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.


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

Saturday, April 07, 2018

Don't Bet Your Garden on Mike McGrath's View of Native Plants

By chance, while heading out to a March 31 workday to rescue some flowering dogwood trees from invasive porcelainberry vines at the Princeton Battlefield, I happened to turn on my car radio just as Mike McGrath, host of the You Bet Your Garden" show, was answering a question about native plants. Though I have respect for anyone knowledgeable enough to field questions on any and all aspects of gardening, and who can make the subject entertaining enough to sustain a radio program, McGrath also needs to know his limits, and plant ecology is one of them. He pretends to speak with authority about invasive species, when in fact he is simply passing along misinformation.

Below is a transcript of McGrath's answer, spoken in front of an audience at the Philadelphia Flower Show, with embedded critiques showing how he misleads audiences with his superficial knowledge, emotion-based arguments, and the creation of a despised "Other" that veers towards demogoguery, in direct contradiction of his live-and-let-live facade. His faux arguments are part of a genre that I have critiqued in detail online, most recently in a book review of Inheritors of the Earth in the professional journal, Biological Invasions.

QUESTION: ”My next question is if you could talk about the benefits of planting native species, as opposed to some of the stuff that you buy in big box stores that never seem to work.”

“This to me is a controversial topic."
Only one sentence into his answer and he's already sounding problematic. False controversy is used in climate change denial to suppress acknowledgement of its reality, and to delay action to solve the problem. As an example, an April 1 NBC Nightly News story about proposed rollbacks on fuel efficiency standards didn't even mention climate change--the primary motivation for the standards. Beware of the "controversial" label, particularly when controversy is artificially created and sustained with bogus arguments, like some that McGrath uses later in his answer.
"I know native plants are hot and I know there are people who treasure native plants, Doug Tallamy, I mean, of the University of Delaware who probably speaks here as much as I do, and he’s a great guy, and he has the proper native plant for every place," 
Give McGrath credit here for at least acknowledging the existence and expertise of Doug Tallamy, the entomologist whose research has contributed so much to our understanding of the deep interconnection between native plants and the insects they support. You can read whole books bashing native plant advocates, and see no mention of Tallamy. Though McGrath says Tallamy is successful and a great guy, he ignores the implications of his research, and refers to native plants as "hot" and "proper", as if they are a fad, or a dictate being imposed upon us from above.
"but I was just, again, reading a book, and the introduction reminded me, there’s a quote by Jefferson that no man can do more for his country than to introduce a new foreign plant to his farm. The brother gardeners, the founding gardeners, the people who really paved the way, created the idea that we think about horticulture and gardening in America, Jefferson, Adams, Washington, Bartram, all these people they just wanted to throw every plant from every part of the world and see what would thrive here." 
Whoa! Bringing out the founding fathers to support a helter skelter, pell mell introduction of non-native species--that's a new one, to me at least. Here's Jefferson's actual quote, from the Monticello website: "the greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add an useful plant to its culture." The website goes on to say that "Jefferson ranked the introduction of the olive tree and upland rice into the United States with his authorship of the Declaration of Independence. A Johnny Apple seed of the vegetable world, Jefferson passed out seeds of his latest novelty with messiahinistic fervor."

There is, of course, no doubt that the nation's founding fathers had a deep respect for the importance of plants in our lives. It's not a fluke that the U.S. Botanical Garden stands within a stone's throw of the nation's Capitol building--a centrality that seems incongruous today, when the study of plants has become so marginalized.

Many plant introductions have proven useful for agriculture and horticulture, but we now know the risks. Jefferson spoke those words long before the nation's elms, chestnuts, and other species were decimated by imported diseases, long before the multiflora rose escaped cultivation to choke our forests with thorns. McGrath's argument is just one more way of pretending that science hasn't taught us anything about the importance of balance and deep interconnectedness of species in an ecosystem. Presumably, if Jefferson were alive today, he would not own slaves, nor would he be advocating for the unregulated introduction of new species into the country. People and societies are supposed to learn from their mistakes.
"So, native plants have a lot of benefits to native pollinators, but, the world has become such a small place. You probably aren’t going to find many corners of it where there isn’t a plant from every other continent growing in context with the other plants."
Here, McGrath makes no distinction between habitats where native flora have been largely displaced, and habitats where the native flora are largely intact, with minimal disruption from introduced species. There are gradations of disruption of ecosystems, but McGrath seems to think of the whole planet as having lost its virginity, so therefore there must be no indigenous plant communities of value left to preserve. 
"Now, I’m not talking about invasives. Obviously people shouldn’t plant invasives, but I also don’t see invasives being sold at garden centers much, unless you count Bradford pear, you know." 
Here, McGrath at least makes a distinction that is surprisingly hard for some to make. Not all introduced plants exhibit invasive behavior. Now, there are plants that don't begin exhibiting invasive behavior until long after they've been introduced. Unlike native species that have grown in a region for many thousands of years, an introduced species has no track record. Once they begin acting invasively, it's usually too late to stop their spread. Thus, the healthy skepticism towards introducing new species to an area.
"But you have to remember, poison ivy is a native plant. Virginia creeper, one of my most troublesome weeds, is a native plant."
Again, he makes the important distinction that invasiveness is a behavior. In my experience, native cattails can be very aggressive in a wetland. In a small wetland I take care of, we actually remove it so that other species can thrive. But it's also important to remember that the vast majority of invasive plants are introduced, not native. McGrath is obscuring this reality. Virginia creeper can be aggressive in a garden, but I've never seen it become a problem in nature preserves. 
"I know the evils of Japanese honeysuckle. I know what a bad person I am, because it appeared on the fence, in my yard, ten years ago, and my wife was out on the little balcony outside our bedroom one night, and she goes, “I thought the multiflora rose were all done blooming.” And I said, “Yeah, yeah, they’re just a nuisance now.” And she said “What’s that amazing smell?” And I said, “That’s a bad plant. Would you like to taste it?” And she had never as a child gone out and drank the honey of the honeysuckle flower petal, and she goes “Explain to me that this is a bad plant. Why?” Well, supposedly no native butterfly can use it as a host plant, and while we’re out there, there’s like a dozen native bees fighting to get at every flower,"
First off, this is the classic cherry-picking approach. If a plant has one positive trait, or in this case two, then any negative traits magically become immaterial. Apologists for invasive species depend heavily on incomplete characterizations in order to make their arguments seem plausible.

