The Word “Nature” Just Doesn’t Do the Job

Screen Shot 2016-07-29 at 4.24.47 PM

Introductory Note

This essay was originally posted in early 2015.  It was subsequently removed from the blog while it was being submitted for publication.  It is being reposted here since the editors of the publication to which it was submitted were unable to find it space.

Lewis Lapham, Editor emeritus of Harper’s magazine, usually chooses single trenchant nouns (“Death”, “Eros”, “Intoxication”, etc.) as titles for his wonderfully eclectic periodical, Lapham’s Quarterly.  But he chose to call Volume 1 Number 3 The Book of Nature.  Why would an experienced editor add those extra words?

I  believe it is because the word “nature” alone is vague and vapid.  What if there were a single word for all perceptible colors and sound?  Even the sub-vocabulary devoted to nature is impoverished and, frankly, obfuscating.

The three section headings of The Book of Nature hint at the scope of the problem:  “Howling Wilderness”, “The Gardens of Earthly Delights” and “Terra Incognita”.  But there could have been more:  Mother Nature, Human Nature, Human as a Small Part of Nature, Nature as that which Does Not Need Humans, Nature as Opposed to Humanity, The World Without Us, The Universe Including Us, The Sound of Wind Blowing, Mountaintop Sun, Birthing and Dying.  The list goes on. When we say “nature” what are we talking about?

Much of the time, “nature” means that part of the world which occurs independent of man.   Federally designated Wilderness Areas are supposed to be big chunks of it. Grass growing in sidewalk cracks is a bit.  A typical summer thunderstorm certainly is.  A hyperhurricane fueled by global warming – well that’s a tough call.

And what about the fellow who shot the last wild passenger pigeon?  Was he destroying nature or just playing a part in it – just like that meteor which altered the planet’s climate and wiped out the dinosaurs.

Back in prehistory, when language was emerging and the human species consisted of a few thousand tribes teetering on the edge of extinction, it probably made some sense to draw a bright line between us and everything else.   Everything else there was and everything else that was happening. Nowadays of, course, unless you’re out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean (and. while you’re at it, steering clear of the pile of plastic in the North Pacific Gyre) or alone in the Amazon basin or the Siberian steppe, it’s pretty difficult to find a view or experience an event devoid of all human influence.  Walking in the New England woods you find yourself hopping over stone walls which, once upon a time, separated farmers’ fields; experience a near fatal accident and it’s much more likely to be an automobile straying over the center line than a pouncing carnivore.  And even the Great American Frontier explored by Lewis and Clark is being understood more and more as an environment significantly altered by the first Americans.

Nature as something entirely independent of humankind now comes in bits and pieces.  More and more it is a mercurial concept and not an actuality – unless, of course,  you include mankind as an integral part.  In that case nature is everywhere and everything – but then what is the stuff that is non-us?  What are the grand vistas, the silent soaring forests, the coral reefs, the migrating birds, the sparkling night sky?  As I said, the word lacks precision and the vocabulary around it is impoverished.

The problem is not trivial.  While Whorfianism – the old idea that thought was shaped by language – has been pretty well debunked, more recent thinking by philosopher Jerry Fodor in his book The Language of Thought, suggests that words function as a kind of mnemonic helping us formulate and call to mind memories of complex ideas.  So there is work to be done.

E.O.Wilson, the Pelligrino University Research Professor, Emeritus  in Entomology at Harvard, and a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction has been hard at work on the problem for years.  In 1984 he introduced the concept of “biophilia” in his book by the same name.  Wilson defines biophilia as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life”.  Maybe having that word isn’t entirely responsible for the idea of feeling close to other living things, but it does seem to highlight the fact that it’s a generalizable phenomenon.

Back when Lapham was still Editor in Chief of Harper’s Magazine an article by him appeared in the February 1990 edition.  It was called “What’s the Word For…..?”  In it Lapham, striving to introduce “….new words to make sense of new circumstances and relationships…..with the hope of filling the lacunae in today’s dictionary,”  asked “an assortment of English speakers – politicians, writers, actors, union organizers, musicians and miscellaneous wordsmiths – to identify those meanings they thought absent from the common lexicon…” and “….coin an appropriate neologism.”  Conspicuously absent from that assortment were any ecologists, conservationists or natural scientists.

To address this oversight  – and also just for the fun of it – here are some neologisms which might have appeared in that article had Latham not ignored those noble and underpaid professions.  Like all good neologisms, they may serve the purpose of expanding our thinking about or at least make it easier to recall certain aspects of nature:

Bewonderment – The feeling of awe and reverence in the face of a  non-human phenomenon such as the Grand Tetons or a wildebeest migration.

Extrospection – Moving ones consciousness outside oneself and one’s species to become part of the non-us.

Delerium terrers – The distress experienced by someone who craves natural beauty but has just spent the past five days working in an office cubicle.

Landscrape – A landscape following large scale mineral extraction.

Populution  – Problems created by an abundance of humans ignorant of the need to cherish the environment.

Infiniterror – The mistake of believing that a resource or non-human entity is limitless (think passenger pigeon or giant redwood or codfish)

Allospecexion – A technical term for sensing a connection with a member of a different, typically non-domesticated, species. May refer simply to the emotional impact  of a close physical encounter with a wild animal.  A subcategory of biophilia.

Domesticexion – A subcategory of allospecexion relating to a pet.

Knorght – An ugly or disgusting natural occurrence: maggots in the face of a decaying corpse, the odor of the giant flower of Amorphophallus titanum, the mucus layer of eels.

Williwild –  An encounter with nature-engendered fear:  being lost alone in the woods as night falls or adrift in a lifeboat as a storm approaches

Morzored – Killed or injured by a natural event:  attacked by a tiger, drowned.  May apply to inanimate objects: a town morzored by a landslide; a vehicle mozored by a falling tree branch.

Fulfillaction – The feeling – perhaps hypothetical – engendered in an organism when it is successfully performing an act for which it has specifically evolved in a hospitable and familiar environment:  The satisfaction experienced by a peregrine falcon as it strikes it’s prey after a 200 MPH dive over open ocean or by a human in a protected and comfortable space discovering a new use for a material. (Note – when an individual is morzored by a member of a different species, it often results in fulfillaction on the part of the individual who did the morzoring.)

Debeingation – Physical or spiritual destruction of a creature by a member of another species:  a gazelle killed and eaten by a leopard, an elephant forced to perform in a circus. Debeingation is often a result of being morzored.  (Physical destruction of a creature caused by another of the same species is called sacrifice or murder.  Spiritual destruction within the same species is called slavery.)

Hyperdebeingation – Destruction of one entire species by another.

Since originally posting this essay, I have come across a wonderful book by David Lukas called Language Making Nature.  This scholarly but eminently readable book explores the history of neologination and urgently advocates for the making of new words to enrich our perceptions and descriptions of nature.  In it, Lukas implores the reader to consider making new words a hobby – sending them out into the world in hopes that some will  “go viral” and eventually end up in common usage.  Whether one goes on to read Lukas’s book or not, I invite readers to let their imaginations soare and add some of their own wildewerds in the comments section.

Advertisements

Why Keep the Aliens Out ?

wordsworth-lonely-daffodils1-500x334       Caterpillar on dogwood

I have nothing against daffodils, really.  They did, after all, inspire Wordsworth to write one of the best-known poems in the English canon. He and the other 19th century Romantics reminded us of the tremendous spiritual potential of nature. We need that more than ever these days to inspire us to reverse all those unintended consequences of population growth and the industrial revolution.  And I know it’s risky to quibble with one of Romanticism’s best beloved poets.

