Quiet Collapse

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American Chestnut

What happens at the end of a system? The American Chestnut used to be one out of every three trees in eastern hardwood forests; now there are a few blighted remnants, a few resistant individuals hiding in the far corners of what few forests remain uncut. The system has moved on, to a sparser, less self-sufficient balance. But what happens when the system can’t adapt? What does it even look like to us, human beings who struggle to think in systems and who shift our baselines faster than natural systems move?

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April Recommended Reading

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Cascadia Volcanoes

At the end of each month I compile links to articles I found thought-provoking over that month, categorized with pull-quotes for your perusal and edification. Each of these is a story that made me stop and think, and hopefully one or two of them will do the same for you. Continue reading

Spring Rain

Flooding at farm on Route 2A

Spring in New England has always felt like a tug-of-war between winter and summer. Some years, April brings harsher winter weather than March, even harsher than we’ve had since December. Other years, it feels like summer arrives early and April is more like a June without shade. Most years, regardless, there is a cascade of clean snowmelt off the peaks and mountainsides, flushing the forests and brookbeds of winter’s accumulated detritus. Most years, the melting snow is a cue for us to wake, and stretch, and explore.

This year there is no snow to melt.

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Climate Denihilism

climatechange_viaADBThe overwhelming scientific consensus is that human-caused climate change is real, ongoing, and extremely dangerous. For those who missed the most recent data point, February of 2016 was the hottest temperature anomaly in recorded history. That, on top of us having racked up most of the hottest overall years on record during the past decade. And yet, somehow, there are still intellectually dishonest people who stand up and argue that climate change isn’t happening, or maybe isn’t so bad, or maybe will just not be a problem because we’ll adapt (or something, and who needs those ecosystems anyway).

It’s enough to make you want to give up. What’s the point in trying to stop climate change when we keep electing people who are happy to disbelieve it? Isn’t it basically inevitable at this point? Realistically, we’ll be lucky if we can all agree that it’s real before we pass the point of no return, let alone do anything about it.

But I think that’s a pretty dangerous point of view.

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The Value of Your Vote

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Women lining up to vote in Seattle in 1911

Common wisdom is that you can’t complain if you don’t vote, but that your vote doesn’t really count for much outside of a swing state. As it often is, the common wisdom is wrong. Since many of us are going to the polls in the next few weeks, and many of us a week from today, I thought I would take a minute to explain why your vote matters (even if it doesn’t always count).

In many states, the presidential primaries are held alongside a whole host of other elections. In my home state of Vermont, for example, my primary vote probably won’t swing the presidential primary one way or another, but it absolutely could swing a more critical election.

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The Naked Ground

P1010021Around this time last year, I parked my car, put on my snowshoes, and climbed the steep mound of snow at the edge of the woods. It was cold, but not terribly so, and the light crust across the surface was just enough to make a pleasant whoof with each sinking step. At lower elevations, the snow inside the forest’s edge was only a foot or two deep, but as I climbed higher it increased to three and more. On the high benches above the valley, a comfortable four-foot thick blanket hid most everything.

I spend a lot of time off trails, wandering and traveling in less-beaten, less-accessible places. The rolling topography of New England woods is flattened by a blanket of snow—transformed, really, into a different sort of terrain. Between wind, storms, glaciers, and time, the less accessible parts of the forest are generally strewn with logs and branches, covered with loose soil and leaves, and scattered with heaps of exfoliated rock. The combination of deep snow, moderate crust, and a few soft inches on top makes jumbled forests into new, glorious highways—for animals, and for people who know to take advantage.

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October Recommended Reading

 At the end of each month I compile links to articles I found thought-provoking over that month, categorized with pull-quotes for your perusal and edification. Each of these is a story that made me stop and think, and hopefully one or two of them will do the same for you.

Racism:

She was guilty of being a black girl: The mundane terror of police violence in American schools – Brittney Cooper

“Still, there are those who insist that we don’t know the full context. But we do know that this young lady did not do anything violent. We do know that she did not have a weapon. We do know that Ben Fields has been twice sued, once as a member of the police force and once during his time as a school administrator for excessive use of force. He has a documented history of online complaints about his mistreatment of students going back to 2012.

