Saturday, December 31, 2022

John Muir's Campbellite Father

John Muir’s father, on his farm in Wisconsin, was a Campbellite. And so, about 150 years later, was I. What does this mean?

Following the teachings of Thomas and Alexander Campbell, participants in the “Restoration Movement” wanted to “restore” Christianity to its pure Biblical basis. There were to be no doctrines or creeds that were not specifically in the Bible; the Bible alone was to be their basis of faith. You will find modern churches that identify with this tradition, usually called Churches of Christ. The Disciples of Christ denomination began from this tradition but has branched out to no longer be fundamentalists. And among the Churches of Christ, you have to look carefully for the true, utterly pure Campbellites. I was a member of a Church of Christ sect that insisted that you should use a single cup for communion, and the churches that used multiple cups (a separate cup for each communicant) were “erring brethren.” You couldn’t tell from the church signs which church was which; the signs did not say “We use only one cup/multiple cups in communion.” While this seems like a trivial controversy, it was deeply important to us, and we spent a lot of time, sermon after sermon, denouncing the erring brethren. How many hours of my life I wasted on this!

Of course, Campbellites reject the label. They, as I did, claim that they are followers of Jesus, not the Campbells.

But us Campbellites clung to many doctrines that were NOT in the Bible at all. One example: we claimed that no instrumental music could be used during church services. Such a command is not found anywhere in the Bible. The Bible does not even say, “You cannot do anything during a church service that is not specifically authorized by Scripture.” We just made that crap up.

Another, and I believe more important, example of non-Scriptural assertions of Campbellites is, or was, what John Muir’s father tried to indoctrinate his son John to believe. He believed that the entire world, including the natural world, the forests and its trees and birds and soils, was fallen and evil, and we should not celebrate it. He actively tried to get his son John to NOT love the natural world. Fortunately, he failed, and we had John Muir to lead us into an era of conservation awareness. Search the Bible all you want, but you will never find any reference to the natural world to be the realm of Satan, or that loving the natural world is a sin. Just read Psalm 104 and try to tell me that the love of nature is a sin. Just try it. Since I do not expect any Campbellites to read this essay, I expect no response to this challenge. Campbellites live in a little isolated world in which they, and they alone, are faithful to God, and perhaps more recently to worship Donald Trump instead of God.


I have a particularly vivid and painful memory in regard to this specific belief. The Bible tells about how the old heavens and the old earth will be destroyed, and a new heaven and a new earth will be created. As a lover of nature, I was overjoyed to hear this. The forests and flowered hillsides I loved so much would not be destroyed forever but be recreated without the taint of human sin that currently fouls them. When I was asked to give a sermon, our “evangelist” was sitting in the front row paging through his Bible. I did not know at the time that he was planning to lambast me about this horrible belief—the idea that anything in the world, even the forests and wildflowers, could possibly be good.

The next week he delivered a sermon that was directed specifically at me. He said that “certain teachers” (translation: me) actually said that God would create a new earth. Then he went through a really contorted and wicked line of reasoning. He said, the old earth was the Old Testament, since before Jesus our earth (or dwelling) was the Old Covenant. The new earth, therefore, had to be Jesus’ new covenant. Anyone who believed that it would be a literal new earth, with trees and stuff, was utterly wrong and bound for hell. Gee, thanks, Bob Sanders.

You can imagine the effect that this had on me, as a high school student. To be utterly shamed as not only an infidel but a heretic in front of the congregation which I loved very much! I was utterly depressed by it. Some people would interpret what he did as verbal child abuse. I believe this form of verbal child abuse continues today in fundamentalist churches. Of course, it turns out he was wrong about this, and about almost everything else.

Thank God, if there is one, that I am no longer a Campbellite, and that I revere the work and memory of John Muir.


Monday, December 19, 2022

The Price of Love: Perspectives from a Cottonwood Tree

It has been a long time since I have asked Stan, who manages this blog, to post something for me. I am Fluff, the cottonwood tree (she/her/hers) who lives next to the strip mall near Stan’s house in Tulsa. My last message was a year ago. Stan and I talk a lot, though not in words. He usually says hi to me as he and his wife take a walk along the ditch that is charitably called a creek. Last week, he made an estimate of the number of pieces of garbage along this ditch. He came up with 3,200 pieces of garbage per mile.

Today, however, we talked about a book he is reading called The Price of Altruism. It is a biography of George Price, the man whose mathematical genius was revered by the greatest evolutionary theoreticians of the mid-twentieth century, such as the late John Maynard Smith and the late William Hamilton. The focus of our discussion was vagrants, like the one who has built a trash structure right underneath my branches, and like the ones among whom George Price lived and died.


Stan had some vague idea of who George Price was. There is considerable scientific literature about altruism, including many mathematical papers that analyze it. Altruism is when one animal is nice to, or at least offers some assistance to, another animal. Stan has been interested in this topic for a long time and even considered writing a book about it, a project that is now on indefinite hold. He has not had any interest, however, in mathematical models. As even the mathematicians admit, real animals very seldom behave the way the models predict they should. That is, the models work, except when they don’t. George Price was one of these mathematicians.


Most of the mathematicians were academics who led safe lives. Some of them, like William Hamilton, took risks by doing field work in challenging places. Some, like John Maynard Smith, stayed in their ivory towers. But George Price, as Stan understood his story, was convinced by his own equations that he should live a completely altruistic life, at which point he left the tower and poured out his generosity on homeless vagrants in London, among whom he died. He almost seemed to be a Christlike figure, who was one of the few people to completely pour himself out for poor people the way Jesus did. Jesus, who had nowhere to lay his head, and who said to live like the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, who would forgive seventy times seven times, and who would give everything away, never expecting repayment.


But the evidence is clear: he was delusional and lost his grip on mental reality.


George Price seemed to be, without saying it in so many words, proclaiming that we should all be living Christlike lives of self-sacrifice. He did, in fact, undergo a Christian conversion, and believed himself to be living in a uniquely Christlike fashion.


Actually, Price underwent two conversions. In the first, he noticed, then based his life upon, coincidences. Very unlikely events became miraculous when they happened together. These coincidences showed his mental instability. In one case, he met a woman with the same name as, and on the same date, that he had met a previous girlfriend. To Price, this clearly meant that she should marry him. He also noticed coincidences in phone numbers. Of course, we understand that coincidences that we notice seem almost infinitely impossible, but there are millions of other events that we do not notice. But after a while he started to ignore coincidences. His second conversion was to a spirit of vague charity, in which he loved everyone no matter what they did, even to him.


This would make it seem that Price was a super-Christian.


