Indignity Vol. 2, No. 71: Fish are rotting; cotton prices are high.


Indignity Vol. 2, No. 71: Fish are rotting; cotton prices are high.

Climate Disaster Means Burning More Coal

REMEMBER WHEN PEOPLE used to say that you couldn't blame the warming climate for any particular weather emergency? Well, if everywhere has a weather emergency, it's hard not to view it as a climate emergency. Just from adding the headlines together, the current situation is that historic extremes of heat and drought are currently affecting the Western United States, Hawaii, Europe, China, and the Horn of Africa. Pakistan has transitioned from record-breaking heat and drought to torrential rains, with 33 million people displaced by flooding.

When things go wrong all over the planet at once, there's nowhere to turn for resiliency. Here's Bloomberg this month reporting on the tangle of events that add up to decade-high cotton prices:

In India, the top-producing country, heavy rains and pests have cut into cotton crops so much that the nation is importing supplies. A heat wave in China is raising concerns about the upcoming harvest there. In the US, the largest exporter of the commodity, a worsening drought is ravaging farms and is set to drag production to the lowest level in more than a decade. And now Brazil, the second-largest exporter, is battling extreme heat and drought that have already cut yields by nearly 30%.

There's bad news globally and conceptually: Science magazine reported that researchers around the world, participating in the International Drought Experiment, cut off water from plots of shrubs and grasses to simulate how the plants would respond to severe drought, and "found that a single year of drought can reduce the growth of vegetation by more than 80%, greatly diminishing its ability to absorb carbon dioxide." And there's bad news locally and particularly: patients at a cancer-treatment center in Bakersfield, California, have had their nausea and vomiting exacerbated by the "stench" of dead and rotting fish as a neighboring lake has gone completely dry.

China doesn't look as dire as some places on the drought map, but its heat wave is still setting records after two months and counting. The electrical system is faltering under the loss of hydropower as the rivers run low. The beyond-human scale of the problem—its hyperobject nature—felt somehow appropriately captured by the anti-human bullet points Axios used to describe it:

• The all-time high temperature of 105.8°F (41°C) in Mianyang on Sunday broke the previous record by 4°F, an unusually large margin for such a milestone.

• On Saturday, Chongqing, whose city center is home to 9 million, saw an overnight low temperature that was a few degrees hotter than its typical August daytime high, at 94.8°F (34.9°F).

Two weeks ago, as Sichuan province cut back on the power supply, Bloomberg reported on how the shortages were affecting industry:

Power outages across China’s Sichuan province pose a new threat to clean energy supply chains already pressured by high costs of raw materials.

Disruptions at manufacturing plants in the region are likely to impact output of lithium compounds for electric car batteries and polysilicon used in the production of solar panels, according to Dennis Ip, an analyst with Daiwa Capital Markets.

The Washington Post reported the same thing:

Tongwei Solar, the world’s largest producer of crystalline silicon solar cells, has experienced interruptions at its three production bases in Sichuan, a public relations officer of the company told The Washington Post by telephone, declining to give his name.

“Now we are cooperating with relevant government departments to adjust energy consumption in an orderly way and are still assessing specific impacts,” he said.

By the end of last week, CNN was reporting about what China was doing to make up for the 50 percent drop in Sichuan's hydropower capacity:

Sichuan Guang'an Power Generation, the region's biggest coal-fired power plant, has been operating at full capacity for 21 consecutive days. Its electricity generation for August is expected to jump 313% from a year earlier, the company said.

The province is also mining more coal. Sichuan Coal Industry Group, its largest coal miner, has more than doubled its thermal coal production since mid-August. And last week, Sichuan opened its first national coal reserve.

Nationwide, the daily consumption of coal at power plants was up 15% in the first two weeks of August compared with the same period last year, according to the National Development and Reform Commission.

The New York Times, likewise describing the "broad disruption" caused by the heat, drought, and power shortages, and the accompanying turn to coal, recounted the effects on daily life:

Vera Wang, a Chengdu resident, said that just to charge her electric car, her boyfriend waited in a long line overnight at a charging station that was only partly operating. It was 4 a.m. by the time he reached the front of the line.

