What’s a Bee Worth?



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)




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.


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


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


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


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.

Anthropocentric narcissism



Perhaps it makes sense that thousands of pages of the nation’s newsprint are devoted each day to whatever small local group has been most successful carrying or kicking an inflated leather sac into an arbitrarily designated space while following an arbitrary set of rules.  And perhaps it also makes sense that nearly all literature, television and cinema, when it is not devoted to the physical accomplishments of us humans, focuses on the dissection of every nook and cranny of the goings on between individual members of our species.  Fascinating by its absence, however, is the attention we pay to the rest of creation.


It hasn’t always been that way.  Back when we were coming down out of the trees, it was no less than a matter of life and death that we be keenly interested in what plants were fruiting when, where the big carnivores might be lurking, and the comings and goings of edible non-human protein. And as we became aware of spirituality, we perceived a spiritual element in all sorts of natural entities – thunder gods, sea nymphs, spirit bears – the list is very long.  But even back then, I suspect our interest in Them was primarily because of what They might do to or for US, though the stereotype of some cultures – Native Americans and some Hindu sects for example – is that attention to and care of all creation has great value for its own sake.


Where we are now is an entirely different matter.  Most of us in the developed world spend our days in manmade envelopes, untouched by a soft spring breeze or the gust of a thunderstorm, insulated from any part of the non-human world bigger than a gnat.  Many of us, when asked where our food comes from, immediately think of the supermarket down the street rather than the field or feedlot.  Most of us spend the majority of our days focusing our attention on more important or more entertaining things, like the Dow Jones average, the game being played by our city’s baseball team or the shenanigans of the characters in our favorite soap opera or TV series.


And just as some traits are beneficial in moderation but counterproductive or even dangerous when excessive ( a bit of anxiety helps muster the mental energy for difficult tasks but excessive anxiety – technically known as chronic anxiety disorder – is paralytic) an overdose of attention to the products, problems and passions of one’s own species to the exclusion of the rest of Creation is at least an impoverished way of being and perhaps is even pathological.  In fact, it may deserve its own medical moniker – perhaps excessive anthropocentricism or species-specific narcissism, chronic omphalospection or, for the scatologically oriented, species-specific caprofixation.


“Nonsense!” you may respond. ”Hasn’t our understanding of the way the world works, from the digestive tract of black holes to the intricacies of the genetic code grown exponentially? Haven’t we split the atom and mastered organ transplantation? Haven’t we been to the moon and back?”  Isn’t that proof positive that we are plenty interested?”


Well, there’s interest and Interest with a capital “I”.  Our interest in the World Out There is almost exclusively related to how it might serve our species’ interests.   By and large, we aren’t drawn to it in the same way we are to the revolving door narratives of soap operas or TV series.  We’re interested in it because it bears some promise of understanding ourselves better, helping us live longer, generate cheaper energy, or exploit new frontiers.  For the most part, we’re just not Interested in that stuff in the same way that we are in the domestic battles of our next door neighbors.


Personally, I think that is problematic on several levels.  At the risk of sounding woozy and weak kneed I’d say that overlooking the wonder and sacredness of The World Out There may be akin to a Christian’s forgetting all about the crucifixion and resurrection or a Jew’s forgetting about the Exodus.  Getting a bit more down to earth, I’d say that with a bit of attitude readjustment, many of us could find the mating behavior of praying mantises even more compelling than a TV character’s infidelity.  And even if we can’t pull ourselves away from the fascinating images of ourselves reflected in that sylvan pool, we need, for our own welfare, to realize that by ignoring what is going on in the world beyond us, our narcissistic species runs the real risk of letting the whole theater, upon whose stage it is strutting and fretting its hour, collapse around us for lack of attentive maintenance.

Is Lightman in the Dark about Nature?

It’s distressing when you come across something written by one of your literary heroes and find you disagree with them entirely.  That happened to me the other day when I came across a piece by Alan Lightman in the May 2, 2014 New York Times called Our Lonely Home in Nature.

Lightman is a distinguished physicist  – and the first person to receive a professorship in both the sciences and the humanities at MIT. You may know him from a wonderful little book of his called Einstein‘s Dreams.   It became an international best seller back in the early ‘90’s and in it,  each chapter has time behaving in a different way.  Sometimes it moves at different rates for different people.  Sometimes it moves forward in fits and starts.  Sometimes it flows backwards.  You get the idea.  It is a wonderful book.

