November 22, 2007

Sea Change on Climate Change

As a collective, we don't seem to have much of a memory for events... unless they're tragic or catastrophic, of course. Politicians generally depend on this poor group memory to allow their careers to survive embarrassments of all kinds. However, some of us do remember, and that recollection is often unsettling. Take the current atmosphere on global warming, as a prime example. It wasn't long ago, maybe six years, when the mass media were very skeptical about climate change. Newspaper and TV journalists always ran stories claiming global warming together with pieces that cast doubt on the 'theory,' as it was always characterized. Ten years ago they were questioning the very notion of 'warming,' offering various kinds of alternative theories that ranged all the way to 'a new Ice Age.' Then they seemed to grudgingly accept the evidence for warming, but now they challenged the mechanism. Was it 'natural cyclical processes,' that needed further research... or was it due to the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide caused by human industrial activity? That 'debate' went on for a few years until sometime around 2006. Then something interesting happened-- a 'sea change' in group-think: the mainstream media achieved a breakthrough of sorts regarding 'climate change.' No longer do we see skepticism over the fact of global warming-- nor over the mechanism that purports to explain it; now it is taken as obvious, almost self-evident, that global warming is caused by human activity.

Most citizens, even those who consider themselves well-informed, tend to regard this change in media outlook-- if they even notice it-- as 'just one of those things;' a phenomenon rooted in the tangle of human consciousness, and multiple choices. But, suppose it's not just inexplicable; suppose it's a deliberate strategem, by hidden proponents, for presently unknown purposes. In other words, could it be that the media have been directed to go from honest skeptics and agnostics on the subject of climate change, to implicit believers and supporters of the 'greenhouse gas emissions' school of teaching? There's little doubt that the media have made an about-face; the question then remains, what is behind this abrupt turnaround? I'll put that question aside for the moment.

Concerning global warming, there's only two possibilities: either it is caused by human-generated 'greenhouse gases,' or... there's some other mechanism at work whose nature we don't yet understand. In my essay on 'Climate Change Heresy,' I present a brief overview of why I'm convinced that the carbon gas emission theory is impossible-- a bogus theory that is, today, almost entirely carried by the power of the mainstream media. That means that there is some other theory, another mechanism, by which the Earth's average temperature is rising. (If you, dear reader, are not convinced of the weakness of the greenhouse gas theory, I invite you to stay unbiased long enough to study both sides of the issue, as presented by their own proponents.) Now, since the greenhouse gas theory fails, why would the hidden manipulaters of the mainstream media direct their minions to promote it to their mass audiences? Indeed; who stands to gain from this bogus explanation?

That was the question a friend of mine posed when he had read my above-cited essay. In other words, what would the media achieve by backing a false theory? I suggested a few plausible reasons that were advanced by other analysts (e.g. the 'alternative energy' industries will gain; the environmental lobby gets a boost; etc.). Of the putative reasons, the most plausible is the most abstract: by fostering the notion that global warming is the direct result of human activity, the hidden 'powers that be' create a desired general climate of fear among the populace-- fear that facilitates the slide towards full authoritarian rule over the most powerful entities in the political world. On reflection, I still think that this is one of the strongest motives behind the sea change that brought the mass media behind the idea of potential doom caused by air pollution.

However, after recently viewing a provacative video documentary related to climate change, it suddenly hit me what quintessential motivation lies behind the great editorial shift. Look again at the choice: it's between a theory that lies somewhere in the realm of natural processes that are likely beyond our control, and the theory that places the blame squarely on human activity. So, if global warming is caused by human activity that generates greenhouse gases, then the solution lies in altering human behavior in a way that reduces the production of those gases and the resulting warming of the atmosphere. There is hope that, by exercise of human ingenuity and our beloved technology, humanity can avoid the catastrophe predicted by both scientists and prognosticators. In fact, there will be fortunues to be reaped as global societies make the colossal and painful shift from fossil-fuel based economies to some kind of 'small footprint' economies. But.... if, on the other hand, the underlying cause of planetary warming is not human-caused, rather is due to some as yet unknown, natural phenomenon, then it's a very different ball-game.

Under the natural cause scenario, there are two prime possibilities. The more innocuous one is that it's related to solar activity, and has occurred in past cycles. In that scenario, we know species will die out, probably an unknown portion of humanity will perish-- but we will survive as a race, and after a difficult period, history will resume. In the second scenario-- the one envisioned by numerous traditional, religious sources-- the world is heading for a catastrophic date with destiny, called by some 'the End of the World,' and by others 'the End of the Age.' There is a distinction in the phrases. Whereas the end of the age implies there will be a succeeding age along cyclical mythologies, the end of the world conveys the idea of the conclusion of this order of existence for humanity. (Any subsequent order of existence depends on one's particular eschatology or end-time theology.)

