On ‘The Overstory.’

On ‘The Overstory.’

We delude ourselves into thinking that the pace of life has increased in recent years.  National news is made by the minute as politicians announce their plans via live-televised pronouncement or mass-audience short text message.  Office workers carry powerful computers into their bedrooms, continuing to work until moments before sleep.

But our frenzy doesn’t match the actual pace of the world.  There’s a universe of our own creation zipping by far faster than the reaction time of any organism that relies on voltage waves propagating along its ion channels.  Fortunes are made by shortening the length of fiberoptic cable between supercomputer clusters and the stock exchange, improving response times by fractions of a second.  “Practice makes perfect,” and one reason the new chess and Go algorithms are so much better than human players is that they’ve played lifetimes of games against themselves since their creation.

640px-IFA_2010_Internationale_Funkausstellung_Berlin_18We can frantically press buttons or swipe our fingers across touch screens, but humans will never keep up with the speed of the algorithms that recommend our entertainment, curate our news, eavesdrop on our conversations, guess at our sexual predilections, condemn us to prison

And then there’s the world.  The living things that have been inhabiting our planet for billions of years – the integrated ecosystems they create, the climates they shape.  The natural world continues to march at the same stately pace as ever.  Trees siphon carbon from the air as they grasp for the sun, then fall and rot and cause the Earth itself to grow.  A single tree might live for hundreds or thousands of years.  The forests in which they are enmeshed might develop a personality over millions.

Trees do not have a neural network.  But neither do neurons.  When simple components band together and communicate, the result can be striking.  And, as our own brains clearly show, conscious.  The bees clustering beneath a branch do not seem particularly clever by most of our metrics, but the hive as a whole responds intelligently to external pressures.  Although each individual has no idea what the others are doing, they function as a unit.

Your neurons probably don’t understand what they’re doing.  But they communicate to the others, and that wide network of communication is enough.

Root_of_a_TreeTrees talk.  Their roots intertwine – they send chemical communiques through symbiotic networks of fungal mycelia akin to telephones.

Trees talk slowly, by our standards.  But we’ve already proven to ourselves that intelligence could operate over many orders of temporal magnitude – silicon-based AI is much speedier than the chemical communiques sent from neuron to neuron within our own brains.  If a forest thought on a timescale of days, months, or years, would we humans even notice?  Our concerns were bound up in the minute by minute exigencies of hunting for food, finding mates, and trying not to be mauled by lions.  Now, they’re bound up in the exigencies of making money.  Selecting which TV show to stream.  Scoping the latest developments of a congressional race that will determine whether two more years pass without the slightest attempt made to avoid global famine.

In The Overstory, Richard Powers tries to frame this timescale conflict such that we Homo sapiens might finally understand.  Early on, he presents a summary of his own book; fractal-like, this single paragraph encapsulates the entire 500 pages (or rather, thousands of years) of heartbreak.

image (2)He still binges on old-school reading.  At night, he pores over mind-bending epics that reveal the true scandals of time and matter.  Sweeping tales of generational spaceship arks.  Domed cities like giant terrariums.  Histories that split and bifurcate into countless parallel quantum worlds.  There’s a story he’s waiting for, long before he comes across it.  When he finds it at last, it stays with him forever, although he’ll never be able to find it again, in any database.  Aliens land on Earth.  They’re little runts, as alien races go.  But they metabolize like there’s no tomorrow.  They zip around like swarms of gnats, too fast to see – so fast that Earth seconds seem to them like years.  To them, humans are nothing but sculptures of immobile meat.  The foreigners try to communicate, but there’s no reply.  Finding no signs of intelligent life, they tuck into the frozen statues and start curing them like so much jerky, for the long ride home.

Several times while reading The Overstory, I felt a flush of shame at the thought of how much I personally consume.  Which means, obviously, that Powers was doing his work well – I should feel ashamed.    We are alive, brilliantly beautifully alive, here on a magnificent, temperate planet.  But most of us spend too little time feeling awe and too much feeling want.  “What if there was more?” repeated so often that we’ve approached a clear precipice of forever having less.

