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THE OZONE CHRONICLES; HISTORY REPEATING AS TRAGEDY

Joe Farnam, the dogged, data-driven discoverer of the ozone hole, died in 2013, three years before publication of findings showing that the ozone layer, which protects life on earth from UV radiation, has finally started to recover. This nascent recovery comes 42 years after atmospheric chemists fir...

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VITAMIN C FOR OUR FEEBLE RECOVERY


Thursday April 10, 2014

[THIS ESSAY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN QUARTZ]

As our feeble recovery shambles on, the question arises as to whether the United States economy is being dragged down by forces, some decades in the making, beyond the power of central banks and policymakers to reverse. Workers, for instance, have found their bargaining power eroded by the twin threats of offshoring and automation with the result that real median household income is lower than it was in 1989, and the median American worker earns no more in 2013 than he or she did in 1979.  Most Americans simply do not have the spending power to drive a robust recovery.  An even longer-term, and more provocative, perspective comes from Northwestern University economist Robert Gordon. He argues that it is not so much that the recovery is weak, but that prior growth was an anomaly, a one-time hundred-year surge fueled by the Industrial Revolution, and which began to fade in the 1960s and will not be repeated.

Even if Gordon is right, there is still hope. There may yet be more tricks left in the Industrial Revolution. Take energy for instance. In the early 20th century, fossil fuels came to so utterly dominate the energy mix that innovation in alternative forms of energy, flourishing in the early years of the last century, went into a coma for 80 years from which it only began to emerge in recent decades. Energy innovation has the heft and breadth (the United States spends about $1.2 trillion on energy each year, 82% of which goes to fossil fuels) to power a whole new phase of economic growth. To see this opportunity, however, requires a shift in focus from the perspective Gordon offers.

Gordon presented his argument in an influential 2012 paper he wrote for the National Bureau of Economic Research (the institution that has the last word on when recessions start and end) titled, “Is US Economic Growth Over?” The paper produced a storm of comment, much critical, among economists in the blogosphere. It's easy to see why. Gordon notes that for most of the Christian Era there was little or no growth in the West. Then, from about 1870 to about 1970 came transformative innovations—running water, sanitation, the internal combustion engine—which drastically reduced infant mortality and the burden of disease, and accelerated transportation and communications by orders of magnitude. By the time the third phase of the Industrial Revolution, the Digital Age began around 1960, notes Gordon, the era had exhausted its capacity for transformative innovations.

Keeping in mind that there is no more precise definition of innovation than there is of other cherished human attributes such as intelligence or language, Gordon makes a spirited case. To illustrate his point, he offers a simple thought experiment. Ask anyone which they would give up if they had to choose: running water and toilets or their laptops and mobile phones? Standard of living increases from these later innovations are incremental, argues Gordon, not the doublings of the earlier breakthroughs. Indeed economic growth and productivity have slowed in the United States since the 1960s.

So let’s go back to get a better fix on a more positive future. Instead of thinking of the technologies of industrialization, consider the dominant energy source that drove them: fossil fuels.  As much as anything, commercialization of fossil fuels provided the great engine of growth in the early 20th century, so much so that it’s easy to imagine that in the future we might be referring to the Fossil Fuels Era as distinct from the Industrial Revolution.

The distinction is important because until fossil fuels came to dominate in the early and middle decades of 20th  century, scientists and engineers were exploring an enormous variety of sources of energy, some of which are still considered cutting edge today. Thomas Edison first proposed harnessing the Gulf Stream to run impellers and produce electricity in 1901. Today, up and running wave, tidal and river currant projects produce electricity from the North Sea to the Pacific. In Jay Leno’s car collection is an electric car built in 1907. The Stirling Engine, a simple heat pump invented in the 19th century provides the basic design for utility-scale electrical generating projects in the Southwest. But for the discovery of cheap fossil fuels, we might be vastly further along in the development of these alternatives.

Oil no longer cheap or easy to extract, and with the realization that fossil fuels carry heavy environmental costs, these alternatives have re-emerged from their 80-year hibernation. There is nothing more central to civilization than the energy that powers it. The migration to alternatives will ultimately mobilize trillions of dollars in capital spending as the move to alternative energy gathers momentum.

This transition will not be smooth. Wind, solar, and geothermal power have been on a roller coaster of boom, bust, boom since the late 1970s, but they are getting close to a tipping point.  Once these non-nuclear and non-hydro alternatives reach somewhere around 5% of global energy production the pace of adoption should take off, providing the economy, and America's beleaguered workers, with one more, long-delayed, shot of Vitamin C. Apart from anything else, the spread of these technologies would prove decisively that the great surge in standards of living in the West was truly based on innovation, and not merely the lucky discovery of cheap fossil fuels.

