Wednesday, December 06, 2017

A Review of Emma Marris's TED Talk--Species and Spin

For years I've been writing critiques of a false narrative about invasive species that has recurrently found its way into books, newspaper articles and opeds. A cluster of books came out between 2011 and 2015, claiming that invasive species are not a threat after all, and may even be our saviors. You can find this applecart-spilling lineup on Amazon.com and elsewhere, beginning with Emma Marris's "The Rambunctious Garden" in 2011, followed by "Where Do Camels Belong", "The New Wild", and "Beyond the War on Invasive Species".

I've read all of one, parts of others, and have been astonished at their faulty logic and brazen tone, as they dismiss habitat restoration and (usually unnamed) invasion biologists with a sweep of the hand. The books deliver a big payoff for uninformed readers, who get to look down on supposedly stuffy, self-deceived scientists, while being relieved of worrying about a big problem that, according to the authors, isn't a problem after all.

Though the authors would not welcome the comparison, similar emotional payoffs can be had by denying climate change, or supporting a candidate who dismisses those with experience and promises to magically solve a nation's problems. This is how polarization is maintained in America (and how democracy's pillars begin to crumble), by recasting consensus as conformity, expertise as arrogance, and then cherry-picking evidence to suit one's ideological needs. The authors present themselves as tough-minded skeptics, bucking the tide, but turn out to have directed all their skepticism outwards, allowing their own misconceptions to prosper unquestioned.

Earlier this year, I scanned the internet to see if the authors of these books were continuing to downplay the threat posed by invasive species. The main thing I found was a 2016 TED talk by Emma Marris, entitled "Nature is everywhere--we just need to learn to see it."

It's a well-delivered talk, but anyone with knowledge of the subject will spot the telltale spin, conflation, and omissions that lead the audience to a counterfeit "A-Ha!" moment. In the talk, Marris claims that weedy urban lots are "arguably more wild" than national parks. Weedlots, she claims, are the true wilderness, because there is no human intervention, while national parks are often carefully managed. Nature's diversity is defined as a straight numbers game of how many different species can be found in a given location. All landscapes are sweepingly categorized as "humanized", regardless of whether the landscape is an elevated train track surrounded by buildings and concrete in Philadelphia, or a rainforest inhabited by indigenous tribes.

There's a downplaying of the deeper ecological interconnections that develop through co-evolution. Marris dismisses the management of national parks as an effort to make them "look natural", whereas land managers and ecologists see the re-introduction of bison and wolves, or the planting of rust-resistant whitebark pine seedlings, not as a superficial visual tweak but as an effort to restore ecological function and health.

To suggest that an urban weedlot is "self-willed" and more wild than a managed national park is to misunderstand the human influence on landscapes. Some of our impacts on the world are intentional, others unintentional. Marris seems to consider the collateral damage of human expansion--the accidental introduction of nonnative species, the altering of hydrology caused by urbanization, the displacement of key species like wolves and bison--as natural acts, while the intentional effort to undo these alterations is labeled as unnatural.

I would argue the opposite, that nature predates humans in America, and that the profound ecological relationships and functionality developed over those millions of years do not disappear under the label "humanized" as soon as people arrive. Elements of that original wild nature persist to varying degrees. Some elements were enhanced, for instance by the American Indians' use of fire in the landscape, and other elements have been eliminated altogether, like the megafauna that were hunted to extinction. Weedlots can only be called wild and self-willed if we ignore the setting, which is human-based. The hydrology, the substrate, the sorts of seeds that land there--all these are the product of past human activity, be it intentional or unintentional. There is spontaneity, as the plants sprout and grow, and the bees visit, but the context is largely orchestrated by people past and present. This is far different from the Amazon, where indigenous tribes may influence nature, but have left most of nature's functional components in place.

People are both part of nature and separate from it. We can work with nature's processes or fight against them. Using our knowledge, we can mend and nurture wildness through intentional action, or further alter the remnants of a nature that once sprung from the ground without any human promptings or orchestration.

There are several values I hold in common with Emma Marris. She calls for people to seek out and enjoy the nature all around them. The watershed association I founded in Durham, NC was inspired by a desire to provide urban dwellers with mini-preserves a short walk from their homes. Marris believes nature is made to be touched, not treated as a museum. Amen to that. She makes a good point that kids, just discovering nature, need not be told that the flower they're holding in their hand is a non-native invasive plant. I was weeding a large, mostly native wet meadow planted in a park's detention basin this past spring when a kid came along, grabbed a dandelion seedhead, told me it was a wishing flower, and sent the seeds flying with his breath. Though dandelions were one of the weeds I had been undercutting with a shovel that afternoon, I held my tongue and let him enjoy his love of the dandelion. Kids will learn soon enough, when their parents curse the fig buttercup that's taking over their yard, or a fishing trip is undone by a combination of habitat degradation and invasive species. My first remembered encounter with invasive species, as a kid in Wisconsin, was a trip to nearby Turtle Creek, which had appeared on the map as a sweet rivulet in the countryside. What we found was a muddy creek degraded by cattle and carp.

It's one thing for Marris to want to protect and nurture kids' delight in nature, but another to downplay or deny among adults the threat posed by invasive species.

I had an interesting interaction recently with Ms. Marris. In the TED talk, she claimed that a Finnish ecologist named Illka Hanski let his yard grow up, and several years later found "375 plant species, including 2 endangered species". Very impressive, and in the talk's trajectory, that was the moment that sealed the deal for the audience. You could feel that collective "aha" moment, when the "let it go" approach to nature seemed a truly powerful tool for achieving plant diversity. But the number sounded wrong to me, and sure enough, in an interview Ms. Marris did later last year, the story is told differently. The interviewer says:
 "In Helsinki, researcher Ilkka Hanski stopped mowing his 16,000-square-foot lawn and found, after several years, 375 species of animals and plants — including two endangered insects." 
Since soil itself is packed with species, we have no idea how many plant species were in the yard. I emailed Emma Marris, and she immediately acknowledged having misspoken, and has added a footnote to the TED talk pointing out the mistake. 

Unfortunately, showing how misinformation can have a ripple effect, the TED staff had appeared to use the false figure in Marris's TED talk to suggest greater biodiversity in urban lots than in national parks:
"...untended patches of grass and weeds growing in abandoned lots and around deserted buildings. (It may surprise you that that patch is most likely more biologically diverse than an entire national park.)"
The TED staff include Marris's talk in a group of speakers who supposedly "debunked received wisdom, looked critically at common knowledge — and restarted conversations we thought were closed." What in fact happened in this case is that misinformation was used to artificially create debate. Our appetite for surprise and a dramatic "overturning of the applecart" creates a market for false controversy.

Marris had the TED staff also remove the "It may surprise you ..." language, but the TED talk can't be modified to remove the false claim about diversity, and now has over a million hits.

My experience with diversity is the opposite of Marris's cherry-picked example. The roadsides of Durham, NC, where I used to live, tend to be dominated by a few nonnative grass species. But here and there under the powerlines along old 2-lane roads, where soil was left undisturbed, probably for centuries, and woody growth is kept mowed down, can be found patches of native piedmont prairie teaming with plant diversity. The soil was undisturbed because farmers wouldn't have plowed the roadsides, and mowing under powerlines is a serendipitous stand-in for periodic fires that would have swept through in centuries past, preventing woody vegetation from shading out the herbaceous species. Thus, serendipitous human actions have allowed an indigenous plant community to survive from an era that was far more wild than our own.

My email exchange with Emma Marris was friendly enough. She is an accomplished environmental writer who is commendably working to immerse kids in nature. But I did ultimately feel a need to point out the ways in which she uses spin, blurred distinctions, cherry-picking, and omission to undermine consensus and create false controversy. That brought the email exchange to an end, but it serves as a good summary of what still plagues her writing about invasive species:
"I'd say I agree with you on some things, and find other aspects of your TED presentation problematic. People should look for nature close to home, and not be hands off about it, and lectures on the dangers of nonnative invasive species are best saved for some moment other than when a boy is connecting with nature for the first time. The rest--that park stewardship is intended to make the park "look natural", that all landscapes touched lightly or heavily by humans can be categorized as "humanized", that diversity is primarily a numbers game, that an urban lot is "self-willed" when the circumstances are largely dictated by people, and that deeper interactions such as herbivory or lack thereof don't bear mention--is problematic. Your talk made me remember my fascination with roadside weeds when I was first learning plant names, but I don't see you giving the deeper interactions that evolve over time between species their due."

