Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Climate: We All Need to Be Futurists Now

Image from New York Times interactive map showing flooding
(in light blue) projected from a 5 foot sea level rise - the area around
 Sacramento is vulnerable to very severe flooding from breached levees.

On a long drive from Berkeley to Los Angeles this past January, I tried to stretch my mind as broadly as possible about the future situation we face. As I left one coastal California metropolis to visit another coastal California metropolis, I spent about four hours traversing the state's Central Valley, and it was the perfect place to mediate on the interrelationships of climate, migration, economic development, political culture, and more. Those reflections jolted me to attention, and led me to write California and Climate Crisis: The End?

For the past six months or so, I have found my mind returning again and again to those issues. Each time I think I know the one most important thing that I want to share, I find that new questions overtake me.

Maybe the best thing to do is to start by sharing the questions . . . .

(1) Why aren't we talking about "retreat"?
A few months ago, I read the book Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change by Ashley Dawson. It put facts around my sense that we're kidding ourselves when all we talk about is holding the rising sea back; we need to be talking about retreat.

This has been a growing concern of mine since at least 2013, when I wrote NYC + H2O = Uh-oh! Now that I live in the Bay Area, and I have friends who are scientists here, I am hearing in real time from them that there are significant areas near where I live that are at risk.

(2) Can investors possibly be blind to the coastal inundation threat? I have been particularly mystified by the "it's all a hoax" posture on the political right. Frankly, it doesn't matter what people say on Fox or in Twitter feeds; what really matters is where smart money is going. (See The Feel-Good Folly of Fossil-Fuel Valuation.) So how can it be possible that investors aren't fleeing anything that is associated with the risk of sea level rise? Why aren't they pulling back behind a safe margin?

(3) Will poor people be left holding the bag? A simple explanation is that society at large (and particularly the investor class) is taking sea level rise in stride because it's really just a small segment of the population that will be hurt -- the poor. ("The poor will have to be satisfied with whatever relief the rest of us deign to provide them.")

(4) Will the 99% be left holding the bag?  Another explanation is that, no matter what costs have to be born as coastal inundation happens, the 1% can count on the government to foot the bill. There will be a bail-out. It will be another "too big to fail" situation.

(5) Are we really that feckless? Places like New Orleans and Miami have a strange utility for people in the rest of the country, who are able to say, "Well, perhaps something bad is coming, but anyway Miami will have to deal with it long before we have to, here . . . . "

(6) Is higher ground the answer? Living in Berkeley, where I can glance up to all the elegant houses perched on the hills overlooking San Francisco Bay, it's easy to think, "Well, certainly they are in a safe place!" But I wonder if we underestimate how devastating it will be to our overall community and economy when even just a few percent of the businesses, infrastructure, and housing close to the Bay is compromised. At what point does "their problem" become "our problem"?

(7) Do we underestimate the impact of concurrent disaster? I sense there is a tendency to say, "Sure, coastal inundation is terrifying -- but we do know how to respond. Look at all the instances of hurricane recovery that we've done!" I fear people have not begun to take seriously what it means to be trying to hold back the sea in many locations at once.

Take a look at the interactive page set up by the New York Times -- "What Could Disappear" -- that let's you simulate what's in store for cities/regions like Boston, Baltimore, Charleston, Houston, Jacksonville, Los Angeles, Long Island, Miami, Mobile, New Jersey, New Orleans, New York City, Northern California, Philadelphia, Portland(both ME and OR), Providence, San Diego, Savannah, Seattle, Tampa Bay, Virginia Beach/Norfolk, Washington, Wilmington  . . . all at the same time . . . !

(8) Do we face unimaginable levels of human migration? If different parts of the US are at odds with each other over immigration today, what is it going to look like in years to come when many more millions are displaced in our immediate vicinity and worldwide due to sea level rise?

(9) Is it possible it's all going to come down on us faster than we expect? When I began reading the California reports I referenced in my January post, I noticed that much bigger, faster levels of sea level rise and inundation were projected than anything you typically hear about. I realized the full story is not reaching us. This was partly explained in Extreme Cities, which ways that scientists have become conditioned to behave "conservatively," i.e. not emphasize the direst possibilities, because if they do, people will stop listening to them.

