Addiction

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Like much of my generation, I was thrilled by rock & roll, beginning in my case with the Beatles. It was an amazing musical time. Maybe it’s like that for everyone when they discover music, but it still seems different to me. Music was coming from all over the place and cross-fertilizing, getting more complex and exciting all the time.

In the late 1960s I began to be disappointed. After Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band I liked what the Beatles were doing less, partly because I had left high school, left home, was working for a living, and was pretty depressed about it. Bob Dylan also changed radically in a way I didn’t like.

There were other bands coming along, though, a great explosion  of them, so I remained a musical addict for some years more. But eventually I lost interest in contemporary popular music. Part of it was because of new styles, metal, disco, punk, and eventually rap, none of which I liked much. But I think part of it too was that the musicians I had loved got decadent.

At the time I thought drugs like marijuana and LSD were a good idea, or at least not bad. That may have been naive, but I wasn’t naive enough to think that speed, cocaine, heroin, barbituarites, or too much alcohol were a good idea, and not only did I begin hearing more about those, but the music started to be less good too. A book, Live at the Fillmore East and West informs me that there was even more over-indulgence in that period than I’d known. Lots of alcohol, cocaine, and heroin. With all this seems to have gone a lot of very egotistical behavior. Not very inspiring. It seems as if when musicians became successful they also graduated to harder and more addictive drugs. It’s disappointing to think so many heroes of my youth were so insecure–at least that’s what I presume it was.

Of course, I started picking up addictive behaviors too, though most of them were legal, unlike a lot of my musical heroes. I smoked marijuana, for a short time took (what I was told) was LSD and mescaline, but took very little else that was illegal. I began smoking cigarettes (to learn how to smoke marijuana), and that became habitual, lasting some forty-seven years. I also started drinking, and for several years drank like an alcoholic. After awhile I got tired of being hung over all the time, and began losing my tolerance (that may have been because I had Hepatitis C, unbeknownst to me), and began drinking less. And my very first addictive behavior had been reading, beginning from the time I learned, and continuing to this day.

I think it’s pretty clear to most of us that addictions usually have to do with pain. Sometimes it’s physical pain. I think even more often it’s emotional pain. We don’t want to fully experience that, so we run away from it. An interview I listened to yesterday suggested that meditation is a good way to approach emotional pain, not that it’s an easy fix–it still takes a lot of effort–but it’s a method of looking at pain objectively in which one focuses not so much on the pain as its characteristics and where it comes from. But it’s always tempting not to try to do anything effective about it, and just keep running. It’s certainly not a problem I’ve solved to any extent, even at my advanced age.

There’s always been drug abuse in this country’s history, especially if you count, alcohol, coffee, and cigarettes. There was an explosion of illegal drug abuse beginning sometime in my youth. Exactly when it began is debatable. It really got going among white people in the late sixties, but it had become a plague in Harlem about 1950, when heroin hit town. Now heroin is no longer an urban phenomenon. It’s a plague in rural America too. Overprescription is frequently blamed for the latest manifestation, but I think the main temptation for addictive drugs is hopelessness.

There are some objective reasons for hopelessness in this country, as well as reasons that are more subjective. Many of us grow up unhappy with our parents, with school, or many other things. But we shouldn’t ignore objective reasons too.

One is financial. In my early life I didn’t find it hard to support myself ( I also didn’t have a wife or children), but for people much younger than me this was much less true. I won’t try to go into the reasons for the financial instability of many, but only say it’s a major reason for lack of hope.

Along with financial instability, rapid cultural changes of all kinds have had a bad effect on people. Divorce has broken up a lot of families, which has caused economic and other kinds of instability. Do children feel more neglected now than they did a couple of generations ago? I don’t know, but fewer families have both parents now. And not only is there neglect, but other forms of abuse. Those kinds of problems generate feelings that many people try to deal with by self-medicating.

So do problems like bipolar disorder. I don’t know if disorders like this, ADD, and ADHD are more frequent now than they were before the diagnoses were formulated, but in any case, the medications are available, so the temptation is always there. As long as we have drugs they’re going to get used, unless our culture changes tremendously.

Heroin took over Harlem for awhile, and spread across the country, because people’s lives in ghettos like those were not very happy, and drug use was an acceptable way out. It still is, no matter how people preach about it. The only way to end drug abuse, as far as I can see, is to get to the roots of it in each individual case, which would be very difficult and inconvenient. People adopt addictive behaviors often because they feel unloved. Loving them effectively would take a tremendous effort that many people don’t want to make. And since we live in a capitalist society, as long as there’s a market for addictive things (drugs or other) there will be someone to supply them. If you’re selling things you have to consider addiction as part of your market strategy. If people can’t get along without your product, you’ll have a steady income.

It’s a shame this is how we live. It’s not how humans were meant to live, and getting really caught up in addiction can make us less than human. But our addiction as a society isn’t just to drugs, but to our whole lifestyle that is destroying the natural world that allows us to live. It’s a shame we live the way we do, that drugs destroyed the music and many of the musicians we’ve all loved, and that most of us don’t have the courage to turn away from that. But that’s dwarfed by the way in which we’re destroying not only our individual worlds, but the great world around us too. And it’s much easier to just go with the flow than to actually do anything effective about it.

 

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Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring

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I remember Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, though I never read the book. Her thesis that pollution was damaging the natural world always seemed plausible to me, not something that I could disagree with.

That book turned out to be a watershed event: it was only after its publication that laws to protect the environment began to be passed, an issue which continues to be important today in many more ways than Carson enumerated then.

The book had been inspired by the scientists at chemical companies like Monsanto who declared war on insects like mosquitoes and fire ants. They didn’t want to just control, but to eradicate them, and massive amounts of DDT were their weapon of choice. Carson saw the problems with this kind of strategy.

One was that, while the poison killed vast numbers of insects, some that had some resistance survived, and their offspring replaced those killed, and were no longer controllable by DDT, exactly like the misuse of antibiotics creates strains of resistant bacteria. To eradicate resistant insects or bacteria means an ever escalating arms race to find new insecticides or antibiotics.

