Tag Archives: climate change

Death of a Bug

The other day I squashed a bug. It was quite small, rather rounded in shape, and making its way slowly across the surface of my nightstand. I am usually not insecticidal, but having a bug of any conformation so proximate to my bed brings out my squeamishness. And recently my condo association had sent out a newsletter with an article about bedbugs. This was probably not a bedbug, but nonetheless, it had to die.

I regretted my brutality immediately. The poor thing had as much right to its life as I have to mine. In the great scheme of things, the life of a human is of really of no more importance than the life of any other creature. We got here through the same process of evolution as they did, and since I do not subscribe to any form of teleology, I do not consider Homo sapiens to be any more perfect nor any more the apex and fulfillment of some great cosmic plan than that poor bug and his cohorts. It is the attitude that we do count for more that has led to so much environmental destruction and so much cruelty, not only to other animals but also to other people. For as eugenics exposed, the idea that humans are the perfection of evolution leads all to easily to the notion that my humans, the people of my group, are more fully perfect than yours. Hence, genocide.

It is therefore not surprising that good souls who reject cruelty to other people also reject cruelty to animals; and also not surprising what psychologists tells us of serial killers, that they tortured and killed animals in their childhoods. Many children, especially boys, do mistreat animals, at least of the insect kind (remember watching ants burst into flame under the magnifying glass?), but most children, even boys, soon outgrow that tendency. Serial killers apparently do not, which suggests that there is an element of immaturity, even of that primitivism that can be both so charming and occasionally so alarming in children, in the serial killer’s makeup. Something having to do with the child’s sense of himself or herself as the center of the world, the world being that which was designed for one’s gratification.

There are other ways in which this juvenile belief that the world owes us gratification can be manifest. The despoiling of the natural world for profit, so that we may live in an abundance that exceeds what the world actually can supply to us, fits this bill. We take not only what is our natural due but also that which is the natural due of all the other creatures with which evolution has populated this planet, which is why so many are being driven into extinction (why so many already have been), and why, when we know perfectly well that our “lifestyles” are warming the planet, we continue to pillage as if there were no tomorrow—until one day perhaps there literally will not be.

Perhaps I am making too much of the squashing of a mere bug. I mentioned that we are the product of the same process of evolution that led to all other creatures, and that process is anything but benign. The process of life is the process of death. Virtually everything that lives does so by killing and eating some other living thing. Even a vegan lives by killing carrots and broccoli and mushrooms (do carrots scream in pain and terror when we yank them from the ground?) There is no escape from this round of death and life. The vegan may not eat any animal product, but his or her efforts make little difference in the great scheme of things—there are predators enough to override the effects of the vegetarian. That is how evolution works its mighty wonders.

Which is why I am not persuaded by those good souls who imagine that we can end suffering and wars and crime and all the other means and ways that we wreak havoc on each other and the world. I am not hopeful that we who live in the so-called developed world will rein in our greed for money and things for the sake of the planet or even for the sake of the starving and terrorized millions of so much of the rest of the world, or even for those who live within our own borders. Like all other creatures, we kill to live. Unlike other creatures, we can overkill. All too often we do, both literally and metaphorically.

That little bug on my nightstand was most likely harmless, at least to me, and maybe it even had some important function in the ecology of my apartment. Or maybe it was just quietly living its own life. I killed it anyway.

See also my “Requiem for a Tree” at this site.


Is Ignorance Like Color Blindness?

By ignorance I do not mean stupidity or prejudice, even though ignorance is often used as if it were a synonym of those two words. Stupidity in its strict sense is an incapacity to know, a kind of mental defect, though to use it in that sense today is considered rude and discriminatory. Mostly it is now used to indicate willful refusal to acknowledge the truth or to inform oneself of the facts. Some liberals like to refer to Trump voters as stupid, thereby dismissing them and their concerns as not worthy of attention.

Stupidity is often used as a synonym of prejudice, whose common meaning is basically to dislike anything or anyone not like oneself (with occasionally the added caveat that, if only the prejudiced person would just get to know whatever or whoever they dislike, they would lose their prejudice and even become a fan—if you’re afraid of pit bulls, for example, well, just get to know one and you will see what fine dogs they actually are). Prejudice in the strict sense, however, means to prejudge, to make a judgment before knowing anything or very much about a person or thing, and while often wrong, not always so. The child staring at broccoli on his plate for the first time, noting its cyanide green color and musty, death-like odor, is likely prejudiced against putting it in his mouth. Prejudice of the kind that is synonymous with stupidity is not always from lack of familiarity. Racist whites in the South were quite familiar with African-Americans, for example; their “prejudice” came from sources other than unfamiliarity.

