Wednesday, August 16, 2017

You Have to See This to Believe It

Here is a photograph of the Barents Sea floor, where kilometer-wide methane blowouts have occurred as a result of global warming. Remember that methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. It appeared in the June 2, 2017 issue of Science.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Common-Sense Solutions and Win-Win Situations

Yesterday I heard an online presentation by Paul Hawken, a long-time expert on integrating environmental concerns (particularly carbon emissions) into economics. His theme, including that of his new book Drawdown, has consistently been that solving the global warming crisis doesn’t cost; it pays. In particular, he says that the most important things we can do are things we are already doing for other reasons, and things that will save us money in the long (or short) term. Although this book has been criticized (Science, 26 May 2017, page 811) for the questionable way in which the actual numbers were calculated (no one can produce an adequate numerical summary of the whole world economy), no one disputes the general conclusion. (I have not provided hyperlinks to the Science articles, which are only available to subscribers, even the news items and book reviews.)

Here are some particularly good examples that caught my attention.

  • One of his photos showed a Bolivian woman who lives on a floating mat of straw in Lake Titicaca. She had been heating her grass hut with a kerosene lamp, which poses an obvious fire hazard. She had just received a solar panel and was very happy. She was probably not thinking, “At last, I get to do my part in reducing global warming!” The solar panel helped her life and, incidentally, helped to reduce global warming.
  • Another photo showed cows eating kelp. Apparently, this helps them grow bigger because kelp is converted to animal mass more efficiently than is grass. The cattle produce more meat and less methane. Incidentally, methane is a potent greenhouse gas.
  • Another point was that by reducing food waste, and by having a diet that is more plant-centered (contains less meat), we can feed more people and be healthier, a double win. Incidentally, it also means we will produce less agricultural carbon dioxide and methane. Hawken’s calculations do not include methane from landfills where the food waste is dumped.
  • Having more efficient cooking stoves in rural India will make everyone’s lives better, because the people (mostly women) will have to spend less time gathering firewood, and they will be healthier because their huts will have less smoke. Incidentally, this also reduces carbon emissions.
  • A lot of methane emission comes from rice paddies that are kept flooded (anaerobic) throughout the growing season. But by periodically releasing the water, the growth conditions become aerobic and the plants grow better. Incidentally, the aerobic conditions result in lower methane emissions.

One proposed solution to global warming is carbon sequestration, that is, to burn fossil fuels in power plants but then to scrub the carbon out of the effluent. This was, until very recently, an expensive process, using up to 30 percent of the electricity that the power plant produces. But recent technological advances have greatly improved the efficiency. You can read about one of these on page 796 of the 26 May 2017 issue of Science. Another idea, described on page 805, is to use the carbon dioxide itself, rather than steam, to turn the electrical generation turbine blades.

And the technological innovations go on and on. In California, scientists have improved on the efficiency of algal biomass production for fuel (see the 14 July issue of Science, page 120). We currently use corn biofuels in most of our gasoline, which is a government perk that corn farmers love, but corn biofuel does not reduce carbon emissions very much. We now have improved methods of cellulosic biofuel production, for instance in switchgrass. Switchgrass and other cellulosic biofuels can be produced without cultivation, and without fertilization, in marginal land, leaving the good farmland to raise food (such as corn) for people (see Science, 30 June 2017, page 1349).

But none of this matters, because the Trump Administration has removed all incentives for reducing carbon emissions. Just when we were about to meet the goals, the goals vanish. American ingenuity down the drain.

The best example of all was that allowing women in poor countries to have access to education and to contraception greatly improves their lives because they can then have fewer children (and provide more resources and attention to the (usually) two that they do have). Their lives are vastly improved. According to Hawken’s calculations (similar to those of Michael Bloomberg, J. P. Morgan Chase, and the World Bank), helping women in poor countries is the single most significant factor in reducing greenhouse emissions.

What’s there not to like?

Win-win and common-sense solutions almost never work because, while they are in the interests of almost everyone, they are not in the interests of political and religious leaders. Political leaders think only of how they can get more power or campaign contributions. And religious leaders (such as fundamentalist Christian and Muslim preachers) actively oppose birth control. The blindness created by and parasitized by our political and religious leaders will keep us from even doing the things that would make life better for all of us for reasons unconnected to global warming. Led by the United States, the world will plunge into a global warming nightmare.

Dieter Helm’s Burn Out (reviewed in Science, 19 May 2017, page 709) explains that our economy will shift away from fossil fuels unless, or even if, we actively try to keep it from doing so. I hope that the dedicated efforts of the conservatives does not totally prevent this from happening.

