Monday, December 30, 2013

Slashing Orcs (An Anticipation of the New Year)

Back in September, I wished everyone a Happy New Year, according to the nature-based French Revolutionary calendar. We have now arrived at the end of one year and the beginning of another, based on an arbitrary calendar. By the Revolutionary calendar, January 1 is nothing more than the eleventh day of NivĂ´se, the snowy month, but it is a date on which a lot of people are looking back and looking forward in an attempt to make sense of both the past and the future.

Usually, when we humans attempt to predict what will happen in the coming year, we try to understand the past year. But if we have learned anything from the past year, it is that our future will follow a largely arbitrary trajectory. Was there any progress on rebuilding our economy or on preventing global warming or on enhancing science literacy? It doesn’t matter, because for any reason or for no reason Congress can simply decide to cause our economy to collapse. They actually started the process in October, taking us a few hours into government default, just to prove to us that they could. They want us to remember that they have the knife to our throats. Therefore, to use just this example, default is not something that might occur as a result of deficit spending or of depleted resources or of not taking care of long-term environmental problems, but something that extremists in Congress can impose arbitrarily. How can one possibly plan ahead for that?

Therefore, many people look ahead into 2014 with a numb astigmatism. We know that some emergency will come along, but we cannot guess what it will be. We must remain tensely vigilant, ready for anything, and as far as we know, we have to remain under these stressful conditions forever. We will not be able to see the emergency until it arrives. It was bad enough to have nearly insurmountable long-term problems, and to be prepared for the actions of crazy dictators and extremists, but now we also have to consider our own unpredictable government.

All you have to do to see this vision of a future filled with unpredictable emergencies is to go to the movies. My family and I went to see The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. The main thing that happened in this movie was that the good people (humans, elves, and dwarves) slashed and impaled orcs. The orcs looked like half-decomposed monsters. The special effects were good, but after about the six hundredth orc was killed, I was pretty much satiated, even though the movie was only half over.

I believe that The Hobbit, as well as several 2014 movies whose previews we saw, reflect the kind of conflict that many people anticipate for the immediate future. After all, studios do not make expensive movies unless market research shows that millions of people will be attracted to them. And not necessarily to enjoy them. People sometimes go to movies to deal with the demons inside their minds. Specifically, in these movies:

·         The conflicts consist of totally unpredictable attacks. Gandalf could sense that something evil was emerging from under the earth, but no further prediction was possible. You cannot anticipate these conflicts.
·         The foes are incomprehensibly evil. They seem motivated primarily by their love for evil, which makes them even more unpredictable. And they are all alike. The orcs all look nearly alike and have the same voice and the same feelings. You cannot negotiate with them collectively nor can you find even one of them who is not totally evil and with whom you might be able to reason.
·         The governments are totally dysfunctional. The elves cared only about their walled kingdom, and the humans dwelling beside the lake had an inept and hedonistic king. The only possibility of salvation was from little militia groups (in this case, a little band of dwarves) taking matters into their own hands.
·         The response can be only to slash the evil foes early, often, and perhaps forever. There is no time to negotiate or understand; if you hesitate for even a moment before slashing, you will be dead.

It occurred to me that this is the kind of future that the moviegoers anticipated for 2014. Our government will not deal with or perhaps even admit any predictable long-term issues such as global warming or gun violence or immigration, and are likely to create new and unpredictable conflicts; we cannot trust our government to deal with any emergencies that come along, even those that they themselves create; and the only possible response is to remain stressed-out, ready to instantly respond to emergencies by extreme and perhaps violent measures, on our own. We know we have to get and keep our own personal finances in shape, because we cannot individually succeed if we do not; but we cannot know whether personal financial wisdom will keep us alive in a chaotic economy. Over the long term, many people actually expect a dystopia, a grim future in which there is no altruistic society but in which each individual, or each little band of people, has to look out for himself or itself. If our popular entertainment is any guide, a lot of people actually expect to descend into a future of chaos.

Few people will openly admit this. Financial and policy prognosticators make it sound like we know where we are going and how to get there. That’s their job. And Congress wants us to think that they have suddenly become good people. They want us to think that the budget deal worked out by Republican Paul Ryan and Democrat Patty Murray is the beginning of a Congressional lovefest during which Republicans and Democrats will become comrades. But, as indicated by the kinds of movies we will be seeing in 2014, deep down we anticipate that the future is an incoherent mass of emergencies for which we cannot prepare.

