In the Air Again: Expectations and Complications of Global Travel

I was not ready for more travel, though I had to go to L.A. for a doctor’s appointment a couple of days ago. An airline ticket was actually cheaper than a half-hour telephone consultation, which insurance does not cover. Not that I don’t like traveling; I do. But it is, after all, part of that middle-class and above, often excessive, “lifestyle” subsidized by debt, both personal and national.

As I have said before, somewhere, I don’t like the term, “lifestyle.” It seems to convey a sense that one’s life is merely a fashion statement. It implies that we are all free to choose whatever “style” of life we want. It also assumes that “lifestyle” choices entail no costs beyond the credit card. Only our economic success limits our ability to “choose our own lifestyle.” Culturally, it has become a matter of “consumer rights.” After all, with the inevitable march of “progress” as endless economic growth, we will all be middle class or even super-rich someday, right? Well, not so much, if you are a realist, however hopeful.

Old World and New

In Europe and other ‘older’ societies, families have lived in the same place for centuries. Who of us can say that? Most Americans move at least once every ten years. If you are a Euro-American and living in Santa Fe, NM, for over ten years, many transplants from California, New York, or Texas, will consider you a virtual native. Yet Native Americans or the heirs to Spanish conquistadors of four hundred years ago, would disagree. But that’s another story.

Commercial aviation is becoming a complicated affair in the twenty-first century. Yet it remains affordable for many among the shrinking middle class. Plans for expansion

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Popular Airliner ~ source: cnn.com

abound. The executive elite of the increasingly infamous one percent travels bi-coastally and internationally on a regular basis. The rest of us travel occasionally, relying on credit cards that many rarely pay off. All this is possible because of heavy public subsidies of companies like Boeing and Airbus. We all pay for the aviation infrastructure that makes the FAA’s Air Traffic Control system and National Weather Service work so well. Who would fly if it were all rolled into the price of a ticket from L.A. to Paris?

Externality and Ecological Costs

Like so many other industries, aviation “externalizes” the social and ecological costs of its operations to the people and the planet in the form of disease and climate chaos. As a general aviation pilot, I find it difficult to face the fact that aviation is generally an ecological disaster. At least aviation does not have the biggest industrial carbon footprint. No matter the relatively small ecological damage from small planes versus big jets, the total carbon emissions from the industry are huge. Yet, the status of “frequent flyer” is widely subsidized.

On the other hand, I calculated that my little 180 horsepower airplane consumes about the same amount of fuel per mile traveled as a standard American automobile. I don’t fly it all that many hours per year, so I can rationalize my hobby as having a relatively small carbon footprint. But then, American cars get terrible gas mileage compared to cars driven in Europe. I don’t have aggregate numbers, but the anecdotal evidence is consistent. Last time we were in France, we rented a little diesel Mercedes mini SUV, drove it all over, and rarely needed fuel. That car is not available in the U.S. However, the only viable future for the automobile industry is electric.

Airline flying for business or pleasure has a huge carbon footprint when considered as a whole. Yet the middle and upper-class American public considers it virtually a civil right to fly around the nation or planet at will. How can this conflict between species survival and the consumer culture of personal privilege be resolved? The increasing chaos of the living Earth systems will resolve it for us, in a very bad way, if we do not change our ways. As we move through the new era of the Anthropocene, we must harmonize with the ecosystems upon which we depend for our lives, or our lives will be lost in the consequent chaos.

Messy Democracy vs. Painful Plutocracy

Wake up call for federal employees: In the era of Trumpery, life is really lived on the edge of insolvency and pain. Forty percent of the American people cannot cover a single $1,000- emergency. Most federal employees, though slightly better paid than their counterparts in private industry, live maybe a couple of paychecks ahead. The cost of living is much higher than the bogus government calculation of low inflation. Like most Americans, they have little savings to tide them over during a government shutdown.

No Respect

FAA air traffic Controllers are some of the most competent and dedicated professionals I have ever met. They operate in a high-stress environment where the “clearances” they issue to pilots in the national airspace routinely carry life and death implications. Especially during high traffic periods and under rapidly changing weather conditions, their prowess in skillfully coordinating the flight paths and altitudes of multiple high-speed jet airliners and slower small planes is amazing.

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Near Miss. Photo: JetlineMarvel.net

As a long time pilot, I understand the “mission critical” character of the everyday work of these federal employees. I remember distinctly when Ronald Reagan busted their union resulting in the loss of some of the best most experienced controllers then operating. I noticed immediately thereafter, an unmistakable drop in the quality of air traffic control operations. I felt I had to be extra careful to maintain a reasonable level of safety in the air.