McGrath told a similar story about his wife while praising multiflora rose. Invasive species like Japanese honeysuckle and multiflora rose thrive because the wildlife don't eat them. Their dominating displacement of the more edible native plants means that insects and other animals have diminished options for edible foliage, and even the pollinators feasting on the Japanese honeysuckle flowers will have few options for sustained nutrition once the dominant invasives stop blooming. At least McGrath mentions the need of butterflies for specific host plants, but that acknowledgement comes with a grudging "supposedly", and the story tells of the sinful pleasures to be had while enjoying plants we've been told are bad.

This concept of "good" plants and "bad" plants can hang people up. Here, McGrath has a nice moment with his wife, smelling Japanese honeysuckle and sipping its nectar, and resents having to think of it as a "bad" plant. Consider the possibility that the plant is good, that people are good, but that the main threat to the planet is too much of a good thing, that the balance of species, of CO2 in the atmosphere, and of the planet's capacity to process the biproducts of human activity has been thrown out of whack. 
"and I know there are nice native honeysuckles that are well behaved, that go to bed on time, listen to their parents, get 95s on their report cards, but at least when I was in college girls didn’t want to go out with those guys, you know."
Part of McGrath's popularity comes from his colorful personality and willingness to go big with his opinions, but here he can't help but veer into demogoguery, playing to the crowd at the Philadelphia Flower Show for laughs, while portraying native plants and the science that underscores their value as the sort of good boys and overachievers that the rest of us don't want to hang out with. In the process, he creates a despised "Other", in stark contrast to the pose of open-mindedness he then adopts in the next sentence:
"But, my personal feeling is, I see the good in every plant. I see every plant having some kind of purpose, and so I let almost everything grow on my landscape. If I deliberately tried to plant my landscape, it would look like Yellowstone after a fire, but instead I’ve learned to welcome the stranger, to see what this plant looks like as it grows up. Now, if it’s going to become a tremendously invasive problem, and it’s going to inflict, you know, harm on my neighbor’s property, then I pull it out. But I find that a lot of nonnatives have value,"
Yes, after impuning native honeysuckles as a bunch of boring, conformist, do-gooders that we don't want to spend time with, he then says he sees "the good in every plant." Radio show host, know thyself. This sort of hypocrisy is common in the native plant bashing genre, a hypocrisy most famously captured in the words of songwriter Tom Lehrer, "I know there are people in the world that do not love their fellow human beings and I hate people like that."

The comment about "Yellowstone after a fire" threw me off. I thought at first he meant it as a positive, since fire in a relatively healthy, fire-dependent ecosystem like Yellowstone brings a flush of new and richly diverse plant growth. But more likely, he equates fire with a blackened and barren landscape, as it is portrayed, wrongly, in the news.
"and the saddest part, the saddest truth of what’s happened to this planet is a lot of native plants can’t survive because the climate they thrived in is gone."  
Though the speed of human-caused climate change is creating stress for plants and animals, it's also true that most plant species in the U.S. have very long vertical ranges, often stretching from Georgia up into Canada, across a broad range of hardiness zones. Here's one example, picked at random.
"You know, native when? Native a hundred years ago, two hundred years ago, fifty years ago?"
The "native when" argument, like the view that ecosystems are either virgin or humanized, with no gradation between the two, betrays a dismissiveness towards co-evolution, in which species that live together for thousands of years can develop complex relationships of mutualism and symbiosis. 
But I also encourage people to try to support native plants and learn more about them, and for that I will send you to the work of Dr. Doug Tallamy, at the University of Delaware. He’s a genius in this regard. 
Again, credit McGrath for mentioning Doug Tallamy. McGrath could have saved everyone a lot of time by limiting his answer to this last sentence, and sparing the audience all his bias and misinformation.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Will Princeton's carbon footprint spur action?

Through a generous grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Sustainable Princeton has been able to fund a study of Princeton's carbon footprint, that is, how much carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases we are collectively sending skyward. That number represents the extent to which we as a town are trapped in a carbon economy, and thereby contribute daily to a collective, chemical undermining of nature. The main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, plays important positive roles in the earth's atmosphere, oceans, and in delivering to plants the carbon they use to grow, but as in our bodies, a significant change in its concentration can have disastrous consequences.

Few of us pay any notice to the exhaust pipes and chimneys in our lives, even though their emissions are quietly day to day determining our planetary fate. We abuse nature because we see little choice, because everyone else does it, because each individual's contribution seems insignificant, and because we can. Abuse can be inadvertent or, as in the photo of an outsized exhaust pipe in the back of a Dodge Ram pickup truck, a brazen show of power.

I may have been the first to attempt a carbon assessment of Princeton's energy use, in 2011, when I sought data from our energy provider, PSEG, on Princeton's consumption of gas and electricity. At the time, Princeton University was beginning to assess its own energy use, as was Sustainable Lawrence just down the road.

The premise, at least for me, was that awareness of our collective energy use as a town could help spur a move to use less, knowing the catastrophic global consequences of using carbon-based energy. We could compare our energy use year to year, and with other towns in the area, and thereby gain a sense of progress towards a shared goal.

My own experience with a home energy monitor, which displays how much electricity my house is using at any moment, suggested that knowledge is power. If I turned on the electric clothes dryer, our home energy use jumped by 3500 watts. Who knew? That's when we got clothes racks to hang-dry the clothes. A noisy, inefficient fan in the attic was replaced by passive ventilation. Turning off a few unneeded lights made the number drop even further. It was empowering and satisfying. We saved 35% on energy costs in the years that followed, with no loss in comfort or livability.

Immediate feedback seemed key in changing behavior. I dreamed of being able to go to a website where Princeton's energy use would be displayed in real time. Even more fine-grained data would allow neighborhoods to compete to see "how low we could go." But I quickly came up against the technical hurdles. PSEG was only set up to provide data every three months. Determining energy use by town government, or by the school system, required sending PSEG the meter numbers on every building. And then there's all the consumption of gasoline by cars and trucks driving through town. How to assess that?

