Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Wrestling With Eco-Guilt

Following yesterday's "Ecological Economics 101" post, I feel I should take a few paragraphs to paint a picture of my own pathology. Like many environmentalists - though I prefer the term conservationist, given my acceptance of management's role in stewardship - my "green" decisions allay some personal guilt. Such "guilt motivation" isn't always healthy, even if I do right by my choices.

Case in point, I still haven't forgiven myself a recent purchase of three pairs of jeans. Despite buying the pants during a sale - each pair cost just $25.00 - I worried about their origin and the environmental track record of their manufacturer, Levi's. Weeks after I folded the jeans into my canvas tote bags and walked out of the store, I continue to beat myself up...this despite the fact that I needed new pants.

But did I really need them? In the eyes of my upper middle-class, white-collar co-workers, I was wearing "stained, old" clothes and shoes that "had long ago seen their day." When I first wore the new jeans to work, they complimented me excessively. "See how much better you feel when you wear clean clothes that fit you?," one of them asked. Um...not really. My old pants were still wearable and the shoes still comfortable.

Is there a soundly ethical rationale that allows one to buy more than he or she needs? The answer, of course, is 'No.' But self-control can too easily transmute into anorexia. This begs the question, is a superior anorexic any more ethically entitled than a compulsive liquidator?

In my quest for sustainability, I often purchase "certified organic" food, paying a premium for this privilege. But some of these foods are not grown locally and the money I spend on organic products feeds the bloated economy no less than any other, less "sustainable" expenditure. To help alleviate my worrying, I remind myself that I no longer order delivery or eat at restaurants when dining alone, but is this enough? After all, I still go out to eat with friends and, though my principal motivation for doing so is the preservation of those relationships, should I feel any less guilty about doing so?

Similarly nagging thoughts are with me every morning when I pull my iPod, the most popular icon of conspicuous consumption, from my backpack. My consumerist tendencies, relatively inoffensive though they may be, are putting undue pressure on our already over-extended natural resources. I may be less culpable than most Americans, but very few (perhaps freegans?) can wash their hands of the situation with a clean conscience.

Yet most Americans ignore eco-guilt, thereby avoiding the potential complications of sustainable pursuits - they don't risk being ostracized by their peers or, worse, developing a martyr complex. But how can an educated individual disregard her environmental and social impact? As one co-worker put it when she learned I had purchased a Renewable Energy Certificate (REC) to mitigate the carbon emissions generated by my upcoming trip to Japan, "I really couldn't care less about CO2 emissions or the rain forests but I do care about my 401K, health insurance and vacation time." What a horrifyingly perfect example of "iCulture."

Certainly, self-interest is a vital part of being human, but social responsibility distinguishes us from most other species. My co-worker's statement is appalling, but nonetheless representative of the majority perspective. In such a climate (and economy) the risks of wrestling with eco-guilt, as I see it, are well worth it.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Ecological Economics 101

“If the earth must lose that great portion of its pleasantness which it owes to things that the unlimited increase of wealth and population would extirpate from it, for the mere purpose of enabling it to support a larger, but not a happier or a better population, I sincerely hope, for the sake of posterity, that they will be content to be stationary, long before necessity compels them to it.”
-John Stuart Mill, 1857
I was a diligent college freshman; I attended my classes regularly, studied hard, and never let my weekend party binges interfere with my coursework. There was, however, one exception of note: Macroeconomics 101. No matter how I tried, I just couldn't remain awake for the class's duration. After months of embarrassing head jerks and dropped pencils, my attendance became sporadic.

The somnolent state induced by Macroeconomics was not the result of an uninspiring professor, as is so often the case. On the contrary, my professor was colorful and loud. Built like Batman's nemesis, The Penguin, with a red-face and a propensity for excessive perspiration, the man was given to stomping around his stage like a petulant Napoleon. Unfortunately, even his theatrics failed to keep me involved with the subject at hand.

Most of Macroeconomics is common sense. The core lesson, that economic growth results in more jobs and a higher standing of living, is popularly accepted as gospel. The formulas and names seemed designed, I believed at the time, to encourage economists to delude themselves into thinking their profession a "hard science" rather than the marriage of philosophy and sociology that it is. Furthermore, when dealing with "the big picture," as macroeconomics does, the mathematical component is almost irrelevant. A mathematical moron, I signed up for the class with this in mind, so I was discouraged to learn that the bulk of the syllabus in fact dealt with microeconomics. Presented with word problems involving sock production, staff wages and consumer demand, I quickly lost interest.

Ten years later, I no longer find economics a bore. I much admire James Surowiecki, writer of "The Financial Page" column for The New Yorker. He offers readers a sensible, sociological approach to money matters. Surowiecki’s columns served as a gateway for me; they allowed me to realize the obvious: the economy is interesting, even important.

My father stresses the explicit connection between the words "ecology" and "economy" by returning to the shared Greek root of these words. "Ecology" translates as "study of the household" and "economy" as "management of the household." Any good scientist (or thoughtful citizen, for that matter) should study the household before managing it. Thanks in no small part to my father’s influence, I began to see many ecological issues as economic concerns (and vice versa). Given my environmentalist leanings, I suppose my confrontation with economic theory was inevitable. It was also inevitable, or at least quite likely, that I would become disenchanted with our current boom-and-bust paradigm.

In his excellent book, Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train, Brian Czech picks apart neoclassical economic theory, the dominant force in contemporary economics and the impetus for the misguided assumption that economic growth is always good. This surprisingly light read is not the first text of the steady state economy movement or even the most profound, but Czech’s conversational style and humble tone ingratiate it to even the uninformed reader. Czech is President of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE), an organization with three principal objectives:
-Educate citizens and policy makers of the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection, economic sustainability, national security and international stability

-Promote a steady state economy of stable and mildly fluctuating size as a sustainable alternative to economic growth

-Study the means conducive to the establishment of a steady state economy
An earlier HH post, “Striving for the Steady State Economy,” will give you more detail on the generalities of the movement, but I encourage visits to the following sites as well.

Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (link)

The International Society for Ecological Economics (link)

The Gund Institute for Ecological Economics (link)

Over the course of the last two hundred years, our vices and competitive natures have come home to roost in the form of increasing population pressure and the associated push for perpetual economic growth. In the era of globalization, such pressures are no longer localized. As William Cronon writes in his 1983 Changes In The Land, “anthropologists are increasingly aware, as historians have long known, that the development of a world capitalist system has brought more and more people into trade and market relations which lie well beyond the boundaries of their local ecosystems.”

Homo sapiens dubbed themselves the “wise” species. We now have an opportunity to prove the taxonomists right. Will the First World be able to accept a more modest standard of living in order to strive for sustainability?

At the turn of the 21st century, this question is urgent. Denialists argue that evolution “demands change,” that the passage of time “will bring what it will bring.” They tell us not to worry, that we will confront (and solve) new challenges as they materialize. But such attitudes are fatalistic and thoughtless. Of course we have the option of taking our hands off the steering wheel, pushing the gas pedal to the floor and seeing what the passage of time will bring, but why would a rational person opt for such an approach? Why act irresponsibly when there are other, more ethical choices? More important still, why cede to future generations the problems caused or exacerbated by contemporary missteps?

In Part II of his book, Czech offers advice for building a healthy alternative to unrestrained, free-market capitalism. In the steady state economic paradigm, growth (or, as Czech calls it, bloating) is discouraged; a balance is sought instead. This balance requires a more simplistic lifestyle, one driven by the quest for "self-actualization," a term Czech borrows from Abraham Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs," rather than self-esteem, which, in today's culture of celebrity and distraction, is tied to bling-bling displays of real estate, clothing, vehicles, expensive dining and so on.

