Archive for September, 2012

The great thing in education

September 29, 2012

It was Parent-Teacher Conference Day in Middle School  already yesterday, and Younger Daughter made us proud again. Her advisory teacher, an ebullient and charming woman called Dr. McCoy (she actually has a framed photo of “Bones” of the Enterprise on her wall) reassured us that because of her great work and study habits, our girl’s got the 8th grade licked.

Habit, habit… it’s just not possible to overstate the value for living of mastering habit. My habit of mentioning that at every opportunity, thanks to my long professional immersion in the thought of William James, is thankfully set for life.

But the most gratifying thing we heard from teacher, again, is the testimony of a relatively-disinterested adult observer that our student is not only an academic success but is a genuinely Good Person, of sweet and generous disposition. Not a Mean Girl, not a whiner or complainer. A habitual helper. A steady friend.  A Doer.

So all there really was to say to her, yesterday, was: keep it up.

But if she wants to hear more, I’ll remind her again:

Habit is the enormous fly-wheel of society… It alone is what keeps us all within bounds and saves the children of fortune… The great thing, then, in all education, is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy…

Or, as she habitually translates my Jamesian disquisitions: Blah blah blah.

But that’s ok. Deeds, not words, solidify our habitual characters. She’s doing well, and doing good. She can read all about it later.



“A greener future?”

September 28, 2012

It’s been awhile since I’ve checked in with TED. Thought I’d see what’s new, beginning with the “Greener Future” theme. 119 talks?! Where to begin?

Julianne mentioned food waste in Environmental Ethics class the other day…

Western countries throw out nearly half of their food, not because it’s inedible — but because it doesn’t look appealing. Tristram Stuart delves into the shocking data of wasted food, calling for a more responsible use of global resources. “We, the people, do have the power to stop [the] tragic waste of resources if we regard it as socially unacceptable to waste food.”

Same goes for fossil fuel waste, climate change, you name it. It begins down here in the grass, with the people.

“What to watch next” – We read Michael Pollan‘s Botany of Desire in an earlier version of our course, and he’s a terrific TEDster.  Mark Bittman, Pam Warhurst… And if you thought food and climate were unrelated issues, consider:

@GOOD: Eight foods you should stock up on before climate change takes them away ”-Bourbon, coffee, chocolate…No!

 This is getting serious.
When you’re full & sated with food, go back and see Al & Ed et al. Or one of the 99 bioethics talks, 125 on medicine & health, 35 on living long, 28 on God, 74 on collaboration, 87 on happiness, … TED beats anything on “reality” TV, including the NFL.

Alive & available

September 27, 2012

We had a raucous conversation in EEA yesterday, before the exam. There’s nothing like a test to focus the mind on other things. But it was a spirited discussion, so much so that a passerby actually stepped in and asked if he could join us. Our enthusiasm was contagious.

We were wondering aloud, and quite loud at that, about what it might take to make environmentalism and the climate crisis real to our fellow Americans, most of whom remain preoccupied with Monday Night Football and the X-factor and I don’t even know what else.

We were looking back at the old Club of Rome report from forty years ago. It forecast catastrophic social, political, & ecological consequences in about seventy years, if we continued as a civilization to worship at at the altar of Gross Domestic Product and perpetual economic growth. Are we there yet?

Well, the Climate Vulnerability Monitor 2012 says yup.

(For another perspective on all this: “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist.”)

The class wants to do something, a collaborative group project that might actually go beyond the walls of our classroom. We’re now collecting ideas.

I thought Milton (“No Free Lunch”) Friedman, the conservative economist with whom I probably have never in my entire life detected any common ground at all, was on target in ch5 when he said (as quoted by Gus Speth):

“Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”

That’s what an environmental movement can be good for: to be ready to move when the crisis hits the fan… ’cause it’s coming, make no mistake. So our lively class is working to drum up alternatives to the status quo. Keep hope alive, Jesse Jackson used to say. We’re available.

