Escape from L.A.


I’m returning this week from a 4 month sojourn in Mexico to the oldest city in the United States, Santa Fe, the capital of the  North American part of the Spanish empire over 400 years ago. Shortly thereafter, I will make another quick visit to the Ultimate City – LA. I go there a couple of times a year for my oncology checkup. This trip I’ll combine with some pro bono consulting for Children of the Night, which rescues children from pimps and drug pushers on the streets of cities across the nation.

I’ve supported Children of the Night’s work since Lois Lee started it nearly 40 years ago when she was my student. My how time flies ever faster the older you get. So, I’ll be reviewing with Lois the big changes she is making with the program as facts on the street change ( a complex story involving smart phones, gang violence, and some misguided policies of the FBI). We will also do an analysis of all the data on kids and the program since it began. We will review progress on the project for reports and proposals to the private foundations that help fund the programs. Children of the Night is in some important ways a child of the Ultimate City.

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Downtown Los Angeles

I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with L.A. – I’m referring to the entire metropolis, not just the much smaller central City of Los Angeles – founded in 1781 as “El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río de Porciúncula.” In 1821 it became part of México when “New Spain” gained independence from the Spanish Empire, until the Americans took control from the “Californios” in 1847. There is nothing like a discovery of gold to motivate conquest. So, who are the “illegal immigrants,” anyway? Certainly not the native Chumash, who mostly died off under colonial rule and the oppression of empire. History is ever rewritten. But I digress.

I grew up in the L.A. metro area and later worked there for decades. So I know well many of the short cuts a modern native uses to drive from one sprawling suburban cluster to another without spending hours parked on the San Diego Freeway – the I-405. The drive in a shuttle returning to LAX from the San Fernando Valley gave me pause to reflect on “urban development” – remember “China Town” with Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway? A classic of intrigue in regional empire building – I sat back and checked my email, occasionally glancing out at an old familiar setting. It was an uneventful 45 minutes in the early afternoon. You don’t get the same feeling of massive urban sprawl in a car as you do when flying over it all.

Contrary to news reports following the recent severe draught, there are still some green lawns in the suburbs – more behind the gates of the “McMansions” of Encino than in the flatlands of Inglewood or Van Nuys. However, it is hard to not call it all the City of Denial, as everyone seems to go about their business as if they had not experienced the greatest drought of California’s history. So many still treat each piece of evidence of the catastrophic changes wrought by global warming as an incident, never a trend. Under it all, the Los Angeles basin remains the coastal desert it always was. But I’m not sure most “Angelinos” realize that.

After my last visit to Children of the Night, I had to catch an early flight out of LAX. The driver took a circuitous route through the residential streets of the Encino hills to transition over the I-405 on Mulholland Drive, then back over to an onramp to beat most of the traffic heading south over the hill to Westwood and Century City, LAX, and the South Bay beyond. We were in a long line of commuters taking the same short cut. I was surprised at how early we arrived at LAX. But I wondered: why are all the car-service drivers in the Valley Russian immigrants?

Dystopia, Utopia, or Drift?

Looking forward into the future is no easy task. It is hard to decide what to believe will happen next, and nearly impossible to predict a few years or decades down the line. So many variables, so many viewpoints, so many things are just not the same as we had expected them to turn out today. Now, the unexpected has become the rule, and a lot of us do not like the profound discomfort that causes. So, how can we look beyond today’s surprises and expect to see what is coming soon, much less later.

Of course, we live in a culture whose faith in “progress” is both deep and profoundly flawed. Maybe we just have an embedded optimism gene, but I think not. We do have a history of amazing good fortune, at least for some, and a trajectory of economic growth that seems unbounded. But it does seem to be reaching its limits. The die-hards still project their faith in technology and “free markets” to pull any rabbit out of the hat if the need arises. I used to see no end to the potential for new technology in every realm, but no more.

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Utopia may be more distant than we think.

Technology, after all, is a highly political matter. It is not just what’s possible, and that is not just anything we want. It is also about what someone pays for. Utopian dreams have become ever more expensive to realize, because there are limits.

For a while at the end of the twentieth century, the study of the future became quite popular. So called “Futurists” forecasted all manner of good things and a few possible trouble spots down the line and into the twenty first century – that would be now. We do not seem to hear so much from futurists these days. Or am I just not listening anymore?

As it turns out, although nobody knows for sure, everyone has an opinion about the future. Yet so many feel no need to base their opinions on facts or trends observed. In fact, most of the time opinions are not fact-based. Facts are what people selectively use to bolster their opinions, ignoring any facts that happen not to be consistent with closely held beliefs. Psychologists call that syndrome “confirmation bias.”

