Sunday, July 31, 2022

False Representation of Conservatism as "Tough"

For as long as I can remember, conservatism has been associated with strength. Why, exactly, is this? Is it because conservatives tend to vote for a bigger military, harsher sentencing for crimes, bigger walls along the border, more fossil fuels and more exploitation of nature to strengthen the economy? Is it because conservatives stand united in opposition to liberal proposals, and hold steadfastly to a point of view? Conservatism can seem akin to bedrock, hardened rather than empathetic, stubborn in its rigidity, impervious even to overwhelming evidence.

This may be why a NY Times journalist described Liz Cheney as a "tough and hawkish conservative," as if "tough" and "conservative" are naturally linked. I'm alert to this reflexive linking, because the conservatism I've seen on display since the Reagan era has a decidedly weak and indulgent side to it. If conservatism is so tough, then why does it turn tail and run from tough issues like climate change? Can it really be called tough if it directs its toughness only outwards while shunning self-scrutiny, protecting its own from investigation while mercilessly attacking its political opponents? Can conservatism be called tough if it is constantly offering candy to voters, letting them off the hook by pretending that climate change is a hoax and that tax cuts pay for themselves? It's easy to cut taxes, far harder to cut the popular government programs that taxes support. 

Liz Cheney, remarkably, has found the courage to reject Reagan's decree forty years ago to "never speak ill of a fellow Republican." The high political price she has paid within her own party speaks to the degree to which Republicans define toughness as something to be directed outward, not at themselves.

But even Liz Cheney, for all the strength and character she has shown to finally impose standards of truth and decency on her own political party, maintains a persistent weakness in other realms. When it comes to climate change, Ms. Cheney runs from the overwhelming evidence while the nation's climate grows increasingly hostile. Her wikipedia page describes her as being known for her fiscal conservatism, but to what extent did she fight against the massive deficits of the Bush and Trump years? The pattern has been for conservatives to impose fiscal constraints only on Democratic presidents, not on their own. This is tactical partisanship, not strength. 

The article that made the unfounded association of toughness and conservatism had an interesting perspective on the role of women in the January 6 investigation. Oftentimes it is young women who have come forward to testify, while the "50-, 60- and 70-year-old men," in Cheney's words, "hide themselves behind executive privilege.” And it is female witnesses who have more often been singled out for attack by Trump and others who have attempted to recast strong women as deranged or warped by ambition. 

Toughness, then, is a trait that has falsely been attributed to conservatives who run from tough issues, ignore evidence and fail to exercise self-scrutiny. It will be all the more important to look at what constitutes strength as the climate continues to radicalize. Fossil fuel and the machines it powers played a big role in America's victory in WWII. But now we know that fossil fuels are as much enemy as friend. Using them makes present comfort and mobility possible while making the future impossible. The power they give us is also empowering an enemy that will grow more terrifying as more and more of the country becomes endangered by rising seas, increasing temperatures, drought, fires, and flooding. And authoritarianism, which we fought against in WWII, now finds fertile ground in our own country, where its brand of relentless attack and lack of self-scrutiny is mistaken for toughness. 

Liz Cheney, having decided to hold Republicans to account, is on a journey. Tough in at least one way that most Republicans are not, she is reminiscent of Bob Inglis, former representative of South Carolina, whose atypical toughness came in the form of acknowledging the overwhelming evidence and calling on Republicans to act against climate change. He was defeated in the 2010 primary, and Ms. Cheney may meet the same fate this fall, spurned by a political party that can't tolerate true strength. 

How we define and talk about strength matters. It influences what sorts of politicians we put in power, and what sort of country we will have in the future.

Related post: The Dark Side of the Reagan Legacy

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Misuse of the Word "Skeptic", and a Useful Book by Atmospheric Scientist Katharine Hayhoe

One of my pet peeves in journalism is the misuse of the word "skeptic" when discussing climate change. A recent example comes from columnist Margaret Renkl's opinion piece entitled "How to Talk About 'Extreme Weather' With Your Angry Uncle." In the essay, she repeatedly refers to "climate skeptics." But a true skeptic directs skepticism inward as well as outward--something that scientists are trained to do. People tend to associate skepticism with tough-mindedness, as in someone who refuses to accept mainstream belief unthinkingly. But the skepticism directed at climate science is one-way and self-serving--another example of the rightwing being tough on others, soft on self. It takes a tough mind to deal with unsettling realities, in this case the reality that people, by and large good and well-intentioned, are nonetheless collectively responsible for the radicalization of weather and the steady loss of our nation's sweet spot in the world's climate. 

The "angry uncle" in the title of Renkl's opinion piece might be angry because he has been encouraged to always look for blame and falsity in others, while leaving his own views unexamined. Much of the political polarization that tears at the fabric of personal relationships and the nation is artificial, sustained by misinformation and a refusal to vet one's own beliefs to see if they stand up to the facts. 

I doubt that anyone is going to get very far, talking to an angry uncle. Righteous anger is, I'm sure, a delicious feeling that would be hard to let go of. Perhaps, though, one could start by agreeing that fossil fuels are extraordinary in their power and convenience, and it would be a wonderful world if we could continue burning them without negative consequence. Maybe explore other things we really wish were true. 

It should not be too much to ask, however, for the angry uncle, so quick to attack, to direct as much skepticism inward as outward, especially at views that 1) flatter the self, and 2) let us off the hook. 

In her opinion essay, Margaret Renkl goes on to discuss a new book by Katharine Hayhoe, “Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World,” Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist who is also an evangelical Christian, so is better positioned than most to view climate change from multiple perspectives. One of the blurbs about the book says this:

“An optimistic view on why collective action is still possible—and how it can be realized.” —The New York Times

Therein lies another false notion: that we are not now acting collectively. The frustration and tragedy of our era is that we are currently acting collectively to create problems, but are being denied the opportunity to collectively solve them. A distinction must be made between intentional and unintentional collective action. Though it is not our intention, we are in fact acting collectively to create problems in the world, one of which is climate change. Each one of us is highly equipped with machines that require the burning of carbon fuels. They are, day to day, truly marvelous machines, keeping us comfortable, taking us where we want to go. Yet every time we as individuals use them, we are also contributing to the radicalization of weather. Despite a lack of intention, the sum of each individual's actions has proven transformative. The machines we use have collectively increased the concentration of carbon dioxide in that deceptively thin layer of atmosphere above us by 50%, with dramatic consequences for our collective future.  

Renkl states that many conservatives are convinced that "doing right by the environment will involve pain, a complete repudiation of their current lives, or both." In fact, doing wrong by the environment is the source of the radical changes we see in weather across the nation--changes that threaten the very lifestyle we seek to sustain. 

One feature of Amazon that I really appreciate is the "look inside" feature that allows you to read a sample portion of a book. A brief reading of Hayhoe's "Saving Us" shows it to be very well written and an excellent book for our times. Interestingly, Hayhoe avoid's Renkl's "climate skeptics" terminology in favor of "dismissives"--a term Hayhoe uses to refer to the 7% of people whose glee in rejecting climate science and ridiculing climate advocates makes them "nearly impossible to have a positive conversation with." Though the NY Times opinion piece is entitled "How to Talk About 'Extreme Weather' With Your Angry Uncle," Hayhoe gave up trying to talk to her own angry uncle, and instead finds hope in the potential to engage positively with the other 93% of humanity. 

One big question is how to sustain people's self-esteem even as they become aware of how each one of us is contributing to the existential threat of climate change. Hayhoe appears to address this in chapters about fear and guilt, and gives advice on how to navigate the perilous waters of tribalism and identity to find common ground. Here's a useful quote from Renkl's essay:

First, undercut the politics. Becoming a climate activist doesn’t require changing political parties or renouncing long-held values. “It’s really a matter of showing people that they are already the perfect person to care because of who they are, and that climate action would be an even more genuine expression of their identity,” said Dr. Hayhoe. “It’s about holding up a mirror and reminding people that they want to be a good steward, that they want a better future. That’s when we see change.”

The book also grapples with the question of whether individual action or structural change is needed. Hayhoe's answer is "both." 

Thanks to Renkl for getting the word out about Hayhoe's very useful and readable book, but please, stop using misleading terms like "climate skeptic."