And so is Bill McKibben’s outfit. He’s about to commence a 20-city tour to drum up preparedness and hope. He writes:

The goal is to jump-start the kind of movement that I discussed in the article I wrote for Rolling Stone about the scary new math of climate change.

It’s simple math: we can burn 565 more gigatons of carbon and stay below 2°C of warming — anything more than that risks catastrophe for life on earth. The only problem? Fossil fuel corporations now have 2,795 gigatons in their reserves, five times the safe amount. And they’re planning to burn it all — unless we rise up to stop them.

This tour will launch our next big mission — a campaign to directly confront the economic power of the fossil fuel industry. Our message will be crystal clear: it’s not OK to sacrifice our future for the sake of one industry’s bottom line. Divestment is one important tool that we’ll discuss, but we’re ready for many other tactics as well.

Over the past few months our planet gave stark warning signs that humans have never seen before. The Arctic melted, breaking every record. The Great Plains sweltered. The West burned. This roadshow is the next big step — but the price of admission, besides the ticket, is a willingness to really go to work to change the world in the year ahead.

These events will need to be big, and reach beyond our normal circle of friends. Join us.

I think we will.

Too many damn people?

September 26, 2012

It’s exam day– see my general study advice *below, students– but we’re also talking markets & growth in EEA. I’ve asked everyone to identify highlights.

One, for me, is the quote of Amory and Hunter Lovins and Paul Hawken from Natural Capitalism“Markets are only tools. They make a good servant but a bad master and a worse religion.”

Another, from Frank Ackerman and Lisa Heinzerling: “human life, health, and nature cannot be described meaningfully in monetary terms… market values tell us little about the social values at stake.”

And how about this dated howler: “Mark Sagoff has noted that while markets can and do fail, society does not intervene to correct market failure.”

And then, of course, the infamous classic Limits to Growth.   Jonathan Franzen said it succinctly, in Freedom: “too many damn people on the planet.”

Right. Last one to leave, please turn out the lights.

Franzen’s Freedom, btw, has much to say about environmentalism vs. market-driven capitalist consumerism. Much that’s sad, funny, and true. If there aren’t too many of us yet, there certainly are too many of us eager to remove mountaintops and frack the hell out of our interior.

One more astonishing note from EEA: a student posts that he went to register to vote and in the process discovered the Greens, whom he’d never heard of. My thought: it’s a sad commentary on the ineffectiveness of environmentalism in our time, in this culture ,when an informed and engaged young person can possibly not even have heard of the so-called Movement’s main electoral instrument.

In CoPhi we’ll see what anyone wants to discuss today, nothing new is on our agenda. For my part, I’m still trying to decide if I’ve been too charitable to Pascal in compensating for years of neglect due to exasperation with his ill-considered Wager.

There truly is lots more to his philosophy than that little marvel of spiritual disingenuity, and as I sift through his Pensees I continue to discover gems like this:

So there is open war among men, in which each must take a part, and side either with dogmatism or scepticism. For he who thinks to remain neutral is above all a sceptic. This neutrality is the essence of the sect; he who is not against them is essentially for them…What then shall man do in this state? Shall he doubt everything? Shall he doubt whether he is awake, whether he is being pinched, or whether he is being burned? Shall he doubt whether he doubts? Shall he doubt whether he exists? We cannot go so far as that; and I lay it down as a fact that there never has been a real complete sceptic. Nature sustains our feeble reason, and prevents it raving to this extent.

Nature does sustain, and our own nature typically saves us from our worst flights of dogmatism and skepticism. She abhors a vacuum-head.

But the deeper in debt to cover his God-&-heaven bet Pascal goes, the more his thoughts read to me as a rant and a rave. He sounds increasingly like a desperate player who can’t afford to push away from the table  and the casino.  “If man is not made for God, why is he only happy in God?” Speak for yourself, Blaise.

