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There will be no "dingo ate your baby" joke here.

First Dingo "Was Indonesian Pet"

The Australian dingo probably descended from a single domestic dog brought from what is now Indonesia, according to the latest scientific research.

The mother of all dingoes could have been a single pregnant female which travelled to Australia 5,000 years ago.

-- via The Hall of Ma'at

This is a good example of how a little change can snowball into something huge. The one-dog theory fits reasonably well with the absence of evidence of deeper cultural contact between Australia and the Lapita, the seafarers who are the likely source of the original Dingoes (as contrasted to northern New Guinea, where Lapita settled and blended, genetically and culturally, with the natives). Yet the arrival of the dingo had major impacts on the ecology of the continent, as they drove the two major marsupial predators -- the Tasmanian tiger and Tasmanian devil, so named because they only survived in dingo-free Tasmania -- to extinction on the mainland. The impact on human culture seems to be less significant, as the Aborigines never fully re-domesticated the feral dingoes (though they did establish partnerships with them). I wonder if there would be any impact on the cognitive or religious life -- in particular, I wonder whether Aborigines took note of and made an issue of the fact that dingoes, like humans but unlike any other Australian mammal, are placental. Something to research next time I'm bored.


More wapiti!

This article reminded me that American English has an unfortunate tendency to take boring British words and apply them exclusively to things that already have good names. For example, we took "corn" -- which to the British just means grain -- and apply it specifically to the plant otherwise known as maize. In the instance that the article parenthetically refers to, we Americans had to come up with the word "moose" (which, granted, is a pretty good word) because we had given the British word "elk" to a kind of large deer that would otherwise be known as "wapiti." How could anyone think it's a good idea to get rid of a word like "wapiti"?

Court to government: Actually do your job

Accounting Ordered At Indian Trust Fund

A federal judge ruled today that the Interior Department had to provide a full accounting by 2007 of billions of dollars in royalties earned on Indian land. The proceeds are supposed to go to a trust fund for the Indians.

The judge, Royce C. Lamberth of Federal District Court here, expressed skepticism that the department would comply with his order.

"It is not that the court believes Interior is incapable of formulating an adequate plan for an accounting," Judge Lamberth ruled. "Rather, it is that the court has no confidence that Interior is willing to actually implement an adequate accounting."

I wonder if one or more of the Democratic candidates could make an issue of this. Certainly it's not a great hammer to hit Bush with, since the irresponsibility at issue has been going on under administrations from all parties. And siding with Indians may not be a politically helpful move, since many communities resent the nearby tribes' economic and political influence.

On the other hand, voters nowadays are disillusioned with Washington in general. It may be a good move to be able to say "I'm going to lead a change from the Republicans we have now, and the Democrats you've seen in the past." It would dilute the impression of pure partisan shrillness. The trust fund issue would be a strike against an obviously inefficient bureaucracy, and consonant with the overall message of fiscal accountability that the nominee is guaranteed to promote. Further, for many Americans, there's a (correct) sense that the nation has mistreated its indigenous people. Proposing to right something that's wrong on an obvious, almost Sunday School level will appeal to people's sense of justice. Bush can hardly claim to oppose a proper settlement of the issue, and could easily be driven to make an identical commitment. At most he could make a greenhouse-type dodge and claim we need to wait for a fuller accounting of exactly how bad the mismanagement is.

Two views of trade

Democrats Give Belligerence A Chance When It Comes To Trade

If there's one point of agreement among all of the Democratic presidential candidates, it's that President Bush has unnecessarily alienated the world with an approach to international security that is "arrogant," "bullying" and "belligerent."

... Now here's [Howard] Dean, back in Iowa in August, telling a union audience how he would convince America's trading partners to adopt labor and environmental laws as stringent as those in the United States: "How am I going to get this passed?" Dean asked. "We are the biggest economy in the world; we don't have to participate in [the North American Free Trade Agreement] and we don't have to participate in the [World Trade Organization]. If we don't, it falls apart."

In my more cynical moments, I have thought that Dean's shift to the left on trade (as Governor of Vermont, he was a steadfast proponent of NAFTA) was a move to appease some of his base -- the members of the "anti-globalization"/global justice movement, who joined up with him because of his outspoken opposition to the war in Iraq but were unsettled by his economic centrism. But reading this article made me think that, if the shift is a form of appeasement, the group he's appeasing is the traditional Democratic constituency of labor (which he'll need if he hopes to win Iowa away from Dick Gephardt, and whose high turnout will be key for whatever Democrat gets the nod).

On the surface, labor and the global justice movement have similar views on trade -- both oppose "free" trade institutions like the WTO and NAFTA. And the global justice movement is often explicit in claiming solidarity with workers. However, the shift of the radical left from a focus on the proletariat in the advanced capitalist countries to a focus on the people of the third world has led to a divergence in the groups' analyses of what the problem with "free" trade is.

The distinction was clear when I read that Dean (and John Edwards, later in the article) plan to use global trade institutions as a stick to force other nations to improve their environmental and labor records. This is the inverse of the argument I'm used to hearing, from academics more aligned with the global justice movement -- that the WTO, NAFTA, and so on are used by the US to force other countries to lower their labor and environmental standards. From the persepective of American labor, free trade allows other countries to exploit the US, by luring away jobs with the promise of lower regulations. From the global justice standpoint, however, the key point is how free trade allows the US to exploit other countries, by barring their progressive ideas from becoming law.

The two views are not mutually exclusive, of course, when you look at the specifics of the trade policies concerned. But the emphasis is different, and it is clear that the Democratic candidates are playing to specifically American interests rather than the world and America's place in it.


Stentor the leftist?

From those last few posts, it's starting to sound like I'm becoming some kind of leftist. I don't think that's true -- I still see myself as pretty solidly located in liberal territory. But there's always the possibility that I'm wrong. It took me a good while my freshman year to work out that, while I thought of myself as conservative, the opinions I was expressing were quite clearly liberal.

A few posts ago, I linked to my most recent commentary for The Scarlet, on gender roles. When I wrote it, I wasn't altogether happy with it. And I figured that it shied away from engaging a lot of strong feminist points in favor of a sort of happy middle-class optimism. I thought I certainly would have written it differently if it were meant for a different audience than the general Clark student body. Yet after it was published, I got complimented on it by some of the very people I figured would be disappointed by how non-radical my analysis was -- people who are studying critical social theory and are active in WoGAN. Based on this and subsequent conversations -- in which it was assumed that I agreed that the IMF is evil and that Howard Dean is a pragmatic alternative to Dennis Kucinich rather than a worthwhile candidate in his own right -- the left seems to think I'm one of them.

Lenin the Libertarian?

For my Resource Geography class, we have to read a section of V.I. Lenin's book Imperialism. Lenin's principal argument is against monopolization. He laments the end of the earlier free-trading phase of capitalism in the mid 19th century, and the rise of corporations that pursue vertical integration in order to gain total control over necessary resources. If John D. Rockefeller's vision for Standard Oil is representative, the drive for consolidation and monopolization is a result of an aversion to the chaotic nature of real market capitalism.

From a deontological frame that abhors government intervention, libertarians often object to measures that would eliminate this sort of monopolistic behavior. But what is being defended is just those aspects of capitalism that consequentialist libertarians rely on as the basis of the system's merit -- competition and decentralization. Perhaps we can all agree that crony capitalism -- the subversion of market mechanisms for the benefit of certain powerful interests (either the "capitalist class" as a whole, or more often certain elements within it).

It's ironic, then, that the regime that Lenin founded took monopolism to the extreme, erasing any formal barriers between industrial organizations and between them and the state. In theory, economic interdependence brings about peace, because nobody would dare risk losing their trade with a nation by going to war with it. But when countries don't trust each other to see that same logic, they turn to the security of making regions they're dependent on no longer foriegn. He cites as one example that the British and Russians found it necessary to make colonies out of cotton-producing areas (Egypt and Central Asia, respectively) in order to securely bind that production into the national system. Yet one of Lenin's first acts as leader of the Soviet Union was to push for more cotton production in Central Asia, and the imperialist pursuit of cotton self-sufficiency continued with all of his successors.


Capitalism vs. the Second Commandment: Part II

The point of that long explanation of idolatry is that I think the role of capitalism in modern society can be thought of in terms of idolatry. The market is our golden calf. The problem is not the idol itself (the original calf was probably very pretty) so much as our relationship to it.

One common complaint about capitalism, and particularly about the multinational corporations that are the archetypal examples of capitalism in action, is that there's no accountability. In the extreme case, a portrait is painted of corporations running rampant over the world, with people and governments as little more than puppets made to dance by the propaganda, coercion, and dollars of Coke or Shell. However, I think even the most multinational of corporations is still critically accountable to at least three parties: the state, its stockholders, and its customers. The abdication of these parties' roles in holding corporations accountable is due in part to their idolatry.

