April 4, 2011

In an essay posted on October 17, 2010, I wrote about the feeling of relief that comes from thinking about how, after the collapse of our civilization, nature will reclaim the world.

This feeling of relief that follows the collapse of an evil civilization is a very old one. I wanted to share an ancient example of it. In the 34th chapter of the Old Testament book of Isaiah (apparently written by the first of two or three prophets by that name), the author condemns the kingdom of Edom and predicts that it will suffer a great slaughter, and be destroyed. "Its smoke shall go up forever," he writes.

But he also describes how nature will take over the ruins. Referring to the land of Edom, Isaiah writes, "The hawk and the porcupine shall possess it, the owl and the raven shall dwell in it. Thorns shall grow over its strongholds, nettles and thistles in its fortresses. It shall be the haunt of jackals, an abode for ostriches. And wild beasts shall meet with hyenas, the satyr shall cry to his fellow; yea, there shall the night hag alight, and find for herself a resting place." At first this sounds like a continuation of the horrible fate Isaiah had described earlier. However, this may not be quite what Isaiah had in mind. Perhaps he, like modern naturalists, actually liked hawks, porcupines, owls, nettles, thistles, jackals, ostriches, and hyenas. I am not sure to what animal "satyr" may refer, and the "night hags" may be bats.

The spirit of Isaiah's denunciation gradually changes. The wild plants and animals that take over the ruins of Edom are now described in gentle terms. ìThere shall the owl nest and lay and hatch and gather her young in her shadow; yea, there shall the kites be gathered, each one with her mate.î There is clearly a sense of rejoicing in this picture. Families are safe and secure in prosperity, that is, families of owls and kites. ìSeek and read from the book of the Lord; not one of these shall be missing; none shall be without her mate. For the mouth of the Lord has commanded, and His Spirit has gathered them.î Remember that after the Flood, according to the stories of Genesis, God made a covenant not just with Noah but with "every living creature."

Isaiah's vision (perhaps from a separate writing) continues straightaway in chapter 35 with a description of the healing of the entire landscape. "The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it all blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon." These references are to the mighty cedar forests (Cedrus libani) of Lebanon, now mostly cut down.

I sincerely hope that our civilization can make a smooth transition into ecological peace and prosperity, but if it does not, then Isaiah will turn out to be right about us, as he was about Edom. The Earth will heal up, with or without leaving our civilization intact.

Oath Upon the Earth
April 11, 2011

Environmental activist Bill McKibben is the founder of 350.org, an organization dedicated to bringing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels back down to 350 parts per million. It is, at present, a Quixotic enterprise, but one with thousands of people (most of them young) tilting at the fossil fuel windmill. Our little Green Club at Southeastern Oklahoma State University joined with thousands of other groups in staging environmental events in October, 2010. We set up a table in the student union and asked students and staff to make a pledge to do something, of their own choice, to reduce their carbon footprints -- then write it on a poster and sign their names. We called the project Oath to the Earth. We actually got several dozen people to sign up.

But many other people walked past as if they were frightened of doing anything to make themselves even a little independent of fossil fuels. I expect that many of them had been told over and over, in church and at home, that God wants them to use up and wear out the Earth, since Jesus is going to come back very soon and burn the Earth up anyway, after kicking the bejesus out of all its remaining people, animals, and plants. Of course, this is based on a really bad interpretation of the Bible -- especially the part about the imminent return of Jesus, for which there is absolutely no evidence. At least none of them came up and preached at us about how sinful we were for trying to preserve God's good green Earth.

Our Green Club president was telling the passers-by that pledging to save the Earth was easy. This was probably a good strategy, as it got many students to think about the effects of their actions on the Earth, if only for a few minutes. Actually, to make any significant difference is not all that easy.

But her idea was undoubtedly better than mine. My perversely sarcastic mind had come up with the idea of having conservative students sign a Pledge to hate the Earth. Oath upon the Earth, perhaps. Some ideas that the students could have written include the following. I pledge to make Jesus come back more quickly by destroying as much of the Earth as I can. Or, I really want the ocean levels to rise and flood those Bangladeshis, because I want them to die. Or, I really want malaria to spread more and kill more of those dark people. Just fine with me if those Russians and Europeans have heat waves. Fine with me if the lodgepole pines in Colorado and the spruces in Alaska die. So I pledge to drive as big of a vehicle as I can, absurdly large, even if the expense of it drives me into bankrupture (a term I borrowed from George Papashvily).

