Archive for August, 2010

Oil again … and again … and again

Saturday, August 28th, 2010

Aug. 24, 2010

Some readers took offense at my recent defense of BP and of oil companies in general. The most common criticism was that we should ignore the propaganda coming from the oil companies. Instead we have to expedite the changeover from a fossil fueled economy to a non-fossil fuel economy. Actually I agree with that. The only real dispute is how long it might take for the changeover. I claim a minimum of twenty to thirty years, probably more like forty or fifty. And in the meantime I pointed out we are desperately dependent on oil for the very survival of our civilization.

Some say the oil companies are promoting a long time scenario because they want to make money and discourage competition. That may be true. The environmental lobby and the present federal government are promoting a competitive view that we can and must changeover much faster. That may be true. Who do you believe? Both views have merit. Both are self-serving. The oil companies make more money the longer the “meantime” is. The environmental groups (and the present government) get more publicity, more members (or more votes) the louder they sound the alarms.

Profits from oil sales actually finance a substantial portion of renewable research, most of which will not make a nickel.  Taxes subsidize a whole host of alternative research projects, most of which will also be losers. The difference is the oil companies eat their losses. Taxpayers aren’t so lucky.

The environmental lobbies have been extremely effective in promoting a “green” agenda that is stridently anti-oil and often, in my opinion, anti-capitalist. Corporations like BP, Dow Chemical and Monsanto have fallen in step and also claim to be “green” (at least their advertising says so). It is easy to understand that the oil companies have vested interests that influence their behavior and their advertising.

It is not so easy for people to understand that environmentalists also have their self-serving vested interests. Bernard Cohen, a leading research physicist at the University of Pittsburgh, pointed out to us in an interview a few years ago that “the environmental movement has its own self-interest which the media and the public don’t seem to recognize.” He went on to charge that “the word ‘environmentalist’ has a pure and unselfish meaning. The truth is, environmental groups that have active programs and are winning battles are going to prosper and get foundation support and lots of dues-paying members. So they are under very heavy pressure to pick out issues where they can win political victories. They won a big political victory in destroying nuclear power. They won political victories in getting DDT banned and getting ethylene dibromide banned and getting rid of alar in apples. All of these are technologically nonsensical decisions.”

I’m afraid the same thing is happening today with the trashing of BP and even with some of the crisis-mongering about climate change. When you look outside your window and count up all the ways we depend on oil for our modern life it has to give you pause. No matter how green you might want to live you still have to eat. You still have to have shelter. And heat and cooling. And transportation. And communication. And health care. And police and fire prevention. And environmental protection. And schools and books and computers and an Internet, etc. etc. All of these basic activities today are almost 100% dependent on energy (and materials) derived from fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas. Well, over 90% at least.

Leaving aside for the moment the energy for all of our transportation needs, we in the U.S. and Canada get about 20% of our electrical energy from nuclear power and about 12% from renewable hydroelectric dams. Most of the rest comes from burning coal, a small percentage from natural gas and a much smaller percentage from biomass. In some parts of the country, and in some parts of Europe wind energy has taken off in the last few years. In the U.S. and Canada it accounts for maybe one or two percent of our electrical energy. In Denmark they claim windmills produce up to 20% of their electricity. Some experts question that figure. They also point out that Denmark has the highest rates for electricity in Europe. Denmark has not been able to shut down any of their coal plants because wind power is unreliable so they need fossil fuels and imported electricity from the European grid to provide power when the wind isn’t blowing. Ironically they also need it when the wind blows too hard because high winds could damage the windmill blades and so they have to shut down.

In addition recent research has shown that wind energy farms not only cause more or less severe health problems to nearby residents, they also save very little if any carbon dioxide emission. This is because wind is intermittent. (So is sunlight.) This means you have to have backup fossil fuel (or nuclear) plants to provide electricity when the wind is not blowing or the sun is not shining. The required stop-and-go cycling of the fossil fuel plants results in a severe drop in efficiency and consequently much more carbon dioxide emissions. That is happening now in Denmark.

