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Something Good About America

Posted on November 23rd, 2008 in by Robert Miller

The daily litany of bad news, which fills the pages of our newspapers, is a constant reminder that we live in a country, integrated into a global system, that is falling apart.  And, while right now it seems like the economy is everything, the bad news or the sobering reality is such that we are confronted with an astounding number of issues, each of which seems to beg for a share of our attention and places demands on us for a new national will and strategy and each issue comes bundled with its own sense of urgency. Indeed one might wonder whether there is anything in the country that is truly going well or doesn’t need some serious repair work. It seems like we left the kitchen with the stove on for eight years and came back to find everything on fire! We are unable to push these other issues too far onto the back pages of our anxiety list, as they too are starved for our attention.

We have generated more oil, but not enough to overcome the peak oil

We have generated more oil, but not enough to overcome the peak oil which occurred about 1970

Although it is not our most pressing problem at the moment, we are running out of energy and some “experts” have argued that the steady state population of the world will round off at about nine billion people, which will be achieved right around the corner, projected at the year 2050. Many claim that a population of this magnitude can only be sustained by maintaining the cheap energy of fossil fuels that we have taken for granted until very recently. Sometime during this century we are also likely to reach the condition of “peak oil,” after which total global oil production will begin a long slow exponential decline with a finite half life as we measurably, asymptotically approach a value of zero that will probably be spread over a few hundred years, unless we engage in a program of serious energy efficiency. The global oil supply will experience what happened to the U.S. oil supply, which reached its “peak oil” condition in the early 1970s and has been receding ever since; currently we have a second peak provided by the practice of “fracking” (see graph) and the oil discoveries in North Dakota. The ride down this exponential slope promises to be a lot more costly than the ride up. I remember as a kid when the gas wars after WW II produced gas at $0.14  per gallon. And, accounting for inflation it is still a very cheap form of energy.

Demographic experts have argued that without fossil fuels, our planet can only support one to three billion people, implying that a massive contraction of the global population will forcibly come about as the population continues to expand, while cheap energy declines: it is hard to imagine that such a change will occur peacefully.  Jared Diamond in his book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” (Chapter 10), has suggested that the genocide in Rawanda was in fact a resource war from over population-a Malthusian downward spiral.

So on the front page,  the papers remind us daily about the bleak nature of our present economic situation, but turning a page or two brings us to the more chronic problems which themselves now seem more like emergencies. No matter how quickly we recover from our current economic woes, experts tell us that our long-term future doesn’t look very promising unless we begin to address the major problems, about which our country has been in denial for most of the last eight years. It seems that the Obama election victory came just in time. We are going to need his full time enthusiasm to improve our outlook on the present and do something identifiable about the future, both ours and the planet’s.

One reason why the chronic problems seem just about as acute and challenging as our economy is today, can be attributed to the complete absence of any attention paid to them over the last eight years. While our economic woes have pushed the chronic problems off the front page, GWB turned them into acute problems that we will have to deal with in parallel to what we do about our economy. In fact, these issues all seem to be joined at the hip now thanks in part to the incompetency of GWB. Take for example the situation with global climate change and the realization that the very fossil fuels we are burning  today are setting up a future climate that is going to burn us back, in a kind of transcentury act of retribution. It seems like we inoculated the Earth with humans and the patient is showing early signs of rejection. If the United States is a superpower, then the climate must be God!  Many climatologists tell us that by losing the last eight years as a wasted null under the now infamous GWB administration, we will go through a more serious form of climate change no matter what we do in the next  few years towards making a down payment on reducing man’s carbon footprint. George Bush put the country to drift in a rising ocean with fewer and fewer ports of safety.

The lack of any concrete action taken to reduce greenhouse gases over the past eight years, has increased the possibility that we may reach a tipping point, at which Carbon dioxide becomes so concentrated in the atmosphere that severe climate changes will reach an irreversible state, producing a new dynamic that will not be reversed by subsequent reductions in greenhouse gases, no matter how successful our green revolution may be. The effects of greenhouse gases on the global climate can be modeled, but the effects of the same climate change on the flora and fauna of the Earth and its oceans cannot: those effects are unknown and unknowable. Thanks to GWB, we also put fewer resources into the science and technology that might have improved our prospects for a safer climate.