Later this week, I hope to examine Czech’s prescription in more detail. For now, though, I just wanted to recommend his book to any readers interested in the intersection of economics and ecology.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Riding The Waves

My nights were preoccupied by plumb-bobs and lines last week. The bobs that appeared in my dreams were not put to practical use, however. They were "primitive" constructions, fashioned from carved wood, rope, animal skin, and stretched intestine, artifacts of the sort one admires at the American Museum of Natural History. These crude bobs were hung as ornaments from the ceiling of a low-lit room and, sleeping, I walked among them approvingly.

But the strange tools soon preoccupied my waking hours, too. At work, I daydreamed of them. On the subway, I pondered their construction. After a few days of this obsessive thinking, I realized that I would not be rid of the bobs until they were fabricated. Nevertheless, I put off the inevitable, stubbornly continuing to work on the paintings already in progress. If, while in the studio, my thoughts returned to the plumb lines, I stopped working and went for a long run.

I was determined to fight off (or to ignore) the vagrant inspiration. Where were these bobs coming from, I wondered? By the end of the week, sketches littered my day job desk, only partially obscured by legitimate paperwork. But what do they mean? I began to feel like Richard Dreyfuss's character in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," frantically impelled to work at some odd creation.

Finally, I heeded the call; I could hold out no longer. I departed work on Monday evening and headed directly to Home Depot. One hour later, I was a hundred dollars poorer, but bob ready.

Such bouts of inspiration, particularly those that require a dramatic shift in medium or concept, are equal parts giddy delirium and raw self-doubt. Most worrisome to me was the fact that these inspired sparks usually mark the beginning of what I call the artist's trough phase. The sparks are the creative burst that precedes the violent thrust under. (See Point B in the above wave diagram).

The creative process has much in common with a wave. When the artist finds herself atop a crest (Points A and F), life is grand. This peak is short-lived, however, and plateaus are rare; the bow of the artist's little boat begins to nose downward soon enough. Heading downslope is not all bad; during the descent, the artist is generally content, busy producing work associated with her last creative crest. But as the boat's bow nears the base line, she begins to fret...about everything.

I'd been idling in this fretful stage for the last two months but, sometime last week, I was pulled under, troughward.

Generally, I'm an upbeat individual. Despite some seemingly pessimistic attitudes regarding long-term ecological health, not a day goes by that I don't appreciate being here. The world is an amusement park of ideas and discoveries, and I simply can't understand how anyone could be bored or uninspired. That said, the creative troughs do pull me very low. I become self-absorbed, distracted, pessimistic, and argumentative. In short, I'm not a pleasant person to be around.

There are two ways for an artist to ride out a creative slump. I might opt to stop producing work for a spell, hoping that a break will sort things out. Alternatively, I can work wildly, embracing whatever inspiration compels me. More often than not, the latter, active approach is the one I choose. Something useful may come of the mess.

The current trough, though, caught me unawares. I was so focused on the plumb-bob dreams that I didn't take notice when my little boat plunged into the wave's trough. Last night, I quite suddenly (and quite horribly) realized that I was soaked. Red-faced and ashamed, I stood in the center of my studio and felt as though my little world was collapsing. Now, I can only hang on and ride out the trough.

Sometimes they last months, sometimes weeks, sometimes days. The short ones aren't so bad. My last trough was pretty rough, but I used exercise and reading to carry on. I feared, then, that the dip was merely a preview of the next, and so now I hope that the current trough is the "Big One," the 9.5. I'd like to get it over with!

Curiously, I remain enamored of the plumb-bobs. Although I smashed the sculptures last night and returned the unused Home Depot purchases this morning, I'm still convinced that the bobs are significant. Why did I start dreaming of plumb lines? Excepting the many pages of scribbled construction plans and hasty notes, it seems as though the plumb lines I dreamed of will never be made. Too bad. I could use one now. I'd like to know how deep this trough is!

Photo credits: "The Lord's Daily Way" Bible Study at keyway.com, "The Physics Classroom" Wave Tutorial, The U.S. Navy Science & Technology Focus

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

A New Definition of Eden?

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My idea of a good "vacation" doesn't include beaches, relaxation or umbrella drinks. Mosquito netting and hiking boots are more my speed. This doesn't mean I'm adverse to the idea of "cultural travel," but I do feel that any such trip - a trip to eastern Europe, for example - should include some time in the rural or more remote landscapes of the region. I don't feel that I've experienced a place until I've seen the boundary between untended Nature and human activity.

Generally, I've been lucky. Excepting my European EuroRail adventure, a two-and-a-half month backpacking tour in the summer of 1996, my travels have taken me to sparsely settled territories. This is true of most of my travels within the United States and, to a lesser extent, Canada, but the most rewarding trips have been outside North America. The many months that I've spent in Central America - Costa Rica, Honduras and Nicaragua granted me the longest visits - and southern Africa touched me deeply and fundamentally informed my perspectives on human rights, charitable giving and environmentalism.

My upcoming "vacation," though, will likely resemble my European experience. Eleven days from now, I'll board a plane bound for Nagoya, Japan. Although the itinerary consists of three cities - Nagoya; Kyoto;, Tokyo - and only one rural side trip, I'm very excited. Because Japanese culture is so different from our own (the Japanese relationship to Nature, in particular), travel and observation anywhere in the country should prove richly informative.

An expatriate friend of mine describes the country as "one great bonsai." The dwarfing and shaping of trees suggests an obsession with control. Even standard Japanese pruning techniques seem harsh by North American standards. Whereas the conscientious American gardener may remove dead leaves or "cut back" aggressive growth, Japanese gardeners are regularly cutting, pinching and shaping their plants, apparently seeking the perfect form. As a teenager, I felt such efforts were tortuous and "unnatural." It was wrong, I believed, to force beauty upon an object when you should instead be looking for the inherent aesthetic worth.

Yet it is unfair to condemn a practice without understanding it first, and my bias for North American "natural aesthetics," born of our romantic faith in "wilderness," led me to an undergraduate class on Japanese culture. Wabi-sabi is a Kanji word used to describe the Japanese aesthetic of impermanence and imperfection. It means, in a general sense, imperfect beauty, but this definition is incomplete.

Wabi-sabi also includes a hint of melancholy - an under-appreciated concept in our egocentric, global culture - and is tied to Zen transcendence, the search for the simple life. Three essential truths embody wabi-sabi: "nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect." In other words, all the tending, all the editing and pruning, all the tying and directing, these are not considered acts of control, but of assistance, seeking not perfection, but a fleeting "rightness" instead.

After learning this, I was forced to edit my opinion of Japanese gardening. The practice no longer seemed so manipulative and the "soul" of the aesthetic, if you will, seemed as pure as the North American concept of "wildness." I came to view the two approaches - western "wilderness" and eastern "gardening" - as mutually exclusive, occupying opposing ends of the spectrum. As Marcus Hall writes in his dissertation, "American Nature, Italian Culture," "A gardener promotes culture on a natural landscape, whereas a naturalizer promotes nature on a cultural landscape." Can these two philosophies be married? Increasingly, I've become more interested in the intersection where these two distinct practices meet.

I'm not alone. Academics have debated questions of "gardening" versus "naturalizing," conservation versus preservation, and preservation versus restoration since at least the late 1980s. More recently, contemporary philosophers and artists have joined in the fray, drawing attention to these concerns and, to some extent, popularizing the discussion. A search on Amazon.com turns up a multitude of books on the subject; the majority of these are published after 1990. As fringe environmental movements like "deep ecology" have gained momentum, the pertinence of such questions has only increased.

