Archive for 2005 November

“Sensational Information”

This blog hopes to try and bridge the vast gap that exists between the fact-based world of science and the sensation-based world of popular entertainment, but–frighteningly–these worlds are beginning to converge.

Yesterday from Nature came news that the Gulf Stream has weakened thirty percent in the last fifty years, suggesting the possibility of an ice age, or, as the invaluable Metafilter site dryly notes, the even-more-alarming scenario of a sequel to "The Day After Tomorrow."

The news about the Gulf Stream and the recirculating system of North Atlantic currents may mean that Europe needs to plan for a colder future, but the complexity of the system–which includes natural cycles of warming and cooling–rules out an immediate ice age, according to the BBC News. Nonetheless, Michael Schlesinger from the University of Illinois, a leading expert on ocean currents and climate modeling, calls the study "more or less a smoking gun."

This is the second "smoking gun" on climate change announced by scientists this year. In April, James Hansen, widely considered the most reputable expert on climate change in country, revealed the results of a ten-year study that showed that "more energy is being absorbed from the Sun than is emitted back to space, throwing the Earth’s energy "out of balance" and warming the planet." He said this constituted a "smoking gun."

Even reputable sceptics are taking the latest study seriously. James Annan writes:

So, are we about to enter a new cold spell after all? Personally, I doubt it, but maybe I’m not quite as sure as I was.

Others living further to the north are less ambiguous. Detlef Quadfasel of the University of Hamburg points out:

"This is quite sensational information. It is also an important message to politicians: We do change our climate."

Will "politicians" get the message? Some, such as John McCain, already have. Others are notoriously resistant. As a public service, here’s a transcript of Will Ferrell’s hilarious impression of George W. Bush attempting to deliver a talk on global warming from his vast estate in Crawford, Texas, from the "Earth to America" comedy special a couple of weeks ago. As Andrew Sullivan has noted, recent revelations about Bush’s inner circle suggest that Ferrell’s impression are spot-on in terms of fact, as well as in attitude.

Imagine the Prez dressed in casual clothes, standing on a porch in front of a couple of corrals, speaking mostly to the camera, but occasionally to a director off-screen. A narrator says:

"And now, a SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT from the President of the United States on Global Warming:

Hello America, it’s me, your President, your commander-in-chief of the world and I’m at my ranch in Crawford Texas just taking a little R&R, relaxing, growing out my soul patch [he points to it] playing a little frisbee golf with Condi Rice and Dick Cheney. Having a good time but still keeping my eye on the ball, and there’s an issue that has come to my attention. The issue of so-called global warmings…that are happening…on our planet. For centuries the rays of the sun have warmed the surface of our earth’s crust. [He looks a little uncertain.] And, uh, apparently these rays are intensifying…in such a way that, uh, it’s increasing lava flows. And, uh…


Hey, I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about.

[Slate: Global Warming Talk]

Global warming is an issue that my administration is very concerned about–deeply. Deeply, in a deep kind of concerned way. The, uh, I start my day and I think about the warming of the globe and how we can get it warmer.


Rest assured that the issue of global warming is something that my adminstration takes very seriously. [He catches a frisbee thrown his way.] Not right now, Condi! We’ll play later.


I’m sure by now you’ve all heard what liberal scientists are trying to say. It seems that liberals and godless tax raisers are trying to make me look bad by using such things as facts anad scientific data.

[Cut! Director: Mr. President, you can’t say they’re using facts, Facts are real, they’re not disputed.]

How do you know that?

[Slate. The President opens a book. It’s a pop-up book featuring dinosaurs. Startled, he drops it.]

Jesus, why didn’t you tell me it was a pop-up book? Those things scare the crap out of me.

[Director: I don’t think that’s the kind of science book we’re looking for…]

Well, what kind of science book would you suggest? One filled with facts, maybe?

[Director: Yeah.]

Yeah. I bet you’d like that.


When you think back to Biblical times, when Adam and Eve talked to that snake six thousand years ago when the world was created, it was hot back then too. Why do you think Adam and Eve were naked? [He gives the camera a wise look.] See what I’m saying? I mean, I’m not making this stuff up. I mean, you didn’t hear Adam and Eve talk about emissions standards for cars. In fact, Adam and Eve drove an Excursion.


Let’s talk about something that really matters, liking keeping steroids out of T-ball.


