Tag Archives: Climate Change


We all tend to reject some practices that were considered conventional in the past.  Would we countenance the way the EuroAmericans treated the Native Americans who hunted down and drove out from their lands the Seminole, the Chickasaw, the Creek, the Choctaw, the Cherokee?  Would we have participated in the night patrols seeking to recapture runaway slaves in the 1850s? What was practiced in those times was consider conventional and necessary by otherwise god-fearing Americans.

But what is conventional and seemingly fitting to the times need not be wise or fitting for the long term.

Adam Frank, a physicist at the University of Rochester, has written such a nice statement on popular attitudes toward science [NYTimes 8/22/13].  What the article implies but does not state is that the doubt about scientific formulations in our time has potentially tragic — rather, catastrophic — consequences.

Global warming is the most obvious example.  A few days ago the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change established by the United Nations issued a 2,000 page report claiming again that human beings have caused the warming of the globe and that if the trajectory of warming is not interrupted human society will be radically disrupted.  This time they have announced that they hold this position with 95% certainty, a rare degree of agreement among independent scientists.

We live in a time when a confusing mix of politics and religious faith has undermined the authentic attempts of scientists to reach a degree of certainty about what is happening to our world.  So the claims of science about a vitally important condition, the physical object we live on, are openly scorned.

I have friends who want their doctors to be the best trained and the most up to date physicians available but at the same time refuse to accept the results of scientific knowledge in other fields such as biological history and the climatic changes in our time.  In truth the scientific assumptions and methods that enable medical science are the same as those that lead scientists to conclude that the earth is warming.

A fundamental assumption that made “science” as we know it possible was uniformitarianism, the notion that everything works the same everywhere, provided that the conditions be the same.  Such assumptions and others make a science of the natural world possible.  The knowledge tradition we call science is a single fabric of assumptions and approaches.  Science is a way of thought, a way of seeing.

But in a sense it can never be fully right, which makes it possible for “experts for hire” to claim, as some did, that the evidence linking smoking and cancer is uncertain. And some “experts claim that the evidence for global warming is incomplete and can be doubted.  So in the United States — nowhere else, I hear — many people believe that the issue of global warming is highly contested. People seem unaware that those “experts” who contest that claim are funded by the industries whose operations are most at risk if anything is done to reduce the causes of global warming — most notably, of course, the energy industry.

To neglect to act on what is broadly believed among the real experts and accept the claims of those who have funding from the fossil fuel industry, for instance, is folly.  If the true experts are correct the day will come when it will be too late to save the earth from a crisis, when all hope of avoiding calamity will have evaporated.

A personal grief of this for me is that some of my dear friends, who share a belief in God, nevertheless reject the claim that the earth is warming, convinced that they cannot trust science.  Will our generation reproduce the folly of King Canute, who according to legend tried to hold back the tides?  In our case the price of such folly could be the collapse of modern civilization.


AlJazeera today has an article about the non-violent movement in Syria — Yes, a non-violent movement.  Who knew?

AlJazeera September 9, 2013  4:30AM ET
The Syrian Non Violence Movement continues, despite being
largely ignored in the conversation about Syria.Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images
…. Typically ignored … are the voices of
the non-violent opposition movement that took to the streets to challenge Assad
in March 2011, and which has persisted against great odds.
“No matter how beleaguered it is, civil resistance
continues,” says Mohja Kahf, a Professor of Middle East studies and
literature at the University of Arkansas and a member of the Syrian Non
Violence Movement (SNVM). A network of peaceful groups remains active in
opposition to the regime inside Syria, their activities plotted by SNVM on an interactive map that
can be viewed online.
Although it was the activists in such groups that originally
drove the nationwide uprising against the Assad regime, these days much of
their activity involves triage, mitigating the impact of the civil
 and building the capacity for self-governance in towns no longer
under regime control.
[There is] … a flourishing alternative media infrastructure
[in Syria, with] grassroots councils to run local government [that] organize
humanitarian relief in areas vacated by the regime, and projects such as the
Karama Bus — or “bus of dignity” — which travels around Idlib
province offering psycho-social support for internally displaced children.
“For Syrians living in Syria, just surviving and engaging in daily
activities is a form of opposition, a form of activism,” said Salahi.
Many such efforts are funded by the Syrian diaspora. Rafif
Jouejati, a Syrian-American activist organizing solidarity work describes its
results as including schools in Idlib, media centers in Aleppo, relief-distribution
in Homs and a planned water-treatment facility in Deir Ezzor.
And while many Syrians who first engaged in peaceful protest
later turned to arms in the face of the regime’s crackdown, others continue to
do non-violent political work.

Reproducing the blunders of the past

The United State government seems to be cursed with a tendency to blunder over and over again in the Middle East.  At least it seems about to reproduce the blunders of the past — again.  The reason we elect individuals to lead the country is to entrust to them the responsibility of acting in the interest of the whole.  In that capacity they should, on every issue, turn to the individuals that specialize in the issue in question to help decide what is wise.  One of the problems is of course that “experts” seldom agree when it comes to making practical applications on the basis of their abstract knowledge.  Even so, if experts find it difficult to give wise advise it hardly makes sense to entrust crucial and difficult decisions to the American people at large.  That is what the Obama administration has done with respect to the problem of punishing the Assad regime in Syria for gassing its own people.

