Wednesday, September 29, 2010


It is so easy, in this complex and difficult world of our uncertain collective future, to fall into anger or despair in reaction to the many atrocities against people and nature. I have these "difficult moments" almost daily in an endless process of finding some balance in face of harsh realities.

One of my persistent guides toward balance comes from Joe Riley's great Panhala email and web service that provides a fountain of inspiring poetry and images.

Here are two recent arrivals:

Through the Mist to Royal Basin


Get up from your bed,
go out from your house,
follow the path you know so well,
so well that you now see nothing
and hear nothing
unless something can cry loudly to you,
and for you it seems
even then
no cry is louder than yours
and in your own darkness
cries have gone unheard
as long as you can remember.

These are hard paths we tread
but they are green
and lined with leaf mould
and we must love their contours
as we love the body branching
with its veins and tunnels of dark earth.

I know that sometimes
your body is hard like a stone
on a path that storms break over,
embedded deeply
into that something that you think is you,
and you will not move
while the voice all around
tears the air
and fills the sky with jagged light.

But sometimes unawares
those sounds seem to descend
as if kneeling down into you
and you listen strangely caught
as the terrible voice moving closer
and in the silence
now arriving

Get up, I depend
on you utterly.
Everything you need
you had
the moment before
you were born.

~ David Whyte ~

In the Middle

In the Middle

of a life that's as complicated as everyone else's,
struggling for balance, juggling time.

The mantle clock that was my grandfather's
has stopped at 9:20; we haven't had time
to get it repaired. 

The brass pendulum is still,
the chimes don't ring. 

One day you look out the window,
green summer, the next, and the leaves have already fallen,
and a grey sky lowers the horizon. 

Our children almost grown,
our parents gone, it happened so fast. 

Each day, we must learn
again how to love, between morning's quick coffee
and evening's slow return. 

Steam from a pot of soup rises,
mixing with the yeasty smell of baking bread. 

Our bodies
twine, and the big black dog pushes his great head between;
his tail is a metronome, 3/4 time. 

We'll never get there,
Time is always ahead of us, running down the beach, urging
us on faster, faster, but sometimes we take off our watches,
sometimes we lie in the hammock, caught between the mesh
of rope and the net of stars, suspended, tangled up
in love, running out of time.

~ Barbara Crooker ~

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


Miracles can be achieved if you have the will to work with people and nature in a holistic and integrated way.
HEY WORLD (Two Good Ones From Michael Franti)

Thanks to Avi for the tip.
Save the planet – a message from another world

The first member of a remote Colombian tribe ever to set foot in Britain brings a stark ecological warning

Jacinto Zabareta in north London and members of the Kogi people
Jacinto Zabareta in north London and members of the Kogi people in Colombia. 
Photograph: Guardian

Via Guardian

By Patrick Barkham

Jacinto Zarabata sits in a suburban back garden in north London and unselfconsciously uses a stick to probe the inside of a gourd, which is shaped like a rather phallic mushroom with a bright yellow cap. The first member of the Kogi people of Colombia ever to visit Britain is wearing traditional rough cotton clothes and has a cloth bag slung over each shoulder as he chews toasted coca leaves.

It would be easy to view Jacinto as a noble savage; an exotic being from a pristine indigenous culture still living in impenetrable pockets of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the highest coastal mountain range in the world. But this small, self-assured spokesman for the Kogi soon subverts that stereotype. As he answers my first question in fluent Spanish, he delves into one bag, extracts a camera and takes a photograph of me.

Jacinto has made the journey to Britain because the Kogi have embarked on an unusual and ambitious mission. They are making a movie about their way of life – but not for themselves, as part of some kind of do-gooding community workshop; it is for us, and it carries an uncompromising message. One of very few indigenous American people to resist the ravages of Spanish conquistadors, Christian missionaries and, now, eco-tourists, militias, drug lords and heavy industry, the Kogi have observed frightening changes to their homeland in recent decades. The glaciers are melting, storms have increased in ferocity, there are landslides and floods, followed by droughts and deforestation. The Kogi, who live by a complex set of spiritual beliefs, are the "elder brother" and guardians of this, the heart of the earth, and they believe we in the west ("little brother") are destroying the planet. They have come to warn us, before it is too late.

Jacinto, who is a spokesperson for the Mamos, the Kogi spiritual leaders who have a unique wisdom forged by an entire childhood spent living in the dark, arrived in London the previous night. He is staying with Alan Ereira, who made a BBC documentary, The Heart of the World, about their life 20 years ago. What are Jacinto's first impressions of our society?

