Writing Your Mind while Living in the World

One of the things I’ve done more of since ‘retiring’ is to write. Of course, I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. But I guess I never really wrote “for myself” before, not much anyway.  Most of my writing as a professor involved community research reports, course syllabi, and caustic memoranda to recalcitrant and imperious administrators – deans, provosts, et al. – along with some papers presented at professional meetings, and the occasional book review.

I didn’t much play the “publish or perish” game beyond what was necessary to get tenure. I figured the purpose of tenure was to be able to talk back to megalomaniacal executives and still keep your job. Eventually, I became (in)famous on campus for my caustic memos. It was fun and sometimes quite effective.

Writing for What?

For thirty-five years, I taught mostly adult undergraduate and graduate students many of whom also worked full time, on the most ethnically diverse campus in the nation. All the while, I was writing books in my head, not necessarily on the topics I was teaching. It is not that the so-called “teaching load” kept me from writing those books outside my head. But the teaching component of my professorship had an open-ended supply of matters to deal with.

If I were indifferent to the plight of poorly prepared students struggling to succeed in college, it would have been easy to take the time to write more. However, if you take teaching seriously, there is no limit to the time you can put into it. To teach working adult university students who come from some of the “most dangerous neighborhoods in the nation” – Compton, Watts, and South Central L.A – was a challenge in itself. The Los Angeles Unified School District did not exactly prepare well the people who became our students, for university level performance.

At the same time, many students’ main goal was to “get that piece of paper” so they could get a promotion or a better job. Critical thinking, computer literacy, writing well, and sociological theory or research, were not at the forefront of their minds. Nevertheless, many had high ambitions and were quite smart. The tragedy was that they had been dealt a bad hand by their primary and secondary “education” institutions. The skills of many fell way below their intellectual talents. I found that quite upsetting and worked long hours with those who understood the depth of their own “remedial” needs. Some, of course, had both the intellect, skills and motivation, like Derrick, Darby, and a few others who have now gone on to complete their PhDs at major universities.

Writing My Mind

I’ve almost completed one of those long-deferred books now. “At the Edge of Illusion,” I call it. The subtitle is “Preparing for the New Great Transformation,” since it addresses the multiple converging crises of economic instability, ecological degradation, and climate chaos humanity now faces and so many deny. These converging crises are forcing the living Earth systems we live in to destabilize. The world has begun to go through a great new transformation as a result, yet humans have hardly noticed. We are wildly unprepared. To deal with it we are going to have to transform our relations with the planet and each other in ways not previously imagined.

Actually, I began working on preliminary essays leading to the book by writing some free flowing essays on related topics in this blog, TheHopefulRealist.com as they came to mind over the past few years. I also enjoyed writing some of the “Learn More” articles and a blog called “Diary of a Mad Jubilado,” for A Parallel World, and exiting new site that provided information to environmentally conscious consumers on local sources for low carbon-impact products. Unfortunately, that site was taken down by unknown bots and trolls; after all, it threatened the progress of the fossil-fueled industrial—consumer leviathan.

A book I initially called The Social Illusion has been in my head, in ever-changing form, for a long time. Today, almost ready to submit to publishers, it is quite different though, because the world is so very different. After ten years of research for the book, my view of things has changed a lot too.

At the Edge of Illusion

The trajectory of humanity has reached a crossroads. Humans are now confronted with the absolute necessity to take massive collective action to halt and reverse the damage we have caused “in our own nest.” If we do not take such action to stabilize the complex living Earth systems we have so long ignored except to exploit them, we are likely to become involuntary participants in the “sixth great extinction” now underway.

Unfortunately, a vast complex array of social illusions prevents or delays the most important actions needed to allow the survival of humans on the only planet we have. It becomes increasingly paramount to write one’s mind about the world we live in and the social and ecological illusions we retain at our peril.

In the coming months I will post some excerpts from At the Edge of Illusion on this site, and report progress on its publication and related events.


