The Odd Current Climate

Those of us who came of age in the sixties – the assassination of one Kennedy and the King “I Have a Dream” speech followed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the government setting up Medicare and Head Start too, and then the sudden escalation of a few limited military operations in Vietnam into a full-scale war that promised to be endless – are in our late sixties now. That’s an awkward age. That’s when you talk about how you once were young and engaged in everything and living through the few critical years that changed everything in America, and when the grandkids roll their eyes if they think you’re not looking – but those years did change America. King was assassinated, and then a second Kennedy, and in 1968, from Prague to Paris to Chicago, the young were telling the old farts to stuff it. Peace-Love-Dope – the world had changed. The summer after the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago there was Woodstock – and then the Beatles broke up and Richard Nixon became president, because he spoke for that “silent majority” who had had just about enough of all this nonsense.

Maybe there was that silent majority, and maybe he did speak for them, but there was no going back. There had been a sexual revolution – everyone should just relax and stop being so freaked out by what other people chose to do or not do on their own time, in private, or perhaps in private groups – and it also became hard to settle any argument by invoking either authority or tradition. This or that had always been done “that” way, and that’s just the way it is? No one could play that trump card any longer. Tradition was for Christmas, and anyone who claimed to be an authority had damned well better be prepared submit proof that he or she had put in the work to prove they knew what the hell they were talking about. What had they studied, and how widely? No one could simply pull authority out of their ass, claiming they “just knew” something was so. Put up or shut up. This wasn’t 1953 at the Rotary Club in Columbus any longer.

Those were the changes, and we’re still fighting over what have been called the culture wars of the sixties. All the “free love” stuff simply morphed into arguments about abortion, and contraception, once again, and finally into arguments about gay rights and now gay marriage. It all blends together, and one side from the sixties is finally winning the general argument, about the common decency of letting people do what they want, while the other side, also from the sixties, can’t believe it – because “that” – whatever its current form is – is just not right. They have it on authority, from the Bible, generally but unfortunately not specifically, and there is tradition too, as in traditional marriage. Tradition matters. It’s who we are. The counterargument is that it’s only who we were, in 1953 in Columbus, Ohio, perhaps – a notion that infuriates the other side. Even the civil rights battles are being refought – with some outraged that the Supreme Court just ripped the guts out of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and others happy and feeling triumphant because that nasty old sixties thing was finally destroyed. It took long enough, but a win is a win.

This is odd. It’s almost as if the sixties never ended. A select few of those who came of age in the sixties, those who simply could not let the whole thing go, rose to position of power, still fighting the old battles, and roping in younger men who seem to wish they had been there, in the heroic days. This is either nostalgia gone bad, or it’s proof that the sixties where not that special – they were just a dramatic instance of old arguments that have been going on forever, but with a great folk and then rock soundtrack. Heck, who can forget that time Reagan’s interior secretary banned the Beach Boys from ever performing again on the National Mall on the Fourth of July and brought in Wayne Newton instead – in 1983 of all years? Cool. It was the sixties again for a time, or it’s always been the sixties.

Those of us who came of age in the sixties do like to think that this is so, but that may be a bit presumptuous. Even the social conservative in America know that their enemies from the sixties have won all the battles now, and thus they will have to be satisfied with fighting the lost cause, nobly, in the twilight of the gods they imagine, wrapped in their heroic martyrdom. Fine – that seems to make them happy and that works as business model for Fox News too – but the ground may have shifted. Forget the sixties. Gay marriage will be legal in all states soon, and the courts keeps shooting down all the clever ways the Republicans have been coming up with to make it damned hard for minorities and the “wrong people” to vote, and the Republicans will lose their war on women – too many women, who do still have the vote, won’t put up with being told how their bodies really work, as if they didn’t know, and how they really don’t want equal pay for equal work. It’s over – no more sixties. We’re now reliving the twenties. Now it’s about something more basic – it’s about how we know what we know. Maybe science teaches us nothing, or it lies to us.

