Monday, December 9, 2019

Another Climate Report: The Prophet Effect

On November 26, the UN issued yet another climate report, indicating that we are further than ever from controlling carbon emissions within a limit that will prevent catastrophic climate effects in the near future (e.g. within Baron Trump’s lifetime).

This report will, like all the others before it, be ignored by American leadership, probably Russian leadership also, and maybe the Chinese leadership. It will be championed by poor countries who have the most to lose by climate change. Probably the only group of countries that will take it seriously and implement policy in response to it is the European Union.

We have been here before. A long time ago. The ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah, in the Old Testament of the Bible, endured a series of prophets who decried the kings and most of the people of their sins and predicted destruction for the Israelites. This went on for centuries. You have probably heard of the major prophets, such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. Other important prophets are mentioned in the historical books of the Bible, such as Elijah and Elisha. But there were also minor prophets whose names are on Old Testament books: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. They all said the same things, and the kings and priests ignored them more and more with each new prophecy. Just as they prophesied, the kingdom of Israel fell, and later the kingdom of Judah.

The United States is ignoring its own climate prophets, as well as those of other countries, whether European scientists or African and South American environmentalist martyrs. In pursuit of greed, we are destroying what most Americans consider to be God’s creation. When Jeremiah said (in 16:18), “They have polluted my land with the carcasses of their detestable idols,” he might have just as easily been describing modern American garbage, of which Oklahoma has at least a hundred pieces per mile of roadway: the idolatrous junk food and cheap pleasures are quickly used up and the cup or packaging discarded.

We have been warned by our prophets. And soon we will suffer the same fate as the ancient Israelites, and for the same reason.

Monday, December 2, 2019

A Word of Advice from the Animal Kingdom

I recently ran across a copy of a letter that I sent to Bill Clinton back in 1993, right after his inauguration as president. It will speak for itself.

c/o President Bill and Mrs. Hillary Clinton
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington DC

Dear Socks:
            Remember me? I’m Millie, George and Barbara’s dog. We met briefly. I hope you like your new home.
            I’m writing to pass along some advice about foreign policy. My master complimented me highly on my knowledge of foreign policy. Perhaps you would be kind enough to pass this advice on to President Clinton? Actually, what I’m about to say, you already know, because us animals know a lot more about the world than those humans.
            First, tell Mr. Clinton that he should be sure to have a strong and sound environmental policy. (He knows this; just remind him.) We animals are acutely aware of our dependence on the environment. But humans like to think that they are not animals. They waste energy and materials, destroy plants and animals, and pour pollutants into whatever remains. The “environment” is us. The air, water, soil, plants, and animals of the earth belong to all of us. If the U.S. pollutes the air that every country breathes, pollutes the oceans that every country shares, how can we be at peace with other countries? This is Millie’s First Law of Foreign Affairs: Other countries will get mad at us if we despoil the earth that belongs to all of us.
            Second, tell Mr. Clinton that his foreign policy should fairly address the plight of the world’s poor. (Again, he knows this, just remind him.) Some of my fellow dogs have roamed the garbage heaps of the world and seen a side of reality that kings and presidents usually ignore. There are billions of hungry people who will not sit idly and let rich countries like the U.S., or rich rulers of their own countries, trap them in poverty. Millie’s Second Law of Foreign Affairs is: The only way to lasting peace is to hear the cries of the world’s poor and to respond to these cries.
            All of us animals know that these are the two most important principles of foreign policy. And these two principles are tied together in many ways. For instance, it is the desperate poor who cut down the last trees for firewood so they can boil their last polluted water.
            Best of luck to you and to the rest of the family. Tell Chelsea to learn everything she can in school. And don’t let the Lords of Creation forget that they are, like us, animals.
            Sincerely, Millie the dog

            I included my own address as a c/o, and I got a card back from the White House thanking me for my note.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

George Washington Carver: The Convergence of Art and Science

Many people were surprised that George Washington Carver painted flowers as well as studied them scientifically. But to him, art and science were both ways of approaching the truth, and there was no dissonance between them. Here is a scene from Linda O. McMurray’s book, George Washington Carver: Scientist and Symbol, page 302:

            [Carver] reached across the table for a tiny green herb. The soil still clung to its threadlike roots.
            “All these years,” the artist continued, looking at the weed in his hand, “I have been doing one thing. The poet Tennyson was working at the same job. This is the way he expresses it:

Flower in the crannied wall
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but it I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is...

            “Tennyson was seeking Truth. That is what the scientist is seeking. That is what the artist is seeking; his writings, his weaving, his music, his pictures are just the expressions of his soul in his search for Truth.
            “My paintings are my soul’s expression of its yearnings and questions in its desire to understand the work of the Great Creator.”

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

George Washington Carver and the Scientific Method

At the height of his fame, it was nearly impossible to criticize George Washington Carver (see previous essay). He was famous for his personal dedication to using science as a way of helping non-scientists to improve their economic conditions and open their eyes to the beauty and wonder of the world. During the Depression, when his fame was worldwide (even Mahatma Gandhi corresponded with him), people wanted to hear a story of a man—a really and truly good man—who rose up from slavery to fame.

