Friday, April 29, 2005

Elephants Targeted


African elephant populations are booming in southern Africa, largely due to the restrictions placed on elephant hunting in the 1990s. As a result, some park managers have been forced to begin culling Loxodonta africana. Apparently, their take is not enough. As a recent article in South Africa’s Sunday Independent makes clear, the elephants are placing undue pressure on the parks they inhabit. In Kruger National Park (South Africa) the ideal population is 7,000 animals; presently 13,000 elephants reside within park borders.

Culling is not popular with animal rights groups; these groups promote other options such as relocation or sterilization. These expensive and challenging alternatives are familiar to those of us who follow the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) population debate here in the United States.

The best option, as I see it, is the creation of wildlife corridors that will allow the animals to move freely from park to park without coming into contact with extensive human settlement. Barring the necessary legislation and land acquisition, however, culling will remain an unfortunate reality, animal rights be damned. It is also important to note that humans are one of the only natural predators for African elephants and, even with successful wildlife corridors and improved migration, a flourishing elephant population will probably demand some attrition via bullet.

Photo credit: George Reiger, Botswana, Africa, 1997 (image of Seba, a yearling African elephant, inspecting my camera bag in the Okavango Delta)

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Ivory Ghosts


Some environmental battles are emblematic of the movement at large. At the turn of the last century, John Muir’s Hetch Hetchy Valley crusade was such a story. Today, the proposed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge generates plenty of ink and airtime. But cases where no battle took place, where the melancholy howl of extinction went unheeded, are often passionately eulogized and become emblems themselves. They serve as unpleasant reminders of what inaction might wrought. The passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) and the Ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) are icons of extinction.

So it is with great excitement and happiness that I learned, early Thursday morning, of confirmed Ivory-billed woodpecker sightings in Arkansas. (CNN report here. NPR report here.) For the last five years I have followed the search for Campephilus principalis, North America’s largest woodpecker, with much interest. Like the search for mountain lions (Puma concolor) in the mountains of West Virginia and Pennsylvania, the likelihood of discovering remnant Ivory-billed populations, particularly viable ones, was minimal at best.

In the 1930s, Campephilus principalis was confined to one or two remnant populations in Louisiana and Florida. Some biologists believe each population (if there was more than one) numbered 10 or fewer birds. Because of the Ivory-billed woodpeckers’ refined dietary needs – the species has evolved to specialize on cerambycid beetle larvae most commonly found “under the bark of recently dead or dying hardwoods” – heavy logging pressure through the 1930s and 1940s devestated the birds.

Upon waking for work on an April morning in 2005, over 60 years after the last confirmed sighting (in the United States; one was spotted in Cuba in 1986), my Inbox was crowded with emails from various biologists (members of any number of listservs that I subscribe to) relating the news. In spite of some skepticism, the news elated me. My good spirits were only slightly dampened by the reaction of my co-workers, which ranged from “Oh, that’s nice,” to “Have you seen my umbrella?” One office-mate did seem interested, and he told me that he has spotted numerous Ivory-billed woodpeckers in his life. I attempted to explain the visual similarities between the Ivory-billed and the smaller, more common Pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), but when I opened my bird book – I keep one on hand at work due to the many migratory flights heading up the East River – to show him the difference, I realized there was no Ivory-billed woodpecker depicted. The bird, after all, was thought to be extinct. The import of the discovery sank in!

While the exact location of the confirmed sightings will not be released (in an effort to prevent poaching or undue stress from a crowd of over-eager birding enthusiasts trying to add to their “lifelist”), several conservation groups are already working to extend legal protections on the area in question. Not only will legislation and land purchases help to save the surviving woodpecker population, they will likely aid all the flora and fauna in these woods. Today, unlike the 1930s and 1940s, suitable Ivory-billed habitat exists in many places; some biologists suggest the Ivory-billed woodpecker could turn into a success story along the lines of the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus).

The only dark spot marring an otherwise encouraging discovery is the fear that certain powerful lobbyists will use the Ivory-billed woodpecker to highlight Nature’s resilience. Nature is resilient and wonderful, but one recovery – if, indeed, such a thing is possible for Campephilus principals – does not mean we should continue to plunder the natural world in an immoral and unsustainable fashion.

Photo credit: John James Audubon, "Birds of America"

Lewis Lapham and the Evangelicals


A year ago a co-worker told me he wouldn’t read Harper’s Magazine because “it was just another liberal rag” edited by an “insufferable egotist.” Admittedly, the quality of Lewis Lapham’s monthly contribution (“Notebook”), typically three or four pages of rhetoric following the reader letters, varies wildly. Lapham is a gifted wordsmith, but he is enamored of his craftsmanship; such writers can make splendid editors, but with their own work they are as prone to failure as they are eloquence. Whatever his overall batting average, Lapham’s May 2005 “Notebook,” entitled “The wrath of the Lamb,” is exemplary.

In “The wrath of the Lamb,” Lapham attacks the “faith-based initiative” that surfaced in the 1980s and now, with the reelection of George W. Bush, grows in strength. At a recent meeting of the National Association of Evangelicals in Washington, D.C., the group “declared [their] intent to lend a hand in the making of an American politics faithful to the will…of God.” After describing his early experiences with religion – he grew up in a secular household; “an unbaptised child raised in a family that went to church only for weddings and funerals” – in a time when secular philosophy ruled, Lapham moves on to his experiences as a young man observing the turning of the tide. God went from being dead – all that “remained to be discussed was the autopsy report” – to “[rising] from the graves of skepticism and science.” At the beginning of the 21st century, the “twin pillars of fear and intimidation” provided further insurance for the evangelicals; many people now flock to God, powerful elected officials included. As Lapham reminds us, “On the day after the 2004 election, Bush received a note from Bob Jones III, president of the eponymously named university in South Carolina: ‘…if you have weaklings around you who do not share your biblical values, shed yourself of them…’”

Not surprisingly, Lapham, like Bill Moyers, is troubled by the twelve volumes of the Tim Lahaye/Jerry Jenkins “Left-behind” series. (New York City is usually characterized as a secular fortress, but hardly a day passes when I don’t see one of these books being read on the subway or, more noticeable still, sold on the street by starry-eyed acolytes offering a “Free Stress Test.”) I have not read any of these books, but Lapham offers a small sampling, drawn from the twelfth book in the series, in which the writers describe the fate of secular types like myself.
”Their innards and entrails gushed to the desert floor, and as those around them turned to run, they too were slain, their blood pooling and rising in the unforgiving brightness of the glory of Christ.”
Little wonder that environmental stewardship and human rights are deemed unimportant by so many contemporary evangelicals! As he nears the conclusion, Lapham writes,
“The delusional is no longer marginal, and we err on the side of folly if we continue to grant the boon of tolerance to people who mean to do us harm in the conviction that they receive from Genesis the command ‘to take dominion over the earth,’ to build the Kingdom of God, to create the Christian Nation. The proposition is as murderous as it is absurd…”
I try to remain optimistic. Perhaps those evangelicals who absorbed Christ’s core teachings - those groups promoting stewardship and brotherhood, regardless of race or religion – will grow in number, adding volume to their message and overcoming their reactionary, bloodthirsty comrades. This is the best hope as I see it, for the evangelical hawks and Rapturists will not listen to reason. Reason, after all, is their enemy.