And now for something completely different, just to put everyone in the mood for an exam. “Tell us the answer. Something simple.”

* Here’s the best test-prep advice I can pass along:

If you want really to do your best in an examination, fling away the book the day before, say to yourself, “I won’t waste another minute on this miserable thing, and I don’t care an iota whether I succeed or not.” Say this sincerely, and feel it; and go out and play, or go to bed and sleep, and I am sure the results next day will encourage you to use the method permanently. William James, “Gospel of Relaxation

If you’ve been up all night cramming, in other words, good luck. You’ll need it. But if you’ve been diligent, have steeped yourself in the subject all semester long, and either went out to play or to an early bed last night, your luck will be the residue of design. You’ll do fine.

But don’t try too hard to relax.

It is needless to say that that is not the way to do it. The way to do it, paradoxical as it may seem, is genuinely not to care whether you are doing it or not.

Care tomorrow. Today, just show up and do your best.

And then get started on those midterm reports. The way you do that is write a sentence. Then write another one. Repeat, edit, repeat…

Or you could do a presentation.


September 25, 2012

It was another gorgeous Fall Day, so of course EEA had to meet outside. And, it was a bit of a review day too, for the upcoming exam on Wednesday. So we had a suitably-rambling conversation about many things, including at one point the old Highlander Folk School on Monteagle Mountain, near the University of the South at Sewanee.  Paul Hawken writes, in Blessed Unrest,

The school was founded in the 1930s to help economically disadvantaged whites but by the early 1950s had begun to focus on civil rights. Horton, an admirer of Gandhi, used his school to train his pupils in how to achieve integration and civil rights.

A recent high school student’s project tells part of the story:

Peter Seeger tells some more of it:

They were really learning how to swim against the current, how not to lose heart in the face of resistance and ugliness, how to persevere and prevail. Gandhi didn’t exactly say everything he said (as Yogi Berra might put it), including the ubiquitous “be the change you wish to see in the world” slogan. But he did say

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

Same sentiment, slightly less bumper stickery. But only slightly. We need not wait. We dare not wait.

The Movement needs a new Highlander School, [Highlander Center] to coordinate all those shades of green Gus Speth mentions in chapter three, on his way to admitting that today’s environmentalism has won important battles– air and water are cleaner, since the ’70s– but is still “losing the planet.” It is not “articulating a vision of the future commensurate with the magnitude of the crisis.” Bottom line: the system is not the solution, “what is needed is transformative change in the system itself.” [Here again, that recent Speth Orion manifesto I mentioned…]

But that still has to begin with individuals becoming the change, doesn’t it? It has begun that way at least twice before in our recent history, in the grassroots of a Tennessee hilltop. Yes we can. Can’t we?


Pascal and friends

September 24, 2012

Today in CoPhi it’s Pascal, Spinoza, Locke & Reid, and a Philosophy Bites interview with Anne Phillips on multiculturalism.

In EEA, we look with Gus Speth at Capitalism and Environmentalism, respectively “out of control” and (sadly) ineffective.

And this will need to be brief, it’s time for me to make some exams. Or rather, time for me to put the finishing touches on the exams my student collaborators have proposed. (But as Pascal says, sometimes you have to write long just because you don’t have time to make it short.)

So okay, in a quick nutshell: there’s more to Blaise Pascal than his famous Wager [SEP], there are all those thoughts (Pensees) and there’s also his antipathy for his fellow  philosophe Francais, Montaigne. I usually compare-&-contrast Montaigne and Descartes, so this makes for a nice new menage a trois (without an accent). Blaise is hostile to both Rene and Michel but is a cautious gambler, finding Descartes’ God too antiseptic and too, well, philosophical. And he finds Montaigne a self-absorbed, trivia-mongering potty-mouth.