Many of the excesses of corporations are due to collaboration with governments. The dominance of giant agrobusiness in the US is supported by agricultural subsidies. Deforestation in Brazil is made profitable for ranchers by government help. Corporations are able to exploit people and nature because the state creates spaces to allow that to happen, and in many instances specifically subsidizes capital's dirty work, or even directly carries it out. Corporations are greater than governments because governments made them that way. They engaged in idolatry by allowing capitalism to use the state, rather than the state using capitalism. Capitalism and development became ends in themselves, rather than means to making certain improvements in citizens' standard of living.

The most crucial accountability of corporations is to their customers. Classical economics makes this the foundation of the case for capitalism -- the market will favor enterprises that are socially useful because people will only buy products that are wanted. Corporations are powerful because they wield substantial chunks of money. But that money doesn't come from nowhere; it comes from millions of customers. To hear some critics tell it, corporations can easily produce all the demand they need through advertising propaganda, duping people into making purchases that are good for the corporation, rather than for the buyer or society as a whole. There is some truth to this, and it's important to remember that demand isn't an independent variable -- it's shaped by the process of production and marketing, just as voter preferences are shaped by the process of politics. Yet we should also not underestimate the importance of extra-corporate cultural forces in shaping demand, and hence holding the power of the market over corporations. Even the mighty Coca-Cola wasn't able to make people like the New Coke. Organized boycotts and publicity campaigns have pushed McDonald's to require higher animal welfare standards of its suppliers. Oil companies are starting to put on a green face for customers, grudgingly conceding the fight against the science of global warming. Obviously, such incidents are not common enough to set things right. There is idolatry at work here, too. Customers implicitly or explicitly surrender to the market, allowing it to rule them.

Saying that there's idolatry at work doesn't do much in the way of revealing where it came from, or how to root it out. There are a host of sedimented structural factors and collective action problems at work that unfortunately my latest brainstorm didn't untangle. Perhaps sometime down the road I'll have a part three in this series.

Capitalism vs. the Second Commandment: Part I

Idolatry is a big theme in the Bible. The Ten Commandments prohibit graven images, and God's anger at the Israelites' infidelity to him in the Old Testament is generally expressed through commands to smash the idols of the other gods.

To modern Americans, idolatry seems a little distant. The big competitor with Christianity is not Caananite paganism, or even another transcendant religion*, but secularism. To make the sin relevant, Sunday School teachers like to point out forms of secular idolatry, particularly the "worship" of money.

To understand idolatry, we need to look at the distinction between the second commandment -- no graven images -- and the first -- no other gods. At first blush, the commandments seem repetitive -- isn't an idol just another god, who happens to be represented or encapsulated in a physical object? The usual explanation given for what makes idolatry wrong is that it places one of God's creations above God. To make an analogy between your relationship with God and your relationship with your spouse: the first commandment says not to cheat on your spouse with another person (including imaginary people like movie characters), the second says not to value something your spouse produces -- like their paycheck or their artistic works -- above the person. (This spouse-idolatry is essentially a violation of the second formulation of Kant's categorical imperative -- treat a person as an end, not a means.)

But does the creation-over-creator logic work for all forms of idolatry? Take money for instance. I don't think God specifically created money. Of course he created all the stuff that forms the basis for the existence of money, but to say God created money is like saying Microsoft created this blog post because I'm typing it in Internet Explorer. And this seems to apply to nearly all idolatry aside from the worship of natural sites (even those are, in a sense, socially constructed to the degree that picking them out, preserving them, and ascribing meaning to them is a human artifice). When the Israelites bowed down to the golden calf, they were worshipping the calf shape that Aaron made as much as they were worshipping the element Ag that God made.

Fear of idolatry has resulted in some sects engaging in iconoclasm -- the avoidance of creating any images that might be treated as idols. But of course people have to make things of one sort or another to survive, and as the money example shows, it can be the most mundane and utilitarian human creations, not just the religious or artistic ones, that can become idols -- indeed, they may be even more likely to become idols. But in becoming idols, they cease to be utilitarian. Money becomes a graven image when it's sought for its own sake, rather than because it's useful as a means of exchange. Idolatry, then, is the confusion of a means with an end.

A second important point about idolatry is the nature of worship. Worship consists of declaring that the thing being worshipped is greater than the worshipper. It's an act of submission. The mistake of idolatry, then, is to treat something that is less than the worshipper, as most human creations are, as if it were higher. This inverts the tool-user relationship. In the case of inanimate idols, this is especially problematic, since the idol doesn't have interests of its own, just those that the worshipper projects onto it.

*I don't believe all non-Judeo-Christian religions are necessarily idolatrous, even those that worship material items or places. Explaining why would be a long digression even by my standards.


Break through the shell of oppression

Apparently the Greeks have been suffering under the tyranny of eggs:

"It [March 25, which is Greek independence day and the day of the Annunciation to Mary] is also remembered as the day the Greeks gained their independence from the Ottoman Empire. So on one hand you have the people shaking off the yolk of Ottoman oppression and also all men freed from the yolk of sin."

-- link via The Right Christians, who were more interested in the story's real focus on other religions' new years.


Georgepetto and his puppet

My cartoon from this week's Scarlet:

Originally, I had planned to draw growth rings on Bush's face, as if he had already taken care of his own Pinocchio nose. But I couldn't get him to look like Bush without the distinctive nose. The alternate nose just made him look like a pig. So for the sake of art, I decided to forgo the extra snipe at the president. And maybe Nate Pierce will be happy, since I did a cartoon somewhat complimentary of Bush.

Then there's my commentary, "Does A Man Need A Woman?", with its cartoon. Art-wise, I think both cartoons came out quite well. This may be in part due to coming up with the ideas, and doing the sketches, before Wednesday night.

The phantom "n"

Weird thing for the day: Go here and highlight everything on the screen.

What is Kazakhstan learning from Palmerton?

Kazakhstanians visit Palmerton

Palmerton had some special visitors, Tuesday, when 16 individuals from the country of Kazakhstan came to tour the borough and learn its industrial history.

Their main concern was how a borough of 5,000 dealt with the environmental damage that likely resulted from decades of historic zinc smelting operations.

... While ECOLOGIA [ECOlogists Linked for Organizing Grassroots Initiatives and Action, the trip sponsor] brought the group to Palmerton, Palmerton Citizens for a Clean Environment (PCCE) guided them through the borough.

... While at Stoney Ridge, the group was informed about PCCE's role in the Palmerton Superfund Site, the regulations that are in place in the borough and how monitoring of industrial and governmental activities takes place.

It's interesting that, so far as the article mentioned, the only Palmertonians that the Kazakhs met with were members of PCCE. ECOLOGIA's website talks a lot about the importance of "local people" in environmental management. Yet they managed to overlook the other grassroots organization that has formed in Palmerton due to the pollution issue -- the Pro-Palmerton Coalition, which opposes the kind of large-scale cleanup actions in town that PCCE and the EPA favor. This is interesting considering that by most accounts, PPC more closely represents the opinions of most Palmertonians, particularly those who have lived in the town longer and thus have a stronger connection to the place. My speculation is that this is representative of a larger leftist academic conceit. I imagine that the members of ECOLOGIA relate more easily to the members of PCCE than to the members of PPC, due to their shared perspectives on the environment. This leads ECOLOGIA to favor PCCE as the more authentic voice of the people of Palmerton. For some (and I don't have enough information to support this claim in this particular case), it becomes a sort of circular logic -- the correctness of their views establishes their legitimacy, and their legitimacy is used to argue for the correctness of their views.

I agree that the environmental knowledge and values of "local people" ought to be central to human-environment research and theory. However, there is a tendency among those who share this stance to privilege the more progressive local views.

I am N-O-T-H-I-N ...

Will Baude brings to my attention this post by Steve of Begging to Differ, which assails political fence-sitters:

I am frequently confronted with a person who claims to be neither liberal nor conservative. While I understand the reluctance to take on a label that does not fit, I think the American political class divides itself into two large factions loosely representing "left" and "right." Regardless of the labels you prefer, when push comes to shove, most of us take a side. This is as it should be. As Mason said to Dixon, "You gotta draw the line somewhere." You can't just hang there in the middle like a philosophical scrotum.

Baude rightly criticizes this from the perspective of the libertarian dilemma, that is, the position of someone who has definite political commitments (to libertarianism, but other political philosophies have their corresponding dilemmas) that aren't represented by either of the existing political parties. He's willing to take sides only as a short-term tactical move, specific to certain issues or certain times in which one side holds an advantage. It does not necessarily entail a full commitment to just one side.

But I don't think Baude's argument goes far enough. Consider me: I vote Democratic, and consistently express opinions which would be characterized as liberal. But in my own mind, I don't think of myself as a liberal.