My “Strange Bedfellows” post in early March trumpeted the National Association of Evangelicals document, "For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility." The New York Times suggested the NAE platform was focused on caring for God’s creation via thoughtful environmental policy. This filled me with hope. Upon reading the article, I wrote:
“There will be some head-butting, but I would rather have the green evangelicals pushing against the tide of fundamentalists ushering in The Rapture, than have to deal with them myself. Secular environmentalists don't have to speak the language, but they must be willing to sit down at a table and draw up plans with groups like the NAE. Even if we all differ on some critical issues, our shared commitment to protecting the ecosystems that sustain us means enough to allow for a firm handshake and some hard work. Grudgingly, we can work alongside one another.”
Sadly, excerpts from the actual document suggest a more sinister goal, the injection of Christian “values” into government. Lapham highlights the following selection in his piece.
“We also engage in public life because Jesus is Lord over every area of life…to restrict our stewardship to the private sphere would be to deny an important part of his dominion and to functionally abandon it to the Evil One. To restrict our political concerns to matters that touch only on the private and the domestic spheres is to deny the all-encompassing Lordship of Jesus.”
Download the full text here. I have read the document in its entirety now. The declaration is more frightening than inspiring, but what I notice most is the inherent contradiction. For example, in one paragraph the NAE declares religious freedom essential while, further on, they call on Christians the world over to proselytize and save the damned. I don’t see much room for environmental policy if one is preoccupied with bible beating.

Photo credit: painting of Lewis Lapham by Robert Shetterly

Pam v. J-Lo


I have mixed feelings about people wearing animal fur. I have a beautiful red fox (Vulpes vulpes) skin displayed in my apartment. The skin belonged to a fox culled at Heron Hill during a time when the predator population had exploded, resulting in a decline in duck, quail, and rabbit populations. A number of foxes were trapped and a balance was again achieved.

Yet, despite my acceptance of predator control as a pragmatic conservation technique, I am generally turned off by trapping. I am not anti-trapping per se, and I appreciate the fact that its practitioners learn a great deal about the natural world, but a bullet represents a more humane death. I also find it troubling that urbanites, most of whom have only a vague, Disney-fied appreciation of wildlife, account for the majority of fur buyers. Excepting the far north, where the climate demands extra layers, it is not the trappers who don dead animals. Like diamonds, fur is but one more luxury in a world already too freighted with frivolous commodities that have hidden moral and environmental costs. (Though, lest we forget, cotton, the principal material in clothing worldwide, is far more destructive to animal species than the fur trade. If animal rights groups really want to help the rest of creation, they should consider targeting the cotton industry to demand more sustainable practices.)

But, while I find myself in the grey zone on the fur issue, Pamela Anderson does not. Everyone’s favorite "Baywatch" babe and rock-star sex toy is currently campaigning against Jennifer Lopez and other celebrities who wear fur. Anderson called Lopez an “idiot” in the press and asked People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to “step up” its anti-fur campaigning by targeting J-Lo in particular. I hope Lopez likes paint.

Lopez has repeatedly demonstrated that she has no understanding of the natural world and little to no respect for animals, but Anderson knows only what "Bambi" and "The Bear" have taught her. A precious, willfully ignorant understanding of Nature is only marginally preferable to having none at all. Most troubling, though, is the sense that neither celebrity could be educated about wildlife because its reality is deemed boring by people like J-Lo or cruel by precious types like Anderson.

Photo credit: j-lo.net

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

The End Is Here?


Living in New York City, one quickly grows accustomed to "architectural advertising." Advertisements for gyms, perfumes, record labels, clothing, books, radio stations, television programs, and movies are plastered on subway station walls, phone kiosks, city buses, taxi cabs, and many building facades. In the course of my five years here, I've come to view this colorful assault as a less offensive version of the billboarding of America's highways. The integration of product placement into the urban landscape not only makes more sense, it is also more easily ignored.

With so much visual competition, an ad agency has to come up with a good pitch to standout. For the past month, the new NBC series "Revelations" has been heavily promoted via architectural advertising. Most noticeable are the Metropolitan Transit Authority buses covered (excepting the windows) in an apocalyptic sunset. "The End Is Here," the text proclaims as an evening flight of ravens lifts above a stoic Bill Pullman and Natasha McElhone. The first time I saw one of the "Revelations" buses, I stared after it as it groaned north up Third Avenue. Several times, over the course of the next week, I caught myself involuntarily shaking my head as I passed a "Revelations" poster in a subway station or audibly "tsk-tsking" when I opened a newspaper and was confronted by an advertising spread heralding the mini-series.

What was it that so unsettled me? As a science fiction fan who, for the most part, has a deep respect for thoughtful religiosity, I was surprised by my negative reaction. Upon watching the (disappointing) first episode of "Revelations," though, I realized that it wasn't so much the program's concept that bothered me as it was the advertising itself. After all, a growing number of evangelical Christians believe that the Rapture is imminent. Visit RaptureReady.com and you'll learn that increases in drug abuse, unemployment, environmental degradation, inflation, natural disasters, starvation, and sloth are all desired, even promoted, by Rapturists! The more of these terrible abuses and tragic events, the more the stage is set for Christ's triumphant return. This may be good for the blindly religious Christians among us, but it is not a good thing for a secular democracy, especially the one in which Thomas Jefferson's "wall of separation" protects those of us who are atheistic, agnostic, or members of a religious minority from the tyranny of theocratic nationalism. So why is NBC promoting the tribal apathy associated with Rapturist belief? The bottom line.

Folks who troll the "eco-blogosphere" have likely read a transcript of Bill Moyers' remarks upon accepting the Harvard Medical School's Global Environmental Citizen Award. It makes for troubling reading and, though I do my best to concentrate on environmental success stories, the doom and gloom is difficult to ignore, no matter what "The Death of Environmentalism" authors prescribe.

From Moyers' address:
"Google it and you will find that the best-selling books in America today are the twelve volumes of the "Left-Behind" series written by the Christian fundamentalist and religious right warrior, Timothy LaHaye. These true believers subscribe to a fantastical theology concocted in the 19th century by a couple of immigrant preachers who took disparate passages from the Bible and wove them into a narrative that has captivated the imagination of millions of Americans.

[...] I've reported on these people, following some of them from Texas to the West Bank. They are sincere, serious, and polite as they tell you they feel called to help bring the rapture on as fulfillment of biblical prophecy. [...] Go to Grist to read a remarkable work of reporting by the journalist, Glenn Scherer - the road to environmental apocalypse. Read it and you will see how millions of Christian fundamentalists may believe that environmental destruction is not only to be disregarded but actually welcomed - even hastened - as a sign of the coming apocalypse.

[...] As Grist makes clear, we're not talking about a handful of fringe lawmakers who hold or are beholden to these beliefs. Nearly half the U.S. Congress before the recent election - 231 legislators in total - more since the election - are backed by the religious right. Forty-five senators and 186 members of the 108th congress earned 80 to 100 percent approval ratings from the three most influential Christian right advocacy groups."
Moyers feels strongly about what he is witnessing and his tone is reactionary and not without hyperbole. As a result, some readers, particularly those predisposed to disagree, will write off his statement as the rant of a now impotent journalist. This is unfortunate. Although I think the political influence of evangelical Rapture-types may be slightly exaggerated in Moyers's address, it should not be ignored. More critically, what of the popular element? With the box office success of Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ," some media critics have begun to call this the "religious entertainment era." Religious entertainment? Upon first hearing this label I immediately thought of the Middle Ages, when religious entertainment was at its pinnacle. It is difficult to imagine 21st century America regressing to such a degree. Or is it?

