Drought, Fire, and Traffic: Lessons from Yosemite

Fresno Bee, August 1, 2021

Half Dome is as sublime as ever. But it presides over a valley where California’s drought is obvious. When I visited Yosemite this past week, the Merced River was barely flowing. Vernal Falls was a trickle. And Yosemite Falls was a dry dribble. We’re running out of water, folks.

If you drive to Shaver Lake, you see another warning about our hot, dry future. Last year’s fire left a scorched and desolate landscape. A few green shoots are returning. Forests are resilient. But their resilience is measured in decades. The forest will not return in my lifetime.

Our grandchildren will inherit a world of drought, fire, and heat. The climate is changing. The American West is drying up, including the mighty Colorado. As the land dries out, the fires will be worse.

Last week in this column, I talked about the “tragedy of the commons.” When we fail to cooperate, we end up with bad outcomes. This happens with regard to vaccines and masks. The drought provides another worrying example.

The California Water Resources Control Board met recently to consider cutbacks on water allocations. If the state imposes restrictions, they will be unpopular. Farmers will protest, as will back-yard gardeners.

The pandemic has shown that scarcity breeds polarization and conflict. In lean times, people get grumpy.

The good news is that we can learn to do better. It is easy to single out the anti-mask, anti-vax crowd. But the majority of people educated themselves and did the right thing.

Environmental issues will require similar cooperative evolution. Those of us who grew up in a cooler, wetter world will resent the restrictions of the hot future. But our grandchildren will be better at this than we are. They will have no other choice.

Spiritual and ethical evolution will be needed in a world where lots of people are competing for scarce water. If we don’t learn to cooperate, things will get worse.

A recent change in Yosemite provides a bit of hope. These days you need a reservation to visit the park. The reservation system is a response to pandemic social-distancing. They say it is only temporary. But it has solved Yosemite’s long-standing overcrowding problem.

When I visited Yosemite in May, before the reservation system started, it was impossible to park. The trails were packed. The traffic barely moved. Yosemite’s epic traffic is another example of the tragedy of the commons. When there are no limits on cars, there is gridlock, and everyone suffers.

When I visited recently after making a reservation, it was much better. The traffic was light. Parking was easy. The trails were uncrowded.

Of course, the reservation requirement is a pain. You can’t take a spontaneous trip to Yosemite anymore. In the old days, you could hike up Half Dome whenever you wanted. Now you need a reservation just to drive into the park.

It’s not hard to imagine a future where a visit to Yosemite always requires a reservation. Grumpy old timers will grouse and complain. For those of us who grew up with free and easy access, this stinks. But we will adapt, if we understand that these restrictions and limitations are in everyone’s interest.

There are reasons to hope. Human beings can learn and improve. This is a slow process. And meaningful change often only comes at the last minute. But we can evolve and respond with intelligence and compassion.

Scarcity can fuel the growth of elitism and inequality. This is why compassion and justice are needed. The reservation system makes it harder for working-class people to enjoy Yosemite. A similar problem holds for water and other resources. Rich people can buy their way out of scarcity, while poor people suffer.

Again, the pandemic provides an example. Wealthy professionals profited from low interest rates, a real estate boom, and jobs that allow telecommuting. It was poor and working-class people who suffered the worst impacts of the pandemic.

Let’s learn from that. As we respond to a hot, dry future, we must avoid exacerbating inequality. Rich people should not be allowed to cut the line or consume more than the rest of us. Water is a common good. And everyone should have access to majestic places like Yosemite.

Patient Advice for Living in Limbo

Fresno Bee, October 18, 2020

We are living in limbo. The pandemic rages on. The election hangs before us like a double-edged sword. We don’t know when or how this will end. We hold our breath, while COVID-19 haunts our dreams.

Election years typically end in limbo, with lame ducks and lost causes. This year, we have the added anxiety of a president claiming the election is rigged, while calling for his opponents to be jailed. The nation is worried about election unrest and violence.

Life in limbo is characterized by worry, impatience, dread, and despair. Picture the anxiety of waiting for the results of a cancer test. The answer comes as a relief, even if it is bad news. It is better to know than to wait.

Limbo is a haunted hovering. Time spent in limbo is nonlinear. Limbo is a gateway. But once we cross the threshold we get lost. The passage is obscured by spectral worries that cloud clear thought.