In Fruitful Labor, Mike Madison (whose every word – including the rueful realization that young people today can’t reasonably expect to follow in his footsteps – seems to come from a place of earned wisdom and integrity, a distinct contrast from Thoreau’s Walden, in my opinion) asks us to:

image (3)Consider the case of a foolish youth who, at age 21, inherits a fortune that he spends so recklessly that, by the age of 30, the fortune is dissipated and he finds himself destitute.  This is more or less the situation of the human species.  We have inherited great wealth in several forms: historic solar energy, either recent sunlight stored as biomass, or ancient sunlight stored as fossil fuels; the great diversity of plants and animals, organized into robust ecosystems; ancient aquifers; and the earth’s soil, which is the basis for all terrestrial life.  We might mention a fifth form of inherited wealth – antibiotics, that magic against many diseases – which we are rendering ineffective through misuse.  Of these forms of wealth that we are spending so recklessly, fossil fuels are primary, because it is their energy that drives the destruction of the other assets.

What we have purchased with the expenditure of this inheritance is an increase in the human population of the planet far above what the carrying capacity would be without the use of fossil fuels.  This level of population cannot be sustained, and so must decline.  The decline could be gradual and relatively painless, as we see in Japan, where the death rate slightly exceeds the birth rate.  Or the decline could be sudden and catastrophic, with unimaginable grief and misery.

In this context, the value of increased energy efficiency is that it delays the inevitable reckoning; that is, it buys us time.  We could use this time wisely, to decrease our populations in the Japanese style, and to conserve our soil, water, and biological resources.  A slower pace of climate change could allow biological and ecological adaptations.  At the same time we could develop and enhance our uses of geothermal, nuclear, and solar energies, and change our habits to be less materialistic.  A darker option is to use the advantages of increased energy efficiency to increase the human population even further, ensuring increasing planetary poverty and an even more grievous demise.  History does not inspire optimism; nonetheless, the ethical imperative remains to farm as efficiently as one is able.

The tragic side of this situation is not so much the fate of the humans; we are a flawed species unable to make good use of the wisdom available to us, and we have earned our unhappy destiny by our foolishness.  It is the other species on the planet, whose destinies are tied to ours, that suffer a tragic outcome.

Any individual among us could protest that “It’s not my fault!”  The Koch brothers did not invent the internal combustion engine – for all their efforts to confine us to a track toward destitution and demise, they didn’t set us off in that direction.  And it’s not as though contemporary humans are unique in reshaping our environment into an inhospitable place, pushing ourselves toward extinction.

Heck, you could argue that trees brought this upon themselves.  Plants caused climate change long before there was a glimmer of a chance that animals like us might ever exist.  The atmosphere of the Earth was like a gas chamber, stifling hot and full of carbon dioxide.  But then plants grew and filled the air with oxygen.  Animals could evolve … leading one day to our own species, which now kills most types of plants to clear space for a select few monocultures.

As Homo sapiens spread across the globe, we rapidly caused the extinction of nearly all mega-fauna on every continent we reached.  On Easter Island, humans caused their own demise by killing every tree – in Collapse, Jared Diamond writes that our species’ inability to notice long-term, gradual change made the environmental devastation possible (indeed, the same phenomenon explains why people aren’t as upset as they should be about climate change today):

image (4)We unconsciously imagine a sudden change: one year, the island still covered with a forest of tall palm trees being used to produce wine, fruit, and timber to transport and erect statues; the next year, just a single tree left, which an islander proceeds to fell in an act of incredibly self-damaging stupidity. 

Much more likely, though, the changes in forest cover from year to year would have been almost undetectable: yes, this year we cut down a few trees over there, but saplings are starting to grow back again here on this abandoned garden site.  Only the oldest islanders, thinking back to their childhoods decades earlier, could have recognized a difference. 

Their children could no more have comprehended their parents’ tales of a tall forest than my 17-year-old sons today can comprehend my wife’s and my tales of what Los Angeles used to be like 40 years ago.  Gradually, Easter Island’s trees became fewer, smaller, and less important.  At the time that the last fruit-bearing adult palm tree was cut, the species had long ago ceased to be of any economic significance.  That left only smaller and smaller palm saplings to clear each year, along with other bushes and treelets. 

No one would have noticed the falling of the last little palm sapling.

512px-Richard_Powers_(author)Throughout The Overstory, Powers summarizes research demonstrating all the ways that a forest is different from – more than – a collection of trees.  It’s like comparing a functioning brain with neuronal cells grown in a petri dish.  But we have cut down nearly all our world’s forests.  We can console ourselves that we still allow some trees to grow – timber crops to ensure that we’ll still have lumber for all those homes we’re building – but we’re close to losing forests without ever knowing quite what they are.

