Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Wolf at the Door (If We're Lucky)

This summer, I read (most of) Edward Humes' book, Eco-Barons: The Dreamers, Schemers and Millionaires Who Are Saving Our Planet.

In the interests of full disclosure, I must admit I haven't finished it yet, but it's on my reading list for Christmas Break.

One of the organizations profiled in Humes' book is The Center for Biological Diversity.  Humes' description of their approach and their work has stayed with me all of these months and I've included a link to their site on my list of "Worthy Causes" because, in my opinion, they rock.

The Center for Biological Diversity uses relevant legislation--in particular, the Endangered Species Act--to force government action on issues of conservation and wildlife preservation.

A bi-partisan venture signed into law in 1973 by President Richard Nixon, the Endangered Species Act is the only legislation that allows an individual citizen to directly petition the government to list a particular species if:

1) the species' habitat is currently being or has the potential to be destroyed, modified, curtailed or threatened
2) the species is being "over-utilized" for commercial, recreational, scientific or commercial purposes
3) disease and predators have significantly reduced the species' population
4) existing modes of regulation are proving to be inadequate
5) other natural or man-made factors are affecting its existence

In weighing the evidence presented, economic concerns cannot be taken into consideration: the petition for listing a particular species must be weighed solely on scientific and commercial data.

Executive Order #12291 signed by President Ronald Reagan in February of 1981 and requiring a cost-benefit analysis of all government agency activities was rejected by Congress; the House Committee stated, "economic considerations have no relevance to determinations regarding the status of species" (Stanford Environmental Law Society, The Endangered Species Act Stanford University Press, 2001, pg. 40).

Since its inception, the average annual rate of listings has steadily increased.

Ford Administration:  47 listings, 15 per year
Carter Administration: 126 listings, 32 per year
Reagan Administration: 255 listings, 32 per year
Bush Administration: 231 listings, 58 per year
Clinton Administration: 521 listings, 65 per year
Source: Greenwald, Noah; K. Suckling and M. Taylor (2006). "Factors affecting the rate and taxonomy of species listings under the U.S. Endangered Species Act". In D. D. Goble, J.M. Scott and F.W. Davis. The Endangered Species Act at 30: Vol. 1: Renewing the Conservation Promise. Washington, D.C.: Island Press. pp. 50–67. http://www.amazon.com/dp/1597260096/.
Under the administration of George W. Bush, the number of listings dropped to an unprecedented low: as of 2008, there had been only 60 listings, or an average of 8 per year.

In addition, a report by The Washington Post in March 2008 showed that, beginning in 2001, the Bush Administration implemented "pervasive bureaucratic obstacles" designed to limit the number of listings.  (Juliet Eilperin, "Since '01, Guarding Species Is Harder: Endangered Listings Drop Under Bush", Washington Post, March 23, 2008)

Today, The Center for Biological Diversity filed a notice of intent to sue the Department of the Interior for "failing to develop a recovery plan for wolves in the lower 48 states," as required under The Endangered Species Act.

Obviously, there is much work still to be done.  To date, however, The Center for Biological Diversity has been successful in 93% of the lawsuits it has filed.

The wolves are in good hands.

Monday, December 20, 2010

It's Official: We Are Weird

Okay, so in my Internet ramblings over the past several days, I came upon something that is, in my opinion, truly odd.  And let's not forget, I'm the one who had Stinkhorns in her garden last fall.

For the child or child-like adult who already has everything, you can now give a unique kind of stuffed animal.  It's not actually an animal.

It's not a Beanie-Baby, not a Cabbage-Patch Doll.  Gone is the craze for Tickle-Me Elmo.  Barbie who?

Now you can give them a GIANT Microbe.

What parent wouldn't want to know that their child is going to bed tonight with Chlamydia or the ClapAnthrax is very cuddly-looking, and Flesh Eating has its own cute little knife and fork.

For anyone interested in history, there's The Black Death or Cholera.

I was prone to Earaches as a child, and I think if you had given me this when I was in the midst of one, I would have stared at you blankly and then started to cry.

And if I had ever known that this is what Food Poisoning looks like, I'd have barfed an extra time or two.

My personal favorite: Gangrene.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Cynic's Cure

In the entryway to my house, I have a cheap, cheesy, kitschy little ceramic sign that I love.  It says, "Be Wise.  Be Kind.  Be True."

I recently severed all ties with someone I had once considered a friend because, although he was very wise in many ways, he was neither kind nor true.  To me, or to other people, as it turns out.

I admit, it took me a while to accept this; I tend to want to err on the side of optimism.