What happens if we open our ears to the scientists' full story? A story in the East Bay Express this spring provided an epiphany for me:

Scientists predict that by 2100, global sea levels will rise 2 to 8 feet. And so far, the previous lower-end predictions of climate change have turned out to be too conservative. Some scientists also warn that a rapid disintegration of Antarctica's ice sheets could cause sea levels to jump 4 to 10 feet by century's end.

John Radke, a UC Berkeley associate professor of City and Regional Planning, has been examining models of likely impacts from sea-level rise on the Bay Area and California. He said the real threat from higher seas in the region will come from powerful storm surges during periods of heavy rain and high tides. "The storms are going to be more frequent," he said. "And the storms are going to be stronger."

Storm surge events will flood coastal areas, inflicting costly damage on shoreline homes and infrastructure. Radke said that, in the coming decades, Bay Area transportation officials will probably have to abandon Interstate 880 through Oakland, because it won't be worth repairing after it washes away repeatedly during floods. "If enough catastrophes happen, we might wake up," he said.

(See "The East Bay's Future Climate Will Be Both Dry and Wet" by Robert Gammon, East Bay Express, February 14, 2018.)

To imprint this reality on your brain, I recommend the documentary Chasing Ice. If you still think we've got all the time in the world, you'll change your mind after watching footage of a glacier edge the size of lower Manhattan disintegrate over the course of an hour.

(10) Will the US actually fall far behind the rest of the world in responding to sea level rise? The Trump Administration withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords woke people up to something they may not have thought about before: other countries may be doing it better. I'm particularly curious about what happens in more centrally-planned economies, that may be better accustomed to long-term thinking and national infrastructure management.

About five years ago I begin thinking about the parallel situations of the US and China in dealing with the climate crisis. (See #chinaEARTHusa - Radical Change? or Planetocide?) I now wonder if China may do a much better job than the US, when all is said and done.

More to come on each of these questions . . . .

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Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Trump Is Right: It's Time to Deprecate NATO and Denuclearize

NATO: Soooooo 1949!!

"Deprecate" is a fancy software word that means, "That's so last year. Don't use it any more. Everybody's doing this new thing . . . ."

I'm sure many in the defense establishment are having a conniption over Trump's deprecation of NATO. But maybe they just need to get with the times . . . ?

Ever since the NATO summit in Chicago in 2012, I've been struggling with this problem: NATO isn't helping us, and is probably hurting us, but it's got loads of supporters in the establishment and the general public is puzzled about what it's all about. So how do we ever move on?

That's why the word "deprecate" seems appropriate. While admitting that it's going to take some time to work the remnants out of the system, let's set our sights on the next thing and start developing.

You can see how how ready NATO is to be retired by looking at how even its supporters talk about it. Yesterday's New York Times touted the importance of NATO by dragging out the tired old quip that got the whole thing started 70 years ago:

"keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in and the Germans down"

(Oh, yeah, and the Times cited NATO's role in those paragons of successful military adventure: "Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa, and elsewhere.")


For years, I've been writing about the need for the US president to get down to the real business at hand: finish the job of negotiating nuclear disarmament with Russia.

Obama wouldn't even sit down with Putin. By scheduling a meeting with Putin, Trump is already ahead of the game.

As for NATO, one glaring problem is its annual war games at the Russian border (e.g. "US Army Launches War Games on NATO's Eastern Flank"). I wonder if during the next 48 hours, Trump will say something similar to his remarks with respect to Korea:

"Holding back the 'war games' during the negotiations was my request because they are VERY EXPENSIVE and set a bad light during a good faith negotiation. Also, quite provocative. Can start up immediately if talks break down, which I hope will not happen!"

That would lead to more conniptions at the Pentagon, I'm sure.

On the other hand, the nations of Europe (including all those erstwhile NATO members) should be the first to see the urgency of denuclearizing.

The US and Russia control the vast majority of the world's nuclear weapons.
(Image: Global News)

(More on Europe and denuclearization.)