In the case of insecticides, there were immediate problems. DDT didn’t kill just insects, but other organisms too. Worms were loaded with the poison, and gave it to the robins fed by their parents. They might be poisoned outright or acquire defective immune systems, making their survival more precarious. Earth and water were poisoned too, and the poison became more concentrated as it made its way up the food chain

The problem was also parallel to atomic energy. It became clear, at least by the time the hydrogen bomb was first tested in 1952 that the real danger of atomic weapons wasn’t the explosions, extreme as these were, but the radioactive fallout they generated, which has the potential to destroy much or all life on earth. Unfortunately, it’s not just the bombs that are dangerous, as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima have demonstrated. Radioactive waste is toxic, and for a very long time. The last I heard, the Japanese had been unable to stop leakage of it from Fukushima. Who knows how far the pollution will travel, and how serious the damage will be?

What Carson was trying to combat was the optimism of scientists employed by chemical companies who believed that chemicals were the solution to all problems. DDT was the main insecticide of the 1950s, and thanks to Carson it was eventually banned. But DDT was only a small example of the problem of technology.

Technology can do amazing and wonderful things. It can also generate new problems for every solution it achieves. Technology can be, and often is, poisonous. But it’s also extremely convenient in many ways. How many of us want to live a more natural lifestyle? A life without central heating, inside toilets and electricity could be most inconvenient.

Native Americans always had great respect for nature. They also tolerated heat, cold, and other rigors of mostly outdoor living. Few of us are used to that kind of life or wish to adopt it.

And Carson’s book enraged chemical companies, who did everything they could to discredit her. They didn’t succeed. She was able to demonstrate that they had been reckless in their use of DDT and other chemicals, her book became a best-seller, and generated a movement that passed laws to protect the environment.

DDT has been far from the only environmental problem, though. We now know, for instance, that human activity (like driving cars, for example, or burning coal) has saturated the atmosphere with too much carbon dioxide (among other chemicals), causing global temperatures to rise. Consequences of that are unlikely to be good.

We also know that hydraulic fracturing pollutes huge amounts of water, and that injecting the waste back into the ground causes earthquakes. And that insecticides are making bees an endangered species.

All of the above makes US an endangered species. Without bees, it becomes more difficult to pollinate our crops. Global warming seems to produce more extreme weather and higher sea-levels–at least. It may produce droughts and eventually deserts too. Polluted air, earth, and water, endanger us, and all the other plant and animal species that live with us.

Many of us, especially in the technologically developed countries, live intellectually and emotionally in a kind of parallel universe where nature is found in parks and makes a pretty spectacle. We rarely realize that we are part of nature, and depend on the interaction of all its species to make our own lives possible.

Wars are going to be a strong possibility in the next decades, partly because climate change will make some areas unlivable, and partly because natural resources are being used up at an unsustainable rate. The USA, with 5-7% of the world’s population uses a disproportionate percentage of its resources. That can’t continue without readjustment, maybe drastic and chaotic.

But the real danger may be much more subtle. Pollution increasingly poisons the entire environment, and corporations who consider they have no responsibility except to shareholders continue to behave in environmentally reckless ways. Fracking is by no means the only bad idea (though convenient in the short-run). Oil spills have been increasing, since our demand for energy doesn’t decrease. Hard rock mines may be even more environmentally dangerous than oil. And many people prefer to believe that all these problems are merely lies by a conspiracy to tell them what to do.

Unfortunately, some people HAVE to be told what to do. Large corporations have proven they’re not interested in self-government, which means they need to be regulated by public servants, which they resent, and often successfully subvert. Liberty for them is the license to profit without regard for anyone else. If capitalism (to say nothing of the human race) is to survive, its attitude must change. Of course it is unwilling to go gently into that good night.

Carson realized she wouldn’t live long as she was finishing the book. She had had several lumps removed from her breast at various times, and then a radical mastectomy. Her doctor told her he had gotten all the cancer, but lied. The cancer had metastasized. She underwent radiation treatments which made her able to finish the book, but the cancer metastasized further, and she died little more than a year after the book was published. Not before she was able to defend it from critics in the chemical industry who wanted to keep selling insecticides at the same rate they had been. The NPR documentary made it clear that Carson had no problem with the responsible use of insecticides, but did have with using them in huge volumes.

It’s also clear that in the last fifty-plus years industries have been using similar tactics to be able to continue unwise practices. Cigarette manufacturers maintained that smoking wasn’t dangerous, but eventually had to stop denying. There are still climate change deniers who object that scientists predictions aren’t always accurate–true enough, because the world climate system is very large, but not because human activity isn’t affecting climate. A lot of lobbying has gone into preventing effective action to slow the changes down.

The documentary points out that Carson was one of the first to tell people (after the modern age had forgotten) how nature includes the human race and everything else, and that damaging other organisms (plants or animals) eventually damages us too. A lot of people have been inspired by her to try to make positive change in our collective behavior, with some success, but not yet enough. I’m afraid catastrophe(s) will have to be our teacher.

 