Wednesday, May 04, 2022

Climate Change--Now You See It, Now You Don't

Though our machines are pouring a steadily rising amount of greenhouse gases up into our very thin atmosphere--a 50% rise in overall concentration since the industrial revolution--the earth's response to that radical change can seem sporadic and quirky. There will be a day here and there that feels outside our concept of the normal: a rain that's unusually intense, or a winter day when the air feels strangely cooked and stale. But those days quickly give way to another stretch of quasi-normality, and so we continue with the lifestyle we view as normal, which invariably includes being served by machines that continue stuffing the atmosphere with still more greenhouse gases. We are aware of climate change as a problem, yet can still go for long stretches hoping or pretending it is not. 

The same plays out in a newspaper like the NY Times. Yesterday there was a dramatic contrast between the climate and business sections. In a business article, countries wishing to free themselves of Russian oil desperately look for other sources, with no hint that their economy's demand for oil is anything other than logical and normal. Car commercials embedded in the article lure you to buy bigger, more powerful vehicles that consume still more fuel.

Then, one click away, an article in the climate section of the paper describes areas of the world that are becoming uninhabitable due to overheating.

As the consequences of fossil fuel combustion become ever more profound and incontrovertible, the marketplace's glamorization of that fuel consumption becomes ever more incongruous and irresponsible. If the marketplace were a character, it would be a brilliant, bold but blind man-child, forever pushing the boundaries, doing whatever it can get away with, brilliant in its deliverance of material bounty, stubbornly oblivious to future consequence. Government is forced into the parental role because the marketplace by nature is blind to the future and will never grow up. 

This is a time when the business section of a newspaper, and to some extent even those of us who feel a deep sense of foreboding, can still huddle in pockets of normality and cling to what has always passed in our lifetimes for normal.

Saturday, November 06, 2021

Formulas for Spreading Misinformation About Nature

This coming week, on Nov. 9, I've been invited to make a presentation about books, articles, and opinion pieces that have sought over the years to deny the danger of invasive species. There's lots of denial out there: denial of problems like climate change, and more recently denial of solutions like vaccines. It was a surprise, though, as someone who has long witnessed how human impacts have thrown nature out of balance, to discover a whole genre of literature that not only denied the problem of invasive species but also attacked people like me who were working to mend nature. 

Through detailed critiques of many of the books, articles and opinion pieces, I was able to uncover the manipulations and skewed logic that made these readings so compelling for an uninformed audience. They all provided readers an applecart to spill and an "Other" to dislike. They portrayed the despised "Other"--mainstream scientists, conservationists, habitat restorationists, i.e. people like me--as narrow-minded, emotional, sentimental, even xenophobic, as we haplessly sought to counter a tidal wave of nonnative species that the writers claimed were actually doing good. By exaggerating our goals, they were able to dismiss those goals as unattainable. They flattered readers by making them feel smarter than the deluded "Other", and reassured readers that a big problem wasn't a problem at all, and that therefor nothing need be done to solve it. Letting people off the hook--promising freedom without responsibility--is one of the most appealing aspects of denial, whether it be of invasive species, climate change, a pandemic, or any other collectively created problem. 

It was therefore with a sense of recognition that I watched a recent John Oliver episode entitled "Misinformation," about how vulnerable people are to misinformation that propagates on social media sites. Oftentimes, the victims, who are also victimizers as they unwittingly pass along misinformation to their friends, are people who speak other languages for which there are few fact-checking sites to counter the misinformation. 

Like the formula for invasive species denial (provide an applecart to spill, an "Other" to dislike, etc) the video offers a recipe for making misinformation appealing:
  • claim that a "Harvard scientist helped confirm ancient wisdom"
  • "mention some chemicals"
  • insult western medicine and culture
  • cite your sources
The bit about "cite your sources" could offer hope, but oftentimes it is just another piece of the facade that lends a false sense of legitimacy to the misinformation.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Afghanistan: the Triumph and Tragedy of Misinformation

 "Biden administration stunned by speed of Taliban’s takeover" -- Associated Press

As twenty years and trillions of dollars of U.S. effort in Afghanistan get erased in a matter of a few weeks, the stunning speed of the Taliban takeover is only one example of how we have remained largely uninformed about reality in Afghanistan. "We" in this case seems to extend from us minions up to the highest ranks of the government. The misinformation ranges from intentional deception to self-delusion, along with the usual failure of information to migrate vertically from the ground to the upper echelons--a weakness to which all large organizations are prone.

As the news media seeks explanations for what went wrong, there are interviews with troops who could see that the war effort was doomed to failure early on, articles that explain that Biden was in a bind, limited by the Trump agreement with the Taliban, and not having wanted to signal, through an early and rapid exit, a lack of trust in the Afghan government and its military. 

Gazing back across the full breadth of the 20 year long debacle reminds me of a visit long ago to the Grand Canyon, but the awe is generated not by vast radiant beauty but by the sheer scale of human folly. To better understand the full arc of American dishonesty and misjudgement in Afghanistan, I delved into Chapter One of a book by a CIA insider, Bruce Riedel, entitled The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology, and Future

His account suggests that over that 20 year span, many of us have suffered from a combination of indifference and lingering fallacies. Once misinformation takes hold, it is very difficult to correct. The American mind, like Afghanistan itself, has proven very difficult to change. We are finally leaving Afghanistan, but we are still stuck with the tendency of people to remain uninformed or actively misinformed here at home.

Quoting generously, here is what I learned. (click on "read more")

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Maintaining the "Other"--How Clear Solutions Threaten Those Who Need Enemies

This short essay about people who define themselves through opposition to others was prompted by an insightful Krugman column that contrasts climate denial and covid denial.

I'm experimenting with dividing the world into people who need an enemy and those who see problems as the enemy and wish to work together to solve them. The anti-vax movement is an example of how artificial polarization increases as solutions become more clear. In other words, solutions to threats like climate change and the coronavirus are themselves seen as a threat, not only because they might make a Democratic president look good, but also because they strip people of the enemy--the "Other" they need in order to maintain a sense of identity. From McCarthy's communists and Reagan's welfare queen, to Gingrich's liberals and Trump's immigrants, the rightwing has needed to conjure an enemy in order to rationalize its existence, reduce scrutiny of its own failings, and rally its followers.

(click on "read more")

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Rush Limbaugh and the Poisoned Heartland

How to write about Rush Limbaugh after his death? It is a time to learn more about his life, and tally the damage done by a misdirected talent. In reading descriptions in the NY Times, a few things jumped out. One was how closely his rise coincided with the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, which had "required stations to provide free airtime for responses to controversial opinions they broadcast." After the law was repealed in 1987 under the Reagan administration, a "liberated" Limbaugh moved to NY the next year to start his syndicated radio show.

Freed from legal constraints that had limited the use of public airwaves to spread falsehoods, Limbaugh was further liberated by his growing legion of fans, who "developed a capacity to excuse almost anything he did and deflect, saying liberals were merely being hysterical or hateful." This failure to take responsibility for his own errors, and instead deploy a "right back at ya" redirection of blame, is one of the classic narcissistic traits that, enabled and indulged by a loyal audience, laid the groundwork for the rise of Donald Trump.

(click on "read more")

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Would Joe Biden Be President Elect Without Jo Jorgensen?

Update, 1.12.21 As time passes, it becomes more and more clear that if not for the pandemic, Trump would have won reelection, and democracy and government would likely be irretrievably damaged. If not for nature's intervention in the form of an invasive species, voters would have focused on the economy, which Trump had poured fuel on much like the dazzling flames that generate a sense of awe in the "man behind the curtain" scene in Wizard of Oz. In the movie, it is a dog that pulls back the curtain and reveals the fraud behind it. In real life, a coronavirus served that role. Without a pandemic, Trump could have continued to project all evil outward onto someone other than himself. With his imperial facade and silky voice, and his skill at playing an audience, the speech and rally format of a normal campaign would have favored him over Biden. 

