How Sex, Politics, Money and Religion are Killing Planet Earth

Monday, March 26, 2012

Dick Cheney - A heartless man gets an undeserved second chance

I was listening to NPR this morning, as they discussed Dick Cheney’s recent heart transplant this past Saturday. The news pushed me to tears. The 71 year old Cheney is an anomaly in the transplant business, where scarce, vital organs are usually reserved for younger patients. The reason for the age discrimination is no mere ageism. Young people are much more likely to survive the surgery and aftermath of rehabilitation. Additionally, ethical considerations suggest that young people, who may otherwise have decades of life ahead of them, deserve a chance to live into the old age that older heart patients have enjoyed. At 71, Cheney is only a few years shy of the 74.8 years that is the normal life expectancy for an American man. I can’t help but feel that the heart that now beats in Cheney’s chest could have been put to much better purpose somewhere else.
Portrait of a Heartless Man

Here is a short but not comprehensive review of Dick Cheney’s accomplishments:

·      Cheney engineered the illegal invasion of a sovereign country (Iraq) by deliberately fabricating and manipulating evidence to suggest that the country was obtaining “weapons of mass destruction,” with the intention of using them against the United States. This action resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives in addition to the lives of thousands of US armed servicemen and women (callous disregard for human life).

·      When Joseph Wilson revealed in an op-ed entitled “What I didn’t find in Africa,” that the Bush Administration’s insistence that Saddam Hussein was seeking to buy uranium in Africa was blatantly false, Cheney masterminded a contemptuous payback by outing Wilson’s wife Valerie Plame. The revelation of Plame’s position as a covert officer of the CIA, placed her in danger and was a direct violation of US law (vindictiveness).

·      As a shareholder and former CEO of Halliburton Inc., Cheney made sure that his dividend-granting cronies were first in line to pick at the carcasses of the above manufactured conflict in Iraq (and Afghanistan) for his own personal gain (greed).

·      Human Rights Watch issued a report suggesting that Cheney be investigated for ordering the abuse of detainees that amounted to torture (war crimes).

·       More recently, Cheney pushed through legislation, known not ironically as “the Halliburton Exemption,” that exempts environmentally disastrous fracking for natural gas from any regulation under the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. Large scale contamination of air and water resources wherever fracking occurs has resulted (crimes against nature).

Cheney’s struggle with heart disease comes as no surprise when viewed with a bit of insight from the ancient wisdom of Eastern mysticism. The fourth chakra, Anahata, related to love, compassion and forgiveness, flows from the heart center of a body. According to the ancient wisdom, diseases of the spirit in the form of petty vindictiveness, selfishness, fear and hatred manifest themselves physically in the fourth chakra as heart disease.

Cheney suffered his first heart attack in his late 30s just as he was beginning his political career as a Representative from the state of Wyoming. During his tenure in Congress, he voted against the establishment of the Department of Education. He voted against imposing economic sanctions on South Africa’s apartheid regime, and voted against a non-binding Congressional resolution requesting the South African government release Nelson Mandela from prison. As secretary of defense, he oversaw the invasion of another sovereign state, Panama, and Operation Desert Storm. Throughout his political career of denying justice to suppressed peoples and violent overthrowing of others, he suffered a total of five heart attacks and had quadruple bypass surgery, angioplasty and an artificial heart pump implanted in his chest. The metaphoric perfection of Cheney’s heartless legacy is chilling.  

As Cheney pours his karma into this new heart, he will no doubt strangle this one to death in the process too. Some younger, deserving heart patient, whose actions haven’t resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocents, will likely never reach the age of 71 as a result. If my loved one’s heart was now beating in the chest of that monster, my grief would be compounded exponentially. That grieving family has my sincerest condolences. 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Vernal Equinox 2012 - The First Day of Hot Spring in a Climate-Challenged World

 Bluebirds are a sign of spring; warm weather and gentle south breezes they bring

The bluebirds have been here since January, but today we officially enter into the season of spring, ending what has been the fourth warmest winter ever recorded in the United States. The vernal equinox usually marks the end of freezing weather and darkness of the soul and wider world. As the earth gently tilts back towards the sun, it brings the hope of the rebirth of spring. For those of us who have been enjoying spring-like temperatures all winter, this usually joyous date is overshadowed by a feeling of foreboding.

