Thursday, March 31, 2011

Wake Up and Smell the Poison

This morning, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that inspectors policing the drilling operations in the Marcellus Shale will no longer be able to do anything--issue permits, enforce regulations, cite violations--without approval of top Department of Environment officials. According to DEP spokespeople, this will bring "consistency" to the regulatory process. Yet oddly enough, such consistency is being sought only in regard to the Marcellus Shale; the same policy does not apply to any of the other regulatory protocols the DEP oversees.

Come on, people! This is a shameless ploy to strip independent inspectors of their power to regulate the shale drilling, and to place all decisions in the hands of political appointees whose jobs are dependent on an administration utterly sympathetic to the drilling industry. It's one step short of having the drillers issue their own permits and cite their own violations. My guess is, they wouldn't find themselves having committed any.

Tom Corbett's office denies having had anything to do with the policy change. And if you believe that one....

When are ordinary Pennyslvanians going to wake up and smell the poison?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Chimaera Story

Well, after yesterday's gloom-and-doom message, maybe you're not ready for this announcement, but here goes: I had a new story accepted for publication. It's called "A Chimaera Story with Four Morals," and it was picked up by Jersey Devil Press. Should be out in June, at which time I'll provide a link.

Funny story about this story: when I originally wrote it, I had in mind some bizarre, tongue-in-cheek, self-referential parody of the "sci-fi apocalypse" narrative. So I wrote it that way--or at least thought I'd written it that way--and sent it off. Turns out there's a very straightforward, mournful tale about loss and the relationship between fathers and sons lurking within the madcap prose, and the editor at JDP was sharp enough to pick it up. So I was advised to trim out the parts that worked against the inner story and let it emerge. I was reluctant to do so at first--it's easy to fall in love with one's own high concepts--but once I did it, I realized the editor was right, and it's much better in its current form.

It just goes to show, you never really know what you're doing when you sit down to write. Sometimes, maybe all the time, you're better than you think.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Evil That Men Do

The murder of a teenage girl in my hometown has set me on a course of rather gloomy reflections. The person accused of the crime, a teenage boy, is alleged to have convinced her to play hooky from school, then, at her home, perhaps while attempting to rape her, he is accused of shooting her in the chin, a wound that would not in itself have been fatal. He is then, however, alleged to have covered her with a blanket, which he proceeded to set on fire, whether to cover the crime or merely for the thrill of seeing another living creature burn I don't know. She died of smoke inhalation. While she died, the boy is alleged to have looted her house, taking (among other things) that other favorite of a species bent on rapine and destruction: a video game.

Reading between the lines, my wife, a mental health professional, speculates that this girl, who was described as "simple" and "trusting" and who could neither read nor write, was mentally retarded.

So there you have it: a boy who snuffs out the life of a profoundly innocent creature merely because, I suppose, it fulfilled some need of his own. And in that respect, he's pretty much like the rest of us.

Assuming he doesn't get the death penalty--and though he's being tried as an adult, I hope he doesn't, because what's the point of adding more death to the original death?--he'll spend sixty or so years in prison. There, he'll perhaps learn to feel bad about what he's done. But what can he ever feel, what can he ever do, to justify, atone, or compensate for this act?


Which brings me to the human species of which he is, sadly, all too representative. We've caused untold chaos on this planet, much of it directed against ourselves, much of it directed against other species and the planet itself. What have we ever done, what can we ever do, to justify, atone, or compensate for our acts?


Those seeking to find extrinsic value in human life--that is, value that goes beyond our value to ourselves--can point at a number of accomplishments as evidence that, despite all the bad we've caused, we're still capable of producing good. But I'm not buying any of it.

Art and music? Sure, they're nice to look at and listen to, but all they do in the end is fulfill our own needs. They have no extrinsic value whatsoever.

Technology? Most of it has been bent toward the destruction of human and non-human life and the gutting of the planet. Some of the rest has been dedicated to making us feel good about how smart we are: landing on the moon, for example. And the rest has either helped prolong or enrich human life or attempted to fix some of the planetary messes we ourselves have caused. So again, none of it has value beyond what it produces for us or, in the latter case, what it would not have needed to produce had we never come along in the first place.

Human rights? Well, if there hadn't been human wrongs, there'd have been no need to develop human rights. All the human rights movements throughout history have done little more than move us marginally closer to respecting each other in ways that the simplest caterpillar instinctively respects its fellow caterpillars. And even if we go all the way--that is, even if we arrive at a point where all human life is treated with dignity and care--we'll have done no more than fulfill another intrinsic need, a need to value ourselves.