We’ve been here before, and Frederick Lewis Allen takes us back there in Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s:

The prestige of science was colossal. The man in the street and the woman in the kitchen, confronted on every hand with new machines and devices which they owed to the laboratory, were ready to believe that science could accomplish almost anything; and they were being deluged with scientific information and theory. The newspapers were giving columns of space to inform (or misinform) them of the latest discoveries: a new dictum from Albert Einstein was now front-page stuff even though practically nobody could understand it. Outlines of knowledge poured from the presses to tell people about the planetesimal hypothesis and the constitution of the atom, to describe for them in unwarranted detail the daily life of the cave-man, and to acquaint them with electrons, endocrines, hormones, vitamins, reflexes, and psychoses. On the lower intellectual levels, millions of people were discovering for the first time that there was such a thing as the venerable theory of evolution. Those who had assimilated this doctrine without disaster at an early age were absorbing from Wells, Thomson, East, Wiggam, Dorsey, and innumerable other popularizers and interpreters of science a collection of ideas newer and more disquieting: that we are residents of an insignificant satellite of a very average star obscurely placed in one of who-knows-how-many galaxies scattered through space; that our behavior depends largely upon chromosomes and ductless glands; that the Hottentot obeys impulses similar to those which activate the pastor of the First Baptist Church, and is probably already better adapted to his Hottentot environment than he would be if he followed the Baptist code, that sex is the most important thing in life, that inhibitions are not to be tolerated, that sin is an out-of-date term, that most untoward behavior is the result of complexes acquired at an early age, and that men and women are mere bundles of behavior-patterns, anyhow.

That led to this:

Of all the sciences it was the youngest and least scientific which most captivated the general public and had the most disintegrating effect upon religious faith. Psychology was king. Freud, Adler, Jung, and Watson had their tens of thousands of votaries; intelligence-testers invaded the schools in quest of IQs; psychiatrists were installed in business houses to hire and fire employees and determine advertising policies; and one had only to read the newspapers to be told with complete assurance that psychology held the key to the problems of waywardness, divorce, and crime.

The word science had become a shibboleth. To preface a statement with “Science teaches us” was enough to silence argument. If a sales manager wanted to put over a promotion scheme or a clergyman to recommend a charity, they both hastened to say that it was scientific. …

So powerful was the invasion of scientific ideas and of the scientific habit of reliance upon proved acts that the Protestant churches – which numbered in their membership five out of every eight adult church members in the United States – were broken into two warring camps. Those who believed in the letter of the Bible and refused to accept any teaching, even of science, which seemed to conflict with it, began in 1921 to call themselves Fundamentalists. The Modernists (or Liberals), on the other hand, tried to reconcile their beliefs with scientific thought: to throw overboard what was out of date, to retain what was essential and intellectually respectable, and generally to mediate between Christianity and the skeptical spirit of the age.

This too should sound familiar:

The position of the Fundamentalists seemed almost hopeless. The tide of all rational thought in a rational age seemed to be running against them. But they were numerous, and at least there was no doubt about where they stood. Particularly in the South they controlled the big Protestant denominations. And they fought strenuously. They forced the liberal Doctor Fosdick out of the pulpit of a Presbyterian church and back into his own Baptist fold, and even caused him to be tried for heresy (though there was no churchman in America more influential than he). They introduced into the legislatures of nearly half the states of the Union bills designed to forbid the teaching of the doctrine of evolution; in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and South Carolina they pushed such bills through one house of the legislature only to fail in the other; and in Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Mississippi they actually succeeded in writing their anachronistic wishes into law.

The Modernists had the Zeitgeist on their side, but they were not united. Their interpretations of God – as the first cause, as absolute energy, as idealized reality, as a righteous will working in creation, as the ideal and goal toward which all that is highest and best is moving – were confusingly various and ambiguous. Some of these interpretations offered little to satisfy the worshiper…

All through the decade the three-sided conflict reverberated.

That of course led to Scopes Trial in the summer of 1925, a bit of mess, but now we have almost every Republican in office saying schools should “teach the controversy” – teach the kids about evolution if you must, but also teach Creationism, the idea that there’s stuff we’ll never know and never can know, complex wonderful stuff, that can only have come from some amazing Creator. Let the kids decide which is true. It’s a variation on the same theme. We’re in the twenties again.

That may be a battle not worth fighting. If a kid grows up believing that Jesus rode a dinosaur and that no one really knows how the human eye really works and can never know anything about DNA or cancer, really, that kid is harmless. No one is going to die or anything – but it’s a different matter with climate change. We seem to be ruining the planet, and there’s no controversy about that. That was settled last summer:

An international panel of scientists has found with near certainty that human activity is the cause of most of the temperature increases of recent decades, and warns that sea levels could conceivably rise by more than three feet by the end of the century if emissions continue at a runaway pace.

