With a Whimper

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The UN report on the state of biodiversity offers a bleak assessment of nature. Species are going extinct at a rate never before recorded in human history. And almost all of it is caused by human activity. Climate change is taking its toll, of course, but the destruction of forests, growing urban sprawl and poor land use practices are all adding significantly to the devastation.

Many scientists now call the current era the Anthropocene (when man dominates the environment) and predict it may end with an extinction event equivalent to the five major events that wiped out more than 75% of species at various times in the past. The last came when an asteroid came down in the Yucatan and tipped the scales against the dinosaurs but there were similar catastrophes in the past.

The difference, of course, were those were caused by random accidents – this one seems deliberate.

One might think that it is a silly animal that fouls its own nest but humans have been doing it for, well, forever. Tribes of humans were generally nomadic because they had wiped out the local wildlife or depleted the soil in slash and burn farming. But it didn’t matter. Until 10,000 years ago, there weren’t enough humans on the planet to do real damage (though ask the giant sloths about that). Then came large-scale agriculture and it’s all been downhill since then. Though those early cities were pikers compared to what we’ve accomplished in the last two hundred years.

You would think we might be prepared to learn from history and some of us have. There is certainly plenty of evidence about what happens when humans think only in the present tense, ignoring history while pretending the future will take care of itself.

But do we listen? Sometimes. Do we change? Less often. When even the slightest effort to encourage better behavior (a modest carbon tax for example) is met with howls of rage from both left and right, you know there is not much hope for the human race.

It doesn’t help that a significant portion of the population are eagerly awaiting the end of the world and their (but not your) resurrection into the kingdom of heaven—no matter what version of the heaven they happen to hold dear. If you believe the end days are coming—as fundamentalists of various sects seem to hold true—what difference if the world burns and the birds fall from the sky? God’s plan and all that self congratulatory nonsense.

Then there is the “I’m alright, Jack” crowd who seem to believe that if they accumulate enough wealth, they and their descendants will somehow thrive in a devastated world. These are the same jackasses that believed that if they dug their bunkers deep enough, they would survive an all-out nuclear war. Sometimes I’d like to flash forward a couple hundred years and ask the dregs of the superrich how that worked out for them—if they haven’t already been eaten by their poorer cousins.

The worst are those who read these pronouncements of doom and acknowledge their truth, then throw up their hands and admit defeat. Nothing I can do personally so eat, drink and be merry… I’ve got nothing against any of those activities but I’m quite capable of multi-tasking. I can personally reduce my carbon (and equally important plastic and toxic waste) footprint while paying others to do more and voting in governments with the will to make all of us do better.

In any case it’s not the end of the world. Life has been almost wiped out on 5 previous occasions but here we are, in a world (still) filled with life. A million years from now there will still be life—different perhaps, but here nonetheless—while all the works of man from our cathedrals to our SUVs, from our arts to our imaginary friends in heaven will be reduced to a thin layer of plastic infused sediment for future intelligent beings, if new ones should arise, to ponder over.

On that hopeful note, this has been slightly more than ten minutes by Hayden Trenholm.

Photo by Dominik Vanyi on Unsplash

Tolerating Evil

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How much tolerance do you have for evil? Most of us like to think we have very little and, on one level, that may be true. As long as we are fairly certain that what we are considering is truly evil and as long as we feel we can actually do something about it, our tolerance is pretty low. Damn right I would step up to stop Hitler! But what about Goering? Some nameless Captain in the SS? How about the skinhead next door? Would you slap down the well-dressed and well-spoken head of a neo-Nazi or alt-right group?

Probably – if you didn’t think you would get stabbed.

Still, actually figuring out what is evil is the hard part. It’s easy in retrospect. Obviously whoever lost the fight (i.e., the Nazis, the slaveholders) was evil. Or, where there is no clear winner or loser, we can all agree that evil was done – though sometimes we can’t quite figure out by whom.

But that’s retrospectively, right? In the late 1930s, there were plenty of people—including the former king of England—that thought Hitler wasn’t a bad sort, if a little hysterical. At first, Idi Amin had his supporters and, given that he lived out his life in comfortable exile, continued to have them after he was deposed. Alt-right guys probably think they are doing the proper thing—if only the 99% of people who don’t support their agenda could see it.

They say that all that is needed for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing. But that, of course, presumes you have the capital T truth about what is good. Missionaries that wound up destroying indigenous cultures and supporting the slave trade justified themselves by saying they were bringing salvation to the heathens. Communists who instituted the Cultural Revolution in China surely did it to bring about the glorious freedom of pure socialism.

But let’s bring it down to some simple things. If you see a man hitting his spouse or a mother wailing away on their child, would you personally intervene? Would you call the cops? Would you say: It’s a private manner?

