Some scenes from my latest book: She Walks On Water, a novel (Brave Ulysses Books, 2013)
Some scenes from my latest book: She Walks On Water, a novel (Brave Ulysses Books, 2013)
8th Grade Commencement Speech
Francine Delaney New School for Children
June 4, 2013
by Cecil Bothwell
You are about to step out of your childhood, a step that will take the next four years of your life.
High school is where you will learn the basics about being an adult, about taking charge of your own life, about taking responsibility for your own finances and about steering your own education for the rest of your life.
Really learning how to learn is the most important lesson you’ll gain from these next few years, if you pay attention and take advantage of the opportunities high school offers.And the most important lessons may come when you least expect them.
In terms of earning a living, the two most important experiences in my entire education came when I was about your age. In geometry class I learned the Pythagoran Theorem which involves the relationship between the three sides of a right triangle – that is, a three-sided figure where one corner is 90 degrees.
At the same time, in Boy Scouts, I earned Home Repairs merit badge—that’s a badge you earn for learning how to use screwdrivers, hammers, pliers, saws, drills and other basic tools to fix things around your house.
Most of my adult life I have used those tools and the Pythagorean Thereom to build and remodel houses. If your house is square and level you can thank some carpenter’s geometry teacher.
My most important teacher, not counting Miss Nanette who taught me how to read in First Grade, was a man named Dr. Harold B. Bender. He was my 11th and 12th grade chemistry teacher, and he taught me everything I needed to know to continue my education for the rest of my life. Was it chemistry? No.
He taught me how to use a library to conduct research, how to track down essential information, how to sort facts from fiction, and how to use multiple sources so that I arrived at the best possible understanding of a problem and its solutions. If he were alive today, he’d be teaching students how to optimize internet search engine results.
How did that help me? Well, in my first career, as a builder, I knew how to use geometry and tools, but there was a whole lot I didn’t know about specific building skills. I had started out as a mason – that’s a person who builds with bricks and blocks and stone. In 1980 I traveled to Alaska because I wanted to see the big northern wilderness – and I did see glaciers and grizzly bears and moose and lynx and big horned sheep and Mt. McKinley and all the rest. And I figured I’d find work as a mason to pay my way.
Wrong. They have so many small earthquakes up there that nobody builds anything with bricks and blocks – they just shake apart. But because I had learned to read blueprints in an eighth grade shop class, I got a job as a foreman on a carpentry crew. Unfortunately I had never built a wooden house – so I went to the library and checked out some books. Each night I’d read about what we had to do the next day, and suddenly I was an expert! (At the same time, I asked the carpenters working for me a lot of questions.) When I came back south I became a general contractor, and built homes and did remodeling for another twenty years.
Along the way, I began my second career, as a writer. Here my chemistry teacher’s lessons really paid off. I became a newspaper reporter and editor, I won awards for investigative reporting and have written nine books. Along the way the library grew to include the whole world, when the internet was invented and computers extended research around the globe.
When I was in 8th grade, I thought I would grow up to be a herpetologist. That’s a scientist who studies amphibians and reptiles. I was fascinated with snakes and turtles. In my high school years I had 16 pet snakes and did presentations for Scout troops and school clubs. I was a summer camp counselor when I was 17, and taught all of the nature related merit badges to other scouts. I was certain my future was in science.
What I learned along the way was that my future was actually in learning how to do whatever I needed to do in order to do the things I wanted to do. Learning how to learn was the most important lesson of all. Oh, I still think snakes are fascinating, and I’m always available to catch rattlesnakes and copperheads if my neighbors find them in the garden. I take them way out in the national forest and let them go. But I’ve never made a nickel on herpetology.
Now here’s the thing I really want to tell you today, as you take your next big steps toward adulthood. You won’t really believe me for about eight or ten more years, but if I tell you this now, I think you’ll have a lot higher likelihood of being alive eight or ten years from now, and maybe then you’ll think back to this day and think: Hmm, that old geezer wasn’t as much of a fool as I thought back then.
Your bodies and your emotions are growing up fast right now, and your brain is right behind. What scientists have proven in recent years is that the part of a human brain where good judgment comes from isn’t developed and fully formed until you are 20-22 years old. That’s not a criticism, that’s a physical fact. Right now, inside your head, you do not have the wiring to easily know better.
Your parents might say to you, “You should know better than to go out in freezing rain without a coat!” but actually, you don’t. A teacher might say, “You should know better than to turn in a term paper with doodled cartoons in the margins!” But, actually, you don’t .
There will be a whole lot of experiences over the next few years when you’ll do something pretty stupid, and then argue, “Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.”
That’s why so many young adults take stupid chances. They climb on slippery rocks at the top of waterfalls. They drive too fast, or drive while texting, or sometimes even get hold of some beer and drive while drunk. They hang out with the wrong crowd and get tempted into doing things they might not have thought of on their own, or get into bad situations where someone gets sexually assaulted or into a fight or gets bullied. Trust me, you won’t avoid it all. But with a little bit of smarts you can navigate through these next several years with minimal damage to yourself and the people around you.
Even though, as I said, you currently lack the part of your brain that will make that much easier ten years from now.
To help you out, I’ll now pass along the most important life lesson I learned in school. This was from a Commuinty College professor named Dave Ehlert. It was in a Humanities Class, which is a class where you study how the arts and literature and theater and sports and history and science all come together to create the world we live in.
Dave told us this: If you want to live in world where people drive the speed limit, the first step is to drive the speed limit.
Now that seems pretty simplistic, doesn’t it. But it is actually pretty deep.
At the most basic level, most people want other people who drive throught their neigborhoods to drive the speed limit, to drive carefully, because their children and their pets and their friends and their neighbors are all less likely to get hurt or killed if people obey the speed limit. The reason we have speed limits is because we have agreed as a community that there need to be some rules so we can all live together happily. We’re all better off if we all play by the rules.
In a way, that’s no different from sports. Basketball and baseball and football and tennis and volleyball and ping pong and horseshoes … all of it, would make no sense at all if everyone made up their own rules.
So if you want your neighborhood to be safe from speeding cars, the first step is not to speed yourself. And if you apply that everywhere, then you’ll be encouraging everyone to do the same, and make everyone’s neighborhood safer. And every driver safer too, since mistakes at high rates of speed are more likely to cause accidents than mistakes at slower speeds.
But if you apply that rule throughout your life you’ll find that it helps over and over again.
Do you want to be in a school where people don’t cheat on tests? Then don’t cheat on tests.
Do you want to live in a town where your money is safe in the bank? Then don’t rob banks.
Do you want to be part of a world in which everyone is treated fairly? Then treat everyone fairly.
Do you want to drive a car safe from drunk drivers who do really stupid things? Then don’t drive drunk.
Do you feel better when people don’t make fun of you? Then don’t make fun of other people.
You see, it goes on and on. And many of you have probably noticed that it is nothing more than a special case of the Golden Rule. Do on to others as you would have them to onto you.
From my perspective though, the specific rule is often more useful. The Golden Rule? Well, sure, we should always do that.
