Tag: TomDispatch

Shining a light on these times.

There’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip.

That sub-heading is a very old proverb supporting the idea  “that even when the outcome of an event seems certain, things can still go wrong.”

That proverb came to me when I was reading a TomDispatch essay that was published last Tuesday. I couldn’t make up my mind about whether or not to continue with yesterday’s mood of “Living in interesting times” but in the end decided to so do. Because Peter Van Buren’s essay, published as a Tomgram, needs to be widely read so that as many as possible appreciate the need to reach out to those that should be supported.

I am very grateful to Tom Engelhardt for his continuing permission for me to republish his TomDispatch essays.

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Tomgram: Peter Van Buren, Minimum Wage, Minimum Chance

Thoughts about the future.

“Predictions are so difficult – especially when they concern the future.”

That witticism in the sub-title is not my invention, far from it, but, nonetheless, it seemed appropriate for today’s post. For today’s post is the republication of a recent essay that appeared over on TomDispatch. Tom Engelhardt, as with George Monbiot, gave me blanket permission to republish his essays some time ago and his latest essay, or rather the essay from TomDispatch regular Michael Klare, seemed worthy of being shared with the many dear readers of this place.

So with no further delay, let me offer you: Are Resource Wars Our Future? (NB: there were too many links to carry across in the essay so I have indicated each link by changing the text colour to red. If you skip across to the TomDispatch page, you can link through to the relevant item.)

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Tomgram: Michael Klare, Are Resource Wars Our Future?

Posted by Michael Klare at 7:24am, November 3, 2015.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch.

These days, all you have to do is look around if you want your hair to stand on end on the subject of our future on this planet. Here’s just a little relatively random list of recent news on climate-change-related happenings.

Mexico was recently hit by the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, average global temperatures for September ran off the rails. (“This marks the fifth consecutive month a monthly high temperature record has been set and is the highest departure from average for any month among all 1,629 months in the record that began in January 1880.”) It was the seventh month of 2015 to be “record shattering” and the year itself looks as if it might cumulatively be the same. (By now, this story is considered so humdrum and expectable that it didn’t even make the front page of my hometown newspaper!) The cataclysmic civil war, terror war, and international conflict in Syria is being reclassified as the first climate-change war based on the staggering drought that preceded it. That, in fact, has been called “the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago.” Turning to colder climes, ice in Antarctica is melting so unexpectedly quickly that, according to the latest research, the continent’s ice shelves might be heading for collapse by 2100, guaranteeing a future rise in sea levels of potentially staggering proportions. Meanwhile, last week you could go online and watch dramatic video evidence of the melting of Greenland — rivers of water raging across a dissolving ice shelf that, one of these decades, will raise sea levels by an estimated 20 feet globally. And oh yes, for those of you curious about the hotter regions, a new study indicates that heat waves in the Persian Gulf may be so fierce before or by the end of this century that, in some of parts of the oil heartlands of the planet, they might quite literally endanger human survival.

Need I go on? Need I mention why the upcoming climate change confab in Paris in a few weeks matters big time? Need I add that, whatever agreements may be reached there, they are essentially guaranteed not to be enough to bring global warming truly under control. And in that context, if you think that a Greater Middle East with five failed states in it since 2001 is already a nightmare, consider TomDispatch regular Michael Klare’s vision of a resource-war-torn planet in a “record-shattering” future of abysmal heat and climate tipping points. If you want to know what’s at stake for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, read this article. Tom

Why the Paris Climate Summit Will Be a Peace Conference Averting a World of Failed States and Resource Wars

By Michael T. Klare

At the end of November, delegations from nearly 200 countries will convene in Paris for what is billed as the most important climate meeting ever held. Officially known as the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP-21) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (the 1992 treaty that designated that phenomenon a threat to planetary health and human survival), the Paris summit will be focused on the adoption of measures that would limit global warming to less than catastrophic levels. If it fails, world temperatures in the coming decades are likely to exceed 2 degrees Celsius (3.5 degrees Fahrenheit), the maximum amount most scientists believe the Earth can endure without experiencing irreversible climate shocks, including soaring temperatures and a substantial rise in global sea levels.

A failure to cap carbon emissions guarantees another result as well, though one far less discussed. It will, in the long run, bring on not just climate shocks, but also worldwide instability, insurrection, and warfare. In this sense, COP-21 should be considered not just a climate summit but a peace conference — perhaps the most significant peace convocation in history.

To grasp why, consider the latest scientific findings on the likely impacts of global warming, especially the 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). When first published, that report attracted worldwide media coverage for predicting that unchecked climate change will result in severe droughts, intense storms, oppressive heat waves, recurring crop failures, and coastal flooding, all leading to widespread death and deprivation. Recent events, including a punishing drought in California and crippling heat waves in Europe and Asia, have focused more attention on just such impacts. The IPCC report, however, suggested that global warming would have devastating impacts of a social and political nature as well, including economic decline, state collapse, civil strife, mass migrations, and sooner or later resource wars.

These predictions have received far less attention, and yet the possibility of such a future should be obvious enough since human institutions, like natural systems, are vulnerable to climate change. Economies are going to suffer when key commodities — crops, timber, fish, livestock — grow scarcer, are destroyed, or fail. Societies will begin to buckle under the strain of economic decline and massive refugee flows. Armed conflict may not be the most immediate consequence of these developments, the IPCC notes, but combine the effects of climate change with already existing poverty, hunger, resource scarcity, incompetent and corrupt governance, and ethnic, religious, or national resentments, and you’re likely to end up with bitter conflicts over access to food, water, land, and other necessities of life.

The Coming of Climate Civil Wars

Such wars would not arise in a vacuum. Already existing stresses and grievances would be heightened, enflamed undoubtedly by provocative acts and the exhortations of demagogic leaders. Think of the current outbreak of violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories, touched off by clashes over access to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (also known as the Noble Sanctuary) and the inflammatory rhetoric of assorted leaders. Combine economic and resource deprivation with such situations and you have a perfect recipe for war.

The necessities of life are already unevenly distributed across the planet. Often the divide between those with access to adequate supplies of vital resources and those lacking them coincides with long-term schisms along racial, ethnic, religious, or linguistic lines. The Israelis and Palestinians, for example, harbor deep-seated ethnic and religious hostilities but also experience vastly different possibilities when it comes to access to land and water. Add the stresses of climate change to such situations and you can naturally expect passions to boil over.

Climate change will degrade or destroy many natural systems, often already under stress, on which humans rely for their survival. Some areas that now support agriculture or animal husbandry may become uninhabitable or capable only of providing for greatly diminished populations. Under the pressure of rising temperatures and increasingly fierce droughts, the southern fringe of the Sahara desert, for example, is now being transformed from grasslands capable of sustaining nomadic herders into an empty wasteland, forcing local nomads off their ancestral lands. Many existing farmlands in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East will suffer a similar fate. Rivers that once supplied water year-round will run only sporadically or dry up altogether, again leaving populations with unpalatable choices.

klarepbk2012As the IPCC report points out, enormous pressure will be put upon often weak state institutions to adjust to climate change and aid those in desperate need of emergency food, shelter, and other necessities. “Increased human insecurity,” the report says, “may coincide with a decline in the capacity of states to conduct effective adaptation efforts, thus creating the circumstances in which there is greater potential for violent conflict.”

A good example of this peril is provided by the outbreak of civil war in Syria and the subsequent collapse of that country in a welter of fighting and a wave of refugees of a sort that hasn’t been seen since World War II. Between 2006 and 2010, Syria experienced a devastating drought in which climate change is believed to have been a factor, turning nearly 60% of the country into desert. Crops failed and most of the country’s livestock perished, forcing millions of farmers into penury. Desperate and unable to live on their land any longer, they moved into Syria’s major cities in search of work, often facing extreme hardship as well as hostility from well-connected urban elites.

Had Syrian autocrat Bashar al-Assad responded with an emergency program of jobs and housing for those displaced, perhaps conflict could have been averted. Instead, he cut food and fuel subsidies, adding to the misery of the migrants and fanning the flames of revolt. In the view of several prominent scholars, “the rapidly growing urban peripheries of Syria, marked by illegal settlements, overcrowding, poor infrastructure, unemployment, and crime, were neglected by the Assad government and became the heart of the developing unrest.”

A similar picture has unfolded in the Sahel region of Africa, the southern fringe of the Sahara, where severe drought has combined with habitat decline and government neglect to provoke armed violence. The area has faced many such periods in the past, but now, thanks to climate change, there is less time between the droughts. “Instead of 10 years apart, they became five years apart, and now only a couple years apart,” observes Robert Piper, the United Nations regional humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel. “And that, in turn, is putting enormous stresses on what is already an incredibly fragile environment and a highly vulnerable population.”

In Mali, one of several nations straddling this region, the nomadic Tuaregs have been particularly hard hit, as the grasslands they rely on to feed their cattle are turning into desert. A Berber-speaking Muslim population, the Tuaregs have long faced hostility from the central government in Bamako, once controlled by the French and now by black Africans of Christian or animist faith. With their traditional livelihoods in peril and little assistance forthcoming from the capital, the Tuaregs revolted in January 2012, capturing half of Mali before being driven back into the Sahara by French and other foreign forces (with U.S. logistical and intelligence support).

Consider the events in Syria and Mali previews of what is likely to come later in this century on a far larger scale. As climate change intensifies, bringing not just desertification but rising sea levels in low-lying coastal areas and increasingly devastating heat waves in regions that are already hot, ever more parts of the planet will be rendered less habitable, pushing millions of people into desperate flight.

While the strongest and wealthiest governments, especially in more temperate regions, will be better able to cope with these stresses, expect to see the number of failed states grow dramatically, leading to violence and open warfare over what food, arable land, and shelter remains. In other words, imagine significant parts of the planet in the kind of state that Libya, Syria, and Yemen are in today. Some people will stay and fight to survive; others will migrate, almost assuredly encountering a far more violent version of the hostility we already see toward immigrants and refugees in the lands they head for. The result, inevitably, will be a global epidemic of resource civil wars and resource violence of every sort.

Water Wars

Most of these conflicts will be of an internal, civil character: clan against clan, tribe against tribe, sect against sect. On a climate-changed planet, however, don’t rule out struggles among nations for diminished vital resources — especially access to water. It’s already clear that climate change will reduce the supply of water in many tropical and subtropical regions, jeopardizing the continued pursuit of agriculture, the health and functioning of major cities, and possibly the very sinews of society.

The risk of “water wars” will arise when two or more countries depend on the same key water source — the Nile, the Jordan, the Euphrates, the Indus, the Mekong, or other trans-boundary river systems — and one or more of them seek to appropriate a disproportionate share of the ever-shrinking supply of its water. Attempts by countries to build dams and divert the water flow of such riverine systems have already provoked skirmishes and threats of war, as when Turkey and Syria erected dams on the Euphrates, constraining the downstream flow.

One system that has attracted particular concern in this regard is the Brahmaputra River, which originates in China (where it is known as the Yarlung Tsangpo) and passes through India and Bangladesh before emptying into the Indian Ocean. China has already erected one dam on the river and has plans for more, producing considerable unease in India, where the Brahmaputra’s water is vital for agriculture. But what has provoked the most alarm is a Chinese plan to channel water from that river to water-scarce areas in the northern part of that country.

The Chinese insist that no such action is imminent, but intensified warming and increased drought could, in the future, prompt such a move, jeopardizing India’s water supply and possibly provoking a conflict. “China’s construction of dams and the proposed diversion of the Brahmaputra’s waters is not only expected to have repercussions for water flow, agriculture, ecology, and lives and livelihoods downstream,” Sudha Ramachandran writes in The Diplomat, “it could also become another contentious issue undermining Sino-Indian relations.”

Of course, even in a future of far greater water stresses, such situations are not guaranteed to provoke armed combat. Perhaps the states involved will figure out how to share whatever limited resources remain and seek alternative means of survival. Nonetheless, the temptation to employ force is bound to grow as supplies dwindle and millions of people face thirst and starvation. In such circumstances, the survival of the state itself will be at risk, inviting desperate measures.

Lowering the Temperature

There is much that undoubtedly could be done to reduce the risk of water wars, including the adoption of cooperative water-management schemes and the introduction of the wholesale use of drip irrigation and related processes that use water far more efficiently. However, the best way to avoid future climate-related strife is, of course, to reduce the pace of global warming. Every fraction of a degree less warming achieved in Paris and thereafter will mean that much less blood spilled in future climate-driven resource wars.

This is why the Paris climate summit should be viewed as a kind of preemptive peace conference, one that is taking place before the wars truly begin. If delegates to COP-21 succeed in sending us down a path that limits global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, the risk of future violence will be diminished accordingly. Needless to say, even 2 degrees of warming guarantees substantial damage to vital natural systems, potentially severe resource scarcities, and attendant civil strife. As a result, a lower ceiling for temperature rise would be preferable and should be the goal of future conferences. Still, given the carbon emissions pouring into the atmosphere, even a 2-degree cap would be a significant accomplishment.

To achieve such an outcome, delegates will undoubtedly have to begin dealing with conflicts of the present moment as well, including those in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Ukraine, in order to collaborate in devising common, mutually binding climate measures. In this sense, too, the Paris summit will be a peace conference. For the first time, the nations of the world will have to step beyond national thinking and embrace a higher goal: the safety of the ecosphere and all its human inhabitants, no matter their national, ethnic, religious, racial, or linguistic identities. Nothing like this has ever been attempted, which means that it will be an exercise in peacemaking of the most essential sort — and, for once, before the wars truly begin.

Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left. A documentary movie version of his book Blood and Oil is available from the Media Education Foundation. Follow him on Twitter at @mklare1.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, and Tom Engelhardt’s latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2015 Michael T. Klare

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Thank goodness I offer a change of scenery, so to speak, tomorrow.

Life without water.

“Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.”

That sub-heading is a quotation from W. H. Auden and while directed at man it applies to all animal life including our beloved dogs.

The drought that California is experiencing is world-wide news but, possibly, the fact that this drought extends to much of the Pacific West Coast on the United States is not as widely known.

Here in Merlin, Southern Oregon, our own ‘all-year’ creek, Bummer Creek, that flows through our property has been dry for about two weeks. Our grass fields are parched brown and many of the trees are signalling a shortage of water.  And let’s not even think about the underground aquifer that supplies our drinking water.

BummerCk
Bummer Creek as of yesterday afternoon.

From drought comes the risk of fire. The Oregonian newspaper runs an interactive real-time fires map that shows just how much of Oregon, California and Washington is burning, something over a million acres according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.

All of which makes a sombre introduction to a recent essay over on TomDispatch, republished here with the very kind permission of Tom Engelhardt. (But see my note at the end of the essay.)

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Tomgram: William deBuys, Entering the Mega-Drought Era in America

Posted by William deBuys at 4:17pm, August 16, 2015.

The other day here in New England it was chilly, rainy, and stormy and I complained. Where was the sun? The warmth? The summer? I happened to be with someone I know from California and he shook his head and said, “It’s fine with me. I like it rainy. I haven’t seen much rain in a while.” It was a little reminder of how insular we can be. California, after all, is in the fourth year of a fearsome drought that has turned much of the North American West, from Alaska and Canada to the Mexican border, into a tinderbox. Reservoirs are low, rivers quite literally drying up, and the West is burning. In rural northern California, where the fires seem to be least under control, the Rocky Fire has already burned 109 square miles and destroyed 43 homes, while the Jerusalem Fire, which recently broke out nearby, quickly ate up almost 19 square miles while doubling in size and sent local residents fleeing, some for the second time in recent weeks.

