On the Road Again: Huanacaxtle and Martín

(continued from January 11, 2019 post)

After a few days and a couple of back-and-forths with Seff Ramirez, locating a source of Huanacaxtle near La Peñita didn’t work out, so I tried another tack. I’d seen what appeared to be a tiny carpinteria in Los Ayalas, a small nearby beach town dominated by hotels and condos. I went to the carpinteria on a back street and asked to buy some wood. “No, no tenemos ninguno para vender; debe hablar con Martín en La Peñita.” He described the location of Martín’s Carpenteria y Maderaria (carpentry shop and lumber yard). I got the general area, but graphics always beat language for me.

“Tiene una mapa?” I asked. He drew me one on a scrap of wood. It was accurate to less than a half city block. What I saw there when I found Martín’s shop, the uninformed might consider a wood junkyard – they would have been oh so wrong.

I think that Martín the carpintero, has something, maybe a lot of things, to teach us post-modern corporatized professionals and entrepreneurial elitists in a world gone industrially mad. For now, I’ll just scratch the surface.

Despite my marginal Spanish conversation skills, Martín and I talked for over an hour as he showed me his dirt-floored shop, minimal machinery, and the wood he had stacked everywhere. We discussed wood and life at length.

I lusted for some exquisite 2-inch thick planks of Huanacaxtle more than two feet wide and maybe 15 feet long – absolutely beautiful. But I had no way to transport such a long

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My Huanacaxtle

piece – woodworker’s rule of thumb: never cut a piece of wood unless you need to for what you are making. So I looked for pieces I could fit into the bed of my pickup truck. I picked out a couple of boards that had exceptionally interesting grain patterns. They were a bit longer than my six-foot truck bed, but we were able to fit them in diagonally. I later packed all our stuff on top of those boards for the trip home to Santa Fe.

Martín has a passion for his work like I cannot remember seeing in anyone else. “Madera es mi vida!” he smiled. He had been to many cities in the U.S. earlier in his life, but for the past 50 years, he had been working with wood in his home town, making beautiful furniture, windows, doors, and cabinets from Huanacaxtle and other tropical woods. Martín has definitely “followed his bliss” in La Peñita. He will die one day a contented man. How many of us can say that?

I have a hunch that if we of the industrial-consumer culture had been able to find our bliss, and then follow it, we would not be in the disastrous position we find ourselves in today. Instead, we have followed the ideology of everlasting economic growth, personal acquisitiveness, and national empire building, all at the expense of our humanity. It was a great ride in some ways, for some, while it lasted – and a heavy burden for many more. But it is nearly over now, except for the kicking and screaming.

Now we must figure out how to unwind the industrial leviathan and live at human scale again. This time we have the advantage, if we take it, of immense technical and scientific knowledge. We can even use some of that knowledge to develop new ways to live in harmony with the natural world we may again recognize ourselves as part of. We must construct a new human culture, extending the benefits of the old ways, in order to reintegrate with the living Earth System that once sustained us. To get it right we need to learn from those who still understand the old ways. To achieve that would not be unlike Martín’s life, at least in some very important ways.

Liberal? Conservative? Really?

Most of us, it seems, define our political orientation as liberal or conservative, often with a “moderate” caveat. But what do we mean by that, really? I am afraid that these labels have taken a real beating in recent decades, with the result that they have lost most of their meaning, if not all.

Wither Liberalism?

Let’s start with “liberal.” For a good while now, the word “liberal” has taken on the aura of an almost dirty word.  Do you listen to talk radio or Fox News (which I prefer to call “Fixed News,” or “Fake News,” since it so heavily indulges not just in a particular political bias but also in falsehoods, innuendo, and ignoring facts, just like the president who follows it so closely)? There you will hear “liberal” used only scornfully. But, who are liberals, really?

proudliberalChris Hedges, in his 2010 book, Death of the Liberal Class, argues forcefully that the liberal class has abandoned its traditional political values, retaining only the name and rhetoric. The Democratic Party was once the bastion of liberal policies. However, through the latter half of the 20th Century, business interests controlled more and more of electoral politics as well as legislation itself.