Alvin Maker

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Orson Scott Card is a very accomplished and prolific writer specializing in science fiction and fantasy, but also producing writing guides, reviews, and political opinion. He’s written several science fiction and fantasy series, most notably the Ender series, but the series about Alvin Maker is also distinguished.
It’s a fantasy about America beginning not long after the Revolution and surveying a number of aspects of the country. This is an alternate America, though. The United States is much smaller than the colonies that rebelled in our history, consisting mainly of the middle Atlantic states. Apalachee is separate, so are New England and the Crown Colonies, where King Arthur Stuart reigns. The Lord Protector, successor to Oliver Cromwell, still rules England. Canada is controlled by the French. At the beginning of the novel both the Marquis de Lafayette and Napoleon are there. Lafayette wants a revolution for France and Napoleon wants power. Both eventually get what they want.
The action in the novel begins with a family going west in a covered wagon. They cross a river near the eastern border of what would be Ohio in our world, and there’s a flash flood. A whole tree hurtles down the river at the wagon, in which a pregnant woman is almost ready to give birth. One of her older sons jumps onto the tree to push it away from the wagon. The tree catches him and tears his arm off. People from the nearby town come to help pull the wagon from the river and get the woman to an inn to give birth. The child is the seventh son of a seventh son, and thus the recipient of magical powers, called “knacks” by Americans. Americans mostly, but not entirely, accept these as fairly natural, even when they’re pretty startling, as in Alvin’s case. He becomes a quasi-messiah figure, though in an understated way. He is well brought up, and realizes how he needs to handle his powers, but Card doesn’t suggest he’s going to save the world. His vision eventually is to build what he calls a crystal city, and attract good people to it who can “make” in the sense that he does. Fulfilling this vision may be an evolutionary step for the human race.
His powers are characterized as constructive, but can be misused, like any other powers. In one scene he promises cockroaches that there’s food in the room of his sisters (he and his siblings tease each other). The cockroaches feel a sense of injustice because there wasn’t food where he told them, and an Indian who has crept into the house asks him why he did that. Alvin realizes that the only legitimate way to use his powers is for the good of others. Later on he has to be persuaded that it’s all right to figure out how to heal himself after a bad accident with a millstone.
The accident comes about because of what Alvin comes to call the Unmaker. He feels he’s been given his powers to make things better for people in general. The Unmaker, though tries to tear things down, and wants to destroy Alvin. He, she, or it tries to do it with water, as when Alvin was born, and has tried through other media since. A young girl, a “torch”, who can see what people feel (as well as their possible futures), and was present when Alvin was born, watches over him, and uses the caul which was over his face at birth to protect him. The Unmaker tries again with a millstone Alvin has cut, rolling it over onto him, and abrading his leg to the bone. William Blake, brought to this country by Benjamin Franklin, travels around the country swapping tales, and chances to be there when Alvin is hurt. He persuades Alvin that it isn’t wrong to heal himself, because he’ll benefit others if he does.
The Indian mentioned above, Lolla-Wossiky, is an important character in the second book of the series. His destiny was to be a shaman, but it was interrupted by witnessing William Henry Harrison (whom Card says was somewhat better in our world than in this novel) murder his father while Lolla-Wossiky looked on. The trauma caused “black noise” in his head, intensely painful, which whiskey helps him tolerate. When they meet Alvin tries to restore an eye that he’s lost, and is unable to do that, but does rid him of the black noise. Lolla-Wossiky is then able to resume his destiny as a shaman, and offer an alternative to his brother Ta-Kumska’s vision.
Ta-Kumsaw wants to drive whites out of the country. He sees the country east of the Mississippi as dying because the white settlers are starting farms and breaking up the ancient forest. The Indians are in tune with the forest land, able to run barefoot through it far faster than whites can move because the forest supports them, opening ways for them and making the ground soft. Alvin and one of his brothers are captured by Indians sent by Harrison, who wants (in his turn) to destroy the Indians. Those Indians plan to murder the boys and leave evidence suggesting Ta-Kumsaw did it. Instead, Ta-Kumsaw rescues the boys.
Lolla-Wossiky meanwhile has preached to many Indians that they ought not to resist whites violently, and has built a city with his followers. Whites, of course, don’t believe the Indians are actually nonviolent, and when the boys are kidnapped their father and others in the town believe it’s the peaceful Indians who did it. They confront them and begin massacring them. The Indians don’t resist. The whites stop only when one of the boys appears to tell them the real story. Ta-Kumsa tries to defeat the whites militarily, and fails. Many Indians follow Lolla-Wossiky across the Mississippi to the western lands, which are then closed to whites.
Relations between Indians and whites aren’t the only issues surveyed in the series. Alvin lands in trouble because he’s apprenticed to a blacksmith, and becomes a better smith. For the project he chooses to prove his ability and become a journeyman, he makes a plow, but then turns it to gold, and makes it live. His master convinces himself that Alvin found the gold on his property, and it therefore belongs to him. The case is settled in court.
Even more serious is when a black girl reaches the Hio river with her baby, borne after she was impregnated by her white master. She is rescued, but dies from the rigors of her trip, and her baby is adopted by the couple who run the inn in which Alvin was born. Slavehunters come looking for the boy, and break down the door of the inn looking for him. The innkeeper’s wife kills one, and is killed by the other. Alvin kills the second hunter, then changes the boy’s DNA so he can’t be found again. He has to go to court once more.
