The climate of Political Nihilism

In September 2018, the Trump administration produced a realistic environmental impact report that reflected current scientific estimates of emerging climate chaos. That alone was a bit shocking given Trumpist rhetoric claiming that climate change is a “Chinese hoax.” But the political misuse of that information was shockingly brazen, if not exactly surprising.

After all, presidential prevarication is the “new normal” in American politics. The ill logic in this particular case is tremendously twisted. The administration wants to roll back fuel efficiency standards in the transportation industry. The latest scientific estimates of anthropogenic heating of the planet if present emissions continue, predict as much as 4 degrees additional average heating of the Earth within the next few decades if the global economy continues on its current path.

That alone is shocking enough. The near-term consequences of that predicted heating will be devastating in several ways. Greater destruction from more frequent and intense super storms, sea rise that will threaten the world’s major coastal cities, the death of most of the world’s coral reefs, longer more intense droughts and more powerful floods, etc., etc. However, in Trumplandia the “logic” goes like this: The emissions from trucks and cars add up to such a small part of the total that we really need not bother restricting carbon emissions from them.

International Hypocrisy

Of course, the rapidly accelerating carbon emissions from human activity energized by the burning of fossil fuel since around 1950 has been so great that scientists have labeled it “the Great Acceleration.” Scientists expect total global emissions to continue rising next year since most nations are doing so little to curtail even more carbon spewing into the atmosphere. Despite the international agreements signed by almost every nation at the 2015 Paris Climate talks, no nation has taken serious steps to control their emissions since then. The scope of the necessary response is daunting at best. Every nation seems to be waiting for someone else to take the first step. Yet, the problem is now, with no time to delay to avoid global catastrophe.

So, as with several other treaty obligations, such as the international agreement to restrict Iran’s nuclear weapons capability, Trump decided to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords. You might argue that the withdrawal doesn’t really matter since the agreement has no teeth. The agreed reductions are not mandatory, just vague intentions.

No nation’s leaders want to jeopardize economic growth or bear the costs of complying with the agreements. However, the costs of failure to do so will be so great to the human condition that such concerns appear to be somewhere on the far side of foolish. Besides, the process of converting to clean (solar and wind) sources of energy production will create more jobs than so-called leaders can imagine. So will programs to insulate existing buildings, which contribute a lot of the energy waste worldwide. So, why do the world’s leaders balk at doing the right thing?

Nihilist Power Elites Overpower the Public Interest

The problem, of course, is that such major economic transformations threaten existing financial interests of the world’s power elites. The most powerful financial interests in the world are closely tied to the fossil fuel industry. The further enrichment of the richest of the rich is also good for business at various Trump Towers around the world. The petulant president is enriching himself by enriching the ultra-rich elites of the world.

For the nihilist, nothing is forbidden. The only value is to exercise more and more power to satisfy the endless narcissistic demands of the sociopath. Of course, when such practices become a central feature of government, the threat of rising fascism grows with every moral transgression. Every act of demagoguery attempting to incite mass fear and anger in support of the self-imagined authoritarian ruler is another step on the road to fascist dictatorship. Do not believe those who say, “It can’t happen here.”

America’s False Divide

“According to polls, most Americans think the nation is more divided than it’s been since the Civil War. And these divides are getting worse…”

Really? Exactly what divides America? Well, there are polls and there are polls. In November 2016, a Gallup poll suggested shortly after Trump’s election that 77% of the people perceived the nation as divided. Certainly, if you watch Fox News, MSNBC, CNN, the traditional networks, or participate in social media, you can easily get that impression. Conflict makes the news. Certainly, the nation is going through some major changes, some of which produce more denial than contemplation. That tends to escalate the ‘blame game.’

Nostalgia for imagined “good old days” leads many to wish to “Make America Great Again.” Generational losses of income and status breed fear, resentment and anger. Trump has deftly exploited such fears and resentments, inciting anger and even violence among his base of mostly working and former middle-class white males and some of the women who love them.

We hear formerly politically incorrect expressions of racism, sexism, and xenophobia uttered more openly now in public and semi-public arenas. However, it seems clear that many of the voters who put Obama in office also voted for Trump. That may seem crazy, but it was a complex electoral dynamic that would take many pages just to describe no less explain.

Institutional Divisions by Racism

Did we really become that divided between presidents? Well, of course, the big political division between Obama Democrats and the racist Republican Congress of his second term has grown wider and wider, resulting in unprecedented partisan practices that border on violating at least the spirit of the Constitution.