Drive the speed limit? Oh, right. More times than I can possibly report, over these many years, I have been in a hurry, and tempted to speed through a neighborhood and abruptly recall Dave’s lesson. And I slow down.
And the lesson doesn’t just have to be negative.
Do you want to experience a community where people express their love and affection for others? Then tell the people you care about how much you care.
Do you want to live in a world where who you are counts more than how much money you have? Then choose friends and heroes for who they are regardless of how rich they might be.
Do you want to be allowed to express your creativity? Then express it, and congratulate your friends who paint or write poetry or dye their hair six different colors or play guitar or draw cartoons.
Do you want to live in a world of happy people? Then do what makes you happy.
We make the world around us every day, by being who we are, by doing what we do, by sharing what we share. The most important lesson you will learn in the next few years is how to learn to be who you are, and to be who you are to the very best of your ability. No matter what someone else tells you you ought to do. No matter what someone else thinks is impossible for you to do.
We old folks are more excitied than you can imagine, waiting to see what kind of world you create for yourselves. I certainly hope you have fun.
I’ll be delivering something like the following (draft) lecture at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Franklin (NC) this morning. Happy Earthday everyone!
Water, water everywhere?
by Cecil Bothwell
Depending on your age, and depending a great deal on my voice, you may recognize that as the Ballad of Easy Rider by the Byrds. It struck me as appropriate to my topic today.
Our lovely planet, dubbed the blue planet because oceans cover 71 percent of the planet’s surface, is facing what we ought to consider a permanent drought.
How can that be? What’s causing the problem? What can we do about it?
The first piece of that puzzle derives from the same fact I just stated. That 71 percent of the earth’s surface contains 95 percent of the water. All of the rivers, lakes, glaciers, plants, animals and clouds share the other 5 percent. That 5 percent is what we call fresh water. The salty stuff is okay for swimming, for cooling power plants, and for all of the animals and plants that are adapted to exist in the sea – but it is of very limited use to human beings and other terrestrial life forms. If you drink it, it makes you dehydrated because it takes more water to get the salt out of your body than the amount you drink.
When you frame it in the old question about whether the glass is half full or half empty, you’d say that a glass full of sea water actually makes the next glassful half empty.
Presently we divert more than half of the liquid fresh water on earth to human uses, leaving less than half for the rest of our companions on big blue. Of course, those figures like all statistics, can be read in different ways. And an important thing about water is that it is constantly shared. No one keeps it for long, in any form other than inside a wine bottle, and even that is likely to be poured out sooner than later.
But, the other side of that argument is that we change the water we use: not so much in our own bodies, but when we filter it, add chlorine and fluoride, heat it, use it for washing our clothes and our industrial machinery, or drain it through fertilizer and pesticide laden fields.
As another aside, one of the coolest things you can tell a child is that we’ve had the same water on this planet since water first puddled up when the planet cooled enough for it to exist in liquid form. The glass of water you drink today was drunk in the past by dinosaurs and saber-toothed tigers, and Aristotle and Vincent VanGogh, and queens and princes and aboriginal Australians and Ghengis Khan’s Mongol horde. The first fish that crawled up on land to evolve into amphibians and lizards and mammals and birds came out of that glass, and the hippopotamus cousins that went back to the sea to evolve into dolphins and whales dove into that glass. If the youngster is still listening, you can add that a baby is about 75 percent water, an average adult is about 50 percent water, and we continue drying out all our lives until we finally die and give back all of that water to the planet. So, when you were born, 75 percent of your new self was once a dinosaur.
Salt water can be desalinated, but that’s a very energy-intensive process. Under traditional methods the water is heated and the steam is collected and condensed. It uses so much energy that the only countries that have done it at a large scale are oil rich water poor countries in the mid-east.
A newer and cheaper method uses membranes to filter out the salt – but even that requires the water to be forced through the membrane and that requires substantial energy to accomplish. Energy is a big factor for another reason as well, and I’ll come back to that in just a bit.
The reason life forms that we know and love evolved on this planet—from bunny rabbits to broccoli, to warblers, to human beings—though not in that order—is because our planet’s atmosphere is constantly desalinating ocean water for us, powered by the incredible energy of the sun. And on much of the planet that fresh water is delivered free as rain and snow and hail and sleet and slizzle and fog.
That free delivery system is part of a central conundrum about water, which is this: How do you price water? Or to ask that another way, what is fresh water worth? If you were dying of thirst, you would literally pay whatever price was asked for a sip, even everything you owned. If you were clinging to a tree in the midst of the rising water of a flood, about to be swept away, you would literally pay whatever price was asked to get rid of the water—or, more realistically—for a helicopter to swoop in and save you.
The price we pay for water in this lovely, lush, green, mountainous, thinly populated place we inhabit is for delivery. If you have a well, you pay an electric bill or have a windmill. If you have a spring above your home, you pay for piping and a reservoir. If you’re on City water, you pay for building and operating the system that gets water to your faucet. But the water is free.
In eastern North America, water has been essentially free forever. And that’s the second reason we ought to begin to consider ourselves facing a permanent state of drought. Our homes, our facilities, our industry, our habits, our aesthetics, have been well watered, and we waste an awful lot of the stuff. Moreover, because of the systems we have invented which are based on free water, we have an infrastructure that won’t work very well with less.
Our love affair with lawns can change, though there are plenty of suburban homeowners who are unlikely to give up their riding mowers until their cold dead fingers are pried from the steering wheel. But our sewer system is a lot less flexible. Toilet design has been pushed to the lower limit of how much water is required to flush. Our plumbing consigns all waste water to the same pipes, despite the fact that wash water from your bath and sinks and laundry could be reused before it heads for the treatment plant. We’ve installed millions of garbage disposals that wash down food scraps that have fertilizer value as compost, and that clog up our sewers, but whose convenience is seductive. And there are waterless urinals now, but they require storage tanks that must later be pumped—so again we’re talking energy.
Now, to get back to the natural desalinization, as you know, the evaporation of water from the sea along with transpiration of plants, puts fresh water in the air as clouds. Both of these processes are speeded up by warmth. Our planet is getting warmer. Whether or not you agree with most scientists who study our atmosphere that much of that warming has been caused by human activities, there can be no disputing the fact that the world is heating up.
So, hmm, if warmer temperatures evaporate more sea water, that should be good, right? More fresh water for all of us landlubbers.
The fly in that ointment is that a warmer atmosphere is also more volatile. Storms are more likely to be superstorms, rain is more likely to be torrential. And the core problem there is that when huge amounts of rain fall in a short time, more of it runs off, instead of being absorbed into the soil. Wells, springs, creeks, branches, streams and rivers depend on fresh water that is absorbed into the soil and only slowly leaked out over the hottest months of the year.
At the same time, in warmer weather between rain storms, more of the soil moisture evaporates, and the trees continue to suck it up and transpire it into the clouds. So wet times are wetter and dry times are drier. That’s the third reason why we seem to be headed into permanently droughty times.
