Sunday, July 29, 2007

Where Stalks the Cat of Death?

So here's a weird little story from the Boston Globe that seems perfect for a Sunday morning. The article is about a cat named Oscar that shows up at your bed when you're going to die.

Oscar is the "mascot" for the dementia unit at the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, Rhode Island. Adopted by the Center as a kitten in 2005, Oscar is confined to the dementia unit, but seems to have pretty close to free range inside the ward. According to the article:

"When death is near, Oscar nearly always appears at the last hour or so. Yet he shows no special interest in patients who are simply in poor shape, or even patients who may be dying but who still have a few days. Animal behavior experts have no explanation for Oscar's ability to sense imminent death. They theorize that he might detect some subtle change in metabolism -- felines are as acutely sensitive to smells as dogs -- but are stumped as to why he would show interest."
Oscar is the subject of an article by Dr. David M. Dosa, a geriatric specialist and an assistant professor at the Brown University School of Medicine in the New England Journal of Medicine, called "A Day in the Life of Oscar the Cat."

I was hoping for something a little more scientific about the article, but the Globe story is where the scientific theorizing of Oscar's activities get the most ink. Possibilities raised were a general sense of empathy, or being drawn to a change in the patient's metabolism or "mental aura." I'm not sure how a scientist defines "mental aura," but it was a Tufts scientist who said it, so I'm printing it.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Border Buggers Wildlife

Reuters is reporting today that the US-Mexico border fence--the literal one, not that crazy laser one they proposed--is harming the ecosystem that transcends the political borders between these two countries. Not for the first time, mind you--I had this bookmarked months ago, but the link died. Especially at risk are ocelots and, not intuitively, butterflies.

The border fence itself is moronic, from both a practicable policy standpoint and an ecological standpoint. What's next? A moat and black knight patrols? At least the butterflies could skitter across. At this point, though, those backing the fence seem too entrenched to let it go and look for other, more manageable solutions. Until then, looks like the wildlife will have to wait for amnesty programs or file and wait for work permits.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Protesters are Stupid

If I had to pick one reason why conservative political organizations are 100 times more successful than liberal political organizations it would come down to the difference between lobbying and protesting. An oversimplification, to be sure, and I don't mean to ignore the ever-important economic factors that are always in play, but there has to be a reason why conservative extremists like the NRA can keep semiautomatic weapons legal and liberal extremists like PETA have a hard time correctly identifying which fashion designer to hit in the face with a pie.

Was that a cheap shot? Yes, it was.

Make no mistake - I have no love for the NRA, but when they're on my TV they're serious, focused, and usually effective at achieving their goals, while every time I see PETA (whom I also have no love for) on my TV there's some celebrity taking her clothes off to protest the fur trade.

My abhorrence for the ineffectiveness of the public protest was brought home again on Friday as PETA protested outside the offices of the NFL in New York City in an effort to get Falcons' QB Michael Vick suspended.

It isn't their desire to see Vick suspended that I take issue with (though I think the NFL has taken the correct course in not giving Vick a major suspension; right now the burden of what to do with Vick rests with the Falcons, not the league) nor their right to protest. If they want to make hollow displays of genuine outrage, I'm all for their right to do it.

I just wish they weren't so damn stupid about it all.

Honestly, while I take the political passions and issues of concern to PETA with the utmost seriousness (whether I agree or disagree with them), and while I believe that the bulk of PETA's membership takes those same issues with the utmost seriousness, I don't understand the always-present cutesiness that accompanies the public protest. Pies, clever phrases, nude celebrities ... it's not hard for me to see why some people think they're a crank organization.

Dog fighting is an incredibly serious issue, as I'm sure PETA would agree, so why are they standing outside the NFL offices carrying signs that read "Sack Vick"?

Are we trying to get things done or are we trying to be clever with words? When the group hits Atlanta on Monday they'll also be carrying signs that read "Tackle Cruelty."

F***ing stop.

It's this silly mix of perceived cleverness and desperate attention grab that absolutely drives me crazy about PETA in particular and protests in general. Signs and chants ... to take a deadly serious issue and boil it down to semantic cleverness, I just don't get it. I don't. You're not going to change the world through a neat turn of a phrase; or if you are it's going to be a bit more than "Sack Vick." Why would an organization that uncovers such serious issues as Columbia University's history of animal abuse bother sending 50 people to New York to carry signs that they know won't sway the NFL?

For the publicity?

