The Road: A Bleak Panegyric to Civilization

The Road, a novel by Cormac McCarthy, Vintage International, 2006, 256 pages.

It’s hard to recommend this incredible book. Though gripping, moving, and beautifully written, it is not easy to read. I had to put it down every so often just for the relief of reconnecting with the living world we take for granted. The end credits of the film based on the novel are accompanied not by music, but by the mundane ambience of a suburban neighborhood: people talking, lawnmowers, barking dogs, planes passing overhead — sounds forever lost in the post-apocalyptic world in which McCarthy’s characters struggle — a world so well rendered it is painful to contemplate.

McCarthy’s style is an acquired taste. He never met a metaphor he didn’t like and his Westerns have so much weather one can easily lose track of the plot. This novel is written in a kind of blank verse, with paragraphs structured as stanzas.  My initial reaction was to return the book to the shelf in disgust at what seemed an artsy affectation, but the words captured me. In truth, the abstract style helps make the horrific events in the story bearable. Quotation marks are neither used nor required, since, for the most part, there are only two characters – The Man and his son, The Boy –  and one always knows who is speaking. Potential readers who believe the style might be off-putting are encouraged to listen to the audio book, performed wonderfully by Rupert Degas. Listening to it, one has no idea the printed version is not written as a conventional novel.

An unspecified calamity has devastated the world. Inaugurated by a “long shear of light and then a series of low concussions,” the Apocalypse might well be the aftermath of an asteroid impact like the one that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Years later, ash continues to fall from the perpetually overcast sky and the earth trembles with aftershocks. The man and boy push a shopping cart filled with their meager provisions through a nightmare landscape of dead forests and looted cities. Hiding in terror from roving gangs of cannibals, they trudge south, where it might be warmer; where there might be…something. The man’s tattered road map taunts them with the names of places that no longer exist. They carry a pistol with two bullets: one for each of them, should they be captured by cannibals. The man drills his son, who is, perhaps, ten, in the art of effective suicide.

The bleak tone is reminiscent of Nevil Shute’s 1957 post nuclear war novel On the Beach, but while Shute’s characters wallow in well-fed self-pity, McCarthy’s man and boy, although starving and freezing, reassure one another that they are “carrying the fire,” that they must not merely survive but remain the good guys. A physician before his world ended, the man has tried to plant the spark of civilization within his son, to teach him a code of ethics that makes him more than a starving animal. The boy takes the lesson to heart and pleads with his father to show kindness to those even more wretched than they. Shaped by his father’s fierce love, the boy radiates angelic goodness even when they are both at death’s door. It sounds corny but McCarthy pulls it off. At the end the reader is convinced that as long as such a child can exist, there is hope, even in the midst of horror.

McCarthy’s subtext is that civilization is as fragile as a soap bubble. We are bound together by an intricate web of trust and cooperation. Snap one strand of that web, and things fall apart with surprising suddenness. Cosmic calamities are not required to end civilization. Something that merely prevented grocery trucks from making their scheduled deliveries for a couple of weeks would do the job. Admirers of the recent Occupy Wall Street demonstrations might do well to consider this. The roadside reenactment of the Paleolithic Era stopped short of offering a practical demonstration of the sustainability of the socio-economic scheme being advocated, which is, in essence, cannibalism.


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I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.Leo Tolstoy

It’s been almost a year since I wrote anything here, but the recent “climategate” scandal is so disturbing on so many levels that a comment seems appropriate. It’s a sad time for science. The very institutions charged to keep it honest are now revealed to be steeped in corruption. In the interest of adding another Google hit to the more than 30,000,000 that the mainstream media choose to ignore, here’s mine.

In November, either a hacker or whistleblower liberated a document  from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in the U.K. , which is one of the major sources of data used by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change whose reports have guided politicians. The document appears to be an archive prepared in answer to a British Freedom of Information Act request and includes ten years of emails between leading scientists at CRU and elsewhere, program code that was used to normalize data, and a plaintive commentary by a programmer who struggled to beat the data into submission so it would conform to expectations. The emails are characterized by the smug arrogance typical of those who dwell in The Land of Unchallenged Assumptions — aka academia — in this case, scientists who “know” that anthropogenic greenhouse gases are changing Earth’s climate in potentially disastrous ways. This is certainly an interesting theory and it might even be true, but support for it is based on an extremely weak signal that has been teased from very noisy data. The Climategate files reveal efforts to fudge this data to amplify the signal —  a scientific sin — and systematic efforts to suppress information that might “dilute the message,” meaning the political message that CRU’s confabulations were designed to support. This isn’t science. It is activism.