But Montaigne would not at all disagree that “the heart has its reasons which reason knows not.” And isn’t it funny to think of Descartes philosophizing in his hypothetical armchair, asking if his fire and his body (etc.) are real, pretending to speculate that all the world and its philosophical problems might be figments of his solipsistic or dreamy or demon-instigated imagination? And then funnier still to come across this quote from Pascal: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”  But look what happens when a philosopher sits quietly in a room alone: you get the Meditations!

Pascal also said

“Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that, unless we love the truth, we cannot know it.” And “It is man’s natural sickness to believe that he possesses the Truth.”


“There are two equally dangerous extremes: to exclude reason, to admit nothing but reason.”


“The nature of man is wholly natural, omne animal. There is nothing he may not make natural; there is nothing natural he may not lose.”*


“The weather and my mood have little connection. I have my foggy and my fine days within me…” [Or as Jimmy Buffett says, carry the weather with you.]

And all military veterans especially should appreciate this one:

“Can anything be stupider than that a man has the right to kill me because he lives on the other side of a river and his ruler has a quarrel with mine, though I have not quarrelled with him?”

And this will be an epigraph for my Philosophy Walks (or its sequel Philosophy Rides):

“Our nature lies in movement; complete calm is death.”

But Pascal does finally blow the big game of life, for betting too heavily on self-interest. He’s obsessed with “saving [his] own soul at all costs.” That’s a losing proposition.

[*That statement about us being “omne animal” sounded flattering, to me, being a philosophical naturalist and a friend to animals. But later epigraphs indicates Pascal’s platonist perfectionism and his derogatory attitude towards humanity and its natural condition. Without God’s grace, he writes, we are “like unto the brute beasts.” He doesn’t seem pleased about that, but I’m with Walt Whitman: “I think I could turn and live with animals, they’re so placid and self contain’d… They do not sweat and whine about their condition… They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God…”]

Spinoza believed in Einstein’s God, and vice versa. They were pantheists, a lot less tormented by the vast and starry universe than Pascal (“all these stars frighten me”) with his personal and possibly punitive God. As Jennifer Hecht notes, there’s a howling statistical error at the heart of Pascal’s specious reasoning: “We may be struck by lightning or not, but that doesn’t make it a fifty-fifty proposition.” And his bad wager underscores something more to appreciate about Spinoza.

What Pascal decried as the misery of man without the Biblical God, was for Spinoza the liberation of the human spirit from the bonds of fear and superstition.

[Descartes to DeismTlumak on free willDescartes before the horse (& Spinoza/Einstein slides)…]

Locke said the key to personal identity is memory. Oh-oh! But Thomas Reid, Mr. Scottish Common Sense, helpfully said you can get there from here: if you remember  yourself in (say) 1998, and that Self remembers itself in 1980, and that one remembers version 1975, and so on… well, you’re the same person you were back in the day. Whew! That’s a relief. The Ship of Theseus may be seaworthy, after all.

Anne Phillips says one of the smartest things I’ve heard anyone say about the niqab, the Islamic full face veil, and whether it has a place before the faces of those who most directly influence our children:

“…it’s a bit problematic sending a message to 11-year old children that it’s impossible for men and women to engage in face-to-face communication.”

And J&M note other problems

Speaking of teaching our children well: Gus Speth says one smart thing after another, including:

“Future generations cannot participate in capitalism’s markets…the essence of sustainable development is equity toward future generations.”

“…today’s environmentalism doesn’t work well enough… We have won many victories, but we are losing the planet. It is important to ask why.”

Unfortunately, this election season, no one’s really asking. Walter Cronkite used to ask “Can the world be saved?” Honestly, it’s too soon to tell. But I think William James had it right, long ago, when he wrote:

“The world may be saved, on condition that its parts shall do their best. But shipwreck in detail, or even on the whole, is among the open possibilities.”

So there’s our challenge: to do our best. Push that stone, and push it again. And be happy. Sail on, sail on, sailor. Watch out for those shoals, those rocks and bergs. Be safe. And prepare the rafts.

