Terracide

 

 

The Pillory at Charing Cross in Microcosm of London 1809

 

 

 

It is now nearly three decades since physicist James Hanson, then head of the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City, warned the United States Senate in formal testimony of the dangers of continued CO2 emissions .  The mountains of supportive evidence accumulated since then is surely enough to convince any reasonably thoughtful person of the urgency of the problem.  In spite of this a recent Yale University survey found that 30% of Americans continue to deny that the earth is warming and 45 % deny that human activity is a major contributor. 

 

Those deniers, I believe, fall into three categories  The majority are likely those never adequately exposed to critical thinking.  Many come from disadvantaged backgrounds – poor schooling, family dysfunction, lack of mentors or role models, economic hardship – all colluding to give daily survival and momentary pleasure precedence over learning the skill of thinking things through or carefully considering the sources of information.  Others are unfortunate in very different ways, living lives so privileged, thanks to the work and good luck of forbears, that it is simply a fact of life that good things happen – the refrigerator is always full, college admission comes as a result of family philanthropy, inheritance is carefully tended by “wealth managers” who magically open doors to “the goals you set”.  There is no need for critical thinking on their part either.

 

But there is a small, sinister third group who, for reasons of rank self-interest, have used their wealth and/or power to sponsor a sophisticated campaign designed to convince others that talk of human-induced climate change is “fake science.”  Experts in climatology are accused of grandstanding and industry-sponsored research is trotted out to support claims that the issue is not yet settled. Without the disinformation campaign paid for and promoted by this third group things would be different. Our country would still be a member of the Paris Climate Accord, the fraction of our energy coming from green sustainable methods like sun and wind would be much greater and we would be rivalling Europe in the speed of our pivot away from fossil fuels.  But instead the Denial Bogeyman thrives.

 

The crime presently being committed by those wealthy and powerful individuals who have been leading the charge merits adoption of a new word. “Terracide” comes to mind..  Though the term has cropped up now and then ( The Hammer of God by Arthur C.Clark, 1993; Ethics for a Small Planet,  by Daniel C. Maguire & Larry L. Rasmussen 1998; Greenstone Rising by Andrea Wright 2013),  it has yet to have achieved wide enough usage to merit an entry in the Merriam-Webster online or print Dictionary).  Nonetheless, it surely deserves more widespread use. For unless the by-now highly improbable happens and humanity is able to drastically reduce its CO2 production, the heinousness of this crime will surely surpass mere genocide as not only millions of humans die of disease, displacement and famine but in addition untold numbers of other living species and whole ecosystems disappear forever.  Like the perpetrators of genocide, however, many of the influential leaders of denial will try to slink into the shadows and scrub history of their complicity.  I think they deserve something different.

 

Though the concept of “war crimes” can be traced from the 1400’s, it took nearly 600 years for a widely agreed upon legal definition of inappropriate wartime behavior to be formally codified at the Hague Conventions of the early twentieth century. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_crime.  And despite the fact that “crimes against humanity” was a phrase introduced to describe actions taken by Leopold II in the Congo Free State in 1890 and  was used frequently in the war crime trials following both world wars, codification of such a crime in international law has not yet occurred.  So there is no reason to imagine that there will be conventional legal tools to punish perpetrators of terracide within the foreseeable future.  Indeed, there is not even a way to assure that history, as it unfolds, will appropriately vilify the major leaders of the denial conspiracy.

 

Fortunately, there are many well-intentioned ongoing efforts to discredit this group of climate criminals. Non-profits like 350.org, the Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy, the Audubon Society, the Union of Concerned Scientists and many others have all fought back.  Not surprisingly, many of these organizations have a long history of other types of environmental protection but sadly this is like waving a red flag in front of the bulls of industry and those espousing less government intervention on any front.  The arguments raised in support of climate science are also, paradoxically, undercut by their reliance on detailed careful research and sophisticated modeling – epistemological  methods many of the deniers…….well…… simply deny.  So if facts and reason are ineffective, and there is no reason to expect deterrence to come from a threat of punishment imposed through a national or global legal system perhaps we might consider public shaming.  

 

Shaming is hardly new.  Among the better known examples – albeit a fictional rendition – is the punishment undeservedly meted out to Hester Prynn for adultery in The Scarlet Letter.  But public humiliation as punishment goes back a long way.  Dr. Mathew Green, author of London, a Travel Guide Through Time notes a variety of shaming techniques in medieval London including shaming parades,  scold’s bridles, cucking stools and pillories.  Dr. Green reports use of the latter for a variety of specific crimes including “conjuring, fraud, blasphemy, perjury, slander, attempted sodomy, and spreading false news……” (bold italics mine!) .   Shaming by pillory was hardly restricted to the dark ages or to the Old World.  A public pillorying apparently occurred in Delaware in 1901.  And in modern academic journals of law there is ongoing discussion of shaming as an appropriate form of punishment and deterrence. 