The Heart of the Matter: It’s More than Your Doctor May Know

~ ~ ~ Another in the Mad Jubilado series ~ ~ ~

I keep finding myself in conversations of health and illness, as I grow older. The Mad Jubilado experiences by the very course of nature and time more health related situations and conversations than in previous stages of life. In such conversations I have noticed a certain irrationality in searches for “the solution,” where no simple (and also effective) answer can usually be found.

Along with simplicity, too many “patients” rely blindly on the “authority” of various assertions by their doctors. It is so much more comforting to find a simple solution provided by an authority figure, requiring little thought and a one-step implementation, than to pursue diverse sources of information from scientific research.

The denial of complexity is similar to denying that there is a problem. Some folks about as old as this Mad Jubilado would like to live in an age like the ideal pastoral existence they think they remember from childhood. Some things always were more complicated than we remember; many others have become even more so.

Some folks, on the other hand, revert to the no-solution solution. I remember too many conversations about which I do not remember anything else but that they contained a certain attitude of fatalism in the guise of scientific skepticism. This seems to happen less often now since most folks seem to have at least some grasp of how certain things damage people and other living things. Such conversations go something like this:

Mr. A – “Did you hear about the medical studies that show that people who eat X have a 42% greater chance of contracting colon cancer than those who don’t?”

Mr. B – “Oh, well, it seems that every day they claim that something else we eat is going to give us cancer. What are we supposed to do, stop eating? Have they really proved it? I know lots of people, for example, who smoke and don’t have cancer. It’s ridiculous; I’m not going to worry about it. We can’t control everything.”

Defeatism, Denial, and Delusion in the face of complexity: None of these is particularly useful. We do live under historically unique conditions. So many materials and chemical compounds now impinge on our lives every day that were never present in the natural environment before industrial civilization.

We have a sense that so many things just could not all be bad for us. At the same time, those who profit from our ignorance try to convince us that the pollutant their industry emits and we are concerned about is really harmless. Don’t forget, the fossil-fuel companies hired the same public relations company to promote climate-change denial that worked for the tobacco companies to convince folks that cigarettes were safe.

We live in a single-cause-of-evil culture. We want to identify the bad guy and have the Lone Ranger come and take him out. Otherwise, things should just be rosy. Just look at foreign policy; well never mind, that’s another very long story… Fact is, life can be and often is, complicated.

And so it is with our health and its relationship with the medical industry as well as the many industries that pollute our air, water, and land. One small part of the denial of the overwhelming evidence of growing climate chaos is the denial of complexity, even to the extent of imagining vast (necessarily complex) conspiracies by climate scientists all over the world to construct stories of complexity in what deniers insist is a simple world.

Recently, by not believing the standard, simple, one-culprit story of arterial plaque that dominates the thinking and practice of cardiology, I was able to dodge what I call a “standard of care” bullet. What might have induced panic about a “life threatening” condition, was resolved by turning to more data on a variety of factors and a scientific analysis of the complexities of biochemistry.

My plaque score was off the charts. Yet I passed the stress test with flying colors, demonstrating by the performance and by imaging that I had no arterial blockages. Yet the cardiologist insisted that I was in grave danger and urging that I take high doses of a new statin drug. I investigated the facts of plaque beyond the ideology of the high-end cardiologist. I consulted with a lipidologist and learned about the complexities of blood lipids and plaque, apparently beyond what the most cardiologists know.

I discovered that a high score on a narrow measure of arterial plaque was not the final word on the matter. Old plaque is essentially scar tissue, yet retains the calcium that was in the original plaque. So it results in a high score. Scar tissue does not flake off like new plaque in the artery.

Facing complexity and seeking to understand it led to a better more complete understanding of risk management and a better approach to maintaining heart health. The heart of the matter reached beyond the standard of care typical of the practice of cardiology. The same prinicple applies to many areas of risk in our complex world.

Why Trump Does Not Matter, and Why He Does

It is so easy to ridicule a buffoon. I have done so more than once in various blog posts on this site. I referred to Trump as an empty clown suit because of the vacuous nature of his essentially false and tragically comic-book persona. He could easily pass for Batman’s “The Joker.”