(click on "read more")

Friday, August 14, 2020

A "Pre-review" of Kurt Andersen's EVIL GENIUSES: The Unmaking of America

Though I haven't read Kurt Andersen's EVIL GENIUSES: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History, a review in the NY Times points to some important elements to look for in this account of what went wrong in America beginning in the 1970s. 

What America lost, according to Andersen, is "an openness to the new" in favor of a "mass nostalgia." I experienced this in multiple ways--culturally in music and politically in the resistance to the new technologies needed to spare the world the ravages of climate change. 

Andersen's book is described as "saxophonely written," and since I'm a sax player, I will point out that a look backward is not necessarily a bad thing, if the aim is wisdom rather than nostalgia. Both classical music and jazz spent most of the 20th century pushing forward into ever greater abstraction and complexity until the music became largely unlistenable. If the audience rejected the new music, the composers and performers would point out that past innovators like Stravinski or Charlie Parker had also experienced resistance to their innovations. Ultimately, this means of rationalizing increasingly abrasive music began to wear thin. 

(click on "read more")

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

How Numbers Drive News Coverage


A picture is worth a thousand words. Though Andrew Cuomo has said a lot of things worth saying through the crisis, this television screen is speaking volumes. As of late April, the pandemic's daily count of infections and deaths had pushed the stock market indexes down into the bottom corner of the screen, where they're barely visible.

The stock market had long been the reigning champion of the screen,  producing a steady stream of new numbers of seeming portent for people to digest. Even when the news was about something else, the digits would parade across the bottom of the screen, rising, falling. Sports and weather also demand attention by generating massive amounts of numbers, but other important aspects of reality simply can't compete. Climate change? Sorry, it may determine the destiny of civilization and much of nature, but it's slow-moving numbers seem disconnected from what we experience day to day, and are either too big for us to fathom or too small to seem of import.
(click on "read more")

Monday, March 16, 2020

Repost: Shedding Our Martian Ways: Coronavirus and H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds

This is a repost from PrincetonNatureNotes.org.


A deserted airport. A civilization shut down by a virus. It makes me think of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, in which Martians conquer England with heat-rays and "black smoke", and seem unstoppable until, suddenly and surprisingly, they succumb to lowly pathogens to which they have no resistance.

We have watched as civilization has been taken over by forces alien to reality, as cold and unsympathetic as Wells' Martians, with a rigid ideology that aims all skepticism outward, and denies the connection between combustion and climate change, between spending and taxation, present and future, self and responsibility, words and truth.
(click on "read more")

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Anti-Science Ideology Destabilizes Economies

My friends have voiced a broad range of opinions about the coronavirus. Some think it poses a big threat, while others think the whole thing is overblown. Meanwhile, the stock market swoons, and our local university with all its magnificent facilities is switching to virtual education for the rest of the semester, and telling students to stay home after spring break.

The swoon in the stock market brings back memories of a similar swoon during the subprime mortgage crisis in 2008. Back then, the great uncertainty was in the mortgage-backed securities--those bundles of home loans. Which loans were bad and which were okay? No one could tell because they came in bundles, sort of like a bunch of passengers on a plane, or students in a classroom. If one person in the group has coronavirus, then the entire bundle becomes suspect.
(click on "read more")

Friday, February 21, 2020

Scandalizing, Minimizing, and the False Objectivity of "Both Sides" Journalism

News headlines and opinion pieces flash for a moment on our consciousnesses like fireworks in the evening sky, each making its momentary splash before quickly being displaced by others in an endless stream of efforts to light the darkness. One of the more illuminating opinion pieces, and one whose insight is worth capturing in a bottle to light one's long walk home, is a piece by Nicole Hemmer called "Scandalize! Minimize! Repeat as Necessary." It offers a quick history of what it calls the "conservative media's scandalization project." Dating back to the 1940s and gaining momentum in the 1990s and 2000s, it describes the conservative "effort to create an air of nonstop scandal around previous Democratic presidents and presidential hopefuls."
(click on "read more")

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

False Strength and the Artificial Polarization of Our Era

Most of the polarization of our time is due to people's failure to direct their skepticism inward. Skepticism is associated with strength of mind--an ability to resist and scrutinize what others accept as true. But people who claim, for instance, to be climate skeptics are merely pretending to be tough minded, because they practice one-way skepticism, aiming it all outward. True skepticism, the kind that demonstrates strength of mind, is directed inward as well. The current president is an extreme example of directing criticism outwards but none inward. He's tough on others, soft on self. Scientists have an incentive to practice two-way skepticism, because the rigor of their profession requires that they look for flaws in their own data and conclusions, lest they later be discredited by their peers. They have to be tough on themselves, as well as others.
(click on "read more")

Thursday, January 16, 2020

A-Team and B-Team Politicians--Looking and Listening Beyond the Words

Looking back across the tattered landscape of American politics, in my case extending back to the 1960s, is like having witnessed a six decades-long military convoy under attack. Politicians from Kennedy to Clinton slog forward as potshots and straifings generated by media and political opponents come from all sides. Some endure the onslaught, while others lie burning along the roadside. Some politicians in the 60s were dropped by real bullets, but character assassination has proven just as potent for eliminating potential leaders. The focus here is on candidates' varying capacity to survive intense scrutiny and brazen lies.

Across that arc of six decades, it's possible to see that some had a gift that lifted them above the rest--a resonance of voice, charisma, a compelling message that allowed them to survive attacks by connecting at a deeper level and with a broader swath of voters. While some of us vote according to which candidate best represents our beliefs, there seem to be many who are drawn more by an emotional connection to the leader, and this can cause the ship of state to lurch back and forth, from left to right, from election to election, according to the political heft and magnetism of those running for office. As the rightwing in particular becomes more radicalized, whether in the U.S., Brazil or elsewhere, these swings from left to right develop an increasingly destabilizing quality.
(click on "read more")

Saturday, July 13, 2019

George Will Criticizes Those Who Don't Praise


As part of the 2019 graduation ceremonies, political columnist George Will gave one of the more curious speeches ever to bounce off the ornate walls of the Princeton University Chapel. Enrobed in orange and black, he chose to praise praise. "Intelligent praising is a talent," he said, "It is learned. Like all virtues, it is habitual. It is a habit. And it is a virtue we need more of, right now." Speaking as a 1968 graduate of Princeton University, Will told the graduating seniors, many accompanied by their parents, that he hoped they had "learned to praise." He said that many Americans "seem to think that expressing admiration for someone or something is evidence of deficient critical faculties." Instead, he posited that the habit of giving praise is evidence that one is sufficiently secure to celebrate others "without feeling oneself diminished."

Then, rather than give examples of praise, he proceeded to unleash a flurry of criticism. He criticized "the infantilization of America," a nation he described as "awash in expressions of contempt and condescension." He criticized what he called the "anti-social media", and its "snarky expressions of disdain". He criticized our "age of rage," and those Americans for whom "disparagement is the default setting."

He criticized the "habitual disparagers," for whom "maturity means a relentlessly-exercised capacity for contempt." He criticized an "unpleasant surplus" of anger, an eagerness "to be angry about something — anything." All of this Mr. Will believes to be evidence of a "culture of contempt."

How could a speech in praise of praise slip so frequently into criticism? Praise is a wonderful thing, to give and to receive, but it is not what got George Will to that pulpit in the Princeton Chapel. He reached that level of distinction through a career dedicated to finding fault in others, whether it was every other week in Time magazine, or twice weekly in the Washington Post for some 40 years. 

Through the decades, those columns have oozed with contempt. The following example is indicative, as he mocks leaders concerned about climate change.
“Consider Barack Obama’s renewed anxiety about global warming, increasingly called “climate change” during the approximately 15 years warming has become annoyingly difficult to detect. Secretary of State John Kerry, our knight of the mournful countenance, was especially apocalyptic recently when warning that climate change is a “weapon of mass destruction.” Like Iraq’s?”
This is not the first time George Will has returned to his alma mater to preach a gospel distant from his own conduct. Back in 2015, he shared the stage at McCosh 50 with faculty member Robert George to tell the audience that we should, in John Stuart Mills' words, "be willing to entertain reasons why we might be wrong." That capacity to reflect and question one's own beliefs is vanishingly rare in George Will's writings, most strikingly in his denial of human caused climate change. 