The scientists, whose findings are reported in a draft summary of the next big United Nations climate report, largely dismiss a recent slowdown in the pace of warming, which is often cited by climate change doubters, attributing it most likely to short-term factors.

The report emphasizes that the basic facts about future climate change are more established than ever, justifying the rise in global concern. It also reiterates that the consequences of escalating emissions are likely to be profound.

“It is extremely likely that human influence on climate caused more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010,” the draft report says. “There is high confidence that this has warmed the ocean, melted snow and ice, raised global mean sea level and changed some climate extremes in the second half of the 20th century.”

Things have only gotten worse since then. A big chunk of the Antarctic is breaking off now and a large slab of Greenland ice too – so it looks like a twenty foot rise, a bit more than three feet by the end of the century, and sooner. Once can say the science isn’t settled, or that these are just scientists guess about what no one really knows or an ever know, but this has consequences:

As experts warn that every continent will be impacted by climate change, there’s yet another danger on the horizon: Getting sued over failing to prepare for worsening weather.

Farmers Insurance is suing the city of Chicago and about 200 local municipalities for allegedly failing to adequately prepare for the impact of climate change, in what’s described as the first-of-its-kind legal argument. At the heart of the class-action lawsuits is a storm that hit the Chicago area on April 17, 2013, described by CBS station WBBM as so bad that some neighborhoods were only navigable by boat. The storm also shut down major expressways and flooded hundreds of basements and streets.

While some might cite the storm as simply bad luck for Chicago-area towns, Farmers Insurance is claiming that the towns had the time and opportunity to prepare their storm-water and sewer systems, but failed to “implement reasonable pre-storm practices.” While many already-strapped municipalities grapple with the costs and impact of climate change, the lawsuit may indicate a strategy from insurers to mitigate payouts, given that claims related to worsening weather events are likely to rise.

Hey, Farmers Insurance isn’t going to be left holding the bag because a bunch of politicians like to say science is bullshit, to win votes. Unlike denouncing Darwin, this isn’t harmless. We’re talking big bucks here, and there’s this too:

The accelerating rate of climate change poses a severe risk to national security and acts as a catalyst for global political conflict, a report published Tuesday by a leading government-funded military research organization concluded.

The CNA Corporation Military Advisory Board found that climate change-induced drought in the Middle East and Africa is leading to conflicts over food and water and escalating longstanding regional and ethnic tensions into violent clashes. The report also found that rising sea levels are putting people and food supplies in vulnerable coastal regions like eastern India, Bangladesh and the Mekong Delta in Vietnam at risk and could lead to a new wave of refugees.

In addition, the report predicted that an increase in catastrophic weather events around the world will create more demand for American troops, even as flooding and extreme weather events at home could damage naval ports and military bases.

In an interview, Secretary of State John Kerry signaled that the report’s findings would influence American foreign policy.

“Tribes are killing each other over water today,” Mr. Kerry said. “Think of what happens if you have massive dislocation, or the drying up of the waters of the Nile, of the major rivers in China and India. The intelligence community takes it seriously, and it’s translated into action.”

The Pentagon and the intelligence community have to plan for likely contingencies – the very worst thing is to be blindsided by something you should have seen coming, like those fanatical jihadists in those hijacked jetliners a dozen or more years ago. People die. Major wars follow. This is like that. “Sorry, we should have known” just doesn’t cut it, and neither does saying that science makes you feel queasy about Jesus.

Things back in February were different elsewhere:

House Republicans Tuesday held a hearing on the so-called Secret Science Reform Act, a bill that would “prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency from proposing, finalizing or disseminating regulations or assessments based upon science that is not transparent or reproducible.”

That sounds harmless enough, but it isn’t:

While the bill’s language would not require the EPA to wait until its research was verified by an outside source to make recommendations, opponents say the bill’s requirements are murky.

“The bill attacks the mainstays of scientific investigation,” wrote Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) in an email to The Huffington Post. “It would strip away the EPA’s authority to make any rules due to the stringency of the data disclosure requirements.”