Postscript: Googling Ilkka Hanski did uncover a useful reference to him in a David Suzuki Reader, in which Hanski had found that "people surrounded by a greater diversity of life ... were less likely to exhibit allergies." It sounds similar to the contention that kids' immune systems will be improved by playing in dirt. All of this, if true, is good fodder for those of us not enamored with the sterility of suburban landscapes. 

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Slavery and Fossil Fuels: Unethical Energy, Then and Now

Preface: Actors study for a role in part by seeking in themselves aspects of the character they wish to portray onstage. That technique, or instinct, could be used to more deeply understand a time long past. When Princeton University began to look into the role slavery played in its past, researchers and archivists found all sorts of interesting documents, then recently invited the public to take a look. Attending events, I couldn't help but exercise the actor's approach, looking for aspects of today that can help us more vividly understand a seemingly distant era. Even without considering how slavery's long shadow extends into our century, the parallels between past and present were so numerous that I felt an eerie connection with that antebellum era. Most eerie is the tacit acceptance of a disturbing status quo. There's a great risk in not talking about our dependency on unethical energy. It nearly split a nation in two, and now threatens a civilization's future. 

The Slavery in Princeton project’s revelations have blurred distinctions between good and evil, North and South. For me, they also blur distinctions between past and present. The symposium will rightly focus on racial injustice, but additional insight can come from comparing economies dependent on unethical energy, slave-based or otherwise.

To make the point, here's what I've learned thus far from Slavery in Princeton's events, exhibits, and website, plus some additional reading:

Slaves were sold on Nassau Street. Slavery was common in Princeton, a part of everyday life, and seldom discussed. The university benefitted from wealth generated by the slave economy. Nationally, the Bible and junk science were used to rationalize the continued use of slaves and to claim that victims were actually beneficiaries. Those most victimized by slavery had no vote. Those calling for a rapid end to slave use were considered radical. New Jersey chose to phase out slavery over many decades. Everyone supported the slave economy by buying its products. A few people of conscience sought to buy slave-free goods, but struggled with issues of higher cost and verification. A technological breakthrough made slavery much more profitable as time went on, expanding U.S. exports and stiffening political resistance to ending the slave economy. Ending slave use would mean stripping slave owners of the tremendous wealth bound up in the slaves themselves. The political party advocating continued slave use became radicalized, in part because demographic trends might erode its power. That Party chose to secede rather than face the unethical nature of the slave economy. Even after slave use was abolished, its harmful effects would linger for centuries.

Now, reread the above paragraph, substituting the word "fossil fuel" for slave and slavery. The technological breakthrough, by the way, was the cotton gin then, fracking now, and secession was from the Union then, from reality-based thinking now.

There are, of course, important distinctions. Slavery in the U.S. was an intentional subjugation, a race-based exploitation of one person by another, with much of the overt or covert cruelty playing out in real time.

Climate change, by contrast, is collective, unintentional and impersonal, essentially collateral damage from the carbon-based economy. Its veiled, crowd-sourced form of cruelty is largely indirect, displaced in distance and time, disguised within the natural variations of the weather. Climate change most directly targets earth, which can be thought of as a body, physically scarred by extraction, its oceans acidified, its land and sea made feverish by a 40% increase in carbon dioxide. These radical changes to atmosphere and oceans cripple nature and increasingly endanger people through a devastating intensification of winds, floods, droughts, and heatwaves.

And yet we drive down freeways, which function as climate change factories, with the best of motivations--to get to work, run an errand, or do a favor--exiling awareness of collective consequence. To more deeply understand slavery's grip on society, consider how unethical energy continues to trap even free people in dependencies that can be viewed as both perfectly normal and unconscionable.

Background readings that I found helpful can be found at this link

Friday, December 01, 2017

Rationalizing Extinction

I know. A lot of you have been feeling guilty about how we humans are causing the 6th great extinction event in earth's history. 40% of all species on earth are predicted to slip quietly into history. But we're good people! For the most part. How could this happen? Well, no use wringing your hands, you hand wringers, you. Because, voila!, extinction turns out to be good, after all, according to R. Alexander Pyron, an associate professor at George Washington University who is trying his hand at opinion writing. Why change our destructive behavior when we can change our ethical standards instead? Demonizing the human race is so last century. Time to rationalize! Time to get anthropocentric about the Anthropocene.

A colleague had sent me the link. The headline (written by the newspaper's editors) sounded like a troll from an online comment section. "We don’t need to save endangered species. Extinction is part of evolution: The only creatures we should go out of our way to protect are Homo sapiens."

"Cool!", I exclaimed, looking at the headline on my phone while standing in the parking lot of a nature preserve, getting ready to lead a nature walk on a Sunday afternoon. I shared the provocative title with others who had gathered. We reveled in relief as all that species-guilt we'd been feeling for as long as we could remember drained away, melting into the pavement beneath our feet.

By chance, I'd been analyzing a book with a similar message, "Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature is Thriving in an Age of Extinction, " by Chris D. Thomas. The book may well have emboldened Pyron to write his opinion piece, and given the Washington Post a rationale for publishing it. Both the book and the oped seduce uninformed readers by upsetting the applecart of mainstream thinking, and by letting the reader off the hook. Remember Dr. Strangelove and "How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb?" Doctors Thomas and Pyron are doing something similar with the Anthropocene, but with no sense of satire.

Much of their thinking is rooted in books published some years ago--by Marris, Pearce, Orion and others--that vilified habitat restoration and invasion biologists and portrayed invasive species as a blessing in disguise. I thought that line of thinking had long since died of its own strained logic, but Thomas's book appeared this summer, presenting the old arguments in an even more nihilistic form.

If nothing else, Pyron's essay is useful for pointing out some recurrent habits of this genre, which seeks to undermine our trust in mainstream scientific thought. Below are some typical techniques, with quotes from his opinion piece:


Portray the “Other” as emotional, sentimental, and self-serving. In this case, the "Other" is mainstream biological and environmental thinking about habitat restoration and extinction.
  • “Yet we are obsessed with reviving the status quo ante.”
  • “And if biodiversity is the goal of extinction fearmongers, ...“
Claim that working to restore nature, or otherwise expend conscious effort to reduce humanity's negative impacts, is a waste of time and money.
  • “But the impulse to conserve for conservation’s sake has taken on an unthinking, unsupported, unnecessary urgency.”
  • “Conserving a species … serves to discharge our own guilt, but little else.”
  • “whatever effort we make to maintain the current climate will eventually be overrun by the inexorable forces of space and geology.”
Declare the conservationist Other’s words to be meaningless, either by erasing distinctions or mocking the Other’s words with quotation marks.
  • "There is no such thing as an 'endangered species,' except for all species."
  • “We are a part of the biosphere just like every other creature, and our actions are just as volitional, their consequences just as natural.”
  • “alien species will disrupt formerly 'pristine' native ecosystems.”
Manage guilt or purge it altogether.
  • “extinction does not carry moral significance, even when we have caused it.”
  • “Humans should feel less shame about molding their environment to suit their survival needs.”
  • "Conservation is needed for ourselves and only ourselves."
Play tricks with time frame. Sure, we're doing harm to nature, but all will be fine a million years from now. Can you imagine such reasoning being used for any other problem we face?
  • "Our concern, in other words, should not be protecting the animal kingdom, which will be just fine. Within a few million years..."
  • “If this means fewer dazzling species, fewer unspoiled forests, less untamed wilderness, so be it. They will return in time."
Cherry pick evidence. Oftentimes, one positive trait is used to supposedly compensate for all the negative traits of invasive species. The positive trait might be a pretty flower, or nitrogen-fixing ability, or erosion control.
  • “ Studies have shown that when humans introduce invasive plant species, native diversity sometimes suffers, but productivity — the cycling of nutrients through the ecosystem — frequently increases. Invasives can bring other benefits, too: Plants such as the Phragmites reed have been shown to perform better at reducing coastal erosion and storing carbon than native vegetation in some areas, like the Chesapeake.”
Most writings in this genre use extinction as the only measure of damage to native species, but Pyron's oped is even more heartless, claiming that extinction is all part of the game, neither good nor bad.
  • “Invasion and extinction are the regenerative and rejuvenating mechanisms of evolution, the engines of biodiversity.”
  • "The only reason we should conserve biodiversity is for ourselves, to create a stable future for human beings."
Make biodiversity purely a numbers game; minimize or ignore the evolution of complex interactions between species
  • "South Florida, where about 140 new reptile species accidentally introduced by the wildlife trade are now breeding successfully? No extinctions of native species have been recorded, and, at least anecdotally, most natives are still thriving. The ones that are endangered, such as gopher tortoises and indigo snakes, are threatened mostly by habitat destruction. Even if all the native reptiles in the Everglades, about 50, went extinct, the region would still be gaining 90 new species — a biodiversity bounty."
Present evolution as winners and losers
  • “Extinction is the engine of evolution, the mechanism by which natural selection prunes the poorly adapted and allows the hardiest to flourish. “
Overall, Pyron's writing has an "abandon ship" quality. Ayn Rand's "In Defense of Selfishness" comes to mind. Libertarianism, as described at lp.org, envisions "a world in which all individuals are sovereign over their own lives and no one is forced to sacrifice his or her values for the benefit of others." This sort of thinking leaves us helpless to prevent collectively created crises. Opposition to collective action to slow or prevent climate change then necessitates a way to rationalize the tragic consequences. Pyron's political views are unknown, but he essentially extends the libertarian view of the individual to the species as a whole. Hope is invested not in proactive avoidance of disaster, but in the endgame: "we will find a way to adapt." And if that fails, then come back in a million years. Everything's sure to be fine then.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Cat in the Hat Moves into the White House

