The science and politics of global warming

November 14, 2016

Behind the Curve: Science and the Politics of Global Warming by Joshua P. Howe (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014)

howeEveryone knows that the climate is changing and that the effects upon the world we know are unnerving. Sea ice is melting, ocean levels are rising, deserts are increasing in size, plants and animals are finding it difficult to survive in their traditional locations. Long-term effects upon human populations are unsettling.

Even though these changes are widely recognized, many people deny the scientific consensus and even more people resist efforts to counteract climate change? This is the state of affairs in the United States that Joshua P. Howe discusses in his book, Behind the Curve: Science and the Politics of Global Warming. His purpose is to answer the question: “How can our science be so good and our policy response so incommensurate to the scale of the climate threats that scientists have identified?” (ix)

Howe’s purpose is to describe the complex array of political, environmental, and economic powers that are intertwined with scientific knowledge and guidelines concerning environmental pollution, its causes, impacts, and solutions. When we understand these varied, competing forces, we may be able to develop effective programs to save the planet.

The curve in in the book’s title refers to a graphic display of CO2 measurements that Charles David Keeling made at Mauna Loa from 1958­–1971. These measurements show a steady, smooth rise in the amount of this odorless, tasteless gas in the atmosphere. The steady rise showed that an earlier scientific consensus concerning CO2 was incorrect. The oceans and other natural features did not reabsorb this gas, and instead the negative effects were increasing.

Interest in atmospheric conditions became more important with the detonation of atomic weapons and in the complex political tensions of the Cold War. Howe describes these interactions both in the United States and on the international scene. He devotes a chapter to the rise and fall of the SST, the supersonic airliner that finally was set aside both because of its negative effects on the atmosphere and its great cost.

He explains how traditional environmentalists resisted the politicizing of these issues, thus creating a rift with the scientific community. He provides a detailed accounting of international conferences, agreements, and treaties aimed at curbing pollution. He describes the shifting political currents within the United States that have made it difficult for U.S. political leaders to embrace the more demanding international agreements.

Throughout the book, Howe often refers to “the forcing function of knowledge,” which holds that “a better scientific understanding of the problem of climate change would force appropriate political action” (9). Howe characterizes this “overweening faith in the power of science to inspire political action” as a top-down approach to establishing new policies.

It is difficult to believe that more science can force environmentally sensitive policy. Howe convincingly shows that with respect to climate change and everything related to it, the top-down approach has and will continue to fail. The reason? Because “the science-first approach has at times actually undermined the kinds of moral and political discussions that many global warming advocates, ironically have relied on science to foster” (203).

At book’s end, however, Howe does offer a glimmer of hope, a bottoms-up approach to solving the climatic challenges facing us. He bases this hope on the “real desire to build better, healthier, and more responsible communities.” He refers to climate action plans that are beginning “to use the mechanisms of municipal, county, and state government to shoot for the middle.” Local initiatives “give communities a chance to reorganize themselves as if the abstract global climatic good mattered to everyone, every day. This is something new” (206).

I wish that Howe had given us one more chapter with representative examples of this bottoms-up approach in action. He could have included examples from his own city (Howe teaches at Reed College in Portland, Oregon), with its emphasis upon public transportation and discouragement of private automobiles in the central city, and with the serious efforts to infill the old city and resist urban sprawl.

Even more important, especially in light of the 2016 presidential election, would be suggestions on how the bottoms up approach could work in regions of the United States, such as the coal mining states, whose way of life is in the cross hairs of the conflict between the science and politics of global warming.

The muscle, mind, and heart of a long bicycle ride

November 10, 2016
Sheridan Terminus of the Monon Trail

Sheridan Terminus of the Monon Trail

A custom practiced by many open road cyclists is to do a birthday ride: a mile for every year of life. I’ve kept the practice many of my cycling years, but for some reason it keeps getting harder. “Of course, it will,” some would say. “More years of life, more miles to ride, and fewer muscles!”

Twice in recent years, I met the challenge by signing up for sponsored rides. The loneliness of the road was dispelled by hundreds of other cyclists so that at no point was I out of sight of others who were wending their way over the beautiful terrain of Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

This year, however, I would be doing it on my own. No century ride to join and no cycling buddy to keep me company. Even so, I was determined to devote my birthday to this purpose. The simplest way would be to take Lafayette Road to the 30-mile mark at Lebanon, continue on this same road until my bike computer read 42.5 miles, and then reverse course to come back home.

