Friday, November 11, 2016

Why I've Unplugged from DirecTV

Why I've Unplugged from DirecTV


Although long in the brewing, today Gail and I finally pulled the plug on DirecTV altogether.   The main reason is that cable news coverage in general and that of election 2016 in particular has deteriorated to a point that it has become literally unwatchable.  Reporters and pundits, especially those on NBC, MSNBC and CNN who seemed somewhat credible in earlier times have now become happy talk apologists for corporate power and willing shills for Donald Trump, despite their well-rehearsed posturing as thoughtful, critical journalists.  Their knee jerk maneuver is to hold high the banner of “both sides do it” false equivalency, giving cover to each and every lie, misdeed and failing of public figures, encouraging viewers to abandon the idea that underlying truths might be discovered with a little more searching, attention to evidence and reasonable conversation.  This media posture has become more obvious, less credible with each passing day.  TV talking heads now go miles out of their way to avoid asking the most important, most troubling questions of the political figures they interview.  Frankly, we’re done with this ongoing dodge. 

While the particulars here are too numerous to list, three stand out as patterns too often repeated to be mere glitches in programming.  One was the preference for showing – often for hours on end – the empty podium where Trumpy was expected to speak rather than telecast even a small segment of speeches by Bernie Sanders and other candidates running for office.  By some estimates the value of free TV coverage for our now Confidence Man Elect eventually totaled $2 billion – a lavish gift from networks supposedly licensed to serve the public interest.

Another telltale sign was the utterly negligible amount of time devoted to substantive issues in the presidential campaign broadcast by nightly news programs on ABC, CBS and NBC.  According to the Tyndall Report, an organization that has tracked network news coverage for decades, the total for months from January through October came to 32 minutes total.  Even more astonishing, no attention at all was given to what is clearly the most crucial issue facing the nation and Planet Earth: climate crash (often politely called “climate change”).  Not ONE minute.  Pathetic.

Finally, I’d note the glaring lack of diversity among the voices and perspectives of those asked to speak even on the paltry range of issues, rumors and scandals that now  fill the screen 24 hours a day.   With a little work, the cable channels' election campaign coverage might have found any number of articulate people from across the broader range of American opinion – women from different points on the economic spectrum, African Americans, Muslims, Latinos, millennials, blue collar workers, farmers, leaders in small business, climate activists, Native Americans, techies, labor union officials, notable social scientists, etc.  Instead what we were invited to hear was very short list of talkers – the usual suspects, most of them white  – comprised of “conservative” blowhards, Democratic “strategists,” Bush administration retreads, and a stable of amiable dimwits invited to try to get a word in edgewise over the obnoxious shouting of Chris Matthews. 

While I regret to say it, particularly annoying to me in recent months has been the once engaging presence of always chipper, always bubbly, compulsively enthusiastic Rachel Maddow.  Yes, the content of her evening show is often solid in its history and analysis.  But the mood in which she probes the disasters unfolding these days often seems simply fatuous.  “We’ve got a great show tonight!” she exclaims as the litany of horrors unfolds.  Hey, what a fabulous spectacle American public life has become!  Golly Gee!  It’s also obvious that some topics are strangely off limits for Maddow’s intelligent probing, for example the syrupy right wing propaganda dished up each day by of her officemates in the Comcast office suites.  While it may be unfair, it occurs to me that Rachel and her colleague Chris Hayes are just too nice as people to seriously confront the ghoulish, destructive forces now looming in the U.S.A.,  global economy and biosphere.  

Fortunately, there are fine alternatives: reading books, following serious websites, pulling down video news clips from the Net, talking with family and friends over dinner.  It turns out that local TV news is readily available to us via our (slow rural) Wi-fi.  And, hell, I’d pretty much given up on watching pro football anyway, acknowledging what I know now about long term health problems that confront NFL players. 