Fires have doubled in these drought years in California. The fire season, once mainly an autumnal affair, now seems to be just about any day of the year. (This isn’t, by the way, just a California phenomenon. The latest study indicates that fire season is extending globally, with a growth spurt of 18.7% in the last few decades.) In fact, fire stats for the U.S. generally and the West in particular are worsening in the twenty-first century, and this year looks to be quite a blazing affair, with six million acres already burned across the region and part of the summer still to go. And here’s the thing: though “I’m not a scientist,” it’s pretty hard at this point not to notice — though most Republican candidates for president seem unfazed — that this planet is heating up, that today’s droughts, bad as they are, will be put in the shade by the predicted mega-droughts of tomorrow, and that the problem of water in the American West is only going to deepen — or do I mean grow shallower? TomDispatch regular William deBuys, an expert on water in that region and author of A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest, has already written dramatically of a future “exodus from Phoenix.” For clues to what we will all experience sooner or later, he now turns to California, that bellwether state in which, as he writes, the future always seems to play itself out first. Tom

California First

As Both Climate Victim and Responder, the National Style-Setter Leads the Way
By William deBuys

Long ago, I lived in a cheap flat in San Francisco and worked as the lone straight man in a gay construction company. Strangely enough, the drought now strangling California brings back memories of those days. It was the 1970s. Our company specialized in restoring the Victorian “gingerbread” to the facades of the city’s townhouses, and I got pretty good at installing cornices, gable brackets, and window hoods, working high above the street.

What I remember most, though, is the way my co-workers delighted in scandalizing me on Monday mornings with accounts of their weekend exploits.

We were all so innocent back then. We had no idea of the suffering that lay ahead or of the grievous epidemic already latent in the bodies of legions of gay men like my friends, an epidemic that would afflict so many outside the gay community but was especially terrible within it.

It’s unlikely that many of those guys are alive today. HIV was already in the population, although AIDS had yet to be detected or named, and no one had heard of “safe sex,” let alone practiced it. When the epidemic broke out, it was nowhere worse than in trendsetting San Francisco.

By then I had returned to New Mexico, having traded my hammer for a typewriter. When I announced my intention to leave California, the guys all said the same thing. “Don’t go back there,” they protested. “You’ll just have to go through all of this again!”

All of this required no translation. It meant the particular newness of life in that state, which was always sure to spread eastward, as Californian styles, attitudes, problems, tastes, and fads had been spreading to the rest of the country almost since the days of the Gold Rush.

Hippies, flower power, bikers, and cults. The movies we see and the music we listen to. The slang we pick up (I mean like, what a bummer, dude). Wine bars and fern bars, hot tubs and tanning booths, liposuction and boob jobs. The theft of rivers (Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown) and the theft of baseball teams (Brooklyn still mourns). Gay rights, car culture, and the Reagan Revolution. Scientology, mega-churches, Buddhist chic, and exercise videos. If they didn’t actually start in California, they got big and came to national attention there. Without the innovations of Silicon Valley, would you recognize your mobile phone or computer? Would you recognize yourself?

It’s the same with climate change. California in the Great Drought is once again Exhibit A, a living diorama of how the future is going to look for a lot of us.

And the present moment — right now in 2015 — reminds me of San Francisco as the AIDS epidemic broke out. Back then we had no idea how bad things were going to get, and that is likely to be true now, as well. As usual, California is giving us a preview of our world to come.

The Arrival of the Bone-Dry New Normal

On the U.S. Drought Monitor’s current map, a large purple bruise spreads across the core of California, covering almost half the state. Purple indicates “exceptional drought,” the direst category, the one that tops both “severe” and “extreme.” If you combine all three, 95% of the state is covered. In other words, California is hurting.

Admittedly, conditions are better than at this time last year when 100% of the state was at least “severe.” Recent summer rains have somewhat dulled the edge of the drought, now in its fourth year. Full recovery, however, would require about a foot of rain statewide between now and January, a veritable deluge for places like Fresno, which in good times only get that much rain in a full year.

lastunicorn

To be clear, the current drought may not have been caused by climate change. After all, California has a long history of periodic fierce droughts that arise from entirely natural causes, some of them lasting a decade or more. Even so, at a minimum climate change remains a potent factor in the present disaster. The fundamental difference between California’s current desiccation and its historical antecedents is that present conditions are hotter thanks to climate change, and hotter means drier since evaporation increases with temperature. Moreover, the relationship between the two is non-linear: as temperature creeps up, evaporation gallops. Bottom line: the droughts of the future will be much more brutal — and destructive — than those of the past.

California is already on average about 1.7° Fahrenheit hotter than a century ago, and its rate of warming is expected to triple in the century ahead. The evaporative response to this increase will powerfully amplify future droughts in unprecedented ways, no matter their causes.

Throughout the state, draconian cutbacks in water use remain in force. Some agricultural districts are receiving 0% of the federally controlled irrigation water they received in past years, while state water deliveries are running at about 15% of normal.

Meanwhile, a staggering 5,200 wildfires have burned in the state’s forests and chaparral country this year, although timely rains everywhere but in the northern parts of California and the rapid responses of a beefed-up army of firefighters limited the burning to less acreage than last year — at least until recently. The blow-up of the Rocky Fire, north of San Francisco, in the early days of August — it burned through 20,000 acres in just a few hours — may change that mildly promising statistic. And the fire season still has months to go.

So how is this a trendsetter, a harbinger for lands to the east? California’s drought is deep and long — we don’t yet know how long — and the very long-term forecast for an immense portion of western North America, stretching from California to Texas and north to South Dakota, is for a future of the same, only worse. Here is the unvarnished version of that future (on which an impressive number of climate models appear to agree) as expressed in a paper that appeared in Science Advances last February: “The mean state of drought in the late 21st century over the Central Plains and Southwest will likely exceed even the most severe mega-drought periods of the Medieval era in both high and moderate emissions scenarios, representing an unprecedented fundamental shift with respect to the last millennium.”

Let’s unpack that a little bit: principal author Benjamin Cook of NASA and his colleagues from Columbia and Cornell universities are saying that climate change will bring to the continent a “new normal” more brutally dry than even the multiple-decades-long droughts that caused the Native American societies of Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde to collapse. This, they add, is now expected to happen even if greenhouse gas emissions are significantly lowered in the decades to come. The impact of such droughts, they conclude, will exceed the bounds of anything known in the history of the continent or in its scientifically reconstructed pre-history.

In other words, the California drought of recent years offers only a foretaste of what is to come. Incidentally, Cook, et al. are by no means outliers in the literature of climate prediction. Other important studies with similar forecasts support a steadily broadening consensus on the subject.

And North American droughts will have to compete for attention with countless other climate change impacts, especially the hundreds of millions of refugees worldwide who will be put into motion by rising sea levels and other forces that will render their present homes unlivable.

A User’s Guide to Climate Change

If California points the way to dry times ahead, it also gives us an early glimpse of how a responsible society will try to live with and adjust to a warmer future. The state has imposed stringent new limits on water use and is actively enforcing them, and in general, individual consumers have responded positively to the new requirements, in some cases even exceeding mandated conservation goals.

In a similar spirit, the state has augmented its wildland fire-fighting capacity to good effect, even as the fire danger has approached levels never before seen.

Perhaps most impressively the state has adopted its own pioneering cap-and-trade program aimed at rolling back total greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels. Under cap-and-trade, carbon polluters have to obtain permits to continue their emissions, and only a finite number of such permits are made available. A coal-burning power plant or a refinery has to buy its permit from the state or from another company that already has one. This way, a ceiling is established for total greenhouse gases emitted by the most energy-intensive sectors of the economy.

Although the jury may still be out on how well the program meets its goals, there is no debating its positive impact on the state treasury. In the fiscal year just begun, the auction of permits under California’s cap-and-trade program will net approximately $2.2 billion, a windfall that will be spent on mass transit, affordable housing, and a range of climate-adaptation programs. And by the way, the warnings of nay-sayers and climate deniers that cap-and-trade would prove a drag on the economy have proved groundless.

In a manner similar to the U.N.’s prestigious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, California now publishes an assessment every three years of both its vulnerability to climate change and the steps it plans to take to mitigate or adapt to its effects. The report is a model of its kind and draws on copious California-specific scientific research, some of which is funded by the state.

You might think California’s neighbors would follow suit, and eventually, as with most things Californian, they undoubtedly will. If President Obama’s just-announced “Clean Power Plan” withstands the expected court challenges, it will prove a powerful spur in that direction as it mandates state-by-state reductions in power plant carbon emissions that will, in the end, drive them 32% below 2005 levels. Many states will undoubtedly have to adopt cap-and-trade systems in order to comply. As they set about devising their own programs, where do you think they will look for a workable example? You guessed it: California.

An “Island” Again, or Nearly So

In the seventeenth century, Spanish cartographers thought California was an island separated from the rest of North America by the legendary Straits of Anian. In some ways, nothing has changed. In late July, while California Governor Jerry Brown was at the Vatican joining Pope Francis in calling for urgent global action to combat climate change, his opposite numbers across the putative straits continued to assume the posture of startled ostriches.

Doug Ducey, the Republican governor of Arizona, admits that the climate may indeed be changing but doubts that humans play a causal role in it. Susana Martinez of New Mexico, also a Republican, continues to insist that climate science is inconclusive, while former governor of Texas and current presidential candidate Rick Perry adamantly remains “not a scientist,” although he knew enough to inform us in his 2012 campaign screed Fed Up that climate change science is “a contrived phony mess.”

In general, when it comes to climate change, the leadership of statehouses across the country remains as troglodytic as the House of Representatives. Only in Hawaii, Oregon and Washington on the West Coast, Minnesota in the Midwest, and a handful of Northeastern states will governors even acknowledge the importance of acting to curb climate change as well as adapt to it.

This year, the deniers may get a boost from an unlikely source. Warm surface waters seem to be brewing something special in the Pacific Ocean. Says one researcher, “The El Niño event currently ongoing in the eastern and central Pacific is strengthening. The only question is whether it will be just a significant event, or a huge one.”

El Niño draws the winter Pacific storm track southward, bringing precipitation to southern California, Arizona, and points eastward. If the southern tier of states has a wet winter, the Republican rain-dancers will feel confirmed in their official doubt and denialism, much as a broken clock is right at least twice a day.

Occasional El Niños, however, will not avert the long-term new normal for California and much of the West. As that state is showing, adaptation will soften some of the blows, and possibly, if we act soon enough and strongly enough, we may manage to cap the overall changes at some still livable level. The jury will be out on that for quite some time.

Meanwhile, as in pre-AIDS San Francisco, we are all still in a state of at least semi-innocence. Maybe we can imagine in an intellectual way what it might be like to lose the forests across half of the continent, but can any of us conjure the feeling of how that would be?

After many missteps and halting starts, the medical and public health establishments finally came to the assistance of the victims of AIDS. As difficult as that was, it was easy compared to the remedies climate change will demand. And for much of the damage there will be no remedy. Get ready.

William deBuys, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of eight books, the most recent of which is The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth’s Rarest Creatures. He has written extensively on water, drought, and climate in the West, including A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, and Tom Engelhardt’s latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2015 William deBuys

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Again, there are far too many links for me to bring across to this republication but I do recommend that if you have an extra special interest in William deBuys essay that you check through all the links in the original version to be read here.

The winds of time.

Time from two very different perspectives.

solstice

I started writing this post approaching midnight (UTC) on the afternoon of Tuesday, 26th May, 2015.  In other words, approaching 00:00 UTC 26/05/15 (or in American ‘speak’ 05/26/15 – a little thing that is taking me years to become accustomed to.)

At that time, it was fewer than four weeks to the June solstice. Now it was over a week ago and Christmas is just around the corner! (OK, I’ll admit a slight exaggeration!)

However, I thought the TomDispatch essay was just as valid on June 29th as it was on May 26th. So I will continue.

The planet Earth has been in orbit around the sun for a very long time!  Time beyond imagination. By comparison, in a very short time one species alone, namely homo sapiens, has altered the biosphere of Planet Earth. It’s almost beyond comprehension!

To expand on that shortage of time, let me republish an essay from TomDispatch from last September.  Republished with the kind permission of Tom Engelhardt.

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What to Do When You’re Running Out of Time

Posted by Rebecca Solnit at 8:09am, September 18, 2014.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch.

Just when no one needed more lousy news, the U.N.’s weather outfit, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), issued its annual Greenhouse Gas Bulletin. It offered a shocking climate-change update: the concentrations of long-lasting greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere (carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide) rose at a “record-shattering pace” from 2012 to 2013, including the largest increase in CO2 in 30 years — and there was a nasty twist to this news that made it even grimmer.

While such increases reflected the fact that we continue to extract and burn fossil fuels at staggering rates, something else seems to be happening as well. Both the oceans and terrestrial plant life act as carbon sinks; that is, they absorb significant amounts of the carbon dioxide we release and store it away. Unfortunately, both may be reaching limits of some sort and seem to be absorbing less. This is genuinely bad news if you’re thinking about the future warming of the planet. (As it happens, in the same period, according to the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, parts of the American public stopped absorbing information in no less striking fashion: the number of those who believe that global warming isn’t happening rose 7% to 23%.)

So consider this a propitious moment for a major climate-change demonstration, possibly the largest in history, in New York City this Sunday. [Ed: it turned out to be the largest climate march in history.] As the WMO’s Secretary-General Michel Jarraud pointed out, there is still time to make a difference. “We have the knowledge and we have the tools,” he said, “for action to try to keep temperature increases within 2°C to give our planet a chance and to give our children and grandchildren a future. Pleading ignorance can no longer be an excuse for not acting.” As TomDispatch regular Rebecca Solnit, author of the indie bestseller Men Explain Things to Me, points out, the pressure of mass movements can sometimes turn history upside down. Of course, the only way to find out if climate change is a candidate for this treatment is to get out in the streets. So, for those of you anywhere near New York, see you this Sunday! Tom

The Wheel Turns, the Boat Rocks, the Sea Rises

Change in a Time of Climate Change 
By Rebecca Solnit

There have undoubtedly been stable periods in human history, but you and your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents never lived through one, and neither will any children or grandchildren you may have or come to have. Everything has been changing continuously, profoundly — from the role of women to the nature of agriculture. For the past couple of hundred years, change has been accelerating in both magnificent and nightmarish ways.

Yet when we argue for change, notably changing our ways in response to climate change, we’re arguing against people who claim we’re disrupting a stable system. They insist that we’re rocking the boat unnecessarily.

I say: rock that boat. It’s a lifeboat; maybe the people in it will wake up and start rowing. Those who think they’re hanging onto a stable order are actually clinging to the wreckage of the old order, a ship already sinking, that we need to leave behind.

As you probably know, the actual oceans are rising — almost eight inches since 1880, and that’s only going to accelerate. They’re also acidifying, because they’re absorbing significant amounts of the carbon we continue to pump into the atmosphere at record levels. The ice that covers the polar seas is shrinking, while the ice shields that cover Antarctica and Greenland are melting. The water locked up in all the polar ice, as it’s unlocked by heat, is going to raise sea levels staggeringly, possibly by as much as 200 feet at some point in the future, how distant we do not know. In the temperate latitudes, warming seas breed fiercer hurricanes.

The oceans are changing fast, and for the worse. Fish stocks are dying off, as are shellfish. In many acidified oceanic regions, their shells are actually dissolving or failing to form, which is one of the scariest, most nightmarish things I’ve ever heard. So don’t tell me that we’re rocking a stable boat on calm seas. The glorious 10,000-year period of stable climate in which humanity flourished and then exploded to overrun the Earth and all its ecosystems is over.

But responding to these current cataclysmic changes means taking on people who believe, or at least assert, that those of us who want to react and act are gratuitously disrupting a stable system that’s working fine. It isn’t stable. It is working fine — in the short term and the most limited sense — for oil companies and the people who profit from them and for some of us in the particularly cushy parts of the world who haven’t been impacted yet by weather events like, say, the recent torrential floods in Japan or southern Nevada and Arizona, or the monsoon versions of the same that have devastated parts of India and Pakistan, or the drought that has mummified my beloved California, or the wildfires of Australia.

The problem, of course, is that the people who most benefit from the current arrangements have effectively purchased a lot of politicians, and that a great many of the rest of them are either hopelessly dim or amazingly timid. Most of the Democrats recognize the reality of climate change but not the urgency of doing something about it. Many of the Republicans used to — John McCain has done an amazing about-face from being a sane voice on climate to a shrill denier — and they present a horrific obstacle to any international treaties.

Put it this way: in one country, one party holding 45 out of 100 seats in one legislative house, while serving a minority of the very rich, can basically block what quite a lot of the other seven billion people on Earth want and need, because a two-thirds majority in the Senate must consent to any international treaty the U.S. signs. Which is not to say much for the president, whose drill-baby-drill administration only looks good compared to the petroleum servants he faces, when he bothers to face them and isn’t just one of them. History will despise them all and much of the world does now, but as my mother would have said, they know which side their bread is buttered on.