Unfortunately, most commentators merely talk around the core issues. A heroic exception is the brave William Cronon. In his essay, "The Trouble With Wilderness," he champions the gardener:
"Only people whose relation to the land was already alienated could hold up wilderness as a model for human life in nature, for the romantic ideology of wilderness leaves precisely nowhere for human beings actually to make their living from the land."
Cronon has succeeded in getting many "greens," myself included, to ask tough questions of themselves, to examine their own inconsistencies and potentially unproductive actions.

I am a supporting member of The Wildlands Project. One of their stated goals is the formation of "MegaLinkages," or the physical connection of diverse ecosystems, across North America. These MegaLinkages should increase both genetic and species diversity, but they also invite some worthy questions. Once established, what will our human role in these corridors or linkages be? Are these preserves, areas of land off limits to the public? Or are they public parks? If they will be the latter, what sort of activities are allowed on these lands? Eric Higgs, in his excellent book, Nature By Design, fears the trap of wilderness dualism, which ultimately separates humanity from Nature.
"They embody a vision of the world in two parts, with protectionist rules for nature inside the park and exploitative rules for nature elsewhere. In a culture that accepts this dichotomy, people may exult in the wild beauty of the protected places and support parks with cash donations, but continue otherwise in a lifestyle that erodes the foundations of ecological integrity. The result, sooner or later, is a set of highly fortified islands of threatened wilderness surrounded by a sea of relatively heedless industrial activity."
(I should point out that Higgs and I both support The Wildlands Project and I believe the organization very thoughtful.) What is the alternative, then? If both Yellowstone National Park - representative of preservation and protection - and suburban sprawl - representative of egocentric consumption - ultimately lead to a similar erosion of our relationship to Nature, in what direction can we turn?

We might look east, to Japan. This may seem counter intuitive; Japan, after all, is associated with a relentless push for commercial whaling, overfishing, sprawl and, most notably, crowding. Those of us who followed the Kyoto Treaty (Protocol) brouhaha know that Japan produces many tonnes of CO2, well below the levels of the United States, but more than any European country. Furthermore, Japan's reliance on nuclear energy upsets many environmentalists.

But if we take a quick look at the numbers, we find some interesting patterns. Despite Japan's ranking 81st of 86 countries in biosphere reserves per capita (making the small size of the country less relevant) - compare this figure to Canada (20th of 86) and the United States (25th of 86) - the country ranks 2nd of 68 countries in biodiversity richness (ahead of both Canada and the U.S.) and 31st of 142 countries in endangered species protections (just behind Canada, but well ahead of the U.S.). Also curious is the shockingly low municipal waste generation; Japan produces 410 kgs person/year, whereas the U.S. produces 760 kgs and Canada, 640 kgs. The ecological footprint scores are also remarkable. Whereas the United States has an average score of 12.22 per person and Canada an average of 7.66, Japan's average is 5.94, lower than most European countries. Overall the trend is apparent. Japan offers little in the way of habitat protection, that most celebrated of North American conservation strategies, but instead incorporates the human element into the surroundings with minimal detriment. Ranked by percentage of "wilderness," Canada ranks 2nd out of 142 countries, the United States ranks 32nd. Japan doesn't even break 100, coming in 104th. Japan, a small, industrialized country with little protected "wilderness" pollutes less and has greater biodiversity than either Canada or the United States. What's going on here?

For an answer, I turn again to Eric Higgs, who writes,
"I prefer to think of management...as a negotiated process between restorationists and ecological processes. If one presumes management to imply control, this will result in restorations that fail because of overdetermination and artificiality. At the other end of the spectrum, those who hold that ecological processes are endlessly adaptable and do not require management are simply avoiding a hard lesson: some human intrusions are irrecoverable without further human artifice, so that human agency is sometimes a good thing. Between these two extremes is a participatory - some might call it coevolutionary - process wherein restorationists are working in conjunction with ecological processes with skill, intelligence, and appropriate modesty."
In describing intelligent conservation (though he terms it ecological restoration), Higgs is effectively describing the practice of Japanese gardening. Some degree of control and manipulation is encouraged, but the hand is ultimately expected to be tender, to share the experience with the tree, plant or landscape. There is minimal distinction between the human contribution and "natural" processes. The wabi-sabi aesthetic celebrates that which is temporal, divine in its "naturalness," but not perfect. Wabi-sabi, then, is a celebration of humanity via Nature, and vice versa. The concept of Eden, so important in western conservation, is mostly irrelevant to the Japanese. There is no "original" garden to which we can return, no dominion granted by our Father up in the sky. Humans shape the eternal garden, day in and day out, part of the same force, ritualized though the practices may have become.

I've been preoccupied by these ideas this week, especially with the Pleistocene Park idea being bounced about in the media. We North Americans need to decide what it is we want. Too much focus on preservation will likely result in unfortunate results, and perhaps even accelerate the decline of biodiversity. But we also need to decide how to handle our desire to "restore" Eden. Where do we draw the line? Should we really spend many millions of dollars introducing African species to our plains in an effort to "return" to a 30,000 year old ecosystem? Is it any more sensible to aim for healthy populations of large North American mammals circa 1900? 1850? 1492? Can we move past Judeo-Christian ideals to advance an agenda that maximizes biodiversity and strives for lower human impact, or will we follow Europe's lead? Progressive though the Europeans may be, healthy ecosystems are few and far between in that fragmented part of the globe.

Admittedly, Japan is not without sin - their "gardening" would do well by an injection of wildlife biology knowledge, a field which isn't much established in Asia - but they seem to have had some success marrying humanity to Nature, even in contemporary life. In part a result of religious belief, in part a result of aesthetic prominence, Japan's approach deserves a more careful examination by our philosophers and biologists. I remain quite excited about the upcoming trip.

Photo credit: copyright, Uwe R. Zimmer

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Monday, August 22, 2005

Sartore in the Pantanal

A Joel Sartore photograph from Brazil's Pantanal. This image features a Great Egret (Ardea alba) being taken by a yellow anaconda (Eunectes notaeus).

Photo credit: image originally published in National Geographic

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Flipping the switch

I wrote a blurb for Organic Matter on the Santa Monica Sustainable City Plan.

On a related note, I've switched my apartment electricity to "green energy." My electricity won't be directly drawn from wind and hydro power but, by paying a premium rate, I help subsidize New York State's alternative energy projects. Although I do have some minor reservations about hydro and wind power, they're far better than our more traditional power sources.

It's easy to make such a switch in most areas. Visit Green-E "Pick Your Power" for more information on your local options. In New York City, I contacted ConEdison Solutions/GREEN Power. Because ConEdison was already my supplier, switching to their alternative plan took only a few minutes.


I'm also including a photograph by Joel Sartore, scanned from the most recent issue of National Geographic. The fine looking critter below is a maned wolf (Chrysocyon brachyurus) or stilt-legged fox, photographed in the Pantanal of southwest Brazil. I prefer the more descriptive nickname since it closely resembles a fox.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Pardon Me...Spare An Indulgence?

Last week, Organic Matter highlighted a few "carbon mitigation tools" previously unknown to me. For those unfamiliar with the concept of Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs), the PV USA Solar site provides an excellent introduction.