Despite the problems I think we should continue experimenting with wind and with solar power. And certainly and especially, with schemes to promote more efficiency in the way we use energy and materials. Here I am in agreement with the greens. We need to be looking for new ways to do more with less. Keep in mind though the “do more” part. Just doing “less” won’t cut it, unless you are willing to have still more unemployment and poverty. More about that next week.

Another objection some people have to oil is the claim that that we have reached the “peak” already in oil resources and the future looks pretty grim so we better button up and conserve what we have, use less, live greener, etc. etc. This objection is in my view shortsighted and plainly mistaken. Expert predictions about how much oil is hidden in the earth’s crust have been almost comically mistaken.

In 1914 the U.S. Bureau of Mines predicted the U.S. had just enough oil left in the ground to last another ten years. In 1939 the U.S. Dept. of Interior predicted we had enough oil to last another 13 years. In 1944, experts estimated Persian Gulf reserves at 16 billion barrels proved and 5 billion probable. By 1975, those same fields had produced 42 billion barrels and had 74 billion remaining. By 1984, geologists estimated another 199 billion barrels remaining. Etc. Etc.

Like end-of-the-world predictions of religious cults, the peak-day keeps getting further and further off. And it has been the same story with oil and natural gas reserves in North and South America. In fact it has been the same story with minerals, food, and just about all natural resources just about everywhere in the world.

A very recent case in point is Israel; a country that had has often taken pride in achieving a high standard of living in the Middle East without having any oil or gas reserves (or for that matter few natural resources of any kind) in its own territory. Just last week a headline in the NY Times read “Israel Agog Over News On Energy.” It seems that USGS geologists have discovered enormous deposits of natural gas just a few miles off the north shore of Israel. There is almost certainly, they report, enough natural gas there to power the entire country for many years to come and even to export some of it to other countries.

So too in the U.S., Mexico and Canada there is much much more oil and gas to be discovered and used—actually much more than in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq combined. Some of these oil and gas reserves in North America are in Alaska and in the Gulf of Mexico but the bulk of them are deep underground in North Dakota, Montana, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and the Rocky Mountains. If we are serious in wanting to become energy “independent;” and if we are serious in wanting to create American jobs that are real jobs; and if we are serious in wanting to choke off funds to terrorist states and groups; the obvious thing to do is to move heaven and earth to accelerate our search and our production capabilities for American oil and gas. That seems to me to be a no-brainer.

Yes, there are environmental problems in drilling and mining for American oil and gas just as there are environmental problems in drilling or mining for anything anywhere.

“Green technology” like solar cells, hybrid batteries, iPhones, windmill turbines, hybrid automobiles, radar, fluorescent bulbs, flat screen television sets, satellites, computers—indeed almost all emerging green technologies–require rare earth elements that today come almost completely from China. The Chinese mines that bring up these rare earths are noted for their severe pollution problems. The Chinese have recently warned the rest of the world that soon they may forbid any exports of these rare earths. Unless we want to abandon all emerging green technologies we will have to find deposits in the western world, mine them and find ways to mitigate the environmental damages. And no doubt we will.

Worthy of note too is that most of these emerging green technologies rely on other common but potentially toxic chemicals that contain cadmium, arsenic, lead, mercury and other potentially toxic elements. In other words there is no free lunch when it comes to environmental or economic issues. We may dream of the perfect but we have to be satisfied with the better in order to avoid the worst. In that choice, oil and gas are better than coal. And in the long run they may even, surprisingly enough, be better than biomass, wind or sun.

The point is not to slow or condemn alternative energy programs. And most certainly not to curtail basic research in renewable alternatives. Nor is it to exonerate fossil fuel use which admittedly does have serious pollution consequences even apart from its problematic contribution to climate change. Instead we need to be wise, patient and creative. Let’s not fall for the latest fad and waste precious resources on glamorous but faulty technologies, but work and wait for better alternatives. And realize that even the best will have faults and unintended consequences.

