The Sibelius Concerto

This weekend, the Ukiah Symphony Orchestra will perform Jean Sibelius’ one and only violin concerto, with Polina Sedukh as soloist.

I fell in love with this concerto as a teen-ager.

In those dark ages, the vast array of modern musical delivery devices simply didn’t exist. The thing that all the kids had was a 45 rpm phonograph, a “record-player,” and all of us had our collection of our favorite 45 records, kept in a box where they stood vertically, to protect them from scratches. We’d carry them to our friends’ houses, listen to tunes, and swap records. We played them over and over until the sound grew grainy. Storing them vertically didn’t preserve them from dust, grit, dull steel phonograph needles, and overuse.

Later, as a teen-ager, I gave up all other Christmas presents for a couple of years in return for an audiophile’s dream: a 33 rpm changer, with a separate amplifier and headphones. That took a LOT of wheedling and whining. You would stack the much larger LP (Long Playing) albums on the spindle, and the platter would drop onto the turntable, the arm would automatically swing and drop onto the starting track, and the music would play. Then, when the album had completed, the arm would automatically move out of the way, the next album would drop onto the turntable, and the needle would again move to the starting track. You could listen to a couple of hours of music without touching anything.

The album business was well under way by then — Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band came out in 1967 — but LP albums were expensive. I didn’t have a budget for that. What I did have was a library card. And the county library had LPs — mostly classical music.

Sibelius’ violin concerto was in the bin, and I fell asleep listening to it many, many nights. I think it’s fair to say that it helped to shape, and give voice to, my soul.

I have my favorite passages, of course.

There’s a place in the first movement where the violin starts crossing strings, lightly, like a Mozart cadenza, but then it gradually turns into firestorm of shifting chords that simply can’t be contained: he gives up the string crossing and starts sawing wildly in desperate octaves, culminating in thunder from the drums and blaring horns. The raw passion of it is so like the explosive passions of a teen-ager, trying to come to terms with hormones and social pressures and parental expectations in a world that resists making any sense at all.

Then there’s a sweet, rising theme in the second movement that occurs twice, filled with yearning. The first time, it rises and falls back into the general fabric of sound, incomplete, but the second time, it rises, and rises, and rises, and then resolves into a major chord broken by a major seventh — a triumph tinged with unanswerable sadness — and just remembering it gives me chills up and down my neck, and brings tears to my eyes.

And then, the third movement, with its insistent drumbeats and the mad little tunes dancing around them. My favorite passage is the demented elven melody played entirely with harmonics, which is a violin technique where you just barely touch the string in just the right place with your little finger, and it drives the pitch up a full octave with a strange, unearthly, hollow sound.

The Sibelius violin concerto ranks among the most difficult violin concertos to play, and what I’ve heard from the rehearsing musicians is that Polina Sedukh makes it sound easy, drawing an astonishing life and depth from the music.

I, for one, can’t wait to hear it.

An Economy

My college roommate used to talk about his math teacher in high school.

“Last year,” the teacher would say, as introduction to his class, “you learned AN algebra. This year, you will learn THE calculus.”

There is an instructive truth to this. The algebra taught in high school is only one of an entire collection of different algebras with very different mathematical properties. Everyone knows, from high school algebra, that (A times B) is the same as (B times A). That’s because high school algebra is a commutative algebra. But there are non-commutative algebras in which this is not true. There are quantized algebras, and algebras over closed sets, and abstract algebras with names like “open-closed homotopy algebras,” or the algebra of a “rational two-dimensional conformal field on
oriented surfaces with possibly nonempty boundary.”

To say that you “understand algebra” almost invariably means that you understand the algebra taught in high school. It’s a little like saying you “understand language,” meaning that you understand your mother tongue, and can speak in full sentences. Most people know at least one language, and some know many languages, but to say that you “understand language,” if taken at face value, is highly unlikely to be true.

I believe that people who “understand economics” are in much the same situation. They understand AN “economics,” which attempts to describe one kind economy. But there are many different kinds of economy.

In the broadest sense, what is an economy? I would say it’s simply the things that people collectively do around an organizing theme.

If you look at ancient Egypt, they had a “pyramid building” economy. That’s just shorthand for a large collection of related activities, from farming the Nile delta, to raising up Pharaohs, to training armies, to venerating their gods, to — of course — actually building stone pyramids. The idea of the Pyramid more or less captures this idea of people doing activities around some organizing theme.