Jonathan Storm writes in The Philadelphia Inquirer, "lavish and well-made, 'Revelations' sadly seems little more than a cynical grab for the zeitgeist, exploiting the popularity of 'The Passion of the Christ' and 'The Da Vinci Code.' It may attract a big initial audience, curious to see a TV blockbuster pushing the idea that the end is near."

That there exists a "big initial audience" for books, films or television programs "pushing the idea that the end is near" is frightening! It highlights the importance of Moyers's question, "What has happened to our moral imagination?" Are we truly a nation content to be force-fed apathy while participating in an orgy of narcotic consumption? Is there really, as Moyers suggests, an absence of "hocma - the science of the heart?" (The hocma Moyers references is one of Kabbalah's ten Sephirot; it is more often spelled chokhmah, or chochmah, and the best translation is "wisdom.")

I'm presently rereading my father's 1983 Pulitzer Prize nominee, Wanderer on My Native Shore. At the end of the first chapter, which focuses on coastal Maine, he writes,
"...as I contemplate the purple majesty of Cadillac Mountain, I feel an awe for its origins mingled with wonder for human optimism. On one hand, our capacity for hope has created marvelous machinery for drilling through the sea floor. On the other hand, this same optimism has generated laws to protect the eagles soaring over Cadillac Mountain.

Life may, indeed, be a dream, and the best efforts of all mankind may be nothing more than brief shadows on a granite dome. Yet isn't our persistent stretching for perfection in the face of inevitable death what touches humanity with divinity?

Our greatness lies not in our sense of humor or intelligence, for other creatures besides man exhibit humor and intelligence. Our greatness lies in our knowing that, although we are doomed, we still want to fashion a better arrowhead or drill bit, and that men may devote themselves to preserving a hard, but productive, way of life as well as eagles drifting on the winds of time."
Well said, Dad. What worries me, though, is the sense that we seem to care less and less about that stretching. Overwhelmed by consumer choices and our slavish routines, apathy has become pandemic. Rather than try to shake the blues, we proclaim the sickness a sign of the apocalypse and, content to wait, pop pills and watch the TV...'cuz Jesus gonna be here, gonna be here soon.

Photo credit: image ripped from inetours.com

Social Explorer

There are a number of interactive maps available online, but Social Explorer, a demographic mapping program, offers the most comprehensive analysis I've yet seen. The reliability of the census becomes more questionable in rural areas, but the information presented is accurate enough for most of us. Zoom in on your neck of the woods to see the local population organized by race, job, socio-economic background, and or any number of other categories.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Aborigines and the Evil, White Man

The conservation community frequently butts heads with human rights organizations (or, at least, pro-development organizations that manage to worm their way into bed with human rights activists). The most familiar contemporary cases involve conservation groups calling for a moratorium on oil drilling in the Arctic or mineral mining in Africa despite protests from the residents of these regions. Poor and increasingly unable to compete in the rapidly developing “Third World,” many locals view natural resources as untapped potential revenue.

This April 18th, 2005, Vancouver Sun article points to a conflict that involves a different sort of natural resource: wildlife. Recent court decisions in British Columbia affirm the right of “aboriginal” populations to hunt and fish year-round without limits. Aboriginal groups are accorded such rights because they exhibit, according to the judges, a “substantial” and “sufficient connection to the…relevant geographic area which entitles [them] to exercise a territorially based hunting right.” The implication is that aboriginal groups have hunted and fished these lands for centuries, therefore proving their competence as continued stewards.

While this stewardship claim is marginally merited, most anthropologists will tell you that once one looks past the romance of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, you will realize that aborigines the world over hunt and fish in unsustainable ways. (This is a generalization, but one based on much anthropological reading.) A "balance" is maintained only because of the relatively small local populations of such groups, resulting in limited pressure on area wildlife stocks. Thus, unlimited hunting and fishing allowances for aboriginal groups in the Amazon Basin are less likely to result in excessive pressure than are similar allowances in British Columbia. In Canada, both aboriginal groups and licensed non-aboriginals will be “harvesting” the wildlife. The pressure on “game” species will be that much greater and the business of establishing limits (for non-aboriginals) will be that much more difficult. Finally, resentment or jealousy on the part of the license holders may encourage profligate behavior on their part, the result of a, “If they can do it, why can’t I?” attitude.

Not surprisingly, conservation groups have only reluctantly accepted such "no limit" rulings. Recently, however, the courts took such legislation one step further. The Metis population of B.C. is demanding a furthering of a court ruling granting them the same privileges that aboriginal groups receive. Trouble is the Metis population is only nominally “aboriginal.” Metis are Canadians of mixed European and aboriginal heritage. The Metis are guilty of the exuberant and unethical hunting practices (examples include the hunting of bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) just for the horns) more commonly associated with the “evil, white man.” Further extension of the “no limit” legislation means even more pressure on B.C. wildlife and worries conservationists for good reason.

Raise these concerns, however, and you can expect to be savaged by groups representing aboriginal communities, either in the court room or in the popular press. Their argument is straightforward and not entirely without merit: To suggest that aborigines should abide by the same hunting and fishing laws that we white men must is racist, yet another example of the colonial powers subjugating and starving the American natives. By contrast, I believe that it is racist to grant the exception. Affirmative action is another racist practice (in the sense that it “discriminates” between races), but it benefits the whole (I know quite a few people who will hound me for this opinion, but I am an advocate for affirmative action despite any philosophical problems with it) whereas this unlimited hunting legislation benefits only the aboriginal groups and harms the whole.

In such a case, where can conservationists and aborigines find common ground? How can traditional cultural values be respected and preserved without threatening ecosystem integrity? Is it time we look past the sins of our fathers and approach the issue as Americans? My gut tells me this is the case. But then again, I’m just an evil, white man.

Check out the Metis Harvester’s Guide for more information.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Baseketball


I love this time of year. The weather is terrific, and so are the sports.

Throughout high school I viewed organized athletics as a mandatory requirement (which they were). I loathed playing football (my bum knees and weak wrists are a testament to the breaks and fractures I experienced playing the wretched game), and although I did enjoy basketball and baseball more, the daily commitment and my athletic inadequacy made the games both boring and frustrating. I was an especially lousy batter; my coach screamed, "Jesus, Reiger! Hit the ball!" with disheartening regularity. Standing in the outfield, I longed to be elsewhere. The time would have been better spent, I thought, taking a walk in the woods, playing Civilization, or reading in the library. My basketball success stories were equally limited, though I did manage to avoid shooting on my own basket, something not everybody on the "3rds team" accomplished (that's right, "3rds," one level under Junior Varsity).

In college, I gave up sports altogether. I didn't watch them and I didn't play them. Visits to the gym, paintball battles, and midnight games of Capture-the-flag were more my speed. (So much so, in fact, that for a time I became the Capture-the-flag coordinator.) How then, did I come to love the NBA and MLB? Honestly, I'm not really sure. One day I just started following the teams and players. Before I knew it I was "in the know."

I believe part of the charm is rooted in the operatic silliness of professional sports: the ugly excess; the show-boating; the ignorance; the intrique. Sports provide a socially acceptable outlet for all of our dirty thoughts and animal rage. There is also something appealing about the routine of sports' schedules. The knowledge that, barring collapse, the baseball stadiums will be crowded and the lights will be turned on is comforting, like regular bowel movements.

