5.23.2022

rtod: nope, i ain't gonna kill nobody

 Revolutionary thought of the day:

I would like to see every single soldier on every single side, just take off your helmet, unbuckle your kit, lay down your rifle, and set down at the side of some shady lane, and say, nope, I ain't gonna kill nobody. Plenty of rich folks wants to fight. Give them the guns.

Woody Guthrie

5.21.2022

dog agility, worm composting, and morning tea: three things going on with me

Does it make sense to create compost when you don't garden? I don't know, but I'm doing it.

Worms, but no garden

So, I'm not gardening. 

The Urban Worm Bag v2
Since moving to a cool, wet, temperate climate, I haven't done any successful gardening. My little mini gardens in southern Ontario were fun because they were incredibly easy. They also helped me enjoy being outdoors within the densely packed suburban landscape. 

Now, gardening is much more challenging, and I am able to enjoy the outdoors any time, whether that means sitting on our deck, talking long walks through the woods, or strolling on the beautiful empty beach. Working full-time, with limited time to myself, I really don't want to spend any of it gardening.

Last year, I tried to establish a small garden, and thought I would try vermicomposting -- composting with worms. The garden was a bust, but I've decided to continue my wriggling adventure. 

Why create composting if you're not gardening?

  • It reduces waste. We don't have organics recycling here, and it feels really wasteful. Most of what can go in the organics bin can be used as worm food.
  • The worm castings (compost created by worms) will improve the soil for all the plants already growing in our yard, including the raspberry bushes that Allan is trying to re-establish.*
  • Working with worms, creating this miniature ecosystem, just appeals to me. I want to try it. 

The worm adventure was supposed to start last year, but the worms I ordered never made it here. I had already set up my Urban Worm Bag, organics scrap bin, and so on. So this year, I tried again. 

The worms were shipped from Wormbox, a company in Montreal. They assured me they have successfully shipped live worms to every Canadian province and territory, including remote locations, and that the worms would arrive alive. They wait to ship until there are three consecutive days of temperatures above freezing in Montreal and the worms' destination. That finally happened in early May!

The clock was ticking. With a long weekend coming up, and no mail delivery on Saturdays, I was starting to worry. But hurrah, the little creatures arrived on Friday morning, well packed and wriggling. Now they are in their new home, and my project begins.

Canine agility

Now that I am not taking piano lessons (at least for now), I'm planning to do some agility with Kai, and possibly with Cookie, too. 

I've been thinking about this since we bought our home in 2019. It's great physical exercise and mental stimulation for dogs, and having watched agility competitions on video, and once in person, I've always wanted to try it.

Will Kai ever do this? Time will tell!
Decent equipment is quite expensive. And while building a DIY agility course is A Thing, you may recall that I am not a DIY person. I have zero interest in building or macgyvering this equipment. I've decided to start with one piece of equipment -- one event, so to speak -- and gradually add on, as I can and want to spend more. Agility World has periodic specials where one obstacle is deeply discounted, so I'll track that as I go. (There is also the much less expensive Aosom, but I've read the equipment is quite flimsy and falls apart easily.)

This is decidedly not for competition. Just as my piano lessons were not intended for performance, my interest in canine agility will not leave my backyard. I find the human capacity to fashion nearly every activity into a competition simply baffling. I'm just hoping my dogs and I enjoy this and benefit from it.

A momentous life change

I am not drinking coffee in the morning. I am drinking tea! While not quite on the level of moving to Canada or becoming a librarian, I believe this qualifies for Big Change status.

I love coffee, and I'm completely addicted to caffeine. Although I've cut back by mixing regular and decaf, I've given up trying to eliminate it from my diet. I've gone caffeine-free for months at a time for various reasons, but I have no wish to do that permanently. I figure if caffeine is my worst vice, I'm doing pretty good. Caffeine may even have some health benefits -- although that's not why I love coffee.

I do have sleep issues, though. Like many people, I sometimes struggle mightily with insomnia. And because of this, I've always had a strict cut-off. Coffee in the morning, and strong black tea in the afternoon, but never after 4:00.

Allan and I picked up the afternoon tea habit during our trip to Ireland in 2001. It was November, and every day we'd arrive at a bed-and-breakfast, chilly and windswept. And the host would say, I'll put the kettle on. It became an enjoyable habit.

When we got home, we found a New York source for Bewley's Irish Breakfast tea, and with both of us working at home most days, a tradition was born.

When we moved to the Toronto area, I found it too difficult to get Bewley's, and we switched to Red Rose, the Canadian equivalent of Lipton. Now that we can get anything from anywhere, we're back to Bewley's. 

(We do also have decaf black tea in various flavours, which Allan drinks all the time, and herbal teas in a range of flavours, which I drink both hot and iced. I find iced herbal tea a good way to stay hydrated: tastier than water, but with nothing added.)

Recently I realized I really shouldn't be having caffeine in the afternoon, at all. Cutoff or no, it could be impacting my sleep. So I'm trying -- quite painfully -- to give up my afternoon caffeine. 

I made this decision right after a box of Bewley's arrived in the mail, plus a shopping miscommunication landed a huge box of Red Rose in the house at the same time. I can't return either of them, I don't want them sitting around getting stale, and it's more than I want to give away.

So I had an idea. Maybe I could try drinking tea in the morning, and seeing if I can get enough of a caffeine fix to start the day. When we've travelled in places with bad (or no) coffee but good tea, I have had tea in the morning. Maybe it would be possible?

I bought a teapot, and the experiment has begun. I still miss coffee, so I don't know if this will be permanent. But so far, I appear to be surviving.

And by the way, since giving up afternoon caffeine two months ago, I have had only one night of insomnia -- far less than usual.

* There were amazing raspberries bushes when we moved in. Then we cut them down -- as I read you were supposed to -- and they never returned. Allan is starting over.

5.07.2022

rebecca traister, 2019: "our fury over abortion was dismissed for decades as hysterical"

Rebecca Traister, writing in New York magazine in 2019:

Which is why I am almost as mad at many on the left, theoretically on the side of reproductive rights and justice, who have refused, somehow, to see this coming or act aggressively to forestall it. I have no small amount of rage stored for those in the Democratic Party who have relied on the engaged fury of voters committed to reproductive autonomy to elect them, at the same time that they have treated the efforts of activists trying to stave off this future as inconvenient irritants. 
This includes, of course, the Democrats (notably Joe Biden) who long supported the Hyde Amendment, the legislative rider that has barred the use of federal insurance programs from paying for abortion, making reproductive health care inaccessible to poor women since 1976. During health-care reform, Barack Obama referred to Hyde as a “tradition” and questions of abortion access as “a distraction.” I’ve spent my life listening to Democrats call abortion a niche issue — and worse, one that is somehow repellent to voters, even though support for Roe is in fact among the most broadly popular positions of the Democratic Party; seven in ten Americans want abortion to remain legal, even in conservative states.
You can try to tell these Democrats this — lots of people have been trying to tell them for a while now — but it won’t matter; they will only explain to you (a furious person) that they (calm, wise, knowledgeable about politics) understand that we need a big tent and can’t have a litmus test and please be reasonable: we shouldn’t shut anyone out because of a difference on one issue. (That one issue that we shouldn’t shut people out because of is always abortion). Every single time Democrats come up with a new strategy to win purple and red areas, it is the same strategy: hey, let’s jettison abortion! (If you object to this, you will be told you are standing in the way of the greater progressive project). . . .
Also about how, for years, I’ve listened to Democratic politicians distance themselves from abortion by calling it tragic and insisting it should be rare, instead of simply acknowledging it to be a crucial, legal cornerstone of comprehensive health care for women, people with uteruses, and their families. I have seethed as generations of Democrats have argued that if we could just get past abortion and focus instead on economic issues, we’d be better off. They never seem to get that abortion is an economic issue, and that what they think of as economic issues — from wages and health care to housing and education policy — are at the very heart of the reproductive justice movement, which understands access to abortion to be one (pivotal!) part of a far broader set of circumstances that determine if, when, under what circumstances, and with what resources human beings might have and raise children.
Read the whole thing here.

