Friday, July 24, 2009

And now to answer the actual QUESTION...

Sorry, Anonymous; I got onto my soapbox there. You asked about sustainability and I went on and on about the environmental movement, leaving out several areas you mentioned specifically.

Okay, here's the thing: conservatives do not, in principle, object to paying for necessary services, such as garbage collection and waste management, such as disposal fees for hazardous wastes, such as water and air quality monitoring. They expect that the costs for whatever filtering-style processing a business must do in order to meet reasonable and agreed-on standards will be passed on to them, the consumers. What they (we) take issue with is this type of situation:

"Save the spotted owl!" was an environmental rallying cry in the Pacific Northwest; logging was destroying the birds' habitat, it was claimed. When pressed, however, environmentalists taking up the owls' cause admitted that the owl itself was not so much the issue; it was that old-growth forests were being logged, and the owl was a convenient "face" for the forests. Human beings were going to lose their jobs, the price of wood was going to rise for all buyers, and all under the auspices of "saving" a critter.

Honesty would have been a policy behind which more conservatives could have rallied, if they agreed with the principle that we ought to seek our wood from places other than old growth. (Old growth, by the way, is not a static forest condition; like all conditions on the planet, it's transitory. By geologic standards, it's a flash in the pan.) But the more-regulation playbook seems to require certain tactics:

  • Appeal to the cute: children and animals sell.
  • When possible, use anecdote, not data, to make your point, and search as hard as you have to to find the anecdote that tugs hardest at the heartstrings.
  • When you must use statistics, present those with the most shock value. (Think "global warming" - oops, I mean "anthropogenic climate change" here.) Bury those that don't bear out your point.
  • People have short memories and little capacity for reasoning, take advantage of these facts.
  • Use the Watergate school of journalism to help you: journalists have seen the Promised Land of Changing History, and they want it bad. If you can pitch your story as an opportunity to let a journalist Change History, that journalist will probably go to the mat shouting your point and shouting down opposing ones.

Et cetera. It's not that conservatives "don't care" about sustainability; it's that they, like most humans, do have memories, they do have the ability to reason, and they resent and distrust organizations and people who seem to be trying to make an end run around them.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

"Issues of Sustainability"

Okay, you got me, Anonymous...

I was taking a stroll down Memory Lane this fine morning, rereading old posts of mine, and to my great surprise there's a post down there with FIVE comments! Two are from my old friend Kirbside, but three are from Anonymous, who says, "I'm curious to get your opinion on issues of sustainability." He or she goes on to add,

Sustainability doesn't seem to be a very popular topic among conservatives. There appears to be an attitude that "God will sort it all out", so we don't need to worry about carbon emissions, or resource depletion, or infrastructure renewal, or ecological impacts, or even garbage collection.


From what I gather, it goes something like this: existing business structures don't want to change their established methods, so they oppose sustainable technologies and deny deny deny environmental impacts. They then convince the God-wing of the party that it's all hogwash and that God is in control.

I -get- that. Nobody wants to be forced to do something that is costly. It's up to people to demand sustainable technologies from businesses, to essentially speak with their wallets. The thing I don't get is why Republican/Conservative leaders don't actively promote sustainability, rather than ignore the issue? Why don't they care?

First let me correct a misconception: the "God-wing" is not anti-environment; in fact, serious Christians (I won't speak for other sects) believe that humans are created by God, somehow (many, including me, believe that this creation took place in an incremental fashion - i.e., through evolution, a process likewise created by God), in God's image, with an inescapable duty to be stewards of the rest of Creation. What we conservatives (taking that subgroup of American humanity apart from any "God-wing" stuff) often object to is the contention that the environment is either coequal with or actively trumps human interests. We believe that the human sphere is the business of the human sphere, and that the environment is the backdrop against which we (religious reference coming up) live and move and have our being - a backdrop that adds great value and often beauty, without which the play is impossible to produce, and that must be maintained appropriately, but which is not as important as the actors.

That said, we who believe that God takes an active interest in God's creation do tend to believe that God looks after not just us but our environment (and all aspects of creation, whether or not they benefit or affect humans). But that's not exactly the same as "God will sort it all out," since Christians believe that we are God's hands. (We just don't believe we're God's only hands. We're not that arrogant.)