Hence we’ll spend some of the $90+  a month satellite bill to support intelligent podcasts -- The Majority Report, Professional Left, Radio Ecoshock, and Best of the Left along with other good programs and causes.   Most of all we’ll be relieved of the agony of trying to pretend that cable and satellite TV offer a serious, reliable source of news and commentary about the world in which we live. 

 - Langdon


Friday, July 15, 2016

Radical Upheavals in the 60s and Since: Illusion and Reality




Radical Upheavals in the Sixties and Since: Illusion and Reality

By:  Langdon Winner

[A talk given at the Conference on Politics without Illusion, Revolution Without Violence, International Jacques Ellul Society, Berkeley July 6, 2016]

Today we often hear news that someone has been “radicalized on the Internet.”  Well, I was radicalized in Berkeley during the Sixties. 

My comments today are the reflections of one who graduated from The University of California 50 years ago.  The focusing lens for my remarks is Jacques Ellul’s work The Political Illusion.

As I prepared this talk, I thought, well, I certainly must read the book again and compare my response now to what I could remember about my impressions back then.  I went to my library was pleased to find the very copy of The Political Illusion I’d read in summer of 1967.  It was filled with extensive marginal notes, ones that revealed what I was thinking as I struggled with Ellul’s unsettling challenge.

At the time I was living in Washington D.C. -- a long haired Bay Area hippie, U.C. political science grad student, anti-Vietnam war demonstrator, frequent presence at psychedelic rock concerts, and also a student intern in the Pentagon working in the office of Army Chief of Information, i.e. Propaganda.  Back then a profile of that kind was called “heightening the contradictions.” 

Going through the pages of my old copy of The Political Illusion this spring, I was interested to see that many of my jottings were written in the characteristic dialect of the time.  For example, in the chapter on “The Necessary and The Ephemeral,” Ellul argues, “How can people fail to see that liberty requires integration into a continuity, a genuine basis in reality obtained in very different ways than through ‘information.’  As radical as it may appear, I am not afraid …to claim that a man who reads his paper every day is certainly not a free person.” 

Next to that passage young Langdon had written:  “Ellul is far out!”

Actually, two of his earlier books published in the U.S.– The Technological Society and Propaganda – had already made a deep impression on me.  The Technological Society was ultimately the work that paved the road from my study of conventional political theory to a lifelong engagement with questions about technology and politics.  More than anything else, Ellul’s writing helped give me the courage to move beyond the pale progress talk that that filled scholarly writings in the social sciences and humanities during that period.

Reading The Political Illusion now as well and reviewing my marginal notes, its clear that the book was in its basic features fully in tune with the temper the time.   Among the general upheavals of Berkeley in the Sixties were  the Civil Rights movement, the Free Speech Movement, anti-Vietnam War movement, student revolt, rise of the hippies with all the music, ideas and cultural trappings involved, arrival of the Black Panthers, along with the early rumblings of the ecology movement, feminist movement, movement of people with disabilities, as well as surfacing of the LGBTQ community. 

In many ways questions posed in The Political Illusion were central to concerns of that decade.  The political crucible of the New Left stoked widespread desire to explore and develop new modes of politics, community and citizenship beyond the dreary formats of the two party system and the deeply conflicted agendas of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society’.  In its basic themes, Ellul’s book was definitely in the zone.

This is not to say that the book was a favorite among new left activists.   Other key writings of the period, C. Wright Mills The Power Elite, Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man and Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd attracted a much broader audience.  My guess as to why The Political Illusion did not “catch on,” as it were, was that it staunchly refused to offer simple answers to the questions it posed and the criticisms it launched.  Above all did not offer a clear radical or utopian vision to help people of the time resolve the issues they faced or believed they faced.  The insistent flow of Ellul’s book carries the reader in directions that are not easily packaged as a program, a movement or a clear road map for building a better society.   Indeed, many of his arguments strongly suggest that measures favored by young activists were not only bound to fail, but actually mirror the very evils they were railing against.  In that sense, The Political Illusion was perhaps more radical in its understanding of politics and society than radicals of the day could handle.