At the moment I think that all things considered nuclear power is the wisest choice for lessening our dependence on fossil fuels with the least risk of environmental damage. I think natural gas is second best. Natural gas is still a fossil fuel but it is much less harmful than coal. And if I had to wager on more distant future sources I would hesitantly bet on fusion power with hydrogen as a byproduct to be used to power vehicles, run lawnmowers and power portable generators. Solar and wind will have increasing use in special locations and for special purposes but in the long run I doubt they will ever be major players in the energy world.

I realize that many will disagree. I wait with some trepidation and much anticipation to your responses.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. You can’t escape my usual plugs for DVD programs. See ENERGY ON EARTH (Science Books & Films labeled this “one of the best films of last five years.”) See also ENERGY AND SOCIETY, GLOBAL WARMING and RESOURCES, POPULATIONS AND CLIMATE CHANGE.

What would Jefferson do? What would Lincoln do?

Sunday, August 22nd, 2010

Aug. 23, 2010

Charles Sheldon in 1896 wrote a novel In His Steps. The subtitle was “What would Jesus do?” The novel was very popular and was translated into 21 languages. Sheldon thought that Jesus would promote a kind of Christian Socialism, take from the rich and give to the poor. Others after Sheldon took up that question, What would Jesus do?, and gave different answers.

In the American political tradition what I want to know is, what would Jefferson or Lincoln do?

Thomas Jefferson was our first Democratic President.

Jefferson was a classic liberal. That is, as a leading Enlightenment thinker, his most cherished value was freedom, especially freedom from government and freedom from clergy. His biggest worry was that government would become too big, too strong and too tyrannical. As for religion he made his own version of the New Testament in which he deleted all references to miracles and the afterlife but retained the moral teachings of Jesus. He believed in God, but said, “I do not find in orthodox Christianity one redeeming feature.”

He would not have approved of today’s progressive Democrats in their zeal to expand the role of the government. In his First Inaugural Address Jefferson advised “a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government.” As to the national debt, “It is incumbent on every generation to pay its own debts as it goes. A principle which if acted on would save one-half the wars of the world.” As to social welfare, “I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them … .I own that I am not a friend to a very energetic government. It is always oppressive.”

On the other hand he was no friend of the rich and powerful either. “I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”

As to foreign policy he advised “commerce with all nations, alliance with none, should be our motto.” He was not opposed to war when it was justified and he was in favor of guns for citizens and a strong military. “Every citizen should be a soldier. This was the case with the Greeks and Romans, and must be that of every Free State.”

Jefferson did not hesitate to use the military to solve national problems. Muslim pirates in North Africa were kidnapping and demanding huge ransoms for American sailors when he was president. Jefferson sent the U.S. Navy with instructions to use all necessary force to crush the pirates and rescue our sailors. And they did.

He was a strong supporter of science. “The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view, the palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of god.” He believed that science would lead the way to get those “saddles” off their backs. And that’s pretty much how it happened.

Like his friend and fellow patriot Benjamin Franklin, he himself was a scientist. As President he sent Lewis and Clark on their famous expedition not to conquer but to discover what the west was like. While he claimed not to hold any territorial or imperial ambitions he also made the single largest addition to the United States territory ever when he authorized the Louisiana Purchase from France.

He was always a friend to educators. “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people … They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”

What would Jefferson do today? Would he be a Democrat, a Progressive, or a Libertarian? Would he be a Republican or a Tea Party candidate? You decide.

Abraham Lincoln was our first Republican President.

Lincoln, too, was a liberal in the classical sense of cherishing liberty. But he also cherished union. And achieving a lasting blend of liberty and union proved to be his greatest challenge and his greatest achievement.

Lincoln was friendly toward industry and business. As a lawyer in Illinois, Lincoln often represented large corporations. He himself had once been a small businessman who owned and ran a “grocery” in New Salem. It was a failure. As he later put it, his store “blinked out” and left him in debt for fifteen years (a sum he likened to the “National Debt”). Eventually he did pay it off from his meager salary as a freshman Congressman.

As President he did not have much chance to demonstrate social welfare policy. His job as he saw it was to hold the union together even at the cost of a terrible war.