As it happens, the butter is melting and the bread is getting more expensive. Global grain production is already down several percent thanks to climate change, says a terrifying new United Nations report. Declining crops cause food shortages and rising food prices, creating hunger and even famine for the poorest on Earth, and also sometimes cause massive unrest. Rising bread prices were one factor that helped spark the Arab Spring in 2011. Anyone who argues that doing something about global warming will be too expensive is dodging just how expensive unmitigated climate change is already proving to be.

It’s only a question of whether the very wealthy or the very poor will pay. Putting it that way, however, devalues all the nonmonetary things at stake, from the survival of myriad species to our confidence in the future. And yeah, climate change is here, now. We’ve already lost a lot and we’re going to lose more, but there’s a difference between terrible and apocalyptic. We still have some control over how extreme it gets. That’s not a great choice, but it’s the choice we have. There’s still a window open for action, but it’s closing. As the Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Society, Michel Jarraud, bluntly put it recently, “We are running out of time.”

New and Renewable Energies

The future is not yet written. Look at the world we’re in at this very moment. The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline was supposed to be built years ago, but activists catalyzed by the rural and indigenous communities across whose land it would go have stopped it so far, and made what was supposed to be a done deal a contentious issue. Activists changed the outcome.

Fracking has been challenged on the state level, and banned in townships and counties from upstate New York to central California. (It has also been banned in two Canadian provinces, France, and Bulgaria.) The fossil-fuel divestment movement has achieved a number of remarkable victories in its few bare years of existence and more are on the way. The actual divestments and commitments to divest fossil fuel stocks by various institutions ranging from the city of Seattle to the British Medical Association are striking. But the real power of the movement lies in the way it has called into question the wisdom of investing in fossil fuel corporations. Even mainstream voices like the British Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee and publications like Forbes are now beginning to question whether they are safe places to put money. That’s a sea change.

Renewable energy has become more efficient, technologically sophisticated, and cheaper — the price of solar power in relation to the energy it generates has plummeted astonishingly over the past three decades and wind technology keeps getting better. While Americans overall are not yet curtailing their fossil-fuel habits, many individuals and communities are choosing other options, and those options are becoming increasingly viable. A Stanford University scientist has proposed a plan to allow each of the 50 states to run on 100% renewable energy by 2050.

Since, according to the latest report of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, fossil fuel reserves still in the ground are “at least four times larger than could safely be burned if global warming is to be kept to a tolerable level,” it couldn’t be more important to reach global agreements to do things differently on a planetary scale. Notably, most of those carbon reserves must be left untapped and the modest steps already taken locally and ad hoc show that such changes are indeed possible and that an encouraging number of us want to pursue them.

ooOOoo

In case you are wondering why this TomDispatch essay has been published some ten months after it first appeared, it is simply because I made a note to leave it for a few months to see if the benefit of some hindsight put the essay into context.

Here’s the context.

In the month of September, 2014, when this essay was published over on TomDispatch, the Atmospheric CO2 monthly average was 395.26 ppm. In April, 2015 it was 403.26 ppm. I can’t spell it out any better than what is written on the home page of CO2Now.org:

What the world needs to watch

Global warming is mainly the result of CO2 levels rising in the Earth’s atmosphere. Both atmospheric CO2 and climate change are accelerating. Climate scientists say we have years, not decades, to stabilize CO2 and other greenhouse gases.

To help the world succeed, CO2Now.org makes it easy to see the most current CO2 level and what it means. So, use this site and keep an eye on CO2. Invite others to do the same. Then we can do more to send CO2 in the right direction.

What an interesting period in man’s history to be alive.

The winds of time

Time from two very different perspectives.

solstice

I’m writing this post approaching midnight (UTC) on the afternoon of Tuesday, 26th May, 2015.  In other words, approaching 00:00 UTC 27/05/15. (Or, in American speak 05/27/15.)

In fewer than four weeks it will be the moment of the Summer solstice, as in the Northern Hemisphere’s Mid-Summer’s Day. More precisely explained over on EarthSky.org together with a number of very interesting facts:

The solstice comes on June 21, 2015 at 16:38 UTC. For North American time zones, that places the solstice at 12:38 p.m. EDT, 11:38 a.m. CDT, 10:38 a.m. MDT and 9:38 a.m. PDT.

The planet Earth has been in orbit around the sun for a very long time!  Time beyond imagination. By comparison, in a very short time one species alone, namely homo sapiens, has altered the biosphere of Planet Earth. It’s almost beyond comprehension!

To expand on that notion, let me republish an essay from TomDispatch from last September.  Republished with the kind permission of Tom Engelhardt.

ooOOoo

Tomgram: Rebecca Solnit, What to Do When You’re Running Out of Time

Posted by Rebecca Solnit at 8:09am, September 18, 2014.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch.

Just when no one needed more lousy news, the U.N.’s weather outfit, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), issued its annual Greenhouse Gas Bulletin. It offered a shocking climate-change update: the concentrations of long-lasting greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere (carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide) rose at a “record-shattering pace” from 2012 to 2013, including the largest increase in CO2 in 30 years — and there was a nasty twist to this news that made it even grimmer.

While such increases reflected the fact that we continue to extract and burn fossil fuels at staggering rates, something else seems to be happening as well. Both the oceans and terrestrial plant life act as carbon sinks; that is, they absorb significant amounts of the carbon dioxide we release and store it away. Unfortunately, both may be reaching limits of some sort and seem to be absorbing less. This is genuinely bad news if you’re thinking about the future warming of the planet. (As it happens, in the same period, according to the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, parts of the American public stopped absorbing information in no less striking fashion: the number of those who believe that global warming isn’t happening rose 7% to 23%.)

So consider this a propitious moment for a major climate-change demonstration, possibly the largest in history, in New York City this Sunday. [Ed: it turned out to be the largest climate march in history.] As the WMO’s Secretary-General Michel Jarraud pointed out, there is still time to make a difference. “We have the knowledge and we have the tools,” he said, “for action to try to keep temperature increases within 2°C to give our planet a chance and to give our children and grandchildren a future. Pleading ignorance can no longer be an excuse for not acting.” As TomDispatch regular Rebecca Solnit, author of the indie bestseller Men Explain Things to Me, points out, the pressure of mass movements can sometimes turn history upside down. Of course, the only way to find out if climate change is a candidate for this treatment is to get out in the streets. So, for those of you anywhere near New York, see you this Sunday! Tom

The Wheel Turns, the Boat Rocks, the Sea Rises

Change in a Time of Climate Change 
By Rebecca Solnit

There have undoubtedly been stable periods in human history, but you and your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents never lived through one, and neither will any children or grandchildren you may have or come to have. Everything has been changing continuously, profoundly — from the role of women to the nature of agriculture. For the past couple of hundred years, change has been accelerating in both magnificent and nightmarish ways.

Yet when we argue for change, notably changing our ways in response to climate change, we’re arguing against people who claim we’re disrupting a stable system. They insist that we’re rocking the boat unnecessarily.

I say: rock that boat. It’s a lifeboat; maybe the people in it will wake up and start rowing. Those who think they’re hanging onto a stable order are actually clinging to the wreckage of the old order, a ship already sinking, that we need to leave behind.

As you probably know, the actual oceans are rising — almost eight inches since 1880, and that’s only going to accelerate. They’re also acidifying, because they’re absorbing significant amounts of the carbon we continue to pump into the atmosphere at record levels. The ice that covers the polar seas is shrinking, while the ice shields that cover Antarctica and Greenland are melting. The water locked up in all the polar ice, as it’s unlocked by heat, is going to raise sea levels staggeringly, possibly by as much as 200 feet at some point in the future, how distant we do not know. In the temperate latitudes, warming seas breed fiercer hurricanes.

The oceans are changing fast, and for the worse. Fish stocks are dying off, as are shellfish. In many acidified oceanic regions, their shells are actually dissolving or failing to form, which is one of the scariest, most nightmarish things I’ve ever heard. So don’t tell me that we’re rocking a stable boat on calm seas. The glorious 10,000-year period of stable climate in which humanity flourished and then exploded to overrun the Earth and all its ecosystems is over.

But responding to these current cataclysmic changes means taking on people who believe, or at least assert, that those of us who want to react and act are gratuitously disrupting a stable system that’s working fine. It isn’t stable. It is working fine — in the short term and the most limited sense — for oil companies and the people who profit from them and for some of us in the particularly cushy parts of the world who haven’t been impacted yet by weather events like, say, the recent torrential floods in Japan or southern Nevada and Arizona, or the monsoon versions of the same that have devastated parts of India and Pakistan, or the drought that has mummified my beloved California, or the wildfires of Australia.

The problem, of course, is that the people who most benefit from the current arrangements have effectively purchased a lot of politicians, and that a great many of the rest of them are either hopelessly dim or amazingly timid. Most of the Democrats recognize the reality of climate change but not the urgency of doing something about it. Many of the Republicans used to — John McCain has done an amazing about-face from being a sane voice on climate to a shrill denier — and they present a horrific obstacle to any international treaties.

Put it this way: in one country, one party holding 45 out of 100 seats in one legislative house, while serving a minority of the very rich, can basically block what quite a lot of the other seven billion people on Earth want and need, because a two-thirds majority in the Senate must consent to any international treaty the U.S. signs. Which is not to say much for the president, whose drill-baby-drill administration only looks good compared to the petroleum servants he faces, when he bothers to face them and isn’t just one of them. History will despise them all and much of the world does now, but as my mother would have said, they know which side their bread is buttered on.

As it happens, the butter is melting and the bread is getting more expensive. Global grain production is already down several percent thanks to climate change, says a terrifying new United Nations report. Declining crops cause food shortages and rising food prices, creating hunger and even famine for the poorest on Earth, and also sometimes cause massive unrest. Rising bread prices were one factor that helped spark the Arab Spring in 2011. Anyone who argues that doing something about global warming will be too expensive is dodging just how expensive unmitigated climate change is already proving to be.

It’s only a question of whether the very wealthy or the very poor will pay. Putting it that way, however, devalues all the nonmonetary things at stake, from the survival of myriad species to our confidence in the future. And yeah, climate change is here, now. We’ve already lost a lot and we’re going to lose more, but there’s a difference between terrible and apocalyptic. We still have some control over how extreme it gets. That’s not a great choice, but it’s the choice we have. There’s still a window open for action, but it’s closing. As the Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Society, Michel Jarraud, bluntly put it recently, “We are running out of time.”

New and Renewable Energies

The future is not yet written. Look at the world we’re in at this very moment. The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline was supposed to be built years ago, but activists catalyzed by the rural and indigenous communities across whose land it would go have stopped it so far, and made what was supposed to be a done deal a contentious issue. Activists changed the outcome.

Fracking has been challenged on the state level, and banned in townships and counties from upstate New York to central California. (It has also been banned in two Canadian provinces, France, and Bulgaria.) The fossil-fuel divestment movement has achieved a number of remarkable victories in its few bare years of existence and more are on the way. The actual divestments and commitments to divest fossil fuel stocks by various institutions ranging from the city of Seattle to the British Medical Association are striking. But the real power of the movement lies in the way it has called into question the wisdom of investing in fossil fuel corporations. Even mainstream voices like the British Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee and publications like Forbes are now beginning to question whether they are safe places to put money. That’s a sea change.

Renewable energy has become more efficient, technologically sophisticated, and cheaper — the price of solar power in relation to the energy it generates has plummeted astonishingly over the past three decades and wind technology keeps getting better. While Americans overall are not yet curtailing their fossil-fuel habits, many individuals and communities are choosing other options, and those options are becoming increasingly viable. A Stanford University scientist has proposed a plan to allow each of the 50 states to run on 100% renewable energy by 2050.

Since, according to the latest report of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, fossil fuel reserves still in the ground are “at least four times larger than could safely be burned if global warming is to be kept to a tolerable level,” it couldn’t be more important to reach global agreements to do things differently on a planetary scale. Notably, most of those carbon reserves must be left untapped and the modest steps already taken locally and ad hoc show that such changes are indeed possible and that an encouraging number of us want to pursue them.

ooOOoo

In case you are wondering why this TomDispatch essay has been published in this place some ten months after it first appeared over at TD, it is simply because I made a note to leave it for a few months to see if the benefit of some hindsight put the essay into context.

Here’s the context.

In the month of September, 2014, when this essay was published over on TomDispatch, the Atmospheric CO2 monthly average was 395.26 ppm. In April, 2015 it was 403.26 ppm. I can’t spell it out any better than what is written on the home page of CO2Now.org:

What the world needs to watch

Global warming is mainly the result of CO2 levels rising in the Earth’s atmosphere. Both atmospheric CO2 and climate change are accelerating. Climate scientists say we have years, not decades, to stabilize CO2 and other greenhouse gases.

To help the world succeed, CO2Now.org makes it easy to see the most current CO2 level and what it means. So, use this site and keep an eye on CO2. Invite others to do the same. Then we can do more to send CO2 in the right direction.

Sometimes the world seems very strange.

Turn aside if you are looking for a bright, optimistic start to the week.

Two separate experiences have come together to offer, well anyway for me, a sense of now not recognising the world I grew up in. The first was Episode One of a programme on BBC Television, broadcast last Thursday, and the second was an essay from Ann Jones on the TomDispatch site, published yesterday.

First, that BBC programme. Despite not being able to view it directly here in Oregon, both the programme details and a first-hand account from a British viewer confirm the essence of this two-part series. Here’s what is on the BBC iPlayer website:

The Super Rich and Us

First shown: 8 Jan 2015

Britain has more billionaires per head than any other country on earth, yet we’re also the most unequal nation in Europe. We were told the super-rich would make us richer too, so why hasn’t that happened, and what does the arrival of their astronomical wealth really mean for the rest of us? In programme one of this two-part series, Jacques Peretti looks at how the super-rich first exploited an obscure legal loophole to make Britain one of the most attractive tax havens on earth. He argues this was no accident. Wooing the super-rich was a deliberate strategy by government to reconfigure the British economy, under the belief their wealth would trickle down to the rest of us. But it didn’t. The OECD now say the British economy would have been 20 per cent bigger had we not pursued the super-rich. So who sold us the fallacy and why?
Jacques meets the super-rich themselves – from those buying premiership football clubs to the billionaires who are breaking ranks to criticise the decisions that made them richer and society more unequal.

Jacques challenges the architects of these policies, as well as tracking down the foreign multimillionaires who are buying up Britain and turning us from a nation of property owners to a nation of renters. He uncovers new research that shows growing inequality has been driven by this key factor of unaffordable property, and the far-reaching effect this will have on every aspect of our lives. Inequality is reshaping Britain into two simple classes: the 99 per cent and the one per cent. This is the story of how it happened and what it means for all of us.

While, for obvious reasons, the programme can’t be included in this post, one can get a flavour of the degree of inequality in Britain from this BBC News item from last May.

The second experience was reading the latest post published over on the TomDispatch site; an essay from Ann Jones (see bio at end). Some while ago, Tom Engelhardt, he of TomDispatch, was sufficiently generous to give a blanket permission for his essays to be republished on Learning from Dogs. Here is that essay from Ann. (NB: In the original there are numerous hyperlinks to other materials, too many for me to transfer across: Apologies.)

ooOOoo

Tomgram: Ann Jones, Answering for America

Posted by Ann Jones at 8:00am, January 11, 2015.

One of the grimmer small events of recent American life occurred just as 2014 was ending. A mother had her two-year old toddler perched in a shopping cart at an Idaho Wal-Mart. He reached into her purse, specially made for carrying a concealed firearm (and a Christmas gift from her husband), found his mother’s pistol in it, pulled it out, and shot and killed her. And she wasn’t the only victim of a child who came upon a loaded weapon. Between 2007 and 2011, at least 62 children 14 or younger died in similarly nightmarish accidents with loaded weapons.

Nor was this specific incident an anomaly. In fact, if you are an American, you are statistically in less danger of dying from a terrorist attack in this country than from a toddler shooting you. And by the way, you’re 2,059 times more likely to die by your own hand with a weapon of your choosing than in a terrorist attack anywhere on Earth. You’re also more than nine times as likely to be killed by a police officer as by a terrorist.

