Tag Archives: California

Why Are Humans Such Slow Learners?

Here in California, the prospect of Thanksgiving has been tarnished by the series of disasters that have hit the state. Wildfires are raging in both Northern and Southern  parts of the state. And the effects of the fires are felt widely. Even in San Francisco, which is miles away from the nearest fire, the smell of smoke hovers over us and this week the sky has an ominous yellowy-greenish hue, schools are closed, people wear masks and still they cough.

The wildfires are only one example of the way the natural world has been changing our view of the power of nature. The long, hot summer and disastrous hurricanes have affected the lives of people throughout the country. All the measures that we have taken to tailor weather to our preferences are failing us. We can’t spend all of our time hunkering down in our air-conditioned houses and cars. Nature is taking its revenge and forcing us to consider how we live and work.

Climate change is an undeniable fact, yet we still elect politicians who refuse to recognize what’s going on. Why do some politicians find it so difficult to accept scientific facts?  And why do voters, even in a year of Democratic triumphs like these midterms, continue to vote against measures that might help? A recent article in the Atlantic Monthly tells us how difficult it has been to confront the realities of climate change.

It’s not as though the idea of climate change hasn’t been discussed for years. The medieval idea that the world is unchanging and that human beings have no influence on it was challenged more than 200 years ago by Alexander von Humboldt, one of the greatest scientists the world has ever known, although much of his work has been forgotten.

Born in 1769, Humboldt traveled to South America in 1800 to explore nature and culture in the Spanish colonies there. When he saw the changes that Europeans has brought to the country by cutting down forests and cultivating lands, he developed his theories of how men affect climate. “When forests are destroyed, as they are everywhere in America by the European planters, …the springs are dried up or become less abundant.”  He noted how this allowed the soil to be washed away during heavy rains, causing erosion and a loss of fertile soil

Knowledge is a slow-growing plant, but Humboldt was one of those people who planted ideas that have blossomed during the centuries since he started his explorations. We are lucky this year to have a new biography of Alexander von Humboldt available. Andrea Wulf, has explored Humboldt’s life and ideas in The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in seeing how scientific ideas have developed over the years and learning more about the people who have given us our modern view of the world. 

Scientists have known for many years that people are changing the world and that much of that change makes the world smaller and less livable. Our demand for fossil fuels have fostered changes in the climate that threaten us all. For a while there was hope that America would act to lower our carbon impact, but instead we are turning away from all the facts that scientists have been explaining to us for centuries. For a recent update on how the world is going, you can read Bill McKibbon’s article in the current New Yorker magazine.

Perhaps if enough people read that article, Americans will come together and push their politicians into action. Then by next Thanksgiving we might truly have something to be thankful for.

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Fathers and Sons Rule

The United States was founded by a group of men who wanted to do away with hereditary rulers. Leaders were supposed to come from out of the group of men naturally qualified to lead—the well-established, well-educated elites. They were to be

John-Adams

John Adams

 

the voters who chose the best among them to lead the country. The population of the country was small, just below 4,000,000 in 1790 when the first census was taken, so perhaps it was not strange that various members of the same family became leaders. John Adams, the second president, was eventually followed by his son, John Quincy Adams, who became the country’s sixth president.  It was a long time before the next father/son pair took the presidency—George H.W. Bush became the 41st president in 1988 and his son George W. Bush followed became the 43rd to hold the office in 2000.  By this time the population of the country had grown to 180,000,000. With so many people to choose from the chances of seeing many more such pairs seems slim.

Until recently, I had never seen a study of how fathers and sons who governed the same community have influenced one another, but now we have an account of how a father-son pair of governors in California did that. Miriam Pawel’s book The Browns of California tells the story of Pat Brown and his son Jerry Brown who were governors during half a century of California’s history.

When Pat Brown became governor of California in 1959, the population of the state was ten and a half million—more than twice as large as the entire country was when John Adams served as president. California was a relatively young state, at least compared with states on the Eastern Seaboard. The infrastructure had to be developed and a young population was eager to have a strong educational system. Pat Brown united the state, or at least enough of the voters, to develop a viable water system for the parched state and a system of highways connecting the large and diverse population. Under his leadership California instituted the country’s largest university system berkeley_lecture_hall_sticky

 

and a strong pre-college school system to prepare students for higher education.

