Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Quiet and Close Observation: The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell

The Forest Unseen is a 2012 book by David George Haskell which I have only now gotten around to reading. This blog is your place to go for reviews of old books. Of course, maybe it is new to you, in which case I hope this review encourages you to read the book.

Haskell chose a square meter of area on the floor of an old growth forest in Tennessee. It was not out in the middle of a wilderness; there is no such place in the eastern United States. In fact, it was just downhill from a golf course. But it was as close to undisturbed nature as one could expect to find. Having chosen his spot, Haskell watched it for a year and wrote a book about what he saw.

Anybody could have done what Haskell did. It is true that he used his immense knowledge of nature to not only identify the organisms that he saw, but to draw the numerous connections between these organisms and the larger world of science. But anybody could have seen these things and figured out at least a little about what they were doing. That is the main impact of The Forest Unseen: wonders await us if we just sit quietly and look closely at the natural world. You don’t need a Ph.D. to do this.

The tiny world of fungi and arthropods and wildflowers is an exciting place. Haskell captures the immediacy of this excitement by usually writing in the present tense. You are there with him, seeing what he sees. You can’t just quickly glance at the world of nature. There is a photo on the cover of Haskell looking through a hand lens at the forest floor. Much of the excitement is on a tiny scale. At one point, he had to watch the soil for a half hour before he realized that what he was seeing was a horsehair worm rather than a bit of leaf litter.

Haskell used poetic language masterfully. As numerous reviewers have remarked, his descriptions are some of the most beautiful that have been written. For example, he described chickadees on a cold day as “four pennyweight furnaces” because of the immense amount of heat, relative to their size, that they produce. He referred to the “pheromone love poems” of invertebrates. Tiny mushrooms and other fungi are a “regatta” (he also says “flotilla”) of colors in a decomposing sea of leaf litter. He is the only writer I know, other than Edgar Allan Poe, to use the word tintinnabulation. This poetic language is exactly what his readers, amateur naturalists, need. Scientists would strongly object to some of his terms, for example when he called a fern gametophyte a little lily pad. It looks like one, but the description is misleading—but only misleading if you are taking a botany course. Maybe the university publishers rejected it for this reason. But the major commercial publisher that released it knew that this book was perfect for nature-lovers.

Haskell draws many fascinating connections between what he sees and the larger world of scientific (and other) knowledge. For example, when he describes a snowflake, he explains how the six-sided shape follows inevitably from the chemical characteristics of the water molecules, but also that each snowflake is different because its shape is determined by so many microscale processes, the little tiny differences in temperature, humidity, and wind as each snowflake forms. Thus each snowflake is the product of natural law and historical accident. This is a major scientific concept, but you can see it in a snowflake. He also explained that Johannes Kepler, in his study of snowflakes, drew some incorrect conclusions, but his observations laid the groundwork for scientists a few decades later to discover that everything was made of atoms—something Kepler did not believe.

Haskell even discusses theology when he describes ichneumon wasps, which he saw following a sunfleck on the forest floor. These wasps lay eggs in caterpillars. The eggs hatch, and the grubs eat the caterpillars from the inside. In the nineteenth century, scientists, philosophers, and theologians argued about whether this constituted cruelty that was contrary to the character of the creator God. I’ll bet that very few of Haskell’s readers knew anything about this controversy that directly involved Charles Darwin and his religious friend, the botanist Asa Gray. Wonderful!

I hope that this book continues to inspire all of us, even after we have finished reading it. I sat outside, reading it, and my two-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter saw the picture on the cover. I told her what Haskell was doing, and right away we got out a magnifying glass and started looking closely at the soil of our backyard. It is possible that this little act, especially if we continue to do it, will have changed by granddaughter’s life.

Richard Louv’s books encourage parents to let kids play in the wild—climb trees and all that. Such undirected play is extremely important. But it is also important for people of all ages to stop and watch the immediate environment carefully and quietly, as Haskell did. It may be hard to get kids to do this for very long, but even for the few moments that they will slow down and look will prove very important to their mental development.

Alas, I cannot do what Haskell did. I cannot go and find an undisturbed place and listen to nature. I don’t believe there is any such place in Oklahoma. Every square meter of Oklahoma is filled with human noise, as well as human garbage. One “natural area” near Tulsa is right near an airport where hundreds of amateur pilots fill the sky; you can usually see and hear three at a time. Another is near a quarry which has constant explosions. There is no place where one does not continually hear loud, fast pickup trucks. Down by the Arkansas River in Tulsa, and Lake Texoma on the state’s southern border, there are hundreds of pieces of garbage everywhere. Or, perhaps there is a quiet place without trash. That is what Black Mesa is like, out in the Panhandle, very near New Mexico. But to get there I have to drive almost nine hours (one way). Not only is silent watching of nature a rare gift that Haskell has, and the rest of us could have, but places to do it are even rarer.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Garbage in Oklahoma: Another Message from Fluff


Hi. This is Fluff, a female cottonwood tree in Tulsa (she/hers). My thoughts are being passed on to you by a botanist named Stan Rice (he/him/his), who is the only human who stops to talk with me.

Right at the base of my trunk, the City of Tulsa has designated an area in which volunteers can place bags of trash. The volunteers can pick up pieces of garbage from the banks of Joe Creek, which is a drainage ditch near where I am growing, put them into plastic bags, and leave them for the city to pick up.

Joe Creek certainly needs the trash pickup. The banks of the creek are thick with garbage, most of which has floated in from upstream. Stan has estimated the number of pieces of garbage along Joe Creek. It is approximately one thousand pieces of garbage per mile. There is a similar density of garbage along the banks of the Arkansas River.

Stan has made over a hundred estimates of the number of garbage items, easily visible from an automobile, along Oklahoma highways. The number ranges from ten to a thousand, with the average being about a hundred, per mile. This means that, on a typical 200-mile drive through Oklahoma, you are likely to see twenty thousand pieces of garbage. No wonder Oklahoma has such a bad reputation, completely apart from the political news of…don’t get me started. Since Stan made so many estimates, it is not likely that bias (which I discussed in an earlier message) accounts for the results: Stan did not just see a trashy place and count the pieces of garbage. He made a systematic, unbiased survey.

Every once in a while, you will find plastic bags of garbage along the roadside in which volunteers have picked up garbage for the highway department to pick up. Once Stan even saw a man actually picking up garbage. But, from month to month and year to year, such acts seem to make very little difference in the amount of garbage along the road. The reason is the huge number of people who throw litter on the roadsides. While most people do not litter, a very large number of people do, and do so in huge amounts. One of the most common ways is that people pile light garbage in their pickup truck beds and drive along the highway, pretending to not notice that the garbage blows out of the truck bed.