What I'm faced with is an existential question: on what terms do I organize my identity and life history? These terms make sense of my past and present, and guide the actions through which I make my future. And I see no reason that one of those terms, those organizational principles of my life, must be a political ideology, much less one of the two dominant political ideologies of the early 21st century. My liberalism is a sort of side-effect of my other, more normative life commitments -- I just happen to be liberal. That's not to say that "he's a liberal" isn't at times a useful model for others, or even myself, to use in order to understand my political stance. But that doesn't make it a principle with causal efficacy in how I conduct or understand myself. It's not part of who I am.

note: I engaged in a bit of pragmatic anachronism for the sake of argument here. My strong stance about not being a liberal was true of me a year or two ago, and a similar stance remains in effect with regard to considering myself a Democrat. However, I have more recently begun to incorporate "liberal" as a real, though still minor, theme in my self-narrative.


Kerry and his bike

John Kerry, meanwhile, is unrepentant about driving a polluting Harley. He comes off as much stronger on the environment than Dean, with a more coherent environmental vision and an emphasis on the economic benefits of environmentalism. However, he does come out with this odd bit:

Grist: In the face of war and terrorism, environmentalism has dropped considerably in the polls as a primary issue of public concern. How can we get this issue back on the map?
Kerry: First of all, those polls often don't reflect people's real feelings. Polls are a snapshot of a moment. Poll results can be skewed by how questions are worded and how they are asked. When I say to audiences: Domestic, renewable sources are urgently needed now because they are entirely under our control, no foreign government can embargo them, no terrorist can seize control of them, no cartel can play games with them, no American soldier will have to risk his or her life to protect them -- audiences respond. I find that all over the country, people are responding to environmental concerns as I talk about it.

So we're going to tap into people's real concern about the environment by ... selling them an environmentally beneficial policy under the guise of national security. He gets better in his next few responses, connecting environmental issues to people's everyday experiences, but this was a weird moment.

Like b in "bwuh?"

When you're explaining how to pronounce letters in foreign languages, it's often helpful to compare the sound to the sound of certain letters in English words. However, it is not helpful to compare them to the sound of letters in words that do not exist, viz:

g 2) middle of word like English g in bargen

Dean and his SUV

The Dean Nation blog points to this interview with Howard Dean, in which interviewer Charlie Gibson asks him what his favorite car is:

Favorite car? Oh, my goodness. Well, the politically correct answer is a Toyota Prius, but I would have to say Chevy Blazer.

On the one hand, I can understand the strategy of explicitly not giving a politically correct answer. A big part of Dean's appeal is his aura of authenticity and refusal to base his stance on what he thinks people want to hear. Citing the Blazer makes Dean seem more like a regular guy. On the other hand, he's had to squirm around his automobile choices before, trying to retain his ability to wear the environmentalist mantle while driving an SUV. I'm sure Dean, like most people, has a lot of other things in mind when he thinks about a car than just gas mileage and pollution emissions. But for better or worse, the SUV has become the symbol of environmentally destructive personal behavior, so the widsom of citing one of them as your favorite car seems questionable.

Gender complementarity and gay marriage

Eve Tushnet has a response up to Ampersand's excellent post criticizing the "gender complementarity" rationale for exclusively heterosexual marriage. She says:

We're talking about marriage, and therefore we're talking about sex. And in heterosexual relationships, yes, the sexes do need to be reconciled. The risks they take are very different. The possibility of pregnancy (including the fact that women have a shorter reproductive life than men) is only one reason for these sharply differing risks.

One of the reasons I didn't write this post yesterday--besides the inzombia thing--was that I didn't think I could be non-bitchy about it after a much longer than usual session of follow-up calls for the pregnancy center. Do my calls for me, then we'll talk about how men and women in sexual relationships don't need any structures to reconcile their differing risks, needs, desires, and interests. (Was that non-bitchy? Maybe a little bitchy?)

There's a difference between needing reconciliation (i.e. needing to resolve conflicts in an already-existing relationship) and needing complementing (i.e. needing to create a relationship because you're incomplete on your own). If you have two people with different risks, needs, desires, and interests, obviously those things will need to be reconciled in some way -- some structure to their interaction -- so that their relationship can be productive. This applies to any relationship, not just sexual ones. So we have things like employment contracts, parent-child responsibilities, rental agreements, and marriage.

But this is, if anything, an argument for gay marriage. Two people of the same gender can still have widely varying risks, needs, desires, and interests, the importance of which is greatly increased by long-term sexual and emotional intimacy. And thus they have a need for some structure to help them reconcile their differences. Marriage is an excellent option (if it's available), since it combines the commitments of the parties involved with the support of the wider society and legal system.


Nature versus environment

I had to write a little about the meanings of the words "nature" and "environment" for my Political Ecology class. Instead, I wrote a lot. I figured I'd put it up here since I may want to refer to it in the future.

Both nature and environment are used to refer primarily to ecological systems. However, their broader applications – in phrases like “human nature” and “social environment” -- indicate that they reflect larger views of the relationship between the self and the other.

Nature is that which stands outside the sphere of human agency. The archetype of Nature is the Newtonian worldview, in which things operate according to fixed rules, ordained either by God or by the laws of physics, chemistry, etc. Nature is the world deprived of the agency and will that it had in an animist or pagan system (religious visions of Nature draw on a Judeo-Christian God whose free agency has been stunted by Neoplatonic concepts of him as the ultimate necessary being). In contrast, humans experience their own existence as characterized by free will and agency (at least, enough people with enough power experience enough agency to establish this as the commonsense understanding in the modern west). Nature provides a fixed substrate upon which human action takes place. Because Nature can, on its own, be no other way than it is, it acquires normative force. Human agency, on the other hand, is dangerously open to making mistakes, which can damage the Natural order (see, for example, the Christian idea that we all inevitably sin and fall short of the glory of God).

The idea of environment results from a breaking down of the separation between human agency and natural determinism, on both technical and intellectual levels. Technologically, we have a growing power to inject human agency into more and more of the workings of nature. Intellectually, we have come to see how ideas of what constitutes Nature are socially constructed, particularly ideas about “human nature.” The power to change nature (both its actuality and its manifestation through our understanding of it), not just accept it as given by external forces, forces us to be reflexive about it, questioning what meaning we will make of it (the environment’s existence precedes its essence, so to speak). The word “environment” was originally a synonym for “surroundings,” and thus conveys the idea of a context that activity is wrapped up in. Taken too far, the idea of environment saps its referent of the remainder of Nature, putting all control into the hands of human agents. This has led some to propose giving the environment back not only the quasi-agency that comes from determination by outside laws, but also actual agency, turning the environment into a Mother Earth that can bite back.


Finnish wisdom for the day

... the English are of course free to create a language lacking logic and consistency, but I consider myself equally free to mutilate it at my own risk.

-- Henri Hakkarainen


It just occurred to me that I never blogged my cartoon and commentary from last week's Scarlet. So here we go:

"The Second Coming Of Clinton", with its cartoon.

Go and make disciples of all worlds

E.T. And God

The discovery of alien superbeings might not be so corrosive to religion if human beings could still claim special spiritual status. After all, religion is concerned primarily with people's relationship to God, rather than with their biological or intellectual qualities. It is possible to imagine alien beings who are smarter and wiser than we are but who are spiritually inferior, or just plain evil. However, it is more likely that any civilization that had surpassed us scientifically would have improved on our level of moral development, too. One may even speculate that an advanced alien society would sooner or later find some way to genetically eliminate evil behavior, resulting in a race of saintly beings.

Suppose, then, that E.T. is far ahead of us not only scientifically and technologically but spiritually, too. Where does that leave mankind's presumed special relationship with God? This conundrum poses a particular difficulty for Christians, because of the unique nature of the Incarnation. Of all the world's major religions, Christianity is the most species-specific. Jesus Christ was humanity's savior and redeemer. He did not die for the dolphins or the gorillas, and certainly not for the proverbial little green men. But what of deeply spiritual aliens? Are they not to be saved? Can we contemplate a universe that contains perhaps a trillion worlds of saintly beings, but in which the only beings eligible for salvation inhabit a planet where murder, rape, and other evils remain rife?

If aliens have engineered themselves not to sin, I don't think that makes them more spiritually advanced than humans, from a traditional Christian perspective. Christian spirituality is rooted in the fact of free will -- that we must choose to do good, and that our good works are meaningful because we could have chosen evil. Aliens who are incapable of sin may be happier and healthier, but spiritually they're just machines.