“The line was so long that it extended from the underground parking lot to the road outside,” she said.

That is: Right now, China has to burn more coal to run the factories that make solar panels. Or so that people can charge their electric cars. The climate crisis is so bad that even the attempts to fight the climate crisis are currently making the climate crisis worse.


Aw, Shucks

THE READERSHIP RESPONDED to the call for more thoughts on the subject of corniness, as covered in Indignity Vol. 2, No. 69:

Subject: I have a question…
Is corniness different from smarm? At first blush I’d say yes: corniness is a diagnosis you make looking down the gradient from a position of superior (financial, cultural) capital, while smarm can be spotted from anywhere on the ladder. But maybe that distinction doesn’t hold. And in any case I’m more interested in your answer than mine.

Thanks for writing the newsletter, it’s good stuff.


INDIGNITY replies: Many things are both smarmy and corny, but I think what sets smarm apart from corniness is that smarm always has an ulterior motive. Someone who is being smarmy has the goal of conscious manipulation, to use the ideals of niceness or seriousness or civility to gain some rhetorical advantage over the target. Corniness at its most excruciating truly wants to be earnest; what makes it painful is the inability to share that earnestness.

This alienation reminds me in some ways of the feelings George W.S. Trow described in the final section of his book-length essay about his alarm at the contemporary condition, Within the Context of No Context, when he talked about his inability to wear a fedora to work the way his father used to:

I was taught by my parents to believe that the traditional manners of the high bourgeoisie, properly acquired, would give me a certain dignity, which would protect me from embarrassment. It has turned out that I am able to do almost anything but act according to those modes—this because I deeply believe that these modes are suffused with an embarrassment so powerful that it can kill.

Subject: Corny Collins Record hop (?)

I loved your column on Rod McKuen and corniness. It's where I learned about the connection between McKuen, Andy Kim, and Television, two people and one group I'm, at least, somewhat familiar with.

I have a corniness experience that feels like it covers all the bases. I am a long time fan of the TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000. I first saw it at my grandparents house during Thanksgiving (during their "Turkey" Day Marathon), just laughing my ass off for 3 hours, and I've loved it ever since. I've caught it and sought it out whenever it would make appearances, as either reruns or reboots.

Nowadays, three of the (more or less) original performers have an ongoing project called RiffTrax, and every now and then they do a live show that you can see at most movie theaters.

All this stuff is corny as hell. MST3K (for real heads and people who don't want to type out the whole thing) seemed kind of cool when I was a teen in 1990, perhaps arguably transgressive, in that you're not supposed to talk during movies, but this was probably a rationalization on my part. It's puppets, movies from the 1950s and 1960s, and goofy skits. It's just corny, full stop, and the stock price has gone down from there.

I will catch RiffTrax when I can, and I saw one recently. They Might Be Giants do the theme song (corny), there's the introduction where the cast greets the live audience, for a kind of love fest about this 30 year old show (corny), and then they do some light promos and ads for some of their merchandise, like a web based party game (incredibly corny).

The whole time I'm watching this, I feel like I'm in the wrong place—that I shouldn't be there, that my "coolness" is suffering a mortal wound. But when they start the short and the main feature, I'm laughing my head off, just purely enjoying every moment. I'm always happy I came, and I'l keep going for as long as they keep doing this.

It feels like the full spectrum of recognizing corniness, feeling like you should point it out (or be lumped in with the corniness), and then not caring. As you wrote—I'm too old to care, and I know, intellectually, that being cool and deriding things as corny is a pose, and it's not only or just that getting old might make you wiser, it's also that as you get old you learn that you're not actually cool, and no one really cares what you do or don't do, and you probably don't care either, so you might as well enjoy yourself.

One might say that doing things that bring you joy is the coolest thing of all. But then someone would respond with much more accuracy, that no, that's not true, some things are lame, and you're lame for liking them. Oh well.

Thanks for putting out an excellent newsletter.


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