Ignorance is simply absence of knowledge, and all of us are ignorant in a multitude of ways, even at the same time as we are knowledgeable about others. I am knowledgeable about the novels of Henry James but wholly ignorant of the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. This kind of ignorance, as opposed to that kind mentioned above, is akin to color blindness. The color-blind husband knows that he is color blind, so when dressing in the morning he will ask his color-sighted wife if the suit he plans to wear is blue or gray. He will probably also ask her to hand him his red tie, because he knows (because she has told him) that the green tie doesn’t go with either gray or blue. And would she please check that his socks match? He knows that there are colors even though he cannot see them, because people have told him that colors exist and that they can see them. He knows that he is color blind, even though he does not experience being color blind.

That sounds paradoxical, doesn’t it. But I think it’s true in a particular sense, a metaphorical sense. Genuine ignorance is like color blindness in that it can’t really be experienced. It’s not a state of being. What could ignorance feel like? What does color blindness feel like?

Certain persons like to refer to periods long in the past, say before the Enlightenment, as times when ignorance was rife in the land, as if it were a kind of plague from which those superstitious and benighted people unnecessarily suffered. This is an instance when “ignorance” is used in the pejorative, yet the question is, what in God’s name are those peoples of the past supposed to have known but didn’t? Were they willfully ignorant? Did they make no efforts to know what their modern critics think they should have known? What exactly is it that studious monks of the twelfth century should have known? Quantum physics? Germ theory? That God does not exist? If everyone were color blind, who would tell us of color?

Metaphorically speaking, we live in a world today when most people are color blind and only a few can see colors. Like the color-blind husband, we should listen to what the color-sighted have to say. Only a relative handful of people in the world understand the mathematics that is necessary to understand today’s physics; when they attempt to tell us in our language the truths of that physics, we really have little choice but to believe what they say, to place our trust in their vision. There is a larger, but still very much a minority, group of people who understand climate science sufficiently to make the determination that the world is warming and that human activity, particularly the burning of fossil fuels, is the primary, perhaps only, cause of that warming. We could draw up a long list of knowledge fields in which most of us are color blind. The husband who ignores his wife’s admonitions and walks out the door wearing one red sock and one green one is willfully stubborn. Those of us who reject the expertise of climate scientists are willfully ignorant. That’s stupid.

Joy Williams’ Ill Nature: A Review

First published in 2001, and now reissued in paperback by Lyons Paperback, Williams’ “rants and reflections on humanity and other animals” (per the subtitle), is a collection of essays on humanity’s destruction of nature and war against animals written in a tone of angry cynicism: anger at what we have done and are doing, cynicism that we will ever really do anything about it. These are powerful and disturbing essays on such topics as the destruction of the Everglades, the sterility of master planned developments, the cruelties of agribusiness and scientific research, the pseudo-philosophical blather that pretends to justify hunting (not a spiritual pursuit but an atavistic delight in slaughter), and over population. There is little of what passes for “reasonable” or “rational” in these essays, precisely because the reasonable and rational approaches to environmental issues and animal rights, among other topics, are Williams’ ultimate targets.

No reader can escape unscathed from these essays. As “consumers,” we are actively (definitely not passively) complicit in these crimes. Do you eat any kind of meat? Then you are an active supporter of agribusiness, which treats farm animals as units of production and commodities, not as living beings with hearts and minds that suffer in overcrowding, forced feeding, and production-line slaughter. Do you contribute money to the flagship environmental and animal protection organizations? Then you participate in the compromises and rational cost/benefit analyses that undermine the stated missions of these institutions. Do you want babies? Then you are contributing to over population. Do you visit nature preserves and national parks? Then you are endorsing the idea that Nature is something other than us, is something meant for sentimental recreation and resource management, that is, ours.

Williams does not let wildlife biologists off the hook. Snarky asides let us know that she has no patience with collaring and monitoring wild animals for the purpose of adding to human knowledge. She cites one admittedly astonishing and shocking experiment by Canadian scientists, in which they leased a number of pristine lakes and deliberately subjected them to pollutants of various kinds and concentrations in order to see what would happen. Not surprisingly, all life in the lakes died; the lakes themselves died. It will take decades if not generations for the lakes to recover. Why did the scientists do this? Everyone who wanted to know already knew what would happen, after all. Pollution is not a new phenomenon. Those who didn’t want to know paid no attention to the scientists’ experiments. They were pointless.

This experiment reminds me of one conducted by E. O. Wilson and Daniel S. Simberloff in the 1960’s, in which they “removed” the original fauna (mostly insect species) from small mangrove islands in Florida Bay by tenting and fumigating them with methyl bromide (in other words, they exterminated all the brutes) and then watched and waited to see how quickly they were repopulated. This is what passes for science these days. Wilson has been beatified not only by the scientific community (especially those who are temperamentally attracted to his theory of sociobiology) but by the public at large; he’s virtually the Pope Francis of naturalists. It’s too bad Williams, herself once a long-time resident of Florida, didn’t turn her attention to this experiment in her own back yard. Maybe she didn’t know about it.

