Sunday, June 12, 2022

Uvalde, Buffalo, Babi Yar, a Fictional Future Red Bank, NJ — And Mass Murder

            As I write, the last two large-scale multiple murders in the United States were at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, following "roughly a week after a racist mass shooter killed 10 people at a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y." People ask how such horrors can happen, and some parts of the answer are straight-forward and often repeated: to start with, too many angry, sometimes suicidal Americans with too easy access to rapid-fire firearms with large-capacity magazines.


            Another part can be summed up with the names of some locations: Wounded Knee, Katyn Forest, Babi Yar, My Lai, and many, far too many, locations of truly massive mass shootings and mass burials in pits, with some 22,000 Polish officers and other POWs killed by the Soviet NKVD (mostly) at Katyn in spring of 1940 and "some 33,771 Jews " murdered at the Babi Yar Ravine in Kyiv, 29–30 September 1941.


            Significant here, the murders at Babi Yar were carried out not only by specialists of Einsatzgruppe C but by more ordinary men of the German "Order Police," Wehrmacht, and the Ukrainian Auxiliary Police. And the victims, as at My Lai (March 1968), included — in the words of a once-famous interview of US Army Pfc Paul Meadlo by Mike Wallace  — "Men, women, children, babies."

            Basic principle: Under some circumstances human beings are capable of committing large-scale atrocities, and have done so.


            But these historical shooters were men in social circumstances that might explain their behavior: being in a group and all men for one thing, in wartime (or close to it at Wounded Knee), usually under military discipline and ordered to kill, and, in the case of the NKVD and Nazis feeling — if thoroughly indoctrinated — that the murders were necessary in a life-and-death struggle for class or race survival, doing the patriotic dirty work for a better world ("You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs" / "Look at the baby, not at the blood"). The shooters in 20th- and 21st-century America have been in different circumstances; and so we need more general analysis.


            Here's an indirect suggestion from a book you should know for other reasons: one of the great mid-20th-century dystopias, Frederik Pohl C. M. Kornbluth's The Space Merchants (1952/53). The setting is mostly America on a near-future Earth: overpopulated, polluted, and run by Advertising Agencies whose leaders and workers worship (figuratively) "the god of Sales."



Mitch Courtney of Fowler Schocken Associates is being held prisoner by the rival Taunton agency (the rivalry including competing for the Venus project: bringing Ad-Agency rule to our so-far unexploited sister planet). Regaining consciousness Mitch complains to his most immediate guards,


            I struggled again. "They'll brainburn you, I said. Are you people crazy? Who wants to be brainburned?"

            The face said nonchalantly: "You'd be surprised." […]

            B. J. Taunton lurched in, drunk.


Taunton expresses his anger at Mitch for avoiding getting killed in their earlier attempts, and then disappearing (which wasn't Mitch's doing: this is the second time he's been kidnapped).


            His glassy eyes glared at me: "You bastard!" he said. "Of all the low-down, lousy, unethical, cheap-jack stunts ever pulled on me, yours was the rottenest. I —" he thumped his chest […]. "I figured out a way to commit a safe commercial murder, and you played possum like a scared yellow rat. You ran like a rabbit, you dog."


            He sat down unconcernedly. [….] With an expansive gesture B. J. Taunton said to me: "Courtenay, I am essentially an artist."


            "Essentially," he brooded, "essentially an artist. […]" "I wanted Venus […], and I shall have it. Schocken stole it from me, and I am going to repossess it. Fowler Schocken's management of the Venus project will stink to high heaven. No rocket under Schocken's management is ever going to get off the ground, if I have to corrupt every one of his underlings and kill every one of his section heads. For I am essentially an artist."

            "Mr. Taunton," I said steadily, "you can't kill section heads as casually as all that. You'll be brainburned. They'll give you cerberin. You can't find anybody who'll take the risk for you. Nobody wants twenty years in hell."

            He said dreamily: "I got a mechanic to drop that 'copter pod on you, didn't I? I got an unemployable bum to plug at you through your apartment window, didn't I? Unfortunately both missed. And then you crossed us up with that cowardly run-out on the glacier."

            I didn't say anything. The run-out on the glacier had been no idea of min. God only knew whose idea it had been to have [a rival, Matt] Runstead club me, shanghai me, and leave a substitute corpse in my place.

            "Almost you escaped," Taunton mused. "If it hadn't been for a few humble loyal servants […]. But I have my tools, Courtenay." [* * *] You say to me: 'Nobody wants to be brainburned.' That is because you are mediocre. I say: 'Find someone who wants to be brainburned and use him.' That is because I am great."

