Thursday, March 27, 2008

Global warming - a moot point?

Okay, here's my rant of the moment. As a card-carrying member of the left-leaning environmental movement, I believe in global warming. I believe that it is happening. I believe that it will have a profound effect on the way of life of many, if not most, people around the globe. These will often be difficult, if not disastrous, changes. I believe that the practices of human beings over the last couple of hundred years have contributed to global warming. I also believe that the Earth has climate cycles of its own as well, and we are probably in one of those, and so I think global warming has many factors and variables which will be completely impossible to fully parse. I believe that trying to figure out who's to blame, us or the planet, is probably a pointless exercise.

Most likely, whoever's to blame, we are well into the cycle and would spend our time much better trying to figure out what actually is going to happen and how we can best deal with it. You may wonder if this means that I don't care about reducing our carbon emissions. In answer, I think reducing our carbon emissions and our use of oil is probably the most important thing we need to do right now. I just think that global warming is not the most important reason. Our planet is starting to run out of oil, and we need to start using less of it because eventually we will need to learn how to get by without using it at all. It would be well worth our while to try and figure this out now while we still have oil to fall back upon, than to consume the rest of it in great big gulps over the next few decades and then go cold turkey. Barring a miraculous technological development, that would mean catastrophe. And if we cut back now, the oil will be there for us longer.

Counting on a new energy technology coming through in the clutch is very risky, and I personally don't think it's going to happen, at least not on any level that will replace the type of growth our civilization has been capable of the last century because of our exploitation of cheap, abundant oil. I think that within five years we'll be paying three times as much as we are right now for oil. Than in itself would mean huge shock waves for every economy on Earth. And almost all of our potential other energy sources depend heavily on oil for their entire infrastructure, development and construction. We use fertilizers and pesticides derived from petroleum products in order to grow corn for bio-fuels.

We need to use less oil, to learn how to do things without it. This will mean a lowering of our standards of living as we currently understand them. But if we consciously choose to take these things upon us, thoughtfully and with good intentions, we may find silver linings here and there. I'm in the lucky position of living only three miles from where I work. However, until recently I have rarely walked or biked, choosing instead to drive, which takes less than fifteen minutes. But a month ago I started walking regularly. It takes me fifty minutes unless I really hustle. I listen to music or birdwatch or just think about things, and I get a decent piece of exercise. Sometimes I walk part of the way with friends I work with who don't own cars and have enjoyable conversations with them. I feel good when I get home and sleep better in the evening. Biking only takes about five minutes longer than driving, and is also good exercise.

I'm no saint, and I don't expect to walk every day, maybe not most days. But two or three days a week is something, and all in all, more enjoyable than being in my car. I'm glad I live somewhere that this is possible.

Okay, I'll stop now. I apologize for getting up on the soapbox and preaching, but I really think this is something we're all going to have to deal with, sooner than we think. Hopefully not sooner than I think, because I think it's coming soon.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

John Adams and the Future of Civilizations

I've been reading David McCullough's biography John Adams, and I'm enjoying it very much.  Biographies are probably my favorite way to explore history.  I'm especially partial to biographies of musicians, but every once in a while I take the time to explore some of the larger trends and happenings that occur away from the piano.  And well-written biographies that put the person in context within their culture and the place that they lived give such a personal, visceral flavor to the historical or private events depicted.  Every person's life is a story, of course, with its own dramatic arc, of temptations and failures and success and change, and often much more exciting to me than more general or scholarly compendiums of events and issues.

Anyway, yesterday I was particularly struck by something that was going on in Adam's head during the 1776 meetings of the Continental Congress, when they were debating whether to declare independence or not and planning the flegdling war in New England and New York.  Adams was clearly a man inclined and capable of seeing the big picture, and he was very aware of the uniqueness of his and his fellow patriots' position, not so much as being swept up in the midst of war and revolution, but in being in the very rare circumstance of being given a chance to build their government from scratch.    McCullough quotes Adams as pointing out how many great thinkers of the past would have wished to live in "a period when a coincidence of circumstances without example has afforded to thirteen colonies at once an opportunity of beginning government anew from the foundation and building as they choose.  How few of the human race have ever had an opportunity of choosing a system of government for themselves and their children?  How few have ever had anything more of choice in government than in climate?"

And how few, even amongst thoughtful, intelligent people, would truly recognize the uncommon situation they were in?  It is clear, from McCullough's view at least, that very few really saw the longer view apart from their desire to break from tyranny and get on with their lives, but Adams was very aware of the potential, and the danger, that would be ushered in even with resounding victory.  All cynical views aside, I am finding myself grateful that our founding fathers had the foresight to think about these issues, deeply and convincingly, and to set up structures that protect me even to this day in a far from perfect world and government.  