Oh, and Happy New Year. Actually, it might be a happy year. But if it is, it will be because we got lucky. We should all plan ahead responsibly, and be kind to our fellow humans, and tread lightly upon the Earth—because it is the right, and satisfying, thing to do, not because it will guarantee success.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Altruistic Gas, or, How Mary Roach Saved My Marriage

Mary Roach (author of Stiff, Bonk, Packing for Mars, and, most recently, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal) is the funniest science writer. It would be difficult to write a book about the alimentary canal that is not at least a little bit funny (think back to the 1930 book Through the Alimentary Canal with Gun and Camera by George Chappell), but it took Mary Roach to do it right. Imagine Dave Barry as a science teacher, and you get the picture. Here is a potpourri (or digest) of some of her topics: Fletcherizing, which was the fad for chewing each bite of food hundreds of times into a slurry, supposedly for more efficient absorption of nutrients; research at U.C. Davis, using fistulated cows, which may allow various kinds of agricultural waste such as lemon pulp and almond hulls to be used as cattle feed; all of the kinds of things that prisoners smuggle in their rectums and why; pyroflatulence and the origin of the myth of fire-breathing dragons; the early twentieth century craze for colonic irrigation; Elvis Presley’s megacolon; and the curious case of the holy water enema. (Enema, as you know, is the opposite of friend.) I learned some interesting new words along the way: for example, borborygmus is the gurgling sound of an active intestine, and alvine means intestinal. The trivia are priceless also: for example, the headquarters of the International Academy of Proctology is in Flushing, New York, and among the medical researchers who have studied intestines are Dr. Colin Leakey and a certain Dr. Crapo.

One item that especially caught my attention was her description of a nutritional supplement product called Devrom. It is a product that eliminates the odor from intestinal gas. Even the most well-stocked drug stores seem to not carry it; I had to order it from Amazon. (I have no financial connections with the company that markets it.)

I had assumed, like most people, that you need to take Beano to avoid polluting your immediate environment with fragrant flatulence. But this is not what Beano does. Most intestinal gas is hydrogen, which is odorless, as is the methane produced by about one-third of people. These gases come from bacterial metabolism. The bacteria ferment complex carbohydrates that our intestinal enzymes cannot digest, and hydrogen is a by-product of bacterial activity. Beano provides an enzyme that digests these carbohydrates without producing gas. Beano will therefore relieve you from the pressure of gas, but only from gases that have no odor. The odor of flatulence is caused by such gases as hydrogen sulfide, which are produced in minute quantities (0.01 percent) but to which the human olfactory nerves are exquisitely sensitive (down to 20 parts per billion). The smelliest components of flatulence are the mercaptans, which also contain sulfur. (I have sometimes thought that the sciences need mascots and superheroes. A few years ago, the American Society for Microbiology was promoting Mighty Microbe and Microbe the Magnificent, but I think Biofilm Boy might be a better mascot. And for organic chemistry, what could be better than Captain Mercaptan? Look! It’s a bird, it’s a plane, no, it’s…phew!...Captain Mercaptan!)

You would think there would be a market for a supplement that specifically targeted the production of sulfur gases. At the very least, you would expect Devrom to be at least as popular as Beano. But I have never seen an advertisement for it. Mary Roach speculated about what the reason for this might be. Her informants suggested that it was because most people are not bothered by the scent of their own gas; it is only other people’s gas that bothers them. There appears to be no significant market for something whose only purpose is to make your gas less bothersome to other people. In fact Devrom is used mostly by people who want their ostomy pouches to be less offensive to their caretakers.

That is, Devrom is a product that makes your flatulence altruistic.

I have for years tried to find ways to make my own emissions less bothersome to my long-suffering wife. Various things have helped me to eliminate almost all of it: I now eat healthier food (not including beans) and have lost weight. (In fact, red meat is the main cause of flatus odor.) But the last few puffs of miasma keep coming. Now, with Devrom, I can uninhibitedly release bacterial by-products without bothering anyone around me.

To make myself less offensive to my fellow humans is a direct source of pleasure to me. Alas, products whose sole effect is altruistic have only a limited market appeal. We don’t want to spend money on everyday altruism that brings us no recognition. We are generous to other people, when we get recognition for it; but no one wants recognition for taking pills that freshen their flatulence. We will open doors for one another in public, but if it costs money (about 20¢ per pill), we won’t do it. It is possible that the sales figures for Devrom could be used as a measurement of altruism.

