Saturday, September 29, 2012

Holding Back Time

I took this photograph the other day from the roof while I was cleaning out the chimneys. It's a chore I do every year that marks the real end of the summer. Wood fires are imminent. As a matter of fact, we're just holding out, clinging to the illusion that we are still enjoying the easy days and nights of summer. The nights are cold enough now for fires, especially since the leaves on the maple trees to the south and west of the house keep it from getting a lot of sun. The leaves here in the woods to the east have just started to turn, none of the bright reds and oranges that mark the peak of foliage season, when the tourist industry gets a huge bump with the visiting leaf peepers. This year, there is also the influx of the candidates. Both Obama and Ryan and their running mates and significant others have been popping up all over the Granite State making speeches. The race seems to be going in favor of Obama. But it's just heating up now,  much like the foliage.
Watched The Iron Maiden last night with Susan, and it brought back memories of our days together in London at the end of the Thatcher administration. Meryl Streep as usual does a "spot on" job with the voice and gestures and even the vacant sideways looks of the elder Maggie in the throes of oncoming dementia. The youth out in the street with the vests and long hair battling the police during the poll tax riots in the news reels were images of a distant past, like visiting another country. Funny, in my mind it still seems so vivid and real. I remember the excitement when she resigned, as if the wicked witch of the West had finally melted and the little people got to dance for a little while.
The passage of time is a funny thing, the object of attention of many a novelist, the way it telescopes and fragments in our memories. Routines and chores are a comfort to us, as they signal continuity and give the illusion of permanence. They say the only two things you can really count on are taxes and change. Of course if you are in the 47 percent you don't believe that and you are hoping, as I do, that Barack will hold back the hands of the clock as well. With that easy smile and sonorous voice, he could probably charm Father Time.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Nobody Has the Answers

With just six weeks to go to elections, Obama seems to be pulling out ahead, and it's no wonder. Really, what independent minded person looking at this as a job hire would pick the applicant with so many questions hanging over his resume? There was a great piece in the New Yorker by John Cassidy as to the reasons Romney seems to be falling apart in the home stretch, ranging from an incompetent campaign manager to the demographics of the country that seem to be favoring the Democratic party. But it seems clear that both Romney and the Republican party in general are fighting strong headwinds to regain the White House. The question now is, should one hope for big Democratic gains on the House and Senate? I have two opinions on this. First one is that yes, a Democratic majority would move the country off the dime of stalemate and help promote a progressive agenda that might get us moving in a positive direction. But, on the other hand, the economic forces arraigned against Uncle Sam are mighty, and I don't believe either party has an answer to the shortfall between what American's regard as a decent middle class existence, i.e. doing better than one's parents, and the reality that the economic growth we need to accomplish it is probably not going to happen -- barring the recreation of a bubble economy such as the one we have had for the last thirty years. Indeed, I tend to side with Republican opinion when looking at the recent moves by the Federal Reserve to create liquidity by buying bonds and setting interest rates so low as to discourage people from using banks. So now we have a stock market that's bubbling over because the big institutional players have no where else to park their money. What is wrong with that picture?

Anthony Caplan is a writer, blogger, teacher and homesteader in New Hampshire. He is the author of the novels Birdman, French Pond Road, and the just released Latitudes - A Story of Coming Home. Find out more about him and his work at 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Melting the Freeze on the Arctic Melt

Because the political battles looming with the US election make such great news content we tend to be locked into a very short term horizon in thinking about the issues that matter. Add to this the candidates tendency to want to boil their campaigns down to simplistic sound bites focusing on the one issue that their minders estimate will gain them the most traction, and it can seem that democracy, especially one like ours where the cost of campaigns means political candidates are on message all the time for the sake of their fundraising machinery, does not make for an educated or enlightening public discussion of any issue with a long-term window for action or consequences.

That's why the issue of climate change, despite the worst drought in sixty years and the prospect of food price spikes ahead this winter around the world, is receiving a very muted reception on the campaign trail. Beyond the prospect of jobs or energy independence, there is little mention of what was a central issue in the last two elections, global warming and its attendant climate change, and no mention at all about the news that came out in the last week from the US government itself: the melting of ice in the Arctic has reached an unprecedented rate of speed. Have we reached the point of exhaustion on an issue where our very survival as a society might be at stake?

