Republican States: Socialist Beneficiaries of Big Government Altruism?
October 2, 2011

I have written several essays about altruism, and about conservative hostility toward altruism, particularly in the form of what they call "big government." Conservative "red" states are upset that they pay so much tax to the federal government. They loudly describe federal taxes as burdensome. Many conservatives wish that their states could just be left alone, and if this happened, they would be prosperous. They clearly imply that the federal government is parasitic upon them. Grover Norquist is famous for saying that he would like the federal government to be so small that he could "drown it in the bathtub." Ron and Rand Paul have similar sentiments.

Ideally, the federal government functions as a conduit of altruism, by which the stronger states help to support the weaker states. Even conservatives generally agree that people should help one another out, but they refuse to recognize the role of the federal government in helping that to happen. Of course, in reality, the federal government has many abuses and inefficiencies, which progressives are as eager to clean up as are conservatives.

But I invite you to examine the data for yourselves. In reality, the "red" states are socialistically parasitic upon the taxes paid by the "blue" states. The Democratic states are keeping the Republican states alive. Here is how I reach this conclusion.

First, how does one quantify how red or blue a state is? I used the percentage of the Congressional delegation (senators and representatives) that are Republican as an indicator of how red a state is. Currently, 61 percent of congressional representatives are Republican. You can find a complete listing of congressional representatives by clicking on an interactive map found at this website. From this information source I calculated a "percent Republican" for each state. Second, you can find out how much federal spending each state receives, relative to the amount of federal income tax paid, at this website. These data are from 2005. A value of 1.00 means that a state receives the same amount of federal spending as its residents and businesses pay in federal taxes.

The results are clear. The top 25 recipients of federal spending (of 50 states) are, on the average, 81 percent Republican; the bottom 25 recipients of federal spending are, on average, 42 percent Republican. Another way of looking at the numbers is that 24 of the states whose delegations are more than 61 percent Republican (the "Republican states") receive more federal spending than they pay in, while only eight of the states whose delegations are less than 61 percent Republican (the "Democratic states") receive more federal money than they pay. This clearly represents a siphoning of money away from Democratic states toward Republican states. Some might call it Republican socialism.

Of course there are many factors at work. Many of the Republican states are rural and have low populations, which is an important determinant of how much federal spending they receive. At the same time, I do not think those states should be complaining. Without help from Democratic states, funneled through the federal government, Republican states would go bankrupt. Behold, altruism at work.

Dinosaur Prints
October 8, 2011

There is a long drought going on in Texas. It has already cost the Texas economy over $5 billion. Governor Perry called for a day of prayer back in April to try to convince God to bring an end to it. But it is still going on.

But there is one good thing about the drought. It means that the bed of the Paluxy River, just outside of Glen Rose (southwest of Ft. Worth) has dried up and you can see the riverbed. The layer of rock exposed in this riverbed was, 110 million years ago, a muddy intertidal zone of the Gulf of Mexico. Dinosaurs walked through the mud and left their prints in it. The mud dried and was covered by other sediments. The sediments have all turned to stone. Erosion by the Paluxy River has worn away the sediments above the dinosaur prints. There are few other places to see this many dinosaur prints-there are hundreds of them. Other rivers, such as the nearby Brazos, have already eroded through the layer; and the print layer is underneath the hills nearly everywhere else.

Now is the time to go to Dinosaur Valley State Park and see the prints. You can walk right into the riverbed and stroll alongside the dinosaur prints. Not only is the river low, but paleontologists such as Glen Kuban and Mike O'Brien have been clearing away debris so that the footprints are clearly visible-for Glen to make casts of the prints, and Mike to photograph them.

You can learn a lot about the dinosaurs by studying not just their prints but their entire trackways. For example, several parallel trackways show that the huge plant-eating Paluxysaurus dinosaurs were moving in a herd. Also, some of the trackways of the medium-sized carnivorous Acrocanthosaurus dinosaurs have prints far enough apart that scientists can calculate that they could run up to 30 miles per hour in mud.