And nearly all this garbage is recyclable. Not that it makes any difference right now; the City of Tulsa recycling facility is shut down due to a fire. Recyclables, put into separate bins by many conscientious homeowners, now gets mixed in with the regular garbage.

But I told Stan about another source of garbage along Joe Creek. Thieves break into houses and grab stuff to take with them. Later, they hide under the bridge and sort through it to find anything of value to them, whether it is costly items or pieces of information they can use for identity theft. They simply dump the remainder into the creek bed. Since I stand by the creek all day and all night, I have seen this happen. In addition, the homeless people gather garbage with which they construct shanties in which to live along the creek. Much of the garbage problem is also a crime problem, and a poverty problem. And a sanitation problem. It is not at all uncommon to see piles of human excrement on the path. Designating a place under a cottonwood tree for volunteers to place bags of trash will not solve these problems.

In addition, I told Stan that it is nearly inevitable that people will start bringing bags of household garbage to leave at this spot. The people who live in apartments have large dumpsters for their garbage, but these dumpsters are frequently overfilled. And then there is the stuff too big for dumpsters. Stan once saw a semi-truck fuel tank left at a recycling depot. I told Stan that the spot at the base of my trunk will quickly become a pile of junk. The location is easily accessible by truck, including pickup trucks that will bring in big pieces of junk to dump them.

The problem is that you Americans get, use, and throw away too much stuff, almost all of it in large packaging. The creek bed in my shadow is thickly studded with Styrofoam fragments. You don’t need all that stuff to be happy. Of course, what would you expect a cottonwood tree to say?

I produce a lot of leaf litter each autumn. But unlike industrial human litter, my leaves decay rapidly and help to build up the soil.

The City of Tulsa sign, beside my trunk, has been out for a couple of days and is already covered with graffiti. The city officials have good intentions, but what can they do against the mass of human filth?

There is so much garbage along the creekside path, including broken glass, that Stan doesn’t like to walk there anymore. But I hope that he comes along to say hello to me once in a while. Until next time, farewell from Fluff, the cottonwood tree.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Wonderful Diversity: The Shifting Lives of Plants

I just finished reading Jonathan Sauer’s Plant Migration: The Dynamics of Geographic Patterning in Seed Plant Species, published in 1988. In this book, the author was manifestly attempting to explain large-scale patterns and principles that governed the way in which plant species moved from one place to another. He tried to classify the different processes and kinds of habitat. He failed spectacularly. In some cases, he ended up with very, very short chapters when he found almost no examples of what should have been a general principle. The closest he came to a general law was the (trivially obvious) fact that dispersal is centrifugal (outward from a seed source) while natural selection is centripetal (getting rid of plants from places to which they have dispersed but cannot survive). Duh. He admitted that the conclusion he reached is that there are no general rules of plant migration. Each plant species has migrated during its history, and that every plant species has its own story. And he said he was pleased to have failed in his quest. I, also, am pleased. What a beautiful, diverse, quirky world this is, as illustrated by the history of each different plant species.

I enjoyed this book because I love stories. I read the Bible for its stories, not for the theological frameworks that have been imposed upon it. I read history because of its stories of unpredictable directions, not for some overarching theories.

Here are some examples from Sauer’s book that I found interesting.

  • The true cinnamon tree (Cinnamomum zeylandicum) is native to Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon; hence the name zeylandicum) and southern India. Then why is there a patch of it in Mauritius, an island off the coast of Madagascar, about 3000 km away from Sri Lanka? A botanist might try to think of a way that cinnamon seeds might float on ocean currents and end up on Mauritius. But this is the way it actually happened. The Dutch had a monopoly on the spice trade, including cinnamon. The French wanted in on the trade, and managed to get some cinnamon plants to Mauritius, an island that they controlled. They planted some groves there. But in the face of an impending British invasion, they destroyed the garden. Too late; the birds had already spread the seeds from the garden to the surrounding forest.
  • Matricaria discoides is the little pineappleweed that grows in disturbed soils in Siberia but is also “native to” North America. Ever since I first saw this tiny plant growing in the compacted dirt of our junior high track in California, I have loved it: you can step on it, but it keeps growing. Its response to maltreatment is to release a beautiful pineapple scent. One might think that this plant was brought from Siberia to North America the same way as many other invasive plants such as Russian thistle (tumbleweed), by industrial transportation. But archaeological studies show that Matricaria was present in western North America before the arrival of Europeans. This indicates that it might have dispersed naturally or might have been carried by Native Americans when they first crossed the Bering land bridge.
  • Fennel is usually a small garden herb, but now that it has escaped from gardens into the disturbed grasslands around Santa Barbara (and on Santa Cruz island) they grow two or three meters tall and are almost the only large plants around.
  • The story of eastern Australia being taken over by Opuntia cactus from America in the early twentieth century, and their subsequent biological control, is well known to nature-lovers. What is less well known is that the Australian government blamed the spread of the cactus on emus, a large flightless native bird, eating the fruits. So, they set bounties on emus, which resulted in 335,000 emus being killed. The cactus only spread faster, up to 100 hectares per hour.
  • One of the ways that cactus spread in Australia was by the cactus pads sticking to livestock, falling off in a new location, and rooting.
  • Dam construction in the American southwest, at fever pace from the 1930s and 1960s, has led to the spread of the invasive tamarisk (salt cedar) in two ways. First, there are no longer downstream floods that would wash away the salt cedar thickets. Second, sand accumulation above the dam created new habitat for the tamarisks.

One theme that does recur over and over is that nearly all of the changes that humans have inflicted on the natural world have been disruptive. The natural world is incredibly complex, and whatever happens in one part causes a change in another part. Humans have tried to impose simplicity on a system that was never meant to have it, whether it was sheep ranches on the Santa Barbara Channel Islands or farms in the Midwest. To force nature to stay within the conceptual boundaries we have set for it is like getting a two-year-old to always do exactly what you want. Only it’s worse, because every species is like a squirming toddler. Just about the only example of humans doing something constructive was that the goats which overran Santa Catalina Island off the California coast stayed away from the resort town of Avalon, perhaps scared of the people, and this allowed the native chaparral and sage to grow back.

A major example of human interference has been fire suppression, about which I have previously written in this blog. Foresters wanted to control all wildfires but, Sauer said on page 130, they “quickly realized…that they had grabbed a tiger by the tail.” In the absence of small fires, dead wood builds up, with the result that any fires that do start will be infernos.

Another recurring theme is that colonial powers have repeatedly kicked out native peoples who were living sustainably, whether Native American or native New Caledonian people, and then impose a system unsuited to the land and which inevitably fails. Fire suppression is a good example. David Douglas, after whom the Douglas fir is named, saw Natives burning savannas in 1826.

