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.

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Give Me That New Age Religion

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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?

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“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?

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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.

GROWTH !

Alice's Restaurant

 

Growth, growth, growth!  A chorus of economists, politicians, businesspeople and developers tell us we must have more of it.  And more.  And more.

Why?  When is enough enough?  And what, exactly, do those folks mean?

I’ll admit right off that I find economics daunting.  As a physician I think of constant, unconstrained growth as bad stuff.  Think cancer.

I’ll also admit that economic growth is something different.   Wikipedia, which has become my favorite reference, says:  “economic growth is the increase in the market value of the goods and services produced by an economy over time.” (italics mine)   On first reading, that sounds pretty reasonable.  But on second thought…….

Are there values other than market ones?   Well, I can think of several.   What about ethical values, spiritual values, cultural values, aesthetic values, family values, ideological values.  And anyone who feels those different kinds of values march lock step with market values might think about this.  According to USA Today, just two porn sites in this country generated $10 billion in 2003.  And the authors estimate that to be only 20% of the pornography market.  That’s its market value, but might that just possibly conflict with some family values – even if it does grow our GDP?

The trouble is, it’s so easy to measure market value.   Just count up the bottom lines of all those income and sales tax returns, add them together and there you have it – GDP.  Try doing that for spiritual or aesthetic values.  There’s a Nobel Prize waiting to happen for the person who untilts that playing field.

But I’m beating around the bush.  My real gripe with economic values trumping all others is that so much of what contributes to GDP growth is a direct attack on a lot of stuff that I value a lot.  Clean air for one thing. And clean water. Solitude.  Really dark skies at night. Oceans and streams brimming with fish. Huge stands of really big old trees. Vistas uncluttered by billboards urging me to buy stuff I don’t even know I want. A world in which there’s plenty of room left at the top of the food chain for lots of other species in addition to our own.

On the other hand, it’s not all doom and gloom.    After all, the manufacture of solar panels – provided it’s done in the US – does contribute to our GDP.  And there does seem to be a growing awareness of the GDP’s shortcomings.  In 2008 the NYTIMES reminded us that over forty years ago Robert F. Kennedy complained that the GDP was inadequate because it failed to measure “that which makes life worthwhile.”

The same article goes on to reference a number of respected economic thinkers now working to come up with improved measures of national well-being (http://www.happyplanetindex.org/), (http://www.gnh-movement.org/ ),(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Index_of_Sustainable_Economic_Welfare)  This Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare is calculated by the formula  ISEW = personal consumption + public non-defensive expenditures – private defensive expenditures + capital formation + services from domestic labour – costs of environmental degradation – depreciation of natural capital.  

Recently some academic economists calculated the ISWE and compared it to GDP.  Not surprisingly, they conclude that while the GDP since the 1970’s has registered almost steady growth (there’s that boogieman again!), the ISWE has remained essentially flat over that same period!

So….what’s to be done.?  Well, for one thing, at a personal level, whenever I hear some politician warning how this or that piece of legislation is going to hinder GROWTH, my early warning system lights flash and I take a close look at the legislation and think about writing him or her or sending a letter to the editor of our local newspaper.  And just a couple of minutes searching the web yields a number of organizations like the New American Dream  which are devoted to finding ways to implement just the kind of thing we are talking about.  It doesn’t cost a cent to sign up as a follower of their blog (http://www.newdream.org/blog) and if you like what they’re doing you can even donate whatever you wish.

It’s certainly no easy matter to change the deeply ingrained presumptions and habits of a culture like ours but sooner or later as more of the earth gets covered with asphalt, more species disappear, there are more climatic wobbles, etcetera, etcetera, and so forth, things will eventually change.   Surely if none of us works on curtailing growth now, that time may arrive when life is pretty miserable.  But, with apologies to Arlo Guthrie, “ You know, if one person, just one person, does it they may think he’s really sick and…..” they’ll pay no mind.”  “And if two people do it, in harmony, they may think they’re both….” weirdos and they won’t heed them either.  “And if three people do it!  Can you imagine three people…… They may think it’s an organization.  And can you imagine fifty  people a day? I said FIFTY people a day…….Friends they may think it’s a MOVEMENT, and that’s what it is…….” the ALICE’S RESTAURANT ANTI ECONOMIC CANCER MOVEMENT…….and instead of change coming when it is altogether too late, we can make it come just a bit earlier.

In medicine one learns early on that the first step in treating a problem is to find out what the root cause is.  And if you find that the root problem is uncontrolled growth, sometimes you just have to cut it out – and the earlier the better.

