can’t see the forest

Segregation persists in Montgomery County, Georgia

Posted in civil rights, Georgia, Lifestyle, racism, society, sociology, U.S. News by Curtis on 6/22/09

The Telegraph reports that, though the inauguration of an African-American president may represent a civil rights milestone for many Americans and observers abroad, some segregatory practices are alive and well in Montgomery County, Georgia:

Kera Nobles’ senior prom should have been a high point of her life, as she celebrated graduation from her home town’s school system after 13 years of education.

But instead it has left the normally bubbly 17-year-old smouldering with anger. For, following a local tradition that seems extraordinary in a country which has elected its first black president, there was not just one formal dance for the 54 classmates who graduated from Montgomery County High, but two.

On the first night, a prom was held for the school’s white students; the following night came the celebration for Miss Nobles and the school’s other blacks.

“I don’t like segregated proms, there’s no need for it,” she said, her eyes still burning with hurt. “We went to school together and we all graduated at the same time. I feel like I’ve been deprived of something that was important to me.”

One concern I have as a U.S. Southerner is that people outside this region, and particularly outside this country, might reasonably acquire the impression that such flagrant racism is universal in this part of the world. This simply isn’t true. At the very least, it is today nowhere near as true as it once might have been.

My observation has been that racism here is largely a generational phenomenon—the twenty- and thirty-somethings of today are far less likely to harbor prejudicial attitudes than their parents and grandparents. Of course, this is not to say that racism is absent among young people, particularly since they are their parents’ children. Those young people who attend or have attended rural schools with small or non-existent African-American populations are much more likely to grow into virulent racism than their urban peers. I have seen it happen, too often.

That’s one reason why segregation, while it may make some comfortable in their ivory towers, is a very bad idea—today, tomorrow, and forever.

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Posted in Alabama, Alabama news, Crime, gambling, Lifestyle, News, police, Politics, U.S. News by Curtis on 3/19/09

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From our Local Interest Department:

In White Hall, Alabama—a rural community near Montgomery in which about one third of folks live below the poverty line–a state task force raided a bingo hall before dawn on Thursday, seizing more than 200 alleged illegal slot machines and “a large amount of cash.”

From the Associated Press via

A spokesman for Gov. Bob Riley says the Governor’s Task Force on Illegal Gambling organized the pre-dawn raid Thursday and are seizing machines suspected of being illegal slot machines.

No charges were immediately filed.

Collins Pettaway, an attorney for the charity that operates the bingo hall, says the machines are all legal and he is trying to get an injunction to block the seizure.

Whitehall resident Doris Gresham says she was in the gaming center when state troopers arrived about 5 a.m.

The bingo hall is located on U.S. 80 about 20 miles west of Montgomery.

The thought occurs to me that if the great state of Alabama could just let good folks like Doris yank the lever in peace, perhaps my state university wouldn’t be turning off the air conditioning in shifts and considering a hiring freeze, the roads around here might get serviced regularly and in reasonable time, and maybe the police could divert their valuable resources to fighting some real crime.

Just possibly.

In a hole in the ground there lived an eco-warrior.

Posted in architecture, conservation, ecology, energy, Environment, family, Home, Lifestyle, UK, UK news by Curtis on 12/6/08

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dale-house-exterior1A UK man, his dad, and some friends and passersby have built, for around US$5,000, an ultra-low impact family home in Wales. They say you can do it, too.

Simon Dale and his wife work in the surrounding terrain doing forest management, something Dale says wouldn’t be possible if they had to mortgage a brick home somewhere. Using mainly a chainsaw and a hammer, taking their timber from fallen trees in the environs, and garnering everything from plumbing and wiring to windows from piles of discarded junk, Dale—a self-described first-time architect—has exhibited amazing resourcefulness in creating an ecologically responsible and downright cozy-looking abode.

Why has Dale done this?

Our society is almost entirely dependent on the availability of increasing amounts of fossil fuel energy. This has brought us to the point at which our supplies are dwindling and our planet is in ecological catastrophe. We have no viable alternative energy source and no choice but to reduce our energy consumption. The sooner this change can be begun, the more comfortable it will be.

For our energy consumption to decrease we must reduce consumption and dramatically increase the productivity of our land. This will require developing infrastructure and skills to enable locally self-reliant living. The simplest, sustainable solutions involve small-scale permaculture type land management systems centred around individual or small groups of dwellings. There is significant and growing energy at the grass-roots to start implementing these low impact developments. This enthusiasm comes from a combination of intellectual concern and the innate appeal of living closer to nature. The major obstacle is access to land. The price of land with residential planning permission is not commensurate with the income from this type of living. This will change, but these projects need time to develop and reach productivity. A few people are taking direct action but the numbers are far short of the critical mass that could be realised. If allowances can be made within the planning system to grant access to land, and the right to live on it, to those wishing to live this life, we can allow a grass-roots tide of people to make real progress towards a sustainable society.

The house uses a few solar panels to provide enough electricity for night light and computing. Water comes by gravity from a nearby spring, and heat is provided through a fireplace specially designed to capture and radiate the maximum amount of thermal energy.

CSTF salutes Mr. Dale and wishes him all the best. If there were more of him in the world, it’d be a happier planet.