5.06.2022

the end of roe and how we got here


With the unprecedented leak of the SCOTUS draft brief, and official confirmation of the politicization of the Court, we see the final nails pounded in the coffin of Roe v. Wade -- a turning point which somehow still shocks many people, despite the exceedingly clear regression to this point over the past 40 years.

Given this, it seems strange to me that I haven't blogged about abortion rights in more than two years.

Strange, because this is the issue I care most about, above all else. 

Strange, because I've spent a good portion of my life thinking, writing, organizing, and supporting abortion rights and abortion access.

Strange, because I am angry and hurting about this. But I suspect I am angry at different people than many readers may be.

Partly I stopped writing about Roe and US abortion rights because I feel I have nothing left to add to the discourse -- nothing to write that I haven't written again and again. Here in 2018, I re-ran my essay from 2005. No matter how many ways I find to say it, it comes down to two points.

One. Abortion rights are essential to human rights, to justice, and to basic equality for all people. Abortion rights are the sine qua non of women's freedom, and the bottom line of equality for any person who can become pregnant.

Two. Roe v Wade is meaningless for millions of American women, and has been for decades. Abortion rights have been steadily impeded, eroded, and erased for more than 40 years, a process that began with the passage of the Hyde Amendment in 1976, gathered momentum when Ronald Reagan became president in 1980, and has barrelling downhill ever since. This includes the 16 years of Democrat presidencies. 

And partly I stopped writing about Roe and US abortion rights because I have been so angry and frustrated that people were -- with extreme laws passed in Mississippi and Texas --  now finally paying attention. That sounds counter-intuitive and is not a good way to approach activism! But I just could. not. stand it.

1976 Hyde Amendment (only affects poor people, so who cares)
1984 Global Gag Rule (only affects poor people in other countries, so who cares)
1989 Webster; 1992 Casey -- both losses for reproductive freedom, but left Roe intact, so who cares
And on and on. (Start your timeline here, then here.) As long as Roe had not been overturned, most liberals and Democrats were willing to look away. 

For a majority of Democrat voters, the most important thing to know about abortion rights were: vote Democrat because of the Supreme Court, because we can't let them overturn Roe v Wade.

And while the majority obsessed over Roe, Roe became increasingly irrelevant. 

I'm not suggesting Roe actually is irrelevant.  But it's been hollowed out. It's a shadow. A shell.

The anti-abortion-rights movement had everything it needed to succeed. 

They were extremely organized, extremely well-funded, and very strategic. They got their people elected to state legislatures and began to work the system, passing every type of abortion-rights restrictions anyone could dream up, taunting the court challenges, knowing that eventually, with enough states becoming hostile to abortion, they would accomplish their only objectives: increasing numbers of low-income women and pregnant people would lose control of their reproduction, and the country would move one step closer to overturning Roe v Wade.

The anti movement has had other factors in its favour. In addition to money, organization, and strategy, they had the Democrats. Abortion became a dirty word, replaced by the euphemism "a woman's right to choose". Bill Clinton said let's make abortion "safe, legal, and rare" -- with little or no attention paid to the myriad laws, supports, and resources it would take to make such a thing possible.

They had the "muddled middle" -- to use Katha Pollitt's excellent expression -- whose discomfort with the idea and reality of abortion made it easy to look away. Shamed by stigma created by anti-abortion-rights zealots and the media who support them, most were happy to look away.

There are other reasons, too.

Roe v. Wade was never a strong ruling; it was always vulnerable to attack. The right to abortion is more secure in Canada -- although it is often under threat and must always be protected and defended! -- because the 1988 ruling in R v Morgentaler is a much broader decision. 

The US's obsession with states' rights, and the right wing's expert exploitation of it, have left millions vulnerable, not only on reproductive justice, but on so many fronts.

The US's lack of an organized healthcare system leaves millions vulnerable to assaults on reproductive freedom. If you lack basic healthcare, that's going to include a lack of access to reproductive needs.

The mainstream media's adoption of the disgusting lie "pro-life" -- the greatest PR coup of the modern world -- did untold damage. 

But be assured of one thing. Our side has been planning for this for decades, too, with abortion funds, underground networks, and direct action. It's a much more successful strategy than voting Democrat.

As always, the Guttmacher Institute is your best source for data on all aspects of reproductive justice. 

If you want to help, donate to abortion funds: National Abortion Federation, National Network of Abortion Funds. Canada has one, too.

If you live in a free state and have the resources, you can host a person traveling for abortion from a slave state. It's incredibly important and deeply gratifying work. NNAF can help you find a network. 

4.29.2022

my happy kitchen life (i still love my instant pot -- but it is not a good slow-cooker)

Don't get rid of your slow-cooker!
Since moving to a remote region with very limited food choices, I've upped my cook-ahead game to levels I never thought possible. I'm really enjoying it. Here's my routine.

My happy kitchen life

1. I order a box from truLOCAL -- locally sourced, humanely raised, healthy meat and seafood. Vast selection, super high quality food, brilliant customer service. They. Are. Awesome.

2. I spend a half-day cooking -- skillet, Instapot (yes, I know, I just like calling it that), and oven. I usually make four dishes, sometimes five, each good for 3 or 4 dinners. 

3. I put all the food into my ever-growing collection of Pyrex, and pop it all in the freezer. 

4. One box from truLOCAL gives me at least two, sometimes three, cooking sessions of this size. 

This gives us dinner for the four nights that my partner works on his day-job, and we don't eat dinner together. On the other three days, Allan makes dinner one night, and two nights we go out or get takeout. 

In short, Instapot + truLOCAL + Pyrex = my happy kitchen life.

In the summer, I'll order an additional truLOCAL box, usually the small size, just for grilling. Steak, burgers, salmon, bone-in chicken breasts, beef sausages -- anything and everything for the grill.

[In case you don't know me, this is not stealth marketing and I'm not using affiliate links. truLOCAL subscribers can earn points for referrals, but you'd need my name and code for that, and I'm not offering it in this post.]

The Instant Pot is a crappy slow-cooker

There's only one aspect of the Instapot that I don't like: it is not a good slow-cooker. It simply does not get hot enough. 

Several online sources confirm this observation, such as here, here, here, and here.

Some folks mention a possible workaround of adjusting the temperature of the slow-cook setting. On the model I have, the Ultra, you can adjust the temperature slightly, but it makes no appreciable difference. No matter how many hours the food cooks, it never gets hot enough to truly break down ingredients and blend flavours.

When I bought my Instapot, I gave away my slow-cooker. Now I'm buying a new one. 

What I'm cooking

Here's what I've been making using my truLOCAL box. All are cooked in the Instapot unless otherwise noted. All are cooked ahead and frozen, unless noted "day-of".

-- chicken and rice, using boneless, skinless chicken thighs (Why did I ever cook chicken breasts? Thighs are so much better.)

-- turkey sausage and bean stew, with canned tomatoes, white beans, and black beans

-- turkey sausage, white bean, and kale stew

-- linguini with meat sauce, using ground bison (incredibly quick and easy)

-- "mexican" style penne, using ground bison, salsa, black beans, and corn (another super easy one -- I will usually make one of these very fast and easy pasta dishes per cooking session)

-- cheeseburger casserole, quick and easy pasta #3

-- pork tenderloin in honey-garlic; skillet and oven

-- faux fried rice, made with brown rice, ground turkey, snow peas, and shredded carrots; skillet; rice in instant pot, then added to skillet

-- beef stir fry, similar to above but with sliced steak

-- meatballs, made with ground bison

-- old-fashioned pot roast with root vegetables

-- duck legs, this recipe cooked ahead, then served with basmati rice made day-of

-- pork chops, this recipe cooked ahead, then served with little potatoes boiled or roasted, made day-of

-- split pea soup with bacon (incredible bacon from truLOCAL!)