I think of what John Mellencamp sang: "Save some time to think/ Before you speak your mind/ Many of your friends, they will not understand/ And to them, you must be kind."

I'm writing this because I'm currently reading Daniel Gardner's book, The Science of Fear.   Although it's a little discouraging to realize how easy it is for politicians, used car salespeople and pharmaceutical companies to manipulate even the best of us, Gardner offers a lot of really interesting facts about the psychology of fear.

In particular, Gardner discusses the psychological phenomenon known as "confirmation bias."  Psychologists have shown that, "Once we have formed a view, we embrace information that supports that view while ignoring, rejecting, or harshly scrutinizing information that casts doubt on it" (110).

So once I decided my friend was no friend, it was unlikely that I'd be receptive to information that might cast doubt on that conclusion (no such information was forthcoming, by the way).

I think this is also probably why, among the other epithets he hurled at me in ALL CAPS, I was suddenly called a "progressive" (even though I'm not).

According to Gardner, "Once a belief is established, our brains will seek to confirm it" (111).

More specifically, Gardner notes that "seeking to confirm our beliefs comes naturally, while it feels strange and counterintuitive to look for evidence that contradicts our beliefs.  Worse still, if we happen to stumble across evidence that runs contrary to our views, we have a strong tendency to belittle or ignore it" (112).

To me, this explains the current political climate of the United States.  The Tea Parties, Conspiracy Theorists, Right-Wing, Left-Wing, Conservatives, Progressives, Liberals, and Radicals--in short, the whole psychological smorgasbord.

What's particularly discouraging is the fact that when, in 2004, 15 Democrats and 15 Republicans were shown pictures of Bush and Kerry and had their brains scanned, the MRI's showed that "When people processed information that ran against their strongly held views--information that made their favored candidate look bad--they actually used different parts of the brain than they did when they processed neutral or positive information" (113).

What is worrisome to me, from an intellectual standpoint, is the way in which confirmation bias can quickly turn healthy skepticism into cynical mistrust.  As Gardner observes, "Where a reasonable respect for expertise is lost, people are left to search for scientific understanding on Google and in Internet chat rooms, and the sneer of the cynic may mutate into unreasoning, paralyzing fear" (107).

As an example of this, Gardner cites the experience of an expert charged with finding a location for a low-level radioactive waste disposal facility:
"At the Siting Board's open houses .... people would invent scenarios and then dare Board members and staff to say they were impossible.  A person would ask, 'What would happen if a plane crashed into a concrete bunker filled with radioactive waste and exploded?'  We would explain that while the plane and its contents might explode, nothing in the disposal facility could.  And they would say, 'But what if explosives had been mistakenly disposed of, and the monitoring devices at the facility had malfunctioned so they weren't noticed?'  We would head down the road of saying that this was an extremely unlikely set of events.  And they would say, 'Well, it could happen, couldn't it?"
To me, this passage speaks to what I see as the two sides of the WikiLeaks coin.  On the one hand, I'm all in favor of governmental accountability: if people in power are up to no good, the people who entrusted them with that power have the right to know about it.

On the other hand, however, I'm not sure that what Assange and his Wiki have been Leaking is all that surprising, really.  By his own admission, Assange is a journalist who understands the need for national security and the need to protect the safety of diplomats and other government officials.

He therefore understands that governments do all kinds of Top Secret things to and for each other, and they always have.  Even those allegedly honest, upright Founding Fathers of ours did it.   Read James Fenimore Cooper's The Spy.  Ian Fleming's James Bond.  Frederick Forsythe.  That kind of thing.

What I find most troubling about the Leaks (I feel like I have to capitalize that word, but I'm not sure why) is the way in which they're being prefaced and packaged as they're being disseminated.

On the WikiLeaks website for Cablegate (hardly an innocent title), it states,
The cables show the extent of US spying on its allies and the UN; turning a blind eye to corruption and human rights abuse in "client states"; backroom deals with supposedly neutral countries; lobbying for US corporations; and the measures US diplomats take to advance those who have access to them.
This document release reveals the contradictions between the US’s public persona and what it says behind closed doors – and shows that if citizens in a democracy want their governments to reflect their wishes, they should ask to see what’s going on behind the scenes.
Every American schoolchild is taught that George Washington – the country’s first President – could not tell a lie. If the administrations of his successors lived up to the same principle, today’s document flood would be a mere embarrassment. Instead, the US Government has been warning governments -- even the most corrupt -- around the world about the coming leaks and is bracing itself for the exposures.
Then, under the heading, "How to Explore the Data," it states, "Search for events that you remember that happened for example in your country. You can browse by date or search for an origin near you.  Pick out interesting events and tell others about them. Use twitter, reddit, mail whatever suits your audience best."

