In the summer of 2018, I enjoyed a wonderful visit to the coast of Oregon.
I have long wanted to show all of the photographs of marine creatures we observed while tide-pooling, and the pictures of the fresnel lens from the Yaquina Point Lighthouse, and the sea lions surfing at Cape Arago! It was one of those places where, even before you left, you found yourself planning your next visit; all you want to do is get back again and spend more time there.
Oregon coast - Summer 2018
Sometime after that visit, however, I read about the Cascadia Subduction Zone and the accompanying earthquake and tsunami risk, and I have now come to realize that what I need to show is a different set of images. I have been writing a lot about how bad we are at thinking about catastrophic risk, especially as it relates to nuclear weapons risk, and it seems to me that the Cascadia tsunami risk could be instructive to think about in this context.
Many people became aware of the risk associated with the Cascadia Subduction Zone by reading a 2015 New Yorker article by Kathryn Schulz, "The Really Big One." In it, Schulz describes the peculiar geologic plate characteristics of the Northwest United States coast, the way it leads to catastrophic tsunami risk, the evidence that has been amassed that such events will happen periodically, and the scale of death and destruction likely when human populations are in their path.
The article had a big impact, I think, because people reading it asked themselves, "How could I have not known about this?" -- and then, "I had an idea about earthquakes but this goes way beyond that!" -- and then, "Do I really want to make that trip to Seattle?"
For those of us who benefit from seeing moving images, the documentary, "Shockwave: Surviving North America's Biggest Disaster," provides excellent footage of the simulations that scientists and public safety officials in the Pacific Northwest are doing to try to protect populations there. A brief (and rather understated) version of this information is in the video below from Oregon State University:
I think it is significant that there is a consensus that over a time horizon that people can imagine -- the next 50 years -- there are odds of this catastrophic event -- about 1 in 3 -- that feel very real. It is interesting to think about what we might do differently if we were able to specify and quantify nuclear weapons risk in the same way.
There are three other things I think are important about this, particularly with regard to thinking about other hard-to-conceptualize catastrophic risks, such as nuclear weapons risk.
(1) Our existing institutions are insufficient.
There is great work being done by scientists to quantify and otherwise define the associated risk, and by public safety officials to try to get people to prepare. The data has only become clear in recent years, and they are moving as fast as they can. Nonetheless, in our system of social organization, they cannot force anyone to get out of harm's way.
In particular, people's love of the ocean and the tendency to congregate in large number in low-lying coastal areas tend to undermine all of the efforts of scientists and officials to shoo people out of harm's way.
If scientists and officials emphasize the worst scenario, people accuse them of scare tactics. If they emphasize lesser scenarios, people say, "Well, I can handle that!"
(2) Our minds reject the horror associated with this risk.
When I was in Oregon, I saw tsunami evacuation signs like this:
Tsunami Hazard Zone warning sign (via OSU's Hinsdale Wave Laboratory)
At the time I thought that meant I might need to be sure to move a few feet inland or I might get my feet wet.
I now know that it referred to risk of the kind Schulz described in that original New Yorker article:
A grown man is knocked over by ankle-deep water moving at 6.7 miles an hour. The tsunami will be moving more than twice that fast when it arrives. Its height will vary with the contours of the coast, from twenty feet to more than a hundred feet. It will not look like a Hokusai-style wave, rising up from the surface of the sea and breaking from above. It will look like the whole ocean, elevated, overtaking land. Nor will it be made only of water—not once it reaches the shore. It will be a five-story deluge of pickup trucks and doorframes and cinder blocks and fishing boats and utility poles and everything else that once constituted the coastal towns of the Pacific Northwest.
I don't want to picture what this would look like. The State of Oregon has provided assistance in some of its public safety literature:
Or, you can check out another video -- it's got a goofy premise ("What If You Tried to Surf a Tsunami?") but it actually compiles simulations that seem to more closely match the conditions being described by Schulz:
(I notice the video with the goofy premise has been watched by over 6 million people, so maybe that's the way to get the word out . . . . )
I try to imagine myself confronting a tsunami wave like that. Then I try to imagine myself explaining to myself why I put myself in the way of that wave, even after I had known about the risk.
I often go to bed at night thinking, "Is it really true that I could wake up in the morning and hear that it finally happened? And that far from being able to be warned eight hours in advance, in fact, as a little as a few hours or minutes beforehand there would be no warning?" And I wonder how I would go to sleep if I lived there.
