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State Of The Onion, Jan. 2006
Unpeeling the layers

Copyright © 2005 Dorian Scott Cole
About this series.


As we unpeel the layers of the world we have created, layer by layer, and finally we unpeel the last layer, we realize that there is nothing at the core - it was all us and what we created. Perhaps it reveals our ideal values and how close we have gotten to them. Is it all a matter of perspective whether it is, "Here's another fine mess you've gotten us into," or "What a fine world this would be..." Is judgment is in the eye of the beholder. Read on.

Who are we to judge the product of our own work? Is there any way to judge? We are all in this together, and we all create the world we live in. We have to live with the results. We may be guided by noble and Godly ideas, or by ignoble ideas and passions, but by our hands and our wits, we devise our environment, and we live with the consequences. How well we fare depends on us.

The noble ideas are that we live in peace and harmony; that we create an economy in which all of us prosper, and have safety nets for when we fail - together we share our risks; that we have opportunity to pursue our careers and interests; that we have good health throughout our lives and into our golden years; that we have a government that represents our interests, protects us, and makes sound decisions, and through which we collectively enable our endeavors; and that no one is repressed. These are values. In the US, these might be called the pursuit of happiness. How are we doing?


The Middle East - can't we all just get along? Not. Few areas of the world have sufficient conflict to threaten world peace. For example, outside of the Middle East, the North Koreans are a regional problem, and despite trying to be "the mouse that roared," it is a country with little significance to the US and world peace. Any war, even nuclear, would end in North Korea's total destruction, and before it can reach that point, it has such festering problems that it is likely to collapse from within.

Al Qaida has been contained, thanks to worldwide efforts. Although it can still strike outside of the Orient (where it has its greatest support), possibly even create another 9-11 type disaster, it doesn't have the power to overthrow any weak nations. Its leaders are dead or on the run. Its finances are cut off. Killing innocent Iraqis has discredited it. Its voices have the hollow ring of empty threats, empty values, empty conflicts, and empty promises - although still having the power to enslave the disenfranchised. Iraq is slowing buying into democracy, so interest in Al Qaida is dissipating. Al Qaida can only grow if the world permits it. Only Al Qaida leaders don't know that the movement is dead, and they suspect it.

The real question marks are Israel, Palestine, and Iran. Hamas won an unexpected victory in the January 25, 2006 Palestinian elections. Public anger with Fatah, and candidates splitting from the Fatah party may have divided the vote to the point that Hamas could win. Hamas is most notable to Israel and the US for being an organization that is pledged to the destruction of Israel, and a sponsor of terrorism against Israel.

Continuing pictures of Palestinian men, women, and children dancing and whooping in the streets at news of terrorist strikes against Israel raises major doubts about any peaceful intentions of the Palestinian people - not that they haven't truckloads of angst to unload.

This raises major questions about the Palestinian people - not just their leaders. If radicalism and violence win in the Middle East, it questions the heart of Islam in the Middle East, the Arab world, and the ability of that world to survive among its neighbors.

The PLA, dominated by the Palestinian Fatah party - Yasir Arafat's party - has long dominated the political scene. Arafat is gone and the party is slowly splintering. Unfortunately it has long been associated with corruption and infighting. Hamas, on the other hand, fundamentalist inspired, is a favorite of the people as a party dominated by vengeful violence toward Israel, and a party that has the basic needs of the Palestinians at heart. The party wins the hearts of the Palestinians through charity and sharp opposition to Israel. Can Palestinian President Abbas, who has three more years in his term and a divided legislature, keep the voilent under control?

Ironically, electing Hamas may have a similar effect as was had by electing the hard line Sharon to power in Israel. Sharon came to realize that confrontational rhetoric and forcing the seizure of land was not the road to peace, but to war.

Under the hawkish Sharon, Israel finally ceased tormenting the Palestinians by seizing and settling the land - a policy that created hordes of enemies that will last for generations - and looked for ways to peace. Some land was returned... painfully, internally divisively. The overtures might have worked thirty years ago when relations were sort of OK. Today its like running through a briar patch --> unrelenting payback.

Sharon broke with the hard line right, stayed away from the left that wants to negotiate, and formed a new party, Kadima (meaning "forward"), with popular support. The goal: peace without negotiations. Build a wall around the Zionist state, and never talk to a Palestinian. Perhaps at this point that is the best that can be done, considering history, but the only thing isolation really does is drive people farther apart by making them unknown to each other. Monsters grow in the dark.