What sort of cat wears a hat, wreaks havoc wherever it goes, makes a monstrous mess that entertains as it appalls, turns the world red from "lying", and suffers no personal consequence? Why, it's the Cat in the Hat, by Dr. Seuss. If you missed it in childhood, you can witness it now, in the news every day. While the adults were out, a man in a red hat and no scruples slipped into the White House. This time, there will be no magnificent machine to clean up the mess, no VOOM! to erase the lies that spread red across the land.
Little lies founder,
But big lies can stick.
Lies can determine
The leaders we pick.
Taken together, The Cat in the Hat and The Cat in the Hat Comes Back anticipate our current cat-in-chief's tremendous capacity to demolish what was carefully put together, and generate an endless stream of red lies that spread and spread. In the Cat in the Hat Comes Back, the first red stain happens when the cat lies in the tub. From that first "lying", the red stain spreads from bathtub to mother's dress, to Father's shoes, to the rug, ultimately coating the snowy landscape outside.
If you don’t like that lie,
Then I’ll give you another.
I’ll give you its cousins,
Its sister and brother.
The cat has helpers to spread its brand of mayhem even further. Out of the cat's red hat leap small assistants who spread the red until it coats the land. Those assistants, in our increasingly unreal world, include not only those who wish to spread the lies, but also those attempting to stop them.
We’ll make ourselves welcome--
A lying family--
On the porch of your house
Drinking new lies for tea.
How do you stop a lie from spreading? The standard method in journalism is to state the lie, then explain that it isn't true. The more outrageous the lie, the bigger its headline, and the more it dominates conversation. Whether the lie gets repeated with an air of disgust or irony or stern correction, the assumption is that people will see it for the lie it is. But lies, if they are repeated often enough, become true for people who aren't paying much attention. The actual truth often can't compete.
The truthy truth truthers
Will frown all around,
At how high I can fly
While they’re stuck on the ground.
If someone is accused of a crime, each time that story is reported, the accused is associated with the crime. But if the crime is a false accusation about someone else, then news reports taint the lied-about more than the liar. The lied-about can charge the liar with slander or defamation of character, but that risks even more news coverage with yet more repetitions of the lie.
We’ll keep telling lies
Till you think they are true
Do you think it can’t happen?
It can happen to you.
We become like the boy and girl in Dr. Seuss's stories, powerless, aghast, but also entertained while watching their world order come undone.
And how do you stop a big lie once it’s out
By saying it again while it prances about!
As an example of how lies can be like a stain that keeps spreading the more you try to stop it, consider a pre-election series in the New Yorker that documented myriad lies. These are thoroughly researched, devastating articles, and yet they also serve to spread the lies further. Though the series' alliterative title, "Trump and the Truth", was meant to be ironic, at a subliminal level some may be swayed instead by the visual power of two words that share the same length and the first three letters. By associating Trump with the truth, the title works against the articles' content. And because of the difficulty of reporting lies, the articles' content even works against itself. Of 1260 words in one of the articles, only 195 present the truth, while 628 convey Trump's lies.

This is the journalist's predicament, in a time when content may not register. Instead, it's the subliminal message in the image, the look or sound of words in the headline that people respond to. In a similar manner, some people watching the presidential debates last fall may have picked up on Trump's impressive physical bearing, rather than what he actually said. For people wishing to believe, appearance will win out over content.

Click on "Read More" below to see the 195 words of truth, presented almost apologetically, and how more than half of the article actually helps spread Trump's message.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Climate Think: Comparing Climate Change and Drunk Driving

Here are two examples of what can be called Climate Think:
  • If we viewed terrorism the way we view climate change, there'd be no security checks at airports, because no one could prove definitively when or even if a plane will be hijacked in the future.
  • If we viewed drunk driving the way we view climate change, there'd be no law against Driving While Intoxicated, because no one could prove for certain that alcohol was the cause of the accident.
The burning of carbon fuels previously stored safely underground has increased atmospheric carbon dioxide by 40%. All weather is now influenced by climate change. The oceans are now 25% more acidic, due to some of that extra carbon dioxide turning into carbonic acid when it's absorbed by the oceans. All ocean chemistry is now influenced by climate change. Our bodies strictly regulate our internal chemistry, including pH, yet many people seem to think we can radically alter the earth's chemistry without consequence.

If the universe were patrolled by police, the earth and its drivers would be arrested for DWI.

Background:

When it comes to terrorism and drunk driving, the potential for harm is considered sufficient to take action. Contrast that mindset with the tortured and timid suggestions that climate change can in part be blamed for the destructiveness of recent hurricanes and wildfires.

Using Climate Think, a drunk driver could argue that his accident was minor compared to many accidents caused by sober drivers. He'd point out that many drunk drivers make it home safely, and there's no way it can be definitively proved that his alcohol levels caused the accident.

You can see these sorts of rationalizations being used in news coverage of climate change quoted below: "the possible role climate change played..", and "climate change is not necessarily causing specific fires to occur." Imagine the same sort of apologist approach being used to report on drunk driving.

An editorial in the Washington Post: This editorial has a brave headline, but then gets very timid, with its "time to talk" and "possible role" and "measures the nation should take."

See it, say it: Climate change
"While California prepares for what promises to be an arduous rebuilding, Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and other places hit by this year’s unprecedented back-to-back-to-back hurricanes are still mopping up and, in Puerto Rico’s case, just beginning to rebuild. So it would seem to be a natural time to talk about the possible role climate change played in these disasters and about measures the nation should be taking to slow global warming."
An article in the NY Times: It would be interesting to see a news report state that alcohol levels accounted for half of a driver's weaving on the road, or half of a deadly accident.

California’s Wildfires: Why Have They Been So Destructive?
Researchers from the University of Idaho and Columbia University published a study last year saying that climate change had caused more than half of the dryness of Western forests since 1979. 
Parched landscapes can increase fire size and duration, said Scott L. Stephens, a professor of fire science at the University of California, Berkeley. 
But it is important to note, he added, that climate change is not necessarily causing specific fires to occur. Wildfires are a natural part of a forest’s life cycle and have been part of the state’s history since long before anyone called it California.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Las Vegas: A Layer Cake of Crazy

The mass shooting in Las Vegas, gruesome and horrific, is just the top layer of a cake made of crazy. Increasingly, acts of insane mass violence play out within a culture whose version of normality is itself profoundly destructive and, like the killers themselves, ultimately self-destructive. We mourn the dead in Las Vegas, but that grief is felt in the context of a daily and deepening mourning for a larger extinguishment, playing out day after day, global in scope.