-- lentil soup with ham

-- minestrone soup with turkey sausage

-- beef, barley, mushroom casserole

-- roast beef, served with roast potatoes made day-of

-- chicken noodle soup, noodles cooked separately in advance, then added when re-heating

-- wild salmon fillets in butter and garlic; skillet, day-of

-- wild-caught scallops in butter and garlic; skillet, day-of

-- chicken broth -- I make this for myself, not for cooking, but for a warm, caffeine-free hot drink

... and probably several more that I've tried once and forgotten. 

4.27.2022

what i'm reading: say nothing: a true story of murder and memory in northern ireland

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland is without a doubt one of the best nonfiction books I have ever read. 

I'm in awe of Patrick Radden Keefe's ability to weave together so many disparate and often contradictory sources to re-create a story that is incredibly detailed and complex, yet fashion it into an addictive page-turner. 

The book is loaded with vivid details and surprising revelations -- until the very end. A blend of true-crime, spy thriller, history, and incisive feature journalism, Say Nothing is a tour de force of narrative nonfiction.

Keefe uses a brutal and tragic incident that took place in Belfast in 1972 as a focal point to unpack and examine the Troubles. The Troubles is a euphemistically quaint and minimizing name for a complex and prolonged undeclared war. It was a war of violence and politics, language and identity, public relations and extreme secrecy.

I was obsessed with Ireland and Irish history for about 10 years. It started with this book in 1989 and was finally capped with our trip to Ireland in 2001.* But you don't need any particular interest in or knowledge of Ireland to follow Say Nothing. The bare facts will be adequate.**

Two elements of this book were especially compelling for me. 

Say Nothing raises many questions about the use of violence in independence and liberation movements. It's easy to label a group that employs violence as terrorists. But what of the state government that employs the same methods, on a much larger scale? Can independence be won without violence? Has that ever happened? Modern western thought pretends that violence is never justified (except by states, for anything labelled national security) -- a view largely held by people privileged to never need it.

Another theme running through Say Nothing is the shapeshifting presence of Gerry Adams. How many people have been a high-ranking leader of a group labelled a terrorist organization, a peace broker, and a successful politician in the modern arena? One of the very few is Nelson Mandela. There are many parallels, and I suspect if one read a true account of the ANC, their work and methods were not all that different than the IRA's. Yet Mandela is revered as a freedom fighter and Gerry Adams -- well, it depends what side you're on. A terrorist, a politician, a great leader, a lying scumbag? I highly doubt readers of Say Nothing will come away with an impression of Adams as a Mandela-like figure. But he is undoubtedly a fascinating figure.

Don't worry about any of these things. Just read this book. If you enjoy great nonfiction, you will love this.

I've now put Patrick Radden Keefe's most recent book, Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty, on my to-read list.

----------

* When I was planning our trip to Ireland, and especially while we were there, people constantly asked if I have Irish ancestry. I do not. I've never been asked this regarding any other travel, including to countries that have seen substantial emigration to the United States, such as Italy. It's as if people don't conceive of Ireland as a place folks might just want to visit, without a motive. 

It's a beautiful country, and we had an awesome trip. We saw natural wonders, history, Neolithic passage tombs and stone circles. We heard traditional music every night in beautiful small-town pubs, where folks would sometimes erupt in spontaneous song. From the ruins of a ring fort, we watched a border collie herd cows. In Dublin we saw a Brian Friel play and hung out with James Joyce's nephew. I fell in love with Murphy's. History was everywhere. Also rainbows.

** Here's more than you need to know.

150 years of struggle for independence culminates in the Revolutionary Period (1912-1922), most famously including the Easter Rising of 1916.

1919-1922 Irish War of Independence, Irish Civil War: Irish Republic Army (IRA) vs Britain Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) (called something else at first, but this is the name normally used). This maps roughly as Catholic vs. Protestant, but only roughly, as some key Irish independence leaders were also Protestant.

The war ended with the hated partition of Ireland into two separate countries.

The Free State, later the Republic of Ireland, or simply Ireland, is most of the island, to the south.

North Ireland comprises the six northern counties, and is part of the United Kingdom -- i.e. part of Britain. It is majority Protestant. There was a long history of discrimination and persecution of the Catholic minority.

People who fight for a united Ireland are known as republicans. They are largely, although not exclusively, Catholics.

People who want Northern Ireland to remain part of Britain are known as loyalists or unionists. They are largely Protestants.

Republicans fought a guerrilla war to attempt to expel the occupying British from Northern Ireland. Loyalists, British Army, and the police force sought to eradicate them. This period, known as the Troubles, lasted from the late 1960s until 1998.

That's it, you're good to go.

4.25.2022

what i'm reading: the turning point: 1851: a year that changed charles dickens and the world

The Turning Point: 1851 -- A Year That Changed Charles Dickens and the World was written for me.

I love Dickens. He's among the core writers whose work mean the most to me (along with Orwell and Steinbeck).

Bleak House is my favourite of all Dickens. I wrote a mini-thesis on it in university.

1851 is "my year". This is the period and the year that I've read and watched the most about, and been most fascinated by. 

I'm a close reader. When I studied literature in university, my thing was the close read -- noticing and analyzing the smallest details -- and I've been that kind of reader ever since. For me the details reveal the deeper meanings, the beauty and wonder of great writing. In The Turning Point, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst gives one year in the life of Charles Dickens the close read.

Given all that, I was primed to read and enjoy this book! And I did enjoy it, very much. 

A close read of Dickens in 1851 brings in so many elements. There is the Great Exhibition ("Crystal Palace"), the steel-and-glass building that gives the exhibition its name, and reaction to it; the industrial revolution, and the treatment of workers and the poor. Dickens' relationships with his wife, family, friends; his editing and publishing work; his charity and reform work; his theatre pursuits; his politics. Out in the larger world, there is the American abolition movement. Frederick Douglass makes an appearance -- yet more interest for me

...from April 1852 to December 1853, Bleak House was reprinted in its entirety by Frederick Douglass's Paper in Rochester, New York -- a decision based on the fact that Dickens's novel, despite the clear British focus of its plot, had a broader social mission that was no respecter of national boundaries. Even the scene in which we are told that children like Jo are "dying thus around us every day" was enlisted in the "Literary Notices" section of the paper to remind Douglass's readers that "us" included them.

There is the women's movement and clothing reformers; the aftermath of the revolutions that swept Europe a few years earlier; and of course, colonialism and imperialism. This is Victorian England, after all. 

Although the book is rich in detail, as a close read must be, it never gets bogged down or tedious. The writing is very accessible and lively; it moves right along, returning to the main themes without belabouring them. 

As much as I enjoyed this book, I don't think The Turning Point would be particularly interesting, or even make much sense, unless the reader knows Bleak House fairly well. Douglas-Fairhurst alludes, without explanation, to many elements from Dickens' life that appear in BH. For example, it is mentioned in passing that Dickens carried a huge key ring that held a giant jumble of keys. In BH, Esther carries such a key ring. Knowing that Esther was partly a stand-in for Dickens -- especially given that Dickens is often criticized for his portrayal of women -- is very interesting, if you love Dickens and BH. But if you don't, would you care? Indeed, you might wonder why the author thought you should care about Dickens' keys.

There is also a honking huge spoiler that reveals the answer to one of the mysteries central to the plot of BH (which of course I will not repeat here).  

