Archive for the ‘People’ Category
What is so terrible about integrity!
I don’t know if my title to today’s post is part of a saying that is well-known in the USA. But back in dear old England the expression is widely used; the full expression being, “Lies, Damn Lies, and Politicians“.
So what’s got my ‘knickers in a twist’ about the various hues of ‘truth’ that we find amongst our politicians?
Before answering that question, perhaps I should answer a more fundamental question that might be arising in the minds of those followers who are relatively new to this place. (And each and every one of you has to understand the very great privilege you offer me by being a follower.) That question being what have integrity and politicians got to do with a blog about dogs?
Easily answered in the words over at About this Blog:
The underlying theme of Learning from Dogs is about truth, integrity, honesty and trust in every way. We use the life of dogs as a metaphor.
The article seemed to articulate, in a measured and responsible fashion, what huge numbers of us sense subjectively: truth is rare to see in the world of power and politics.
I’m not going to republish it in full, including the tables, but will offer the first half with a link to the rest of the article. The author of the article is Dr. Ellis Jones, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA.
How many ways can politicians ‘lie’? How a class led to a ‘truth’ report card for the 2016 election.
I regularly teach a course called The Sociology of Television & Media in which my students and I critically explore newscasts, entertainment programming and (both commercial and political) advertising. The theme that I use as a touchstone throughout the class is: What happens when, as a society, we begin to mix fantasy and reality together in mass media?
We discuss how a range of troubling outcomes emerge for a public that has difficulty telling truth from fiction. Max Horkheimer, a German-Jewish sociologist, argued that this is part of what led to the rise of Nazism in Germany.
Once we lose our ability to detect lies, we become vulnerable to demagogues.
Six categories of rhetoric
About halfway through the semester, I have students deconstruct political ads, and we discuss practical resources for navigating the web of truths, half-truths and outright lies that proliferate unhindered during each election cycle.
One resource that I offer is Politifact.org’s Truth-o-Meter. Students fact-check politicians’ statements to determine how much, if any, truth is contained therein (they actually won a Pulitzer Prize for their work fact-checking the 2008 election).
The first, and perhaps most important, takeaway from their work is that modern political statements cannot accurately be rated as simply “true” or “false.” So sophisticated has the art of mixing truth and lies become that the scale Politifact currently uses includes six separate categories of political rhetoric: true, mostly true, half true, mostly false, false and “pants on fire” (for statements that aren’t just false but also completely ludicrous – and yet still stated as truth).
In essence, while there is still but one way to tell the truth, there are now at least five times as many acceptable ways to lie.
For example, John Boehner’s May 3 2015 statement on Meet The Press that “we spend more money on antacids than we do on politics” is rated simply “false.” Fact-checking reveals that in the US, we spent somewhere between US$3 billion and US$7 billion on elections in 2014 (depending on what money streams you include), while we spent less than $2 billion on antacids in the same year.
Boehner’s team was apparently trying to compare global sales of antacids (including all seven billion people on the planet) to US spending on elections (about 320 million of us) – a false comparison.
On April 23 2015, Hillary Clinton provided a good illustration of a statement that rates as a “half truth.” When addressing the Women in the World Summit in New York City, Clinton asserted that the US ranks “65th out of 142 nations” when it comes to equal pay for women. The statistic comes from the World Economic Forum’s 2014 Global Gender Gap Report.
However, the primary measure generated by this report ranks the US 20th in gender equity. The ranking of 65th is taken from a subcategory in the report that relies on a survey of perceptions of executives rather than hard numbers. So, while it is technically true, it may actually be overstating the severity of the gender pay gap comparison.
Whom can we trust?
The second takeaway, though it may not be much of a surprise, is that there are no politicians in this country that exclusively tell the truth. Every single one, to a greater or lesser extent, spins, bends, twists or breaks the truth.
Perhaps this is the price of power in our modern democracy, but we should find it at least a little troubling.
So where does this leave us? Well, knowing that every one of our politicians lies, the most important question, in my mind, becomes: Who is most often telling the truth and who is lying to us repeatedly in order to gain our support?
In other words, whom can and whom can’t we trust?
With this question in mind, I had my students add up the raw numbers for 25 major politicians (based on Politifact’s fact-checking over the past eight years) and write the results up on the board in rank order from most to least honest based on the data. The results were intriguing.
