Monday, June 28, 2010

Yeah, That Should Work

Having apparently exhausted all the human, technological, and governmental resources at our disposal--this includes Kevin Costner's really big centrifuges, which didn't work at all--Alabama Governor Bob Riley has turned to another resource: God.

That is to say, he named yesterday a state day of prayer and urged Alabamians to pray for those affected by the oil spill.

Now, there's a long history in this country of declaring days of prayer. The Puritans did it (usually when the crop was bad, witches were causing trouble, or Native Americans were peskily taking up arms to remain on their lands). Presidents have called such days during times of social unrest, economic downturn, and war. It seems that a group called "Catholics against Obamacare" called a day of prayer for September 11, 2009 in hopes of "Barack Obama's conversion and for the truth about his health care bill to come out." So there's ample precedent for Riley's call.

And I guess, in the big scheme of things, such a call is fairly harmless. That is, while it's unlikely to produce any tangible benefits--it certainly won't plug the leak, purge the waters and beaches, save the pelicans, or contribute one iota toward the clean-up effort--it won't actually make matters worse (as most of the technological shenanigans of the past months have).

But there is a way of thinking that suggests that days of prayer are ultimately counter-productive. If we content ourselves with praying, are we not avoiding the actions (both short-term and long-term) that might truly resolve the problem? Even worse, are we not giving ourselves license to continue performing the actions that are producing the problem? Hey, I PRAYED! So what if I bought an SUV and voted for a "drill, baby, drill" candidate?

This is why civil rights leaders such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King always linked prayer to action and reform. For these leaders, prayer was not an end in itself; it was preparation--mental, spiritual, social--for the real work that had yet to be performed. It was a means of purification, yes--but purification in the interest of selfless action, not purification in order to proclaim, self-servingly, one's own moral rectitude. Prayer to address the problem, not to wash one's hands of it.

That's the kind of prayer we need now. Because frankly, that water's pretty oily for hand-washing.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Denying the (Climate) Holocaust

I was doing some research for a class I’m preparing on Holocaust literature, and I came across a review of Holocaust films on Netflix that read in part, “It’s time for new facts and real research into [the Holocaust], not the old propaganda.” I was struck by this statement for a number of reasons, not least because it so resembled the complaints you hear from climate change deniers. To many, it seems, the accumulation of fact and research, the growth of scientific consensus on the subject, cast doubt on its validity; where most people agree that a preponderance of fact increases the likelihood of something being true, the deniers argue, paradoxically, that the more agreement there is among scientists, the more likely it is that the science is nothing but lies. I still remember the example that was used in high school to introduce us to scientific method: the statement “copper always burns with a green flame” was based on countless observations of copper burning with a green flame. This doesn’t prove beyond doubt that copper will always burn with a green flame. But it does render suspect the statement, “copper does not burn with a green flame” or, worse, “those who claim that copper burns with a green flame are trying to hoodwink an unsuspecting public with shameless, self-serving propaganda.”

Now, we all know the Holocaust occurred. The evidence is irrefutable. But there are still those who refute it, not only neo-Nazis but average people who insist that no matter how much evidence we amass--indeed, in direct relation to the increase of evidence--the whole thing must be a fabrication. And, without suggesting that climate change deniers are identical to Holocaust deniers, I’d like to explore the mentality that produces such an unwonted break from logic. In what follows, I’m going to avoid the most common explanation: that we deny climate change because acting to avert it would entail such monumental disruption in our way of life. That’s a big part of it, certainly, but I think there are other, perhaps even more fundamental psychological motivations at play.

The first of such motivations to come to mind is that people don’t readily accept bad news; this is why, as has been amply documented, denial is one of the predominant responses to terminal illness, whether one’s own or that of a friend or family member. The Holocaust, like global warming, is bad news; it sickens most people to confront what occurred there (as it sickens most to confront the scenarios for a post-climate-change planet), and some resort to denial, I suspect, as a means of softening the blow. Who wants to admit that the human race is so awful? Who wants to be a member of a species capable of such atrocities? It’s far more congenial to one’s self-image to believe that really bad things, even those that were produced by others and that happened to others (much less those that are produced by ourselves and will happen to ourselves), didn’t really happen. If the Holocaust did occur, it means, hypothetically, that it could occur again, or even more personally, that the people you think you know, the people you love, even the person you are, might be led to participate in it. Far better to deny, and in so doing to restore one’s faith in the essential goodness of friends, family, and self.