Powers is furious, and wants for you to change your life.

You’re a psychologist,” Mimi says to the recruit.  “How do we convince people that we’re right?”

The newest Cascadian [a group of environmentalists-cum-ecoterrorists / freedom fighters] takes the bait.  “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind.  The only thing that can do that is a good story.”

On the sounds of aberrant ecosystems

On the sounds of aberrant ecosystems

When I was ten years old, I read about a new card game, Magic, in the local newspaper. The article described the basic conceit of the game – you are a wizard who must conquer territory to power your spells – and a few of the cards – the article mentioned Giant Growth, which it said “is just a big rat.”

squeeI was enthralled. It took about a year of searching before I found a place to buy cards, but eventually the local hobby shop would siphon away all my babysitting money.

My favorite card was Squee – a goblin who keeps returning from the dead. Squee was pretty powerful when combined with Survival of the Fittest, which lets you trade your weak creatures for more powerful monsters, and Goblin Bombardment, which lets you fling creatures at your enemies. But I loved Squee disproportionately to his power. This little monster, swimming in his robes, is blessed with infinite renewal … just like humanity’s original misconception of nature.

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Before the industrial revolution, no single generation could change the world enough to prove this notion wrong. Humans cut down trees, but there are so many trees and more grow all the time. Humans wash their clothes or defecate in the river, but new clean water flows. Humans hunt game and catch fish, but – as long as you make a god-placating sacrifice every now and then – there will always be more animals to eat.

sunshot.JPG

Jared Diamond remarks upon our inability to notice slow changes in Collapse, his (tragically relevant) account of the factors that cause civilizations to die:

collapseI suspect that landscape amnesia provided part of the answer to my UCLA students’ question, “What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say as he was doing it?” We unconsciously imagine a sudden change: one year, the island still covered with a forest of tall palm trees being used to produce wine, fruit, and timber to transport and erect statues; the next year, just a single tree left, which an islander proceeds to fell in an act of incredibly self-damaging stupidity. Much more likely, though, the changes in forest cover from year to year would have been almost undetectable: yes, this year we cut down a few trees over there, but saplings are starting to grow back again here on this abandoned garden site. Only the oldest islanders, thinking back to their childhoods decades earlier, could have recognized a difference. Their children could no more have comprehended their parents’ tales of a tall forest than my 17-year-old sons today can comprehend my wife’s and my tales of what Los Angeles used to be like 40 years ago. Gradually, Easter Island’s trees became fewer, smaller, and less important. At the time that the last fruit-bearing adult palm tree was cut, the species had long ago ceased to be of any economic significance. That left only smaller and smaller palm saplings to clear each year, along with other bushes and treelets. No one would have noticed the falling of the last little palm sapling.

It probably took several generations before trees were expunged from Easter Island. As Homo sapiens migrated into Europe, the Americas, and Australia, most large animals were driven to extinction, including all other species of humans. The Homo sapiens involved probably had no idea what they were doing. Each generation would see some decline in the abundance of an animal, but nothing to worry about. The last few deaths would occur among a people who had no idea what was lost.

Moby_Dick_p510_illustrationIn Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the narrator considers whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc; whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff.

The narrator promptly dismisses this fear. Yes, buffalo were driven to extinction in America, but only because a single man could slaughter thousands. At that time, the concerted efforts of many were needed to kill each whale.

Even so, the whales seemed to be disappearing. But the narrator – so obsessed with the hunt that he hardly notices when he’s deluding himself – rejects the evidence:

10838762315_69b85f2e8a_zAnd equally fallacious seems the conceit, that because the so-called whale-bone whales no longer haunt many grounds in former years abounding with them, hence that species also is declining. For they are only being driven from promontory to cape; and if one coast is no longer enlivened with their jets, then, be sure, some other and remoter strand has been very recently startled by the unfamiliar spectacle.

Sperm whale populations plummeted. Gestation lasts over a year; mothers care for their young for a decade; males sexually mature at eighteen and aren’t fully grown until their fifties. They could not reproduce as quickly as we could kill them.

1024px-Mother_and_baby_sperm_whale.jpg

Most whales are extremely social, and communicate in ways that humans don’t yet understand. Their songs show signs of local culture, as do their hunting strategies. Those centuries of “harvest” may have caused several dialects or languages to be lost.