Corporate interests and money-have long since taken control of the Democratic Party. Democratic politicians continued to spout liberal slogans. But they actually represented the corporate and investor classes as measured by most of their voting in both the House and Senate. Actual liberal citizens repeatedly came away frustrated by the party’s failure to implement liberal values touted in electoral campaigns. Thus, it is not surprising that while the views of a majority of Americans are generally liberal, the voting turnout in the U.S. is among the lowest of the industrialized nations.

Wither Conservatism?

So, similarly, what do we mean by the term, “conservative”? Well, here we have a different conundrum. “Conservative” has not taken on the negative connotations of “liberal.” However, the force of corporatized politics in the U.S. has similarly damaged it.

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Proud Conservative

Most of us have some conservative values and some liberal values as well. We value stability and responsibility in our fellow citizens and try to represent them in our own behavior. We don’t always succeed, but we try. The political buzzword, “law and order” has exploited our conservative character by instilling the fear that criminals and others of questionable repute threaten the stability and security of our lives.

You might think that the conservative and liberal labels reflect directions of political, economic, and social policy favored by citizens who identify with those labels. You might also think that politicians who identify themselves by those labels attempt to implement policies that reflect those values. But, you would be wrong. Labels are often cover stories used by politicians to justify their actions, which may have entirely other sources.

The politicians gain their campaign contributions and other largess from mostly corporate lobbyists. Of course, the lobbyists advocate for political interests that benefit from the policy choices they persuade (bribe) senators and representatives to make. And, where do liberal or conservative values fit into this picture? Well, they don’t, really.

Rise of the Corporate State

In an extremely important, though not widely known study, Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page found that over many years, legislation favored the interests of corporate and business groups that lobbied politicians. The expressed interests of ordinary citizens and citizen groups representing the public interest rarely found expression in legislation. Their report, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Perspectives on Politics 12:3 (September 2014):564-581, provides strong empirical evidence that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”

In this context, it is difficult to surmise that the conservative and liberal ideas have any role in politics other than as cover stories to curry the favor of voters who identify with those labels. They certainly do not predict more than superficially the voting behavior of most politicians who use them.

On the Road Again: Hasta La Vista, La Peñita

La Peñita, I shall return! Well, I would not equate myself with that eccentric WWII general, but I do plan to come back to La Peñita next winter – how could I not? To return to that vibrant little village by the sea has too many reasons to list – most of them too complicated to try to explain here. But I would do it in any case, if only to see Martín again.

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Downtown La Peñita

That reason is complicated too. What an interesting character. Martín is a carpintero (a carpenter/woodworker, builder of windows, doors, cabinets, and furniture of all kinds) in his small shop La Peñita. Some would consider him an anachronism or maybe an inefficient economic actor in a worldwide industrial system that has passed him by. When I met the old man – well, I’m not sure if he’s older or younger than I am – three years ago, I felt an immediate affinity. That little old man with rotting teeth, standing in his flip-flops on the dirt floor of his woodshop, just glowed with serenity. He seemed completely comfortable in his carpintería on a side street a few blocks from the center of town. Martín had worked in the U.S. for awhile many years ago, remembering only a few words in English. We talked about wood and the world for an hour, despite my broken Spanish.

Searching for Huanacaxtle

I had been looking for a source of Huanacaxtle, a tropical hardwood sort of like mahogany, but with beautiful complex grain patterns. It is found throughout Central America and goes by several different names. I had seen some beautiful tables and other furniture made of Huanacaxtle in a gallery in Mazatlán, when we stopped over there, near the end of our first road trip to La Peñita. The grain, color, and figure of this wood are amazingly varied, rich, and muy bonito. After seeing finished pieces in that gallery, I seriously wanted to buy some to take home and make something with it.

Martín is a rare find in this world today, even in Mexico. He’s been working with wood for over a half-century. I might not have found Martin had I not asked a rather unlikely source if he knew anyone in the area who cut or milled Huanacaxtle. Seff Ramirez runs a typical roadside fruit stand on the highway a few km north of La Peñita. He operates a rather nice nursery there too. The man knows how to use a machete. We had stopped to get some of those delicious mini-bananas that are so prolific in the area. I had decided to ask anyone I met if they knew of a carpintería where I could buy some Huanacaxtle.

