The extended forecast is showing temperatures in the sixties, even reaching the seventies in a couple weeks. I noticed the carpet of wild violet buds in the front yard the other day, getting ready to open up. And now I’m seeing the first ants coming out to forage. Yes, I believe spring has sprung around here. For me, that means it’s time to ritually listen to some Masters of Reality, one of the greatest bands you should be dismayed to have never heard of.
Doomsday scenarios are capturing the headlines at an accelerating rate. Scientists from all over the world tell us that emissions in 10 years must be half of what they were 10 years ago, or we face apocalypse. School children like Greta Thunberg and activist movements like Extinction Rebellion are demanding that we panic. And rightly so. But what should we do to avoid disaster?
Alan Watts once suggested that no one really believes in the reality of hell. It’s evident in their actions, he said, or, rather, in the lack thereof. If you saw your mother’s name on a list of people scheduled to be rounded up by the Gestapo, the immediacy of the threat would occupy your entire attention. You wouldn’t rest, you wouldn’t take no for an answer, you would do whatever it took to get her to safety, even over her objections. And yet, when it comes to the possibility or the likelihood of your unsaved mother facing an eternity of torment, you’re content to shrug if your tepid efforts at persuasion fail. If hell truly exists and promises to devour many if not most of your friends and loved ones, how could you simply go on about your business, complacent and unruffled?
Likewise, I doubt that many of our devout climatarians genuinely believe in the likelihood of an environmental “apocalypse,” let alone that “panic” would be a wise response; it’s just that the rising cost of positional goods requires higher rhetorical outlays. They seem to love the emotional/spiritual tension of the apocalyptic mindset, true, but Gaian retribution still seems like an abstract fantasy to them. They’re not going to retreat to the primitive living conditions of survivalist hermits, or to the impoverished economies of rural, medieval villages. They’re not going to sacrifice any of their modern conveniences. None of them honestly expect floods and tornadoes and wildfires to increasingly threaten their homes. To judge purely by their actions, it seems that climate change is of interest to them primarily as a means to “win” petty arguments online. An added bonus is that, as with thoughts of hellfire, it allows people of sour, curdled character to revenge themselves upon their enemies through imagination. “I told you so, but you wouldn’t listen, and now you’ll be sorry!” If some chemist ever finds a way to put that sentiment in pill form, the results will dwarf the opioid epidemic.
From a purely financial perspective, doing one’s own yardwork ignores well-established theories about opportunity cost and comparative advantage. Just as the United States should focus on soybean production and import its avocados, such thinking goes, so its citizens should leave the lawn-mowing to the professional landscapers lest they misappropriate a billable hour.
Indeed, the answer is obvious if the question is going to be discussed in economic terms alone. I save $200 a month by caring for my own lawn but could easily earn more than that figure were I to use my yardwork hours to teach an extra class or write a bit more second-rate political commentary. What I would lose in the bargain, however, is the moral satisfaction of creating order out of chaos, bringing the land up to my own standards, and performing a task that remains — how else to put this? — proper to a man.
A friend of my stepson’s came over at the beginning of June to watch the Champions League final with us. “Man, I really like what you’ve done out there,” he said, gesturing out the window. “You’ve got a miniature Versailles going on.” I demurred that if anything, we were more inspired by the English garden ideal than the overly-geometric French version, but of course I took the compliment in the spirit in which it was intended. “Thanks, but it’s all her vision,” I said, referring to the Lady of the House. “I’m just the groundskeeper.” That’s not entirely true — I just do the brute labor, like mowing the lawn and picking up branches and offering an opinion while shopping at the greenhouse. She’s the artiste who builds, sculpts, cultivates, plants and harvests. I don’t always appreciate having to stoop under the branches of the redbud trees which nevertheless manage to slap my face and knock my hat off, and it certainly is challenging to maneuver around some of the intricate arrangements she’s constructed, but I know my place.
In my days of renting houses, I always had yards small enough to cut with a push mower. I bought this house twelve years ago, with just under two acres of land, but I didn’t upgrade to a riding mower. At the time, there just always seemed to be better things to do with a thousand dollars, but soon enough, I decided I didn’t need one anyway. It only takes about three hours to do the entire yard, and the mower is self-propelled anyway, even though sometimes I refrain from using it just to make it more challenging. I look at it as three hours of enforced walking, mild exercise, and music listening. And I do love the temporary satisfaction of a job well done, as I look over the uniformly-trimmed grass late on a summer evening after mowing. It will only be about three days until I start to see all my work come undone, but that’s plenty of time to enjoy it. While it remains neat and tidy, it reminds me of the professionally-manicured soccer pitches I spend so much time gazing upon. This is worthwhile labor. It is its own reward. As Camus said about Sisyphus, the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. I, too, conclude that all is well.
