Monday, June 29, 2015

Disabling a Century of Progress

Welcome readers, most of whom are from the United States. For those of you who are in Canada, Russia, France, Germany, India, and Bangladesh (according to my blog map), you might learn something today about the United States, and I regret to say that it will not be good.

The twentieth century saw an astonishing degree of progress in the United States with regard to saving natural areas and wild species, and protecting human health. The momentum of public health and conservation continued through both Democratic and Republican administrations. The current Republican leadership of the House, however, seems determined to disable all of this progress.

An article in the May 29, 2015 issue of Science describes how the House is doing this. The authors focused on five bills that have either passed or been advanced in the House and that pose a danger to:

  • Clean Air Act
  • Clean Water Act
  • Occupational Safety and Health Act
  • Endangered Species Act
  • Consumer Product Safety Act

 The Republican House does not want to stir up notice by actually repealing these laws, but they are deliberately disabling their implementation by agencies such as the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Environmental Protection Agency. They do so by methods the authors call insidious, and you would probably agree with them. Among the excuses the House is using to disable these prominent pieces of twentieth century legislation are:

  • Putting Congress in charge of deciding the regulations. The Regulations from the Executive In Need of Scrutiny (REINS) act is supposed to “rein in” the agencies by requiring Congressional approval of new agency regulations. Here is the most insidious part: if either house of Congress fails to act (which, as we all know, is in fact the norm) then the agency’s new regulations cannot be put into effect.
  • Create new bureaucracy. House Republicans like to create the image that they are cutting out bureaucracy, but actually they want to create more of it. The Regulatory Accountability Act and the Sound Science Act create many new requirements on the processes by which federal agencies implement new regulations. The new requirements would add an additional $250 million a year to EPA at the same time that Congress is slashing its budget.
  • Disable the information gathering process. The Secret Science Reform Act requires agencies to make public all sources of information upon which they base their decisions. This sounds great except when you consider that many of the data about effects of pollutants on human health are taken from studies that include confidential health records. Therefore the agencies cannot use the most important source of data on which pollution regulations are based.
  • Manipulating the membership of advisory committees. The EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act would require two major changes to EPA advisory committees. First, industry representatives would be allowed control over the regulations; and, second, any scientist who has received EPA funding becomes ineligible to serve on the committees.

 The result will be inevitable: no new pollution regulations and no new endangered species designations.

The Republicans who control Congress like to identify themselves with Christianity and the God of Love. But these actions reveal their true thinking. They seem to be thinking, first, “We love you, but we don’t care if environmental toxins kill you,” and, second, “We love God’s creation but we don’t care how much of it is destroyed.” Each of these lines of thinking contains fatal inconsistencies and is clearly indicative of hypocrisy regarding religion. This is one reason that I believe Congressional Republicans are just using Christianity as a shield to deflect criticism and behind which to hide their real agenda.

I was hoping someday to get endangered species protection for Alnus maritima, the seaside alder shrub, one of the rarest trees in the world. This seems to now be a hopeless endeavor. Instead, my focus is going to be on getting as many people as possible to plant this shrub in their gardens. Private rescue of endangered species worked for the ginkgo, the Franklinia, and the Torreya; it may be the only hope of the seaside alder and other rare plant species. With animals, of course, it is not so easy. It’s not like you can take an endangered animal species home to live with you. If you might be interested in planting some seaside alder seeds in your garden, let me know at this email,

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Discipline of Inspiration

I certainly did not feel like taking a hike this morning. But yesterday I decided I would hike at dawn today. My body woke up before 6:00 and said, Get up, ya lazy ass, ya said ya wanted to go on a hike. So I got up, and for the next 511 calories I hiked, stumbling at first, and at last. But I decided I was going to experience the beauty of the world. And I did. Inspiration isn’t something that you wait around for. It is a discipline.

The fact that the words and music of “Sunday morning coming down,” popularized by Johnny Cash, were going through my mind did not help to inspire me, written as they were about a lonely man with a hangover. Even when alone I am not lonely, and I certainly have not experienced “And there’s nothing short of dying that’s half as lonesome as the sound…of Sunday morning coming down,” but part of my discipline was to focus the rest of my mind, the part not parasitized by that tune, on the beauty around me.

And during an Oklahoma heat wave, when it is almost 80 degrees F at sunrise, it is more of a discipline than in many other places. All I did was crouch to take a photo of a turtle, who was as zonked as I was, and I found myself panting.

It was also a discipline because the forest in which I was immersed was surrounded by frantic economic activity; just a half mile away, there was an endless grind of trucks. I had to force myself to pay attention to my surroundings. I was ready to take notes, not trusting my groggy memory. I used to take notes on paper, but I now use an iPhone, because sweat effaces both pen and pencil, and returns paper to its pulpy natal state.