What hope can we have if, each day, we are relieved when President Trump has not yet started a nuclear war?

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Intelligent Design vs. Writing a Novel

In summer, I have time to write novels. Maybe someday I will actually publish one.

Writing a novel is one of the closest experiences a human can have to being a Creator. The writer creates a world that must make internal sense, and in which something meaningful happens to characters about whom a reader can care. There has to be what one agent called a “redemptive arc,” in which the character’s struggles are resolved, even if the character dies. There has to be a balance; if I introduce some important force into the story, I have to have it as part of the resolution, and not leave it dangling. Perhaps most important, every scene must advance the plot in some way. Especially in today’s fiction market, there is no room for casual “asides.” (One famous example of an “aside” occurs in All the King’s Men, the novel about a corrupt governor in the early twentieth century, in which Robert Penn Warren inserted a totally unrelated story about adultery in the Civil War era.)

In three of my novels, I have imbedded a short story. In Edd’s Land, I imbedded Plantation Odyssey; in Nancy’s War, I imbedded Strangers in Green Hollow; and in Q’s the Name, I imbedded Seaside Alders. Each of the imbedded stories is a piece that was conceived as an independent novel but had no chance of surviving to term on its own. But I couldn’t just stick them in; I had to make them advance the main plot of the novel. In all three cases, I figured a way to do so.

In one of my novels, I realized that I needed to introduce the two main characters on page one. I had introduced one of them on page one, the other on page three; I realized this was a defective structure.

I also have a tendency to put in intellectual speeches, usually about religion and botany. But when I do so, I make sure they, too, advance the plot.

To have a careful structure that carries the reader along on a journey of understanding without confusing them or tripping them up or making them have to work hard to figure things out; most readers are tired, even the ones who seek understanding rather than cheap thrills. This is what it means to be a Creator.

But when you look at the universe, this is not what you see. I will give just one example. Genes of DNA (the genome) encodes the proteins that do the work of the cell. But in every case, the gene is broken up into fragments by introns, and separated by non-genetic DNA. As a matter of fact, the non-genetic DNA comprises at least 98 percent of the DNA in the cell! In some cases, as with the photosynthetic enzyme ribulose bisphosphate carboxylase, part of the enzyme is encoded in the nucleus, and another part in the chloroplast, before being assembled. It is a jumble of confusion. Nobody understands it. Nobody can look at the structure of genes and say, “Behold! Now I understand the mind of God.” Francis Collins tried, bless his heart, but it didn’t work. It looks like a Rube Goldberg apparatus. The only reason that gene expression works at all is that natural selection gets rid of any that do not work, and there must have been, over billions of years, a lot of failures. In addition, the genome contains lots and lots and lots of dead viruses.

In other words, God is either a Rube Goldberg, or is not a Creator in the fundamentalist sense.

Whoever “wrote” the genome of a typical human (or flatworm or tree) was not doing what a human creator does, giving it a logical or even comprehensible structure. The genome is more like a computer drive in which not only is the final document saved but also all of the fragments and editorial comments appear in the form of blockout print. Who would ever think of sending “John walked down the road This part is confusing. Why was he walking down the road toward isn’t it supposed to be towards? his destination Well where else would he be walking but his destination? Insert the scene from the beginning of chapter 3 here” to an editor?

The creation is not like a movie, even a bad one. It is like a movie in which all of the outtakes from the cutting-room floor are inserted at random places in the movie. No competent author would look to the genome for inspiration about how to write.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Dinosaur Trackways on the Blank Slate of the Mind

The last couple of days, I have had the privilege of working, again, with Glen Kuban down in the bed of the Paluxy River near Glen Rose, Texas (Dinosaur Valley State Park). Usually we work alone, or with a couple of other people, but this time there was a little crowd. A BBC film crew brought their cameras and even a photographic drone to get video footage of the dinosaur trackways, which I have written about numerous times previously in this blog, for example here). They also came to interview Glen, who has worked on these tracks (and knows each footprint by name) for 37 years, and he will not get some worldwide recognition for the work he has done. Congratulations, Glen! You deserve it.

Watch for the BBC video when it comes out. It will be called Rediscovering T Rex. The trackways in the park are not T. rex, but there are very few verified footprints of T. rex. But in the Paluxy river bed you can see long trackways of Acrocanthosaurus, which was similar to T. rex in many ways. The BBC does not yet have an American distributor for this video, so far only Canada and France, but I’ll bet that within a year or so you can find the video on Amazon or your local library.

I have posted a YouTube video of Glen and the film crew, if you want to experience what it was like to be there.