And we should know that this kind of violence is not acceptable. It is not discipline. It is terror and brutalization designed to compel compliance rather than to redirect negative behaviors. It is no way to educate. It is the way a system treats Black students when it decides that they are not worthy of hope, care, dignity or protection. This is the way the system and its arbiters view and treat Black life.”

Sexism:

A New Twist in the Fight Against Sexism in Science – Sarah Zhang

“What’s remarkable is what happened after each of these events occurred, when the hashtags trended and the voices clamored: The people responsible were held accountable for their actions. The Rosetta scientist issued a teary apology. The Nobel laureate lost his honorary professorship. The editor of the Science column is no longer there. The Berkeley astronomer resigned in disgrace.

In isolation, any one of these events could seem like an outlier: just one person getting his due. But taken together, so many and in succession, they suggest something bigger. A conversation about sexism in science broke open this year. Sharp organizing and social media are sparking real change. What was once whispered privately in laboratories and offices is being discussed publicly, loudly, and clearly.”

Even With Hard Evidence Of Gender Bias In STEM Fields, Men Don’t Believe It’s Real – Laurel Raymond

“One landmark study found that science faculty at research universities rate applicants with male names as more competent, more hireable, and more deserving of a higher starting salary than female applicants, even when the resumes are otherwise identical.

Now, a new study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) shows another level of bias: Many men don’t believe this is happening. When shown empirical evidence of gender bias against women in the STEM fields, men were far less likely to find the studies convincing or important, according to researchers from Montana State University (MSU), the University of North Florida, and Skidmore College.”

Cuts To Domestic Violence Services Are Placing Victims In Danger – Bryce Covert

“The National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) recently released its yearly one-day census of most of the country’s nearly 2,000 domestic violence programs and shelters. Many have cut back on key services and have run out of enough beds to accommodate the massive number of people who need them.

That can leave victims in dangerous situations longer and keeps them from moving into stable, independent living arrangements. “When [victims] come into domestic violence shelters, their situations are more dangerous, likely because they’ve waited longer,” said Joyce Grover, executive director of the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence. “They have to wait for services even when they personally feel like they are in crisis.””

Politics:

What Could Raising Taxes on the 1% Do? Surprising Amounts – Patricia Cohen

“”Most economists today would agree that raising taxes modestly would bring in more revenue” without doing any serious damage to the economy, said Roberton Williams, a fellow at the Tax Policy Center. The big question is how much is too much, because at some point, higher tax rates would discourage extra investment and work.

All the Republican candidates share the party’s traditional opposition to raising taxes on the wealthy, arguing that it would ruin the economy by sopping up money that would otherwise be used to create jobs. Lowering taxes, they say, will unleash a torrent of economic activity that will in the long run spur growth and revenue.

But most mainstream economists, including some on the conservative side of the divide, concede that even with optimistic projections about growth and spending cuts, the Republican plans would leave a whopping budget gap, requiring more borrowing, not less. Revamping the tax code along these lines would also decrease the share paid by those at the top.”

Climate Change:

Greedland is Melting Away – Coral Davenport, Josh Haner, Larry Buchanan And Derek Watkins

“For years, scientists have studied the impact of the planet’s warming on the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. But while researchers have satellite images to track the icebergs that break off, and have created models to simulate the thawing, they have little on-the-ground information and so have trouble predicting precisely how fast sea levels will rise.”

What Is—and Is Not—Considered Settled with Climate Science? – Brenda Ekwurzel

“Three widely accepted scientific understandings in climate science: Carbon dioxide traps heat and exerts major influence on Earth’s temperature when its concentration increases or decreases: upheld since the late 19th century. Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. Human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”

Health:

Processed meat and cancer – what you need to know – Casey Dunlop

“In this post, we’ll look at what IARC’s classification actually means, how red and processed meat affect cancer risk, and the likely size of this effect. But before we move on, let’s be clear: yes, a prolonged high-meat diet isn’t terribly good for you. But a steak, bacon sandwich or sausage bap a few times a week probably isn’t much to worry about. And overall the risks are much lower than for other things linked to cancer – such as smoking.”

