63 = 62 + 1: A birthday lament

Each midnight is a day older, right? Midnight on the day before one’s birthday is no different in that regard, right? A birthday is, in that sense, nothing especially meaningful. But I find that each birthday hits me differently. Most zip by as pleasant irritations, but I experienced reaching age 45 as traumatic, and 50 wasn’t pretty.

Age 60 might have depressed me but I launched my 60s as a decade of these geeky Big Years, so I recall three years ago as a buzz. Age 61 meant nothing and my 62nd birthday was mild fun, but just before midnight on Tuesday, I woke from deep sleep and thought, “I don’t want to be 63 tomorrow.” 63 is closer to 65 than it is to 60! I rose and moped while the world around me slept.

I haven’t been myself since. I know all the cliches about “only being as old as you think of yourself,” and “wait till you hit 70,” but platitudes never help. I didn’t expect to feel like this but now that I do, what to do? As always, I’ll write and ruminate, so you can expect to read more existential nonsense from me over the next few days.

Oh, I forgot to mention that red wine is a salve.

The 2018 Big Years and life looking forward

Normally I wouldn’t be caught dead propping on my arse in a seaside holiday town, but the experience in magical Rovinj has been so wonderful that my aversion to sitting still now seems wrong. Seven nights in one place! No car (and limited drawcards near town)! Laziness but plenty of restorative exercise! A rare opportunity to review what an inspiring long trip has provoked!

So . . . I depart homeward today with many changes afoot, both in the short term and into the 2020s.

Nervous but excited.

More disturbing climate change research . . .

Watching climate change truth is as difficult as wrestling with existence: you need to do it but the further you go, the greater the terror. As well as reading two fine books over this trip, I’ve forced myself to watch Season 2 of “Years of Living Dangerously.” Not fun, not fun at all, but let me commend the series to you.

A snapshot of the eight episodes is all you need. In Episode 1, David Letterman tours India, destined to ramp up disastrous coal-fired electricity, and actress Cecily Strong reveals how American utilities use all means to delay rooftop solar. Jack Black, in Episode 2, is riveting as well as entertaining while exploring Miami, a city seemingly oblivious to a future under water, while Ian Somerhalder tracks another scientist-hero, geologist/geophysicist Jeff Donnelly, in extracting deep sea cores to learn about past hurricane incidence/severity. Tom Friedman of the NYT is his usual compelling self in Episode 3, investigating the beginning of mass climate refugee movements, and Don Cheadle looks at California’s worst-in-1,200-years drought. Episode 4 is marred by Arnold Schwarzenegger pursuing a silly topic but supermodel Gisele Bundchen shines while investigating Amazon deforestation due to mankind’s meat binge.

I was especially interested in actor Ty Burrell’s Episode 5 examination of electric cars and their promise when coupled with automation and ride-sharing.; actor Brad Whitford looks at the push to compel Republicans to see climate reality. In Episode 6, Joshua Jackson reveals how the oceans are slowly but surely warming and acidifying disastrously (cue our very own Great Barrier Reef). Actress Nikki Reed lucidly looks at the carbon tax solution in #7, while journalist Aasif Mandvi digs into the vanishing of species. Episode 8 sees America Ferrera putting the immoral US coal industry under the microscope, and Sigourney Weaver mesmerises with a narrative that says China has, over the last half decade, switched towards a clean energy future commitment.

Reading about climate change doesn’t change anything but needs to be done

I don’t enjoy reading difficult material quickly but amidst travel have whizzed through Joseph Romm’s “Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know and Joelle Gergis’s “Sunburnt Country: The History and Future of Climate Change Change in Australia.” Both are recommended. What do they say and what does it mean (and here I apologise if I’m glossing over either book’s main messages)?

Romm is an entertaining and clear communicator, one right at the pointy end of climate science and its political and industrial impacts. If I think of my new grandson at age 30, that is, considering my ethical obligation to the next two generations, Romm makes it clear that although the new “human-altered” Earth will barely impact me personally, by 2050 our planet will be drastically altered. Seas will rise by 30 cms, temperatures will be up by 3 degrees, people will face more droughts (which will be more intense), more unstoppable fires, and more of every form of atmospheric storm (all potentially more extreme). Romm has been writing about this stuff for years and now can clarify that any possible “good news” about Earth’s resilience or feedback mechanisms is just wishful thinking.