The story of his relationship with the famous and powerful journalist, Horace Greeley, has relevance for us today. Both he and Greeley were union supporters. Both believed slavery was wrong and must eventually be abolished if America was to survive as a modern state. Both believed the North had no choice but to go to war when Southern states seceded.

Lincoln and Greeley (as well as most people in the North) also thought the secession could be ended with a quick decisive show of union force. However after the Union’s disastrous defeat at Bull Run in the very first battle of the war, Lincoln got this letter from the New York journalist. “I have spent seven consecutive sleepless nights, Mr. Lincoln. The gloom in this city is funereal, for our dead at Bull Run were many and they lie unburied yet. On every brow sits sullen, scorching, black despair. What can I do, Mr. President? If it is best for the country that we make peace with the rebels at once and on their own terms, do not shrink even from that.”

Lincoln had no thought of giving up. He held fast to his goal of liberty and union for four bitter years and over 500,000 casualties. He had to ignore oceans of ink spilling vicious and vile personal attacks in Northern newspapers. He had to stay the course after many of his closest friends and supporters had deserted him. In the last year of the war when an embattled Lincoln was running for a second term the liberal abolitionist lawyer and author Richard Dana wrote, “As to the politics of Washington, the most striking thing is the absence of personal loyalty to the President. It does not exist. He has no admirers here, no enthusiastic supporters. We went for a rail splitter, and we have got one.”

The rail-splitter won the election. The Union won the war. Slavery was abolished and the union was preserved.

Am I wrong to see some of the “Greeley” attitude today in the clamor to “bring our troops home” immediately if not sooner? The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been ugly, long and difficult, though with far far fewer casualties than the wars of Lincoln, Roosevelt, Truman or Kennedy/Johnson. Many patriots from both political parties want to call it quits and simply get out, “even on their own terms.”

I realize full well that when Jefferson and Lincoln lived and governed, the United States was very different from the United States of today. In 1790 it had a population of less than 4 million. When Lincoln was President the United States had grown to over 30 million, of which over 80% were farmers. The industrial revolution was just getting underway. The communication revolution was not even a dream. But the eloquent words of Lincoln in his 1862 plea to Congress for a constitutional amendment to free the slaves still have relevance.

“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy future … Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation … in giving freedom to the slaves, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what give and in what we preserve … we shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”

It held Mr. Jefferson. It held Mr. Lincoln. But slavery to tyrants and to clergy still exists in this troubled world. And some of us still think we are an exceptional country that has often led the way in the past to abolish slavery of all kinds and on all continents. Many of us think that we are still “the last best hope of earth.”

In considering our challenges today another speech Lincoln gave in Philadelphia on his way to take office as President seems especially relevant.  “I have often inquired of myself what great principle or idea it was that kept this Confederacy together so long. It was not the mere matter of separation of the colonies from the mother country, but that something in the Declaration of Independence giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulder of all men, and that all should have an equal chance.”

Lincoln prevailed in the Civil War. Roosevelt led us to victory in World War 2. After that terrible war Truman and Marshall lifted the weights from many shoulders in our former enemies Germany, Italy and Japan. Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Bush and Reagan helped almost half the world escape a totalitarian nightmare brought on by communist ideology and domination. I think Mr. Lincoln would be happy and proud to know that his quest for liberty and union has spread to over half the world. Yes, sixty percent of the world today is free, democratic and making progress toward the goal “that all should have an equal chance.”

To be sure there are still major obstacles to a free, democratic, peaceful, progressive world for all. The Radical Islamic quest is a major one. The rapid growth of government and a soaring national debt in so many western democracies is another. Poverty and disease in developing countries around the world is still another. And the loss of confidence in our own country from our own people may be the most serious threat of all.

What would Jesus do? What would Jefferson do? What would Lincoln do?

It matters little. It’s up to us now.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. You can learn more about the historical background for these difficult issues in some of our new programs. DEMOCRACY: THE BASICS, DEMOCRACY IN THE 21ST CENTURY. For more on Jefferson and the other founding fathers see our recent program THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION, CAPITALISM AND THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. For more on Lincoln and the Civil War see our recently redone classic program, A. LINCOLN. For more on religion and democracy see: RELIGION AND DEMOCRACY.