The night before, however, I didn’t sleep well, and the weather forecast was unfavorable. At breakfast, I knew that the birthday ride was dead, for that day, anyway. The next day’s forecast was better, but I had appointments scheduled. The next day had an even better forecast and I decided that I would do my ride that day. Even so, I worried. The muscles of my aging body could probably power me that many miles, but motivation had withered away.

Then came an idea. At Lebanon I would abandon Lafayette Road and improvise a new route: northeast a few miles to State Road 47 and then east on that rural highway to the town of Sheridan. There I would travel southeasterly on State Road 38 until I stumbled onto the northern terminus of the Monon Trail.

Built on the abandoned route of an abandoned railroad, the trail’s southern terminus is on 10th Street, only a few blocks from my downtown Indianapolis home. The sections I’ve already traveled are wide and nicely paved, and cut a straight line through long established neighborhoods of Broad Ripple and Nora. In recent times it has been pushed further north through Carmel and on to 191st Street in Westfield.

On previous visits to Indianapolis, I have cycled as far north as Carmel, and my birthday ride would give me the chance to explore the northernmost section and ride the trail from top to bottom. My online searches, however, provided ambiguous or conflicting information about the upper segments of the trail. Clearly the physical challenge would be overshadowed by the intellectual excitement of actually finding the elusive trail and keeping on it.

Wednesday morning was beautiful, the best day of the week. The ride to Lebanon was fine. Drying corn that had been twelve feet tall when I went this way a month earlier had been harvested and the stalks cut down and removed.

At Lebanon I snacked a little and continued on my newly devised route. Now beyond the immediate signs of urban sprawl, I was riding through what looked like an updated version of traditional Indiana farm country, quiet and peaceful. At Sheridan, with my odometer reading forty-nine miles, I took a lunch break at a Dairy Queen at the junction with State Road 38 where I would back toward the city.

The high school girl who took my order told me that I didn’t have to ride to 191st Street because the Monon started right there in Sheridan, but her instructions on finding it were vague.

A couple who looked past retirement age sitting at another table came to my rescue. He had been the project manager for building the short section of the trail that travels through Sheridan. He described his work on the project and told me how to find the trailhead, which was less than a quarter of a mile from where we were sitting.

He too was vague in describing the trail south of Sheridan, and I soon discovered that it exists in disconnected segments, with virtually no signage to tell trail users how to move from one section to they next. A farmer standing near his shed and staff at a city park in Westfield filled in the missing information and I kept moving south, but this stopping and starting ate up time. At Broad Ripple, I left the trail to find supper, but daylight was fading and instead of eating I scurried south on familiar city streets to get home before dark.

Between the Dairy Queen and the trail head, my bike computer disappeared. Using Google maps for the computer less section, my estimate is that I fell short of my 85-mile goal by 5 or 6 miles. Close enough! At home, feasting on a Subway sandwich, I massaged sore muscles with my heart rejoicing.

The Warm Blood of God: John Muir’s Reflections on God and Nature

November 7, 2016

A review of The Young John Muir: An Environmental Biography by Steven J. Holmes (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999)

holmesMy interest in John Muir began in 1953, soon after we moved to California, when I read his book, My First Summer in the Sierra. One reason why the book interested me was that some of Muir’s sensations during his early months in that state were echoed in my own experience eighty-five years later. I became aware of a second crossing of my life with Muir’s in the 1980s when I had been living in Indianapolis for nearly two decades. Reading his book, A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, I learned that he was living in Indianapolis in 1867 when he began the itinerary that was the turning point in his life.

In 2009 I discovered a third crossing point. Donald Worster’s 2008 biography of John Muir filled in much of the detail of the explicitly religious aspects of Muir’s early life. Although other writers had explored Muir’s religious pilgrimage, Worster’s book was where I learned that during his first two decades of life, Muir was identified with the same religious tradition as I, the Disciples of Christ, an American denomination that looks to Alexander Campbell as one of its spiritual founders.

During his brief time in Indianapolis, the congregation with which Muir was associated was located at the corner of Ohio and Delaware Streets near the city’s center and carried the name Christian Chapel. When the building was constructed (in 1857, a decade prior to Muir’s arrival) it was reported to be the largest church house in the city. The congregation changed its name to Central Christian Church in 1879 and four years later moved to a new building, which it still occupies, a few blocks to the north at Delaware and Walnut Streets. Muir’s name does not appear in church records, but Levi and Susan N. Sutherland, with whom he lived during his time in Indianapolis, are listed in the membership roll. Their address at 59 East McCarty Street was just a mile south of the church’s location.