I should point out that I never stopped supporting "my" teams, even though I stopped caring for a number of years. When very young I picked a favorite team (or teams) in each of the major American sports leagues. Most people pick teams based on geographic proximity, but I did not care for the Washington Redskins or Bullets. Instead, I chose teams based on team name. Thus, I ended up rooting for the Cincinnati Bengals, Chicago Cubs, Baltimore Orioles, Milwaukee Bucks, and the Minnesota Timberwolves (later, when they were founded in 1989). You might notice the animal theme. Yep...that's how I picked my boys. Either you're an animal or you're against us. (In more recent years, I have opted to support a few teams without animal names. For example, I root for the Mets, the perennial blue-collar underdogs who reside in my borough of New York City.)

Not only do I follow professional basketball and baseball, I also enjoy playing the games. Though I still suck, I enjoy playing basketball a great deal and, were there to be easy access to a baseball diamond and a crew of willing participants, I'm sure I would have a lot of fun taking cuts at a fastball.

Anyway, spring time represents the beginning of the NBA playoffs AND the beginning of a new baseball season. The overlap spoils me. I can spend a Saturday or Sunday in the studio, listening to a NY Mets game on the radio and head to a bar in the evening for a little NBA playoffs action on television. Ah, the simple pleasures...

Photo credit: ripped from BASEketball.com

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

You Say Caduceus, I Say Aesculapius


I value symbols and language highly and, though I don't deny that both are subject to evolution, I do feel there should be a reasonable limit to the degree of abstraction or change. If anything goes, a great deal of the so-called evolution is instead de-evolution.

No one, to use a far-fetched example, would accept the word “sun” being used to denote the moon. The two celestial bodies are not opposites, but they are nonetheless distinct; the earth orbits the sun while the moon orbits the earth. If a lover were to gesture at the pale orb above and proclaim, “What a beautiful night.! The sun is full and the stars are bright,” you'd likely balk.

Some language picadillos are specific to our field or area of expertise. Few of my friends are galled by the catch-all term “seagull.” But birders and wildlife biologists recognize that there are 27 known species of gull in North America alone, and many of these gulls have little association with the “sea.” An equivalent misnomer, then, would be our calling all humans “watermen,” though only a small minority of Homo sapiens still eke out a living from the ocean.

Some vocabulary hang-ups of mine are, like "ATM machine," shared by many other people. Examples are the recently popular “irregardless” and the New York City MTA's “momentarily”/”in a moment” confusion. More extreme than I, my father has raged against the use of the word “bathroom” for years. He points out that most public restrooms contain no bath. He prefers “toilet,” “water closet” or “head.” Because I so frequently use the word “restroom,” he chides me by asking if I intend to sleep or lie down on the tile floor. Perhaps, then, a late night of drinking makes the term "restroom" accurate?

The meaning or significance of a symbol is more steadfast. A change in attributed meaning is most often due to outright misuse. Some hipsters wear East German military insignia as an ironic or “hip” gesture but, despite the changed context, the marking still retains its original meaning. Or does it? Typically, the teenagers and twenty-somethings that don military decoration do not know what the medals mean. Even Hollywood costume designers treat these medals and ribbons as general signifiers of military do-gooding. Rarely do they take the time to learn what each medal represents. As a result, Hollywood often presents audiences with an Army officer whose chest is covered in Navy and Air Force ribbons! To a certain segment of the movie-going audience, this is a major "Whoops!"

No bastardization of a symbol, however, is so glaring as the misuse of the caduceus by medical professionals. The familiar image of two snakes entwined about a winged staff is used by a slight majority of medical practitioners and groups. The caduceus, though, has nothing to do with medicine! It is the staff of Hermes.
“…Hermes was also considered to be the god of commerce and wealth, which in turn implies a sense of personal self-interest along with the possibility of stretching the truth to meet one’s own needs. Hermes was known as the patron god of thieves due to his many tricks and lies. The quality of dishonesty is not one that most people want to see in their physician, therefore a symbol that is traced back to representing trickery and deceit should not be used to represent a profession as highly regarded in trust as medicine. Additionally, Hermes is also said to have used his caduceus staff to lead the souls of those who passed away to the underworld, which is the opposite idea than that stated in the Hippocratic Oath that a physician is charged with.”
The symbol of medicine is actually Aesculapius’s staff, which features ONE snake curled around a rod. Aesculapius, appropriately, was the God of Medicine.
“The son of Apollo, god of health, Aesculapius is said to have been pulled from the womb as his mortal mother was dying, which came to symbolize a physician’s ability to turn death into life. Throughout his life, Aesculapius used medicinal herbs and surgical procedures to heal the sick and dying, with his culmination of the art being the ability to bring the dead back to life. In one episode of mythology, Aesculapius was said to have been inside a temple when a serpent came to him and wound itself up and around his walking staff. He killed the serpent, only to have a second slither in and use an herb to bring its dead comrade back to life. This brings forth the explanation for the revered symbol of Aesculapius’s staff, with this herb being the major discovery of his life. The snake was seen as a servant to Aesculapius in his healing, and was worshiped as such.”
Clearly, the two symbols became confused at some point. Kim Scott wrote a short history of the confusion, "The History and Confusion of the Caduceus symbol and the Staff of Aesculapius in Medicine," from which the above selections are drawn. Scott dates the initial mix-up to circa 1500. Apparently, the symbolic SNAFU led to twentieth century medical newsletters using the word caduceus in their titles!

The conservative commentator in me feels that our educational system is in need of a visit from Aesculapius, too.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Friends & Neighbors


Spring is here and, for many people living in the warmer regions of the United States, the changing weather means reptile encounters. I subscribe to several email newsgroups that deal with reptile and amphibian conservation. I'm regularly directed to articles, most published in local newspapers, describing “dangerous” meetings of man and cold-blooded beast. Sadly these encounters do not represent an increase in reptile populations, but rather further encroachment into reptile rich habitat by our own species. Each year, as the warmth draws the randy, hungry reptiles out of brumation (cold-blooded animals' period of dormancy), humans encounter them in garages and houses…even, Heaven forbid!, in our gated communities.

This morning, two articles. First, a blurb from southern Florida’s Sun-Sentinel tells of a US Fish & Wildlife agent bitten by an American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) while trying to capture the animal in a Pompano Beach neighborhood. Two weeks ago, I read an article in the same paper (unfortunately, the article is too old to be accessed online) telling of another aggressive alligator caught in Weston, Florida. This hungry gator killed and consumed a dog in a “posh Weston community.” Below, I’ve excerpted some of the text from the article. (“Dog-killing Gator Caught,” by Andrew Ryan, 03/30/2005)
“Once the animal is under control, the hunter takes it to a processing plant where it is killed and turned into gator nuggets, wallets and other products. Officials say if they were to release the animal in the middle of the Everglades it might simply come back…As development pushes further into the Everglades, clashes with gators have increased. Since the state began keeping statistics in 1948, there have been 342 alligator attacks, killing 15 people…Wildlife officers field 15,000 calls about nuisance alligators each year, and Weston, on the edge of the Everglades, is a hot spot.”
On the edge of the Everglades? Hmmm… It seems to me folks who want to live in such locales should consider their own transgressions and come to terms with their neighbors. Of course this is rarely the case. Whether dealing with wildlife and human settlement conflicts or the gentrification of minority neighborhoods in urban areas, development usually wins out over balance or integration. The one encouraging spot in Ryan’s Sun-Sentinel piece was a sensible comment made by Florida wildlife commission spokesman Jorge Pino. "We are standing in an area that used to be Everglades. We have to find a happy medium." Are we ready to do so?