Bucket's emergence as a central figure has led to Bleak House being viewed as one of the earliest detective novels: a whodunnit that includes a murder mystery and ends with the revelation that almost every character is part of tangled web of secrets and lies.

I wouldn't want to read BH for the first time knowing the answer to a central question.

The Turning Point is a lovely book -- if it's a book for you. 

4.23.2022

we can stand with ukraine but i cannot stand the hypocrisy

Every day brings new images of war crimes and atrocities, destruction and suffering in Ukraine.

Every day brings new declarations of love and solidarity for the Ukrainian people.

And every day I shake my head and seethe over the hypocrisy of the US, US media, and of many Americans, wondering: Does any of this look familiar to you?

What is currently happening in Ukraine has happened in every single US-led invasion and occupation. Mass graves. Torture. Rape. Hospitals destroyed. Apartment buildings, schools and houses of worship bombed. The wholesale slaughter of civilians (sometimes referred to as "insurgents"). The US has done it all -- and not in the distant past. The US has spent the last two decades committing war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. The list of US invasions is very long, especially if you count the ones that supposedly didn't happen.

I am not suggesting that Ukrainians are not suffering. Nor am I rationalizing or excusing Putin's actions. That should be clear. These are war crimes -- horrific, heinous, unforgiveable.

And so it was when the perpetrator was the US.

If you stand with Ukraine, you should have stood with Iraq.

If you condemn Putin, you should have condemned Bush, Cheney, and Blair. After winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Obama bombed seven countries. Biden continues the tradition, condemning Putin while dropping bombs on Syria.

Americans were given rationalizations. First Iraq invaded Kuwait. Like Americans cared about Kuwait, or knew it existed? 

Iraq had weapons of mass destruction -- so said the only country to use weapons of mass destruction -- twice, and on civilians. Later, oops, turns out Iraq didn't have them after all. Of course the US knew that all along.

These excuses have a long, long history. Gulf of Tonkin. Remember the Maine. Get them over there before they get us over here. And don't forget good old humanitarian reasons. Hundreds of millions around the globe have been killed, maimed, displaced, and traumatized in the name of US's humanitarianism.

US media -- much of it owned by the corporations that benefit from endless war -- performed its usual sleight-of-hand, branding any dissent as unpatriotic, mindlessly parroting "support the troops", inviting former US military commanders to offer "analysis" while providing no serious discussion of alternatives, and ignoring the very existence of the peace movement.

And now, irony of ironies, the US media mocks how Russians are seeing the war portrayed in their state-run media. Here's a headline for you: U.S. says Russia trying to create pretext for imminent invasion. Do tell.

* * * * *

Note: the following was written in late February, shortly after news broke about the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

No US troops. No Canadian troops. No troops.

Some Canadians are calling on the government for military intervention in Ukraine. Naturally the spokespeople for Canadian Forces want that. That's their job.

The situation is mind-boggling and horrendous beyond description. Why would we want to add to the killing?

Perhaps it's easier for me to see this clearly, because it is usually my country of origin doing the invading and killing.

My friend WGH asked for some tips about how to talk about this, especially to a young person in their life who is in the military and eager to join the fray. I don't know if I have any sage advice, but here are my thoughts.

First and most importantly: we must question whether other countries getting involved militarily can actually help -- or whether that will only increase the risk of a much more widespread, prolonged, and possibly global war with Russia. In my view, the latter is much more likely.

We must ask, will killing Russian soldiers change Putin's directives? Does Putin care if Russian soldiers die? It would appear not. Killing a bunch of Russian military will only amount to more people dying.

Canadians like to believe that Canadian soldiers are deployed to protect civilians. In reality, the military is used to advance political agendas. If the war in Ukraine escalates and spreads, it will not be about Ukraine. It will be about global power -- and many, many, many more people will die.

The people who send troops to war are not the people who die in those wars. Our duty is to protect young people and not let them be sacrificed for goals that may not be achievable.

I'm greatly heartened and incredibly impressed by the anti-war protests in Russia. I know exactly how those people feel, watching helplessly as their own country commits war crimes. But Russians protest at much greater risk than I ever did.

This story from Vox outlines a number of ways the US (and, by extension, Canada) could help Ukraine without escalating the war.

Right now it seems the most important things to do are to tell the federal government that we do not want Americans and Canadians to intervene militarily -- but we do want our government to do everything we can to help Ukrainian refugees. And we can help refugees ourselves, by donating, by advocating for them, and by being a welcoming presence in our communities.

4.18.2022

how to fight and win: five things i've learned (thoughts while waiting for the results of a ratification vote)

Story about the strike here
Our bargaining unit has reached a tentative agreement and we have returned to work while we await the results of a ratification vote. 

We didn't get everything we wanted, of course, but we moved the employer a long way, far more than we would have gotten without taking job action. Perhaps more importantly in the long run, we demonstrated our willingness to push back and our ability to stand together to make the fightback successful.

I'm hoping that by not naming the employer in this post, I'll be able to record some general thoughts without getting hauled in front of a verbal firing squad -- especially since the organization is supposedly undergoing a culture shift.

I've now been directly involved with two successful rounds of bargaining and striking. Here are some things I've learned.

1. Building a successful strike takes years.

The seeds of both strikes were planted two years earlier. Both successes were the result of two full years of internal organizing. 

In Mississauga, a group of like-minded library workers, fed up with a weak union that was practically an arm of management, planned a democratic takeover. We were elected into positions of union leadership and began re-building the union from the ground up. 

This meant becoming much more responsive to members' needs -- fighting for members' concerns and being willing to grieve whenever necessary. It meant always making time for members, and if we couldn't resolve their issue, at least listening, empathizing, and educating. It meant hugely increasing communication, democracy, and transparency. 

In those days we called this "building member engagement".

2. Unhappy workers complain. Unhappy workers who are organized fight back.

In my more recent experience, member engagement gave way to "internal organizing," and became more methodical.

The previous bargaining committee knew there was internal work to do. They weren't happy with the outcome of bargaining, but they also knew that members would accept it -- that there was no appetite to do otherwise. This was before my time with this employer, but I understand they got to work immediately after ratification. 

In 2020, a group of librarians from the bargaining unit attended a week-long labour education event, part of the CLC Winter School. The BCGEU called the course Organizing Academy, and it was based on the work Jane McAlevey. Along with several other GEU bargaining units, we learned a step-by-step process to build worker power.

Since that time, we have remained in close touch about workplace issues -- for mutual support, guidance, feedback, planning, griping, building. Together, we attended Skills To Win, a virtual course sponsored by the University of California, Berkeley, Labor Center, taught by McAlevey herself, and attended by more than 500 activists all over North America. With that, we added a few more member to our core team.

Over two years, we engaged in internal organizing, using the methods we learned, plus our own understanding of our context. 

This is what built our strike.

3. Striking is transformative. The wins gained in the collective agreement are only the beginning.

It's very satisfying to win a better wage increase or language that improves working conditions. But I believe the most important takeaway from a successful strike is workers learning that they can do this. We don't have to say yes to whatever crumbs the employer offers. Striking is scary, but it doesn't kill you, and it can lead to great things. Workers learn the particular joy of solidarity, of walking the picket line together. (An unsuccessful strike, one that drags on and ends in defeat -- that's a different story, and I can't attest to what that leads to.)

Both of these strikes were firsts for the bargaining units. In both cases, the employer thought our members would never vote to strike, then that we'd never actually walk out, and again that we wouldn't be able to hold out for a better offer. Wrong on all counts! Presumably, then, the employers learned, too -- and that knowledge will exist on both sides of the table during future rounds of bargaining.

Striking is also personally transformative. Many members attested to the lasting impact of striking on their own confidence and worldview.