Another look at slavery takes place in the Deep South Crown Colonies where slaves are quiescent because they have given up their real names to someone who can keep them magically safe, and with their names their anger. When the safe place gets destroyed the slaves feel their anger again, greatly alarming the whites, one of whom suggests killing one of every three–even before the slaves have actually done anything.
In New England the look is at witchfinders, who operate very similarly to the Inquisition in Europe. People are encouraged to inform on their neighbors, and do so to get rewards. The witchfinders meanwhile twist everything to make it sound perverted, and it becomes clear that the people accused are NEVER guilty of misusing any powers they may have. John Adams, the judge who tries the case, orders that the witchfinders come under the authority of the state and be licensed before they can accuse anyone, and that if they accuse they must bring evidence that would stand in any secular court. This essentially shuts the pastime down.
At the end of the sixth novel of the series Alvin has married, and his wife has given birth to a son. He has prevented southern blacks from being massacred by their panicky owners, and restored his brother, who has powers himself, but is envious of Alvin, turned against him partly through temperament (he’s lazier, less systematic in using his powers, and less generous), and partly because of the Unmaker. He has also rescued a lot of the poor blacks, whites, and French people in Nueva Barcelona (our New Orleans), whom he manages to move north and settle in an unoccupied area. He wonders if any of his efforts have been worthwhile, or if the things he’s labored to build we be destroyed. That is always possible, but his wife tells him that many of the things he’s built will endure. The view is similar to that of George Gurdjieff, who says that the negative or denying force is a basic part of reality, which means that it takes real effort to accomplish anything worthwhile, and that none of it counts unless it’s almost impossible.
I greatly enjoy Card’s fiction, much of which resonates strongly with me. The Alvin series is not the least of his efforts. It’s not just the cleverness of the historical differences and the differing roles various historical figures play in this series, but a sense of rightness about what he says and portrays. One of these portrayals is the way the Indians see the forest land as living and the farms by white settlers as dead. This isn’t far from seeing the horror of the pollution of land, air, and water, which I persist in thinking one of our worst problems.
But Card’s political opinions are jarring to my liberal sensibilities. He sees liberals (the Left) as dictating to the rest of the country, as if industrialists idolized by the Right wing weren’t dictating to everyone by polluting air, water, and land, as well as shipping American jobs overseas to produce huge disparities in incomes, so that fewer and fewer Americans can adequately support themselves. They also use their abundant resources to tailor laws to their benefit, rather than to the benefit of the nation as a whole. The dictatorial impulse comes, in my opinion, from both sides of the aisle.
After his sensitive portrayal of the Native American way of seeing the land, he also sees the idea of anthropogenic climate change as another dictatorial ploy. He is able to understand the despair minorities feel when mistreated, including the minority with unusual talents considered satanic, but came out in one essay in favor of the recent law passed in North Carolina (where he lives) that enjoins transgender people to only use the restroom appropriate to their gender at birth, and also prevents localities from passing tolerant laws.
Evidently Mr. Card felt a need to revisit the subject, so in a more recent essay he noted legislation passed in Utah, which he says is the most Republican state in the union, but is also a state in which the legislators have more loyalty to the LDS church than the Republican party. The church persuaded a mostly Republican legislature to talk to gay rights activists to find a way to provide a law that would serve everyone, and they were able to do so. Mr. Card says the North Carolina law will inevitably be struck down (I’m not so sure), and suggests the North Carolina legislature consult with the various churches in the area with the idea of amending the law before it’s rescinded and a lot of feelings get hurt. I can only applaud that suggestion.
Mr. Card seems to feel that only Leftists are dictatorial, which I would argue with. While his political views disturb me to some extent, he’s such an insightful and powerful writer that it doesn’t surprise me that he can see the other side of at least some of his arguments (while not necessarily agreeing with them). What does surprise me is his conservative political outlook, which I find surprising in a writer so empathetic. Maybe that’s a measure of my liberal political bias.
I do recall him defending the Iraq war, which I doubt he would do now. I was still somewhat surprised he did it then. He says that the extreme Left tries to make sure anyone who disagrees with them can’t make a living anymore. I’m not so sure of that, but do remember how the last Bush administration told the military to go ahead and pollute, a similarly childish manifestation of resentment. Similarly, they allowed coal producers who blew the tops off mountains to get coal to also leave the trash behind anywhere they pleased, including in the mountain streams which feed into rivers that supply much of the drinking water of the eastern part of the USA. Another ideological thing to do.
I wish I didn’t believe this, but I find this period of our history closely paralleling the decade before the Civil War, when Northerners thought Southerners were dictating to them, Southerners returned the feeling, and nobody could please anyone else. That led eventually to war. I’ve been thinking for some time that we’re building up to something similar, only now, with the far more advanced technology we now have, something even more destructive. That’s not the only problem I foresee, but it’s one of the serious ones. Mr. Card’s suggestion to have religious leaders mediate between politicians may not be enough to avert catastrophe, but I don’t see that it could hurt. As my meditation teacher told us, some thirty years ago, no progress will be made on environmental problems (like a lot of others) until people are willing to stop playing the blame game and calling other people names.