Interestingly, Mr. Will's newfound religion of praise coincided with an occasion at which he likely knew he would be criticized by many in the audience--students who stood with their backs turned to him throughout his speech, to protest a 2014 column in which he criticized those concerned about rape at universities. Given that context, Will's declaration that "there are deleterious political consequences from the weakening of the adult culture of confident, measured and generous judgments about people and events" can be seen as a dig at the protesters in the audience. After a long career dedicated to criticizing others, Will cast as immature those who criticize him.

A local news source, Planet Princeton, published an account of the speech that didn't mention the 100+ demonstrators in the chapel. If the comment section was indicative, many readers, unaware of the context of the demonstrators and George Will's history of serial contempt, took his speech to be thoughtful and positive, rather than a verbal spanking of Will's critics that was drenched in irony and hypocrisy. It was a chilling reminder of how easy it is, for instance, for political candidates to sway voters who lack the time or inclination to look beneath the surface of the words.

There is a good speech that could be given about the paucity of praise and our preoccupation with people worthy of contempt. It would point out that government is seldom praised when it works well, which plays into the hands of those seeking to undermine it. The speech would note that headlines and our conversations tend to gravitate to bad actors, and acknowledge how the incompetence shown by leaders actually has a payoff for us as individuals. Misdeeds and malaprops provide fodder for late night comedy that entertains us while making us as individuals feel more competent by comparison, even as poor leadership endangers our collective survival. The speech would point out that, if people focused some of their skepticism on their own views rather than always looking outward for fault, then someone like George Will would pause before showing such overt hypocrisy, and would find suspect the cherry-picked evidence of the climate deniers. The rise of conservatism that George Will worked so hard to promote in the 1980s and 90s has been built on an increasing contempt for government, for liberals, nature, truth, democracy, the downtrodden. Will's call to "neuter" the presidency of Obama was part of a larger denial that Democrats have any right to govern. 
Praise is certainly praiseworthy, but as George Will's career and the Republican ascendency has shown, people and ideologies most consistently rise by tearing others down, avoiding self-scrutiny, and projecting their own failings onto others.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

The Hidden Life of Trees -- A Review

A surprise bestseller this past year in the U.S. was "The Hidden Life of Trees," a book that gained popularity in Germany before being translated into english. In a progression of 36 short chapters, the author, forester Peter Wohlleben, draws big conclusions from his experience in a forest he cares for in Germany. Using heavy doses of anthropocentric language, he portrays trees as feeling, communicating and interrelating in surprisingly human ways. It's an appealing notion, and he claims to back it up with a list of sources in the back of the book.

As a naturalist trained in botany and water quality, with decades of involvement in nature preserve management and other environmental issues, I've read and reviewed a number of books that claim to give you the inside scoop on what nature is really like, and have noticed some similar themes. A book will garner more interest if it has an applecart to spill and an "Other" to dislike. In this case, the applecart is antiquated views of trees, and the "Others" to look down upon are narrow-minded scientists and commercial foresters. Another common ingredient is to let the reader off the hook by suggesting we as individuals need expend no energy to compensate for all the ways human activity has thrown nature out of balance.

Nearly all of these books are written by non-scientists and reviewed by non-scientists, leaving the public unprotected from any misinformation the books may carry. Though I share the author's sense of appreciation and wonder for all that trees do, the Hidden Life of Trees comes across as a mixed bag of laudable sentiments and cringeworthy anthropomorphism, truth and appealing fiction, nice descriptions and gross generalization. Readers will come away informed and misinformed. Two German scientists who started a petition objecting to the book's claims characterized it as a "conglomerate of half-truths, biased judgments, and wishful thinking derived from very selective and unrepresentative sources of information.”

Where, one wonders with books like this, are those who might check a manuscript for accuracy? Reviews in the mainstream news media, however, tended to minimize the book's problematic aspects. Perhaps impressed by the book's popularity, believing the book's overall message to be medicinal in our age, they cast the scientists who found flaws as mere flies in the ointment.

Wohlleben's advocacy for old growth forest taps into our wish for some oasis of stability and peace in a radically changing world. There's an appealing call to let trees grow slower and live longer. His dream is "ancient forests free from any human interference." But if you read the book, note how little he demands of us in terms of intentional effort to restore nature. The index doesn't even include a reference to restoration. It seems it happens on its own, over hundreds of years, and that "no real sacrifices need to be made." For example, conspicuously missing from several references to fire-dependent forests in the U.S. is any mention of the need to conduct prescribed burns in order to maintain them. He squashes a few exotic insects he accidentally brought home after a trip, knowing that introduced species can do harm, but doesn't grapple with the larger issue of how to reduce the import of potentially invasive species, or how to reduce the harm done by those already established.

A deep love of trees needs to be mixed with an understanding that, for many smaller species that cannot tolerate shade, trees are the enemy. Though the author acknowledges this, that in "deep shade, wildflowers and shrubs don't have a chance..., " and that pollinating insects find little food in forests dominated by species with wind-pollinated flowers, he often speaks of deep, unbroken forest as the all and end all. Any discussion of biodiversity must mention not only forest, but grasslands, savannas, and shrub habitat as well. Though it's important to save old growth forest, preserved open space in central New Jersey and elsewhere in the east is too uniformly dominated by trees to the exclusion of other needed habitats.

Below are some examples of the mix of information and misinformation to be found in the book.

Chapter 1 Friendships
Here, Wohlleben makes broad pronouncements about forests. Since trees in a forest benefit from the "consistent local climate" they create, they have reason to work together, even to the point of nourishing their competitors through interconnected roots. He describes forests as "superorganisms with interconnections much like ant colonies." Being someone who believes in the importance of cooperation and collective action generally, I certainly sympathize with such a portrayal of the forest. But the author offers as evidence a very misleading story about encountering an old stump in the forest being kept alive by the trees around it. Are the younger trees showing reverence for their elders? Remarkable, you might think, unless you happen to know that the stump and trees he is talking about are beeches. Since beeches create clones, the older and younger trees he describes are not separate trees, not "friends" as he later calls them. They are in fact one tree with many trunks, connected underground by a root system that sends up new stems as it spreads. That he doesn't point this out is a considerable sin of omission.

Wohlleben then overreaches by declaring, "Every tree, therefore, is valuable to the community and worth keeping around for as long as possible." There may be some forest somewhere on earth where this is true, but none that I know. Certainly not in the fire-dependent pine forests of the southeast where pines would be rapidly shaded out if hardwood trees weren't kept at bay by periodic fire, or the Ponderosa pine forests of the northwest, which require adequate spacing between trees to reduce the risk of wildfire leaping up into the crowns. Certainly not in the many second growth hardwood forests of central New Jersey that are clogged with stunted trees. The author believes openings in the canopy to be the enemy. The sunlight, he says, will heat the soil and cause loss of humus. Wind will get in and blow down the surrounding trees. There may be some truth to the increased vulnerability to wind, but if sunlight never reaches the ground of our forests, only the tree species that can survive in shade will regenerate. There are many kinds of forests, some of which thrive on periodic disturbances like fire. Though he gives a useful description of such forests on page 208, he often presents his forest of oak and beech as somehow universal.

Chapter 4 Love
One thing that baffles people wanting to know nature better is its mind-boggling diversity. They've heard that diversity is a good thing, but the long learning curve can be intimidating. Wohlleben gets around this by making broad pronouncements based on the apparently paltry number of tree species in his forest. He seems to have only two main types of deciduous trees--oaks and beech--but then often writes of them as if they are representative of all the deciduous trees in the world. With this approach, and by speaking of trees as if they were like people who "plan" and "agree" and "go for it," he can simplify nature, make it seem easily knowable, familiar.

Sometimes he begins a paragraph with a misleading statement, like "When beeches and oaks put blooming on hold for a number of years, this has grave consequences for insects as well--especially for bees." Now, anyone familiar with tree pollination will know that beeches and oaks are wind pollinated, and are therefore not much used by bees. He eventually explains this, but not until after he's had the reader imagining starving bees dropping out of the air for lack of pollen.

It's also a bit comic to note that he describes girdling trees in the previous chapter as "brutal," then in the Love chapter describes beeches and oaks as colluding to starve pregnant boar and deer in order to limit their numbers. That's some tough love.