While the prototype point system was not particularly sophisticated (two points for each true statement, one point for each mostly true statement, zero for half-truths, etc.), the numbers revealed that many well-known politicians were abusing the truth far more than they were embracing it.
When I asked the class what they thought of the results, one student raised her hand and replied, “I’m not shocked.” Many of the others immediately nodded their heads in agreement.
I wondered if we’ve become so accustomed to the bending and breaking of the truth that we no longer expect truth from our leaders. Now we’re teaching the next generation not to expect it either.
After seeing these preliminary results, I was hooked.
Please do read the rest of this fascinating and hugely helpful report. It names names in terms of the ‘good, bad and ugly’!
However, the closing paragraphs of Dr. Jones’ article are so wonderful that I can’t resist republishing them!
As teachers, caught up in our own subject matter, we easily forget that our students are hungry to apply what they’re being taught in our classes to something meaningful in their own lives.
It is our obligation to offer each generation a sense of social responsibility, hope for the future and the practical tools that will allow them to build it for themselves.
Something like a yearly Honesty Report Card might serve us well at this point in our democracy’s evolution. At the very least, let’s use this idea as a starting point for some kind of political unity in this country.
Whether you are liberal or conservative, can’t we at least agree that our politicians should start telling us the truth?
At this point in preparing today’s post, I wanted, wanted so much, something to take me away into some dreamy corner of my mind. For just a few minutes to be distracted from the present day realities of life.
I chose to do it by listening to this track from Chris Rea.
Oh, nearly forgot to mention that dogs don’t lie!
Some aspects of our food that many of us would rather not know about!
Many readers will be used to me republishing the essays from George Monbiot. Admittedly, not every single one of them but especially those that seem to have a message that deserves a wider promulgation. Having Mr. Monbiot’s permission to so do is generous of him.
Yesterday, there was an essay written by him that was published both on his blog and in the UK’s Guardian Newspaper. At first reading, it seemed to apply predominantly to the United Kingdom. Then, upon a second reading, I was convinced that this was yet another ‘message’ that quite happily fits in here, on Learning from Dogs. Because it is another reminder that integrity is missing from so many aspects of our societies.
You be the judge!
19th May 2015
The astonishing, multiple crises caused by chicken farming.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 20th May 2015
It’s the insouciance that baffles me. To participate in the killing of an animal: this is a significant decision. It spreads like a fungal mycelium into the heartwood of our lives. Yet many people eat meat sometimes two or three times a day, casually and hurriedly, often without even marking the fact.
I don’t mean to blame. Billions are spent, through advertising and marketing, to distract and mollify, to trivialise the weighty decisions we make, to ensure we don’t connect. Even as we search for meaning and purpose, we want to be told that our actions are inconsequential. We seek reassurance that we are significant, but that what we do is not.
It’s not blind spots we suffer from. We have vision spots, tiny illuminated patches of perception, around which everything else is blanked out. How often have I seen environmentalists gather to bemoan the state of the world, then repair to a restaurant in which they gorge on beef or salmon? The Guardian and Observer urge us to go green, then publish recipes for fish whose capture rips apart the life of the sea.
The television chefs who bravely sought to break this spell might have been talking to the furniture. Giant chicken factories are springing up throughout the west of England, the Welsh Marches and the lowlands of the east. I say factories for this is what they are: you would picture something quite different if I said farm; they are hellish places. You might retch if you entered one, yet you eat what they produce without thinking.
Two huge broiler units are now being planned to sit close to where the River Dore rises, at the head of the Golden Valley in Herefordshire, one of the most gorgeous landscapes in Britain. Each shed at Bage Court Farm – warehouses 90 metres long – is likely to house about 40,000 birds, that will be cleared out, killed and replaced every 40 days or so. It remains to be seen how high the standards of welfare, employment and environment will be.
The UK now has some 2,000 of these factories, to meet a demand for chicken that has doubled in 40 years . Because everything is automated, they employ few people, and those in hideous jobs: picking up and binning the birds that drop dead every day, catching chickens for slaughter in a flurry of shit and feathers, then scraping out the warehouses before the next batch arrives.