There is, of course, a problem: Williams is a contemporary American woman, an owner and seller of land, a writer and a professor of writing. She owns dogs. The dog is the species which has been subjected to the most manipulation and disfigurement to suit human purposes and whims of all domestic creatures. Some breeds are so distorted that they can hardly breathe and can no long give birth naturally but have their pups routinely delivered by Caesarian section. None could survive for long in the wild, despite the fact that they are, genetically, wolves. All of which is to say that Williams, along with all the rest of us, cannot escape from the unnatural world we human beings have created—and continue to create: which is enough to infuriate anyone who cares to the extent that Williams obviously does. Of which there are too few to make any real difference to the big picture, in the long run.

What is happening on the scale of the big picture and the long run is the likely fact that we have already passed the tipping point on global warming (“climate change” is far too innocuous a term, meant to deflect the criticisms of deniers), that we already have far too many people on this planet and will have many more—too many for resource management schemes or renewable energy infrastructure to satisfy—, that wild elephants will probably be extinct within a decade or two, and that water and food shortages, along with the frustrations of crowded, poorly educated, and jobless young men, will lead to more and more deadly wars than we already have. Meanwhile, bioengineers cook up schemes for subjecting the forces of nature to human control, with results that are admittedly unpredictable. This fantasy is based on the false notion that Nature is a system; systems can be controlled, tinkered with, reset, understood.

Many years ago I read an article in some national magazine in which the author argued that, with Nature already gone or domesticated, we had no choice but to treat the earth as a great manmade garden. He seemed to think that we could, by means of our intelligence and technology, recreate Eden. that is, we could systematize nature. Apparently he had not noticed (most people don’t, although the writers of The Simpsons did), that Eden was a small paradise circumscribed by the rest of the world, that beyond the gates were death, disease, and hardship. After all, where else could God have cast them out to? God made or manmade, Paradise is a dream, a fantasy, in which all the untidiness and unpredictability of reality have been eliminated. Paradise, Eden, Utopia. Systems all. Rational. Reasonable. Impossible.

Who Cares What You Believe?

So far this year, wildfires have burned over 8 million acres of forest and wildlands in the far west, at a cost of millions of dollars in firefighting costs, economic losses and buildings and homes destroyed. Some people have died. Thousands of people had to be evacuated from their homes, many of whom now have no homes to return to. And the fire season is not yet over. When the last of the fires burns out, many more acres will have been destroyed.

No one knows just when the fires will end this year, but when they do, that will not be the end of the devastation. While in many places herbaceous plants will grow back within a few years, forests will not regrow for decades, if they ever do. If drought conditions continue, they never will, and the familiar landscape of the west will be permanently transformed. If and when the winter rains come (with some meteorologists predicting an El Nino season of heavy rains), major flooding, erosion and landslides are likely, further reshaping the landscape. If there are no or minimal rains, the drought will not be broken, and more municipalities will find themselves rationing water, or even running out of water altogether.

Meanwhile, California’s central valley, the so-called breadbasket of America, is drying up and sinking (as more underground water is pumped out to try to compensate for the lack of rain). Thousands of acres are no longer being planted, which means that less food is being harvested. If the drought continues, more land will be “retired,” food prices will spiral upward, and Americans will find their budgets strained.

The point of this summary is this: It doesn’t matter if people do or do not believe in climate change; it doesn’t matter if they blame natural cycles or human activity (burning fossil fuels) for climate change. These are matters of “opinion,” while the facts are that the west is drying out and burning up. The facts are that the costs are huge and not limited to today or next week, but will spread into the coming years and decades. Believe what you want. Fire and drought don’t care what you believe.

Can Humans Really Cause Climate Change?

I was listening to the Diane Rehm show today, on the topic of President Obama’s new proposals for reducing carbon dioxide emissions, when a man from Texas called in and stated, obviously in deep umbrage, that climate change is junk science. As proof, he pointed out that the last ice age ended with climate warming not caused by humans, so therefore climate change is natural—and only natural. He is not alone in asserting that climate change is junk science, and he is only one among many who point to the numerous instances of natural climate change, both cooling and warming, over the course of geological time.

It is true that the last ice age ended because of natural causes and was not caused by human activity. There weren’t enough humans back then to have much of an effect on climate, if any. But times have changed. Back then world population was less than one million. Today there are more than seven billion, and most of the geometric increase in population has occurred in the last 200 years (there were just barely one billion of us in 1800), and we have technologies that far exceed those that ice age man enjoyed, and almost all of our technologies are powered by fossil fuels: coal, oil, and natural gas. Because of our ability to re-shape the world in our own image, many scientists call the current era the anthropogenic age. Whereas in the past our impact on the climate was barely measurable, today it is enormous. That in the past, climate change was caused by volcanic eruptions or solar storms does not exclude other causes, including human activities. For that reason, comparisons to climate changes of the remote past are irrelevant to the situation we are facing today. Such comparisons are nothing more than red herrings, meant to distract us from the real evidence for global warming, and apparently for some people, such as that man from Texas, the fallacy is working.