Our last century has had its share of trials and times when it seemed the trajectory of civilization rested delicately on a wobbling fulcrum, mostly stemming from the synergistic combination of advancing technology and social philosophy.  It seemed that every generation had its own world-shaking battles.  It is frightening to realize that they are not over and that technology has not slowed down, and that our lives, our governments and our planet are at considerable risk.  We are again living, I think, in a crucial time, but it is also a much bigger world.  How many of us can truly say we are there at the balance point, like John Adams was, recognize it and have the vision to act accordingly and honorably?  Or maybe that's not the point at all; certainly even in the much smaller world of the thirteen colonies there would have been no revolution were it not for the anger and vocal support of a large portion of the population.  Or maybe the biggest battles will not be on the political front, but in the millions of little decisions we all make trying to make the world a better place.  Maybe that was always the driving force behind political will, anyway, the little things that made Adams into the person of strength, honesty and foresight that he seemed to be.  The non-political grassroots of education, family and compassion.  

Or maybe I'm just trying to find a place for myself, feeling somewhat powerless within the machinations of world politics and giant elections.  When threatened with global climate change, loss of natural resources (including what I think is our biggest long-term challenge, looming shortages of oil), international war, terrorism, over-population, loss of traditional skills and knowledge, expanding class tensions, concentration of power and resources in a few corporations and powerful people...

Now I'm ranting.  And sometimes frightened!  But not hopelessly discouraged, while there's still a place for us to drag a guitar over to a friend's house to share music and a meal together and to think about others compassionately and thoughtfully.  And then to go on and do our part, whatever that may be.

Friday, March 14, 2008

A Taste of Briar

Words can be such magical things, so strangely compelling and beautiful, subversive, manipulative, entrancing, and of course practical and descriptive as well. And so many other things. I think all of us are probably more affected and influenced by the words we encounter than we fully realize, even those of us like myself who are admittedly very verbal people. Sometimes I notice it happening; many more times, I'm sure, the affect that a certain string of words pulls out of me flies well below the radar, pushing me and directing me in any number of ways.

Today, I was doing a spot of shopping before work, as I'm leaving this afternoon for a weekend ski trip and wanted to be able to get an early start and not get mired at the market later on. As St. Patrick's Day is coming up, my friends and I had decided to make an Irish lamb stew Saturday evening. I dropped into the wine store and asked the clerk there if he could help me pick a nice wine to match a simple lamb stew. First he suggested a Napa Cabernet, describing it, I think, as ripe and juicy and a good value. Then he went on to a French Cotes Du Rhone, calling it "a little feistier, tart, with a tast of briars". He went on to show another couple of bottles but I was already sold, and barely paid attention to his further suggestions. Walking out of the store I realized what captured me was his use of the word "briar".

Now I have no idea how that word would translate into the taste of wine, or indeed if it would translate into something that I would even appreciate as a flavor, but it's a favorite word of mine, mixing folklore and nature and personal experience and symbolism (thorns, flower, love) into such a heady brew that I couldn't get it out of my mind. Vistas of castles hidden by brambles and thorns, memories of wading through wild rose looking for nesting birds; any number of connections and images arose from the use of this simple word. And I don't doubt that it will somehow affect the way I perceive the quality and taste of the wine when we finally get around to opening it.

Anyway, I just thought it was interesting.

Happy Saint Patrick's Day!

ps The picture, by the way, is "The Legend of the Briar Rose", by Sir Edmund Burne-Jones, 1870-90, that I culled from the internet. It appears to me that in the upper right hand corner of the painting Darth Vader is walking around in the briar patch.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Braised Endives

Chicories! I love them. Endive, radicchio, frisee, escarole, I've really learned to enjoy these crunchy greens (or purples or creamy whites) with the bitter bite. As I've been trying to keep my diet closer to some kind of 'seasonal' ideal, I've been eating these guys a lot lately, as many of them come into their own during the colder months. I love salads, and they are often the only real salad greens that are in season this time of year without greenhouses or long routes of transportation (of course, I'm not really talking about New England; nothing's in season here anymore).

I enjoy them raw, in salads, where they stand up well to strong, acidic dressings with lots of citrus or vinegar and the sharp flavors of blue cheese. But I especially love them browned and braised, which is the perfect way to cut the bitterness and open up their flavor to their wonderful, smoky, mysterious potential. The best vegetable for this, in my opinion, is endive. Here is my perfected, scrumptious recipe for braised endive.

Heat your oven to 425 degrees. Melt a bit of butter and olive oil in a black-iron pan over medium-high heat. Cut the endive in half, length-wise. When the butter is frothing and just beginning to turn darker, put the endive halves in cut side down, and sprinkle generously with salt and freshly ground pepper. Once the endives have browned nicely to a rich, crusty hue, pour some stock in the pan, enough to cover the bottom and come up the sides of the endive just a bit, a half-centimeter or so. Cover the pan with foil and throw it in the oven for a half-hour to an hour or so, until the vegetables are soft and melting. The endives will have absorbed most of the stock. Remove from the oven and place on a plate, cut side up or down as you see fit (both sides are attractive, in my opinion).

You could just eat them now and they would be very good indeed. But to get to the next level, throw another small pat of butter in the pan and a nice squirt of lemon juice (not too much lemon, it is easy to overwhelm the more delicate flavors of the braising), and scrape up all the browned juices with the lemon and butter and drizzle this sauce on the finished endives. Finished!

This basic formula works very well with many other vegetables, with minor alterations for cooking time and absorbtion, etc. For a perfect mid-winter's meal, match these with a simple pasta, spaghetti or an egg noodle tagliatelle, of softened butter, grated parmesan and lots of coarsely ground black pepper.