Archive for April, 2012

In Defense of Oil

Saturday, April 28th, 2012

April 30, 2012

You have heard the other side. Oil companies making obscene profits. Automobile exhausts, oil spills, refineries and pipelines fouling water supplies, polluting beaches, air and ocean. Climate change bringing unimaginable catastrophe.

There’s the old joke where a woman complains to her friend about the awful food in a restaurant and adds, “the portions were so small.” We are not only addicted to the nasty stuff, it has peaked and soon we won’t have any.

Somebody besides oil company flacks should come to the defense. I’m elected.

First, what about the obscene profits?

All is relative. The oil companies made good profits last year on huge volumes. (A few years ago many lost money.) In 2011 Exxon-Mobil, the biggest, had revenues of 486 billion dollars. They made a profit of 41 billion dollars, around 8-9 cents to the dollar. This is pushing the low end for major corporations. Successful high-tech companies like Apple, Microsoft and Google typically earn about 15-25 cents of every dollar in revenue. Entertainment, educational, publishing and construction companies average around 10-12 cents to the dollar.

Exxon-Mobil paid 31 billion dollars in taxes. These taxes went to over 100 countries around the world where Exxon-Mobil does business. The U.S. got 9.8 billion. Over the past five years, Exxon-Mobil paid a total U.S. tax bill of $59 billion, which is $18 billion more than they earned in the U.S. during the same period. In other words the profits in the rest of the world subsidized operations here in the U.S. Exxon-Mobil also collected for governments another 70 billion in sales taxes and other duties.

Their CEO Rex Tillerson made 34.9 million in salary, bonuses and stock options. This was for managing a global company with 83,600 employees. All these employees in turn paid taxes in 100 countries.

In comparison Tiger Woods made 62 million last year playing golf; Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie collected 50 million for their motion picture work; Prince Fielder made 23 million playing baseball for the Detroit Tigers; LeBron James made 44 million playing basketball for the Miami Heat. Not sure now many people Woods, Pitt, Jolie, Fielder, and James employed. They did provide good entertainment and some of that was shared with other countries.

Of all the substances we need to support modern civilization oil is the lifeblood. Coal and natural gas are close seconds. All of these fossil fuels are critical not only for energy but also as feedstock for fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, paints, pharmaceuticals, asphalt, plastics and hundreds of thousands of other agricultural and industrial products. It’s hard to think of any product or activity in modern society that does not need oil in a major way.

Is it also polluting our environment?

Yes.

Spilling oil into the ocean or onto land has bad effects on water, air, wildlife and soil. And yes, burning oil in vehicles, power plants, homes, lanterns or lawnmowers releases carbon dioxide, which, while not a pollutant, plays a part in climate.

Like everything else, pollution is relative, especially when compared to benefits.

The U.S. gets 95% of its energy for transportation from oil and 20% of its electricity. Oil is a major factor in producing 100% of our food, plastics, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, paints and roads. Studies estimate that the U.S. food system, for instance, uses ten times as many kilocalories in fossil fuels as it produces in kilocalories of food.

In the future we all dream that renewable green energy and organic materials will take the place of oil, coal and gas (ancient organic materials). Right now solar and wind alternatives supply less than 1% of the energy and material we need to maintain our modern world. And they have pollution problems too.

Compared to the enormous benefits, the bad effects from the occasional accident, leak or oil spill are trivial. Aside from the fear that we will run out, the only serious objection to burning oil (or coal or natural gas) today is the potential for radical climate change. And of course this is where environmentalists today concentrate their firepower.

As veteran readers know I am a skeptic. I don’t deny that the world has warmed (about 0.6 degree Centigrade) over the last century. I don’t deny the existence of the greenhouse effect. But I am skeptical about reckless extrapolation of these well know scientific facts into future catastrophe.

The media commonly claims that the “vast majority of scientists” say we are going to have a warmer climate, more severe storms and imminent catastrophe if we don’t do something soon. For one thing “the vast majority of scientists” have no more expertise in this matter than Al Gore, you or I. The climatologists of the world who make a career out of studying climate changes are a very tiny subset of scientists. And while the majority of them do support the global warming hypothesis, there are quite a few significant dissenters.

