Friday, May 21, 2010

From Insult to Injury in the Gulf

The primary strategy in fighting the gulf oil spill is the use of chemical dispersants. Chemical dispersants are used to break oil into globules small enough for microbes to digest, thus breaking up slicks. In the 1989 Exxon Valdez Spill, a product called Corexit 9500 was used. Later, in a review performed by the Alaska Community Action on Toxics, Corexit was linked to respiratory, nervous system, liver, kidney and blood disorders in humans. It is not clear what it does to marine life. Corexit is itself a petroleum based product.
British Petroleum is using a petroleum based product know to have significant toxic effects on the oil spill in the gulf. It has failed to mention that large amounts of other significantly less toxic dispersants are also available.
Currently, of the 18 EPA approved dispersants, 12 have been found to be more effective than Corexit and according to EPA data, are both less toxic and more efficient. One of them, called Dispersit, manufactured by Polychem is not only more effective but water based and with one third the toxicity of Corexit. In addition it works in salt, brackish, and fresh water. This is especially significant in the gulf due to endangered marshland and estuaries.
So the question becomes, why is BP using a 20 year old dispersant to which safer alternatives have been developed and proved to have less toxic effects? The head of American BP claims it is because large amounts of Corexit were available.
This sounds reasonable enough except for the fact that Rodney F. Chase, an 11 year BP board member, also sits on the board of Nalco, the company that now manufactures Corexit. On the day Nalco announced it was providing large quantities of Corexit to be used on the gulf oil spill, its stock prices soared.
In other words, not only is British Petroleum responsible for the horrific deaths of 27 of its own workers and what is undoubtedly the worst environmental crisis in human history, its primary concern in the clean up effort is cutting costs by purchasing the cheapest dispersant on the market, one with documented toxic effects, and thereby lessening the size of the ding made in its profit margin.
Perhaps in the future, the decision makers at BP can aid the environment by sharing a corporate jet with the executives of Nalco. I’m sure they are very good friends by now.