The fourth reason is one that most people are quite surprised to learn, and again it involves energy. The biggest use of fresh water in a modern economy is for power plants. Thermoelectric plants, that is those systems that use heat and steam and cooling towers, coal, oil, and nuclear plants, use 49 percent of the water humans divert for their purposes. Some of it is sea water, but 45 percent of the fresh water we use goes into those plants. If you have heard about the energy/water connection it probably came from a news story about water shortages or extreme heat causing a plant to shut down. The first time that happened in the U.S. was in 1988, in Illinois. But it is becoming more common, with plants in North Carolina and Georgia facing possible shutdowns during recent summer droughts.
Another wrinkle showed up in 2012, when the Millstone nuclear plant in Waterford, Conn., had to shut down one of its two reactors because seawater was too warm to cool it. A heat wave last summer raised the temperature of Long Island Sound, the first time in the plant’s 37 year history that the intake water was insufficiently cool.
At the other end of the pipes, energy is made more expensive because the waste water from a thermoelectric plant is hot, and therefore requires massive cooling systems in order to protect the environment at the outflow. Sometimes, if a large enough cooling pond can be constructed, water can be reused, but as a matter of dollars and cents, it is much cheaper to intake fresh cool water, then cool the outflow just enough to prevent fish kills and other side effects, and send it back to nature.
This brings us to the fifth reason we need to prepare ourselves for permanent drought. Water use has been growing twice as fast as population growth, causing more and more communities to suffer water shortages. As regions of the world develop, electric power comes into high demand. With the massive populations of China and India moving into modern manufacturing, the industrial demand for power and water ratchets up. Then as more workers achieve some level of wealth, the personal demand for modern sanitation and cleanliness rises as well, together with a diet that shifts toward more meat.
Meat production consumes the majority of grain crops grown in the world, and by some accounts, growing that grain uses 70 percent of the non-energy fresh water used by humans.
The sixth reason drought is going to figure very strongly in our future is the biggie, and its the one that drives all the rest. There are more than 7 billion of us on board spaceship earth. Barring a monumental natural disaster or disease epidemic, we are likely headed toward 10 billion by about 2050.
Different experts offer differing guesses, of course, depending on what is factored into their equations, and some believe we won’t exceed 7.5 billion. That’s still a lot of people.
Population growth is slowing as education and wealth liberate more women from multiple pregnancies, and the benefits of smaller families begin to outweigh traditional beliefs and practices. But population increase is a huge force, and with the majority of the population in developing nations only now reaching child-bearing age, the surge will continue.
So even if we take the best case scenario and reach a high point at 7.5 or 8 billion, as wealth and education increase, water demand rises sharply. Here we come back to the question of what water is worth.
In a rich country like ours, most of us would be willing to pay a little more, and certainly be willing to use a little less. Simply due to a growing evironmental ethic, residents in WNC are using less water per capita than they did a decade ago—at least in their homes. But we sometimes forget that we are using Chinese manufacturing water as well when we purchase a cell phone, and Chilean agricultural water when we eat a fresh apple in April, and taking a virtual sip of water in Mumbai when we phone customer service and reach a call center in India.
As I noted early on, a thirsty person can be driven to extremes to get a drink. And a thirsty country is no different. Why did China conquer Tibet in
the 1990s? Possibly partly to find room for an expanding population, partly for the meat —and truckloads of wild animals have been slaughtered and shipped to market—but also to gain control of the headwaters of major Chinese rivers that flow down from the Himalayas. Headwaters which depend on the snowpack laid down during cold Tibetan winters, winters that aren’t so cold any more. Himalayan glaciers are in retreat.
At the same time, climate change is affecting the monsoon rains which are so imperative to the population of the Indian subcontinent.
So the two most populous nations on earth are facing growing water scarcity, and their people are thirsty for development and a better life.
A Pentagon report issued during the G.W. Bush presidency identified climate change and population growth as the two most destabilizing factors in our future. Resource wars could definitely be on the horizon.
A much less known report developed during the Nixon and Ford administrations was never released. Here I come to the religious part of my sermon, which I’m sure many of you have been wondering about.
“When is he going to start preaching?”
That report was called the National Security Study Memorandum 200, or NSSM 200 for short. It detailed the security threat to the United States posed by uncontrolled global population growth. It emphasized the need to educate women and make family planning options available to them. It emphasized that such a policy would not be successful unless abortion were included among those options.
The United States Catholic bishops got wind of the report and used every avenue they could find to block release of the report. They stalled it through the Carter administration and the Reagan administration finally scuttled it altogether. Catholic and fundamentalist Protestants continued to press against any such policy, and during the G.W. Bush administration, all funding for any organization that performed abortions was cut, along with a diversion of substantial resources from effective family planning to abstinence-only programs. Had the U.S. implemented the Nixon-Ford plan, the world today would be cleaner, healthier, wealthier on average, and facing far less dire resource scarcity.
The power of religious dogma to do real harm in the world has probably never enjoyed as explicit a demonstration as when the Bishops intervened.
Every manufacturing nation needs feedstock, and competition for what’s left is ramping up quickly. Easily mined minerals have been exhausted around the world. As Arctic ice retreats, all of the northern nations are exploring the seabed for potential exploitation. China and the U.S. are engaged in a bidding war for mineral wealth in Africa and the Indian subcontinent. Rare earth minerals, which were rare to start with, are getting more scarce, with China controlling most of world production now. And those minerals are essential to modern technology, in your computer, cell phone, hybrid car and more.
Here in the Southern Appalachians the most valuable resource we have is our pure water. Mountains squeeze clouds as air is forced up to cooler altitudes and no matter how climate change affects big weather patterns, that effect of the mountains will only change over geologic time. It is the core reason why Asheville is fighting to retain control of its water system right now. Our pure mountain water was the reason why knitting and weaving factories emerged here in another century. It’s the reason our regional beers win national awards, and why major breweries are building new facilities here. If we lose control of our water, it may be sold down the mountain to South Carolina and Georgia, or voer the mountains to eastern Carolina for fracking operations. If it is going to be sold as a high value resource, the benefit needs to accrue to the people who have paid for the reservoirs, for the pipes, for protecting the watersheds, and not handed off to commercial interests.
No resource outside of air is more precious than fresh water. To compound our water problem, other resource extraction often impinges on the water that is available, as in the environmental disaster of tar-sands mining in Alberta, or hydraulic fracturing for gas drilling in Pennsylvania and possibly North Carolina, or in copper mine tailings in Chile, or gold mine residues in South Africa.
In sum, I think we need to stop thinking of water as free. We need to stop imagining that water will always be abundant. We need to change our minds, and change our infrastructure to prepare for what, during our prospective lifetimes, will be a permanent drought.
Like the experience of the characters in that movie, Easy Rider, I don’t expect it will be an easy ride.
“Flow river flow, past the shaded tree Go river, go, go to the sea, flow to the sea, Flow river flow”
Here’s a draft of a talk I delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Brevard, Dec. 16, 2012
The American Gulag
by Cecil Bothwell
“Make me an angel
That flies from Montgomery
Make me a poster of an old rodeo
Just give me one thing that I can hold onto
To believe in this livin’ is just a hard way to go.”