But, Stan discovered that Price survived only because of the charity of colleagues and friends. He gave away all his money, but then depended on friends to let him crash on a couch, or on charities to provide him free room and board. That is, he was a couch-surfer back before the term existed. Brilliant as he was, he could probably have come up with an elegant, simple, and profound mathematical equation for optimal couch-surfing. In addition, the money he gave away wasn’t really his. His colleagues got him stipends so that he could write more mathematical equations like the ones that had earlier dazzled them. But he just took the money and did what he wanted. Price was, in effect, giving away scientific grant money (that is, British taxpayer money) rather than his own. This was not a Christian way to live.


Actually, one could make many of the same criticisms of Jesus. He waited for food to fall like schmoos into his mouth, but it was his disciples who managed the money and bought the food. Jesus was, in effect, couch-surfing and mooching as much as Price did. The same is true of other historical figures such as St. Francis of Assisi.


I told Stan to stop worrying about it. He is living an altruistic life already. True, he walked right past the vagrant under my branches without a glance. But Stan spends his money only on modest pleasures. He believes that whatever money and collateral—and even health—that he has belongs to his family, especially his daughter and grandchildren in France. He will not give his wealth (modest anyhow) to the vagrant and leave his family (the way George Price did his) without money and with a poor old man to take care of.


Perhaps most of all, the people to whom Price showed generosity benefited only briefly and slightly. By the time Price died, every one of the vagrants he helped was still a vagrant. The man everyone called Peg Leg remained the alcoholic he had previously been.


What a waste.


Stan was expecting some insights about altruism from Price—not from his math (Stan almost never gets insights from math) but from his personal example. In this, Stan was disappointed.


Now, from my perspective as a cottonwood tree. I do not care what happens to the rest of the world. In autumn, I let go of my leaves and they fly away in the wind. I do not recycle them; Nature does. I let go of my seeds in late spring, and do not care where they go. When I have a dead branch, I do not care whose roof it falls on. But, then, I am a tree. I cannot control where my leaves or seeds go. But you humans are in an existential crisis. You can decide what to do and when. You humans have the choice of good and evil for every little action you take. All I can say is, try to be as wise as you can. Optimize your goodness, realizing that your life is not your own, to dissipate in pleasure or to pour into black holes of charity. This is why I am glad I am a cottonwood tree, not a human.


Stan thanked me and went back home to write this.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Formal Learning and Experience


Henry David Thoreau was fond of just wandering into the forest and letting Nature teach him things, that is, by pure experience. He considered this much more important than formal learning, from books and classrooms. But if he relied only on experience, without formal learning, he would get nothing out of his romps in the woods other than a vague feeling of happiness and relaxation. It was because he had formal education that he was able to make sense out of the many things that he experienced in the woods. As I walk through the woods, I encounter many people who get nothing more from their hike than a feeling of relaxation, which is in itself a good thing, but I think I enjoy my ramble in the woods more than they do theirs.

Actually, they aren’t rambles. I always stay on the trail like a good citizen. John Burroughs would stay on the trail and use the bridge, while Thoreau, or John Muir, would pick their way through the woods and jump over the creek.

We need both formal education and continually renewed experience. Here are two examples:

  • In my field botany class, I taught students how to recognize poison ivy, in particular the three leaflets and the stalk on the middle leaflet. This is what all the poison ivy figures in the books have. But, especially in late summer, the plants can get a little raggedy. When I was hiking one day, I saw a poison ivy plant. (It was actually a small bush rather than a vine.) It had one leaf remaining, and one of the three leaflets had fallen off. But because I have looked closely at so many poison ivy plants, I recognized it instantly. No written key, not even the astonishingly accurate algorithms of iNaturalist, would have identified this two-leaflet poison ivy leaf. But I recognized the leaflet as I might have recognized the face of a friend, as Thoreau would have said.
  • On the same hike, I saw a Virginia creeper vine. All the books say, as I said in class, that the leaves have five leaflets. But this one—the whole vine, which was small and a little pale, obviously not well nourished—had leaves with three leaflets. That is, each leaf had developed three leaflets; it was not a case of five leaflets of which two had been shed. But I recognized it instantly.


These are the sorts of plants I would not include on lab practicals. Had I included the three-leafleted creeper, a student would have said, But you told us there were five.

Formal learning told me how to recognize a typical poison ivy or Virginia creeper; experience, over the course of years, taught me how to recognize the diversity of individual creepers and poison ivies.

One habit that Thoreau had more than almost anyone else, and which we must all cultivate to be wise and happy, is close observation; and, in addition, asking questions about what we see. My former students may forget most of what they learned from me in class, but if they keep looking at the things in nature, they will continually renew their knowledge of things such as poison ivy and Virginia creeper.

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Get Out the Monkey Wrenches?

I spent three years teaching at a Christian college near New York City. I wish I could get that time back, but it is gone forever. (Then I went off and taught another three years at a different Christian college. I finally learned my lesson and went secular for the rest of my career.) The college in New York claimed to be Christian but it was at least at that time just a front for the Republican Party. While I was there, it was quietly Republican. Years after I left, it projected an image of extreme right-wing doctrine.

While on the biology faculty at the small college near New York, I taught environmentalism. I did this partly because it was the only honest thing to do, especially among people who supposedly believed that God created the Earth and everything that is in it. Also, I was not the only faculty member doing so. Of us four biologists, none of us taught that God wanted humans to grab whatever they desire from the natural world and leave it bleeding, battered, and gasping as it awaited the Second Coming.

But most of the students at that college were not at all receptive to environmentalism. I think it was because they had never been allowed to think about it as they grew up. Imagine my surprise when, one day, I was in the computer lab writing something (few faculty had office computers), when the student assistant was telling the Learning Resources director all about this wonderful group he had just found out about, and which he admired greatly: Greenpeace. He admired their strong defense of the Earth and their willingness to take decisive, some might say extreme, actions. If Greenpeace is right about human abuse of God’s Earth, then mildness is not an appropriate response. Despite the repressive fundamentalism of that college, the students occasionally thought for themselves.

Another group besides Greenpeace that takes actions that some consider extreme is Earth First!

What I used to think about extremist environmental actions was that they were doomed to failure. The civil authorities would just sweep the protestors away and everything would go back to business as usual. Indeed, it was possible that their antics would turn people otherwise receptive to environmental views against the entire movement.

And this is exactly what Dave Foreman, one of the founders of Earth First!, used to believe, as he describes in his book Confessions of an Eco-Warrior. He worked with and for conservation organizations that took what they considered a more practical approach to environmental issues. Groups such as the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, and many others would meet with leaders of government and industry and try to convince them that sound environmental policy was profitable for everyone. This seems reasonable, doesn’t it?

