Weekend before last was the Prairie
Festival at The Land
Institute in Salina, Kansas. Over 700 people were in attendance:
students, aging environmentalists, scholars, farmers, and even a couple
of Amish people, from 33 states and three Canadian provinces. As
always, the Prairie Festival is a celebration of the fact that there
are many people, though clearly not a majority, who really care about
the Earth and the humans whose survival depends on it. This is perhaps
its main value: it reminds those of us who attend that we are not
alone. In rural Oklahoma, we environmentalists feel as if we are few
and utterly powerless.
The Land Institute, founded by Wes Jackson in 1975, conducts research
into the development of perennial crops, which can be grown in fields
without having to be plowed every year, thus reducing soil erosion. If
the crops are planted in combination, as a polyculture, the fields will
need less fertilizer and pesticide (if any). This direction is clearly
the only hope for agriculture in the future (or today, for that
matter). For decades this research was considered at the fringe. And
still it is largely ignored by the government and by funding agencies;
even the Obama Administration has pretty much ignored it, by appointing
an Iowa-big-farm-plow-it-up-spray-it-down agribusiness leader as
Secretary of Agriculture. But recently The Land Institute research has
been getting attention in leading science journals and in countries
around the world.
Some of the best environmental scholars in the world give presentations
at the Festival. (They do so at a podium in an old barn.) This year's
speakers included the writer Wendell Berry; economist Josh Farley;
writer Scott Russell
Sanders; the pioneer of genetic preservation Kent Whealy; and
founding prophet Wes
Jackson. A brain or a notebook could hardly
contain their wisdom.
The Festival was also a celebration, with a barn dance, food, and
music. However hopeless it may seem for the future of the world, in
which corporations enslave a dying Earth and its helpless people, there
is hope and cheer in the fact that many thousands of people-of which we
hope the 700 attendees were only a small sample-who not only care about
what his happening to the Earth and its ability to produce food, but
who are very aware of the threats and will not sit back in ignorance
and suck on whatever the corporations give us. Wes Jackson refers to us
as the consecrated constituency-we are the ones (and you can be too)
who keep the sacred conscience of the Earth alive.
- Josh Farley reminded us that economics cannot ignore the
environmental costs of our activities such as agriculture; we cannot
get something from nothing, nor can we get nothing from something-all
our wastes go somewhere. Many economists assume that humans are totally
selfish, but this is not true; many, perhaps most, people think that
doing the right thing is not a sacrifice but a joy.
- Scott Russell Sanders reminded us that rich people owe a
debt of philanthropy to their society, because their riches would mean
nothing at all were it not for the well-being of the society in which
- Kent Whealy told us the heartbreaking story of what
happened to Seed Savers Exchange. For 35 years he obtained seed
varieties of many crop and garden plants, with the understanding that
the genes in these crops would never be used for the profit of private
corporations. The new leadership of Seed Savers has, however, decided
to donate many of the seeds to the United Nations, with an agreement
that the seeds would be available to corporations. This opens the
possibility that a corporation such as Monsanto could obtain the seeds,
which they did not find and for which they have not paid, insert one of
their own patented genes, and then require the families and tribes who
donated the seeds for free to pay Monsanto for the right to continue
using them. This took many of us completely by surprise-yet another
method of evil that corporations may use to totally control our lives.
I recently read David Orr's book about climate collapse (a better
description than global warming), Down to the Wire. He made a
distinction between optimism and hope. Optimism is when you can
realistically predict a good outcome, however uncertain. Hope is an
attitude that keeps you working even when optimism is not a realistic
possibility. He said that no rational person could give an optimistic
assessment that the Earth is going to avoid climate collapse-that is,
enough of a collapse to mess up human civilization. But we need to have
hope, even if not optimism.
But as I read the book, it became clear that, if Orr is right, the only
way we can avoid climate collapse is for everyone to do everything
right, right now, even though we are doing almost nothing right, right
now, in terms of reducing carbon emissions. No grounds for optimism
here, and hope is a fantasy, even though it may be an essential one.