Almost more distressing than the scientific malfeasance is the “nothing to see here” attitude of the mainstream media, who were quick to report rumors that the Bush Administration pressured NASA’s James Hansen to cool it with regard to global warming, but when fraudulent science that serves as the basis for trillion dollar policies comes to light we hear crickets chirping. Because the alleged remedies for the alleged climate crisis dovetail so neatly with their politics, these people have checked not only their BS detectors at the door, but also their journalistic integrity. Despite overwhelming evidence of wrongdoing by so-called consensus climatologists,  their journalistic enablers continue to characterize skeptics as not merely mistaken, but evil and venal (no matter that far more grant money is awarded to the alarmists). Two years ago, Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman put skeptics on a par with Holocaust deniers. The prestigious journal Nature repeatedly used the epithet “deniers” in its December 3 apologia for the CRU’s data distorters. We expect such silly language from religious fanatics, not scientists and journalists, but environmentalism has indeed become a religion and it has created a kind of faith-based science that is on a par with Creationism. With their monomaniacal fixation on greenhouse warming, the Gaia worshippers have set sane environmentalism back decades. Kyoto alone has already caused more than $300 billion to change hands, yet even its proponents concede that if it were in effect for 50 years with perfect compliance it might have a theoretical mitigation of only half a degree. It expires in three years and compliance has been wretched, but delegates to the Copenhagen conference will unconscionably propose more of the same.  $300 billion would buy a lot of clean water — the most pressing environmental issue for most people in the developing world.

Stephen F. Hayward has summarized the science and shenanigans very concisely in his article “Scientists Behaving Badly.” Bret Stephens at the Wall Street Journal brilliantly examines the “Warmist” mind and asks: Why did the scientists at the heart of Climategate go to such lengths to hide or massage the data if truth needs no defense? Why launch campaigns of obstruction and vilification against gadfly Canadian researchers Stephen McIntyre and Ross McKitrick if they were such intellectual laughingstocks? It is the unvarying habit of the totalitarian mind to treat any manner of disagreement as prima facie evidence of bad faith and treason. The rest of his essay may be read here:

For those who want to  understand  better what the fuss is about, David Burge sets aside his Iowahawk satire hat and shows us how to build our own paleoclimate hockey sticks in Fables of the Reconstruction.  With off-the-shelf spreadsheet software and a bit of statistical legerdemain, you too can join The Team.

Lord Christopher Monkton summarizes the Climategate situation with his inimitable verve in this video.

Meanwhile, I’m still waiting for my check from Exxon-Mobil.

(Addendum, January 12, 2010 — a concise and fascinating history of Climategate can be found at these links: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.)

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A Darwin Award for Greens?

Writing in the Medical Journal of Australia, obstetrician Barry Walters has proposed a $5,000 carbon tax on the birth of each baby, plus an $800 annual tax. “Far from showering financial booty on new mothers and thereby rewarding greenhouse-unfriendly behavior, a baby levy in the form of a carbon tax should apply in line with the polluter pays principle,” says Walters. He also suggests that contraceptives and sterilization procedures be offered to attract carbon credits that would offset income taxes for the user.

One cannot gainsay the sincerity of Dr. Walters. He is so devoted to protecting the environment that he advocates policies likely to harm his livelihood.

Making an even more personal sacrifice, forward-thinking Toni Vernelli in Brighton, England, arranged to have herself sterilized at age 27. “Having children is selfish. It’s all about maintaining your genetic line at the expense of the planet,” says Vernelli, now 35.

The draconian birth control policies advocated by extreme environmentalists could have interesting political consequences. There is a strong correlation between genes and memes; eighty-percent of children adopt the political and religious views of their parents. Conservative pundits who compare left-wingers to dinosaurs may be more prescient than they know: there are only about two liberal babies born for every three conservative children. Like coastal cities in Vice President Gore’s apocalyptic visions, the Blue States will be inundated eventually by a Red tide. The earth will be inherited not by the environmentally devout but by proliferant non-progressives.

Environmentalism is not the first religion to proscribe procreation. Shakers also were forbidden to breed and had to rely on conversion to sustain their numbers. Note the past tense. Given current demographic trends in North America and western Europe, it is only a matter of time before liberals are declared endangered. Heroic efforts may be required to herd sufficient numbers of these scarce creatures into protected habitats to create a breeding population, lest they die out completely. Biosphere II may come in handy then.