We divide the year into seasons, and the seasons into periods (such as early summer, our current period). But actually the natural world goes through its seasonal cycles, and each week or two is noticeably different. It seems like just yesterday when the persimmon fruit was just a flower.This week, the Sabatia, Monarda, and Ruellia flowers were out. Two weeks hence and you won’t see very many of them. And there is no season in which the trees can sit back and just do their work. They are constantly monitoring their environments for opportunities. In most years, they simply let the leaves they grew in the springtime do their photosynthetic work for them; but this is such a wet year that many of the trees, from blackjack oaks to winged elms, have seized the opportunity to invest in the wealth and produce a new flush of leaves.

You have to decide to look and notice things. Any other time and I might have walked right past the new, unopened florets of Chasmanthium “fish-on-a-pole” grass.

Had I not glanced up, I would not have noticed the struggle for existence going on right over my head, as a spider sucked the life out of an insect.

I always teach my students that Virginia creeper vines have leaves with five leaflets. But today I was deliberately alert for surprising variation. And I noticed what I had perhaps often seen but not thought about: a Virginia creeper whose leaves had three leaflets, sometimes four.

You have to look closely and think about things. Yes, I am that guy ahead on the trail who is crouching down to look at horse droppings. It has been so warm and humid that, within a day or two, a sheen of fungus has started growing over them.

I was not the only person on the trail. A bunch of young men came running along the trail, their coach at the end of the line. They could not have noticed the quiet details that I saw, but they certainly noticed more than they would have if they had stayed at home.

There is a story I have heard about St. Francis of Assisi, who loved all the animals (and plants and Brother Sun and Sister Moon). When he encountered dying earthworms on the trail, he would pick them up and throw them back into moist soil. I wonder if, today, they would call him St. Francis the Sissy. But, as I mindfully walked on the trail this morning, I could appreciate his reverence for life. Unlike Francis, I left the worms where they were—there are so many of them, I cannot possibly save enough worm-lives to matter, and they were already wriggling in the last throes of death anyway. And worm death is part of the ecosystem I so admire. But maybe, if he had seen me stop and look, St. Francis would have smiled and reflected, At least I made him think for a moment.

Inspiration also followed discipline in my life yesterday. I am working on what might be the most significant novel that I will ever write, a rewrite of a rewrite of a 1991 rewrite of a 1990 manuscript. I had the ending pretty much tied up in the original version, or so I thought, but I realized yesterday there were too many loose ends, characters and continents left dangling. I had to write a new ending to the novel. I really did not feel like it, nor did I have a clue how I was going to do this. But I just decided to start. The wellsprings of creativity soon carried me away and I wrote 7400 words of an ending I could not have guessed even earlier the same day. This creative work took a lot out of me. I don’t think I could do it today, but there is no day on which I can write anything unless I undertake the discipline of inviting my mind to unleash its creativity.

So perhaps the best time for a nature walk is when you are disinclined to it. The great composer Antonín Dvořák routinely took a sunrise nature walk. Today is one of the few days that I have done so, but I tasted a little bit of the inspiration he felt. But even for a genius like Dvořák, inspiration only came in after discipline had opened the door.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

What Happens When a Bunch of Freethinkers Have a Convention?

Report from the 2015 Oklahoma Freethought Convention, June 20.

Let me guess what some very extreme religious people might think that humanists do when they get together. They might think that freethinkers—such as atheists and agnostics—start jumping on each other for a wild sex orgy. Such a person would be very, very wrong. Just looking around at the small crowd, one might think that (except for the occasional tattoos and green hair) that it was a church convention. This is because, of course, humanists have morals just like anyone else. They just have different reasons for their morals. Let me give you some reasons that freethinkers do not have. First, they will not say, “I have morals because God will send me to hell otherwise.” Second, they will not say, “I have morals because the Apostle Paul writes in the books of Contusions, Abrasions, and Concussions that God gets mad if you don’t have morals.” Third, they will not say, “I have morals because God wants me to love people.” When a Christian claims that “We love because He first loved us,” this may imply (though not necessarily) that love is a miracle and therefore cannot occur unless God makes it happen. Humanists know that love is part of instinctual human nature. And morals emerge from love: morals are how you treat other people right. God may indeed love us, but this is not a necessary precondition to human love and morality.

I can assure you, from this meeting, that humanists are quite capable of selfless love. One of the presentations was by Rebecca Vitsmun, who was herself a victim of the 2013 Moore (Oklahoma) tornado and who is now the development director for Foundation Beyond Belief, a humanist disaster relief organization. Her passion is helping people who suffer emergencies, and doing so without proselytizing them (for or against religion). I would put Rebecca up against any of the religious humanitarians, and compare her favorably with many.

