Monday, May 23, 2016

"Climate Disciples - Gone Too Far?"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Climate Disciples – Gone Too Far?”
March 23, 2016

“Children have one kind of silliness, as you know, and grownups have another kind.”
                                                                                                            C.S. Lewis (1898-1963)

Something is going on in the climate-change wars. Man’s role in our changing climate, according to Mr. Obama, is “settled” science, much as eugenics was once “settled” science. The latter was based on Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Among its consequences: it made phrenology an accepted study, it abetted discrimination, and it fostered the concept that the less fit should not over-breed. Steven Levitt’s claim in Freakonomics, that abortions reduce crime rates, has its origins in eugenics.

Anti-intellectualism is not confined to climate. The rationalization for transgender bathrooms is based on identity politics, not science. When Curt Schilling said that “a man is a man no matter what they call themselves,” he was fired. He may have been politically incorrect, but, x and y chromosomes say he was factually correct. As William McGurn recently noted in The Wall Street Journal, Schilling was “…Galileo, with ESPN filling in for the Holy Office.” Science is, as Mr. Obama should know, a process of discovery. When “science” strays beyond the limits of what has been established as scientifically true, it begins to resemble pseudo-science.

For years, debate has swirled around the role of man’s impact on climate. Those on the left claim that he bears principal responsibility, while those on the right question the degree of man’s effect. Both acknowledge that the earth’s climate has never stood still, and both parties recognize man has played a role. The debate: Where on the spectrum should man’s responsibility lie and what should be done to alleviate harm, while allowing economies to grow? Should we spend time assigning blame, or should we look for solutions to problems caused by climate, regardless of man’s role?

Both sides have become mulish in defense of their turf. The right receives donations from the oil, gas and coal industries – all of which have been critical to the standards of living we enjoy. The left gets support from environmental and green-energy groups, which have abetted our quality of life. Society has benefitted from both. Both richer and poorer nations require the former, but it is only developed nations that can afford “green energy.” When the battle is joined, it is society that suffers.

The fossil fuel industry, especially natural gas, has become increasingly “green.” Improvements in the burning of natural gas have done more to reduce carbon dioxide emissions than the solar and wind industries combined. While the positive effects of the latter, which produce seven percent of the nation’s power needs, have been well publicized, their negative effects are just beginning to be understood. For example, about 400 Bald Eagles are killed each year by wind turbines. The United States, according to NERC (North America Electric Reliability Corporation) consumes just under 1000 gigawatts of electricity each year. To produce all our electricity demands from wind, according to a study from Johns Hopkins, would consume about 200 million acres, or about ten percent of the land mass of the lower forty-eight states. Avian life would be decimated. Some combination of sources of electricity production will be required, but compromise is not part of the lexicon of “radical greens.” Do away with fossil fuels is their mantra.

It is the condescending left that has become the shrillest in this debate. Besides the financial providers of green energy, they are backed by the media, Hollywood and much of academia. Nevertheless, their thesis that man is the prime cause for climate change is being challenged. The Left goes on offense when climate models of the past must be adjusted for results that do not conform to expectations, such as explaining myriad examples of the earth’s cooling and warming over millennia, or the two-decades-old pause in warming, or ice-builds in Antarctic, or when the term “global warming” morphed into “climate change”. No hypocrisy is noted when Leonardo DiCaprio does a twenty-four-hour turnaround on his private jet between Cannes and New York and back to Cannes, to accept an environmental award! Recently a group of Democrat attorney generals announced they intend to criminally investigate oil and gas companies that dispute the science behind “man-made global warming.” This decision to investigate, litigate and prosecute critics of the Administration’s climate change agenda is not only an attack on one’s opponents, it is an attack on science. In Oregon, a federal court suggested that government may have a constitutional duty to combat climate change. The goal of one of the plaintiffs, according to an article in The New York Times, was to pursue climate change in the courts as “a human rights issue.”

The EPA recently issued a Clean Power Plan. This was an Administration diktat, not done in consultation with Congress. Yet the effect of its regulation will be felt by all Americans. It will shutter coal-fired power plants – plants that produce a third of the nation’s electricity, (and which also have become “greener.”) The result will be an increase in electricity costs for consumers and businesses. We’ve been here before. In 2010, a Democrat-led Congress rejected the Administration’s cap-and trade bill. Mr. Obama, not satisfied with a ‘will-of-the-people’ that did not accord with his beliefs, pushed his agenda, using the EPA as his vehicle for change. Keep in mind, over the past two hundred years it has been the liberated individual, not government institutions, that has allowed living standards to rise.

What underlies earlier beliefs in eugenics and the current hype over global warming is an imperious sense that government knows better than the people. Democrats claim to be the party of enlightenment, while Republicans are seen as the party of darkness and ignorance. According to this perception of the world, Republicans cling to “their guns and religion,” while Democrats follow reason and fact. But what valid scientific discovery in the past has relied on police powers to prevail?  