The opportunity exists to make good on such pledges. As I walked to work one morning (yes, walking, which almost no other students or faculty do at our university), I cut across a gravel parking lot. What looked like the cabin and engine of a truck, without the trailers, was leaving the lot. It had two big vertical exhaust spouts, and spewed diesel fumes, just like a big rig. But it was labeled "recreational vehicle." Yes, friends, you can now use as much diesel fuel as a big rig uses to haul a houseful of furniture, just to drive around and let people know much carbon you want to spew into the air. I also saw a Hummer, which was miniscule in comparison.

Many people in rural Oklahoma would be happy to take a pledge to destroy the Earth as much as possible. But not most people, even here. I think. But maybe just being confronted by the opportunity to sign an Oath upon the Earth might shock them into rethinking their values. Or not. I fear that neither a positive nor a negative approach will work.

The Long Emergency
April 18, 2011

Humans, like all other animals, have evolved to be very good at dealing with brief emergencies. Our bodies, activated by cortisol, are capable of astonishing feats of strength and speed for brief periods, and these abilities come to us without thinking. In prehistoric days, villages had social mechanisms for dealing with brief emergencies, such as battles with other villages. And the same is true today, on a larger scale. If a community is devastated by a flood, wildfire, or tornado, surrounding communities pour in to help them. Some people travel great distances to help. The example that comes first to mind is the immediate help that New Orleans received after Hurricane Katrina -- help that came more easily and rapidly from ordinary Americans than it did from the discombobulated federal government. A more recent example is the help that Gulf coast communities received after the BP (Broken Pipe) Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010. People even sent in some of their hair to help sop up the oil. In each case, there has been closure, in which the rescuers could rejoice in their completed work. BP cleanup directors even talked on the national news about the big steak dinner they were going to have once the well had been permanently sealed.

But what can we do if an emergency goes on and on, with no end in sight, or if one emergency follows another in an endless progression? Could we deal with a long, perhaps endless, emergency? Of course, we would deal with such a situation just as we always have, at first, because we would not know it will be essentially unending. But then comes (to use another petroleum term) burnout. Human psychology evolved in prehistoric (and historic) conditions of fight-or-flight emergency followed by times of relaxation and recovery. We have never lived in times of unending emergency and may not be able to cope with it.

But such a time is coming, as a result of global warming. Many scientists think "climate disruption" is a better term than "global warming," since the greenhouse effect will disrupt nearly every aspect of climate that our society has grown to assume is constant. Not just temperature, but rainfall and storms as well. Right now we treat droughts in the agricultural heartland as emergencies. But what if the drought does not end? What if severe storms become the norm, and we never get a chance to rest from them? Not only would this exact an unbearable psychological toll, but it would make it impossible for people from a safe area to help those that are experiencing an emergency, because we will all be experiencing, or just recently recovering from, climate emergencies.

Environmentalists such as David Orr refer to this as "the long emergency." When coastal areas begin to be flooded by rising sea levels, this is not something to be temporarily tolerated while we wait for the seas to retreat. They will not. Millions of climate refugees pouring over borders (for example, from Bangladesh into India) will be an ongoing problem -- for them, and for the whole world which depends for its existence on peace and stability in every part of the globe. We are not prepared, in economic or emergency management terms, to deal with a prolonged emergency -- nor are we likely to handle it well in psychological terms.

The Dangerous Conservative Viewpoint
May 1, 2011

I wish to briefly present some important reasons why the extreme form of the conservative viewpoint is dangerous much more often than even the most extreme progressive viewpoints, even if both of them turn out to be equally inaccurate.

The first reason is that the conservative mindset tends to divide everything, and every person, into categories of absolute good and evil. We all know this to be true, but it has also been substantiated by psychological research. To a conservative, there are almost no moral gray areas. For example, a progressive is likely to say that guns are permissible in some circumstances, while a conservative is likely to say that everyone should be able to own as many guns, of any kind, as they desire. Similarly, a progressive would say that the time at which a human life begins is unclear, but that late-term abortions are wrong; a conservative will say that all abortions are wrong. The distinction is between the progressive "sometimes" and the conservative "always." In those cases where the correct viewpoint or action really is unclear, there is little if any chance to discuss the ambiguities which, to the conservative, do not exist. If you disagree with a conservative, the only possible reason could be that you are unable or unwilling to see their absolute correctness. Of course, there are some liberals who cannot recognize ambiguity. One example is the 2010 Discovery Channel shooter. But this is comparatively rare. The danger, then, is that the possibility of finding the truth and of taking the correct action is vastly diminished by the conservative viewpoint.

