July 13, 2010
My recently-released Green Planet: How Plants Keep the Earth Alive describes many of the things that plants do that make all of life possible. It is obvious, then, that we need to save them. But many plants do not need any help from us. They are already abundant and will keep growing even after the human economy and human population collapse. Trees will someday grow over all of our decomposing human structures. Why, then, do we need to save plants, which seem capable of taking care of themselves?
It is not just plants that the world needs, but a diversity of plants. We need not just the abundant species, but the rare ones also. And it is the rare ones that are vanishing due to human activity. Many rainforest plant species are becoming extinct because of the destruction of the habitats in which they live. And if we do succeed in saving the habitats, we might only discover that global warming will cause these habitats to be unsuitable for the very species for which we have saved them. We also need to save genetic diversity that is within the populations of each plant species.
What do we need the rare species of plants for? Many wild plants have already proven to be the source of pharmaceutical compounds, and of genes that have been used to protect our agricultural crops from diseases. And here is the point. We cannot know in advance which plant species may prove important to us, and which may not. Who could ever have guessed that chemicals from a little species of pink-flowered plant from Madagascar would contain a drug that saves children from leukemia? or that the Pacific yew would contain a chemical that helps to cure ovarian cancer? We cannot save only the important species; we have to save all of them, since we cannot know which ones of them are important to the human economy.
When a rare species of plant becomes extinct, the world loses only a tiny bit of its capacity to produce oxygen, absorb carbon dioxide, hold down the soil, and contribute to the food chain. A tiny loss? But with this species is lost a treasure of genes, some of which just might be of immense importance to the human species.
Global Warming—It’s Happening Now
August 6, 2010
Global warming is not something that is going to happen in the distant
future, as claimed even by leading climate scientists such as James
Hansen in his book Storms of My Grandchildren. As Bill McKibben
points out in his book Eaarth, we are already living in the
“future” of global warming. The planet has already changed from the old
Earth with which we are familiar and become a new planet, Eaarth, in
which the global warming catastrophes predicted for decades by climate
scientists are already the new norm.
The end of July and beginning of August, 2010, has made this fact more
plain than ever. One prediction is that, in areas near oceans, there
will be more rainfall and it will occur in more severe storms. That is
exactly what has been happening in Pakistan.
Another prediction is that continental areas will experience heat waves
and droughts. This is exactly what has been happening in Russia. Russia
has not had temperatures of 100 F since reliable records have been
kept, yet this year they are having these temperatures for days on end.
The long drought has caused widespread forest fires, the worst in their
Another prediction is that global warming will interrupt agricultural
production and international trade in agricultural products. Global
wheat prices are already high, because prolonged droughts have reduced
Australia’s wheat production. Now Russia’s wheat production is
restricted as well. On August 5, 2010, Russia announced that it would ban grain exports
for the rest of the year.
Global warming is happening now, and conservatives know that they are
lying when they deny it.
The conservative response to global warming has three stages. The first
stage, still ongoing, is to deny that it is happening. The second
stage, which has begun and overlaps with the first, is to say that it
is happening but that it is merely a fluke of nature. The third stage
will begin soon. Conservatives will say that, oh well, there is nothing
we can do about it, so we might as well burn all the oil we want to
during the brief time that is left to us before our economy collapses.
Green Is the New Green
Fashions and fads come and go. This is captured in the general phrase
“x is the new y,” in which x is a fashion that replaces the formerly
popular y. It began in the fashion industry, where a famous fashion
editor claimed that pink was the new navy blue. Since that time it has
been used repeatedly, often in humor. Quite a list of them is available.
Sometimes the phrase is
used to make a serious, though often invalid, point. One bank
proclaimed that saving is the new spending, which is a call to
financial responsibility; another bank proclaimed the opposite. “Eighty
is the new seventy” means that due to better health and health care
eighty-year-old people are as likely to be as healthy and active as
seventy-year-olds used to be. “Green is the new black” means that
environmental responsibility is the new way of having your business and
the whole economy “in the black.”
“Green is the new green” is a phrase often used to mean that green
business is a good way to earn money (greenbacks), as you will find
from a Google search. But I will use this phrase to mean simply that
one thing never changes: we have to be ecologically responsible. When
the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught on
fire in 1969, it caught
people’s attention. The river had caught fire many times before, always
due to petroleum pollution, but by 1969 people were ready to recognize
it as a symptom of our overall environmental disaster. Within a few
years we had the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered
Species Act. However, all of our environmental progress may be negated
by rampant consumerism and persistent conservative opposition. If
consumers consume too much, and conservatives have their way, we could
go back to the days in which there were no protections for the
environment that we all share. Nothing has changed. So if someone you
know says, “I’m not into the environment,” ask him or her, “What part
of the environment are you not into? The eating part, the breathing
part, or the drinking part?” Green was important then, and it is
important now. Green is not a fad.
The religions of fury and hatred are here to stay. They include the
radical right wing of Christianity and of Islam. They are certainly the
most sensationalistic and obvious ones. The stunt pulled by Terry
Jones, the Florida pastor who threatened to burn Korans on September
11, 2010, made the news much more than the interfaith outreach of
peaceful Christian groups. Islamist terrorists always make more news
than the peaceful Muslim Sufis, so much so that most people do not even
realize that there is a philosophical meditative branch of the Muslim
religion. (Incidentally, the group that plans to build a mosque in
lower Manhattan consists of Sufis.)