Sperm whale populations have since recovered. But several other species of whale are endangered. Our discarded plastics waft through the sea. The waters are becoming sufficiently acidic to kill off coral reefs.

The ocean is not nearly so infinite as we humans once thought it to be.

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Recently, technological progress has become so fast that the world changes noticeably within single generations. For tens of thousands of years, each human’s life resembled that of the parents. Even after some humans developed an agrarian lifestyle and began curating the evolution of favored plants and animals, the world changed slowly. Over many generations, Zea mays went from a useless scruffy grass to buxom-kernaled ears of corn. But, over the course of any single farmer’s life, the corn gnawed during senescence could probably be mistaken for the corn of youth.

Whereas my grandmother’s cellphone / camera / computer combo looks radically different from any of the bulky, ineffectual devices available when she was young. And my parents’ generation – whose lives spanned the development of modern agricultural practices – has seen a precipitous fall in all non-human animal life. In The Moth Snowstorm, Michael McCarthy describes this decline:

The_Moth_Snowstorm_for_web_df271fb2-a6f7-4703-9f9a-23ea2dbb7f70_1024x1024It had been the most powerful of all the manifestations of abundance, this blizzard of insects in the headlights of cars, this curious side effect of technology, this revelatory view of the natural world which was only made possible with the invention of the motor vehicle. It was extraordinary; yet even more extraordinary was the fact that it had ceased to exist. Its disappearance spoke unchallengeably of a completely unregarded but catastrophic crash in Britain of the invertebrate life which is at the basis of so much else. South Korea may have destroyed Saemangeum, and China may have destroyed its dolphin, but my own country has wrecked a destruction which is just as egregious; in my lifetime, in a process that began in the year I was born, in this great and merciless thinning, it has obliterated half its living things, even though the national consciousness does not register it yet. That has been my fate as a baby boomer: not just to belong to the most privileged generation which ever walked the earth, but, as we can at last see now, to have my life parallel the destruction of the wondrous abundance of nature that still persisted in my childhood, the abundance which sang like nothing else of the force and energy of life and could be witnessed in so many ways, but most strikingly of all in the astonishing summer night display in the headlight beams, which is no more.

Cleaning splattered bugs off a windshield doesn’t sound like fun; drivers rarely have to do this anymore. But … we now have only a tenth as many insects as we did during the 1980s. Which means a tenth as much food for birds: their populations are falling too. Birds breed more slowly now, for lack of food, and many are killed off because our world sports unnaturally high population densities of predatory cats.

And that’s just the decline since 1989. Over the course of McCarthy’s life, insect populations may have fallen by 95% or more. And, because of the “landscape amnesia” described by Diamond above, it’s difficult for anyone born later to even realize what’s been lost. We assume that whatever world we’ve been born into is normal.

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Last night, Uncle Max woke me to go outside at 3 a.m. Afterward, I lay in bed listening to the birds singing.

Fewer birds sang at night when I was growing up. But they are adapting to our world. Our streetlights shine all the time, and our cities, during the day, are so loud that their songs cannot be heard. Humanity’s persistent racket is infiltrating even the most secluded corners of the world.

From Ula Chrobak’s article on noise pollution:

noiseSome plants need silence for seed dispersal—revving cars can scare away rodents that might otherwise do the job. Animals need silence to hear predators approaching or to communicate with their mates: A bird whose song would normally travel 100 meters would, with a 10-fold increase in noise, have its melody stifled to a 10-meter radius. “In so many landscapes, both people and other organisms are living in shrunken perceptual worlds,” says [ecologist] Clinton Francis.

In The Songs of Trees, David Haskell describes the way our forests should sound – the natural world has its own rhythms, its own music. In the following passage he listens in the Amazon:

songsoftreesA tinamou sings the forest’s vespers. Although this turkey-size relative of the emu is seldom seen, its melodies accent every dusk. The sound is the work of a silversmith, pure tones that the artist melts and crafts into ornament. The inflections and timbre of the Andean quena flute are surely inspired by the songs of these birds. In the understory the dark is comprehensive, but here in the ceibo crown, dusk lingers another thirty minutes, the orange gray western light of sunset reaching us unobstructed as we hear the tinamou’s song.