An arm of Renewable Ventures, LLC, a San Francisco based company which finances and operates renewable energy power plants, PV USA Solar offers a comprehensive list of RECs. Their website "allows you to calculate the amount of CO2 produced by your home, your business, your commute, or your travel, and then purchase renewable energy certificates to offset those emissions." Over the last year, similar programs have been adopted by foreign governments. Official air travel by United Kingdom civil servants, for example, is tracked by a government agency that calculates "the amount of globe-warming carbon dioxide emitted during each flight." The agency then "offsets a commensurate amount of CO2 by investing money in clean-energy projects in developing countries."

I'm not content to wait for the United States government to act on my behalf. In less than three weeks, I depart New York City for Japan. After months of price comparisons and phone calls to booking agencies, I secured a relatively inexpensive, round-trip flight on American Airlines. The total cost, including gas surcharges and all taxes, is $850.00. But wait. A quick visit to PV USA Solar informs me of the following.
"Your travel will generate an estimated 5713.6 pounds of CO2. By purchasing 7142.0 kilowatt-hours of Renewable Energy Certificates, you will offset an equivalent amount of pollution generated by California power plants. Your cost for these RECs will be $214.26."
$1,064.26 no longer seems like such a "steal," but I will rationalize the extra expense by reminding myself that, had I purchased the ticket a month or two earlier, I would have paid over $1,000.00 before the REC fee.

Still, $214.26 isn't peanuts. Why do I feel compelled to pay the surcharge? I could, of course, choose not to. I mean, RECs are really for more "settled" people, right?

Wrong. No matter what the cost, cosmopolitan individuals - "citizens of the world" - are obligated to buy RECs for any traveling they do. To be aware of a problem and still choose to ignore it is, simply put, selfish. Ignorance is inexpensive bliss, but buying the REC is a pro-active gesture; my absolution will result in funding for alternative energy development, something I can ultimately be proud of.

But hold on! Did I just write "absolution?"

At fourteen, I hadn't yet to hear the romance of history's song. As a result, much of what my Western Civ professor taught remained unlearned. I do, however, remember discussing Martin Luther, the 16th Century theologian. Luther stuck in my mind for two reasons. 1) His name is shared by a 20th Century American hero. 2) He led the crusade against the sale of indulgences, also known as the Protestant Reformation.

As defined by the Roman Catholic Church, an indulgence is "The remission of temporal punishment still due for a sin that has been sacramentally absolved." In other words, you can buy your way out of purgatory by paying the church a repentance fee.

It is one thing to sin and later claim to have repented, but medieval citizens felt obliged to demonstrate their sincerity via external actions. (After all, it isn't God that frightens most people, but the possibility of being held in contempt by your peers.) While these public displays began as charitable acts - helping to feed the poor, for example - mercantilism allowed the church to generate revenue by banking on guilt. Because a medieval peasant didn't always have time to pursue charitable acts, opting to atone for misdeeds by paying the local church representative was an attractive alternative.

But it wasn't long before Rome realized how lucrative indulgences were. Already the most powerful governing body in Europe, the Catholic church now stood to become the most wealthy. Martin Luther crusaded against such corruption, but he also worried that "his parishoners were beginning to rely upon indulgences for their salvation more than repentance and satisfaction."

The first time I read about RECs, I recalled Luther's watchdog mission. An REC, after all, is an indulgence. Indulgences became popular only once the Catholic church embraced mercantilism and RECs are becoming popular at a time when market-based environmentalism is on the rise.

Philosophically speaking, RECs might be considered equally problematic as medieval indulgences. Many a well-intentioned citizen will purchase TerraPass, for example, and feel they have "done their part" for the environment, stopping short of a real contribution. More troubling still is the flagellation granted by RECs; realizing that most Americans couldn't care less about offsetting emissions, those of us who do purchase them will act as martyrs for the cause and little good can come of such a complex.

Fortunately, those of us who buy RECs know how the money is being used - at least, each of us should be responsible enough to check out these groups before cutting a check - and the more conscientious among us will recognize RECs as but one responsibility among many.

Photo credit: Copyright © 1997-1998 Concordia Historical Institute

Monday, August 15, 2005

New Toys, Old Toys

I post the above cartoon not because I find it particularly funny (I don’t), but because it frustrates and depresses me. This office dork need not part with his action figures. He should instead keep his monitor until it stops working. In the background, we see other office employees admiring the newly requisitioned flat-panel monitors. The older, boxy models are carelessly piled on the bottom shelf of the cart.

Similar scenes are all too common in "real world" offices. In fact, it seems as though many offices “update” their computer hardware every few years (at least)! The employees usually love it (new toys!), so it’s good for morale. The hardware manufacturers love it (more money!), so it’s good for the economy. What’s there to lose?
“A Carnegie Mellon University study estimated that in 2002 the United States sent about 10 million computer units to Asia for recycling….As long as computer users and the computer industry refuse to clean up after themselves, people in [Indian villages] will pay the price instead.”

-“Hazards of High Tech,” Mike McPhate, Sierra Magazine
Calling this variety of outsourcing “recycling” is misleading. The computer parts are broken down by hand, “picked clean of metal,” and burnt or doused with acids by Indian women and children. For their labors, these “recyclers” are paid $1 a day, a nominal sum even by Indian standards. More troubling still is the host of medical problems these workers develop, the eventual result of working with “leads, dioxins and other pollutants.”

The lifecycle of computer hardware is a fine example of trickle-down economics. Way to go, Gipper. Way to go.

Photo credit: The New Yorker

Friday, August 12, 2005

Random Quotes and Stuff: Installment #3

"Last summer, the F.D.A. approved the leech for use as a medical device, making this only the second time that the agency has authorized such a use for a live animal. (Maggots, which can be applied to wounds to consume infected tissue, were approved in January, 2004.)"

-John Colapinto, "Blood Suckers," The New Yorker, July 25, 2005
I find this news exciting. When I first read about the maggots-as-medicine approval last year, I was elated. I hoped that more people would realize how interconnected everything is if doctors dumped maggots into their festering wounds. Unfortunately, most people feel very differently about composter species and the idea of squirming, white grubs eating their flesh - even dead, dying or inflamed flesh - will likely disturb them. Whatever...I'll just go sit in the corner and play with my leeches.

"It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way….It endures because young men love it and old men love it in them."

-Judge Holden speaking in Cormac McCarthy's novel, Blood Meridian
In the early nineties, Operation Desert Storm was featured prominently on network television and in department stores. My Virginian neighbors proudly wore T-shirts emblazoned with the mission name, as though it was a World Series commemorative; to be without one was unusual or, worse, unpatriotic.

I was thirteen years old in 1991. I remember watching the green-tinted, "night vision" films of Baghdad air raids as I lay on the floor of my parents' living room, drawing pictures. I wondered, naively, why we still fought wars. After World War II, after the horror of the atomic bomb, I thought, we should know better.

And yet, five quick years later, I seriously considered military service. Being a good patriot requires some service to the country, I told myself, and, more importantly, I would not be "truly alive" until I had charged into harms way, guns blazing. I'm no longer so naive or bloodthirsty, but I think Judge Holden's answer accurate, no matter how damned distressing it may be.

"Children need the dark materials of fairy tales because they need to make sense - in a symbolic, displaced way - of their own feelings of anger, resentment, and powerlessness. Children also benefit from learning about violence and brutishness in fairy tales, Bettelheim writes, for it counters the 'widespread refusal to let children know that the source of much that goes wrong in our life is due to our natures - the propensity of all men for acting aggressively, asocially, selfishly.'"