Not that pre-industrial humans are completely off the hook. As documented by George Perkins Marsh in 1864 and by Jared Diamond more recently, human societies have degraded their environments through overuse since the beginnings of civilization. It is believed by archaeologists that human intrusion into the American continents by the ancestors of Native Americans led to the overhunting and extinction of many large mammals, including mammoths and several camel species. On New Zealand, Maoris slaughtered giant flightless birds, and it is believed that the original inhabitants of Australia killed off many species of large (and often dangerous) vertebrates.

Once Europeans clambered ashore in the Americas, we quickly reshaped the landscape and ecology of what became today’s United States—we felled forests, especially in the east, plowed under vast sweeps of grasslands for farmlands, dammed rivers and ruined estuaries, nearly extinguished the bison, and succeeded in wiping out the passenger pigeon, once the most numerous bird species in the world. (And note that, pointing out that extinctions in the remote past, such as the dinosaurs, were “natural” does not mean that the extinction of the passenger pigeon was not caused by humans.) The list of animal and plant species that have gone extinct because of human actions is pages long, and gets longer as more reach that sad fate every year (will the monarch butterfly be on that list soon?). Now that we are virtually in a global rather than many regional civilizations, our activities have global impacts.

The stance taken by the man from Texas, as well as those who agree with him, has behind it a disingenuous premise: That human activities are not great enough to have an effect on the global climate, and that therefore we can continue doing whatever we want without consequence. This premise is joined by another, that climate change is natural and therefore that human activity, which by (unstated) definition is not natural, has no effects. We can conquer nature because we are not-nature. But if human beings aren’t natural, what is? We are like all other vertebrate animals: We are bodies with many organs, we eat similar things to what other animals eat, we breathe, we reproduce, and we die. We are as natural, as biological, as any other organism. Therefore, we are included rather than excluded from the natural cycles of life and of the planet. We are not set apart. Even those of us who live in great cities and make our livings while seated in front of a computer screen have to eat animals and plants to survive, just like our hunter-gatherer ancestors and just like all other animals on this planet.

One of the most important atmospheric changes that ever occurred in the history of the planet was oxygenation. Nearly three billion years ago, certain bacteria, the cyanobacteria (blue-green algae), began producing oxygen, which was released into the atmosphere and made life, as we oxygen-breathing humans know it, possible. Cyanobacteria are living things (like us), and they remade the planet (like we are doing)—in a perfectly natural process. Everything that humans do is “natural”—we are incapable of doing anything unnatural. Even the burning of fossil fuels is “natural.” We didn’t invent fire, we simply found a way to use it for our own purposes. The byproducts of burning fossil fuels are also perfectly “natural”—and harmful. “Natural” does not mean benign; nor does it mean beyond human control, since “Nature” has given us the intellects and opposable thumbs to exercise control.

But there are “natural” limits to our control, limits built into our very bodies. We cannot survive and prosper without the natural environment that spawned us and sustains us. At some point the ecosystem on which we depend will snap under our pressure. Scientists warn that other species cannot evolve quickly enough to adapt to the rapid changes we have wrought. Neither can we.

Iran Heat Index Hits Record High

I don’t need to comment on this. Just read the article:


Easter Island Island Earth

Easter Island/Island Earth
As Jared Diamond and others have argued, Easter Island offers some lessons in the effects of over-population and excessive exploitation of natural resources on a civilization’s fate. But there is one lesson by analogy which they don’t mention, that denial of the signs of that fate leads to some peculiar social expressions.

Whatever it may have been that led to the collapse of the Easter Island civilization, depredation by rats, over population, deforestation, etc., it appears that prior to the collapse the Easter Islanders indulged in large scale production of the now world-famous statues, the moai, set up along the seaside by the different clans. That the production of the statues ended abruptly rather than gradually is indicated by the many partially finished statues still remaining in the quarries, as well as others apparently abandoned en route to the sea. If it had been a cultural evolution that had led to the cessation of statue making, it seems unlikely that the stone carvers would not have been notified of the change and told not to start work on still more.

This abruptness suggests some intriguing scenarios. If the people, and particularly the rival clan leaders, were aware that something was amiss, that for example deforestation was making it impossible to construct water craft, which in turn made it difficult to fish, why would they have not changed their policies, urging the people to protect what trees were left and take other measures to preserve and enhance their island, rather than continue in the wasteful building of statues? Or was statue carving a way to occupy the surplus labor of overpopulation, men who might otherwise conspire against the powers of the clan leaders?

