Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Time to Phase Out the Wildland-Urban Interface

The Waldo Canyon Fire from our east side Colorado Springs neighborhood in 2012.

The almost non-stop catastrophic conflagrations in California, and continuing wildlife conflicts in many areas around the United States are two reasons to re-think what has become known as the wildland-urban interface. The desire of some people to live in wild areas without assuming any of the risks inherent in such locations is going to bankrupt many jurisdictions if trends continue.

Furthermore, entire ecosystems could be permanently compromised as fires, mudslides, and other natural disasters leave few if any pockets of intact forest as refugia for wildlife. Healthy forests are a spectrum of habitats from meadows with a few seedling trees to old growth stands of ancient conifers. Forests periodically change through low grade fires that burn out understory vegetation without becoming crown fires that devastate mature trees. Browsing by deer and the herbivorous activities of insects also effect the structure of forests. Changes in ecosystems from meadows to mature forests represent the phenomenon of "succession," but it is very much a non-linear process. It is cyclical, and interruptions can happen at any stage.

Construction of human habitations fragments forests, taking parcels out of succession entirely, and permanently. Even after horrendous wildfires, we vow to rebuild. We are told to mitigate future fires by de-vegetating wide swaths around buildings. Sure, this protects our private property, but the public domain surrounding you is also compromised by having a reduction in the geographic continuity forest ecosystems. The result is islands of natural forest in a sea real estate managed for human habitation, logging, and recreation.

Risks of land ownership in forests, especially in mountainous regions, abound. They are only going to increase with climate change, and every event is likely to be more severe than the last. Not long ago, the City of Colorado Springs faced demands from private landowners in the foothills for compensation due to severe erosion. Foundations were slipping and cracking, and homes were potentially going to slide off the hillsides. This should be the kind of risk assumed solely by those landowners. If you cannot afford to personally cope with potential catastrophe, then you have no business living there.

During my time living in Tucson, Arizona, we endured an enormous blaze (two fires that fused) that burned most of the back side (north side) of the Santa Catalina mountains north of town. I could see flames coming down the south slope from the balcony of my apartment. Once the fire was extinguished, foothills residents soon began experiencing an influx of wildlife including bears and cougars that were deprived of food and habitat by the fire. Mountain lions in particular posed a threat to pets, and to hikers in the heavily-used Sabino Canyon Recreation Area. Arizona Game & Fish announced they would be closing the area and using lethal force on the cats. This raised such strenuous objections from citizens that they ultimately tranquilized two animals and turn them over to a sanctuary facility in another town.

This is the kind of corner we have painted ourselves into by insisting on the continued existence of the wildland-urban interface: Everyone wanting to live there, no one willing to assume the risks. All the risks are borne by the public at large, regardless of their personal level of affluence, through increased taxes. Valuable resources are used to combat natural disasters, the lives of first responders put at undo risk, and the fabric of natural ecosystems shredded, all because there are people who don't want to live in the city.

They want to flaunt their wealth, and have that stunning view. Maybe they want to be seen, be an example of what we are all supposed to aspire to: the dream home, with neighbors miles away, the ultimate in seclusion and privacy. Those of us in the city are supposed to have a view of their homes interrupting the majestic mountain skyline.

Did I go over the top there? Perhaps, but what we need is to reach consensus on what we will tolerate in terms of what is best for the common good. Right now we assign vastly higher values to private property than public good, and it is costing us dearly every time we respond to a fire, landslide, or wildlife encounter that ends badly. The time to re-assess was yesterday.

Smoke from the Black Forest Fire looming north of our Colorado Springs neighborhood in 2013.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Pulling the Lever, Filling the Oval

© HelloGiggles.com

Watching the news coverage of the election returns Tuesday night, and the aftermath on social media, one thing struck me above all talk of a "blue wave" and the advancement of women and minorities in politics. What was graphically exposed once again were the shortcomings of the election process, from redistricting to faulty voting machines, to long lines, severe or substantially inclement weather, and inaccessibility of polling locations. All of this is inexcusable for a country that purports to be a democracy.