The second reason is that the conservative mindset encourages quick decisions. And why not? If there is no ambiguity at all, then why waste time thinking about the question? The danger here is that the possibility of finding the truth is vastly diminished because time is not permitted for a careful examination of the facts.

The third reason is that conservatism appeals to angry people. Nonviolent conservatives, which are the majority, are not directly responsible for the actions of angry conservatives. I'm merely explaining that this is how it works. Angry people are much more likely to take violent action than calm people. Nearly every case of domestic terrorism, from Oklahoma City in 1995 to Tucson in 2010, is the action of an angry conservative. The only exception I can think of is the 2010 Discovery Channel shooter mentioned previously. The conservative viewpoint appeals to angry people because there is no point in stopping to think.

The fourth reason is that conservatism appeals to actions that often have permanent effects. Progressives may choose diplomacy, which never has a permanent effect; conservatives will usually choose war, which has a permanent effect every time a bomb lands in a civilian neighborhood. War may be necessary-at least President Obama thinks so-but its actions have permanent effects. Progressives tend to build things up, which is a slow and reversible process, while conservatives tear things down (e.g. environmental protection), which is quick and can be reversed only by totally starting over.

The fifth reason is that conservatives tend to grant to themselves the personal moral rectitude that they ascribe to their viewpoints. This allows them to be just as assertive in defending positions that contradict their principles as when they defend those principles. This leads to hypocrisy that they do not recognize. When George W. Bush called for military action against Iraq, conservatives were ready to roll, even before UN approval. But when Barack Obama takes military action against the dictator of Libya, even after UN approval, conservatives claim that he jumped too quickly into war. They accused President Obama of having no clear plan or exit strategy for the operation against the Qaddafi military. But his plan was much clearer than Bush's plan at the start of the Iraq War. Conservatives also accused Obama of using too much money for this operation, but they see nothing wrong with Bush starting the Iraq War that has cost a trillion dollars. It is as if they say, We are conservatives, so we are always right, even when we contradict our own principles. This moves government away from reason and toward a dependence on assertive personalities.

This is why I believe conservatives should be kept out of power whenever possible. They are welcome to present their viewpoints, and progressives should consider them, for the conservatives are sometimes right. (This is something they are unlikely to admit about progressives.) But once conservatives are in power, it really doesn't matter any more whether they are right or not-you will get unthinking, quick, irreversible, and damaging action.

Background reading: Jost, John T., et al. "Political conservatism as motivated social cognition." Psychological Bulletin 129 (2003): 339-375. Available online here.

Cottonwood Investments, Part 2
May 10, 2011

On February 15, 2009, I posted an essay about how cottonwood trees had short-term investments (rapid growth, numerous seeds, short life span, cheap wood), in contrast with the long-term investments of oak trees (slow growth, fewer seeds, long life span, strong wood). The cottonwood type of investment makes sense for environments in which a tree could not expect to live very long. Strong wood and a long life span make little sense for a tree that lives along a river, where a flood is likely to destroy it in a century or less.

At the time, I drew the obvious analogy between cottonwood investments and those of the financial services corporations. Corporations such as banks and AIG were, in fact, fixing us the way a rancher fixes many of his bulls. The "financial meltdown," as it is now popularly called, was largely caused by corporations investing as if there were no future. Their prophecy fulfilled itself.

Now, we are supposedly recuperating from the recession. I am not convinced that we are doing so. To build an economy that has long-term resilience, we need to grow like oak trees and not like cottonwoods. Many individuals and families, desperate to protect their long-term interests, are spending less money, building up their savings, and paying down their debts. This is what we need to do. Then along comes the government, guided by big corporations (even the "Change We Can Believe In" president relies on them), and tells us that we need to spend more. The recovery must be "consumer-driven." And, in fact, many people have gone right back to big spending, happy enough to feel patriotic about doing so. We are switching back to cottonwood spending.

But it is not just in financial terms that we are failing to build a resilient future. It is in everything we do. Corporations, eager to get back to massive executive compensation, are cutting back on expenditures -- mainly by cutting back on quality. I am not the only one to notice that "durable goods" are no longer durable. Appliances used to last for a long time. But now you are lucky if they last more than a few years. The government defines durable goods as those intended to last more than two years -- and industry now happily provides us with things that last no more than two years, whether through flimsier components or through light inspections. Here is just one example. I have always bought and used pressboard bookshelves from discount stores, and I do not expect them to be robust. But I have noticed that the ones I bought and assembled in the 1990s have survived two moves, while the ones I bought last year (from the same retail corporation) are falling apart in the very place that I assembled them.