At the same time, I was reading Margaret Atwood's novel of a dystopian
future, Oryx and Crake. It was a future in which humans and
animals are nearly extinct, replaced by genetically engineered
humanoids and animaloids, and a future with brutal global warming.
(Atwood is the master of dystopias, of which The Handmaid's Tale
most famous.) She made the point that, in humans as in other
intelligent animals, all it takes is for cultural transmission to be
interrupted for a single generation, and the game is over forever-the
most important aspects of human adaptation will be lost. Our bodies and
our instincts, by themselves, will not get us very far. Climate
collapse would not need to cause extinction; all it would have to do is
to interrupt human culture for a generation.
In one scene of the novel, the lone surviving human walks through a
wrecked city, and the vines are taking it over. I was surprised that I
felt happy that plants were taking over and cleansing a ruined world.
Right about that same time, a Virginia creeper vine had worked its way
through our front door jamb and started growing inside the house. While
none of us would rejoice at the idea of human collapse, at least there
would-or will-be a cleansing afterward.
The Legacy of Michael Crichton
Michael Crichton died two years ago November 4. Am I the only one who
does not consider his legacy to be very impressive?
Sure, he was a good writer, at least in his earlier days. Jurassic
was pretty good, as was The Andromeda Strain, or so I am told
who have read them. He wrote the screenplay for The Great Train
Robbery. Well done.
But starting about 1990 Crichton descended into rants against anyone
whom he considered a threat to conservative values. Because of my
long-standing interest in Japan, I read Crichton's Rising Sun.
premise was little more than that Japanese are evil people trying to
take over the United States, and the plot was a weak support of this
premise. You want an example of Japan-bashing? You can't do much better
than Rising Sun.
One of Crichton's last novels was State of Fear. In this book,
creates the most far-fetched plot you can imagine. All scientists,
except a few brave mavericks who also happened to be ex-military, were
united into a secret plot to foist a global warming hoax on the entire
world in order to...in order to...in order to do something, I'm not
sure what. It is the fossil fuel corporations such as Massey Energy and
Exxon Mobil who reap prodigious profits from selling coal and
petroleum, while scientists are poorly paid (compared to corporation
executives) and sell almost nothing but books. Perhaps Crichton really
believed that scientists want to take over the world, like the
super-smart lab mouse in Pinky and the Brain. And these
really really really evil. They manipulated information in such a way
as to assure that happily picnicking families would be washed away by a
flood. And they must have done many other evil things in the second
half of the book which I did not read. The plot was extremely shallow.
All of the evil scientists drove around in blue Priuses. A secret list
of numbers showed up in a piece of furniture. By the end of the first
half of the book, nobody had figured out that the rich man did not
really die in the wreck of his car at which nothing but his shoes were
found. A little kid could tell you the man was still alive somewhere,
wearing a different pair of shoes. It was sad to see such crap being
written by a man who had proven himself, in the 1960s and 1970s, to be
a good writer. But he was blinded by his hatred of the political middle
The extreme right wing is unable to see how delusional Crichton's book
is. Senator Jim Inhofe, from my native and current state of Oklahoma,
invited Crichton to share his delusions with the Environment and Public
Works Committee, which Inhofe chaired. Then the Republicans lost
control of the Senate in 2006. But if they regain it again, any day
now, Inhofe will be back and beastier than ever, dancing on carbon-rich
air and proclaiming to the EPW committee that America is endangered by
environmentalists such as myself.
P.S. to my American readers. Remember to vote Democratic on Tuesday
November 2. They may not be very impressive, but they are at least not
No Political Hope
The midterm elections saw the solid Democratic majority swept away.
This would seem to be bad news for those who care about the
environment, and about humans (all humans) whose survival depends on
it. Actually, I should say living world, not environment.
But it has not escaped anyone's notice that, even when the Democrats
had a solid national majority (including, briefly, 60 senators), some
of the biggest problems did not get addressed. President Obama's
administration deserves credit for enacting national health care
legislation and financial regulations, both of which will help to avert
financial crisis. But there are two major problems that simply got
ignored in the political wrangling.