That larger extinguishment of the world we cherish is being carried out not by the attention-grabbing men who spray bullets or drive trucks into crowds, but through the collateral damage of what passes for normal everyday life. The proliferation of guns and other armaments is scary, but it's the chemical warfare that we have all been enlisted to participate in that is driving the most profound and destructive transformations. Society itself has been weaponized, not only with guns, but with vehicles and homes armed with exhaust pipes and chimneys, whose emissions of climate-changing gases are no less destructive for lack of drama or ill-intent. Though an exhaust pipe is discreetly hidden under the back of a car, it is aimed at the future, with nature and ultimately us the victims of its emissions.

The peace we seek in a return to normal is an illusion. Las Vegas, in the size of its massacre and the conspicuousness of its unsustainable consumption, is a steroidal version of the giant gamble that haunts normality worldwide. How does a city like Las Vegas return to normal? By turning its fountains back on, in the middle of the Mojave Desert. In Las Vegas, normal is just a different kind of crazy, a glamorous void into which people pour their dreams and money.

Las Vegas, in a country where many pretend that climate change is a hoax and corporations are people, is a city that pretends to be anywhere but where it is. There, along with opulent fountains, you can find giant versions of the Eiffel Tower, the Grand Canal of Venice, the Colosseum, the statue of David, the Statue of Liberty, and the pyramids of Egypt.

The Mandalay Hotel, from whence the unhinged gunman's bullets flew, is named after a sentimental Kipling poem, longing to return to "Mandalay, where the flyin' fishes play." During construction, the hotel was found to be sinking, as is much of the Las Vegas area, as water is sucked from aquifers below, so that fishes and people can play in the driest desert in North America. The city spent $1.5 billion to bore another giant straw closer to the bottom of the nearby damming of the Colorado River called Lake Mead, so it can continue sucking water from the reservoir as it too drops, already down to 40% of its original capacity due to recurrent droughts made worse by climate change. In part due to Las Vegas' thirst, the Colorado River runs dry before reaching its ocean outlet. Billions more may be spent to build a pipeline to raid groundwater 250 miles to the north. Contrary to a false headline that made the rounds in 2016, the city does not run on renewable energy, but powers its glitz and gambling with fossil fuels, thereby contributing to its own future desiccation.

So we have a crazy gunman in a gambling city in a country that gambled on a president who, like Las Vegas, offered glitz and glamour, and a void for voters to pour their last ditch dreams into--the voting booth just another slot machine. Consider the possibility that the giant gamble with climate change that infects the core of normal has laid the foundation for a layer cake of crazy.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Unintentional Acts of Good People are the World's Greatest Threat

Text from the president's address to the U.N. earlier this week provides a good example of how the greatest threat to our future is being ignored. The text pits the "righteous many" and "decent people and nations" against "the wicked few."
"The scourge of our planet today is a small group of rogue regimes that violate every principle on which the United Nations is based. They respect neither their own citizens nor the sovereign rights of their countries. If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph. When decent people and nations become bystanders to history, the forces of destruction only gather power and strength."
There are, of course, people out there with destructive intent who pose a danger. Nuclear weapons will always keep the end of civilization potentially just minutes away. But such a good vs. bad duality leaves the door wide open for the most powerful and insidious agent of destruction to do its work.

Though each one of us may lead a productive and caring life, we remain in another respect like beasts of burden, harnessed to pull civilization closer to the cliff. To the extent that our machines run on fuels extracted from underground, we serve collectively as a team of mad chemists, redistributing carbon and thereby unleashing powerful forces of radical change. Of course, we don't mean to play this role. We are, as stated in the president's address, "decent people." But our participation in the destabilizing of the planet's chemical balance is no less substantive and real for being unintentional. Why, in order to conform and fit in to society, are we essentially forced to wear that harness and daily contribute to destructive transformations of our climate and our oceans?

We know who is keeping us in this bondage. It's the politicians who pretend that all evil is intentional, who pretend that the fuels combusted to run our lives and our vast economy do not have vast and lasting negative consequence, and who, armed with deeply entrenched pessimism, actively oppose alternatives to that bondage.

We won't be free, nor our nation truly defended from danger, until the deniers of human-caused climate change are stripped of their political power. Until then, preoccupation with the evil intent of the "wicked few" will leave us vulnerable to the collective and unintentional impact of the "righteous many."

Friday, August 18, 2017

August Forebodings

August in an incompetent president's first year has become a time of foreboding. That sense of dread is part of the fallout from voters' attraction to presidential candidates who hide their privilege and lack of preparation behind an engaging populist speaking style.

In 2001, George W. Bush was spending the month of August at his ranch in Texas, clearing brush rather than acting on warnings that al Qaeda was preparing to attack inside the U.S.. In 2003, Al Franken, the comedian more recently turned senator from Minnesota, detailed the ignored warnings leading up to the 9/11 attacks in his serious and funny book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. At Amazon, you can read Chapter 16, "Operation Ignore", by clicking on the bookcover.

Now, a president even less equipped to handle the job is taking a long vacation, and it's hard not to wonder at what threat is brewing while a president distracts himself and the nation with outrageous tweets. It's worth remembering that George W. Bush's popularity, like Trump's, was dropping during his lackluster first year in office. When Bush's popularity shot up to 90% after the 9/11 attacks, he used the popularity to launch an ill-advised war, and get elected to a second term that ended in economic collapse.

At a time when the Trump administration is teetering on the brink, it's easy to imagine a scenario similar to the Bush years, when a president's incompetency unexpectedly played in his electoral favor.

Even without attack from outside, the nation continues to be sabotaged from inside, as anti-government ideology allows incompetent candidates to get elected, and then proceed to mismanage or dismantle government operations.

NOTE: Columnist Paul Krugman, whose columns often have an uncanny coincidence with my own thoughts, addressed August's foreboding in a different way:
Despite this, it may seem on the surface as if the republic is continuing to function normally. We’re still adding jobs; stocks are up; public services continue to be delivered. 
But remember, this administration has yet to confront a crisis not of its own making. Furthermore, a series of scary deadlines are looming. Never mind tax reform. Congress has to act within the next few weeks to enact a budget, or the government will shut down; to raise the debt ceiling, or the U.S. will go into default; to renew the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or millions of children will lose coverage.

Friday, August 04, 2017

Trump and Mass Hypnosis

Many of us made it through last year's primaries and election, and the first six months of the Trump administration, without hearing about the techniques of mass hypnosis that may have contributed to his improbable election. A look back, though, shows that a number of people trained in hypnosis were recognizing sophisticated use of persuasion techniques where many of us were seeing coarseness, bullying, and lies. As articles like the New Yorker's How Trump is Transforming Rural America document how persistent is support for the president in some areas, despite all the incompetency and scorched earth policies emanating from the WhiteHouse, it's worth asking how hypnosis might be playing a role.

Scott Adams, the writer of the syndicated cartoon series Dilbert, recognized a method in Trump's madness during a primary debate in August, 2015. He wrote a blog post entitled "Clown Genius", about how the allied techniques of hypnosis, persuasion, and negotiation would win Trump the presidency. When, for instance, Trump declares he's worth $10 billion, it anchors a big round number in your mind. It doesn't matter what the true figure is. Though critics may offer far smaller numbers, the underlying message of all that discussion in the media will be that he is a wealthy man. Adams goes on to describe in detail the logic behind "anchors", "intentional exaggeration", and "thinking past the sale". Though Adams may be naive when he asserts that Trump's talents of persuasion could serve him not only as candidate but also as president, he offers valuable insights into the logic behind the campaign.

In March, 2016, TheHill interviewed hypnotist Richard Barker about Trump's techniques, which include "future pacing" and repetitive words and phrases. At rallies, Barker explains,"he gets them to visualize two problems, then he gets them [to] nod their heads three or four times for solutions."

