Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Real World

The real world is the world of light, air, water, soil, and food. It is the world that trees and other plants create for us by producing oxygen and food, by enriching the soil and holding back floods. It is the world of ecology and evolution.

In contrast, the financial world is an artificial world. This fact has become apparent to those who thought that the real world just consisted of moving other people’s money around. Before the Collapse, James E. Cayne was a billionaire and the chairman of Bear Stearns. He lost $900 million of that in 2008. Noted New York Times’ Landon Thomas Jr. on March 28, 2008, “It represents a humiliating capitulation for a brash executive who, with his ever-present cigar, suspender-snapping ways and Friday golf outings…epitomized the classic, if outdated, picture of the Wall Street chieftain.” We have one of these bankers, right down to the cigar, where I live in Durant, Oklahoma. He just built a huge mansion that is a pastiche of every style smushed together; its only unifying theme is arrogance. He paid almost as much for his front door—not the whole porch, just the door—as I did for my house.

If you drive through rural Oklahoma towns, you will see all of the buildings run down, except, of course, the bank. Interest, or usury, is the best source of wealth today. But it is parasitic and unstable. Just ask Mr. Cayne, who now has to suffer with his remaining pittance of $61 million.

I don’t think Mr. Cayne has a clue about what the real world is. But I’ll tell you who does. Wangari Maathai is an African woman who has led millions of Kenyan women to plant trees, not instead of improving their economic lives but in order to improve their economic lives. She won the Nobel Peace Prize, the only environmentalist (and African woman) to have done so. But her Green Belt Movement was a major financial benefit—to the rural poor of Kenya. Now there is a woman who understands the real world.

We have to accept the reality of light, water, air, soil, and plants. We cannot create reality. George W. Bush said, “We are an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” To me, this sounds like blasphemy.

The real world is bears, not teddy bears or Bear Stearns; and is green, not greenbacks.

A version of this essay appeared on my website on November 23, 2008.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Absurd Creativity

This essay was recycled from my website (November 21, 2009).

Absurd creativity—that is what evolution has. The pathways of evolution follow no course of deductive logic, to design organisms or ecosystems the way an engineer would. Evolution tries all kinds of things, some beautiful, some silly, some ordinary—and keeps the ones that work. There is no Designer/Engineer in control of the process; it just spreads out in a million directions and produces adaptations that are essentially unpredictable.

This was brought to my attention as I was writing the entry about reptiles for my upcoming Encyclopedia of Biodiversity. Like most of you, I just assumed that any legless reptile that slithered through the undergrowth was a snake. But this is not correct. There are about a dozen different lineages of partially or wholly legless lizards, which have evolved the same adaptation as snakes, but independently. Lizards have long tails, whereas most of a snake’s length is its body. “Glass snakes” are actually lizards, without legs, and with a long tail. They are called glass snakes because they can break off parts of their tails (like broken glass) to confuse a predator that is pursuing them. Real snakes cannot do this. Legless lizards are examples of evolutionary convergence, where different lineages of animals independently evolve the same adaptation.

One day about a billion years ago (seems like yesterday), the first plant cells got their chloroplasts. These are the green structures that make sunlight into food. It might really have just happened in one day. Photosynthetic bacteria invaded, or were consumed by, larger cells with nuclei. But instead of killing or dying, these bacteria took up residence inside the plant cell. It was a mutually beneficial relationship; the bacteria made food from sunlight, and the larger cell provided fertilizer and protection. The chloroplasts of plants are cells inside of cells. From this event, the red algae and the green algae separately evolved. Some of the green algae evolved into land plants.

But there were some other large cells that also consumed, or were invaded by, the red or green algae. And the red or green algal cells became the chloroplasts of what are today the brown algae, diatoms, dinoflagellates, and euglenas. (Brown algae are the large seaweeds.) That is, brown algae, diatoms, dinoflagellates, and euglenas have chloroplasts that are cells inside of cells inside of cells. The chloroplasts of dinoflagellates even have little degenerated nuclei inside of them! Just as legless reptiles evolved several times, so did chloroplasts.