Sauer brought part of the confusion on himself. He included migration in space, whether it was migrations of just a few meters or migrations halfway around the world. He included migration in time, whether just since the last ice age or since the beginning of plant life on dry land. The result was a mishmashed compendium of fascinating stories. But I liked it anyway. Long live diversity!

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Our Continuing Shame of Racism: A View from 1964

 The days are counting down here in Tulsa for the hundredth anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, which started on May 31, 1921. For many years, is event, in which white Tulsans burned to the ground the prosperous Greenwood district, in which black people created thriving businesses. It has been difficult to get very many facts about what happened, even a total count of how many were killed (mostly? all?) black, of what kinds of atrocities may or may not have been carried out. Newspaper accounts from the time vanished from microfilms, and a police box of photographs has vanished. You can, and I plan to, read more about it in Scott Ellsworth’s The Groundbreaking.

The commission that has planned the commemoration used to include Republican Governor Kevin Stitt, but when he signed the bill that effectively outlawed teaching the history of racism in Oklahoma, the rest of the commission removed him from membership. Stitt attempted no defense of his actions.

The oppression of blacks (and even more so of other minorities) in America has tarnished our international reputation, even now that the president who at least went along with it is out of office. Every time there is a new police shooting of an unarmed black man by a white officer, especially when no action is taken, as recently in North Carolina, the world thinks more and more of us as a land of racial oppression. This is something that even Joe Biden cannot change, and the world knows it.

My point in this essay is that this has been going on for a long time. In 1964, Jorgen Bisch visited China, in the heyday of its Maoist oppression, and wrote an article about what he saw for National Geographic (published November 1964). One of the things that he saw, and that alarmed him, was “communist propaganda.” Schoolchildren had written essays about how white Americans oppressed blacks. The author saw some of those essays posted on a wall, and took a photo of them.

In one of the essays, a white Uncle Sam is walking away from a black man. In another, a black American is holding up a red flag of liberation from racist oppression. Look at this photo, because I very much doubt you will see it anywhere else.

At that time, white Americans really were oppressing and sometimes killing blacks, and worse was to come. This bad image of Uncle Sam was justified. Resentment toward America was justified.

We recognize, of course, that the Chinese government was far worse, not just toward its own citizens who appeared to even slightly differ from Chairman Mao’s views, but also in the way it treated its own minority groups—to the extent that you may not have even known that there were minority ethnicities in China. Even the normally meek Joe Biden has called China’s treatment of the Uyghur minority “genocide.”

I believe we are not as bad as the communists were and are. But it sure doesn’t help much when we project to the world the racist hatred that we do have. Our right-wing extremism plays right into the propaganda machines of our competitors and potential enemies.

And we use Christianity to justify it. I recently went to a fundamentalist church meeting in Durant, Oklahoma, where the speaker proclaimed that the new requirements to teach about racism were satanic. He meant this literally. His evidence was that the watchwords for the fight against racism were Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity—the first letters of which spell DIE. This shit is so extreme that you can’t make it up. The speaker digressed from his theme only long enough to proclaim that Biden stole 41 million votes (I did not make this number up) from Trump.

This is a blog about science and evolution. This essay, like many others, reinforces the theme that there is no biological or evolutionary justification for racism.

Armed protests are planned for the Race Massacre commemoration. What could possibly go wrong? As a white-presenting Tulsa resident, I’m getting a little nervous.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Big Headlines! Why America Will Never Convert to Electric Vehicles

It’s the big headline today! Ford is going to formally announce its new all-electric F-150 pickup truck! Oh, can’t you just barely contain the excitement! Yesterday, President Biden took one for a test drive in a lot where everything a 78-year-old man might run over had been removed.


This year, General Motors announced that it plans to phase out electric vehicles by 2035 and manufacture only electric vehicles. (Note: this site may have a paywall.) I here briefly explain why this will not happen.

It is true that hybrid and electric vehicles get much better fuel efficiency, without sacrificing maneuverability, than gasoline vehicles. Anyone like myself who has driven one will attest to this. I enjoy my hybrid more than any car I have ever owned. Mine is a Prius but I have no reason to doubt the quality of other brands.

But it will never happen in America, or at least in Oklahoma.

This is because, in America, the purpose of a vehicle is not only, perhaps not mainly, transportation. At least where I live in Oklahoma, the major purpose of a vehicle for many people is not transportation, but to express dominance, fury, and frustration to everyone within hearing or collision range.

Redneck Okies love to drive around big, noisy, fuming trucks even when they have nowhere they need to go. They drive them fast, which means they sometimes cannot control them. For this purpose, an electric vehicle simply will not work.

First, the vehicles have to be big. Size itself should be no deterrent to the adoption of hybrid and electric vehicles. Rednecks think that nobody can admire them if they drive a small vehicle. By actual count, about one-third of all vehicles I have seen in Oklahoma are big pickup trucks. Therefore, most electric vehicles will be unacceptable to redneck Okies though perhaps to other Oklahomans.

Second, the vehicles have to be heavy. One of the ways in which hybrid and electric vehicles get good fuel efficiency is by using lightweight components. But redneck Okies want to have not just large trucks but heavy ones. The reason for this is that they want to express their fury by driving around a vehicle that can bash other vehicles without harming their own. To them, the entire system of roads is a potential demolition derby. This, at least, has been my experience. In my family, we have had collisions that were not our fault on four occasions in the last couple of decades. In each case, the driver was a white man with a larger vehicle, on two occasions a large truck. One of those collisions—very recent, and an ongoing source of grief—was a hit-and-run in which the white man with the big pickup drove away from the scene, after causing an injury. The victims were my daughter, son-in-law, and two grandchildren. In another case, my vehicle was totaled by a pickup truck that did not get even a scratch—and the driver had false insurance cards. In none of these cases did the police actually seek out the drivers. It was, instead, the insurance companies that did so. Public safety does not matter; only profit. But at least there is profit in the service of public safety, from time to time. In order for a pickup truck to crush a smaller vehicle, it does not need to just be large but to be heavy. Electric and hybrid vehicles, even when large, are relatively light.

Third, the vehicle has to produce a lot of noise. The redneck drivers want everyone around them to hear their dominance, fury, and frustration. At both of my residences in Oklahoma, there is nearly a constant stream of big pickup trucks that are extremely loud. The drivers want us to admire them—and they assume everyone admires a loud truck. Maybe the redneck guys think they can get a gal that way. “Oh, wow, he must be such a man—he can push down a gas pedal!” Whether there really are any women who are that stupid or not I do not know. When I see the looks on the faces of the drivers, I sometimes see fury and frustration. Electric and hybrid vehicles are quiet. By actual count, at least half of the beg pickup trucks I see are loud. The technology exists for even a heavy truck to be quiet, as about half of them are. But a quiet truck is, to the rednecks among Oklahomans, unacceptable.

