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Varied responses on climate, praise for Arboretum and Ira, missing whom, and more.

Essential First Steps

I graduated from Ian McHarg’s inimitable course in Landscape Architecture at Penn in 1958 when the public was just beginning to hear about global warming and the impending environmental crisis. Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us and Professor McHarg’s weekly TV program The House We Live In gave impetus to environmental awareness.

Now, 60 years later, the global warming crisis is evident by the dramatic rise in sea level from the melting polar ice cap.

What your article “Mann in the Middle” [Jul|Aug 2023] calls Michael Mann’s “message”—that “it’s still within our power to save the planet”—presupposes finding a magical technical breakthrough, rather than changing our way of life. The impediment to finding such a technical solution is one of scope and cost, like carbon capture and storage, which Mann mentioned. Any resolution involving changing the planet’s atmosphere suggests a human engineering project dwarfing any ever attempted, and the costs thereof are not reimbursable.

As essential first steps:

Figure out a way to prevent the cutting down of trees in the five megaforests on Earth, to prevent the release into the atmosphere of vast encapsulated carbon.

Find a government or billionaire ready to buy out and close down the massive operations of the fossil fuel conglomerate and replace with solar and wind energy in the next 20 years or less.

Replace the worldwide projects to plant a trillion seedling trees on fallow land that have less than a 20 percent survivability rate with nursery grown saplings that have a near 100 percent survivability.

Change “the American way of life” that is “consumerism.”

If we cannot achieve these essential goals in our next half century, then it will not matter because we will be under water.

Henry F. Arnold LAr’58, Newtown, PA

We May Want to Change, Yet Still Be Unable To

Professor Mann, and the writer/editor, take a perspective that is part of the problem. To call the issue “How We Can (Still) Save the Planet,” as the text on the cover has it, misidentifies what needs saving. The planet is not going anywhere; it’s not the planet that’s at risk, it’s humanity. And to suggest that, if the planet did need saving, we’re capable of saving it is to grossly overestimate our agency.

This perspective is further reinforced in using the language of “climate crisis.” The climate is not in crisis; it has simply been adapting to our behaviors and adapting far better than us. In fact, it would be more accurate to say the climate is responding exactly as it ought to. And yet we use language that sustains a perspective that the problem lies “out there,” which unfortunately gives rise to exactly the kind of techno-solution fantasies that Professor Mann knows are illegitimate. “The environment” isn’t broken, though we and our systems may well be.

I support Professor Mann wanting to place the focus on systemic change and appreciate that he is ready to battle “the forces of inaction.” Unfortunately, I fear our scientists who have studied natural systems can sustain a level of optimism because they haven’t studied human-constructed systems—economies, governments, organizations, not to mention those places where they overlap and reinforce one another. Somewhere in the mix, among deniers and doomists and optimists, we need to make room for realists who know that large-scale systems change is not our strong suit. We may want to change, know we have to change, and yet still be unable to.

Ken Victor C’77, Chelsea, Quebec, Canada

An Optimist, Despite Ominous Events

I’m delighted to see Michael Mann featured in the Gazette. He’s been a role model as I photograph natural places in Florida, noting changes in the landscape. Despite the losses of habitat, wildlife, and plants, enough beauty remains to inspire me to continue this work.

My dad is also a role model. In 1922 he graduated from Penn’s medical school when the world was emerging from a pandemic. He set up his practice in West Philadelphia where he was sometimes paid in chickens and eggs. Days after Pearl Harbor he shipped out to the Pacific with the Naval Medical Corps. A doer and a fearless optimist.  

Lately I’ve been telling my doctor to keep me on the planet until I am 105 so I can see how humanity solves climate change, but suddenly in one year with the rise in temperatures I am catapulted into a future I thought was safely years away.

Despite this ominous turn of events, I remain an optimist. I will never be ready to abandon this beautiful planet. And I take comfort that a great university like Penn has the resources, including Dr. Mann, who can take on this crisis in ways which inspire and unite us and the world community.