My interest in the religious aspects of Muir’s early life is heightened and informed by Steven J. Holmes’ 1999 book, The Young John Muir: An Environmental Biography, which I recently found at the Indianapolis Public Library. The book began as a dissertation at Harvard University where Holmes had studied in programs (at the university and at the divinity school) in American Civilization and History and Literature. Read more . . . holmes-the-young-john-muir


Dancing in the winds of change: a meditation on turning 85

October 31, 2016

old-man-writing-1On Halloween 2016, I turn 85, overwhelmed with gratitude. Virtually every step of the way I have been supported and surrounded by love and friendship. I enjoy good health, a place to lay my head, food every day, and work that is satisfying and useful. My beloved wife Billie, with whom I shared most of those years and who did much to fill them with good things, has been singing alto in the choir of angels for two years. Even so my life continues with a loving family and circles of friends across the country. Thanks be to God.

Some of the people I have known over the years have died and others suffer from diminishments of body, mind, and spirit. I too feel the years in creaking joints, lessened acuity of vision and hearing, and easily managed hypertension. What I find in my bicycling is a good example of what I experience in other ways: I ride as hard as I ever did, but with less to show for it. I can’t go as fast or as far.

My doctor has a simple explanation: “As you grow older your heart and other bodily systems slow down and there’s nothing you can do about it. Compare yourself with other people your age and not with yourself twenty years ago.” I am trying to live lightheartedly with the limitations that are settling into place and to adjust my activities accordingly. For a functioning mind and body and doctors to help me stay that way, Thanks be to God.

There’s good reason to believe that life will continue a little longer. Life expectancy tables indicate that there may be six more years; for a few 85-year-olds, 10 years. For any one of us, however, there is no telling how many hours or years of life remain. So the question is this: what guidelines should we use to shape the time that remains, whether short or long?

Earlier in the summer, a friend gave me a little book that proposes a model to consider: The Sage’s Tao Te Ching: Ancient Advice for the Second Half of Life. The author, William Martin, presents a new interpretation of eighty-one poetic verses written 2,500 years ago by Lao Tzu, Confucious’ contemporary and teacher. Although many of the verses leave me perplexed, the central theme as Martin adapts these ancient verses to life in our time is that in their later years people can become sages.

The challenge is stated in the heading for Verse 1, “Older or Wiser,” and is drawn out in the verse itself. “If you are becoming a sage you will grow in trust and contentment. You will discover the light of life’s deepest truths. If you are merely growing older, you will become trapped by fears and frustrations. You will see only the darkness of infirmity and death. The great task of the sage is learning to see in the darkness and not be afraid.

At this stage of life, we face a choice, which Martin presents in the final stanza of Verse 1. “There is one primary choice facing every aging person. Will we become sages, harvesting the spiritual essence of our lives and blessing all future generations? Or will we just grow older, withdrawing, circling the wagons, and waiting for the end?”

In Verse 2, Martin continues to describe the sage. “In the sage, youth and age are married. Wisdom and folly have been lived fully. Innocence and experience now support one another. Action and rest follow each other easily. Life and death have become inseparable.”

As my life continues, I intend to maintain the way of life that I have followed for many years: writing in the mornings, cycling and ordinary activities in the afternoons, enjoying coffee shop culture, participating in the full life of a well-ordered church, and living with and for my family and friends. The details will remain much the same, but  instead of doing these things with the shortening perspective of becoming an old man I hope to do them with the lengthening vision of a sage, “a calm and supple person, dancing in the winds of change” (Martin, Verse 68).

North Illinois Street, Indy: Cycling with the Wild Things

October 29, 2016


For close to forty years, my weekly routine has included vigorous bike rides three or four days a week, totaling seventy-five to 100 miles. Usually, there has been one ride of forty or more miles and the rest of the mileage in quick dashes of fifteen to twenty-five miles at a time.

One of the settling-in tasks for my first two months now that I have moved back to Indianapolis, living right downtown, is to find routes that meet certain criteria: paved roads, preferably with smooth surfaces; bike lanes or shoulders or sharrows (shared lane markers) to accommodate cyclists; relatively easy-going automobile traffic; long stretches with no stop signs or signals; and pleasant scenery.

Since early September when I moved into my apartment, I’ve logged 525 bicycle miles.  Two rides were about 65 miles each, and the others have been in fifteen to twenty-five mile segments along eight or nine different routes, most of which are discouraging. Streets are narrow and broken up. Traffic is heavy, pushy, and unfriendly toward cyclists. Several of these routes travel through neighborhoods equally broken up, with derelict houses, boarded up store fronts, and empty church buildings.