Fourth, the vehicle has to produce a lot of fumes. A truck with good fuel efficiency cannot produce fumes. Fumes are a way for the driver to create a space of dominance around him an to antagonize other people.

For these four reasons, hybrid and electric vehicles will never predominate in Oklahoma, unless there is a complete, and nearly impossible, shift away from the redneck culture. Here in Oklahoma, we still fly confederate flags, for God’s sake (at least the rednecks think it is for God’s sake).

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Arizona Ballot Audit: Miracles in the Service of Racism

This week, the Arizona re-audit of 2020 election ballots received international attention. This is a science blog. The Arizona re-audit of ballots provides a good opportunity to examine the process of scientific inquiry, in fact the process of determining the truth, and the results are not pretty. They indicate a strong tendency within the Arizona Republican Party, and the Republican Party in general, toward racism.

AP photo

Most Arizona Republicans are, we assume, not racist. But enough of them are that they have started a conspiracy theory: that 20,000 ballots were flown in from China pre-marked for Biden and Harris; that these ballots were stuffed into ballot boxes, thus contributing to a Democratic victory in Arizona. And the rest of the Arizona Republicans, even those who call the conspiracy theorists crazy and unhinged, are going along with them in support of the re-audit. 

I will apply some of the ideas in my recent book, Scientifically Thinking, to this claim, not because the conspiracy theory deserves any examination, but in order to learn some things, some very disturbing things, about Republicans.

First, there is open and obvious bias in the re-audit. The contractor conducting the audit is called CyberNinjas. With a name like that, the far-right Republican bias of the contractor is obvious. They are looking only for things that will, in their estimation, prove the Chinese connection, and can easily overlook any evidence to the contrary, even if individual employees do not intend to do so.

Second, the conspiracy claim is untestable. If the Republicans find any ballots that they consider to be fraudulent, they will claim that they have proven that the election was stolen—a claim that Donald Trump still makes, and that about half of Republicans believe with religious fervor, even if they do not believe the China theory. But if they do not, they will merely claim that the fraud was so perfect that it left no evidence. That is, the conspiracy theorists have already decided that they are correct, no matter which conclusion is reached by the audit.

Third, is their scenario even possible? How could China have gotten 20,000 ballots slipped into ballot boxes in Arizona? Did Chinese nationals carry ballots with them to the United States, travel to Arizona, and cram the ballots in? Is there any evidence that there was an influx of Chinese nationals going to Arizona? Or, perhaps, the Chinese government sent them to Chinese nationals who were already here. Since there is no evidence of Chinese nationals visiting Arizona or stuffing ballots, then it must have been Asian Americans who did it and did so without leaving any evidence. Sneaky devils! And that is my point. This conspiracy theory is racist because it buys in with widespread hatred of Asian Americans, which came to national attention in 2021. It would require supernatural powers for the Asian Americans to sneak the ballots into the boxes, and to coordinate this activity among themselves without the use of social media. That is, they would have to be demons. This is something that some Arizona Republicans believe, and the others are willing to consider as a possibility.

Fourth, what are the criteria for the evidence? I can hardly say it, it is so weird: they are looking for bamboo fibers in the paper on which the ballots were printed. Bamboo fibers in the paper would, they think, prove that the ballots were printed in China. Most Chinese paper is probably made from the wood of poplar, of which China has large plantations. But even more important is the question about how to recognize bamboo fibers in the paper. One question is, how much bamboo would they consider to be enough bamboo to call it bamboo-based paper? But even more important is the question about how to recognize bamboo fibers in the first place. A microscopic view of bamboo xylem (found here but which I cannot copy for this essay) looks almost the same as any other xylem, which is the kind of fiber from which paper is typically made. My point is that the conspiracy theorists never bothered to specify how bamboo fibers were to be recognized.

None of this really matters, of course. The Arizona Republican racists will continue to claim that Trump won the state and national election, even without ANY evidence to back it up. To them, it is a matter of religious devotion. Former Republican Senator Jeff Flake (warning: this site has a paywall and may demand money from you to look at the article) said in a radio interview on May 14, 2021 that his party (if they allow him to remain) is in denial of reality. I would go further and say that they do not believe there is such a thing as reality except whatever Donald Trump asserts. That is their entire reality.

This is such an extreme position—not simply unscientific, but against the very basis of human consciousness—that some Republicans are calling for others to form a new party.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Bring It On, Comrade: We Love Being Vulnerable

Our energy system is wide open to Russian cyberattacks and we are just fine with it. Go ahead, comrade, bring it on. Shut us down so that we don’t have any oil and gas. We’re lying here with our fat bellies to the sun just waiting for you to stab us.

By now everyone has heard about the cyberattack on the pipeline in the eastern US that briefly shut down supplies of oil and gas to the southeastern US. Colonial Pipeline paid $5 in ransom to the attackers in cryptocurrency. The cyberattackers were merely identified as Eastern European.

But what if the price they asked was too high, and the pipeline continued to be shut down?

Or what if the cyberattack had been on Cushing, Oklahoma? This is the town through which all the oil and gas for the entire country flows, or so I am told, though I find this hard to believe. It does, however, have an effect on the oil industry all out of proportion to its size: it stores 13% of the oil in America.

Most of the problems with the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack was panic buying by people who feared that they would be temporarily without gasoline. But what if the cyberattack was prolonged, or if it shut down Cushing?

Because of pipelines, our oil supplies are vulnerable to attack—formerly physical attack by terrorists, and now cyberattacks by our comrades overseas. There is not much we can do about this. Oil comes from wells, travels through pipes, to refineries and then to retail points.

But renewable energy is not usually so vulnerable. You can collect solar energy, either passively through mirrors or directly into electricity, anywhere. It can be distributed on a local grid. And the wind blows everywhere. I suppose cyberattackers could shut solar and wind energy down, but it would take thousands of attacks.

We have known this for decades. I grew up in Cushing. We moved away in 1964. My parents told me, while we were there, that Cushing was at the top of the Soviet nuclear hit list, because of the oil “tank farms” and pipelines.

Not only to prevent global warming, but also to prevent cyberattacks that can cripple our energy system, we need to make a rapid transition away from fossil fuels, even if Comrade Trump insists that we should not.

Another Message from Fluff: This is Exactly How I Feel!


Fluff the cottonwood tree asked me to pass this on to you from The Onion.

Saturday, May 8, 2021

Reforestation: The Miyawaki Method

A popular new method of replanting forests that have been devastated was developed many years ago by a Japanese botanist, Akira Miyawaki (now 93 years old). This method is now being used around the world and is especially popular in the tropical parts of India.