I was stunned to learn that our town's biggest energy hog may be the incinerator that burns sewage sludge down on River Road. When natural gas prices were high, the town was spending more than one million dollars each year to fuel an incinerator most people don't even know exists. (I bet "Princeton's Finest" could outcompete Milorganite any day, and dramatically reduce our carbon footprint at the same time.)

In 2014 Heidi Fichtenbaum of Sustainable Princeton contacted me, wanting to pick up on my initial work with PSEG to quantify Princeton's energy use. I passed the data to SP's Christine Symington, who attended Hack Nights hosted by Code for Princeton, and sent the following update to me in 2015:

"Your past efforts to get this data were instrumental in getting a conversation started with PSEG that has led to us getting a commitment to getting updated data each quarter. 

We now have the start of a webpage that gives anyone in Princeton the ability to visualize our collective energy consumption. The team working on this included a 7th grader that designed the logo & created the styling for the site. Keep in mind that this is a work in progress. Ideas out there to expand on this include:
  • providing an import tool for residents and businesses who opt in to upload their personal utility bill information so it can be collected and used to create a "Princeton" energy consumption profile. This could be used to gather before and after energy costs from homeowners that participated in the EnergySmart Homes campaign 
  • an import tool for Sustainable Princeton to upload the data from PSEG easily and dynamically update the site with current usage data
  • a map of Princeton that would display energy efficiency or renewable energy implementations 
  • scenario builders that would show what Princeton could do to get to a 20% reduction in fossil fuels by 2020, i.e. increase solar installations by x%"
Then, in the fall of 2015, Christine published a report on Princeton's energy use on the SP website, the aim being to identify a baseline of energy use from which to measure Princeton's progress towards reducing energy use 20% by 2020.

Now, a grant-funded professional study should yield the long-sought number for Princeton's carbon footprint.

The big question going forward will be what Princeton does with that number. If we've learned anything in this long struggle to get action on climate change, it's that numbers don't make people change their behavior. The number on my home energy monitor moved me to action only because of a feeling in my gut that it is ethically wrong to be using energy that risks the future of our children, our nation, and a livable planet. How, we must ask, if Princeton is to be an example to the rest of the world, do we plant that feeling of ethical revulsion deep within more than a conscientious few of its residents?

One heartening development over the past year or two has been the growing gut-level rejection of discrimination, sexual harassment, and most recently gun violence. These issues have gone from the level of intellectual and political objection to a cathartic, visceral imperative that such behavior must be purged from society.

The Academy Awards this week was emblematic in its conscious shift towards inclusion and respect. And yet, predictably interspersed throughout that program and many others are car commercials that not only tolerate but glorify our collective chemical abuse of nature.

Our senses, of course, will not help us to reject the daily practice of pouring more and more CO2 into the atmosphere from the underground fuels we burn. Invisible, odorless, it all seems harmless enough. But if we were doing to our closely regulated bodies what we are doing indiscriminately to the earth--raising its temperature, acidifying the waters that sustain its life--we would literally feel in our guts the revulsion necessary to drive change in behavior.

It will be interesting on Wednesday to see the numbers that Sustainable Princeton has come up with, how business, commercial, residential, school and municipal sectors compare, and to see if the numbers are fine-grained enough to help drive decisions that will lead to substantive, measurable change.

Climate change is deceptive on so many levels. It is human nature to cling to the status quo, and yet it is the status quo that now drives radical change that increasingly threatens the lifestyle we wish to preserve. The more we cling, the less control we will ultimately have, as rising oceans claim our cities and super storms devastate communities. Each of us is left to grapple with the personal predicament arising from a collective failure, as in some lines I read at a recent poetry event at the library:

I don't mean to
I don't mean to
I don't mean to be so mean
To the earth.

How I love so much about it
As I travel all about it,
Spewing all that carbon as I go.
Where will I go,
When all that I love so,
When all that I go to,
Is gone?

Pessimists will say that it's already too late, that too much change is already baked into the system. But that is just one more in a long line of convenient excuses for inaction. Ending abusive behavior helps everyone. It not only makes life better for the abused, but also makes the former abuser a better person. Reducing the incredible disrespect for nature embedded in our economy and our culture will free us from an existential predicament we face as individuals every day, and make us better people.

A version of this piece was first published by

Monday, March 05, 2018

Good People Trapped in a Carbon Economy

Most of us were raised to be good people, but we live in an era when it is impossible to be good. Sure, we do all the things that good people would do: drive loved ones to where they need to go, keep the house comfortable, cook dinner, navigate the workaday world, travel to fascinating places. But each one of those life-affirming gestures, try as some might to deny it, is haunted by the collateral damage it causes. It is combustion that enables every one of those actions, and the kind of combustion we do leaves behind a chemical curse, all the more potent for being invisible.

Cars going by, planes flying overhead, steam rising from a chimney--the positive associations of each in the present is polluted in our minds by the dreaded portent for the future, as each person's seemingly insignificant legacy of combustion mixes with tens of billions of others past and present in the atmosphere and oceans, creating a vast chemical and thermal imbalance over time. This is the power of collective action.

It's as if every gallon of gas we buy, and every cubic foot of natural gas delivered silently to our homes, comes with an automatic donation to the End-of-the-World-As-We-Know-It Fund, dedicated to flooding coastal cities, promoting ecological collapse, and destabilizing weather patterns worldwide. Any intentional plot to do such damage would be considered Public Enemy #1. How, then, are we supposed to think ourselves good people without building a wall through our brains to prevent this unintentional harm from invading our awareness?

The inevitable guilt may cause some to trim their personal impact, but it seems paralyzing for most people. Better to feel outrage, at the powerful ideologues, pessimists and political cowards who keep us trapped in a dependency on fuels that power the present by sacrificing the future. This is not freedom, when we are cheated of any positive collective response commensurate with the threat, when we remain little more than conscripts, prodded by car commercials, cultural norms, and enforced economic necessity to collectively sabotage a beloved planet and our children's prospects. 

People think of climate change as an external threat, largely distant in place and time, but I feel it just as much on the inside, aware of the devil's bargain that pollutes any good I might do day to day. 