Meanwhile, have a blessed New Year as you go with the flow. New Year’s Resolution: out with Beano, in with Devrom!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Darwin at the Mall

Ho ho ho. The Christmas shopping season is upon us. Greetings from someone who doesn’t enjoy shopping. I’m no Grinch or Scrooge; I just do not enjoy materialism. A walk in the woods, or reading or writing something creative, is much more enjoyable to me than a trip to the Mall. I enjoy receiving gifts, but not all that much. I am sort of like the Dalai Lama on his birthday in the cartoon: he said, “Just what I always wanted! Nothing!” as he looked into an empty box. But it was recently necessary for me to go with my family to the Mall, and when I did, I decided to use it as an opportunity to observe the human species from the viewpoint of an evolutionary biologist.

In Tulsa, “The Mall” usually refers to Woodland Hills Mall at 71st and Memorial. The first thing I noticed was how many clothes retailers there were, each with its own brand. As far as I could tell, all of the clothes that they sold were more or less alike, except for either (1) a status label, or (2) subtle messages that are meaningful only to the sender and the receiver of the message. Right away this reminded me of the 1981 discovery by Nancy Burley that the simple act of putting a red leg band on a male zebra finch would enhance its success of mating. Although this effect has recently been called into question, it remains a memorable example of how something as arbitrary as a leg band can turn out to be a social signal to animals. In many birds, bright feathers are indicators of health. But the exact form of the indicator in one animal species may be meaningless to another. We think it quaint when we read about the Mayoruna tribe in the Amazon decorating their faces with cat whisker tattoos and even embedding palm fibers in their lips like cat whiskers. But to them, our flaunting of brand name clothing would seem as incomprehensible as their decorations seem to us. Of course, they are probably now wearing American brand-name T-shirts and shorts, having been brought into the splendor and comfort of western civilization.

At the same time, many of the businesses appeared nearly desperate to come up with something new other than just to sell the same items as everyone else. In these cases, it is innovation, not just a label, that is the status marker. However, innovations can be just as arbitrary as labels. Just how much innovation can you have in a wristwatch? You can make them into timepieces with atomic accuracy. Or you can replace the hands with little bubbles on an analog face; a large and a small bubble revolve around the center of the watch face. And there was a shop that sold many interesting and wonderful flavors of tea. But after awhile, all the different fruit and flower flavors start seeming alike. Enter monkey-picked tea. This is tea made from the youngest leaves of the tea trees, which grow on branches so delicate that only trained monkeys can harvest them. I tried some; it tasted like tea. The only value of this type of innovation would be if the recipient knows that the tea leaves were picked by monkeys. These innovations are mostly valuable as status symbols.

Perhaps the main products being marketed at this mall are placebos. The labels and innovations do not produce a qualitative difference in the products, but the shoppers can easily imagine that they do. They imagine that monkey tea tastes different from ordinary tea if, in advance, they know that it is monkey tea. It is well known that even many expert wine-tasters will choose wines they think are expensive, even if the wines are cheap brands in expensive bottles. In one corner of the Mall, there were a few shiatsu-massage chairs into which you could insert a dollar and try them out. I gave one of them a try, and found it to be annoying, perhaps because I am not shaped like a typical American and the pokes and nudges touched me in the wrong places. It goosed me a couple of times. I wonder if  “shiatsu” is Japanese for “placebo.” While there is no doubt that massages feel good, I am skeptical that there are “shiatsu points” of special significance on the body. I watched a young Thai mother of four trying out the chair as her kids pommeled on her. The chair evoked an artificial lordosis from her as she was transported into ecstasy. It worked for her. Or maybe it was just her kids tickling her. I wondered whether I should even be watching her.

Finally, I noticed that even though I’d come without the intention of buying anything, I ended up spending a couple of hundred dollars, largely on status and placebo items. Social forces act upon our behavior in ways of which we are hardly conscious, and sometimes despite our best efforts to be conscious of them.

I bought some items at See’s Candies. At last here is something that is truly different and superior: I have tasted many kinds of candy, but none can measure up to See’s. As I tried a sample, I kept asking myself if I was merely experiencing a placebo effect. If I was, it was despite my best effort to be objective. But this purchase accounted for only about twenty dollars of my total expenditure. When I got home, I was not sure how I ended up spending sixty dollars on candles. Evolution has adapted us with flexibility to adjust to changing social environments. The social environment is our human environment; we create it, and it creates us.

