I Want an America Better Than This

We normally think of gurus in connection with individuals claiming transcendental wisdom, often as emissaries of the Divine. I needn’t recite a roll call of their prodigious presence, past and present, in American life, drawing into their loop numerous devotees, hanging on their every word, willing to drink the Kool-Aid.

But gurus can be political, too, like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. I see danger in my beloved America in the likes of Trump and DeSantis and their “true believer” followers, bent on banning books, subverting free inquiry, racial justice, a woman’s right to choose; its ubiquitous gay-bashing, xenophobia, restricting voter access, and denial of climate change. Unhinged, some are willing to employ violence to achieve their ends.

I want a better America than this. I want America to live up to its promise as a bastion of hope and guardian of liberty. I think you want that too. Indifference won’t win out. We must advocate. We must resist. The liberty you defend is your own. —rj

It Isn’t What I Know

It isn’t what I know, but what I don’t know that subdues my ego’s pretense. All life is flow and to be happy is to bend, like a willow in the wind, to its rhythms:

“Those who know they do not know gain wisdom.
Those who pretend they know
Remain ignorant.

“Those who acknowledge their weakness
Become strong.
Those who flaunt their power will lose it.” —Tao Te Ching 71.

Blame Corporations, Not Consumers: Why Inflation Persists

The Federal Reserve keeps upping the interest rate in a concerted effort to reduce inflation. This risks inducing a recession, meaning fewer jobs and economic misery just in time for the 2024 election and Trump, either even or ahead of Biden, in current polling surveys.

Do you really like paying an extra thousand monthly on your anticipated new mortgage than a year ago or paying 84 months on your new vehicle?

Sadly, the Federal Reserve is operating on a false premise, pummeling consumers. The truth is that the major responsibility for inflation lies with corporate greed, using the cover of inflation to raise prices and augment profits.

According to the Economic Policy Institute (2023), corporate profits normally contribute 13% to prices. Currently, that figure has risen to twice that amount.

Plain evidence stares you in the face with every trip you make to your grocery store or opt for dining out and witness markups twice or more the rate of current inflation. Tyson Foods, our largest meat supplier, reported a doubling of profits from first quarter 2021 to first quarter 2022.

Chipotle Mexican Grill, has just announced it expects to increase its menu prices 15% by the end of 2023, despite reporting $257.1 million in profit in the latest quarter, a nearly 26 percent jump from a year earlier (NYT).

Sometimes, you’ll see wily corporations do the “shrinkflation” gambit: higher price, less content. They think you won’t notice. Gatorade, for example, redesigned its bottles, same height, but fewer ounces, 28 oz. vs. 32 oz, or a 14% content reduction.

Albertsons bought out Safeway, and now Kroger wants to buy Albertsons. Include Walmart, and you’ve got three firms controlling 72% of the market! (The Guardian).

No, it’s neither consumers nor unions fueling inflation, but corporate conglomerates that lie at the root of stubborn inflation, against which even the Federal Reserve’s raising interest rates have proven inadequate, ironically making it more difficult for consumers.

Lamentably, the corporate sector wields too much influence, lobbying in the Congress, and meddling in our elections. They shouldn’t enjoy the status of persons, as ruled by SCOTUS {2010), free to spend on candidates of their choice.

It’s time to play hardball: Impose a windfall profits tax on corporate profit above a reasonable margin.

Let government be suspicious of proposed mergers, with their inherent layoffs and reduced competition, heating the economy still further.

Break-up corporate monopolies too big for their britches!


Tim Flannery: Voice in the Wilderness

Australian explorer and ecologist Tim Flannery is a remarkable man. Nearly twenty years ago have passed since I read his initial book on climate change, The Weather Makers: The History & Future Impact of Climate Change (2005).

It was my first extended read on the climate crisis impacting all of us, spelling out its corollary fallout for Australia—rising seas, changes in weather patterns, and species extinction. I remember its clarity, abundant research, and earnest plea for changing our destructive exploitation of nature in the name of progress and prosperity. The book made me a believer and I’ve never looked back.

Translated into twenty-three languages, it received international acclaim. The following year, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth appeared. Both books gave landmark impetus to climate change awareness and promoting efforts to mitigate its worst effects. Flannery has now written 27 books along with publishing more than 140 peer-reviewed papers.

He helped found the Copenhagen Climate Council in 2007 and presently serves as head of Australia’s Climate Change Commission. In 2007, he was selected as Australia’s Man of the Year, a notable award, given Australia’s history of collusion with fossil fuel interests.

