for basic research. This research is focused on ideas and postulating theories about the Universe and everything in it. That would be followed by perhaps 10–15 percent who take these ideas and turn them into useful things. These are people who understand the science and knowledge being generated by the 1–5 percent. These are Mr. Jenks’ philosophers and technicians. What about the rest of us? We simply use the things thought about and created by the first two groups. Some may have a vague understanding of what the first two groups are doing, but most of us simply plug in and flip the switch to make whatever it is work. We have no idea how it works and would not have a clue how to build one.
According to Mr. Jenks, the data consuming technician spends his or her day shaping the environment by taking theories and turning them into useful things we need.
The philosopher, on the other hand, was referred to as a whittler, who might spend the entire day by the pond comfortably hidden in the shade of a tall arching birch, fish pole by his side while he shaped a block of wood. Whittlers never seemed to be doing anything and never seemed to produce anything useful like automobiles, computers, iPads, smartphones, or other things. Still, these woodcarvers were seen as vital because through their thoughts and quiet reflection came the big ideas, the discovery of gravity, penicillin, and others, that moved and shaped our civilization. Whittlers were the thinkers, and thinkers must have the time to sit in apparent idleness.
Most of us, lacking understanding of the role played by such thinkers, see them and their activities as wasteful and unnecessary. They are quick to seek to eliminate funding for such activities and employment. The sciences always come to mind, but the arts and humanities are often lumped in this category as unnecessary and unproductive as well.
Another bias we have in America is our condescension and disrespect for labors we see as menial and not requiring crucial skills. The garbage man, delivery jobs, clerical positions, those who stock shelves in stores, janitors, and others in similar jobs are considered undeserving of our respect and dignity. Consider what our society judges to be useful work. We attach the least value to those tasks that are most entropic. That is, we consider simple tasks that must be repeated over and over every day or several times a day as being of little value. So, someone who sweeps floors at ABC High Tech Enterprises, or operates the grill cooking hamburgers for Burger-By-The-Dozen, are paid little and held in low esteem. Their repetitive tasks require little higher thinking, having less value. We overlook that Albert Einstein postulated his theory of relativity while employed as a simple patent clerk.
On the other hand, someone who is a corporate CEO, or someone who excels at throwing and hitting a baseball, is more highly revered, regarded, and rewarded. Our culture assigns their tasks higher values. Their jobs are judged to be more complex and requiring more skills than the simple sweeping of the floor, cooking a hamburger, and providing vital services such as collecting and disposing of our garbage.
American values are distorted by the false importance we accord to the acquisition of wealth and material objects. We attach great importance to making computers, counting money, or those thinking or physical activities requiring skill. We fail to see that these very same characteristics can impede progress in advancing the human spirit or discovering new knowledge, like relativity, necessary to advancing civilization.
In Eastern thought and in the practices of some monastic Christian groups the functions held to be most important are the tasks we judge of least value. These spiritual groups consider these mundane and repetitive jobs crucial in opening our minds. When you study Taoism, Zen Buddhism, or monastic groups in Christianity, you encounter individuals doing the cleaning, cooking, gardening, or some equally unpretentious undertaking. The reason for their doing these tasks soon becomes apparent. It is held only through recurring labors of the lowest value do we see the greatest truth.
Often it is by being engaged in so-called menial tasks that we can discover the most profound truths. It is easy to forget that Albert Einstein was working as a simple patent clerk when he postulated the Theory of Relativity. Through the performance of simple duties, we often see and perceive the cycles of life and the wholeness of the creator.
To see the greatest truth, one must frequently engage in the smallest chore. The whittler sculpts the wood, the Zen recruits sweep the floor, and the whole cosmos dances before their eyes as the mating ritual of fireflies on a new summer evening — a dazzling display of pulsing light announcing a location for the consummation of life.
One choice in life necessarily leads to the sacrificing of others. The whittler gives up the opportunity to make useful objects and the possibility of collecting handsome rewards for his labor. His motivation is the desire for understanding. His reward is seeing his efforts will lead to even more useful things for others. The whittler sits at the pond’s edge idly slicing his wood, aware of the fishing pole at his side. If he is fortunate, he may also catch a fish before his wood becomes a pile of shavings.