As the light drains, bromeliad frogs spasm chuckles and grunts from aerial ponds. They call for five or more minutes, then cut to silence. Any sound will set them off again: a stray frog call, a human voice, the bleat of a roosting bird trodden by a companion. Three species of owl join the frogs. Crested owls punch regular groans from below, keeping in touch with mates, neighbors, and the youngster that the pair have hidden in the low branches of an Inga tree. The spectacled owl’s repeated low, rubbery calls wobble around their crooked axis like a badly aligned tire. A distant tawny screech owl sings a high to-to-to-to, an endless, jabbing ellipsis. Insects pulse high drills, clear, sweeping chirps, saws, and tinkles. Monkeys and parrots whose sounds dominate the day have dozed away. The upper leaves of the ceibo chuff in the sharp gusts that accompany the sunset, then the wind eases and stillness comes to the tree.

But these forests, too, are threatened. The ancient trees are cut down and the music wanes. One after another, pockets of nature are forgetting how to speak. Again from Haskell:

In the center of town, Quichua men in suits work with and within the local government. The central, national government hurts and kills the ceibo mother tree, cutting her away piece by piece. Even conservation programs encourage people to cut away the trees. We lose our medicines and hunting. State-driven conservation erodes the indigenous community. Without intact territory, owned and managed by the indigenous community, the forest falls into incoherence, the community dies.

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The evidence of harm is all around us. Our world sounds wrong, tastes wrong, smells wrong. We’re scraping too few bugs off our windshields after long drives.

And, if we don’t act, our children won’t feel that they need to. A hot, loud planet will feel just as normal to them as the planet we inherited felt to us.

On post-apocalyptic historical fiction (and Neanderthals).

On post-apocalyptic historical fiction (and Neanderthals).

At 9 p.m. on a chilly night in January 2016, I pulled on my winter coat, asked K once more whether she thought my plan was too foolish, then trundled out to the front yard to sleep in the grass.  I pulled my arms close and lay there for several hours, uncomfortable and shivering, but failed to fall asleep.  A few college students walked by; I don’t think they noticed me.  Cars passed, blitzing my eyes with headlights.

Around midnight, I gave up.  I stiffly rose, limped inside, sloughed off my coat and clothes, then crawled into a warm, soft bed in our dark, quiet, safe room.  I quickly fell asleep.

I’d learned, again, that I am very blessed to have a home.  Sleeping shelter-less in wintertime is awful.  And a whole lot of people have to do it.

But that’s not why I was outside.  I was writing a short story about one of the last Neanderthals and wanted to know more about what my protagonist’s nights might have been like.  She lived in Europe approximately 40,000 years ago, a time when Europe was much chillier than it is now.  She might not have felt so shivery at night – Neanderthals were perfectly capable of building campfires – but much of her life would’ve been marked by cold.

Fewer blinding headlights, though.

ice_age_fauna_of_northern_spain_-_mauricio_anton

And more megafauna, creatures like mammoths, bears, lions, and wolves.  More birds.  More trees, sometimes – the Neanderthal clung to a tenuous existence, both individually and as a species, because of climate instability.  During that era, Europe fluctuated between woodlands and plains as temperatures rose or plunged.

Then Homo sapiens migrated north and the Neanderthal went extinct.  Murdered, starved of resources, passively outbred… we’re not sure.  Even the least violent extinction would’ve felt heartbreaking to the final victims, though.
I began work on this story because I’d read Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake and kept thinking that he’d struck upon a fascinating genre: post-apocalyptic historical fiction.

Donald Trump Trump Alzheimers Warning DementiaOur civilization might fall.  So many countries have nuclear weapons; an erratic narcissist has access to our button.  A few degrees of warming and our food crops might die.  Many of those crops are grown as single species across wide swaths of land: a particularly virulent insect or virus might wipe them out instead.  Humans live so densely now, and travel so often: a virus might wipe us out, too.  Or a bacterium resistant to our squandered antibiotics.

These horrors are grimly fascinating to read and think about: I enjoyed Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Jose Saramago’s Blindness.  When we fall, we might fall hard.

CaptureOther cultures have.  The Mayans, the Easter Islanders, the Roman empire, the pre-Norman Invasion English.

And, of course, the Neanderthals.  Their language, and religion, and entire species was swept into extinction.