 

Shaming certainly deserves consideration as punishment and deterrence for the perpetrators of denial but it would be ideal if, at the same time, we preserved for future generations the identities of the powerful and wealthy who still are obfuscating the science and dragging around red herrings – even now as record storms pummel our coasts, species disappear at a dizzying rate and the planet’s temperature marches upwards.  Here is a modest proposal.

 

Visualize a Mount Rushmore-scale rock carving – done, of course on private, property and paid for by a crowd-funding campaign drawing from the millions of citizens dismayed by what the eminences grises behind climate denial have done.  There, in gigantic scale, the visages of Donald Trump, Scott Pruitt, Rick Perry and Edward Koch would stare wide-eyed out at a fitting barren desert landscape – beads of sweat prominently carved on their brows, handkerchiefs mopping their foreheads as stylized flames lick up from the surrounding earth giving the setting a hellish ambiance.  Carved into the rock beneath each towering diaphoretic bust would be a memorable quote.  “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” Donald Trump: November 2012.   “I would not agree that it’s (CO2’s) a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.” Scott Pruitt: March 2014.  “China and India are going to do what they’re going to do anyway. So we just hurt ourselves, even under their theory. And their theories aren’t working very well, because they keep predicting all these theories that aren’t happening..”Charles Koch: June 2016 . “…..this idea that science is just absolutely settled and if you don’t believe it’s settled then somehow you’re another Neanderthal, that is so inappropriate from my perspective.” Rick Perry: June, 2017. “The problem is that we don’t understand what the effects [of climate change] are. There are no models that exist…” Ryan Zinke June 2017

 

Such a monument will at least preserve the identities of some of the key perpetrators of terracide and who knows, the shame it communicates might even begin to have some deterrent effect as the steadily mounting evidence for major  human-induced climate change becomes more and more undeniable.

 

 

 

 

 

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Words, Coming and Going

   

 

As a grandfather, I now regret my misguided childhood indifference to the snippets of my own grandparents’ talk about being taught Polish grammar in their basement.  They had been born in Poland in the late 1800’s – a time when their homeland had been “disappeared” under the welter of partitions of the previous century.  Their basement home schooling was a response to the criminalization of the use or instruction of their native tongue – one of many efforts by Tsar Alexander II to Russify the Polish Slavs. If only they were alive today, how I would be pressing them for details!

 

Of course using the eradication of a language as a weapon to murder a culture isn’t something restricted to countries other than our own.  In a recent edition of Orion magazine –  that wonderful ad-free chronicler of the natural world – Robin Wall Kimmerer writes of her Potawatomi grandfather being sent to the Carlisle Indian School of US Cavalry officer Captain Richard Henry Pratt at around the same time the Tsar was busy throttling Polish.   There, children were forbidden from using the Potowotami language as part of the school’s avowed purpose, in the founder’s own words, as a means to “kill the indian and save the man.”    To Pratt’s credit, he was among a minority of conquering Americans who did not consider native Americans to be ‘subhumans’ and is credited with being one of the first people to use the term ‘racism’ in a pejorative sense to criticize policies of racial segregation .  But his willingness to blame the native American way of life while apparently believing in the individual native American’s biological equality bespeaks the complexity of issues of nature vs. nurture.

 

Kimmerer goes on to explore ways English and Potowotami portray different views of the relationship between man and the rest of the world – perhaps best exemplified by the familiar pronouns ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘it’.  In English the two former are reserved almost exclusively for fellow human beings and the last for nearly everything else.  The Potawatomi tongue, however, avoids pronouns and relies more on verbs and word placement in their stead.  Verbs come in two forms, one which relates to inanimate objects (‘it’ in English) but the other for animate ones.  As a result, humans stand on equal footing with flora and fauna and even, possibly, some important rocks.  As Kimmerer so eloquently puts it:

 

“You hear a blue jay with a different verb than you hear an airplane, distinguishing that which possesses the quality of life from that which is a mere object (italics are mine).  Birds, bugs and berries are spoken of with the same respectful grammar as humans are, as if we were all members of the same family. Because we are.  There is no it for nature…………..personhood is extended to all who breathe and some who don’t. I greet the silent boulder people with the same respect as I do the talkative chickadee.”

