Last Ride

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An aircraft carrier’s hangar deck, sans planes.

The shape of the Puget Sound is often likened by Navy personnel who spend time thinking about such things to the outline of a flaccid penis superimposed over the northwestern-most part of the continental United States. The farther directly up from the water body ones perspective, the more it resembles a phallus. But the closer in one gets, the less apt this comic observation seems. Zooming in, it gains texture, complexity, life. Boating on the Sound, it’s not rare to see orcas and seals and all kinds of avian life. It teems (less and less) with salmon, despite humanity’s best efforts to rid the world of these remarkable fish. It’s crustaceans serve as a bellwether for the ocean acidification crisis. Most of the world’s people will never see it laid out before them with such intimacy as sailors who deploy from the Navy stations in Bremerton and Bangor, about halfway between Seattle, which sits just north of the Sound’s crook, and Tacoma, perched on the Sound’s terminus.

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Sunrise and Canadian wildfires.

I’ve been out of the Sound on the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis more times than I can remember. Since the world wars, Bremerton, where the carrier is stationed, has been a staging point for much of the United States’s epic projection of power. (Strike groups sent from here have historically shown Southeast Asia and the Middle East the reach of American military hegemony, which is shockingly massive at larger than the 10 next-largest military powers in the world combined.) The Stennis’s 2016 deployment was part of this effort. Circling the contested Spratly Islands for nearly seven months, she thumbed America’s nose at China. But this last underway, my final in the Navy, only lasted a little less than three days.

To begin, my coworkers, jubilant at the warm weather, danced to rap music on a forward weapons platform, which juts from the side of the ship, as she navigated the Sound.

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Dancing on a launcher.

Sailors who helm the ship as officer of the deck say the transit is fraught. There’s one point where the carrier, whose flight deck is longer than three football fields, obscures all water, the bow seemingly pointing only at land before she must make an impossible sharp turn. The Stennis has never run aground, but I had never been on a Sound transit (or never having computed the physics), I’d deem it an impossible act.

The mountains were obscured by a haze from the wildfires that burned in nearby British Columbia. Radio stations and newspapers had spent the previous several days warning news consumers of the health risks posed by breathing in the toxins that flooded the air from the fires, whose intensity has been linked to climate change. But the air took on a magical quality, which to me signified the anesthetizing nature of such disasters – the frog in the pot of boiling water complex. In any case, such a broad topic didn’t matter; we had to make sure the ship could sail.

I belong to a division of fire controlmen (maybe I’ll address the inherent sexism in Navy nomenclature in a future post, but suffice the term for now). This job has nothing to do with fighting fires, a common misconception. We are essentially electronics technicians who specialize in “fire control,” a field that deals in any weapon that is more complex than a rifle, from a five-inch gun to the famous Tomahawk missiles, dozens of which the Trump administration fired at a Syrian air base early this year. My system, an aging self-defense apparatus developed by NATO nations, spans the entire ship from radars at the top of the superstructure to the launcher platforms sitting only 30 feet above the ocean surface. Our mission for this underway was determine the system could track and fire a missile at a target.

The Navy hired an aircraft (whose flight cost hundreds of thousands of dollars) to fly back and forth over the ship, testing the radars and computer systems that comprise the ship’s combat systems. I was at a computer monitor that displayed radar data and controlled its accuracy. When my radar hooked the target, I relayed the information to watch standers in the combat direction center (the blue room you see in movies that depict tactical sea warfare). During the hours-long war game, I read nearly 50 pages in Stephen King’s “It,” looking up occasionally to notify the central watch station of things like: “Track No. 801788 hooked at 30K yards, bearing 287, engageable.” And the watch stander would shoot. (The missile circuits were simulated – it’s too expensive even to test live NATO missiles anyway, which are no longer manufactured and run the Pentagon about $1.5 million apiece.)

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A NATO Sea Sparrow launcher.

It’s a boring job on an aircraft carrier; fire control is not a carrier’s mission. Her only reason for existence is to launch fighter planes. That’s for later when the carrier is called to the world’s destabilized places, where her aircraft will drop bombs on targets called out by ground forces, sometimes accurately.

I slept most of the rest of these three days, stood a brief maintenance watch, did some paperwork. Coming back, I discovered that a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the city’s decision to take down a statue of Robert E. Lee had ended when a 20-year-old white man rammed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, martyring a 32-year-old woman and injuring 19 others. If you live under a rock, the new President saw evil on both sides of the line.

Underway, we have internet feeds. We even have several daily news digests compiled by ship officers from several different publication, and these have a decent readership that includes me. Still, I have to catch up in the archives. I scanned a headline, early Sunday morning. But I heard nothing from anyone aboard about the violence, even when we had pulled in. They’ll probably talk about it at work tomorrow.

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Pulling into port.

That’s what I missed on my last ride, and when I reopened my Twitter feed when we pulled in, one day early, on Sunday morning, a wave of nausea hit me. The world is still out there. As much as we think it’s healthy or romantic to escape, it’s still there, and escaping it does nothing but put you behind the story. Maybe my last ride in the military should have meant more to me than missing the weight of a current event. Several FCs who left the ship during the 2016 deployment saw it as a turning point in their lives; they demanded shipmates celebrate with them in final port calls. I still have to work on the Stennis till early September, but this was my last ride.