Meat and tobacco: the difference between risk and strength of evidence – Suzi Gage

“The way this message has been framed in the media is extremely misleading. Comparing meat to tobacco, as most news organisations who’ve chosen to report this have done, makes it seem like a bacon sandwich might be just as harmful as a cigarette. This is absolutely not the case.”

Patients Assume ‘Breakthrough’ Drugs Are Better – Sarah Wickline Wallan

“The breakthrough designation gets awarded based on preliminary evidence, which can include changes in surrogate markers of disease that do not always translate into meaningful clinical benefit, Ross and Redberg added, suggesting that even when the designation is based on clinical outcomes, many of those benefits will not be confirmed in subsequent, larger-scale clinical trials.”

“Health” Supplements Send 23,000 to Emergency Rooms in the U.S Each Year – Gene Emery

“The supplements include herbal products, amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and other complementary nutrition products hawked for a wide range of uses, often with little or no testing to back up claims. The new study “illustrates the idea that something that’s ‘natural’ is not necessarily safe, and these products do not come without risk,” Dr. Curtis Haas, director of pharmacy for the University of Rochester Medical Center and a past president of the American College of Clinical Pharmacy, told Reuters Health.”

Drug companies aren’t telling you the whole truth – Rob Waters

“Bottom line: studies showing that antidepressants worked got published; studies showing they didn’t went unpublished and few people knew they existed.

The study caused a bit of a stir. Jeffrey Drazen, the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, where Turner’s review was published, told me then it was evidence of “publication bias”—the tendency for positive, but not negative, findings to make their way into print. Despite the best efforts of journal editors to publish a balance of findings, Drazen told me, “what’s reported is really a much more rosy situation than actually exists.”

OK, you may be saying, but this is six-year old news, and by now things must have changed. Two recent studies suggest that when it comes to publication bias, in fact, things have not changed much at all.”

Religion:

White evangelical church-goers think their ‘science’ is better than the science those stupid scientists say is science – Fred Clark

“Here’s Pew’s own headline: “Highly religious Americans are less likely than others to see conflict between faith and science.” That’s not true. That’s not what Pew’s own survey shows. But this weird, distorting spin on the survey is being widely repeated. Here’s the headline at Christianity Today: “Churchgoers Least Likely to See Science and Religion in Conflict.”

Again, no. That is not at all what the survey shows.What the survey shows, rather, is that Churchgoers Are More Likely to Redefine Science as That Which Does Not Conflict With Their Religion. Or, in other words, that Real, True Christians also imagine they alone possess the Real, True Science.”

Science:

21764634350_8d9c3239b2_kRelive Our One Giant Leap in an Archive of Thousands of Apollo Photographs – Phil Plait

“If we can put a man on the Moon, why can’t we put 8,400 hi-res scans of the Apollo mission photographs taken by the astronauts themselves on Flickr? Oh wait. We can. And Kipp Teague did.

Teague is a network and IT director at Lynchburg College, and he and I have two things in common: We’re both University of Virginia alumni (wahoowa!), and we’re both unabashed fans of the Apollo Moon missions. But where I will sometimes write about the missions and talk about how they’re real, he went way, way farther: He rescanned more than 8,000 original photographs taken by the astronauts using their chest-mounted Hasselblad cameras, creating a huge archive on Flickr showcasing the epic journey to the Moon and back.”

The complex nature of GMOs calls for a new conversation – Maywa Montenegro

“GMOs, in sum, point us to deeper issues that underlie the entire food system. A nonreductionist evaluation of GMOs can push us toward thinking about effects at multiple scales and time spans. Such an evaluation can get us to think deeply about who benefits from technologies, who controls their availability and access, and who makes such decisions. We get to think about the entanglements of politics, the media and public interest in shaping scientific validity and consensus. In short, we are invited to think socially and ecologically — indeed agroecologically — about the utility and value of engineered seeds.”

