Friday, May 31, 2019

Family and Friends in Times of Disaster

These last couple of weeks, we have experienced natural disasters in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Tornadoes have raked through parts of the city. Heavy rain has swollen the Keystone reservoir. The Arkansas River is within inches of being higher than it has ever been. Though relatively few people have actually been harmed by these disasters, all Tulsans have had to be ready to evacuate from either or both of these kinds of catastrophes. Just today, Tulsa was on the national news again, this time because the flood waters are receding as fast as they rose.

And that is where being a member of a family or a network of friends is very important. My wife and I have a sturdy home not far from the river; though not on low land, flooding is possible. My daughter and son-in-law have a flimsy apartment on high land. And I have a second home, the one where I reside when I teach at the university in Durant, 160 miles away, out of the current danger zone.

In the event of flood, we will go to my daughter’s apartment; in the event of tornado, they will come to our house; in event of both, we all go to Durant. We have a plan. Those who do not have family or friends have only one place to go: an evacuation shelter.

My family is really fortunate to have the flexibility of three residences. A network of family and friends is, and has been throughout history, the most important way that humans have survived, and recovered from, disasters.

Natural disasters will become larger and more unpredictable in the future because of global warming. This is Tulsa’s third “five-hundred-year flood” since 1984. The only way the world can survive climate change disaster will be international cooperation. Many nations are cooperating in global warming prevention and adaptation.

The United States used to be one of those nations. But, as part of his interminable anger, Donald Trump pulled us out of international agreements on global warming. And, in several other ways, he has done his best to piss off even our closest allies.

It’s not just tension with China. Trump refused to endorse the joint statement from the 2018 G7 meeting. Our allies in the G7 group of nations seem to have decided that they must cooperate among themselves, leaving America in its self-imposed tantrum. Below is a BBC news photo, available at the link above, that shows a typical moment in what is supposed to be constructive cooperation between America and its allies:

Leaders in this photo, besides Trump and Bolton, include Japan's Shinzo Abe (4), Germany's Angela Merkel (6), France's Emmanuel Macron (7), and Britain's Theresa May (8).

As a result, the United States cannot expect any international assistance in the event that we should suffer a natural disaster, or, for that matter, any other kind of disaster. Trump says that he wants a policy of America First, but what he is actually doing is creating a policy of America Only. In so doing, we are rejecting any help that anyone else might ever be willing to give us. We are like the man who tells his family and friends that under no circumstances will he take shelter in their houses if floods or tornadoes come.

As we have known since the days of Petr Kropotkin, mutual aid (cooperation), a form of evolutionary altruism, is our most important human adaptation. Trump is rejecting nature’s most important evolutionary accomplishment.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The Human Age

I have been reading Diane Ackerman’s The Human Age. As usual, I read good books several years after they come out.

The point of Diane Ackerman’s book is that humans have completely transformed the Earth to such an extent that no place is truly natural—nor is there, perhaps, any place that is entirely artificial. Humans have so completely transformed so much of the Earth that even the places we seemingly have not touched are now different, for example by global warming. But at the same time, all kinds of species have “invaded” the human landscape, whether transported by humans such as many invasive species (starlings from Europe, for example) or simply by exploring their way into our cities (as with coyotes downtown in cities).

Ackerman must be the world’s best science writer (in English, anyway). Try these quotes:

About urbanization: splattered balls of mercury whose droplets have begun flowing back together, we’re finally merging into a handful of colossal, metal-clad spheres of civilization.

[The sun] reaches into the mumbling corners of our private universe, spurs growth, sheds light on all our episodes and exploits, transfigures daily life. Its edible rays feed the green plants on land and sea, which animals graze upon, and we dine upon in turn, and so it quivers through our blood. Every molecule of our being, every mote inside us, every atom and eave in the mansion of the body and the penumbra of the mind was forged in some early chaos of a sun.

And finally: Sometimes it seems as if Gaia were so pissed off she finally decided to erase her workmanship, atomizing the whole shebang and flicking our Blue Marble back into the mouth of the supernovas where our metals were first forged.

Years ago, someone who wrote a blurb for the jacket of my second book compared my writing to hers. Only now, upon reading Ackerman for the first time, do I realize what a compliment that was.

Much of Ackerman’s book is filled with small- or large-scale success stories of people who have capitalized upon the increasing desire among humans to reduce our impact on the Earth. She seems particularly impressed by natural buildings and vertical farming. All of this optimism is set against a background of terror, that humans are changing the Earth so much that we will no longer be able to fit our civilization into it, but she doesn’t talk about this very much. It is never very far, however, from the reader’s mind.

It was certainly never very far from my mind as I read the book. I was helping to supervise my ten-month-old granddaughter, who is exhaustingly cheerful. She loves exploring, or having attention paid to her, or being left alone to bang on things, and (we are lucky) she even likes most foods. She must have some incredible smile-muscles. And I kept thinking over and over about what kind of world she will encounter, a world messed up by earlier generations. It is not just my love for nature that makes me write and teach about environmental issues. I can always see her silhouette against our picture window with a view of flowers and leaves whenever I teach or write.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Each of us is Two People: Insights from Earl Nightingale

When I was in high school, I made it a point to never miss the five-minute radio program in which the deep-voiced Earl Nightingale explained surprising and uplifting things about the world. I had to miss a few, but only a few, from 1972 to 1975. Radio stations (worldwide) that carried his program offered to send free copies of his scripts in a self-addressed stamped envelope. Of course, today, the programs would all have been on a website, which Nightingale, who died in 1989, did not live to see. I sent for all of his scripts. The secretary at the radio station wrote to me, wanting to know more about this unusual, perhaps unique, little boy who listened to every show.

