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 photographs not taken.

On photographs not taken.

Most likely, you are being watched. If you spend any time in urban areas, you surely pass by numerous surveillance cameras each day. Recent advances in computational image analysis allow the movements of every person in a crowd to be tracked.

Big Brother has hungry, hungry eyes.

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Worse, you’re probably collaborating with the invasion of your own privacy. If you carry a smartphone with a GPS device, you have – according to U.S. legal precedent – consented to be monitored. Your every movement traced, the rhythms of your life documented in exquisite detail. When you sleep, when you eat, where you shop…

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In the U.S., many people assume that the police cannot spy on them without probable cause. This is the gist of the Fourth Amendment, after all. We are ostensibly shielded from search and seizure.

Thankfully, my local library bought a copy of Barry Friedman’s excellent Unwarranted: Policing Without Permission, and I learned that this assumption is wrong. Since the beginning of the War on Drugs, our courts have issued ruling after ruling that erode Fourth Amendment protections.

If the police are allowed to stop and search people at will, they can apprehend more criminals. As a corollary, huge numbers of innocent people will be treated like criminals. In Friedman’s words:

51gDp2lcbEL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_It is plain from what is happening on the nation’s streets, and in its airports, that Terry’s elimination of the probable cause standard has set the police loose on the rest of us. Not just to stop us, but to place their hands on our bodies and possessions. The police still ostensibly need articulable suspicion to forcibly stop people – that much is clear – but what counts as articulable suspicion is deeply suspect, and the Supreme Court has done virtually nothing to rein in this sort of conduct. The stops occur, the frisks follow almost automatically, and the bodily integrity of millions of people is violated without good cause.

Our courts have ruled in favor of Fourth Amendment violations so many times because they only hear cases in which criminals – or dudes carrying drugs, at least – were caught via illegal police behavior. The “penalty” that courts are supposed to impose on the police in these instances is referred to as the “exclusionary rule.” When the police violate the Fourth Amendment, any evidence they gather is supposed to be ignored during a trial.

But it feels bad to ignore evidence. When somebody has clearly violated the law, judges want to throw that person in jail. No, not the police officer. Violating constitutional law does not merit jail time. But if a person had drugs, and the police found them? Our judges want to put that person in jail.

Do we really want to let drug users or dealers back onto our streets?

(Hint: the correct answer is almost assuredly “yes.” Without even considering the ethical implications of what we’ve been doing, it’s pretty clear that imprisoning them endangers us all. But most judges disagree.)

And so, case by case, our judges have decided that this time, the police did not actually violate the Fourth Amendment. Our judges excel at rhetorical gymnastics. As long as a judge can argue that a particular search was constitutional, then the cops are in the clear. No evidence need be discarded. Another criminal can be locked away. Everyone is happy.

Almost everyone.

Veave_in_jail

Almost all the rich white people are kept happy, at least. Everyone who counts.

These rulings have been issued by judges considering only a single case at a time, one instance when a police officer’s illegal search found evidence of a crime. Because the “exclusionary rule” is the only penalty the courts are willing to impose on police officers – i.e., it’s exceedingly rare for police officers to be fined for their illegal activities on the job – people who were illegally searched but had not committed a crime have no chance for redress. If you’re already innocent, what good is the exclusionary rule? You don’t need any illegally-obtained evidence to be ignored.

And so it’s worth considering how often innocent people are searched. From Friedman:

… Judge Pratt got a specific answer to Judge Arnold’s question: How often do agents stop suspects and hassle them like this, only to come up with nothing? The agents in the case before him testified they “spend their days approaching potential drug suspects at the Greater Buffalo International Airport.” In 1989 “they detained 600 suspects … yet their hunches that year resulted in only ten arrests.” Ten hits out of six hundred people harassed. Less than a 2 percent hit rate. Judge Pratt concluded, “It appears that they have sacrificed the fourth amendment by detaining 590 innocent people in order to arrest ten who are not – all in the name of the ‘war on drugs.’ “ In other words, it could be you.

That was three decades ago – since then, the situation has gotten worse. Despite the Fourth Amendment, police officers can stop and search you at almost any time, for almost any reason. Especially if you’re driving a car, in which case you’re almost assuredly breaking some law. No matter how minor the infraction, at that point searches become legal.

Most of us should be aware by now that the burden of innocent people being treated like criminals does not fall upon all people equally. Our nation’s poor, as well as anybody with above-average concentrations of skin pigment, are routinely abused. Wealthy white people are free to assume that our constitutional rights are still intact.

