Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Societies and their Environments: Collapse, by Jared Diamond

     Jared Diamond. Collapse. (2005) Or How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.
     Diamond begins his survey of failed societies with an elegiac account of Montana, which is overcrowded, over-exploited, and will suffer some kind of ecological collapse unless the individualist values that make Montana attractive to the incomers radically change. And that’s the over-arching thesis: that the values that enable societies to thrive will, sooner or later, clash with ecological (and therefore economic) reality. Then the choice is stark: adapt or die. For all societies depend on the natural systems they exploit.
     These systems may change naturally (very small shifts in temperature or rainfall can make the difference between a garden and a desert). More often, they are over-exploited: the prime example of this is Easter Island. He ends his survey with a rather depressing look at the ways in which our misallocation of resources damages the ecosystems that sustain us. His prime example is mining, which we practice as if there were no long-term costs. He does see some hope here and there, in the shift towards pollution reduction in China, for example, but overall, we are still making choices based on values that made sense when resources were scarce, surplus wealth was difficult or impossible to accumulate, and ecological damage was localised and its effects on people and other life forms was limited.
     Diamond’s work shows that the choice is never between “the economy” and “the environment”, but between values, attitudes, and desires. The fundamental issue is that humans, like any other creatures, depend on the environment. We humans have changed the Earth more thoroughly than any other organism. That has made us very successful, if you measure success by our numbers and the variety of habitats that we occupy.
     But that success contains within it the seeds of our own destruction. We operate on the same imperative as all other life forms: be fruitful and multiply. If we continue to operate on the values of economic growth and profit, if we fail to understand that the standard of living is not about money, we will destroy our civilisation. If we do, will the humans who survive the inevitable population crash learn from our mistakes? The history of societies that destroyed themselves suggests that’s unlikely.
     Recommended. ****

Angel Catbird: To Castle Catula

     Margaret Atwood, Johnnie Christmas, Tamra Bonvillain. Angel Catbird: To Castle Catula (2017) The second instalment of the Angel Catbird saga, as nicely done as the first. Angel and his friends travel to Castle Catula, picking up owls as allies along the way, and adopting an orphan kitten. A couple of goddesses also join the alliance against Dr Muroid and his rats. His evil will of course implode in the finale, since he doesn’t understand that his power depends not on control but on leadership. A couple of female white rats will no doubt figure in his defeat. I expect Volume 3 before Christmas. Recommended. ****

Monday, June 12, 2017

An invader that isn't: The Narrow World by Brent Bonacorsos.

Watch this video by Brent Bonacorso. Science fiction with a difference. About 15 minutes of your time well spent. Marie K sent me a link which led to this.

Friday, June 09, 2017

Political Anecdotes and War Stories: Memoir by Charles Lynch

    Charles Lynch. You can’t Print THAT! (1983) Lynch describes himself as a Political Voyeur, and that he is. He’s also an excellent story-teller, his natural talent honed by the demands of newspaper reporting. He’s also opinionated, a small-c conservative, with a grudging respect for the Liberal party, and a somewhat uncritical enthusiasm for the Progressive Conservatives, with whom he shares a superstitious fear of debt. He loved fishing and music. He began his career before the 2nd World War, was a war correspondent, spent most of his working life in Ottawa. He thinks Canadian politics (and history) is anything but dull, and his tales prove it. Extremely readable, recommended, a sourcebook for anyone who’s contemplating writing a history of Canadian politics in the 60s and 70s. More about him on Wikipedia.  ****

Late Louis L'Amour: End of the Drive

      Louis L’Amour. End of the Drive (1997) Posthumous collection of short stories and a novella “found in an old box” by L’Amour’s son. Mostly early work, you can see L’Amour learning the craft. He tries out standard plots, such as the thieves who betray each other, the son who grudgingly admits his father’s wisdom, the con-man unmasked, etc. I didn’t finish the novella, though, it’s uses a plot L’Amour has used many times: the villain who sows suspicion, the hero who must clear his name, the girl who mistakes her feelings, etc. A treat for any fan, a good read for anyone who likes well-done pulp. **½

Monday, June 05, 2017

Why GDP is a bad idea

An economist and an accountant are walking along a large puddle. They get across a frog jumping on the mud. The economist says: "If you eat the frog I'll give you $20,000!"