There was a time when nations were free to collectively counter global threats. We should be even more willing now, proud of sacrifice, challenged to be resourceful rather than extractive, because this time around, no lives need be lost, no war fought--only a rapid disarmament in the insidious chemical war against nature, a shift in habit and technology that squeezes fossil fuels out of our lives. 

This short essay was published in Town Topics on Feb. 21, 2018.

Monday, January 15, 2018

"The Post"--Monument or Gravestone?

With iconic actors Streep and Hanks playing iconic characters Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee in "The Post," it's time for a NewsCompanion repost. Following Bradlee's death in 2014, much was not written about the years following Watergate, and what Bradlee himself described as the "post-Watergate caution of editors". "What the newspaper did not need", he felt, "was another fight to the finish with another president--especially a Republican president, and especially a successful fight. Without the suggestion of a formal decision, I think the fires of investigative zeal were allowed to bank." The post below, from October, 2014, explores whether monuments can sometimes become gravestones, and whether victory can plant the seeds of future defeat.

Ben Bradlee--After Watergate

There's a big gap in obituaries for Ben Bradlee, the gutsy, charismatic icon of journalism who passed away October 21st. We hear plenty about the journalistic heights of the Watergate investigation that led to President Nixon's downfall, and the embarrassing depths of the fabricated Janet Cooke story, which led to the Washington Post returning a Pulitzer Prize. But with the exception of one blogpost at, little is said of the years 1981 to 1991, which coincided with the Reagan/Bush era and Bradlee's last ten years as executive editor of the Post.

The reason for this gap can be found in the "After Watergate" chapter of Bradlee's book, "A Good Life", where he describes the "post-Watergate caution of editors". "What the newspaper did not need", he felt, "was another fight to the finish with another president--especially a Republican president, and especially a successful fight. Without the suggestion of a formal decision, I think the fires of investigative zeal were allowed to bank."

The scandals of the Reagan era, which Bradlee describes as "unconstitutional adventures that threatened democracy more than Watergate", came in the protective shadow of Nixon's resignation, an increasingly passive public, and the never-ending stream of accusations of liberal bias aimed at newspapers like the Washington Post. "That criticism," wrote Bradlee, "that suggestion of bias, wore me down over the years, I now think, and I know we walked the extra mile to accept the official versions of events from the White House--explanations that I doubt we would have accepted from the right-hand men of Democratic presidents. And the public was glad to go along."

Bradlee notes that the alleged liberal bias, if anything, went the other direction: "at the Post anyway, we were always praying for good Democratic scandals". That reverse bias, along with the need in some political circles to avenge the resignation of President Nixon, contributed to the investigative excesses of the Clinton years.

Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, famed for their reporting of the Watergate story, said that Bradlee's “one unbending principle was the quest for the truth and the necessity of that pursuit. He had the courage of an army.’’ And yet, one aspect of Bradlee's truthfulness is his admission that, even for him, the journalistic pursuit of truth could be compromised, blunted, worn down by relentless ideological attacks and public apathy.

Sometimes it's hard to distinguish monuments from gravestones. In a country that remains paralyzed and artificially polarized as the global threat of climate change gathers power and momentum, the World War II monument on the National Mall becomes more like a gravestone for a lost era of national unity and sacrifice for the greater good. Given the timidity that crept into journalism in the 1980s, the courage and commitment to truth that marked the Watergate investigation, too, stands as both monument and gravestone.

As Bradlee is rightly celebrated for his long and iconic journalistic career, and the personal and financial risks taken in pursuing the Watergate scandal, it's good to remember that the greatest monuments to past glories are not built of stone, nor of words. They come not in the form of passive, ritualistic celebration--an annual parade, a comforting eulogy, or a ribbon slapped on the back of a car--but in emulation. These are the living monuments America seems to have forgotten how to build.

Saturday, January 06, 2018

Why Is New Jersey Alone in Banning Self-Serve Gas Stations?

Living in New Jersey just got more special, now that we're the only remaining state that doesn't allow drivers to pump their own gas. An article in the NY Times pits a lonely state legislator's call for self-serve against polling that shows a NJ populace largely supportive of keeping things as they are. Interestingly, both Governor Christie and his predecessor, Jon Corzine, initially supported the self-serve option, but dropped the subject after encountering strong opposition. People embrace the tradition of full-serve, or worry about the health effects of breathing the fumes, or the inconvenience of getting out of the car, particularly in cold weather.

The maverick state legislator, Republican Declan J. O'Scanlon, calls the opposition to self-serve gas "ridiculous", and he's right. His cause would be helped if articles included important aspects of the issue, listed below.

Gas station attendants' working conditions
The Times article mentions drivers worried about breathing fumes, but regulation has led to safer, unleaded gas and better pump designs that minimize fumes. And if a driver is worried about the health effects of standing next to a gas pump for a few minutes each week, or the inconvenience of pumping one's own gas in cold winter weather, then consider the risks for the gas station attendant who must work in that environment for 8 hours day after day. If NJ wants to artificially create jobs, let them be productive work, rather than doing a task people can easily and safely do themselves.

Self-serve doesn't prevent stations from offering full service option
Articles make it sound like allowing self-serve gas would prevent drivers from getting their gas pumped for them, but if the public's desire for full-serve is real and deep, then gas stations can provide both options to meet the demand.

Attendants increase the cost of gasoline
Former governor Corzine estimated drivers could save 6 cents/gallon with self-serve gas. That's a significant savings for many drivers, who, in another Times article, are said to be willing to drive an extra block for gas that's a penny cheaper. Though polls show strong support in NJ for continuing full service, it's worth asking if the polls mentioned the likely savings of self-serve before getting people's opinions.

How resistance to change can radically change a planet
The news media sometimes breaks stories that can be a catalyst for change, but the journalist's need to portray people as victims (given readers are drawn to such portrayals) can also make readers want to cling to the status quo. Articles emphasize the potential negative consequences of any proposed action. In this case, the NY Times article quotes people fearful of changing tradition.

This tendency to keep things as they are can in many instances be a good survival instinct, but when it comes to gas and cars, the status quo is in fact an agent of radical change. It's taken me a long time to realize, but the act of filling up one's gas tank is a bit like loading up a bomber for another mission over enemy territory. Through our exhaust pipes, out of sight and out of mind beneath the backside of the car, flow the invisible gases that collectively are altering climate and oceans. My car's spraying fossil carbon hither and yon from the moment I pull out of the station.