What, you may ask, is a freethinker? I will venture my own discussion, although famous historical freethinkers like Ben Franklin and other founding fathers probably said it better. A freethinker examines Big Questions about God, nature, and the meaning of life. That is, freethinkers are first and foremost thinkers. If you don’t give a crap about the meaning of life and just want to have fun, or if you think “God is the meaning of life and I don’t care to think about it further,” then you are not a freethinker. You have to be a thinker first. Furthermore, freethinkers do not decide the conclusion in advance. Freethinkers do not use thinking as a tool either for or against religion. If I had suspected that the Freethinker’s Conference would just be a lineup of angry atheists, I would not have attended (I have other things to do). But there was no assumption that the attendees would be atheists or even agnostics. There was no altar call.

There was no question, however, that Freethinkers overwhelmingly consider organized and conventional religion to be negative and even dangerous. Here are examples from the lineup of speakers:

  • According to Jason Heap, who hopes to be the first humanist chaplain in the history of the U.S. armed forces, conservative religion perpetuates the belief that America was settled by Europeans who wanted religious liberty. Rather, history is very clear (and Jason announced some new documentary evidence from the Bodleian Library at Oxford) that the European settlers wanted a chance to establish their own theocracies. The Pilgrims already had religious liberty in the Netherlands; they came to America to establish a society without religious liberty for anyone who disagreed with them.
  • According to Vyckie Garrison, who has emerged from the Quiverfull movement of Christians, conservative religion can trap a woman into being nothing but a baby-making machine. In this movement, there is no limit whatsoever to how many children a father can sire or a mother can bear. They think that “be fruitful and multiply and fill the Earth” means to have so many kids that the Earth is overfilled; if they stopped to think, they would realize that we have already filled the Earth and it’s time to do something else now already. They also seem to think that the psalm that said a man is happy if his quiver is full of sons must have meant an infinitely large quiver that the man has to drag along the ground or mount on a semi-truck. Vyckie expressed no bitterness, but rather gratitude that her freethinker uncle encouraged her simply to think about what she was saying and doing.
  • Dr. Darrel Ray, a psychologist, explained that some conservative religious “counselors” (many with certification from Brigham Young University or Pat Robertson’s Regent University) have invented a false disorder called sex addiction, from which they are happy to (for a fee) release the purported addicts. Some even use what I would consider fraud. The Mormon-associated Oxbow Academy in Utah, according to Ray, encourages parents to send their boys as young as twelve to them for treatment for “sex addiction.” But the DSM-V (the psychologists’ Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) does not recognize sex addiction, therefore insurance companies will not pay for its treatment. But, says Ray, the Academy tells the insurance companies that the treatments are for disorders such as depression. Sure, says Ray, sexual behaviors can cause big problems, and need to be dealt with, but the industry of “treating sex addiction” is a fraud. I had a little problem with this concept. My understanding is that addiction is not qualitatively different from habit; both can be enhanced by the dopamine pathway in the brain. According to this article in Science, dopamine deficiency can lead to a craving for high-fat and high-sugar diets. Interference with dopamine processing is the basis of nicotine and cocaine addiction. If hamburgers can be literally addictive, why can’t sex? But religion offers the perfect opportunity for fraud, in this particular case.
  • The most astonishing presentation was by independent “autodidact” Aron Ra, who presented abundant Biblical references to show how barbaric the Old Testament is. I most remember Numbers 5, which prescribes an ordeal to which a wife, if her husband merely suspects her of having sex with another man but has not gotten pregnant or has not yet shown signs of pregnancy, must undergo. Note: many parts of the Old Testament are very grim, but not prescriptive. The book of Judges is overwhelmingly gruesome, something you do not want to use in Sunday school, but the last sentence in the book indicates that these acts were evil. But Numbers 5 is prescriptive. The accused wife is supposed to have a curse laid upon her by a priest, then ingest a concoction of dust and bitter water. If the woman is guilty, her belly will swell and her thighs will wither. Otherwise, she will be declared innocent. This is clearly a barbaric practice on a par with dunking witches. Oh, incidentally, Numbers indicates that the man will be free of guilt. If modern conservative Christians knew as much about the Bible as Aron Ra does, and his knowledge is formidable, they would not be so quick to call for Old Testament standards for modern jurisprudence.

The main part of the meeting ended with a magic show by Matt Dillahunty, who seemed able to know which word or number someone was thinking, or which card they had chosen, but who was actually using perfectly materialistic means of figuring these things out. Of course, he did not tell us what these were. He did a great job, especially considering that he got sick right before his performance.