(3) People are stubborn.
There is something about having a home or other structure that makes people resistant to change. I remember watching a documentary about the consequences of Hurricane Sandy in which an official commented upon the reflexive response to "Rebuild!" after natural disaster damage, instead of moving out of harm's way. How much more so do we resist retreat when the risk all lies in the future?
In our society, we tend to say, "everyone's entitled to their opinion," and "we can't tell people what to do." But it seems to me there's an enormous moral hazard generated by our tolerance of the stubbornness of people with respect to certain catastrophic risks. This is especially so when the society as a whole helps bear those risks.
I wonder what might be different about the efforts to protect against nuclear weapons risk if we could learn from the efforts to protect against tsunami risk in the Pacific Northwest, particularly:
(1) Not waiting for institutions to make sure we're protected.
(2) Facing up to what the horror would really look like.
(3) Start asking questions about the naysayers - who will pay the price when the worst really does come to pass?
Now, some have argued that our major weakness to date has been the absence of a suitable spokescat. There was a time when I simply didn't believe this, but I have at last taken this point of view to heart, and after a long series of interviews above have arrived at a provisional arrangement for representation with the feline pictured above.
The problem with getting into bed (so to speak) with a cat is that you can't avoid being subjected to their opinions. This particular cat -- who began referring to himself as "Nine" after viewing a popular series on Netflix -- has many opinions.
Before I had known Nine for very long, Nine began insisting that even if people aren't thinking about the risk of nuclear weapons harm, they are all acting on it. "Consciously or unconsciously, everyone is making a bet on whether they are placing themselves in harm's way," Nine says.
"That's ridiculous," I said to Nine, when Nine first suggested this to me. "The problem is that people don't know enough about the dangers."
"Au contraire," Nine replied. "No one doesn't know about the nuclear arsenals that the US and Russia (and a few other countries) have aimed at each other. Every school kid reads Hiroshima . . . ."
"But if that's true," I said, "how come they're not all working for nuclear disarmament?"
"Because they've placed a different bet," said Nine. "For every one person who's placed a bet on their personal ability to save the world by bringing about nuclear disarmament, millions have place a bet on spending as many of their days as they possibly can as far from trouble as they can get."
"You mean like somebody living in Arkansas with a fallout shelter in the backyard?"
"Well, far away from the National Command Center as possible, anyway?"
"National Command Center?"
"That's Washington, DC, to you."
"Okay, that's just crazy, because then how do you explain all the people who do choose to live and work in Washington, DC?"
"Look" said Nine, "there are all kinds of bets . . . . "
I must have looked glum, because then Nine said, "Hey, cheer up! The important thing, as far as you're concerned, is that whenever there are people making bets, at least some of them will be looking for ways to hedge their bets!"
"What are you talking about?" I said.
"Well . . . ," Nine continued, "I haven't worked out all the details, but there have got to be some ways to help people hedge the risk that they've exposed themselves to by living in a place that's economically robust but too dangerous ... or by living in a place that is safe but too remote. I've already got a name -- Catsense (TM) -- and a slogan: "Because you only have one life to live .... "
In short, I suggested that the minute we start to take time for ourselves -- time to reflect, time to heal, time to grow -- we begin to have more power as activists (and begin to be more threatening to the state).
An activist friend of mine talked this morning on social media about some of the dreams he has been having. It seemed like a good time to share something that's been developing with me:
"In the past few years, I've written more and more of my dreams down. I now set aside quiet time alone each morning to do it, and also to reflect. It is astonishing to me how clearly and completely I can remember the contents of dreams ... sometimes ... but other times, as I turn my waking attention to some little thing, the dream vanishes!"
My friend had used an expression -- "like trying to hold onto wisps of fog" -- that seemed to me to exactly capture that last-mentioned phenomenon.
At first, I just focused on recall: how much of the dream could I remember? To my surprise, I found that if I had just a small "hook" to remind me of the dream experience, and if I relaxed, it would all come back at great length and in startling detail.
Soon I realized that it was fun to notice the little tidbits from the previous day(s) waking experience that formed the raw material or props of the dream. I'd write that down, too.
Occasionally, it seemed pretty obvious that the dream was about something I was wanting or needing or wishing for. And so that is another thing I've started to jot down.