We were at the trackway site that was made infamous in the 1970s-era creationist movie Footprints in Stone, where creationists claimed that human footprints overlapped dinosaur footprints, thus proving, they claimed, that the entire evolutionary timetable of Earth history was wrong. The evidence of human footprints in 110-million-year-old mud (now limestone) was skimpy and some of it faked. Most creationists, even those who have not publicly disavowed the “manprints of the Paluxy,” pretty much ignore them. The son of the producer of the creationist movie, when he discovered that his father had misled his viewers about these footprints, destroyed all remaining copies of the movie. There was no discussion of this uniquely American controversy with the BBC crew, even though they knew about it, because it is such a dead issue even among creationists; certainly European viewers would wonder why anyone took so much as two breaths to talk about the supposed man-prints.

But there are still passionate creationists, mostly in the Glen Rose vicinity, who believe that the supposed man-tracks are real and that they prove that not only are all evolutionary scientists wrong, but even most creationists. They are a crazy little cult. They still have a museum right near the state park, although it appears to be on the skids and is now only open two days a week. I have posted essays in this blog about the Mantrack cult in the past (for example here). The state park personnel who were with Glen, me, and the BBC crew told me that this little cult has so effectively spread the hoax that lots of visitors still ask them how to find the man-tracks. It gets pretty intense sometimes, and rather than to create a confrontation, the park personnel sometimes have to simply walk away or busy themselves with some other park visitor.

We sort of expected that some members of this cult would come and try to disrupt the BBC filming. This did not happen, however, perhaps because there were a half dozen park employees on the scene. This track site is hard to find but the cult members, some of whom own adjacent land, can get there. They act as if they also own the river bed, and have in the past tried to keep Glen from studying the tracks. Actually, the river bed belongs to the state of Texas.

But one of the cult members came by, claiming that he was taking photographs for the City of Glen Rose. I very much doubt that the city government actually sent him, however. They might have posted some of his photos in the past, but he was acting in no official capacity. Of course, this man, whose name I forgot, and just as well, started going through his little speech about how belief in the man-tracks took less faith than belief in what he called “strict evolution.” Glen had told me beforehand almost verbatim what this little speech would be. It is as if the cult members are programmed to give their little speeches, and they will not respond to anything you say. They act as if they are brainwashed.

But that was not actually the precipitating event. The man started by saying that a cold front was coming through this weekend, and that it would only be about 92 degrees instead of the normal 97 degrees. This, he claimed, disproved the entire science of global warming. As I am one of the climate scientists that Donald Trump hates and Emmanuel Macron loves, I had to point out that this was an invalid conclusion. Global warming does not mean that temperatures never decrease; it means that they increase more, and more often, than they decrease. Well, this was all the cue he needed to self-identify as a right-wing extremist (or words to that effect; I did not yet so label him) and launch into his speech.

This man went on to comment on the fact that paleontologists have stopped using the genus name Paluxysaurus and started using Sauroposeidon instead. This shows, said the man, that scientists are wrong about this and, why not, everything else also. But changing names of organisms reflects the ongoing process of coming to better understand the evolutionary history of the organisms. And, of course, science advances because scientists make mistakes and then learn from them, something that religious cults almost by definition cannot do. Cults believe themselves to be directly inspired by God, and to admit one mistake totally undermines their reason for being.

I wish to make two points from this. First, the religious fundamentalists are now attacking all of science and education on two fronts. Formerly, they focused all their attention on evolution. Now, they also consider climate scientists to be servants of Satan. This is why scientific and educational organizations, all the way from national and international organizations such as the AAAS and NCSE to local ones such as the Oklahoma Academy ofScience and Oklahomans for Excellencein Science Education, of both of which organizations I am a past president, disseminate as much information about climate science as about evolutionary science.

The second point explains the title of this essay. The lumpy limestone of Dinosaur Valley State Park has proven to be one of the most creative blank slates upon which a religious cult can write its own version of the history of the universe. The dinosaur footprints are real enough. The supposed man-tracks are incomplete dinosaur footprints. On some of these prints, the dinosaur toes have eroded away. On others, the creationists have deliberately ignored the dinosaur toe prints. Early creationists film footage and notes show clearly that they knew the dinosaur toe marks were present. In a few infamous instances, creationists have even carved human toes on the dinosaur prints, or carved entire fake human footprints in the limestone. Rather than getting insights from the evidence in the limestone, they have used the limestone as a blank notebook on which to write their own version of reality, a version not even shared by most creationists.

