Archive for April, 2011

The Golden Rule Rules

19 April 2011

I’ve always had a soft spot for the 1966 Cold War comedy The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming. After tension and near bloodshed, a group of New Englanders and the crew of a stranded Soviet submarine suddenly band together to save the life of a small boy in danger of falling to his death from a rooftop. What follows that scene still feels right to me. It’s still an example of the Golden Rule, something too many of us in modern America have forgotten.

Luckily, our genes still carry that rule. Johann Hari’s “The Myth of the Panicking Disaster Victim – and Why We Should Be Inspired This Week,” which came out after Japan’s disaster, provides a good overview of how human beings follow the Golden Rule during disasters. Of course, many of us expect this from the Japanese, a people well known for their polite, civil behavior. However, Hari’s essay points out that natural selection has bred empathy and reciprocity into human beings. As he says, this instinct to help shows up everywhere:

This is so cross-cultural – from Haiti to New Zealand – that it is probably part of an evolved instinct inherent to our species, and it’s not hard to see why. We now know that 60,000 years ago, the entire human race was reduced to a single tribe of 2000 human beings wandering the savannahs of Africa. That was it. That was us. If they – our ancestors – didn’t have a strong impulse to look out for each other in a crisis, you wouldn’t be reading this now.

Almost all Americans used to know the importance of following the Do Unto Others rule. As late as the middle of the 20th Century, a good many were still living lives of considerable interdependence. Even today, almost anyone who lives in an isolated area, a term that used to encompass most of America, still knows the importance of neighborliness. This helpfulness doesn’t arise out of niceness or political correctness; it comes out of necessity, a need for mutual aid, sometimes even self-preservation.

My grandparents farmed and knew this. A farm woman like her might despise a neighbor a half mile down the road, but, if that neighbor was sick and children or stock needed tending, she’d be there to help because she wanted that neighbor to do the same for her if need be. Another farmer might think his neighbor a complete fool, but he’d rush to help rescue the man’s livestock if disaster struck. Helping out in times of need–great or small–was simply the enlightened self-interest of the day.

Even now in our world of Isolated Individualism, most of us still instinctively understand humanity’s inherent need for empathy, even for self-sacrifice.

Of course a few do not. Those few with total faith in selfishness, in rugged individualism are aberrant. This ideal–or illusion–of independence, of individualism, works as long as the artificial shell of industrial society protects it. It’s when disaster strikes and the shell breaks that we once again recognize ourselves as naked, helpless, little apes.

Our greatgrandparents, grandparents, and perhaps even our parents knew of human vulnerability without needing a disaster to remind them. I grew up during that cuspish time when most Americans were becoming isolated and self-interested–suburban. I visited my grandparents farm. I knew their neighbors, but l returned to our little house with the grocery store only two blocks away. As I grew up, fewer and fewer of us had livestock or even gardens. We started relying on services. The fire department, the police, the supermarket–all were just a short drive away.

With these conveniences, neighborly cooperation faded, and many of us forgot our sense of community. But it was still there when the earth suddenly reminded us of our frail humanity. Whether they recognize it or not, the Masters of the Universe can be as vulnerable to falling buildings as anyone. Yet it is still human nature for lesser mortals to band together to dig others out.

Well, maybe not the Superman, at least if they happen to know it’s the Superman under the rubble.

Here’s Hari again:

In a disaster, very few people are on-yer-bike individualists grabbing for themselves, and they are regarded as incomprehensible by everybody else. After the 2005 tsunami, the Ayn Rand Institute – set up by the philosopher-queen of the American right – issued an appeal entitled: “U.S. Should Not Give To help Tsunami Victims.” (This was entirely consistent with her world-view: she said it was immoral to save a drowning person if there was any risk to yourself.) Even the people who every day take this callous view of victims within our own societies – the poor, the homeless, the ill – felt the need to distance themselves from this sociopathy.

Sociopathy. That’s what he calls those Randian Individualists. Are they indeed sociopathic? In some cases, I suspect this is so. Lack of empathy does suggest a clinical condition. In other cases, I suspect these Supermen are just normal humans who have become too comfortable inside their glorious shells, too sure they are Masters of the Universe and of their Fate.

Either way, if/when their shell crumbles around them, they had better hope for anonymity and the kindness of others, because if those around them know of their unwillingness to cooperate, to share, to be human, I suspect that the digging will still come, but it might be later, much later, after they’ve dug out all the others around them.

Hence, the cult of the individual carries with it its own rules of reciprocity. I don’t find them at all enticing. I want to be dug out ASAP, so my sense of self-interest means I rush to aid others. We don’t have to love or even like one another, but to survive we may well need others. That’s just reality.



Our Chris Who Is in NYC

18 April 2011

Sometimes Chris Hedges sounds like a preacher man.

Oh, yeah, that’s right, he has a Master’s from Harvard Divinity School.

I especially like the Raskolnikov reference: “The Raskolnikovs of the world place unbridled and total faith in the human intellect. They disdain the attributes of compassion, empathy, beauty, justice and truth.” In many, I suspect the Crime and Punishment reference will evoke thoughts of a Russian-born American who’s currently enjoying favor in a good many high places. Subtle though. No names dropped.

Amen, Brother Chris. Amen.


The Magic Handbasket: Free Crap

17 April 2011

Finally, others besides the usual doomers are starting to notice the world food problem: “20 Reasons to Be Prepared for a Global Food Crisis.”

This article by Michael T. Snyder is on today’s Seeking Alpha, one of my favorite financial sites. Snyder lists a number of issues I’ve posted about over the last year or so–water, topsoil, ethanol among them.

I read it nodding but wondered why the author didn’t address the underlying population problem. However, a good many of those who commented pointed out this link.