"The first thing that is noticeable to me is that this is still the world," he says. "What's visible is construction, what you have made. This is not something we, the Kogi, are used to seeing. You give precedence to the use of a thing rather than its source. That's the intellectual error. Ultimately, it's all nature." From Jacinto's viewpoint, when we glance at a car we might assess its cost and the status conferred on its driver. We don't recognise it as a clever piece of engineering of resources that once lay inside the earth.

The Kogi are witnessing some of this extraction first hand. Coal mining in the Sierra Nevada has boomed in recent decades (fuelled in part by the demand for cheap foreign coal in post-miners' strike Britain). Over centuries, they survived the wars waged on them by retreating further into the mountains, through dense rainforest and cloud forest dubbed "El Infierno" by settlers. There are still no roads to the Kogi's traditional settlements (Jacinto's home does not exist on official maps), but global capitalism is slowly conquering the Kogi's isolation.

Not that Jacinto does not embrace victimhood. He highlights the positive developments for their culture. When Ereira's film was broadcast around the world in 1990, there were 12,000 Kogi. Now there are 18,000. After centuries witnessing their lands being plundered, they have been returned significant traditional areas and sacred sites by the Colombian government. Last month Juan Manuel Santos, the country's new president, visited the Kogi to be blessed by the Mamos before his official inauguration. "In a sense, the Kogi are trying to take over the Colombian government and build a sense of responsibility into the president himself," says Ereira. "The Kogi are saying, 'How are we going to sort the world out?' They must be the most proactive indigenous people on earth."

In Ereira's documentary, the Kogi's message was ahead of its time: they warned of climate change, and that "little brother's" (the west's) hunger for energy and material possessions was "cutting out of the eyes and ears" of the great mother (the earth). But we didn't listen. And so, 18 months ago, Ereira received a phone call out of the blue from the Kogi (Spanish-speakers such as Jacinto use mobile phones when they visit westernised cities; there is little reception in the mountains), demanding his immediate presence. Ereira thenreturned to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, trekking on a mule through the rainforest. He was taken to sacred sites he had never been allowed to visit before and the Kogi, some of whom had received training with video cameras and broadcast a series of seven-minute documentaries on Colombian television, explained their new film-making mission.

When Ereira returned, he found the Kogi's heartland remarkably unchanged. "You don't see the transformation you see in Amazonian traditional societies, where you have an impoverished western urban culture in indigenous villages. You don't see the T-shirts and baseball caps. The Kogi's identification with their culture is phenomenally strong. The belief of the Mamos in their responsibility for taking care of the world is absolute, and it's the duty and function of the rest of their society to ensure they do that. That's not broken down."

But it has been changed by the growing relationship between the indigenous community and the government. Increasingly, a few salaried Kogi who speak Spanish and work as local officials have the power to get things done. Ereira wonders if this will undermine the traditional authority of the Mamos – and if the Kogi's unique way of thinking is at risk. "It's a perception of reality which is contained in their language and is utterly different from ours. My fear is that the moment you mess with it in any way, it's lost. You probably can't hold that experience if you speak Spanish because the conceptual world is totally different. You're at risk of losing this last trace, this philosophical reserve."

Jacinto, however, does not fear for the future of Kogi culture. "There has always been an attempt to bring other ideas and thoughts into our way of life," he says. Doesn't he worry that the Kogi will be drawn to the bright lights of westernised cities, such as nearby Santa Marta? "No," he says. "The Mamos have authority over people. People can experience other cultures but they have an obligation to return. If they don't, the authorities are obliged to go down [the mountain] and get them." Doesn't Jacinto crave cars, houses and restaurants? "At this particular moment there isn't that need," he says, gravely. "But I can envisage a time when we may adopt certain things."

One thing they have adopted is filmmaking – the Kogi believe a movie is their best hope not only of telling little brother where he is going wrong, but showing him. This time, however, the Kogi's film is not being masterminded by Ereira: "They decided after the first film that this was the best way to connect with the world," he explains. "But they realised that to be in our hands was just not a good idea." So Ereira is assisting, and seeking funding for the project, which will be completed next summer. Judging by the Kogi's trailer, the authentic voice of an indigenous people makes for compelling viewing but the BBC have not expressed an interest, so instead, Ereira and the Kogi are planning a movie release. Footage of the Kogi conducting rituals beneath a spectacular tree is straight out of Avatar. "Avatar has done great work for this," Ereira says. "Twenty years ago, the Kogi were pushing on a wheel that had just started to turn. Now that wheel is really rolling and they are part of the zeitgeist."

The Kogi may not feel under attack culturally, but in their mountain environment "a lot has changed" in the last two decades, according to Jacinto. "The Sierra is the heart of the world. It functions the same way as our own heart does – it sustains the organism," he says. "There has been snow melt, landslides and earthquakes. People are damaging the sacred places from where the damage can be restored."