Frances Knight Palmeri CW’63, Nokomis, FL

Woke Deception

Were I to place a copy of Michael Mann’s The New Climate War (2021) on my bookshelf between my copies of Fearnside & Holther’s Fallacy (1959) and Bernays’ Propaganda (1928), I’d have a complete guide to modern—aka progressive and/or WOKE—political, economic, and cultural deception. I knew it as soon as writer JoAnn Greco noted that “this ‘new climate war’ adopts the playbook of deflection campaigns mounted by the tobacco industry and the gun lobby.”

Stu Mahlin WG’65, Cincinnati

Problem is India, China, and the UN

Like my fellow well-known Wharton 1968 classmate, Donald Trump, I see excellent discussion, but no pragmatic solution. The problem is not the issue. There is climate change, and while there are deniers, the problem is India and China, and the United Nations. The United States does remarkably well and not necessarily through legal edict, but voluntarily. So, let’s figure a means that these rapidly developing huge countries accept responsibility and join in the solution. 

Michael Judge W’68, Canton, GA

Too Late, But We Should Keep Trying

Mann in the Middle” illuminates a conundrum and a reality that somewhat tie the hands—and affect the public statements—of many prominent climate researchers, newspaper columnists, professors, authors, and others who write about the environment and have jobs that link them to society’s best institutions.

Regarding the question of whether or not it is too late to meaningfully slow global warming—and the worsening catastrophes that will attend it—how could a high-profile professor or newspaper columnist write that it is too late?

As Michael Mann correctly notes in the article, there is no environmental “cliff” that we will fall off—there is no point in a graph of future temperatures or ecological deterioration beyond which we can or should say that it makes no sense to continue to try to limit CO2 emissions.

But focusing on the environment alone is a mistake because it is the biosphere’s steady deterioration that will trigger breakdowns in the infrastructure and workings of societies. As rising heat brings a host of wider and wider consequences, it will create chaos within larger and larger populations of people across the globe. That chaos will be substantial enough to end organized society. 

In that sense, it appears already too late. But articulating that conclusion is not “throwing in the towel,” as the article characterizes it. It is not pessimism or “climate doom porn,” either. It is a statement based on weighing the evidence of what real-world reforms and real-people capacities are capable of.

Admittedly, it is a difficult conclusion to hold, and even harder to state publicly—the dual idea that it is actually too late to save organized society, but that we should keep trying.

Brian T. Watson C’74 GAr’78, Swampscott, MA

The writer is the author of Headed Into the Abyss: The Story of Our Time, and the Future We’ll Face [“Briefly Noted,” Jul|Aug 2021].—Ed.

We Need to Learn to Adapt

I enjoyed the piece on Michael Mann and his thoughts regarding climate change, although I came away with mixed feelings. I have been following this subject for about 25 years and have come to the realization that the natural causes of climate change, involving variations in the amount of the sun’s energy that reaches the earth’s surface, have influenced the temperature to a far greater degree than the anthropogenic (man-caused) changes. We should take reasonable steps to minimize the anthropogenic contribution, but we will need to learn to adapt to a changing climate. This will be expensive and should be the top priority.

Dr. Mann’s focus is on alternatives to fossil fuels, and thus we disagree on where our resources should go. In the piece in the Gazette there is no mention of a role for nuclear energy, although my guess is that Mann supports wider use of this carbon-free alternative. We also disagree on the effects of CO2 on climate and on plant life. In geological history, CO2 levels have been substantially higher than those today. At times temperatures have risen following increases in CO2. At other times, CO2 levels have risen after temperature increases. Dr. Mann, in line with many statements in government and the media, has referred to CO2 as a “pollutant.” But plant life depends on CO2 for growth and has flourished with CO2 levels much higher than those today.

I am pleased to see Dr. Mann taking a place on the Penn faculty, providing a focus on “sustainability and the media.” I believe there is much confusion sowed in the area of climate science in US high schools, and professors like Michael Mann have work to do to remedy this. Regarding the media, it is a totally inappropriate use of the language when people like me are referred to as “climate change deniers.”

Thinking people do not deny that climate is changing. It always has been changing and always will. A look at the geological history over the last 20,000 years shows the massive changes in climate that have occurred, mostly prior to man’s intervention. Dr. Mann can also help with the misconceptions about the nature of CO2. It is not a pollutant but has been an important contributor to the flourishing of plants and the forest.