Then there’s the distrust of authorities or, at its most extreme, anti-intellectualism that’s been such a prominent part of America’s collective mentality for so long (and that’s been exploited so successfully by certain political parties to score points and win elections). Looked at not from a cultural but from an individual perspective, this aspect of the denier’s mentality makes perfect sense. Who wants to feel stupid? Who wants to be put in the position of a three-year-old having grown-ups explain the nature of reality to you? But that’s precisely where climate science puts the vast majority of us (I include myself): it’s so damn complicated, no matter how many analogies they try to use (greenhouses, blankets, etc.), we find ourselves being preached to by smarty-pants eggheads who think they know so much more than the rest of us. That’s a real blow to the ego, and it’s preferable for many to conclude that the eggheads don’t really know more than we do, in fact that they know less, and that in reality they’re only trying to confuse us to gain publicity, grant money, fame, and power.

Finally--and this is the most subtle and, in some ways, least explicable factor--there simply seems to be an information threshold or saturation point in the human mind, beyond which fact turns to falsehood, truth to lie. We can observe this in everyday life when we begin to doubt the professions of love from our partner, or the sincerity of our boss or congressperson, or the validity of our most deeply held religious beliefs. “The lady doth protest too much, methinks,” Hamlet’s mother remarks of the drama her son has staged to expose his uncle’s (her current husband’s) treachery; leaving aside her obvious desire to reject this all-too-true representation of events, her distrust of the performer’s words, her assumption that when “too much” is said in one direction the opposite must actually be true (and what is said mere performance), is familiar to all of us. Tell a person about climate change once, or a hundred times, and she might believe you. Tell the same person a thousand times, and she might begin to doubt.

Understanding the mentality of climate denial as I’ve tried to do here does not, perhaps, get us any closer to a solution. Polls show that in increasing numbers, Americans are denying the reality of climate change; their native capacity for doubt, enhanced by institutional provocateurs with considerable cash, clout, and interest, has undone much of what science managed to do in the past decade. And so we have no climate legislation, no international climate agreement, precious little money for alternative energies, and the chorus of “drill, baby, drill” continuing to mount despite the disaster in the Gulf. Far from overcoming denial, we have succeeded largely in augmenting it.

And should global holocaust actually ensue, I’m sure we will have people on the other side of that catastrophe insisting that it never happened.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Burning of Sarah Post

I recently sold a short story to the print digest Cover of Darkness, an anthology of dark fiction. It's due out this November. The story, titled "The Burning of Sarah Post," is set in a quasi-historical, quasi-Puritan community undergoing the throes of a witchcraft panic. I've been shopping it around for some time now, and it's great for it to finally have found a home.

For fun, I decided to post a "teaser," the first few pages of the story, to pique your interest. If you like what you read, why not pick up a copy of the book when it comes out?

The Burning of Sarah Post

by J. David Bell

Witchcraft, like gossip, spreads fast. No sooner does Agatha Simmons turn her toddlers to toadstools (she always was a bad mother) than Hester Rand turns the head of John Samuels, perfumes and potions, and lures him from home and hearth and his poor sweet idiot Annie. Next you know Annie’s raising warts and boils, welts and warts again on Prothall Rand’s prize show cow Prudence, and fifteen year old Lilly, the Reverend’s housekeeper, is curdling milk and sprinkling spiders in the Reverend’s wife’s shortbread. Before the week’s out it’s not safe to go abroad for fear of being hailed on by dead newts, or shoved by giggling invisible demons into the pigtrough, or snatched by the Devil himself and danced naked in the forest under scrawls of chicken blood and the red tongues of crosses burning.

Sarah Post was a witch. The rains that bestirred the roads to mud that fall also churned up evil, and it lay over the town like a film of oil on a puddle of still water. It was green if you saw it in a certain light; as your shadow fell on it, black as tar; and if in passing you stole a hindward glance, glistening like wet sugar. Children running averted their steps and tripped past; the old black cat sniffed it and backed away, mangy bristles erect; even the great Daniel Oldfather refused to touch it with his twisted walking stick, as if for fear that hands beneath would drag him deep down and under. At its mere mention a shiver threshed the town like leaves curling in fire.