The method is supposedly simple, but of course there are a lot of details. Nevertheless, the basic idea is very simple: plant a thick growth of seedlings of native tree species and let them thin themselves out into a diverse forest. It is the exact opposite of a tree plantation, which consists of a single tree species, each tree spaced out enough that it will probably survive. We have a lot of plantations in Oklahoma, mostly loblolly pines used by Weyerhaeuser Corporation for wood pulp, mostly along State Highway 3 on the east side of the state. Instead, the Miyawaki method is an almost exact replication of natural forest succession, except that it skips the weedy and shrubby stages, going directly to the forest stage. If you use a mixture of native species, they will not only be adapted to local conditions, but will interweave themselves into different layers and roles.

But this is not what I found the most interesting about the method. To me, the most important part was that this method allows nature itself to do the thinning-out of the trees. You know that a lot of them are going to die, but the result will be astonishing.

Plant ecologist K. Yoda found that a thick growth of plants would thin itself out as the bigger plants grew bigger and the smaller ones died. This is hardly surprising in itself. But Yoda found that in a graph in which the average plant weight is a function of density, both on logarithmic scales, the slope of the line was very close to -3/2. The confusing thing about such a graph is that the time axis goes backwards: you have to read the graph from right to left. Or is it backwards? Remember that in Japan they traditionally read right to left. This discovery, like the Miyawaki method, came out of Japan. Here is a recent article about this pattern. Yoda used monocultures (a single species) but it apparently works with polycultures as well.

My message is simple: If you want to restore nature, let nature do it, giving it just a little help.

Friday, April 30, 2021

For Conservatives, All Causes Are in the Service of Racism


I am a member of several organizations that defend the teaching of evolution against creationist attacks, including the Oklahoma Academy of Science (OAS) and Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education (OESE), both of which I am a past president. We have put a lot of effort into opposing creationism. If that was our main intent, then it was all a waste of time.

More recently, OAS and OESE has put a lot of effort into opposing global warming denialism. If that was our main intent, then it was, also, a waste of time.

It is even possible that the conservative Right to Life proponents do not really care very much about unborn babies.

Conservatives, I have come to believe, do not really care about creationism, or global warming denialism, or even anti-abortion causes. These causes merely serve to promote their ultimate extremist agenda, the central tenet of which is white supremacy.

Numerous recent events, some major but others largely unnoticed, illustrate my point. The act of domestic terrorism (so defined by the FBI) that led to the January 6 invasion of the Capitol was not people defending creationism, or global warming denialism, or the Right to Life. If you engaged any of them individually in conversation, they would probably proclaim their hatred of evolution, global warming science, and abortion. But their loud and clear message on that day was white supremacy. That’s what January 6 was all about. It was not merely some guys who flew off the handle in anger. Someone planted bombs on the same day. Their attack was planned. And it was white supremacist.

But consider the smaller things also. Donald Trump says things about global warming and abortion (he left creationism to Mike Pence). In connection with July 4, 2020, Trump said that “the American way of life began in 1492.” He thus dismissed any contribution from Native Americans, blacks, or Hispanic natives of the land that would only later become the southwestern United States. Rick Santorum is well known for his defense of creationism and opposition to abortion. But on April 23, 2021, he revealed his racism when he said that America was birthed [by whites] "from nothing” before dismissing Native Americans as having nothing to contribute to “American” culture. This caused something of an outcry in America, especially from chiefs of Native nations such as Chuck Hoskin Jr., principal chief of the Cherokee tribe. But the reaction overseas shows that Santorum’s remarks contributes to an image of America as a bastion of white supremacy.

For both Trump and Santorum, white racism was the goal toward which all their other beliefs pointed.

By spending our time, as my fellow OAS and OESE members have done, on creationism and global warming, we are treating a symptom. And not even a real symptom; I suspect it is just a disguise to hide the white supremacist agenda. I urge my fellow science activists to consider that, while it is important to speak out that all races have a common evolutionary origin and global warming threatens all races, direct opposition to anti-evolution and anti-climate statements by conservative leaders is a waste of time. The conservatives can crank out misinformation a thousand times faster than we can dissect and carefully explain their errors. They already know their errors, as do their followers.

I have written five science books, all of which could be seen as opposing the conservative anti-evolution and anti-climate stand. But this was not their purpose. If I had structured any of these books as having anti-conservatism as their main focus, they would have been a waste of time. I have just published the sixth (and not the last) instalment of a series called “Creationist Funhouse” in the national magazine Skeptical Inquirer (see the table of contents for the previous articles here). Everyone who reads the magazine already know creationists are wrong. But I used a wry ridicule of creationism as an invitation to discover the wonders of fossils, molecular biology, and ecology. This, I believe, is why I have received such positive feedback about the articles. Nobody wants to see me scowl and say, “creationists are wrong,” but they want to smile with me and learn new things about science, things that creationists cannot allow themselves to enjoy. I urge my fellow science activists to proclaim the beauty of science and the worldview—which does not include white supremacism—that it promotes.

And I believe that OESE would consider the main purpose of teacher workshops on evolution and global warming (with help from the Oklahoma Meteorological Survey) to be helping teachers to enjoy teaching science more and raising a new generation of young people who share the joy of science. This is what OAS does also. Because we focus on the joy of science education, we have been successful.

I can only hope that white supremacism dies away, though I fear it will not. Every time I think it might be in decline, I see a new Confederate flag in my neighborhood in Durant, Oklahoma. But if white supremacism does die away, maybe it will take creationism and global warming denialism with it.

Of course, there are individual conservatives who are not racist. I know some, and so do you. Some are even black, such as Senator Tim Scott who told viewers after President Biden’s April 28 speech that America is not a racist country. (I cannot find any links to this event that does not require you to subscribe to a newspaper.) But it is not the moderate Republicans who have the most guns or who reached their most recent climax on January 6.

This article represents my viewpoint and has not been endorsed by OAS, OESE or any other scientific organization.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Humans and Bias: Another Message from Your Local Cottonwood Tree

Hi, this is Fluff the female cottonwood tree again (she/hers). I live in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This message is being passed on to you by a botanist named Stan Rice.

Image from the Portland Mercury website

I am a tall cottonwood, and I overlook a strip mall. It is a small building, with maybe a dozen businesses. And two of these businesses are cannabis dispensaries. When I talked to Stan about it, he laughed. Just the previous evening, when he and his wife had driven just ten miles across town, they counted thirteen dispensaries; and, at 2200, that Oklahoma leads the nation in the number of cannabis dispensaries.

This may seem strange, since Oklahoma may be the reddest of the red states in the United States. Cannabis is traditionally associated with the liberal end of the political spectrum. Stan just couldn’t figure it out. I had to help him.