Why is little brother so greedy? Jacinto chuckles and rubs his gourd, a sign he is thinking. (The mushroom shaped cap on the gourd, which men carry to symbolise their connection with the womb, is a sign of his accumulated thought.) "Habit," he says, finally. "That ambition to have more doesn't have a framework. It's just a drive to accumulate. The habit is a competitive one. 'What everyone else has I must have too, otherwise everyone else has power over me.' The consequences are evident, but it doesn't seem obvious to you," Jacinto says. "You can go and live in space, that's fine, but you don't seem to be able to go back to the understanding of how to live harmoniously with the earth. That's something you've forgotten."

Yet the Kogi hope we can still reconnect, by seeing the value they place on thinking and their spiritual world. "When you understand that, you begin to understand yourself a bit more," Jacinto says. "Originally, the great mama brought us into being so we would be guardians of nature. You, the little brother, was given this knowledge of how to treat the earth and the water and the air. At some point there was divergence and you, the little brother, went on a different path.

"We, by example, don't live like you do. You come to the Sierra, there are no factories, there is no industrial agriculture. Now we really want you to look at the images of how we live."


[UPDATE - 29 September 2010 - BRASILIA: My friend Fernando Figueiredo just sent a message via email. "Hey. It's already been 126 days without rain in Brasilia. Yesterday It rained very slightly, but it's better than nothing! I heard the record is 160 days without a drop of rain in 1963. Please keep praying."]

Updated: 9:00 AM BRT on September 27, 2010 BRASILIA
Monday Night
Chance of Rain. Partly Cloudy. Low: 68 °F / 20 °C . Wind WNW 6 mph / 10 km/h . 20% chance of precipitation (trace amounts).
Partly Cloudy. High: 91 °F / 33 °C . Wind NNW 8 mph / 14 km/h .
Tuesday Night
Chance of Rain. Partly Cloudy. Low: 64 °F / 18 °C . Wind West 13 mph / 21 km/h . 30% chance of precipitation (water equivalent of 0.05 in / 1.36 mm).
Chance of Rain. Partly Cloudy. High: 95 °F / 35 °C . Wind NW 8 mph / 14 km/h . 20% chance of precipitation (trace amounts).
Wednesday Night
Chance of a Thunderstorm. Overcast. Low: 68 °F / 20 °C . Wind West 8 mph / 14 km/h . 30% chance of precipitation (water equivalent of 0.11 in / 2.82 mm).
Chance of Rain. Partly Cloudy. High: 91 °F / 33 °C . Wind NNW 6 mph / 10 km/h . 20% chance of precipitation (water equivalent of 0.02 in / 0.39 mm).
Thursday Night
Thunderstorm. Partly Cloudy. Low: 69 °F / 21 °C . Wind East 6 mph / 10 km/h . 50% chance of precipitation (water equivalent of 0.34 in / 8.58 mm).
Chance of a Thunderstorm. Partly Cloudy. High: 91 °F / 33 °C . Wind NE 8 mph / 14 km/h . 30% chance of precipitation (water equivalent of 0.15 in / 3.87 mm).
Friday Night
Thunderstorm. Partly Cloudy. Low: 68 °F / 20 °C . Wind West 8 mph / 14 km/h . 60% chance of precipitation (water equivalent of 0.56 in / 14.23 mm).
Chance of a Thunderstorm. Overcast. High: 87 °F / 31 °C . Wind North 11 mph / 18 km/h . 30% chance of precipitation (water equivalent of 0.04 in / 1.06 mm).
Saturday Night
Thunderstorm. Overcast. Low: 69 °F / 21 °C . Wind South 6 mph / 10 km/h . 50% chance of precipitation (water equivalent of 0.58 in / 14.70 mm).
Chance of a Thunderstorm. Partly Cloudy. High: 89 °F / 32 °C . Wind NE 8 mph / 14 km/h . 40% chance of precipitation (water equivalent of 0.19 in / 4.79 mm). Heat Index: 89 °F / 32 °C .
Sunday Night
Chance of a Thunderstorm. Overcast. Low: 66 °F / 19 °C . Wind SW 6 mph / 10 km/h . 30% chance of precipitation (water equivalent of 0.10 in / 2.46 mm).

Monday, September 27, 2010



It seems that babies don't have this problem.

Via Wired

What Is It Like To Be A Baby?

We all know what attention is. William James said it best:
Attention is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction, and Zerstreutheit in German.
James is describing the spotlight model of attention: If the world is a vast stage, then we only notice things that fall within the narrow circle of illumination. Everything outside the spotlight remains invisible. This is because, as James pointed out, the act of attention is intertwined with the act of withdrawal; to concentrate on one thing is to ignore everything else.