In the 19th century the vast majority of biologists were convinced that Darwin was wrong about evolution. A vast majority of scientists and citizens, including most surgeons and doctors in the U.S., were united in dismissing Lister and Pasteur who claimed that invisible germs were causing infections and diseases. When I was teaching science in the 1960s and 70s, the vast majority of climatologists believed that a new ice age was coming.

Let’s concede that the world’s climate may get warmer in the 21st century. A crash program to slow or avert warming by drastically reducing our use of oil and other fossil fuels would cost many trillions of dollars with no firm assurance it would work. Such a crash program would cripple our present economy; throw millions of people worldwide out of work; dash the hopes of developing countries in their current leap out of poverty; cause worldwide famines and epidemics; and in general send the world back to an organic agricultural age on the uncertain extrapolations of that vast majority of scientists?

In fact if many radical ecological environmentalists are right, the world population will have to return to one billion (Paul Ehrlich says a half a billion) from the present seven billion? Which six (or twelve) of your family or friends do you want to sacrifice?

Compare that scenario to a possible increase in flooding of coastal zones and islands; a possible loss of some species of plants and animals (note recent satellite data showed the population of Emperor Penguins in the Antarctic was twice as large as previously predicted. The population of polar bears in the Arctic is also increasing); a change in rain patterns that will inhibit agriculture in some regions and promote it in others; an economic and population boom in northern latitudes; an increasing need for air-conditioning along with the decreasing need for heating in mid-latitudes; little change in predicted in the tropics; etc., etc.

You choose.

What about peak oil? Aren’t we going to run out in the near future?

In theory yes, eventually we will run out of oil and other fossil fuels. Back in 20th century experts often predicted we had only a few decades of oil left. Everything I read now indicates that the near future will be measured in centuries, not decades.

Does all of this mean we should not strive to increase our energy efficiency? Of course not. The whole story of our human progress from hunting/gathering through agricultural ages to the modern world is the story of increasing efficiency, of doing more with less. Capitalism and the free market are very good at doing that.

Does it mean we should not experiment with new renewable sources of energy and materials? Of course not. This too is the story of human progress and we have barely begun the search on earth, much less in the rest of the solar system. Capitalism and the free market are very good at that too.

Where is the most likely road ahead for human progress?

Damon Runyon noted that, “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet.” On the progress road government can help (or hinder). The free market is not always perfect, but that’s the way to bet.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. For more, much more, on this subject see my book, Twilight or Dawn: A Traveler’s Guide to Free-Market Liberal Democracy. Available on amazon.com or hawkhill.com.

Cannibalism and the New Age

Sunday, April 22nd, 2012

April 23, 2012

In the popular musical Sweeney Todd a disgruntled barber takes to slicing the throats of customers, trundling them down a trap door where his basement partner Mrs. Lovett chops them up to make tasty meat pies that become the hit thing in 19th century London.

Proving that truth is as strange as fiction, just a few weeks ago a trio from Brazil did a real-life version. Police say that Negromonte and Elizabeth Pires da Silveira and a mistress, Bruna da Silva, killed women and then used the bodies to make stuffed pastries known as empanadas that they sold to neighbors in their northeastern Brazil city. The cannibal entrepreneurs confessed that they planned to kill three women a year. They belonged to a sect that preached “the purification of the world and the reduction of its population.”

In Research News from Science magazine, Arizona State University bioarcheologist Christy G. Turner II found strong evidence in ancient bone yards that “cannibalism was practiced intensively for almost four centuries” in the Four Corners region where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah meet. This was in the Anasazi culture, “long thought to be one of the more peaceful Native American cultures.” The sub-head on the Science article read, “At digs around the world, researchers have unearthed strong new evidence that people ate their own kind from the early days of human evolution through recent prehistory.” The evidence is so strong Turner says, “I would bet a year of my salary on it.”

A popular book by anthropologist Carole Travis-Hentikoff, Dinner with a Cannibal: The Complete History of Mankind’s Oldest Taboo details more evidence that cannibalism not only was nearly universal in prehistoric times, it still is practiced in many natural regions of the world like the Amazon rainforests and some South Pacific islands.