“Daylight in the swamp!”

Sunday, August 15th, 2010

“Daylight in the swamp. Time to go to work!  . . .

“At three o’clock in the morning, our bold cook loudly shouts,

Roll out, roll out, you teamsters, it’s time that you were out.

The teamsters, they get up in a fright and manful wail,

Where’s my boots, oh where’s my packs, my rubbers have gone astray

The other men, they then get up, their packs they cannot find

And they lay it to the teamsters, and they curse them till they’re blind.”

The folk song is from a program we produced many years ago THE ROMANCE OF THE LUMBERJACK. The song speaks to the romance. The reality was another matter. The lumber companies in the 19th century cut the top off of Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin. On the one hand their work furnished the lumber that built America. On the other hand it was responsible for probably the greatest environmental disaster in American history, eclipsing the recent oil leak by powers of ten.

Much the same could be said for two other industries that helped build America, iron mining and whaling. For this school year we have resurrected three video programs and converted them into DVDs — THE ROMANCE OF THE LUMBERJACK, IRON MINES AND MEN and THERE SHE BLOWS. The trio offers insight into what work was like, both the romance and the reality, in three key 19th century American industries.

Author Robert Gard begins the ROMANCE OF THE LUMBERJACK this way:

“The great American woods! Six hundred million board feet of lumber in Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota–the Comstock lode of silver, the gold of California, the iron of the huge Mesabi Range, or the oil of Texas–none of these was as great an asset as the white pine of the great American woods.”

That Mesabi Range may not have been quite as big an asset but it was pretty big. And it was pretty important. As a folk song in IRON MINES AND MEN puts it,

“Gold is for the mistress, silver for the maid

Copper for the craftsman, cunning at his trade

‘Good’ cried the Baron, sitting in his hall

‘But iron, cold iron is master of them all.’”

And whale oil to early 19th century America was what petroleum is to 20th and 21st century America. It was the all purpose liquid that lit homes, lubricated sewing machines, provided the base for medicine and cosmetics and the flexible plastic-like material (whale bone) for many of the same purposes our modern plastics satisfy today.

People today, however, especially young people, have little idea what work was like a two hundred years ago. Basic industries like lumbering, mining, agriculture and fishing are sometimes under fire today because of their environmental problems. We white-collar service workers (and that includes most people in the U.S. and Canada today) don’t exactly look down on miners, lumbermen and fishermen but most of us have little experience with the kind of essential work many of them still perform.

In the 19th century our country, our continent, was economically booming as never before in human history. It was the century of the Industrial Revolution. As late as 1850, however, over 80 percent of the population were still farmers. In their spare time many of these “farmers” also became lumbermen, fishermen and miners. Like many people today, workers then often worked more than one job. But white-collar service jobs were few and far between.

Another big change in work is the change from the still earlier 10,000 year-long agricultural ages in which all of our ancestors lived. African-American activists remind us that most of their ancestors were enslaved by white people in the deep south some two hundred years ago.  Not everyone recognizes that if you go back a few hundred more years the ancestors of practically everyone in America today were slaves, serfs or peasants.

In 1750 for instance, just before the U.S. came into being, over 95% of the people in France, Germany, Switzerland, England, Russia, Poland and the Scandinavian countries were not slaves, but they were peasants or serfs. This meant that they were, like slaves, permanently bound to the land, heavily-taxed, exploited and held captive for life. Thomas Jefferson objected: “the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs.” But before the U.S. was founded almost all of our ancestors were to all intents and purposes enslaved by aristocratic lords and clergy left-over from earlier medieval times and still ruling from the saddle.

With the founding of the United States in 1776 as the world’s first modern republic things began to change. Not everyone today recognizes that this was a truly exceptional change.

If you move your attention to other continents like Asia, Africa and the South Pacific the exploitation and the outright slavery gets worse. Much worse.

What does this mean for us today?