And remind me, how many American taxpayer dollars have gone into “security” from terrorism and how many into security from weaponry? You know the answer to that. In fact, guns of just about every variety seem to circulate ever more freely in this country as the populace up-armors itself in yet more ways. Think of it as a kind of arms race. Emboldened by the National Rifle Association (NRA), Americans are ever more weaponized. There were an estimated 300-310 million guns in the U.S. in 2009 (a figure that has undoubtedly risen), and up to four million Americans now own assault rifles — one popular weapon of choice, by the way, for mass killers. In the meantime, the percentage of Americans who favor a ban on handguns (25%) has fallen to an all-time low.

As for “carrying,” it’s now legal in every state in America and allowed in ever more situations as well. In the last year, for instance, Idaho, where that mother died, became the seventh state to green-light the carrying of concealed guns on college campuses. To put all this in perspective, less than two decades ago, fewer than a million concealed weapons were being legally carried in the U.S.; now, more than one million people are permitted to carry such weapons in Florida alone. In twenty-first-century America, the “right to bear arms” has been extended in every direction, while there has also been a “sharp rise” in mass killings.

Meanwhile — since what’s an arms race without a second party? — the police, mainlining into the Pentagon, have been up-armoring at a staggering pace. It’s no longer an oddity for American police officers to be armed with assault rifles and grenade launchers as if in a foreign war zone or to arrive on the scene with a mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle previously used in our distant wars. And by the way, while much anger has been displayed, by the police in particular, over the recent murders of two patrolmen in Brooklyn by a disturbed man carrying a Taurus semiautomatic handgun, that anger seems not to extend to his ability to arm himself or to the pawnshop filled with weaponry that originally sold the gun (but not to him).

One mistake you shouldn’t make, however, is to imagine that Americans consider the right to bear arms universal. Just consider, for example, the CIA’s “signature drone strikes” in Pakistan and elsewhere. Over the last two presidencies, the Agency has gained the “right” to drone-kill young men of military age bearing arms — in societies where arms-bearing, as here, is the norm — about whom nothing specific is known except that they seem to be in the wrong place at the right time. The NRA, curiously enough, has chosen not to defend them.

If, to a visitor from Mars or even (as TomDispatch regular Ann Jones points out) Europe, all this might seem like the definition of madness, it’s also increasingly the definition of a way of life in this country. What was once the “tool” of law enforcement types, the military, and hunters is now the equivalent of an iPhone, a talisman of connection and social order. It’s something that just about anyone can put in a pocket, a purse, or simply strap on in the full light of day in a land where all of us, even toddlers, seem to be heading for the O.K. Corral. Jones, author of They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — The Untold Story, has seen her share of carnage and experienced her share of stress. Today, however, she considers another kind of stress, the pressure to explain to others a country whose citizens don’t even notice how inexplicable they are becoming. Tom

Is This Country Crazy?

Inquiring Minds Elsewhere Want to Know

By Ann Jones

Americans who live abroad — more than six million of us worldwide (not counting those who work for the U.S. government) — often face hard questions about our country from people we live among. Europeans, Asians, and Africans ask us to explain everything that baffles them about the increasingly odd and troubling conduct of the United States. Polite people, normally reluctant to risk offending a guest, complain that America’s trigger-happiness, cutthroat free-marketeering, and “exceptionality” have gone on for too long to be considered just an adolescent phase. Which means that we Americans abroad are regularly asked to account for the behavior of our rebranded “homeland,” now conspicuously in decline and increasingly out of step with the rest of the world.

In my long nomadic life, I’ve had the good fortune to live, work, or travel in all but a handful of countries on this planet. I’ve been to both poles and a great many places in between, and nosy as I am, I’ve talked with people all along the way. I still remember a time when to be an American was to be envied. The country where I grew up after World War II seemed to be respected and admired around the world for way too many reasons to go into here.

That’s changed, of course. Even after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, I still met people — in the Middle East, no less — willing to withhold judgment on the U.S. Many thought that the Supreme Court’s installation of George W. Bush as president was a blunder American voters would correct in the election of 2004. His return to office truly spelled the end of America as the world had known it. Bush had started a war, opposed by the entire world, because he wanted to and he could. A majority of Americans supported him. And that was when all the uncomfortable questions really began.

jonessoldiersIn the early fall of 2014, I traveled from my home in Oslo, Norway, through much of Eastern and Central Europe. Everywhere I went in those two months, moments after locals realized I was an American the questions started and, polite as they usually were, most of them had a single underlying theme: Have Americans gone over the edge? Are you crazy? Please explain.

Then recently, I traveled back to the “homeland.” It struck me there that most Americans have no idea just how strange we now seem to much of the world. In my experience, foreign observers are far better informed about us than the average American is about them. This is partly because the “news” in the American media is so parochial and so limited in its views both of how we act and how other countries think — even countries with which we were recently, are currently, or threaten soon to be at war. America’s belligerence alone, not to mention its financial acrobatics, compels the rest of the world to keep close track of us. Who knows, after all, what conflict the Americans may drag you into next, as target or reluctant ally?

So wherever we expatriates settle on the planet, we find someone who wants to talk about the latest American events, large and small: another country bombed in the name of our “national security,” another peaceful protest march attacked by our increasingly militarized police, another diatribe against “big government” by yet another wannabe candidate who hopes to head that very government in Washington. Such news leaves foreign audiences puzzled and full of trepidation.

Question Time

Take the questions stumping Europeans in the Obama years (which 1.6 million Americans residing in Europe regularly find thrown our way). At the absolute top of the list: “Why would anyone oppose national health care?” European and other industrialized countries have had some form of national health care since the 1930s or 1940s, Germany since 1880. Some versions, as in France and Great Britain, have devolved into two-tier public and private systems. Yet even the privileged who pay for a faster track would not begrudge their fellow citizens government-funded comprehensive health care. That so many Americans do strikes Europeans as baffling, if not frankly brutal.

In the Scandinavian countries, long considered to be the most socially advanced in the world, a national (physical and mental) health program, funded by the state, is a big part — but only a part — of a more general social welfare system. In Norway, where I live, all citizens also have an equal right to education (state subsidized preschool from age one, and free schools from age six through specialty training or university education and beyond), unemployment benefits, job-placement and paid retraining services, paid parental leave, old age pensions, and more. These benefits are not merely an emergency “safety net”; that is, charitable payments grudgingly bestowed upon the needy. They are universal: equally available to all citizens as human rights encouraging social harmony — or as our own U.S. constitution would put it, “domestic tranquility.” It’s no wonder that, for many years, international evaluators have ranked Norway as the best place to grow old, to be a woman, and to raise a child. The title of “best” or “happiest” place to live on Earth comes down to a neighborly contest among Norway and the other Nordic social democracies, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland.

In Norway, all benefits are paid for mainly by high taxation. Compared to the mind-numbing enigma of the U.S. tax code, Norway’s is remarkably straightforward, taxing income from labor and pensions progressively, so that those with higher incomes pay more. The tax department does the calculations, sends an annual bill, and taxpayers, though free to dispute the sum, willingly pay up, knowing what they and their children get in return. And because government policies effectively redistribute wealth and tend to narrow the country’s slim income gap, most Norwegians sail pretty comfortably in the same boat. (Think about that!)

Life and Liberty

This system didn’t just happen. It was planned. Sweden led the way in the 1930s, and all five Nordic countries pitched in during the postwar period to develop their own variations of what came to be called the Nordic Model: a balance of regulated capitalism, universal social welfare, political democracy, and the highest levels of gender and economic equality on the planet. It’s their system. They invented it. They like it. Despite the efforts of an occasional conservative government to muck it up, they maintain it. Why?

In all the Nordic countries, there is broad general agreement across the political spectrum that only when people’s basic needs are met — when they can cease to worry about their jobs, their incomes, their housing, their transportation, their health care, their kids’ education, and their aging parents — only then can they be free to do as they like. While the U.S. settles for the fantasy that, from birth, every kid has an equal shot at the American dream, Nordic social welfare systems lay the foundations for a more authentic equality and individualism.

These ideas are not novel. They are implied in the preamble to our own Constitution. You know, the part about “we the People” forming “a more perfect Union” to “promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Even as he prepared the nation for war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt memorably specified components of what that general welfare should be in his State of the Union address in 1941. Among the “simple basic things that must never be lost sight of,” he listed “equality of opportunity for youth and others, jobs for those who can work, security for those who need it, the ending of special privileges for the few, the preservation of civil liberties for all,” and oh yes, higher taxes to pay for those things and for the cost of defensive armaments.

Knowing that Americans used to support such ideas, a Norwegian today is appalled to learn that a CEO of a major American corporation makes between 300 and 400 times as much as its average employee. Or that governors Sam Brownback of Kansas and Chris Christie of New Jersey, having run up their state’s debts by cutting taxes for the rich, now plan to cover the loss with money snatched from the pension funds of workers in the public sector. To a Norwegian, the job of government is to distribute the country’s good fortune reasonably equally, not send it zooming upward, as in America today, to a sticky-fingered one percent.

In their planning, Norwegians tend to do things slowly, always thinking of the long term, envisioning what a better life might be for their children, their posterity. That’s why a Norwegian, or any northern European, is aghast to learn that two-thirds of American college students finish their education in the red, some owing $100,000 or more. Or that in the U.S., still the world’s richest country, one in three children lives in poverty, along with one in five young people between the ages of 18 and 34. Or that America’s recent multi-trillion-dollar wars were fought on a credit card to be paid off by our kids. Which brings us back to that word: brutal.

Implications of brutality, or of a kind of uncivilized inhumanity, seem to lurk in so many other questions foreign observers ask about America like: How could you set up that concentration camp in Cuba, and why can’t you shut it down? Or: How can you pretend to be a Christian country and still carry out the death penalty? The follow-up to which often is: How could you pick as president a man proud of executing his fellow citizens at the fastest rate recorded in Texas history? (Europeans will not soon forget George W. Bush.)

Other things I’ve had to answer for include:

* Why can’t you Americans stop interfering with women’s health care?

* Why can’t you understand science?

* How can you still be so blind to the reality of climate change?

* How can you speak of the rule of law when your presidents break international laws to make war whenever they want?

* How can you hand over the power to blow up the planet to one lone, ordinary man?

* How can you throw away the Geneva Conventions and your principles to advocate torture?

* Why do you Americans like guns so much? Why do you kill each other at such a rate?

To many, the most baffling and important question of all is: Why do you send your military all over the world to stir up more and more trouble for all of us?

That last question is particularly pressing because countries historically friendly to the United States, from Australia to Finland, are struggling to keep up with an influx of refugees from America’s wars and interventions. Throughout Western Europe and Scandinavia, right-wing parties that have scarcely or never played a role in government are now rising rapidly on a wave of opposition to long-established immigration policies. Only last month, such a party almost toppled the sitting social democratic government of Sweden, a generous country that has absorbed more than its fair share of asylum seekers fleeing the shock waves of “the finest fighting force that the world has ever known.”

The Way We Are

Europeans understand, as it seems Americans do not, the intimate connection between a country’s domestic and foreign policies. They often trace America’s reckless conduct abroad to its refusal to put its own house in order. They’ve watched the United States unravel its flimsy safety net, fail to replace its decaying infrastructure, disempower most of its organized labor, diminish its schools, bring its national legislature to a standstill, and create the greatest degree of economic and social inequality in almost a century. They understand why Americans, who have ever less personal security and next to no social welfare system, are becoming more anxious and fearful. They understand as well why so many Americans have lost trust in a government that has done so little new for them over the past three decades or more, except for Obama’s endlessly embattled health care effort, which seems to most Europeans a pathetically modest proposal.

What baffles so many of them, though, is how ordinary Americans in startling numbers have been persuaded to dislike “big government” and yet support its new representatives, bought and paid for by the rich. How to explain that? In Norway’s capital, where a statue of a contemplative President Roosevelt overlooks the harbor, many America-watchers think he may have been the last U.S. president who understood and could explain to the citizenry what government might do for all of them. Struggling Americans, having forgotten all that, take aim at unknown enemies far away — or on the far side of their own towns.

It’s hard to know why we are the way we are, and — believe me — even harder to explain it to others. Crazy may be too strong a word, too broad and vague to pin down the problem. Some people who question me say that the U.S. is “paranoid,” “backward,” “behind the times,” “vain,” “greedy,” “self-absorbed,” or simply “dumb.” Others, more charitably, imply that Americans are merely “ill-informed,” “misguided,” “misled,” or “asleep,” and could still recover sanity. But wherever I travel, the questions follow, suggesting that the United States, if not exactly crazy, is decidedly a danger to itself and others. It’s past time to wake up, America, and look around. There’s another world out here, an old and friendly one across the ocean, and it’s full of good ideas, tried and true.

Ann Jones, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan, among other books, and most recently They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — The Untold Story, a Dispatch Books project.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, and Tom Engelhardt’s latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2015 Ann Jones

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Ann Jones has her own website, from which one learns her background as:

Bio~~element2

ANN JONES is a journalist, photographer, and the author of ten books of nonfiction. She has written extensively about violence against women. Since 2001, she has worked intermittently as a humanitarian volunteer in conflict and post-conflict countries in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, and central and south Asia. From Afghanistan and the Middle East, she has reported on the impact of war upon civilians; and she has embedded with American forces in Afghanistan to report on war’s impact on soldiers. Her articles on these and other matters appear most often in The Nation and online at www.TomDispatch.com. Her work has received generous support from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, where she held the Mildred Londa Weisman Fellowship in 2010-11, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation (2011-12), and the Fulbright Foundation (2012). She lives in Oslo, Norway, with two conversational cats.

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My apologies if you, too, have been disheartened by today’s post. However, these fundamental issues about how nations serve their peoples really do need to be very widely broadcast.

The book! Part Three: Short-termism

Our modern madness!

We live in an era that is addicted to short-termism. Largely, I’m bound to say, brought on by the financial services industry. Yet the influence of that same industry is enormous and percolates its way through most levels of most societies in most cultures and, without question, through the societies of most European and North American countries. One only needs to reflect on the critical importance of gaining and maintaining financial solvency for individuals. From having the creditworthiness to finance, and eventually pay off, a mortgage on a private dwelling, to accumulating a pension to provide some level of comfort in the ‘senior’ years and along the way managing to bring up children, have the odd vacation or two, and enjoy a small luxury or impulse purchase. So for the great majority of us it is practically impossible to live a life that doesn’t interact with banks, savings plans, building societies, pension providers, and often many other financial and investment companies.

Thus the financial services industry is an intimate part of the majority of the lives of private citizens in the ‘Western world’. Yet, ironically, my sense is that the majority of those same private individuals run their lives quite differently. I have in mind what might be called planning horizons.

Clearly buying a home is the most obvious example of long-term planning. But there’s a myriad of other involvements that we sign up to that require, nay demand, a long-term perspective. Having a family, studying for a degree or a post-graduate academic qualification, becoming an apprentice, driver’s licence, heavy goods vehicle (HGV) licence, saving for a pension, for a vacation, working in a company, or similar, with an eye on longer-term promotion and career advancement. I’ll stop there for I’m sure my point is clear!

In my trawl across the internet looking for supportive examples, I came across a paper published by the Aspen Institute called “Short-termism and US Capital Markets”. This institute declares on their website (in part) that “The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, DC. Its mission is to foster leadership based on enduring values and to provide a nonpartisan venue for dealing with critical issues.

This US-based institute published the paper on short-termism in view of “the serious consequences they see for both investors and society at large.” The report refers to research by JP Morgan that is highly critical of the present-day love affair with short-term results: “[the research] indicating that a focus on quarterly earnings in US companies in order to show short-term profits is leading public companies to defer spending on marketing research, product design and prototype development and this reduction in investment is causing problems.”

If there’s one relatively recent event (I use the word “recent” in relation to the period when writing this book) that shows, dramatically shows, the madness of short-termism then it has to be the financial crisis of 2008. (As an aside, the term financial crisis seems an inadequate phrase when one considers the full range of negative consequences that blasted into the faces of millions of people in 2008.)