But he did receive some criticism. When I first read about this, I was shocked, but I then understood the reason for it. An editorial in a major newspaper claimed that Carver did not follow the standards of good scientific research. This viewpoint was quickly shouted down by Carver’s admirers. But the critic had a point.

Nearly every active scientist in the world is part of a community, in which each scientist builds on the work of others, so that no scientist has to labor in isolation to discover new truths. For at least a century before Carver, all scientists cited, sometimes at great length, the work of those who came before. The reason was quite practical: by citing the work of others, no scientist has to bear the complete burden of credibility. A scientist could show that, because his work agreed with the known facts of science, it was likely to be true. Even revolutionary scientific insights had to do this. Darwin’s Origin of Species had extensive citations, showing that his truly new insight into science agreed with the known facts of geology and biology.

Carver practiced a form of theistic science that is almost unknown today. He would go into his laboratory (which he called “God’s Little Workshop”) and open his mind to a contemplation of God. He felt that God led him to discover truths that God had secretly put into the natural world and that it was Carver’s privilege to reveal. While many scientists today have this feeling, with Carver it was so strong that he did not read the work of other scientists—he considered his discoveries to come directly from God—nor did he even take notes on his work. Not surprisingly, when any company showed interest in one of Carver’s inventions, they could not invest in it because Carver had no written records that the invention actually worked. And when Carver died, no one knew how to make them. His knowledge died with him.

Incidentally, Carver’s theistic approach also greatly contrasted with that of modern “creation scientists.” Carver entered his laboratory with an open mind for discovery, while modern creationists do their work (usually just recycling the work of other scientists) with the express purpose of demonstrating a specific religious doctrine, such as proving that the universe is young or that evolution is impossible.

I admit this characteristic of Carver’s scientific work. I do not believe that scientists, in general, should work this way. But I revere Carver anyway, for other reasons explained above and in the previous essay. The scientific community is large and diverse enough to include unconventional geniuses like George Washington Carver.

Monday, November 11, 2019

George Washington Carver

You have probably heard of George Washington Carver (1864-1943) as the early-twentieth-century Peanut Man who developed hundreds of commercial products from peanuts, and from other southern United States crops, in his laboratory at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. But these products were probably the least important part of his work, at that time and in his legacy today. He is also remembered as the black man who earned respect from whites who might otherwise have dismissed blacks as an inferior, perhaps uneducable, race. I have recently posted a video about Carver, filmed at his birthplace.

Carver had a brilliant mind for botany and chemistry. He was also a teacher whom his students loved, because he was humble despite his vast knowledge, and he cared individually about each student. He wanted each student to experience scientific discovery for themselves. While most science teachers today take this approach, it was uncommon in Carver’s day.

The fame was as much for his personal story as for his scientific work. He was born into slavery just before the end of the Civil War, then kidnapped. His owner got him back in exchange for a horse. After the war, George’s owner raised him as one of his own children. He struggled for years to get an education from whatever school would allow a black man to learn. He was the only black student at Iowa State University. His mentors there wanted him to stay as a faculty member, but instead he accepted a call from Booker T. Washington to join the Tuskegee faculty.

For much of his career, Carver labored in obscurity. Tuskegee president Booker T. Washington was impatient with Carver’s disorganized approach to college duties. Whenever Carver accomplished more, Booker T. Washington always thought of something more that he ordered Carver to do. At one point, even though Carver spent every waking moment working for the institute, Washington told Carver he needed to repair the bathrooms. Washington’s regimented and disciplined approach to everything conflicted with Carver’s slower and more thoughtful approach.

Then in 1921, Carver testified before the federal House Ways and Means Committee about all the food and industrial products that could be made from peanuts. The committee was interested because World War I had interrupted many imports into the United States, and they wanted to know what “home-grown” products we could have in the event of a future war. Even though these products ended up not being marketed, the committee was very impressed with this humble and brilliant man. From that point, Carver became a celebrity, and his fame spread worldwide.

Once at Tuskegee, Carver showed his ability to produce excellent work with almost no resources. Though he eventually had a lot of glassware for his teaching and research laboratories, he had literally nothing to work with when he first arrived. So, he found a whiskey bottle at the dump. He tied a string around the middle. He cooled the bottle in cold water, then lit the string on fire. The fire made the cold bottle crack in two. The top half was a funnel, the bottom half a beaker.

By the end of his life, Carver was receiving many prizes and worldwide recognition. Meanwhile, in American society, the legal rights for black people were becoming ever more restricted. After an initial period of openness after the Civil War, southern states found ways to prevent blacks from voting, and they ended up with almost no political voice. While Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver were widely admired, most white people considered them individual exceptions from their otherwise benighted race.

Max Otto (see previous essay) quoted Russell Lord’s “deeply disturbing” book Behold Our Land. Lord wrote about the soil erosion, which ruined the livelihoods of poor farmers, that was going on “under the eye of a teaching and research staff of considerable distinction; and yet it all was, and is, by them completely ignored. They go right on teaching their geology, their botany, their zoology, their chemistry and physics, their archaeology, their Greek and Latin and English, with no thought or mention of the tragic transformation of the good green country roundabout.” Maybe Lord referred to the major universities, but George Washington Carver was the exact opposite of this disconnected academic lassitude.