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Monday, July 9, 2018

The Multimedia Church: Movie Night

Poster for screening of The Interrupters
at St. Luke's Logan Square, Chicago.
A friend brought up the idea the other night of having movie night at church.

It reminded me that we did quite a few screenings at the church I attended in Chicago, St. Luke's Lutheran Church of Logan Square. It occurs to me that the list of St. Luke's film screenings is not yet assembled in a single place, so here it is:

(We also screened Gasland, Love Free or Die, Encounter Point, and 9500 Liberty.)

The recent conversation reminded me that there were a few things we learned from our "Social Justice Film Series" at St. Luke's:

* Purpose - It's important to know what you are trying to do. We thought of ourselves as trying to encourage conversation on issues of concern to people in the congregation, and in the larger community.

* Connection to congregational activities - Often we were able to make a direct connection to one or more of the missions or activities of the congregation.

* Spread the word! - As the links above suggest, we did a number of things to tell people about each screening -- before and after each event. 

* Guest panelists - We were fortunate to be able to find one or two (or sometimes more!) knowledgeable guests to help with discussion following each film. Chicago has a wealth of community organizers and social justice activists.

* Discussion time - We learned that we needed to plan in order for there to be adequate time for discussion. Often we used Sunday afternoons for the film screenings/discussions (because after an evening film screening many people don't have the energy for discussion), and we tried to select films that were not too long.

* Steering - We had quite a robust social justice committee, and the process of programming the "Social Justice Film Series" was itself quite rewarding to the participants.

* Food - Last but not least: we always had a more lively participation and discussion if we provided ample refreshments.

Of course, this is not to say that we had all the answers. But we did start to understand some of the questions!

Now . . . I'm curious to learn about what other churches are doing with their movie nights!

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Tuesday, June 5, 2018

WHO IS SAFE? WHO IS WELCOME? Seeking a Prophetic Path Towards Liberation

Sanctuary: Caminando Hacia la Libertad
(Artist: Erkhembat Lasran, immigrant from Mongolia)

I wrote previously about the Sanctuary movement, and specific initiatives by University Lutheran Chapel in Berkeley and neighboring congregations: IN BERKELEY: Declaring Sanctuary, Changing Hearts and Minds.

This past weekend I joined several hundred other people of faith at a convening in Oakland: Sanctuary: Caminando Hacia la Libertad. The focus was "to learn tools and best practices to create a more prophetic path towards liberation."

There were many faiths represented at the convening, organized by Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity and hosted at the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California. I noted a study of 42 sanctuary congregations in Northern California, including two belonging to the denomination with which I am associated (ELCA).

The convening was extremely thought-provoking and generative. In my opinion, this event (which I hope will be repeated and enlarged), together with the other initiatives of Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, deserves the strong support of the ELCA and its West Coast synods.

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Thursday, May 31, 2018

Nuclear Danger: Three Ways of Talking About the Unmentionable

Unable to get nuclear weapons out of his mind: unreasonable?
(from I Live in Fear by Akira Kurosawa)

How do we talk about something that has been branded "impossible to talk about"?

After profiling a list of films about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, I've begun to think this is the fundamental problem of nuclear danger. Akira Kurosawa tackled the problem in his film, I Live in Fear (1955).

Courtroom drama

People love crime shows, police procedurals, and courtroom dramas. Wouldn't it be great if we could put nuclear weapons on trial?

Kurosawa does the next best thing in I Live in Fear: he sets up a court case pitting a family against a father, Nakajima, who is so terrified of the possibility of another nuclear blast that he is acting in ways they fear will tear the family apart. They bring a case in family court to have him declared incompetent so they can get control of the family finances.

The court is thus required to answer the question: Is the man's fear of nuclear weapons rational or irrational?

Nested within the court proceedings -- i.e. the activities of the three people acting as family court mediators and the family members who are parties to the suit -- we see several (ultimately unsuccessful) attempts to talk about nuclear danger, the failure of diverse forms of discourse.

The first form of discourse to crumble before nuclear danger is family deliberation. After decades of looking to the ever-practical father -- factory owner, business man, always planning, always weighing the risks, literally wearing belt and suspenders -- the family members become unable to understand what he is thinking. They singly and collectively just can't wrap their heads around his concern about the risk stemming from nuclear weapons, fallout, and radiation.