The dust such operations raise is an exquisite compound of aerialised faeces, chicken dander, mites, bacteria, fungal spores, mycotoxins, endotoxins, veterinary medicines, pesticides, ammonia and hydrogen sulphide. It is listed as a substance hazardous to health, and helps explain why 15% of poultry workers suffer from chronic bronchitis. Yet, uniquely in Europe, the British government classifies unfiltered roof vents on poultry sheds as the “best available technology”. If this were any other industry, it would be obliged to build a factory chimney to disperse the dust and the stink. But farming, as ever, is protected by deference and vested interest, excused from the regulations, planning conditions and taxes other business must observe. Already, Herefordshire County Council has approved chicken factories close to schools, without surveying the likely extent of the dust plumes either before or after the business opens. Bage Court Farm is just upwind of the village of Dorstone.
Inside chicken factories are scenes of cruelty practised on such a scale that they almost lose their ability to shock. Bred to grow at phenomenal speeds, many birds collapse under their own weight, and lie in the ammoniacal litter, acquiring burns on their feet and legs and lesions on their breasts. After slaughter they are graded. Those classified as grade A can be sold whole. The others must have parts of the body removed, as they are disfigured by bruising, burning and necrosis. The remaining sections are cut up and sold as portions. Hungry yet?
Plagues spread fast through such factories, so broiler businesses often dose their birds with antibiotics. These require prescriptions but – amazingly – the government keeps no record of how many are issued. The profligate use of antibiotics on farms endangers human health, as it makes bacterial resistance more likely.
But Herefordshire, like other county councils in the region, scarcely seems to care. How many broiler units has it approved? Who knows? Searches by local people suggest 42 in the past 12 months. But in December the council claimed it has authorised 21 developments since 2000.  This week it told me it has granted permission to 31 since 2010. It admits that it “has not produced any specific strategy for managing broiler unit development” . Nor has it assessed the cumulative impact of these factories. At Bage Court Farm, as elsewhere, it has decided that no environmental impact assessment is needed .
So how should chicken be produced? The obvious answer is free range, but this exchanges one set of problems for another. Chicken dung is rich in soluble reactive phosphate. Large outdoor flocks lay down a scorching carpet of droppings, from which phosphate can leach or flash into the nearest stream. Rivers like the Ithon, in Powys, are said to run white with chicken faeces after rainstorms. The River Wye, a special area of conservation, is blighted by algal blooms: manure stimulates the growth of green murks and green slimes that kill fish and insects when they rot. Nor does free range solve the feed problem: the birds are usually fed on soya, for which rainforests and cerrado on the other side of the world are wrecked.
There is no sensible way of producing the amount of chicken we eat. Reducing the impact means eating less meat – much less. I know that most people are not prepared to stop altogether, but is it too much to ask that we should eat meat as our grandparents did, as something rare and special, rather than as something we happen to be stuffing into our faces while reading our emails? To recognise that an animal has been sacrificed to serve our appetites, to observe the fact of its death, is this not the least we owe it?
Knowing what we do and what we induce others to do is a prerequisite for a life that is honest and meaningful. We owe something to ourselves as well: to overcome our disavowal, and connect.
 Total purchases for household consumption (uncooked, pre-cooked and take-aways combined) rose from 126 grammes per person per week in 1974 to 259 grammes in 2013 (see the database marked UK – household purchases).
 BBC Hereford and Worcester, 15th December 2014
 Response to FoI request IAT 7856, 13th August 2014
 Herefordshire County Council, 22nd December 2014. Screening Determination of Bage Court Farm development, P143343/F
Jean and I found a way to watch the BBC Panorama programme that was broadcast recently. It was screened under the title of Antibiotic Apocalypse. This is how the programme was introduced on the BBC website:
Panorama investigates the global advance of antibiotic-resistant superbugs and the threat they pose to modern medicine and millions of patients worldwide. Reporter Fergus Walsh travels to India and finds restricted, life-saving antibiotics on sale without prescription and talks to NHS patients whose recovery depends on them.
There is much in George Monbiot’s essay that resonates with the findings of that Panorama programme. Indeed, the Panorama programme showed the extent of the use of antibiotics in many animals over and beyond chickens.
It hardly needs to be said by me that the reason this is republished in a blog based in Southern Oregon, USA is because this is a problem that is not unique to the United Kingdom; far from it!
What a strange species we humans are!
Best laid plans of mice and men!