Is it really that the American people are so divided, or is the actual division between the growing power of the corporate state in conflict with the public interest in seeking a safer more livable world for the American people? Establishment Democrats like to treat Trump as an anomaly, an outlier so bizarre that he does not fit into the standard assortment of political positions.

To be sure, Trump’s impulses are weird and vastly ignorant of national norms of the political process, civil behavior, and the constitutional constraints on his pretentions to unlimited personal power. He blatantly exposes his racism, misogyny, and narcissism in daily Tweets. But is that so different from the perverse behavior of those old white men on the Senate Judiciary Committee who dismiss the entirely credible story of Dr. Christine Blaisey Ford as they did decades before with Anita Hill?

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley speaks as Christine Blasey Ford testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington

Chuck Grassley ~  HuffPost

Political operative Brett Kavanagh would surely guarantee a plutocratic majority on the Supreme Court. He represents the same culture of elitist white male entitlement to power embodied in Chuck Grassley, Orrin Hatch, and Lindsay Graham. For Trump, it is a matter of protection from prosecution even more than plutocracy; for the senators, it is a matter of achieving the corporatist goals of their PACs to dominate the federal government by executive action as well as voter suppression.

Plutocratic Unity and the Veil of Division

Trump’s policy choices – however dangerous in international relations for example – fit well with the notion that his presidency is the logical extension of the trends of the corporate state over several decades, whichever party was in power. The cooperation of Senate Democrats in the unconstitutional Republican wars of choice, just like the bailouts for Wall Street criminals of 2008, but not for their victims, reflects the unity of the plutocrats that underlies and belies surface “party differences.”

One might even conclude that the great divide today is between the people and a federal government that now almost entirely serves the interest of corporate elites and the super-rich. Despite the distortions of demagoguery, the trends now deeply entrenched in the corporate state run counter to some of the most basic of American values.

Because of the dominance of corporate money in national politics, federal elected officials are less and less connected to the people they are supposed to represent. The “Citizens United” Supreme Court decision and the injection of blatant representatives of corporate polluters as executives in the EPA along with sweeping executive orders unwind decades of gradual improvement in modest environmental protections. Abandoning our commitment to the international agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities, like many other actions, runs counter to the interests of the public in safety, security; others constrain the ability of average Americans to earn a decent living.

The demagoguery, confusion, anger, and resentment run high and as usual in such situations, a charlatan who Michael Moore terms a master of performance art. Trump deftly turned that resentment toward scapegoating vulnerable minority populations, including refugees, in order to energize the base of those who resent their losses of status and income under the policies of the same corporate state he serves. The falsely generated divisions among the people conceal a much deeper divide.

No, the real division in America is between the plutocrats and the people.

Individual Climate Ethics and Global Change

Can we do it ourselves? If we recycle everything and take shorter showers, install some solar panels, buy low-emissions products, etc., etc., can we avoid climate catastrophe? Sorry. Absolutely not.

The problem runs much deeper than that – it involves the entire Earth System. The climate crisis is endemic to industrial civilization itself. That means, in some sense, everything must change. But how can change adequate to this global crisis be accomplished? That is the big unacknowledged question. I have heard many emissions reduction targets (you know, 20% reduction by 2030, etc. – they mean nothing).

Words and Inaction

Such proclamations are abstract; they say nothing about how such minimal gestures toward necessity would be accomplished. Yet we are awash in data on every kind of emission from every kind of economic activity and every form of ecological and climate disturbance. Emissions reductions proclamations and agreements are nothing more than fantasy.

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Species extinctions are accelerating with increasing more intense Droughts and other forms of  Climate Chaos

Hundreds of species go extinct every day now. The sixth great mass extinction is well underway. New car sales are booming, yet in the past five years, the share of electric vehicles has never exceeded 1%. So many ecological fronts on which destabilization is accelerating make it nearly impossible to keep up, no less mount the planetary-scale changes required of us to make an actual difference.

Euphemisms avoid confronting difficult decisions. The good news is that new capacity in renewable energy production is growing faster than new fossil-fuel capacity, despite Trumpist coal hawking. But to have a chance at slowing weather weirding and global climate chaos, we need to stop all new fossil-fueled energy production — a mind-boggling prospect. Yet, we actually need to use less energy by taking serious, even drastic conservation measures.

