Monday, September 29, 2014

Thoughts After Reading The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

Tomorrow I'll begin taking a free adult education class called Extinction: Life On Earth and Human Impact (offered through the Wagner Free Institute for Science.) Because I'm the sort of person who likes to spend my precious-little free time learning nerdy nature/science stuff, regardless of how depressing it might be. 

A few days ago I finished one of the recommended readings, The Sixth Extinction by journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, published earlier this year. Though it covers a sobering topic, it is an excellent book, and I highly recommend it to all lovers or nature and all those with even a passing curiosity about the nitty gritty details of how humans are transforming the global ecosystem. 

The best thing about this book is the way it is organized. Each chapter zooms in on either the plight of a species either already extinct, or on the brink of doom. For example, the Great Auk, hunted to extinction before the turn of the 20th century, or the Panamanian Golden Frog, one of many frog species which were plentiful only a decade ago, but are now critically endangered. 

Kolbert did her footwork. She traveled around the world to witness the places where extinctions happened and are happening, and to interview the scientists trying to piece together what occurred, and conservationists desperately trying to preserve or restore what remains. Kolbert takes us readers into a cave where the floor is piled with frozen bat carcasses. She wades us into waters populated by scores of exotic and sometimes terrifying sea creatures: jagged coral, struggling sea turtles, stinging stone fish, and an octopus who can kill with one bite. If, like me, you have not the time nor funds to go to the Amazonian rain forest or Great Coral Reef yourself, reading this book can help take you there in your imagination. 

By connecting both ancient and recent extinction with currently endangered species, Kolbert builds the case for what scientists have been calling the Holocene Extinction (a mass extinction event caused by humans). As Kolbert emphasizes, it might soon be re-named the Anthropocene Extinction, in acknowledgement the enormity of our impact on the biosphere. 

In the final chapter, Kolbert writes about the black-faced honeycreeper, which is thought to have gone extinct in the fall of 2004. As I read this, I couldn't help but think about what I was doing in 2004. As it so happens, I got married that year in the late spring. So just as I was beginning my life-partnership with my husband, the black-faced honeycreeper was ending its existence as a living species. Though I lived to witness this animal go extinct during my lifetime, our daughters were born after it was already gone. This sort of sad event is happening constantly, and the evidence that it is due to human activity has become as overwhelming as the reminder of our species' own limited lifespan. 

Kolbert's tone manages to be rather upbeat. Though deeply concerned, she never comes off as alarmist, nor does she shake her finger at only certain perpetrators. Instead, she draws the reader into specific situations, lays out all the facts, connects the up-close experience to the bigger picture, and finally wraps it up with a few poignant phrases. (I've highlighted three of my favorite lines from the book in this blog post in green.) She makes it clear that we humans are all in this together. Indeed, radically transforming our environment at a rapid pace (geologically speaking) might be written into our genetic code. 

By the end, it is clear that Kolbert's heart is most with the animals going extinct. It was here that I felt my concerns diverge a bit from the author's. As much as my heart bleeds for the rhinos and corals, throughout my reading of the book, I found myself wondering, what does this mean for us? As beautiful and evocative as I find the natural world, and as sad as is the thought of losing so many species (especially the most charismatic ones), I must admit that my main concern regarding these mass extinctions is that in causing such profound disruptions to the global ecosystem, we humans are making the planet inhospitable to us. 

Last week the UN just had its annual Summit On Climate Change. Some, such as Gustavo Fonseca are hopeful about the world's nations finally taking strong action to combat the forces changing our planet. Others, such as Nick Cunningham, were little impressed.

Right now I'm rather pessimistic that the world's leaders and citizenry have the will to take actions most necessary and based in both hard science and human compassion. It certainly didn't help that during the Summit, I drove across my home state of Pennsylvania, encountering a steady clip of pro-fracking, anti-environmentalist billboards paid for by the Coal industry. 