My first reaction to this article was that finding extraterrestrials shouldn't be any more of a problem for Christianity than discovering new continents on Earth was. Granted, the discovery of the Americas and Australia was a major issue, and there were long debates over whether Indians and Aborigines were spiritually human (and many atrocities committed by those who picked the wrong answer). But ultimately, the conclusion was reached that new human populations were just another group to evangelize to. Jesus gave his message to a fairly small group of people, and left it to his followers to spread it across the world. So why not take that one step further, and simply start evangelizing to the aliens?

One problem, which the article hints at in its discussion of panspermia, is the issue of origins. In a traditional Christian framework, Jesus' message is predicated on Adam and Eve's sin. Indians and Aborigines needed to be preached to because they, like Europeans, were descendants of Adam and Eve and thus shared in that sinful heritage. Aliens, presumably, are not descended from Adam and Eve. This suggests that the Christian message might be irrelevant to them -- Jesus was only sent to fix the original sin that occurred on Earth.

On the other hand, wouldn't the aliens have their own original sin? If they didn't, presumably they'd still be happily hanging out in their extraterrestrial Garden of Eden, with no reason to be contacting other worlds. If they did, that raises the question of whether God is trying to save them. Perhaps Jesus' message is for anyone affected by any original sin, whether committed by Adam or by Adzork-5, returning us to the "preach to the cosmos" idea (a religious justification for more NASA spending). Alternately, they could have their own saviors, which is potentially problematic for the "God's only son" bit. However, it seems as easy to stick in a "... that came to earth" after "God's only son" as it is to reconcile the creation story with evolution and geology. It's also possible that aliens could have been created as sinless spiritual machines (perhaps able to do bad, but not to sin, like Earthly animals) in the first place, so salvation was never an issue.

From my personal perspective, aliens are not a problem. I take a particularistic view of Christianity -- that it can be good for Christians, but need not be the one and only religion. Since I'm not requiring the conversion even of all Earthlings, adding aliens to the mix doesn't present any new quandaries.


Scientists turned pundits

I'm writing a personal statement for an application for an NSF grant, in which I talk about my commentaries and blogging as an important adjunct to my academic pursuits (communicating with the public and so forth). I took a break to surf the web, and I happened to run across an apropos post by Brian Leiter. He's complaining about how nearly all pundits are former journalists:

Why not former scientists? sociologists? psychologists? philosophers? even political scientists? Who--other than journalists, that is--would think years of being a journalist qualifies you to have substantial opinions about the affairs of the world?

This phenomenon is part of what made me hesitant to pursue journalism. What I really want to do is punditry (and layout), but I wasn't sure I was prepared to pay my dues as a reporter for years before I could get the promotion (if I even did get it, since I'm not that great a reporter). I can understand the requirement if you see it as a choice between reporters-turned-pundits and rookies-turned-pundits. Longtime reporters presumably have more experience in the worlds they're writing about, which they can draw on as a sort of expertise in commenting. As bad as Tom Friedman is, I imagine the opinions he would have written before spending years as a Middle East correspondent would be worse. So in this respect, it's just an issue of narrow horizons.

The other thing that reporting experience gets you, which other sources of expertise don't, is writing skills -- specifically, "writing so that normal people can read it" skills. The badness of academic writing can certainly be overestimated, especially when academics write outside the confines of academic formats (see, for example, the guys at Crooked Timber), but I've edited enough faculty opinion columns to know some of them should stick to Journal of Climate. Between the myth and the reality of poor academic writing, editors probably figure that their best bet is people whose ability to write a pithy 700 words is proven.

Nevertheless, Brian is right that the public debate would benefit from more people with other relevant experience (not necessarily limited to academic expertise) being given a forum for punditry. Perhaps we can hope that the success of scholar-blogs will lead to more people following in Matthew Yglesias's footsteps from blogosphere to dead-trees-sphere. Academia would benefit as well. This is perhaps less true for, say, theoretical physics, but in disciplines such as risk/hazards, the days of top-down expert management are over. And the days of communicating to the public and gaining their consent are hopefully ending. It's necessary today for researchers to be engaged with non-specialists as a leader among equals, learning as much from lay people as they learn from the scientist. This kind of participatory research has been implemented widely in the data-gathering stage. But it ought to go further, with public engagement a constant responsibility of a good researcher. And one way to do that is to be a pundit.

So my final response to Leiter would be: what do you mean former scientists? We need current scientists in the ranks of the pundits.

UPDATE: A further factor is the question of how many scientists want to be pundits. Unfortunately, non-academic writing does little for you professionally if you're an academic, so there's motivation not to get involved in inefficient commitments. If I was a better journalist or scientist, I'd probably call up some editors and find out how they go about searching for and selecting new pundits, so that I'd have actual data.


4.3 million acres

I went to Google to try to find more information about the following interesting facts from a Washington Post letter to the editor:

From 1992 to 2001, 91 national forests had a cash-flow loss of $2.95 billion from logging 4.3 million acres to cut 31.8 billion board feet. That's a loss of $685 an acre.

On the other hand, 17 forests turned a profit of $15 per acre or $1.72 per thousand board feet. While that's not a huge profit, it at least isn't a drain on taxpayers.

I figured one way to do it (since the letter didn't say where those facts came from) was to search some of the numbers. So I tried "4.3 million acres." I wasn't able to find the source of the letter's 4.3 million acres, but I did find out that there are 4.3 million acres of (among other things):

4.3 million acres is such a versatile figure. I'll have to remember it in the future.

UPDATE: A more general search for information about proftability of logging public lands has provided plenty of reports that support the letter's general conclusion -- that logging is a money-loser for the National Parks (as well as contributing to fire danger). It looks like the logging industry could use a dose of actual capitalism (i.e. having to make ends meet), rather than continuing to subsist on the public dole.

The pristine myth

Amazon Was Settled Before Columbus' Time

The Amazon was densely populated before Christopher Columbus' arrival in the New World, confirms new evidence unearthed in Brazil1. The finds lay to rest the notion that the region was pristine forest when the explorer landed in 1492.

Support had been growing among archaeologists for the idea that parts of pre-Columbian Amazonia had sophisticated settlements, but hard evidence was lacking.

Now Michael Heckenberger, of the University of Florida in Gainesville, and his colleagues have excavated and mapped 19 villages, roads, trenches, bridges, agriculture, open parklands and working forests in the Upper Xingu region of central Brazil. "The folks who lived there were clearly not simple," says Heckenberger.

... Alhough there was probably some untouched forest in the region, Heckenberger reckons that most was managed by the inhabitants and kept for cultural and symbolic, rather than economic, reasons. "It was probably very important to them just as Central Park is important to New Yorkers," he says.

-- via Cronaca

This doesn't particularly surprise me, since Bill Denevan and Claude Levi-Strauss have been saying similar things for years. The use of GIS to establish a landscape pattern for this civilization is quite interesting. But what really struck me was the comment about the people deliberately maintaining pristine patches. It's so similar to modern environmentalism (I think National Parks would be a better analogy than Central Park) that I'm a little suspicious of how much it's a projection of our modern attitudes and practices onto this other civilization.

Polly want a savior

Faith Keeps Parrot Owner's Hopes Alive

A Medicine Hat man puts his faith in the Lord that he'll seeing his prized African parrot - who tells sinners to repent - one more time.

... "I taught him to tell people to 'turn off your TV and open up your Bible,' " said Doell, who says he is a born-again Christian. "He confronts people about their soul and where they're going to spend eternity. He preaches the same messages as Billy Graham. He says 'repent before it's too late because you're one heartbeat from heaven or hell.' "

-- via The Right Christians

We'll get the obvious joke out of the way first: It says something about the intellectual quality of fire-and-brimstone preaching that even a parrot can do it.

But on a deeper level, I think there is something deliberately parrot-like, and unsettling, about conservative Christianity. The parrot in this story is just a vessel for his owner's project of preaching the gospel. The parrot doesn't have to think about what the message is, because his owner puts the words in his beak. Similarly, in conservative Christianity the goal is to become simply a vessel for God. Complete surrender to God's power is the believer's final act, because it negates the believer's capacity for further action by putting God in charge.

A good illustration of this comes in the early chapters of Exodus. The thing that's always struck me about the story of the plagues of Egypt is how God takes over not just Moses and Aaron, but also the Pharaoh. Early on, the Pharaoh is ready to let the Israelites go. But God hardens his heart, deliberately making the task of winning freedom harder for the Israelites. Everyone becomes a marionette in God's puppet show.

On the other hand, neither the Pharaoh, nor the parrot (so far as I can tell, though I'm no expert in animal psychology), willfully gave up control. God forcibly took over the Pharaoh's mind. This seems to suggest that if God wanted us to be merely passive tools of his will, he wouldn't need our permission. This would cut out the long and difficult Christian struggle to set aside individual human desires to let God fill you. If you had skills God could use, he'd just come and take them. Note the contrast to what happened to Moses. God obviously thought Moses was the best man for the job. But God didn't just possess Moses. He gave in to Moses' complaints about being a poor public speaker and enlisted Aaron's help. This suggests that God wants his will done in partnership with independently thinking people. Certainly God did a lot of the work for Moses and Aaron, writing the script for them to say and preparing their miracles. But he presented it as "I'll help you out if you go do it," not "if you become my host body, I'll do it for you."