But there has been a recent boom in our understanding of Neanderthals.  I assume you know about Moore’s law, the rapid rate of doubling in the number of transistors that can be added to a computer chip, which has resulted in a massive drop in the cost of processing power.  What you may not know about – you’d have no reason to unless you work in bioscience or diagnostic medicine – is that even Moore’s law is dwarfed by the astronomical rate of change in the number of DNA nucleobases that can be sequenced per dollar.  Experiments that would have been exorbitantly expensive a few years ago are now routine.

It astounds me that archaeologists can recover any Neanderthal DNA from their dig sites.  But they can.  From tiny scrapings, they can sequence genomes.  And so we’ve learned, for instance, that males probably stayed in their tribe as they aged but the female children would depart.  This gave me an incentive to write about a female protagonist – she would’ve been away from her family, searching for a new tribe – which is a fun twist on the post-apocalyptic genre.

sapiens_neanderthal_comparison

Post-apocalyptic fiction typically features male protagonists because female characters evoke the possibility of rebirth (one of the few exceptions I know is David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress; Markson toys with this idea by having his protagonist make repeated reference to menstruation), but in the case of Neanderthals I think a female hero is appropriate.  Neanderthals lost the world, but before departing interbred with Homo sapiens enough times that many modern humans still carry vestiges of Neanderthal genome in their DNA.

Comparisons between Neanderthal DNA sequenced from archaeological scrapings and the genomes of contemporary humans reveal that we occasionally interbred.  Many different species of humans mated from time to time in the ancient world; some contemporary Homo sapiens still carry genes from each.

nytmag
This was a great recent read.

People who carry a hypoxia transcription factor from the now-extinct Denisovans seem better suited for life at high altitudes.  People who carry a spritzing of Neanderthal genes seem especially susceptible to allergies and depression.  Perhaps Neanderthal DNA conferred some benefits, too.  Neanderthals seem to have been stronger, and had better eyesight, than Homo sapiens, but it’s not clear if genes for these traits remain.

The most speculative element of my story is the religion I gave to the Neanderthal protagonist.  We’ve found no compelling evidence of Neanderthal writing or art, but this isn’t terribly surprising.  After all, we’ve found very little artwork made by Homo sapiens during that time period, and they (we?) were some ten-fold more abundant.  So I’d say that it’s reasonable to suspect that Neanderthal had language, and other “symbolic” behavior like religious belief, even though we have no evidence.

Of course, that same lack of evidence makes it impossible to know what they would’ve believed in.  But that’s okay.  Scientists cleave to the truth; writers get to make things up.

The religion I gave my protagonist does fit the scanty evidence we have, though.  For instance, some Neanderthal practiced cannibalism.  Knife marks on the bones show that they butchered the corpses of their own kind in the same manner as other oft-eaten animals.

We also know that, although both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens consumed a mix of meats and vegetables, Homo sapiens ate many small species.  Squirrels, rats, and the like.  Neanderthals, however, seem to have eaten exclusively large animals.  This is particularly striking because Homo sapiens often obtained more calories from the meat of small animals than large game.  The Neanderthal, with their superior eyesight, would’ve been better at spotting these critters than Homo sapiens were.

hvalsey_churchSo I imagined a religious taboo.  Religious food taboos are prevalent among modern human cultures, even in cases where the taboo seems highly detrimental to health.  Perhaps the best-known example is the religious proscription against eating fish among the Norse who settled Greenland.  Excluding fish from their diet made a large contribution to their culture’s demise, whereas the fish-eating Inuit living nearby survived.

It’s probably very easy to believe in spirits during an ice age, since you’d see your own manifest in wisps with every exhalation.  And so I let my Neanderthal protagonist believe that these spirits lived on in her own self.  In her mind, a clamor of souls takes up residence within her body, burgeoning whenever she eats meat.

If eating also meant ingesting a soul, a Neanderthal might consume only those strong, powerful creatures she wished to emulate.  She might eat her own fallen friends, hoping to keep them forever near.

squirrel_posingAt times she’d surely espy Homo sapiens eating squirrels, but the Neanderthal might conclude that these pusillanimous dietary choices contributed to the scrawny physiques and skittish behavior (always living in such large tribes!  And, throwing spears from a fearful distance!) of those interlopers.

But we will never know… because, around the time those Homo sapiens interlopers arrived, the Neanderthals all died.