The drying in of the house went so fast that I remember clearly only two parts; one was the dull repetition of hammering nails into the plywood sheathing of the floor and roof. One nail every six inches on the edges, every eight inches where the plywood lay over a floor joist or roof rafter. The average small house requires over 50,000 nails. If the average nail takes five seconds to be placed and hammered in, a builder using a hammer spends seventy hours, or a week and a half, banging nails. (The pneumatic nail gun would soon do for house building what the sewing machine gun had done for sewing.) Whenever I regret that I have not personally changed the world or the nation or even my state, I think of nails in a house. No single nail does anything very important, but they must all be there. The vast masses of human beings contribute to the building of civilization as the pounders of nails contribute to the building of a house. We are necessary but unnoticed. A few people are noticed because, instead of building, they destroy. Only the very rare person changes the world with individual acts.
— Wallace Kaufman, Coming Out Of The Woods: The Solitary Life Of A Maverick Naturalist
This passage is fairly representative of what I loved about this book — the matter-of-fact, methodical, detailed descriptions of what is actually entailed by attempting to live romantic fantasies of the “simple” life, shading into broader stoic reflections by the time the paragraph finishes. This was another of those serendipitous discoveries I picked up with no expectations (or rather, one that the Lady of the House found and handed to me), but Kaufman is a fine writer, with a graduate degree from Oxford (though, as he amusingly relates early on, that did nothing to prevent him from getting “pinhooked” by a local yokel with a grade-school education when buying his land). The humor is frequent but understated. The steady loss of his romantic innocence isn’t played for cheap laughs, nor does he engage in the performative self-loathing of other “privileged” back-to-the-land types. He loves his small slice of the wilderness, but he has no sentimental illusions about the wild, as evidenced by his description of a raid by one bee colony on another (a pillage “as savage as a Viking raid or a Mongol invasion”), or his reflections on “wild” humans like Dahmer, Manson and the twentieth-century totalitarian leaders. I lost count of how many times his rhetorical ambles brought him around to deliver another deserved kick to Thoreau’s rump. But if humans are all too guilty of projecting their naive fantasies about universal harmony and easy living onto the natural world, we are also “the animal who cares about other animals,” the one “who is curious about other animals for the sake of knowledge.” We put out food and housing for them out of pleasure in their company and genuine desire to know their lives. “If there is ever a Judgment Day in which the lives of all species are judged, let this outreach count in our favor.” In a relentlessly cruel and bloodstained natural world, the emergence of such humble efforts might be the closest thing to a miracle we’ll ever know.
There are a lot of different views on climate change on the right. (I myself am mostly in the Matt Ridley “lukewarmer” camp.) But he ignores all of the competing views in favor of an argument that amounts to little more than fan service for liberal readers. One can believe that climate change is a real concern, with some legitimate science on its side, while also believing there is a range of available policy options that do not conform to the liberal party line and declining to act in a spirit of righteous panic. (Noah Rothman notes how the enlightened position on climate change must always be even more “hysteria.”)
I have dogmatic family members who typically take the talk-radio party line on the political issue du jour. You know the type — they greet every snow flurry with triumphant cackling and a hearty chorus of SCREW YOU AL GORE. It’s probably fair to call them “deniers,” since their positions are usually reflexively determined by whatever they perceive to be the official stance of liberal elites. But the Lady of the House has a cousin, a geologist, who visited us at the beginning of the month. While we were hiking, she succinctly summarized her view on climate change: “Is it happening? Yes. Is human activity contributing to it? Most likely. Is there anything we can realistically do about it? Probably not.” She’s not actually a conservative, but among the conservatives I read and talk to, I find that to be a fairly typical view. One of them had a useful rule of thumb for weeding out the cranks — if they’re opposed to fossil fuels but refuse to even countenance the idea of nuclear power, they’re not serious enough to bother with. It may well be that I’m just inclined to hear what I want to hear, but I find the stoic pragmatism and lack of hysteria refreshing. As Auden said, we are changed by what we change. We’ll adapt, or we won’t, but when has that ever not been the case?
The received left-wing wisdom, by contrast — well, it’s usually facile to compare various beliefs and behaviors to religion, but in the case of climate change, I’m not sure what else to call it. As I mentioned before, I check in with The Week as part of my daily bookmark routine, to keep tabs on what the somewhat-sane left is talking about, and I’ve been amused to see the resident fire-and-brimstone fundamentalist Ryan Cooper pounding the pulpit recently. “Climate change is going to fry your state,” he thundered toward a heretical Utah senator. “Wealth cannot save you from climate change,” he warned us in the prior week’s sermon. Sinners in the hands of an angry Gaia, indeed. But for the clearest, most painstaking demonstration of how so much green activism is nothing but a surrogate outlet for moral evangelism, you can’t do better than read Peter Dorman’s steamrolling of Naomi Klein’s recent spasm of righteousness posing as a book, This Changes Everything. If this were a boxing match, it would have been stopped after the first few paragraphs.