Maybe it’ll mean more later. Maybe I’ll write more then.

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Not Hunting with Dad

I haven’t been hunting in years even though the practice holds great import in my family. It’s depressing in a way because my Dad is a hunter and he’s always wanted me to be one. He wanted me to be a hunter in the same way he wanted me to be a football gourmet, a man, as defined in hunting America. Instead, I became a socialist and a vegan – not a lifestyle that resonates in much of hunting America. Dad humbly, willingly, sadly let me go to these things, all of which he hates as a function of his somewhat backwards political views.

I once asked him the difference between the major political parties and he said, “The Republicans like small government and the Democrats want government to be more involved in your life.” This came with no small implication, though my teeter-tottering over time wouldn’t favor his side of things.

But the political stuff was only part-time; mostly, he wanted me to hunt. There was a practical element to this. Between lectures on his truck radio from Rush Limbaugh, there was work to be done. We had to feed the family. But it was also wistful and romantic. It was a man thing. He gave me his Dad’s favorite deer rifle after grandpa died. Nostalgically, he asks me every summer if I’m coming hunting in the fall. I never am. “I can’t hunt, Dad; I’m vegan, now.” It even goes against my convictions to help him dress out the meat.

Dad once had me and several other hunters wade across a creek, about knee-deep, in a snowstorm. We had to get to the herd up the other bank, who knew the miles – who cared? I was about 15. He led the charge and coaxed us across from the opposite bank. We didn’t have waders, only permeable hiking boots, bought at an army surplus. A cousin paced back and forth across the original bank to muster the courage for the plunge. We made it and killed elk.

Throughout my life, our hunting grounds included a ridge top a three-hour hike from the oversight of land managers and one year Dad and I ran across a flock of grouse milling stupidly in the underbrush. We had no bird tags but one is dinner and on this desolate ridge top what land manager would know? Under Dad’s deft instruction, I took aim through the scope on my 30.06 and delivered a slug through a bird’s neck, whose head flew into the underbrush. (Any hunter knows small game should be targeted with buckshot but here we were with no shotgun.) The survivors panicked into frosted ferns while their late colleague flapped violently on the ground for four or five minutes. In keeping with tradition, I thanked the Lord for the life of His creation and Dad later expressed such pride in my invocation that I still feel guilty and cynical that I since abandoned my faith.

Dad is not a tall man but he was big in a different way. Hunting, he wore an orange vest and a trucker cap, a .7 mm magnum rifle slung at his shoulder, gutting knife in a sheath at his waist. He looked bigger than mountains. One day, I watched him descend the ridge top to our campsite in his burly gait that would have seemed rushed or panicked were it not so deliberate. He had found the elk in the dark and, having been up hours before the sun, he was going to show us to the herd. He rallied the troops and we lit out. He was stoic about pain, apparently impervious to cold, heat, bumps, scrapes and the occasional mauling of his own flesh. He’d sometimes come home from work bleeding from a gash but confused where it came from. He once broke up a fight between a pit bull and a golden retriever and when the pit bull grabbed his fingers it didn’t let go until the digits were mangled. Hospital averse, he drank a little and had my kid sister mend his fingers with a sewing needle and green thread. He made his living finishing concrete, which ruins knees and backs and skin. For more than a year, he took chemotherapy and peripheral drugs for prostate cancer. The treatments left him covered in oozing boils and addled his psyche – he had trouble remembering which pills he had taken and how many. Asked how he was during this time, he’d consistently say, “Pretty good,” even if he was on the verge of tears, which he often was, driven nearly mad by the incessant itching of his skin condition.

I stopped hunting with Dad before I stopped marveling at his ability and motivation to keep things together. Growing up, I was becoming aware of mammon’s monument in American society and Dad moved a lot of it – he once estimated $1 million a year – through his concrete finishing enterprise. But he didn’t see much of it considering the substantial overhead of the construction trade. On top of this, he was not much of an accountant, often unaware of a payment’s origin or destination. Yet he seemed to always have enough money to make it work and then some. Several times, he let me use his credit card to order something expensive over the nascent world wide web and he would say, I’ll just pay it off this month. I’d have procrastinated.

I wasn’t at the time aware that my Dad was slowly establishing a foundation for bankruptcy, having taken out loans to pay for this or that. He bailed his employees out of jail so they could work the following morning or made foolish real-estate investments. He ran up credit card debt. He once bought a 25-foot recreational motor boat and spent months sinking money into refurbishing it. It always broke down on boating trips to Western lakes and he eventually sold it to a colleague. His finances were vague to me, as well as to my mom even though she would, as a wife does, come to hold great stake in those finances. Later, I helped him accomplish bankruptcy, asking him to cosign a private $10,000 college loan that likely contributed to downgrades in his credit score. I was 23 and suffering an alcohol problem. He couldn’t say no to me, even though he seemed to know what I would end up doing with the cash. I drank it all away.

Today, he has undergone the cancer treatments and knee and back surgeries and his burly, deliberate clip has become a weak, lumbering struggle for purpose that nonetheless seems without urgency or a goal. He has declared Chapter 7 and bemoaned the government taking some of his guns as repayment. He is trying, without success, to refinance his mortgage.