If we are enjoying spring in winter,
and summer in spring,
then what will the days of summer bring?

If the balmy weather was just another statistical anomaly in an otherwise normal decade, we could rejoice in our good fortune, but instead it marks another piece of confirming evidence in a long line of similar evidence of hottest years and hottest decades in history. The unanimous predictions of climate scientists are coming to eerie fruition. We have broken earth’s climate.

Right now, the concentration of carbon dioxide in earth’s atmosphere is approximately 394 parts per million. This figure is two parts per million more than last year at this time, and this trend of a 2 ppm increase per year has been fairly consistent over the past several decades. Before the dawn of fossil fuel driven industrial revolution, carbon dioxide concentrations had been relatively stable at approximately 280 ppm for thousands of years, with minor fluctuations attributable to volcanic eruptions and other phenomena.

There is no doubt that carbon dioxide acts as a thermal blanket in the atmosphere, trapping infrared radiation and warming and tempering earth’s climate. Without our atmosphere, our planet would be prone to extreme temperatures, spiking to extreme heat during the day and plunging into bitter cold at night. For example Mercury, the planet closest to the sun, which has little in the way of an atmosphere, temperatures can reach 800°F in the daytime and then plunge to -280°F at night. On Venus, a planet the same size as Earth where carbon dioxide makes up as much as 96% of the atmosphere by volume, the average temperature is 860°F.

As we burn fossil fuels, we convert the carbon in ancient biomass into carbon dioxide and release it into the atmosphere at a staggering rate. Needless to say, the countries with the highest levels of industrialization are largely responsible for the post-industrial increases to atmospheric carbon dioxide. The United States alone is believed to be responsible for as much as 30% of it. What’s worse is that the US continues to generate carbon dioxide at a per capita rate that is more than twice as high as any other country.   

At current levels, we are seeing increased temperatures of around 2°F. If we continue along this path without any alterations to the status quo, by 2100 at 600ppm, we will see increases of 9°F, a level at which much of the coastal world will be inundated and mega floods, storms, droughts and deadly heat waves will be annual events. Life on earth as we know it will completely change from one in which we enjoy a benevolent, abundant planet into one in which survival itself becomes questionable.

Time is of the essence, the longer we postpone making drastic reductions to greenhouse gas emissions, the more dire our reality becomes. This summer, the leaders of the world will be meeting at Rio’s Earth Summit to draw up a plan of action. Historically, the United States, the greatest offender, has stymied any global effort to control greenhouse gas emissions, but this year also has the benefit of being a US election year. We need to make it absolutely clear to our law makers that we expect meaningful action and that we will not continue to vote for them if they continue to sit on the fence.

Petty politics and corporate profit margins are meaningless in the scope of our new reality. Those who argue that fixing the problem will cost too much, need to evaluate their scale of measurement. What good are all the dollars in the world without a decent planet to spend them on?

Let’s hope that this new rebirth of the sun brings a rebirth of American conscience that marks the year we decided to turn things around.

For those who are interested in seeing the effects that various emissions reductions can make in the global climate, the following link provides an easy-to-use climate model. Type "1" in the first column for each country block and then start to play with the numbers. Be prepared for a real eye-opener.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Trash Pines, Starlings and Manchineel - Finding Beauty in the Absence of Anthropocentric Utility

I am in yoga class. My left leg is fixed high on my right thigh, and my arms are stretched over my head. I don’t know why they call this position “tree” pose. It should be flamingo pose or crane pose, but nevertheless, the instructor is imploring us, “imagine what tree you want to be today, with your roots tapped down into the earth and your branches reaching towards the sun. Are you a majestic oak? Or an elegant willow?”