First, the one least directly associated with this website: the
deficit. The Bush and Obama administrations both relied on massive
deficit spending. This cannot continue indefinitely. We depend on
credit from China and Japan, who are now in conflict with one another.
A large chunk of federal tax money goes to paying interest on our
national debt. Things that Republicans like to spend money on, and that
Democrats like to spend money on, are going to have to be cut-although
I anticipate that the new Republican power structure will demand that
their priorities, such as pre-emptive war, be fully funded.
Second, the one directly associated with this website: global climate
collapse. When Bush began his presidency, even Republicans said we
should make at least a token effort to control climate change (which is
actually climate collapse). Now, even Democrats hardly mention it. The
issue has degenerated into a silly battle of those who love polar bears
and those who do not. Global climate collapse will by itself cause
financial collapse, on top of the financial irresponsibility in which
we are already engaging.
The fact that, especially now, there appears to be no hope whatever
that these problems will be addressed, we face a frightening future
regardless of which party runs the country. Will the fact that the
Democrats are less of a threat to our world's future than the
Republicans make any difference if these two major problems continue to
At least that is what I was thinking on election day, when much of the
country was underneath leaden soggy clouds, and on which I was reading
Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here, a novel about a
The Reality of Collapse
November 8, 2010
Jared Diamond’s book Collapse has informed and convinced many
that humans have been destroying their local environments for thousands
of years, resulting in the collapse of many civilizations. His examples
included the one that everyone talks about, the Polynesians of Easter
Island, who cut down all their trees to use as rollers to move the Big
Stone Head Things (moai) from the quarry down to the seashore to
defiantly out across the ocean which their ancestors had crossed but
upon which they had forgotten how to sail; the Anasazi and Hohokam
civilizations of what is now New Mexico and Arizona; and pre-Inca
civilizations of South America that many of us did not know had
existed. Most observers realize that Diamond was exaggerating a bit to
make his point. For one thing, he discussed only environmental
catastrophes such as the effects of soil erosion and human-induced
drought and loss of forest resources, barely conceding the importance
of social forces and wars in the collapse of those civilizations. He
went a little too far in claiming that societies could “choose to fail
or succeed” (from Diamond’s subtitle). Societies do not choose;
individuals do; and if our society collapses, it will, I believe, be
because of other people’s choices, not mine. I believe Diamond
exaggerated because these other factors have already been well
publicized. Charles Redman has taken a similar approach in his books,
such as The Archaeology of Global Change: The Impact of Humans on
But the zeal with which some anti-environmentalists, and even
scientists, attack Diamond’s book has led them into meaningless
confusion. One such book, Questioning Collapse, is written by
(Patricia A. McAnany and Norman Yoffee) and published by a scholarly
press (Cambridge UK). (I must admit that I have not read this book, and
I rely on a review of it by Krista Lewis that was published in Science
on January 22, 2010.) One of the contributors to this book speculated
that the Mayan civilization did not really collapse; maybe when the
people abandoned the cities and moved out into the jungles, it was a
rational decision. Now, think about that statement. Moving out of the
cities into the jungle would have been rational only if civilization
was collapsing. Neither Diamond nor anybody else is saying that the
Mayans lost their minds and went screaming out into the forest. In
fact, it would be a rational decision to leave a burning house, but
this does not mean the house was not burning down. Another contributor
to Questioning Collapse pointed out that the Mayan people are still
living in the same place as they were during the Mayan civilization.
This does not mean that the Mayan civilization did not collapse. When I
walked around the reconstructed ruins of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, I
knew that a collapse had occurred, even though I also knew that Pueblo
peoples (descendants of the Anasazi, unlike the more recently-arrived
Navaho and Apache) still live, in no small number, in the vicinity.
Everything that happens in human history is the result of many complex
forces. What people like Jared Diamond, Charles Redman, and myself are
doing is to point out that environmental degradation has been
overlooked as one of the important factors in the collapse of
civilizations. In these days when all the attention is on the economy,
the importance of our environment, and how it provides services that
keep us alive (and provides them for free), must be front and center in
Walking in the Woods with Mahler
November 14, 2010
The autumn colors in Oklahoma are not as amazing as those in New
England, but they are still beautiful-yellow hickory leaves, red
red-oak leaves, and bronze post-oak leaves. On a sunny warm autumn day,
it seems like a time of rejoicing. And, in part, it is.