These developments were inscrutable in the fog of the future and perhaps that’s why I remember him as remiss in fatherly lectures on future responsibility. Fate wouldn’t be obvious for more than a decade. Having so far paid faithful homage to creditors, my Dad had for the time good credit and a business and a family. He ran the business. My mom home-schooled my kid sister and me for a dozen years. Both parents spent exhaustive afternoons paying bills and negotiating on the phone with people who controlled their purse strings, while my kid sister and I played with friends. We occasionally ate out but mostly, mom cooked. I dreaded the day when I would have to organize my life for myself in that way. It seemed so complicated, such a monumental task that I thought I would never be its equal.

We focused on immediate things.

On the hunting trip when I killed the grouse were my cousins Ryan and James, both professed agnostics from Dad’s side of the family; Ben, a budding evangelist; and Jesse, who professed biblical mores and occasionally sexually assaulted family members. Ben and Jesse were my mom’s blood nephews. Dad and I carried the bird back to camp and Ryan, who now runs a medical marijuana dispensary in Colorado Springs, helped me field dress it. It was peppered with sickly blue tumors and we discarded it.

Anyway, Dad’s not fully able to hunt anymore because of a recent back surgery and replaced knees, but don’t tell him that; he goes anyway, bagged his cow elk last year. He is a formerly intrepid man who’s now afraid of dying sedentary. So he makes sure to hunt every year against doctors’ better judgment.

I’m headed home next month, getting out of the Navy to live with my parents for a short time. Dad’ll ask me to hunt. I’ll say I can’t. And he’ll go alone.

Horses and Miracles

I don’t remember the horse’s name, but I’ll call him Tripp for the sake of this story. It seems a fitting name, considering what he put me through. 

The first time I saw him was in a dusty graveled parking lot at the edge of a sage field at the foot of a ridge that descended from a bigger ridge in Northwest Colorado. Tripp stood tethered lamely between two seasoned geldings, glancing sideways at each as if they’d eat him if he made the wrong move. The geldings simply looked annoyed that he’d come along. He was a good 500 pounds lighter than each of his compatriots, green broke, meaning he was just fresh from learning to have a human on his back. Hired from a nearby horse-renting outfit, this would be his first outing.

I was 15 or 16 and the second-lightest of our hunting party, which consisted of my kid sister, me, several men in their early 50s, including my dad, and several of my cousins in their mid-20s, who were tough enough to walk the trails. The horses were not meant primarily for riding; their job was to pack in gear and pack out the hundreds of pounds of elk flesh we planned to return from the hills. But before we killed any elk, their backs were less the heavy ungulate meat and could each bear a rider. The heavy elders of the group would take the larger, more experienced horses, and my sister and I would take turns riding Tripp.

The lower parts of the ridge were marked by heavy buck brush. As it gained thousands of feet in elevation, that brush was replaced by looming black timber interspersed with deciduous aspen stands, known as “quakies” for the way they dance in the wind. (Quakies are part of the largest living organism on the planet. Every tree in a stand is connected in one root system. The largest quaky stand, known as Pando, is visible from outer space.) This vegetation was cut by treacherously exposed switchbacks. The earth fell away from these deer trails to an expanse of air that hung silently over a vast and desolate network of lower-lying hills and arroyos stretching past the sage fields that surrounded the parking lot where we started. From here, the lot was a speck in the distance.

The horses, including Tripp, kept sure footing on the ascent.

We found a campsite in a brake of evergreens, bordered by a quaky stand, on one of the shelves that cut flat into the mountainside as we neared the crest. The site was occupied by the corpse of a black bear that we dragged into the brush. The flats of the top were a tangled of deadfalls and suck holes.

Scouting on maybe the second day, two of the men guided the two older horses through a deadfall, and I followed on Tripp. I remember wearing my .30-30 deer rifle across my back. The trail split. To the right, the horses would have to hop a downed evergreen, maybe a foot thick. To the left, the trail passed beneath another fallen tree that was suspended just high enough for a horse to walk under with no rider. The men took their horses to the right, and Tripp, eyeing the tree he’d have to clear, cut to the left preferring to go under. The evergreen on the left scraped me off onto my back into a pile of leaves. Tripp panicked into the underbrush.

The fall knocked my breath out, and I felt my back to find no rifle. A cousin ran over to see if I was okay, and he was holding my gun. I’d probably handed it to him before I mounted the horse and forgot to put it back on, but I took it in the aftermath of the incident as a Christian miracle that I wasn’t wearing it. Could it have broken my back? My cousin, a budding evangelist, did not hesitate to agree.

I was told to get back on the horse, and I did.

The rest of the expedition remains something of a blur. I don’t even remember if I killed an elk. I don’t really care.

Hunting, by tradition, is supposed to be enjoyable act. But it is a fraught exercise in my family, polluted by a decades-long string of bad experiences, each different, each worse from certain perspectives.

The next time I went to the same place with horses I was 24. My dad had convinced his sister’s new husband and the husband’s brother that they needed to kill an elk on this land. We camped in two RVs – one theirs, the other ours – in the parking lot and planned to hike to the top of the ridge every day.

