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Hybrid Hatred

According to the Automobile Page of my local paper, many U.S. car owners resent people who drive hybrids. The article quoted one woman who associated owning a Prius with “self-righteousness and frivolity,” and that she has the same feeling of disgust for a Prius that she does for a Hummer.

Putting aside for the moment that the pollution caused in the manufacture of hybrid batteries negates a large part of any environmental gain, what does such widespread resentment teach us about building a mass movement to stop global warming/climate change? If the slogan from last month’s amazing demonstration in Manhattan – “It takes everyone to change everything” – is correct, then such attitudes can’t be dismissed.

Public manifestations of individual behavior modifications spark the “culture wars” of our nation. Owning a hybrid is a metaphorical attack on the Madison Avenue “need” embedded in the psyche of the automobile market. The hybrid owner spent more money to buy a slower, smaller car, in order to reduce its carbon footprint. It isn’t just SUV drivers who take this as a personal affront; any driver of a big car may feel judged by the hybrid-owner’s decision. Moreover, the hybrid choice undermines the sense of freedom and power drivers get from what is advertised as the public expression of their self-worth.

My point is not that we must find a way to get these people to accept and ultimately drive hybrids. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the hybridization of American driving habits will not significantly slow, let alone halt, climate change.

A close look at the way car companies advertise their high-mileage models, when added to the big carbon footprint of their batteries, explains why this is the case. Toyota urges you to go more places. The current Volkswagen hybrid commercial boasts that you can go farther, almost 600 miles, on just one tank of gas. The message is hammered home that better mileage enables you to drive more, for less.

Unfortunately, the advertising works; do the numbers. If you get 50mpg instead of 25mpg, but drive twice as far, you use just as much gas. I’m not claiming the average hybrid owner does drive twice as far, but the allure of the “greater freedom” to go farther and the reduced cost of doing so, are real selling points. Enough people will take advantage of this to significantly reduce any environmental benefit these vehicles provide. Since our system is based on selling more, and so many have been convinced that our happiness depends on acquiring more, efficiency gains will have relatively little effect.

As I’ve written in previous essays, I believe that individuals opting for increased efficiency in consumer products won’t solve our environmental crisis. Only replacing our current economic system with a no-growth, nonprofit-oriented model can accomplish that. But the article in my local paper reminded me that systemic and attitudinal change must go hand-in-hand to demonstrate capitalism’s destructiveness and consumerism’s emptiness. This is a tall order, but either one without the other won’t work. Read More 
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David Greenglass is Dead

My brother called me in early July to tell me David Greenglass had died. I think Michael heard this from his daughter, Ivy, but I’m not sure how she found out. We’d known that Greenglass was ill, suffering from dementia in a nursing home, so we weren’t surprised.

We expected the press to ask us to comment, so we composed a statement, but did not release it. No obituary had appeared, and since his immediate family did not publicize his passing, we decided to follow their lead. We didn’t know his family, but we had nothing against them, and did not want to cause them any trouble.

As the weeks passed the lack of mention of Greenglass’s passing in the New York Times perplexed us. I wasn’t talking about it, but I heard the news through others, so by Labor Day it was hardly a secret.

In late September, I learned that Random House was about to publish a second edition of Sam Roberts’ book, The Brother, about David Greenglass. Sam is the New York Times reporter who covered news related to my parents’ case for decades. He had the financial misfortune of publishing the first edition in September 2001, when almost no one, particularly in the New York City area, was buying books.

Ah ha, I thought. That explains it. The Times will publish the Greenglass obit just after the new edition comes out, generating lots of free publicity for Sam Roberts. That is what happened, but Sam Roberts wrote in a blog in the Huffington Post that he didn’t know about Greenglass’ death in July. He explained that he occasionally monitored Greenglass’s status by calling the nursing home that housed him. He said when he called in September and learned Greenglass was no longer in residence, he realized David Greenglass had died.

Perhaps that’s true. You can decide which explanation is more likely.

My brother and I released our statement and a number of news outlets quoted from it. I received supportive notes from people who expressed the hope that I gotten some closure from Greenglass’s death. I think that concept is overused, especially when it comes to the death penalty. Prosecutors tell victims’ family members that an execution will give them closure.