The second article is pulled from the Desert Dispatch, in southern California. It describes a similar problem in the town of Victorville. Instead of alligators, though, the locals are plagued by snakes, Mojave rattlesnakes (Crotalus scutulatus scutulatus), in particular. Alligators may stumble into settlement on occasion, but snakes are often attracted to development as they follow their keen smell to an abundance of prey. This winter, good rains have contributed to a banner year for vegetation and, in turn, rodents and lizards. Complicating matters, Victorville is experiencing a development boom. "Within the next year there will be 15,000 new homes up here, and when they are breaking ground they are breaking habitat and the snakes are coming out," said Vicki Telford, an amateur herpetologist.

Unfortunately, wildlife/human conflicts are not restricted to warm regions and cold-blooded creatures. Our continued sprawl forces suburbanites into close proximity with mountain lions (Puma concolor), black bears (Ursus americanus), grey wolves (Canis lupus), and many other predatory species looking for an easy meal at the fringe of human settlement.

This brings me to this article (“The Cat Came Back: Alpha predators and the New Wilderness,” by Peter Canby, Harper’s Magazine, March 2005), which I have been meaning to post for some time. Ostensibly a book review, the piece does more than offer straightforward critique. It pries intelligently into the contradictions and blind Romanticism of “wilderness” concepts, while simultaneously raising fair questions about our own exuberance.

Though I find myself more in David Quammen’s camp – his book, Monster of God, is reviewed – than in David Baron’s, both arguments are valid. Baron, in his book, The Beast in the Garden, focuses on contemporary humanity’s misunderstanding of Nature, suggesting we need to become a keystone species once again, taking responsibility for the lands we occupy. While I agree with this assessment, I find Baron patronizes conservation-minded individuals. Canby seems similarly irked by Baron and turns, as I do myself, to a better, more thoughtful proponent of meaningful re-integration, Bill Cronon.
“The theme of the artificiality of the wilderness around Boulder runs throughout The Beast in the Garden, as does the idea that by romanticizing this artificial wilderness and its supposed ‘naturalness,’ Boulder's citizens were shirking their responsibility to manage it properly and were refusing to understand their role in creating the conditions that had led to the return of cougars. But Baron seems so intent on maintaining his contrarian tone, so intent on gaining points at the expense of Boulder's ‘stuck in the sixties’ lifestyle, that the reader is advised to turn to William Cronon, one of Baron's sources, where these ideas are better developed.”
As I have mentioned in the past, I have a great deal of respect for Dr. Cronon’s writing and conservation philosophy. Throwing grenades at mountain lions, beheading snakes, and shooting alligators that approach homes are temporary solutions that ignore the root cause of the conflict. As Cronon has repeatedly made clear, it is high-time we re-examine our priorities and consider what best balances the equation. Increasingly, zones of concentrated human settlement – urban, not suburban – and zones of well-managed, connected “wildlands” seem the best solution.

Photo credit: A. Yanosky

Monday, April 18, 2005

If You Don't Have Enough For Everyone...

This post over at Dirt and Soundwaves caught my attention. I’m familiar with the idea of shared transportation – particularly those modes popular in many European towns – but the notion of extending the concept to embrace lawn mowers, tools, and the like is definitely attractive.

Unfortunately, as Mikhail points out, before the United States could be convinced to ease up on individual ownership and move towards rentals or shared ownership, the price issue – renting is less cost effective than outright purchase – would have to be addressed. If demand for rentals were to increase, however, this discrepancy could be remedied by decreasing rental price.

Of course, this shift requires more than a pinch of pragmatism. In our individualistic and increasingly urban society, we may have to begin by introducing ourselves to our neighbors.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Calculate Your Ecological Footprint


If you would like to have your ecological footprint calculated, click here.

Interestingly, New York City living makes my footprint much smaller than were I to live on a small farm in the rural northeast United States. This latter situation is my ideal, and I have long assumed that the rural lifestyle – eating only local or organic fruits and vegetables, hunting the occasional white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), and engaging in local conservation efforts - would reduce my negative environmental impact.

Not so. In fact, despite my now eating mostly non-organic, shipped vegetables – I eat Chinese or Mexican takeout too often to claim otherwise – my lifestyle here in New York City is relatively environmental friendly. This is a result of my walking or taking public transportation everywhere, but is also affected by my living in a large apartment building, and, most importantly, by the population of New York City itself.

If I were to transplant myself to the outskirts of a small New England town, my ecological footprint would balloon. In fact, even if I opted to live in a city such as Burlington, Vermont, one known for its eco-friendly attitude and policy, my footprint, while under the national average, would still be much larger than at present.

The average ecological footprint of a United States citizen is 24. My no car/vegetarian lifestyle here in NYC adds up to a score of just 9. The equivalent lifestyle (with the addition of a car) in a Burlington, Vermont, apartment building equals 22. Finally, the small farmhouse/studio somewhere in New England equals an astounding 39.

Being a subscriber to the no pain-no gain approach, I think I have to compromise. I imagine I will end up shelving the small farm idea, instead opting for an apartment in a New England city like Burlington, someplace with proximity to unsettled areas and numerous parks. I still believe private land ownership and conservation easements are of vital importance, so if my finances allow for it I would like to purchase a plot of land, roughly 30 acres, to manage for wildlife and leave undeveloped.

Striving for the Steady State Economy


Environmentalism is becoming something of a religion. Those who subscribe to most or all of the tenants of the environmentalist doctrine are among the movement’s acolytes, composting and recycling, canvas bagging it and buying organic, living what they consider “healthier,” less “impactful” lives. A thoughtful environmentalist should recognize these actions to be sacraments grounded in a hybrid moral code. “I am doing my part to rectify the mess made by the sinners around me.” How persuasive is this feeling of self-worth and moral superiority? Like all religious conviction, it is undeniably powerful and fulfilling, but it comes at a cost. Too often this fetal “religion” ignores fact in favor of that which is deemed morally superior. For example, radical environmentalists demand a wilderness without humans, ignoring the fact that management (stewardship) is now an unfortunate necessity given our exuberant use of natural resources and our continued sprawl. Reason must enter into the equation. Thoughtful environmentalism of the secular variety is possible, as long as we don’t allow ourselves to become vain.

This brings me to the concept of the Steady State Economy.

I first heard wind of Brian Czech’s Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE) project a year ago. My initial reaction was positive, though I feared support for the concept would be relegated to left-wing environmental groups of the “religious” variety. Surprisingly, I am hearing the term used with more frequency these days, sometimes by folks with little interest in preserving biodiversity or encouraging ecological sustainability.