And this brings me to my question: How do babies pay attention? What is it like to look at the world like an infant? The question is particularly interesting because the ability to pay attention, focusing that spotlight on a thin slice of the stage, depends on the frontal cortex, that lobe of brain behind the forehead. Alas, the frontal cortex isn’t fully formed until late adolescence – ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny – which means that it’s just beginning to solidify in babies. The end result is that little kids struggle to focus.

This has led the UC-Berkeley developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik – I’m a huge fan of her latest book, The Philosophical Baby – to suggest that babies don’t have a spotlight of attention: They have a lantern. If attention is like a focused beam in adults, then it’s more like a glowing bulb in babies, casting a diffuse radiance across the world. This crucial difference in attention has been demonstrated indirectly in a variety of experiments. For instance, when preschoolers are shown a photograph of someone – let’s call her Jane— looking at a picture, and asked questions about what Jane is paying attention to, the weirdness of their attention becomes clear. Not surprisingly, the kids agree that Jane is thinking about the picture she’s staring at. But they also insist that she’s thinking about the picture frame, and the wall behind the picture, and the chair lurking in her peripheral vision. In other words, they believe that Jane is attending to whatever she can see.

Or consider this memory task designed by John Hagen, a developmental psychologist at the University of Michigan. A child is given a deck of cards and shown two cards at a time. The child is told to remember the card on the right and to ignore the card on the left. Not surprisingly, older children and adults are much better at remembering the cards they were told to focus on, since they’re able to direct their attention. However, young children are often better at remembering the cards on the left, which they were supposed to ignore. The lantern casts its light everywhere.

And now there’s a brand new paper in Psychological Science by Faraz Farzin, Susan Rivera and David Whitney that provides some of the best evidence yet for the lantern hypothesis. The experiment itself involved tracking the eye movements of infants between 6 and 15 months of age. The researchers used a special stimuli known as a Mooney face. What makes these images useful is that they can’t be perceived using botton-up sensory processes. Instead, the only way to see the shadowed faces is to stare straight at them – unless we pay attention the faces remain incomprehensible, just a mass of black and white splotches. In this experiment, however, the babies were able to perceive the faces even when they were located in the periphery of their visual field. (Trust me: You can’t do this.) Because their lantern was so diffuse, they were able to notice stimuli on a much vaster sensory stage. In subsequent experiments, the researchers found that this lantern of attention came with a tradeoff. While babies notice more, they see with less precision. In fact, the “effective spatial resolution” of infants’ visual perception was only half that of adults, although it steadily increased with age.

In The Philosophical Baby, Gopnik speculates that, while we often assume the inability to pay attention is a failing, a limitation imposed on infants by their mushy frontal lobes, it also confers certain advantages. For starters, it allows young children to figure out the world at an incredibly fast pace. Although babies are born utterly helpless, within a few years they’ve mastered everything from language – a toddler learns 10 new words every day – to complex motor skills such as walking. According to this new view of the baby brain, many of the mental traits that used to seem like developmental shortcomings, such as infants’ inability to focus their attention, are actually crucial assets in the learning process. Because babies notice everything, they’re better able to figure out how it all hangs together. So the next time you look at a baby, remember: They can see more than you.

Note: Sometimes, of course, it’s helpful for adults to engage in lantern-like attention. See, for instance, this recent post on latent inhibition and creativity.

U.S. Wants to Make It Easier to Wiretap the Internet


Via the NY Times

by Charles Savage

WASHINGTON — Federal law enforcement and national security officials are preparing to seek sweeping new regulations for the Internet, arguing that their ability to wiretap criminal and terrorism suspects is “going dark” as people increasingly communicate online instead of by telephone.

Essentially, officials want Congress to require all services that enable communications — including encrypted e-mail transmitters like BlackBerry, social networking Web sites like Facebook and software that allows direct “peer to peer” messaging like Skype — to be technically capable of complying if served with a wiretap order. The mandate would include being able to intercept and unscramble encrypted messages.

The bill, which the Obama administration plans to submit to lawmakers next year, raises fresh questions about how to balance security needs with protecting privacy and fostering innovation. And because security services around the world face the same problem, it could set an example that is copied globally.

James X. Dempsey, vice president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, an Internet policy group, said the proposal had “huge implications” and challenged “fundamental elements of the Internet revolution” — including its decentralized design.

“They are really asking for the authority to redesign services that take advantage of the unique, and now pervasive, architecture of the Internet,” he said. “They basically want to turn back the clock and make Internet services function the way that the telephone system used to function.”