So head on down to Texas, if you are anywhere close by. All during October, I will be posting blog entries and YouTube videos about this site.

The Quiet Stand of Alders: Wildfire and Recovery
October 25, 2011

The particular quiet stand of seaside alders (Alnus maritima) that I had in mind when I started this website over three years ago is found on the east bank of the Blue River in south-central Oklahoma, near Highway 7. This past summer, a wildfire destroyed the entire oak forest in this location. The fire was hot enough that it even burned the alders that were growing in the water. (It also killed a lot of turtles, their now-mummified heads sticking out of their shells in agony as they cried out to the Turtle God who did not answer their entreaties.)

Eventually the entire forest will grow back. But since all of the trees were killed, there is no source of new seeds. Some of the trees will resprout; oaks, such as the post and blackjack oaks that dominated the forest and the bur oaks that were along the riverbank, are particularly good at resprouting. But I will not live long enough to see big trees in this forest again.

The alders, however, have already begun to grow back. Even before there was any rainfall, new green branches were pushing their way through the ashes from the charred bases of what had been large alder clumps. They have adapted to a cycle of destruction and regrowth. Usually the branches are destroyed by floods, as nearly all of them were just four years ago, but they can apparently also grow back after fire. It is likely that, by next spring, the alders will be the largest trees in this forest.

So What Has Changed Since 2008?
November 1, 2011

My book Green Planet went to press just before Barack Obama won the election. Just last month, I received word that Green Planet would be reissued in paperback. I wrote two paragraphs to update the last chapter, which was about the politics of environmentalism. The editor wanted only a brief footnote, not two paragraphs. So I will share the two paragraphs with you, to remind you of how much, and how little, has been done since President Obama took office.

"In 2009-2011, stiff partisan opposition from Congress prevented the Obama Administration from making meaningful progress on reducing carbon emissions, deforestation, erosion, or reform of agriculture. One exception to this was Congressional approval of the 2009 "cash for clunkers" program, which helped consumers to replace 680,000 old cars with newer, more fuel-efficient models. The Obama Administration also made some progress by circumventing Congress. In 2009, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced that the federal government would regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant. In 2011, the president announced an increase in the Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standard to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

"Many environmental organizations, however, have been disappointed in the Obama Administration, particularly in its support of the Keystone pipeline, which will bring millions of barrels of Canadian tar sands oil into America. Meanwhile, consistent with global warming predictions, there have been record heat waves in Russia and record floods in Pakistan, and 2010 tied with 2005 as the hottest year on record for the world. The 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, producing the biggest oil spill in history, underscored the dangers of continued reliance on fossil fuels."

As this summary indicates, many of us are disappointed in the progress that has been made. This is not necessarily the fault of President Obama, but it is clear that he has not taken environmental issues very seriously. I certainly am not going to vote for whoever his Republican rival will be. The most disastrous (in terms of the future environmental survival of America) would be Michele Bachmann, who seriously said that we don't need to worry about global warming because Jesus already saved the world. She and Newt Gingrich still apparently think they are viable candidates, but they have about as much chance as Pat Paulsen did in 1968 or Monty Paulsen does now. I do not know why Pat Robertson is not running, since he claims that his special protein shake has given him superhuman vitality. If he can leg-press a ton, as he claims, then maybe he can lift the national debt onto his shoulders and toss it into the ocean. Under Rick Perry's leadership, we could embrace coal and oil, and head gloriously into the twentieth century. So I will head to the polls a year from now and vote for President Obama without hesitation, and without enthusiasm.

A Revolutionary Vision
November 7, 2011

You can do it right now-you can get a telescope (for less than $100) that is better than the one Galileo had. You can take it outside on the next clear night (of which drought-stricken Oklahoma has an endless number) and turn it toward the east where, after about 5:00 p.m. local time, the planet Jupiter rises. It is unmistakably bright, brighter than anything else in the sky except the moon and Venus. And you can see the very thing that Galileo saw and that caused a revolution in human thought.