You can look at fourteenth-century Europe as having a “cathedral building” economy. It organized resources, and provided steady, multi-generational skilled employment for stone masons, architects, artists, glass-blowers, vendors of everything from bricks to pastries to holy relics.

The general thing about an economy is that it organizes the activities of excess labor: labor that would, absent the economy, have pretty much nothing to do but eat and procreate and quarrel.

Think about it. The stone masons are not producing food. Cathedrals can’t really be considered “shelter” from the weather. They aren’t good places to procreate — they’re drafty and full of cold, hard surfaces — and quarreling is likely to break something priceless. From any practical perspective, cathedrals — like pyramids — are pretty damned useless.

If you look at our economy, it seems that the focus is producing billionaires. Like the “pyramid economy,” the “billionaire economy” is an oversimplification. But if you look at what our modern capitalist economy produces, it is — purely and simply — capital: hoards of unspent wealth owned by individuals.

Unlike the pyramid economy, we don’t have a particular “thing” we produce with our excess labor. One of the current fads is computers, but in ten years, it may be windmills, or solar panels, or nuclear power plants, or desalinization plants, or something else. However, whatever “thing” we stay busy with, it will surely produce concentration of capital, and will produce another billionaire (or twenty).

The interesting thing is that most economies function, not by means of production, but by means of rationing. By definition, excess labor means excess goods, specifically food, and this is rationed out by a complicated system of “merit” based on the underlying economy. For the pyramid economy, surveyors lived better than log-rollers. For the cathedral economy, stonemasons lived better than street-sweepers.

Rationing is a way of rewarding people for complying with the current economy, and punishing those who do not. This is how it provides focus.

“I’d quit my job, but I have to eat.”

People didn’t build European cathedrals because they were pious. They build cathedrals because it was how they could earn their daily bread in the rationing system of the cathedral building economy. It was how they could gain standing, power, and wealth.

“It’s a good job, son. Learn to cut stone and you’ll never go hungry.”

Every job in our current economy is tied to profit, which is defined by its ownership class, which hoards paper wealth in a kind of financial Tokamak ring called the “stock market.” The goal of a real Tokamak ring is to produce nuclear fusion. The goal of the stock market is to store capital and grow endlessly bigger over time, filled with more and more money, buoyed up on a string of business fads that strut and fret their hour upon the stage, and then are heard no more. The great steamship builders; the great electric power utilities; the great computer cable networks.

We produce billionaires.

Future generations will look back on us, and ask, “What were they thinking?”

But to return to the opening topic, our economists study, not economies, but AN economy: specifically an economy that produces billionaires, not cathedrals or pyramids. In doing so, they rationalize and glorify the creation of billionaires — economists need to eat, too — and this warps the whole picture frame of what “economic health” looks like.

One of the questions that people throw out from the so-called “right-of-center” (on the accepted one-dimensional political axis) is: “How will we pay for it?” The “it” can be anything that people from the so-called “left-of-center” bring up: single-payer health care, student loan forgiveness, free education, free food for the homeless.

But that isn’t their real question. What they are really asking is, “How can we accomplish this thing that the left-of-center wants, but make it fit within the rationing rules of our current economy?”

Well, we can’t.

By definition, the people the left-of-center want to benefit are the ones currently being punished by AN economy that produces billionaires. If we we bail out the students, we will fall short on our annual quota of new billionaires. If we treat the sick, the billionaire economy will sag.

Explaining the left-of-center view to an economist is like explaining to the Exchequer of the Royal Court in Medieval Paris that we halted construction of a cathedral to dig a well for a bunch of lepers, the Cursed of God.

Off with your head, you irresponsible fool!

But the original question is the better question, and it has a simple answer.

“How will we pay for it?” We pay for it the way any economy pays for anything: with our excess labor. Because the economy is whatever we do with our excess labor. And we are approaching a crisis in what we are currently doing with our excess labor.

I had an amusing exchange with my boss this morning. We had our weekly online meeting, and he was fifteen minutes late, waiting for his computer system to reboot. Last week, I had to skip a meeting because my system wouldn’t connect sound in either direction. I had to talk with a co-worker today, and we had to switch to a different program to hear each other.

It seems like half of all our time is spent rebooting computers, upgrading phone software, filtering out junk mail, fighting with “productivity tools” that make us less productive, less communicative, and less organized.

What the Hell are we all doing?

Creating billionaires.

