Category: History


Father Coughlin (Library of Congress, via Wikipedia)

History is often said to repeat itself and if there is a correspondence between the situation in the United States today and during the Great Depression, then Father Charles Edward Coughlin was to President Roosevelt what Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are to President Obama. Initially a supporter of Roosevelt, his concerns over socialism and affinity toward Hitler and Mussolini led him to denounce Roosevelt to the wide audience of his popular radio show. There are, however, some difficulties with the comparison between Coughlin and Limbaugh and Beck. Father Coughlin was actually taken off the air by the Government. Wikipedia explains how:

The administration decided that although the First Amendment protected free speech, it did not necessarily apply to broadcasting, because the radio spectrum was a “limited national resource” and regulated as a publicly owned commons. New regulations and restrictions were created to force Coughlin off the air. For the first time, operating permits were required of those who were regular radio broadcasters. When Coughlin’s permit was denied, he was temporarily silenced. Coughlin worked around the restriction by purchasing air time and having his speeches played via transcription. However, having to buy the weekly air time on individual stations seriously reduced his reach and strained his resources.

Wikipedia: Father Coughlin

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Naomi Klein (TED)

Literature is filled with strange tales of monsters lurking in the woods or other elements and the lengths to which lost travelers must go in order to survive in the vast, deep wilderness. Wildlife in these stories is as plentiful as it is dangerous. Bears, wolves and large cats bound into the man versus nature conflict whenever the unsuspecting wayfarer’s attention and strength are at an ebb. Living off the land in a foreign environment, without the resources and safety of the village are portrayed as an existential test of strength, tenacity and pluck against the unknown dangers of the gigantic world beyond the meadows in the immediate vicinity of the hero(ine)’s hamlet.

"The Voyage of Life - Childhood" by Thomas Cole (1842) (National Gallery of Art, via Wikipedia)

The narrative was first developed by the enscription of Epic of Gilgamesh into clay cuneiform tablets around 2600 BCE, though it is more famously rendered in Homer’s relatively recent 800 BCE Odyssey. Somehow this narrative has survived despite the passage of nearly a thousand generations of people over forty-seven centuries without regard to the massive changes in technology and the scale of human populations since those times. The first paragraph of the Odyssey, as translated by Samuel Butler begins:

Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy. Many cities did he visit, and many were the nations with whose manners and customs he was acquainted; moreover he suffered much by sea while trying to save his own life and bring his men safely home

The world population never exceeded 15 million people before the development of agriculture in northern Africa by ~ 12,000BCE. That is 25% less than the population of the New York Metro Area today. The world population has increased fully 460 times that value in the intervening years. There were only about 450 million people by the time that Little Red Riding Hood was first told in the 14th century CE.

Energy use per person was nil at the time of Gilgamesh but now average power consumption among 300 million Americans is 12,000W per person, roughly twice that of the average Western European, nine times that of the average Chinese person and twelve times that of the average Indian. But as 2.4 billion Chinese and Indians seek a better life, we risk the prospect of requiring 11 America-equivalents of power consumption within 30 years. The world’s biome is already fracturing at the current capacity of 5 America-equivalents and in all honesty, it can not sustain even one for the long term.

The solution is simple: Convert to wind and solar power and decetralize consumption in society. It is possible and we can do it. The investment would be no more than that which created the vast petroleum network we use to fill our cars every day. But because we would no longer need to purchase power, this is a tremendous problem for petrochemical companies who have worked with the Tea Party to introduce legislation to eliminate wind power in Montana and soon Wisconsin and other states. This means that as we continue to consume oil, we take greater and greater risks with our environment. We are told that everything will be ok – do not worry about climate change. Climate has changed before! Stay the course!

Google Maps image of Tar Sand Extraction near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada (Google Maps)

Disappointingly, the major news media, who display big oil advertisements have obfuscated the issue, it is simpley the nature of a for profit institution to seek profit over truth. These companies do not want change because they are doing well enough as it is and their executives are incredibly wealthy. CEOs will always be able to afford food, even when no one else can. Their advertising is like the veritable wolf in grandma’s garb as Little Red Riding Hood walks into the house with butter and cakes.

Still, Environmental degradation is plainly visible if we simply pay attention. The BP Oil Disaster is a clear and ominous sign and another is much less widely known – the Alberta Tar (Oil) Sands. The U.S. has reduced its consumption of oil from the Middle East, but it now consumes far dirtier oil (it creates 3x the carbon dioxide of normal oil in production and use) and we are stripping bare vast regions of Alberta’s Boreal Forest. The impact can be seen from space. Gray area in the Google Map Image are current extraction sites near Fort McMurray. The small brown rectangles you see surrounded by green forest regions that are being logged before becoming new strip mines.