In Galileo's time, the all-powerful Catholic church taught that the Earth did not move (after all, this is what the Bible says, a fact pointed out by modern geocentrists. All of the stars, according to geocentrists, were on a transparent sphere that rotated around the Earth. The sun, moon, and each planet had their own rotating spheres. As astronomers studied the motions of the planets, it became apparent that their movements could not be explained by saying that they were simply bright spots on spheres. The geocentrist model became more complex and clumsy to accommodate these observations. Mikolaj Kopernick (Nicolaeus Copernicus) pointed out that the movements of the sun, moon, planets, and stars made more sense if we assumed that the Earth was the third planet that revolved around a central sun than to assume the Earth to be stationary. Copernicus died before his work was published, and the publisher made it clear that Copernicus's book was simply an exercise in creativity and not intended to describe the actual universe.

Galileo turned his telescope upon Jupiter and saw not only this planet but also four of its moons. If he had just looked at Jupiter one time, it would not have been a particularly revolutionary vision. He would not necessarily have realized that the spots of light were, in fact, moons. But he looked at it night after night and found that these spots of light moved-they were moons of Jupiter. Jupiter was its own system, rather than just a spot of light on a heavenly sphere. Now, Galileo could have forced his observations into the model that the church dictated. He could have said that the Jupiter-sphere had little spheres within it that moved. But this finally got to be too much of a burden for the old geocentrist model to bear. Galileo understood that Earth was just a planet and, like the other planets, it revolved around the sun, and some of these planets have their own moons, all moving around in the vastness of outer space.

And Galileo said so. The church put him on trial and forced him to recant his scientific discovery. In the ensuing centuries, everyone realized that Galileo was right. Even the Vatican realized it; the Vatican has its own observatory and astronomer. (The Catholic Church did not get around to exonerating Galileo until the twentieth century, however.) At least Galileo did not suffer the fate of Giordano Bruno, who insisted that outer space contained an infinity of inhabited worlds, over none of which the Pope had authority.

You can see what Galileo saw. But you have to look at Jupiter on more than one night. You have to look at it enough times to see that the moons are moving. Since they are pretty closely lined up along a plane parallel to our line of vision, they look like they are just moving back and forth. The moon that looks closest to Jupiter is not necessarily the closest moon; it may be far away from Jupiter but look close due to our line of vision. But at least you can see that the moons are moving around Jupiter. Take a moment, when you have done so, to think about how this very observation changed the way humans looked at the universe, and at ecclesiastical authority.

Home Sweet Home
November 15, 2011

In the previous essay I wrote about Galileo's observation of the moons of Jupiter. I explained why it was a revolutionary observation. Galileo lived early in the period of history we call the "Renaissance," which means "rebirth." It was the time when ancient insights, e.g. from the Greek philosophers, were rediscovered and appreciated anew. But the name doesn't quite fit. They were actually discovering new things about the world that Plato and Lucretius could not have imagined. What Galileo saw, and what the explorers found in Asia and the New World, were new, not a rediscovery.

These new discoveries required entirely new concepts. Many scholars before Columbus knew the Earth was roughly spherical in shape; one Greek mathematician had calculated Earth's circumference. But after Columbus, everybody knew it. Galileo's observations required a new concept of planets revolving around the sun and moons revolving around planets, and stars at unimaginable distances.