Has the supercilious hype of the Progressive left resulted in a backlash? Have their arguments become so doltish that rational reactions are emerging? Are people beginning to see through the deceit of those like Michael Moore, Al Gore and Sean Penn? Have people had enough? Eight years ago Yale University established the Yale Climate and Energy Institute (YCEI) and hired Rajendra Pachauri as its first head. Mr. Pachauri had been head of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the major force pushing global warming as a central battle to be fought for humanity. His goal at Yale: Save mankind from itself. Now, this June, YCEI will close.

Institutions like Yale like to be on the vanguard of change, but, as the establishment of YCEI in 2008 suggests, they are as likely to follow as to lead. Is it purely coincidental that, at the same time Yale decided to shutter YCEI, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island suggested using the powers embedded in the RICO Act to criminalize “climate deniers?” A Yale student was quoted in the Yale Daily News that the closure may represent a shift from climate change research toward climate change initiatives that are “more showy.” Research, we know, is a cost to a university, while “initiatives” suggest entrepreneurs and businesses, the owners of which, if successful, will become donors to the college’s purse. They may deny it, but schools such as Yale follow the money. As one who is skeptical, not only about the causes of climate change but also about excuses generally, I suspect that the global-warming lobby might feel the ground shuddering, else why resort to courts to enforce their political preferences?

It is the silliness of the debate that grows tiresome. We all know that climate changes. We all know that man is one cause. But there is much we don’t know, which the Left won’t admit. Have the radicals gone too far? The creation of YCEI eight years ago was not an omen, but perhaps its closing is?  

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

"An Essay on Writing Essays"

Sydney M. Williams

Essays from Essex
“An Essay on Writing Essays”

                                                                                                                                     May 18, 2016

“Nothing is so firmly believed as that which we least know.”
                                                                                                Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)

A blank Word document stares out from the computer screen. An individual sits before it – the essayist at work? Not really. No one sits down to write without some idea – perhaps muddled – of what they want to say. A working title is affixed, along with a date that often proves to be optimistic, and a rubric is sometimes added. The latter adds wit and helps focus wandering minds. The concept, at this early stage, assumes the shape of a globule of mercury or a tube of Silly Putty. Sculpting tangled ideas into something concise and readable requires choosing the right words, having them mean what they were meant to mean. Essayists don’t have the latitude of Humpty Dumpty. In Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll has Mr. Dumpty say to Alice, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

We writers of essays don’t want to leave readers puzzled like Alice, so we must be clear in what we write. Obfuscation is the province of politicians, not essayists. The purpose of the latter is to make thoughts intelligible, as they get transported from mind to paper. (The former operate in the hope that they will appeal to those who read carelessly and listen inattentively.)

Periods, colons, semi-colons, commas, dashes and parentheses are not there to look pretty, but to add clarity to what is written. Even the lowly apostrophe is defended by the Apostrophe Protection Society! Lynne Truss wrote in Eats, Shoots & Leaves, that punctuation is “the basting that holds the fabric of language in shape.” Edward Estlin Cummings, better known as e e cummings, chose to write poetry in lower case letters and without punctuation. He was an artist. We are mechanics, not dilettantish virtuosos who obscure the meaning of what they write. We are more like photographers than contemporary artists. The meaning of what we write should be clear, not left to the reader’s interpretation.

The word “essay” derives from the French “essai,” which means “attempt.” It was first used by Michel de Montaigne, the man generally conceded to be the father of the modern essay. Montaigne was an educated nobleman who retired to his family’s castle in Bordeaux at the age of thirty-two to “draw his portrait with his pen.” He was a young man who knew his priorities. He once said: “For the intimate companionship of my table I choose the agreeable, not the wise. In my bed, beauty comes before virtue.” All essayists write about themselves – their experiences or their ideas. “Know Thyself” was inscribed on the Temple of Apollo in Delphi. Plato, Henry David Thoreau and the Canadian recording artist Drake all believed that knowing one’s self was crucial to a happy life.

Essays reflect the writer. E.B. White, perhaps the greatest essayist of the past one hundred years, wrote in the forward to Essays of E.B. White: “The essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest…Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and stamina to write essays.” Joseph Epstein, in his introduction to Windsprints, writes that he sides with those essayists who feel “a desolating sense of uselessness if a few days go by without their writing...” Almost all writers of this genre take pleasure in their craft and inject humor where possible. In the late Christopher Hitchen’s posthumously published book of essays, And Yet…, are included three hilarious, and self-deprecating essays, “On the Limits of Self-Improvement, Parts I, II and III.” They are examples of what fun good writing can be.

