A Good Time to be a Vulture
Oct. 4, 2008
It is not a good time to be a polar bear, with the Arctic thawing out and with Sarah Palin suing anyone who wants to rescue you. And it is not a good time to be a seaside alder tree beside the clear streams of Oklahoma, with the possibility of extinction through human-caused global warming and with distant people wanting to pump out all of the water upon which you (and the local people) depend. It is not a good time to be a fir, spruce, lodgepole pine, or oak tree, with bark beetles and fungal diseases spreading, in some cases caused by global warming. The message of marmots, who live only on cold mountaintops that may soon no longer be cold, to investment bankers on Wall Street: join us in our fate, for we will both be extinct unless the federal government does something other than fan the flames of greed.
But it is a good time to be a vulture. To you, O vulture! Faster cars and pickup trucks: more roadkill. Climate change: more corpses of animals and of humans killed in hurricanes. Economic collapse: more homeless people who cannot afford a funeral, whose corpses will eventually be picked up by sanitation officers but perhaps not before you can get a bite or two. To you, O vulture, the stench of decay is a sweet aroma and how much we will need you to clean up our world in the near future. Let no one vilify your carrion-colored head.
Senator Obama, as did Franklin Delano Roosevelt, believes that capitalism needs to be restrained. Senator McCain, as Herbert Hoover did, believes that unrestrained capitalism works, except when it doesn’t, at which time we can react spastically to the ensuing emergency. This election resembles a choice between Roosevelt and Hoover—and it is clear which one the vultures prefer.
Jesus said in Matthew 24, “Wherever the body is, there you will see the vultures gathered together.”
A State of Embarrassment
Oct. 11, 2008
Oklahoma has two Republican senators who are considered, even by their fellow Republicans in Washington, to be right-wing extremists. Observers on the national scene can be excused for assuming Oklahoma to be a backward and hostile land, based on what they hear coming from the U. S. Senate. In keeping with the theme of this website, I will focus on scientific issues on which these senators have spoken.
James Inhofe is not alone in his party for dismissing the importance of global warming. But he stands out for calling it a hoax. To prove this claim, one would need evidence that climatologists have deliberately falsified information. There is no such evidence. Inhofe also stands out for calling the delusional science fiction writer Michael Crichton to testify before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee back when Inhofe was the chair. (I call Crichton delusional because he wrote that global warming scientists had a worldwide crime network that, among other things, set off bombs to cause ice sheets to fall into the ocean in Antarctica. Crichton’s delusions can be traced back as far as Rising Sun, in which he portrayed the entire country of Japan as trying to ruthlessly conquer the U.S. economy.) I will mention one non-scientific example. During the Senate Abu Ghraib hearings in 2004, Inhofe had no questions to ask, but merely praised everything that all of the Bush Administration officials did, presumably including the tortures.
Tom Coburn has two acts of distinction in his attack on science. The first involves GINA (Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act). Personal genomes of an individual person can help determine her or his susceptibility to genetic diseases, and may in the future allow health care providers to prevent these diseases from affecting the person’s body. But insurance companies want this information as an excuse for denying coverage to anyone who might possibly become ill later. GINA makes it illegal for insurance companies to demand and receive access to this information. The entire Senate approved GINA, but by a legal technicality Coburn held up its approval for a year, from 2007 to 2008. Coburn is a “pro-life” candidate who wants to guarantee every fetus a right to live, including those with genetic defects. But he apparently wanted to make sure that any parent who has a risk of passing genetic defects to that child should be denied insurance coverage.
Coburn’s second attack on science involves pesticides and other environmental contaminants. Biologist Rachel Carson alerted the world to the dangers of the widespread use of pesticides in her 1962 book Silent Spring: pesticides concentrate to dangerous levels up the food chain. Carson said pesticides could be used safely, but only if used in small quantities, sprayed directly on pest organisms. What she opposed was massive aerial sprayings that were routine at the time. In 2007, the Senate considered a Resolution of Respect for Rachel Carson. Such resolutions require a unanimous vote. There was one dissenting vote: Tom Coburn. He claimed that the restricted use of pesticides caused the deaths of children. He incorrectly claimed Rachel Carson called for a ban on all pesticides. Coburn, a pediatrician, apparently believes the unlimited use of pesticides is good for kids.
Such extreme views from our two Oklahoma senators raises the possibility in the eyes of the rest of the nation and world that Oklahoma is a separate planet with its own laws of nature and rules of reality.
Just for Money?
Oct. 18, 2008
Conservatives often accuse environmental activists of publicizing global warming just to rake in money for environmental organizations and to sell their books. This has always been an outrageous claim and in September 2008 it became even more clearly outrageous.