The trail to the top of the ridge was bordered by private ranchland, and it was imperative to be aware of the borders as trespassing can yield heavy fines and jail time. But worse, public enforcement of private property rights can be overshadowed by a more immediate threat. People in the West idolize private ownership of things and to shoot someone for trespassing is not to eschew convention. It’s an accepted and inherent danger of being in mountains, and if one is not careful of boundaries she risks death.

The first day of the hunt, Dad convinced his enlistees that an elk they had spotted perhaps three-quarters of the way to the top was on public land, a legal kill. We were all badly hungover from a debauch the night before. They shot the elk, and it died on ranchland. To get to it, we’d have to trespass. Expressing discomfort, Dad’s brothers-in-law suggested we leave the elk to avoid being ticketed or shot. Feeling insulted, Dad took the horse and stormed off into the brush to harvest the elk alone. I tried to follow, and he told me to stay with the others. So we made our way back to the dusty lot over a period of several hours. It was almost dusk. Dad, having arrived long before us with the animal, had been drinking. He raved about loyalty and brotherhood, casting deep moral aspersions on their character for not having participated in the crime of harvesting the elk.

“Brothers don’t do that to each other!” he declared. He was so upset that he tripped and stumbled through a campfire he’d built. They gave no ground. 

“You’re a belligerent asshole!” one of the brothers-in-law concluded to Dad.

We split to our respective RVs, them with a bottle of Scotch. Dad guzzled a quart of tequila and insisted I go on a drive with him. I did, and, behind the wheel, he fumed the entire time about his convictions regarding trust between “brothers,” to Dad a hotly Christian concept.

I told Dad it was the drinking, and he’d probably not remember why he was upset in the morning. Morning rolled around and he did remember. Everyone woke early with drawn faces and agreed to part ways. Dad would stay by himself and keep hunting. His brothers-in-law would return home to the Front Range, near Denver. They wouldn’t talk for years until my aunt’s husband offered to help Dad install some wood flooring and they swallowed their differences. They didn’t solve them. They swallowed them. 

The previous mission comes back into focus in my brain when we were packing up camp, loading provisions and whatever meat we’d harvested onto the horses. Dad had me climb onto Tripp carrying a five-gallon water container that had a block of ice knocking hollowly around inside it. I was halfway on when Tripp, spooked by the rattling of the ice, bolted into the bordering quaky stand at perhaps 20 miles an hour. I latched on, sticking out sideways from the horse, and wouldn’t let go. Dad chased after us as the trees whizzed within inches of my skull, screaming for me to jump. After maybe 10 seconds that spanned at least 10 minutes, I did, rolling, sliding to a stop on the ground. I dusted myself off, mostly uninjured aside from some scrapes and bruises. We took it as a Christian miracle that I wasn’t knocked unconscious or killed by a passing aspen. 

Dad had me back on the horse in a few moments, and we made our way back to the lot.

Clarification on Philippine Economic Growth

Donald J. Trump said something truly bat-shit stupid about the economy during his prominent Oval Office interview with editors at the Wall Street Journal that took place last month.

To establish context: it is widely accepted as fact, or at least as historic trend, among economists that when a country reaches a certain stage of social development, it doesn’t have as much room as it once did to grow economically. Once a country reaches its ceiling, its “developed” stage, a high economic growth rate doesn’t necessarily help people. As noted last year by the Atlantic’s Alana Samuels: “[D]espite a growth rate that has averaged three percent over the last 60 years (which is quite robust), there are still 43 million Americans living in poverty …” She goes on: “the median income of households in 2014 was 4 percent lower than it was in 2000, despite positive economic growth in all but two of the years during that time period.” In fact, a low growth rate can be considered preferable to a higher one; when a developed economy experiences a drastic spike in economic growth, as has happened from time to time in the United States, it is a pretty good sign of a bubble that is about to burst and leave a lot of unfortunate souls in the lurch. (It probably also heralds golden parachutes for those who designed the bubble.) Simply put, the country has grown into its adult britches, and those britches just need to be washed or patched or tailored every now and again.

Conversely, a country that lives mostly in poverty, i.e. is in the “developing” stage, has lots of room to grow. These countries experience – along with with often staggering levels of social instability, unrest, even violence – fast economic growth, sometimes exceeding 6 percent.

To give a sense of the mind-boggling nature of exponents, French economist Thomas Piketty included in his 2013 book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” a graph plotting what he called the “the law of economic growth.” His exponent shows that a 1 percent growth rate, sustained over a millennium, increases a figure by a factor of 20,959 percent. That for 2.5 percent is 52,949,930,179. He couldn’t include the number for 5 percent on his graph because it wouldn’t fit. (76)

With that in mind, here is what Trump said, as noted by Slate’s Jordan Weissmann, during Trump’s WSJ interview.

So I’ll call, like, major – major countries, and I’ll be dealing with the prime minister or the president. And I’ll say, how are you doing? Oh, don’t know, don’t know, not well, Mr. President, not well. I said, well, what’s the problem? Oh, GDP 9 percent, not well. And I’m saying to myself, here we are at like 1 percent, dying, and they’re at 9 percent and they’re unhappy. So, you know, and these are like countries, you know, fairly large, like 300 million people. You know, a lot of people say—they say, well, but the United States is large. And then you call places like Malaysia, Indonesia, and you say, you know, how many people do you have? And it’s pretty amazing how many people they have. So China’s going to be at 7 or 8 percent, and they have a billion-five, right? So we should do really well.