 

Kimmerer takes her thoughts two steps further.  In  one she explores ways in which blurring the bright English linguistic line between humans and the rest might ameliorate the harm done by the extractive, capitalization-heavy foundation of much of modern Western civilization.  In the other  she considers replacing  ‘he’ and ‘she’ as well as ‘it’ with the word ‘ki’.  Then she reflects on how this might even help us be more humble and worshipful when we exploit a natural resource or take a non-human life.  (It might also, it seems to me, serve to defuse some of our counterproductive gender conflicts.)

 

Authoritarian linguicide, however, is not the only way cultures and worldviews can be eradicated.  Robert Macfarlane in his wordly-wise book, Landmarks, explores historical word disappearance and reflects on how this may mirror or influence our thinking.  In the process he reports that the Oxford Junior Dictionary’s newest edition has made some telling, and to my mind sinister, substitutions:

 

“Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture, and willow. The words introduced to the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player, and voice-mail.”

 

The logic behind the editors’ choices is clear and largely driven by modern usage, but the implications give one pause, or at least should.   Aside from frequency of use those new introductions are all products of the human brain with all its limitations and distortions. Somebody or somebodies had an idea and that drove each word’s creation.  But the deleted words had a different origin.  Somebody standing under an oak got bopped on the head by something, or was gathering nutlike things to grind into flour, or saw a squirrel running off with something in ki’s (sic) mouth and needed a word to describe the object.  The real meaning, the full meaning, the comprehensive meaning of the thing the word ‘acorn’ stands for is enormously – perhaps infinitely – complex and ranges from the genetic code it contains, the symmetry and biochemistry of the acorn itself, the magnificent oak tree it has the potential to produce etc., etc.  And those new introductions?  I’ll admit some of them are kind of complicated.  I can’t begin to explain how broadband works.  But there are lots of people who can and some body or some team of somebodies thought it up and got it to work. Every one of those new introductions signify the physical manifestations of someone’s idea and therefore are entirely limited by the creative imagination of a mere person.  The word ‘acorn’ and all those other deletions signify the creative imagination of something very else.  

 

Weaponizing the eradication of a language to murder a culture may be more sinister than the Oxford editors’ actions.  But the consequences – unintended or not – are similar.  The Oxford Junior Dictionary’s linguistic move forebodes an eradication of awareness of the natural world through death by a thousand cuts.  As an act of resistance, when my grandchildren come to visit I plan to take them down to the basement and talk to them about acorns, newts and otters.

Sights Sounds Smells and Scotoma

1920px-migraine_aura

A good movie draws me in. I soon forget I’m sitting in a large hall surrounded by strangers.  I forget I’m looking at a flat surface from which millions of tiny mirrors are reflecting back the colored light from a projector.  I grimace and laugh at the predicaments of the characters with whom I am identifying or I ooh and aah at the startlingly close scenes of iconic animals and their remarkable behavior.  When I go to an iMax theater the experience of an alternate reality is especially intense.

I occasionally get a visual scotoma https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scotoma.  When I do I notice a flickering arc of sparkles overlaying  part of my vision.  I can’t look at it directly; if I try, the shimmering rainbow moves so as to remain in the same part of my visual field, always a bit off to one side.   Closing one eye or the other makes no difference.

I know neither the movie nor the flickering rainbow is “real”.  If I reach out to touch the scotoma I feel nothing.  It is well established that the scotoma is originating not in my eyes or in the nerve fibers that transmit the series of blips from individual light receptors in my retina.  Instead it originates in the part of my brain where these digital sequences are being reassembled into a visual image and relayed to my consciousness.  Most of the time, I take for granted that  what I see is exactly what is out there, plain and simple.   But the scotoma makes me reconsider. Here is what I mean.

Right now I am looking at the surface of my desk:  brown wood with sheets of white paper here and there; a shiny metallic pencil sharpener, some pencils, my computer screen with its flashing cursor and below it some black shiny keys on which are printed white letters and numbers.  From past experience I know there is no arc of flashing lights on my desk but it certainly looks to me as though it is there on the surface now.  That part of my brain reconstructing those blips is temporarily malfunctioning.  It is creating its own version of what I am seeing.   Then I imagine that I am a dolphin.