Why bring this up the day after Earth Day?

Good question. Bear with me.

We are the product of our genes and memes (patterns, ideas, thoughts that pass from generation to generation) interacting with our environment. Some disagree but I think there is also a wild card—free will, “adding our increment of meaning to the not-quite-finished universe.”

We are living in the dawn of a new era on earth, the industrial-scientific-democratic one. This new era is a bit over two hundred years old. It began about the time our country was founded in the late 18th century. It was preceded by a ten thousand year agricultural age. Before that the earth had hundreds of thousands of years of Homo sapiens living and evolving in a prehistoric hunting/gathering age.

When agriculture was invented cannibalism declined dramatically but did not totally disappear. A propensity for violence is still a holdover from prehistoric times. So are fierce devotion to family, tribe and clan, and a concomitant suspicion of other families, tribes and clans. Memes about nature have also survived—alternating from abject fear to sublime awe. (These nature memes are important to religion and to environmentalism.)

You can see them all in modern mutations today. Some, like cannibalism have all but disappeared. Others, like a propensity for violence, have weakened considerably. Contrary to common opinion violence is far less today than it was in prehistoric times or in the agricultural age. For details see the recent book by Harvard psychologist Stephen Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

Loyalty to our own and concomitant suspicion of others is still with us, but like violence, is not as strong now. In hunting/gathering times you dared not stray into another tribes territory for fear of kidnapping or murder. In agricultural times zero-sum was still the economic rule and if you (your family, tribe, clan or kingdom) wanted more wealth the only choice was theft or war on your neighbors. Today we still love our own best. But most of the time most of us give credit and tolerance—if not friendship—to others. Whether they are an opposing sports team, a foreigner, or even (one of the last to go) a person of a different religion or color.

The attitude toward nature is still strong today but it too has mutated. We don’t fear nature as much as our early ancestors did. Where they might panic at the approach of a predator lion or wolf we rarely have occasion to fear non-human predators. Where they feared mysterious diseases and plagues that brought sudden pain and death, we routinely fool Mother Nature with doctors, hospitals, sanitary facilities and miracle drugs. Like our ancestors we do fear earthquakes, tornados, droughts, tsunamis and hurricanes, but not as much. Because science and industry have given us ways of coping—weather satellites to warn us; stronger shelters; faster and better ways of fleeing; ambulances, hospitals, power tools and machines if we get trapped; etc. etc.

We still have strong feelings of sublime awe when it comes to a gorgeous sunset, a pristine lake, a stunning landscape, beautiful birds or fellow mammals. This meme I think is a prime mover behind much of the environmental movement today. As such it is, on the whole, a good thing. It impels us to set aside large areas for parks, wildlife reservations and wilderness preserves. It motivates us to enact laws that protect endangered species; control hunting; prevent animal cruelty; etc. etc.

On the not so good side when converted into a secular religion it often overrides newer just-as-important memes today. For instance: we want ways to travel faster and more comfortably in automobiles and airplanes; we want a safer and more plentiful food supply for a growing population; a medical system to care for us when we get ill or have an accident; shelters that can keep the elements at arms length while providing more comfort; power for our homes and workplaces; a safer and more pleasant natural environment; etc. etc.

We know that unassisted nature does not always supply these new amenities. Wilderness is challenging and beautiful to visit, but not the way we want to live day-by-day. Organic means life, but we know now that we don’t have to let nature always have its way with us.

Our species has lived through hundreds of thousands of years of nature in the organic loveliness of the wild. As such nature, the natural way, has killed uncounted millions of our ancestors in periodic plagues, epidemics, earthquakes, tsunamis, and violent clashes. To their credit our Stone Age ancestors survived nature’s predations long enough to bequeath us some good (and bad) genes and some good (and bad) memes. It is our job today to improve the good and nullify the bad.

Recently, for instance—very recently—clever researchers created wonderful new molecules like Gleevec that nullified the bad genes and saved the lives of many leukemia patients including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and my wife Jane Denny. A few decades before researchers created new molecules and engineered new genes that helped crops grow better and kept weeds and vermin from destroying them, creating the cornucopia of food we enjoy today. Chemists and biologists created vaccines and antibiotics that effectively fought and destroyed nature’s killer bacteria and viruses. That’s not all. Researchers and entrepreneurs like Thomas Edison and John D. Rockefeller gave us electricity and oil. People like Henry Ford made automobiles affordable to help Homo sapiens become amazingly mobile, productive and wealthy.