For one it means we should be thankful for our blessings. Our ancestors worked hard. They had fun too. But not much. To work as a slave, serf or peasant was not only demeaning, it was nasty. As Thomas Hobbes put it in 1651 the life of man everywhere is “nasty, brutish and short.”

And people did not live very long. On average people lived less than forty years before the Industrial Revolution of the 19th and 20th centuries. Nor did they travel much. On average not more than twenty or thirty miles from where they were born before railroads, steamships brought some of the bravest and most adventurous to America.

Health care, what there was of it, was cheaper. In the 19th century lumberjacks could buy for $2 to $10 an insurance coupon that gave them treatment in a lumberjack hospital if they got injured or sick. More often than not they died, either in the woods or in the hospital.

Wages were minimal. Whalers would be out on the ocean for three or four years at a time. When they arrived back in New England one deckhand got ten cents as his share of the profits from the whale oil captured in a four-year voyage. As the script of THERE SHE BLOWS notes, the owners of the vessel were humanitarians and they gave him a ten dollar bonus for his faithful work.

The lumberjacks got paid at the end of a winter’s work and the dangerous spring log drive. Most of them blew their small pay at riverside taverns before returning to their farms to get ready for the spring planting season.

Miners were often lucky to survive much less get well paid. As a reporter for the Marquette Mining Journal wrote in 1890 “we peered down the yawning pits 180 feet deep, walked through two thousand feet of tunnels with soot begrimed miners picking away by candle light.”

Yes, we can thank our lucky stars we live in this post-industrial age. But we can also thank our hard-working ancestors not only for the genes that gave us our very lives but also for supplying the raw-boned base that made our 21st century world of plenty possible.

What will our great-great-grandchildren say about us?

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. You can access and buy many Hawkhill programs now on, including the three new DVDs mentioned in this article. ROMANCE OF THE LUMBERJACK, IRON MINES AND MEN and THERE SHE BLOWS. To see these and other Hawkhill productions type in the search button: Bill Stonebarger or Hawkhill. See also for complete descriptions including scripts and reviews for many of our programs.

the most beautiful thing is the mysterious

Sunday, August 8th, 2010

Aug. 9, 2010

Albert Einstein once claimed that “the most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true science and art.”

What did he mean by “mysterious?”

I think he meant something close to what Bucky Fuller said to me one day many years ago. He was drawing one of his dymaxion domes in the kitchen of his vacation cottage in Maine when I came in the door. Instead of making the usual small talk he pointed to the sunlight coming through the window. It was making a splash across his drawing and he said “beautiful!”

It may also be close to the something that religions have cultivated from time immemorial. The “mystic” in religion is a close relative to the “mysterious” in science. That hint that shivers through your spine with the sense that there is something more out there. Something more in here. There is something we don’t understand. Something much greater than we will ever understand. Some call it God. Einstein did not believe in a personal God or in immortality. He rejected atheism too. When a non-believing scientist asked if he was “religious” he answered, “Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in fact, religious.”

When I produced Spaceship Earth, my first audiovisual program back in the 1970s, it was for me a kind of religious experience perhaps somewhat akin to the one Einstein talked about. I did not discover any new truths as Einstein did when he penetrated the secrets of space and time with naïve genius. I did have a near religious experience though, thinking about the mysteries of space, time, and life. The result was a program that surveyed the universe from the depths of outer space stars, planets and galaxies to the inner space depth of the human mind. It ended up with six parts progressing from the biggest to the smallest. Or maybe I should say not the “smallest” but what I still consider the most powerful, human consciousness. The six parts were: Universe, Biosphere, Living Things, Cells, Atom & Molecules, A Little While Aware. I apparently struck some kind of near religious spark in others. I’m a bit chagrined to admit that I got far more positive response to Spaceship Earth than to any program I have completed in the 36 years since that time. One satisfying memory from those early days is the friend who took Part One: The Universe to show at a Sunday service in his church.

In those same 70s days I read with interest the books of a remarkable doctor who it seemed had an intuitive sense of the mysterious, perhaps similar to Einstein. Lewis Thomas was a specialist in immunology in New York City. He was also in his mature years a remarkable writer. I was especially taken by his first book Lives of a Cell. Dr. Thomas had that rare ability to penetrate the mysterious and then to tell about it in simple moving words. I used inspiration in part due to his book to produce Air, Earth, Fire and Water. It too was well received and this year I have made it available for the first time on DVD.