Individual Action

One of the most important factors for those of us who already take climate-disruption danger seriously is that we not fall into the complacency of doing something personal and feeling that we have done our part and that is that. Individual action by those who are aware and care will never be enough. Your withdrawal from profligate consumerism, or even going off the grid, while admirable and necessary, remains a typically American form of ethical individualism It may oppose the collective anti-moralism of collective consumerism. However, it will not solve our collective problem of the headlong rush of the industrial leviathan, the technosphere that continues its spread of carbon into the atmosphere. Only mass mobilization for major energy-use reduction has a chance of being enough.

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Consumer Identity

The current momentum of the economic growth machine alone – even if we assume some moderate level of individual withdrawal from the consumerist culture – will be enough to take the climate well past the tipping point of no return to climate stability. The change we need is deeply systemic, and that will not happen until a social movement much broader than the Bernie Sanders’ “Our Revolution” can mobilize people on a vast scale.

Collective Action

Only mass mobilization can overcome the force the economic as well as political momentum, and allow us to transform the extractive industrial economy into an ecological society. This is where transforming the consumer culture becomes paramount. The more we can demonstrate low-carbon consumer minimalism and vastly reduce energy consumption while restoring local ecosystems, the faster social change can help re-stabilize climate and avert total disaster.

We need to replace all carbon-based consumer products and services with consumer minimalism, now. That will involve some constraints we are not used to, but there is no time to waste. I discussed this in more detail at TheHopefulRealist.com, especially in my Feb 24, 2016 post. We must all do what we can do and join any effort we can in our local communities to make the changes that will help turn the larger system away from its path to extinction.

On the Urgency of Abandoning Lifestyle

I never liked the term, “lifestyle.” It reflects an extreme version of the American obsession with personal individualistic consumerism, which ultimately is at odds with the hard facts of life on planet Earth. The unattainable “lifestyles of the rich and famous” promoted and enthusiastically accepted in the industrial era are built on illusion and propel humanity toward the abyss of climate collapse and social chaos.

The denizens of industrial-consumer societies sustain their illusions of achieving high-status “lifestyles” at the cost of terminating social and ecological stability, contrary to the public good. But words often have a life of their own and will even transform their own meaning with continued use. The choices we make in life are not so much a matter of “style,” even when driven by stylistic considerations. Instead, above all they reflect a species’ survival strategy or its failure even to have no less execute a survival strategy.

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Shopping mall ~ Mallorca

So, on the one hand, “lifestyle” implies no strategy at all, just some form of “personal expression” of consumer values oblivious to the requirements of survival on planet Earth. In its denial of nature, the consumer lifestyle sustains a cultural bubble that excludes consciousness of the place of humanity in nature. That cannot end well.

On the other hand, “lifestyle” is completely inadequate to express the essence of a life of conscious choice to align personal living decisions, political action, and economic behavior, with an effort to save humanity from extinction. The trajectory of industrial-consumer society, with its illusions of perpetual technological control over nature and endless economic growth on a finite planet, drives us all in exactly that direction.

I do hesitate to bring up the idea of extinction – it seems so extreme that its possibility appears implausible. As the politicians always say in a crisis, “We don’t want to alarm the public.” Yet, today public alarm is exactly what is needed. If we look at the history of biological systems on this planet, extinction has been an integral part of their evolution. At the same time, the history of industrialized humanity has generated a certain false sense of security and permanence. Chris Hedges pops that bubble in his recent Truthdig article.

The myth of perpetual economic growth and material abundance on a finite planet persists in the face of imminent climate catastrophe as well as resource depletion. A “big picture” perspective, such as that of astrophysicist Adam Frank easily exposes the naïve hubris of the human illusion of perpetual progress.

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Arundhati Roy contemplates the worst flooding ever in Kerala, India. Photo: Onmanorama

Well, that was a mouthful…but the science is clear. Climate destabilization is accelerating. Every IPCC report since the ill-fated Kyoto accords has underestimated the rates of change. The climate models still have not fully taken into account emerging feedback loops that are accelerating the greenhouse effects. Urgency is the right word; complacency is the political norm. The Defiant Earth will not be broken by self-indulgent ecomodernists.

Living a life of planetary consciousness is not the complete answer; it cannot stop climate chaos alone. But it can help directly by contributing to a broad “climate of opinion” that must exist in order to force the political and economic elites to act in the human interest rather than in the unsustainable and deadly interest in “business as usual.” A rough road lies ahead.