Apologia Nerdologiae

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Paul Graham, a notable computer programming pioneer and essayist, published in 2003 an insightful piece on the phenomenon of the nerd. It’s a part-memoir, part-sociological treatise through which Graham explores the deceptively simple question: Why aren’t nerds popular?

Alberti, arguably the archetype of the Renaissance Man, writes that “no art, however minor, demands less than total dedication if you want to excel in it.” I wonder if anyone in the world works harder at anything than American school kids work at popularity. Navy SEALs and neurosurgery residents seem slackers by comparison. They occasionally take vacations; some even have hobbies. An American teenager may work at being popular every waking hour, 365 days a year.

I don’t mean to suggest they do this consciously. Some of them truly are little Machiavellis, but what I really mean here is that teenagers are always on duty as conformists.

For example, teenage kids pay a great deal of attention to clothes. They don’t consciously dress to be popular. They dress to look good. But to who? To the other kids. Other kids’ opinions become their definition of right, not just for clothes, but for almost everything they do, right down to the way they walk. And so every effort they make to do things “right” is also, consciously or not, an effort to be more popular.

Nerds don’t realize this. They don’t realize that it takes work to be popular. In general, people outside some very demanding field don’t realize the extent to which success depends on constant (though often unconscious) effort. For example, most people seem to consider the ability to draw as some kind of innate quality, like being tall. In fact, most people who “can draw” like drawing, and have spent many hours doing it; that’s why they’re good at it. Likewise, popular isn’t just something you are or you aren’t, but something you make yourself.

The main reason nerds are unpopular is that they have other things to think about. Their attention is drawn to books or the natural world, not fashions and parties. They’re like someone trying to play soccer while balancing a glass of water on his head. Other players who can focus their whole attention on the game beat them effortlessly, and wonder why they seem so incapable.

I felt that the essay was eloquently and authoritatively written and that it was well worth my time—of course, I am a nerd.

Global Warming for the Skeptical, or the Merely Inquisitive

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Last month the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (that’s an international group of peer-reviewed scientists—not cabinet ministers, congressmen, or oil lobbyists, n.b.) released the summary of its fourth assessment report on the topic of global climate change. The analysis is both quantitative and qualitative, discussing how much is changing, what is changing, and why it is changing.

The latest report takes advantage of both more precise physical observations and data collection as well as a better understanding of the data provided by computer models. It is the most sophisticated and circumspect collection of analyses and projections available to humanity.

You can view the summary here (PDF). Below I’ve extracted some of the information that I found most interesting and revelatory.

What does all of this data mean? I’m not in a position to pontificate, although I have wildly gesticulated in the past.

I will merely say that it seems to me that common sense dictates:

  • Global warming is a matter which is of concern to our generation not only because of the immediate manifestations of its effects—which are felt most harshly in the less-developed world, not in air-conditioned suburbia—but because of future manifestations. This is because the industrial activity of today generates the climatic fallout of tomorrow. It is precisely because of this slow-motion reaction that the danger is so easy to ignore. In this respect, response to global warming can be viewed as an extremely important test of the ability of humanity to organize and act on behalf of future generations. This is a skill which is altogether foreign to the capitalist/imperialist ideal, and a skill which has never before been of such urgent importance to the well-being of life on Earth.
  • It is important for citizens to petition their governments to act decisively in enforcing regulations on industries which contribute to global warming and pollution. Will these regulations restrict economic activity in certain sectors? Will jobs be lost? Absolutely. Is that too high a price to pay for the continuation of an environment which is conducive to complex life? Hardly. We are faced with a situation in which we must bear unpleasant responsibility for a cultural dysfunction for which we are not personally responsible in the generative sense. It’s strange that this sort of altruism is the basis for much proud flag-waving and militarism when it is perverted to the uses of nationalist profiteering pursuits such as warfare, wherein it is lauded as “proud sacrifice” or something similar, and yet is viewed by many as hardly worthwhile when it needs to be applied to the future health of the entire planet.
  • Even more important is individual responsibility and accountability in developing sustainable lifestyles. Clearly the automobile-driven lifestyle is a primary culprit in hydrocarbon emissions, so the elimination of unnecessary fuel consumption and participation in biopowered transportation and public transit are helpful. Likewise, opting for low-energy devices in the home and the pursuit of local, unprocessed foodstuffs and other goods are positive contributions that the average person can make. Furthermore, raising the issue as widely and as intelligently as possible is one of the most productive enterprises in which one can engage. Don’t look to the government for solutions. Create your own, and be proud of them. Make some noise; then the government will react and take credit for the initiative.

Let’s have a look at some of this data.

The most reliable data on atmospheric conditions before the period when such data began to be measured in real time comes from Antarctic ice cores. Just as geologists can tell much about conditions on Earth in a given geologic period by examining the differences in strata of rock, climatologists can also discern, with a surprisingly high degree of precision, the climate conditions from a given period by examining strata of unexposed ice which are known to have been deposited at a given rate. Through this type of analysis, climatologists have been able to reconstruct temperature and atmospheric composition data for the past several hundreds of thousands of years.