The “mysterious” in life is sometimes funny as well. The quote my friend Piers McBride sent me qualifies. “I met an old friend yesterday I hadn’t seen for 20 years. And you know he had changed so much he didn’t even recognize me.”

As do quips of Walt Whitman. “A mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.” Or, “oh God, if I am to have so much … let me have more!”

I still get the same thrill of recognition and mystery when I think of some of the stories told about one my heroes, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln had a rare combination of intelligence, humility, humor and compassion. One of my favorite tales is the one where a distraught father came into his office to plead for his son’s life. The boy had been sentenced to death by the military for falling asleep on watch. Lincoln, as he did so often, had stayed the sentence. The father pleaded, “but Mr. President, it says here he is not be shot until further orders come from me. And you might order him shot next week!”

Lincoln replied, “my friend, I see you do not know me very well. If your son never faces death until further orders come from me to shoot him, he will live to be a great deal older than Methuselah.”

Great literature of course also qualifies. Not only Sophocles and Shakespeare, but modern authors like A.A. Milne, Robert Frost, Samuel Beckett and Lewis Thomas. I find some of the short poems of Emily Dickenson pregnant with this strange kind of mysterious beauty.

Hope is a thing with feathers

That perches in the soul

And sings the tune–without the words—

And never stops at all.

Einstein was religious but not conventionally so. He, like Calvin, was also a determinist. That is he did not believe in free will. He thought the universe was governed by some inexplicable mysterious force that we could never hope to penetrate with our meager intellects. He also claimed that “human beings in their thinking, feeling and acting are as causally bound as the stars in their motions.” This belief left little room or role for human beings in cosmic history, whether you consider that history tragedy or comedy.

I part ways from Einstein here. Instead I like the take that the dancer Martha Graham had on a closely related issue.

“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening which is translated through you into action.  And since there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost. The world will not have it.”

I also like the way Robert Frost put it:

The land may vary more;
But wherever the truth may be–
The water comes ashore,
And the people look at the sea.

They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
Btu when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?

In a youthful poem of my own I claimed that we humans, foolish and ignorant as we may be, can still “add an increment of honest meaning to the not-quite-finished universe.” I can’t prove it. But like the people in Robert Frost’s poem, when was that ever a bar to any watch I keep.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. See Spaceship Earth and Air, Earth, Fire and Water. You can read the entire scripts on our web site:

P.P.S. Having written this week’s effort I do think the subject deserves fuller treatment, especially as it relates to the connections between religion, science and democracy. Look for more on this topic in weeks to come. In the meantime you might want to check out one of my latest programs, Religion and Democracy that explores many connections between these two powerful ideas.

P.P.P.S. I just watched for the first time in quite a few years another older program of mine, Welcome to the Universe. It is an adaptation of Spaceship Earth for younger students that we have just this fall made available on DVD for a quite modest price. If you have a bright child, age 7 to 11, you might consider buying this program if you want them to experience the mysterious in science. I really consider it one my best efforts and believe that is does touch that chord that Einstein considered the “source of all true science and art.” It also has magnificent music composed and performed especially for this program by my son, Michael Stonebarger.

round up the usual suspects

Sunday, August 1st, 2010

Aug. 2, 2010

Remember in Casablanca when Claude Rains, the French police chief, watched Humphrey Bogart kill the evil Nazi commander, then told his flunkies to “round up the usual suspects.”

That’s a bit the way I feel these days about the global warming debate. Each side has pretty much had its say. The left, led by former vice president Al Gore and present science advisor to President Obama, John Holdren, rounds ups its supporters. The right led by environmentalist contrarian Bjorn Lomborg and supported by Nobel Prize winner Freeman Dyson, rounds up it supporters. The result is … not much. This, come to think of it may be, as Winnie-the-Pooh used to say, the best thing.