-Margaret Talbot, 'The Candy Man," The New Yorker, July 11 & 18, 2005
I recently met a young girl - I believe she was six or seven years of age - whom I found especially intriguing. At a Long Island dinner party, the several children present announced that they intended to "put on a show" for the adults, mostly Long Island married couples and a few odd men and women out, myself among them. A few minutes later, this particular girl emerged with a wand, a vaguely ethereal tutu bottom and a wide, toothy grin to announce the name of her segment. "Evil Always Wins," she said, proudly. She proceeded to make her way around the room, lightly touching the heads of all in attendance with her wand, announcing, "Now you have been made evil."

I took an instant liking to the precocious girl and found myself pondering her performance for much of the party. I believe she intended to protect the adults from the cruel realities of the world. Because "evil always wins," she magically transformed each of us into evil beings, thereby saving us from future defeat.

Examining this logic from an adult perspective, it stinks of "selling out," an "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" attitude, but children don't necessarily view the world in this way. For example, when I was ten or eleven, I once longed to be a werewolf or vampire, not so I could surf down Main Street on the roof of a van, but so I could "infect" people I liked, creating an eternal community of kindred spirits. Sure, at twenty-seven this scenario seems dangerously cultish, but I also used to fantasize about tearing away the throats of my "enemies," and if I'm not going to condemn my childhood wants and desires for their violent content, I certainly won't do so for their lack of philosophical foresight. Besides, there are worse fates than lycanthropy or vampirism.

When I later recounted the story of this "evil," little girl, most listeners shook their head and said things like, "Wow, something is sure wrong with her" or "That's disturbing. She's a troubled kid, huh?" I wouldn't be surprised to learn that there is something amiss in the child's life, but most children wrestle with real world nightmares. It's a vital part of growing up. Scars, mental and physical, stay with us, an important part of who we are. An increasingly protective approach to child rearing, though, has taken hold. Disney, as far as I'm concerned, is the embodiment of popular parenting, making formulaic movies to entertain unimaginative children and adults alike. The animation is spectacular, certainly, but the plots are hollow and repetitive alongside those found in, say, Grimms' Fairy Tales.

I brought this up with a parent I know and she told me she would never give Grimms' to her daughter "because they are too frightening." But I agree with G.K. Chesterton, author of "The Ethic of Elfland," who writes that fairytales inspire in children a sense that life "is not only a pleasure but an eccentric privilege." What a marvelous way of putting it!

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Baggin' It

Sometimes the world can get you down. That's my hackneyed observation for Thursday, August 11th, 2005.

This morning, I read bad news in the papers and received bad news from friends. The happy anecdote that follows serves as something of an antidote on this dim morning, and I hope that it will bolster the spirits of a few readers.

On Saturday afternoon, I took a break from the studio to do some food shopping. The local grocery store may not be much to look at, but it is surprisingly well-stocked and offers an impressive selection of organic foods. I often spend too long wandering the aisles, studying labels and comparing prices, but I find the routine enjoyable. Depending on my mood, it provides me with a good opportunity to refocus, to stop worrying about the state of the world or the progress of my painting.

This Saturday, I over-loaded my red, plastic basket and proceeded to the registers. The lines were short and I stepped in behind a young lady. I skimmed the magazine rack offerings. (For the record, Jennifer still loves Brad, and the Hilton sisters, American paragons of virtue and social conscience, are reportedly involved in a feud with various Hollywood A-list celebrities.) Lost in a world of photo re-touching and conspicuous consumption, I was startled to notice the cashier scanning the first of my items.

"I don't need you to bag anything. I'll just throw it in these," I said, gesturing toward the three canvas tote bags slung over my shoulder. Almost always, it seems that this statement is greeted with disdain. When I first started carrying tote bags to stores, I decided that I was imagining the dirty looks. Unfortunately, that isn't the case. Though I bag my own items, thereby saving clerks' time and energy, my tote bags typically baffle or annoy the store employees. Go figure.

I began packing my bags while the cashier continued to scan my items. A few moments later, I heard her curse quietly. She'd inadvertently hit the register's power button. "This might take a few minutes," she told me, anxiously. I used to have little patience for such situations, but I've grown more tolerant of brief delays and I also felt sorry for her, recalling my own Food Lion days.

While I waited, a couple stuck in line behind me talked about their dinner plans. I stood and stared out the window, half listening. My interest was piqued, however, when they began to talk about my bags.

"Look at the bags he uses, honey. That's a good idea."

"Yeah, we should use our tote bags. I have, like, three at home just getting dusty."

Then the register came back on line. I paid my bill, shouldered the tote bags and made my way home feeling pretty good, all in all.

Sometimes the little things can seem so satisfying. That was my hackneyed observation for Saturday, August 6th, 2005.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Links: Green Building, Sustainablog and Burtynsky

I want to encourage participation in this National Resources Defense Council action alert. Follow this link to send an email voicing your support for the New York City Green Buildings Bill. Though many readers do not live in New York City or the region, I believe all comments are significant, especially since NYC fancies itself the country's cultural leader.

Also, Sustainablog has been on a roll lately, offering some informative tidbits for folks interested in sustainable development and environmentalism. Initially, I responded well to the information communicated on Sustainablog, but didn't take to the "blurb" approach. Over time, however, I've realized that it one of the best sources for links and updates pertaining to the field.

Jeff, Sustainablog's founder, also has a post up about the work of Edward Burtynsky, one of my favorite contemporary photographers. Visit Burtynsky's site.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Go! Go! Conservation Force!

With the creation of the Sierra Sportsmen Network, the Sierra Club has offered an olive branch to hunters. The network describes itself as,
"a countrywide, thousands-strong group of conservation-minded anglers and hunters. Since the Sierra Club was founded in 1892, hunters and anglers have played a leadership role in our work to preserve the wild places and wildlife all Americans enjoy. We have built this community website for angler and hunters like you, a place to share your passion for the outdoors!"
Would that more environmental organizations recognized the vital contribution that hunters and anglers make to conservation! Unfortunately, skepticism runs deep on both sides: many Sierra Club members remain opposed to hunting and many hunters are suspicious of welcoming gestures from "left-wing tree huggers."

Knowing that I'm always on the lookout for happy marriages of outdoorsmen to environmentalists, a colleague recently directed me to the Conservation Force website. The organization's decision to use the word "force" in their name seemed unnecessarily aggressive, but I forgave this superficial point and initially responded well to Conservation Force's mission statement.
"The mission of Conservation Force is the conservation of wildlife and the natural world. The purpose is to establish and further conservation of wildlife, wild places and our outdoor way of life.

The name "Conservation Force" stands for three forces. First, that hunters and anglers are an indispensable force for wildlife conservation, second, that Conservation Force is a collaborative effort combining forces of a consortium of organizations and, third, that Conservation Force itself is a proactive force to be reckoned with because of its record of successes."
Intrigued by the encouraging, if ineloquent statement, I decided to explore the Conservation Force website further. Sadly, the group proved to be less than I'd hoped.

Three of the seven links on the Conservation Force homepage deal with hunting: "Role of Hunting," "Why We Hunt," and "Info for Hunters." This is unusual for a conservation group, even one that stresses the importance of hunting and angling in their mission statement. I soon learned why; the "Role of Hunting" page makes clear that Conservation Force is more interested in promoting hunting than in supporting conservation.
"In the last quarter of the 20th Century, a new conservation tool arose from regulated sport hunting. The safari hunting industry began providing new conservation opportunities. Safari hunters were some of the first ecotourists. Their contribution has become world renowned through programs such as CAMPFIRE, the Chobe Enclave Conservation Trust, BOPParks, etc. Tourist safari hunting is the most efficient, effective, self-funding tool to conserve wildlife, promote biodiversity and provide immediate benefits to rural people in remote areas."
Both safari hunting and traditional ecotourism allow "rural people in remote areas" to equate their native flora and fauna with revenue, thereby encouraging local conservation efforts and more thoughtful stewardship...but safari hunting is not "the most efficient, effective, self-funding tool to conserve wildlife." Certainly, big game hunts generate revenue that is used for conservation projects, but traditional, low-impact ecotourism is far more popular and lucrative.

