This is the second part of my reflections on the 2016 US presidential election. As with Part I (“An Elegy for my Home”), I emphasize that these are personal reflections and opinions; the writing is incomplete and unpolished. I welcome constructive engagement, discussion, and dialogue about them; please post comments here, on Twitter, or send me email.
Ashore in Belém after five days and four nights on the Amazon and its tributaries on board the Amazon Star, here’s the travel-blog of what I though would be my final trip on the Amazon. But in truth, I’ll head back upriver on Wednesday for 11 days of field work… more on that coming up!
23 November 2016
Up at dawn, lock the duffel, stow the laptop, scarf down fruit, granola, chocolate cake, and tea at the Go-Inn Manaus buffet, and head for the river.
While washed up in Manaus, I’ve taken a few hours to catch up on some recent papers in the (technical) ecological literature. A new paper by Egbert van Nes et al. in the most recent issue of Trends in Ecology and Evolution caught my attention. Entitled “What do you mean, ‘tipping point’?“, van Nes et al. encapsulate well the competing ideas and definitions of tipping points in the ecological and broader literature, but then end up arguing for a broad definition: “any situation where accelerating change caused by positive feedback drives the system to a new state.” But they then go on to say that their “proposed definition essentially boils down to the necessary conditions for [Malcom] Gladwell’s examples where a small initial change makes a big difference.”
I think this is unfortunate. They give too much credence to Gladwell’s sloppy handling of tipping points in his book, their broad definition will lead to a proliferation of “tipping points,” and such vagueness can only result in so much watering down of the term as to render it meaningless.
So with that in mind, I offer up for today’s posting an essay I wrote three years ago but never published. I post it here, unedited from 11 September 2013 (albeit with a few [editorial clarifications]). Perhaps an updated version could find a broader audience somewhere; suggestions welcome!
On tipping points, regime shifts, and the balance of nature
“Five-nine” doesn’t have quite the cadence as “nine-eleven,” but when we look back on the early 21st century, May 9, 2013—the day that the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere exceeded 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in recorded history—may be seen as a far more important date than September 11, 2001. If the scenario described in the Scientific Consensus on Maintaining Humanity’s Life Support Systems in the 21st Century by Anthony Barnowsky and his colleagues at Berkeley, along with more than 500 other scientists, including Nobel laureates, members of the National Academies of Sciences, and other luminaries is true, Five-nine will be seen as the long-anticipated tipping point whereby human impacts have caused irrevocable harm to our planet. Or perhaps not. Perhaps there is still time to take the concrete, immediate actions Barnowsky et al. suggest—suggestions echoed by President Barack Obama in his June 25  speech at Georgetown University—that would ensure a sustainable, high-quality future. Or maybe we’ll just keep muddling along, slowly and steadily acclimating to our new lives on a now unfamiliar world, which, to distinguish it from our familiar “Earth,” Bill McKibben christened “Planet Eaarth”: durably, sturdily, stably, hardily, and robustly.
My riverine interlude between Leticia and Belém has been punctuated by a stopover in Manaus, a bustling industrial and most unlikely city of more than 2 million people located at the junction of the Rio Negro and the Rio Solimões. Following the 4-day, 3-night boat trip from Tabatinga described in the first part of this travel-blog, I arrived at Manaus late Saturday. A long walk up the floating ramp brought me in sight of the famous plaque of river heights, a wonderful example of “physical” data visualization (for more, check out this web-site: http://dataphys.org/list/ which I recently discovered thanks to my friend and colleague David Buckley Borden).
As I well knew, 2015 was one of the highest levels on record, surpassed only by 2012 and just barely by 2009. The four years 2012-2015 were in the top 10 since records began more than a century ago, whereas 2016 was in the lower-middle of the pack. A great classroom exercise would be to digitize and plot these data relative to other indicators of climatic change.
I had hoped that I’d spend a couple of nights in Manaus and then catch a boat on Monday further downriver to Belém. I learned Sunday morning, though, that direct boats to Belém leave only Wednesdays and Saturdays. So rather than take a boat Monday to Santarem and then chill there for another boat onward to Belém, I opted to book the Wednesday boat and spend a couple of extra days exploring Manaus.
16 November 2016
After five days in Colombia—two in Leticia bracketing three at Parque Nacional Amacayacu, I crossed the transparent border between Colombia and Brazil, from Leticia into Tabatinga, where I boarded the ferry boat F/B Diamante for a four-day trip down the Amazon to Manaus (click on the thumbnails to enlarge the photos).
I’ve been traveling and working outside of the US since the beginning of August, and watched the evolution, media/twitter/blog coverage, and eventual vote count of the US presidential election unfold from abroad—passing through degrees of disbelief, astonishment, and horror—but also seeing it with the perspectives of physical distance and those gained through the eyes of citizens of other countries. During the two weeks leading up to the election, I was simultaneously engrossed in developing new mathematical statistics and depressed by what I could clearly see, from an overseas vantage point, was going to go down on November 8. And although I voted in Massachusetts (the first person on the first day of early voting in my small rural town—which, contra the Commonwealth overall, went for Trump by a small margin ) while I was in transit between Tokyo and Valparaiso, I suffered no illusion that my vote for Hillary would make a difference, either statewide (Massachusetts is, of course, the bluest of the blue states, notable for being the only state to vote for McGovern against Nixon in 1972) or nationally (the writing was on the wall for anyone who could read it).
As I expect many travelers and ex-pats also did, I stayed up all of election night watching the returns, until the election was called for Trump at close to 2am Valparaiso time. The next day, I watched the sunrise over the docks of Valparaiso harbor, did my daily 45-minute walk up (northeast) the esplanade, past the omnipresent graffiti, murals, stray dogs, seagulls, sea lions, and pelicans, paused to dip my feet in the icy-cold Pacific Ocean, climbed up the daily 108 stairs to the mathematics quad, and then walked up the last three flights of stairs to my temporary office at the Universidad Técnica Federico Santa María (USM), where I skyped my fiancée and had a good cry – for my country, for my family and loved ones, for myself, and for the future.
I spent a lot of that day talking about the election with Flossie and with my three friends—Ronny Vallejos, a statistician at USM, and Hannah Buckley and Brad Case, ecologists from Lincoln University in New Zealand—with whom I was working at USM for the two weeks I was there. And I thought it would be worth setting down here the common themes and ideas that emerged in those conversations, filtered through another few days of reading, thinking, walking, and flying.
These reflections come in two parts. This one, entitled “An Elegy for my Home”, and the next one, entitled “The Politics of Identity and the Destructiveness of Identity Politics”. I emphasize that these are personal reflections and opinions set down as stream-of-consciousness with little editing. The writing is rough and the ideas incomplete. But I needed to start somewhere, as the run-up to the election, the election itself, and the few days aftermath have made it hard to focus coherently. I welcome constructive engagement, discussion, and dialogue about them; please post comments here, on Twitter, or send me email.