Culture encourages us to buy and drive vehicles that, even when driven safely, contribute by the nature of their fuel to lethal planetary changes. We love our cars (though not the other cars in our way while driving). That personal connection to a vehicle is constantly reinforced by a steady din of advertisements that glorify their use and imply that cars and trucks can satisfy our deep emotional longings. Filling them with gas has long felt like a private, personal transaction that simply facilitates our getting where we need to go. A full tank of gas gives a sense of promise and possibility. What hasn't yet penetrated most people's thinking--even my own, depending on the day--is the role of each of us as unintentional cogs in a much larger wheel that's rolling in a dangerous and permanently earth-altering direction.

That transaction at the gas pump speaks more vividly than any other to the contradiction between our private lives and our collective impact on the planet. That moment, hand on pump (except in Jersey), injecting fossil energy into our vehicles, straddles two worlds of meaning--private and collective, present and future, intention and unintention. None of this is even realized by most people, and certainly doesn't find its way into articles about pumping gas.

Friday, January 05, 2018

Drill-Baby-Drill vs Pump-Baby-Pump

The move by the Trump administration to open all U.S. coastal waters to drilling brings back memories of the 2008 election and the Republican chant "Drill, baby, drill". Where does one begin with all the rich meaning that can be mined from the race to extract more carbon energy from underground?

Collectively Created Problems? Yes. Collectively Solved Problems? No
Though conservatism as currently defined might seem to be against collective action, as it dismantles or paralyzes government and demonizes regulations, this is only half true. Conservatism allows problems like climate change to be collectively created, but is opposed to collective action to solve those problems. When Obama, responding to McCain's "drill, baby, drill" proposal to sell drilling rights along the coasts, pointed out that we wouldn't need to burn the oil from the coastal waters if we kept our tires properly inflated, he was ridiculed. He was proposing collective action to reduce climate change, while McCain was promoting action that would maintain or increase the collective releasing of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Libertarians, according to the Libertarian Party website,
"strongly oppose any government interference into their personal, family, and business decisions. Essentially, we believe all Americans should be free to live their lives and pursue their interests as they see fit as long as they do no harm to another."
Those last words, "as long as they do no harm to another", render libertarianism fraudulent from the get-go. It is a libertarian's deregulatory fervor that increases the harm individuals do to one another. To the extent that any individual creates nonpoint pollution, be it car or chimney exhaust, trash, sewage, or fertilizer runoff, that individual is creating harm, particularly to those who are downstream in topography or time. Libertarianism, being a substantial component of conservatism, is compromised at its core. Liberals, acknowledging basic realities that a libertarian chooses to ignore, work to free us from the negative impact of others.

Energy Independence Now, Energy Dependence Later
There's a flip side to claims that drilling more domestic oil will reduce U.S. dependency on foreign oil. Draining the nation's reserves of oil and gas now leaves fewer reserves to tap in the future. True energy independence is achieved only by reducing the need for energy, through greater efficiencies of which keeping tires inflated is a small but valid example, and by tapping the inexhaustible energy from the wind and sun.

Public vs. Private
Part of our individual wealth is what we own collectively through government. The logic of government can be seen in a public park. Owned by everyone, a park enables the individual to enjoy a landscape that otherwise would be accessible only to those with the wealth to acquire it. We all own the nations coastal oil reserves. Leasing that shared wealth, most likely at very low prices, shifts that wealth to a few private companies, leaving the public poorer.

Radical Conservatism Co-ops the Language of the Radical Left
The "Drill, baby, drill" of 2008 was preceded by the "burn, baby, burn" phrase associated with the Watts riots in Los Angeles in 1965, when urban blacks rioted to protest police brutality. Though the burning of fossil fuel is highly controlled, hidden within internal combustion engines and furnaces, its consequence is a permanent heating of the planet and radicalizing of the weather, with consequences that are far more destructive than an urban riot.

Lyrics in a 2001 song by Ash, entitled "Burn, Baby, Burn", capture the radical result of a conservatism that untethers the individual from responsibility for collective consequence:
Tumbling like the leaves
We are spiraling on the breeze
Almost to the point of no return
Everything will burn baby burn
U.S. Rushes to Become Europe
Resource abundance has long distinguished America from Europe. Dismissive of Europe and its ways, conservatism ironically hastens the resource depletion that in time will make America more closely resemble Europe.

The Quandary of the Conservationist
The work of preservation is never done, while it only takes one action to permanently exploit or destroy.

It Only Takes One Bad Tenant in the White House
Anyone who has been a landlord for awhile has learned that it just takes one bad tenant to trash a house. Likewise, it takes only one bad president to trash a nation. The George W. Bush administration left a legacy of 9/11, two wars, an economic meltdown, and tragic delay on climate change. With one political party in the grips of an anti-government philosophy, the federal government is caught in a recurrent cycle of demolition followed by repair, followed by even more aggressive demolition.

Monday, December 25, 2017

In a Great America

Sometimes, with all the criticism flying around, it's worth writing down the world you wish for. Here's an ongoing draft of my version.

In a great America, people would learn from the "Yes, and..." of theater improv, and look for ways to make something work, rather than come up with all the reasons why it won't.

In a great America, difference would be welcomed rather than feared. 

In a great America, regulation would not only prevent bad things from happening, but also make it more likely that good things will happen.

In a great America, truth would travel farther and speak more loudly than lies.

In a great America, people would direct as much skepticism inward as outward.

In a great America, we'd be producers first, consumers second.

In a great America, future consequence would matter.

In a great America, people would care as much about public space as private space.

In a great America, all packaging would be universally recyclable.

In a great America, people would try to repair things rather than just throw them out at the first sign of imperfection.

In a great America, we'd work with nature, and give back to nature as much as we take.

In a great America, all sports would celebrate athleticism and teamwork, rather than the capacity to inflict pain on others.

In a great America, people would find the mate they want, rather than the mate they want to change.

In a great America, men would feel permitted to be empathetic and women to be emphatic.

In a great America, men would listen, and ask for directions.

In a great America, people would be comfortable in their skins, and wear themselves rather than their inhibitions.