Conservation Force claims that "[safari hunting] has the potential to generate more income for land owners from a given number of wild animals than wildlife cropping, ranching and viewing tourism." This is a misleading statement. Proponents of safari hunting cling to the revenue argument because big game hunters pay handsomely for the animals they shoot. In addition to general safari fees, each hunted animal must be paid for. A waterbuck, for example, can cost the hunter $2,500, and a leopard or cheetah might net $5,000. Indeed, if there were as many hunters as ecotourists, the Conservation Force argument would be legitimate. But this is not so. Even with the exorbitant trip rates and animal permits, safari hunting generates a fraction of the revenue that ecotourism does. Conservation Force also asserts that safari hunting is "self limiting, as tourists lose interest automatically when trophy quality decreases." Regrettably, this is not true; I've met many trophy hunters, and know that most trophy hunters will settle for a lesser trophy.

These above points can be debated, however. It wasn't until I reached the "Why We Hunt" page that I lost all hope.
"At Conservation Force we believe that attack on hunters is immoral! We believe that there is a moral right to hunt within sustainable limits and that it is so important to man in human terms that it is deserving of protection on moral grounds. It is anti-social, offensive and immoral for anti-hunters to attack what is so unique and fundamentally valuable in human terms to the significant minority who hunt....As beings we are programmed or designed to be hunters. It is our essence. Hunting made us human. It has shaped our evolution and development. It is our "authenticity." (Paul Shepard) Hunting uniquely provides self actualization, completeness and expression which are complex, higher order needs deserving of protection. These are human needs higher on the needs scale than food, and security."
Ignoring the shoddy writing and clumsy quotation attribution, the suggestion that it's anti-social to attack hunting on moral grounds is outrageous! Such thoughtless rhetoric is what gives hunters a bad name.

I've written here about the "completeness" of hunting and I feel strongly about the importance of outdoor experience to all humans, but the claim that "self-actualization" is a higher "need" than food and security is just dumb. The preeminent psychologist Abraham Maslow is best remembered for his Hierarchy of Needs. At the bottom of the pyramid are the physiological needs, such as nutrition, sleep, water and breathable air. The next strata of Maslow's scheme includes good health and security. The third level is friendship, love and affection. Self-actualization is a level five need! It is not something every human requires. A starving, anti-social human in a dangerous environment doesn't hunt a deer to "learn something about herself," but for the food and clothing the dead animal will provide. Are the good folks at Conservation Force really suggesting otherwise?

The third objective of Conservation Force - found on the "Organization" page - is to "insure the continued contribution and positive perception of the hunting and angling conservation community." It appears that they're going about this objective in the wrong way.

(July 2007 update: I'm proud to report that my uncle, renowned environmental historian and author Dr. John Reiger, is the first interviewee on the group's website.)

Monday, August 08, 2005

Live 8 and Surowiecki

In late July, several bloggers critiqued Bob Geldof's most recent humanitarian circus, Live 8. Blogging buddy Devo, at Vitriolic Monkey, wrote,
"If, twenty years hence, we still see Malaria, AIDS and Tuberculosis running rampant [in Africa], and if at that point we still see photos of hunger-fattened youths with flies around their eyes, and we still see Sally Struthers waddling through the dirt-paved streets urging all of us to send her and her little poverty stricken urchins more Chocolate Yum Yum Bars, I will turn to Bob Geldof and friends, who will undoubtedly be lying on their death beds, from the look of him, and tell them 'I told you so.'"
Such Live 8 disillusionment was common, though there were also plenty of starry eyed youths eager to explain how Geldof's concert series had opened their eyes to the world's ills. One can only hope.

That said, I was troubled by the posts or comments that moved beyond a dismissal of Live 8 to attack international aid at large. Hector Vex, commenting at Vitriolic Monkey, wrote,
"I'm not saying fu*k the world completely, but it's time we realize that Africa is FU*KED. It's a backwards continent that hasn't gotten out of the tribal age. Let's pack up and get out of there and let them evolve on their own. Let's feed the children here before those distended little fly bags over there."
In late June, James Surowiecki wrote the following in an issue of The New Yorker.
"...many critics of foreign aid...mounted a lively backlash against both Live 8 and the G-8 summit. For them, continuing to give money to Africa is simply 'pouring billions more down the same old ratholes,' as columnist Max Boot put it. At best, these critics say, it's money wasted; at worst, it turns countries into aid junkies, clinging to the World Bank for their next fix."
This rhetoric is familiar stuff; we read it in the pages of the Wall Street Journal and hear it on Fox News broadcasts. It would be unfair, though, to suggest that such feelings are endemic to neo-conservatism; people from across the political spectrum are guilty of it.

To some extent, it's only natural. If you give a dollar bill to the same homeless man every morning for ten years and, all those years later, he's still spending your money on malt liquor, you'll likely feel cheated or frustrated. This is true of everyone, no matter how generous.

But what if you'd opted to give your money to a different person? Two blocks west is a teenage girl who fled an abusive household. You couldn't have known that she only spent her charitable handouts on food and the occasional shelter fee. Nor could you have known that giving her one dollar each morning for just ten months would have helped her find a part-time job. The point is, to let one discouraging situation cause you to write off charity at large is unfortunate and, frankly, immoral.

Again, I turn to Surowiecki,
"Skepticism about the usefulness of alms to the Third World is certainly in order. Billions of dollars have ended up in the pockets of kleptocratic rulers - in Zaire alone, Mobutu Sese Soko stole at least four billion - and still more has been misspent on massive infrastructure boondoggles, like the twelve-billion-dollar Yacyreta Dam...which Argentina's former President called 'a monument to corruption.' And historically there has been little correlation between aid and economic growth.

This checkered record notwithstanding, it's a myth that aid is doomed to failure."
Sure, that particular "bum" drank your generosity, but perhaps you should have chosen more wisely. Botswana, Mozambique and Uganda, for example, have all been using their aid to jump start their economies (though AIDS continues to ravage the populations). Costa Rica, now the gem of Central America, was once an aid recipient as were Ireland, South Korea and Taiwan, now wealthy countries on the move.

Surowiecki analyzes the aid situation further. He writes,
"during the Cold War aid was more often a geopolitical tool than a well-considered economic strategy, so it's not surprising that much of the money was wasted. And we now understand that the kind of aid you give, and the policies of the countries you give it to, makes a real difference."
Surowiecki is not a Utopian dreamer. He notes the many problems with post-Cold War aid programs, citing the unknown variables as the biggest concern. In other words, even an educated guess can turn out poorly. You could pick the homeless teenage girl as the beneficiary of your generosity...but she might become a heroin addict with no desire to get sober. The bad result can (and often does) happen. Sho'nuff, that stinks.

Every year, I donate hundreds of dollars to conservation groups from around the country. Some years they accomplish little of note. Does this mean that I should stop supporting them? Absolutely not, and neither should the First World abandon its commitment to the rest of the globe.