People often ask if I use the downtown cultural trail or the Monon Trail that starts on 10th Street a few blocks from my apartment and continues through the northern sections of Indianapolis to the town of Westfield nineteen miles distant. I have to answer “No” because the frequent cross streets require greater diligence and consistently slower speeds than I ordinarily use. The northern half of the Monon is more suitable, but even there, mixed usage—parents with strollers, children on bikes weaving back and forth, clusters of easy-going walkers, and skaters—make fast cycling difficult.

On a late October day, with bright sun, temperature about 62, and rich autumn colors on the trees, I did a ride that will become one of my regulars. North on Alabama Street (where I live) and then over a few blocks to North Illinois Street, which is the north-bound street paired with south-bound North Capitol Avenue (where our family lived for thirty-three years). Both streets are designated bicycle routes, with marked lanes or sharrows.

Then across the Central Canal to Riverview Drive and its wide arc that follows one of White River’s bends heading toward Broad Ripple Village. I turned south on Central Avenue, working my way back to Capitol Avenue and then south toward home.

Most of the way, this route meets the criteria listed above. The northern half (on the top side of 38th Street), travels through leafy suburban neighborhoods where the currents of life seem just like they were in the 1960s when we first moved to this part of Indianapolis. Although Indianapolis may never again seem as much like home as the Pacific Northwest, this ride takes me through a part of the city that does awaken strong, happy memories.

An added bonus is some public art, the wild things that I mention in the title to this report. On the street level of this route there’s nothing much bigger than chipmunks and squirrels running around on their own four legs.


One building on Illinois Street just north of 33rd, however, has been adorned with giant beasts in deep, surreal colors. Some are sea creatures and others roam on land. In broad daylight, of course, they bring smiles to my face and an easy-going feeling to my inner self.

This city has its troubles, its horrors by night and by day. But there also is love, joy, lightheartedness, and a playful spirit, and that’s what I see in these garish creatures.

I saw evidence of this brighter side of city life later in the afternoon. As I rode back home on Capitol, I noticed several new houses, with essentially the same design, and all painted gray. Two men at a front-yard sale just down the street, and almost straight across from the wild things on Illinois, explained. “They’re Habitat Houses, and they’re nice. Before they were built, those lots were just plain dumps and now they have good homes.”

On this Halloween weekend, many people will go to haunted houses and horror movies to get their kicks. As for me, I’ll ride up North Illinois Street and back down on Capitol. Wild things and happy homes! These are the things I want to see.


The persistence of memory on Morgantown Road

October 22, 2016


In 1931, the year I was born, Salvador Dali finished one of his “hand painted dream photographs,” which he entitled “The Persistence of Memory.” It features four clocks in an unfamiliar landscape, warped to the forms on which they are placed. Dali explained that his purpose, in part, was “to systematize confusion and thus to help discredit completely the world of reality.”

The title of this surrealist painting comes to mind as I think about a mid-October bicycle round-trip ride from downtown Indianapolis to Morgantown, a small community 30 miles to the south. While the immediacy of this year’s expedition was the continuing focus of my attention during the day, memories of a ride over this same route some 40 years ago kept pushing into my consciousness. Past, present, and future became intermingled, and this warping of time is what made me think of Dali’s misshapen clocks.

This year I was one of twenty-five or thirty cyclists who were riding to Ellettsville, near Bloomington, so that they could enjoy the 49th year of the Hilly Hundred bicycling event. Between 1973 and 1991, I often rode the Hilly as part of my annual cycling schedule, but my move back to to Indianapolis this summer came too late in the season for me to be ready for the event this year.

This Ride to the Hilly, however, seemed exactly right. I could go part way and turn around when I was still strong enough to get back home. There would be other cyclists on the road, mature, serious, experienced, and accustomed to aggressive, open road cycling. Perhaps most important was their current knowledge of the roads through Indianapolis’ south side and the rural hinterlands, roads that my son Mike and I used to ride together.

It was my good fortune to pair off with a white-haired man younger than I by a couple of decades or more and a strong cyclist. He had bicycled from a town well to the north of our starting place and noted that his day’s ride would add up to 91 miles (compared to my 60). And he would then ride the Hilly—two days of hard cycling in the limestone hills around Bloomington.

During brief snatches of conversation, we described our respective histories as cyclists. Although the details differed, the tone of our two-wheeled stores was much the same.

Persistence of Memory near Morgantown Road

Persistence of Memory near Morgantown Road

All day long, however, the immediacy of this year’s ride was pushed aside by memories of a time some forty years ago when Mike and I rode this route. Our plan had been to bike to Bloomington and back in the same day, a total of 120 miles. As we rode southward on Morgantown Road, he explained the technique that his trumpet teacher at the Indiana University School of Music was instilling. “Focus on the song, not on your playing. The music will be better and your ability to keep on playing will increase.”