4. Bargaining and job action are a crucible for leadership.

I learned more about how to lead -- about my own strengths, and especially my own challenges and weaknesses -- during bargainng and striking than from any other experience in my life. Both filled me with pride and joy, and also brought painful lessons and some lasting regrets. Leaders must have the courage to get their ass kicked, learn, move on, and get it kicked some more.

5. If your union discourages you from job action, you need a new rep, new leadership, or a different union.

Support from the larger parent union is crucial for success. Strike pay is only the beginning. Logistical support, media and publicity, reaching out to the house of labour for picket line support, organizing solidarity events -- this is vital to a successful job action. Everyone wants to avoid striking if at all possible, but a strong union isn't afraid to take job action, and knows how to support members who are willing to walk. 

3.22.2022

in which i accommodate another quirk of small-town life: how to hand-wash a pea jacket

About a year ago, I blogged about some quirks of living in a remote region. It's always amusing, baffling, and occasionally annoying to cope with what is and is not available in our town.

There are two hardware stores and two pharmacies, but to buy dog food, we have to drive to the next town, 40 minutes away. There's a self-serve dog wash, but no laundromat.

The absence of a laundromat is significant: there are many people in our community who don't live in nice homes with their own washers and dryers, plus a sizeable number of hikers, fishers, and sailors, who come into town to re-stock. It appears that there was once a laundromat -- one of the many empty and abandoned storefronts -- but it hasn't been in business for at least 15 years. 

There is also no drycleaner in the entire North Island. Now that my work attire is even more casual than it was in a suburban library, and Allan works from home, we seldom need a drycleaner anymore. And now I'm careful not to buy any clothes that can't be washed at home. Drycleaning is expensive and bad for the environment, so this is a nice thing to give up.

But then there is my pea jacket. I love my pea jacket. It's a quality garment, in great condition, and could last a very long time. I only need a winter-weight jacket two or three weeks out of the year now. (My big warm parka gets even less use!) So I have no need to replace the pea jacket any time soon.

I would normally have the jacket drycleaned once a year. But that's no longer an option. So the jacket had been looking less and less fresh. Then it went from not fresh to dirty.  And dirtier. It really needed a refresh, and I didn't know what to do.

The internet told me it was possible to hand-wash a pea jacket. I was nervous! Would it shrink? Would it get horribly wrinkled? Would it take a month to dry? And would it really get clean? 

I'm pleased to say the answers were: no, no, no, and yes. Here are the steps I followed.

1. First I had to find a container big enough to hold a jacket without smushing it, and to allow good flow of water. I used the bathtub.

2. Then I used a lint roller on the jacket and pulled off random dog hair.

3. I put on rubber gloves. 

4. I stoppered the drain, and ran cold water into the tub, adding a handwash soap powder. I have Soak, which is awesome (thank you SFYS!), but I didn't think it would be strong enough. I also have some Forever New, and decided to use that. I'm not one to measure things like that, I just poured in some amount and swished it around in the cold water.

5. When the tub was about half full, I submerged the coat in the water. I laid it flat on the bottom of the tub, unbuttoned, with the sleeves on the sides.

6. I set a timer for 15 minutes. Most instructions for handwashing clothes suggest soaking for 15 minutes, so I went with that.

7. When the timer rang, I opened the drain, periodically running the water to let the suds drain.

8. Then, keeping the jacket lying flat, I ran cold water into the tub, and also used a flexible shower attachment to rinse the jacket. I was very pleased to see that the water was very dirty!

9. I rinsed the whole tub repeatedly, each time letting the water re-fill so the jacket was a bit submerged, then letting it drain. The water was less dirty with every rinse.

10. After five rinses, the water was clear -- not dirty, not sudsy.

11. I put a few towels on the bathroom floor, lifted the jack from under the sides -- cradling it so no part was hanging -- and laid it on the towels. This is very important! If you handwash anything made of wool, and hang it while it's wet, the entire garment will stretch out -- and it will never go back into shape. I learned this the hard way with a beautiful sweater my mother made me, in ancient times, pre-internet.

12. After laying the jacket flat on the towel-covered floor, I used dry towels to squeeze out some water, doing one sleeve or one panel at a time. I also carefully turned over the jacket and pressed a dry towel into the fabric on the back. Then I left the jacket on the floor with the bathroom window open. 

13. When it became inconvenient to have the bathroom floor covered by a wet pea jacket, I cradled the jacket again and put it on top of a clothes drying rack, careful to place the sleeves flat on the body of the jacket, not hanging down.

14. I left the jacket there for several days, turning it over, turning it inside-out, opening it, and so forth, as it dried. In a few days it was completely dry. 

The result: it looks great! The jacket looks fresh and clean. All the dirt and stains are gone, and it's not wrinkled at all. 

The only minor negative is the jacket now smells slightly like Forever New. I am very scent-sensitive, and normally use only fragrance-free products. I didn't realize Forever New has a mild scent; for bras and other small hand-washables, it's never been a problem. I might put the jacket back in the tub for another rinse or two, to reduce the smell.

All in all, this was not difficult, and the results were excellent. Thank you, internet!

3.18.2022

it's all about respect: why the librarians of vancouver island are taking job action

I have at least five posts in the works, but zero time to write them, because I am once again involved in a job action for library workers. I have refrained from writing about it thus far, but I feel a deep need to capture some of this on wmtc. 

In some ways, the context is much different from the 2016 strike I led against the City of Mississauga. That local comprised 400 members, ranging from Pages to Senior Librarians, and members of CUPE run their own local. We first had to break away from a composite local to re-establish our independence, and then had to forge solidarity in a large unit with greatly disparate interests, and very little trust in their union. It was a monumental undertaking -- and a hugely successful one.

My present situation is very different. I belong to BCGEU. The 48 members of my bargaining unit are all librarians with a professional designation. I am a member of the bargaining committee, but not steering our course as I did in my former role.

The frontline library workers in the system belong to CUPE. Union members have cultivated deep solidarity between the unions -- which makes this job action possible.

The two contexts demand different strategies, and different skills and experience.

Yet in many ways, the two job actions are extremely similar -- because in so many ways, all strikes and all labour disputes come down to the same thing. Workers want respect. We want respect for our labour and for our skills. 

The principal ways employers can show workers respect is by paying a living wage, and providing safe and humane working conditions. When either of these factors are lacking, and workers are fortunate enough to belong to a union, a job action may ensue.

Although I love my job as a librarian and library manager, I do not love the actions and attitudes of my employer. This story from my earliest days on the job perfectly illustrates some of the issues. I was not able to share it here, for reasons which will be obvious, but as we are now in job action, I've decided to communicate more freely. 

Day 1: communications

On my very first day on my new job, I was not told where to report. I was staying in the proper city, but there is more than one library branch in that city and I was never told where to go. 

I was supposed to meet administrators at 9:00 a.m. I had to wait in my hotel room until someone reported to work at 9:00, who could then pick up my messages and give me the required information. Then I had to drive to an unfamiliar place, find parking, get access to a building, and so forth. I was almost an hour late on my very first day.

The person who neglected to give me the information did tell the others why I was late. This can be viewed as a simple oversight, which it was. But after more than three years with this employer, I can tell you it is a whopping big pattern that is constantly and consistently repeated. I'll exercise restraint and call it "internal communication problems".

Day 2: interpersonal

The following day I was meeting a high-level administrator at a different location. She gave me directions and told me how to access the staff entrance. I misunderstood her directions and waited at the wrong door. It was December and I was waiting outside for 45 minutes. My phone (still with an out-of-province provider) was going straight to voicemail so I wasn't getting her calls.

Eventually a call got through, and I hurried to her office, full of apologies. This was her greeting: I've been waiting for an hour! My whole morning is messed up! Where were you? I was so taken aback, I struggled to explain what I thought. She spat her answer through gritted teeth: You need to take better notes!