But in order to do that – you know, it’s tax reform, but it’s a big tax cut. But it’s simplification, it’s reform, and it’s a big tax cut …

The United States, stepping into the dominant global economic role, grew quickly after World War II (but also partially as a result of FDR’s deficit spending). It’s filled up the niche. There’s no room to grow. Trump’s economic gibberish doesn’t comport with reality. And the third-world countries he cited are growing at a breakneck pace to catch up with the developed world. Growth rate has much less to do with a country’s population than it does with a country’s level of social advancement.

Anyway, that’s what got me thinking about my last post, in which I compared the economic growth of the Philippines and that of the United States:

The growth rate for gross domestic product [in the Philippines] was 6.1 percent in 2015 and 6.9 in 2016, a staggering number. Compare it to 2.6 and 1.6 in the United States respectively.

I didn’t note this subject’s nuance in the way it deserves. But I wanted, in light of the president’s statements (and my tweet of the Weissmann piece), to clarify why I used this comparison. There are three important distinctions between the president’s statement and mine. The first is that I did not use the comparison to justify a massive tax giveaway to the wealthy, which his economic policies call for. The second is that I used the United States’s growth rate as an example of relatively fast growth in the longview of history; global economic growth sat at less than 0.1 percent for most of economic history. (Piketty, 73) Though politicians generally remain antsy until economic growth approaches 3 percent, the 1- to 2-percent level is quite enough for a vibrant – even unsustainable and perhaps dangerous – long-term economic prosperity. In that light, the comparison is apt, though I should have further explained it in the post. The third pass I give myself is that I used the growth rate to illustrate the Philippines as a state lost in the throes of various economic, social and environmental crises. It was not a cherry-picked figure to insinuate, as the president did, that the United States is losing out in the global economy. Though it’s lost a bit of steam, the United States is not lagging the third world.

Still, I could have been clearer.

P.S. Read “Capital.”

Plastics in the Philippines

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The USS John C. Stennis anchored in Manila Bay.

​At the beginning of last year, the World Economic Forum (WEF) published a report that provided a sobering perspective on global plastics use. One particularly disturbing item it detailed, as noted in the Washington Post, was that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans if current trends hold strong. “Islands” of trash float in the seas’ gyres, vast whirlpools that swirl in the crooks of ocean currents. National Geographic describes the waste patches as comprised of a “cloudy soup” of microplastics that have broken down and accumulated in the eddys, which are sometimes bigger than large countries. Seventy percent of the material, which includes not only plastic but all kinds of human garbage, sinks to the ocean floor, so it is virtually impossible to measure the volume of the debris. The largest plastic island spans the entire breadth of the Pacific Ocean.

​That’s the open ocean. More concentrated garbage depositories fester in some of the world’s ill-regulated ports. Some nautical miles offshore in Manila Bay in summer 2016, my Navy aircraft carrier dropped anchor, and particulate plumes rose and spread on the polluted water’s surface like cream in coffee after a spoon drops into the cup. Sailors boarded a rickety port transit vessel for a choppy 45-minute ride to a bangin’ party on the concrete pier and all over the city. The whole journey in, no fish were visible in the water, only incredible tangles of plastic like noodle soup stretching across the Bay. The water to the horizon was littered with illegal fish traps.

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Manila Bay’s trash soup.

Solid pollution is hardly the only kind off the shores of Manila and its suburbs. In the Bay, fuel spills are commonplace, prominent ones happening at least every decade. In August 2013, the Philippines’ largest refining operation, Petron Corporation, leaked half a million liters of diesel into a 300-square-kilometer area just offshore, creating a rusty slick. Activists demanded the responsible facility in Rosario be shut down. The government banned fishing in the Bay and deployed patrols that enforced the ban, affecting the livelihoods of tens of thousands of fishermen.

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Manila Bay’s shipping lanes.

The Bay is famously congested with shipping traffic. In 2014, Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada had to suspend the city’s daytime truck ban for eight days to clear the port of cargo loads that had stacked up ahead of a WEF meet. Though the country is party to an impressive array of international environmental accords, Philippine efforts to embrace environmental rules historically lag the needs of its ecosystems. For example, it was only 2015 when the Philippines agreed to the ambitious international regulatory framework known as MARPOL 73/78 (formulated by the UN’s International Maritime Organization in 1973, updated in 1978 and fully implemented in 1983), which limits the ways and amount ships can pollute the world’s oceans and ports. Academic study of Manila Bay consistently finds high levels of pollutants in the water body. The pollution is so bad that it alters the chemistry of the water. This can spur drastic increases in phytoplankton populations known as “red tides” for the crimson blankets they create on the ocean surface. These phenomena choke out other forms of life, including sea grass, which is a vital habitat for ocean fauna.

On the trek into port from the aircraft carrier, I didn’t know whether the swirling plastic was denser on this particular path than in other parts of the delicate ecosystem here. The only visible structures were the ship we had left, the largest Philippine cityscape ahead and the smattering of fish traps.