To go beyond Exodus, I think the problem with surrendering to God is that God's will underdetermines our selection of a course of action. There isn't one perfectly Godly way to act, and others that are not. God's universality only works when it's in cooperation with our particular positionality.


Heightening the contradictions

There's been a lot of talk lately about Jacob Levy's latest article, which revisits the Wall Street Journal's infamous "Lucky Duckies" editorial. The Journal's editors proposed to raise taxes on the poor, thus turning them into tax-hating Republicans. Levy suggests that the general form of this argument -- "we need to subject everybody to the same rules (e.g. high taxes), so that we don't have the system run by people who aren't personally affected by the rules they make (e.g. poor, non-tax-paying voters)" -- shows up in other contexts, often offered by the left. His first and clearest example is proposals to reinstate the draft, so that the Presidents and Congress members who make the decision to go to war have to worry about their own sons being called off to fight. This proposal is a response to the feeling that the government can be cavalier about starting wars because they and their families won't bear the costs, just as the poor are expected (by the logic of "Lucky Duckies") to be cavalier about raising taxes on the rich because they won't have to pay another cent.

What's interesting about these two examples (but not all of Levy's examples, such as making the king subject to the law of the land) is the motivation that the change is supposed to give the person who is brought into the system. The Wall Street Journal didn't believe that high taxes are just fine, so long as the poor people who vote for them have to share in paying for them, and the people who propose the draft don't think that going to war is fine, so long as Senators are willing to send their own sons to fight. The purpose in both cases is to make the affected parties hate the system, turning Lucky Duckies into tax-cutters and belligerent elected officials into pacifists.

Put that way, the logic of these proposals resembles the Leninist notion of "heightening the contradictions." HtC proposes that a revolutionary group would oppose reforms that move society in the right direction, because reform dissipates people's anger at the system. The Fordist economy that the industrialized world had after World War II is a case in point -- by granting workers comfortable wages, business owners took away much of their motivation to join radical communist movements that would try to overthrow capitalism. Instead, HtC proposes that we make the system so burdensome that its victims eventually explode in a revolutionary backlash.

"Lucky Duckies" is, in essence, a proposal to heighten the contradictions of the taxation system for the poor. By temporarily going in the wrong direction -- toward high taxes -- we could motivate the masses to backing a revolution that would wipe out everyone's taxes. Similarly, if elected officials have to contemplate their own sons dying in battle, they would rebel against the use of military force (the parallels are clearer if you think of this happening when a war is going on, rather than while the government is deciding whether to start a new war).

The aesthetics of abortion

Ampersand points to a couple posts (part 3 coming soon) by Jeremy of Refference about using aesthetic reasoning as a basis for resolving political disputes. The first post uses a parable about a man and woman discussing their opinions of TV and abortion to show that aesthetic agreement is easier to come by. In the second post, he moves on to show how aesthetics (which he says we all agree on at some basic level) can provide a basis for agreement:

Neither side, with the exception of a small minority, favors abortions. I know almost no-one who campaigns for more abortions. Considered aesthetically, and I mean this seriously, there is an aesthetic argument against abortion. Abortions are ugly. This argument doesn't carry the moral force of the arguments against abortion or for a woman's control of her person and her privacy, but it still might guide policy. In fact, it is able to guide policy precisely because it lacks that moral force. It merely is a judgement of taste, not of condemnation, or one which requires absolute action.

What if the left and the right were committed to attempting to reduce the number of abortions, not out of moral fervor, for their moral ends are surely different, but out of a shared aesthetic sensibility? The different set of criteria over policy might enable a shift in consensus that moves towards a shared goal, rather than morally opposed and intractable positions.

This sounds, at first, pretty good. In fact, I wrote an article for The Maroon-News arguing something very similar -- that both the pro-life and pro-choice forces could move forward if they cooperated in making it so that women wouldn't have any use for abortions in the first place rather than engaging in a war of attrition over whether those who do have a use for abortions should be able to get them. Naive? Probably. But it has the same general outlines as Jeremy's argument, with one exception: I didn't need to resort to the aesthetic realm. In my article, the intersection of political goals was enough without depending on agreement that abortion is ugly (whatever that even means). On top of that, Jeremy argued in his first post that the reason aesthetic agreements are more tractable is because aesthetic judgements are not considered to be as important, so we're willing to give ground (which seems more or less true, in that the most divisive aesthetic disagreements come about when the participants take their opinions very seriously). So why would anyone agree to set aside their moral principles in order to make a decision based upon what is billed as a more trivial standard?

The other problem is that agreement as to ends doesn't mean there's any agreement about means. I'm sure most people would agree that poverty is ugly, as well as morally and politically undesirable. But that doesn't change the fact that some of us believe that progressive taxation and social programs will eliminate poverty, while others believe that deregulation of business and old fashioned hard work will do the trick. And I doubt that we can come to any easy agreement about whether progressive taxation is "ugly" or not.


Geography will swell your brain

As Autumn Approaches, This Chickadee's Brain Begins To Expand

In the fall, as the chickadee is gathering and storing seeds, [Lehigh University biologist Colin] Saldanha says, its hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for spatial organization and memory in many vertebrates, expands in volume by approximately 30 percent by adding new nerve cells. In songbirds, the hippocampus is located on the dorsal surface of the forebrain right beneath the skull. In mammals, the hippocampus is located beneath the cortex.

In the spring, when its feats of memory are needed less, the chickadee's hippocampus shrinks back to its normal size, Saldanha says.

-- via Nature is Profligate

Clark feints

The Hamster posts an excerpt from finally-an-official-candidate Wesley Clark's "100 year vision," which included this bit about the environment:

Environmentally, it means that we must do more to protect our natural resources, enabling us to extend their economic value indefinitely in through wise policies of extracting natural resources that protect the beauty and diversity of our American ecosystems – our seacoasts, mountains, wetlands, rain forests, alpine meadows, original timberlands and open prairies. We will have to balance carefully the short term needs for commercial exploitation with longer term value of the natural gifts our country has received.

The beginning of this bit sounds like it's coming from a conservationist/resources point of view, perhaps even pointing toward an ecosystem services vision. But he quickly shifts into a typical destructive economic use versus preserving natural beauty paradigm. This probably says more about me than it does about Clark -- I want to hear candidates proposing an anthropocentric environmentalism, so I read it into the beginning of his statement. That sort of thing has been the order of the day ever since Clark's name was floated as a possible candidate. Because he's never run for elected office, it's easy for people to read the parameters of their ideal candidate onto the biographical framework Clark gives them. There will probably be some rude awakenings over the next few months, even as he gathers in support from people who hadn't taken much notice of his hypothetical candidacy.


Palmerton progress

Prairie Grasses Appear To Be Working On Blue Mountain

Last year the Wildlife Information Center purchased approximately 756 acre parcel of land between the Appalachian Trail and the soon-to-be-constructed Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor Trail along a portion of the Blue Mountain between Washington Township and the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Because approximately 400 acres of the land was denuded by historic zinc smelting operations in Palmerton, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has ordered that Viacom, Inc., one of the parties responsible for the damage, pay for the mountain's revegetation.

This past spring, Frank & West Environmental Engineers, Inc., an engineering firm hired by Viacom, seeded 54 test plots along a portion of the refuge's trails with equal amounts of warm season prairie grasses and varying amounts of fertilizer and soil amendment.

Maybe someday I won't be able to tell people where I live by saying they should watch for the bare section of mountain as they drive along the Turnpike.


Vacation on the farm

Agritourism Is Booming

... They call it agritourism — farmers, ranchers and winemakers offering the public a chance to experience not just their products, but their way of life — albeit an often cleaner version that focuses more on fun than drudgery.

... "People enjoy learning and experiencing what it's like to be part of America's breadbasket," said Diana Thompson, director of Ohio's Historic West, an organization of 10 west-central Ohio counties that promotes cultural and heritage tourism. "There's some kind of Americana feel. That has become more prevalent, certainly in our region."

The "Americana" angle is interesting. There's a certain national mythology that holds that farmers are the "real" Americans. It surfaces in politics when Republicans claim to represent the agricultural "heartland," dismissing Democrats as representatives of coastal urbanites. It's a factor in the farm subsidy program, which bills itself as a way to aid the romanticized family farm. It's also similar to the question of preserving traditional indigenous cultures through tourism, earning your income through display of your livelihood rather than directly through that livelihood.