One tidbit I was glad the author included was the tendency of genetically isolated populations to die out over time. "Completely isolated stands of rare species of trees, where only a few trees grow, can lose their genetic diversity. When they do, they weaken and, after a few centuries, they disappear altogether." Some of my more satisfying work involves taking seed from isolated populations of a species and planting them in other conducive locations around town, essentially creating a pollen corridor of sorts, bridging the gap between otherwise isolated populations.

Chapter 16, Carbon Dioxide Vacuums
Here, Wohlleben attempts to debunk the notion that the carbon that trees absorb while living is simply rereleased to the atmosphere after death. It can be discouraging to realize that trees are not some magic fix for climate change. Figuring out how best to sequester carbon in plants and the soil is a vital subject, given its potential to lessen the damage we're doing to the climate, but unfortunately this chapter offers up appealing fictions. For one, he claims that most of the CO2 absorbed by a tree "remains locked up in the ecosystem forever." A dead tree trunk, he writes, is "gnawed and munched" and "worked, by fractions of inches, more deeply into the soil."
"The farther underground, the cooler it is. And as the temperature falls, life slows down, until it comes almost to a standstill. And so it is that carbon dioxide finds its final resting place in the form of humus, which continues to become more concentrated as it ages. In the far distant future, it might even become bituminous or anthracite coal." 
It's a lovely image, and largely fictional. For one, half of the atmospheric carbon fixed by a tree is rereleased as part of the living tree's ongoing respiration. The author acknowledges the tree's need to respire later in the book, in Chapter 33, Healthy Forest Air, where he directly contradicts his earlier description.
"It's not only the trees that are exhaling large amounts of carbon dioxide in the dark. In leaves, in dead wood, and in other rotting plant material, microscopic creatures, fungi, and bacteria are busy in a round-the clock feeding frenzy, digesting everything edible and then excreting it as humus."
That "feeding frenzy" means those organisms are respiring, turning lots of the dead wood's carbon back into CO2. There's also sloppy use of terms. Carbon dioxide doesn't "find its final resting place" or "sink into the muck," because carbon dioxide is a gas. Rather than getting cooler and cooler as one goes down, the deeper soil layers are a fairly uniform 55 degrees, plenty warm for biological activity.

He actually blames commercial logging for preventing coal from being formed, after having explained that the coal we now use was formed under primeval conditions completely different from the upland forests where most trees are harvested, and over a time span that is useless for our predicament. I'd be glad to blame commercial logging for all sorts of things, but preventing coal creation is not one of them.

Another deception quickly follows when the author claims that old trees grow faster than young ones. Ongoing growth among the well-aged is an appealing concept, whether for people or trees. He's got our sympathies as he sets out to upset the applecart of "scientific assumptions," by saying that "Trees with trunks 3 feet in diameter generated three times as much biomass as trees that were only half as wide." But a tree with a trunk twice as thick is not twice as large. It's more like four times as large, given that a trunk twice as thick has four times the area in cross section. It's the younger tree, then, that grows faster for any given amount of space taken up in the forest.

Chapter 30 Tough Customers
This chapter asks a useful question: How do long-lived trees in a forest adapt to rapidly changing climate? His answer is that genetic diversity within a species will allow the trees in his forest to survive even sudden changes in climate. He points to a sudden, dramatic cooling that occurred 14,000 years ago, and to the long north-south range of beeches, extending from the Mediterranean to Sweden. At least concerning the latter, I find some common ground with the author, having myself pointed out the long north-south ranges of species in the eastern U.S. when people claim we need to move southern plant species northward in order to adapt to a rapidly warming planet.

Chapter 32 Immigrants
Anthropomorphism, that is, attributing human characteristics to non-human things, can be charming and comforting. It can help us empathize with other living things. But when it comes to invasive species, that tendency to anthropomorphize has gotten a lot of authors into trouble. Introduced species are not like immigrants. Human immigrants are of the same species as the other humans they join. Introduced species are, by contrast, more analogous to martians--a different species that if they showed up might just mingle among us and look cute, or they might start taking over our homes, in which case we'd think them less cute.

Giving this chapter on introduced species the title of "Immigrants" therefore misleads readers from the get-go. The author then proceeds with some of the stock arguments used by invasive species deniers, whom I know well from having reviewed multiple books, opeds, and articles in the genre. There's the claim that "nature is constantly changing," and the pessimistic view of "attempts to conserve particular landscapes." And there's the seeming reassurance that "most introduced species pose no threat to native trees." He claims, falsely, that the human spread of species is not much different in degree from what has occurred naturally, and that "there is always a sufficient number of individuals that can rise to a new challenge."

But along with these familiar denialist tropes are descriptions of the problems that introduced species have caused. The solution he offers for some invading plant species--plant more trees to shade them out--is less than convincing, but at least he doesn't deny the distinction between introduced and native species, and the potential for introduced species to cause major problems.

Afterword:

The NY Times noted the author's "humble narrative style and the book’s ability to awaken in readers an intense, childlike curiosity about the workings of the world." The author indeed has a gift, but that gift is misused, compromising truth in favor of eliciting the desired response from his readers.

He claims to be on the forefront, pushing against entrenched views of nature, as in this call for plant rights on p. 244:
"Although this point of view has elicited a lot of head shaking in the international community, I, for one, welcome breaking down the moral barriers between animals and plants. When the capabilities of vegetative beings become known, and their emotional lives and needs are recognized, then the way we treat plants will gradually change, as well. Forests are not first and foremost lumber factories and warehouses for raw material, and only secondarily complex habitats for thousands of species."
I have seen, though, how this activism for the rights of individual animals and plants can lead to a dismissive attitude towards the larger ecological workings of nature. Though seemingly progressive in his thinking, Wohlleben also steers us backwards, towards a passive, hand's off relationship to nature--witnesses rather than informed participants.

Skepticism and Self: Science's Role in Sustaining Democracry

This is a repost from another blog of mine.
"It's a readiness to be wrong that motivates the study needed to be right."
- Yures Trooley

Andrew Zwicker, one of Princeton's two representatives in the state house, spoke this week to a full room at Mercer County Community College. It was part of a monthly series of talks hosted by the NJ Sierra Club. Assemblyman Zwicker is one of our few, perhaps the only, representative in government who is trained as a scientist. I attended not only because Zwicker is a gifted speaker, but also because of the subject.


The title of the talk, "Scientific Literacy and Democracy," struck a chord with me particularly because the plight of nature has increasingly found a parallel in growing threats to democracy. Both are at risk in a time when truth is being attacked, denied, ignored, downgraded, and generally dismissed. There is the national reality of a leader who cannot see beyond his own skin, and a broad-based, corrosive and paralyzing polarization that thrives on a dismissive attitude towards evidence.

Andrew Zwicker is a rare breed, a scientist who is also comfortable in front of an audience, and he has taken that extra step of bringing his scientific abilities into the political realm. An evidence-based perspective could be a unifying influence if it caught on among his colleagues at the statehouse.

Having a couple science degrees, I have found myself increasingly aware that my mind works differently from many who lack science training. Most significantly, that training can help direct skepticism not only outward but inward as well, at one's own views.

Most of the world's polarization and radicalism would disappear if people directed as much skepticism inward as outward. Science, and its pursuit of truth, is like a lifeline being extended to a world fractured by unfounded opinion. The political polarization we suffer through is artificially created by people who refuse to adjust their views in the face of evidence.

My views are built on varying degrees of knowledge, experience, and observation. Some of those views are better supported than others, and all are subject to revision in the face of new evidence. Scientific training is liberating, in that it allows facts to exist independent of what we might wish were true. Unentangled from our emotions and sense of self, facts need not be feared or clung to, but can be built into an evidence-based view of the world.