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A fish trap.

These sights made the Bay seem constricted to our own little experience, but the Bay is in fact one-third again bigger than Houston. It is a complex and misunderstood place, despite the effort that goes into understanding it. It has mudflats and sandy beaches and mangroves and coral reefs and hundreds of species of birds. If there’s something scientists and activists who care about the Bay have tried to tell people it’s that the critical and fragile ecosystem can and should be revitalized. Three years before my ship’s port call there, officials from Greenpeace and the University of the Philippines publicly encouraged the Philippine government to aggressively attack the Bay’s environmental woes.

The government should attack those of the rest of the nation, too. Some the most pressing social concerns that face the country are environmental. The CIA World Factbook notes the following: “uncontrolled deforestation especially in watershed areas; soil erosion; air and water pollution in major urban centers; coral reef degradation; increasing pollution of coastal mangrove swamps that are important fish breeding grounds.”

On land, there are other problems.

On the pier outside the Mall of Asia, the world’s 11th largest shopping mall, some coworkers and I hailed a cab and negotiated fare to our hotel, some miles inland. The name on the driver’s card was Jeremy, but he said “Call me J.” He had to put his beater sedan in third gear to make it up the hills on the highway. 

​If Bay congestion is considered an economic nuisance, Manila’s packed byways are a catastrophe. The thoroughfare we drove on, known as the C4, six jumbled lanes across, was choked with more cars than I’ve ever seen. The infrastructure was crumbling and much of the road was lined with hastily constructed building facades advertising massage parlors, lawyers and tire services. Billboards insinuated local political candidates. (President Rodrigo Détente, who has since waged a barbaric drug war that has killed thousands of people, had just been elected and it was all anyone could talk about.) These signs were blackened by a thick highway dust and there was little or no sidewalk. I couldn’t tell how a person would patronize any of the businesses, but the buildings crawled with people. There was no apparent parking. The only pleasantness was the vivid flora that encroached on these structures, peeking through cracks and climbing the sides, a constant and oddly calming reminder that if the population stopped growing for one second the forest would take over.

​ The highway ducked over hills and into valleys and the going was slow, and the whole time J tried to solicit more services. He’d overcharged us for the cab ride and seemed convinced he could continue taking advantage.

​ “I be your escort all night, I get ladies, very sexy, very beautiful. I take you to best bars, no lady-boys. Stay away from clubs near Dusit Thani [our hotel], they are full of lady-boys.”

​ Our hotel came into view over the next hill, a Philippine lodestar of modernity and exclusion. It was the tallest building in its part of the city and was surrounded on all sides by flat, upscale shopping malls. There was a Buffalo Wild Wings and a Marks & Spencer. J let us off at the hotel. ​We politely took his phone number and furtively cast it away. 

Mustachioed, important-seeming men in short khaki shorts and thin white button-ups, sleeves rolled, escorted equally relaxed families through the lobby. The wives wore expensive sundresses, the children vacation garb to match their parents.

A coworker and I had booked an “Executive Club” room and the concierge took us to the sixteenth floor on the elevator and got off and told us we had to board a “transfer elevator” to the check-in floor. Our room had two toilets and two plasma televisions that played cerebral English-speaking Asian new stations. There were 800 square feet and a free massage. Inside, there were marble floors, outside, granite tables. During happy hours, the bars charged 590 pesos (about $12) for bottomless drinks and the room included a breakfast buffet at the lobby restaurant, The Pantry, which served exotic food, some of which I couldn’t identify, to guests in padded armchairs. There was fresh-squeezed fruit juice and suckling pigs roasting on spits. There were mimosas and bloody marys and screwdrivers and beer and the locals wanted us to drink. We did. It was the top of the world, which we’d never get to in the United States on an enlisted military salary.

​ The previous time a carrier pulled into Manila several years prior, a drunken marine enlisted the service of a transgender prostitute and when he discovered the nature of the goods, he murdered her and left her bloodied corpse in a hotel bathroom. Courts recently upheld the marine’s conviction on the charge of homicide, which, in the Philippines, does does not entail malicious intent. 

Though Duterte is cooling to the Philippine relationship with the United State favoring better relations with China, the Philippines is no stranger to foreign militaries. It has been occupied by Western nations for most of its history. Spain controlled it from the 16th century until 1898, when the United States wrested the archipelago in the Spanish-American War. (Many Filipino families carry on Hispanicized surnames.) The country’s more than 7,000 islands are poised at the locus of global commerce, conveniently sandwiched between Japan and the South China, Sulu and Sulawesi seas. For a country the media has aggressively and thoroughly labeled “third-world,” the Philippine economy, though tight, is quite stable, according to the Factbook. The Philippines has enjoyed a budget surplus for 14 consecutive years. The growth rate for gross domestic product was 6.1 percent in 2015 and 6.9 in 2016, a staggering number. Compare it to 2.6 and 1.6 in the United States respectively. This breakneck pace and relative economic stability does little to mask the vast wealth gap. While money flows into the pockets of the wealthy, the poor languish. More than 20 percent of the country lives in poverty, and we could smell the strata wafting from the kitchens of The Pantry.