The Vick story is hot right now, so PETA's protest gets them in papers and on TV sets across the country today. Maybe that's why they do it, but is "Sack Vick" the message they want to get across? If so, why? It's a generic message read on its own. I'd rather see them carrying signs that read "Vick Tortures Dogs" because then the focus of the message is on the issue. Such a message would help brand Vick as the bastard he is (allegedly ...) and keeps the victims of Vick's abuse - the dogs - at the fore of the story.

I simply don't see protests of fifty people with cutesy signs moving the needle. PETA would better serve their cause taking a cue from the takedown of Don Imus or the scare tactics of the NRA. It's not about getting your name in the paper, it's about getting your target's name in the paper, rebranded in such a negative light that no one wants to be associated with that target. It's not about winning the the hearts and minds of millions of Americans; it's about winning the select few hearts and minds that can get things accomplished.

PETA's form letter urging the NFL to suspend Michael Vick can be found here.

The Humane Society's letter can be found here.

The ASPCA's press release on the Vick indictment can be found here.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Sailing Sachs's Current

I sat down to read Aaron Sachs’ recent book The Humboldt Current as a pleasure trip. Meaning I left the pencil behind to just read straight through its pretty dense 358 pages. In short, what I found was an outstanding book that presents some great research and poses far-reaching implications.

The thesis, if it could be boiled down to one sentence is this: “Ecology would have been unthinkable outside the context of nineteenth century exploration” (Sachs 346). Here Sachs doesn’t use ecology to mean the scientific principles of interdependence—that would exist with or without humans and their exploration—but instead the human-mapped science cum political movement (as proto-environmentalism) dealing with interdependence. In short, exploration—for exploration’s sake—based in natural history produced a meaningful science of ecology that in turn spurred the political action of conservationism. Using Humboldt’s grand theory of interdependence (Haeckel didn’t coin the term ecology until after Humboldt’s death) outlined in his five-volume life’s work, Cosmos, as the center, Sachs explores the growth of an environmental consciousness in Humboldt’s American disciples that was set apart from the resource-use frenzy of the day.

(Why Humboldt, by the way? Because almost everyone in the country, including Jefferson whom Humboldt met when he was 35 on his only trip to the States where the naturalist was received like a rock star, adored this guy. Even 10 years after his death in 1869, in towns across the country, there were parties and speeches celebrating Humboldt’s 100th birthday.

Sachs constellates five main figures in the book: Humboldt, and the Americans J.N. Reynolds, Clarence King, George Wallace Melville, and John Muir. Using the main compass points to point to their geographical areas of interest, the book breaks easily into four parts that are themselves something like concise biographies (Melville and Muir are paired in “North”). Each, despite their bad raps as promulgators of Manifest Destiny and the gospel of wealth, shared a Humboldtian love of natural history that put knowledge of interdependence over commercial possibilities. Reynolds’s quest for the South Seas Expedition, for example, was about looking for the open seas at the South Pole simply because it would be nice to know how ocean currents worked, despite his having to cop to a commercial sealing and whaling expedition to get him there in the end. King, first head of the USGS, spent his early years hiking the American West to measure altitudes and gain some kind of spiritual insight, despite living the later years of his life a cattle man and land speculator. Melville (up past the Bering Strait) and Muir (into Alaska in his complicated and often forgotten piece “The Cruise of the Corwin”) sailed and traipsed around Alaska despite being pegged as a power-mad, piss-poor sailor (Melville) and promoter of wilderness tourism for man’s sake alone (Muir). If interdependence is the message, then for Sachs the mode of exploration is borne out by travel narratives. All were best-selling authors and made a good buck on the lyceum circuit (save Muir who came too late and grew an orchard). Sachs’s close-reading of these travel narratives make up the heart of the analysis. A careful reader, his point is well taken and that nuance he provides at the level of the word is excellent. It’s through this analysis that he paints a picture of the whole of the 19th century as a good deal more environmental than we normally give it credit for—meaning more than Thoreau and G.P. Marsh.

The book itself, like all good histories, is also a great compendium of factoids and anecdotes about historical figures and episodes. For example, King caught some grief for climbing the wrong mountain. Henry Adams apparently really did know everyone and is all over the second half of this book. Sachs also outlines the political intrigues that rocked the funding of a number of voyages, pointing out the beginnings of the commercially funded trip. He supplies some social history, following the public’s furvor over buying out runs of Humboldt’s works and the ways in which invoking Humboldt could turn a vote in Congress. Sachs does some close reading of Emerson (he says he’s not a Humboldtian), Thoreau (almost the ideal Humboldtian, he gets an epigraph for every single chapter), Poe (a Humboldt plagiarist), and the other Melville (himself stealing from Reynolds). Welcomingly, Sachs, in the Mocha/Moby Dick sections supplies all the generic whale-as-symbol readings, but also that whales also do strange things sometimes in the real world. Who knew?!?! He also digs into American visual culture, hitting up a number of painters, as well as the emerging photography of the time. As far as interdisciplinarity goes, this guy does it all. Scholars in American Studies take note.