The climate changes we can anticipate will make the loss of polar bears seem like the tip of the iceberg so to speak. The survival of the most fundamental  food elements of the oceanic food chain, such as phytoplankton, cannot be guaranteed through changes expected in the climate. Phytoplankton are the small, microscopic organisms that serve as elemental basis of the food chain on which all marine animals rely. Yet these microscopic organisms could be seriously threatened by changes in ocean salinity, pH, temperature or alterations in the dynamic nature of ocean currents which are all created by water temperature differences. Any significant alteration in the survival of these microscopic organisms could disrupt the food chain in such a way that we could be threatened with massive starvation, as the entire marine ecosystem could collapse. Indeed, if we didn’t have the problem of global climate change we would still be facing a crisis about the oceanic food supply. We are already seeing mass depletion of certain species of ocean fish by over-fishing, but these important animals in the human food supply could be wiped out by subtle changes in the microscopic oceanic environment. None of the anticipated changes sound like ones we would order if they were all offered on a menu for change. Indeed, we have yet to identify any single benefit from increasing the average global temperature by a few degrees, unless it’s bikini sales and tropical plant distribution.

As these seismic, potentially cataclysmic images of a challenging if not threatening future sear themselves into our brains, it is human nature to recoil and try to find relief by looking for events to ponder that take us in just the opposite direction. It is human nature to contemplate and study our future in a rational way and it is human nature to identify elements in our culture that reflect and address our more intelligent nature. Can we identify cultural activities that satisfy our urge to find something positive in America? Admittedly, this is not a trivial challenge, as the Medusa touch of GWB has turned hopeful prospects into cold stone. But, it is unavoidable that we try to find something good about humans and the culture of Homo sapiens.

So, here is my current nomination about something positive in America. Every Saturday, when I get up, I try to catch a few hours of C-Span2, which is the book review channel of the C-Span system. The C-Span2 program presents authors describing their books or reading their poetry, usually in small book stores around the country. From Maine to California, the C-Span2 cameras visit neighborhood book stores where a few dozen people gather to hear the author of a recent book describe it and answer questions about it. Some in the audience may have read the book, but most have not;at the end of what is often a lively discussion the author meets members of the audience for a book signing moment, which may or may not be taped. For the author, this is part of their book promotion tour, organized by the publisher of their book. This is not where you will see Bill Clinton talking about his biography. Some of these events are within book stores at universities, but most are held in small private book stores, in small rooms in which only a few dozen people are gathered. Periodically, book fairs throughout the country, at different cities, are covered for a few days; at least two book fairs in the New York City area are covered each year by C-Span2. The most recent discussion I heard was from Curtis Roosevelt, grandson of FDR who has written a book “Too Close to the Sun,” in which he describes his experiences with his grandfather and adds his own insight to the historical record. This book discussion took place in an auditorium at the FDR Presidential Library in Hyde Park, where FDR grew up and later donated his home and his own library to the government. In the question period, it was plainly evident that FDR was strongly in the minds of people who are grappling with your modern dilemmas. Curtis Roosevelt himself lives in a small village in France where he seems to be content and relaxed. One message he passed on to Barack related to his grandfather’s presidential experiences, is that if you are truly successful, as FDR certainly was, then a very large political hate group will be formed and plot against you. That happened to FDR and it happened to Bill Clinton. It’s an endemic and genetic property of the right wing. Should Obama ever qualify for his likeness on Mount Rushmore, which he could achieve by insisting on a single payer healthcare plan, then you can be assured that the size of his hate group will grow exponentially and include the Swift Boaters of a slightly bygone era.

The mega event for books is the Miami Book Fair which takes place annually in Miami each Fall, and lasts for about a week. It attracts 250,000 people from all over the country and includes visits from 400 authors. This year is the 25th anniversary of the Miami Book Fair. Miami may seem like one of the least likely places where a book fair would be successful, but this event is well organized and thoughtfully presented. For that week thousands of readers and interested citizens gather together at Miami Dade College to buy books and listen to the people who wrote them. The full panoply of books and attending authors runs from A to Z, including history, fiction, biography, poetry, economics, military history, photography, art, folk events, finance, popular science, science fiction, conspiracy theories and diplomacy with lots of categories in between.  This year for example, you heard from a group who quoted their own work or read from the published works of others who have spoken out against the massive surveillance that intrudes into our lives perpetrated by our own government, including information about those that have been put on the FBI’s list of possible subversives who thereby get exposed to things like illegal wiretaps and perpetual monitoring. Martin Luther King was an example of this kind of harassment.

Yet, by watching the full scope of the Miami Book Fair, and all the others covered by C-Span2 during the year, you cannot help but think that a healthy America is out there trying to break loose and learn and read and write about life’s experiences on a small planet, within a country that is seemingly indifferent to such activities or looks upon them as a possible form of subversive behavior. But is the country really indifferent? In those few hours of C-Span2, you see something truly healthy about our country expressed through  and by some of the participants. When you hear the perceptive quality of the questions and their objectivity, you realize that the book fair attendants are in a different class from those that  call-in to the Washington Journal of C-Span1, that takes place every weekday morning. You also detect in the audience a healthy respect and admiration for teachers, as many teachers attend these fairs, and probably represent a significant portion of the participants and some of the writers.  Book fairs tend not to attract ideologues as attendees, though some authors deserving of that label are periodically in evidence. You get the refreshing impression that America, at least this part of it, is trying to form a new core for our nation, a healthy core of writers and readers, no matter what you hear from other sources.