One morning, we got to know our poolside bartender, a dogged man, probably 45, who worked extra so he could send his daughters to special schools in Japan. He worked this bar and a number of other locations around town. Short, barrel-chested, mustachioed and well-dressed, he tended to American Navy women in the pool who demanded their whiskey and Coke, though the full bar was not open yet. He personally brought the drinks from up from the downstairs bar. He did everything we wanted. I tried to help by taking my beers at the bar instead of having him bring them. He had not seen his daughters in years. One of our younger sailors tried to give him business advice.

I drank single malts with a friend on the hotel’s top-level floor, the Executive Club. My friend longed for his pregnant wife, and we focused on personal, simple things. I was at the top of the system. I can’t understand tiers above me in America, at which some don’t sweat their next leer-jet purchase.

Sixteen floors downstairs on the street, a snaggletooth man peddled prostitutes outside a convenience store where we purchased our liquor. 

“I can get you girls, good-looking girls, send them to your room. What is your room number?” he asked us.

Weathered by time and hardship, he marveled how I could afford not to sweat a few nights in the Dusit Thani Executive Club. The layers in the economic spectrum don’t end. It’s a punch in the gut to realize that you live at the surface, on top of almost everyone.

Capitalism in Singapore

Every day of the five I was there, the Singaporean heat would break in the early afternoon and heavy clouds would spend themselves in 30-minute torrents. The clouds, lifted of their burden, gave way to sun only after double-digit drops in temperature. I smelled the connection between the daily release and the greening project undertaken by the successful Singaporean postcolonial project. It seemed as if the millions of leaves that line the city’s plant-draped buildings were engineered to breathe the heat away.

There was no apparent underbelly here, like one would expect in a metropolis of more than five million people. With two comrades on longboards in tow, I rollerbladed the length and breadth of the Republic of Singapore, criss-crossing any number of times and directions from the expat districts, for several days. Land reclamation projects jutted from the clouds that shrouded the body of the island. Towers were prominent, but they didn’t loom like a Western skyscraper. The buildings seemed more subtly embedded in the largely artificial cityscape, draped in gowns of lush vertical green, a man-made rainforest, more felt than imposed. It is a gorgeous city, which, presiding over the world’s largest economic thoroughfare, boasts a rich history.

The city-state succeeded a European occupation that started in the early 16th century with the Portuguese and ended in 1963 with the foundering British colony (which was interrupted by a short Japanese cut-in during World War II). The local successors did well, economically speaking. The Singaporean economy “depends heavily on exports, particularly of consumer electronics, information technology products, medical and optical devices, pharmaceuticals, and on its vibrant transportation, business, and financial services sectors,” the CIA’s World Factbook says. Economic metrics are stronger in Singapore than in other developed nations, as the state props up the market economy. It enjoys the seventh highest GDP per capita in the world, the Factbook says.

My wheeled friends and I noticed some gentrification to be sure, the tonier areas populated by lighter-skinned holdovers from European rule and the seedier ones by brown-skinned Singaporeans (ethnic Chinese, Malay and Indian) who smoked cigarettes and sometimes missed teeth. The city’s industrial aspects were not apparent as we rolled through the poorer areas. My colleagues and I ducked into shops where they served cuttlefish porridge and Tiger Beer, the local version of Budweiser, or braised duck with pickled eggs and Hoegaarden, a 500-year-old Belgian wit popular the world over, but cheap in every country except the United States. Singaporean culture was decidedly lower class in these areas, but here, where a modicum of trash was sometimes detectable on the otherwise immaculate streets, the locals we encountered always smiled, and if they had fewer teeth, they still always had money. No one begged for change.

The city-state is about as advanced as a society can become. This level of social evolution is particularly palpable in the city-state’s birth statistics. It has the world’s fourth lowest infant mortality rate, at 2.4 deaths per 100,000 live births, compared with the United States, which comes in at 56th place with 5.8 deaths per 100,000 live births. The Factbook lists Singapore as the state with the world’s slowest birthrate at .82 children per woman. (This is up from .79 some months ago.) Given that to keep a population constant, each woman should have around 2.3 children, there are grave social security implications in this number. Still, it is a sign of advancement. World demographics generally show countries with higher levels of economic and social development have lower birthrates. The Factbook lists Africa’s Niger with the highest fertility rate, at more than six children per woman.

There’s nuance to this social evolution, of course. Singapore has some utterly draconian rules, some enforced by public caning and jail time. Singaporean byways are protected from errant lugies by threat of imprisonment for any spitter. The same punishment is wielded for chewing gum. Visiting military commands drill this into service members during port-call briefs. Other edicts are more serious than the spitting and chewing dictates. Don’t get caught having gay sex, or go to jail. Drug and arms trafficking are punishable by death. If a sailor winds up in jail, she must stay there, as the United States lacks a status of forces agreement with Singapore. Saying it’s a fraught experience might be too much, but one should tip-toe.