It might as well say, "Tap into your confirmation bias.  Really.  Go nuts.  Light up your MRI like a Christmas tree."

Setting aside the fact that no American schoolchild is taught that George Washington couldn't tell a lie (we're taught that this was a story--a lie, actually--made up about Washington long after the fact), it seems to me that WikiLeaks is stacking the deck a bit here.

First you tell me what I'll find, and then you tell me to go ahead and randomly find it.

The fact of the matter is, if these cables didn't come with this kind of suggestive preamble, I don't think a single American would ever bother looking at them.  In and of themselves, they don't make for very exciting reading, unless of course, you're looking for what they "really" say because you've already been told what they "really" say.

If the documents expose corruption, so be it.  Put them up and let people draw their own conclusions.

Again, I don't object to exposure of government corruption, in America or elsewhere.  But I do question the tactics used on WikiLeaks, because I think they encourage the kind of cynicism that Gardner describes.

Skepticism fosters freedom; cynicism ultimately fosters nothing but fear and bias.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

When Much Is Given, Much Is Required

In an earlier posting, I wrote about the paradoxes of humanitarian effort and individual identity in a wonderfully cathartic, deliberately ironic, and ever-so-slightly snarky post designed to assuage my own disgruntled inner diva.

It worked, by the way.

The moral of the story: never, ever piss off a writer.  At the time, she may just sit quietly and take it, but really, she's collecting material.

And trust me, she will write it up.

One of my favorite descriptions of the problem of humanitarianism occurs in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov.  Early in the novel, Dostoevsky describes a man who is a great humanitarian: he "loves people in the abstract" but can't stand to be in the same room with another person for very long.

Face it, we're all a lot more lovable in the abstract.  Some of us maybe more so than others.

This is what I questioned in my earlier post: to what extent should humanitarians be expected to be self-conscious about their own shortcomings?  If people are doing good in the abstract, does it matter if they're sometimes--or often--not very nice to the people around them?

Really, who is it that makes up the "humanity" of the humanitarian? Is it just an abstract concept or is it meant to refer to actual, flesh-and-blood people?

Ideally, it should be both, I think.

Maybe it's just me, but when I watch and hear advocates for alleged improvements to our lives and our world seize the bully pulpit and rip into everyone around them, I can't help but think, "Wow.  Really?  You're here to help?  Then why am I suddenly so frightened?"

Not that humanitarians don't have a good reason to be angry.  I mean, really, look around.  But personally, my penchant is for people who engage in quiet, unadvertised acts of kindness and altruism on a day-to-day basis, regardless of whether the scale is personal, local, national or global.

The people who do the most good are often the ones you hear talking about it the least.  And in some ways, that's a good thing.  My mom used to call it "modesty," and she insisted it was a virtue.

Maybe we need more of that kind of virtue out there too, mixed in with our humanitarian efforts.  Hey, it can't hurt.

Anyway, I thought that I'd use this post to identify some of the causes I find compelling.  'Tis the season, after all.

While wasting time on the Internet (aka "doing research") one day, I stumbled upon GoodSearch.  For every web search you conduct, GoodSearch "donates 50 percent of its sponsored search revenue to the charities and schools designated by its users."  (The revenue is generated by advertising.)

So finally, here's a way to put all of the ads for unnecessary consumer crap out there to good use, while procrastinating.  Who could ask for more?

If you're still worried about how much crap you buy, you could take a look at one of my favorite blogs by The Yarn Harlot, Stephanie Pearl-McPhee.  I'm an avid knitter and she has a wicked sense of humor, but she also has a strong sense of social purpose.  She started "Knitters Without Borders"--an effort designed to raise money for "Doctors Without Borders."

Basically, she suggests that, over the course of a week, you think about whether what you're about to purchase is a "want" or a "need."  Buy only what you need, and donate the money you would have spent on "wants" that week to Doctors Without Borders.

Doctors Without Borders also works alongside Partners In Health, an organization founded by Dr. Paul Farmer, who is the subject of Tracy Kidder's book, Mountains Beyond Mountains (mentioned in my "Crazy, Sexy, Cool" post). 

Because I'm a knitter and I'm always knitting anyway, I like to give my many afghans to an organization called Project Linus.  Project Linus collects handmade blankets and quilts made by donors and distributes them to shelters, hospitals, and social service agencies for children who are seriously ill, traumatized or otherwise in need.  They also have sales, so if you can't make a blanket, you can always buy one at a Project Linus event and the proceeds will go to help the organization.