- John Prine
The phrase “Angel from Montgomery” refers to a pardon for a prison sentence from the governor. It is also used to refer to a last minute pardon from the death sentence. The phrase originated in Alabama where the capital is Montgomery. The way John Prine framed it in his song, the woman is living in her own self made prison from which she can’t escape. Hence she needs a pardon (the angel from Montgomery).
If we take a thoughtful look at the entire prison system in America, it’s pretty clear that we are in need of an army of angels from every state capitol, to free not only the unjustly incarcerated, but to free our society from a system of laws and sentencing guidelines that is as poisonous as it is ineffective.
My personal experience of incarceration is fortunately very brief. When I was 22 years old I was a member of the Florida Farm Bureau – I was following Joni Mitchell’s exhortation to “get back to the land and set my soul free” and I was homesteading a patch of Florida swamp land while I worked as a masonry subcontractor. The farm bureau had a discount offer from a local tire store, and I needed a new spare tire. I went into the store on a Thursday afternoon. While the mechanic mounted the tire, I went to the counter to settle the bill with the store owner, showed him my Farm Bureau membership card and drivers’ license, and then discovered I did not have my check book. So I said I’d have to return the next day with the check. I got tied up managing my masonry crew on Friday, and decided to make the payment on Monday.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, the mechanic had put the new spare tire in my car trunk, a fact which I discovered over the weekend.
On Monday morning, early, I was awakened by a knock on my cabin door, pulled on a pair of pants and opened the door to greet two sheriff’s deputies with a warrant for my arrest for theft. You might imagine I was pretty surprised. I asked what I had stolen and they said, “You know, kid.” They insisted on accompanying me back into the cabin while I put on a shirt, socks and shoes, put me in the back of their squad car and hauled me to jail. They refused to tell me anything about the charges until I was booked for stealing a tire, and photographed, and allowed one phone call and escorted to a cell where I sat alone, wondering what would transpire. It was late that night when a friend finally appeared to bail me out, after the longest, loneliest day of my young life. Imprisonment is frightening. The sense of helplessness is devastating.
The next day I paid for the tire, told the owner that while I had previously purchased tires for both my car and my flat bed truck at his establishment, I wouldn’t be back. The judge later dropped the charges (although I had to pay court costs) and admonished me that he hoped I had learned a lesson.
I did learn a lesson: I was and remain convinced that if I had looked like the tire store owner in short hair and a plaid work shirt instead of long hair, a beard and a tie-dyed tee shirt, I would never have been charged or arrested. He had an opportunity to teach a long-haired hippie a lesson and the sheriff’s department was more than happy to help out. I doubt that the tire man missed my business.
That was obviously an extremely minor brush with the law, but it loomed very large in my life experience forty years ago, and everything I have learned about our legal system since that time has reinforced that lesson.
Much more recently I started a jail ministry with a few other folks at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Asheville, and garnered a great deal of first hand experience with low-level criminals in the Buncombe County Detention Center, over a five year period.
First, a note about why I wanted to start that ministry. I had been an investigative reporter for Asheville’s Mountain Xpress newspaper for several years and had received a fairly constant stream of complaints about conditions in the local jail. Like any other story that depends on whistle-blowers, it’s urgent that a reporter obtain either documentary proof of allegations, or find believable witnesses who are willing to be quoted on the record. Otherwise you have nothing more than hearsay.
Then a woman died in the jail and her adult daughter came to me alleging that her mother had been denied insulin while incarcerated and had died of complications from diabetes. A lawyer who had spent a few days in jail on contempt of court charges, came forward, though off the record, and told me that she had heard the woman moaning and screaming in pain, begging for her insulin injections, and being left untreated until she blacked out and died. Somewhat later I obtained the state coroner’s report which identified intestinal ischemia as the cause of death, and it only took a little more searching to find that intestinal ischemia is often a result of untreated diabetes.
No one was ever charged for that crime.
Another informant came forward to remind me of a death which had occurred a couple of years earlier, and had gone virtually unreported. I dug into the details I was given, did public records requests and learned that a man had been arrested for driving his tractor-type lawn mower, in his own yard, while drunk. He was put in a holding cell and was found dead an hour later. He died of a broken neck. When I reported that in the newspaper, as part of the woman’s story, I got an anonymous tip from a man who claimed to be a guard in the jail. He said, “We all know who killed him.” Then he hung up.
Then I got a call from a man named Carlos Payne, who said he had information about the jail that he’d like to share with me. From his voice I got the impression, correct as it turned out, that he was a large, black man. And while I have worked hard to overcome the cultural biases I was taught as a child, I have to admit that I was viscerally scared when he indicated that he wanted to meet me, alone, in the basement of a nearby church. A fellow reporter insisted that I not go alone, and so the two of us met Carlos in a darkened room in that church basement.
Carlos was pretty scary, and he’d done time for involuntary manslaughter. But he was also an obsessive/compulsive and had kept meticulous daily records of his time in jail and in prison. Further, he had befriended a guard in the Buncombe County jail who had obtained a print copy of his official record during three months in the jail. The official record completely corroborated his allegations that he had repeatedly requested blood pressure medication for his dangerously high blood pressure, and had been repeatedly refused that medication with the guards noting that his demands were not to be believed. They noted that he cursed them repeatedly for the failure to provide medication.
Finally, he blacked out and fell, breaking teeth which caused bleeding, and was rushed to Mission Hospital where the doctors diagnosed his extreme blood pressure, renewed the prescription he had been asking for all along, and sent him back to jail where they then provided his daily prescription and according to the record, stopped cursing the guards.
His sentence had been for 90 days in jail, with a three year suspended prison sentence as long as he obeyed the rules while in jail and reported to a parole officer during the three years. But when he was supposed to be released, he was taken before a judge who was told by the commander of the jail that Payne had violated the jail rules by cursing at guards.
According to the court record, Payne told the judge that he had only cursed because he was denied life-saving medication, and that he had quit cursing once he was provided with his prescription. The officer told the judge that Payne was lying and that the cursing had continued right up to his release date. The judge ruled that the officer was believable while the defendant was not, and sentenced him to three years in North Carolina’s prison system.
Three years later, out of prison, Payne obtained the written jail record he showed me, and wanted his story to be told.
I tell you all of that to explain why I had been trying to get inside the jail to learn what I could about conditions there for a few years. But I was denied permission by the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department, which runs the jail. They do not allow visitors other than those who come in during visiting hours, to sit in front of a glass panel to talk to one inmate while guards monitor the conversation.
Then I learned about the only exceptions to that rule. Churches are allowed to create ministries which can conduct meetings with up to 10 inmates at a time, and discuss whatever they wish. Some social services organizations are also allowed to conduct counseling sessions.
So, we started a jail ministry through the Unitarian Universalist church. We had to have criminal background checks, an instructional session with the jail programs administrator, and be trained by attending a couple of Bible ministry sessions with a Baptist preacher, but then we were free to conduct our own program. It was and is the only non-bible ministry in the Buncombe County jail.
As it happened, when we finally got going, the old, crooked sheriff had gone to federal prison and a new, much more modern and professional sheriff had been elected. Whereas before, guards were selected as punishment for misdeeds as patrol officers, guards are now required to apply for what are now higher paying jobs, and have special training. Medications are well supervised and according to the inmates I’ve spoken with, guards no longer beat prisoners on the elevators. They used to administer beatings there because it is the only place where there are no security cameras.