The accountant checks his budget and figures out he's better off eating it, so he does and collects money.

Continuing along the same puddle they almost step into yet another frog. The accountant says: "Now, if you eat this frog I'll give you $20,000."

After evaluating the proposal the economist eats the frog and gets the money.

They go on. The accountant starts thinking: "Listen, we both have the same amount of money we had before, but we both ate frogs. I don't see us being better off."

The economist: "Well, that's true, but you overlooked the fact that we've been just involved in $40,000 of trade."

Lessons learned: Now that I'm in my late 70s

Six years ago, on the occasion of the birthday that marked him as an elder, David Brooks of the New York Times asked his readers to tell him what they had learned. This is what I sent him. I found it while cleaning up old files on the hard disk. Since then Jon died, and I learned another lesson: Life is losing what you love.

Subject: Over 70: lessons learned
From: Wolf Kirchmeir
Date: 28/10/2011 11:05 AM
To: dabrooks@nytimes.com

Hello, David Brooks,

I won't bore you with all the platitudes, which are true: you do learn that aggression doesn't pay, that love matters most, that family and friends are what make life worth living, and so on.

One thing I've learned looking back is that many times what I thought was important at the time turned out to be unimportant; and what I thought was merely another hum-drum choice turned out to be life-changing. Often, you can't even pin-point the choice: it was just another more or less reasonable response to the situation you faced.

For example, choosing a car seems shatteringly important at the time: it has to be the right make, the right model, and not too much of a second choice compared to what you really, really wanted but couldn't afford. But in the end, it's just a box that takes you from here to there.

Our decision to move from Alberta to Ontario to take a one-year contract at a university didn't seem very serious at the time. We could always do something else in a year or two. I needed a job, and this was the one that came up. When it was done, I could have gone to post-grad school for a Ph. D., but I took a job as a highschool teacher, because I was tired of being a poor student, our children were growing up, and I knew I could teach. I planned to teach for three or four years, saving my pennies, and then pursue that Ph. D. But teaching high school English became my career. Despite its many frustrations, it was very satisfying.

Most satisfying was meeting former students, often years later, and finding out what a good life they had made for themselves. Some of them told me of something I'd said in class that changed their life, because it made them see things from a different angle, or confirmed something they knew about themselves. I was always surprised at what they remembered: Often, I couldn't recall it at all. It was just a throwaway line uttered as part of a larger, oh-so-important point I was making about Life, Literature, and the Universe.

Once at the mall in the nearby city, I met a youngish man who'd been in my class some 20 years earlier. My former student had a good job at the mill, was married, and happy with his life. He was carrying a paperback book. I remembered him as surly at having to read all that junk he didn't like, at having to read at all. But he had become an avid reader of history and historical fiction. "You said that when we would find out what we liked, we would start reading," he said. Did I? I probably did. It's a teacherly thing to say. I couldn't recall. But I think for this man this remark confirmed something about himself, his love of the past.

Some years ago, our priest asked if I would become a lay reader, as he had two points, and wanted someone to read Morning Prayer while he presided at the Eucharist at the other parish. I agreed, he said I should preach a sermon, too. OK, why not?

And so I embarked on a journey that has led me from a fairly conventional mix of Lutheran and Anglican belief to the insight that God, however you imagine him/her/it, dwells within us. All religions teach this. How you express this insight doesn't matter. What matters is that it has meaning for you. We become more fully human to the extent that we recognise the Spirit in ourselves and in each other. And because we are all, as the phrase goes, vessels of the Holy Spirit, it is utterly evil to do any kind of violence to another human being.