Family council in I Live in Fear.

And so the matter goes to court. As the court mediators carry out their careful, logical deliberations, it's clear they all consider Nakajima's concerns valid . . . up to a point. But ultimately they conclude "he's grappling with a problem far too big for any individual," and rule against him.

One of the mediators, the dentist, remains troubled, and goes in search of facts. (He is, after all, a scientist.) He reads the book, Ashes of Death, about nuclear weapons and radioactive fallout, and is so stunned by what he learns that he tells his son, "If the birds and beasts could read it, they'd all flee Japan." And yet . . . he goes along with the decision to declare Nakajima incompetent.

Conflict escalates and Najakima collapses. Near the end of the film, a doctor in a psychiatric hospital reviews the records of the case and the condition of the patient and muses, "I feel anxious. Is he crazy? Or are we, who can remain unperturbed in an insane world, the crazy ones?" Significantly, it is Nakajima who ends up locked in a cell.

Religion ("Hell")

Kurosawa offers an alternate tool for communication in I Live in Fear. At many junctures he reminds us that we have in "hell" a ready metaphor for what nuclear weapons threaten.

As you watch I Live in Fear, you can practically feel the heat as everyone in the film wipes the perspiration induced by the summer weather from their brows, and Nakajima frenetically rattles his fan. Nakajima's complexion is oddly dark, as if his skin has ashes rubbed into it. The family business is, it turns out, a foundry -- a scorching site of molten metal and noxious fumes -- and one that, in fact, finally goes up in flames near the end of the film. In a confrontation with the dentist in the street, Nakajima says, "I'm out of my mind with fear. I keep thinking about the H-bomb, but there's nothing I can do. It's a living hell." Nakajima describes the man who offers to provide land in Brazil as a safe haven for the family as "a Buddha come to save us from hell." In the film's penultimate scene, a now maniacal Nakajima cringes before a blazing summer sun and warns, "The Earth is burning!"

"The Earth is burning!"
(from I Live in Fear)

Suggestions of fire and heat aside, I wonder if the real hell Kurosawa wants us to remember from  I Live in Fear is Nakajima's inability to communicate with his family about nuclear danger. His frustration is palpable as he calls a family meeting and throws himself on the floor, begging that they join him in leaving Japan.

The film ends with the dentist descending a ramp towards indistinct lower levels of the psychiatric hospital . . . while Nakajima's mistress walks up the opposite ramp, cradling their infant child in her arms, toward the light-filled upper stories.

It is perhaps a sign of the authenticity of this film that it doesn't suggest the solution is easy. As reported by Donald Richie,

Kurosawa himself finds confusion in the film. "When we made it, the entire staff sensed our confusion. No one said very much and everyone worked hard and it was very hard work indeed." He kept remembering, he says, [collaborator Fumio Hayasaka's] words: "The world has come to such a state that we don't really know what is in store for us tomorrow. I wouldn't even know how to go on living -- I'm that uncertain. Uncertainties, nothing but uncertainties. Every day there are fewer and fewer places that are safe. Soon there will be no place at all." (Donald Richie, The Films of Akira Kurosawa, p. 112)

Which brings us to Fumio Hayasaka . . . .


The part of the story of I Live in Fear that I find most interesting is the way it came to be made, and the interaction of the actual people involved.

The idea for the film came out of conversation between Kurosawa and his long-time collaborator, the composer Fumio Hayasaka. Kurosawa describes a visit to Hayasaka:

[Hayasaka] was quite ill . . . and just before we had had word of the Bikini [H-bomb] experiments. When he said to me that a dying person could not work, I thought he meant himself. But he didn't, it turned out. He meant everyone. All of us. The next time I went to see him, he suggested we do a film on just this subject. He was quite taken with the idea and that is how the film began. (Richie, p. 109)

In other words, I Live in Fear was the result of two close friends who asked the question, "How can we create something that really matters, considering the danger nuclear weapons pose to the world?"