 

The narcissi are lovely, I admit, and the fragrances  of some varieties put Chanel’s commercial concoctions to shame..  But all those daffodils popping up in suburban gardens as winter gives way to spring give me pause.

 

Like starlings, purple loosestrife, dandelions, English Sparrows, house mice and Norway rats, daffodils are aliens – one of so many species native to elsewhere and brought to this hemisphere by us either as stowaways or intentionally for one reason or another.  (The American Acclimatization Society brought  European Starlings and English Sparrows as part of a campaign to introduce all the birds mentioned by Shakespeare into the New World!  Fortunately the plan expired soon after it was hatched.)  Most alien birds and mammals thrive in man-made environments:  house eves, under bridges, near dumpsters.  Alien plants typically thrive because they have no natural “enemies” in their non-native habitat.  I put “enemies” in quotes because both the native species and the herbivorous critters that munch them are part of an ecological balancing act which keeps them both in check.  But the aliens exist outside the equipoise.

 

Chipmunks, squirrels and moles won’t molest a daffodil bulb. Deer leave the leaves alone.  In England there are narcissus flies both large (Merodon equestris) and small (Eumerus spp) but there are none in this country and daffodil flowers and foliage in the U.S. rarely look motheaten.   Alien species typically thrive in their non-native environment precisely because they are not part of an established ecosystem and have leapfrogged coevolving herbivorous critters designing digestive systems able to make use of their flesh.  Given tolerable growing conditions, aliens thrive unmolested – and their flowers and foliage look pristine.   That is great news for the gardener but it turns out to be pretty bad news for birds.

 

Douglas Tallamay, Professor & Chair of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware,  studies the biodiversity associated with alien versus native plants and finds that, typically, native plants support 29 times the biodiversity that aliens do.  That’s not 29 percent more.  That’s 29 times or 2900 percent more!  It makes sense once you think of it.  If you were a bug in an arms race with a plant that was gradually evolving chemical defenses to poison you (as is what happens in nature, after all) wouldn’t you in all likelihood gradually evolve biologic detoxifying systems to neutralize the poisons which that otherwise tasty native plant is producing?  

 

Of course you would, but that takes time – a lot more time than it takes to ship a bunch of plants from one continent to another.  So fine gardens end up being filled with a bunch of plants that “pests”  ignore.  But those “pests” just happen to be sustenance for lots of other species.   In his book, Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, Tallamay notes that in the 16 days between hatching and fledging, a clutch of Carolina chickadees requires 9000 caterpillars from their parents. Studies of native oak trees have shown that they, on average, support 530 different species of caterpillars and butterflies.  Non-native ginko trees (Ginko biloba), on the other hand, support only three.  Ginko’s, of course, are just an example of the generic problem.  Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa) supports no native herbivorous insects.   Our native flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), on the other hand supports 117 species of moths and butterflies.  If all there are in your neighborhood are blemish free ginko and kousa dogwood trees replacing all those tasty natives, where are the chickadees going to go to get enough supper for their chicks?   The fact is that a yard full of non-native species will be less biodiverse, its soundscape impoverished of birdsongs, and fewer butterflies will float around the weeding gardener.  Unfortunately, what isn’t there is easy to overlook.

 

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to admit that I have daffodils popping up all over my yard.  And a while ago I planted a kousa dogwood.  But that was before I knew about Profesor Tallamay’s interesting findings.  Now when I go to a nursery, I at least ask the proprietor whether or not the plant I’m considering is a native – just like I ask my fishmonger about the origins of that good-looking salmon fillet.

 

So, with apologies to Mr. Wordsworth, may I suggest that had he lived in this country instead of England he might have begun his famous poem this way:

 

I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er oaks and pine,

When all  at once I saw a crowd,

A host. Of native columbine

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

 

Mogielnicki’s minnow ?

pasted image 0

 

Recently I received an appeal from the development office of one of the institutions of learning I’d attended. For $10,000 I could have a lecture hall seat named for me or someone I chose. It shouldn’t have surprised me. Think of all those dormitories, libraries, laboratories and sports stadia bearing the names of generous donors. In fact a large enough amount can even buy the name of a whole school. The UCLA Medical School became the David Geffen School of Medicine for a gift of $200,000,000 and Cornell Medical School became the Weil Cornell Medical College for the same amount. There are lots of other examples according to a recent NYTimes article by Danielle Ofri who ruminates that since medical students often say they learn most from their patients perhaps the schools and their various parts should be named for patients. An interesting idea. My mind peregrinated.

The present state of  biodiversity appears to be on the cusp of a sixth extinction – the rate of loss of existing species exceeding by orders of magnitude that of new species formation. According to those who study these things, anything approaching this scale of downsizing of life forms has occurred only five previous times in Earth’s history. Each of those episodes has apparently been triggered by a cataclysmic physical event –  a massive meteor strike, widespread volcanic eruptions, a comet collision – that sort of thing. This time the cause appears to be the unintended consequences of the doings of a clever hairless ape making life easier for itself.  So it appears that the burden is on him and her to find a way to turn things around. The problem is that almost any way one can imagine takes lots of money and lots of effort. Generating either will be a challenge but we have looked to the sages of academic institutions for guidance in the past.  Maybe now we should take a cue from their fund raising methods. (Perhaps you can you see where this is going…..)

There are already plenty of eponymous species’ common names and most of them commemorate a long dead 19th century naturalist who was the first to collect a skin and show it around among the naturalist establishment of the time. Think Swainson’s hawk, Dall’s sheep, Wilson’s plover and Thomson’s gazelle. A few names honor even less meritorious individuals. The common Anna’s hummingbird of the West Coast was named by its naturalist discoverer after the wife of an amateur ornithologist friend. (Could there be an interesting back story here?) And the name of the Minke whale seems to have originated as a jibe at a Norwegian whaler who mistook Minkes for the much larger blues. (Is it to honor this confusion that Norway continues to allow the killing of both Minke and blue whales?)

So here is a modest proposal. Change the common names of selected species – particularly endangered or threatened ones – to honor the individuals who have contributed in a major way for their welfare. How about the Carlson’s osprey and the Leopold’s cougar – the former to honor the ground-breaking work of Rachel Carlson showing the devastation DDT causes to bird reproduction and the latter that of Aldo Leopold for defining the critical role of predators in maintaining ecosystem stability. There are other obvious candidates: the Fossey gorilla, the Goodall chimpanzee, the Nielsen orangutan. And there are many less celebrated but equally accomplished individuals: let’s have the Rabinowitz jaguar for Alan Rabinowitz, founder and CEO of Panthera and let’s give Paul Watson due credit for founding Sea Shepherds and co-founding Greenpeace by bumping the bumbling whaler Minke and having instead the Watson’s whale.

Of course, there are many others who have spoken eloquently and effectively about the challenges of conservation and there are plenty of species to go around, but financial support is critical and here is where the conservation community may put the lessons learned from colleges, universities and prep schools to work. Let’s start renaming species to honor individuals who have contribute major financial support to their continued existence! It is, after all, economic forces which are pushing so many species to the brink. And in economic battles, money talks.  For a billion dollars (1/75th of his present worth) we could have the Gate’s tiger. That amount would go a long way towards rescuing the magnificent creature we now know as the Siberian tiger from extinction. For another billion (1/60th of his present net worth) we could have the Buffet leopard prowling the snows of the Himalayas. And for another billion, the grizzly could be renamed the Bezos bear.