Early on in his NYTimes essay, Lightman and I are on the same page. For all of recorded history, he says, humankind has had a conflicted view of nature.  In ancient times, we made awesome and frightening gods of the natural elements.  But, “Aren’t we a part of nature, born in nature, sustained by the food brought forth by nature, warmed by the natural sun?  Don’t we have a deep spiritual connection with the wind and the water and the land that Emerson and Wordsworth so lovingly described, that Turner and Constable painted in scenes of serenity and grandeur?…….In the other direction, nature is constantly given human qualities.”

If he had left it at that, he would still be one of my heroes, but he spoiled it all in the last few paragraphs.  Just because he and his wife have a close call while sailing during a storm, he goes way out on the wrong limb. “We are fooling ourselves”, he writes. “Nature is neither friend nor foe, neither malevolent nor benevolent.  Nature is purposeless.”

To this I would respond, “Lightman doesn’t know what he’s talking about “ but I say this not in a way to put the distinguished professor down or make him out to be any less brilliant than he certainly is.  It’s not really his fault.  As I have argued in an earlier post ( “Nature” Doesn’t Do the Job), the fault lies with our language.

Lightman’s close call at sea was with the “nature” of natural selection.  Enough bad judgements about being out on the ocean in uncertain weather and that “nature” will gradually rejigger the genes involved in our species’ ability to asses risk.  But the thing which drew him out on the ocean in the first place had something to do with the elation he says he experienced:  the “nature” of vistas, mountains, soaring trees, birdsong.  And there are so many others.

Lightman says later on,  “We may find nature beautiful or terrible, but those feelings are human constructions. Such utter and complete mindlessness is hard for us to accept.”   How’s that again?  Our human constructions are mindless?  Or does our mind, being part of nature, make nature mindful?

I feel like I’m jogging on a Möbius strip.  And maybe that’s not a bad analogy. Maybe being on one side of the choice (Nature = Randomness) and being on the other side (Nature = Mindfuness) are really the same thing.  To stretch things a bit further let’s treat that as an algebra problem:  Randomness = Nature = Mindfulness.  Or…..Randomness = Mindfulness!  Wow!  That’s beginning to sound like another one of my previous posts ( Random:Thoughts).  But if you’re not mathematically inclined perhaps there’s another way of thinking about it.  If you accept your own thoughts as real and mindful and you accept that you are a small subpart of the natural universe then there you are.  There are at least sparks of mindfulness in nature.

Personally, I think those sparks are just part of a much larger conflagration. In fact if I try to let go of the idea that my species is the central entity of the cosmos (an idea which has led us astray more than once in the past) I start imagining my mindfulness as a temporarily detached bit of a much larger source of enlightenment.

But I’m straying from my story.  Eventually Lightman does redeem himself and I have to give him a lot of credit for where his essay ends up – even though I don’t like how he gets there.  For Lightman’s final point is that since “nature” is not about to look out in any special way for us humans and the things we value, we jolly well better look after ourselves.  And that means taking care of the planet we depend on for everything.

Random: Thoughts

There’s an unfortunate choice being offered in the war between those two noisy gangs of soap-boxers –  intelligent designers and materialistic naturalists. The former preach a humanoid god with mundane thought patterns who set the world in motion in a week and now doles out  favors in response to His sycophants’ fervent prayers.  The latter – many of whom have earned impressive scientific bona fides – assure us that  their worldview puts us on a road to explain everything – including thoughts, feelings, and self awareness.  To me, explaining  those most real of realities exclusively in terms of particles, waves and forces is as far fetched as thinking  women descended from someone’s rib.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m definitely on board when it comes to new species originating through a hard-to-predict process of mutations, a few of which improve survivability in a specific environment.  Where I get lost is when I’m asked to leap from that to understanding why I decided to sit down this evening and write.

The materialistic naturalists will point out that an MRI done when I decided to do that would show activation of the very same part of my brain which buzzes in everyone else who gets a creative urge.  Well, if that is the end of it then the entire reason my car goes faster is that  I step on the accelerator harder.  It has nothing to do with the rate at which fuel is delivered to the vehicle’s combustion chambers, or the distillation of gasoline from crude oil, or the tankers which carried the crude from Saudi Arabia to Texas, or the process by which ancient ferns decomposed to make crude oil, etc etc.  What I mean is that there’s a lot more to it than pressing on the accelerator just as there’s more to it than a flash on the MRI in my frontal lobes.