First, I explained to him that human political conservatism isn’t. It has nothing to do with conserving traditional values and all that. It has only to do with power and money. Religion used to be involved; but now, conservatives just use religion as a way of getting power and money. So while Oklahoma used to be the fiercest state of any in prosecuting marijuana, a state where conservatives hated cannabis. they now see dollar signs.

Second, there has to be a customer base. A lot of people want to buy cannabis. One form, CBD (cannabidiol), does not have hallucinogenic properties, but is reputed to control muscular spasms and other problems. The other form, THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), is hallucinogenic, but due to its reputed medical properties can be obtained by prescription. Prescriptions are given largely at the discretion of physicians; and some of them are a little more discretioney than others.

Thus, all of a sudden here in Oklahoma, something has happened that was unthinkable five years ago. Everybody and her brother want cannabis now.

But will this surge of demand last? Possibly so, because you humans think and feel what you expect to think or feel. It is called bias. Stan wrote about it in his book. I’m glad that us cottonwoods, who are the dominant life form on the planet, do not suffer from it. If you think CBD or THC will calm down your muscles, then they probably will. Hell, you could chew on my leaves and get some kind of medical effect, but only if you anticipate it.

Scientists, like Stan, recognize the effect of bias. Stan tried out CBD for a while. (BTW, that stuff is expensive.) At first, it seemed to help relax his muscles. But after a while it stopped working. He kept a log of muscle spasms, vs. CBD, each night for a few months. Either his body habituated to the CBD, or he had at first merely experienced bias.

I will watch over the strip mall and let you know what happens. Good luck to the dispensaries and to their two thousand competitors within Oklahoma.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

New Video: Darwin Eats Tree Leaves

In this video, Darwin jumps around in springtime exuberance and eats leaves of a water oak (Quercus nigra). He was inspired to do this by seeing a French video in which a naturalist ran around in the French woodlands and ate young leaves. He smiled really big and talked about how good they were, including oaks, willows, poplars, beeches, etc.

But the French videographer warned his viewers that they should do this only with very young leaves. Older leaves in European forests are full of toxic compounds which, although they will not kill you, at least taste bad. The leaves manufacture these compounds (for example tannins) to discourage animals, especially caterpillars, from eating them.

But it can be expensive for a leaf to defend itself. Every molecule of defensive chemical that the leaf makes has a construction cost in energy and raw materials. These costs could be used to make more leaf area, which is an investment in photosynthesis that will bring in more energy and raw materials. The ideal amount of defense spending for a leaf (or a nation) is zero, but this is not possible in a dangerous world. Therefore, leaves, like nations, economize their defense spending. Leaves make defensive chemicals only when they are needed.

Ever since the work of Paul Feeney fifty years ago, scientists have understood that, in European forests, many herbivorous insects die during the cold winters. Their populations build back up during the warm, wet summers. The forest trees, such as the oaks studied by Feeney, economize their defense spending by producing very few defensive compounds in the spring, then more and more as the summer goes on. In the early spring, therefore, the forest is almost like a big salad bowl, especially for the Frenchman I mentioned earlier. In the video, Darwin decides to eat a young water oak leaf in Oklahoma.

Darwin got a surprise. The leaf was bitter. Then he understood why. In Oklahoma, the winters are not very cold (February 2021 being a significant exception) and many insects can find little crevices to hide in. In Oklahoma in the spring, unlike in Europe, the insects can come out in full force. The young leaves are ready for them, having defended themselves with chemicals. Many of the insects die during the long, hot, dry summers in Oklahoma; that is, their populations die back in the summer, not so much in the winter.

This raises the possibility that tannin concentrations in Oklahoma oaks are high in the spring and lower in the summer. Of course, once the leaf produces tannins, why not just keep them all summer? But it is possible that the tannins can be degraded and the molecules used for something else. I tried to measure this in post oaks (Q. stellata), only to discover that I am not a very good chemist and failed to measure the tannin levels correctly.

I did try a different, creative approach to determining whether the early season oak leaves were more toxic than the late season leaves. I ground up leaves in liquid nitrogen and mixed them up into hornworm chow. You read that correctly. Hornworm chow. It turns out you can buy hornworm eggsand caterpillars, and even chow and growth vials, from Carolina Biological Supply. Wild hornworms usually eat tomato leaves, but these caterpillars eat chow, and, apparently, almost anything you mix into it, like leaf powder. The hornworms grew best on the chow. But they grew bigger and faster when they ate late-season oak leaf powder than early-season powder.

So my advice to Darwin is, if you want to eat tree leaves in the spring, go to Europe.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Listen Up, Chauvanist Humans! A Message from Your Local Cottonwood Tree

I am a female cottonwood tree named Fluff. I live in Tulsa, Oklahoma, according to your human maps. I object strongly to being called “it,” especially by humans who think they can cut me down. I am she.

Nearby is my mate, a male cottonwood tree. I did not choose him as my mate, but the seeds from which we grew happened to land very near to one another. He is somewhat arrogant, proud of his bright pink catkins, and of his sexual prowess: he can produce a hundred pollen grains for every one of my seeds.

Here is a photo of one of my autumn leaves. Is it not beautiful?

I cannot speak, so I will let botanist Stan Rice speak on my behalf. He will tell you, “Look at her beautiful green catkins” in the spring and “Listen to the susurrus of her glistening leaves” in the summer. He adores me for who I am, not for what I am. About ten percent of plant species are like me: some of us are female, and some are male. We are, as Stan tells me, dioecious. My species (which Stan calls Populus deltoides) is far from being the only dioecious species even in Oklahoma. Several species of willows; mulberries; bois-d’arc trees; holly bushes; to name a few, are also dioecious. We all deserve to be called she and he. Then there are the monoecious plants, which have separate male and female reproductive organs, but in different places on the same plant. Oak trees; walnut trees; pecan trees; pine trees—all of them are monoecious. But even more common are the species that have both male and female structures inside the same reproductive organ, usually a flower. Everyone sees the stamens of a freshly opened flower, but few notice the pistil which contains the future seeds. Even these plants, however, are gendered beings.

[Editor’s note: spell-check programs are extremely human-chauvanistic. It is difficult to get Word to not change deltoides to deltoids, as if any self-respecting organism would have arms with deltoid muscles into which covid vaccinations can be jabbed.]

A letter written recently by animal rights advocates calls for the use of gendered personal pronouns to describe animals. The lead author is Jane Goodall, who has for decades kept up a reasonable effort to get the respect of personal, rather than impersonal, pronouns used for chimpanzees. The evidence that chimps are as individual and sentient as humans is overwhelming. The use of he and she for chimps is nearly universal among thoughtful writers today.