For reasons that I am still unclear about, yesterday slipped through my fingers before I knew it. That’s the worst mental state for me when I am trying to be creative over a new blog post. So it came around to 4:30pm yesterday and I knew that I was faced with two choices: not post or use something stored as a ‘draft’.
That’s what caused me to look through my draft posts folder and offer you this for today.
The videos are short but nonetheless beautiful.
They are the products of an Australian film company: Riggs Australia.
The list of nature films made by Riggs is impressive; to say the least.
Here’s a couple of examples of their wonderful filming.
Published on Oct 15, 2012
This 4 metre plus female great white had just bitten Mark’s cage and was circling when he turned on his camera …. at 1.09 he see’s it approaching from behind his cage. He’s been down at 26 metres for over half an hour and is forced to make a decision. Stay on the bottom and run into decompression time or confront it …. Starvation Bay, South Coast Western Australia, October 2011.
Published on Jun 11, 2014
Aerial perspectives of a huge pod of Bottlenose dolphins surfing waves off Esperance Western Australia … Enjoy!
Incredible, intimate portraits of bees.
While Jean and I no longer attend meetings of the Southern Oregon Beekeepers Association, the meetings are a little too far away for us, I still subscribe to their email updates. Thus that’s how I was informed of a most incredible set of photographs on the National Geographic website. Here’s how the article opens:
Researchers take advantage of photography technology developed by the U.S. Army to capture beautiful portraits of bees native to North America.
Text by Jane J. Lee
Photography by Sam Droege, USGS
Bees are the workhorses of the insect world. By transferring pollen from one plant to another, they ensure the next generation of the fruits, nuts, vegetables, and wildflowers we so enjoy.
There are 4,000 species of North American bees living north of Mexico, says Sam Droege, head of the bee inventory and monitoring program at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
Only 40 of them are introduced species, including the European honeybee. (See “Pictures: Colored Honey Made by Candy-Eating French Bees.”)
Most of the natives are overlooked because “a lot of them are super tiny,” Droege says. “The bulk of the bees in the area are about half the size of a honeybee.”
The native species also go unnoticed because they don’t sting, he adds. They quietly go about their business gathering pollen from flowers in gardens, near sand dunes, or on the edges of parks.
The bee pictured above is a species of carpenter bee from the Dominican Republic known as Xylocopa mordax. It nests in wood or yucca stems, and is closely related to the U.S. species that chews through the wood in backyard decks.
Trust me when I say that to view these images, and more, in their breathtaking beauty you need to go here and revel in what you see and read. Plus, in the text above I didn’t include the many links that are in the Nat Geo site’s version – so go there!
The natural world is so deserving of man’s care and protection.
My dear wife takes to cycling.
Like most young boys I was on a bicycle at a very young age. Then once sufficiently old to drive a motor car that was the end of bike riding for almost forever. Except that a few months ago the argument for anaerobic exercise as a means of delaying the worst of all the ailments that come with an ageing body (and mind!) convinced me to get back on a bike. That was made a lot easier because a small group of close neighbours ride three times a week and that seemed an opportunity not to be missed.
Those same neighbours supported, and recommended, a local bike shop in Grants Pass and I have ‘borrowed’ this picture of the store from their website.
Having now been riding an average of 35 miles a week for the last ten or twelve weeks, I can vouch for the benefits it is providing.
Logically, therefore, it was going to be much better if Jean could come with me, and the rest of the riding group, each week. But there was a small challenge: Jean had never ridden a bike in her life. Horses, yes! Bicycles, no!
Eric over at the bike centre lent Jean a two-wheeler to try but very quickly it was clear that Jean would not easily develop the confidence to ride on our local roads. The next suggestion from Erik was a tricycle! Not one that was designed in the days of Noah and his Arc but a modern model of the ‘recumbent’ design. In particular, one manufactured by Sun Bicycles. Here’s an image of the trike from the Sun’s website.
Thus it came about that last Friday Jean and I went over to Don’s Bike Center to collect her new bike.
Then once home it was time for Jean to learn a number of very new skills. At first just by riding around our turning circle in front of the house.
Then trying out our quarter-mile driveway that includes a couple of steep gradients; well steep for a cycle rider!
Another view of Jean getting to know her new bike here at home.