The minor consolation? The teensy benefit of all those life-endangering stops and searches? At least people know they’re being searched.

The courts have also ruled that you do not have Fourth Amendment protections when your behavior is visible in public. If a police officer glances at you, notices you’re carrying a jay, and busts you, the officer has done nothing wrong. Which seems sensible enough. But the police are also allowed to augment their natural senses using any tools “commonly available” to the public.

If you have a fenced-in backyard, for instance, the police are allowed to fly over it in a helicopter and take high-resolution photographs with a telephoto lens. After all, any member of the public could’ve done so – lots of people have copters and telephoto spy cameras. Right? So you should have no expectation of privacy. Or, if you’re in your house, the police are allowed to watch you using heat-sensing devices. They can aim infrared cameras at the walls and watch you move from room to room. After all, infrared devices are “commonly available” as well. Many smartphones have some semblance of this functionality.

Of course, anyone who carries a smartphone is even more exposed. You have “voluntarily” given data about your location at every moment of the day to a third party. Whenever you have shared information with others, the police need only present a “reasonable suspicion” to silently siphon it from that third party. They can obtain all your data with a subpoena (a privilege explicitly granted by the 2001 Patriot Act, but already in line with court precedent), and these are invariably granted.

And the world grows spookier. Recently our legislators decided that internet service providers should be allowed to collect data on everything we do online and sell that data to whomever they want, including the government. Again, this agrees with court precedent – we’ve shared this information with third parties, and Google and Facebook were doing it already.

At least the recent bill caused more people to notice how little privacy we have.

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I collect pictures of fire hydrants. I travel a fair bit, and walk around a lot when I do, so I have seen many interesting ones.

 

But I don’t always have a camera with me. So I thought that today’s essay should be a brief paean to three lovely photographs I didn’t take.

1.) Shortly after I arrived in California, I was walking from Menlo Park to Stanford’s campus. It was, as ever, a gorgeous, sunny day. And then, just after passing the shopping mall, in front of a sparkling green field and a wooden fence, I saw a young woman and her mother standing still ahead of me. The young woman had a camera aimed at a yellow hydrant.

Later, after they’d walked on, I stopped and inspected the hydrant. There was a small anthill in the dirt nearby – presumably this was not visible in the young woman’s picture. There was an ocher stain on the hood where some paint had flaked away, but most of the yellow coat was smooth. It had the same shape and size as the vast majority on campus.

Ah! To have documentation of strangers also collecting fire hydrant photographs!

2.) Between my home and the university library, cattycorner to the bus stop where many music students wait to be ferried to the practice halls, there were two hydrants within two feet of each other for about a week. One was painted a light shade of green, the other gray. The ground around them was patchy with bare earth and course gravel. They were on a slope, the green hydrant slightly above the gray.

I had plenty of time to return home, grab a camera, and hike back to take a photograph. It was splendorous, and mirrored a dream I’d had during college, of hiking through Chicago on a fire hydrant safari and finding a street corner with four hydrants visible together, one at each vertex of the intersection.

But I grew complacent. I thought those hydrants would be paired forever! Each time I saw them, I said to myself tomorrow I’ll remember to bring a camera.

And then, one day, the gray hydrant was gone. I’ve taken people to that intersection to tell them, once, there were two hydrants together. The other was right here, right where I am standing.

If I had a photograph, people would believe me.

3.) Last week, I was driving my spouse home from work amidst a clamorous thunderstorm. It was slightly after eleven a.m. – K left work early for a doctor’s appointment. Four blocks from our house, she spotted a hydrant – with a long metal stem attached – lain supine in the grass.

I circled back so we could see it again. And said, as soon as the rain stops, I’ll jog here with a camera!

The rain stopped during our kids’ nap. K was at the doctor’s. I stayed home, reading while they slept, until she returned.

By then, two hours had passed. I ran to that spot with Uncle Max (our dog) and a camera. But the fallen hydrant was gone, the nearby hole covered up, the metallic corpse carted away.

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If I carried a smartphone, I wouldn’t have this problem. Most newer models have excellent built-in cameras. Whenever I saw a catchy hydrant, I could take a brief break from twiddling with my twitter and snap a photo. (As long as my device left me sufficiently attentive to notice hydrants.)

Instead, I have a seven-year-old flip-phone. Camera-less, text-message-less, often turned off. (And, unlike a smartphone, it actually does turn off.)

I’ve missed a few great hydrant photos. But I’ve spent less money. I’ve contributed a little less to our species’ destruction of the environment. And – though obviously I too am being watched – those hungry, spying eyes get less from me.