Interestingly, if not ironically, many states took steps to improve the election system, through measures that were on their ballots. Florida granted former felons the right to vote, unless they committed a sex crime or murdered someone. Here in Colorado, we overwhelmingly approved Amendments Y and Z to the state constitution, creating unbiased citizen committees to draw the districting maps in a fashion that does not favor one political party over another. We did that via mail-in or drop-off ballot voting. Wow, what a concept, to dispense with the archaic polling locations, at a time of year when we could have a Rocky Mountain blizzard on election day.

Back in the day (whenever "the day" was, it is all relative I suppose), there may have been good reasons for each state, or even county, to set up its own election day procedures, draw district maps the way they did, register voters, and otherwise service a largely sedentary, if not rural, population of the electorate. There are some aspects of our culture that do well to recognize and follow history, however ancient, but voting should not be one of them. Today, with our mobile society, we desperately need standardization of election rules. You should be able to arrive in your new state and county of residence and know exactly how to register yourself to vote, including exactly what pieces of identification are required, on the first try, minimal hoops to jump through.

Once you are registered, you should not have to worry about where to report to exercise your right to vote. Mail-in ballots should be the norm. Why? You have plenty of time to go over your ballot, and do your due diligence in researching the candidates and issues. You need not concern yourself with the weather on election day. You do not need to fear that you will show up at the wrong polling place, or that it will be closed, or there will be long lines....I understand the appeal of exercising your civic duty socially, in public, but this method is now being exploited by nefarious parties to advance agendas not endorsed by the electorate. Time to rectify that.

No voting system is going to be foolproof, nor impervious to hackers nor immune to other glitches of technology and human error, but evidence and repeated experience suggests that voting machines cannot be trusted, especially when their manufacturers are in bed with one political party.

Then there is enduring hostile poll workers who take it upon themselves to harass voters, if not outright evict them from polling locations. Frankly, there should be minimal requirements for identification, and of course mail-in ballots again dispense with this kind of confrontation. Voting should not be stressful, let alone embarrassing or demeaning. All of that can take place on Facebook or Twitter. I'm kidding, there is no place for that kind of....attitude.

It should not be obvious that your particular voting district(s) lean toward one party or another, and your suspicions should be aroused if the district has a long history of domination by either Republicans or Democrats. I'm not even sure why we need so many districts, or why they are independent of, say, school districts. The geography of politics these days amounts to urban versus rural, and that divide needs to heal as quickly as possible, too. Our collective dialogue, when it comes to candidates and governing policy, needs to refrain from legislating morality and concentrate instead on addressing needs common to all citizens regardless of whether they live in a suburb or on a farm.

Gerry needs to stop mandering, and realize that democratic elections cannot take place when you rig the system. "But we've always done it this way" is now a euphemism for racism, bigotry, voter suppression, and a last gasp at preserving a status quo that is circumventing the will of the People. Yes, it is that plain and simple, like how voting should be.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Coming Out Versus Sticking Your Head in the Sand (or Elsewhere)

© WafflesAtNoon.com

Thursday, October 11, 2018 marked National Coming Out Day, a recognition and celebration of the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and queer) community. Hard on the heels of that comes proposed legislation to define citizens as either male or female based entirely on their genitalia. Here, friends, we have manufactured division, stoked hatred, and utter ignorance of the realities of our times.

Originally, I had intended to write about my own reaction to Coming Out Day, which would have been friendly enough, but with some trepidation about getting personal pronouns wrong and the embarrassment of unfamiliarity with a whole new vocabulary of categories from the LGBTQ community. While I will share those struggles here, I have absolute disgust for the news that our federal government administration wants to....relieve us of this terrible societal burden of adapting to a new gender landscape.