I have even noticed it in education. As a university professor, I have long attempted to train students to think and to have a solid knowledge of the science that underlies the world. This will, many educators believe, give students the flexibility to adjust to a world in which new facts will emerge and a marketplace whose technology will change, during their lifetimes. But many students want to learn as little as possible and receive as many points as possible with as little work as possible. To them, education is an investment, but not a long-term one: it is merely a way to get certified to get a job. In an economy with high unemployment, a college degree is more important than ever. "Just give me the freaking A," is the unspoken (at least to me) message. They treat classes as mere impediments to getting a degree. While this situation has always existed, it is now stronger than ever, possibly because of the increasing individual assertiveness in our society today, possibly because of the students' anxiety about finding a job when they finish. Many of them are working to pay for their education, and they demand courses where they can get an A by studying the couple of hours a week that is left over from their jobs and limited recreation.

Corporations, and students, are insisting on developing themselves as cottonwoods rather than as oak trees. This can, alas, mean only one thing: that they are simply assuming that there is no long-term future for which we should bother to prepare.

Disruptive Energy
May 18, 2011

The accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is clearly causing the Earth to retain more sunlight energy than it has in the past, with the inevitable result of global warming. This fact is no longer disputed by anyone who has fully acquainted themselves with the facts and is not receiving money from the coal and oil industries.

And we all know that the result will not be simply a gradual and gentle accumulation of warmth. It will be disruptive. In particular, there will be more strong storms as global warming progresses. This is why climate scientists now refer to it as climate disruption or climate destabilization rather than simply climate change. Already the number of extreme weather events has been increasing, and scientists predict this will continue.

Whenever you add energy to a system, disruption occurs. The release of energy from a system is less likely to be disruptive, except for explosions of high energy materials. You already know this. If you heat a pan of water, you can see the currents of hot water beginning to flow, the dissolved gases to come out of solution as bubbles, and then a relatively sudden boiling. On the other hand, when you turn off the heat and let the water cool down, the water is still, as it gradually radiates and conducts and evaporates the heat into the surrounding environment.

We also see this principle at work every spring. Warming temperatures cause storms to brew. This is why thunderstorms and tornadoes are much more common in the spring and early summer than in late summer and autumn. Winter storms result from weather fronts, as do many summer storms, but in the spring and early summer local conditions (such as in Oklahoma, where I live) generate their own disruptive weather as well. Autumn is relatively calm as the weather cools off.

We see an analogous situation in politics. It is usually, though not always, the conservatives who infuse anger into political discourse, with disruptive results, in contrast to the progressives, who usually, though not always, appeal to reason and compromise. Political conflict is nearly inevitable when one side insists that our only choices are to do everything they want or to do nothing, which is a position found almost exclusively on the conservative side.

The Republicans are trying to lead us into a world of hot, disruptive energy--in which anger is the appropriate response to every challenge, and in which the global climate is disrupted.

Biodiversity and Noah's Ark: The Solution You've Been Waiting For
May 26, 2011

I have sometimes wondered if the indifference that many creationists feel toward rescuing biodiversity from extinction is that they do not want to believe there is very much of it. In particular fundamentalists must believe that there have never been more animal species than could fit into Noah's Ark.

The obvious problem is, how could two of every kind of animal fit into the Ark? This question has been asked thousands of times on websites and in blogs and books, including several of my own, which criticize creationism. The dimensions of the Ark are fairly well specified by Genesis (there is only so much leeway that you have in defining the length of a "cubit"). Creationists believe that Noah had all of the species of dinosaurs on the Ark also, since dinosaurs had to be alive before the Flood and Noah took two of every kind onto the Ark--though dinosaurs apparently became extinct in the post-Flood environment. We know that this is what they believe, for kids sit on saddles to ride dinosaurs in the creation museum run by Answers in Genesis.