We were only permitted to meet with non-violent inmates. Most are there on drug or DUI charges, some for failure to pay child support, and a few for theft, and other relatively petty crimes. Most admitted some guilt, but generally disputed the level at which they had been charged. District Attorneys always throw the book at arrestees, threatening the worst possible convictions, in order to coerce plea bargains to lesser charges. That avoids court trials in terribly overbooked courts.
Although my initial motive for creating the ministry was to get inside the jail, to get a feeling for the place, to hear from inmates in their own words about the experience there … the actual ministry was much deeper. I met people operating in a world that’s mostly hidden from my position in life. Of course, I know the statistics, I read sad tales in the newspaper, I understand the financial cost to society of social welfare programs and the court system, but most of the people in the Buncombe County jail are not newspaper readers, are not politically active, don’t have library cards, don’t come to my book signings and don’t attend services at the Unitarian Univeralist church.
They didn’t go to college, they may not have graduated from high school, most don’t hold regular jobs, and they don’t eat at the mid-scale and upscale restaurants in Asheville. They are invisible from where I usually sit.
Most of the inmates I’ve met express remorse, at least about getting caught, and usually about the lives that had led to their current predicament. While the Bible ministries all tell participants that they must accept Jesus as savior, and that they will never fix their lives without Him, we tell participants that we don’t care what beliefs they have about Jesus, or the Bible, or what will happen when they die. We talk about how they might fix their lives when they get out of jail or prison, to avoid the recidivism that is so characteristic of these people. For most that I met over the years, this was not their first time in jail, and it would not be their first time in prison when they were sentenced.
More than a few told me with surprising honesty that THIS time they planned to go straight when they got out. That is, they would go straight after a couple of weeks, but first they would check in with their contacts, and do some drug deals to raise enough cash so they could live until they found jobs. One young man told me his girlfriend had their baby since he’d been arrested, and he was going to do whatever he had to do to buy Pampers and baby food and baby clothes the first day he got out.
And this is where we run into the deep problems with our current laws, our enforcement policies, our judicial system, our prison system and the collateral damage we are doing to individuals, families and communities in America.
We imprison more people per capita than any other country in the world. We have more people imprisoned than Josef Stalin’s gulag state. The world average for incarceration is 150 per 100,000 population. The American prison system stands at 753 per 100,000.
We imposed mandatory minimum sentences for drug related crimes at both the federal and state levels in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and our prison population exploded.
Those with the most incentive to sell drugs are those with the least to lose. Desperate, out-of-work parents with a small baby, and who have had some exposure to drug dealing have very little to lose and a tremendous amount to gain by making a few sales, usually to people they already know.
Because drugs are illegal, there is a high markup. Marijuana, which is essentially a weed, and extremely easy to grow, could easily be sold for a nominal amount, but because it is illegal, requiring an extensive underground network for production, distribution and sale, the price per ounce runs into several hundred dollars or more, with high profits accruing at each step in the distribution chain. The same is true of other naturally occurring drugs: cocaine, heroin, peyote, and mushrooms.
Once someone has been arrested and convicted of a drug crime, the incentives become even higher, because felony convictions make it very hard for ex-cons to find decent jobs. Even with moderately good intentions, like many inmates I met, the lure of quick cash is strong. And, of course, the odds of getting caught during any one sale are very, very low.
Now as it works out, the people most likely to be arrested for drug dealing are those who carry out their trade on the street, soliciting sales to strangers. Again, it is the poor who are most likely to risk exposure in street dealing, and the poor who are most likely to be customers on the street.
The truth is that surveys reveal that illegal drug use is ubiquitous in American life. As a percentage of the population, white middle class people use as many and often more illegal drugs than poor non-white people. But they don’t get arrested very often. Deals that go down in suburban living rooms, corporate lunch rooms, lawyers’ and doctors’ offices, country clubs and the like are not very likely to run afoul of drug suppression teams from the local police force. Furthermore, there is racial and class bias among law enforcement officers, prosecutors and judges. There are unwritten rules about driving while black or brown, rules that we children of the white ruling class never have to consider, unless we grow our hair long, or adopt other outward badges of nonconformity.
Evidence of bias was never more personally clear to me than about ten years after my day spent as a jailbird. I had just completed a year as a house parent in a group home for developmentally disabled children. I was headed to Mexico on a six week camping trip, and my hair was still down over my collar.
At a stopover in Tucson, reacting to a dare from an old friend, and abetted by tequila, I shaved my head.
Two days later I was standing on a sea wall in Mazatlan, Mexico, talking to a retired policeman. I asked him to relate his most memorable experience after a career with the LAPD. Without hesitation he said he loved the sound of his baton coming down on hippies’ heads during demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. He said they split open like ripe watermelons.
I knew in an instant that he would never have told me that story before my new haircut and I adopted that new disguise for the next 8 years, just to experience the world as a skinhead instead of as a hippie. It was during that time that I first heard myself referred to as Mr. Bothwell.
The racial bias in our enforcement system is so pervasive that it is sometimes, and I think accurately described, as a new form of Jim Crow. Nationwide, about 1 in 138 people are incarcerated, which alone seems pretty high, but, of course, men cause most of the problems, young men even more so.
Among white men, aged 16-64, 1 in 87 are incarcerated. Among black men in the same age group, the number is 1 in 12. For black men in their late 20s, the number is 1 in 8.
When unemployment is high it is always higher in the African American population. Partly this reflects racism in hiring, but it also reflects a reasonable reluctance to hire ex-criminals.
A friend of mine, in Asheville, presents a case in point. Ed Chapman spent 15 years on North Carolina’s death row before he was exonerated. He had been convicted by a prosecutor and law enforcement officers who suppressed evidence, buried the result of a police line-up, and even ignored the jailhouse confession of the actual murderer (who is also on death row, for other crimes.) Once he was released, he’s had a very difficult time finding a decent job, because potential employers identify him as an ex-convict.
Our laws have helped create and build a permanent underclass. Many or most of those young black men have fathered children, and so while they are doing time their babies grow up in single-mother households, and single mother households comprise the highest proportion of homes below the poverty line. And when those young fathers get out of prison, unable to find work, they can easily represent one more dependent instead of one more wage earner in the household. Unless, of course, they are willing to do some drug deals and generate some cash.
And here I might note that while there is a high markup on illegal drugs, there are so many people dealing at the street level that studies suggest that most low level dealers don’t earn much more than minimum wage for their time. But, at least its a job.
For those whose morality is offended by my argument that we should go ahead and legalize the most popular, least physically dangerous drugs, I would say this: the American people have voted with their wallets. We have more drugs on the streets now than when the much heralded War on Drugs was declared about fifty years ago. The drugs are often higher potency. The prices are higher, due to our suppression efforts, so the profits are greater and the incentive to sell is greater. By making less harmful forms of some drugs more expensive, for example cocaine, we have spawned worse problems via conversion to crack cocaine, which delivers more bang for the buck. Because the supply chain for crystal meth is shorter, and often more reliable, if not in your own neighborhood, it is easier to get than other drugs which are physically less hazardous. We have succeeded in making the problem worse.