To the uninitiated, this all may sound far-fetched and totally unachievable with overwhelming bureaucratic, cultural and behavioral obstacles. But there already is an ongoing process with plenty of examples of successful name changes accomplished by those stereotypically mild-mannered folks, the birdwatchers. Over the past decade the American Ornithological Union has changed the names of multiple species and gotten the changes into common usage. The once-upon-a-time slate colored junco was lumped with the Oregon Junco to become the dark eyed junco. What was once the whistling swan is now the tundra swan. What was once the rufous sided towhee has been split into the Eastern towhee and the spotted towhee. And a couple of birds have even gone from descriptive names to eponymous ones: the fork-tailed emerald is now Canavet’s emerald and the Arizona woodpecker is now Strickland’s woodpecker!

But the naming honor need not be restricted to conservation celebrities and the ultra wealthy. Less enormous contributions could be honored in smaller ways. For coming up with this fundraising idea the Devil’s River minnow could be named after…… me! There are plenty of other obscure endangered species whose nomenclature would be candidates for eponymization to honor modest contributions. And, returning to the institutions of higher learning that inspired this idea, if individual seats in a lecture hall can be had for smaller but significant contributions, one can even imagine the same happening for parts of iconic endangered animals. How about the left canine of the Bezos bear being the (your name here) tooth. Or that lovely fuzzy tail of the Buffet leopard being the (your name here) tail. Given the number of human anatomical eponyms ranging from the Adam’s apple to the zonules of Zinn the possibilities are endless!

Rethinking God’s Finger

 

sistine-chapel-ceiling-adam-and-god-michelangelo-the-creation-of-adam-genesis-god-art-poster-print-prynk-tattoo-1999423788Darwin's_finches_by_Gould

                                                    nasa black hole

Some  interesting things are going on out at the peripheries of the so-called sciences, the so-called humanities, and the so-called arts.  I say so-called because I think the distinctions, in many ways, lack a difference.  At least, that’s the way “they” should be conceptualized because considering them as separate creates an intellectual silo mentality, and a silo mentality restricts creativity.

 

Science is the process by which we seek a verifiable vision of the universe.  The humanities seek to understand humankind which, of course, is a part of the universe  – arising from the same creative force; presumably governed by the same set of laws.  And the arts  are individuals’ attempts to articulate a vision of some part of the universe. (By “universe” I mean the totality of reality – feelings, concepts, and abstractions as well as nuts, bolts and table legs.)  Art succeeds to the extent that it mirrors  the vision of the universe held by others.  As currently practiced, the methods used by the arts, the sciences and the humanities are different.  That is a large part of the problem.  But whether one  is walking, horseback riding, or sailing to Byzantium, the basic event is the same. One is questing Byzantium, whatever the mode of transportation.

 

But out at the edges the distinctions blur.  From the antiquities onward important geniuses have straddled disciplines.  One look at Da Vinci’s notebooks makes clear his identity as both artist and scientist.  Michelangelo was as much anatomist as sculptor.  And consider Herbert Melville and his masterpiece of whale biology and grand allegory.    

 

Lately, I’ve come across some fascinating modern examples of such hybrid vigor in the works of contemporary polymaths.   Missa Charles Darwin is a recent composition by Gregory Brown, written in liturgical polyphony and structured in the form of a traditional mass.   Music has long been a mainstay of religion – soaring melodies reverberating in the grand architecture of cathedrals, calls to prayer sung from minarets, gospel choirs – lyrics  relating ancient stories or prayers.  The text of Brown’s Missa, however, is mostly quotations from the writings of Charles Darwin. And the notes of the music actually follow the base sequences of segments of the DNA of one of Darwin’s finches! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s3IsKOXjcbk The result harmonizes magnificently with that part of us yearning for spirituality.   Such use of music to underscore the awesomeness and wonder of Darwin’s idea – to “religiousize it” if you will – succeeds so brilliantly that the comments following one of its performances on Youtube include a barrage of hate and fury from the religious right as heated as the conflict between the Sunnis and the Shiites. Despite this vitriol, however the music critic of the San Diego Story writes, after hearing the piece, “I have heard a surfeit of contemporary sacred music, and no composer has impressed me more than Gregory Brown. A smart publishing house should toss him a hefty retainer and sign him up to a very long contract.
And there are similar things happening on the other side of the supposed art/science divide.  A group of molecular biologists at Harvard, recognizing the beauty and complexity of their field, have collaborated with some very talented visual artists and animators to create a stunning video of the dynamic chemistry of a cell.  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/10/science/watch-proteins-do-the-jitterbug.html?hpw&rref=science&_r=0  The work is funded by a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and, perhaps to satisfy the “scientific” bent of that granting agency, its stated purpose is pedagogical. There is no doubt in my mind, however, that it could hold its own very nicely against many of the installations at the New York Museum of Modern Art.  Clearly it merits matching funds from the National Endowment For the Arts, bringing to life for the non-scientist  the wonder and awesomeness of  the inner workings of……well….. life.  Equally awe-inspiring is an animated reconstruction of an event at the other end of the size spectrum – a spectacular star/black hole encounter. http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap151028.html Given the right frame of mind, NASA artists’ visualization of this event – usually “explained” in terms of the mind-bending language of quantum mechanics – rivals the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for its power-driven beauty.  Not only that, but it has the advantage of being evidence-based!

And the scientific/literary interface is  yielding up some inspiring treasures as well.   Several years ago Alan Lightman – PhD. in Physics from Cal Tech and subsequently assistant professor of astronomy at Harvard – wrote Einstein’s Dreams a novel which became a runner-up for the 1994 L.L. Winship/PEN New England award.   Each chapter in this delightful little book features time behaving according to a set of laws different from the ones with which we are familiar.  As well as creating some thoroughly fascinating challenges for its lovable characters, the book manages  to imbue the reader with a much deeper grasp of the nature of this elusive entity.  

More recently, E.O. Wilson, after a distinguished career as a myrmecologist and evolutionary biologist, offered up a novel which made it to  number 35 on the NYTimes hardcover bestseller list.  Barbara Kingsolver, reviewing Anthill for the Times Book Section http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/11/books/review/Kingsolver-t.html wrote: “Scientists hardly ever write novels. Fabricating imaginary people is not the domain of the scientific method, to put it mildly. Constructing a plot, lacing it with clues to lead the reader to a well-prepared conclusion, is heretical business for those trained to unprejudiced observation. But any who take the leap may use their worldliness to good advantage, smuggling gems of empirical knowledge across the literary border to create fiction with unusually rewarding heft.”   Yes, “smuggling gems” across disciplinary borders – we need more of that.

We need more of this merging of silos.  Not just “interdisciplinary” work but broadened truth-seeking, rather than narrowed. More synthesis, less reductionism.  More Renaissance minds, less specialization.   More Da Vinci and his notebooks  – defining him as neither an artist or a scientist.

The greatest stories ever told in Western civilization are Genesis,  Exodus, the biography of Christ and the Quran.  These artistic, humanistic efforts were, like modern day science, an attempt to explain the universe and humanity as they were thought of at the time. As great stories, they have had phenomenal staying power but they are rooted in an understanding of the world which is literally millennia out of date.  And the greatest music ever written echoes these stories in one form or another.

But reality as we have come to understand it since these great stories were originally told has the potential for even greater stories, the potential to inspire even greater respect for the Great Power that set it all in motion.  And there’s another dimension. Given how much we now know that we couldn’t begin to have imagined back when those first great stories were told, it makes considerable sense, as we look forward into the future, to forsake the hubris of certitude and realize that there is a great deal more miraculous stuff still out there beyond the horizon of our current knowledge.