Only it didn’t work out that way very often. Foreman describes his experiences with the extreme right wing Sagebrush Rebellion ranchers who wanted to take federal grazing land away from the taxpayers and keep it for themselves. The Sagebrush people created violent confrontations, and they considered mainstream environmental organizations to be their enemies.

The conciliatory approach wasn’t working very well. If you are part of a conciliatory environmentalist group, the right-wing extremists hate you as much as if you were a radical. So, for all the difference it makes, you might as well be part of a radical environmentalist group. They will hate you, but they would hate you no matter what. And this is still the case today.

This is why Foreman and others started Earth First! Back when he worked with mainstream organizations, he “was told to be rational, not emotional…I would lose credibility if I let my emotions show…But, damn it, I am an animal. A living being of flesh and blood, storm and fury. The oceans of the Earth course through my veins, the winds of the sky fill my lungs…I am alive! I am not…a cog in the industrial world…When a chainsaw slices into the heartwood of a two-thousand-year-old Coast Redwood, it’s slicing into my guts…” He and a few others decided, let the rage flow.

It seemed hopeless that anyone would pay attention to them. But when they staged a protest on Glen Canyon Dam, not destructive but very, very visible, they got in trouble but also got worldwide attention. Today, Earth First! associate organizations are found in many countries: Australia, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic (which did not even exist when Earth First! was founded), France, Germany, India, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, the Netherlands, Nigeria, New Zealand, the Philippines, Poland, Slovakia (which also did not yet exist), Spain, the UK, as well as the US.

One of the inspirations of the group was Edward Abbey’s novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. This was a fictional organization that carried out pranks against corporations and governments. The name comes from “throwing a monkey wrench into the works,” a wrench useful in manual labor but which, when thrown into the workings of a machine, can cause the whole mechanism to lock up. Nobody gets killed, but a lot of damage results. Foreman writes on page 23, “A monkey wrench thrown into the gears of the machine may not stop it. But it might delay it, make it cost more. And if feels good to put it there.”

Yes, I have to keep my emotions in their proper place when I do scientific research. But I am not just a scientist. I am also a passionate lover of the Earth. My role is not to stage protests, but to write, mostly books, but also blog essays like this one. I have retired from the academic world and feel too tired to participate in monkey wrench protests. But I am glad Earth First! is still at work, a counterbalance to the greenwashing [] of corporations that just pretend to be environmentally sound.

I suppose it is appropriate that I post this essay on midterm election day. In this election, environmental issues are mostly ignored.

Saturday, October 29, 2022

I Thought I Knew Everything about Abutilon

I thought I knew everything about the velvetleaf plant, Abutilon theophrasti. I even wrote part of my doctoral thesis about it. But I was wrong. During the 42 years since I began working on this species, I knew no more about it than a farmer knows about corn.

Oh, I knew the basic things. Abutilon is perhaps the most abundant weed in the soybean fields of the American Midwest. It raises its large, heart-shaped leaves bravely above the soybean canopy. As a member of the plant family Malvaceae, its flowers have many stamens united into a phalanx by their filaments. Unlike the better-known hibiscus, okra, and cotton, the velvetleaf flowers have small yellow petals. It produces button-shaped fruits, which are round clusters of multi-seeded capsules that look like a giant asterisk. The green fruits turn grayish when mature. The heart-shaped seeds drop out into the soil, where they may remain dormant but alive for many decades. Like most weeds, they grow in places where the soil has been disturbed, such as a current or recently abandoned farm field. It is the emblem I used for this blog.

I also knew enough about it to admire its grim efficiency. The stems and leaves are covered with soft hairs—hence the names velvetleaf, velvet plant, and velvetweed—but these hairs are sticky and, to many of us, irritating. This is probably one reason why it is the rare herbivore that eats its leaves.

Of greatest interest to me was its tremendous photosynthetic capability and its flexibility. Its large leaves absorbed carbon dioxide (which I measured) and made sugar at a rapid rate, translocating it to all parts of the plant. The feeling I still carry for this plant is that it was pumped full of water, pushing out new stems, leaves, and roots, and full of food to nourish them. Down in the shade, it would lose less water into the air, so it grew fewer roots. With less light down in the shade, velvetleaf plants produce thinner leaves, but provides just as much chlorophyll, with the result that the leaves look the same from the outside but have twice as much chlorophyll per unit weight as do leaves that grow in the sun. In the sun, the plant grows short, thick stems; in the shade, it grows long skinny stems that are more likely to thrust the leaves above any surrounding plants. You can read all about its photosynthetic and phenotypic flexibility in the first two chapters of the plain-English version of my thesis.

Abutilon is also one of the most important weeds to evolve herbicide resistance. Due to the enhanced production of a protective enzyme, some mutant plants will not die even when you spray them. There is a cost to this resistance. The mutant plants produce six times as much of the protective enzyme, a cost that they would not bear if herbicides were not used. But since farmers collectively spend billions of dollars to spray for velvetleaf, this cost is an investment that pays off spectacularly, especially in fields of herbicide-resistant genetically engineered soybeans. The mutant weeds grow more slowly than the normal weeds, but they are the ones that survive.

I even knew a little bit about its human history. I knew it had more common names than practically any other plant. Besides velvetleaf, it is also known as buttonweed and crown weed because of its asterisk-like fruits. It is also called stampweed, butterprint, and pie-marker because settlers used the immature green fruits to stamp decorations into piecrusts or pads of butter for commercial sale. It is called Indian mallow because, although it originated in China, somebody thought it came from India.

It is also called pigpenweed because it is the only major Midwestern weed that pigs will not eat. I confirmed this experimentally, though not with adequate replication. Our friend Joe lived on a farm that had a pigpen. The earth was beaten down and no plants remained in their fragrant space. When I threw in a little bit of lamb’s-quarters (Chenopodium album), a weed related to spinach, the pigs would scramble to eat it. The same with pigweed (Amaranthus retroflexus) and smartweed (Polygonum pensylvanicum, now Persicaria pensylvanica). As a control, I threw some Abutilon into the pigpen. The pigs did not approach it.

Velvetleaf cannot grow in the hot, dry summers of Oklahoma. But I have found it in Oklahoma, growing in soil along the margins of drainage creeks connected to the Arkansas River. Apparently, the seeds, floating in the water of major rivers, drift up into the creeks when the water rises. In Tulsa, they have formed a medium-sized, viable reproductive population.

But it turns out there were a lot of things I did not know until just recently. One of its common names (Chinese jute) should have given it away. (That makes eleven common English names for the same plant.) Until the twentieth century, it was raised both in Asia and in the American Midwest as a row crop for its fibers. During that time, so many seeds fell into the soil that the farmland, now used for soybeans, was infested with the weeds. I had assumed that the invasion of Abutilon into the Midwest came from plants that escaped from gardens of cottage butter-makers. That would not, of course, explain its incredible abundance, especially since the seeds do not travel very far from one place to another unless carried in soil or turf.