 

 

Equal Pay for Equal Work: Jaguars vs. Tigers

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A stunning jaguar often prowls across the top of my computer screen when I call up my NYTimes e-subscription.  It is elegance epitomized and one can only imagine how many sales of diamond necklaces it has helped close.  Clearly, the jaguar is to Cartier what Tiger Woods is to Nike (yes, he’s still on their payroll.) And Nike is not alone.  If one can believe the websites, it is commonplace for a corporation to spend tens of millions of dollars to use the image of a celebrity like Woods to promote their product.  Which invites the question, how much does Cartier pay the jaguar?

 

Of course, they probably pay the jaguar owner and trainer, but what do they do to keep jaguars roaming the planet? Or should they do anything?

 

Let’s take on the second question first.  Is there either a pragmatic or philosophical case to be made for Cartier to contribute to jaguar conservation?  From a pragmatic standpoint, I’m not sure. On the one hand, were the jaguar to become extinct, it would be a bit awkward for Cartier.  Suppose some company had used images of the passenger pigeon to promote their product. Wouldn’t they have come in for a bit of ridicule if they had done nothing as the numbers of those birds dwindled and then went to zero?

 

Fifty years ago estimates put the world population of jaguars around 400,000.  Today, the Feline Conservation Foundation puts that number at 10,000. Other estimates get up towards 20,000, and there is general agreement among biologists that the decline continues.  But it is no doubt quite in line with the image Cartier’s ad folks want to convey for the jaguar to remain painfully rare – just like their diamonds and emeralds. So from Cartier’s perspective it is something of a tossup.  Since the jaguar is not yet on the brink of extinction, we  don’t really need to support its conservation.  After all, we don’t want them to become commonplace – like squirrels or chipmunks.  So much for a pragmatic argument.

 

But isn’t there a philosophical case?   Isn’t there an ethical obligation for a company which is profiting from using – dare I say exploiting – a wild animal whose habitat is being nibbled away by palm oil plantations and whose numbers are being reduced by hunters and trappers on the payroll of cattle ranchers to step forward and help tip the balance a bit in the jaguar’s direction?  If Tiger Woods gets tens of millions of dollars to be shown wearing Nike footwear isn’t it fair to expect Cartier to do something for the jaguars that wear their diamond studded collars?

 

Well, there’s a pretty strong headwind against the fairness argument when talking about the treatment of animals as opposed to that of people.  We don’t think twice about stepping on ants on the sidewalk but we certainly tread carefully when little children are underfoot.  And what about the cattle in feedlots and what comes after all that corn?  I won’t even go there.

 

Still, I can’t shake the feeling that Cartier really should contribute and contribute significantly to jaguar conservation, and if I can’t make a strong case that they owe it to the jaguars at least I think they owe it to…… me  –  and to the rest of us for whom the continued existence of this iconic animal in big tracts of wilderness is important, and to those for whom the idea that they might actually spot one in the wild some day holds great value.  And what about those indigenous peoples who have considered the jaguar a living deity for centuries – some of whom are probably working for trivial wages in the mines from which Cartier gets its gems?  Isn’t it right that a bit of the money cycling around between Cartier stock owners and the folks buying the diamond necklaces (many of whom are no doubt one and the same) be diverted to support the animal responsible in part for maintaining the speed of that cycle?  After all, if the value of those necklaces is enhanced by this iconic animal shouldn’t some of that added value cycle back to support the continued existence of that icon?  Don’t iconic animals add richness to the world and to the qualities and ideas for which they stand and doesn’t that create an obligation on those who use those animals for economic gain?

 

And if that ethical argument is not watertight perhaps we need a new ethics.  One in which, a priori, value gained by using  – either physically or in imagery – an object of nature would engender an obligation to contribute to the ongoing worldwide welfare of that natural object.  So, Cartier would contribute to the conservation of jaguars, Weyerhaeuser would contribute to the preservation of virgin forests, commercial fishermen would donate some of their earnings to ocean conservation.  The world would certainly be a better place.  Isn’t that the goal of ethical principles after all?  So, even if we have to invent some new ethical principles, I hope I’ve made the case that Cartier should contribute to jaguar conservation.

 

Of course the Cartier jaguar would not be the only species to benefit were this principle to be widely adopted. There’s Gorilla Glue, Jaguar Automobiles, the MGM Lion, the Chevy Impala, the Dodge Ram, the Mercury Cougar, Wolverine Boots, Eagle Claw Fish Hooks.  And then there are those professional sports teams – the Detroit Lions, the Miami Dolphins, the Atlanta Falcons, the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Carolina Panthers. The list goes on and on.  Each of those businesses must  profit, to some degree, from the use of those creatures in their marketing.  Isn’t it reasonable to expect each one to step up to the plate?