The human species, in short, is exactly like every other species in this fundamental respect: we seek to fulfill our needs and preserve our lives. There are only two differences between us and everything else. On the one hand, we've needlessly deprived trillions of other organisms--human and non-human--of the same desires; and, on the other, we appear to be the only species capable of recognizing, conceptualizing, and articulating these desires. In consequence, we seem to think that fulfilling them is inherently more significant than the fulfillment of those desires in and by other species.

We even have recourse to God to provide extrinsic justification of our biological needs. All I can say to that argument is, if it's true that the most depraved, destructive species the planet has ever known is God's personal favorite, then God has some serious issues.

Maybe we make the argument for God because otherwise, we couldn't live with ourselves.

In the end, these reflections are not despairing (much less suicidal). I want to live just like everyone else. I enjoy life. I enjoy music, art, certain forms of technology, Nature, my family, my writing, and lots of other things besides. I've done some good to other human beings and non-human beings in my life (and also some bad). I just don't think the things I've done justify my existence.

That teenage girl wanted to live, too. Maybe that's all she wanted. And no matter what the person who did this to her may do in the future, the one thing he most assuredly cannot do is give that back to her.

Monday, March 28, 2011

My Maine Man

Inspired by my own analogy of a week ago, I came up with this cartoon to satirize Tom Corbett's position on a natural gas severance tax. For the record, his administration is now talking about some kind of monetary compensation for communities hard hit by the environmental effects of fracking, but he's still insisting that a severance tax is "off the table."

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

There He Goes Again

If he has his way, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett--he who refuses to impose a severance tax on multi-billion-dollar natural gas companies--is about to impose a huge severance tax on ordinary Pennsylvanians.

A severance tax is a tax on the use of public resources. In the case of natural gas extraction, for each unit of gas taken (or severed) from Pennsylvania's lands, the gas company pays a marginal tax.

Corbett (and the Republican-controlled State Senate) won't impose such a tax. They claim it would drive industry away. Forget the fact that every other state in the Union that possesses shale gas formations, including tax-averse Texas, imposes such a tax. Forget, too, that the gas companies are limited in where they can drill; there's no shale gas underneath Rhode Island, so drilling there would be like fishing for lobster in Arkansas. Facts be damned, Corbett, his campaign coffers swelled by industry dollars, has stood firm against a severance tax.

At the same time, Corbett's proposed budget would slash funding for public education at every level, from K-12 through college. The results of these proposed cuts would be catastrophic (I just read that the Duquesne public school district might close entirely), but that's Corbett and the Republican party: cut taxes, slash budgets and public services, and boost industry, and we'll live in a utopia.

But the thing is, such a program does not cut taxes. It raises them. In the case of Pennsylvania's public colleges and universities, Corbett's budget proposes a roughly 50% cut in state funding. The result, inevitably, is that public education in Pennsylvania will become more costly; the schools will have no choice but to raise tuition (or, what is in essence the same thing, to drastically cut services, which students will then have to pay for themselves). Thus the budget cuts effectively impose a severance tax: for each unit of education taken (or severed) from the public system, students and their families will have to pay an increased amount. To finance this additional tax burden, especially in these days of cuts to federal and state grant money, they'll have to take on the additional tax burden of bank loans. Or, what is equally likely, they'll have to forego college altogether.

You'll tell me this isn't about taxes. But it is. Pay now or pay later, services in a society cost money; you can either pay for those services through direct taxes of one sort or another, shared (in theory) equitably by the society that benefits from the services, or you can pay for them through higher costs. From the perspective of the taxpayer/consumer, what's the difference?

Corbett, in short, is not opposed to raising taxes. Rather, like all Republicans, he simply wishes to shift the burden of taxation from those most able to afford it--the corporate and the wealthy--to those least able to afford it: the middle classes and the poor. Thus the social benefits of public services, whether they be gas or education, will be disproportionately enjoyed by the rich, while the social costs (not only in terms of dollars but, as with gas extraction, in terms of environmental impacts) will be disproportionately borne by the poor.

But there's a bright side to all this. I'm sure all those kids who can't afford school can find really good jobs working on natural gas rigs.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Worth Reading

Having critiqued a short story not my own in a recent post, I thought I'd introduce a story I thought was terrific. It's titled "Tomorrow People"; I can't remember the author's name, unfortunately, but who really cares? I'm interested in stories, not authors. And you can look it up yourself if you're so inclined.