I think the polar ice caps suck. Who cares about a place where a bunch of penguins can have an orgy?


Global warming, don’t worry about it, we got a bead on this thing…you know, we just need to get nature to co-operate with us. We don’t need to listen to nature, nature needs to listen to us.

[Cut! Director: Mr. President, you asked me to tell you when the Rangers game was on? It’s on right now.]

What inning is it? It better not be past the third inning…

[President runs off camera.]


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Enviros Say Yes to Airport, Community

People who care about nature are often depicted as knee-jerk naysayers by right-wing propagandists. In fact, nearly all environmentalists I know are eager to work with people in the community to preserve natural lands and beauty. Perhaps this claim sounds absurdly idealistic, even Panglossian. But here’s an example that should prove the point to anyone in Ventura County with an open mind.

Last winter, torrential rains and floods washed away a good deal of Santa Paula Airport. Rebuilding the airport–which is central to this struggling town’s economy–required working in the Santa Clara River, one of the last wild rivers in Southern California. Nonetheless Ventura county watershed authorities and even the Nature Conservancy were eager to see such repairs begin; in fact, the Nature Conservancy agreed to a land swap to enable construction, according to this story in the LA Times:

Jeff Pratt, director of the Watershed Protection District, said about $6 million would be spent replacing the airport land that was washed away and protecting the new fill dirt from storms. The repairs wouldn’t have been possible, he said, without the conservancy’s cooperation.

In response, according to this story in the Ventura County Star, California State Fish and Game sued, arguing that the rock wall that would be built to protect the runway from the river was new construction, not merely a replacement to an existing installation. This contention was overruled last month by Superior Court Judge Henry Walsh.

"When you’re working in conservation, you need to realize the needs of the community must be met while you’re trying to achieve your goals," said E.J. Remson, the conservancy’s point man in Ventura County. "It never occurred to us to say ‘no’ to the airport and put one of the city’s largest private employers out of business. It’s too important to the community."

One question remains: Why did the state authorities contest this action, when the Nature Conservancy, the Friends of the Santa Clara River, the local authorities, and the US Department of Fish and Game did not? That’s the sort of question I wish more environmental reporters would ask. But the point is, the community worked to preserve the beauty of the river, which still flows free…


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The Religion That is Afraid of Science

A great number of thoughtful people, especially those on the left-hand side of the political dial, don’t see an inherent conflict between religion and science. Some of those thoughtful people, such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, were founders of this country.

(Emerson, as usual, is the writer who puts it most forcefully. In an entry in his journals in 1831 he noted: "The religion that is afraid of science dishonors God and commits suicide.")

The problem for scientists is that a great number of Americans, almost exclusively those on the right-hand side of the political dial, insist on the Bible as literal, not metaphorical, truth, and feel compelled to attack  scientists who bring forward evidence for natural matters not discussed in the Bible, such as dinosaurs, glaciers, and–of course–the theory of evolution.

In the 19th-century, scientists who discovered glaciers, which proved that the earth was far older than four thousand years, were attacked as heretics. (Emerson, in fact, came to the defense of his friend Louis Agassiz, who more than anyone else is credited with discovering glaciers, and who subsequently became a professor at nearby Harvard.) In the 20th-century, we had the infamous Scopes trial and the creationists.

Now in the 21st century, the anti-evolutionists are resorting to tactics formerly used by leftists. A startling article in the San Jose Mercury-News reveals how a Christian couple from Roseville sued an excellent website put up by UCBerkeley to help biology teachers teach evolution. The argument from the anti-evolutionists? Amazingly, they charge that the site "strays into religion" when it points out that "most Christian and Jewish religious groups have no conflict with religion!" 

Bizarre. Barring some equally fanatical judge, I dare to suggest this suit won’t get far.

But in an excellent essay in the most recent Harper’s (not available on line, unfortunately) called "Academic Cross-Dressing." Stanley Fish points out that anti-evolutionists have had considerable more success with an argument borrowed from left-wing academics. Fish writes:

What the Christian Right took [from leftist academic Gerald Graff, of the University of Illinois] was the idea tthat college instructors should "teach the conflicts" around academic issues so that students will learn that knowledge is neither inertly given nor merely a matter of personal opinion but is established in the crucible of controversy. What is ironic is that although Graff made his case for teaching the controversies in a book entitled Beyond the Culture Wars, the culture wars have now appropriated his thesis and made it into a weapon. In the Intelligent Design army, from Bush on down to every foot soldier, "teach the controversy" is now the battle cry.