While I would say that there is no part of the book that fails, there are some small portions that don’t quite seem to fit neatly into the scheme. In these cases it seems that Sachs is bound by the academy’s code of dealing with race, class, and gender and is working toward the hat trick. Class and race issues do, admittedly, fit fairly squarely into the work here on a one-by-one basis. Reynolds, for example, was a farmer’s son trying to make it in the world; the study of natural history, as Sachs points out, was a way to transcend the Ohio farm of his youth in 1820. King married an African-American maid in secret for fear of being disowned by friends and family, the pressure ruining, to a degree, his health and happiness. Additionally, each person profiled in the book has a messy, complicated relationship to the native peoples they encounter. You can see in Sachs’s profiles how each one vacillates on the savage-civilized question and where to put some kind of ethical superiority. In the end, it’s all still open to interpretation, though those fully committed to the Humboldtian project embraced a kind of “unity in diversity,” at least on the page.

The part that doesn’t jibe, however, is the time spent with each man addressing the deep and complicated homosocial possibilities that the explorers encountered on their journeys. Sachs makes clear that exploration brings men together in exceptionally close ways, especially in contrast to the urban Victorian world. However, never at any time does he call any man homosexual, nor does he find compelling any evidence that they had admitted it to others or themselves (at least in their writing and letters). He does admit the complexity of applying a presentist lens to 19th century characters and their language—how difficult it is to parse not uncommon declarations of love between men as merely 1850s locutions or deep sentiment, how hard it is to know precisely what people mean when they express themselves to one another at all? These portions are interesting in and of themselves, but I’m not sure they add anything to the larger argument of the book (there’s no “eco-homo” argument, to pun on Nietzsche). Of course, I can’t fault him for trying a trifecta—writing on environmental topics with literal place taking a central role isn’t terribly fashionable. He might as well give his stodgier readers something to nibble on.

But the point that piqued my interest beyond the high quality scholarship was that Sachs wrote in a much more vibrant way than many other writers, in history or elsewhere. I think this is due in large part to the high caliber of his academic training and also his practice from years as an environmental journalist before starting graduate school (i.e. getting corrupted). What makes Sachs stand out is that he is willing to drop into the first-person and talk about his trips to visit archives and the places where these people traveled themselves. He’s not willing to sit around in the ivory tower—he’s got to hit the ground, and that makes his work stand out.

Not that this method’s been without trouble for him. In a short anecdotal essay on the History News Network, he remembers his initiation into the world of academic writing: getting canned by an unnamed two-time Pulitzer-winning historian for using the first person (four times in 139 pages) in his senior thesis at Harvard.

"With all due respect to my interlocutors, I have been asking for 15 years why it is that academic historians insist either on erasing their personas or on turning to the ridiculously royal-sounding "we" or the awkward, self-deluding formality of "the author," but not once have I gotten a compelling answer. Needless to say, then, ever since I received that first Reader's Report, I have been trying to use the first-person singular in my historical writing as often as possible. This practice has generated its share of rejection, scorn, and misunderstanding, but it has also allowed me to maintain a sense of self in the all-too-impersonal world of academia..."

Thank God he ignored the criticism. His Current isn’t rife with digressions into the first-person, certainly not to the point of distraction; when he does it, the personal only adds to the writing. It, too, adds to his own investment in this work is personal. Unlike many forgettable first books, there is no, as one colleague put it, “sound and fury, signifying tenure.” Sachs likes what he does, but also has a careful eye for analysis that makes this a good academic work. That makes the “Acknowledgments” a tasty treat at the end of the book—9 full pages of him divesting the names and tales of everyone who helped out along the way. Because there is an actual person behind this book, it’s no wonder that it wasn’t published by the University of Wherever, but by mainstreamers Viking/Penguin.

All in all it’s a great book that begs to be read slowly, for pleasure. If you can take anything from the work, it’s that when thinking about ecology in the U.S. it would be wise to think about Humboldt—the Einstein of his day in terms of celebrity, Sachs says. Though we forget Humboldt (Sachs says it’s a result of the rise of specialization and lab work instead of teamwork and fieldtrips at the turn from the 19th to 20th century) it might be in our best interests to go look him up again as the environmental problems we’re facing become more complicated. Or, in a more Humboldtian fashion, interdependent.