Her hair was black as bat’s wing across pumpkin moon, her eyes green like the place beneath the lift of a wave, her skin so pale it seemed a reflection of itself in a night window. Nestled in the webbing of her lip was a scar, dark and wet, as if she’d nipped herself and not done bleeding. She lived alone, in the hut on forest’s edge her mother had left her; she strayed to the woods accompanied only by the black cat, which trailed her as if she might be something good to eat. She spoke little, even when spoken to; she labored till dawn, rose at dusk, and sojourned seldom in public places; she tended her garden on the Lord’s day, planting strange herbs that climbed vines out of the moist black earth, their blooms smelling of garlic and onions. Suitors she had none, though in the past they’d braved the stinging air to deliver flowers and suchlike gifts. These she’d pitched with other rot on the backyard heap.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

All Apologies

BP has now released a commercial apologizing for the catastrophic (and apparently unstoppable) oil spill in the Gulf. In the commercial, CEO Tony Hayward, earlier blasted for his off-the-cuff "get my life back" comment, stares earnestly into the camera and tells everyone that BP is trying its very hardest to clean up the mess. He praises the government, assures citizens that no tax dollars will go to the clean-up, expresses his deepest concern for the people of the Gulf states, and takes "full responsibility" for the environmental disaster.

Meanwhile, in the world of sports, Jim Joyce, the umpire whose bad call deprived pitcher Armando Galarraga of a perfect game, issued an apology of his own, this one apparently full of profanity--at least, the reports I read had lots of words bleeped out--in which he took full responsibility for the muffed call. A friend of mine, posting the story on Facebook, suggested that Joyce's willingness to apologize, and the gracious acceptance of said apology by everyone affected by his call, showed the sort of moral courage that BP lacks. Indeed, she even went so far as to say (I'm quoting,and not kidding) that "If Joyce, Galarraga, and [manager Jim] Leyland ran BP, there wouldn't be a spill or the spectacle of the guy at the top whining that he wants his life back. . . ."

Frankly, I don't follow the logic. If Jim Leyland ran BP, he'd drill holes into the ocean floor; that's what the CEOs of oil companies do. And when one of those holes sprang a leak, as it most assuredly would, he'd apologize, just as Hayward has (however belatedly) apologized, because that's also what the CEOs of oil companies do.

But who cares? Apologies are easy; hell, I make them all the time. On the other hand, I also try to avoid doing things for which no apology could possibly be useful or even acceptable. So, for example, I don't drill holes into the ocean floor and release millions of gallons of crude into a fragile ecosystem.

When I was a teenager, I umped a few ball games to make some money, and I made plenty of bad calls; though I was a good ballplayer, I wasn't much of an umpire. But since it seems all I need to do to redeem myself is apologize, I'd like to say "I'm sorry" to all the kids whose strikes were actually balls, and to the runner I called out when the first baseman had clearly trapped the throw.

I'm sure everyone feels better now. I'm sure the people and pelicans of the Gulf can all sleep soundly.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Vikings Liking Warming

So I read today in National Geographic that many folks in Greenland are enthusiastic about global warming. Remember, the Vikings settled the place during a particularly warm period--and vanished when the climate cooled during the Little Ice Age of the 15th century. If the island heats up again and the ice sheet melts in whole or in part, that will enable a longer and more diverse growing season, prompt tourism, and--most importantly--open up frozen seas to offshore drilling. It could be a great boon for Greenland's economy.

Of course, if the Greenland ice sheet melts in its entirety, sea levels worldwide will rise by some 24 feet, inundating coastlines everywhere (including, presumably, Greenland's own). And when you start to equate offshore drilling with economic nirvana, you have to remember the minor detail of the BP oil spill, which has killed the fishing and tourism industries of the affected areas for the foreseeable future, not to mention introducing long-term clean-up and public health costs that will certainly be borne largely by the communities, not by BP. And, oh yeah, there's that pesky problem of destroying the planet we live on.

All of which proves that the people of Greenland, at least those who look to global warming for salvation, are no more or less insane than the rest of us. The Vikings failed when the climate unexpectedly and unpredictably shifted on them. These days, we can see it coming--and still we refuse to believe.