The discoveries that make up the science of evolution have also required entirely new ways of thinking about the universe. For example, the decomposition of uranium into lead inside of zircon crystals shows that the crystals, and the volcanic rocks that contain them, to be millions or even billions of years old. The fact that our chromosomes contain hundreds of dead genes that we do not use, and dead viruses that no longer reproduce themselves, demonstrates that we had evolutionary ancestors that used those genes and were infected by those viruses. But creationists, and the politicians like Rich Perry who champion their view, insist that God created those things just to trick us: God put those lead atoms into the zircon crystals, and put fake genes and fake viruses into our chromosomes, just to test the strength of our faith in Rick Perry. Today, as in Galileo's time, the evidence for a scientific view of the universe is so overwhelming that many religious people have become desperate: they insist that scientific observations are delusions, and that we must believe religious authorities in spite of the evidence.

But we have to be willing to leave the home sweet home of ancient religious ideas in order to accommodate all of our new scientific observations. Some people have turned to atheism, while others have managed to fit the new observations into an updated religious framework. But the old home, in which the universe revolved around Earth and in which God made everything, is gone.

There is another thing you can learn from looking at Jupiter through a telescope, as I urged you to do in the previous essay. Jupiter is a mass of poisonous gases, liquefied by cold temperatures, except at the core where crushing gravitational pressure has turned them into solids. It is an immensely hostile place. The moons are each hostile (to life as we know it) in their own distinct ways. So are all the other planets. Outer space itself, with its almost perfect cold vacuum, is the most hostile of all. Earth is our Home Sweet Home and it is terrifying to me to think of even visiting other places. Some people, like my wife and webmistress, and millions like her, enjoy the thought of traveling among the stars. (She travels among the stars the same way that Prince Henry the Navigator in medieval Portugal explored the seas: without leaving home.) But I am acutely aware that our tiny Earth is an island of habitability in an unimaginable vastness in which a human could not stand a chance of surviving for a moment. How passionately I love our little green planet.

Beauty and Survival
December 1, 2011

I grew up in the county after which the disease tularemia was named: Tulare County, California. The eastern part of the county reaches into the Sierra Nevada, and includes the highest mountain in the lower forty-eight: Mount Whitney. But the western part, where I grew up, was flat, agricultural, and permeated with pesticides. Perhaps it was only the pesticides that made tularemia rare by the time I lived there (1964-1979). When you look at the San Joaquin Valley, in which western Tulare County lies, from the Sierras, you can see a thick blanket of air pollution; according to the American Lung Association, the Tulare-Visalia-Porterville area is one of the ten most polluted urban areas in the United States.

And yet, as I wrote in an earlier essay (October 13, 2009), I was filled with a sense of beauty as I explored the country roads and hillsides around my San Joaquin Valley childhood home. I explored olive groves in search of flickers, and vacant lots in search of meadowlarks and kestrels. I trespassed on federal property by riding my bicycle along the Friant Kern Canal frontage road, and I pretended it was a great river. Of course, I was aware, from my infrequent but deeply appreciative visits to the Sierras, that there were many other places more beautiful than the San Joaquin Valley. But the feeling of beauty was still strong, and comes back to me whenever I visit and breathe in the pesticide-laden dust.

It is part of human nature for us to believe, and strongly feel, that the places where we grew up are beautiful. I had a student one time, in a summer field botany course, who grew up in northwestern Kansas. There are beautiful places in Kansas, but this was not one of them. I had just driven through northwestern Kansas, including this student's hometown. Many square miles of this region consist of huge wheat fields, industrially farmed, and in which almost nobody lived. To me, it seemed like the most boring place on the planet, sort of like the South Pole but without the excitement. To this student, however, northwestern Kansas was, in her words, "the most beautiful place in the world."

What is wrong with our minds, if I can think the San Joaquin Valley, and my student could think northwestern Kansas, to be beautiful? Are we humans deluded? Perhaps. But the sense of beauty that we experience in our homelands is, I believe, a product of evolution. Throughout the evolutionary history of our species, humans have experienced tribulations, many of them at the hands of an implacable natural world: drought, famine, flood. The only people who survived and passed on their genes to us were those who loved the land they lived in, loved the natural world, no matter how hostile it might have been. We are all the descendants of survivors, who loved their homelands enough to learn how to survive in them, and to passionately cling to life no matter what happened short of death itself. "Biophilia," as defined by Edward O. Wilson, is a love of the natural world; I refer here to a love of the specific natural world, or cultural world, in which we lived as children.