I once witnessed a mugging. One of the muggers (they were all pretty young but there were five of them) showed me a knife. I decided not to do anything except watch it unfold. I had time to decide that, if no one got hurt, I would let things unfold. It was only money, right? Afterwards I realized that waiting until after the victim was stabbed would have been too late (no one got stabbed by the way). I was furious at myself but would I do any different today? I hope so but I’m not sure. I’m getting old but I’m not quite ready to die.

I see a lot of hate on Facebook – almost as much of it from the left (whose agenda I largely agree with) as from the right (whom I find hard to bear). Occasionally, I say something about it but I find it a useless expenditure of time and emotional energy. I’ve come to understand that a small percentage of people you meet are assholes (most don’t come close to qualifying and if you think they do, you should take a long hard look in the mirror) and that an even smaller percentage are irredeemable and dangerous assholes. I can only hope someone steps up to stop them before they actually hurt people. But it probably won’t be me.

Not much fun to admit but, I suppose, admitting weakness is the first step to overcoming it.

And that’s ten minutes.

Purpose

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“A life without purpose is like the life of a dog.” I’m not sure who first said this. Me, maybe. Don’t get me wrong; a dog’s life might not be so bad. You sleep until someone – or your stomach – wakes you. You eat whatever is available (though it may well make you sick) and you hump whatever you can. Best of all, you always know where you fit in – alpha dog, beta dog, gamma dog.

No alarm clocks, no going to the office, no worries about what is right or wrong. Nothing to do but live in the moment. A great life. If you are a dog.

Humans are not so lucky. We are aware of our own death from an early age. We are prompted by religion, politics, economics and family to do something. Get a job or prepare for death. Be like Jesus or Buddha.

Yet, most of us go through life without any real sense of why we are here and what we are supposed to do in our brief span upon the earth. As noted, there are plenty who are willing to tell you, willing to take the answer out of your hands and mind.

Some tell us to practice mindfulness – which is to be aware of the forces, internal and external that act on us and to focus fully on the present. A bit like dogs, I suppose. The proponents have appropriated aspects of Buddhism (mostly stripping it off its spiritual elements) to create a ‘meditative practice.’ You can take weekend courses or go to summer camp to learn it. Those that love it love it a lot. Those who don’t suggest it might cause psychotic episodes.

But if it lowers your stress and reduces the chances of you beating your kids when they annoy you, I say meditate away. Even if all that focus on the self seems a little – well, selfish.

Purpose isn’t about you. Purpose is about what you do in and with the world. Some people discover that early on; realize that it is possible to make the world a better place through concerted and focused action. Often we can only make change in groups but some people express their purpose in small ways – helping neighbours or supporting candidates who are motivated by hope and charity rather than fear and anger.

Because of course a purpose-filled life is not much good if your purposes are self-aggrandizement and the oppression of others. But you know that isn’t what I mean.

It’s important to remember one thing: you can never fail when you lead a purpose-filled life. The meaning comes from the striving not in reaching the goal. If your purpose is to end world poverty, you are apt to end your life in failure – unless you accept small victories for exactly that.

I like to summarize it by saying you should always strive to live your values. Whenever you do something that is likely to affect your family, friends, neighbourhood, community, country, world, you can ask: is this consistent with my most deeply held and cherished beliefs.  This does not mean you will always do good – some beliefs shouldn’t be actualized – but it does mean you will always do something.

But of course, first you have to know what your values are. The good news is that, unlike a dog, it is something you can actually do.

And that’s ten minutes.

Duffy Redux

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The final arguments of the Senator Mike Duffy trial are being made this week; this will be of limited interest to American readers as none of your Senators have ever had moral failings let alone committed a crime, right?

Two weeks have been scheduled but, since the judge already asked for and received written submissions, it will likely be wrapped up fairly quickly. It seems the prosecution has already given up on the most serious charges, that of taking a bribe. Since the person who offered the bribe, Nigel Wright, was never charged with anything it is hard to imagine how the person who received it could be guilty.

Unlike certain sex acts, bribery is not a solitary occupation.

The next most serious charges are fraud and breach of trust. The fraud one is tricky – it requires that the Senator willfully and knowingly tried to defraud the government. With respect to his disputed – and since repaid with the Wright cheque – housing allowance one might accept that Senator Duffy was actually confused. He was appointed to sit as the Senator for Prince Edward Island, despite, he claims, telling the PM that he lived in Ottawa. The Prime Minister recommended him and the Governor-General, that is the Crown, appointed him. They must have thought he lived in PEI or that his residency was established somehow by the appointment.