The New Normal and the Boisterously Silent Coup

Is the rise of Trumplandia the reflection of a “new normal” in American politics? Or, does it rise, as Rebecca Solnit suggests in a remarkable new piece on the Literary Hub website, to the level of a de facto coup that has already occurred? Has the Trump gang already, if not so skillfully, moved to clandestinely transform our constitutionally framed effort at representative democracy into a de facto authoritarian regime? After all, this sitting president is now directly interfering with the independent investigations of the nation’s highest law enforcement institutions that may well lead to his own downfall.

The Coup

Solnit asserts that, “Sabotage of national institutions, laws, standards, and the greater good has been accepted as part of the new normal, which is staggeringly far from normal.” She summarizes the vast array of diverse forms and sources of evidence that have surfaced since Trump began his initial Fake-Run [i] for the presidency. In addition to the myriad personal scandals, an international complex of illicit deal making adds up to a partnership of plunder between the Putin bossed Russian mob of oligarchs, the American pretender to Mob-Boss status and his gang of thugs and fixers of questionable competence and unbounded hutzpah, and just about any unscrupulous politician, here or abroad, who will pay to play.

As Solnit puts it:

Acts that would have been shocking if committed by previous administrations are overshadowed and crowded by equally transgressive acts that pile up into something that would like us to forget that this is not normal.

Solnit argues persuasively that the coup has already happened and that the only question now is what we are going to do about it. Given the damage already done to institutions, climate action, public health and safety, international relations, and above all the already precarious U.S. political culture, it seems that little time and a narrowing range of options remain.

Decades in the Making

One commenter argued that the coup began decades ago, listing a series of political actions by every administration and congress since, supporting the position that the coup was a long slow process of destroying democracy while elevating an increasingly open kleptocratic authoritarian corporate state. He argued that with Johnson’s resounding defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964 the authoritarian right realized that electoral politics must be undermined to achieve their autocratic goals. Another asserted that the coup began with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In any case, several scholars have documented the efforts of powerful business interests to suppress democratic control of government and the economy since the imposition of controls on the financial elite under the New Deal.

Unfortunately, as is so common in such venues, much of the commentary devolved into typical political bickering over which politician held more guilt, bad faith and evil. The usual dose of ad hominem admonitions and rigid either/or ill-logic circulated around the claimed offenses of Bernie versus Hillary, entirely missing the point of the article in service to internal partisan anger among Democrats.

The Republican Party has devolved into a state where its only principle is to win elections by pandering the alt-right base so effectively exploited by Trumpery. Genuine conservatives have nowhere to turn. The Democratic Party national apparatus, the DNC, remains unwilling to free itself from the corporate and financial elites it serves while hypocritically mouthing old liberal rhetoric. Its disingenuous cultural liberalism and avoidance of the deep issues of rising global and national crises have turned main street Democrats and independents away from the party. Electoral politics seems a long shot, in both substance and time. The convergence of catastrophic crises of ecosystem destruction and climate chaos, as well as global economic and political instability, is well underway. The crisis of American democracy is now. What is a citizen to do?

Precarious Prospects

Solnit finds herself distraught with the prospects, as well anyone who looks at the facts should. However, her recommendations offer little hope:

We still have an enormous capacity to resist the administration, not least by mass civil disobedience and other forms of noncooperation. Sweeping the November elections wouldn’t hurt either, if that results in candidates we hold accountable afterward. Or both.

Solnit seems to believe that we can rescue American democracy and respond effectively to the converging crises of climate chaos, ecological destruction, impending global financial failure, and imminent societal collapse by protests in the streets or by the so-called “centrist” democrats capturing the mid-term elections. Making such assumptions shows little sense of timing or even a deep understanding of the nature of the coup that has suppressed democratic institutions for decades.

The answer is nearly as difficult, but at least possible. Mass mobilization at the local level for resistance in place by turning away from the “inverted totalitarian” regime and its new “strong man” is extremely difficult to achieve. It would require forming new democratic institutions where we live that would become diffused forms of resistance by their very existence. Widespread resistance by withdrawal and replacement could not be stopped by troops in the streets or by bluster from the man who is “the empty clown suit.”

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[i] Mark Danner, “The Magic of Donald Trump,” New York Review of Books 63:4(May 26, 2016) quotes Stephanie Cegielski, Trump’s “Top Strategist-Turned-Defector,” to the effect that initially there had been “no thought of actually winning.” Rather, the goal was to bolster Trump’s celebrity prominence. That, of course, is consistent with Trump’s history of seeking celebrity attention and adulation above all else, aside from money of course. Winning the actual election bolstered his celebrity and profits beyond even the narcissist’s unbounded imagination.