But then there was this comment:

You did not mention ,” my dog ate my homework” as another reason. The free market will take care of shortages as high prices cuts consumption and creates incentives to bring on new production. Unlimited demand will be curtailed by price, and limited supply will also be stimulated by price. Let the market price signal do it’s [sic–and sick as well] work. Sure there are physical constraints, and oil does raise the cost of production, though substitutes will replace them.

Cornucopians no longer amuse me. “Unlimited demand will be curtailed by price, and limited supply will also be stimulated by price”? Is “price” a new euphemism for “death”?

As I read this, I wondered if this person was just being especially sarcastic or if he actually believed in both the Free, Righteous, and Easy Economy (FREE) and the Complete Replacement Analogue for Petroleum (CRAP). So far, I see no substantial evidence that either of these exist or are likely to exist, and I have grave difficulty with anyone over the age of five who utters statements of blind, unsupported faith.

Childish utterances from adults stopped amusing me a few years ago when an extremely bright neighbor told me that we would quickly solve the crises caused by the depleteion of fossil fuels. I laughed and asked “How?” Without answering my question, but with a straight face, he just said, “Because we have to.”

Because we have to? I guess I missed the appearance of the Magic Fairy (MF) who told these folks that merely having wants and needs guarantees their gratification.


Newflash: War Costs MONEY!!

12 April 2011

Named using good Orwellian word inversion, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute actually studies wars around the globe and collects wads of statistics.

Here’s a tidbit from their publication “Recent Trends in Military Expenditure”

United States military spending remains exceptional worldwide, accounting for nearly 43 per cent of the global total. The US has also led the global surge in world military spending since 2001, increasing by 81 per cent compared to 32.5 per cent for the total for the ‘rest of the world’. At an estimated 4.8% of GDP in 2010, US military spending represents the highest ‘military burden’ of all counties for whom SIPRI has data outside the Middle East.

Well, now it’s obvious why we have to cut the salaries of those worthless teachers and firemen, isn’t it?


P.S. Paul Fussell once wrote that winning World War II may well have been the worst thing that ever happened to the United States. He said we came out of the war thinking that it was our destiny to be the world’s policeman.

We Are So Fracked

11 April 2011

Fracking, the hydraulic fracking of rock to release oil and natural gas, is, to say the least, a controversial environmental issue. While groundwater pollution has been the main focus, an article in today’s The Hill “Study: Gas from ‘Fracking’ Worse Than Coal on Climate” adds another aspect to the controversy.

Here are the first few paragraphs:

Cornell University professors will soon publish research that concludes natural gas produced with a drilling method called “hydraulic fracturing” contributes to global warming as much as coal, or even more.

The conclusion is explosive because natural gas enjoys broad political support – including White House backing – due to its domestic abundance and lower carbon dioxide emissions when burned than other fossil fuels.

Cornell Prof. Robert Howarth, however, argues that development of gas from shale rock formations produced through hydraulic fracturing – dubbed “fracking” – brings far more methane emissions than conventional gas production.

Enough, he argues, to negate the carbon advantage that gas has over coal and oil when they’re burned for energy, because methane is such a potent greenhouse gas.

Like any serious scientists, the researchers explain the tentative nature of their study and warn that they do not consider it “definitive.” The article also presents counter-arguments from the industry’s experts.

So are the comments posted for this article also “fair and balanced”? Read and and find out.

In case you are unfamiliar with fracking, you might also want to read about the underground concerns already raised by environmentalists and ranchers in natural gas areas such as Wyoming. Keywords fracking wyoming are a good start.


Dollars and Science

9 April 2011

Sometimes current events are better than fiction.

From the Los Angeles Times newspaper: “Critics’ Review Unexpectedly Supports Scientific Consensus on Global Warming”

From the self-described “independent” magazine the Economist: “A Record-making Effort”

From the hardcore conservative FreeRepublic blogs: “Does Muller Deserve the Climate Blog Beatdown?” (Click the links for the really good stuff!)

From liberal economist Paul Krugman: “The Truth, Still Inconvenient”

From environmental journalist Andrew Revkin’s Dot Earrth blog “Republicans Get Inconvenient Replies at Climate Hearing”

In a hurry? There’s an overview from, which describes itself as “Clearing the PR Pollution that Clouds Climate Science.” (One guess whether they lean toward the dollars or the science.)

A purist? Here’s the study’s website: Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature

In fact, even if you are not a purist, I suggest you click the “About Us” link on the study’s site and then click “Donors.” Under their list is a short statement:

All donations were provided as unrestricted educational grants, which means the donor organizations have no say over how we conduct the research or what we publish.

Sometimes ya get what ya want. Sometimes ya get whatcha paid for.

Disclaimer: This blogger cannot stand the Koch brothers.


News Flash: Bank Robbery

5 April 2011

The bank robbery was perpetrated by Wachovia Bank years ago. They dealt out and are now off the hook for this one.

Read all about it way after the fact: “How a Big US bank Laundered Billions from Mexico’s Murderous Drug Gangs”

Here’s a key paragraph:

Criminal proceedings were brought against Wachovia, though not against any individual, but the case never came to court. In March 2010, Wachovia settled the biggest action brought under the US bank secrecy act, through the US district court in Miami. Now that the year’s “deferred prosecution” has expired, the bank is in effect in the clear. It paid federal authorities $110m in forfeiture, for allowing transactions later proved to be connected to drug smuggling, and incurred a $50m fine for failing to monitor cash used to ship 22 tons of cocaine.

Wouldn’t one think US newspapers would hang the now deceased Wachovia out to dry on this one? You know, headlines, investigative interviews, that sort of thing?

I read voraciously, yet I found out about this from a UK. Unfortunately, this no longer surprises me.