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Sunday, May 18, 2008

EARTH MOVEMENTS

I was thinking about ignorance yesterday, while watching the pictures out of Sichuan. On May 12, 2008, at exactly 2.28 pm and one second (2:28 am and one second in New York City ) beneath the mountains 56 miles West-northwest of the provincial capital of Chengdu, a chunk of bedrock 140 miles long and 12 miles deep, shattered. The result was a 7.9 magnitude earthquake, which produced four minutes of violent ground shaking, surface displacement of 29 feet and an estimated 50,000 dead. Officially this will be called the Wenchuan Earthquake, because giving it a name is a way of making such violence comprehensible.
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Not far from epicenter of this hell on earth, on the border of Nepal and Tibet, the monolith of Mount Everest rises 29,035 feet above sea level. Scattered about its upper slopes are about 120 bodies of climbers who died too high up the mountain to justify their retrieval. And all of this – the earthquake, the 50,000 dead, Mount Everest , the border and the climbers - are all products of the same elemental force. And according to surveys most Americans have no idea what that force is.
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In Susan Jacoby’s book, “The Age of American Unreason”, she recounts a conversation she overheard in a New York City bar shortly after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in that city. First Man: “This is just like Pearl Harbor”. Second Man; “What is Pearl Harbor?” First Man; “That was when the Vietnamese dropped bombs in a harbor, and it started the Vietnam War”. Ms. Jacoby blames the great “dumbing down” of America in large part on the overuse of the word “folks”. I’m not sure I can agree with her on the cause, but the effects are evident, especially in Iraq, a nation which, according to a 2006 National Geographic poll, 37% of young Americans can’t find on a map. Worse, according to the same survey, half of our young adults can’t even find New York!
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According to Bob Wise, President of Alliance for Excellent Education, half of America’s high school students drop out before graduation perhaps in large part because half of those who do graduate are not given the skills to get a good job. AT&T has tried to answer the public’s demand for an end to “outsourcing American jobs” but can’t find 5,000 qualified customer service representatives in San Antonio, Texas. Their CEO Randall Stephenson, explained why the corporation felt the need in April to donate $100 million to help solve the failure of America’s schools. He said, “We’re not giving our children…all the opportunities they need to succeed.” Under the mantra of “No new taxes” our high school graduation rates have dropped to 18th place in the world, 15th for reading skills and 25th for math. Perhaps it is time to stop repeating empty phrases that we are “the greatest nation in the world” or proclaiming ourselves to be members of “the greatest generation” and start paying the price required to actually live up to those accolades.
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According to Andrew Alden, of About.com, “The Tibetan Plateau is an immense upland…not just the largest, highest area in the world today …it may be the largest and highest in all of geological history….Nearly 100 million years ago, India separated from Africa…moving north at speeds of around (6 inches) per year...(and) about 55 million years ago…began to plow directly into the Asian continent…(So far it) has pushed more than (120 miles) into Asia, and its still moving at a pretty good clip.”
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It is that collision that threw up the sea bed that lay between India and Asia, like the metal of two cars in a slow motion head-on crash. We know this because locked in the limestone, dolomite and silt stone which make up the rock atop the highest point on the Earth are the fossilized remains of trilobites that scuttled across that sea bed 60 million years ago. Now they have been crumpled 6 miles into the sky. It is that continuing collision that killed perhaps 50,000 people on May 12, and 240,000 in Tangshan, China in July of 1976 (in a 7.6 quake), and 9,300 people in a 1933 quake along the very same fault. And it matters not if you choose to deny this reality in favor religion or fantasy, because those people are still dead, and all of them died where and when they died because of the same underlying reason – what is called plate tectonics.
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About eight million years ago the Himalayas rose high enough to first block the moist South west winds across the Indian Ocean. The wall of mountains created the seasonal monsoon rains that now feed two billion people across south-east Asia. And after the monsoons end each year those two billion people and another two billion across East Asia depend for their drinking water and crop irrigation upon the Ganges, Indus, Bahmaputra, Yangtze, Mekong, Yellow, and a thousand smaller rivers. And all those rivers – all of them - are fed by the so called “The Third Pole” of the Himalayas - 46,298 glaciers, large and small. In the 1970’s these glaciers covered 18,865 square miles. As of 2007 they covered 17,158 square miles. You may prefer to have faith in the fantasy’s offered by coal and oil companies, but the reality is that 4 billion human beings are being threatened with starvation because of one simple underlying reason - what is called global warming.
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Today there are six times as many people alive as were living at the start of the Industrial revolution. There are 13 times as many people alive today as were alive when Columbus’ three tiny ships set out across the Atlantic. And there are now 20 times as many people walking the earth as those who might have seen Caesar Augustus parade in triumph through the streets of Rome. And the ratio amongst humanity of fools to thinkers has not changed much over all of that time. But education still helps to cut down on the general level of ignorance.
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