The graph below is a composite of changes in atmospheric greenhouse gas levels as recorded in the ice cores over the past ten thousand years, and as recorded by active human measurement of atmospheric levels over the past several years. The red lines show the contemporary data collected from real time atmospheric sampling; the other colors represent various interpretations of the ice core data and so naturally extend back much further in time. Note that, while the ice core-derived values from the different studies vary slightly, they coincide with one another remarkably as to the general trend of increase. Pictured are carbon dioxide levels (parts per million) and methane and nitrous oxide levels (parts per billion):

Greenhouse Gas Levels - Ice Core/Active Measurement Composite

Since the graphs cover a large expanse of time, the last several centuries of activity are presented in exploded views. You can see that carbon dioxide levels, for instance, have risen from roughly 300 to about 375 parts per million in the last century, compared to a net increase of about thirty parts per million over the previous ten thousand years.

The following graph shows changes in average temperature, sea level, and snow cover in the northern hemisphere from various periods ending in 2000. The changes are relative to averages from the period of 1961-1990.

Temperature, Sea Level, and Snow Cover Changes, 1961-1990, Northern Hemisphere

The solid black lines represent decadal averages of values; the circles indicate plotted annual values and the blue shaded regions represent reasonable uncertainty resulting from these discrepancies. This data was obtained entirely from real time human measurement.

Next, a depiction of changes in regional average temperature changes from 1900 to 2000 is presented. The black lines represent decadal averages of actual observations of temperatures. Here is the important twist: the pink shaded areas represent ranges of values derived from computer models which included anthropogenic forcing of climate shift (models which accounted for industrial activity.) The blue shaded areas represent ranges of values derived from computer models which did not include human industrial activity. You can see that, particularly from about 1950 forward, the actual observations follow models which included human industrial activity much more closely than those which did not. This means that, according to an array of a total of 33 simulations, it is virtually certain that the rises in temperature experienced throughout the past half-century to century are explicitly associated with human industrial activity. Put another way, absent of human emissions of greenhouse gases, we could expect to have seen temperature changes within the blue shaded areas. Unfortunately this has not been the case, as the trajectories of the black lines clearly denote.

Regional Temperature Changes

Now, let’s talk about the future. This last graph represents a variety of predictions of changes in surface temperature from the present up through the year 2100, based on computer simulations of several different scenarios, each scenario reflecting a different projection of rates of increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases based on projections of increasing economic/industrial activity, population increases, and other variables. The orange line represents values from an experiment at which greenhouse gas concentrations were frozen at the levels observed in the year 2000.

Multi-model Averages for Temperature Change through 2100

Please review the assessment report summary (link at top) for a description of each of these projected scenarios (page 18/18). Based on these values, it is reasonable to project an increase in average global surface temperature of 4-6º C by the year 2200 or of 6-8º C by the year 2300 if human emissions are not drastically and permanently reduced in the immediate future. Such temperature increases and the associated climatic changes, if not prevented, will very likely result in massive depopulation and extinction of thousands of species of plant and animal life. This prediction is based on climate change alone, without consideration of environmental compositional degradation (pollution, urban sprawl) associated with human industrial activities and population increase.

Here are some various observations/predictions based on the IPCC’s fourth assessment:

  • Eleven of the past twelve years (1995 – 2006) rank among the twelve warmest years in the instrumental record of global surface temperature (since 1850.) … Urban heat island effects are real but local, and have a negligible influence (less than 0.006º C per decade) on these values.
  • The average atmospheric water vapour content has increased since at least the 1980s over land and ocean as well as in the upper troposhere. The increase is broadly consistent with the extra water vapour that warmer air can hold.
  • Observations since 1961 show that the average temperature of the global ocean has increased to depths of at least 3000 m and that the ocean has been absorbing more than 80% of the heat added to the climate system. Such warming causes seawater to expand, contributing to sea level rise.
  • Average Arctic temperatures increased at almost twice the global average rate in the past 100 years.
  • It is virtually certain that the 21st Century will be marked by warmer and fewer cold days and nights over most land areas.
  • It is virtually certain that the 21st Century will be marked by warmer and more frequent hot days and nights over most land areas.
  • It is very likely that the 21st Century will be marked by an increasing frequency in heat waves over most land areas.
  • It is very likely that the 21st Century will be marked by an increasing frequency in heavy precipitation events over most land areas [such as the extreme snow accumulations experienced in the eastern U.S. this winter -ed].
  • It is likely that in the 21st Century the geographical areas affected by drought will increase in size.
  • It is likely that in the 21st Century there will be an increase in intense tropical cyclone activity.
  • It is likely that in the 21st Century there will be an increased incidence of extreme high sea levels, excluding those which can be accounted for by tsunamis.
  • Average northern hemisphere temperatures during the second half of the 20th Century were very likely higher than during any other 50-year period in the last 500 years and very likely the highest in at least the past 1300 years.
  • It is likely that increases in greenhouse gas concentrations alone would have caused more warming than observed because volcanic and anthropogenic aerosols have offset some warming that would otherwise have taken place.
  • The observed widespread warming of the atmosphere and ocean, together with ice mass loss, support the conclusion that it is extremely unlikely that the global climate change of the past fifty years can be explained without external forcing and very likely that it is not due to known natural causes alone.
  • Warming tends to reduce land and ocean uptake of atmospheric carbon dioxide, increasing the fraction of anthropogenic emissions that remains in the atmosphere.
  • Increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations leads to increasing acidification of the oceans.
  • Snow cover is projected to contract.
  • Sea ice is projected to shrink in both the Arctic and Antarctic under all SRES scenarios. In some projections, Arctic late-summer sea ice disappears almost entirely by the latter part of the 21st Century.
  • Climate carbon cycle coupling is expected to add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere as the climate system warms, but the magnitude of this feedback is uncertain … Based on current understanding of climate carbon cycle feedback, model studies suggest that to stabilize at 450 ppm CO2, could require cumulative emissions over the 21st Century to be reduced from an average of approximately 670 GtC to approximately 490 GtC.
  • Contraction of the Greenland Ice Sheet is projected to continue to contribute to sea level rise after 2100.
  • Both past and future anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions will continue to contribute to warming and sea level rise for more than a millennium, due to the timescale required for removal of this gas from the atmosphere.