For example, a common feature of student uprisings on college campuses at the time was to seek the validation of television in the struggles of the day.  “The whole world is watching” was a common chant and, in fact, demonstrators in Sproul Plaza would often leave the day’s battle with campus cops and administrators to go back to their apartments and watch themselves on TV.  Using the media to spread images of protest would, many of us believed, would alter people to the problems at hand and move public opinion in favorable directions.  And there was always “Hey, there I am on the screen!” response, a sure sign that one’s own role was highly significant.   Of course, a key argument in Elull’s book is that action that seeks confirmation in information systems or in waves of public opinion is futile to its core and tends simply to reinforce patterns of state power, a lesson perhaps even more painfully evident today than in the Sixties. 

Looking back on the evidence from my own jottings, I am reminded that despite its relative lack of significance as a text for the student movement, The Political Illusion was significant within another domain of my political education .  Much of the substance of the discussion is Ellul’s commentary on twentieth century European and American social science, the very stuff I was studying in my seminars and preparation for doctoral qualifying exams.  It happens that Ellul had closely followed the prominent works in sociology, political science, psychology, communications studies, and the like.  But what he took away from the various theories and empirical findings was usually far removed from what the authors intended.

Much social scientific research in the post World War II decades sought to show how the volatilities of mass society and the excesses of fascism and communism that had erupted earlier in the century, could now be avoided, replaced by reasonable, well-grounded forms of democratic politics and government.  Equipped with new knowledge and new technique, modern institutions would produce wonders of stability, rationality, and responsiveness.  That was the prevailing view.

Without distorting the conceptual or empirical foundations of  studies in this genre, Ellul argues that a deeper understanding of the classics twentieth century social science reveals  varieties of domination, oppression and disconnection from reality that emerge within the newly refurbished institutions of political society.  In much the same way that Marx claimed to have turned “Hegel on his head,” Ellul takes the corpus of mid twentieth century social science research and turns it on its head, revealing not the realm of enlightenment and progress its writers hoped to reveal, but a kind of twilight zone in which benighted souls wander helplessly in search of meaning, happiness and security.

In political science at that the time a key quest was to shed light on pluralist forms modern democracy, ones based upon economic, social and cultural interest groups engaged in the push and pull of electoral outcomes and intricate negotiations of policy shaping.   Distinctly American versions of the story, the Yale School of political science for example, welcomed the structures and dynamics of late twentieth century political society as the maturation of democracy, an accomplishment enriched by supportive environs of electronic media, social psychology, public relations, methods of opinion polling, and improved practices in public administration.  

Within the lively interactions of key interest groups and voting blocks in political pluralism, conflict would happen in ways that produced sensible accommodation achieved through graduated incrementalism.  With increasingly thorougy penetration of society by radio and television, there would arise a public much better informed about public affairs.
And within legislatures and bureaucracies leaven by the refined methods of social science, intelligent, well-balanced policy outcomes were assured.  

For many of us studying politics and sociology during the 1960s this tidy picture of political pluralism was notable for what it left out.  At the top of our list of qualms was the almost total absence of any role for citizenship in the various models of democracy widely heralded as cutting edge political science.  “Doesn’t democracy have to do with self-governance?” we asked.  Where in this picture are citizen participation and genuine political freedom?

While some of our faculty mentors found such questions interesting, a many of them were outraged at their students effrontery.  “Don’t you understand?” they would say.  “The well developed patterns of structure and process we’ve described are what mature, representative democracy is all about.”

Nevertheless, among a good number of undergrad and grad students, the feeling grew that the pungent criticisms of  Students for a Democratic Society about participatory democracy and social justice were more to the point.  
What kind of democracy is it that excludes the vital, authentic unscripted political activity of everyday people?