You won’t hear much about them on Earth Day since Gleevec, fertilizers, genetically engineered plants and animals, herbicides, antibiotics, cancer drugs, vaccines, oil refineries, airplanes and automobiles are not natural, wild or organic. But they are earth-friendly if you consider people an important part of earth. Without doubt they help people avoid the poverty (and cannibalism) of our ancestors.

As Emma Marris, author of the new book Rambunctious Garden, says, “We’re in charge of where plants and animals are, whether intentionally or unintentionally. It’s our space that we’re landscaping now.” Or as Stewart Brand of the Whole Earth Catalog put it, “We are as gods and we might as well get good at it.”

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. For more, much more, on this subject see my book, Twilight or Dawn: A Traveler’s Guide to Free-Market Liberal Democracy. Available on amazon.com or hawkhill.com.

A Plethora of Bloopers

Sunday, April 15th, 2012

April 16, 2012

Did you know that “the Boston Tea Party was held at Pearl Harbor”?

Not my opinion. One the bloopers gathered by History Professor Anders Henriksson in an enlightingly hilarious book, Ignorance is Blitz: Mangled Moments of History from Actual College Students. He claims these are all direct quotes he collected from three decades of student tests and papers at colleges and universities in North America. He promised he did not cheat. “I don’t think anyone could make this up,” he says. “You’d have to be Mel Brooks or Woody Allen, and I’m not that clever.”

Read on and weep for the state of education in American colleges today.

“The airplane was invented and first flown by the Marx brothers.”

“Hitler’s instrumentality of terror was the Gespacho.”

“Plato invented reality. He was teacher to Harris Tuttle, author of the Republicans. Lust was a must for the Epicureans. Others were the Vegetarians and the Synthetics, who said, ‘If you can’t play with it, why bother?’”

The professor claims he collected these from public and private colleges, including City College of New York and the U.S. Military Academy. The latter may be where he got some of the military bloopers:

“Germany’s William II had a chimp on his shoulder and therefore had to ride his horse with only one hand.”

“The Germans took the bypass around France’s Marginal Line. This was known as the ‘Blitz Krieg.’”

“Corruption grew especially ripe in Zaire, where Mobutu was known to indulge in more than occasional little armadillo.”

“John F. Kennedy worked closely with the Russians to solve the Canadian Missile Crisis.”

“Americans wanted no involvement in the French and Indian war because they did not want to fight in India.”

History was bad enough. Economics, religion and English did not fare any better.

“The plurious of wealth was therefore uneven. The rural populous was reduced to tenement farming.”

“Good times ended when England suffered civil war between the Musketeers and the Round Ones.”

“Martin Luther Jr.’s famous ‘If I Had a Hammer’ speech.”

“Judyism (sic) is a monolithic religion with the god Yahoo.”

“Moses was told by Jesus Christ to lead the people out of Egypt in the Sahaira (sic) Desert. The Book of Exodus describes this trip … including the Ten Commandments, various special effects and the building of the Suez Canal.”

And then there is the blooper that an alert reader in Henrietta, NY sent me: “Saint Paul spread Christianity to the genitals.”

As a radio show from my youth might put it, “Tain’t funny McGee!” (Young readers can Google this quote.) The serious among us have to wonder about the quality of education in colleges and universities today.

These humorous bloopers may be exceptions but my own experiences with college students today are not encouraging. Students in medicine, engineering, mathematics and science seem to be doing okay, though I can’t help noticing how many are from foreign countries. In the humanities, education and social sciences there are  problems. A recent philosophy graduate I talked to had never heard of, much less read, Aristotle, Aquinas, Bertrand Russell or John Dewey. I understand many humanities majors at major universities have never taken a course in Shakespeare. Many colleges and universities today don’t even offer basic courses in Western Civilization or the U.S. Constitution. They do offer a smorgasbord of courses in Sustainable Society Issues, Women’s Studies, African Civilizations, Multicultural Literature, Introductions to Yoga, Jazz, Poker, and Sports Management.