Given that the money was repaid – as you would do if you made an honest mistake rather than a deliberate criminal act – it seems less that 50-50 that the Crown (yeah, the same one that appointed him) is going to win on this one.

The dodgy contracts and travel for party business may be the best bet for the prosecution. It seem likely that Mr. Duffy knew he was trying to pay for things that were definitely outside the purview of Senate business and set up a shell to cover these questionable expenses. The travel for political purposes is a little trickier since there was no doubt why Duffy had been appointed to the Senate in the first place – to shill for the Conservative party. No one in Ottawa thought it was for his public policy acumen so why should Duffy?

The big question is what happens if Duffy is convicted of any charges (and there is a slim chance that he might get off scot-free). He might get probation or even a conditional discharge, neither of which might trigger an expulsion from the Senate. One might think an honourable man would resign in those circumstances but there is a considerable difference between being called Honourable and being such.

That will leave it up to the Senators themselves. The rules permit the Red chamber to suspend (they already did this, remember) or even expel a Senator. But Pamela Wallin, who was suspended at the same time as Duffy and Brazeau but was never charged with a crime, is back in her seat and collecting her salary. None of her colleagues have said a thing about that. Would they – and here I mean the Conservative majority – be willing to further tarnish the legacy of the former Prime Minister by having this story dragged through the papers again? It will be fascinating to watch if it comes to that.

But that’s ten minutes.

 

Faith, Hope and Love

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One of my favorite Christmas songs is “Boy from the Woods.” It’s not particularly religious (God is mentioned but Jesus isn’t) but it is moral and describes the exact kind of life that a secular humanist strives to live. It is based on those traditional values of faith, hope and love.

Faith, of course, means something quite different to an atheist than it does to someone who is religious. I don’t place my faith in a higher power; I undertake something much more difficult, I put my faith in my fellow man. I honestly believe (for those of you who wonder what atheists believe) that people are capable of great good. This, despite the evidence that they are also capable of great evil, is what sustains me and makes it possible for me to get up and face the day. It is clear to me that given the chance, most people will choose to do the right thing rather than the wrong one – not because of promise of reward or fear of punishment – but because it is part of fundamental nature to be altruistic. This is not blind selflessness. Rather it is something evolution has created as an advantage for creatures who cannot survive alone, outside of social situations. You may point out the occasional loner or hermit but I can tell you they would never have gotten out of their crib if not for the multi-year support of a social construct.

So faith is an important part of my daily life – but no gods are required. Simply civilization and human progress – something we continue to make despite the best efforts of certain politicians and religious leaders to prevent it.

Hope is essential to our on-going existence. This becomes increasingly clear to me as I grow older. It seems that not a day goes by without some further bad news – not the kind that is broadcast on the TV but the personal kind, of friends who have sickened or died, relatives who have fallen on hard times, businesses that have failed. Life is filled with bad news and bad news has a way of impacting and weighing on you in ways that good news doesn’t seem to do. Hope is what we use to shed those burdens – hope that tomorrow will be a better day. That a friend will recover or at least hold on long enough so you can be together one more time – or ten. Hope is the thing that makes us look at children and think – maybe they can solve the problems we failed to get around to (or created). Sometimes it is hard to be optimistic – the glass seems to be draining fast – but what other choice do we have? The future is unknowable but I suspect that our attitude towards it will help shape it.

And finally there is love. It does triumph over fear and hate. Sometimes we need to be reminded of that. A little hug at the right moment is restorative. Putting your hand in your pocket to feed someone who is hungry may restore their faith and hope. And faith and hope doubled can’t be a bad thing, right?

Faith, hope and love. You know you have it in you. Just look at your moral compass and it will show you the way.

And that’s ten minutes.

Climate Tinkering

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Technology has been and will be a critical part of any climate change solution. If we are to stop emitting large amounts of carbon into the air, we need to stop burning fossil fuels and start using alternative sources of energy. We could simply stop consuming as much, I suppose, and live a simpler life. That’s fine for me, I already have been lifted into relative prosperity but I for one am not prepared to condemn a billion people to remain in poverty. Energy is related to economic prosperity. Energy efficiency and conservation are good practices but in a still growing world, they don’t address development issues.

Besides, people seldom pay enough attention to exhortations to ‘be good and sacrifice your interests’ to make a real difference. Not to mention the rebound effect.

A lot of progress has been made. Thanks to the US government’s support of alternative energy programs, the commercial price of solar power is now competitive with any other alternative, including coal and oil. Natural gas still has an advantage and for a while that’s okay. Natural gas is cleaner than other fossil fuels but even it has to go within the next decade if we are to achieve our climate goals. Environmentalists may need to choose between fracking and bitumen in the short term.