For years, Flannery has been a voice crying out in the wilderness, urging government interests to adopt measures to lessen the outbreak of bushfires Flannery’s Climate Council had filed 12 reports of looming danger. Then, on a continent where bushfires have historically ravaged Australia’s landscape, there occurred the bushfires of 2019-2020, with an estimated loss of 33 humans and 3 billion animals. Precipitated by two years of withering drought and searing temperatures, Sydney saw temperatures rise to 120 F.

Meanwhile, then prime minister, Scott Morrison, was on undisclosed vacation with his family at the height of the conflagration.

Earlier, in 2013, the incoming government of Tony Abbott ordered that the Climate Council, headed by Flannery, be shut down. The following year, the tax on carbon emissions was abolished.

Australia, based on head count,  is the world’s leading polluter. Currently, it ranks among the largest exporters of natural gas and second as an exporter of coal. “Were greenhouse gases at pre-industrial levels,” says Flannery, “natural factors alone would produce a year as hot as 2019 just once every 360 years. But add the effect of human-emitted greenhouse gases and the probability drops to one year in eight—a forty-five-fold increase in probability” (New York Review of Books, January 16, 2020).

Flannery’s love of nature is rooted in his boyhood, growing up in the Melbourne suburb of Sandringham, with remnants of its ancient woodlands not yet victim to Melbourne’s spilling over its boundaries:   

Our house lay just a few hundred metres from the most majestic part of its shoreline – the Red Bluff Cliffs. Sculpted from five-million-year-old sandstone, they stood as a great fluted rampart rising 80 metres above
the waves and running for half a kilometre or so along the foreshore before petering out into ti-tree covered slopes.

While the waters were safe from wholesale alteration, ‘progress’, unfortunately, could not let even this jewel of a place alone. Around half of the cliff had become a municipal garbage dump, and old cars, refrigerators and other rubbish cascaded down its slope to leak oil into the water below.

But this could not blight the life of the sea. If you searched among the rusting rubbish you might find a ribbed murex shell, or the white beauty of an angel’s wing clam. This place was my playground.” (Satish Kumar, ed., Small World, Big Ideas: Eco-Activists for Change).

Flannery did his undergraduate degree in English and history at La Trobe University before switching to an M.A. in geology at Monash University, followed by his Ph. D. at the University of South Wales.

For nearly twenty years, Flannery conducted extensive explorations of islands of the South Pacific, discovering and naming forty previously unknown species of mammals: 

It was during this work that I first encountered evidence of climate change: everywhere the tree line in New Guinea was rising, and the precious alpine habitats were shrinking. By 1999, I knew what I had to do: give up a life of adventure and become an activist for addressing the threat of climate change. I began researching a book, and in 2005 published The Weather Makers  (Kumar).

I like the way Flannery writes, a scientist conveying nature’s plight in layman’s idiom, articulate and convincing, insistent that we change our ways: “The brutal destruction of the natural environment I witnessed as a child, for example, has left me with an enduring belief that Nature is precious and vulnerable, and that humans can destroy beautiful things in an almost malicious manner” (Kumar).

Dr. Flannery continues, not only to be a strong voice for Australia’s environment, but for preserving what remains of vestigial rain forest and biodiversity in Micronesia. As for Flannery’s Climate Council, it continues to survive through public funding.

Sir David Attenborough deems Flannery as “in the league of the all-time great explorers like Dr David Livingstone” for documenting much of Australia’s earliest wildlife.

An articulator of nature’s gifts and of human assault, climaxing in the climate crisis that confronts us, none tells it better than Tim Flannery.







New England Child

I grew up a New England child and though I’ve lived many places since, my memories of its moods abide: salt spray air; the nocturnal thunder of pounding waves as I drifted into sleep; Yankee villages, replete with white steepled churches and verdant commons; stone walls; Concord’s Old Manse, its bridge, and Lexington, where my country labored into birth; summer expeditions to Rockport’s boat-laden harbor and wharf artistry; harvesting clam shells on a Salem beach; warm chowder on cold days; Cape Cod and sand dunes; Martha’s Vineyard and sea-drenched Nantucket; Ted Williams, the Celtics and Bruins; the Boston Pops and Freedom Trail; undulating rural roadways framed by mountains, freshly painted in autumnal hues; snowfall and hushed landscape; my beloved Newburyport, where I went to school and schoolmates, their faces luminous, triumphant over time. My speech betrays its accents. This summer, it’s Maine again—lighthouses, pristine beaches, Camden, Bar Harbor, Acadia. Ice cream! The poet Wordsworth wrote that “the child is father of the man.” I can’t speak for others, but in my case, it’s true. —rj

Trump’s Pending Indictment: Reflections

Donald Trump may be indicted as early as this week by a Manhattan grand jury for alleged $130,000 hush money paid to porn star Stormy Daniels.