Of course every major policy decision in a democracy is in some way affected by political considerations.  Politicians, who are supposed to be reasonably intelligent, are nevertheless swayed by their constituencies, so they can entrust specific policy decisions to their respective publics – but to do that is to invite disaster.  We currently have a Congress scattered to their respective home communities and asking their constituencies to decide on how to deal with the difficult and complex question of whether or not to punish Assad’s regime for gassing their own people.

I’m shocked and grieved that the groups I normally identify with, like MoveOn.Org, want to enter the debate, as if they had the understanding to deal with such a complex issue.  But they are not alone.  All kinds of people now are expressing opinions – now that have in the last two weeks paid some attention to what has been going on in the Middle East.  And of course they know what to do; I hear that the vote is against taking action against Assad.  How well does the public know why poison gas was outlawed after World War I?  Why weren’t these weapons used during WWII, even by either side in its greatest extremity?  What prompted the great powers on all sides to refrain from such barbarous instruments of death?  There is a reason those weapons were banned – by essentially universal agreement.

The very idea that such an instrument of mass murder could have been contemplated by any regime is a reflection of how much has been forgotten.  So the American people, who have as a whole little interest in affairs in the Middle East, in fact, have little awareness of what American interests there might be — it goes far beyond the welfare of Israel.  So of course they see no reason why the United States should take any action on Assad’s brutal resort to mass murder.

The pattern, it seems to me, keeps on being reproduced:  Each new event provides another opportunity to display ignorance and arrogance.  It is hard to face situations as they are without seeing them through the lens of the past.

A brief history:
• When Saddam Hussein’s army swept into Kuwait 1991 George Herbert Walker Bush took the wise decision to deploy a military force against Iraq.  He was supported by his Republican colleagues in Congress but most Democrats opposed him.  As it turned out, it was the right thing to do and it was a success; the Democrats looked timid and foolish.
• So when George W. Bush proposed to invade Iraq in 2003 the Democrats, chastened by the blunder in the previous event, provided little opposition.  It was a foolhardy program from the beginning and was in fact based on a lie that the Democrats – and the press — could easily have exposed.  But the Democrats were too cowardly to oppose it.  Now after many lives lost it is clear how unwise it was, and how costly.  The American people seem to have forgotten the lies that made that policy possible; it was a disaster in the end and the general respect the Americans had to that point enjoyed all around the world was lost.  Now no one argues for how wise it was. • The Obama administration is at this time faced with the question of how to respond to the outrageous use of poison gas by the Assad regime.  And our politicians, and the American people, seem to be deciding against taking even the most minimal action against the Assad regime.

I admit that the issue is not simple, but the one conviction I have is that to allow the American people to make the decision, as seems to be what is in process, is to guarantee another disaster.  The right move, whatever it is, should not be submitted to a vote.  The reason we have the electoral process – again — is to entrust to our leaders the task of dealing with difficult decisions as wisely as possible.

Our country is about to blunder in the Middle East — again.  


Forgive me for some abstract thoughts on an issue of importance to me:  Ruminating on morals

I need to distinguish between “religion” and a moral sensibility that is more general.  Santayana famously pointed out the problem of using the word “religion” to refer to something shared by all human beings:

“Any attempt to speak without speaking any particular language is not more hopeless than the attempt to have a religion that shall be no religion in particular . . . . Its power consists in its special and surprising message and in the bias which that revelation gives to life.”  

The moment we use the word religion to refer to something common to human beings we strip the concept of any significance; in that general sense the concept is vapid, insipid, jejune.  It is not “religion” that inspires, justifies and animates extreme commitments, it is particular religious ideals associated with Jesus Christ, Muhammad, Krishna and heroic figures whose causes seem worth embracing:  Sayyed Qutb, Mother Theresa, etc.

Moral sensibility is, on the contrary, something that we all as human beings share.  We all as human beings share it. We can all be outraged.  Human beings everywhere share, I assume, the sense that some things going on in our world are outrageous and reprehensible.  Assad’s gassing of his own people – 426 children, we hear – was an act so monstrous as to require worldwide opprobrium.  And for some of us the inability of the great powers in the world to punish his regime for gassing his own people – scarcely worse than the thousands of his own citizens he has murdered through more conventional means – is equally scandalous.

Analytically the failure to distinguish between the moral sensibility that we all share as human beings and the specific religious traditions that give specific shape to such feelings had led to such nonsensical notions that religion should be avoided because in the name of religion so many atrocities have been committed.

The moral imagination expresses itself in many more forms than mere “religion”.  It is a powerful device in politics, specifically political rhetoric.  The great speeches of public leaders are great because they put into verbal form the sentiments of many ordinary people.  The great memorials “work” because somehow in their form they express the collective sensibilities of a people:  the Vietnam memorial is still an effective vehicle of collective and individual grief, evident in the number of people who come to that black wall of granite, place their hand on a name and weep.  You don’t have to be religious to share in that experience but you and I are able to recognize the deep feelings that some folks attach to the scratchings on a block of stone.

Deep feeling, expressed in whatever form, is moral in a fundamental sense.  And in that sense words for it are hard to come by.  That people call it “religious” is understandable but it is better referred to as moral imagination.  Bruce Kapferer has stressed that religion and patriotism are fundamentally similar.  Yes, they are alike in their ability to enlist through various forms – flag, statues, songs, gestures, poetry – the moral sensibilities of a people.

Somehow we are born with it, all of us.  And it colors our judgment of each other and even ourselves, at least when we can be honest with the truth.  This is why we all love to be self-righteous: moral outrage is a privilege we all indulge in.  But it is as fundamental as the pre-language qualities we were born with.  Through experience we learn how to give vent to such feelings, those fundamentally moral sentiments that inform and animate our experiences.  We acquire those devices of moral expression as we acquire articulate speech and other conventions of sociality.