In a great America, the good that people do would get as much attention as the bad they do.

In a great America, God would not be used to rationalize horrific acts, or to rationalize inaction.

In a great America, those who believe in God would acknowledge that evolution is the way God creates.

In a great America, people would take what's best from religious texts, and leave what's worst.

In a great America, quality of life would matter as much as quantity.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

A Review of Emma Marris's TED Talk--Species and Spin

For years I've been writing critiques of a false narrative about invasive species that has recurrently found its way into books, newspaper articles and opeds. A cluster of books came out between 2011 and 2015, claiming that invasive species are not a threat after all, and may even be our saviors. You can find this applecart-spilling lineup on and elsewhere, beginning with Emma Marris's "The Rambunctious Garden" in 2011, followed by "Where Do Camels Belong", "The New Wild", and "Beyond the War on Invasive Species".

I've read all of one, parts of others, and have been astonished at their faulty logic and brazen tone, as they dismiss habitat restoration and (usually unnamed) invasion biologists with a sweep of the hand. The books deliver a big payoff for uninformed readers, who get to look down on supposedly stuffy, self-deceived scientists, while being relieved of worrying about a big problem that, according to the authors, isn't a problem after all.

Though the authors would not welcome the comparison, similar emotional payoffs can be had by denying human-caused climate change, or supporting a candidate who dismisses those with experience and promises to magically solve a nation's problems. This is how polarization is maintained in America (and how democracy's pillars begin to crumble), by recasting consensus as conformity, expertise as arrogance, and then cherry-picking evidence to suit one's ideological needs. The authors present themselves as tough-minded skeptics, bucking the tide, but turn out to have directed all their skepticism outwards, allowing their own misconceptions to prosper unquestioned.

Earlier this year, I scanned the internet to see if the authors of these books were continuing to downplay the threat posed by invasive species. The main thing I found was a 2016 TED talk by Emma Marris, entitled "Nature is everywhere--we just need to learn to see it."

It's a well-delivered talk, but anyone with knowledge of the subject will spot the telltale spin, conflation, and omissions that lead the audience to a counterfeit "A-Ha!" moment. In the talk, Marris claims that weedy urban lots are "arguably more wild" than national parks. Weedlots, she claims, are the true wilderness, because there is no human intervention, while national parks are often carefully managed. Nature's diversity is defined as a straight numbers game of how many different species can be found in a given location. All landscapes are sweepingly categorized as "humanized", regardless of whether the landscape is an elevated train track surrounded by buildings and concrete in Philadelphia, or a rainforest inhabited by indigenous tribes.

There's a downplaying of the deeper ecological interconnections that develop through co-evolution. Marris dismisses the management of national parks as an effort to make them "look natural", whereas land managers and ecologists see the re-introduction of bison and wolves, or the planting of rust-resistant whitebark pine seedlings, not as a superficial visual tweak but as an effort to restore ecological function and health.

To suggest that an urban weedlot is "self-willed" and more wild than a managed national park is to misunderstand the human influence on landscapes. Some of our impacts on the world are intentional, others unintentional. Marris seems to consider the collateral damage of human expansion--the accidental introduction of nonnative species, the altering of hydrology caused by urbanization, the displacement of key species like wolves and bison--as natural acts, while the intentional effort to undo these alterations is labeled as unnatural.

I would argue the opposite, that nature predates humans in America, and that the profound ecological relationships and functionality developed over those millions of years do not disappear under the label "humanized" as soon as people arrive. Elements of that original wild nature persist to varying degrees. Some elements were enhanced, for instance by the American Indians' use of fire in the landscape, and other elements have been eliminated altogether, like the megafauna that were hunted to extinction. Weedlots can only be called wild and self-willed if we ignore the setting, which is human-based. The hydrology, the substrate, the sorts of seeds that land there--all these are the product of past human activity, be it intentional or unintentional. There is spontaneity, as the plants sprout and grow, and the bees visit, but the context is largely orchestrated by people past and present. This is far different from the Amazon, where indigenous tribes may influence nature, but have left most of nature's functional components in place.

People are both part of nature and separate from it. We can work with nature's processes or fight against them. Using our knowledge, we can mend and nurture wildness through intentional action, or further alter the remnants of a nature that once sprung from the ground without any human promptings or orchestration.

There are several values I hold in common with Emma Marris. She calls for people to seek out and enjoy the nature all around them. The watershed association I founded in Durham, NC was inspired by a desire to provide urban dwellers with mini-preserves a short walk from their homes. Marris believes nature is made to be touched, not treated as a museum. Amen to that. She makes a good point that kids, just discovering nature, need not be told that the flower they're holding in their hand is a non-native invasive plant. I was weeding a large, mostly native wet meadow planted in a park's detention basin this past spring when a kid came along, grabbed a dandelion seedhead, told me it was a wishing flower, and sent the seeds flying with his breath. Though dandelions were one of the weeds I had been undercutting with a shovel that afternoon, I held my tongue and let him enjoy his love of the dandelion. Kids will learn soon enough, when their parents curse the fig buttercup that's taking over their yard, or a fishing trip is undone by a combination of habitat degradation and invasive species. My first remembered encounter with invasive species, as a kid in Wisconsin, was a trip to nearby Turtle Creek, which had appeared on the map as a sweet rivulet in the countryside. What we found was a muddy creek degraded by cattle and carp.

It's one thing for Marris to want to protect and nurture kids' delight in nature, but another to downplay or deny among adults the threat posed by invasive species.

I had an interesting interaction recently with Ms. Marris. In the TED talk, she claimed that a Finnish ecologist named Illka Hanski let his yard grow up, and several years later found "375 plant species, including 2 endangered species". Very impressive, and in the talk's trajectory, that was the moment that sealed the deal for the audience. You could feel that collective "aha" moment, when the "let it go" approach to nature seemed a truly powerful tool for achieving plant diversity. But the number sounded wrong to me, and sure enough, in an interview Ms. Marris did later last year, the story is told differently. The interviewer says:
 "In Helsinki, researcher Ilkka Hanski stopped mowing his 16,000-square-foot lawn and found, after several years, 375 species of animals and plants — including two endangered insects." 
Since soil itself is packed with species, we have no idea how many plant species were in the yard. I emailed Emma Marris, and she immediately acknowledged having misspoken, and has added a footnote to the TED talk pointing out the mistake. 