Nightingale talked about anything he wanted to. A common structure of his programs was, I’ve been reading a book by x entitled y. I think you would enjoy hearing about it. And he was usually right. He seemed to like Eric Hoffer and Abraham Maslow a lot. He usually talked about successful business and personal life, and how to have a healthy mind—for example, how to not be a mumpsimus. But he sometimes threw in things that were a bit puzzling, such as how there might be UFOs, about the Bermuda Triangle, or about an article called “Secret Thoughts of a Happy Husband.” Not sure where that came from. But we all listened to whatever he said, and most of the time were enriched by it. One of his broadcasts was about the dangers of smoking. In the photo above, notice the absence of an ashtray—a noticeable absence in the mid-twentieth century.

Nightingale knew by experience what he was talking about. When he was twelve, in the middle of the Depression, his father abandoned the family, and he lived in a tent city with his mother outside of Los Angeles. But it was not long before he worked his way into successful military and business careers.

Nightingale’s messages were simple, often obvious—at least, obvious after someone says it. They were based upon the secrets of his vast success in business. He would give examples of how you have to treat your customers with respect, give them what they want, convince them that you care about them, and then really do it. As he was the first to admit, his ideas were not new; they sound strangely like the Golden Rule. But at the time, like today, many people in business thought that the path to success was to beat down your competitors and to get every nickel out of your customers that you can. Nightingale explained that this was a sure path to failure.

As it turns out, in the decades after Nightingale’s death, exactly the kind of oppressive corporate atmosphere that Nightingale hated, one that leaves us customers feeling like the scum of the earth, has become the dominant experience in the marketplace. He would not have liked to see what has happened to our economy in the twenty-first century. When Nightingale was recording his programs, he said that executives really deserved getting paid more than the average worker. But at the time, executives got paid only ten times more; today, it is more like two hundred times. I doubt that executives are twenty times as valuable to their companies today as they were in the 1970s. The modern American economy, dominated by TBTF corporations, would have outraged him.

Nightingale was definitely a conservative, as the concept was understood at the time. He was always defending free enterprise, and was puzzled at the counter-culture people who thought that working for monetary reward was bad. He even said that socialist countries like Sweden were an economic disaster and suffered massive crime waves. Maybe they did at the time, but socialist democracies have since that time flourished. He had the typical mid-century male view of women, they should be secretaries etc., but he was also open to them progressing to an equal status with men, someday. He championed female college education. But he never mixed religion with his conservatism, and he never said one word about the Vietnam War or Richard Nixon, as I recall. He was the kind of conservative we wish we still had.

This is one of several websites with Nightingale quotes.

One of his images that stuck with me is that each of us is two people. One is the person that everyone sees, which I might call the biological person. This is the person who goes to work and fills his or her role in society. The second person is like a ghost hovering over and around the first, invisible but real. This is the potential person, what he or she could be by using all the creativity and zeal that he or she has, looking for and capitalizing upon opportunities. When I look out over a classroom of students, I sometimes I imagine seeing this second person. In many cases, the first person joyfully fills the space created by the second, but in many other cases I see students wanting to get their education over with so that they can walk unprepared into the world where they will have actual responsibilities and not be ready for them.

In some ways, Earl Nightingale was the world’s first blogger. He posted short essays on whatever topic he wanted. Anybody can do a blog now, for free, but back then, Nightingale had to convince sponsors to pay for his show. Maybe my blog posts are my way of doing what the great Earl Nightingale did.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Scientific Pseudo-Understanding

As I explained at great (and, I think, interesting) length in my new book Scientifically Thinking, the scientific way of thinking reveals the deep significance and structure of the world around us.

But sometimes us scientists are guilty of pseudo-understanding. I am about to encounter one example in a couple of hours. I am giving the final exam (which includes a lab practical) for my Systematic Botany course. I expect students to know about 150 different kinds of plants, though in reality I emphasize just the most common ones (still about 70). (If you don’t like plant biodiversity, don’t move to Oklahoma. We have more plant species per square kilometer than any other state.) They can pass the exam with a C if they only know the common names, but to get an A they have to know many Latin names as well.

For me, and I bet for many students, if we can say, “that plant is a mustang grape,” we feel as if we know everything there is to know about it. If we can say, “that plant is a Vitis mustangensis,” we really understand everything about it. But of course just giving something a name does not mean we know very much about it. The Latin nomenclature allows us to recognize the relatives and the evolutionary ancestry of the plant, but that is about all there is to it.

The people who really understand each of the plants are those who can recognize it in the wild (hence the lab practical), and who know how it grows and its place in the community of species. The mustang grape, like other grapes, is a vine that takes advantage of the strong stems of bushes and trees in order to get its leaves up in the sun without having to make its own strong stems. Unlike the other common grape species in Oklahoma, the muscadine grape (Vitis rotundifolia), the mustang grape has thick woolly hairs on the underside of the leaf, which might mean that it grows in sunny locations, being able to reflect some of the light and therefore the heat. The two grape species probably bloom at different times, thus preventing cross-breeding that would be beneficial to neither species. Now that’s understanding. Just reciting the name is not.

Sometimes I catch myself reciting the name and then not looking further at the plant. This usually happens when I am on a walk with my wife. She cannot always remember what the plants are, but she probably looks at them more than I do.

Well, time to go give my final practical. I have to be ready for either indoors or outdoors during Oklahoma’s spring-long potential stormy weather. One of the species is poison ivy, and of course I will not tell them which one it is.