Picking up from where we left off in the first paragraph of Odyssey:

but do what he might he could not save his men, for they perished through their own sheer folly in eating the cattle of the Sun-god Hyperion; so the god prevented them from ever reaching home. Tell me, too, about all these things, O daughter of Jove, from whatsoever source you may know them.

Alberta Aerial view of tar sands extraction in Alberta (Garth Lenz)

We no longer live in the world of Little Red Riding Hood. We no longer fear the woods because they are small, fragile and finite. They do not house predators anymore. Large animals that are not livestock have been allowed to remain only in a few reservations around the world that cover a small fraction of the Earth’s surface. Humans have taken over and we are now a geological force. It can be seen in the form of the road grid on any plane flight, it can be seen in the images of tar sands extraction and it can be seen in the Gulf of Mexico. There are few expansive horizons and they are no longer threatening. We have reached a new physical limit in which we do have a profound effect on our surroundings. That means that we have new responsibilities to care for the Earth if we wish to keep it as a home: We need to change the narrative.

There is one thing that we should keep: Ulysses was the only member of his crew that returned home. Homer makes it abundantly clear that it was due to his creativity, his leadership, and his foresight that he found his way back to Ithaca. If you read Odyssey carefully, you will find that while his crew were staging a man vs. nature drama, Ulysses was primarily concerned with the part about man vs. self – especially when traveling near the Sirens.

Please watch this excellent and informative talk on risk and the environment by Naomi Klein as part of the TED lecture series.

References
I am using Wikipedia simply to illustrate how easy it is to find this information. Other resources include governmental regulatory websites, newspapers, blogs, magazines, and published studies.
Wikipedia: Current Energy Use
Wikipedia: World Population
Wikipedia: Tar Sands

In 2009, Bill Moyers held a wonderful interview with Howard Zinn, a short time before Zinn’s death. The interview discusses Zinn’s recent work – a History Channel documentary special based on his A People’s History of the United States. The interview includes a few very powerful clips showing just how normal men and women changed the course of history. The words of the people in the documentary are read by poets poets and actors, including Matt Damon (who was Zinn’s neighbor in Boston) and Marissa Tomei.

You must see Marissa Tomei read the words of Genora Dollinger, the woman who organized the “Women of Flint”, the Women’s Emergency Brigade. That scene can be found about half-way through Part 1.

Howard Zinn on Moyers Journal (1/3) (Moyers Journal, via YouTube)

Howard Zinn on Moyers Journal (2/3) (Moyers Journal, via YouTube)

Howard Zinn on Moyers Journal (3/3) (Moyers Journal, via YouTube)

Hatshepsut, Pharaoh of Egypt 1508-1458BCE (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Hatshepsut
was a female Pharaoh of Egypt during the prosperous 18th Dynasty. She was the daughter of the powerful Thumosis II, though she was not the first female rule of Egypt (that was likely Sobekneferu, of the 12th Dynasty, a bit more than 300 years earlier), but she was one of its greatest rulers. As Pharaoh, Hatshepsut reopened trade routes that had been idle since the conquest of Egypt by the Hyksos. She also extended trade networks to distant areas, including a huge expedition to the distant land of Punt (in modern Ethiopia). At home, she engaged in a building program without compare in Egyptian history while investing heavily in the arts. Her reign was primarily peaceful, though she did continue her father’s military exploits early on. This was not a boom or bust deal – her successor, Thutmosis III built on her accomplishments and expanded Egypt’s boundaries to their largest extent yet and her social and economic investment at home helped to strengthen Egypt’s longest-ruling dynasty, the eighteenth.

Wikipedia: Hatshepsut

J.P. Morgan, assailing a photographer (Wikipedia)

The Gilded Age was a time of unchecked growth in the disparities between the rich and the poor. While the wealthy lived like kings, the poor dwelt in slums and farmsteads and those living in urban areas worked difficult jobs for long hours under difficult conditions for low wages. Workers rights were few and far between and child labor was still legal. That was ok because Social Darwinism was the norm. Politics were the realm of the wealthy robber barons, and chock full of corporate and public corruption fed with copious corporate subsidies. And like all laissez faire economic systems, the Gilded Age economy collapsed in the Panic of 1893, ushering in the Progressive Era.

The death of St. Valentine (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Valentine’s Day can be a rough time for singles. Hopefully all of you out there had a great day yesterday and a tolerable evening. For those of you who did not, here is a little dark history on Valentine’s Day that you may find interesting.