Water in Darfur--a "Mega-lake," even

Boston University scientists recently utilized radar data to uncover a large underground lake--about the size of Massachusetts--in the Darfur region of Sudan. I'm woefully unfamiliar with the civil strife in Darfur (as, I imagine, most Americans are), but I'm skeptical that this water finding is as much the solution to the problems there as the headlines and article quotes indicate.

To be sure, water is better than no water, just as employment is better than unemployment. But it's not clear from the articles exactly how much water is in this lake (as big as Massachusetts, but how deep?), when it can begin to be utilized, or how long it can be projected to last (will it be exploited something like the Oglala aquifer?). Add in political strife that must run deeper than water shortages and the effects of climate change that are likely to stretch water resources even thinner in that part of the world, and this lake might not buy much time at all.

Sorry, I guess I'm just cynical today. I'm seeing the lake as half-empty rather than half-full. Har. har. har.

Update: It looks like the media may have jumped on this bandwagon way too soon, apparently ignoring the likelihood that this "mega-lake" is actually dry. Shocking.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Artificial Phytoplankton Enhancement

Robert Kunzig's Mapping the Deep is a concise, story-driven history of ocean science. By "story-driven," I mean that Kunzig balances the science with the stories of the people who made the science happen. It's a well-written book, though I will admit to having my eyes glaze over from time-to-time as Kunzig dug into the minutia of one too many tube worms, xenophyophores, and holothurians (sea cucumbers) for me to stay locked on for 325 pages.

Kunzig is primarily focused on the deep sea - there are no whales or dolphins or sharks or turtles as key players in the text, but if you want (mostly) hard science placed into (mostly) readable terms, Kunzig delivers. (Kunzig served as the European editor of Discover magazine when he wrote the text and the writing is on that level.)

The one issue I want to bring up here comes in Kunzig's chapter, "Greening the Oceans," which starts with the importance of phytoplankton but quickly moves to the importance of iron to that phytoplankton.

Phytoplankton are, of course, plants that convert carbon dioxide and water into oxygen and carbohydrates through photosynthesis. All life in the sea depend on phytoplankton to bring them oxygen and the plant exists wherever sunlight penetrates the ocean. There is incredible diversity in phytoplankton; no one knows for sure, according to Kunzig, exactly how wide a range that diversity actually encompasses, but there may be as many as 5,000 different species solely in the Gulf of Maine, solely in the month of August. The cataloguing of phytoplankton diversity has been a hundred-year-plus project, and in the last twenty years (the book was published in 2000, so this means the 1980s and '90s), as scientists have "zoomed in on the microworld ... they have discovered whole classes of phytoplankton they never knew existed." He points to a 1988 discovery of a new species whose size is "about 30-millionths of an inch across, that populates the ocean in concentrations as high as five million cells per ounce."

What's remarkable about the diversity of phytoplankton is that it all performs the same function; as Sallie Chisholm, a biological oceanographer at MIT, tells Kunzig, "the diversity it incredible. And yet they all essentially do the same thing; they use light and water and carbon dioxide to make organic matter."

The importance of phytoplankton to our planetary climate can't be overstated as they play a vital role in taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and thus keeping the planet cooler than it would be if the carbon dioxide remained.

Kunzig explains that one of the curiosities of phytoplankton had been why certain large areas of the ocean (such as the northern Pacific off Alaska, the equatorial Pacific, the entire Southern Ocean around Antartica - Kunzig, 211) that should be the oceanic equivalent of rain forests were, instead deserts. The answer, put simply, is that those areas of the ocean suffer from a deficiency of iron.

Phytoplankton need iron to perform three primary functions: to make chlorophyll, to make nitrate reductase (an enzyme which allows the process of turning nitrates into proteins), and to make DNA. They don't need a lot of iron - perhaps, Kunzig explains, as little as "1 atom of iron for every 10,000 atoms of carbon, 1,500 atoms of nitrogen, and 100 atoms of phosphorus," yet there is a deficiency in certain parts of the ocean; much of the iron in the oceans come from atmospheric dust, putting the oeans at the mercy of "the geometry of winds and land masses." The equatorial Atlantic, then, gets peppered with Saharan dust, while the equatorial Pacific has no powerful feeder system and gets a relative trickle of dust, and thus, iron.

John Martin, former director of the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, had the idea that to fix this natural deficiency all one had to do was dump iron into the ocean and watch the phytoplankton population explode. While Martin made outlandish statements (designed to grab attention more than pushing hard science) that all he needed was a "tanker of iron" and he could bring about "the next Ice Age," the core hypothesis that adding iron to the oceans would result in a dramatic increase in phytoplankton population was a smashing success. One scientist told the press that Martin's open-ocean tests turned the equatorial Pacific "from a desert to a jungle, from clear blue to dark green.

