Eugene Linden
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Trump, the Toxic Legacy of the Financial Crisis

Today, the Lost Angeles TIMES published my oped as part of a a package on the first anniversary to Trump's election. Space was limited, so I tho...

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The Ragged Edge of the World
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Winds of Change
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Afterword to the softbound edition.


The Octopus and the Orangutan
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The Future In Plain Sight
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The Parrot's Lament
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Silent Partners
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Affluence and Discontent
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The Alms Race
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Apes, Men, & Language
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SmokeSignals

Vast forest fires have scarred the globe, but the worst may be yet to come
BY EUGENE LINDEN


Monday, Jun. 22, 1998
Why are the world's forests burning? Why did uncontrollable fires cut a 7,700-sq.-mi. swath of devastation across Indonesia? Why have the blazes of Mexico sent plumes of smoke across Texas and Louisiana?

Here's the simple answer: El Nino. While that notorious weather system flooded some regions, it produced horrendous droughts in other areas, making half the world a tinderbox.

But that's too easy an explanation. Scientists suspect that something more fundamental--and frightening--is happening. In one country after another, flames are going where they've never gone before. "These fires are burning into virgin, humid forests that have evolved without fire," says Nels Johnson of Washington's World Resources Institute. "There is no historical precedent for the fires in the cloud forests of the Lacondon region of Mexico." Fire storms in the rain forests--the very idea defies common sense--have become an unmistakable distress signal from the developing world.

Even without the effects of El Nino, forests are increasingly vulnerable, and the blame lies with human activity. People are literally paving the way for fire's intrusion. Roads penetrating tropical forests provide access to loggers, peasant farmers, ranchers and plantation owners, all of whom use fire to clear land. Logging in particular creates incendiary conditions by leaving combustible litter on the forest floor and allowing sunlight to penetrate the forest canopy and dry out the vegetation.

A rain forest is a self-perpetuating system in that water vapor from trees energizes rainstorms. Cut the trees and rainfall decreases, further drying a system that is not adapted to recovering from fire. Experts wonder if this is why denuded southern China has seen a decline in rainfall this century, and why West Africa has lost one of two rainy seasons. Looming over all rain forests is the threat of global warming caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases. Computer simulations suggest that the greenhouse effect will increase the frequency of drought in tropical areas.

Belatedly, rains have come to Southeast Asia in recent weeks, and they are still expected in Mexico, but any relief is likely to be temporary, and dryer conditions will return later in the year. Experts are particularly worried about Brazil, where a new dry season is just starting. Daniel Nepstad, a tropical-forest ecologist at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts, notes that "the eastern Amazon is teetering on the edge." The region has received one-fifth of its normal rainfall in the past year, and Nepstad says an area 20 times the size of Massachusetts is at risk.

The tragedy goes far beyond the countries that are burning. Besides worrying about the loss of tropical forests, with their unmatched natural resources, policymakers have to be concerned about the clouds of smoke that have endangered public health from Singapore to Houston. But so far it's been easier to announce programs to combat the fires than to get at the causes. In April the United Nations Environment Program called for a $10 million fund to help Southeast Asia contain its fires. Washington has contributed $7.5 million to Mexico's firefighting efforts.

Such meager sums won't even begin to save the forests. In Indonesia the collapse of the economy has driven many of the urban poor back to the countryside, and often the only land to cultivate is virgin forest. So a new round of fires seems unavoidable. Says John Redwood, a World Bank environmental specialist: "Once small fires get out of control in remote areas, they become unstoppable until doused by rains."

Several forces combine to darken the outlook. The industrial world hasn't curbed its appetite for wood or halted the harvesting of rain forests by multinational corporations. In many developing countries, government corruption or mismanagement has allowed indiscriminate logging and clearing of woodland for agriculture. And efforts to slow greenhouse-gas emissions in the U.S., the biggest offender, continue to be stymied by a skeptical Congress. The Senate Appropriations Committee has just slashed $200 million from the Clinton Administration's proposed program to improve energy efficiency, citing doubts about "the existence, extent or effects of global climate change."

What all this adds up to is a cycle of destruction. Chopping down the forests creates conditions that foster fires. The fires pour carbon dioxide into the air, which promotes global warming and makes the forests dryer still. A computer simulation of the effect of climate change in Mexico has predicted that if temperatures rise as feared, rainfall might be reduced 40%--a drop that would doom the remaining rain forests in the state of Chiapas.

The global bonfire of 1998 is a warning, an unsubtle hint that humanity will have to change its ways or watch its forests disappear. It is a smoke signal we cannot afford to ignore.

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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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