The challenge for the rigid fundamentalist organization, Hamas, which is now provided with an opportunity to lead, will be to transform its terrorist wing from using violence, into a political party that exerts a positive force for change. This may take years.

To even talk to the US, Hamas must recognize Israel and disarm its terrorist wing. Is it important to talk to the US? The US is always coming to the aid of the Palestinians, giving nearly $2,996,32 million to them between 1994 and 1998. Even the recent election had US contributions of $2 million to help it go smoothly. Many Palestinians love to denounce the US, but US aid is an important part of their survival.

The opportunity is now for both Israel and the Hamas terrorists to stand down - Israel by completing a wall surrounded by a buffer zone, and Hamas by assuming legitimate peaceful political power. It can be a path to peaceful coexistence. Without barbing each other in festering wounds every day, the fury can die down in coming years. Communication about understanding each other's needs, and negotiations, can begin. But will Hamas stand down, or use its power to continue its violent ways? And will Israel, without Sharon's leadership, continue to pursue the Kadima path? It is a turning point. It could go either way.

Iran. With Iraq out of the picture as a threat to Israel, and other Arab countries having a more moderate stance, Iran's leaders have suddenly raised their head as a threat. Why? Did Saddam Hussein's example fall on deaf ears? Hussein basically invited his own destruction by threatening the Middle East with weapons of mass destruction. Saddam made war with Iran, invaded Kuwait, killed massive numbers of Kurds and Shiites, threatened the US and other Western powers, sent missiles into Israel, used chemical weapons on his own people, and tried to develop nuclear weapons, while holding his people in an iron military death-grip. Thankfully the US did what needed to be done - Hussein is deposed and Iraqis can determine their own destiny.

Now Iran is insisting on its right to do all of the things necessary to create nuclear weapons. Having nuclear power is clearly not the issue - they have inexpensive oil and they have sufficient access to nuclear technology to build nuclear power plants. Is the road to folly paved with Persian leaders bent on self-destruction? Or is there some sense of countering the perceived threat of Israel and Western style democracy? Or is it something else? I think so.

There seems to be a pervasive attitude in Persian and Middle Eastern thought, that you make yourself look big by attacking giants. Is this the only way to hold Iran together with an actual democracy on each side? If so, then Iran will fall from within, and another revolution is in sight.

The Arab countries have a proud heritage of cultural, historical, literary, and religious contribution to the world, including the earliest writing, advances in mathematics, and the libraries of Alexandria which were major sources of religious texts and repositories of ancient knowledge. The Iranians and Palestinians would do well to aspire to greater things. They both need effective leaders, not rabble rousers who inspire mob rule.

Where are we in peace, given the Middle East situation? Things could go either way. Despite the hostile activity, violence is more characteristic of the area than a real indicator. Things seem more hopeful. We were at a 1. We could be back there tomorrow, but I'm an optimistic realist.


-1 War is inevitable due to events driving toward war
0 Dangerously close to war, threatening rhetoric, military movement
1 Hostile activity
2 Trending in the wrong direction - unresolved conflict, lack of cooperation, negotiations, and communication.
3 Balanced. Could go either way.
4 OK - trending in good directions. Attempting to talk, negotiate, resolve conflicts, communicate positions and needs.
5 Successfully communicating, understanding, and resolving conflicts.


Environment. Is the environment really very important? Is it "critical?" After all, environmentalists are known to overstate their case. Some extremists go around tearing up vehicles and burning down buildings. Other activists stop ships. Yet, we actually have more trees now than we had before. (OK, but candidly, I would give 300 pine trees for just one good hardwood - it is a production VS quality and habitat perspective.)

While it is sometimes fashionable to denigrate environmentalists for protecting snail darters and trees, historically a small number of people have had major negative impact on the environment. Examples:

Gray whale - driven close to extinction by whalers.

Bison (buffalo). At the beginning of the nineteenth century bison herds roamed the west, with a population numbering around thirty million. They provided food and leather for clothes and shelter, for native Americans. By the beginning of the 20th. Century they were near extinction, with only about a thousand remaining. Two factors are believed responsible. Cold temperatures that the bison genetic line was unable to bear, and settlers hunting the bison for sport, and then leaving the carcasses to waste. Many believe that the majority fault was man's actions - hunters with guns. It took only about 50 years for the Southern Plains tribes to be suffering from starvation.