Deregulation

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The other day NPR interviewed someone who talked about a report that pharmaceutical companies don’t like. It says that treating longterm pain with OxyContin and Vicodin is harmful. The companies don’t like this because those drugs are big money makers for them. They make some money when people have hip or knee replacements, but the really big money is in longterm pain control, especially since those drugs are difficult to quit.
This recalls what William S. Burroughs, a narcotics addict himself, said about such drugs: they create the ideal customer, who will crawl through a sewer to buy.
This is a literal example of what Burroughs said. There are other less literal examples which nonetheless qualify as unethical.
One of these is predatory lending. Years ago I visited Mississippi to see the blues museum, and spent one night in Vicksburg. I saw rent to own stores EVERYWHERE, an indication that this was a poor town, and that poor people were paying inflated rates to get TVs and other things they wanted. Since that time the industry has evolved. There are now payday loans with inflated interest rates that insure anything you borrow from them will keep you in debt probably for the rest of your life. There are also car title loans which almost infallibly remove your car from your possession. This kind of business paraphrases Vince Lombardi’s famous quote: Profit isn’t the most important thing, it’s the ONLY thing.
Another example is college loan debt. This used to be a manufacturing country, where people could find work in factories and other industries where they could make enough money to live the middle class lifestyle without needing higher education. That’s no longer true.
College used to be for only the small minority that could afford it. It’s becoming that again, but people who provide the loans don’t want to admit that. They also don’t want to tell students candidly that certain majors won’t pay for themselves, and that even those which do may keep students in debt for a lifetime to repay.
There are also people who would do better to become plumbers, carpenters, or mechanics than trying to go to college. There’s not a lot of support for that either. The abyss between the wealthy and the poor grows daily, and the supposed cure for that is contributing to it instead. Profit is the only thing here too. This is such a good idea that many are trying to get rid of public schools so private “charter” schools can drain off all the profit. Maybe all charter schools aren’t predatory, but enough seem to be to call the whole idea into question.
For profit prison is yet another bad idea. What does it take to make prison profitable? Keeping the beds full, which means making sure that people keep getting arrested for things that aren’t that serious. It also means giving them substandard housing, food, and medical care, as well as contracting them out to large corporations and paying them almost nothing for it. This is how blacks, Latin Americans, and maybe especially illegal immigrants (including children) can provide profit to people who care nothing about them. A sort of revival of slavery.
Pollution is another example. Industries are supposed to be regulated to prevent it, but it doesn’t seem to work that way. Republicans (at least some of them) want to get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency, or failing that, prevent it from doing its job. The most recent example is the switch of water supplies in Flint, Michigan, to water that leached lead from the pipes and caused brain damage to goodness knows how many children. I’m told the EPA was at fault in that case. I also hear that water supplied Navajo people in the southwest is even worse. Industries like polluting because it’s a convenient way to get rid of wastes. Who knows how many other water sources around the country are ticking time bombs which will damage if not kill American citizens?
Which brings us to fracking.
Fracking not only uses immense amounts of water, but puts chemicals in the water that the frackers don’t seem to want to tell the American public about. Granted, fracking has made gasoline, among other things, cheaper, and I benefit from that just like a lot of people. But in the longer run, I doubt that very many of us do benefit.
The water is pumped under pressure to break geologic structures that keep petroleum from being pumped to the surface. We don’t know exactly what damage may be done from destroying these structures, but what seems to be even worse is pumping the waste back underground. According to the New Yorker, this practice is what causes the earthquakes that have been associated with fracking for some time. What I wonder is where exactly that waste goes. Isn’t it inevitable that a good deal of it will end up in water sources that we hope to drink from? We were going to run short of potable water anyway in some regions of this country, particularly the southwest. Now what water they have may turn out to be polluted and unusable.
Republicans in particular (and probably not just them) want to deregulate a lot of industries. Why should we allow that?
I understand that there are probably a lot of regulations either unnecessary or which could be rewritten to be more efficient, but simply getting rid of regulations scares me. There are too many examples of industries failing to regulate themselves. Many of them advocate only their own interests, which are not mine. And since the Citizens United Supreme Court decision enshrines free speech for the rich, no one with any profits at stake will be willing to consider my interests. That’s because I can’t afford to pay to have them considered.
In a free country, where do your freedoms stop, and mine begin? For whom is the market free? How many people who own land can afford to keep frackers from buying the mineral rights? Not property owners who are poor. Farmers who don’t run factory farms have high costs, and their profits are far from guaranteed. A lot of them may find it more profitable to sell their mineral rights than farm.
People may believe that pollution does no harm, since it’s convenient to believe that. They may also believe that profit is always good, no matter how it’s arrived at, and no matter who gets it. That’s also convenient to believe.
There may well be regulations that are perverse, but regulation is necessary if we are to continue to function as a society. My suspicion is that a lot of powerful people no longer care, and only want to make as much profit as they can while civilization lasts, and that they don’t believe it will last much longer. That’s an interesting perspective from which to see a lot of profit making enterprises.
I would prefer not to believe that capitalism is inherently destructive not only of the powerless, but of itself. I don’t know if there’s a better system, but I have to consider this one very questionable, at least until such time as it’s willing to reform itself.