So - sustainability. Depending on your definition, businesses large and small are all about sustainability; none, except those absurd "businesses" that mistook an exit strategy for a business plan, intend to put themselves out of business. Therefore it makes no sense for them to kill whatever is their golden goose - to destroy that which makes their business possible. Sometimes it's more clear than others how to create sustained production - in timber, for instance, where it's pretty easy to see that planting trees to replace logged trees helps to maintain production, and a healthy environment for those trees one day to be logged themselves. And often, growth in both knowledge and technology leads to improvement in the area of sustainability; take timber again: hand-cutting used to be the only method available for logging, and trees could be chosen one by one for their grain, size, etc. Then, with mechanized logging, clearcutting was the only efficient means, and ALL trees fell - not pretty, and less sustainable, but necessary to meet demand. Now, it's again becoming possible to do selective logging, which improves the logged forest's health because it more closely mimics nature, but is still capable of meeting demand - partly because on the demand side, engineered wood products are in much wider use than ever before, since growing super-fast-maturing trees, loggable in ten years or so, in farmlike fields, and which are then chipped and made into strong building material, is another innovation of the last few decades.

In oil and gas, it used to be that only the oil that basically bubbled to the surface was produceable. Technology grew with demand, and deeper and deeper resources became reserves (a resource is something you know exists; "reserves" is a subset of resources that denotes produceable resources, and is very closely tied to price). Oil and gas drilling has a small footprint and a small ecological cost, compared with oil and gas refining - but even though refining technology hasn't been allowed to proceed very readily in this country, air quality, for instance, around refineries has drastically improved via technological advances. (Refinery footprints haven't shrunk; I assume this is because refineries know they'll never get land back if they relinquish it, and therefore keep on occupying it whether or not their processes have or could have decreased in size.)

Mining removes bulky material - ore - from often scenic places. That stinks, I say as a person who likes going to scenic places. But coal (for instance) is an overwhelmingly important energy source in this country and elsewhere; it's energy-dense, easy and safe to transport, easy to burn to create electricity. It will continue to be produced until a better thing comes along (and no, solar and wind aren't "better" in any respect that counts in this discussion). Mining companies strip-mine where that's the most efficient way to get at the ore. But erosion problems downstream as well as public relations concerns cause them to enter an area only with a rehabilitation plan in place. And miners' working conditions have dramatically improved as well. There is a societal cost to to mining; but it's not the same cost as it was even fifty years ago.

At this point, Anonymous is hopping up and down, waiting for a chance to point out that many of these changes wouldn't have taken place if not for tighter environmental regulations and collective bargaining and so forth. I think the timing would have been different - probably quite a lot different in some cases - but that these same changes would have taken hold in the absence of governmental and union involvement, if the marketplace had been allowed to work. Here's why:

The capitalist marketplace of the conservative is not just a place where things are bought and sold; it's - very importantly - a marketplace of ideas as well. Good ideas are not judged by some Idea Board; they're evaluated by the innumerable entities, individual and corporate, that make up the marketplace, and the winners are, tautologically, the ones that win. "Organic farming" is an old idea made new again, and in the Western marketplace of ideas, it's taking hold. (It'd be a recipe for global famine if its staunchest supporters got their way and it were implemented everywhere, but heck, what's affluence for if not to indulge your personal preferences? No harm in having organic food in the produce bins and on the shelves, as long as less expensive, high-quality "non-organic" options are available for those who can't afford or don't choose the "organic" stuff.)

Hybrid cars - finally, an option better than the plug-in one! It used to make me crazy that so many electric-car advocates seemed to believe that the magical stuff that comes out of outlets in their homes was free, both to them and to the environment.

And generally improved environmental conditions - this, again, is an idea of the marketplace that has resulted in, for instance, BP's "It's a start" campaign. Regulation has forced more stringent environmental standards (sometimes ridiculously more stringent, down to "below detection limits" for compounds never definitively shown to be harmful), but it's the marketplace that makes companies take the step of doing better than the regs.