Friday, December 13, 2013

New video

I posted a new video on the StanEvolve channel: Barbecue with Wranglin’ Rich. It presents Richard Wrangham's cooking hypothesis of human evolution. And it has the approval of Wranglin' Rich himself. His email from Harvard noted, "Dear Stanley: I love it! Thank you for sending the link, and for promoting the cooking hypothesis. I will proudly share with my family. Actually I have a question. You cited an article from Life Magazine from the 1960s, but I don't think I know it. Can you give me a citation? It sounds like something that Carleton Coon might have said. I looked at some of your other productions. Great stuff! Appreciatively, Richard." I told him what I could of the article. Hope y'all enjoy the new video.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Three Science Archetypes from E. O. Wilson

I recently read E. O. Wilson’s new book, Letters to a Young Scientist. Those of us who value everything that Wilson writes have read this book with eagerness. However, if I were a young scientist just getting started, or a student considering whether to become a scientist, this book would not give me clear guidance or inspiration. One of the best parts was the part quoted on the back cover: his advice to new scientists, “The world needs you—badly.”

But I did very much appreciate the three “archetypes” that Wilson presented: the stories or images by which scientific research resembles those that inspire people in all walks of life. Science is an adventure, and Wilson gives us three specific ways in which this is the case.

His first is “the journey to an unexplored land.” The same feeling that makes adventurers climb mountains, explore rivers, search for uncontacted tribes, even to look for Shangri-La also makes scientists look for new species, study the sea floor, search for life on other planets, and look for the fossil remains of our pre-human ancestors. I must testify that Wilson’s first archetype is true, for me, every day of my life.

His second is the “search for the Grail.” The same feeling that made people in earlier centuries look for the Holy Grail, the philosopher’s stone, or the fountain of youth also makes scientists look for the origin of life, try to create artificial life, try to create controlled hydrogen fusion, or try to explain dark matter and energy. This is the search for unity of explanation, as opposed to diversity of discoveries.

His third is “good against evil.” Heroes, champions, and martyrs of the past are reflected in the scientific world of the war against cancer, the conquest of hunger, the campaign against global warming, and the development of better forms of forensic DNA sequencing.

As I have frequently written, science is not just something that scientists do, but is a compelling adventure. And there are a few pages in the middle of Wilson’s small book that resonate strongly with this understanding.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

An Unusually Creative Place

In 1987 I had the privilege of earning my Ph.D. at the University of Illinois in what was at that time called the School of Life Sciences. Having nothing else to which to compare it at the time, I did not realize what a privilege it was.

At that time, the biology faculty at the U of I included some truly creative thinkers, who were not merely competent at advancing knowledge in their fields but also investigated the connections among different fields of intellectual inquiry. That is, these remarkable individuals contributed greatly to what E. O. Wilson calls consilience. I would just like to mention a few of them here.

One of them was my advisor, the late Fakhri A. Bazzaz. He saw plant ecology as a complex and global set of processes that included human effects on the natural world. He was interested in anything and everything that affected plants and anything and everything that plants did in the world. He brought together graduate students and professional collaborators who were interested in ecophysiology, population genetics, conservation, plant reproduction, coevolution, and global climate change. He was not the world leader in any of these fields, but was incomparable in bringing them together. He was always enthusiastic. His booming happy voice was a mainstay of our lab.

Another unusually creative person at Illinois was the late Carl Woese (see my earlier essay about him). He was good at doing the (at the time) tedious work of determining base sequences of microbial genes. But his goal was to understand the evolution of all of life. This is what led him to recognize the Archaea as a separate line of evolution. But he also speculated about the origin of life and how evolution fit in with the basic physical processes of the universe. I took a seminar from him in which we discussed some basic ideas about evolution, including some possible overlaps with eastern religion and philosophy.