If one winds the materialistic naturalist thinking back to its beginnings, one discovers…..chance.  Molecules bumping into one another randomly.  And after an uncountable number of random bumps among just the right combination of molecules over a very very long time finally just the right set of circumstances occur and – boom – we get the first molecule that is self replicating.  Then, very gradual change – evolution – over time, and the fittest ones survive.  Well, with effort, I can imagine all that happening too.  But the operational words here are “chance” and “random”.  There’s the rub.

The other day I overheard the following between two young women : “So, out of the blue, Tom calls up Mary and says he wanted to, like, break up!  I mean, it was totally random.”

It got me thinking.

The Online Slang Dictionary defines “random” as “unexpected and surprising.”

A more sober source – The Cambridge Dictionary of Statistics – says it means “Governed by chance, not completely governed by other factors.  Non-deterministic.”  Unfortunately there are no entries for either “chance” or “non-deterministic.”

But a traditional word referee -The Merriam Webster Online Dictionary – has this to say about the word “chance.”:

“Something that happens unpredictably without discernible human intention or observable cause.”

When you come right down to it, those words really mean “so complex we Homo sapiens can’t understand the chain of causation.”  We shuffle the cards and deal them out at random – but  if we had watched the shuffle in super slow motion and knew the order of cards in the original deck and had a really good memory and thought very very fast  we would know exactly what cards were being dealt to whom and why.  There were reasons the fellow across from us got that pair of aces.  There was just so much going on so fast no one could predict it.  And, by the way, neither we nor anyone else played a conscious role in making it happen.  Same thing with roulette, really.  And dice?  If we knew how hard they were shaken, the direction of all the forces, the torque of the crap shooter’s wrist and lots of other details we would know in advance exactly how they were going to land.  Those demonstrations in science museums where ping pong balls are dropped onto rows of pegs and end up arranged in a perfect Gaussian pattern?  Same deal.  Random just means really really complicated – so complicated that we mortals can’t follow the process.  It says nothing about ultimate order, or meaning, or purpose.

So when those strict materialistic naturalists preach that life is dictated by a series of random events, I don’t get the least bit depressed.  All they are saying is that they are just as much in the dark about ultimate causes as the rest of us!

And as for that conversation about breaking up?  I’m sure it was unexpected and came as a big surprise to the two young women and probably to Mary as well.  But I suspect there was a great deal of thought behind it by Tom.

Leaf Litter and Rubber Duckies

Imagine two big bins.  One is filled with rubber duckies, pottery shards, space shuttles, DVD’s, playbills, books, skyscrapers, electronic gadgets – stuff like that. It also has an annex full of intangibles like symphonies and TV shows and stories and ideas like democracy, altruism, truth etc. The other bin brims with feathers, pebbles, some pond muck, twigs, clam shells, stars, leaf litter and the like. Its annex of intangibles contains things we don’t really have words for – undiscovered natural laws, the arrival of a thunderstorm,  Dylan Thomas’s “force that drives the green fuse through the flower”, etc.  Now put those bins inside your head.  Sometimes I think that’s the way our minds are divided.


Popular brain science has long told us that our right and left brains work differently – one side more devoted to things like perceiving emotion, appreciating art, recognizing faces; the other side more devoted to reading text, speaking, math and logic.  Predictably, this is being proven a gross oversimplification.  No matter.  In the thought experiment I’m proposing I’m using mind as opposed to brain.  Think of brain as your computer and mind as its program.  Hardware vs software.  iPhone off the shelf vs apps.  Brain is where stuff is stored, sensations are processed and body parts are made to do their thing.  Mind is – well, nobody really knows for sure.  Its where we experience things like meaning, identity, attention, memories, associations, ideas, emotions.  And maybe even conceptualizing it as a place is off the mark.


So back to our bins.  They’re in the mind, not the brain.  And it has probably already occurred to you that bin one contains only man-made things; bin two contains everything else.   The man-made stuff has all cycled through at least one mind – sometimes many – before it became what it is.  It started out as an idea.  Then it was mulled over, reconceived, perhaps talked or written about – then eventually became transformed from the idea to a “realer” reality.  The stuff in bin two – well it’s there with no help from us.  And we often dig into bin two for the raw materials to make the stuff in bin one.