Trump has indicated its likelihood and urged massive protests, recalling his incendiary efforts to impugn the 2020 election results when he tweeted on December 19, 2020 that his followers march to the Capitol on January 6, when Congress would meet to certify the election results: “Be there. Will be wild.”

It will be difficult to achieve a conviction in a subsequent trial, given the notoriety of the key witnesses, Daniels and convicted felon, Michael Cohen, and the gathering instigation by GOP House leadership of a presiding judge weaponizing his office against the former president. It shouldn’t be presumed that the grand jury will unanimously agree to an indictment. Even more so in an actual trial, creating a loophole for Trump, salvaged by legal expertise.

Regardless of what happens in New York, 22 other court cases or investigations into alleged Trump misdoings are pending in several jurisdictions (justicesecurity.org).

In spite of all of this, current polls indicate Trump’s the widely preferred GOP choice to face Biden once again. I lament that so many are willing, after all his charades, to drink the Kool-Aid once again. —rj

Musical Genius: America’s Gift to the World

I’m not into music the way my wife is, whose collection of music is vast in its eclectic sweep. I confess to being hooked on literary reads across the years, which includes poetry as well.

Still, I’m repeatedly stirred by music from many genres when I take time to listen. It’s why I try never to miss the annual Kennedy Center award broadcasts, introducing me to artists, well known to the public, but largely new to me.

I do subscribe to Apple Music, my way of catch-up for what I’ve missed across the years and what’s happening now. With my new Bose headphones, the stereo comes in, loud and clear. I’m transfixed. Oh my god! What have I missed? I’m this kid unleashed in a chocolate factory after hours.

One music artist I’ve come to especially appreciate is composer, pianist and conductor John Williams, prolific genius behind many of Hollywood’s award-winning musical scores. An American treasure who belongs to the world, he turned 91 this past February.

Where would Spielberg and Lukas be without him: winner of five Academy Awards for Best Original Score, think Fiddler on the Roof, Jaws, ET, Star Wars, and Schindler’s List.

Collectively, Williams has garnered 25 Grammy Awards, five Academy Awards, seven British Academy Film Awards, four Golden Globe Awards, and 53 Academy Award nominations.

But this isn’t the whole story. Williams wrote the theme music for the 1984 Olympics among still other feats independent of Hollywood.

He’s also served as principal conductor of the renowned Boston Pops (1980-1993) and has composed numerous classical works.

In 2004, he was honored by the Kennedy Center.

In 2005, the American Film Institute selected his score to 1977’s Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, as the greatest film score of all time.

In 2009, President Barack Obama presented him with the National Medal of Arts in the East Room of the White House, “America’s highest honour specifically given for achievement in the arts conferred to an individual artist on behalf of the American people” (irp.nih.gov).

Recently, Williams announced his retirement from writing film scores, only to take it back: “I’ve at least 10 more years to go. I’ll stick around for a while”(comicbook.com).

One prize has eluded him: The Presidential Medal of Freedom, our country’s highest award to a civilian for “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors” (change.org).

Surely, it’s long overdue, a remiss I hope President Biden will promptly address, since time is of the essence.


One Year Ago Today: Russia Invades Ukraine

A year ago today, Russian troops invaded Ukraine. Bravely, the Ukrainians have held out, despite massive loss of life and daily drone and missile attacks on civilian infrastructure. Fighting remains intense in Bakhmut, with many killed on both sides.

It’s a ruthless enemy, resorting to crimes against humanity, as the mass burial sites of Bucha and Izium bear witness, hundreds of civilians shot, their bodies evidencing torture and mutilation. Wheat fields have been bombed, Ukrainian children deported to Russia.

Western military assistance has been crucial to the Ukrainian resistance. That’s now in jeopardy, given increasing malaise in the West to support Ukraine. In the U.S., a newly elected House majority of Republicans presses for a funding cutoff.

If this happens, Ukraine loses the war and previous Russian imperialism (Chechnya, Georgia, Moldavia), continues and its contagion spreads. Think China, Iran, North Korea.

Loss of Western political will is demagogue Putin’s best hope.