The Joker in Chief

But really, isn’t the focus on the peculiar personalities of politicians a large part of what is wrong with American politics? We tend to focus on personality and image rather than issues. The Republicans are better at that, using as they do, core patriotic imagery and buzzwords to frame their position in debates and win support for their corrupt exploitation of the commonwealth.

In that regard, the Democrats always seem to be tag-along copycats. The analytics and lofty yet detached liberal rhetoric is to most voters just boring and hollow. The allegiance of the Democratic ‘leadership’ to corporate and financial elites is clear despite being not quite as strong as that of the Republicans. Their lofty ideas rarely lead to action.

Then, along came Bernie with his old-style New Deal social-democrat ideals and specific proposals that suddenly caught the imagination of old and young alike. It was clear that Bernie simply is what he is. Not perfect, but real, the unabashed ethical Grandpa, corny humor, caring and all. Well, that certainly clashed with the goals of the DNC and the corporate Democrats who run the party.

From Russia with (Laundered) Cash

Of course, Trump, the false outsider, a caricature of McScrooge, is nothing if not unreal. I could go on indefinitely about that. Many have. But to what end? Does it matter that Trump is the epitome of the politics of dishonesty and a hollow persona of personal greed, reflecting a deep narcissism and sociopathy? Do the fact-checking counts of the endless lies and distortions really matter? Well, yes and no.

On the one hand, Trump really is a buffoon open to endless ridicule for his complete lack of presidential demeanor and his gross life-long personal corruption. On the other hand, however disgusting or embarrassing, that is not the deeper problem he represents. That problem runs even deeper than his possibly traitorous but certainly corrupt dealings with Russian oligarchs so close to the Kremlin.

Internationally, he is clearly an embarrassment to our nation. Domestically, he could not act with much less civility or inspire much more racist, neo-fascist, or misogynist reaction to the world as it is. The damage he sows to national unity is real.

However, the press obsession with whether and to what extent his climate denial is real or just posturing for his “alt-right” violence-prone base, like his other disgraceful behaviors, diverts media attention from the real and growing crises we cannot avoid no matter who resides in the oval office. It is his appointments of barbaric executioners to kill all protectors of the public interest in health, safety, and security for the people, who cause the deeper destruction and pose the greatest danger to the nation and the world.

The Nation Is as Trumpery Does

The rise of Trumpery is, in fact, the extreme expression of the underlying problem of a nation’s elite destabilizing the society it dominates, along with most ecosystems and the global climate, in order to gain even more power in the short term. It is not only a matter of Trump’s dance with the devil. Trumpery is a death-dance to which we are all invited.

We will soon reach the tipping point leading to unstoppable climate chaos, ecosystems collapse, and global financial bedlam. Are you worried about population growth? No need to. Under rapidly deteriorating global conditions, population decline is inevitable and will not be pretty.

The processes of destabilization and destruction were well in place before the political rise of Trumpery, which continues to accelerate the rush to societal as well as ecological and climate collapse. We desperately needed a great turnaround. We got just the opposite. What matters about Trump is that he may have prolonged and accelerated the downward slide of the nation and planet into such deep chaos that the living Earth systems upon which humanity depends will disintegrate beyond hope.

Hidden Costs Constrain the Benefits of Transitioning to Renewable Energy

It seems that little effort to understand fully the costs and benefits of the transition from fossil fuel to PV energy production has accompanied the rush to install utility scale solar and wind farms. However, it is very important to examine the environmental costs of achieving the environmental benefits of low carbon emissions energy production, especially at industrial scale. Moreover, that transition must involve so far largely ignored major societal transformations if humanity is actually to achieve the goals of zero carbon emissions, ecological restoration, and climate stabilization.


Paris Agreement Celebration

Given the accelerating trajectory of ecosystems collapse and climate destabilization well underway, achieving those goals is simply imperative. Yet, despite the importance of the technical, economic, and social complexities inherent in such a comprehensive transition to “sustainability,” utilities, governments, and corporations pursue the quest mostly in a business-as-usual format.The COP-21 Paris Climate Agreements, so difficult to implement, nevertheless fall short of needed international action.