            "Wants to be brainburned," I repeated stupidly. "Wants to be brainburned."

            "Explain," said Taunton to one aide." […]

            One of his men told me dryly: "It's a matter of population, Courtenay. Have you ever heard of Albert Fish?"


            "He was a phenomenon of the dawn; the earliest days of the Age of Reason — 1920 or thereabouts. Albert Fish stuck needles into himself, burned himself with alcohol-saturated wads of cotton, flogged himself — he liked it. He would have liked brainburning, I'll wager. It would have been twenty delightful subjective years of being flayed, suffocated, choked, and nauseated. It would have been Albert Fish's dream come true.

            "There was only one Albert Fish in his day. Pressures and strains of a very high order are required to produce an Albert Fish. It would be unreasonable to expect more than one to be produced out of the small and scattered population of the period — less than three billion. With our vastly larger current population there are many Albert Fishes wandering around. You have only to find them." […]

            It had a bloodcurdling truthful ring to it. Our generation must be inured to wonder. The chronicles of fantastic heroism and abysmal wickedness that crowd our newscasts — I knew from research that they didn't have such courage or such depravity in the old days. The fact had puzzled me. We have such people as Malone, who quietly dug his tunnels for six years and then one Sunday morning blew up Red Bank, New Jersey. A Brink's traffic cop had got him sore. Conversely we have James Revere, hero of the White Cloud disaster. A shy, frail, tourist-class steward, he had rescued on his own shoulders seventy-six passengers, returning again and again into the flames […]. It was true. When there are enough people you will always find somebody who can and will be any given thing." (pp. 94-96; ch. 11)


Very basic principle: With enough pressure on enough people with few social supports, "you will always find somebody who […] will be any given thing" and a small percentage, but enough, people who will do "any given thing," including great good and great evil. Including shooting their own grandmother, and then children.

(And on US regulation of firearms, Babi Yar and the history of the Stalinists and Nazis cuts at least two ways. The Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising could have used more guns; more guns in the hands of the general European population could have been just more guns killing Jews and others over the burial pits.)

Sunday, June 5, 2022

No Excuses on Climate Change

    At least where I was, in Champaign County Illinois, Spring 1970, the frontispiece or prolog to The Whole Earth Catalog for Earth Day (I) was Don Marquis's column on "what the ants are saying," delivered through his spokes-insect, archy the cockroach (from archy does his part, 1935). 

The lower-case letters are correct; archy types his messages and can't hold down the shift key, so of course it's all lower-case.

What the ants say is, basically, 

it wont be long now it wont be long
man is making deserts of the earth
it wont be long now
before man will have used it up
so that nothing but ants
and centipedes and scorpions
can find a living on it
man has oppressed us for a million years
but he goes on steadily
cutting the ground from under
his own feet making deserts deserts deserts

 In the 1930s, they knew about making deserts: the Great American Dust Bowl and all. And some knew the Dust Bowl was nothing uniquely new. Here's from my old (and I mean old when I bought it in my youth) Thompson & Johnson Introduction to Medieval Europe: 300-1500 (NYC: Norton, 1937) — one attempt to explain the phenomenal conquests of the Arabs in the decades following the death of Mohammed (old spelling). After rejecting theories of Islamic fanaticism in the period, and noting the weakness of the Persian and Roman Empires, the first issue is the initial rapid movement out of Arabia: "The expansion of the Arabs is best understood in the light of previous movements out of the desert into the neighboring Fertile Crescent. These were constant phenomena, to be explained by the vicissitudes of climatic conditions, which always drove nomadic people outwards. [...] The peninsula itself was experiencing a periodic desiccation, which made life within it ever more unbearable and drove its inhabitants to seek relief elsewhere" (p. 166; ch. 7, "The Empire of the Arabs"). What was to be called "the desert pump" had pumped out one of its most historically significant armies. 

    James Westfall Thompson of the U of California and Edgar Nathaniel Johnson of the U of Nebraska over-simplified and may've over-stressed migrations and the role of "nomads," but they were writing in the 1930s, and were still ahead of those who today talk of the origin of medieval Europe in, figuratively speaking, "Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem" and then throw in the Germanic tribes. Medina and Mecca, as similar figures of speech, come in here, as well as the later great cities in "The Empire of the Arabs" — the lands of Islam — that kept high civilization going when it wasn't doing very well on the peninsula of Eurasia that for a long while there was "darkest Europe." And these two historians from the American west knew about marginally fertile land becoming deserts and deserts becoming uninhabitable by humans.  