Entirely similar concerns are central to Ellul’s critique of the social scientists.  Within their rigor he detected a good amount of mortis.   Thus, his chapter on “Participation” takes note of the ways in which leading social scientists of the day were busily advocating principles quite far removed from genuine democracy.  One writer he finds especially noteworthy is Seymour Martin Lipset, U.C. Berkeley sociologist, author of the acclaimed book Political Man and a formidable presence on the Berkeley campus during the Sixties.  Ellul had obviously read the man’s work and summarizes its position succinctly.

“There still remains Seymour Martin Lipset’s theory; a group of associations of oligarchic character contributes to maintaining democracy.  For society to be democratic, it is not necessary that the democratic rule be applied inside the organisms that constitute it.  Unions, for example, represent the general interest of their members, who do better by joining unions than by remaining at the mercy of industry) … all the associations combined represent the divergent interests of all society; whereas every one of these associations limits the individual’s freedom, it gives the leaders a much greater real freedom.” 

At that point Ellul offers a wry comment.  “This conception of democracy is really very touching, for it literally reproduces the description of feudal society.” 

(Oh, my!)

Throughout ongoing series of commentaries in this vein, Ellul gently rips apart many of the central ideas and arguments of the disciplines.  To use a legal metaphor, his careful rendering of social scientists’ own apologies for the condition of contemporary democracy amounts to using the best evidence for the defense as the center of a pungent argument for the prosecution.   The thrust of Ellul’s position is that what are ostensibly open, democratic institutions achieve a certain “political autonomy” that makes them unrepresentative and unresponsive to the needs of the populace.  His concept of “autonomy” here means that key institutions of decision-making and administration have become things unto themselves with internal dynamics of their own.  Organizations both within and around the modern are tightly closed, largely immune to any outside influence, especially that of lowly everyday citizens.

How do these matters look today?  Even a quick scan of our politics shows the substance of Ellul’s mid-century warnings confirmed in at least two important ways.  First, one can note the rigorous, data driven analyses of leading political scientists.  Deploying state of the art quantitative methods, Martin Gillens and Benjamin Page have demonstrated that the preferences of middle and low income people in the U.S. have no influence in actual policy making.  Zero, nada, zilch!   What matters in actual practice are only the preferences of the rich, the top socio-economic layers of political society.  That’s what the surveys and analyses clearly demonstrate.  As Gillens and Page summarize the implications of their massive study, they carefully conclude: “America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.”  (That about says it.)

A second way in which Ellul’s misgivings are now confirmed is evident in a number of prominent political eruptions in the U.S. and Europe where grievances about entrench oligarchy have become a common rallying cry.  The Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011 and 2012 -- as well as the revolt of the indignatos in Spain that preceded them – were outbreaks of widespread unrest.  More recently the themes of Bernie Sanders presidential campaign of 2016 have carried awareness of oligarchy and its grim consequences for jobs, income, health care, education, pervasive inequality, and student debt onto center stage of American politics.  Senator Sanders and his followers are convinced that the U.S. needs nothing less than “a political revolution.”

In somewhat similar respects, Donald Trump’s campaign, with all its bigotry, racism and xenophobia, appeals to millions of people who feel the system isn’t working for them.  Reports on about rapidly widening gaps of inequality in wealth and income in the U.S.A. are now common in print, television and Internet political commentaries.  Looking across the Atlantic, especially the recent Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, one finds the widespread conviction that distant, unresponsive, self-interested bureaucrats in Brussels have lost touch with the needs and desires of everyday people and serve only the interests of bankers and billionaires.   As we observe these signs of an unhappy, restless populations, Ellul’s diagnoses of the maladies modern political society seem not only confirmed, but increasingly prophetic.

The question in America right now is whether voters will again buy the threadbare neoliberal canard that technological innovation and renewed economic growth automatically will automatically generate a better way of life?  Or will people rise in revolt as they realize that promises of this kind are an illusion propagated by cloistered, self-interested elites in Wall Street, Washington and Silicon Valley?  As people ponder the economic, technological, ideological, and political landscape that confronts them these days, a good many of them are eager to say, “Frankly, we’re not buying it.”  Much of the energy of politics in 2016 involves eruptions of this kind, a disturbing genie that politicians, businessmen and figures in the corporate media now frantically struggle to put back in the bottle.   In the current issue of the Atlantic, there is a long article by Jonathan Rauch lamenting the fact that the people have lost faith in “the political class.”  His essay along with a recent pieces by Andrew Sullivan argue that today the problem is, sad to say, too much democracy. 