If economists tell us that this is our highest good as a people and a species, they are wrong. They are wrong because they are laying out the rules of AN economy, our economy. There are other economies.

It is time to change.

 

Reflections on a Power Outage

I live in Northern California, about an hour North of Santa Rosa, and we experienced a five-day PSPS (Public Safety Power Shutdown) from Oct 26-30. I thought it might be useful (or at least interesting) to others for me to talk about the experience itself.

We did at least know it was coming, which was a good thing. We had no idea how long it would actually last, which was not so good. They said “up to five days.” Could have been one; could have been ten. I’m not sure they had ever done such a large shutdown, but certainly not recently — power could have been out for a lot longer if they had trouble bringing it back up, as they did along the Mendocino coast.

Weather was mild throughout the shutdown. We have normal daily temperature swings of about fifty degrees (Fahrenheit) in the summer, somewhat less by October, so nights can get a little chilly — checking on the web, the low that week was about 40, and the high 86. Forty can lead to hypothermia if you sleep naked on the ground, or get wet, but this is otherwise not deadly weather.

We lost home heating. We have a newly-installed heat-pump system, which is all-electric and (of course) did not function at all. But even those with central gas heating have electric fans and igniters, so those did not function, either. We have a traditional wood fireplace, but those generally cool the house by drawing cold air in through windows and vents to feed the fire; and during fire season here, the smell of burning wood is not charming. However, because the weather was mild, it was enough for us to scrounge up an extra blanket for the bed, and wear layers in the early morning.

We lost running hot water. We have a gas-fired on-demand water heater, but — like central heat — it has electric components which won’t work, as do standard gas water heaters.

We have a gas range, which did work. The electric igniters would not work, but it’s easy enough to strike a match to light the burners. The oven has electric thermostatic control, so that wouldn’t work: no pies during a power outage. We also had our camping stove, with its little Coleman propane tanks, which we could have used. We ended up lending that to a neighbor. We also have a propane grill in the backyard. Cooking was well-covered.

We had clean water and sewage removal. The city kept the systems on, both of which require electric pumps somewhere along the path. We could drink clean water and shower (cold). With the stove, we could heat water and take warm splash baths in the tub, and drink hot tea or coffee in the morning. More importantly, we could get rid of five days of human excrement with a system designed to handle daily effluent.

We had no Internet. I have no idea if Comcast stayed up: it was a moot point, since anything I have that would use it requires electricity to run. I suspect their cable service was down, but I don’t know.

We had cell phone service. The cell towers remained operational, and we could send and receive phone calls and messages, so long as we kept our phones charged.

The level of darkness was impressive. The PSPS began right on the cusp of the new moon, so we had full nights of only starlight, unrelieved by city-glow or moon-dusk or moon-dawn. I had to use a flashlight to find the bedroom or bathroom after sunset, or feel my way around using my hands. Nights seemed extraordinarily long.

We had candles, enough for me to read after sunset. But it takes quite a few candles for my old eyes: you also have to have the book pretty close to them, and my eyes got tired quickly. There wasn’t much joy in late-night reading.

There was also a profound silence. Right now, I can hear a persistent 60 Hz hum in the house. If you listen for it, you can even hear it outside, coming from every house, every power line. With the entire city shut down, it was quiet, the way it is in the mountains. The crickets were loud.

We have an electric refrigerator and chest freezer, and both of those went off and stayed off. We had to pay close attention to food, and ended up losing some.

A lot of the food we normally keep in the refrigerator keeps just fine without refrigeration. Cheese is simply a way of preserving milk without refrigeration, and hard block cheeses will keep for a long time, as well as ripened cheeses that haven’t been cut. Similarly, dried, salted, and fermented (e.g. salami) meats will keep without refrigeration. Intact eggs don’t normally need to be refrigerated at all. Anything pickled or canned doesn’t need refrigeration. Dry goods like crackers or rice don’t need refrigeration. And there is the oldest of all preservation methods, fire: cooking preserves fresh food, though it’s fairly short-term.

Other food in the refrigerator — fresh vegetables, meat, milk — all had to be eaten, or thrown out.

The chest freezer stayed cold. Had there been more food in it, I think everything would have stayed deeply frozen. As it was, we ended up with a thin layer of water at the bottom, though the bags of ice we had in there were not visibly melted when the power came back on. We made judgment calls on what was in the freezer.