There are what could be considered eyesores. The shores are lined with barges stacked with massive hills of dredged or imported sand. Incessant building projects are bordered by fences with signs threatening prosecution for trespassing. The vestiges of land reclamation projects from throughout the country’s relatively short history dot the island like pockmarks. The conspiracy theorist in me assumed the Singaporean government had the poor bussed out of the city proper to some obscure reclaimed wasteland. In a slick economy fueled almost solely by the trendiest technology and upscale market speculation, nearly a quarter of the land is artificial, and Singaporean engineers are busily studying ways to take more land back from the sea. A recent New York Times Magazine piece written by journalist Samanth Subramanian noted: “Land is Singapore’s most cherished resource and it’s deepest ambition.”

A beacon of the “leveling power” of Western-style capitalism, Singapore is one of four Asian Tigers, with consistent gross domestic product growth of 7 percent from the 1960s, after Britain lost its control of the country, until 1990. (The other three Asian Tigers are Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan.) That economic growth sits around 2 percent today, a relative slump that no doubt sparks envy in the hearts of Western capitalists, regardless of the relativity.

Those who can afford to own a car, considering the 100 percent tax on vehicles, are few – only 15 percent of Singaporeans drive. But those who do drive, drive shiny, expensive sedans. There’s a strong public sphere, an incredible public rail line and a sense of wellbeing. The markets and malls are always full of patrons. There’s a strict ban on any type of weapon. There’s a “sky park” atop the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, a massive edifice that caps the tops of three downtown skyscrapers with a pricy admission fee and $50 burgers and an Olympic-size swimming pool. This goliath was built, like many Singaporean landmarks, on reclaimed soil.

But something is amiss. Subramanian wrote, “The country is so devotedly pro-business that it can feel like a corporation; it’s constitution includes several pages on how the government’s investments should be managed.” After a few days there, this sterility becomes apparent in the transactions a visitor has in the swanky bars in the expat districts that employ elevator-style bands covering American folk rock and serve cuisine designed to mask, for residents and tourists alike, the social and economic impediments of Singapore’s global region.

It’s a broad truth that lavish lifestyles are built on the backs of the global poor. Perched on the Strait of Malacca, the island embodies the intersection of commerce and environment, and there’s an economic and environmental cost to Singapore’s serenity. A great place to start looking for this cost lies in the Strait and in neighboring Malaysia, of which Singapore used to be part. The countries parted ways in economic philosophy decades ago, and Singapore has gotten the better end of the deal. Malaysia struggles, while Singapore does not.

The Strait, which separates Singapore from Malaysia, is impossibly full of massive ships. It’s the busiest trade route in the world. Naturally, there’s more piracy – another crime of desperation that can yield the Singaporean death penalty – in the Strait than anywhere else in the world, including the infamously pirate-infested trade routes that pass Somalia. Closer to home, there’s a swelling human trafficking trade, often patronized by the American military. We’re told at length before every port call to eschew soliciting prostitutes, a practice that comes with dire consequences if you’re caught. Still, one of my longboarding compatriots dipped into a massage parlor for an hour while the other and I drank beer and felt uncomfortable about the situation until our prodigal friend returned with a smile.

But the meat of Singapore’s opaque, illicit substrata are more fundamentally economic and environmental. This elaborate, shining city-state consumes at breathtaking pace. The Factbook says Singapore imports the 15th largest amount of crude oil in the world, at more than 830,000 barrels every day (compared with more than eight million for the United States, which is the world’s largest importer). This is notable, considering Singapore has only the world’s 114th largest population. Some materials that help put Singapore at the forefront of world exports come from toxic mining operations and manufacturing processes that harm global citizens in distant lands who haven’t the means to defend themselves against neoliberalism. Public officials here are obsessed with encroaching on an ocean that threatens to inundate its low-lying terrain. Subramanian wrote a third of the land is lower than 16 feet above sea level. The Singaporean government has affixed a concerted effort – which other low-lying cities are sure to emulate – to keep the city afloat as global warming raises the sea level. It is building creative locks and dams, reclaiming land from the sea, a nearly two-century project, initiated by the British and continued by the Republic of Singapore, that grows more urgent year by warming year. Subramanian, whose story focused on the island’s efforts to stay afloat in rising seas, noted that the biggest worry of Singaporean officials is maintaining the size of the island.

Singapore seemed, like the United States, quite intent on bettering the lives of its own. I think Singapore does a better job of it. But that’s not really the point. The point is locating the threshold where bettering the living standard for people who already have an excellent living standard is no longer excusable. Where is the moral tipping point at which a country can no longer support the industries that create utopia at home and cause havoc abroad? Within the capitalist market economy on which the world turns, it’s at the top of the infant survival rate. And it’s only a matter of physics and time before Singapore’s growth becomes untenable. Wrote Subramanian:

But the desire to reclaim never-ending shelves of land, farther and farther into the sea, will inevitably be outfoxed by physics. On a whiteboard, [Assistant Chief Executive of the Jurong Town Corporation David] Tan drew me a diagram of the process: first, building a wall in the water, reaching all the way down into the seabed; next, draining the water behind the wall and replacing it with infill. As the ocean grows less shallow, it becomes harder and harder to build the wall, to stabilize the infill, to protect it all from collapse. “We’re already reclaiming in water that is 20 meters deep,” Tan said. “Maybe it would be viable to reclaim in 30 meters, if land prices go up. But 40 and 50 meters would be very difficult. It’s physically difficult and economically unviable.”