When I was single, I would sometimes be hit on by gay men. I was not appreciative of that and firmly communicated such, though often the other person would smile in a "knowing" way that I found offensive. I do not consider myself homophobic in any sense, but I did find those episodes a painful reminder of how unsuccessful I was at initiating my own relationships with women. That is where my anger came from. I have also hit on lesbian women in the past and found that to be a demoralizing experience, too. In retrospect, I admire the courage it took for all of those people to communicate their own orientations at a time when it could be life-threatening to do so.

Flash forward to today. I'm glad we have Coming Out Day, and I completely respect however you choose to identify yourself. I think identities of all sorts are a HUGE deal, and I can understand if someone feels the need to assert theirs, especially if it has been oppressed, repressed, or simply unrecognized for so long. Hell, I finally identified myself as "writer" after decades of self-denial.

That said, I hope you will be patient with those of us who grew up in a time when there were still only two recognized genders, and we pretty much assumed everybody was straight. In many ways I feel I have suddenly landed on a completely different planet with all of this non-binary, a-gender, asexual, cis-....vocabulary that I have frankly not given time to learning. I am deathly afraid that if I address someone by an incorrect pronoun that I will be viewed as a bigot, or otherwise insensitive. The one thing that provokes me to anger more than anything is looking like I'm stupid.

I say all of this to be honest, and possibly preemptive. It turns out I have a lot of friends who fall into these "new" categories and I feel like I am now walking on eggshells. Doesn't change the fact I love them all. After all, I tend to make friends based on the person's behavior, values, non-sexual interests, and ability to communicate honestly and unambiguously.

There, I feel better now.....Wh-a-a-a-t?! Our U.S. President wants to draft legislation to define our identities based on our genitalia at birth? In the context of my current understanding of "freedom," this is about the most limiting legislation I could possibly dream up. It is totally political and has zero place in an evolving society. It is wishful thinking on the part of some unenlightened parties who long for "the good 'ol days." I think they call these people reactionaries.

You cannot stick your head in the sand when the cat is out of the bag. Sorry, didn't mean to mix metaphors, but you get my drift. We should be standing united in the face of such manufactured social divisions. They are all designed to distract, so that we fail to see the Wealthy White Male Privilege behind the curtain stealing our money, our freedoms, our rights, and our dignity. We are not divided, but we let them TELL us we are, and then we go and believe it in the face of all the contrary evidence. That is the ultimate fake news.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

The Friends We Never Meet and the Ones That We Neglect

The other day my Facebook newsfeed blew up with remembrances of someone who I never met, or even "friended," but who clearly mattered to all my associates in the birding community. People who watch birds take it seriously, but empathy for one another runs deep among them. When one of them passes it reverberates like the the call of a raven throughout their circle. It got me thinking, long and hard, about who in my world might be slipping away.

One of the friends of the deceased shared a poem by her departed friend. The poem was about how we frame mental illness as it relates to artists. I suspect that this women suffered herself from depression and was frustrated by how society sees that anguish as somehow necessary in producing masterpiece paintings, novels, and other works, yet a self-imposed weakness in everybody else. It was a powerful piece of writing.

I clearly missed out by not having known this lady. I feel anger and guilt that I had never even heard of her until she was gone, and I no longer had any options. This is the one aspect of social media that I find excruciating, a "so close yet so far" phenomenon. I mean, I suppose I could "friend" her still, and have the archive of her posts to look back on, but it would be somehow empty, you know? One cannot be everywhere at once, even in the digital age. So many people will still not connect with you, nor you with them.

The irony is that social media isn't about you, nor is it about the next person you connect to, it is about we, and making more "we" as it were. It is about moments of clarity, like that poem, moments of sorrow like that day, and moments of joy, which is of course what all artists leave us with regardless of their medium.

Meanwhile, the flip side of all your friends on social media are the ones neglected because they don't do Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or whatever the next new platform will be. They are left in digital dust when we fail to pick up the phone, or a pen, and call or write like we know we should. Inertia kicks in, along with its best buddy guilt, and then we never get around to it, despite our own nagging impulses. Right?