The grocery stores all shut down. None of them had enough failover generator capacity to keep all of their refrigeration running for five days: some, like Safeway, had no failover generators at all. They all lost all of their frozen food, and after five days, had to throw out all of their fresh meat, vegetables, and fruits, which people weren’t buying a lot of, anyway, since they had no way to keep it, either. By day three, the grocery stores were all closed, and entire shelves were empty for the next week after the power came back on.

A few other stores stayed open.

Costco kept their gas pumps running: people with generators needed gasoline, and we could still use cars to get around — and ironically, to recharge our cell phones. I saw people sitting in their cars in their driveways, idling, while their phones charged: an expensive charger, to be sure. None of the smaller gas stations could run their pumps, and closed.

The hardware stores stayed open, though they only had small generators to power the cash registers, and the aisles were generally dark, lit only by skylights or worklamps clamped to a shelf and powered by a long extension cord snaking across the floor back to the generator: they had employees who would greet you at the door with flashlights, and would walk you around. They sold out of batteries, flashlights, and Coleman lanterns almost immediately, of course, as well as generators.

A few restaurants and pubs that had generators stayed open, at least early in the power outage, with specials to get rid of their food while it was still good.

Other stores simply closed: without electricity, cash registers won’t open, credit card scanners won’t scan, store lights won’t come on.

Schools and the college all shut down.

They brought in a generator for the library, to provide a working community space, and a place to get news and charge phones.

Streetlights and traffic signals were dark: every intersection with a signal was treated as a four-way stop, but there wasn’t a lot of traffic.

In short, the experience was — personally — a bit easier than the five-day mountain retreat that Marta and I would go to in Colorado every summer: here, we didn’t need to pack in our own water and use porta-potties; nor did it get as cold at night.

I held that mountain-retreat image in my mind, and relaxed into the inevitability of forces beyond my control.

I spent some time writing letters. I had paper, and pens, and during the day, light. I sat in the back yard, at our patio table in the sun.

It was interesting to return to that lost art. I used to write a lot of letters, in the days before the Internet. It’s a lot harder than using a word-processor.

Marta and I also worked outside in the yard during daylight hours, which is how I knew the hardware stores were open: any work around the house always requires trips to the hardware store. We did a little unpacking, took walks. We retired early, rose early.

If this all sounds relatively benign, even pleasant — well, for us, it was. We were quite fortunate.

For others, it was neither benign, nor pleasant. A lot of lower-income people lost food they were counting on being able to eat. They lost work hours they could not afford to be without. Many businesses took a serious hit in terms of lost inventory and income.

In reflecting on this, the big issues were the things that have always made cities marginal places to live: food, water, and waste.

I would say waste is the most important of the three. Had the sewage pumps shut down, the city would have quickly become uninhabitable. It was the first thing travelers noted about many Medieval cities: the stench as you approached it, becoming unbearable once you were walking the streets. Pestilence and plague follow.

Access to clean water comes only shortly behind. Our “aqueduct into every kitchen” model isn’t the only model. Water can be delivered, just like milk used to be, or people can travel to get it from a central source, a kind of urban equivalent to the “village well.” Without water for washing and drinking, however, a city dies pretty quickly.

We didn’t experience any interruption of waste removal or water supply.

What we experienced was the consequence of our reliance upon electricity for fresh food. Again, the supermarket with bright lights, freezers, and electric credit-card readers is not the only model. We could have more corner stores, each taking more frequent deliveries of fresh, locally-procured food in smaller quantities: the “corner grocer” of the sort you find in very large cities, with a cash-only, or neighborhood account-based payment. It would likely mean less variety, more frequent “sold out” conditions, and certainly higher prices.

There’s a basic rule in life: efficiency is the enemy of resilience. When a violinist buys extra strings for his fiddle, it is inefficient: the money spent on strings, and the time spent pre-stretching them, when they may not be used for years, could have been more efficiently spent on something else. Economists even have a term for this: “opportunity cost.” But it compensates with resilience: if a string breaks just before a performance, or even during a performance, the show can continue — otherwise, the show must be canceled.

Our supermarket system is quite efficient. But it is also quite fragile. A five-day loss of electricity exposed just how fragile it is. A five-week loss of electricity would require a completely new system of food distribution, and a lot of chaos getting it set up, possibly including food riots, violence, and even starvation.

That’s in a little village surrounded by vineyards and pear orchards and squash patches. Rural country, close to local farms.