Sometimes I even have very clear visual impressions from the dream. I do a little sketch of that.
The path one dream followed
After a long time, I started a practice of going back to the pile of notes of past dreams and transcribing them onto my computer. I noticed three interesting things.
First, often when I read the notes from a dream that I had years ago, I recall it with crystal clarity.
Second, there are certain motifs or tropes that recur. (For instance, bizarre elevator rides.) I've started to make a list of these recurring tropes in my dreams, and I'm discovering that the list is getting longer and longer!
Third, even if the dream didn't seem to mean anything at the time, after returning to it at a later time, perhaps coming at it from a different mood or with a different attitude or outlook, it can often seem quite meaningful in the new light.
They say that our sleeping time is full of dreams, and that we only ever remember a tiny fraction. As I look back over the "haul" of notes on my dreams of the past few years, and realize it's just a drop in the bucket compared to everything my brain is working on, I can't help thinking, "You're working very hard, little brain! Thanks for all that effort you're making!"
One dream had a jar of paint in a distinct burgundy color. (What's up with that?)
As for my assertion from nearly a decade ago -- that taking time for "ownlife" gives us more power as activists and makes us more threatening to the
state -- I don't yet have an assessment vis-a-vis the impact of my own dream work. I'll need to devote some time to reflect on that. (Maybe I'll even dream on it.)
Since that time, I've also internalized what I understand to be Foucault's central premise: the temptation to have power over other people is enormous, and it's particularly difficult to resist when it is accomplished in the guise of something else, something that we tend to consider very positive -- observing, comprehending, recording, organizing.
That has spiritual implications at the level of individual experience -- the observing, comprehending, recording, organizing that we do as we seek to navigate the external world -- and that is something I plan to write about in a future post.
But it also has implications for the ways in which we are subjected to observing, comprehending, recording, organizing. I've become more and more aware of the way that the many tiny bits of data that we now slough off each day, like so many dead skin cells, add up -- in the hands of large computer operators (Big Data) -- to terrifyingly complete and intimate pictures of our personal lives.
Some time in late 2020, I watched the documentary, The Social Dilemma, on Netflix: "This documentary-drama hybrid explores the dangerous human impact of social networking, with tech experts sounding the alarm on their own creations." The whole documentary is insightful, and the commentary by Jaron Lanier is particularly good. My key takeaway from that documentary was: don't talk about "if" artificial intelligence (A.I.) takes over, as if it is something in the distant future; AI is already operating on us in the form of the social networks that we participate in day after day.
What I've particularly struggled with since then is this: how can we ordinary people use social media to benefit us, without all of it falling into the maw of A.I.?
It made me think of this picture that one of my kids drew when they were about three (above).
(At the time it was amusing, and my main feeling was pride at how clever my child was. It reminded me of Grendel, and I wondered if they had been reading Beowulf behind my back. Now I'm more terrified .... )
The thing that is so painful is that, each day as any of us interacts with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Linkedin -- or even this blog -- not to mention every Google search or credit card purchase, we are not being strong-armed into coughing up our deepest secrets -- we're willingly surrendering them! (To quote Roy in the movie Matchstick Men, "You didn't take it. I gave it to you.")
So, yes, Foucault ... power, observing, comprehending, recording, organizing. Yes: drones. Yes: Big Brother; yes: surveillance.
But maybe the BIG question we each need to ask ourselves when we wake up each morning is:
"How much – and what type – of data will I surrender today?"
How much brain space -- and what kind of brain space -- are we humans capable of giving to certain particularly horrific risks we face?
Sunset - Madeline Island - January 2019
During the 3-1/2 years I lived on Madeline Island, I took dozens of pictures of surreal, beautiful sunsets. But the one above was a little too surreal. When I saw it, I thought, "Could that be something awful happening hundreds of miles to the south of us, in the big cities of Madison, Milwaukee?"
It reminded me of a dream I had had a few years earlier, when we were still living in Berkeley:
Last night I dreamed that I was driving home into the Bay Area from a long trip, and I saw the mushroom cloud. ...
It had really happened. ... "What will happen now?" I wondered. "Will it reach us here?"
I didn't have a very practical idea of what to do ... other than to keep on going.