Looking back to the 1960s, its possible that concerns in Ellul’s Political Illusion had less affinity with the specific agendas of the New Left than with those of another movement brewing at the time, one that eventually came to be known as “the counter-culture.” Resonance of this kind can be found throughout the book.  A particularly revealing passage is one in which Ellul’s argues that theory of economic alienation in Marx along with remedies of economic democracy proposed on the Left no longer describe a much deeper predicament that faces humanity.  The economic, political, technological, informational order that envelops social life infects people’s very souls and neutralizes their best inclinations, their ability to think and act in meaningful ways.  He writes, “Now the problem is for the powers that be … to possess man internally, to organize fake appearances of liberty resting on fundamental alienation, …  to fabricate false appearances of personality resting on integration and radical massification.”  

If those words had been sung with suitable guitar feedback at Filmore Auditorium concert in the late 1960s, we hippies might have exclaimed, “Oh wow, man, that’s so heavy…”

It’s true that Ellul does not go so far as to advocate out mass revolt against ways of living built on materialism, consumerism, conformity and a hollow happiness, but his book suggests that an uprising of that sort would be fully justified.  His brief comments throughout the book, especially the chapter on “Man and Democracy” offer the outlines of what an appropriate response would be.

He insists that any aware, thoughtful person needs to step outside the stagnant oppressive economic, political and technological milieu that claims one’s being and to begin life anew.  The problems in modern politics are far deeper, more systematic than any obvious malfunctions in governance.  One must find ways to reclaim and revitalize one’s basic humanity and restore the manifold promise of social relationships.

When I first read Ellul’s advice in the 1960s what stood out was what I took to be its tone of stern, elevated, moral, individualism.  Some of my marginal notes suggest that I found the book rather cloying, something of a “downer.”  More appealing were the writings, songs, and festivals that held out the promise of a happy community – “peace, love and good vibes” --  Ecotopia perhaps.  On my reading of his words this spring, however, I noticed what the younger me had missed: Ellul’s insistence that a genuinely democratic politics must engage the classic question: How are we to live together? 

Steps toward that end, in his view, begin with the identification and open discussion of what he calls “tensions” in society, ones that divide people one from another and yet offer a opportunities for dialog, mutual respect and common action.  Instances of significant tension from earlier periods of history include the tension between church and state, between the bourgeoisie and laboring people.  He implies that people today would have to identify significant tensions of the present day, points of “differentiation” and possible contention within the sphere of inter-personal relationships.  Involved here would be concerted effort to rescue the powers of language and reason from the toxic fog that surrounds the  technological systems and mass media of the modern state.

He writes, “The common measures of what we have to say to one another and of what makes communication possible, of what we jointly have to live for … must be constantly rediscovered and recreated.”

“We must understand that democracy is always infinitely precarious and mortally endangered by every new progress.  It must be forever started again, rethought, reconstructed, begun again.”

What Jacques Ellul offers, then, is a very stern challenge, one that sets a very high bar for the attainment of anything remotely resembling a democratic way of life.  He is not especially optimistic that his generation or any later ones will be able to realize it.  Unlike the comforting nostrums offered by politicians and social scientists, he depicts democracy as something extremely difficult to attain, something often advertised but seldom realized, something extremely fragile and always subject to abuse.

He writes: “If man were left to himself -- his inclinations, his responsibilities, his personal choices, on his own level, without systematic influence, propaganda, “human relations,” group dynamics, obligatory information, directed leisure, then slowly, humbly, modestly, democracy might perhaps be born.” To which he adds: “But how newborn, how weak and fragile it would be!”