“Bike #11”

September 22, 2012

So I took my borrowed cycle, “Bike #11,” out for an urban morning commute, down Demonbreun past the new convention center (impressively huge, evidently tailored by Mayor Dean for a robust growth economy and a future major party convention), the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, over the Shelby Street Bridge, past the Titans stadium, then all around the new  Cumberland Park, and finally up and around Fort Negley and the Cumberland Science Museum, which apparently runs all on solar.

Nice ride, new views, good cause for optimism as more and more of us get out of the car and onto the bike. Can’t wait to try Nashville’s new green bikes too. Old Raleigh’s suddenly got competition.


“Like riding a bicycle”

September 21, 2012

I was a kid at Christmas last night.

I finished afternoon office hours at the naked eye observatory (yesterday definitely qualified as one of the “pleasant” days the sign on my office door says will usually find me there, then) and hopped on the bike (I’ve been bringing it to school daily, to shorten the last leg of my commute and to prod my spontaneity) for a quick spin around campus before heading to I-24 for the less exciting ride home.

Our campus has a different feel this year, with the sprawling new Student Center and related renovations. One of those is a new bus/bike lane that now makes it easy to cycle from one end of campus to the other without dodging or nearly creaming pedestrians, and to pop into Starbucks for commuter fuel.

This day, I remembered the Rec Center’s new rent-a-bike program. I thought it was just for students, but to my delight they gave me a bike for the weekend. And a lock and basket and “stylish” helmet too.

As we keep noting in EEA, integrating cycling into our daily routines is one easy form of “activism” for the environment open to us all. “A short, four-mile round trip by bicycle keeps about 15 pounds of pollutants out of the air we breathe.” Just ride!

James Garvey, environmental ethicist and editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine, is on a long bike-ride: 1,000 miles across Britain. He seems to be having second thoughts, or at least concerns, about striking the correct balance between mental and physical exercise.

Plato advises a careful blend of physical exercise and cultural pursuits… Neglect the Muses, and you become a graceless brute, but without the rigours of sport, the individual “melts and liquefies till he completely dissolves away his spirit…”

But then

there’s Mill’s claim about intellectual versus physical pleasures – Bach versus back rubs — that the former are “worth more” than the latter, and those who have experienced intellectual pleasures prefer them to mere physical pleasures.

So he asks us:

Are you with Plato and Mill, or anyway the caricatures above, holding on to the idea that physical and mental pleasures are distinct, or do you think, maybe with the long-distance runner [or biker], that the two are intermingled, something not easily divisible?

This seems like an easy one: of course they’re intermingled, every bit as much as mind and body. The very terms are an abstraction. People who think they must choose between them have failed to integrate fundamental aspects of life. Mens sana in corpore sano. Get back on the bike, James. But I’d advise shorter day trips, if the intermingling ceases to please.


September 20, 2012

Thomas Hobbes is one of the old dead philosophers I wish I’d had an opportunity to sit down and have an ale with. His Leviathan state is scary, as were the times in which he concocted it-a time of deep social division, civil war, economic inequality and collapse, political partisanship, general chaos (sounds a little too familiar); but he himself seems to have been a delightful character nonetheless.  “He was marvellous happy and ready in his replies, and that without rancour (except provoked),” wrote a contemporary.

They talked about him on BBC 4’s “In Our Time.” [Hobbes timeline]

He didn’t really have a monochromatic view of human nature as rotten to the core. A recent biographer makes the point.

It is ironic that he should be criticized for holding that all people are completely selfish, because he held that one could not make any universal empirical claims about the motivation of all people. He does hold that the nature of the passions is the same in all people, e.g., fear and hope, but not the object of these passions.

And of course I like his position on the possibility of being good without god.

He realizes the importance of distinguishing morality from religion, and establishes a foundation for morality completely independent of religion. However, because he is aware of the impossibility of eliminating religious belief, he devotes an enormous amount of time and effort trying to show that Christianity, properly interpreted, supports his account of morality.