“The peer review process is the foundation of science inquiry in our society, and is a trusted evaluation of scientific evidence around the world,” he added. “This legislation attempts to dictate how the scientific method is employed,” he added. “The Secret Science Reform Act is an attempt by climate change deniers to stop the EPA from doing its job.”

Yeah, well, Lindsay Abrams reports that the same committee is at it again:

The notoriously anti-science House Science Committee has hit a new low, voting on Thursday to approve a spending bill amendment that “would prohibit defense spending on climate change research and the social cost of carbon analysis.” Translated: The Pentagon is being ordered to ignore climate science.

Specifically, the amendment, which was introduced by Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., forbids the Department of Defense from in any way utilizing the findings and recommendations of the National Climate Assessment or the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fifth assessment on climate change, two landmark, comprehensive reports reflecting the work of hundreds of the world’s top climate scientists and experts – or, as McKinley referred to it, “ideology.”

Yeah, science is no more than ideology, pernicious ideology, as William Jennings Bryan said to Clarence Darrow in 1925 in a hot courtroom in Dayton, Tennessee. Abrams just changes the details:

Natural disaster response, increased conflict tied to drought and food and water security and other “non-traditional” security challenges are all things the military’s been actively working to address. In its 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, as a recent example, the Pentagon identified the impacts of climate change as “threat multipliers” that “may increase the frequency, scale, and complexity of future missions.” It’s even looking for ways to reduce its own carbon footprint, by cutting back on energy use and switching to renewables.

Not necessary, according to McKinley. “Climate change alarmists contend that man-made CO2 is the cause of climate change,” he explained on the floor. “Most people may not realize that 96 percent of all the CO2 emissions occur naturally.”

The bill passed Friday, and is now on its way to the Senate…

It may die there, but the Republicans will probably retake the Senate in the midterms, and Paul Krugman reminds us of one of the young Republican stars there:

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida – much of whose state is now fated to sink beneath the waves – weighed in on climate change. Some readers may recall that in 2012, Rubio, asked how old he believed the Earth to be, replied “I’m not a scientist, man.” This time, however, he confidently declared the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change false, although in a later interview he was unable to cite any sources for his skepticism.

So why would the senator make such a statement? The answer is that like that ice sheet, his party’s intellectual evolution (or maybe more accurately, its devolution) has reached a point of no return, in which allegiance to false doctrines has become a crucial badge of identity.

Krugman can see how this happens:

There are, obviously, some fundamental factors underlying GOP climate skepticism: The influence of powerful vested interests (including, though by no means limited to, the Koch brothers), plus the party’s hostility to any argument for government intervention. But there is clearly also some kind of cumulative process at work. As the evidence for a changing climate keeps accumulating, the Republican Party’s commitment to denial just gets stronger.

Think of it this way: Once upon a time it was possible to take climate change seriously while remaining a Republican in good standing. Today, listening to climate scientists gets you excommunicated – hence Rubio’s statement, which was effectively a partisan pledge of allegiance.

And truly crazy positions are becoming the norm. A decade ago, only the GOP’s extremist fringe asserted that global warming was a hoax concocted by a vast global conspiracy of scientists (although even then that fringe included some powerful politicians). Today, such conspiracy theorizing is mainstreamed within the party, and rapidly becoming mandatory; witch hunts against scientists reporting evidence of warming have become standard operating procedure, and skepticism about climate science is turning into hostility toward science in general.

It’s hard to see what could reverse this growing hostility to inconvenient science… the process of intellectual devolution seems to have reached a point of no return.

This is a matter of far more importance than those amazing arguments about evolution in that Tennessee courtroom long ago – this is life and death, for millions, even if the general argument is the same. How do we know what we know? Is science really fact? Amanda Marcotte adds this:

The problem is that science is actually the opposite of opinion. So often our opinions are shaped by what we want to believe, so the scientific method was established to remove the influence of opinion from the examination of the evidence. “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it,” as the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson famously said.

Let’s be clear: No one probably wishes more than climate scientists that global warming wasn’t true. If someone was able to prove conclusively tomorrow that all the models of climate change were wrong and we aren’t experiencing manmade global warming, climate scientists would throw the biggest party imaginable, ecstatic that their fears of doom and gloom turned out to be illusions. Unfortunately for them and for all of us, global warming is happening, whether we believe it or not.