Moral imagination:  this is the fundamental animus of human sacrifice and significance.  Can this term in a more exact way capture what it is to be human?


An unknown group is funding an advertising blitz in Missouri to reduce state taxes.  They tried through the Missouri legislature to cut state taxes but the governor vetoed the bill.  Now this group has put images of families and minorities on the screen to push for lower taxes, which they say will create jobs.

Reducing government services, which the reduction of taxes would entail, would put people out of jobs, not create jobs.  If jobs are created in this way they will be jobs working for the rich, in companies that will benefit the well-to-do, not the weakest elements of our society.

What the advertisements don’t tell us is who these people are who insist on reducing taxes — that is, for the well-to-do — and reducing services for the needy.  I would appreciate any guidance on who these people are.

We are getting closer and closer to being a country in which the weak and poor have little or no true voice.  How can this system escape the critique of the great prophet?
“They do not plead the cause of the fatherless,  they do not defend the rights of the poor…. I will certainly cause retribution on such a nation as this!
“… all of them are greedy for dishonest gain.  Prophets and priests alike all of them practice deceit.  They offer only superficial help for the harm my people have suffered.”
“Stop oppressing foreigners who live in your land, children who have lost their fathers, and women who have lost their husbands.  Stop killing innocent people in this land.”
Jeremiah  5:28-29; 6:13-14; 7:6

McClatchy: CIA Operative Fabricated Reasons for Kidnapping a Muslim Cleric in Italy

The more we learn about the Kidnapping of the Muslim cleric in Italy the more unsavory it becomes.  Here is what an unappreciated whistle blower from that operation had to say about why it was pulled off:

McClatchy Washington Bureau. Sat, Jul. 27, 2013, last
updated July 29, 2013 06:21:18 AM

U.S. allowed Italian kidnap prosecution to shield
higher-ups, ex-CIA officer says
By Jonathan S. Landay | McClatchy Washington Bureau
former CIA officer has broken the U.S. silence around the 2003 abduction of a
radical Islamist cleric in Italy, charging that the agency inflated the threat the preacher posed and that the United
States then allowed Italy to prosecute her and other Americans to shield
President George W. Bush and other U.S. officials from responsibility
for approving the operation.
Confirming for the first time that she worked undercover for
the CIA in Milan when the operation took place, Sabrina De Sousa provided new details about the “extraordinary rendition” that led to the
only criminal prosecution stemming from the secret Bush administration
rendition and detention program launched after the Sept. 11, 2001,
The cleric, Osama Mustapha Hassan Nasr, was snatched from a
Milan street by a team of CIA operatives and flown to Egypt, where he was held for the better part of four years without charges and
allegedly tortured. An Egyptian court in 2007 ruled that his imprisonment was “unfounded” and ordered him released.
Among the allegations made by De Sousa in a series of
interviews with McClatchy:
– The former CIA station chief in Rome, Jeffrey Castelli,
whom she called the mastermind of the operation, exaggerated Nasr’s terrorist threat to win approval for the rendition and misled his
superiors that Italian military intelligence had agreed to the operation.
– Senior CIA officials, including then-CIA Director George
Tenet, approved the operation even though Nasr wasn’t wanted in Egypt and wasn’t on the U.S. list of top al Qaida terrorists.
– Condoleezza Rice, then the White House national security
adviser, also had concerns about the case, especially what Italy would do if
the CIA were caught, but she eventually agreed to it and recommended
that Bush approve the abduction.

More than 130 people were “rendered” in this way, according
to a February 2013 study by the Open Society Justice Initiative, a U.S.-based group that promotes the rule of law. Many were tortured and
abused, and many, including Nasr, were freed for lack of proof that they were hatching terrorist plots, said Amrit Singh, the study’s
“There was concern on the seventh floor about this
operation,” he said, referring to the executive offices at the CIA’s
headquarters in Langley, Va. “But they were reassured” by the Rome station and the
agency’s European directorate that “everything was OK and everyone was on board
in the country in question.”
De Sousa accused Italian leaders of colluding with the
United States to shield Bush, Rice, Tenet and senior CIA aides by declining to
prosecute them or even demanding that Washington publicly admit to
staging the abduction.

De Sousa said
Italy and the United States cooperated in “scape-goating a bunch of people . .
. while the ones who approved this stupid rendition are all free.”
The Senate and House intelligence committees enabled the
coverup, De Sousa added, by failing to treat her as a whistleblower after she
told them of the lack of prosecutable evidence against Nasr and
what she called her own mistreatment by the CIA that compelled her to resign in 2009.
“Despite that, no one’s been held accountable,” she said.

For more go here.

Can Planet Earth Be Saved?

Delegates are gathered in Doha to talk about global warming again but scarcely anyone believes much of consequence will result.  Nick Clark of Al Jazeera has produced an article that reminds us of the consequences of global warming:  The Climate Question: Degrees of Change. [26 Nov 2012]

Climate change has
become one of the biggest, most complex issues of our time. And the warnings
from some of the world’s leading scientists are getting louder.  
But sceptics remain.
Despite the data, many are unconvinced that the science is on target.