Because of my own personal experiences over the past four years, I've become a staunch proponent of continued and increased funding for and awareness about hospice care in the U.S..  The Hospice Action Network is a good place to go for updates about health care reform that impacts hospice funding.  Hospice care costs a fraction of what end-of-life hospitalizations cost.

I'll offer my own experience as an example: two months of hospice care for my dad, covered almost entirely by Medicare, cost less than $10,000.  The week-long hospital stay for my mom prior to her death, also covered almost entirely by Medicare, cost well over $50,000.   Hospice care is humanitarianism at its best.  The fact that it is also cost-effective is simply a bonus.

Finally, a blog that a friend of mine called my attention to: "The Year of Mud: Cob and Natural Building."  You may have seen Mike Rowe work on building a cob house on an episode of Dirty Jobs.  In this blog, Brian "Ziggy" Liloia chronicles the process of building his own cob house as part of his involvement in Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage.

The title of this post is taken from Luke 12:48.  The verse concludes, "from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked."

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Why I Teach

"Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things."  --Philippians 4:8

A friend of mine shared this verse with me today and, after posting it on my own Facebook page, I decided I wanted to blog about it as well.

I believe it speaks to what I love about my job as a teacher. 

I get to spend my day contemplating and reconsidering what is considered to be noble, true, right and pure.  I get to spend every day in the presence of intelligences greater than my own, and I get to focus my exclusive attention on things and ideas that people and cultures have historically struggled to define as excellent and praiseworthy.  

Even on days when I have to teach about books, lives and events that seem to encompass the very antithesis of all of these qualities, I am always thinking about such things, if only by default and by means of stark contrasts. 

I'm always amazed at my luck.  Not everyone gets to do this on a daily basis.

I think that the advice that Paul offers here goes beyond the suggestion that we should "accentuate the positive," as the old Johnny Mercer song has it.  "Eliminating the negative" is always easier said than done, and sooner or later, we're all doomed to "mess with Mister In-Between." 

The question, though, seems to be where we choose to mentally and spiritually set up shop.  Do we allow our minds and our words to embrace spite and negativity, or do we train our attention on the ideals that we wish to see in our world, even if we don't think we've seen them for quite some time?

For my own part, I hear Paul's words in Philippians in concert with Christ's words in Luke and Matthew.  While it is sometimes necessary to form a judgment of others' conduct and to acknowledge when words and behavior aren't acceptable to us, I think we do well to always remember the question posed in Luke 6:37:  "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?"

Saturday, December 11, 2010

My Imaginary Diet

I've never really had a problem with weight, and people often ask me, "How? Why?"  They usually assume it's because I possess some form of iron-willed discipline or a crazy metabolism or an addiction to exercise or a need to starve myself for an unattainable image.

Really, it's none of the above.  Obviously, I've been blessed with good health, and I do what I can to maintain it by exercising and--my personal favorite--sleeping.  I don't eat out much and I don't eat processed foods or fast food if I can possibly help it.

My last cheeseburger at a McDonalds was in November; prior to that, the last time I remember eating at a Burger King was at the airport in Montreal in August of 2005.

If it's sold in a box or a can, I check the label and usually, once I see the sodium content and the words "high fructose corn syrup" or "guar gum," I pass.  I don't drink soda.  I don't drink diet soda.  

I don't actually ever tell myself I can't have these things.  I can, obviously, I just don't want to.  I love to cook, so in a lot of ways, I think that safeguards me from mindless consumption: I like the process more than the product.

In "Thought for Food: Imagined Consumption Reduces Actual Consumption" (Science, 10 Dec. 2010, Vol. 330, No. 6010, pp. 1530-1533), Carey K. Morewedge, Young Eun Huh, and Joachim Vosgerau describe a series of experiments designed to examine the relationship between imagination, habituation, and food consumption.

While everyone knows that habituation--repeatedly scarfing down large quantities of something--leads to "a decrease in one's responsiveness to the food and motivation to obtain it," Morewedge, Huh and Vosgerau argue that imagined scarfing is just as effective as actual scarfing.  In short, their studies suggest that "mental representation alone can engender habituation to a stimulus."

I'm an imagination-junkie, so I'm thrilled to hear this.  I tend to think that for most people, problems with food and weight gain--when they're not clearly linked to a physiological issue (and for most people, they're not)--are compounded by the mindlessness that American culture all too often seems to encourage.

Collectively, as a nation, we like to sit in front of the TV and eat.  I don't have a TV, but when I'm in front of the DVD player or at a friend's house, I generally don't eat.  