* * * * * * * *

To conclude, I want to add a brief historical coda.  Our meeting takes place in the Heyns Room, named for Roger Heyns, Chancellor of U.C. Berkeley during the late 1960s.  He is perhaps best know for his opposition to the peaceful occupation by students and towns people of People’s Park, a plot of land south of campus, still there, that the university had slated for development as an apartment complex.

At the climax of a series of tumultuous events in May 1969 Governor Ronald Reagan called in the police to remove the occupiers.  At that moment Chancellor Heyns, bless his heart, abruptly skipped town, leaving the protesters to face a barrage of shotgun bullets that killed one man, blinded another and sent scores to the hospital. 

The demonstrations (in which I participated) ended with the first and only aerial attack on a civilian population in American history, tear gas spread over the campus by a helicopter.  A photo of that event appears on the Ellul Society’s web page for this meeting.

I mention this story to indicate how even a place of scholarly gathering and quiet reflection like this on can bear the stain of the kinds oppression that Ellul’s book so eloquently describes, forms of power and violence that confront us to this day.  

Peace be with you.







Friday, November 13, 2015

Thoughts on Operation Wetback


                           Migrant farm workers, many of them "braceros," from the 1940s
                             (Getty images)

A story, "Operation Wetback, the 1950s immigration policy Donald Trump loves," in Vox, brought back some vivid memories. 

As a central coastal California native, the presence of "migrant workers" was a fact of my childhood.  During the worst winter storms, our church in San Luis Obispo would gather and deliver canned goods and other necessities for workers who couldn't go to the flooded fields to earn a living.  Yes, the mood was that of charity and pity, but it also contained an element of respect for people who have to do society's hardest labor.  Seeing first hand how the workers lived made a deep impression on me.  I  was fortunate as well to have parents who stressed a simple message of human equality.  An often repeated phrase around our house was, "You're no better than anybody else, and nobody is any better than you!" 

Much later when I was in graduate school in the middle 1960s, a friend and I made a tourist visit to Mexico.  At the Tijuana border we stood in line and struck up a conversation with a friendly "bracero" in his late 30s who told us about his work back and forth across the border, about his family and community.  As we moved to the Mexican side of the border we two long haired "hippies" were approached by police who started some aggressive questioning. "You've come for the drugs, si?"  


At that point the bracero just behind us stepped forward and firmly let it be known that this approach was not acceptable.  "They're friends of mine," he said.  The police relented.  On the train south we talked with the man further and he invited us to visit his village, Juanocitlan (sp?), when we ultimately reached Guadalajara. So we took the long bus ride into the hills, stayed in his home a couple of days, met his wife, kids, extended family and many people in the village.  Today, it is not possible for me to listen to all the vile blather about immigrants without remembering that experience with a "wetback." 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Earth's water crisis: A vision from space


         (NASA photo of irrigation patches in the Arabian peninsula, verdant and dry)


Earth’s water crisis: A vision from space

By: Langdon Winner

About fifteen years ago I took part in a conference on the future of space exploration held at the Rice University campus in Huston.  There were a number of talks by philosophers of technology along with a colorful presentation by Story Musgrave, American astronaut who had traveled into space on six NASA missions.  My own contribution stressed the need for nations of the world, including the U.S., to go beyond the breast thumping nationalism and militarism that had characterized the early decades of “the space race.”  “Why not make space a truly universal human concern, rather than a demonstration of a particular country’s power and prestige?” I asked.