Humans have emotional minds. Our motivations are based on emotions, not on facts. Facts can convince us, but only when we enjoy the intellectual feeling of rightness that comes from understanding the facts. We will only save what we love. A love of nature, or at least of the natural and cultural environment in which we grow up, seems to be an ineradicable part of human nature, and it may be the only feeling that can stimulate us to save the Earth from disaster. I can recite the facts of global warming, and yet they leave me emotionally unmoved; but when I consider the near certainty that global warming will kill the giant sequoia trees of the Sierra Nevada, global warming grasps my emotions and inspires me to take action.

Laboratory Earth
December 12, 2011

Laboratory Earth: The Planetary Gamble We Can't Afford to Lose is the name of a 1997 book by the late Stephen H. Schneider, one of the pioneers of global warming research. His main point was that we are performing a massive experiment on the Earth-let's inject a huge amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and see what happens-but there is only one Earth, and we are in trouble if the experiment doesn't work out the way we would like it to.

A good experimental design would be to have an Earth in which carbon dioxide increases, and a "control" Earth without a carbon dioxide increase. This is, of course, impossible. But scientists have experimental designs other than the traditional treatment-vs.-control design. One of these is the ABA experimental format. First, during phase A, you measure the baseline response of the system; during phase B, you impose the experimental conditions; during the second phase A, you see whether the system recovers to its original state. For such an experiment, you don't need two Earths. The problem is that if we are in the middle of phase B, we will have to wait for the outcome, which will not help us now as we decide how much we should limit our carbon emissions.

Or do we have to wait? As it turns out, this exact experiment-an ABA experiment involving atmospheric carbon dioxide-has already been done. It happened 56 million years ago. It was the "Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum" (PETM). A large amount of carbon-about 4.5 trillion tons-was injected into the atmosphere within a few thousand year time span. Most of this probably came from the release of methane hydrate, which is a frozen mixture of water and natural gas trapped underneath shallow seas. Global temperatures quickly increased by 9 degrees F. Ocean water at the North Pole was 74 degrees F. The carbon dioxide also acidified the oceans, destroying tiny shelled organisms. The layer of ocean sediments, 56 million years old, shows this very clearly: before 56 million years ago, there were many tiny shells, making the sediments white; abruptly, the sediments turned dark.

The PETM, a "natural experiment" (one caused by nature, not by humans) is closely analogous to the modern increase in atmospheric carbon. If we burned all fossil fuels that yet remain in the crust of the Earth (something that conservatives are hell-bent on doing), the net release will be almost exactly the same: 4.5 trillion tons of carbon (equivalent to about 16.5 trillion tons of carbon dioxide). In other respects, the experiment would not be analogous. The Paleocene Earth, before the carbon burst, was warmer than the modern Earth to start with. Nevertheless, the changes imposed by the carbon burst-the B part of the ABA experiment-are very instructive.

Massive changes occurred in the natural habitats of the Earth. In what is now Wyoming, there were Paleocene forests of birch, sycamore, dawn redwood, laurel trees, palms, and magnolias, which required moderate temperatures and plenty of moisture. When the PETM occurred, these forests were quickly replaced by forests of Copaifera trees, which grew in drier, warmer conditions. During the Paleocene, they had grown a thousand miles south of Wyoming. There was a sudden increase in insect damage to leaves, perhaps because the additional carbon in the atmosphere made the leaves less nutritious and the insects had to eat more (this is what happens in experiments today). The leaves of PETM forests, and the mammals, were smaller than those of earlier forests: these are adaptations to heat and drought. It was a massive ecological disruption.