"It was," that scientist said, "almost biblical."

In the footsteps of Martin's success came the idea to dump iron across the oceans of the world as a solution to global warming. More phytoplankton, after all, equals more carbon dioxide taken out of the atmosphere.

The question then, as phrased by Kunzig: "Is it wise, is it moral even, for us to attempt to fix nature on so grand a scale? To tinker deliberately with the biogeochemical cycles and the climate of the entire planet?"

I immediately thought of Tom's post here at the Yawp from last week:
"As Bill McKibben pointed out in The End of Nature (and in the shorter introduction to his annotation of Walden), environmental issues are not technological problems. If they were, all we would have to do is fix the problem, like replacing the head gasket on an ailing car. The real issue is attitudinal."

Dumping iron into the oceans on a planetary scale isn't a technological fix as much as it is a biological fix, but the point, I think, is the same - instead of fixing the root cause of the issue (changing humanity's attitude) and creating less carbon dioxide, iron dumping attempts to "fix the problem" after it has become a problem. The best solution would be a combination - alter the attitude for a long-term solution and apply the band-aid for a short-term fix - but likely what would happen is that if the iron dumping lowers carbon dioxide levels governments would simply pat themselves on the back for a job well done and do nothing to lower those levels at the production end.

Unfortunately, too many people in too many positions of power see a solution as an excuse to keep making the problem.

To get at the heart of Kunzig's question, though, are such solutions a good or bad policy to adopt? Most scientists, according to Kunzig, are aghast at the idea of turning the planet into some large test tube. Martin makes an interesting point, however, when he argues:
"We're already involved in the biggest experiment ever. We're finding out what's going to happen if we dump three billion tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere every year. That is the biggest manipulation of the environment ever. [...] We'd better know about ways, if we have to, to bring carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere."

Martin makes clear, however, that if the cost of this is to "kill the whales and penguins" he wants no part of it. Man can "stew" in his own mess. But if there are no averse environmental impacts (and we don't know whether there would be), then Martin is for it.

I think it's dangerous to attempt to, in essence, put the Earth on a phyyoplankton growth hormone, but the point behind Martin's acceptance of that idea - that we're already experimenting on the Earth in huge and dangerous way - speaks directly to the kind of attitudinal shift McKibben is talking about.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Nuclear Power + Geological Facts = Bunny Suits

News from the BBC reports that an earthquake in Japan yesterday leaked some radioactive material from a power plant. Apparently the plant is located on a fault line.

While Japan relies almost exclusively on nuclear power, it is a system that is well maintained. As the report profiles in a biography of leaks related directly to the fault, the issues here seem to have been a result of bad planning.

If anything, because of the growing demands for clean (that is, carbon-free) energy, it doesn't seem unreasonable for managers to turn to nuclear power. However, as the Japanese case demonstrates, planning nuclear futures will require perhaps a wider range of factors than previously thought.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Long Road from Law to Implementation

A victory of sorts for those seeking to protect North Atlantic right whales from becoming entangled in fishing lines as the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) agreed to finally enforce a 2005 decision that, primarily, forces fishermen to use rope that sinks to the ocean floor instead of the current floating rope they've been using.

I say "of sorts" because the Ocean Conservancy and Humane Society had to sue the NMFS to actually get them to enforce a 2-year old rule and, as the AP articles points out, "it is uncertain what the final rule will look like."

But whatever the rule does eventually look like it will take effect in October.

Massachusetts has already forced their fishermen to use the new lines (as well as rotating fishing lanes out of Boston Harbor to the north to avoid an area of high right-whale concentration), but other states have not. The biggest impact of the enforcement of the decision will take place in Maine. The Portland Press Herald has a rather even-handed and balanced article on the matter, where they point out both the economic truth that this is going to cost the lobstermen money (the paper puts the price tag at $10,000 to $15,000), and that the NMFS helped cause the lawsuit because of their too-slow regulatory procedures.

I'm reminded of a David Brower quote from John McPhee's Encounters with the Archdruid, where (in a chat about dams, IIRC) he points out that conservationists have to win all the time, but the other side only has to win once. His point was that whenever a dam proposal goes up, if the anti-dam forces lose, the dam (which are hard and expensive to undo) gets built, but if they win there's nothing to stop that proposal coming up for debate again and again.

What the right whale/fishing lines issue points out is that even if the environmentalists win and get a decision to go their way, there's still a long way from a new rule being passed to it being implemented. At least here, unlike with the dams, the environmentalists were able to take advantage of the legal system and force the MNFS to act.