Even before reading Ozzie Zehner’s book, Green Illusions, I worried about the carbon costs of the production of renewables. Zehner raised many questions but did not provide the kind of data-driven findings we need to optimize renewables deployment, though he rightly asserted the primacy of the problem of overconsumption.

Optimization Imperative

Importantly, the choices are difficult and the optimal solutions very hard to achieve.  In several ways, international trade is an important culprit. Not only does it add immensely to carbon costs; it also amplifies the waste resulting from not keeping manufacturing domestic in all PV markets. Corporate financial optimization conflicts with ecological and climate imperatives.

Clearly, we need an international agreement that works in the exact opposite direction from the extant NAFTA or delayed TTP regimes. No approximation of net-zero emissions will be possible in the near future without severely curtailing international trade and minimizing the distance between materials extraction, and the manufacture, installation and operation of near carbon-neutral energy systems. The same goes for all industrial production.

COP-21-Paris-Climate-Conference-Summit co2 chart

Only Deep Industrial Contraction can Achieve Adequate Reduction in Carbon Emissions.

We must accelerate the transition, but we must do so consistent with the goal of minimizing net carbon emissions in the process as well as in the outcome.  In that context, it is interesting to note that so little mention is made of energy conservation in the literature of emissions reduction and “sustainability” — except indirectly, in terms of improving production efficiency. The immensity of the task escapes most analysts.

DeGrowth and Consumption

One of Zehner’s core arguments is that the renewable energy transition not only consumes a lot of fossil-fueled energy production and depletes increasingly scarce mineral resources. It also encourages more energy consumption and waste.  It is not surprising to find the old pattern of “unanticipated consequences of social action” in this context.

The core consequence in this case is that the goal of zero carbon emissions to stabilize ecosystems and climate must entail significant contraction of industrial economies themselves – “degrowth.” Most government officials and policy wonks do not anticipate that deeply transformative consequence. It contravenes their deeply held beliefs in economic growth as the primary societal goal.

Two Kinds of “Grass Roots”

Most analysts and even political leaders agree on the need for large-scale highly rational international agreements to optimize the transition to a low-carbon renewable-energy-based economy. Yet little prospect for such large-scale political solutions is in sight. At one level, local community efforts to fight global warming are essential. However, some sort of “grass-roots” effort also must arise within the PV and wind industries, in order to optimize the extraction-production-distribution-installation matrix, despite the difficulty. Maybe the industry could form cooperatives to trade or share elements of the cycle in order to minimize distance between these elements in order to optimize carbon-reduction benefits. At this point, micro-economic incentives are lacking.

As Kris De Decker documented as early as 2015, based on diverse research findings, net-positive life-cycle carbon-reduction benefits from renewables are far from automatic. They only occur with localized optimization of supply chains. An important step is to bring awareness to the players — and to environmentalists too. However, some form of leverage on the industry is also needed, or it’s not likely to happen. Time is short, and the cost of time in this instance is very high.

Seventy-Five and One

Oh my! Seventy-five! Seems like it happened just yesterday. Actually, it was two and a half years ago. Copper is no longer a puppy. Yet, full-grown now, she still has quite a lot of that puppy playfulness. I have not changed much. When I turned seventy-five years of AGE, three quarters of a century seemed a strange reference to me. Never been there before… In comparison, seventy-seven doesn’t seem to matter…much.

I remember my mother used to say at various points in her later years, “…but I don’t feel like 80 years old; I feel like I’m forty.” She was a vigorous ‘power walker’ until her hips gave out, and she lived until just before her ninety-fifth birthday. She always retained her curiosity. Life’s trajectory remains a mystery in some ways, especially in terms of how we feel and how we categorize , interpret and judge who we are.

Often, I think, people fall into a narrow range of categories by which others defined them most of their lives. They perceive and define themselves by the categories that stuck to them, even though many of the alternatives they refuse to consider may have had better reflected their talent and potential. But if you study language much, you begin to see that all categories are largely illusions anyway.