My forthcoming book, Green Planet, has earned me an advance of $4,000, part of which goes to my agent. If I divide the $3,700 I will have earned by the number of hours I spent writing and rewriting and rewriting it, it comes out to about $7 per hour, below the minimum wage of 2009.
According to ABC News, information from the SEC indicates that the recently retired chairman of Exxon Mobil, Lee Raymond, earned a paycheck of $51.1 million in 2005, the year before he retired. ABC News notes that this is $6,000 an hour. This is 150 times as much as I earn for all of my work as a university faculty member. This does not include his $400 million retirement package.
Exxon Mobil is one of the leading deniers of global warming science, although their denials have been less vigorous since Raymond’s retirement. It is in their financial interest for people to burn as much oil and oil derivatives as possible. Exxon Mobil has, for several years, had higher profits than any company in all of human history. The financial incentive for denying global warming is abundantly clear.
In September 2008, dishonest activities of oil and gas companies were revealed. Oil and gas companies not only gave monetary kickbacks to high officials in the Denver office of the Minerals Management Service of the Department of the Interior, but even sex and drugs. Quite literally, the oil industry was in bed with the government agency that regulated their use of public resources. The ongoing investigation has revealed Shell and Chevron as two of the oil companies involved in these illegal activities. If I behaved in such a manner in my job, I would be fired so fast that I wouldn’t even have time to recycle the condom.
Also in September 2008, Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska went on trial for receiving free home improvements and other benefits from oil companies, a fact that is not disputed but of which Senator Stevens declares ignorance.
Many oil companies and other energy corporations not only deny scientific facts but are brazen in their illegal activities. And they ask that we just believe whatever they say about global warming because they have the interests of all Americans at heart.
As the Watergate informant said to Woodward and Bernstein, “Follow the money.”
Shoot Something Furry
Oct. 28, 2008
In many places, one is qualified to lead (in elected office) if one has demonstrated ability not just to make decisions and to get people to work together for a mutually beneficial goal, but also to lead by being a servant of the people. This was, to Jesus, the most important quality in a leader. It is a quality often proclaimed but seldom practiced by modern leaders, who are openly proud of their ability to manipulate power behind the scenes, get around the law, take revenge on critics, and be the decider.
But in Oklahoma there is another qualification, for both Democratic and Republican candidates for state or national office. They must be willing to put on a hunting jacket, get out a rifle, slip into the woods, shoot something furry, and watch it write in agony and spill warm blood into the dirt—and to have a photographer catch the initial stages of this pursuit.
In Oklahoma, bloodlust instincts of the evolutionary past are still close to the surface and highly valued.
Conservatives Are Nature-worshippers
Nov. 11, 2008
Environmentalists are sometimes accused of being Earth-worshippers. I have heard this excuse more times than I can remember from the religious right. And it doesn’t help when scientists like James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis refer to the Earth as Gaia.
But these scientists are using Gaia as just a metaphor for the living systems of the Earth. They do not believe the Earth is really a goddess or even an organism (I got this straight from Margulis). In fact, these and all other scientists are only too aware that the Earth is not godlike in its invincibility. The Earth is quite resilient—it has many processes that allow its habitats to recover from damage and disturbance, to maintain a balance of temperatures and atmospheric carbon. But it has its limits. It was in fact Lovelock himself who wrote a book about The Revenge of Gaia. The Earth can be pushed past the tipping point into disaster. Or what at least we consider disaster. Maybe bacteria, which were the only life forms on Earth for over two billion years, would not consider it a disaster. The Earth has its limits because it is not a goddess.
It is the political right that worships the Earth. They think that the Earth can recuperate from any abuse that we lay upon it. The right-wing co2science.org website says that we can pour as much carbon as we like into the air and plants will clean it up. Fred Singer, a famous anti-environmentalist, says that global warming will cause lots of new biodiversity. Conservative economists like the late Julian Simon think that the economy will create new resources whenever they are needed. They are worshipping a godlike, indestructible Earth goddess who leads our economy with what Adam Smith called (figuratively; but to some today, literally) the Invisible Hand.
The Real World
Nov. 23, 2008
The real world is the world of light, air, water, soil, and food. It is the world that trees and other plants create for us by producing oxygen and food, by enriching the soil and holding back floods.