Just imagine Moses living today instead of 3500 years ago and now being the privileged recipient of the story of earth’s creation. A modern Moses would be well-aware of the overwhelming evidence that the earth is four and a half billion years old, would have already studied the fossil record of humankind, and already seen the remarkable images of the universe posted on NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day website.  Talk about miracles!  Those stories are so much richer than the deus ex machina trope of Genesis.  In the hands of an E.L.Doctorow, James Michener or some other equally talented writer perhaps the Gideon Society would even begin leaving copies of the new version of Genesis in motel rooms!  And even that story will no doubt merit rewriting within a matter of decades.

 

Birds, Butter Cookies, and Night Blooming Cereus

color range

From Cool Green Science; smarter by nature By Joe Smith

Sometimes things just come together.  The other evening, as I was savoring one of my wife’s delicious butter cookies, a setting sun illuminated the west face of the hill to our east with a pink pastel wash.  At that moment Vermont Public Radio filled the air with the first notes of Ravel’s String Quartet in F major and, simultaneously, our night blooming cereus decided to open the blossom it had been working on for the past week or so, immersing me in its ambrosial scent.  Ecstasy!   Had it not been for the fact that my five senses were all aquiver, I would say that the experience almost knocked me senseless.

It got me thinking.  Each of those senses bring me but a sample of the reality which surrounds me. Chemical analyses of the air I inhale and the stuff I put in my mouth.  Mental reconstructions of the wavelengths of light bouncing off my surroundings.  Same thing for the vibrations in the atmosphere around me.  But mind you it is just a sampling.   There is so much more to it than that!

For example, I don’t see the ultraviolet that guides hummingbirds to nectar sources.  http://blog.nature.org/science/2015/08/17/field-guide-wrong-birds-eye-view-world-color-vision/ My infrared camera can tell where heat is escaping from around my windows but I can’t.  My friend’s dog’s nose can tell which way the woodcock that recently crossed in front of us was going when I don’t even know there is one in the vicinity.  http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/nature/dogs-sense-of-smell.html  And what about those fish that can sense electromagnetic fields radiating from prey buried in the mud?  http://www.pelagic.org/overview/articles/sixsense.html Just because we now know birds and dogs and fish have this expanded awareness doesn’t mean there isn’t even a lot more going on that we don’t have a hint of.

Before going any further, let’s recognize that the word “reality” has its problems.  For most of us, “reality” is the way we reconstruct our surrounding environment from the data gathered directly but there are some inadequacies in that concept. We know now that there are some very “real” qualities in the world around us that escape us entirely.  We know they exist only through indirect evidence.  Radio waves and x-rays are in the same boat.  To a red-green colorblind person, so are those colors.  So from now on, in an attempt to disambiguate, I am going to use “reality” to mean the world as we perceive it directly through our senses and the phrase “all of creation” to mean all of the qualities of our surroundings – our full context –  whether or not our senses sample them.

While I was eating that cookie, and experiencing all that other wonderful stuff, my mind wasn’t really focused on the cookie,the hillside, the music or the scent.  It was immersed in the whole integrated experience.  And that’s the way things go most of the time.

When I fell a tree, its crashing to the ground has both a visual and an auditory component which I experience as a single event.   The experience of a nearby lightening strike when the flash and boom are simultaneous is forceful and immediate and visceral. When I regain my wits I have an impressive concept of a lightning bolt.   Our senses are sampling the image of the tree falling and the sound of the crash: they register the photons released by the electrical discharge and the atmospheric tsunami of the air around the bolt.  Suppose we were endowed with those electrosensing organs that are believed to exist in sharks.  Wouldn’t  we have an even more intense understanding and appreciation of a lightning strike?

Some years ago we raised a few beef for our own consumption. They had their priorities.  Food.  Tender green shoots if possible. Hay was satisfactory. Molasses-laced grain was heaven.  When they weren’t resting, their noses were buried in the field unless they heard the grain bucket rattle.  Then they came on the run.  Their world was defined by the pasture’s fence but that didn’t matter as long as there was enough grass and a bit of grain now and then.

Getting to know those cows and thinking about their lives raises some provocative questions.  Might our own lives be similarly constrained, though on a larger scale?  After all, cows and we are both on the same evolutionary tree – way out on the branch labelled “mammals” though on slightly different twigs.  Their survival pressures got them horns, lots of muscle and the ability to meet their nutritional needs with grass.  Ours got us this big brain and some pretty complicated connections within it.  (There probably is a lot more to it than that for us children of Adam and Eve but that’s a matter for another essay.)  For now, let’s just imagine that our world view, though a good deal richer than those cows’, also has its limits, cutting us off from what is actually out there with as grand a chasm as the one that exists between their grain bucket and my listening to a Ravel quartet.  What if those limits didn’t exist?

Imagine our current senses expanded in range so we could hear the rumblings of the subsonic vocalizations of elephants and  the superhigh squeaks of bats.  Toss in an ability to see well out on both the ultraviolet and infrared light spectra.  Now add in those non-human senses found in other creatures – electromagnetism in sharks, remote vibrations in other fish. Let your imagination really run wild – Dr Seuss style.  Imagine us with the ability to sense weakness in tilting structures (“swooerp”), tension in a bent tectonic plate(“vroing”), the moods of others (“sympativity”) – that kind of thing.   Suppose when we entered a room we could perceive the intensity of the social connectedness between the people present (“cadbuster”). Imagine a couple entering a crowded room and one of them perceiving a powerful connection between her apparently faithful spouse and another woman that neither supposedly knew?  And finally, give us  the mental integrating power to resolve all that into a single awareness of the creation we presently inhabit.

Why bother with this odd exercise?  Well, first off, who can argue with the idea of appreciating how much more miraculous all of creation is than what our current restricted senses can take in and our mind can reconstruct?  More importantly, complicated issues written off with glib explanations can cause a heap of trouble.  Charles Darwin, in his introduction to The Descent of Man, cautions thatIgnorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”   Those early Mayans, confident that droughts were the result of angry gods demanding sacrifices, caused a lot of suffering. The conviction that dying as a martyr in jihad guarantees an afterlife enriched by scores of devoted virgins has wreaked plenty of havoc.   And clearly, believing that everything will be fine if we just put our faith in the invisible hand of the marketplace has caused its share of suffering too.  Though humbling, sometimes it is much preferable to admit one’s profound ignorance than to act confidently on the basis of flawed superficial beliefs.  For me, it is just as misguided to be confident that the bible or the quran is God’s truth as it is to be confident that everything – even our sense of self – can be explained by the current laws of physics and chemistry.

The creation we inhabit is incredibly rich; no doubt far richer than we can ever imagine.  Through painstaking observation, unforgiving peer review and many corrections along the way the scientific method has helped us delve a bit deeper into understanding our universe and our place in it.   But I suspect we have only scratched the surface.  Newton’s and Einstein’s laws are pretty amazing but I bet there are many – perhaps even an infinite number – of others waiting to be discovered.  And some may even be undiscoverable but operative nonetheless!

Direct experiences, like those butter cookies or the scent of a night blooming cereus are one thing. Why we are here, how we should live and what happens to us after we are no longer, well those are tough ones.  No doubt the possibilities exceed our imaginations.