Right now, everyone is angry with Pacific Gas and Electric, because they’re what’s called a regional for-profit monopoly, and they’ve been making substantial payouts to investors and company officers for many years, and “deferring” (neglecting) maintenance on their systems, resulting in failing systems that are causing some of the fires up here. For which they’ve been sued into bankruptcy.

Some people want to “fix” PG&E, and punish the miscreant officers who mismanaged the company.

But the real issue is resilience, which pretty much the entire nation has sacrificed in favor of efficiency. In some ways, this PSPS was a blessing. We don’t need a better regional monopoly. We need a resilient system.

The Phoenix Project in Mendocino County

This Autumn, the Mendocino College/Community choir, in collaboration with the college dance department, will be performing a choreographed version of my Missa Druidica, as a part of their “Phoenix Project.”

The Phoenix Project was inspired by the recent catastrophic fires in California, but it is a broader cross-disciplinary artistic action intended to address the subject of homogenic climate change (climate change caused by humans) that underlies the increasing frequency and severity of big fires in California, as well as other climate catastrophes around the world — and addressing the fear of possible global extinction of our civilization, if not our entire species.

I wanted to write a little about how I see the Missa Druidica fitting into this artistic initiative.

I’d like to start with this image:

strive-on-31

This was engraved on the face of the University of Wyoming Engineering Building when I was in college there. I remember walking back and forth across Prexy’s Pasture on my way between the dorms and the classrooms every day, and seeing this inscription. The building itself was demolished and replaced decades ago, and the new building no longer exhibits this sentiment so boldly. But it reveals something important about the mindset of the early twentieth century. As does the saying, taught to civil engineers in these same classrooms: “The solution to pollution is dilution.”

We see here a view of Nature as something unthinking and infinite in scope: something that can be used as we see fit, striven against with all our might; something that can withstand everything humans can throw at it, or take from it, and not be fundamentally moved. There is nothing in this view that even suggests the notion that our actions could actually break Nature. The seas and the atmosphere will always be large enough to absorb and recycle our pollution. We can never get close enough to actually controlling Nature to face the responsibility of keeping it running.

The true terror of homogenic climate change comes of realizing how profoundly we are out of our depth. We’ve started to move Nature into a different place, toward a tipping-point with completely unknown consequences, and we don’t know a fraction of what we need to know to fix the problem. People have suggested dumping massive quantities of iron into the ocean to boost plankton growth. They have suggested putting up space mirrors to cut down solar influx. They have fielded a series of increasingly outlandish proposals, trying to take even more control of Nature and force it back to what we want it to be. To run it properly.

Failing that, some think we can just pull up our tent stakes and move. Mars, perhaps. Some unspoiled Eden circling another star.

None of these proposals are, in themselves, completely unthinkable. But they miss the main point: if we don’t know how to fix a working system that we broke, we aren’t going to have a clue how to create a brand-new system that works. Even if we did, we’d break it, too.

We’re now like an Olympic swimmer who has naively set out to swim from San Francisco to Hawaii, and somewhere between the docks and Alcatraz, starts to panic at the prospect of drowning within sight of land.

The lesson of homogenic climate change is that our vision of Nature is wrong.

We desperately need a new vision of Nature.

I believe that this is precisely what art — all art — is about: it is, if you will, the sociological function of art. Art provides a vision. It may be reinforcing an old vision, like the endless Avengers franchise in the movie theaters in which clenched fists, gritted teeth, arrogance, manly teamwork, and a few superpowers will overcome anything, even the end of the universe. But art is also what gives us new vision: the inspiration and the hope to do the hard work of figuring out the details and changing what needs to be changed.

Particularly when what needs to change is our own behavior.

Ritual is an art form in which the entire community participates. As a long-time Episcopalian, I came to see all of the standing and sitting and kneeling and singing and call and response as a kind of art in motion, guided by the liturgy of the service. It’s quite beautiful, when done well.

You can compare the Episcopal rite to the Roman Catholic rite, or the Greek Orthodox rite, or the gatherings of the Methodists, or the Adventists, or the Baptists. You can look at the Islamic call-to-prayer, or the Jewish sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, or the Festival of Colors in India, or the sabbats of the Wiccans, or the sacred dances of the Pomo or the Cheyenne. Within all this incredible variety of form and style and color, there are common elements of motion and sound, of coming together and going apart, of introspection and reaching-out, all woven into the art of sacred ritual.

So in approaching the Missa Druidica, which sets the common form of the eight Sun and Fire rites of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids to music, I am approaching it first and principally as art — art that supports a new vision of Nature.