The Road to Martín

I always try to speak Spanish in Mexico; too many Norte Americanos expect everyone to speak English. That seems presumptuous to me, despite the surprising number of expats and tourists living or traveling in throughout Mexico. Seff surprised me when he answered my question in California English. I asked about that; turns out my guess was right, he’d lived in California for many years. Anyway, when I asked about Huanacaxtle, he said he knew a guy in the local pueblo up the road aways who occasionally cut planks to make furniture for himself or his neighbors.

I asked Seff if he could contact the wood-cutter to see if he had some to sell. It was getting close to our time to depart La Peñita and drive north through the central highlands and deserts to cross the border at Juarez. I wanted to buy a few pieces that would fit in the bed of my pickup truck amid all the other stuff we took with us on a three-month trip through Mexico. I wanted to make something of that beautiful wood in my home woodshop. That did not work out at first. (More, in the next installment of the “On the Road Again” series.)

Not On the Road Again: Missing the Run to La Peñita

Having grown up in Southern California, the Pacific coast of Mexico has a familiar comfort for me – and it’s warm in the winter. You can actually get out in the surf in January in La Peñita, a small fishing village of about 20,000 people halfway between Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta. I spent the summer of my junior year at the University of California, Santa Barbara traveling throughout Mexico – by VW van or course. I lived with a family in Guadalajara for two months that summer. In those eight weeks, I learned far more Spanish than in all the classes I’d taken at the university. That is when I first could really speak Spanish. I’ve been re-learning it ever since.

Traveling can provide a perspective not otherwise easily obtained. Of course, if you go from one major hotel-chain location to another, or stay in one “all-inclusive” resort, it would be like stopping at a different Burger King joint in any city in the U.S. – the anti-quality of sameness.

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Overlooking La Peñita

That is one of the reasons we chose La Peñita. It is a real Mexican town, even though quite a few Canadians spend the Winter there. Another is that it’s a small fishing village. We had fresh garlic and herb Dorado that Cynde baked for dinner our second night there on our last trip – caught that morning, bought in the afternoon, cooked in the evening – not shipped from anywhere, not “previously frozen” at Whole Foods, not processed in any way other than being cleaned and filleted, once carried from the boat to the Tienda de Pescado. Mmmmm!

Sometimes, in the midst of life in the swirl of the growing dangers of the climate crisis and post-electoral madness of Trumplandia, a little change in perspective can do wonders, just like a fresh-caught fish dinner. The drive down through Juarez, Chihuahua, Torreón, and Durango, with a slight detour to Mazatlan, was itself an education, each time we’ve made it. So many welcoming and friendly people. Same urban dirt and dense traffic in these cities as you will find in any medium to large city in the world.

But I wonder whether the Mexican violence meme may be overstated. I must look up the comparative crime rates with, say, Albuquerque, which reputedly had the greatest rate of citizens killed by police in the U.S. one recent year, before the Justice Department put the ABQ police department in receivership. The non-stop evening news stories of shootings, drunk driving crashes, domestic violence, and drug arrests reflect a certain U.S. social disorder.

My best perspective on Mexico so far, I obtained by engaging with regular folks in the stores and streets of that little town, La Penita, getting the lay of the land and feeling the pace of life. I will miss the long weeks hanging out there this year; medical issues always seem to complicate life.

Power of Propaganda in the Face of Facts

On the first day of 2019, the Washington Post printed a story summarizing the numerous extreme signs of climate change in 2018. The list of extreme hurricanes, floods, wildfires, droughts and heat waves around the world of unprecedented intensity, impressed even the most cautious scientists.

Most climate scientists are unwilling to attribute a particular event directly to global warming. It is far too complicated for that. The heating of the atmosphere affects the entire climate system, so it influences patterns of weather everywhere rather than “causing” single events.

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Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ~ Public Domain

Nothing is Normal Now

But, so many weather events now fall so far outside the normal range of weather that no other factor can explain it. They have grown more intense and frequent as humans pour more carbon into the atmosphere. That is why scientists are now willing to conclude that the frequency and intensity of such extreme events are due to global warming. Scientists are a conservative lot; they resist making claims without overwhelming evidence to support their assertions.