I don’t have any strong views on climate change, but what I find most interesting and amusing is the idea that I should, like it’s a dereliction of my duty as a citizen to avoid pronouncing on events that I can’t influence. I couldn’t be more ordinary and anonymous. What practical use could I possibly make of a doctrinaire opinion? Too many people seem convinced that a diploma and an advantageous upbringing qualify them to serve as volunteer policymakers and amateur heads of state. I think I’d like it better if they devoted that time and energy to church activities.
It’s like Lao Tzu said in chapter 76 of the Tao Te Ching. Our mightiest oak tree (140ish feet tall) didn’t fare so well in the
snow event ice storm yesterday. It lost quite a few of its branches.
His next-door neighbor, the hunchbacked elm, came through with no ill effects. (It’s not bent under the weight of the ice; that’s how it always looks.)
Most of the town lost power; ours is projected to be back by Saturday at midnight. I lost count of all the downed trees just along the one-mile stretch of county road we take into town, where several of our neighbors were already hard at work with chainsaws and tractors, clearing the road. It was quite a thing, sitting in the dark last night, reading by a battery-powered lamp, repeatedly hearing the sharp crack and dull thud of branches in the forest plummeting to ground. We ended up having to travel to the east side of the Blue Ridge this morning in search of electricity and wi-fi. As I type, we’re fueling our stomachs and laptops at Panera Bread. We’ll probably migrate to a library this afternoon to do whatever work we can.
Our next-door neighbor was driving home yesterday afternoon when a falling tree clipped his truck and tore the ladder rack off. The clerk at Home Depot cheerfully informed us that her boyfriend had called to tell her that two trees had fallen on their doublewide. We expressed incredulity that she was even at work, let alone in bright spirits. “Well,” she said with a shrug and a smile, “it’s his house, not mine.” Besides, she said, they’d been talking for a while about moving. “Maybe this is just God’s way of telling us to get going!” she laughed. It could always be worse, indeed, and there will always be people who handle it more gracefully than you will.
All of this comes about as we’re planning to make some big changes over the winter in the two businesses we run which will involve some stress and belt-tightening for a while. It’s salutary to be reminded, especially at this time of year, to be grateful for what we’ve got without feeling entitled or complacent. The hard and unyielding will fall; the soft and pliant will overcome.
(Addendum: shortly after finishing this, the power went out as we were still sitting in Panera. The whole shopping center went dark. Apparently the outage stretches several miles north. And they didn’t even get any ice over here! I’m becoming convinced it’s me causing it. I feel like a character in a Christopher Moore novel — a confused schmo who wakes up one day to find that he’s been appointed the Angel of Death. Or, in my case, Anti-Electromagnetic Man, I suppose. We’ll see how long this library stays on the grid now that I’m here.)
October is the month of painted leaves. Their rich glow now flashes round the world. As fruits and leaves and the day itself acquire a bright tint just before they fall, so the year near its setting. October is its sunset sky; November the later twilight.
— Thoreau, “Autumnal Tints”
That’s probably the case in New England, but here in the mid-Atlantic region, it tends to be early November when the leaves reach their glorious peak. This week is traditionally very busy for us, and this year we entertained a visiting relative for a few days on top of it, so I feel as if a whole week of my favorite month of the year has zipped by before I could savor it. But today, the sun was bright, the temperature mild, the pine trees were laying down a golden carpet of dead needles, the breeze was nipping at the heels of the fallen leaves and herding them across the yard, and the air itself seemed to glow with a reddish-orange hue from the blazing treetops. A year ago this night, I was about to embark on a three-day hospital stay culminating in gallbladder surgery. Today, I’m just happy to be alive to enjoy this wonderful time of year.
With Trump’s appointment of Scott Pruitt to the EPA, and the accompanying flood of editorials about climate denial and climate alarmism, it’s a good time to consider why skepticism of climate change remains such a popular attitude among conservatives.
Certainly, a lot of skepticism is driven by plain old economic interests. Oil and gas companies aren’t exactly going to cheer the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. There’s also the fact that any real positive climate-policy impact—as a result of sharply reduced emissions—will not be observable for decades, making it both politically and psychologically distant. But none of this should cause ordinary people—many of whom are both highly intelligent and owe none of their income to the oil and gas industry—to deny the science of climate change. There’s another reason, I think, why the whole concept is met with such resistance.