John Muir: Nature’s Gifted Scribe

Sierra Club founder John Muir was extraordinary, not only for his devotion to preserving nature’s wilderness, but for his eloquence in articulating its grandeur. An example:

Wonderful how completely everything in wild nature fits into us, as if truly part and parent of us. The sun shines not on us but in us. The rivers flow not past, but through us, thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing. The trees wave and the flowers bloom in our bodies as well as our souls, and every bird song, wind song, and tremendous storm song of the rocks in the heart of the mountains is our song, our very own, and sings our love. The Song of God, sounding on forever (from John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir).

All told, he would publish 300 articles and 10 major books, not bad for someone who nearly lost his sight in a work accident.

One of his closest friends was President Theodore Roosevelt. In 1903, they would hike wilderness terrain together for two months. Inspired by Muir, Roosevelt designated 230 million acres of public land, including Yosemite and four other national parks and 18 national monuments, for preservation.

Earlier, in 1867, at age 29, Muir walked 1000 miles from Indiana to Florida, taking along only sugar and bread, buttressed by wild berries. (Muir never weighed more than 148 pounds. ) You can read an account of his journey: A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf (1916). Excerpt:

Though alligators and snakes naturally repel us, they are no mysterious evils. They dwell happily in these flowery wilds, are part of God’s family, unfallen, un-depraved and cared for with the same species of tenderness and love as is bestowed on angels in heaven or saints on earth.

John Muir was one of those rare people that cross our pathway in life’s journey, keenly sentient of life’s best values and eager to share. Of all the nature writers I’ve imbibed, I’ve not found his equal for rendering nature’s transcendent allure with lyrical cadence that informs, moves, and underscores its mystery and  moods, culminating in an elixir for healing both body and soul.

All good nature writing may well begin with Muir.




Under Threat: Kentucky’s Bernheim Forest

I’m saddened to learn this morning that Kentucky’s privately owned and managed Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest is under threat from the Louisville Power Gas and Electric utility (LPGE) and Kentucky Utilities (KU), which want to route a gas pipeline through its largely intact woodland of 16,137 acres/6530 hectares. They argue their need to meet the growing energy demands of Bullitt County residents and are claiming eminent domain.

Like many self-interested utilities across the national landscape, they haven’t gotten the message. We don’t need more fossil fuel extraction and pipelines. What we do urgently need are renewable fuels. Unfortunately, Kentucky’s a red state, where environmentalists might as well come from Mars.

Home to 2100 species, some found nowhere else, the impact on the Bernheim Forest would menace habitat, migration routes, and streams that have enjoyed protection from its inception, bequeathed as a gift in 1929 by grateful German immigrant Isaac W. Bernheim.

The pipeline would transverse a corridor purchased in 2018 from funds provided by the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund and the US Fish and 
Wildlife Service’s Imperiled Bat Conservation Fund, with the stipulation it be preserved in perpetuity.

Located about sixty miles from our house, I’ve visited it several times in my younger years, relishing several of its more than forty miles of hiking and biking trails. I remember well its designated groves of native Kentucky flora.

Stop off at the friendly Visitor Center for maps or download them from its site: bernheim.org. I recommend the 1.5 miles as Arboretum Loop as your introduction to Bernheim, a place you can visit repeatedly, yet find something new.

For experienced hikers up to the challenge, there’s the 13.75 Millennium Trail that will you take you 6-7 hours to navigate. It’s rough, true wilderness terrain.
I had lost touch with the paradisiacal landscape, moving to New Mexico. Now I’m back, and I’ve joined its several hundred mentors in preserving its legacy.

Each day, it seems I learn of new challenges in the continuing assaults of fossil fuel and industrial interests on the environment. In Germany, despite its touted environmental safe-guards, billionaire Elon Musk has prevailed in a court decision, allowing the destruction of a remaining 205 acre forest near Berlin to build a giant Tesla factory employing 10,000 workers, despite concerns of conservationists and local residents. This comes in addition to a previous 75 acres/30 hectares of forest already cut.

Here at home, the Interior Department has singled its likely approval of the Alaska Willow Project, a ConocoPhillips endeavor to produce up to 629 million total barrels of oil over the next thirty years, equivalent to 278,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide over the project’s lifespan. (Biden had promised he’d be an environment president.) The consequences in an area warming four times faster than elsewhere will be devastating for already vanishing polar bears, caribou, walruses and an indigenous way of life.

The Bernheim Forest, in sum, is another chapter in our inveterate struggle for a green planet. Utilities need to respect wilderness preserves, not see them as green spaces to be exploited. A local court decision is anticipated by March. The case, now four years in litigation, will likely move to a higher jurisdiction regardless of the decision.


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