Robert Meeropol





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STILL OUT ON A LIMB

Pinnacle of Evolution?

February 24, 2014

Tags: The Sixth Extinction

My fascination with weather started the winter I was eight. One day was so warm that I could go outside in my shirtsleeves, but the next day I had to bundle up against the cold. As I grew up this expanded into an interest in our planets’ chaotic climactic history; in college and graduate school I studied of anthropology, geology and evolution. Over the last several decades I have followed with growing alarm discussions of climate change and its potentially disastrous impact on our biosphere, the delicately balanced ecosystem of the Earth and all the plants and animals living on it.

The birth of my first grandchild six years ago profoundly personalized the dangers. The scientific evidence has convinced me that if we continue on our current course, by 2050, when she’s only 42 years old, my granddaughter’s life will become increasingly difficult, perhaps even impossible. I cannot imagine passively accepting what her and younger brother will have to endure. So I’ve worked even more intensively since 2008 to educate myself on the subject and how to reduce its risks.

When Elli mentioned recently that she’d heard Elizabeth Kolbert interviewed on NPR, and that I might be interested in reading her new book, THE SIXTH EXTINCTION, I was skeptical. I didn’t feel that I’d learn anything new, but Elli bought the book anyway. Reading it, I realize that exploring the impact of climate change on our biosphere provides important new insights into how to combat global warming.

I’ve come to understand how deeply our anthropocentric focus impedes our ability to face the challenge. Kolbert explains that in past extinction events our planet has lost up to 90% of all plant and animal families. This may be about to happen again. Perhaps some insect species, other invertebrates, and many single-celled organisms will survive, but our actions are endangering all or almost all of the “higher” life forms.

Are we justified, however, in seeing evolution as the advance from “lower” to “higher” forms of life, with our own species at the pinnacle of this glorious ascent? There has been an evolutionary trend toward increasing complexity, but are more complex organisms really any higher? Viewing humans as the end point of evolution is the modern-day equivalent of believing the sun revolves around the earth. This is a self-serving delusion. Just as the sun does not revolve around the earth, the earth does not revolve around us. We are merely one manifestation of an almost unimaginably complex web of life that has been evolving on our planet for over a billion years.

Placing ourselves at the center feeds our sense of importance and justifies our efforts to dominate our environment. It is, however, a potentially fatal misreading of our current circumstances. The vibrancy of the biosphere is essential to our survival. If our economic system and personal requirements are shredding it, our system, not it, must change. Human beings with our unprecedented capacity can, for a while, act as nature’s master, but the biosphere as a whole holds the trump cards. The mounting torrent of extinction is a warning which we ignore at our peril.

We must place the health of the biosphere at the center of any plan we develop to combat global warming. Understanding that our efforts must not focus on protecting what we have, but rather accommodate the needs of the earth’s natural systems, may be our biggest challenge. Overcoming our species specific myopia will not be easy, but given what is at stake, it is well worth the effort.

The Worst of the Worst

February 13, 2014

Tags: Sochi Olympics

Last week NBC news characterized the Sochi Olympics as an inspirational event that promoted healthy competition, international fellowship and good will. Not surprising, given that NBC owns the television rights to broadcast the Olympics, but for me it was the final straw. Even though I’ve enjoyed watching previous winter games, I resolved to boycott the Sochi Olympics. Here’s why:

1. Environmental disaster. Sochi was, until the Olympic steamroller came to town, one of Russia’s most picturesque areas. It is near Russia’s southernmost point; a semi-tropical set of beach resorts on the eastern shore of the Black Sea, with remarkably diverse flora and fauna, and the western terminus of the towering snow-covered Caucasus Mountains as a backdrop. It has been transformed at breakneck speed into a mass of hotels, Olympic villages, plazas, indoor and outdoor stadiums and ski-slopes, all connected by a highway system gouged out of the landscape. The group Environmental Reports on North Caucasus reports this has resulted in 1500 unsanctioned waste dumps in the area. In addition, because almost everyone attending flew there, each one of the tens of thousands arriving in Sochi is responsible for several additional tons of CO2 spewed into our atmosphere. The carbon footprint of this event is calamitous.

2. Human rights outrage. There has been a lot of publicity about how Russia has created a 1500 mile long series of check points around the Olympics and has tightened security throughout the region. Security measures include the monitoring of every electronic transmission and patrols of machine-gun touting Cossacks with the authority to stop and question anyone. I’m sure that members of every disfavored ethnic or religious group in the region have gotten a bellyful of this open air Gulag. And then, of course, there is the growing Putin-lead national past-time of gay-bashing.