But this letter has called for personal pronouns to be used for “non-human animals,” without precisely specifying what these are. Personal pronouns clearly apply to chimps, as well as gorillas, seals, whales, etc. Most people use he and she for their pets. But what about mice? If you can’t tell whether a mouse is male or female, should you use “they”? “The mouse left their droppings on the floor” may be awkward, but maybe it is something that all of you humans need to learn to do. What about an earthworm, which is both fully male and fully female at the same time? “I picked up the earthworm from the sidewalk and, to save his/her life, tossed him/her onto the grass.”

The problem goes far beyond pronouns. Humans arrogantly assume they can assign personal names to their pets. Stan tells me he once, as a child, had a ghost catfish that he named Sam. It died because Stan did not know he was not supposed to use tapwater in a fishbowl. I cannot imagine a fish would object to being named Sam, but then again, how would I know? How can a cottonwood empathize with a fish? Although I am more likely to do so than What’s-His-Name who thinks he is my mate.

People often name their cats something like Snookums. How degrading! At least names like Shakespurr, Purrscilla, or Walter Cronkat are funny, but the cats did not choose these names. Humans do not choose their names either, at birth, but can change them later if they wish. Animals do not have this option.

For plants, the problem is unthinkably worse. Even the humans who care the most about us, like Stan, do not give us personal names very often. Stan has a database of trees in Durant, Oklahoma, and he has not given one of them a personal name. He knows many of them personally. He knows exactly where Qs26 (for Quercus stellata 26) lives, and even says hi to it when he walks by, but never by name. He certainly has not asked him/her the name he/she prefers.

The problem gets even worse when we descend into the microbe realm. Even the use of the verb “descend” is condescending. Microbes are as fully evolved, adapted to their ways of life, as are cottonwoods or even humans. One human did try to empathize with microbes. As documented in a book by David Ketterer, Mark Twain wrote a manuscript (not well known, nor well written) called Three Thousand Years among the Microbes. He was a human who shrank down to microbe size and lived on their time scale. He stayed for about three human weeks, which was about three thousand microbe years. He got to know them by their microbe names as individuals. He gave them human names, but only when they asked for them. One of them told him that she wanted to be called Catherine of Aragon. There were trillions of microbes on one planet—the planet being a single human being. They all had different personalities. Not only that, but each microbe itself had billions of microbes on and inside of him/her, and they were as dismissive of and unmerciful toward their microbes as humans are of theirs. The microbes thought Twain was crazy when he told them there were billions of humans, each with a universe of microbes living on and in him or her. Twain wrote another manuscript, equally obscure, called The Great Dark, in which a human looked in a microscope with a drop of pond water for a few minutes and was transported to a ship, which had a microbe crew, on an ocean. His wife was with him and did not grow a human-day older during the entire decade of the voyage. Every crew member had a distinct name and personality. Twain even said that each atom had its own consciousness and personality. Twain was just trying to expand our awareness of the vastness of the big and small in the cosmos. His ideas could certainly not be right, since (as I wrote in a previous essay [ref]) atoms are small but not infinitely small, and molecules involved in metabolism have a lower size limit. Twain, of course, could not have known this.

Stan and I just had a little talk. He is a writer as well as a scientist and educator, and he told me it was physically impossible for him to assign personal pronouns, much less personal names, to all individual organisms. I told him that this didn’t matter; he should at least try. He walked away sadly. I feel bad about alienating him, and maybe if he comes back and says hi to me, I will re-start the relationship.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Tentworms in the Forest

Today, I took a walk in a forest near Tulsa. Spring came late this year for most of the United States. The buds of most of the woody plants have begun to open, but very few leaves have expanded. One kind of tree, the black cherry (Prunus serotina), has opened its leaves. And as soon as the leaves opened, they were eaten by tentworm caterpillars (Malacosoma americanum).

Mindlessly and cruelly efficient, that’s what it was. Dozens of hungry tentworm caterpillars hid inside of silk tents that they wove where branches diverged in wild cherry trees. While it looked soft, the silk was actually very tough. Though a bird would easily see the caterpillars through the translucent fabric, it would take a lot of messy work for the bird to tear through the fabric and eat them. At night, when the birds cannot see them, they slip out of their tents and eat the young leaves. It seemed like a perfect arrangement for the benefit of the caterpillars. Tents festooned cherry trees throughout the forest.

This was not merely an interesting observation. It was observations like this that spawned a whole branch of ecological research. Why is the world green? Given the astonishing ability of insects to multiply their numbers, why have they not eaten every leaf and sprig of grass on the planet? Outbreaks such as locust plagues prove that they could do so, given the opportunity. What stops them? The answer is, lots of things. The interaction between plants and the animals that eat them (collectively called herbivores) is dynamic and constantly shifting.

Despite what seemed like an easy feast, there were lots of chances for things that could go wrong for the caterpillars. Like most plants, the cherry tree produces toxins in its leaves that inhibit the growth of herbivores. The cherry leaves, like the leaves of all the other plants in the deciduous forest, are not a big salad bowl. Toxin production, however, is metabolically expensive. To make the toxins, the leaves must use energy and molecules that they would otherwise use for growth and food production. That is, if the leaves defend themselves more, they grow less.

Young leaves are often tender and have relatively few toxins. This appears to be the case with wild black cherry. If the tentworms are going to eat them, it is best to do so early in the spring. If the eggs hatch too late in the spring, the leaves may be tougher and more toxic. That is, the caterpillars must get their timing right. I looked around me and saw that the leaves of most of the trees were just emerging. Black cherry was one of the earliest trees to open its leaves.

But, aside from encountering leaves that may be harder to eat, what problems might the caterpillars encounter if they emerge too late? Black cherry trees produce nectar in their flowers (which open later in the spring), but also from “extrafloral nectaries,” structures on their reddish bark that produce nectar. Nectar inside a flower attracts pollinators, but what benefit might the cherry tree get from producing nectar on its bark? In numerous other species, extrafloral nectaries attract and feed ants. When the ants visit the cherry tree, they do not just eat nectar. If they encounter big packages of protein, such as tentworms, they will swarm over them and eat them. As the spring progresses, ants become more common and they search a larger and larger area. Late tentworms might find themselves under attack. They need to hide and pupate soon if they are to have a chance.

But the caterpillars must also not hatch too early. In a previous year in this same forest, I found dozens of tents filled with caterpillars, and no leaves for them to eat. The particular pattern of weather conditions that year had tricked the caterpillars into hatching too early. That year, many or most of the caterpillars probably starved. This event interrupted what might otherwise have been a year-by-year population explosion of tentworms.