The low level of knowledge exhibited by our college students today can’t all be blamed on educators though. In our understandable desire to foster more equality in education—and all other nooks and crannies of society for that matter—we forget that to succeed in college you need an above average IQ. Alas, we are not Lake Woebegone where all the children are above average.

It is not politically correct to talk or write about IQ. Nevertheless, as almost everyone recognizes, there are differences in intelligence among people. I am aware of strongly held dissenting opinions, but the vast majority of researchers tell us these differences can be roughly measured by IQ tests.

In order to benefit from a rigorous college education these experts say you should have an IQ of 115 or higher. Only about 15% of the American population falls into that group. Today about 45% of American youth attend college. Many of them do not graduate of course. Many do graduate but only by taking courses most people would not call challenging. Perhaps they are the ones responsible for most of the bloopers.

President Obama is pushing to increase college enrolment even more. Rick Santorum accused him of snob appeal and worse. That’s going too far. The President says he wants more young people to have post-high school training, not necessarily in a traditional four-year college. I agree. I question whether even graduating from high school is an absolute must for all. But that is another story.

Last Monday, for instance, there was an article in The New York Times decrying the drying up of funds to train the jobless. Atlas Van Lines came to a job center in Louisville, Kentucky, wanting to hire 100 truck drivers. The Atlas recruiter couldn’t fill the jobs because most of the unemployed did not have the skills needed to get a commercial truck driver’s license. To master those skills they would have had to take a course that cost $4000. They couldn’t afford this and the government job center did not have the funds to subsidize.

Why not take some of the money subsidizing college educations for the 30% of students with IQs inadequate to the challenges, and spend it instead on vocational job training like the example above? (I know that is politically unlikely but it is a good idea anyway.)

At the other end of the academic spectrum the high IQ folks who do succeed in college don’t make a plethora of bloopers (pithy words with faulty facts). But they are often prone to a plethora of high-foggers (excessive words with foggy facts). Like the ones who wrote the new report for the United Nations Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability. Here is a small sample:

“The United Nations University’s International Human Dimensions Program (UNU-IHDP) is already working to find these indicators for its “Inclusive Wealth Report” (IWR), which proposes an approach to sustainability based on natural, manufactured, human, and social capital. The UNU-IHDP developed the IWR with support from the United Nations Environment Program, to provide a comprehensive analysis of the different components of wealth by country, their links to economic development and human well-being, and policies that are based on social management of these assets.”

By my calculations this has a Gunning Fog Index of around 25. This means you would need 25 years of schooling to follow the drift. Not sure how high an IQ is needed to write these committee reports.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. My blogs (and my book) typically come in at about 9 or 10 on the Index (you need a 9th or 10th grade education to follow). We still have a stock of Fog Index posters that will give you the formula for calculating this Index. If you want a free copy email me and I will put a copy in the mail for you. billjane@hawkhill.com.

God’s country and garlic mustard

Sunday, April 8th, 2012

April 9, 2012

Easter and the Spring Equinox have come and gone. Earth Day is coming up. Wisconsin conservationists are working valiantly to stop the garlic mustard weed from taking over our woodlands and parks. Nature, God’s country, is in the news.

The common view is that nature at its best is wilderness. But does wilderness exist?

The Nature Conservancy, an environmental organization, appeals to people to donate money and land as a lasting legacy. As such they have been responsible for saving millions of acres of prime woodlands, wetlands and prairies for future generations to explore and enjoy.

In their most recent publication they included a surprise—“The Wilderness Myth”—an interview with Emma Marris, the author of the new book, Rambunctious Garden. Bob Lalasz, the Nature Conservancy blogger, asks her, “Your vision for nature, as a garden in which humans make decisions about what goes where. That’s going to raise the hackles of a lot of environmentalists, you know?”

She answers, “Yes. I decided to go for it and be provocative. Because the planet already is a garden, and we’re kidding ourselves if we don’t admit the depth of human influence over nature. We’re in charge of where plants and animals are, wither intentionally or unintentionally. It’s our space that we’re landscaping now.”