Musgrave, a brilliant engineer, MD, philosopher, poet, and scholar with wide-ranging interests, is renown as the person who flew on the Space Shuttle Endeavor in 1993, going outside the ship to repair equipment problems in Hubble Telescope, glitches that had rendered the satellite basically useless.  His main contribution at the conference was to show and comment upon photographs he had taken during several of his flights in orbit.  Among the scenes were panoramas of whole continents, oceans and islands, cities lighted at night, lakes, clouds, and an array of human-made systems of dwelling, energy and transportation.  One especially astonishing sequence of slides showed a lightning storm spreading across a vast landscape.  “From space one can clearly see,” he noted, that lightning bursts are not singular events, but systematic patterns fanning out from a center along a chain of electrical points.” (1)

Musgrave explained that his use of photography in space over the years stemmed from an insight that dawned on him during his first flights into the stratosphere.  As he worked with his fellow astronauts, he noticed how few seemed genuinely interested in the marvels that surrounded them as they circled Earth.  Some of them scarcely bothered to look up from the instruments and displays they were monitoring.  Just outside the windows of their satellites were the most extraordinary vistas ever witnessed by a human being.  “But many of my colleagues were so thoroughly involved with their assigned routines that they didn’t take time to gaze into universe that beckoned.”

Appalled by this odd, unnecessary convention, Musgrave quietly rebelled.  As he told our gathering, “I cultivated a particular habit.  Wherever I was in orbit inside the capsule or outside in a space suit, whatever it was I had to accomplish, I would remind myself every 90 seconds or so: Story, look around!”  In that spirit, he made it his practice to pause, turn his eyes from the equipment for a moment, and gaze out at the stars and down toward the Earth.  He persisted in doing this even during the intensive, delicate work floating weightlessly to install new electronics packages for the Hubble. “Why should I avoid taking a moment to gaze into the universe?” he exclaimed.  “After all, I was one of the few persons in all of human history to have had this wonderful opportunity.”

During our panel discussion of the future of space travel, Musgrave expressed some sympathy with the general argument I’d made about the need to reject the Cold War patriotism and military ideology of the first generation American space programs.  Perhaps he was just being polite, but he offered no objection to my provocation that the earliest steps in U.S. space initiatives were an afterthought, attempts to glamorize the production of intercontinental ballistic missiles. 

My subsequent reading about Story’s life and work made it clear that, in fact, his experience of space travel had always been intensely spiritual, informed by his readings in philosophy poetry, and natural history including the classics of European romanticism, the works of American transcendentalists -- Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and others -- sensibilities expressed in some 300 poems about space he’s written over the years. 

In a 1997 interview for the Academy of Achievement, Musgrave took care to emphasize the literary and philosophical roots of his vision.  “Whitman expressed the whole universe in his poetry and in his catalogues. That attitude almost defines what we call American romanticism, or American transcendentalism. I feel particularly close to them, because I am now out in the universe. I'm in a position to see nature from another point of view, to be outside the earth and see the big picture. To have an absolutely clear shot at the skies and to see stars that you can't see from down here, Magellanic clouds, auroras, a new perspective of nature.... It's clear to see why I like the English romantics and the American transcendentalists. I like their poetry as literature but also, from a philosophical point of view, I have very close ties to them.” (2)

One of the slides he showed at the conference left strong, lasting impression on me, enough so that I’ve used it -- along with his “Story, look around!” maxim -- in my classroom teaching over the years.  From a vantage point high above the Earth, the photo showed the Arabian Peninsula in bright daylight, revealing massive arrays of little green circles in precise geometrical patterns within the yellow desert terrain.  “What you see here,” he explained, “are systems of irrigation using gigantic water sprinklers that move slowly in circular swaths, watering fields of wheat and other agricultural products.” Clearly, the dozens of green circles were expressions of one of the signature projects in the “conquest of nature” celebrated during the mid-twentieth century: “making the deserts bloom.” He paused for a moment and then quietly mused,  “It took tens of thousands of years for water to gather in the deep aquifers that these farms now pump to the surface.  It will take only twenty years to exhaust them.”  And with that he clicked on to the next slide.         