Most amazing of all, Abutilon is edible. “The leaves are edible stir-fried or in an omelet,” says Wikipedia and several websites that have copied it. Since its hairs are irritating, its leaves must be cooked, but the leaves are particularly popular in the cuisine of the Maldives islands, mixed with fish and coconut. The seeds are eaten in Kashmir and China, including as a component of bread. I tried to convince my wife, who makes wonderful and creative types of bread, to try it, but she was not interested.

All a farmer knows about corn is that if you plant it at the right time and the right distance apart from other corn seedlings, it will grow very large and produce big ears with lots of seeds. All I knew about velvetleaf was its tremendous growth rate and flexibility. I cannot estimate how many velvetleaf plants I killed, cutting and putting the fine roots, taproots, stems, and leaf blades into separate little paper sacks, to dry and weigh them. Velvetleaf was more like a photosynthetic machine to me than a real, living organism. Only much later have I stepped away to admire it for its amazing characteristics.

Friday, October 14, 2022

Why Do We Need Higher Education? Some Thoughts from David W. Orr

This essay corresponds to the video I just posted.

I am a recently retired biology professor. I have taught for 43 years at colleges and universities in circumstances where teaching was valued more than research. Professoring has been my life.

I became a professor because I wanted to spend my life enjoying the natural world, especially plants, and making new discoveries about it. I wanted to teach, write books, and do research to open people’s eyes about the wonderful green world. I also wanted to get paid enough to make a living while I was doing this.

But why, in general, do we have higher education? Why should students go to college? Professors will always answer this question by saying that we want to prepare students to live in the world. This is true. The fact that it is true does not mean that it is not trite. But what does this mean? State universities must prepare assessment reports in which we present measurements that show that taxpayer money has been well spent. This is reasonable. But what are the measurements? In every assessment with which I have been involved, the measurements have been job placement and income for our graduates.

But this is not the only thing that students need to be prepared to do. They will also have to run the economy and run the world. And the only way to do this is to take care of the natural world. If ecological crisis occurs, there will be no basis for an economy. In other words, all education must be environmental education. There is no subject of study that can be entirely separated from the environment. Below is a photo of a seaside alder, the focus of much of my research and teaching.

This is the message of
David W. Orr’s 1994 collection of essays, Earth in Mind. Orr, a retired professor at Oberlin College in Ohio, is one of the nation’s leading environmental educators. He has thought more about environmental education than possibly anyone else. And he believes that higher education is falling so far short of what it needs to do that it is practically worthless except for helping some students get jobs.

Orr describes a number of ways in which American colleges are failing to prepare students for realistic environmental responsibilities. We are teaching classes, he says, as if there is no planetary emergency going on. One of those ways is that we have indoor classes. What could be more boring than for a student to sit inside a room and listen to a professor talk? In my experience, the students may be paying attention, or not; they even have numerous creative ways of pretending to be awake. In every class I have taught, about ten percent (God bless them!) of the students have been attentive and enthusiastic. The solution, says Orr, is to get them outside.

In college, the students almost never have classes outside, unless the classes are field trips, which are necessary to learn to identify plants and animals. But otherwise it is just PowerPoints. I can tell you it wasn’t chalkboards or PowerPoints that got me interested in science. It was being out in the forest, and even in artificial landscapes such as orange orchards, that made me want to learn science. In Oklahoma, most class days are too hot, or too windy, or too rainy to be outside. But I found excuses to get students outside whenever I could. When I taught evolution, I took the students to a sidewalk outside, which I had marked off with important dates in the evolutionary history of the Earth. We walked along and discovered that most of Earth history has been bacteria. I had the students shout over and over, Bacteria! Finally, in the last few meters, we experienced the life of complex organisms. Human civilization was a little coat of paint on a metal bar at the end of the sidewalk. But even if it was just the last couple minutes of class, I would get them outside, on a sunny patio, to act out the events of mitosis. I know no other professors who did anything like this.

There are very few colleges that have an environmentally realistic curriculum. I tried to encourage this kind of curriculum where I worked. Only a few other faculty were interested. Whether it was because they were not interested or because they were overwhelmed with other responsibilities, I cannot say. (Randy, if you are reading this, thanks for being one of the visionaries along with me.)

Environmental education does not get much help from textbooks. There are environmental science textbooks, and there are general biology textbooks. I tried to write a general bio text with an environmental foundation. It never went into production, mainly because professors only wanted the same old format in which students were expected to learn the science of biology without thinking about how it related to their lives, and certainly without appealing to their sense of wonder.

Orr also discussed the construction of our buildings. Like any other building, an academic building can be constructed to recycle its own water, or to generate more energy than it consumes. In this way, we could visibly demonstrate to students that we fit in with the processes of the Earth. Maybe they would go on to encourage companies or institutions for which they work to build in an environmentally conscious way. But this seldom happens. My experience is typical. Our university was building a new classroom building. Here was the perfect opportunity to incorporate a green roof. A green roof will almost always pay for itself over the long term. The administration turned down my request, however. They said that it would be too expensive in the short term, while they were doing the bond issue.

David Orr had no more success than I did. During a 1999 talk I heard him describe the library at Oberlin, which had a single light switch: all the lights were on, or all were off. This is the worst possible arrangement for energy conservation. Oberlin is a leading liberal arts college, sometimes called The Harvard of the West. A leading college, and a leading environmental educator, could not solve this problem.

Orr also talked about tenure. He was for it, of course, as almost all professors are. That is, if it does what it is supposed to do. It is supposed to let professors explore new ideas that might or might not turn out to be useful, without fear of reprisal. But for too many professors, tenure becomes an excuse to be lazy. I used my tenure and sabbatical as a chance to try things, such as my too-different kind of textbook and my new curriculum. Orr speculates, would Rachel Carson have gotten tenure? Not if corporations threatened to withhold donations to her university!

I believe that our colleges and universities are incentivized to produce, not graduates who will lead the world into a better state, but consumers and business leaders who will get people to consume more and more of what will harm them and the Earth.

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Scientific Fads

Science is a relentless pursuit of truth via evidence, right? Well, more so than most other ways of thinking, but scientists are still human. As explained in my book Scientifically Thinking: How to Liberate Your Mind, Solve the World’s Problems, and Embrace the Beauty of Science (what a pompous title), scientific research is specifically designed to keep human scientists from falling into the common frailties of human thought (I have a chapter about each of them).