What is the new vision of nature that druidic ritual points to?

The best way to understand that is to experience it, of course. What makes art work is that it imparts the vision without a lot of talk, at a level that goes deeper than talk. But I think I can share a few words about what I’ve come to understand.

The old vision, engraved in stone on a building above, is about power, and domination, and control.

The new vision is about cooperation, collaboration, and reciprocity.

What does that even mean?

I’ll just go straight to the seemingly nutty end of it first, and then work my way back.

Druids talk to trees.

Huh?

Let’s talk about me talking with you. Who are you, anyway? I haven’t published this yet, so this conversation, as such, doesn’t actually exist. “You” are a completely imaginary person in my head. If and when I publish this, it may be read by old friends I know, but it’s also likely to be read by people I’ve never met, and never will. I’m talking to an imaginary “you” that is so diffuse as to be very little different from a blank wall. Yet I sit here writing, one-on-one, as though “you” exist, and as though I know “you” well enough to have this conversation.

The same mechanism can exist when I talk to a tree. Yes, it is — at least initially — an imaginary conversation with an imaginary tree, just as I’m currently having an imaginary conversation with an imaginary you. Depending on my knowledge of trees, it may be a fairly realistic conversation, for my part; or, it may be childish twaddle. First conversations are usually pretty childish — it’s how we learn.

Given the fact that trees actually communicate with each other through complex groundwater and airborne neurochemicals, they may know a lot more about what I’m saying/feeling/thinking than the imaginary-you would suspect. And by that same means, they can talk back to me: forests do speak. This all seems strange to city-dwellers plugged into computers and television screens, but most of the outdoorsy folk will be nodding their heads.

But the real point here is that it doesn’t matter whether I’m “actually” having a conversation with a tree. If I’m taking the time to have conversations with trees, imaginary or not, I will develop empathy with the trees: that’s just how the healthy human brain works. Trees will become a real and significant part of my world.

And that will change my behavior toward them.

In other words, talking with trees gives me a new vision of Nature.

I always think of the elves of Iceland. People in Iceland say, “Don’t piss off the elves.” The people of Iceland recently got worried enough about offending the elves to block the creation of a major highway that passed through elf-country. The folks pushing for the new road, looking toward whatever convenience or profit it offered, were upset about this … this superstition standing in the way of progress. But think it through: the road would destroy something. Roads always destroy something.

Our early nineteenth-century approach to Nature says, “So what? Nature is just dead space between important places where people live and make money, so when we bridge the dead space with a road, we add value. What kind of fool would stand in the way of that?”

Well, the elves who live in that “dead space,” for one. The forest creatures. The trees. The druids.

It’s a vision of Nature that recognizes that all that so-called “dead space” is producing free oxygen for us to breathe, cleaning our water at no cost to us, supporting the fungus and the bees and the small wildlife that allows our agricultural efforts to function at all.

It isn’t dead space. It never was.

This vision of nature is woven through the rites of the Order, and the many other druidic, shamanic, and native traditions, and I simply hope, as a composer, I’ve captured just a little bit of this in the few minutes that the music runs.

And … it’s also pretty enjoyable music.

Why Men Have Balls

Yes, I’m talking about testicles. Why do men have them?

My understanding has always been that it has to do with sperm motility, the ability of the sperm cells to spin their little tails and go swimming up the woman’s fallopian tubes to the egg. At normal body temperature, sperm cells are sluggish, and slow. They need to be slightly cooler than body temperature to really get spinning.

Hence, a hangy-down repository outside the body where they can cool off and get ready to go.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the fall of the United States, and the likely self-inflicted extinction of the human race (along with many, many other species), and it seems to me that testicles may be relevant.

I wrote about a book I read some time back, Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal World, where the author made some rather startling observations about the world we live in. He made a suggestion at the very end of the book that caught my attention, a suggestion about reproduction.

To reprise, briefly, the author points out that pretty much the entire surface of the earth is awash in neurochemicals, and there are vast networks of bacteria, fungal celia, molds, and other living creatures that live in that soup of neurochemicals and demonstrably pass signals to each other, much like the individual brain cells in a mammal’s brain. There is every reason to believe that the earth, as a whole, could well be alive and intelligent. And like every living organism, it regulates its environment for its own purposes, and — ultimately — will seek to reproduce.

How does an entire planet reproduce?