Some illusions work just fine, some much worse than others. But they are all mental constructions. Language grew out of need and capacity. Before the massive changes of the modern era, language and life were often quite stable for long periods – if not necessarily easy. Now, change is rapid and increasingly catastrophic. The concepts we use to define ourselves and our lives can be liberating or constraining forces, because we believe in them.

So, however mythological we may judge the concepts and categories of so-called “primitive” peoples, they worked just fine for those folks in their own times and places. We live in a different kind of language environment today, just as we live in a different technological and economic environment. In my 77 years, change has accelerated in the extreme, resulting in a New Great Transformation, which I’ve discussed in other blog posts and my forthcoming book, At the Edge of Illusion.

We live in an environment of change, rapidly accelerating change by any historical measure. With this in mind, we need to recognize that most categories are contingent and increasingly transitory. One of the most dangerous things you can do these days is to lock on to some categorization, of yourself or your world, and firmly believe that it is some permanent “reality.”

IMG_0731Copper turned one year old a few days before I turned seventy-five. I noted the contrast. Well, of course, Copper was a puppy then, a beautiful Vizsla whose name matches her color. In puppyhood, of course, she knew nothing of the world, but was open to and sought out all new and interesting things – everything.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all retain much of that openness to the world and the curiosity of youth throughout our lives? But to do that we would have to relinquish the pseudo-control we feel when we retreat into the certainty of the rigid categories that actually stifle us.

I was hesitant at first to get a new puppy “at my age.” But Copper turned out to be quite a resource for me in reflecting on the best outlook for this Mad Jubilado in the coming years – along with being an endless source of joy and frustration. Ah, but that is the nature of puppies, and life too, eh? You cannot become a liberated Mad Jubilado and hang onto the arbitrary social definitions of what it means to be “retired,” or a “senior,” or anything else. Keep moving.

Choices and Freedom, Decisions and Destiny

Choices multiply with time, or maybe not. Potential decisions proliferate as knowledge grows, but we may not necessarily make them as obligations set in. With good health, the Jubilado [retiree, en español], if modestly financed with a decent pension, has many choices, not all costly. Unfortunately, many Jubilados either never had a pension or it was stolen by the corporation that was supposed to manage it in trust for its workers.

Never trust a corporation. It has no soul, and no, it is not a person. Some say that disproportionate numbers of corporate executives and politicians are psychopaths or sociopaths, two terms for the same affliction. The sociopath’s amoral drive to power can often lead to economic or political success. Either way, sociopaths have no empathy, though they learn to fake it. That is why they are not averse to doing whatever they can get away with to attain that next level of power.

Theft is in the eye of the victim if not of the corrupt official. As with the bribery from which politicians benefit, we rarely observe the punishment of corporate criminality. With the decline of labor’s power versus that of capital, pensions have become rare; many of the few remaining fall victim to management plunder. The politicians have “borrowed” most of the Social Security Trust Fund, then argued it is going broke. They claim that we can’t afford such “entitlement” programs, even though Social Security is funded by workers ourselves, through the payroll tax.

With a modest retirement income, this Mad Jubilado sees many choices. Too many ‘retirees’ sit stupefied and disengaged from the world while staring at the flat-panel screen of a degraded culture. Their time is now their own if they know it, an unusual if somewhat theoretical circumstance. We are, after all, trained in school not to think but to remember ‘facts’ that are unimportant to us, and to do what we are told. Choice becomes an echo of obedience. That way we are more likely to become unthinking obedient workers, tolerating a dull routine, rather than citizens engaged in critical thinking about the world around us, ready to decide.

Engaging in the world is not a spectator sport. Look around. There is so much to see and so much to do. There are endless ways to satisfy your curiosity, if your career left you with any. That is part of what makes the thinking Jubilado Mad.