Then, deep breath, time to put on the safety helmet and go for a short ride on Hugo Road, our local road that runs past our property.
So all’s well that ends well!
I will embarrass Jean by saying to my dear readers that Jean is already getting familiar with riding her trike and it won’t be too long before our riding group will be increased by one Mrs. Handover on her bike!
The things we do to stay healthy in our increasing years!
A positive message from George Monbiot.
I ran out of writing time yesterday so looked for a quick and easy post to offer you.
Not that that undervalues what is presented; far from it!
George Monbiot’s essays are frequently on topics that concern him and rightly so. However, last Thursday George published an essay that offers real hope to those that want to see an end to the ceaseless news of lost species. It is called Otter Joy and is published with George Monbiot’s kind permission.
The return of Britain’s otters offers a glimpse of rewilding’s great rewards
By George Monbiot, published on the Guardian’s website, 7th May 2015
I spent last week travelling with my family across the Scottish Highlands, meeting land managers to discuss possibilities of rewilding. The speed of change there is astonishing, and opportunities for a mass restoration of living systems are emerging faster than I could have imagined even a year ago. I’ll be writing about this in a few weeks, when Rewilding Britain is launched.
But for now I want to talk not about the practicalities of rewilding but about its essence: the reason why this idea excites and inspires me so much that I’ve chosen to devote much of the rest of my life to it.
During our tour across the Highlands we stopped for a few days in the village of Shieldaig, at the head of a sea loch on the west coast. We took a cottage overlooking Shieldaig Island, partly because, for the past few years, white-tailed eagles have been nesting there. After becoming extinct in Britain in 1916, this magnificent bird, bigger than a golden eagle, was reintroduced to the island of Rum in 1975. It has been spreading slowly along the west coast. (It could have moved further across Scotland were it not for shooting and poisoning by grouse estates and others). This is one of the species I would love to see returning to much of the rest of Britain.
Unfortunately, the eagles have chosen another place to nest this year. But there were other returning species to see. I woke one morning when it was still dark, and lay in bed until I heard the song thrush in the sycamore behind the cottage start to sing. I slipped out as the light began to rise over the hills.
There’s a path that leads out of the village, winding north over the headlands and around the small bays of Loch Shieldaig. The willow warblers in the trees along the path had started to sing, and from behind the crest of a hill I heard the cry of an unfamiliar raptor – listening later to recordings, I felt it might have been a white-tailed eagle. There was not a tremor of wind and the air was clear. I could see the promontories and islands stepping away for many miles across a polished sea.
As I came over a low ridge, I noticed a disturbance in the water below me, a few metres from the shore. I dropped into the heather and watched. A moment later, two small heads broke from the sea, then the creatures arced over and disappeared again.
After another moment, the larger one – the dog otter – scrambled out of the water with something thrashing in its mouth. He dropped it onto the rocks, gripped it again, then chewed it up. Then the bitch emerged from the sea beside him, also carrying something, that she dispatched just as quickly. They plunged in again, and I watched the trails of bubbles they made as they rummaged round the roots of the kelp that filled the shallow bay.
When they emerged once more, each with a fish in its mouth, I was able to identify the quarry. They were catching rocklings: small, very slippery fish of the same olive-brown as the kelp. Over the next half hour, each of them caught about fifteen. I marvelled at their ability to grab such difficult prey. I loved the slick, swift movements with which they dived and dolphined and twisted underwater. It looked to me like an expression of pure joy.
Hiding among the rocks and heath, I could keep ahead of the otters without being seen, as they foraged round the coast. As the cliffs became lower, I found myself coming ever closer to them. Then, though I don’t know why, the otters emerged from the water without fish, shook themselves out, and climbed up the rocks, long low bodies undulating, towards me. The dog grunted and huffed while his mate made a high whickering noise. They kept raising their heads and staring in my direction. But as I was buried in the heather and they have weak eyesight, I doubt they could have seen me. Soon they were standing about 20 or 30 feet away, raising their bristly little faces to smell the air. I could hear them panting.
Then they turned and rippled back down the rocks, slipped into the water with scarcely a splash and started hunting round the coast once more. Soon they disappeared around a cliff I couldn’t negotiate.
I walked back elated, recharged with wonder and enchantment. A week later, the feeling still buoys me up.
