Commentary Magazine


Posts For: February 5, 2007

Maybe Al Gore Is Right

Conservatives like to think of themselves as hard-headed, flinty-eyed realists who draw conclusions based on the way the world actually works, not on the way they would prefer it to work. They deride liberals as sentimentalists who never let facts interfere with their preferred policy prescriptions, whether in favor of the minimum wage or arms control. Yet there are some issues on which conservatives will not let any amount of evidence shake their own faith-based politics. Global warming is a prime example.

Last week the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change released its fourth Summary for Policymakers, a publication representing the consensus view of hundreds of scientists from around the world. The experts found with “very high confidence” (meaning 90 percent certainty) that human activity is responsible for a substantial increase in greenhouse gases, and they warn that if left unchecked, these trends could have catastrophic ecological consequences within our lifetime. Similar reports have been issued by other expert bodies such as the National Academy of Sciences and the American Meteorological Society.

I’ve always been skeptical of global-warming arguments, but as a scientific illiterate, it’s hard for me to argue with the consensus of the scientific community. Many of my fellow conservatives, by contrast, refuse to concede the possibility that Al Gore may be right after all. Check out, among others: George Will, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Senator James Inhofe, the Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and even Kevin Shapiro in the September 2006 issue of COMMENTARY.

I am sympathetic to some of their arguments, in particular when they point out the problems with the Kyoto Protocol, which mandates major emissions reductions by the U.S. and other rich nations while allowing growing pollution by developing nations such as China and India. In fact, some of the most effective answers to global warming may be politically incorrect—for instance, substituting nuclear energy for oil or coal.

But too many on the Right still refuse to acknowledge the basic reality that the climate is changing in potentially dangerous ways due to human activity, and that we need to reduce carbon emissions to address this looming crisis. Skeptics can always dredge up a rogue scientist or two to buttress their case, just as liberals can always find an economist or two to make the case for raising the minimum wage. But why should a few fringe figures dictate governmental policy?

I would think supporters of the invasion of Iraq would be more sympathetic to arguments for preventative action based on the best available intelligence.

Conservatives like to think of themselves as hard-headed, flinty-eyed realists who draw conclusions based on the way the world actually works, not on the way they would prefer it to work. They deride liberals as sentimentalists who never let facts interfere with their preferred policy prescriptions, whether in favor of the minimum wage or arms control. Yet there are some issues on which conservatives will not let any amount of evidence shake their own faith-based politics. Global warming is a prime example.

Last week the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change released its fourth Summary for Policymakers, a publication representing the consensus view of hundreds of scientists from around the world. The experts found with “very high confidence” (meaning 90 percent certainty) that human activity is responsible for a substantial increase in greenhouse gases, and they warn that if left unchecked, these trends could have catastrophic ecological consequences within our lifetime. Similar reports have been issued by other expert bodies such as the National Academy of Sciences and the American Meteorological Society.

I’ve always been skeptical of global-warming arguments, but as a scientific illiterate, it’s hard for me to argue with the consensus of the scientific community. Many of my fellow conservatives, by contrast, refuse to concede the possibility that Al Gore may be right after all. Check out, among others: George Will, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Senator James Inhofe, the Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and even Kevin Shapiro in the September 2006 issue of COMMENTARY.

I am sympathetic to some of their arguments, in particular when they point out the problems with the Kyoto Protocol, which mandates major emissions reductions by the U.S. and other rich nations while allowing growing pollution by developing nations such as China and India. In fact, some of the most effective answers to global warming may be politically incorrect—for instance, substituting nuclear energy for oil or coal.

But too many on the Right still refuse to acknowledge the basic reality that the climate is changing in potentially dangerous ways due to human activity, and that we need to reduce carbon emissions to address this looming crisis. Skeptics can always dredge up a rogue scientist or two to buttress their case, just as liberals can always find an economist or two to make the case for raising the minimum wage. But why should a few fringe figures dictate governmental policy?

I would think supporters of the invasion of Iraq would be more sympathetic to arguments for preventative action based on the best available intelligence.

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A Giant Rabbit in Every Pot?

Suddenly there is a ray of hope that North Koreans—even those who are not employed by the armed forces or the secret police—will have something more nutritious than grass and bark in their cooking pots. According to a report in the Washington Post of February 2, the North Korean embassy in Berlin recently sent a delegation to a German agricultural fair at which a retired chauffeur named Karl Szmolinsky showed off hugely oversized rabbits that he had bred—some reaching “the size of a full-grown beagle.” “Eureka!,” thought an embassy official, presumably the economic attaché. Your average rabbit might make a meal for two or three people. But according to Szmolinsky, a single one of his “gray giants” can, if properly butchered, yield fifteen pounds of meet, enough to feed, say, thirty. It is easy for even a Communist economist to see, therefore, that if you raise these monsters instead of regular rabbits you can increase one component of the food supply by a factor of ten.

And, of course, they breed like, well, rabbits. So Pyongyang ordered half a dozen of the critters as seed stock.

There is, however, a catch. “It takes wheelbarrow-loads of hay, vegetables, and rabbit chow to bring them to maturity,” reports the Post. In other words, your average “gray giant” eats more and better than your average North Korean. Ergo, still more North Koreans will have to starve in order to feed the rabbits.