Addiction

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Addiction is complex, and isn’t just about illegal drugs, as problematic as that issue is. It’s not just a metaphor, but literally encompasses a great deal of human behavior.
Illegal drug use has spread and become more persistent. Heroin used to be an urban problem. It’s part of the rural landscape now too.
The War on Drugs has been going on for more than forty years, and we’re losing. One big reason for that is that illegal drugs intersect with something very American: capitalism. There’s an immense demand for illegal drugs, and as long as that’s true there will be people to supply them. Illegal drugs are among the most valuable substances there are, and the behavior around the others is comparable.
This was true of alcohol during Prohibition. One might think lawmakers might have learned from that, but maybe they learned the wrong lesson. A business that profitable probably supports legislators, as well as others. Prohibition only lasted long enough to give us organized crime. The War on Drugs has given us organized crime on steroids.
But illegal drugs are only a small part of addiction. Alcohol is legal again, tobacco always has been, but both are very destructive. Alcohol can destroy families as thoroughly as drugs (it may or may not take longer), and tobacco is good for destroying health.
But these are still only part of the story. Sugar and salt are the two substances that sell most processed foods, even though we know too much of them is bad for us.
I used to drink like an alcoholic, but had increasing trouble tolerating it. I haven’t taken a drink for at least a couple of years, but it took a very long time to quit entirely.
It’s been almost a year since I last smoked. I don’t feel the desire too strongly, but know that if I started again I probably wouldn’t stop. I’ve smoked most of my life.
I like sugar in particular about as much as anyone, though I also like salt. But those aren’t my only addictive behaviors.
I’ve read more than most people all my life, which takes us out of the realm of substance abuse as ordinarily understood. In this sort of category are TV, movies, computers, and video games. I’ve probably been less addictive about TV and movies than most, and I’ve hardly played video games at all. Computers are another matter.
Computers are an immense resource in the sense of available knowledge, as well as a great way for merchants to advertise and sell. I’d be willing to guess a major part of computer use is to interact with others, though. That was the initial attraction for me, as it seemed easier than trying to meet people in bars, for instance. That can be positive. but trolling is a familiar word now.
In any case, other forms of behavior can also be addictive. Sex is probably as addictive as anything else people do, since it’s intensely pleasurable, as well as being a fundamental drive.
Nor does it stop there. Few of us are entirely authentic. We identify with whatever we say “I” to, and identification is a form of “sleep”, which is a way of not being conscious, and addiction is a way to avoid consciousness, because consciousness can be painful.
How did narcotics come to be abused? They kill pain, and not just physical pain. There are plenty of people with chronic physical pain, but arguably even more with chronic emotional pain. Illegal drugs will numb both. So will legal drugs, like alcohol and tobacco, to say nothing of tranquilizers. You can add coffee, sugar, and chocolate to that list too. And money.
In this country, and much of the rest of the world, we are convinced that buying things will make us happy. There’s evidence to suggest there are limits to this happiness, but few of us are willing to give up all we own, as Jesus recommended. We make the people who sell things very happy, and many of them happily cut corners to make themselves even happier.
A lot of what is sold can be called convenience. Central heating, cars, computers, and cellphones are all convenient. We’d rather not have to do the intense physical work our ancestors did even a hundred years ago when technology had already begun to make a real impact on our lives. Nor do we care that the convenient products tend not to be biodegradable, or to pollute in other ways. Our desire to be less conscious masks the natural world for us, and how our behavior harms it, and ultimately ourselves. Ideology about individuality has as much to do with the right to pollute and mistreat one’s employees as anything else, it seems.
It seems obvious that the way to be happy is to do pleasurable things, but the great religions contradict that picture. Jesus talked about it being more difficult for a rich man to enter heaven than pass through the eye of a needle (the eye of the needle was a very narrow gate into Jerusalem, which a camel could enter only if its baggage was removed). Capitalism seems largely to be about selling us pleasures, if not entirely. It does pretty much reduce the world to buying and selling, and strongly implies that these are the means to happiness.
William S. Burroughs observed of his experience with narcotics that the perfect customer was an addict “who will crawl through a sewer to buy”. Look at advertising anywhere and ask yourself how much of it is to sell anything people really NEED. In very many cases, perhaps most, it’s trying to stimulate a desire to be satisfied by buying something, and an awful lot of the time it’s not something really NEEDED.
Anytime we say “I” to any of our desires, whether it’s to buy something, or to behave in a certain way, that can be called identification. Or attachment. Either can be seen as a form of addiction. And addiction is essentially lack of balance.
George Gurdjieff, a spiritual teacher of the last century, said that non-desires should predominate over desires. Another way to say that is that we should discipline ourselves and refuse to indulge. How many of us actually do that, no matter what we tell ourselves?
It is the constant temptation of manufacturers and merchandisers to amass more profits than they really need by selling products to people THEY really don’t need. What is the consequence?
On the production side, the person has more wealth and possessions than they know what to do with, which makes little sense on an individual level, since they know (but may not believe) they’re going to die, and can’t take their money or possessions with them. If they have family or friends to leave them to it makes slightly more sense, but it’s questionable how much good the money does their descendants. It keeps them out of poverty, but suppose all that is taken away. Like any other addiction, once it’s withdrawn, the former possessor may go into withdrawal. But keeping the bequest may lead to arrogance. Rich children sometimes are able to earn their own money–especially if their inheritances give them a great advantage–and sometimes not. But they tend to see themselves as better than others, and others do too. I doubt that’s good for them.
For those of us not wealthy, are the consequences much better? If we amass money and possessions that leave us below the wealthy level, are we better off than the really rich? We still can’t take our possessions with us. Our children need to learn how to make their own livings too, and without the advantage wealthy children have.
Perhaps the worst thing is living in the money universe and believing it’s all there is. Actually, we live in worlds within worlds. The natural world, which is what keeps us alive, is seen as a bank we can withdraw from without depositing. It’s also seen as a place we can dump our trash without consequence. That’s a dangerous way for us to live.
Addiction also makes us self-centered, no matter the substance, behavior, or anything else. Addiction makes us desperate too, willing to do almost anything to anybody for our own satisfaction. We as a nation are addicted to oil to power our buildings and vehicles, which has led us into destructive behavior in the Middle East, not least to ourselves.
It’s not like we have no idea about this. The ostensible reason for the War on Drugs, as well as Prohibition, was to protect people from addiction. It was never the real, or at least only reason, though. It was used to feed other addictions, not only to money, but to power as well.
Power may be the worst of the addictions. It promises us the ability to change the world. Our motives may be good or not so good, but if we’re drawn to power, we may well be corruptible.
Of course power is a reality in human life. Some individuals and classes will be inevitably more powerful than others. Some will also be more responsible with power than others. Plato thought in an ideal society those who were to be trusted with power should not be allowed other pleasures, like sex and family. They should also not DESIRE power. Is this humanly possible? Not to a very large extent.
We see in our own country that power has corrupted our political and economic leaders to greater or lesser extent. The power of being able to possess has also corrupted the rest of us. Few of us want to have less. We almost always want to have more, and given how many of us there are in the world, this is not sustainable. That’s not hard to see, but we prefer not to see it.
Suppose we have a catastrophe that destroys our capacity to produce electric power or fuel our buildings and vehicles. How will we survive? It would be nice to dismiss that as impossible, but it isn’t. If it happens, a great many people will not only struggle to survive (quite possibly in not very nice ways), but will enter more than one kind of withdrawal.
That’s the kind of change we live in fear of, and which explains at least some of the hateful rhetoric and actions many of us indulge in. We fear to lose what we have, with which we (more often than not) have an addictive relationship. Look at drug and alcohol addicts who have quit. Often they simply exchange one addictive habit for another: coffee for alcohol, for instance. Reality is still too fearsome to experience “naked”. What will happen when we lose things that seem even more necessary than drugs, with which we also have an addictive relationship?
I’m not better in this area than most people. I too want to live comfortably. I hope not to see social collapse in this country, or anywhere else. We’ve already seen it in Asia and Africa, and it’s not pretty. It would be nice to believe it can’t happen here, but that would be stupid. And unless we begin to be willing to change our behavior in very fundamental ways, it’s almost inevitable.