I am a proponent of the philosophy (read this .pdf for an excellent summary). The front page of the CASSE website states:
Economic growth is an increase in the production and consumption of goods and services. It entails increasing population, per capita consumption, or both. Economic growth leaves a larger ecological footprint, causing civil strife and bringing nations into conflict.”
This simplifies, for the sake of dramatic impact, the arguments made by the economists behind the SSE. For me, the heart of the matter is touched on in the following selection.
“…Wildlife biologists know that a wide variety of social structures may produce stable populations. The same holds true for a steady state economy. For example, a steady state economy with long human life spans entails low birth and death rates. In our opinion this is preferable, within reason, to a steady state economy with short life spans, high birth rates, and high death rates. The same concept applies to capital and durable goods such as automobiles. We opine that a relatively slow flow of high-quality, long-lasting goods is preferable to a fast flow of low-quality, short-lived goods.”
The SSE will not take hold in the United States anytime soon, but in more socially-minded democracies, like Sweden or England, the approach is not so alien. The truth is, however, such a transition from market-driven capitalism to stability-driven capitalism is unlikely to occur unless the populous desires as much. In the United States, our stock market would require overhaul, making it “less of a casino,” by decreasing its volatility and demand for liquidity. This seems unlikely, especially in the immediate future. In fact, were the transition to begin today, the market would likely hemorrhage. Making things even more unattractive for the “powers that be,” implementation of the Steady State Economy requires, for countries like the United States, a marked decrease in Gross Domestic Product. As a result, I believe the SSE can not become a concrete reality in the foreseeable future, but that we should strive for it no less.

As the selection below suggests, there is much to be gained from the sustainable lifestyle.
“Nor would any cultural stagnation result from a steady state economy. John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), one of the greatest economists and political philosophers in history, emphasized that an economy in which physical growth was no longer the goal would be more conducive to political, ethical, and spiritual improvements.”
Ah, yes, ethical and spiritual improvement… So we’re back to individual action and lifestyle choices, rubbing shoulders with the “religious” environmentalists. Where do I sign up to feel superior to the rest of the heathens? I already recycle (excepting plastic, since the recycling process seems to do more harm than good), canvas bag it, and eat only meat that I have caught or killed myself. I’m a few sacraments shy of donning a robe and shuffling off to the commune. Why shouldn’t I begin buying everything carefully and, in my own way, push for the adoption of the SSE at a local level?

Well, the truth is I should.

I self-consciously poke fun at the problematic aspects of environmentalism only because it is so close to my heart. I am not a religious man in the popular or traditional understanding of the word. Biology, anthropology, paleontology, history: these are my holy tomes. Yet I firmly believe that through careful consideration, research, and political pressure we can arrive at a more complete conservation ethic, one which addresses not only biodiversity and “wilderness” (my principal areas of interest), but also global poverty and human rights.

Photo credit: ripped from the World Food Programme website

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

i taut i taw a putty tat


This Duluth News Tribune article was published in early March, but was only recently brought to my attention. Apparently a Wisconsin fire-fighter and hunter, Mark Smith, proposed that the state classify free-roaming domestic cats (also called “feral” cats) as an “unprotected” species. If the state were to do so, Felis catus could be legally killed by any hunter in possession of a small-game license.

Smith states, “I get up in the morning and if there’s new snow, there’s cat tracks under my bird feeder…I look at them as an invasive species, plain and simple.”

He's correct. In the United States alone, domestic cats are responsible for the death of hundreds of millions of birds, billions of small mammals and millions of reptiles and amphibians each year. Many wildlife biologists contend that cats are responsible for more extinctions worldwide than any other cause, with the exception of habitat destruction.

Yet my cat-loving friends contest these facts, pointing out that the numbers are “just estimates.” Or they will highlight my willingness to damn the domestic cat when I don’t condemn other superb predators such as mountain lions (Puma concolor) or red foxes (Vulpes vulpes). Estimates are often useful tools but, more importantly, there is a substantial difference between a native predator and the introduced variety. (Conservation-minded Puerto Ricans do not appreciate the mongoose (Herpestes javanicus) presence and few folks on Guam find the brown tree snake (Boiga irregularis) praiseworthy. Other than our association with house cats as just that, there is no difference between it and other feral, introduced species.)

Compounding matters is the protection and attention offered Felis catus. What other predator species has access to a dependable source of food and protection from disease? Also, unlike many other predators, the domestic cat does not demonstrate a marked decrease in hunting desire when already sated. Felis catus is a killer that enjoys the killing.

I grew up on a farm where any cat spotted without a collar fell victim to a .22 rifle. Most of these animals were large, filthy tomcats that had been living feral for months or years, but a few were groomed and well-fed. No matter. On a 300-acre farm designed to attract and protect wildlife, the appearance of an “unattached” cat meant dead or threatened wildlife.

The concept of predator control troubles many people, myself included. The balance is delicate; not every raccoon (Procyon lotor) or fox that a land owner or refuge manager spots should be killed, especially if the animal will not be utilized - eaten, worn - in a respectful manner. But when discussing an “invasive” species, the choice becomes more clear-cut. Why then, does Mark Smith’s Wisconsin proposal engender such an angry response all over the United States, especially when Minnesota and South Dakota already allow such kitty culling?

When I Google the topic, I find a link to this hateful blog. The author writes,
“So Mr. Mike Smith lets make a deal, we will allow open cat season just for you as long as you allow us to have an open season to hunt your ass down."
He also points out, astutely, that "birds can fly away from a bird" (one assumes he meant to write 'cat') whereas a cat has no chance against a 12-gauge shotgun. The writer clearly knows nothing about firearms or the hunting prowess of a cat. No individual seriously trying to kill a feral cat would use a shotgun unless they were confident in their ability to stalk within range, a difficult feat for even seasoned scouts. And, even outfited with a collar bell, a cat will learn to stalk so as not to let the bell ring, until the pounce...and bye-bye, birdy.

On another website discussing the issue, post after post bemoans Mark Smith’s proposal, suggesting we pursue “more humane” ways of controlling the cat population. The most often proposed alternative is a three-step process: live trapping, neutering, and release. Proponents of this approach argue that, within several generations, the feral cat population would plummet as a result. While true, what may be more humane for the cat does not afford other animal species much help – with an estimated 12% of the world’s bird species in danger of extinction this century, such measures do little to help sustain biodiversity – but, more pragmatically, tax payers aren’t very willing to foot the hefty bill for such birth control programs. As a result, The Humane Society of the United States and PETA have been encouraging cat owners to spay/neuter their pets and keep them indoors for years now, but many, if not most, cat owners continue to ignore this advice. On the one hand, then, pet owners are unwilling to take responsiblity for their pets and, on the other, they are unwilling to pay taxes which will help alleviate the problems their negligence contributes to. That's the attitude, America!

The only sound alternative to legalized hunting of cats, as I see it, involves trapping the cats, offering them up for adoption at a shelter (to be spayed/neutered at the client’s expense) and euthanizing them if they are not claimed within a given time. This method is undoubtedly more humane than shooting, as the needle will less often “miss its mark,” and it doesn't put the "murderers back out on the streets," but again we are faced with an intimidating price tag. I'm willing to add a few hundred dollars to my yearly tax burden to help alleviate Felis catus pressure. Are you? (Based on my informal poll at the office today, most people aren't. In fact, my much beloved co-worker tells me her parents' cats, which only come into the house at night, don't kill other animals but more than once every two years. Unfortunately, living in denial doesn't help biodiversity.)

In an ideal world, the hunters interested in shooting the cats would be steady marksman and the country’s biodiversity could be done a great service in a relatively humane fashion – a bullet through the brain or heart is only marginally less humane than a lethal injection. On the other hand, in a truly ideal world, pet owners would take responsibility for the creatures they choose to purchase or adopt, keeping cats indoors and dogs closely monitored while taking care to spay or neuter the animals. In this ideal scenario, we would also learn how to take better care of our own fellow man and approach human population, land use, and economic growth with some degree of thoughtfulness. Oh, wait...those continue to seem like unrealistic short-term goals? Well, then, lock-and-load, because the cat problem is far more pressing than the more socially acceptable white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) "scourge."