But law enforcement officials contend that imposing such a mandate is reasonable and necessary to prevent the erosion of their investigative powers.

“We’re talking about lawfully authorized intercepts,” said Valerie E. Caproni, general counsel for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. “We’re not talking expanding authority. We’re talking about preserving our ability to execute our existing authority in order to protect the public safety and national security.”

Investigators have been concerned for years that changing communications technology could damage their ability to conduct surveillance. In recent months, officials from the F.B.I., the Justice Department, the National Security Agency, the White House and other agencies have been meeting to develop a proposed solution.

There is not yet agreement on important elements, like how to word statutory language defining who counts as a communications service provider, according to several officials familiar with the deliberations.

But they want it to apply broadly, including to companies that operate from servers abroad, like Research in Motion, the Canadian maker of BlackBerry devices. In recent months, that company has come into conflict with the governments of Dubai and India over their inability to conduct surveillance of messages sent via its encrypted service.

In the United States, phone and broadband networks are already required to have interception capabilities, under a 1994 law called the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act. It aimed to ensure that government surveillance abilities would remain intact during the evolution from a copper-wire phone system to digital networks and cellphones.

Often, investigators can intercept communications at a switch operated by the network company. But sometimes — like when the target uses a service that encrypts messages between his computer and its servers — they must instead serve the order on a service provider to get unscrambled versions.

Like phone companies, communication service providers are subject to wiretap orders. But the 1994 law does not apply to them. While some maintain interception capacities, others wait until they are served with orders to try to develop them.

The F.B.I.’s operational technologies division spent $9.75 million last year helping communication companies — including some subject to the 1994 law that had difficulties — do so. And its 2010 budget included $9 million for a “Going Dark Program” to bolster its electronic surveillance capabilities.

Beyond such costs, Ms. Caproni said, F.B.I. efforts to help retrofit services have a major shortcoming: the process can delay their ability to wiretap a suspect for months.

Moreover, some services encrypt messages between users, so that even the provider cannot unscramble them.

There is no public data about how often court-approved surveillance is frustrated because of a service’s technical design.

But as an example, one official said, an investigation into a drug cartel earlier this year was stymied because smugglers used peer-to-peer software, which is difficult to intercept because it is not routed through a central hub. Agents eventually installed surveillance equipment in a suspect’s office, but that tactic was “risky,” the official said, and the delay “prevented the interception of pertinent communications.”

Moreover, according to several other officials, after the failed Times Square bombing in May, investigators discovered that the suspect, Faisal Shahzad, had been communicating with a service that lacked prebuilt interception capacity. If he had aroused suspicion beforehand, there would have been a delay before he could have been wiretapped.

To counter such problems, officials are coalescing around several of the proposal’s likely requirements:

¶ Communications services that encrypt messages must have a way to unscramble them.

¶ Foreign-based providers that do business inside the United States must install a domestic office capable of performing intercepts.

¶ Developers of software that enables peer-to-peer communication must redesign their service to allow interception.

Providers that failed to comply would face fines or some other penalty. But the proposal is likely to direct companies to come up with their own way to meet the mandates. Writing any statute in “technologically neutral” terms would also help prevent it from becoming obsolete, officials said.

Even with such a law, some gaps could remain. It is not clear how it could compel compliance by overseas services that do no domestic business, or from a “freeware” application developed by volunteers.

In their battle with Research in Motion, countries like Dubai have sought leverage by threatening to block BlackBerry data from their networks. But Ms. Caproni said the F.B.I. did not support filtering the Internet in the United States.

Still, even a proposal that consists only of a legal mandate is likely to be controversial, said Michael A. Sussmann, a former Justice Department lawyer who advises communications providers.

“It would be an enormous change for newly covered companies,” he said. “Implementation would be a huge technology and security headache, and the investigative burden and costs will shift to providers.”

Several privacy and technology advocates argued that requiring interception capabilities would create holes that would inevitably be exploited by hackers.

Steven M. Bellovin, a Columbia University computer science professor, pointed to an episode in Greece: In 2005, it was discovered that hackers had taken advantage of a legally mandated wiretap function to spy on top officials’ phones, including the prime minister’s.

“I think it’s a disaster waiting to happen,” he said. “If they start building in all these back doors, they will be exploited.”

Susan Landau, a Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study fellow and former Sun Microsystems engineer, argued that the proposal would raise costly impediments to innovation by small startups.

“Every engineer who is developing the wiretap system is an engineer who is not building in greater security, more features, or getting the product out faster,” she said.