The transformative power of Trump's use of repetition at rallies is described in this chilling account by a journalist in the New Yorker article:
Last October, three weeks before the election, Donald Trump visited Grand Junction for a rally in an airport hangar. Along with other members of the press, I was escorted into a pen near the back, where a metal fence separated us from the crowd. At that time, some prominent polls showed Clinton leading by more than ten percentage points, and Trump often claimed that the election might be rigged. During the rally he said, “There’s a voter fraud also with the media, because they so poison the minds of the people by writing false stories.” He pointed in our direction, describing us as “criminals,” among other things: “They’re lying, they’re cheating, they’re stealing! They’re doing everything, these people right back here!” 
The attacks came every few minutes, and they served as a kind of tether to the speech. The material could have drifted off into abstraction—e-mails, Benghazi, the Washington swamp. But every time Trump pointed at the media, the crowd turned, and by the end people were screaming and cursing at us. One man tried to climb over the barrier, and security guards had to drag him away. 
Such behavior is out of character for residents of rural Colorado, where politeness and public decency are highly valued.

In May, 2016, TheWeek published a column by James Harbeck with a fine-grained analysis of the rhythm and intonation in the repetition Trump uses at rallies and in tweets to achieve a hypnotic effect. Among the techniques he identifies are the use of "the same words and phrases incessantly and identically", "the same structures over and over and over to set up an automatic cue-response expectation", and "the rule of three". Harbeck ends the column with this: "So there it is: How to hypnotize voters, in six simple moves. Be funny. Be confident. Be a bully. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Close with the emotion. Win."

In October, as the election approached, a college student and budding hypnotist named Kevin Butler wrote in awe of Trump's abilities. He explains that no one can be hypnotized against their will. It's not weak-mindedness that creates vulnerability to these techniques, but an openness to what Trump has to say.

Many of us heard a message of hate, fear, vulgarity, lies, and empty promises, and turned away in disgust. But what made so many others open to the message? The current fiasco has been 40 years in the making, a long marination of minds to make them more vulnerable to emotional appeals and empty promises. People point to the deep despair that has taken hold in economically depressed rural areas. Conservative radio and Fox News, with little competition from more objective news media, have used that despair to stir resentment towards coastal elites. If minds are saturated with lies and spin, and hardened with resentment, then truth, if it be heard at all, will sound foreign to the ear. Anti-government sentiment, which in its virulent form becomes like an auto-immune reaction in which the nation's institutions come under attack, is magnified by insecure religious leaders who view government as a competitor with God for their congregations' loyalty. The sabotage of legislative progress during the Obama years deepens people's cynicism about government's capacity to improve our lives, which in turn has played electorally into the hands of the saboteurs. And then there's the flight from issues during campaigns by the news media, which find that emotion-laden stories draw more listeners.

In an age when a suicide candidate can penetrate the nation's defenses and occupy the White House, and as the status quo creates and becomes increasingly undermined by the destabilizing effects of climate change, no amount of military might, and no wall, can keep a nation secure. A democracy grows weak and vulnerable from within, from lies, festering divisions and deepening resentments. The interior of a nation has its own front lines, defended by teachers, scientists, journalists--all who are willing to serve truth and rationality, who seek commonality and accept difference, who mend rather than thrive on division.

There is no easier way to artificially create and sustain division than to feel entitled to one's own facts. Two months into the Trump presidency, Bloomberg Businessweek ran a profile of the cartoonist Scott Adams mentioned above, who had been so impressed by Trump's hypnosis skills. Despite all the chaos in the White House, he still saw Trump as doing "the people's work", and has written a book, to be published later in the year, "Winning Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don't Matter".

Another Adams, John Adams, the 2nd president of the United States, might counter as he did in 1770, that "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the states of facts and evidence." John Adams spoke those words in a courtroom--one of the last bastions in what is now a rapidly shrinking world where facts still matter. When Ronald Reagan, speaking at the Republican National Convention in 1988, misquoted Adams and said, instead, "Facts are stupid things", his Freudian slip presaged the rising ocean of passion that Donald Trump would so expertly manipulate to send facts fleeing to whatever high ground might somewhere remain.

At the same time, this is the golden age of facts. They are literally at our fingertips, ever more conveniently presented on the internet, for anyone who wishes to find them. Might facts be just one more thing in the world that reaches a state of perfection only to become outmoded? We need someone with the necessary hypnotic powers of persuasion to convince people they still matter.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Is the Republican Party Stuck in Adolescence?

There's a famous quote of Mark Twain's about the illusions of adolescence:
"When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years."
The adolescent mind assumes that adults are clueless, have nothing to offer, and tests the adults to the breaking point. In that respect, the Republican mindset is adolescent in nature, assuming that Democrats, who are adult enough to acknowledge fiscal, healthcare, and climatological realities, have nothing to offer. Through the Obama years, the Republican Congress expressed itself through resistance, defining itself by being against anything Obama was for. This is essentially the posture of a rebellious teenager, as in this quote from an article in Psychology Today entitled "Rebel with a Cause: Rebellion in Adolescence",
"Although the young person thinks rebellion is an act of independence, it actually never is. It is really an act of dependency. Rebellion causes the young person to depend self-definition and personal conduct on doing the opposite of what other people want."
It is only when Republicans take the helm--essentially are forced to enter the adult world of responsibility, with no one else to blame--that the Party's simplistic, easy moralism crumbles in the face of complex realities. With the concocting and rejection of each new Trumpcare bill, Republicans are now confronting the consequences of that long-held adolescent certainty that Obamacare must be repealed and replaced. The rebellion was as emphatic as it was empty, based on the Republican Party's needs rather than the nation's, with no coherent alternative in mind. The cathartic glee of total rejection of all things Democratic worked well to motivate voters on election day, but proves disastrous when applied in the halls of Congress.

For telltale signs of the adolescent posture described by Mark Twain, there was Trump's assessment of his first 100 days ("I thought it would be easier.") and a new cabinet member's surprise at discovering that there actually are some able and dedicated public servants working in his agency. Though it may prove debilitating for the government's functioning, it's no surprise that Trump would appoint cabinet members ideologically opposed to the departments they will lead. For an adolescent defining himself through rejection of the adult world, such upside down behavior makes sense:
"The young person proudly asserts individuality from what parents like or independence of what parents want and in each case succeeds in provoking their disapproval. This is why rebellion, which is simply behavior that deliberately opposes the ruling norms or powers that be, has been given a good name by adolescents and a bad one by adults."
There is, in the rebelliousness of adolescence, and in the radicalization of the Republican Party, an insecurity, a need to define one's identity in a negative way, by creating distance and resistance. 

Obama lost a great deal of time during his presidency entertaining the illusion that Republicans would ultimately work constructively with him. That illusion is understandable, given that the country has problems that need to be solved, but "working together"--a slogan also used by Hillary Clinton--is seen by Republicans as political suicide. Instead, the Republican tendency has been to shift rightward as Democrats offer to meet in the middle. The Republican Party's need to define itself as a rejection of Democrats has motivated its radicalization, and can also explain why Republicans appear to lack any real solutions to real world problems. 

Donald Trump is the ultimate manifestation of this permanently adolescent political stance. He is a master at creating enemies that we must hate, exclude, or destroy, yet offers only the vaguest or most impractical of solutions, like bubbles that pop at the slightest touch. 

One can point to the many initial steps that the Republican Party took in this direction. There was Reagan's drift from fiscal realities, submitting fantasy budgets rather than risk his popularity by making the tough choice to raise taxes or cut popular programs. There was Gingrich's shift in the use of language from denotation to connotation, as he hammered away at liberals as people not only to be disagreed with, but despised. To gain electoral advantage, he encouraged Republican candidates to use words that evoke emotion rather than thought. And, as Communism receded as a threat, there was the unspoken choice by the Republican Party to redefine government as the substitute threat, thus commencing this protracted auto-immune reaction, in which our own government, and anyone who seeks to make it function well, is viewed as the enemy. 

The Republican Party, having so long defined itself by its rejection of government and all things Democratic, is now in a real bind. It can stir enough discontent to get elected, but lacks the reality-based maturity to govern. It has learned how to gain control over a government it has no respect for. The more it demonizes government and Democrats, and gains electoral advantage by opposing tax increases of any kind, the fewer options it has for governing well. The more it denies that tax cuts reduce government revenue, or that climate change is a profound threat, the more it must demand strict loyalty from its members, lest the house of cards collapse and the Party's fraudulence be exposed. This suppression of free, reality-based thinking is the opposite of the freedom Republicans pretend to embrace. As totalitarian thought control takes hold, American victories in World War II and the Cold War, like the planet's climate, appear increasingly vulnerable. 