Do not misunderstand. I adore house cats and cherish the good times I have spent with my own (pictured above). Discovered on the side of the road as a kitten, Mr. Misi had not yet opened his eyes when I adopted him. He had to be fed warm milk from a baby bottle and, for those first months, he slept on my pillow, curled in the crook of my neck and shoulder. Would I weep were Misi shot by a hunter? Of course. Would I understand why? Yes. For that reason, Misi is not allowed outside and he was neutered years ago. When he visits a rural area, I put a collar around his neck, making him easily identifiable as a “pet” if he should manage to slip outside.

Note: As of this afternoon, I learn that the Wisconsin public has given the go-ahead for the cat hunting. It will be taken to the state legislature next.

Photo credit: Hungry Hyaena, 2004

Monday, April 11, 2005

Civics Lesson: With Ed Bradley


This week, I'm doing my civic duty by reporting to the Queens Criminal Courts for jury duty. One day down, X to go. When they told me that I could be required to return for up to two weeks, a little piece of my soul shattered. I'm crossing my fingers that I'm dismissed as a deviant.

While trying to read in the "jury pool room" this morning, I was treated to a short film explaining the history of our judicial system. Ed Bradley, of 60 Minutes fame, hosted the video. It condensed the history into a five-minute edit, featuring Aristotle, English peasants in the Middle Ages, and the present United States court system. Ah, yes, the three simple steps to righteous judging.

The video did have its entertaining moments. In a cheesy reenactment of a scene from the fourteenth century, robed figures tied and gagged an accused peasant while Bradley's narration explained,
"In the Middle Ages, the accused was bound and gagged and thrown into a lake. If they floated, they were found guilty and murdered. If they sunk, they were deemed innocent."
A murmur was heard in the jury pool room. A man to my left said, "That ain't fair."

As if on cue, Bradley asked the viewers, "Does this seem fair to you?"

No. No, Ed, it certainly doesn't.

Photo copyright: Speakers Worldwide, Inc.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Evolution and Radical Longevity

On the subway ride to work this morning, I finished a chapter of Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee, entitled “Why Do We Grow Old and Die?” In it, Diamond discusses how natural selection has played the prominent role in increasing our species longevity and also addresses why all systems, bodies or otherwise, break down over time. He focuses on the concept of “optimization,” that is, Nature’s tendency to maximize survival and reproductive success of the overall design, rather than optimizing particular elements.

To explain his point, he cites the Royal Navy’s decision, in World War I, to build a better warship by “keep[ing] the weight of the big guns nearly constant, and greatly increase[ing] the weight of the engines while still maintaining a total weight around 28,000 tons.” The result was the heavily armored, swift battle cruiser, a vessel which could outmaneuver the more clunky battleships. These battle cruisers were heavily publicized and celebrated as marvels of engineering. The ships, unfortunately, didn’t fare well in combat. To maintain the preferred weight, the designers had skimped on hull armor and anti-aircraft defense, making them easy to sink.

Diamond writes,
“In short, engineers can’t tinker with single parts in isolation from the rest of the machine, because each part costs money, space, and weight that might have gone into something else. Engineers instead have to ask what combination of parts will optimize a machine’s effectiveness. By the same reasoning, evolution can’t tinker with single traits in isolation from the rest of the animal, because every structure, enzyme, or piece of DNA consumes energy and space that might have gone into something else. Instead, natural selection favors that combination of traits that maximizes the animal’s reproductive output.”
And so it is with menopause, for example. Female hunter-gatherers were at great risk of death during childbirth. With each proceeding child, the risk increased. Those females who stopped being able to procreate later in life were therefore more likely to survive and mother the offspring already born to them, increasing the chances that their genes would be passed on. Menopause, Diamond contends, was a genetic mutation favored by natural selection, as is any advantageous mutation that increases our life spans without detriment to the rest of the corporeal vessel.

Because the body is the sum of its parts, then,
“there should not be just one, or even a few, dominant physiological mechanisms of aging. Instead, natural selection should act to match rates of aging in all physiological systems, with the result that aging involves innumerable simultaneous changes.”
In other words, at some point, “everything collapses at once” and we die. For this reason, Diamond argues that we can not find the fountain of youth by seeking to remedy one critical flaw in our design. The many tried methods of the previous century, be they injections with bee or snake venom, consumption of particular vitamins or foodstuffs, or any number of other outlandish “cures for aging,” are all pointless.

But what to make, then, of Aubrey de Grey, the Cambridge University geneticist (who can be immediately recognized by his impressive beard) and his claims that people who are now 60 years of age could live to be 1,000. Curiously, his arguments don’t disagree with Diamond’s assessment of the aging process. In fact, in this interview, his own discussion parallels arguments Diamond makes, particularly in regards to predation pressure dictating the opportunity cost of biological repair and, in turn, average life span of species. As Diamond explains, birds and turtles tend to live longer than similarly sized land mammals or shell-less reptiles because they have better escape ability (flight) or defense (shells) and therefore a better chance of surviving predation attempts. Because they are less vulnerable to attack and predation, then, the body can expend more energy on physiological repair. Diamond writes,
“If you’re likely to be eaten by a lion tomorrow, there’s no point in paying the dentist to start expensive orthodontic work on your teeth today. You’d do better to let your teeth rot and start having babies immediately. But if an animal’s risk of death from irreparable accidents is low, then there is potential payoff, in the form of increased life span, from putting energy into expensive repair mechanisms that retard aging.”
De Grey evidently agrees with Diamond regarding the evolution of aging, and his “cure for aging” doesn’t consist of “fixing” one broken mechanism; he suggests that a more holistic approach is necessary and, today, is feasible.

Despite making rational, informed arguments, though, I think De Grey is overly optimistic, especially with regard to the timeframe for such “improvements.” Yet the questions raised by the prospect of radical longevity should not be dismissed. It seems increasingly likely that our human lifespan will be lengthened, even if the marked jumps predicted by De Grey may come in the more distant future and involve less of a life span extension. Jamais Cascio, at WorldChanging, discusses such concerns in brief in his post on Charles C. Mann’s Atlantic Monthly article, “The Coming Death Shortage.” I have not read Mann’s piece, but Cascio responds to some of Mann’s concerns, most notably increasing social and economic inequality. Cascio disagrees with Mann’s “general disapproval of the idea of radical longevity,” pointing out that “too often we give insufficient credit to the resiliency of human culture.” While this last statement is certainly accurate, I believe there is much reason to be concerned, particularly when considering population and environmental impact, though I stop short of bemoaning the concept/possibility of radical longevity altogether.

I think the comment by Mr. Farlops, at the bottom of the Cascio piece, puts it well.
“Birth control and lack of sustainability are also problems now. Longevity only magnifies their importance. Perhaps some passive yet progressively minded people, faced with long life in a declining world, might be forced to do something about it. But we really can't count on that either. [...] I guess my opinion could summarized as let's deal with sustainability, birth control [...] now and not worry about stuff like rejuvenation and longevity.”
Indeed.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Oh, Beautiful Vapidity…

A friend sent me this music video today.