The Working Group of the IPCC which prepared this report is composed of more than fifty independent authors. [correction—in addition to the authors referenced on the summary frontispiece, the working group contains hundreds of additional researchers and representatives of industry and government bodies.]

Through the Ice


After one look at this planet any visitor from outer space would say
“I want to see the manager.”

William S. Burroughs


When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water.

– Benjamin Franklin

Peter Norvig’s Experiment on the Climate Change Consensus

Global Warming Facts: Top 50 Things to Do to Stop Global Warming

Union of Concerned Scientists – ExxonMobil’s Disinformation Campaign on Global Warming Science

Sierra Club of Canada – 10 Popular Myths About Global Warming

National Arbor Day Foundation – Differences in US Hardiness Zones as Evidence for Global Warming (animation)

UNEP – World Environment Day 2007

The Ecologist Online – How Mankind Is Sleepwalking to the End of the Earth

An Inconvenient Truth –

The Guardian – Arctic Ocean May Lose All Its Ice by 2040, Disrupting Global Weather

The Los Angeles Times – Why We’re More Scared of Gay Marriage and Terrorism Than a Much Deadlier Threat

The Boston Review – Phaeton’s Reins – The human hand in climate change

BBC: The Stern Review at a Glance

Environmental Defense – Shifting Gears: Cars and Global Warming

Center for Biological Diversity – Bush Administration Issues Polar Bear Gag Order

EcoBridge – Causes of Global Warming – Interview with David Suzuki

Foreign Policy in Focus – Going Green

State of the Cryosphere

Wired News – New Carbon Dioxide Tracking Developed

Wikipedia – Martin Durkin (producer, The Great Global Warming Swindle)

Greenpeace – The Energy Revolution

Yahoo! News – Canadian Activist Given Hearing on Global Warming/Human Rights

Bill McKibben – The Gospel vs. Global Warming

Carbon Footprint – Calculate Your Carbon Footprint

Project Earth – Tour the Wounded Earth

EMagazine – Australia to Phase Out Incandescent Lightbulbs

Carbon Neutral Journal

Pew Center – Climate Change 101

Why Having More No Longer Makes Us Happy

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This piece by economist/writer Bill McKibben first appeared in Mother Jones. You can view it here at

It’s quite a commitment to read in terms of its length, but the analysis is simply written and far-reaching. I think most of my regular readers would find the concepts self-suggestive, but still get a lot of insight and enjoyment from McKibben’s words. On the other hand, I know I few good die-hard capitalists that might actually learn something about their own ideologies.

Here are some excerpts. I’ve butchered it to death, so, if it’s at all interesting to you, please take a few to check out the whole thing.

This article is an excerpt from Bill McKibben’s new book, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. It first appeared in Mother Jones.

For most of human history, the two birds More and Better roosted on the same branch. You could toss one stone and hope to hit them both. That’s why the centuries since Adam Smith launched modern economics with his book The Wealth of Nations have been so single-mindedly devoted to the dogged pursuit of maximum economic production.

Smith’s core ideas — that individuals pursuing their own interests in a market society end up making each other richer; and that increasing efficiency, usually by increasing scale, is the key to increasing wealth –have indisputably worked. They’ve produced more More than he could ever have imagined. They’ve built the unprecedented prosperity and ease that distinguish the lives of most of the people reading these words. It is no wonder and no accident that Smith’s ideas still dominate our politics, our outlook, even our personalities.

But the distinguishing feature of our moment is this: Better has flown a few trees over to make her nest. And that changes everything. Now, with the stone of your life or your society gripped in your hand, you have to choose. It’s More or Better…

It was the great economist John Maynard Keynes who pointed out that until very recently, “there was no very great change in the standard of life of the average man living in the civilized centers of the earth.” At the utmost, Keynes calculated, the standard of living roughly doubled between 2000 B.C. and the dawn of the 18th century — four millennia during which we basically didn’t learn to do much of anything new. Before history began, we had already figured out fire, language, cattle, the wheel, the plow, the sail, the pot. We had banks and governments and mathematics and religion.