It is unclear whether these cult members are dangerous. Of the hundreds of videos I have posted on my Darwin Youtube channel, the only ones on which rabidly angry comments have been posted were those in which I showed Glen Kuban at work in the Paluxy riverbed. A couple of times I have wondered whether to report these creationists to the FBI, but their comments were just short of personal threat. Of course, there were atheist comments also, which insulted the creationists. The creationist comments did not threaten the atheist commentators, Glen, or myself with any violence; they merely hoped that God would rain down fire and brimstone from the sky to destroy us and our children, that’s all. The blank pages of limestone on which this cult writes its version of reality includes at least the hope that everyone who disagrees with them will be destroyed.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Consider the lilies

One of my favorite sayings of Jesus, many of which were later condensed into a single Sermon on the Mount, is to “Consider the lilies of the field.” It is Biblical passages such as this that are a much more fruitful source of dialogue between science and religion, rather than haggling uselessly about whether the Earth is only a few thousand years old.

The lilies to which Jesus referred were the wildflowers that blanketed the Galilean hillsides briefly in the early spring, before withering away in the summer—just as they still do in the Middle East and other similar climates such as that of California. As a botanist, I really like this passage. Many of these spring wildflowers are, in fact, lilies.

Jesus did not say to glance at the lilies and then forget about them, or to walk past them while you are looking at a scroll or a cell phone. You have to stop and look carefully at them. They are so small that you will probably have to get down on your knees to do it. You will have to pull one of them apart to see the full glory of their structure hidden inside. When you do so, you will find Jesus’ promise fulfilled: “Even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed as one of these.” That is, the most amazing creations of humankind cannot compare with even one of thousands of short-lived flowers.

Jesus did not say to glance at the lilies and then believe whatever your preacher says they should look like, but to consider what they actually look like. But there are millions of fundamentalists (not quite all of them in Oklahoma where I live) who will believe whatever their preachers say, even regarding things they could easily go and look at for themselves. These deluded followers will not even bother to read the Bible, about which they actually know very little, for themselves, but just believe what the preachers tell them it says.

Jesus did not say to ignore the lilies of the field while driving your tractor or four-wheeler over them, or while pouring chemicals on them, or while paving them over or peeing on them.

I recommend that you actually get down on your knees to look at the flower, rather than picking it and holding it in your fingers. By picking it you have already vanquished it and made it into a thing, an expendable resource, rather than a living being with which you share the world. Pick it only if you are dissecting it for closer study.

I like to believe that if people who consider themselves Christians will actually get down on the ground and look at a wildflower, this will begin a cascade of consequences that will make them start thinking for themselves rather than just believing their preachers. This is important since some preachers, most famously Pat Robertson, tell them that God wants them to believe everything that Donald Trump says. How can you worship Donald Trump once you have looked closely at the intricacy of a flower?

In case you missed my video on this topic, see it here.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Is There Any Hope for the Climate Future?

As I have previously written (see the Real Ecology Manifesto at this permalink), I believe that there is no hope for the world to avoid climate catastrophe, from which the human species will survive, but human societies will not; and from which the Earth, even though minus many of its species, will recover. Nevertheless, I also believe that we need to live in such a way that, as individuals, we do the best work we can at avoiding this catastrophe. That is, even if there is no hope, we can feel that we have lived in the right way (and we can stand before God, if there is one, in the knowledge that we have done the best we could).

We cannot do this if we know our actions to be utterly futile. But what if I am wrong, and there is hope? Or, what if the good things we do will reduce the intensity of the inevitable catastrophe? What we need is some good news, even if the news is not good enough for us to be fully optimistic. But this news has to be factual, not just a fleeting hope.

The Citizens’ Climate Lobby (which consists of citizens who want to effect federal-level policies that will reduce the risk of climate catastrophe, and who know that the apostrophe belongs at the end of the word citizens’) had an online national meeting today, in which Drew Jones, the co-founder of Climate Interactive, gave us some reasons to be optimistic. I happen to believe these reasons are not good enough, but they are verifiably true. I hope that I am wrong in my cynicism, and if I am, these will be the reasons. Here are some of them.

