Esteemed cosmologist, and my old friend, Andrew Jaffe just posted a quick retort on his blog to a long essay by philosopher John Gray. Gray has an objection to the strident challenging tone of modern atheist thought-leaders like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins.
I am not the scientist Andrew Jaffe is, and I was hopeful that Gray’s essay was something endearing and woolly, a plea for magic in our contemplative moments. Some time ago I began having issues with my atheism, a matter of personal feeling about this great universe. I’m not sure even now if I am proud or sheepish about it, but it is what it is – I am a woolly atheist.
Gray’s objections alas are very different, and worrisome. Supposedly Gray is discussing why militant religion is in resurgence, but Gray – himself a self-professed atheist – really writes to vilify and blame, cheekily calling the New Atheists “missionary” and “evangelical,” and less cheekily comparing them to the pseudo-scientists who justified Nazi and Soviet genocides.
It took a while for me to understand: John Gray has Stockholm syndrome. He’s been living in a culture that has been deferential to the religious for a very long time, and he can’t see a way past that.
Modern atheists are revolutionaries, not missionaries, and this is their revolution: to insist that in the modern world — where we fly without feathered wings, talk across distances without magic crystals, kill far-away enemies without thunderbolts and stop epidemics without human sacrifices — religion must now justify the exalted place it demands in the making of public policy and education. Continue reading →
You are driving, and almost out of gas, but you have two passengers who both need a ride. One fell at a construction site and has a steel bar through her chest. The other needs to quit smoking or she will develop emphysema in thirty years. With your limited resources, is it better to go the emergency room, or the late-night drugstore which sells nicotine patches?
Of course you go to the emergency room. But of course, this is a false choice.
In this spirit, I want to take on the nonsense about climate-change spouted last Friday by a reactionary writer named Bret Stephens, on the political affairs talk show Real Time with Bill Maher. Maher mentioned a study by scientist James Lawrence Powell showing that in almost eleven thousand scientific studies of climate change, only two studies denied it was caused by human activity. Stephens answered Maher’s challenge thus: Continue reading →
A couple weeks ago someone left a Pyrex liter measuring cup outside the apartments across the street. I was tempted to take it to keep it from becoming trash. But, whoever forgot it might soon remember it, so I left it. Of course the next morning it was broken. Now the street has this instead. It’s slowly being pulverized into smaller and sharper bits, and has already spread back up the curb-cut onto the sidewalk my dogs and I cross to get to the dog park. Our own little Peter Greenaway film, with real injuries.
Last week on Doctor Who Amy and Rory were home between adventures, cleaning out the fridge. Amy smelled an old leftover, wrinkled her nose and tossed it. I think this act will become a dramatic shorthand for the 21st century, as cigarettes are for the 20th, six-shooters the 19th.
Shout out to prolific profane poet Bud Glory!
I’m appalled by how much garbage I make,
haunted by wrappers, boxes, plastic trays,
bags of vegetables (organically raised!),
yogurt cups, the styrofoam with my steak.
A coffee drink comes with a cup, straw and
lid — I buy three a week. Catalog stores
ship boxes, packing peanuts, more
clothes and computers. My old PCs stand
dusty in closets, now too slow even
for charity (which still accepts old clothes).
Soap pump-bottles, toothpaste tubes, all trash when
they are empty. Whatever I buy, I dispose
of some part. I know better but want trumps
reason. All my desires end in dumps.
It has unhinged me. It’s a craziness.
My shame at my trash won’t leave me alone.
If I throw away one can, I atone
later by recycling two more. A mess
of sports-drink bottles near the basketball
court, lonely beers forgotten on the curb:
uncapped mouths, pleading for rescue. I’m disturbed
and getting worse. Soon the children will all
point. “Neighborhood wacko. Picks up trash.” Not
enough, alas, to ever compensate
for what I’ve thrown out. It will never rot,
never disappear or evaporate,
my garbage. It just sits, useless, inert,
somewhere out of sight, buried in the dirt.
Last week my dad came over for dinner and afterwards I excitedly told him that the solar panels had started working. I was not quite prepared for his reaction. He mocked me. Words like crazy, stupid, ridiculous, and that old standby, oh, sure.
I’m still trying to figure out why. I suppose I could ask him but after the initial reaction I’m not so inclined.
It might simply have been my enthusiasm, an inviting target for any grumpy person. Like any boy I like my toys, but this one doesn’t depreciate by half when you drive it off the lot, nor does it get obsoleted in a year by a newer slimmer, faster model. This toy makes electricity from sunlight and it will do so for thirty years. If you have something more magical than that, take the time to phrase your wishes carefully before you rub it. (Not to mention it will even reduce my air-conditioning bill by its very presence — every photon of Washington summer sun that hits it, doesn’t heat the roof below.)
It might have been the cost. I bought a fifteen kilowatt system, a monster by home standards — even after the generous federal and state rebates, it’s a Jaguar. But it pays for itself in seven years. Solar panels are much cheaper than they were ten years ago (the real reason Solyndra went bust, should you ever be arguing the point — it’s hard to sell newfangled gear when China’s state-supported industries halve the cost of old-style gear), but even with the current generous government rebates they are not cheap.*
It might just have been the wine. After heart surgery he’s not the drinker he was.
Still — it wasn’t any gut level reaction against greenness and virtue (or if it was, it was left unspoken, and I sure didn’t make the mistake of adding that to my argument). My dad is neither early adopter nor luddite, and usually he can tell the difference between a boondoggle and an investment. So what gives? It’s not an idle question. If even ten percent of people feel like my father then that’s a whole lot of solar panels people in temperate areas won’t be using; that’s a whole lot of electricity people will be getting from fossil fuels.
And we both know, gentle reader, it’s more than ten percent.
I’m starting to wonder if it sounded too good to be true. If my dad reacted the way Jack’s mother did when he sold the cow for magic beans, if he flashed back to all those childhood hours I spent watching Star Trek and thought, “oh, no, not this again.” Computers were one thing — you could touch them, see them, you could print out what was on the screen. Phones, well, you can hear the other person. A solar panel is not directly measurable with five senses. It doesn’t roar or smoke or even vibrate. It doesn’t even move like a wind turbine. It just sits there.
But we need them. Every roof needs them. Power rains down on us minute by minute and for the first time in history we can use it directly, the way every blade of grass does. It’s time people start believing in magic. Wal-Mart does; why not you?
I wish we Americans believed in it to the point that we helped our fellow Americans make it ourselves instead of buying it from other countries, but I’ll take Chinese magic over American coal. Magic is less polluting.
*If you are considering solar panels, look into leasing, which for most people is the better deal. You get cheaper electricity; the leasing firm makes their money by selling the green-ness of your panels to utility companies as Solar Renewable Energy Credits, or SRECs.