Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Walking—A Connection to Our Evolutionary Past

Our bodies evolved to enable prolonged exercise, which is quite absent from our modern lifestyle. We have used technology to create artificial environments, but not environments to which our bodies are adapted. My preferred form of exercise (one which, unlike organized sports, is consistent with my general clumsiness) is walking.

Walking uses up blood glucose, and it does so happily: you can relax, you can notice things about trees and birds and people, and it doesn’t cost anything, except for some cheap shoes. And it is something that most people (including most diabetics) can do. There is no minimum amount of walking less than which is useless. And it brings lots of oxygen into your alveoli. Once in a while I even break into a jog, though not for very far.

Of course, unexpected problems can arise. For me, it is the fact that in rural Oklahoma, nearly everyone drives a pickup truck that belches out huge billows of fumes. Even the new ones. I wonder if part of the standard detailing of new trucks in rural Oklahoma is to attach a little spigot that sprays fumes into the air directly from the fuel tank. (I just made that up. That doesn’t mean it isn’t true.) Almost every man in rural Oklahoma is so worried about his manhood that he feels he has to compensate for whatever he has to compensate for by getting a big truck (sometimes with truck balls). (I didn’t make that part up.) And of course they leave a stream of fumes that the wind blows into my alveoli for an entire block. If there is one truck on the road, it will find me and pickle me in its hydrocarbons. And of course almost everybody lets their dogs run loose. The dogs would probably eat me if I were not glazed with petroleum derivatives.

Walking creates a positive feedback loop. The more walking, the more capacity for walking.

Walking allows me to notice things about trees. What I did not expect was that my observations would become useful. In 2006, I started making maps of the trees along my walking route, and writing down the day in spring when each tree burst its buds. It turns out that, from 2008 to the present, the trees have been opening their buds about two days earlier each year, a rather striking record of global warming. A research presentation at the world meeting of scientists who study phenology came out of these observations.

By pursuing a healthy lifestyle, I make myself a better participant in the health of the planet, create a positive feedback loop for even greater health, and open myself up to serendipity.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Selfish Diabetic

I have a slight case of diabetes, which has proven manageable by changes diet and lifestyle, without medication. But the diagnosis I originally received got me thinking about how a diabetic might look at the world.

One of the easiest things that can happen when one is diagnosed with the onset of diabetes is to become immensely selfish. It would be easy for a diabetic to ignore the problems of the rest of the world and say that his or her focus should be, aside from work and family, on maintaining his or her health. Where could such a person find the time to also worry about such things as global warming and world hunger?

This argument would be true if living happily with diabetes were a problem separate from others, and if it had a purely technical solution. But the diabetic has to choose how to live. And, as it turns out, living responsibly in the world is also the path to health despite diabetes.

As it turns out, the kinds of food that diabetics have to reject are the same kinds of food that are killing the global ecosystem. To live as a deliberately happy diabetic is to live in an ecologically responsible fashion. Among the things that I have to reject, to keep diabetes from developing, are refined sugar and fat meat. But these are also foods I must reject if I am to be a responsible world citizen. Some of the best tropical farmland in the Philippines is used to raise sugar, as an export crop, rather than to raise food for Filipinos. We Americans can pay more for sugar than poor Filipinos can pay for rice and beans. My use of sugar was contributing to keeping Filipinos poor. And fat beef? A vast amount of farm acreage in the United States is used to raise corn and soybeans not for human consumption but to feed to livestock, especially cows. Industrial farming, processing the corn and beans, feeding it to livestock, and processing the livestock uses a huge amount of energy, most of it from fossil fuels, and generates a lot of waste, including bovine-burp methane which is a potent greenhouse gas. I now eat less beef, thus reducing the market for some of the most environmentally destructive commercial practices. The change in diet I have to make is the change I should have made anyway. I had already, for ecological reasons, begun eating less sugar and beef; I just needed to go further in that direction. The right thing for me was also the right thing for the world. It didn’t have to be that way, but it is.