When I'm bombarded by images of all that allegedly savory and undoubtedly salty fast food out there, I tend to picture the last time a plate was set in front of me at Chili's or Applebees or The Olive Garden.  Not all it's cracked up to be.  I visualize what that McDonalds cheeseburger really looks like, smushed flat and crooked, with its thin pickles and watery ketchup, wrapped in paper and flung on a tray.  

I wonder whether the hunter-gather civilizations of history would envy me, really, if they saw what I was having for dinner.

In a previous post ("Mindful Memorizing"), I talked about Ellen Langer's work on "mindfulness" versus "mindlessness."  Interestingly, Langer has repeatedly found that mental attitude exerts an enormous influence on things we typically see as unchanging and out of our control, including aging and addiction.

When I do watch TV at a friend's house or stop to take a look at the world around me, I'm struck by how much of American culture today encourages mindlessness and helplessness, and how much of our "mindfulness" is strategically shaped.  

Turn on the evening news.  Somebody who looks and thinks differently from the way that I do hates me and has to be labeled accordingly.  They may even be about to blow me up--if they do, I'll never see it coming, unless I stay tuned.  

Meanwhile, somebody I already know, who looks just like I do and has allegedly misappropriated my tax dollars for the last twenty years, also hates me and has to be labeled.  Apparently, they too may have tried to blow me up and I never saw it coming, but if I stay tuned, I'll find out.  

Really, just stay tuned.  It doesn't matter why or what for or who's doing the tuning.

In the midst of a political and social rhetoric peppered with the encouragement to "inform ourselves" and be "pro-active," I can't help but be struck by the extent to which we are all repeatedly and deliberately primed--in real-time and in prime-time-- so that no one is ever out of tune or out of touch with what we're supposed to be doing and thinking to, for, and about everyone else.

In American culture today, we're encouraged to "find out," but we're never encouraged to question.  Why should I find this out?  Who says it's important?  What is the source of this information?  Who sponsored these studies?  

Who came up with these labels for everyone and everything?  Why does everyone always seem to hate someone else?  Why do they think they "know" each other, before they've ever met or talked?  Why do they assume everyone is the same?  Why can't people even talk to each other politely and respectfully anymore?

I'm going to stick to my imaginary diet and leave the TV off for now.  Mental food for thought is far more satisfying.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Memory's Turn

"We are on a perilous margin when we begin to look passively at our future selves and see our own figures led with dull consent into insipid misdoing and shabby achievement."  --George Eliot, Middlemarch
I just finished reading Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov for class, and I'm always struck by the ending of the novel.  Speaking after the funeral of Ilyusha, the nine-year-old boy that he had befriended, Alyosha tells the other boys who were Ilyusha's classmates,
"You must know that there is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome and good for life in the future than some good memory... People talk to you a great deal about your education, but some good, sacred memory ... is perhaps the best education.  If a man carries many such memories with him into life, he is safe to the end of his days, and if one has only one good memory left in one's heart, even that may sometime be the means of saving us" (734).
The idea that there is safety in the memory of one's own acts of goodness--in the memory of the goodness of one's own life-- is interesting to me. 

As Eliot suggests in Middlemarch, we all arrive at a dangerous threshold in our lives, an edge marked by moments when we are "led with dull consent," not to commit acts of great evil or injustice, but simply to become less kind and less brilliant than we always hoped and believed ourselves to be. 

We all risk becoming people whose lives are marked by "insipid misdoing" and "shabby achievement."  We let ourselves become less than we could be, and--what is perhaps even worse--we simply watch what we are becoming because we lack the incentive to stop. 

We know that others are leading us in a direction that doesn't look good, even from a distance.  The horizon is bleak, but we go along with it because we can't envision another direction. 

Or because turning back or turning around is just too damn hard. 

Life makes us tired, sometimes.  And people will laugh at us and think we're foolish for not wanting to be what they themselves have become.

So how can mere memories of the times when we were good, kind, connected and living up to our own hopes and high standards help us?  According to Dostoevsky, reminders of what we once were can buffer our moral selves in significant ways. 

If we were once good and kind, we can always be so again.  We can remember who we were and what we felt, and that will protect us. 

What if we took the measure of ourselves and of others by taking an inventory of the good memories we all have?  Would we see a very different person?

I'm not suggesting overlooking our own or others' faults, since we all do and say bad, unjust or cruel things, and we all need to be held accountable for those words and actions. 

But maybe we need to remind ourselves of ways to achieve a more balanced perspective in our assessment of our own and others' moral failings, insipid misdoings and shabby achievements.  Maybe the reason so many people don't turn back or away from the future selves they see themselves becoming is because they believe that it is too late, that they've gone too far.

Maybe it's up to the rest of us to remember--and to remind them--that it's not.