May 2011

“And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.”

It’s revealing that the first thing God creates, according to the Biblical book of Genesis, is light … or, in other words, energy. Whoever first conceived of that description and wrote it down had at least one thing right: light — our primary source of energy — is fundamental to everything else. Without it, to borrow two other words from Genesis, all of us here on Earth would quickly be cast into the darkness and the void.

Oil, the resource that’s enabled two-plus centuries of industrial and social advancement, is light energy embodied — the pressure-cooked energy concentrated by photosynthesizing organisms that captured the Sun’s power millions of years ago. So too are coal and natural gas. Even the newer sources of energy we’ve tapped into all owe their existence to the Sun. Wind energy wouldn’t exist without it (it’s solar heating of the atmosphere, coupled with the Earth’s rotation, that gives rise to air currents). Solar energy? Duh. Not even nuclear power would exist without a stellar ancestor in its past: any elements heavier than hydrogen were produced in the fusion engine of some star somewhere in the universe.

Some might want to make the case that wave and tidal energy owe more allegiance to the Moon than to the Sun. But think about it for a moment. Sun with no Moon = all the other forms of energy are still available to us. Moon with no Sun = the Earth is frozen solid, leaving waves and tides out of the picture.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the energy we rely on today, though, is the fact that we’ve likely reached an inflection point, a moment (not literally, but not in geological time terms either) in which our understanding of and access to energy is undergoing a dramatic change. Global oil production might have peaked several years ago, according to some estimates. Even if it hasn’t yet, worldwide demand is going up while production at the rates we’ve come to depend on grows more and more difficult and costly. New sources — solar, wind, tidal, biofuel — are expanding their footprints, though they’re still a small proportion of our overall energy mix. Can we grow them fast enough to keep up as fossil fuels keep rising in price, contributing to sociopolitical havoc and becoming ever-harder to bring to market?

Depending on the answer, we could soon discover first-hand how truly fundamental — and hard to replace — our energy resources are to life as we know it.


Why are plutocrats like the Koch brothers and organizations like the US Chamber of Commerce able to buy the government that benefits them while consigning the rest of us to a morally bankrupt energy policy, an out-of-control global climate and rapidly diminishing economic opportunities?

Sadly, it’s because we let them.

Yes, we — ordinary, hard-working, middle-class people — bought what they sold us, hook, line and sinker. We helped enable their behavior, and we’re reaping what we’ve helped to sow.

Oh, we didn’t do it all by ourselves, of course. And they were more than happy to string us along for the ride. But they’ve come to the point where they’ve stopped pretending, stopped making it look like they’re trying to be environmentally responsible, interested in a liveable planet for everyone, willing to work with the “little people.” We’ve served our purpose and it’s time for them to move on.

And what about us? Now that we’ve been relegated to the trash heap, are we left with no recourse, no way to help make things better again?

Fortunately, no.

This beast might be partly of our own making, but we can help to “un-make” it. Recent events in places from Cairo to Madison show that we the people still have something to say, and that we can make sure those at the top hear it.

While doing that, we can also help to starve the beast. It’s our dollars that have been feeding it for so long, after all, and it’s our dollars that can be withheld to starve it. For the world’s powerful business groups and bloated multinationals, money talks. And when the money stops flowing, they start listening … fast.

Take Koch Industries, for example. Yes, a lot of its revenues come from oil, and we know how hard it is personally to cut down on the stuff (though it can be done). But did you know that Koch interests also include Dacron fiberfill and Stainmaster carpets? Lycra fabrics and PET plastics (yet another reason to stop buying bottled water)? For the past six years, Koch’s holdings also include Georgia-Pacific, maker of — among other brands — Quilted Northern toilet paper, Brawny paper towels, Mardi Gras napkins and Dixie paper cups?

There’s another reason, if you needed one, to use, and reuse, cloth napkins and towels. Better for the environment. Better for fighting plutocracy.

Believe it or not, but the fruit fly beats the cockroach hands down (or is it six legs down?) when it comes to surviving a nuclear disaster.