Hayasaka and Kurosawa

The film's lead is the frequent star of Kurosawa films, Toshiro Mifune. When I see him in this film playing against type -- i.e. not playing a strutting samurai as in Yojimbo or Seven Samurai, but a stooped and scared old man -- I imagine him putting everything he has into the mission set forth by Hayasaka, and taken up by Kurosawa.

Similarly, every time I see the film's dentist character, played by Takashi Shimura, I can't help thinking of the role played by Shimura in Ikiru [To Live] -- an ordinary bureaucrat who learns he will soon die and so determines to do one small thing to make a difference.

And so, one by one, a wider and wider circle of friends and colleagues took up the problem. After production, another cast member said: "Well we worked hard, didn't we? But from now on living our parts will be the more difficult." (as reported by Kurosawa Richie, p. 112)

And so here, as in my previous post, I propose that "We need powerful stories . . . and conversations!"

Which way?
(from I Live in Fear)

See also: more films and resources about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The Power of TV to Illuminate Nuclear Danger

I had chatted with almost everyone after the church service on Sunday when friends came up to me and said, "We thought of you when we watched the latest episode of Madam Secretary the other night. It's all about the US president ordering a nuclear strike!"

I'm not a regular watcher of Madam Secretary, but, by coincidence, the show had come up at dinner at the home of other friends a few days earlier. Now . . . it had my complete attention . . . .

Madam Secretary: What's your decision, Mr. President?

Sunday evening we sat watching Season 4, Episode 22, of Madam Secretary, "Night Watch": "Elizabeth and cabinet members brace for the fallout at home and abroad as President Dalton prepares for a retaliatory nuclear attack on a country that has reportedly just launched missiles bound for the U.S."

I was stunned to see the many ways in which this episode precisely conveyed the very real predicament we are in with the thousands of real nuclear weapons poised for quick use:

* the rush by the president to make a decision - a matter of seconds

* the role of dumb luck in averting disastrous use of nuclear weapons

* the fact that the government insiders know all about similar close calls in the past

* the fact that the government insiders know all about species-threatening nature of a nuclear exchange and subsequent nuclear winter

* overkill - the refusal of the defense establishment to reduce the most risky threats despite massive redundancy in the ability to kill with nuclear weapons (e.g. nuclear-weapon-armed submarines each capable of destroying an entire country)

* the fact that the current decision makers are all on a list to be whisked away to safe bunkers in the event of impending nuclear strike

* the importance of telling the truth to the public, and getting citizens demanding and supporting change

The show evidenced not just a command of detail. It represented a grasp of the overarching story -- and a talent in telling it -- that made me feel enormous respect and gratitude.

The Power of Story

Ever since I read a book about Harriet Beecher Stowe and the effect of her novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, I have been on the lookout for the medium that will communicate the story we are trying to convey about the danger of nuclear weapons and related concerns. (See Creative Resistance 101: Uncle Tom's Cabin.)

That's why, for instance, I am so focused on the story of Hiroshima, and the efforts of many writers and artists and filmmakers to tell that story. (See On Tanabe's "Message from Hiroshima.")

That's why I am so grateful every time activists stand up to explain the threat these weapons pose right now, like the event at Harvard a few months ago and the people who worked to bring it to a wider public via all kinds of media. (See Virtual Roundtable on Presidential First Use of Nuclear Weapons.)

That's why I applauded the Senate Foreign Relations committee for focusing on this very issue in a public hearing in November. (See the November 14, 2017, Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on "Authority to Order the Use of Nuclear Weapons.")

And that's why I am especially excited about what has been accomplished by Madam Secretary.

To reiterate what I wrote about earlier in my post about Stowe, the lesson for me in Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America, is that change can be catalyzed by popular entertainment, because it reaches a lot of people and engages their attention.

(For Madam Secretary, "a lot" means something like 6 million people.)

Having had a few years to digest that message, I would now also add: (a) the forms of popular entertainment are changing rapidly, so we need to be open to a wider and wider range of possible formats; and (b) we don't get to know in advance which version will succeed in really reaching people, so we need to try lots of them.

A warning

What's not to like about 6 million people?