We have also made progress with biofuels and wind power but they have their own problems. Ethanol from corn takes almost as much energy to produce as it provides for vehicles – and all that energy comes from fossil fuels. And it creates other environmental problems. Ethanol or methane from other sources are better. Bio-fuels, of course, release carbon, as well, but that carbon was recently taken out of the atmosphere by growing the product: a presumably virtuous cycle. Still, even these sources have their issues – requiring some oil and gas energy and lots of water. But hope is on the horizon from third generation ethanol production from cellulose or from fast growing pond scum (I should warn you – such scum has been genetically modified).

What about nuclear power? We should keep what we have but the likelihood of being able to build more plants is low, given the successful (if often misguided) campaign against it. Besides, new plants – if we started today – wouldn’t be commissioned for 12-15 years. As for fusion, it is ten years away and always will be.

But what if all our efforts aren’t enough? What if we keep putting carbon in the air at a slower rate but faster than we can take it out through natural carbon sinks? Then we still have a problem. And given the likelihood that we may in fact fail to do what we should and could do in the next forty years – what are the alternatives?

Some have suggested geo-engineering. Two proposals have gotten a lot of attention because they are cheap and easy to do. The first is to dump iron filings in the ocean to promote algae blooms – it certainly appears to work (on the surface) and has even been tried – illegally. The problem is that no one can say whether it really removes that much carbon from the air or, for sure, what the long-term or even short-term impact on ocean health will be. Sick oceans are not in the world’s best interests. Which is why it is now illegal to try this particular hare-brained experiment.

Another option would be to dump sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere. In the lower atmosphere, this chemical produces rather nasty and deadly smog but in the upper atmosphere they produce aerosols that reflect sunlight back into space. We would wind up with a slightly darker but cooler world. It is in effect a manmade volcano. In two years, the sulfur comes back to earth (acid rain anyone?) so at best it is a temporary solution or one that needs constant renewal. But it can be done with current technology.

More hopeful technologies exist in labs all over the world. Those GMO ethanol-producing algae are a fair option in a controlled environment (and could make for interesting pool parties). Better yet are artificial trees that remove carbon directly and produce solid carbon compounds that can then be buried or otherwise disposed of. Both of these have the advantage of not requiring us to perform ill-considered experiments on the only planet we know we can live on. Science may yet save the day.

And that’s somewhat more than ten minutes.

Veterans

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Today marks the start of Veterans’ week in Canada. I’m not sure when we expanded from a mere day to an entire week but I don’t think it’s a bad thing. If we can run Christmas in the malls from the end of October, surely vets deserve at least a week of our attention and consideration.

Actually we should probably be paying attention all year long. Many of the men and women who served our country have suffered in silence and obscurity for far too long. Let’s hope the promises made in the recent election to address their needs will be fulfilled. Time will tell.

I’ve never been in the military; wouldn’t even join cadets when I was in high school, so perhaps I’m not one to talk. But my father served in World War II and I watched his fights with Veterans’ Affairs for decades. He battled not only for himself but for other ex-soldiers who needed help. He didn’t always win but he won often enough to show that it is always worthwhile to fight for your rights.

Still, isn’t it ironic that those who fought for all of our rights have to continue to fight for their own after they come home?

Everyone says they support the troops – though my view has always been that the best way to support soldiers is to ensure they never have to go to war. Naïve perhaps but wouldn’t it be nice if we could avoid putting people at risk as much as humanly possible. War is not inevitable but almost always driven by failures to find other solutions.

And of course we have no problem memorializing dead soldiers. Our heroes cause no difficulties when they are dead. It is living reminders of past wars that we seem to have so much trouble dealing with.

Like most Canadians, I was shocked to learn that experts have been warning of an epidemic of suicide among Afghanistan veterans for years but those warnings have largely gone unheeded. The new Minister says it is now on the radar. That’s progress, I guess.

War is a terrible thing – didn’t one general call it ‘hell’ – and the events of war cause terrible wounds on the bodies and the minds of those who participate in it or even witness it. We’ve known this for a very long time. Yet, we can barely address the physical disabilities that soldiers suffer let alone the mental ones.

We always talk about the price that soldiers pay. And they do pay it – often with valour and pride. But no matter what price they pay, society seems unwilling to pick up the tab.

War is expensive. Not only when it’s being waged but long after it’s over. Maybe if we – you, me, everyone – were willing to finally pay the piper, we might realize that the world would be a better place if we didn’t need to have armies, if we didn’t need to wage war.

I don’t know if there is such a thing as a just war – but just or not, those who fight them on our behalf, deserve justice. Sad words and music and the laying of wreathes don’t even come close.

And that’s ten minutes.