Moreover, providers of services featuring user-to-user encryption are likely to object to watering it down. Similarly, in the late 1990s, encryption makers fought off a proposal to require them to include a back door enabling wiretapping, arguing it would cripple their products in the global market.

But law enforcement officials rejected such arguments. They said including an interception capability from the start was less likely to inadvertently create security holes than retrofitting it after receiving a wiretap order.

They also noted that critics predicted that the 1994 law would impede cellphone innovation, but that technology continued to improve. And their envisioned decryption mandate is modest, they contended, because service providers — not the government — would hold the key.

“No one should be promising their customers that they will thumb their nose at a U.S. court order,” Ms. Caproni said. “They can promise strong encryption. They just need to figure out how they can provide us plain text.”
"We are today the United States of the 1950s"

Eikie Batista
Eikie Batista: Brazil's Richest Man

Batista, the best-known entrepreneur in Brazil, has been one of the men to profit most from Brazil's recent take-off and the growing levels of foreign investment. He has attracted billions of dollars of foreign investment to his mining and infrastructure companies and is looking to sell interests in several offshore oilfields for more than $7bn.

"We are today the United States of the 1950s," he said. Asked what his message to European businesses would be, he replied: "Come! It's the time to make your bets on a country with 200 million consumers [and] with the perfect demographics for the next 10 years. This oil story is a 30-year growth story."

Read the full story of Lula hails Brazil's oil-fuelled '30-year boom'

Sunday, September 26, 2010



From Joe Romm:

September 26, 2010
Once, pretty much everywhere, beating your wife and children was regarded as a father’s duty, homosexuality was a hanging offense, and waterboarding was approved — in fact, invented — by the Catholic Church. Through the middle of the 19th century, the United States and other nations in the Americas condoned plantation slavery. Many of our grandparents were born in states where women were forbidden to vote. And well into the 20th century, lynch mobs in this country stripped, tortured, hanged and burned human beings at picnics.
Looking back at such horrors, it is easy to ask: What were people thinking?
Yet, the chances are that our own descendants will ask the same question, with the same incomprehension, about some of our practices today.
Is there a way to guess which ones?
I thought this was going to be another just-doesn’t-get-it opinion piece in the Washington Post.  After all, the answer to its headline question, “What will future generations condemn us for?” is painfully obvious to anybody who follows climate science (as I discussed here).
But the author, Kwame Anthony Appiah, has in fact written a very thoughtful piece on the “three signs that a particular practice is destined for future condemnation.”  And the Post is running an online poll where “Our treatment of the environment” is already easily winning.  Here are the three signs:
First, people have already heard the arguments against the practice. The case against slavery didn’t emerge in a blinding moment of moral clarity, for instance; it had been around for centuries.
The case against unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions has been around a long, long time.  Remember, the National Research Council’s 1979 review of the science (”Killing the myth of the 1970s global cooling scientific consensus“:
“In this case, the panel concluded that the potential damage from greenhouse gases was real and should not be ignored….  Warming from doubled CO2 of 1.5°–4.5°C was possible, the panel reported. While there were huge uncertainties, Verner Suomi, chairman of the National Research Council’s Climate Research Board, wrote in the report’s foreword that he believed there was enough evidence to support action: “A wait-and-see policy may mean waiting until it is too late” (Charney et al. 1979).
Here’s another familiar sign:
Second, defenders of the custom tend not to offer moral counterarguments but instead invoke tradition, human nature or necessity. (As in, “We’ve always had slaves, and how could we grow cotton without them?”)
Indeed, the standard argument against strong action today from people who almost understand the science (and those who don’t understand it at all) is that humans are simply incapable of doing what is necessary — or that unrestricted burning of fossil fuels is necessary for continued economic growth.  In fact, unrestricted burning of fossil fuels is the one guaranteed path to collapse (see “Is the global economy a Ponzi scheme?“)  And it is not beyond the capability — or desire — of most Americans to act, it is mainly a failure of leadership, along with a shameful disinformation campaign, which brings us to:
And third, supporters engage in what one might call strategic ignorance, avoiding truths that might force them to face the evils in which they’re complicit. Those who ate the sugar or wore the cotton that the slaves grew simply didn’t think about what made those goods possible. That’s why abolitionists sought to direct attention toward the conditions of the Middle Passage, through detailed illustrations of slave ships and horrifying stories of the suffering below decks.
That would seem to hit human-caused climate change right in the bull’s-eye (see “Attack of the climate zombies!“)
And so Appiah ends his list of “four contenders for future moral condemnation,” which includes, “our prison system” and “Industrial meat production” and “The institutionalized and isolated elderly” with:
The environment