In either scenario, those who control the world's levers of power and wealth anticipate negative, mass behavior of the populations. If it became widely believed among the populace that global warming is merely a symptom of a doom expected to break within one's lifetime, then chaos might ensue. Perhaps not the destructive chaos of rioting and looting, but more likely the abandonment of the present mad chase for fame and fortune, defaulting on financial obligations, and general loss of interest in struggling in the economic world. After all, if the prospect of untimely death looms on the horizon, why work hard, why not party it up? Or, there will be others, the survivalists, who will also abandon the all-embracing structures of modern life and ensconce themselves in rural, and heavily fortified retreats, intending to ride out the coming disasters and pass on a brave, new world to their successors. In these cases, it is clear that those who control the world economic machinery in its current precarious state would stand to lose a great deal-- vast fortunes that depend on the continuance of the system, the compliance of the drones who place money in their banks, and buy their consumer products. If those common people give up the system, it will collapse, and doing so will bring down many uber-rich folks who think they own the world.

In the second scenario-- the End of the World-- people would have little incentive to continue the daily grind. Worse, some would lose their minds and become social liabilities, either quite disfunctional, or outright dangerous. Others would feel no restraint and behave as hedonists or criminals. A certain proportion would deny the new reality and just continue to live and work as they always have, pretending that all is normal. But their pathetic efforts would be futile in the face of widespread, cynical disengagement from the prescribed routines that would appear pointless to the dispairing majority. Again, the masters of the world would lose vast fortunes and influence.

So, what do the illuminated, gray eminences do? They decide to optimize their position in a bad situation and take a gamble that what's coming is the end of this age. They figure that using all their wealth and power, they will survive the coming catastrophe; and in the short time remaining, they will amass still further heaps of wealth to be stored away for barter and power in the expected 'after-time'. But, they have to keep the economic engine running, and for that, they have to convince the population that things are not out of control, the Earth's fate is amenable to human action, there is hope for the future, so keep on working, playing, and spending and saving. To provide the necessary rationale in the face of obvious, disastrous effects of global warming, the hidden manipulators invented, or at least promoted, the convenient theory of greenhouse gas emissions which are generated by human activity. If humans cause it, then by gosh, humans can prevent it... if they just keep beavering away and do as the scientist-priests tell them must be done. Meanwhile, as life goes on (for now), the rich get richer, and... you know the rest.

There you have it-- the underlying reason behind the media turn-around on the global warming debate. If you followed my logic to this conclusion, you will probably feel a tinge of, 'um, shall we say, unease. In fact, it has to strike any thinking onlooker as more than passing strange that in the face of ever-strident warnings from scientists, the response of most government officials is a bored yawn followed by the recitation of a stream of verbiage devoid of any solid indication of meaningful action. I refer to national governments everywhere; but the lacklustre response of the most prolific producers of hydro-carbon gas emissions-- the USA and China-- must trigger some kind of blinking light in our brains. Do you think they know something we aren't supposed to know? Regardless, the tenuous tenor of these times urges diligent monitoring of breaking news... and some serious spiritual reflection.

November 20, 2007

Reflections on India

Intro: Having returned recently from a major journey thru the country of India, I feel motivated to record my impressions before they simply fade into the blur of our headlong rush into tomorrow.

My son-in-law calls India a 'land of contradictions,' and indeed, we saw numerous examples of what he meant. Perhaps his phrase is best illustrated and epitomized by the image in my mind of two men walking along a road, dressed in traditional 'luhngies' ... and talking into mobile phones. Everywhere we went, we saw this evidence of 'old meets new.' The roads in south India (Kerala, Karnataka) were generally terrible, looking like old wagon trails that had (once) been paved. And over them, drive the latest vehicles from Japan, Korea, and India, unable to attain more than perhaps 25 Kph as an average speed between two points. Ancient, monumental buildings exist in the core of old cities, while suburban slums are cleared to make way for modern, new office towers.

More than mere contradictions, tho, were other paradoxes. For example, despite the impressions of us in the 'West,' India is a society of excellent intentions. In Delhi and other big cities, official signs abound, with slogans like 'A Clean Delhi - A Green Delhi.' Yet almost everywhere, the ground is what most 'westerners' would describe as a mess. Garbage seems to be simply left on the ground to find a natural fate. A pedestrian must be vigilant to avoid trash, excrement (presumably of animals) and other hazards while walking anywhere. There is pollution of all kinds, everywhere in the cities. More than just the chemical kind (ie. in the air or water); one's every sense is assaulted by pollution-- a cacophany of sounds can literally hurt the ears of a new visitor; the chaos of electrical wires and advertising billboards and dilapidated structures assaults the eyes; a mix of odors coming from exotic foods, pervasive incense, and open sewers often combine into a truly nasty nasal encounter.

A visitor may wonder if there are any rules in this 'world's biggest democracy.' In fact, there are plenty of rules and regulations, as in any modern society. But their efficacy is best illustrated by the road traffic system. You will find that there are lane markings painted on the major routes, especially in cities. You will also find traffic running in literally every possible space of road width. Lane markings mean nothing when the roads are coping with an incredible onslaught of vehicles of every kind-- from bicycles and the omnipresent auto-rickshaws, to cars and buses-- all pressing forward in a frenzied crush to get somewhere. It looks like sheer chaos, yet amazingly, there are relatively few accidents (but innumerable 'close calls') and the system works because all users know the unwritten code that really governs road travel. (I never fully cracked the 'code,' but I know it has something to do with 'blow the horn at every possible occasion,' and 'the biggest vehicle gets right of way.') So, in every aspect of Indian life, well-meaning rules exist... but in practice, sheer pragmatism rules the day!