I left the meeting feeling very enlightened and excited. I’m not sure if freethinkers are completely free in their thinking—they would not have looked kindly on a speaker who said the Bible was at least true in a figurative sense—but their thoughts were freer than any religious convention you have probably ever encountered.

Friday, June 12, 2015


I have introduced Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) in this blog before. I showed you a photo of him not even looking at the pile of scientific articles that proved his assertion, that there is no human effect on global warming, to be wrong. He did not even look at the pile of papers.

Smith is the chairman of the House Science Committee, which is preparing the America COMPETES reauthorization act of 2015. The previous versions of this act (Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science) in 2007 and 2010 enjoyed bipartisan support, but Smith has turned it into a sounding board for his extreme anti-environmental views. The purpose of the act was to support science so that America can compete in the world marketplace. If Smith has his way (and he might; the bill passed the House on May 20) this bill will make America competitive the same way the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand is competitive. (By the way, ostriches do not actually do this except when digging holes to lay their eggs.) According to Science magazine on April 24, Smith’s proposals for science funding are within 20 percent, up or down, from President Obama’s funding requests, except for three areas. Those areas are:

  • Department of Energy renewable and efficient energy: down 56%
  • Advanced Research Projects Agency Energy: down 57%
  • National Science Foundation Social and Behavioral Research: down 58%

Smith’s priorities (and those of most Republicans in Congress) are plainly obvious from the first two of these numbers: he does not want any research and development of new technologies that might reduce our burning of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels mean money which means campaign contributions. Christian fundamentalists, who adore Smith and his fellow Republicans, also hate the science of global warming, as I have written previously. Fundamentalists may also feel threatened by social and behavioral research.

It is clear that Congress is driven entirely by corporate money and not at all by verifiable information. Surprised, anyone?

Monday, June 8, 2015

Unlearning War

The vision of the Peaceable Kingdom was a popular one among the Old Testament prophets. They probably all knew it, and two of them (or their followers) incorporated it into their writings: the first Isaiah (chapter 2) and Micah (chapter 4). The prophets envisioned a time when armies would stop fighting wars and instead raise food for their people: “Beat your swords into plowshares.” This image is just as powerful today as it was thousands of years ago, as depicted in a statue at the United Nations.

But this vision is not something that we can all of a sudden decide to do. We cannot go directly from a war mindset to an attitude of peace. We have to learn to think in a new way. Both Isaiah and Micah say, “Nation will not lift up sword against nation, neither will they learn war anymore.” Soldiers cannot create an effective agricultural economy by poking holes in the ground with their swords to plant seeds. It takes a wholesale economic restructuring, in which industry produces plowshares instead of swords, or better yet, recycles the now-useless implements of war into the equipment of peace.

Unfortunately, we can go the other way also. Because of our violent human nature, bequeathed to us by evolution, we can easily slip back into a mindset of war, without having to retrain our brains. The Old Testament prophet Joel did this (chapter 3), when he envisioned a time when people would beat their plowshares into swords.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Summer Travel: A Brief Warning

Summer travel season is upon us. When I travel, I am going to avoid Super 8. My worst experience ever, out of at least a hundred nights on the road, was at a Super 8 in 2014 where they gave me a smoking room despite my reserving a nonsmoking room; the linens were dirty; the manager's wife walked in on me in the shower; the A/C didn't work. All at the same time. I have had similar, but not as bad, experiences at other Super 8 motels. The worst was that Wyndham Rewards took the manager's side and told me that I had no right to complain to them.

Wyndham Rewards manages not only Super 8 but also

  • Days Inn
  • Hawthorn
  • HoJo (Howard Johnson)
  • Knight's Inn
  • Microtel
  • Ramada
  • Travelodge
  • Wingate
  • Wyndham

At Super 8, and perhaps the others, the customer is always wrong. Too bad, because most of my Super 8 stays were OK. But the only ones that are OK are the ones whose managers take it upon themselves to aspire to high quality; neither the Super 8 corporation nor Wyndham Rewards appear to require any standards of quality from them.

In many cases, natural selection favors those animals (including humans) who practice reciprocity. This results in win-win situations, with (in an economic system) both the customer and manager are happy. But when a corporation is very big, it can treat consumers like dirt and get away with it. We all know of major financial institutions that have done this. It appears that Super 8 and related motel chains are another example. They have made the form of natural selection known as consumer opinion useless.

All one can do is to publish one’s experiences and hope that the market will gradually change. I published a review of this Super 8 on the Consumer Affairs website last year. It has had 71668 views and 29 helpful votes. In today’s online world, consumers might be able to get back a little bit of their power.