Do we really think we have that much control over the weather and the climate? I doubt it. I don’t believe that God rewards or punishes us with hurricane, tornadoes or floods. Nor do I believe that our paltry human efforts have that much effect on our weather and climate, for good or ill.

I once read that a single thunderstorm has more energy than the total energy produced in the United States by all of our power companies in an average year. During any given minute, there are according to experts, more than a thousand thunderstorms around the Earth that release more energy than thousands of nuclear bombs. Every minute! I also have read that ants, termites and cows produce more methane every year than our automobiles and power plants added together. The truth is I am not rock-bottom sure of my facts here. But neither are some of the global warming folks. See “climate-gate” emails.

Why are Al Gore and his supporters so insistent that we need to do something immediately if not sooner? And if we do need do something so immediately why did Gore recently buy a gargantuan estate on the California coast that will put a thousand times more carbon into the air than the poor folks of Mali or Haiti who live in huts and tents without running water or sewage treatment? And for that matter why does our President spend so much time on Air Force One using gargantuan amounts of fuel and supposedly scarce resources in order to make speeches on-the-scene (and take vacations) in so many far-off places like Colorado, Illinois, Louisiana, California, Maine, Hawaii, and 22 or so foreign countries? And not just once a month or so as every president has done, but he seems to be flying off somewhere every few days! We do have television, radio and the Internet that use a lot less oil and require many fewer reporters, body-guards and hangers-on.

For myself I think we should be more concerned to bring housing, running water and better water and sewage treatment to the Haitians and Malians. And to the Chinese and Indians and Cambodians as well as to some poorer Americans who will suffer the most if we let our economy collapse and move to a no-growth, green life style and Jimmy Carter-like malaise.

I’m afraid the answer is that many far-left partisans are so obsessed with potential government blessings that they can’t imagine that free people will ever manage to do the right things. They are supremely confident we don’t know where our own best interests lie. Or even where it hurts. They want to make sure we do the right thing by enacting into law hundreds of  2000-plus pages of intricate regulation and fiats that their “experts” say will be good for us. And then some suggest that the usual suspects who disagree should be put in solitary. A law professor at a San Diego college suggested recently that the government should just plain ban Fox News.

A recent op-ed article in the NY Times by Ross Douthat has relevance here. He points out that back in the 1970s popular scientists like Paul Ehrlich (a supporting role was played then by the now presidential science advisor John Holdren) preached to the choir and to Johnny Carson’s crowd that overpopulation was going to be the ruin of humankind. Actually you would have been hard put to find many contrarian views among scientists or laymen in those days. Certainly I believed him. Along with the doomsday prophecies about population there was a linked prediction of doom that we would soon run out of oil, or land, of food, or as Newsweek put it on a famous cover in 1973 we soon would be “Running out of Everything!”

Now thirty-five years later it turns out that we have a birth deficit in western countries and we are beginning to worry about not having enough young workers to support us old folks. Worse, we have an “under-consumption” recession problem (a bit like in Roosevelt’s depression days) and in addition and in contrast we have according to many green activists a hedonistic glut of oil, land, food, McDonalds and “everything.”

Douthat admits all that in his NY Times article but goes on to claim that “history rarely repeats itself exactly – and conservatives who treat global warming as just another scare story are almost certainly mistaken.” Well, maybe. But the burden of proof this time is on the other side. Environmental doomsayers, like the proverbial shepherd boy who cried wolf too many times, do not have a good record as seers. As J. Scott Armstrong once wrote, “No matter how much evidence exists that seers do not exist, suckers will pay for the existence of seers.”

So maybe we should round up the usual suspects … and then pay as little attention to them as the police chief in Casablanca did.

Bill Stonebarger, Hawkhill Owner/President

P.S. See our programs GLOBAL WARMING, RESOURCES, POPULATIONS AND CLIMATE CHANGE and three new DVDs about work and life in the 19th century when worries were the opposite of today—that is, too little wealth, too few resources and a shortage of people. See ROMANCE OF THE LUMBERJACK, IRON MINES AND MEN and THERE SHE BLOWS.