But it is also a time of death. For the trees, it is senescence, not
death; the leaves die as part of an orderly breakdown, and the buds
already contain next spring's growth. Many smaller plants die, as well
as small animals such as insects. Death is part of the cycle of nature.
Many of the red oak leaves on the Oklahoma hillsides are covered with
parasitic galls and powdery fungi, but since the leaves are going to
die anyway, it doesn't matter. Autumn is a time to accept death as part
It is also a time to rage against death, to feel intensely that it is a
tragedy that all of the beauty, constructed so carefully during an
organism's life, should come to an end and simply be decomposed. This
is especially true in humans, where a human brain has built up a
lifelong structure of knowledge and wisdom and emotions, and then
simply stops working and rots. Autumn, therefore, is a time to come to
grips with death, to accept it but also to despise it.
The perfect companion during a walk in the autumn woods is the music of
composer who lived at the turn of the previous
century. Perhaps no other composer has written music with such an
intensity of sensation, as intense as the reddest leaf of autumn. His
emotions were nearly always intense. Before going to his cabin each
morning in summer to write his symphonies, he would swim across the
lake and back; writing music was an athletic exercise for him. His
music embodied the joy of nature (e.g. his Third Symphony) but also
rage against death (e.g. his Second Symphony).
Even in the first movement of the Third Symphony, when Mahler depicted
the coming of spring, the conflicts were unresolved. A bright and
cheerful march (which he called "Summer Comes Marching In") alternates
with the tragic chill of winter. Spring is a time when winter keeps
coming back, at least in northern Europe, until summer has fully
Mahler never came to grips with life and death-the conflict always
renewed itself in his mind and music. This is the way of the world:
rebirth every spring, senescence every autumn, eternally unresolved.
If you want to know more, I suggest the new book by Norman Lebrecht,
entitled Why Mahler?
The Illusion of Plenty
November 21, 2010
Our greatest national danger may be the illusion of plenty. Our
supermarkets gleam with thousands of food and other products. We are
living inside the cornucopia of plenty of which our ancestors, even a
generation back, could not have dreamed. However, it is an illusion.
This abundance is the product of an industrial food chain that depends
entirely on fossil fuels, mostly imported. Even chickens are raised in
factory conditions. The chickens live in massive coops in darkness,
because chickens are easier to handle in the dark. Bacteria spread
under the crowded conditions of chicken coops. The chicken companies
tell the farmers exactly what to do, and what kinds of coops to build,
at the farmers’ expense; these corporate-imposed costs almost entirely
consume the profits of the chicken farmers, who often earn a profit of
barely $20,000 a year. This is a time of plenty, but during this time,
huge corporations have gobbled up all of food production into a
What could possibly be the problem with an efficient, factory-like food
production system? There are many problems, but the one I address here
is vulnerability. The food production machine depends entirely on lots
of fuel and equipment and transportation. Any interruption of our
commercial system, even for a brief period, would cause the machine to
The old fashioned farms had a diversity of crops and animals, and the
farmer knew how to raise them all. Nobody knows how to do this anymore.
Also, today, most people only know one way to get food: buy it at the
store. I am one of these. But even a brief economic collapse would make
the supermarket shelves empty and leave most of us cluelessly
scrambling for sustenance. When they were children, my parents survived
the Great Depression because their parents raised food on farms and in
gardens. Next time, this option will not be available to most
people—including farmers, who earn their livelihoods by raising just
one kind of food and cannot do so without costly inputs. Never before
in history has our food production system been so vulnerable to
interruption. Food production is a big machine, but it does not have
momentum to continue if it encounters obstacles.
The option that the United States may choose, in the event of food
shortage, is to use our military might to force other countries to sell
us their food. But even this may not be possible, if we cannot afford
to buy it (because of another financial crisis due to corrupt
corporations) or if those other countries suffer a food collapse also.