Give Me That New Age Religion

reverend-billy-and-earth

Reverend Billy preaching the Gospel in the Church of Stop Shopping

Every once in a while, a well-scrubbed pair of young people in dark suits exit their car in front of my house and head for the door, Bibles tucked under arms, cheerful smiles radiating from their innocent faces.  It’s a signal for me to be really quiet and pretend there is no one home.

The media are abuzz these days with polling data showing a longstanding decline in American religiosity.  Nearly every Christian sect as well as religious Judaism has been steadily losing adherents for years while poll categories of “no religious affiliation,” atheist, agnostic and “undeclared” are growing.  What is going on?

Surely the well-publicized miseries wrought by religious fanaticism are a big factor.   The pedophilic scandals of the Catholic Church and the widely publicized peccadillos of a few charismatic Christian evangelicals have also no doubt played a role, but I suspect that a large part of the problem (if one can call it that) goes deeper.

Mainstream religions, it seems to me, share two main features: a good story and socially useful dogma.  In Judaism the story involves the creation of Earth and mankind, the downstream tribulations of a semitic tribe and the evolution of the tribe’s special personal relationship with God, a collective loyalty to whom is a prerequisite for successful warfare with other tribes. Christianity builds on this story with a mystical virgin birth, a life centered around love and forgiveness, a martyred death and a miraculous resurrection bundled together with promises of a blissful hereafter.

The dogma of Judaism involves behavioral edicts particularly well adapted to a nomadic desert people emerging from the fog of prehistory.  A clear set of basic behavioral laws (which, perhaps for mnemonic purposes, just happen to fit on the fingers of two hands) set out ways to minimize intratribal conflict and promote tribal cohesion:  don’t take your neighbor’s stuff,  leave your neighbor’s wife alone, etc.  The dogma of Christianity, coming later to lubricate emerging urban life with more far-reaching behavioral guidance, adds generosity, charity and forgiveness to the basics of the Big Ten.

The overlooked backdrop of both of these grand pragmatic codes of conduct is the fact that they developed during eras when mankind was essentially irrelevant to the successful ongoing function of the Edenic home planet.  Yes, organized agriculture had spread beyond the fertile crescent by the Common Era but the harnessing of millennia of solar power stored in fossil beds and the extraction of vast amounts of raw materials had not yet resulted in the agricultural domination of most of the earth’s arable land and the rearrangement of its geography and atmospheric balance.  And the onslaught of a sixth extinction was still far in the future as what are now considered the world’s major religions were establishing themselves in the minds of man.

The stories which breathed life into those codes of conduct reflected reality as it was perceived at the time:  asses and goats, tents and spears, slings and arrows, shepherds and stables, slayings with swords, crucifixions and duplicity, deserts and lots of wilderness – you could even see the stars in the night sky back then! They were magnificent stories and functioned exceedingly well as vehicles for the dogmas needed for human society, as it was structured at the time, to thrive.  Twenty-one centuries later, however, as the Hubble telescope brings us images of the edge of the cosmos, electron microscopes make visible things at the molecular level and magnetic resonance imaging lets us introspect in ways not dreamt of even a few decades ago, reality, as we now can appreciate it, has quite suddenly become orders of magnitude richer.  At the same time, and perhaps for similar reasons, our species has become orders of magnitude more powerful.  As part of the same process by which our societal structures have made it possible for our clever brains to figure out how to get things done, we find ourselves to be quite literally Masters of the Earth.  Suddenly the fate of the very space we inhabit is in our hands.   It is time for religion to catch up.  We need new stories and new dogmas.

I am not a big fan of David Brooks.  Perhaps it’s because, like me, he considers himself an authority on all things profound and important, and we usually come down on opposite sides of issues.  Nevertheless, a few days ago he and I seemed to inhabit the same page.

Brooks was talking about spirituality and referencing a book by Columbia University Professor of Psychology and Education Lisa Miller called The Spiritual Child.  Miller discusses evidence showing that spirituality is in part genetic and that the higher power that defines this sense may take the form of God, nature, spirit, or less well-defined universalism.(italics mine) Brooks faults Miller for her failure to “……pay sufficient attention to the many secular, this-world ways people find to organize their lives”  – by which I think he means different religions, philosophies and ideologies – but he ends up admitting that  “…..it does seem true that most children are born with a natural sense of the spiritual…… They have a natural sense of the oneness of creation. If they find a dead squirrel on the playground, they understand there is something sacred there, and they will most likely give it a respectful burial……”  I think Brooks is right on there, and I would take it one step further.

Back when those old time religions were evolving, they capitalized upon this instinctive awareness of a larger power to help organize human society and minimize threats to its integrity while couching the dogma in stories suited to the perceived realities of the times.  Today, since our understanding of reality is leagues greater than it was then, they have lost their punch. Mundane miracles like Red Sea waters parting (for which there are several very plausible physical explanations) or virgin births (some birds and bees do it after all) inspire less awe.  One need only watch James Gorman’s NYTimes Science Take videos or check out the molecular animations  on XVIVO to sample the high level miraculousness of our modern worldview.  So our current, enormously enriched reality requires new stories, but that’s not all.

That enhanced understanding has resulted in our species now having incredibly more power.    So much power, in fact, that our physical world has been transformed from the day when those old stories and dogmas originated.  God above now looking down at Earth from His seat in the heavens sees the urban centers of His planet ablaze in electric light at night and during the day watches its glaciers shrink, its rainforests transformed into plantations and its rivers redirected – all of this with precious little thought given to where this is leading by all but a few of those flawed folk he created in His image.

But thank God for those few voices crying in the wilderness and calling our attention to where it does seem to be leading, namely a hostile environment with drastically changed climate, flooded coastlines and a flora and fauna impoverished by overexploitation and habitat destruction.  Not a pretty picture, I would say, and one begging for new religious dogma to set things straight  and new stories added to the old ones to empower the dogma.

The dogma part is easy.  How about adding ten more commandments to the previous ones?

  1. Thou shalt not squander thy natural resources – leave what remains of the coal and oil in the ground, develop renewables, turn off unneeded lights, do not let thy parked car idle, conserve water, etc.
  2. Thou shalt honor the earth which, after all, sustains you – even though it is difficult to notice when your meat and vegetables are lined up neatly on supermarket shelves.
  3. Respect every living creature and recognize that it requires a suitable habitat and probably plays a role in the balance of nature and can offer you benefits about which you are completely ignorant.
  4. Do not flush pills or other toxic stuff down the toilet – remember that it eventually ends up in our rivers and oceans.
  5. Lobby hard to give the Environmental Protection Agency more power.
  6. Demand proper enforcement of the Endangered Species Act and work to strengthen it.
  7. Recycle.
  8. Limit family size.
  9. Eat less meat and fish.
  10. Do unto the rest of the earth as you would do to your own back yard.

The stories needed are, well, another story. We’ve got some of the parts, but there’s more work to be done.  The romantic poets – Coleridge, Wordsworth and Whitman in particular – gave us some ideas and a vocabulary.  Henry David Thoreau set the scene with Walden. Aldo Leopold added some lyrical prose with A Sand County Almanac.  Rachel Carlson opened more eyes with A Silent Spring and The Sea Around Us.  Edward Abbey jazzed things up a bit with The Monkey Wrench Gang and Desert Solitaire.   Al Gore wrote a Book of Revelation with An Inconvenient Truth.  And the likes of John McPhee, Bill McKibben, Carl Safina, E.O. Wilson and many many other fine writers labor away today, hoping that the pen is mightier than the oil rig and adding their contributions to the canon.  My sense is, however, that these separate chapters and verses now need a larger than life hero or heroine – a Moses, a Jesus, a Buddha, a Mohammad – in short, I guess, a Messiah or a Gaia preaching biophilia or even Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping – to breath life into the stories, galvanize the believers and send the disciples out to convert the masses.