We get stuck in limbo, mulling things over. We brood and ruminate, fret and stew. But we make no progress. T.S. Eliot described this in Prufrock as a world of yellow fog and ether in which every moment contains a hundred indecisions, visions, and revisions. Such dithering frays the nerves and weakens the will.

The experience of limbo is not unique to the present moment. There is a general human tendency to waver and worry, defer and deflect. This is related to the difficulty we have in making commitments and saying good-bye.

Some people never really say “yes” or “no.” They duck the question and beat around the bush. But a firm “no” is a blessing in comparison to a vague deflection. A “yes” opens the door. A “no” closes one. But a “maybe” leaves us in limbo with the door ajar.

And when the party’s over, we stand in the doorway, making small talk in the dark. Perhaps we fear the solitude of the night. Phillip Marlowe said that “to say goodbye is to die a little.” A long goodbye is another kind of limbo.

The antidote is obvious. Breathe deeply and exorcise the ghosts. Take a stand. Close the door. Either turn back or go out and get moving. Remaining at the threshold won’t help you decide. Sure it’s wise to think things over. But deliberation is not avoidance. “Measure twice, cut once,” the saying goes. But after you’ve measured it’s time to cut. And once you begin, cut swiftly and true.

To procrastinate is to live on borrowed time. Eventually the bill comes due. A person can only wait so long. And then you are dead.

Virtue and happiness require action. Patience is crucial. Genuine patience is active and expectant, full of attention. Patience is not passivity, which deadens the mind. Patience is sustained energy directed toward the future.

The Roman poet Horace said that patience helps us endure what cannot be changed. Horace is also famous for saying “Seize the day” and “Dare to be wise.” He said a person who passively waits for wisdom is like an idiot standing beside a river, waiting for the water to stop before daring to cross. Life is short, Horace said, and we can’t trust tomorrow. So plunge on in.

To live is to get your feet wet. Sometimes the river knocks you off your feet. But it is better to swim than to wait. Those who dip their toes never leave the shore.

This may sound like a call for blind action — but it’s not. One of the dangers of limbo is that it can give way to the panicked urge to run and rage. As the tension builds, there is a risk of explosion. But blind action makes a splash without making a difference.

We need to be calm and patient. Worry changes nothing. Fight the urge to panic. This limbo won’t last forever. At some point the ether will wear off and the yellow fog will lift.

Patience is realistic and engaged. Rather than battling ghosts, roll up your sleeves. Rather than pausing at the doorway, get moving. Stay focused on kindness and courage. Stop holding your breath and saying maybe. There is work to be done.

Secular or Sacred? A Pandemic Conflict

The pandemic has brought the conflict between the sacred and the secular to the surface. 

The Archbishop of San Francisco, Salvatore Cordileone, led a recent protest against Covid-19 restrictions.  He claimed that restrictions on worship violate the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion.  He said, “when government asserts authority over the church’s very right to worship, it crosses a line. Our fundamental rights do not come from the state… they come from God.”  He also suggested that “secular elites” lack compassion for religious people and do not understand the pain caused by restricting worship.

The Archbishop did not deny the need for reasonable restrictions on religious liberty.  The problem is that we disagree about what is reasonable.  In fact, we always have. 

150 years ago the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Mormon polygamy (Reynolds v. U.S.), arguing that the state can restrict religious liberty.  The Court said that religious belief is not “superior to the law of the land” and that religious liberty does not “permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”

The worry is that religious liberty can open the door to a kind of anarchy, as each sect claims an exception to the law.  The Mormon polygamists of the 19th Century did not think that polygamy meant anarchy.  Nor is the Archbishop prescribing general lawlessness in the face of the pandemic.  But it is difficult to figure out where to draw the line in disputes between the secular and the sacred. 

Furthermore, the Archbishop suggests that some values transcend the law of the land.  He says that our rights come from God—not from the state.  This may mean that we have a right (or even an obligation) to violate the law of the land in the name of a higher law. This is what happens in cases of civil disobedience and conscientious refusal. 

Public health and the common good would seem to call for restrictions on worship. But do religious people have a right to refuse?

A significant problem is that terms such as “public health” and “the common good” are subject to interpretation.  A religious person may think that spiritual well-being is part of public health.  And some religious communities think that communal worship is essential for the common good.