One example is that scientists are attracted to fads just like anyone else. Here are some examples:

Before Darwin, evolutionary theories were pretty speculative and justly earned the dislike of scientists. Darwin presented not just evidence for evolution but a mechanism for how it could work. All at once, evolution became a scientific theory. (Some problems, such as the objection raised by Fleeming Jenkin, come out of the woodwork with sometimes wild speculations. Herbert Spencer’s version of evolution was quite different from Darwin’s, and has essentially no supporters today, but it was Darwin who made Spencerism briefly viable. Darwinism also opened the door for the application of evolutionary ideas in the interpretation of human history and the evolution of languages (for example, by John Fiske in his 1883 Excursions of an Evolutionist), and theological applications such as those by Henry Ward Beecher.

Once Koch and Pasteur had proven that the diseases that they studied were caused by microbes, then most medical research (about 1880-1910) focused on microbes. This was before the modern understanding of genetics. At least the focus on microbes was a welcome relief from the older concepts of demons, humours, and vapours. And we continue to be surprised by microbial influences on what we thought were simply metabolic diseases. Some researchers think that plaque buildup in arteries, leading to heart disease, may be a response to bacterial infection, and that antibiotics might be used to treat some cases of heart disease.

For a while, it was a fad for scientists to find microbial causes of every disease. The truth, it turns out, is more complicated.

Another example. When the Alvarezes and colleagues proposed that an asteroid caused the Cretaceous Extinction, the proposal was met with skepticism or worse. But as evidence accumulated, a consilience of independent lines of evidence, everyone was convinced that they were right. It wasn’t long before scientists proposed asteroid causes of other Earth events. Colleagues of Luann Becker proposed that the Permian Extinction was also caused by the asteroid that formed the Bedout Crater. The Alvarez group was able to find the Chicxulub Crater in Yucatan, from 65 million years ago; finding the Bedout Crater from 250 million years ago was not as easy, and this might be the reason the Bedout hypothesis is so weak. 

But then other scientists proposed an asteroid cause of the mass extinction of North American mammals at the onset of the Younger Dryas cooling period. Although not all of the evidence presented by Firestone and colleagues has been discounted, it has not proven convincing enough to change most scientists’ minds, especially since this asteroid would have hit less than 13,000 years ago. Scientists (that is, not including me; I am no expert in this field) still prefer to say that the Pleistocene Extinction was caused by an interaction of global warming after the most recent ice age and overhunting—though neither of these factors could alone explain the extinction. Asteroids were a fad.

As with science, so also with technology. Most agricultural researchers, working in labs well-funded by the government and private industry, have jumped on the bandwagon of GM and claim that world hunger can be solved by genetic modification of crops. There are even more scientists, and they are more certain, since the development of CRISPR enzymes. I am not one of the GM technophobes (though I respect those such as Gary Paul Nabhan who do fear it), but our world food problem is way too complex for genetic modification to solve it and, by concentrating the power of agribusiness, will probably make the problem worse, as I explained in previous essays. Genetic modification, and its detractors, are both fads.

I can only hope that the scientific method will help scientists to avoid the pitfalls of human thinking right when everyone else needs our guidance.

Friday, October 7, 2022

Precision, Accuracy, and Fundamentalism

Fundamentalists believe the Bible is absolutely true in every possible way. This includes both precision and accuracy. In so doing, they have utterly sunk the Bible as a reliable source of information about anything. It’s their fault, not the Bible’s fault.

Every sample of observations, and therefore every statement, has a margin of error associated with it. Statisticians assume that, somewhere out there in the universe, there is a true value for everything, whether it is the population of the Earth or the value of pi. (I am, of course, excluding things about which we can be absolutely sure, such as 2 + 2 = 4.) The population of the Earth is constantly increasing, and its true value at any moment can only be estimated. The value of pi is an irrational number; it is 3.14, followed by a literally infinite number of digits. We can never know what all of those digits are. Using computers, mathematicians have figured out the value of pi to trillions of digits—and they are still exactly zero percent of the way to the end. Other examples are endless—the length of a day, for example. Not only is it impossible to calculate the exact length of a day down to infinite fractions of a second, but it is constantly changing. The Earth, hundreds of millions of years ago, used to spin faster. A day, a billion years ago, was about six of our hours long.

Not that you would notice, of course. These “constant” values change very slowly.

Which brings up precision and accuracy. Precision is the narrowness of the estimate. Accuracy is how close the estimate is to the true value, which can often not be known. Scientific notation gets around this problem. Scientific notation is a number multiplied by 10 raised to a certain (positive or negative) power. If we say that pi is 3.14, what we mean is that pi is 3.14 x 100. It is precise to three significant figures. This is more precise than saying that pi is 3.1 (which is 3.1 x 100, precise to two significant figures) or that pi is 3 (which is 3 x 100, precise to one significant figure), though all three statements are accurate. The circumference of a circle is pi x the diameter.

This opens up a funny story in the history of Bible-science conflict. Somewhere in the historical portion of the old testament, the Bible says that Solomon’s temple had a big bowl near the entrance; its diameter was one cubit, and its circumference was three cubits. No problem. This statement is accurate, though not precise. For one thing, there has never been a perfectly standardized cubit. But to one significant figure, pi is 3. What’s the problem?

Apparently some fundamentalists got hold of this and claimed that, based on the Bible, the value of pi must be 3.33, with the threes continuing forever; this is the value of 10 divided by 3. Therefore, they claimed, 3.14 was the wrong value of pi, according to God’s word. Critics of the Bible said that this proved the Bible was wrong. Whatever. The Bible is correct that pi is 3, to a first, and only a first, approximation.

The above story sounds apocryphal to me. But there are some very real examples, with serious consequences, that come from fundamentalists taking Biblical statements that are accurate to a first approximation and forcing them into a precision that was never intended.

The major example I can think of right now is the statement in Genesis 1 that when God created humans, “male and female created he them.” This is a generally accurate statement, as true of humans as of most (but not all) other animal species. In Bible times, nobody knew about genes and chromosomes, but a genetically accurate statement would be that males are XY and females are XX, regarding the sex chromosomes. Accurate as a first approximation, that is. The Y chromosome is important because it has the SRY gene that switches on a cascade of genetic events, resulting in maleness.

But everyone who has taken a genetics course knows that there are a lot of exceptions. There are lots of kinds of alternative genetic arrangements, of which Klinefelter’s and Turner’s syndromes are just two examples. In many cases, the people with these syndromes are not completely male or completely female. But, all told, people with these syndromes make up less than one percent of the species. Klinefelter’s, for example, affects one out of 660 people.