Conservatives and the Environment

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Cal Thomas, a well-known columnist wrote about climate change in a recent column. He doesn’t believe the climate is changing, or that, if it were, human activities have anything to do with it. One reader of the local paper caught him lying about that.
He cited one source as saying the Earth hasn’t warmed in eighteen years. The source in fact said that the earth had been warming steadily in that time. The other two sources Thomas cited were run by like-minded conservatives, so we can probably assume they had no more interest in being impartial than he did. Conservatives dislike the whole idea, and like to dismiss it as a way liberals (and presumably a majority of scientists) have devised conspiratorially to dictate to everyone.
Why did Mr. Thomas get so emotionally involved as to lie? Why does anyone? We all have biases. But one reason might be that one’s complicity in an ongoing catastrophe may be hard to acknowledge, especially if your political faith is partly defined in denying it.
Whether or not you believe human activity is causing climate change (I’ve always thought it plausible), what should be apparent is that humans spread pollution all over the world, destroying many plant and animal species. Elephants, rhinos, and lions are merely some of the most visible.
It should also be clear that destroying plant life, especially deforestation, is detrimental to the ability of plants to change carbon dioxide into oxygen, which is more urgent when we pump tons of CO2 into the atmosphere yearly. That’s just one of the more obvious ways we destroy the environment we depend on for life ourselves. It’s an example of liberty become licence, in the name of profit.
Profiteering is one of the things conservatives accuse liberals of in connection to climate science. Is that really likely? Profits from clean energy are mostly potential at this point, while profits from the fossil fuel industry are well-established, so the profit motive is much more likely to be projection on the part of conservatives. It’s the fossil fuel industry that has for years been casting doubt on climate science. They want all our eggs in their basket, even though their basket is poisonous. Is propaganda to stop a new industry the way the free market is really supposed to work? Conservatives in this country are wedded to the idea of the free market, but it isn’t an unmixed blessing.
A good example of negative capitalism is illegal drug trafficking. This is capitalism without regulation, and we see how it operates. Torturing and killing are standard.
Are they capitalism unmasked? One would hate to think so, but there’s no doubt they are capitalists. They produce and deliver a product for which there’s a demand, and they’re ruthless in accomplishing that.
Is that essentially different from oil and coal companies hiring scientists to cast doubt on climate science? What they’re doing is a lot less overt than beheadings, kidnappings and murders, but is on a more massive scale, and arguably more damaging.
It’s interesting how bitter Thomas and other conservative commentators get on the subject of human activity causing climate change. They really want the whole world to agree with them, and may be bitter in part not just because of the disagreement, but because a sizable portion of the world considers them immoral.
They aren’t immoral just for their beliefs, nor are they they only ones who are immoral. Living in this country it’s very difficult not to be complicit in the massive pollution that interferes with the natural processes that keep all of us alive. Think of all the products we manufacture that don’t biodegrade. Probably millions of tons each year that leave piles of eternal trash littering the world. The one thing you can say in favor of this trash is that it’s convenient.
I contribute my share of trash too. When I give patients medications I use plastic med cups and plastic cups, and throw them away after one use. When I started working in a hospital almost fifty years ago it was somewhat different. A lot of the equipment was metal, and we sterilized it in an autoclave for repeated use. Now bedpans, urinals, and wash basins are all plastic. IV fluid containers used to be glass, now they’re plastic. IV tubing and oxygen tubing is all plastic. So are the lancets with which we stick the fingers of diabetics to check their blood sugars. Syringes are mostly plastic, and are only used once. The facility where I work generates a lot of plastic trash every day, and then you can multiply it by many other nursing homes in this area, two hospitals in the city where I live, and others nearby, plus doctor’s offices. That’s only one region, and includes only the medical industry. Consider how many other things are made largely of plastics, including computers, phones, CDs, DVDs, toys, etc. All these things are attractive, but are bad for the environment, since they don’t biodegrade. And I don’t see us trying to find alternatives to any of these things.
That means we still aren’t serious about the problem. My meditation teacher said that pollution would continue while people called each other names about it. The name-calling hasn’t stopped, and the pollution continues.
Our country can be great when we truly face our challenges. Right now most of us aren’t willing, and Cal Thomas lying about what our problems really are doesn’t help matters.