My older daughter went through a phase in which she'd periodically declare, with a mixture of surprise and pride, "I changed my mind!" There's pleasure in that flexibility, that openness to new evidence, and my sense is that many people have lost that openness. Recently I was on an advisory committee, developing a list of proposals for action on climate change. The subject had everything to do with science, but only a few of us appointed to the committee had scientific training. A couple of us with a scientific background made suggestions, with some supporting evidence, expecting that if others disagreed, they would provide counter evidence. Being open to new evidence, I might have changed my mind if someone had a more convincing argument. Instead, people simply didn't respond, and continued to stick to their own views without feeling compelled to defend them. They'd mention something they'd read in a book that they liked the sound of, and it would turn out that even the book, though about science, was written by someone who lacked training in science.

During Q and A with Assemblyman Zwicker, I mentioned this curious phenomenon, that science-related advisory committees and science writing can be dominated by people lacking science training. A science editor for the NY Times once wrote a deeply flawed oped denying the threat of invasive species. Turned out he was a Princeton grad with a PhD in english. There are no doubt science writers who know much more than I do about many aspects of science, and yet there's something about science training that cultivates a healthy two-way skepticism, inward as well as outward. It's a readiness to be wrong that motivates the study needed to be right.


After the Q and A, a woman came up to me and said that data is the issue. Most people don't know what to do with data. Maybe she was referring to an analytical ability that develops over time. Science presents you with data, and you have to figure out what the data is suggesting, if anything, and whether it's strong enough to be conclusive. The process requires a great deal of patience, but it also requires an acceptance that there is a reality outside of oneself that really doesn't care about us and our emotional needs at all.

It's possible to experience that reality out in nature, when one gets far from the ever-expanding footprint of lights and noise, far enough that the only human presence is within one's own skin. For me, it's happened a few times, most strikingly while on an ocean shore late at night. The ocean waves crashed against the sand with a symphony of sound, and the stars shone bright in unfathomable numbers overhead. It was glorious, and yet I was aware that this rich nature cared not a wit about me. The same might be said of truth.

Assemblyman Zwicker, whose first slide included a quote from an astronomer, ended his talk with a quote from Carl Sagan, an astronomer who studied at the observatory I grew up next to:


Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Memories of George H.W. Bush

The recent death of George H.W. Bush has prompted many of us to navigate back in our memories to the years when he was president, after being elected in 1988. It's tricky time travel, because those four years of his relatively self-effacing presidency are squeezed between monumental eras defined by the provocative, self-aggrandizing figures of Reagan and Gingrich. A clear sense of George H.W. is further hampered by the legacy of his son George W's administration, marked by the monumental disasters of 9/11, subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the economic meltdown.

George H.W. was the last Republican with moderate leanings to be elected president, and the last Republican president who cared enough to study up for the job. He represented a brief pause in the Republican Party's radical evolution or devolution from Reagan to Gingrich to Trump. Lacking charisma or an appealing voice, the only way George H.W. could get elected was by channeling Reagan during the campaign, and hiring hit men like Lee Atwater to do the political dirty work that an instinctively kinder, gentler man like George H.W. could not stomach.

To understand his presidency, it's helpful to realize that along with the voluminous letter writing and other acts of thoughtfulness, George H.W. was also highly competitive, which was on full display in his showdown with Dan Rather, who one evening aggressively and fruitlessly questioned him about the Iran-Contra debacle. Many of us wanted answers to Rather's questions, but the powerful political spin in the days that followed made Rather's behavior the issue, rather than Bush's lack of candor. Though I was never a fan of Rather as news anchor, and wished he had stayed in the reporter role at which he excelled, his confrontation with President Bush seemed a turning point for journalism, as the rising power of conservative cable news stations put journalists on notice that anyone pursuing uncomfortable truths would be punished.

George H.W.'s administration also marked the last time a Republican president would act responsibly on tax policy. Having channeled Reagan during the campaign with stirring words like "read my lips, no new taxes", George H.W. chose a more responsible approach to governance. He broke the campaign pledge, and raised taxes in order to deal with the rising deficits he had inherited from the Reagan era. No good deed goes unpunished, and the rightwing flexed its muscles to insure that no Republican president would dare act responsibly in the future.

George H.W. also, unfortunately in this case, broke a campaign promise to act on climate change, despite strong calls for action coming from his EPA chief and James Baker. He listened instead to his chief of staff John Sununu, an early denier of this existential threat to the nation. When looking back on all the failures to act on climate change, I particularly grieve for the tragic side of James Baker's career. Beginning as a Democrat, he married a Republican and shifted to that party to work with George H.W. in Texas. Baker's extraordinary competence was not allowed to serve the cause of slowing climate change in the George H.W. administration, and Baker's talents later contributed to clinching the 2000 election for the younger Bush over Al Gore, setting back action on climate change another eight years. Only recently has Baker been able to emerge from this long eclipse of his principals, advocating for a carbon tax.

During the 1992 campaign against the intimidating talent and intellect of Bill Clinton, George H.W. seemed to lose the will to win. After four years as a moderate leading an increasingly conservative political party, he couldn't find it in his nature to channel Reagan one more time. His defeat would confirm for Republicans that the road to power is not paved with bipartisan agreement and compromise. Attempts to compete with Democrats for the middle ground were considered from there on pointless.

Eulogies tend to mention his having been the last president from the Greatest Generation--an unfortunate term, given the implication that America's greatest generation, and therefore its greatest days, lie in the past. Back then, sacrifice for the country was considered the ultimate expression of that which one hold's dear. Freedom was valued over consumption, and people from all walks of life signed up to fight against totalitarianism. That great mixing of people and economic classes during the war years created a sense of unity and common purpose in the country that survived, at least to some degree, in people like George H.W. Bush.

While serving in the Navy during WWII, he was rescued at sea after having to bail out of the bomber he piloted. The rope used to pull him back on board was reportedly made of hemp, an extremely useful plant that American farmers are prevented from growing due to its similarity in appearance to marijuana. Reading about Bush's term as president, I had hoped to find evidence that he had sought a kinder, gentler approach to drug addiction and drug-related crime, but couldn't find any. What we know for sure is that no rope of any kind is being thrown to moderate Republicans now, wherever they may be.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Future as Mirage

When did the U.S. give up on the future? Or, to rephrase, when did the Future stop being a galvanizing possibility and become instead a mirage fed to the masses to make people feel better about an increasingly dystopic present? Think of all those articles about technological and medical breakthroughs that sound world-changing but never seem to make the leap from lab to mainstream. America fiddles while the world burns, literally, for those living in California.


Halfway down a NY Times article about why the whole town of Paradise, California, was lost to unprecedented wildfires, an ad by Shell Oil offers a seductive view of the future, featuring a streamlined truck with solar panels on top.  The article was entitled, "Why Does California Have So Many Wildfires?", and explained that climate change (caused in part by the products Shell Oil sells) is one of the causes.


That sleek truck looked familiar, not so much like the future as like something 80 years in the past. Researching a renowned astronomer from the early 20th century, I had been reading about the 1933 Worlds Fair in Chicago, which they called "The Century of Progress." Exhibited at that fair was the Pioneer Zephyr train. This was not some mockup of a possible future, but was a real train that had just made its maiden trip from Denver to Chicago, averaging 77 mph. Within a year, innovations in diesel-electric engines and stainless steel construction had been incorporated into a train that was lighter, faster, more efficient, and actually used to carry real people to real places. Incredibly, according to wikipedia, the train carried 72 passengers plus 50,000 pounds of freight at high speed while powered by one 600 horsepower engine. That's less power than in a souped up SUV unveiled by Jeep last year.

Interestingly, that innovation and quick adoption of new technology happened in the middle of the Great Depression, associated more with frugality than gleaming progress. Why? Because people were buying less stuff, railroads sought to lure passengers to fill the void in freight business. Gleaming new high-speed trains were an enticement to travel.

But other factors played a role as well. The First World War had served as a model of quick mobilization of people and technology. Even beyond the victorious involvement in the war, collective effort and personal sacrifice for the greater good were more deeply embedded in the national psyche. That was before the 1980s, when the relentless demonizations of government, collective effort, taxes, and personal sacrifice began eroding the national will to take on great projects. When intentional collective effort to solve problems is undermined, we are left helpless to counter the unintentional collective impact of billions of carbon emissions that are undermining nature and ultimately ourselves.