 

Well, perhaps they do, but a search of the web sites of several organizations  involved in jaguar conservation – The Jaguar Conservation Fund, Panthera, Defenders of Wildlife, The World Wildlife Fund, Feline Conservation Federation and the Born Free Foundation – yielded no evidence of a Cartier contribution.  The Cartier website, while loaded with jaguar images and multiple jewel-encrusted renditions of jaguars, made no mention of any contributions or activities in the conservation domain.

 

I’ll admit right up front that my search has not been exhaustive.  But just as we all know that Nike isn’t getting those images of Tiger Woods for free, you’d think that it would be common knowledge that whenever the image of some iconic species was used to promote a product or a service, that species would be compensated.  And since that, at the present time, does not seem to be common knowledge, my cynical nature tells me that it is probably not commonplace – even though it should be.


So if any of you gentle readers happen to play golf with the CEO of an outfit that makes use of one of these species, please plant the seed.  If they would just pass the word on to their VP for marketing maybe all those conservation organizations which keep sending me pleas for a tiny contribution wouldn’t need to do so quite as often.

On Not Heating With Wood

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Heading home after an early morning meeting on  a recent wet, raw October day I found myself looking forward to building a fire in the wood stove. Then I recalled that we were planning to avoid wood fires for a while to see if it made any difference in the symptoms of a family allergy.  So I’d just have to rely on the oil burner.  But  I was surprised by how disappointed I felt.  What was the trouble?

 

It wasn’t entirely the cost.  It wasn’t one of those ten below zero days when the furnace would grind away ninety percent of the time to keep the house tolerable.  It would only take a few minutes to warm up the place, and because of all the weatherization we’ve done over the years it would remain warm for quite a while before the thermostat called for more heat.  And anyway the price of fuel oil is way down because of all the shenanigans of the marketplace.  I do admit to being pretty thrifty but it wasn’t all the cost.

 

And it wasn’t guilt, even though  I’m plenty concerned about climate disruption and the environmental degradation from burning fossil fuels.  After all, I drive a Prius, I look for Energy Star appliances whenever one needs replacing, and, thanks to my wife’s urging, we have lots of solar panels.  I also try to do my part to persuade our elected officials to ignore all those bogus arguments and huge campaign contributions from the oil, gas and coal folks.  So a couple of pints of heating oil on a raw fall day won’t tarnish my crown in heaven too much.

 

It took me a while to figure out what was going on, but I think I finally did.  I was disappointed because I like the process of firing up the woodstove and feeling the results of what I’ve done.  I like crumpling up the newspaper – not so tightly that it resembles a log, but loosely enough that the ratio of air to compressed wood fibers permits rapid combustion.  I like laying on just enough kindling – not enough to smother the burning paper but enough to sustain the fire as I lay on larger wood. I feel competent when I do those things and as I do, I am reminded that the wood came from a local tree which has a set of its own amazingly efficient small green solar panels that capture the sun’s radiant energy and store it as chemical energy in the covalent bonds of cellulose being laid down silently all summer right beneath the tree’s knobbly bark – no associated air pollution, no multimillion dollar XL Pipeline, no terrorist threats.   Thinking about all that as I make the fire is better than watching some morning TV talk show.  But missing that process, it turns out, is only part of my disappointment.

 

Another part, I think, has to do with having a broader understanding of my world and where I fit in.  When I build that wood fire – and this is especially true if I’ve cut down the tree and worked up the wood myself – I understand some of the implications.  I know, sort of, how long it took that tree to grow.  I think about how big my woodlot is and whether the steady growth of the hardwoods is greater or less than the rate at which I am taking trees down. In short I have a pretty good idea of whether my woodburning is sustainable.   I also know that by harvesting a tree when I do, instead of letting it die in place, that tree will no longer provide a home first for woodpeckers and then, perhaps a kestrel;  that I’ve messed with the ecology of my woodlot; that it’s not quite as rich a habitat as it would have been were the tree  left standing.    I understand those tradeoffs in a much more immediate way than the tradeoffs involved in opening the Arctic Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.  And I also have a pretty good idea about the real costs of staying warm through a whole New Hampshire winter – how many person hours it takes to get that wood down, cut up, split, processed and moved into the cellar before the snow flies.

 

But I’ve saved the best ‘til last.   I realized that the biggest reason I was disappointed by not building a fire in the woodstove when I got home is that I am a control freak. I like to be in charge. I like knowing how to do stuff and calling the shots on how it is done.