Naked Arizona

After over twenty years in Tucson, I’m glad I don’t live in Arizona anymore. I’d need a neck brace from hanging my head in shame.
It’s just one friggin’ thing after another.
In nineteen eighty-seven, a guy called Evan Mecham was governor. He got kicked out of office after impeachment and conviction for misuse of government funds and obstruction of justice. However the thing that sticks in most peoples’ minds is that he called black children “pickanninies.” Later, we got Fife Symington. He was forced to resign after indictment for extortion and bank fraud. Then there was in infamous Martin Luther King holiday debacle. Bruce Babbitt signed on for it, Evan Mecham cancelled, and Arizona suffered a 350 million dollar loss in revenue from an entertainment and convention boycott. In 1990, having already landed the Superbowl, Arizona lost it to Pasadena, California.
The MLK holiday was voted back in 1993.
If Arizona is a cowboy it seems most adept at shooting itself in the foot.
Oh, and remember the so-called Minute Men? Bunch of geezers sitting on the border with shotguns and cell phones? Those were ours.
But it’s just not funny anymore. And I’m not sure people comparing it to pre-Nazi Germany are wrong.
They’ve been busy down there these days. First, the passage of Senate Bill 1070, which allows police to stop anyone on reasonable suspicion of being an illegal immigrant. The police are supposed to do this without racial profiling, which is impossible. Illegal Hispanics in the US look just like second, third, and forth generation Hispanics, who simply wear bigger belt buckles and drive better trucks. The law actually targets the poor, illegal or not. An enormous percentage of people in the area are of Mexican descent. Until the Gadsden Purchase of 1853, virtually all of southern Arizona was part of Mexico. SB 1070 also opens the door for harassment of the Navajo, Pima, and Tohono O’Odam nations, all of which don’t look any different from Hispanics to most whites
Italian and middle eastern white guys should keep their heads down too. You have been warned.
The Pima County Sheriff’s Department has already stated it will not enforce this law. Not due to ideological objections-- though I hope that’s part of it-- but simply because it lacks sufficient manpower.
Second is Arizona House Bill 2281. This bill bans ethnic studies classes in public schools. I live in Washington State now, which has far less ethnic diversity than Arizona, and have spoken to many individuals who do not understand why this is a big deal. Well, it is. A very large percentage of the Hispanic population of southern Arizona lives at or below the poverty line. This creates the same problems it does in any poor population regardless of color or ethnicity. Substance abuse, involvement with the criminal justice system, lack of health care and mental health resources, broken families; the whole package that leads to lousy self-esteem and lack of self-respect and dignity. Ethnic studies programs empower people by teaching them who they are, what their traditions are, and what they are capable of. Some individuals will take advantage of this, some will not. But one thing is certain. If they don’t know what the options are they do not have a choice.
Last but not least is Arizona’s stance on removing teachers in public schools with “heavily accented or ungrammical English.” It’s not clear what constitutes a heavy accent, but suffice it to say that Albert Einstein would not have gained a teaching post in the great State of Arizona. As far as “ungramattical” English goes, I assume the person who penned this gem means bad grammar or non-grammatical English. The fact is, virtually everybody, including this writer, is guilty of bad grammar daily. Language is not static. Things go from structured to the vernacular, to part of mainstream English so quickly most people don’t even notice. When I was in school we got marked down for using the “non-adverbial” form. We said, “do it quickly” not “do it quick.” This still annoys people like me, but is generally accepted and I hear it and see it in print every day. As I earnestly write, I don’t even want to talk about split infinitives.
But what upsets me the most, far beyond the ignorance these laws engender, is their basic lack of humanity. I’ve spoken with decent people who probably out of ignorance and a lack of understanding-- Arizona is a unique cultural and ethnic mix-- say things like, “we can’t keep absorbing all these people.”
I don’t even know what that means. First of all, who is “we?” Americans? By what virtue do Americans deserve to eat and raise their families yet individuals below an arbitrary line drawn in the sand in the desert southwest, do not? Birth? That’s an accident. Virtue? Where? I’m just not seeing it. “We” is something much bigger. It is all of us.
People cross endless miles of relentless desert beneath the scorching sun. They die locked in the backs of trucks, boxcars and car trunks; they swim canals more likely to result in death than success. I knew a guy who had crossed the Rio Grande with his kids on his shoulders ten times. People don’t do these things because Disneyland is closed and they’re looking for a good time. They do it because they live in a desperately poor country with a perennially corrupt government functionally blind to the needs of its people, and don’t believe they have a choice.
Hispanic immigrants don’t want to take our stuff or our jobs. They simply want lives. Survival by luck and the skin of your teeth is not living.
We’ve got a recession; times are hard for many. Many Americans of whatever color and ethnicity are losing their homes and standing in unemployment lines. It is very sad. But what is sadder is the fact that instead of reacting with compassion and empathy, Arizona and its sympathizers have chosen to react with venality and, not to put too fine a point on it, hatred.

Friday, February 12, 2010


I am a ghost staring out the window
Sometimes, visitors to the castle imagine they see me
in a flash, a light, some subtle barely detectable movement.

Sometimes, they tell their friends about it, and the friends come to look
hoping to catch a glance of the surreal, the metaphysical,
something proving such things. Something they can talk about at fish frys.

Later, they will convince themselves it was only a trick of the light,
the reflexion on a pond unseen combined with a shattered mercury vapor lamp,
where the glow is generally much brighter, more metallic. Real too scary a thing.

A ghost stares out the window. The darkness on the outside contributes nothing.
The tears on the suds in the sink only emphasize the point.
and I am reminded once again that life is made of a chemical glow and saline.

Ghosts, when it comes down to it, are other than that.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Totally Evolved

I can't remember the first time I saw the words "pet" and "peeved" together. I guess we all understand language based on our own psychologies but I think I was in junior high school and those words simply didn't go together in my mind. I loved animals so pets were always a good thing; and while I didn't know what "peeved" meant, it sounded like something slightly dessicated, squeezed out a crabby old virgin's asshole.