I would like to think that if anything could bring humanity, so deeply divided by ethnicity, race, religion, and class, together, it might be the cause of climate change. But those problems are simply too large, slow-moving (in human terms), and complex for most of us to grasp, much less feel emotionally engaged enough to act. While the UN Summit happened, ISIS had been committing horrific atrocities in an attempt to establish a new Islamic State, the US and allies geared up to bomb Syria, and Vladimir Putin was busy turning Russia into a war state. That's only naming a few, big and current clusterfucks in the affairs of humankind. It is as if most people are too busy feuding with their neighbors over inches of property line, meanwhile rising sea levels might soon claim their entire homes. 

With headlines about beheadings of journalists by Islamic radicals, and invading Russian military forces in the Ukraine thinly disguised as humanitarian aid, I can understand why many people are more concerned about other animals going extinct than the possibility of humans destroying ourselves. 

That said, the only reason we feel angst over the animals going extinct is because of our uniquely human capacity to find meaning and assign values to those lives. Bats don't write symphonies, and frogs don't even care for their young, much less experience years of wonder and hope, tinged with anxiety, as they watch their offspring develop into adults. I want to save the bat, frog, rhino, coral, and all the rest, because I want the world, this world, for my children, and for all children, and their children, and their children.... 

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Oversimplification of Hawks and Doves

Today begins Peace Day Philly's week of activities and events leading up to the International Day of Peace. As can be expected, it is a full schedule of mediation workshops, volunteer opportunities, films, music concerts and other performances, and talks by peace activists, all free and open to the public. 

This holiday began with a 1981 Resolution by the United Nations General Assembly. Today it continues to be celebrated all around the world. (Check out this website to find events near you.) 

This year's Day of Peace comes in a timely manner, just days after President Obama announced plans to bomb in Syria. Obama stated: 

“Our objective is clear: we will degrade, and ultimately destroy, [ISIS] through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy.”

Of course this actions has many critics. Medea Benjamin, founder of Code Pink held a protest outside the white house. On Democracy Now she said, 

"I think President Obama has been hounded by the media, by the war hawks in Congress, mostly from the Republican side but also from the Democrats, and is going into this insane not only bombing in Iraq, but also talking about going into Syria, at a time when just a couple of months ago the American people had made it very clear that we were very tired of war." 

But are Americans tired of war? According to polls, a solid majority of Americans do support more airstrikes in Syria. Of course as Jon Stewart pointed out on the September 12 episode of The Daily Show (4 min, 30 second in), half of Americans can't even identify Syria on a map. 

Some formerly anti-intervention Libertarians such as Rand Paul are beginning to change their stance, much to the glee of those eager to increase military involvement. In response to this article in the Washington Post, John McCain tweeted, "It's gratifying to see all these doves turn into hawks!" 

I first heard the terms "dove" and "hawk" as they are applied to those for or against military engagement in 2002, during discussions over whether the Iraq War was justified by the supposed "weapons of mass destruction" held by Saddam Hussein's regime. Over 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths, 4,800 allied forces casualties, and $1.1 trillion in US war spending later, we all now know that there were no weapons of mass destruction, and as awful a dictator at Hussein was, the destabilization of the region has only made matters even worse for the people living in Iraq. 

Now here we are, out of the frying pan and into the fire. Except to most Americans, this all might as well be a video game or fictional tv special. The violence, destruction, upheaval, and grief is happening so far away. It directly touches the lives of so few Americans. 

Looking at polls, not just the Pew poll mentioned above, but CNN's recent polling of American opinions regarding the threat of Isis and how the US should respond, I find myself pondering what the terms "hawk" and "dove" really mean. The terms never set right with me. 

To start off, the dove as a peace symbol comes from the most violent, horrific event in the entire Bible. After using a great flood to exterminate the entire human population (except Noah and his family) including babies and children, plus most life on earth, the (supposedly benevolent) God sends Noah a sign in the form of a dove holding an olive branch to signify that his global massacre is over, and now life can start again with the ark's survivors. What the hell does such a story say about achieving peace? Every time I hear a so-called "hawk" on television or radio say of the "terrorists" that we should "kill them all" or "wipe them off the face of the earth" I am reminded of the Biblical flood and the Judeo-Christian God's solution for dealing with the failings of humankind. 