No small task, really, but a much needed one and the time may be about right.  Now, when that gas-sipping hybrid pulls up in front of my house and a couple of young people wearing old backpacks and hand-me-down blue jeans head for my door with copies of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything under their arms, I plan to put some water on the wood stove for tea, break out the granola bars and invite them in to hear what they have to say.

What Good are Grizzlies and Gryphons?

Gryphon 3

 

“Everybody knows that the autumn landscape in the northwoods is the land, plus a red maple, plus a ruffled grouse. In terms of conventional physics, the grouse represents only a millionth of either the mass or the energy of an acre. Yet, subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead.

Aldo Leopold:  A Sand County Almanac

 

Fortunately, there are still ruffed grouse around, but doesn’t the fact that there are no more passenger pigeons mean that the autumn sky over Ohio is dead – or at least deader than it used to be?  Does the absence of those awe-inspiring flocks of birds darkening the skies matter, now that they remain only in our imaginations?  What does it mean when a natural phenomenon which has the capacity to impress and inspire disappears?

 

Monarch butterflies are under the gun across North America.  If that species winks out one of these years our lives will be just a little bit more drab and uninteresting.  And suppose the unthinkable happened. Suppose all butterflies disappeared – not entirely impossible given the widespread use of pesticides and, now, manufactured plants with built-in caterpillar poisons. Of course, with butterflies gone, those flowers which depend on butterflies for pollination would disappear as well.  A generation or two after that happened would butterflies and their pollination-dependent flowers continue to inspire the decorators of children’s pajamas and the animators of the idyllic countrysides of Disney films?  Would those creative souls turn to images of corn fields and combines?  Or would the non-existence of two symbols  of carefree, natural gentleness gradually cause the feeling we get from a warm summer day to atrophy?  Not entirely, of course, but a little bit?

 

And what about bats?  If white nose syndrome has its way, these creatures of the night could be gone one day as well.  Won’t Halloween lose a little bit of its scariness?  Won’t our mind’s eye’s stereotypic image of a dark threatening place be a bit impoverished?  And even though bats apparently weren’t the inspiration for the widespread vampire myths of ancient cultures they do inhabit Graham Stoker’s Dracula, and the discovery of true vampire bats in the Americas certainly lends a degree of tangibility to those stories and their effect on us.

 

Butterflies, bats and a few flowers gone – no big deal, really.  But what if we had succeeded in eradicating whales by 1850 – the year Herman Melville wrote what many consider to be the greatest American novel?   Would Melville have been inspired to write Moby Dick?   Would our individual and/or collective sense of good and evil, of mankind’s place in the universe, of our conflict with fate be quite as rich without a literary canon which included that monomaniacal sea captain and his enigmatic archenemy?   One can argue, I think, that the existence of whales has played a non-trivial role in what it means to be a 21st century American human and that without Moby Dick ever having been written and read by so many, our spirit and intellect would be just a bit less than it is.

 

Fortunately, we didn’t drive most species of whales to extinction, and there still are butterflies and some bats.  But consider wooly mammoths.  There’s a good bit of evidence suggesting that Homo sapiens and those huge hairy behemoths overlapped for some time after humans arrived in the Americas, though the exact role the latter played in the extinction of the former is still being worked on.  Nonetheless, the woolies are gone.   Wouldn’t we – even those of us working in urban cubicles – wouldn’t we be just a bit more alive if somewhere in the very backs of our minds we knew those hairy beasts with their enormous recurved tusks were still thundering around somewhere on the tundra?

 

Once you start thinking this way, other things come to mind, like those mountaintops in West Virginia being relocated into the valleys to expose coal.  When that state is finally bulldozed as flat as Kansas will stories of the Hatfield’s and McCoys in their respective “hollers” still resonate?   Will sipping Maker’s Mark bourbon still taste the same if we picture those moonshine stills where it was developed exposed for all to see on a prairie?  And then there’s the disappearing Colorado River.  Will our grasp of our place in the universe when we look at the work it’s done sculpting the Grand Canyon over eons remain as secure if we realize that now the Colorado fails to make it all the way to the Sea of Cortez because of those thousands of trickles we’ve tapped off along the way to keep our lettuce growing?

 

Some years ago, my son and I did some wilderness camping in grizzly bear habitat.  During time in the backcountry we did see one grizzly, at a respectful distance, but the knowledge that we might confront one around every bend kept us hyperalert and lent the whole trip an experiential dimension which is difficult to express but, in the retelling at least, was distinctly pleasurable. Of course, I’d be thinking differently if my son and I had startled a grizzly up close.  Very differently, in fact, if he’d been maimed, or worse.  But in the grand scheme the evil of such a rare human tragedy is offset by the spiritual enrichment of all those fortunate hikers who thought hard about but never actually confronted a grizzly.   Experiencing the possibility is enlivening.

 

Like the Eloi of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, do our spirit and awareness atrophy if we come to consider our environment totally tamed and our place in it entirely secure?  Don’t potential predators like the grizzly enhance our personal selves and enrich our collective being – AKA our culture?

 

And then there are the unicorns, Loch Ness monsters, dragons, harpies, sea serpents, yeti, gryphons and the rest of the menagerie of imaginary beasts.  Why have we invented these non-existent creatures?  What makes them such universal characters in stories – especially the formative stories we read as we transition from childhood to adulthood?  Often threatening and  bearing exaggerated combinations of features of creatures we know – fangs, hooked beaks, talons, excessive strength – these iconic creations of our collective imagination have populated our stories from pre-literary oral myths to the science fiction of today.  What accounts for the archetypal universality and longevity of these creations of our minds? Just as our most gripping stories usually involve deep yearning – romanticized love, sudden good fortune, heroism, “happily ever after” etc. – isn’t it likely that the monsters of our imagination owe their origins to some biophilic longing such that our minds create creatures at least the idea of which we need in order to be fully alive?

 

The philosopher Thomas Nagel, in his book Mortal Questions begins his examination of what it means to be dead by making the deceptively simplistic observation that – setting aside considerations of some sort of afterlife – death can be thought of as the end of the constitutive elements of human life namely “perception, desire, activity, and thought.”   Later he concludes, “If death is an evil at all, it cannot be because of its positive features, but only because of what it deprives us of.”   To the extent that the natural world, with its intricate tapestry of species and its seascapes and landscapes, leads us to think, to the extent that we may actively seek out elements of nature just to experience them, to the extent that they stimulate our imaginations as we read a book or they play a role in our deciding which pair of pajamas might appeal to our children are we not more alive?  

 

So I would say that Leopold was only half right.  His acre of northwood autumn landscape is indeed dead if the grouse is subtracted.  But there’s more to it.  Take away the passenger pigeon, the whale we may never even see but know is there, the bat flitting across our backyard at dusk, the grizzly, the tiger, the raging river, the glacier, the rolling Appalachian landscape,  –  and a part of you and a part of me dies as well.  

 

 

The Frame’s the Thing: More Worship, Less Worry

iStock_000017039684Large I confess. I’m a list keeper and on of one of my lists is “Subjects to be blogged about.”  For some time now the phrase “Sacredness of Nature” has been on that list. As an enthusiastic environmentalist I often wonder what it is about the natural world that stirs me to write about it, volunteer to protect it and donate to organizations that promote it.  Articulating the reasons for this expenditure of time and treasure might help motivate others to do the same. Then along comes an article in the online NYTimes that tells me how to do it more effectively.