Who will save Planet
Earth? – by Nick Clark

…   Zoom in to a remote island community deep in the Arctic, not far from the North Pole, called Qerqetat. It
is spectacularly located on the edge of the Greenland
ice sheet. Glaciers sweep down into the sea like snowed-up freeways; icebergs
with their azure underwater blues stand sentinel in a perfect flat ocean;
Arctic terns soar and dip into abundant waters.
Ashore, a dozen ramshackle wooden houses in varying shades
of rusts and yellows straddle high ground. Strips of meat hang from wooden
frames, drying in the sun. On the beach a hunting party has just returned and
Inuit are passing around small squares of thick Narwhal skin, a delicacy called
This is a scene that has been played out for thousands of
years. And it was a scene that we filmed earlier this year in August 2012.
“Our high tide is higher than we’ve ever seen it ….
The shacks we live in never used to be reached by the waves but now we have to
move them further inland.”
– Jaloo Kiguktak, a resident of the Canadian Arctic
But it is a scene that, before long, may disappear forever.
And from Bangladesh to Amazonia that is a recurring 21st century story; climate
change is changing the way people live.
Given that fact, why does it seem that the majority of the
world’s leaders do not care? Climate change was not even mentioned in the US presidential
debates. And then, almost immediately, along came Perfect Storm Sandy to give
us a hurricane-force reminder that the weather is acting up and perhaps we
should take notice.
Meanwhile, media coverage of climate change has crashed. In
the years since the false hopes of Copenhagen
in 2009, it has simply gone off the agenda. But that has got to change. Hold
the front page – weird stuff is happening! And whether you believe mankind is
responsible or not, it is affecting us all.
The natural order

When we filmed in the Arctic
this summer, I met Mads Ole Kristiansen, one of a continuous line of Inuit
hunters going back generations. We filmed him tossing bloody hunks of seal meat
to his baying sled dogs.
“Without my dogs, I am nothing,” Mads said.
“Without his dogs, the hunter is nothing.”
But this Spring, Mads had to shoot four of his dogs because
the sea ice melted so early that he was unable to hunt for food.
This is a man who knows and understands the environment that
provides his livelihood. And he is noticing change – big change.

…  So how does that affect the man in Manhattan or in countless cities around the
world where global warming seems a distant irrelevance?
Well, the Arctic is a
global weather-maker. Mess with that and who knows what will happen? Sea-level
rises are already being encountered around the world. It is possible they could
reach catastrophic levels, which might just take a city dweller’s focus away
from the daily bagel – to say nothing of warming ocean currents being stopped
in their tracks, the resulting desertification, the impact on food supplies
and, not least, the very security of nations.
It has happened before
The Earth’s cycles have seen countless ice ages and thaws,
warming and coolings. Check out the New Scientist’s fascinating article and you
will see how just 120,000 years ago, a blink of an eye in the scheme of things,
ice covered a large percentage of the planet. Sea levels were 120 metres lower
than they are now.
Then came the thaw,
just 20,000 years ago.

And this coincided
with mankind beginning to settle in warmer climes where small agricultural
communities were formed. Indeed you could say global warming made us who we are

The difference this
time is the rate of change; temperatures are climbing so rapidly that most
scientists now agree mankind is at least partly responsible for what is taking
And therefore something has to be done.
Which brings us to the latest Climate Change Conference,
COP18, taking place in Doha.
From Copenhagen to Cancun and Durban, all that has been achieved has pretty
much been an agreement to meet again the following year.
And this time around, there is already a sense of resignation that this will be yet another talking shop –
where delegates, environmentalists and politicians will speak that impenetrable
climate language of CO2 sequestration, anthropogenic (human) interference and
carbon offsets and credits. And make little progress.

The threat of super-rich self-interests

Apparently it was Karl Rove who said to the donors who supported the Romney campaign with huge blocks of cash, “without us, the race would not have been as close as it was.”  The “us” in that statement was the small number of superrich donors who forked over megabucks to defeat Obama.  While Obama’s donors were by comparison fairly modest, which is to say that the support for him came from a broad range of individuals, those for Romney, on the contrary, came in large part from a few superrich individuals, that is, from the upper 1%, even the upper .01%.  AlexanderAbad-Santos on Atlantic Wire has reported on the top donors to both sides.

The top donors for Romney were among the richest individuals in the world.  A Romney win would have been disastrous for the 99% of our country because as the new President he would have been indebted to a small number of individuals.  The presidency would be an instrument of the interests and outlooks of a tiny fraction of the population.  The United States of America would be a Banana Republic.  

And this could happen for little cost to those who are truly super-rich.  According to Abad-Santos the amounts given to Romney’s campaign by the largest donors were tiny fractions of their total worth: 
  • Sheldon Adelson, Owner of Las Vegas Sands, gave a mere .04% of his total wealth (i.e., between 70 and 100 million dollars);
  • Harold “The Ice Man” Simmons, owner of Contran Corp, a Dallas-based waste/chemical management company gave a mere .3 to .5% of his total wealth (30 to 50 million dollars);
  • The Koch Brothers – well, they could have given as much a $95 million but no one knows that actual total.  Most of it is hidden; Open Secrets say they can identify $36,637,591 given to conservative, essentially libertarian causes. 
The top donor to Obama, Jeffrey Katzenberg, gave peanuts by comparison: $2.566 million.
Why would Romney’s supporters give such huge sums?   According to Abad-Santos none of them claimed to have done so in the interest of the country, that is, for anyone else than themselves.  Adelson claimed he did so because he “liked to win,” and he was piqued by a comment of Obama that Wall Streeters shouldn’t be taking free trips to Vegas on taxpayer’s money.  Simons said he gave such amounts because Karl Rove recommended it, and anyway he thinks Obama is a socialist.  The Koch brothers are known to be libertarians; they seem to be major factors in the right-ward bolt of the Republican Party in the last few years.  According to Carter Eskew of the Washington Post, “they are giving to support what they see as being in their business or personal financial interest: lower taxes, less regulation, smaller government” (quoted by Abad-Santos).     
So, to state the obvious:  a President Romney would have owed his soul to a few donors who for little cost to themselves had gained a strangle-hold on the most powerful office in the world.  The rest of the country could have been disenfranchised.  
And would the great donors care?  They have given little sign that they care much about the rest.  Would they even notice the privations of  ordinary people?  Not so far.  
For these men the proportional cost of their investment in Romney was minimal, although for Romney they would have been critical to his success.  He would never be unaware of where the big contributions came from, even though they can legally be hidden from the rest of the country.  In the last election Romney knew very well who gave large sums – a fair number of them showed up for his “victory party” in Boston.  If he had been elected he would have made sure they got their due. 
Our country has been spared a great transformative catastrophe.   But what about the next time?  Does anyone doubt that it will happen again? 