While cockroaches have long enjoyed the reputation of being able to survive anything, even an atomic bomb explosion, they’re not as tough and radiation-resistant as the common fruit fly. In fact, studies have found that fruit flies can probably survive 10 times as much radiation as cockroaches.

When you write for a living, you take the proper use of language seriously …  too seriously, sometimes. For me, for example, there’s a whole class of songs that I really like, but don’t like as much as I could because there’s something seriously wrong with the language usage.

I know there must be other people out there who suffer from the same malady, who sing a little too loudly at the end of The Doors’ “Touch Me,” ” … till the stars fall from the sky for YOU AND ME!” (not “I,” darnit) or who cringe when listening to the wonderful Rosemary Clooney singing, “I Only Have Eyes for You.” (No, no, no … it SHOULD be, “I Have Eyes for Only You.”

If you grow up with a certain religious belief, you might be taught that miracles were amazing acts of God that happened only in another time long ago. Some believe, for example, that there were times when water could be turned instantly into wine, or men — certain men anyway — could live three days in the belly of a whale, survive a fiery furnace or walk on water. Those things, some people will tell you, don’t happen anymore today, for whatever reason.

Others still believe that miracles do still happen today, but you sometimes have to wonder whether these are miracles that matter. Maybe God really does feel the need to remind us of his existence by putting the image of his face in a slice of bread or on a rusty metal chimney, but that seems like a pretty silly use of effort for an omnipotent, omniscient being. Other miracles might simply be things we haven’t discovered the scientific explanations for yet, like the incredible, sudden and full recoveries experienced by a rare few people who thought they had just days to live based on our understanding of conventional medicine. Maybe they are miracles. Maybe they’re just tomorrow’s unforeseen medical breakthrough.

But then there are other miracles. Miracles that all around us in the natural world. It is, indeed, a miracle that we live in a time when we can watch a full eclipse of the moon without fear, knowing that the gradual darkening of our planet’s satellite is caused not by some evil super-being but  by the Earth casting its shadow in the path of sunlight. Or that we live in a time where we can understand that it’s not angry demons, but sudden shifts of tectonic plates, that causes the ground in some places to shake violently and with sometimes deadly consequences.

Everywhere you look, there are real miracles to be seen.

Consider the ant, for example, There’s no such thing as an “ordinary” ant we should squash just because we can. What is “ordinary” about a creature that has been around for more than 100 million years — far longer than we humans — and, despite its tiny size, accounts for about 20 percent of the total animal biomass in any region? Every ant you see is likely part of a much larger society whose inhabitants can communicate with chemicals, might cultivate crops or livestock (fungus or aphids, for example) for food, and might have helped to spread the seeds of, in total, nearly 10 percent of the world’s plants. The more you learn about them, the more you realize how miraculous a creature ants are.

But it’s not just ants. Wherever you live, whatever you look at, you’re likely witnessing a miracle of some kind. A handful of dirt? An ounce or two will hold fragments of rock millions of years old, as well as a vast community of microscopic life forms. There is no “average” color, composition or consistency for soil on Earth. Dirt gives life by letting plants grow … and could even save life by providing a way to keep climate-changing carbon dioxide safely out of the atmosphere. Dirt filters water, absorbs the Sun’s heat, can give up secrets about long-gone cultures, and can provide shelter for everything from microbes to humans. Plain ol’ dirt? No such thing.

And that’s the miracle of life today: that we know and understand that nothing is as simple or “ordinary” as what meets the eye. The deeper we look, the more questions we ask, the further we investigate, the more miracles — not the fewer — we discover. Remembering that, we can live each day with a continual sense of wonder and appreciation … and that’s something none of us should ever surrender.

When my son was about five or six and we were out at  a restaurant with an inadequate supply of toys to keep him occupied, he spontaneously began playing “crayon baseball,” turning each color in his crayon box into a batter, pitcher, first baseman, etc. and embarking upon a miniature ballgame right there on the table.