If "environmentalists" embraced the idea marketplace (they use it, certainly) and largely abandoned regulation-seeking, there'd be many more conservatives who would join their ranks, working assiduously to bring those ideas to fruition. Who likes the thought of living in nineteenth-century London with its yellow-gray sulfurous fogs? But convince - don't force - and your ideas have sustainable force. Or else they're not worth implementing.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The juvies

My brother-in-law steered me to this blog post about Heinlein's juveniles, presumably to tempt me into sharing my own thoughts. (He must be bored.) I have thoughts. Here they are:

Gosh. Which Heinlein juvie is my favorite? The blog post mentions several that I've enjoyed mightily through the years: Door Into Summer (though it has one creepy element), Have Space Suit, Will Travel (I still quote Shakespeare I learned first from that book), Farmer In the Sky (my mother, a science teacher and not a Heinlein fan, uses that book in an ecology unit she teaches), The Rolling Stones (first of the Heinlein red-headed twins, and my first introduction to twin-banter - great fun!), and Double Star, which I've never thought of as a juvenile. It left out Space Cadet, which I read over and over and over as I considered my eventually relinquished appointment to the Air Force Academy. And Podkayne of Mars, his earliest novel-length story in a girl's voice. And Tunnel In the Sky, and Between Planets. But which is my favorite?

Hmm. All I can say is, it varies. For fun, The Rolling Stones. For technology and sociology, Tunnel In the Sky. For heroism (which we all know by now is a big touchstone of mine), Between Planets. For foreshadowing of the infamous Three-Stage Heinlein Character, hmm, tie between Between Planets and Podkayne. For politics, Citizen of the Galaxy. For totally unrealized romance, Have Space Suit, Will Travel. For insight into an unfamiliar field (acting), Double Star, if juvie it is.

But if I had to pick a favorite Heinlein opus, it might be "If This Goes On...," a novella from his so-called "Future History" series that appeared in The Past Through Tomorrow. Johnny has it all: he's a first-stage Heinlein character with a second-stage buddy, he's Galahad with Lilith tempting him all the time (to mix my metaphors), he's no-nonsense competent but a complete doofus. He's great. And throw in a Moon Is A Harsh Mistress-style rebellion against a charismatic Stranger In a Strange Land-style pseudo-religious leader, and baby, you've got plot.

But what the non-Heinlein fan out there may be tumbling to is that Heinlein tended to stick to certain themes. Uh-huh. What of it? Joseph Bottum the blogger, referring to the ever-recurring theme of kinky sex (or maybe not kinky exactly, but certainly highly promiscuous) in Heinlein books, says, "As one commentator on Amazon notes: 'Robert Heinlein is a great author. But let’s face it. Sometimes you want to a read a good Heinlein book where characters do *not* spend most of their time having sex with their computers, children, mothers, and female clones of themselves.'" And here I depart from the Amazon commenter.

It's not that I want to read more promiscuous and/or kinky sex scenes, believe me. It's uncomfortable enough that it was my dad who introduced me to Heinlein! No, I disagree with the commenter's contention that Heinlein is a "great author." Heinlein himself, from what I gather (and I've gathered quite a lot about Heinlein over the years; his remarkable wife is the so-far-very-poorly-followed pattern for my life), would have laughed raucously at that statement. He considered himself to be a good storyteller - an artist, yes, because it was his aim and his craft to cause his readers to experience emotions of his choosing ("pity and terror," he said); that was how he defined "artist," scorning abstract forms of art as "pseudo-intellectual masturbation." Not sure I fully agree with him there, having just been pretty ooged-out by an O'Keefe exhibit at the San Francisco MOMA. But he saw himself not as "great," but as working.

If Heinlein has importance in any area other than science fiction, where his contributions are unquestioned, it should be in his values. He was a family man who couldn't have children, so he wrote (laughably ignorantly, but with great commitment and earnestness) about the centrality of the family to human society. He wrote characters who purported to be lazy but were only happy when they were working on something, and his life story indicates that he wrote from experience there; he was, by example if not by statement, a staunch advocate of a strong work ethic and (this by word and example) an unwillingness to accept charity or the dole. He believed - or I infer that he believed, based on his writing about it all the time, and on his very long marriage to his third wife after two brief youthful marriages - in commitment in relationships; even the most promiscuous sex in his books tends to result in marriage - lots of marriage. Marriage to lots of people. Almost nobody in a Heinlein book is fornicating, or not for long at any rate.

And he believed in our future. He talked boldly about humanity as the toughest, meanest, smartest critter in the universe - stated that if we were ever to meet our match, all right, we might die in the encounter, but we wouldn't die with our hands in our pockets. He believed that we should try, try as hard as we could, to spread ourselves around, to make the human race unkillable by undertaking a willing Diaspora that would scatter us too widely to be wiped out by anything. Technologically speaking, this goal is far out of reach. And frankly, I'm married to a man who wouldn't want to be a pioneer, so that even if it were possible today, I'm constrained to stay here on the cool green hills of Earth (that's a Heinleinism, for the unfamiliar). But what a goal: to defy the cold equations (not a Heinleinism but a science fiction staple) of natural law, to outlive our own extinction!