The Boston College Law School held a symposium in 2011 that led to a paper being published by Kent Greenfield, Professor and Law School Research Fund Scholar at Boston. That paper is available to read online. It carries the title: The Puzzle of Short-Termism. I think a few quotations from that paper will underline the madness that came to light post-2008 and that appears to still be with us. The paper opens, thus:

INTRODUCTION

When pondering the question of the “sustainable corporation,” as we did in this symposium, one of the intractable problems is the nature of the corporation to produce externalities. By noting this characteristic, I am not making a moral point but an economic one. The nature of the firm is to create financial wealth by producing goods and services for profit; without regulatory or contractual limits, the firm has every incentive to externalize costs onto those whose interests are not included in the firm’s current financial calculus.

Not much further on, Prof. Greenfield writes:

The more difficult kind of externality to address—especially if our focus is on the sustainability of the corporation—is the future externality. What I mean here is the kind of cost that a corporation’s management can externalize to the future. From management’s perspective, the future is a much more attractive place to push off costs. Stakeholders who must bear such future costs will be less aware of those costs than current costs, and even if they do learn of such future costs, they will be less able to gain the attention of regulators.

Then he offers this stark analysis:

If one is worried about the sustainability of corporations from an environmental, social, or political perspective, the problem of “short-termism” has to be a central worry. This is because, at least according to many who have thought seriously about the topic, in the long run the interests of corporations conflate with those of society as a whole. (For the sake of this Essay I will assume this to be the case, though I have stated some disagreement elsewhere.) Short-termism is a problem whether we focus our attention on the sustainability of the corporation or the ethics of its management.

Short-termism is also costly economically, since the economy as a whole benefits when companies have a long-term strategy. The economy is a summation of the fortunes of the millions of companies and individuals that make it up; if most companies make decisions that prioritize the short-term at the expense of the long-term, we all suffer. A nation’s wealth grows more over time when companies invest for the future and maintain their viability as a going concern.

Just one more extract from the paper, that without the preceding extracts would not have carried the weight and gravity that struck me, and I hope strikes you, dear reader when you read the following:

The financial crisis of 2008 brought into sharp relief the economic costs of short-term management. Among the competing theories on the cause of the financial collapse—the over-dependence on derivatives, the overuse of leverage, the culture of greed and entitlement in the finance industry, just to name a few—a focus on the short term is an omnipresent narrative thread. If managers and financiers had taken a more long-term view of the health of their own companies and the fortunes of their investors, we might not have seen the myriad other problems come to such a head. The addiction to leverage, derivatives, and greed that caused the market to become a casino would only have been possible in a business culture where short-term gains are prioritized over long-term costs. What might have been assumed to be costs that would be suffered some time in the distant future are being absorbed now. John Maynard Keynes was wrong on this point: in the long run, we are not all dead.

So despite some naysayers, the problem of short-termism is very real. Shareholders hold their stocks, on average, for less than a year, and even less for small companies. Institutional investors have been said to be particularly bad on this front, acting “more as traders, seeking short-term gain.” Managers admit that they make decisions that harm the company in the long-term in order to meet short-term earnings expectations. In 2006, both the Conference Board and the Business Roundtable, two of the nation’s most prominent business organizations, issued reports “decrying the short-term focus of the stock market and its dominance over American business behavior.” And, let’s remember, that was two years before the collapse.

The paper really needs to be read in full, especially for any individual trying to understand the pros and cons of a wide range of personal investment decisions. If only, to use Prof. Greenfield’s words, “This is because, at least according to many who have thought seriously about the topic, in the long run the interests of corporations conflate with those of society as a whole.

I sense readers might be on the verge of giving up with this book because it ain’t nothing to do with dogs! There was a large part of me that agonised over what to include and what to leave out, not only with this chapter but with all the chapters in this section. Perhaps I might be forgiven for making another ‘sales pitch’ for this whole section! That is that if good, honest folk aren’t as fully aware of the major characteristics of this new century, as this author wasn’t before the research, we cannot develop the passion and zeal for saying and promoting, as far and wide as we can, that ‘enough is enough’!

One more quotation to round off the chapter.

The Guardian newspaper published an article in October 2013 written by Larry Elliott, the newspaper’s economics editor. It was entitled: Saving the planet from short-termism will take man-on-the-moon commitment.

We choose to go to the moon. So said John F Kennedy in September 1962 as he pledged a manned lunar landing by the end of the decade.

The US president knew that his country’s space programme would be expensive. He knew it would have its critics, but he took the long-term view. Warming to his theme in Houston that day, JFK went on: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others too.”

That was the world’s richest country at the apogee of its power in an age where both Democrats and Republicans were prepared to invest in the future. Kennedy’s predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, took a plan for a system of interstate highways and made sure it happened.

Contrast that with today’s America, which looks less like the leader of the free world than a banana republic with a reserve currency. Planning for the long term now involves last-ditch deals on Capitol Hill to ensure the federal government can remain open until January and debts can be paid at least until February.

The US is not the only country with advanced short-termism. It merely provides the most egregious example of the disease. This is a world of fast food and short attention spans, of politicians so dominated by a 24/7 news agenda that they have lost the habit of planning for the long term.

Tough stuff!

That doesn’t get any easier to read and take in as one continues.

Politics, technology and human nature all militate in favour of kicking the can down the road. The most severe financial and economic crisis in more than half a century has further discouraged policymakers from raising their eyes from the present to the distant horizon.

Clearly, though, the world faces long-term challenges that will only become more acute through prevarication. These include coping with a bigger and ageing global population, ensuring growth is sustainable and equitable, providing resources to pay for modern transport and energy infrastructure, and reshaping international institutions so they represent the world as it is in the early 21st century rather than as it was in 1945.

Or possibly for society to really grasp? Larry Elliot’s closing words:

Another conclave of the global great and good is looking at what should be done in the much trickier area of climate change. The premise of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate is that nothing will be done unless finance ministers are convinced of the need for action, especially given the damage caused by a deep recession and sluggish recovery.

Instead of preaching to the choir the plan is to show how to achieve key economic objectives – growth, investment, secure public finances, fairer distribution of income – while at the same time protecting the planet. The pitch to finance ministers will be that tackling climate change will require plenty of upfront investment that will boost growth rather than harm it.

Will this approach work? Well, maybe. But it will require business to see the long-term benefits of greening the economy as well as the short-term costs, because that would lead to the burst of technological innovation needed to accelerate progress. And it will require the same sort of commitment it took to win a world war or put a man on the moon.

Despite Mr. Elliot’s powerful plea, there might be a school of opinion, a growing school of opinion, that would argue fundamentally with the words of that plea. I’m referring to: “… the plan is to show how to achieve key economic objectives – growth, investment, secure public finances, fairer distribution of income – while at the same time protecting the planet.

The next chapter on Materialism explains why “key economic objectives” may be the last type of measurement our world now demands.

2,217 words. Copyright © 2014 Paul Handover

Studs Terkel second essay.

NaNoWriMo sucked up my whole day!

I’m loving the writing that I’m doing just now.  I am, of course, referring to ‘the book’!

What is so delicious is taking a series of topics that, at heart, I know very little about in terms of any depth, and finding how internet web searches can unearth a trillion answers (OK, I exaggerated to make a point!) and allow one to learn the topic in some detail.  Specifically, I am authoring chapters on The Power of Negativity, Selfishness, Power and corruption, Short-termism, Materialism, Poverty and Greed. The drafts are being presented here on Learning from Dogs. (P.S. the chapters in most cases continue to be worked on after they have appeared in this place!)

Unfortunately, time is very short in terms of my own creative writings in this place. So, today, it is going to be the second essay from Studs Terkel.  The first one, in case any of you missed it, was yesterday. Me rapidly adding that the two essays were originally published as a TomGram: Studs Terkel on Death and Forgiveness in America.

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“You Got Into My Heart Violently, But You’re There”

Trauma, Death, and Forgiveness on the Front Lines of American Life
By Studs Terkel

[The following is excerpted from the new paperback edition of Studs Terkel’s oral history of death, Will The Circle Be Unbroken?: Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith, with special thanks to his publisher, the New Press.]

“ER”
Dr. John Barrett

He is Chief of the Trauma Unit at Cook County Hospital, Chicago. He still has an Irish brogue.

“In 1966, the Trauma Unit here was actually the first of its kind in the nation. It’s dedicated to people who, more than being sick, are injured — patients who have been subjected to what we call intentional injury, violence. It’s gunshot wounds, stabbings, personal assaults. Other trauma centers see patients who predominantly are victims of unintentional injury: automotive wrecks and falls. Our experience here has been inner-urban, lower-socioeconomic groupings; predominantly young, predominantly male, and predominantly penetrating trauma: gunshot wounds and stabbings.”

I am the third of four sons. My father was a mail carrier, my mother was a dressmaker in Cork. The family really struggled to make sure that all of the sons went to university. My two elder brothers did science — chemistry and physics. I wanted to do something that was scientific in nature but more people-oriented. There was really no family tradition of medicine, but medicine seemed to fill my criteria. I can recall my eldest brother, Frank, saying, “This is a terrible waste of time — you don’t have to be intelligent to be a doctor.”

It’s not as if it’s rocket science. There’s nothing terribly difficult to understand in medicine, there’s just an awful lot of it that you have to remember. I always wanted to be a general practitioner. In my final year of medical school, I did a rotation with the then-professor of surgery, and I loved it. At the end of the rotation he said, “Well, Barrett, what are you going to do?” I said, “Well, Mr. Kiley, sir, I’m going to be a general practitioner.” He looked at me and said, “Barrett, there’s the makings of a great surgeon lost in you.” So that’s why I decided to do surgery. I realized that what I really, really enjoyed was the injured patient. It’s such an acute event: the patient is perfectly healthy, then something traumatic happens, and within a matter of seconds they are injured. They’re a great surgical challenge because they’re bleeding, they generally need surgical intervention. The epitome of those patients is the gunshot wound. Despite all the terrible things you hear about Northern Ireland and all the violence, where I was in the South we saw no gunshot wounds. I actually had to come to this country to see gunshot wounds.

I have found that surgeons have a certain personality. They tend to be very action-driven, very egocentric, frequently overconfident — especially trauma surgeons who will act very quickly with a minimal amount of information. That may not be the person you want to be your lawyer or your priest, but that’s the person you want to be your trauma surgeon. They tend to be supremely confident in themselves, and that’s why many people don’t like them. They tend to demean other people. It goes with the territory because you have to be damn confident in yourself if your job is to start cutting people open at the drop of a hat. People, when they hear that you’re a surgeon, they immediately look at your hands because they imagine there’s something unique about the surgeon’s technical ability. That’s not true at all. People have said you can teach educated apes how to operate — I’m not sure if that’s true — but it’s the decision-making process, not the technical stuff.

If you ask me to talk about life and death, the first thing I would think of is my patient. You begin to realize there’s not a sharp distinction between life and death. When is a person alive and when is a person dead? We have, for instance, patients who come in who are clinically dead: their heart has stopped beating, they are not breathing, their pupils are fixed and dilated. But we have them. The Chicago Fire Department paramedics are excellent — they get them in here fast. They’ve been without vital signs for a short period of time. You can still resuscitate some of them, you can bring them back…

Was it two weeks ago? — we had a man who was stabbed in the heart, came in clinically dead. We immediately opened his chest, released the pressure from his heart, sewed up his heart, and he actually recovered. He can’t have been dead because we got him back, but he was clinically dead. It’s not a very firm line; there’s a gradual blending from where you’re alive to where you’re dead. The people I see who are dead are in general young people who have suffered a calamitous event — they’ve been shot. You try your best. They’re either dead when they arrive or generally die fairly quickly after they’ve arrived. You can’t resuscitate them. The first thing that strikes me about it is, it seems such a waste… You’re looking at a human body, and as a surgeon you know its intimate details: the anatomy and the sinews and the arteries and the veins, and they’re now dead. This wonderful perfect machine is now no more. It’s frequently the smallest thing that has killed them. A stab wound to the heart will kill one person and it won’t kill the next. It seems to be such a capricious thing. What I really think a lot about is when children die. When adults die from trauma, you feel they have some degree of responsibility insofar as they chose to be in that place at that time. When a child dies, you think: Why did that happen? Five minutes’ difference would have changed the entire course of events. And parents ask you the same thing: “Why did it happen, doctor?” You try to explain: “He was shot, we did the best we can.” That’s not the answer they want. They want to know why this person who was awake, alive, and healthy this morning is now dead. You don’t have that explanation as a surgeon.

The first thing I feel, I feel angry, angry that they died, that I haven’t been able to save them. To me it’s almost like a personal defeat. I know in a logical sense that’s not true. I didn’t shoot them. It wasn’t my fault that there were guns on the street.

studsunbrokenRemember how I characterized the surgeon? The surgeon is supremely self-confident. We whip them back from the jaws of death, we have the scalpel, we have the decision, we have the technology, and we have a system in this hospital that’s supposed to save them. But you can’t save them all. We don’t lose a lot, but we do lose them. So initially I feel angry. That passes fairly quickly because I then say to myself: What could we have done that we didn’t do? Actually, we talk about it as a group: Could we have acted quicker, recognized this quicker? Because even though this particular patient is dead, we may be able to improve care for the next patient. Then I think: What a waste! A total, absolute waste. Especially now. I’m fifty-five years old. It makes you think about your own mortality. We really don’t realize what a precious gift life is. We take it for granted. I’ve always taken it for granted. My children are growing up, my daughter is going to college this year, I’m growing older, and I’m surrounded by people who are brought in, some of whom die. It is a very, very fragile thing we have that can disappear. The stuff that you worry about… Are you going to get the house painted? The basement floods occasionally. My God, the car keeps breaking down… It’s all so trivial… We should really realize that the greatest gift we have is time, and that means you’re alive.

When the patient comes in, you might see someone who’s covered in blood. I don’t see someone covered in blood, I see somebody who has technical challenges. A gunshot wound to the chest with hemothorax, we need to get a chest tube in, determine the rate of bleeding, and make effective interventions. So right then and there, I’m not thinking great philosophical thoughts — I’m in a mechanical, operative mode. You just go boom, boom, boom… It’s like a very organized, choreographed dance. But then at the end, he dies. Then you say, “Let’s look back at the dance. Did we do something wrong, could we have done something better?” You do tend to become a little philosophical as you grow older. I’m convinced that the solution to all this violence is not surgeons. We need to somehow prevent it.

I come from Ireland, a country that has national health insurance. Every resident is insured. I’m an American citizen and I love being one, but I can’t understand why we can’t ensure that every resident of the country actually gets adequate health care. I’m so happy to work here at the County Hospital, because that’s part of our mission statement: We will not turn you away. People refer to us as the hospital of last resort. I think that that’s a very noble thing.

People say, “Why did you stay?” It’s so perfectly logical to me. Here’s what I wanted: I wanted to be a surgeon who dealt with patients who required surgical intervention. Those are gunshot wounds. I also want to be able to teach people. I think it’s important that you pass on your skills. And to even do a little research, to maybe improve the care of the patients. Patient care, education, and the research, all three things I’m doing here. The money isn’t the greatest, and there are frustrations working in the public sector — but compared to what I’ve gotten out of it, I am one of the most fortunate people that you’ll ever meet. I would actually pay money to do this job. They pay me to do what I love to do.

When you lose a patient… I think every doctor has their own way. It’s not something they teach you in medical school, and they really, really should. Physicians and health-care people in general need to have a far greater degree of sympathy toward their patients, toward the patients’ family. No one ever taught me how to talk to a family and tell them that their loved one was dead, especially in a trauma situation. It’s one thing if a patient has, say, cancer and they become ill and then they die — it tends to be a process. You get to know your doctor, you finally realize the end is inevitable, you may have time to talk to your loved one.