She takes seriously Bucky Fuller’s Spaceship Earth idea. Stewart Brand said much the same in the first edition of the Whole Earth Catalog, “We are as gods and we might as well get good at it.” The French environmental biologist, Rene Dubois, who coined the phrase “Think Globally, Act Locally,” in one of his books, The Wooing of Earth, praised the way European countries have tamed nature.

On the other side we have a long tradition, in this country especially, of wilderness idolatry.  From Henry David Thoreau to EarthFirst!, writers and some scientists have worshipped at the wilderness shrine. A recent documentary Life After People explains (in a subtly approving way) just how nature will take over after the demise of the human species. In an interview for our DVD series, Modern Biology, a young biologist at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago calls humans a “cancer” on the earth. Her view is not uncommon.

The Nature Conservatory interviewer says, “You’re advancing a radical idea—that people can make more or better nature than we have now. That goes against the usual paradigm of environmentalism, which assumes that nature left alone is the ideal, and we must defend it against the ravages of rampant development. How did you come to this idea?”

Marris answered, “I was never classically trained as either an ecologist or an environmentalist. I came to the ecology and conservation beat [as a correspondent] at Nature as an outsider. I also had a childhood where I spent a lot of time in really crappy ecosystems and had a ball in badly maintained city parks and third growth forests—and it just never occurred to me that I wasn’t in nature.”

I too had a childhood (in the depression days of the 1930s) where I spent a lot of time in vacant lots, suburban back yards and city parks. One of my favorite hobbies was making make-believe villages out of sand, dirt and sticks in the crappy vacant lot next to our parochial grade school. To me this was nature. It never occurred to me that Dayton, Ohio wasn’t God’s country as well.

As an adult I have been able to travel and to see many wild areas from Rocky Mountain slopes and California deserts to Brazilian rain forests and African prairies. These too are God’s country. But none qualifies as pristine, untouched-by-man wilderness.

In all of the wild areas I have visited the most common complaint from local environmentalists is that recent introductions of non-native species and the subsequent loss of native species leads to a decline in ecosystem quality. In Wisconsin settlers from Europe brought with them carp for food, garlic mustard for medicine, zebra mussels (by mistake), and thousands of other plants, animals, bacteria, viruses and who knows what. Many of these did degrade the ecosystems.

But not all. How about the imported corn (from Mexico), wheat and barley (from the Middle East)? Or cattle, sheep, pigs, and horses—none of them native to North America? Go back a few thousand years and biodiversity and ecosystem quality gets even more confusing.

We moderns are not the first to threaten wilderness. Marris points out that Native Americans were guilty of species genocide, sending countless plant and animal species to extinction. “In the neighborhood of 13,000 to 14,000 years ago the Americas lost a slew of large beasts, including wild horses, mammoths, mastodons, sixteen groups of ground sloth, the glyptodont (something like a four-thousand-pound angry tortoise with a spike mace for a tail), short-faced bears that would make a polar bear look puny, camels, saber-tooth tigers, lions, and cheetahs. … Many scientists believe that humans killed them.”

She details evidence that this was true of ancient ecosystems in Europe, Asia, Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, South America—in fact everywhere on earth. Of course humans were not that special. Long before Homo sapiens came on the scene the earth has been in constant change. Continents drifting, mountains rising, volcanoes erupting, climates changing, and millions of plant, animal and microorganism species competing, evolving, creating and destroying.

So where does that leave us with the God’s country we call wilderness?

Confused?

A do-nothing policy is not the answer. I am suggesting, with Marris, that we need to take more seriously our role as earth’s caretaker. We do live on a spaceship and like it or not nowadays we are in charge. Wilderness, in the sense of nature untouched by human hands and minds, is a myth and often a pernicious one. That doesn’t mean we should not try to conserve the relatively wild ecosystems we do have. Organizations like The Nature Conservancy deserve credit for leading the way to do just that.

This is necessary, but not sufficient. We still need common sense. Human beings are natural, too. Our needs, our products and our goals are, at minimum, as important as any other part. Using biological controls to keep pest species from doing damage is a good idea. Using organic fertilizer is also a good idea. But so is using laboratory designed chemicals for the same purposes a good idea. These human-made chemicals are just as natural and organic (made by living organisms called men and women) as the chemicals that bacteria, bugs and cow dung produce.