And then, something new finally did happen. In 1712, a British inventor named Thomas Newcomen created the first practical steam engine. Over the centuries that followed, fossil fuels helped create everything we consider normal and obvious about the modern world, from electricity to steel to fertilizer; now, a 100 percent jump in the standard of living could suddenly be accomplished in a few decades, not a few millennia.

In some ways, the invention of the idea of economic growth was almost as significant as the invention of fossil-fuel power. But it took a little longer to take hold. During the Depression, even FDR routinely spoke of America’s economy as mature, with no further expansion anticipated. Then came World War II and the postwar boom — by the time Lyndon Johnson moved into the White House in 1963, he said things like: “I’m sick of all the people who talk about the things we can’t do. Hell, we’re the richest country in the world, the most powerful. We can do it all…. We can do it if we believe it.” …

…Even though the economy continues to grow, most of us are no longer getting wealthier. The average wage in the United States is less now, in real dollars, than it was 30 years ago. Even for those with college degrees, and though productivity was growing faster than it had for decades, between 2000 and 2004 earnings fell 5.2 percent when adjusted for inflation, according to the most recent data from White House economists. Much the same thing has happened across most of the globe. More than 60 countries around the world, in fact, have seen incomes per capita fall in the past decade.

For the second point, it’s useful to remember what Thomas Newcomen was up to when he helped launch the Industrial Revolution — burning coal to pump water out of a coal mine. This revolution both depended on, and revolved around, fossil fuels. “Before coal,” writes the economist Jeffrey Sachs, “economic production was limited by energy inputs, almost all of which depended on the production of biomass: food for humans and farm animals, and fuel wood for heating and certain industrial processes.”

That is, energy depended on how much you could grow. But fossil energy depended on how much had grown eons before — all those billions of tons of ancient biology squashed by the weight of time till they’d turned into strata and pools and seams of hydrocarbons, waiting for us to discover them.

To understand how valuable, and irreplaceable, that lake of fuel was, consider a few other forms of creating usable energy. Ethanol can perfectly well replace gasoline in a tank; like petroleum, it’s a way of using biology to create energy, and right now it’s a hot commodity, backed with billions of dollars of government subsidies.

But ethanol relies on plants that grow anew each year, most often corn; by the time you’ve driven your tractor to tend the fields, and your truck to carry the crop to the refinery, and powered your refinery, the best-case “energy output-to-input ratio” is something like 1.34-to-1. You’ve spent 100 Btu of fossil energy to get 134 Btu. Perhaps that’s worth doing, but as Kamyar Enshayan of the University of Northern Iowa points out, “it’s not impressive” compared to the ratio for oil, which ranges from 30-to-1 to 200-to-1, depending on where you drill it. To go from our fossil-fuel world to a biomass world would be a little like leaving the Garden of Eden for the land where bread must be earned by “the sweat of your brow.” …

How is it, then, that we became so totally, and apparently wrongly, fixated on the idea that our main goal, as individuals and as nations, should be the accumulation of more wealth?

The answer is interesting for what it says about human nature. Up to a certain point, more really does equal better. Imagine briefly your life as a poor person in a poor society — say, a peasant farmer in China. (China has one-fourth of the world’s farmers, but one-fourteenth of its arable land; the average farm in the southern part of the country is about half an acre, or barely more than the standard lot for a new American home.) You likely have the benefits of a close and connected family, and a village environment where your place is clear. But you lack any modicum of security for when you get sick or old or your back simply gives out. Your diet is unvaried and nutritionally lacking; you’re almost always cold in winter.

In a world like that, a boost in income delivers tangible benefits. In general, researchers report that money consistently buys happiness right up to about $10,000 income per capita. That’s a useful number to keep in the back of your head — it’s like the freezing point of water, one of those random figures that just happens to define a crucial phenomenon on our planet. “As poor countries like India, Mexico, the Philippines, Brazil, and South Korea have experienced economic growth, there is some evidence that their average happiness has risen,” the economist Layard reports. Past $10,000 (per capita, mind you — that is, the average for each man, woman, and child), there’s a complete scattering: When the Irish were making two-thirds as much as Americans they were reporting higher levels of satisfaction, as were the Swedes, the Danes, the Dutch. Mexicans score higher than the Japanese; the French are about as satisfied with their lives as the Venezuelans.

In fact, once basic needs are met, the “satisfaction” data scrambles in mindlnding ways. A sampling of Forbes magazine’s “richest Americans” have identical happiness scores with Pennsylvania Amish, and are only a whisker above Swedes taken as a whole, not to mention the Masai. The “life satisfaction” of pavement dwellers — homeless people — in Calcutta is among the lowest recorded, but it almost doubles when they move into a slum, at which point they are basically as satisfied with their lives as a sample of college students drawn from 47 nations. And so on.

On the list of major mistakes we’ve made as a species, this one seems pretty high up. Our single-minded focus on increasing wealth has succeeded in driving the planet’s ecological systems to the brink of failure, even as it’s failed to make us happier. How did we screw up? …

Because traditional economists think of human beings primarily as individuals and not as members of a community, they miss out on a major part of the satisfaction index. Economists lay it out almost as a mathematical equation: Overall, “evidence shows that companionship … contributes more to well-being than does income,” writes Robert E. Lane, a Yale political science professor who is the author ofThe Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies.