What about how? What the sci-fi novels all miss

I have not read much science fiction. But the sci-fi books I have read usually fall into the “post-apocalypse” variety, such as The Road, Earth Abides, Parable of the Sower, World Made by Hand, and most recently, The Handmaid’s Tale. I read these stories out of my interest in what is likely to happen in the next few decades.

We are entering a New Great Transformation of the relationship of humanity to the complex of living adaptive systems (ecosystems) that some call Gaia – a sort of organism of organisms. The exponential growth of the global technosphere has forced that transformation and we must face its consequences.

Varieties of Dystopia

Some of the post-apocalypse stories are quite fascinating and imaginative. They all explore in one way or another what happens when individuals or small groups encounter an entirely new situation in which widespread devastation has become the “new normal.” They raise all sorts of human dilemmas, from simple survival and threats from others to the forging of new social relationships when the old institutions and infrastructure of the society they had known are gone.

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Dystopia Maybe?

In every case, at least in the books I have read, the apocalyptic event(s) that caused the post-apocalyptic condition remains shrouded in mystery. Alluded to in various ways and extent, what actually happened is not very clear.

In The Road, for example, a father and son travel away from the center of devastation in search of some safe new place, scavenging as they go. We get the impression that some major act of destruction such as an intercontinental nuclear exchange wiped out most of civilization on the East Coast of the U.S.A. But we are given no specific information about the event.

In Parable of the Sower, we follow a young woman leading a small group north out of Los Angeles and the chaos of marauding gangs of bandits, violent neighborhoods, and unsafe gated communities, all of which are under siege in one way or another. Yet we never learn what caused that urban dystopia. It might have been a single catastrophic event or a gradual collapse of society; we are not told.

Earth Abides, highly acclaimed when first published in 1949, is a bit different. A young man comes back to the San Francisco Bay area from a personal retreat in a mountain cabin to find that nobody remains alive; a pandemic has hit the world and apparently killed everyone except him. He had accidentally become immunized to the disease by a snake bite from which he almost died. Eventually he finds a few other survivors and they confront a world as it was but without people. The story is a classic well-told adventure of coping. In this case, the cause was quite simple, if not fully explained.

In World Made by Hand, a New England village struggles in a dystopian condition in which many factors of human conflicts and political disorganization play a role. As competing groups vie for power where most modern technology was somehow lost or destroyed, we never find out what caused that condition or what could have prevented it as the characters struggle to shape a new local-regional political order. The conflicts in World Made by Hand has some of the flavor of an old western movie.

The most interesting question (for me at least) is, how would a transition to a post-apocalyptic world happen? The New Great Transformation of the world as we know it, which we have begun to experience today, involves the destabilization of ecosystems and climate our industrial economy has caused. The environmental chaos, now well on its way, has already begun to trigger economic, political, military, and social breakdowns of increasing intensity, all likely to interact and even reinforce each other.

The New Great Transformation and the Peril Ahead

The popular classics of the genre of dystopian novels all contain a combination of some of the following: a totalitarian or theocratic state, censorship, surveillance, erasure of history, anti-intellectualism, consumption and entertainment as escapism, extreme inequality, and destruction of individuality and aesthetics. Read 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, even Hunger Games or Lord of the Flies, and you will see. Wait a minute, that list of dystopian characteristics sounds a bit too familiar…

Each post-apocalyptic novel I have read describes a different world than the others, but with often overlapping issues of human survival under extreme collapse of civilization and ensuing chaos or the rise of a totalitarian state. Some say science fiction is really about the present, but with imaginary advances in technology and totalitarianism.

Each post-apocalyptic novel I have read describes a different world than the others, but with often overlapping issues of human survival under extreme collapse of civilization and ensuing chaos. However, it seems to me that the most important and interesting question of the human condition today has to do with two things: 1) whether and to what extent people will finally realize that the world we have created is becoming un-survivable, and 2) what we will do about it.

Can we abandon our illusions of progress through corporate economic growth immediately in favor of a new creatively realistic response to the converging crises we face? Governments and corporations are the problem; they do not have the solutions. So is the industrial-consumer culture we have embraced. It is now up to people to counter the apocalyptic trend where we live. Our problem is not how to cope with an existing dystopia, but how to prevent the New Great Transformation from becoming one. That will require a great deal of hopeful realism.

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?