Of course, most transgenerational obligations run the other way — from parents to children — and of these the most obvious candidate for opprobrium is our wasteful attitude toward the planet’s natural resources and ecology. Look at a satellite picture of Russia, and you’ll see a vast expanse of parched wasteland where decades earlier was a lush and verdant landscape. That’s the Republic of Kalmykia, home to what was recognized in the 1990s as Europe’s first man-made desert. Desertification, which is primarily the result of destructive land-management practices, threatens a third of the Earth’s surface; tens of thousands of Chinese villages have been overrun by sand drifts in the past few decades.
It’s not as though we’re unaware of what we’re doing to the planet: We know the harm done by deforestation, wetland destruction, pollution, overfishing, greenhouse gas emissions — the whole litany. Our descendants, who will inherit this devastated Earth, are unlikely to have the luxury of such recklessness. Chances are, they won’t be able to avert their eyes, even if they want to.
Indeed, the multiple catastrophes we face on our current path of unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions are not merely grim individually — large and continuous sea level rise, Dust-Bowlification, 9F+ warming, record-smashing extreme weather, and mass extinction, especially of marine life (see “Real adaptation is as politically tough as real mitigation, but much more expensive and not as effective in reducing future miseryThey are all but unimaginable when you consider that they are going to hit our children and grandchildren and countless future generations for decades and decades on end simultaneously.

Also, unlike most other condemnable immoral activities in history, by the time this is obvious to all, there will be no undoing it by passing a law or establishing new social norms (see NOAA stunner: Climate change “largely irreversible for 1000 years,” with permanent Dust Bowls in Southwest and around the globe).
And that’s why we all have a moral obligation to condemn what’s happening now in the strongest possible terms.
Related Posts:


Saturday, September 25, 2010


Being a point of light amidst the crazy world out of balance is often the most important thing one can and should do. Mixing it up with lots of different kinds of people is pretty good too. You know the message -- there's only one love.

From Wikipedia:

Sara Tavares (born February 1, 1978) is a Portuguese singer, composer, guitarist and percussionist. She is of Cape Verdean descent but was born and raised in Lisbon, Portugal, where she also lives. She composes African, Portuguese and North American influenced world music. She composes in Portuguese and Portuguese-based creole languages. Although Portuguese is the main language of her songs, it's not rare to find in her repertoire multilingual songs mixing Portuguese with Portuguese creole and even English in the same song such as "One Love."

Thursday, September 23, 2010



19 September 2010. A morning of dancing for Marina Silva in the central governmental square of Brasilia, the capital of Brazil. As plumes of smoke rose high above the government buildings from fires across the rural cerrado, people of all persuasions demonstrated for a sustainable future.

Today, 23 September 2010, Brasilia has gone for 115 days without a drop of rain and 18 States have declared emergency status as fires and drought continue across Brazil.



More pics here...

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


During a recent trip to Rio de Janeiro I got the special treat of visiting the estate and gardens of Roberto Burle Marx who revolutionized landscape architecture by demonstrating that you could literally paint with plants. Using a pallet of some 3,500 varieties (more than the native rainforest diversity) and restoring an abandoned banana plantation he co-created with nature to produce realities of extraordinary beauty. After seeing so many atrocities committed by humans against nature it was totally inspiring to see what a human imagination working with nature can achieve.


Friday, September 17, 2010


A major theme of the Marina Silva for President campaign is to create  networks of supporting homes --
Casas de Marina. I appear for a moment in this video at about 0:57, having fun with my windmill. 
Truthfully, about the only way I can endure the seriousness of politics is to give license to the kid in me. But, that's probably what its all about -- the kids.

Here's a little report about Marina bringing her presidential campaign back home to Acre earlier this month.

On Saturday morning (5 Sept 10) the smoke from the deforestation and agricultural burning season hung in the air as the Movement for Marina Silva set the scene for Marina's words. Every one was wearing masks to filter the smoke.


As Marina spoke she emphasized over and over the deeper themes of her campaign, "It's not about me. It's about the future, about the role of women, about education, about achieving a sustainable relationship with nature with care and justice for all."


Of course, it is the children to whom the future belongs.



Later there was a lunch at a Casa de Marina with family, friends and more youth.



The main event was in the evening at the launch of a new book about the life of te candidate: Marina -- A Life For a Cause by Marília de Camargo César.


The place was packed full.


Marina brought her family to hear the reading of the section about the day she left home at age 16 and stepped alone on the bus with a sack of sugar, a few clothes and about $20 to begin her mission in the world.


Then came the book-signing


and the long line of well-wishers


which didn't complete until 1:30am.