Another such person was Mary Willson, who now lives in Alaska. She first showed her creativity by moving her research interest from birds to plants (which she called “sessile green birds”). She was looking for ideas that united evolutionary lineages as unrelated as plants and birds. One of those was sexual selection. She, along with Nancy Burley, was one of the pioneers in the study of sexual selection in plants. Most of us simply learned about double fertilization in flowering plants, in which one sperm nucleus fertilized an egg nucleus, producing an embryo, while the other sperm nucleus fertilized the two polar nuclei, producing a triploid endosperm. That’s just the way it is. Willson wondered why. If the endosperm is simply a source of food, to be eaten by the embryo, why should it be the product of fertilization? And, moreover, why should it be triploid? Did the double dose of genes from the female parent allow it some extra measure of control over the embryo inside the seed? A recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences provided some evidence that a close genetic relationship between embryo and endosperm facilitated altruism. This astonishing idea had its roots in what Mary Willson had written three decades earlier.

A fourth example is May Berenbaum, who is still a remarkably productive member of the U of I faculty and the National Academy of Sciences. Her enthusiasm for understanding the coevolution of plants and the insects that ate them spilled over into a zeal for opening the eyes of the public to an understanding of insects. She has written numerous popular books about insects, and about 1981 started what has become an annual tradition at the U of I: the Insect Fear Film Festival.

Of course, every faculty member I knew at Illinois in the 1980s was remarkably competent in their fields, a tradition that continues today. But these four individuals stood or stand out for their creativity. As a result, I was inspired to think creatively about the big picture, and to ask big questions, rather than to focus exclusively on a narrow range of research. What a remarkable privilege this experience was.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Actually, This Book Can’t Save the Planet

The most prominent endorsement on the cover of Jim Robbins’s The Man Who Planted Trees reads, “This book just might save the planet.” I regret to report that this is not true, despite the book’s interesting and valuable material.

One important premise of the book is quite credible, though unproven. Vast acreages of forests, in America and around the world, have been cut down. Lumber corporations aimed for the biggest and healthiest trees, leaving the runts behind. The perhaps predictable result was that, when the forests began to grow back (which many are, as timber corporations never fail to remind us), the runts were the seed sources. The trees that had the genes that were best for survival were eliminated by this act of unconscious artificial selection. Because of this, the heroes of Robbins’s book are trying to clone “champion trees” from around the world and replant them, to reintroduce good genes into a possibly degenerate gene pool. Of course, this cannot always be true; sometimes big trees were spared because they were remote (as was the case with the dawn redwood Metasequoia glyptostroboides), and sometimes because they were saved in time by popular support (as with the giant sequoia Sequoiadendron giganteum). But I cannot deny the appeal of this hypothesis. I am also fascinated by the suggestion that cloned cuttings pass on some of the epigenetic changes that have accumulated in the adult tree, while seedlings will not. These epigenetic changes may include an improved ability to tolerate heat or pollution or herbivores.

Much of the book is also devoted to a survey of the immense and largely invisible things that trees do to keep the Earth alive. This overview is delightful to read but suffers from two problems. First, the science behind much of it is skimpy. In this way it compares poorly to my book Green Planet: How Plants Keep the Earth Alive, which is still available from Rutgers University Press and on Amazon (in a new paperback edition). Second, many of the processes the book describes are almost certain to be wrong. I do not think that trees emit volatile chemicals to heal the ecosystem and make humans healthy (they do it to stabilize their photosynthesis at high temperatures). I do not think that trees respond to cosmic radiation. I do not think that their electric potential completes a circuit that maintains the Earth’s magnetic field. You know that when an author approvingly cites The Secret Life of Plants, as Robbins does, something is scientifically amiss.

Still, it was nice to read a book about a man whose passion was altruism rather than violence or selfishness.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Real Creation Model

Most people, including most readers of this blog, think that creationism is the belief that God made all the components of the universe in perfect form just a few thousand years ago.

But that is only part of the creationist creed. There is another part, which they do not openly proclaim, but which they believe.

We all know there is a political correlation between rejection of evolution and rejection of environmentalism. I merely maintain that is correlation is real, not accidental. There is a reason for it.

The full statement of the creation model is that God made all the components of the universe in perfect form just a few thousand years ago for us to use up now.

Creationists believe that the Earth will come to an end soon, so we might as well go ahead and use up all the natural resources, like coal and fish and trees, as fast as we can. Why preserve them, only to have them burned up in Armageddon? Why preserve them, only to leave them behind in the Rapture and let damned sinners have them? Why have a livable Earth in 2100, if the end of the world will already have occurred?