"Tomorrow People" is set in 2040-ish, but it's not science fiction. Oh, there were a few offhand references to technologies that don't currently exist, but that's just for flavor. The real story concerns the narrator, a pre-teen boy whose college-aged sister was killed when a terrorist nuclear bomb destroyed the city of San Francisco. His parents and older brother don't talk about her, and they've kept no images of her; when he sees an old picture of his parents on his dad's laptop and asks one too many questions about it, thinking his sister might have been the photographer and he might be able to catch a glimpse of her in the sunglasses his mom is wearing, his dad scrubs the picture from his hard drive. So this is definitely a post-9/11 story, a tale of memory and loss, or of lost memory.

The story takes a turn when a neighbor, a former soldier in the ongoing war against those who destroyed San Francisco, brings home a Muslim boy who has lost his own family in the war. The narrator, who committed an unthinking act of anti-Muslim prejudice the year before--spraypainting epithets on the toilet stall of a mosque his school visited--wants nothing to do with the new arrival, and neither does the Middle Eastern child want to make friends with Americans. But the child's adoptive father keeps trying to get the two together, the narrator's mother wants her son to atone for his act of the year before, and the two are forced into an awkward, tension-filled meeting.

If this sounds a bit like the story I disliked, "Summer, Boys"--two pre-teen boys making friends over the summertime--well, it sort of is. But it's a far superior story in every way: unpredictable, far less mannered in its writing style, and about something that strikes me as far more significant, or at least bigger, than that of two boys coming of age. I won't spoil the story by telling anything more about it; I'll just say it's inspired me to try a story of my own that I've had in mind for a while but not, shall we say, in heart. If anything ever comes of that, I'll let you know. Either way, it's always nice to know that there's fiction out there that's not just well-written but well worth reading.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

It Bears Repeating

Much as I hate to repeat myself, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to, shall we say, augment my post of a couple weeks ago concerning our "smarter" planet. Once again, the impetus for this post was a commercial, which might seem a bit trivial; but then, what are commercials if not barometers of cultural desire? Commercials show us what we want, or at least what we think we want, and the fact that so many of them show us thinking we want technological solutions to planetary problems suggests something significant about where we are today.

Enough preamble. The commercial of which I speak was, I think, for GE, and its slogan, after showing lots of people (doctors, salespeople, nuclear plant workers) dancing in some ungodly, earth-spanning conga line, was this: "Technology that makes the world work." My response was: here we go again.

Let's look at this in two possible ways. By "makes the world work," the commercial might be suggesting that technology gives people jobs. (That's the standard corporate and government line, even when they're pushing supposedly "green" technologies: they'll put people to work.) But "makes the world work" could also mean "makes the world function." That is, in the absence of technology, the world would break down, fall to pieces, and ultimately, I guess, cease to exist.

Both of these suggestions are nonsensical. Yes, in a technological society, technology does provide for employment--but it also provides for unemployment. Just ask anyone who's lost a job to a machine whether technology "made them work." My grocery store has trimmed the number of cashiers drastically by installing automated scanners; every time I try to reach someone on the telephone to complain about the breakdown of some piece of technology I purchased, I have to punch fifty-seven keys into the automated system then wait an hour to talk to the one living human being still employed by the company. Unemployment in the U.S. still stands at a whopping 10% (and remember, that figure doesn't include those no longer looking for work, those who are underemployed, or those who are employed in below-subsistence-level occupations). And the U.S. is a lot better off than much of the rest of the world. So much for technology as a panacea for joblessness.

Technology, it would be fairer to say, makes the work that is necessary to sustain itself. In its absence, the work taken up by technology would be taken up elsewhere.

But even more nonsensical is the suggestion that technology makes the world function. The world was functioning just fine before we came along, thank you. Rather, once again, it's a purely circular process: technology creates the conditions under which further technology can be called into action. So technology pollutes rivers and cleans them, sickens people and heals them, trashes the planet and tries to patch it up. If you can name one technology that has solved a problem technology created, I will grant that I'm being hyperbolic. But you can't. You can only name cases (such as the case of CFCs and ozone) in which the removal of an existing technology was necessary to begin to resolve the problem it had introduced.

I am not, in the end, a technophobe, a Luddite, a primitivist. Technologies have achieved some very nice things (such as enabling me to disseminate these words). But let's not kid ourselves about their capacities. Let's not forget that every time I fire up the blog, I expend energy (most of it produced by coal) that dirties the planet and sickens its inhabitants. Nor let us forget that when you read these computer-mediated words, you distance yourself, if only ever so slightly, from primary contact with the physical world.