In contrast, why do we call people who are quick to go to war "hawks"? Because hawks are efficient predatory birds? Indeed they are, but like all predatory animals, hawks only kill because they need to in order to survive, they only kill as much as they need, and they only go after the easiest targets in order to minimize risk to their own health and safety. They are in harmony with the ecosystem, picking off just enough of the weakest prey animals to keep those populations from getting out of control and depleting the resources of the local environment. How wonderful it would be if humans were more like hawks! 

Alas, humans are humans. And one of the many dumb things we do as a species is to simplify incredibly complex, life-and-death situations and strategies into black and white labels such as "doves and hawks." 

I do not know how much of a threat ISIS is to US national security (although I suspect not much.) I can't even begin to guess what will be the long-term impact of ISIS on international relations whether the US becomes heavily involved in the fight against the Islamic state or not. I read conflicting opinions on people who actually spend their careers studying these issues, and if they can't agree, how can I hope to know better? Had I been asked most of the questions on the Pew and CNN polls, I would like to think I would be honest with both the pollster and myself and answer "I don't know." I wish more Americans were enlightened enough to realize how often we express strong opinions on matter of which we know little, and yet which will have serious consequences on the lives of thousands, or millions of our brothers and sisters. 

What I do know is that any military intervention, even if the net result is less long-term suffering and greater security, causes death, destruction, pain, grief, and lingering animosity. Nobody should have a glint in their eye, a smile on their face, or feel "gratified" in a smug way when he or she speaks of bombing "the enemy". It should always be regarded as a gravely serious and risky undertaking that if we do, we do only because we are convinced we must. 

Look to the hawk. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Andrew W.K. Insults Us (Who Don't Pray)

Last week a person of secular worldview wrote to advice columnist for the Village Voice Andrew W.K. From here on out I'll refer to him or her by their signature NGP (Not Gonna Pray.) NGP's brother had been diagnosed with cancer, causing a great deal of anxiety and confusion among family members over how to deal with the situation. NGP's grandmother suggested: 

...we should all just "pray for my brother," like prayer would actually save his life. Just thinking about it now makes my fists clench with frustration. 

NGP's vocal opposition to grandma's call for prayer caused more upset within the family, and NGP concludes the letter to Andrew W.K. with: 

I need to get them to see that praying and religious mumbo jumbo doesn't help. How do I explain this to them?

Andrew W.K. started off by defining prayer as "a type of thought" that involves concentrating one's thoughts and feelings on a particular person or object. He tells NGP: 

I'll bet you're already praying all the time and just don't realize it.

Nevermind that no common definition of prayer resembles Andrew W.K.'s. It is none of the 7 found at The dictionary defines prayer as either the attempt to communicate with God, a "religious observance", or as NGP interprets grandma's suggestion as: "a petition, entreaty." Wikipedia's opening sentence on prayer would probably sound about right to most people: 

Prayer is an invocation or act that seeks to activate a rapport with a deity, an object of worship, or a spiritual entity through deliberate communication.
Admittedly, Encyclopedia Britannica's opening definition is vague enough to include Andrew W.K.'s definition. 

Found in all religions in all times, prayer may be a corporate or personal act utilizing various forms and techniques. 

But that hardly gives credence to W.K.'s indication that his definition is the definition, or that it is the definition being used by NGP's family. 

Nevermind, also, that people are constantly crediting supernatural intervention for all manner of good fortune, from hitting a home run to preventing a suicide, and regardless of how often misfortune occurs. 

Having established that NGP apparently doesn't even know what prayer really is, W.K. goes on to call those who refuse to pray stubborn and arrogant. According to W.K., the "X factor" in prayer is "humility." 

If there are any other out-atheists reading this, you've no doubt encountered this awful stereotype of us before. And people wonder why so many of us are frequently angry and frustrated. But I digress. 