While many species in this country are in rapid decline, the otter is among the few whose prospects are improving. This is partly because it’s no longer hunted, and partly because of a reduction in the organochlorine insecticides that accumulated up the food chain. But, especially in England, it still inhabits just a fraction of its former range.
Otters are an adaptable species that, given the chance, can quickly recolonise the habitats from which they have been excised. Their hesitant return sharpens the hopes of those of us who want a wilder Britain, who strive for the re-establishment of magnificent, enthralling wildlife that you don’t have to travel halfway around the world to see.
Already otters are beginning to appear in a few towns and cities. As they become accustomed to their protected status, they’re likely to become less shy and easier to watch, bringing nature’s wonders closer to the lives of people who have become disconnected from the living planet. If our advocacy of the widespread return to Britain of animals such as beavers, boar and lynx succeeds (and one day, perhaps, of wolves, bison, pelicans, bluefin tuna and whales of several species), the opportunities for re-enchantment will begin to blossom in places that are currently little more than wildlife deserts.
Everyone should be able to experience such marvels, and to step outside the ordered, regulated, predictable world of our own making, that sometimes seems to crush the breath out of us.
If you, like me, are uncertain what the White-tailed eagle looks like then here’s a photograph of one.
2011 has proved another record breaking year for breeding pairs of Scotland’s largest bird of prey. White-tailed eagles soared to new heights despite heavy storms throughout the 2011 breeding season.
Conservationists, and many sea eagle enthusiasts, had been concerned that the high winds felt across Scotland in May could have had a detrimental impact on breeding white-tailed eagles at the vulnerable part of the season when most nests contain small chicks. Indeed, some nests failed including that of BBC Springwatch star, nicknamed “Itchy”, who experts fear lost his chicks in the storm.
However, the bad weather failed to blow the species off course. Recent survey figures for the 2011 breeding season reveal that there were 57 territorial pairs in Scotland, an increase of 10 per cent on the previous year. A total of 43 young fledged successfully from these nests.
George’s essay also mentioned the Scottish sea otter.
There’s no limit to learning.
The Conversation US launched as a pilot project in October 2014. It is an independent source of news and views from the academic and research community, delivered direct to the public.
Our team of professional editors work with university and research institute experts to unlock their knowledge for use by the wider public.
Access to independent, high quality, authenticated, explanatory journalism underpins a functioning democracy. Our aim is to promote better understanding of current affairs and complex issues. And hopefully allow for a better quality of public discourse and conversation.
We aim to help rebuild trust in journalism. All authors and editors sign up to our Editorial Charter. All contributors must abide by our Community Standards policy. We only allow authors to write on a subject on which they have proven expertise, which they must disclose alongside their article. Authors’ funding and potential conflicts of interest must also be disclosed. Failure to do so carries a risk of being banned from contributing to the site.
The Conversation launched in Australia in March 2011 and the UK in May 2013.
So with no further ado, and within the terms of The Conversation, may I share:
What does it mean to preserve nature in the Age of Humans?
Is the Earth now spinning through the “Age of Humans?” More than a few scientists think so. They’ve suggested, in fact, that we modify the name of the current geological epoch (the Holocene, which began roughly 12,000 years ago) to the “Anthropocene.” It’s a term first put into wide circulation by Nobel-Prize winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen in an article published in Nature in 2002. And it’s stirring up a good deal of debate, not only among geologists.
The idea is that we needed a new planetary marker to account for the scale of human changes to the Earth: extensive land transformation, mass extinctions, control of the nitrogen cycle, large-scale water diversion, and especially change of the atmosphere through the emission of greenhouse gases. Although naming geological epochs isn’t usually a controversial act, the Anthropocene proposal is radical because it means that what had been an environmental fixture against which people acted, the geological record, is now just another expression of the human presence.
It seems to be a particularly bitter pill to swallow for nature preservationists, heirs to the American tradition led by writers, scientists and activists such as John Muir, Aldo Leopold, David Brower, Rachel Carson and Edward Abbey. That’s because some have argued the traditional focus on the goal of wilderness protection rests on a view of “pristine” nature that is simply no longer viable on a planet hurtling toward nine billion human inhabitants.
Given this situation, we felt the time was ripe to explore the impact of the Anthropocene on the idea and practice of nature preservation. Our plan was to create a salon, a kind of literary summit. But we wanted to cut to the chase: What does it mean to “save American nature” in the age of humans?