Writing:

Narrative X-Rays: Looking at Stories’ Structural Skeletons – Julia Rosen

“Structuring long-form nonfiction writing defies simple rules. Sometimes, you should start at the beginning of a story; other times, the middle or even the end. Sometimes you should follow a single narrative as it unfolds; other times, two or more tales tango through an article. The only hard and fast rule seems to be: Do what works. Do whatever will convey the information you want to share while also giving readers the feeling that they’re on a journey—one that might continue beyond the final sentence. …

To beginners, the whole process can sound, well, a little magical. What if we don’t know how to conquer our unruly notes? Or more importantly, what if we can’t recognize the right organizational pattern when we see it? Part of the problem is that there are as many successful structures as there are compelling stories. But that’s also part of the solution: By examining a range of stories, not only can you build a repertoire of possible choices, but you can also develop a sense of which narrative choices work, and why. So we’ve asked four long-form writers to reverse engineer some of their favorite tales—their own and those by other writers—to expose their narrative skeletons.”

 

Ecological Jenga

jenga_viaKellyTeagueOne quality of human societies is that we shape our environment to fit our needs. Sometimes we do this intentionally, such as when we clear land for agriculture or human occupation. Sometimes we do it as a byproduct of our actions, such as greenhouse gas emissions leading to runaway warming of the global climate. In the past, human societies have endured, or collapsed, or adapted, depending on how much their environment could withstand change.

I think this begs the question, how resilient is our global ecosystem? How much can it handle? What are the limits?

Those with a narrower view tend to dismiss environmental concerns as frivolous, uneconomical, or overblown. The earth has always carried on, they sometimes argue, and even if it doesn’t, we can invent technologies to replace and improve on anything an ecosystem can do. Yet I wonder.

Ecosystems around the world have evolved to be both diverse and redundant, with animals and plants and insects and microbes all functioning together to support the system. Most of that diversity and redundancy is structural—the evolution of an ecosystem, like the evolution of any given species, does not tend to generate and maintain traits with no purpose. I don’t mean that an ecosystem is designed with a place for everything and everything in its place, but rather that diversity and redundancy in a natural system are present because regular stress on the system requires them. They are buffers that protect the system from failure.

From the human perspective, redundancy is usually perceived as an abundance of parts—a river full of salmon, a forest full of old growth trees, a sky full of passenger pigeons. This leaves us with the comforting sense that however many we take away, there are more than enough; the system will not falter.

That can be true on a small scale, but global human society does not act on the small scale. We have an economic engine dedicated to mobilizing resources, and it is very good at it. If a resource is found, there is an effectively unending line of people ready to use it and transform it into human economic capital. But that engine is very bad at asking questions of stability; if a resource is abundant, we use it rapidly and heavily without concern for the broader system. That old individual view, that taking a few doesn’t matter, seems to have evolved into the idea that natural systems can be processed and repurposed by humans without consequences.

Unfortunately, the data says otherwise. The declining biodiversity of forests and the strangled flow of major rivers are examples of what happens to natural systems when their natural buffers are carted off for human purposes. Current complex systems science shows us that the natural systems we rely on are being driven to the edge of catastrophic failure. Ecologists and complex system scientists call this “overshoot,” a state in which the key ecological foundations of a system are exploited much faster than they can regenerate.

Put more simply, we are playing ecological Jenga. Globally, systematically, we are stealing away the foundations of critical natural systems to build a human superstructure on top. Yet questions about that same foundation receive more derision than consideration; with a curious bootstrapping logic, we convince ourselves that the titanic edifice of human society is unsinkable.

That ideological position is so much stranger in the face of the evidence. We have known for some time that we are drawing down natural capital much faster than the rate of replenishment. In the U.S., California is a poster child for depletion of water. In Canada, Alberta is scraping off their largest intact natural forest to dig up tar sands. In the tropics, slash-and-burn agriculture is depleting nutrient-rich topsoil that took thousands of years to form.

As we busily remove the redundancy of natural systems that sustain us, the growing specter of climate change looms large. We are carefully pulling bricks from the base of our tower, scarcely noticing the wind of change ruffling our shirtsleeves. Systems evolved redundancy to cope with stressors, and the biggest stressor for an ecosystem is a changing climate.

Some say human ingenuity will avert any catastrophe. I think they’re right that it could, if we would just look honestly at the implications of our choices. If we could bring ourselves to take them seriously. If we could bring ourselves to alter those choices.

But the tower is getting taller, and the wind is getting stronger.