Wolf Kirchmeir
age 71
Blind River, Ontario

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Misplaced Advice: For Her Own Good (Ehrenreich & English)

     Barbara Ehrenreich & Deirdre English. For Her Own Good (1978 & 2005) The subtitle reads Two Centuries of the Experts’ Advice to Women. It looks like the authors have read just about every piece of advice ever written. The notes to the chapters are extensive: there is a reference for every quotation and assertion. The book is a model of how to tell a history of ideas. The Woman Question arose when the roles of men and women in the family and society were eroded by the market economy instigated by the industrial revolution destroyed the economic function of the family.
     When a man’s role became that of the wage earner whose income would be used to buy what hitherto had been made by the family, his wife no longer had an economic function. There resulted more or less frantic and in hindsight ridiculous attempts to find a role for Woman outside the market economy, which meant in practice confining her to the home and redefining her role within it in terms of human relationships instead of economic value. The justifications danced around the idea that women were too weak, too emotional, too irrational etc to be trusted with work and power outside the home.
     The authors show how initially there was a concerted effort to eliminate women’s economic value. It was easy enough to transfer manufacture from the home to the factory. It was much harder to transfer women’s value as healers, and effort that began well before the industrial revolution, because womens’ power to heal threatened the hegemony of the celibate male church hierarchy. The story of how it was done is painful to read.
     Once women were transformed into consumers rather than producers, the problem became that of keeping them happy and satisfied. It was the upper and upper middle classes that first had to deal with the problem of the idle wife whose lack of economic and productive value naturally caused more or less painful psychosomatic suffering. The puzzle was how to make a woman feel useful when she obviously wasn’t, and worse, knew that she wasn’t. She became the Angel in the Home, the quasi-mother that comforted her husband when he returned from the cruel world of economic battle. She became the Hand the Rocked the Cradle. And so on.
     It all makes for an odd mix of depressing and entertaining reading, the effect of amazingly obtuse ideas and sentiments expressed by men (and a few women) who really should have known better. The authors give us large swatches of quotations and paraphrases from the experts’ advice books and articles. The book is worth reading for these alone.
     In an afterword written in 2004, Ehrenreich and English point to the economic emancipation of women, which has of course changed the problem once again. Now that women are no longer economically longer dependent on men, there is no reason to fabricate some essential role for her in marriage and the family. This of course brings with it a whole new range of issues: For if marriage and family are no longer one of the main, if not the main, purposes of growing up, what is the role of men and women? We shall see, and no doubt a generation or two from now, somebody will write a book about how the Woman Question morphed in the Life Question. I hope they do as good a job as Ehrenreich and English.
     Highly recommended. ****

Thursday, June 01, 2017

My Father Was a Soldier (A Song About War)

I wrote the chorus about two years ago, the rest of the song fell into place last summer.  It's based on an actual event: One of my students at U of  Alberta in 1965/66 came to say goodbye when he got his draft card. "Over there" is Vietnam. Lois Jones has set it to music, but I haven't heard it yet. [Copyright 2016 Wolf Kirchmeir]
My father was a soldier,
and my grandpa, too;
they went to war to save the world.
What good did that do? O my,
What good did that do?

There was a boy, he came up north,
to get away from war.
He got his card, and came to me,
“Sir, I have to go.”
“You can stay here and live in peace.”
“My brother’s over there,
I have to leave, I can’t stay here,
so it’s goodbye, Sir.”

My father was a soldier,
and my grandpa, too;
they went to war to save the world.
What good did that do? O my,
What good did that do?

Oh, look at me, the hero says,
I’ll fight to my last breath.
When bones bleach white in the noonday sun,
The one who wins is Death.
[instrumental bridge]

My father was a soldier,
and my grandpa, too;
they went to war to save the world.
What good did that do? O my,
What good did that do?

Homer knew that war is hell,
he told it like it was,
the spear that split the Trojan’s throat,
the blood that stained the dust.
But the tale he told was already old,
though each war makes it new.
We learn the story, sing the songs,
and don’t know what to do.

My father was a soldier,
and my grandpa, too;
they went to war to save the world.
What good did that do? O my,
What good did that do?
We learn the story, sing the songs,
and don’t know what to do.