Last, I think Heinlein was an unwilling Deist. I infer the "unwilling" part, certainly. But his writing and his life seem to suggest that he wasn't like Houdini, looking for a "supernatural" survival of the spirit beyond the body; that he wasn't like Sagan, proudly declaring his atheism as he lay dying. Perhaps he was Christian; he did, in any case, appreciate the power of the Christianity story. But I think it's clear that he either did believe or couldn't help but believe that there was a watchmaker. I read my first Heinlein juvie when I was perhaps eleven or twelve, if memory serves; because I was exposed early, frequently, and comprehensively, I sometimes go back to the Watchmaker myself. Does it interfere with my Christianity? It sure does... but at least it means that even in my darkest valleys, while I may not perceive myself to be walking with my Brother Christ, I do perceive that the universe is on some level benign and purposeful. I hope that Heinlein died in at least that confidence.

I need a hero

Via Omnivoracious, a review of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince:

The first thing we see in “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” is the face of the hero (Daniel Radcliffe) filling the screen, looking grim. As a row of flashbulbs goes off, he flinches, like a criminal exposed. ... [W]hat of Harry? Well, he has committed no crime, so there’s no call for a brooding mug shot. And he’s long been a star of the wizard firmament, so there’s no reason to drape him in fresh celebrity. In short, we are left to ponder this dour and heavy style, and to wonder what sort of film—and what new trouble with Harry—it foretells.

Spoken like a man who knows nothing about the wizarding world. I mean nothing - including the last ten minutes of the previous Potter film. In short, we are left to ponder this puckish and condescending style, and to wonder what sort of reviewer of an installment in an unabashed film franchise fails to realize, or at any rate to note, the ways in which this installment fits with its predecessors.

I'm sure Mr. A. Lane has already been inundated with hate-mail from young teenagers on this point. But I ain't no teenager, I am a Potter fan, and in spite of my undoubted redundancy, I'd like to add my two cents.

Mr. Lane. Harry flinches because that scene comes on the heels of his godfather's (perhaps more accurately, his surrogate father's) violent death and his own brief possession by Voldemort. Harry was a "star of the wizard firmament"... until he witnessed, and testified to all and sundry, the rebirth of Voldemort at the end of Goblet of Fire, at which point he became an object of scorn to the Ministry of Magic and a lot of the wizarding public. Get your background straight, goofball. If you found the film unconvincing, say that - but don't review it as if it's intended to stand alone, because it's not. Even for first-timers, it's intended as an entree into the Potter collection, not as a one-off.

As for my own review, then: I looooved it. I saw it first at midnight on opening day with my twelve-year-old, who hadn't read the book; he was a little confused, but more by the adolescent romance stuff than by the plot twists. (Side note: I'm loving these midnight premieres! It's VERY fun indeed to get up in the middle of the night and go to a movie. And the frisson of post-midnight caffeine from the big old Diet Coke only adds to my ability to suspend my disbelief!) I came out of the theater declaring it the best Potter so far, and absolutely chomping at the bit for #7 and #8.

I saw it a second time a few days later with my midnight Twilight buddy, who had read the book at least as long ago as I did, and at last achieved a little distance. A little. The Potter universe is so fully realized by now that it's no effort at all for a fan like me (meaning, I've seen all the movies and own the last one, continue to re-watch the earlier ones at my parents' house - because my dad's a bigger fan than I am - and have read and reread the books, but not committed them to memory) to achieve that suspension of disbelief; Hogwarts is familiar territory, the Burrow a second home, Neville Longbottom (who has all of maybe two lines in this movie, but I'm glad they kept those two lines in) an old friend I'm just a little too busy to sit down with right now, Quidditch a game I seem to remember watching just last season - right?

So it's hard for me to be objective, because the Potterverse is a place I'd really like to be, even with the danger of persecution and death and all. But I'll say this: This movie found a way to reveal a great deal of the book's internal action. Compare it to the horror known as Dune, in which every thought (of course the thoughts in Dune were vital to the plot, so they had to be revealed somehow) was voiced over: Half-Blood Prince took some significant liberties with faithfulness to the book in order to move the viewer through plot points that otherwise happened only in, say, Harry's head. Oh, I know that this movie could take those liberties because the franchise is solid, and the Dune people knew that they were up against insane fans and had to stick as closely to the book as possible (just as the first Potter film, and Twilight too, had to), or else alienate those insane fans who were likely to be the film's biggest money. Suffice it to say I'm very glad that at this point in the Potter narrative, when so much in the books does happen either in thoughts or out of sight, the film franchise is strong enough to maintain enough creative control over how to bring out the most important points.