Some related sources on this topic: 






Global Warming and the Burning of Jerusalem: Metaphor for our times?

I suppose that in every generation folks have worried about what their world was coming to.  Certainly in our time it seems to me there are good reasons to worry about it.  Aren’t terrifying prospects ahead worthy of serious consideration?  I know that to put into words the implications of some of the trends of our times can be disconcerting, especially when we see our leaders deliberately avoiding it, or worse, distorting what information is available so as to resist the kinds of changes necessary to avoid a potential train wreck ahead.
Consider a development in our times whose implications are difficult to assess but must be faced by our world leaders, those of the industrial powers more than any others, if disaster is to be escaped:  global warming.  I use this term deliberately rather than the less terrifying term, “climate change,” in order to stress what seems to me a matter of urgency.  Isn’t this a reality that must be addressed forthrightly?  Let us try to examine the information available to us as we best can, laying aside the various ways that politicians – who necessarily must voice the claims of those to whom they are indebted – have chosen the confuse the issue.   
Here is the dangerous reality as we best know it:
Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester (UK) reported last November (summarized in the Guardian, November 29, 2010) that
  • “the so-called safe limit of [a rise of 2 degrees centigrade] [is] impossible to keep. A 4C rise in the planet’s temperature would see severe droughts across the world and millions of migrants seeking refuge as their food supplies collapse.” In fact,”There is now little to no chance of maintaining [i.e. limiting] the rise in global surface temperature at below 2C, despite repeated high-level statements to the contrary,”
  • “Moreover, the impacts associated with 2C have been revised upwards so that [a rise of] 2C now represents the threshold [of] extremely dangerous climate change.”

The Guardian says that “The scientists’ modelling is based on actual tonnes of emissions, not percentage reductions, and separates the predicted emissions of rich and fast-industrialising nations such as China.  [The year] ‘2010 represents a political tipping point,’ said Anderson, but added in the report: ‘This paper is not intended as a message of futility, but rather a bare and perhaps brutal assessment of where our ‘rose-tinted’ and well-intentioned approach to climate change has brought us. Real hope and opportunity, if it is to arise at all, will do so from a raw and dispassionate assessment of the scale of the challenge faced by the global community.’” [http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/nov/29/climate-change-scientists-4c-temperature]
So, bluntly, Anderson and Bows are saying that unless more aggressive measures are taken the world economy as we know it will reach a kind of practical impasse; the implications are too horrific to put into words.  
All of this we have been hearing for years.  That politicians, and other interested groups threatened by this talk, claim that this is contested:  Right now Rick Santorum is mouthing this claim for reasons that seem too obvious to state.  Of course the future is always uncertain, but the scientific evidence is such that the leaders of our world are foolhardy to ignore it. 
So along with this danger of our times is the prospect that our politicians cannot bear to face it squarely for what it is.  Yes, denial is being promoted by wealthy interests – I have read that the Koch brothers are behind the Cato institute which has for years persisitently denied that global warming is a reality.  There is no danger, no need to cut back on CO2 emissions, they keep saying. 
The problem with planning in the public sphere is that it is essentially a political process, for defining the nature of the situation always risks taking decisions that will offend someone’s interests, and the more powerful those interests are the more difficult it is to act against their interests, even if the decision would be best for the society as a whole.  This situation opens possibilities for misreading and misrepresenting situations so grossly that serious dangers ahead could be ignored, with disastrous consequences.  This is the general point of Jared Diamond’s Collapse which recounts several cases in which dangers ahead were not avoided because the societies involved could not adjust their ways of life sufficiently to evade a disaster.   
I have been studying another case, one that should be familiar to the Judeo-Christian community since it appears in the Bible, but as far as I can tell, it has been generally ignored.  I describe the case in some length below because it seems to me so telling for the situation of our times.  The final collapse of the society involved took place in 586 B.C. even though it was eminently predictable — and was predicted over and over again — and yet was denied by those in a position to avoid it until there was no escape:   As a consequence, a great city was looted of its treasures, burned to the ground, and left as a desert waste.