By the time Pat Brown left office in 1967, the mood of the country had changed. The Vietnam War highlighted cultural divisions and led to unexpected violence. The mood of the country was shifting from the euphoria of post-WWII to the resentment and fears of a growing and ever more diverse population. By the time Pat’s son, Jerry Brown first became governor in 1975, some of his father’s policies seemed to be outdated and doomed. The population of the state had doubled again to over 23 million and taxpayers were beginning to revolt against the high taxes needed to support the state’s services.

Jerry Brown’s second tenure as governor, which will end this year, brought even more dramatic changes. Governor Jerry Brown has been a strong voice in the country and the world to call attention to the dangers of climate change and the need for new and less destructive ways of life. It is fascinating to see in this book how some of his father’s positions continue to dominate the state and how the son has changed and modified others to meet the current situation. His experience in local politics, perhaps especially his experience as mayor of Oakland, led him to value local control of some policies, while others, such as climate change, need to be supported internationally.

For anyone concerned with government and policy, whether in California or elsewhere, I strongly recommend The Browns of California. It is easy to read and filled with valuable insights into the way our world works.

 

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What’s the weather like?

Here in northern California we have been preoccupied by the wildfires that are threatening homes and property in many parts of the state. Even in San Francisco, which is miles away from the nearest fire, the vague smell of smoke hovers over us and on weather_Wildfiressome days the sky in the morning has an ominous yellowy-greenish hue. City dwellers are sometimes thought to be immune to changes in the natural world, but nature has intruded on us this year and we have become preoccupied by it.

The wildfires in so many western states—made much worse by the hot, dry weather that has prevailed—are only one example of the way the natural world has been changing our view of the power of nature. The long, hot summer and the disastrous hurricanes have affected the lives of people throughout the country. And the hurricane season has only started. All the measures that we have taken to tailor weather to our preferences are failing us. We can’t spend all of our time hunkering down in our air-conditioned houses and cars. Nature is taking its revenge and forcing us to consider how we live and work.

Last year when I visited London, I bought a book called Weatherland: Writers and artists under English Skies. The author, Alexandra Harris, traces the history of the way writers and artists have been influenced by English weather over the centuries. The ever-changing British weather has encouraged a deep interested in tracking the vagaries of

weather_georgian-interior

Georgian drawing room

 

changes in the weather. Even architecture has been impacted. The warm summers of the 1720s and 1730s, as reported by Harris, have been suggested as an incentive to introduce the neoclassical style buildings in cities like Bath. Although as she explains the “high ceilings and open colonnades were considerably less appealing” when the average chilly English climate reappeared in later years.

The 19th century was one that brought dampness and rain to much of England. Byron wrote “Morn came and went and came, and brought no day,/And men forgot their passions in the dread…” As the century went on and cities grew in size and density, rain and fog became a part of the plot as in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House  in which rain falls throughout the first twelve chapters and weather seems to become an integral character in the story.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that the influence of people on the weather was recognized as being as important as the influence of weather on people. The use of fossil fuels and the growth

weather_smog1952

Smog 1952

of manufacturing led to increasing episodes of smog both in England and America. The culmination, for London, was the great smog of  December 1952 which killed several thousand people. At last the general public began to pay attention and the first Clean Air Act was passed in 1956.

Now we are again to be in an era when mankind is impacting weather so strongly that once again people throughout the world are in danger. Climate change is causing rising temperatures for oceans and land. Unprecedented storms are increasing in numbers and violence. Deserts are expanding in Africa and coastlines are receding as the oceans rise. Although our national government has become reluctant to act on the clear danger, if enough people push hard enough, we will be able to stop the reckless policies of our so-called leaders and insist on regulations to limit the worst effects of these changes.

Reading Wonderland won’t give you a background in climate science, but it is a great reminder of how important weather has always been in the life of human beings.

 

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