Tag Archives: global warming

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.

You Lie!

One of the questions epistemology tries to answer is, how do we know? This broad question breaks down into a number of narrower questions, among which is how do we know that what we know is true? Hence, how do we know that a statement (an assertion) by another person is true? How do we know that an assertion is not true? How do we determine that a statement is a lie?

Just as interesting: How is it that we are susceptible to believing a statement is a lie when in fact it is not?
How is it that climate deniers can continue to believe that climate change is a hoax, a deliberate lie, a conspiracy by a world-wide cabal of leftists and humanists (synonyms, I suppose)? I don’t refer here to the oil executives and conservative politicians who know perfectly well that climate change is real and that it is human activity that is causing it (i.e., the real conspirators), but the average Joes and Janes who believe firmly and without doubt that climate change is a lie, the ones who pepper the reader comments of, for example, the Wall Street Journal, with their skepticism at every opportunity—even when the article in question has nothing to do with climate change, or even the weather. Climate change deniers are just a convenient example of the problem—there is virtually no end to the number of topics on which people firmly, often violently disagree, on the left as well as the right.

There are two basic means by which we determine the truth or falsehood of statements (assertions), the specific and the general. By the specific I mean such things as data, facts, direct observation, and so forth—the basic stuff of science. Objective evidence, if you will. We determine the truth of a statement by the degree to which it conforms with the facts. If someone says, “It’s a bright sunny day,” but in looking out the window I can see that it is gray and raining heavily, I have proof based on direct observation that the statement “It’s a bright sunny day” is false. It might even be a lie, depending on the motive of the person who made the statement; or it might not be a lie but simply an error.

However, if I’m in the depths of an office building where there are no windows, and someone comes in and says, “It’s a bright sunny day outside,” how do I determine if his statement is true or false?
By the general I mean the use of such things as theories, ideologies, world views, traditions, beliefs, etc., as templates to determine the truth of statements by, in a sense, measuring how well the statement conforms to the parameters or principles of the theory (etc.)—a theory (etc.) which, of course, we have already accepted (through one or more of the various ways in which theories become accepted). For example, diehard creationists evaluate the claims of Darwinism according to a strict Biblical literalism, the theory that every word of the Bible was directly inspired by God and is therefore true and that the Bible taken as a whole conveys His divine plan of human history from beginning to end. So Darwinism, which not only denies the seven days of creation (in 4004 BC) but also provides no basis for teleological views of the history of life, is godless and therefore untrue. The “so-called facts” of Biblical scholarship and biology aren’t facts at all and can be dismissed out of hand.

Something not dissimilar occurred among Marxist intellectuals in England, France, and the United States during the Stalin era when such luminaries as Sartre refused to believe the horrors being perpetrated in the Soviet Union because they did not conform to Marxist theory. Theory trumps reality in multitudes of cases, usually in ways less obvious than the errors of creationists and Marxists. Consider the political situation in the United States today as a near at hand example of the power of ideology, any ideology, to deny facts, or worse, to consider facts, and the people who bring them to our attention, outright lies.

“It’s a bright sunny day.” Perhaps the person who makes this statement is an extreme optimist who believes that if he repeats the assertion often enough, it will be true; or perhaps she will point out that somewhere on this planet it is a bright sunny day even if it isn’t here. Or maybe it’s a cruel lie perpetrated so that you will walk out to lunch without your umbrella and get soaked to the skin (ha, ha!). Or maybe he’s a politician who fears that if he speaks the truth (“There’s a mighty storm brewing.”) he will lose the election. And if you are a true believer, you will believe him, walk out to lunch without your umbrella, get soaked, and declare that the Senator was right, it is a sunny day—or maybe deny that he ever said that it was. You might recall years later that the Senator said it was a sunny day, or morning in America or whatever, and by golly he was right and history will recognize him as a great man. There are people in Russia who are nostalgic for the days of Stalin. It is said that the current head man of China wants to return to the ways of Mao. Could the Confederacy rise again?

Theories, ideologies, world views, all the general ways in which we measure truth and falsity are particularly resistant to correction or debunking, in part because we invest a great deal of life’s meaningfulness in our own special theory, in part because once we have adopted a theory (which we often do, without thought, very early in life), we get in the habit of measuring, evaluating, judging, and deciding according to its parameters. It is our paradigm, our gestalt, without which we could not make sense of the world. True or false, creationism and the whole system of beliefs of which it is a part makes sense and gives meaning. True or false, evolution and all that follows from it makes sense, though for most people it does not provide much meaning. Many people think that the sciences in general don’t provide humanly useful meaning, the kind of meaning that motivates us to get up in the morning, to care about voting, to raise children, to have something meatier than “values” to guide our lives. We are even willing to “[depart] from the truth in the name of some higher order” rather than risk meaninglessness. Hence the attraction of -isms: Communism, Darwinism, Creationism, Capitalism, Feminism, Terrorism—any -ism that can confer on us something other than the inevitable insignificance of being only one out of seven billion people, who are only seven billion out of the 107 billion people who have ever lived—and who knows how many more in the future. The less significant we are, the more selfies proliferate. Every -ism is a kind of selfie.