If I were a dolphin, that scotoma might still be there – but this time it would be a stuttering arc superimposed over a somewhat different reality. That reality would almost certainly not be the product of visual inputs.  Rather it would be assembled from the rich series of blips coming back to my brain from my acutely sensitive acoustic machinery as it picked up the returning echoes of the clicks I was sending out.  Instead of a brown grain-patterned desk surface my dolphin brain would be reconstructing a medium hard, ever-so-slightly-rough flat surface, though the edges and general shape would still be that of the desk I am working at. The sheets of paper scattered about would be there but probably perceived as rectangles with a slightly smoother texture than the desktop itself.  That metal pencil sharpener would probably be very “bright” and the pink pencil eraser tip – soft echo-damping rubber that it is – would probably be just a smudge.  The white letters of my computer keyboard  would be indistinguishable, echo-wise, from each hard plastic computer key on which it is printed – unless, of course, they were embossed there as well.  

But there would be more to it. Depending on the strength of my clicks and the sensitivity of my receiving apparatus I might even perceive a second layer  of objects – the stuff in the top drawer beneath the  desktop.  By assembling a second fainter series of returning echoes which vibrated their way back and forth through the desktop and created a sound silhouette of the rulers, stapler, paper clips and cough drops I keep in the underlying drawer, my dolphin consciousness would be “seeing” – or rather “hearing”- through the desk surface much as we see through a window. Of course the distant scene my human self looks at through that completely echo-opaque pane of glass, to my dolphin self, would be invisible.

And then there are bats.  Probably the same deal as dolphins.  After all, they fly around at high speed in total darkness and zero in on thousands of mosquito-sized insects nightly.  And what about the moles chasing earthworms and grubs under our lawn. What does their underground landscape “look” like.  And how would my desktop and computer “appear” to the mole after it had snuffled all over my desk and sniffed its entire surface in order to “see” it.

Any observant dog owner knows that the sensory input of greatest meaning  to their pet is not the incoming photons reflected off the surface of things, or the sounds it is hearing but the molecular traces of organic compounds wafting in the rivers of air through which it runs.

Some years ago, my wife and I were walking along the edge of a pond near our house with Mocha, our sweet labrador retriever.   About ten yards ahead we watched a sinuous brown mink emerge from the pond, run humpy inch-worm style across the path and disappear on the other side – all well out Mocha’s line of sight since she’d fallen a bit behind – probably sniffing the water’s edge for dead frogs she could roll in.  Shortly, she came bounding forward at full speed to regain her traditional position as pack leader.  Then, running pell-mell ahead of us, mid stride she appeared to hit a brick wall.   Head buckling under her front legs she did a full somersault – right where the mink had crossed the path moments earlier.  Like the act of throwing up one’s hands in response to an object flying fast at one’s face, that scent had triggered a set of reflexes just as powerful in Mocha.  After taking a moment to get a sense of where she had ended up, she bounded into the brush over the precise path the mink had followed.  It certainly looked as if that scent had instantaneously constructed in Mocha’s mind a useful version of the reality surrounding us, and one, incidentally, of which we humans were entirely unaware.  

After I began thinking this way I found myself playing this mind game now and then. I wonder what Helen Keller’s mind-map “looked like” to her.  Was it  an exclusively tactile representation of her surroundings similar to the one the blind heroine of Anthony Doerr’s wonderful novel, All the Light We Cannot See https://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/11/books/review/all-the-light-we-cannot-see-by-anthony-doerr.html, gets from retracing with her finger the scale model of her town crafted by her father?

So let’s take this one step further.  Most of us are familiar with those eerie recordings of whale sounds.  The deep rumbles and songlike bleeps that carry long distances under water and are presumed to be whale communication.  In the past, when I’ve thought about this, I’ve imagined that what was going on was some sort of message or, if whales are as sophisticated as some believe, a kind of wordy symbolic language.  But if you are willing to imagine that a dolphin or a bat may be reconstructing a three dimensional landscape from returning echoes, what if those whales are actually sending out sounds from which the recipient whales’ brains immediately construct some sort of real-time landscape. Maybe the pitch and timbre of those deep booms paint a picture of the blue green seascape through which the whale is diving,  and those bleeps become, in the recipient whales consciousness, a school of soft tasty squid – the whole forming a virtual copy of the sending whale’s version of reality in the recipient’s consciousness.  Wouldn’t that be something!

It’s not beyond the realm of possibility, if you think about it.  If a series of blips from our retina can reconstruct a sweeping visual landscape, if a sequence of four base pairs can recreate an entire organism, if a series of zeros and ones can create in our headset a 360 degree visual “virtual reality” why can’t those booms and bleeps transmit a whole non-visual but equally “real” reality in a whale’s brain. Instead of trying to figure out what whales are “saying” to one another in words perhaps we should try to decode their communications into a wordless but perhaps even more meaningful representation of what is going on in the sending whale’s consciousness.