In 609 B.C. the King of Judah, Josiah, who had spent most of his reign correcting affairs within his domains, became alarmed by the political scene around him, for a major confrontation of powers was brewing in Syria.  An upstart force of Babylonians and Medians had attacked the army of Assyria, the hegemon of Mesopotamia and Syria-Palestine, and forced them to flee even their capital city, Nineveh.[1]   As the Assyrians were regrouping in Syria to prepare for a decisive re-engagement, Pharaoh Neco II, who had pretentions of own in the region, began leading an Egyptian force from their outpost in Meggido, Palestine, northward into Syria.  But King Josiah took offense to their movements through his domains and even though his capital was more than a day’s march away he assembled an army to interrupt the Egyptians.  Despite Neco’s assurances that he had no designs on Judah Josiah led his troops into battle.  Josiah’s fateful mistake, for he lost his life in the ensuing battle, would allow his kingdom to fall under the control of the outside powers now contesting for dominance in the region, and eventually to suffer a crushing wreckage of the whole kingdom, a collapse that would forever become iconic in the imagination of the survivors and their descendants.

Josiah was replaced by his son Jehoahaz, chosen by the elders of the kingdom who for some reason passed over an older brother.  It would be the last time for many generations that Judah’s elders would choose their own leader.  Jehoahaz was scarcely enthroned when Neco, now the master of Judah, deposed Jehoahaz and shipped him back to Egypt.  And he exacted a severe penalty for Judah’s costly and unnecessary interruption to his military plans[2]: “a hundred talents” [7500 pounds] of silver and “a talent” [75 pounds] of gold [II Chron 36:1; II Kgs 23:31-36]. 

He also replaced Jehoahaz with the older brother, Eliakim, giving him a new name, Jehoiakim, to identify him as a vassal of Egypt.  But Judah’s alliance with Egypt vanished four years later when the Babylonians prevailed over the Assyrians and Egyptians in a decisive battle at Carchemish (605 B.C.).  As the Babylonians began to exercise their claims over all of Syria-Palestine Jehoiakim resisted.  Within the year, however, Nebuchadnezzar, crown prince of Babylon, sacked the city of Ashkelon in Philistia nearby, and Jahoiakim, now under siege, agreed to swear fealty to Babylon.[3]  Hegemony was still contested in the region, though, as was became clear when the Babylonians failed to invade Egypt in 600 B.C.[4] Jehoiakim took the opportunity to break his commitment to Nebuchadnezzar and re-ally himself with Pharaoh Neco.  As it happened Neco was no help in protecting his subjects when they were harassed by Chaldean, Syrian, Moabite, and Ammonite nomads allied with Babylon [II Kgs 24:2].  Nebuchadnezzar was during this time distracted by the sudden death of his father:  he had to race home to claim the throne from his rivals.  But once ensconced in power he was ready to deal with the perfidious King of Judah.  In spring 597 B.C. he brought a large force into Judah and deposed Jahoiakim, clasping him in chains “to take him to Babylon” [according to II Chron 36:6], although it appears that Jahoiakim died before he got there [II Kg 24:6].  Now he also exacted a price for his trouble, appropriating for himself some of the ceremonial objects from the sacred Jewish temple of Solomon [II Chron 36:5-7].   

Nebuchadnezzar placed Jehoiakim’s son Jehoiachin (also known as Coniah[5]), still a young man, on the throne in Jerusalem, but Coniah was scarcely in office when the emperor changed his mind (according to Josephus) and came back to replace him.  He was not however, received warmly, and in order to get into the city he had to besiege it.  The writer of the Book of Kings described the event: “At that time the servants of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came up to Jerusalem, and the city was besieged. And Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to the city while his servants were besieging it, and Jehoiachin [Coniah] the king of Judah gave himself up to the king of Babylon, himself and his mother and his servants and his officials and his palace officials. The king of Babylon took him prisoner in the eighth year of his reign …” [II Kgs 24:10-12]. 

This was an occasion for Nebuchadnezzar to make off with more of the wealth of the city.  He “carried off all the treasures of the house of the Lord and the treasures of the king’s house, and cut in pieces all the vessels of gold in the temple of the Lord, which Solomon king of Israel had made, …”  [II Kgs 24:13]  Moreover, he “carried away all Jerusalem and all the officials and all the mighty men of valor, 10,000 captives, and all the craftsmen and the smiths. None remained, except the poorest people of the land.” [II Kings 24:14].  This deportation of the elite, perhaps including the young man Ezekiel, may have benefited the Jews in the long run, as it preserved the learned class, whose descendants would lead the return and reconstruction of the city a few generations later. 

The person Nebuchadnezzar chose to rule the city as his vassal was Mattaniah, Jehoiachin’s uncle, whom he renamed Zedekiah.  This time he obliged the new King to swear fealty to him in the name of his own God, Yahweh.  He put him “under oath … that the kingdom might be humble and not lift itself up, and keep his covenant that it might stand” [Ezek 17:13b,-14]. 

But Zedekiah and his advisers in Jerusalem failed to grasp their actual plight.  Enamored with Judah’s former greatness, they had every intention of reestablishing its storied eminence.  The king and his advisors in the city connived to throw off the yoke of their new masters.  There was, however, a small contingent of Jews led by the prophet Jeremiah who warned against rebellion.  They advised the King to consent to Nebuchadnezzar’s authority.  For the time being, the prophet urged, they should accept their vassal status under the Babylonians.  They should live as good citizens until a time when their god Yahweh would restore the fortunes of their people.  It was Yahweh’s decree, he said, that they would have to live under foreign domination for seventy years, a claim that appeared to be unthinkable to the nationalist Jews.