3. Monumental corruption. Putin’s government has poured more than 50 billion dollars of public money into these Olympics. That’s more than the total spent on all other winter Olympics combined. Russia’s 1% has gobbled up this money in a flood of bribery and shoddy construction that has provided some great comic relief visuals on the internet. Outside of Russia, the 17 members of the International Olympic Organizing Committee (IOC) in charge of these games is a rogues’ gallery whose financial shenanigans and fascist-like political manipulations could fill a book.

4. Personal exploitation. The athletes are not exempt from this cesspool. The government-sponsored training methods of many countries designed to produce record performances by very youthful competitors is, to put it bluntly, child abuse. American Olympic hopefuls don’t have government support. Instead most of them obtain corporate sponsorship and thus, in a parody of amateurism, must dance to their puppeteer’s tune. Here’s how one former competitor described it: “The Olympic rings themselves have been copyrighted by the IOC, reserved exclusively for use by corporate sponsors. As those who generate super profits for sponsors, today’s Olympic athletes are workers. Like any other workers, athletes are limited by their economic vulnerability – in this case control by the sporting hierarchy.”

5. Elitism. Finally, it is an attraction that only those who can afford to shell out $20-25,000/person can attend. And to make sure those attending weren’t bothered by stray dogs, hundreds of the inconvenient animals were slaughtered before any guests arrived. Thus, it is an event paid for with public funds, causing massive environmental damage, vast human suffering and animal abuse, swimming in corruption, presented on site primarily to the wealthy, and generating super profits for the world’s giant corporations. What’s to like?

Calling this multifaceted orgy of degradation a testament to the highest human aspirations is beyond ironic. The least I can do, by boycotting it, is acknowledge all those who have suffered from this worst Olympics since the Nazi-orchestrated Berlin horror of 1936.

What’s Your Carbon Footprint?

February 6, 2014

Tags: Carbon Footprint

Two weeks ago I discussed my reluctance to travel by air because of its disastrous impact on the environment. I concluded “If we calculate our carbon footprint and what actions are likely to increase or decrease it, at least we can make more informed decisions. And while I am far from overcoming my own need of flying, for me, confronting this dilemma is a necessary first step. I hope that engaging in a constructive discussion of this issue will provide some insights and I welcome your input.”

A number of you responded. One person pointed me toward an article by meteorologist Eric Holthaus entitled “Why I’m Never Flying Again.” He wrote, “I didn’t comprehend quite how big an impact all those flights were having on the climate until I crunched the numbers with UC Berkeley’s excellent carbon footprint calculator (see link top left). I was shocked to discover that air travel comprised almost half of my household’s emissions last year, or 33.5 metric tons of CO2.”

I took my own advice and with Elli’s help used the UC Berkeley calculator. First, while helpful, I didn’t find it “excellent.” There was no way to determine the impact of our solar panels or honeycomb shades on our footprint, and all we could do was to give best-guess answers to some of its questions. Still, it gave us a better idea than we had before.

It calculated our footprint at 33.7 metric tons of CO2, and I suspect that it overestimated the footprint of our home’s heat and electricity. While this is well below the US average (25.9 metric tons per person or 51.8/couple) reported in THE ROUGH GUIDE TO CLIMATE CHANGE (2011), it is more than triple the 2010 global average of 9.4 metric tons per couple, and above the Western European average. Even though it was not perfect, it focused my attention more on the environmental costs of my lifestyle.

Unfortunately, even if all of us reduce our individual/household carbon footprints, we will do little to reverse or even significantly impede global warming. As Barry Sanders notes in THE GREEN ZONE, “even if every person, every automobile … suddenly emitted zero emissions, the earth would still be headed…toward total disaster…. The military produces enough greenhouse gases, by itself, to place the entire globe, with all its inhabitants … in the most immanent danger of extinction.”

We can’t turn this engine of destruction off without transforming our system that requires continuously increasing production and consumption, and a global military presence to procure the resources to fuel it. But we must still do what we can to curb the most destructive aspects of our behavior. As we educate ourselves and our communities to become more acutely aware of our carbon footprints, we are more likely to turn against the voracious consumption at the core of our multi-national corporate controlled economy.

Selected Works

Memoir
"Bravery is rare. Tyranny is commonplace. Both define the life of Robert Meeropol, son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. In his heart-wrenching, honest memoir, Meeropol recounts the emotional terrors of his childhood, the kindness of Abel and Anne Meeropol-who adopted him and his older brother after their parents' execution-his struggle to vindicate his parents, and his own political activism, culminating in the creation of the Rosenberg Fund for Children, which he now directs."
Publisher's Weekly
"one of those rare books everyone should read"
–Joyce Carol Oates

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