I clear my mind and feel connection to earth through the pads and toes of my right foot. My fingertips are energized as they reach for the sky. Into my mind pops the image of Pinus virginiana. What? I clear the image and try again, but P. virginiana stubbornly refuses to vacate the premises. I am forced to resign myself to embodiment of the tree that my mother derisively refers to as a “trash pine” (a.k.a. scrub pine). I try to think of some positive qualities. The trees do possess a kind of wild beauty and tenacity. Growing in barren areas often shunned by other trees, their twisted, bonsai-like structures and needles are readily adapted to the scarcity of their environment. Cut down and cleared relentlessly by those who would label them as “trash,” the persistent P. virginiana just keeps coming back.
The humble scrub pine
After wallowing in my species-based prejudice for a moment, it dawns on me. Who am I to judge the relative values of tree individuals? Why is the “lowly” scrub pine any less worthy of my admiration than the venerable oak? The sun shines equally on both. If you cut them down, do they not bleed? Of their consciousness, we cannot know, but surely the scrub pine feels the same joy of existence shared by all living things. My bias is based on a lifetime of anthropocentric conditioning. We admire that which is useful to our own purposes and disdain the rest.

The revelations of P. virginiana have caused me to reevaluate my entire attitude towards many organisms great and small. Last spring, I cheered when a black snake ransacked the nests of the starlings nesting in the eaves of our guest cottage. My bias against the starlings manifested as an almost virulent hatred. I was glad to see them devoured. I am still glad I didn’t interfere and let nature decide the victor of that conflict, but now I am trying hard to refrain from wishing the same fate on this year’s nestlings. I do like black snakes.

I am even considering an overhaul in my attitude towards my arch nemesis Hippomane mancinella or “manchineel” as it is commonly known. In my field studies in the tropics, I have had a few run-ins with this tree. Tellingly, in the first encounter, I was mesmerized by the tree’s stunning beauty.
The impressively toxic Hippomane mancinella
In the dwarfed dry tropical forests of outback Turks and Caicos, the manchineel literally stands out from the crowd. Its deep, green canopy of glossy leaves contrasts sharply to the surrounding browns and yellows of neighboring, desiccated vegetation. And it is loaded with little apple-like, sweet-smelling, golden orbs. The dwarf dry tropical forests do offer up a variety of edible fruits, but like the vegetation they grow on, they tend to be small, tart and relatively dehydrated. The fruit of the manchineel is succulent.

I ventured a taste. It was sweet and delicious, and fortunately, erring on the side of caution I didn’t swallow and spat it out. It wasn’t long before the tingling in my lips foreshadowed the telltale signs of poisoning. Later that evening, I thought my head was going to explode with the worst headache of my life. This torture was followed by a sleepless night of retching and diarrhea. Lesson: manchineel fruit is not good to eat.

Intrigued by my discovery, I did a bit of research and discovered that manchineel is an expert of toxicity. The botanical name reflects another common name “manzanilla de la muerte” (little apple of death). Indeed. Every part of the manchineel excretes poison. In addition to my near-death experience with the fruit, I have had the misfortune of brushing up against the leaves from time to time, which results in caustic skin blisters that burst, only to blister again on the same patch of red, raw skin. Oh manchineel, how I have loathed thee.

In the state of Florida, the negative human judgment of manchineel, and subsequent removal of offending trees has rendered the species practically extinct. Some would say good riddance to bad news, but apart from its animosity to humans, the tree provides invaluable habitat for other species such as land crabs and certain iguanas that thrive on the toxic fruit.  As with all things in nature, when you pull at a single thread, the whole garment begins to unravel. We cannot pick and choose those things we deem useful, while simultaneously annihilating the rest. The beautiful complexity of nature needs both the humanly condoned and the disdained.

I am at a client’s house and notice a spectacular specimen of manchineel. Its thick, gnarled trunk and long, winding branches tell of this sentinel’s advanced age. In the past, I would have offered a warning to the resident. “Cut it down or you will be sorry.” Now, I merely admire the tree’s architecture and note its remote location on the property. No need for warnings. Hopefully this impressive specimen will be able to continue its life of obscurity, minding its own business, completely oblivious to the pettiness of the human priorities that surround it.

No longer will I be enamored with only the useful among species. My admiration and respect will extend to both the harmful and the understated, for in this world of diminishing ecological returns, we can’t afford to lose any of them.