“The environment” is a misleading term. It is not just about rare birds and distant rainforests. The environment is everything that surrounds us, and includes us. The environment is the medium through which we relate to other people. Part of what we do to love other people is to help to keep the environment safe for them to live in.

Frequently, the best foods for diabetics are those that are not locally grown and are not available at all times of the year. That is, for most American diabetics, much good food must be transported thousands of miles and/or processed. Transportation and processing use a lot of energy and have a major impact on the environment. I thought about this when I bought fresh broccoli and lettuce in the winter. What do you think? Should I have done this? I also bought fresh carrots and cabbage. Carrots and cabbage can at least be stored for longer periods than broccoli and lettuce; they can be raised and stored locally, to a certain extent. Sugar comes from tropical farmlands; but stevia is an imported tropical product also. Unsweetened yogurt and dried fruits also have less environmental impact than fresh green vegetables in the winter. I say this in order to simply admit that a happy diabetic, eating from the vast table of foods that are healthy, will often encounter foods that are not “environmentally friendly,” even if they are pesticide-free. (Mushrooms? They can be local and year-round. All you need is a dark room and (let’s call it) mulch. And every place has mulch.)

Nevertheless, for the most part, a happy diabetic eats foods that are better for the environment and for the people of the world than he or she might otherwise have eaten. There is no need for a diabetic to cast aside a dedication to environmental and social responsibility in order to be a happy eater.

How does this relate to evolution? In the Stone Age, humans didn’t have to worry about the environment. Nowadays, there are so many of us and our technology is so toxic that every little thing we do is wrong. Don’t throw anything on the ground, etc. But we no longer live in the environment in which we evolved. We live in an environment thick with other human beings whose interests we must altruistically respect.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Blast 'Em

In politics, agriculture, and the economy, we want quick, decisive results. We like quick military action rather than slow diplomacy (although there was strong disapproval of military intervention in Syria). We want the Fed to do something to kick-start the economy.

And this is our approach in agriculture as well. On nearly all of the agricultural acreage in America, we use the blast-‘em approach. We plow the soil so that we can plant exactly what we want where we want it, then we blast the fields with herbicides and pesticides to kill everything that we consider unwelcome.

We use this approach even in some of our “sustainable” or “ecological” practices. For example, crop rotation. If a farmer plants beans or alfalfa (which are legumes) one year and corn (a grain) the next, the residual nitrogen from the legumes will fertilize the soil, which means you don’t have to use as much fertilizer on the corn. This is a good idea. But this is still a blast-‘em approach, because we impose a plowing and planting schedule upon the soil.

Scientists at the Land Institute are developing perennial polyculture—that is, an agriculture based upon species of perennials (which therefore need no plowing) grown in polyculture—that is, different species mixed together. Perennial polyculture is much harder to do than conventional crop rotation, because the grains and the legumes are perennials and are neighbors of one another for year after year. At the Land Institute, they have plots with rows of perennial kernza grain, in between which grows perennial alfalfa, a legume. They have to get the right spacing and timing, in order to assure that the grains do not crowd out the legumes, or the other way around. If you plow every year and plant corn and soybeans, you don’t need to worry about that. But if you allow perennial grains and legumes to grow together for a long time, it is a scientific challenge to get them in balance. This is because we are allowing the perennial crops the freedom to grow as they see fit, and we try to coax them into growing the way we want them to.

The blast-‘em approach does not require much intelligence, and it has clear results. The perennial polyculture approach requires a lot of research, and the plants do not always grow exactly where and how much you want them to. Sustainable and therefore intelligent approaches are our only hope for the future of agriculture. Sustainable approaches may be less satisfying to some people than blasting the soil with our willpower, but it is more satisfying to the rest of us because we intelligently fit ourselves into the processes of nature.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

An Offer You Can’t Refuse

Dear Federal Government,

If you need someone to screw up the government and the national economy and the world economy, which is what Congress appears to be bent on doing, I wish to offer my services. I believe I can screw up the government, the country, and the world just as well as Congress does, but a lot cheaper.