The idea of climatic influence was around and went in and out of fashion.

In 1965, Hubert Lamb, one of the first paleoclimatologists, published research based on data from botany, historical document research, and meteorology, combined with records indicating prevailing temperature and rainfall in England around c. 1200 and around c. 1600. He proposed, "Evidence has been accumulating in many fields of investigation pointing to a notably warm climate in many parts of the world, that lasted a few centuries around c. 1000c. 1200 AD, and was followed by a decline of temperature levels till between c. 1500 and c. 1700 the coldest phase since the last ice age occurred."

The warm period became known as the [Medieval Warm Period] MWP, and the cold period was called the Little Ice Age (LIA). However, the view that the MWP is a global event was challenged by other researchers.

And is currently challenged by more and is "out." The point here is that, if anything, earlier periods of warming and desiccation were overstated geographically, but it has been understood that they could have profound affects on humans. The full title of Brian Fagan's 2008 book is The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations, and there are enough hot, dry places in danger in our world that we need to pay attention if they're getting hotter and drier and less able to support human habitation. 

    The scientific argument over earlier periods of warming, ocean-rise, and desiccation is intertwined with politics and the highly plausible idea that large-scale climate-change in preindustrial times is unlikely to have been caused by humans — plus the false conclusion in many places that people must accept the idea of "anthropogenic climate change" to take serious action to slow it down. 

    Which brings me to some of my long-delayed recent reading and a source I didn't expect: Carl Sagan's  Broca's Brain (essays and such, 1974-79), in a paperback copy I have from the Miami University Library, which means I had to have bought it on some duplicates sale when I was still at Miami U, i.e., before 2006-7. I don't recall why I bought the book, but one reason I should have is because it has significant discussions of Immanuel Velikovsky and (primarily), Velikovsky's Worlds in Collision (1950). And I should have caught up on "the Velikovsky Affair," which I had once taught as a unit in a course at the U of Illinois in "The Rhetoric of the Life Sciences."

    Okay, Velikovsky's basic thesis, a Wikipedia entry nicely summarizes, was
"that around the 15th century BC, the planet Venus was ejected from Jupiter as a comet or comet-like object and passed near Earth (an actual collision is not mentioned). The object allegedly changed Earth's orbit and axis, causing innumerable catastrophes that are mentioned in early mythologies and religions from around the world." So the "Affair" was primarily about astronomy and physics, but there was enough biology involved — a form of catastrophism is mainstream science for the extinction of the dinosaurs — enough biology was involved that the unit was almost legitimate: and the debate over Velikovsky's ideas was sufficiently vociferous to be irresistible for a topic in academic rhetoric of recent times (academics are much more polite nowadays than earlier centuries, at least in public). And I knew about Velikovsky because I'd taken an undergrad seminar on D. H. Lawrence and wrote a term paper on "Catastrophism and Coition: Cosmic and Individual Development in Women in Love."

Comic digression: I lightly revised the "Catatsrophism" essay and sent it to PMLA, the premiere journal in the LitCrit field at the time (my elders advised me to start at the top and work down). I did not have the usual complaint of authors' having to wait months for a response from a journal: my manuscript was returned to me in my nice, big, self-addressed stamped envelope within a couple weeks. I stomped down our steep stairs toward the letter-carrier, who was trying to get the returned manuscript into our mailbox; and I must have been muttering louder than I thought since the mailman, without looking up, raised his hand and said, "I only return them; I don't read them" — which cracked me up and put me into the right mood to read the first rejection letter, no less, of what was to become my rather impressive collection. Very few or no rejection slips: the editors wanted to make clear to me why my efforts, though much appreciated, "do not meet our needs at the present time" (or ever, or at least until the sun goes nova). In this case: "Very interesting opening paragraph," said the referee's comment the editor wished to share with me, "before the whole thing" — and a substantial-size essay it was — "falls flat." I immediately got back on my hobbyhorse, and sent the (unrevised? probably) essay to what I was told was the second choice for something on D. H. Lawrence, TSLL: Texas Studies in Literature and Language. It was accepted with one revision the editor would make with or without my permission (titles can fall under "Editor's Prerogative"): re-subtitling to "Universal and Individual Development [...]": I had the required alliteration and a colon, but three words alliterated exceeded the bag-limit. But I have digressed.