Mother Nature tends to correct her own mistakes, but it is gratifying to see so many people eager to help. Godspeed, I say.

[The possibly cryptic title refers to the tongue-in-cheek Darwin Awards commemorating folks who improve our gene pool by removing themselves from it in spectacularly stupid ways.
Mark Steyn, who has often discussed the link between societal values and demographics, also noticed the two stories referred to above. You can read his take on the issue here.]

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Global Warming: A Human Perspective

According to most climate experts, anthropogenic greenhouse gases add about 2 watts per square-meter of radiative forcing to earth’s environment. This is roughly the power used by a small Christmas tree lamp. In more personal terms, the human body generates approximately 100 watts of power and has a surface area of around 2 square-meters. Assuming that the sole of the average foot has an area of about 200 square-centimeters, it would emit 1 watt of power. Both feet, applied to a surface, would add 2 watts to that surface. Applied to a square-meter, that would be equivalent to the anthropogenic greenhouse effect.

If we could cover every square meter of the Greenland ice cap with a barefoot human — a magical, never frostbitten human willing to stand, day after day, pumping his 2 watts into the ice — would we expect the ice to melt?

The answer is “eventually.” A back-of-the-envelope calculation* suggests that it would take about 10,000 years, assuming an average ice depth of 2 kilometers. In light of this, Al Gore’s threat to invoke the wrath of Gaia to bring about a complete meltdown in 60 years seems off by a couple of orders of magnitude — unless, of course, he is willing to acknowledge the possibility that the warming we observe is due to a so-far unmeasurable anthropogenic effect superimposed on a poorly understood natural warming process that began when Abraham Lincoln was a baby, long before carbon dioxide levels changed.

Such an admission, however, might be inconvenient.

*2 Watts = 172800 Joules/day
333700 Joules melts 1 kg of ice
Therefore 2 watts melts 172800/333700=0.52 kg/day
1 kg = 1000 cubic centimeters of ice (yes, I know its really a bit more because of expansion)
Distributed over 1 square meter, this equals a depth of 0.1 cm
But our feet can melt only 0.52 kg/day, so a hotfooted human would melt a depth of (0.52)X 0.1 cm / day = 0.05 cm/day (half a millimeter)
THUS, the heat from a person’s feet would melt (distributed over a square meter), a depth of:
0.05 cm/day
1 meter/2000 days (call it 5 years)
2000 meters in 10,000 years (This surprised even me, so I’d appreciate a check of this reasoning by more arithmetically adept readers).

NB: Junk Science has a detailed discussion of how to evaluate anthropogenic radiative forcing .

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Al Gore, Chicken Little, and Other Famous Hysterics

Dennis Prager explains why liberals fear global warming more than conservatives do…

…After all, if the science is as conclusive as Al Gore, Time, Newsweek, The New York Times and virtually every other spokesman of the Left says it is, conservatives are just as likely to be scorched and drowned and otherwise done in by global warming as liberals will. So why aren’t non-leftists nearly as exercised as leftists are? Do conservatives handle heat better? Are libertarians better swimmers? Do religious people love their children less? (more)

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Dramatic Evidence For Global Warming

Many concerned climatologists have pointed to the retreat of glaciers over the past several decades as evidence that Earth’s climate is indeed growing warmer. The animated image at left, created by Malin Space Systems, shows a region of the south polar cap photographed on the same date during three consecutive years. The shrinkage is obvious.

What is not obvious is that this is not Earth, but Mars as photographed by the Mars Global Surveyor, which has been observing the Red Planet in exquisite detail since 1999. The ice is frozen carbon dioxide, which is very cold stuff, but it is apparently getting warmer for some reason.

If this region of Mars is indeed warming up, what could be the cause? Increased solar activity? We don’t know, but the concentration in Greenland ice cores of Beryllium 10, created by cosmic rays in lower abundance when solar activity increases, suggests that the sun has indeed been running hotter for the past 60 years. While the observed warming of earth may be due in some degree to the greenhouse gases that we are pumping into the atmosphere, the fact that something similar is happening on another planet should give us pause. We clearly don’t have all the answers.