I'm not averse to the concerns of the lobstermen here, either. I have no idea if the $10,000 - $15,000 cost to lobstermen is accurate (it was provided to the Portland Press by the executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association) but that's not an insignificant number. Nobody likes to have new and expensive government fees thrown at them. It seems to me that something could be done to offset the financial burden (a lobster tax, a no-interest loan) until 2008, when the lobstermen were told the new rules would be taking place.

As I read through all the stories and press releases, I'm still struck by the lack of details provided - there's a lot of specifics that need to be agreed in the next 2 1/2 months.

Which makes me wonder if they new rules will, in fact, go into effect before the end of 2007.

North Atlantic right whales are endangered; it is believed there are only 300-350 remaining in the wild. Right whales winter in the American Southeast (off the coasts of Florida and Georgia) and summer in the Northeast (New England and Canada).

The Ocean Conservancy's Press Release can be found here.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Closing the Loop with Cheap Reads: Half-Price Books' B(eco)meGreen Program

On a recent trip to friendly chain reseller Half-Price Books in Indianapolis a couple of weeks back, I had the pleasure of visiting their bathroom for the usual reasons. While there (besides finding out that Batman had been there) I noticed a sticker on the paper towel dispenser that said, “R(eco)gnize these come from trees, use only what you need,” and directed you to a website, B(eco)meGreen.

No idle graffiti, but a coordinated campaign--when I left the privy I noticed some of the employees wearing similarly designed shirts bearing the B(eco)meGreen logo--the site is sponsored by the bookstore itself as an initiative to get people to take part in conservation measures. As they point out, the reselling of books is an environmentally friendly practice. There’s a long list of tips with interesting information attached and a research/news library. Additionally, there’s a glossary of environmental and ecological terms to catch you up on the lingo used in environmental writing so you’ll know what the experts are talking about—do you know what assimilation means in the ecological sense? There’s also an obligatory merchandise page. All in all, lots of info about environmental awareness.

My favorite thing on the website is the Freebies area. While there aren’t too many of them available (yet), they take the opportunity as a teachable moment. Under the Screensavers heading, the site brings up a message reminding you that screensavers don’t save electricity, and that if you are going away for more than a minute you should turn off your monitor and put your computer to sleep. Here giving away disposable media turns into a useful transfer of knowledge and consciousness spreading.

It’s this attention to awareness that this site does best. As Bill McKibben pointed out in The End of Nature (and in the shorter introduction to his annotation of Walden), environmental issues are not technological problems. If they were, all we would have to do is fix the problem, like replacing the head gasket on an ailing car. The real issue is attitudinal, that business as usual no longer plays. People, McKibben argues, have to figure out how to make smarter choices about the things they want and how they go about getting them. That’s not to say that technology doesn’t play a part, but that technology isn’t the end solution—we can’t wait for the Great Leap Forward to save us all. McKibben’s line is an iteration of what David Brower was putting out there thirty years before—“What kinds of growth must we have?” and “What kinds of growth can we no longer afford?” Neither deny that we can continue to grow—a happy rejoinder to otherwise conservation-unfriendly economists. And, though worded differently, these focusing questions beg for the same shift in thinking. Instead of pointing out what is wrong—the band aid approach—they take a kind of macro-scale view of figuring out how to change behavior and perceptions of the human connection to the world.

Like the above questions, B(eco)meGreen points toward the ways people interpret the world around them. Instead of simply asking for someone to use fewer paper towels, the sticker about remembering that paper towels come from trees looks at processes. At the bottom of the process is the idea that if you can get people to close the loop, so to speak, in their thought processes, then they will make better decisions. (Obviously, this means that there is some absolute standard of right and wrong, but that’s not the point; this seems like a good idea.) People go to dry their hands, they remember trees, that trees are a good, and then will reduce their consumption—or better yet dry their hands on their pants.

The same process works, as a colleague in climate change policy told me, when in Japan power companies install power usage meters inside subscribers homes (as well as some participating companies' offices). Closing the loop here means putting up the tangible evidence of power use—the meter—to remind them of the effect of their actions. The monitor or television stays on overnight, it will be reflected on the meter. The most amazing part of the study was, however, was that at no point was anyone notified. The users apparently were motivated only by seeing the numbers increase. By making a cyclical thought, the pieces slide into place. It was like when I was a kid--to walk out side door to our house you had to go by the spinning meter. I knew when it was going faster, we were using more power. On the way back in, I would see it and read in the dark. (Well, mostly dark.)