Left is right. War is Peace. Up is down. George Orwell, you were far righter (so to speak) than you could ever know.

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Question of the Day

From the Washington Post, in a story discussing a mine accident that killed forty, coming a day after a benzene spill poisoned a river that provide water for a city of four million:

A recent government report said that up to 70 percent of China’s rivers and lakes are dangerously polluted, and the air in several cities is some of the most polluted in the world.

Party officials have often sought to defend the government’s environmental record by arguing that China is too poor and unemployment too high to put the environment ahead of economic growth. But many residents rejected that argument.

"What good is economic development without water? Or without your health?" said Shi Huipin, 23, a phone company employee.

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Ecophobia: A Paradigm

Briefly, "ecophobia" is an irrational (often hysterical) and groundless hatred of the natural world, or aspects of it. Such fear of the agency of Nature plays out in many spheres. The personal hygiene industry relies on it, since capital-driven notions about personal cleanliness assign us preference for perfumes (for some more than others) over natural bodily odors; the cosmetic industry (in its passion for covering up Nature’s "flaws" and "blemishes") uses it; beauticians and barbers (in their military passion for cutting back natural growths) are sustained by it; city sanitation boards display it in their demands that residents keep grass short to prevent the introduction of "vermin" and "pests" into urban areas; landscaped gardens, trimmed poodles in women’s handbags on the Seoul subway system–anything that amputates or seeks to amputate the agency of Nature and to assert a human order on a system that follows different orders is, in essence, ecophobic. Ecophobia is a subtle thing that takes many forms.

Ecophobia is all about fear of a loss of agency and control to Nature. It is ecophobia that sets the Old Testament God (within the first twenty-six verses of Genesis) declaring that "man" (anatomically and generically, at this point) is to have dominion over everything. It is ecophobia that allows "man" unquestioned use of land and animals. And it is ecophobia that posits Nature as the scapegoat for social problems (such as over-crowding and the diseases that over-crowding encourages). Control of the natural environment, understood as a god-given right in Western culture, seems to imply ecophobia, just as the use of African slaves implies racism. Similarly, misogyny is to rape as ecophobia is environmental looting and plundering. Like racism and misogyny, with which it is often allied, ecophobia is about power.

From "An Introduction to Shakespeare and Ecocriticism" by Simon Estok, in this winter’s issue of ISLE (Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment).

To yours truly, the concept appears academically overstated but quite possibly hugely useful. Often it takes a new word to reveal a pattern of old thinking; maybe this is just such a word. I’ve been looking for one to try and show people that Nature doesn’t hate us. (We wouldn’t be here if she did.) Often, it seems to be quite the other way around…

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Too Good to be True? Apparently Not…

I’m off to Thanksgiving at the relatives, but before I go I have to leave you with some potential good news. At Environmental Economics an interesting group of commentators is discussing an experiment in Canada that successfully injected 5 million tons of carbon dioxide into oil fields, simultaneously reducing CO2 emissons and greatly improving extraction. Worth a look.

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Two Apocalyptic Scenarios

Of the eight short essays on global warming from writers around the world collected in the fall quarterly Granta, probably the most thought-provoking, I’m proud to say, comes from novelist James Lasdun of the United States. He writes (in part):

We’re not so far north here in the Catskills, but our first winters here, ten twelve years ago, were on [a] dramatic scale. But in recent years, as if stricken by some sort of performance anxiety, this pugnacious season has started faltering. The snow fails, or it comes in as predicted only to be followed by balmy sunshine that melts all but a few north-facing blobs and rags of it in a day. Or the opposite happens: an out-of-control spasm of frigidity so extreme and sudden the stones crack on the town sidewalk and the birds get flash-frozen on the trees.

We blame this erratic behavior on global warming. Of the two apocalyptic scenarios currently gripping the American psyche, this is the one we choose to subscribe to. Its scientific terms reassure us, although our readiness to invoke it owes as much to blind faith as do the Rapture fantasies of the Christian fundamentalists. Our apocalypse may be more reputably accredited than theirs, but my guess is that the susceptibility to either vision has the same psychological basis: guilt. Precisely because there is still intact wilderness in this country, still visibly in the process of being annihilated, you cannot live here without an overwhelming sense of the destructive nature of your own species. You can explain it in terms of divine purpose or human folly, but you can’t pretend not to be part of it: you drive, you fly, you live in a heated building; one way or another you are implicated. We expect to pay a price. Depending on one’s temperament, this will articulate itself either in terms of the Book of Revelation or the science pages of The New York Times.