That is both good and bad. In ascertaining the validity of a finding, scientists rightly find it important that the evidence is overwhelmingly strong. Climate science builds its findings on the entire history of the physical sciences. They apply basic physics and chemistry to the extreme changes in climate conditions and events that have emerged over the past several decades. Global heat retention due to industrial-consumer economies pumping ever more carbon into the atmosphere is the scientifically undisputed cause of those changes.

However, scientists have preferred, for the most part, just to report the facts and the projections of change into the future that they have concluded are justified by the evidence. They leave it up to the public and the politicians to develop policies to respond to the dangers inherent in the facts they report.

Power of Propaganda

Not only have climate scientists projections proved much more optimistic than later facts revealed, but the whole process is accelerating because of previously unaccounted for positive feedback loops. These include darker arctic seas absorbing more sunlight than the white sea-ice that has melted, and melting tundra releasing methane, to name just two.

Politician and citizen alike easily ignore extremely dangerous conditions projected into the distant future. Now, however, the most recent research reveals we have little more than a dozen years to reduce net carbon emissions to near zero to avoid catastrophic consequences for societies all over the world. The U.S. government’s most recent Climate Assessment Report concludes that the damage from extreme climate events will cost hundreds of billions of dollars in the near future.

At the beginning of this past October, a special report by the IPCC revealed very disturbing findings. At current rates of carbon emissions (which have not slowed), sea rise from melting polar ice caps and the giant Greenland glacier will inundate coastal cities worldwide. Droughts and poverty will intensify. The data from numerous studies projecting the catastrophic consequences of inaction just keep piling in.

Science and Political Action

However, as the decades pass, more and more scientists have come to recognize that propaganda has effectively countered the facts. The fossil-fuel industries and their lackeys in Congress, extremist talk-radio, and partisan cable “news” outlets continue to dominate the politics of global warming. The climate-denying president attempted to bury the U.S. Climate Assessment Report by releasing it the day after Thanksgiving, a “dead” news day when so many consumers were out shopping for bargains in the industrial-consumer economy that is the primary cause of global warming.

At some point soon, the overwhelming impact of devastating events will overcome the propaganda of politically motivated climate denial. The problem is that soon it may be too late to prevent some of the most catastrophic consequences for planet and people, which humanity could have avoided if policies based on the factual evidence of science had prevailed over counter-factual propaganda.

On the Road Again: the Run to La Peñita

I was never much of a winter person. I grew up in the Los Angeles area, a coastal desert of Mediterranean latitude that became an urban desert many generations ago. The big seasonal changes in LA were not really that big, but very consistent when I was growing up there. Lately, at least for the last couple of decades, climate destabilization seems to be pushing conditions to extremes of drought, fire, and flood.

No “New Normal,” just No Normal!

This year, huge fires caused havoc in Northern and Southern California. Just wait, some winter torrents just may wash away more Malibu hillside homes this year. In the past, we had the occasional forest fire and flood. But today the scale is unprecedented.

Typical LA seasons went from hot and smoggy September and October to rainy winter to spring and summer coastal fog. The high deserts of the Great Southwest, where I now live, are very different. Droughts have come and gone for centuries. So have heat waves.

But things have changed here too. The bark beetle extended its reproductive cycle with global warming and it has killed off most native piñon trees and now threaten the mountain Ponderosa forests. The Rio Grande barely keeps flowing as western states puzzle over water allotment agreements much greater than available water. There is no “new normal.” Normal is gone.

I’ve always like the desert. It has a certain stark beauty that changes seasonally much more than most people realize if they have not lived in a desert, especially a high desert. Of course, the urban desert doesn’t change much from season to season, even though the seasons grow increasingly erratic.

The high desert of Northern New Mexico experiences distinct seasonal changes. Yet its beauty remains as it is transformed each cycle. The monsoon rains of late summer turn the landscape quite green in the Santa Fe area if the monsoons do not fail us as they did last year. Winters are relatively dry, except for the snow, which varies considerably from year to year.

Several years of drought have resulted in part from such a small winter snow-pack that little water is available to store or recharge aquifers. In fact, most of the snow evaporates before it ever has a chance to melt into a runoff. This year looks better so far, but it still seems a struggle to reach “normal” snowpack.

The New Familiar

But after ten years away from Southern California, well, I miss the beach.