Another picture in the Shell Oil ad showed solar panels on top of the truck that is supposed to carry our economy into the future. The panels look great, and trucks really should have them, but an article on the subject explains that the panels can provide power for everything except making the truck move. The image, then, is intended to make us feel good about a future that logistically remains a mirage.

Yesterday, 11.11.18, was the hundredth anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I, and one of the news reports recalled a French town totally destroyed during the war. Fast forward to the present, and witness in our era the obliteration of the town of Paradise, CA, by a wildfire said to be the worst in California history. Climate change, caused by the burning of fossil fuels sold by Shell Oil and others, is playing a big role in making wildfires more destructive.

America, increasingly paralyzed and torn by economic and ideological disparities, can find unity only in grief for lives lost and possessions destroyed. Its vulnerability to apocalyptic damage from hurricanes and wildfires has been on full display--threats our massive military is helpless to protect us against. Warnings dating back 30 years have been ignored, while many passively put their trust in God's will, and an economy indifferent to the future. Bereft of government action to address the underlying cause of mayhem, we as individuals are given little choice but to continue feeding a dystopic future, even as a sleek, attractive mirage is suspended in front of us.

Only when government makes it in everyone's economic interest to stop poisoning the planet will necessity kick in, and be the mother of true invention.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

"Losing Earth" and the Socialization of Blame

It's been weeks since the publication of Nathaniel Rich's "Losing Earth", the much-hyped article that went cover to cover in an August issue of the NY Times Magazine, but its giant contradictions are as jarring now as when I first read the article.

First, there's the title, which suggests that we are despoiling and ultimately losing the most precious of all things--a habitable planet upon which to live. If true, and the evidence is strong, you'd think it would have been front page news for decades, not something that pops up in the magazine as a done deal after forty years of sporadic coverage, like a jack in the box. The logic of that is, let's not worry about this climate change thing too much until we can safely feel it's too late to do anything.

Second, the premise of the article is that there was a decade--the 1980s--when action to solve the climate crisis was nearly taken, but that human nature kept us from acting. Here, again, there's a comfortably safe logic that avoids pointing fingers: it was nobody's fault and everybody's fault at the same time. The premise contradicts itself. If action was nearly taken, that means that a lot of people wanted to take action. Either those people are not human, or the article's premise is wrong.

The body of the article is well written and contains some useful research that, surprise, further contradicts the premise. In 1980, as it was becoming clear that strong U.S. leadership was needed to generate international action on climate change, Ronald Reagan was elected president. According to Rich's telling, Reagan moved to expand coal production, appointed "an anti-regulation zealot" to lead the EPA, and considered eliminating the council that had just warned him about the disastrous effects of global warming. "Reagan’s violence to environmental regulations alarmed even members of his own party," Rich declares.

This vivid telling, in which there were people who wanted to act, and others like Reagan who did not, completely undermines the article's central premise that "Almost nothing stood in our way--except ourselves."

It's often said that capitalism has a socialist element. It seeks to privatize profit while socializing loss. Pollution, for instance, is dumped on the global commons--in the atmosphere and waterways. Unlike profits, pollution's many costs and impacts are shared by all. We as individuals are allowed to operate under a similar logic, enjoying personal comfort and mobility as the CO2 rises from our chimneys and exhaust pipes to mix in the shared atmosphere. Rich's article does the same with blame, spreading it across all of humanity even while animating the text with the dramatic tension between those who wished to take action, and those who scuttled progress.

Particularly dramatic is the account of the first months of the George H.W. Bush administration, following a campaign in which Bush called for action on climate change. Soon after Bush took office in 1989, Secretary of State James Baker and EPA administrator William K. Reilly called for the U.S. to lead on climate change, but Bush's chief of staff, John Sununu shut them down while President Bush looked the other way. Again, the article's narrative clearly points not to some universal defect in human nature but towards particular individuals whose ideologies blinded them to the existential threat posed by a warming planet.

Though some blame goes to citizens who didn't pay attention, who listened to what they wanted to believe rather than a harder truth, it is the leaders who are ultimately to blame. They are the ones who take the solemn oath to protect the nation, and who ignored the evidence in order to let the voters off the hook. They are the leaders who failed to lead, and who chose the easy way, who opted out, who in a bout of reverse elitism decided they knew more than the scientists who have devoted their lives to studying the planet.

Journalism has long had trouble pointing the finger of blame, particularly at conservatives who since the 1980s have been battering the media with accusations of liberal bias. There's a palpable relief a journalist feels upon declaring "both sides" are to blame. But spreading the blame equally around when the facts suggest otherwise is hardly objective. It is a form of bias that provides reprieve for the guilty and smears the innocent. "Both sides" journalism leaves the public unprotected from malefactors, while offering no incentive for politicians to do the right thing. If extended to a schoolyard, a no-blame policy would lead to mayhem where bullies never face consequences. That, in essence, is what national politics has descended into.

Take Rich's surprise declaration: "Nor can the Republican Party be blamed." Rich defends this statement by mentioning a handful of Republicans who supported action, as if a small and ultimately powerless minority within the party somehow compensates for the behavior of the party as a whole. It is breathtaking to see how a political party that lectures the disadvantaged on personal responsibility is so easily let off the hook for its primary role in sabotaging action on climate change. Interestingly, insofar as generosity and forgiveness are liberal traits, then the forgiveness of the Republican Party for obstructing climate action supports the claim that the news media has a liberal bias. The Republican Party, then, benefits from an externalization of blame in much the same way as industry benefits from the externalization of costs like pollution.

Perhaps the least sympathetic to Nathaniel Rich's logic will be those who, fifty or a hundred years hence, look back in disbelief on decades of inaction, followed by self-serving attempts to wash our generation's hands of responsibility by chalking it all up to human nature.

12.13.18 Update: A "We're all to blame" sub-title was attached to an oped by John Kerry. The title was later changed to "John Kerry: Forget Trump. We All Must Act on Climate Change. If we fail, it won’t be just the president’s fault." The titles of opeds are chosen by editors rather than the oped author, suggesting an editorial tendency towards socializing blame for climate change.

Friday, August 03, 2018

Counterfeit Optimism: A Supplementary Book Review of "Inheritors of the Earth," by Chris D. Thomas

If someone wrote a book about women or a minority, saying that mistreatment of them by those in power is perfectly natural and has in fact made them more resilient, that efforts to help them are futile, and that if we wait a million years they will be fine, the writer would not be hailed as an optimist. Yet a remarkable number of book reviewers have accepted as optimistic a similar logic about nature, as described by Chris D. Thomas in his book Inheritors of the Earth.

That a book can be so flawed in logic and still be reviewed favorably in the news media and on book-selling sites makes clear just how vulnerable society has become to skewed thinking. Even the science writer Elizabeth Kolbert, whose New Yorker essay "The Darkening Sea" is one of my all time favorites, is advertised on the front cover as having given the book her imprimatur. Unlike most other authors who try to let readers off the hook by claiming that invasive species aren't a big problem after all, Thomas has actual degrees in biology and ecology, so his misrepresentations of nature are all the more puzzling.

The professional journal, Biological Invasions, recently published a review I wrote of Inheritors of the Earth. As author, I was given this link to allow access for readers who lack a subscription to the journal. That's the best, most concise read, but because that review may not be otherwise easily encountered, here are some additional thoughts, and some more detailed examples of the book's many deceptions.

INHERITORS OF THE EARTH, by Chris D. Thomas--a supplementary review

In a dark time, when so many problems linger unsolved, and when coordinated action to solve these shared problems is thwarted by political sabotage, hope becomes a scarce commodity. Competing for market share in the hope industry that has sprung up on the outskirts of this void is a book by Chris D. Thomas called Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature is Thriving in an Age of Extinction. The book seeks to absolve us of any species guilt we may feel, as our accelerating alteration of climate, land, and sea propels nature towards the predicted apocalyptic extinctions of the Anthropocene. Thomas erases responsibility and associated guilt by declaring humans and everything we do to be perfectly natural. His version of optimism is to claim that mass extinctions have happened before, are happening now, and will happen again, but that evolution has always patched things up over time. Check back in a million years and everything will be fine. That this logic is being sold as optimistic shows just how much the fabric of the future has unraveled, and how desperate is the search for silver linings in darkening clouds.