Engaging with the world can range from terrifying to transcendent, sometimes both simultaneously. The old Chinese curse, “may you live in interesting times,” seems fully realized today. We do live in the most interesting times imaginable. If you think about it, how could our times be more interesting? Well, maybe soon…

The more I research climate disruption, ecosystem collapse, and the political-economic dysfunction behind them, the more interesting – and terrifying – they become. It is about the survival of the world as we know it. Politicians do so little about it because of the simple power of short-term corporate interests corrupting public policy. They call corporate bribery “campaign contributions.” Politicians easily suffer paralysis when confronted by an overwhelming challenge, especially if the price is right. Besides, the challenge of figuring out what to do about such a monumental planetary problem is nothing short of daunting.

I used to tell my students to “follow your bliss.” Huh? [The phrase depicts a bit of wisdom borrowed from Joseph Campbell] It was all too common for students to come for academic advising with some notion in their head about choosing a major that was simply wrong for them. I didn’t even have to know much about them to tell that they had grabbed an idea from somewhere that superficially sounded good. But that good thing they thought they perceived at the moment of their choice, was momentarily “hot” and jobs in that field had good starting pay. So what?

Is that how to choose one’s life work? I told them that they should find out what really interests them, because by the time they graduated some other field would be the “hot” one and they would spend an entire career doing something they really did not like. Some got it; others did not. But I’ll bet the ones who did get it will have lots of choices in retirement.

Craftsmanship, Flying and Boredom

Craftsmanship is the opposite of boredom.  One does not usually think of digging a ditch as a matter of craftsmanship. But when I dug that ditch at age 15 as precisely as possible to avoid boredom, I had no idea that I was becoming ‘craftsman-like,’ but I was. If you do anything with craftsmanship, striving to do it well is a positive experience. Doing something well is not the same as being a “perfectionist,” which is simply taking precision beyond reason, into compulsion. We all know from high school geometry that a perfect circle does not exist outside the mind of Euclid, or a perfectionist. But in engineering drawing or architectural drawing we need to convey technical-spatial matters without ambiguity.  Achieving a circle that appears to be perfect to the user’s eye is rather enough.

I was quite proud of myself when I landed my little Piper PA-28 at San Luis Obispo airport after an instrument approach “to minimums” – about 220 feet above ground I think it was. That “Minimum Descent Altitude” is a “decision point,” the split second when you have to either have made visual contact with the runway or immediately execute a “missed approach.” At that point a pilot must decide whether to try again or to divert to an alternate airport with better weather.

That night the sky was crowded; several planes were trying to get into SBP. The controller put me in a holding pattern for probably 20 minutes. It seemed like an hour. piper_warrior2_panelAs each aircraft attempts the approach, those waiting fly the holding pattern, a rectangle with rounded corners, each at a different assigned altitude. When one aircraft lands, the next begins the approach and the rest descend to the next lower altitude, waiting their turn at the approach. It is tedious, very stressful, and definitely not boring. Lucky for me, I had just finished my instrument training and my flying skills were probably at their peak. I landed after spotting the runway just seconds from having to call a missed approach.

It was 1980, and in a way it was the culmination of a dream I’d had since early childhood. There are many challenges in flying. But an instrument approach, at night, in clouds when the airport is only visible the very last second – or not –is probably the epitome of flying challenges, except, I suppose, for aerial combat. I had been accepted into the Air Force Aviation Cadet officer training program after a year of college. But then they decided that they had too many pilots and cancelled further classes. That was not long before the Vietnam war ramped up. Maybe that was just not my time to fly. Anyway, I never got around to learning to fly until several years after grad school.

Some skills, like flying, require constant practice.  Some are “mission critical,” like an instrument approach to an airport runway, when choosing to land or execute a “missed approach” involves a split-second survival decision that requires polished skills. Others, IMG_1112like fitting a part so that it will look just right in a piece of custom furniture you are making, can be much more leisurely in execution.  Neither is boring.  Craftsmanship is never boring. I don’t do instrument approaches anymore. It takes so much practice and I do not have to be there before the storm clears – I’m retired. Now, I practice woodworking at a more leisurely pace, and fly mostly for fun, without the pressures of having to get there “on time.” Besides, I have so much to do and all the time I want to take. None of it is boring.