However, caveat emptor should be applied whenever reading op-eds or essays like my “Thoughts of the Day.” Statistics can be skewed to fit one’s preconceptions. Conclusions are based, as the quote from Michel de Montaigne at the top of this essay makes clear, on an interpretation of facts. In short they are opinions, often on subjects with which we who write have limited knowledge. Like the non sequiturs from a dinner party guest, they are meant to startle, to start a conversation, or stimulate controversy. There are some suburb writers of this type today: Jonathon Goldberg, Ross Douthat, Mary Anastasia O’Grady, Peggy Noonan, Jason Riley, Daniel Henninger and David Brooks are but a small selection. They write well. They write, as E.B. White admonished all writers of children’s literature, up not down. A few scribes, like P.J. O’Rourke and Mark Steyn, use wit and humor. And of course, there are those – Paul Krugman comes to mind – who use the form to show off their knowledge, even when they lack judgment.

I came late to the craft, with no training other than a love of reading. I had (and have) an interest in global and domestic political and economic affairs, and a desire to write clearly a declarative sentence – something I should have learnt when I was in school. My essays fall into two categories. The first have to do with subjects like politics, the economy, education and climate. I write from my own perspective, expressing my opinions, based on study and reflection. At times, the result is a wrestling match, with me wearing both the black and the white trunks. Other times, I find myself incensed by the stupidity which enshrouds our political and educational institutions, or by the blindness of reporters and commentators. When I see commonsense give way to political correctness, or I see universal values, which have helped people live civilly for generations, be abandoned in favor of some undefined sense of multiculturalism, I lose control of my euphemistic pen. In those essays, I deliberately violate E.B. White’s rule 17, found in The Elements of Style: “Do not inject opinion.”

The other type of essay I write are those of a more personal nature – stories of my family, of growing up, of books, hiking, skiing and kayaking, commentary on the marshes and places I have loved. Inspiration usually arrives unexpectedly. Curiously, the longer I have been writing – and I have now written over a thousand essays – the more time each piece takes. I write in bursts, and then must spend several hours editing and re-writing what I have done. Even when I push “send”, I know that one more read-through would result in more changes – the elimination of even more needless words.

An essayist is not a rhetorician. Good writing should be convincing, but should not be confused with arguing persuasively. We are not lawyers. And there is no need to shout. One hopes to have the right answers, and that one’s arguments, if simply and clearly stated, will persuade the reader that any comparisons to dunces is purely coincidental. Keeping in mind the derivation of the word, essayist “try” to figure things out. I am not an academic, as those who know me know full well. I am no grammarian. I simply ask my sentences to say what I want them to mean. I am neither an epistemologist nor a metaphysician. In fact, I would have difficulty defining those words. People have used plenty of adjectives to describe me – many of which are unprintable – but erudite has never been one. The definition of erudition that I prefer is the one used by Ambrose Bierce in his incomparable The Devil’s Dictionary: “A noun: Dust shaken out of a book into an empty skull.” Too much information, just as too much self-analysis, renders simple concepts so complex that explaining them gets lost in a jumble of incoherence. “The better the writing the less abstruse it is,” so advised Evelyn Waugh, in a letter to American author Thomas Merton in 1948.

Montaigne’s great discovery, as noted by Paul Graham in 2004, in his essay The Age of the Essay, was: “Expressing ideas helps to form them.” Graham added, “In a real essay you’re writing for yourself. You’re thinking out loud.” Similarly, the historian and biographer David Burton once wrote about Theodore Roosevelt” “…he would often write an article or essay having no immediate purpose other than to organize his thoughts.”  We who enjoy grappling with ideas are in good company. But essays are more than a stream of the subconscious. An audience is wanted, which means the writing must be tight, clear and appealing.

My first attempt at writing was in March 2000. I was a stockbroker – and had been for thirty-three years – who did not understand what was happening to the market. Absurd valuations were being given companies with no earnings and, in some cases, with no revenues. I began tentatively, gradually becoming more assertive. I wrote what I called Market Notes. I enjoyed the craft; as doing so forced me to think through issues. Eight years later, as the financial crisis descended, I started what I called “Thought of the Day,” largely as a means of self-preservation. Early on, those pieces did come out once a day. But the crisis abated and my brain grew older and more tired. I backed off to twice a week, and now once a week.

In retirement, writing provides pleasure. It keeps me out of trouble – I am less a nuisance to my wife. I hear often from well-wishers, both those I have known for years and from those I have only just met. I appreciate the accolades from those whose beliefs are similar to mine, and I enjoy sparring with my progressive friends who cannot believe my obtuseness. In a world addicted to the short term, I find writing essays allows the luxury of thinking about long term consequences. With age comes perspective, some elements of tolerance and, dare I say, smatterings of wisdom? I listen to criticism, sometimes absorb it, and other times chuck it. I expect to continue to write, motivated by ideas, hoping to promote discussion…but always with a desire to write ever better.

In How to Tell a Story and and Other Essays, Mark Twain wrote: “Anybody can have ideas – the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph.”  I like what E.B. White told George Plimpton in a 1969 interview in the The Paris Review. “A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter…a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift them up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.”

Those are high standards indeed. Whether I have achieved any or all, I do not know? Don’t answer, because regardless of the response, I will labor on, putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard), working to improve my craft.