A creationist said to me, several decades ago, that the basis of his belief was time. (That’s funny; I would have expected it to be God.) We know that Jesus is coming soon, he said, therefore just as the future is short so must the past be short. I thought at the time that this was rather strange, but now it makes perfect sense.

So when you look at the full statement of creationism, their opposition to both evolution and environmentalism makes perfect sense.

If you are, or know, an environmentalist creationist, all I can say is, glad to hear it. And I could have a respectful conversation with such a person. But this is clearly the exception to the rule. If anything, conservative creationists probably hate environmentalist creationists even worse than they hate evolutionists. If you are an environmentalist creationist, you are embracing a burden of frustration.

The political correlation between anti-evolutionism and anti-environmentalism is real, not accidental. I believe the reason is that creationists think God made the Earth for us to use up right now. If you have a different explanation, please feel free to post a comment. If your argument makes sense, I would be glad to acknowledge it.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Second Worst Idea in the World

I suspect that the second worst idea in the world is to attempt to control global warming by means of geoengineering.

I sometimes think about geoengineering when I walk to work. (Don’t you?) I see the trees around me, just beginning to senesce for autumn, and I think about the (to me) incalculable tons of carbon dioxide that they remove from the air, much of which they store long-term in wood and roots. They do it for free. But geoengineers have a different solution. It is to build “artificial trees” that cost a lot of money. These “trees” are basically carbon dioxide filters on top of poles.

According to a 2009 article, “Each synthetic tree could capture up to 10 tons of CO2 a day, which is thousands of times more than a real tree. Each tree would cost around $24,400, and a forest of 100,000 of them could be constructed within the next couple of decades using existing technologies.” Doesn’t this sound exciting? Only $2.4 billion. Of course, real trees are free, unless you insist on planting certain trees in certain places. The article continues, “The trees would have a special synthetic filter that absorbs carbon dioxide. When the filters had absorbed their load of CO2 they would be replaced with new filters and the old ones would be stored in empty gas and oil reservoirs, such as depleted oil wells in the North Sea.” It occurred to me that the $24,000 price tag did not include removing and storing old filters, and replacing them with new ones. And you can’t just drop something down into a North Sea oil well. This sounds to me like someone wanting to sell huge expensive devices and using the environmental playing-card as a way to sell them.

The only thing that may be worse than this type of geoengineering is to launch hundreds of thousands of mirrors into space, between the Earth and the Sun, to cast a partial shadow on the Earth. There is a reason that the price tag for this geoengineering solution is generally not mentioned.

As I explained in my book Green Planet, trees do lots of things that keep the Earth alive. A tree produces oxygen, absorbs carbon dioxide, creates cool shade, reduces floods, recharges ground water, holds down and enriches the soil, and many other things. An artificial tree does only one of those things.

Geoengineering scenarios sound like something from the old Outer Limits TV shows. It also sounds like the kind of solution that a Democrat would come up with: a big, expensive government solution. Except that it was the Republican president George W. Bush that, according to this article, promoted the idea of space mirrors.

I prefer “no-regrets” solutions over geoengineering solutions. If we allow trees to grow, and maybe plant some extra ones, we will have good results; this has been assured by hundreds of millions of years of evolution. If it turns out global warming is not a problem, the trees will perform other valuable services. No regrets. But if it turns out that global warming is not a problem (a virtual impossibility), then we will have wasted billions if not trillions on geoengineering fiascos. Lots of regrets.

Of course, the worst idea is to go along with the Republican Party and pretend that global warming is not occurring.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Brave Science Teachers

Today I leave for the Oklahoma Academy of Sciences (OAS) meeting at Cameron University in Lawton, Oklahoma. Tonight is the Executive Council meeting, and tomorrow is when all the papers, meetings, and the banquet occur. OAS is not a high-powered scientific research organization, but is a way for scientists to connect and share their work, and to talk about what most of us spend most of our time doing: teaching.

And teaching science requires bravery.

Every day when I go in to teach classes, I am undertaking an act of bravery. And I admire all of you other science teachers for doing the same thing. When we teach even the smallest item of scientific truth, we are positioning ourselves squarely against the beliefs of many conservative religious people.

Of course, in part, I am talking about evolution. And global warming. But there are a lot more ways in which teaching science goes against fundamentalist religion.