In Zedekiah’s eleventh year the nationalists got their way:  The king sent “ambassadors to Egypt, that they might give him horses and a large army” [Ezk 17:15].  And thus he outraged his master.  Once again Nebuchadnezzar led his army back into Judah, this time to settle the matter.  The Babylonians surrounded Jerusalem, depriving it of food and water from the outside.  Briefly distracted by a failed attempt of the Egyptians to dislodge them, they intensified their stranglehold on the city.  The siege lasted for a year and a half, with horrifying consequences.  The writer of II Kings [25:3-7] describes the scene.  On the ninth day of the fourth month the famine was so severe in the city that there was no food for the people of the land.  This may have been the situation described in the book of Lamentations, a funeral dirge written somewhat later:  the children “faint for hunger at the head of every street.”  And:  The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children; they became their food during the destruction of the daughter of my people. [Lam 4:10].  The author asks, “Should women eat the fruit of their womb, the children of their tender care?” [Lam 2:20]

In desperation the king and his army tried to flee.  “Then a breach was made in the city, and all the men of war fled by night by the way of the gate between the two walls, by the king’s garden, though the Chaldeans were around the city. And they went in the direction of the Arabah. But the army of the Chaldeans pursued the king and overtook him in the plains of Jericho, and all his army was scattered from him. Then they captured the king and brought him up to the king of Babylon at Riblah, and they passed sentence on him. They slaughtered the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, and put out the eyes of Zedekiah and bound him in chains and took him to Babylon” [II Kg 25:3-7]. 

The Babylonians were not yet finished with this perfidious and incorrigible city.  “Nebuzaradan, the captain of the bodyguard, a servant of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. And he burned the house of the Lord and the king’s house and all the houses of Jerusalem; every great house he burned down. And all the army of the Chaldeans, who were with the captain of the guard, broke down the walls around Jerusalem. And the rest of the people who were left in the city and the deserters who had deserted to the king of Babylon, together with the rest of the multitude, Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard carried into exile. But the captain of the guard left some of the poorest of the land to be vinedressers and plowmen” [II Kg 25:8-12]. 

Now the city lay open to pillage.  “What was of gold the captain of the guard took away as gold, and what was of silver, as silver.” Whatever could be melted down for weapons was carried off, even the contents of the temple, which for the writer of Kings were sacred objects. “And the pillars of bronze that were in the house of the Lord, and the stands and the bronze sea that were in the house of the Lord, the Chaldeans broke in pieces and carried the bronze to Babylon. And they took away the pots and the shovels and the snuffers and the dishes for incense and all the vessels of bronze used in the temple service, the fire pans also and the bowls.” The huge works of fine craftsmanship in the temple were likewise carted away.  “As for the two pillars, the one sea, and the stands that Solomon had made for the house of the Lord, the bronze of all these vessels was beyond weight. The height of the one pillar was eighteen cubits, and on it was a capital of bronze. The height of the capital was three cubits. A latticework and pomegranates, all of bronze, were all around the capital. And the second pillar had the same, with the latticework” [II Kg 25:13-17].  All these were carried away.

As a final measure, Nebuchadnezzar executed a number of the leading men:  “And the captain of the guard took Seraiah the chief priest and Zephaniah the second priest and the three keepers of the threshold, and from the city he took an officer who had been in command of the men of war, and five men of the king’s council who were found in the city, and the secretary of the commander of the army who mustered the people of the land, and sixty men of the people of the land who were found in the city. And Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard took them and brought them to the king of Babylon at Riblah. And the king of Babylon struck them down and put them to death at Riblah in the land of Hamath. So Judah was taken into exile out of its land” [II Kg 25:18-21]. 

The Experience of Desolation

The emasculation and impoverishment of Judah was total.  Along with the sacking of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D. and the Holocaust during World War II, this event, the burning of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. was among the most shattering moments in Jewish history.  And yet little has been remarked on how powerfully it affected the moral sensibility of the Jews during the subsequent period of exile.  Even some people who read the Bible, our main source for what is known about the event, have only a vague sense of what happened and what it meant to the Jews of the succeeding generations, even though their writings expose clearly how deeply affected they were by the experience.

The writings of later generations describe the event in emotional terms: 

·       A Psalmist writes as if he had actually seen the destruction of the city and the temple.  “[T]he enemy has destroyed everything in the sanctuary! 4 Your foes [O God] have roared in the midst of your meeting place; they set up their own signs for signs.  5 They were like those who swing axes in a forest of trees. 6 And all its carved wood they broke down with hatchets and hammers.  7 They set your sanctuary on fire; they profaned the dwelling place of your name, bringing it down to the ground.  8 They said to themselves, “We will utterly subdue them”; they burned all the meeting places of God in the land” [Ps 74:3 b-8]. 

·       Another Psalmist similarly writes as if present to see the temple’s defilement:  “O God, the nations [=heathens] have come into your inheritance; they have defiled your holy temple; they have laid Jerusalem in ruins. They have given the bodies of your servants to the birds of the heavens for food, the flesh of your faithful to the beasts of the earth.  They have poured out their blood like water all around Jerusalem, and there was no one to bury them.  We have become a taunt to our neighbors, mocked and derided by those around us” [Ps 79:1-4].

·       The writer of Lamentations,[6] in poetic dirges about these times, described the wreckage after the Babylonians were finished.[7]  [Chapter 1:1] “How lonely sits the city that was full of people!  How like a widow has she become, she who was great among the nations!  She who was a princess among the provinces has become a slave.  [2] She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has none to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her; they have become her enemies.  [3] Judah has gone into exile because of affliction and hard servitude; she dwells now among the nations, but finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress. …. [4b] all her gates are desolate; her priests groan; her virgins have been afflicted, and she herself suffers bitterly. … [10] The enemy has stretched out his hands over all her precious things; for she has seen the nations enter her sanctuary, those whom you forbade to enter your congregation. [11] All her people groan as they search for bread; they trade their treasures for food to revive their strength.  