Besides the industrial process of carving the statues, transporting them to the coast, and setting them up, there was also very likely an elaborate ritual system centered around the statues once they were in place. It is unlikely that so much effort would have gone into the merely decorative, and again the rituals may have had several uses: diverting the population, solidifying clan identity and rivalries, legitimizing the power of the elite, and (hopefully) soliciting the intervention of the gods or ancestors to solve the growing problems of the island. This latter would suggest that the people were aware of being under threat, and some researchers have suggested that measures were taken to try and increase agricultural productivity to feed a population that exceeded the natural carrying capacity of the island.

None of these measures, industrial, ritual, or agricultural, could ultimately solve the problems the islanders faced, and at some point the population collapsed, from an estimated high point of about 15,000 to a low of a few thousand. There is evidence of intense warfare that toppled the statues and may have contributed to population collapse. Even today, despite centuries of contact with the outside world (and in part even because of it), the native population remains small, and economically dependent on tourism, and the island remains barren of trees.
But is there a legitimate analogy between the fate of Easter Island and the prospective fate of the planet? A small island is not the world, after all. But Island Earth is more isolated in the expanses of space than Easter Island is in the expanse of the Pacific Ocean; we are far less capable of escaping our cosmic island than the people of Easter Island were of theirs.

We are receiving plenty of warnings. The effects of climate change are now too well documented to be credibly denied, nor can it be denied that human activity, i.e., the wholesale gluttonous burning of fossil fuels, is the primary cause of the changes. Invocations of natural cycles, sunspots, or whatever else are no more than appeals to a higher power as a way of avoiding self-blame and the unpleasant consequences of taking practical action. As for over-population, it is a mystery why anyone would take comfort in the prospect of the human population “stabilizing” later in the century at 9 billion or 10 billion when it is so evident that the present population of 7+ billion is already too many. Even as the so-called “green revolution” is running out of steam, arable land, and the water to irrigate it, is declining. Some say that we have plenty of food, that it is only a matter of equitable distribution that leaves so many people undernourished or outright starving, and this may be true—but distribution itself is an intractable problem, especially when agriculture is increasingly exclusively in the hands of large corporations whose operations and bottom lines are designed to exclude the small farmer from the system.

Meanwhile, corporate and political elites (increasingly the same people) are preoccupying themselves with grand construction projects that do no one any good and harm many. There is, for example, the Chinese project of constructing an ultra-mega city said to be eventually the size of Kansas and containing 130 million people—although necessities such as reliable transportation, schools, health clinics, and water supplies seem not to be part of the plans. Back in deforested Brazil, which will host the 2016 summer Olympics, the water in which many of the aquatic events will take place is so polluted with human feces that athletes are likely to get quite sick. This despite estimates that the total bill for the games will exceed the original estimate of $11.9 billion dollars by 50%–i.e., for a total of nearly $18.5 billion. Such cost overruns for sporting events and facilities are the norm, which by the way is why Boston recently declined the dubious privilege of hosting the 2024 games.

For elites, there is a great deal of prestige associated with grandiose sporting events; our universities are graced by state-of-the-art stadiums while their libraries crumble from lack of funds and attention. When not used for the “big game,” such stadiums provide venues for that other great contemporary ritual, the rock concert, complete with drugs that enhance the emotional experience of participating in something bigger than oneself—rather like religious rituals that make us feel good about ourselves while disparaging our rivals, even as our infrastructure collapses beneath our feet.

But we are promised, by gurus speaking ex cathedra from their antiseptic cloisters in Silicon Valley, in ways that are never quite specified, in terms that have the ring of magic incantations, that technology will solve all problems, whether of work, wealth, population, water, food, or climate change. There is something painfully shamanistic about proposals to seed the skies with salt water, or aluminum chips, or sulfate aerosols, or what have you, as there is about the prophesied wonders of more and faster Internet connections, even unto the remotest African or Tibetan village. Although I understand that as yet no one has figured out how to send food or water through fiber optic cables.

In Denial: Evolution and Climate Change

It would be hard not to notice that there is a link between denial of evolution and denial of climate change. Republican politicians hoping to get their party’s presidential nomination are almost unanimous in their denial of both. Yes, they tend to be mealy-mouthed about it when directly queried, but their policies and legislative voting records show clearly where they stand. It is also true that in general, conservatives tend to be skeptical of both, but particularly of climate change. They appear to be heavily immunized against the facts in both cases. They are what we can call explicit deniers.

Then there are the implicit deniers: those who explicitly accept both evolution and climate change, and further that human activities are a primary cause of the latter. They generally tend to be within a range that spreads from moderate conservatives through centrist to liberals and leftists. A significant number of them are Democrats, though there are Republicans within their ranks. But the majority of them act as if neither evolution nor (human caused) global warming were true; that’s what makes them implicit deniers.