That’s still the safe and prudent position to take, in my time and place. And Hobbes is all about safety and prudence, and security, and staying alive. 91!

Plus, his naturalistic materialism makes way more sense than Cartesian dualism. “The universe is corporeal; all that is real is material, and what is not material is not real.” That may sound reductionist, but it sets a manageable research agenda for the neuroscientist/philosopher.

But what I’d ask him about first is that inkwell in his walking stick. I want one!

Machiavelli to Fricker (and Speth)

September 19, 2012

My ancient firewood man came around with a rick last night, just in time. It’s 45 degrees this morning. And I know, a wood fire is considered environmentally incorrect by many. Alright, then, I’ll just go to hell. I still love my Earth Stove.

Machiavelli, Hobbes, Descartes, and Fricker are on tap today, in CoPhi. Some of them sound like cricketers, but they all have a sharp point of view worth considering.

Fricker’s probably the one you’ve not heard of. She’s our contemporary, and she has possibly the most constructive observation of any of our philosophers du jour: we too frequently fail to listen to one another, for entirely unexamined and indefensible reasons. We write one another off, for falling into one or another stereotyped identity. We don’t take one another seriously, just because we think we’ve found the right pigeon-holes to place one another into. Whites and blacks, theists and atheists, Republicans and Democrats… we all commit “testimonial injustice.”

This is a new term, a new way of indicting our ancient ancestral blindness. I’ll admit, the topic doesn’t quite spring to life in Fricker’s accounting. But read William James’s “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” then give her another listen. She’s definitely onto something, a perennial weakness in our species. We need to open our eyes to these prejudices, and close our minds to them.

Mistrust, suspicion, refusal to really listen to others: these are symptomatic features of the world as Machiavelli and Hobbes knew it. Maybe if they’d heard Fricker’s podcast they’d have written different books and articulated kinder, gentler philosophies.

And maybe if she’d lived in 16th century Italy or 17th century England, she’d have committed more  “testimonial injustice” too.

Niccolo Machiavelli praised virtu’ in a leader: manliness and valor are euphemistic translations, ruthless efficiency might be more to the point. A wise prince, he said, does whatever it takes to serve the public interest as he sees it. But does he see it aright? Hard to tell, if you can’t believe a word he says.

A new detective mystery starring Nicco has just been published, btw, and was featured on NPR the other day. “What would happen if two of the biggest names of the Renaissance — Niccolo Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci — teamed up as a crime-fighting duo?” Beats me, may have to read The Malice of Fortune.

Thomas Hobbes is one of my favorite “authoritarians”: a walker who kept an inkwell in his walking stick, he lived to 91 in the 17th century and believed humans could be saved from themselves with the right kind of contract. Contrary to a student essay I once graded, he did not say humans were once “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Hobbes did say that’s what it would be like to live in a “state of nature,” without civil authority or police or government to keep the peace and impose order. It would be a “war of all against all.” If you don’t agree, asks Nigel, why do you lock your doors? Not, surely, because you think everyone’s out to get you. But it only takes a few miscreants, doesn’t it, to create an atmosphere of paranoia and mistrust?

I’d like to think Hobbes might reconsider the extremity of his position, were he transported to our time. On the other hand, we might reconsider the benignity of ours, were we transported to his. Those were tough times: civil war, a king executed, murderous politics, etc. How much freedom would you trade for peace and safety, if there were no other way to  secure it?

I for one do not agree that it’s better to be feared than loved. And as I place an even greater premium on being listened to, and understood, I owe it to others to really listen to what they’re saying too. It’s when we write one another off, isn’t it, that suspicions arise and conflict ensues?

Rene Descartes, not at all a drunken fart, simply wanted to know what he could know for certain. His skepticism was methodological, his goal was indubitable certainty. This, he thought, would serve the new science well. He misunderstood the self-correcting, probabilistic, fallibilistic nature of empirical reasoning. But most philosophers still think it’s worth wondering: how do you know you’re not dreaming, not being deceived by a demon or by your senses, not mistaking your own essential nature?