Well, that’s pretty much what Terry Border does, only with a wider variety of common objects and a bit of wire to make them even more anthropomorphic. You’ll never look at a peanut, hot dog or egg the same way again.

It once was a tradition among some people in Mexico to dress fleas in tiny clothes. You won’t find many people who practice this art, called pulgas vestidas, anymore, but you can still see photographs of these tiny, dressed-up insects in some art exhibits and museums.

Antisocial personality disorder (also known as sociopathic personality disorder): “Antisocial personality disorder symptoms may include: Disregard for right and wrong, Persistent lying or deceit, Using charm or wit to manipulate others, Recurring difficulties with the law, Repeatedly violating the rights of others, Child abuse or neglect, Intimidation of others, Aggressive or violent behavior, Lack of remorse about harming others, Impulsive behavior, Agitation, Poor or abusive relationships, Irresponsible work behavior.” (Definition by the Mayo Clinic)

Society today is behaving more and more like one giant sociopath, and nowhere is that more true than in the US.

Now, sociopathy isn’t anything new in the long history of homo sapiens. If anything, most of human history can probably be best explained by sociopathic behavior: the endless warring of tribes, city-states, kingdoms and nations; the centuries of subjugation of the poor and weak by the mighty and rich; the almost unrelenting intolerance of “the other,” while that “other” usually had its own scapegoat class, religion or race.

But the Age of Enlightenment, France-born democracy and our own nation’s Founding Fathers aimed to change all that. And, for a good couple of centuries or so, the philosophies they embraced did a pretty good job of doing so. The scientific method replaced wishful, magical thinking. The ideals of a Bill of Rights, “a government of laws, not of men,” and checks and balances were adopted to prevent the cruelties and excesses of past plutocracies and aristocracies. And the concept of civic duty provided a counterweight to civil rights. If you wanted to protect and preserve the people’s rights, you as a citizen were also obligated to participate .. at the very least, by voting, serving jury duty, paying taxes and filling out your Census form every 10 years.

It all seemed so hunky-dory for a while. But even the grandest monuments made by humans are subject to erosion, and years of a little chipping-away here, and little smoothing of the edges there have revealed an edifice that’s a lot different than the one we thought we were living in.

It’s been a slow and often insidious process, but the results are devastating nonetheless … much in the way Albert Brooks’ character described declining standards in James L. Brooks’ brilliantly prescient 1987 film “Broadcast News”:

What do you think the Devil is going to look like if he’s around? Nobody is going to be taken in if he has a long, red, pointy tail. No. I’m semi-serious here. He will look attractive and he will be nice and helpful and he will get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation and he will never do an evil thing … he will just bit by little bit lower standards where they are important. Just coax along flash over substance … Just a tiny bit. And he will talk about all of us really being salesmen. And he’ll get all the great women.

Considering that some of the women associated with US politics at the moment are Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin, that last part might not hold true. Still, you get the idea.

The phorid fly might be tiny, but it has a powerful weapon in its possession: the ability to turn ants into gruesome zombies. After identifying an ant victim, the fly swoops down to lay a single egg into the ant’s head. The developing larva takes control of the ant’s body, first forcing it to walk far away from the rest of the ant colony. As the larva grows and eats the ant’s brain from the inside, the ant dies. Eventually, the ant’s head falls off and the next generation of zombie-creating fly emerges to repeat the cycle.

Jesus, how bad is the biodiversity picture? It’s so bad that the plight of a much-feared, perfect killing-machine predator like the hammerhead shark can make you cry.

If you doubt that, just look at this photograph.

Call me guilty of anthropomorphizing, but tell me you don’t look at this image and feel the same pangs: this hammerhead looks damned sad, beaten even. There’s no doubt it could turn around in the blink of an eye and bite in half the diver behind it, but it looks for all intents and purposes as if it’s completely lost the will to do so. And that’s how bad the biodiversity picture is: “Jaws” doesn’t scare us anymore … not the way it did in 1976. Instead, it breaks our hearts.

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