Many other federal employees live with far less daily stress on the job. I have envied the National Park Rangers for the serene environment of their work out there in the beautiful National Forests that the plutocrats would privatize for oil and mineral extraction. Most people take federal workers for granted or just dismiss them as “bureaucrats,” especially if things don’t go well when they interact with overworked IRS agents or Social Security workers processing their paperwork.

Yet, the work of these diverse employees of the nation is important to one or another element of the everyday operation of the society itself. That importance becomes ever clearer when an arbitrary demand by the president forces a government shutdown because the Congress will not roll over to the bully who’s pretensions to power cannot grasp the basic concept of the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches of government.

Moreover, these folks have been arbitrarily made victims of the “government shutdown” that Trump forced by demanding the Congress pay for his ill-conceived and poorly defined wall along the Mexican border. It is especially disconcerting when we find out that the “border wall” meme originated as a mnemonic device conjured by his campaign staff to help him remember to talk about immigration to better pander to his xenophobic base.

Illusions of Border Security

In various places along the border, walls already exist because federal agencies deemed them effective, particularly around urban ports of entry. The Congress voted to fund them as part of prior border security legislation. It is widely known that most trafficking of drugs, about which Trump feigns such concern, cross into the U.S. through the busiest border crossings in passenger vehicles or trucks. Is a wall going to have any effect on that? Of course not.

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Trump’s Border Wall could waste Billions. Photo: New York Times

Never mind the fact that illegal crossings from Mexico have steadily decreased for decades. Never mind that Trump violates the federal laws that allow applications for asylum by the victims of ruthless gangs and bloodthirsty dictators that U.S. foreign policies have caused or supported. However, let us not ignore the vicious persecution of children and their families that the obsessive xenophobia and demagoguery of a rogue president and an unhinged federal agency called ICE have caused.

Some say Trumplandia is the natural progression of the growing plutocracy in the U.S. since Reagan. True enough. But plutocrats abhor the messiness of democracy and care little about the pain they inflict on the people. When narcissistic sociopathic politicians have pretensions of authoritarian rule, as does Trump, the pain inflicted upon the people within and at the border becomes intolerable.

On the Road Again: Huanacaxtle and Martín

(continued from January 11, 2019 post)

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

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

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

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

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

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My Huanacaxtle

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

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

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

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

On the Ground Again: Flourishing Below Sea Level…for Now

Much of Holland is below sea level. Will the dikes hold? The Dutch have held back the North Sea for hundreds of years. They are the world’s experts on dike and canal building and pumping seawater. But they may be facing a whole new situation in the years to come.

Traveling through the Netherlands one recent spring, I could not find a hill over a couple of hundred feet high, and that was rare. Holland is very flat, much of the land is below sea level. If the dykes were to fail, the country would return to the marshes and estuaries so much of it had been before it was “reclaimed.” In the 13th century, windmills had begun to drain areas below sea level for farming.

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Areas of Holland Below Sea Level are in Blue to the right of ‘s-Gravenhage

We were staying in a house we rented via Airbnb in Haarlem at the corner of Martin Luther King Lan and Schweitzer Lan. I would sit at a desk by the window looking down on that corner from the second floor. With my laptop and coffee, I wrote and watched the early morning traffic. It was Spring. Almost as many people were riding bicycles to work or school as were driving the typical small fuel-efficient European cars.

Because the tulips were in bloom, it had been impossible to find a rental in Amsterdam. Haarlem actually turned out to be just as convenient, an easy train ride to central Amsterdam for the museums, canal-side cafés and old-world sights. Both cities were fascinating. Despite several European trips I never get over the massive number of ancient buildings in Europe, all made of hand-shaped stone. Sadly, it also reminds me of the historic buildings demolished by Trumpist wrecking balls in New York City.

We caught a local bus to the famous Keukenhof, touted rightly as the “most beautiful spring garden in the world.” The Keukenhof is an exquisite 32-hectare garden with every variety of tulip, countless other flowers, trees imaginable. Massive tulip fields and bicycle paths availed themselves nearby. We walked through a tiny fraction of the Keukenhof before renting bicycles to ride along the canals and among the tulip fields nearby. It was delightful.

One day we rented a car so we could drive to Petten, NL, to see the ancestral town from which my wife’s family had immigrated to “The New World” on the Mayflower. Petten is right on the coast of the North Sea, behind a huge dike built of sand and planted with grasses. It appeared to have been recently renovated since the grass clumps on the dike were all new and planted in neat rows.