Certainly one could spin this into a "modern people are realizing that they're too out of touch with the environment" thing. But I think it's more complex than that. While farmers may be the real Americans, there's a counter-mythology that says they're unsophisticated and boring hicks. People in rural areas are often fascinated by the city. The presence of farms was the first proof that Colgate students cited to show that "there's nothing to do" in Hamilton. And agritourism is a pretty sanitized version of farming. Petting a cow is nothing like having to get up at dawn and milk it every day; finding your way through a cornfield is nothing like planting a field and praying that it isn't killed by drought or bugs before harvest time. Similarly, going into the city for a baseball game or to go club-hopping is nothing like living in the ghetto, breathing smog every day and wondering if you're going to get shot. Ultimately, it seems to all be a "the grass is greener (and the neon lights are brighter) on the other side of the fence" thing.

Danny Boy, you're old enough to wear your daddy's toenail polish ...

Only 3 copies of John Mars' debut album left at! Order quick, before they're gone!

Stressed-out Savages

Jungle Dwelling Is More Stressful Life

The indigenous Mangyan people of the Mindoro Island in the Phillipines live a traditional and primitive life on the edge of the tropical jungle. Norwegian researchers have now found that the Mangyan way of life produces the same types of stress that modern technological living does - only more so.

... Like present-day affluent Norwegians, the most common physical complaints were muscle and skeletal pains. But while 82.1 percent of Norwegians answered that they have had such problems in the course of the past 30 days, 100 percent of the Mindoro felt the same.

... A basic difference between the two varying cultures is that the Mindoro do not view their pains as illnesses, but rather as a normal state of affairs.

-- via Foreign Dispatches

The obvious conclusion is that this study supports the "nasty, brutish, and short" theory of hunter-gatherer life. But I'm not so sure (the usual caveats about critiquing -- or buying into -- a study based only on a newspaper report apply). As far as I can tell, they based their measure of how often a person experiences pain on self-reporting. This opens the study up to cross-cultural subjective differences in what makes pain bad enough to remember and bad enough to bring up when asked. We rarely feel perfect, and there's no obvious point at which something is bad enough to count. So the two culture's attitudes toward pain may affect things. Norwegians see pain as an aberration, which could lead them to deny little pains, as they would be signs of weakness (it could also cause them to have exceptionally high, even perfectionist, standards for health and thus overestimate their pain -- this is something that would have to be established by further empirical work*). Conversely, It's plausible that the Mindoro attitude that pain is part of life may lead them to assume that they felt pain, in the absence of a memory that they definitely did not, or simply to remember actual pains more.

But even if we take their measures of pain frequency as accurate, that doesn't say anything about the pain's impact. The third paragraph I quoted above seems to indicate that the Mindoro have a healthier attitude toward pain -- a sort of "that's how life is, so I'll just roll with the punches" sort of thing. On the other hand, Norwegians see pain as a sort of unjust aberrant badness. This suggests that, when the Norwegians do experience pain, they don't handle it as well. It may spill over into their interpersonal relationships in negative ways, for example. I don't know if this speculation is true -- the report didn't cover these questions -- but it certainly seems possible.

What's really surprising here is that the same ailments are common among both the Mindoro and Norwegians. One would think that such different lifestyles would create different stresses on the body. Perhaps a biological predisposition to weakness in certain areas overrides anything culture can do. Or perhaps the psychosomatic expression of stress follows the same channels, regardless of what body parts are actually being hurt. Or perhaps our biological proclivities have shaped our culture, so that we design our environments in ways that suit our bodies (i.e., the stress ratios that both cultures experience are the optimum, and any other distribution of stress between body parts would result in more total stress).

*The researchers say something similar to this toward the end of the article, but the quotes sound like they're talking beyond the bounds of what the research actually demonstrated, to try to relate it to practical concerns.


Farms vs. wilderness

(You're getting four new posts all at once, because the previous posts were still in draft form when I wrote this one, so I coudn't publish until they were all ready.)

The Cancún Delusion

... The desire of many on the left to preserve traditional small-scale agriculture in the third world is also on a collision course with the goal of preserving the last remnants of global wilderness. High-tech agriculture wastes fossil fuels — but it spares land, by growing more food on less acreage. Genetically modified crops promise to do the same. Premodern third world agriculture doesn't rely on chemicals or genetically modified crops. But it takes far more land to grow the same crop by traditional methods than it does by means of industrial farming. The earth's remaining wilderness would be in even greater danger if the opening of northern markets were to create a financial incentive for developing nations to replace forests, savannas and wetlands with land-wasting peasant farms.

These are the alternatives, then. If third world agriculture is industrialized, then much third world wilderness will be saved from the plow. But most farmers will be forced off the farm, and therefore may not profit from the access of southern agricultural exporters to northern markets. If, on the other hand, third world agriculture is not industrialized, then the effort to enrich developing countries by means of exports from labor-intensive farms will inspire a vast expansion of peasant farm acreage — at the expense of the environment.

The argument here rests on seeing "the environment" as synonymous with "wilderness." Lind (the author) portrays industrial farming as a buffalo commons sort of solution, with the impacts of human use concentrated in a smaller area of farms, leaving more space wild. Standard industrial agriculture, with its reliance on chemicals and monocropping, does create such environmental sacrifice zones. However, he overlooks the ecological value of traditional farming methods. Multiple-crop strategies (such as shade-grown coffee) allow farmland to be shared with organisms other than crops. Thus, the adverse environmental impact of traditional farming can be less than that of industrial farming, either per unit of land or per unit of output. I don't mean to suggest that traditional farmers are "angels in the ecosystem" -- they can mismanage their land, often in response to the pressure of outside political and economic forces. But you can't estimate environmental impact by simply looking at acreage.

Lind's point about subsidy reduction hurting small farmers by encouraging industrialization of agriculture is an important caution, though not one that I think totally undermines the case for subsidy reduction (neither does Lind, though others do). There's scope for a degree of trickle-down if industrialized agriculture boosts third world economies -- consider that the urban poor in the US are better off than their counterparts in the third world (which is what displaced small farmers would become) because of the combination of successful businesses to tax and democratic government to use those taxes wisely. More interestingly, Lind rightly makes the point that subsidies should be ended if for no other reason than that the first world shouldn't be subsidizing giant agribusiness companies, who are the recipients of most subsidies (not the small farmers that the subsidies purportedly help). It seems that an end to subsidies would reduce these corporations' power, thus weakening their hand vis-a-vis small third world farmers, allowing those farmers to strike better deals. Also, the main stumbling block to ending farm subsidies is the power of the agribusiness lobby. So subsidies would only be able to be ended in a climate of reduced political clout for these companies, which would in turn also reduce their power.


A self-hating archaeologist?

As I was thinking through possible charities to name in my response to question 5 in the previous post, I considered mentioning some archaeological/historical heritage cause, like the Smithsonian or the Dayton Natural History Society (where I worked this summer). Certainly I value those things a lot, and I'm grateful that the Oneida Nation and the Wallace Foundation have invested part of their resources in the archaeology programs that I've been part of. And as I wrote earlier, people often underestimate the importance of heritage. Yet on the other hand, I am often distressed by the overimportance that people involved with heritage place on their own work -- things like the inflated claims about the scientific value of human remains. In the end, it was too hard to put excavating an 800-year-old village above, say, feeding starving people.

Yet I didn't list something like Oxfam or even my local soup kitchen. The two examples I chose are, like archaeology, things that hit a personal note for me -- Mr. Holland's Opus because of the importance of music to my school career, and the ACLU because of my interest in politics and in particular in first amendment issues. Perhaps the difference here is that both of those groups are doing something for the oppressed, either kids in underfunded schools or people unjustly deprived of rights. It's hard to see archaeologists as being particularly oppressed (indeed, we take plenty of flak for being oppressors).

Ultimately, I think needs can't be met in strict order of importance. Archaeological material won't just sit there waiting until we end poverty -- it will be gone, damaged by either nature or humans. So while we should certainly emphasize the most urgent needs, we have to work at least a little on everything. This greatly complicates the question, because instead of simply determining which cause is the most important, we must determine which cause is proportionally most underfunded. I wonder how well I could trust my own interests -- now or as cultivated by greater study of the world -- to serve as a guide to that, since an objective empirical assessment would consume far too much time and resources (time and resources that could be dedicated to a better cause, even if their distribution is not optimal).

Of course, this all assumes I'm making a fixed level of charitable donation, and need only decide the distribution equation. That works fine in the example at hand, since Dave Pollard hypothetically gave me a million dollars to spend. But it's trickier in the real world, where the nature of the cause can alter whether I think I can afford to give. For better or worse, it would be much easier for me to turn down a donation request from, say, the school soccer team than from the marching band, even though the latter is probably not a much more deserving cause from an objective point of view.