I was dumbstruck. I thought of how I would have handled such an occurrence, with a new employee who was also new to the area and the entire system. How any decent supervisor would respond. 

Day 7: trust, respect, priorities

The following week, my manager told me I was invited to a meeting with them, their own manager, and the top administrator (the person from Day 2). My manager was acting very strangely, not making eye contact, and left in a hurry. I had no idea why.

A union steward had been assigned to the meeting. Again, I had no idea what was going on. The steward also didn't know. 

The way the chairs were arranged in the meeting, I was sitting alone, facing four people. The union steward was not sitting beside me. (Note to stewards: don't do this.) The subject of the meeting? A blog post I had written praising my new job and new employer. I was read the riot act and received notice that I was to change or remove certain aspects of the post. (I removed the post completely.)

Note that the post was laudatory. Note, too, that I had no local contacts, so there was almost no chance that library users would read the post. No matter. I had mentioned the name of the library system, and for that, I was subjected to an inquisition.

The steward confirmed that the matter was not disciplinary because no policy regarding social media had been shown to me. My head was spinning. So this might have been disciplinary?? I documented a blow-by-blow account of a strike against my former employer, and I was never met with discipline.

Every day, all the days: autonomy, trust, respect, safety, cost of living

Like nurses and teachers, librarians struggle against a lack of professional autonomy. (Gee, what do these three professions have in common??) 

Our employers frequently limit our decision-making capacities. 

Deskilling and deprofessionalization are constant concerns. 

We are not consulted or included in decisions that impact us, our staff, and our branches. Decisions are made by people who don't understand the realities of frontline public service.

We struggle with workload, as staffing models are skeletal, but plans and goals are voluminous.

We are treated disrespectfully, and our working conditions are often unsafe and scary.

And then there is the cost of living. In 2021, the cost of living rose 4.8% in Canada. So far this year it's even worse. No wage increase can keep up, but more is needed to help us cope.

Some of these issues can be mitigated by provincial safety codes, when staff are vigilant and hold employers accountable. 

Some of these issues can be mitigated through collective agreements.

That's why we're on strike.

3.01.2022

12 reasons bojack horseman is my favourite show of all time (thoughts after re-watch)

Allan and I first watched "BoJack Horseman" in real time, from 2014 to January 2020. We liked it from the start, but as the show deepened in meaning and intensity, we became increasingly invested, amazed, moved, and sometimes awed. 

At times BH became so emotionally intense, we would be left stunned and weeping at the end of an episode, especially (as we started to notice) the penultimate episode of each season. Yet the show is a comedy -- and remains funny throughout.

A few months ago, we re-watched the show straight through, all six seasons. The re-watch confirmed my conclusion that this is simply the best series ever made. In the title of this post, I've edited that statement into "my favourite show". But in my mind, it's simply the best, ever.*

Here's why.

1. It's hilarious. BH uses every kind of humour -- incisive satire, zany sight gags, dark head-shakers, silly shtick, and of course, an endless array of animal puns. 

One of the show's running sight-gags

On the rewatch, we paused to capture all the incidental background humour, the kind pioneered by Matt Groening in The Simpsons -- names of stores, titles of books, road signs. One read: "Stop pausing and just watch the show!"

2. It's a brilliant send-up of the entertainment industry -- skewering it, but also peeling back the obvious to explore the hunger that drives it.

3. It voices so much truth. Characters voice intimate, raw, emotional truths -- truths that grab your heart, truths that you recognize with a gasp, a pang. Every episode seems to contain at least one of these moments -- yet it never feels forced or overdone, because. . .

Emotional truths: talks on the roof

4. BH is character-driven. The characters are complex -- even the seemingly simple ones. They journey, they struggle, they grow, or they don't. All hilariously. And painfully. You know them. You care.

5. It's original. BH employs an incredibly inventive, original, and effective use of animation, far beyond what's used in most adult-animation shows. There are some eye-popping, show-stopping episodes, such as the incredible "Fish Out of Water," that have gotten a lot of attention. But there are many bold techniques: an animation-within-animation style used in certain flashback scenes, a night-sky background attached to a specific emotional memory, a character's face covered by crude scribbles. This show could only have been created with animation. 

6. It's complex. BH is the best treatment of the nexus of childhood trauma, mental health, self-loathing, and addiction that I've ever seen -- a kaleidoscopic view that forces us to think, re-think, and think again. 

A visual effect signalling... something
7. It explores the big existential questions. How do we live with the knowledge of our own mortality? Why am I here, does my life have meaning? How do we embrace love and hope, knowing that our time is so short? How can I live with my mistakes? And yep, this is a comedy.

8. BH demands compassion. BoJack is a self-absorbed asshole. He does some terrible things. But the more we understand him, the more we root for him, the more we want others to forgive him, but. . .

9. BH demands accountability. Trauma might turn some people into abusive assholes, but that doesn't excuse their behaviour, because, guess what, everyone has suffered. All the assholes, and all the nice people, too, so. . .

This might be the best 20 minutes of TV you ever see.
10. The ground keeps shifting. Because it's all true, at the same time. Which tells us that we must find a way to bring compassion, treat each other with care, forgive each other when we can, forgive ourselves, but also accept the consequences when we inevitably fall short. 

Each of these 10 preceding reasons are part of why I love this show. But the most astonishing thing about BoJack Horseman is that. . .

11. It does all these things at the same time. I have never laughed so much and wept so much from the same show. And. . .

12. It does everything right. Six seasons, 77 episodes, and barely a misstep or a sour note or a false moment. An absolute triumph. 

Thank you Raphael Bob-Waksberg and Lisa Hanawalt! And thank you, Will Arnett. The role of a lifetime.


------

* This position was previously held by "The Larry Sanders Show". . . and the two have much in common. 

Bonus track: two references to abortion as a positive force in a woman's life, the right decision without regret. I will be forever grateful.

2.27.2022

frank showler: called to be faithful

 

Frank Showler, born in 1919, died last week at the age of 102. 

Frank was a foundational figure in the social-justice activist community, seemingly participating in every demonstration, rally, vigil, and campaign. It was a universal saying: It's not a demo until Frank shows up. And show up he did, to an astonishing degree.

Frank didn't just show up for causes. He showed up for people. He was one of the warmest, most generous, compassionate people I have ever met. Although everyone around me had known each other for many years, and I was a newcomer, Frank made me feel like an old friend. To Frank, no one was an outsider.

I met Frank through the War Resisters Support Campaign, which fought for the right of former soldiers who refused to participate in the invasion and occupation of Iraq to remain legally in Canada. I am incredibly fortunate that my path intersected with Frank's. The years of our friendship were but a small portion of his long life, but a treasured part of mine, a part of great value. (I feel this way about all my war resister campaign friends.) 

Frank was a World War II war resister. For refusing to fight, he was arrested and sentenced to a series of work camps. When he was assigned alternative service working in a hospital, he organized the low-wage orderlies.

Doing refugee work in South America, Frank met Isabel, the beginning of a lifelong partnership in love and in movements. By the time I met Frank, Isabel had already died. But most people knew them as Frank and Isabel, inseparable.

Long ago, I wrote about an event Allan and I attended in Toronto, called "I Object: Three Generations of War Resisters Speak Out" (post is here; comments are missing). Although I am an atheist to my core, I will never forget something Frank said that night: War is contrary to the mind of Christ. A minister with the United Church, pacifist at the time, told him that. The church changed its unpopular stance, but Frank said he saw no evidence that Jesus had changed his mind. 

If you asked Frank, how do you keep going -- bearing witness, protecting the weak, fighting for the disenfranchised, speaking out against war -- when the problems are so huge, and the powers are so great, he would reply: We are not necessarily called to be successful. We are called to be faithful.