The Archbishop suggests that secular people often don’t understand the powerful role that ritual and communal worship play in the lives of religious folk.  There is some truth to this.  The idea of the sacred opens a realm of transcendent value, which has no parallel in non-religious life. 

The secular world is “disenchanted,” as Max Weber put it a hundred years ago.  Philosopher Charles Taylor said something similar: “The modern identity and outlook flattens the world, leaves no place for the spiritual, the higher, for mystery.”  Speaking as secular person, I think they are right.  The sacred, the transcendent, and the holy are indeed flattened in the secular world.

There is much to argue about here in terms of ethics, theology, and the meaning of life.  But let’s leave these existential arguments aside and return to the problem of the pandemic.  The present situation is this.  Some religious people live in a world of mystery and enchantment that requires communal celebration of shared rituals.  These communal practices appear to violate the public health rules created by a secular political system, which views the world as disenchanted and flat. 

This conflict becomes more complicated when the source of political and legal authority is called into question.  Are the laws a human creation, the result of a social contract?  Or are these laws reflective of something deeper, more mysterious and sacred? 

The present crisis prompts these deep questions.  To answer them we need the help of political philosophers and theologians.  But there will be no unanimous consensus about how to answer these questions. 

This gives us clue to finding common ground.  The fact that we disagree shows us the need for liberty.  The Courts are going to have to draw lines. These judgments will not be satisfactory to everyone.  But let’s agree, at least, that we should be free to ask these questions and to disagree about the source of the law and the meaning of life.

The Adventure of Virtual Education

The transition to virtual education is a new adventure for students, parents, and teachers.  Adventures are difficult and risky.  But that’s their allure.  If it was easy, it wouldn’t be inspiring.  Adventures also involve uncertainty.  This calls for curiosity and creativity.

On the first day of class I asked my students in Zoom how they were feeling.  Some reported anxiety.  But a couple said it might be fun to learn this way.  Let’s build on student’s youthful energy and squeeze something zesty out of our anxiety. 

One teacher explained to me that she feels like an explorer in virtual space.  There are new tools to master.  Old ideas must be reorganized and re-evaluated.  What was once taken for granted is now up for grabs.

Conservative souls will always resist change.  But nimble spirits enjoy the unprecedented and unimagined.  Dynamic minds are ready to adapt.  We find joy in riding the waves of change.  This is the genius of the artist, entrepreneur, and explorer. 

Education is dynamism. It is an art of transformation that cultivates change and nourishes development.  Random change is not good.  It must be guided. Some truths remain perennial.  But evergreen truth is not a fence or a prison.  Redwoods thrive because they bend in the storm.  New growth adapts to new soil.

Boredom and complacency are deadly diseases.  They ruin businesses, marriages, and classrooms.  Repetition dulls the senses.  Bored teachers are, well… boring. 

Most teachers enjoy new challenges.  We are thrilled by each year’s fresh crop of students.  Even though we’ve walked these trails before, new students help us see old terrain with fresh eyes.  Each step takes us somewhere else.

The idea of education as adventure is an old one.  Plato described education as a journey.  It leads us out of darkness and toward the light.  To learn is to wander beyond the familiar.  It takes patience and tenacity to explore, invent, and discover.  It takes courage to leave old habits behind and blaze new trails. 

Alfred North Whitehead celebrated education as adventure.  In his book, The Aims of Education, he insisted that educators embrace the fresh and the new.  He said, “knowledge does not keep any better than fish.”  He described education as an act of the contagious imagination.  The metaphor of passing a torch shows how this works.  Civilization depends upon the torch passers who spread the light.  We also need better torches and new ways to enlighten. 

This process occurs in the service of life.  Whitehead said, “Education is discipline for the adventure of life.”  We might simply say, education is adventure and life. He describes the history of the world as an adventure motivated by “zest.”  Zest can mean both energy and flavor.  A life without zest is dull and tasteless.

Each human culture is a unique adventure of the human spirit.  Art, science, and religion are so many different ways of making meaning and finding flavor.  Whitehead warned that when a civilization loses its taste for adventure, it begins to decay.

There is danger in any journey.  Adventures are unpredictable.  Sometimes we fail to arrive at our anticipated destination.  But even failure can be enlightening.  After all, Columbus got lost on his way to India.