And at the other end of the supply chain, we are making drug king-pins rich, encouraging an international arms trade across the Mexican border and elsewhere, funding the rebel armies that protect the king-pins and destabilizing governments around the globe. For instance, heroin is Afghanistan’s major export commodity, and some Afghani Taliban groups rely on the heroin trade.
(The following paragraph is an addition to the talk as originally delivered at the Brevard UU Church on Dec. 17.)
The banking industry is implicated as well, because king-pins don’t stuff all that cash into mattresses. The British bank, HSBC, was recently found guilty of laundering billions of dollars in drug money, but was only given a slap on the wrist by the United States justice department. The negotiated penalty was $1.9 billion, a “record” settlement—equal to a few week’s profits for the banking giant. But the government had the legal authority to confiscate all of the banks assets, and all of the assets of all of the bank officers implicated in the laundering. Instead, they were let off easy due to expressed fears about what repercussions a meaningful penalty might have triggered in international finance. If you are caught with a single marijuana cigarette, the police can confiscate your cash, your vehicle, even your home. If you are caught laundering money for murderers, extortionists and international drug lords, you may lose your Christmas bonus. The injustice is bizarre beyond belief. [end of new material]
A year from now we’ll begin to learn how much money Colorado and Washington are saving due to their recent decisions to legalize marijuana. They predict savings in the millions in law enforcement, court costs and incarceration. Some foresee a noticeable uptick in tourism as well. This week, the Obama administration announced that it will honor those state-level decisions and not pursue recreational marijuana users in those states.
My experience with the Buncombe County jail ministry has strengthened my belief that most of the poor souls doing time for drug crimes would much prefer to be home supporting their families. If we legalized drugs, they might get jobs in drug stores because there wouldn’t be a profit to be made on the street, and drug king-pins are not the sorts of employers who provide paid vacations and health insurance. When I asked them about what jobs they have done in their lives, they often expressed clear pride that they had once worked doing roofing, hanging drywall, changing tires, putting down asphalt or even digging ditches for a plumbing contractor. All of us gain some sense of self-worth from contributing to society, from providing for our families, from doing our fair share.
One drug dealer I met in jail even bragged to me about the rules concerning children and charitable giving he had organized among dealers in South Asheville. He insisted that his homies had agreed never to sell to kids, never to sell near schools, and to divert money to a program that bought school supplies for the elementary school in their neighborhood.
I have no idea if they stuck to the sales rules, but I looked into it, and they definitely bought those school supplies – or at least, someone claiming to represent the local dealers had delivered the goods.
When I thought about that, it was hard to claim that school supplies paid for by drug sales were any more or less moral than our state-sanctioned education lottery, which is about as morally twisted a way to pay for schooling as I can imagine.
America can do better. I hope we can all help.
“Many’s the time I’ve been mistaken
And many times confused
Yes, and I’ve often felt forsaken
And certainly misused
Ah, but it’s all right, all right
I’m just weary to my bones.
Still you don’t expect to be bright and bon vivant
So far away from home. So far away from home.”
- Paul Simon
Over the river and through the woods.
Or—to state our trajectory more accurately—through the woods and over the river; we hung a left past the bridge; then a right; a left; a zig; a zag; another right; and there we were at grandma’s house—just 515 miles from transom to transom. Twenty hours total driving time there and back again, divided in half by a two-week visit to my partner’s home place.
That this sort of casual travel is possible is one of the miracles of 20th century technological civilization. Mobility has blessed and cursed us, enabling an endless diaspora while chaining us to our machines. In the process our dispersal may well have become the biggest psychological obstacle to creation of a sustainable society. And creation of a sustainable society is essential if we are to mitigate the human impact on global climate change.
And while I’m pointing a finger I’m not afraid to admit my own culpability.
Between April 2 and April 11 of 2010 I traveled more than 10,000 miles while feeling more than a little carbon guilt. I flew to Newark to give a speech and then to Hawaii. My best buddy from high school gave me a ticket to visit his home there. I assuaged myself in part by attending a symposium on alternative fuels hosted by the U.S. Navy which announced plans to derive 70 percent of its fuel from renewables by 2030. They’ve even figured out how to distill jet fuel from switchgrass. The state of Hawaii has made the same commitment to 70 percent renewables by 2030.
Other speeches in 2010 took me to Minneapolis and Denver, adding another 5,000 miles to my hemispheric walkabout. Toss in 10- or 15,000 miles of automobile travel, and the total is more than once around the earth.
In 2011 I flew a bit less, perhaps 6,000 miles, speaking in Cambridge and Des Moines, and with three visits to Washington DC, including a protest against the XL Pipeline, but drove more, criss-crossing Western North Carolina during my run for Congress.
And flights are up again this year: Between Miami, Providence, Denver, and Winter Park, Florida, nearly 8,000 miles, with another trip to South Florida scheduled for this December.
But my carbon guilt is deeper and wider than that. Up to the turn of the millennium I spent a great deal of time on the road, for pleasure. Cheap oil let me visit the Grand Canyon and the Badlands, New Mexican mesas and Aztec ruins, Big Sur and the Olympic Peninsula, Vancouver and Fairbanks and Anchorage, the Yukon, New Orleans and Chicago, San Franciso and Washington, DC, Tijuana and Newfoundland, the Little Big Horn and the Saw Tooth range, the Okefenokee and the Louisiana bayou. I’ve canoed in every Great Lake and most of North America’s river systems. I’ve hiked in Yellowstone and the Snake River Canyon and the Chiricahuas and the White Mountains and the Green Mountains and the Cascades, the Catskills and the Sierra Nevada and the Sand Hills and the Ozarks, of course the Southern Applachians and too many more places to easily catalog. It was a grand adventure and it was cheap.
Taking the long view—disastrously cheap.
In addition to my former partner, Susan’s, inclination toward travel and my own willingness, there’s a longer-term picture to consider as well. My parents met and married in Florida, though Dad was born in Chicago (as was I). The introduction occurred because my Mom had worked in New York City for a couple of years, where she met Dad’s cousin (also from the Chicago area) who suggested the two get together after Mom returned to her high school home town, Orlando, where Dad was building homes and breeding Shetland sheep dogs. Mom was born and half-way raised in Pittsburgh. I had moved to New Hampshire and then North Carolina with a year-long stop-over in Arizona. But my trajectory had included junior high in Long Island, New York, and high school in Florida, with a couple of years of college in Atlanta.
Susan’s parents settled on her grandmother’s farm-turned-suburbia in Ohio, and her aunts, uncles, cousins and two siblings stayed close to home, but her other brother moved to Tucson, then Portland, Oregon. A niece and nephews spun out to Washington, DC, Knoxville and Salt Lake City/Dallas and then Atlanta, respectively. Neither of our families was particularly atypical for the post-WWII years. We spread out and dissolved the extended families of past generations. We did so because we could—often for better job prospects, sometimes on whims, for love, or, pretty often, simply to shake off the past. My buddy in Hawaii, who has since retired to Asheville, held jobs in, Florida, Virginia, Alabama and Pennsylvania before he headed west and his wife, from Pennsylvania who he met and married in Virginia, met her first husband in Maryland.