Geldof's Live 8 is a drop in the bucket; I've no doubt that most concert goers have already forgotten about the "dark continent" and are thinking ahead to Fall clothing sales and the latest album releases. Fortunately, the apathy and ignorance of the American populace doesn't determine our international aid policy. Unfortunately, this administration appears to approach aid with the same "What? Me worry?" attitude.
"In 2002, President Bush created the Millennium Challenge Account, which is designed to target assistance to countries that adopt smart policies, and said that the U.S. would give five billion dollars in aid by 2006. Three years later, a grand total of $117,500 has been handed out. [Note: That's just over 2%.] By all means, let's be tough-minded about aid. But let's not be hardheaded about it."

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Processing Plants And Psychology

A proponent of meat-lite or vegetarian diets, I sometimes feel resented by meat-eating family members, friends, and acquaintances. Their resentment may be the result of a guilty conscience, a conviction that vegetarian diets are unhealthy, or some combination of the two. But because it takes a long while to explain my personal approach, and because quiet examples are better than loud ones, I don't expend a lot of breath defending my diet. In fact, I'm irritated by vegetarians who make a fuss about their choice, say hateful things about meat-eaters, or make a morality play out of every public meal. This Washington Post piece, though, describes an aspect of the meat industry that gets little attention, even from "fundamentalist" vegetarians and animal rights activists.

The work conditions faced by meat packing employees are deplorable. Better monitoring of work place practices and of the psychological needs of the employees is needed. The psychological stresses of meat industry employment are too often overlooked. Although I'm comfortable butchering my own meat (and feel that every meat-eater should be required to gut and prepare at least one of each species they plan to consume in the course of their lifetime), the assembly line approach of the meat industry can skew one's relationship with death. As the Washington Post article mentions, workers must use "caustic chemicals and high-powered hoses to remove blood, bone and gristle from moving machinery parts." The caustic chemicals are dangerous, of course, but what of the folks who spend all day living amongst the gore-covered machinery? For them, does death cease to be death?

The region of Virginia where I spent my youth supported many chicken farms and several large-scale "processing" plants belonging to Perdue, Holly Farms and Tyson. The stench emanating from these plants - the smell of excrement and rotting guts - drew apocalyptic flocks of gulls. Likewise, the minimum wage jobs drew a steady line of ashen-faced employees who, in order to cope in such a work environment, ceased to view chickens as life forms. The bird was reduced to mere product. Such a corrosion of moral and ethical reasoning signals, in my mind, a critical breakdown in our understanding of humanity's place in the world.

A reduced demand for meat would gradually vacate most of these jobs. Yes, that's "bad for the economy," but what's bad for the economy isn't always bad for our spirit.

Photo credit: The Baltimore Sun

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Let the kids decide

Evolution-oriented blogs like The Loom and Panda's Thumb are providing thoughtful reactions to recent comments made by our nation's fearless leader.

I don't feel the need to add anything to their thoroughly depressing commentary, but I though I should share the below cartoon, sent to me by a friend earlier this afternoon.

Image hosted by Photobucket.com

Peter Schjeldahl on Winslow Homer

Image hosted by Photobucket.com
Winslow Homer
"Right and left"
Oil on canvas

Peter Schjeldahl is one of the most respected American art critics. He served for years as the Village Voice's chief critic, but when The New Yorker hired him in the nineties, his readership expanded and he won much acclaim.

Schjeldahl's criticism is curious, often barely qualifying as such; he tends to write free-form essays about artists and exhibitions that he appreciates, saving invective for misguided art world fads. When a writer is as intelligent and creative as Schjeldahl is, this approach often results in a generous, beautiful essay.

Schjeldahl's latest New Yorker offering, "Telling Stories," is a review of the Winslow Homer exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. Whereas most critics would discuss a few paintings, focusing on formal elements and the art historical significance of the work, Schjeldahl instead analyzes the difference between "reportage and art" and confronts his bias against Homer.

At one point in "Telling Stories," Schjeldahl suggests that the recent surge of collector and curatorial interest in Winslow Homer is revealing.
"Homer's storytelling put him on the losing side of modern art. Alfred Stieglitz denigrated his work, though with an odd note of respect, as 'nothing more than the highest type of Illustration.'...Homer is improving at present because the banishment of illustration from canonical modern painting, after Manet, has worn out. We like stories, and important painting of the past forty years, from Gerhard Richter to John Currin, has become ever more illustrative, and enamored of the one-off image."
Well, to that, this proud one-offer can only say, "Amen."

Photo credit: "Left and Right," oil painting by Winslow Homer

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Art World Ennui

My parents claim that I was wearing Winnie-the-Pooh pajamas when I first declared my artistic ambition. Asked by some house guests what I planned to be when I grew up, I supposedly replied, "Either a fireman or a cartoonist." Because memories easily merge with myth (especially when your father is a writer), I'm reasonably sure that this anecdote is apocryphal. Nevertheless, it reflects a truth; early on, I was determined to make pictures for a living.

I was twelve years-old when I created my first published strip. "Porky's Paradise," an adolescent homage to Berkeley Breathed's "Bloom County," was printed weekly in the Eastern Shore News. Six years later, my last strip, "Hangin' In There," appeared regularly in the William & Mary Flat Hat. This college humor strip detailed the mundane anxieties of a long-haired undergraduate with a penchant for combat boots and flannel.

Although "Hangin' In There" was created during my freshman year of college, my career goals had by then shifted. I'd become more interested in comic books and graphic novels, and I was most excited by "The Mole" and "Raccoon-Man," comic book series that I'd begun working on in my senior year of high school. Although only my close friends read these comics (offering lukewarm reactions), I was nonetheless convinced that I was destined for a lucrative career with Marvel, D.C. or Image. At William & Mary, I helped T Campbell, later the creator of "Fans" and a major success in the world of web comics, found and edit Unstrung Fiction, the college's first publication dedicated to the graphic novel.

Focused on sequential story-telling, it wasn't until my junior year of college that my priorities shifted again. I decided to become a painter. In retrospect, I think this decision sprung from my preference for illustrating "moments" rather than weaving narratives.

One can not suddenly abandon their influences, however, and I had a hard time with the exclusionary attitudes of "fine artists." My early moves into this hallowed domain were crude exercises, essential cartoons in oil paint. When asked by art instructors to name my artistic influences, I'd name Bill Watterson, Berkeley Breathed, and Todd McFarlane, while my classmates recited unfamiliar, European names.

Gradually, though, as I learned more about the work of twentieth century art world luminaries, I came to love the paintings of Egon Schiele, Max Beckmann and Francis Bacon. My attraction to these three artists should have come as no surprise, but it would be several years before I realized what these three painters share: a bold, graphic approach to contour and color. They are illustrators' painters every bit as much as they are painters' painters; their work points to the absurdity of the distinction.

My embrace of the graphic approach would raise the ire of my art professors. "Illustrator" was then, and to some extent remains, a four letter word in the art world. Once I was ensconced in the New York scene, the prejudice against "illustrative" works was even more apparent. If you weren't making installations, videos, sculpture or conceptual work, you were fighting uphill to find an audience. The intellectual insecurity that fed this unfortunate bias was largely a holdover from the confused nineties and an influx of young artists raised on comics and animation would soon breathe some vitality back into the increasingly insular art world.

I was perfectly positioned to take advantage of this sea change. I guess I did, too, for a hot second. As I explained in "Of Fairy Tales and Flights of Fancy," though, I tired of painting colorful, imagined wonderlands; it didn't feel wholly comfortable and, more importantly, it felt a little thoughtless or arbitrary. My current body of work is very satisfying, but I again find myself out of sync with art world preferences.