 

So, aren’t I in charge when I turn up the thermostat?  Well, no, not really.   I  don’t have much of an idea about how to find oil – though I do know that it sometimes involves setting off underwater explosions which risk blowing out the eardrums of some of earth’s biggest and most mysterious creatures .  I don’t have a clue about how to drill for oil – though I am aware that doing so creates some pretty ugly international relations and often involves opening up pristine wilderness.  I don’t have any idea where to buy a drilling rig or how to set it up or where to hire the crews to man it or who to schmooze with to get the best price when and if the stuff finally comes up out of where it’s been for the last hundred million years.  I don’t have any idea about how to hire a tanker, or determine whether or not the tanker skipper is likely to be drunk when he approaches some reef.  I just know that when I call up my oil company they deliver some oil so my burner comes on when I turn up the thermostat.  All the rest of the stuff is under somebody else’s control and I just don’t like it.

 

So as soon as we figure out that those allergy symptoms aren’t related to the wisps of smoke that occasionally escape while I’m stoking the stove, I’m going back to heating with wood.

A Surfeit of the Humanities

Science-and-humanities

When the academy bisected its world into “arts” and “sciences” it made a big mistake, for the two are no more separate than 18th century literature from eighteenth century history, or chromosomes from the laws of chemistry and physics. By choosing to confer either a Bachelor of Science or a Bachelor of Arts degree, the world of higher education created a false dichotomy from which seekers of truth have yet to recover.

Keats had it right. “Beauty is truth; truth beauty.” So did Einstein. “Science without religion is lame.” Einstein took the idea further. “A human being is part of a whole, called by us ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest… a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us…. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Reading about writing and scanning multiple book reviews has created concerns. Clearly, the great majority of today’s literary scene is directed inwards. The modern focus is on one’s thoughts and one’s feelings – either directly or by proxy. Identification with – becoming, if you will – an imagined character is paramount. Abstractions trump physical reality and our interactions with it. In Conversations with Saul Bellow, the great novelist intones, “We live among ideas much more than we live in nature.” To me, that’s like saying we need air more than we need water. I prefer Keats’ vision.

Fortunately, in the 1960’s, medical schools were enthusiastic about accepting non-science majors, and, after forty years of doctoring, I remain as convinced as I was during my physiology class that my professional “training” in medicine was a seamless extension of my Bachelor of Arts in English. Even today, medical school commencement speakers regularly precede the word “medicine” with the phrase “science and art of…”. And while the Nobel Prize in Medicine is always granted to an experimental scientist, the best doctors apply the humanities in the same way that they apply scientific knowledge. Close observation of Picasso’s Guernica enhances the psychiatrist’s ability to treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Reading The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down improves the care a neurologist can render the young woman suffering from epilepsy.

And there are some signs that the gap is closing beyond medicine. Magnetic Resonance Imaging paints arresting pictures of the brain listening to music. Composers write music based on the sounds and rhythms of brain waves.  Award-winning novelists draw on genetics to enrich their characterizations while award-winning scientists publish novels exploring the biologic and behavioral similarities of ants and men. And a young independent publishing house which has already put forward several bestsellers and prize winners announces in its mission statement its devotion to publishing “literary fiction and nonfiction at the intersection of the arts and the sciences….”

A great deal could be gained if the distinction were further blurred and more thinkers and artists turned their attention to bridging the centuries-old gap. We need more animations like The Inner Life of the Cell and fewer like How to Train Your Dragon. We need more books like Anthill and fewer sequels to Fifty Shades of Grey. We need more music like Paul Winter’s Prayer for the Wild Things and less Gangsta Rap. We need ethicists to reflect more on how we treat the planet and not exclusively on how we should treat one another. And we certainly need more scientists like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson and fewer curmudgeonly researchers complaining that “popularizers” are somehow a lesser breed of scientist.

Great angst is now being expressed among university faculties in departments of arts and humanities over the dramatic decline in interest in their courses. Fingers are often rightfully pointed at the ascendancy of the almighty dollar in today’s culture and the lure of courses which will insure access to the high-rolling districts of the job market. But a fair amount of the blame, I would submit, should also go to the fact that people simply have had enough anthropocentric omphalospection. Enough detailed dissections of tortured interpersonal relations. Enough obsession with obsession. Despite what Ptolemy thought, we humans are not the center of the Universe and the sooner we turn our full attention to the grandeur and wonder of the full range of its intricacies and our modest place among them, rather than how to exploit them, the better.