We should not slavishly follow any dogma, including a natural organic one. Wild natural things are good. Usually, not always. So are productive mines, oil wells, shopping centers, houses, pipelines, power plants, dams, cities, railroads, autos, etc. Usually, not always. How different are these human products from the nests, dams, dens or mines that birds, beavers, badgers, ants and bees construct? All are natural. All are organic.

If and when climate change happens (and inevitably it will change whether caused by our activities or other natural forces) we can and should help plants and animals, including ourselves, move and adapt to the new climate conditions. As the technology of genetic engineering advances, we can even take the lead in bringing back extinct species of selected plants and animals. We are as gods and we might as well get good at it.

In short I am preaching a more inclusive view of nature—a God’s country where humans and their multifaceted productions are not opposed to nature, but are a working part of nature, with a leadership role. A song Judy Garland used to sing in my youth has the right idea.

Hi there neighbor, Going my way,

East or West on the Lincoln Highway?

Hi there, Yankee, Give out with a great big thank-ee

You’re in God’s Country

Where smiles are broader, Freedom greater.

Every man is his own dictator.

Hi there Yankee, Give out with a great big thank-ee,

You’re in God’s Country.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. We have many DVD programs that explore in more detail the Spaceship Earth point of view. Try first the original Spaceship Earth, our first production. You can get it on amazon.com or on hawkhill.com.

Cuba Libre and three old men

Sunday, April 1st, 2012

April 2, 2012

Cuba Libre is a drink—rum and coca cola. Good idea. It also means Free Cuba. Good idea. The Pope, Fidel Castro and I are the same age. Not-so-good fact. Three old men with ideas, some good and some not-so-good.

The Pope was in Cuba last week preaching Free Cuba. A few years ago Jane and I were drinking Cuba Libres as tourists.

For us the good news from Cuba was the people we met. They were friendly, generous, literate, and in good health. We did not see any homeless people. We did not see any pickpocketing, violence, crime, protests or riots. Health care and education seemed to be widely available to everyone at no cost. All these positives were not always true of our visits to other developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The bad news is that the people we met in Cuba were very poor. The standard wage when we visited in the late 90s was the equivalent of $16 a month (I understand it has increased to $19 a month in 2012). This was not the average, but the only wage. Brain surgeons, teachers, plumbers and laborers all get the same salary—$16 a month.

Food, shelter, health care and education are all cheap—often free. The state takes care of the basic needs of everyone. No greedy rich. No starving poor. A radical zero-sum solution to inequality, the issue that is presently vexing most democratic capitalist countries and most fast developing capitalist-leaning countries like Brazil, Mexico, China and India.

One trade-off to Cuba’s solution is severe restrictions on freedom. Anyone who objects to Big Brother can emigrate to Florida or be welcomed in prison.

Other trade-offs to this infantilization are unpleasant. Housing is universal and nearly free—and universally wretched. Food is very cheap—but rationed and very limited in choice. Health care is universal and free and apparently okay—unless you happen to be gay or mentally ill. If so, you can expect prison or a lobotomy rather than freedom or responsible medical care. Education is universal and free—but censorship severely limits your access to books, magazines, electronic communications, and the Internet. No matter how educated, you can look forward to the same wage, $16 a month.

Maintenance is atrocious. In Havana over 90% of the beautiful Old Spanish style apartment houses and office buildings were literally falling apart—but occupied! New buildings were few and far between.

There are no traffic problems, because few people own cars. Our cab driver had been a lawyer. He told us that every lawyer in his office got the same salary no matter how effective, incompetent or lazy. He left to drive a cab. The harder he worked, the more tips he made. Many doctors, lawyers, teachers and other professionals in Cuba do the same—become taxi drivers, waiters or prostitutes to get tips in dollars. Pesos, no way.

Following the lead of the Soviet Union, Cuba has a complicated distribution system. Tourists and some high level government bureaucrats can buy food, liquor, clothing, and luxury goods at special stores. In these stores the selections are close to what you would get at big-box stores in Europe or America. When we visited in the late 1990s prices were high and payment was in dollars. Pesos, no way.