The science shows us that we can’t continue the game into perpetuity. Natural systems will reach points of change; many already are. Many already have. Some have collapsed.

So let’s hear it for human ingenuity, and let’s fix it. But I have a sneaking suspicion that ingenuity isn’t our problem now. We’re plenty ingenious. What we’re not, is honest.

Sleight of Words

There is an entirely worthwhile debate to be had about how we name people in challenging situations. The more controversial the situation, the important this debate becomes. Finding the right words, the words that describe groups and events accurately, dispassionately, and without bias, is rarely accomplished without such debate.

Yet most every time these debates occur, there are those who leap ahead with labels instead of arguments. These people appropriate words and use them to push their perspectives as fait accompli, sidestepping the reasoned debate that might lead to a more balanced conclusion. When we are wise, we do not allow this manipulation. When we are unwise, we fail to notice.

People are fleeing Syria at the moment, trying to the best of their ability to escape a dangerous and hostile environment that threatens their lives and the lives of their families. They are risking their lives to escape, which should tell us something about their desperation and need. And, as it often does in such times, xenophobia has reached a fevered pitch in response.

migrantCNNThe clumsy have attempted to equate these refugees with ISIS, or with terrorism (a word itself co-opted long ago). The subtle, the propagandists, did not waste time making their arguments—instead, they went forth boldly to discuss a “migrant crisis,” advancing with their label an argument untenable in logic: that all these people seeking refuge are merely vagrants.

That we were slow to critique this word, that some continue to repeat it, and that only belatedly have we arrived at debate, suggests to me that we are not sufficiently cautious about such naming. This is not the only example, and sometimes we have gone much longer ignoring the question.

More than a decade ago, the United States invaded Iraq, toppled its government, and sought, without any clear understanding of the political or religious issues involved, to create a new government out of whole cloth. We drafted some leaders, left an occupying force, and scratched our heads as peace did not descend, as many Iraqis did not feel especially liberated, and as many people continued to die.

We did these things on false pretenses, and so I was not surprised when we explained them under false pretenses as well. We labeled the Iraqis who fought us and our created government as “insurgents.” We talked about quelling an “insurgency” as though these people were attacking an established body, rather than a piece of stage dressing that had yet to win the confidence or engagement of its constituency. The truth was so much more complex, and so much more difficult, than the label. Yet there was little public criticism, and the media embraced the “insurgency” as quickly as they have embraced the “migrant crisis.”

We have used labels, too, to justify ourselves when we have no justification. Just recently the Associated Press updated their style guide to stop calling deniers of climate science “skeptics,” a change those same deniers deeply resent and which has been all too long in coming. Because, of course, the label of “skeptic” implies a person who is justifiably hesitant, who is considering critically, and who is careful about beliefs and evidence.

Climate deniers were none of these things. Perhaps, twenty years ago, the term “climate skeptic” might have been justified. Even then the science was fairly clear, but there was justifiable debate about the extent of the problem. Now, when the only controversy remaining is political, the term “climate skeptic” is a laughable pretense. I continue to refer to these people as “deniers,” because I do not see how any other word is justified. The AP has chosen to call them “doubters,” but there is no doubt about the evidence—thus, their doubt is perverse and irrational, and to oppose the conclusions of climate science appears to me, inevitably, to be denial.

There is no way around the power of these names. Those doing the naming define the baselines, the scope, and the tenor of a conversation. When we say there is a “migrant crisis,” suddenly we have introduced doubt about whether we are obliged to help these people; instead, the debate is about whether the people fleeing and dying are truly in need. Likewise when we say there is an insurgency, there is no debate about whether we, in creating a particular set of rulers, were mistaken; instead, the debate is how to preserve that government. And when we let deniers pretend to be skeptics, we allow a debate long settled to continue as though it were not intellectually dishonest.

I cannot help but wonder how often these words are chosen intentionally, and how often they are simply summoned from the zeitgeist to serve as avatars. The former is duplicitous, and thus likely, and yet I think we are duplicitous with ourselves nearly as often as we are with others. And because we fool ourselves, we must be cautious to remember that a label is not an argument, and that it is incumbent on us to question its provenance and honesty. And I think also, we must question a bit more loudly.