The economic way around this problem is to encourage farmers’ markets,
which will result in the spread of diverse food production systems that
are more stable in the face of disaster. Widespread gardening is the
only thing that kept Cuba alive after the collapse of the Soviet Union
caused their sugar market to collapse; and it may be the only thing
that will keep us alive too, in the almost inevitable economic collapse
that will come in the near future.
November 29, 2010
In 1978, James Lovelock, an independent British inventor of scientific
equipment, proposed that the Earth was a unified living system, which
he called Gaia. The Earth did not just have organisms living
upon it, but could be thought of as an organism in its own right. It
had physiological processes that regulated its internal conditions,
just as an organism does. One of the first biologists to join him in
this viewpoint was Lynn Margulis, who was famous for having figured out
that complex cells evolved from the merger of simpler cells. Simple
cells merged together to form complex cells, and complex organisms form
complex ecosystems, which form the entire Earth. It is not just cells
that are alive, but life exists on all these different levels.
Some animals (the homeotherms, such as humans) can regulate body
temperature. Some scientists, following the lead of Lovelock and
Margulis, claim that the Earth can do this also. Five billion years
ago, the Sun produced less light, but the Earth was even warmer than it
is today because there was a lot of carbon dioxide in the air, causing
a greenhouse effect. As the Sun grew brighter, green cells in the
oceans of the Earth removed carbon dioxide from the air (through
photosynthesis), reducing the greenhouse effect, and keeping Earth’s
temperature about the same as (even a little bit cooler than) it was
before. This is one example of Earth having a type of homeostasis, or
physiological regulation. Some scientists even use the term
geophysiology for such processes. (Photosynthesis cannot rescue us from
the greenhouse effect now occurring, simply because it is occurring too
This does not mean that the Earth has intelligence. All it needs is
negative feedback processes. If the atmosphere has too much carbon
dioxide, plant cells will remove it, and if it does not have enough
carbon dioxide, decomposition will produce it. No intelligence
required. Of course, intelligence is not needed for most processes
within animal or plant physiology. Trees losing their leaves in autumn
is a physiological process involving the length of the night and a
pigment called phytochrome and a shift in hormone production, all of it
accomplished without brains.
The Gaia viewpoint continues to reside on the fringes of scientific
thought, often because scientists take it too literally. Some dismiss
it because they think Lovelock and Margulis literally believe the Earth
to be a goddess, when in reality they use Gaia as a metaphor. But every
year more scientists accept some version of the Gaia concept, once they
realize that it is a system of negative feedback processes rather than
a goddess. It may have been unfortunate for Lovelock to have chosen the
name "Gaia;" then again, who would have noticed the concept if he had
written about the Earth as an integrated set of negative feedback
So, if I were a scientist with a reputation for big-time highly-funded
research, I might hesitate to use the word "Gaia" in public. But since
I am a science educator and writer (and I do research also, on the
cheap) who wants to get people to grasp the major concepts of the way
the world works, I decided to go ahead and throw my hat in the ring
with the Gaia theorists. Once my book Life
of a Beautiful, Middle-Aged, Stressed-Out World
comes out later this year, there will be no turning back. I had to
write the book in a hurry, without sitting around and wondering about
my reputation. Too late now; the book is in production. But I don’t
think I am going to regret my decision.
A version of this
essay has also appeared on my evolution blog.
Degrees of Freedom
December 5, 2010
"Degrees of freedom" is a felicitous phrase invented by Sir Ronald A.
Fisher, inventor of much of modern statistical theory. It is a way of
denoting sample size. But it occurred to me recently that this phrase
might also reflect upon what may be the most important issue of our
time: global warming.
Global warming is a reality that we (all of us) must do something
about, from scientists and engineers to ordinary citizens who must
decide to simply use less energy and consume fewer material things. But
there are a handful of scientists, and a large number of pundits, who
vigorously claim that global warming is not happening, or if it is then
it is natural, or if it is not natural then it is good. Feed them
plants some carbon dioxide and they will turn the world green, they
say, even if there is not enough fresh water and good soil for them to
And the conservatives insist that we should do nothing about global
warming. The main reason that they provide for this is that taking
actions to deal with global warming will curtail our freedoms. Which
freedoms? The freedom to pollute as much as we want to, and to use
cheap gasoline for big cars, and other similar excesses.