We did visit food stores that accepted pesos. They were pitiful. Typically these stores for the ordinary citizens were in severely run-down buildings and had a few bags of beans and rice, a few generic cans, and occasionally a fresh pineapple or chicken. Period. The food here was cheap, very cheap. It was also rationed.

Similarly, apartment rents were very cheap. Presumably no one went homeless. Tourist rooms were okay but here is the way a Cuban writer, Pedro Juan Gutiérrez, describes his housing in Havana: “I went back to my room on the roof with its common bathroom, the most disgusting bathroom in the world, shared by fifty neighbors who multiply like rabbits since most of them are from the east of the island. They come to Havana in clumps, fleeing poverty … And somehow they all live in a twelve-foot-square room … Each day no fewer than two hundred people shit, pee, and wash in that bathroom.”

Prostitution is common. Families are so short of money that they routinely send their daughters (and their sons) into the street to find foreign tourists who will give them dollars for sex.

Defenders of the Cuban revolution in America like to point to the statistical gains in health and education that Castro’s regime has achieved. According to the usually reliable British news magazine The Economist, “Cuban statistics are incomplete, inconsistent and often questionable. But in a lifetime’s detective work Carmelo Mesa Lago at the University of Pittsburgh has calculated that output per head of 15 out of 22 main agricultural and industrial products was dramatically lower in 2007 than it had been in 1958.” That was the year Castro took over. (If readers want to check on the confusing statistical picture of Cuba from 1958 to the 21st century I recommend an article in the Fordham International Law Review by Berta Esperanza Herna ́ndez Truyol.)

Cuba is the only Caribbean country whose population is falling. Food is scarce. Medicines are scarce. Autos are rare, mostly antiquated 1950 vintage Chevys or Buicks. Buses exist but are often out of service due to chronic maintenance problems. Many times we saw workers packed onto open trucks going to jobs in the countryside and cities. Factories are often shut down due to lack of parts or shortage of energy. The air above Havana, with nasty smoke from nearby oil refineries, resembles the worst of Pittsburgh in the 1940s.

The Castro brothers blame the U.S. embargo for their poverty. Raúl Castro says that Cuba had to import 80% of the food it consumed between 2007 and 2009. He doesn’t mention that,  “75% of the farming land is held by the state and some 45% of this land is lying idle, much of it overrun by marabú, a tenacious weed.”

The embargo gives Castro a powerful excuse for the failures. If we were wise we would end it soon and take away this excuse. A much more likely cause of the failures is abysmal productivity. GDP per capita in Cuba is very low compared to other Caribbean Islands, or to Cuba itself before the revolution.

The Economist claims (this was our experience as well), “most Cuban workers do not work very hard at their official jobs. People tend to stand around chatting or conduct long telephone conversations with their mothers. They also routinely pilfer supplies from their workplace: that is what keeps the informal economy going.”

What warning flags does Cuba’s experience have for us?

The Economist highlights their special issue on Cuba with the headline “Cuba hurtles toward capitalism.” Like China and India, Cuba recently turned a corner—slightly—toward free markets and capitalist ideas in order to improve production and create more wealth. Castro announced last year that they were laying off over a million government workers, hoping they would find employment in a miniscule but—he hopes—growing private sector.

We are a long way from a totalitarian socialist state like Cuba but we can learn from Cuban mistakes. Over the past 54 years they have tested an extreme version of the popular welfare state in Europe and in the U.S. It is easy to see the unpleasant side effects in Cuba. With the more moderate versions in Europe and the U.S. it is not as easy. But they too are warning us now of financial and moral bankruptcy if we go too far in promoting government largess and neglect vigorous entrepreneurial wealth creation.

The Pope says we should look to religion. Fidel says we should stick to socialism. This old man says we can have both freedom and community. We just need to find a way. (Personally I think politicians like Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan and libertarian thinker Charles Murray have some good ideas. Maybe readers of this blog have better ones.)

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. In my own capitalist way I urge you to consider the big picture in my recent book, Twilight or Dawn: A Traveler’s Guide to Free-market Liberal Democracy. You can get it on amazon.com or on hawkhill.com.