A lot of it comes down to the fact that, from a conservative point of view, climate change looks like too good a problem for liberals. Everything liberals want, or that conservatives think liberals want—more regulation, more control of the economy, more redistribution of wealth, skepticism or hostility towards capitalism and of America’s status as an affluent superpower—are suggested or required by the reality of climate change. The conservative sees liberals rubbing their hands together at the prospect of a problem that needs such solutions, and he thinks, “No, such a perfect problem couldn’t ‘just happen’ to arise—it must be invented or massively overstated.”
I recently read Roger Scruton’s How to Think Seriously About the Planet and Ronald Bailey’s The End of Doom, which both made me feel much better about humanity’s chances of avoiding some kind of worst-case environmental crisis. Both authors take the middle road between denial and alarmism, suggesting that while there certainly does seem to be a serious problem demanding our attention, the solutions are most likely to be found in continued innovation and the evolution of economic growth. Of course, they may very well be voices in the wilderness, but it’s still refreshing to read such perspectives, especially if, like me, you were more or less raised on the kind of substance-free, hysterical environmentalism-as-a-surrogate religion as typified by Naomi Klein’s latest incoherent jeremiad.
No doubt the centrality of moral judgment goes a long way toward explaining the popularity of This Changes Everything. Movements need an ethical compass, and this book is never shy about who to blame for our problems and who to turn to for solutions. It captures the zeitgeist superbly, striking all the right political notes: anti-oppression, decentralization, spiritual attunement, equality. Readers are likely to love this book if they already share the values it’s built on. Whether moral positioning is a sufficient basis for a successful social movement is less clear, however.
Wow. What an absolute runaway steamroller of a book review. That’s one of the best things I’ve read online this year. Yet, as Dorman says in the conclusion, however flimsy and incoherent Klein’s book is, the biggest problem is the warm, uncritical reception it received from the left-wing choir, the same people who have quickly adopted Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century as the New Testament update on Karl Marx’s wrathful, thundering Old Testament. And don’t even get me started on the undying progressive faith in a What’s the Matter with Kansas? framework that condescendingly attributes false consciousness to all opposition…
“Philosophaster” was Dictionary.com’s word of the day today. It means “a person who feigns a knowledge he or she does not possess.” That is certainly a cool term, but it’s not one I can claim for myself. No, like my brother in ignorance, Sam Cooke, you could write a pop song about all the subjects and disciplines about which I have absolutely nothing informed or interesting to say. Economics and political science, for example. I don’t know diddly about them. Thus, when Arthur shares with me an essay by David Graeber in which he expounds upon the possible successor systems to neoliberal capitalism and the technological inventions they might enable, I just have to shrug and profess an inability to compliment or critique it in any meaningful way. I dunno, I guess what he says is plausible, but is it likely? How would I know? And so I suppose the socialist future will have to find a way to produce itself without my theoretical assistance.
One big-picture political issue I do spend time thinking about is the fact that, as Dipesh Chakrabarty put it, “the mansion of modern freedom stands on an ever-expanding base of fossil-fuel use.” I’m a comfortable and privileged Westerner. I thank the nonexistent gods for air conditioning, satellite television, online shopping, mp3s, takeout pizza, and all the other amenities of middle-classish existence, and I would dearly love to believe that they will continue to exist and even be made available to anyone else in the world who wants them. My conscience, however, forces me to consider the possibility that I may simply be lucky enough to be living somewhere in the middle of a several-hundred-year-bubble of extremely unusual prosperity brought about by billions of years’ worth of Gaia’s frugal savings. Like I said, I don’t know enough to judge the accuracy of this glum vision, so I tend to read every article I can find that offers me even a slight chance of becoming better informed. Thus, when I visit 3QD in the morning and see this article, I am intrigued. That certainly sounds confident. Has someone discovered a decisive refutation of the doomsayers? Are the days of decadent consumption going to continue indefinitely?
I meant to click the permalink to read more, but my cursor skittered away from its target and landed on the link to the comments instead. Imagine my surprise, then, to see not only people taking the author to task for failing to acknowledge the elephant in the room, as one of them put it — the possibility of non-negotiable ecological limits to human population and resource consumption — but the author himself graciously acknowledging the point. What? You come out swinging against modern-day Malthusians only to have to admit that you completely ignored their most pressing point?
My search goes on. I may never find anything more substantial than blithe, overconfident assurances that humans will continue to invent new technologies to fix the problems caused by old technologies, and I may even live to see the beginning of a return to a pre-industrial standard of living, but if nothing else, I saw an example of someone admitting being wrong on the Internet.