Congressional pay averages $174,000 per person per year, and the House and Senate collectively cost the American taxpayers about $258,000 per day, which is over $94 million per year. And all they are capable of doing is to create artificial crises, without addressing any long-term problems. For example, the long-term debt needs to be addressed, but instead their entire attention is focused on making the debt problem into a short-term crisis. As I write, the budget standoff has not been resolved, but it probably will be, say members of Congress. They will, I hear, agree to suspend the debt ceiling crisis until a few months from now. That is, they will fight this battle over and over again into the foreseeable future, thus getting no other work done.

Heck, I can do that. And a lot cheaper. Instead of spending $94 million a year, you could pay me a one-time fee of just a quarter million dollars (plus expenses) and I promise you that I can come in and make a mess of the government, the country, and the world. Maybe not as much of a mess, since the House and Senate have 535 members working full time to create new crises, but I can create enough of a mess to make our government and economy collapse, and if it collapses, does it matter how much of a mess is made? That is, I can do their job for one-376th the cost.

You can even close the Congressional gym. I wouldn’t use it. I just put pillows on the floor and do pushups and situps; I don’t need any fancy equipment or a heated pool. As a matter of fact, you could close down all the other Congressional perks. I have heard, but cannot confirm, that there is a congressional movie theatre, massage parlor, casino, and gentleman’s club. Well, maybe leave them open for a week or so, so I can use them, then shut them down.

I would require the health care plan that members of Congress enjoy but which many of them passionately desire to deny to the rest of America. But you could suspend Congressional health care while the members are locked out of their offices and chambers. Oh, you might need to keep the staff proctologist on call for them.

I would require health care only for the duration of the contract, at which time I would return to my day job. I don’t want to spend too much time away from my day job, since I am actually doing useful work and wish to continue it.

We have the best Congress that money can buy, both at public expense and (even more) as a result of payments by large corporate donors. While normally this is an expense we can barely support, there is a bright side to it: look how much money you could save by hiring me to screw up the world.

I believe that Congress creates these artificial crises in order to avoid dealing with issues. Last year, in the wake of the Connecticut school shooting, there was the very real possibility that, backed by massive public opinion, Congress might pass at least some slight gun regulation. Some Congressional leaders sweat bullets over that, but they won’t have to ever again, because the topic of gun regulation will never come up. As of the beginning of June, the date of an article that addresses this point, the House and Senate had passed 13 laws, none of which addressed any major long-term questions. See that article for the complete list. My personal favorites are H.R.1071 (“To specify the size of the precious-metal blanks that will be used in the production of the National Baseball Hall of Fame commemorative coins”) and S.982: Lamar Alexander’s Freedom to Fish Act. This is not worth $94 million, is it?

In the event that the artificial crisis is resolved, we all know it is a temporary resolution. But my offer remains good for the next time Congress wants to engineer a world crisis.

This blog is about evolution. One of the things that have resulted from evolution in many species of animals is a social structure. In most cases, there are alpha males (and/or females) that coerce the rest of the animals into serving them. Of course, they need the altruistic support of co-conspirators. Humans fit right into that pattern, with our leaders serving only their own interests at the expense of the general population. But in no other case do these leaders deliberately cause the collapse of their societies.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Darwin rap has finally been posted! Check it out here. If anyone thinks evolution isn't cool, just show them this! The channel is http://youtube.com/StanEvolve.

Attention All Investors

Attention all investors: the United States is not where you want to make long-term investments. The reason is obvious. You cannot know from one week to the next whether there will be a functioning government. And this is a situation created by the government itself. Therefore the only kind of American investment that you might wish to consider is something extremely short term, where you can make a quick killing and get out.

Evolution has fashioned the life histories of organisms, which is largely the stories of their investments. How long do they live? How sturdy are their bodies? How many offspring do they produce? These are all investment questions. And oak trees answer these questions differently than cottonwood trees do. Oaks invest in strong wood and produce relatively few seeds over the course of centuries because they live in stable environments. Cottonwoods invest in cheap wood and produce many seeds during their short lives (by tree standards) in unstable, flood-prone, riverside environments.