Although the rabbit venture may not quiet the North Koreans’ hunger, it may have one beneficial side effect. Those old enough to recall his presidency will remember that Jimmy Carter is deathly afraid of killer rabbits. Word of these “gray giants” should keep him away from Pyongyang—and we will all be safer for it.

Suddenly there is a ray of hope that North Koreans—even those who are not employed by the armed forces or the secret police—will have something more nutritious than grass and bark in their cooking pots. According to a report in the Washington Post of February 2, the North Korean embassy in Berlin recently sent a delegation to a German agricultural fair at which a retired chauffeur named Karl Szmolinsky showed off hugely oversized rabbits that he had bred—some reaching “the size of a full-grown beagle.” “Eureka!,” thought an embassy official, presumably the economic attaché. Your average rabbit might make a meal for two or three people. But according to Szmolinsky, a single one of his “gray giants” can, if properly butchered, yield fifteen pounds of meet, enough to feed, say, thirty. It is easy for even a Communist economist to see, therefore, that if you raise these monsters instead of regular rabbits you can increase one component of the food supply by a factor of ten.

And, of course, they breed like, well, rabbits. So Pyongyang ordered half a dozen of the critters as seed stock.

There is, however, a catch. “It takes wheelbarrow-loads of hay, vegetables, and rabbit chow to bring them to maturity,” reports the Post. In other words, your average “gray giant” eats more and better than your average North Korean. Ergo, still more North Koreans will have to starve in order to feed the rabbits.

Although the rabbit venture may not quiet the North Koreans’ hunger, it may have one beneficial side effect. Those old enough to recall his presidency will remember that Jimmy Carter is deathly afraid of killer rabbits. Word of these “gray giants” should keep him away from Pyongyang—and we will all be safer for it.

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One Eakins for Another

When the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts recently purchased The Gross Clinic (1875), Thomas Eakins’s masterpiece, they had less than half the $68 million price in hand. There was apprehension over how the financially strapped institutions would raise the rest—with good reason, it now turns out. The Academy has just sold another work of Eakins, The Cello Player (1896), to a private purchaser for an undisclosed sum to help raise the rest of the purchase price. It is a striking portrait of Rudolph Henning, the cellist who introduced Dvořák to American audiences. The Academy bought the painting from Eakins in 1897, one of the few he sold in his lifetime.

The sale of items from a museum collection is called “deaccessioning,” an unattractive word for an unattractive act. Museum ethics are quite strict about the process: one may sell objects to enhance a collection—trading up, as it were—but never to cover operating expenses or to pay for repairs. Such actions are looked on with horror in the art world, as the equivalent of burning furniture to heat the house for a few days.

From this perspective, the swap is relatively unobjectionable. Both paintings show Eakins at his best, observing his most characteristic subject, a titanic figure in a moment of intense concentration and action. And both works are in a sense autobiographical, showing the empathy Eakins reserved for those he regarded as fellow artists. Of the two paintings, however, The Gross Clinic is by far the finer, matching in originality and intensity of expression what Huckleberry Finn achieved in literature or Boston’s Trinity Church in architecture. One can sympathize with the Academy for making this difficult decision.

On the other hand, one need not endorse it. Museums that think boldly attract bold donors; and museums that think cautiously do not. When the original purchase was announced it seemed like a brilliant but risky chess gambit; in the light of this sale, it looks considerably less spectacular, like the sacrifice of a rook for a queen. If more works are sacrificed in the coming months, however, this daring gambit might begin to look like an ill-considered blunder.

When the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts recently purchased The Gross Clinic (1875), Thomas Eakins’s masterpiece, they had less than half the $68 million price in hand. There was apprehension over how the financially strapped institutions would raise the rest—with good reason, it now turns out. The Academy has just sold another work of Eakins, The Cello Player (1896), to a private purchaser for an undisclosed sum to help raise the rest of the purchase price. It is a striking portrait of Rudolph Henning, the cellist who introduced Dvořák to American audiences. The Academy bought the painting from Eakins in 1897, one of the few he sold in his lifetime.

The sale of items from a museum collection is called “deaccessioning,” an unattractive word for an unattractive act. Museum ethics are quite strict about the process: one may sell objects to enhance a collection—trading up, as it were—but never to cover operating expenses or to pay for repairs. Such actions are looked on with horror in the art world, as the equivalent of burning furniture to heat the house for a few days.

From this perspective, the swap is relatively unobjectionable. Both paintings show Eakins at his best, observing his most characteristic subject, a titanic figure in a moment of intense concentration and action. And both works are in a sense autobiographical, showing the empathy Eakins reserved for those he regarded as fellow artists. Of the two paintings, however, The Gross Clinic is by far the finer, matching in originality and intensity of expression what Huckleberry Finn achieved in literature or Boston’s Trinity Church in architecture. One can sympathize with the Academy for making this difficult decision.

On the other hand, one need not endorse it. Museums that think boldly attract bold donors; and museums that think cautiously do not. When the original purchase was announced it seemed like a brilliant but risky chess gambit; in the light of this sale, it looks considerably less spectacular, like the sacrifice of a rook for a queen. If more works are sacrificed in the coming months, however, this daring gambit might begin to look like an ill-considered blunder.

Read Less