Another saving grace (that phrase overstates the case, but it's the best I can do) is that there's been enough time now since the publication of Half-Blood Prince (the book) that those of us who didn't reread the book in preparation for the movie are not all that clear on the details of those plot points. I came out of the theater both times contented that all necessary items had been hit, that all necessary setups had been set up - but not remembering for certain whether they'd been respectively hit and set up as they were in the book. It was all good; the next movie can begin with impunity.

[NOTE: Spoilers below, if there's such a thing as a Harry Potter spoiler.]

Things I loved: the kids had a chance to try out some fairly subtle acting chops, and they did well at it. The teenage angst stuff that confused my kid so much was spot-on: Hermione's pain at Ron's dalliance with Lavender, Cormac's overconfident vileness (oh my Lord, was he vile), Draco's terror and doubt warring with his pride and arrogance... And a point that I thought the movie actually did better than the book: Harry and Ginny repeatedly encounter one another here and there, sometimes by accident, sometimes by design, and the viewer can see the attraction growing between them. More: at least twice, Ginny becomes the first one to break from the group (of course we all know that Harry stands alone a lot) to go to Harry at times of danger or distress. We start to see how it is that this minor character, Ginny, might actually be the love of his life - not a pretty feebly depicted cardboard cutout, as she is throughout the books (yes, including most of Half-Blood Prince), but the witch who's good enough, brave enough, interesting enough to ensnare Harry Potter.

There's scene between Harry and Ginny that's actually shocking. Harry's standing on a landing of one of the Burrow's many stairways, and Ginny, coming up the stairs, notices that one of his shoes is untied. She gestures at it and murmurs, "Shoelace," then, before Harry can do anything about it, kneels at his feet and ties his shoe. Watching it is almost like walking in on their wedding night - it's wrong somehow, too personal, to see her tenderness and his wonderment - even though they don't touch any inch of one another's skin, they don't even brush sleeves in passing, at any time in the scene.

So let's get to Harry. In this movie, Harry (who looks nothing like Daniel Radcliffe any more, oddly enough) takes up the mantle that's been waiting for him: he's the Chosen One, the only one who can destroy Voldemort; he knows it, he accepts it, and he actively participates in it. He has no idea how he's supposed to accomplish the impossible - and at the end of the movie his despair over that lack is palpable - but he's a real hero, not going forward without fear but going forward in spite of fear. Heroism, thrust upon Harry in the first four movies, reluctantly chosen in the fifth, is something he walks right into, bespectacled eyes wide open, in this movie.

Heroism is so rare in movies, especially Harry's brand: Mission Impossible without the deus ex machina, which is odd, considering that magic ought to be the ultimate deus ex machina. Harry faces killing odds without more than a brief physical flinch, because he understands (or believes he does) that the purpose of his life is to lay it down for his friends. (I certainly hope that phrase sounds familiar.) There's a similarity between Radcliffe's portrayal of Harry, which I find utterly true to Rowling's writing of him, and the My Sister's Keeper story: Harry believes in every cell of his body that he was spared death for just one purpose, to kill the creature who killed his parents and who threatens his world.

At the end of the movie, he's appalled to learn (or to think he's learned) that Dumbledore died in vain: the Horcrux is a fake. But what he doesn't yet know is that Dumbledore's death serves Dumbledore's own greater purposes, that ultimately the war can't be won without it. And that's also what Harry doesn't know about his own life: that it's not just the endgame that counts. His saving Ginny when he was twelve, she eleven, not only destroys Riddle's diary (and, we find in Half-Blood Prince, a Horcrux) but also, eventually, gives his life a new and happy meaning and focus. God writes in crooked lines.

I wish I could quit you, Lipstick...

First, a wee post to acknowledge the fact that I'd planned to let this little blog slip into an obscurity even greater than it enjoyed even in its heyday, such as it was.

And now, for something (almost) completely different. Politics is depressing me; Pres. Obama is outdoing my most pessimistic expectations in both his ham-fistedness and his no-longer-masked socialist tendencies and policy prescriptions. And there's a new Harry Potter movie coming out, and New Moon, the first Twilight sequel, is in post-production. So on to pop culture!