Another thing the program has going for it is placement. A corporation has every right to call itself environmentally responsible if they send out a memo explaining what employees can do to save resources. But those messages are soon forgotten (and the memos often not recycled, I’m sure). Using stickers with a quick-read message pops up every time a person dries their hands. Sure, some people will manage to ignore the message, but I suspect the program will do more good than harm. It’s a cold bastard that hates trees. What's more is that this program extends even beyond the employees and effects the customers as well.

All in all, the program is a good idea. I’d love to see it extend outside of the Half-Price Books chain. That said, did I mention you could buy the stickers on the website? Too bad only the easily-stolen magnet version comes in packs of 100. That's a hint, HPB.

Baseball Bugs

They're not harmful and they'll be gone in a week, but hey, they're an annoyance, so let's kill them anyway. I mean, you know, they might get in someone's beer or something. We can't have that.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Quick Hit: Mixed News from South America

Thanks to Jon Sealy who reports from his web-log on a BBC story about Brazil's giving the green light to the construction of two dams along the Amazon's largest tributary, the Madeira River.

Good news: it's for hydroelectric (that is, relatively clean energy) for Brazil's expanding energy needs. Bad news, from the article: "The river is said to have one of the most diverse fish stocks in the world."

Plus there's the inevitable failing of all dams due to sediment. Sheesh. Good luck, Amazon.

Planets Go Round and Round

Dava Sobel's Longitude was a pleasant surprise when I picked it up while doing research for a paper on Umberto Eco's excellent The Island of the Day Before. Sobel's writing style is hard to categorize, exactly - her style is too breezy to be hard science, too soft to be academic, too poetic to be journalism. Yet it's all three of those classifications at various times which makes her ... what exactly? Academic Popcorn? Beach Reading for Eggheads? Lyrical Poetry for Scientists?

However one wants to label Sobel's writing, Longitude is an engaging set of short non-fictive stories that tells the story of the quest for (if you can't guess) longitude. It was highly enjoyable and a quick read, so when I saw her latest book, The Planets, sitting in the bargain rack I grabbed it and looked forward to a day or two's worth of Sobel walking me through space.

If Sobel was a less-talented writer you could say Planets was too gimmicky, but she's talented enough to turn "gimmick" into "high-concept" and deliver a story that is equal parts about the Milky Way's planets as it is about humanity's fascination with them. There are 12 chapters to Planets, one for each planet (Uranus & Neptune share a chapter), the Sun, Earth's moon, and an Overview and Coda to frame the book. (The chapters progress by the planet's relative distance from the sun.) Instead of naming each chapter for a planet, however, Sobel names them by the subject she covers alongside the planet, so the chapter on Mars is called "Sci-Fi," Jupiter is "Astrology," Saturn is "Music of the Spheres," and so on.

By focusing on a different subject with each planet, Sobel's book continually refreshes itself. Though the numerous scientists who have scanned the cosmos in search of planets do tend to run together, the subjects rhythmically shift, giving each planet a distinct personality and context. Such an approach risks running itself off the rails through a credibility loss - Venus comes across as the planet of poets, for instance, as if poets wrote of no other planet, or as if Venus was ever looked at except through the poetic lens.

Sobel's a romantic and doesn't hide it, however. Calling her interest in planets her "planet fetish," Sobel's text is colored with a lyrical quality that would be annoying if 1) she attempted to hide it, and 2) wasn't able to pull it off. Her romanticized style is tinged with a playfulness, such as when she writes much of "Night Air" (the Uranus and Neptune chapter) as an imagined letter sent from Caroline Herschel to Maria Mitchell, an American astronomer, or in "Sci-Fi," when she writes from the perspective of "Alan Hills 84001," an allegedly Martian meteorite discovered in the Antarctic in 1984.

Because Sobel continually blends science in with her romantic playfulness, Planets doesn't take the plunge into a cosmic mysticism that would make her work unreadable (to me, at least). It is by no means a comprehensive look at anything, but it does manage to convey the relationship between humanity and the planets with whom we share the Sun's light and energy.

Dava Sobel's website (which is very pretty) can be found here.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Why I Hate John McPhee: An Admiration

I’m not too proud to say that I’m not a great writer. There are just some things that I haven’t yet been able to work out of (or into) my emergent style. (Do I have a style? I hope.). Writing is practice, and I need more.