Investing in the American economy today requires a cottonwood mentality. It is no place for you to trust your life’s savings, unless you do not plan to live very long. Of course, most of us have little choice; this is where we live, and it is very inconvenient for us to invest in, say, Japan or South Korea or Singapore. My own, admittedly imperfect, solution is to put most of my money in bank accounts and retirement funds, the purpose of which funds is to sit around and do very little, slowly accumulating value; in my health, so that I will not need to spend money on health care; in my house, since I actually live there; and in my daughter, who is my future. I will not consider putting my money into the floodplains of the general economy, where it will end up as flotsam and jetsam amidst the corpses of fish.

I think the American economy is even more tumultuous than the environment of cottonwoods. It is more of a bacterial economy. As soon as an animal dies, the bacteria begin to rot it. The bacteria have a wild population explosion. Then they die once they have finished decomposing the animal.

Another image that might serve for our American economy is the Permian extinction. Ecological communities around the world were collapsing 250 million years ago. One of the pieces of evidence for this is that the fossil record for that time period has a sudden spike of mold spores, which indicates that the world was rotting. We are in the economic equivalent of the Permian extinction. The world eventually recovered from that period of death; but it took about a hundred million years to recover its biodiversity! Right now (as of 11:00 central time) the Dow is high, which sounds like economic health—but remember that the Permian extinction was also a period of high and fast living, for fungi.

Congress passes laws that authorize, even require, certain expenditures, then they refuse to fund them. Congress forbids us to do what they require us to do. This is either so stupid as to be the product of pre-human cognition or else it is deliberate.

It really doesn’t matter if or when Congress resolves the budget impasse or whether the government defaults. America has already shot its credibility. America now has no more credibility for long-term investment (I’m talking to you, China) than does a shack built out of cottonwood or the brief pungent decomposition of a corpse.

Have a nice day.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Have We Evolved Beyond Racism?


First, consider the biological reason. The brain physiology underlying our minds has not evolved appreciably since the stone age. Not only every race but every tribe considered itself chosen by God to kill the others. There has not been enough time for our brains to have undergone significant biological evolution. We have their stone age brains.

Second, the cultural reason. Surely we have evolved beyond ancient mindsets by cultural evolution? I am afraid that the answer here, also, is no. Certainly, we have made progress in the past 150 years. But we have not left racism behind. Instead we have just pushed it into our subconscious minds. It still calls the shots in many cases, and often determines what we do, but we may not be aware of it.

The major example of which we Americans, and observers from around the world, are aware is the utter determination of the Republican Party (which is disproportionately white compared to the American population) to destroy Barack Obama. They were confident that Mitt Romney would win the 2012 election. When Obama won re-election, the Republicans went to Plan B: destroy Obama. I consider their subconscious motivation to be racism. Here’s why.

Obama is a lame duck. There is no political need to destroy Obama; if Republicans succeed, they will have President Joe Biden. (Similarly, Democrats held back from impeaching George W. Bush, not wishing to have President Dick Cheney.) If there is no political reason to destroy him, then there must be a personal reason.

How do we know that the Republican attacks on Obama are not merely politically motivated? We know this because we can scientifically test this hypothesis: If the Republican hatred of Barack Obama were politically motivated, then they would hate him less than they hated Bill Clinton. But, as it turns out, they hate him much much more.

And the evidence for this? There are, as I see it, three differences between Bill Clinton (while he was president) and Barack Obama. They are as follows.

First, Barack Obama has high ethical standards than Bill Clinton did as president. Instead of having a Monica Lewinsky hanging around him, Obama is a morally upright husband and father. The Obama family is the picture-perfect American family. (In this way Obama also compares favorably to John F. Kennedy.) This should be a reason that Republicans, who claim to be God’s representatives of purity and morality upon the face of this sordid planet, would like Obama better than Clinton. Therefore the ethical difference between Clinton and Obama cannot be the reason for Republican hatred of Obama.