The problem is that scientists keep finding the bones of new species of giant dinosaurs. It's not just brontosaurus (Apatosaurus) anymore; it is Supersaurus and Ultrasaurus and Argentinosaurus. How would a pair of each of them fit onto the Ark? Creationists have an answer: hibernation. Noah could just pile them up, and not have to feed them, if the dinosaurs came in and fell asleep. This would require a miracle, not recorded in Genesis. But creationists have no problem just making stuff up. However, creationists would need to make up a lot more miracles than just hibernation. How can you physically fit all of those giant dinosaurs in the Ark? If you take the volume of the Ark and divide it by the number of species, you find that there is, in fact, space for all of them. But in order to use that space for giant dinosaurs, you would need the following miracles. First, God made all of the giant dinosaurs turn rigid. Then, God levitated them. Then, God guided them into slots, as if He were playing Tetris. If you admit the possibility of these miracles, then the problem of space on the Ark is solved. And to creationists, made-up miracles is an unlimited resource.

I would like to suggest a much more elegant approach for creationists to use, one that would be harder for evolutionists such as myself to answer. The approach is for creationists to assume that God is like Dr. Who. Dr. Who had a time travel spaceship called TARDIS, which stands for Time and Relative Dimensions in Space. On the outside it looks like a British police call box (a blue phone booth for police use). But inside, it has infinite volume. Now, if Noah and family built an Ark, then God changed it into a TARDIS, then there would be plenty of room for everything inside--and only a single big miracle would be necessary, rather than lots of little ones.

I'm just trying to be helpful to the creationists. I hope they appreciate it.

This essay also appeared on my evolution blog.

Built to Last
June 1, 2011

During my years of teaching, I have repeatedly noticed a disturbing pattern: That it tends to be the most religious, often creationist, students who do the sloppiest work in class, and who are the most likely to cheat (e.g. through plagiarism or by making up data for a project they are supposed to do on their own). This upsets me because, back when I was a conventional Christian, I believed that any poor behavior on my part reflected badly on Jesus. As a continuing admirer of Jesus, I still feel that way.

I suspect that the answer is that they believe in a God who did a half-assed job making the world. When he slapped the world together in six days, about 6000 years ago, he never intended for it to last. He always knew that, after about 6000 years, he was going to just burn it all up anyhow. Why should he build a strong house on a firm foundation if he is just going to use it for a movie set? Now, of course, they won't actually say this, or even admit it to themselves, but I suspect that it is the motivation behind their thinking. And guess what. That 6000 years is mostly up. If Jesus is coming back in this generation, and is going to burn everything up, then why should we bother doing professional work right now? I wonder if these particular students in my classes are really preparing for a career or just to get started in a job that will not last very long because the end of the world is coming. I wonder if maybe some preacher has told them, "Don't save for the future! Go ahead and give me your money now!"

The oak tree, the alder tree, even the cottonwood tree build trunks and roots that will last at least as long as their allotted lives.

I mentioned this idea briefly in my evolution blog on October 28, 2009.

How to Reduce Our Impact on the Earth
June 18, 2011

I must be on the mailing list of every environmental organization. I frequently receive from them many "gift" items that I did not request and most of which I cannot use. You have probably had similar experiences. I do use the wall calendars that they send. But the others? Greeting cards. Pens. Notepads. Mailing stickers. Christmas tree ornaments. Dream catchers. (Well, that last one was from an Indian school in South Dakota.) Of course, all of these items are environmentally friendly, made from recycled paper, etc. I feel bad about recycling these items, or throwing them out when I cannot. But what else can I do?

As I have noted in these essays as far back as September 21, 2008, the best way for us to reduce our impact upon the Earth is to use less stuff. The word, considered almost treasonous in the modern economy, is frugality. Rather than to use notepads made out of recycled paper, I can just use the backs of old papers. Instead of driving a hybrid car, I can just drive less.

Economist Kenneth Boulding said that to believe in unlimited growth in a finite world you either have to be a madman or an economist. Economic (and population) growth has to end somewhere. It would be political suicide for any candidate to favor economic equilibrium or steady-state (they would call it stagnation) over economic growth. But we, as individuals, can reduce our impact the most by just using less material and energy. In the long term, we will continue to experience recessions that counterbalance economic growth, and with any luck the result will be equilibrium rather than collapse.

Civilizations of the past have experienced collapse, whether gradual or dramatic. Of course, they had much less information about how the world works than we do. But they had enough. The Chaco Canyon civilization in what is today New Mexico could see their trees disappearing. Furthermore, many people ignore the mass of information we have today about our impact on the Earth, such as the evidence of global warming. Our scientific insights seldom translate either into legislation or into lifestyle changes. We may gradually collapse, as did the Chacoans, the only difference being that our collapse will be well documented.

We need to be content with using less material and energy. This is something that even environmentalist organizations seem to not completely grasp.