Most of the smaller events on C-Span2 Saturday seem to have large representation from active and retired teachers and professors-the Brahmans of our new society. But at the Miami Book Fair, all ages show up and are in full evidence, asking questions, acquiring books and challenging the authors. There are of course the writers that fan the flames of conspiracy theories, like the government’s involvement with 9/11 to keep the military industrial complex turned on at full volume. But these types tend to draw far less attention than others, whose writings are less encumbered. This year I enjoyed Salman Rushdie describe how writing a novel was like creating a big mess until you get near the end where there is some chance to tidy it up a bit. I fully identify with that approach.

Listening to the questions of members in the audience at the Miami Book Fair reminds you that thinking Americans are out there and people with the kind of vision necessary to begin formulating a healthier, more thoughtful culture are ready to pull the lever if the right choices are made available to them. But, they need to amp up their microphones. Perhaps this new potential for America has always been there, but the choices offered by the political parties have been too narrow to evoke the dialog.

At the Miami Fair, in between formal presentations, the camera crews fan out to interview individual authors to inquire about their books. It is in these informal interviews that you see the breadth of the American writers.  One interview is with an articulate female author  writing about the problems her now deceased father had as a famous priest in New York who had a lifelong conflict with homosexuality, while having nine children.  Another author describes his coming of age working for the UN, in the Oil-for-food program for Iraq in between the first and second Gulf Wars. He described how completely disillusioned he became because of the corruption that negatively infused the essential mission he believed the UN was committed to pursue: the reality was that people starved while kickbacks rewarded Hussein for his oil sales (“Back Stabbers for Beginners”) and others who got rich.

The Miami Fair is is not a textbook fair, so that the more academic range of expertise and creativity is not on display and probably wouldn’t work for this audience. The audience is not a collection of scholars, but a group of hard-working people who enjoy reading and expanding their knowledge and world view, while struggling to weed out the false authors of propaganda and ideology. I could be wrong, but I don’t think you will find Rush Limbaugh at the Miami Book Fair. Although academicians are not there to talk about their academic books, many academic writers sometimes appear when they are trying to reach the general public, as many academic historians now try to do.

Very famous writers appear at the Miami Book Fair. When the fair got started  25 years ago, James Baldwin was in the first author group and the main attraction. This year Salman Rushdie filled that role, promoting his most recent book. The requirement for invitation is that you have a new book to talk about and promote.

By watching the Miami Book Fair over several of its annual  iterations, you begin to believe that some portion of America has a vitality for examining our civil institutions and current problems through the assertion of a method-a method of expressing verbal curiosity, stripped of ideology, and dedicated to the lost art of exchanging ideas through a Socratic dialog. It’s a calm world on C-Span2 on Saturdays. The best and most common interactions are those where the writer is not plagued by ideological edges and supports the Socratic form of interaction, giving a sense of intelligence to his audience-often expressed as “oh that’s a very good question.” In those examples, the Socratic writer connects with his most intelligent questioners in a TV moment unlike most others. And, freed from the constraints of dogma, one almost sees a consensus developing about the forms that our public institutions and national dialog need to take if this resurrected form of dialog and engendered insight becomes ingrained as the medium of future interactions. In short, these people could one day force us into naming a new age, or a retreaded old one-the age of reason and contemplation.

For most of the last twenty years, America has led the world in the total number of new books published each year. But, on a couple of occasions, Britain has grabbed that spotlight. For example, in 2005, based on data extracted from UNESCO studies, the United States published 172,000 new books, while Britain published 206,000. When you consider that Britain is only 1/5 the population of the United States, you can appreciate that, far and away, Britain is the leading per capita book publisher in the World and they are unlikely to be challenged for this title for a very long time. Just walk into a British bookstore like Blackwell’s and you will immediately see the abundance of British-authored books. I guess Shakespeare wouldn’t have it any other way. Yes, the American ledger includes an increasingly larger share of the book publication total given to religion: 1,969 books in 1975 and 3,803 books in 1996.

The good part of America, the capacity to solve big problems with energy and inventiveness, driven by classless drive and participation, is beginning to re-emerge. In the process of dusting itself off, one can see this badly needed form of new energy rumbling within the crowds at book fairs all across the country.  Perhaps we are seeing the beginning of America’s revitalization, emerging through its writers and readers, as the process agitates for the changes that will be needed to avoid getting burned while trying to make a living on a very small planet. Perhaps America is restless again!


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