If we must have technology, then so be it. But let's be prepared to deal with the consequences, and not imagine we can so transform the world through technology that it will, at long last, work.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Nuke Wells

Amid reports from the New York Times that fracking wastewater contains dangerously high levels of radiation--and that regulators are doing little to ensure its proper (notice I didn't say "safe") disposal--I drew this cartoon. What are we willing to suffer, what are we willing to risk, to feed our fossil fuel addiction?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Smarter Planet

A few weeks ago, an IBM-designed computer program, Watson, defeated several human contestants on Jeopardy. This was hailed by many as a triumph. In its commercials, IBM featured the program's chief engineer, pronouncing the company's new mantra: "Let's build a smarter planet."

I've been mulling over why this disturbs me so much. For what it's worth, here's what I've come up with.

Humans, being human, have tended to measure intelligence in absolute terms, with ourselves as the sole and final standard. Thus anything that possesses an intelligence functionally akin to ours--say, chimpanzees and dolphins--is "smart," while the farther you get from that standard--from birds to lizards to jellyfish--the farther you get from intelligence. God, being the smartest of all, is simply an uber-human, with an extension of our own capabilities: he knows everything, sees far into the future, etc. Being smart, according to this way of thinking, is an abstraction; it has nothing to do with the organism that houses it, much less with the conditions and contexts within which that organism exists. You're either smart like us, or you're dumb.

But this is, in my view, a radically reductive--and dangerous--understanding of intelligence. Intelligence, as I'll define it, has little to do with human-ness. Rather, it has to do with adaptation.

Birds and reptiles, for example, aren't particularly "smart" by human standards; in fact, we tend to think of their brains as the most "primitive" aspect of our own. Partly, that's an evolutionary description, but it's also an evaluation: the least evolved part of the brain, the part that has the earliest evolutionary emergence, is also the least "smart." (Hence the expression "bird-brain.") And indeed, were you to place a bird or reptile in a situation requiring human intelligence, they'd fail miserably. Put them in front of a closed door, for example, and (even were they possessed of opposable thumbs) the most they'd do is stare listlessly at it.

But the evolutionary progenitors of birds and reptiles, we are told, were very "smart." Dinosaurs ruled the earth for millions of years, and in modern theorizing and modern storytelling such as Jurassic Park, their intelligence compares favorably with our own. Put a Velociraptor in front of a closed door, and it figures out how to use its claws and snout to open it.

My guess, however, is that if you actually put a Velociraptor in front of a closed door, it would have no more idea what to do with it than a modern-day parakeet. That's because, having spent millions of years adapting to a particular environment, a doorless environment, its intelligence would not extend to an environment to which it was not adapted. Over time, given the opportunity, this misfit might eventually figure out what to do with doors. But initially, a creature "smart" enough to survive infinitely longer than we've managed to thus far would appear quite "dumb" when thrown into a world some other creature's intelligence had built.

The same applies for birds and reptiles. They're not particularly smart by our standards, but they are supremely well adapted to their environments. In the absence of major disruption, in the absence of the equivalent of our poor Velociraptor being thrown into an alien world, they thrive without much "smarts" that we would recognize. But as soon as the environments in which their intelligences evolved are disrupted--mostly by humans--they die in droves. Just like their "smart" dinosaur forebears, who died without a wimper when the climate changed and the meteor struck, modern-day organisms are only as "smart" as the environments to which they are adapted allow them to be.

We humans tend to forget this. We believe we're so smart we can adapt to anything--even the drastically new environments we've created for ourselves. If our smarts get us into a jam, if they produce environmental disasters we weren't godlike enough to predict, no problem--we'll just build an even smarter planet that addresses these issues.

It should be evident by now that it doesn't work this way. In fact, it works exactly in the reverse. The more we engineer our planet in an effort to address the perceived and actual shortcomings we've either abided or produced, the farther we drive our world from the intelligence that was adapted to it. The "smarter" we make our planet, the less readily our own smarts can deal with the results.

We don't need a smarter planet. We need a planet to which we're adapted, a planet on which our bodies and brains can survive: a planet in which the global climate remains within the range we evolved to tolerate, a planet in which we don't dredge up radioactive waste every time we force fracking fluid into the shale, a planet in which mercury and other toxins don't concentrate in the fatty tissues of fetuses, a planet in which the other species with which we co-evolved and co-adapted aren't driven to mass extinction by our activities. A "dumber" planet, perhaps--a planet with fewer Watsons and Ipods--but a planet that can sustain the creatures whose intelligence it shaped for these millions of years.

We've already built a smarter planet--a planet smarter than us, in fact. And it turns out that was pretty dumb.