Art Forum, one of the better art magazines available, is usually a pleasure to flip through. Despite my loathing of most contemporary art writing, I even enjoy some of the articles and reviews published in its pages. The principal appeal of Art Forum, though, lies in its dimensions and heft; it presents the "reader" with lots of big pictures. The magazine is to artists what Cosmo might be to a teenage fashion queen, a collection of images you can hate, love or be decidedly ambivalent about. Also like Cosmo, Art Forum is comprised mainly of advertisements, though all of these are for galleries or shows. I dog-ear many pages in each issue and later look up the gallery or artist(s) online.

Lately, however, I've been marking only a few pages. My time spent with the magazine is no longer satisfying and, as I flip through each issue, I find myself wondering what the point is. Most of the artwork is irrelevant alongside the "real" issues of the day. Obviously, artistic likes and dislikes are subjective, but what I deal with now is best described as art world ennui. Such a position might be more understandable if I were a hugely successful, late career artist, an individual tired of the superficial art market, but I'm what they call an "emerging" artist, the equivalent of a Triple-A ball player waiting for his chance to get called to the big show, yet I already find much of the art world intensely boring, frivolous and irrelevant. If I wasn't so happy with my own work and, more importantly, so convinced that there is an awful lot of excellent work being produced by countless others, I would call this feeling an artistic crisis.

Fortunately, it is nothing of the sort. It is simply the realization that, while I do want to make a living from my artwork and therefore need to connect myself to this world, I will probably always remain at the fringes. This will surely make my career a less remarkable one, but I hope it keeps me more sane and gives me the leeway to flee New York and live in a community where I feel I can play a vital role, contributing to local conservation projects and involving myself in local governance/leadership.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Candy Corns?


In my recent post "Long Island," I included a photograph of an unidentified parasite clustered on the leaf of a grape vine (see the image near the bottom of the original post). I could not determine what species or even what manner of parasite these growths represented and I put out an open call for guesses. Only a few people replied.

Of those who did hazard a guess, I believe that Deborah and Updog are on the right track. The "candy corns" are most likely insect eggs. Below, I've excerpted Updog's comment.
"They are, most likely, growths caused by insect eggs. In a staggering display of evolutionary complexity, the insect eggs selectively derepress genes that exist in the plant's DNA. Unlike bacterial galls, which are undifferentiated masses of cells, the insect creates a tiny 'condo' for the larva to live in... cuisinarts, dishwasher and all, so to speak.

Most likely, if you were to break one of those open, you'd find the little grub in there watching 'Queer Eye for the Straight Bug.'

I'm thouroughly blown away by the fact that this sort of selective derepression can go on across the plant/animal kingdom divide."
Thanks to everyone who offered their thoughts and, should anyone get a definitive ID, please let me know.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Zoo Time

This past Sunday afternoon, I visited the Bronx Zoo with a friend and his wife. 4 1/2 hours of animal observation should energize and excite someone so passionate about conservation and ethology, but I sat sapped in a diner that evening, absently watching traffic merge onto the expressway.

What is it about zoos that so depresses me? Although a strong case can be made that zoos are unethical, this high-minded charge doesn't unsettle me. In fact, animal care has improved at a remarkable rate. In the 19th century, the zoological garden didn't exist. Their forebears, private menageries assembled to display wealth and influence, and side-shows designed as profitable entertainment, generally provided the caged animals with only basic needs. Fortunately, as the study of natural history flowered, so too did the zoological garden. Early zoos served two purposes; they provided the public with entertaining education and scientists with first-hand access to exotic species. Thus, the groundwork was laid for influential conservation organizations like the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Certainly, I sometimes feel that zoo enclosures are too small, too dirty, too damp, or too dry but, as a general rule, the care received by contemporary zoo animals ranges from good to excellent. The attention-grabbing headlines aside, most zoo keepers are diligent workers and conscientious stewards. Furthermore, zoo signage has improved greatly in recent decades. At the Bronx Zoo, signs provide visitors with general species information, but they also highlight curious animal behavior and pertinent environmental issues.

All of this is positive, so what is it that I find so objectionable? The answer, sadly, is the willful ignorance of the typical zoo goer. The bad behavior I observed on Sunday is routine. I watched people feed french fries and gold fish crackers to ducks and geese, and toss chunks of soft pretzel at Pere David deer (Elaphurus davidianus). Others banged on glass enclosures housing rodents, birds, reptiles, amphibians or monkeys. When I politely chided one young boy for striking several snake enclosures, he replied, "You're not my Dad," and ran off. Minutes later, I watched in shock as his father rapped on a turtle enclosure.

Some youngsters cursed at the animals while their parents stood nearby, saying things like, "Oh, that's gross" or "Yeah, you know that mother fu*ker is thinking about getting some frog pussy later tonight." One zoo goer approached a display and loudly asked, "What is that? Oh, my God. It's weird," then walked away. She never looked at the signage. A NASCAR fan (judging by his shirt and cap) was perplexed by the inclusion of a chainsaw in a rainforest vivarium. Leaning over a sign that detailed the negative impacts of logging in Central and South America, he shouted over his shoulder to his wife, "What is the hacksaw doing there?!"

Watching a group of gelada baboons (Theropithecus gelada) groom one another in the shade, I was startled by the booming voice of a middle-aged woman behind me. "Look at the gorillas. See the gorillas, everyone? You see 'em? Look at the Gorillas. Are these Gorillas? Yeah, these are the gorillas. See this one here? He's the father and he's cleaning the mother. Ain't that cute? Ain't that something? Damn! See over there. That's the babies of this mother and father gorilla. Umhmmm. Neat, huh? Look at those gorillas! That's something." I worried that the male baboon would be spooked by her soliloquy but, used to such noise and nonsense, he cast a few drowsy glances in our direction and continued grooming one of his harem. That the female he groomed was not pair-bonded, that the other females were not his offspring and that none of these monkeys were apes, much less gorillas, was of no interest to the woman. Rather than correct her, I watched to see if she would notice the large 2' x 8' sign in front of her, and thereby realize that these animals were not gorillas. She did not.

Zoo goers don't seem interested in learning. The zoo is, for most visitors, a place to kill some time with the kids. As a result, every animal is turned into a playtime caricature. All the species of toucan on display was either "Toucan Sam" or "Zazu from 'The Lion King.'" (No toucan species is native to Africa, and Zazu was a species of hornbill.) The Siberian tigers (Panthera tigris altaica) were "Tony the Tiger" or "Exxon." Every animal is also characterized as horny (see frog comments above) or lazy ("Yeah, see up in the shade? He's chillin' after a long night of drinkin' with the boys."). Rarely is a creature deemed a fascinating fellow inhabitant of Earth, a testament to the marvel of evolution that is deserving of respect, study and conservation. Instead, the animals are reduced to easy parody and dismissed. Treated so poorly, the zoo encounter will merit little more than a show-and-tell remark; a day at the zoo generates the variety of temporal titillation summer blockbusters aim for.

A zoo trip isn't only about laughing at the unusual, though. Lifetime memories are granted via the purchase of stuffed animals. These plush, minaturized representations of the animal kingdom are manufactured in the Philippines, and they are more tolerable and meaningful than any fenced or caged beast, especially when they are tastefully arranged on a made bed.

When I visit zoos, I invariably contend with a surge of misanthropic loathing. Had someone approached me on Sunday afternoon with Edward Hoagland's "new variety of neutron bomb," one that kills off humanity but spares the "rest of creation," the nihilistic temptation would have been great. Of course, even if such a weapon existed, I wouldn't use it. There is no sense in punishing humanity for its inherited prejudices, most of which are shared by all the beasts. Still, one wonders how so many humans assume scalae naturae superiority, yet lack moral idealism and curiosity.

Photo credit: ripped from Strategic Transitions