·       Also, [Chapter 2:9] Her gates have sunk into the ground; he has ruined and broken her bars; her king and princes are among the nations; the law is no more, and her prophets find no vision from the Lord. [10] The elders of the daughter of Zion sit on the ground in silence; they have thrown dust on their heads and put on sackcloth; the young women of Jerusalem have bowed their heads to the ground. [11] My eyes are spent with weeping; my stomach churns; my bile is poured out to the ground because of the destruction of the daughter of my people, because infants and babies faint in the streets of the city. [12] They cry to their mothers, “Where is bread and wine?” as they faint like a wounded man in the streets of the city, as their life is poured out on their mothers’ bosom.  … [21] In the dust of the streets lie the young and the old; my young women and my young men have fallen by the sword…. 

·       [Chatper 4:8] Now their face is blacker than soot; they are not recognized in the streets; their skin has shriveled on their bones; it has become as dry as wood.  [9] Happier were the victims of the sword than the victims of hunger, who wasted away, pierced by lack of the fruits of the field.  …

·       The latter part of Isaiah (“Second Isaiah”) similarly describes the country in ruins, as if it were written during this time: [ Isa 64:10] Your holy cities have become a wilderness, Zion has become a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation. 11 Our holy and beautiful house, where our ancestors praised you, has been burned by fire, and all our pleasant places have become ruins.12 After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord? Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?

Does this tale have any significance for our present time?  Certainly in the city of Jerusalem there was a failure of foresight. But the political forces within the city of Jerusalem were so powerful that the true nature of the scene could scarcely be put into words.  Political interests clouded insight.  So those in a position to divert the course of events were unable or unwilling to acknowledge what they might have seen ahead. 
Is this the world we live in?  Could the earth burn like Jerusalem?  Is there not a failure of leadership in our time?  How might we force those in power to confront the course of affairs before the options are too narrow to avoid a disastrous collapse of the social order?

[1] Blaiklock 1972: 153.
[2] Neco may have objected to the elders’ decision to choose their own King even though now Judah would be a vassal under his command (Miller/Hayes 1986:402).
[3] The book of Daniel says that it was about this time that Nebuchadnezzar took a group of promising young men, including Daniel and several friends, to Babylon to be trained for his bureaucracy [Dan 1:1-4].
[4] Here I follow Miller and Hayes 1986:406-8); Cf. Blaiklock 1972:155.
[5] I refer to this person as Coniah rather than Jeconiah to avoid confusion with the kings with similar names Jehoiahaz and Jehoiakim.  He is also referred to as Jeconiah.
[6] Scholarly consensus about the time of writing places it during or soon after the events described here.  Chapter 5 seems to describe a situation somewhat later.
[7] By reproducing this poem in this form I violate the acrostic nature of the original, in which the lines begin with the successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet, a form that is of course already invisible in English. 

More signs of rapid climate change

We would like to believe that the leaders of affairs on the earth will recognize impending disaster early enough to avoid it. That is of course the intention of those meeting to deal with climate change.  But as long as major lobbying organizations, for reasons of self interest, seek to obfuscate the issue the prospects are poor — or so I surmise.  Is there not abundant reason to wonder if they will get it together?  Here is one of the latest warning reports.  RLC

VOA December 10, 2011NASA: Earth’s Prehistoric Record Warns of Nearing Rapid Climate Change

A new U.S. space agency study warns the Earth this century could see rapid and catastrophic climate changes if man-made global warming levels are allowed to reach an internationally-recognized so-called “safe limit” of two degrees Celsius.
The NASA researchers examined prehistoric climate conditions during past interglacial periods – the time between ice ages – and compared them with the interglacial period the Earth is currently experiencing. The last interglacial period ended around 115,000 years ago when temperatures were less than one degree Celsius warmer than today, and sea levels were six meters higher.

The scientists say looking at how the prehistoric climate responded to natural changes gives them more insight into determining a dangerous level of man-made global warming for today’s world.  

NASA study leader James Hansen says the findings show that Earth’s climate is more sensitive than even recent estimates suggest. He described the notion of limiting man-made global warming to an increase of two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels as “a prescription for disaster.”

Recent studies, including those by NASA, indicate the average global surface temperature since 1880 has gone up 0.8 degrees Celsius and is on course to continue rising by 0.1 degrees every decade. 

NASA researchers say global warming of two degrees Celsius would more closely match conditions of an interglacial period that occurred some five million years ago when seas were about 25 meters higher than today. . . .  [For more, click on the title above.]

The problem as I see it isn’t the technical possibilities of avoiding a catastrophe but the known experience with how social policy works:  It can work as long as a free and open discussion allows opinion to form around a vital issue, but at a rate determined by the process of information distribution.  Right now we have certain  industries that foresee a loss to their business if serious measures are taken to reverse the trends in CO2 usage, and they [some of them] are working to make sure no consensus that there is a problem develops.  Some in the oil industry [famously, the Koch brothers] seem to be devoted to questioning all research indicating that the world is racing toward a point of no return.  It’s hard to know how long it will take for the world, even the oil executives themselves, to decide they had better face the practical consequences of denial.  The day will surely come.  The only issue is whether it comes too late to avoid global catastrophe.