The song is composed and performed by Dennis Madalone, a New Jersey stuntman-cum-singer/songwriter who wants the listener to know that his
“compassion for others inspires him to write lyrics and create melodies…to share his feelings so that it may be a reflective comfort in ‘your’ life.”
The message of this single, entitled “America We Stand As One,” is to “carry on, hold on and stay strong for we all are truly one.” Apparently, Madalone’s “we” doesn’t apply to folks born outside our proud city walls. This here song, American brothers and sisters, is for us and us alone.

And this brings me to the video. Rarely do you have a chance to see so many clichés packed into a three-minute clip...unless you’re watching a spoof. The video opens with our blue-collar man, illustrated by his All-American, torn blue-jeans, strolling alone on the beach. Soon Dennis is joined by some twinkly special effects, otherwise known as angels. And, with these divine companions watching his back, Dennis breaks into full-throated, patriotic song.

The lyrics are thoughtless and mundane, belying the claim that Madalone is “truly an artist with power, passion and originality.” Canned passion, I'll grant him, but power and originality are not at all represented.

He stands defiant, holding, alternately, a small stars-and-stripes hanky or a large United States flag, while singing,
“I had to go, but it’s OK, You see I’m with you in a different way…America….USA, We stand as one…and we must carry on.”
The homepage claims that “this new rock anthem fills you with hope and comforts you with a spiritual message from our Loved Ones." In fact, I presume that the majority of US citizens under forty years of age (and a great deal of those above) are too savvy to accept “A.W.S.A.O.” as anything other than the hackneyed crap it is. Yet still I find myself becoming worried about the percentage of the populous that will respond to Dennis Madalone’s “sincerity” and “moral integrity.”

This worry may be in part due to the results of a Gallup Poll conducted November 7-10, 2004. When asked, “Which best describes your views of the origin of life?,” the responses were as follows:
Man developed with God guiding, 38%

Man developed with no help from God, 13%

God created man in present form, 45%
45 percent? Dear God…I think I'll go pump up the volume on Mandalone's "America" and stick my hand in a fu*king blender.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

A Long, But Worthwhile Read

Last Wednesday, I posted "Protect Native Species...Or Die!," after reading about the Native Fish Conservancy's Exotic Fishing Tournament. In that post, I briefly describe my ambivalence about the "invasive" species issue. Chris Clarke, at Creek Running North, read the post and linked to the quoted essay by Timothy Burke. His response is rich with side-tracks - Clarke's brief discussion of the preservationists' "balance of nature" is pointed and fine - and will give you a lot to chew on. Clarke's conclusion regarding "invasives," if you really don't have time to read it, is:
"Not all exotic species are invasive. Origin of the species isn't the issue; behavior is. And though the language some use to describe invasive species is redolent with horrible memory, that doesn't mean we ought to fall into the trap of metaphor. People coming from other places increase diversity, while invasive species decrease it."
And he offers a tidy one-liner regarding the "balance of nature":
"Nature no more 'seeks balance' than a slinky seeks the stair tread on which it happens to stop."

The Nihilistic Science Guy

“As a child, I would stand with my father on the beach in Delaware and stare at my shadow as the sun went down, watching it get longer and longer, infinitely long. When you understand how many stars are out there, more stars than there are grains of sand on the beach, you can think you’re just a speck orbiting a speck in the middle of specklessness. But there’s another way to look at it, which is that we have brains, and can use them to understand the universe. And I thought then that if I were out in space I could look back and see my shadow, the long shadow of little Bill.”

- Bill Nye, The New Yorker “Talk of the Town” (January 5, 2004)
I grew up two states south of Bill Nye, “The Science Guy,” and I less often considered sand on beaches than water molecules in the ocean, but I did spend many hours contemplating little things, real or imagined, awed by my relative enormity and, in turn, by my relationship to the greater, infinite expanse.

Some professional scientists poo-poo Nye. If pressed, these scientists admit that their disregard is rooted in his popular appeal and his “dumbing down” of science for mass consumption. I prefer to celebrate Nye for the same reasons.

My parents didn’t have a television when I was growing up, but when I visited a neighbor’s house and saw shows like "Sesame Street" or the "Electric Company," I was enthralled. Had “Bill Nye, The Science Guy" been aired when I was young, I'm sure that I would have loved it, and I'm sure that he would have further inflamed my love of science.

Interestingly, underneath Nye’s infectious excitement, he seems complicated. I find myself wondering what he thinks about after the studio lights are turned off. Is he defensively optimistic? Deeply pessimistic? What questions does he ask of himself? Of others? Does he avoid questions of personality or psychology, concentrating instead on that which he can safely externalize?

In the most recent issue of Wired, Nye is featured in "The Science Guy Grows Up," a short, five-question interview. When asked, "Science and comedy seem like strange bedfellows. How do you make serious science funny?," Nye responds:
“How can you make it not funny? Humor is everywhere, in that there’s irony in just about anything a human does. There’s all this PB&J: passion, beauty, and joy. But there’s also the futility of the whole thing. We’re just humans on this dying planet, and it doesn’t much matter what we do. We’re always setting up expectations, whether scientific or otherwise, and failing to meet them. That creates comedic tension. The more you find out about the world, the more opportunities there are to laugh it.”
Underneath all of his infectious excitement, then, Nye is something of a nihilist. Perhaps the lessons of science always reduce the human by presenting us relative to the rest of the mess. Maybe this, in part, contributes to the trend towards scientific specialization over generalism, allowing the scientist to avoid looking at the whole and thereby protecting her from potential crackup.

Photo credit: homepage of Zachary Alex Samuels, Cornell University

Clothed Porn Stars

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Photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders is best known for his images of celebrities. Over the course of three decades, he has presented us with photographs of “rock stars…presidents, literary figures…actors, not to mention pretty much everyone in the blue-chip art world.” Frankly, I've long considered him to be a star-fu*ker and, accordingly, I’ve never been much interested in his work. But the most recent Greenfield-Sanders exhibition, “XXX: 30 Porn Star Portraits,” at Mary Boone Gallery, won me over.

When the show's conceit was first described to me – “The photographer shoots porn stars, clothed and naked, in the same pose and hangs the photographs alongside one another.” – I didn’t think much of it. Nudity doesn't titillate me and I’m skeptical of artists who traffic in it. I assumed that Greenfield-Sanders was banking on some sensational press, so the project seemed like a cheap shot.

In fact, the diptychs are curiously unsettling. So accustomed to nudity, the subjects appear uncomfortable when clothed. Curiously, they also seem more youthful, even naïve. Once stripped, they wear guarded, seductive looks and knowing smiles.

Most remarkable, though, is the genuine likeability exuded by the photographed porn stars. How did Greenfield-Sanders manage to make these individuals, professionals caricatured for their bad behavior and insecurity, such perfect stand-ins for the rest of us? Perhaps because we all suffer from existential and vocational anxieties, or perhaps because the images remind us that porn stars and prostitutes are flesh-and-blood people, too. (A couple of Greenfield-Sanders' subjects are exceptions to this rule; Chad Hunt, for example, seems more intent on displaying his impressive anatomy than being himself.)

I didn’t expect to be at all drawn to these photographs, but not only would I love to own one of Greenfield-Sanders' diptychs, I'd like to display it alongside an Audubon print or a Walton Ford watercolor, an anthropological and ethological pairing. Lacking sufficient funds, I’ll have to settle for the coffee table book, and place it alongside a Walton Ford monograph.

An excellent article/review of the show was published in the April 2005 issue of Art in America. "Body Double," by Sarah Valdez, is worth reading.

Photo credit: book cover image, Amazon.com