When I was in my adolescent stage, I tested my father's endurance to the breaking point. Eventually, I found a way to forgive him for what he couldn't give, and to define myself not by rejection of him but by what I could do in the world. That forgiveness opened my eyes to all that was good and wise and generous in him. What I've noticed is that, when it comes to government, all people have complaints, whether Democrats or Republicans. Some regulations, and some programs, are more effective or better administered than others. In a singular way, the Republican Party appears stuck in a rebellion stage that prevents it from acknowledging government's legitimate role. Now, as Trump and his Republican followers sabotage government, embrace lies, undermine trust in the news media, and ignore the gathering disaster of climate change, I see our institutions and planet--the pillars of our shared world--being tested to the breaking point. 

It's a risk for Republicans to, in a political sense, grow up--to define themselves by what they can do, rather than by all they tell us to fear and despise. Electoral pressures have fed this retreat into adolescent rebellion. There is no easy way out of the bind, for the nation or the Republican Party. A kid, if emotionally healthy enough, will eventually grow up, as the parent waits it out, offering the "gentle pressure of positive direction relentlessly applied"--a phrase from the above quoted article that could also refer to Obama's patient but futile overtures to Congress over the years. But that progression is not a given for a political party rewarded for feeding the electorate's appetite for empty rebellion. For now, the Republican Party continues to lift itself up by tearing our institutions down.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

James Baker Lobbies for Climate Action


A pretty good crowd showed up at Princeton University for James Baker's talk entitled "A Conservative Approach to Climate Change". Years ago, you'd be lucky to get 10 or 20 in an audience for anything having to do with climate.

At 87, Baker looks back on many successes for those he served. He lent competence to the Reagan and Bush 1 administrations, and outmaneuvered the Gore team in the 2000 post-election fight for Florida's electoral votes. Reagan cut funding for climate research, and the Baker-assisted Republican victory in 2000 tragically stalled progress on combatting climate change for 8 years.

Having used his considerable diplomatic and administrative skills in the service of those who sabotaged solutions to the problem, Baker and some of his esteemed Republican colleagues, such as George Schultz, are offering what he calls a "conservative" solution for climate change. He is now, in effect, going up against the monster of denial and political expedience his former employers--Reagan and the Bushes--did so much to create. It's hard to see how even the extraordinary charm and tactical capacity of a James Baker could crack the nut of Republican resistance--a resistance that has served Republicans so well by letting voters off the hook for dealing with a massive problem.

Baker deserves credit for backing a worthy goal--a carbon tax. Essentially, a tax is levied on carbon-based fuels used to create and transport products, whose cost in the marketplace is then affected. The tax would be predictable, starting low and gradually rising. The carbon "content" of imports would be taxed as well. Business would appreciate the predictability, and be motivated by cost incentive to shift towards renewable energy. The tax revenue would be returned to all citizens of the U.S. as a check in the mail. A $40/ton of carbon tax would make that check $2000/year, in Baker's estimation. Regulations--many of which, it should be said, were created because Republicans have resisted solutions like a carbon tax--would be eased as the carbon tax took effect.

Though he claims that he and other conservatives came up with it, the approach sounds remarkably similar to what the Citizens Climate Lobby, a bipartisan group that's been around since 2007, has been working towards. George Schultz is very involved with CCL, and Baker claims to have started speaking about climate change as a problem back in 2004, but it's unclear to what extent they contributed to the development of the approach. There was no mention of CCL in his talk or during Q and A. (Note: I've since been told that Baker's approach gives more emphasis to rolling back regulations, and starts with a higher tax/ton that the CCL proposal.)

Baker doesn't admit that carbon emissions are causing the problem, but instead says the risks are too large to ignore. He declares hyper-partisanship to be a problem, but doesn't admit that much of the partisanship is artificially created by his ideological brethren who deny the overwhelming scientific evidence that climate change poses a huge risk to our future. Truth is an important source of unity. Denying it creates polarization where none need exist. We do not have, therefore, a "both sides are to blame" equivalence when it comes to political gridlock on climate change.

There seems to be a tacit understanding that Baker needs to label the proposal conservative in approach and origin, in order to avoid being labeled an "Other" by the Republicans he seeks to persuade. Therein lies the greatest sadness, that his political party has embraced the political expedience of climate denial, purging itself of any who dare acknowledge reality, so that Baker must still pretend there is scientific uncertainty, as in "carbon emissions may be causing our problem."

At least Baker dares to use words like "tax" and "liberal" in positive contexts, as in his support for a "liberal global order". These are small victories, coming long after the brutal effort, by Newt Gingrich and his progeny, to burden those words with enough negative connotation that no one dare use them, and to demonize liberals to the point that anything they say is rejected out of hand. Thus is political dialogue rendered dysfunctional, and problems like climate change fester for thirty years. 

At the beginning of the talk, Baker joked about a friend of similarly advanced age who told Baker that they were living "in the fourth quarter". No, Baker replied, "we're in overtime." He's happy to be alive, still active, still relevant. If he contributes to an unlikely last minute victory for climate action, we can cheer him on, while being mindful that he spent most of his life serving those who have set the nation up for defeat.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

The New Wild (and crazy ideas about nature)

In this post-2016 election world, many of us are seeking ways to break out of our bubbles and help others to do the same. I have a suggestion. If you have an area of knowledge and experience, seek out the books being written on that subject, particularly those you're likely to disagree with. Amazon.com and Goodreads.com offer a convenient way to do this without necessarily buying the book. You may well find some wild and crazy ideas being peddled, and even more disturbing, large choirs of adherents giving those books high marks in the review section. Perhaps your own views will be challenged in the process, or maybe you will be astonished by how biased, arrogant, and misleading the books are, and how gullible the readers. If the latter, then go ahead, break their bubble. Write a review that will help people think more critically about what they are reading, or about to read. It's better than just preaching to the choir on facebook, and you're impact could extend beyond the bookreading world. Misleading books beget misleading articles by misled journalists, spreading the misinformation far and wide.

Below is my latest contribution to the genre, a critique of The New Wild, by Fred Pearce. The book is described by Beacon Press as "A provocative exploration of the “new ecology” and why most of what we think we know about alien species is wrong." It was "Named one of the best books of 2015 by The Economist." Impressive, engagingly written, and yet it is one of the most skewed books I've ever encountered.

Upsetting the applecart is a great way to sell a book. We cheer for the underdog, the David who slays the scleroticized, conformist, institutional Goliath who wouldn't know the truth if it hit him square between the eyes. What a rush to think ourselves smarter than all those scientists isolated in their ivory towers. Whether denying human-caused climate change or the threat posed by invasive species, the polemics against both of these share many of the same techniques even as they arise from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum.

Yes, we should question authority. But the appetite for contrarianism for its own sake has undermined the nation's capacity to respond to proven threats. Now, in part due to the resulting paralysis, we have an authoritarian occupying the White House.

The critique below draws primarily from The New Wild's Introduction, which is reckless and deeply flawed in logic. Other portions read suggest the Introduction is typical.

(Click below on "Read more" to access the critique.)

Sunday, February 26, 2017

When Truth Has to Sit in the Back of the Bus: How Journalistic Conventions Undermine Consensus on Climate Change

If you're wondering how the country became controlled by a science-denying president and political party, it's worth taking a look at how climate change is reported by the mainstream press. Below is an "embedded critique" in which a Boston Globe article on climate change is examined paragraph by paragraph, to see how its structure and content sustain controversy and doubt despite the overwhelming evidence that climate change is real, human-caused, and a grave threat to our future.