Cheap energy made cost no real object, and that same cheap energy made family visits, shared holidays, weddings and funerals and graduations and other base-touching reasonably affordable.
But the families were fragmented despite phone calls and (increasingly rare) written letters. (E-mail has lately abetted better and more frequent contact for many.) The easy distancing could engender real difficulty when a physically remote mother or father needed nursing care and the lack of nearby grandparents shifted more children into daycare.
Whether this social fracturing has been, on the whole, good or bad is open to debate, but the fact that cheap oil had social consequences is not.
My holiday journey over the river and through the woods traversed a landscape in transition. Farmland was sprouting subdivisions as thick and fast as springtime weeds, particularly along the Interstate arteries. The previous week, one of Susan’s brothers went to an auction of the farm which he (and their father before him) worked on as a young man. The gavel came down to the tune of one and a half million bucks, paid by a developer hell-bent on suburbia.
We have painted ourselves into a very difficult corner as cities metastasize into surrounding healthy tissue. The sprawl enabled by fossil fuel combustion has built us into a dependence on that technology that becomes harder and harder to break.
Look at the conundrum: Cheap mobility facilitates both commuting and distribution of goods. Easy commuting drives up the use-value of land far outside the cities, a change which also raises property taxes. At the same time, the distribution network permits import of food from lower valued land (usually with lower priced labor). Beleaguered farmers facing underpriced competition and overpriced land are understandably tempted to liquidate. The whole scheme floats on cut-rate oil.
Each new home on former farm land further entrenches political support for the status quo. People who have invested their savings in a home and who are dependent on a distant job to keep up mortgage payments are vested in the present cheap-oil economy. Adding insult to the internal combustion injury of the biosphere, the average size of new homes in the U.S. has grown enormously over the past five decades. More heated space will require more heat for decades into the future. Even construction methods are affected, as when cost/benefit considerations dictate the return on insulation or insulating windows vis-a-vis cheap energy.
At the same time, inexpensive oil encourages investment in inefficient vehicles, and—via conversion to electricity—in inefficient appliances of all sorts. Each consumer decision against conservation results in further stasis. A new auto which uses twice as much fuel as an alternative model locks that demand into our energy equation for twenty years or more. Ditto for refrigerators, freezers, ranges, water heaters and a host of smaller gadgets.
The chief obstacles to creation of more efficient, more frequent, more user-friendly public transit are low population density and cheap gas — and really, those are two sides of the same coin. During the oil price spike which some authorities believe precipitated our recent Great Recession, ridership on city transit systems kicked up significantly. The drop in ridership since 2009 is partly due to a temporary drop in fuel prices, elevated unemployment, and acceptance of $4 gasoline as the new normal.
And while I’m on the subject of transit, I could point out that subsidy for a transit system is a direct subsidy of employers in cities who hire low wage workers. Dish washers and bussers and other low-wage jobs frequently don’t pay enough to support automobile ownership and use. So many businesses are completely dependent on the transit system to enable their employment of those workers, at least at the wages generally offered. The government subsidies of transit would be lower if ridership were higher, so once again, cheap gas skews the equation.
Meanwhile the supply lines for food grow ever longer, and more and more of the fertilizer supply comes directly from what Thom Hartmann aptly referred to as “ancient sunlight”—fossil fuels stored up over millennia.
The U.S. has created one of the least efficient technological societies on the planet. While it’s true that we have improved efficiency over time, other countries have pushed fuel prices up through taxation to encourage conservation and made far greater strides. We have intentionally kept fuel prices low—an intentional subsidy to drivers, industry and agriculture, which, as I just mentioned, also creates demand for collateral subsidy of transit. With oil prices kept down, farm labor is devalued as well, since workers compete with cheaply fueled engines. This feeds directly into the issue of immigration because the low wages offered by farmers attract workers for whom those wages represent a step-up.
Because chemical nitrogen fertilizer comes from underpriced natural gas, we tilt the market toward chemical agriculture and away from organic. The price differential between organic and non-organic food is largely created by low priced fossil fuel supplies.
Moreover, we subsidize oil with tax money for military intervention as well as funding health care costs incurred by pollution victims. Our inefficient vehicles and high reliance on automobile use has created a childhood asthma epidemic, directly attributable to auto exhaust. Imagine how different our economic choices might be if we paid for wars and health care with taxes on the fossil fuels that create the need in the first place. In worst case conditions, such as the BP death gusher in the Gulf of Mexico, we will be dealing with toxins in the food chain for decades. The cost will never be accurately assessed.
The damage will not abate in our lifetimes.
More subtly, oil costs are externalized in the form of forest and agricultural decline resulting from acid deposition, nitrous oxides and low-level ozone. Citizens of WNC receive daily warnings about air quality and are often urged not to engage in overmuch outdoor activity because we are Code Yellow or Orange.
This in a region once famous for it’s healthful air.
When I spoke earlier of mothers and fathers and children, I was, of course, actually talking about love and sex, and modern sexuality is, for all practical purposes, a petrochemical product even before you include condoms … which you should, because today’s safe sex practices are at least partly necessary because global transportation greatly increased the dispersal of sexually transmitted diseases.
I’m of the generation that explored its first lessons in practical anatomy at drive-in movie theaters. The motel, another augmentation for close personal relationships, was invented to serve travelers on the highway system developed by the Eisenhower administration to help General Motors sell cars. The car and the motor-hotel provided the means to find privacy and anonymity that was rare in less energy intensive times.
After going to movies or ball games, my crowd in high school used to drive to a Methodist Church parking lot that was surrounded by dense shrubs and fronted on a lake. The town police knew we were basically good kids and left us alone, our parents hoped we were good kids and didn’t much complain, we all felt entirely safe because we were surrounded by friends’ in their own cars, and we were pretty much left to our own devices.
My device was a 1948 Plymouth Special Deluxe, with suicide doors in back that opened on a rear seat that looked like a living room sofa. I bought it from the original owner when I was 17 and it was 20 years old and paid $75. I later gave it to my cousin who blew the engine and had it junked. I saw one online the other day offered for $35,000, ah the mistakes of youth.
More importantly, the oil economy profoundly affected the institution of marriage. World War II was, in many ways, a war about control of oil. Germany invaded North Africa in an effort to access Arab oil fields and Japan sought control of Malaya and Indonesia for oil and rubber. The U.S. won the war at least in part because we had ample domestic oil to fuel industry and war machines. There was a major mobilization of men for that war effort, women moved into traditional male jobs and the G.I. Bill permitted unprecedented access to college education. The geographical and social mobility had a huge effect on the availability of alternative mates.
Instead of marrying a high school sweetheart and settling in our hometowns, we were suddenly mixing it up.
Thirty-two years ago I moved to North Carolina and landed in a vacation home subdivision populated by Floridians on the edge of the Broad River Township, which is now part of Black Mountain. Over my twenty years there I came to understand that thirty years further back that valley had been all but cut off from the modern world. A round trip to the nearest accessible town of Hendersonville began before dawn and ended after dark even if your horses didn’t tarry along the way. The Ledbetters and the Owenbys each had 13 children and a dozen of each brood married a dozen of the other.