We discussed how this idea could be applied to our cycling: Think about the glory of the ride rather than the gearing and cadence, or the weather and the road. With a growing sense of exhilaration, we sailed along. As we worked our way over the chip-and-seal roads of Morgan County, however, we realized that something was wrong. We both were so tired that we doubted that we finish the ride we had planned. At Morgantown, we stopped for refreshments and headed back home. As we rode back north on Morgantown Road, we paid attention to gearing and cadence. Maybe the song would sing itself some other day.

Mike still plays trumpet and bicycles in ways consistent with long ago. “I remember that ride and conversation,” he wrote in response to a draft of this blog, and continues with a comment that explains why we ran out of energy on that ride so many years ago.

“One difference between cycling and trumpet playing is pacing. With trumpet playing you are at or close to max sustainable effort at all times. You also rest as much as you play, as opposed to stopping for a few minutes every hour. With cycling it is usually better to pace oneself for the planned distance, which usually puts you at a lower power output.”

Pacing keyed to what you are doing. One key to success, on Morgantown Road and everywhere else.




Growing old in Cochise County

October 18, 2016


The full moon shining high over downtown Indianapolis this week inspired memories of a bicycle ride I did fifteen years ago at this same time of year—on the weekend close to the October full moon. With fear and trembling, I had signed up for the annual Cochise Classic, a challenging event sponsored by the Tucson-based Perimeter Bicycling Association of America. As its name indicates, the PBAA encourages people to ride around geographical features, around mountains, cities, counties, countries. Any circuit can qualify so long as it is at least 50 miles.

The Cochise Classic back then had five rides for people of varying ability. The tour all around the county was 252 miles, with a shorter option of 157 miles. The Tour around Potter Mountain that I was doing was 97 miles long. Two shorter rides completed the weekend’s list of events.

The headquarters was (and still is)) in Douglas, Arizona, a border town that had once been an important mining center. We spent Friday night before the ride and Saturday night after the ride (if we stayed over) at the Gadsden Hotel, which even fifteen years ago had faded significantly. The lobby with its forty-two feet long Tiffany window was once billed as Arizona’s grandest public space. My room on the mezzanine had an impressively carved, heavy oak door, but the house phone didn’t work because it had been pulled loose from the wall.

One hundred sixty three cyclists had signed up for the 2001 Classic: 44 for the 252-mile circuit; 18 for the 157-mile trip, 66 for the 97-mile circuit that I was making; and 33 for the short tour of 45 miles. One of the riders was introduced, an 80-year-old man named Reece Walton who was registered for his eleventh riding of the 252-mile classic. The previous year he had done the loop in 22.5 hours. The fastest riders did it in just over twelve hours, averaging more than 22 miles an hour.

And here I was, proud that as I turned 70—by reason of strength four score and ten, to use the biblical phrasing—I was planning to ride 97 miles.

Early in the ride, two of us found that we were traveling at the same rate and for the next 70 miles we helped each other by regularly changing the lead and sheltering the rider behind from the wind. My companion for the day was a nurse from the area, much younger than I, and a skilled cyclist who was well-versed in the routines of the road while cycling in the Arizona desert.

During the last 10 miles she was fading even more than I and insisted that I continue on and let her finish at her own speed. The posted finish times indicated that she came in only a couple of minutes after I did. I was the 45th finisher (out of 66 who started), averaging 15.3 miles per hour.

The next morning, as I headed for home in Sun City West near Phoenix, I attended the Sunday Eucharist at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Tombstone. Built in 1881, this little church described itself as the oldest protestant church in the Southwest. The congregation consisted of some two dozen people and the music of the liturgy was enlivened by the powerful voice of a young African-American woman sitting in the pew ahead of me.

The peace of the moment was shattered, however, as the pastor began his sermon. In an even voice, he announced that earlier that morning the U.S. Airforce had begun the aerial bombardment of Afghanistan. Then he read a prayer asking that God send peace into the world. As he made his announcement, the sun, it seemed to me, went behind a cloud. I wondered—and this was fifteen years ago—if it would ever again really shine upon the world.

Note: The 2016 Cochise Classic was ridden October 8. Fifteen people completed the longest version, 165 miles; the oldest was 63. Eighty-one cyclists finished the 95-mile circuit, the oldest being 72. Eighty people, one listed as 99 years of age, completed the 47-mile ride. Fifty-one riders, including a person 99 years old, are listed as finishers for the 27-mile ride.