As I’ve reread the drafts of this piece, I’ve grown increasingly self-conscious of the number of times I’ve put words in quotes. Usually when I read something peppered with this kind of punctuation I find it offputting and wish the writer had just said what they meant.  But when I try – as I have – to avoid using quotes in this essay it weakens my intended meaning.  Words like “appear”, “visible”, “bright”, etc do not have full equivalences for mentally reconstructing a non-visually dominated world.   I am also becoming increasingly aware of how our sensory hierarchy shapes our language and how both shape our “view” of the world – points more deeply explored in David Lukas’s interesting book, Language Making Nature http://www.humansandnature.org/creating-language-that-re-connects-us-with-nature.

But back to the movies.  I do my best to avoid the ones with a typical formulaic series of tropes – couple find each other, fall in love, meet danger, undertake heroic and risky acts, save one another etc.  But sometimes I make mistakes and find myself bored and distracted.  That’s when my dolphin self takes over and I find myself looking at a huge blank monoechoic screen.  Then my attention lurches elsewhere.  All around me sit perfect strangers, many of them quite lovely.   The distracting thing is that their clothing transmits echoes very well.  At that point the details of the reality surrounding me becomes much more compelling than any Hollywood drama.

Readers’ Terror Alert System

Words ought to be color coded.  Not necessarily the U.S. government’s once-upon-a-time five level system of fear and paranoia in which yellow, appropriately enough, recommended remaining scared in spite of no immediate threat.  A three level system will be sufficient for words.  Here’s how it will work.

Green words mean what they say, plain and simple.  Red words are communication suicide bombers; their meaning is assigned independently by the user and the usee. That can cause trouble.  A yellow word is somewhere in between the red and green ones; not entirely clear but safe.

“Twenty-six” is a nice green word.  It means the same thing to everyone who hears it.

The words for lower numbers, by and large, are yellow. “Two” calls to mind all sorts of things –  company? for tea?  to tango?  And consider “sixteen” – so sweet and never been kissed?  But twenty-six is twenty-six. Definitely green.

“Science” is a red word.  Webster’s says “science” means the state of knowing and that “scientific” means of, relating to, or exhibiting the methods or principles of science.  Why, then, do so many good writers speak of “scientific” facts? Are there unscientific ones?

And what about all those passionate people for whom “science” means a grand conspiracy intent on putting the oil companies out of business and making us ride bicycles, to say nothing of attacking their religion.   For them science is a four letter word.

Not surprisingly,  professional practitioners of science don’t feel that way.  For them, “science” seems to mean the best truth obtainable. And isn’t truth something absolute?  But then, don’t people of faith feel that way about their, well, Faith.  So Faith and Science are identical?  Seems unlikely.

When pressed, some scien-tists say that science is a method. They say they imagine how something works and then try to do something which they couldn’t do if their imaginary explanation was wrong.  They call it testing a hypothesis with an experiment but it all starts in their imagination.  If  they end up being able to do what they imagined they could do if their original imaginary idea was true, they feel as though they’ve found a new truth.  But then if someone else comes along with another experiment and it ends up showing the opposite they don’t give up on the scientific method.  They just keep imagining and doing experiments. Keeps them in business. So the next time somebody says “but it’s been scientifically proven” run for cover.

Now for “economy”. Back to Webster’s. “Thrifty and efficient use of material resources….efficient and concise use of nonmaterial resource…the arrangement or mode of operation of something…a system especially of interaction and exchange…the structure of economic life in a country.”  What’s that last one? An adjective used to define the same noun it’s derived from?  Would defining “blue” as a bluish color get us anywhere other than in circles?  For a word that was among the top two dozen used in the last presidential debates, Webster seems to have missed the boat entirely.  “Economy” is definitely red.

For lots of people, it seems, a good economy means “I have a job.”  For others it means “my 401 K is growing at 12%.”  For others it means “I can afford stuff.”  For our elected leaders it seems like the whole enchilada. If it’s good for the economy it is Good.   But wait.

Hurricanes are good for the economy.  They create jobs and demand for products.   So is sickness.  Pumps up hiring in the healthcare sector.   And credit card debt – means you’re a real patriot spending what you don’t have.  And cars that rust out after five years – no problem, helps the economy. Keeps those auto workers employed. Think about regulations that will reduce the toxicity of the air we breath?  No way, the economy will suffer. Clean water?  Same deal.  Lower greenhouse gas emissions?  Flies in the face of common sense.  I’m getting confused. Maybe this whole matter is so complex I need a philosopher to help me out.

Thomas Carlyle, a famous Scottish philosopher whose ethnic stereotype puts him among the very most economical people in the world called teachers of economics respectable professors of the dismal science.

A double red!  Watch out.!