Nelson L. Fegley ME’64, Bumpass, VA

Article Provided No Answers

The cover of the Jul|Aug issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette states, “How We Can (Still) Save the Planet.” I could not find the answer in the article “Mann in the Middle.”

Simply put, I have learned nothing about the elements of whatever climate change means in a clear and specific way! The communications evolution from global warming is not addressed, and the two big words climate change must have a meaning for some; however, I cannot frame it or wrap my thoughts around what is apparently a concept as it is rarely defined below that level.

I am an amateur genealogist, and if I opened by telling you I research “my ancestors,” you would know little. I liken “my ancestors” to “climate change.” 

But if I told you my fourth great grandfather was the minister of the First Baptist Church in Philadelphia in 1782 and served from 1784 to 1791 in an ex officio capacity as a trustee of the University of the State of Pennsylvania (now the University of Pennsylvania), you would know a little more about the phrase “my ancestors. I could tell you much more of Pastor Ustick’s life as I would hope those professing “climate change” would do for their subject. 

Sadly, almost any written or verbal discussion of “climate change” does not go to specifics and how individually they affect the climate and us as humans. Perhaps the experts don’t know this and that is why they profess only at the “climate change” level, or perhaps they do not have the tools at their disposal to inform us—the general public.

Beach Carre W’62, Springfield, VA

Possible Panel?

Enjoyed “Mann in the Middle.” Also reading Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters by Steven E. Koonin (former undersecretary for science in the US Department of Energy under the Obama Administration).

Would the Wharton Climate Center and Kleinman Center for Energy Policy cosponsor a panel discussion with Michael Mann and Steven Koonin? This would be a great example of bringing “together policy and business leaders” for a climate conversation.

I would enjoy seeing.

Carl A. Gowan WG’80, San Rafael, CA

Refuge of Beauty and Delight

Thank you for your article on the Morris Arboretum and Gardens [“Birthday Blooms,” Jul|Aug 2023]. It has been a part of our lives for many years as a refuge of beauty and delight in every season.

Vicki Strigari Dawson CW’75, Philadelphia

Some Harkavy—and WXPN—History

The opening of the story about Ira Harkavy and the Netter Center [“Ode to Ira,” Jul|Aug 2023] brought back a unique memory from Spring 1969. At that time, WXPN was the student-run radio station (that’s a subject for another story or letter) located on the third floor of Houston Hall. When the College Hall sit-in began, we ran a wire across the courtyard from an open third floor window to College Hall and proceeded to record and broadcast the proceedings.

I distinctly remember Ira’s impassioned speech that ended the sit-in. It began with “The University has accepted the principle of community involvement …” WXPN supplied audio clips to Philadelphia-area radio and TV stations and later that spring prepared and broadcasted a one-hour documentary entitled The Peaceful Confrontation—University of Pennsylvania 1969. As the 50th anniversary approached in 2019, I presented an audio file to [the now professionally operated] WXPN-FM management as well as to the Penn archives. And I still have a copy of the audio file of that broadcast! At that time, WXPN was Penn to the world!

Richard Rivkin W’69, Deerfield, IL

More Coverage Expected

Having returned to Penn in May for my 50th Reunion, I was looking forward to the Jul|Aug 2023 edition of the Gazette to see the coverage of Alumni Weekend. As one of the two most important Penn events in May (along with Commencement), I expected much more coverage than the two-page photo collage that was accompanied by exactly zero words. No article, no interviews, and no acknowledgement of those of us who came back were included in this edition, which was 80 pages long, but I guess that Alumni Weekend wasn’t important enough to merit an article on a couple more of those pages.

Given that your target audience is Penn alumni, you need to do better for next year’s Alumni Weekend because we alumni think it is an important link back to Penn or we wouldn’t come.

Edward (Ward) Sproat EE’73 G’88, Frederick, MD

Egregious Error

I was discouraged as I flipped through the latest issue and saw the headline “Heritage for Who?” [“Gazetteer,” Jul|Aug 2023]. It is surprising that a magazine published by a world-renowned university would include such an egregious grammar error. Did no one notice during the editing and proofreading process that it should correctly read “Heritage for Whom?”