ADDENDUM, December 10, 2005. Since this was posted, a number of environmental websites have published articles dismissing evidence of Martian global warming as irrelevant. The writers commonly use a rather tautological argument — that we’ve not been able to take data with sufficient resolution for a long enough period to establish that this is anything more than a minor fluctuation in Mars’s climate, and that we have only evidence of recent warming on Mars. Obviously, since we have been able to make these observations only since 1999, we cannot say anything at all about the recentness of the warming. We have only recent data, for heaven’s sake! But climate-change experts are only too happy to cite a mere 50 years of direct measurements to prove that solar flux is invariable — as if it might not take centuries for a planet to respond to a slight variation in solar output.

I really don’t have a huge axe to grind. Do I think that many so-called environmentalists are misanthropic Marxists and pagans? Yep. Do I think that Greenpeace and the Green Party have a tad more than their fair share of hysterical ignoramuses? You bet. Do I think that scientists are not necessarily wise and noble seekers of truth, but are in fact ordinarily self-interested human beings who are perfectly willing to embrace fads in their quest for funding and tenure? Yeah, I’m afraid so. The scientific method has amply demonstrated its efficacy, but as far as the “scientific community” goes, I’ve worked with some of the smartest scientists on the planet, and have found that most of them are, of necessity, so specialized that that they end up knowing a great deal about very little — and many do not hesitate to shovel manure to fill the lacunae.

Nevertheless, I’m rather fond of this planet and I want it to remain beautiful for my kids. To help make that possible, I contribute royalties to the Nature Conservancy, an organization that employs an incredibly radical strategy to preserve wilderness areas: it buys them. The Conservancy seems to do a good job and has, so far, eschewed the Chicken Little approach that has discredited much of the environmental movement.

Environmentalists were happy to promote Venus as an example of greenhouse warming run amok. Why dismiss data from Mars that does not fit a political agenda? If we are to be responsible stewards of our world, should we not welcome any information that may further understanding of these very complex processes?

ADDENDUM; August 14, 2007. In reviewing this I came upon a report from last April that attributes Martian warming to excessive dust in the atmosphere. The  mechanism sounds plausible. Of course, if earth’s atmosphere were found to be unusually dusty, it would be instantly attributed to man-made global warming. You can’t lose when you play this game.

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The Peculiar Logic of Kyoto

Now that Russia has signed the Kyoto Treaty, thus making it possible to be ratified and enforced, what is the likely result of a few percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions over the next seven years?

There are three possibilities: the average temperature will rise, fall, or remain constant. If it continues to rise, does this indicate:

— that a planetary climate is a system with such tremendous inertia that it responds very sluggishly to control inputs so we should not expect to see results for decades?
— that industrial gases are not in fact the principal cause of this latest global climate fluctuation?
— that a runaway greenhouse effect is already underway and cannot be stopped?

We don’t know. In fact, we can’t know. The problem with undertaking so grandiose an endeavor as planetary climate control is that we are attempting to govern a system that we don’t understand. We do not have a “control” earth to provide baseline data. We are like medical researchers testing a drug on a single patient. The only indicators that might suggest that our treatment has any effect at all would be instant recovery or sudden death. A gradual decline or recovery of the patient would tell us nothing about the efficacy of our treatment. Such is the case with the Kyoto Treaty.

Suppose, with the implementation of Kyoto, temperatures immediately begin to decline. We might reasonably conclude that our treatment was effective. But is this result necessarily desirable? If earth’s climate is that sensitive, might not a sudden reversal of a 3-century-long trend prove catastrophic? Might we in fact trigger a new ice age?

We don’t know. The relationship between greenhouse gases and global climate is incredibly complex. An increase in carbon dioxide levels can theoretically warm the oceans, thus generating more cloud cover, resulting in reduced sunlight to the surface and cooler temperatures. It can also accelerate plant growth which, in turn, reduces atmospheric carbon dioxide, again (theoretically) lowering temperature. By this reasoning, if we want to cool the planet we should increase carbon dioxide emissions, not curb them.

The logic of Kyoto seems to run along these lines: although there have been dozens of warming cycles in pre-industrial times, average surface temperatures appear to have risen quite sharply during the last several decades. Is this bad? Maybe. Are we responsible? Maybe. Can we do something about it? Maybe. Should we try? Of course!

So here we are, trying to control the climate. The only thing certain about the Kyoto Treaty is that debates about it have generated additional hot air. One wonders why environmentalists are not up in arms, protesting the incredible irresponsibility of this effort to alter the earth’s climate. We are like doctors prescribing random medication to a patient who may not even be ill.

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