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2008 / March | View All Issues |

March 2008

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Applying for the lotus position·

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A few miles north of San Francisco, off the coast of Sausalito, is Richardson Bay, a saltwater estuary where roughly one hundred people live out of sight from the world. Known as anchor-outs, they make their homes a quarter mile from the shore, on abandoned and unseaworthy vessels, doing their best, with little or no money, to survive. Life is not easy. There is always a storm on the way, one that might capsize their boats and consign their belongings to the bottom of the bay. But when the water is calm and the harbormaster is away, the anchor-­outs call their world Shangri-lito. They row from one boat to the next, repairing their homes with salvaged scrap wood and trading the herbs and vegetables they’ve grown in ten-gallon buckets on their decks. If a breeze is blowing, the air fills with the clamoring of jib hanks. Otherwise, save for a passing motorboat or a moment of distant chatter, there is only the sound of the birds: the sparrows that hop along the wreckage of catamarans, the egrets that hunt herring in the eelgrass, and the terns that circle in the sky above.

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Discussed in this essay: Nature’s Mutiny: How the Little Ice Age of the Long Seventeenth Century Transformed the West and Shaped the Present, by Philipp Blom. Liveright. 352 pages. $27.95. Origins: How Earth’s History Shaped Human History, by Lewis Dartnell. Basic Books. 352 pages. $18.99. The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire, by Kyle Harper. Princeton University Press. 440 pages. $35. “Something’s changing,” said our dear leader, “and it’ll change back again.” This particular flavor of gaslighting dates back several decades. Like any canny half-truth, it grafts insinuations onto an unassailable fact. It is true, …
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When I met Raúl Mijango, in a courtroom in San Salvador, he was in shackles, awaiting trial. He was paunchier than in the photos I’d seen of him, bloated from diabetes, and his previously salt-and-pepper goatee had turned fully white. The masked guard who was escorting him stood nearby, and national news cameras filmed us from afar. Despite facing the possibility of a long prison sentence, Mijango seemed relaxed, smiling easily as we spoke. “Bolívar, Fidel, Gandhi, and Mandela have also passed through this school,” he told me, “and I hope that some of what they learned during their years in prison we should learn as well.”

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1. As closing time at Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery approached on May 25, 2018, Igor Podporin, a balding thirty-seven-year-old with sunken eyes, circled the Russian history room. The elderly museum attendees shooed him toward the exit, but Podporin paused by a staircase, turned, and rushed back toward the Russian painter Ilya Repin’s 1885 work Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on November 16, 1581. He picked up a large metal pole—part of a barrier meant to keep viewers at a distance—and smashed the painting’s protective glass, landing three more strikes across Ivan’s son’s torso before guards managed to subdue him. Initially, police presented Podporin’s attack as an alcohol-fueled outburst and released a video confession in which he admitted to having knocked back two shots of vodka in the museum cafeteria beforehand. But when Podporin entered court four days later, dressed in the same black Columbia fleece, turquoise T-shirt, and navy-blue cargo pants he had been arrested in, he offered a different explanation for the attack. The painting, Podporin declared, was a “lie.” With that accusation, he thrust himself into a centuries-old debate about the legacy of Russia’s first tsar, a debate that has reignited during Vladimir Putin’s reign. The dispute boils down to one deceptively simple question: Was Ivan really so terrible?

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“Something’s changing,” said our dear leader, “and it’ll change back again.” This particular flavor of gaslighting dates back several decades. Like any canny half-truth, it grafts insinuations onto an unassailable fact. It is true, after all, that the global climate has changed drastically before, and that it will change again . . . some millennia from now. It is also true that many of these past changes brought on mass global death. Our concerns about climate change, to restate the obvious, are not for the climate itself. Our concerns are for our civilization, which has organized its infrastructure, trade, national borders, food production, and cities around specific climatic conditions under the assumption that they are permanent. Even a slight unsettling of these conditions will, like the shifting of tectonic plates, cause seismic upheavals. Unlike most matters of global political significance, there is no direct historical analogue for our situation—the unprecedented nature of the crisis is part of its horror. But human beings have endured climatic changes before. A growing historical subdiscipline (cli-hi?) has developed to examine how they managed it. With horrific suffering is the short answer, but Philipp Blom, a German translator and journalist who lives in Los Angeles, proposes in Nature’s Mutiny an artful corollary: that the hardships of a changing climate spurred the creation of what we think of as modern civilization, while at the same time inscribing within its genetic code the germ of its own demise.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

A new study showed that, between 2011 and 2018, the number of human feces left on San Francisco streets increased by more than 400 percent.

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