My dream from there: traversing unfamiliar terrain ... bridge out ... try to "get back the long way 'round" .... )
When I woke up from that dream, I thought, "I'm involved in activism on the issue of nuclear disarmament and I talk with people about it and think about it all the time; but I've never envisioned myself actually dealing with a nuclear detonation occurring near me." And then I thought, "Am I capable of treating it like the real possibility that I believe it is?"
I wonder if we are capable of treating the threat of nuclear weapons use like the real possibility that it is without shutting down intellectually and emotionally.
I'm thinking of this today because, as I unpacked papers in our new home in Madison, I found notes I had made about a piece of music: Symphony No. 15 by Dmitri Shostakovich. My notes reminded me that I have surmised that the clue to this enigmatic final symphony of his is that it has something to do with the fate of humanity in the face of the nuclear threat. I have nothing to base this on other than the "story" that the disparate parts of the symphony speak to me. In particular, the last minutes of the symphony seem to come down to the sound of a clock ticking . . . and then silence. (The way it ends with a whimper, like the sound of time running out, reminded me of the climax of a later work -- the opera Dr. Atomic, by John Adams -- in which the Trinity test is about to happen and time e-x-p-a-n-d-s . . . . in an excruciating type of anticipation: what will the future hold - if anything?)
Shostakovich wrote No. 15 in the 1970-71 period, coinciding with the SALT talks on arms limitations. It would not be unreasonable for the issue to have been on his mind at the time.
Once I start thinking in this way, I hear all kinds of things in the course of the symphony: skeletal xylophones, a game of "chicken" evoked with the William Tell Overture, martial music, circus music, a piccolo "whistling past the graveyard," a funeral chorale, a dirge, a desolate landscape, funereal and tentative steps, a heavy quote from the Ring Cycle (is it the "fate" motif?), followed by a very light air that seems to say, "La-di-da, life will go on as usual," then stress, trudging, plodding, ... finally blaring brass and then that ticking clock.
Besides the Adams piece referenced above, I think the piece also has connections to the stormy Dies Irae in Verdi's Requiem, and to Britten's War Requiem. (A friend of mine has also suggested I compare it to Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima by Penderecki.
Shostakovich was depicted on the cover
of TIME magazine wearing his firefighter's
helmet during World War II.
It's almost certainly impossible to come up with "proof" about what Shostakovich intended with this symphony, and, if it were possible, that proof surely be subjected to all of the same doubt and refutation that every other aspect of Shostakovich's thinking has been.
What seems more important is what it means to me to find this meaning in the music. Why do I connect these abstract musical signals to this particular issue, the issue of nuclear weapons threat?
I think we need works of art -- just like we need dreams -- to help us work through the things we can't bear to position too concretely, too explicitly, in front of our eyes, full-on, in bright light, with sharp definition, at least not all the time.
Maybe Shostakovich 15 has no direct utility to offer in the effort to avert the harm we face from nuclear weapons. But I do know that it -- like many other works of art -- serves to help at least one peace worker to continue to struggle to work through in his mind what to do about this staggering problem that we face.
Speaking of minds and imaginations, perhaps if I had more courage, I would follow through with my plan to concoct a Gogolesque tale of finding a yellowed letter tucked into a mildewed copy of Testimony in forgotten used bookstore in far northern Wisconsin . . .
You have asked me about my intent in writing my 15th. Many people have remarked (rejoiced, even!) that I had not written another "programmatic" symphony. They're tired of my commemoration of historical events.
They're right - 15 is not about an historical event, not really. But it IS about a true event. Even though it still lies in the future, is there any doubt that it IS going to happen?
It started with a dream. You know I visited Berkeley . . . .
But who knows where that might have led?
Below is a link to the final movement of Symphony No. 15 by Dmitri Shostakovich. What do you think?
At this writing, it's been viewed by over 880,000 people.
Three quick thoughts:
(1) Does New York City have a "Back From the Brink" resolution, like Chicago? It's good that they recognize the danger; how about advocating for the kind of change that could reduce the risk?
(2) It's good that 880,000 have now been provoked to think about the reality: as long as the current global nuclear weapons regime continues as it is, New York City and everyone who lives there is extremely vulnerable.
(3) Maybe New York City should be promoting a different message. Many experts say that encouraging people to think that they will be able to escape in the event of a nuclear attack is irresponsible, and that the responsible thing to do is alert people to the reality that the only way out is prevention.
This decades-old video is still the best thing I know for "getting real" about the danger associated with nuclear war for large cities: