Peace Be Unto You
January 9, 2011

You are free. Almost.

Actually, as a society, we are not free. The Constitution is a technicality, because we are ruled by corporations, who (yes, they insist that they are persons) act as though they have no responsibilities to you at all: you, but not they, are bound by contracts. We are their slaves.

My recent experience with this was an attempt to refinance a mortgage with Bank of America, regarding which I will say little, since you are not reading this website to hear me complain. Since I have a perfect payment history, and since it was not a new property, the bank quickly pre-approved the loan. Then it quickly became what might have been a nightmare. They transferred my loan to a succession of five different people, and at each transition they misplaced paperwork which I dutifully re-sent. And they kept changing the arrangements on which we had agreed. I said this might have been a nightmare, but I had an option that kept it from being so. I have an existing mortgage, and there is nothing actually wrong with it. I could, and did, simply cancel the refinance process. I only wish I had checked online before I had applied for the refinance loan, and seen the prodigious number of consumer complaints about Bank of America. Bank of America is competent at just two things: taking taxpayer bailout money, and compensating their CEO. In fairness I will add that B of A repaid their $45 billion TARP loan.

My solution will work for you too, at least sometimes. Just say no. It is nearly unpatriotic to say this, but the most important thing we can do is to not buy things, whether mortgages or snack foods. Even though we are their slaves when we do business with them, corporations have not yet figured a way to force us to do business with them. What do you do when airlines treat passengers like cattle? Don't travel anywhere by plane. Incidentally, consuming less is probably the best thing we can do to reduce our carbon footprints. Mortgages do not necessarily increase one's carbon footprint, but if enough people deny them business, maybe they will close some of their offices and turn off the electricity.

Of course we cannot buy nothing, but we can minimize what we buy, and thus our entanglement with the toxic and evil world of business. Business is not always toxic, but you can limit your purchases to corporations with proven reliability. As an author, it is in my interest to tell you to keep buying books, but I will admit that the public library is the better option in most cases. And you may discover that there are many beautiful and rewarding things around you that are free, not just books but time spent in the natural world. In this way, buying as little as possible can lead to what could be called a spiritual peace -- peace be unto you.

Do Republican Leaders Hate God's Creation?
January 16, 2011

The leadership of the Republican Party has moved from simply disregarding environmental issues to openly hating God's good green Earth. Below are some recent examples.

First, the incoming Republican House of Representatives will do away with the Congressional committee on energy independence. They want us to continue our utter dependence on fossil fuels, most of which will continue to be imported from dangerous parts of the world no matter how much drill-baby-drilling occurs here.

Second, consider the story of South Carolina Republican congressman Bob Inglis. Part of his campaign (which he told about on his Science Friday interview on December 3) was to talk about the reality of global warming. He talked about the stewardship of the natural resources God has given us as if it were a new idea, and maybe in South Carolina it is. Mr. Inglis attributed his defeat in the Republican primary to his concern about God's creation. As a Republican, Mr. Inglis takes a capitalistic approach to understanding the Earth. But he says that pollution from the burning of coal produces a measurable increase in sickness and death, which is not reflected in the price of electricity. Federal and state governments socialistically pay for the sickness and death that result from utility profits. He also said that energy efficiency and alternative energy sources are the reality of the future; the United States is in pause, while China is in fast forward, on the development of new energy technology. Our free-market economy needs environmental responsibility. Well, that kind of talk got him voted out pretty fast by his fellow Republicans.

Third, Brigadier General Steven Anderson (retired) and the Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus were also interviewed on Science Friday on December 3. The military, they pointed out, is very inefficient in its use of energy, e.g. fuel used to run generators for air conditioning in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their field camp facilities have no insulation. The fuel for running field generators costs $400 a gallon, mainly because it must be trucked in for weeks (that's what the man said, "weeks") over donkey tracks through the mountains in convoys which require military escort. In contrast, fuel efficiency means using less fuel which means having smaller or less frequent convoys of fuel trucks. General Anderson's plan to increase field camp fuel efficiency would cost $1 million (with an m) and save $1 billion (with a b). But that isn't the best of it. For every couple of dozen fuel trucks in a convoy, a soldier gets killed. Fuel efficiency would save American soldiers' lives. But his plan has not been implemented. Apparently the desire to waste energy, perhaps as a way of pretending to be macho, is so pervasive that it is worth having our soldiers die for it (this is my inference, not anything the generals said).

Navy Secretary Mabus pointed out that one of their large ships is powered by hybrid technology, and when it made its maiden voyage from Mississippi (where it was built) to San Diego, it saved $2 million in fuel costs. Yes, that's just million with an "m," but that is also just one trip for one ship. Think what it would add up to if fully implemented in the Navy! He further pointed out that the military, because it purchases so much (military expenditures dwarf everything else in the federal budget except entitlements and interest on the debt), can create a market for energy conservation technology, thus bringing the prices down for that technology for everyone. But the Congressional Republicans, who think they know more about the military than the generals do, will never permit this.

The generals were talking about saving money and lives right now by military fuel efficiency. This does not even get into the money and lives that will be lost when we have to deal with international disruption caused by climate instability that we are primarily causing.

What's up with these Republican congressmen who want to take American tax dollars and the lives of American soldiers in order to socialistically subsidize the wasteful use of fossil fuels?

A Christian View of Creation
January 23, 2011

There are many Christians today who view the natural world as God's glorious creation, worthy of protection from human plundering. Unfortunately, this view seems rare in Oklahoma. I want to tell you a story about a much more common view in my home state.

I recently got a water heater installed, and I had to listen to the two plumbers preaching at me during the installation. It was a lecture, not a discussion; they frequently prefaced their statements with "I don't know what other people think, but here's what I think." Then they would tell me Biblical things that may or may not actually be in the Bible.

Somehow we got to talking about trees, particularly the largest ones such as the giant sequoia trees in California. One of them told me exactly what would go through his mind as he stood at the base of a giant sequoia. He said that his mind would be calculating the number of board feet of timber in the tree and how much he could sell it for. That, to him, was the major inspiration stirred in his heart by the tree. Many other Christians have thought that large trees were wonderful expressions of God's greatness. But not so for Oklahoma fundamentalists.

I could have told him something of practical value: not just how awe-inspiring sequoia trees are, but how much financial benefit that living trees provide for us. As I have often said in my blog and website entries, trees put oxygen in the air, remove carbon from the air, prevent floods and mudslides, build up the soil and allow water to percolate into the soil. That's just a start. I've written a whole book, Green Planet, about it. Of course I did not say this to him, because he had proceeded on with a story about how fast he could cut down a big sycamore tree like the one in my back yard, and then went on to tell me how much God hated President Obama's health care plan.

And then he was done. At least he did not charge me extra for the time he spent preaching at me.

Biodiversity, Part One
January 29, 2011

The following is the first part of the introduction to my new Encyclopedia of Biodiversity, to be published in 2011 by Facts on File.

The human species was born into a world of unknowable natural diversity. Each tribe of humans was aware that they were surrounded by uncountable kinds of plants and animals, which they studied and revered, and that they were one of the animal species. Tribal peoples knew (and a few still know) hundreds of types of plants and animals. They use them for everything from food to medicine. They also believed that wild species have something to tell us: tribal lore is full of stories about animals imparting wisdom to humans. The Cro-Magnon people painted startlingly realistic depictions of them in their caves thirty thousand years ago. The division between deities and creatures was unclear. Humans felt connected to all the species that they could see and to those that they could not. Some of this feeling of connectedness was lost with the advent of monotheism. Monotheistic religions did not merely claim that there was only one God, but that this God had a chosen people and that God made those chosen people masters of a world made for them. All other species were meant to serve human needs.

But even with these new beliefs, humans continued to be aware that they were just one species among many, and that these other species had their own dwelling-place and their own value completely apart from human utility. In Genesis 1, the first chapter of the Hebrew scripture, humans appear only on the second half of the last day of creation, having to share that day with "cattle and creeping things." In the book of Job, one of the most astonishing pieces of western literature, the voice of God from the whirlwind describes to the trembling Job a world filled with rain that waters the soil and makes grass grow even in lands where people do not live, a world in which animals -- some of them, like Leviathan and Behemoth, frightening and disgusting -- live their own lives with utter indifference to humans. And such a world was exactly the way it should be. The world was not somehow unfinished because these wild animals and the grasses of the wilderness were unconquered.

Although most ancient scholars focused their attention on matters unconnected with the natural world, there were always a few who looked to the natural world and its diversity of species for inspiration. According to Hebrew historical tradition, King Solomon gave lectures about plants and animals, even some as easily overlooked as "the hyssop that grows out of the wall." Later, the famous religious leader Jesus of Nazareth, invited his listeners to behold the lilies of the field, not just to glance at them, and to notice that even a single flower contained more glory than even the greatest human kingdom.

Biodiversity, Part Two
February 6, 2011

The following is the first part of the introduction to my new Encyclopedia of Biodiversity, to be published in 2011 by Facts on File.

During the Middle Ages of Europe, some scholars continued to write about the diversity of species, even though much of their information was based on tradition rather than observation. Each plant had a different function; one could not substitute for another. With the European age of exploration came the discovery of many previously unknown plants and animals from around the world. Europeans also encountered human diversity, represented by tribal peoples who were routinely enslaved and slaughtered. Tribal peoples had a converse experience, as Europeans carried many of them to new locations. People everywhere became aware that most of the world was different from their native countries, and was inhabited by unfamiliar species.

This onslaught of discovery ushered in an intellectual crisis. How could European scholars keep track of all of this plant and animal diversity? The Swedish botanist Carl Linne came up with a system of organizing species into nested hierarchies, species comprising genera, which comprised families, and so on. As European naturalists looked more closely, they kept finding more species, especially of insects, even in their home countries. They held the position, now considered ridiculous, that God made each of these species separately at the beginning of creation. Humans did not consider the possibility that they might be able to control this diversity, or to eliminate part of it. Nature was limitless in its "productions." At the time that German painter Albrecht Durer painted The Great Piece of Turf people just assumed that a lawn would have many species, including grasses, dandelions, and plantains. Diversity is just the way the world was. This could be considered the first age of the modern human encounter with biodiversity.

The second age of modern human encounter with biodiversity began with the development of science and industry. Science did two things for the human understanding of biodiversity. First, the invention of ever better microscopes revealed that there was yet another dimension of biodiversity, in the microscopic world, much of it in the water that we drank. Second, the discovery of evolution showed us where this diversity of species came from. Charles Darwin's Origin of Species is the most important book ever written for our understanding of the natural world. He introduced natural selection as the explanation for how evolution occurred, how species changed and diversified.

The scientific world view showed us a world governed by general laws. But it also showed us that we could get more from the Earth (whether agricultural products, or minerals, or labor) by eliminating inefficiency; much of the diversity of nature was considered part of that inefficiency. A stockyard was no longer a place that was safe for runts. And with each advance in the use of energy, from wind to coal to oil, we imposed order upon the Earth, bringing its diversity under ever greater control. Farms had once been places of at least some diversity, each farmer raising a garden and stock animals as well as fields of cash crops, but by the 20th century they became an industry: a farmer might raise only one kind of crop, and buy everything else. The diversity of microbes was something to wipe out by the use of medicine. This was also the time when lawns became uniform: one kind of grass, a monoculture maintained by the application of chemicals.

Humans became a force of nature by actually causing extinctions, such as that of the passenger pigeon, and by devastating our local environments through pollution and soil erosion. Biodiversity began to be a victim of the human homogenization of the Earth. Biologist Rachel Carson, one of the founders of environmental science and environmental awareness, wrote the second most important book in our understanding of the natural world, Silent Spring, in 1962. She said, "Nature has introduced great diversity into the landscape. Man has shown a passion for simplifying it." Once we had considered nature to be unconquerable, but we were now destroying its building blocks, the uncounted wild species. There never was a golden age -- even primitive peoples caused large-scale extinctions at the end of the Pleistocene epoch -- but now the devastation of nature had become the exclusive mode by which the human economy operated. Then, beyond even this, humans gained the ability to alter the entire functioning of the Earth. As science writer Bill McKibben pointed out in The End of Nature, humans had once been able only to cause local extinctions and environmental devastations, but our massive burning of fossil fuels put so much carbon dioxide into the air that we were altering the climate of the entire world.

The third age of modern human encounter with biodiversity began when many people started to become alarmed at its loss. Scientists discovered that they had difficulty even estimating the number of species, and had no hope of counting them. Thousands of species are becoming extinct before we even know what they are. At the same time, the Darwinian vision put us back in our place: in prehistoric times we knew we were a part of nature, and we have learned this again. There may be ten million species, and all are equally advanced in evolution: they represent ten million different, and equally effective, ways of making a living in the world.

Biodiversity, Part Three
February 13, 2011

The following is the first part of the introduction to my new Encyclopedia of Biodiversity, to be published in 2011 by Facts on File.

Not everyone shares concern over the loss of biodiversity. In the United States, over half of the people reject the Darwinian explanation for where species come from, and many reject the Carsonian idea that these species are important enough to save. But many people now realize what scientists have long said that germs won't go away when medicine is applied, they just evolve into a new form, and that the loss of species diversity would endanger the operation of the living planet which consisted largely of them. People are beginning to realize that the forces of environmental destruction and extinction are nearly unstoppable, and that we need all of our scientific knowledge and our political will to try to stop these forces.

But we cannot let scientists and political leaders do all the work. If the people of the world do not demand that biodiversity be saved, the efforts of scientific and political leaders will be too little and too late. Scientific information about the species of the Earth and what they do individually and as a system is a necessary part of every citizen's understanding of the world. Many science magazines and websites and books are now available to let everybody know about the tremendous and tremendously important diversity of wild species -- this book is one contribution. Read anything, read everything, in this book and others like it, and you will be amazed at the diversity of life and how important it is. And let the leaders of society know that you consider the diversity of life and the ecosystems of the Earth to be important, by the way you vote and the way you spend your money.

Saving biodiversity depends mainly on changing how we feel and how we spend our time. We need to welcome biodiversity back into our lives. Perhaps the most important way is for our children to get out into the natural world and begin to notice its biodiversity. When I see the data about global warming, I worry about the future; but I worry almost as much when I see my neighbors driving down the street on a nice spring day, when fresh leaves have just emerged from the buds, with their truck windows rolled up and the music blasting -- they are living in an artificial world.

Biodiversity, Part Four
February 21, 2011

The following is the first part of the introduction to my new Encyclopedia of Biodiversity, to be published in 2011 by Facts on File.

My backyard is at least as diverse as the Durer painting mentioned in an earlier section: in the spring it contains several kinds of grass, but also sedges, dandelions, henbit, deadnettle, chickweed, and oxalis. I sit quietly in the summer and watch the birds, who think it is their backyard. The catbird worries more about being chased away by the mockingbird than about my ownership of the patch of land where it lives. I feel a sense of contentment that I am doing the right thing, on my tiny piece of Earth, by allowing these species (even though they are not natives to my region) to grow. A sense of contentment while sitting in the back yard is not nearly enough, in this time of crisis, but it is nice to know that one part of saving biodiversity is as easy as doing nothing. John Muir, in wandering through the Sierra Nevada, extolled the cathedral-like beauty of the forest. But it is even more important if we, instead, take the attitude of the unknown author of Job, proclaiming the goodness and rightness of wild species living their lives for their own sake quite apart from whatever opinion we may have of them.

And the need for personally caring about biodiversity is urgent. Whatever else we do pales in comparison with habitat destruction and carbon emissions resulting from human population and technology. The scale is staggering. The human ecological footprint (that is, the amount of natural production that is necessary to support human activities) is 20 percent more than the Earth can support; that is, it takes fourteen months to regenerate what we humans consume in a year. And it is primarily the rich inhabitants of America that do this. In 2003, there were 1.8 million cosmetic surgeries and 6.4 million cosmetic procedures (e.g., Botox injections) in the United States, even while thousands of Americans had no health insurance and millions of people around the world had no medical care at all.

Consider the carbon emissions per person in Tanzania over the course of a year. An average person in the United Kingdom reaches this level by 7:00 pm on January 4 of a typical year. An average American reaches this level by 4:00 am on January 2. Because Americans use about one-third of the world resources of energy and raw materials, even small changes in American consumption would reduce the stress on the world's ecosystems. For an American to have the thermostat set at, say, 82 degrees F instead of 76 degress F during a heat wave (and partially compensate for it with ceiling fans) will save more energy, and relieve the Earth of more stress, than almost anything that a typical Tanzanian could do. But this will not happen so long as so many people, even in abundantly-educated America, have almost no idea about what is outside of their circle of human interactions, and no idea about the many ways in which their lives depend on the natural world. Humans depend on nature, and nature depends on biodiversity. A forest with thousands of species can do many things that a tree plantation cannot do.

Perhaps the best way to promote awareness, in ourselves and others, of the importance of the natural world is just to get to know it. As David Brower, who was president of the Sierra Club, said, humans will only work to save what they love. Is it too much to hope that this encyclopedia will help you to love the world of nature? It is my hope that we can begin to see the natural world as glorious, and the human destruction of it as evil. As Bill McKibben wrote in his much-overlooked book, The Comforting Whirlwind, "A clear lake speaks of many and glorious things; a polluted lake speaks only of man."

The Capacity for Evil
March 1, 2011

I have frequently written about the importance of altruism in the evolution of the human species. We are the most altruistic species that has ever existed on Earth. We do not have kin selection as strong as that of bees, but we make up for it with indirect reciprocity, in which individuals gain social status by being conspicuously generous.

But we are constantly reminded of the dark side of human nature-how humans can exult in destruction and torture. Under certain circumstances, such as in Bosnia in the 1990s and Sudan in the 2000s, this capacity for evil can emerge in an insane fashion. But it is always there. What we must do is to starve it as much as possible, occupying our minds with good things.

I saw something recently in rural Oklahoma, where I live. When I was driving along the highway this past winter, I saw a fence line on which half a dozen coyotes had been impaled. I stopped to take photos, two of which I share with you on this website. (Human cruelty 1, Human cruelty 2.) I hope you find these photos as deeply disturbing as I do. Now, it may be necessary to cull a coyote population. But there is no need to put them gruesomely on display. Of course the coyotes were dead before they were impaled (I think). But there could be only one reason for doing this: the hunters relished the fantasy of torturing animals, and wanted to make a proclamation to anyone who was driving down the highway. And the proclamation is that they hate God's creation. Many of these rural people are creationists, but they apparently think that God made animals so that we could enjoy torturing them. Remember this is the state in which a law against cockfighting barely passed.

We would like to think that these people who fantasize about animal torture make an absolute distinction between animals and humans-which their creationist beliefs tell them to do. But I am not entirely confident of it. When they get really mad-and the conservative political movement encourages them to do so as frequently as possible-they might take thoughtless action and do something that they would not rationally choose to do. It is conceivable that their rage might spill over from coyotes to humans; there is historical precedent for this.

I hope that my fears are excessive (and I do not sit around thinking about them). But January 31 was the 135th anniversary of the law that forced all Native Americans onto reservations. It was not long ago when some of my ancestors were considered to be not very different from coyotes. For black people, the memory is even more recent. In east Texas, in 1998, a black man was dragged to death behind a pickup truck.

These same people believe that Jesus will return and usher in a battle of Armageddon in which millions will be tortured and the earth will literally run red with blood; one radio evangelist said it would be literally as deep as the shoulders of horses. The Jesus whom these people worship is a demon who loves to exult in torture. Of course, this does not resemble the Jesus of any part of the Bible other than the book of Revelation, which should be torn out and thrown away. And of course the Armageddon blood will be human, not coyote, blood. Before you say it can't happen here, think carefully. I hope that, in fact, it cannot.

Evolution has given us a spectrum of options, from altruism at one end to torture at the other. In my writings, I emphasize the former; but many creationists in rural Oklahoma seem to focus on the latter.

An essay similar to this one also appeared on my evolution blog.

So Where Is Global Warming Now?
March 7, 2011

During February, Oklahoma was hit by a couple of major winter storms. The university where I work was shut down for a total of six days over the course of two work weeks. Many people wondered (and at least one posed the question to me loudly), Where is global warming now?

Fair question. But it has two answers. First, it is somewhere else at the moment. Second, it will be back.

You cannot just stick your head out the door and determine whether global warming is happening or not. Weather is not climate. Cold weather does not prove that there is no global warming, any more than hot weather proves that there is. The evidence for global warming is that, over many years and over the whole Earth, temperatures are rising. They do not rise every year; global temperatures have leveled off since 2000, perhaps because air pollution from industrial growth in Asia is reflecting sunlight back into space. But since 1850, global temperatures have clearly and dramatically risen. If global average temperatures go back down over the next few decades, then we scientists will have to re-evaluate our position.

Actually, this winter reminds me of 2006 and 2007. In 2006, I attended the St. Louis meeting of AAAS in February. There were, as always, some sessions about global warming. But the meetings took place during a bitter winter storm. In 2007, the principal global warming activist, Bill McKibben, kicked off a publicity campaign in April, right when a huge arctic storm blew down over the whole country. I noted both of these weather events in Chapter 3 of my book, Green Planet.

But something else happened in 2007. Remember that energy is neither created nor destroyed. So if there is cold weather here, there must be warmer weather somewhere else, eventually. And in 2007 that place was the Arctic Ocean. Arctic sea ice has been melting steadily for decades. But in 2007, there was a dramatic melting that took everyone by surprise. Since 2007, Arctic sea ice has returned to its previous rate of melting. I may speculate that the cold spring 2007 weather in the United States compensated for the warm Arctic summer that same year.

And with that in mind, I make a prediction: that summer 2011 will have significantly less Arctic sea ice. I may be wrong, but I am willing to give it a try. Actually, Arctic temperatures are determined largely by the temperature of the water that flows into the Arctic Ocean, and according to an article just published in Science, that water temperature is now higher than it has been anytime during the last two millennia. Ocean temperatures do not change very rapidly. Nevertheless, let us give my prediction a chance.

The Evolved Human Mind
March 13, 2011

In our species, intelligence is the most important adaptation. But our intelligence is not logical; it is an emotional intelligence, as any fan of Spock on Star Trek knows. Despite the amazing capacities of human minds, our evolutionary legacy has limited them in a way that may make us unable to respond adequately to our current crises such as climate and economic collapse. Here are some examples. You can probably think of a lot more.

First, our minds have an almost unlimited capacity for self-deception. We see what we expect to see, and if reality and expectation do not mesh, we accept the resulting cognitive dissonance. Even when we can look ahead and see that our resources are running out, we can hardly bring ourselves to conserve those resources. We will become frugal only after disaster has struck. I thought of this as I drove past a tract of huge houses, built in Tulsa during the housing bubble. Block after block of them. This is what the buyers wanted, and they deceived themselves that the national, and their personal, economies could grow forever. Realtors would rather sell one big house than three small houses -- less work for the same money. Nothing but a crash will get people to become frugal. The good news is that, once the crash has occurred, people are pretty good at frugality. We may not, however, have a long enough transition period to reorder our lives into a contented frugality.

Second, our minds continually readjust to current circumstances. This is the "shifting baselines" phenomenon. My generation is probably the last one to be richer than the preceding generation; people of my daughter's generation cannot expect the kind of riches their families had while they were growing up, and cannot expect to find jobs even if they are qualified. The mindset has shifted to something more like survival, and we are all beginning to feel that this is normal. We have already almost forgotten about a world in which we could just go buy things on credit and count on personal finances to slowly pay off the debt.

Third, our minds are social; we will not act until society changes. Despite the clear evidence that humans are causing global warming, and despite the fact that most Americans (and even more citizens of other countries) know this to be true, societal inertia has prevented meaningful change. It will, as I said above, take a crash to get a society to live frugally. A frugal life (we have to start thinking of this as a good word) is the best, perhaps the only, way to reduce our carbon emissions and disruptive climate collapse.

These mental characteristics worked fine in the Stone Age; but we must transcend them today. Is this even possible?

This essay also appeared on my evolution blog.

Judgment of the Future
March 21, 2011

It is easy to pass judgment on the actions of people in the past. Let me use an example that stirs the passions of most people: American slavery. The issues of the middle of the nineteenth century seem so clear to us: slavery was evil, and it needed to be ended immediately, by force if necessary. Modern opinion completely confirms the Abolitionist viewpoint held by, among others, Charles Darwin. To our modern, oversimplified view, the alternative view was that espoused by plantation owners: slaves are property, and our economic system cannot survive without its basis of slave labor.

Slavery sends a chill into the hearts of modern observers. At a recent display at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, I saw an inventory of slaves at an estate, with their monetary values. A ninety-year-old woman had "no value." Fifty-year-old men were worth about $250. Twenty-year-old men, strong and healthy, could fetch $500. And for reasons better imagined than stated, a seventeen-year-old girl would fetch the highest price of all, about $650. That was in 1848. By the late 1850s, a good slave could sell for $1000. Big money back then. Most of us would shudder to think that a monetary value could be placed upon us. The slave-owners were not always cruel to their slaves; in fact, each slave was a big investment, and a southern gentleman would be no more likely to abuse a slave than to abuse an expensive car -- which means, some of them did, but not always. Nevertheless, modern thought regards slave-owners as absolutely evil, and abolitionists as pure.

But it was not so clear back in the day. There was a third alternative, embraced most famously by Thomas Jefferson. Since slaves represented such a big investment, many owners (including the cash-strapped Jefferson) could not afford to release them, especially since he would have to also, by law, find employment for them. This viewpoint aspired to a gradual improvement of slave conditions, to a point where they could undergo a transition to becoming indentured servants. We might call this the gradual-abolitionist view. But most modern people have little tolerance for this view. Gradual abolitionists get lumped in with the other slave-owners.

People of the future will look back on us and condemn us for leading the world into the disaster of climate instability and global warming. There are those of us, such as Bill McKibben and myself, who say that we should reduce our carbon emissions now. We are the carbon abolitionists. And there are the conservatives who say we should just keep on burning as much fossil fuel as we like, and maybe God will clean up the mess. They are the carbon slave-drivers. And then there are the compromisers, who say that we should reduce our carbon emissions sometime in the future, maybe after the recession is over, or after they have made their fortunes; let the next generation do it. History will lump the compromisers together with the brazen polluters.

Descendants of slaves demand reparations from families and corporations that built their wealth on slavery. They are right. And in the future, those who suffer from climate disruption will demand reparations from corporations that are now polluting the most and individuals who are brazenly lying about global warming by claiming that it is not happening. Global warming deniers will be seen as just as evil as the man who wrote an anti-Uncle-Tom's-Cabin book (also on display at the Gilcrease) and claimed that the slaves were all happy "darkies" who just loved their plantations. Future generations will demand reparations from the estate of Rush Limbaugh. And I hope they get it. Much good may it do any of the people still on the Earth at that time.

The views expressed in this essay are similar to those expressed in the September 6, 2008 essay, though with different material.

How Dark Was My Valley
March 28, 2011

A colleague of mine owns a little valley of land outside of town where, a couple of years ago, there was virtually no light pollution, and we were able to behold the Milky Way in full splendor. For a couple of years thereafter, we did not go, because I had broken my boyhood telescope. Recently I bought a new telescope and we returned at night to this valley. We could see the Milky Way, but it was a dull blotch in a sky that was not truly dark, despite the absence of the Moon. We could see Jupiter and a couple of the Galilean moons just fine, but we could have done this from a yard in town. The impressive darkness of the valley had vanished in just a couple of years.

This was no doubt due to a building boom in our city. Although it is in rural Oklahoma, Durant is on an important highway where new motels are sprouting, and there is a really big Indian casino that just keeps getting bigger. City financiers would say that life was getting better in Durant -- despite the recession that hit many other areas.

But the light that polluted the sky was not light that was helping to make life any better. The light that pollutes the sky is wasted light, because it goes straight up into the sky rather than down to the ground where it can help us see the roads or buildings or possible dangers. It can be reasonably argued that our right to see the Milky Way is not great enough to interfere with economic growth -- but wasting electricity by sending light straight up into the sky is not economic growth. It is Earth out of balance.

After glancing at the tepid Milky Way, and at Jupiter, we had to leave quickly anyway. We heard wild hogs nearby, which can and do attack and injure people. This, too, is an example of Earth out of balance, for they are not native animals. They are feral hogs, escaped long ago from pigpens, having reverted to all wild ways but one: they have no fear of humans, particularly of little people quickly carrying a telescope back to their car.