  • While Trump has pulled America out of the international climate accords, many cities and states have declared their intention to follow the Paris guidelines. More than half of Americans live in cities or states (or both) that have declared their willingness to cooperate with the rest of the people in the world by reducing carbon emissions.
  • World carbon emissions have actually stabilized in the last three years, after decades of not only increasing but accelerating. In 2013, global carbon emissions increased by 2.0 percent over 2012; by 1.1 percent in 2014 over 2013; and actually decreased by 0.1 percent in 2015, compared to 2014, in a report prepared by the Netherlands for the European Union. It is not enough to just stop increasing our carbon emissions, but this leveling-off of carbon emissions has happened seldom since records have been kept. Meanwhile, global atmospheric carbon dioxide levels (not the same thing as carbon emissions) continue to increase, from 405 ppm in 2015, to 409 ppm in 2016, to 413 ppm in April of this year.
  • As of today, the Climate Solutions caucus in the U. S. Congress, in which members of both parties agree to do something to reduce carbon emissions, has 24 Democratic and 24 Republican members. (Anyone who joins needs to partner with a member of the other party.) Of course, these few Republicans are easily ignored by the leadership of their party. (John Huntsman said “Call me crazy, but I believe what the scientists say about evolution and global warming.” Guess what. His party called him crazy!) But at least a few responsible Republicans exist!
  • China’s use of coal has declined slightly.
  • The Paris Agreement still has 194 signatories even after the United States has pulled out.
  • Perhaps the most important point is that long-term social change looks impossible until it happens. For example, state bans on interracial marriage seemed like they would never be lifted until the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case, in which the Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision that interracial marriage must be permitted. If you were a black person in South Africa in 1985, it might have seemed that apartheid would never end, but within a decade it ended. A social consensus that we must do something about global climate change is building, and could quickly become the norm. As Gandhi said, “First they will laugh at you then they will ignore you then they will fight you then you will win.”

I must point out, though, that social change doesn’t always work. As explained by Peter Watson in The Great Divide, a quixotic attempt to summarize all of world prehistory and history, human sacrifice used to be the norm in all known prehistoric societies. In the Old World, in separate locations, human sacrifice was replaced by animal sacrifice and finally by the elimination of physical sacrifice, as religious awareness grew. In the New World, however, human sacrifice grew at a dizzying pace, so that the Aztecs carried out entire wars just to get sacrificial victims; they captured tens of thousands of victims each year, cut their hearts out, threw the hearts in a bowl, tumbled the bodies down the pyramid steps, and made stew out of the bodies. There was a brief attempt by one Mayan leader, Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, starting about 968 CE, to bring the vicious cycle of human sacrifice to an end. But he failed. Human sacrifice ended only with the conquest of the Aztecs by the equally brutal Spaniards—brutal, but at least they didn’t carry out human sacrifice.

I will add one of my own to Drew’s list. The other major economies of the world recognize that Trump’s refusal to cooperate on climate issues makes America an outsider. Some of the G20 nations now refer to the group as the G19 + 1. It is possible that international pressure will make enough people rethink their position and at least cooperate with the rest of the leading nations of the world. This is extremely unlikely; I think America will cooperate with the rest of the world only if forced to do so. But, again, I hope I am wrong.

What will NOT happen is that Christian Americans will suddenly feel the Spirit of God calling them to show love to their fellow humans and to God’s Creation by preventing climate catastrophe. Some Christian Americans feel this way; most do not, and are in fact furious at their fellow Christians who do. To wait for this to happen would be like waiting for a decomposing bone to turn back into a cow.

Join with me in trying to make the world a better place for everyone, even if this effort fails, and just in case it succeeds!

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

A Patriotic Message

At least, as close as I ever come to one anymore.

It is difficult to be patriotic anymore. The word “patriot” is loaded to mean conservative; to mean Republican; to mean “follower of Trump.” Even though I was born an American, and my Native American roots go back ten thousand years, I do not feel as though I am a real American, because I do not sing “Praise the Lord!” after every Trump tweet.

I consider the American flag, the one that we are supposed to wave and fly today, to be an embarrassment to the world. It used to be something positive, back in the days when Barack Obama got the Nobel Peace Prize. But today the American flag merely proclaims Trump’s ego to the entire world. Trump proclaims “America First” to the world. Not too surprising; all countries put themselves first. But what Trump means is “America Only,” that is, America will make all of its decisions as if no other countries exist except to be our markets, our sources of raw materials and cheap labor (so long as they don’t come here). He pulled us out of the Paris Accords and implies that NATO consists mostly of freeloaders. He is insulting everyone he can think of and seems to think that, if it were America vs. the rest of the world in a conflict, we would win.

Not everything is bad in America. So far, we still have laws that restrain even The Donald from grabbing absolute power. And, to me, the principal cause for faith is that many, perhaps not most, Americans remain good people. This includes the younger generation. When I think of my daughter and son-in-law, both of them powerful forces of good that make the world better for everyone around them, and their friends, who are also good people, and of my better students, or my fellow scientists, I feel good about the future. The feeling doesn’t last very long, however, since such people are not abundant. But since the future will not be improved by my worrying about it, I prefer to focus my attention on the good people whom I know.