I imagine everyone’s bins being different – different in what they contain and how big they are.  And I imagine the two bins get different amounts of people’s time and attention.  Take Aldo Leopold.


Back in the early twentieth century, Leopold was a bureaucrat working for the US Forest Service who later became one of the founders of the modern conservation ethic and author of the ecologic masterpiece Sand County Almanac.  I imagine Leopold had a huge bin two – full of  hills and partridge, sandhill crane tracks in the mud, carcasses of white tailed deer brought down by winter starvation, the smell of March.  Of course, like the rest of us, he had plenty of stuff in bin one as well; firearms and fishing poles, typewriters and directives from his boss in the forest service. But his bin two was the really big one – about the same size as Rachel Carson’s.


Now for the questions.  Are the bin sizes of each of us fixed or expandable?  Is the way we divide our time between the two something we’re born with or does it evolve?  If it changes, what causes the change?


My mind wanders. In his book, Collapse, Jared Diamond rigorously documents thriving civilizations which imploded in response to abuse and neglect of natural resources:  think Maya, Easter Islanders, the Norse Greenland Community.  I imagine that many of those citizens, as things were falling apart, spent more time rummaging around their bin two – trying to figure out what was happening and doing their best to cope as their world collapsed around them.  And I can imagine an inner city youth – one whose experience of nature in the commonplace sense has been limited to grass growing between the sidewalk cracks and pigeons cooing on his tenement window – discovering on a school field trip to a nature preserve that he has a big but almost empty bin two.  But it seems that usually – by the time we reach our productive years, we’ve pretty well established the ways we look at things and what kind of stuff gets our attention.  For some, the best way to relax is an afternoon reading a book or watching football.  For others, it’s a hike in the woods or an afternoon in a duck blind.  And for many, of course, it’s something of a toss up.


So what?  People differ.  In matters of taste, there can be no disputes.  Problems crop up, though, when one kind of taste overpowers; when the taste for bigger houses or ivory jewelry or snowmobile access to National Parks  means disappearing forests or the loss of a chance of anyone ever seeing an elephant in the wild or disturbing the experience of silent wilderness snowshoeing.  That’s one reason it becomes useful to know if the bin sizes can be changed – and if so, how to do it.  But there are others.


Consider that rubber duck bobbing in a bathtub.  When 15 month old Julie points to the air-filled yellow blob and utters for the first time something that sounds vaguely like “duck” her parents cheer.  How could anyone be troubled by that?  Well, what if Julie never has the opportunity to get up close and personal with a family of precocial anseriforme hatchlings chasing emerging mosquitoes over the surface of a woodland pond? What if if her idea of “duck” remains for the most part in bin one even if, as she grows older, it is enriched to include the idea of a delicious piece of protein covered in orange sauce.  If things go like that there’ll be some pretty important voids.   There’ll be no wondering how that newly hatched ball of fuzz can emerge from its shell already knowing how to chase mosquitoes, no appreciation of the fact that those webbed feet – so effective at motoring the hatchling through the water – collapse with each forward movement to minimize resistance,  no sense of the timescale involved in accumulating and sorting through all the DNA changes that led to the feet doing that.  In short Julie’s view of the real world will be greatly impoverished and, if one is prone to exaggeration, potentially dangerously so.


And one more thing, though it’s difficult to articulate.  Since everything in bin one has already cycled through someone’s mind, it’s meaning – what it has to teach us about the reality outside ourselves – is already framed, simplified, reduced and focused for clarity of human understanding or singularity of purpose.  The stuff in bin two?  That’s the last frontier.  And it happens to have been the first one too.


But this thought experiment has run way amok.  Just about every Julie will soon enough realize that there’s a lot more to “duck” than the thing in her bathtub.  She’ll come to distinguish between artifice and the reality it is meant to represent.   Nonetheless, I’ll wager there are orders of magnitude more people today that have held a yellow rubber duckie than have held a warm, feather-light squirming fuzzball while its mother, naturally, quacked hysterically nearby and maybe even risked her life to retrieve it.  And it’s hard to imagine that doesn’t have important implications.