In a sense I was right. A "pet peeve" is a gripe you drag around with you. You don't have to be a crabby old virgin, but I imagine it helps. My pet peeve is the misuse of the word "evolution." Specifically when someone informs me that they used to be a certain way, but now they have "evolved."

Individuals do not evolve. They may mature. They may change their minds. They may even accrue wisdom and mellow. But they do not evolve. Only biological systems evolve.

Contrary to popular belief, evolution does not mean from bad to good or from mediocre to better. It means increased suitability to an ecological niche. That's all. To say for example, that a dolphin is more evolved than a shark is wrong. What we mean when we say these sorts of things is that its physiology is complicated, maybe sophisticated. First of all it's a mammal and secondly, it has a big brain.

When the average person says something is "more" or "less" evolved, what they're really saying is that that thing is more like us. For example, people tend to look the other way when it comes to practices like that of Chinese fishermen routinely catching sharks on longlines, cutting off their dorsal and pectoral fins for soup, and throwing them back into the water to die lingering deaths by blood loss and starvation. However, if this method was routinely practiced on dolphins, there would be an uproar. I'm not complaining. To not love dolphins with their complex societies, languages, and cute smiles is freakish, while sharks, with their nasty teeth arranged in seemingly infinite rows inside mouths downwardly curved in the very definition of dissatisfaction and malice, seems entirely natural.

However a dolphin is not "more evolved" than a shark. Sharks simply got it right hundreds of millions of years ago and there has been little reason for change. They've got heat and motion sensors, rows of exquisitely utilitarian teeth, and a physiology uniquely suited for the ecological niche they occupy. Granted, there have been changes in shark physiognomy over the millenia: size, for example. Several million years ago sharks were much bigger, but other than that they haven't substantially changed.

Dolphins on the other hand, have. They started off as land mammals resembling a modern day pig and due to scarcity of resources, competition from other species or environmental change, returned to the sea to make a living. Over time subspecies have developed or evolved different characteristics to suit even more varied sub-niches. Common dolphins live in cold water, have fast metabolisms, incredibly quick reflexes, and travel in massive pods resembling herds. You do not see common dolphins in oceanaria. They are sensitive and die in captivity. But you do see bottlenosed dolphins, their more laid back cousins. They inhabit warmer seas, live in smaller family groups and are more adaptable to the needs and whims of human beings.

So what does any of this have to do with annoying new agers resently possessed of yoga training and Depak Chopra books, claiming their thinking has "evolved?" Everything.

The evolution of human beings is no different from that of sharks or dolphins. Genes like the ones for efficient opposible thumbs and bigger brains were selected for over time so that we could survive narrowing ecological niches. Our smaller brained ancestors passed out of existence because they were out competed by their larger brained brethren. Once upon a time if you could throw a spear you could eat. Once upon another time, game was scarcer and in order to eat you had to invent a spear thrower to hurl the thing further. Simple. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.

So why does misuse of the word "evolve" pet peeve me? I love words, but more than words I cherish concepts and ideas. The more well thought out an idea the better, and one of the most elegant and dynamic ideas in human history is Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. Not only does it explain the natural world, which I love, but it delivers me from the burden of judgement. I am not "better" than a shark. My species simply took longer to catch on. Life is all of apiece. Either all of it has value or none of it does. My brothers and sisters extend infinitely in all directions. This is not some crackpot idea. It is not theology. It is not a swamp into which my intellectual castles will ultimately fall. It is a well thought out explanation the delving into of which opens an infinite number of intellectual and spiritual doors. The theory of evolution is The Central Insight into Understanding the Natural World.

So the misuse of the word "evolve" is something I'll continue to drag around for awhile. And at least when the new agers use it, however wrongly, they're not being pejorative. That's left to religious fundamentalist everywhere, and Christian fundamentalists particularly. And their rejection of the theory of evolution in favor of the belief that whatever they do, Jesus is going to magically fix it if only they grunt and sweat hard enough at church on Sunday, will undoubtedly be the death of us all.

Except for the sharks. I imagine one way or another they'll survive. Chinese fishermen not withstanding, I have faith in sharks.