Although I do not have religious faith, I hear this as a call to live our values. Something to always strike for, however imperfect our efforts.

Yesterday I attended a Quaker meeting (on Zoom) that was a memorial to Frank Showler. Everyone who spoke told the same type of stories. It was clear how deeply he will be missed. I encourage you to take some time and scroll through some of these Facebook posts memorializing him.

I was incredibly fortunate to know Frank, and I will miss him. 

Frank Showler, ¡Presente!

2.21.2022

what i'm reading: four lost cities: a secret history of the urban age by annalee newitz

Wmtc readers may know that I am endlessly fascinated with ancient civilizations. Allan and I will go anywhere to see ruins from antiquity or Neolithic sites. My desire to see the remains of ancient civilizations has driven much of our travel, and the list of places I still want to go (most of which I will likely not see) are all sites of ruins or past civilizations. I wrote about ancient civilizations for a children's encyclopedia series, and discovered so much of the world through that research.

Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age by Annalee Newitz is a terrific book for anyone who shares this fascination. Newitz visits four sites of past societies: Çatalhöyük (Turkey), Pompeii (Italy), Angkor (Cambodia), and Cahokia (United States). She interviews archaeologists around the world, and reviews the latest research, much of which questions and contradicts previously held ideas about these places and the people who built them. 

Unlike most archaeology of previous eras, current studies focus on the lives of ordinary people, rather than the elites. Studies are driven by data, rather than biases and preconceptions about values. She writes: "In a sense, data archaeology represents the democratization of history. It's about looking at what the masses did, and trying to reconstruct their social and even psychological lives." 

The book is written in a light, breezy style, and full of fascinating insights and factoids. 

In Çatalhöyük, the Neolithic settlement in modern-day Turkey, tiny living spaces were jammed together in a honeycomb of cells -- accessed through the roof, via ladders. The door to the outside was on the ceiling. 

The people of Çatalhöyük did not value material wealth or an elite based on material goods. This is interesting, but less remarkable when one considers that they settled there after a nomadic existence. Hunter-gatherer and nomadic societies can't amass material goods: it would be antithetic to their survival.

In Pompeii, "middlers" -- a proto- middle class -- were formed by liberti, former slaves who participated in Roman society, and whose children became citizens. Although I've been to Pompeii and the nearby (and even more fascinating) Ercolano, I had no idea that the Roman government organized relief and re-settlement efforts on behalf of the survivors of the cataclysms of 79 CE.

For me, the most remarkable stories in Four Lost Cities are from Cahokia. I've seen some ancient mounds, as these North American earthworks are known, along the Natchez Trace in Mississippi. And I know about so-called Hopewell Culture in what is now southwest Ohio. But I had no idea that a huge archaeological excavation has been unfolding in Illinois.

A thousand years ago, huge pyramids and earthen mounds stood where East St. Louis sprawls today in southern Illinois. Majestic urban architecture towered over the sticky mud of the Mississippi River floodplains, and elevated walkways wound between densely packed neighborhoods, public plazas, and outlying farms. Ceremonial poles, painted and adorned with ritual objects, were planted in mound tops like signposts. The city was so impressive that word about it spread up and down the Mississippi and its tributaries, from Wisconsin down to Louisiana. Thousands of people came to the city, drawn by tales of its elaborate parties, pageants, and games. Some came to have fun, but others were in search of a new kind of civilization. Many visitors were so impressed that they never left.

The city became an immigrant sanctuary, its neighborhoods bursting with people drawn from cultures all across the southern United States. At the city's apex in 1050, the population exploded to as many as 30,000 people. It was the largest pre-Columbian city in what later became known as north America, and bigger than Paris at the time.

Unfortunately, Newitz doesn't adequately explain how much of this is known. Population size and trade routes are relatively easy to understand, based on what is found in a given site and the origins of those materials. But how do archeologists know why people migrated to a site? If this knowledge is indeed based on data, rather than assumptions, I would have liked more explanation of what led to these conclusions. 

The book does touch on some of the process -- laser technologystratigraphy, sophisticated soil analysis -- but I could have used more distinction between what is known and what is hypothesis.

At the end of the book, Newitz devotes an entire chapter to a takedown of Jared Diamond, author of Collapse and Guns, Germs, and Steel, among other books. I am a huge fan of both of those books, and while I understand that many prominent researchers disagree with Diamond's theories, this bit felt unnecessary and out of context. It also at least partially misrepresents Diamond's premise. And of course Diamond has no opportunity to respond. 

Some of the criticism simply makes no sense. Newitz paraphrases an archaeologist who says:

And when it comes to Mayan "collapse," they point out that there are still millions of Mayans living in Mexico. Can a culture that still thrives really be said to have collapsed?

Diamond didn't say the Mayan people were extinct. Nor did he say their entire culture was obliterated. He wrote about the disappearance of the Mayan empire -- the organized society that built Chichen Itza, Tulum, Palenque, and dozens of other ceremonial sites. That empire most certainly did disappear, and it was already gone when Spain began its conquest of the area. The fact that there are still descendants of the people who built that empire does not prove otherwise. 

Perhaps, as Newitz claims, Diamond has misled the public. Perhaps his theories are out of step with current archaeological thought (which doesn't necessarily make them wrong). Regardless, the portion of this book that supposedly responds to Diamond's theories seems misplaced and out of context.

Strangely, Four Lost Cities is marketed and promoted as something it is not. It is not a book about lessons that can be gleaned from the practices of past civilizations. On that topic, there are a few paragraphs at the very end of the book, but they are vague and entirely speculative statements one finds in general conclusions.

Perhaps, like the people of Pompeii, we'll muster relief efforts that help people rebuild in new places. We might attempt to design a radically different kind of metropolis, like Domuztepe, that continues the traditions of the previous ones while incorporating new ideas. Maybe this process will lead to more sustainable cities built in places that can resist the worst effects of climate change. That might sound like a Utopian impossibility, but not if we learn from our urban failures.

I wonder at the publishing decisions that led to this, as misrepresenting a book's subject matter could only lead to confusion or disappointment. 

Despite this minor complaints, I very much enjoyed Four Lost Cities and recommend it if the subject matter interests you. Or if you dislike the work of Jared Diamond.

2.04.2022

what i'm reading: the uninhabitable earth by david wallace-wells: a handbook for despair

The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells is a book about the not-distant future: what will happen to the planet as climate change continues.

I waited a long time to read this book -- first because of a very long waitlist at the library, but later because I was so ambivalent about reading it. When I finally had the book in my hands, I read the introduction... and was stopped cold. I felt a great weight of futility: whatever knowledge I would gain from reading this book would be utterly useless.

And so, full disclosure: this is a "what i'm reading" post about a book I didn't fully read. In 18 years of writing wmtc, this is a first.

Instead, I did the librarian readers' advisory read: first chapter, some random paragraphs throughout the book, conclusion. 

My failure to read the entire book is absolutely no reflection on the book itself. In fact, it's the opposite: a tribute to the power and effectiveness of Wallace-Wells' research and writing. 

New Dewey classification: nonfiction horror

Tl;dr? Climate change is much, much worse than you think, and is occurring much, much faster than you think. The final boarding call has already been sounded. The Save Humanity Express is leaving the station. But it hasn't quite departed. If we all run really, really fast, there is still a small window of time to save what we can. But only if everyone is onboard.

The book is based on all the available science, and is impeccably researched. The author's truth-telling is meant to sound the alarm by painting a clear picture of what anthrogenic (human-caused) climate change will actually look like, as it continues to worsen around the globe. 