Alice Huffman Birch C’88 W’88, Woodinville, WA

Grammar Hammer Strikes (Gently)

Thank you for JoAnn Greco’s interesting story on World Heritage sites. Although I knew there were such sites, I didn’t know how the system works. Needless to say, I was not familiar with the difficulties involved that were pointed out. 

There was one aspect of the piece that caught my eye: the “Heritage for Who?” headline.

My initial reaction was to wonder why it didn’t read, “Heritage for Whom?”

However, it’s been a long time since the nuns required me and my fellow grade-school students to memorize a list of common prepositions. I also realize that languages change over time. So, I did some checking.

Fortunately, I still had my Harbrace College Handbook, 4th edition. It has several copyright dates, the final one being 1956.  It says, “Use the objective case for the object of a verb, a verbal, or a preposition.”

Following some examples of correct and incorrect usage, it continues, “Informal English is tending more and more to avoid the use of the objective whom, except when it comes immediately after a preposition, but in formal writing whom is still generally used for the objective case.”

Perhaps the “more and more,” when applied over six decades ends up with “nearly always.”

As a final check, I typed some words into Microsoft Word to see if the system would indicate a preference. It was happy with both “Heritage for Who?” and “Heritage for Whom?” When I tried “For Who is the Heritage?” the system said that “Whom” was better.

You might be interested to know that my children used to accuse me of being The Grammar Hammer.

John J. Landers WG’63, Bethesda, MD

A Rare Person, Teacher, and Mentor

It was with great sadness that I read about the passing of Dr. James Stinnett M’65 GM’70 in the Gazette [“Obituaries,” Jul|Aug 2023]. He was indeed a rare person, teacher, and mentor.

As an undergraduate, I was lucky to select an independent study with him to do medical research at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center. In the mid-1970s he was a young member of the psychiatry faculty and a shining star. He supported my work in many ways, teaching me the rudimentary aspects of psychiatric diagnosis and enabling me to apply my basic science knowledge and statistical skills to complete the research project and publish the work.

He was so much more than just a teacher. He nurtured my interest and supported my growth. He demonstrated the finest traits as a physician and became a model for the doctor I wanted to be. When I came to Penn, I was already interested in psychiatry; after my work with Dr. Stinnett it became a passion.

We remained in contact during my medical school years, and I had the pleasure of inviting him to present grand grounds at my psychiatry training program. Even after the passing of many years, I think of him often. He has been by my side in my own career in psychiatry for the past 38 years.

Mentors never leave you. They become part of your spirit and soul, always there to access throughout your life. Penn is not about the buildings or statues, but about the people you indelibly encounter. Dr. Stinnett is proof of that. How lucky I was, along with the thousands of other students, to cross his path.

Justin O. Schechter C’77, Old Fort, NC

Hope, and a Roadmap

“I didn’t know if you’d seen this. I remember your reverence for him.”

A friend wrote me this note when he sent me the news that Todd Haimes C’78, president/CEO of New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company, where I got my first job in New York after college, had passed away [“Obituaries,” this issue, “Curtain Up!” Nov|Dec 2021, “The Roundabout Way,” Nov|Dec 2015]. I put my head down and let two big tears roll down my face.

When I first started at the Roundabout, Todd showed me what was possible when you bet on yourself. Fresh out of college and not sure where my life or career was going, his example gave me hope, and a roadmap.

Todd went to the University of Pennsylvania for undergrad, as did I. He got an MBA, which I would get seven years later following his example. He knew his career was not on stage (he acted in only one play), but on the administrative side. The same was true for me as well. He often described himself as an orchestrator with a talent for getting the right people around the table and removing any roadblocks so they could create something incredible together. I think of myself that way, too.

Todd was the first person who helped me realize not only that I could love business and the arts equally, but that the two benefit one another. It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten in all the years since I worked at the Roundabout, and it’s been the basis for my entire career and life—to use rock-solid business principles to support creative endeavors.

When I found out Todd got cancer in his 40s, I was devastated. Then I was inspired because he kept going in spite of it—for 20 years!—and his star rose higher than ever. I also got cancer in my 40s during the pandemic, and again Todd’s example showed me what’s possible, even in the face of a difficult diagnosis. (I am thankfully now cancer-free.)

