Going….going……… gone?

 

You’d think an apocalypse would rate more than a single appearance in the news cycle but the subject briefly came and went in the magazine section of the New York Times: “The Insect Apocalypse is Here”.  In it staff writer Brooke Jarvis reports on a growing number of recent studies documenting a dramatic decline in insects.   And then it struck me. Once upon a time a drive in the country would leave our car windshield with a bad case of bug juice acne.  In fact it wasn’t unusual to hear an occasional “splat” when a particularly juicy airborne arthropod crossed the road at the wrong time.  When was the last time that happened?

 

Apparently it was this kind of casual observation that piqued the curiosity of some members of a club of bug watchers* in Krefeld, Germany whose unique techniques and compulsive archiving had them systematically measuring the mass of insects in German nature preserves since 1989. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0185809 Using standardized collection methods they were able to document an 80 percent decline in insect mass over 29 years. This quantitative analysis was entirely consistent with their casual observation that in 1989 a liter bottle was needed to hold the insects they collected at the site, while the most recent samplings required only a half liter bottle.  It also rang true for other observers who realized that now they ingested fewer bugs than they did several decades ago during bike rides through the Danish countryside.

 

The recognition of a tremendous decline in insect biomass puts into important context scores of previous carefully documented observations of the decline and extinction of  individual species and amplifies the significance of each. Instead of a large and growing number of soloists each singing their own woeful ballad we now have a huge orchestra and chorus singing and playing a single massive tragic symphony in a minor key.

 

The NYTimes magazine article strikes me as even more consequential than Rachel Carlson’s conservation milestone, Silent Spring.  Carlson called attention to the disappearance of iconic species at the top of the food chain – peregrine falcons,  eagles, ospreys – while the findings of the Krefeld group relate to species close to the bottom. The disappearance of birds of prey is an aesthetic tragedy.  Destruction of the opportunity of ever observing a falcon’s stoop or a fish hawk’s plunge is surely as great a loss for nature-lovers as destruction of Van Gogh’s Starry Night would be for aesthetes.  And the cultural damage from the loss of iconic species goes further – eroding the evocative choices of names for athletic teams (think Philadelphia Eagles), automobile brands (think Ford Falcon) and even military weapons (think the Marine helicopter V-22 Osprey).

 

But insects?  Hardly iconic, though they do grace the names of a few athletic teams (think Charlotte’s Hornets).  Unlike raptors, however, insects are a critical element in the earth’s entire ecosystem – pollinators of a great many of the plants that feed the herbivores (as well as us humans) and a major direct food source for legions of reptiles, amphibians, birds and freshwater fish.  

 

If the Krefeld study turns out to be the tip of an arthropodal iceberg –  if insect biomass worldwide is dramatically dwindling – three questions loom.  What is causing it? Does it matter? And, if it matters, what should we do about it?

 

Possible answers are already being tossed about to the first question:  loss of habitat to agricultural monocultures, widespread pesticide use, changing climate, a toxic mix of a variety of pollutants, some combination of all of the above.  Answers to the second question are no doubt divided for a variety of reasons. Among the “noes”: “Bugs are a nuisance – the fewer the better.” “I couldn’t care less – there are more important things, like my 401K, to worry about.” “I’m sure human ingenuity will find a way to replace any important function they are performing, if there are any.”  

 

Among the “yesses”: “I’m an alfalfa farmer and my income depends on pollinating insects.”  “No birds, no bats, no frogs or toads – life is going to be all plastic toys and video games.”  “OMG, of course it matters!! If crop and forage pollination depends on insects, what is going to happen to us??”

 

Once conventional wisdom finally reaches the conclusion that it matters, what next?  By then, there may well be more clarity about causation. But my money is on multiple whammies.

 

If I’m right and the decline is the result of climate change, widespread insecticide use, a multi-pollutant stew and habitat destruction from monocultural agriculture we are certainly between rocks and hard places or, if one prefers a more literary metaphor, we are faced with the choice of boiling, baking or ficasseeing our children before consuming them.  In fact, it is almost as hard to imagine sustaining our present life in a world with less land devoted to agriculture, free of pesticides and without massive fossil fuel consumption as it is to think of the absence of insects and all of the subsequent downstream effects.

 

One response to this Swiftian dilemma is acceptance of our fate.   This problem, like our individual mortality is unsolvable. Therefore make the best of the present moment.  

 

Another is acceptance’s close cousin, denial.  Perhaps even more tranquilizing than acceptance, with an identical outcome.  But if neither of those choices is appealing, where to start?

 

First don’t hunt for a silver bullet.  We got where we are as a result of uncountable small steps by many many people over many decades. Backtracking is going to be the same. And there is no shortage of where to start.  Decline bags when purchasing small items, reduce or end your use of garden pesticides, walk or bike on short trips instead of driving, work to elect enlightened representatives, join another environmental organization, set an example, talk it up etc. etc. and so forth. Meanwhile realize that  it is impossible to live one’s life in modern day America without contributing to the headlong rush to destruction in many ways, but by keeping the problem foremost in our minds and taking every opportunity to make one more tolerable favorable action after another we will end up taking two steps backwards – unwinding the problems we’ve caused – for every one we take on our present path towards an apocalypse which may well include a lot more than insects.

 

Given the importance of the Krefeld study, other confirmatory reports are certain to appear soon and capture a spot in the news cycle.   When that happens – and perhaps even before – we can expect professional pushback and disinformation from some predictable corporate players.,  Pesticide manufacturers, crop dusters, agribusiness, fossil fuel extractors, shippers and refiners and other deep pocketed likely suspects are no doubt already hard at work plotting their response.  And there surely will be a segment of the population ready to amplify it.

 

Recently at a neighborhood association discussion about doing away with two cycle gasoline powered leaf-blowers one community member asked.  “What on earth…… What on earth are we going to use to get rid of all those leaves? ” Hmmmm. Somehow only a generation or two ago we got along with a much more modest arsenal of ways to destabilize the entire earth’s balance.  Maybe we need to get out of the box we’ve been drawn into and reinvent things like a tool with multiple bamboo tines on the end of a long wooden handle that runs on muscle power.

 

             *If bird watchers now prefer to be called “birders” should we consider people interested in watching insects “buggers”?

 

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Mogielnicki’s minnow ?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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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.

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.

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.

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.