Wednesday, September 18, 2019

As a child, I collected postage stamps -- so I care

Among the atrocities of the Trump regime, its announced intent to withdraw the United States from the Universal Postal Union (UPU) in October seems a minor foible. But I find the symbolism in this bullying, heavy-handed repudiation of a well-functioning international agreement upsetting.

The UPU accord is what makes it possible for snail mail and packages to seamlessly cross the globe, integrated with the postal systems of 192 countries -- just about all the countries there are. It's an amazing survivor of global upheaval -- and something the United States has been in on since its origins. From Wikipedia:

Prior to the establishment of the UPU, each country had to prepare a separate postal treaty with other nations if it wished to carry international mail to or from them. In some cases, senders would have to calculate postage for each leg of a journey, and find mail forwarders in a third country if there was no direct delivery. To remove this complexity, the United States called for an International Postal Congress in 1863. ... The UPU was created in 1874, initially under the name "General Postal Union"... Four years later, the name was changed to "Universal Postal Union".

... One of the most important results of the UPU Treaty was that it ceased to be necessary, as it often had been previously, to affix the stamps of any country through which one's letter or package would pass in transit. The UPU provides that stamps of member nations are accepted for the entire international route.

The UPU set the rules for international mail: a uniform rate to send a letter anywhere in the world; foreign mail should receive equal treatment with domestic mail; and each country's postal system would retain payments it took in for international postage.

It's a truism that trade and travel were more globalized before World War I than until the 1990s. But through carnage and upheaval, the birth and death of nations, and vast technological changes, the UPU survived the 20th century; postal systems continued to deliver the mail. In the late 1940s, the UPU became part of the United Nations.

So, why is the Trump administration threatening to throw us back into the mid-1800s, forced to negotiate separate individual agreements with every country in the world if commerce and communication by mail are to continue? Yes, there are inequities in the system as it has evolved. The current rates for packages were set in 1969 when China was a developing country, not an e-commerce powerhouse. Mail from China and many other countries is cheaper than the equivalent rates shippers in the United States pay.

But grown up countries don't threaten to take their marbles, kick over the game, and go home when they think fairness requires renegotiation of the rules. That's especially true when the game benefits even the players who are protesting unfairness.

Peter Yeo of the UN Foundation writing at The Hill explains:

UPU’s work is invisible to most Americans, and that’s probably as it should be. The effects of withdrawing however, could spark a very visible chaos that turns ordinary business transactions into ordeals, and shreds the bottom line of small business owners and entrepreneurs across the country. ...

The American e-commerce giant eBay stated that “small businesses that sell online to customers around the world could see service disruptions and dramatically increased costs for shipping through the US Postal Service.”  All this is happening as the U.S. Postal Service approaches “peak season,” when mailers and shippers are operating at capacity to fulfill orders and meet holiday deadlines.

Anticipated harms from withdrawal would include undermining the international system through which the U.S. monitors packages suspected of bringing opioids into the country and might impede mailings of absentee ballots to U.S. citizens voting from abroad. In short -- more idiotic smashing of what doesn't need to be broken.

Nowadays, we more often collect stamps in our passports than from mailed letters. (And under the Schengen system, Europeans have foregone even the passport stamps.) But those international postal stamps played (and still play) a good role in alerting isolated Americans to the existence of a big world.

Mr. Trump behaves like a petulant infant as a grown man -- was he ever capable of wide-eyed wonder at the expanse of the world as child? Seems unlikely.

Okay, I'll revert to not thinking about Trump. Better to work to shove him off the stage.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Moonset at sunrise

After driving across the country, it's taking me a few days to adjust to the rhythms of this lovely rural place. Hence I was up at dawn to see this lovely dawn.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Watershed restoration to mitigate climate pain

Today's post consists of excerpts from a longer article, Land Mismanagement and Climate Change: The Impact on Rural Nicaragua, co-authored by Jenna Saldana, Director of U.S. Operations, El Porvenir; Dick Whitmore, Emeritus Board Member, El Porvenir, Retired Forest Engineer, Watershed Consultant; and Mark Sullivan, El Porvenir Supporter and Volunteer. The full text is available at the link. Full disclosure: I'm proud to serve on the board of this righteous NGO.

Water is life. But, across Nicaragua, rampant deforestation for cattle, agriculture, and timber extraction is resulting in less water. Streams that once flowed year round are now seasonally dry. Community wells are drying up in deforested communities in the northern and central regions of the country, leaving villagers without a source of water. The situation is dire and watershed restoration is essential to save the future of water in Nicaragua.