Unfortunately, showing how misinformation can have a ripple effect, the TED staff had appeared to use the false figure in Marris's TED talk to suggest greater biodiversity in urban lots than in national parks:
"...untended patches of grass and weeds growing in abandoned lots and around deserted buildings. (It may surprise you that that patch is most likely more biologically diverse than an entire national park.)"
The TED staff include Marris's talk in a group of speakers who supposedly "debunked received wisdom, looked critically at common knowledge — and restarted conversations we thought were closed." What in fact happened in this case is that misinformation was used to artificially create debate. Our appetite for surprise and a dramatic "overturning of the applecart" creates a market for false controversy.

Marris had the TED staff also remove the "It may surprise you ..." language, but the TED talk can't be modified to remove the false claim about diversity, and now has over a million hits.

My experience with diversity is the opposite of Marris's cherry-picked example. The roadsides of Durham, NC, where I used to live, tend to be dominated by a few nonnative grass species. But here and there under the powerlines along old 2-lane roads, where soil was left undisturbed, probably for centuries, and woody growth is kept mowed down, can be found patches of native piedmont prairie teaming with plant diversity. The soil was undisturbed because farmers wouldn't have plowed the roadsides, and mowing under powerlines is a serendipitous stand-in for periodic fires that would have swept through in centuries past, preventing woody vegetation from shading out the herbaceous species. Thus, serendipitous human actions have allowed an indigenous plant community to survive from an era that was far more wild than our own.

My email exchange with Emma Marris was friendly enough. She is an accomplished environmental writer who is commendably working to immerse kids in nature. But I did ultimately feel a need to point out the ways in which she uses spin, blurred distinctions, cherry-picking, and omission to undermine consensus and create false controversy. That brought the email exchange to an end, but it serves as a good summary of what still plagues her writing about invasive species:
"I'd say I agree with you on some things, and find other aspects of your TED presentation problematic. People should look for nature close to home, and not be hands off about it, and lectures on the dangers of nonnative invasive species are best saved for some moment other than when a boy is connecting with nature for the first time. The rest--that park stewardship is intended to make the park "look natural", that all landscapes touched lightly or heavily by humans can be categorized as "humanized", that diversity is primarily a numbers game, that an urban lot is "self-willed" when the circumstances are largely dictated by people, and that deeper interactions such as herbivory or lack thereof don't bear mention--is problematic. Your talk made me remember my fascination with roadside weeds when I was first learning plant names, but I don't see you giving the deeper interactions that evolve over time between species their due."

Postscript: Googling Ilkka Hanski did uncover a useful reference to him in a David Suzuki Reader, in which Hanski had found that "people surrounded by a greater diversity of life ... were less likely to exhibit allergies." It sounds similar to the contention that kids' immune systems will be improved by playing in dirt. All of this, if true, is good fodder for those of us not enamored with the sterility of suburban landscapes. 

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Slavery and Fossil Fuels: Unethical Energy, Then and Now

Preface: Actors study for a role in part by seeking in themselves aspects of the character they wish to portray onstage. That technique, or instinct, could be used to more deeply understand a time long past. When Princeton University began to look into the role slavery played in its past, researchers and archivists found all sorts of interesting documents, then recently invited the public to take a look. Attending events, I couldn't help but exercise the actor's approach, looking for aspects of today that can help us more vividly understand a seemingly distant era. Even without considering how slavery's long shadow extends into our century, the parallels between past and present were so numerous that I felt an eerie connection with that antebellum era. Most eerie is the tacit acceptance of a disturbing status quo. There's a great risk in not talking about our dependency on unethical energy. It nearly split a nation in two, and now threatens a civilization's future. 

The Slavery in Princeton project’s revelations have blurred distinctions between good and evil, North and South. For me, they also blur distinctions between past and present. The symposium will rightly focus on racial injustice, but additional insight can come from comparing economies dependent on unethical energy, slave-based or otherwise.

To make the point, here's what I've learned thus far from Slavery in Princeton's events, exhibits, and website, plus some additional reading:

Slaves were sold on Nassau Street. Slavery was common in Princeton, a part of everyday life, and seldom discussed. The university benefitted from wealth generated by the slave economy. Nationally, the Bible and junk science were used to rationalize the continued use of slaves and to claim that victims were actually beneficiaries. Those most victimized by slavery had no vote. Those calling for a rapid end to slave use were considered radical. New Jersey chose to phase out slavery over many decades. Everyone supported the slave economy by buying its products. A few people of conscience sought to buy slave-free goods, but struggled with issues of higher cost and verification. A technological breakthrough made slavery much more profitable as time went on, expanding U.S. exports and stiffening political resistance to ending the slave economy. Ending slave use would mean stripping slave owners of the tremendous wealth bound up in the slaves themselves. The political party advocating continued slave use became radicalized, in part because demographic trends might erode its power. That Party chose to secede rather than face the unethical nature of the slave economy. Even after slave use was abolished, its harmful effects would linger for centuries.

Now, reread the above paragraph, substituting the word "fossil fuel" for slave and slavery. The technological breakthrough, by the way, was the cotton gin then, fracking now, and secession was from the Union then, from reality-based thinking now.

There are, of course, important distinctions. Slavery in the U.S. was an intentional subjugation, a race-based exploitation of one person by another, with much of the overt or covert cruelty playing out in real time.

Climate change, by contrast, is collective, unintentional and impersonal, essentially collateral damage from the carbon-based economy. Its veiled, crowd-sourced form of cruelty is largely indirect, displaced in distance and time, disguised within the natural variations of the weather. Climate change most directly targets earth, which can be thought of as a body, physically scarred by extraction, its oceans acidified, its land and sea made feverish by a 40% increase in carbon dioxide. These radical changes to atmosphere and oceans cripple nature and increasingly endanger people through a devastating intensification of winds, floods, droughts, and heatwaves.

And yet we drive down freeways, which function as climate change factories, with the best of motivations--to get to work, run an errand, or do a favor--exiling awareness of collective consequence. To more deeply understand slavery's grip on society, consider how unethical energy continues to trap even free people in dependencies that can be viewed as both perfectly normal and unconscionable.