I think a very good thing happened with Season 4, Episode 22 of Madam Secretary. But it also contained within itself a warning. When the Secretary of State is informed that the nuclear exchange is imminent and that she should hasten to the bunker, she chooses instead to remain with her family. As it happens, they are at an entertainment arcade. Apparently she reasons that it is all over anyway; they may as well enjoy what pleasure remains to them in the moments available. And she surrenders to the blinking lights and artificial sounds of the video games . . . .

Madam Secretary: Take one last look.

We are in a race against time. Our proliferation of entertainments lulls us into anesthesia.

Which brings me back to that conversation after church. I wouldn't have known about this show unless my friends had told me. And they wouldn't have told me if it hadn't been for an earlier dinner conversation about my work on nuclear disarmament. And I wouldn't have told other people about the episode -- much less written this post -- if my friends hadn't shared it with me so enthusiastically. All of which leads me to think, "We need powerful stories . . . and conversations!"

So: who will tell the story? and where are the conversations happening?

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Thursday, May 24, 2018

"Hiroshima Mon Amour" and the Horror of Forgetting

Have you ever noticed people have
a way of noticing what they want?
 - from Hiroshima Mon Amour

In the film Hiroshima Mon Amour, a Japanese man asks a French woman, "What did Hiroshima mean to you in France?" She sets out six propositions:

The end of the war. I mean completely.

Astonishment that they dared do it,

and astonishment that they succeeded.

And the beginning of an unknown fear for us as well.

And then indifference.

And fear of indifference as well.

No simple answers. And it just gets more complicated from there . . . .

Scene from Hiroshima Mon Amour

Hiroshima Mon Amour is a provocation. It challenges us to wrestle with the real possibility that we will only eliminate nuclear weapons when we invest our whole personalities -- our hearts and our souls -- in the project.

In recent days I have been profiling a list of films about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

So now we come to Hiroshima Mon Amour. It is a film jointly produced by French and Japanese studios, set in Hiroshima, with a French director, a Japanese leading actor (who himself starred in an earlier Japanese film about Hiroshima), a French leading actress (playing the role of an actress in a movie-within-the-movie set in Hiroshima), featuring a long opening sequence about the atomic bombing of Japan, and continuing with a tale of forbidden love set in Nazi-occupied France, all in the the context of an affair fated to lapse in a matter of a few hours . . . .

If you are an anti-nuclear activist, you might be forgiven for objecting to the way that the tragedy of Hiroshima may seem to be elbowed into the background by not one, but two, compelling love stories in this film. I know I certainly struggled with such feelings when as I first watched it.

Later as I listened to several interviews with the director, Alain Resnais, I began to warm to his approach. What I heard him saying was: providing the facts about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima to people is necessary but not sufficient; to have an impact, we must deal with people as complex, feeling beings, beings in a perpetual whirl of sensing, forgetting, and remembering.

Put another way, people are, at every second, electing where to direct their gaze. That face? The tale of irrational love? (Yes? Never?) Do I like this? Abhor it? Don't ever want to let it go? Will I feel what I want to feel? Or what I should feel? Will I think what I don't want to think?

Real. Genuine. Sordid. Artificial. Forced. Noble.

I can forget it all if I want to.

Hotel room scene from Hiroshima Mon Amour

The film scholar François Thomas speaks of "interlaced combs" - the way past and present intertwine in Hiroshima Mon Amour, the way remembering and forgetting intertwine, and ultimately the way personal trauma and global trauma do, too.

In the opening sequence, we hear a woman's voice recount what she has learned about Hiroshima and the atomic bombing, telling about museum exhibitions, victim photographs, newsreels, and other evidence, testifying over and over, "I saw it" -- alternating with the a man's voice contradicting, "You didn't see."

Museum scene from Hiroshima Mon Amour

Having recently visited Hiroshima, including the exhibits at the Peace Museum which are explored in detail in the course of that opening sequence, I can begin to understand both the forcefulness of her testimony and the immediate assault of that voice challenging, "What? What have you seen?"

I will carry two statements from Hiroshima Mon Amour with me:

First, the simple plea of the Japanese man, in his elementary French, to the woman:

Reste á Hiroshima avec moi.

Second, the woman's avowal:

I tremble at forgetting such love.

See also: more films and resources about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

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