But there is a notable difference between poor and wealthy countries: When people have lots of companionship but not much money, income “makes more of a contribution to subjective well-being.” By contrast, “where money is relatively plentiful and companionship relatively scarce, companionship will add more to subjective well-being.”

If you are a poor person in China, you have plenty of friends and family around all the time — perhaps there are four other people living in your room. Adding a sixth doesn’t make you happier. But adding enough money so that all five of you can eat some meat from time to time pleases you greatly.

By contrast, if you live in a suburban American home, buying another coffeemaker adds very little to your quantity of happiness — trying to figure out where to store it, or wondering if you picked the perfect model, may in fact decrease your total pleasure. But a new friend, a new connection, is a big deal. We have a surplus of individualism and a deficit of companionship, and so the second becomes more valuable.

Indeed, we seem to be genetically wired for community. As biologist Edward O. Wilson found, most primates live in groups and get sad when they’re separated — “an isolated individual will repeatedly pull a lever with no reward other than the glimpse of another monkey.” Why do people so often look back on their college days as the best years of their lives? Because their classes were so fascinating? Or because in college, we live more closely and intensely with a community than most of us ever do before or after?…

In the 20th century, two completely different models of how to run an economy battled for supremacy. Ours won, and not only because it produced more goods than socialized state economies. It also produced far more freedom, far less horror. But now that victory is starting to look Pyrrhic; in our overheated and underhappy state, we need some new ideas.

We’ve gone too far down the road we’re traveling. The time has come to search the map, to strike off in new directions. Inertia is a powerful force; marriages and corporations and nations continue in motion until something big diverts them. But in our new world we have much to fear, and also much to desire, and together they can set us on a new, more promising course.

Biology and Morality

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An interesting article from the New York Times by Nicholas Wade, mirrored from Here’s a peek:

Some animals are surprisingly sensitive to the plight of others. Chimpanzees, who cannot swim, have drowned in zoo moats trying to save others. Given the chance to get food by pulling a chain that would also deliver an electric shock to a companion, rhesus monkeys will starve themselves for several days.

Biologists argue that these and other social behaviors are the precursors of human morality. They further believe that if morality grew out of behavioral rules shaped by evolution, it is for biologists, not philosophers or theologians, to say what these rules are. . .

. . .Dr. de Waal, who is director of the Living Links Center at Emory University, argues that all social animals have had to constrain or alter their behavior in various ways for group living to be worthwhile. These constraints, evident in monkeys and even more so in chimpanzees, are part of human inheritance, too, and in his view form the set of behaviors from which human morality has been shaped.

Many philosophers find it hard to think of animals as moral beings, and indeed Dr. de Waal does not contend that even chimpanzees possess morality. But he argues that human morality would be impossible without certain emotional building blocks that are clearly at work in chimp and monkey societies.

Dr. de Waal’s views are based on years of observing nonhuman primates, starting with work on aggression in the 1960s. He noticed then that after fights between two combatants, other chimpanzees would console the loser. But he was waylaid in battles with psychologists over imputing emotional states to animals, and it took him 20 years to come back to the subject.

He found that consolation was universal among the great apes but generally absent from monkeys — among macaques, mothers will not even reassure an injured infant. To console another, Dr. de Waal argues, requires empathy and a level of self-awareness that only apes and humans seem to possess. And consideration of empathy quickly led him to explore the conditions for morality.

So . . .there was some form of morality before the New Testament. How very novel!! If only we enlightened human beings could learn to extend the ‘golden rule’ to other species . . .perhaps that’s the next stage in the evolution of mind?

UN: Deforestation Out of Control

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The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has released a report indicating that improvements in forestation stability and recovery among developed nations are being negated by “out of control” slash-and-burn agriculture in less-developed countries, primarily in Africa, the Caribbean, and Central and South America.

The Independent reports:

Forests in the developing world still suffer from widespread deforestation primarily caused by unregulated slash and burn farming practices and uncontrolled forest fires.

“Deforestation continues at an unacceptable rate,” said Wulf Killmann, a forestry expert at the FAO who helped compile the report, adding that the world currently loses approximately 32 million acres of forest cover a year.

Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean are currently the regions with the highest losses.

Africa, which accounts for about 16 per cent of the world’s forests, lost more than 9 per cent of its trees between 1990 and 2005, the FAO said. In Latin America and the Caribbean, home to nearly half of the world’s forests, 0.5 per cent of the forests were lost every year between 2000 and 2005 – up from an annual net rate of 0.46 per cent in the 1990s.

Of particular concern is the future of the Amazon rain forest of Brazil. The Amazon has been shrinking for quite some time, but Brazil’s aggressive ethanol production may claim the rain forest at an increasing rate, particularly if Brazil becomes a major supplier to hungry economies like that of the United States. President Bush recently met with Brazilian President da Silva to discuss ethanol policy. While hefty U.S. tariffs currently make the import of Brazilian ‘clean’ fuel unfeasible—the U.S. favors its own corn-based ethanol, which requires large amounts of fossil fuels during its production process, over Brazil’s much neater cane-based product—a shift in this policy could spell doom for huge tracts of Amazonia and the many thousands of species that call it home.