Then there is the story of the guevedoche, which is a Dominican Spanish word for penis at twelve. To be a male, you need functional juvenile testosterone and adult testosterone genes. If an XY individual has a defective testosterone gene, the male characteristics will not develop, and this person may identify all her life as female. But what happens if the juvenile testosterone gene is defective, but the adult testosterone gene works just fine? This person, genetically XY, grows up as a little girl and then, at puberty, turns into a man. The guevedoche man is not completely male, because a great deal of female development has already started before the adult testosterone kicks in. The Dominicans have grown accustomed to these “third gender” people. A similar event independently occurred in New Guinea, where the third gender people are called turnim-men in pidgin.

And then there is the story of the man who had a completely functional SRY gene. But, in one of his parents or ancestors, this SRY gene had translocated (along with its promoter) onto his X chromosome. He was XX, but was entirely male, and did not suspect there was any problem, until he found out he was sterile. Can you imagine being the doctor who, after genetic tests, had to tell him, You are a woman?

Guevedoche, turnin-men, and male women with a translocated SRY gene are very rare, compared even to the sex chromosome syndromes. Let us use one percent as an estimate for all of them.

The Bible is accurate that the human species consist of males and females—that is, it is correct 99 percent of the time. This makes it accurate, though only precise to two significant figures (9.9 x 101 percent). But fundamentalists assume that the statement is one hundred percent precise (1.00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000 x 102 percent). Therefore, anyone who identifies with a gender that is not completely male or completely female must be lying, or evil, or perhaps a product of the Devil’s genetic engineering. This is not simply some curiosity. These fundamentalists want to control our government and our education and base it on Biblical fundamentalism—that is, fundamentalism with specious assumptions of precision. They hate this one percent of humankind, and all the rest of us who wish to welcome this one percent—and all the rest of the nonbinaries—into the fold of our friendship.

Fundamentalists make this assumption, that truth consists of an infinite number of significant figures, for nothing else in their lives. They do not say that if a jar of mayonnaise, labeled at 32 fluid ounces, contains only 31.9 fluid ounces, it is a lie. Their male-female belief is only one example of their dangerously wrong ways of thinking. God—and pi—save us from this, especially in places, such as Oklahoma where I live, where they have a great deal of political power.

Tuesday, October 4, 2022

We've Heard This Before: Agriculture

Modern agriculture, at least the kind that is subsidized by agribusiness corporations, is based on large monocultural fields. This form of agriculture can be traced back, at least, to Jethro Tull. No, not the rock band, but the British agriculturalist of the eighteenth century. His dream was to see every field composed of perfect rows of crops, planted by the seed drill he invented. His dream has become worldwide reality.


But at the same time as Tull, there was a different vision, of crop rotation and strip cropping with pasture. This form of agriculture has prehistoric roots but was defended in the eighteenth century by the Scottish agriculturalist James Anderson of Hermiston. His dream lives on in the form of agrarianism, which is almost the opposite of agribusiness. Agrarianism is built on polyculture and soil health, and on food security for people rather than profits for corporations. As long as I have been bouncing around in the world of environmentalism and alternative agriculture, I never heard of James Anderson until I encountered a reference in an essay, “All Flesh Is Grass,” by Gene Logsdon, in The Essential Agrarian Reader, edited by Norman Wirzba.

Jethro Tull’s vision correctly focused on the health of the soil, but he was completely wrong about how to attain it. The agriculture he championed caused the soil to break down and erode. But Tull thought this was good, not bad. He thought that crop plants obtained all of their material from eating soil—literally, with little mouths on their roots ingesting what he called pabulum. One might call his vision the Gerber’s Baby Food theory of soil. Soil that degraded into paste would, the thought, be easier for the plants to eat. In all fairness, this was a long time before the process of photosynthesis was figured out.

Even though we know so much more today about how plants grow, and how to grow plants, we still have roughly the same dichotomy of viewpoints that Jethro Tull and James Anderson espoused.

Friday, September 30, 2022

Beware of Generalizations: A Leaf Story

Here is another generalization that botanists often make. It is the subject of a Darwin video that I just posted. As in the previous example, this generalization is based on patterns and facts of nature.

The leaves of plants (whether individuals or species) that live down in the shade of the deciduous forest tend to have thin leaves. There is a perfectly good reason for this. If a plant produced thick leaves down in the shade, it would be a wasted investment, since the light is not strong enough to penetrate entirely through a thick leaf. Thus, the chlorophyll in the cells near the bottom of the leaf would not be able to make very much food through photosynthesis. Also, thick leaves tend to have thick layers of wax on its surfaces, which is a protection against drying out. But leaves down in the shade seldom experience very dry conditions. It follows, then, that plants with thick, waxy leaves are adapted to living in open, sunny conditions. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, this generalization holds true.

But there are exceptions. One of them is the American holly, Ilex opaca. It has thick, waxy leaves, but this species is found mostly in the shade of American deciduous forests. Its leaves are, on an area basis, much heavier than other forest floor plants; most of the plants have leaves that weigh about 2 milligrams per square centimeter, while holly leaves are about 5 milligrams per square centimeter.

It turns out there is a perfectly good reason. This species of holly is evergreen. It keeps its leaves even when the deciduous trees overhead have dropped theirs. Its leaves, therefore, get bombarded not with spring or summer sunlight but with winter sunlight. In warm forests such as those in Oklahoma, where I live, a winter day might be warm enough that the holly could benefit from making food through photosynthesis in the bright winter sun. In colder areas, the thick wax might save the leaf from excessive water loss, especially if the underground water is frozen and unavailable to the leaf.

The leaves of most forest understory plants are adapted to the shade of spring and summer, but some are adapted to the full sunlight of winter.

This leads naturally to a consideration of evolutionary constraints. On the forest floor, deciduous plants are adapted to spring and summer, while evergreens are adapted to winter. A plant cannot adapted to both summer and winter, at least not very well. There is little doubt that holly leaves are not very efficient at making food in the seasons when the trees overhead shade them. But when the leaves drop, holly’s evergreen leaves can make food when the other plants cannot, in late fall, winter, and early spring. This is the evolutionary constraint: the plants with the greatest evolutionary fitness are those that adapt to one, or the other; they cannot do both. In some cases, such as the little herb Geum canadense, the plants produce relatively thick, evergreen leaves near the ground, which persist for over a year, but each year the stem grows into the air with thin leaves. The whole stalk then dies in the fall.

“Thin leaves in the shade” is one of the most widespread generalizations in nature; but the exceptions tell us a lot about ecology and evolution.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Beware of Generalizations: A Pollination Story

Botanists teach that wind-pollinated plants produce lots of pollen and do not bother with nectar or pretty petals. Nectar and pretty petals attract bees, which carry pollen efficiently between one flower and another. Wind-pollinated flowers, however, produce lots of pollen and let the wind carry it. That’s the story. That’s what everybody teaches (I did) you will find in every book (including mine). And, in general, it is true.

