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.

It Takes a Child to Challenge Deniers of Climate Chaos

Once again, the world’s “leaders” have met and accomplished next to nothing to mitigate the most extreme existential crisis humanity has ever faced. It takes a child…

Greta.Thunberg shames COP24

Greta Thunberg shames world “leaders” at COP24.

Here is the transcript of a stunning speech the other day near the end of the COP24 climate meetings in Katowice, Poland, condemning global inaction in the face of catastrophic climate change. A young girl from Sweden has every right to shame the “world leaders” who dance on the grave of old coal mines in Katowice, Poland, while the planet burns. Indeed, she took it as her personable responsibility to call out the moral failures of her elders. Her words are even more powerful when you listen to them on the video, which is available here.

GRETA THUNBERG: “You Are Stealing Our Future”

“My name is Greta Thunberg. I am 15 years old, and I’m from Sweden. I speak on behalf of Climate Justice Now!

Many people say that Sweden is just a small country, and it doesn’t matter what we do. But I’ve learned that you are never too small to make a difference. And if a few children can get headlines all over the world just by not going to school, then imagine what we could all do together if we really wanted to.

But to do that, we have to speak clearly, no matter how uncomfortable that may be. You only speak of green eternal economic growth because you are too scared of being unpopular. You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess, even when the only sensible thing to do is pull the emergency brake. You are not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden you leave to us children.

But I don’t care about being popular. I care about climate justice and the living planet. Our civilization is being sacrificed for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue making enormous amounts of money. Our biosphere is being sacrificed so that rich people in countries like mine can live in luxury. It is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few.

The year 2078, I will celebrate my 75th birthday. If I have children, maybe they will spend that day with me. Maybe they will ask me about you. Maybe they will ask why you didn’t do anything while there still was time to act. You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes.

Until you start focusing on what needs to be done, rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope. We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis. We need to keep the fossil fuels in the ground, and we need to focus on equity. And if solutions within the system are so impossible to find, then maybe we should change the system itself.

We have not come here to beg world leaders to care. You have ignored us in the past, and you will ignore us again. We have run out of excuses, and we are running out of time. We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not. The real power belongs to the people. Thank you.”

Fascist Reality Show: It’s Real

Two years after the 2016 presidential election, the Fascist Reality Show now emanating from the White House is very real. Yet, too many “liberals” and moderate Americans are complacent, if bemused. Most Americans see it in one of two ways. First, the “moderate” liberals especially enjoy scoffing with Rachael Maddow at the absurd and bombastic lying about almost everything, and the gross display of ignorance and incompetence. Others, some of whom even voted for the narcissistic sociopath (who I have called “the empty clown suit”) have reached a level of disgust that they have turned off politics entirely.

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Michael Moore saw it coming.

Michael Moore had predicted the Trump win because he understands the plight of the American worker and his anger. Moore recognized that many Americans desperately needed to express their frustration with the two-party monopoly exploiting them from the nation’s capital. So, they threw a political “Molotov cocktail” at the electoral process that represented the corrupt system that failed to represent them. Once the Dem’s took out Bernie, they voted for the only remaining candidate who claimed to be an outsider.

Electoral Breakdown

However, Trump’s status as an outsider was one-dimensional as well as an economic lie. The New York financial elite from whom he had desperately sought acceptance for decades despised him. The Republican Party elite did not take him seriously until the primary voters changed their minds. The Democratic Party corporatist insiders cut off the only progressive populist challenger from outside of their establishment-controlled nomination process. So, populist tendencies turned to the only remaining claimant to the hopes of the ignored white working former middle class.

Many who would have voted for Bernie, instead chose the man who, back in the 1980s, investigative reporter David Kay Johnson had called the modern-day P.T. Barnum. But Trump’s demagoguery expertly played upon a sore spot in the psyche of racists, white nationalists, and outright neo-Nazis across America. He consciously ignited a spark of legitimacy for scapegoating and bigotry to build his base and win the primary election.

Then the maximal leader of the resentful and hate filled economic outsiders upped the ante. He recognized the growing population of former middle-class white males “and the women who loved them.” He callously exploited their growing resentment of lost aspirations and that of the much younger crowd who had already lost any hope of ever reaching the economic security their parents once had.

Trump incited violence in those who attended his rallies. He encouraged the racism and resentment against minorities and immigrants beginning to explode among formerly fringe groups of violent right-wing alienated youth in America. It is its striking and should be terrifying to see the parallel to similar risings of bullyboys in Europe.

