Last Week’s Most Important News

Quick, what was the most important news last week?

It’s been all Michael Jackson 24/7 since 25 June when this sad prodigy passed away in murky circumstances. Unless you’ve been hiding in a cave, you’ve seen the media circus on the news – Jackson’s early days with his older brothers, his moonwalk at the 25th Anniversary Motown Awards, aerial photos of his Neverland Ranch, and of course his ghoulish face in repeated photos. But that’s not it.

If you’re tracking important world events based on Google hits or minutes of news coverage, then number two would have to be elections in Iran. Again it’s been personalized with the cell phone video of Neda Agha-Soltan, the young philosophy student gunned down on her way to observe the election protests in Tehran. But that’s not it either.

Both these events were relevant to this year’s and next year’s Illahee Lectures, but we’ll circle back to that.

The most important news of the last week? The U.S. House of Representatives passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 on Friday with only one vote to spare. This act may be remembered fifty years from now as the day that the United States began (emphasis on began) taking climate change seriously. The bill is deeply flawed. It aims to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions 83% below 2005 levels by 2050, but it provides nowhere near the investment in clean energy that we need to get there. But it’s a start.

Those of us still alive in 2050 may mark this day the same way we remember the creation of the United Nations or the announcement of the Marshall Plan in June of 1945 and 1947, respectively (that is, most of us won’t remember). Neither the UN nor the Marshall Plan probably garnered as much attention as the many deaths of 1945 (Roosevelt, Hitler and Mussolini all died that spring) or the wedding of soon-to-be Queen Elizabeth in 1947. But their creation changed the world.

The shaky start of U.S. climate change policy may also change the world, far more than the deaths of Michael Jackson (I mean, seriously…) and even Neda Agha-Soltan, whose death may actually re-shape Middle East dynamics. At least climate change is finally on the legislative table where the Senate can knock it to the floor or take it up. So we may also remember a day later this year when the Senate helped give us a future in which global average temperatures only increased two degrees in this century, or in which hundreds of millions of people suffered climate-related dislocation, depravation and death. Your call, Senators…

So the Michael Jackson / Illahee Lecture connection? Simple. We just ended our season on Desire with a presentation on happiness (more in a subsequent post). And right on cue, we get a case study on happiness deficit disorder. Poor Mr. Jackson. Lots of money. (OK, lots of debt also.) Lots of friends, or at least admirers. Many reasons to be happy with his accomplishments. But as the surgeries and animal menageries and bizarre personal life attest, not a happy person at all.

Jackson probably never mattered much to most people reading this little essay. But we were all aware of him occasionally throughout his career. Admit it, you tried – and failed – to do the moonwalk, just as I did with my Colorado Division of Wildlife bird survey crew, drinking beer and horsing around the campfire by the Dolores River in the summer of 1983. How odd, that a bunch of knuckleheads falling all over themselves imitating the king of pop, living out of their trucks, being paid minimum wage for long hours, were happier at that moment than the real deal. Clearly we have a lot to learn about happiness.

And what about Neda, whose cell phone video has spread virally around the web? This speaks directly to our theme next year of power and change. Here’s a woman who, up until last week, was largely anonymous, like most of us. But now in death, her image, and just her first name – Neda – could eventually lead to the toppling of a dictatorship. A person with virtually no power, and terrible timing, acquires more power in death than she (or Michael Jackson, for that matter) ever had in life. How does this happen? What are the dynamics that disrupt systems and transform them or transfer power to another, and hopefully better system? We’ll try to figure that out next season.

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