Well, today I did it. I e-mailed my best friend (aside from my wife), and just flat-out apologized. I did not beg forgiveness, but granted permission for him to hate me for my abandonment of him. Of course I got an immediate reply whereby he essentially expressed that he was no better at reaching out, and that we should indeed talk soon. I had expected as much but also do not take the let's-pick-up-where-we-left-off shrug of let-bygones-be-bygones for granted, either. Life is short, complicated, conflicted, and otherwise tumultuous, prone to sudden finalities. No, I will leave him no doubt that I love him like the brother I never had.

Carl is a generous, dependable gentleman, with a wit and sense of humor that would make him a great stand-up comic if he ever wanted to be. The stories I could tell. Mostly, he just makes everyone around him comfortable and happy. I cannot imagine a greater legacy or example. He was like a second son to my mother, too, and looked in on her in my out-of-state absence, which was from 1988 to when she passed in 2014. Yet, here I have been, going on about my "business" daily and, albeit several states away, not paying him near the respect that he deserves. That changes now and changes permanently. It also gets me thinking about who else I have ignored who deserves better.

Some people are artists with brushes, pens, chisels, cameras, or even computers, but the raw medium is still life itself, and it is those rare individuals who sculpt our personal realities that matter most to us. We cannot let them fall by the wayside because their comfort zone is still where it probably should be for all of us, grounded in the tangible and not in the "cloud." Someday we will look up from our devices and find them vanished because we haven't been paying proper attention. Someday we ourselves will draw the line at the next big thing, fearing for our privacy or unable to afford the technology, or whatever other roadblock clips us neatly from society as we know it, like a feather molted from a bird.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

An Unholy Alliance

We have seen lengthy television commercials recently here in Colorado Springs that advertise the new partnership between Girl Scouts of America and Raytheon. I get it, everything has to be about girls in science careers, and STEM in general (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). Still, the GSA could have found a better ally.

Raytheon came onto my radar back in 2001 or so as the second Gulf War was ramping up. I was living in Tucson, Arizona at the time and participating in anti-war protests with some regularity. Raytheon has a facility on the southern outskirts of town. They make missiles there. The company announced last May that it will be expanding its Tucson location to the tune of $550 million. Raytheon is the largest employer in southern Arizona and as such was rewarded with a five million dollar grant from the state to help with the upgrade.

There were persistent claims that Raytheon was using depleted uranium in their missile products during the second Gulf War, making them essentially radioactive weapons. That is not the only controversy that has plagued the company over the years, with problems ranging from environmental issues to workplace diversity concerns, and inflation of federal defense contracts (surprise, surprise). Raytheon may claim in their television commercials with the Girl Scouts that they want to basically "make America safe again," but their history is one of warfare and the death and destruction that results from it. Yes, they use science, but to what end? The company is the ultimate poster child for the military-industrial complex.

Apparently, the Girl Scouts of America are just fine with all of this, probably because Raytheon has money to burn. Raytheon gets to wrap itself up in feel-good sentiments provided by the warm fuzzies we get from the GSA. What is not to love? Do we not all look forward to cookie season, feeding our tummies while warming our hearts and minds with the knowledge that we are spending in support of a great cause? There is nothing but an upside for Raytheon as it greenwashes itself.

Could the Girl Scouts not find a corporation with a more peaceful platform? What about partnering with a telecommunications giant, or renewable energy conglomerate, or some other enterprise that reflects optimism for the future and has an explicit mission that reflects public interest instead of private affluence and "security" for the wealthy few? Did they bother calling Oprah Winfrey for suggestions? How about Elon Musk? Bill Gates? Richard Branson? Ted Turner?

