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 history.

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
August 27, 2010

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.

Weedy Religions
September 19, 2010

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 environment.

Darwin, Science, and Bias
September 27, 2010

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 of Species.

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 Species 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.

This essay also appeared in my evolution blog.