Gergis is the first scientist to have dug into Australia’s anecdotal or non-measured climate history (quality official data only commenced at the start of the 20th century). She was able to extend our Australian climate knowledge backwards. That was just the beginning of her work. From 2009 she worked with a Swiss paleoclimatologist to construct the first comprehensive Southern Hemisphere climate reconstruction. In 2014 they published. It turns out the the two hemispheres have, over very long periods, diverged, but that a version of the famous Michael Mann “hockey stick” applies equally down south, that “for the first time we were able to definitively conclude that, just like our northern counterpart, the Southern Hemisphere was now experiencing temperatures that lay outside the bounds of natural variability experienced since medieval times. It was the first time climate science could confidently confirm that the entire globe is warmer now than it has been at any other time over the past 1000 years. It was a truly groundbreaking result.” Naturally the denialists attacked in their by-now-familiar rabid fashion, and it took her two years to cement the 2014 conclusions with irrefutable data. By then she and others were able to conclude that while Europe, North America and Asia began warming, due to human emissions, from as early as the 1850s, the Southern Hemisphere’s oceans delayed its anthropomorphic warming until the early twentieth century.

The Australian future? Gergis ranges widely over Australia’s past and possible future temperatures, bushfires, droughts, sea level, etc. While not being definitive, she makes it clear that Australia will face the same dire climate fluctuations and progressions that Romm describes for Earth as a whole. We’ve a complex climate, this southern continent, but we’ll be given no special reprieve. Over the next thirty years, temperatures will increase by the same 2 to 3 degrees as the overall globe, rainfall will lessen to boost droughts, our snow fields will as good as disappear, our Great Barrier Reef will be but a shadow of its former self, and bushfires will flourish and destroy.

it’s unconscionable to do nothing. When will I do something? That is the question that has bedeviled me for the last decade, and I know I’m cowardly, but over this magical vacation, books like Romm’s and Gergis’s press me towards action. I’ve reserved 2021 and 2023 for Big Year focus on aspects of climate change; it’s not much but it’s something.

More Pinker

Revel in Steven Pinker’s prose from his “Enlightment Now“:

Remember your math: an anecdote is not a trend. Remember your history: the fact that something is bad today doesn’t mean it was better in the past. Remember your philosophy: one cannot reason that there’s no such thing as reason, or that something is true or good because God said it is. And remember your psychology: much of what we know isn’t so, especially when our comrades know it too. Keep some perspective. Not every problem is a Crisis, Plague, Epidemic, or Existential Threat, and not every change is the End of This, the Death of That, or the Dawn of a Post-Something Era. Don’t confuse pessimism with profundity: problems are inevitable, but problems are solvable, and diagnosing every setback as a symptom of a sick society is a cheap grab for gravitas. Finally, drop the Nietzsche. His ideas may seem edgy, authentic, baaad, while humanism seems sappy, unhip, uncool. But what’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?