As things have developed in recent years, I have paid more and more attention to how confirmation bias interferes with rational thought and distorts public policy. Politicians face increasingly complex international, ecological, economic, climate, social, and just about every other kind of problem imaginable. Yet, they miserably fail to address these critical issues because they completely fail to “get it” and act in the public interest. But there is much more to it than confirmation bias, which is, for politicians at least, a convenient vehicle to carry them to the deepest levels of corruption.

If facts do not favor a political cynic’s position, well, they can just trot out “alternative facts,” conjured solely from the politics of the moment. Why? Because, they base their decisions not on rational analysis of the situation in context of the public interest, but on personal self interest in gaining wealth and power for themselves. (Now, that is a rather blanket statement about politicians and it is not true of many politicians, just the majority.)

Sarah Chayes has written a book called Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security. It focuses mostly on what she discovered from many years of direct experience in working with citizens in nations such as Afghanistan, and as a defense official trying to get the higher ups to see the futility of both military and diplomatic efforts that produced both corruption and terrorism out of the impossible positions such policies put people in.

I think Chayes’ work is highly applicable to the situation within the United States of America as well. Her on-the-ground work shows clearly how shortsighted officials corrupt social and political systems. Such highfliers focus more on their political careers than on the realities their work ought to address.

The result is denial, corruption, and failure to achieve the progress that U.S. mainstream economics and politics always claims but increasingly rarely achieves. As the last vestiges of democracy fall to the Corporate State, drift becomes Dystopia.

Over the Ultimate City: To Live or Die in L.A.

It is always unnerving yet comfortably familiar to fly into LAX. I will need to do so again in a month or so. The vast urban landscape from Palm Springs westward to the Pacific shore is amazing to behold, if you really look at it. For about 125 miles, the mostly low-lying “built environment” stretches the entire way. It takes 2 or 3 hours…or more… to drive via the freeways, “depending on traffic.” Asphalt and concrete everywhere separates apartment complexes, commercial buildings, strip malls, mega-shopping centers, suburban neighborhoods, and elite “gated communities.” It has been over six months since my last visit. Still, it is never any less strange and prosaic despite my having lived and worked there for nearly four decades — until I retired over a dozen yeas ago.

Last time I had a window seat aft of the wings. I can never resist watching the mega-city go by below. But I’ve seen it all many times, both as an airline passenger and as a private pilot. I learned to fly in 1976 over this same urban desert. The complexity even back then sure gave me a sense of the importance of the instructor’s official admonition to “stay well clear” of any nearby aircraft. It also instilled an appreciation of the complexity of the air traffic control system as a blend of highly skilled living beings interacting with sphisticated information technology that is always in need of an upgrade.

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LA Terminal Area Chart – LAX at west shoreline.

Whether as pilot or passenger, I experience both the air traffic control system and city below it as marvels of human ingenuity and collective coordination. Yet they seem ever more vulnerable to chaos and ultimate collapse. Sometimes around dusk, I used to fly my little Piper PA-161 from Compton Airport out to the north east below the LAX final approach path under visual flight rules, then west along the Santa Monica Freeway, passing downtown LA to my north, heading toward the Santa Monica shoreline.

That way I could take the coastal route north saving time by not having to file an instrument flight plan. It was quicker that way when controllers were so busy with “rush hour” airline and business-jet traffic and hardly had time to issue another clearance. The city lights of downtown LA, the sunset, the many other aircraft in all quadrants with their nav. lights and landing lights so easy to see threading their way through the geometrically parsed airspace as daylight receded were all so beautiful, yet so delicately tentative and dangerous.

On disembarking into the LAX terminal on my last trip, I faced a mass of humanity flowing haphazardly in all directions in the very large multi-gate concourse. A virtual sea of diversity was lining up at a Southwest gate to board the next flight. I had a sudden sense of the quantitatively unimaginable scale of worldwide over-population rarely mentioned among environmentalists or politicians these days as the consumption of resources and energy by the people of the industrial nations reaches truly crisis scale.

Even as Los Angeles still works, more or less, it is difficult to imagine how such intensity can continue much longer as so much fossil-fuel energy and so many resources reach their extractive tipping points. LA, with its 13.1 million people in the metro area, seems the epitome of the extent to which humanity can appear to overcome nature, then approach a dead end. Big changes lie ahead. Meanwhile, can we learn anything about our future from this glorious megalopolis that may soon die of thirst?