Perhaps the dominant impression I had of India, especially in the North, was one of disintegration; I began to think of India as a country in entropy-- collapsing into a natural state of disorder. Everywhere I looked, there were buildings in neglect, in need of, at minimum, cosmetic repairs, and as often, in need of major reconstruction or simply completion. At first, I kept wondering 'Why doesn't someone fix this situation?' But a bit of thought made me realize that the answer lies in the next question: 'Who would pay for it?' That's the nub of the problem-- once things are built, they are rarely maintained... presumably because no-one is prepared to put up the money to do it. Later, I found that there are brand new buildings being constructed, mostly in the suburbs of the megalopolis cities, and they are as impressive in size and architecture as anything in the West. Yet I can't help but wonder what these same structures will look like in, say, ten years from now. Will they too start to have that look of impeding dilapidation that is so characteristic of older buildings almost everywhere in India?

Of course, when one considers the billion-plus population of India, it becomes easier to comprehend why the society operates as it does. Yet, one could find other instances of equally dense societies that manage to function in a more orderly, and cleaner manner. There's more to India's shortcomings than population. One friend has proposed that religion plays a big role in forging India's disorderly mien. And make no mistake, there is plenty of religion in India. Or, one should say, religions, plural. While Hinduism is the biggest faith in terms of numbers of adherents, there are also Muslims (2nd), Christians (mainly Catholic, plus Protestants of various stripes), Sikhs (4th), Buddhists (5th), then Zoroastrians, Jains, and so on. While the government has managed to maintain a secular face, this is a nation of believers of all kinds. Yet the disinterested observer has to wonder whether all this faith has served the nation well.

In particular, the 'caste system' espoused by the Hindus despite official discouragement from the government, appears to engender certain negative outcomes. One of our guides explained that caste is different from economic class. He stated that one might attain a high economic standing, but would still be judged in the social sphere on the basis of his caste. Thus one's marriage partner, friendships, and even career choices depend on his caste, and are quite rigorously enforced by society at large. What this tends to produce is a system wherein those at the top end simply don't (or can't) imagine that they could, for example, pick up offending trash. Those at the low end, who are the ones that are supposed to do the menial jobs, typically don't have the education/knowledge to do the right things. Hence, you end up with the entropy that I noted earlier. Added to that internal problem, you have the inevitable disharmony that erupts among groups of people with differing religious outlooks or social standing. While on the whole the various communities co-exist in apparent harmony, there can be disastrous breaks in that peace, with consequent unwillingness of any group to take responsibility for maintaining shared territory or assets.

In terms of everyday living, the effect of religion seems to fall into the category of 'another contradiction.' People will begin every day with early and earnest prayer to the deity of their choice... and then spend the rest of the day preying on every poor soul who comes within the purview of their occupation. Street hawkers will devote special harassment on foreigners who might happen to pass within hailing distance. A western tourist proceeds, if walking, with a moving chorus of 'Hello, hello; buy this 'x' from me!' If you supply any sign of acknowledging their presence, you will be subject to intense sales pressure tactics that will require a resolve of steel to resist. Should you take refuge in a proper shop (as opposed to an outdoor stall) you will be subject to more sophisticated and covert pressure. Should you decide to actually buy something, and attempt to bargain with an Indian merchant, you will inevitably get the short end of the deal, no matter how hard you bargain. The struggle for survival seems to subsume religious notions of concern for others, and this attitude is so ingrained that individuals just don't see any contradictions in their behavior.

Another curious dichotomy is related to geography-- there is such a difference between North and South India. While the north is largely hot, dry, and desert-like, and the south is hot, humid, and semi-tropical, the differences extend to the citizens and their attitudes. In contrast to the incessant hustling that assails the visitor in the North, people in the South are much more easy-going. If you're not ready to buy something, that's okay with them-- they'll let you browse in relative peace. You can walk down a street or into a shop, without being harassed by hawkers and salesmen until you buy out of sheer exasperation. You can even take a photo of someone-- discretely, of course-- without the subject holding out a hand for the expected payment. After the constant vigilance required in the north, it was a real relief to find this relaxed atmosphere in Kerala and other places south of the line of latitude that runs, approximately, somewhere through Mumbai. One native of Mangalore whom we met on the train explained that the northerners were descended from the Aryan race, while those in the south descended from the Dravidian race... and that, he claimed, makes for the big disparity in attitude. Whatever the reason, it was one more contrast in a journey that exposed us to a daily stream of contrasts.

Let there be no mistake: visiting India is an unforgettable experience. Despite the constant contrasts, the people are, at heart, very helpful and kind, and take delight in extending hospitality towards tourists. In the end, I had to simply accept that this is India-- land of contradictions, land of good intentions, land of incipient disintegration. Namaste!