Herbivores often specialize on certain species of plants whose toxins they have evolved to tolerate. Some herbivores, such as gypsy moths, seem able to eat almost any kind of tree leaf. But even they have their limits. They do not eat grasses, for example. These tentworms, however, seemed to eat only black cherry leaves. Perhaps this was because they were the leaves that were available at the right time. I decided to look more closely to decide if this might be the case.

The black cherry trees were almost, but not the only, early leaves. The invasive Bradford pear (Pyrus calleryana) is the tree that wakes up earliest in the springtime. Before the buds of any other woody plant open, the Bradford pear is in full white bloom. By the time the tent caterpillars swarmed over the wild cherry trees, the Bradford pear leaves were already out. Why were there no caterpillars eating their leaves? Perhaps the pear leaves had toxins that the tent caterpillars could not tolerate. This seemed unlikely, because the pears and the cherries are closely related species in the rose family. The same is true of the serviceberry leaves (Amelanchier canadensis). But I had nothing to go on. All I knew was that the wild cherries had caterpillars and the serviceberries and the invasive pears did not.

Or did they? One of the habits of a successful scientist, whether professional or amateur, is to keep looking closely, to not be satisfied with a quick glance. After seeing dozens of caterpillar tents on black cherry trees, I finally found one on a Bradford pear. The tent was small, and the caterpillars were short and skinny compared to those on the cherry trees. They had not eaten very much, and this meager diet would almost certainly cause them to starve before reaching adequate size for pupation. I also found one tent, similarly small and with scrawny caterpillars, on a red oak tree (Quercus rubra).

Tent caterpillars have been widely reported to prefer cherry trees, and this is certainly what I see every spring in this particular forest. But they have also been found on other kinds of trees; my observation of tentworms on a red oak was therefore unusual but not something to write home about. It is difficult, without extensive research, to know why the tentworms prefer cherry trees. Perhaps it is because the caterpillars often eat cherry leaves, and when the adults emerge to mate, they look for cherry trees as places to lay their eggs. This cycle of preference from one generation to another might maintain the association between tentworms and cherries. This, however, is not a very convincing explanation. As I saw on just a single day of exploration, the tentworms occasionally hatch on and try to eat other kinds of trees. It would not take long for the tentworms to spread to other tree species, if the leaves were just as suitable a food for them as are cherry leaves.

Still, if the tentworms begin their feast on the right kind of tree, not too early, and not too late, they would seem to have it pretty good. But the natural world is full of perils. Dozens of species of other insects attack or parasitize the eggs, caterpillars, or pupae. Though I cannot find a published confirmation of this, I suspect that some of the parasites may affect the nervous system of the caterpillars in such a way as to alter their behavior. There are parasitic worms that cause strange behavior in, for example, snails. In particular, the worm makes the snail climb out on a twig tip where a bird can eat it. I have seen a few tentworms, in the daytime, on the outside of their tents, where birds could easily find and eat them. Was it because parasitic worms influenced their behavior? Perhaps so. The caterpillars would occasionally twitch!

Finally, the effects of the tentworms on the cherry trees may not be as great as it would at first appear. I have seen hundreds of cherry trees infested and completely denuded by these caterpillars, but I have not seen any of them die. Since I did not mark the trees, I cannot be certain; but there are certainly not very many tentworm victims. Since the tentworms must finish their work as quickly as possible, well before the end of springtime, the cherry trees simply grow a new set of leaves once the caterpillars have pupated.

No matter what the cherry tree does, there is a cost. It could produce costly toxins early in the spring, thus defending itself from tentworms; or it could allow the leaves to be eaten, and grow them back. For reasons that at least I do not know, evolution has selected the latter option for the black cherry.

All this, from just looking closely at and thinking about something I saw while walking through the forest.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Green Living: Simple or Complex?

I once considered writing a book about green living. This was back about 1997. There were already lots of books about this, so I don’t know what I was thinking. There are even more such books now, most of them ignored by the majority of Americans, though that may soon change.

Here are some of the ideas I had accumulated. They all seem pretty trivial, but if millions of people do them, they start to add up.

  • Tear paper towels in half (with, not against, the fibers) and just use half. Or buy a kind of paper towels that has short segments.
  • Plan your car trips around town efficiently, without having to backtrack (and preferably with more right turns than stressful left turns). You will use less gas, save time, and experience less stress.
  • If you must install new shingles on your roof, choose as light a color as you can. It may not be cost-effective to replace a roof that is in good shape just to make it reflect more light, and the new roof and its installation might use more energy than you would save, besides the money.
  • Raising and processing chickens uses a lot less fossil fuel energy than beef. Chicken, besides being cheap and better for you, saves the Earth some energy. So, eat more chicken. In general, eat less meat. Use meat to promote your meal, rather than as the basis of it. Some people become vegetarians, but if you don’t, you can at least help out the Earth a little bit. [Warning: In Oklahoma, the State House just passed a resolution (March 2021) calling on everyone to eat as much meat as possible.]
  • Try to seek out situations for quiet contentment. You will be happier, and you will spend less money and use less energy than would a constant pursuit of entertainment.
  • When you print something from a website, copy and paste just the part you want into a word processor. You can adjust the spacing and font this way, rather than printing out all the extra stuff that web pages always have. Best of all, don’t print it at all.

This is just a very short list. The point is that you can think of all kinds of things you can do to reduce your carbon footprint. You don’t need any lists from me. The above list is just meant to provoke your creativity. You can find things that are cheap and easy—the proverbial low-hanging fruit. Make sure it is something you will enjoy doing, and therefore keep doing. Learn to enjoy the flavor of small bits of meat rather than big mouthfuls of it. You might even like it better that way. If you can’t stand jogging, just take a walk. Maybe even walk or bike to work.

Most of all, don’t do something without thinking about it first.

  • Some people think they will become less dependent on fossil fuels, for example the diesel used for transporting food, by raising their own chickens. That’s great, if you know how to do it, but it could quickly become a comedy of errors. Don’t get me started on roosters.
  • Also, I have tried printing double-sided. It usually doesn’t work unless the printer is specially built for this. Instead, I reuse old paper with blank backsides by manual feed. I still have a stack of one-sided sheets left over from previous decades.

By doing any or all of the things on your list, you are making yourself unpatriotic, in the eyes of some. Most corporations want you to waste energy and materials. Oil companies don’t want you to drive less or drive small cars. The hospitality industry does not want you to stay home. Above all, corporations do not want you to stay home and read or write, thus enhancing your critical thinking skills, which will allow you to see through their misleading advertising claims. We have known ever since the late 1950s when Vance Packard wrote The Waste Makers and The Hidden Persuaders that corporations specifically manipulate customers into buying too much, and wasting it.

But the America of the future needs environmental patriotism. Posterity, whom you will never meet, will thank you for it.