Sea otter. Having a soft, lustrous fur, this mammal was hunted for its fur in the 1800s, and by 1911 was nearly extinct.

Beaver. These animals were plentiful in the North American continent, with Canada alone believed to have had nearly 6 million. When beaver fur became fashionable for hats in Europe, trappers nearly wiped out the creature from the continent by the mid-19th. Century. Fortunately silk hats became all the rage.

Passenger Pigeon. This bird was once the most abundant bird on the planet. Early North American settlers reported flocks that covered the sky for hours. The bird was hunted worldwide for food, and its habitats were cleared. All that has been seen of the Passenger Pigeon since 1900 is pictures in written accounts - it is extinct.

North Atlantic Cod. Have we learned anything since the late 1800s? Even if man wiped out some of the land animals, the vast ocean is still rife with fish, right? Not.

North Atlantic Cod, a deep water ocean fish, has declined 80% in number in 30 years, due to over-fishing. While the impact on our food supply is bad, another food fish in the area similarly declined, plus three other species declined that are not used for food. Recent studies show an 87% decrease in five species in 17 years. These other fish live and feed in the 400 to 1200 meter depth, below where cod are fished. Why?

The nets used for fishing grab everything - and other fish are ground and put into chicken and dog food. What is even worse, the nets used for fishing drag the bottom and destroy the ecosystem there. What was once a major fish supply and ecosystem has been nearly destroyed, and will literally take many generations to revive. Fifteen percent of the world's protein comes from fish. These food fish take about 15 years to raise - a fish farm won't help us with them - it is too inefficient to be economical. For more information, listen to NPR Counting and Improving Fish Populations. Where are we going with this?

Land. Animals are just one element of ecology. Our land is literally disappearing. The topsoil that we farm for food is a relatively thin layer of the ground, in some places less than an inch or so deep with clay or rock protruding through this layer (as in Southern Indiana, Missouri, and other hilly areas). The ground disappears by erosion. More than 55 percent of this damage is caused by water erosion and nearly 33 percent by wind erosion. Farming makes the ground exposed to heavy erosion. We have to farm to raise food, so there is no answer, right?

Every year soil erosion and other forms of land degradation rob the world of 10 to 15 million acres of farm land. Every year 25,000 million tons of topsoil are washed away, and it is made much worse by the actions of man.

In the 1930s, wind erosion devastated millions of acres of farmland in the US. The Government set up an agricultural extension service to train farmers in soil conservation. To retain soil, they were taught to plow less deeply, and to plant trees, hedges, and grass around the edges of fields. Trees form a natural barrier against wind erosion. Keeping vegetation on the land, and using strips between plots of land, are two ways that wind and water erosion is controlled. Strip farming uses natural barriers, including strips of trees. See: Food and agriculture organization of the United Nations. and Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration of Canada.

Have we learned anything? One of the first things that many farming organizations do is remove the trees from the land to get the most production from the land. Every few years I pass by one of my former homes in Northern Indiana. It was a farm with a beautiful tree-lined, wide creek running through it, and pastures on each side. We used to picnic there and fish. My sister once nearly drowned in the creek. I can barely find it now - all of the trees are gone and the creek is a narrow drainage ditch. Tree huggers? Try to find a tree in farming territory.

While our land is disappearing, so does the natural species in the land. When trees are removed, the natural habitat for wildlife is removed, and those flora and fauna species decline and disappear. The ecosystems that they depend on are also the ecosystems that the earth, and we people, depend on.

Coming problem. I am not an "environmentalist," but I understand that the environment is fragile, and that the impact that man has is profound, especially when situations are critical and man's actions could tip the balance. One area of concern is that "Ten percent of all bird species are likely to disappear by the year 2100, and another 15 percent could be on the brink of extinction." This, according to a study by Stanford University biologists, published in the Online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in December. See the Science Daily article: The Global Bird Populations Face Dramatic Decline In Coming Decades.

The US was once a leader in environmental issues, and is certainly the leader in energy consumption, pollution, and trash production. While efforts to control the environmental impact have helped, the sheer size of consumption and pollution is a problem. Constant leadership and due diligence are required to manage the impact that man has on the environment.