Second, Barack Obama is more politically and fiscally conservative than Clinton. Republicans decry Obamacare as socialist, but it is much, much less socialist, and incorporates more market forces, than did the ill-fated 1993 health care plan proposed by Bill Clinton. Republicans reacted strongly against the Clinton plan, but not with the ferocity of their attack on Obama. Obama’s comparative fiscal conservativeness should be a reason that Republicans would like Obama better than they liked Clinton. Therefore the political difference between Clinton and Obama cannot be the reason for Republican hatred of Obama.

A third difference is race. Clinton is white and Obama is black (actually, biracial, but he identifies with his black heritage). This is the only reason that I can think of that would make Republicans hate Obama worse than they hated Clinton. And it is clearly a personal, intense hatred.

Of course, Republicans forced a government shutdown during the first Clinton Administration also. The federal government shut down all but emergency services twice: from November 14 through November 19, 1995 and from December 16, 1995 to January 6, 1996, a total of 28 days. As of tomorrow, the 2013 government shutdown will have reached the same number of days as the first shutdown, in November of 1995. Republicans appear resolved to continue the shutdown even if it means defaulting on contractual funds on October 17. And this time, we have all seen evidence of the extreme antipathy that Republicans have showed toward Obama. They have shown him the kind of disdain that slavery advocates—from the Union states, the confederate states having seceded—showed Abraham Lincoln in 1865.

As further evidence that Republican antipathy is not merely political, consider that the Republicans could achieve their aims in a constitutional manner. They could pass a bill repealing Obamacare in both the house and senate, and have the president sign it. He won’t, because he won re-election in 2012 largely on the issue of Obamacare. The constitutional way for Republicans to have their way would have been to win the 2012 election. Instead, they pass laws creating programs then refuse to fund those same programs.

I believe that in the long run American history will evaluate Obama the same way as it depicts Lincoln. At the time, many strong voices attacked Lincoln as a dictator who wanted to ruin the United States by giving black people the rights of citizenship. Today, those voices are buried in the dustbin of history under a patina of disgust. Similarly, I believe, the Republican voices of our day will be derided in the same way as are the 1865 voices in support of slavery. The party of angry old white men, and a few angry young white men, and a very very small number of angry Latinos and blacks, will dwindle into an insignificance from which their stockpiles of guns cannot resurrect them.

There are other ways in which Republican positions have racist effects. Global warming is caused by carbon emissions from human activity, for which white industrial nations are largely responsible. But most of the burden of famine and disease will be borne by nations dominated by people of color, especially in Africa. Republicans, I assume, do not hold their global warming denialism with racist intent. But subconsciously they might be thinking, who cares about a bunch of Africans?

Of course, Republicans will claim they are not racists. And they may honestly believe they are not. But I conclude for the above reasons that racism is operating in their subconscious minds. We are all cavemen in modern clothes, some of us more than others.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Stumbling toward Collapse

It is now 10 Vendémiaire on the French Revolutionary calendar. This past weekend, two friends and myself participated in the Prairie Festival at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. Each year, the Prairie Festival is part scientific meeting and part celebration. The formal presentations, mostly by scientists and economists, are not in a climate-controlled room at a conference center, as they are at most meetings, but inside of a big, old barn. People sat on folding chairs or, in my case, on the dirt. Swallows flew in the rafters. The wind swayed one of the big barn doors, as it has at least since I began attending the Festival about 1995, and I keep wondering when it will finally collapse. The celebration part was a Friday night barn dance (in the same barn, sans folding chairs) and folk singers, including the incomparable Ann Zimmerman. There is a newly-constructed fire circle, and many of us sat by a bonfire until long after the stars appeared on Saturday night.

The Land Institute scientific staff gave us an update on their work. They continue to make progress in breeding wild wheatgrass (which they have renamed “kernza”) and wheat-wheatgrass hybrids, so that in the future the world might be able to produce grain without having to plow the soil or use chemicals. (This is because kernza is a perennial.) At the Saturday evening dinner (eaten outside by people sitting on the ground or bales of hay), we got to eat some of the kernza. Not as delicious as wheat, but certainly sufficient. The staff scientists are also breeding wild prairie silphium into an oil crop, and making sorghum-Johnsongrass hybrids. If they do produce perennial sorghum, it will be a benefit not only to American agriculture, but to African agriculture, according to a Ugandan graduate student who was one of the scientific presenters.

