If We Know So Much, Why Don’t We Do Something?

An old book of Texas history, pulled from storage during the Covid-19 shutdown, reminds us of the optimism that marked the start of the 20th century, in stark contrast to our fears for the 21st.

A young activist writer living in Austin, Texas, is inspired by a charismatic politician. He writes a successful novel, secures a good job close to the halls of power and passionately supports liberal causes. A global crisis breaks out. He volunteers to help, is exposed to an untreatable virus, and dies at the age of 33.

The writer is Sinclair Moreland; the year, 1918. The virus was the so-called Spanish Flu. I pulled his book, The Noblest Roman, a tale of idealism in the face of corporate greed and political corruption, from a box I stored a decade ago in preparation for — now?

Sinclair Moreland wrote The Noblest Roman as a testimony to “civic morality.”

When Moreland wrote The Noblest Roman, the world must have seemed full of possibilities. The Spindletop gusher of 1901 remade the oil industry in the image of Texas. Progressives took the reins of power and used a tax on oil production to create the state’s educational and transportation systems. They battled big business, reformed the prisons and passed laws to protect food safety and regulate lobbying. They created the Texas State Historical Society where Moreland became the archivist.

The corporate villain of the time was Ohio-based Standard Oil, the first company to master both vertical and horizontal integration and own its supply chain. Feared and disliked by competitors for its questionable business practices, Standard Oil built a loyal consumer base by keeping its practices low. The company’s CEO, John D. Rockefeller was the world’s richest man. Sound familiar?

The year after Moreland published The Noblest Roman, The Supreme Court split Standard Oil into 34 separate companies, one of which became Exxon-Mobil. The stage was set for what The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman calls “the next train coming down the tracks,” climate change.

So goes the arc of history. Last week, six new Guggenheim Fellows were announced. Among them is Jeff Goodell, who like Moreland, lives here in Austin. But while Moreland paints an ideal of political leadership, Goodell’s award-winning The Water Will Come mourns its absence in the face of rapidly-rising sea levels, and the inevitable associated destruction and mass migration.

“Sea-level rise is like aging. You can’t stop it. You can only do better or worse, ” Goodell quotes an expert in The Water Will Come.

And while Moreland’s subject was bounded by Oklahoma, Louisiana and New Mexico, Goodell’s is global, differentiated only by economic disparity and whether there is too much or not enough water.

“Nature is going to win. Nobody wins with water. Think about the Grand Canyon.”

Jeff Goodell

In 1917, the year before his death in the flu pandemic, Moreland wrote a second book, The Texas Women’s Hall of Fame, dedicated to the women of Texas for whom “social caste has no place” and who maintain a “vital interest in … clean streets, better factory conditions, child and animal protection, higher moral standards, public health, social justice and decent government.” With that in mind, I pass on the brilliant Arundhati Roy’s thoughts for our preset time:

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

Arundhati Roy, writing in The Financial Times

World Spins Series Spotlights Thought Leaders on the Cusp of Disruption

I wanted to let you know about a project I’m working on with the World Affairs Council.  Its best described as a salon series showcasing some of the forces re-shaping the world we think we know — climate change, blockchain technology, the shift of global power from military to technological supremacy.  Our new series “The World Spins,”  will bring  people at the forefront of issues that are re-shaping the world we live in:  climate change, national security, blockchain technology, China and innovation. I’m thrilled to have these brilliant people — thought leaders, participants – not observers — share their time with us.  If you’re in Austin, please join us!

NATIONAL SECURITY & CLIMATE CHANGE, Dr. Joshua Busby, an associate professor,

Dr. Joshua Busby, associate professor, LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin
Military leaders accept climate change as a major risk to our national security. Do we have a policy? Internationally recognized expert Dr. Josh Busby dives into a thorny issue.

the LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin, has been deeply involved in climate change policy since 2008. He participated in the discussions around Paris Accord, as well as their follow-on sessions, the next scheduled to take place in Poland later this year, as well as managing multi-million dollar grants for the Dept. of Defense. Quick update:  President Trump announced the United States’ intention to withdraw last December.  Former National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster recognized the relationship between the weather and security. He’s out, and former ambassador and Fox News analyst John Bolton is in.  What’s next?   April 12 at 6:30

 

BLOCKCHAIN, Pete Harris, founder of Lighthouse Partners, works with companies who are integrating blockchain technology into their business strategy. Talk about disruption, blockchain promises to dramatically reshape our financial, supply chain and trade relationships.  Think Walmart tracking the safety of sliced papaya from Central America to a store in Iowa. Pete, who consults internationally, is part of the axis of the blockchain

Pete Harris, Lighthouse Partners
Pete Harris, founder and president of Lighthouse Partner, has been talking blockchain and innovation since it was piloted on Wall Street.

community in Austin, Texas, where there are over 70 start ups involved in commercializing this nascent technology into our financial, health care, food safety and transportation ecosystems. A nascent technology, the growing use of blockchain is overshadowed by its trendy subset, bitcoin.  But companies like IBM and Oracle are integrating it into the way their customers do business. Pete founded the hub of Austin’s blockchain innovation, the  Austin Blockchain Collective and chairs a monthly Blockchain for Business Meetup at the Capitol Factory which is free and open to all.   March 29 at 6:30

 

CHINA AND INNOVATION, David Firestein, is the founding director of the new China

David Firestein, Founding Executive Director, China Public Policy Center; Clinical Professor of Public Affairs
David Firestein is shaping how a world-class university uses the resources and relationships of the (other) major world power.

Public Policy Center at the LBJ School.  From his bio: Throughout his career, Firestein has played an active role advancing U.S.-China and U.S.-Asia trade. He has also produced path-breaking thought leadership, scholarship and Capitol Hill testimony on a range of topics, including U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, U.S.-China infrastructure investment cooperation, and the role of national exceptionalism as a driver of major international conflict today. Firestein is native Austinite who speaks Mandarin at near-native level (hard to imagine in a Texan) and has published a book on what else – country music and diplomacy. May 22 at 6:30

 

 

 

If you’re in town, please join us!  All sessions are held at the historic Neill-Cochran House  where you can park right behind the building for free — speaking of a changing world.