Deforestation negatively impacts the biosphere as a whole because forests are key in regulating atmospheric CO2 and in producing fresh oxygen. Furthermore, the burning of forests releases huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

It seems clear that the primary solution is not alternative energy. It’s less energy.


On Vegetarianism

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For as long as men slaughter animals, they will kill one another. Indeed, he who sows the seed of murder and pain cannot reap joy and love.
—Pythagoras, ca. 520 BC

If a group of beings from another planet were to land on Earth—beings who considered themselves as superior to you as you feel yourself to be to other animals—would you concede them the rights over you that you assume over other animals?
—George Bernard Shaw

To my mind, the life of a lamb is no less precious than that of a human being.
—Mohandas K. Gandhi

Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances of survival for life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.
Albert Einstein

Fruits and VegetablesI am a struggling vegetarian. As I get older the issue seems to weigh a bit heavier in my mind. I feel that vegetarianism is a noble and critical lifestyle choice, and it is the reasoning behind this that I wish to discuss here.

The ease with which I am parted from this conviction is due to a number of factors—chiefly convenience, since I do not do very much of the grocery shopping within my household; or sometimes social conformity, if I am dining with a group in a milieu that is not conducive to vegetarianism, as is often the case here in my home of the American ‘Deep South.’ Not infrequently it is self-deception that steers me from the course. The animal has already died; if you do not eat it, it is wasted. I simply wish to illustrate, before I begin, that I am not writing about vegetarianism from the standpoint of someone who (as yet) fastidiously practices that which he preaches.

However, I can offer that I have decided that, beginning next month, I will vigorously and resolutely pursue a vegetarian diet—eggs and dairy products, yes; red and white meat, furs and skins, no. For now, I hope you will allow me to explain my philosophical position on vegetarianism, and I hope that you will feel free to share your thoughts or arguments.

As a young man, I often asked myself the same question posed by Shaw in the quotation above. In fact, I did not know that Shaw had asked that question until a few moments before I began writing these words—which leads me to believe it is a question that must persist in the minds of a reasonable number of people.

Surely we would object if a superintelligent race of alien beings—against whose assault we, with our primitive intelligence, were quite defenseless—descended upon Earth and began to systematically consume us as food. Even if these hypothetical homovores were willing to allow us to make a case for ourselves, there would not be much we could say in our own defense given our own carnivorous history. It seems apparent, then, even with very little introspection, that killing living beings for their meat is grossly hypocritical, unless we ourselves are gladly willing to lie upon the butcher’s block.

What does require serious thought is the extrapolation of how the prevalent rationalizations of killing for food—and with that practice, I mean also to implicitly associate killing for hide—might manifest themselves elsewhere within the ethics of society, and this is the chief reason I wish to observe vegetarianism and hope that others will consider doing so. While Shaw’s hypothetical construction serves adequately to demonstrate the hypocrisy of carnivorousness, the application is less than practical (and hopefully will remain so!)

Cave Art - HuntingScience has taught us that, at one point in human history, our ability to eat the flesh of other creatures was crucial to our evolutionary and cultural development. Meat is a source of concentrated protein, and the ability to eat it safely through cooking was likely instrumental in developing the larger, more complex brain that is the hallmark of homo sapiens. Had we not been hunters and gatherers, it is unlikely that we could have become builders and thinkers. It is likewise clear that killing animals for inedible products such as bone and hide produced invaluable benefits unattainable through other means.

In the present, however—apparently at least as early as Pythagoras, anyway—it becomes more relevant to assess the psychology and the philosophy of willingly engaging in an unsymbiotic relationship with a fellow creature, a relationship which is clearly unnecessary for our survival and is as such ecologically excessive. The industry of agriculture now makes it possible to obtain more than sufficient nutrition from sources which do not bleed and have no nervous system. Why, then, must we continue to kill to live? I do not believe there is suitable justification which can withstand the scrutiny of logic.

A distinction based on outmoded metaphysics and silly theologies and on little, if anything, of empirical substance is widely drawn between the perceived ‘value’ of a human life and the value of nonhuman life. Few are they who would categorically state that it is ethically acceptable to take the life of a human, and yet the vast majority of those who would so attest would be willing to state that it is ethically acceptable to take the life of a nonhuman. What, then, makes a cow more worthy of murder than a human?

For some, the answer is a matter of theological doctrine. The Creator, in his wisdom, created animals so that humans might eat. The sensibilities of those who believe such fairy tales, I am afraid, must be perturbed on a plane more profound than ours here before they are fit to openly consider these arguments—for, believing that one thing is in a ‘divine plan,’ a person can so justify virtually anything of base immorality, and this is borne out by much of human history. Of course, there is no need to provide justification for that which is not prosecuted, and the gnashing of teeth upon the tissues of certain classes of living beings is hardly considered an offense in any culture I can call to mind.

Even those who do not espouse this brand of anthropocentric creationism, though, might conceivably argue that carnivorism is part of an evolutionary paradigm. The fittest survive, and by so doing, somehow have the right to inflict death upon the less fit. It is plausible that a lion has the right to eat a hyena, but it is more accurate to say that the lion has the instinct to eat a hyena. No human being living in even a marginally developed culture has an instinct to eat meat that can be conclusively isolated from learned behavior—and, for that matter, it would be difficult to prove that the lion’s supposed instinct is hardwired rather than learned from its parents.