Recognizing Fascism in the Making

The exact same forces of fear, resentment, and hatred fomented by Hitler and Mussolini in the 1930s are at work and growing in the U.S. and Europe today. These are the leading indicators of growing instability of the mass society of alienated individuals that the corporate growth economy has created and failed to support in its relentless quest for the profits of expansion. Timothy Snyder in his small but powerful book, Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, offers a guide for citizen action to restore our democracy.
All the warning signs are all there.

Yes, it can happen here. The Fascist Reality Show is real. We must take up the fight for democracy, or we will lose it.

Communication, Contagion, and Conspiracy

Social contagion is an age-old process of collective behavior. It has been studied by sociologists in the U.S. for decades. In the economic sphere, stock market bubbles that end in a furious crash that reflects the contagion of panic. Economists cite the infamous

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A tulip, known as “the Viceroy,” 1637

collapse of the “Tulip Mania” in Holland in 1637 as the classic example of stock-market contagion gone suddenly reversed. The U.S. financial crash of 2008-9 had elements of contagion, but calculated actions by financial elites artificially drove the market in mortgage derivatives to collapse.

The New Contagion

Today, socio-political contagion has achieved new heights of both intensity and extension through social media. When life is relatively stable, most people behave in routine and mostly traditional ways. They find comfort in the predictability of everyday life supported by a regular paycheck, manageable debt, and hope for a better future. Only when things get dicey do conspiracy theories proliferate and extreme political movements grow contagious and threaten the established order.

Of course, we can always find social outliers in society. Dreamers, artists, and explorers of the unknown chafe at the constraints of social habit. They are restless seekers of new ideas, new images, new frontiers, and vindication for their fertile imaginations. Most of us live in a world where our habitual behaviors are far more important to us than any deviation from social norms. However, that is rapidly changing. As “normalcy” disintegrates and economic and social stability dissipates, fear of the other rises, resentments follow growing instability, and many more people become subject to manipulation by political demagogues.

Conspiracy of Concordance

Today’s socio-political contagion does not result from the imagination of dreamers. Instead, it results from increasingly unstable conditions of life in the last stages of the industrial era. Most people in the industrialized societies of Europe and North America know in their guts that things are not exactly as claimed by the economic culture or dominant institutions. Opportunists such as Steve Bannon quickly exploit the chance to use fear and resentment to their advantage.

The rise to power by neo-fascists, white nationalists, and outright political scam artists rides on the hatred they can generate toward the scapegoats they blame for the conditions brought on by extractive capital and its agents. The societal failures of an industrial system designed to concentrate wealth and power by exploiting land, air, water, and people provide the grist for their mill of hatred. The real conspiracy is between these political opportunists and the super-rich who bankroll them, not among refugees or racial minorities. The political elite rewards their benefactors by tax cuts for the ultra-wealthy and de-regulation for their corporations, then find scapegoats to blame for the painful consequences.

Science and Sanity

The evidence of increasing instability mounts, as the average citizen’s ability to make a living and avoid danger, grows ever more difficult. The evidence of reaching the limits of

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High water coming to Miami soon.

plundering Nature becomes more obvious as the health effects of polluted air, water, and land reach new heights. More frequent and more intense extreme weather events penetrate our emotional shields even as many cognitively deny their human causality. Active suppression of scientific findings by the Trumpists and their financial backers attempts to hide the solid evidence of growing planetary danger. The absurdity of “climate denial” grows with each new report of accelerating glacier melt, drought, superstorms, and species extinction.

It really does not matter whether we prefer to attribute “conspiracy” to the forces of extractive capital, political demagoguery and the culture of hate. These forces need not meet in a smoke-filled room to plot strategy and coordinate their behavior. Their cultural beliefs and economic interests result in coordinated action to gain more and more power.

It is up to the rest of us to find ways to turn our lives away from the destruction they foment and shape a world in which we can live. Little time remains to resist hatred, restore ecosystems, and re-establish our resilience. We must combine human civility with scientific rigor to take the drastic steps needed to dampen the chaos that grows daily.

Aesthetics Abandoned

One of the many drawbacks of living in the intermediated world of industrial consumerism is that we have pretty much abandoned aesthetics. Form and function are mostly industrial products too. Marketing psychology drives them, like almost everything else.

Diverse commercial and political interests present a pre-formed world to us on the flat digital screens of our many “devices,” from smartphones to laptops. Most of the time some “middleman,” either an institution or a technology, mediates between the person and her/his perception of the world and action toward it. The various institutional purveyors of images and text mediate (shape and frame) these forms to fit their needs by selling us some product or promoting some idea, project, or political strategy.

Alienated Beauty

“Beauty” is presented to “the eye of the beholder” pre-defined by an intermediary, or it may be lost entirely in the forms of intermediated function. We see little that is directly in front of us in its natural form. More and more control is no longer direct. Beauty is subordinated to control.