Five questions

I've signed on to play Dave Pollard's "five questions" game.

1. What one thing do you most hope to be remembered for after you die?
I don't much mind if my name is remembered by anyone who didn't know me personally. For those who did, I would hope that it's something in the quality of my character, such as resourcefulness or insightfulness. I hope to leave a mark on the larger world, hopefully a practically successful shift in how society interacts with its environment. This needn't be some grand new environmental ethic -- I'd be happy with a concrete contribution to one element of the human-nature problem, such as a better way to think about and do fire management. I'd like to be someone who can reach a broad audience, not just an academic or managerial circle. If I make such a contribution, it's probable that I'd be remembered as the originator of it, but being remembered is a side-effect, rather than a goal in itself.

2. What do you think is the single greatest threat to the survival of the world today, and what do you think is the greatest hope?
This depends on what we mean by "survival of the world." Short of an all-out nuclear war (which I don't see as terribly likely) or one of those asteroids that we keep hearing about, I can't imagine the human race being totally wiped out. Civilization as we know it may be brought down in a destructive and sudden way by ecological degradation. But what I worry most about is the fact that so many of the world's problems don't threaten its survival. When problems iminently threaten the survival of the world (or a part of it), people are kicked into action. But many injustices don't, allowing us to limp along, pretending things are ok. We'll be battling many of the same root problems -- ignorance, greed, etc. -- forever, because they're never catastrophically bad enough for natural selection to weed them out of our genomes and cultures. All that being said, I think the greatest problem we face at the moment is learning how to live within our environmental means.

The greatest hope I think lies in the free flow of information. This means more than just a naive sort of "if only people knew the truth" sort of thing. Access to information is empowering for those who are actively working to change things.

3. What single life lesson do you think is most important for young people to learn?
I think one of the most important skills is the ability to be a critical participant in various aspects of life. It's too easy to accept the status quo, either because you haven't examined it closely or because you're fatalistic about it. Certainly, though, some elements of the status quo are all right, and fatalism can be a useful defense mechanism to avoid being swamped by despair. The other direction is problematic as well -- the temptation to stand outside of something and decry it. I think being able to find a balance between solidarity and rejectionism is crucial. I wrote about this sort of thing with respect to my own position as a pro-gay Boy Scout. Another great concrete sign of hope for me is when I see people doing just this -- for example, using capitalism's own tools to evolve it in a more just direction.

4. Of all the people alive today, who do you think would make the best President of the US? Why?
Probably someone I've never heard of -- even just sticking to politicians, there are thousands of people out there whose positions and character I've never reviewed. I'd be hesitant to go for someone who hasn't had at least a little political experience, since politics involves a lot of skills that can't always be shown in a non-political situation (though I wouldn't hesitate to nominate someone like Kevin Drum as a policy advisor to someone with more proven campaign charisma). Limiting myself to people I'm familiar with, it's still difficult to say. Policy-wise, I think Al Gore was more or less right on the money, though he's damaged goods after the 2000 debacle. About the best I can do is to say that, of the people actually trying to become president next year, I'm cautiously supportive of Howard Dean.

5. If you had a million dollars, what would you spend it on?
I'd start with the obvious -- my college loans (which are not all that big -- Colgate was very generous to me), and my brother's. I'm not sure how I could do that for my two siblings who haven't started college yet, but I'd seek financial advice and work something out. I'm tempted to say I'd put some toward my dissertation research expenses, but on the other hand I think the grant-writing process would be good practice, since next time I need money for research I won't have a bonus million dollars or the mentoring of experienced faculty. I'd splurge on some computer stuff, like a better monitor, a zip drive, and Photoshop. And whatever's left (no idea how much that would be, since I don't know what kind of loans my siblings have), I'd give to charity. What charity, I'm not sure -- maybe The Maroon-News, maybe the Mr. Holland's Opus Foundation, maybe the ACLU, maybe something else. I have enough trouble thinking up things as suggestions for birthday and Christmas presents, so I can't imagine trying to spend a million dollars. Most of the stuff I really want is pretty hard to buy (though I suppose I could set aside a little for, say, piano lessons).

If any of you would like to participate, here are the rules:
1. Leave me an email, saying you want to be interviewed.
2. I will respond; I’ll ask you five questions (I'll try to make them different from Dave's questions to me, but since those questions were so broad [presumably a function of him not knowing me very well], feel free to offer your answers to those as well).
3. You’ll update your website with my five questions, and your five answers.
4. You’ll include this explanation, and acknowledge me as the interviewer.
5. You’ll ask other people five questions when they want to be interviewed.

Burning Pennsylvania

Authority Wavers On Sale Of Land

After a three-year courtship with the Nature Conservancy, the Bethlehem Authority is having cold feet over a multimillion-dollar deal to sell the environmental group a 10,000-acre easement on the authority's Poconos watershed.

... The rare groupings of plants are shrinking — the land once measured 15,000 acres and is now at 3,000. The conservancy had proposed doing controlled burns — a method conservationists use to allow a forest to regenerate rare fauna. That method came under scrutiny three years ago when a burn in New Mexico got out of control and ignited a raging forest fire.

If the easement goes through, solicitor James Broughal said, he fears the authority would be liable if a burn got out of control because the authority still owns the land.

It's easy to think of ecologically necessary wildfire as something that only happens out west or in Australia, but here we've got the potential for some nearly in my own backyard. It's even the focus of the Conservancy's work in the area . The cynical side of me wonders if the controlled burn liability issue is an excuse for another concern -- perhaps the controversy over the Conservancy's higher-ups abusing their power and wealth. Granted, I can't make an independent judgement about whether the authority would be liable for an out-of-control burn (I wouldn't even know where to start), or about the need for someone to be burning the land in question eventually. But my red flag always goes up when someone uses a procedural objection like this, as they're often (though not always) cover for substantive objections that the objector thinks won't fly. So really, all I have to say is "neat, fire ecology in Pennsylvania."

Fair trade fallacies

Poor Substitutes

Fair trade activists aim to change that and get the story of how goods are made to consumers. So they certify foods as "organic" or "fairly traded" and forests as "sustainably managed." It turns out that most "fairly traded" items are low value commodities like coffee, tea, cocoa, and sugar.

In theory, there is nothing wrong with enticing consumers with such information, so long as such certifications are private and voluntary. But positive claims that a product is fairly traded can easily be interpreted as saying that competing products are unfairly traded. And what subjective standards should apply? For example, should purchasers be allowed to discriminate in favor of products "Made in America" on the basis that US labor laws are allegedly better than those of Russia or Brazil?

... The low prices in the market place are signaling to the poor producers that they should get out of growing low value commodities and produce something more valuable. The fair traders are also telling the poor producers that they can maintain their traditional ways of life.

The claim that fair trade labels implicitly badmouth non-fair-trade products is a reprisal of Monsanto's similar argument against labeling products as non-hormone. As in that case, the logic being used would equally ban any positive statements about a product.

The comment about the dangers of allowing customers to discriminate based on production process is strange coming from a libertarian magazine like Reason. Customer choice is the engine that makes the market work. So I'm not sure how restricting consumer access to information for the benefit of producers helps society. When you buy a product, you're buying everything the company produces -- both the stuff in the box and the externalities of the production process. So buying a product based on the "allegedly better" labor laws of the producing country is no different from buying it based on the "allegedly better" health benefits of the artificial sweetener in the product.

The argument about free trade distorting price signals also seems off base. It could apply if prices were being raised by fiat -- if, for example, a country mandated a certain minimum "socially just" price to be paid to coffee growers. In that case, the price being paid would not match the value of the product (though the discrepancy could be justified by other factors). However, what fair trade does is raise the value of the product. The buyers and consumers are willing to pay more for the product because of the "externalities" that are bundled with it, just like the value of the product would be raised if buyers decided they were willing to pay more for a higher-quality product. So instead of low prices for, say, ordinary coffee pushing farmers into higher-paying cocaine, it has pushed them into higher-paying fair trade coffee.


Paging Dr. Multilateral

Here's my comic from this week's issue of The Scarlet:

I had trouble getting the Iraqi guy to look properly injured, in part because I drew the comic so small (nearly print size).

My commentary "Bush's Big Government Straw Man, with its comic, is also up. The topic is misleading rhetoric about recent environmental policy.


The benefits of repatriation

No Bones About It

... Returning [human] remains is presented as a way of making amends for the past sufferings of indigenous communities. Manchester Museum director Tristram Besterman said: 'By returning these remains now we hope to contribute to ending the sense of outrage and dispossession felt by Australian Aborigines today.' Receiving the bones, an Aboriginal representative said: 'The torment is ended, we now put an end to the torment.'