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.

Are We Alone?

Many people are fascinated by the Drake equation, which is said by enthusiasts (and Sheldon Cooper) to estimate the number of planets in the Milky Way Galaxy (or, in some minds, the universe) that could have intelligent life. Recent remote explorations of Mars have suggested that there may have been life on that planet at some time in the past, perhaps even that there is still some kind of microbial life there now. Science fiction thrives on speculation that other galaxies are inhabited by someone and/or that human beings could colonize other worlds. Elon Musk, inspired by his reading of the Dune and Foundation trilogies, believes that space colonization is the way to save humanity from extinction.

Supposedly more sober minds ponder the theological and philosophical implications of extraterrestrial life: Would religion survive such a revelation? Could our anthropocentric theologies survive the knowledge that there are other civilizations somewhere out there, which perhaps would have very different notions of both the questions and the answers that we think of as essential to religion? In Christian terms (and this seems to be a worry primarily within Christian cultures), did Christ die to save all those aliens, too? Or does each planet require its own redemption? Or are we the only planet to have fallen from grace (i.e., are all the other inhabited planets still in a state of Eden? Did their creatures in the image of God choose better than Adam and Eve? Are they, Gnostic-like, angels or demigods, watching our passion play unfold?)

Or worse. Would the discovery of (or our being discovered by) extraterrestrials put an end to religion for good? Some philosophers think so, and the discovery would certainly be an existential challenge to religion as we have always conceived it, that is, again, the Christian conception, which has always assumed a teleological narrative of history that puts mankind at the very center of the struggle between good (God, Jerusalem, spirit) and evil (Satan, Babylon, the flesh, etc.), culminating in the final triumph of good and the restoration of creation to its original innocence. This is not the narrative of Hinduism, Buddhism, and other non-Western religions, so perhaps for them the existence of extraterrestrials would be no problem.

It is both scientifically and popularly assumed that, given the infinity of space and the multi-multitudes of stars and planets, that there must be life elsewhere, likely many elsewheres, in the universe, some of which must be much more advanced than we are (oddly, the opposite, being much less advanced, is less often mentioned, but it’s perfectly possible that there are planets out there populated by nothing more complex than bacteria or slime mold); assumed even though we have no proof of any kind that in fact there are any other inhabited planets. So even if a scientist asserts his certain belief that there has to be life elsewhere in the universe he is indulging in science fiction or some form of religion.

But there is another possibility not to be unquestioningly dismissed, one that Marilynne Robinson posits in her most recent collection of essays, “The Givenness of Things”: What if “for all we know to the contrary, there is just one minor planet in a limitless field of stars where apple trees blossom and where songs are sung”? Would that not “grant an important centrality to that planet”? For Robinson that centrality would be a religious one; it would suggest that there is some likely divine reason for only one living planet, contrary as it is to (limited) human reason.

But even from a purely secularist viewpoint, to know that there is no other living planet, no other intelligent life than ourselves, and that if we were to go extinct there might not ever again be such intelligent life (no songs being sung, no theories being proposed, no knowledge of the kind we honor with that name); and worse, that if somehow we managed to extinguish all sensate life from this planet, perhaps never again to be formed; that to know that there is no escape or rescue, nor even an end to ourselves at the hands or tentacles of a superior alien race—to know that would put the responsibility for our own fate and that of all life permanently and squarely in our own hands and no others.

And isn’t that, from a practical point of view, exactly the position we are in? Colonies on Mars are a dangerous fantasy; colonies further out in the galaxy or the reaches of the universe more improbable than fairy tales. The human body evolved on this planet and is adapted (and adaptable) to no other. The location of any other planet that might have some form of life is many light years away—and remember that a light year means the distance it takes light a year to travel (5,878,499,810,000 miles); multiply that by 1400 to get the distance from earth to the nearest earth “twin,” a planet that by the way would be even less hospitable to humans than Mars. And of course, we know of no way to transport humans and cargo at anywhere near the speed of light. Planets even further out, and getting further away as the universe continues to expand, might as well, for practical purposes, not exist at all. In sum, it can make no difference to us if there are other inhabited planets. We are for all intents and purposes truly alone in the universe.

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:

http://www.usatoday.com/story/weather/2015/07/31/heat-index-iran-163-degrees/30933451

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.