How I Became–and stayed–a Liberal

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Probably the first instance of politics I became aware of and had some understanding of was the Civil Rights movement. That was because my parents bought us a comic book telling the story of Rosa Parks and the bus boycott in Birmingham, Alabama, in the mid-1950s, which made Dr. Martin Luther King prominent.
Other people obviously didn’t have the same response to the movement I did. Probably that had to do with my parents. A black friend recently told me how impressed he was when my mother invited him and his brother to play with me and my siblings. I was surprised, because I hadn’t thought that was such a big deal.
I was somewhat aware of the Civil Rights movement, but can’t claim to have had any deep understanding. If I ever acquired that, it was much later. Nor can I entirely explain my reaction to that comic book, or to witnessing Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech on TV. The latter was happenstance: I happened to be with my grandmother when she was watching coverage of the March on Washington. Hairs rose on the back of my neck as I listened.
I think I must have felt even then that the way black people were treated was unfair, and later extended that feeling to other oppressed groups: gays, women, immigrants, etc. I had little to complain of myself, since I lived a comfortable life. I think I felt others should be as comfortable as me.
That’s certainly how my mother felt. She had a black friend in the 1920s or 30s when that was very unusual for a white middle class girl. When I asked her about it years later she mentioned that her church didn’t object, which I think may have been even more unusual. Not everyone has a mother like that.
Another unusual thing was she married a man whose initial attraction was that he was a conscientious objector during World War II. That meant that he opposed war, and didn’t wish to support it in any way. One of his brothers was a doctor, and served in the war in that way. The other was an ambulance driver. My father didn’t want to contribute even in that way, so performed alternative service in Indiana and North Dakota, building and repairing things. During that time he and my mother corresponded, marrying after the war.
My father was a devout Christian who believed that Christians should stand together, rather than each sect condemning the other. Although, as a member of the Quaker meeting in the town we grew up in, he was not a minister, he attended regular meetings of the ministerial association. That’s how he met a retired black minister who was grandfather to the friend I mentioned. We got to know him and his wife a little, then his son, daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren. I can’t say we were extremely close, but did consider them friends.
Another influence was the Quaker meeting I grew up in. Although our variety of Quakerism was called conservative, there were some pretty liberal ideas current in it. We didn’t think much of the Vietnam war, for instance, while being in favor of civil rights. Another instance was a surprising tolerance for homosexuality.
This was shown in the Quaker high school I attended where one of the teachers (my favorite, as it happened) was gay. If secret at all, this was an open secret. I found out about it my freshman year, when I had very little understanding about sex in general, so that homosexuality wasn’t something I understood in any depth. I got that it meant males having sex with males, and noticed that the very word “homosexual” carried a strong negative charge, which made it sound sinister. I was biased, though, because I liked the gay teacher, with whom I had conversations on a deeper level than with most adults. This may have been what led me to reason that gays probably had little more choice in their objects of affection than I felt I had. Puberty had come for me, I was interested in girls (though afraid of pursuing them), and didn’t feel I had any choice in that. I had no interest in sex with males.
That made three areas in which my background encouraged me to feel differently than probably the majority of Americans. I was brought up not to have prejudice against blacks, as well as not to think well of war. Meeting that high school teacher in that environment encouraged me to to be prejudiced against gays either.
About the time I entered high school, the book Silent Spring was published. It was the first book on the environment I heard of, and though I didn’t read it, I was inclined to approve its message. The concern always seemed rational to me, just as the later concern about climate change seemed plausible. At about the same time I read a long article by a journalist named Fred Cook about the military/industrial complex that President Eisenhower had warned us about. I don’t remember many of the details now, only that I found it appalling. The military/industrial complex remains at least as influential now as it was then.
Later in high school Vietnam brgan heating up, and I was caught up in the outcry against that, though I didn’t know much about our involvement there until later. I knew I had no interest in being a soldier, though my disinterest I think was less idealistic than my father’s. It was my family’s expectation that I be a conscientious objector, so I did that, and worked in a hospital for two years as alternative service after graduating from high school.
That didn’t make me stand out from my background. Some of my friends and acquaintances refused to cooperate with the draft at all, and spent time in prison. Others performed alternative service, like me. Perhaps the most outstanding person I knew at the time was a German exchange student who, after spending a year at my high school, decided to declare himself a conscientious objector, with a lot less precedent in Germany than here, and managed to convince those in authority to let him perform alternative service there.
I can’t claim to have done anything much in the realm of politics either, other than reading things to try to deepen my understanding of history and current events. I think my background has meant I identify more with underdogs than with wealthy and powerful people. This may be a generic difference between liberals and conservatives, as I think the latter tend to like how our society is structured. Although I recognize my advantages, I’d like to see more people treated fairly.
Had I been brought up elsewhere, and with a different background, my political beliefs might well have been different, though I’d like to think not much different. I think the passions in politics are often aroused by feelings of personal injury. My anger in political matters is generally less personal, more over situations that seem unjust to me. At some point I may suffer injury from politics, but haven’t so far. That might be called “white” or “middle class” privilege. There have been times I haven’t made a lot of money, but haven’t needed a lot either. I haven’t been persecuted for skin color, beliefs, or anything else.
It seems reasonable to me to believe that failure to prevent injustice will eventually make us suffer it, so I try to stand up for what I believe in small ways, though I doubt that I influence many people. I’m not wealthy, and don’t have a very loud voice. I do enjoy discussing issues with people, but if I sway them, I don’t know about it.
In the 1960s it seemed as if we were headed towards a more egalitarian society, but the trend has reversed since then. There are a lot more billionaires than there used to be, and correspondingly more poor people. There also seems to be more condemnation of poor people simply for being poor, which makes little sense to me. Not that I think poor people are automatically virtuous, but neither are rich people. Rich people who inherited their money don’t deserve to be congratulated for being rich, and those who didn’t only deserve adulation depending on what they did to become rich. Being rich doesn’t make a drug dealer a better person.
It did seem that we’d learned a lesson from Vietnam–for awhile. We did have “military actions” that weren’t worthy of being called wars, but then we got into wars that were successors to Vietnam in that they took a long time and we didn’t win a clear-cut victory. Once Vietnam was 25 years behind us people infatuated with our military power became influential again. The result didn’t make me feel more secure. For one thing, that was the beginning of the massive national debt we now have. For another it made a lot of people hate Americans because of our arrogance and because we killed so many people in the Middle East. We complain about Islamic terrorism, but we inspired a lot of it by our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We weren’t smart enough to learn from Vietnam for very long, nor from Russia’s intervention in Afghanistan. To be fair, Russia doesn’t seem to have learned from it either.
There are two particularly troubling issues at present. The first is climate change and the refusal, especially in this country, to take any substantive action to ameliorate it. That refusal is part of the second issue: that our country is controlled largely by corporations who have more influence over the government than almost any other group. That’s not how a democracy is supposed to work, and it means that concerns of the majority of citizens are often not addressed.
That means that many of the jobs that successfully made the American Dream come true aren’t around anymore. Factory jobs used to be jobs almost anyone could get because they didn’t require highly skilled labor. Once factory workers started getting well-paid, the middle class expanded, and more Americans were financially secure than before or since. Now the middle class is contracting, as employers look for ways to avoid paying most employees enough to have any financial security. Many seem to see employees as their enemies.
Some things have improved in my lifetime. I never expected gays to be so accepted or gay marriage to become legal. It’s interesting that the gay rights movement began at very nearly the same time as the resurgence of conservatism, and the two movements, though different in aims, have been successful for similar reasons: they organized, and got their message out there. We may or may not like either of their messages, but must acknowledge their success in promoting them.
On the other hand, a lot of things haven’t improved. Many people are at least somewhat environmentally aware, but degradation of the environment continues. Racism also continues, and contributes to our having one quarter of the prisoners of the world, making our claim to be a free country sound ironic. Not only do we mistreat minorities, but there have been more and more voices justifying it. It’s as if we don’t have the imagination to think how we would tolerate discrimination aimed at us. Of course there are always people who claim to be victims that really aren’t, which obscures the problems of the real victims. I don’t see any justification for the claim that Christians are being persecuted in this country, for instance.
I wish I could see my country in a more positive light. There have been bad things we’ve done since the beginning of the European migration to this hemisphere, but there have also been good things.
Organizing a government with at least the potential to be an actual democracy was an unlikely achievement. So was the American Dream, possibly best epitomized by Abraham Lincoln, who came, seemingly out of nowhere, to keep the Union together and free the slaves. The task he took on, successful at the time, was left unfinished, because there are always threats to liberty and decency. Each generation has to fight those battles again. My generation tried, but in many respects didn’t succeed. Now the dangers are even worse. I hope my country will make good choices in the coming years, but am afraid it won’t.