Trauma is different. What happens in trauma is this eighteen-year-old leaves the house in the morning, perfectly healthy. Then the mother gets a call at two o’clock, it’s the Trauma Unit at Cook County Hospital: “Your son’s been shot. Please come in.” When she walks in, she’ll see me. She doesn’t know me, she’s never met me before, and I am now going to tell her that her son is dead. So how do I do it? The first thing that I do is I try to put myself into their situation. What they want to know is, is he alive or is he dead? I think you need to tell them that. Some people start telling them about he was shot and he came in and we did this and we did that. They’re really trying to impress the family with the work that they did to save him. That’s not what the family wants to know: they want to hear if he’s alive or if he’s dead. That’s what I tell them. I say: “You don’t know me, I’m Dr. Barrett, I’m the senior surgeon here tonight.” They won’t even remember my name. Sit them down. Sit down with them. Look into their eyes. If you can, hold on to them and say, “It’s bad news.” And they’ll say, “Is he dead?” Or they just look at you. You have to use the word, you have to say it: “He’s dead.” If you say he’s “expired,” he’s “passed away,” they don’t hear that. You have to say he’s dead. Then, then they react. They generally go into disbelief: “No, no, it’s not true — I can’t believe it… How could it happen…” Or they say, “It can’t be him. Are you sure? ” All you do then is you just let them grieve. I think it’s actually helpful for them to come and see the body. I think that’s important. He’s all covered in blood, there’s tubes in him. That doesn’t matter. They want to see that person, they want to see that face. I say to them, “It’s OK to hold him, if you want to kiss him, if you want to talk to him.” I think it’s important to do that because, afterwards, they’ll go through that scene in their mind over and over and over again. “I remember the night they called me from the County and I came in and this is what happened, and that is what happened…” It’s very important to put yourself into their shoes, but you’ve got to say the word “dead.” You’ve got to give them the finality of it.

I ask residents, “How would you do it?” They’re trying to explain to the family what they did: “He came in, we intubated him, we did this, we gave him blood, we gave him CPR.” The family isn’t even listening to that! They’re not listening to it. After you’ve said he’s dead, they won’t listen to anything for a long time. Once they’ve calmed down, it’s important to tell them the absolute truth. “I don’t know what the circumstances surrounding the shooting were, but as far as I can tell, he was unconscious very rapidly after he was shot. He never regained consciousness. I don’t think he suffered.” Just tell them the truth, it’s always the best thing.

When you die, you die. Your body rots. Everyone knows that. There’s no argument about that. But there is a spirituality to us. If you want to call it a soul, you can call it a soul. I think of it more as the thing that allows us to choose to do good or evil. You kind of fall on one side or the other. You tend to be on the side of the good or the side of the evil. You can personify this as being God and the Devil. You can call this spirituality your soul, or not your soul, but whatever it is, I do believe it continues after your body is dead. I’m not sure that thing that’s going to exist after I’m dead would say to itself, “I am John Anthony Patrick Barrett and I remember everything about John Anthony Patrick Barrett” — I don’t think it’s that simple. I do believe in an afterlife, but I don’t believe that it’s up there in the clouds somewhere with angels flying around beating their wings, and God is an old geezer with a long beard.

Let me try it a different way. You do things that live on after you. Each of us, as we pass through life, influences others. You leave behind you a legacy of things you did and people you influenced. So even if you don’t believe in a life after death, you’ve had an influence. And people say, “I haven’t had any influence. What did I do? I worked in a steel mill all my life, I didn’t actually do anything. Got married, had a few kids…” Well, you did — you had an effect as you went through life, and it was either a good effect or an indifferent effect or a bad effect. That effect continues on. I have two children, and they’re going to have influences on people and they’re going to do things. I’m also a teacher: I’ve taught lots of people, hundreds, perhaps even a thousand people that I have influenced in a very fundamental fashion. Many of them are now surgeons themselves. There’s little pieces of me that exist in all of that. So even though you’re dead, you’re not gone.

If you said, “What do I think makes me different from other surgeons?” the short answer is I don’t know… But I will tell you I think it’s a word called “empathy.” I have the ability to think and feel like the other person. I don’t know where I got that, but it’s something almost instinctive. Maybe that’s what doctors need to have. If doctors are supposed to comfort, you’ve got to understand that the person is suffering; you’ve got to kind of live in your patient’s shoes. I don’t care if you’re a Hindu or a Jew or an atheist, it’s all fine to me. I certainly don’t believe that there’s only one true religion and one true God and only one way of getting to Heaven. If you believe in your particular belief, I respect that. You’re gonna get to Heaven every bit as fast as I am, and in fact even faster probably.

I remember the first dead person I ever saw — my mother’s father. I would have been probably four or five years old. I remember a big commotion in the house, getting dressed up and washed and cleaned and being on my best behavior. He was laid out in a morgue. I recall the body. He was in the casket. It was an open casket, and he didn’t look like granddad. It was this pale waxen look — it wasn’t him. The second one I ever saw dead was in Ireland. I think I was probably eighteen or nineteen years of age, and I was out on my bicycle. There was a guy who had crashed his motorcycle into a car. As I arrived at the scene they were getting the body out — and he was dead. And they were getting him out and I remember he was covered in blood. I haven’t thought about this in a million years. I remember, as they took him out, he had his watch on. I remember the second hand of his watch was still ticking. Why do I remember that? I think it was the thing that I talked about before. He was fine, and now he’s dead… but his watch is still going on.

If you had been born a hundred years ago, Studs, you wouldn’t have lived this long. Yet you’re still living a very productive and fruitful life. There comes a time when we really do have to balance that, though. Now, how do you make those decisions? These are actually not decisions that your doctor alone can or should make. Especially those of us who are technologically driven. If you were dying from something that I think I can cure by operating on you, I am going to try and convince you to have the operation. You may have a totally different perspective on life. I think medicine needs to acknowledge that. Sometimes it’s not the patient, it’s the patient’s family who say, “I want everything done.” How much of that is driven by them because they want to be able to say afterwards, “Well, we did everything”? It makes them feel comfortable…

It isn’t a huge problem in trauma because we really do try to do everything, because the patients are young. But if I am at the stage where I’m absolutely convinced that the patient is going to die but I can keep the patient alive longer, I think what you need to say to the family is not, “What do you want me to do?” What I say to them is, “If the patient in the bed could talk to us, what would he say, do you think? You know him, he’s been your son or your husband. You know his approach to life. What do you think he’d say?” Then they begin to think: What would he say? They’re surrogates. I don’t want to know what they want to do because they’re filled with guilt and anguish, and half of them want to do this and half of them want to do that. I want them to tell me what they think he would do.

Then there’s the question about physician-assisted suicide. I can understand the sort of logic that says the patient is in absolute agony, the patient wants to die, and they want me to help them to die, but I don’t subscribe to that. I think there’s a huge difference between pushing someone into a river and having them drown, and seeing someone in the river drowning and doing nothing, letting them drown. If you look at the cases of physician-assisted suicide, man, you’d better be damn sure that you’re doing the right thing. You need to be damn sure. I mean, surer than capital punishment. You need to be sure that whatever it is the patient has is totally incurable and cannot be relieved. You’re dying because you’re in intractable pain? We can take care of it, I mean, we really can. This feeling that they’re turning to say, “Kill me, doctor…” They’re not depressed? There’s nothing we can do to help that depression? I don’t think I ever personally would feel so confident that I would do that.

I actually believe in capital punishment. It’s rare for a doctor to say that, because doctors are trained in the preservation of human life. And it’s probably even rarer for a professed Catholic doctor to say that. But I believe that there are some people who should be killed. There are justifications for taking human life — predominantly self-protection. If somebody is going to kill you and the only way you can save yourself is by killing them, then you are justified to kill them. That can be extrapolated into a just war, if there ever is such a thing. Now, let’s go to the individual. I don’t think we should execute people as a deterrent, although it is the ultimate deterrent for the person you’ve executed. I think there are some people in this world who are evil: they murder other people. So I would need to have a person who has committed heinous crimes, and I would include in those heinous crimes, rapes.

I also am very concerned about people who kill police officers, or even politicians, because they’re protecting us. I would also need to know that there is no way to rehabilitate him. So that might mean that he has committed the crime many times. I would need to know that he continues to be a risk. People say, “Well, why don’t you lock them up for the rest of their lives?” I’ve seen these people. They will try to kill other inmates. They will try to kill their custodians. They will try to kill the guards. They are intrinsically evil. They cannot be rehabilitated, and they continue to pose a risk to their captors. They deserve to die because they are a threat to us, not because we’re trying to frighten other people from committing the crime. They would have to be guilty much more than beyond a reasonable doubt. They exist — I’ve seen them. There are people like that in the world.

When I’m dead, there will be this thing that is left like the body of my grandfather. That I don’t care what you do with it. It’s like when I go to the barber, he cuts my hair. Do I worry about the hair? I don’t give a damn what he does with it. You want to burn me? I don’t care. Actually, whoever is left who’s going to be responsible for my dead body, they need a ritual to bury me. So, sure, I’m sure there’ll be a little ceremony and they’ll be singing songs and ringing bells and lighting candles and smoking incense. I don’t care what they do. Because that thing in that coffin, that is not me. Now that I’m fifty-five, I actually think about dying. I didn’t think about it when I was twenty, or thirty, or forty. But I’ll soon be sixty. And there’s a whole bunch of stuff I intend to do yet. I’ve got big plans. My mother, she’s alive and she’s ninety years old; my father lived until he was eighty-six. I hope that I’ll live a long time. But I can grapple with it now: I can see myself dying. I think the process would be messy, the actual dying, death. But I don’t think I would be particularly bothered by the fact that death is inevitable. I’m not embracing death, but I’m not afraid of it. There are also the things you’ve done during the time you’ve spent on this earth that are going to remain behind, in some way, shape, or form, forever. If I’m dead and people come to my graveside and look at my tombstone, do you know what they’re going to say? They’re going to say, “Who was he?” You want to know who I am? If I wanted to have anything written on my tombstone, I would have, “Ask my children or ask my students.” I actually never thought of it quite that way. That wouldn’t be a bad epitaph.

Studs Terkel (1912-2008) was an award-winning author and radio broadcaster. His books included: Division Street: America; Talking to Myself: A Memoir of My Times; “The Good War”: An Oral History of World War II; Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do; and Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression; all published by the New Press. He was a recipient of a Presidential National Humanities Medal, a George Polk Career Award, and the National Book Critics Circle 2003 Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award. These two oral histories were excerpted from the new paperback edition of his oral history of death, Will The Circle Be Unbroken?: Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith, also published by the New Press.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, and Tom Engelhardt’s just published book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright © 2001 by Studs Terkel. This excerpt originally appeared in Will the Circle Be Unbroken? published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

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There were a number of links in Tom’s original post that were too awkward to carry across to here. Primarily the links were in the last chapters speaking of Studs Merkel. Please go here if you wish to follow those links.

Finally, if you wish to purchase the book then please use this link to Amazon so that Tom doesn’t miss out! Thanks!

Studs Terkel

Gobsmackingly powerful writing!

Back on the 28th October, Tom Engelhardt published over on TomDispatch: Tomgram: Studs Terkel on Death and Forgiveness in America.  I read the essay early on that morning and was blown away by it; to use the modern venacular.  I checked with Tom that it was alright for me to republish here but decided to delay that for a couple of weeks.

The Tomgram included two essays by Studs Terkel, an author I hadn’t come across, and a terrible omission for this amateur author. His website provides this biographical overview:

Studs Terkel, prize-winning author and radio broadcast personality was born Louis Terkel in New York on May 16, 1912. His father, Samuel, was a tailor and his mother, Anna (Finkel) was a seamstress. He had three brothers. The family moved to Chicago in 1922 and opened a Studs biorooming house at Ashland and Flournoy on the near West side. From 1926 to 1936 they ran another rooming house, the Wells-Grand Hotel at Wells Street and Grand Avenue. Terkel credited his knowledge of the world to the tenants who gathered in the lobby of the hotel and the people who congregated in nearby Bughouse Square, a meeting place for workers, labor organizers, dissidents, the unemployed, and religious fanatics of many persuasions. In 1939 he married Ida Goldberg and had one son.

Terkel attended University of Chicago and received a law degree in 1934. He chose not to pursue a career in law. After a brief stint with the civil service in Washington D.C., he returned to Chicago and worked with the WPA Writers Project in the radio division. One day he was asked to read a script and soon found himself in radio soap operas, in other stage performances, and on a WAIT news show. After a year in the Air Force, he returned to writing radio shows and ads. He was on a sports show on WBBM and then, in 1944, he landed his own show on WENR. This was called the Wax Museum show that allowed him to express his own personality and play recordings he liked from folk music, opera, jazz, or blues. A year later he had his own television show called Stud’s Place and started asking people the kind of questions that marked his later work as an interviewer.

In 1952 Terkel began working for WFMT, first with the “Studs Terkel Almanac” and the “Studs Terkel Show,” primarily to play music. The interviewing came along by accident. This later became the award-winning, “The Studs Terkel Program.” His first book, Giants of Jazz, was published in 1956. Ten years later his first book of oral history interviews, Division Street: America, came out. It was followed by a succession of oral history books on the 1930s Depression, World War Two, race relations, working, the American dream, and aging. His last oral history book, Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith, was published in 2001.

Late into his life Terkel continued to interview people, work on his books, and make public appearances. He was the first Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at the Chicago Historical Society. His last book, P.S.: Further Thoughts from a Lifetime of Listening was released in November 2008. Terkel died on October 31, 2008 at the age of 96.

Although the TomGram includes two essays from Stud, I’m going to split it and republish the first essay, together with Tom’s introduction.

Prepare to be very moved!

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Tomgram: Studs Terkel on Death and Forgiveness in America

Posted by Studs Terkel at 8:00am, October 28, 2014.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch.

Studs Terkel, who put oral history on the American map with one spectacular book after another, was a small man who had a knack for making everyone around him feel larger than life. He taught me the first significant lesson I learned as a book editor — and he didn’t even know it. I stumbled into Pantheon Books in the summer of 1976, hired (on the basis of remarkably little) by André Schiffrin, who ran that pioneering publishing outfit. I had only the most minimal idea of what a book editor was or did, but on one thing I was clear: I was going to put new voices between covers. (I would later start calling them “voices from elsewhere, even when the elsewhere is here.”) I couldn’t have been less interested in well known or famous writers. I was, that is, something of a reverse snob.

Nonetheless, one day that first fall André came into my office with the manuscript of Stud Terkel’s memoir, Talking to Myself, which was to be published the following spring. He asked me to read it because Studs — he claimed — wanted my reaction. A longtime Chicago radio personality, who had even hosted an early, unscripted TV show, “Studs’ Place,” set in a fictional bar (the “Cheers” of its era), he was well known indeed. The first book he and André had done together, Division Street: America, had broken into bestsellerdom and neither of them had ever looked back.

Studs didn’t know me from a hole in the wall, so I didn’t take the request seriously until André returned a few days later to ask whether I had read the manuscript. I hadn’t. He said, “Please do. Studs is waiting anxiously.” Anxiously? That was hard to imagine, but when your boss insists… so I went home, read it, and two days later let him know what I thought. (What could you think, given that Studs was fantastic at what he did?) Soon after, he put me on the phone with Studs to tell him just how good it was and make a few modest, last-minute suggestions.

So many years later, I still remember that unforgettable voice (possibly the last on Earth out of which a cigar emerged) saying something like, “Do you really mean it, Tom?” What I’ll specifically never forget was the quaver in it, the shiver that seemed like a caricature of fear. After all, he was the best-known author I’d ever talked to and, as a young man with enough doubts of my own, it had never crossed my mind that a successful writer might feel vulnerable when it came to his latest work or give a damn about the opinion of a total nobody. In a way, that moment taught me everything I needed to know about the essential vulnerability of the writer and, thanks to Studs, I never looked back.

For years, André, who was his editor, would call me in to take a final look at his oral histories. (It was like sending in the second team.) Only after I left Pantheon did I became Studs’ primary editor. It was the experience of a lifetime. Just to give you a little taste of the man, I’m including excerpts from the only letter of his I still have, typed by hand, filled with X’d out words, and further hand-corrected in pen. It came with the first batch of rough interviews for the final book we worked on together, an oral history of political activism aptly titled Hope Dies Last. By that time, Studs was in his early nineties and still a human dynamo. Maxwell Perkins, whom he mentions, was a famed editor who joined the venerable firm of Scribner’s wanting to publish vibrant young voices and ended up working with, among others, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and most famously the novelist Thomas Wolfe who simply couldn’t stop writing, which meant that his books involved marathon bouts of editing. Here, then, are the first two paragraphs of that letter in his telegraphese.

“Post-election day,” Studs began. “A hell of a time to write about hope… The ton of stuff — good and less than good. Since what you have is the raw stuff — I have already tossed aside about 20 [interviews] — I shall, of course, begin my cuts shortly after you receive this messy letter.