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Internet Kills Wacky Aliens, Undercuts Scientologists

Although the Internet is blamed for spreading all sorts of rumors and bad jokes, it probably doesn’t get enough credit for also dispatching with all sorts of crazy nonsense. This column on the right-wing TechCentralStation needs a grain of salt, because the writer previously spoke warmly of Harriet Miers’ mediocrity, and grandly declared without evidence that the religious ideology known as "Intelligent Design" was going to win wide acceptance in science classes.

But when it comes to aliens, he has a point.

"…the rise of the Internet in the late nineties corresponded with the fall of many famous UFO cases. Roswell? A crashed, top-secret weather balloon, misrepresented by dreamers and con men. The Mantell Incident? A pilot misidentified a balloon, with tragic consequences. Majestic-12? Phony documents with a demonstrably false signature. The Alien Autopsy movie? Please. As access to critical evidence and verifiable facts increased, the validity of prominent UFO cases melted away. Far-fetched theories and faulty evidence collapsed under the weight of their provable absurdity. What the Internet gave, the Internet took away."

Another writer on the subject of Scientology made much the same point earlier this year. I can’t find the piece, unfortunately, but his point was that the couch-jumping antics of famous Scientologist Tom Cruise concealed an underlying desperation. The cult simply can no longer recruit the credulous as readily, now that its ridiculous fantasies can be checked out on the Internet so easily.

A site by a  woman who took a few courses in Scientology back in the l980’s, called The Truth About Scientology, makes the point eloquently with a chart based on statistics drawn from a Scientology publication called "Source" magazine. The number of "Clears" has fallen to a low level and stayed there in recent years, ever since the arrival of Google in the 90’s.

It’s just not as easy to hoodwink people as it used to be.

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1 Nuclear Power Plant = 93 Million Cars

Judith Lewis, the first-rate enviro reporter for the LA Weekly, spent the last six months of her life reconsidering nuclear power. Here’s the piece she wrote about it, which is as good as anything I’ve seen on the subject. Among the many stunning facts she unearthed was the fact that one nuclear power plant spares the planet the equivalent of the emissions of 93 million cars (and we’re not talking hybrids).

But it’s not the facts that I most remember from the piece. It’s the humanity. Lewis talks to all sorts, from fiery enviros like Helen Caldicott, to a public relations specialist at the nuclear power plant in San Onofre. She treats each and every one with respect, bringing out their personalities as well as their opinions. This is how we as reporters and as readers and as a society grow–by really listening.

Check it out, please.

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Earth to America: Global Warming Special

Countless documentaries on climate change have aired on national television, including one last week from the newly-converted FOXNews, but last night for the first time saw a comedy special on the issue. Hosted by Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio, the special was mostly stand-up, with a few skits and plenty of advertisements, but did find its share of laughs and, perhaps most importantly, avoided predictability. No doubt they could have found some rockers to feature on the issue; instead, they called on Tim McGraw, who sang a country-rock tune about living where the green grass grows, and helpfully reminded everyone that the natural world is not just for lefties.

The special was organized by National Resources Defense Council trustee Laurie David, who’s married to Larry David, of the "Seinfeld" show. David was one of several celebrities whose appearances were as much about self-mockery as politics; clearly, the show wanted to be funny more than anything else, and mostly succeeded. As David told Amanda Griscom Little:

You need to make people aware that a problem exists, but without talking down to them. Without being preachy. I refuse to be a part of being preached to. That’s what "Earth to America!" is all about.

The most passionate celebrity voice on the issue came from Bill Maher, who earlier had told USAToday that "the environment is one of the hardest subjects to do in comedy. It doesn’t have an obvious, easy, funny target." But probably the highlight of the show was Will Ferrell’s vicious parody of George W. Bush Jr. blithering attempts to make a coherent statement about global warming from his ranch, climaxing with a discussion of how 6,000 years ago it was hot, which we know because Adam and Eve didn’t have any clothes on…"I’m not just making this stuff up, you know!"

We know better. The current placeholder in the White House has been pretty much a disaster for the country, but for satirists, he’s been golden.

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