During the 1950s, oil-powered bulldozers built by the companies that built tanks for the war pushed a road through a mountain pass and most of the children of those dozen families left for good, finding and marrying their partners in far off Asheville, Hickory or Charlotte.
As Billy Wheeler and others have sung it,
“I can’t help but blamin’ your goin’
On the coming, the coming of the roads.”
Then too, the wider choice and the ability of women to join the workforce made divorce a much more tenable or even attractive option than in an earlier time.
I mentioned a quiet church parking lot, and note that religion has been changed by cheap energy too. Megachurches are commuter churches in the same way that sports stadiums and big civic centers and big golf tournaments are commuter entertainment venues.
The reason sports stars garner such huge salaries is a phenomenon largely driven by cheap fuel. The only way NFL and NBA games and baseball pennant races are possible in their modern form is because it’s cheap to fly thousands of players all over the country to perform in venues accessed by millions of fans who rely on cheap energy to attend the games. I suppose we could get around that by creating a sports city somewhere, where all the players lived and then just televise all the games, but I think the excitement would drain out pretty fast if all the home teams lived in the same town.
Then too, many of us dance when we date, or go to concerts. Look at what cheap gas has done to music! Before WWII, if you lived in a big city, the fancy dance clubs and restaurants had resident orchestras and dance bands. If you lived in a small town, you were lucky if a couple of local folks played banjos or fiddles or guitars, and you’d go to barn dances and church socials to sing or dance.
Then came the boom in recorded music, electrified instruments, radio and TV, and the interstate highway system. Now three or four musicians could make more noise than Count Basie’s whole orchestra and repeated air play made new songs more popular than classic folk tunes. The four musicians pile into a van with their gear and start touring. Suddenly you could hear the newest pop song from the actual band that recorded it and as those bands grew in wealth they could afford to produce shows that left local bands in the dust. Shows moved from dance clubs to stadiums and civic centers, and they too became commuter events. Superstars were born.
Connecting sports and music stardom with religion, we saw the rise of Billy Graham and the mass revival. When he was a boy the touring superstars in the Bible belt were preachers who set up tent meetings for weeks at a time. Graham’s boyhood hero was Mordecai Ham, an anti-semitic fire and brimstone character who was sort of the Chuck Norris of the tent circuit. Graham built on that model with the new technology of pop music and worked the sports stadiums and civic centers to create huge commuter events that lasted just a day or a few. The economy of cheap gasoline made moving the show much more affordable. So whereas Ham would fleece the same few hundred townfolk for a month or more, Graham could fleece hundreds of thousands all around the world in the same time period.
The existence of superstars in sports, entertainment, and religion has had a collateral effect on society that is widespread and, in my view, pernicious. A lot of kids growing up in this superstar society believe that the same success and wealth is available to them. That idea tends to devalue education and everyday jobs and puts the focus on talent and luck. The fact that a kid from public housing has a much better chance of being a heart surgeon than a basketball star is lost. The fact that study and hard work can let you fashion a satisfying and productive life is set aside. Instant wealth seems possible just around the corner, as near as a winning lottery ticket.
And far beyond the immediate effect on one child, is the effect on many adults.
Cheap energy has been at the core of a modern mindset that anything is possible, that everyone has a shot at the gold ring. Who wants to be a millionaire? Who wants to dance with the stars? Who wants to be a survivor and make a killing on Wall Street?
That has infected our politics. Many people, imagining that they too will soon be rich, cast their lot with the the rich. They then vote for policies that continue to widen the gap between rich and poor. They complain about tax hikes for the rich, even when there are tax cuts for the poor, unwilling to accept that they are, and will almost to a person, always be among the 95 percent who are relatively poor. They buy into political viewpoints that teach them that it’s poor immigrants who are keeping them down, not their own choices in the voting booth. Cheap gas has fueled both the machines and the machine politics that has created the widest wealth gap in the history of the world.
And the machines include poker machines and other forms of gaming. In a world where luck is considered to be more the arbiter of success than work, gambling makes perfect sense. Lottery tickets, limos to Harrahs, weekends in Las Vegas and Buncombe County’s former sheriff Bobby Medford’s video poker racketeering are all part of that mindset. It’s really kind of boggling when you consider the popularity of gambling these days, where everyone knows that the house always, ultimately wins and it’s considered to be great good fun to give more than you can afford to corporations which are richer than you can imagine.
In order to move toward true sustainability we must—by definition—decouple our lives from dependence on non-renewable resources, but the political will for such sweeping change is conspicuously rare.
Though I treasure the chance to spend some holiday time with distant family members and friends, it is impossible to shake a sense of foreboding. The policies that made that Thanksgiving visit possible will make our entire economic structure impossible in the not-too-distant future as the oil runs out.
There is no substitute for oil on the near horizon, a fuel so condensed and portable and malleable that it is the lifeblood of modern technological society. If you have a 150 horsepower engine in your car, you are obtaining the work of 150 horses for $3.65 per gallon. Where will you find a substitute for those horses? We are building toward a crash of monumental proportions, on a scale that could easily dwarf the experience of the Great Depression or the current Great Recession. At least in the 1930s most of us lived closer to the farm, to our work, and to our families.
We chose to believe that low fuel prices were a social good. Our elected officials made sure THAT continued, at least in part because it was an easy issue. People notice how much it costs to fill their tanks and fill their grocery bags and if those prices jump up an opposition candidate can promise to knock things back down. So incumbents keep the lid on. The larger costs are hidden and spread out as hospital bills, acidified lakes, military intervention, and more—invisible in plain sight because they are diffuse and the dots haven’t been well connected in the public mind.
Though much of my air travel in recent years has come about due to speaking engagements, two of my trips this year involved a much more personal matter. My younger brother died suddenly on March 11, in Bryson City. On March 13 I flew to Miami to be with my 90 year old mother to support each other in that time of shock and loss and grief. Two weeks ago today, I honored my brother’s wishes and scattered Cameron’s ashes on a lake in Winter Park, Florida—the lake on whose shores we lived during our teenage years.
In his life and death there’s another tale of the modern diaspora. Mom has divided her time between Miami and Spruce Pine in recent years. Cam lived in Bryson. I live in Asheville.
Scattered to the wind, we are, and living amidst strangers. We have been fooled by cheap energy into choices we might soon regret. Whether we are down to our last five drops of gasoline, as predicted by peak oil calculations, or down to the last 5 million barrels we can burn before runaway greenhouse warming makes our planet uninhabitable, I fear it may be a very, very long walk home.
“So far away from home.”
Well, I needed a title. Sometimes one’s life gets turned upside down in a positive way. On Oct. 22 I found a new home that suited me just fine, closed the deal 11 days later and moved in from Nov. 2-7. Due to the haste of the move I’m still unpacking the “mixed” boxes, and shedding stuff I presumably would have jettisoned on the front end had things moved more slowly.
Will now post the talk I intended to post after Oct. 14.