Let’s begin with the implicit deniers of climate change. These are the people who religiously recycle their plastic water bottles, who shop at Whole Foods, who adopt advanced technologies to regulate their air conditioners, and seriously consider miles-per-gallon when they purchase a new car. Generally, they lead what can be called a conscientious middle-class lifestyle. Meaning that despite their convictions, they buy a lot of stuff. They drive a lot of miles, fly to a lot of distant places, charge a lot of cell phones and iPads, watch a lot of movies and stylish Netflix series at home, etc. They believe that a life of abundance, in the American style, can be maintained in the face of impending disaster. Their consumer lifestyle is so deeply embedded that even non-profit organizations dedicated to saving the environment and threatened species have to entice their donations by offerings of tee shirts, coffee mugs, tote bags, and other “free gifts.” By their lifestyles you shall know them—as implicit climate change deniers.

Implicit deniers of evolution may be more interesting. For despite a central fact of evolution, that violence is at the heart of the struggle for existence, that eat and be eaten is the millions-of-years old means by which natural selection occurs, they nonetheless profess to be baffled by human violence, both to other creatures and to fellow humans. For some reason, they believe that violence is unnatural and that great violence is inhuman, despite the obvious fact that it is humans who act violently. Which is rather like accusing lions of being inlion, or sharks of unsharklike behavior. True, lions and sharks are “innocent,” in that they are acting according to instincts and are incapable of being aware of the immorality of their actions, and true, apparently only humans can have such awareness. But that does not mean that human violence is monstrous, inhuman, not normal, or the result wholly of culture or some other external cause. Violence is as instinctive to humans as it is to any other animal. It is, as Paul Bloom once wrote, an adaptation, not an aberration.

The animality of human beings is something that the middle-class urban and suburban lifestyle can obscure. The killing that makes that lifestyle possible is conducted at an unseen, unsmelled distance. We can eat our hamburgers, our veal, our Thanksgiving ham and turkey without having to think about the animals they were or the way they were killed and butchered before their various body parts appeared neatly wrapped in plastic in our air-conditioned supermarkets. We are unfamiliar with the smell of blood and manure; we can flush away our own manure without having to give its disposal much thought. Likewise, for us the killing of other human beings occurs at a distance, in other lands by professionals. Our own lives are insullated from violence and consequently we consider it aberrational rather than essential.

But consider the testimony of someone who has felt violence in all its instinctive glory. Tim Zaal, a former skinhead who now speaks on tolerance at the Museum of Violence in Los Angeles, recalls that extreme violence was a kind of high, an exhilaration of adrenaline, a supreme, energizing pleasure; it made him feel “elated.” The more violent he was, the greater the high (though like all highs, it was short lived). Rather than turning away from extreme violence, soldiers often revel in it—war, it has been said, is the supreme experience of sublimity and comradeship—which perhaps at least partially explains the difficulty battle-seasoned soldiers have in returning to the routines of civilian life. (One of the destabilizing factors in German society was the large number of demobilized WWI soldiers who so missed the camaraderie and heightened emotions of war that they recreated war on the streets of Germany. They were in many cases the first to support Hitler, himself a veteran who wrote lovingly about his war experience.)

We have virtually no control over the level of all the various hormones produced by our bodies nor over their effects on our brains and behavior. They evolved not in response to culture or education, but to the life-or-death circumstances of our ancestors’ lives—and not so distant ancestors at that. Human progress in moral thought has been in lockstep with the worst explosions of atavistic violence in human history. There is no reason to think that we can eliminate the instincts for violence in our own short lifetimes.

There is also little reason to believe that human beings will see the truth of climate change and collectively do something about it before it is too late. To do something, really to do, would require a level of self-denial that humans have not shown themselves to be capable of. Prophets of all kinds have railed against our materialism for generations, and generations of listeners have nodded their heads in agreement, yet we continue as we always have, consuming the earth faster than ever before. Just as one example, according to the OECD, energy consumption worldwide doubled between 1973 and 2012; so too have carbon dioxide emissions. The first Earth Day occurred April 22, 1970. Rather than reduce our lifestyles to a sustainable level, rather than distribute consumption in an equitable manner, we have instead expanded our consumption. We say that we want to save the planet, but the politicians we reward are those who promise to expand the economy, to maintain growth in GDP. We will not make the needed sacrifices even as the developing world labors to mimic our American consumption habits. It is instinctive to want. To want is to survive. To survive is to engage in violence. It is a paradox that our instinct for self-preservation is the very thing that will block our willingness to do anything about climate change, just as our instinctive violence will short circuit our hopes for world peace.