“You’ll be my Maxwell Perkins, though you don’t wear a hat, and I’m your Thomas Wolfe, though a foot and a half shorter than he was…”

And here’s how he ended: “I’m eagerly looking forward to your reactions when you get this bundle. Horrified [though] you may be by its bulk, remember you’re my Maxwell Perkins. If it works out, I’ll buy you a hat.”

What a guy (even if I never got that hat)! I always considered it appropriately Studsian that the book preceding Hope Dies Last was his oral history of death, Will the Circle Be Unbroken?: Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith. Studs himself died in 2008. Circle has just been reissued in paperback with a new Jane Gross introduction by the New Press, the publishing house that André, who died last December, set up after he was forced out of Pantheon by Sy Newhouse, the right-wing owner of its parent company, Random House.

Given the grim panorama of death these days — from beheadings to pandemics — and the hysteria accompanying it all, I thought it might be both a relief and a change of pace at TomDispatch to turn back to Studs’ oral history of death, which as its editor I can testify is moving and uncannily uplifting. That, of course, is not as odd as it sounds from the man who was the troubadour for the extraordinary ordinary American. Thanks to the kindness of his publisher, the New Press, I’ve chosen two interviews from that book which stayed in my mind these last 13 years: the first focuses on an impulse that may be among the hardest to understand and yet most moving to encounter, forgiveness; and the second, from this country’s medical front lines, centers on a subject that, unfortunately, is still all too timely: the trauma deaths of young Americans from gunshot wounds. This is the only book I ever remember editing while, in some cases, crying. Tom

“You Got Into My Heart Violently, But You’re There”

Trauma, Death, and Forgiveness on the Front Lines of American Life
By Studs Terkel

[The following is excerpted from the new paperback edition of Studs Terkel’s oral history of death, Will The Circle Be Unbroken?: Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith, with special thanks to his publisher, the New Press.]

“The Other Son”
Maurine Young

In contrast to her husband’s introspective nature, she is outgoing, a large-boned woman, overflowing with gusto and ebullience. She frequently laughs out loud.

I’m a forty-six-year-old woman of Jewish-Gentile descent — my father’s a Jew, my mother’s a Gentile. My parents divorced when I was young, and I was raised by my stepfather — raised Catholic. He was a truck driver. My younger brother, Mark, became a truck driver. I went to public school. But I went to the Catholic catechism every Wednesday. I did the confirmation and all that kind of stuff. I got close to age twelve, thirteen, and I began to see what I was saved from. I was saved from Hell. But what Catholicism wasn’t teaching me was what I was saved to. They didn’t tell me how to live with God and experience a taste of Heaven on Earth, now. So I began to pull away from the Church. It just didn’t meet my needs.

If I read my Bible I saw that it said very clearly to worship God, then why were people worshiping statues? To me that looked like idolatry. So, as a young teenager, I started asking questions. Then I began to wonder what is this all about? I know that there’s a God, and I know that He loves me, but what else is there? How do you live now? I lived in a very difficult, alcoholic home, and early in my teens began to experiment with drugs — do whatever I felt like doing. In the one sense, I had the Ten Commandments ingrained in me, so I knew what was right and wrong — but I didn’t really care about the consequences. I didn’t really understand the value of a God who loves me, and that because He loves me, I should act loving towards him, which means act loving towards everybody else. I was very, very selfish.

I had been working part-time jobs since I was fourteen. A couple of weeks after I graduated from high school, my dad said, “Get out of the backyard, sitting in your bikini, and get your butt downtown and find a job.” So I went downtown and found a secretarial position. I was seventeen. And then I moved out when I was eighteen, to live with my boyfriend. That didn’t work out. Moved back home and met Steve not that long afterwards, in March of 1975. We moved up here to Rogers Park and had a family. We had twins in May of 1977, Andrew Needham and Samuel Richard, born on different days — May 7 and May 8. And then in 1982, in August, we had Philip; and then in 1987, December, we had Clinton. I was working as a floral designer, part-time, in Skokie. Steve was tuning pianos.

Andrew went out to cash a check with his brother and didn’t come back. He was shot by a young man who had easy access to a handgun and who had graduated from high school the day before and was looking to move up in the gang that he was in, the Latin Kings. He shot Andrew, probably because Andrew didn’t back down with his mouth. He knew that gang members were idiots and didn’t mind telling them what he thought of them when they made signs at him. He was in our car.

When I got to the hospital and found out that he was gone, and I asked the boys what happened and they told me, I said, “Well, you know what? There’ll be no retaliation for this. I just want to make that clear.” Men usually want revenge; women, too, but men usually much quicker. Women will stew for a while. I knew that revenge was wrong, but I also knew that I hated what these kids had done and knew that they deserved to be punished. I pulled out some old journals from that time. These notebooks. Here’s an entry that I wrote July 13th of 1996. Andrew was murdered June 10th of 1996. It reads: “It’s been sixty days since Andrew left us. Forced out of his body by Mario and Roberto. Please, Lord, let justice be served. Plus, punish them. Let them not have a free life.” That’s how I felt. I did not want them to be free, and I was real glad that the police had seen what had happened.

I’m going to backtrack a tiny bit. My twins were three months old. I was sitting on the beach with them. Somebody came up to me and said, “Could we talk to you about Jesus?” And I said, “It’s a public park, it’s a free country, you can sit down.” So they started talking to me about Jesus. This lady turns to me and she says, “So how’s your life?” And her words shot into my chest like a sword. I’m thinking, Oh my God, what does she know? I had just had the twins. I was not coping. I was smoking massive amounts of marijuana. I was up twenty-four hours a day, not knowing how to keep these little babies on a schedule. I was fantasizing throwing one of them out the window. I was having what now I understand to be severe post-partum psychosis. I didn’t have any help. I was really just trying to hold on… So I began to tell this lady and her friends how poorly I was doing. She said, “Would you like to commit your life to Christ again?” And I said, “I really would. Because I realize I’m not doing very well by myself. Something is missing.” So I did that and I prayed that day. Since that day, I’ve been learning how to parent, and to let God love me, and to love and forgive others.

Nineteen years later, when this happened with Andrew being murdered, I said, “OK, I know who I’m following.” What would Jesus do? It was pretty clear. He says: Love your enemies — I consider these little guys my enemies that killed my son. Pray for those who use you, forgive as God has forgiven you. So I thought, OK, what does that mean? Looking back at another journal… this is from January of 1997. I wrote: “What are the obstacles to forgiveness? How can forgiveness free us? How can it free me? Well, first I needed to know that I must face my own pain and grieve. And not keep anger on, sort of as a suit of armor. Admit the wrong that was done to me and experience the rage. But be honest with God about my pain and why. Releasing my anger to him and pardoning the offender makes me feel vulnerable, even out of control. But what’s my choice? If I hold my anger, it will destroy me.” And then I also wrote, “It’s OK to be afraid of being hurt again.” So, obviously, the whole idea of forgiveness was there in the back of my mind the whole time, and I kept thinking: I want to kill them, I want to see them fry. But God says forgive… And I kept going back and forth thinking, How do you do this? Scratching my head. Then I realized I could make the choice and trust that the power to do it would be there. Because I know that my faith, which is just my yes, is the glue that holds God’s power to his promises. And He’s promised that He would do what I ask, He would do the right thing in my life. I’m going to have the faith and forgive and trust that He’s going to take care of it all. So I finally did that about July of 1997, about six months after what I just read to you. I forgave and wrote Mario in prison a letter. He was eighteen, my son was nineteen. I told him about my life. I just wanted him to know how I was raised, and that I had done plenty of things that needed forgiving and God forgave me. So how could I withhold forgiveness from him? I couldn’t. That I love him and God loves him and I forgave him.

I didn’t know that at the same time, he was writing me a letter. As I remember, he was begging forgiveness, saying how sorry he was, how he wished he could bring Andrew back, even trade places. And I believed his letter was sincere. But his letter was unnecessary for my forgiveness. I had been asking to see him.

It’s one thing to write to someone and say you forgive them — it’s another to physically touch them and say you forgive them. It would help me in my healing and him in his, I knew. I felt compelled to do it. I had been asking through his priest when was a good time. Mario kept saying, “I’m not ready. Mrs. Young is pushing too much. I’m not ready.” He was terrified. He thought I might hit him or something. He was not ready to face me. That was July of 1997. I didn’t get to see him until December 17th of 1998. So it took more than a year and a half before he was ready. And I waited. We did correspond. And then I went to visit him with Father Oldershaw, and a retired schoolteacher by the name of Arlene Bozack. She had been visiting him.

When we first got there, the assistant warden, who was Hispanic, was crying. He said, “Mrs. Young, why are you here?” I said, “Well, I’m here to offer forgiveness to the young man who killed my son.” And he said, “Why?” And I said, “Because I care about him, I love him. It’s the right thing to do. I want to do it in person.” He said, “In all my years, this is the first time I’ve ever seen this happen. I really commend what you’re doing.” He was this big, tough-looking Hispanic warden.

I see Mario for the first time. He couldn’t look at me. He had his head hanging down. They sat us around a small round table with four attached seats, told us where to sit. Everybody kept looking at me very suspiciously, like I was going to just jump on this kid and beat the hell out of him. Mario’s got his head hanging down, and all of a sudden he kind of looks, and he can’t make eye contact. I saw that his whole body was starting to shake. All four of us prayed. It was me, Father Oldershaw on my right, Mario was across from me, and Arlene Bozack was to his right.

I grabbed both Mario’s hands from across the table, and I looked at him in the eye, and I said, “I just want you to know that I’m glad to be here.” I knew I had to go first. He just shook his head. Slowly, but surely, the conversation started. Little chitchat, we all took turns talking. I wanted to know about his family and how they were doing. Because the shame that he brought on them — especially being an Hispanic family — that’s so important. And then the conversation changed a bit because I felt like, OK, it’s time for this little guy to hear what he’s done to us. The consequences of his actions. I began to tell him the difficulties that each of our family members was having. As I went through, person by person, saying, one young man’s suicidal, the other one can’t focus, or whatever the problems were for each of us, he listened. He held Arlene’s hand and he trembled and he wept, but he listened.

At some point in the conversation I said, “I love you like you’re my son, like you’re one of mine.” And I was like, “I can’t figure out how this happened!” [Laughs] I thought I was nuts. I didn’t tell him that. I was thinking, I gotta be crazy. So I said, “I love you like you’re my own son. You got into my heart violently, but you’re there. So this has to be a miracle. God did this. Because I didn’t do this. But, as a son, you have responsibilities to know what’s going on and to pray for us, to communicate with us regularly. You’re part of the family now.” Then he pulled out his Bible. I said, “Mario, there’s a Scripture that meant a lot to me and helped me take this step. I wanted to tell you what it is. It’s in Romans, in the twelfth chapter. It says, ‘Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.’” I said, “My reaching out and extending and forgiving was my responsibility, and it didn’t depend on whether or not you accepted that forgiveness. I had to do that.” It also says, “Never take your own revenge, but leave room for the wrath of God.” Then I said what was really important was when I got to verse 21. It says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” I said, “Mario, that really meant a lot to me. Because I wanted to win. I did not want this evil thing that you and Roberto did to us to win. I wanted good to win. So that’s why I forgave you and that’s why I love you.”

He was speechless. He looked at me like I had two heads. [She roars with laughter.] He stared at me like: I don’t know what she’s talking about — she’s from another planet. It wasn’t quite sinking in. But he was listening. I heard later that he was confused and didn’t understand it, but it was beginning to make sense. He was actually holding his Bible open to this spot, looking at it over and over and over again. We talked, and then I got to hold him. That was really, really special. Here’s another reason I thought I was crazy: I’m sitting across this little table from him, and it’s all I can do to stay in my seat. I’m thinking: What’s wrong with me? Am I having a nervous breakdown? Everything in me wanted to leap over the table, grab hold of this kid, and rock him like a baby, just hold him. The urge was so overwhelming. The compulsion was so overwhelming, I was afraid that if I couldn’t keep control, I’d be in really big trouble with the guards and the warden. So I resisted that urge the whole time.

On the way back home, I was thinking about it, and then I talked to Arlene and Father Oldershaw. I said, “I’ve got it! I know what was happening. I was getting a taste in my body of how much God loves us. He loves us so much that He wants to leap over the table, grab hold of us, and just rock us because we’re his children.” That love, that forgiveness — I got a taste of what it must have been like for Jesus when he was here and walked the Earth among people that he loved so desperately, so wonderfully. I got a taste of it!

As time went on and we kept corresponding, I did go see him again there, and it was good. I really began to see him maturing, through his letters and through visiting him. I was training him, I was mentoring him — to help him to grow up, to help him in his spiritual walk. His letters changed. They became clearer, he became more willing to take total responsibility. I saw no excuses anymore, I saw a person that was squarely saying: This is where I am and this is where I should be, and God’s changing me right here, and probably being here saved my life. He’s working as a chaplain’s assistant now… [Sighs]… I’m convinced that if I did not forgive and I held on to my anger, that I probably would have become mentally ill. Maybe killed myself, maybe hurt someone else. I felt like God’s hand was on me and he was squashing me into a pancake: You gotta do this — this is the right thing.

I knew that there were great things ahead, although they terrified me, the thought of going out into new territory. Because, I’ll tell ya, I was not a very forgiving person most of my life. I used to hold things against whoever did what to me. It really took the murder of my son and the forgiving of his killer to teach me how to forgive everybody around me. I began to realize: My husband’s not going to be Mr. Perfect. My parents haven’t been perfect parents. My children are not perfect children. My friends are going to let me down. That’s a given. Because they’re human, like I am. There is one perfect, that is God, and He loves me. And that’s good enough for me. So, by forgiving them, like I did Mario, it freed me to really love. My love was, like, stopped up in a bottle or something. It came out in little bits. But for the most part, it was stopped up until I forgave this kid. And then it was like whoosh — this is what I’ve been missing my whole life. [Belly laugh]

I saw Mario just this last month. I’ve met his mom and his dad. They don’t speak any English, but usually one of his sisters is there to interpret. Most of the time, all his mother can do is hold on to me and cry. She’s a very sweet person.

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Did warn you about being very moved!

The golden age of spying; or whistleblowing?

Maybe an open debate is the most important aspect of this important topic – the one about national security.

I am frequently a republisher of essays that are presented over on TomDispatch, as regulars of this place know well.  As the TD ‘About’ page explains, in part and my emphasis,:

In December 2002, it gained its name, became a project of The Nation Institute, and went online as “a regular antidote to the mainstream media.

No bad thing as the ‘media’ is a vast machine and it’s long been difficult, nay impossible, to separate fact from fiction.  Perhaps, better expressed as impossible to separate fact from agenda!

TD’s ‘About’ page goes on to add, and again my emphasis:

Tomdispatch is intended to introduce readers to voices and perspectives from elsewhere (even when the elsewhere is here). Its mission is to connect some of the global dots regularly left unconnected by the mainstream media and to offer a clearer sense of how this imperial globe of ours actually works.

Stay with that last thought, the one about having a clearer sense of how this imperial globe works, and I am assuming Tom Engelhardt has in mind the USA when he uses the word “imperial”,  for both today and tomorrow.  Why? Because in this particular instance I’m not sure that I have ended up with a clearer sense about how the security apparatus works across the USA and much of the rest of the ‘Western world’.  I want to explore this very important topic over two days.

Back to TomDispatch.

On the 19th October, Tom published a joint essay, or TomGram as he calls it, with Laura Poitras about her film Citizenfour.  This film is about Edward Snowden. The TomGram was called: Laura Poitras and Tom Engelhardt, The Snowden Reboot.

Here is the trailer to the film.

Next to the TomGram.  But first a note about hyperlinks.  There are many links in the TomGram, many of which offer great insight into the background to the essay.  However, there are too many to carry across to my republication so, please, do go across to TomDispatch if you wish to pursue a link or two.

Finally, a thank you to both Tom and Laura for giving me permission to republish.

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Tomgram: Laura Poitras and Tom Engelhardt, The Snowden Reboot

Posted by Laura Poitras and Tom Engelhardt at 5:01pm, October 19, 2014.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Call me moved. I recently went to the premiere of Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’s engrossing new film on Edward Snowden, at the New York Film Festival. The breaking news at film’s end: as speculation had it this summer, there is indeed at least one new, post-Snowden whistleblower who has come forward from somewhere inside the U.S. intelligence world with information about a watchlist (that includes Poitras) with “more than 1.2 million names” on it and on the American drone assassination program.