Musgrave’s comments are echoed in a series recent scientific studies and news reports about one the excesses of contemporary civilization -- the increasingly frantic quest to extract water from the world’s remaining aquifers.  Many of the green circles from satellite photos of the Arabian Peninsula have already turned brown as the underground wells that quenched them have dried up, never to be replenished.  According to recent estimates, four fifths of the water in Saudi Arabia’s wells have been tapped out.  Although the country has built desalinization plants to provide water from the sea, the cost of $1 per cubic meter is prohibitive for agricultural applications.  A desperate alternative has been to secure lands and water for Saudi agriculture at distant locations including the headwaters of the Nile River in Ethiopia. Projects of this kind have repeatedly brought the Saudis in conflict with local populations unhappy with the coming of billionaire oil sheiks. (3)

A similar predicament now faces my home state of California.  Four years of persistent drought have eliminating much of the water that once flowed in abundance from rains and snowmelt in the Sierra Nevada mountains, forcing farms, towns and cities to draw upon deposits of water from underground wells and deep aquifers.  According to the March 2015 estimate of NASA hydrologist Jay Famiglietti, “Right now the state has only about one year of water supply left in its reservoirs, and our strategic backup supply, groundwater, is rapidly disappearing. California has no contingency plan for a persistent drought like this one (let alone a 20-plus-year mega-drought), except, apparently, staying in emergency mode and praying for rain.  In short, we have no paddle to navigate this crisis.” (4)  An additional unhappy surprise is that as water is pumped from the ground to supplant customary surface supplies, some communities have experienced the sinking of large patches of land as subsurface caverns give way. 

The larger picture of events in Arabia and California is offered in a comprehensive scientific study published earlier this year, warning that many of the world’s largest and most crucial sources of underground fresh water are now in steep decline.   From 2003 to 2013 NASA’s GRACE satellites measured changes in the Earth’s gravitational pull, ones caused by reduction in the mass of water from the world’s aquifers.  (5)   As reported by the Washington Post, “Twenty-one of the world’s 37 largest aquifers – in locations from India and China to the United States and France – have passed their sustainability tipping points, meaning more water was removed than replaced during the decade-long study-period....” (6)  Roughly 35% of all water used by people around the globe comes from underground sources of this kind.

Among the troubles that afflict our planet today are the alluring power fantasies left behind by the era of reckless modernity of the twentieth century.  Some of the more prominent lingering delusions assume a limitless supply of resources crucial for economic growth, consumerist materialism and “the good life,” including what were long assumed to be the “free” and “inexhaustible” resources of fresh water from the skies and in our lakes, streams and rivers.  To some extent the worlds’ growing awareness of resource depletion, global climate disruption and other features of civilization's assault upon Earth’s biosphere arose from observations and measurements gathered by space satellites and those skillfully employ them.  Today, as the world's people seek new policies and creative alliances to address these calamities, the availability of good scientific evidence from satellites and elsewhere is, of course, absolutely crucial.  But for a generation inclined to stare passively, even obsessively into video displays and smart phone screens, the wisdom of Story Musgrave’s astronaut invocation seems more relevant than ever: “Humanity, look around!"

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(1)  The quotes from Dr. Musgrave I offer here are from my memory and should be understood only as, I hope, faithful reconstructions of his remarks at the Rice conference. 

(2) “Interview: Story Musgrave, Dean of American Astronauts,” May 22, 1997, Baltimore, Maryland.  http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/printmember/mus0int-1

(3)  Fred Pearce, “Saudi Arabia stakes a claim on the Nile,” National Geographic, Wed., Dec. 19, 2012. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/12/121217-saudi-arabia-water-grabs-ethiopia/

(4)  Jay Famiglietti, “California has about one year of water stored. Will you ration now?” Los Angeles Times, March 12, 2015.  http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-famiglietti-drought-california-20150313-story.html

(5)   Alexandra S. Richey, et al, “Uncertainty in global groundwater storage estimates in Total Groundwater Stress framework,” Water Resources Research, July 14, 2015.

(6)  Todd C. Frankel, “New NASA data show how the world is running out of water,” The Washington Post, June 16, 2015.  http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonkblog/wp/2015/06/16/new-nasa-studies-show-how-the-world-is-running-out-of-water/