Still, cogito ergo sum overrates intellect. You don’t have to think, to demonstrate your existence. You just have to do something… even, as an old grad school pal used to say, if it’s wrong.

I usually think of Charles Sanders Peirce as Descartes’ most practical critic, and I agree with him that a contrived and methodological doubt is not the best starting place in philosophy.

But it occurs to me that an even more practical alternative to what I consider the misguided Cartesian quest for certainty is old Ben Franklin’s Poore RichardHis is not armchair wisdom, it comes straight from the accumulated experience of the folk. Some of that “common sense” is too common, but plenty is dead-on. “Early to bed, early to rise…” has definitely worked for me. I do try to write things worth reading, do things worth writing, and not lie down with dogs more often than I have to.

In EEA, we begin James (Gus) Speth’s Bridge at the Edge of the World.

Speth was Jimmy Carter’s environment guy in the White House, the one who put up the solar panels Ronald Reagan made such a show of removing. Talk about a symbol of our subsequent decline!

He’s now a mild-mannered Yale Dean, but his recently-blasted two part Orion manifesto “America the possible” is anything but reticent.

To our great shame, America now has

• the highest poverty rate, both generally and for children;
• the greatest inequality of incomes;
• the lowest social mobility;
• the lowest score on the UN’s index of “material well-being of children”;
• the worst score on the UN’s Gender Inequality Index;
• the highest expenditure on health care as a percentage of GDP, yet all this money accompanied by the highest infant mortality rate, the highest prevalence of mental health problems, the highest obesity rate, the highest percentage of people going without health care due to cost, the highest consumption of antidepressants per capita, and the shortest life expectancy at birth;
• the next-to-lowest score for student performance in math and middling performance in science and reading;
• the highest homicide rate;
• the largest prison population in absolute terms and per capita;
• the highest carbon dioxide emissions and the highest water consumption per capita;
• the lowest score on Yale’s Environmental Performance Index (except for Belgium) and the largest ecological footprint per capita (except for Denmark);
• the lowest spending on international development and humanitarian assistance as a percentage of national income (except for Japan and Italy);
• the highest military spending both in total and as a percentage of GDP; and
• the largest international arms sales.

Our politicians are constantly invoking America’s superiority and exceptionalism. True, the data is piling up to confirm that we’re Number One, but in exactly the way we don’t want to be—at the bottom.

But… it gets better. Speth’s target is indicated in his subtitle: From decline to rebirth. Same for the Bridge, which contemplates crossing from crisis to sustainability.

One of our EEA classmates posted a sobering assessment of Speth’s thesis last night:

…while the salvation of humanity is still a achievable, the world as we know it, the biodiversity that has colored our perception of the Earth, the lifestyles, cultures, plants, and animals that make up our reality have already suffered an irreversible damage, and will not be available for future generations.

…we will NOT be able to sustain, or save, the world, atleast not for anything remotely similar to the lives we live; and therefore, should be more  worried about…say, leaving behind to tell others how it use to be. A reminder of what it was like before, similar to what the Mayans or Egyptians did.

Ouch. But since I’m supposed to be the voice of optimism, in our group, I reply thusly:

You’re right: if “saving the world” means anything like “business as usual,” that’s just not possible anymore. And yet, maybe we can leave more behind than a message in a bottle. But what might that be? I’m not generally faith-oriented, but I do kinda think our generation’s challenge is to sustain a form of hopefulness so that generations to follow will have an opportunity to innovate in ways we can’t now imagine. Isn’t that what you transhumanists think, too? [Communist transhumanists, I’m less sure of.]

“We aim to deeply influence a new generation of thinkers who dare to envision humanity’s next steps.” As Michael Chabon was saying, we really have no alternative.