Things certainly were easier when the issues seemed to be sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll – but we seem to be reliving the twenties now, not the sixties, and the stakes are as high as they could be. Those of us who came of age in the sixties should probably just shut up about those amazing times. There are more important things.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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5 Responses to The Odd Current Climate

  1. Rick says:

    “Specifically, the amendment, which was introduced by Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., forbids the Department of Defense from in any way utilizing the findings and recommendations of the National Climate Assessment or the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fifth assessment on climate change, two landmark, comprehensive reports reflecting the work of hundreds of the world’s top climate scientists and experts – or, as McKinley referred to it, ‘ideology.’ “

    Maybe the key part of the above to take note of is that jumble of letters “R-W.Va.”

    Ignoring the obvious fact for the moment that nobody but nobody should be telling our military to disregard science, lawmakers from West Virginia — and maybe especially Republican lawmakers from West Virginia — should probably be required to recuse themselves from any Climate Change legislation on the grounds of conflict of interest.

    Virtually the whole state is notoriously in the pocket of the coal industry and has amply demonstrated that it would let the whole world simultaneously drown in polluted waters and choke to death on pollution rather than do anything that it deems in the least bit harmful to the business of coal. At the very least, everyone in earshot should constantly be warned that most West Virginians, and especially those in power there, should never be listened to on those matters that effect the health and welfare of the rest of the human race.

    The same should probably go for any elected official who takes any money whatsoever from the Koch brothers, since so much of the millions they spend on buying “speech” can be seen as money spent in defense of the original source of their wealth: the oil refining business.

    If we can’t actually silence these people, then the public, and especially other elected officials, should at the very least be persuaded to just ignore them.


  2. Back in the day, up here in Baghdad by the Bay, there existed an informal, loosely organized group known as DOOM – the society of secular armageddonists, We knew then, and the years have confirmed, that the coming end of civilization will be a wholly “do-it-yourself” affair. We long ago passed the level of sustainable world population, and people just keep on makin’ them babies. At this juncture it appears that the human species has chosen the slower path to extinction: we will wallow to oblivion in our own effluvia instead of the more dramatic path of thermonuclear obliteration. So be it, The planet, of course, will carry on, perhaps better, when we are gone. In the meantime, about all we can do is slow the pace of our descent to oblivion while still enjoying the ride.

  3. burt berlowe says:

    Hi Bruce,

    Love this column. Have been doing some researching and writing about the 60s. This is very insightful. I may want to borrow it for use on a blog or in my research if that is okay. Maybe you
    would want to make it a guest column on my blog. It’s great to connect with you again after all this time. Glad to find out that Nathan is doing so well with his film work. I have been working with some film producers to get my compassionate rebel stories into a documentary form. How are things going with you and with NRP and Tikkun? I still get Lerner’s e-mails with articles from the magazine. If you get a chance check out my new website and let me know what you think of it. My book is now available as an e-book if you know of anyone who prefers to read their books in that format.

    Please keep me on your mailing list.

    Peace and best wishes,


    • burt berlowe says:

      Hi Bruce,
      I was wondering if you might be interested in a unique opportunity to get some of your writings published in an e-book. Laurence Peters, a retired English professor in Maryland I met on the internet has been working with me on several projects, including doing a podcast interview with me and some of the compassionate rebels in my book. He has recently started his own e-book publishing company called Changing Times Press (a great name). He is currently working on a book of Turning Point stories. He is seeking contributions of 3000 to 5000 words from anyone who wants to tell their turning point story. It is a different way of publishing memoir material. You could elaborate on the above piece or write something new about events or experiences that have transformed your life. He would like to have expressions of interest by June 1 and drafts by September 1 but can be flexible. If you are interested or know of someone else that might be a good candidate, let me know asap. Check out Laurence’s website (just put in his name). He has an impressive background working in political positions in Washington D.C., and publishing educational materials. He has pivoted to a new career of activism and publishing. He is especially interested in gathering the transformative stories of baby boomers (and near baby boomers) and publishing and distributing them in e-book form.
      He is also interested in peace and justice and global citizenship, and, of course is a compassionate rebel. Check him out.
      Thanks Bruce. I look forward to keeping in contact with you.

      Burt Berlowe

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