We invited a distinguished group of environmental writers – scientists, philosophers, historians, journalists, agency administrators and activists – to give it their best shot. The essays appear in the new collection, After Preservation: Saving American Nature in the Age of Humans.
Getting the chronology right, it turns out, matters less than we might think. The historian J R McNeill recounts the difficulty in fixing a clear start date for the Anthropocene. (Should it coincide with the late Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions? The rise of agriculture? The birth of the industrial era in the 19th century? The mid-20th century uptick in carbon emissions?) Wherever we peg it, McNeill argues, the future of nature preservation in America will increasingly be shaped by environmental traditions more congruent with notions of a human-driven world.
Trails of Weekend Explorers, near Hanksville, CC BY-NC-ND
It’s a view shared by ecologist Erle Ellis. We’ve simply “outgrown” nature, Ellis argues, and so we have to become more comfortable within the “used and crowded planet” we’ve made. Andrew Revkin, author of the Dot Earth environmental blog for the New York Times, sounds a similar theme, arguing that the whole idea of “saving” a nature viewed outside the human presence is an anachronism. What we need instead, he suggests, is to focus on restoring a bipartisan politics able to cope with the challenges of living in and managing a human-driven world.
But all this talk of a more human-driven world and a species that is now “too big for nature” is dismissed by wilderness activist Dave Foreman, who spies a dark future awaiting us if we continue on the current path. Foreman condemns the vision of the “Anthropoceniacs” who he argues are promoting nothing less than the technological takeover of life on the planet. We need to remind ourselves, he writes, “that we are not gods.”
The need for humility courses throughout After Preservation. But it’s joined by an equally strong plea for pragmatism and more intelligent control. As science journalist Emma Marris writes, the desire to restrain ourselves in nature may ironically prove self-defeating if it means we can’t intervene to prevent present and future species extinctions. The biologist Harry Greene echoes this view with his manifesto to “rewild” the Anthropocene by actively introducing cheetahs, elephants, camels and lions to North America as proxies for the long-lost megafauna of the Pleistocene. It’s a rebooting of the wilderness idea – or maybe a wilderness 2.0 – for the technological age.
Regardless of how the Anthropocene debate plays out, environmental science and policy experts Norm Christensen and Jack Ward Thomas remind everyone how hard it is to implement whatever we want on the ground without unexpected consequences. Thomas, a former chief of the US Forest Service, describes how the unpredictability of ecosystems can result in cases in which the preservationist agenda becomes complicated as ecosystems change in surprising ways (for instance, when an unplanned growth in the barred owl population starts to displace the protected northern spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest).
Computer Monitor Washed Down Stream by Flood Waters, Salt River, CC BY-NC-ND
Much of the discussion of the Anthropocene must hinge on values. But many of our authors conclude that it also needs grounding in a deeper and more nuanced understanding of history. As historians Donald Worster and Curt Meine point out, even if purist notions of the wilderness may no longer be realistic in the Anthropocene, it would be a grave mistake to jettison our environmental traditions and the commitment to protecting as much wildness as we can.
Even so, many suggest that nature conservation will have to evolve in order to reflect a more diverse constituency, an urban population not well served by the older preservationist values and images. Or, as ecologist Michelle Marvier and The Nature Conservancy’s Hazel Wong sum it up, “Move over, Grizzly Adams.”
The debate wasn’t settled at the end of After Preservation but we didn’t expect it to be. The argument has deep roots, as the writer and climate activist Bill McKibben reminds us in his coda to the book. And in one way or another, pragmatists and preservationists have been at odds since the birth of the American conservation movement in the late 19th century. The Anthropocene debate is only the most recent replaying of this enduring struggle.
What way forward? We think John McPhee probably got it about right nearly forty years ago in his memorable portrait of modern Alaska, Coming into the Country:
Only an easygoing extremist would preserve every bit of country. And extremists alone would exploit it all. Everyone else has to think the matter through – choose a point of tolerance, however much the point might tend to one side.
Our hope is that After Preservation will help us choose that point of tolerance as we puzzle through the environmental ethos of the Anthropocene. We’ve little choice: it’s going to be a challenge confronting the meaning and work of nature preservation for some time to come.
“No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.” Robin Williams