When you look at how life on earth reproduces, it’s highly variable, intricate, and clever. Some yeasts have as many as fifty distinct sexes. Some living creatures ingest their mate. Some lay fertilized eggs, some lay eggs that must be fertilized after they are laid. Some cast sperm into the air, and let it land where it lands. Others have carrier species (like bees) to move their sperm to specific targets. Some just clone themselves.

There is no one model of reproduction on the earth.

When we look at the entire history of the earth in the geological record, we find that for a long time, it was very hot. Water was filled with organic sludge and creatures that ate the sludge, and creatures that ate the creatures that ate the sludge. Land creatures included the dinosaurs, but also vast quantities of plant matter.

It was all of that organic matter, absorbing sunlight and creating complex organic compounds that stored atmospheric carbon and the energy of the sun, falling to the ground and then getting compressed under layer after layer of its own descendants, that became the coal and oil we now burn and release back into the air as carbon dioxide.

And then the earth got cold and stayed cold. One might say, metaphorically, that the Gaian testicles dropped.

What came out of that shift was our modern world of ice ages, temperate climates, mammals, and human beings. And human being are … highly motile. We get around.

We’ve even launched ourselves to different planets in the solar system.

How does a planet reproduce?

One possibility is to use one of its species as a sperm cell — a carrier — to carry living matter and the Gaian genome to other worlds.

Humans, of course, think that it’s our job to reproduce ourselves on other planets: colonies on Mars, and Ganymede, and Europa, and ultimately, earth-like worlds outside the solar system. Glass domes and spacesuits, and all that.

But that’s a sperm cell’s viewpoint. From the larger viewpoint of the planet, the point is not to reproduce humans elsewhere, it is to reproduce Gaia elsewhere — which is an entire biosphere. As we’ve seen on earth, the biosphere is highly adaptable. It started in a methane atmosphere, then adapted to an atmosphere it had poisoned with toxic and corrosive oxygen. It thrives in undersea fumaroles at high temperature. It thrives in ice caves, and cracks deep beneath the surface of the earth. It thrives high in the atmosphere, and some of it can even go dormant and survive in space.

Humans cannot live on Mars. A properly-adapted biosphere probably could. If not Mars, perhaps Ganymede. Or high up in the clouds of Jupiter.

And if life is already there? Even better. The new life coming from Earth will share genetic material with the life already there, increasing genetic diversity, complexity, and the capacity to adapt.

What I’m suggesting is that humans may very well be a temporary species that formed in the cold earth cycle after the earth’s testicles dropped, and that it was always our job to use up stored energy-rich carbon compounds to propel us — as sperm, carrying the Gaian genome — to our neighboring planets. Perhaps, now, it is time for the testicles to be withdrawn back into the hot world, where organic sludge can accumulate solar energy and atmospheric carbon again and prepare for the next cold period, the development of another motile species, and another ejaculation into space.

I don’t know if this is a dark metaphor, or a bright one.

We humans like to think of ourselves as eternal, which is one of the few things we clearly are not. Life on earth has been around for over three billion years. Upright apes are only two million years old, modern humans only 200 thousand years old. Our technological world is less than two hundred years old. We are an eye-blink in the history of life on earth. A momentary squirt.

Now we’ve used up all of the stored carbon we depend on to run our civilization. By “used up,” of course, I don’t mean there is no more. By “used up,” I mean that we’ve passed the production peak, which means that for the first time in the history of oil production, the projected costs of production are going up instead of down. The oil that remains is increasingly harder to get to, and it takes more energy — in the form of burning oil — to get to it.

We would see this reflected in steadily rising oil costs in a sane economy, but our economy is not sane. So the thing to watch is the Ghawar fields in Saudi. Last time I checked, they were still at about $6/barrel for production cost, and the Saudis have apparently made a deliberate decision to hold market share by running at full production until the field is dry, keeping prices low and demand high and their pockets well-lined. When Ghawar shuts down — as it eventually must, though exactly when is an estimate that the Saudis don’t divulge — there will be a huge, disruptive spike in global oil prices. Venezuelan oil is one of the second-least expensive sources, at $20/barrel, so the shock could be a three-fold increase, virtually overnight; actually much higher, because there will be immediate scarcity driving prices up. Fracking comes in at over $40/barrel in the best cases and has no long-term future at all. The “drill, baby, drill” locations touted by US Republicans are purest political hokum: because of location, they would require decades of investment in infrastructure, which makes it far too expensive to ever sell that oil at usable prices.