Whether implicitly or explicitly, to deny evolution, not just the fact that it occurred (which only the explicit deniers deny) but the heart of the mechanisms by which it occurred, i.e., the theory that explains it, is to preserve the illusion that human beings are special, the exception to the rules that constrain all other living creatures. Dinosaurs, passenger pigeons, and dodo birds can go extinct, but humans cannot. They were subject to the inexorable laws of evolution, but we implicit deniers don’t really believe that we are.

As long as we continue to believe that, we are doomed.

Globalization, Global Warming, and the Null Effect of Personal Responsibility

A recent article in the New York Times, “The Sins of Angelinos,” by Hector Tobar, got me thinking about personal responsibility. In his article Tobar takes the blame, as a representative citizen of Southern California, for the ongoing drought in California and for global warming in general. He writes, “As a native of Los Angeles, I am significantly more responsible for global warming than your average resident of planet Earth. We pioneered an energy-guzzling lifestyle for the masses and taught the world to follow our lead. Now a parched, endless summer is our punishment.” He then goes on to describe some of the typical So Cal things that have led to global warming: “the cars, the sprawl, the pumping of water,” the “energy-hungry homes.” And to compound the sin, California exported its lifestyle around the world in its movies and television shows, creating a desire for imitation that has, he implies, led other nations to try to emulate that lifestyle. The article is an exemplary exercise in taking responsibility.

But not everyone who read the article agreed with its thesis, as revealed in many of the comments posted by Times readers. One comment pointed out that on a per capita basis, Californians use far less energy that most other states. For comparison, according to the United States Energy Information Administration, in 2012 the per capita energy consumption in California was 201 million BTUs, while in Wyoming it was a (seemingly whopping) 949 million BTUs. At first glance, these figures suggest that Californians are admirably thrifty in their energy use while Wyomingites are particularly wasteful.

Certainly California has in recent decades gained a reputation for being the land of eco-conscious vegan Prius owners (it has the second highest rate of Prius ownership in the country). The Sierra Club was founded and has its headquarters in California (San Francisco). But it also has some big water guzzling industries, particularly the large corporate farms in the Central Valley, which are irrigated by diverted rivers as well as ground water, a fact which is causing controversies over allocation in the current extended drought. And Southern California is basically one long thirsty urban strip extending from Los Angeles to San Diego. As Tobar points out, Californians were not always eco-conscious, and many of their current problems are the result of past profligacy.

Nevertheless, people there seem to be trying, as their comparatively low per capita usage of BTUs seems to indicate. Would that it were so easy. The fact is that California off-loads much of its energy use and material consumption to other regions. Remember that astonishingly high figure of 949 million BTUs per capita for Wyoming? That state has a population of only 584,153, the lowest population of any state, whereas California has 38,802,500, the highest of all the states. What is Wyoming doing with all those BTUs?

Shipping most of them to California (and other states) in the form of electricity, which is generated in Wyoming but sold out of state. In total energy use, California far outstrips tiny Wyoming. A driver may pat himself on the back for driving a Prius plug-in or all-electric car, but the electricity to charge the batteries comes from a fossil-fueled generating plant somewhere. Los Angeles pollutes the air of Wyoming. The United States has drastically reduced air pollution from manufacturing in large part because we have out-sourced manufacturing to other countries such as China, where air pollution has become a major problem.

Every consumer good we import carries with it an energy cost, not in dollars but in environmental damage. What was once our problem has been globalized, along with what were once our jobs. The sense of personal responsibility for the environment, and the feeling of righteousness each of us has when we recycle our bottles or install energy efficient appliances in our kitchens, are illusions so long as the real costs are removed at a distance. The costs are still being paid.

And so long as the populations of California, of the United States, and of the world continue to grow and as other countries continue to demand their own version of the California lifestyle, the effect on global warming of any one individual’s efforts to reduce, even to zero, his or her “carbon footprint” will be null. Per capita BTUs in California may be only 201 million, but with a population of 38, 802,500, California’s total energy consumption is 7,799,302,500 million BTUs. What would be the total if we included the BTUs required to manufacture the consumer goods imported and sold to Californians? The numbers are literally incomprehensible. What will happen when the people of China (1,357,000,000) and India (1,252,000,000) approach the level of energy consumption per capita of California?

This is not to say that individuals should not act responsibly, but it is saying that any real solutions are achievable only on the large scale, and that only national governments acting in international concert can have any hope of stopping global climate change. “National Interest” (i.e., national selfishness) has already impeded the necessary action, perhaps to the point of it now being too late.

How We Think About Nature

It is so commonplace to think of nature as that which is free of human presence or interference that few people ever pause to consider how unnatural such a concept is. If human beings and their activities are not natural and do not occur in nature, where do they take place? If the answer is “in cities,” then we can further ask, “Where do cities exist?” Also, what are cities made of. Etc.