Background readings that I found helpful can be found at this link

Friday, December 01, 2017

Rationalizing Extinction--an Oped by Alexander Pyron

I know. A lot of you have been feeling guilty about how we humans are causing the 6th great extinction event in earth's history. 40% of all species on earth are predicted to slip quietly into history. But we're good people! For the most part. How could this happen? Well, no use wringing your hands, you hand wringers, you. Because, voila!, extinction turns out to be good, after all, according to R. Alexander Pyron, an associate professor at George Washington University who is trying his hand at opinion writing. Why change our destructive behavior when we can change our ethical standards instead? Demonizing the human race is so last century. Time to rationalize! Time to get anthropocentric about the Anthropocene.

A colleague had sent me the link. The headline (written by the newspaper's editors) sounded like a troll from an online comment section. "We don’t need to save endangered species. Extinction is part of evolution: The only creatures we should go out of our way to protect are Homo sapiens."

"Cool!", I exclaimed, looking at the headline on my phone while standing in the parking lot of a nature preserve, getting ready to lead a nature walk on a Sunday afternoon. I shared the provocative title with others who had gathered. We reveled in relief as all that species-guilt we'd been feeling for as long as we could remember drained away, melting into the pavement beneath our feet.

By chance, I'd been analyzing a book with a similar message, "Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature is Thriving in an Age of Extinction, " by Chris D. Thomas. The book may well have emboldened Pyron to write his opinion piece, and given the Washington Post a rationale for publishing it. Both the book and the oped seduce uninformed readers by upsetting the applecart of mainstream thinking, and by letting the reader off the hook. Remember Dr. Strangelove and "How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb?" Doctors Thomas and Pyron are doing something similar with the Anthropocene, but with no sense of satire.

Much of their thinking is rooted in books published some years ago--by Marris, Pearce, Orion and others--that vilified habitat restoration and invasion biologists and portrayed invasive species as a blessing in disguise. I thought that line of thinking had long since died of its own strained logic, but Thomas's book appeared this summer, presenting the old arguments in an even more nihilistic form.

If nothing else, Pyron's essay is useful for pointing out some recurrent habits of this genre, which seeks to undermine our trust in mainstream scientific thought. Below are some typical techniques, with quotes from his opinion piece:

Portray the “Other” as emotional, sentimental, and self-serving. In this case, the "Other" is mainstream biological and environmental thinking about habitat restoration and extinction.
  • “Yet we are obsessed with reviving the status quo ante.”
  • “And if biodiversity is the goal of extinction fearmongers, ...“
Claim that working to restore nature, or otherwise expend conscious effort to reduce humanity's negative impacts, is a waste of time and money.
  • “But the impulse to conserve for conservation’s sake has taken on an unthinking, unsupported, unnecessary urgency.”
  • “Conserving a species … serves to discharge our own guilt, but little else.”
  • “whatever effort we make to maintain the current climate will eventually be overrun by the inexorable forces of space and geology.”
Declare the conservationist Other’s words to be meaningless, either by erasing distinctions or mocking the Other’s words with quotation marks.
  • "There is no such thing as an 'endangered species,' except for all species."
  • “We are a part of the biosphere just like every other creature, and our actions are just as volitional, their consequences just as natural.”
  • “alien species will disrupt formerly 'pristine' native ecosystems.”
Manage guilt or purge it altogether.
  • “extinction does not carry moral significance, even when we have caused it.”
  • “Humans should feel less shame about molding their environment to suit their survival needs.”
  • "Conservation is needed for ourselves and only ourselves."
Play tricks with time frame. Sure, we're doing harm to nature, but all will be fine a million years from now. Can you imagine such reasoning being used for any other problem we face?
  • "Our concern, in other words, should not be protecting the animal kingdom, which will be just fine. Within a few million years..."
  • “If this means fewer dazzling species, fewer unspoiled forests, less untamed wilderness, so be it. They will return in time."
Cherry pick evidence. Oftentimes, one positive trait is used to supposedly compensate for all the negative traits of invasive species. The positive trait might be a pretty flower, or nitrogen-fixing ability, or erosion control.
  • “ Studies have shown that when humans introduce invasive plant species, native diversity sometimes suffers, but productivity — the cycling of nutrients through the ecosystem — frequently increases. Invasives can bring other benefits, too: Plants such as the Phragmites reed have been shown to perform better at reducing coastal erosion and storing carbon than native vegetation in some areas, like the Chesapeake.”
Most writings in this genre use extinction as the only measure of damage to native species, but Pyron's oped is even more heartless, claiming that extinction is all part of the game, neither good nor bad.
  • “Invasion and extinction are the regenerative and rejuvenating mechanisms of evolution, the engines of biodiversity.”
  • "The only reason we should conserve biodiversity is for ourselves, to create a stable future for human beings."
Make biodiversity purely a numbers game; minimize or ignore the evolution of complex interactions between species
  • "South Florida, where about 140 new reptile species accidentally introduced by the wildlife trade are now breeding successfully? No extinctions of native species have been recorded, and, at least anecdotally, most natives are still thriving. The ones that are endangered, such as gopher tortoises and indigo snakes, are threatened mostly by habitat destruction. Even if all the native reptiles in the Everglades, about 50, went extinct, the region would still be gaining 90 new species — a biodiversity bounty."
Present evolution as winners and losers
  • “Extinction is the engine of evolution, the mechanism by which natural selection prunes the poorly adapted and allows the hardiest to flourish. “
Overall, Pyron's writing has an "abandon ship" quality. Ayn Rand's "In Defense of Selfishness" comes to mind. Libertarianism, as described at, envisions "a world in which all individuals are sovereign over their own lives and no one is forced to sacrifice his or her values for the benefit of others." This sort of thinking leaves us helpless to prevent collectively created crises. Opposition to collective action to slow or prevent climate change then necessitates a way to rationalize the tragic consequences. Pyron's political views are unknown, but he essentially extends the libertarian view of the individual to the species as a whole. Hope is invested not in proactive avoidance of disaster, but in the endgame: "we will find a way to adapt." And if that fails, then come back in a million years. Everything's sure to be fine then.

Update: Alexander Pyron later wrote an apology on facebook