To My Friend, the Radical Leftist

Well, nothing new happens without some blood being spilled, I suppose. 

To My Friend, the Radical Leftist

Dude. I really do not share your vision of the world. I think you know this, but I'm more reticent than you are about sharing my politics, so we've never talked about it explicitly. Also there's this disconnect between your Facebook voice (always out for blood) and your in-person voice on those rare occasions when we meet (warm, funny, kind). I'm not saying this is a good thing — the not-talking-explicitly. I just don't like ugly arguments and ad hominem attacks, which I fear (with good reason) is what would happen if I responded to your Facebook posts which, honestly, have gotten on my nerves to the point where I’ve hidden them from my News Feed. You are so certain in your beliefs about global hegemony and the primacy of Monsanto's stranglehold on the socio-economic order above all else. About warmongers and innocent victims and the atrocity of everyone's apathy. About the way the Western media characterizes this or that.

Here's the thing: There's very little you say that I fundamentally disagree with. Demographically speaking, I'm a white, middle-class, heterosexual male. From the standpoint of cultural politics, that makes me triple-privileged, and the oppressor. I believe there's such a thing as white privilege, hetero privilege, and male privilege. And that they're pervasive and pernicious. And I can even accept that as a white male I have the luxury of being "above" talking and thinking all the time about privilege and status. All of which is unfair. I accept that nations — especially nations with more power and weapons than their neighbors, do stupid, selfish, horrific things. Like nations, corporations are self-interested and, when left unchecked, often do things that are bad for humanity in general. All of this strikes me as undeniably true.

What's bugging me, old buddy, is that your political world seems to consist of heroes and villains. Evil companies. Evil governments. Good, hardworking people just trying to feed their families. Things look a lot more complicated than that to me. And the other reason I can't let this go, besides the fact that I value you as a friend and therefore care what you think, is that as a possessor of all the above-named privilege who hasn't chosen to live off the grid and devote my life to fighting the same villains you're at war with, I must (by extension) be one of your villains, too. You're always kind and sweet when we meet, but isn't it, mustn't it be so? I am the complacent bourgeois — guillotine fodder in a past revolution fueled by anger very much like yours. What's the final solution, taking your logic to its conclusion, I can't help wondering? You're basically a pacifist, but there's a punk rebel in you, too. Wouldn't the change you want to see in the world require the spilling of a lot of blood?

Well, nothing new happens without some blood being spilled, I suppose. July fourth, just passed, should remind us of that. Here I'm really out of my depth, because I have no idea, but what kind of world would you choose to build if you could start over? If you could light a sociopolitical version of one of those fires that allow forests periodically to replenish themselves? Would you abolish TV and cellphones? Would businesses be illegal? All government-run? Would cities be dismantled in favor of small farming communities? What would happen to science and medicine, supported as they are by the federal/pharmaceutical complex?

The deeper question is about power. How would you distribute it? How would you control it? As you know from your [Michel] Foucault: Power is slippery. It doesn't like to stay still, or balanced. And, of course, it corrupts, even when in well-meaning hands.

I have strong political opinions, but I tend to keep them to myself. Ghosts of dinner-table debates past, I suppose.  I hate racism, homophobia, political corruption, and the fact that income inequality just keeps getting worse and worse. I hate unreason and anti-reason as they manifest in the anti-vaccination movement and the teaching of creationism alongside (or in lieu of) evolutionary theory. I hate sectarianism, ignorance, and orthodoxy of any kind. I love communication, cooperation, collaboration. All the things that begin with “co.”

But I’m not out in the street marching against cops who shoot unarmed black people, or for gay rights, or for anything else. You are. You fight actively, explicitly for the world you believe in, and there, I think you’re doing a bit better than I am. I suppose I fight with words, but mine is a more circuitous battle. It comes back to our worldviews. I’m not comfortable with binaries. Even undeniable evils like racism and ignorance are slippery and metastatic when you try to get your hands around them. I think Foucault would agree with me, that fighting them head-on is a bit like fighting the mythical hydra who grows a new head for each one you lop off.

Is it cynicism on my part to suggest that the revolutionary spirit is in almost every instance motivated at least as much by the will to power as by altruism? Is anger at the prevailing power structures as much about the wish to concentrate that power in your own hands instead, as about what you'd do with the power if you had it? This isn't necessarily a "bad" thing. This is how new societies are made, or historically have been. The "Occupy" movement tried to sidestep the power question entirely, shying away from the demand for leadership, making all decisions by committee. Back to Foucault again: You can pretend power doesn't exist, but it permeates every relationship nonetheless.

So back to our relationship, yours and mine, old buddy. You live far away these days, almost on another planet. I see you once every couple years at most. And when we're together, the bond of kinship feels strong and permanent in spite of these differences. But something's out of whack and it's eating at me: the fact that something so apparently fundamental to who you are alienates and frightens me. And the fact that I have no idea how to talk to you about it, or whether there's even any point in doing so.


talk to @jgots on Twitter

. . . do you embrace the geek? Then you will love episode 4 of Think Again - A Big Think Podcast, LIVE on iTunesSoundcloud, and Stitcher. Bill Nye guests and Jason Gots hosts. 

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source:

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source:

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source:

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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