Sunday, April 26, 2009

Annals of Heroism, 1: A Way to Die, A Way to Live

Your correspondent is typically a pretty optimistic fellow, not a morbid sort. However, death is part of life, and the last nine months or so I've had death come to mind more than usual, what with the death of a parent, and now, of course, the swine flu outbreak in Mexico; even one of the family cats died. An incident mentioned in the news today reminded me that, although we have no choice but to die, we have a great deal of choice in the how of it all.

This video and this report from news organizations in Florida tell the story of 70-year-old Mr. Charles Schulze. Mr. Schulze noticed two boys, 9 and 12 years old, caught in the currents and about to drown, off Pompano Beach in Florida (pictured). According to the reports, Mr. Schulze dove in, and brought both the boys close enough in to shore for others to bring them the last bit to safety. Unfortunately, then he was at trouble in the currents himself. Although rescued, he was declared dead at the hospital.

There are lessons to be learned here.

First lesson: One needs to be prepared for the moment of trial, when it comes. My guess is that Mr. Schulze was in pretty good shape for 70 years old, to be able to swim out into the surf and save those two boys. When one sees the struggling swimmers out in the current, it's a little too late to start laying off the snack food, a little too late to start the exercise and swimming program. The trial comes when it comes; at that point, the time for preparation is past. However it is that one feels about matters of spirituality, surely the parable of the wise and foolish guests (Matthew 25: 1-13) has applicability across traditions.

Second lesson, probably the most important: Be a hero, to someone. As I have said before, our lives are not our own. Be oriented to helping people.

This so flies in the face of the prevailing ethics of the modern world: 'Look out for Number 1,' 'Make your pile,' 'Take the money and run,' 'Every man for himself.' That Mr. Schulze is being called a hero is unimportant; unfortunately, soon enough that will be forgotten. However, even the very last hour of his life had meaning and purpose that transcended the accomplishments of all the media Idols that shall ever be, all the bonuses that the so-called Masters of the Universe in the financial world have been pouting and shouting about.

I am reminded of the statement in the Talmud, the accumulated written wisdom of the rabbis of about twenty centuries ago: "whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world." Everything good that these two boys could ever do for the rest of their lives, every descendant they could ever have, at that moment hung by a thread over the Abyss--and then Mr. Schulze saved their lives.

Third lesson: Don't be afraid to die doing good. The point of life is not to live forever--at least, not as the kind of beings we are now. Whether your beliefs point in the direction of the Hindu Atman; the traditional Jewish, Christian, or Islamic heaven; the Buddhist Nirvana or Pure Land; the Wiccan Summerlands; the LDS notion of Eternal Life; many other traditions besides--whatever spiritual tradition claims your attention, the point of life is to improve oneself, even to perfect oneself, through service to others. There may be much else besides, but every tradition will claim at least this much, I think. It's not about getting the most toys, or playing the life game of Pig-in-Trough, as Robert de Ropp put it in that 1960s masterpiece, The Master Game. The point is to live one of the central paradoxes of human life: by becoming someone other than we started life as--the self-centered infant, of whatever age--we become who we really are meant to be. To die doing good: the perfect endgame in the Great Game. It is how I would want to go. I hope I have the preparation and the guts to follow through on that wish.

Fourth lesson: Don't be afraid to do good after you die, either. The fact of the matter is, we can all give someone life through our deaths. We might not all have a moment of final, dramatic heroism. But how about being a hero to someone through organ donation? (Let's face it, folks--you're not going to be using them any more.) Sure, it may make you squeamish--but it can give sight to the blind, air to those short of breath, life to those whose hearts are giving out.

Having a life that means something, even in one's death: That may be the most on-the-mark of all.

(The picture, by Friejose, is from the Wikimedia Commons, reproduced under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.)

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Annals of Innovation, I: The Football Lineman and the Solar City

As I mentioned in an earlier post, humanity faces quite an array of problems, ranging from global warming and terrorism to illiteracy and the threat of asteroids from space. It is a real joy to see someone doing something about one of these problems, in an innovative way. I am talking about the former football lineman and the solar city.

Time magazine reports on its website today, in an article by Michael Grunwald, that a former NFL lineman has made an innovative proposal for Babcock Ranch, a solar-powered city to be developed in southwest Florida (near Fort Myers, roughly halfway on a line between Miami and St. Petersburg). This would feature what would be the world's largest photovoltaic solar power plant.

After the OPEC oil embargo of 1973, when the volume went up on developing renewable energy sources, one argument against solar power was that 'the science isn't there yet.' It surely is now. The Florida solar power plant presumably would look and function something like the photovoltaic array at Nellis Air Force Base (Nevada), currently the largest solar photovoltaic power plant in North America (pictured above, from the Wikimedia Commons). The Nellis array, when fully developed, will supply over one-quarter of the power used on this base, which is home to more air squadrons than any other U.S. Air Force base in the world, including four air wings attached to the United States Air Force Warfare Center. Somehow, solar power is good enough for one of hte largest and most important bases of the U.S. Air Force. It should be good enough for much of the rest of the United States.

This idea for a solar city in Florida--what Time is calling the Sunshine City in the Sunshine State--is the idea of Syd Kitson, who, after six years playing as an NFL lineman for the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys, turned many years ago to real estate development. As Kitson put it in Grunwald's article, "The time has come for something completely different."