That said, there are a good many people I admire, who seem to have it down pat that I would like to emulate. Barry Lopez and Cass Sunstein jump to mind quickly; there are many more, of course. Lately, though, the first person on this list has been John McPhee. Point blank: he’s amazing, if only for his output. In his forty-two year career, McPhee’s written twenty-eight books. Yes, twenty-eight—that’s two-third of a book a year, not even counting the occasional pieces and the two readers made of selected work. To borrow from one of his titles, he gives good weight.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve read three of them and bought even more, hoping to knock them out over the rest of the season. They are amazing books that are about whatever it is that catches his eye. Several are about the hard science of geology (the four books and a new essay collected in one volume as Annals of the Former World), others are more pointedly about the environment and humanity’s place in it (like Encounters with the Archdruid and The Control of Nature). One—his first, A Sense of Where You Are—is about Bill Bradley’s pre-politco, pre-pro-baller days as a player on Princeton’s basketball team. His most recent—Uncommon Carriers—is a catalogue of the people who drive and pilot the world’s shipping vehicles, along with places in-between.

Instead of trying to give a report on each book I’ve gotten to so far—a job that would no doubt go on too long—I’d rather point out the things that turn me a little green with envy, things that almost immediately inspire awe at his ability to weave so many things together cogently.

(For the record, the reason three books—Encounters with the Archdruid, Oranges, and Basin and Range—keep popping up is because they are the ones I have read just recently.)

One thing that strikes the reader almost immediately about McPhee is that he has a curious, wandering eye. Plotting out the distances he covers, both literally and in terms of subject matter, boggles the mind. The story of Oranges—the narrative of meeting orange producers—stays almost exclusively in one small growing area in Florida. The research manifest in the workings of the book, however, goes literally around the world, as if he went to a library and didn’t leave until he had found every reference to oranges in written history. And it reads like it, too; one section is simply a loosely connected compendium of anecdotes in the history of citrus cultivation. Once, referring to Faulkner, Virginia Hlavsa remarked how the Southerner had a “promiscuous intellect.” That description seems to apply to McPhee as well, in that he’s as much happily distracted by details, of cataloguing the things in his gaze, as he is outlining the big, abstract ideas. I imagine him on assignment with pockets full of notebooks, scraps of paper tucked between pages, while he idly watches the scenery and making mental notes about the people with whom he travels.

It’s that ability to blend in and take notes, I think, that makes him a great watcher. While he often employs the first-person, telling stories of his own or how he meets certain people, when he gets into discussion with others, the interviewee almost always dictates the direction of the conversation. There are times, like in the three outings that constitute Encounters with the Archdruid, that McPhee lets his travelmates (conservationist David Brower and his antagonists) go on and on and on, arguing and poking at each other. It is not uncommon to see an unbroken, page-long quote. If anything, his apprentice’s mode of talking with (more like listening to) people seemingly allows his subject to get closer to the core of what each person really wants to say. Instead of the agenda one gets in even the best articles of the slick magazines, McPhee’s quality in interviewing is to let people go on undirected, asking for clarification only when absolutely necessary. McPhee knows that people best tell their own story, that the writer’s job is to put the pieces together in an interesting way. In Basin and Range this method lets the geologists he travels with look like stereotypical, idiosyncratic intellectuals, chewing up some of the soft shales they knock out of roadcuts. At the same time, because he and his subjects often spend such a long time together, people open up to him. Those same off-the-wall geologists are willing to admit that most people in their profession have at best educated guesses about the history of the earth, that they’re storytellers as much as the next person.

I could go on for days. From the interviews he does, he creates some of the most coherent, shorthand metaphors and similes for complex thoughts; Basin and Range is rife with the distillation of tricky geology into nifty little packages. Other comparisons are just beautiful images—from Encounters, “Spread around the summit like huge, improbable petals were nine glaciers.” His pacing is impeccable, keeping his hands off the action, letting the stories almost tell themselves.

But what’s worst—for me, being depressed at the amount of work ahead in order to live up to his standard—is that he does it all so effortlessly. His prose is completely unlabored. His sentences have a clear grace that never bore. I mean, a book about oranges? I love them, could eat pounds a day. But 149 pages about a single fruit? I read the book in a day. When I got to the end of the book, I literally cursed aloud at McPhee’s easy style. I was completely hooked, hungry for oranges and another 150 pages about them.

If anything, his Oranges is the most concise example of what McPhee does best—writing stories that maintain throughout them a sense of awe. As MBQ and I were talking the other day, it’s the kind of books we’d like to see academics write but don’t for whatever reason—tradition, aloof intellectual pretense, pride, lack of skill, stubbornness, whatever. (To be fair, this is a "more often than not"; of course there are academics that makes the list I mentioned at the opening.)

So, for the record, when I call McPhee a jerk, it’s out of love, respect, and admiration (read: envy). He's a jerk because he put the bar so high that I doubt I'll ever reach that level. In any event, though, if you don’t have any of his books, go get one, any of them—they’re amazing.