The Neanderthal extinction may not have been their (our) fault.  After all, the climate was changing.  Other large species went extinct or vanished from these regions during the same period.  Or, even if the Neanderthal extinction was caused by Homo sapiens, it might not have meant outright war, murder with rocks and spears.  Perhaps competition for food or safe shelter drove the Neanderthal to death…

But that’s not how we humans have usually treated ancestral inhabitants when we embark on a new frontier.  The historical record is replete with examples of methodical, knowing slaughter.  There is only so much world to go around, and natural selection has no reason to favor those who share.

And yet.  We purport to be thinking, reasoning creatures.  We can be better than our genes.

On free-market economics & the actual meaning of words.

On free-market economics & the actual meaning of words.

CaptureDespite being rather politically liberal, I consider myself a free market economist.

(Maybe it’s unfair to self-describe as an economist, though?  I did the coursework for a master’s degree in economics… but couldn’t get a degree because I didn’t complete the residency requirement.  I was enrolled as an undergraduate at the time, and apparently would’ve needed to be enrolled as a graduate student for my coursework to count.)

Sure, there are instances where free markets don’t fare so well — the free market solution to entertainment is for people to pirate whatever they’d like to watch, hear, or read, and then for producers of those media to realize they can never turn a profit.  But for many types of commerce, free markets work great.

But, just like the term “pro-life” (I describe myself as pro-life, for instance, which can confuse people because I am a staunch supporter of women’s rights and lives), the words “free market” have taken on a political connotation that doesn’t always gel with actual meaning.

For instance, I promptly began to pout when I read the following paragraphs in James Surowiecki’s New York Review of Books article, “Why the Rich Are So Much Richer“:

CaptureThe redistributive policies [Joseph] Stiglitz advocates look pretty much like what you’d expect.  On the tax front, he wants to raise taxes on the highest earners and on capital gains, institute a carbon tax, and cut corporate subsidies.  But dealing with inequality isn’t just about taxation.  It’s also about investing.  As he puts it, “If we spent more on education, health, and infrastructure, we would strengthen our economy, now and in the future.”  So he wants more investment in schools, infrastructure, and basic research.

If you’re a free-market fundamentalist, this sounds disastrous — a recipe for taking money away from the job creators and giving it to the government, which will just waste it on bridges to nowhere.  But here is where Stiglitz’s academic work and his political perspective intersect most clearly.  The core insight of Stiglitz’s research has been that, left on their own, markets are not perfect, and that smart policy can nudge them in better directions.

A strange turn of phrase.

Sure, it’s reasonable to imagine a free-market fundamentalist kvetching over increased taxes on high earners and capital gains (progressive taxation means that, for anyone outside the bottom tax bracket, choosing to work one additional hour produces income taxed at a higher percentage than the average tax rate being applied to your current income.  So the claim is that progressive taxation causes people to work less.  This claim is unverified, though, and indeed you could make an equally plausible argument for the opposite: if people want a certain post-tax income, raising tax rates will cause them to work more in order to earn that same amount).

But it’s very strange to write that a free-market fundamentalist would consider it “disastrous” to cut corporate subsidies.  How do government handouts to high-fructose corn syrup manufacturers reflect the free market?

They don’t, obviously.  But it’s so ingrained in our culture to equate things like “free-market fundamentalist” and “right-wing economist” that even very bright people (I enjoyed the rest of Surowiecki’s article) sometimes make claims about one when they mean the other.

Similarly, I think that someone who self-describes as “pro-life” should be concerned about women’s well-being, would weigh the well-being of a sentient neglected child above that of a pre-sentient fetus, would be an advocate for economic & social justice, would have empathy for livestock subject to torturous existences in CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operation), would be appalled that environmental harm & climate destabilization is aggravating armed conflict across the globe.  Obviously I was thrilled to read Thomas Friedman’s editorial, “Why I Am Pro-Life.”  I thought it’d mean I’d get fewer confused looks.

It didn’t.  But it’s still a lovely editorial.

And, getting back to economics: even though right-wing politicians oppose it, a free-market fundamentalist would support a carbon tax.

CaptureProducing carbon is a negative externality.  That means it’s a cost of production that is not inherently paid by the producers — other well-known negative externalities are the raw sewage, bad smells, & concomitant reduced property values brought by CAFOs, or the suddenly poisonous well water in towns adjacent to certain types of coal mines.

For the free market to work properly, negative externalities must be priced through taxation.  If not, too many of the associated good are produced and everyone’s utility (“happiness” is a reasonable synonym for the word “utility”) is lower than it could’ve been.