Carver never sought fame (though it came to him) or fortune (which he had opportunities to refuse). He lived in a small room on the Tuskegee campus. Books were stacked floor to ceiling in the corner. He had a display case for his crochet work. Rocks and stalactites covered a table, and flowers crowded his window box. His personal space reminds me of my own.

I chose George Washington Carver as my favorite scientist in my recent book. The main reason was not so much because of his scientific research, which was creative but not of the highest quality, as for his motivation. He believed that scientific research at a university should prove directly helpful to the people living around it, and to the world in general. The inspiration of his peanut research (and also research on sweet potatoes and pecans) was to allow poor farmers to produce value-added products, at home, that they could sell for more money than peanuts. He also did research, and taught local farmers, about how to preserve soil fertility, so that they could produce more from each of their acres. This is also one of my main motivations in teaching and research. Like Carver, I am a mediocre scientific researcher, but my heart is in outreach to the wider community, opening their eyes to the wonders and practical benefits of science.

All this, despite the fact that Carver did not really follow what nearly every scientist in his day and today would consider good scientific method. That is the topic of the next essay.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Why I Cheered the Runners

I was about to leave my house and walk to my office one Saturday morning in October. I heard shouts outside and saw runners go down the street. (Not the sidewalk. In Durant, the sidewalks are in dangerous disrepair. So the street was closed by the police for the safety of the runners.) It was a community awareness and fundraising event. I did not know the background story of this event.

I still don’t. I decided that I did not need to know. The most important thing is, in my view, that this event was occurring at all. It was a wonderful example of altruism.
Altruism is where animals are nice to each other, and they both (or all) benefit from it. It is not necessarily self-sacrifice; it can be mutual benefit. And it is usually enjoyable. We humans not only have the instinct of being nice, but we enjoy it. The runners enjoyed running, their sponsors enjoyed donating money to the community benefit, and everyone enjoyed social interactions with their neighbors.

In Oklahoma, most people aren’t very good at altruism. Many of the Durant, Oklahoma altruists were involved in this event. But at least as many people in Durant are hostile toward altruism. They are hostile to their neighbors. They prefer to throw their garbage into their neighbors’ yards just to prove how hostile they are. (About ten percent of my garbage is what other people throw in my yard.)

So when I see altruism in action, I want to celebrate it. I was unprepared for this event, even though it went right past my front yard. But I stood out in the yard and clapped for the runners, none of whom I actually knew. And they thanked me. I got more “thank you” wishes in a half an hour than I usually get in a month.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

This Land Is Not Our Land

This is the title in one of the songs of the musical Nanyehi, written by Becky Hobbs and Nick Sweet. The musical is about the ancestor I share with Becky: Nancy Ward, a.k.a. Nanyehi. If you get a chance, go see this musical (information at the link above).

In this song, Nanyehi’s warrior cousin Tsiyu Gansini and his warriors has encountered a white farmer on Cherokee land. The farmer showed them the deed which the South Carolina legislature had given him, proving his land ownership. Tsiyu Gansini told him that it was Cherokee land and the legislature had no right to sell it. As a matter of fact, even the Cherokees did not own the land. Nobody can own the land. It belongs to the Great Spirit, or to God, or to all the species, not to any individual human. “This land is not our land, it’s only ours to use, it don’t belong to me, it don’t belong to you.” This is the original Cherokee view (and that of many other tribes), and remained so until private land ownership was forced upon the tribes (in the case of the Cherokees, by the Dawes enrollment of 1904).

For years, I have opened the class session about ecology, for my general biology students, with this song. It expresses perfectly what I want them to understand about ecology. After going over some basic concepts of ecology, such as the Ten Percent Law and biological magnification, I then show them a slide that summarizes ecosystem services, especially as it relates to plants. All the things that plants do for us for free! A forest is worth much more alive than dead. I wrote a whole book about this years ago: “Green Planet.

How do I draw all of this together? If you look at the Earth, or any part of it, from the private ownership viewpoint, then a forest is worth more dead than alive. You, the owner, can get money for the timber. But to the world as a whole, it is worth more alive than dead. A living forest creates oxygen, uses up carbon dioxide, holds down the soil, lets rain penetrate into the soil, etc. But notice that these are all benefits not just to you, the owner, but to everyone else. If you forego the profits from the timber, most of the benefits go to other people and you cannot make a profit on it. Other people, who do not pay you, get to breathe the oxygen.

That is, to see the benefits of ecosystem services, you have to take the original tribal view rather than the modern capitalist view. The rich people who own most of the land do not care if the land’s ability to keep us alive is destroyed, so long as they can live someplace where someone else’s plants are producing oxygen and preventing floods.

Nobody in my classes has ever complained about my attack on unlimited private capitalism. I think it is because I introduced it in the context of tribal world views (in Oklahoma, many of my students are part or full Native American) and through the vehicle of Becky’s music.