But closure is a static concept, the antithesis of the dynamic process that is life. When applied to a death, closure for those still alive is an illusion. David Greenglass’s death gave me no sense of closure. I’ve lived with my parents’ case all my conscious life. I’ve gotten used to it. I’ve come to terms with it and I’ve done my best to make something good come out of it. But for me their case is never closed. Read More 
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Edward Snowdon & Julius Rosenberg Discuss Patriotism

Following up on last weeks’ blog about the difference between my father’s actions and those of Edward Snowdon, I just read “a sneak peak” at an interview The Nation’s editor, Katrina vanden Heuvel, and her husband, Stephen F. Cohen, conducted with Edward Snowdon in Moscow.

Here’s how Snowdon defined patriotism in that interview:

“[W]hat defines patriotism, for me, is the idea that one elevates - or they act to benefit - the country, right? That’s distinct from acting to benefit the government, and that distinction, that’s increasingly lost today. You’re not patriotic, just because you back whoever is in power today. You’re not patriotic because you back their policies. You’re patriotic when you work to improve the lives of the people in your country, in your community, in your family, those around you.”

This reminded me of what I wrote about my parents’ beliefs in, An Execution in the Family.

“I grew up believing that the most patriotic acts are those taken to improve the quality of life for all our nation’s inhabitants. Abel Meeropol concluded his patriotic song “The House I Live In,” “but especially the people, that’s America to me.” Ethel and Julius Rosenberg identified with poor and oppressed people in the United States and around the world rather than a government that they believed served the will of a privileged few. Ethel and Julius believed that defeating fascism would help Americans and the world…. Based on this understanding of patriotism, I believe that my parents acted patriotically.”

These remarkably similar perspectives, the essence of which is that both Julius Rosenberg and Edward Snowdon believed they were acting in the best interests of the people of their country. Both felt that they were also benefiting the world’s inhabitants.

This got me thinking that placing patriotism within a national context has become obsolete. The world faces destruction on two fronts: either nuclear Armageddon or global warming could render much of our planet marginally habitable. So far we’ve succeeded in preventing the former, but the latter seems almost inevitable unless the entire world cooperates in a massive shift in direction. In both cases all the planet’s people are in the same boat. While either global catastrophe will disproportionately impact the poor, no one will escape its impact.

Under such circumstances it becomes increasingly difficult to benefit the people of one country without acting in cooperation with and aiding people everywhere. Conversely, nations that jockey for their own advantage will end up hurting the people of all countries, including their own.

Paradoxically, the idea of patriotism will have lost its core meaning of being loyal to a particular nation state, if in order to be patriotic you must help people all over the world. Another way of looking at it is that no single nation can be secure, unless people all over the world are.

Perhaps that means that the concept of patriotism has outlived its usefulness. Read More 
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Rosenberg and Snowdon

Tuesday evening, Elli and I attended the opening of an exhibition at Boston University titled LOVE-CONSCIENCE-CONVICTION: THE ROSENBERG CASE, featuring my parents’ prison correspondence. These are the original physical letters, which my brother and I donated to B.U.’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center last year. The archive has established a website and visitors can view high-resolution digital images of over 500 of these letters at www.bu.edu/rosenbergarchive

To mark the occasion, my brother and I joined a panel entitled Rosenberg & Snowdon. It also included journalists, authors, a professor of communications and two international relations professors, one of whom spent 30 years at the CIA.

I was surprised that several of the panelists including the CIA alum seemed more sympathetic to my parents than they did to Edward Snowdon. I thought the opposite would be the case. Although my father did not facilitate the theft of valuable atomic secrets, he did commit espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union. It was mostly during World War II, but if Morton Sobell is to be believed, also as late as 1948. Snowdon, on the other hand, gave classified information to the press so that the public could learn what the NSA was up to.

While I sympathize with my father’s desire to help the Soviet Union defeat the Nazis, I find Snowdon’s actions even less problematic. In fact, I consider Snowdon’s releases a gift to the people of the world. But as disparaging remarks indicated (e.g. “Unlike Snowdon, the Rosenbergs didn’t hide in Russia.”) other panelists did not share my sentiments. Why was that?