Here is a summary of what this fine-grained look revealed:
  • Controversy and uninformed, contrarian views are front-loaded--in the headline and first half of the article--while compensatory truth, good news and growing agreement (colored brown to reveal the pattern) is forced "to the back of the bus" (the end of the article, which many readers don't reach). I explain in the critique how this article structure could be serving to perpetuate political polarization and paralysis.
  • Use of the word "skeptic" in the context of climate change falsely implies a tough-mindedness in people who lack any skepticism about their own stubbornly ill-informed views. A more accurate term would be "rejectionist".
  • The article applies a corrupt form of populism, in which the opinions of highly visible but inadequately trained meteorologists are given equal weight with those of climate scientists.
  • Readers are left uninformed about the basic mechanisms that drive global warming. Just as campaign coverage focuses on the horse race, and coverage of forest fires describes the damage while offering no insights into fire ecology, coverage of climate change indulges contrarian views while leaving readers ill-equipped to resist false assertions.
The embedded critique below, of a Feb. 13, 2017 article by David Abel, an experienced journalist with the Boston Globe, shows how misleading this seemingly mainstream journalism can be. My comments are formatted left, while the article's text is indented. 

(Click below on "Read more" to access the article.)

Sunday, February 05, 2017

When Political Cowardice Poses as Strength

This is a highly deceptive time, when cowardice, irresponsibility, and political opportunism are portrayed as tough-mindedness. Even those news media sources that aim for objectivity appear helpless to expose the deception, and instead often perpetuate false assumptions.

Consider a recent PBS News Hour piece on Obama's climate change legacy. Of course, it's exceptional to see 9 minutes of broadcast time devoted to climate change. The NewsHour has done more than most to give the subject visibility.

But what those nine minutes reveal is how warped is the lens through which we view the massive problem of climate change and the efforts to reduce the terrible risks posed. If you follow the link above and watch the piece, the problematic aspects play out in the following order:
  • False Balance: The report begins by telling us that Obama took action against climate change "despite opponents who criticized the costs or doubted the science". That suggests that there's a cost for taking action, but not for inaction, that opponents have no responsibility to offer their own solutions, and that doubting the science is still a defendable position. None of that is true. If one side of the political spectrum is disciplined in its drift from reality, in essence decides to wear no clothes, even respected news sources like the News Hour dare not point out the obvious, for fear of appearing biased. The "opponents" are presented as tough-minded critics, protecting us from costly actions and false alarms, when in reality they are running from a profound threat to the nation and the world.
  • The politician's role in enabling honest reporting: Speaking to a dinner audience, Obama sharply criticizes Republican inaction on climate change, but through the prism of comedy, with his "anger translator, Luther". He calls Republicans irresponsible, but the visual is of a crowd laughing. There's no mention of whether Obama consistently and forcefully, throughout his administration, took Republicans to task for running from the problem of climate change. My memory is that he did not. Without the aid of strong, quotable criticism of Republican obstructionism coming from a prominent politician like Obama, it has been harder for the news media to point out on their own the cowardice and naked political opportunism of climate denial.
  • Climate Change is Not Santa Claus: The "anger translator" scene is followed by the weakest quote on climate change ever, from former EPA administrator Carol Browner--"I think that this president believes that climate change is real." As if climate change were a matter of belief, like Santa Claus! 
  • Stoking fear of big government: Then, we hear criticism of Obama's proposed action as "very intrusive and heavily regulatory". The consequences of inaction, and the lack of Republican alternatives, again go unmentioned. The famous quote from Reagan's 1981 inaugural address began with four oft-forgotten words: "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem". Failing to heed those words, Republican leaders have warped national decision-making by drawing false conclusions from the 1980s. Reagan's implication is that, in some crises, government is part of the solution. 
  • When cowardice and pessimism pose as tough-minded criticism: In the next scene, Republican House leader John Boehner plays the tough-minded critic, eviscerating proposed climate legislation, "flipping through and reading pages randomly", finding "something bad on every one." Boehner reads the bills recommendations, "Twenty percent of the electricity that goes into every federal agency has to come from renewable sources. Do we have any idea whether this is possible? I can’t find the answer here." What appears to be tough-minded skepticism is in fact a deep pessimism about the country's capacity to identify and solve problems. Again, a Republican is portrayed as a gate keeper. He need not provide any solutions of his own, but merely find fault in others. The resulting governmental paralysis opened the door for Obama's nihilistic successor.
  • Solution Assassination--Then, playing into the image of skeptics as tough-minded, a West Virginia hunter is shown out in the woods, shooting a hole through Obama's cap and trade bill, pinned to a tree. Will the hunter's gun and macho demeanor fend off oceans lapping at the foundations of Miami resorts? All we're left with is an image of tough resolve expressed by people who are too selfish and afraid to face up to national threats.
  • Connotation Overwhelms Denotation: The piece describes how Obama's proposal of cap and trade became labeled by Republicans as a tax. But the reflexively negative connotation of taxes goes unquestioned. Investing words with strong connotation shifts discourse away from thought and towards emotion, which protects politicians who lack facts to back up their views. Government needs revenue in order to operate. How does one raise that revenue? That is another tough issue that Republicans have consistently run from. Those who oppose Obama's climate legislation, and anything else called a tax, are not held responsible for the consequences of their opposition, whether it be future climate chaos or the rising deficits that have characterized Republican administrations since 1980.
  • Blaming the Problem Solvers: Then, a talking head blames Democrats for legislative failure, while the Republican opposition is given a free pass on even acknowledging the gravity of the threat. The uniformly obstructive, denialist nature of the Republican Party is confused with strength, and becomes in many people's minds an almost geologic entity, an insensate rock that has no volition or free will. Thus, Democrats get blamed for not being deft enough to avoid the rock, while it's the rock that's causing the obstruction. 
The aim here is not to find flaw in PBS news coverage, but to show how deeply embedded a false notion of strength has become in the nation's political discourse. The news media can be more aware of how it perpetuates a false storyline, through its selection of images and quotes, but the media is hampered by the absence of a strong counter narrative, repeated over and over until it begins to sink in, that dares to call cowardice by its name. 

Saturday, January 21, 2017

From Ronald to Donald--Comparing Inaugural Addresses


For many of us, the 2016 election demonstrated that we now live in an upside down political world, where facts don't matter, bad behavior is rewarded, existential threats can be ignored, nonsense sways more than sense, and cowardice and denial are viewed as mental toughness. Cabinet appointees appear intent on dismantling the departments they are entrusted to lead. Righting the ship means looking back at the ideological currents that swept us over and have now left the nation dead in the water and drifting backward.

Where we are now has a lot to do with where we started heading 36 years ago, so it's fitting to compare the inaugural addresses from when the presidency took these sharp ideological pivots, in 1981 with Reagan and in 2016 with Trump. They show many similarities as well as some sharp contrasts. A deeper look at Reagan's address also shows him, surprisingly, to be praising those who pay taxes, implying that government isn't always the problem, and sounding like Al Gore on climate change. I will use the Ronald/Donald motif, rather than their last names, because of their similar sound.

Donald John Trump rode to victory on the story of America that Ronald Wilson Reagan embedded in the national consciousness through endless repetition. Neither Bill Clinton nor Barack Obama--for all their success at leaving the country better off than they found it--harnessed that power of repetition, and so they left the storyline Ronald forged largely intact. To a considerable extent, the country continues to live inside Ronald's brain, where fiction was mightier than fact, science was suspect, and big government was the enemy. With some notable and seldom mentioned caveats, that story gets told in Ronald's first inaugural address, from which Donald appears to have borrowed heavily. A comparison of the two reflects both the continuity and the ongoing devolution at work in the Republican Party. 

PARALLELS BETWEEN RONALD AND DONALD

The Niceties
Both mention the orderly transfer of power, and complement the outgoing Democrats on how gracious they are at ceding power.

Sense of Urgency
Ronald's "We are going to begin to act, beginning today." becomes Donald's "That all changes starting right here and right now" and "Now arrives the hour of action."

Populist Appeal to the Working Class
Reagan's "a special interest group that has been too long neglected ... made up of men and women who raise our food, patrol our streets, man our mines and factories ..." becomes Trump's "the forgotten men and women of our country".

Patriotism as Gateway to Inclusion
Ronald's "How can we love our country and not love our countrymen" becomes Donald's "through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice."