But to invoke the idea of natural rights with respect to vegetarianism is absurd simply because a system of natural rights, if equitable, must be equally applicable to all who exist underneath its framework. The lion in the savanna does not recognize the common origin and the common value of all life on Earth, nor can he place himself in the place of his prey for purposes of empathy. Humans do not have this luxury, although we are adept at behaving as if we do. In truth, I think we must stand behind something like the philosopher John Rawls’ ‘veil of ignorance’ to view the situation rationally. If we believe that evolution has granted us the right to kill animals, how can we classify ourselves as super-animal with respect to the right to life? Put another way, how is it that only humans among all creatures are able to indulge in this right to life? Taken to its logical extreme, such an evolutionary answer to vegetarianism produces some rather startling consequences: a system in which it is logically permissible for one human to kill another in the name of evolutionary advantage!

I have yet to find, and am possessed of a great deal of certainty that I will not find, a justification for carnivorism that cannot be ultimately reduced to the hideous and all-too-human belief that it is perfectly all right for a human to engage in any activity from which he cannot be prevented and will not be prosecuted. This is the basis for killing for food in modern man, and it is the point of Shaw’s question.

Having achieved the status of sentience, it would appear that humankind has little need for natural selection unless it is for one sort of human over another; but, as a consequence of sentience, humankind is also explicitly imbued with the choice of complex cooperation over bloody predation.

StriploinVegetarianism I view as an invaluable discipline of human rationality. If we kill for food when it is unnecessary for us to do so, we allow ourselves a license that our rational cunning can and will ingeniously translate to our relationships with one another and with our planet at large. The ethic of vegetarianism is the ethic of preservation and of compassion, of cohabitation and cooperation. No one can argue that these are not admirable, invaluable qualities.

We can extend this reasoning beyond the realm of eats and into the area of animal servitude. Among this kind of servitude we might include keeping animals for their labor, wool, eggs, or milk. However, in most of these applications, I would posit that it is reasonable to understand the relationship between humans and nonhumans as symbiotic, provided that the animals in question are well cared for (which is certainly far from always the case.) That is why I do not necessarily subscribe to the vegan ideal—because, treated properly, I believe that a dairy cow or a wool-bearing sheep benefits from its servitude. When one’s only feasible sources of these kinds of animal products or services are ‘factory farms’ or other institutions which practice cruelty to their stock, the abstinence from consumption of these products is certainly noble and defensible—and it is granted as self-evident that participation in the economics of animal cruelty is tantamount to complicity. Animal servitude, though, does not necessarily involve the kind of barbarism which is part and parcel of carnivorism.

Now, should Shaw’s aliens wish to create this kind of relationship with humankind, then we might agree to their terms should they provide for the elevation of our quality of life. Then again, we might not. To each, we would hope, would be afforded the right of choice. The ethical issue might then become whether or not we were serving against our will, and this is not a criterion in man’s relationship with other animals which cannot communicate such notions. So the use of animals for those purposes which do not necessarily result in their slaughter, then, is ethically arguable, I think, in a way that carnivorism is not.

My conclusion is this: the human vegetarian displays a respect of his own faculties and of the natural order that is absent in the human carnivore, and the psychological and sociological implications of the absence of this respect certainly are not restricted to the dinner table. To those willing to grasp the concept, these implications are evident in interpersonal and intercultural relations the world over. Not only is human predation upon his fellow inmates generative of tragic folly and abject cynicism, it is impractical and wasteful in a time in which populations are booming and resources are being strained. For those who simply must kill for food in order to survive, not even the choice of survival is self-justified, although it is perhaps excusable to all but the most wizened ascetic. But for those to whom the freedom from predatory practices is ubiquitous, there can be no logical excuse.

In an age obsessed with nutritional health, the concern for the health of the conscience is yet neglected. Well, not by me; not any longer. We shall see how I fare.

Vitruvian Man

The time will come when men like me will look upon the slaughter of animals as we now look upon the slaughter of men.
—Leonardo daVinci

Not-So-Faux Fur

Posted in animal cruelty, Bioethics, Fashion, Lifestyle, News by Curtis on 2/23/07

According to MSNBC, the American Humane Society has recently conducted tests on storebought “faux” furs, concluding that 24 of the 25 garments tested were mislabeled or misadvertised—meaning they contained real fur.

The coats were bought from stores such as Nordstrom’s and Tommy Hilfiger, and most violators were trimmed with fur from domestic dogs. Most of the fur, the AHS believes, originated in China.

One popular source of this fur is the “raccoon dog,” a large east Asian-native species which, according to AHS Executive Vice-President Mark Markarian, “is routinely killed by stomping on them, or beating them, or skinning them alive.” It is not illegal to import the fur of these animals into the United States.

Some of the retailers have offered recalls and refunds on the “tainted” merchandise; of course, all of them are very surprised to learn that this kind of thing goes on in their product lines.

I say the retailers should be boycotted permanently. Of course, to me, the idea of wearing truly fake fur is appreciably more humane but no less disturbingly silly than wearing real fur.