But there were also presentations by economists. I will share insights from John Fullerton and Lisi Krall. Fullerton is the founder of the Capital Institute, which promotes sustainable and responsible spending and investment. Fullerton was one of the inventors of complex derivatives, but he could see that such financial practices would lead to collapse, so he got out of the stock market in 2001, long before these financial practices caused the financial meltdown of 2008. He was a very rich man who walked away from his golden pig. He demanded that CEOs apologize for the willful misconduct, violation of trust, and arrogance that led to that meltdown; I’m not aware that he received any response to his demand. He even wondered if the misconduct of the CEOs of big financial corporations were guilty of crimes against humanity. Krall is an economist at SUNY Cortland.

Fullerton had some bad news for us. (There is a reason that economics is called the “dismal science,” and it is not just because of the lingering legacy of Thomas Malthus.) The ecological reality is that we live in a finite world, something that even today many or most economists will not admit. Fullerton said that all economic models begin with the assumption of three percent growth per year, which cannot continue in a finite world. There are several proposals for how to fix the economy and fit it into ecological reality, including carbon taxes and impact investing by conscientious rich people. (There are more conscientious rich people than you might think. They are quiet about their good work promoting sustainable development.)

Krall had even worse news for us. Before we can do anything, she said, we have to look into the black hole and admit our problems. Our economic system is built upon the premise that we can ignore “externalities” such as pollution, global warming, and soil erosion. Another premise is that profitability comes from reducing labor costs. Therefore, our economic system leads to job elimination and lower pay. Resource depletion, global warming, job loss, and lower pay are therefore what come out of our economic system when it is working the way it is supposed to. These unacceptable outcomes are the result of what we usually consider sound business practices. Therefore we cannot solve the problems of the world by means of our current economic system. We need a new system. Of course, we are in denial on this point. There are (mostly Republican) global warming denialists, but most of us (including progressives, especially the green-tech optimists) are economic denialists. Since our economy even when it is working right is unsustainable, we have a failed economy. It hasn’t collapsed yet—Congress is working hard to make this happen—but we already have the terminal disease metastasizing. (This last sentence is mine, not Krall’s.) She ended by saying that we live in the waning days of our economy; we can only choose the manner in which we will participate in its closure. “Is there enough of the wild left in us to do this?”

But Fullerton also had some good news for us. But even this good news is rooted in bad news. Of the 60,000 top corporations in the world, only 1,000 have half of the wealth. And each of these corporations has a few major investors. He said that there are only about a thousand investors in the world who really matter in shaping the future of the economy. So we could solve our problems by convincing these thousand investors. Some, like Warren Buffett, are already convinced; some, like Donald Trump, never will be. But we don’t need to convince all one thousand. If we convince maybe a hundred, we can cause a shift in the economic landscape, resulting in a surprisingly quick transition to a sustainable world. We need an economy with resilience—and resilience, he said, does not mean having to keep getting bailed out by the government. The 2008 federal bailout was, by its very existence, evidence of the failure of our economic system.

In my view, if our economy were working as it was meant to work, we would be striding toward disaster. Congress has created an artificial crisis that totally consumes their attention and diverts it away from solving long-term problems. As a result, we are now stumbling toward disaster.

Someone asked Fullerton what the new generation, people under thirty, should do. His answer did not satisfy anyone, least of all himself. He said that World War Two gave his father a sense of purpose and meaning in life. Those of you who are under thirty will face economic disruption, and the one thing about it is that it will give you a sense of purpose. Gee, thanks a lot, I thought; the Donner Party had a sense of purpose (I wonder if I can eat the sole of that shoe? I wonder if that corpse has been dead too long to eat?). I’m 56 years old, but my daughter is under thirty; behold the world we bequeath you, Anita.

I expect that conservative commentators would have a lot of misinformation to provide about the Prairie Festival. They would certainly label the presenters as socialists and usurpers of the American tradition of rulership by the Rich, and would probably even call the fire circle a pagan wiccan ceremony.