We are seeing worldwide changes in the environment, which are mostly natural, but which may be tipped across thresholds from which permanent catastrophic problems may occur. Man's actions could be the trigger that makes them cross the threshold. For example, we know of summers without warmth from volcanic activity - these are a good clue to what happens when you pump gasses and solid pollutants into the environment. Major systems are showing major signs of change.

Ocean currents. These currents carry warm water north to Europe, and then carry cold water south. See The Great Ocean Conveyer Belt. These currents have a major impact on the climate in affected areas. We are seeing changes that have never been seen before in terms of human life spans - very unusual changes indicating dramatic activity. It is known that during the ice age, these currents had stopped. See MSNBC Scientists: Key Atlantic current slowing, and New Scientist: Failing ocean current raises fears of mini ice age. A mini ice age occurred in Europe from 800 to 1400 CE, and is thought to have been a major factor in the disappearance of the bison.

Global climate warming. Ice is melting from some mountain peaks, permafrost is melting in some northern regions, polar icecaps are melting at an alarming rate... in the past ten years we are seeing places unfrozen that haven't been unfrozen in 10,000 years. The global warming seems to be mostly natural, but man has a hand in it that could be decisive. Habitats and ecosystems are being damaged by the melting, and the changes may accelerate global warming. See BBC News Earth's permafrost starts to squelch, and Melting permafrost threatens Alps.

Is there a sense in current US political leadership that we are in a danger zone in which man's actions may tip a delicate balance, push us across a threshold, and cause disaster? President Bush is an oil man - a person deeply involved in the oil industry. Are administration attitudes what you might expect from this source? It's something to consider.

The oil industry has received more tax breaks, during a time of major profits and difficult economic times for the rest of us, while environmental concerns have received less funding and attention. We are seeing global warming. We are seeing an administration unprepared for natural disasters, seeing a carefree license to corporations on many issues, and the US refused to sign the Kyoto Accords on global warming, while 140 other nations did sign it. Any one of these actions might be defensible, but taken as a whole they reflect a potential attitude that needs to be evaluated. Some take a dim view of the Bush record on environmental legislation and enforcement. But then others aren't so sure. The power plants have to be built somewhere, and the, "Not in my backyard," option isn't really much of an option. Somehow we have to generate power, and we don't seem to have visionaries with effective answers, in leadership positions.

Significant perhaps is that the magnetic poles are changing rapidly, and no one really knows why or what it means.

Where are we in the Environment in the US today? Reactive. Too many things, things that have opposing economic interests, are recognized to be problems only when extinction is about to occur, or has occurred. In defense of ourselves, we don't understand our ecosystems very well, including the human impact (human ecology) well enough to avoid overreacting in prevention. On the other hand, there are many who are too eager to simply ignore the environment. Where is caution? During critical times, when you really don't know where the dangers are, it makes sense to play it safe. If we peeked into the environment and saw the dangers were akin to Al Qaida or Hurricane Katrina, ready to strike out of the blue, what would we be doing?

Jared Diamond, in his book, Collapse - how societies choose to fail or succeed, looks at civilizations through history, that have succeeded or collapsed in ruins. He arrived at a five point framework of factors that were associated with (and believed causative) in success or collapse. Of these, the "...society's responses to its environmental problems - always proves significant."

This rating is a really tough one. Yes, we can pat ourselves on the back and say that we really do some great things for the environment, and there are times when you can be lax. But the following factors hurt us: enforcement is lax and economic interests seem to be favored, there are growing global warming problems that are unaddressed, scienctific input seems to be avoided in the administration in favor of positions, we seem to be going in the wrong direction, and we are in a critical period when small things are very likely to mean a lot.

World: -1.....0.....1^......2.....3.....4.....5

US under Bush admin.: -1.....0.....^1......2.....3.....4.....5


-1 Environmental failure is inevitable due to irreversible harmful actions (including 0, 1, 2)
0 Dangerously close to environmental failure (including 1, 2)
1 Unrestrained harmful activity, inadequate monitoring and preventive measures (including 2)
2 Trending in the wrong direction - unresolved harmful practices, ignoring impact, lack of cooperation, negotiations, and communication.
3 Balanced. Could go either way.
4 OK - trending in good directions. Attempting to talk, understand, monitor, negotiate, resolve harmful practices, communicate positions and needs.
5 Successfully communicating, understanding, and resolving conflicts.


Part 2, near the end of February, will cover politics, health and retirement care, the economy, energy, and possibly religion.

- Scott

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