And so I had published an essay in a respectable journal with the word "Catastrophism" in the title, which even back then (1967) was quite enough to get me on at least one Looney-Tunes mailing list, Velikovsky division. And reading Sagan on Velikovsky brought me to this:

Velikovsky writes [...] that his claim of a high surface temperature [on Venus] was "in total disagreement with what was known in 1946." This turns out to be not quite the case. The dominant figure of Rupert Wildt again looms over the astronomical side of Velikovsky's hypothesis. Wildt [...] predicted correctly that Venus and not Mars would be "hot." In a 1940 [... "Note on the Surface Temperature of Venus"] in the Astrophysical Journal [91: 266-68], Wildt argued that the surface of Venus was much hotter than conventional astronomical opinion had held, because of a carbon-dioxide greenhouse effect. Carbon dioxide had recently been discovered spectroscopically in the atmosphere of Venus, and Wildt correctly pointed out that the observed large quantity of CO2 would trap infrared radiation given off by the surface of the planet until the surface temperature would be almost 400ยบ K, or around the normal boiling point of water. (p. 136; ch. 7, "Venus and Dr. Velikovsky," Problem VIII, "The Temperature of Venus")

 Later in Broca's Brain — again, from the 1970s — Sagan rather immodestly notes a now

fashionable suggestion, which I first proposed in 1960, [...] that the high temperatures on the surface of Venus are due to a runaway greenhouse effect in which water and carbon dioxide in a planetary atmosphere impede the emission of thermal infrared radiation from the surface to space; the surface temperature then rises to achieve equilibrium between the visible sunlight arriving at the surface and the infrared radiation leaving it; the higher surface temperature results in a higher vapor pressure of the greenhouse gasses, carbon dioxide and water; and so on, until all the carbon dioxide and water vapor is in the vapor phase, producing a planet his high atmospheric pressure and high surface pressure.

        Now, the reason that Venus has such an atmosphere and Earth does not seems to be a relatively small increment of sunlight. Were the sun to grow brighter or Earth's surface and clouds to grow darker, could Earth become a replica of the classical vision of Hell? Venus may be a cautionary tale for our technical civilization, which has the capability to alter profoundly the environment of Earth. (pp. 180-81; ch. 10, "The Sun's Family")                        

Sagan repeats the point in "The Climates of Planets," from 1975, ch. 14 in Broca's Brain. The upside of climate change for humans:

We may owe our [...] existence to climatic changes that on the average amount to only a few degrees. Such changes have brought some species into being and extinguished others. The character of life on our planet has been powerfully influenced by such variations, and it is becoming increasingly clear that the climate is continuing to change today. (pp. 222-23)

By 1975 there had been "almost a hundred different theory of climatic change on Earth," of which  Sagan selects three for closer consideration. 

The first involves a change in celestial mechanical variable: the shape of the Earth's orboit, the tilt of its axis of rotation, and the precession of that axis [...]. Detailed calculations of the extent of such variations show that they can be responsible for at least a few degrees of temperature variation, and with the possibility of positive feedbacks this might, by itself, be adequate to explain major climatic variation. 

 A second class of theories involves albedo variations. One of the more striking causes for such variations is the injection into the Earth's atmosphere of massive amounts for dust — for example, from a volcanic explosion such as Krakatoa's in 1883. While there has been some debate on whether such dust heats or cools the Earth, the bulk of present calculations show that the fine particulates [...] increase the Earth's albedo and therefore cool it. [...]

                    Finally, there is the possibility of variations in the brightness of the Sun. (pp. 226-27) [...]

 Some evidence on the trend of global temperature seems to show a very slow increase from the beginning of the industrial revolution to about 1940, and an alarmingly steep decline in global temperatures thereafter, This pattern has been attributed to the burning of fossil fuels, which has two consequences — the liberation of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere, and the simultaneous injection into the atmosphere of fine particles, from the incomplete burning of the fuel. The carbon dioxide heats the earth; the fine particles, through their higher albedo, cool it. It may be that until 1940 the greenhouse effect was winning, and then the increased albedo is winning.

    The ominous possibility that human activities may cause inadvertent climate modification makes the increasing interest in planetary climatology rather important [...].   (pp. 227-28)
And whatever might be the main driver of climate change manifested as global warming, makes knowledge of the greenhouse effect crucial. The tilt of the Earth or energy production of the sun is beyond human power to affect; greenhouse gasses we can do something about, and should. And, clearly, I think, should have by the 1980s.
Young people coming to age in the next couple of decades will have good reason to be angry with their elders.