Reading about rationality, philosophy, and the state of the world

One slab of reading for this holiday proved to be far more demanding than anticipated. I took along Steven Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress” because it seemed to be an easy read, in an area of interest, by an engaging writer. Well, engaging he is, but the topic quickly deepened into murkiness for me and I had to force myself to follow his detailed, if spirited arguments. So, two months later, I’m done and persistence has paid off.
Pinker expertly sums up the Enlightenment, flowering from the 18th century, as espousing reason, science, humanism, and progress. Reversing the order of these four cornerstone beliefs, a great slab of the book is spent reprising and updating his earlier work, claiming that the Enlightenment’s key promise, of ongoing progress, has been fulfilled spectacularly. His debunking of modern negativism about “progress” chimes well with me, though he is far too blithe about climate change impacts. Then he attacks modern-day populism, Trumpism in particular, by arguing robustly for continued emphasis on reason and science.
Finally he addresses moral philosophy by advocating humanism, which is close to my heart. “Though the moral and intellectual case for humanism is, I believe, overwhelming,” he writes, “some might wonder whether it is any match for religion, nationalism, and romantic heroism in the campaign for people’s hearts. Will the Enlightenment ultimately fail because it cannot speak to primal human needs?” He remains confident humanism will hold sway. “Still,” he cautions, “the appeal of regressive ideas is perennial, and the case for reason, science, humanism, and progress always has to be made. When we fail to acknowledge our hard-won progress, we may come to believe that perfect order and universal prosperity are the natural state of affairs, and that every problem is an outrage that calls for blaming evildoers, wrecking institutions, and empowering a leader who will restore the country to its rightful greatness.”
I’m inspired. Advocating the logicality of reasoning, championing science against superstition or nihilism, and grounding my ethics in humanism are my blueprint. If I’m not nearly as blithe as Pinker about overall human progress, his book at least acts as antidote against the often mindless negativism I see around me.

Pondering the pleasures and perils of online reviewing

Reviewing is fun and (so I believe) a social good. A while back I had a go at it, focusing on fiction and in particular crime fiction. But it’s intense to the point of burnout, so it’s with apprehension that I’ve watched myself toy with the notion of launching a review site for books, rock music, and film. Should I dedicate one of my Big Years to such a launch? Can I be a success this time? Is it a meaningful use of my time?

Over this holiday, I’ve been reading stuff in order to prioritize and plan the next half decade or more. I took along “The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online” edited by Houmon Barekat, Robert Barry & David Winters. Seventeen essays, the titles of which held some interest for me . . . at the tail end of my break, wrapping it up, I at last get through all seventeen, but to what effect? The sad truth is that this eclectic essay collection, while peripherally interesting and often well written, is academic and not close at all to my self-questioning. None of them tackle quandaries such as: what’s an ideal online review look like in the early 21st century?

The Digital Critic” was a waste of time for me but in the end wasn’t a waste of time at all. Reading forced me to think about my potential project. The upshot? Yes, I do wish to conquer the world with a new online mag but hey, Andres, don’t imagine it will be any easier than back in 2000.

Reading about birding isn’t as fine as birding

The concept of a Big Year comes from birding (or birdwatching, if you prefer), and at age 60 my plan was for Pam and me to do an actual Birding Big Year. You start on January 1 and try to see as many species as you can by December 31. Done seriously, such a big year involves both meticulous planning and obsessive activity, and while we would never aspire to compete with the most extravagant big years of the experts, we’d want to tackle something ambitious but also fun.

When to do this? Is the notion still attractive? During this splendiferous holiday, I’ve managed some reflection. Our first week was a guided birding tour in Spain (Steve West of Birding in Spain is a tremendous guide!), which reinforced the joy in birding. I read  “Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear: 200 Birds, 12 Months, 1 Lapsed Birdwatcher,” by Lev Parikian, an entertaining combination of a big year memoir and the tale of a less-than-expert birder (something that resonates with me). I also read Victor Emanuel’s “One More Warbler: A Life with Birds,” an autobiography from the other end of the birding spectrum, Emanuel having seen 6000+ bird species in his life. On our Way of St Francis one-month-long walk, I’ve had binoculars round my neck each day but seen few birds (the pictured Jay is probably my highlight, they’re common but hard to see, and a delight when you see them).

All of which tells me: yes, I yearn to do a Birding Big Year. When? My best guess is 2022 but who knows, who knows indeed.

Excitement!

I’ve skimmed, for the second time and with improved understanding, Paul A. Jonsgard’s wonderful “A Chorus of Cranes: The Cranes of North America and the World.” It set my heart alight . . . images like Mediterranean-sun-drenched red poppies.

2020 will be the Cranes Big Year. But I’ll say no more for quite a while, for the very good reason that the project is currently more hot air than anything remotely doable or commercial. Time to take it underground and do desk research until I’m “expert” enough to dare a bold plan.

Still, this excites me more than other ideas that have been alive for longer, and existential excitement is what brings life to life.