The word “adventure” is related to a word that means to happen or occur.  Philosophers use the word “adventitious” to mean accidental or unintentional.  And for Christians “advent” signifies a time of hope for the birth of something new and wonderful.  Education as adventure is open to the unintended.  It is hopeful about the future.  It courageously embraces the birthing process.

This brings us back to the current transformation.  No one could have imagined the strange birth of online learning from out of a pandemic. Difficulties remain, especially the digital divide. But problems are opportunities.  Let’s set our creative imaginations free.  Let’s stop dreaming of the way things used to be.  Stop complaining about the need to get back to normal. 

The old normal wasn’t perfect.  Why go back, when we can move forward? Let’s cook up something zesty and nutritious.  Learn to bend with the wind.  Find joy in transformation.  And embrace the fact that history will view us as pioneers who explored the great frontier of virtual education.

Wisdom and Courage, Hygiene and Hope

Fresno Bee, August 16, 2020

This is a frustrating fall.

The back-to-school season is usually an optimistic time full of new ideas, new projects and new friends. But this year students are stuck at home. Football is canceled. There is unemployment and social unrest. Our leaders fail to inspire. And the pandemic rages on.

We need courage and wisdom to persevere. In times of crisis, philosophical insight provides consolation. The world’s wisdom traditions share a common message of moderation and self-control.

It helps to have a realistic view of the universe and our place within it. The Buddha taught that life is full of suffering. The Greeks said, “all men are mortal.” This means we should abandon wishful thinking. There is no miracle cure for the human condition. Even the best of us has feet of clay. Great empires collapse. Life includes loss. And nothing lasts forever.

Our current troubles are not unique. History shows that corruption and incompetence are commonplace. Thousands of years ago, Plato described the social and political world as a ship of fools. Selfish and ignorant people struggle for power. Virtuous people are thrown overboard. This has always been true. Our present struggles are par for the course.

But some stability can be found, even in a storm. Hygiene provides a key. The word “hygiene” comes from a Greek word linked to health, harmony, and balance.

The pandemic has given us a simple recipe for staying healthy. Keep your hands clean. Keep your face covered. And stay away from other people. This routine is also a useful metaphor for living well.

Physical health matters. Wash your hands, get some exercise, and eat a balanced diet. But “keeping your hands clean” is also a moral idea. The Bible links cleans hands to a pure heart. The Stoics said that it’s better to have clean hands than full ones.

Masking is another moral metaphor. A mask is a sign of modesty. Modest people keep themselves appropriately concealed. It is especially important to cover your mouth. Don’t chew with your mouth open. Don’t let your lips flap and your tongue wag. In fact, it is best to keep your mouth shut most of the time. In the Taoist tradition, a sage is pictured as someone who speaks without moving her lips.

Social distancing is also healthy and wise. A virus can infect you. But so too can dumb ideas and bad habits. Solitude is a source of enlightenment. Solitude is not loneliness. Lonely people remain obsessed with other people. But you are not alone when you are one with the universe. You don’t have to be a monk to understand that it is often better to mind your own business.

Wisdom involves knowing who and what to ignore. It also demands that we pay attention. Compassion, love, and justice are crucial. But human beings have limited capacities and even love must be balanced with self-preservation. Be kind to strangers. But you can’t save everyone. And the world won’t change overnight.

Sometimes, when things are really going badly, it is wise to abandon ship. Loyalty is important. But it can be an anchor that holds you down.

Speaking of anchors, another lesson must be considered — the lesson of hope. Anchors are symbols of hope. Wisdom reminds us that the present crisis won’t last forever. But it’s not clear that we’ll ever return to “normal.” Hope is not an anchor that preserves the normal. It is also a sail that leads beyond the horizon.

A wise hope recognizes that the future is up to us. There are no utopias. But you can improve your own life. The Stoics teach you to focus on mastering your own attitude and effort. Progress depends upon energy and intention. No one else can live your life. To excel at anything, you have to practice. So stop blaming others and cursing the wind. In order to get anywhere you have to get to work.

These kinds of lessons are not taught in the formal school curriculum. But these are the kinds of lessons we need these days. The crisis in our republic is real. The ship of fools is foundering. We all need wisdom to help us ride this storm.