If carbon dioxide is becoming more abundant in the atmosphere, then it must absorb longwave radiation and cause global warming. To deny this is to deny the basic facts of chemistry. Yet when I teach this, I know I am drawing the ire of some religious person somewhere. And it is not just evolution that requires bravery to teach; just to say that there are pseudogenes and endogenous retroviruses in our chromosomes, even without pointing out the evolutionary explanation for it, is to teach something that is uncomfortable to creationists. To say that our brains work by neurotransmitters, rather than the body being merely a squishy, smelly husk for the spirit is a threat to many religious people, even if we do not claim or even believe that the human spirit does not exist. Religious people openly teach their home school kids that all of science is a vast conspiracy against God. Therefore when we teach the scientific method, of testing hypotheses, we are disagreeing with what some of our students have been told before they come to college. Science is not hypothesis testing; it is hatred of God, according to the view with which they were brought up. To teach them that germs cause some diseases, and that smoking and POPs (persistent organic pollutants) cause cancer, goes against the belief held by some fundamentalists that demons cause disease, and the belief held by adherents of Christian Science that it is some kind of spiritual imbalance. To say that populations have limits is to fly in the face of the fundamentalist preachers who tell their followers to have as many kids as possible because God will always provide resources for humankind. Do you teach embryonic development? Well, the Bible says that God knits babies in the womb. So there. Embryogenesis is a miracle, not a biochemical process.

Not all creationists will say all of these things. I’ll bet there are many creationists who believe in neurotransmitters and Hox genes. But they have to depart from the Bible and accept human authority to do so.

So just try thinking of something to teach in science that does not contradict some fundamentalist religious belief. You can’t do it. Of course, I suppose history teachers cannot, either. Or sociology teachers. Maybe math teachers—yes, nothing in the Bible contradicts math, does it? Don’t be so sure, though: at one time there was controversy over the value of pi because the Bible seemed to indicate that pi was 3.3333 and not 3.1416.

So here’s to all the brave science, math, history, and all other teachers, who teach and show by their lives that knowledge, not just belief, is important.

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Only Gorilla in the Room

Being an alpha male is not all that it’s cracked up to be. Ask any alpha male gorilla or elephant seal, if you dare. It is very stressful. (Not that I speak from personal experience or anything.) The alpha male must constantly patrol his territory (which usually includes a harem) to drive away other males who are either sneaking in for amorous visits with females in the harem, or directly challenging his leadership. I have read that alpha male elephant seals lose about half of their weight during the breeding season under the midnight sun.

The alpha male never becomes a dictator, however, because he is constantly challenged by other males. Also, the social group as a whole benefits from a diminution of hostilities within the group. A group that has a greater amount of altruism within the group will therefore prevail over groups that have excessive internal strife. One group prevailing over another because of altruism? This sounds like “group selection,” which was a reviled concept when I was in graduate school. Recently, Edward O. Wilson, David Sloan Wilson (no relation), and Martin Nowak have re-introduced group selection to the scientific conversation, particularly as it relates to the evolution of altruism. I am still trying to understand how a group can become altruistic in the first place, but once it does, it will clearly prevail over other groups.

But what happens if there are no male challengers? Then the alpha male can do whatever he wants without fear of reprisal. And what if the group controlled by this alpha male rules the entire species? This would seem to be a formula for disaster. Of course, it never happens in nature.

But it appears to be happening in our species right now. The United States is the only world superpower, a fact of which we constantly remind the rest of the world. The United States can pretty much do as it likes in the world without fear of reprisal, though we could get ourselves into a lot of diplomatic and economic trouble if we took excessive measures. We are, as a country, the only gorilla in the room.

One example of this is the recent revelation that the United States has been spying on the leadership of many of our European allies. No, not just on suspected terrorists in Europe, but on leaders such as Angela Merkel of Germany. While the member states of the EU each consider a continued Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. to be in their interests, the EU coalition leader has expressed hesitation (see the Deutsche Welle article). Even under the leadership of a president who has won the Nobel Peace Prize, the United States seems to be acting like the ultimate alpha male.

And nothing can stop us. If we insist on acting like an alpha male, we can bring the world down into chaos. I doubt that this will actually happen, but the evolutionary and other forces that prevented alpha male gorillas and alpha male Genghis Khans from dragging the world down into chaos appear to no longer be operating. We can express regret that our actions have unfortunate consequences (such as one of our drones killing a 68-year-old Pakistani grandmother picking okra) but it is only our choice, not a necessity, that will keep us from shattering what little international goodwill there now is in the world.

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

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.