But keep your eyes open for exceptions to the rule. I was out for a hike, not expecting to see anything out of the ordinary. But I kept my eyes open. This is what I saw:

This ragweed (Ambrosia trifida) produces lots of pollen, but no nectar or colorful petals. Bees are not as stupid as we sometimes think. This honeybee found the pollen, without needing to be attracted to the flowers. She started stuffing as much pollen as possible in her pollen buckets. She probably went back to the nest to deposit bee bread, but no nectar.

I assumed that I could tell what pollinates a flower by just looking at it. If animals such as bees pollinate it, it should have colorful petals. Consider willows. Even though the male flowers have very inconspicuous petals, they have big anthers full of pollen. The female flowers also have very inconspicuous petals. I assumed willows were wind pollinated. But it turns out that the flowers have nectar, and bees can smell it. It is bees that pollinate willows.

Close and repeated observations reveal the truths of nature. Quick glances and generalizations do not.

In the next essay, I will tell a story about another generalization, involving leaves and photosynthesis, which turns out to have exceptions.

Saturday, September 17, 2022

War Against Farmers and the Land

Vandana Shiva, a prominent author in India, titled her essay “Globalization and the War against Farmers and the Land,” in The Essential Agrarian Reader edited by Norman Wirzba (2003).

At first this title seemed to be hyperbole. But she was serious that international agribusiness corporations were actually at war against farmers (that is, poor farmers) and the land. And the more I read, I became convinced that she was right. The corporations, of course, do not see themselves in this way. The essay is outdated only in the numbers that it cites; the basic situation is little changed since 2003.

The kind of agriculture that is promoted by big agribusiness around the world is the kind that requires farmers to buy patented seeds and to use expensive inputs, such as irrigation water, pesticides, and fertilizers. The fields are monocultures, which consist of only one type of crop (the cash crop). There are many poor farmers (especially in India, about which Shiva knows a lot) who cannot afford these purchases or, if they do, they go into debt; and each round of harvest makes them fall deeper and deeper in debt. (I cannot help but think of Sixteen Tons, the song about American coal miners who worked hard only to find themselves deeper in debt every year.) As a direct result of being overwhelmed with debt, Shiva indicates, many farmers in India have committed suicide, often by drinking pesticides. Farmers who are not quite so desperate just sell their kidneys. Agribusiness may provide cheap food for you, American consumer, but brings unspeakable misery to poor farmers who raise it. The situation is little different in Mexico, according to Angus Wright’s book The Death of Ramón González, where farm workers endure (or don’t live to endure) pesticide poisoning so that Americans can have cheap fresh vegetables in winter.

Of course, agribusiness corporations will not say “We make huge profits off of human suffering.” Instead, they have to come up with a justification, and to do so they use creative numbers. Here are some examples.

First, the corporations need to convince people that monocultures (one type of crop) have superior yields to polycultures (different crops mixed together). According to their published figures, monocultures always outproduce polycultures. But the way they calculate these yields is on an area basis: tonnes of yield per hectare. They are hoping that we will not notice their mathematical sleight-of-hand. Of course a hectare of just wheat will have higher wheat yields than a hectare of wheat mixed with beans. All other things being equal, a hectare of monoculture wheat will yield exactly twice as much wheat as a hectare that is only half wheat. That is like saying that nobody lives in your house because, at this moment, your bedroom has no one in it. But if you calculate crop yields over the whole countryside of wheat and beans, polycultures almost always outproduce monocultures. This, according to Shiva, is the correct way to calculate the yields. She calls this the land equivalent ratio (LER). In India, the overall LER is 1.62. That is, polycultures yield 62 percent more than monocultures. Or, if you calculate a polyculture’s yield just on the basis of the actual area used by a particular crop, the yield is 62 percent higher. A cassava/maize/groundnut polyculture outproduces monocultures of these three crops by a factor of 2.51.

Sometimes, polycultures (that is, traditional native gardens) can outproduce monocultures by an even greater factor. Shiva gives an example of terraced fields in the Himalayas, which produce jhangora, marsha, tur, urad, gahat, soybean, bhat, rayans, swanta, and kodo. (You’ve probably never heard of any of these, except soybean, but the people eat them.) Shiva notes that the polycultures produce six times more yield than monoculture rice even during dry years. I would have said, especially during dry years, because different crops have different water requirements, and a drought is unlikely to kill all the different kinds of crops, thus leaving some food—and income—for the poor farmers.

The biodiversity in traditional polycultures can be breathtaking. Shiva notes that in sub-Saharan Africa, farmers (mostly women) cultivate 120 different kinds of food plants in the spaces alongside the cash crops. Of course, this reduces the yield of the cash crops a little, but not as much as you might expect, since the food crops compete only partially for light and moisture with the cash crops.

To top it all off, the monocultures are for cash crops intended for other people, not the farmers, to eat. Would a monoculture of kodo out-yield the kodo grown in polycultures? Nobody knows, since the agribusiness corporations do not sell kodo seeds, and nobody knows whether or how much kodo yield would increase with fertilizer and pesticides.

Clearly, agribusiness monoculture would not survive long if its success depended on feeding local people. Then why does it persist? One reason is that agribusiness has convinced international lending agencies that the only profitable kind of agriculture is based on irrigation, fertilizer, and pesticide. The loans, therefore, are for groundwater pumps and chemicals. If you just want to raise food for your village, it is hard to get a loan, and even harder to pay it back. Recently, mostly since Shiva wrote this piece, microcredit has become available to many small farmers, craftspeople, etc. These are very small loans that can be paid back when a farmer, using whatever methods she prefers, earns profits from extra crops or from crafts. The developers of the idea of microcredit (Muhammad Yunus and the leaders of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh) won the Nobel Prize for it in 2006. Despite the success of microcredit, there is still a long way to go.

Polyculture on small farms is more profitable, though not to the agribusiness corporations that sell the inputs. In India, according to Shiva, farms up to five acres earned 735 rupees per acre, while farms 35 acres and over earned 346 rupees per acre. These numbers are different now, but the difference is probably even greater today.

Polycultures feed local people, but the very purpose of monocultures is to export food from countries that have a lot of poor people to industrialized countries such as the United States. China is now appropriating land in poor countries to get food and raw materials from them.

Shiva also considers agribusiness to be at war with the land because high-input monocultures often require irrigation, which contributes to salt buildup; pesticides and fertilizers poison the runoff water.

One possible problem is that, as fewer people each year want to farm, the remaining farmers must cultivate more acres. In doing so, they may need more inputs and will be unable to give as much attention to each acre.

Agribusiness says, we are just trying to feed the world. Defenders of small farms say, we are just trying to feed the world, and we can do it better than agribusiness.