I remember in the 1990s when environmental; groups first warned that if nothing was done, the North Pole could be ice free by the middle of this century. But this summer the volume of sea ice  as measured by satellites has reached the smallest ever seen, and the remaining ice is so thin that US government scientists are predicting a blue North Pole by the end of the next decade. The implications for coastal regions, wildlife, and the planet's weather patterns are frightening, but the response to the scientific findings have been nothing but underwhelming. For Republicans, who have made it a mantra of their political culture that climate change is a hoax, to walk this particular piece of science denial back will be very difficult. But the Obama administration has also yet to come up with a forceful plan and policy statement beyond their already stated platform calls for a growing reliance on renewable energy to cut our carbon emissions by 28 percent by 2020.

My question is, if the Arctic ice is in a death spiral, do we need to be much more proactive, or just resign ourselves to living in a vastly different, almost uninhabitable planet? And in case you think I am scaremongering, here is the scenario painted by NASA's James Hansen in a recent NYT op-ed:

“Over the next several decades, the Western United States and the semi-arid region from North Dakota to Texas will develop semi-permanent drought, with rain, when it does come, occurring in extreme events with heavy flooding. Economic losses would be incalculable. More and more of the Midwest would be a dust bowl. California’s Central Valley could no longer be irrigated. Food prices would rise to unprecedented levels.”

Aside from commentary on the environmental blogosphere, you would think from observing the mainstream media that the melting Arctic was about on a par with stagnating SAT scores or inner city crime, something designed to elicit politically correct reflex statements and counter-statements on the Sunday talk shows. In fact, the fallout from an ice-free Arctic would be immensely unsettling, and in the worst case scenarios of the meltdown of the Greenland Ice Sheet and a runaway warming, could spell the end to the conditions that have sustained human life on Earth.

But there are calls to action from a wide spectrum of organizations from the League of Women Voters to Greenpeace. It may be that simmering under the surface, there might just be a groundswell of support for a much tougher line on the human activities that are driving the pace of melting.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Donkeys and Elephants

I'm back in the saddle today after a long hiatus away from the blog. This space has always been an eclectic blend of self-indulging journalistic confessional, a branding medium for my more speculative work, i.e. fiction, and/or advocacy pieces on politics and the environment for the most part. So sometimes if there's nothing going on it's because I'm ... transitioning. That's right transitioning, you heard it here first.

These last few weeks have been an epic feast for followers such as myself of the true national pastime: electoral politics. They say the party conventions are an outmoded anachronism, not strictly necessary for gathering the votes of delegates and officially sanctioning the candidacy of the party's nominee. But I say there is no better event for gauging the collective stylistic impulses of the Republicans and the Democrats, and after all, that's what we vote for when we vote. One team or another, choose sides. This is about family and tribe more than it is about policy or template for the future, and the conventions give us a glimpse into the differing worlds of Donkey America vs. Elephant America. The comforting thing for me is how comforting both of them have become. The differences between the two are like choosing between chocolate and vanilla on a hot summer day. You know what you're going to get will be a different experience. But at the end of the day, with both you will be left thirsty, fatter, and longing for more. So the gut impressions we are left make all the difference. Tampa was a gathering of small business owners, the salt of the earth, every day Americans, steadfast, loyal, mostly white, true believers in a world that is fast disappearing. Charlotte was a broad, fast-moving river of differing constituencies, mostly urban, mostly hip, unstoppable. Barring no major shakeups in the world order, there is no way Obama can lose. The Democrats make better spectacle and we love to be entertained.

America remains a centrist, pragmatic nation where the practice of democracy is deeply engrained and richly entertaining. The two parties' conventions are a mirror reflection of each other, both faithful reenactments of American citizenship. The differences between Dems and Repubs are differences of style, not substance, and even in their policy platforms, you can see that the aims of the two parties are the same, with mere differences of opinion about the best way to get there. The fact that Republicans are portrayed by their opponents as proto-fascist villains, and Democrats likewise as European elitists in disguise waiting to bring in the rule of the United Nations has more to do with cheerleading than with reality.