... Nicaragua has been a minor contributor to global climate change yet will be significantly impacted due to location, coastal borders, and dependence on agriculture. On a global index, Nicaragua is ranked fourth most likely to suffer from extreme weather events.

General trends that can be predicted confidently due to climate change are the following:
  • rising temperatures
  • increasing drought in Central America (10-20% predicted reduction in rainfall)

  • less stable growing conditions for crops resulting in lower yields

  • increase in extreme weather events

  • rising sea level, inundation of coastal communities, and the salinization of wells in coastal areas

What is El Porvenir doing to increase water and food security? El Porvenir’s watershed restoration program seeks to conserve existing forests and restore degraded areas throughout Nicaragua in order to increase food and water resiliency. To accomplish our goal of improving land use and mitigating climate change to promote water and food security, we are actively engaged in the following watershed rehabilitation practices, many of which have been used for generations:
  1. Strategic reforestation ...
  2. Construction of terraces and other water conservation infrastructure ...
  3. Construction of vented, fuel-efficient stoves that use 60% less firewood than typical cook stoves ...
  4. Coordination with local government...
  5. Educating residents on the economic and environmental benefits of climate change mitigation...
  6. Creation of a model watershed that uses all of the above practices to show people from other communities how their watershed could flourish...
  7. [Fostering the] willingness of the community to create a vision and work together to achieve it.
None of this would be possible without the work and cash contributions of thousands of North Americans who've learned to work in solidarity with poor Nicaraguans' struggle to better their lives. You can help.

Covering Climate Now is a project of hundreds of media outlets working together this week as the U.N. meets about climate dangers, without the U.S. government, but with and for the peoples of the world.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Death changes

Rushing across the country last week, our route led by Buffalo, so we detoured just long enough to visit my family's burial plot there. My long deceased mother would be glad to know that it seemed well kept up, even though none the family's branches remain in the area.

I was struck, as I have been before, by how very many of the gravestones mark the remains of people who were NOT my ancestors. They were infants and toddlers, so beloved by their parents that they added the children to their own quite magnificent memorials.

My own mother had two siblings who died in infancy, fifty years after those Bemis children. Their names are on the great stone block erected as a memorial for my mother's parents (my grandparents.)
It was a very different time, though only a little over 100 years ago. Death had a different presence for these people.
The prolific historian of religion Philip Jenkins writes in The Decline of Death about how more secure lives, as well as longer ones, have changed religion and society. These days, we can often ignore our remote awareness that death is an inevitable part of life. We don't see much death around us. If children seldom die in infancy and mothers usually survive child birth, even for religious Christians, baptism can be postponed and individually chosen rather than quickly routine. Marriage and childbirth too can be postponed until individuals attain some economic and psychic stability. If they are comfortably off, their children will probably live into adulthood. Death is associated almost entirely with old age and usually takes place outside of homes, often in medical facilities.

The primary duties of religious professionals -- clergy, whatever their titles -- could once be summarized as getting their flocks “hatched, matched and dispatched.” But as death receded in immediacy in wealthy modern societies, religious institutions either wither or find new expressions of old truths.

Here's Jenkins:

Between them, weddings, baptisms, and funerals represented a very sizable part of what clergy did. When we remove “dispatched” from the package, we not only excise a major share of clergy time, but a very significant element of their whole raison d’etre. An increasingly indifferent public no longer saw any necessity to involve the church at any point in their lives or family arrangements. The modern “decline of death” contributed powerfully to that trend.

A society’s degree of awareness of death – or its ignorance – is a powerful variable in determining its religious orientation. By this standard, late twentieth century Europe represented a startling new world, and a far more secular one.

Or as a more general principle for research: never try to understand religion – anywhere, anywhen – without paying full attention to death and dying.

If any of this arouses curiosity, you might find the entire short article insightful.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Saturday scenery: a few Catskill cats

No, this is not turning into a cat blog, though the last few days on the road with Morty may look as if that were the case.

Last night we had dinner with family and friends in Catskill, New York, home of the annual Cat'N Around Catskill event, during which large ceramic cats decorate Main Street.

Here are a few more; click to enlarge.

By the end of today, Morty will have experienced his first ride on a ferry and this traveling circus will be ensconced, God willing, in our abode for the next few months on Martha's Vineyard island. It's been a rapid, strange trip -- dominated by cat antics.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Democrats debate

Gotta say, I enjoyed watching ten aspirants, all apparently sane if not equally attractive, knocking about policy preferences rooted in more similarities than differences.