Perhaps it was because the experts on the panel saw my father as playing by the rules. Partisans of the United States might claim that my father spied for the wrong side, but his actions did not call into question the validity of the concept of secrecy. Ultimately Snowdon’s actions are potentially more damaging to our burgeoning secrecy apparatus; publicizing these agencies’ activities threatens their existence. He raised the radical and dangerously popular idea that the people have the right to know what the government is doing in their name.

I don’t wish to credit Snowdon with motives he may not have. He has stated in interviews that he left “bread crumbs” for the NSA to help them to figure out which documents he took in order to give the government time to prepare for future leaks, change code words, and make other moves to mitigate whatever damage the release of this material might cause. In other words he blew the whistle to alert the public to the NSA’s abuses, but he was not out to destroy the system.

Some of my fellow panelists Tuesday evening appeared to believe in the necessity of governmental secrecy. They say that for our safety the public must trust the government. However, Snowdon provided irrefutable proof that the government is unworthy of such trust. Perhaps they have no choice but to disparage him, since his actions have made their position untenable. Read More 
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Where do we stand? Where are we going? How long do we have? What must we do?

In my last two blog posts I articulated four basic principles to aid us in formulating effective strategies to combat global warming. In this final blog of the series I will try to succinctly answer the four posed above and offer a few suggested positions and actions consistent with those principles.

Where do we stand: We’ve gained a degree Celius and it is increasingly likely that we’ll surpass two degrees by 2040. That’s because it takes approximately 30 years to feel all the climatic impact of greenhouse gas emissions. Today we are experiencing the full effect of emissions we generated prior to 1985, and we will not feel all the results of those we’ve produced since until 2044. Moreover, we’ve drastically increased such emissions since 1985.

Where are we going: The science says we can’t avoid positive feedback mechanisms once we reach three degrees increase, possibly as low as just over two degrees. In any event, if we continue on our current course, it is likely we will approach three degrees by 2050 and trigger the positive feedback loops. If we allow that to occur, the positive feedback mechanisms will become unstoppable, and by 2100 trigger an additional three degrees of global temperature rise. It is doubtful that civilization as we know it would survive if we reach that point, and such an increase would compromise the habitability of our planet.

How long do we have: I am wary of those who categorically state that it is not too late to avoid this nightmare scenario. I think such statements are both wishful thinking and manipulative. Better to say it MAY not be too late, and act as if it were not too late, because we have no choice. Two things are almost certain: We must act quickly and we must make basic structural changes to maximize our chances of avoiding catastrophe. If we have not shifted course significantly by 2020 we will have less than a 10% chance of avoiding the positive feedback mechanisms. That means we do not have time to take ineffective action.

What must we do: To be effective, our positions/actions must address the root causes of the problem. Economic growth and the huge increase in consumption and population that have accompanied that growth are the primary causes. Capitalism, which requires constant growth and increased consumption is the engine driving this growth.

Here are suggested positions/actions I believe anti-global warming activists should take.

1. Bring green and anti-war forces together. Attack military activity on environmental grounds. For example, we should demand to know the carbon footprint of the new war against ISIS.

2. Because poor people are more vulnerable to the disruptions caused by climate change, and people of color comprise a disproportionate percentage of the poor, bring green, poor people’s and anti-racist movements together.

3. Call for the reversal of all international trade agreements that undermine development of sustainable technology and the public subsidization of localized economic activity.

4. Couple a call to double the minimum wage with a maximum 30-hour work-week. Our objective should be to put people back to work without increasing total economic activity.

5. Support divestment from fossil fuel companies, eliminate the oil depletion allowance, tax fossil fuel income and forbid the export of fossil fuel.

6. Educate people about the carbon consequences of their activities and consumption.

7. Support indigenous people’s efforts to protect the environment.

8. Explore and develop “degrowth” concepts to manage the transition to decreased economic activity, localization of economic activity, reduction in population, and reduced travel. Read More 
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