But in reality we will start losing our freedoms if we do not bring
global warming under control. If large agricultural and urban areas
start running out of water (at least in the summer due to diminishing
mountain snowpacks), there may be no alternative to rationing water or
to buying expensive food. There may be no alternative to heavy police
surveillance if environmental refugees begin flooding across our
southern border. There may be no alternative to U.S. military
involvement in other parts of the world suffering environmental
disruption. We may have to pay for this military security by cutting
things such as social security, since China may have its own
environmental problems and be unable to lend us the money that
currently allows us to maintain our wars. Conservatives may fear that
carbon limits may lead to gas rationing; but military and economic
crises associated with global warming are more likely to do this.
Degrees of freedom. For each degree that the global temperature
increases, the more restricted our freedoms will become. When that time
comes, conservatives will forget that they ever told us to ignore the
problem, just as they have forgotten that they once told us the Iraq
War would only cost a few hundred million and would be over in a few
months as the Iraqis greeted our troops with flowers.
Social Darwinist Preachers
December 12, 2010
Nearly all of the most conservative preachers today are staunch and
vocal supporters of free enterprise, by which they mean that big
corporations have a right to crush ordinary people. In doing so, they
are directly contradicting Jesus and the prophets. What, for example,
would the prophet Amos have said about this? You can read it for
Evolutionary scientists, however, are not supporters of this doctrine,
which is called Social Darwinism. It is the application of an incorrect
and disproven version of evolution to the social and political world.
It is Herbert Spencer's, not Charles Darwin's, version of evolution.
Herbert Spencer's evolutionary writings are, according to Ernst Mayr,
of no consequence to modern evolutionary science.
Modern "free enterprise" preachers are not the first to have espoused
this oppressive doctrine. In 1877, Henry Ward Beecher, fresh out of a
scandal about the open secret of his extramarital affair, gave sermons
that said essentially the same thing as modern conservative preachers.
Workers' riots were erupting all over the eastern United States, with
deadly conflicts between workers and the National Guard in several
cities. Workers earned only enough money (a dollar a day), it was said,
for bread and water. Beecher, while overseeing the construction of his
Hudson River waterfront mansion in Peekskill, New York, announced that
workers should be satisfied with this. "The man who cannot live on
bread and water is not fit to live." The poor, said Beecher, will "reap
the misfortunes of inferiority." He added, melding God and evolution
together, "God had intended the great to be great and the little to be
little." He ignored Amos,who
said that God had not intended the great to crush the little.
In so claiming, Beecher apparently did not notice his inconsistency.
His sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, was the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin
which has been considered the most famous denunciation of American
slavery. He did not recognize that big corporations can economically
enslave the working poor. This was particularly true in 1877, and still
almost as true today.
The difference is that Beecher openly admitted his doctrine was a
spiritual adaptation of Herbert Spencer's evolutionary ideas. Modern
preachers, in contrast, denounce evolution and claim to get their ideas
straight from Jesus. In so doing, these preachers are not only just as
wrong as Beecher was, but are insulting Jesus on top of it. Beecher at
least claimed to take a figurative interpretation of scripture.
I obtain my historical information from Berry Werth's excellent book, Banquet
at Delmonico's: Great Minds,the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of
Evolution in America (Random House, 2009). This
essay has also appeared on my evolution blog.
The Fundamental Cause of Global
December 19, 2010
There is a bewildering array of possibilities for the major cause of
global warming. I am assuming, for this discussion, that the major
cause is human activity, a fact accepted by nearly all scientists. But
which human activity is the major cause?
Is it deforestation of the rainforest? Is it carbon emissions from
automobiles, or from industry? Or is it equally attributable to all of
I would like to penetrate more deeply into this question. The
fundamental cause of global warming, of all carbon emissions, is the
human inability to be satisfied with a peaceful sufficiency. Global
warming has, one could say, a spiritual cause. (If you think I am
sounding like Wendell Berry, I take that as a compliment.) We always
desire more than we have, even though we cannot even remember all that
we have. And all of these things that we buy must be manufactured,
which causes carbon emissions, and must be transported, which causes
more carbon emissions. We often do it with borrowed money, which is
processed expensively and oppressively through banks that produce their
own shitload (now there is a word Wendell Berry would probably not use)
of carbon emissions. Advertisers spend billions of dollars to make and
keep us dissatisfied. We belch out massive amounts of carbon because of
our boundless appetite.