(Well, almost everyone’s — in some cases net utility is lower, and all but one person’s utility drops, but the person operating a mine at below-market rates and poisoning everyone’s water is happier.  The mine owner might earn enough that he can afford to buy bottled water, a big house, & a politician or two.)

This is analogous to the well-known “tragedy of the commons,” the idea that if all shepherds have unlimited free access to a shared space, they’ll have their sheep overgraze it.  After a few years, the grass is dead & everyone’s sheep starve.  Similarly, if we give all corporations unlimited free access to the atmosphere as a garbage bin, each has an incentive to overpollute and kill us all.

If that sounds overdramatic, please read the Easter Island chapter of Jared Diamond’s Collapse.  The book’s central message is that environmental disaster obliterates societies, and Easter Island is perhaps the best example of a once-fertile land pillaged by its inhabitants, who then could not survive minor geological shocks.  To this day the island is covered by grassy hills & insouciant gods, but it was once densely forested & harbored a variety of plant life.  Then the inhabitants chopped down the trees.  In Diamond’s words:

CaptureI suspect that landscape amnesia provided part of the answer to my UCLA students’ question, “What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say as he was doing it?”  We unconsciously imagine a sudden change: one year, the island still covered with a forest of tall palm trees being used to produce wine, fruit, and timber to transport and erect statues; the next year, just a single tree left, which an islander proceeds to fell in an act of incredibly self-damaging stupidity.  Much more likely, though, the changes in forest cover from year to year would have been almost undetectable: yes, this year we cut down a few trees over there, but saplings are starting to grow back again here on this abandoned garden site.  Only the oldest islanders, thinking back to their childhoods decades earlier, could have recognized a difference.  Their children could no more have comprehended their parents’ tales of a tall forest than my 17-year-old sons today can comprehend my wife’s and my tales of what Los Angeles used to be like 40 years ago.  Gradually, Easter Island’s trees became fewer, smaller, and less important.  At the time that the last fruit-bearing adult palm tree was cut, the species had long ago ceased to be of any economic significance.  That left only smaller and smaller palm saplings to clear each year, along with other bushes and treelets.  No one would have noticed the falling of the last little palm sapling.

Sure, a free-market fundamentalist would bemoan government interventions like a cap & trade system to regulate pollution.  I’m a hippy-dippy liberal and I hate the idea of cap & trade, too.  But assessing the cost to all for each unit of carbon production, then levying a tax so that corporations know the true consequences of their decisions?  That is a free market solution.

Similarly, a free-market fundamentalist should support government subsidies to education, infrastructure, and basic research.  Those are all goods with significant positive externalities, meaning each produces benefits that accrue to the population as a whole, not just to the individual who had to pay to build a road.  Since the value of these goods to the economy as a whole is undercounted, the correct equilibrium amount won’t be produced unless they are subsidized.

CapturePositive externalities are things like keeping bees.  If you keep bees, you get some honey, maybe you get some pleasure by looking at your hive from time to time.  But your decision to keep bees also makes all nearby farmland more productive.  Because it’d be difficult to track each bee & charge each nearby farmer for every flower fertilized by one of your bees, it’s more sensible to simply subsidize beekeeping (with perhaps some restrictions on where you’re keeping bees — if you’re living in the middle of a city, your bees might not be helping much).

Similarly, if you educate children, employers gain access to a more competent workforce, citizens gain more pleasant neighbors, often less needs to be spent on policing & prisons a few years down the line.  Government-funded research made possible our wireless technologies, the internet, microwave ovens — & these make everyone’s lives more efficient.  The free-market solution that compensates the researchers who gave us all these near-magical technologies is to subsidize their research.

The other common solution, the one that is not a free-market approach but is favored by many right-wing politicians, is to grant patent protections, artificially disallowing all but one corporation from producing any of a good.

That type of distinction is why it saddens me to see habitual misuse of words or phrases as slogans lend them a connotation that’s so different from their actual meaning.  Especially because, in the case of something like “free market” or “pro-life,” the distinction changes the world in appreciable ways.  Like, okay, if everybody wants to use the word “peruse” to mean “skim,” of if everybody wants to use the word “fortuitous” to mean “fortunate,” I’ll just stop using those words.  I don’t want to use them incorrectly, but I don’t want to confuse anyone, either.  But “free market” and “pro-life” are such big, emotionally-charged concepts that I get upset about political efforts to commandeer them.