Yes, we need better cybersecurity, and to be able to defend our own country at home, but we are mostly exporting our weapons and defense technologies to the highest bidder, under an administration that is actively spurning involvement with our traditional alliances like NATO and the UN. The ramifications seem obvious: We will have less and less national and global security as our defense contractors get greedier and greedier, their morals eroding as their profits skyrocket.

At least one friend has suggested that the marriage of Raytheon and the Girl Scouts may not be the worst thing. As women ascend the corporate ladder, she suggests, the sphere of female influence will expand (hopefully), leading to a more humanitarian approach to profit-making, backing away from the idea that there is no profit in peace. I wish I were as optimistic. I wish we had the time for a rise in the power of compassionate women.

Interestingly, the Boy Scouts of America recently decided to admit girls to their ranks. It will be telling if the GSA starts losing membership to the BSA as a result of the decision to partner with Raytheon. Not that the BSA has a history devoid of controversy, either, but now girls have a choice in organizations that can foster their future careers. Maybe both organizations will begin to fizzle and we will see a surge in participation in Junior Achievement, 4-H, Future Farmers of America, and similar clubs that lack the baggage of scouting. Maybe kids will just keep playing soccer, Little League, and video games instead.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

A Supreme Injustice

© edition.cnn.com

Many people are outraged over the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, and perhaps rightly so, but the real injustice is not who was appointed, but the way in which the process of confirmation was conducted. It does not bode well for the future of the country when the justice system itself becomes entrenched in politics and agenda-setting.

I am old enough to vaguely remember the Anita Hill hearings that dragged out the eventual confirmation of Justice Clarence Thomas. I am grateful to Hill for her courage and personal conduct during an excruciating process. I am also grateful for the fact that the televised hearings pre-empted my own appearance on The Jerry Springer Show, back when it was produced in Cincinnati and had not yet become the totally dysfunctional mess it is today. In retrospect, it was still a trap production, and more on that later. The point here is that when President George H.W. Bush appointed Justice Thomas, there still was a process of confirmation, a clear path that everyone followed with respect for the....law.

Contrast those events of 1991 with recent trends in filling Supreme Court vacancies. Fresh in our collective minds is the Republican refusal to allow President Barack Obama to fill a vacancy near the end of his term. Forget respect for the process, Mitch McConnell and friends flat-out suspended the process, blocking all attempts to even hold confirmation hearings for nominee Merrick Garland. That this refusal to participate in the process was not illegal, never mind unethical, boggles the mind. From announcement of his nomination to his Senate confirmation, Justice Thomas' process extended from July 1, 1991 to October 15, 1991. Months. MONTHS.

We could argue forever as to whether Anita Hill had credibility, whether her testimony had any effect in swaying some Senate votes, or even whether the effects of Justice Thomas' appointment changed the Supreme Court for better or worse. What we cannot argue is that the process was adhered to, was executed with civility and decorum, and with respect for the justice system. All of that went out the window with this latest sorry excuse for a "process."

There is wild speculation as to why the hurry-hurry rush-rush to get Kavanaugh on the bench. One claim that probably does carry some weight is that President Trump needs a powerful ally in undermining the investigation into Russian influence on the 2016 elections. It is not much of a leap to suggest that this is a "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" arrangement, with the added benefit that a now highly conservative Supreme Court is not likely to oppose gun rights, or support rights to birth control, or take a liberal stance on other critical issues that could come before its bench. Still, there is no excuse for conducting confirmation hearings with such recklessness, and complete disrespect for people who claim to be victims of the nominee's prior behaviors. Kavanaugh's conduct during the hearings should raise serious questions about his fitness for a position that demands the ultimate in professionalism.

I am taken back to The Jerry Springer Show again. I was to be on a panel of adult children of divorce. I'd already been on Donahue, so had faith in the process of television production. I can say truthfully that Phil Donahue did his homework, and had no real agenda but truth, compassion, and respect. Jerry Springer's staff wanted conflict, victim roles, and ratings. You, as a guest, were expected to comply. Donahue's process was honest and respectful. Springer's show was coercive and basically ambush "journalism."