Friday, September 2, 2022

Oklahoma, Land of Boastful Ignorance

Are you planning a move, or is your company planning a relocation? Companies like to relocate their employees to states that have a good quality of life. For employees who have kids, this means a good educational system.

But don’t come to Oklahoma.


According to a recent report, Oklahoma ranks 40th for overall child well-being. I think you or your company’s employees would not want to raise your kids here, unless you can afford a private school.

Oklahoma ranks 45th in childhood education. The major reason for this is (according to the Democratic candidate, and one of two Republican candidates, for state superintendent) a teacher shortage. It is difficult to recruit new teachers or to keep old ones. Why?

One reason is that teachers are not paid very well, in comparison to other jobs or states. But many or most teachers enjoy teaching and would not quit just because of low salaries. The Oklahoma teachers’ strike in 2018 was primarily over school funding, not salaries, although the state did increase their salaries that year.

One thing that discourages teachers in Oklahoma is that they are in the crossfire of conservative anger. If parents do not want their children to have to wear masks during a pandemic, it is the teachers to whom the parents complain, sometimes abusively. If teachers dare to mention that people of color (especially Native Americans in Oklahoma, which used to be Indian Territory) have experienced oppression, parents can complain that those teachers have violated an actual state law (HB1775) that prohibits the teaching of historical oppression of people of color. Ostensibly, the law is just against “critical race theory,” but teachers often avoid all mention of racially charged historical events like the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 in order to stay out of trouble. If teachers even mention LGBTQ, they might find themselves in trespass of SB615. And if a science teacher mentions evolution…well, they just don’t.

Teachers are tired of having ignorant politicians dictate what they should teach and are tired of being the brunt of conservative hatred. There are other jobs at which they can use their talents, that pay more, and at which their opinions can remain private.

The solution, so far, has been to hire teachers on “emergency certification.” This means that the teacher needs no qualifications other than, I assume, to not be a criminal. If they have a college degree in a subject, but no education courses, they can get “alternative certification.” But for emergency certification, you don’t need the subject matter courses either. From what I could tell from state websites, the emergency teacher has to submit a portfolio of experience. But approval is up to local school boards.

So if a qualified teacher leaves, an emergency teacher can replace her or him. This person could then teach creationism, global warming denialism, and hatred (or at least mild disgust) towards LGBTQ people. While they cannot (I think) teach racism, they can teach that there are no problems with racism that require any change in societal thinking.

And more change is likely to come. One of the Republican candidates for state superintendent openly proclaimed that teachers should be required to teach that America is the best country that has ever existed in the history of the world.

Already, 3,600 out of 45,000 teachers in Oklahoma have emergency certification. This downward slide can only favor the indoctrination of children with extreme conservative views. This is already a major problem for recruiting new employees into the Oklahoma work force. For every new company moving to Oklahoma, another leaves.

Where there is the worst, there is also the best. Many high school biology teachers are members of NABT, the National Association of Biology Teachers. They have a new president each year. Three of the presidents in recent decades have been from Oklahoma. All three were high school teachers, though they are now on college faculties or in administrative positions. Three! This shows that, in Oklahoma, to be a good science teacher, you have to be motivated almost as much as a missionary.

I have little personal interest in this, as I have retired and plan to leave Oklahoma. I was just hoping that I could feel good about not only having been born in Oklahoma, having spent most of my career in Oklahoma, and about my Oklahoma family roots that go back six generations. But instead I will have to be at least a little bit ashamed.

Friday, August 26, 2022

The Cost of Peace

I think that peace is always better than war in every possible way, including economic benefits. But peace comes with lots of costs, and we should not let them take us by surprise. Here is an example.

Ethiopia has, it seems, always been embroiled in civil war. The Tigray War continues, though it is in the news less than at the beginning of the year. It would seem that everyone would want Ethiopian civil wars to end.

Ethiopia has 1.8 million hectares of irrigable farmland, very little of it being currently used. If civil war ended, they could irrigate most of this land. Right now, nobody would invest in Ethiopian infrastructure that might be destroyed by conflict at any moment. Peace would encourage international investment.

But international investment would not be absolutely necessary. The people could build low earth dams (called micro-dams) that would trap a lot of water in small irrigation ponds. If the only war problems were international, these micro-dams would not constitute a military target—too many of them.

Ethiopia is the source of 86 percent of the water that flows through the Nile. Right now, most of that water is claimed and used by Egypt and the Sudans. But if Ethiopians built all the possible micro-dams, they could use 7.2 billion cubic meters of water per year and could store 50. This would vastly reduce the water flow in the Nile. Egypt’s plans to irrigate large new areas would be jeopardized. The Aswan High Dam is a very visible military target, although Ethiopia could probably not endanger it. War, however, might be unavoidable.

This is an example of how peace can cause more war. If you add on top of this the inevitable droughts, which make people and nations feel desperate, you have an ugly situation. And that is in a part of the world we pretty much ignore.

Peace is worth almost any cost, but these costs must not take us by surprise.

Thursday, August 18, 2022

How We Know Stuff

Now here is a topic about which I could write without end. But I am going to use just one small example, about which I am nearly certain you have not heard.

A few decades ago, I bought an old, torn-up book from a cheap bookstore in Champaign, Illinois called Acres of Books. It (not to be confused with the California store by the same name) seems to have gone out of business. I bought it for five cents. It was Parley’s Universal History, published in 1886 as a children’s summary of world history from the viewpoint of triumphant white American males. It was meant as a catechism for students to recite the facts of history. It started with Adam and Eve being driven out of the Garden and ended with Abraham Lincoln and the glorious triumph of the Grand Army of the Republic over the Confederacy which, to the author, was the climax of human history.


Supposedly today we value critical thinking over rote memorization, although in conservative religious schools the latter may still predominate. Here in Oklahoma, teachers are afraid to question creationism, global warming denialists, anti-vaxxers, and those who deny that the Tulsa Race Massacre happened. It makes me wonder if we have made much progress since 1886. Remember, this was almost thirty years after the Origin of Species.

But the most interesting thing about this shabby book is that one of the students, almost certainly an adolescent boy, filled the book with hundreds of pencil sketches, mostly of a woman who must have been his teacher. This was back in the days of long skirts, bustles, frilly blouses, and fancy hair. These doodles showed a fixation upon and exaggeration of the woman’s considerable bust. None of the drawings showed any bare skin except the face, and the face was often unclear. A hormonal adolescent can fixate upon anything even remotely sexual.

My point is that the boy was not thinking critically or carefully about what he was being taught in the book. He just soaked it up. His mind was on other things.

And this is how we come to believe many things. We soak them up uncritically while our minds are wandering over other things.