Here are all the photos from that long and exciting day:

Thursday, September 16, 2010



The Federal Government of Brazil has announced a $200 initiative to protect what remains of the cerrado. Located in the interior plain, the cerrado has long been recognized by scientists as the source of most of Brazil's fresh ground water and as one of world's most bio-diverse grasslands. But popularly, it was seen as a vast arid wasteland of stunted vegetation and suffered in comparison much better known lush Amazon basin. Recent studies show that damage to the Cerrado results in greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to those produced by destruction of the Amazon rainforest. The cerrado is now disappearing more than twice as fast as the rate of forest loss in the Amazon.

[UPDATE 17 Sept 2010 -- I have received by email an assessment by a leading Cerrado expert who says, "The new policy is either an empty gesture because it does not involve new money and does not address expansion of the frontier, or it is an important first (or second) step in the right direction. Donors have said they ignore the Cerrado because Brazil does not say it is important. Now it is in the Climate Change policy as a target, not just the Amazon, and there is a national policy."]

Here is the story from Mongabay:

Brazil announced a plan to protect the cerrado, the vast woody savanna that covers 20 percent of the country but has become the nation's biggest single source of carbon emissions due to conversion for agriculture and cattle pasture, reports Brazil's Ministry of the Environment.

Unveiled today in Brasilia, the $200 million initiative establishes the "political framework for the conservation and sustainable use of the most threatened biome in Brazil," according to a statement released by the ministry.

The Action Plan to Prevent and Control Deforestation and Wildfires in the Cerrado Biome (PPCerrado) comes under Brazil's ambitious program to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions 40 percent from a projected 2020 baseline. The plan initially focused on reducing emissions from Amazon deforestation, neglecting emissions from the cerrado, which last year surpassed those from rainforest clearing.

The rise in cerrado conversion, which is now disappearing more than twice as fast as the neighboring Amazon rainforest, is partially a result of efforts to stem rainforest loss. Seeking to avoid land use restrictions and penalties in the Amazon, farmers and ranchers turned to the cerrado to expand soy, sugar cane, and cattle operations. Nearly half the cerrado's 2 million square kilometers has now been cleared of its original vegetation and converted for agriculture or pasture. Destruction of the biome has long been overlooked by environmentalists and the government, but accelerating loss and the realization that conversion of cerrado is now a major source of greenhouse gas emissions has led conservationists in recent years to call for protective measures.

"This plan is an evolution of the plan to fight deforestation in the Amazon," Paulo Adario, Amazon Campaign Director for Greenpeace Brazil, told, adding that too few environmental groups are campaigning to protect the cerrado.

"[There is] little pressure to force the government and producers to move in the right direction."

Roberto Smeraldi, founder and director of the environmental group Amigos da Terra - Amazônia Brasileira, says that while the government's intent to protect the cerrado is welcome, it remains to be seen whether it is willing to take the tough measures needed to reign in agricultural expansion.

"It is positive there is now a formal concern for cerrado," Smeraldi told via email. "The challenge for the plan is... to cancel and/or revert the existing perverse incentives towards leaking land use change from the Amazon to cerrado."

Smeraldi said the government would need to step up law enforcement in cerrado areas if it hopes to have an impact.

"The enforcement packages should be supported by increase in the collection of fines, which is now around 0.5 percent," he explained. "At this rate, it is almost a guarantee of impunity."

The cerrado has been disappearing at a rate of more than 20,000 hectares per year since 2002. The ecosystem is known to house 10,400 species of plants, nearly half of which are endemic; 935 bird species; 780 freshwater fish species; 113 amphibian species; 180 reptile species; and almost 300 mammal species.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


More about it here.

The Journeying God

Journeying god,
pitch your tent with mine
so that I may not become deterred
by hardship, strangeness, doubt.
Show me the movement I must make
toward a wealth not dependent on possessions,
toward a wisdom not based on books,
toward a strength not bolstered by might,
toward a god not confined to heaven.
Help me to find myself as I walk in other's shoes.

(Prayer song from Ghana, traditional, translator unknown)

Thanks to Panhala.

Thursday, September 09, 2010


Joe Sabia mashes up material and virtual realities in a riff on Tom Lehrer's "Elements" song.

Sunday, September 05, 2010


She is everywhere.
Pay attention.
Let her guide us to our healing.
She has myriad forms.
In my way, I say, 

"Salve Minha Rainha. Salve."

image by lou gold

Saturday, September 04, 2010


I like this kind. Unlike the ones that appear in the economy, it's totally OK that they don't last long.

Thursday, September 02, 2010


Alan Ginzburg and Paul McCartney riffing through the general media blather. The performance is 15 years old. While the reality show of contemporary media performance has only gotten worse, the spin of Alan and Paul can still help us laugh at it.

Thanks to Avi for suggesting the link.