But in fact, repatriation masks the real and present remnants of colonialism in countries like America and Australia. Indigenous communities do face huge problems of poverty and marginalisation, which can only be rectified with practical measures like increased investment and improved services. Yet these problems are laid at the door of The Bones. Aboriginal rights campaigner Rodney Dillon told a Museums Association annual conference that 'People [in aboriginal communities] are walking around with their heads down because ancestors are not where they are supposed to be'.

Rather than improved rights and living conditions, Native communities are being offered spiritual communion with the bones of their relatives. This can't be a fair exchange.

-- via Butterflies and Wheels

This article starts off with all the usual stuff about all the vitally important information that society will lose if remains are repatriated. Apparently the author knows more about science than the majority of people who work in the area, since she reports that museum curators are distressingly friendly to repatriation. She worries that museums' role as collectors is threatened by repatriation, as if museums have nothing else in their collections except unjustly acquired skeletons. But it's the end of the article -- quoted above -- that I find most interesting.

First, the article underestimates the importance of dignity to people. Those of us in relatively affluent situations tend to overemphasize the importance of basic biological survival needs, and assume that those needs must be met fairly fully before moving on to psychological and social needs. But I'm frequently impressed by the degree of importance that down-and-out people place on dignity and self-respect, sacrificing it only when life itself is at stake. A combination of traditional views as to the importance of the ancestors, and more recent cultural emphases on control of remains as symbolic of native relations with non-natives, has made the remains of their ancestors central to many native people's dignity.

The argument also sets up a false trade-off -- either repatriate bones or give economic and political aid. Just stating it that way should be enough to show the problem. Yes, economic aid is vitally important, in my view more so than repatriation. But it's hard to see how refraining from repatriation would help with economic aid. It's not like the resources used up in repatriation could be so well spent in economic aid, unless we're going to sell remains on the black market and give the proceeds to native communities (which the natives could do themselves). Indeed, one of the main costs of repatriation is taking the inventory of museum holdings to determine what needs to be repatriated -- information that the museum really ought to have regardless of repatriation, and whose absence suggests that claims about the remains' scientific importance are overblown.

I would venture to say that repatriation makes economic aid more effective. The behavior of non-native scientists has been an important element in creating a strong distrust among natives for non-natives and their programs. Repatriation is an easy way to demonstrate good faith and a concern with native values, opinions, and interests. This in turn will make natives more receptive to and cooperative with the kinds of programs that work best for a non-native community helping a native one (that is, programs that engage with the people rather than just throwing money at them). In addition, the social and communication links that repatriation forges can be instrumental in helping get non-native society interested in and informed about the conditions in native communities, which in turn is key to creating the impetus for more substantive aid projects.


Huzzah for the "history" tab

I just spent far too long trying to track down where I read about Bush claiming -- in gross contradiction to the actual facts -- that environmentalists block many forest fuel reduction projects. So now I shall blog the link, so as to be able to find it in the future if I need to: like so.

Oh, the irony!

Lenin Toppled in Kyrgyzstan

Bishkek communists are up in arms over the authorities’ decision to remove a statue of Lenin from the city’s central Alatoo Square.

... On August 19, Kyrgyz deputy Turdakun Usubaliev -- a Communist party leader during Soviet time -- demanded the resignation of the authorities over the decision.

"A government which ignores the view of the population, the constitution and the laws of country doesn't have a right to exist," he said.

It hurts. (Though, granted, it's conceivable that Usubaliev may have been one of the tiny group of truly democratic-minded politicians in the democracy-stifling Soviet and Kyrgyz governments.)


Apologies to anyone unable to read my site the last few days. There was an unanticipated malfunction with (don't ask me to explain the technical details), and it took a little while for user accounts to be reactivated. You'll notice two new posts below this one.

Picking your environmental battles

In the comments to a Chris Bertram post on global warming, paul gibson says:

The environmental movement blew much of its political capital complaining about minor things like pesticide use, which is dwarfed in significance by the potential effects of global warming.

I don't want to minimize the importance of global warming, but I tend to have the opposite reaction -- that issues like pesticide use are better, tactically speaking, for environmentalism than global warming. The crucial point is encapsulated in Bertram's post, which deflates one of those "global warming isn't happening; the scientific consensus is based on bad science" articles. The real consequences of global warming haven't arrived yet. It's not painfully obvious that something is going on. Many other environmental issues, like acid rain or soil erosion, are pretty hard to deny. You can argue that they're the price to be paid for the wonders of lassiez-faire or whatever, but it's hard to pretend the problem isn't happening. But because the real consequences of global warming haven't hit us in a way that makes their connection to the influence of carbon emissions on the environment painfully obvious, people like the author of Bertram's article can claim that environmentalists are worried about a non-issue. This may not convince serious climatologists, but it wins where it counts -- in the court of public opinion, which is the body that shapes both individual and government practices that could alter the climate situation. Anti-environmentalists know this, and I suspect they've contributed to the tendency to narrow environmental issues down to global warming and endangered species -- those are the two issues that a conversation with an anti-environmentalist almost always turns to, and the two issues they draw on in their critiques of environmentalism. It's harder to get lay people worried about human-induced climate change because they can plausibly deny that such a thing occurs.


Making money from the forest

I've tended to be skeptical about the promise of tourism as a way to make the environment profitable without cutting it down and digging it up. It always seemed like it would be too small a revenue stream. But I just ran across this in an old column about the Healthy Forests Initiative:

The economic argument for increased road-building and logging is unfounded. It is contradicted by the U.S. Forest Service's own measure of forests' contributions to the nation's economy. Of the $35 billion yielded in 1999 (the last year for which a comprehensive accounting was published), 77.8 percent came from recreation, fish and wildlife, only 13.7 percent from timber harvest, and the modest remainder from mining and ranching. Roughly the same disproportion existed in the percentages of the 822,000 jobs generated by national forests.


Field Camp

I'm heading out to the geography department Field Camp for the weekend. Blogging should resume Sunday night or Monday.

Gender disparity in higher education

Kevin Drum's recent post on the gender gap in higher education -- more women than men are going to college, and women outperform men academically -- has spawned a long comments thread. The general consensus seems to be that there's a cultural (rather than structural or biological) factor at work here.

One popular explanation is that (to put it in crude terms) men are lazy, caring mostly about drinking and video games, whereas women are disciplined and studious. I don't have access to any actual data on whether this is true (I suspect the stereotype exaggerates the difference, but then the enrollment/achievement gap isn't such a yawning chasm either). But I'll grant for the sake of discussion that it's true.

People have generally been treating this as something obviously bad for men. The assumption is that academic success is a measure of how much a person benefitted from college. But there are other skills that one learns at college, skills that are better learned outside the classroom, often in the much-disparaged world of athletics -- interpersonal skills, teamwork, etc. These kind of skills can often be the most crucial in succeeding in the world outside of college. It's your ability to network, not your A in 19th Century French History, that gets you the job at Goldman-Sachs. Perhaps when men are "slacking off", they're building a different set of skills.

If I'm right, the importance of networking on finding jobs, getting promotions, etc. may be a case of structural sexism. Men certainly do better in the post-college world, and I'm skeptical of how much of that is due to simple outright discrimination. Employers look for employees in ways that make it easier for men to succeed, because the culture and structure of the business world have been created and maintained by people who work in a "male" way (whether they be actual males or not -- one bit of actual evidence I do have is that women and minorities who succeed in business and politics are generally those who think and act in a stereotypically white male way).

This idea that women are good at the official purpose of college, whereas men are good at the social purpose, is a sort of reversal of a stereotype. Men are often considered to be good at abstract formal reasoning, whereas women think relationally and socially. By this stereotype, men ought to be better at formal job-acquisition strategies like sending in resumes in response to official job postings, whereas women ought to be better at finding jobs through networking and connections. And maybe they are -- like I said, I have precious little actual data here.

On a slightly different topic, commenter Aurora offers this bit of pessimism:

Maybe -- shoot, I hope I'm wrong, but maybe -- the old egalitarian dream of man and woman standing shoulder-to-shoulder, eyeball-to-eyeball, sharing all the joys and sorrows of life equally, just can't work because men aren't willing to share prestige. As soon as women achieve a certain degree of success in some field or other, regardless of how male-dominated it used to be, the guys seem to just pick up all their marbles and go home -- even if it really fucks their own lives up in the process.

This assessment of the situation is probably true in the near term. It resembles a pessimistic take I had on gay marriage. But I would hope that, like Ampersand's friends who see marriage as devalued because of the exclusion of gays, men's attitudes toward doing "women's work" will change. I know that I, for one, would see a job as less attractive if there were an unjustified dominance of men in it (less so for an unjustified dominance of women, since then my presence would be helping to change things). Then again, maybe I just have a feminine attitude toward work and school -- after all, I spent much more time in college studying than I did drinking and playing video games, whatever some joker at the Maroon-News office thought.