We're being asked not whether we want change -- Democrats bet the country does want change -- but how much change to we want.

These predominantly plausible candidacies are allowing us to sort that question out rather than trying to bury it or overwhelm it with money and charisma.

It feels a surprisingly healthy process.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Oddments from Indiana

As we barreled across Iowa this morning, suddenly Morty's yowls changed tone. Yup, our boy had figured out how to squeeze over the fence that kept him trapped in his cat jail in the back of Wowser. He wanted to be with his people? In any case, he got a short ride in his cat carrier on E.P.'s lap until we found a hardware store with more fencing.

Thereafter, his best climbing never surmounted the new screening. We hope it never will. He protested most of the next 250 miles.

Even after receiving the freedom of our cat friendly motel room, he kept it up.

And then, plop! Time for a good nap.

Meanwhile the humans were pleased to encounter this reminder of Henry Wallace at an Iowa highway rest area.

To see rich land eaten away by erosion, to stand by as continual cultivation on sloping fields wears away the best soil, is to make a good farmer sick at heart. My grandfather, watching this process, used to speak of the voiceless land. In our time we have seen the process reach an acute stage and we have at last begun to take to heart the meaning of soil exploitation.

Wallace, an Iowa populist, was Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal-era agriculture secretary, vice-president during World War II from 1941-1945, and would have succeeded the dying Roosevelt in April 1945 had conservatives not persuaded FDR to replace him with Harry Truman. What a different country this might have been if FDR had been followed in office by an agrarian populist; GOPers thought Wallace was a communist, naturally. A speech Wallace delivered in 1942 inspired Aaron Copland to compose Fanfare for the Common Man.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Oddments from Lincoln, Nebraska

Today we barreled down the interstate behind this. Naturally I distrust their slogan: "DOING OUR SHARE FOR CLEANER AIR." Politifact declared this mostly true:

"(Koch Industries) is among the worst in toxic air pollution in the entire United States ... and churns out more climate-changing greenhouse gases than oil giants Chevron, Shell and Valero."
— Harry Reid on Monday, July 11th, 2016 in remarks on the Senate floor

Interesting that they think they need to paint their trucks with this message. (At least so I assume; have found nothing to contradict that this is the spawn of Koch Industries.)

Much earlier in the day we saw row on row of windmills on ridges in Wyoming. Wind energy is big business in Wyoming -- along with coal, uranium, natural gas, and crude oil.

The bison is the official Wyoming state animal, but on the road it feels as if it ought to be the Sinclair dinosaur. Nice gas prices though.

Morty endures as we hurtle eastward. Sometimes we suspect him of Siamese ancestry. But he seems to be holding up well.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Oddments from Rawlins, WY

This billboard was not what I expected to encounter on Interstate 80 outside Green River, Wyoming. Apparently it is a national campaign reaching the considerable number of states where LGBTQ people still do not enjoy full civil rights. Sure, we can get married. But we may have no rights in employment, or to receive medical care from unwilling medical professionals, or to eat in restaurants that don't want us around. Don't know what erecting a few billboards does, but the Beyond I Do campaign provides national information on continuing discrimination.

We stopped to use the facilities at the original Little America which was unimposing, selling expensive gas and sundries. I'd driven by many times but don't think I'd ever before been into this heavily advertised truck stop and motel. Oh yes -- there were also these for sale in the lobby. Click to enlarge. Wyoming is a different culture.

Morty had a far too interesting day. I knew he wasn't going to enjoying driving uphill from Salt Lake City to Park City, Utah. He did not -- howling all the way (perhaps his ears were popping?) and breaking into the body of the car from his jail in the far back. Here he explores the front seat while the humans repaired his enclosure. I don't think he can do that again. Once the road straightened out, he did better for the rest of the drive.

We've crossed the Continental Divide -- it's all downhill from here. Ha!

Monday, September 09, 2019

Oddments from Elko, Nevada

Why this hung in the window of a barber shop, I don't know.

Californians will appreciate this: Unleaded gas for 2.87 a gallon. We're doing our bit about the climate in the Golden State, hence our relatively high gas taxes and high prices. (Though much of why San Francisco Bay area gas prices are so high remains a permanent mystery.) Nevada with a Democratic legislature and Steve Sisolak as governor is working to cuts its carbon emissions too, though this is not currently reflected in gas prices. And in Reno, the City Council recently signed off on an ambitious plan to make the town more resistant to climate change impacts.

Morty was not thrilled spending his day in his cat jail in the back of the car, uttering random meows. But he accepts homage during a break from exploring every nook in a motel in the evening.
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