Purging A Washington Elite
The deep satisfaction of catharsis drove many to vote for Ronald and Donald, whose populist rhetoric seduced even those sure to suffer from the resultant economic policies favoring the wealthy. Voters can be riled up to kick politicians out of Washington no matter how unpromising the replacements. Ronald's "we've been tempted to believe ...  that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people" become's Donald's "a small group in our nation's capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost."

Dream Big
Ronald's "we're too great a nation to limit ourselves to small dreams" and "We have every right to dream heroic dreams" becomes Donald's "And we will bring back our dreams." and "we must think big and dream even bigger." Unfortunately, both have equated dreaming big with the extraction and burning of more fossil fuels, which leads inevitably to a big nightmare of radicalized weather, climate refugees, and loss of America's coasts to rising oceans.

International Commitments:
Reagan's "we will strengthen our historic ties" becomes Donald's "We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones"


CONTRASTS

Amped Up Negativity
It's telling, in terms of the respective depth of their intellects, that Donald's inaugural address was about half as long and twice as negative as Ronald's. Even Trump's attempts at positive statements come off as veiled criticism. Though it may sound positive to say that we will "rebuild our country and restore its promise", what is really being said is that our country currently lies in shambles, stripped of promise. To say that we "will make America strong again" is to imply that it is not strong now. Ronald claimed that "we will be seen as having greater strength throughout the world", and spoke of "an era of national renewal", which sounds like America needs a renovation, rather than a last-minute rescue from what Donald calls "American carnage".

Past Leaders and Future People Disappear
Unlike Ronald, who mentions Winston Churchill, some founding fathers and a war veteran, and speaks of insuring "happiness and liberty for ourselves, our children, and our children's children", Donald makes no mention of past or future generations. For Donald, there's no need or inclination to link his administration to past or future. He sees himself as singular, an improvisor immersed in the moment.

Speed of Change
Ronald was much more modest about what he could achieve. He was promising persistence above all. His "progress may be slow, measured in inches and feet, not miles, but we will progress"
becomes Donald's "this American carnage stops right here and stops right now", and "terrorism, which we will eradicate from the face of the Earth."

God's Role Changes
There's been a slow shift in people's view of what God can do. In keeping with his era, Ronald adopted the view that God helps those who help themselves, e.g. "with God's help we can and will resolve the problems which now confront us." The tendency among the religious more recently, particularly when confronting big challenges like climate change, is to believe God will do all the work for us. Interestingly, that was Ronald's scathing critique of welfare programs, that recipients were using government aid to avoid putting forth effort. Now, people are using God's supposed omniscience as an excuse to be passive, as in Donald's more absolutist "we will be protected by God."

Compassion
It's been said that Ronald created a lasting deception by putting a kind face on heartless policies. That divide between image and reality, between a candidate who connects with the people but implements policies favoring the privileged, has only deepened with time. Ronald at least made reference to compassion: "We shall reflect the compassion that is so much a part of your makeup. How can we ... not love our countrymen; and loving them, reach out a hand when they fall, heal them when they're sick ..." Donald promises only that "you will never be ignored again." There are a lot of voters out there who like those words, and the emphatic way they are said, whether they mean anything or not.


SOME SURPRISES IN REAGAN'S 1981 INAUGURAL ADDRESS

The Heroes Who Pay Taxes
Like Ronald's language about compassion, there was a time when Republicans were still allowed to say something positive about taxes. Though Reagan spread the illusion that tax cuts could magically increase government revenue, his inaugural speech contained the following: Among the nation's heroes are "individuals and families whose taxes support the government".


A Famous Quote Infamously Misquoted
Ronald's famous quote about government is invariably misquoted. It begins with an important qualification: "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." In other words, his view of government as the problem was particular to that time and circumstance, and not to be taken as an eternal truth.

When Reagan Sounds Like Al Gore
Much of the cowardice, political expedience, and pessimism that parades as tough-minded skepticism about climate change is rooted in Ronald's era, but two quotes in his 1981 inaugural address express a more positive, can-do approach to problem solving more associated with Democrats today.

Consider, as the Republican Party continues to run from the problem of climate change with a mix of denial and fatalism, Ronald's statement that 
"I do not believe in a fate that will fall on us no matter what we do. I do believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing." 
Or, at the end of his address, 
"The crisis we are facing today does not require of us the kind of sacrifice that Martin Treptow (a soldier) and so many thousands of others were called upon to make. It does require, however, our best effort and our willingness to believe in ourselves and to believe in our capacity to perform great deeds, to believe that together with God's help we can and will resolve the problems which now confront us." 
Though Ronald was not talking about climate change, he captured beautifully the spirit of taking on great causes for which, unlike war, no one need die.

PRELUDE TO DONALD'S ADDRESS

The inauguration speech was preceded by several short speeches. Rev. Samuel Rodriguez said "the humble shall inherit the earth", which, given the setting, sounded far-fetched.

The freshly minted president's spiritual advisor, Paula White-Cain, said that the U.S. is a gift from God. 

Senator Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said that Americans are a "forward-looking, problem-solving" people, a positive outlook that in the election lost out to nostalgia and resentment.

Schumer quoted at length from a letter written by Civil War soldier, Sullivan Ballou. What seems significant in the excerpt below is that the soldier risks his life not only for the country but also for the Government (underlined). Much of our nation's paralysis and polarization is due to the rigid depiction of our government as the enemy of the country, as if our heads were the enemy of our bodies. In addition, the lack of an adequate critique by Democrats of the government--a critique that would identify the government's shortcomings while clearly identifying the government's positive role in our lives--has contributed to the polarizing perception that Democrats want only more government, and Republicans only less. The Civil War soldier holds a much more integrated view of government and country:
"Our movement may be one of a few days duration and full of pleasure – and it may be one of severe conflict and death to me. Not my will, but thine 0 God, be done. If it is necessary that I should fall on the battlefield for my country, I am ready. I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing – perfectly willing – to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt."
At least early on, Reagan was not reflexively anti-government: "Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it's not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work--work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it."

DONALD'S AND RONALD'S ADDRESSES--FULL TRANSCRIPTS WITH COLOR CODING

After Pence was sworn in as vice president, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir--a sea of white faces--sang about God shedding his grace on thee.

Then, Donald John Trump addressed the nation. Below, if you click on "Read more" are Donald's address and Ronald's address 36 years prior. In red are the negative sections. In brown, the veiled criticism. And in blue, Donald's particularly momentous statements.

Scanning the two addresses shows the contrast in negativity. Both are negative early in their addresses, but unlike Ronald, Donald cannot let go of the negativity and articulate a positive vision. Afterwards, Rev. Franklin Graham gave a positive spin to the rain that began to fall during Donald's address: "In the bible, rain is a sign of God's blessing."

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Oil "Production"--An Economic Illusion Embedded in the Language


There's an irony in that quote, "Stay humble", which popped up on the screen halfway through a Forbes oped entitled "The Irony Of President Obama's Oil Legacy". The oped's point is that presidents can be unfairly given credit for what was not their doing. But the article's language itself is permeated with a false claim, that people "produce" oil and natural gas. The word "production" is used 22 times.

Go to talks on political science or economics and you will hear no mention that societies and economies are dependent upon a planet. That environment and climate went essentially unmentioned in the recent presidential campaign was not a fluke, but rather indicative of an anthropocentric bias and a long-broken relationship between people and the planet that sustains us.

To begin the mending, and a return to reality, economists and journalists need to stop deceiving people about how we get oil and gas. We don't "produce" it, any more than a baby "produces" milk from its mother's breasts. If the baby, a very precocious baby, rather than drinking the breast milk chose to bottle it and sell it at the local grocery store as a product, would anyone believe that the baby had "produced" the milk? No, the baby is milking its mother for all she's worth. People would question the baby's ethics and wonder how the mother was holding up under all the pressure to produce.

We don't produce oil and gas, we extract it. "Extraction" makes clear that earth is the producer. Although we can refine and repackage what we extract, the ultimate source of wealth is from the earth itself. "Oil production" also creates the illusion that we can simply keep making the stuff. "Oil extraction" makes clear that, once something is extracted from the earth and consumed, it's gone.

These distinctions are a first step in weaning the economy, our language and ourselves of the narcissistic tendency to falsely take credit and claim we exist outside of nature.