As if these personal assaults on the character of NGP (who, remember, is a person suffering not only from recent news that his or her brother has cancer, but from family tensions) weren't enough, after going on and on in flowery descriptions about the correct way to pray (which, again, fits no commonly accepted definition of prayer) Andrew W.K. finishes off by chiding NGP for his or her disrespect toward grandma. NGP is instructed to make amends: 

I want you to pray for your brother right now. As a gesture to your grandmother — who, if she didn't exist, neither would you. I want you to pray right now, just for the sake of challenging yourself. I want you to find a place alone, and kneel down — against all your stubborn tendencies telling you not to — and close your eyes and think of one concentrated thought: your brother.
Then get up and go be with him and your family. And you can tell your grandmother that you prayed for your brother.

Andrew W.K.'s solution to NGP's problem is basically for him to redefine prayer so broadly and vaguely that he can appear to share his family's worldview, thus rendering his secular worldview invisible. In other words, back into the closet with you, naughty atheist! 

There are those, such as Amanda Shea at Mad World who found Andrew W.K,'s response to NGP "EPIC." I found it to be a condescending screed that failed to understand NGP's point of view, and worse, re-enforced damning stereotypes that have plagued us secular folk for too long. 

Of course I can't know how NGP felt after reading such a personally insulting response from someone he or she trusted enough to seek advice from, but I imagine pretty damn bad. In my involvement with organized secular humanism, atheism, and skepticism, I have met so many people tormented by feelings of isolation as their families condemn them for their lack of faith under the pretense of love.   

It is hard, if not impossible, to empathize with a totally different worldview. It upsets me when my fellow atheists lack the curiosity to learn about the various theistic perspectives, and instead project false assumptions about all religious and spiritual mindsets, and then go on to belittle religious and spiritual people based on those assumptions. Likewise, it upsets me when people like Andrew W.K do the same damn thing to one of us. 

I don't know if NGP will ever read this blog post. But for NGP and anyone else out there who might be suffering from a similar problem, here's what I would have advised: 

Dear Not Gonna Pray, 

I'm sorry that your brother, you, and all your family have to deal with this situation. 

Keep in mind that at times such as these, emotions run high, and family tensions tend to flare up. You might need to step away to work through some of this matter on your own or with friends who share your perspective before engaging with your family again. 

When you say: "We need to actively help my brother and do actual things to save him", I take that to mean that you want to gather as much pertinent information as is available that might help your family understand your brother's illness, so that you can be most effective in your support of him and hopefully his recovery. If so, I completely agree with you. 

That said, the first thing you need to accept is the uncertainty of the situation. Even with the best doctors working on his case, any course of treatment will carry certain risks and only rate a percentage of possible success. Like predicting the weather, even though science is involved that helps us make more accurate predictions, prognosis comes down to the chances of this or that happening. That might sound a bit cold and clinical, but it is hard truth. 

That hard truth is exactly why people with religious faith turn to prayer. When your grandmother suggests that everyone "just pray", that might be her way of finding acceptance of the uncertainty of your brother's health. Granted, plenty of people (if not most) pray in the hopes that God or some other Higher Power will actually intervene and fix the problem. And maybe your grandmother or other family members mean it that way. But whatever prayer is for them, you can't change their minds about the importance of it, and you shouldn't try. It will only cause strife and family division, and that will hurt everyone, including your brother. 

Years ago my grandmother was staying at my house on Christmas Eve. My mother had gone to midnight mass, and I, as a young woman who had lost any faith in religion or gods, refused to go with her. My grandmother was too ill at the time to physically go to church, so she watched the Pope give service on television. I was a pretty out-atheist and assumed my family had accepted my atheism, so I was shocked when my grandmother tried to get me to watch mass with her and seemed to shame me for not going to church with my mom. We ended up getting into a rather nasty argument about whether God exists and actually intervenes in the lives of humans in response to prayers and faith. At some point I stormed off, angry and frustrated. Almost immediately, my grandmother called me back to sit with her on the couch. She didn't say anything that would re-ignite the argument. Instead she just took my hand and told me that she loved me. I told her I loved her, too. 

She passed away soon after that evening, and in my grief I felt so much gratitude toward her for making that peace with me. Even if we didn't share a worldview, we shared the same priorities when it came to family. 

You and your family can have your different perspectives on prayer and still love and support each other fully. Once you agree to disagree, you can move on to more practical matters, such as who is going to bring your brother meals on what days while he's recovering from his cancer treatments.