I have recently become much more aware of the importance of the fact that we live in an intermediated world. The sense that so-called “self-driving” cars fit in some inevitable path of progress is an iconic cultural indicator of the dominance of intermediation and the subordination of aesthetics to system control. The implications are many and in some cases profound, sometimes even deadly. Here is one example.

Increasingly Intermediated Aviation

In aviation, pilots now benefit from a plethora of real-time digital information and images on “Primary Flight Displays” (flat-panel screens) in the cockpit, including navigational data and even moving maps with three-dimensional terrain depiction. Pilots enter flight plans into a GPS (Global Positioning System), which links them to map data and current weather data regularly updated and depicted on a screen during the flight. The screen displays the current position and actual track of the aircraft over land including any deviation from the flight plan, in real time. These displays do have a certain aesthetic appeal.

Airliner above clowdsThe GPS transmits both flight-plan and current position data to the autopilot, which signals servos that control ailerons, rudder, and elevators, thereby directing the aircraft along the designated route. The pilot is reduced to a technician who programs the automated systems that actually fly the aircraft on a flight path determined mostly by the airline and the FAA.

That is the epitome of intermediation. The airline pilot is left with little to do but manage and monitor the system that flies the airplane. He does make judgments and may request from Air Traffic Control a deviation in altitude or direction to avoid thunderstorms or turbulence. Both the system-generated situational data and the flight systems intermediate between data, the actor, and the action.

Such complex systems diminish human control and the beauty of flying. No wonder so many airline pilots own old-fashioned biplanes or small experimental aircraft they fly when off duty. They miss the direct experience of flying lost in their professional work.  stearman-640x300Flying a Stearman PT-17/N2S Biplane is a Direct Experience

The complexity and power of intricate automated systems really are quite amazing. However, the separation of human action from direct experience has its downside. In the case of flying, airline pilots who often have the latest complex automated systems in their airliners can get “rusty” in the hands-on skills of directly flying the aircraft.

The problem arises when some system falters, whether due to mechanical or electronic failure or due to extreme weather. Over-reliance on automated systems in some instances has caused pilots to misread direct signs of an emergency, causing fatal crashes. Similar downsides occur in countless other areas of modern life.

Aesthetics is Experience

What about aesthetics in all this? Well, it is all about direct perception. The image is not the thing itself. The map is not the land. Maps, of course, provide guides to navigating the land, but the distinction is important. We can appreciate the beauty of the product of a fine cartographer.

We can even build some beauty into maps generated by Geographic Information Systems (GIS) using “big data.” We can even revel in the beauty and technical prowess of an automotive moving map display depicting our travel on unfamiliar roads as it leads us on the quickest route to our destination in unknown territory.

I have not nearly as much fun with the GPS in my pickup truck as I do with the one in my little airplane. In aircraft, most GPS units are far more complex, powerful, and expensive than those assisting automotive navigation. But the primary aesthetic experience, to the extent that there is one, is in the actual travel itself. Driving through a redwood forest in Northern California or flying over Monument Valley in Utah provides a direct experience of natural beauty. So does flying among puffy white clouds after a storm. Most pilots fly because they love the aesthetic experience.

However, our overreliance on technologies and institutions that mediate the relations between us and our world can cause us to crash, either literally or figuratively. We do have a tendency to see the map as the terrain itself. It is, after all, a substitute for looking out the window.

Too many people too often rely on biased interpretations of life presented to them by powerful institutions through technologies of so-called smart devices. They uncritically accept the intermediation of their life experiences through imagery specifically designed to manipulate their behavior, either for marketing or for political purposes. Perception and aesthetic interpretation increasingly alienate us from direct experience of life itself.

Losing Aesthetic Experience

Navigational equipment is just one of many examples of the intermediation of human action by powerful technology. Many other examples reflect similar conditions and outcomes, at least as many driven by institutional dynamics as by technology itself. In most cases, the technology or institution provides some useful function while diminishing our control.

So, don’t get me wrong; I’m not giving up my GPS. Some complex actions are not possible without intermediation. Yet, intermediation is a game changer in the evolution of human action and in the ability of humanity to mitigate or adapt to the planetary changes that the growth of intermediation has caused. We live in a system of our own making that largely controls us and is fast destroying the world on which we depend.

The same processes increasingly occur within complex institutions, whether corporations to government agencies. In more and more areas of human interaction, goals and actions are increasingly intermediated by complex procedures, paperwork, “red tape,” technical requirements, and bureaucratic obstacles, than ever before. The resulting loss of human control over action and events suppresses aesthetics as it destroys the world on which it depends.