Here’s what moved me, however. My new book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World, ends with a “Letter to an Unknown Whistleblower,” whose first lines are: “I don’t know who you are or what you do or how old you may be. I just know that you exist somewhere in our future as surely as does tomorrow or next year… And how exactly do I know this? Because despite our striking inability to predict the future, it’s a no-brainer that the national security state is already building you into its labyrinthine systems.” And now, of course, such a whistleblower is officially here and no matter how fiercely the government may set out after whistleblowers, there will be more. It’s unstoppable, in part thanks to figures like Poitras, who is the subject of today’s TomDispatch interview. Tom]

Edward Snowden and the Golden Age of Spying

A TomDispatch Interview With Laura Poitras

Here’s a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! stat from our new age of national security. How many Americans have security clearances? The answer: 5.1 million, a figure that reflects the explosive growth of the national security state in the post-9/11 era. Imagine the kind of system needed just to vet that many people for access to our secret world (to the tune of billions of dollars). We’re talking here about the total population of Norway and significantly more people than you can find in Costa Rica, Ireland, or New Zealand. And yet it’s only about 1.6% of the American population, while on ever more matters, the unvetted 98.4% of us are meant to be left in the dark.

For our own safety, of course. That goes without saying.

All of this offers a new definition of democracy in which we, the people, are to know only what the national security state cares to tell us. Under this system, ignorance is the necessary, legally enforced prerequisite for feeling protected. In this sense, it is telling that the only crime for which those inside the national security state can be held accountable in post-9/11 Washington is not potential perjury before Congress, or the destruction of evidence of a crime, or torture, or kidnapping, or assassination, or the deaths of prisoners in an extralegal prison system, but whistleblowing; that is, telling the American people something about what their government is actually doing. And that crime, and only that crime, has been prosecuted to the full extent of the law (and beyond) with a vigor unmatched in American history. To offer a single example, the only American to go to jail for the CIA’s Bush-era torture program was John Kiriakou, a CIA whistleblower who revealed the name of an agent involved in the program to a reporter.

In these years, as power drained from Congress, an increasingly imperial White House has launched various wars (redefined by its lawyers as anything but), as well as a global assassination campaign in which the White House has its own “kill list” and the president himself decides on global hits. Then, without regard for national sovereignty or the fact that someone is an American citizen (and upon the secret invocation of legal mumbo-jumbo), the drones are sent off to do the necessary killing.

And yet that doesn’t mean that we, the people, know nothing. Against increasing odds, there has been some fine reporting in the mainstream media by the likes of James Risen and Barton Gellman on the security state’s post-legal activities and above all, despite the Obama administration’s regular use of the World War I era Espionage Act, whistleblowers have stepped forward from within the government to offer us sometimes staggering amounts of information about the system that has been set up in our name but without our knowledge.

Among them, one young man, whose name is now known worldwide, stands out. In June of last year, thanks to journalist Glenn Greenwald and filmmaker Laura Poitras, Edward Snowden, a contractor for the NSA and previously the CIA, stepped into our lives from a hotel room in Hong Kong. With a treasure trove of documents that are still being released, he changed the way just about all of us view our world. He has been charged under the Espionage Act. If indeed he was a “spy,” then the spying he did was for us, for the American people and for the world. What he revealed to a stunned planet was a global surveillance state whose reach and ambitions were unique, a system based on a single premise: that privacy was no more and that no one was, in theory (and to a remarkable extent in practice), unsurveillable.

Its builders imagined only one exemption: themselves. This was undoubtedly at least part of the reason why, when Snowden let us peek in on them, they reacted with such over-the-top venom. Whatever they felt at a policy level, it’s clear that they also felt violated, something that, as far as we can tell, left them with no empathy whatsoever for the rest of us. One thing that Snowden proved, however, was that the system they built was ready-made for blowback.

Sixteen months after his NSA documents began to be released by the Guardian and the Washington Post, I think it may be possible to speak of the Snowden Era. And now, a remarkable new film, Citizenfour, which had its premiere at the New York Film Festival on October 10th and will open in select theaters nationwide on October 24th, offers us a window into just how it all happened. It is already being mentioned as a possible Oscar winner.

Director Laura Poitras, like reporter Glenn Greenwald, is now known almost as widely as Snowden himself, for helping facilitate his entry into the world. Her new film, the last in a trilogy she’s completed (the previous two being My Country, My Country on the Iraq War and The Oath on Guantanamo), takes you back to June 2013 and locks you in that Hong Kong hotel room with Snowden, Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill of the Guardian, and Poitras herself for eight days that changed the world. It’s a riveting, surprisingly unclaustrophic, and unforgettable experience.

Before that moment, we were quite literally in the dark. After it, we have a better sense, at least, of the nature of the darkness that envelops us. Having seen her film in a packed house at the New York Film Festival, I sat down with Poitras in a tiny conference room at the Loews Regency Hotel in New York City to discuss just how our world has changed and her part in it.

Tom Engelhardt: Could you start by laying out briefly what you think we’ve learned from Edward Snowden about how our world really works?

Laura Poitras: The most striking thing Snowden has revealed is the depth of what the NSA and the Five Eyes countries [Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Great Britain, and the U.S.] are doing, their hunger for all data, for total bulk dragnet surveillance where they try to collect all communications and do it all sorts of different ways. Their ethos is “collect it all.” I worked on a story with Jim Risen of the New York Times about a document — a four-year plan for signals intelligence — in which they describe the era as being “the golden age of signals intelligence.” For them, that’s what the Internet is: the basis for a golden age to spy on everyone.

This focus on bulk, dragnet, suspicionless surveillance of the planet is certainly what’s most staggering. There were many programs that did that. In addition, you have both the NSA and the GCHQ [British intelligence] doing things like targeting engineers at telecoms. There was an article published at The Intercept that cited an NSA document Snowden provided, part of which was titled “I Hunt Sysadmins” [systems administrators]. They try to find the custodians of information, the people who are the gateway to customer data, and target them. So there’s this passive collection of everything, and then things that they can’t get that way, they go after in other ways.

I think one of the most shocking things is how little our elected officials knew about what the NSA was doing. Congress is learning from the reporting and that’s staggering. Snowden and [former NSA employee] William Binney, who’s also in the film as a whistleblower from a different generation, are technical people who understand the dangers. We laypeople may have some understanding of these technologies, but they really grasp the dangers of how they can be used. One of the most frightening things, I think, is the capacity for retroactive searching, so you can go back in time and trace who someone is in contact with and where they’ve been. Certainly, when it comes to my profession as a journalist, that allows the government to trace what you’re reporting, who you’re talking to, and where you’ve been. So no matter whether or not I have a commitment to protect my sources, the government may still have information that might allow them to identify whom I’m talking to.

TE: To ask the same question another way, what would the world be like without Edward Snowden? After all, it seems to me that, in some sense, we are now in the Snowden era.

LP: I agree that Snowden has presented us with choices on how we want to move forward into the future. We’re at a crossroads and we still don’t quite know which path we’re going to take. Without Snowden, just about everyone would still be in the dark about the amount of information the government is collecting. I think that Snowden has changed consciousness about the dangers of surveillance. We see lawyers who take their phones out of meetings now. People are starting to understand that the devices we carry with us reveal our location, who we’re talking to, and all kinds of other information. So you have a genuine shift of consciousness post the Snowden revelations.

TE: There’s clearly been no evidence of a shift in governmental consciousness, though.

LP: Those who are experts in the fields of surveillance, privacy, and technology say that there need to be two tracks: a policy track and a technology track. The technology track is encryption. It works and if you want privacy, then you should use it. We’ve already seen shifts happening in some of the big companies — Google, Apple — that now understand how vulnerable their customer data is, and that if it’s vulnerable, then their business is, too, and so you see a beefing up of encryption technologies. At the same time, no programs have been dismantled at the governmental level, despite international pressure.

TE: In Citizenfour, we spend what must be an hour essentially locked in a room in a Hong Kong hotel with Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, Ewan MacAskill, and you, and it’s riveting. Snowden is almost preternaturally prepossessing and self-possessed. I think of a novelist whose dream character just walks into his or her head. It must have been like that with you and Snowden. But what if he’d been a graying guy with the same documents and far less intelligent things to say about them? In other words, how exactly did who he was make your movie and remake our world?

LP: Those are two questions. One is: What was my initial experience? The other: How do I think it impacted the movie? We’ve been editing it and showing it to small groups, and I had no doubt that he’s articulate and genuine on screen. But to see him in a full room [at the New York Film Festival premiere on the night of October 10th], I’m like, wow! He really commands the screen! And I experienced the film in a new way with a packed house.

TE: But how did you experience him the first time yourself? I mean you didn’t know who you were going to meet, right?

LP: So I was in correspondence with an anonymous source for about five months and in the process of developing a dialogue you build ideas, of course, about who that person might be. My idea was that he was in his late forties, early fifties. I figured he must be Internet generation because he was super tech-savvy, but I thought that, given the level of access and information he was able to discuss, he had to be older. And so my first experience was that I had to do a reboot of my expectations. Like fantastic, great, he’s young and charismatic and I was like wow, this is so disorienting, I have to reboot. In retrospect, I can see that it’s really powerful that somebody so smart, so young, and with so much to lose risked so much.

He was so at peace with the choice he had made and knowing that the consequences could mean the end of his life and that this was still the right decision. He believed in it, and whatever the consequences, he was willing to accept them. To meet somebody who has made those kinds of decisions is extraordinary. And to be able to document that and also how Glenn [Greenwald] stepped in and pushed for this reporting to happen in an aggressive way changed the narrative. Because Glenn and I come at it from an outsider’s perspective, the narrative unfolded in a way that nobody quite knew how to respond to. That’s why I think the government was initially on its heels. You know, it’s not everyday that a whistleblower is actually willing to be identified.

TE: My guess is that Snowden has given us the feeling that we now grasp the nature of the global surveillance state that is watching us, but I always think to myself, well, he was just one guy coming out of one of 17 interlocked intelligence outfits. Given the remarkable way your film ends — the punch line, you might say — with another source or sources coming forward from somewhere inside that world to reveal, among other things, information about the enormous watchlist that you yourself are on, I’m curious: What do you think is still to be known? I suspect that if whistleblowers were to emerge from the top five or six agencies, the CIA, the DIA, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, and so on, with similar documentation to Snowden’s, we would simply be staggered by the system that’s been created in our name.

LP: I can’t speculate on what we don’t know, but I think you’re right in terms of the scale and scope of things and the need for that information to be made public. I mean, just consider the CIA and its effort to suppress the Senate’s review of its torture program. Take in the fact that we live in a country that a) legalized torture and b) where no one was ever held to account for it, and now the government’s internal look at what happened is being suppressed by the CIA. That’s a frightening landscape to be in.

In terms of sources coming forward, I really reject this idea of talking about one, two, three sources. There are many sources that have informed the reporting we’ve done and I think that Americans owe them a debt of gratitude for taking the risk they do. From a personal perspective, because I’m on a watchlist and went through years of trying to find out why, of having the government refuse to confirm or deny the very existence of such a list, it’s so meaningful to have its existence brought into the open so that the public knows there is a watchlist, and so that the courts can now address the legality of it. I mean, the person who revealed this has done a huge public service and I’m personally thankful.

TE: You’re referring to the unknown leaker who’s mentioned visually and elliptically at the end of your movie and who revealed that the major watchlist you’re on has more than 1.2 million names on it. In that context, what’s it like to travel as Laura Poitras today? How do you embody the new national security state?

LP: In 2012, I was ready to edit and I chose to leave the U.S. because I didn’t feel I could protect my source footage when I crossed the U.S. border. The decision was based on six years of being stopped and questioned every time I returned to the United States. And I just did the math and realized that the risks were too high to edit in the U.S., so I started working in Berlin in 2012. And then, in January 2013, I got the first email from Snowden.

TE: So you were protecting…

LP: …other footage. I had been filming with NSA whistleblower William Binney, with Julian Assange, with Jacob Appelbaum of the Tor Project, people who have also been targeted by the U.S., and I felt that this material I had was not safe. I was put on a watchlist in 2006. I was detained and questioned at the border returning to the U.S. probably around 40 times. If I counted domestic stops and every time I was stopped at European transit points, you’re probably getting closer to 80 to 100 times. It became a regular thing, being asked where I’d been and who I’d met with. I found myself caught up in a system you can’t ever seem to get out of, this Kafkaesque watchlist that the U.S. doesn’t even acknowledge.

TE: Were you stopped this time coming in?

LP: I was not. The detentions stopped in 2012 after a pretty extraordinary incident.

I was coming back in through Newark Airport and I was stopped. I took out my notebook because I always take notes on what time I’m stopped and who the agents are and stuff like that. This time, they threatened to handcuff me for taking notes. They said, “Put the pen down!” They claimed my pen could be a weapon and hurt someone.

“Put the pen down! The pen is dangerous!” And I’m like, you’re not… you’ve got to be crazy. Several people yelled at me every time I moved my pen down to take notes as if it were a knife. After that, I decided this has gotten crazy, I’d better do something and I called Glenn. He wrote a piece about my experiences. In response to his article, they actually backed off.

TE: Snowden has told us a lot about the global surveillance structure that’s been built. We know a lot less about what they are doing with all this information. I’m struck at how poorly they’ve been able to use such information in, for example, their war on terror. I mean, they always seem to be a step behind in the Middle East — not just behind events but behind what I think someone using purely open source information could tell them. This I find startling. What sense do you have of what they’re doing with the reams, the yottabytes, of data they’re pulling in?

LP: Snowden and many other people, including Bill Binney, have said that this mentality — of trying to suck up everything they can — has left them drowning in information and so they miss what would be considered more obvious leads. In the end, the system they’ve created doesn’t lead to what they describe as their goal, which is security, because they have too much information to process.

I don’t quite know how to fully understand it. I think about this a lot because I made a film about the Iraq War and one about Guantanamo. From my perspective, in response to the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. took a small, very radical group of terrorists and engaged in activities that have created two generations of anti-American sentiment motivated by things like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. Instead of figuring out a way to respond to a small group of people, we’ve created generations of people who are really angry and hate us. And then I think, if the goal is security, how do these two things align, because there are more people who hate the United States right now, more people intent on doing us harm? So either the goal that they proclaim is not the goal or they’re just unable to come to terms with the fact that we’ve made huge mistakes in how we’ve responded.

TE: I’m struck by the fact that failure has, in its own way, been a launching pad for success. I mean, the building of an unparallelled intelligence apparatus and the greatest explosion of intelligence gathering in history came out of the 9/11 failure. Nobody was held accountable, nobody was punished, nobody was demoted or anything, and every similar failure, including the one on the White House lawn recently, simply leads to the bolstering of the system.

LP: So how do you understand that?

TE: I don’t think that these are people who are thinking: we need to fail to succeed. I’m not conspiratorial in that way, but I do think that, strangely, failure has built the system and I find that odd. More than that I don’t know.

LP: I don’t disagree. The fact that the CIA knew that two of the 9/11 hijackers were entering the United States and didn’t notify the FBI and that nobody lost their job is shocking. Instead, we occupied Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11. I mean, how did those choices get made?

Laura Poitras is a documentary filmmaker, journalist, and artist. She has just finished Citizenfour, the third in a trilogy of films about post-9/11 America that includes My Country, My Country, nominated for an Academy Award, and The Oath, which received two Emmy nominations. In June 2013, she traveled to Hong Kong with Glenn Greenwald to interview Edward Snowden and made history. She has reported on Snowden’s disclosures about the NSA for a variety of news outlets, including the Guardian, Der Spiegel, and the New York Times. Her NSA reporting received a George Polk award for National Security Reporting and the Henri Nannen Prize for Services to Press Freedom.

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His new book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World (Haymarket Books), has just been published.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me.

Copyright 2014 Laura Poitras and Tom Engelhardt.

ooOOoo

On first reading the TomGram I found myself nodding vigorously, metaphorically speaking, with the whole thrust of the essay.

Then what appeared to be small uncertainties started appearing in my mind.

Those will be the subject of tomorrow’s post.