Though Todd physically left this world in April after his long battle with cancer, the energy, enthusiasm, and talent he wielded to completely transform Broadway theatre lives on in our beautiful city of New York, artistic communities all over the world, and the many people whom he inspired. Me included, of course.

They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway, wrote Weil and Mann. I say they shine brighter because Todd Haimes dedicated his life to making them so.

Christa Rose Avampato C’98, New York

What About Bednarik?

Dan Rottenberg describes James D. Dunsmore W’61’s unique feat of being “Penn’s Last 60-Minute Man” [“Letters,” Jul|Aug 2023]—but what about the last of the NFL’s great two-way players? Chuck Bednarik Ed’49? The No. 1 overall pick—from an Ivy League School, no less—starred at center and linebacker. He was a 10-time All-Pro, eight-time Pro-Bowl pick, and helped the Eagles win two of their three NFL titles. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in the first year of eligibility, 1967.

I was introduced to him as an eight-year-old, as a frequent customer of my father’s men’s store, The Varsity Shop. I recall he had the biggest hands I ever saw!

Jacqueline Zahn Nicholson W’62, Marietta, GA

AI Article Balanced Flaws and Promise

I really enjoyed your well-researched article on ChatGPT and academia [“Alien Minds, Immaculate Bullshit, Outstanding Questions,” May|Jun 2023]. I was able to share it with a number of my academic friends who are wary of the role of generative AI in teaching and evaluating students.

It strikes a good balance of pointing out the flaws and showing the promise; most articles tend to lean hard on one point of view or the other.

I especially loved the quote, “ChatGPT’s output seemed most interesting precisely when it was the least useful.” I work professionally with very accomplished AI experts, one of whom likes to say, “AI is best suited for the class of problems for what you don’t care whether or not you get the correct answer.” And as you well noted, ChatGPT can’t compete with the top one percent of the field, but it is an incredibly powerful tool, for people would otherwise have nothing of similar capability.

Thank you for the time you invested in writing it, and for not including any AI-generated content verbatim!

Phillip Remaker EAS’89, San Jose, CA

Wonderful Story of Penn and Home

This letter is sent to express gratitude to Penn undergrad Lila Dubois for a wonderful story [“Notes from the Undergrad,” May|Jun 2023] about memories of Penn juxtaposed with memories of home.

I have lived the majority of my life in the town in which I grew up. When my children were young, we’d walk the uptown Business District, and I would regale them with memories: “This spot used to be a hardware store; before that it was a shoe store!” My son was 11 before he summoned the courage to tell me, “Dad, no one cares.”

Yet, despite a life lived 800 miles away, every time we leave the Northwestern University basketball arena following one spectacular (and surprising) victory or another, I am always strangely compelled to tell him “Yeah, great game—but I remember a Penn–Princeton game at the Palestra …”

Thanks for the memories!

Matthew Arbit C’83 G’83, Highland Park, IL

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    1 Response

    1. Brian Suckow

      Tremendous Missed Opportunity to Educate on Trade Offs

      I was disappointed in the hagiographic portrait of Michael Mann in the Jul/Aug issue. It was a missed opportunity for much needed substantive discussion of complex climate issues. My engineering and economics professors at Penn taught me that effective policy involves making trade offs across multiple parameters. But this article didn’t provide any insights into how Mann suggests doing so.

      Instead of your focus on the “wars” between people with different perspectives, I had hoped to see at least some elucidation of practical initiatives and their costs and benefits. Doing so would have better equipped alumni to help advance Penn’s mission of “work that bridges the divide between knowledge and action”.

      I also found Mann’s critique of COVID-19 criticisms unintentionally ironic. This was a highly analogous situation in which zealots focused on optimizing only one variable (COVID-19 medical outcomes) and made no attempt to weigh this benefit against the policy’s many harmful impacts (society’s overall mental health deterioration, delays in treatment of serious medical conditions, students’ learning losses, small business survival, etc.).

      Critical thinking requires stripping out the emotions and understanding that there are no perfect solutions. The sooner we can start discussing what trade offs can gather broad support, the better for all of us.

      Brian Suckow
      MS Chemical Engineering 1981

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