Eventually — within the next two centuries — it will take more energy to get to the oil than we get out of the oil. Which is like paying $20 for a $10 bill: it makes no sense, even to stupid people, and while we’ll probably see some government subsidies that do the stupid for a while, those won’t last long, because there will simply be no demand for $100/gallon gasoline. The oil economy will shut down, and with it, our ability to boost out of the earth’s gravity-well in a continued ejaculation of Gaian seed to other planets.

Our usefulness as a species will end.

It’s hard to guess how long Gaia will keep us around after that usefulness ends. Maybe a few hundred thousand years, if we’re lucky — it would be a good run. Perhaps we’ll continue to develop technology based on something other than oil. Maybe — maybe — we’ll even stumble upon some “new physics” that lets us counteract gravity with something other than brute force, which would mean we haven’t yet reached our peak.

I wish I could see any of that in our future in our current global political climate. I don’t. I see a hard and fast fall.

But if we’ve accomplished our primary purpose, perhaps that’s … enough.

He’s Not Worth It

An open letter to Ms. Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives, US Congress.

Dear Ms. Pelosi,

You recently stated, regarding the matter of impeaching President Trump, that “he’s not worth it.”

So a man slips into my house through an unguarded second-story window with the help of an accomplice named Vladimir. He drinks my beer, urinates on my carpets, tags the walls with spray paint, writes huge checks to his buddies using my checkbook, plays loud music all night, threatens the neighbors when they complain, sets fire to the piano, rapes my mother, rapes my dog….

The police investigate, and say, “Yep, he did all these things, and a few more things you didn’t know about. And we weren’t allowed to check out the basement, but there’s a smell coming up from there that … well, we really think it merits further investigation.”

They take the report to the prosecutor, and she says,

“He’s not worth it.”

Of course, he’s not worth it. He’s scum. He raped my dog, for God’s sake — who does that sort of thing? He’s not the point.

What you’re really telling us, Ms. Pelosi, is that we’re not worth it. Your constituents aren’t worth it. The integrity of the Office of the President is not worth it. The United States of America is not worth it.

You’re telling us that we’re not worth the cost, and the trouble, of you doing a part of your job you find difficult and distasteful.

Shame on you.

Small Blessings

I was in the grocery store the other day, and ended up in line behind a slow-moving elderly couple. The cashier rang up their total, and the old woman handed the cashier a gift card. I wasn’t paying close attention — I think she said something about a son or relative giving them the card — and then there was an awkward pause. The screen still showed a balance of forty dollars. The old woman sagged. Then she started taking items back out of the basket while the line waited.

My mind flashed back to an event from last Autumn. A neighbor had invited us to a Native event here called the Big Time, where several tribes gather and sing their traditional songs, tell their traditional stories, and perform their traditional dances. After the dancing is a feast, and they announced that elders should go straight to the front of the line. I don’t tend to think of myself as an elder, though I’m in my 60’s now, and so I got in line at the end. The people around me smiled and shook their heads, and told me and my wife to go to the front of the line. They insisted.

It felt strange — and it was surprisingly moving — to be singled out and honored in that way.

How different from our culture, where elders have to stay spry, or they get trampled, warehoused, and buried. Where they have to live on fixed incomes of ever-devaluing dollars, and are given helping gift cards by relatives that are too small to pay for food or other essentials. Where they have to take items out of their grocery basket while the cashier forces herself to wear a stone face as she enforces Corporate Law — taking food without paying is Theft, which is a form of Treason against Free Market Capitalism — and the people stuck in line behind tap their feet impatiently and glare.

“Excuse me,” I said, not quite believing what I saw happening right in front of me. “Are you really taking items out of your basket?”

“I have no choice,” the old woman said. “I have to.” She didn’t seem angry, only tired and resigned.

“You don’t have to,” I said. I looked directly at the cashier. “Put it on my bill.”

The cashier thought I was the most generous person in the world. The woman behind me in line agreed. The couple stopped me on my way out of the store, and the husband wanted to shake my hand, and said they’d never seen anyone do something like that.

It felt good to help, but the excessive praise saddened me, and saddens me still. I put out forty dollars to help an elderly couple in an awkward spot. Forty dollars. It’s a little more than the cost of two tickets to the movies, with popcorn. It’s four bottles of inexpensive wine, not counting tax. It’s two cheap gifts for an office Christmas exchange.

They’d never seen such an act of generosity.