The good news is that the PETM did not cause widespread extinction. Some species vanished, but others evolved. Ancient lineages of mammals became extinct, but the earliest representatives of some modern lineages of mammals such as horses evolved. The good news is that life on Earth can respond to such changes.

Part of the bad news, however, is that it took the Earth 150,000 years to recover-to get back to the A of the ABA experiment. The rest of the bad news is that human civilization-particularly our ability to raise food-could not survive such a disruption. Humans, but not human civilization, can survive the modern version of the PETM.

So the experiment has been done. If you are one of those people who say, "No need to worry about global warming; something survived the last time," then you can relax. But if you get your food from the grocery store, as I do, then there is plenty to worry about. I am reminded of the movie WALL-E, in which the humans were so happy to get back home to Earth even though it was barren and had exactly one little plant left on it. There is no way those people could live on such a planet. The question about global warming is not a matter of human survival, but of the survival of a technological civilization of 7 billion people.

You can read more about the PETM in the article by Robert Kunzig in the October 2011 issue of National Geographic.

Warm Winter Thoughts
December 29, 2011

Dec. 22, 2011 6:17 p.m.

This Christmas has been one of the best for my family. As I write this, I am at home with my wife, my daughter, and her boyfriend visiting from France. We have just bought a small living Christmas tree (an Aleppo pine). My daughter and her boyfriend will be starting the Christmas decorations pretty soon. It is a cloudy, chilly day, but warm inside the house, with the old cat asleep on the couch beside me. My daughter is baking a chicken pot pie from scratch. We are playing German Christmas choral music, which comforts us with words (most of which we cannot understand) that God is taking care of the world. How could any unpleasant realities intrude on this scene? If we could invent a Heaven it would be something like this. My daughter and her boyfriend laugh, like centuries of lovers before them.

This is the time when it is most difficult to admit the reality of the perils that await the world. Already, at this moment, human activity is using 1.4 times as much energy and natural resources as the Earth can provide. The world population, at seven billion, is double what it was when I was in junior high, and I’m not elderly. The world population is expected to increase to nine billion by mid-century. This, by itself, will increase our impact on the Earth by 30 percent. Maybe, just maybe, we could make energy efficiency balance the needs of an increased population, but it would take a much greater dedication to green technology (enough for a 30 percent increase in efficiency) than the world has ever demonstrated before. But none of that matters, because billions of people around the world are demanding a higher standard of living, the kind of life we Americans tell them that they deserve to have. The rate of increase of per capita resource use in the world is greater than the rate of increase in population. The per capita resource use of the G-7 economic powers will increase; that of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) even more; that of the N-11 (next eleven) countries perhaps even more. Even if the world population magically stopped increasing, we would still continue to demand more from the Earth than it can provide. This does not even include the effects of global warming on agricultural productivity. Are the effects of global warming overestimated a little? It hardly matters, compared to the effects of two billion more people in a world in which many billions are demanding a richer life. There is no way around it. Our golden age of luxury will have to end.

This is because our world economy simply cannot continue to grow. This is something that no political belief system in the world acknowledges. Liberals and conservatives and communists all agree that we must have growth in order to survive. We are about to discover that we can survive without growth.

The news in late December was mostly about how the two houses of Congress had a showdown in which both political parties showed themselves to be more interested in their own games than the welfare of the American people. But it hardly matters. There is nothing that either of them can do to keep economic growth occurring forever in a finite world.

As Dr. Seuss’ Gingrich discovered, a happy Christmas does not depend on luxury. But most of us are going to have to find a way to be happy even as we experience what for us will feel like catastrophic declines in prosperity. Rich bank executives and Newt Grinch will continue to enjoy conspicuous and boastful wastefulness, but most of us will be living like Bob Cratchett’s family. I think we can still find happiness, but only if we begin, now, developing the habits and patterns of thought that will allow us to enjoy frugality.

Oh, by the way, happy new year. I’m going to have one. Mere happiness will not make the problems go away, but unhappiness will not better enable us to handle them.