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Dike or Sand Sea-wall and Beach at Petten, North Holland, facing the North Sea.

On arriving in Petten, we noticed that the whole town seemed rather new. Construction was still ongoing on a large staircase over the dike to the beach. Of course, we climbed it and went down to the broad beach. I was surprised to see the construction of what appeared to be a large restraint on the beach, built on piers about 15 feet high, with lots of big windows facing the sea. Everything in Petten from the beach to the town seemed new compared to other towns in Holland that had existed for centuries.

We asked some folks in one of the stores in town why everything was so new. As it turned out, Petten had been lost to storm surges twice in history, then destroyed by the Germans in World War II. I wondered how long it would be until the current global sea rise would destroy Patten. Despite its accomplishments in holding back the North Sea in past centuries, Holland will have never experienced the degree of sea rise predicted for this century as a result of global warming and glacier and polar ice cap melt.

Clearly, the Dutch are a resourceful people with a long history of resilience. They seem both very well organized and among the happiest people on the planet. Things are ‘expensive,’ at least from an American traveler’s perspective. But the Dutch are able to afford their rather advanced lives. I did not see a homeless person on the entire trip. Modern windmills and bicycles are everywhere. The Dutch seem to be adapting to climate change as well as anyone. But as the world fails to adequately reduce carbon emissions to mitigate extreme temperature rise, they too are in for some high tides and tough times.

On the Rails Again: Euro Trains are No Amtrak

Another in the series of occasional rants by the Mad Jubilado.

Over two hundred kilometers per hour? That’s more than 124 mph! Well, we seemed to be going pretty fast.  It was no Shinkansen (the Japanese “Bullet Train”) rocketing the 330 miles from Tocho-Mai Station in Tokyo to Kyoto between 150 and 200 mph. In the U.S., the contrast is striking.  Amtrak passenger trains dare not go over about 65 mph, and with good reason. The European trains are quiet, fast, and comfortable.

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Dutch Tulips

In Tokyo, trains routinely pull up to the platform and stop exactly as scheduled, to the second, after their high-speed runs. Departure times are equally precise. In Europe, they are very close. In the U.S., well, things are different. Here, passenger trains have been relegated to a second-class status, behind the more profitable freight trains. They are not particularly comfortable, fast, or on time. Moving all that coal, oil, and Chinese manufactured consumer goods imported by U.S. corporations, gets first billing. Gotta sell that junk to Americans who have lost their well-paid manufacturing jobs and now work as Walmart greeters or fast food cashiers. That is the priority, not public transportation.

Like so much here, public transportation systems have been ‘privatized,’ leaving the public interest behind. The railroads were created to help stimulate western expansion. The federal government gave wide swaths of land to railroad companies to encourage their development. Huge profits were made not only on the rails themselves but in the many land deals that followed. Private corporate exploitation of the commonwealth continues apace, with little challenge.

Now, the railroad companies act like it is their God-given right to exploit those properties in their own interest, the public be damned. Contrary to the corporate “free market” ideology, most of the magnificent technological developments of the industrial era were subsidized by the public purse. The prime beneficiaries have been the private corporations that took advantage of government largess. Any public benefit was secondary, though there have been many. Unlike Europe, where public infrastructure is valued and maintained, here it is all about the next subsidy or tax break for the corporations and super-rich, to be paid for by squeezing public infrastructure and services ever more tightly as the national debt grows.

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On the Rails to Haarlem

The speed, smooth ride, and quiet on the electric European rail lines got my attention. I don’t remember a more comfortable train ride anywhere else. Then I saw the flat panel display on the forward bulkhead in the rather new passenger car. It displayed the speed in kilometers per hour and the time of arrival at the next station. We were on the TGV, the Euro Rail line, heading from Lyon, France to Haarlem, Netherlands.

The French countryside is a beautiful green in springtime. The tulips are in bloom all across the flat lowlands of Holland. What color! The mix of architecture in passing towns and cities, ranging from medieval to modern, is a bit dissonant in its charm. It is all so lovely to watch through the large windows of our passing train. It is almost as if nothing has changed in the world…but it has.

If there is to be a solution to the converging crises of climate chaos, poverty, resource wars, failed agriculture, mass starvation and forced migrations, it must include transforming public infrastructure to create low-carbon forms of transportation, powered by solar and wind-generated electricity and human energy. Trains, trams, and bicycles must become an essential element of a new life strategy, if we let it. The U.S. is so far behind. We wallow in political fights over false narratives while the planet burns. Making significant progress on issues like public transportation will require a political revolution.

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.

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.