At first this seems strange, because the peaceful, constructive
branches of Christianity and Islam seem so much more beneficial and
reasonable. Why do the religions that want to build a better world fail
to predominate over those that wish to destroy as much of the world
that they can?
Religions consist of sets of ideas that spread through a process
similar to natural selection in nature. In this sense, religions
evolve. The religions that get themselves propagated most successfully
from one human mind to another are the ones that predominate. As with
the evolution of plants and animals, success depends not on long term
quality but on immediate success. Plants and animals will do whatever
they can, destructive or constructive, that allows them to have as many
surviving offspring as possible: they can harm their fellow creatures,
or benefit them, depending on the circumstances.
It is unfortunate that the religions of hatred are thriving at the
expense of the religions of peace. The reasons are obvious. All that a
religion of hatred has to do is to press a single button in the human
psyche, releasing primal fury, fury that is powerful enough that the
spouter of hatred contradicts him or herself and does not even notice
it. (Example: the same people may claim that President Obama is
godless, and also
a Muslim. What, pray tell, is a godless Muslim? Of course, he is
neither.) In contrast, the religions of peace require people to stop
and think. While some people are thinking, the spouters of hatred have
already contaminated a dozen other people. Fundamentalist religions are
simplistic: just give money to the preacher, go to church, vote
Republican, and hate gays. Peaceful religions, in contrast, require a
more thoughtful attitude about literally everything in the world.
But the spread of the religions of hatred is not automatic. It occurs
mostly in disrupted social and political circumstances. People are
already thinking only brief thoughts in the short term, since the
economy and world events are in such turmoil. How do you think ahead
when everything may change in a few weeks or years?
I study plant ecology. I could not help but notice that the religions
of hatred resemble weeds. Weeds are plants that grow rapidly, produce a
lot of seeds, then die. Before you know it, you have thousands of
weeds. The religions of peace are more like trees, which grow slowly
for many years. Weeds grow best in an open space that has been recently
disturbed, often by human activity such as bulldozing. Eventually the
trees will take over, unless the disturbance continues. In places where
disturbances occur frequently, weeds can spread but trees never get a
chance to grow big enough to produce their seeds.
The religions of hatred are weedy religions. They grow and spread
rapidly. The tree-like religions of peace never get a chance to grow
because disruptions and crises keep happening. This will only get worse
in the "long emergency" of climate disruption, as described by David
Orr (Down to the Wire) and Bill McKibben (Eaarth).
For a weed, there is no future. A weed is going to die soon anyway, and
there is no point in preparing for the future. For a tree, the future
is the environment in which it will spend centuries of its life. The
parallel with religion is unmistakable. To a fundamentalist, there is
no future; God is going to come right away and destroy everything. But
to a peaceful religious person, the future is what is most important.
Unfortunately, it appears that the immediate future of the Earth is
going to look like a continually ravaged and re-ravaged weed patch,
both in terms of its physical appearance, the plants and animals and
the places that people live, and in terms of its religious and social
Darwin, Science, and Bias
Scientists take great precautions against bias. Scientists, like all
humans, have a tendency to see what they expect to see rather than what
is really there. But scientists are very careful to design research and
experiments in such a way as to exclude bias. For example, in testing
drugs, the patients who receive the placebo ("sugarpill"), which does
not contain the drug, are not told that the pill is a placebo,
otherwise they would assume it will not work and they will report
themselves as still being sick. But scientists go further and make sure
the assistants who actually administer the placebo do not know that it
is a placebo, lest the attitude of the assistant influence the
patient's attitude as well. The placebo usually has a bitter chemical
in it, or even a mild sedative, so that the patient will believe that
it is the real drug. A large amount of the design and expense of
scientific research is to avoid bias.
Charles Darwin had to deal with bias also. His evolutionary theory gave
nature, rather than God, the creative role. It is the ideal theory for
someone who wants God out of the picture. Was Darwin such a person?
Well, not at first; his wife Emma was a moderate creationist, and
Charles was sensitive to her opinions, as you might guess. But after
their daughter Annie died at a tragically young age, both Charles and
Emma were devastated. This deepened Emma's dependence upon Christianity
but pushed Charles into agnosticism. This was years before Charles
wrote The Origin
So Charles must have been biased against creationism and in favor of a
theory that would make God irrelevant. But he worked very, very hard to
make sure that his bias did not influence his scientific judgment. He
spent years gathering information about the variability of traits in
populations, and about natural selection, as well as about fossils,
biogeography, and other evidences of evolution. The Origin of
is full of numerous lines of reasoning, each with its own evidences,
which lead to an undeniable conclusion. That is, he spent years
amassing evidence that would prevent his bias from influencing his
results. This is the mark of a true scientist.
Creationists are just the opposite. They hate evolution, and will grab
at any shred of information that they can twist into evidence to
support their view. They even bring together so-called evidences that
contradict one another. For example, they present information that they
claim proves the Flood of Noah, then they present information that they
claim shows gaps in the fossil record. But if there was a flood, there
could be no order in the fossil record in which gaps might appear!
Charles Darwin is an exemplar of the heroic scientist who disciplines
him or herself to pursue the truth even when bias presses upon the
scientist from his or her personal experience.
essay also appeared in my evolution