In contrast, the financial world is an artificial world. This fact is becoming apparent to those who thought that the real world just consisted of moving other people’s money around. A couple of years ago, James E. Cayne was a billionaire and the chairman of Bear Stearns. He lost $900 million of that a few weeks ago. Noted New York Times’ Landon Thomas Jr. on March 28, 2008, “It represents a humiliating capitulation for a brash executive who, with his ever-present cigar, suspender-snapping ways and Friday golf outings…epitomized the classic, if outdated, picture of the Wall Street chieftain.” We have one of these bankers, right down to the cigar, where I live in Durant, Oklahoma. He just built a huge mansion that is a pastiche of every style smushed together; its only unifying theme is arrogance. He paid almost as much for his front door—not the whole porch, just the door—as I did for my house.
If you drive through rural Oklahoma towns, you will see all of the buildings run down, except, of course, the bank. Interest, or usury, is the best source of wealth today. But it is parasitic and unstable. Just ask Mr. Cayne, who now has to suffer with his remaining pittance of $61 million.
I don’t think Mr. Cayne has a clue about what the real world is. But I’ll tell you who does. Wangari Maathai is an African woman who has led millions of Kenyan women to plant trees, not instead of improving their economic lives but in order to improve their economic lives. She won the Nobel Peace Prize, the only environmentalist (and African woman) to have done so. But her Green Belt Movement was a major financial benefit—to the rural poor of Kenya. Now there is a woman who understands the real world.
We have to accept the reality of light, water, air, soil, and plants. We cannot create reality. George W. Bush said, “We are an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” To me, this sounds like blasphemy.
The real world is bears, not teddy bears or Bear Stearns; and is green, not greenbacks.
On the Brink of Collapse
Dec. 6, 2008
It wouldn’t take much to make our economic system collapse. Global warming doesn’t need to make us all fall over dead. All it has to do is to cause a shift in temperature and rainfall patterns, leading to a shift in agriculture. If Russia and Canada become breadbaskets and America has to import food, where will this leave us? If flooding causes millions of environmental refugees to cross international borders in Asia (as predicted by federal intelligence agencies), what will the national security consequences be? If warmer temperatures cause tropical diseases to spread, what will it do to our health care system?
It would not take a major catastrophe to send our economy into a tailspin. Indeed, major environmental catastrophes (except for Hurricane Katrina) have not yet happened, and yet our economy is in recession. The practices of the major banks and other corporations that have led to the recession are all perfectly consistent with free enterprise. If our economy is already faltering—partly due to a crushing war debt that has failed to generate the expected oil revenues—even while the weather is cooperating with us, what will happen when half of Florida is flooded and drought strikes our agricultural heartland?
One would think that rich people would want to prevent this from happening. But I am not convinced they do. Just as was the case during the Depression, rich people will always be able to buy food and clean water and electricity for air conditioning and hire private guards. They already live in gated mansions; all they need is moats. What motivation do they have to prevent global warming?
Dec. 20, 2008
The quiet stand of alders is now asleep for the winter. But what does this mean? It means something quite different than to say, incorrectly, that the alders have “died back for the winter.”
The alders, like all of the other deciduous trees, are “asleep” because they are experiencing a biologically-enforced dormancy. Low water content protects the buds from being damaged by ice crystals that would form at low temperature. The buds are also filled with an inhibitor that keeps them from growing even on warm days. In Oklahoma, there are many warm days in the winter. But the enforced physiological sleep prevents the buds from starting to grow on a warm day, only to be killed on an ensuing cold day. The inhibitor breaks down during the weeks of winter, allowing the buds to become active in the warm days of spring—and not before.
Not only is the sleep biologically enforced, but it was biologically initiated. The alders, like the other trees, did not lose their leaves in response to cool conditions in the autumn. They began the genetically-programmed process of senescence in early fall, in response to the longer nights. By the time the cool temperatures arrive, these trees have already shed their leaves in an orderly fashion: they have recycled whatever they could from the leaves, and isolated the leaves from the stems with a layer of tissue. The layer of tissue, the abscission layer, allows the dead leaves to blow away in the wind, and seals up the scar left by the leaf. The wounds caused by the loss of the leaves are already healed up before the leaves even fall off.
The trees, moreover, rest in hope. The buds, which formed in the autumn, already contain the young leaves and a new length of branch, ready to expand quickly when spring arrives.
The trees have little choice in the matter. This orderly abscission of the leaves and preparation of the buds happen in response to the longer nights of autumn. In this way also, it is like sleep in humans. Our bodies make us sleepy, forcing us to rest, so that our cells and tissues can regenerate, something they cannot do while we are awake and active. The trees can no more avoid losing their leaves in the autumn than we can refuse to sleep
The barren trees of winter, and the sleep of animals, are not the weakness of organisms conquered by circumstances, but a strong and active response, an adaptation to the rhythm of nature.