As Mr. Jenks shared this with us, a hint of a smile appeared as he leaned back and reclined on his rocker.
I am part of a group of gentlemen who meet once a week to discuss various topics that capture our interest at the moment. We are mostly white, retired, male professionals, who consider ourselves progressive, but that does not mean we are all of one mind and view. Meeting the morning after the storming of the Capitol, we engaged in a lively discussion. As our Zoom meeting went on a couple comments caught my attention. Some in the group referred to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party as the extreme left and far-left. Another of our group later called Bernie Sanders and the program he advocates as being radical.
What is most revealing to me in these comments is how it highlights the overwhelming success of the right in defining the opposition and putting it into the most negative context. More disturbing is seeing how their successful labeling infiltrated the center and liberal moderates in the Democratic Party. The evidence is made manifest by their perception of the most progressive portion of the Democratic Party coalition as being too radical, extreme, and far-left.
Republicans see the Democratic Party, no matter how conservative it becomes, as radical, socialist, and a bunch of communists. The success of the right in their labeling efforts is evident in the rightward movement of the Democratic Party since at least LBJ. Its embracing neoliberal policies and ideas are an abandonment of labor, the working poor, the poor, and indigent. It is an abandonment of all the reasons I embraced this party in my youth.
The assertions by more conservative Democrats that Bernie Sanders, his ideas, and followers are radical or extreme demonstrates how successful the right has been in defining the Democratic Party. Viewed globally, Bernie Sanders is maybe, at best, a liberal moderate. For perspective, it is worth remembering the proposed Second Bill of Rights Franklin Roosevelt laid out during his State of the Union address on January 11, 1944. It included:
The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;
The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;
The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;
The right of every family to a decent home;
The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;
The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
The right to a good education.
When you compare FDR’s Second Bill of Rights with Sanders’ proposals, you might notice the similarities. Sanders added environmental and climate change issues and updated or restated much of what Roosevelt proposed 76 years ago. Was FDR a radical? Were Democrats radicals in 1944? Of course, Republicans thought so. They always do, so why do we care? Should not we instead be asking what happened? Why have we Americans not enacted the protections and programs that have been embraced by every other advanced country on the planet? Our failure to do these things has led us to this moment.
Following Mitch McConnell’s successful guidance of the Amy Coney Barrett nomination to the Supreme Court through the Senate, a joke emerged. It went like this: Democrats had been locked in a room and given paints of many colors. McConnell did this, knowing they would argue endlessly over the color to use and never bother working to unlock the door. It is a scathing commentary on the current Democratic Party leadership..
At this moment, Democrats are unable to agree on getting rid of the slave era filibuster rule and are being bullied by McConnell and Republicans to back off from much-needed programs. They ponder while Republicans are swiftly turning a disaster caused by the attempted coup into a rallying cry. They are redefining what happened before our eyes as Democrats sit dumbfounded.
It presents an astute observation and makes an important point. Democrats spend a lot of time fighting each other. And more importantly, they do so by allowing Republicans to define who and what they are.
The mob of insurrectionists, wannabe revolutionaries, and crowd followers that assaulted the Capitol exhibiting their anger, frustration, and woeful ignorance, present us with a problem not easily fixed. After what we have witnessed, the current Republican Party cannot be entrusted to govern. Democrats must find the courage to take command and not to be dominated and defined by the right.
Tragically, recent reports and comments suggest McConnell is still in charge of the Senate and manipulating Democrats to have his way. The failure to get rid of the filibuster first used by John C Calhoun in the 1840s to protect the slave interest does not bode well for enacting meaningful change.
Power is of no value if you fail to use it. Democrats need to take command and control of the message. They need to define themselves and not allow themselves to be labeled by Republicans and right-wing media outlets. Timidity is not an option for this moment when so much is at risk. Our future is at peril, and lives threatened by extremists in our midst hang in the balance.