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Santa Fe is famous for its sunsets as well as art galleries and high-end restaurants, but the sunsets at La Peñita are serious contenders.

So, for the past few years, we head south for the coldest months of winter. After all, jubilación (retirement) allows a certain freedom of movement. Besides, a good laptop and

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Copper loves to run on the Beach and swim in the surf.

an adequate Internet connection will allow me to write and post my Mad Jubilado rants and also my climate and society posts here on TheHopefulRealist.com. And, I love to take my dog for a good run on a deserted beach.

The road trip from Santa Fe through Central Mexico to a little town, La Peñita, on the Pacific coast an hour’s drive north of Puerto Vallarta takes a few days. But it offers insight into the contrasts and parallels in how people in Mexico and the U.S. live in this era of unrecognized transformation. Each fall now, I look forward to experiencing the wonders, charm, and rough edges of Mexican culture, economy, and those warm sandy beaches over these three months or so of warm winter on the Pacific coast of Mexico. What will the contrast tell me about how we live in the U.S. Southwest? I’ll let you know in coming posts…

Tax the Markets!

Today, the world faces multiple interacting crises, most of which now approach catastrophic proportions. With every new research report on climate disruption, species extinction, ecological destruction, or various population, economic, or political disturbances, it becomes clear that many are at or approaching a tipping point toward chaos.

Political authorities remain unable even to formulate, no less take effective countermeasures. Idealistic if inadequate targets set for pleasant outcomes become meaningless gestures. Meanwhile, kleptocratic oligarchy grows stronger.

Economic pundits – who mostly follow the lead of the financial elites that profit from driving the endless-growth economy toward the brink of collapse – offer feverish pitches to “stay the course.” The super-rich force their lackeys in Congress to pass extreme tax cuts for themselves, which benefit the millionaire/billionaire senators too. The national debt soars as a result and it appears that “nothing can be done” to stave off national, no less global disaster.

stock market chartBut wait, there’s more, so much more. As the plutocrats drive the nation toward bankruptcy, chaos, and collapse, giant corporations remain awash in both cash, much held overseas, and cheap debt as they exploit low-interest rates to finance their operations and excessive executive pay.

At the same time, “Recent research suggests that “60%–90% of daily equity trading is now performed by algorithmic trading, up from 25% in 2004.” These trades skim profits from slight moves in equity pricing over nanoseconds. They drive market moves more than human trading while making their rich institutional executives even richer. Is that what a stock market is for? Well, yes, if you are a rich institutional trader.

Markets are Not Magic

All markets are social phenomena, the complex sum of many transactions. They emerge and develop in the interaction of humans who seek to gain from their trading. Well, that’s fine and dandy. Modern developments, however, make it clear that no “invisible hand” guides trading algorithms to produce the best of all possible financial worlds for all, or even for many.

The promoters of free markets have always insisted that they are necessary to achieve the best economic outcome for all in society. How has that been working out for you? Markets are, in fact, social creations, designed to serve the interests of their members, not the rest of us. Today, oligarchy is replacing democracy as wealth concentrates and drives politics.

Now, here is where we get in trouble with the devotees of Ayn Rand who run the country as well as the markets. Rand’s pseudo-philosophy of “objectivism” assumes that government has no legitimate role in serving the general welfare of the citizenry of the nation states. Well, I beg to differ. Members of the financial elite use the “market forces” they control to line their own pockets at our expense. It’s the biggest scam ever.

Governing in the Public Interest

A major role of government should be precisely to protect the public from the excesses of capital markets and the speculative extractive projects it finances around the world. The federal government is supposed to regulate elements of the economy as needed in the public interest. Absent such supervision, the consequences of the “creative destruction” of the most powerful institutions of the industrial era have now reached catastrophic proportion. The people must now act in our own defense.

Consider the fact that if Congress were to impose a transaction tax of just a few pennies on each trade on the financial markets, the effect on profits would be negligible. Yet, due to the volume of transactions, a seriously large stream of revenue would flow to the U.S. Treasury. So, yes, we can afford to take definitive action to mitigate climate catastrophe, achieve social, economic, and climate justice, and, well, maybe even survive as a species. That will happen only when the U.S. federal government breaks free of its plutocratic overlords and begins to serve the Public Interest.