But in truth, human beings are as natural as grizzly bears and dandelions. We are animals; we have bodies which are composed of the same stuff as the bodies of all other mammals, of all other vertebrates as well, and at the microscopic level, our bodies’ cells are very like any other living cells. We reproduce as other animals do, we have DNA just as they do, and our brains, while noticeably more complex and capable that those of other animals, are otherwise pretty much the same as theirs. Like other animals, we must eat, breathe, and drink; we seek and/or build shelters, like beavers we divert water courses to our own benefit, and like many if not most creatures we create niches that are conducive to our well being.

It may also be said that we do not do anything that other animals don’t do, although we may do those things on a far greater scale. For example, we occasionally have carried companion organisms, whether deliberately as domesticated or useful, or inadvertently as parasites, to environments where they have not been present before and where they prosper in the absence of their traditional enemies: pigs, rats, and cats on islands, buffel grass in the American Southwest and Mexico, roses in South Africa, rabbits in Australia, foxes in New Zealand—there is a very long list. Those of us who are concerned about such things (apparently, not everyone is) call these creatures “invasive species” and would like to eliminate them from their colonial possessions. I agree: it is awful that Guam no longer has any native birds because of the introduction of the brown tree snake, and terrible that rabbits and mice wreak such destruction in Australia—an object lesson in how tragic it can be for a species to be without its predators, even for that species itself.

On the other hand, few of us would consider wheat an “invasive” species, yet with our help it has invaded every habitable continent and has taken over much of the American landscape from the native grasses; tomatoes, potatoes, and maize have spread from the Americas to the rest of the world, taking over vast tracts of land. But because we consider these species to be our allies, we do not call them invasive.

While island ecosystems can be disrupted by the introduction of new species, it is worth remembering that island ecosystems would not exist in the first place if islands were not invaded by organisms that had not previously existed there. When a new island forms, for example from a volcanic eruption from the ocean’s depths, there is no life on it, yet a few hundred or thousand years later it will be as verdant as the islands of Hawaii: green with flowering trees and shrubs, busy with the doings of birds and insects—all of which are, in a sense, invasive, their ancestors blown there by storms and winds or carried there on rafts of driftwood and debris. Organisms, even nonmobile ones like plants, do not stay in place—they wander, they spread, they invade, they take over, they flee, the die out, creating new species and new wonders in the process—a very long process, generally speaking. I’m sure that birds blown off course and landing on a less than ideal island in the storm may have had the seeds of some mainland plant in their digestive system, which, regardless of whether or not the bird survived, managed to sprout and struggle and survive and propagate, just as the seeds of some exotic plant have ridden on a human vessel and found themselves an hospitable new home. Kudzu, for example (intended), or Russian thistle (unintended).

What, then, is the difference between a seed carried in the gut of a bird and a seed carried in the pocket of a farmer, or an animal floating in on a raft of driftwood and seaweed and an animal floating in on the deck of a Polynesian canoe? They both accomplish the same thing, dispersing organisms to new ecosystems and keeping the evolutionary process churning. And the process of evolution over the billions of years to date has been marked by as much extinction as innovation. Human beings, themselves products of the same processes, are not engaged in an unprecedented activity—though we do seem, especially in the last 500 years or so (at least since 1492), to have accelerated the process to, comparatively, lightning speed. But aside from that, we are not actually doing something unusual, or even unnatural, in the annals of evolutionary time.

The difference is in ourselves, and is, broadly speaking, a moral difference. We are as capable of regret as we are of hope, of looking backward as forward; and while we often indulge in planning for the future and work towards improving our lot in life, we as often look to the past and itemize our mistakes as much as our triumphs. We can regret the passing of the dodo or the passenger pigeon, although none of us living has ever seen either; we can regret in foresight the impending extinction of the monarch butterfly or the African elephant—some of us can. Perhaps the moral sense arises from this ability to anticipate and retrospect, rather than (as some evolutionary psychologists are unduly prone to believe) from a moral molecule or altruistic gene. It is unlikely that our concern for the fate of other creatures is, or is entirely, out of concern for our own survival; we may have to adjust to a changing climate and a less “natural” world, but adjustment is not the same as extinction. From a practical point of view, i.e., from the view of human material needs, we probably have less to fear than the prophets lead us to believe—that is, if we learn to live without greed, that parasite that makes us want more than we need.

My concern, at least, is not with human survival, but rather with the survival of the many other creatures who also live on this planet, and insofar as aesthetics is a component of a moral vision, with the survival of the beautiful—I cannot see that human life is worthwhile without the beautiful. In one of his essays, Montaigne opined that voluptuousness is the equivalent of penitence; in religious terms, sin is its own punishment. One can also say that greed is its own punishment, for it destroys its object without gaining satisfaction. Of all the creatures on this earth, only human beings are greedy. Perhaps that is what makes us unnatural.