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The summer of our discontent

Bill Meredith

Sirius rises late in the dark, liquid sky
On summer nights, star of stars,
Orion's Dog they call it, brightest
Of all, but an evil portent, bringing heat
And fevers to suffering humanity.
…Homer, ca. 800 BC: The Iliad

(8/2016) It’s nice when things are predictable. Spring this year was pleasant, and summer arrived on schedule to continue the trend. It was a good time for birds; my feeder was crowded with young sparrows, finches and cardinals, all fluffing out their feathers, quivering their wings, and begging their parents to feed them. Mostly, it was an act; when the parents weren’t around they were perfectly capable of finding their own seeds and bugs, although they did get confused in a few cases. Probably the silliest was the young downy woodpecker that managed to perch on the hummingbird feeder and hang on long enough to get several sips of sugar water. He seemed to like it, but his feet were not designed for that kind of perch, and he wasn’t able to hang on very long. But then Dog Days arrived, and things started going down hill. The days got hot and sticky, and just as Homer predicted 2400 years ago, an evil portent brought heat and fevers to our suffering humanity. The political conventions started.

The first convention I can remember was in 1956. I was at the University of West Virginia then, and my research group spent several days sitting in our advisor’s office listening to roll-call votes on the radio. The Convention Chairman called the roll of the states alphabetically, and a delegate from each state would come to the microphone and intone something like "The Great State of Pennsylvania, Home of Benjamin Franklin, the Continental Congress, the Liberty Bell and our First National Capital, proudly casts 276 votes for the Next President of the United States!" Words to that effect were repeated by the delegates of each state from Alabama to Wyoming, broken by comic relief when some local pol suddenly realized he was speaking to a national audience and forgot whom he was voting for. And on each ballot at some point we would hear "Puerto Rico casts two votes for ___!" It was funny, but it was also democracy in action… your vote was counted, no matter where you lived.

I was only 23 then, and fully engaged in learning to be an ecologist. But I had just finished four years of college, in which I had enough credits for minors in both English and History, so I was also idealistic… and, inevitably, I was naVve. The world was a troubled place. It was the height of the Cold War, and the national psyche was still shaken by McCarthyism; the war in Korea was not yet resolved, and Russia was leading in the Space Race. And yet I was confident we would prevail. I was convinced that the key to our nation’s future was education. I believed the quality of education I was receiving was available to everyone, and I assumed everyone wanted it. There was no doubt in my mind that a democracy with an educated and well-informed public could face difficult problems, see the difference between facts and propaganda, and make the right choices. The ensuing 60 years show how wrong I was.

My world view in the 1950s was correct in only one way: I believed history could not be ignored. The problems I saw in the ’50s waned, but they did not die away; they just faded into the background as new and greater problems replaced them. The emphasis of the Cold War shifted from Russia to China; the Korean War fizzled out, but was followed by Viet Nam; the Space Race was won, but the technological changes that won it changed our society in unanticipated ways. In the meanwhile, three new problems appeared: Civil Rights, population growth, and climate change. In reality, they were not really new; each had been foreseen by scholars, sometimes for decades, but they had been ignored or denied by political systems all over the world. From the 1960s onward, they could no longer be ignored, but many politicians made successful careers by persuading an uncritical public to ignore them.

The Rights of individuals has been a problem throughout the history of civilization. The Old Testament records slavery as a normal institution in societies, and it existed in ancient Greece, the cradle of democracy. In America, Washington, Jefferson, and many of the other Founding Fathers owned slaves. Our Civil War was supposed to have ended it, and the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution promised equality for all. But both before and since the Civil War unscrupulous politicians have exploited voters’ prejudices against persons of different color, national origin, gender, religion or economic class. We now call them voting blocs; the present election campaigns pit them against each other, and we run polls to measure how they will behave on election day. I knew of this in 1956; my naVve belief that public education would change it was wrong. I now believe it will get worse as populations grow and living conditions worsen.

The problems of population growth were known in the 16th and 17th centuries, but they came to public attention through the writing of Robert Malthus in 1798. His "Essay on Population" showed how unrestricted populations would always grow faster than the world’s ability to provide food. The result of this would be what he called "vice and misery." Those two words included famines, epidemics, wars, and exploitation of social classes; and conditions in colonial empires like India and large cities like London and Paris provided evidence. In the 19th century, emigration to the Americas provided some room for the excess populations; but beginning around 1860, the "Germ Theory" of disease and the development of vaccines gradually began to reduce the occurrence of plague, smallpox, yellow fever, and other scourges. In the first half of the 20th century, two World Wars and the Great Depression reduced population growth, but the development of antibiotics in the ‘40s and the "Green Revolution" of the late ’60s allowed population growth to accelerate. By the later years of the 20th century, in spite of wars, disease and malnutrition the populations of Africa and Central/South America were growing explosively; and new means of communication by computers and cell phones, both products of space technology, enabled these crowded societies to become aware of the advantages of migrating to the developed countries. Previously, they did not have the means to travel; but now they did, and they came. The result was the influx of immigrants via Mexico to the U. S., and the disastrous efforts to get across the Mediterranean to Europe from Africa. United Nations programs have been warning us of this for years, and now it is happening. Politicians would have us believe it is simply the search for economic opportunity and can be stopped by walls and legal barriers; but for the people involved, it is the simple choice between Move or Die. They will keep coming.

Climate change by human activity was predicted several centuries ago, as the destruction of forests caused changes in rainfall patterns in Europe and America, but methods of measuring and recording it were not available until the 1800s. The ability of atmospheric gases to absorb heat energy was discovered around 1830, and the observed increase in world temperature was attributed to increased levels of carbon dioxide in 1896. Theoretical studies continued to accumulate, and but not until the advent of satellite technology in the 1960s did it become possible to measure and compare temperatures accurately on a world-wide scale. Since it was obvious that combating climate change would require major changes in energy production from fossil fuels, opposition to policy changes was urged by economic interests. Numerous other opponents ranged from labor unions who feared job losses to religious fundamentalists like Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, who believed there was no reason to practice conservation or oppose climate change because the world was going to end soon anyway. In the U.S. and Europe in the 1990s, and recently in China, political support developed to begin restrictions on releasing heat-trapping atmospheric pollutants by industries and cities, but public resistance is still encouraged by many politicians. Meanwhile, it was announced last week that June, 2016, was the hottest month ever recorded.

I wonder what will be on the minds of 23-year old voters when all of the speeches, internet tweets and TV commercials are over and they enter the voting booths in November. Will they even have a world view of their own? And what will their elders be thinking?

Read other articles by Bill Meredith