In the introduction, Wallace-Wells offers a few different scenarios, including a worst-case (eight degrees) that he says is unlikely to happen. Then he writes:

Between that scenario and the world we live in now lies only the open question of human response. Some amount of further warming is already baked in, thanks to the protracted processes by which the planet adapts to greenhouse gas. But all of those paths projected from the present -- to two degrees, to three, to four, five, or even eight -- will be carved overwhelmingly by what we choose to do now. There is nothing stopping us from four degrees other than our own will to change course, which we have yet to display. . . .

The devastation we are now seeing all around us is a beyond-best-case scenario for the future of warming and all the climate disasters it will bring.

What that means is that we have not, at all, arrived at a new equilibrium. It is more like we have taken one step out on the plank off a pirate ship. Perhaps because of the exhausting false debate about whether climate change is "real," too many of us have the developed a misleading impression that its effects are binary. But global warming is not "yes" or "no," nor is it "today's weather forever" or "doomsday tomorrow". It is a function that gets worse over time as we continue to produce greenhouse gas. . . . The last few years of climate disasters may look like about as much as the planet can take. In fact, we are only just entering our brave new world, one that collapse below us as soon as we set foot on it.

And this is where my hopelessness kicks in.

The opposite of hope

My own understanding of history, both ancient and modern, lead me to have zero hope. 

The degree of collective will and cooperation that it would take to meaningfully slow and halt climate change do not exist and are extremely unlikely to be formed. I say "extremely unlikely" rather than "will not" because I am not so arrogant as to predict the future. However, nothing that I'm aware of, in the history of the world, leads me to any other conclusion.

The knowledge exists. The means exist. The will exists in some people. And the power exists in some people. But the will and the power do not exist in the same sectors. And the powers that oppose -- and will continue to strenuously oppose -- the massive shift in power and priorities required are enormous and ubiquitous. 

Global cooperation does not exist. Global concern for humans does not exist. Billions of people around the globe have not been vaccinated against covid-19. First-world countries have not shared their resources to vaccinate people in poorer countries on the necessary scale. Even though it would help all of humanity if everyone on earth was vaccinated against covid, this does not happen. Such a vaccination effort would be incredibly simple compared to the global cooperation necessary to halt climate change, but still, it is not done.

Humanity has not collectively decided that every human being deserves the three most important resources to sustain life: adequate shelter, adequate food, and clean water. Millions upon millions lack these worldwide, including so many in the wealthiest countries in the world. The resources exist, the knowledge exists. The will to make this happen -- both globally and in our own backyards -- does not.

If the world can't manage this, how could it possibly marshal the collective will and resources to halt climate change?

Wallace-Wells includes many reviews or roundups of beliefs, literature, and attitudes about climate change. Paragraphs are crammed with thickets of name-checks. I suspect most readers will not be familiar with his references, and it smacks a bit of showing off. 

In the meantime, environmental panic is growing, and so is despair. Over the last several years, as unprecedented weather and unrelenting research have recruited more voices to the army of environmental panic, a dour terminological competition has sprung up amoung climate writers, aiming to coin the new clarifying language -- in the mode of Richard Heinbert's "toxic knowledge" or Kris Bartkus's "Malthusian tragic" -- to give epistemological shape to the demoralizing, or demoralized, response of the rest of the world. 

The author lists with various attributions: eco-nihilism, climate nihilism, climatic regime, climate fatalism, ecocide, and "making a psychoanalytic argument against the relentless public-facing optimism of enviromental advocacy, ...'human futilitarianism'". 

Giving the author the benefit of every doubt, I can assume this book is meant to horrify us into action, but for me it has quite the opposite effect. Human futilitarianism indeed.

What can "we" do, the individual

Of course I still believe we must do what we can. But what difference will it make: that, I do not know. 

Are we all doing what we can? Being totally honest, I can't say that I am. Can you?

I try to be environmentally conscious in my choices. Like most people I know, I make many small-scale green choices all the time. But do I seriously inconvenience myself or radically change my lifestyle? I fly to visit family and friends, and one day I hope to travel again. If I have the opportunity to travel to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat, would I go? Absolutely I would. Life is short. I want to do the things I want to do. And: I have no belief that sacrificing a meaningful vacation will reduce greenhouse emissions in any meaningful way.

This is the kind of thing, when I had a large readership, that I would get roasted for. Entitlement, leftist hypocrite, blah blah blah. But I'm just being honest. As container ships criss-cross the globe by the hundreds of thousands, as businesspeople and honeymooners and touring musicians and politicians fly all over the globe, as North American consumers buy cheap, guaranteed-to-fall-apart-and-need-replacing goods made in China, would my sacrifice amount to anything? 

If there were no air travel, it would make a difference. We saw that during the global covid lockdown, when air and water quality improved around the planet. But -- being uncomfortably honest here -- I am not prepared to voluntarily sacrifice something I love, something that gives my life meaning, for future eventualities. 

In this I believe I am like most people. I am punting to the next generation.

But here's my more important bottom line: each individual concerned person could do every individual green act possible, but without a shift away from capitalism, no substantial progress will be made. Until and unless private profit is removed from the equation, we will not halt and reverse climate change. 

What can "we" do, the corporate and political

In the end, Wallace-Wells doesn't so much as draw a conclusion as make a statement. 

But, all told, the question of how bad things will get is not actually a test of the science; it is a bet on human activity. How much will we do to stall disaster, and how quickly?

These are the only questions that matter. . . .

The emergent portrait of suffering is, I hope, horrifying. It is also, entirely, elective. If we allow global warming to proceed, and to punish us with all the ferocity we have fed it, it will be because we have chosen that punishment -- collectively walked down a path of suicide. If we avert it, it will be because we have chosen to walk a different path, and endure. . . .

Instead, we assign the task to future generations, to dreams of magical technologies, to remote politicians doing a kind of battle with profiteering delay. This is why this book is also studded so oppressively with "we," however imperious it may seem. The fact that climate change is all-enveloping means it targets all of us, and that we must all share in the responsiblity so we do not all share in the suffering -- at least not all share in so suffocatingly much of it.

That we may be the solution, but it is also the problem.

How can we do this? Where is the lever I can pull, the party I can vote for, the alternative reality I can enter, where "we" collectively solve the world's problems? 

Can we build affordable housing near well-paid jobs, to end the long, carbon-spewing commutes that plague most North American lives? 

Can we build huge amounts of affordable, reliable, public transit? 

Can we choose to buy locally-made consumer goods, to curtail global shipping routines... when there are none? Even the most strenuous effort to "buy local" will provide only a small fraction of first-world needs.

Can we force corporations to manufacture locally, which would create millions of jobs and drastically reduce emissions? 

For each of these questions: can a political party that calls for this be elected, and if it was, could it succeed? No and no. The forces aligned against it would be far too powerful. Democracy -- as currently practiced, laden with corporate interests and the governments who do their bidding -- is incompatible with the will needed to halt climate change. 

Many of my friends answer this question with a call to revolution. I agree that nothing short of revolution could bring about the necessary changes. But even those who call for revolution don't agree on what a post-revolutionary world should or would look like. And even if we did agree, "we" -- the forces for good, so to speak -- don't have the power to create that post-revolutionary green world, as opposed to the many other less desirable outcomes that (history shows) are more typical of revolutions.

Wallace-Wells writes:

There will be those, as there are now, who rage against fossil capitalists and their political enablers; and others, as there are now, who lament human short-sightedness and decry the consumer excesses of contemporary life. There will be those, as there are now, who fight as unrelenting activists, with approaches as diverse as federal lawsuits and aggressive legislation and small scale protests of new pipelines; nonviolent resistance; and civil-rights crusades. And there will be those, as there are now, who see the cascading suffering and fall back into an inconsolable despair. There will be those, as there are now, who insist that there is only one way to respond to the unfolding ecological catastrophe -- one productive way, one responsible way.

This book needs a warning sticker: guaranteed to damage your mental health. I doubt the author's purpose was to advance fatalism and despair, but that's what they've done.