This latest Supreme Court confirmation was not process. It was theatre. It did not even pretend to have the best interests of the nation at heart. The President is still fixated on "ratings," and this was his latest show. Hell, Rosanne Barr might have made a better nominee in that case. The citizenry knows better, the difference between entertainment and distraction and the very real repercussions of hastily-drafted personnel to places of great power. We, the people, will remember this, your disdain for process and civil conduct.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Redistributing Wealth

Have you ever noticed that those who object most strenuously to the notion of redistribution of wealth are those who benefit from the status quo? Their hostility is espoused mostly from the pedestal of White Privilege, from offices on Wall Street, and it echoes through the halls of private mansions and country clubs. The ultimate source of their anger is, of course, guilt. They know they got where they are because of the toil of others. They are reaping their profits from uneducated consumers who fall for marketing campaigns. Their expenses are for lobbyists in Congress, if they have not paid outright for a Senator or Representative. Ironically, they have engineered a redistribution of wealth to themselves, so the idea of the reverse is repugnant.

We have had a redistribution of wealth for centuries. Slavery. The gender wage gap. Mass incarceration of minorities. Minimum wage. Credit that leads to bankruptcy. Failure to provide affordable healthcare and housing. Food deserts. Gerrymandering. Voter suppression. Government subsidies to corporations. Industry bailouts. Offshore banking. Tax breaks on investments. You don't think any of this has had an impact on who becomes wealthy? Really?

For our part as laborers and consumers, we yearn for financial freedom, still clinging to the belief that a bright future is all up to us as individuals, still pursuing the white picket fence and two-car garage. Society, we are told, gives you the freedom to do whatever it takes to get wherever you want to go. Yes, there are still some ways to attain wealth from the ground up, if you choose the "right" career, take advantage of existing financial structures for which it helps to be already wealthy....Where is the freedom in that?

If you do not believe we need measures in place to level the financial playing field, then you are either a diehard capitalist who cares not one whit about anybody but themselves, or you have bought into the fictitious idea that if you merely work hard you can still amass great wealth by climbing the ladder of success. Hogwash. We no longer have a Middle Class. We have not had that for quite some time. What we have is a Debt Class masquerading as the Middle Class. It is an illusion based on credit and other forms of borrowing. Our "portfolio" is a job, check cashing establishments, and the lottery. Ok, maybe two jobs or even three.

The ultimate question, of course, is why are we aspiring to personal material wealth in the first place. Who does that benefit except you, your family if you have one, and your heirs if you have children? Do you really want that small a sphere of influence? Dream bigger. Dream beyond money. Cultivate the currency of generosity instead of selfishness.

The solution to our enormous prosperity gap must come from both ends. Yes, to obliterate poverty the very wealthy must give up a substantial portion of their wealth. The remainder of the financial spectrum must cease to pursue the amassing personal material wealth as a goal. The new American Dream needs to be one of inclusion, with goals beyond ourselves such as renewable energy, preservation of biodiversity, acceptance (not mere tolerance) of alternative lifestyles, the abolishment of hate speech, enactment of affordable healthcare and housing, a return to small scale agriculture, and other communal and social endeavors. These are the things we need to commit to, not to our financial planner's idea of personal financial security, as if there is such a thing. Self-reliance is just a fancy synonym for pride, and putting pride as a priority has never ended well.

You want something to aspire to? How about this. How about we aspire to be like people who have lost everything material. People who have been through tornadoes, or hurricanes, or earthquakes, or fires, or even stock market crashes, who come back even stronger after the devastation because they know what really matters is not status or wealth but character and love and all those things you cannot measure in economic terms. Let us be like those who have been wronged, been cheated on, been scammed, been victims of violent crime, who come out of that trauma and still manage to trust other human beings. Let's be like that: all heart, soul, and empathy.