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Short Take

[Mild spoiler alert: the book is a fictionalized exploration of a girl who falls under the spell of a Manson-like cult. We all know how that story unfolded. In this Short Take I’ll be offering my reactions to the protagonist, Evie Boyd.]

 

The Girls offers as bleak a view of the amorality of American youth as I have ever encountered. In a review of my first book, I was called “Intolerably apocalyptic,” but I can’t hold a candle to Ms. Cline. The book is a novelistic attempt to try and understand how some of the privileged young women of the late 1960s could commit unspeakable acts while under the sway of a Manson-like psychopath. 

 Thus we meet Evie Boyd, a fourteen year-old growing up amid relative affluence in Petaluma California. She’s directionless, with no apparent passions, self-conscious about her looks, emotionally needy, alienated from her parents (who get divorced), but possessed of a tough inner core and a rebellious streak. She’s enthralled when she encounters Suzanne, a wild, charismatic 19 year-old who seems to be a composite of Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houton, and Evie is honored when Suzanne pays her some attention. Events bring her to the cult’s squalid ranch, and for some weeks, Evie maintains a dual life, throwing herself into the life of the cult, while returning home enough not to galvanize her mother, who is pre-occupied with a rebound relationship with Frank, an entrepreneur who comes across as a hustler with a heart of gold.

Evie is so smitten by Suzanne that she doesn’t notice as the cult spirals down from talk of love and freedom to episodes of paranoia, back-biting and revenge. Along the way, Evie has her first sexual adventures, and enters sufficiently into the spirit of the cult that she brings them to the house of the family next door (which they descrate), even though she has known the family all her life and has no score to settle. Later, Evie talks her way into joining Suzanne as she and others set off to inflict mayhem on a Dennis Wilson-like figure, but Suzanne kicks her out of the car before they begin a horrific rampage.

Did Suzanne do this to protect Evie from what she knew was about to happen, or because she felt that Evie wasn’t a murderer and would become a liability? That’s left unanswered, but the bloodbath that Evie missed is so depraved – including the slashing apart of a toddler – that no human with a soul could find that earlier gesture redemptive … except for our Evie, who still feels the tug of Suzanne’s power, even after she learns every gory detail of Suzanne’s actions.

It’s several months between the time of the murders and when the cult is finally caught. During this time, Evie keeps her mouth shut about what happens and meekly allows herself to be shipped off to boarding school to resume her comfortable existence, though as a wreck, not a spirited teenager.

That’s when I decided Evie was a worthless human being. Sure, she was terrified that the cult would come after her, and there’s some honor on not squealing, but Evie had to know that the cult would likely kill again, and that made her an enabler of whatever they did subsequently.

The book interweaves the present and the past and so we learn how these events haunted Evie’s life. But there’s no redemptive moment, no act where she summons the courage to do the right thing, or rises above her own self-absorption. Even in the present, when the psychopath-in-the-making son of a friend and his underage, impressionable girlfriend crash at her digs, she can only summon a half-hearted (and failed) attempt to save the girl from following the path that so grievously sidetracked her own life.

All the men in the book are either pathetic or pigs of various shapes and forms – except for a premed student named Tom, who sees the cult for what it is, but who Evie rejects as a dork. Towards the end of the book, Evie ticks off a long list of subsequent experiences with awful men that could summon in her the hatred to commit horrendous crimes, seeming to imply that with the right mix of events, she too might have become a Suzanne, and, by implication, so could enormous numbers of other young women.

My first reaction was to call “Bullshit!” Were all young women potential Suzannes, we would have seen endless repeats of the Manson horrors in the nearly 50 years since the events. Instead, those murders still stand as a touchstone of horror because nothing since has eclipsed their mindless violence.

The Manson cult was at the far far end of the normal curve during truly abnormal times. In just the two years leading up to the murders, we had the huge escalation of a senseless war, the explosion of the anti-war movement and counter-culture, a breakdown of generational trust, my generation’s first experiences with powerful, mind-altering drugs, and a sexual revolution. In a country of more than 200 million people, that roiling stew of disruptive forces bubbled to the surface about 20 broken souls, deranged by drugs and in the thrall of a false prophet.

On reflection, however, maybe Ms. Clein was making a different point. All we have to think of are the teenage executioners of Pol Pot’s Cambodia or the child soldiers of Africa to recognize that the capacity for evil lies latent in the young. And, while in fiction we want our protagonists to find redemption or transcend their flaws perhaps Evie’s failure to rise to the occasion was making the point that a civilization that keeps our murderous impulses in check is not innate, but something external that has to be actively inculcated and supported. That’s something to keep in mind amid the current insanity of gun violence, and as more dark clouds gather on the horizon.



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