If, instead, you buy half as much stuff, you reduce your carbon
emissions by half. The same is true if you travel half as much. My
television set is vintage 1989 and will no longer work; for some
compulsive reason on my part, it is in the attic. I will avoid the
carbon emissions associated with manufacturing and transportation of a
television, and the electricity necessary to run it, by sitting in the
back yard and watching the birds. (My bottle of dark beer required the
production of less carbon than a television would. I think.)
Satisfaction, besides being the true fount of happiness, is also the
best way to reduce carbon emissions.
The rich people of the world have huge carbon footprints, and aspire to
have bigger ones. The poor people of the world have small carbon
footprints but aspire to have big ones. In the face of this spiritual
reality, it does not matter how many hybrid cars or LED lights or solar
panels we use. The world will smother if we do not learn satisfaction
with sufficiency. It cannot be enforced, and cannot readily be taught.
No technological fix will save the damned human race, if by this I mean
that we have inflicted this sin upon ourselves.
There are a few Amish around; in fact, their numbers are increasing a
little. While I would not want to participate in what I consider a
stifling religious culture, I find their skepticism about technology
refreshing. They accept new technology, but only after careful
consideration. They are the only culture in the world (that I can think
of at the moment) that selects technology rather than automatically
gobbling it down. We will have to live more like them, and enjoy it, if
our culture is to survive. And why not? They seem, if anything, a
little happier than the rest of us.
What will the future bring? Obviously, we will encounter limits on how
much energy and material available to us. Will we gradually and
gracefully adjust to these limits, or will we roar our engines right up
to the final moment? And if we have a Really Great Depression as a
result, will neighbors help one another adjust to frugality, or will
individuals fight with one another for the last pockets of richness?
Everywhere we look, when we see localized disasters today, we see both
reactions. Which of them will prevail during the future collapse of our
society cannot be predicted.
I Humbly Suggest that Scientists
Should Rule the World
December 31, 2010
Politicians rule the world. They claim that they know how the world
works, how to get things done, how the economy runs, and that is why
they should be the ones to rule the world. Well, I guess this is why
everything is just fine in the world-because it is in the competent
hands of politicians.
But politicians consider us scientists to be impractical. Our
scientific minds focus on the natural world, whether it is human brain
cells or the growth of forests. They think we do not know what "the
real world" of laws and political deals is really like.
This is, however, blatantly untrue. Politicians live in a fake world-in
which "truth" is determined by whatever will get them elected, which
means that "truth" is whatever their major corporate donors want them
to believe. Politicians do rely on data from the real world, but then
they filter and twist it into a pretend-world, for example a world in
which we can dump our carbon dioxide and Nature will clean it up for
us. Will Rogers said, as I recall, "My jokes don't hurt nobody. But
when Congress makes a law it's a joke, and when they tell a joke it's a
Here are some reasons why scientists could competently run the world
(at least, more competently than politicians):
The Obama administration is noticeably more open to input from
scientists than any preceding Republican administration, especially the
Bush administration that was openly hostile toward science. But Obama's
administration is still mostly politicians doing political things based
on their pretend-world of political rules. Even Obama listened a lot
more to Rahm Emanuel than to his cabinet-level scientists.
- Scientists base their assertions on verifiable facts.
- Scientists demand to do things that have been previously
proven to work.
- Scientists follow a protocol that (almost always) ensures
- Scientists really do know how the world works, from atoms
to organisms to societies.
- Scientists have had international cooperation for
centuries; American and Soviet scientists worked together (not, of
course, on war-related topics) even during the Cold War.
Would a society run by scientists be a utopia? I don't know, but it
might. It would certainly be an improvement over what we have.
essay also appeared on my evolution