The evolutionary process tries endless combinations of mutations and adaptations, resulting in a living world that has much more variety that is hidden than variety that is obvious.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Cottonwood Investments

This essay appeared on my website on February 15, 2009.

How many of you would build a home out of cottonwood? I doubt that anybody would do this. This kind of wood is not strong. Although cottonwood trees grow tall and their trunks are large, they do not live very long. They live along creeks and rivers, where periodic floods turn trees into floating logs.

In contrast, most oak trees have very strong wood. Strong wood is more expensive for a tree to produce than is weak wood. Oaks live for centuries, and strong wood is a necessary investment, but it would be a wasted investment for a cottonwood, which would be probably be killed by a flood before a century has passed. Cottonwood trees follow the James Dean philosophy of life: live fast and die young. Oak trees grow slowly and live a long time. Both patterns of life are adaptations to their circumstances: the first to a temporary habitat, the second to a stable habitat.

Yet another approach to life is found in alder trees. Alders, like cottonwoods, live in streamside habitats where floods frequently destroy them. The 2007 floods in Oklahoma destroyed almost every alder tree that I could see. But alders produce numerous small trunks from a strong underground rootstock. Within a couple of months of the floods, nearly all of the alders had resprouted. An alder clump may persist for centuries, even though each of its trunks may live only for a few decades.

The near-collapse of the financial sector resulted from cheap investments that were not intended to last. For a brief time, these investments yielded immense profits to a few people, but failure was built into the system. Financial markets invested like cottonwoods. The problem is that a nation is supposed to survive for a long time, like a forest of oaks, not like a streamside with cottonwoods. If the United States intends to persist, the correct way to invest is for the long term.

In nature, cottonwoods cannot survive in oak forests. But on Wall Street, all of the biggest corporations followed the cottonwood type of investment and, in effect, forced it on the entire system. By investing in the short term, banks and other financial firms forced their environment to become unstable, and took billions of dollars down with them. Their approach to life turned a country, and a world, into a habitat that lives fast and dies young.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Conservatives and their Alternate Planet

Have you noticed that conservatives live on a different planet? This is nowhere more evident than in their response to global warming. They deny the reality of one of the best attested facts in human existence. And they bolster it with appeals to religion, making things up that are not even in their scriptures.

In fact, we are all living on a different planet. As Bill McKibben points out in his new book, Eaarth, we no longer live on the old, comfortable planet Earth, but on a planet (which he calls Eaarth) in which global warming and its consequences have already become the norm. Political and religious conservatives have not yet reconciled themselves with the reality of Earth, much less of Eaarth.

The events of this week illustrate the fact perfectly. Three events have occurred that, while ignored by many people, are hugely ominous for the future of our planet.

First, climate scientists have predicted that areas near the oceans would get more rainfall, and get it in the form of big storms. They intended this as a future prediction, but it is the major fact of reality right now in Pakistan, which is having the worst floods in its history.

Second, climate scientists have predicted that areas in the middle of continents would experience droughts and heat waves. This is happening right now in Russia, at the same moment that Pakistan is flooded. Russia had not experienced temperatures of 100 F during the time that reliable records have been kept, but they have had temperatures over 100 F for almost two weeks now. The result has been a massive drought, with the biggest outbreak of forest fires in their history.

Third, climate scientists have predicted interruptions in agricultural productivity and international trade in agricultural products. This has just happened, today. On August 5, 2010, Russia announced that it was banning grain exports for the rest of the year. Add this to the near collapse of Australian grain production, and the price of grain on the international market will get even higher—which will, of course, affect poor people the most. Most Americans may not notice, because we can afford to pay almost any price for food, or so we think.

There are three stages of conservative response to global warming. The first stage is to deny that it is happening. The second stage is to claim that it is happening but is not being influenced by human activity. They are already beginning this second stage. The third stage is to just say that, oh well, we can’t do anything about it so we might as well go ahead and burn all the oil we want to.

These three viewpoints all contradict one another, but conservatives can comfortably accommodate them, because evolution has given us brains capable of maintaining mutually contradictory thoughts. Science has given us a way to transcend the limitations of our ape brains, but conservatives appear in this case to have no use for science.