The author, ­ a professor of sociology, psychology and organizational behavior at Stanford University ­ notes that while environmentalism is not inherently political (after all, Republican Teddy Roosevelt greatly expanded the National Park Service and Republican Richard Nixon founded the Environmental Protection Agency) it has become a movement associated primarily with liberalism and the Democratic Party. This in spite of the fact that when polled individually, about half self­-identified Republicans favor government action to address global warming.

To shed more light on this apparent paradox, author Robb Willer and a colleague offered one group of self-­identified conservatives a message about maintaining the purity and sanctity of nature and preventing its desecration. A second group received a message about protecting the environment from harm and a third group’s message did not mention the environment at all.  Consistent with previous work showing that conservative values tilted towards patriotism, respect for authority, purity and sanctity, the conservatives receiving the moral purity message subsequently said they were significantly more likely to favor environmental legislation and even professed a stronger belief in the reality of global warming (which hadn’t even been mentioned in the messages).

So it looks as if framing conversations about environmental causes in terms of what is pure and sacred is mighty important. To get conservatives on board we need less tree hugging and more wonder at the soaring ​sanctity ​of old growth forests; less emphasis on ​saving​ fuzzy critters ​with big eyes or ​protecting ​tracts of habitat and more emphasis on s​topping the desecration​ of God’s creation.  After all if God – the ultimate authority after all – ­ went to the trouble of getting Noah to build that ark to His exact specifications and then commanded him to herd  onto it “every thing of all flesh, two of every sort…of fowls after their kind and cattle after their kind, of every creeping thing of the earth after his kind“, then we descendants of Noah should probably think twice about bulldozing the sacred places that sustain those creatures.

A previous study by the same authors gives these findings additional relevance . They analyzed 51 environmentally­-oriented public service announcements and 402 opinion pieces in major American newspapers and discovered that the majority focused on ​protecting ​people and ecosystems rather than on the importance of maintaining the purity and sacredness ​of the natural world.  There’s a takeaway here, albeit a subtle one.

It’s time to talk less about ​saving ​endangered species and more about ​worshipping ​the richness of creation. There needs to be less handwringing about ​protecting ​a wetland from the threat of drainage and more open s​hame ​on those who fail to appreciate the ​wondrous complexity​ of an ecosystem by paving it over. We need less emphasis on ​saving​ wilderness from encroachment and more on the purity​ of untrammeled wilderness and it’s ability to restore the human spirit.​  In short, the image of the natural world as s​acred and purifying needs to be emphasized above it’s being too weak to survive on its own.​

Of course the thoughtful reader may suspect a ruse. Aren’t we trying to get more converts to environmentalism precisely because the environment is under serious attack? Well, it is, but it doesn’t have to be. If nature and the integrity of the environment remain unaligned with the conservative value system the battle is going to continue. But if the environment can cease being a political issue and instead becomes a shared value for the entire political spectrum like motherhood and apple pie, sustaining our rich and sacred natural world will cease being the Sisyphean struggle it has lately become.  Once the values get realigned, the environment won’t be under constant threat. It won’t be in danger any longer. It won’t need to be protected and can be worshipped as it deserves to be.  And I can take “Sacredness of Nature” off my list of things to be blogged about.

What’s a Bee Worth?

bee-on-flowers

 

In one of Cereflections’ earliest entries (Tilting at Windmills, February 25, 2014) I ruminated about the values – economic, aesthetic, spiritual etc. – of “nature”.  And again in the December 16, 2014 post, Growth!, a similar theme arose.  Now, just the other day, one of Cereflections’ loyal followers has called my attention to  an NPR Radiolab program of December 23, 2014 which explores similar ideas in wonderful depth.

 

The show is divided into three sections.  The first two, rather grimly, discuss efforts to place a dollar value on human life.  One details machinations by our government as it tries to figure out how much to compensate the Afghan families of innocent civilians killed by our drones.  The second asks patients, doctors and average citizens what price is reasonable for a course of drugs that may extend the life of disease victims by a matter of days weeks or years.  Both segments conclude that it is very difficult to make these determinations.  The third segment is rather more satisfying.

 

How does one figure, the Radiolab guys ask, the value of services provided by nature. They speak briefly about mangroves and watersheds and then tell an amazing tale of an apple-growing  community in China that lost all its bees to pesticides and, as a matter of economic survival, replaced them with……human labor.  Imagine!  An orchard with apple trees festooned with workers transferring pollen by feather and paintbrush among millions of blossoms.  Sounds insane.  But guess what?  Apple production increased thirty percent above that provided by bees!  Orchard owners’ incomes rose.  At least for a while.  Then labor costs rose.  Orchardists’ incomes plummeted.  So the easy conclusion to draw from all this is that bees have a previously uncalculated value but, like the stockmarket, that value floats depending on market forces.  And shifting from bee labor to human labor may expose orchardists to increased cost volatility.

 

 

But this economic approach, point out the likes of  George Lakoff  and George Monbiot, is a trap.  The conversation’s frame, they say,  steers you right into the hands of environmentalism’s worst enemies because it makes the unspoken assumption that the important value of the bees is an economic one.  Once you start talking like this, you are stuck with having to justify any environmental program by its economic value.  No more national parks, no more dark starry nights, no more spotted owls for their own sake.  In fact maybe those woodchucks that keep raiding my garden ought to be exterminated once and for all.

 

In many ways, I think Lakoff and Monbiot are on the right track,   Certainly for me, and I think for many others as well, the value of the natural world simply can’t be measured in dollar terms, and if one comes to depend entirely on money as a metric of its value one is unnecessarily and severely handicapping one’s self.

 

But let’s face it.  There are some poor souls who, for whatever reason, would rather be in their Barcalounger watching football than out snowshoeing.  For those folks maybe the only effective argument  against a specific development project is an economic one.  But that should only be as a last resort, when all else fails, and after every effort has been made to help readjust those Barcaloungers’ value systems.

 

The Radiolab ends with some interesting comments by JB MacKinnon , author of the recent book The Once and Future World.   Mackinnon says that he prefers to think of nature as an extension of our own brains and imaginations. And when a species becomes extinct or a piece of wild land is developed the pool of reality available to our minds and imaginations is diminished forever.  It was bees and trees, after all, that developed the system of apple production which those Chinese workers copied.  And once you start thinking that way you come to realize how much the natural world does enrich our mental life.  Would the Wright brothers and those who preceded them have worked so hard to get us up in the air had they not spent a long time studying the wings of the birds they watched effortlessly soaring over Kitty Hawk?   Would de Mastro have come up with the idea for Velcro had he not spent a fair amount of time picking burdock burrs out of his hunting pants ?  Would we be ooing over elegant ultrasound images of our unborn children had  Lazaro Spallanzani  not studied how bats navigated and conceived the idea of echolocation?

 

And it doesn’t stop with some clever inventions. There’s vocabulary and metaphor.  Think monkeyshines, horsing around, being buffaloed, clawing one’s way to the top, clamming up, eight hundred pound gorilla, lone wolf, red herring.  I’m sure you can come up with many more.

 

It’s fitting, I think, to end with the evocative imagery of William Butler Yeats magnificent poem, The Lake at Innisfree. Without bees, we wouldn’t have this either.

 

“I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,

And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made,

Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,

And live alone in the bee-loud glade.”