A close look at “Inheritors” reveals an underlying, abject pessimism, along with the now familiar techniques used by previous books in this applecart-spilling genre to discredit mainstream science and the work of conservationists. Once again--as in previous books, by Marris, Pearce, Orion and others--invasion biologists and conservationists are portrayed as emotion-bound sentimentalists who are wasting money and effort on a futile attempt to take us back to some past idyllic state of nature. Thomas takes the skewed logic of those antecedent books further, portraying nature not as a highly evolved, complex web of interactions among species, but as a random assemblage of winners and losers. Rampancy by invasive species is viewed as a sign of success. Human needs in this unmoored landscape are paramount, but, surprise, it turns out according to the author that the radical changes we have imposed on nature will benefit nature in the long run. Check back in a million years and you’ll see. If it sounds like an elaborate and too clever way to rationalize irresponsible behavior, well, it is.

Here are some of the techniques Thomas and his predecessors use to create false controversy about invasive species:

Claim conservationists are driven by emotion rather than knowledge

Conservationists seek to restore ecological functioning and protect habitats from radical change. But in this book they are told to “throw off the shackles of a pessimism-laden, loss-only view of the world." They are cast not as nurturing and sustaining, but rather “referees and arbiters of how nature should be.” Conservationists, according to Thomas, are "not happy", they harbor a "hatred of foreign species", and are "poised to kill.” "How long,” Thomas asks in one of his more provocative moments, “will it be before the environmental police force of ecologists and conservationists is prepared to step back and decriminalize introduced species that have had the temerity to be successful." Another quote, "Environmentalists may dislike them (invasive species) for their newfound success,” exemplifies how the book repeatedly portrays conservationists in negative, emotion-drenched terms, rather than explaining to readers the scientific basis for a conservationist’s work. And rather than grapple with the findings of invasion biology, the author wraps mocking quotes around “invasion biologists”, and returns to his polemic.

Overstate conservation's goals in order to declare them impractical

Imitating previous books in this genre, Thomas manipulates readers by repeatedly exaggerating the aims of conservationists. Here’s an example: “... to maintain our ecosystems and species in some idealized state is not possible.” Or, “No change is not an option…” Thomas adds his own additional pessimistic twist, claiming that even less extreme goals will prove impossible to achieve: “... we will fail if we attempt to keep things exactly, or even roughly, as they are.”

(Interestingly, conservationists are seldom if ever quoted in books of this genre, the better to sustain them as strawmen for Thomas’s ire.)

Intention vs. unintention: 

In order to relieve readers of any feeling of responsibility and guilt for the degradation of nature, apologists like Thomas make an unspoken distinction between intentional and unintentional action. Since so much of the damage done to nature is unintentional (the CO2 coming out of our exhaust pipes, the invasive species that are accidentally spread around the world by unregulated global commerce and travel) the author must portray unintentional acts as innocent and natural. Secondly, intentional action to right the unintentional wrong must be portrayed as futile, arrogant, dangerous, or all the above.

The strategy of forgiving our unintentional collateral damage while eschewing intentional, organized remediation can be seen at play in the following paragraph from the book. Nature is portrayed as damaged goods, our destructive impacts as natural, and attempts to remedy as futile.

"... we will fail if we attempt to keep things exactly, or even roughly, as they are. This dynamic perspective of biological change might sound like capitulation, but, in fact, it releases us. The earth was not in some perfect or final state before humans pitched up. Life is a process, not a final product. So we need a conservation philosophy that is based on natural change, with humans centre stage: partly because we have already brought about so many changes to the world that cannot be ignored, and partly because humans evolved naturally and we are part of the natural system."

By Thomas’s extreme definition of natural, even nuclear holocaust would apparently be deemed as natural as a hummingbird sipping nectar from a flower. People are relieved, through this perspective, from any responsibilities that might come with our enormous power to pollute and transform.

Abject pessimism

Thomas claims to be an optimist, but the book's prologue is extraordinarily pessimistic about any intentional action to spare nature the worst of our abuses. Check out this stirring call to inaction: "There is no point in taking on a never-ending fight with the inevitability of eventual failure." Think of any movement, whether it be civil rights or women's rights, or to sustain nature or democracy, and ask yourself if those are the words of an optimist. In any struggle, social or environmental, there are always countervailing forces against which one must fight, and victory is never assured. And where's the optimism in "come back in a million years”? If said of any other problem humanity faces, “come back in a million years” would be considered a cruel joke.

Thomas saves his deepest pessimism for page 241, where he declares that any "urge to fight a specific biological change" must meet the following test: "Will our efforts have made much difference a few hundred years hence? If not, this means we are fighting a battle we will inevitably lose. Next, will our great-grandchildren's great-grandchildren be that bothered if the state of the world has been altered, given that they will not know exactly how it is today? If the answer to this second question is no, this means we are fighting battles we do not need to win." Again, it seems heartless to rationalize inaction on the grounds that our descendants surely won’t miss what they’ve never known.

The nature of evolution and diversity

The central tenet of the book is that human disruptions and translocations of species around the world, while causing many extinctions, are also speeding up evolution of new ones. Invasive species are said to have caused few extinctions in the areas they invade, and so can be said to actually increase the total number of species in any particular area. But the book doesn’t examine the possibility that invasive species are undermining the ongoing evolution of indigenous species. If, through competition from invasives, a species becomes more and more rare, gene transfer between scattered remnant populations will decline, and the species will lose the capacity to evolve and adapt to changing conditions. Invasive species and habitat fragmentation due to development deliver a one-two punch, undermining evolution when it is most needed for adaptation to rapid changes in climate.

Thomas holds conservation in such low esteem in part because he sees no web in the web of life. Diversity is presented as a straight numbers game, a body count. For a book that is banking on evolution to compensate for the damage we are currently doing, he shows next to no interest in relationships like symbiosis that suggest a deeper interconnectivity between co-evolved species. Only the most mundane examples of mutualism are given. In “Inheritors”, species are portrayed time and again as free agents that can be jumbled together from all corners of the world, and left to duke it out for dominance. "Mix the species up and see who wins,” he declares. "The history of life on earth is one long story of successful animals and plants replacing those that proved to be less successful."

And yet the book calls for preservation of habitat.

Sprinkled through the text are occasional, almost parenthetical calls for protection of remaining habitats around the world. These calls for preservation sound jarring in a book that repeatedly defines species as winners or losers whose fate is of no concern to us. Preservation, it seems, helps Thomas make the claim that introduced species add to local diversity, "as long as there are still sufficient remnants of the earlier vegetation to act as refuges for the most sensitive species."

Thomas views remnant populations of indigenous species as “spare parts”, “building blocks” that should be saved “to maintain flexibility for future change.” And yet his indifference to the stress invasive species exert on remnant native populations, along with his abject pessimism about the conservation efforts needed to keep remnant populations alive, make these calls for preservation ring hollow.

Conspicuous omissions and blurred distinctions

Thomas claims that, outside his window, "the basics of biology remain. Regardless of their origin ... plants still capture energy from the sun and convert it into leaves, rendering the world green; animals consume plants and their seeds and in turn are killed and eaten by other animals." The part about "animals consume plants" is often not true. Introduced plants that become invasive tend to be those that the local animals won't eat, whether due to texture, taste or toxins. This gives the invasive plants a competitive advantage, so that they displace the native species, making the habitat less edible for wildlife as time goes on. Herbivores are proving incredibly slow at evolving a taste for stiltgrass, or the poisonous fig buttercup, or any number of other highly invasive species. What Thomas calls a successful species may not be superior, but merely have escaped, through human transfer to a new continent, the predators, herbivores, or diseases that kept its numbers in balance where it originally evolved.

Elsewhere in the book, Thomas describes how forests moved north as the glaciers receded, displacing grasslands. He believes that the human transfer of species from one continent to another is no different from this historic north/south shift of plant communities. But those historic shifts were not only gradual, over thousands of years, but also involved the shift not of this or that individual species but of whole communities of plants and animals that had evolved together, establishing checks and balances over time.

SORTED NOTES:

Click on “read more” to access my detailed notes on the book, including page numbers for various claims and contradictions.