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.


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.


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.