 

 

The Loraxes vs. The Once-lers; A Game that Never Ends (Played on a Tilted Field with Two Different Time clocks)

sisyphis

 

 

It’s now coming up on almost 45 years since Dr. Seuss published The Lorax in 1971.  But in spite of his hero’s eloquent pleas, the world lost over 3% of its forest in the two decades between 1990 and 2010. ( Earth Policy Institute’s compilation of data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s Forest Resources Assessment. ) Dr. Seuss and his Lorax had it right.  Somebody has to speak for the trees.

 

Perhap it’s the result of media’s need to emphasize conflict, but whenever I come across the word “environmentalists” while scanning a newspaper or hear “environmentalists” out of the corner of my ear while half listening to the radio, I wince. “Environmentalists resist lumbering in the Pacific Northwest”, “Environmentalists line up against XL Pipeline”, “Enviromentalists lobby for reduced fishing quotas.”  “Environmentalists up in arms about drilling for oil in Alaska’s Wildlife Refuge.”  Seems like the environmental motto must be  “Just say ‘No’ “.  And more often than not the environmentalists are lined up against something that has a fair amount of popular support.

 

And in truth, much environmental activism does involve preventing the doing of something – and often that something has immediate benefits for many, like keeping their houses warm or putting food on the table or providing a nice shopping mall closer to home. And how does one balance inconveniencing a herd of migrating caribou most people will never see against knocking a few cents off the price of a gallon of gasoline for everybody?

 

But here’s the rub.  Those folks with a direct dog in the fight can speak out loudly and they have an immediate incentive to do so;  but as for the environment – well that’s a different matter.  For the most part, the environment doesn’t squawk when it is trampled on – not right away. And nobody has big bucks to make by objecting to an environmentally damaging project. In the long run, however, there is a big price to pay.  But to make matters even more complicated, that price is often in something other than dollars.  Coastlines  slowlyerode and property gradually disappears when all the mangroves get chopped down to make way for coastal resorts. Silt clogs streams when hillsides are clearcut and salmon runs silently disappear.  Or one day someone decides to take their kids camping and realizes there is no open land within a two hour’s drive.

 

Another problem is that the costs and benefits of environment vs development are spread across different timescales. Levelling that West Virginia mountaintop and extracting its coal may reduce electricity costs for some for the next couple of years.   The fouled streams  and ruined landscape, however, will be present for generations. Granted, the contributions to mercury accumulation in seafood and CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere from one coal mine may be small, but it is Death by A Thousand Cuts.    And the only way we have of controlling that dismal fate is putting a brake on the small contributors one at a time.

 

I would like to argue that many of the things environmentalists are working to protect can compete well in a fair fight against the typically vested interests of those clamoring for their exploitation.  The field on which the environmentalists and the exploiters compete, however is not level.  To get away from preconceptions, let’s call them the Loraxes and the Once-lers.

 

When the Once-lers score a goal, their score stays up.  A pipeline gets built and it is there for good.  There is big money to be made cutting down some old growth forest; once it is cut and sold, the money is in the bank.  Same deal if the Atlantic cod is overfished until the breeding population collapses.  And get the OK to drill in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and the oil wells are there to stay.

 

Its a different matter for the Loraxes.  Hold up the pipeline now and the battle begins with the next congress.  Block the clearcut this year and  the lumber companies are back at it again next.  And let a species like the spotted owl or the black rhino go extinct and you have lost that game once and for all.  Every time the Once-lers score a point their score gets higher.  For the Loraxes, the point is only secure until the next time the Once-lers make an offensive play.

 

And that’s not the only problem.  Turns out the two sides are playing with different game clocks. When that lumber company fells and sells a couple of acres of old growth trees its quarterly profits go up and the CEO gets his raise that year.  For the Loraxes, successfully holding off that lumbering means that the trees will be there to be enjoyed for the next generation, and the offspring of the salmon that lay their eggs in the unsilted streams of that old uncut forest won’t be back for an average of five years.  Same time warp for developing tropical mangrove shorelines.  Those resort profits start rolling in as soon as construction  is finished, but the loss of a marine nursery won’t be noticed for years, and the impact of the next fifty year hurricane on that fragile environment won’t be felt for, well, fifty years on average.

 

And there’s one more thing.  The players are paid in different currencies.  The stars kicking goals for the Once-lers get paid in dollars and lots of them.  Those dollars let them buy their own piece of undeveloped waterfront or a mountain lodge on several hundred acres.  Those dollars, strategically placed, may even get them on the boards of some high profile conservation organizations and let them steer environmental policy.   The stars playing for the Loraxes get, for the most part, satisfaction for a job well done, handshakes, volunteer of the year awards, the hope that their grandchildren will still have some unspoiled wilderness to hike in – stuff like that.  Makes one think of the Lord Charles Bowen’s musing:

 

“The rain is raining on the just

And also on the unjust fella

But mostly on the just because

The unjust hath the just’s umbrella.”

 

But back to the idea of those “environmentalists” being a fringe group trying to hold up progress.  I’d argue that at heart, many people who don’t identify themselves as “environmentalist” value the natural world very much.  By that I mean they value many of the same things that self declared environmentalists do. What, then, does set them apart?

 

Well, some are fortunate enough to be able to buy for themselves the things the self-declared environmentalists are trying to keep available for a broader public.  You needn’t worry about the local salmon population if you can afford to go to Scotland and rent fishing rights on one of the exclusive private stretches of river there.  You don’t have to concern yourself with available open space if you can afford a thousand acres of a mountainside in New Mexico.  These folks share many of the active environmentalists’ aesthetic values but for whatever reason, don’t feel compelled to make satisfaction of them more widely available.

 

Then there are others who are just dealing with a different set of observations.  The fisheries scientists take carefully standardized samples from rigorously randomized locations and conclude an area is being overfished.  Fishermen, on the other hand, may see their catches actually increasing, but fail to take into account that they are constantly searching for the areas of densest population and forget the fact that the new fish-finding technology they bought two years earlier is much more sensitive than the stuff they were using earlier.

 

And something that is difficult to acknowledge and easy to forget, for those of us fortunate enough to live a comfortable middle-class lifestyle, is the harsh reality facing the large and growing number of people who are in the terrible position of having to scrape by.  If you are an inner city child who never has been camping it’s not your fault that you don’t value nature.   If you don’t bring home a paycheck large enough to put food on the table for your family it is difficult to get up in arms about restricting pesticides which might, after all, make your food somewhat more expensive.  If you and your spouse are trying to meet your utility bills on a threatened social security check and there is a chance that the strip mining in West Virginia will reduce those costs, it seems like a no brainer.  Of course,  there’s no guarantee that that mining is going to do anything more than increase the coal company profits.  So reducing poverty, communicating the aesthetic and spiritual values of exposure to nature, working to assure that policy decisions are based on the best data available and reducing wealth inequality all represent paths towards the goal of environmental stabilization.

 

All this gets me to wondering, is there a way out of this mess?  Is there ever going to come a time when environmentalists can stop their seemingly endless struggle – pushing that boulder up the mountain only to have it roll back down as they near the top?  Can one hope that someday, us tree-huggers are going to be seen as the good guys?

When I was about ten a wise family friend was teaching me to fish.  “There’s only one sure thing about fishing.” he said.  “If you don’t put your line in the water you’ll never catch any fish.”  Pretty much the same things holds for protecting the environment.  It may never be returned to the pristine state some would prefer, but if we never try to achieve some sort of equilibrium with its exploitation it’s pretty clear what’s going to happen to the planet.  Rachel Carson did her part.  Aldo Leopold did his.    So did Dr. Seuss.  Now it’s up to us.