Kitson's proposal for his solar city includes details that would make his development sustainable and self-contained, with a green orientation that is unprecedented for a community of its size. That would be a major change of orientation for Florida, where communities typically are not sustainable, do require a car to do anything, and do carry an enormous carbon footprint per person. (I lived in Florida for over eight years. Sorry, my friends and former neighbors. I'm not saying that New York City, where I live now, is any better, either.)

My point in describing all of this is two-fold. Sure, I am promoting green ideas. However, beyond that, I am promoting innovative thinking. Here's a guy who played pro football for years. However, when that career ended, his thinking and ambition did not. He was willing to think outside the box, and to apply his intelligence to addressing some of the significant problems that our society faces: how to design sustainable communities, with renewable power, so as not to make our current environmental crisis even worse.

May his tribe increase. And may we each follow this example: each of us, in our own way, applying our intelligence in innovative ways to address the problems of the world. Yes, we can. Yes, you can. An innovative orientation like Syd Kitson's is definitely On The Mark.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Nuclear Disarmament: Yes We Must

As an elementary school student during the 1960s, I and other students across America took part in drills to prepare us to survive a nuclear attack. We dutifully crawled under our desks, to shield us from falling plaster, I guess. Then, on the walk home, I stood at the corner of First Avenue and St. Marks Place in Manhattan, looking to the northeast at the Empire State Building--not even two and a half miles away. It was widely rumored that the Soviets had two 20-megaton hydrogen fusion bombs aimed there. My school desk would not provide much protection against a blast that would vaporize the entire city block on which my school stood. I was stunned to learn, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, that some American political leaders and think tank consultants, such as Herman Kahn, talked about 'winning' a nuclear war, and about 'acceptable' levels of American casualties during a nuclear conflict--casualties in the tens of millions, of which I would undoubtedly be one, along with everyone I knew.

For a total of eight months during 1978-1980, I lived in and near Hiroshima, Japan, where one of the first atomic bombs had been detonated, at the end of World War II. The Hiroshima atomic fission bomb, "Little Boy," was a weak little monster by today's standards, with 'only' a 13-kiloton yield, or the explosive equivalent of 13K tons, or 26 million pounds, of dynamite. (A 20-megaton hydrogen fusion weapon has the explosive equivalent of 20,000K tons, or 40 billion pounds, of dynamite--well over 1,000 times the power of "Little Boy.") Yet, the Hiroshima weapon immolated about 75,000 civilians instantly (with more dying later). At the museum in Hiroshima's Peace Park, I saw artifacts and photos illustrating blast effects. In this city divided by many rivers, photos of bridges showed the permanent "shadows" created by the brilliant blast, shadows left behind by morning commuters, as well as children who had been walking to school on those bridges at 8:15 on the morning of August 6, 1945, when the children and the commuters and everyone else were turned into piles of hot ash. (See photo above; note the outline of the shoes.)

(Yes, I know the received wisdom about the bombing being 'necessary to end the war.' I don't buy it; the historical facts show otherwise. See Howard Zinn's essay about this claim.)

The 1980s saw the publication of books like Carl Sagan's A Path Where No Man Thought: Nuclear Winter and the End of the Arms Race, and Jonathan Schell's The Fate of the Earth, which documented how even 'small-scale' nuclear war could bring about global nuclear winter, changing the climate of the planet for generations, ending human civilization. (See also Schell's The Abolition, and his 2007 book, The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger.)

In the 1990s, with the political disintegration of the Soviet Union, I wondered who was taking charge of Soviet nuclear arms. I learned that, for all practical purposes, no one was; nuclear materials were being protected on lonely bases by rusty locks and corruptible guards. Consequently, there is now a lively international black market in nuclear materials and technology.

Yesterday in Prague, President Obama made an observation that should have been obvious since the demise of the Soviet Union: "In a strange turn of history, the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up." He has called for a renewal of American and international efforts toward nuclear disarmament.

I am not a pacifist. However, I have come to understand that the mere existence of nuclear weapons presents a threat to the survival of the entire human race. They must be eliminated from the armories of the nations of the world, and they must be kept from the hands of stateless terrorist forces.

Some say disarmament cannot be accomplished at this late date. I say this is a problem of will, not practicality. We have satellite technology that can read newspaper headlines from space; surely we can find a way to monitor the world for nuclear weapons.

Some say disarmament is weakness. I say it shows the will to survive. We are not the stronger for holding weapons that can destroy humanity; we are only making it more probable that some extremist politician or military officer or terrorist will someday use them.

I do not wish my someday grandchildren to end up as shadows on a bridge. Let us end these weapons now, before they end all of our hopes and dreams. I urge you to contact your federal Senators and Representative to instruct them to follow the President's lead on this matter, including the ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Nuclear disarmament is clearly On The Mark.


Helene Cooper and David E. Sanger. (2009, April 6). Citing rising risk, Obama seeks nuclear arms cuts: Warns of spread of bomb technology in black market. The New York Times [late edition], pp. A1, A8.


Thanks to Adam Harrison Levy for posting the Hiroshima bridge picture on the site of DesignObserver with his story, "Hiroshima: The Lost Photographs."